Tuesday, November 8, 2011

800 Words: 21st Century Classics - A Personal View - Movies

Slate is attempting to put together a rather lame list of 21st century classics. So apparently we the people must send in our nominations for what will last into eternity about our present-obsessed era. For anybody interested in culture, this will always be a necessary idea to discuss and always makes for a good debate. But unfortunately, posterity is nowhere near as democratic (or as charitable) as we internet users.

It’s usually a more impartial judge of what’s the best about our time than we are, but never fool-proof. After all, posterity never lived through what we did. Its also a merciless judge. Why should our children like what we like? Any intellectually engaged person of my generation ever forced to sit through a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or a Godard/Antonioni/Bertolucci arthouse flick will understand how quickly tastes change. Many things that meant so much to your parents, family members, teachers, older friends are totally nexplicable to you. And in turn, things which you love will be entirely inexplicable to the young people of your life.

And so, I’ll do the only thing I can, which is to make a list of the culture from the first 11 years of our millenium which I would like to pass on to whatever children/nephewsandnieces/students/younger friends I end up having in the course of my lifetime that might make sense for them to see.

So let’s start with the easiest to explain - movies. Whether we watch them in theaters or at home, they are still a huge part of our lives and will be for a long time yet. It’s just unfortunate that we’re living in a pretty poor age for moviemaking...….

…....Now, lest I seem like the terrible snob I no doubt am, let me clarify that statement. This is not the same as saying that everything is crap. Every one of us gets the opportunity to see some amazing new films every year. Nor can I claim to be a particular expert on movies of previous eras (though I think I’ve seen - and liked - a lot more of them than 99% of people my age). But you see, I have a problem, I’d venture it’s a pretty unique problem among people my age. I don’t like a lot of movies which other people love. Here is a partial list of the movies which other people would probably put on this post-2000 list which I would most definitely leave off:

There Will Be Blood
No Country for Old Men
Lord of the Rings
Spirited Away
Requiem for a Dream
Kill Bill
Finding Nemo
Donnie Darko
Amores Perros
V for Vendetta
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The Incredibles
Big Fish
A Beautiful Mind
Monsters Inc.
Synedoche, New York
The Reader
The Triplettes of Bellville
La Vie en Rose
The Lives of Others
The Departed
Knocked Up
American Splendor
Master and Commander
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Gosford Park
Ghost World
Hotel Rwanda
The Beat that My Heart Skipped
The King’s Speech
Black Swan
The Tree of Life

So...I think you can see my problem.

It’s not to say that I disliked all the movies on this list (though I disliked a lot of them). These are just movies that I found myself completely underwhelmed in comparison to the hyperbole to which other people greeted all of them. There are plenty of films on this list which would easily make the lists of other people. But for whatever reason, I just didn’t like it as much. There might have been individual scenes or performances I loved, I might have even thought it was a good movie. But for whatever reason, when other people praise it to the skies, my reaction is either ‘meh,’ or ‘f@#$ you.’

And as for the movies I do like, let’s simply say that certain things will date. I don’t know a single person in my agegroup, even the most culturally literate among them, ready to sing the praises of W. C. Fields or D. W. Griffith (maybe you shouldn’t be known by your initials...). Some movies will probably date worse than others to future generations. There are plenty of movies which all of us love which anyone younger than us will never understand. Here are a few examples of some movies which could be more likely to date than others:

(A scene that couldn’t be made now...six years later)

Judd Apatow - Bromance’s Last Stand: I love most of the Apatow movies (the ones he produces at least). I loved Superbad, I loved Pineapple Express, I loved Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I loved Walk Hard, I loved Get Him to the Greek, I loved Role Models, I loved I Love You, Man. I even rewatched Anchorman a week ago and found that I now love that movie too. Apatow’s formula is simple - film guys acting, talking, futzing around exactly as we all do in real life - if we were much much funnier. But in an age which sees the rise of feminism and gay rights, people in future generations will probably be raised on a different standard of what’s permissible to talk about. In the case of Apatow, some scenes which we find hilarious may well seem utterly shocking in 30 years. Than again....Blazing Saddles is still hysterical.

(If everybody’s speaking English, Spanish or Mandarin in 100 years, would this scene mean anything?)

Lost in Translation: It’s a movie I love. But it’s based on a problem that’s disappearing from the world - for the time being at least. Lost in Translation is a movie about feeling isolated and disconnected from an unfamiliar place. But we live at a time when the world grows smaller every day. Unlikely as it may sound, could it happen in our lifetimes being in Tokyo feels almost exactly like being in Mumbai which both feel like Sao Paolo? More unlikely things have happened in the last 75 years.

(What would this scene mean to anybody who didn’t grow up with Westerns?)

Mullholland Dr.: I don’t merely love Mullholland Dr. for the privilege of watching my favorite actress get it on with David Lynch’s wife. Mulholland Dr. is an abstract movie, not necessarily about anything at all. But if there is one thing that it’s clearly about, it’s Hollywood. It is about the romance of Hollywood combined with its nasty realities. To generations who never experienced Hollywood as anything but the purveyors of assembly-line horror movies and craptastic special effects, does the magic of Hollywood mean anything? Without that special frission you get from seeing the dreams and nightmares of Hollywood, would the movie mean anything to anyone?

(Never mind that this scene from Blazing Saddles was written by Richard Pryor, arguably the greatest comedian of all time and one of the great celebrators of black culture. This scene is one of the funniest ever put on film, it should also make us cringe. It could never be filmed today. Is the world a better place because of that? Probably...but that’s what posterity is for...)

Perhaps this is all a moot point. Eventually, enough history goes by that everything disappears. But some memories last longer than others. And occasionally you get the kind of memory that’s durable for thousands of years - for reasons no one can sufficiently explain, a great production of Lysistrata can be just as funny as Arrested Development.

So here are twelve(ish) movies, some of which I’ve written about before, from the last 11 years that might go into my Voyager capsule to be opened either by the Polaoans from the year 4511, or by the local Marty McFly who hangs around a mad blogger:

Pan’s Labyrinth: The more distance I get from it, the more it appears to me thus far as the most moving, questioning movie of my moviegoing life. I will not forget the tears flowing fast and freely from my eyes, only for the lights to emerge and finding The Manning in a similarly soaked state. What is Pan’s Labyrinth about? Fairy Tales? Childhood? The experience of war? Fascism? The nature of good? Of evil? Of sacrifice? Of consciousness itself? This movie is an interior world made new, in which we no longer know what is real and what is imaginary. Nothing I have ever seen in the theater shook me to a deeper foundation than this.

The Social Network: I wrote about it here and here. That's enough for one decade.

The Pianist: Schindler’s List has become a piece of history in itself - a movie that both announces to the world that the Holocaust was very real and also a message about the good that can be done in the worst of circumstances. And even if it is a great, moving movie, there is something about Schindler’s List that trivializes the Holocaust. Nobody really needs to know about the good that happened during it. What we need is a movie that demonstrates what it was like to experience it. We’ll probably never get a movie that approximates what it was like to die in the Holocaust. But Roman Polanski made a movie about what it’s like to survive it, and it’s perhaps the closest we will ever get to understanding what people must have had to endure to go through it.

Borat: Like Some Like it Hot, The Producers, Animal House, The Naked Gun and There’s Something About Mary, this is a movie that pushes the bounds of what’s permissible. Every taboo we can think of is violated, and some we’d have never thought, and we invariably feel as though we’re getting away with something huge. I never bought the kind of self-righteous explanation Sacha Baron Cohen gave for Borat - that he’s doing it to demonstrate the bigotry of others. He certainly is demonstrating their bigotry, but Borat is not satire. It is purely about getting away with things you should never do, and in spite of all the lawsuits, that’s exactly what he did.

WALL-E: Let’s tell some truth here. None of the Pixar movies were quite as great as people say. Don’t misunderstand, the Pixar movies are brilliant family entertainments. But just like the best Disney, its family friendliness is a smokescreen for something that isn’t quite so benevolent as its image. It’s difficult to say that Pixar ever made a movie that strove for any message deeper than that which you could find on the back of a fortune cookie. But that simplicity is part of Pixar’s appeal - a world of sugary fairy tales in which everyone can clear up misunderstandings simply by learning a lesson. But that rule’s shining exception is WALL-E. Why does WALL-E stand out in the Pixar Canon? Because it’s a movie about nothing less than the likeliness of mankind’s destruction, yet it still has all the plays with all the same light entertainment you see in every other Pixar production. Pixar’s been backing away from the harsh truths of WALL-E ever since, first releasing UP, a movie which tells us that the elderly can be loveable so long as they aspire to be young. And recently we heard the news that Pixar will mostly be dealing in sequels. As with Disney, the dream can last only so long, but the board of directors will try to prop it up forever.

The Jason Reitman Movies: Jason Reitman gets America.

Nick Naylor: Right there, looking into Joey's eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenseless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher...

Juno MacGuff: Oh, *wicked* pic in the PennySaver, by the way. Super classy - not like those people with the fake woods in the background. Honestly who do they think they're fooling?
Vanessa Loring: You found us in the PennySaver?

Ryan Bingham: How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life... you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV... the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home... I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office... and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.

….the defense rests.

Slumdog Millionaire: My ignorance of Indian cinema is total. I’ve heard figures that Bollywood releases twice, perhaps three times, as many movies a year as Hollywood. It is a segment of world film of which I’ve gone through three decades in complete ignorance. I also know that many Indians were disgusted with Slumdog Millionaire. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with this movie: it’s a Western view of India with a completely ridiculous plot, it marches straight into the Indian slums and portrays them as they are, with no time to assemble the appearance of dignity. And yet it portrays India with enormous sympathy. It refuses to exonerate Western attitudes at the same time that it shows the unbridgeable divides in Indian society - wealth and poverty, Hindu and Muslim, honest work and criminal corruption. This is the India of transition, and just as it took Europeans like Tocqueville to point out the promise of America, it may take Westerners to point out the incredible things that might lay in India’s future. Like Tocqueville, there are many things that might seem wrong or ridiculous about it. But ridiculous as the plot may seem, people like Jamal exist all around India; people who have known nothing but misfortune, only to find their way into privilege of which they’d never dared to dream. And as many Americans and Europeans once did, this newly privileged class must contend with the question, ‘Why me?’ Why has he been lucky enough when everyone he knew was left behind? Like the America of a century ago, it displays a magnificent country whose possibilities are waiting to explode. Yes, this is a Western view of India, perhaps it takes overprivileged Westerners to explain to other Westerners what is fascinating about India. As India’s position in the world continues to rise, it will continue to explain just that for a long time to come.

Bad Education: I love Talk to Her and All About My Mother. But we have to face that Bad Education is another level of Pedro Almodovar moviemaking. Whereas the other two brush off the subject of sexual abuse with humor, Bad Education is an all-out confrontation. It is a movie about the lives that are ruined, the trauma incurred, sacrifices made, and bearing witness for the possibilities spoiled within its victims. It is a devastating movie, at times as unpleasant as any experience one can have in a theater. But it is also a movie about how memory and love can help sustain people through the worst experiences.

Hero: I don’t get offended easily by movies, but this one managed to do so, and do it brilliantly. This is a movie about violence, but there is hardly any real violence to be found. Some movies dras us into an abyss and make us glad we took the journey, but in Hero there is no abyss to go down. The movie seems nothing more than its appearances. Because in Hero the seductive pageantry of the movie is all that matters. The movie peels back layer upon layer of distrust and lies to reach a conclusion that is as dishonest as any which the movies have ever told us. The precision of American special effects is often employed to evoke chaos of fights, but the precision of Hero evokes nothing but precision. Swordfighters clash with each other without so much as a single spurt of blood that leaks out of place, violence is made to seem beautiful and seductive. Through it we see a glorification of violence, the ecstacy of death, and the justification for mass murder. In a movie of such over-controlled precision, is it any wonder that it ends up justifying the slogans of a thousand tyrants? Cruelty born out of love? War that achieves eternal peace? Orwell said it rather differently. But then again, so have many great artists through history in far more approving terms than Orwell. I disagree with everything about this movie, but I think it’s a great one all the same.

Brokeback Mountain: For all the larger than life landscapes, Brokeback Mountain is a very small movie about wrecked lives, unfulfilled dreams, and compromises that should never have to be made. Our generation can only speculate about the hardships of gay people at a time when they were lethally compelled to keep their identities secret. But thankfully, this movie does not simply howl with anger. It duly notes the terrible injustice, and maintains a passive, resigned acceptance of the situation. Life goes on, with all its grueling banalities intact, until it’s finally too late to create a better life.

Sin City: Like Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet, and Pulp Fiction, this is a movie that speaks on an almost subconscious level to the time in which it was made. There was once a time when Americans viewed cities as inviting, familiar places. Our grandparents might have watched film noir and read Batman comics, but the violence of those genres was playacting - far more cartoonish than the real thing. They feared violence, but they slept soundly in the beds of their tenement houses all the same. But families with luck on their side long since decamped to suburbs when cities got too violent; and we’ve been growing more fearful of cities ever since our grandparents told us some horror story about the ‘old neighborhood.’ As the economic downturns grow longer, we lucky Americans may find ourselves back in the tenements. And if we do, we’ll quickly have to face our fears of what cities are. In the Bush era, we began to awaken from the comfort which middle-class suburbia afforded us. Perhaps all that corruption and violence never went away. Rather, it festered in our absence, and one day we shall wake up to find that our whole world is controlled by a conspiracy of violent lowlives and debauched elites from whom we can never escape. Which brings us to...

City of God: If Sin City is the nightmare view of urban life, then City of God is the documentary view from the harsh tropical sun - yes, life is fragile, but it’s all the more precious because of it. We’re seduced and terrified by a place where life means everything and nothing. It is a story all the more horrific for being true to reality, and gives incredible charisma and dignity to all the characters within it. Within it, we see the story of Latin America, of slums everywhere, of the entire third world. If there is one movie thus far of the 21st century of whose survival I’m absolutely certain....

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