The Movie Club

One Theory of Little Miss Sunshine
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2007 8:55 AM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Keith, and Wesley,

A Hundred Years' Culture War deserves a memorial, don't you think? Maybe some kind eternal flame for the unknown soldier, since—I agree with you, Wesley—it gets harder to tell the combatants apart all the time. Plus, the reasons we went to war in the first place keep shifting, so that's confusing. I seem to recall a lot of bomb-throwing over the summer in relation to the spectacular mediocrity that was Pirates of the Caribbean. But, overall, the sheer number of great movies this year made the hideous ritual sacrifice/sorority rush of compiling of 10-best lists particularly hard and pointless.

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I know it's been hours since you guys started this thread—rich, full lives have probably been lived in the interim, sorry, different time zone—but I wanted to respond to some of Dana's initial points about the war movie genre. What stumps me about the category in general, but contemporary World War II movies in particular, is that even as they presumably get more honest (visually and historically), their usefulness in helping us understand the present recedes. The noble war ethos, in narrative form, even when it grants that good wars are hell, too, just doesn't seem relevant right now.

I know we need to move on, but I found this subject particularly felicitous because I just got back from the East Coast and my first-ever trip to Washington, D.C. Have you been there? Of course you have. (I'm not really from around here.) But, wow, the Mall! It's war smorgasbord! Or, if you prefer, a wargasbord! What struck me, as I toured the sites, was that if there's one thing a short walk around the area will teach you, it's that ideological wars fought halfway around the world don't ever seem to work out very well in the end. At this point, I think it's OK to argue that the obsession with retelling the story of the "good war" obscures more than it illuminates. Ultimately, Giovanni Ribisi's guts are just empty signifiers. You can't argue with Giovanni Ribisi's guts, you can't get past them to look at the larger issues, and God help you if you should question their relevance to the the discussion. You would immediately be accused of not supporting his guts, or hating them, even.

Wesley makes a good point that the point of war movies is to provide immersion in the experience—but really, what doesn't these days? Letters From Iwo Jima was impeccably put together and what you might call handsome, sure, but I agree with Dana that the formula has moved past the point of helping provide anything resembling a genuine sentimental education and entered cultural reinforcement territory. You could use it to gauge emotional responses to cultural tropes and perform psychiatric diagnoses, if you were so inclined. I already know how I'll feel about the pretty pregnant wife left home alone and the blown up Army buddy. Mel Gibson can dangle all the babies he wants in Apocalypto—it leaves me cold.

Much rarer, and less tolerated, are movies that provide some contemplative or critical distance between the protagonist's experience and that of the viewer witnessing that experience. Or even go so far as "problematize" that relationship, if they're feeling really naughty. This, among other things, is what made Half Nelson so good—and it's definitely not the same thing as pointing out that enemies are people, too, or holding a set of glistening tapir balls up to the camera. What I enjoy most in the movies is the two-punch of surprise and recognition, of seeing something I've never seen before, could not even imagine, and then instantly understand on an intimate personal level.

Of course, when Sacha Baron Cohen goes and does it, all hell breaks loose. What stumps me is this: It's been a banner year for violence and gore in the movies—what with your Saw IIIs, your Hostels, your Apocalyptos, your Turistas—but apparently we draw the line at meanness, or the appearance of meanness. Borat is an incredible movie—if it makes any sense, I think I left it off my list because it is so completely sui generis. It's the only movie this year that I saw an audience go batshit crazy for. (By way of contrast, you should have been at the screening I went to for Snakes on a Plane. It was like that train scene in Stardust Memories, and we were all on the wrong train). That, and the fact that people actually talked about it, can't be discounted.

Nobody has mentioned The Good German, which I liked but does in retrospect seem a little too academic for its own good. But there was something about that casually brutal sex scene between Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett really stayed with me, especially as Maguire's character was seen sarcastically impersonating the kind of farm-fed doughboy Dana describes right before. It seems like a handy example of what Wesley was talking about when he said, "The public doesn't want to see a true war picture. American moviegoers want sublimation." What if his character had been blown up in battle, rather than neatly shot in the chest? If he were lying inside out on a beach yelling for his mother, would we be expected to care, given, you know, the absence of romance he displayed in bed?

And while we're on the subject of sublimation, I'll bring up Little Miss Sunshine, which I think goes straight to the heart of the issue. What was Little Miss Sunshine if not a brilliant ontological dissection of the perils of sublimation? Every one of the characters is undone by the pressure to conform to the entertainment-celebrity complex ideal, to find a suitable success shape that will justify their existence to the world—everyone but the Alan Arkin charcter, who chooses hedonism. What I love about Little Miss Sunshine are the philosophical questions it raises about how we live, how we should live, how we should be. On that note, I'll sign off, since I suspect you've all probably entered your next life stage by now. But more on that tomorrow.

Sincerely,
Carina

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