The Movie Club

Brooks in the Hood

Fellow members of the universally interconnected blanket:

With my head still spinning, both from the general weirdness of seeing a Sondheim revival in the shell of the former Studio 54 and from the dazzling way that Pacific Overtures’ “Next” finale has been updated to reflect the Japan of the millennium, I’ve decided to pick up my Movie Club rant where gnawing hunger and hard-gotten theater tickets earlier cut me off.

First, I’d like to offer some observations about Spanglish, a movie that struck me as a gigantic kitchen accident while I was watching it but has rarely been far from my thoughts ever since. That doesn’t mean that I like the movie any more now than I did then, but the more I turn it over in my head, the more I feel like I get a handle on just what its writer-director, James L. Brooks, was going for and why he didn’t achieve it. During a holiday visit home to my parents in Florida, in between trips up to the roof of the house to repair a temperamental satellite dish, I managed to catch the Charlie Rose show that featured Brooks and Adam Sandler as the guests, and I was particularly struck by Brooks’ explanation of what prompted him to make Spanglish in the first place. Driving out of his West Los Angeles neighborhood on any given day, Brooks told Rose, he would see Mexican domestics arriving at or departing from their jobs in the posh neighborhood homes (occupied, it goes without saying, by mostly white families). In turn, he began to think about a film that would show that neighborhood—his neighborhood—through a domestic’s outsider eyes. I find it admirable and ambitious that Brooks wanted to show us, in a mainstream Hollywood film, what Thom Andersen—and I promise this is the last time I will reference Los Angeles Plays Itself—posits as the unseen Los Angeles of people who ride buses and live east of the 110 freeway. But for all of Brooks’ supposedly extensive research into the lives of real Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles, Spanglish feels like an entire movie made from inside Brooks’ Mercedes, peering out through its half-cracked tinted windows. Not for one second—from the moment Flor and her daughter, Cristina, arrive at a production designer’s grotesquely misconceived idea of what an East L.A. Mexican neighborhood looks like to that would-be Stella Dallas scene when Flor ships Cristina off to her first day of classes at a hoity-toity private school—did I believe that Brooks knew anything about the real dreams and desires of a community that now accounts for something like one-third of the city’s population. (Not that Brooks seems to get upper-crust west-side Angelenos all that much better. I for one am still trying to figure out what he had in mind when he thought up the sequence where Flor’s friend walks into a sliding glass door, knocks herself out, and is subsequently handed a $20 bill by Tea Leoni’s character. That Mexican people don’t have sliding glass doors in their homes? That white people leave bowls filled with $20 bills on their kitchen counters?) There are things I genuinely admire about Spanglish, like Adam Sandler’s performance as an essentially good guy—a mensch—paralyzed by the fear of too much success, and the film’s depiction of the way parents can succumb to validating themselves through their children.

But if I fixate on Spanglish’s view of class differences, it’s because that has been one of the key areas cited for praise by the movie’s champions. And as I see it, that makes Brooks’ film but one in a long line of 2004 releases whose good intentions managed to blind many viewers to their crippling flaws. Charley, thanks for reminding me that I’m in a distinct minority on Hotel Rwanda—so much so that even the ordinarily infallible has seen fit to designate my Variety pan with a score of 70 out of a possible 100. I’ll even grant you that Terry George and his co-screenwriter, Keir Pearson, deserve credit for sparing us that execrable device of the noble white narrator/interlocutor proffered by films like Cry Freedom, The Last Samurai, and Glory. But having said that, I still see the movie as sham of inspirationalism that strives so tirelessly to lift our spirits that it eventually loses all sight of its story’s fundamental horror. Which is to say nothing of how horribly blunt and unsophisticated the filmmaking is. I knew I was in trouble from that early scene where that box turns over in the warehouse and machetes spill out onto the floor; even Stephanie’s clonking of my and Wesley’s noggins together wasn’t as much of a head-beating as that one. Can you even imagine such a scene in a really honest, gut-wrenching movie about global terrorism, like Oliver Stone’s Salvador or Raoul Peck’s Lumumba? To borrow Armond’s mathematical model, Hotel Rwanda < Shake Hands With the Devil, a remarkable documentary about Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian U.N. general who was in charge of the peacekeeping forces in Rwanda and was the basis for the (blink-and-you-miss-him) Nick Nolte character in George’s film. That movie, which I saw within hours of Hotel Rwanda at the Toronto Film Festival, gets into all sorts of complexities about how and why the international community allowed the Rwandan genocide to happen in the first place—complexities, I would add, that George’s film, for the most part, is happy to oversimplify or flat-out ignore.

I could say more, Charley, about Hotel Rwanda’s casual interpolating of historical fact and the myopia of its good intentions—I was reminded throughout of Pauline’s memorable axiom that the subject of a movie should not place it beyond reproach—but most of it would apply just as easily to Fahrenheit 9/11,a topic on which I know you and I stand in greater agreement. In fact, since Stephanie wrote perhaps my favorite Michael Moore takedown at the time of the film’s release, and because you have already offered your own spot-on assessment earlier in this year’s Movie Club, I don’t feel the need to take up space here iterating similar sentiments. What I would like to mention, however, is why I’m most unwilling to accept the argument that Moore is a vital contributor to the national debate, or even responsible for the flood of other politically aware films that seemingly arrived on its heels. Unwilling because even before Moore premiered his film at Cannes in May, 2004 was already shaping up to be a year in which one could nary cast a stone without striking an eloquent cinematic critique of our deeply troubled times. As early as Sundance in January, there was Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, an extraordinary survey of the current propaganda wars (ultimately, the ones that really matter) and maybe the best film about reporters and reporting since All the President’s Men. Even more important, there was Ken Jacobs’ found-footage epic Star Spangled to Death (one of my two dueling picks for the year’s best film), which traces the sad history of America’s imperialism, capitalism, and xenophobia in a way that is absolutely exhilarating. And then there was Godard’s mournful Notre Musique, which showed in Cannes mere days apart from Fahrenheit and which is in nearly every respect its aesthetic and ideological opposite. Of course, the combined audience for those three films was but a fraction of the one for Moore’s, but to make such a comparison is about as useful as comparing the potential audience for Passolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew to that for The Passion of the Christ,or comparing Sondheim against Andrew Lloyd Weber. In short, much as I hate to say it, I fear there’s no overestimating the public’s appetite for crass, obvious spectacle.

Which brings me to a rather distressing post by one of the contributors to the Movie Club feedback forum. At the end of an otherwise thoughtful and considered message, this particular individual (using the screen name “derivative”) writes, “Movies are still little more than entertainment in our culture,” before going on to accuse those of us in this forum of being overly impressed with ourselves. Hmmm … I wonder if “derivative” mightn’t be a newspaper or magazine editor, for his/her comment is certainly consistent with Charley’s astute elucidation of the battles between critics and editors over what movies do/don’t get covered in a given publication. If movies are “little more than entertainment,” then surely it doesn’t matter whether the people writing about them possess the expertise that would automatically be expected of a theater, classical music, or architecture critic. And surely it matters even less if the movies that already have $20 million marketing campaigns are the only ones afforded major coverage in the weekend film section. I dare say that it is by just such thinking that film criticism as we know it may well meet its end. But such thinking does exist out there and may even be approaching the norm. And so I find myself somewhat more aligned to Stephanie’s pessimism about the future of real, smart, honest-to-goodness film criticism than to Chris’ sunny optimism about same. On the other hand, when Chris says that there are still plenty of good critics out there and quality outlets willing to print what they have to say, he’s also right, though I know from my own experience that this sometimes means writing for a readership of a few thousand people for a fee of about 50 Canadian dollars per article. (Though the way the exchange rate is going nowadays, that’s looking better and better by the minute.) Not so very long ago, a critic friend of mine who has written and edited for both mainstream glossy magazines and high-profile alternative weeklies told me that most editors’ ideal film critic today would be one who liked all the most popular films and made it sound like it was hip to do so. If that’s not reason for despair, I don’t know what is.

That seems like a logical stopping place, and yet there’s still so much I haven’t gotten around to saying, like how I wish Chris had written about Before Sunset despite his fears that its subject matter was a little too close to home because such identification is key to the whole transfixing power of movies—hence that glorious moment in Goodbye, Dragon Inn where a young girl stands right next to the cinema’s towering screen and identifies with the character being projected upon it. Or how I, too, was entranced by the elevated train set piece in Spider-Man 2, though the thing that really got me stoked was that sequence in Harry Potter 3 where Harry travels back in time and ends up managing to save his own life—an instant of unadulterated movie magic in which I suddenly welled up with memories of what made me love movies when I was a kid not even Harry’s age. Maybe that is “little more than entertainment,” but if so, I’ll gladly pass on whatever constitutes “much more than entertainment” any day.