The Movie Club

When the Lights Go Down

David: Thanks for the update on the reader feedback. To those who are tired of hearing about the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Munich, I’m sympathetic—the former hasn’t even reached most parts of the country yet (despite that avalanche of “Will it play in Peoria?” editorials assigned by bandwagon-minded entertainment editors) and the latter only just opened commercially five days ago. However, to those readers who have written in the Fray (and the many others who write to me throughout the year) suggesting that film critics go out of their way to praise independent and foreign films that “nobody has ever heard of” instead of the Hollywood studio fare that gets released on thousands of screens nationwide, may I say that you are living in a fool’s paradise. (Maybe someone in the Fray can answer this question: Why are people so much quicker to get angry at a critic for recommending a movie they’ve never heard of than at the movie theaters that have made that film unavailable to them?)

This sort of thinking may be insurmountable—even in my daily interactions with movie publicists, who really ought to know better, I find that many still operate under the moth-eaten assumption that “alternative” papers like the L.A. Weekly give de facto bad reviews to Hollywood movies while offering a free pass to any movie with a low budget, gay cowboys, or one of the Tilly sisters. Well, while I obviously can’t speak for everyone out there, I can say that, just in the past year in the L.A. Weekly, we’ve published favorable reviews of Revenge of the Sith, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and, yes David, even Memoirs of a Geisha (though some have accused me of damning with faint praise on that last one); long negative editorials on those pseudo-indie darlings Hustle & Flow and Brokeback Mountain; and interviews with Steve Carell, George Clooney, Dakota Fanning, and Sydney Pollack—collectively, I would propose, not exactly the stereotypical lineup of a leftie-pinko rag. On the other hand, we’ve sung the praises of Kings and Queen, Tropical Malady, and The World; joined the campaign to rescue the sadly orphaned Carroll Ballard film, Duma; and spotlighted rising talents like Miranda July, Amy Adams, Eamonn Walker and the co-directors of the superb documentary Occupation Dreamland. Best of all, I’m lucky enough to work for editors who not only allowed my to write a cover story on the subject of undistributed films, but then suggested that I make such reporting a recurring feature in our pages. Now, if all of the above still suggests to someone out there in cyberspace (or merely in movie publicity) an adherence to some party-line attitude about film reviewing, I would gladly welcome his comments.

On a related note, nothing ticks me off more than when someone asks me if I ever go to see a movie “just for fun” or starts telling me what he or she thought of a particular movie only to interject, “but of course, I’m not a professional critic.” Well, I’ve got news for everybody: Neither am I. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, none of us in this happy little clique went to Film Critic Academy. As James Agee so memorably wrote in his debut column for the Nation, “It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics.” But it was also Agee, I believe, who said something about how readers couldn’t reasonably expect someone who sees as many movies as a critic (even an amateur one) does to just sit back and let the umpteenth derivative of some hackneyed Hollywood formula to roll over him without objection. And remember, this was in the early 1940s, when movies were not quite a half-century old and the Hollywood “dream factory” hadn’t yet replaced all its laborers with automaton drones. What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I readily understand why some folks get suspicious when a critic says, “You really ought to check out Kings and Queen, ortake the whole family to see Duma, even though you won’t hear boo about them on Entertainment Tonight or find their billboards and bench ads littering your city streets.” It’s easy to blame that reluctance on the indefatigable Hollywood publicity machine—and make no mistake, it is a nimble adversary—but consumers are also creatures of habit who tend to opt for the known commodity over the renegade upstart. Ticket prices are more expensive than ever, so why risk it? And besides, maybe you really do have to see a few hundred movies a year to fully appreciate the radical shifts in tone, blindsiding subversions of expectation, and the mordant humor—yes, it is supposed to be funny—of A History of Violence.

That’s not a reason, of course, for critics to stop scouting out new cinematic horizons or for moviegoers to stay dutifully home on the range awaiting their return. But if film critics do serve a “social function” (to get back to an issue Jonathan raised in his first post), which I’m pretty sure we all believe they do, it’s to not only raise awareness for smaller films, but to engage honestly, intelligently, and passionately with every film that they write about, regardless of whether it hails from the margins of the moviegoing spectrum or from right smack dab in the mainstream. Hollywood, after all, does get things right every once in a while, just as Indiewood reliably unleashes at least one or two new cases of the emperor’s new clothes with each passing season. To put it in the most pragmatic of terms, a horse must be led to water, and if the “average” moviegoer is ever to become infected with the same tropical malady that has made Jonathan and I fall head over heels for a Thai movie about a gay man in love with a shape-shifting tiger, perhaps one must start by illustrating why The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Just Friends are exemplary lowbrow studio comedies but Wedding Crashers is a turgid one; why Land of the Dead is a zombie masterpiece, but the Resident Evil movies and even the popular Dawn of the Dead remake are self-cannibalizing duds; and why Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue and Chris Fisher’s forthcoming Dirty are great movies about race relations in Los Angeles, while Crash is an abomination.

David opened the floor to suggestions of the year’s worst movies, and Crash is certainly a good starting point for me. Admittedly, Paul Haggis’ directorial debut wasn’t one of those so-bad-it’s-mesmerizing debacles, like Town & Country or The Bonfire of the Vanities, that Tony so lovingly remembered a few weeks back in the Times—if it had been, it wouldn’t have made my blood boil nearly as much. No, Crash is an Important Film About the Times in Which We Live, which is another way of saying that it’s one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that rolls around every once in a while to remind us of how white people suffer too, how nobody is without his prejudices, and how, when the going gets tough, even the white supremacist cop who gets his kicks from sexually harassing innocent black motorists is capable of rising to the occasion. How touching. Haggis is trafficking in much the same territory here as Michael Haneke is in Caché, only he lacks the guts to pull out his paring knife and fillet his bourgeois characters with the mercilessness they deserve. (Instead, when Sandra Bullock’s pampered Brentwood housewife accuses a Mexican-American locksmith of copying her keys for illicit purposes, Haggis doesn’t condemn her reprehensible behavior so much as he sympathizes with it.) People who say that Crash is an insightful portrait of life in Los Angeles clearly don’t live in the same town I do. Watching it, I wondered if Haggis hadn’t sat down with a copy of Thom Andersen’s brilliant essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself and deliberately written a script that reinforces every bogus assumption about life in the city—from the thesis that the only way people in L.A. connect with one another is by getting into car crashes to the depiction of the untold dangers of driving south of the 10 Freeway—that Andersen so skillfully shoots down. And in a year that brought many (and in some cases justified) accusations of racial insensitivity against movies from King Kong to Memoirs of a Geisha, it was Crash that gave us Larenz Tate and Ludacris as carjackers who view their actions as a form of civilized protest, and Terrence Howard as creepy embodiment of emasculated African-American yuppiedom. Not since Spanglish—which, alas, wasn’t that long ago—has a movie been so chock-a-block with risible minority caricatures or done such a handy job of sanctioning the very stereotypes it ostensibly debunks. Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, “A lot of my best friends are black.”

In an indirect way, that leads me to your earlier query, David, about the popularity of sadistic horror films. With regard to most of the ones you mention directly—particularly Wolf Creek and House of Wax—I think it’s pretty clear that their makers intended their intense violence and gore as some kind of a cheap turn on. But the banality of that goal could hardly be more transparent in a year when two films (Land of the Dead and Homecoming) showed how brilliantly horror can be used as a vessel for social commentary, while a whole slew of others (including War of the Worlds, Caché,and A History of Violence) served as a reset button to the numbing effects of too many grade-Z slasher movies on our sensitivity to cinematic bloodshed. Saw II strikes me as being a cut (pardon the pun) above the rest in that its torture-happy serial killer (known affectionately as Jigsaw and very well played by Tobin Bell) is motivated not by abject bloodlust, but rather by an ideological agenda: Dying of terminal cancer, he preys on victims whom he believes do not fully appreciate the value of their lives. In turn, he sets about immersing them in an extreme re-education course. That’s not so very far removed from the mindset of the extreme Islamic terrorists who strive to wake up the West to its decadent indulgences and, whatever else one might say, it makes the Saw pictures a hell of a lot more worthy of debate than all the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror sequels/remakes put together.

What the Saw films hint at, but haven’t really followed through on (at least not yet—fret not, Saw III will arrive this October), is the promise of a serial killer movie in which the killer is possibly more humane than his victims. Were they to give themselves over fully to that idea, they’d doubtless be more interesting— but also, I suspect, less profitable—for it. For if there’s one thing we like even more than an all-star ensemble drama that gives a warm pat on the back to the closet racist in all of us, it’s a horror show in which not for one moment do we risk identifying with the perpetrator of the horrors. In cinema, as on the evening news, we like our villains cut and dry and most definitely not humane. I’m not just talking exclusively about the genre, but also movies like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, which dared to posit that a child molester might also be a kind and caring father; or David Jacobson’s great Dahmer, in which the titular cannibal is depicted not as some extraterrestrial other, but as a flesh-and-blood human being with psychological problems and a troubled family history. When movies start venturing into these grey areas, they lose part of their potential audience—the same part, I suspect, who refuse to see Brokeback Mountain “on principle.”

On the subject of exhibition, I couldn’t agree with David more that those of us who review movies in major cities sit in a privileged position. That is, we see most films at advance screenings held in state-of-the-art private screening rooms or in some of the best multiplex theaters around and, as a result, the experience of seeing movies on big screens with a large audience hasn’t lost its special luster for me. Admittedly, the scary men with infrared goggles and the full-body metal detectors I had to pass through at the recent screenings of King Kong and Munich are minor distractions, but not nearly as much as the first-class assholes who can’t manage to sit through a two-hour movie without engaging in some sort of business with their mobile phones or PDAs. (I for one am strongly in favor of the recent proposals to install cell-phone-jamming devices in theater auditoriums. And to those who’ve complained that this would prevent the receipt of emergency calls, all I can say is: However did we manage in the time before cellular?)  But on those infrequent occasions when I do see a movie with a regular paying audience, I’m all too keenly aware of the drawbacks: Sub-par projection, even ruder audience members, and, as mentioned before, those high ticket prices. As I mention in this week’s L.A. Weekly, a recent press release from the American Film Institute cited the downturn in theatrical attendance as one of the “moments of significance” from the year in movies that was 2005, before going on to speak nostalgically of a time when “strangers came together in the dark and were awed by images of light and a story well told.” So it may be that, before long, that shared experience will have gone the way of vinyl records and Betamax; personally, I’ll miss it, but then again, I never quite got over the moment at which the curtains that once covered movie screens before the feature gave way to mind-numbing slideshows of advertisements and trivia games.

Still, in praising the pleasures of seeing movies in theaters, I don’t want to seem like I’m knocking DVDs, which have been a godsend, particularly where seeing older films is concerned. But as with people’s perceptions of what movies are and aren’t worth seeing in a theater, gratuitous misinformation abounds. For example, most video retailers—even in supposed cultural meccas like L.A.—have all but gutted their former videotape inventories, blindly operating under the assumption that every movie that was previously available on VHS is already available on DVD. In fact, there are thousands of titles currently stuck in limbo between the two mediums (just as there are thousands of titles available on DVD that were never on VHS in the first place). That’s what makes a place like Chicago’s legendary Facets Multi-Media more invaluable than ever. The original rental-by-mail innovators, decades before Netflix was a thought in its parents’ heads, Facets now makes both its entire VHS and DVD collections available under a Netflix-like membership agreement (i.e., a flat monthly fee and unlimited rentals). And trust me, they have everything, including (for sale) many of the import (aka “region coded”) DVDs that Jonathan writes about in every issue of the quarterly Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope. All-region/region-free DVD players, which can be bought for as little as $30 from retailers like Best Buy and, are yet another way in which the DVD revolution is helping to expand the reach of cinephilia beyond the world’s major cultural centers. You just wouldn’t know it from reading any of those big DVD buying guides published every so often by the likes of Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times (the latter of which only acknowledged the existence of region-free players—and then only in passing—after a barrage of reader letters on the subject following one such DVD supplement).

That’s enough underground information for one posting, I suppose. After all, you never know who’s watching. As for some things I’d like to weigh in on, but still haven’t managed to, I’ll provide a few links that the curious can pursue: My recent interviews with Andrew Bujalski and Woody Allen, in which I make my cases for the (considerable) merits of Funny Ha Ha and Match Point, respectively; and a couple of film festival reports, from Toronto and Pusan—two cities where I found that, despite so many signs to the contrary, film culture is alive and well, and people are indeed still awed together in the dark.

Yours in bad grammar and eternal pod personship,