In the past week I’ve seen several high profile films and I will attempt here to offer my opinions of them. You can generally assume that there will be spoilers, so if you scan the title and find that you have not seen the film, better skip to the next one.
Citizen Kane: This deservedly earns its title as perhaps the best film ever made. Kane, however, is as loathsome as they come. I recognize that he’s supposed to be this tragic figure — a lost man searching for the childhood that was robbed from him — but they never revealed him as humble, only defeated and helpless. Personally, I have a hard time empathizing with characters who never see their own faults. Unending hubris is not charming; it’s disturbing. And, it seems to me (without a thorough search), that there are an enormous number of films in the early- to mid-twentieth century that deal with the lifestyles of very wealthy people. Post 1960, the trend changes toward stories of “ordinary” people of “ordinary” means. This is not to say that there aren’t modern films of the super-wealthy, but they seem to be novelty items, and they are often set in period rather than contemporary. For example, think The Aviator and Pride and Prejudice. If there are any anthropologists out there, can you tell me why this is so? Did films in the early 20th century provide a window into lifestyles we then wished we had? And did this window slowly alienate us as we became more familiar with film and wanted to see not someone else’s life, but our lives reflected back to us (though re-clothed and re-told)?
Brokeback Mountain: Jake Gyllenhaal looks as ridiculous as ever in a mustache, nevertheless, this film moved me deeply. It was never discussed if their homosexuality was wrong or right — it happened to them and there was nothing they could do about it. (Is unrequited love ever a cliche?) I could feel their angst as they met in the mountains a few times every year, asking how many months it would be before they could see each other again. And the music. Though the acoustic guitar was understated, subtle, at key points in the film it builds to crescendo. The last (and I believe only just the second) crescendo at the end of the film is the most powerful, made with only a few minor chords on the guitar. A single guitar with a few understated chords carried this excellent film from start to finish. If you’ve seen this film and I played you these chords, you would recognize them instantly. How many films can do that?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Yawn. I don’t get what the big deal is about these films. GOF is no doubt the most polished of the three, and the special effects are, as always, perfectly stunning. I haven’t read the books, so this may be a fault only in the screen adaptation, but I didn’t get the whole point of the Wizard Tournament. So — we have a bunch of students in a school. It’s a magic school, but a school nonetheless. After a mystical class or two, studying gets boring. So how can a writer/director make it interesting? Simple! Let’s have a pointless tournament where we kidnap students’ friends (freezing them and putting them in mortal danger) and let’s make the wizards perform stupidly dangerous stunts in order to rescue them. Why? Because that’s the way it’s been done. (Faster than you can say deus ex machina.) Oh, and let’s have the winning trophy magically teleport Harry right into the lair of the evil wizard. Am I to understand that all the complex and tedious machinations of the evil henchman to get Harry into tournament in the first place were merely to get a drop of his blood? Couldn’t they have snuck into his room and teleported him away from page one? (Or even pricked him as he slept?) And this is supposed to pass for a good, well thought-out film? Maybe the book ends in mid-stride with the plot unresolved, but if the audience has paid $12 plus candy to come and see the film, don’t you think they should have some kind of satisfying resolution? Our go home cookie: we watch the students say goodbye for the summer. I nearly threw the remote at the TV. Have we become so numb that we are falling into the abyss of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where plots never end and our wallets open each time for the next “epic” that promises, like Eve’s snake, a taste of the final story? Harry, I’m so done with you.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Is it assumed in Hollywood that if you put four very attractive youths on screen you don’t have to invest a modicum in plot or character? One hour into the movie and I still didn’t care about any of the children very much. Everyone raved about the White Witch’s acting skill, but she just seemed like a self-important diva in makeup, prancing around on her little sled and giving out sweets to a boy who is so pathetically unrealistic I never once believed he would sell out his family for “Turkish Delights.” When the wolves started chasing the children, snarling at the screen, only to be replaced by a jolly old St. Nick seconds later, I had to stop the DVD. I didn’t care about this place called Narnia. The plot felt like an imitation Pollock: paint thrown haphazardly on a canvas. Look mom, I made art. No you didn’t. You made crap.
A Scanner, Darkly: This is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story ever made. The movie, however, is getting tepid reviews and I believe this is because the general public hasn’t read the novel and doesn’t understand the themes Dick was working with. I also think Linklater slightly missed the point, though not by much. Dick was totally paranoid. He knew part of his fear came from his excessive use of drugs, but part of it was a real suspicion he had of the government and certain elements of social control. There’s a brilliant scene in the novel where Arctor and his friends are driving home and construct a totally paranoid theory as to the sanctity of their home. Dick so marvelously carries you along on his paranoid riff that you don’t even realize you’re being paranoid with the characters until you reach the moment when Donna appears in their living room; then and only then do they (and you) realize that their theory was a total hallucination. Dick is essentially saying that if you narrow your perception enough, reality can change. He’s fucking with you, but only to make a point. Linklater’s scene just didn’t do this for me. I knew what was coming so I wasn’t led along by their train of thought. But Linklater’s characters seemed too absurd from the get go. In the film, there wasn’t the suspicion of plausibility that existed in the novel. There wasn’t enough paranoia generated in the viewer. Besides this scene, however, I think the movie was excellent. Notice Barris’s shirt with the pyramid eye, a Masonic symbol of God’s eternal vigilance (oft used by conspiracy theorists as a symbol of total government awareness.) And a US flag hangs over the characters in Arctor’s kitchen. The message: your government dominates you. Perhaps people didn’t like this film because they didn’t like its message (frequent in Dick’s novels) that the commonly accepted truths are really well-crafted lies. (Even ones we tell ourselves.)
Stardust Memories: This movie has recently made my top five list of all time. If you’re not a Woody Allen fan, I’d still recommend this movie for its brilliant self-awareness, its denial and subsequent praise of film as an art form, and its surreal and meta-fictional take on cinema. Woody Allen’s shtick inserts itself from time to time, and I’m a fan of his humor (though I know some people are not). He seems to know this film might not be as well-received as his comedies because this one has higher aspirations. Super intelligent aliens descend to earth in one scene and tell him that they liked his earlier, “funny” films better. He criticizes himself before the audience can. It’s both an admission of weakness and a defense against it. I believe the best art is the most vulnerable, when the artist puts him or herself out in the open and declares, “I don’t have any more answers than you do, but this is what comes from my experience.” It’s that naked honesty which makes this film a classic and beautiful piece of art.