Read these excerpts, and look for the clues:
I heard a contrarian argument just now from Zeitgeist Films co-president Nancy Gerstman, whose films this year have included the Oscar-plausible Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" along with the haunting Andes plane-crash doc "Stranded," a rare marketplace flop for her small and selective company.
Gerstman writes: "But count the amount of films released this year and then look at what you consider a 'wide range.' Maybe 10 or 20 of the small to midsize indie films made it. The others sank like a stone! This is a major problem -- there are just too many films. With critics dropping like flies, theaters closing and younger audiences shrinking, it can only get worse -- unless we are truly in a lengthy cycle in which theatergoing can revive."
But just go and see Arnaud Desplechin's home-for-the-holidays flick, which brings together a bitterly divided family in the uncharismatic northern French city of Roubaix (the director's hometown), and tell me it's not a masterpiece. Comedy, tragedy, madness, sex, religion, a musical score ranging from baroque to house music to Cecil Taylor...
"Waltz With Bashir" uses its startling, dreamlike imagery to drag its viewers step by step back toward Israel's darkest nightmare, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 by Lebanese Christian gunmen allied with the Israeli military. Folman's film perplexes some viewers because it isn't a news report or an Israeli mea culpa; it's a daring exploration of the bleak psychological landscape of war.
My top American film of the year is from New York no-budget director Ramin Bahrani, who followed up his much-acclaimed but little-seen "Man Push Cart" with an even more wrenching and absorbing neorealist saga, following two abandoned kids through the unpaved streets and sketchy auto-body shops of Willets Point in Queens, N.Y., a neighborhood so dire it's hard to believe it's in North America. But the North Carolina-born, Iran-educated Bahrani is more than a documentary-style realist. He's also got a wonderful eye for visual poetry even in these bleak surroundings, and depicts its people without a hint of pity or judgment.
Here's the other heartbreaking French family epic of the year, after Desplechin's "Christmas Tale," this one the intimate saga of a tight -- and tightly-wound -- Arab-French immigrant family in a Mediterranean port city. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche swept the César awards (the French Oscars) and while that partly reflects the recent French effort to wrestle with a multicultural nation, the movie itself is wonderful. Habib Boufares plays the laconic hero, a laid-off sipyard worker who has an ex-wife, a mistress, feuding daughters, stepdaughters and daughters-in-law and a philandering son to deal with, all while his dream of a shipboard couscous restaurant runs afoul of institutional racism and domestic disorder.
7. "Momma's Man" A narrative feature and not a documentary, even though it was shot in director Azazel Jacobs' eccentric childhood home in Manhattan and stars his real-life parents. (His father is avant-garde film pioneer Ken Jacobs.) This was the best narrative film I saw at Sundance in 2008, but also demands a highly specific audience, since it's both a tragicomic tribute to a lost paradise, intellectual-bohemian New York -- the younger Jacobs lives in L.A. -- and a nerve-jangling tale of early-midlife crisis. The Jacobs' fictional adult son Mikey (wonderfully played by Matt Boren) comes home for a visit, plunges into neo-adolescent despair and literally can't leave.
OK, what's in common here:
- These films are all about bleak subjects with no hint of heroism. The greatest works of literature in the world target bleakness with heroism, finding a way to transcend it through moral discipline. These films just affirm negativity as a way to convince us to shrug and say, "It shouldn't be that way," and then do nothing about it. The constant repetition of horrible, hopeless, bleak, miserable, heartbreaking, etc. is what idiots mistake for "profound" but they secretly like it. Everything's screwed, so just go back to your TV. In reality, it's boring. We don't need another "daring exploration of the bleak psychological landscape of war" because we already have 10,000 of them. Essentially, movies are bleak because they're pretending to have real content when they don't; it's a free-for-all to find some "unique" topic and churn out movies about it.
- Which leads me to the second point: there are too many movies. This reviewer claims to have seen almost 300, and knows people who have seen 400, in the past year. Unless you're a stoner on welfare, that's a crippling schedule. Even more however is what the end consumer -- good for about 25-100 movies a year including cable -- sees: an unchanging flow of films that, despite their exotic locales, have very similar themes and similar moods. So there's no longer a cultural consensus and desire to find the best. It's all just something to fill the time, which means that no one is going to prize any one movie more than the rest. As one media promoter in the article says, "there are just too many films." She might also want to add "and they're too similar."
It's interesting how this applies to literature as well.
I suffered through a trip to a major big box store and, having spare time, wandered into the book alley. My first horror was all 14 of Jodi Picoult's dramatic, poignant, miserable, conflicted, bittersweet, ironic, trendy, confused, dramatic releases. Her books all follow the same format: there is some blatant external conflict, and some blatant internal conflict. Will her characters choose the bleak and conflicted path, or the easy and evil one? Cardboard cutouts, meet the bittersweet but negative options of modern "literature," which is designed to entertain you by yanking at your heart and yet rewarding you with an "uplifting" message. There's too many books like this too.
The hidden downfall of the record industry, for which they're blaming MP3 pirates, is that since indie has now become mainstream, people have semi-realized that rock and rock is a scam because it's easy to make an ironic, witty, catchy, hip rock album and so now there are millions of them. We are drowning in options, but none of them are great; all of them are "good" because the technique is so well documented. Essentially, the music industry has been printing direct-to-landfill for the past decade because starting in about 1990, it got really easy for indie labels to pump out their disasters along with the cheesier but no less "profound" mainstream pap.
These are, among other things, signs of a culture that comically insists it isn't in decline by repeating its same messages. Freedom is unslavery. Negative is profound. Think of the children. Don't do drugs. Stop terrorism. And so forth. It's like they're trying to use volume to drown out the knowledge that seeps in between the cracks: our society is dying from within and no one is paying attention to reality.