It may not be the intent of a filmmaker to teach audiences anything, but that does not mean that lessons are not learned.
If I want to send a message, I use Western Union.
NEVER MIND THE heavily promoted Death of Irony, or its sequel, The Death of the Death of Irony: With what's known as "celebrity culture" having come under attack alongside "America" and the Taliban, the New York Film Festival's recent public forum on "Making Movies That Matter" couldn't help feeling, well, a little ironic. To wit, the near-capacity crowd at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall appeared divided into a series of fan clubs that cheered and booed each of the panel's eight variably renowned participants. This at a time and place--New York City, less than a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center--that might have seemed to call for a graver tone. So, too, this critic is acutely aware of another irony: that to focus here on the reporting of who-said-what is to risk further fueling our nation's disastrous cult of celebrity in the wake of a real-life "disaster movie" that, ironically, appears to have stemmed from the hatred of a culture typified by...celebrity-driven disaster movies. But I also assume that you may be interested to know what the likes of Oliver Stone, bell hooks, Christine Vachon, and Christopher Hitchens had to say on the subject of, as the discussion's subtitle put it, "The Role of Film in the National Debate." I certainly was.
Stone, who looked to be napping in between his own infrequent comments, got an immediate rise out of the festival audience by proclaiming, "Reality has always been an issue for me--before September 11 and after." (A friend told me that the provocateur had given a thoroughly incoherent, seemingly intoxicated speech to the NYU film department only the night before--which perhaps explains why he appeared to be needing a little rest the morning after.) Hitchens, a political columnist at The Nationwho sparred with Stone on the Town Hall stage in 1992 apropos of JFK, acted characteristically surly, concluding his introductory remarks with the opinion that it's "better [for filmmakers] to do something stupid than nothing at all." (Even columnists, like politicians and movie stars, are known to play to their constituencies.) Meanwhile, the progressive writer's ideological opposite--New Line Cinema CEO Robert Shaye--dared to trot out that old "movies are nothing more than entertainment" warhorse. "If we [studio execs] change our perspective [in the wake of the attacks], American culture will suffer for it," he claimed--before going on to stump repeatedly for his company's upcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy.
If "Making Movies That Matter" could itself be likened to a movie that matters, then Shaye was clearly the villain, inspiring a host of hisses and catcalls with nearly every bottom-line-minded remark until, in a twist ending worthy of Z, he made what seemed to me one of the most pointed statements of the entire afternoon. (More on that--pardon the cliffhanger--near the end of this article.) One of the few panel members who avoided firing shots at the enemy and earning applause for it was Boys Don't Cry producer Vachon--perhaps because her subversive studio-infiltration tactics might one day require her to sleep with said enemy (so to speak). At the other extreme, hooks--the author of Outlaw Culture and other volumes about race, class, gender, and art--was duly rewarded for how she addressed the executive's "Western Union" quote from Golden Age studio chief Samuel Goldwyn. "Movies never just entertain," said hooks. "They are always political." You'd have thought there was a rock star in the house for all the cheering.
Which is to say--ironically, I suppose--that "Movies That Matter" was also supremely entertaining. Indeed, one of its more irresistible qualities was the way it seemed to mirror the old Hollywood narrative of the lowly masses rising up in force against the oligarchy--in this case, Shaye and former Universal Pictures CEO Tom Pollock. (Moderator David Ansen, in keeping with his style of criticism at Newsweek, tried without much success to shield the VIPs from harm.) Pollock may have green-lighted Do the Right Thing in 1988, but, responding here to the insidious call for more soothing fiction to help heal the wounds of 2001, he did precisely the wrong thing. His escapist recommendation? Rent Sullivan's Travels for a reminder of why the world needs innocuous diversion. Begging to differ, the Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, whose Lumumba portrays the African liberation leader of the title as an everyday hero (it opens at Oak Street Cinema near the end of November), seemed to characterize each member of the audience and the world as both a unique casualty of corporate/government power and a potential activist.
"I live in Brooklyn," said Peck, "and the discussion [there] of what is happening today can be very violent. It's not just an intellectual game. It's about people--whether it's Susan Sontag or my barber--who find it difficult at times to discuss certain subjects freely. And there's pressure. I feel it every day in the street."
While it would be unfair here to suggest that a millionaire movie executive such as Shaye might lack familiarity with what Peck referred to as "the street," it did seem telling that Shaye's chosen metaphor for movies that matter was...a nice house. "It's like in architecture," said Shaye. "If a house isn't comfortable, I don't care how well it's built or how interesting its aesthetic is. And if a movie doesn't captivate me for two hours, then I think it's just abusive and not worthwhile. I mean, socialist realism was a whole artistic movement that came--at least I think so--out of the Soviet Union and out of Communism, and the movies were dreadfully dull. They just preached. I'm very suspicious of anybody who preaches to me about anything."