Why the cinema is still a vital and powerful medium

Good films cannot be like oysters, swallowed whole without chewing or savouring
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The Independent Culture
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.