The Movie Club

Eternal Sunshine of the Movie Club

Happy New Year, all, and welcome to the 2005 “Movie Club,” in which we aim to prove that we can fight for our (sometimes curious) opinions. De gustibus est disputandum. In that spirit, it’s impossible not to pay tribute to one of our greatest cultural critics, Susan Sontag, who never backed down from a confrontation, no matter how unfashionable her opinions. She created new fashions.

Once again, here is this year’s lineup, in alphabetical order (my, you’re all bunched at the far end of the alphabet): A.O. Scott, the New York Times; Charles Taylor, Salon; Armond White, the New York Press; and Stephanie Zacharek, Salon. Thursday and Friday, we’ll be joined by Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly, Christopher Kelly of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe. I have asked each to provide a link to his or her 10-best list; mine (a best-13-and-a-half list) is here.

I know that some readers might regard this as inside baseball, but I need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Stephanie, Charley, Armond, and I were close to Pauline Kael in the last decade of her life, which has led some of my more impolitic correspondents to describe this year’s Movie Club as a concordance of “Paulettes”—a term that’s flung around as purposefully as “fellow travelers.”

There was no conscious intent to stack the deck—and, for that matter, I don’t see a lot of consensus on our respective favorite movies (some of the ones we dislike, maybe). But as long as the issue hangs in the air, it’s worth speculating on what some of us Paulinistas (my preferred term) did learn from Kael and the ways in which we do grapple with her aesthetic (hard to predict as it often was). She and I disagreed about some fundamental things: my favorite genre—horror; Mahler; Brecht; Sondheim; good late Hitchcock; lousy late Phil Kaufman; and on and on. But I know she sensitized me to a certain kind of (she would hate this word) “humanist” filmmaking, as exemplified by the open and deeply inquiring works of Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray. I know she passed on her dislike of filmmakers (and playwrights) who score easy points off characters or use them to illustrate some sourly reductive thesis about the venality of mankind. She preferred artists with more sympathetic imaginations—or, at least, the wit to leave you exhilarated by their cynicism. Above all, she loved to be surprised—by characters who outgrew their creators’ intentions (and the actors who embodied them) and by directors who went into themselves and found things that they hadn’t known were there.

This aesthetic is certainly a factor in my dislike of Dogville. I concede von Trier’s formal rigor, and I’ll even give reader Gary Daily a nod. He writes, “Not one critic I know of has read the film as religious satire. James Caan (God the Father of the Old Testament) sends his only ‘son’ among the sinning and suffering of the earth and the inevitable follows. Remember when Waiting for Lefty or Death of a Salesman or Wild Strawberries were appreciated because their characters and stories were about more than the surface of their characters and stories?” I do remember—and I remember the bracing vitality in the Odets and the compassion in the Miller and the Bergman. But how can you be trusted on the underlying problem if you get the surface so wrong? I have trouble accepting the diagnoses of writer-directors who haven’t convinced me they’re open to discovery—who are unwilling (or, in the case on von Trier, perhaps, temperamentally unable) to test their theses and to admit the complexity of human nature.

Is there a danger in applying that aesthetic—any aesthetic, for that matter—reflexively? Sure. But film is a powerfully manipulative medium, which makes it well-suited to bullies like von Trier (or even someone like Neil LaBute). It’s important to say that just because some filmmakers bludgeon you into submission, that doesn’t mean they’re great artists.

Speaking of bludgeoning, we have one or two (or three) critics here of Fahrenheit 9/11. I’m sure you’ll get your whacks in, and I’m sure I’ll agree with some of what you write. Michael Moore is not the most likable or open-minded personality. … But in the midst of this brutal, horrific, reckless engagement, his critique of the Bush administration in particular and American exceptionalism in general is a vital contribution to the national debate. (I can hear you snorting all the way in Brooklyn, Armond.) 

There’s no set agenda in the Movie Club, but we’ll have to get around to Clint Eastwood and his Million Dollar Baby, which Tony, Scott, and Wesley love and the rest of us think is pretty dim. Eastwood is a polarizing filmmaker; I was surprised by all the letters I got after praising Mystic River about how lame many people found it. I don’t want to spoil anything (so stop reading if you haven’t seen it), but there has been some grumbling in the disabled community about Hilary Swank (a “C½ quad”) asking to be put down “like her daddy’s old German shepherd.” Armond and I both used the term “sucker-punch.”

Other topics: The Passion of the Christ. Why Armond loathes Tarnation so much. Why everyone but me loathes Spanglish so much. Great performances: Discuss. The biopic and its discontents (a pet peeve). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As you might imagine, Tony, I was disappointed with your Sideways takedown in the Times yesterday. Much of your argument rests on the idea that critics who love the movie haven’t acknowledged their own morbid self-regard as a source of their attraction. Lemme tell you, bub, I’ve acknowledged it six ways from Sunday, in print and while happily imbibing my favorite Central Coast Pinot Noirs. (Have you tried Foxen, by the way? It was my New Year’s Eve quaff: violets and cherries on the nose, really silky/jammy mouth feel, just enough oak to keep it all from sagging, beautiful.) The movie is delicious, too—with a more complex, bittersweet finish.

I’m putting on my flak jacket. Ready, set …


P.S.: Go!