No movie has entered the zeitgeist since Wag the Dog, including Steven Spielberg's smash D-Day film Saving Private Ryan, despite the efforts of editorial writers and others to prop it up as a monument to American moral know-how. Last year Spielberg didn't get the praise he earned for Amistad, a genuinely noble film that made the strategic mistake of allying the director's usual dynamism to a thoughtful, modulated dignity. In Saving Private Ryan, he doesn't take that kind of chance: He piles on the carnage immediately and dots the attenuated narrative that follows with sure-fire "human" moments. Of course the subject gives him a great excuse. As Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers, on the front lines, "There was no opportunity for subtlety." But the same stroke that's been hailed as a coup de cinema, staging D-Day without introducing us to the characters, undermines the movie from the outset. Spielberg does contrive some jaw-dropping shots, such as the first soldiers' heads being blown off as soon as the landing craft hits the beach. Indeed, Spielberg turns this sequence into a sensation-driven miasma just as surely as studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck tried to turn it into a patriotic pageant in The Longest Day (1962). But is that a leap forward? Because John Huston in his 1945 documentary The Battle of San Pietro so judiciously set the context for a bloody fight, the sight of a real soldier tragically cut down before his camera carries far more power than Spielberg's trompe l'oeil array of corpses. And the script for Saving Private Ryan is so weak and sentimental that it can't bridge the gaps between firestorms. Even the running gags are pitiful, like the bit about the definition of the word "FUBAR" or the mystery of Capt. Tom Hanks' civilian occupation -- something even the laziest viewer can guess early on. Despite its ostensible humanism, by the second hour this movie devolves into its own jumpy brand of video-game violence. Unlike Amistad, this film is tainted with condescension and bad faith; it's the kind of anti-war movie in which even the weepy-eyed misfit finally gets to pull the trigger. Spielberg doesn't even allow the audience to make its own emotional connection between the young soldier who survives the film's final military clash and the veteran in the framing story. He resorts to morphing between them -- a demeaning vulgarity of the sort that rarely invades Spielberg's work when he's trusting his (and his audience's) instincts.
I'd say the most hopeful signs for the millennium come from the movie past. Too many movie columnists deride the revival fever set off by Star Wars as greedy or stupid. Actually, the impulse to showcase old blockbusters from The Wizard of Oz to (God help us) The Big Chill in mainstream (not rep) theaters marks the return of a fabulous pre-home-video tradition. When Warner Bros. reissued the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood 10 years after its 1938 premiere, the studio presented it (as one historian testified) in "new Technicolor prints, treating it in the manner of one of their big, fresh attractions." Latter-day rereleases like these are the only way to see many movies as they have to be seen -- not just on a big screen, but with a big, involved audience.
Unlike music critics, who seize on the continuing waves of CD reissues to wax eloquent on their favorite forms of art and entertainment, too few movie critics have taken advantage of these rereleases. They provide an opportunity journalists would otherwise lack to write at length on lasting movies, to keep some valid perspective on the contemporary scene, and to help their readers do the same. Will John Dahl (The Last Seduction, this year's Rounders) still be treated as a King of the B's after viewers have tasted what Orson Welles did on a B budget with the masterfully re-edited Touch of Evil? How could anyone who experienced the restored print of Hitchcock's Vertigo two years ago, with its exquisite use of shading and color, take seriously Gus Van Sant's amateurish color replica of Hitchcock's black-and-white Psycho -- an experiment that would fail even as a senior project in an art school? The only joke that paid off in this frame-by-frame reconstruction (give or take a couple of near-subliminal flash cuts) was that Van Sant, like Norman Bates, seemed to be in love with taxidermy. A contributor to the current issue of Civilization, Andrew Hearst, complains of "a pastiche culture awash in images of people acting stiff and foolish in black and white, a culture flooded with historical footage used without context in Nike commercials, rock videos, and Oliver Stone movies." Revivals and restorations, as opposed to pallid remakes such as You've Got Mail (1940's The Shop Around the Corner) and Meet Joe Black (1934's Death Takes a Holiday), help us keep our cultural equilibrium.
The AFI list of 100 "great American movies" and Peter Biskind's history of '70s filmmaking, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, may have been the year's most overhyped and dubious events. But they catalyzed discussion of great movies. If the discussion becomes ongoing, there's always hope it will raise expectations for new films and inspire young artists -- the way the European New Waves of the '50s and '60s and the rediscovery of classic Hollywood catalyzed Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Philip Kaufman, and so many others. Even the botched rerelease of Gone With the Wind, with its fluctuating color and wobbly image, amazed first-time viewers with the modern love-hate of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.
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