The Year in Film

The National Entertainment State Stands Firm--Then Runs Away

Now here's a topic for CNN's Talk Back Live: Might Jean-Luc Godard (who?) be as great a threat to national security as Osama bin Laden? On September 12 at the Toronto Film Festival, at least, the vote on that referendum may have been closer than any other outside the Sunshine State. According to Toronto-based reviewer (and City Pages contributor) Mark Peranson, the Day After audience of Western journalists watching Godard's playfully un-American Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love) mistook their pens for assault rifles after shouting down the enemy onscreen. "Whoever thought film criticism ever had the potential to be objective," Peranson writes in the Village Voice's recent year-end survey of movie critics, "should have been in that [screening] room."

Probably so. But would the presence of every "objective" movie lover from Jeffrey Lyons to Jesse Ventura (who took this particular season to proclaim his great affection for Full Metal Jacket) have made any real difference? After all, this was the year when an alarming number of critics and paying audiences insisted not only on supporting escapist fare at the expense of more challenging material (that happens every year), but on attributing that preference to the need for national recuperation. Such a cure presumably involves our swallowing the fact that we simply shouldn't question certain things: whether Tom Brokaw ought to continue being regarded as a newscaster and not as an award-worthy actor; the consequences of making the hero green and the jackass "black" in Shrek; the merits of bloody revenge both onscreen and off.

Come to think of it, war always requires majority capitulation to "what has to be done"--and so do most war movies. The "You are there!" action in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (due here January 18), for example, all but commands consent to its own soldier's view of war as stated early on: "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that other shit goes out the window." Exactly: This was the year--in film and otherwise--when a lot of shit went out the window.

While some of us (including those whose combat experience is limited to Splatball and Sam Fuller films) might feel a lot more comfortable trying to deal with shit (and often failing in the attempt), I suppose it's not a criminal act to choose the opposite approach. I mean, if Rex Reed wants to write that the fate-fueled Serendipity is "Just the kind of movie we need more of now!" then that's his right as...um, an American--just as it's Miramax's right to use such an obscene quote as that to promote the New York-set trifle it scrupulously scrubbed to exclude anything that might remind us of what had happened the month before. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to exercise my own right to call both acts obscene.

Speaking of my own critical subjectivity, displayed rather flagrantly below: There are reasons why I love some of the films on my Top 10 that have very little or nothing to do with "great cinema," just as there are reasons why you wouldn't dream of seeing In the Mood for Love six times (or is it seven?), as I have. In fact, some of the films I love most remind me that everything has a reason--one that's rooted in an infinite array of personal choices and circumstances rather than, say, in fate or magic or special effects. And that some of those reasons can't easily be known, or known at all.

One of the things I do know about my Top 10 is that it's full of American movies--more so than in years past. So, too, I know enough about what I don't know to allow for the possibility that my preferences might even be the product of "the new patriotism," as critic J. Hoberman phrased it while sampling the Yankee flavor of the Voice poll.

Still, on a certain level, I do know what I like. Back in August, writing about the Eighties retrospective at Oak Street Cinema, I confessed that, even as a kid during the most culturally and politically escapist decade in U.S. history, I never preferred evasive movies to difficult ones. ("Chalk it up to the romantic gloom and doom of adolescence," I wrote, "my own not least.") I recalled that my favorite movie in 1981 was Brian De Palma's Blow Out, in which an obsessive sound engineer (John Travolta) uses the death wail of the woman he loved as the perfect scream in a sleazy slasher flick--and then is forced by his job to listen to it again and again. The allegory was unmistakable even to a child: The most seemingly frivolous work is built, often ruthlessly, out of very real pain.

Twenty years later, my own obsessive work, at least as I see it, compels me to observe pain as well--and then to observe that this activity is something that the majority of Americans seem eager to avoid. In fact, the key distinction in culture these days, it seems to me, isn't between "art" and "entertainment" so much as it is between work that acknowledges pain (and politics) and work that doesn't. Which is to say that a lot of the movies I saluted most enthusiastically in 2001--and, for that matter, in 1981--may be American, but they're not exactly "American."

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