|. . . American Beauty|
|. . . 2000-10-15|
Movie Comment: American Beauty
Credit where credit's due. Over the past couple years, most critically acclaimed crappy movies have just been vinyl-veneer knock-offs of Frank Perry, or Martin Scorsese, or Robert Altman, or David Lynch, or John Cassavetes. But only the makers of American Beauty have had sufficient vision to produce a vinyl-veneer knock-off of Norman Lear.
|. . . 2002-02-04|
Some writers like to write about food, or about sexual experiences, or about how tough they are or how sorry we should feel for them (usually in combination), or they try to make a person's life into a narrative. Critics are writers who like to write about artifacts. And that's about all there is to criticism.
You'll note that the job description doesn't explicitly require an attitude of jealous spite or a habit of sneering. Sure, reviewers, like students, can permanently lose their appetites due to force-feeding, but burn-out is possible in any genre. And sure, the dialog-from-a-distance nature of such encounters overly encourages l'esprit de l'escalier. And of course some combinations of personality-and-artifact (e.g., morose loner meets rock band) are more optimized for envy than others...
Well, OK, I guess critics are messed up.
But my point was that, in fact, plenty of critics prefer enthusiasm to contempt: enthusiasm is what revved up their motor-mouths in the first place. Paying-and-drawing attention to what one loves seems like the best deal all round, and that's certainly the writing I'm proudest of.
Critics are no stabler than anyone else, though. And just like the artists themselves, even if it is special nice to be like all life-affirming and shit, sometimes we're too depressed to handle the job. When you're feeling awkward, a kneejerk seems much more manageable than an interpretive dance. Thus:
In the Bedroom
I was hoping that the title referred to the fortune cookie game, but the first disappointment of the movie was its lickety-split explication as Symbol: "For all you Academy voters in the audience, this means your wife is like a big bug."
Watching this passive-aggressive argument for crush-'em-before-they-crush-us vigilante class warfare, it's hard to believe that the comparatively well-balanced Dirty Harry was once decried as fascist. But all movies occur twice (not counting sequels): first as genre trash, then as Oscar fodder.
In correspondence, David Auerbach, as always taking the high road, hopes it's a phase we're going through:
"In the Bedroom" was fairly anemic, "subtle" because it uses clicheed psychological signifiers without any direct reference to them, "moving" because it takes the shorthand of expecting the audience to settle on the obvious feelings rather than broadcasting them, "profound" because it has a young man's death in it. My optimistic stance is that Americans may be getting to the point where the signifiers are so codified that they become treatable as objects to critique rather than hash over for the umpteenth time. On the other hand, if Jon Jost is heralded as "the Ernie Kovacs of modern drama!" (Sure, his stuff didn't always "work", but...) twenty years from now, I guess it won't have played out so well...If you want to see Sissy Spacek switch from nice to nasty in a pretentious film, I recommend 3 Women, which has many more laughs, having much more Shelley Duvall.
Speaking of Altman and Oscar-grasping, you'd think that his high old web-of-caricatures approach would work wonders on this Upstairs-Downstairs material, and I'm still inclined to blame the specifics of his script more than the general notion. The only specifics that work, though, are closer to Beyond the Fringe than to Merchant-Ivory, and they aren't allowed much time. As for the remainder, the gasps of surprise we heard at the ending's "revelations" (Cecilia, or the Coachman's Daughter) could only be explained by bad sound engineering in the earlier part of the film.
And The Rules of the Game has been around for 63 years now. Isn't it about time everyone realized that they're not going to improve on its hunting party scene?
But I will say, with admiration, that Clive Owen is one hunky English guy.
Another misleading title (I was expecting Fuzzy Lumpkin maybe -- to be fair, it does have the most embarrassing Hollywood sex I've seen in a couple of years). And another Sundance-ruined genre: Prison movies nowadays are all about redemption, and sure enough, Billy Bob Thornton starts off like Spalding Gray trying to act macho, and ends up like Spalding Gray trying to act sensitive. [Digression: For years now, I've suffered false memories of a movie preview where Billy Bob Thornton intoned, "This is a pungent story...."]
And what a redemption! It turns out that the solution to American racism is for the middle-aged white men to 1) kill the young black men, 2) kill their male children, 3) kill the young white men, 4) put the old white men away, and 5) fuck the supermodels. Shit, we're halfway to Utopia already!
In short, the civil rights equivalent of American Beauty.
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