(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2003)
So that’s it for the film festival articles – hope you enjoyed them. Let’s recap briefly. No matter how hard you work the festival, you can’t see more than fifteen or twenty per cent of what’s on offer, so I doubt whether anyone’s opinion on the event’s overall quality carries much validity. The best you can hope for is to minimize the time spent watching duds, and if you’re really lucky, to hit on a masterpiece or two. By that measuring stick, I had a better than average year. I particularly admired Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases and Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien (of course those are both by aging auteurs – Rivette is 77 – so I guess it’s clear what pushes my buttons). Kitano’s Zatoichi was a satisfying people’s choice award winner. The galas, as usual, were mostly bland (Matchstick Men, Out of Time, Code 46); the American independent sector was fairly buoyant (Pieces of April, The Station Agent) and the foreign section a bit undernourished.
The obvious downside of covering the festival at length – no opportunity to write about the other movies that opened in the meantime. Let’s remedy that now, at least for the most obvious omissions.
Kill Bill: Volume One
It would be hard to actively dislike Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film (and first in six years) – like a puppy dog doing tricks, it forces a certain low-grade admiration from you. But the movie is far below the level of his best work – a complete wrong turn (and as such particularly disappointing given the long gestation period). I’ve previously written a mea culpa on Pulp Fiction – initially I was turned off by it, but on a second viewing found it infinitely more scintillating. In that film, Tarantino takes the mechanics of storytelling, blows them open, then sticks them back together with sheer panache as the glue – he makes time and character and normal motivation seem like infinitely malleable qualities. And the movie has a perverse but still touching romanticism, especially in the Travolta/Thurman plot strand. The film’s idealism is oddly touching here, perhaps because it’s so aware of how crazy and malformed their connection actually is.
Jackie Brown was more indifferently received, but it was a worthy attempt to keep moving forward. The sequences with Pam Grier and Robert Forster were mature and touching (Tarantino’s ability to rehabilitate overlooked actors is one of his most remarkable, almost endearing traits). And then the long silence, during which Tarantino acted in other people’s movies and on Broadway, turned up here and there to promote his enthusiasms for cult cinema of one kind or another, parried rumours of various projects, and then entered near-total silence. Which now ends.
Plenty of writers have recounted Kill Bill’s strengths more eloquently than I can – it is indeed an impressive piece of action choreography with a sometimes flamboyant sensibility. Supposedly it’s full of references to genre movies – I only picked up a few of them, if any. The story is wafer thin, and the film seems extremely padded, with numerous digressive scenes that could have been lost with no sacrifice of entertainment or thematic value. Without these scenes though, the film would seem programmatic – its peculiarity is really the main point of interest. Of course, this all implies that we’re willing to cut the director a lot of rope; “self-indulgent” is certainly a term that comes to mind here. The opening credits explicitly announce this as Tarantino’s fourth film, as though we’re all meant to be counting along.
The way the film uses Thurman, relative to Pulp Fiction, sums up the difference – here she’s merely an aesthetic object; not presented for our lust exactly (it’s an oddly sexless movie in general) but certainly not for our understanding either. Maybe volume two will make everything clearer. For now, when I hear volume one described as a film buff’s movie, it makes sense to me only if your idea of a film buff is a geek who, when he’s not in the movie theater, spends most of his time in his bedroom making up scrap books. Albeit, in this case, with particularly impressive design and layout. And the soundtrack’s great too.
Meanwhile, back in the world of adults, Clint Eastwood’s latest film is indeed as wise and compelling as most critics have been saying. It’s impossible to write about Eastwood’s career for long without raising the issue of violence. At his worst, he’s been merely a squinty-eyed cartoon, blowing away sleazebags without any hint of moral hesitation. Even his best work, like Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, have moments where the relished supremacy of the gun seems to crassly assert itself over the film’s overall quality. Genial as he seems in person, Eastwood’s choice of material inevitably seems to say something about him. Like so many earlier works, Mystic River has elements of vigilantism, moments where the gangland ethos holds the spotlight. But on this occasion Eastwood demonstrates an objectivity he’s never reached before, attaining the scientific glare of a social scientist while making a movie that’s rich in geographical and psychological colour.
Sean Penn (in a performance that, along with his work in 21 Grams, marks him as the year’s preeminent actor) is a Boston storekeeper whose peaceful life crumbles when his daughter is murdered. Tim Robbins, a childhood friend whose own life was irreversibly damaged when he was molested as a kid, falls under suspicion. Kevin Bacon, the third friend, is the investigating cop. The film is about the terrifying unpredictability and randomness of life, but its uniqueness is in how it posits the ability to marshal and direct violence as the key to overcome this human chaos. It’s not triumphal in expressing this theme, but it supports multiple readings: the cross-pollination of intense precision and thematic ambiguity strikes me as highly unusual in this kind of mainstream American film.
Mystic River lost the top prize at Cannes to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which doesn’t seem quite fair to me. Van Sant’s film is well executed, but ultimately seems built around a relatively straightforward thesis about the banality of evil. Woody Allen’s Anything Else finds him in his best form for at least five years, which after Hollywood Ending counts as a welcome resurgence. The Secret Lives of Dentists is an underrated film that avoids the obvious while simultaneously celebrating it. Sylvia doesn’t do much to expand the biopic format. L’auberge Espagnole is overdone, but generally a joy nevertheless. Runaway Jury is mostly flash. Intolerable Cruelty has good moments, but who ever thought Hollywood would be a fruitful setting for the Coen brothers’ gift for exaggeration? The Human Stain is a silly, disconnected movie – presumably the book was better. And as for Master and Commander and The Last Samurai, more to come…