Films for a Tired and Cynical Age

The best American movie of 1997 was Tim Hunter's The Maker, which screened at the S.F. Film Festival but was not picked up for theatrical distribution. The film did run on HBO a few times, if that counts. The fact that a fine little movie like Hunter's, about a young man forced into making agonizing moral choices, went without a general release says a lot about the health of the American cinema today. Distributors must think that no one in America is interested in moral choices. (It's interesting that two foreign films that did earn American distribution, La Promesse and A Self-Made Hero, briskly investigate the same themes; but foreign films account for something like one-half of 1 percent of the American market these days.) The strong American films that did find audiences were instead about individuals in the grip of obsessions they may not have chosen but didn't mind having (Lost Highway, Deconstructing Harry). David Lynch and Woody Allen have this in common -- they have the courage of their obsessions and don't give a good goddamn if anyone says nay to their asocial worldviews. Their works are the films of free men and in an ever tamer filmmaking environment are worthy of respect on that basis alone.

Lost Highway was also the year's most visually exciting film, a series of unforgettable images by a painter with light and shadow. The fact that it fell apart in its final third rather than cohering into the truly great film about identity it threatened to be is a real shame -- few artists other than Lynch are qualified to make such an attempt. Others of the year's cinematically beautiful films include Yoichi Higashi's Village of Dreams, Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane, and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together -- films with little in common beyond being helmed by masters of light for whom every frame is a chance to paint a 35mm masterpiece.

This list is noticeably light on such special-effects-heavy films as Titanic -- which is neither a masterpiece nor a crime against humanity, just an OK popcorn movie with a great last 90 seconds. (Three hours and 13 minutes is a long time to wait for a great last 90 seconds! See my "Zoom Lens" box in this week's film section for more.) Very few movies have followed the lead of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (as it happens, the debut feature of Titanic co-star Kate Winslet) a few years ago, a film in which the F/X enhanced the story rather than swamped it. More often than not, the ease filmmakers have in creating computer graphics stunts their storytelling abilities, as witness the continuing degeneration of Steven Spielberg, whose The Lost World was one of the worst movies released this past year by a filmmaker with a big reputation.

(OK -- the very worst film of 1997? Oliver Stone's U-Turn, a depressing revelation of the contempt this erstwhile populist has for the folk in Flyover Country. Also mediocre, insulting, or both were Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One, John Woo's Face/Off, both of Clint Eastwood's movies, and, sadly, Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting.)

Of the other films on this viewer's Top 10, Andre Techine's Les Voleurs was another in a series of the filmmaker's outstanding family melodramas, while Village of Dreams, Angela Pope's Hollow Reed, and Jacques Doillon's Ponette were all good films about the vulnerabilities of childhood. Buoyed by the gleefully tacky and inventive Mike Myers, Austin Powers was this year's best silly comedy, a spot I was expecting the disappointing Bean to fill.

The 1990s have not been bad for American cinema overall -- less because of the Hollywood studios, whose commercial releases become less and less interesting every year, than the steady growth of a parallel, alternative cinema. It's not news that said alternative cinema achieved harmonic convergence with Hollywood sometime back, epitomized by the huge mainstream success of such once outre fare as Pulp Fiction and Fargo. Two of the year's most praised films, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, exemplify this union in the way they bring a confident ability to tell interesting stories (classic Hollywood's great strength) to more or less offbeat material (the promise of indie cinema). Alas, L.A. Confidential, after its socko opening reels, devolves into a conventional Good vs. Evil standoff, while Boogie Nights becomes overly Tarantinoid in its late going, most particularly the shootout in the doughnut shop. Both, though, remain good films; along with several other movies (Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan, Christopher Priest's Waiting for Guffman, Richard Linklater's Suburbia, Arthur Penn's Inside, and last but not least Quentin Tarantino's own Jackie Brown) they render me confident, despite everything, about the long-term health of the American cinema. To survive and to thrive, a national cinema needs plenty of good solid OK movies, not just a few indie masterpieces floating atop a sea of industrial dreck -- the situation that obtained a decade ago.

Still, a gap remains in the field of what Hollywood once supplied quite liberally, the action films with honor made by genre masters like John Ford, Raoul Walsh, or Don Siegel. Jackie Brown comes appealingly close; unlike bad movies by other filmmakers it does not try to imitate its director's celebrated earlier successes. The material is the same, to be sure, but it's a deeper mining of it, rather than the strip mining attempted by the auteurs of the epigonic 2 Days in the Valley, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, and Get Shorty, another Elmore Leonard adaption. Unfortunately, while the Pam Grier-Robert Forster material at the core of Tarantino's film is very strong, Jackie Brown's many other characters are neither likable nor interesting enough to justify their windy acres of screen time. Which is why, for polemical reasons, the decent wilderness survival pic The Edge winds up filling out my Top 10 list. Again, it's only a good movie, but Lee Tamahori's film is not special-effects-dependent, moves along nicely, and does not insult the audience's intelligence as Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin fight off a bear and each other. It's a competent genre piece, a rare bear indeed, and as such preferable to another of this year's David Mamet screenplays, the too-clever-by-half Wag the Dog. Barry Levinson's political satire is getting a lot of attention, but like so much other contemporary film Wag the Dog presents such a tired, cynical view of human nature it becomes enervating to watch. The Edge, by contrast, suggests that we human folk are more than creatures of opportunism and appetite. Which may be why it and films like The Maker are consigned to cinematic oblivion; we live in a tired and cynical age.

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