The Movie Club

Movie Clubbing the Night Away

The speed of this medium is dizzying. I’m having to juggle dead kids, missing Negroes, Meg Ryan’s lips, the Brooklyn starting times of Peter Pan, and scores more e-mails about all the subjects (and movies) we’re failing to address. And I appreciate that, as I write this, Jim is on jury duty, Tony at a screening, and Manohla en route to her paper to concoct a Sundance strategy. Sarah—are you out there?

I feel, Manohla, that it’s only fair to tell our readers that my “insulting you not once but twice” in my first dispatch must be seen in the context of having begged on the cyber equivalent of bended knee for you to honor the “Movie Club” with your presence, and I hope that my opening provocation will be regarded as a spirited ice-breaker. (Fifty years ago, I’d have used the word “gay” in place of “spirited,” but as that adjective has been appropriated by hobbits. …) I’m also glad to hear that you share my view that the new Aileen Wuornos documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is both a remarkable film and a useful antidote to the tawdry, B-movie universe and stunt casting of Monster.

Tony: I don’t believe, Jim’s wonderful book notwithstanding, that it’s “facile” to regard Cold Mountain as an antiwar picture with a political message in this era of apotheosized battlefield deaths—of gloriously romantic suicide clinches and heavenly ascensions. Minghella’s film is, as I have written in Slate, the only time at the movies in years I’ve heard the words from Henry V in my head: “I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle. …” Perhaps the most striking proof of this is that Cold Mountain takes place in a political vacuum in which the war serves largely as an impediment to the reunion of its central movie-star lovers. As in Malick’s The Thin Red Line (which sought to portray the journey from heaven to hell without pausing to weigh anything so mundane as the rise of a world fascist order that needed vanquishing), the absence of a political context (say, the abolishment of slavery) is itself a political context. (I am grateful to Jason M. O’Connell, who wrote me: “Is there a more noble cause than dying to end slavery, a giant, immoral, systemic cancer in your own country? I had a similar problem in The English Patient when Count de Almásy surrenders the maps to the Nazis … he became quite the opposite of a hero for helping the purest evil of the 20th century. Is Minghella’s point that love trumps even defeating genocidal fascism? I want no part of that ‘vision,’ complete with its unthinkable consequences.”)

Nothing I have written above is meant to reflect my thoughts on the justice or injustice of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But that is, of course, behind everything I write about war these days, somewhere. How could it not be? I found myself (like you, Tony) stirred by the manly chivalric conventions of Master and Commander and The Return of the King precisely because I had no need to grapple with the messiness and ambiguity and, yes, fog of war that I read about daily in the newspaper and online. (Perhaps I loved Kill Bill for similar reasons: It took place in a moral—and, often, physical—vacuum in which none of my niggling questions about violence and vigilantism were relevant.) Yes, it is a fault of Weir’s film that he nowhere allows his characters to muse on the imperialism of the British Royal Navy: It is ze French who are ze wiley devils. This one-sided view of the conflict (and of history) knocks the movie down more than a couple of pegs. But what a rattling good escape. (A more narrowly political critic would celebrate the discipline and patriotic fervor of the film or deride its jingoistic single-mindedness. On the other hand, I just wanna have fun.)

The ideal, of course, is a war epic that—no matter what its maker’s politics—finds the right balance between the forces of history and the fates of individuals. Apocalypse Now had the big themes right, but much of the execution is ludicrous (and doubly so in the unfortunate Redux). Three Kings is a start. Cold Mountain doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid.

Jim and Sarah: Thanks for eloquently chiming in against the killing of kids onscreen as a cheap narrative hook. (What should be our acronym? Moviegoers Against Dead Darlin’s? Already taken, I guess.) As you might remember, Jim, I think In the Bedroom is a great film and regard the phrase a “granola Death Wish” as unfair to both it and granola. But I’m not going to get back into that mosh pit. I think your assessment of The Son (also on my 10-best list) is dead-on, and I’m sorry the film (one of the purest expressions of grief and reconciliation I’ve ever seen on the screen) has not been widely distributed. (To readers who haven’t seen it: It is, as I wrote in my intro, an exercise in sensory deprivation, shot largely from behind the rather unprepossessing ear of its protagonist. It will be a challenge to stick with on a TV screen—but I urge you to do so.)

The Menand article was rather fascinating for its subtext: the perception (and, indeed, the role) of the New York Times for so many years as a monolithic and quasi-scientific arbiter. This is—what?—the fifth or sixth year of the Movie Club and the third in which you’ve honored us with your participation, Tony. (Your superb colleague Elvis Mitchell took part the year before.) Every day, as you’ve said, the finer points of books, movies, plays, etc., are debated on the Web and in the pages of alternative papers employing more than one critic. But Menand—a powerful intellectual and the author of a powerful book about powerful intellectuals, The Metaphysical Club—is disoriented by a dialogue in the New York Times in which he is presented with a variety of opposing viewpoints instead of being told what to think. As if this were the Village Voice! Help!

Speaking of opposing viewpoints, I’m off to read my mail. More later.