The Movie Club

On Socialized Criticism

You guys just keep thinking—that’s what you’re good at. Meanwhile: How about that Kong—fighting three T-Rexes while plunging into an abyss while holding Naomi Watts en déshabille? How about Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort bubbling out of the primordial slime, his features runny but his diction edged with Old Boy steel? Does anyone else adore John C. Reilly’s hilariously skeevy building manager in Dark Water—the best cautionary real-estate tale since Rosemary’s Baby? Does anyone else think Capote gave Truman a raw deal or look forward to a Jonathan Baumbach novel about a snot-nosed son who makes a movie blaming everything unpleasant in his personality on dear old dad?

One other down-to-earth issue I’d like to raise: Two of the most sadistic films I’ve ever seen came out this year, The Devil’s Rejects and Wolf Creek. They’re not negligible pieces of filmmaking. The butchery and the use of the Outback landscape in Wolf Creek continue to haunt me, and Rejects director Rob Zombie is already a primitive master of the cinema of cruelty. But as I watched these films (and lesser ones, like House of Wax and Saw II), I wondered: How am I supposed to feel? Disgusted? Turned on? Certainly violated—but to what end? Is this—and, for that matter, the acclaimed Irreversible—torture porn, or is there something transcendent I’m not getting?

Tony: Can we build on Brokeback Movie Club? It is downright suspect for two critics to be so in accord. So, let me distance myself by saying I’m stunned to see among your top 10 Woody Allen’s Match Point, which on a second viewing seemed even more gratingly superficial and out-of-joint than I’d thought the first time through—when I enjoyed the change of venue (to England) and was delighted to hear a Woody Allen protagonist (played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers) who did not sound remotely like Woody Allen. This time around it occurred to me that he did not sound like any human, full stop. I mean, period. See, writing with an English accent does wonders for one’s rhythms. Myers plays a former professional tennis player of modest means who totes around a copy of Crime and Punishment and bonds with the wealthy aristocrats over his love of opera … only in Woody World. For a change, Allen doesn’t indulge in showy long takes, and he even manages to generate some suspense. But a Crimes and Misdemeanors transplant in which a character says, in effect, “If I commit a crime and am not punished, this is proof of the nonexistence of God” makes me want to grab his chicken neck and throw him on a plane to Darfur with Nick Kristof and Bill O’Reilly. Why doesn’t Allen adapt a good novel or, better yet, direct someone else’s script? He has surprises left in him as a director, but not as a human being.

Thank you, Scott, for making the case for Munich as a brilliant genre movie. I’m sorry you were bored by it, Jonathan, because I found the tension nearly unbearable. And I don’t mean the suspense but the tension—between the taut, Mission: Impossible execution and the stirrings of doubt. I know you don’t get as turned on by these themes, but I’m more of a mainstream, commercial guy, endlessly fascinated by vigilantism and its discontents. Regular readers are no doubt bored by how often this comes up, but the ramifications of the cinema of extra-legal revenge hit me every day, from a fistfight I saw break out over a person who had 12 items in a 10-or-fewer shopping line (the affronted party went on a near rampage to see justice done) to the righteous avengers who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Torturers frequently regard themselves as vigilantes, acting outside the pansified Geneva Conventions—and they’re abetted by movies and TV shows like 24, which this year presented the unintentionally hilarious spectacle of a battery of ACLU types pouncing within 30 minutes on a super-secret government agency holding a terrorist with knowledge of the whereabouts of a nuclear missile en route to a major American city. (Somewhere around his third year of incarceration, Jose Padilla must have regretted he didn’t have Kiefer Sutherland zapping his privates—he’d have been out in an hour.) Good lefty pacifist that you are, Jonathan, you’ve always been immune to this. But I grew up with movies about throwing away the manual and doing worse to your enemies than they did to you (“the Chicago way,” as David Mamet called it memorably in The Untouchables). I welcome its corollary, “the Munich way.” I welcome anything that shifts the cultural dialogue away from “axes of evil.” Bill Maher has said he was the only person to lose his job over 9/11—he disputed the president’s characterization of the men who flew the airplanes into the towers as “cowards.” Well, damn it, they were murderous zealot scumbags, but they were not cowards, and all the macho posturing (and really, how can George W. Bush call anyone a coward?) makes it harder to see what’s really going on. And this isn’t just about Bush & Co. I don’t want movies to tell me that the butchers in Rwanda were “evil.” The word doesn’t help me understand how human beings with virtually the same DNA that I have can hack up women and children and feel righteous doing so.

I’m always getting e-mails that ridicule me for putting politics into movie reviews. And while I concede that my buckshot sometimes ends up in my foot, the note from a reader that read, “Your job as a critic is not to tell us what you think of Israel or vengeance, it’s to tell us what you think of Munich as a movie” is just fucking nuts. You don’t look at movies in a vacuum. And if you choose to ignore the social implications of a movie like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (hands-down the worst picture of the year), in which we’re told that the exorcism failed because the young woman was given anti-seizure medication that interfered with her soul’s ability to expel demons, you’re self-lobotomized.

Timeless works of art are still responses to specific social conditions. How odd to hear lines like those from Graham Greene, who found so many ways to explore his religious (or, you might say, “eternal”) preoccupations in extremely specific and illuminating social contexts. His journalistic eye kept his spiritual musings anchored: Did he undervalue it? Released when it was, the fine remake of The Quiet American seemed both timeless and devastatingly of the moment. (On the other hand, there is no way to defend Syriana except politically. As drama, it is almost arrogantly schematic, and the writer-director labors to make his ineptitude look like visionary storytelling.)

Let me take a breath. We have four pinkos in this Movie Club. Perhaps I ought to have invited Michael Medved to point out that Hollywood is foisting immorality on us; that homosexuality is unnatural and not, as in Brokeback Mountain, an elemental state, and that to propagandize for it imperils our species; and that seeing terrorists as anything other than pure evil is the way of Neville Chamberlain or the Rosenbergs.

Meanwhile: Thank you, Scott, for the cold slap of reality—and the shaming. I haven’t yet seen The Intruder, The Weeping Meadow, or, to my greater embarrassment, Good Morning, Night. (Bellochio’s China Is Near changed my life when I saw it 25-odd years ago, but he lost me after his impotent blowjob movie and lifeless Pirandello Henry IV.) Thanks also for invoking Michael Almereyda’s wonderful Happy Here and Now—not just a record of the New Orleans of Ernie K. Doe, but also a tender, subtle exploration of the same themes handled more showily (and to much greater acclaim) by Miranda July. (Happy Here and Now, a shaggy-dog mystery about a woman who disappears after a face-to-face encounter with a man she meets on the Internet, opened in New York to a dismissive review in the New York Times, bitter cold, and a subway strike.) Reading your e-mail, it occurred to me that you should put together a weekly Scott Foundas newsletter (“Lost and Foundas Films”?) to keep us all abreast. As long as you promise not to use “impact” as a verb.

I’ll file my list of the best performances later.