I envy critics who have the time, or make the time, to watch every film that is commercially released in their country. I enjoy reading the reviews of Dan Slevin now that I live in New Zealand just like I used to enjoy reading those of Morando Morandini back home and, much as I continue to take pleasure in close readings, I find something commendable in having a little bit to say about everything. Besides, the comprehensive survey – in film as in literature and most other areas of the arts – continues to strike me as a commendable and appealing cultural project. If only I could find the time.
Long-haul intercontinental flights replicate, for the space of up to twenty-four hours or so, the conditions enjoyed by the full-time critic of a generalist bent. These days you don’t just get a smattering of new releases and some cartoons for the kids: most airlines offer a broad range of films from four or five national cinemas, and a more limited but eclectic selection of older titles as well. They also manufacture a unique viewing environment in which you sometimes find yourself watching three or four films at the same time. This is because whilst with today’s individual LCD screens you generally can’t see what your neighbour is watching, you can see very well what the person sitting in front and across is watching (think of how the knight moves in chess), and if you have an aisle seat one or two more as well, depending on the angle and which seats ahead of yours are reclined. This is how I saw (the verb is apt, since I didn’t hear a word) Underworld: Awakening and Sophie’s Choice on my flights home to Italy and back last month, as well as a couple of eye-poppingly violent films – one Chinese, one Korean – in the action/mobster genre. There is also the one time I chose to sit through Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and the two or three times I saw it on somebody else’s screen (it was the popular choice on both legs of our journey).
These unusual arrangements mean you get to appreciate some trends in contemporary filmmaking, and occasionally compare them to older trends as well. In the always interesting chapter of how American cinema deals with the financial crisis, for instance, Underworld: Awakening, with its all-but-guaranteed ROI and utterly tired and tiresome digital monsters, seemed every bit as relevant and topical as the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy vehicle Tower Heist, whose purported satirical target is the greed of the financial investment industry but can’t help to stereotype to the point of mockery both its blue collar heroes and its Bernie Madoff character, dutifully phoned in by Alan Alda. There was by contrast more to like in the gimmicky Going in Style (1979), a film about three pensioners who decide to rob a bank, whose central message – that old persons in America have better chances of assured welfare and social recognition in prison than on the outside – is delivered with a lightness of touch that it is rare to encounter nowadays.
On the subject of Underworld: Awakening, the concurrent encore screenings of the original Matrix, and the scenes with the leather-clad Carrie-Ann Moss in particular, document the origins of its remarkably persistent aesthetic as well as how little that look has had to be updated (because nobody bothered, or needed to bother). Thus the blending of the films in the flying multiplex correlates to the remarkable sameness of the majority of the films themselves: those that feel like you have already seen them alongside those you actually have seen; those that you only need to watch for the first five minutes and then you can fast-forward how they go in your head (and if you actually fast-forward through them, it turns out you were right); most of all, those that go to extraordinary lengths to produce the least uncomfortable outcome. Take Mr and Mrs Smith: The War of the Roses meets a less homoerotic version of Assassins meets the latest issue of Woman's Day, made progressively worse by a string of potential turning points in which it seems poised to become a different kind of film, perhaps not entirely original but at least capable of making a slightly more lasting impression. But no: it has to end in the decade’s one thousandth balletic shoot-out, eschewing even the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid option on which I had pinned my hopes until the very last.
A seemingly endless succession of scenes already seen, films ending and restarting around you in a loop until getting through the ones you’ve chosen turns into a more and more strenuous assignment for the oxygen- and sleep-deprived. Before that point, before the twentieth-hour nausea set in, I had actually enjoyed two or three things, including Ghost Protocol. Ever since the famous scene at Langley in Mission: Impossible, the signature of the franchise has become the vertical climb, or drop. In this last instalment the sheer walls are those of the tower known as Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the perfect surface for Tom Cruise’s character to tread unseen since the crisis left so many of its apartments famously empty. In Ghost Protocol it’s the firm itself that is at risk of foreclosure, and the threat is nuclear annihilation via the old but not quite retired Soviet arsenal. A salvaged plot making use of recycled characters and themes using for its centrepiece the cathedral erected in honour of the financial crisis: what could be more appropriate to the present moment?
There is more verticality in the final scene, along with unwitting echoes of Tower Heist (the car moving inside a building, in a space it wasn’t built for). More blending of the films. I wonder if those critics I evoked in the first paragraph ever get confused about what it is that they are watching, or if they ever feel a vague sense of nausea when the lights go off, perhaps for the third time in a single day. I know I couldn’t stomach The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo under those conditions, and had to take two stabs at Chronicle. (Which wasn’t bad, I think, apart from an inexplicable lapse into classical cinematography in the climax. But perhaps there was a rationale for it and I missed it.) Even a retreat into the television section didn’t provide much relief: the one-hour long pilot episode of the Kelsey Grammer series Boss came at me with what seemed like ninety different plots. Then a lone Fawlty Towers, Alcatraz, two Italian films about love and relationships, half of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs because my son insisted on it. By the end of the journey, I was thoroughly done. It’s hard work being entertained, and I got little joy or insight from my comprehensive survey. The time did pass however, and was filled with something other than proper boredom. Which I guess was probably the point all along.