Not Coming to a Theater Near You | 2006 in review

by Leo Goldsmith

I have been tricked… into seeing so many dozens of poor films that I have learned some important lessons. Most people see films from idle curiosity, from boredom or from a wish to accompany someone they intend to have sex with. I go because I adore films and am energized rather than depressed by the idea of the thousands still unseen. Years of sitting through great drifts of stuff at the NFT [in London] has made me realize that I have barely engaged yet with the subject … and that in practice there are almost no entirely rubbish films: that there really are pleasures of design, dialogue, atmosphere, narrative that are unconquerable – and that these pleasures mutate and mature over time in unexpected ways. A worthless 1950s American comedy becomes a dazzling parade of clothing, slang, sexual expectations, sofa colours, cocktail choices and glimpses of city streets, all virtually invisible both to its makers and to its first audiences. A banal, production-line Weimar Republic slice-of-life drama teems with buildings, faces, aspirations, worries, pleasures all preserved effectively by magic, sheltered forever from any knowledge of Hitler’s rise to power.

—Simon Winder,
The Man Who Saved Britain:
A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond

Pondering 2006 in (and on) film, and poring over the overwhelmingly embittered and fatigued critics’ lists of the year’s best films, I return again and again to this quotation from Simon Winder’s witty, sometimes annoying, always self-hatingly British book on James Bond’s intoxicating, delusional effect on the contemporary (male, white) psyche. Not for the obvious reason – Casino Royale doesn’t really figure in my personal best of 2006, as much as I fretted over and ultimately relished it – but for the questions it raises, first, about the reasons people see films, and second, about what they might see of 2006 should they bother to revisit any of this year’s (mostly rote) movies.

In these pages and elsewhere, lists of the best films of 2006 are sounding a distinctly disappointed tone. (Jonathan Rosenbaum is the lone critic I’ve found who considered this year a cinematic boon, but then only 40% of his choices are actually from 2006.) Even in a good year, listmaking is an unrewarding, largely masochistic exercise, demanding that the critic be in several places – or times – at once. A year-end list requires that one not only master both history and whichever zeitgeist is currently gailing, but also to do so in such a way that won’t seem embarrassing in a couple of month’s time. (My own list of 2005’s best cinematic things already feels woefully insufficient.) The critic’s job necessarily entails a good deal of prognostication as well as a lot of catching up with the past, and I imagine that’s why so few people are at all convincing at it. And while I’m probably tainted by my own limited purview here, I feel this wrestling with past, present, and future is particularly bruising in film criticism, if only because cinema is itself so neurotically worried about how to conjure up old things, credibly recreate present ones, and dream up what’s to come, all with sufficiently ratcheted technical or aesthetic ingenuity.

In 2006, as in many recent years, this made for several dizzying evenings at the multiplex. Added to the usual laundry list of war epics, neo-noirs, and costume-dramas-with-twists, there was an especially notable fascination with recent history, with filmmakers pondering the proper way to solemnize 9/11 or the death of Princess Di. But what strikes me is that there is still very little interest in the present itself, at least in American films. Does anyone know or care what 2006 itself looks like? The closest this country got to a contemporary cinematic self-appraisal this year came via the cracked lens of a faux-Kazakh TV journalist (who’s actually British anyway). And for all of Hollywood’s investment in the highly bankable concept of “Reality,” the only point to be gleaned is that, if you point a camera at someone for long enough, they will undoubtedly do or say something really stupid.

Far and away the best American film of 2006 was David Lynch’s phantasmagoria, Inland Empire, and its excellence is at least in some small way attributable to the way it captures a disorientation of time and the instability of our sense of what present reality is like. Laura Dern’s character(s) is/are stretched across the four dimensions, both in and out of the movies, and Lynch insists that we join her in this confusion. Toying hyperconsciously with DV’s “reality effect” and its paranoid CCTV aesthetic, the film also launches us into several planes, places, and times at once—a serviceable metaphor for moviegoing, moviemaking, and moviecriticizing that’s perhaps neither as obvious nor inscrutable as it sounds.

But, Lynch’s free-association wormholing aside, where to find an adequate, clear-eyed evaluation of 2006 in film itself? Given the relentless tug-of-war between past and future, it’s perhaps unsurprising that few filmmakers expend the effort to tackle the right now. Spike Lee’s Inside Man painted as convincing a portrait of post-9/11 New York City as I’ve seen anywhere, wrapped up though it was in genre fineries as compellingly watchable as they were pleasantly preposterous. Apichatpong Weerasthetakul and Jafar Panahi are two filmmakers who are reliably awake to the rhythms and oddities of the present, and their films this year – the lovely, mysterious Syndromes and a Century and the sensibly uplifting, radically patriotic Offside, respectively – are among the few films that portray the contemporary world with any seriousness. (Indeed, Panahi’s film is so ensconced in the present that it was actually partly filmed during the event it dramatizes – the Iran-Bahrain qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup – a true miracle of ultra-vérité filmmaking made possible by DV.) But these films, along with their American cousin, Old Joy, are the exceptions – the wonderful, perspicacious exceptions – that prove the rule. For the most part, when not utterly fantastic (like Miami Vice), this year’s appraisals of the present moment seem to be governed by a need to diagnose, in more or less condescending ways, the ills of our time, either obnoxiously waxing universalist about the problems of the contemporary world (Babel) or reaffirming, in a cozily psychotherapeutic sort of way, that the present is ok after all (Little Miss Sunshine; I’m not sure anyone can figure out which Little Children is trying to be. Probably both). I can’t say I found solace in either agenda, but I nonetheless mostly understand and don’t begrudge the effort.

Like many, lacking anything comparable in contemporary cinema, I found a good deal more comfort and confidence about the present in old films. Sneaking in on a technicality, Army of Shadows is, for many, the best film of 2006, a paradox enriched by the fact that it’s a film about the indelible present-ness of the past by a filmmaker who never could keep the two time-frames separate. But my one truly satisfying experience of the cinematic present-tense this year came via Criterion’s re-release of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, a series of films that, obviously dated in its hairstyles and turtleneck fashions though can be, is remarkably unfreighted by the baggage of either past or future. Rohmer’s cycle of films is seemingly unique in its fairly austere concern for the vicissitudes of present life, the day-to-day, the chatty, the normal, the lazy, and the petty concerns of the petit-bourgeoisie. Encounters in the street, quiet epiphanies about oneself or one’s friends, romantic transactions, working and taking vacations, the politics of friendship, marriage, and age: these are things that we, like Frédéric in Love in the Afternoon, read books (or go to the movies) to avoid thinking too much about, but they’re Rohmer’s cinematic bread and butter. And “moral” though these tales may be (however one interprets that misleadingly weighty word), the films are far more conversational than didactic. All but one is narrated in voiceover (Claire’s Knee is filtered through a writer’s diary), but these narrators rarely seem retrospective or nostalgic and are almost never reproachful or regretful. The voiceovers are observant and logical, dissecting and justifying actions, but avoid the apologetic tone of a confession. The present can be embarrassing, cloudy, mercurial, invigorating, contemplative, repellent, or unsatisfying, but ultimately, it’s the only thing that matters. Negotiating this present is about making the right decisions – hence the “moral” – about expressing oneself adequately (if not always honestly) to others, about treating them fairly (if not always well), and about understanding what we and others want. Rohmer’s approach is often breathtakingly straightforward, even pragmatic (especially in the earlier Tales), and it’s a wonder that this is such a rare quality elsewhere in film, then and now. The films’ scope is unabashedly limited; invariably, the films portray the way that semi-wealthy Frenchmen interact with semi-wealthy Frenchwomen. But this very precise focus, this minuteness, is exactly what’s so useful about these films, their sparseness and attentiveness to the tiny so refreshingly clear in contrast to the cluttered second-hand store of world history, straining imagination, and clumsily sweeping gestures that is contemporary filmmaking.

For better or worse, a firmer grasp upon present reality is almost certainly not why people go to the movies. People see movies to evacuate the present (usually for more romantic times and places than Darfur, Baghdad, or even post-9/11 New York), not to better appreciate it. But with this lack of a sense of contemporary reality in film, and in the face of yet more TV Land excavations and endless serializing in theaters in the year to come, the general fatigue in critical listmaking this year is quite understandable. Dire and disorienting as it is, the world as it is now is the elephant in the room of contemporary filmmaking, and I wonder at the capacity of filmmakers, especially in Hollywood, to continue to create fanciful distractions from it.

Then again, there is another Bond film in the works.