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[whitespace] Blair Witch Project
Dare to Blair: The clever gimmicks that fueled 'The Blair Witch Project' harked all the way back to the clever gimmicks that launched Orson Welles' career with 'The War of the Worlds.'

So New, They're Old

A new generation of whiz-kid directors rediscovered some of the oldest tricks in the cinematic lexicon in 1999

By Richard von Busack


One of these days, the New Wave is going to discover the slow dissolve.

--Billy Wilder, c. 1960


AND NOW FOR THE Top 10 Films of 1999. Nos. 1-10: Pokémon: The First Movie. The little yellow fellow defeated the forces of critics with an opening weekend of $50-million-plus, making Pokémon the biggest--and thus the best!--of all animated films. Now, much double-domed, clothing-the-emperor criticism is required to demonstrate how Pikachu subverted the context of his franchise and proved to us, through his hour-and-a-half-long fight, that fighting is wrong.

There were some other movies released in 1999. Because of them, some could note this immemorial year as the end of the old age of cinema, as Jeff Gordinier did in his breathless article on the cover of Entertainment Weekly on Nov. 26: "1999: The Year That Changed Movies."

Quote: "A new generation of directors--weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy--snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s." Admittedly, neither Scorsese, Lucas, Stone nor Kubrick (if, by "aging," you mean "dead") came up with anything epochal in 1999. (For that matter, Gordinier's showing his gray roots when he publicly remembers that there was such a creature as Pac-Man.)

Gordinier paints a snazzy verbal mural of young directors overcoming their oppressors, the "potbellied boomers," yet Gordinier cites as part of the new aesthetic the improvisatory qualities of Mike Figgis and James Toback, a brace of potbellied boomers if ever there was one. It's going to take a hell of a lot more than the stunt casting of Mike Tyson to make me look forward to Toback's newest film, Black and White. I saw Toback's Two Girls and a Guy. And Figgis' The Loss of Sexual Innocence, too. Did I ever.

Of course, one of Gordinier's young rebels, David Fincher, director of The Fight Club (No. 1 of the 10 Best Films After Pokémon: The First Movie), is actually is pushing 40. Fincher's age might explain the savage irony he brought to the story of young-male bluster taken to its extreme; and in a year that brought us the godawfulness of Woodshuck '99, Fincher had the wit to make an au-courant joke of the tendency of aggro-boys to beat themselves up. (Extra points for making the existence of Fight Clubs into an urban legend, much fretted over by culture-watchers.) And The Blair Witch Project (No. 2, APTFM) is especially significant for introducing the movie brats to such old-time concepts as theater of cruelty, address to the audience, torn-up plot, improvised acting and hand-held camera. Things Jean-Luc Godard was working with 30 years ago, in short.

The fake documentary can be seen, of course, in potbellied boomer Rob Reiner's still-pungent This Is Spinal Tap (1985); and in potbellied (yet not boomer) Orson Welles' use of fake newsreel footage in Citizen Kane, not to mention his Blair Witch-style scare-the-suckers ploy in The War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

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Comparison Test: A quick checklist proves that 1999 was really the year of the animated feature.

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GORDINIER GOES ON to describe the new movie narrative as hypertext for today's Net surfer. By which he probably means the quick-sketch dozen and a half member cast of Magnolia (which I saw and thought I was looking at WWW thumbnails that won't open). Those left indifferent by the gunfest The Matrix are supposed to be too gray to understand the storytelling.

Then again, maybe they weren't knocked out by the metaphysics of The Matrix because they remembered the scene in Animal House in which (speaking of thumbnails) a stoned character looks at his own thumbnail and wonders if there's a universe on it. (What if a bunch of computers were making up our reality? Oh, the damned things can barely stay on when you download a GIF!)

The Matrix is, at bottom, boring because what's important is not how humanity plays the game, but how the game plays humanity, as seen in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (No. 3, APTFM). The RAM gimmick in Run Lola Run reduced characterization to the level of a video game or a commercial. Go (No. 4, APTFM) is preferable as a turbo-movie, because, unlike Lola and The Matrix, it doesn't overreach itself.

Go isn't about a mystic conspiracy of computers. It's about something the unwired can refer to: misbehavior as an alternative to those easily available, high-stress, boring jobs such as courtesy-clerk cashiering and drug-dealing.

"Downloading"--the mark of the new aesthetic--is never going to replace the gradual mysterious revelation of character through mood, music, dialogue, nuance, the flicker of facial expression. Claiming greatness through the use of random access and velocity, in intellectually undernourished movies such as The Matrix and Magnolia, is praising the poor workman for his tools. It's saying Suck is better than Dickens because it's faster.

Witness the satisfaction in taking time--the absolute richness and voluptuousness of slowness--in David Lynch's The Straight Story (No. 5, APTFM). See the subtle discovery of emotions through incident in The Dream Life of Angels (No. 6, APTM) or the use of wide-screen space (not speeded-up time) to display a wild man in a constricted world in John Boorman's The General (No. 7, APTFM)

Princess Mononoke
Soulful Animation: 'Princess Mononoke' led the way in a year that saw four exceptional animated features.

THE YEAR JUST passing produced a handsome amount of bright, edifying, first-rate films, such as Xiu Xiu, the Sent Down Girl (No. 8, APTFM) and the hair-raising Holocaust memory story The Last Days (No. 9, APTFM). And I thoroughly enjoyed The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Edge of Seventeen, Show Me Love, All About My Mother and Besieged; not to mention movies that haven't come out in our area but were as good as anything I saw this year, such as Errol Morris' Mr. Death.

My own new eon's resolution is not to spend time attacking other critics and just enjoy the privilege of being a filmgoer in the Bay Area. What a banquet! Not just the Camera Cinemas and the Stanford Theater, but also the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley and the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.

But I was infuriated by this idea of "generational" film. Movies exist in their own time-space continuum in which the old can be fresh and the new stale. An 80-year-old film can have a breathtaking conceit in it--an actor's trick, a director's inquiry--that's so modern you can gasp watching it. Simultaneously, there are many movies made by young fogies--sour yet maudlin grinds. In filmmaking, like all the arts, an old man can be limber, and a young man can be a real fossil.

And in arguing--against the evidence--that 1999's new generation is about to seize the day and transform movies, Gordinier writes with the desperation of a man trying to choke down the realization that the only movie star that's going to matter in five years is the Olsen Twins.

The whole shebang is about to get dumped to make way for kids' stuff--the next generation of adolescents: Pikach-über Alles. I certainly hope that Gen X will take their upcoming obsolesence with the same good grace the boomers did! I mean, with horrific amounts of introspection, substance abuse, anniversary journalism, nostalgia and, finally, semi-ironic TV commercial shilling. ("Hi, I'm Douglas Coupland, and if you're like me ...").

And quality cinema will exist in the crevices, right where it always lurks. It's a law: if someone makes a new Magnificent Ambersons, it will appear on the bottom half of a double bill, and it will be Unseen by Our Reviewers.

The worst this year? Don't ask! Just say American Beauty and The Matrix duke it out as the most overpraised. A nominee for worst line of '99: "Sex without love is violence! Sex, without love, is violence!" in Body Shots. And the best: "And God--God is the biggest beetch of them all," spoken by the Jean-Paul Sartre kid in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (No. 10, APTFM).

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From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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