Film Studies: Screen 2004: travesty, disappointment and the power of nightmares

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The Independent Culture

It was a year in which we seemed to be moving in opposite directions, in which The Passion of the Christ had few equals at the box office while Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It was a year in which Jude Law appeared in about a third of the new movies, and sank lower in popular esteem with every drab outing. And it was the year in which Marlon Brando took his departure, and left us to wonder what he had signified.

In America, as in many recent years, the money at the box office increased, but only because the ticket price went up (it is now over $6). The number of tickets sold declined, and theatrical movie-going lost more ground against the business of renting or buying DVDs and the religion among kids of playing video games. Another way of putting that is to say that, more and more, we are watching our movies or our movie-like shows on small screens. We cannot really be surprised then if we decide that they are less beautiful or awesome.

It was a year of travesties and disappointments, most of which cost exorbitant sums of money (only the other day I calculated that the entire work of Ingmar Bergman must have been made for less than the bill on Alexander). Oliver Stone's picture - out in the UK on 7 January - was maybe the worst joke of the year, along with the notion that audiences enjoy Colin Farrell. But there was ample competition: the ponderous The Village, by M Night Shyamalan; Troy, which one of its stars, Peter O'Toole, refused to sit through; Exorcist: The Beginning; Finding Neverland; Alfie; and so many others - enough to suggest that the term and the theory of "mainstream" cinema are now without basis. I saw one mainstream film that I admired - Steven Spielberg's The Terminal: it seemed to me that the metaphor of an airport as a model for rootlessness was beguiling and profound, and I found authentic elements of Chaplin and Capra in the picture, as well as a Walter Brennan-ish performance by Tom Hanks. But I was nearly alone.

Of course, there were things to enjoy: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I think, will be the picture of this year that lasts the longest, and comes into its own - it may be a masterpiece. Kinsey is a film of rare and touching decency, and it is filled with great performances: Liam Neeson, for instance, is an actor who often seems adrift in his movies, or less than fully engaged. Then along comes something in which this tall, handsome man can get at the frailty that interests him. I cannot do enough to recommend We Don't Live Here Any More, a brilliant portrait of two unhappy marriages feeding off each other, and one more proof that Mark Ruffalo is a tremendous actor (the film also features exceptional work from Laura Dern and Naomi Watts). Alexander Payne's Sideways is about two-thirds as good as everyone reckons - which is good enough for great pleasure. Vera Drake is Mike Leigh at his best, admirable in so many ways, even if in the last analysis I feel it settles for a dank passivity in its characters, a strange self-pity that has dogged Leigh before. Still, Imelda Staunton could get an Oscar.

For her, I suspect, that might be immense yet disorienting. But in general, the Oscars matter less and less, just because that mainstream has gone dry. Late in the year, film critics were saying there wasn't a Best Picture candidate in sight. Best Picture, you understand, is not necessarily the best picture: it is a genre, the picture that does happily at the box office; which has size and production values, as well as a lofty subject; and which makes the Academy feel good about itself. The Aviator was a candidate in prospect. But once seen, dismay set in: yes, it is flashy and energetic, but Howard Hughes is a black hole, the antithesis of what Hollywood and America want for itself. It's an epic, but a downer, and Scorsese's least personal film for years.

Then very late in the day, the Best Picture came home, placed and promoted with magnificent poker-faced delay and actually made, start to finish, in just a few months: it is Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, and it will win Best Picture because at the age of 74 Clint has more sense of show business timing and tropes than ever. No one needs to like it, or treasure it in years to come, but this is a true event, a film that takes your breath away with story surprise. It's a movie that knows exactly what it's doing - which only underlines how many film-makers have lost their sense of audience.

Of course, in different ways, the friends of Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ said, "This is what the audience really wants!" Both preached to the converted, and I'd guess that many millions who saw the Mel Gibson picture saw no other movie. Even now, if the Gibson picture is not nominated as Best Picture there will be talk- radio hosts and pressure groups that use that omission as an indictment of the "radicalism" in Hollywood. If only!

I share the sentiments behind Michael Moore's film, but I cannot look at or listen to Moore without smelling the demagogue. Which leads me to this point, the most arresting thing I saw in 2004 (in a poor-quality duplicated tape) was Adam Curtis's three-part TV documentary series, The Power of Nightmares. The programme may be prompting soul-searching within the BBC as to the function and role of that diminishing institution, but it will likely never find a large public in the US, because no one will be brave enough to air so lucid, caustic and comic an account of the sham of Islamic terror.

Now, in America, as you have heard, the ordinary television watcher often has hundreds of channels to choose from. But the four networks will not touch The Power of Nightmares, because of the subsequent charge of being anti-Bush. Public television (PBS), the nearest equivalent to the BBC, will almost certainly decline because of the fear of putting their funding in jeopardy. That leaves HBO, for several years now, the most enterprising movie/TV studio in the world. But even there, I'm not sure that anyone has the stomach for this superb, Swiftian satire or the absolute insolence with which Curtis delivers his message.

And in a strange way, that abdication brings me back to Brando - our greatest actor, yet a man who fell so completely out of love with movies so long ago that he gave up working. There was too much of the fraud in Brando - the spoilt baby and the wilful self-destructive - to regard him as a simple hero. But his death was an opportunity for autopsy on how this "greatest" country has gone dead in its imagination so that its best may give up hope of working. The Power of Nightmares, on the other hand, is a mongoose that sinks its teeth on the fat neck of the monster of unknowing and stupidity and will not let go. It is the work that America deserves.