The Movie Club


Dear David, Armond, Stephanie, and Ma Cushla,

Happy New Year, all.

You can find my 10-best list here.

If we must address the Paulette issue, let me say this about those who make that particular charge: Fuck ‘em. Not one of the writers who have done their “I Was a Paulette for the FBI” routine have ever done it without relying on gossip, insinuation, and outright lies to make their case. I never had to pass any test for loyalty to remain her friend. Was never discouraged from saying what I thought, never feared disagreeing with her, which we did often. Doesn’t anybody notice that the anti-Paulettes all claim the alleged Paulettes have no independence but every single one of them talks about how they couldn’t bring themselves to disagree with Pauline? Let me get this straight—I’m supposed to be a camp follower because you didn’t have the stones to stand up for Kramer vs. Kramer? Your therapists get paid to listen to this, boys. Spare the rest of us.

On to grown-up business.

David, I’ll concede nothing to von Trier. Dogville consists of swipes from Brecht, ‘30s experimental drama, Our Town, Durrenmatt’s The Visit, the Theater of Cruelty. He sure must have gone to the theater a lot because Dogville looks like he’s never seen a movie before. As with every von Trier it’s grainy, washed-out, and, to borrow a line from the late, great Moms Mabley, so ugly it hurt my feelings. The people who praised it remind me of nothing so much as the liberal, urban theatergoers in Brian DePalma’s Hi, Mom! who attend a night of radical black theater, are mugged and raped by the actors, and then leave talking about what a rewarding, eye-opening experience it was for them.

But the praise for Dogville may be a way into what for me is the most worrisome issue this year which, for want of a more incisive way of phrasing it, is the ugly superiority it reveals in some corners of film criticism. There’s something like glee in some of the reviews. “At last! A movie that acknowledges that America is a murderous, bigoted, close-minded sect,” these critics seem to be saying as if they weren’t a part of America, or at least wish they weren’t.

You can read something like this in last week’s Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll: “For 72 hours after the election, Dogville was the best film of the year, the decade, and possibly of all time. Von Trier’s hermetic vision of Americans blinded by their self-perceived righteousness suddenly played like a masterwork of verite filmmaking, and his stripped-down logic—which had me doubting even after three viewings—cut to the heart of the Bush campaign’s appeals to insularity.” If this weren’t so appalling, it would be hilarious. Three—count ‘em—three viewings don’t convince this guy of the movie’s logic. The election does. Of course, those of us who flat-out reject von Trier’s logic can be easily explained. We’re “right leaning,” according to Joshua Land. (Armond, you old Republican, you.)

People who write this crap ought to be ashamed to call themselves liberals. Essentially, this is the same logic used by the most extreme right-wingers: There’s one true vision of America and if you don’t share it, you don’t deserve to be considered an American. No acknowledgment that, as wrong-headed as 48 percent of us find it, many of the people voting for Bush did so out of a vision of America as genuine to them as ours is to us. I despise Bush but things aren’t as black and white as either side wants to pretend. The war and the opposition to it blur traditional conservative/liberal opposition. Bush’s impulse to go into Iraq (not the trumped-up case he made for doing so, not the callous on-the-cheap execution, not the disastrous results) is what we have traditionally thought of as liberal: the belief that America should oppose and depose genocidal fascist dictators. The opposition—at least the nonpacifist wing of the opposition—which said, rightly, that the invasion would only create more problems, takes a traditionally conservative isolationist position.

Given that blurring, doctrinaire movies don’t get us very far.

Which brings us to Fahrenheit 9/11. Your argument, David, is one I agree with in principle, which, if I read it right, is that in some cases, urgency and/or morality trumps aesthetics. I made something of the same argument in my review of Hotel Rwanda, a piece of humane tabloid filmmaking powered by outrage at the way the West allowed the 1994 genocide to take place. But while you can trump aesthetics, you can’t trump the facts. If Michael Moore said it was raining, I’d have to go outside, look up in the sky, and get wet before I believed him. There’s a near-unassailable case to be made against Bush’s war in Iraq. So, why does Moore give us the latest edition of “The Michael Moore Show”? People are dying and he’s joking about Paul Wolfowitz’s disgusting grooming habits? In last year’s Movie Club, Manohla Dargis talked about how political correctness had gotten to such a point that she couldn’t talk about slavery in connection with Cold Mountain without being deemed p.c. (Stephanie got letters accusing her of being p.c. for doing just that.) This year’s version of that is, if you acknowledge the grotesquerie, the moral rottenness of Moore representing Saddam’s “sovereign state” of genocide and torture by showing a child playing with a kite, you were accused of shilling for Bush and his war. And then Moore ends it all with a tribute to our fine troops. Even though he’s previously shown clips of soldiers talking about how we have to fight Saddam as evidence of this lethal brand of ugly Americanism. There’s nothing of any real coherent political or moral thought anywhere in the movie. And nothing of real empathy either. Does anyone think Michael Moore really cares about the troops? Do you think he’d have a minute for Lila Lipscomb if her son’s death strengthened her support for the war? I find that a vile sort of usury, and finally I don’t care if it’s Bush or Michael Moore using the grave of Mrs. Lipscomb’s son as a soapbox.

And, sorry to say this because I know how much you loved it, David, but I find the insularity of the praise for Moore’s movie in much of the love being shown Sideways. The combination of self-pity and self-regard in Sideways makes it a Cathy comic strip for middle-aged men. It embarrasses me that I’m supposed to embrace Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s characters as some sort of sympathetic portrait of the foibles of middle-aged manhood. (Stephanie, if I ever grow that pathetic—or dress that badly—this is public acknowledgment that you have my permission to take me behind the barn with a shotgun.) And in a year when we have two such mature, appealing comedies about the disappointments and compromises of middle-age as Mr. 3000 and The Incredibles, why the praise for this thing?

Well, because, as Tony pointed out in Sunday’s Times, a lot of movie critics are middle-aged schlubs. And, yes, David, unlike a lot of the movie’s supporters, you have acknowledged the self-absorption of Giamatti’s Miles. But that doesn’t make his finicky expertise any more endearing (and, David, I’ll remind you of that the next time you give me shit for ordering a Rolling Rock with my hamburger). I didn’t believe for a minute that the Virginia Madsen character would be interested in Miles (not because he looks like Paul Giamatti, but because he’s such a pill)—or that someone as sharp as Sandra Oh’s character wouldn’t immediately recognize Church as a poon hound. It’s not that I object to male fantasy, but I get suspicious about ones this flatteringly cushy. Put Sideways next to the daring of Bertrand Blier’s great comedies Going Places or Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, movies that both celebrate and explode male attitudes, and its timidity becomes very clear.

Payne pretends humanist empathy here but, as in About Schmidt, that empathy only extends to certain people. An astute reader named Melissa Dixon e-mailed me the following:

I think the movie’s attitude can be summed up in its contempt for those senior citizens on bus tours of wine country. It seems to view them as pests who insult the integrity of true connoisseurship—whereas I can imagine a good-natured, humanistic comedy gently needling them but also expressing an essential affection and admiration for people who, in their old age, embrace pleasure and fun instead of giving cranky temperance speeches to their grand kids.

More from this smart cookie in a minute. In terms of letters from readers, I’ve had the exact same experience with both of the last two Alexander Payne movies. When both Sideways and About Schmidt started opening wide, I began getting letters from readers asking me, “What is the big deal with this thing?” And then, in the case of About Schmidt, I got letters from people in the Midwest who knew the movie was insulting them and felt justifiably offended that critics on either side of flyover land were talking about what a warm, humane film it was.

I don’t know how you can watch the scene in Sideways where that fat waitress Church sleeps with has sex with her trucker husband without being bowled over by the contempt coming off the screen. A friend of mine gave the most generous reading of that sequence. He said he felt it showed the sexual openness of their marriage that the husband can respond to her infidelity as a turn-on. Believe me, if I thought the movie said that, I’d trumpet it, because American movies in general are so moralistic about sex. But for that reading to work you’d have to shoot these two people as something other than two more piles of debris in that trashed and trashy house. You’d have to get close to them, which is exactly what Payne, repelled by their fat, will not do. If this scene isn’t intended as a putdown of the gross lower classes, what purpose does the presence of Bush on the bedroom TV serve? Back to Ms. Dixon who wrote, “That scene was about the overweight, slovenly, working-class citizens of ‘Bush’s America’ (not the thoughtful, cultured expatriates-at-heart).” Another bullseye (she should be a movie critic). Payne then gets laughs out of the trucker running naked down the street (the same way he got laughs out of the nude Kathy Bates in Schmidt). Does anyone think he’d use Paul Giamatti, who’s in roughly the same physical shape, for similar laughs? No way.

Well, cats and kitten, this has gone on much too long (sorry you invited me yet?). Not a word yet about Squint Eastwood’s Wonderful World of Glaucoma, and I haven’t talked any about what I loved this past year. I’ve got a few thoughts on Ray I’d like to share tomorrow. I haven’t mentioned the variety and magic of the movies out of Asia. And to end on a beaming-in-from-Zontar note, I’d like to try to talk about why the final shot of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Ocean’s Twelve (a movie I didn’t like) enchants me. Hope I’m less of a crank tomorrow (maybe Stephanie can take me behind the barn a few decades early if I’m not).