Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Taking off

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)

Readers may remember that a few years ago I amused myself by speculating on the directors that might have received a Nobel Prize for cinema, if such an award had been created in 1970. I won’t repeat the whole list here, but the first winner was Jean Renoir, followed by Charles Chaplin and Luis Bunuel. My list ended in 1999, but I’ve gone on adding a name every year, with the four subsequent entrants being Stan Brakhage, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Manuel de Oliveira and Claude Chabrol.

Nobel Prize

In previous years I’d found room on the list for Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, but there aren’t any other obvious contenders for me from the current American cinema. Francis Coppola and Woody Allen might at one time have seemed like sure things, but the fall-off in their work makes me pause. Arthur Penn and John Boorman are worth considering, but I’m not sure their bodies of achievement make it at the very highest level (although Chabrol eventually got there over similar reservations). Spike Lee or Jim Jarmusch might be clear possibilities if either one were to round out the resume with a flat-out masterpiece. Before Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the Coen Brothers looked like stronger contenders than they do now.

I wonder how many of you, at this point, are wondering about my failure to mention Steven Spielberg. His list of films is nothing short of staggering. Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park are all cultural landmarks of one kind or another. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan won him his Oscars and addressed many concerns about his lack of gravity. Some think that A.I. brilliantly fused his own sensibility with that of the late Stanley Kubrick. Most recently, Minority Report was as accomplished as ever, and although Catch me if you Can was one of his lightest efforts, I think it may have been one of his most subtly meaningful and beguiling. All this in addition to the classic Duel, the much underrated Empire of the Sun, and a fistful of others.

It’s an amazing line-up, and I don’t know why I don’t feel more genuinely enthusiastic about it. I think it’s because – and I’m not trying to throw this out in a flippant way – when I go back through those films I recall one awesome sequence after another, but the emotions attached to them – wonder, love of family, commemoration – don’t seem particularly stimulating. You clap at his films, but you don’t stop and think about them. But I wouldn’t deny that part of this may be a preconception on my part of what art is all about. With the greatest directors, I’d suggest, you feel a measure of respectful striving in every frame. Spielberg’s films feel like they come too easy. Despite his often-extraterrestrial themes, his films remain earthbound; knowing no constraints on his resources, it’s as if he had never had to undergo the sweat and self-examination that might have molded his facility into art.

The Terminal

Spielberg’s new film The Terminal is an odd project. Starring his apparent favourite actor Tom Hanks, it’s the story of an Eastern European who’s stuck for months at JFK airport when a civil war breaks out at home and his visa gets revoked – he can’t go forward, can’t go back. He builds himself a bed near an abandoned gate and puts together a functioning routine of friends, meal arrangements, diversions and good deeds. He also romances a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Set almost entirely inside the airport, the film is surely one of the director’s most regressive in some time. With a disregard for logic and plausibility striking even by Hollywood standards, it feels like an old-time studio movie – to me, the glossy aesthetic has a smell of the mid-60’s about it. This sense is highly bolstered by Zeta-Jones’ role – a poignant, strung-along type such as Shirley MacLaine must have played a dozen times. The film’s themes, such as they are, are utterly shopworn – wonder, love of family, commemoration.

Spielberg’s other skills are somewhat muted here too; I can’t think of a film of his with so little visual panache. At one point I started thinking of the huge set that Jacques Tati built for Playtime. The film ruined Tati financially and almost in every other way, and every frame rings with his wrenching desire to strike a perfect alchemy of the physical and the personal; (paradoxically) to use the biggest set ever as a tool to dissect the minutest compromises of human behaviour. Except for a repeated use of people slipping on freshly mopped floors, Spielberg shows little interest in the space’s possibilities. He said in an interview that he talked his way onto the project after getting the script from Hanks, and it’s as if it appealed to him to act like a director for hire, perhaps channeling the genial but bland stoicism of Hanks’ character. God knows Spielberg’s entitled to do anything he wants, but it will only confirm suspicions that he’s a craftsman rather than an artist.


In 1985, when Steven Spielberg received a much-discussed apparent snub at the Oscars (The Color Purple received nine Oscar nominations; he didn’t get one for directing it), Brazilian director Hector Babenco hit his high-water mark with Kiss Of The Spider Woman, which by winning an Oscar for William Hurt and inspiring a Broadway musical became another cultural tentpole. Babenco briefly became a Hollywood director with the dull Ironweed and the interesting but unadmired At Play in the Fields of The Lord, and then, except for a barely seen 1996 Argentinean film, that was it. He reportedly spent much of the period seriously ill, coming close to death.

His comeback film Carandiru is set in an infamous Brazilian prison (the real Carandiru was destroyed in 2002), watching a cross-section of prisoners through the eyes of a sympathetic doctor. The film is a deftly orchestrated mixture of flashbacks and highs and lows, blended together in a generally fairly genial manner with a persistent emphasis on headline issues such as AIDS prevention and general inmate welfare (Babenco may be thinking of Jean Renoir, as well as classic socially conscious melodramatists like Elia Kazan). Although the place is a pure hell on earth, a fact driven home in particular in the sprawling riot sequence that ends the film, Babenco doesn’t have the feeling for the streets and the squalor, or the cinematic fire, of recent South American films like City Of God. I started thinking that the doctor – beaming his way through one anecdote after another in a pleasant but rather detached manner – was a proxy for Babenco himself; an educated man of impeccable intentions, struggling to capture a world far beyond his normal experience. But it’s one of those films where the rough edges add to the overall interest; the signs of Babenco’s struggles somehow act as a badge of authenticity. Truth is, a few more films like this, even with as many flaws, might push Babenco ahead of Spielberg in the Nobel stakes.

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