I am taking a break from the movies—just for a paragraph or two. It seems the thing to do, given that the images now on screen are so inadequate to what I’ve been seeing in the news. If I am to write about a show-business product that even halfway evokes the globe’s current meltdowns, then the only real choice lies outside the movies, in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
From this entertainment, I learn that we are stuck, all of us, inside an injurious debacle that no one will shut down; a debacle that has gained in awful fascination, and assumed power to drag on indefinitely, precisely because of being injurious. We see in Spider-Man the blind overreliance of the world’s elites on dubious technologies; the determination of the investing class to press on, no matter how many people get hurt; the profound complicity in the disaster of the Commentariat (always so censorious, yet always quick to remind us that profit justifies all); and from the suckers in the seats, a self-confounding horror over the destruction they’re buying, combined with a readiness to pay for more. We even see the psychological dodge, standard in politics and entertainment alike, that permits us to endure, and endure, and endure. Consensus settles on Julie Taymor as the bearer of the evil, Taymor as the figure who must be sent to Azazel. A supposed genius-leader who previously was heroized out of all proportion, she is now made an object of derision by people who (for all her shortcomings) can’t claim a tenth of her achievements.
“Oh!” as Elizabeth Bennet cried, sick unto death. “I am excessively diverted.”
So excessively, in fact, that I feel the need to think again—to consider whether it might be a good thing that film has stopped being central to American life.
By film, of course, I mean movies, projected in public spaces large enough to accommodate a crowd. Audiovisual materials exist everywhere at once today—they’re as common as air, and are consumed about as thoughtfully—but movies have lapsed into a semi-historical, niche-market status, like Broadway musicals, easel paintings and the books peddled under the dismal name “literary fiction.” When a production in one of these categories rises to true significance nowadays, it’s almost always by accident (as is literally the case with Spider-Man, the Fukushima Daiichi of Broadway shows). But habits of thought die hard. Those of us who maintain a loyalty to fuddy-duddy art forms go on hoping that they will make an occasional demonstration of serious intent—not necessarily a big statement (that would really be old-fashioned) but a gesture of engagement with the larger world, as if they could still make a difference.
The title of a new book by Dave Kehr, at present the film historian for the New York Times (under the guise of being its DVD reviewer), would be enough to prompt these reflections: When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (Chicago; $22.50). In his aesthetics, Kehr is far from being a big-statement guy, as the items in this collection show. (They’re a selection of the long-form reviews he wrote for the Chicago Reader some thirty years ago.) But as a thinker with a retrospective turn of mind, Kehr is keenly aware that the business of making and exhibiting movies was changing radically during his first years at the Reader, in the mid-1970s, and that the business of publishing ideas about movies (and so encouraging conversation among a general audience) began to undergo its own drastic change within a few years of his leaving that paper a decade later. He accordingly introduces When Movies Mattered as though it were a chronicle left by a vanished civilization—which may only slightly exaggerate the situation. Running through these remarkable critical essays, in murmurs and asides that went half-noticed at the time, are uneasy observations about the course movie culture was then taking. It was a period, Kehr writes, “of tumult and possibility.” A gentlemanly phrase, it casts a discreet silence over his opinion of how those possibilities turned out.
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As for my own opinion of that outcome, and of how much or little American movies might matter today, I look for fresh evidence and find it (as well as anywhere) in two recent releases: The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi (based on a Philip K. Dick story), and Win Win, written and directed by Tom McCarthy.
The more unassuming of the two, and the more widely admired, is Win Win, which had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival and boasts Paul Giamatti in the lead. Giamatti, though, is not necessarily the big draw. Topping the newspaper ads is the line “from the [unspecified] director of The Station Agent and The Visitor,” as if to promise ticket buyers a reasonably substantial yet relatively undemanding experience—an auteurist film for people who needn’t be bothered to remember the auteur’s name. The marketers have done their product justice in this case; as Win Win plays out, it indeed makes a virtue of being quiet, a little down at the heel and just slightly unpredictable.
Set in small-town, white-ethnic New Jersey, Win Win is the story of Mike (Giamatti), a cash-strapped family man who by day provides legal counsel to the elderly and after work coaches the high school wrestling team. The team is hopeless; the law office is falling apart (starting with the toilet and boiler). But Mike is a decent guy who nevertheless, under pressure, commits a plot-determining indecency. While you wait for his wrongdoing to be exposed, most likely in the sixth or seventh reel, a homeless out-of-state teenager appears on the doorstep (played by the stringently deadpan Alex Shaffer in his screen debut) and proves, like the magic pigeon in Miracle in Milan, to be just what Mike needed: a surrogate son, a follower, a wrestling champ.
I understand the appeal. Win Win is the rare contemporary American film that provides wish fulfillment within comfortable limits—never violating plausibility or narrative convention, and never straying outside a recognizable middle-class reality. It calls up worries about downward mobility and the attendant ills but keeps the grimmer precincts of American society out of sight; it comments sardonically (in title, dialogue and action) on the American imperative of success but modestly refrains from showing what success might look like. (If you want to know, see Limitless, a Flowers for Algernon of the hedge-fund era.) In short, Win Win is exemplary, if you think movies ought to address the ordinary problems of ordinary people who are flawed but fundamentally good, giving these characters an ending that’s uplifting but not too happy to be believed.
How rotten I feel not to like it. Win Win is honorable, but it’s also a compendium of the easygoing and the surefire: a film full of cute little kids who say “shit,” strong and sexy wives who invariably do right, underdogs who are just waiting to triumph (given the appropriate inspiration) and performers who slip their roles on like favorite old shoes. The movie speaks (in the high school wrestler’s voice) about desperation and the need to do whatever it takes to keep your head above water; it uses fighting as both its subject matter and metaphor. And yet there’s not an ounce of struggle in Win Win.
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The Adjustment Bureau tries harder. Noisier, busier, more expensive, more expansive, it is in all ways the New York City alternative to the New Jersey of Win Win, showing the viewer a handsome, towering facade built on a foundation of utter improbability. You can’t take 70 percent of it seriously, and you suspect that Nolfi doesn’t want you to. The other 30 percent is as real as any American film I’ve recently seen.
Imagine a wildly popular young office-seeker campaigning as a progressive. (His party affiliation, though unstated in the film, is obvious; the character is running for the Senate as a favorite son of Brooklyn, and the actor playing him is Matt Damon.) Imagine as well that this David Norris, though ostensibly a straight talker, is not his own master; while chafing at the control exerted by his best friend and campaign manager—a big man in the private equity business—he accepts such oversight as necessary. Now suppose that David turns out to be more of a “tool” (as the dialogue puts it) than the usual faux populist in Wall Street’s pay. The Adjustment Bureau is the story of how David learns that his career is controlled by someone even more powerful than the campaign manager—a nameless boss who exacts obedience through a network of grim-faced undercover agents, all of them dressed chillingly in old-time FBI garb.
Who is this all-seeing Dr. Mabuse of The Adjustment Bureau? Nolfi is too clever to come right out with the identity, so I shouldn’t presume to do it, either. What I can say is that the wish fulfillment played out in the shadow of this figure is fascinatingly double: first the desire for the sinister force somehow to prove benevolent, and then the desire for David to succeed in making his escape when escape is clearly impossible. Groveling and resistance in a single gesture, despair and defiance combined. Look beyond Nolfi’s playfully deployed tropes of menace (so overcharged with associations that some reviewers have misidentified The Adjustment Bureau as a science fiction film or an imitation Matrix), and you’ll see a whiz-bang enactment of the tension between ordinary citizens and the semi-invisible power structures that entangle them.
I call this an engagement with the real world, but I also note that it takes romance to give the political allegory its zing. David needs to resist for the sake of someone other than himself, and we’re lucky enough that she’s Elise (Emily Blunt), a lithe knockout who also happens to be strong-featured, sharp-tongued, slyly amused and credibly employed in a serious artistic pursuit. She speaks in complete sentences, puts up with no pretense and is a wicked kisser. When a love interest exists on this level, she justifies the desire for wishes to be fulfilled; and in The Adjustment Bureau she also sets loose the film’s happiest invention, a magical route of shortcuts through the doorways of New York. In a lesser film, the race through these doorways would have been just a chase scene with special effects. Here, it’s also a breathless run through the secret city that lovers make for themselves.
The film has not been widely praised (a score of only 60 out of 100 on Metacritic.com, the kind of website that keeps Dave Kehr writing film history), nor has it made the profit that justifies all. But for me, the strong, ambitious silliness of the $50 million fantasy has much more to say about our condition than does the weakly virtuous realism of Win Win. In the vanished world where movies mattered, it was a critical commonplace that low-budget quickies, disdained by the high-minded, were often more vital than the prestige productions and could be more outspoken. Now that movies are irrelevant, maybe urgent messages will sneak by the high-minded—even in the occasional well-appointed Universal Pictures release starring the Oscar-winning Matt Damon.
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Everything that is solid melts into air: who has learned that lesson of communism better than the former Soviet communists of My Perestroika, Robin Hessman’s tender, engrossing and utterly brilliant new documentary? Its five subjects—Muscovites from a thoroughly ordinary background—are members of the last generation to have worn the red kerchief of the Pioneers, the generation that later, in college, dared to drop out of the Komsomol and was just getting married and taking jobs when the Berlin Wall came down. “I was completely satisfied by my beautiful Soviet reality,” recalls Lyuba, laughing wryly at the memory of her patriotic childhood. Then the world that had formed her disappeared.
Lyuba and her husband, Borya, both hard-working teachers at School No. 57, serve as the central witnesses of My Perestroika, and the most warmly engaging. They are joined by three of Borya’s childhood friends: Ruslan (once a punk rock star, now a busker), Olga (a glamour girl who was going to marry rich and now services coin-operated pool tables) and Andrei (an entrepreneur who owns seventeen luxury men’s wear shops). In tones that vary from Olga’s bafflement to Borya’s darkly humorous acuity (he is a history teacher by profession and apparently by birth as well), these people narrate a period of unimaginable change; and thanks to Hessman’s archival research, you see the change in astonishing period images, including a lifetime of Borya’s home movies. The experience of change makes My Perestroika a film that shouldn’t be missed. The lifetime part makes it indispensable.