The Movie Club
Hello boys and girls. A lot of subjects are on the table. I want to get to most of them, but first, how's about a little housecleaning? It has been mentioned that Jeffrey Wells was a "douchebag" for correcting Robin Woods' deathbed list of his favorite films. This is correct. The only tactful way for Wells to do that would be with his own deathbed list. It's also notable that Wells was wrong: High Noon is not better than Rio Bravo.
I remember when Ken Turan was a guest critic on our show after Gene's death. Wells wrote in a column about how bad Turan was. Unfortunately, he published the column before Ken and I did the show.
I will leave Jeff Wells with this note. Jeff was recently stung by a comment from one of his readers. Please be so kind as to read their exchange here.
Onward. Wesley, yes, I remember that Cannes press screening of Antichrist we both attended. Those press screenings can be fraught because of the eagerness of some of our colleagues to be vocal. The hoots always seem to come from the Lumiere's right-side forward section, the same general area that, in the Debussy, originates the ritual howl of "Raoul!" as screenings start.
As a latent xenophobe, I always assume, The people hooting are French and think they know more than anyone else. In actual fact, how many French critics have you ever seen at a Cannes press screening or press conference? Michel Ciment, and who else? I think they see the movies in Paris.
A hoot is hard to interpret at Cannes. It may be of ecstasy. The audience was certainly agitated. Antichrist had a powerful effect. Writing from Cannes, I didn't quite commit myself, saying basically that for better or worse, von Trier was an uncompromising toiler at the extremes. I saw the movie again in Chicago before writing my review. When it's at all possible, I always see a movie again after Cannes (or any other festival), because three or four screenings a day in highly charged rooms are hard to contemplate sanely.
Which leads me to opinion shifts on Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds. My opinion of both remains high and unchanged. I've seen them both twice, at festivals and again shortly before release. But I know what you guys are referring to. It's a form of buyer's remorse. A film impacts you strongly, and weeks or months later you think, Hold on. Was it really that good? Our factual memories are stronger than our emotional memories, so that what we feel during a film fades more quickly than facts about it. That's as it should be: Films exist in the moment. That fading process, I suspect, accounts for some of the academy's so-called "memory gap." Movies opening late in the year invariably do better than early releases.
The Hurt Locker is an exception, as Silence of the Lambs was. But Up in the Air, like Lost in Translation, exists on a level of introspection about lifestyles and reaches us through subtle emotional channels. It is enormously perceptive, attentive, and empathetic. But it must be attended to. It's not the kind of film that leaps ferociously. Yes, I think it does hold up. It's important to observe that everything essential in it is contained rigorously within one consciousness. It lacks traditional dramatic conflict, using instead conflict entirely within its hero.
As for Inglourious Basterds, I've never seen a (major) Tarantino film that didn't grow in stature over time. After Pulp Fiction at Cannes, Q.T. asked me what I thought of it. "It's either the year's best film," I said, "or the worst." I was half right. It's fair to say that critical opinion on it has grown steadily more favorable. His Jackie Brown, which was greeted with less enthusiasm, now stands as a considerable achievement, and I believe Kill Bill, considered with both parts in mind, earns a place alongside Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is one of a handful of directors from his generation whose films will age very well.
That said, The Hurt Locker is the year's best film. Should Avatar snatch that Oscar away, it will be because it grossed zillions of millions, not because it's better. Avatar is an enormously effective experience, an awesome technical achievement, a universal success, but a great film, it's not. If it were, we'd still be on the floor of the theater. Some of you are quite right about its dialogue and story, and I'm sure you've all seen the comparisons to other screenplays. Those shortcomings are beside the point. I'm pretty sure it's impossible to make a great film with a $250 million budget.
In watching such a film, I find myself not really caring about details of the plot. They're not what it's about. In my first Movie Club post, I envisioned poor Neytiri clutching a lifeless avatar love doll after its support from the mother ship was removed. Readers informed me I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The avatars were quite capable of independent life. I was also wrong, etc., in suggesting they could not possibly reproduce with Na'vi. Didn't I remember they were created by mixing the two gene pools? I was charged with not having even seen the film and faking my review by watching the trailer and reading online information. I wanted to reply, "Yes, but didn't I do a brilliant job of cobbling together my review sight unseen?" That would have been unwise, however, because in these times, irony is a tone not heard.
So let me stubbornly close:
1. Assuming that an avatar can live with no connection to the mother ship, what does it think with? When its human master dies, who is upstairs? Does the mind of Jake Sully transfer? I have an eerie feeling I may once again have missed a crucial plot detail, but if Jake Sully's mind can be inside his avatar, then that really is Michael Keaton inside the snow man in Jack Frost.
2. Mixing the gene pools? How does that work? Assuming, as I do, that something like DNA must provide continuity and allow for evolution in all forms of life, I must also assume that the DNA coding in Pandora, having evolved since time immemorial countless light years from Earth, is incompatible with "mixing." This is covered in the familiar evolutionist parable of the separated ponds in which the same fish evolve to the point that they can no longer reproduce. If that happens in two ponds starting with identical fish, what happens if the ponds are Earth and Pandora?
To be fair, James Cameron undoubtedly knows this about genetics. We already know how the female Na'vi evolved breasts. They evolved them on Cameron's drawing board, because you can't have a love affair between two Na'vi who are both breastless and therefore apparently male. The bloggers from the tinfoil-hat brigade would really go bonkers then.
Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times' film critic.