Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Year in Movies Begins

I've been writing pretty regularly this year; I started with the intent to write every week, and slacked off, then vowed to write every day, then slacked again. Eventually, I settled into a fairly regular schedule, intermittent but ongoing. I have come to realize that this current run has been a prelude to a kind of mission: to watch a movie a day for a year, and to write about that movie every day. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Fair enough; nonethless, I shall arise and go now, I shall strike the board and cry, "More!" I shall stand in the mead-hall and make my vow, swearing neither by my hand nor my head, neither by Jehovah nor Moses nor Allah nor the Buddha, neither by my mother nor my father--God rest them--nor wife nor children, but by my word, saying Yea. The rest is the opposite of silence.

I entertained the notion of beginning this journal with some sort of grand entrance--a discussion of Bruce Posner's Unseen Cinema seven-DVD collection, for instance; on the first disk, early motion picture cameras settle their gaze on direct and unadorned Life as it slides along a river or outside a train; or I could have raised a fitting paean to a classic film, touched unmistakably by the force of its own artistry as well as my memory of the experience of watching it. I thought of The Maltese Falcon, I believe the first movie I saw on the big screen after four or five scratchy viewings on television. I wanted to convey the sense of revelation I had, and how it has clouded the following decades of watching movies on TV, which I love to do, though it diminishes them - especially ones that deserve pilgrimage out of the damn house, like The Aviator or Eyes Wide Shut or Minority Report, all movies I have seen only on TV, what a shame. Some sort of fitting entree should occur; after all, I'm standing at the threshold of a movie a day, and of writing about each one; I'm already crowded with jobs and kith and kin, so I should open strong, at least for luck.

But I want this to have an element of the incidental about it, of the found--although I admit I'm getting all the movies through Netflix, lined up in a Queue I can unerringly manipulate with the aid of "Netflix Freak," a program that allows me to treat my Netflix account as though it were an iPod playlist--oh, the sleek and softly audible undertones of the Macworld, where everything's as smooth as a VW Beetle's behind and sharp as a Michael Graves teakettle. So I won't kid any of us with blather about accidental movie tourism. And yet: Here I go jumping off early, so to speak, writing today in late November, when I had planned to start January 1, run straight through to the last day of 2006's December. But I'm impatient for once; it is a rare enough feeling that I should take advantage of it, and start now. So I will.

Today I watched Time of the Wolf (2002), a French film about the post-apocalypse--nuclear, I think: I spotted a drawing on a wall that looked like a mushroom cloud; but the details are hazy. What is clear is that this film prompted me to start now. I’m weak-minded enough to appreciate the faux cleverness of beginning this journal with a movie about The End, and eager enough to get started, and to start with a sense of simultaneous discovery and intentionality. Time of the Wolf is a murky wander in the dark, a listlessly brutal and sonorous mediation on society's eagerness to slough off its civilized skin.

I won't get too smarmy and snide, but last weekend I watched Spielberg's War of the Worlds, twice (and one I did catch at the octoplex), and he covered much of the same ground as Time of the Wolf in two or three scenes that managed their own confluence of the brutal and the banal with intense and intimate attention. Time of the Wolf often seems disengaged; even its long-drawn-out scenes of tears and hoping against hopelessness failed to resonate, particularly because we were never asked to care about the people who passed through those dark vales. At one point I muttered, "This is why one can watch the evening news and not weep." This movie is like that: By keeping everything static, at arm's length, we are never asked to engage our moral sense. In fact, like the news, such an approach is immoral, allowing us to stare blankly while babies die and old women wail, as young men sit poleaxed at the crossroads, struck down and doomed.

I teach college classes at a nearby correctional facility. This term it's Introduction to Drama, and we began by spending many hours with Aristotle and Oedipus--exhausting company--and looking closely at the heart of tragedy, its bursting arteries clogged with irony, and I ask them to consider that the act of touching such a heart can break your own, what with all that fear and pity. I am always eager to present Oedipus to them, the story of a man who searches for the cause of all his troubles, and realizes it's him. It is something I leave hanging in the air before them as long as I can manage. And I find it now standing here in front of me; I have to look through it as I write about Time of the Wolf, and in all fairness I begin to see an effort at catharsis in its climax, as a young boy, driven to despair much too early in his life, grasps at suicidal straws, but is saved at the last moment by a stranger, who hugs the boy--whose father was shot and killed in the movie's opening scene in, I will admit, an affecting moment of shock and open-mouthed horror--and reassures him that everything could very well be restored, that perhaps even the dead will rise.

So wait a moment; where am I now? Time of the Wolf was a frustrating experience, so much so that I--the Will Rogers of movie-watchers--perversely wanted to use it to start this journal: a movie I met and didn't like. But here I am ready to accept it as tragedy, almost, its hamartia not hubris but hollowness--and, here it comes, hollowness immolated, as the boy intended, as a sacrifice to make things right again--but eating its own ashes to live again; and it emerges as a movie whose faults do not disappear but are transcended, the more I think about it (and I guess that was my first mistake), as the final shot unveils: a train makes its way through the countryside, which is beautifully quiet, but rushes past us because we are on the train, you see--and most of the movie is spent at an abandoned train station, a desperate locus of the urge to connect and establish order--and if we are on the train--which everyone wanted to get on, if only it would come--and, if the train did arrive, if only it would stop . . . Again, if we are on the train, then we are safe, and the world is coming back after all.

And we're off.

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