Is great writing worth a life? Great writers are mostly depressed, or prematurely dead. Would Hemingway have put that gun in his mouth if he weren’t a writer? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d never picked up a pen? Though great books bring light and understanding to thousands of readers, it’s seldom their authors (or their characters) who fare well. In Stranger than Fiction Emma Thompson plays a great writer, called Karen Eiffel, who is losing her wits. Karen writes books about death, but her latest book has no ending. She needs to work out how to kill a character named Harold Crick. Trouble is, unbeknownst to Karen, Harold Crick exists in the real world. And he’s started to hear her voice.
Movies that define the times are vulnerable. The zeitgeist is rarely pretty. To get it right you have to get lucky twice; once with the times, and again with the director’s talent. For the results to be funny also is a miracle. But that part is just part and parcel of being a good comedy. It’s the first two that are tricky. That’s why Knocked Up doesn’t quite make it to being a great movie. There’s just something about the Noughties – and the kind of people we feel define us on screen – that feels lightweight, adolescent. It might not be fair to compare Knocked Up with Annie Hall, but as a sign of the times it’s instructive.
There aren’t many scenes of violence involving cellos in the movies. Scenes of violence tend to involve more obvious weapons. That’s why so few of them ring true for us. I remember reading an interview with Robert Towne where he talked about wanting to include a scene in a movie where a man fended off an intruder with a rocking chair. No-one let him, of course. But I liked the idea of using a rocking chair as a weapon. It felt real because it was unexpected. The cello scene in Rocket Science has the same feel. It sums up something: how bizarre life is. A 15-year old boy throws a cello at a girl’s house because she broke his heart. He wants to get even. If the boy had thrown a brick it wouldn’t have the same impact.
Imagine that the one you love is dead. Imagine that they died violently. It’s instinct to recoil from thoughts like these – the best refuge from death is not to think about it. But if it happened… what then? This is the scene that A Mighty Heart beholds. There are flaws in the film, and much that didn’t move me, but when Angelina Jolie (playing Mariane Pearl) learns that her husband is dead, her reaction is so true that it’s hard to watch. She screams. It’s not a scream of fright, or rage or even grief (at this stage). To tie emotion to the sound is not to hear it, and we are made to listen: it’s the sound of loss.
Every critic has their irrational prejudice. For Pauline Kael it was Oliver Stone; for Ebert it’s Rob Schneider; for me it’s British movies. Something about their heir-to-the-kitchen-sink-drama, made-for-TV fustiness grates on me. British movies, to my mind, spell grey-skies and social-issues; I tense at their approach, expecting to be lectured. I’ve tried to like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and the rest. But I can’t. I like my sunshine when I go to the cinema. That’s why I put off for so long seeing Billy Elliott. I had no problem with the premise: boy learns ballet, father disapproves. But then I read how the story was set against the backdrop of the coal miners’ strike of the 1980s… The rest was entirely my fault. Here I make amends.
He’s hurt and he’s bleeding but he’s still moving fast.
That’s how The Bourne Ultimatum begins. If ever a movie was defined by its velocity then this is it. He doesn’t stop. There’s no time, as in a Bond movie, to sit and drink or seduce a girl. Jason Bourne – though never quite morose, isn’t given to having fun. He’s a spy for the War on Terror-era: victory means he’s alive, failure means he’s dead. He doesn’t smile. Matt Damon has a way of playing the spy as if spying was the worst job in the world, and he just happens to be the best at it. He isn’t Bond, but he isn’t Kim Philby either. It isn’t so much that Bourne doesn’t drive fast cars and kill people; he just seems to do it in a way that’s plausible as opposed to pornographic. He doesn’t want you to get off on what he does. He does it because he has to.
Why is The Simpsons Movie so forgettable? You and I both know the answer if you and I are the same age. The Simpsons started in 1989, for heaven’s sake! There was never an ice-cube’s chance in hell of its movie spin-off being memorable after the better part of twenty years. But still, we hoped. We remembered laughing ourselves hoarse the first time we watched Homer try to jump Springfield Gorge on a skateboard (and miss). We remembered the question (true or false?): “You can get mono from riding the monorail.” Or maybe it was the time Marge served a three-eyed fish to Mr Burns. You and I have a thousand fond memories of the salad days of the TV show – that’s why we regret it when I’m forced to write a bad review.
Elizabeth Wurtzel once wrote that the only real choice we have in life is whether to be bitter or gracious. Granted this may not be our only choice (there’s always room for contrariness on this blog), but it is the only choice Bill Murray is given in Groundhog Day – a movie that does for déjà vu what Au hasard Balthazar did for donkeys (i.e. bestows grace).