Kooky Proles and Gucci Buddhism

A neo-noir, an Ur-neo-noir, and a black political satire color a pallid year of retreads, bogus events, and charity cases.

I try not to use the word "I." I try not to be too "self-referential" or self-consciously "literary." But this isn't exactly the kind of movie year that makes you feel "cinematic." As I ran through my writing over the past year, I was struck by how often I used the pathetic word "just" -- not the synonym for "fair" or "right," but the synonym for "merely." Typically, I described the characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "just the wilted remnants left in an abandoned flower-shop refrigerator" and said that the director and screenwriter were "brutal yard-boys, just mowing a coarse and ugly path through a wild and unpredictable growth of madcap mores." I noted that Richard Gere's performance in Red Corner "isn't just self-contained, but vacuum-packed." After quoting the Chinese legal motto in that movie ("Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who resist"), I asked, "How about leniency for those who just want a good movie?" And that was the central critical question of 1997.

Both the big studios and the independents got stuck in their respective sewers of cliche -- conflagrations, computer graphics, and crazy comedies on the one hand, and, on the other, dysfunctional families, kooky proles, or dropouts (whether foreign, like The Full Monty, or domestic, like Box of Moonlight) and period floss-and-dross (Mrs. Brown). Some of the most highly promoted and lauded films from either the big-studio or indie filmmakers, like Titanic and Boogie Nights, turned out to be sorry excuses for "events." What I want from a Titanic movie, or from any reality-based disaster film, are the facts of life and death, and "the reasons why." That's what I got -- unfortunately, not from James Cameron's $200 million mega-epic, but from rewatching the 1958 British black-and-white classic A Night to Remember, which calmly laid out the ship's misfortunes. With nearly two additional hours of screen time, Cameron doesn't even touch on crucial elements that A Night to Remember conveyed as a matter of course: like the presence of another ship only 10 miles away, maddeningly oblivious to distress calls. (Twenty-four-hour radio operation wasn't yet required.) Cameron so single-mindedly wants to blame the ship's demise on upper-crust arrogance and sloppiness that he slights the array of details that would actually catch you up in an absorbing web of suspense. He doesn't give much credence to the traditional Titanic myth of honest boatmen doing their professional duty and aristocrats and plutocrats alike behaving according to the standards of high-society chivalry. So instead of people looking straight-on at their mortality and trying to keep their footing when their world takes a catastrophic tilt, he provides unrelieved chaos and the sham romanticism of vagabond artist Leonardo DiCaprio saving the body and soul of Philadelphia crumpet Kate Winslet. Billy Zane, as Winslet's sadistic fiance, is so obviously sexually confused I expected him to put on a dress when escaping with the women and children. No such luck: Apart from the penny-dreadful dialogue, Titanic isn't good for a laugh.

And what of Boogie Nights? People desperate for amusement -- or somehow genuinely tickled -- argued that this candy-colored promenade through the '70s porn boom was something other than an inflated version of the alternative-family fantasies that have inundated art theaters in the '90s. Paul Thomas Anderson in his second film begged for comparison with Nashville with his cavalcade of characters and plot lines; instead, we got Trashville. I agreed with porn aficionado and Salon columnist Susie Bright, who wrote, "With as much affection as Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid -- it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot."

With few exceptions, the handful of prestige moviemakers who possess the clout to do an artist's work have ascended to a gassy high ground. If Buddhism encourages its followers to remain focused and serene amid a welter of contemporary complexities, it inspires directors like Jean-Jacques Annaud in Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese in his Dalai Lama hagiography Kundun to evade complexities altogether in favor of exotic filigree. (Kundun opened in selected cities in '97; it is scheduled to arrive in San Francisco Jan. 16.) The erudition of the East becomes fodder for designer religion, a sort of Gucci Buddhism. It resembles nothing more than the "Circle of Life" in the once-again-hot The Lion King, supposedly moving us all "From despair and hope/ Through faith and love/ ... In the circle of life."

Buddhists want to free us from our egos. That may be a noble goal for most people, and a necessary one for Oliver Stone, who once described himself as an "incipient Buddhist" (before tanking with U-Turn). But it's generally a fatal one for directors, who forget everything they know about human nature once they partake of cosmic wisdom. Kundun gives nonviolence a bad name: In it, the Dalai Lama doesn't even seem to master nonviolent resistance -- his version comes off as glorified passivity. Kundun is a one-of-a-kind movie (and we can hope it will be the only of its kind): an official film biography of the head of a religion. But it fashions a lousy case for that religion as the basis for a theocracy. A coddled Tibetan boy gets snatched out of obscurity, initiated into esoteric rites, schooled in Karma 101, and abruptly accepted as the savior of his nation. The Dalai Lama keeps asking what his people think about the threat of the Chinese Communists, but Scorsese's dramatization doesn't demonstrate that he's capable of leading them. (The Lion King's Simba was more credible.) About the only thing that makes this a religious experience is that you have to take everything on faith. The Last Emperor wasn't a great movie, but it had some distance from its subject. Kundun is like The Last Emperor without a payoff: Once again, the Communists move into a cloistered city and confront the hereditary ruler, but this time he doesn't get re-educated. The Dalai Lama says he was ready to reform his country before the Communist takeover, but the film doesn't deliver the dramatic and social-political goods to back him up. Unwilling to bloody his hands, he seizes the moral heights, all right -- but is that actually a moral act when it cedes the rest of the ground to the Communists? The moviemakers' reluctance to frame a full debate of that question is part of what sinks Kundun into torpor. As Newsweek arts reporter Ray Sawhill wrote me in an e-mail, "I know it was trying to be meditative, and there have been movies that have put me to sleep and I've awoken and found I truly was in a new consciousness, but this wasn't one. I woke up, found I hadn't entered a new consciousness, and then just went back to sleep."

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