The Year in Movies

McNamara vs. Morris
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 9 2004 8:06 AM

The Year in Movies

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Dear Friends,

Sorry I wasn't able to post today (it's now Thursday night, though I guess this won't be up on Slate until Friday). I spent the day bouncing from one thing to another. First to a screening at Film Forum, where I ran into Jim, freshly sprung from jury duty, and then later to the other end of Houston Street to revisit Fog of War, which I hadn't seen since Cannes.

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The second viewing left me even more befogged than the first, and it struck me that a lot of last year's non- and quasi nonfictional films were concerned not so much with clarifying reality as with reminding us of how muddy, ambiguous, and opaque the real world can be. I suspect that Errol Morris started out with a certain set of assumptions about what kind of a man Robert McNamara was and found those assumptions parried, undermined, and complicated in the course of their long interviews. The movie is full of dissonance, both cognitive and aural: McNamara's flat, pugnacious voice rubs against Philip Glass' melodramatic score like gravel on satin, and you swerve from marveling at the man's intelligence and candor to recoiling from his arrogance and self-deceit. It's strange (McNamara's middle name, by the way) to feel that you're simultaneously learning an enormous amount about history and politics and having your ability to form clear judgments about what you're learning clouded and compromised.

It's also a little frustrating, because it seemed to me that Morris, figuring he could entrap McNamara within his own web of duplicity and hubris, underestimated his subject, and what you witness is essentially the subject and the filmmaker fighting to a draw. But at the same time, the ambiguities in Fog—McNamara's intractability, his ability to be absolutely direct and completely evasive in the same breath, his stubborn particularity—are what make the movie so valuable. Which links it, in my mind—to connect this long tangent to issues the four of you have raised recently—with movies like Bus 174, Capturing the Friedmans, American Splendor, and Elephant.

What all of these movies do, or at least attempt to do, is illuminate a knotty human problem (a bus hijacking, the collapse of a family, a school shooting, the condition of being Harvey Pekar) without simplifying it or resorting to facile explanations. Bus 174 and Friedmans each unpack a traumatic, tabloid-ready event (using a combination of retrieved footage and postmortem interviews and implicating the viewer in the tawdry spectacle) and turn it into a social tragedy. You leave both movies knowing a lot—about street kids in Brazil and a middle-class Long Island family—but without a clear, comforting sense of why these terrible things happened. The problem I have with Elephant (which, of course, differs from the other two in being the fictional evocation of an actual event), is that it pushes this refusal of analysis too far—or, rather, seems to give up too soon. Van Sant does not so much discover that an event like Columbine is inexplicable (which may ultimately be true) as proceed from the assumption that it is.

I think that makes Elephant a scarily anti-intellectual film, as well as a beautiful one—"aestheticizing like crazy," as you said, David. And in that I think it's oddly similar to Kill Bill, though it plays the lurking expectation of violence for maximum shock and dread, rather than turning the display of violence into affectless kinesis. Am I making any sense? Did I just say "affectless kinesis"? I meant "ass-kicking balls-out tedium." Sorry. It's been that kind of day.

David, I'm glad you like Peter Pan as much as I did—if not more. I don't have much to add to your wonderful analysis, but I will say, Sarah (not to get all empirical or anything), that I saw it in the company of two 7-year-olds and a 5-year-old, all of whom loved it. My own children watched it with an awed, slightly scared, edge-of-the-seat attention that I've witnessed in them only rarely, at Finding Nemo and also at The Wizard of Oz. The movie's sensuality and its bittersweet theme—that to decide to grow up is to choose (or at least to accept) the fact of mortality—go over their heads a little, but I think that's part of what makes the experience of the movie so magical and intense. That sense of subtext—of big stuff going on at the far edge of your understanding, in the big words whose meanings you have to guess and the loaded statements whose significance you struggle to intuit—is what makes reading (and moviegoing) such a deep and uncanny pleasure when you're young. I was glad both to rediscover that and to witness it happening in a new generation.

I'll sign off now and try to come back tomorrow (that is, later today) with some thoughts on women and comedy, subjects dear to my heart about which I find it hard either to generalize or to argue.

Yours,
Tony

P.S. to Jim: You'll be relieved to hear that the ushers at Film Forum found my lost glove.

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