The Year in Movies

To Neverland and Back
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 8 2004 12:51 PM

The Year in Movies

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Hoo boy, so much to cover, and later today I'm going to serve up some samples of the best e-mails I've received. (I've yet to visit the Fray, Jim, which this time of year traditionally consists of people posting variations on, "Blah blah blah. Boring windbags. Who cares about critics? Movies are about entertainment.") As the tendentiously brilliant (and brilliantly tendentious) Armond White put it recently, "You don't need that in your head."

Yesterday I staggered through the 15-degree evening to see Peter Pan, all by my lonesome in a Brooklyn theater heated to a toasty 45 degrees. (I wore a heavy coat, hood, and gloves throughout, being too embarrassed as the only person in an empty theater showing a kids' movie to complain.) When I wasn't busy curling and uncurling my toes to prevent frostbite, I was transfixed. The movie is marvelous. I'm struck by Sarah's "inappropriately sexualized" comment in an earlier post, because the pinch (and that's a pinch, not a dollop, Sarah) of Angela Carter/Company of Wolves-ish psychosexual spice is one of the things that struck me as so exciting. (The other is simply that, shot by shot, P.J. Hogan's direction delighted me. Some of it is in a league with Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess.) Wendy is on the brink of the "change," and that's precisely the point at which kids look longingly forward and backward (the latter, perhaps, less consciously, in fantasy). The cocky Peter, here a laughing, feral child, is potentially her first lover yet someone whose special powers are connected to the fact that he can't or won't be.

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I don't mean to get all Psych 101 here. But Peter Pan reminded me of some modern, revisionist A Midsummer Night's Dreams by Peters Brook and Hall and Alvin Epstein that aggressively excised the Mendelsohn influence and made the fairy-forest world mysterious and frightening—a manifestation of what Camille Paglia ritually refers to as "cthonian nature." There's even a pinch (that's a pinch) of Lord of the Flies. Lest I make this sound too grown-up, I'm talking about undertones here. The colors and compositions at times recall Disney; and while Capt. Hook begins as a rather Byronic, hypermasculine character—in contrast to the rather fruity Cyril Ritchard (my first Hook, in the musical)—he quickly reveals himself to be as much Peter's childish playmate as his deadly nemesis.

I dunno, guys: Throw in that scrumptious Wendy and only slightly less of Ludovine Seignier than in Swimming Pool and what's not to love?

Random notes:

1) Have you seen the new Mystic River commercial with Eastwood on-camera saying, "It's not about special effects"? Cute. Is this the first political attack ad in an Oscar commercial? Any suggestions for an LOTR counterattack?

2) On comedy: Two of my favorite movies this year were broad slapstick affairs, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Duplex. Both were treated with contempt by most critics and indifference by audiences. (The former featured the inspired Steve Martin of old. The flaccid "family" Steve Martin stands to have one of the highest-grossing movies of the year with Cheaper by the Dozen.) What gives?

3) I like the chick with swords thing going on this year. Even Wendy in Peter Pan gets to do some fancy blade work. To paraphrase the little psycho in Kill Bill, we want to skewer them but now they get skewer us.

4) Sarah, you wrote that the upcoming Dogville is loathsome and brilliant, and I agree enthusiastically with at least 50 percent of that description. I think here—and not with Barbarian Invasions—is where we bring in Brecht, Tony: Brecht at his rock-bottom worst, the Brecht who wasn't a voluptuist and lover of women and supreme poet-dramatist but a fatuous misanthropic reductionist who liked to construct quasi-mathematical proofs that demonstrate the inevitability of injustice (especially toward women) in a free-market society.

5) My final word on the opportunistic use of dead kids is to note that in Seabiscuit (the wholesome entry in this year's Oscar sweepstakes), the auto magnate's son, maybe 7 or 8, climbs into his father's car and drives off the road. In real life, the man did lose a son, except he was a teenager in a car with his friends. What kind of people would seek to make a tragedy like that even more horrifying?

Now, to Elephant, the dead kids movie made with something like integrity—but also this year's cinematic Rohrshach blot. Is it possible not to be ambivalent? In the course of those endless, free-floating shots, does Gus Van Sant intensify your empathy with those school kids or does he etherize you? Is it all a giant video game or is it more like real life than any fiction film this year—or is life a giant video game these days? The incisive architecture/film blogger Greg Allen says, "It's got that fiction-meets-doc nonprofessional actor thing that runs through Victor Vargas back to Battle of Algiers, of all things." Is it, indeed, this year's crossover point between fiction and documentary? An attempt to use the techniques of documentary to wipe out the distance that makes watching any work of fiction, no matter how kinetic, an arm's length experience? I felt that way about Bloody Sunday, which employed the rhetoric of an on-the-fly documentary, but isn't Van Sant aestheticizing like crazy?

Talk not so quietly amongst yourselves.

Later,
David

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