The Movie Club

On Acting

Dear Friends,

I’m agog at the range and erudition of the three previous posts, which I don’t hope to match. I would happily spend the next week—the next six months—studying and annotating Jonathan’s list. Reading it reminded me of why I love your books, Jonathan— Essential Cinema: Of the Necessity of Film Canons is the one I’ve been reading most recently. It is possible, in the book as in that roster of 24 movies, with its witty juxtapositions and exemplary cosmopolitanism, to discover not just a universe or two of taste and sensibility but also portals that lead into politics, spirituality, and every conceivable realm of human experience. Which is what movies are uniquely and almost miraculously able to offer, but perhaps too rarely deliver.

So, thanks for reminding me of Sylvie Testud in Fear and Trembling and Jia Zhangke’s The World, both of which I think of, according to the arbitrary logic of my viewing calendar, as movies from 2004. They will repay viewing in any year. And I’m glad you liked Yes. I wish I’d liked Yes—I like Joan Allen enough to be sorry that neither of her two movies in 2005 (the other was The Upside of Anger) really worked for me. It’s revealing, though, to compare Sally Potter’s vain little doggerel to some of the European movies Scott mentioned, which try, in their various ways, to engage in the hard, painful work of learning something from recent history. Potter is so sure she’s got it all figured out that her characters have no room to move and no place to go except the earthly paradise of Castro’s Cuba, which is so much nicer than nasty old London.

I’d like to say something about the future (or imminent obsolescence) of exhibition, which I think is tied to Scott’s earlier complaint about the neglect of foreign and genuinely independent American art films, and also to my earlier suggestion that DVD and other technologies have, potentially and in fact, liberated cinephilia from the parochial confines of New York and a scattering of college towns. We are approaching an almost Borgesian situation in which a global, virtual cinematheque will be available at the spin of an iPod wheel or the click of a mouse. The softness of the domestic box office and the looming possibility of “day and date” home video and theatrical releases have been discussed mostly in terms of potential effects on the movie industry. A corollary question that has not been raised sufficiently is what effect the eclipse of theatrical exhibition and the proliferation of available titles for home consumption will have on film culture. I don’t see the signs as all bad, by any means. The vigor and seriousness of Internet film discussion—from which I learn a great deal, including about my own lapses in intelligence, taste, and dress (though I sometimes wish the lessons were delivered with more civility)—has helped to make this an exciting time to be a critic (by which I mean someone who cares enough about movies to argue about them, professionally or otherwise), as has the sheer volume and variety of excellent movies coming from every corner of the world. The accompanying worry, to which both Jonathan and Scott give voice, is that the appreciation of movies will become a marginal, specialized cultural activity. Cinema will become, in effect, another variety of attenuated high culture, to be taught in schools and confined to ever smaller and more exclusive coteries.

But actually, that’s not what I wanted to talk about here. I’d rather take David up on his suggestion that we talk about acting, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s heartbreaking and almost casually noble performance in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin is as good a place to start as any. Gordon-Levitt plays Neil, a young man growing up in Kansas in the 1980s whose love affair—it’s a sickening way to describe it, but there’s no other way—with his Little League coach shapes (and nearly destroys) both his life and that of another young man, played by Brady Corbet. Araki pushes what could be a grim, after-school-special exercise in moralism and pathology to a level of lush, mysterious melodrama worthy of Almodóvar, and at the center of it is Neil, an affectless gay hustler who, in spite of his self-destructiveness and his disregard for others’ feelings, is both lovable and essentially decent. He refuses to feel sorry for himself, and it is Gordon-Levitt’s shrugging manner and matter-of-fact delivery that make Neil, finally, a heroic, rather than a pathetic, figure.

Gordon-Levitt belongs to a new generation of actors who use diffidence and guardedness—the default stances, it seems, of many young people today—as ways of exploring registers of emotion that might be lost in the method-derived psychological explorations of their elders. Irony, indecision, and a wary refusal to signal the difference between the earnest and the coy—you can see these traits in Jake Gyllenhaal (especially in Jarhead), in Tobey Maguire, and in just about everyone in Me, You and Everyone We Know. But for me no movie pushed further in turning the scattered, fuzzed affect of modern twentysomethings into a viable aesthetic than Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha. At first I thought Bujalski, who made this movie a few years ago and finally got it into a few theaters last spring, was the next Cassavetes. Lately I suspect that he could be the new Rohmer. I first watched the DVD of Funny Ha Ha late one night in my sister-in-law’s basement on my laptop screen—surely a paradigmatically alienated post-theatrical viewing experience if ever there was one—and I found myself going back to certain scenes (especially the last one) over and over again to catch the little gestures and sentence fragments by which the characters communicate (or fail to). Marnie, the drifting college graduate whose romantic malaise is at the center of the movie, is played by Kate Dollemeyer in one of the saddest, loveliest, and most completely unaffected performances I think I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have the enigmatic opacity you often get from nonprofessional actors so much as a quality of intelligent realness. You just feel like you know her, which means, since her level of self-consciousness exceeds her self-awareness, that she’s at times completely baffling. Which makes you—which made me, in a way I don’t usually feel about characters in movies—really like her.

Bujalski is currently selling his second movie, Mutual Appreciation, from his Web site. I think both Scott and David have seen it. I think I’ll order a copy tonight.

And talk to you all later.