Comic books are pornography. That’s why Hollywood loves them. Black and white morality coupled with ultra-violence coupled with sex… Here is a formula that makes sense to film executives. Because books are tough. Let’s face it. Trying to portray the inner-life of complex literary characters is a bitch. Especially when your target audience is 16. So why not not bother? Why not opt for 300 Spartan warriors with no complex inner-lives? “Inner-life” is only a euphemism in Hollywood anyway. To have inner-life a character must stop acting. A movie like 300 is easy to green-light in Hollywood, ’cause Spartans would rather die than succumb to complex thoughts or feelings.
It’s ok to enjoy schmaltz every now and then. Even critics can’t live on Three Colours alone. Although art-house cinema has its rewards, something about pure, flagrantly manipulative schmaltz is necessary to maintain good movie-mental health. I know there are those who would insist Disney’s Enchanted is an insult to the art-form that gave us Au Hasard Balthazar, but let’s face it, with a choice between manipulative joy and a dead donkey lying in a field – are you really such a stick-in-the-mud? Enchanted might not be art, but it has a sense of fun that few art-house movies’ possess. It’s also impossible not to sing-along to, which is not something you say of, say, Mouchette.
The best comedies are the ones that break your heart. They are not tear-jerkers. They do not strain for their effects. Sad moments in these comedies are more like the wake of great jokes; the great jokes made great because they show us how silly we are, and how much there is to love in us, for all our faults. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore is a great comedy because it takes a lot of awkward moments and forgives the person who messes-up the most. In Max Fischer, Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson created one of the great comedic heroes in modern movies. Max is easily the equal of anyone Woody Allen has ever played – and better (perhaps), because he’s capable of love, and not too old to learn something.
Philip Pullman is not a great writer. He is a good children’s writer, granted. His Dark Materials is two thirds of a good trilogy for children. But, like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and the rest, he is only great if you haven’t read many books. His Dark Materials may deal with astrophysics, metaphysics, atheism and Paradise Lost, but that does not automatically make it worth reading. The same goes for the first big-screen adaptation of one of Pullman’s books. The Golden Compass might be smarter than Harry Potter, but that doesn’t make it The Unbearable Lightness of Being for ’tweens. It’s Narnia for atheists, no matter what Pullman says. Like the books, the best thing in it is the talking polar bears.
Imagine I Shot Andy Warhol as a Western. You don’t need to have seen I Shot Andy Warhol. You only need to know what everyone knows about one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century: that he was legend, that he wasn’t who he wanted to be. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about one type of man, embodied by two seemingly different men. It is about a man who is rotted from the inside; by doubt, by hate, by paranoia about those around him. A man with no friends and nothing to his credit save what others see in him. This is a movie about fame.