Why the cinema is still a vital and powerful medium

Good films cannot be like oysters, swallowed whole without chewing or savouring

I DISAGREE with what David Thomson, the distinguished film critic, wrote in these pages last week. He said that 1999 had been a bad year for any hopes about film, whereas I am rarely disappointed by the films I see. (I am not saying this as president of the British Board of Film Classification, by the way, but simply as someone who goes to the movies about once a week.)

I don't want to challenge Thomson's argument that film was dangerous and subversive in the early 1900s, before being codified and made safe by commercial disciplines, and that it has finally come back, a hundred years later, to being the untidy sensation machine of its early days as, remote control in hand, you move rapidly through the movies showing on the TV.

No, I am coming at the question in a different way. Disregard the junk that all art forms produce as a matter of course all the time (try music in Vienna when Beethoven was writing his first masterpieces, or art in Paris in the first decade of this century when Picasso, Braque and Matisse were young painters). Is the cinema sufficiently lively, satisfying and promising to give hope that this medium remains capable of producing works of genius from time to time? That is the question.

I start with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which arrived in the nation's cinemas on Friday evening. It is neither "tosh", as Thomson describes it, nor is it the "dreadful miscalculation" which Anthony Quinn called it in his review on Friday. I was absorbed by the strange and dreamlike atmosphere which Kubrick evokes. I was also impressed by the sheer power of Nicole Kidman's portrayal of a wife who is sexually unsettled by her husband's faith in her and his lack of jealousy; here is a great actress, with her wilful yet satisfying exaggeration of her lines. Yes, the plot is implausible and the resolution unconvincing. But here is the test: would I like to see the film a second time?

That is all I really ask. Music demands numerous hearings before we fully absorb its beauties. We return again and again to favourite pictures. I often re-read bits of a novel I am enjoying. Good films cannot be like oysters, swallowed whole without chewing or savouring. I do want to see Eyes Wide Shut once more before its run ends.

On a second, simple criterion - is there enough good stuff to see? - last week was encouraging because a few days earlier I went to see Rushmore, a wry, off-beat high-school comedy that has been on The Independent's list of "five best films" for some time. At first you think it is going to be another film about a precocious mathematical genius, like Good Will Hunting, released nearly three years ago with Matt Damon as the prodigy. But Rushmore's protagonist, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) turns out to be capable of pretty well any feat of organisation except passing exams.

It is witty, and threading through the mayhem which Max generates at his two schools are three little love affairs - a schoolboy crush, an adult relationship and, finally, a school-kid romance. It also has a fine performance by Bill Murray as a tough yet forlorn school benefactor. But the main reason why I mention Rushmore is that it is the kind of film that refutes the views of all those people who don't go to the cinema very often, and believe that film makers are really interested only in violence and/ or sexual explicitness.

However, the two films of the last 12 months that I put forward out to counter Thomson's pessimism are The Truman Show and Life is Beautiful. Many readers will remember the rather astounding story lines of both these films.

In the first, Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, lives a completely suburban life in an island community that appears to be somewhere in California. He is married and works as an insurance salesman. He is haunted by the memory of a girl he once met, who was whisked away to Fiji, but otherwise he is content. What he doesn't know is that he was adopted at birth by a television company and is the star of an all-day television show, filmed on a huge, enclosed set. Everyone in the film, including his wife, is an actor. Millions of people have watched his whole life on television without his knowing.

But Truman gradually becomes suspicious and, after numerous difficulties, reaches the edge of the set, finds the exit door and joins the real world. Thus the movie tackles profound themes - the nature of reality, and whether our ordinary, day-to-day existences are gradually merging with the invented, idealised lives of soap operas and docusoaps so that we gradually lose our grip on reality. I was lucky enough to see the film without having learnt its central conceit, and thus I felt the full shock of Truman's discovery of the falsity of his life.

The Italian film, Life is Beautiful, (La vita e bella), directed by Roberto Benigni, who also plays the main part, could scarcely be more ambitious and daring: it depicts the Holocaust as farce. The nub of the story is that Guido, a Jewish bookseller played by Benigni, and his young son, are deported to a concentration camp. Determined to protect his son from the horrors that surround him, Guido tells the boy that it is all a game. Earlier, when the boy had asked his father why a sign "No Jews" was displayed, he replied that it was arbitrary nonsense - the sign might as well have said "No Spiders" or "No Visigoths". In the camp, when the child learns that they may be turned into soap or buttons or burned in an oven, Guido replies that this was a trick to make him lose the game - "You fell for that? Buttons and soap out of people! That will be the day."

Thus, in a miraculous way, this wonderfully made film adds its own comment to the standard explanations of the Holocaust, which is that it was the result of powerful racist trends already present in German society, pushed to extremes by Hitler's demonic power. That may be true, but the film says that the Holocaust was more than an extrapolation; it was a plunge into a nether world where the moral order is perverted and overturned, and where evil is literally ridiculous.

That the cinema can make such profound comments lightly, accurately and persuasively is proof both of its enduring vitality and that it continues to have much to say to us as we enter the next millennium.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum