The Year in Movies

Which Critical Wave Are You Riding?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2004 1:25 PM

The Year in Movies

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Dear friends,

This is all moving very quickly, and I'm torn between the desire to go back and respond to various challenges, ripostes, and asides and the urge to forge ahead. So I will split the difference and use this post to respond, before the conversation surges forward and buries some of these threads. So:

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In some ways, Sarah, your critique of Mystic River is unanswerable, except that I did find it devastating, magisterial, and all the other overwrought adjectives, while also finding it a superior piece of pulpy genre entertainment. As I said before, I don't entirely buy Eastwood's notion—and I think it is his, rather than Dennis Lehane's—that human beings (OK, men) are governed by a remorseless propensity for violence, but I found the rigor with which he pursued this idea, and the way he pushed it away from sentimentality and toward a pessimism so radical as to be positively un-American, to be very powerful. More concretely, I loved what he did with the characters, allowing us to see different aspects of their personalities as the circumstances shifted, so that Laura Linney's apotheosis, while surprising, was less a left-field shocker than a startling reversal of perspective, forcing you (or me, anyway) to see everything that had come before in a different light.

But I don't want to rehash what I've already said about the movie, which I've written about quite a bit already (including in this coming Sunday's "Arts & Leisure" section). I'd rather defend, against both Sarah and Manohla—and also against numerous friends, readers, and Internet movie bloggers—the tone of enthusiastic praise that I and others brought to our reviews of it, and more generally to defend the critic's prerogative—scratch that, the critic's duty—to give voice, even hyperbolically, to passion. I agree that as breathless reviews pile up, and as the studio marketing departments exploit them, the expectations attached to certain movies become almost ridiculously high, at which point a backlash inevitably kicks in. All of us, I think, have at various times been part of both waves—the "wow" phase of a movie's reception and the "eh" or "whatever" or "what the fuck are these people talking about?" phase—and I think there is a fallacious belief that it's better, or at least cooler, to be part of the second phase. The preferred critical stance often seems to be one of skeptical nonchalance. It makes us feel smart, gives us more opportunities for wit, and it minimizes the risk of being embarrassed by seeing our innermost thoughts splashed across full-page ads and festooned with exclamation points. And of course part of the job is to be skeptical, to steel ourselves against hype and provide our readers with a disinterested alternative to it. But just for that reason it is also part of the job not to deny ourselves or our readers honest and unguarded expressions of excitement. As I recall, many of us who saw Mystic River near the end of the abysmal Cannes Festival were glad, at the least, to be reminded of what a good movie looked like—a well-directed, solid piece of cinematic storytelling, a little old-fashioned, unstintingly earnest, with big performances, and a rich, engrossing narrative.  In that context, it felt like a masterpiece, but festival impressions are notoriously distorting, and it took a second and third viewing, and much thought, to persuade me that it might actually be one. Others (like Sarah) were not so persuaded, but I would have been untrue to myself and unfaithful to the muse of criticism if I had tempered my admiration for fear of making Manohla wince.

As for Barbarian Invasions, I'm not sure what you mean, Jim, by "dimensionally challenged," but I think Arcand is very sly in his use of sentimental narrative conventions to advance a jagged and provocative view of history—he's a curious hybrid of Neil Simon and Bertholt Brecht. I think that the fate of Quebecois nationalism—or, more precisely, of French-Canadian cultural identity—is not so much the elephant in the room as the subtext. Remy and his pals are of the generation that underwent—or perhaps instigated—the swift transformation of Quebec from a highly repressive Catholic society into a cosmopolitan, secular, and sexually liberated one. The aftershocks of this process (called laicization) are evident throughout the movie, from Remy's furious ranting at the nun who is caring for him to his memories of being turned on by the movies about saints and martyrs that were the main pop cultural fare of his childhood to the haunting scene in the basement of the church, where Gaelle breaks it to the monsignor that his dusty collection of chalices and statuary is without value on the international art market.

All of the -isms to which Remy and his cohort attached themselves were substitutes for this vanished religious authority (here is perhaps where Arcand crosses paths with Tony Kushner; both of them are fascinated by the entwined histories of religion and socialism in the 20th century). These serial ideological enthusiasms also hid, behind various banners of Third World anti-colonialist solidarity and transnational New Left romanticism, the real transformation that was taking place, which was that people like Remy, a working-class kid from the remote provincial city of Chicoutimi, were turning into comfortable bourgeois individualists. It is not so much that these folks betrayed their ideals as that their ideals turned out not to be what they had at first seemed. Far from abolishing the democratic-capitalist state (and its international, imperial successor), Remy and Co. were helping to perfect it, by humanizing it with their lofty ideas and reckless self-indulgence. I think the middle ground you find missing is there, David, in the reconciliation between Remy and Sebastian, and in the installation of Nathalie in Remy's book-filled apartment.

So maybe movies are, as Wesley Morris says, "inherently political," though I must say that sounds to me like a truism. What is clear from his e-mail (and all of ours) is that their politics can be quite slippery and ambiguous—and, as often as not, reflections of the political inclinations and rhetorical skills of the people watching them. I thought Wesley's defense of Cold Mountain as being, after all, really about slavery was an elegant response to the charge that it ignores slavery altogether, and in some ways a persuasive one. One of the interesting things about the story is that it's set in North Carolina, the last state to join the Confederacy and one—especially in the western mountains—where there was great ambivalence about the Confederate cause (and even substantial support for the Union). (You hear this expressed from time to time in the movie when people complain about fighting for "the rich men's niggers.") These mountain folk are, in some ways, the mirror image of the Irish immigrants in Gangs of New York, whose alienation from rich Northerners found expression in a torrent of racist violence during the draft riots. What's curious about these two movies, taken together, is that they suggest that the Civil War, which we are used to seeing as a matter of race and section, was also about class. Remove some letters from "Miramax," rearrange a couple more, and what do you get? "Marx." Interesting, no?

That's enough for now. More tomorrow.

Your pal,
Tony

Each year, film critics gather in the "Movie Club" to chew on the year in film. This year's group includes Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times, David Edelstein from Slate, J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, Sarah Kerr from Vogue, and A.O. Scott from the New York Times. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.

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