The Movie Club

Roach Motels and Termite Art
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2008 6:26 PM

The Movie Club

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Estimable colleagues:

Thanks so much for making this discussion sparkle and snap with your erudition, energy (good Lord, do you guys like to talk movies!), and willingness to give as good as you get.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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That Diving Bell and the Butterfly pile-on inspired me to rewatch the movie this weekend, and I still find it astonishing, visually daring, and devoid of sentimentality—and I say that as a viewer with a lifelong animus toward the humanist gimp-porn genre. Your closing posts also gave me some stuff to look forward to in '08—Nathan, I'll see you at that Weerasethakul retrospective later this month for sure. I can't wait for Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, and luckily I don't have to: I'm seeing it at an advance screening tomorrow night. George Romero could make Rambling Voicemail Messages of the Dead and I'd be there faster than a Danny Boyle zombie.

I'm also awriggle with anticipation for the Wachowski brothers' live-action version of Speed Racer—Christina Ricci was born to play a Japanime heroine. Harold and Kumar 2? Aw yeah—though Gregg Araki may have just raised the bar for the stoner-odyssey genre with his infectiously funny, mysteriously underpromoted Smiley Face. And watching Peter Jackson work on a smaller, more intimate canvas in The Lovely Bones should be fun—I still think Heavenly Creatures was his best movie yet.

The Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry/Spike Jonze axis has split off into independent principalities, each of which has something interesting in the works. In Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, opening next month, Jack Black and Mos Def single-handedly reshoot a video store's worth of movies. Later this spring, Kaufman will make his directing debut with Synecdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director who tries to build a life-size replica of New York—inside a warehouse! (The script is reputed to be Kaufman's mind-blowingest yet, but as a director, will he get lost, Malkovich-style, in his own labyrinthine brain?) In the fall, Jonze comes out with his first film not scripted by Charlie Kaufman: A live-action version ofMaurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, adapted by novelist Dave Eggers and starring Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and James Gandolfini.

Is it wrong that I'm sort of psyched for Indy Jones, especially with the return of the long-disappeared Karen Allen as his love interest, Marion Ravenwood? But not as much as I'm dreading Jim Carrey's dangling latex trunk and leering double entendres in Horton Hears a Who. Why do so many directors (Gondry being the grand exception) feel the need to hide Carrey's miraculously expressive face under 15 pounds of foam rubber? And is there any major literary oeuvre that's been worse-served by film adaptations than Dr. Seuss'?

Now that playing a comic-book hero has become the new Hamlet—the role actors take on to prove their bona fides as a brooding leading man—there's a whole queue of dudes getting fitted for tights. Ed Norton will play the Incredible Hulk in a movie he wrote himself. Robert Downey Jr. will play the Iron Man in Jon Favreau's movie of that title, and Heath Ledger will play the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

Scott, I haven't seen Tracy Letts' August: Osage County (the only playwright who could coax me onto Broadway last year was Tom Stoppard, first for the amiable Coast of Utopia and then for the unforgettable Rock and Roll). But your mention of Letts gave me a pleasurably chilly flashback to Bug, William Friedkin's adaptation of Letts' play about Morgellon's syndrome as a form of folie à deux. It was one of those movies that's too small and too odd to make anyone's 10-best list but one that quite literally bored its way into the viewer's brain. I remember titters in the screening room when things started to go nuttily south for Ashley Judd (the most underappreciated great actress in movies today) and the terrifying Michael Shannon (who reappeared as a dead-eyed thug in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). But that was only the laughter of cowards. Friedkin's fearless embrace of near-operatic tawdriness made Bug a nasty little Roach Motel of a movie: easy to wander into, impossible to escape.

And speaking of bugs, Scott, you also cite great American movie critic Manny Farber, whose devotion to the notion of criticism as something far more than a consumer service (thumbs up or thumbs down? Rotten tomatoes or fresh?) could serve as inspiration for us all in the new year. Farber's most enduring critical category was what he liked to call "termite art": He praised his favorite films and actors (Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Laurel and Hardy) for their "buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim … concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed." The nature of "termite-tapeworm-moss-fungus art," he declares, in his inimitably weird voice, "is that it always goes forward eating its own boundaries." In that spirit, I wish us all a year of buglike immersion at the movies.

Dana

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