The Big Picture


Things to do before the millennium ends: Start an annual poll wherein 50 plus film critics salted with a few choice programmers can tell us just what they think this last year, decade, and century have been about. Discovery: Being a celluloid Pazz & Jop means Being John Malkovich.

What else? Having only just embarked upon its second hundred years, the motion picture medium is about to become hope-lessly and forever periodicized. As the phrase “19th-century novel” summons the self-contained worlds of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, et al., so the old- fashioned “20th-century movie” will represent a lost fusion of mass appeal and modernist aspiration. The last example might well be Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy—the runner-up in the first annual Village Voice critics’ poll.

For local cineastes, 1999 was framed by two extraordinary—and extraordinarily well-attended—retrospectives. The first, at the Museum of Modern Art, was devoted to Robert Bresson, a filmmaker whose spiritual clarity and single-minded purity of vision reproaches, even as it redeems, the medium. Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar finished eighth in the Voice poll of the century’s best films; his death last week is one more way of marking the century’s end.

The second retro, at the Walter Reade, was devoted to Hou Hsiao-hsien—one of the few working narrative filmmakers who, in his fusion of a strong personal style, cultural specificity, and humanist scope, can be compared to the generation of directors who defined international cinema during the ’50s and ’60s. Indeed, he might be their belated sibling. (Wong Kar-wai, in my opinion, Hou’s only rival as director of the decade, is a rootless cosmopolitan whose movies have less to do with the weight of the past than a nostalgia for the ever vanishing present. Like the Iranian directors whose relative lack of historical perspective gives their cinema, at once neorealist and self-reflexive, its unique postmodern flavor, Wong is a harbinger of 21st-century cinema.)

The movie century is over, but as a send-off, 1999 proved wildly back-loaded. The spring and summer were arid, but for most critics, the autumn was wonderful—the local release schedule powered by the strongest New York Film Festival in recent memory. (The addition of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us would have made it one for the ages.) Five of the top six films in the Voice survey had their local premieres at the NYFF, and Claire Denis’s terrific Beau Travail, scheduled for release next spring, finished in the top 20 purely on the basis of its festival screenings.

That movies continue to function as a myth machine may be seen in pop period pieces like The Iron Giant (#25) as well as the ongoing cycle of true-life biopics—this year, Boys Don’t Cry (#6), The Straight Story (#7), and Man on the Moon. (That none of these have the scope and energy of Alexei Gherman’s Khrustaliov, My Car! is likely a function of Russia’s long bottled-up past.) Still, as suggested by Election (at #5 the highest-polling studio production), the teen film may be the only Hollywood genre sufficiently presold to support any sort of experimentation—witness Rushmore, Dick, and Go (#17). None, alas, was a hit. We might, however, take some pleasure in the (relative) failure of The Phantom Menace—a seeming casualty of premature Gen X nostalgia and a movie only The New York Times could love. (It garnered not a single vote among the critics polled.) The great significance of the movie was technological. The Phantom Menace was, in effect, an animated cartoon fashioned from photographic material. Theimagery was 95 percent digitalized—a development George Lucas ranked with the invention of color and sound.

Part of the melancholy inherent in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, another critics’ favorite at #20, was its suggestion that memory as we know it is based on photography. As the nature of the movie apparatus changes, so will our sense of the past. It’s striking that much current avant-garde work is focused on the soon-to-be-obsolete movie projector. This interest is evident not only in Ken Jacobs’s ongoing “nervous system” pieces, but in Stan Brakhage’s scratch-and-paint films—made without a camera, but based on the projector’s 24-frames-per-second rhythm—as well as the projection pieces performed in New York by the young Californian Luis Recoder and the sustained popularity of MOMA’s narrow-gauge survey.

For some, the year’s most disturbing phenomenon was The Blair Witch Project (#29). Eclipsed by its own hype, this Hansel and Gretel for the age of digital video conjured up an almost instant backlash—although, unlike The Phantom Menace, it did not peak before its opening. Arriving the same week as Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Blair Witch was everything Eyes Wide Shut was not—modest rather than overweening, crudely cinematic rather than ornately literary, net- rather than print-driven in its publicity, the expression of a hitherto unknown postmodernist collective rather than a world-famous modernist hero.

While both are movies in which the events staged are trumped by those imagined or described, the irony is that Kubrick’s unfinished (or, rather, studio-finished) last film partook of the dread digital imaging—in the form of the computer-generated fig leaves that many compared to the credit sequence of The Spy Who Shagged Me. Meanwhile, Blair Witch incredibly managed to wring a nuance of realism out of the old cinema verité—as though the movie machine were the greatest F/X generator of all.

An echt American film, Blair Witch evoked the white settlers’ fear of the primordial woods even as it dramatized—and, for its makers, fulfilled—the mad ambition of realizing one’s fantasy. The “real” documentary American Movie (the runner-up in our documentaries category) put forth a happier version of the story—in which the obnoxious tyro filmmaker is rewarded rather than punished. As suggested by these two Sundance hits—plus movies as disparate as After Life, the Polish documentary Photographer, and Hollywood comedies like Bowfinger and The Muse—nothing exists outside the Reality Studio. Those critics who experienced Rosetta (#4) as a form of torture might have found her search for work more credible if the movie had been transposed to Hollywood and concerned the heroine’s attempt to sell her screenplay. (Or maybe not. The Muse was one of the year’s more underappreciated movies.) If nothing else, the movies remain the culture’s supreme form of self-actualization.

A political metaphor waiting to happen, an allegory in search of a pundit, Being John Malkovich (#1) may not be about anything except itself. But this most-cited movie on the Voice‘s poll is nevertheless a riff on the future of cinema—and not just because it is demonstrably more popular with critics than with audiences. David Cronenberg’s underrated eXistenZ (#26) and Tom Tykwer’s overrated Run Lola Run (#15) both suggest a new form of movie based on interactivity—or, at least, on the capacity to be customized. (The same is true, in its way, for Boys Don’t Cry.) But only Being John Malkovich suggests the degree to which even this subjectivity will be based on commodified cults of personality. The more things change . . . Or rather, the movies are dead, long live the movies.