Box office bloopers

Much like the freshly castrated president of the United States, the chairmen of the Hollywood studios—another breed now living in fear of the gelder’s shears—have no compelling reasons to pat themselves on the back this year. Audiences steadily deserted the expensive, saccharine multiplex experience for the home comforts of good cable drama, of super-sized TV screens with booming surround sound and a home viewing menu that has been galvanised by TiVo, NetFlix and YouTube.

In response, the studios kept their clapped-out, gas-hungry, user-hostile equivalents of the Humvee lined up on the forecourts, poisoning the cinematic ether with noxious fumes and meaningless noise pollution. Like the president, they seem wilfully deaf to the coming new dispensation; like the oilmen, they will persist in their delusions until the last dusty well is tapped.
Their threadbare paradigm will wear for a while yet, but they increasingly seem like dinosaurs of the future.

Only a decadent, moribund industrial entertainment complex could have given us so many vacuous and creatively bankrupt moviegoing experiences, in every genre and at every level of profitability, from hit to flop: The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard’s state-of-the-art demonstration of big-budget hollowness; Brian De Palma’s vulgar and incoherent Black Dahlia; Steve Zaillian’s All the King’s Men, bloated and misconceived from the chromosomal level on upwards; and sometime studio boss Joe Roth’s scandalous betrayal of Richard Price’s novel, Freedomland.

Comedies did little better. Just as we all recovered from the depredations of Big Momma’s House II, 2006 showered us with excremental Frat-Pack romcoms such as Failure to Launch, The Break-Up and You, Me and Dupree, with only Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights to salve the wounded funnybone.

As usual, it was necessary to dig around in the dross to find the good stuff, which turned up at the edges of the mainstream. The best movie released in the US last year (for the first time) was from France, and was 37 years old: Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance-noir drama Army of Shadows is thick with the moral murk that clouds his existential gangster movies, and not seen by me since someone taped over my treasured copy in 1987.

Apart from the odd surprise, such as Mike Judge’s almost unseen, violently dystopian satire Idiocracy; Shane Black’s exuberantly garrulous Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; and Casino Royale, the first smart, lean Bond movie in years, most of this year’s most interesting movies seemed to live on the faultline between fiction and documentary.

Brilliantly calculated provocations such as Borat fell at one end of a diverse and healthy spectrum, with the muscular, admirably succinct United 93, and oddball pseudo-docs such as Confederate States of America and Death of a President, at the other. There were also more conventional docs on more pressing matters, such as Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale; James Longley’s Beautiful, vivid Iraq in Fragments; and, most importantly and successfully, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which had an impact where it matters, in the highest reaches of Washington DC. It may yet prove the first documentary to launch a White House bid.

This was also the year in which almost all of the major, long-lost works of Peter Watkins, a pioneer in the narrative mingling of fiction and fact and the lost prophet of English cinema, finally became available in the US. For me, his six-hour epic La Commune, perhaps the most successful rendering to celluloid of Brecht’s Epic Theatre theories ever, would have been my film of this year had it not taken six years to reach these shores. Fittingly, his dissident spirit seemed to loom over many of these adventurous aggressive interrogations of the documentary form. Now someone should give him the money to make another of his own movies. Preferably someone British: we owe him that much, at least. But I’ll bet Watkins isn’t holding his breath.—Â

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