I can think of no picture of recent years, other than Roman Polanski's The Pianist, that has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and yet stirred neither controversy nor excitement. Is it because the people who chatter about movies affect to be bored now by the Holocaust? If so, I'll admit that the subject has been done; and if you look at the new edition of Annette Insdorf's Indelible Shadows, the standard book on the Holocaust in film, you will see that the pace of doing has stepped up. We've had endless documentaries since 1990. We've had Schindler's List. And then--what?
Benigni's comedy? Arnaud des Pallières's Drancy Avenir, which almost nobody saw, except Godard? There was The Truce--the last really big movie by Francesco Rosi, a great director who put all his heart into retelling the book by Primo Levi--but even Godard seems to have missed that one. Why, then, does a certain class of moviegoer assure you, with a hint of condescension, that the Holocaust has become too easy? Fed up with the Jews, maybe? Or just unwilling to imagine that there's anything left to face?
If confrontation is needed, Polanski would presumably bring unique resources to the task, as the only survivor of the Krakow ghetto to have become a major filmmaker. (What Spielberg dramatized, Polanski lived.) But again, a note of condescension creeps into the conversation as soon as his name comes up; people who couldn't cite a single Polanski film after Chinatown (or before Rosemary's Baby) can nevertheless tell you the exact age of the girl he was caught with. Keeping one's head stuck in the tabloids, apparently, is not too easy.
So let me put aside The Pianist for a few paragraphs and review some of the pictures that are supposed to get us excited.
Take Narc, for example: a police thriller written and directed by Joe Carnahan, who has won some interest on the tabloid level by having Tom Cruise as a backer. Jason Patric stars as a smoldering, drug-tempted narcotics cop (essentially the same character he played in Rush), teamed against his will with Ray Liotta, a bearlike senior detective whose previous partner came to a bloody end. If you ignore the plot twists (which are about as wild as the curves on a Kansas interstate), you will see that Narc comes down to being a square-versus-hipster movie. Gray-bearded Liotta, always clad in a coat and tie, stomps through the movie's wintry Detroit like some teenager's angry dad, while Patric (the teenager) slouches around in a watch cap and chin stubble. For a picture that's billed as fresh and bracing, this is a pretty formulaic scheme, which Carnahan attempts to jolt into life through jittery direction. He also provides a lineup of subsidiary characters who are some of the sleaziest, dumbest colored people to be seen since The Birth of a Nation.
Also on the subject of tabloids, I should mention that the season brings us the much-anticipated screen version of the musical Chicago, which wants to satisfy our appetite for sex 'n' sin and at the same time mock us for being hungry. It's an old tradition. Before the Kander-Ebb-Fosse musical was ever staged, there was a 1942 movie by Nunnally Johnson and William Wellman, Roxie Hart; and before that, the 1926 play by Maurine Watkins. What I can tell you about the latest version is that it wastes both of its publicity-mad, jazz-baby man-killers: Renee Zellweger as fantasy-ridden Roxie, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, her cold, worldly neighbor on Cook County's death row. Never mind that Zellweger is working her hoarse, kewpie-doll charm for all it's worth, and that Zeta-Jones (who started out in life as a dancer) would have been fully capable of selling her numbers, had she been given the chance. But Chicago has been brought to the screen by first-time movie director Rob Marshall, who has shot it like one of those commercials for Broadway musicals, the ones that run on the late news in New York City. The purpose is to tell you that you're being entertained, by subjecting you to a gazillion quick, unmotivated cuts among ill-lit, slapdash setups--which is irritating enough during a thirty-second spot but unbearable as a movie.
So that's it for tabloid excitement. I suppose we'll have to get worked up instead about prestige--the quality that's said to adhere too easily to The Pianist. Does it gather more legitimately about The Hours?
A mere recital of that film's credits suggests the level of respect that's demanded of us. Based on the novel by Michael Cunningham and written for the screen by the indefatigable David Hare, The Hours stars the Oscar-ready triumvirate of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, features a musical score by Philip Glass and is directed by Stephen Daldry (whose previous picture was Billy Elliot). All this, and Virginia Woolf, too. The story, as you may know, intertwines the lives of Woolf (played by Kidman behind a putty nose), who is seen on the day in 1923 when she decides to write Mrs. Dalloway; Laura (Moore), a housewife suffocating in straight, suburban Los Angeles, who is seen on the day in 1951 when she reads Mrs. Dalloway and contemplates suicide; and Clarissa (Streep), a book editor in New York City, who is seen on the day in 2001 when she and her companion (Allison Janney) are to throw a party, in the Clarissa Dalloway style, for their friend Richard (Ed Harris), a brilliant poet dying of AIDS.
Like Virginia Woolf, who started this whole thing, Richard is suicidal. He's tired of life--and why wouldn't he be, having to clump around explaining what David Hare wants you to think? Clarissa, too, is exhausted, and no wonder; whatever she does, the director makes her carry on like a drag queen imitating a fabulous Broadway star of the 1930s. Laura can barely schlep through the day--maybe because she's married to John C. Reilly (who has played the dull husband in two other films this year), or maybe because she's embodied by Moore, who is suffering through 1950s suburbia for the second time this season. As for Woolf, she's just plain exasperated, what with that nose hanging off her face and a Philip Glass score pounding nonstop at her temples. In its intention--similar to that of a Holocaust drama--The Hours no doubt means to illuminate the history of an oppressed people, in this case the queer community. In its effect, though, The Hours does nothing but turn prestige into a bad mood, passed from one generation to the next.