The decade is (shockingly) already a quarter over, and for me the best movie so far is a little Mexican number called “Y tu mama tambien.” For that information to have any relevance for you, I ought to make you aware of what corner of the ring I’m coming from.
If I had to pick the best pics of the ’90s, know this: I do not like most Oscar winners — too full of phony Hollywood sentiment, like “Schindler’s List” (“I should have done more” — pardon me while I barf). Or pretentious bloat. (Probably half the rest.) The only one from that decade that makes my list is “Unforgiven.”
What else would I include? A documentary called “Hoop Dreams,” the comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and two American dramas that moved the hell out of me: “Fargo” and “Shawshank Redemption.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering, why is this idiot rambling on so long, why doesn’t he get to “Y tu mama tambien?” Well, I have to explain why I can’t tell you about “Y tu mama tambien.”
Trust me for a while.
Back we go to 1964 — I am not in the picture business, have kind of recovered from being a failed playwright — three Broadway shows by the time I was 30, all turkeys — and four published novels, all of which did OK in paperback.
But none were much thought of by the critics.
My fifth novel, “Boys and Girls Together,” three years of agony to write, way over a thousand typed pages, was about to come out, and my beloved editor Hiram Haydn thought this was the sucker that would establish me as a Serious American Novelist.
But “Howard the Duck” did better. “Ishtar” was a Pulitzer Prize winner compared to the critical reaction accorded my work.
Brutal, brutal days for me, wandering the city — literally on the verge of tears. Until finally, in one blessed moment, I realized something: I didn’t like or believe critics when I read them writing about other people, so why did I think they suddenly got so smart when they wrote about me?
I made a decision never to read them again, and have stuck to it. I have not read a review in 38 years. And I recommend that as a swell course of action for anyone.
Why are reviews — along with all pre-opening hype — dangerous to the movie fan?
Simple reason: They let you in on the story. They tell you things. People in the moviemaking business all have secrets, our fastballs, and we just want to knock your socks off. And if you know a storyteller’s secrets before he starts into his tale, you have stripped him of his magic.
Look, if you knew the ship went down in Cameron’s epic, that’s not so harmful — I might even argue that if you didn’t know the Titanic sank, I wouldn’t want to spend the evening with you — what Cameron gave us was a phenomenal special-effects gala. And more power to him.
But if you know the trick in “A Beautiful Mind” before you buy your popcorn, that movie is never going to have full power for you. If you go to see “White Heat” and know in advance how Jimmy behaves when his mom dies, one of the genuinely thrilling and great moments in film history becomes just “oh yes, interesting.”
Of course there is one scene in “Y tu mama tambien” that is so famous that I feel justified talking about it here: Obviously, I’m referring to the motorcycle gang’s firebombing the nunnery.
It is so shocking, so frightening, that you sit there as the movie unrolls, waiting for it to happen and wondering, can it be as sensational as everyone has written and spoken about and — and there is no such scene. No nunnery. And, blessedly, no motorcycle gang.
I was bullshitting you for a purpose — because if there had been such a sequence, and you had known about it, you would have waited for it, impatiently, as the movie rolled on. And it would totally unbalance the experience — it would have destroyed the movie.
There is nothing in our business as magical as the power of story. And when a great one comes along — and the brothers Cuaron have written a great one — give thanks, make yourself a virgin again and be happy at least for that hour and 45 minutes that you’re in the movie business.