Dear Dana, Lisa, Jessica, and Stephanie,
Greetings all! I am tickled indeed to be contributing to the first-ever Slate Vagina Movie Monologues, arriving just in time to celebrate the fact that, of the 103 critics in this year's indieWIRE poll, a full 19 are women. (I counted them on Hogmanay; forgive me if I'm one or two off.) But before we all don our party hats and grab the kazoos, I'd like to set my ironing aside for a moment to ask (however inapropos of anything already mentioned): What gives? Perhaps it's as simple as a lack of visible role models. If Jennifer Aniston were to play a movie critic and Mark Ruffalo a vampire seduced by her review of Twilight, would girls rethink their career options? Since most of us—male, female, and those indeterminate lumps that sprout at press screenings like malevolent mushrooms—come to this strange calling by decidedly roundabout routes, it's tough to simply blame the patriarchy, though I will if I want to.
Reluctant as I am to suggest that gender guarantees anything when it comes to opinion, I do believe that a greater number of female voices would add more to the debate than a deeper appreciation of the work of Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola. (The under-representation of African-American, Asian-American, and Latin American voices is a whole other movie club.) At the very least, screenwriters might hear our exhaustion with lame slacker comedies and so-called romances that encourage us to welcome the attentions (and incubate the sperm) of socially maladjusted busboys. Or with "chick flicks" that speak to us solely in the language of consumption. ( SATC and The Women, I'm looking at you.) Or with the endless parade of superheroes, differing only in costume and sidekick and comic-book provenance, making the world safe for … more superheroes.
Don't get me wrong: My brain is permanently branded with some of Christopher Nolan's vivid imagery (that trip-wired 18-wheeler!), but The Dark Knight left me more stunned than admiring. Nolan may be making a sincere attempt to confront the ethics of vigilantism and the seductiveness of disorder, but he's constantly undermined by a baffling screenplay (just because a movie's theme is chaos doesn't mean the storytelling has to comply) and a vision that draws all of its energy from death. And am I the only person to notice that Christian Bale has less personality than the Batbike? His terminally constipated crusader made me yearn for Michael Keaton's superlative spell in the suit a decade ago: Being sexy while wearing a pointy-eared balaclava is a lot harder than it looks.
Iron Man? Eh. Like Wall-E, it's an example of an excellent first act earning a season pass for a slightly-above-average whole. The common thread uniting Downey and Rourke, however—as well as Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD—is not simply life-art parallels but the humility that allows the actors to play the roles without the shield of irony. In particular, I found Van Damme's surreal charge through the fourth wall—the movie's you-either-buy-it-or-you-don't moment—both startling and unexpectedly moving.
Another unexpected treat last year was Hancock, a movie that twisted the superhero genre—and Will Smith—into a new, misanthropic shape and gave Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman characters to chew on. But if we must anoint a superhero of 2008, need we look any further than Clint Eastwood? For more decades than I care to recall, he's been making our day and squinting at our enemies, and if ever there were an argument against plastic surgery, it's made by every close-up of that ploughed physiognomy. One of the greatest gifts movies can bestow is to allow our stars to age with us, and I can think of few sights that would have been more disorienting than the hero of Gran Torino walking into his last sunset wearing Dirty Harry's face.
Like you, Jessica, I found some of my most memorable movie moments to be overwhelmingly poignant: Keira Knightley's stricken face in The Duchess; Samantha Morton's flaming apartment in Synecdoche, New York; Poppy's chat with the homeless man in Happy-Go-Lucky; snowflakes caressing bloodied knuckles in Hunger. And don't even mention Herzog's lone penguin, waddling off to who-knows-what Antarctic fate—pass the tissues!