by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, March 2000)
And the winner is... GalaxyQuest!
But first, this.
There has been alot of blather recently about how 1999 is a breakthrough year in movies, with some even suggesting that it's the best year since 1939 (Wizard Of Oz, Hitler Invades Poland). Okay, Hitler invading Poland wasn't a movie, but we'll get back to this confusion between movies and reality in just a moment.
When I was young (and the Viet Minh were defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu) there was a popular expression used by people who wanted to say something complimentary when presented with a photo of someone's ugly baby: "Now that's a baby!", people would exclaim..
Well, 1999 certainly has been a year in which movies were made. And shown. And viewed! And as someone who plunked down some coin on these entertainments, let me say, I'm proud to be an American. The Sixth Sense... now that's a movie!
Just to recap, this past year included (but was not limited to, as the lawyers would say), Affliction, Rushmore, EDTV, Arlington Road, Summer of Sam, The Mod Squad, Still Crazy, Tea With Mussolini, Jakob The Liar, True Crime, The Matrix, Three Kings, Sweet & Lowdown, The Insider, Any Given Sunday, Being John Malkovich, Liberty Heights, Toy Story 2, Eyes Wide Shut, The Blair Witch Project, Cradle Will Rock, and more.
None of these movies were made to be lumped together in a list; none were made to represent 1999. They could have all come out in 1998 or 2000 and it wouldn't have made a difference, so the fact that they came out in 1999 says more about deals and distribution schedules than it does about the culture. Or does it?
1999 did not include Smoke Signals, Deconstructing Harry, The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, Wag The Dog, The Sweet Hereafter, or any Quentin Tarantino or Demi Moore films. So right away, the notion that it's the most significant year of the 90s is doubtful.
Also, it did not include Reds, The Last Waltz, Network, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Chinatown, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, M*A*S*H, Midnight Cowboy, If, In The Heat of the Night, Bonnie & Clyde, The Ipcress File, From Russia With Love, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape or any other similarly great films from the 60s, 70s, or early 80s, and it is my contention, with the possible exception of The Matrix, Blair Witch, and The Sixth Sense, will have little that will be remembered beyond the next few years.
But here is where the discussion can get contentious. Because we judge film using so many point systems. Was it entertaining? Was it profound? Was the acting great? Was the editing great? Was it original? Okay, was it original enough? Was their a movie moment that will depicted in a hideous caption and photo on the big screen before the Previews start? Was it revealing about our culture, or does that matter?
Sean Penn, on a recent episode of The Actor's Studio (Bravo Channel) insisted that film is too profound and powerful a medium for us to just settle for entertainment. He declared that a film had to be more than just entertaining, that if one is looking for mere entertainment, one should just get "a couple of hookers and an eight ball".
(Woody Allen, on a subsequent episode, questioned the need for the eight ball.)
I suppose if you're not old enough to have grown up on early Woody Allen (Take The Money and Run), Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Cook & Moore (The Bed Sitting Room-- this is the one where, after the atomic war, everyone begins to mutate into pieces of furniture normally found in an efficiency apartment), then Being John Malkovich is intense and amazing and new. And the first two-thirds certainly had some moments, but, let's face it, folks, the movie totally, absolutely fell apart when it decided it needed to explain itself. Arrrghhh, one might say, if one were a pirate who had mutated into a footstool.
The same cosmic idiocy afflicted The Sixth Sense, an almost great movie where the writer-director or producers panicked near the end and must have thought, gee, maybe the audience didn't get it, maybe we should explain this incredibly subtle and imaginative film by removing every ounce of subtlety and imagination from the last ten minutes. Again, arrrgghhh!
Which is not to say that these two films weren't good and fun; it's just the likelihood that they'll be remembered or should be remembered or should enter the pantheon of great films should be slim, not automatic, and deservedly so.
There have been great films, and there have been breakthrough years, but they don't necessarily coincide. In the 60s, the early Bond films were thought of as breakthrough because they were not only fresh and entertaining, they contributed to defining the sexuality of that era.
Alongside those films, anti-hero films also emerged. I don't know if any one film defined the anti-hero theme, but it certainly was abundant and celebrated, and was also a reflection of the era. Simply put, it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson against John Wayne. Put another way, there was authority and the establishment, and there was the anti-establishment.
M*A*S*H, epitomizing anti-war films as the nation waged an illegal war, couldn't have been made in 1964 and wouldn't have meant as much if it were made in 1977. So the culture was tied to the movies that were being made-- at least to the ones, for the most part, that were celebrated and are remembered.
The Godfather was celebrated as a breakthrough film, and as much as it was deserving of the accolades for all its artistic accomplishments, it serves also as the movie that redefined how movies are distributed, and that, in the long run, has had more to do with where we are today than anything else about the Godfather.
Jaws was celebrated; it's accomplishment was special effects and the simplicity with which one could describe the plot or reference the movie (da dum... da dum... da dum da dum da dum da dum...)
Star Wars was celebrated then and now by those who quaintly believe it captures primal storytelling and mythmaking and because of its special effects.
One can ascribe (and many have) a variety of cultural reasons why these films were blockbusters. The 80s (The Reagan Era) was known as the age of spectacle, both for its politics and its culture.
Now, at the close of the 90s, we have... confusion? How else to describe a culture that willingly designates a particular day, that probably wasn't Christ's birthday, as his birthday, then designates a particular year as a millennium celebration, all when the whole thing is patently suspect. Perhaps we have all mutated into calendars.
The cultural fictions we accept as fact are casually dismissed while we simultaneously attack movies based on fact for taking artistic liberties (The Insider, Hurricane, several of Oliver Stone's previous politically oriented films, Spike Lee's Summer of Sam).
If this isn't confusion, I don't know what is.
Meanwhile, we celebrate the technological excesses of special effects and we celebrate our obsession with them (from the shark in Jaws which actually represented nothing more than a shark, to Gump which represented the celebration of know-nothingism and rightwing political revision, to The Matrix and Toy Story 2 which tell old tales with clever, updated effects but without the story and writing would be meaningless); and we celebrate the extreme absence of effects and story (Blair Witch's budget is like Easy Rider's budget, but there, really, the similarity ends, in that ultimately Blair Witch is about nothing and Easy Rider was about freedom and hatred-- if you had long hair in the South in '70 you know what I'm talking about).
Presuming that Penn is almost right (about movies, not about hookers and eight balls) then among this mishmash, five movies did emerge from 1999 that ought to be remembered for what they said about us at the end of and beginning of wherever we are in the space-time continuum:
Arlington Road, about terrorism (the American McVey kind, not the alleged Algerian kind); Summer Of Sam, about who we were twenty years ago as we struggled to define ourselves in the post-Vietnam War era; Three Kings, as powerful a discussion of the flaws of our myths as was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as powerful an anti-war film in content and inventive style as was Robert Altman's M*A*S*H; Any Given Sunday, a profound discussion of how you fulfill your soul in the mechanical, corrupt corporate world that is consuming us all, and...
Because it's fun. (And because it says alot about reality and myth and movies and special effects, but really, who wants to talk about that?)
Gary Gordon hopes The Bed Sitting Room was not a documentary and apologizes for making up the Woody Allen quote above.