Best of the Decade Derby: The Madness of revisiting a personal movie landmark

It seems that this project of sifting through a decade's worth of cinema to determine its best films has me performing my own version of Krapp's Last Tape. Last week a rewarding revisit to Donnie Darko became a flagellation of my past self. This time it's the opposite. This is one of my favorite things I've written, for how  a personal recollection opens into a call for values that binds together the aesthetic, the political, and the personal.

Tuesday, May 4, 2002, 7:45 PM - Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY

A friend invited me to a gala screening of The Royal Tenenbaums in Chelsea, hosted by Esquire magazine as part of their special series "Legendary Menswear in Cinema."   After two years in New York, I was tired of being a solitary cinephile with no connections to that greater network I knew was out there, and this event seemed like a good opportunity. But I was nagged by a Village Voice blurb about an obscure indie film depicting America after the first Iraq war. As I got in my car and made the half hour drive to Brooklyn, I kept asking myself why I was passing up a free Wes Anderson screening with cocktail hour and potential celebrity encounters to spend $10 to watch a movie by myself that I knew nothing about.   Lost in reflection, I took the wrong exit and arrived twenty minutes late. I walked sweaty and panting into a tiny, dark theater, where the silhouettes of the three other audience members were illuminated by the screen projection of two dead children floating down a river.

The rest of the film played like a continuation of my detour from the land of martinis and Legendary Menswear -- and it couldn't have been more different than the suffocatingly impeccable compositions of The Royal Tenenbaums (such a disappointment from Anderson's looser, earlier films).   It seemed to come at me from all angles, employing one stylistic approach after another: documentary footage of a concert and a mega bonfire burning, parodic montages of military toys, Godardian declamatory dispensations of military statistics and homefront reportage clashing with shrieking Griffithian melodrama replete with iris transitions.

Gianvito launched every cinematic missile, bullet and slingshot he had at an insurmountable object, such that it went beyond breaking down Gulf War America, but the cinema itself and its inability to redress -- or even address -- our crisis. His actors, almost all of them non-professionals, were valiantly taking on roles that were more momentous than any one of them could embody.   And yet that gap became the implied subject.   Everyone was trying their best, and the effort on display attested to a collective attempt to film the unfilmable: the grief and despair of living in a desolate landscape cloaked in victory.   So hearteningly awkward, so heroic were their efforts - that even in their most awkward moments they exposed every commercial American feature -- and most of the "independent" product that passes through the Sundance circuit - as calculated acts of cowardice.

This was the film that alienated me from mainstream American cinema, that made me despair at how hard it was to make a film that truly mattered . I've been scared to re-approach this film ever since (not that I've had many opportunities).   I finally re-watched it upon its recent DVD release this spring and the pain came swelling back again -- a pain that comes from recognizing how much pain went into its making, so palpable in the results.   The feeling of being confronted with a global crisis so immense, so overwhelming that one is torn by both the necessity and the impossibility of expressing it. A movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems.

One country this decade that has figured out how to convert national trauma into commercially successful cinema is - who else? - South Korea.   But until we see the American equivalent of Peppermint Candy (2000, dir. Lee Changdong), Gianvito's film will serve as a road map, a cautionary tale, and a lost subgenre all to itself, waiting for artists who give a damn to draw inspiration from it.

- May 25 2005

I wrote these words just a few years ago but they seem to come from someone more idealistic, more naively clairvoyant than what I am today. He and I are separated by Just a few years and a few hundred movies.  The last few years have reaped an inevitable jadedness that comes through cinematic conditioning, a need to fall back upon standardbearers of excellence (narrative efficacy, cinematographic integrity, auteur authority, etc.) as a shortcut to engaging a film; sidestepping the process of planting and re-planting the film among limitless contexts and then selecting the one that just feels right for that film, that time, like the way I nailed it above with Mad Songs.

Watching Mad Songs last night, I admit to being more bothered than I was before with the clunkiness of some of the scenes and performances, to the point that I was second-guessing the directing, wishing it were tighter overall (this coming from someone who thinks every frame of Jeanne Dielman is essential). This may be a function less of my conditioned jadedness as a film critic, but as a filmmaker. The last few years have also brought many rounds of wanting things to be tighter in my own work (especially when targeting the YouTube audience). It's ironic that my filmmaking endeavors have brought me to this state, because when I wrote those last two paragraphs of that review, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see myself as being an heir to that legacy I described, someday being able to produce "a movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems."

All of this is to say that Mad Songs feels even more foreign and foreboding to me now than it did then.  I'm not even sure I would say that it was enjoyable to watch this film again.  Sometimes I wish I had the unflagging fealty to certain films and filmmakers that some of my colleagues have (White, Knight, Uhlich, etc), the ability to summon the same unswerving assertions of value at the drop of the hat. I didn't feel like I had a safety net of aesthetic principles to reassure me as waded through its protean polemic swirling in aesthetic fits and starts, some of which are executed much better than others.  It's not a film that feels finished, something as masterfully engineered as something by Hou or Yang.  So I finished the film feeling genuinely troubled and uncertain of where it and I stood with each other. Except for the last 15 minutes, which are simply unassailable.  Those last 15 minutes are what Martin Scorsese's been trying to say about America his whole career, and they are worth the entirety of Gangs of New York many times over.

But then I read this old review of mine.  And I was both saddened and heartened that an previous version of me could write something like this, that not only accounted vividly for what a film could mean to him at a certain point of his life, but how valid those arguments still were in light of rewatching the film, even if they had been lost on the present version of me.

Serge Daney made the famous distinction between the films that we watch and the films that watch us.  If only for the history that I have with this movie, Mad Songs is inescapably in the latter camp. How much that matters to whether I deem it worth of my placing it on the top ten of the decade - hell, as if that even mattered anymore, in light of what I've been confronted with by this film.  Not that I couldn't find "objective" arguments to the film's value as a lasting achievement in cinema; now that the past has chastised me, I find myself capable of writing a book about this film (too bad that BFI monograph series is defunct), offering all kinds of arguments on the politics of performance, narrative vs. documentary aesthetics, the ethics of polemical filmmaking and its unfashionability today compared to the days of Eisenstein or Rossellini, two directors Gianvito undoubtedly emulates. But it's as if all of this were after the fact. It's as if the only fact that matters is that I saw this film on May 4, 2002, a fact from which all else springs (and hopefully has yet to spring).  I hope never to forget this again.