Monday, July 20, 2015

Affluence threatened

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)

I’ve often planned to count up the number of positive reviews I’ve written over the years (six years now, believe it or not) versus the number of negative ones. It’s not a high priority, which is why it never gets done. It’d probably only be depressing anyway – too many pans and caveats. I truly wish I only wrote good reviews, if only because presumably it would mean I was only seeing good movies. In recent years, I’ve become better at avoiding the true stinkers, but I don’t get bowled over as often as I wish. Maybe it’s just me – maybe I need a diet, more vitamins or something.

Fight Club

The bad reviews I wish I hadn’t written because it would mean I hadn’t wasted time seeing the movie – that’s one thing. But if any of this kept me up at night (and it doesn’t, but if it did) it would be the thought of the bad reviews I wish I hadn’t written because I now think I got it wrong. A few months ago I changed my mind big time on Pulp Fiction, and I felt honor-bound to write about that (it consumed half my article on The Shipping News – my mind wanders sometimes). At the same time, I started thinking again about my review of Fight Club – a movie I was quite nasty about. It felt somehow logical that a liking for Pulp Fiction would be largely correlated with a liking for Fight Club, meaning I might have another major recanting job to do.

So I got round to rewatching it a couple of months ago, and was relieved that I didn’t really feel obliged to do any recanting at all. At best, I’d soften my review a bit. I think my original vitriol was as much directed at the excesses of local critics than at the film itself. Fight Club is skillful, but its constant criticism of our dubious values and deficient self-actualization quickly becomes repetitive and murky, and (unlike Pulp Fiction) the film gradually becomes almost entirely consumed by plot mechanics. I didn’t dislike the final twist as much the second time though – I was better able to step back and take it metaphorically (although the ending still doesn’t seem to me to mesh very well with the more immediate social satire at the start of the film). And the visual style and imagination are admirable – it’s quite a compendium of ideas and images and moods. But it still doesn’t do a lot for me.

Panic Room

Fight Club director David Fincher has now followed it with Panic Room, a thriller with Jodie Foster. Panic Room is nowhere near as ambitious as Fight Club was. It’s set almost entirely inside a single house – a huge New York brownstone where newly divorced Jodie Foster moves with her teenage daughter. The house contains a “panic room” – a virtually impenetrable stronghold in which the owners can hide in the event of a home invasion. On the first night in residence, Foster wakes up to find strangers in the house, and she and the kid bolt into the panic room. The problem is, the previous inhabitant left several million dollars hidden in there – which means the thieves are determined to get in.

This entails numerous twists and turns: the men try various ways of luring the women out; Foster and the girl try to contact the outside world; the daughter gets sick and Foster has to leave the room to retrieve her medicine. Foster’s ex-husband calls by and promptly gets beaten by the invaders. It’s all efficiently executed. In particular, Fincher magnificently exploits the contours of the house, constructing numerous seemingly unbroken camera movements that travel effortlessly through the interior space (although by now these look like a Fincher “staple” – Fight Club had several such effects).

There’s a pattern emerging in Fincher’s work. Se7en was a highly creative thriller that claimed to see only wretchedness in the world. He followed it with The Game, an almost equally creative film that wallowed happily in its rich protagonist’s milieu. Then came Fight Club, seemingly a repudiation of the complacency of the film that preceded it. Now comes Panic Room, and Fincher’s comfortable again with the trappings of great wealth. His social conscience seems like a suit of clothes, slipped on and off at will, and already seeming a little threadbare even when it’s on. Although I will say that I saw Se7en lately again as well, and that film still seems almost as darkly insinuating and chilling as it did the first time.

By myself

Admittedly, some writers do see more to Panic Room than I do. Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker that the film is “not so much scary as endlessly worrying; the movie was designed, propitiously, to suck in all the insecurities that you can imagine, and a few that you can’t.” Which makes it sound like an extension of the Fight Club agenda. But the premise depends so completely on wealth and privilege that most viewers’ identification with it (and the extent of its disturbing effect on them) will be strictly superficial.

I doubt I’m giving much away by saying that the protagonists of Panic Room survive the ordeal (with such films it’s not a matter of whether, but merely of how). And in the end Foster and the kid lounge on a bench in Central Park, reading the ads for other attractive Manhattan properties (albeit smaller ones). I searched hard for some irony there, but it sure looks like a straightforward image of affluence and order restored, subject to only minor modification.

Finally, thinking again about those virtuoso Fincher camera movements, digital technology has really killed much of the magic of the mobile camera. Effects like Hitchcock’s dizzying plunge into the clocktower in Vertigo, or Antonioni’s glide through the window at the end of The Passenger – they’re child’s play now. But those shots had a physical immediacy (if only because you could feel the work that went into them) that no amount of computer-generated flourish can equal.

Another favourite example of mine is from The Band Wagon – the unbroken tracking shot of Fred Astaire as he glides along the railway platform singing “By Myself.” There’s a beautifully intuitive marriage of style and content there – it’s as appropriately eloquent as you could possibly wish for. And within a film of deep and consistent richness. It’d be great to review new movies as passionately as you’d review Vertigo and The Passenger and The Band Wagon, but that’s just not being earned.

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