2004: The Year in Movies

Why Should Rwanda Be Triumphant?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 9:55 AM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Friends,

Rather than rehash my thoughts about The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, movies I wrote about on at least a half-dozen occasions, I'm going to invoke my lazy tropical vacationer's prerogative and offer links to my reviews.

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The opinions in those pieces will no doubt strike many readers as entirely predictable, or even, for the conspiracy-minded, as programmed to reflect the biases and agendas of the liberal media elite. Some might go so far as to see the reviews as evidence of "fascism" (a mighty strong word, there, Armond) or its left-wing equivalent. All I know is that, in writing about these movies, I felt the special challenge of trying to write about them as movies—that is, from the perspective of a film critic rather than a pundit or a preacher. My impression is that most of us in the larger Movie Club of which this week is a microcosm tried to do the same, and that our good-faith efforts were, by definition, in vain. The mail I got about Passion was not about Caleb Deschanel's cinematography (which, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane sequence, was amazing) or Mel Gibson's direction, but rather about my failure to acknowledge that what Gibson put on screen was the literal truth. Armond, I'm not sure that the problem is a lack of Christian film critics (though I grant that the underrepresentation you cite constricts the debate), but the status of criticism as a secular activity, one that of necessity touches only indirectly on ultimate matters.

In any case, without getting into the argument about who got more or scarier death threats (the last name means less than you might think, Charley. You wouldn't necessarily guess that someone with the surname Scott was Jewish, but a number of my more intemperate correspondents did, and as it happens they guessed right), I find myself agreeing with Chris that Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11 presented a bracing and terrifying opportunity to write, as movie critics, about some very large and contentious public issues.

But then again, so did Kinsey (which I'm sorry we haven't gotten to), Spanglish, Control Room, and even The Incredibles. Much as I'm weary of the red state/blue state dichotomy—I think we're all varying shades of lavender, something I believe Dr. Kinsey proved scientifically—I'll invoke it to suggest that the real red/blue split screen showdown was not Passion vs. Fahrenheit but Friday Night Lights vs. I Heart Huckabees, which I did not Heart, partly because of its smug, bullying assumption that someone like me would have no other choice. Like you, Wesley, I loved Mark Wahlberg's fireman of sorrows, but I wished someone would come to rescue him from the tokenism of that role, which was a kind of working-class white counterpart to the Noble Negro we have seen so many times.

Which provides an awkward and perhaps insensitive segue to Hotel Rwanda. I thought Don Cheadle's performance was flawless and very smart in the way it traced a direct link between the character's initial complacency and his ultimate heroism. His cynicism helped inoculate him against the fanaticism swirling around him and turned into a form of humane sanity. My problems were more generic. Much as the movie may indict (rather vaguely, I thought) the failures of the West, it nonetheless offers viewers a dose of reassurance. It is a story of rescue and survival, which would not be as bothersome if every other movie about genocide, fictional and documentary, were not about the same thing. Why do filmmakers keep using settings like Rwanda in 1994 and Poland in 1944 to tell redemptive stories about human goodness? Not just because such stories exist, but more, I suspect, because telling them affirms, at very little cost, our conviction of our own goodness, so we can tell ourselves that, in similar circumstances, we'd do the right thing. Unfortunately, the historical and statistical evidence suggests otherwise, and I wish some brave filmmakers would focus on how it is that perfectly nice, ordinary people become the perpetrators or the passive witnesses to atrocity.

This was going to be a light-hearted valedictory post, and I feel my mental gears grinding as I try to switch back into breezy "little more than entertainment" mode. As usual, we seem to be warming up just as we're winding down, and the list of movies we never got around to—DIG!, End of the Century, Primer, Napoleon Dynamite, Catwoman—seems so much more imposing than the ones we did. Oh, well. This vacation has turned into a splendid busman's holiday. Thank you, Wesley, Chris, and Scott, for livening up the joint late in the game. And thank you, Armond and Charley, for giving no quarter: You embody William Blake's declaration that "opposition is true friendship." Stephanie, darling, I'll see you on the shuffleboard court at Before Sunset Acres. And David, you have been a patient and gracious host once again. I'll be around later with a six-pack of Rolling Rock.

See you all soon.

All best,
Tony

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