The Movie Club

Politics and Religion

I see I have to get up a lot earlier in the morning to keep up with you guys—like, before I go to bed, even. Manohla, I agree with you that Tony was wrong to share that private e-mail. But I’m so glad he did, because I love you both and am extremely energized by the way in which you’re sorting through the political issues that come up every day in what we do. And Jim: I wish I could free-associationally dash off the way you free-associationally dash off. It seems as if sitting in a courthouse all day has sharpened your senses. (Have you been picked, by the way?)

I’m still wrestling with Barbarian Invasions, a smooth piece of mainstream art-house fare that got under my skin like itching powder. I don’t entirely share your disappointment with Arcand’s “lack of visionary excess.” We know from such films as Jesus of Montreal that Arcand has the ability to create surreal and slightly mad allegories. Choosing to tell this story within the confines of a cozy domestic ensemble comedy-drama (with a teary father-son rapprochement at the center) is a pointed attempt to chart vast social changes within a deceptively conventional structure. I suppose you would strike the word “deceptively” from that sentence and substitute something like “tiresomely”—and, in truth, Arcand doesn’t test that structure enough for my taste. (I came of age admiring the enormous mytho-poetic force just under the surface of Ibsen’s prosaic drawing-room plays.) But there’s something enormously witty about Arcand’s containment. My problems with the movie are, frankly, political. I don’t think Arcand gives enough credit to the ideals of the ex-lefties he’s so affectionately satirizing; and I think the scene in which the dying professor, Rémy, reminiscences about a beautiful Chinese professor who responded to his extravagant praise of the Cultural Revolution with the bitter revelation that she’d spent it cleaning pigsties was just a little too easy. (Are there any Maoists left to argue that the Cultural Revolution was a good thing? I mean, that aren’t institutionalized?) All ideology here—but especially the ideology of leftist academia—is portrayed as fickle, as so transient as to be farcical: What really matters, finally, is family, gourmet food, a lake house, and the power of the global capitalist son to cut through the absurdist red tape of socialized medicine. I don’t mean to sound like a frothing leftist here: I think a lot of Arcand’s criticisms are hilariously on target. But I resent that he doesn’t give his characters enough stature to find some middle ground between their former ideals and the lessons that life (and capitalism) has taught them. (If the elephant in the room—to invoke that suddenly fashionable metaphor—is the feeling of impotence in the wake of the failure of Quebecois nationalism, then I agree that ought to be acknowledged in there somewhere.)

I also want to underline your point, Jim, about Lost in Translation, Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai: “Each in its own wistful way, these movies attempt to re-energize American pop by appropriating the vitality of East Asia.” I guess in a nutshell that’s why you’re a critical hero of mine: It exemplifies the way your writing transcends the Party organs in which it sometimes appears. (No: I’m not Voice bashing. I love the Voice. Proud to have been associated with it. But I recognize, like Denys Arcand and Bill Murray singing “More Than This,” that “self-reflexive emotional complications” are good things to allow in from time to time.)

Later today I plan to introduce the following topics: Elephant. Peter Pan. Mystic River. Digital video. Documentaries, especially Capturing the Friedmans and the timely questions it raises about exploration versus exploitation.


P.S.: to Sarah and Manohla: Along the lines of Manohla’s last question to you, Sarah, what do you guys think of the Mimi Swartz article on the “new” complexity of middle-aged women in Hollywood movies? I didn’t go for Something’s Gotta Give as much as some of you did, but Diane Keaton was a turn on in ways that went beyond the physical. (So, for that matter, was
Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon, although the movie gave me a stomachache.)