Sunday, January 3, 2010

Decade ten best: Two from the New Yorker

I've been poking around a lot on the New Yorker's web site recently: If you're a subscriber, you can read any issue of the magazine ever published, which is fun, and their writers and editors relax a bit and blog, occasionally posting things that are more interesting that what they publish.

David Denby and Richard Brody, two of their film critics, posted their decade ten best lists and the contrast is interesting, reflecting very different attitudes toward the medium.

Denby's list is, frankly, impeccable. From "The Lives of Others" to "The Incredibles" and "Wall-E" from "Crouching Tiger" to "Cache" and "The White Ribbon" from "Mystic River" to "Knocked Up", Denby shows why he gets the big bucks -- this is a man with good taste, who writes well, and who will not scare the children. A bit boring, of course, but there's not a movie on the list that anyone but an eccentric would complain about.

Brody, whom I don't know, contributes a list that could either be insightful or insane, with only three movies I've ever heard of (one of which was The Darjeeling Limited -- surely a unique accolade for that one -- and another of which was a Senegalese movie about genital mutilation). Lots of food for thought: Jia Zhangke is 'the best new non-American director of the last twenty years'; Ying Liang and Wang Bing are the two best new directors of the decade; Manoel de Olivera made a movie that nobody told me about; and French people still make movies in black and white starring enigmatic and beautiful women.

I'd put Denby's list in the time capsule, but I'm putting Brody's list on my Netflix queue -- if I can find them there.


Generic said...

Noted eccentrics Armond White and David Edelstein on "The White Ribbon."

With The White Ribbon, the German director Michael Haneke follows Lars von Trier (Antichrist) in borrowing a serviceable horror-movie premise, gussying it up for the international festival crowd, and passing off its sclerotic insights as harsh new truths about the essential evil of man (and woman and child). Von Trier wallowed in psychodrama and metaphysics (and gore), but Haneke has a social agenda. His brow lifted higher than usual, he attempts to depict the festering psyche of the Germans on the brink of World War I. The movie plays like an Ingmar Bergman remake of the little-kids-from-space picture Village of the Damned—except if Bergman had made it, he might have set out to discover something he didn’t already know. Haneke’s contempt for humanity had congealed into dogma before he shot his first frame of film. The movie is a long 144 minutes.

Haneke’s setting is a small village rocked by acts of malevolence. A doctor and his poor horse connect with a trip wire. A farmer’s wife working for the town’s chief landowner, a baron, falls through a hole in the floor—shortly after which the baron’s little son is found strung up and lashed, with a note that says the sins of the father will be visited on the child. Who could be responsible for such acts? The ingenuous male schoolteacher (who relays the story of the village as an old man) notices a group of children led by an obsequiously angelic blonde girl and her guilty-looking brother as they troop down the street to ascertain the condition of the latest victim. By and by, the blonde gazes with disgust on a boy with Down syndrome—clearly an inferior specimen. The teacher sees the brother balancing over a precipice: The boy says he’s giving God a chance to kill him for crimes unspecified. As in the revenge-of-the-repressed quasi mystery, Caché, Haneke doesn’t deign to deliver the genre goods—resolution, catharsis, etc. That way he can crudely spell out his themes and yet still give the bourgeois audience the finger.

Haneke depicts the whole village as morally corroded: economic exploitation, incest, corporal punishment of kids, hypocrisy, too. The title refers to the white ribbon the minister ties to his eldest daughter to remind her of innocence and purity. Later, he binds his elder son to the bed to keep the boy from masturbating. Few can resist abusing power: It’s a virus. And we know where it’s leading: to blind obedience, collective madness, fascism. Somewhere along the way, the director made the leap from generalized sadism (Benny’s Video and Funny Games—so not nice he made it twice) to political indictments (Caché). But his basic sadistic impulse never evolved.

Christian Berger has shot The White Ribbon in stark black and white, in imitation of Sven Nykvist’s work in early Bergman. It’s striking. But Bergman pared down the frame to allow us to scrutinize his actors’ emotions, while Haneke’s faces are (Scandinavian-looking) masks. Chill to the core, he presents human cruelty not to make us empathize with the victims or understand the oppressors but to rub our noses in the crimes of our species. He thinks he’s held on to the subversive ideals of punk, but all I smell is skunk.

Tulkinghorn said...

Straw man bullshit, seems to me.

Edelstein is not a talented or insightful writer, but I would have thought that even he could have gotten beyond making up a stupid or contemptable motive (in this case 'passing off sclerotic insights as harsh new truths') and then denouncing it.

At any rate, there were probably cavemen critics who claimed to see through high-toned nonsense. It's a game for the second-rate.

This is not to say that the movie is any good at all-- merely that this sort of thing is less than persuasive.

Generic said...

Much easier to carry the point if you dismiss everyone who disagrees with you.

Generic said...

Another way to describe is as "Rameshism." The "that's just" move that's used to dismiss arguments rather than countering them.

Generic said...

Tulkinghorn said...


How can one 'counter' this ("Passing off its sclerotic insights as harsh new truths about the essential evil of man (and woman and child"), other than to dismiss it? You can, of course, claim that the insights are not sclerotic, but it's hard, when dealing with the "passing off" part, to prove your case one way or another.

This is just name-calling. White, however, is convincing and you would have done better to quote him.

Also your ad hominen

Generic said...

In truth, and lest we forget, neither of us will be able to really deal with these questions until we've seen the f****ing movie.

It would also help to know what "sclerotic" means.

Tulkinghorn said...

I love your faux regular guy profession of ignorance.

You are right but still: it's never a good sign when a reviewer finds a banal idea in a movie and denounces the film-maker for banality.

Stands a good chance of being the reviewer's fault.

Generic said...

Remains to be seen. As it were.

What did you think of the interview?

Tulkinghorn said...

Not inspiring, I admit. However, I did like his swipe against didacticsm:

"I don’t like films that will explain the world to me, because it’s always a lie."

Despite my earlier complaints about Avatar, I actually think that discussions of movies that revolve around ideas are somewhat pointless, because (a) their ideas are usually stupid to the extent that they are there at all and (b) movies are a TERRIBLE medium for the discussion of ideas.

So when Edelstein talks about the politics of "Cache", my immediate response is "I didn't even notice and don't much care." If "White Ribbon" is any good at all, I would hope my reaction would be the same.

Thus a criticism that first states the ideas behind a movie and then finds those ideas banal seems to me to be basically beside the point.

Generic said...

"sclerosis" = the thickening or hardening of a body part as of an atery, esp from tissue overgrowth of disease.

I would guessed it was a syn of "dyspeptic."

Generic said...

I remembered this as an Albert Aligator move in Pogo," but the always reliable Internet sez otherwise:

"'Earthquake! Earthquake! Game called on account of earthquake!/–Lucy, knocking over the checkers board when she sees she’s losing."

Generic said...

But on a more serious note -- what are critics to do? They must first decribe what they are about to comment on. Edelstein builds part of his comment into the description -- an elegent soultion from a writerly point of view.

Generic said...

But still yet again:

We agree to the extent that I barely noticed the poltics of Avatar and to the charge that they are banal and conventional Hollywood liberalism I said basically: "Well, of course. What did you expect?" (In fact, though it'sd a side issue here, I think the second-grade-reading-level narratives in Cameron's films helps account for their universal huge popularity: a five year old in Indonesia will not be confused by them.) The charge against White Ribbon (which neither if us has yet seen) is as much about Hanecke's supposedly reductive view of human nature as inherently vile and violent. To paraphrase your comment above, if an artist truly sees the world and human beings that way, it's more likely to be his fault.

Tulkinghorn said...

But if he doesn't.... If the films are really more nuanced than that -- and certainly Cache was more nuanced than the 'political' film that apparently some saw -- then the critic only exposes his/her own limitations by denouncing the ideas that aren't there.

Generic said...