Sui Generis, Generously
Critic vs. critic.
Dec. 28 2001 2:23 PM

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Dear Jonathan and Roger (and Tony and Sarah, who I hope are enjoying themselves somewhere warm and resting up for next week's continuation of "The Movie Club"):

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Jonathan asked what connects our favorite movies this year. It's pretty basic. They're all exciting and fun to watch, and they all invent an original cinematic language that is somehow just right for the story they wish to tell. Take Waking Life. Yes, I was impatient with much of its verbiage (must be my pro-drama bias), which is why I don't regard it as one of the year's very best movies. But the filmmaker's vision of a universe in flux is brought to transcendent life by that animation, which leaves no boundaries fixed, no borders unwiggled: The very molecules of the movie are alive and continually rearranging themselves. That makes Waking Life, however imperfect, an inspiring mascot for the year in film.

Mulholland Drive, we now realize, is the dying (or maybe post-mortem) dream of a young suicide; its weave of sunny optimism and horror (and many other things) is inexplicable yet somehow right. It's the dream of a despondent, unsuccessful actress and unrequited lover named Diana Selwyn; it's also the dream of David Lynch, the director most fearlessly adept at piping his dreams directly onto the screen.

God, I love GosfordPark! When I wrote about last year's Dr. T and the Women (a film I liked very much), I thought of Manny Farber's essay on the "dispersed frame" directors of the '60s and '70s, striving for a "non-solidity" with a "flux-like" space that seeks to capture "the freshness and energy of a real world within the movie's frame." Altman's last few films have focused on teeming ecosystems in which something is unjustly amiss, out of joint—and followed by a natural correction. Forces greater than any individual expose the machinations of Glenn Close's character in Cookie's Fortune and give Dr. T the ride of his life for his benign condescension toward women. In Gosford Park, with one of the most glorious acting ensembles ever assembled, Altman shows the way a higher sort of order is arrived at through the patterns of a busy, multi-tiered (upstairs/downstairs) collective—but here he keeps his cards more artfully up his sleeve, revealing his purpose only in the startling climax. Is there a director alive whose touch is at once so glancing and so focused? He is a Zen rascal.

The style of Ghost World is unlike any other, the perfect realization of Daniel Clowes' notes-from-underground angst. Terry Zwigoff's frames are deadpan but nonetheless packed with feeling—they show frustrated people trying to create fulfilling parts for themselves in a world that's like a nebulous stage set. (It's the same impulse, I believe, that Wes Anderson is trying to express in The Royal Tenenbaums, only without the relentlessly arch, showoffy compositions that keep the characters at arm's length.)

The language in In the Bedroom is established in its first few shots of lovers and leaves and the breeze. This is a movie about nature. I'm grateful to Roger for reminding me that Sissy Spacek's character is an integral part of that motif. (When she conducts her Eastern European choral chants against a background of rocks and water, her face like a Greek mask of anger, I could almost hear Camille Paglia whispering: "chthonian goddess ... pagan cult of antiquity.") I will continue to wrestle with the meaning of its tragic outcome, but I am more convinced than ever that it is an important movie to see in a time when vengeance is on everyone's mind.

Roger, you raise a lot of complicated issues about the reporter versus the artist. I am awed by Ridley Scott's formal achievements (color palette, composition, staging) in Black Hawk Down, and I agree that his focus on one particular mission is purposeful. (That is also the focus of Mark Bowden's great book.) But when hundreds of malevolent black people are killed on screen to the audience's whoops and cheers, a moviemaker is obligated to provide some larger context, both political and human. And it wouldn't matter if every frame in Scott's film were literally true—it's still the job of an artist to provide some context. The subjective experience isn't enough. What the picture does offer is brief, simpleminded, and crudely manipulative, and nothing Scott shows of the carnage (apart from injuries to Americans) suggests that he has any moral doubts about war. (And you don't have to be a peacenik to have doubts about war.) His amorality isn't surprising: The deaths in Gladiator are just spectacle to him, and a comparison of Scott's camera in Hannibal to Jonathan Demme's in Silence of the Lambs suggests that the latter is concerned with human beings while the former regards his characters as receptacles of blood, bone, and intestine to be lighted in pleasing and colorful ways.

My enormous respect for you is the only thing keeping me in my seat when I talk about Larry Clark: When I read what you wrote, I want to go out and commit crimes. You say, "To read stories like this in the papers is to know that Clark is reporting accurately," but as in Black Hawk Down, I'm not especially interested in tabloid journalism—i.e., facts without any deeper insight. The movie Bully, like the book on which it's based, is a procession of moron episodes climaxing in a prolonged sequence of splatter. I cannot believe you find those kids convincing as anything but exploited young actors in the platonic equivalent of a snuff movie, the director skewering them for their stupidity while zooming in on their crotches. I almost lost it during one actress's monologue about her father killing her mother with a claw hammer and having sex with the body for three days. It's right out of the book—it's literally true—but Clark presents it as a lurid sociological-horror striptease. Yuck.

Speaking of yuck, we come to Takashi Miike's Audition. But Jonathan, I didn't hate any of the characters—that's what I found so remarkable about the movie. Here is a scenario in which a lonely widower hatches with his friend a scheme to meet girls by auditioning them for a nonexistent film. He is a genuinely nice man who longs to be a loving husband once again but makes the mistake of misusing his power, and he winds up invoking an almost mythical demon: a young woman who acts out the tension between her culturally mandated subservience and the rage of the exploited. What happens to the protagonist is not just—but then, neither is what happens to many of us in our worst nightmares. I like psychosexual horror pictures and was pleased to find one that was at once so grisly and cathartic.

As for A.I., I am grateful to you for your review and am eager for the equally misguided A.O. Scott to weigh in. (My brilliant, reliably cynical pal Sam Hamm is also a passionate admirer, so there's something here, no doubt.) But people's reactions to Bresson's donkey were more interesting than to the robot. I didn't understand why the Bill Maher-look-alike father never thought about bonding with David himself and why the "real" son had to behave like such a stereotypical schoolyard bully. I didn't understand the mother's hapless passivity (the part didn't seem filled-in). I found the Flesh Fair sequence grossly conceived and executed, full of primitive cliffhangers; the Robin Williams hologram noxious; and the most interesting relationship, between David and Jude Law's gigolo, largely unscripted. Best were the scenes with dreamy but narcissistic child-father, who is so unimportant in the scheme of things that he says the equivalent of "I'll be right back" and never shows up again. Machines do deliver David—into the comforting bosom of fantasy, into a kind of bliss that was impossible in the real world. But I found David a reductio ad absurdum. He simply had no options. I do.

Opting out for now,
David (Edelstein)

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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