Movie Matters

Jesse Yungner

It may not be the intent of a filmmaker to teach audiences anything, but that does not mean that lessons are not learned.

--bell hooks

If I want to send a message, I use Western Union.

--Samuel Goldwyn

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 Nation who 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."

Hallelujah: Not even a Fifties pastor could have delivered a clearer sermon on the evils of pinko art. But let's leave the Church of the Almighty Buck and go back to the street for just a moment. A nice house is great, if you can afford it, but the metaphor that kept coming to my mind throughout "Movies That Matter" was that of drug dealing. Now, maybe I'm still reeling from a pair of recent trips to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which persuasively portrays the industry as a kind of narcotic nightmare factory. But it seems undeniable that the Hollywood cartels--which, as Stone astutely reminded us, are controlled by "six men who basically decide what you're going to see"--are pushing a mighty powerful and addictive product. Pushing it down our throats, in fact, to the degree that bearing witness to the saturation bombing of Pearl Harbor is made to seem like civic duty.

And so, while Shaye had something of a point when he urged the festival's Lincoln Center crowd to vote with their pocketbooks ("If you like political movies," he said, "just tell us--and we'll make 'em!"), it seems more to the point that, as a nation of habitual buzz catchers, we don't always know what we want or what we need. When presented with a serious global crisis, the "mindless" American public shows a remarkable interest in the more informative storytelling of Nightline et al. But studio execs would prefer to keep us hooked on the same old dope, while denying, like tobacco-company chiefs, the addictive properties of what they're rolling up. (As Shaye said of his Lord of the Rings film, to a chorus of boos: "I hope you enjoy the movie, and I hope you think of it as entertainment.") Put it this way: If Hollywood's product were purely benign, the U.S. Army wouldn't currently be working with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies on getting action-movie screenwriters to scare up ideas about what other major disasters may be coming soon.

To extend the drug metaphor just a little further, the New York Film Festival could be said to exist largely as a kind of cinematic rehab clinic, or perhaps a health-food store that specializes in natural remedies from around the globe. Roughly two-thirds of the films on this year's roster came to the fest with distribution deals already in place (a cause of legitimate concern among world-cinema advocates who'd prefer that the selection committee adopt more orphans). But it's also true that any showcase for new work by old masters such as Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Oliviera, and Imamura hardly represents the mainstream. Even the key American movies at the NYFF--Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (for more on this, see "The Magnificent Anderson" at right)--were more than trippy enough to suggest a studio prescription of pot and acid rather than crack.

For his part, Stone claimed during the panel that he was willing to say "no" to current Hollywood peer pressure by making a movie that's explicitly about terrorism--"modeled on The Battle of Algiers," he said--just as soon as he could locate the financing. But while the director of JFK spoke radically enough to characterize the World Trade Center bombings as "a revolt" (thus raising the ire of Hitchens and others), he stopped short of radicalizing his own aesthetic by considering digital video as a means of circumventing studio resistance to challenging subject matter. Griping that Pollock would never spend the $130 million it would take to produce Born on the Fourth of July in 2001, Stone stated that he'd rather not direct a medium-budget film in DV--especially since Spike Lee's all-digital Bamboozled "looked like it was shot on toilet paper." (That it did, although Stone would do well to check out the new work by Linklater and Rohmer, each of whom manages to use DV to create a painterly picture.)  

So at the risk of "preaching" here myself, I would argue that filmmakers of integrity such as Oliver Stone ought not to resist the chance to sacrifice scale and salary for subject and style. After all, making movies that matter--which includes supporting them, too--isn't so much impossible as it is contingent on accepting responsibility for rooting out greed and stupidity as well as terrorism. If the degree of this responsibility should be roughly equivalent to one's power, then the villainous Shaye was quite correct to change his tune by panel's end, ultimately offering that cinema is "an incredibly powerful tool. Really, the medium is the message in the case of movies. And it can be manipulated--and manipulative--to an extent that can be horrible. People can lie and corrupt [through] movies as well as enlighten and fulfill. And I totally accept the responsibility and would preach to anyone that moviemakers have to have a moral certitude that what they're doing, that what they're disseminating is appropriate."

Now, I wouldn't like to doubt that Shaye's parting words might actually represent his honest commitment to making movies that matter. But neither would I put it past this shrewd purveyor of film fantasy to know the commercial value of a happy ending.


The Magnificent Anderson

WES ANDERSON'S FASTIDIOUSLY decorated Rushmore would seem to have made the matter clear, yet the running theme of the New York Film Festival press conference for his followup, The Royal Tenenbaums, was whether the moviemaker might not be a bit fanatical in his habit of planning everything in advance. Indeed, the 31-year-old claimed to have conceived of screening his new comedy-drama at his favorite film festival even before he had started writing it.

Seated before a roomful of seasoned cinema scribes, looking royal yet rather fidgety in a blue crushed-velvet blazer, the native Texan credits the inspiration of both New York novels and the New Yorker for his film about an eccentric family of geniuses who live in a half-imaginary Manhattan somewhere near "the 375th Street Y." "It's a New York movie," he says, "so this just seemed like the perfect place to show it. I guess I have a thing about this festival because I try to go to every movie here every year. Last year I missed one of the four-hour Asian movies--there were three of them, and I forget which one I missed." (One senses that the completist's failure to catch that last four-hour Asian movie--if not to remember which it was--is still nagging him a year later.)

Moderating the Q&A, NYFF selection committee member Manohla Dargis playfully reminded the press that the director's immodest screening strategy was realized only after she and her colleagues had agreed to invite the film. But no matter: Anderson is one of those kids--you know the kind--whose combination of charm, privilege, persistence, and talent (listed here in no particular order) generally result in the granting of every wish. (He once succeeded in eliciting a review of sorts from the long-retired and ailing Pauline Kael by getting Disney to set up a private screening of Rushmore at a multiplex near the critic's home in the Berkshires, and then escorting her to it himself.) For The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson admits to having had a tinge of anxiety after Gene Hackman--whom he had vividly pictured in the role of the titular clan's underachieving patriarch--rather sternly instructed the eager young filmmaker not to write the script with him in mind. "Of course I did it anyway," says the director without a hint of self-deprecation, "and then it became a much bigger process of actually getting him to do [the movie]. But he did."

It's hard here not to think of the early scene in Rushmore in which the outrageously precocious and arrogant prep-schooler Max Fischer strolls into a millionaire's manufacturing plant and proposes the funding of a first-class aquarium housed with "barracuda, stingray, electric eel, trout, hammerhead, piranha..."--and comes away with a whale-size check. In a way, each of Anderson's three movies--including his acclaimed debut, Bottle Rocket (1996)--represents an ornate and insular collection of such fantasies fulfilled, not least that of achieving the perfect-looking and -sounding film he had envisioned while writing it.

Where The Royal Tenenbaums threatens to break this winning streak (reviews aside, for the moment) is in its even greater dependence than Rushmore on a wall-to-wall soundtrack of melancholy Sixties and Seventies pop songs. True to form, the director included these ideal tracks in both his script and his festival print before getting them properly licensed. Kael, Dargis, and Hackman may have been a cinch to win over. But for the rights to "Hey, Jude," to which Anderson has very precisely cut his Royal prologue (the beginning of the song's soaring "nah-nah-nah" portion matches the image of a bird taking flight), the kid is going to have to deal with none other than stingy Beatles proprietor Michael Jackson. And that's just one case among dozens that the director and his lawyers will need to settle before the film's proposed release date of December 26.  

Part of what might seem to bode ill for Anderson here is that The Royal Tenenbaums--like Orson Welles's legendarily compromised The Magnificent Ambersons (with which it has other striking similarities)--is largely about how you can't always get what you want. Moreover, this is a theme that the obsessive tactician, believe it or not, didn't anticipate during the writing. "So much of the [Royal] story is about accepting that you're not what you once were," says Anderson, who began authoring plays when he was ten years old. "And there's a lot of pain associated with that. It wasn't like I planned that to happen in the story--it just sort of emerged."

Early reviews of The Royal Tenenbaums have unflatteringly likened Anderson to the overbearing protagonist of Rushmore, and so one hopes the filmmaker will handle disappointment a little better than Max Fischer, whose "I wrote a hit play!" tantrum appears too uncannily well observed to be pure fiction. Still, the drama of the gifted child's response to frustration is always a great subject--inviting the question of whether Anderson might already be in the process of planning his next movie.

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