Gazing into my fascinating navel: an introduction

When an acquaintance saw my web site for the first time, she asked "Why don't you ever write about American movies?" Apart from my pathological snobbery (hi, Mike), there are a number of reasons why I've mostly reviewed foreign-language films on this site. First off, I often feel as though everything that can be said about a film has already been said by others (and usually within a week of its release) ; in October, I abandoned a review of BOOGIE NIGHTS after suddenly realizing that everything I'd just written was a paraphrase of Godfrey Cheshire's NY PRESS review. Second, the combined power of Hollywood and "independent film" hype has succeeded in marginalizing even the most accessible foreign-language films. Consequently, devoting more attention to COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY than TITANIC or Michael Haneke than the Coen brothers strikes me as a worthy form of affirmative action.

But I still think I have plenty to say about film, not all of which fits comfortably into the format of a thousand-word review. The present column will be the first of a biweekly (I hope!) series, discussing three or four films I've seen in the past week. While these columns will probably be less polished and more informal than my longer reviews, I hope they'll gain something in immediacy, as well as from the possibility of discussing anything that strikes my fancy, including undistributed films and older films.



Directed by Joel Coen

Seen March 19th, Sony Theaters East Village VII

I thought FARGO was one of the worst films of 1996, and I've never cared much for the Coen brothers' films, so it may not mean much to their fans if I say that THE BIG LEBOWSKI may be their best film. I've often been disgusted by the contempt and condescension with which they treat most of their characters, and even Marge Gundersen, the moral center of FARGO, comes across as something of a "pet hick," as Jonathan Rosenbaum called her. It was impossible for me to take FARGO seriously as a moral tale when it so often seemed to engage in flattering an audience of urbanite hipsters by showing us how much smarter and hipper we are, compared to those pathetic hicks with their funny accents up there on the screen. The brothers' trademark snideness and irony abuse isn't entirely absent here, but it's displaced onto a panorama of colorful side characters. For once, they've centered a film around someone they actually like (hell, they might even respect him): the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a chronically unemployed middle-aged ex-hippie whose hobbies consist of bowling, drinking White Russians and smoking pot.

A friend of mine described THE BIG LEBOWSKI as "Cheech & Chong in THE BIG SLEEP," and while he intended that as an insult, I thought it sounded pretty intriguing. The film itself reeks of the herb's influence (or of secondhand smoke from Altman, Rafelson and a cinematheque's worth of early 70s American films), for better and for worse. The upside is immediately apparent: an amiable laziness and a loose, open structure, with room for all sorts of hilarious non sequiturs and digressions. But in the second hour, this laziness and openness feel more and more like flakiness, as the film rapidly loses all motivation in holding together a narrative. But THE BIG SLEEP itself wasn't so successful at holding a narrative together, so why should an homage to it do any better? Furthermore, it makes an odd kind of sense to visit the L.A. of the 1990 Gulf War build-up (much the same world of privileged corruption, arrogance and irresponsibility as the L.A. of THE BIG SLEEP) through the eyes of the Dude. He has his foibles, to put it mildly, but it's hard to feel superior to him. In fact, his stoned daze seems like a perfectly reasonable response to an absurd time and place. Responding to such absurdity by upping the level on one's own absurdity and irony meter is as likely to produce nonsense as anything approaching coherent social commentary, but in its own perverse way, THE BIG LEBOWSKI does a decent job of capturing some of the ridiculousness of American life at the moment. And it features the marmot-in-the-bathtub-scene to end all marmot-in-the-bathtub-scenes.



Directed by Robert Benton

Seen March 15th at the Hoyts 3 in Mystic, Connecticut

TWILIGHT borrows heavily from 70s films like CHINATOWN, THE LAST GOODBYE and (especially) NIGHT MOVES, which borrowed heavily from 40s and 50s noir, which, of course, drew directly or indirectly from literary sources. Yet these genre trappings ultimately seem beside the point. When TWILIGHT works, it works because it genuinely engages with the inevitable losses and disappointments of aging, and some of this engagement stems from the film's acknowledgement of its own distance from its sources. The rest of it probably stems from the skillful performances of Paul Newman, James Garner and Gene Hackman, although the entire cast works well as an ensemble. As storytelling, TWILIGHT has nothing new to offer, and even a 5-year-old could guess the "surprise twist." But I'm impressed by its willingness to honor mood, character and texture over narrative, a willingness few 90s Hollywood films have had the guts to indulge. To be sure, TWILIGHT is a minor, relatively flawed film, but it's an easy one to underrate: whenever, something like this gets released, the dread specter of "narrative correctness" stalks the land once again.



Directed by Anne Fontaine

Seen March 20th at the Walter Reade's (unbearably crowded) series of new French films.

What does DRY CLEANING have in common with TWILIGHT and THE BIG LEBOWSKI? Apart from the coincidence that I saw all three films in the same week, you can probably guess the answers: 1)It evokes the mood and style of some 70s films and 2)It relies on the conventions of film noir and detective fiction, and this reliance goes hand in hand with a desire to extend or challenge those conventions. As dryly and coldly French as THE BIG LEBOWSKI is garishly American, DRY CLEANING is highly reminiscent of Claude Chabrol films like LE BOUCHER and THIS MAN MUST DIE, which took material that could've gone into a movie-of-the-week thriller and instead focused on psychological detail and a precise depiction of everyday French life. Set in the drab provincial town of Belfort, it centers around a workaholic couple (played by Charles Berling - a part that would have been perfect for Daniel Auteuil - and Miou-Miou) who devote almost all their waking hours to the laundromat they own. They seem to be racing headlong into a desolate, joyless middle age, but all that changes when they wind up going to a nightclub one evening after a meeting, where they catch a bizarrely fascinating brother/sister drag act called the Queens Of The Night. I can't say anything further about the narrative without giving spoilers away, so I'll just add that the rest of the film plays out the emotional and sexual consequences of this meeting between two disparate worlds. Strand Releasing will be giving you a chance to argue about it yourself some time later this year.