The Year in Movies

The Politics of Movie Reviewing
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2004 11:46 AM

The Year in Movies

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Comrades,

To Jim's carnival of animals I would add Bruno, the soulful, stalwart doggie from Triplets of Belleville, who dreams, in black and white, of slow-moving trains and who obligingly serves as a spare tire when Mme. Souza needs him to. Though come to think of it, Triplets is yet another child-in-danger movie. Hmmm.

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But I want to address Manohla's question about the apparent reluctance of critics to discuss the political implications of movies we write about. In October, when I pointed out, in my review of In the Cut, Jane Campion's habit of using nonwhite men as signifiers of sexual danger and/or exotic eroticism, I received an e-mail chastising me for holding Campion and her characters to too-stringent standards of political correctness—an e-mail I bring up now only because it came from my pal Manohla Dargis. (As for that movie, I'll say only that there's a fine line between aspiring to the condition of art and pretending to it, and that if we're comparing Australian-based directors I'd like briefly to wave the flag for Christina Jeffs, whose fierce and literate Sylvia was too hastily dismissed and too quickly forgotten.) I've also recently received the widely circulated e-mail calling for a boycott of Cold Mountain on the grounds that it almost entirely erases black people from the history of the Civil War. (There are, if I recall, those silent runaways, the girl Philip Seymour Hoffman is about to throw in the river, and Nicole Kidman appearing on the porch with a tray of refreshments "for the Negroes.")

I do think that there is a political dimension to a great many movies—that is surely part of their importance as sociological phenomena—but I also think that trying to establish it too early or evaluate it too dogmatically makes for dull and predictable criticism. More often than not, in any case, the political implications of movies are either muddled (The Missing, The Last Samurai) or opaque, and their connection to the world of actual politics becomes clear only in retrospect (as Jim's new book about the '60s rather breathtakingly shows). This was a year of war and also of war movies, but most of the attempts I have read to connect those two indisputable facts have seemed pretty facile. Is Cold Mountain, an account of war-weariness, senseless cruelty, and home-front hard times, therefore an antiwar picture, and, if so, is it against any particular war or just war in general? Does Return of the King, with its martial sweep and its clearly demarcated lines of good and evil—racial lines, by the way, albeit drawn between imaginary races—stand as a mirror for our own times? Is The Last Samurai, as David and others have suggested, an inadvertent apologia for the Taliban, or for Japanese imperialism, or for the American Confederacy? Is The Missing more offensive for the way it demonizes its Indian villain, for the way it treats other Indians as vehicles of spirituality and higher wisdom, or just for how bad it sucks?

Such questions are always more interesting to pose than to answer. Of course, our own political beliefs inevitably inform how we think about movies, as much as our age, taste, gender, sexuality, or anything else—but also with as much complexity, incoherence, and unpredictability. Trying, as some opinion journalists do, to divide movies along ideological lines is as silly as trying to divide them along gender lines. I have to confess that I find my own political opinions alternately incomprehensible and boring, and that, perhaps like Jim with his secularist's devotion to the spirituality of Bresson and the Dardennes, I take a perverse but completely genuine delight in works of art that brush against the grain of my own beliefs. (I also like to be a bit coy about just what those beliefs are, as a way of dispelling my boredom and camouflaging my muddle-headedness.) I thought that Master and Commander, with its blunt embrace of military virtues, its indifference to contemporary egalitarian mores, and its celebration of hierarchy and ancient custom, was perhaps the most thoroughly conservative movie I'd ever seen, and conservative in a way that has more to do with 19th-century Britain than with the 21st-century United States. It also took the top slot in my 10-best list. Mystic River, for its part, expresses a pessimism about human nature that I can't bring myself to accept, but it was sufficiently rigorous and unsparing in advancing its worldview that it acquired a tragic force missing from other movies aiming at similar gravity and grandeur.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Angels in America, which seemed devoted above all to affirming what it assumed its audience already believed. I say this all with a heavy heart, since I saw Tony Kushner's play on Broadway three times in its entirety and count it as one of the transforming artistic experiences of my life. But that's just the problem. When I tried to teach the play, about 10 years ago, in a freshman literature class, my students responded to the characters much more than to the themes. (And the characters, so vividly impersonated by, especially, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep, and Mary Louise Parker, retain their vitality even when the intellectual machinery they are embedded in starts to creak.) What's the play about, I remember asking one day, and the response was that it was about how things were "back in the '80s" when everyone was greedy and homophobic. That the play seemed, to students a scant decade younger than I was, already dated is testimony both to its power and to its limitations. It did contribute, to the extent that any elite cultural product can, to changing the world. Prior's speech at the end—the promise that "we will be citizens"—has the ring of cant now precisely because the social arrangements it envisions have come closer to being realized than anyone at the time could have predicted.

But the play's political effectiveness is precisely what has dated it, so that watching the Mike Nichols production on HBO was a little like watching Gentleman's Agreement or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. You felt comforted, rather than challenged. And, as Dale Peck argued in Slate, the grand theatrical gestures that gave Angels such unexpected sublimity on stage didn't quite work on screen; nor did the rhythm of the prose, with its live-theater/sitcom beats. But the HBO version also exposed some intrinsic weaknesses in Kushner's design. The climactic gesture is Prior's refusal of revelation, which means that the play's grand cosmological apparatus is a straw man, built to be demolished so that we can learn to muddle through in the secular world, without the help of angels and grand theories of history.

The thing is, who's arguing? I was quite content to muddle through in the secular world beforehand, and I suspect that a similar view of things is pretty close to universally shared among Kushner's presumed audience, who can also congratulate themselves for having had the good taste to hate Ronald Reagan. Kushner is a brilliant anatomist of the self-delusions of the left—the exchanges between Belize and Louis remain the richest, squirmiest parts of the script—but he is in the end unable to overcome the tired habit of demonizing the right. Republicans in his play receive scorn and, sometimes, pity, but they are systematically denied sympathy. In Kushner's utopia, they will not be citizens. This is, above all, an artistic failure, and it undermines the play's otherwise clear-eyed view of recent history by essentially mystifying modern American conservatism, which is something more than a conspiracy of bad people. Isn't it?

Barbarian Invasions, it seems to me, is in the end less sentimental, less self-congratulatory, less complacent—or, if you prefer, more dialectical—in its analysis of recent North American history. This is a movie that attempts—within the same conventions of accessible, upper-middlebrow conversational comedy that Kushner is working in—to search the face of global capitalism for human features, and to ask whether, in a world dominated by market values, filial loyalty, fellow-feeling, and decency are still possible. Amazingly enough, it turns out that they are.

In solidarity,
Tony

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