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House of Flying Huckabees

Brian Abrams, Aaron Aradillas, and Phil Dellio share lists,
trade insults, and agree to disagree about the year in movies

Editor's note: I asked Brian, Aaron, and Phil to partake in this conversation about movies, fully aware that it's something Slate has been doing annually in their "movie club" for the last few years, at least (their 2004 edition can be read here). It only seems proper to acknowledge this.

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From: Phil Dellio
Date: December 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Aaron & Brian:

I should be the last guy initiating this--you've both undoubtedly seen much more than I have this past year--but I at least got out to see Huckabees, Sideways, and The Aviator over the holidays, so I guess I'm more or less ready to start this thing. Here's a sketchy Top 10 that can maybe serve as a starting point:

1. Mayor of the Sunset Strip
2. Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
3. Sideways
4. My Architect: A Son's Journey
5. End of the Century
6. A League of Ordinary Gentlemen
7. Before Sunset
8. Word Wars
9. Baadasssss!
10. Spider-Man 2

I know that a couple of these are technically 2003, but they all got their first non-festival screenings in Toronto this year. Using the Voice poll and a list of box-office returns as guides, here's what else I saw and am "qualified" to discuss: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Aviator, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Manchurian Candidate, The Dreamers, Coffee and Cigarettes, The Village, Tupac: Resurrection, Superstar in a Housedress, Garden State. So, to open up, which is a better subject for hard-hitting action cinema: bowling or Scrabble?

Phil

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From: Aaron Aradillas
Date: December 30, 2004, 5:12 PM

Hey guys,

I am almost ready with my 10 Best list. It should be ready by New Year's Day. I am ready to talk about trends and Phil's list, though.

The first thing that pops out about Phil's list is the number of quality documentaries on it. Owen Gleiberman predicted last year would go down as a landmark year for docs. With the overwhelming success of such docs as Capturing the Friedmans, Winged Migration, Spellbound, and The Fog of War, it became apparent that a certain section of the moviegoing public wanted a dose of reality to balance the all-for-one fantasies of The Return of the King and Seabiscuit.

If anything, this year has been an even greater year for nonfiction filmmaking. With this being one of the most politically-charged years in modern American history, it seemed as if moviegoers were starving for information. Politics seemed to color everything. Not just in political docs like Bush's Brain, Going Upriver, and Outfoxed, but in seemingly nonpolitical docs like Super Size Me and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Could 2004 be the year where everyone gave an opinion? With the number of blogs at an all-time high--political and otherwise--and the unbelievable popularity of VH1's Best Week Ever and its ilk, 2004 looks to be the year when everyone became a pundit.

Do we have to talk about Fahrenheit 9/11? Oh, why not. Michael Moore's great poli-tainment spoke more directly to the anger, sadness and sheer numbness that has settled into America's psyche than any film since the three years following the attacks. The use of a blank screen and the sound of planes hitting the towers and voices of desperation did more to let people feel, through the safety of watching a movie, what it might have been like on that day, if only for a couple of minutes. I won't even bother talking about how certain movies became a red state-blue state phenomenon. Well, maybe for a minute. I believe all this red state-blue state labeling is bullshit and probably more divisive than any campaign ad or rallying speech.

red state, blue state, watergate, garden state, it's still rock'n'roll to me

First, being from one of the redder states on the map--Texas--I know how misleading and unfair it can be to be thought of as a red-stater. Second, in terms of movies, to believe that The Passion of the Christ could only appeal to red-staters or Fahrenheit 9/11 could only appeal to blue-staters says more about some people's prejudices than any bumbling speech given by Dubya or defensive statement given by Mel Gibson. Critics like Slate's David Edelstein and NY Daily News's Jack Mathews did nothing to further the cause of film criticism as a noble profession by reducing the movie year to a Godzilla vs. Mothra-like showdown between Jesus Christ and Michael Moore. Mathews assertion that Fahrenheit 9/11 helped President Bush get re-elected was not only a cheap shot at Mr. Moore but plain ignorant, a poor-man's attempt at wit.

(For the record: I was moved by both movies.)

Sadly, the biggest fallout from the Year of the Doc was a rather unhealthy obsessive quest for the Truth. In an era of lines being drawn in the sand--not to mention the fetishizing of categorization--people seemed desperate to disprove their emotional response to certain docs. To expect, even demand, truth in documentaries is at once absurd and naive. Motion pictures are the wrong place to look for hard facts. (Books are a better place to look.) Jean-Luc Godard once said, "Truth is life at 24 frames per second. Every edit is a lie." The most we can expect from documentaries, or movies in general, is an emotional truth. What people need to be aware of is when their emotions are being unfairly manipulated. How do you know when this is happening? It's kind of like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Two examples: Jehane Noujaim's Control Room and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me were two successful documentaries that demonstrated the difference between insincere outrage and muckraking integrity. Control Room was supposed to be an illuminating exposé on how America's news outlets like CNN prepackage war coverage into stories about good vs. evil, while Iraq's satellite news channel Al Aljazeera reports the "truth" of what's really happening in their country. Uh-huh. The embrace of this film by the critical community did nothing to make people stop and question if the film itself was prepackaged. Did anyone not wonder why subtitles weren't provided for when the newscasters were on screen? To suggest that Iraq's only news channel is just a Middle East version of CNN or MSNBC is not only the daydreams of soft-headed liberals, but possibly dangerous.

On the other hand, Morgan Spurlock's investigation of how we've become a mass-consumption society and our need for everything to be bigger, better and uncut, was disguised as a hilariously disturbing puckish odyssey as he fulfilled every child's fantasy of becoming a Mickey D kid. By deciding to eat nothing but McDonald's for 30 days, Spurlock gained first-hand knowledge on how America is becoming outsized. Unfortunately, people only seemed to be concerned whether Spurlock really ate Big Macs for 30 days, as if he was taking a cheap shot at poor, little burgermaker McDonald's. When supposedly "independent" investigations were conducted and some people claimed to not have had any health problems by eating burgers, fries and shakes for 30 days, Mr. Spurlock's inquiries into obesity, advertising, and obsession were dismissed as the rantings of a Michael Moore clone.

The desire for truth in movies seeped into the other major trend of the year: the biopic. To take one example: Ray, the great rock 'n' roll bio of Ray Charles, was attacked in some quarters for playing fast and loose with the chronology of events and the deleting, combining, or short-changing of key characters in Charles' life. Structurally the movie is a little creaky but Jamie Foxx's towering performance wipes away any reservations about the film as Ray allows us to feel a man's life experiences like no other biopic since Malcolm X. Foxx transcends mere mimicry--Ray's swaying head movements, his infectious, southern-fried stutter--into a state of being. Try telling that to Charles biographer David Ritz, whose enlightening but ultimately pointless critical essay about the film, which appeared in Slate, seems to miss the point of what Foxx and director Taylor Hackford were attempting to accomplish.

what'd mr. edelstein say?

Granted, Ritz, a terrific reporter and writer, is allowed to be a little protective of Charles' legacy, especially since he's been the keeper of it for the better part of two decades. Ritz's complaints about Ray's reducing of Charles sideman and long-time friend Fathead Newman to caricature and the deleting of one of two key mother figures in young Ray's life are interesting, but seem to be an attempt to belittle a moviegoer's experience. Mr. Edelstein's fall-in-line support of Mr. Ritz and his dismissal of the biopic genre in general did the movie no favors. Mr. Edelstein's assertion that the biopic is one of the least enjoyable film genres was a little strange. Personally, I find myself dragging my feet when having to see comic-book adaptations and remakes. To me, screen bios are the ultimate high-wire act for actors. What could be a greater achievement than making an audience forget that there is a real-life counterpart to what they are seeing on screen? The bottom line is this: Documentaries and biopics will always come under attack for "fudging" the facts. There will always be a certain section of the movie going community who will dismiss their emotional response to a film by demanding to know what really happened. Who knew 2004 would be the year where the movie going public would be blinded by the quest to know the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God?

On a slightly different note, I hope I'm not coming off as someone who is attacking Mr. Edelstein because I'm not. He's a fine critic whose more provocative statements, I feel, need to be challenged.

Anyway, how's that for an opening statement? Am I making any sense?

Cheers,
AA

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From: Phil
Date: December 31, 2004, 4:06 PM

Aaron and Brian:

I feel a little contrived having so many documentaries on my list. I want to be clear that I'm not trying to make the point that documentaries are somehow inherently superior to narrative film. Obviously I think they're generally better at this particular moment in time, but about half the new releases I saw this year were regular old moderate-to-big budget narratives, and with every one of them I went in genuinely hopeful that I'd see something really good (except with maybe The Aviator, strangely enough, where I expected, and got, the worst--I'll get to that shortly). But most of the time they fell short of whatever it was I was hoping for (and well short of whatever inflated praise they usually received), whereas most of the documentaries I'm seeing either come out of nowhere to surprise me (Theremin and Pornstar: The Legend of Ron Jeremy from previous years, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen this year) or, like Spellbound and My Architect, turn out to be even richer and more absorbing than I would have guessed from their reviews. It's actually only been relatively recently that I paid much attention to documentaries, with most of the credit going first to Terry Zwigoff's Crumb from the mid-90s, and then an extensive Frederick Wiseman series that ran at Toronto's AGO a couple of years ago. I won't go on at length about Michael Moore, who's become an easy and obvious target. I'm not a fan: he's the anti-Wiseman, P.T. Barnum through and through. I disagree strongly with Aaron's dismissal of the idea that Moore helped get Bush reelected; obviously he wasn't at the top of the list of contributing factors (introducing Emile de Antonio's Millhouse: A White Comedy at AGO recently, a local documentarian said that 9/11 was the biggest reason Bush was reelected, something that sounded good at that time and seems a lot sillier in retrospect--and he said that as a fan of Moore's film), but his aggressive self-promotion and general all-around busy-bodiness definitely get under the skin of a lot of people, and I'm pretty sure not many of them voted for Kerry. As I've said to a few friends, I honestly believe that one network screening of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry would have been incalculably more beneficial to Kerry's chances of winning than the ongoing Fahrenheit 9/11 circus. (I should mention here that I still haven't seen some of the year's most prominent documentaries, Super Size Me and Control Room for starters.)

There aren't many instances when I'd opt for a biopic version of someone's life over a well-constructed documentary. I love Jonathan Kaplan's Heart Like a Wheel (Shirley Muldowney), like Oliver Stone's Nixon much more than a friend of mine who shares a Nixon obsession with me, and got hooked on Patsy Cline through Sweet Dreams; also, some of Malcolm X is excellent. Most of the biopics I see, though, don't begin to get anywhere near the complexity of their subjects. I'd single out A Beautiful Mind from a couple of years ago as a standard-issue biopic: we'll focus on some gimmicky and easy-to-understand representation of schizophrenia, but let's leave out that other stuff about repressed homosexuality and anti-Semitism, and especially let's keep all the complicated math to a minimum, because nobody goes to the movies to see math. Just last night I saw Bukowski: Born Into This. Not great, but it sure was a thousand times better than Barfly.

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From: Brian Abrams
Date: January 1, 2005, 6:03 PM

All apologies for the delayed response, gentlemen. I'd like to start off by giving thanks to Aaron for starting off the forum with The Passion and Fahrenheit. As much as I want to avoid ruminating on these two films so we can get to more esoteric (in other words: Phil's pending ten list) and more-movie-nerdy topics (in other words: the audacious indie slate of 2004 cinema), I realize we need to get these two media monsters out the way.

Not to get off on the wrong foot with you, Aaron, but I have a couple rebuts to your contribution. No personal attacks here. Just two rebuts, and I'll move on.

I somewhat empathize with you on the "unfair" biases and judgments that can sometimes misread an individual just from their residence in a politically overt state. (I, too, live in Texas.) However, your belief that "all this red state-blue state labeling is bullshit" and your disbelief that "The Passion of the Christ could only appeal to red-staters or Fahrenheit 9/11 could only appeal to blue-staters" smacks, in itself, of a little bullshit.

Regarding the partisanship-labeling connection to moviegoer demographics being "bullshit", I'll share a tidbit of insider hearsay. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's puppet show, Team America: World Police, to no news to any of us, was a flop. Moreover, it only flopped in Red States. On that $12.1 mil opening weekend, the majority of the tickets being torn were reportedly in Blue states; thus we can speculate that more Kerry voters went to see this film, not sycophants of The Idiot.

Now here is where I probably get a little too self-involved. (Oh well.) We can't dismiss the fact that, for many of us, siding with fiction rather than writing to our congressman is a more gratifying (and more convenient) form of self-expression. There is a very real, deeply drawn line in the sand for many, a line separating church and state, piety and truth. I'm not saying that in the movies there are minions being recruited for an all-out war between Mad Mel and The Baseball Cap.

I am saying, however, that it is undeniable, the social divorce in moviegoers--between those fish-hooked by Karl Rove and loving it, and those walking wounded on November 3. I sound like an escaped mental patient, for sure, but it is this kind of pop culture brain food (Passion, Fahrenheit) that we MTV/post-MTV generations identify with more so than, say, traditional family values. You said that the Red State-Blue State ruse was "more divisive than any campaign ad or rallying speech." I have to disagree. The hostility within the crowded and sparse theaters this past year was, in fact, very real.

Second, I cannot understand what "moved" you about watching a hippie underwear model (in other words: Jesus was not white) getting beaten to a pulp for two hours. Setting my Jewish upbringing and political views aside, how were you not flat out bored by the whole thing? If possible, on its most interesting plane, The Passion incarnates that of a gothic Renaissance tapestry before that of an actual film. The showering of ruby reds and the smudging of yellow-browns across the corners of the screen were more than eye-catching...not that that makes the movie any good.

As for a visual spectacle worth watching, how about Jonathan Glazer's Birth? (How was that for transition?) Most anyone who admittedly enjoyed the film on Nicole Kidman falling in love with a 10-year old imposter of her late husband probably has a page in the FBI records now. That said, I do not see the film as an apology for Michael Jackson. Rather it's a pretentious, earnest inversion of all the lukewarm metaphysical "parent traps" of the late '80s (Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, throw in both Freaky Fridays). If that isn't convincing enough as to just how fucked up we are to have embraced those pederast comedies from back in the day, then spare no humility when I pull up the box office receipts for Big.

Now the visual aspect. I am a fan of Jonathan Glazer. His Sexy Beast balances chills and laughs arguably more successfully than any other noir picture of this millenium. But for Birth I cannot dish credit to Glazer as much I should his New Yorker cinematographer, Harris Savides, who I still praise for his bracing work on Gus Van Sant's homo erotic high school massacre, Elephant. (Not that I praise the film in whole.) Savides' photography for Birth advances his creation of Van Sant's dreamscape.

Watch the hallways of Kidman's New York apartment, how Savides drifts slowly, meditatively, past every square foot. His aerials of the crispy snow-coated park and his close-ups on Kidman (by the way, giving one hell of an underrated performance as the Deneuvian ice queen) send up photographic tensions we haven't seen since 1980 back at the Overlook Hotel. Add Alexandre Desplat's haunting musical score, and you have this year's finest work of art, from a purely physical aspect, being shot out of any projector.

Having said that (New Line Cinema is probably mailing me a t-shirt about now), I won't disagree that Birth's backbone is crooked to non-existent. Act one, act two, act three, we can predict the entire chamber drama better than a Siberian weatherman in December. Still, there's this culmination of weirdness with an emotional grip, and I'm not sure if it's all from aesthetics. If it is, then, I've discovered something I thought I'd never believe: that a film can arrest its audience prosperously with all icing and no cake...but that icing better be really fucking tasty.

Okay, I think I've wasted enough space talking about Birth of all movies. It's time to integrate Phil into this thing. Here goes nothing.

Phil, you've claimed to have seen so few films in comparison to Aaron or myself, but I must say--not that I have rummaged for ticket stubs in your trash--you've made some fine picks on that pending list of yours, four picks of which I share with you: Sideways, Before Sunset, Baadasssss!, and Spider-Man 2, which is perpetually fighting with two or three others for the 10 spot. For the sake of this conversation and for the sake of bringing Phil in on this, I'll admit it to the list fully. Today anyway.

While I'm at it, here's my top ten in full:

1. Sideways
2. Vera Drake
3. She Hate Me
4. Open Water
5. Before Sunset
6. Mean Creek
7. Baadasssss!
8. Mean Girls
9. Tarnation
10. S-M2

tarnation

And the other 10-spot perpetrators:
Red Lights, Crimson Gold, Birth, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Rather than sing and dance for Sideways, a film I'm anxious to laud and to defend, let's close with a validation for S-M2 before I get laughed off the world wide web as a grown man who still plays with action figures. (Not true, though I do watch cartoons.) I despise the original; for true I despise Superhero Cinema altogether. Like the X-Men flicks or The Hulk or Daredevil or any other self-deprecating multi-million dollar CGI travesty out there, the first Spider Man had no cinematic muscle or distinctive mood. Only a melange of enough cut-away shots to cater to hyperactive 90-second trailers or A.D.D.-inducing commercials for Frito-Lay product placement.

Spider-Man 2, though, is another animal. Screenwriter, Michael Chabon (whom I give most of the credit for the film's achievement), must have still been on that Pulitzer high from The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay to create such a non-contrived blueprint for such a ludicrous storyline (skyscraper-leaping college kid down on his luck saves city from cyborg madman with mantits).

Chabon has returned dignity to the summer blockbuster, and it's a relief to not be so cynical about movies that have larger budgets than most metropolis's waste management systems.


Click here for part 2 of Brian, Aaron, and Phil...