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Picks from Pedro to ‘Prairie’: Discussion on the films of 2006

Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, former Village Voice critic/current "Turner Classic Essentials" co-host Molly Haskell and master Brazilian critic Jose Carlos Avellar found plenty of inspiration for discussion (and debate) in the films of 2006.

Variety: There are many different ways to approach a discussion of the films of 2006 and where they stand in the ongoing history of cinema, but perhaps you could all start by describing what we’ll be talking about beyond this year: something in a genre, a film, a scene or even a single moment.

Rosenbaum: “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Bobby” have both reminded us, as well as last year’s “Crash” and countless others, the omnibus film is still very much a part of commercial cinema, though it takes many different shapes and purposes.

“Bobby” deliberately harks back to the “Grand Hotel” model, which implies a purity of feeling and intention that I think we tend to associate more with the past, whereas Robert Altman’s swan song is full of the kind of skepticism and ambivalence that we usually associate with his work. I for one find myself feeling more allied with the old-fashioned model suggested by “Bobby” — which assumes that films should assert ideas and feelings, not merely just express doubts and ambivalent feelings.

Haskell: Jonathan’s point is well taken, but I did think “Prairie Home Companion” was, if not exactly devoted to an “idea,” all about mortality: Garrison Keillor’s refusing to stop the program with a eulogy, the heroic but also matter-of-fact impulse to keep going — maybe the fear of stopping — being the governing motif of the show and Altman’s career.

Avellar: Yes, the tenderness — we could say bittersweet, or ironic and sentimental at the same time — of “Prairie” (is worth remembering).

It is true that Altman is working here in his usual space, doing again things he did before — just like Pedro Almodovar in “Volver,” Ken Loach in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan in “Iklimler” (The Climate) or Martin Scorsese in “The Departed.” The small incidents of the storyline and the rich and contradictory characters put “A Prairie Home Companion” closer to my favorite moments of the year: “El violin” by Francisco Vargas, especially the image that came almost at the end — the hands of the musician closing the violin box and a simple dialogue line, “Se acabo la musica.” (“The music finished.”) And “Coeurs” (Private Fears in Public Places) by Alain Resnais, the hand of a man and a woman covered by snow — that is, covered by many white dots, more a sign than a realistic representation of snow, the same points present during all of the film, the same white dots used years ago in the brief gray empty screen for the musical comments of “L’Amour a mort” (Love Unto Death).

Haskell: (My most memorable moments include) “The Departed,” with the amazing doppelganger intertwining of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the latter’s growing into a man, a different person, before our eyes; the way the tone in “The Queen” shifts from satire to sympathy without losing its edge on the one hand or becoming sentimental on the other; and the scene near the end of the Resnais film (“Coeurs”), where Sabine Azema and Andre Dussollier return to their respective cubicles, which we see, from the rear, through glass, fishbowl-like. A very theatrical mise-en-scene, a fond farewell to two lovely actors, but shot through with a gentle, restful — and ironic — placidity.

And Daniel Craig’s scary, mesmerizing eyes, his amazing mixture of virility, ruthlessness and feeling as Bond.

Avellar: And more — the spontaneous, bittersweet dialogue between “Grbavica” by Jasmila Zbanic and “La vida secreta de las palabras” (The Secret Life of Words) by Isabel Coixet. The last shot, the camera flying over the enormous overpass in Mexico City, in the documentary “En el Hoyo” (In the Pit) by Juan Rulfo. The opening shot of “El Cobrador: In God We Trust” by Paul Leduc. The violence and rage of the man in the dentist chair and the family discussion, grandmother and aunt against the young Hermila, in “Suely in the Sky” by Karim Ainouz. And especially, the episode of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas in “Paris je t’aime,” a very good example of a conciseness and delicacy.

Rosenbaum: Another very memorable film of 2006 for me is Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” a very interesting riposte of sorts to Steven Spielberg — it’s the anti-“Schindler’s List” par excellence, in more ways than one.

And yet another highlight of sorts is something I’ve just seen for the first time: Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond.” For me, an important part of its strength is that action-adventure and suspense don’t coincide very often with other virtues — including nuanced performances, thoughtful subject matter. “Children of Men” is a good case in point, at least when the promising opening eventually degenerates into less interesting action sequences — even though the latter are very well-executed. But “Blood Diamond” manages to work very well as mainstream entertainment while seeming very relevant to things going on at the moment — substitute oil for diamonds, and it could almost be a film about the Middle East. Considering the Tony Blair lookalike who figures as a diamond merchant in the closing stretches, I suspect this is quite deliberate.

Haskell: General point — a welcome absence, so far, of the kind of bloated, self-important films that usually win Oscars and are forgotten or ridiculed in later years.

2006 LACKS CONSENSUS ON FAVE PIC

Variety: We reached December with no clear consensus favorite picture. Is this a sign of mediocrity or strength in 2006? To follow Molly’s last point, is less more, or are we just desperate for silver linings?

Rosenbaum: Personally, I would feel very depressed if we all agreed on the best picture of the year. In any case, I don’t see how we could, if either of you picked “The Departed,” because I’ve resolved not to see the film — and haven’t felt in the least bit deprived as a result — figuring that Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein and Jack Nicholson should be left free to do whatever they want with and to one another, just as long as I’m not obliged to pay attention to the results. The same applies to the Bond — I’ve just had a few too many of those.

Avellar: Sometimes I feel that the film industry ideal — to show one single film simultaneously in all the existing movie theaters around the world — pushes us to run to find the film of the year, of the decade, of the entire world history. A film critic moves in the other field: It used to be bad news to have at the end of the year a more-or-less clear consensus in one or two titles. It could be a signal that we have not seen enough films or the right ones. … It could be a trap for film critics, we could be only following the usual promotional lines of the industry without seeing something that passes by.

Rosenbaum: So I feel no sense of desperation, which is maybe why I don’t need more Scorsese or Ian Fleming mischief to pump up my adrenaline, with so many interesting pictures out this year. I’m certainly with Molly regarding the pleasures to be found from Resnais, Azema, Dussollier and Mirren. To which I would add all three of the fabulous lead performances in “Half Nelson,” and two glorious moments of magic in Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life” — the unexpected transformation of a wrecked building into a rocket ship taking off, as well as the mere lighting of a new bridge. And at least the first two chapters of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times.”

Not to mention two other remarkable films that, like “Still Life,” haven’t yet made it to New York: Pere Portabella’s “Warsaw Bridge” — made in 1990, but as new as anything else I’ve seen this year — and Atom Egoyan’s “Citadel,” so evocative at its best of Chris Marker, the U.S. premiere of which recently took place in Chicago.

Avellar: I think Rosenbaum made a good point speaking of Pere Portabela’s “Pont de Varsovia.” I have in mind another Portabela’s film: “Vampir-Cuadecuc,” made in 1970. Both were not so well-known as they are now. Yes, film critics can now dream the big film industry dream, being simultaneously in all the cinemas around the world. We know that some films came as an entire new light in the screen, but some others could appear as a special light for some critic … even if they are not in principle among the “10 best of the year.”

One recent example of this is “Syriana.” Stephen Gaghan used so many dramatic cliches from the classic American narrative and combined them in such a well-done, jump-cut, television way that the film became good material to understand and discuss American cinema now.

PROFESSION PROGRESSION

 Variety: Over the course of your careers, how much has the evolution of film changed the way you review a movie? How have your expectations changed? If you were to pick a memorable review you wrote years ago, how much would your critique differ writing it today?

Avellar: Cinema is always moving, changing for financial, technological or cultural reasons, and the best thing in movies is to be surprised by a kind a picture you were not expecting, that you never saw before. My only single impression is that digital cameras are blurring the borderline between documentary and fiction, and that maybe in the future, just as in the past, we will see new fiction models inspired by this dialogue. But my real expectation is to be surprised by a film showing me a thing that was always just there but we haven’t seen, at least in this particular way.

Haskell: I just had the not-entirely-welcome opportunity to confront my own earlier reviewing self when the (Village) Voice published — without our knowledge or permission, as a tribute to Altman — a piece on “Nashville” that Andrew Sarris and I did as a conversation-review when the movie came out. Even at the time, the playful Andrew-as-husband-and-boss asides seemed too cute by half, and now they make me cringe. It’s too bad I didn’t have a chance to cut them out, because the rest of the piece stands up pretty well, and “Nashville” remains one of my three or four favorite Altman films.

Rosenbaum: To answer your last question first, my hatchet job on “Basic Instinct” would today be something closer to a rave.

I think developments like homevideo and DVDs have had an enormous effect on the way I review films by allowing me to check back and replay certain things. And my expectations shift according to how many films I’m obliged to see at any given point.

CRITIQUING CRITICISM

Variety: Has film criticism become more or less sophisticated over time? What place does a sort of academic look at films have today, compared with decades past?

Rosenbaum: The fact that (criticism has) become more codified, both inside and outside academia, has been both a loss and a gain — perhaps more loss than gain, though I guess it all depends on what you’re looking for.

Certainly, the fact that everyone considers himself or herself a film expert of one kind or another, from literary book reviewers in the Atlantic to bloggers on the Internet, means that the range of discourse keeps getting broader, and this has both positive and negative consequences. In the ’60s and ’70s, I don’t recall reading many film reviews quite as stupid as some of the ones I now find on the Internet, but I also don’t recall finding many English-language film magazines on paper in those decades that were as sophisticated as the online Rouge is today.

Avellar: I do not know if film criticism is more or less sophisticated, but a film critic today has an ability to use DVDs, computers and the Internet not only to see films, but also the possibility to use these new materials as an instrument to make film criticism. Yes, daily newspaper space for critics has become smaller and smaller, bloggers have become bigger and bigger, more people write more without really saying more — but here and there some extra materials in DVD and a few experiments with computers in film schools indicate a possible use of moving images side-by-side with words to (compose) film criticism.

A LOOK AT THE OTHERS

Variety: Do you enjoy reading other film critics, or is it too personal an endeavor to enjoy another’s work?

Rosenbaum: I immensely value and enjoy reading other critics, regardless of whether or not I agree with them, and it’s never occurred to me to avoid this practice, even though a good many of my colleagues think otherwise. They often say that they don’t want to be “influenced” by other critics, but I see nothing wrong with being exposed to other points of view and even with being influenced by them, at least as long as the influence is acknowledged.

Personally, I think all the best critics and scholars tend to be scavengers of one kind or another — think of Andre Bazin and Manny Farber and Jean-Luc Godard and Andrew Sarris, just for starters — but what they scavenge is of course always more than just other film critics. The more they (or we) can draw from, the wider the pool of resources, the better.

Haskell: I’ve always read film critics, enjoying the polemics, the different styles, the idiosyncrasies of personal taste, as avidly as the movies themselves. I’m glad there’s an anthology like Phillip Lopate’s that testifies to the tradition of movie writing, the depth and variety of the craft.

Avellar: I enjoy reading other critics, not only film critics but also art and literature critics — just coming to mind is some writing by Rosalind Krauss, for example. I think I started to write about cinema after reading the texts by (Sergei) Eisenstein that gave me the feeling that to write and read about films could be as good as seeing or making a film.

And still today, I remember how good the feeling was to read for the first time not only Eisenstein (it is a very special case, of course) but also (Andre) Bazin, (Jean) Epstein, (Pier Paolo) Pasolini, (Siegfried) Kracauer. … In this field, some anthologies or essay books — as in Brazil, the ones by Ismail Xavier and Jean-Claude Bernardet — are a good help.

CH-CH-CHANGES

Variety: In what ways are films better now than when your career began, and conversely, what filmmaking skills have been lost over time?

Rosenbaum: I miss the storytelling skills of Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, the glories of Technicolor, the economy of B-films by Val Lewton and others, the dreamy continuity and polish of MGM musicals.

I love the fact that more people can afford to make movies now, even though it’s much harder nowadays to get them shown and seen. I also love some of the non-Hollywood traditions that have developed over the past few decades in Iran and Taiwan and elsewhere.

Haskell: Movies have changed in ways both appalling and exhilarating. There are just too many movies, and the situation for foreign films is particularly grim. So many good ones, particularly from Asia, are simply not getting released and are seen once — if you’re lucky — as film festival cult objects. Here, I think, as in so many things, we are going to have to rely increasingly on DVD, or perhaps even newer forms of transmission.

With all the nostalgia and regret that many of us ’60s and ’70s cinephiles feel for that halcyon age, the existence of DVDs has gone a long way to making up for the loss. We can talk about old movies, and newcomers can discover them, in cinema’s eternal present, made possible by recycling and remastering. We shouldn’t expect any film or movement to be the last word. As (Claude) Chabrol said, when people made such a fuss over the New Wave, there are no waves, there is only the ocean. The cinema is an ocean that belongs all of us.

Avellar: Some years ago a cable television programmer in Brazil announced five simultaneous and different channels 24 hours a day with a funny and crazy slogan: “Now you have 120 hours of film to see every day.” This proposition of seeing five channels at the same time, all day long, every day, is alive in some way in the mind of everyone who nowadays watches films at the same time they are talking on the cell phone, writing something on the PDA and listening to some music on an iPod. The problem is some films are being made for this new audience: many two-second dramas, put together to make a feature film, stories made for a careless viewer.

What we lost is a concentrated and fully dedicated audience, and some films are reacting to this, using the digital cameras to (create) a quick, superficial intimacy and repeat images: As we do not have full attention from the public, let’s say it again and again.

At the same time, what’s better now is the (access to) silent cinema and films from the first years of sound, (encouraging us) to produce very … quiet movies. Some recent Latin American examples — “La cienaga” (The Swamp) and “La nina santa” (The Holy Girl), both by Lucrecia Martel. “Suely in the Sky” by Karim Ainouz, and “Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures” by Marcelo Gomes. A Spanish one, “El cielo gira” (The Sky Turns) by Mercedes Alvarez, and maybe also “Lifeline,” a short episode made a few years ago by Victor Erice for “Ten Minutes Older — The Trumpet.” More or less 10 minutes, black and white, the family in the siesta after a Sunday lunch and not much more than this.

LOOKING BACK

Variety: Let’s wrap this up by going back to the beginning. Describe something from your moviegoing past that still thrills you.

Rosenbaum: Being part of an audience that isn’t targeted, predefined or otherwise subdivided or torn asunder by the advertising and the implied contempt of it for the range and capacity of the public at large.

 Avellar: How good are the images that show us in a very tender and concise way the story of a young mother, a Latin American woman living in France, in “Paris je t’aime.” She left her baby alone (in order) to work as a babysitter across the city. Almost the same situation opens and closes the story, the woman whispering a song and moving a hand to make the child stop crying. In the middle, she is moving from one point to another in a bus, a subway, another bus, a subway corridor, again and again. The silent, quiet and visual narrative by Salles and Thomas came to mind at the mention of Erice’s film — both are a kind of whispered film.