Truth-Telling in the Movies
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2002 5:12 PM

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Dear Friends,

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I'd like to respond to a few points you raised in your earlier posts, since I hadn't read them when I wrote MY earlier post. Apologies to you and our editors and readers for any confusion this may cause.

Roger: For me, thinking and feeling aren't really separate activities, at least when it comes to movies and books (or criticism, for that matter). So while Beautiful Mind did move me at times, my emotions were checked by an overwhelming sense of the film's intellectual dishonesty—which isn't the same as historical inaccuracy, by the way. Even had I not read Sylvia Nasar's book—even had John Nash been, like the Grinch or the mermaid in Splash, an entirely fictional character—Ron Howard's presentation of his story would have struck me as slick and sentimental. I think movies, like anything else, have a responsibility to try to tell the truth—not the same as sticking to the facts—and I don't think the film's account of marriage, mental illness, or the Cold War contained much in the way of truth. Let's imagine, to continue the argument, that Iris was about Iris McGinty, a retired schoolteacher married to a kindly plumber. It would still be a thin, anecdotal film, but more truthful—more rough-at-the-edges, more lived in—in its depiction of Alzheimer's and marital devotion than Mind is in its depiction of schizophrenia and marital devotion. The scandal of Iris, of course, is that it uses Murdoch's prestige as a writer as a lure and then leaves out that part of her life. Or at best sums it up in her own halting, two-word recollection: "I wrote." Indeed she did, pausing for half an hour after completing one novel before starting on another.

Now may be the time to bring up Ali and Piñero, the season's two other biopics, both of them better than either Iris or A Beautiful Mind. I went into Piñero knowing very little about the character beyond having read (but never seen) Short Eyes a long time ago. In the case of Ali, I, like just about everyone else who grew up in the wake of the sixties, had at least a passing familiarity with the story. In both cases, I felt that I was being plunged not only into a character's life, but into a time and a place and a set of historical circumstances that the filmmakers had striven not only to reproduce, but to think about. I left Piñero thinking about the process of literary creation (Leon Ichaso's film is as full of Piñero's work as Iris is empty of hers), about need and ambition, and a harsh, heroic era in the history of New York. I left Ali pondering the paradoxes of black celebrity and the varieties of male friendship. The movies launched these meditations not didactically, but cinematically; in both cases the filmmakers were trying to find a visual style that would match their subject in ways that were risky, not always successful, but exciting to contemplate.

Perhaps it's unfair of me to have wanted similar stimulation from Black Hawk Down. I'm not saying that Scott should have offered a coherent justification of American military policy in Somalia—why expect a movie director to do what the government could not?—but I think the film's refusal to go beyond the soldiers' contrasted understandings of their mission—"I'm here to make a difference" versus "It's all about the guy next to you"—is ultimately sentimental. I want more than that from a war movie right now. I got more from Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land, which suggests that the battlefield is not only where politics ends, but where it begins.

Sarah, your impatience with Enid has cut me to the quick. I'm not sure I've ever identified so completely with a character in a movie: At every moment I was inwardly crying out Me! Me! Me! What I love about Ghost World is that it is both sympathetic to Enid's view of the world and critical of it. Her contempt is a pre-emptive defense—not an uncommon one in adolescence—against the perceived indifference of the world. She mocks and derides everything around her out of uncertainty and fear. But she's also smart, and some of the phoniness she despises merits her hatred. The genius of the movie is that it allows her to grow up without forcing her to be socialized—to go to the prom with the nice popular guy even though her dad is Harry Dean Stanton. The "coming of age story" is such a Hollywood cliché that it's amazing to see a complex and credible process of maturation occurring onscreen. Enid learns that she has to live in the world, but she does not have to resign herself to it. At the end of the picture, she can still oppose its bland, well-meaning stupidities with the force of her intelligence, but she doesn't have to negate everything and everyone to affirm her own superiority. This is what makes her, not Seymour, the movie's model movie critic.

David, I'm out of space, but your description of Donnie Darko tempts me to add it to my top-10 list without even seeing it. Maybe tomorrow we can mix it up over Monster's Ball. In the meantime, did you watch that DVD of Spy Kids I loaned you?

Until tomorrow,
Tony

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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