Without claiming to sit in judgment on turn-of-the-century US cinema, let me put myself in the position of a European filmgoer – who might spend a week sampling and comparing goods from overseas – in the manner that one might assess different restaurants. (Hence the unstructured nature of these notes for which I ask the reader’s indulgence.)
July 18, 2000
During this Roman summer, we would look in vain for the shadow of an Italian or even a European film – Hollywood’s arrogant sun reaches even the dark corners of the multiplex and its popcorn stands. In such a setting, it is difficult to take a film like Gladiator seriously. We admire the virtuosity of its temporal and narrative complexities. We are excited by the battle scenes – especially the climax of the third act (the general unmasked in the arena). We are amused by the few timid attempts at reflexivity (the neo-Nero moving pawns on his model Coliseum)… At the same time, it seems like the US equivalent of Astérix, with less parody and more technology. Everything refers back to a representation of a representation: compulsory Roman stereotypes (an ersatz Marcus Aurelius, a noble senator accompanied by the inevitable catamite, an incestuous, criminal Emperor – we are surprised when he does not strum on a lyre), and luxurious sets, obviously computer-generated. The excessive special effects, the over-use of slow motion make even the actors’ bodies seem unreal. Must we nostalgically hark back to Julius Caesar and Spartacus, to a time when Mankiewicz and Kubrick managed to evoke the complexities of Rome, and not simply its buffooneries? Leaving the theater, we see around the Coliseum street artists disguised as gladiators and centurions to entertain tourists… It makes us a bit melancholy to see the Roman Empire reduced to miniature sets – a video game endlessly replaying the revenge of Mad Max, where the individual becomes the sole dispenser of justice, and the city is finally forgotten.
July 19, 2000
Back in Paris, we enjoy Me, Myself and Irene – the antidote to Gladiator. Ridley Scott offered a book of pseudo-sublime images dedicated to the glory of the Homo Americanus disguised as the vigilante against Roman decadence; the Farrelly brothers choose to reincarnate a stereotype – to animate a death mask. Like Russell Crowe, Jim Carrey plays in his own way the role of the scorned Avenger who must suffer through a series of implausible events in order to recover his dignity… Here a frenetic self-mockery marks the process of initiation, obscenely revealing the duality of the American self-righteousness. We have moved beyond the genteel impudence of Harold Ramis in Multiplicity, and schizophrenia is no longer a comedic convention; it extends throughout the social body, dredging up its foulest smells. More effectively than Something About Mary, which was still dominated by the labored logic of a series of “schticks”, this hysterical road movie moves through all the archetypes of politically correct cinema in the United States over the last fifteen years – and dismembers them with a polymorphous perversity. The nice cop becomes an obsessed brute, the nice black an aggressive rival, the psychopathic killer an inoffensive sheep… and the massacred cow is reborn miraculously from its ashes. This film does not belong in the category exemplified by recent movies like Happiness and American Beauty, that school of nasty humor and bourgeois self-castigation. Instead, we are dealing with a project of general demolition that short-circuits any notion of satire or realistic representation to revive a Tex Avery style lunacy. What is reborn, paradoxically, is a sort of kindness, the secret of which had been lost since Capra – except perhaps in Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, which also transgresses American cultural codes with a smile. As though we had to go through these schoolboy jokes to find a playful community, as though we had to take on our share of violence to be recognized by the Other (going against a humanistic discourse that does nothing but perpetuate the division between nature and culture), as though we had to return to childhood in order to discover maturity.
July 20, 2000
Pursuing this sometimes masochistic exploration of the American cinematographic landscape, we come across a few vestiges of old-fashioned comedy that combine the exorcisms of a good-natured Capra and a range of archetypes from the well-meaning 1980s. This is the case of Three to Tango, a sort of inverted remake of In and Out: the protagonist comes out of the closet to reveal his hidden heterosexuality! We remain astonished by the implausibility of the circumstances (an architect has to pretend to be gay in order to chaperone the girl-friend of his future boss), and by flat characters subjugated to empty comedic mechanisms. What is most striking is how out-moded this little world seems – with its unscrupulous vulture perched atop a skyscraper in Chicago, its dreamer with a tender heart, a pale substitute for the pre-war Jimmy Stewart, its women who must be victims, and its homosexuals who must live in shame… We feel as if we had gone back ten years in time, when this type of intrigue comedy had already begun to run out of steam and tried to renew itself with pseudo-fiendish themes. At the same time, we find an almost archeological example of the Dr. Jekyll complex that the Farrelly brothers confront head-on. Everything happens as though this bloodless humanity – for whom the social function prevails over desire and the whole creature – could only exist in language, through a confession that from the moment it becomes the object of spectacle is indifferent and infinitely reversible.
July 21, 2000
With The Skulls, we see another variation on the fantasy of an America with two faces: on the one hand, a virtuous meritocracy, loyal friendships, fraternal love; on the other, secret societies dedicated to the underground infiltration of the country (in this case the university community, the idyllic representation of which seems to recall inevitably its diabolical counterpart…). There, we find mixed together the atmosphere of a Kafkaesque nightmare, vague recollections of Fritz Lang (of The Secret beyond the Door or films about anti-Nazi espionage), and all the old mythology of occult orders with their pagan masses and their anachronistic rituals. These clichés might have conveyed a sense of immediacy through the oblique evocation of a politically corrupt class – in which silence is bought with intimate revelations, where careers are based on a network of dark complicity… But these vague allusions are themselves defined in terms of a binary opposition that does not allow for any human ambiguity, only a simplistic play of light and shadow. This time again, the logic of exorcism prevails and resolution is possible only through performance: he who accepts the rules of the game must die by those same rules. The plot does not conclude with a revelation but with a public duel as implausible as the confession in the preceding film.
July 22, 2000
Not far from Three to Tango, here is The Next Best Thing in which John Schlesinger tries to revive the liberal hedonism that ensured his previous successes. Starting with a mild militant premise (the quixotic struggle of a homosexual father who tries to get his son back), the filmmaker, in his own melodramatic way, makes the same mistake that we encountered previously. The characters’ reversals of fortune never result in a deeper knowledge of their interior life. We never see them grow older or even evolve. They are simply exposed to four or five crises, separated and diluted in time – according to an outline similar to that of 19th century morality plays, including the final courtroom scene in which the conflict reaches a theatrical acceleration. Once again, nothing happens except the representation of emotion to the detriment of any psychological development. Madonna and Rupert Everett are nothing but icons – the aging seductress, the tired gay man. They exist only to display the appearance of sentiment, the external signs of a pre-programmed suffering. These overstatements are all the more frustrating as the film had a potentially interesting premise: humanizing two sex-symbols by placing them in the everyday world. But disillusion itself is but another artifice. The mask falls off only to reveal other masks.
July 23, 2000
Then comes an oddity, Pitch Black, in which we have the feeling of reaching the ultimate stage of Hollywood anti-humanism. By focusing on a team of astronauts cast away on a dead planet, David Twohy takes the point of view of the inorganic, of the non-human. This is translated through shots at the edge of crevasses where the survivors are caught in suffocating close-ups, by the almost documentary-style movement of the camera (exemplified by distortions that are supposed to represent the point of view of the beast, and that in the end give us the impression that we are ourselves creeping creatures, observing with a ferocious curiosity the future of the human species…). This is also represented by something chaotic and dreamlike in the evolution of the story – it takes a certain amount of time to identify the nature of the spaces explored and the personalities of the protagonists. Everything seems jumbled together, and strangely it is the confrontation with the black hole that finally gives everybody a real face – not necessarily the one that we expected. The handsome spaceman turns out to be a morphine addict and a coward. The mad killer manages to save his life after the heroic woman commanding the spacecraft dies in his place… Starting with traditional themes (solitude revealing hidden urges, within a microcosm representing moral opposites), the film slips into a strange conclusion that consecrates the revenge of the monstrous. A bit as though Hitchcock, taking up the challenge of that last shot of The Birds, had decided to see only with the eyes of the deadly animal… Even the metaphysical option is ridiculed, through the figure of an imam pathetically seeking a God in a universe deserted by man. But is there still a director? Did we not rather see an “objectivization” of science fiction in which all vision of the world eventually disappears?
July 24, 2000
We are very close to feeling a gentle nostalgia while watching The Patriot – which is to Gladiator what Three to Tango is to Me, Myself and Irene: the vestige of an archaic structure that barely manages to remain standing. Here again, the scenario shrinks History to the size of a personal drama. Here again, the death of a child throws the hero in spite of himself into the fray. Here again, the conflict depends on a Manichaeism in which the identification of good and evil is reduced to the bare minimum: on the one hand, the “patriot”, a maverick, the agent of a solitary justice without the slightest political dimension – as though the spectator could only enter a story based on settling personal scores; on the other, an English army composed of cowardly armchair strategists or bloodthirsty wolves – not to mention a French companion in arms who cannot be anything but a dandy and a braggart. Reversing the only perspective that could have given any scope to his story, Roland Emmerich rids his film of the historical stakes of the War of Independence, keeping to a strictly binary mode: a battle scene framed by a little family drama that sets off another battle scene – and so forth, until death comes to all the characters, with the exception of Mel Gibson, as invincible as a comic book hero. But this old-fashioned narrative mode makes this pseudo-fresco soothing at times: in the era of the synthesized image, of obligatory hysteria, of syncopated pathos, The Patriot continues to privilege something that resembles novelistic verisimilitude. We still see children cry and human flesh rend. Between these last gleams of an academic style and the New Wave virtual epic, between the faded carbon copies of Lubitsch and the science-fiction film without fiction, we have the impression that we are walking through a hall of empty mirrors. We are caught between two ideas of cinema that do not coincide in time (probably because they no longer address the same audiences): it is only the same chase of a shadow that has lost its prey. And we want to return to Me, Myself and Irene – thinking that perhaps we need an explosion of laughter to piece the body together again.
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Translated by Hilary Radner