From The New Yorker
If you were out of the country, or out of your mind, for the past year, you may wish to know what you missed. One glance at the titles of the most admired films, and you will wonder what the hell was going on. “Brokeback Mountain,” “Broken Flowers,” “Crash”: that’s an awful lot of breakage. Yes, you might say, but those are fancy pictures. How about the rugged weekend viewers, hauling their good sense to the multiplex? What did they pay to watch? “Wedding Crashers.” Ouch.
There is nothing new, of course, in the promise of fracture. Whether you crash a wedding or an Imperial Starcruiser, movies are the place to do it. This year will mark the seventieth anniversary of “San Francisco,” in which Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy keep body and soul together in the jetsam of an earthquake. After the literal wreckage of 2005, which began with the aftershock of an undersea quake, and whose litany of the homeless stretched from New Orleans to Kashmir, cinematic fantasies of disaster feel more flippant than ever. Yet “San Francisco” is an exercise in American stoicism, and the wryness and proficiency with which its characters respond to chaos remain a defensible dream. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, amid the finger-pointing, lay a tempting thought: If only Spencer Tracy had been in charge.
No wonder Hollywood has turned to old John Carpenter films. He was one of the last directors to trade repeatedly in underreaction, that most precious of screen commodities. In his glory days, he made wiry thrillers like “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976), which closed with this exchange between a cop and a prisoner:
“You’re pretty fancy, Wilson.”
“I have moments.”
Both that film and “The Fog” have been remade in the past year, neither to any purpose; producers, in their lavish innocence, seem to believe that cool, like Christmas leftovers, can be reheated ad infinitum. Still, one understands their plight. CGI has encouraged cinema to hit levels of bombast that even Cecil B. De Mille, dozing in his boudoir, would have considered a touch de trop, and if we worshipped Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, that is because he seemed elfishly underwhelmed by the very spectacle that was wowing the rest of us. Hence the crushing comedown of this year’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” Ridley Scott’s crusader epic, in which Bloom wore the air not of a militant knight but of a worried boy who badly needed to pee.
In its dicing with political prejudices that it dimly knew to be important and its fatal inability to relax, “Kingdom of Heaven” was a workable median for the movies of 2005. From the unarguable tripe of “Alexander” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” at the back end of last year, through the torn families of “Proof” and “Cinderella Man,” to the furrowed indecision of “Munich,” there has been a marked reluctance to breeze through any setup. Movies come loaded these days, more like a cart than a gun. The forthright Bill Murray of “Ghostbusters” (“This chick is toast”) was anesthetized into the Bill Murray of “Broken Flowers,” cast as an unfeasible Don Juan in search of former belles, and urged to sit perfectly still in a tracksuit, with the lights turned down, until we saw in him our common nullity. Even “Brokeback Mountain,” for all its delicacy, felt obliged to add a couple of chunky scenes, not in Annie Proulx’s original tale, in which Jack rebuked his father-in-law, and Ennis chewed out a pair of apelike bikers. As he stood there, with Fourth of July fireworks flaring behind him, I thought, O.K., we get the point—gay men can be strong Americans, too.
The box-office returns for 2005 are not yet complete. “King Kong” is still slugging it out with “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and my money is on Tilda Swinton to beat the crap out of the primate. Other slots have already been filled, by such masterworks as “Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “War of the Worlds,” “Batman Begins,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” All their plots depend on a fear of the unknown (or, if you are Brad Pitt, a fear of Angelina Jolie), and yet their creators’ deepest fear is that we might not know in advance what the unknown consists of. That is why most of the highearners are either sequels or remakes—born, in other words, with brand recognition intact. We must not kid ourselves that the market leaders of old sought to frolic with the avant-garde; the most successful movie half a century ago was Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” and a decade before that it was “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” with Bing Crosby in a dog collar. Nevertheless, today’s contrast between the mayhem onscreen and the splintered nerves of the industry behind it feels freshly ominous. The studios, hunting for templates, trust nothing but a proven winner, however ropy it was in the first place, and they dread to think that we, in turn, might dare to take new characters on trust.