We live in some critically wanting-ass times. Maybe the heavyweight film critics are watching so much Must See TV that their senses are dulled; maybe the generally painful standard of morbidly insulting Adam Sandler projects has made lots of other unforgivably lame films look brilliant by comparison. I recently attended three Cultural Events that the New York Times and lots of other "reputable" news sources slobbered all over. You know, the critics who are supposed to be real critics -- the Times, the Voice. Not Siskel and Ebert, not 60-Second Preview, not WBKH Illinois radio, not the Joel Siegel types who suspiciously love everything with a budget over $15 million.
The first was the new David Mamet film, "The Spanish Prisoner." I was pretty excited about a new Mamet film. "House of Games," if you took out Lindsay Crouse, was a great movie. "Oleanna," although a badly directed movie, was a great play. "Glengarry Glen Ross" could single-handedly make you misanthropic and terrified by the neediness of Jack Lemmon forever. At least I felt secure that the Mamet dialogue would have some karate to it; the man knows how to whittle a story. He used to, anyway.
What happened to the "American Buffalo" David Mamet? "The Spanish Prisoner" was such a severe embarrassment that I actually booed the screen when it was over, much to the dismay of all the middle-aged corduroy Upper East Side culture parasites in the Lincoln Center cinema with me who loved the goddamn thing. Why not just make "The Game II" with Michael Douglas and be done with it? Why not just let the little sophomoric creeps who made "The Usual Suspects," with its totally unworkably shaky plot that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever, write your scripts for you, Dave? Why take a basically good thriller plot and work as hard as you can to infuse it with total implausibility? Why fuck up every given opportunity for the audience to suspend disbelief, so that you have to muffle a groan of "Oh, RIGHT. Like the lead character would actually DO that in a million years," every 10 minutes?
For a thriller to work, it can't all exist in Candyland. You have to believe, for a moment, that the people in the film are capable of falling into the ridiculous trap that is being laid. The people have to act in a way that is recognizable, in some small way, as being identifiably human; the ballet of the Everyman. I felt betrayed.
"The most unequivocal hit of the Sundance film festival; the most satisfying feat of gamesmanship Mr. Mamet has yet brought to the screen," said the New York Times' Janet Maslin. Sundance aside -- "Satisfying?" I can see Janet in a dark little apartment studded with half-cups of weak herb tea, slowly chewing diet wafers in front of "Lifetime Television: The Women's Channel." Maybe she needs more privileges.
The other puzzlingly mega-lauded film I saw was Japanese superstar Takeshi Kitano's "Fireworks," which was (according to the big reviews) supposed to be the enormously moving crossover work of a great Japanese auteur. The director/writer/star, Takeshi ("Beat") Kitano's head was on the whole cover of the Village Voice "Choices" section. "A transcendent masterpiece. Bloody, lyrical and tender." "Luminous and stunning. ****."
"Extraordinary! Wildly beautiful! It left me in tears." These quotes were all over the ad in the Times.
I thought the whole film was, in essence, an excessively maudlin episode of "Columbo." Everyone was talking about "Beat's" paintings, too, which are used throughout the film: Kitano's art is supposed to be the first artistic efforts of a tragically crippled cop. The paintings, if sort of ingenuously charming, sucked a lot. If Kitano didn't have the conceit that his art was the first expressive efforts of a paraplegic, it would simply be a laughable self-indulgence, an embarrassing hobby he should keep for himself and his intimate friends, not unlike Cybill Shepherd's or Bruce Willis' singing careers. Why is this guy being lauded by Interview magazine as "The Ultimate Renaissance Man?"
At least the Barney film is going to be what it says it is: a feat of totally syrupy, adult-alienating kiddie squalor, well beloved by the 5 and under set. "See the film you know your kids will love!" say the ads. They're not bluffing and fronting about "all ages." They know anyone over the age of 7 wants to see the singing monster die. Do it for the pre-schoolers, imply the ads. You don't understand them, but we do.
The final cultural blow for me this month was seeing the legendary punk band the Fall at the lousiest night club in New York, Coney Island High, which is where you need to go if you want to relive those grubby early '80s all over again, when vinyl was clothing and tattoos were skin and beer was dinner. The sad way in which the evening was not reflective of the '80s anymore was the onstage behavior of icon Mark E. Smith, the former most smartly bilious lead singer ever, who has come out with dozens of fantastic albums since the band's inception 18 years ago, full of great peeling firebrats of scathing poetry and Tourette's syndrome-style eruptions of squealing rant. Smith's delivery manner, always something of a cross between the nastily erudite David Thewlis in "Naked" and some Dickensian speed-freak carnival barker, was deeply impaired the other night due to the fact that Mark E. has, in essence, digressed into a hapless, mumbling wino. He had a black eye and three of his teeth had been knocked out. He kept sucking on the bloody holes and stumbling offstage. He would crash his whole forearm against the keyboard trying to regain balance and cause the microphones to feed back. The band would just stare at him, poker-faced. It was heartbreaking.
Everyone in the world should be required to watch all the Akira Kurosawa films they can get their hands on -- not just to learn what a truly great movie is, but also to learn how to behave in life. Kurosawa told the boldest stories, and he knew how to make great men truly great. He knew how to portray grace because he had grace. As opposed to the American technique of creating heroism by having the ugly tough guy with a heart of gold shoot everyone else in an understandable act of homicidal revenge, or having some soft-fingered ponce Romeo in a big white blouse rescue the wet supermodel, Kurosawa made inner magnificence happen in his actors. He gave his great people an indelible moral background, and had them act in a way where every second of their lives was an example of their genuine, radiant grandeur and humility. The Kurosawa hero is natural yet supernatural, in the way that only a realized man can be; he is ruthlessly self-reflexive and possessed of great humor as well as the unquestionable ability to rule others. Kurosawa was also modest as hell; he would rather have gotten blinded by crows than stand in front of a billion people watching the Oscars and shout, "I'm king of the world!" like some alpha baboon on a mud hill. He is the antidote for the sorry state of today's entertainment. They should show his entire oeuvre in every school and every prison. They should round up all of the fiends making Hollywood atrocities these days and force them to watch Kurosawa until they want to commit seppuku.
Kurosawa should be promoted to God, and until then, maybe all the big screens should go black for a while. The critics are tired. They need rest.