Beyond the Multiplex

A Grown-up Moviegoer's Bill of Rights! Plus: The shifting puzzle pieces of "The Nines."


Andrew O'Hehir
August 30, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Finally, we've reached a calm spot just before the storm hits. But brace yourselves, film buffs. I count 11 significant non-mainstream releases coming the week after Labor Day -- including the amazing documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" and John Turturro's delirious musical "Romance & Cigarettes," two of the best movies I've seen all year -- and at least six more the week after that. So there'll be plenty to see, too much maybe. But will you go?

Last month I recklessly asked for responses to one of this column's enduring and indeed repetitious themes: Whither the moviegoing experience? In both Hollywood and the indie industry, producers and distributors seem obsessed with the specter of younger viewers downloading movies off the Internet (a real threat, or on its way to becoming one) and watching movies on their phones and iPods (not so much). As many of you testified eloquently, the movie biz should worry a little more about the quality of what it's actually selling, instead of inventing imaginary villains.

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Based on the outpouring of testimonials that flowed into the letters column and my in box, it's amazing that anybody ever goes to the movies. Actually, 2007 has been a decent year, commercially speaking, for independent film. (Let's reserve judgment on aesthetic quality for the time being.) I had invited readers who rarely or never go out to the movies to explain why. Some of you were bilious and some were merely sad; some were Hemingway-terse and others unleashed "Confederacy of Dunces"-length diatribes. But it all pretty much boiled down to this: A) the movies suck; B) the theaters suck; c) audiences are rude; and C) it's too expensive.

As one reader put it, "The theaters are dirty, smelly, sticky-floored and filled with idiots who talk during the film. Most movies are crap and not worth the price." He/she went on, "Our couch is much more comfortable, the food is a lot better, our living room doesn't stink of popcorn grease and dirty feet, we can stop for bathroom breaks and if the cat interrupts the movie we can just toss her in the basement."

That reader fell on one end of the continuum, among those who have bid a not-so-fond and pretty much permanent sayonara to moviegoing. "I'll stay at home and skip the vaunted communal experience in favor of a big-enough image which will soon be in HD as well," wrote another. One reader in New Zealand reports that she recently had a 120-inch Day-Nite screen installed, so her living room provides at least as good a viewing experience as many theaters, and better than some. It was worth it to escape "the general unpleasantness of humanity in the herd," she says. "Maybe it's an introvert thing. If you're an extrovert, maybe the enjoyment of being with a bunch of people is a sufficient counterbalance to the hassle. I wouldn't know."

If those cocoon people simply aren't coming back, the majority of responders were more wistful. "I've always loved the experience of sitting in a theater surrounded by others, immersing oneself in the visceral thrill, and taking part in the modern version of the Greek theater-temples," one writes. But at close to $100 for the night out -- when you include baby sitting, parking and concession food -- she hardly ever does it.

Assuming, for the purposes of argument, that some movies are actually worth seeing at that price -- or would be, if doing so were actually fun and relaxing -- some central themes come into focus. You want consistent picture and sound quality. You want comfortable seating. You want little or no pre-show advertising, and absolutely no condescending lectures about movie piracy. "If I wanted to be patronizingly lectured at and be forced to watch ads, I'd watch Fox News," writes one reader. You don't mind a few trailers, as long as they don't go on forever and don't seem totally incongruous with the movie you're there to see. You want decent, reasonably priced food options, and possibly an adult beverage or three. You want the movie to start on time. You want the place to be acceptably clean and tidy, although nobody is expecting your mom's bathroom circa 1973.

You want the people around you to shut up during the movie (I think we can agree that talking, hooting and inappropriately laughing during previews is excepted). You want them to turn off their damn phones and you especially want anybody who somehow thinks it's OK to intermittently consult their BlackBerry or their Treo or whatever liquid-crystal, visible-for-miles, brilliant-oceanic-blue screen they've got, right in the middle of a dark room of strangers trying to preserve a collective trance, to be dragged away in chains, flayed alive and sacrificed to the Dead Serpent God that He may live again.

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I think that covers it. It's a Grown-up Moviegoer's Bill of Rights! Let's amend as necessary and promulgate. I will add, not for the first time, that this pretty much describes the thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience at the Alamo Drafthouse chain (of Austin and other Texas cities), and at least some of Mark Cuban's Landmark theaters. Of course there are other places, and I welcome your nominations of fully or partially GMBR-compliant institutions. But why the hell can't it be universal? If exhibitors seriously want to save their so-called business model, they can start here.

"The Nines": Hard bodies, shifting identities and reality TV as a metaphor for whatever

There ought to be rules about the kinds of solutions you can supply in "puzzle pictures" -- you know, those delicious, deliberately disorienting, what-the-hell movies, like "Memento" or "The Usual Suspects" or the entire oo-ver of M. Night Shyamalan. Unfortunately, I can't discuss what I think those rules might be without giving away the secret behind John August's "The Nines," an intriguing, episodic film that starts out genuinely creepy and funny and ends up like an overblown "Twilight Zone" episode.

Hell, at least it's a good "Twilight Zone" episode. August's directing debut -- he's a veteran screenwriter who's penned several films for Tim Burton, including "Big Fish," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Corpse Bride" -- occasioned a certain amount of yammer at Sundance last winter, but I honestly can't see much here to discuss. By all means see the film; it's an ingenious, interlocking construction worthy of Agatha Christie, with tour-de-force performances from Hope Davis, Ryan Reynolds and Melissa McCarthy and a clever backstage-Hollywood premise (several minor movie-biz personalities play themselves). But David Lynch this ain't; you'll go to bed with all your questions answered, and answered with a kind of moon-faced, altar-boy earnestness.

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"The Nines" alludes to philosophical or metaphysical profundity without possessing any, which is certainly a successful pop-entertainment mode (Shyamalan, q.v.). In its first and most enjoyable segment, "The Prisoner" -- August is indeed alluding to the legendary 1960s British TV mind-boggle -- Reynolds plays Gary, the hunky star of a TV crime-fighting series who's gone on a crack-and-hookers binge and is now under house arrest. It's somebody else's house, and Gary keeps seeing and hearing things that aren't there, and becomes increasingly surrounded with eerie occurrences of the numeral 9. (He finds a Post-it on the kitchen counter, in his own handwriting, that he can't remember making: "Look for THE NINES.") Gary's under the whip of a plump and plucky P.R. handler, played by McCarthy with delicious enthusiasm, and she seems straightforward enough. But even dim Gary sees that something is up with Sarah (Davis), the desperate housewife next door who seems awfully eager to swap cups of sugar, but always flees before consummation.

There's terrific skill and spookiness to this segment, which blends the sleek look of a "Melrose Place" episode with a slowly building undercurrent of madness. All three actors reappear in the film's next two segments, as the mystery of Gary's ghosts and his semi-amnesiac state begins, however unfortunately, to unravel. In the second section, "Reality Television," Reynolds becomes Gavin, the owner of the house inhabited by Gary. Gavin is a gay TV show-runner and Type A workaholic, who's himself the subject of a behind-the-scenes reality show, because his new series "Knowing" is on the fast track toward a prime-time slot. Davis plays Susan, the slithery, faux-sincere executive who forces Gavin to fire his oldest friend (McCarthy, playing, er, the actress Melissa McCarthy) from a starring role -- and then gives him some even more surprising news.

August's final section takes place inside "Knowing," in which Reynolds plays an earnest, bearded dad, and McCarthy plays the wife he leaves behind with their daughter and stranded car, in the pilot episode, while he hikes back out of the wilderness to get help. On the road he meets Sierra (Davis), who is a little hippy-dippy and subtly seductive, and what the hell is she doing out there in the Southern California mountains without a car, anyway? By this time we've kind of figured out the secret of Gary/Gavin's identity, and it breaks those rules I can't talk about and makes "The Nines" a lot less interesting than it seems at first. The movie never fails to be crisply written and cannily delivered, but it's way too steeped in TV-culture inside jokes for its own good, and August's attempts to suffuse the whole thing with ontological or theological meaning are ultimately pretty dumb.

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"The Nines" opens Aug. 31 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

"The Monastery: Mr. Vig & the Nun": A fable of ancient origins, in a muddy backwater of modern Europe

Have you heard the one about the octogenarian Danish bachelor and the Russian nun? Trust me, you haven't. Even by the standards of contemporary documentary, which seems to leave no quirky corner of existence unexplored, Pernille Rose Grønkjær's "The Monastery," one of the year's most celebrated festival films, is pretty weird. The filmmaker is herself Danish, but that still doesn't explain how she discovered Jørgen Laursen Vig, an aging, erudite hermit with a spade-shaped beard who owned a crumbling castle deep in the marshes of central Denmark.

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When we meet him, Vig is an ex-priest who speaks several languages and takes a jaundiced, misanthropic view of nearly everything. As even he admits, he has an unnatural fixation with people's noses. (He greatly objects to his own, and you may read into that what you wish.) Vig's one great dream is to turn the decaying hulk of Hesbjerg castle, unoccupied for more than 20 years, into a Russian Orthodox monastery. Is he himself a practicing Orthodox Christian, a tiny minority in Western Europe? It doesn't appear so, but then, most of what we learn about Vig's life is fragmentary and explains nothing.

Vig tells Grønkjær that he has never been in love, and implies that he has never had intimate relations with women. Into his life suddenly descends Sister Amvrosija, a startlingly attractive Orthodox nun of around 40, who has been sent from Moscow to determine whether Vig's offer -- hey, here's a monastery! -- has any potential. Needless to say nothing sexual transpires between them; this isn't that kind of movie. But Vig's endless rumination and procrastination, his attempts to repair the rotting floors and leaky roofs of Hesbjerg with duct tape and plastic wrap, come almost immediately into marital-style conflict with the iron-willed Amvrosija, who seems to think her nuns, priests and monks should not freeze in winter, or be in constant danger of death from a building collapse.

This isn't a movie about God or spirituality or monastic life, except in passing. Instead, "The Monastery" is an oddly graceful combination of fairy tale and romantic comedy, set in a forgotten corner of the world. If you took "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Honeymooners," blended them and planted the result in overgrown Danish swampland, I guess this is what you'd get. Beneath their incessant squabbling, Mr. Vig and the nun fit together in unmistakable fashion. His dream was foolish, and his castle was a ruin. A woman as sensible as Amvrosija clearly is should have walked away from it in two seconds. Love makes people do crazy things sometimes.

"The Monastery: Mr. Vig & the Nun" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. More engagements should follow.

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Fast forward: Brooklyn before sunrise in "Quiet City"; revisiting Chile's left-wing martyr in "Salvador Allende."

Last week I discussed Joe Swanberg's intriguing mixed bag "Hannah Takes the Stairs," first among the so-called DIY or mumblecore films to get something resembling commercial distribution. This week, the IFC Center's retrospective ("The New Talkies: Generation DIY") shifts its focus to New York director Aaron Katz's supernally lovely second feature, "Quiet City." Katz is addressing the same generational cohort as Swanberg. Both pictures could be called romantic comedies and were made for very little money using (mostly) hand-held cameras. But form and budget don't dictate content, as it turns out, and they certainly do not dictate mood.

Where "Hannah Takes the Stairs" is talky, itchy, sleepless, self-regarding, "Quiet City" is a contemplative widescreen experience that views its landscape -- the borderline-industrial hipster neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- with painterly patience. Swanberg is usually right on top of his characters, seeking a Bergman-esque intensity, while Katz's characteristic gesture is more the Terrence Mallick long shot or the Edward Hopper midnight tableau. In place of the symmetrical but non-linear structure of "Hannah Takes the Stairs," Katz offers a classic lonely-hearts romance, not categorically different from many you've seen before.

Jamie (Erin Fisher) is just off the plane from Atlanta. She's something of a blithe spirit, and has apparently come to New York on very short notice, maybe on impulse. She can't find her space-case Brooklyn friend and is pretty much stuck on the street. In the mode of winsome girls around the world, she musters the courage to talk to floppy-haired Charlie (Cris Lankenau) in a subway station. She has chosen well. He behaves like a perfect gentleman, and they end up spending several hours in an all-night cafe and finally hitting Charlie's apartment. Jamie is receiving torturous phone calls from a not-quite-ex-boyfriend back home and Charlie's mired in an ocean-bottom depression, so we're not talking torrid instant late-night face-sucking passion here. But at the same time, their diffidence and introspection never seem like the Berlin Wall that impedes romance in Swanberg's or Andrew Bujalski's films.

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Katz's characters are instantly likable (he co-wrote the film with the two leads) and the slow-burning spark between them is played with a light touch. "Quiet City" never feels forced, in the quip-laden mode of most indie love affairs. (Swanberg appears in a nice supporting role, as one of Charlie's friends, whom he visits to retrieve a beloved hat.) Fisher and Lankenau are agreeable enough as performers, but neither is a sufficiently powerful actor to draw the focus away from Andy Reed's cinematography, or ever throw the dramatic outcome into doubt. In contrast to Swanberg's film, with its avowedly experimental method, "Quiet City" is identifiable as a micro-indie only because of its budget. Put movie stars in it and set it in Europe, and it's "Before Sunrise." Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to you. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, with more engagements to follow.)

Patricio Guzmán, the great Chilean documentary director, recently returned home after many years in exile to make "Salvador Allende," a biographical tribute to the democratic socialist leader, overthrown as Chilean president in a 1973 military coup, whose ghost continues to haunt Latin America (and should haunt our own country as well). It's a movie for students of the 20th century left and its historic failures, sure, but if it comes close to hagiography in places it's nonetheless a haunting exploration of the Allende paradox, and deserves to be widely seen. (Guzmán's three-part film "The Battle of Chile," made in the '70s, remains the definitive work on Allende's revolution and the resulting counterattack that culminated with the CIA-supported coup.)

Like so many revolutionaries, Allende was a cultured man of the upper middle class (a physician) who took up the cause of the poor. But unlike Lenin and Trotsky and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Allende called for nonviolent and democratic social transformation, never embraced orthodox Marxist-Leninist doctrine and never tried to implement a police state. One could argue he was a more dangerous revolutionary because of that, and his reward was to be villainized by Washington, subjected to endless propaganda paid for by American taxpayers, betrayed by his own military leaders and toppled in a U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution that set back the cause of Latin American democracy by decades.

With characteristic subtlety, Guzmán develops Allende's story through such figures as the old men in the coastal city of Valparaíso who knew his family, the woman who cooked for him and the one who served as his secretary (and perhaps lover), along with more official sources. He humanizes one of the last century's most enigmatic and tragic figures, and makes an almost forgotten episode of modern history come vividly to life. Guzmán concludes on a fatalistic note: Allende's peaceable utopia was a beautiful vision, but not one that could be sustained in 1970s Chile, or perhaps anywhere else. You can draw many lessons from this history, but as "Salvador Allende" makes clear, none of them are salutary. (Opens Sept. 5 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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