The Year in Movies

Hands Off QT!
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 9 2004 8:53 AM

The Year in Movies

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Rewinding the discourse a bit, I must say I never thought that I'd be defending Kill Bill, a movie that I gave a mixed review at best and wasn't anywhere near my 10 best. I'd much rather defend Spider, or champion Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, or explain why Bus 174 is hundred times better than City of God. Anyway, to answer Sarah's question regarding Tarantino's victim status—which I admit probably sounds as absurd as calling Donald Trump a victim of the system (like a certain MS)—as well as Manohla's off-group assumption that I characterized QT as "the smartest filmmaker in Hollywood" in jest: I wasn't kidding, but I should have been more precise. My point is that there's no Hollywood filmmaker with better chops, no one with a more acute sense of how a soundtrack works, no one more in love with his actors, no one more clever—and sometimes brilliant—at reworking generic expectations in the service of his own particular, obsessive, arguably narrow cinephilia. (Not exactly synonymous with wanking. …)

To state the obvious, Tarantino loves movies. It's touching that he recently articulated the desire to retire from filmmaking and program a movie theater: His own private cinematheque. The great humanitarian Spielberg is often cited as a cinephile—his love, like Hitchcock's, is invested less in movies than their power. (Thousands of dollars for a Citizen Kane prop but not a penny for The Other Side of Midnight; Oscar speech praising Irving Thalberg for having the courage to mutilate Greed; I won't even mention the Six Million.) Tarantino, however obnoxious, is closer to Scorsese; he's a purist, even a utopian. He's also a specific kind of filmmaker. His movies may thrive on one-liners and hilarious, disturbing, amoral bits of business, but, if they succeed, it's because they are essentially architectural—based on sturdy, intricately worked-out structures.

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It's not the script that's missing from Kill Bill, Sarah, it's the edifice. As a sentimental auteurist, I blame the producer or, if you prefer, the system for trivializing the movie. That Tarantino was compelled to truncate his original, no-doubt grandiose conception—and worse, perhaps that he was being a canny realist to do so—is what makes him a victim. The same thing happened to Scorsese with Gangs of New York—a tragic failure that in ultimate cine-utopia would have been as long as La Commune. Applied Miramarxism? You be the judge. (For the voluptuous pathos of cinephilia, see Bill Morrison's wonderful Decasia, just released on DVD.)

Let Tarantino be Tarantino. In any case, he seems an unlikely candidate for reinvention a la Soderbergh or, even more remarkably, Gus Van Sant. Initially an innovator, then a hack, Van Sant wore the hair shirt of Psycho and exiled himself to the wilderness of Gerry, to return with Elephant. How bizarre that this "aestheticizing" gloss on Kubrick (and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his review, Bela Tarr) should also be cast as that most shameless of modes, the made-for-TV topical docu-drama. What could HBO have thought? Elephant is by no means a documentary, but neither is it simply a poem. Van Sant's use of non-actors, real high-school kids, is an audaciously cornball search for some sort of emotional truth—on film, yet. Elephant has its obvious lapses, but it is also the only movie in this carnage-haunted year that sets out to "document" ephemeral existence—which is what I tried to say a couple of days ago when I wrote that movie was concerned with heaven on Earth. Whether or not Elephant ultimately works, whether it successfully explains the inexplicable, whether it rises to the awful event that occasions it doesn't seem relevant to me—I'm far more taken with the crazy seriousness of the experiment.

Well, I'm not as marinated in the avant-garde as I once was, but I do want to cite a few movies that pushed the perimeter. The year 2002 brought a remarkable number of innovative DV-based movies: The Fast Runner, Russian Ark, The Lady and the Duke, Michael Snow's Corpus Collosum, Godard's In Praise of Love, ABC Africa. This year Kiarostami's Ten uses DV as a means to rethink movie acting and (non) direction, and each in his way, Guy Maddin and Jia Zhangke use DV to make possible their recent experiments in dance documentary and neo-neorealism, respectively. (Scratch neo-neorealist. Let's say it all together now: "Jia Zhangke, Jia Zhangke, Jia Zhangke.") DV is, as we know, pretty much now identical with doc, and Criswell predicts that if CGI is the future of commercial movies, DV is the future of everything else.

Warm cyber kisses and manly hobbit hugs to all but especially to our genial host. Thanks, David, for inviting me to the club.

Jim

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