Blocking Out the Scenery

I started this roundup of last year's films over the Christmas break but had to abandon it. I think by now I've seen most of what holds any interest for me--I still want to see ABOUT SCHMIDT, and I'm sure I've overlooked some other things. 1. PORNSTAR: THE LEGEND OF RON JEREMY (7.5): Automatically of interest to me, being the story of a man who started out as a teacher and ended up a porn star; I, on the other hand, spent many years working as a porn star before switching over to teaching. (If there's anyone connected to my school or my board who has stumbled onto this page, please, don't panic--I'm kidding.) Not a major work like CRUMB, this was still one of the few times at the movies where I didn't feel cheated or let down last year. Whatever reviews I looked at when it passed through town early in the winter seemed to indicate that Ron Jeremy was a rather sad and forlorn figure, a lowly schlub with delusions of grandeur as oversized as his fabled "hedgehog." Maybe I misunderstood, I skim reviews quickly, but I didn't come away with the same impression at all--Jeremy seemed modest, admittedly ambitious but more or less comfortable with himself and his lot in life, and altogether likeable. I think those reviewers *wanted* him to be sad and frustrated, much as it angered some people that the characters in BOOGIE NIGHTS were so caring and supportive of each other--the desperate, hateful pornographic worlds common to HARDCORE, STAR 80, AUTO FOCUS, and the like are obviously easier to process. You'll have to judge for yourself. I do know that the obsessively detailed scrapbook that Jeremy totes around wherever he goes is a modern-day version of Joe Gould's AN ORAL HISTORY OF OUR TIME, no pun intended. 2. AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW BRIEF GLIMPSES OF BEAUTY (7.0): Maybe you could take a lifetime of home movies drawn from anyone's life and come up with something worth preserving, something that feels like art; that's essentially what Jonas Mekas has done here (it's like a test case for the old question of whether there's a good novel waiting to be written about anyone's life). I was never bored for the five-hour duration, and although the deep nostalgia of Mekas's childlike voiceover passages is wearing at times, it's more often engaging and moving. It helps too that every now and again a famous face flashes by. Buried somewhere in the sprawl, the most thrilling use of pop music I came across all year: Mekas's daughter learns to walk, and underneath footage of her scampering about the room, the Velvet Underground's "Run Run Run" plays full-blast. 3. SIGNS (6.5): For me, a surprise--I didn't like THE SIXTH SENSE at all. (Cluing into the alleged big twist within five minutes was one problem, but its overall dragginess was much more damaging. Never saw UNBREAKABLE.) So SIGNS had the advantage of low expectations, and also some serendipity working in its favor: I'd just finished showing THE BIRDS to my grade 6 class for Halloween a couple of days earlier, so I was primed to appreci- ate how M. Night Shyamalan was playing around with Hitchcock's film, and also with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and every other apocalypse-at-the- doorstep horror movie. The deus ex machina that ultimately saves Gibson and his family is as preposterous as you may have heard, but since it only takes up three minutes of screen time, it's only 20% as damaging as the no less preposterous 15-minute resolution of ADAPTATION. As commercially-minded as Shyamalan is, he's also burdened with the same ponderous self-conscious- ness about his own artistry that's starting to overtake the two Andersons-- you sometimes feel like you're in a classroom rather than watching a good scare film. But I tried not to dwell too much on Gibson's spiritual redemption and his coming-to-terms-with-the-past, and instead enjoyed the playing-around-with side of the film. Scaring me is easy but making me laugh much less so, and SIGNS made me laugh a few times, especially Rory Culkin's insane get-up as he prepares to do battle with whatever's out there. 4. CINEMANIA (6.5): Of the five cinemaniacs, I found the lead guy, the one who'll phone the projection booth on his cell in the middle of a film to complain about the framing, to be the most interesting. Or maybe just the most normal--he's quite articulate and self-aware, and beyond the stagger- ing number of films he sees (1,000 in an eight-month stretch a few years ago, which he concedes was a bit much), he didn't seem all that different from myself or some of my friends. (Maybe I better not pursue that line of thinking too far.) My least favourite, the guy who takes out the book- length personal ad, seemed to be playing to the camera more than the others, and he had the most pretentious taste in films besides. The majority of viewers, I think, will be most interested in Roberta; maybe every documen- tary about obsessives has to have its requisite Charles Crumb nowadays. (She makes for a fairly mild version.) This should have been better than it is, the subject is so great, but it held my interest the whole way, and it does get partly inside the heads of these five people. I wonder if life has become a living hell for any of them since the film's release--the only people who will ever see it are exactly those people who attend the same screenings that Roberta and the rest do. I don't see Roberta responding very well to having her meticulous filmgoing rituals disrupted by an autograph seeker. (Whoever made CINEMANIA must have seen Alan Zweig's VINYL before- hand.) 5. DONNIE DARKO (6.0): I watched this on video over the Christmas holidays, not the way I like to see films, least of all a mood piece like this. I think the director, Richard Kelly, was trying to make an '80s version of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, and at least once he succeeds: the beautiful final five minutes, which, if you're going to have everything in your film coalesce into one memorable sequence, seems like as good a place as any in which to place it. (To go along with some other affinities between DONNIE DARKO and MAGNOLIA, this final scene uses Tears for Fears' "Mad World"--a cover or the original, I'm honestly not sure--as dreamily and enigmatically as P.T. Anderson used "Wise Up.") I didn't know how to take a lot of the rest of DONNIE DARKO. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, MAGNOLIA, HARVEY, even (after the fact, since DONNIE DARKO came out first) MINORITY REPORT--there are allusive points of intersection everywhere, but in the end I was somewhat baffled. I'm a little baffled by the '80s in general. 6. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (6.0): I don't know what's going on with Paul Thomas Anderson. Letterman's been doing this segment the past couple of years that involves some harebrained bit of stage business--a woman twirling a box, say, while off to the side a man shows slides of his summer vacation-- followed by Dave and Paul trying to decide if what they've just seen is in fact "something" or not anything. Paul: "I don't know...I think that *might* be something." Dave: "It's definitely something--I mean, you wouldn't say it's not anything." That's about the most unequivocal compliment I'll give to both PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and MAGNOLIA: I'm pretty sure they're something, though that something looks more impressive the first time you see them than if (as I unwisely have) you venture back for a second and third look. One of the biggest surprises in Francis Davis's AFTERGLOW was finding out that Kael liked MAGNOLIA. To me, that's Kael at her most arbitrary. MAGNOLIA is as unrelentingly hysterical as Oliver Stone gets when he's on overdrive, as much of a freak show as NATURAL BORN KILLERS or TALK RADIO, so I'm not sure why she gives a pass to one but not the other. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE doesn't drive you from the theatre the way MAGNOLIA is always threat- ening to, but it's dragged down by its own set of mannerisms and empty flourishes. The acclaim for Adam Sandler is an old story: a comedian reigns himself in (mannerism #1: for a while, it seems like every scene begins with an extended silence punctuated by a whispered non-sequitur from Sandler), and many reviewers trumpet a major performance. It wasn't true of Bobby Bittman in ON THE WATERFRONT AGAIN, it's not true here. Sandler's OK, but I got a much bigger kick out of Luis Guzman's deadpan perfection. (Talking about CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND with a friend recently, he declared "The Newlywed Game"'s Bob Eubanks the all-time master of the arched eyebrow; Guzman has emerged as his natural heir.) PUNCH-DRUNK's love story is peripheral to the film that I think Anderson had right in front of him, the one that comes into focus with the phone showdown between Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman. As the two of them scream obscenities at each other, and you realize that Sandler has come up against his doppelganger in the anger-management department, the film gets a sudden charge of menace and urgency that makes the subsequent non- climax between the two men inside Hoffman's store all the more puzzling. In the end, so much of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE--Sandler's $500, the pudding scam, the harmonium--just fizzles away. Also disappointing to me is something most viewers won't care about: Anderson seems to have more or less abandoned his stake as the greatest pop-music director since Scorsese. 7. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE (6.0): The best thing I saw all year by a wide margin was the Frederick Wiseman series that ran at Toronto's AGO last winter. I wish I could have seen all dozen or so films, but their length and the exigencies of work made that impossible. Of those that I did see--WELFARE, one of greatest American films of the '70s; HOSPITAL, HIGH SCHOOL, JUVENILE COURT, and NEAR DEATH, all excellent; and RACE TRACK, mediocre--DOMESTIC VIOLENCE interested me less than most. I guess it speaks to my own limitations, but I belong to that mindset that just cannot understand the peculiar dynamic that keeps a woman in a relationship where somebody's beating her up. There's a brick wall there that I cannot get past. So the women in Wiseman's film were more maddening and incomprehensible to me than anything else. Maybe they're supposed to be, I don't know--one of Wiseman's great strengths is that he never telegraphs anything. (HIGH SCHOOL excepted, where by his own admission the film wants you to laugh at the teachers.) This disconnect becomes almost surreal in DOMESTIC VIOLENCE's final scene, where you've got a guy practically begging the police to intercede and separate him from his wife, because if they don't he's going do major harm to her, while the police counter with all sorts of reasons why the guy needs to stay where he is and, well, everything will work out fine. The wife just stands there the whole time--she's not going anywhere. 8. ADAPTATION (5.5): For the first hour, intriguing and done with a sure hand. I liked Donald better than Charlie--it's Donald who keeps the film moving along, him and (especially) Chris Cooper, who gives the best performance I've seen since Hackman in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. Cooper has worked out an amazing slouch for whenever he takes the wheel of his pickup, and until the script betrays him, he never stops surprising you with the things he says. Meryl Streep's good too--her work as Susan reminded me how much I liked her in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. I'm surprised that in all the gushing over ADAPTATION's meta-this and meta-that, I didn't come across anyone who pointed out that "Seinfeld" reached a point about halfway through its run that was even more intricately self-reflexive: a fictional character writing a sitcom based on the non-experiences of himself and his friends, who are in turn based on the non-experiences of the real Jerry Seinfeld two layers removed. (Or something like that--if you know the show, you'll know what I mean.) Anyway, everything's moving along well, Charlie's still at the same impasse with his script as he was at the start, and then, shazam--the chase, the swamp, incredulity. To call ADAPTATION a great film, I think you have to do one of two things: overlook this very bizarre turn in the narrative, pretty difficult in that it takes a while to play out, or, what the film's admirers seem to do, rationalize it. The last third thus becomes an ironic enactment of the very Hollywood contrivances Charlie abhors, or it's a convenient way to get rid of Donald that mirrors the improbable multiple-personality gimmick of Donald's own script, or it's a comment on the real Charlie Kaufman's difficulty in coming up with an ending for ADAPTATION, so forth and so on. But you know, it doesn't really matter what kind of an explanation you come up with for Streep suddenly turning into Sylvester Stallone as she stalks Charlie and Donald through gator country--it's just plain dumb, and it seriously undermines the film's many other virtues, including, tacked on right at the end of all the swamp nonsense, Donald's understated recollections of high school and his explanation of why he's the way he is. 9. BLOOD WORK (5.5): I've seen relatively few Clint Eastwood films--maybe seven or eight, and along with IN THE LINE OF FIRE, this is the second time I've admired a performance of his. There's something doggedly impressive about the degree of seriousness he invests in such routine serial-killer fare. Time and again, Eastwood the director focuses the camera on Eastwood the actor as his character methodically tries to sort things out in his mind, and you really get a sense of someone groping around for the over- looked detail that will tie everything together. I also liked that East- wood spends the film gulping down Prednisone for his heart condition, a drug that both my parents have had to take in the past (and that recently brought on the startling transformation in Jerry Lewis's appearance). I went to BLOOD WORK out of pure boredom one Sunday night, and wasn't sorry that I did. 10. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (5.5): Always pleased with itself, shamelessly so on at least two occasions, consistently interesting anyway. The two segments that are beyond the pale, the K-Mart sojourn and the Heston interview, have been adequately ridiculed, so I don't have much to add there. (Priceless: Heston saying, "You want *me* to apologize to Flint?")* The blatant dishonesty that Kael attacked in ROGER & ME sneaks into BOWLING in a one-second clip of Chuck Eddy among a chorus of people that supposedly lays the blame for Columbine on Marilyn Manson (to be included, Moore requires footage of the person saying "Marilyn Manson"). Anyone who knows or has read Chuck will realize how laughable his inclusion is--my guess is that the full body of his quote went something like, "Marilyn Manson? Um, he reminds me a lot of the DeFranco Family, minus the horns-- musical horns, not the Satanic kind." Completely inconsequential, but once you catch that, and compound it with Moore's Twilight-Zone notion that in Toronto we all keep our doors unlocked at night, you of course start wondering how much else is a fabrication. So there's a lot of friv- olous stuff to wade through, some of which I enjoyed: the too-easy but funny anyway bit about "African" vs. "European" bees, the "South Park" cartoon, the great punchline to Toronto's unlocked-door policy, and, best of all, Camper Van Beethoven over the opening credits. Moore's most cogent argument, related to but more insidious than the gun issue, is laid out convincingly: that the American media treat every corner of life as a spin-off of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. *(A line that I later found out I interpreted very differently than a friend did. He heard the voice of Heston today, the NRA spokesman and right-wing moralist: "You want *me* to apologize to Flint? Don't you know I was Moses and Ben Hur?" I heard the echo of an earlier version of Heston, the long-gone movie star who once got to do pretty much whatever he wanted: "You want *me* to apologize to Flint? Don't you know I used to drink with Bogart and fuck starlets?") #11-37

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