It's a Small World After All

The season's globe-trotting films bring mankind closer together, or at least pretend to on-screen

Spring finally arrives, the single remaining movie season not yet converted into a massive marketing skullfuck. Rather, the February-April spread is still a catch-as-catch-can olio of leftovers, orphans, low-intensity sellouts, modest genre exercises, award-immune imports, and publicity-confounding freak-outs. It's difficult to get hyperactive about the spring in film, generally speaking, but it's a relief to see movies shed their padded-pectoral identities as self-shilling juggernaut events and simply become movies again. Beautiful surprises are not uncommon—as with the B-movies of the studio years, art can happen when the accountants aren't paying too much attention.

Not to mention, this relatively lax climate can allow the culture to vent on its own, less subject to thought control because there's less cash on the table. The slate parsed out below, while paradigmatic of the post-awards, pre-summer limbo, scans like a semiconscious expression of the emerging internationalism, from Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Club Dread, and Eurotrip to Hidalgo's Arabian steeplechase, A Foreign Affair's goofball Russian tour, I Am David's Communist-era Euro-voyage, The Prince & Me's Danish daydream, Divan's Brooklyn-to-Hungary Hasidic quest, Intermission's Dublin pub crawl, Ned Kelly's Aussie-western trek, Troy's Greek war-waging, and so on.

While Shaolin Soccer takes genre advantage of the world's unifying sport, both Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World regard the globe as a gimcrack toy box of burnished clichés. Man on Fire and The Alamo both take the blade to Mexico, again, and von Trier's Dogville invents, from a literal and ideological distance, a canned America. (In its own way, Neil Young's Greendale is just as alien-minded about heartland U.S.) The Thai epic Bang Rajan, The Clay Bird's Bangladeshi exposé, and the searing S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine all threaten to get trampled in the fun-loving stampede over Zhang Yimou's Hero. Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist, a portrait of Haitian activism, couldn't be more timely.

Bad apple: Kidman has a secret in Dogville.
photo: Rolf Konow
Bad apple: Kidman has a secret in Dogville.

Call it exploitation, exoticism, or, maybe, a half-assed effort to fathom a shrinking global culture. We saw such casual, workaday pop-cult movie-use of the first and third worlds during WW II, where conflict touched every continent and affected every society, and the Cold War, when travel meant glamour and/or espionage, and imported films opened new windows on virtually every exhibit in the human zoo. But today's cinematic snapshot has a more yearning quality. September 11 and the traumatized immediacy with which it initiated our new and unavoidable intercourse with the rest of mankind won't be explicitly referenced, of course. But I can't help but sense a desperate, almost plaintive, and mostly clueless attempt to empathize with cultures we long sought to erase from public consideration, whether manifested in globe-trotting domestic product or in the middle-class box-office successes of films like Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, Atanarjuat, Amores Perros, City of God, Kandahar, The Quiet American, Open Hearts, War Photographer, Whale Rider, Bus 174, Osama, and The Fog of War. And what were the "it's a small world" odysseys of Winged Migration, Finding Nemo, and The Wild Thornberrys Movie if not multiculti anthropomorphism in action?

Or perhaps the movies haven't changed at all, haven't increased or decreased a whit in their co-optation of other hemispheres and peoples, but the way we read them has. To an unprecedented degree, we are uniformly alert to the world's needs, desires, and rages, and so narrative images of distant poverty, commerce, tradition, quotidian, and drama can shock our eyes open. We know in an incontrovertible way that Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, Iran, North Korea, Indonesia, Sudan, et al. will not evaporate into the mist of forgotten news as they once seemed to. Frankie Muniz may go only as far as Piccadilly Circus and Brad Pitt may not live to see Troy fall, but the rest of the world is here to stay.

A selective preview, compiled and written by Ben Kenigsberg and Joshua Land

March 12

One of several films this season featuring fatherless children, this effort from Israeli writer-director Nir Bergman examines the lives of a mother and four children following the abrupt death of the family's husband and father.

March 12

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film is a patient study of two cousins' mutual alienation—a Turkish Odd Couple that builds to small but powerful epiphanies.

March 12

A deranged stranger (John Turturro) accuses author Johnny Depp of plagiarism. From a storyby Stephen King, natch. David Koepp directs.

March 12

David Mamet's latest stars Val Kilmer as a government agent who stumbles into a web of conspiracies, secrets, and lies, while trying to rescue the president's kidnapped daughter.

March 12

Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) concocts another ungainly blend of Scandinavian miserablism and Nancy Meyers triflery. Shirley Henderson is in love with two brothers who own a bookshop.

March 17

In this essayistic documentary, local filmmaker Pearl Gluck travels to Hungary to search for her great grandfather's couch, which has an unusual history.

March 19

Another year, another seemingly pointless remake of a classic '70s horror film. On the heels of last fall's poorly received Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we have this new version of George Romero's 1978 story about the survivors of a global zombie plague taking up residence in an abandoned shopping mall. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames could keep it interesting.

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