“Long live the consciousness of the pure who can see and hear!”
That statement by pioneer Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov kept reverberating in my brain after my prime movie experience this year — watching his silent extravaganza The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), with a score performed live by the astonishing three-man Alloy Orchestra, at the 1,500-seat Castro movie palace in San Francisco. (The show returns to the Castro Feb. 7.) The sold-out house handed it a five-minute standing ovation that would have gone on longer if the staff hadn't had to clear the theater.
Attending The Man with the Movie Camera with a crowd alive to every nuance reminded me of how electric it can be when a huge audience — not a clique or a cult or a coterie — connects with something worth appreciating. Vertov's chef-d'oeuvre isn't merely a celebration of the joy of movement and the gift of sight. With unbounded optimism, Vertov salutes the variety of everyday urban life. Setting his prototype cameraman loose to chronicle an unnamed Soviet city from dawn to dusk, Vertov, without any narrative, wrings lyricism from the commotion in the street and the trolley yard and comedy from newfangled exercise devices and a bureau that handles both divorce and marriage. His protean style deploys every device from split and superimposed images to pixelation and freeze-frames.
Every now and then, you need a Man With the Movie Camera to remind you of the basic reasons any sane person watches movies: the promise of open-minded, eye-filling explorations of an infinite variety of subject matter; unjaded delight in technique; the revelation of hidden pleasures in milieus you thought you knew from your own experience; and the chance to discover something fresh and to do it with viewers who are lifted beyond schisms of race or class or gender.
“On the movie-house habitue,” Vertov once wrote, “the ordinary fiction film acts like a cigarette on a smoker. Intoxicated by the cine-nicotine, the spectator sucks from the screen the substance which soothes his nerves. A cine-object made with the materials of newsreel largely sobers him up, and gives him the impression of a disagreeable antidote to the poison.” Aided by the suitably dubbed Alloy Orchestra, The Man With the Movie Camera defogs the brain and renews the gusto of any movie addict.
If Vertov had been able to attend American art theaters in the 1990s and had seen the reverence bequeathed to dogs like Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, he might have been moved to stand up and proclaim (as he did in a 1924 journal), “We are carrying the battle against art cinema, and it is hurled back at us a hundredfold!” When art-house audiences continue to confer respect on chic, snickery art things such as the Coen brothers' Fargo, you may echo Vertov's demand for “Conscious people, not an unconscious mass, ready to yield to any suggestion!” If they weep through flabby religious exotica like Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and applaud the heavenly church bells of the ending, you might want to take up Vertov's slogan “Down with the scented veil of kisses, murders, doves, and conjuring tricks!”
With the split in the general movie audience becoming ever more pronounced between crowds who go out to action hits like Broken Arrow and those who eat up feckless Jane Austen adaptations such as Emma, the debate over what constitutes a “chick flick” and a “guy flick” has entered serious conversations. The best movies obliterate those categories.
Alan Taylor's Palookaville (written by David Epstein) may sound like a guy flick, but its wry, fond manner wins over women too. This North Jersey street fantasy centers on a trio of buddies — stolid William Forsythe, antsy Vincent Gallo, and genial Adam Trese — who think that plotting a major theft will help them kick-start their stalled lives. If Taylor and Epstein's touch were less sharp and affectionate, you could say the film described dysfunctional friendship. But it's really about sticking together through thin and thin. The cinematographer, John Thomas, gives the film a mulchy, autumnal richness, and the performers are droll — they don't tip their hands to the audience or condescend to their roles. And there's something daring in a male-hanging-out film that gets you rooting for one of its heroes not to pull the trigger on a gun.
Writer/director Matthew Bright's spunky Freeway jumps the lane divider but stays on its own wayward course. This feminist update of “Little Red Riding Hood” gets you rooting for the wrong-side-of-the-tracks teen heroine (Reese Witherspoon) to pull a gun, a knife, or anything lethal on the movie's Big Bad Wolf (Kiefer Sutherland) — a child psychologist turned serial killer. Also shot by the reliable John Thomas, this time in a lurid, cartoonish style, it's one of the year's wittiest, most audacious and free-spirited indies. Freeway wins over men because, unlike Thelma & Louise, it takes the heroine and the audience through the whole ugly/exhilarating/depleting cycle of revenge without whitewashing or ennobling it. Witherspoon's performance is a thrill — fearless and funky — and Sutherland matches her, bringing a smart spin to the kind of feral pig he regularly plays in commercial clunkers such as A Time to Kill.
Dan Ireland's The Whole Wide World, the true story of the unconsummated love affair between Robert E. Howard, the king of pulp who created Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price, a schoolteacher, addresses the gap between the masculine and the feminine with sympathy and unsettling streaks of manic farce. As they argue and enact their roles as village madman and schoolmarm, they come to embody divergent strands in movies and in culture generally: Our senses and unruly ids thirst for Howard's rambunctious, adventurous release, but our hearts and minds also yearn for Price's civil wit and sociability. Vincent D'Onofrio, as Howard, fills out the bold outlines of a man who has lived through florid rhetoric — whose last words, found in his Underwood typewriter, were, “All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre/ The feast is over and the lamps expire.” From homespun materials and high-flown aspirations, Ireland has fashioned a tribute to a pulp writer's untamed imagination and an elegy to the steadfast friendship he shared with an educator. [page]
Howard wanted to write a western epic. In a barren year for big-screen westerns, I took comfort in a quote by Owen Wister, who created high-class cowboy fiction in The Virginian and summed up the future of the western hero this way: “He will be here among us always, invisible, waiting his chance to live and play as he would like. His wild kind has been among us always, since the beginning: a young man with his temptations, a hero without wings.” That exuberant westerner did show up in grand style this past summer, but not as a cowboy — as a golfer. In Ron Shelton's Tin Cup, Kevin Costner reclaimed his standing as a premier romantic comedian and dug into new levels of grittiness as a self-destructive golf pro on an armadillo-overrun driving range. Shelton turned Costner's attempt to win the U.S. Open (and the heart of a fascinating therapist, Rene Russo) into a unique oscillating odyssey, with a resolution more pointed and humorous than Tom Cruise's in the end-of-year hit Jerry Maguire. In Tin Cup, Costner wins self-knowledge — accepting that in significant ways he'll never change.
Larry and Andy Wachowski's beautifully barbed caper movie Bound features another variation on the western hero, this time a James Dean rebel who's actually a Midwestern lesbian. After the debacle of her diva turn in Showgirls, Gina Gershon showed glorious gumption as leather-jacketed Chicago handygirl Corky, who plots to get her lover, Violet (Jennifer Tilly), away from Violet's Mafioso male mate (Joe Pantoliano) and to separate him from $2 million. The Wachowski brothers play with the medium in a Coen-head fashion, but unlike the Coens they don't lose their burlesque zest, and they play fair with their characters. The plot relies on the trust lovers place in each other and the trust audiences place in filmmakers. Here it pays off big time.
If the Wachowski brothers' Bound expresses the Tinkertoy side of the Coen brothers' sensibility more exuberantly than they did in Fargo, John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm brought off a slyer parody of rural life and did it in '30s garb. Based on Stella Gibbons' 1932 novel, the movie is quirky and beguiling, a pastoral spoof (set in a run-down patch of Sussex) that's also a comedy of errors — and corrections. Those fulfilling the clan pledge that “there will always be Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm” include a pontificating patriarch (Ian McKellen, at his hilarious best), his joyless wife (Eileen Atkins), their sons (Rufus Sewell and Ivan Kaye), and a maddeningly elfin girl named Elfine (Maria Miles). Anyone who has unwittingly entered a group that's proudly and collectively insane can identify with the sophisticated city cousin (Kate Beckinsale), who eventually makes stabilizing their existence seem as simple and ingenious as getting the table right for a dinner party. The ensemble is superb: alternately larger than life and smaller than life and, by the end, deliciously life-size.
Although Trainspotting director Danny Boyle's anti-moralistic approach to heroin addiction and dazzling homage to Richard Lester's '60s visuals won deserved plaudits, what I loved about the movie most of all was its language. John Hodge's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's sprawling novel provided a rush of invective juicier than any I've heard in a movie theater since Tony Richardson's film versions of The Entertainer and Look Back in Anger. Hodge gives musical and incantatory rhythms to the narration of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the one junkie who might survive addiction. His opening rant (“family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die”) lodged inside me the way “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina” did while watching Evita — though in Trainspotting's case, it was pleasurable.
City Hall stars the equally catalytic John Cusack as a Louisiana-Irish good ol' boy and right-hand man of Al Pacino's Greek-American New York mayor. Directed by Harold Becker from a script that Becker credits to Bo Goldman (who shares screen credit with Ken Lipper, Nicholas Pileggi, and Paul Schrader), this movie has less control of its story line but more energy, skipping along on a rush of Yiddish-flavored blarney. The succulent language taps into essence-of-New-York and revitalizes the mythology of America's urban melting pot. When Pacino explains the concept of menschkeit to Cusack — “A man's life is not the bricks, it's the mortar, it's what lays between” — he conjures a lost world of man-to-man understanding.
In a ripping good speech at the center of Fred Schepisi and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993), the con-man anti-hero deplores “one of the great tragedies of our time: the death of the imagination.” Placing the onus for its demise on Star Trek and Star Wars, he declares that imagination now represents “something outside ourselves, like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops,” when it should be “the passport we create to take us into the real world” — the “most personal link” between “our inner lives” and “this world we share.” In short, it's “God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.”
Movies such as Danny DeVito's Matilda and Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach transcend the con-man's objection to special-effects films. They're imaginative in a Star Wars sense and in a Six Degrees of Separation sense: They employ movie arts and crafts “to make the act of self-examination bearable.” DeVito's Matilda, which features a magical performance by Mara Wilson as an unappreciated, telekinetic girl genius, and Selick's James and the Giant Peach, which uses puppet animation to bring to life the jumbo garden creatures who befriend a persecuted orphan, will endure as the kind of unruly classics that kids treasure more than official blockbusters such as the horrid new 101 Dalmatians. In its “human” portions, Selick's film would have benefited from DeVito's surprisingly sure-footed touch for live-action grotesquerie; but there's been no more moving or wizardly sequence in movies this year than Selick's musical number “We're Family,” about a boy's mind encompassing the cosmos. This year, with Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, it was Roald Dahl, not Jane Austen or Henry James, who brought out the best in moviemakers. [page]
The cornball ad line for movies of urgent social import used to be “This is a story that must be told!” In 1996, did they have to be told so baldly and badly? Feature films such as The People vs. Larry Flynt (and even the vaunted Lone Star) proved that in moviemaking, unlike speed-walking, heavy hands detract from the power of an exercise. Documentaries generally served profound or controversial subjects with greater acuity. Including them in this list would increase its length by a third. For now, let me acknowledge Jon Blair's Anne Frank Remembered, which both salutes the spirit of the Holocaust's most famous victim and restores her to flesh and blood; The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton's political epic about Tiananmen Square, which assembles a tragic panoply of undisciplined idealists and rational reformers (among the student-led protesters) and well-meaning moderates and obtuse paternalists (in the government); and Paul Seydor's The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which turns a look at genius director Sam Peckinpah making his masterpiece into a work of affective poetry.
Dziga Vertov was an avant-garde documentarian, but he respected popular art for its “unity of form and content.” Few movies display that virtue better than the restored 1996 prints of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the rare musical romance about first love and adult love that honors each, and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, a sensuous thriller about l'amour fou and life as a puzzle with a piece missing. At a time when movies are dominated by technology and glamour in the mainstream and obscurantism and primitivism at the fringe, no pastime could better keep the art of film alive than studying the work of such masters as Demy, Hitchcock, and De Sica (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis). To use the wonderful sobriquet Vertov coined to describe his rival creatures, fiction filmmakers: They were all “enchanter-directors.” In 1996, directors as different as Danny Boyle and Danny DeVito became their heirs.
Michael Sragow's Top 10 of 1996
2) Tin Cup
3) The Whole Wide World
7) Cold Comfort Farm
8) James and the Giant Peach
10) City Hall