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.
Can’t prestige be coupled with something invigorating, like box-office clout? It can be, and it is in The Two Towers, the new installment of the immensely popular, award-winning The Lord of the Rings. I confess I was less than thrilled by the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, which amounted to a long series of fights and battles, interrupted by episodes of sexless mooning. The Two Towers is better, if only because it’s got a single big battle, which it saves till the end. It’s also brightened by the introduction of Gollum (voice of Andy Serkis), a pathetic, wasted creature who once possessed the evil Ring. Whenever Gollum struggles with his conscience, the movie twitches into life. For the most part, though, The Two Towers is preoccupied only with inanimate forces: the flood of water that engulfs a wizard’s tower, or the flood of pixels that pour across the screen as computer-generated armies. I began to wonder, as the waves crashed about: Is it still possible for a movie to get excited about people?
Alexander Payne says yes. The director of Election (one of the sharpest of recent American comedies) and his regular screenwriter, Jim Taylor, are back this December with About Schmidt, based on a novel by Louis Begley: the story of a thoroughly ordinary man who is unlike anyone else. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is a codger in Omaha, Nebraska–a man who has just retired from a deadening career and has just buried his wife, whom he could no longer abide. He’s grief-stricken; he’s bored; he’s free for the first time in his life and doesn’t know what to do about it. So, being American, he takes to the road. Being middle class, he seeks a good, responsible purpose for his travels and discovers it in a scheme to improve his daughter (Hope Davis).
As in Election, Payne establishes his tone by putting deluded characters into a blandly factual setting. (He’s one of the few American directors today who know what the heartland looks like and have the guts to put it on film.) His style is crisp and mercifully free of showiness; and the supporting cast is first-rate, with Kathy Bates (as Hope Davis’s prospective mother-in-law) predictably walking off with the show. The movie’s weakness, oddly enough, is Nicholson. Granted, he gives a beautifully nuanced performance in a rich role–neither as nuanced nor as rich as in As Good as It Gets, but admirable. And yet you’re so aware of Nicholson’s self-restraint–the ordinariness that this extraordinary man has put on–that another, damaging level of irony is added to the film. The actor is slightly out of place within the character, as the character (without understanding it) is out of place in his world–which is why, perhaps, About Schmidt sometimes feels jeering, as Election did not.
So I come back at last to The Pianist: the true story of an entirely remarkable man, the Polish-Jewish virtuoso Wladyslaw Szpilman, and the journey he took, without ever leaving Warsaw, into an increasingly harsh and alien landscape.
Szpilman’s world, at first, is the cozy capsule of a radio broadcast studio, where he sits playing Chopin. He’s sleek and elegant; and when he looks up from the keyboard and smiles–the brilliant young actor Adrien Brody shows you this, with an effortlessness to match the pianism–you understand his utter confidence in belonging right where he sits. Then the window blows in. The Nazis have invaded; Szpilman’s long trek is beginning.
He stays behind a piano for as long as possible, getting a job entertaining in a profiteers’ cafe in the ghetto. Then comes the big deportation. In a scene that’s exemplary for demonstrating what Polanski knows and other directors don’t, Szpilman and his family are herded into a plaza with everyone else, to await the train to Treblinka. They have no food, so they use the last of their money to buy one caramel from a peddler who is asking an outrageous price; for as Polanski knows, people still went about grabbing what they could, though they would soon be stripped and murdered. Then Szpilman’s family divides the caramel and waits; for as Polanski knows, time passed in that plaza. Polanski has the artistic courage to show you time passing. And he has the artistic skill to turn that courage to his advantage, when Szpilman, alone of his family, is abruptly saved from the deportation, in a gesture that seems all the more quick, convincing and arbitrary for what’s gone before.
I could struggle to evoke the strangeness and danger of the world Szpilman finds himself in, as he hangs on after the deportation. I could multiply examples of Polanski’s strengths, and strain to find words appropriate to praise Brody (who is himself without strain). But I might do better to say that The Pianist is a serious movie brought out in a tabloid-besotted time, a prestige picture that invigorates, a study of character and history that knows irony to be a part of life and not the purpose of art.
I think The Pianist is one of the few movies of the season that are really worth getting excited about.