2002: The Year in Movies

I Can't Finish This!
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2003 5:40 PM

2002: The Year in Movies

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That'll teach you to have dinner with the French, Tony.

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Sorry to say, but your last post—which began by noting your "Charlie-Kaufman-like experience" writing a magazine article—confirmed my deepest fears about Adaptation entering the lexicon. It's a contagion. As someone who tends to have writer's block when composing a grocery list, I am convinced that this is one syndrome best left unfetishized. There would be no end to the declarations of impotence. (I think the ultimate fantasy of a certain species of Jewish American Male is to have one's confession of impotence taken as irresistible confirmation of potency.) In every college freshman writing seminar in the country, some poor slob comes in with a downcast yet oddly self-satisfied story about not being able to write a story—whereupon the wise professor gives him or her (but it's always him) a "C" and says, "Very clever. Next time forget about yourself and do the fucking assignment." I fear that Charlie Kaufman and his inevitable Oscar might set back the cause of such teachers decades.

Having said all that, I have a confession of impotence: I'm madly sorting through an unwieldy but surprising and delightful bunch of e-mails in response to my request for feedback—some of them from good critics and columnists, others just from unusually smart people who follow this stuff for fun. (I define "unusually smart" as people who begin their correspondence, "I just love your writing," and "unusually dim" as those who begin, "The trouble with you critics …")

By the way, there's an appalling "the trouble with you critics" column in Variety today by the disgraced editor Peter Bart to the effect that we (as if there's any such thing as a "we," given how wildly critics' tastes vary) believe that "pop culture is yucky," are purposefully "obscurantist" because "there's no way to contradict a critic if his favorites were shown only at the Ouagadougou Film Festival," and—oh yes—are brain-damaged. I thought about hauling out my own 10-best lists of years past (featuring the South Park movie, Lord of the Rings, There's Something About Mary, etc.), but that's the kind of bait we shouldn't take: It's not our job to mirror the popular audience, only to reckon with it.

Bart's larger point is that 10-best lists and prizes are no indication of what kind of year it has been or of which movies have the best shot at winning Oscars—an opinion confirmed by "three studio ad execs." I'd argue that the Oscars are even less of an indication of what kind of year it has been. But the best response is more basic: The ideal movie critic is nothing more than a movie-lover lucky enough to be paid to think through his or her responses in print—which makes him or her more representative of the popular audience than the "ad execs" paid to manipulate it.

Stuart Sheffer wrote me that certain movies—he cited Punch-Drunk Love—got a free ride from critics, who in this case didn't see what the popular audience saw (and rejected). I must defend myself by quoting from my review, which I humbly think is as deft a piece of fence-straddling as you'll read all year:

What do you call Punch-Drunk Love? It's not a musical, because no one sings or dances. But it has the surreal delirium—and the MGM Technicolor hues, airy compositions, and stylized décor—of the great movie musicals. The alternately percussive and swooning music by the brilliant Jon Brion underlines each of its moods in turn—anger, longing, and ecstasy. At its heart the story is boy-meets-girl simple, but the movie is so full of lurches and discordances and flabbergasting non-sequiturs that at times it's like an avant-garde dance-theater piece with injections of Saturday Night Live. I imagine that many will find it arch, and, on a narrative level, as bumptiously withholding as its protagonist. I found it exquisite.

I have long argued that the greatest challenge for critics in an age in which everyone has an opinion is to learn to write reviews that are both virile and wishy-washy. (On the other hand, I wish I'd written a line as good as Sheffer's "Many misogynist, angry men I've known over the years like Sandler's character seem to think women should love them simply because they need them to.")

The other e-mails I've gotten in the last week have contained a startling range of opinions, many of them extremely nuanced. I think it's great that so many people care enough either to 1) thank me for being tough on Adaptation, 2) attempt to convince me that Adaptation is pretty good, or 3) take me to task for not being hard enough on Adaptation.

Firmly in Camp 2, The Hot Button's David Poland—himself an exotic new hybrid, an Internet industry poopster/critic (with a side trip into festival programming)—has devoted much analysis to Adaptation and sent me a good if "verbose" (his word) e-mail. Here's what applies to our conversation most directly: "The genius of the third act is that Kaufman manages to devolve into the stupid 'Hollywood' elements while also allowing the emotional elements to evolve." Bang. Well-said. I think that this represents Tony's take and is not too far from Sarah's. And if I bought it, I suppose I'd have bought the movie, too. But I wasn't moved by the merging of the two brothers or by Donald's dying declaration on the subject of love: The context seemed to me too ridiculous, the resolution of the brothers' antipathy specious. It's an interesting question whether Kaufman, in the throes of writing his Hollywood-debased climax, believed in the brothers' emotion and gave himself over to it. I'm willing to believe that he did. And I envy those of you who could go with him on that journey while I was rolling my eyes and quietly fuming.

I am grateful to Dennis Delrough for forwarding a fascinating piece from "Movie Poop Shoot" about Scorsese's "preferred" cut of Gangs of New York. I put that in quotation marks because the director has been a good boy and asserted that the film in circulation is his preferred cut and has added that when the movie comes out on DVD it will have no extra footage. At the opposite extreme is Peter Jackson, who had trouble with New Line on the length of the latest Rings installment and has said that he thinks the "real" Lord of the Rings will be the one that's ultimately presented on DVD.

This length issue is a fascinating one, and it's going to get more fascinating as more "director's cuts" are issued on DVD. We might ultimately have a two-tiered motion-picture archive, one that contains release cuts mandated by squirmy executives for squirmy audiences, another containing DVD cuts demanded by aficionados who want to pore over every second of footage.

I'm not sure how I feel about this—but I know I don't trust studio executives (or random test audiences) to make decisions about what's best for a movie.

I had a fascinating glimpse of this phenomenon when I spent some time at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge a decade ago. The artistic director was Robert Brustein, a highbrow theater critic who I'm sure, in his critical capacity for the New Republic, has endured many a production of Strindberg's A Dream Play without complaint. But here's what was striking: As a producer, Brustein was Harry Cohn reincarnate. During dress rehearsals, he'd look at his watch and noisily exhale, then deliver withering assessments of directors' work based chiefly on the overall length of the production. He was always telling directors to speed things up or to make fat cuts. He drove Peter Sellars crazy by trying to eliminate all the repeats in the Handel opera Orlando—repeats that weren't usually observed but which proved, when Sellars threw a fit and the show went up at its intended three-hour length, to be entrancing. The point is that there's something in these megalomaniacal producer types (even the brainy ones) that drives them to want to cut, cut, cut. It might be, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, a need to put his own stamp on the project. It might be a distrust of the audience. In some cases it might be the legitimate feeling that a studio head's role is to rein in an artist to help him or her reach the widest and best possible audience. But the executives are, in my experience, almost always wrong.

When I worked with the producer Christine Vachon on the book Shooting To Kill, she had some insights that I still prize on the subject of length and test screenings:

You have to read between the lines, because people don't tend to be articulate, especially right after they've seen the movie. A scene that they think isn't working might have nothing wrong with it: It might not be working because the section before it didn't work, and so they didn't know what was going on. In that case, the solution might not be to get rid of the scene but to tighten up what's around it.

Maybe Gangs of New York was a shapeless mess in its longer forms (some think it's still a shapeless mess). But I'm convinced that the climax would have been a lot less bewildering (and would have seemed less protracted) if it had been better set-up. The normally avuncular David Denby chewed my ear off yesterday about what a free ride he thought that I (and other critics) had given the picture—about how few people were pointing out that the Irish immigrants were the bad guys in the Draft Riots, not the heroes. I pointed out that Scorsese depicted said "heroes" lynching innocent African Americans. "That just proves how incoherent it is!" he said.

Back to the e-mails …

Among many other smart things, Jo Wood said that the sets of Gangs reminded her of the ramshackle town in Altman's Popeye. Ouch. Roger, she also said you should read Tolkien. Bet you haven't heard that before!

Pleas from Josh Kamensky, Francisco Guerrero, and Slate's own David Plotz on behalf of Monsoon Wedding. I liked it—and might have loved it if Mira Nair had gone the whole way and made it into a musical, a sort of Delhi Fiddler on the Roof. Guerrero also wrote eloquently on Last Orders, which is one of those casualties of the awards race. Technically, it's a 2001 movie because it was screened for critics on both coasts and opened for a week in December to qualify for Oscar nominations. (It received none—no one had seen it.) I frankly forgot about it—and I'd had the pleasure of presenting it and interviewing Fred Schepisi (a wonderful man, happily making movies again after a too-long absence) at a film society last year. Apologies for the omission.

Richard Kim made a good case for Birthday Girl, in which "Nicole Kidman deserves an award for her portrayal of a complex, scheming, vulnerable, bewitching Russian mail-order bride. As I recall, this movie was marketed (wrongly) as a slick Hollywood thriller (just look at the one-sheet), but it's more in tune with a smaller quirky independent sensibility like Demme's Something Wild."  Sounds great; I missed it. Anyone agree?

US magazine's smart Andrew Johnston (not that you'd necessarily know that from US magazine) asks if it's a cultural victory that the two highest-grossing movies of the year were directed by Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Because they were ultra-fringe 20-something goremeisters? I like that Jackson has kept his edge; I wish Raimi had brought a little more of it to Spider-Man.

Two very good young critics, Chris Kelly and Wes Morris, prove there's no unified front on About Schmidt and The Hours. Chris is harder on Schmidt than even Charley Taylor: "In the book, for instance, the relationship between Schmidt and the son-in-law is endlessly complex—Schmidt's anti-Semitism is bound up in the fact that he championed the son-in-law for partner at their law firm; and his ultimate distaste for the man comes down to very subtle things—such as the fact that, on airplane business trips, he doesn't read novels, but instead brings along his work and/or naps. In the movie, that fascinating relationship is reduced to, well, Dermot Mulroney has a mullet and is trashy, end of discussion, cue up the laugh track. Everything about the movie strikes me as similarly reductive and stupid." On the subject of The Hours, Wes asks if we can "bat this gnarly, self-aggrandizing, hateful shuttlecock across the net a few times." I thought we had. But let me backtrack (thanks to Mark Bringelson) and say that my objection to the score of The Hours has to do with its impact within the movie. I actually have a Kronos Quartet CD of Philip Glass music that I listen to a lot and am prepared to believe that on its own The Hours score isn't putrid.

I'll cite more e-mails (and much, much else) tomorrow; but I have to run to a screening of the Dardennes' The Son. Let me close (finally) with Harvey Cormier of the Philosophy Department at Stony Brook. He makes that case (I first heard this over the summer) that Minority Report is not, as I've asserted, 7/8 of a great movie but 8/8 of one: that the final 20 minutes represents the dream of Tom Cruise's character while in stasis. I pointed out that Ambrose Bierce in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Terry Gilliam in Brazil explicitly told us that their heroes were dreaming in the last line/minute of their respective works, and that I didn't think Spielberg—whatever his amazing gifts—was so subtle an artist that he would make this point obliquely. Cormier replied:

Couldn't our boy Spielberg—not at all a commercial hack, at least not all the time, and much influenced by Welles, Hitchcock, and the French New Wave—have given Minority Report a similarly ambiguous ending?  Not so depressing as to lower domestic box office receipts, but also not so sappy as to gloss over all the Philip K. Dickian anti-utopianism of the preceding hour and a half?  (Hate the word "dystopia."  It's "utopia," not "eutopia.") I mean, even this bit of cleverness wouldn't exactly be rocket science. He wouldn't have to be James Joyce to come up with this. All he'd have to be is a Hollywood director who knows what happens to the cleverest ideas of Hollywood directors if they don't cover those ideas with a little, shall we say, indirection.

I think this is a clever idea, and I still don't buy it. The clincher is that the Minority Report ending was supposed to be a crawl revealing that the year Pre-Crime was dismantled there were 600 murders in the district. The crawl was only removed at the last minute—a mistake, I think, since that information would have wrapped up this double-edged fantasy on a more bittersweet note. But it also suggests that no one involved with the movie was thinking along the brilliant lines above.

Time to take my elitist, obscurantist, brain-damaged self to another French movie.

Best,
David

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