The Movie Club

A Whole New Meaning for the Term “Niche Audience”

Greetings one and all.

Like Jonathan, my list of the best films of 2005 won’t be published for another week, but in the meantime, I will provide a link to my ballot from the recent Village Voice film critics’ poll. And before I get to talking about the actual movies on that list, I should probably offer some explanation as to why it includes three titles (The Intruder; Good Morning, Night; and The Weeping Meadow) that won’t be appearing on my “official” LA Weekly top 10. The short answer is that those three films didn’t open commercially (or even receive a film festival showing) in Los Angeles during the 2005 calendar year but were released in New York, thereby making them eligible for the Voice poll. (You see, Jonathan, sometimes even Left Coast haute-bourgeois types such as yours truly must play the Heartland’s release-date-shuffling game.) The longer and considerably more troubling answer is that, as of this writing, The Weeping Meadow will never see any kind of theatrical exhibition in L.A.; Good Morning, Night will play one time only, at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, in February; and The Intruder—my pick for the best film of 2005—will receive a one-week engagement at a single area theater in March. These are not exactly obscure works: The Intruder is the latest offering from French director Claire Denis, whose earlier films (including Beau Travail and Friday Night) have been widely seen at film festivals and in art-house theaters. Good Morning, Night is the best work in two decades by Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whose astonishing debut feature, Fists in the Pocket, was one of the greatest films of the 1960s. And The Weeping Meadow is the first in a planned trilogy by Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos, whose previous film, Eternity and a Day, won the Palme d’Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

So why the holdup? Put simply, while the major Hollywood studios may whine and moan about the box office slump of 2005, things are immeasurably more dire for the distributors of foreign-language films in America—at least, those foreign-language films that don’t offer some combination of crouching tigers, flying daggers, and Roberto Benigni shucking and jiving his way through the bloody atrocities of the past century. (On tap for 2006, Benigni’s The Tiger and the Snow, described as being about “a love-struck Italian poet stuck in Iraq at the onset of the American invasion.”) As David Ehrenstein pointed out in an excellent and scrupulously researched LA Weekly article earlier this year, champagne corks now pop in distributors’ offices if a foreign-language picture crosses the $500,000 mark at the U.S. box office, while most foreign titles don’t manage to gross even one-tenth of that amount. I wish I could say the depressing news stopped there, but it doesn’t. Independent American films—by which I mean the real thing and not the pseudo-independents produced by the studio-owned subsidiary divisions—are hardly faring any better. As I discuss in an LA Weekly piece that will be published on Thursday, Debra Granik’s superb Down to the Bone (with its award-winning lead performance by Vera Farmiga) took nearly two years to find a distributor and has earned all of $25,000 since opening in limited release one month ago, while Lodge Kerrigan’s equally excellent Keane (backed by a relatively larger marketing campaign) has barely squeaked past $33,000. And what we critics say scarcely seems to matter. Both Down to the Bone and Keane had stellar reviews (as, for that matter, did The Intruder; Good Morning, Night;and The Weeping Meadow), yet taken together, all five films didn’t attract as many moviegoers over the entire courses of their runs as flocked to Brokeback Mountain in its first week on a single Los Angeles screen. And if I may offer just one more example: When Happy Here and Now—a Michael Almereyda film I like even more than his William Eggleston documentary—finally opened in Los Angeles after three years on its distributor’s shelf (and after repeated extolling of its virtues in print by myself and other critics), it grossed $700 in its first (and only) weekend, which sort of gives a whole new meaning to the term “niche audience.” Of course, Jonathan, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: A few years ago, you wrote a remarkable book called Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can Seethat explored this very phenomenon (and the causes behind it) in far greater detail than I ever could here. But when I look back on the year in movies that was 2005, the debate feels as relevant as ever. If a movie opens in a cinema and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If it seems like I’m obsessing over numbers, it’s because they’re so telling and because they’re also a way of getting back to Jonathan’s pondering of the “social function” of film criticism, why movies like Munich and Syriana occupy a larger part of the pop-culture discourse than Route 181 and how critics are partly complicit in that imbalance. To wit, while I may find Happy Here and Now a more affecting portrait of pre-Katrina New Orleans than The Skeleton Key, millions more people have seen the latter than have even heard of the former, and I don’t feel that I’d be doing my full duty as a critic if I didn’t acknowledge that reality. That’s not to say that I deem The Skeleton Key a more praise-worthy film than Almereyda’s (quite the contrary) or feel compelled to cut it some slack because it’s a big studio picture with a $20 million advertising budget (though there are countless critics out there who do seem to abide by such thinking). But I do feel that to dismiss The Skelton Key—or Munich or Syriana or any movie that might be grouped under the heading of “mainstream popular entertainment”—simply because it isn’t as complex in its arguments or as subtle in its art-making as some other movie that probably won’t even reach cinemas in most cities across the country is to risk compromising one’s own relevancy as a critic. To put it another way, while I’m more than sympathetic to Jonathan’s desire to read Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s book about early America before weighing in on The New World (I speak as one who read four different books about feudal Japan before writing my review of The Last Samurai a few years back), I think it’s also essential to keep in mind the fact that most audiences who see the film will come to it with very little, if any, historical background, and that to a certain extent the film even asks to be read ahistorically. (As I said in my review last week, The New World is, like every movie Malick has made, an allegory about the despoiling of Eden, and while you can take it literally as a study of America in her infancy, it’s every bit as much about the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, and all those other moments at which we lost our supposed innocence.)

With Munich, the situation is more complicated. First, unlike Jonathan, I think it works brilliantly as a thriller: I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, and I felt excited by the leanness and efficiency of Spielberg’s filmmaking while being repulsed by the brutality of the violence. Which is pretty much exactly how I felt for the duration of War of the Worlds (a movie that in every way feels like a warm-up to Munich), about which I wrote: “Those of us accustomed to consuming cinematic death and destruction as though it were popcorn may find ourselves choking on some not-so-small sociopolitical bones.” I could easily have written the same words about Munich or, for that matter, two of my other favorite movies of 2005—Michael Haneke’s Caché and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.All, regardless of their “official” subjects, are fundamentally portraits of how the sins of the past (whether committed by individuals, governments, or both) inevitably cycle back to the present, and sharp-edged critiques of our bottomless capacity for celluloid bloodshed. What those films also share is that they can be read strictly as genre entertainments—War of the Worlds as a slam-bang alien invasion drama, Munichand A History of Violence as vigilante movies, and Caché as a Hitchcockian paranoia thriller. It’s why some people come out of Caché arguing over the identity of the mysterious voyeur whose videotaped missives haunt the protagonists for the duration of the film, when the very point of the movie is that his (or her) identity is beside the point. And it’s why the studio that released A History of Violence asked critics not to reveal the plot “twist” concerning the Viggo Mortensen character in their reviews, when it seemed perfectly clear to me that, like almost every other Cronenberg movie, this one was a study in transference and transmutation in which it hardly mattered whether Mortensen’s Midwestern restaurateur was or wasn’t a fearsome Philadelphia gangster incognito. The moral of this story being that some people like their movies as plain and simple as the cuisine in an Indiana diner, while others prefer to savor the subtleties of a more adventurous menu, and movies like these manage to serve up both at once.

In the case of Munich, as many reviewers have pointed out, the final scene of the movie unfolds against the skyline of lower Manhattan, circa 1972, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center looming distinctly but unobtrusively in the distance. They don’t dominate the frame and Spielberg does nothing to draw our attention to them, and in talking about Munich, I’ve found that many people—including some very smart people—don’t notice the towers at all. Of those who do notice, some are deeply moved (as I was), while others see the scene as a horribly didactic move that confirms for them all of Spielberg’s weaknesses as a director. Opinions about the movie as a whole seem to split along similar lines, which reminds me of something wonderful the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami once said to me in an interview: “I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes 100 movies in their minds. Every audience member can make his own movie. This is what I strive for. Sometimes, when my audiences tell me about the mental movies they have made based on my movie, I am surprised, and I become the audience for their movies as they are describing them to me.” I think that’s true of what the majority of the most interesting filmmakers hope to achieve with their work, whether or not they could articulate it as eloquently as Kiarostami.

I haven’t seen Route 181 yet, though I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about it and have no reason to doubt Jonathan when he says that he learned a lot by watching it. I’ll even pause to recommend another very strong documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Danae Elon’s Another Road Home, which played briefly in theaters earlier this year. But while it may seem an obvious point, I hasten to add that, at least in my informal polling, most moviegoers don’t go to the movies to be taught, but rather entertained, which is why a documentary is considered a success if it gets seen by a few hundred thousand viewers, whereas Munich will be seen by millions whether it is ultimately considered a success or not. All of which is to say that, while I don’t deny that there are subtler, better informed, and/or more compelling discussions out there about Israel and terrorism than the one offered by Munich, Munich’s is the one that is going to impact the largest audience and, whether we like it or not, that does give the film a kind of “relevance” that Route 181 will never amass. But that’s not why I admire the film. For all the merit of a picture like Another Road Home—which presents one of the most balanced, clear-eyed assessments of the conflict in the Middle East I’ve yet seen in a film—it didn’t fill me with anything near the visceral charge I got from watching Munich, by which I mean a kind of passionate involvement not just with the story of the movie, but with its aesthetics. As a suspense piece, Munichhas the crackerjack tension of one of Spielberg’s earliest pictures—the TV movie Duel, in which Dennis Weaver’s mild-mannered businessman is tailgated for miles of barren highway by a maniacal trucker. But it also possesses the emotional maturity that Spielberg reached for, but fell short of, in some of his prior “serious” movies (like Empire of the Sun and the abominable The Color Purple). It offers no easy answers and skirts, at every opportunity, the possibility of a tidy happy ending. And while, like Tony with Syriana, I’ve heard many people say that they didn’t learn anything from Munichthat they didn’t already know, I personally found its history of violence, from Black September to Sept. 11, almost Shakespearean in its elemental power. Yes, Spielberg doesn’t have a solution to the Middle East peace crisis, but I’d wager that Munichwould be a hell of a lot less provocative if he did. The great thing about a movie like Munichis that it doesn’t dole out ready-made answers but rather sparks discussions around an infinitely complex issue that may, perchance, yield some better understanding sometime in the future. Discussions, I might propose, not unlike the one we are having here at this very moment.