The Movie Club

I See a Darkness
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2008 12:47 PM

The Movie Club

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I stand corrected: Scott saw every movie released this year except Beowulf.

Wesley: I'm gladdened to know Into the Wild made you all mushy. It had the same effect on me, despite Eddie Vedder, despite the ersatz-'70s aesthetic. I caught it a little earlier than you did, during the first week of November, just as I was beginning a leave of absence from work in order to come to terms with some health issues I've been grappling with this year. My reaction was the opposite of yours, Wesley, and was no doubt marked by a state of mind avid for a healthy dose of overblown naiveté. I immediately and powerfully sympathized with the questing hero—I, too, am a privileged young man undergoing an existential crisis!—but as his quest went on (and on and on and on and on), I found myself less and less invested. The trajectory of the movie proved emotionally frustrating but ethically acute: My gradual alienation from the "hero," our ostensible audience surrogate, was replaced by empathy with all those marvelous supporting characters he encounters on his journey, a set of alternative families he briefly joins then abandons. Into the Wild is a conventional treatment of the same theme contemplated through kaleidoscope in I'm Not There. Both movies celebrate the thrill of personal reinvention while simultaneously attending to the spiritual toll of perpetual escape. Neither film is hagiographic; neither odyssey ends up feeling very heroic. If I'm Not There packed the greater wallop for me, it's probably because I connect on a deeper intellectual and emotional level to Haynes' mega-meta technique than Penn's nostalgic naturalism.

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I journeyed Into the Wild in the company of Jim Davis, my oldest and dearest moviegoing companion. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was a civilian cinephile living in San Francisco, Jim insisted that I join him for a rare screening of Antonioni's The Passenger at the Castro Theater, site of many unforgettable movie memories: an evening spent pulverized by a pristine print of Raging Bull; the cold, gray, melancholy afternoon when I finally discovered that Casablanca was just as enchanting as everyone said; three puzzling, playful hours in the company of Peter Greenaway's The Falls. It was at the Castro, sitting next to Jim, that I submitted to the eye-popping, soul-shattering sublimities of Vertigo, a film I knew, but didn't really know at all, from pan-and-scan VHS.

Pardon my walk down memory lane (ew, why is the floor so sticky?), but I wanted to chime in on Le Crux du Moment so eloquently discussed by Scott, Wesley, and Dana. I agree with you all on the various inadequacies and aggravations besetting a night at the movies in these impolite times, and, at the same time, the incomparable wonderment of a flawless 35mm projection and the social pleasure of going to the movies and talking them through with friends. All of us, critics and civilians alike, can agree that something is being lost in the dark.

Yet I feel compelled to speak up in defense of iThings, holo-pods, and the living room cinematheque. In the fall of 2005 I attended a press screening of The New World at an excellent multiplex in Manhattan. If anything would seem to require, even demand, the largest possible screen, it was the whispering raptures of Terrence Malick's transcendental period piece. And it was, indeed, gorgeous to behold on that big, bright screen—though an infinitely more ravishing immersion came several months later when, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York, I squinted at the 12-inch screen of my mighty little PowerBook running The New World on DVD. Maybe it was the headphone factor, the intensely private space created by an isolated aural environment, or the gestural intimacy enabled by literally holding the film in your lap, but my nervous system came alive to the movie in an entirely new way. For whatever reason, it is this "diminished" viewing of Malick's masterpiece, not the theatrical one, that ranks alongside Vertigo at the Castro in my personal pantheon of cinematic amazements.

Nothing on the little screen this year rivaled that landmark (The New World, indeed), but there were many bright lights on the iCinema circuit. Scott mentioned the terrific IFC First Take program, which is throwing its weight behind the type of marginal art-house fare that used to find its way to New York courtesy of Wellspring, the late, great theatrical distribution company recently bought, and dismantled, by the Weinstein Company. Better yet, IFCFT gives cinephiles from Chattanooga to Okefenokee access to movies they otherwise couldn't see except by ordering a DVD months after reading our rave reviews of, say, The Flight of the Red Balloon, the latest masterwork by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and surely one of the highlights of 2008. (More of those in my next post; and y'all with me on the Hou, yeah?)

This has been as extraordinary a year for DVD as it has for new releases: Ford at Fox, Histoire(s) du Cinema, and The Films of Kenneth Anger are cinematic "events" no less exciting, in my book, than There Will Be Blood. And then there's the matter of the current golden age of television, which hopefully didn't cut to black with the death of The Sopranos. Giddy as Movie Club 2007 has been for an abundance of first-run riches, our greatest praise—"narrative film of the decade," no less—has been for two serialized HBO dramas. Also worth mention is the splendid second coming of Battlestar Galactica, a tremendously subtle and affecting meditation on artificial intelligence, as well as the consistently deranged, delightful, and diabolical South Park. An honest list of my favorite motion pictures in 2007, regardless of medium, would include this, this, this, and this.

That said, the single best thing, of any kind of thing, I saw in 2007 was Max Ophüls' immortal 1953 film The Earrings of Madame de…, revived in a glorious new 35mm print at Film Forum in New York. It may not be long before seeing any movie projected on celluloid becomes exclusive to specialized cinemas, film festivals, or museum programs. On the flip side, the next Ophüls may very well devote herself exclusively to the medium of scalp implants.

Cinema is dead, long live cinema!

Nathan

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