Monday, May 23, 2016

Big box-office

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)

If I continue at this pace, I’ll end up going to the movies less often this year than any since 1994, when I lived in Bermuda. Bermuda only had three movie theatres, so I was basically on a starvation diet. Not to mention that they generally stuck to bland, mainstream choices. Occasionally I flew to New York and binged, cramming in four or five movies a day (plus a play), but that wasn’t enough. So I came here. This year isn’t shaping up to be quite that parched – I’ve still been going once or twice a week on average, without counting my Cinematheque trips. But the point is, I’d usually be going two or three times a week.

Recently, I checked Variety’s top ten box office list for the week and realized I’d only seen one of the ten movies – and that was Chicago, which I saw back in December. That’s fairly shocking for someone who tries to keep his finger on the pulse. But movies like Bringing down the House, Old School, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days…these didn’t seem likely to me to have a pulse. Maybe, as the aging cops always say in movies, I’m getting too old for this stuff (they don’t usually say “stuff,” but you know what I mean). Except it’s surely that the movies are getting too young.

The Hunted

Anyway, I was perturbed enough at this situation that I then went to see The Hunted, which hadn’t initially made the cut for me. The main appeal was the fact that William Friedkin directed it. Friedkin won an Oscar for The French Connection, made it even bigger with The Exorcist, and flamed out with Sorceror. In the twenty-five years since then he’s made a stream of mostly forgettable movies (Jade, Blue Chips, Deal of the Century; the nadir was probably The Guardian, about a supernaturally possessed tree). But as you may have noticed by now, I’m overly nostalgic about directors who remind me of the 70s, when I was first getting into movies. Friedkin is pretty marginal to that project though, which is why the movie hadn’t grabbed me initially.

But in my sudden desire for a commercial fix, he seemed suddenly like a badge of class. And the movie has two Oscar-winning actors: Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones. Such a mix seems to suggest a deeper purpose. And that’s evident at times in the film. Del Toro plays an ex-soldier, a killing specialist, who’s gone off the rails and committed a string of murders. Jones is the man who trained him, now called back into action to track him down. When we first see Jones, he’s tracking an injured wolf; he catches up with the animal and it stands meekly as Jones tends to him. The point, instantly established, is that Jones is a man of elemental values and an inherent affinity with nature. Del Toro later expresses his own concerns about the treatment of animals; for instance, about the number of chickens killed on an average day.

The two, especially del Toro, have far less dialogue than you’d expect of roles requiring Oscar-winning actors, and their fights together have a fascinating ritualistic quality. Neither carries a gun – they rely on knives and makeshift weapons. Their ultimate confrontation has a thrilling air of unleashed savagery about it. You can see the subtext here – an evocation of primitivism. It definitely adds a layer of interest to the movie. The problem is that this theme doesn’t really yield anything specific, and ends up seeming like not too much more than an affectation. The linking material is highly mundane, and although the scenes between the two are stripped down, the movie still finds space elsewhere for conventional excesses.

Unappetizing behaviour

When I saw the film, I sat in front of a couple who talked pretty much through the whole thing. As far as I could make out, they were mocking it in a patronizing, college student kind of way, and since they started in this vein from the very first scene, I can only imagine they chose the movie with this pastime in mind. I suppose there may be a worse way of filling time while exercising one’s wits, but I don’t know what it is. Pointing out the contrivances, the simplifications of mainstream movies – this could be the very activity for which the phrase “taking candy from a baby” was invented. The only principled way of demonstrating one’s superiority is to stay away.

Still, The Hunted makes it easy for such unappetizing behaviour, through excessive grimness and occasional pomposity. This has always been a problem of Friedkin’s. He’s often pegged as arrogant, and little about his films suggests a sense of humour; indeed, the huge success of The Exorcist must have rested in part in the very idea, almost unprecedented at the time, of treating such material so solemnly. In the age of irony, stony seriousness generally seems like a sign that someone’s not seeing the big picture.

Even so, I enjoyed the movie enough that I decided to make it a box-office friendly weekend, and I went the next day to see The Core. This is an old-fashioned disaster movie in which the Earth’s core has stopped spinning, screwing up the electromagnetic field. People with pacemakers drop dead; birds go crazy in Trafalgar Square; freak atmospheric effects destroy Rome’s Coliseum, and then most of San Francisco gets razed. A disparate bunch of scientists and military people must tunnel to the centre of the Earth and, through a nuclear detonation, restart the stalled core; otherwise it’s curtains for us all.

The Core

For a movie with such a dire outlook, The Core is amazingly upbeat and jaunty. There’s no sense of horror, or pain, or of anything on the debit side of the emotional register. The premise is staggeringly implausible, and the movie doesn’t seem to care. After a while, the consistency of its attitude becomes highly engaging. It’s as if the movie had assumed a weird, but not entirely unworthy, task. A few years ago, we could all enjoy movies of mad destruction – Die Hard 2 or Armageddon could kill tens of thousands of unseen victims in bomb blasts or alien attacks and it was all part of the fun. Then we entered a phase where that seemed too real to be entertaining. The Core wheels it all out again, and even though the movie’s body count must be daunting, the movie feels as safe as a Disney cartoon.

I didn’t hear anyone laughing during The Core, although it wouldn’t have been hard to. I don’t know exactly what it is in us that seeks out such experiences, that allows us to be captivated despite our objective assessments. But whatever it is, I guess we’d be much worse off without it.

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