Sunday, September 6, 2015

Group effort

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

Working in the corporate world, you hear a lot about the importance of vision and goals and strategy (all expertly lampooned by Ken Loach in The Navigators). The weird thing is: it’s all true. A misguided tone at the top will trump all the enthusiasm in the lower ranks. And so it is in movies. It’s a collaborative art, and it’s appealing to think it should be viable to make films truly collectively, reflecting not one but a multiplicity of voices. But that seldom happens in the mainstream. Even if people don’t believe the director is king, they believe in the structural efficiency of the single guiding voice (or, as with the likes of the Wachowski brothers, the two voices that speak as one).

Is it preordained that film and business must follow similar principles? True, the arts are all like that, but to say it again – film seems uniquely collaborative by its nature. But maybe the question should be whether there’s any aspect of human organization that isn’t hierarchical.


I was thinking about this during the new British film Crush, which seems to have lots of good individual elements, but is led firmly into the ditch by the weird instincts of its writer-director John McKay. The trailer suggests a movie tailor-made for groups of middle-aged women. I don’t know how often groups of middle-aged women go to the movies, but I know that whenever I run into such groups, they’re very noisy. Anyway, the trailer emphasizes the scenes in which the film’s three friends hang out together, drinking and smoking and swapping stories about their miserable luck with men. Which turns out to be only where the picture begins.

After that, it careers through sexual obsession, the breakdown of the friendship, an illness, a death, before resurrecting the friendship (but not very convincingly). The film was originally going to be called Sad F***ers Club, which sounds more Tarantino than chick movie. The change from that title to Crush constitutes a change of marketing strategy of hilarious proportions. The former would actually have been a more appropriate title, although it’s more daring and attention-grabbing than the movie deserves.

It would be appealing to take the film’s confusion as an illustration of the tumultuous range of the female psyche. Unfortunately for that theory, John McKay is a man. The film looks like a documentary about the cultural rites of an obscure tribe, made by someone who’s never actually visited it. All three actresses (most notably Andie MacDowell) look like they’re slumming – as if all this moping strikes them as a wacky diversion from whatever their lives usually consist of.

The Sum of all Fears

The Sum of all Fears is an interesting (and perhaps rare) example of commercial instinct under severe pressure. Largely shot before September 11, the film revolves around a nuclear bomb detonated in the middle of Baltimore. This doesn’t seem as abstract a notion as it did a year ago, although it’s fairly amazing how equanimity reasserts itself. Anyway, the movie was apparently edited to make this less vivid than originally intended, among other things.

The portrayal of the explosion actually works rather well, conveying a muted, distanced feeling that’s more eloquent than the details of destruction could ever have been. The problem is, the whole film feels equally muted and distanced. Ben Affleck plays a low-level CIA operative who’s suddenly catapulted into the middle of ultimate-stakes brinksmanship between the US and Russia. The plot turns on a secret Nazi conspiracy – a threat so distanced from our real sources of nuclear anxiety that it seems almost endearing. The US and Russian presidents stand around looking callow and bemused, which is a nice touch up to a point, except that the film doesn’t really want to be damning or satirical. The only really good sequence is a Godfather-like montage of multiple assassination scenes at the end, but it’s immediately undercut by a droopy romantic epilogue. It’s all very underwhelming, and suggests no one much in charge.

Beijing Bicycle, like Shower and an increasing number of others, is a feel-good Chinese film. This may sound odd, given that it ends with the protagonist almost having the life beaten out of him. But we’re dealing here with that universal movie staple: the Triumph of the Human Spirit. A poor young man gets a job as a bicycle courier, slowly earning ownership in the bicycle. A few days before it becomes his, it’s stolen. He searches the whole of Beijing and, amazingly, finds it in a schoolboy’s possession. He takes it back, but the schoolboy regards it as his own (he paid the thief for it) and takes it again. From this point, things escalate rather like a sparse version of Changing Lanes.

The film is designed for easy consumption. It references Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief and builds itself around a simple structure from which it seldom strays (the film’s sole subplot, involving an affluent woman spied on by the delivery boy and a friend, is arguably its most intriguing element). While the delivery boy’s motives are rooted in plain poverty and desperation, his adversary really only cares about status and the affections of a local girl – the same motives that would inspire a Freddie Prinze Jr. film. Absent any references to politics, the film thus manages to present a picture of an upwardly mobile China, and to me it feels a bit too good to be true.

Dogtown & Z-Boys

China ought to be an ideological bastion of a communal approach to popular cinema. But if Beijing Bicycle resembles a communal effort at all, it would be a commune of pollsters, diligently tailoring to audience reaction. Still, it’s better at what it does than the American Sum of all Fears or the British Crush, so maybe the 21st century really will belong to China.

The only faint exhibit for the defense is Dogtown & Z-Boys, a documentary about a dozen Californians who revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s. The film has an exceptionally peppy style, and manages to be somewhat overblown about the significance of these antics without crossing into pretentiousness. An example of why it’s so endearing – at one point narrator Sean Penn coughs during his voice-over.

The film was directed by Stacy Peralta, who was one of the Dogtown group. Nothing in the film identifies him as the director – not even the lengthy sequence dealing with Peralta himself. The movie is certainly a symbolic reunion, even if the former members don’t appear on camera together in the present day. It’d be appealing to think of this engaging movie as a collective self-directed valentine. But we learn in the film that Peralta was always a little bit more mature than the others, which I guess is the only way he got to make a movie.

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