If I were a prospective juror, I would flunk out of the voir dire for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. First, I’m on record as having disliked the book, which I reviewed upon its publication in 2005. Jonathan Safran Foer’s talent “gave him the beginning of a novel,” I wrote, “but did not carry him through—not to the end and not to the bottom.” Second, I can be proved to have hated the previous film by the director of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Stephen Daldry, which he called The Reader and I knew as Kate Winslet, She-Wolf of the SS. In an article I wrote in 2008, The Reader figured as one of my chief reasons for requesting an immediate moratorium on Holocaust films.
More recently, as a member of a critics’ organization, I found myself unwillingly implicated in one of those exercises in meaningless gossip and baseless controversy that are the whole substance of awards season—and all because of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The New York Film Critics Circle had set an early date this year for voting on awards. When it turned out that this particular movie would not be deemed ready to screen until after our meeting, and we went ahead and voted anyway, dozens of people took to the Internet to label our enterprise a fraud.
They may have had a point, considering that we gave the award for best picture of 2011 to The Artist. It was a decision so frivolous as to demonstrate that anything is possible, including a prize for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when thirty-one people average their opinions. The Artist is charming, delightful and witty (not to mention half an hour too long) and cannot possibly be the best film of a year that saw the release of A Separation, Poetry, Melancholia, Hugo, The Tree of Life, Nostalgia for the Light, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Skin I Live in, Mysteries of Lisbon and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (to name just ten choices, and not exactly in order). Granted, our members had seen The Artist before collectively misjudging it. Still, I failed to understand the outrage over our ignorance of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when we were equally uninformed at the time of voting about quite a few other movies—the Jonah Hill vehicle The Sitter, for example, and Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. It seemed as if the professional awards-watchers thought those pictures could be safely neglected (why, I wondered), whereas Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had been precertified as one of the best films of 2011. By whom?
That was still the question preoccupying me as I presented myself, on Christmas morning, for an opening-day showing of a movie I was now gunning for. The lights went down, after half an hour of advertisements and another fifteen minutes of previews—and suddenly, unexpectedly, the miracle occurred. Music welled up in my heart, and I at last saw that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the perfect thing-in-itself that God or someone had always meant it to be, and not the shabby phantom that had haunted my self-protective imagination. Blinded by tears in the afterglow of a cathartic spasm, I staggered down the half-empty row to hug the nearest, similarly lachrymose fellow-moviegoer, with whom I knew I would forever be united.
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Or that’s the redemption Daldry would have ladled out to me had I been a character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In reality, as a mere patron of the movie house, all I got was dry-eyed impatience at discovering the picture was neither awful enough to dismiss outright nor good enough to rise above its essential crappiness.
It’s an instructive crappiness, though, one that takes its most obvious and irritating form in the film’s narrator and central character, Oskar Schell: a pervasively phobic, socially awkward grammar-school boy in Manhattan who is given to stilted locutions, pack-rat habits and obsessive cataloguing, and then gets rather worse when his father dies in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. In Foer’s novel, Oskar is insufferable because he’s too clever a character and because too much authorial cleverness is piled upon him. The first fault betrays a failure of sympathy; it’s unfeeling to build a fiction around a flagrantly exceptional character, when the story concerns a loss that’s so devastating precisely because it’s collective. The second fault comes from a failure of tact; it’s unseemly to work so hard, and so transparently, to make Oskar interesting, when the boy’s traits can then be read only as surrogates for the author’s. A novelist with a suitably modest sense of his place in the world, writing in an era when a shared social experience was assumed, might have delved into the personal grief associated with a great public catastrophe by inventing a representative character, individuated but in many ways ordinary. What worries me about the character of Oskar is that he might in fact be representative, and of something unfortunate. He’s the literary product of an era in which feeling uncommon is one of the most common experiences going. How else to account for the respect accorded Foer for inventing Oskar, if not to assume that millions of readers nowadays all want to be recognized as brilliant, and all feel they suffer bravely from special wounds?
Translation from novel to film only worsens this character, much as the loss of his father aggravates Oskar’s condition. Thomas Horn, the fox-faced boy who plays Oskar, has been directed to say his lines with the solemn fluency of a TV news anchor while fixing his blue peepers squarely on anyone he’s talking to. Hesitations, doublings-back, self-corrections, even shy glances to the side do not exist in this performance, which seems calculated by Daldry to impress upon the audience Oskar’s braininess and vulnerability without ever making the kid appear to be deeply odd. Screen oddity, after all, tends to be more off-putting than the kind found in novels, where readers can project themselves into all manner of improbable behavior and slip out again, with nothing unpleasantly corporeal to limit the imagination. (This is why great movie weirdos, such as Edward Scissorhands, are played by beauties like Johnny Depp.) So Daldry hedges with Oskar—as does the screenwriter, Eric Roth, who has retained only vestiges of the confected lingo (such as “heavy boots,” to denote sadness) that makes the novel’s Oskar sound like a 9-year-old trying to be William Carlos Williams. Daldry and Roth normalize the affect and expression, and in doing so inadvertently reveal that the character’s quirks are little more than costume accessories and props, like his knit cap, tambourine and shiny black shoes.
To substitute for an ingrained eccentricity, Daldry also supplies another level of ornamentation: showy montage sequences of things that worry Oskar, presented (with a too-literal fealty to the title) in extreme close-up with explosive sound. The artfulness of these excursions into Oskar’s mental state (or rather Daldry’s intention for them to be perceived as artful) softens a blow that is already being mollified everywhere in the film. Oskar’s father, shown in many flashbacks, is more than a son’s memory of the best dad in the world; he’s full-on Tom Hanks, relentlessly tossing about his playfulness, warmth, sincerity and folksy wisdom like the featured juggler at the Circus of Sweetness and Light. The mother is not merely a tough but sensitive survivor; she’s Sandra Bullock, now indomitable with a New Yawk accent. When she sleeps, veils of luminous color drift across her face, courtesy of Chris Menges’s inappropriately beautiful cinematography. When she and Oskar hold a screaming match in the kitchen—all moments of emotional truth in this film require an increase in volume—the feelings may be raw, but the faces glow in a white sidelight that’s as softly tasteful as crème fraiche.
The aural equivalent of this crème fraiche is of course the soundtrack music. The composer was originally Nico Muhly, whose music was arguably the only restrained and intelligent element in The Reader, so it was a bad sign for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when the word went out in October that Muhly was off the production and Alexandre Desplat had been hired in his place. Desplat is no slouch; he’s done excellent music for films as different as Un Prophète, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Ghost Writer. But his presence signaled that more gallons of music were going to be poured onto the film than would have been expected from Muhly, and they were to be poured on short notice. Sure enough, you’re not allowed simply to watch Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; you’re required to slosh through it, with the musical cues for your emotions always knee-high and in imminent danger of flooding.
When the flood finally hits, it’s a doozy. Roth’s screenplay, which has mercifully compressed and trimmed Foer’s plot, at last strikes out on its own, into a territory of hugs and sweet tears and universal reconciliation. It is a very expansive terrain; as Daldry whiles away his last reel traversing it, you have time to recall the many other cinematic trips you’ve taken through The Peace That Passeth Understanding without understanding how the hell you got there. Something about a key this time. It doesn’t matter now. The post-9/11 sky is blue, and as Oskar rises into it, riding a Central Park playground swing into a freeze frame, the movie literally ends in uplift.
I have seen worse pictures receive awards. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close may be fundamentally false, but it does move along smartly enough at the start. The movie incorporates views of New York City neighborhoods you don’t see in many big-budget productions, and it is honored by the presence of Max von Sydow, who gives a lesson in how to take a vacuum of a character and, wordlessly, make him seem full.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has its incidental merits, and I assume it also has some Oscar prospects, because everybody says so. Neither of these factors ought to be of first importance to critics, let alone to audiences. I maintain that the real significance of this movie, like that of the novel, lies in the way it exploits, rather than explores, a widespread delusion among Americans: a self-involved aspiration toward odd-duck genius that is as pernicious in its way as the Ayn Rand myth of individualism. What’s Oskar if not a preteen Howard Roark, suffering because he needs to break through to other people and yet complacently expected (by the author, by the director) to remain splendid in his idiosyncrasy?
There are societies courageous enough in their imagination to think about the massness of a mass grave, such as the one at the World Trade Center. So far, to judge by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that’s not us.
* * *
For a much livelier movie about death—one that will easily make it onto my twenty-best list for 2011, or even some versions of my ten-best list—let me recommend Pina, a documentary by Wim Wenders about the work of the late Pina Bausch and her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal in Germany.
I mention the company especially because Wenders has filled the movie with individual testimonies from Bausch’s dancers and longtime collaborators, often preceding or following the spoken account with a scene of that particular artist in action. The little speeches, recorded after Bausch’s death, are in essence eulogies, which sometimes give an unnerving impression of abasement before the Great Leader. (Her eyes were always on me; she saw into my thoughts and spoke just one word; I struggled to discover what she wanted me to give her.) But they also offer great insight into the singular physiques and personalities that Bausch brought together in the dances you see generously excerpted in the film: Le Sacre du Printemps, Café Müller, Vollmond and Kontakthof.
Wenders shot these productions, performed at the Wuppertal theater, in 3-D, and his use of the technique is nothing less than revelatory. Sometimes you float among the dancers; sometimes you soar back from them and see them arrayed like living pop-up figures. You experience the space of the stage as Bausch and her company do, or, as a magical alternative, see it through the eyes of the production designers, who examine their proposed sets in little boxes that suddenly become populated by the tiny, animated figures of the company. Perhaps most stunning, some of the pieces burst out of the theater and into the real, 3-D world, as the dancers perform in street traffic, on a traveling monorail, up the side of a mountain.
What’s most moving about Pina, though, is not the sense of space but of time: the sections of old black-and-white, 2-D images of Bausch that show how the years passed, and the amazingly jaunty danse macabre by Bausch that Wenders weaves repeatedly through the film. Her entire company, arrayed in a line, struts slowly through different scenes to an old-time jazz tune, smiling as they perform a simple repertoire of hand gestures to show the cycle of the seasons, again and again. Hello, life. Goodbye, life. Just passing through. Swell to be here while it lasts.