The Movie Club

In Front of God and Everyone

David, Stephanie, Armond, Tony, Charley, Chris, Scott, and those following along from the Fray,

I bring you greetings (Happy New Year!) and news of cosmic disturbances. (David, my lap suddenly wet itself during White Noise; it was the only fright to be had.) I agree with Armond and everyone else who believes that 2004 was a bountiful year for movies of all stripes and an even richer one if you preferred to fight over them. There were, however, some battles to which I was happy to object conscientiously, and the one over The Passion of the Christ is probably the biggest. One of the advantages of being a member of a tag team, as I am with the estimable Ty Burr, is that you can always defer to your partner: “Let the other guy get the mail.” This movie appealed to me neither as an event nor as a point of professional duty. But after months of being badgered by people who honestly wanted to discuss it, including my own mother, who left me a bereaved voice mail afterward explaining how the film had moved and devastated her in the holiest of ways, I broke down and saw it with a Jewish friend and his English mother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On Easter Sunday. Honestly, we thought we’d have the theater to ourselves, but the show was sold out, and we had to sit closer than I normally prefer. (The first-car-of-a-roller-coaster rule seemed to apply here; the three gentlemen who asked of an usher afterward what was the next show time confirmed my amusement-park suspicions.) I found the film unwatchable, ugly, and redundant—the coat of one color, to remix Testaments. What intrigued me, though, is the idea that Mel Gibson didn’t make his movie for me, someone whose Christian faith is bound up in a lot of philosophical and practical concerns. He uses a visual language (tortuous slo-mo) and a spoken one (Aramaic!) designed to seal someone like me out of his story. Quite literally, the movie doesn’t speak to me. More importantly, it doesn’t care to: This was a shout-out to all the true believers out there. And while there is something admirable in Gibson’s achievement of realizing a personal (but apparently deeply resonant) vision and confounding a great deal of skeptics by turning a hefty profit from it, I’m forced to discount the Passion as a discriminatory work whose literalism and single-mindedness demean its art. In our year of the questionable biopic, this simply was not the Jesus I knew.

Maybe that’s why I felt so at home with Dogville, which I know we’ve been steadily pushing down the Movie Club kangaroo court. (Stephanie, you should feel free to skip ahead or stop reading altogether.) But unlike Gibson’s, von Trier’s view of Biblical martyrdom and suffering is durable and elastic, and its formal complexities are more sophisticated than that high-school play comparison people use to dismiss its art director. If we can really get past the idea of it as an exclusive bitch-slap of “America,” there is a jarring (make that Jarry) and cogent critique of fascism, which only in the concluding photomontage set to “Young Americans” seems, to me, irredeemably obtuse. Here, von Trier pulls a Socialist stunt that’s a staple of European political documentary filmmaking from Dziga Vertov to Johan van der Keuken, but I’m happy to have this movie to fight over. I’ve done a sub-par job sticking up for it, so I refer the convertible among us to Jim Hoberman’s review from March, which is a great, considered piece of criticism.

In the name of double features, I’d watch Dogville with The Village, a movie so grandiose with ridiculousness that it’s easy to mistake its timely social paranoia for a punch line. Of course, that would be through no fault of your own. It, too, is about an artificially constructed “American” community teeming with “monsters” and “evil,” but I’m afraid that M. Night Shyamalan has parlayed his instant auteur billing into an excuse to be cute, even though in this movie (and with Signs) he so clearly has something to say. But his movie is visually articulate but dense in matters of intellectual expression. Enough with the Hitchcock nonsense: Speak, man! Had he built the movie with the end at the beginning, we’d probably still be talking about it. But Shyamalan rigs movies so we can’t talk about them. (Armond, does my not giving away the ending, even now that it’s safely on home video—and the Internet—contribute to the Great Film Criticism Crap Out of 2004? I ask in utter seriousness, as a daily newspaper person who suffers biblically when disclosing too many details.) About this Dog/Village double feature and their outrageously named directors, I’d like quote a line from The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the disappointing upcoming Rebecca Miller movie: “You’re not bad, just innocent, and innocent people are dangerous.” (I’d like to think “innocent” appears in air-quotes.)

Here, by the way, is my year-end list. (Have I buried the lede?)

1. Bad Education
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Tarnation
4. Vera Drake
5. Moolaade
6. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
7. Crimson Gold
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
9. I’m Not Scared/Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
10. Kill Bill, Vol. 2

(I would have found a way to include Los Angeles Plays Itself, Blissfully Yours, and Star-Spangled to Death had they shown any sign of opening in New England, this year or last. These would be among my best underseen/underdistributed movies from last year.)

David, I’d like to respond to some of the questions in your final post for Wednesday. Vera Drake is so well-made that I found myself shocked that it had the nerve to end. Its taut realism and wall-to-wall great acting made up for its shortcomings as a melodrama (I wanted a firework or two, as well, David). Plus: This is a thriller, right? I was scared, and curious: Do you think when her sentence was up she went back to “helping young girls”?)

Regarding David’s loved-it-hated-it-but-don’t-know-why question. I know why I loved Spanglish (the screenplay holds a lot of truth and, hello, Tea Leoni), but I’m conflicted about it: People seem to hate its alleged hatefulness, which I see only when I really put my mind to it. I like how Brooks is willing to roll up his sleeves and wade into a culture-war skirmish. He might not be radical enough or non-white enough to break any new ground. But the movie is politically correct, though only up to a point: Flor is not a good mother, either. The trouble is that Paz Vega doesn’t seem to know this. The movie deals with parenting issues that feel a lot better dealt with in Look at Me, which comes out later this year, and which we can talk about in 2006’s MC.

Quickly, Chris, thank you for raising the question of why we loved-hated the Zhang Yimou movies. I still don’t feel like I’ve a gotten a persuasive argument in favor of them. (I need film critics just as much as everyone else.) Yes, they’re gorgeous, but they’re also repetitive and stylized to an almost soulless degree: a pop song that’s made entirely of choruses. (Stephanie, I say this despite liking your review.) We should really spend some time wondering what types of movies’ formal elements redeem their apparent emptiness. For instance, I find the Kill Bill movies awesomely alive, both with allusion and with a soul of their own. Like Sideways, those Yimou movies are too clean. (By the way, I like that we cut straight to what, for me, that movie is about: the retrieval of the wedding bands; great, another quest for more rings! Still, that’s a thrilling, scary moment full of character and satire—the look of terror and exhilaration on Paul Giamatti’s facebelongs on the poster). It’s the only moment Payne really brings the film to life. His movies are at their best when his characters are backed into a corner; when there’s something unkind or unflattering to be done or said—and, really, Sideways flatters certain members of its audience, and I don’t think that sort of square flattery becomes Payne, who after four movies has already made his Fargo.

Chris, I like In Good Company, though not as much as you. There’s a lot of human truth, but alas it’s just overwritten and under-directed. Plus, I couldn’t help but think that 15 years ago this same movie would star Michael J. Fox instead of Topher Grace, whom, like Fox, I don’t think I yet want carrying my movies.

And about Bad Education, which we both appear to like immensely, and a dripping-wet Gael Garcia Bernal: It depends on what fascinates you infinitely about that image. And Tony beat me to me puzzling over why Adaptation and Far From Heaven don’t meet your approval, but Bad Education, which is just as fiercely about movies, does. But to address your concern: I don’t think it’s strictly the homosexuality that might be a problem for some moviegoers (how does one encounter Almodóvar while blind to his gay sensibility?), it’s the narrative challenge, too. But I think the movie’s doing OK.

And what excites me about it is its dismayed explosion of innocence. The purest mutual love in the whole movie, in any of Almodóvar’s films for that matter, is between these two boys. And it’s destroyed by a corrupt figure of holiness. That corruption spreads to every character—who in the screenplay within the screenplay or in the anecdotes within the anecdotes is a psychic and physical construction—including Almodóvar himself. Bad Education’s radicalism, for me, is not in its adult sexuality (we’ve seen that before) but in Almodóvar’s great act of self-incrimination: He’s created a super-self to hide an original self and obscure an original sin. His early “experimental” movies were pure art, with no genre to dismantle or build up. He didn’t know he had to hide in melodrama or farce. For Bad Education, he chooses film noir, a genre of secrets and shadows, to, in some way, come clean and confess. The “passion” that ends his movie is one of transcendence, and one very different from the passion driving Mel Gibson, although I’d love to see Mel’s Bad Education.


P.S. When my empire strikes back later today, I’d like to talk about Huckabees and why, Tony, Tarnation and the lifeless Life Aquatic are only loosely related generationally, as different as MTV and an iPod. (Armond, you arrested the wrong man the other day. How could you mention hipsterism run amok without putting Wes Anderson in your police line-up?)