The Movie Club

The People Want Ray, Not Meta Dylan Biopics
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2008 4:48 PM

The Movie Club

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I'm Not There. Click image to expand.
Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There

Scott, thanks for tending to Sembene's grave. One thing that should sadden moviegoers about his absence is that he had his eyes on a part of the world that needs eyes. He was old, but his finger was seriously, comically, truthfully on the pulse of West Africa: as a keeper of the peace—and a disturber of it, as well. It'll be interesting to see whether Abderrahmane Sissako, a fantastic Malian director (did you guys see Bamako?), continues to get his movies distributed in this country. We need his eyes, too.

But I totally understand where Nathan is coming from. Like I said, I'm a futurist, too, just not at the elders' expense. Nathan makes a sharp point about M.I.A., but she makes pastiche and pays homage, just like Richard Kelly. She's respectfully disrespectful. In any case, we really are worse off without Sembene and his art. I'm just eulogizing, and now I'm done.

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Also, thanks, Scott, for bringing up the subject of endings and for doing it so lucidly—and with such a lack of exclamation points. (I'm trying to quit! Oops, sorry.) I'm still attempting to decode why audiences generally are having such a tough time with the 2007 endings. I like the idea that inconclusiveness and uncertainty are simply in the air—wars, elections, the writers' strike. What decent endings we did get were necessarily miserable. Albert Finney and the pillow, say, in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Happy endings as we knew them were unconvincing. Ben and Allison won't survive that Knocked Up baby's second birthday. And the best scene in the otherwise aggravating Superbad was the last one—Jonah Hill descending the mall escalator away from Michael Cera, with heartbreak, sadness, and fear in his face. That was amazing. That was true.

The year's second-best ending—after There Will Be Blood—was in Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night. That movie deserved an audience way bigger than it got. It's very now.

The movie is about a woman (the great Luisa Williams) doing something bad that doesn't quite happen, and when it doesn't happen: What happens then? Of course, to say more (and many writers have) is to ruin the sense that once all of Loktev's prefatory narrative peeling is done, you've got this intensely flavored emotional fruit.

Her climactic cut to black—WTF?—was serious prep work for The Sopranos' mind-blowing trapdoor finale. But Loktev's ending signaled the beginning not of a cultural crisis but a spiritual one. The ending made the few people I know who saw it mad. They wanted resolution, but the heartbreak of that final agonizing image is that something sacred has come to a harshly disillusioning end. Loktev is in her late 30s, and her movie—part comic ritual exercise, part urban thriller, part existential nightmare—has wrecking balls. I wish it also had a richer distributor.

A lot of my favorite movies this year provoked some kind of visceral or involuntary response, whether it was Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil ... (frayed nerves), Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (fried nerves),orthe insanely fun Grindhouse, a stupidly marketed movie that left me hot for Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms, hotter for Kurt Russell, and hottest for killer cars (and I don't even have a license). The Robert Rodriguez portion is laborious but kicky (his movies are nuts but preemptively overmedicated; the air in them is always stale). Tarantino's half is a transcendent feat of honest-to-God entertainment. You don't want to hand it to him, because he can't just say, "Thank you," and leave the freakin' stage. But you have to hand it to him. It was inevitable that the movies would split up. These two were Ike and Tina Turner—and Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie, the makers of those delirious entr'acte trailers, were their Ikettes.

I also got chills from the first hour of Black Snake Moan.It's a big old pickup truck of ride-along crazy. (Nathan, I know you agree.) The director, Craig Brewer, might be growing on me—I hated his pimps-up-hos-down melodrama, Hustle & Flow. He's a filmmaker with some interesting if secondhand ideas about race and sex. The movie loses its nerve in the second half, but Brewer brings out the best acting that Samuel L. Jackson has done in over a decade and that the scary-skinny Christina Ricci has done ever.

The one film in 2007 I wanted to like more than I do is I'm Not There. It was a head movie to me. It played better there than it did on the screen. I was unwilling to admit the reason I didn't love it had something to do with Todd Haynes' commitment to dismantling Bob Dylan. I think the film eddies around this notion of Dylan as a chameleon without unpacking it. It's a semiotician's game, something Ferdinand de Saussure or Paul de Man would dig.

Haynes is one of the smartest directors alive, and one of my favorites. But there's something about him and music (he made Velvet Goldmine) that locks me out of his filmmaking—he can't mix the academic and the personal without making a mess. I'm Not There is all conceit. The movie has experimental balls, but I couldn't get the zipper down to really feel them the way other people seemed to be able to.

Then I watched it about a month ago and simply enjoyed the film as a shrewd entertainment. It's a touching movie (much better than Velvet Goldmine). I even laughed at the bad "Joan Baez" stuff with Julianne Moore. Haynes is being true to himself, but this was a movie whose admiring reviews were as interesting to read as the movie initially was to watch. A lot of critics had a very personal response. Haynes was speaking to them. And apparently only to them, since no one really saw the movie. The people want Ray. They want Walk the Line.  They don't want meta biopics. Not even Dewey Cox's, amazingly enough.

Speaking of crappy endings—
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Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.

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