I Never Argue Over Movies-Well, Maybe Not Never

In all the years I’ve been reviewing movies-and my first

published review goes back to 1955-I’ve been attacked more often for my raves

than for my pans. People feel culturally superior to you when they dislike

something you like. Meanwhile, when the shoe is on the other foot, they become

culturally insecure. Still, I’ve learned never to argue with people over

movies. Well, hardly ever. As it happens, we all see different movies on the

same screen. Movie-watching is a form of psychoanalysis in dreamland, and we

all have different case histories.

I’ve been led into these ruminations by a very annoying

article with the presumptuous title “How to Tell a Bad Movie From

a Truly Bad Movie,” by Franz Lidz and Steve Rushin, in the Aug. 5 New York Times . The authors ostensibly

prefer movies that set out to be bad, like Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space , They

Saved Hitler’s Brain and “the all-midget musical western The Terror of Tiny Town ,” over “smug”

and “pretentious” movies that are truly

bad, but manage to fool us critics into taking them seriously. These include

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan

and A.I. , and Oscar-winners such as Out of Africa , The English Patient and Dances

With Wolves . Springtime for Hitler , anyone?

To support their updated camp gospel, Mr. Lidz and Mr.

Rushin quote all sorts of peculiar authorities like “one high-placed Warner

Brothers executive, who wishes for obvious reasons to remain anonymous”; Lloyd

Kaufman, impresario of the malodorous Troma Entertainment; and John Waters,

whose work is just a few levels above Mr. Kaufman’s cinema of intentional

stinkeroos.

Mr. Lidz and Mr. Rushin are astute enough to avoid making

themselves the targets of naysayers by giving any inkling of what they think is

good, except for one possible slip: “No ‘Worst Film’ list is definitive. One

man’s Patch Adams is another man’s Pather Panchali .” This seems to imply

that Pather Panchali is a standard of

excellence, and not what the late François Truffaut considered a big bore.

Mr. Lidz and Mr. Rushin are also very careful not to trifle

with a pretentious minority director like Spike Lee. For that matter, is Ingmar

Bergman as boring and pretentious as many people think? (Woody

Allen to the contrary notwithstanding.) Yet the biggest omission for me

in the Lidz-Rushin inverted canon is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux , which I recently

suffered through with a mostly male geriatric audience. I had seen the original

cut of the film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, and most of the American

critics in attendance back then swarmed all over Mr. Coppola with questions

about the film’s ruinous cost, implying that it had been a catastrophic ego

trip for him. The French critics were of a different mind about Apocalypse Now , and it shared the Grand

Prix with Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin

Drum , which was better received in America

than Apocalypse Now in 1979.

Why the big critical switch now? I suspect that Apocalypse Now Redux is being used as a

club against Pearl Harbor ,

and I agree that Robert Duvall’s helicopter-gunship squadron attack on a Viet

Cong village is perhaps the most exciting battle scene in the history of the

cinema, and makes Pearl Harbor

look like a children’s toy. But that’s it, and it comes early. The rest of the

film is zero, nada -tedious,

uninvolving and terminally overwritten by Mr. Coppola, John Milius and Michael

Herr. What little sex has been added to the film in the Redux cut is as lethargic as the rest of the journey up the river

toward the 45-minute anticlimax with an out-of-control Marlon Brando, as

out-of-sync with his director as Colonel Kurtz is insanely impervious to the

military chain of command. But what struck me most strongly this time is that Apocalypse Now is not a war film at all,

except for the helicopter raid. There is no sense of the enemy except as a

literary abstraction. Stanley Kubrick’s Full

Metal Jacket (1987), shot in England, comes much closer to dramatizing the

conflict between two adversaries than does Apocalypse

Now Redux , which ends up as a clumsy, incoherent adaptation of Joseph

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness .

I might have forgiven Mr. Lidz and Mr. Rushin

for their slyly derisive attitude toward the medium of movies itself if they

hadn’t persisted in their silly denigration of Mr. Spielberg’s A.I. , a film I greatly admire. I’ve been

aware of a backlash against the film for some time, but I wasn’t surprised. Far

from being the sentimental lollipop many of its detractors claim, A.I. is a disturbingly subversive

experience for audiences. Aside from projecting the end of the world and the

end of humanity, the film contains three of the most unsettling existential

images in all of cinema. The first shows David the mechanical boy at the bottom

of a swimming pool, immune from drowning and thus immortal in a sense, but also

desperately lonely and abandoned. The second shows him in the workshop of his

inventor “father,” looking at a row of replicas made in his image and thus

prepared to deprive him of his uniqueness. The third comes at the end, when he

can sleep and dream after 2,000 years as a result of his “mother” finally

saying that she loves him-which demonstrates that we become human not merely

from loving, but from being loved. One day of happiness in 2,000 years: I don’t

think many kids today would consider this a good deal. In fact, there’s no

identification for anyone in the remarkable Oedipal

transfiguration of this romantic character.

Getting back to my function as a critic, I see no point in

encouraging any degree of badness in movies, particularly the kind of badness

that knows no shame. Instead, I shall keep looking for good movies to

recommend. High on my list at the moment is Paul Cox’s Innocence , the most powerfully emotional love story of the year so

far, which is quite remarkable inasmuch as Julia Blake’s Claire and Charles

Tingwell’s Andreas are both of a certain age generally more suited on the

screen for meditative memory than for a resurgence of sexual passion.

Mr. Cox eloquently explains his unequivocal choice of

subject: ” Innocence sums up all the

things I have touched upon in my other films: modern and traditional love-very

carefully explored. But in Innocence

they are very concisely put together. It is about love in old age-and specifically

having the opportunity to explore your first love again. You never love like

that again in your life. That is why the film is called Innocence .”

Mr. Cox took three years to write the script, but the

financing took several years to complete, which is characteristic for

filmmakers out of the mainstream. But who is Paul Cox, and where is he coming

from really? David Thomson is especially perceptive on this point in his Biographical Dictionary of Film : “So

many directors have left Australia, it is important to stress that Cox only

reached that land in his early twenties, bringing with him the anguished

visionary sensibility of one of his countrymen-Van Gogh. (Cox is the only

Dutchman to have taken the painter as a subject, in a heartfelt but deliberate

documentary in which John Hurt was the voice of Van Gogh.)”

Now in his early 60′s, Mr. Cox has made more than 25 feature

films and documentaries since his first full-length feature, Illuminations , in 1976. As with Innocence , most of his films hover in

that shadowy divide between love and death. Hence, it is not surprising that

Mr. Cox has expressed his spiritual and stylistic debt to the Russian exile

director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), particularly for The Sacrifice (1986). Fortunately, Mr. Cox is not lacking in a

certain rueful humor completely absent in the Tarkovsky oeuvre .

This is to say that the wintry romance and reunion of

Andreas Borg (Charles Tingwell), retired organist and music teacher, with

Claire (Julia Blake), his first true love, 50 years after they shared a

passionate affair in postwar Belgium, does not amuse Claire’s husband, John

(Terry Norris), as much as his stunned reaction amuses us. The exquisite

quality of Mr. Cox’s sensibility is revealed in his showing as much compassion

for John as for the two late-life lovers. The probabilities of mortality

provide the suspense and surprise of this story told on the edge of eternity.

Young Claire (Kristien Van Pellicom) and young Andreas

(Kenny Aernouts) are shown in Antwerp, Belgium,

about 50 years before, but purely as memory images of who they once were. We

never learn, for example, why they broke up in the first place; we see only

that they were once young and attractive enough to leave behind lasting

memories. The film was shot over five weeks in Antwerp

and Adelaide, Australia.

Adelaide was chosen as the main

locale because of partial funding by the South Australian Film Corporation, and

the decision to shoot the flashback sequences of the young lovers in Antwerp

was made because of a one-million-Belgian-franc Grand Prix award won by Mr.

Cox’s A Woman’s Tale at the Flanders

International Film Festival in Ghent

in 1992.

The Claire of Ms. Blake, the Andreas of Mr. Tingwell and the

John of Mr. Norris are brilliant performances that envelop their parts, and yet

they gain in the illusion of realism because of the unfamiliarity of the

players in America

after long seasoning Down Under. The climax of the film is accompanied by a

thrilling musical score that lifts the characters to a sublime metaphysical level

such as is seldom attained in the cinema. Innocence

is a film for the ages.

If, as Tolstoy once observed, narrative art is the

transmission of emotion through artistic forms, the cinema seems singularly

well-equipped for the task. To ridicule the emotions in films like Innocence in the name of a higher

sophistication-indeed, to ridicule any communication of emotion in any

movie-one runs the risk of becoming absurdly irrelevant to the peculiar genius

of the medium. Banality is one thing, aridity quite another. If I have

overstated my case, so be it.