Monday, September 10, 2007

Once is enough

Pauline Kael, they say, never saw any film twice. If true, I can't think of a greater eccentricity from a film buff. Imagine a literary critic who never reread a favourite book, a music critic content with a single hearing of a piece of music, or an art critic who only looks once at a painting. My working definition of a great film is one that I cannot bear the thought of never seeing again.

And this is the most obvious single difference for me between films made before the fifties and those made after. Of the latter there are many I admire - well, some anyway - and many that are by any objective standard better than huge numbers of the former - well, a few at least. But there aren't many I feel any pressing need to revisit. And in the last twenty years, the overwhelming majority of films that I have admired I know with certainty that I need never watch again. If I do, furthermore, I am almost always disappointed. Films I somehow thought worthy in my peak cinemagoing years included Titanic, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven (better known as Sesevenen), Reservoir Dogs, Eyes Wide Shut and Pulp Fiction. Now I wouldn't cross the road to see any of them.

Add Atonement to the list. It has its strengths, I suppose: good photography, general seriousness of intent, signs of a large budget well spent... none of these bare minimum qualities are to be taken for granted anymore.
But I don't like it. I don't like the ending, for a start. The central character, supposedly the novel's author, first gives us an ending in which the various conflicts are resolved and some kind of happiness restored, then tells us it did not really happen that way; the lovers were both killed without meeting again, wrongs were never forgiven etc etc. People like happy endings, she explains, but life cannot be expected to conform to such expectations.
Which, if it were a real autobiography, would be fair enough, and very moving in its own way. But this is a fiction, written by a man called Ian, so what's the point? Why ignore his own moral? Why say that audiences and readers prefer to leave with a sense of hope, hint that the very point of fiction may have something to do with these matters, and then not only renege on that trust but do so in such a sneaky, clever-clever way? The answer has nothing to do with narrative or dramatic effectiveness, and everything to do with a writer showing off.
Still, at least it makes sense as a literary device, confided to us at the end of the book in a voice that has been speaking to us throughout. The film's desperate attempt to convert it into a dramatic twist, by suddenly showing the central character in old age (with the same hairstyle she had when she was twelve) explaining it all very... very... very... slowly, on an incredibly unrealistic chat show, doesn't play at all.

And I don't like its sense of period. Visually it's okay: the hairstyles, the decor, Keira Knightley's swimming costume - all of these are fine. But it still seems phoney to me, in a way that goes beyond my automatic (and, I suppose, unfair) revulsion at seeing twenty-first century actors (of all people!) pretending to be Second World War soldiers. (Tip to director: next time you want to convince us that the Dunkirk evacuees were brutal, despairing maniacs, don't include any real documentary footage of the genuine article, with humanity and stoicism and decency shining from every face.) As a piece of drama set before and during the war, I simply don't buy a second of it.
This sequence of events does not fit there, these people have not come from there. I have very protective feelings about the nineteen-thirties, and I do not believe that even a fraction of the fecklessness, pettiness, solipsism, self-obsession and various forms of incontinence on display had any place in them.
Where period accuracy begins and ends in Atonement.
Julie Delpy's film Two Days in Paris is even worse. To think I gave this a go because I trusted the reviews, especially the geezer in The Times who said he was dreading it but ended up bowled over by its wit, insight, sophistication and what-have-you. Then there's the quote on the poster from some daffy dame about making sure you wear waterproof makeup because she laughed until she cried. Oh please...
It's basically an even less embarrassed imitation of a Woody Allen film than Kenneth Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter, plus a dash of Lost In Translation. An early dinner table scene is well done, but the rest is no alarms and no surprises: hateful characters, complacent toadying to the anti-American consensus, and not even a well-conveyed sense of Paris.
I sense it will acquire a cult following, however. Like almost anything, real or conceivable, I'm afraid it's good enough for that. There's a moment early on where the lead character, a New York wisecracker obnoxious beyond all endurance, deliberately misdirects some American tourists so as to take their place in a taxi queue. He explains himself thus, and I may be paraphrasing slightly, "Aw come ahn, dey voaded fuh Gawge Bush!"
Cue torrents of shrieking from the independent thinkers of North London all around me, the majority of them, interestingly enough, wearing matching perforated rubber clogs.