I should mention the results of the poll conducted last week both on this blog and on the IMDb Classic Film Board, where I invited everyone to recommend one title that most deserved to belong on a top ten of the decade. Over 50 people contributed their opinions, a pretty healthy turnout for this modest exercise. The overall winner of the poll was: Almost Famous. Close behind was Wonder Boys, and tied for third were The House of Mirth and American Psycho. Dancer in the Dark and Traffic rounded out the top finishers. You Can Count on Me, which has the highest rank among any English-language 2000 release according to The Shoot Pictures’ survey of the greatest films of the 21st century, placed a disappointing 7th.
I was able to watch Almost Famous, The House of MIrth and Wonder Boys over the past few days, even as I travelled to Berlin where I am now situated for the Film Festival. Additionally, I revisited another title that I forgot was a 2000 release until a couple of folks on this blog kindly notified me: Esther Kahn. Sadly I don’t have time to go as deep into each film as I did with Yi Yi and the Hou Hsiao Hsien films I’ve covered earlier. But let me offer some brief reflections and if anyone wants to take the conversation further, I’ll push it along as far as I can…
Getting to the question that prompted all this re-watching in the first place: Do any of these films have a shot at my top ten? Each film has a legitimate claim to greatness and if they were to show up on anyone’s list I would applaud. I could spin rationalizations for each film’s case into perpetuity, so to best resolve the issue I revert back to the old standby question: how much do I wish that I could have made this film?
Looking at these four films, the one whose concept and story I most wish I could have made would be Almost Famous. It’s such an ambitious and personal story that manages to entertain, spin a rousing yarn, and also encompass multiple layers of meaning and reality: a mythical lifestyle that a generation aspires to enact, and the fierce struggle to uphold the spirit of the myth, a struggle that’s embedded in Crowe’s own romantic – and romanticizing – approach to filmmaking. The thing that bugs me now as much as when I first saw this film is its candy-coating that polishes everything in a warm, idealized hue; from one perspective it’s kind of one-dimensional and misleading. The dialogue often relies too much on snappy sitcom timing that often threatens to compromise the authenticity of what’s represented under a Hollywood veneer. The thing that bugs me most about this movie is Crowe’s reliance on deadpan reaction shots to drive the comic punch line of a moment with sledgehammer subtlety.
BUT — this time around I was able to accept all of this as the idiom Crowe uses to make his story accessible to a mainstream audience. Once you get past his characteristic cutesiness (which, as in all his films starts with the casting and characterizations; Hayao Miyazaki’s creations have more dangerous than these Disney creations), the film has a tremendous amount of thought put into it, especially in acknowledging the roles that each member of this microcosm has to play in maintaining this mythical lifestyle. As with Jerry Maguire, Crowe starts out with social types (geek rock writer, mystical groupie, mysterious rock star) and works steadily towards bringing out their distinctly personal human characteristics, primarily by playing them off each other and having them discover themselves in the process. This leads to a tremendous payoff in the end after they’ve all fallen out with each other, and one character’s attempt to reconnect with another gets craftily deflected towards the third party, but in a way that makes peace between all three of them.
Finally, I have to admit that 10 years of becoming increasingly immersed in the world of film criticism has given me shocks of recognition with certain moments in this film, namely the scenes with Lester Bangs, played lovably by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. the first encounter between Russell (Patrick Fugit) and Lester echoes with about half a dozen encounters I’ve had with my favorite filmmakers and critics over the past several years: people who are rock stars in the eyes of probably only a few dozen people in the world, including mine, which is all that matters. Hoffmann’s portrayal of Bangs, in its own way, seems to tease at an even deeper, more intimate movie that could have been made around him, a life devoted mostly in self-directed isolation to the mad pursuit of an impossible ideal of art and life expressed with unyielding passion and conviction, one that 99% of the world can’t possibly relate to. It’s an uncompromising attitude towards one’s object of affection that the terminally affable Crowe, despite his own astute passion for his subject, can’t approach.
The virtues of Wonder Boys may lie chiefly in the source novel by Michael Chabon and the fulsome characterizations and dramatic situations issued from its pages, leading to a domino effect of excellence: a razor smart script by Steve Kloves, competent if unobstrusive helming by the elusive Curtis Hanson, and wonderful ensemble work by just about everyone in the cast. Whatever the case, this is a wonderful film, sort of an antecedent to the shaggy stoner comedies of Judd Apatow and company – and perhaps if the film centered around a harried 20-something charmingly unemployed pothead instead of a 50-something washed up campus author trying earnestly to save multiple aspects of his life at once, it wouldn’t have been a commercial disappointment. But the way that the film steadily accumulates a hurricane of chaos around its beleagured protagonist is a work of ragged glory, held together by the sparks between its characters. Imagine John Wayne as a pothead professor and Rio Bravo a college town, and you get a sense of what this film accomplishes in weaving together a lively environment for its characters to give and take. The only real disappointment lies in something Mike D’Angelo pointed out in his original review, that the film ultimately capitulates its delightful, deceptively disheveled state for the sake of a happy ending through rehabilitation. Maybe that makes for a better life for poor Michael Douglas, but probably a more boring one as well.
Thanks to Keith Uhlich, I was able to revisit The House of Mirth on a gorgeous Sony Pictures Classics DVD. Of the four films I rewatched, my opinion was raised highest with this one. Maybe I was burned out on costume dramas when this came out – this time around what I realized was that the real action in this film is in its use of light. And a mastery of scene transitions few films can touch – most notably the opening of the Riviera vacation sequence, which lingers on the hollow interiors of vacated New York homes, fading into the abstract patterns formed by rain splashing against a pond outside one of the homes, which then fades into the glistening surface of a sunlight ocean upon which the immaculate white crest of a cruise ship sails towards an impossibly golden Mediterranean shore. This is a great film about the surfaces of opulence, and the oceans of desperation and cruelty lying underneath them.
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Gillian Anderson is a perfect mis-fit of perfectly pitched mis-acting. her pseudo-modern brazenness breaking through her best efforts to remain civil throughout a series of miscalculated social maneuvers and verbal sparrings with would be users and abusers. This is perhaps the only film of the decade worthy of being compared to the great works of Mizoguchi; in fact, I prefer this film over The Life of Oharu, because unlike Mizoguchi, Davies doesn’t turn his woman into a fetish object for the noble suffering of all womankind; she’s a flesh-and-blood human who as often pisses one off for her lack of good judgment as she ultimately earns great empathy for her struggle to settle upon a set of personal rules for which she her conduct can finally be judged fairly.
Another great period piece about a misfit woman’s coming to self-realization, Esther Kahn may look historical but the way it moves through its environment gives it a live wire now-ness. This is one weird movie, possibly my favorite Desplechin film, even though it hasn’t received nearly as much acclaim as Kings and Queens or A Christmas Tale. This is mostly due to the problematic performance of Summer Phoenix in the title role, a performance that doesn’t convey much of the charisma that one would expect of an ingenue actress who ultimately is given no less prestigious a role as that of Hedda Gabler (while nearly sabotaging the entire production with an extended fit of bad behavior). I’m not sure I’m fully resolved with Desplechin’s handling of the character by the end. At best I can say it serves to demonstrate the maxim offered by Ian Holm’s two-bit actor to Esther about the secret to good acting: “Every step you take has to be more unbelievable than the one before… Each step has to stretch like a rope in the audience’s mind until they can’t bear it anymore and they want to cry out, ‘Careful you’re going to break it.'” That’s what this film is – a journey in search of one’s limits: for Esther as an actress, i.e. a collector and performer of emotions; for Desplechin, the limits to whatever in his art can hold together historical, dramatic and emotional credulity.
I don’t know if I fully accept the climactic sequence, the way it elides Esther’s acting on stage after the film has spent so much time on the issue of how Esther is trying to become a better actress; it seems perverse to spend so much time setting up the crisis only to withhold the payoff, instead resorting to copious voiceover to assure us that she’s giving the performance of her life. Also, there are some moments when I feel the film owes more than a little to Truffaut’s Two English Girls (some use of Novelle Vague devices – elaborate dissolves, direct addresses to the camera – to advance and compress the narrative), but the films couldn’t be more different in their outcome. Truffaut embalms its characters in a sense of fate; Desplechin liberates his. Taking an overall look at where this film takes me, I stand in awe. While Almost Famous is the movie I most wished I could have made in my own way, Esther Kahn is a film with a daring that I couldn’t possibly conceive, perhaps not even now. Of these four films, it’s the one most liberated from convention. It’s a film that, despite its frustrations, perhaps even deep flaws, answers to no one other than its own inspired instincts.