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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



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.


..