The third film by Julie Taymor, Across the Universe (339 screens), has racked up an intriguing mixture of reviews. Some have ecstatically called the film a rousing success, and Anne Thompson, writing in Variety, has compared Taymor to Orson Welles! Other reviews have called the film an unmitigated disaster of proportions similar to the infamous flop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), which also re-imagines several Beatles numbers and incorporates them into an ill-advised movie musical. Myself, I rated the film somewhere in the middle. I thought it had a handful of truly inspired moments, a few truly awful moments (apologies to Eddie Izzard), and a great number of numbingly routine ones. (It reminded me too much of a play, not a movie.)
Writing in the New York Times a few years back, A.O. Scott mourned the absence of total disasters in the movies. A lack of disasters meant that people weren't really putting themselves on the line, and by turns, that safeguard also results in a lack of real masterworks. Pauline Kael once wrote a review of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 entitled "Hail, Folly." She praised "huge, visionary epics" of "mad" directors, like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, Erich von Stroheim's Greed, Abel Gance's Napoleon, Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible trilogy (left unfinished after Part II), and Francis Ford Coppola's then as-yet-unfinished Apocalypse Now. "The calamity of movie history is not the follies that get made, but the follies that don't get made," she said.
I'd like to classify Taymor's film as one of the crazy ones, but it's really not. The footage that passes the time between musical numbers attests to the fact that it's a pretty routine movie. Taymor doesn't give any special consideration to staging or blocking anything really interesting when there's no music playing. It's bland, which is Hollywood's favorite flavor. Many studios and producers actually hire writers to tone down any kind of crazy, daring qualities in movies, and make them more "likeable," which, in effect, make them less likeable. The Nanny Diaries (429 screens) is a perfect example. The movie starts as a satire with lots of nasty things to say about rich hypocrites, but it eventually settles down into a lackluster love story.
Of course, you're saying, "but there are plenty of bad movies out there today!" True, but these movies are made not from foolishness but out of mistrust and even contempt for the audience. Take Daddy Day Camp (334 screens), which I was fortunate enough not to have seen. It's a sequel to an Eddie Murphy comedy, and not even Eddie Murphy agreed to be in it. I looked at the trailer, and it's apparently full of the usual crotch jokes, bodily fluids and gross-outs. Here's the question: did some artist have a burning need to tell this story, or did some executive look at the numbers and decide that a sequel would be viable investment? Without even interviewing the filmmakers, I think I can answer that question without hesitation.
But there are two movies out there that, I think, come close to representing acts of folly, one on each side. Sean Penn's Into the Wild (33 screens) may not be the worst film of the year, but it's the one that made me angriest. Watching a genuine talent slowly go off course and ending up with a complete, hideous misfire is a painful experience. It's about a character, a spoiled, rich young man, who becomes disillusioned with his parents and decides to run away. But he never learns anything or changes; despite his pettiness and anger, Penn views him as a Christ figure, changing and enriching the lives of everyone he comes into contact with. Yet his only knowledge and experience comes from classic literature that everyone already has access to; why is his interpretation so special? The original book has a lot of fans, and many have been lulled into admiring the movie as well, but I was truly horrified to see this fellow elevated to the status of epic hero. I'm not sure Kael is right on this one. I think Penn was too calculated in his efforts to pay homage to the book, the real-life guy and to the Academy; it was more planned than foolhardy.
On the other hand we have Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (5 screens, but going wider this week), whose title alone shows a grandiose vision. Not surprisingly, critics and audiences have scratched their heads at it. It's very long and slow, but it has a keen patience and sad beauty. It's interested in the legend of Jesse James and his affect on reality rather than a story about the "real" Jesse. The fluid, musical quality of the dialogue supports this. It moves like a chess game, with figures dropping in and out of locations, confronting one another and watching for the reaction. Dominik allows for plenty of waiting time, and Brad Pitt is especially good at savoring someone's response to his presence. I've heard in some circles, though this is unconfirmed, that Dominik had turned in an even longer cut, which is a sure sign of a folly. And more power to him.