Best Movies, Saddest Culture; The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle


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Best Movies, Saddest Culture


So far the big news has been movies not worth seeing?M:I2, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Perfect Storm, even Martin Lawrence's basically agreeable Big Momma's House. It's likely that many people confuse heavily promoted films with the essence of the culture. But if you think back to any of the good movies so far this year (and it requires an effort of memory), you'd then realize that film culture has changed to a state of instantly disposable ephemerality that it never had before. The turnover rate at theaters has become alarming now that the industry (and journalists) has fallen into "What's Next?" lockstep.


False enthusiasm animates filmgoing these days. It's consumerist hysteria. Film critics succumb to misreading the signals just as pop music journalists do now ("Backstreet Boys rule, they dominate," Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner told E! Entertainment Television). Media panders to audience susceptibility rather than shaping popular tastes. Barbie-and-Ken pop has as little relation to great music as Gladiator has to great moviemaking. The tendency to deceive ourselves about this is part of a national belief in commercialization. Children fantasize their new plastic toys will last. Critics unconsciously submit to these changes among moviegoers (and their habits and susceptibilities). And this clouds the terrain when, as a famous critic once decried, "the vast majority are swept up in the campaigns for movies and in the atmosphere" of weekend grosses.


In a 1999 L.A. Times survey youth and movie attendance were linked. Naivete and restlessness determine consumption with no indication of serious interest, response or commitment. (The poll's most startling revelation was that "only 1% of Americans have seen all five of this year's best picture [Oscar] nominees and 61% haven't seen a single one.")


This defining aspect of Y2K film culture makes movies like water drops on burning rocks (to borrow the title of François Ozon's latest surrealist taunt, opening at Film Forum July 12). In an era when hype becomes the constant condition, movie art turns to steam. Good movies evaporate, while the market is flooded with inanity. Critics can't do much to stop this, but when you read perfervid reviews of the latest commercial offerings it's plain that they do little to cool things down. (Viewers who might have loved Titus were urged to settle for less with Gladiator.) To that end, some reflective rationality is necessary. A reminder that movie art still gets made and distributed is essential. Here's a midyear assessment of the best movies of 2000.


Humanite?Bruno Dumont's existential parable is still hanging in for a couple more weeks. That's probably as much as can be expected for a film this different from the fare generally cultivated in theaters and video outlets. A critic should be disinterested and not have a stake in the outcome of a movie at the box office, but Humanite's fate (smile) may well determine if serious artists have a chance anymore?and if there's any hope for audiences. There are three soon-to-open movies (Andre Techine's Alice and Martin, Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us and David Gordon Green's George Washington) that also demand intelligence of viewers, but their prospects for affecting the culture might depend upon whether Humanité can first win contemporary interest in human experience without superficial manipulation. This groundbreaking film will have to pave for the way for other serious films that follow.


Orphans?Peter Mullan's humorous Scots family tragedy disappeared so quickly it was impossible to tell if it was the victim of little promotion or just rudely, xenophobically rejected. It's no wonder if American Beauty's artificial depiction of domestic crisis sets a standard for how audiences regard their personal anxieties. Mullan's tale of four adult siblings attempting to survive their parents' deaths (that is, determine their own social and spiritual stability) breaks past American Beauty's fashionable pessimism which, in the end, was only a fancily presented daydream of middle-class self-pity. Orphans almost miraculously combined behavioral critique with a wide-ranging and memorable evocation of disparate social experiences.


Mission to Mars?Not just genre-stunted, audiences and critics had to be blind not to appreciate this. Brian De Palma's sci-fi meditation on mankind's innermost/outreaching ambitions was distinguished by a sensual, kinetic visual style (and Ennio Morricone's uniquely expressive score) that commented on and nearly surpassed previous space adventure movies from Kubrick to Tarkovsky. It's no longer possible to believe critics' rabid exclamations over state-of-art special effects since demonstrating their inability to appreciate when camera movement and editing convey state-of-the-heart wonder and dread. Mission to Mars made unforgettable images of deep loss and transcendent bliss?for any viewers who kept their minds wide open.


The Little Thief?Erick Zonca's follow-up to The Dreamlife of Angels told the story of a boy's exploitation in the big city with even greater precision (running only 100 minutes) but similar narrative richness and efficacy. Examining poverty's common escape routes for boys?boxing, burglary?Zonca evokes urban treachery with delicacy and detail that ache. Nicolas Duvauchelle plays Esse, a street kid whose story is one of those perceptive urban fables modern French filmmakers do so much better than Americans, who drown observation in generic cliches. Zonca, like Techine in I Don't Kiss and Gael Morel in Full Speed, fashions a singular genre devoted to politically adept humanism. The moral reverberation between a street assault and a practiced gesture at menial labor was Zonca's gift?contributing to the dreamlife of sensitive viewers.


Black and White?Still the most intentionally provocative American movie of the year?while also being the most personally expressive. James Toback goes where purveyors of racial/sexual transgression only pretend to; he exposes the childish pretenses of features like Boiler Room, Ghost Dog and American Pimp. After 40 years, a cinematic rejoinder to "The White Negro" appears that is also fully contemporary. However, it's plain (especially after the disastrous critical acceptance of Shaft) that the last thing audiences and critics are ready to entertain on the subject of race is honesty. But the embarrassment Toback risks could also liberate and enlighten America's deepest conflicts. Retitle this Fear of a Racial and Sexual Planet.


Time Regained?Raul Ruiz directed but Marcel Proust dictates and fascinates one's interest. Maybe no other movie this year proves the change in film (the rise or fall of Western culture) than the blasé attitude toward this extravagant, all-star but never banal or kitschy adaptation of In Search of Lost Time. Few people seem to care anymore about sustaining cinema's relation to the larger cultural heritage. The beach fiction few people found time to finish has become the summer movie most shamefully lacking must-see hype. Ruiz's felicitous visual adaptation makes such disregard especially sad. The artistes perfectly embodying Proust's characters ought to be audience magnets, only Emmanuelle Beart and Vincent Perez, Marie France Pisier and Pascal Greggory don't carry firearms like the other summer stars.


Trixie?You know as you watch Emily Watson as Trixie that you're not gonna forget her. She seems foreign, otherworldly?her alienation exactly right, but perhaps too right. Yet this is the closest a movie has come to portraying some women's secret anarchistic temperament toward vengeance. (Panicky Lesley Ann Warren says, "You're goofy. Has anyone told you that?" To which empathetic Trixie answers, "It's not irrelevant."). Trixie is also the closest a current movie comes to Sinead O'Connor's new single, "No Man's Woman," twisting language to assert rebellious humanism. Director Alan Rudolph's always-creative, always experimental style has never been so misunderstood as now, in the era of cgi formula. Confounded by Trixie's plot, critics neglect its poignance.


Beau Travail?Claire Denis is an old-school art filmmaker. Her gorgeously composed, politically aware updating of the moral issues in Melville's Billy Budd isn't likely to appeal to audiences any more than will Leos Carax's upcoming Pola X, a beautiful adaptation of Pierre, or, The Ambiguities. The case for Beau Travail falls upon ears deafened by The Perfect Storm. Denis' stillness (and cinematographer Agnes Godard's precise imagery) is altogether too contemplative for a movie culture given over to noisy, empty spectacle.


Judy Berlin?American cinema's most sensible appreciation of small-town, female anxiety (at least until Robert Altman's outrageously original Dr. T and the Women opens). Eric Mendelsohn's debut feature had a little success, holding on past its initial Shooting Gallery premiere, but its too-soon evaporation only proves how the cultural discussion around film is decreed by the ticket purchases of teen audiences. Teens are, understandably, indifferent to Judy Berlin's crew of adult and middle-aged women (Madeline Kahn, Barbara Barrie and Edie Falco give touching performances, yet don't adorn magazine covers). But grownup critics were also indifferent; they should have been discussing Judy Berlin enthusiastically, endlessly, but opted for the superficial Erin Brockovich instead.


That's nine terrific movies?by July, it's a bumper crop. Victor Erice's Dream of Light also rewarded viewing, as did Walter Hill's interfered-with Supernova, David Williams' Thirteen, Bonnie Hunt's benevolent Return to Me and Mike Hodges' compelling character-study Croupier. The rest of the half-year's best comprises the wonderful minor comedies Ready to Rumble with David Arquette, and Jim Carrey in Me, Myself & Irene.


So where does this leave movie culture right now? Suffering a post-Titanic diminution of intelligence with the likes of Gladiator, The Patriot and The Perfect Storm?a Hollywood triptych of inanity. These movies are unimportant?no matter how many itchy teens rush to see them. (Besides, how can Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson and George Clooney compete with such real-life excitement and satisfaction as the April 22 liberation of Elian Gonzalez from his Miami kidnappers?) The excellent movies listed above do more than thrill?they supply wonder and clarity. It's tragic to realize that most of them have disappeared from theaters, unlikely to be seen again except in the diminished formats of home viewing. Though other good movies may yet come, so much beauty has already gone. Hype culture leaves us bereft; knowing so will, hopefully, inspire your own moviegoing perseverance.


The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle directed by Des McAnuff


While recently lamenting that 60s tv series have replaced the stage-play as favored Hollywood adaptations, it didn't occur to me that Des McAnuff's The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle would, here and there, be so pleasurable. Make no mistake, it's utterly trivial and generally fails to sustain wit and imagination or grow into a comic fantasia of its own. Still, it comes from good genes. Jay Ward's happily recalled series was an oasis of mainstream anarchy?its legacy recently apparent in 1998's short-lived but extraordinary Histeria! series and most of all in The Simpsons (especially those daring Halloween episodes). McAnuff and screenwriter Ken Lonergan should have borrowed the short-sketch approach rather than using an elongated, desperately fabricated narrative. They might then have sustained the pomo daring of the opening segment that introduces/retraces Rocky and Bullwinkle's network fate, then delivers them from animation into the live-action plot (they look touchable, like the 3-D Homer episode of The Simpsons).


McAnuff maintains an antic tone (better suited here than in his previous film, the dreadful Cousin Bette). However, the best performances are Rocky and Bullwinkle's. Jason Alexander and Rene Russo haven't enough shtick to make Boris bad-enough or make Natasha fatale. As Fearless Leader, Robert De Niro seems in such good spirits it's dispiriting that he just ain't funny. His "You talking to me?" routine (done in fascist commander getup) is worse than flat, it's misconceived. Brando's self-parody in The Freshman conveyed a satire of all that The Godfather had aberrantly come to stand for: glamorized criminality, heedless celebrity. Instead, De Niro ought to have satirized the denigration of his Goodfellas performance in Michael Mann's atrocious Heat. De Niro should still respect Taxi Driver's profundity. Fearless Leader's swivel-chair pivot is a nice touch, but it's actually more redolent of Travis' "Henry Krinkle" routine.


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