The Big Picture

Joshua Rothkopf October 25, 2002

Inside the Russian Ark: Cinema will survive as surely as the Hermitage.

So it looks like the movies made it. Made it through the death of irony” we heard so much about last year; made it through the count­less oth­er obit­u­ar­ies issued by fash­ion­ably black pun­dits, dat­ing as far back as the intro­duc­tion of sound. They have sur­vived con­gres­sion­al grum­blings dur­ing elec­tion years, the big-screen debuts of both Madon­na and Brit­ney Spears, and appear to be hold­ing up nice­ly against the skit­ter­ing encroach­ments of the digerati — some of whom have even been invit­ed to join the club. 

And judg­ing from the num­bers post­ed by mul­ti­plex­es and sold-out fes­ti­val screen­ings alike, we seem to want them more than ever, per­haps even despite them­selves. (I’ve learned nev­er to argue with a Jedi mas­ter in a year when his Holi­ness dis­lodges anoth­er episode from the Ranch.) Amaz­ing­ly, the spir­it of film seems ever-will­ing; it’s a straw man’s argu­ment to build a case for cinema’s irrel­e­van­cy out of audi­ence apa­thy or — as tempt­ing as it might be for us pan­ners — the fail­ure of high­ly paid sto­ry­tellers. As always, we live in a time of hack­work and great mas­tery, both at home and abroad. Sig­nif­i­cant new waves are just now crest­ing in coun­tries like Iran and Japan, while our own émi­nence grise, Mar­tin Scors­ese, toils to com­plete (and defend from stu­dio trim­ming) his most mon­eyed and ambi­tious film to date, Gangs of New York. Again, busi­ness as usual. 

What is at stake is the nature of the con­duit: Whether to suc­cess­ful­ly bring a film to its audi­ence or the audi­ence to a film — that is the ques­tion. Ane­mic sys­tems of dis­tri­b­u­tion, often bald­ly pro­hib­i­tive to for­eign diver­si­ty, should give cause for alarm, as should the dearth of plain-spo­ken yet pas­sion­ate advo­ca­cy for adven­tur­ous work, from media sources that could afford to be more coura­geous. Both ele­ments are essen­tial to the sur­vival of a vibrant cin­e­ma; both require patient cul­ti­va­tion and the sober con­sid­er­a­tion of all par­ties vest­ed in see­ing that future guaranteed. 

Such is the core essence of this spe­cial film issue of In These Times, a mag­a­zine com­mit­ted to the crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of sys­temic fail­ures and grass­roots solu­tions. Cin­e­ma is a wor­thy sub­ject for such analy­sis; the pur­suit of cul­ture, an invalu­able human right, deserves the same vig­or­ous dis­cus­sion as mat­ters of state­craft and glob­al abuse. In the pages that fol­low, we have assem­bled the opin­ions of sev­er­al of our cul­tur­al cor­re­spon­dents, report­ing on — and in one case, from — the front lines of cinema’s most promis­ing activ­i­ty, from under­rep­re­sent­ed regions on the map to more the­o­ret­i­cal bat­tle­grounds of sub­ject and genre. All of these writ­ers share in the dream of cinema’s greater enrich­ment; all offer dif­fer­ent pro­pos­als toward that end. 

— —  —  — –

A qui­et phe­nom­e­non hap­pened in Amer­i­ca this year, one that mer­its both atten­tion and pause. A mod­est inde­pen­dent pic­ture opened in April to an ini­tial crit­i­cal response that could safe­ly be described as luke­warm. But that didn’t stop its dis­trib­u­tors from knuck­ling down, care­ful­ly grow­ing the film from city to city, lis­ten­ing to word of mouth, tend­ing to inter­est. In six month’s time, they had done more than break even; they actu­al­ly had a hit — a big, fat, Greek hit. At $170 mil­lion and count­ing, My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding is, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of The Blair Witch Project (which tech­ni­cal­ly had some stu­dio assis­tance with its pro­mo­tion), the most com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful inde­pen­dent film of all time. 

Which is real­ly say­ing some­thing, because the movie pret­ty much bores the pants off peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly those young, tick­et-buy­ing males so cov­et­ed by the stu­dios. The pro­duc­ers sim­ply went around them to a dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ic — par­ents (and grand­par­ents) — and it worked. The point here is not the blan­di­fi­ca­tion of tastes (though Wed­ding does go down as smooth­ly and innocu­ous­ly as mac-and-cheese, not sou­vla­ki as you might imag­ine), nor is it the obso­les­cence of film crit­i­cism. After all, a cer­tain kind of crit­i­cism was employed: an unpre­ten­tious vouch­ing of mer­its from friend to friend, from pub­li­cist to small the­ater book­ing agent. Such appli­ca­tion makes you won­der if they might not have eas­i­ly been sell­ing cough drops or a for­eign film, even one just as poten­tial­ly bor­ing to teen-age boys. 

Which brings me to the oth­er phe­nom­e­non of 2002, the unspool­ing of a movie as artis­ti­cal­ly accom­plished and the­mat­i­cal­ly pro­found as any in years, maybe in a decade. From the point of view of sheer craft, the film has no equal: It’s com­posed, thrilling­ly, of a sin­gle unin­ter­rupt­ed shot, wind­ing its way around hun­dreds of per­form­ers and dozens of rooms. It has the eerie pull of a ghost sto­ry, nar­rat­ed by a dis­em­bod­ied voice from the future who may be mourn­ing his own death as well as the demise of his home­land. It prac­ti­cal­ly chokes with beau­ty, decay and a sense of nos­tal­gia so ulti­mate­ly mov­ing, it has brought fes­ti­val audi­ences to their feet in rapture. 

But will Russ­ian Ark ever gross $170 mil­lion? Not like­ly; one must con­cede the brute appeal of lovers in bloom and flam­ing plates of cheese. And only wish­ful thinkers could pos­si­bly demand the instan­ta­neous nation­wide sat­u­ra­tion that so many oth­er movies receive as a mat­ter of course. (One can’t coher­ent­ly trum­pet a film for its sub­tle com­plex­i­ties and also expect it to cry out its entice­ments to the casu­al view­er.) But isn’t it high time the con­nois­seurs of art cin­e­ma took a page out of Wed­dings play­book? Regard­ing Russ­ian Ark, there are czarist his­to­ry buffs to mobi­lize, art his­to­ry depart­ments to tar­get (it’s shot in the Her­mitage). And would it hurt the bowled-over crit­ics to take a step back from their sophis­ti­cat­ed ref­er­ences to con­sid­er the piv­otal role they might be play­ing if they only pitched a review to intel­li­gent read­ers with no back­ground in cin­e­ma or Russ­ian stud­ies at all? 

— —  —  — –

Movies like Russ­ian Ark will always be a hard sell; so are many of the films to be dis­cussed in the essays that fol­low. But pal­pa­ble enthu­si­asm is the first step, com­mu­ni­ca­tion of that excite­ment the sec­ond. We already have so many oth­er obsta­cles to over­come, as sad­ly demon­strat­ed by the recent inabil­i­ty of Iran­ian direc­tor Abbas Kiarosta­mi to obtain a visa in time to attend the Amer­i­can pre­mière of his lat­est film, 10. It’s impor­tant to note this was not a denial of his appli­ca­tion (as was wide­ly mis­re­port­ed), nor an out­right con­dem­na­tion of Kiarostami’s work. (That comes after the war begins.) It was, at root, a fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate the impor­tance of this human­i­tar­i­an artist to a body that could have exempt­ed him from strict new screen­ing pro­ce­dures, but chose not to. 

Per­haps no amount of skill­ful rea­son­ing could have swayed our gate­keep­ers from their igno­rance. But as Kiarosta­mi him­self sug­gest­ed in his dig­ni­fied state­ment to the press, the embar­rass­ment is also his, and by exten­sion our own. We must try hard­er to con­vince, go fur­ther to embrace the cul­tur­al visions of the world. Kiarostami’s films will sur­vive the way­lay­ing of a visa, the death of irony,” even the deaths of thou­sands. But none will sur­vive the death of hope essen­tial to all cineast­es — the hope that pools when­ev­er the the­ater dark­ens, and of which we have a duty to con­vey when the lights come back up.

Joshua Rothkopf has been cov­er­ing cin­e­ma for In These Times since 1999. His work has appeared in The Vil­lage Voice, The Chica­go Read­er, Isth­mus and City Pages, among oth­er publications.
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