I've often thought we film critics should receive hazard pay for going through the sort of culture shock I experienced yesterday, when back-to-back in the same theater I saw Gregg Araki's punk extravaganza "The Doom Generation" and Jafar Panahi's childhood odyssey "The White Balloon," two pictures that mark opposite poles of moviegoing. Both are about youth, I suppose. But there all similarities end. Araki's early feature "The Long Weekend (O' Despair)" struck me as mildly interesting and promising, but I felt his later gay film "The Living End" was a backward step for him as both artist and cultural commentator, and it seemed obvious that a filmmaker who called his next movie "Totally Fucked Up" was not overendowed in the maturity department. Ironically billed as a "heterosexual movie," the new "Doom Generation" finds him flying faster than ever in the wrong direction, positively sweating in his effort to gross out the grownups while impressing his film-buff friends with a nonstop parade of Godardian tics.
I admire Godard as much as any cineaste around, but has anyone noticed what a dangerous influence he's become for fledgling auteurs who haven't assimilated the complex lessons he teaches? Even smart and thoughtful filmmakers like Hal Hartley and Jon Jost have trouble emulating his still-revolutionary stylistics, and for a willfully adolescent rabble-rouser like Araki the task is beyond the limits of comprehension, not to mention ability. Named after the colors of the French and American flags, the Red-White-and-Blue characters of his latest epic go on a blood-spattered car journey that keeps confronting them with dumb-and-dumber enemies who need to be offed in baroque killing-matches that might carry a grand-guignol kick if David Lynch and various other people hadn't thought of them first. Some of my colleagues defend the picture, but it seems to me the ending provides near-definitive proof of its badness, closing out the narrative with a smart-alecky flourish that's pointless even by Araki's low standard. Gimme the proverbial break.
Moving from this quagmire to the neorealistic purity of "The White Balloon" was a trip more stimulating than anything the Doom-Generation crowd could conceive of. Panahi's simple story focuses on a seven-year-old girl who cajoles her mother into giving her money to buy a goldfish, loses the cash a couple of times on her way to the store, and spends most of the movie trying to get it back so she can complete her little mission. That's all, and that's plenty for a filmmaker of Panahi's skill, insight, and imagination. There's a lot of truth in what sages like Andre Bazin and Cesare Zavattini wrote about neorealism in its heyday during the '40s and '50s - just put something real and immediate on the screen, don't mess around or interfere with it, and it'll captivate anyone who gives it a patient and sensitive look. The sincere performances, eloquent camera work, and no-frills production values of "The White Balloon" renew this aesthetic as touchingly and convincingly as recent works by Gianni Amelio and Abbas Kiarostami, among other participants in what seems to be a growing neorealist revival. Panahi was an assistant to Kiarostami on his superb "Through the Olive Trees," and Kiarostami wrote the screenplay for "The White Balloon," which marks his protege's directorial debut. It's a beauty, although the exquisite modesty of its charms will probably preclude a very large audience once it hits the commercial circuit.
I started the day with "Un Bruit qui rend fou," codirected by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Dimitri de Clercq, and inexplicably retitled "The Blue Villa," after one of its main settings, in the English-subtitled version. In typical Robbe-Grillet manner, it spins a complicated web of narrative strands that more or less add up to a mystery story, a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, and a reflexive interrogation of storytelling itself. In general, I consider Robbe-Grillet a truly brilliant and important author who should stay away from movie cameras and editing rooms, which provide him with resources and temptations he's not prepared to handle. Still and all, I rather liked "Un Bruit qui rend fou," which is more jokey and less self-indulgent than many of his previous pictures. Working closely with a talented colleague appears to suit him - after all, his greatest film achievement remains "Last Year at Marienbad," which he wrote but didn't direct - and de Clercq, a Belgian producer making his (co)directorial bow, turns out to be a very good collaborator. May their partnership continue to thrive.
And sandwiched amid these films was a very pleasant luncheon for Andrew Sarris, winner of this year's Maurice Bessy Award for excellence in film criticism. For critics of my generation, who started publishing in the late '60s and early '70s, Sarris was far and away the most influential critic of his generation, beating out Pauline Kael by a mile with his American interpretation of the auteur theory and its use in organizing and exploring film history. Nowadays he's fond of pointing out the importance of performances and other nondirectorial contributions to narrative cinema, but he was never the zealot his detractors made him out to be, and his sheer love of movies has always been clear as daylight. A better recipient for this award couldn't have been chosen, and it's nice that the previous winner - the admirable Michel Ciment - was on hand to participate in the festivities.
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