...I know, I know, this is all so last week, and Living RomCom should be reviewing We're the Female Audience, Hear Us Roar (aka Sex and the City) right about now, but I'm waiting to see Sex with my honey, who's away in Democracy School. So instead, this past weekend I went with a few friends to see a little bittie indie pic called The Visitor, which now tops my short list of the Best Movies of 2008. And having viewed it in the wake of having recently had my consciousness cotton-candied by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Brain-Dead, I've decided it's time for a good old-fashioned rant'n'rave.
Things One Thinks About After Seeing The Visitor:
The nature of friendship, the roots of empathy, the tenuousness of our supposed status quo (how an entire life can change in an instant), the awesome gulf between Americans and their immigrant population, loneliness as a portal to life or death, the beauty of women, the transformative power of masculine vulnerability, how music could save the world, that there's no such thing as an Average White Guy (or Average Person of Any Color, for that matter), the wisdom of understatement and trusting in an audience's intelligence, how post-9/11 government policies have crippled our capacity for compassion and decency.
Things One Thinks About After Seeing Indy 4:
What were they thinking?
[Warning: the following contains SPOILERS re: Indy 4 (come to think of it, the whole movie is its own sort of spoiler), but if you're really concerned about Indy 4 spoilers you're probably reading the wrong blog.]
My post-Indy 4 experience reminds me of an old '80s gag about cocaine: When you do a line of coke, you feel like a new man; problem is, ten minutes later the new man wants to feel like a new man. For the couple of hours that I spent watching Indy 4, I was intermittently entertained. But the moment my heels hit the aisle's carpet, the major disappointment and misgivings started seeping in. That's the peculiar, dubious brilliance of Spielberg: he's such a superb technician that he makes anything he points a lens at absorb your attention, momentarily. Armed with a masterfully manipulative moving camera and the best production team money can buy, he imbues a given scene with a vivid, hyper-movie-movie reality. He's a genius of Sell, and it's only when the hawking's over -- when you've put the coke spoon down, so to speak -- that you realize how little of reality (in Indy 4, it's next to nothing) was actually there.
I'm as much a fan of escapism as anyone, but as any writer knows, the more far-fetched or farcical a story is, the stronger its grounding rules need to be. Not ten minutes after seeing Indy, I found my figurative jaw dropping at just how many fundamental rules it had broken. There are "only in an alternate universe" howlers like Indy's ability to walk away from an atom bomb blast completely unscathed (strange, but in a movie obsessed with such scientific phenomena as magnetism, there is no such thing as radiation poisoning), and the idea that five people crashing over three Niagara-sized waterfalls in quick succession would walk away merely wet.
Indy 4's fundamental narrative error lies in its having removed any vestige of genuine jeopardy for its protagonists, and with that loss, sacrificing all tension and suspense. It should also be noted that conspicuously M.I.A. in this movie are emotionally involving relationships between credible human beings (add the coulda-been-great return of Karen Allen's character here to cinema's Great Missed Opportunities list). Yes, it's got a couple of bravura set pieces in it, but ultimately Indy 4 boils down to a whole lot of hoopla about absolutely zero.
It's rife with mistakes that would embarrass a rookie writer, such as the inordinate screen time used to establish that teenaged Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) packs a switchblade, that he's good with a knife, is itching to use it, that he's, y'know, got a knife on him... and then, but for one throwaway gag about his "bringing a knife to a gun fight," the lack of any obligatory pay-off scene in the movie where Mutt uses his knife. Similarly, an early scene suggests that villainness Cate Blanchett has psychic powers, and said powers never materialize.
We can chalk up some of this oblivious sloppiness to what happens when you've had untold drafts of a project over nearly 20 years of development and perhaps as many writers. But were Steven and George not even in the editing room? When you cut a pay-off out of a movie, you go back and cut down (or eliminate) its setup: that's the Filmmaking 101 know-how we expect from the supposed Best in the Business.
It's shite like this that leaves you thinking, What were they thinking? After some deliberation, I can only come to one conclusion: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas think we won't care, that we won't notice, that it doesn't matter. In other words, they think we're idiots.
It's for this reason, among many, that I want to draw your attention to one Thomas McCarthy, the writer and director of The Visitor (and before that, The Station Agent). McCarthy, working with a budget that was probably equal to a couple days of craft service table food on the Indy set, has created a moving, disturbing, ohmyGod thought-provoking film that lingers in the head and heart for days afterward. Unlike Indy 4, it's about something, and it takes place in the world we live in. In fact, it does what the best art is supposed to do: it helps us see the familiar with new eyes, while opening our eyes to the unfamiliar.
Family, and what it means, is central to The Visitor's concerns. It has the audacity to suggest that there really might be such a thing as a family of man and an actual global community; it believes in hope, even as it acknowledges the prevalence of hopelessness in our strife-torn life. McCarthy (pictured right) gives his audience the benefit of the doubt -- he trusts that we can understand ambivalence, comprehend conflicted emotions, that we can hold more than one feeling or thought in our consciousness at the same time.
While the often ridiculous Indy 4 script piles on chunks of tedious exposition trying to explain back story nonsense that means nothing to us, McCarthy's movie leaves things out: deliberately, intelligently, banking on the radical notion that we'll be smart enough to get it -- get what's in a glance, a gesture, what's implied when a scene ends early, letting us fill in the gap as it jumps to the next meaningful moment.
Impeccably cast, beautifully shot and directed, The Visitor is just the kind of sharp, poignant, devastatingly affecting little indie pic that all too often slips under the radar (its forgettable title and lack of marquee names won't help -- though fans of Six Feet Under will recognize and appreciate lead Richard Jenkins). But it's timely (as well as timeless) in its concerns, refreshingly substantive -- and even romantic and deeply funny, too. So I urge you, as the usual summertime behemoths roll loudly in and out of town, to catch it if you can.
Meanwhile, I can't help being amused, in a healthily mean-spirited way, by how Sex and the City just totally trounced Indy 4 at the weekend box office, surpassing even conservative expectations (and did Living RomCom not tell you that it would? It did). While Sex is certainly no indie, and may not even be a good movie, its success at least demonstrates that assuming your audience is made up of low-IQ suckers is no longer a sureshot proposition (it's pretty telling when a relatively low budget feature that isn't aimed at the famed under-25 male demographic bests a 1000-pound gorilla's second weekend). Who knows? There may be some life left in the moviegoing mind, after all.