Sunday, April 24, 2016

Movies of today

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men at the Cinematheque. I’ve read about this film ever since I became interested in movies, but I’d never had a chance to see it before. Just one of those things, I supposed. It was worth the wait – the film is one of Ray’s most powerful, melancholy works.

Before the screening, Cinematheque programmer James Quandt stood up and talked about the print. He said that in the course of putting the Ray season together, he’d discovered that The Lusty Men had become extremely hard to find. Specifically, he’d only been able to locate four prints of the film: two in 16mm, one in Belgium, and the one we were about to see. He apologized for what he called the “fair” condition of the print. It was mostly OK, but looked at times as though it was falling apart on the screen. Maybe from the pressure of being the only 35mm Lusty Men on the continent.

The Lusty Men

Well, this was the same weekend as the global protests against the war in Iraq, and any number of other things that count for more than the fate of an old movie. But I was fairly stunned at this revelation. The Lusty Men is part of the standard vocabulary of movie writing, referred to routinely as an important, even necessary film. I don’t ever remember reading about it being particularly rare in the way that, say, Vertigo was for a while. Maybe the truth is people haven’t realized. Maybe the movie’s slipped from our grasp, and we haven’t noticed.

If the movies were just about the art, maybe we should put creation on hold for a few years and just pour the money into safeguarding the art we already have. Of course, it’s more about the commerce. And art doesn’t function with such rationality anyway.

The threat to The Lusty Men illustrates one of the ways in which the fate of movies seems to me an unusually random thing. Another example is how slight changes in audience perception or acceptance make a huge difference – economically of course, but also in the judgment of history. Take a film like Narc, which opened this January. I was reading about it for months before the release – about the buzz from Sundance, about how Tom Cruise loved it, about how it reinvented the genre and was going to get an Oscar nomination at least for Ray Liotta and maybe for much more than that.

Well, the awards all passed Narc by, it didn’t get much of an audience, and that’s that – we’ll never ever hear much more about it. There have been hundreds of such movies – bathed in promise for a little while, but ending up in obscurity. But if things had gone a little differently, who knows?

I thought Narc was a pretty generic movie, tiresomely shot, and it made no impact on me at all. Ron Shelton’s current film Dark Blue is a much more interesting entry in the same vein. This movie never had any pre-release buzz at all, and the conventional wisdom is that anything getting its premiere in February can’t be worth too much. But it’s an entirely engrossing, muscular film, even if it flirts with melodrama a bit too openly.

Dark Blue

I don’t know much about director Ron Shelton, but based on what I know, I like the idea of him. He’s usually made movies set around sports, to the point where he seems almost obsessed: White Men Can’t Jump (basketball), Cobb and Bull Durham (baseball), Tin Cup (golf), Play it to the Bone (boxing). But he also made Blaze, about Southern politics in the 1950s, and he wrote Under Fire, the movie about journalists in 1979 Nicaragua. This seems to demand some remark about the axis between sports and politics, but I’m not sure what that should be. Maybe Shelton is primarily interested in exploring the nuances of a structure, people functioning within (and testing the edges of) a set of rules – sports and politics being two convenient vessels for this project.

And now he’s taken on the workings of the notorious Los Angeles Police Force, depicted here at the height of its notoriety – the five days leading to the Rodney King verdict (and ensuing riot) in 1991. Kurt Russell (in career-best form) plays one of those patented movie cops who’s gone way over the line and rationalized it to the ultimate degree. As in Training Day, there’s a younger partner who’s struggling with the ethos. The movie immerses itself in the cop culture with a fastidiousness reminiscent of Sidney Lumet movies like Prince of the City and Q&A, but there’s a greater relish to it. Of course, there’s nothing new about the lovable rogue either, but Shelton paints an entire machine of winks and nods, a community in which the backslapping and citations barely hold self-loathing and mutual betrayal at bay.

Shelton films the whole thing in a zippy, documentary-flavoured style, which achieves a substantial payoff at the end, where the verdict comes out and the streets go haywire. Truth is, I’m not sure the juxtaposition with the King incident really counts for much. It’s mainly a backdrop (although a terrific one which underlines the awfully fragile state of the LAPD’s relationship to the community), and as such the film can be accused of exploitation. But at the risk of sounding cynical, can’t they all nowadays?

The Life of David Gale

Take for example Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, in which Kevin Spacey plays a former anti-death penalty activist who’s now on Death Row himself, and Kate Winslet is a reporter running round trying to save his hide as time runs out. The people who hate this film really hate it. Roger Ebert gave it zero stars, and wrote: “this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein.”

But Ebert’s primary objection turns out to be ideological: “I am sure the filmmakers believe their film is against the death penalty. I believe it supports it and hopes to discredit the opponents of the penalty as unprincipled fraudsters.” The problem, I think, is that Ebert approaches the movie as a serious work, rather than as a piece of trash. I thought Parker’s last two films, Evita and Angela’s Ashes, were about as wretched as it gets, and thus I now expect nothing from him except flashy tackiness. With this mindset in place going in, David Gale turns out to be a reasonable piece of corn, nothing more. Given advances in preservation technology, we’re assured of having it with us forever, but we really won’t need it.

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