The Movie Club

A Cry in the Dark

I can’t believe this is the last post of the 2003/2004 Movie Club, which I’ve enjoyed more than any other.

Manohla: I don’t think it’s wrong to dwell for a moment on masturbatory fantasies since they are intimately connected with many movies. Obviously (too obviously to spell out, I thought), it depends on what you do with them, and also whether the artist is willing to challenge or test their foundations. Also obviously, that is not what Quentin Tarantino does in Kill Bill, Vol. 1—although I think he gestures toward it in the opening battle, in which the Bride kills Vernita Green in front of her young daughter and acknowledges that she has just become the villain in the little girl’s own revenge melodrama. This is given another wrinkle when we learn, from the movie’s inspired anime section, that the villain O-Ren also grew up as the heroine in her own revenge melodrama. 

At the risk of yanking your chain one more time, Manohla (especially when you’re not around to yank back, at least publicly), as reader Josh Martin notes, you “inadvertently set up a contradiction” when you denounce Tarantino’s male revenge fantasies in one paragraph, then go on to say you “like it ‘perverse and dank’ when it comes to female sexual fantasies involving dangerous males.” He concludes, “We likes what we likes.”

Ain’t it the truth. That said, for a critic, the words “de gustabis non est disputandum” might be the most horrifying in any language: If we didn’t believe in a hierarchy of taste, we wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) do what we do. So we will always, in discussions like this, arrive at a “me like” versus “me don’t like” moment—and we owe it to ourselves not to shrug it off but keep barreling ahead to get to the bottom of it all.

I agree with Jim that the structural complexity of Tarantino’s films is their most original and tantalizing element, and that the structure of Kill Bill (so far) is more one-thing-after-another than usual. But on the second viewing I was surprised by how often Tarantino doubles back on himself, as well as by the number of nifty interpolations (like that anime, which comes between the Bride’s decision to move her big toe and the toe’s response). And I’m sorry, Tony, I felt there was a ton of genuine emotion in the movie, the kind of feeling you find in dance musicals in which the free-wheeling use of space and montage is an end in itself. Which brings me to my final defense: Tarantino has never done pure action. In Jackie Brown, he kept the violence off-screen or at a distance, and the killings in Pulp Fiction are shocking not for how they’re staged but for where they erupt in the narrative. (For a thriller audience, they’re like Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony.) So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him wallowing in this particular orgy—either to get it out of his system or add the ability to stage and shoot this stuff to his filmmaking palette.

Jim, I’m sorry we spent so much time debating the frankly junky Kill Bill and not Spider, which I thought an honorable failure. I wanted more typically David Cronenbergian yucko visions (or else David Lynchian surrealism) and less clinical distance, but I loved Miranda Richardson’s three faces of Mom. I shared Manohla’s response to the heartbreaking beauty of Elephant, although I longed, in the end, for a little more interpretation. Still, here and in Gerry, Gus Van Sant has become a truly experimental filmmaker again, and our movies are richer for it.

I am surprised we haven’t addressed American Splendor, which has won so many critics’ awards—although mostly, I think, because it was the one film on which everyone could agree. It might be that this and not Elephant is the real fiction/documentary missing link, the film that captures eloquently our longing to make art out of—and confer glamor on—the mundane stuff that holds our lives together but hurtles by so quickly.

Speaking of which …

I wish I had time to acknowledge a lot more e-mail. OK, a few more letters, with apologies for missing some good ones:

Jerry Oh thinks we should be citing 28 Days Later as a DV event because, while it was transferred to celluloid, it plays to the strengths of its medium. He also, provocatively, sees the limitations of DV “as an honest quality, and closer to the way we see life than film.” (Somewhere, I like to think, Roger is reaching for his keyboard.) And Anna Poe asks if Sofia Coppola’s public humiliation of her estranged husband Spike Jonze in Lost in Translation didn’t make that the real female revenge movie of 2003.

Paul De Zan writes: “The majority of critic-haters interest me, because I think they are seriously deluded about their own motivations. Although they tend to decry critics as enemies of popular choice, most … are, in fact, hyper-authoritarians. The attitude I have encountered, time and time again [is]: ‘How dare you question the work of people who are above your station in life—the demigods who write, direct, and act in movies? They are more famous, more wealthy, and more powerful than you are—if they are not entirely above criticism, they are certainly above criticism from you.’ No real comeback for that, ehh? It’s often said that what Americans really want is a monarchy; one need look no further than the Entertainment Complex to see that the specification has already been met.”

Peter Sattler writes to defend Lost in Translation against charges of racism: “The feelings of strangeness are entirely in the American characters. The camera records beauties—cultural and natural—that the ‘lost’ visitors are unable to register or understand. … In the movie, Japanese culture estranges you from American culture—makes American culture look strange and dubbed, as much as the other way around.”

He goes on—respectfully, I should add—to criticize this year’s Movie Club for “self-congratulation, glad-handing, and tiptoeing” around some disagreements. I’d like to plead guilty, with extenuating circumstances.

We live in a different culture than the one that was around when I began scribbling about movies—one with (happily) a lot more voices and (unhappily) a lot more vitriol. There are bloggers and alternative newspaper columnists who routinely refer to “idiots” and “morons” who disagree with them, or are quick to label political opponents traitors or “fifth columnists.” Star poster twifferTheGnu reminds me that not everyone who posts in the Movies Fray is uninterested in debating ideas, but even he acknowledges that most of the postings there consist of dashed-off, semiliterate abuse. I used to read classical music and opera boards on the Internet, but gave up because I couldn’t take hostility—I can only imagine how it gets on boards about politics.

Meanwhile, critics and critics of critics attack one another at every turn, more interested in one-upmanship than in recognizing or building on the work of their colleagues.

I’m very pleased if, in the Movie Club, we have come off as liking and respecting one another too much. I’m honored to have J. Hoberman, one of the giants (and true independents) of film criticism here, and I’ve been honestly dazzled by the thinking and writing of Tony, Sarah, and Manohla even when I’ve disagreed with their opinions.

More important, I’ve wanted to set an example for talking about the things we love and hate. I don’t believe that critics are a different species, lower or higher. In the Movie Club, we’re just doing what everyone does when they go out for a drink after a movie or play or gather together once a month in someone’s living room for a book club. A work of art doesn’t end after you consume it. It has a finish, like wine (or bourbon—and my Manhattans, Tony, are made with 126- not 100-proof whiskey). Sometimes that finish is quick and sweet, and sometimes it’s bitter and lasts for years. Sometimes it upsets your stomach. In all cases, exploring our own responses—and bouncing them off people we like and respect—is among life’s greatest pleasures.

People often criticized Seinfeld for being about a bunch of vapid, self-obsessed people talking about nothing—so often that the series’ final episode was virtually destroyed by incorporating that point of view. To me, it was the most optimistic show on television, because even those raging narcissistic freaks could find solace in one another’s company, no matter how much they got on one another’s nerves. I loved that they could drop in on one another any time, much as in a college dorm, and shock one another out of their solipsistic reveries. I find that way of living so hopeful, and this raging narcissistic freak has felt more alive mixing it up over movies in this space. My New Year’s wish for everyone is to make your own Movie Club, complete with glad-handling and self-congratulation. It’s really such a blast.

It feels funny to be alone again in the room, with only the Fray for company.

Come back!