David Edelstein

David Edelstein

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 30 1999 9:00 PM

David Edelstein

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Yesterday's entry concluded with the news that I was off to see a Kusturica movie. Lest I become a laughingstock like the critic-protagonist of Rien Sur Robert (see Day 2 of the "Diary"), let me say that it wasn't Kusturica, it was a different four-syllable "K" director--Kaurismaki--whose film I was off to see, or would have been off to see, had I not had to finish my Diary about how I was going to see every film in the New York Film Festival. Oops. I'm not the first Slate diarist to suggest that recounting one's activities on deadline can result in many fewer activities to recount.

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While I'm correcting boo-boos, that's Cecilia Roth, not Celia Roth, in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. Harmony Korine doesn't take a directing credit for Julien Donkey-Boy, so my mockery of the term in connection with his work was unjust. Also, I've decided that his movie is a masterpiece. No, I'm pulling your leg. But isn't it amazing how the picture's inclusion in the festival has prompted so many critics (including the New YorkTimes' Janet Maslin, who'd treated Gummo like a splotch at the bottom of her toilet) to approach this blowhard with newfound respect? Richard Peña, you will have to answer for this.

An e-mail from Christine Vachon, a producer of Boys Don't Cry and author (along with yours truly) of a book on independent filmmaking called Shooting To Kill: What did I mean in my "obtuse" aside that director Kimberly Peirce was maybe "too crystalline" in her press conference? OK: I was obliquely suggesting that Peirce--a dark, charismatically self-possessed young woman--had so lucidly articulated the themes of her movie that after half an hour I wanted her to shut up and leave a little room for interpretation. Am I striking a blow for mystery and ambiguity in works of art, or am I--as a critic--just being obnoxiously territorial? I'd like to think both.

When critics and filmmakers get thrown together at festivals, the surprising thing is that they often have little to say to one another. My own attempts to engage directors tend to be embarrassing. If I criticize some aspect of their work, they get (understandably) surly. If I praise them, I sound like a tedious little suck-up. If I ruminate aloud on what they've achieved, they look at me the way Sundance looks at Butch when he says, "You just keep thinkin', Butch--that's what you're good at." I used to make fun of people who ask questions at the press conferences until I started trying to ask them myself. I tried today, for instance, after Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, a magnificent wallow in the life of Gilbert and Sullivan that focuses largely on the writing and staging of TheMikado. Its leisurely accumulation of detail is part of the pleasure--but at 160 minutes, it's not fleet. I holler to Leigh (I'm a football field away) about the length: Did it surprise him? His scripts are born as guided improvisations: I wanted to know if, early on, he'd decided that the meaning would be in the minutiae, in the details of making theater that other such movies glide over. In reply, he makes fun of my American pronunciation of "leisurely." Then he says it's a bad word because it doesn't recognize the picture's alertness to detail. Then he interprets my remark as a criticism. I interject that it isn't a criticism, that what I'm trying to say is--

And then my voice goes. Just like that: I can't produce another sound. I sit down feeling like a prat. Why bother?

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Because those press conferences, no matter how irritating, can help put the miracle of artistic creation in perspective. You sit through a movie (maybe you hate it, maybe it blows you away, it doesn't matter), the lights come up, and there they are, the director and the actors, so close you could touch them if it weren't for the security guards who'd tackle you to the floor if you tried. How astonishing yesterday to see Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry, probably the most luminous bull-dyke in the history of movies, suddenly girly-girly in a dress and heels and mascara, and taking every opportunity to mention her husband and her heterosexuality. Her co-star, the great Chloe Sevigny--who'd only met Swank on the set after the actress had spent four weeks finding the male within--said she didn't know how to relate to Hilary as a woman: They'd smooched and been naked for weeks, but now they were strangers.

Princess Mononoke, an animated, eco-allegorical Japanese epic that Miramax has dubbed with Disneyish voices and will release in a couple of weeks, has so much texture and bravura detail that I expected its director and animator, Hayao Miyazaki, to have an expansive presence and be overflowing with ideas. My mistake. This poised, elegant, cryptic older gentleman suggested an artist whose achievements are the product of focus, long apprenticeship, and an aversion to expending useless energy. What did he think of the Miramax version? Hasn't seen it, never will. Miyazaki is the anti-Harmony Korine.

Finally, a brief word about Claude Lanzmann's 65-minute documentary A Visitor FromtheLiving, the result of footage the director made while researching Shoah in the late '70s. The movie is so good it's newsworthy. In Maurice Rossell, the International Red Cross representative in Berlin during World War II, Lanzmann has discovered--and in the gentlest and most devastating manner interrogated--the Holocaust's missing link. Rossell, who lived high on the hog in a mansion on the Berliner Wansee (where Hitler and his cronies actually hashed out the details of the Final Solution), visited Auschwitz but saw not much amiss (aside from some passing skeletal prisoners) and smelled nothing unusual. (Lanzmann hazards that perhaps the wind was blowing the smoke from the crematoriums in the other direction. "C'est possible," says Rossell, holding his cigarette aloft.)

More important, it was Rossell who inspected the Nazis' "model ghetto" at Theresienstadt near Prague. Lanzmann reads aloud from the final report, which spoke so favorably of conditions that it was a factor in keeping the Allies from launching an assault on the camps. Aware that his assignment was to look beyond the façade, Rossell nonetheless saw no hints that this was a sham village and that the Nazis had held "feverish" dress rehearsals prior to his arrival. What Rossell saw was a collection of "privileged" Jews (he calls them Israelis), the ones rich enough to buy their way out of Auschwitz. He saw them--still remembers them--as simultaneously docile and uppity, and his recollections are unchanged by Lanzmann's explanation that even a wink or a too-long look in the visitor's direction would have meant instant execution. The details of the Nazis' atrocities--of how they deported and gassed 5,000 Jews to make the camp seem less crowded, of how they murdered the town's "mayor" three months later, of how the cafe and the post office and the bandstand were freshly constructed and soon to be knocked down--can't shake Rossell's feeling that he'd sign the same report today.

Rossell's anti-Semitism doesn't seem entirely conscious, which is what makes the movie so chilling. But it was there: It colored everything he saw--and everything he refused to see. If nothing else, Lanzmann has made a movie about the worst critic who ever lived.