Saturday, May 11, 2013

World of choices

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

I think I’m finally honed this movie watching thing to a state that pleases me. For years I’ve moaned about how the art of cinema gets crowded out, even for true believers, by the shrewd, calculating weight of the commercial machine. I’ve moaned about it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been that good at resisting it.

As I write this, on the weekend of May 2, some 15 new movies just opened in New York, based on The New York Times review section. There is, categorically, no meaningful aesthetic, intellectual or life-enhancing standard by which X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the most significant of those offerings. Of course, by the nature of the investment it represents, it carries the most urgent commercial imperative, but this ought to mean about as much to film lovers as a new flavour of frozen juice means to a gourmet chef. And yet, even serious film writers give Wolverine pride of place (in, for example, The New York Times review section). Let’s not fool ourselves this is some reflection of democracy or cultural temperature. It’s an orchestrated crafting of the public discourse, and Hollywood’s great at keeping it going.

Spoiled for choice

I don’t mind it; I just wish I were better at ignoring it. But I’m getting better. Yes, I saw the previous X-men movies, although they never meant a thing to me. But no Wolverine - I mean it. After years of seeing three or even four new movies a week in a hopeless attempt to cover all the bases, I’ve kept it to two a week, at the most, this year. Further, those one or two are often far from the “obvious” two to see, if I were writing say for the Toronto Star. So by my weak standards, that’s some sustained fortitude. And this opens up more time for what really interests me more and more, which is to revisit and deepen my appreciation of cinema’s huge, gorgeous past. Of course, except in the most tokenistic of ways, it’s contrary to Hollywood’s ongoing needs to promote too acute an interest in previous decades, because if people really tuned into the extent of the decline, they’d just ignore all the new junk, stay at home and watch well-chosen DVDs.

In an environment where 10 or 15 new movies get into theaters (maybe not here, but somewhere), every week, and some multiple of that circulates around the festival circuit, it seems increasingly hopeless to me even to aim for capturing the cream of the crop. I mean, what are we supposed to put weight on? The Oscars? Hardly. A few well-chosen critics with sensibilities seemingly close to one’s own? It helps narrow things down, but no more than that. And how do you define the cream of the crop anyway? As I’ve often written here, movies’ lasting impact and stimulation often comes from their flaws (however you define that!) as from their unexceptional strengths. To be honest, I miss the old days (not that I was around for them) when everyone could simply agree to watch Bergman and Fellini; it must have saved a lot of time, and the payoff sure wasn’t too bad. But now we’re defined by democratization and fragmentation. Sadly, it means it’s increasingly harder to have an informed, engaged conversation about any aspect of culture, except for junk topics like Susan Boyle – no one’s ever seen the same thing. Choice and self-determination can be lonely things.

Anyway, that Saturday I went to a movie I’d never even heard of until a few days previously – Adrift in Tokyo, the latest example of the downtown AMC’s admirable policy of devoting one or two screens to obscure foreign films. To be honest, I read the movie was essentially two characters wandering around Tokyo, and since my wife and I spent a few days last year doing exactly that, I thought, well, that sounds good enough. The movie was sweet and engaging, but I wonder if any of us will ever hear of it again. Then the following day, having no idea how to choose between such possibilities as Act of God, Tulpan and The Lemon Tree, I just threw up my hands and stayed at home. Will this be a trend? I really don’t know. I’m not even sure what I’m hoping for.

State of Play

I’m not saying the occasional Hollywood movie doesn’t grab me, on thematic or other grounds. Star Trek probably will, but that’s a story for another week. The week before I saw Adrift in Tokyo, I put my money down for State of Play, directed by Kevin McDonald. It’s a two-hour Americanized adaptation of a six-hour British TV drama; I never saw that, but many writers detected a loss of complexity and nuance in translation. What’s left isn’t too shabby though. Russell Crowe (memorably described in The New Yorker as resembling a dumpling in a wig) is a crack journalist for the fictional Washington Globe, covering a local double murder; meanwhile the paper’s online political blogger, played by Rachel McAdams, stalks the latest political scandal involving hot young Congressman Ben Affleck, who happens to be Crowe’s best friend. The two stories turn out to be (a) linked and (b) just the ribbon on top of a bigger package.

It’s an old-fashioned creation, focusing on nuts and bolts gruntwork, and faithful to the continuing primacy of print media. I liked how the suspense highpoint involves Crowe merely hiding in a parking garage from a pursuing assassin, scared out of his wits; no Cage-like transformations of ordinary Joe into Superman. The film looks handsome enough, but could have used the greater stylization of someone like Michael Mann, or in particular of Alan Pakula, who owned the franchise on paranoia in the 1970’s (All the President’s Men, The Parallax View). There’s an evil corporation in the mix, but it’s an awfully dull creation: maybe that’s part of the point though, the banal face of high-stakes mendacity now. Likewise, the stream of flavourful secondary characters could profitably have been made a little spicier. Crowe himself though is very nuanced and enjoyable (and not at all like anything made from batter, or pastry, or whatever it is).

Getting Worse

Recent events may have overtaken the film a little bit. Assassins and bribery and political influence peddling seem positively quaint compared to, you know, almost bankrupting the world as we know it. And sadly the plight of the newspapers is currently even worse than the film depicts (in the course of the movie, McAdams’ character becomes something of a convert to the old ways, but in the real world she’d surely be more of a new-media zealot than that). Still, at the end it subtly tempers any sense of triumph; nowadays the spotlight of achievement just makes you aware of how much darker everything else is getting to be. Much as I enjoyed it, I wondered if in some subliminal way the essential message wasn’t that it’s safer to stay at home.

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