Film Reviews

Comfortably numb

In 1997, both the big studios and the independents got stuck in their respective sewers of cliche--conflagrations, computer graphics, and crazy comedies on the one hand; on the other, dysfunctional families, kooky proles, and drop-outs.

Some of the most highly promoted and lauded films from either the big-studio or indie filmmakers, such as Titanic and Boogie Nights, turned out to be sorry excuses for "events." What I want from a Titanic movie, or from any reality-based disaster film, are the facts of life and death, and "the reasons why." That's what I got--unfortunately, not from James Cameron's $200 million mega-epic, but from rewatching the 1958 British black-and-white classic A Night to Remember, which calmly laid out the ship's misfortunes.

With nearly two additional hours of screen time, Cameron doesn't even touch on crucial elements that the British team conveyed as a matter of course: like the presence of another ship, the Californian, only 10 miles away, maddeningly oblivious to distress calls because 24-hour radio operation wasn't yet required. Cameron so single-mindedly wants to blame the ship's demise on upper-crust arrogance and sloppiness--on the owner's determination to make headlines by reaching New York in record time--that he slights the array of details that would actually catch you up in an absorbing web of suspense.

He doesn't give much credence to the traditional Titanic myth of honest boatmen doing their professional duty and aristocrats and plutocrats alike behaving according to the standards of high-society chivalry. So instead of people looking straight-on at their mortality and trying to keep their footing when their world takes a catastrophic tilt, he provides unrelieved chaos and the sham romanticism of vagabond artist Leonardo DiCaprio saving the body and soul of Philadelphia crumpet Kate Winslet. Billy Zane, as Winslet's sadistic fiance, is so obviously sexually confused, I expected him to put on a dress when escaping with the women and children. No such luck: Apart from the penny-dreadful dialogue, Titanic isn't good for a laugh.

And what of Boogie Nights? People desperate for amusement--or somehow genuinely tickled--argued that this candy-colored promenade through the '70s porn boom was something other than an inflated version of the alternative-family fantasies that have inundated art theaters in the '90s. I agreed with porn aficionado and Salon columnist Susie Bright, who wrote, "With as much affection as Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid--it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot."

With few exceptions, the handful of prestige moviemakers who possess the clout to do an artist's work have ascended to a gassy high ground. If Buddhism encourages its followers to remain focused and serene amidst a welter of contemporary complexities, it inspires directors like Jean-Jacques Annaud in Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese in his Dalai Lama hagiography Kundun (opening next week) to evade complexities altogether in favor of exotic filigree. The erudition of the East becomes fodder for designer religion, a sort of Gucci Buddhism. It resembles nothing more than the "Circle of Life" in the once-again-hot The Lion King, supposedly moving us all "from despair and hope/Through faith and love/...In the circle of life."

Buddhists want to free us from our egos. That may be a noble goal for most people, and a necessary one for Oliver Stone, who once described himself as an "incipient Buddhist" (before tanking with U-Turn). But it's generally a fatal one for directors, who forget everything they know about human nature once they partake of cosmic wisdom. Kundun gives nonviolence a bad name: In it, the Dalai Lama doesn't even seem to master nonviolent resistance--his version comes off as glorified passivity.

Kundun is a one-of-a-kind movie (and we can hope it will be the only of its kind): an official film biography of the head of a religion. But it fashions a lousy case for that religion as the basis for a theocracy. A coddled Tibetan boy gets snatched out of obscurity, initiated into esoteric rites, schooled in Karma 101, and abruptly accepted as the savior of his nation. The Dalai Lama keeps asking what his people think about the threat of the Chinese Communists, but Scorsese's dramatization doesn't demonstrate that he's capable of leading them. (The Lion King's Simba was more credible.) About the only thing that makes this a religious experience is that you have to take everything on faith.

Ever since the we-are-the-world '80s, America's leading pop citizens have striven to find altruistic causes so pure they can't be tainted with political controversy. (Wag the Dog spoofs this impulse toward easy, unassailable charity: At one point in this unfettered political farce, musical superstars band together like the Quincy Jones gang to support a humanitarian mission--to Albania--that doesn't exist.) The movies I loved, or at least liked, this year--including TV films such as Anjelica Huston's Bastard out of Carolina, and lively diversions such as Austin Powers and Breakdown--were bold in their ambition to provoke or to entertain, and steered clear of sanctimony. At a time when special-interest sensitivities are heightened and mass-audience sensibilities are degraded, provocation and entertainment have never been more of a challenge.

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Michael Sragow