The Movie Club

The Dubious Power of Movies

Dear David, Scott, and Jonathan,

Much as I welcome the invitation to disagree, even to the point of pugilism, it may not be so easy. For one thing, seven of the entries on David’s top-20 list are also on my top 10 (link is here). For another, the fact that this is David’s last Movie Club fills me with the kind of maudlin sentiment that I’d most likely laugh at if I saw it on screen. For five years this has been the high point of my working life. David, I just cain’t quit ya! You’re so much more than a fishing buddy.

For ease of reference, my top-10 titles are here:

The Best of Youth
The Aristocrats
Darwin’s Nightmare
The Holy Girl
Match Point
Wallace and Gromit
Mysterious Skin
The Squid and the Whale
Funny Ha Ha

I also had 20 runners-up (including Brokeback Mountain, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Nobody Knows, and King Kong) and probably could have added another dozen. It was that kind of year, and while I take your point, Jonathan, that not all the movies I saw and liked were available to everyone, I also take some comfort in the fact that the same technological changes that are giving studio executives (and some journalists) fits are making it easier for more people in more places to see more movies.

But I want to get right to the large topic that hovers between Jonathan’s and David’s posts—the question of how movies can (or should) engage pressing and controversial political and social concerns, and the related question of how these engagements should be judged. It seems to me that there is a disproportionate belief in the power of movies to influence opinion— Fahrenheit 9/11 was going to decide the election; Brokeback Mountain will roll back the homophobic tide; The Chronicles of Narnia will bring news of the Gospels to a new generation of children, etc.—and an accompanying eagerness to dismiss them when they fail, as of course they do, at least in the short, measurable term. This cycle of overvaluation and rejection reflects an unresolved cultural ambivalence, especially among educated people, about movies as an art form and (therefore) as a vehicle for thinking about matters other than art. The scale and power of film is such that it can never apparently be trusted or valued without some component of anxiety, the expression of which often takes the form of condescension. We spend a lot of time complaining about the triviality of movies, and then, when they turn serious, we complain about that. They get the historical facts wrong; they traffic in overwrought conspiracy theories or unconvincing happy endings; they manipulate rather than enlighten; they’re not as smart as we are.

All of these objections have been raised, in various quarters, to Munich, The Constant Gardener, Good Night, and Good Luck, Crash, and Syriana, among others. I’m not talking so much about accusations of ideological bias as about the easier and more basic knock against these movies for being, well, movies—for simplifying history, for preferring spectacle to nuance, for counterfeiting emotion, etc. Some of Joseph McCarthy’s targets really were communists. Steven Spielberg does not have a strategy for Middle East Peace. The CIA doesn’t really operate at the bidding of the oil industry. Big Pharma wouldn’t kill Rachel Weisz. Not everyone in Los Angeles is a racist. Couldn’t Jack and Ennis just get a place in San Francisco?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking that these movies be celebrated or forgiven their faults simply because of their high-minded intentions. I’m just worried that those intentions sometimes become a pretext for summarily denying that movies can play any constructive or galvanizing role in public discussion. Jonathan, you express concern about the knowingness that Syriana imparts to its audience, a kind of unearned insider status. But I’m more bothered by the reactions I’ve heard from some very smart people who assume they know better than the movie does about how the world works. As an empirical matter, perhaps they do; I sure don’t. But the plots of movies—of thrillers in particular—are always speculative and to a degree allegorical. The narrative in Syriana may turn out to be schematic, but that’s exactly what makes it interesting in a way that more open-ended, fact-based renditions of the same information rarely are. And while there may be too many speeches and overtly thematic arguments in Munich, they are necessary to bring the ethical puzzles that are the movie’s subject into dramatic focus.

I suspect we will be saying more about Munich, and I hope to come back to The New World at some point. I also hope there’s some time to venture beyond the year-end conversation pieces, and also a chance to move from big themes toward an appreciation of some outstanding performances. Much as I may continue to grapple with the lessons of Munich or Capote or The Aristocrats, I find myself even more haunted by Maya Sansa as the young terrorist in Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, by Rip Torn’s aging music producer in Ira Sachs’ 40 Shades of Blue, and by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale—my leading candidate for father of the year.

Until soon,