Saturday, December 20, 2008

Stop the Fuss

Remember when IFC, Sundance, Bravo, AMC and TCM used to show good movies? I moved to Boston in 1997 and all of these channels were included in my basic cable. Since I had moved there to go to film school, it was pretty exciting. IFC would show movies that didn’t exist on video like Cassavetes' Husbands. AMC always had Capra, Wilder, Chaplin or Keaton any given night. Bravo used to run Fellini, Bergman, Godard and the like. The first month I lived in Boston TCM ran a Bergman retrospective. I must have taped two dozen movies out of that. It’s a little different story these days. AMC will show anything. “Classic” is apparently used to indicate that the movies they show are older than the ones in theaters. Today I have two chances to watch Guarding Tess, Scent of a Woman and Girl Interrupted. Later this week I can watch Moulin Rouge! Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and the timeless tale of Russians dropping out of the sky to occupy a small Midwestern town only to be thwarted by a scrappy pack of teens with bows and arrows, Red Dawn. Bravo!, which inexplicably still calls itself, “the film and arts network” has little time for movies these days, what with Top Chef, Shear Genius, Work Out, Project Runway, Top Design, Real Housewives, Queer Eye and edited versions of Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk. I just checked their schedule for the week. There are three movies on this week: Days of Thunder, Cold Mountain, and The Brady Bunch Movie. As for the arts, I guess that would be the marathon of Work Out.
As for IFC; they have become a haven of mediocre, faux-art for the pseudo-serious film buff. As if all that needed another safe haven. One of the best things about IFC is the way they inflate the value of the movies they show, by advertising them like sports announcers. For instance, last night I watched bits and pieces of what the folks at IFC believe to be one of the greatest American movies of the last 25 years by one of the country’s great living filmmakers, Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. I am not as excited about this film as IFC and indeed many other knowledgeable film viewers. In my view it isn’t so much a masterpiece as an extremely superficial character study, cliché-ridden story telling, oppressive style and terrible dialogue that is often saved to some degree by the quality of acting.
In fact the best thing about Anderson’s movies, at least this one and Magnolia, is that he allows his actors to act. Anderson is smart enough, or perhaps gracious enough, to trust his actors. He uses long takes which allow the performers to create beats. Instead of using shot-reverse-shot, Anderson uses a lot of mediums that show two or more characters on screen at once, so that the audience can experience real interaction. Both of these techniques make his films far more dynamic than the bulk of mainstream drivel with which they compete at the box office. The problem is that everything else about the movie is antithetical to this achievement. It is indeed a wonder that the actors can act at so well when they are given such one dimensional characters and such obvious dialogue. Every line Mark Wahlberg utters might as well be, “I’m a dumb guy with ridiculously high aspirations;” all of John C. Reilly’s lines amount to, “I’m a dumb guy who likes to be around other dumb guys;” Phillip Seymour Hoffman might as well say, “I’m the gay guy in this movie,” every time he opens his mouth, and so on with every character. Each of them is wrought so thin as to be mere caricature. And this is exactly what one would think the writer/director should try to avoid when dealing with “everyday,” “common” or “simple-minded” people. Why does Anderson have to show how dumb these guys are at every turn? Wahlberg, Reilly, Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham and Luis Guzmán play seven excruciatingly dumb people. Why do they have to be so dumb? Does Anderson think that regular people are dumb? The water works guys in Woman Under the Influence are not remotely this dumb. The fishermen in Short Cuts are not this dumb. The guy in Bell Diamond is not this dumb! Or rather, the characters I have mentioned in all three of these movies are as dumb as the ones in Boogie Nights, but their dumbness is not spoken in every line of dialogue.
This problem is indicative of the fundamental flaw in the movie: everything points in the same direction. In Cassavetes films, to lesser extent in Altman and certainly in Jost the character’s personalities are not determined by their profession. More than that, their concerns, their hope and their dreams are not dictated by the ostensible subject of the film. Nothing about Boogie Nights ever lets us forget that we are watching a movie about people who work in the porn industry in the 70’s and 80’s. The costumes, the sets, the music all add up to an idealized nostalgia – recreation of something that never existed so perfect and glossy. The movie isn’t what the 70’s porn industry looked like; it’s what someone who thinks that it was a cool time wants it to look like. The utter falseness of it is of course what makes it so irresistible. Actually, it ends up being very much like a Spielberg film because the authenticity it claims to posses is just a calculated and crafted edifice.
It is interesting that the gambit seems to be: if we can construct this edifice, and present it whole-heartedly as a monument to nostalgia, then no one will notice all the cliché. I do not want to dwell on this movie too much, but the last quarter is downright corny. Everything bad happens to every character at the same time. Then each one of them comes through his or her personal struggle wiser and/or happier i.e. better off financially. Just consider how ludicrous that is for a moment. When was the last time you said to your friend, “Just the other day I was involved in a coke-deal that went horribly wrong. Two people got killed and I barely made it out alive.” Then your friend responds, “That’s funny, because last night I was in a convenience store, and everyone in it somehow managed to shoot one another dead, but I made it out unscathed.” Preposterous – every bit of it.
In terms of narrative complexity, Boogie Nights is about on the level of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though mercifully shorter. I was helped to this conclusion by catching the last half hour of Return of the King after I stopped watching Boogie Nights about halfway through. Do you realize that there are people in the world who take this film seriously? There are people who tell me to look past the conventions and cull out the ideas which are supposedly interesting. I find that to be an awful lot to look past. Is the suggestion that I should look past the battle scenes, the insufferably melodramatic performances, the silly mood music, the ridiculous characterization and all the rest of blustery blockbuster qualities of this movie to find… what?... the great mythos of Western culture? I’m not buying. That movie is fun, because the battle scenes are entertaining. I’ve played numerous video games based on this trilogy. They are just as entertaining, and without the pretension to seriousness or the bloated morality.
Let me remind you what happens in the final battle. It’s the last stand against Sauron, the only evil in the world. The forces of good are outnumbered exponentially. Yet they fight on. Why? “For Frodo” – he actually says it, and then everyone yells and charges into the melee. It starts off well, but they are outnumbered. If only Frodo could get to the fires of Mordor in time! He’s getting there, slowly but surely. Meanwhile back at the battle the forces of good are starting to give way. The King is down for the first time in the entire series. Will Frodo make it in time? Yes; yes he will, but just barely, and he will end up hanging by one hand from a ledge, and being pulled to safety by his trustworthy companion. While I catch my breath, you can count the clichés in that fifteen-minute sequence. That, in a nutshell, is why I will not take these films seriously. People get really mad – fighting mad with me about this crap, and I have to back off to avoid violence. That’s insane. It’s the ethic that the film teaches, but it’s insane. This stuff was not made for adults. Hell the books weren’t made for adults! The movies are even dumber than the books, and I have had colleagues with PhD’s screaming at me that these are important movies.
Here’s the thing. There are no clichés in Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Kiarostami or Akerman. None is Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Sokurov, Tsai, Angelopoulos or Dreyer. Why are we so willing to forgive clichés? We should hate them. We should mistrust the people who foist them upon us. We should point them out when we see them and warn everyone else where they lurk.

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