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A Perspective on Aughts Culture

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A Perspective on Aughts Culture

I haven’t seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive since it was released in theaters in 2001, but I saw it twice on the big screen then, and I remember it vividly. There are some dead ends in the narrative, and these dead ends are what people seize on when they criticize the film, but there are scenes and moments in Mulholland that strike me as classic: Naomi Watts’s audition setpiece, where we realize that her character is a fine actress, or maybe just dreams of herself as a fine actress. The rapture of the sex scene Watts shares with Laura Harring. The impatient look on an aged Ann Miller’s face as she stares at Watts at a party near the end. Most of all, though, I remember the face and the voice of Rebekah Del Rio as she sings Roy Orbison’s hit “Crying” a cappella, in Spanish, her voice soaring out from some deep place within her and lingering in the air like a taunt of emotional defiance. I’m not sure how Mulholland Drive would look to me now that this decade is ending, but I thought at the time that it was the best film I had seen that had been made after the year of my birth, 1977, which saw the unfortunate debut of Star Wars.

I suppose I’m reluctant to look at Mulholland again because I don’t want to let go of the ecstatic experience it was for me in 2001. I was not a particular Lynch fan and had no expectations when I first saw it at a screening, but I remember that I felt from its first shots that it was leading me to a place where the idea of the movie past would be sensuously analyzed, raked over and irradiated in a new way, without ever losing sight of the human emotions and hopes that went into this art form of the twentieth century. Was the film a renewal, or an apocalypse, or both? There was a smaller movie that year, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, that seemed to feel a similar sense of sexy misgivings, of luxurious, thwarted feeling and wised-up regret. In 2007, Rebekah Del Rio reappeared to sing the Star Spangled Banner in Kelly’s much-reviled Southland Tales, a film I championed at the time. I have doubts about it now, but I still think that it instinctively caught a sense of its year, just as Donnie Darko did, just as Mulholland Drive illuminates the past and points the way to the future.

There were some impressive films released in the first year of this decade, 2000. I very much enjoyed Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, and I assume it would still work as an entertainment. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream knocked me out when I saw it, mainly because of Ellen Burstyn’s extremely raw performance and the tense score by Clint Mansell, which has been used to death in movie trailers ever since. There are a lot of people who hated and still hate that movie, but whenever I’ve caught parts of it on television, it still seemed to hold up well. Aronofsky’s much-derided follow-up, The Fountain, had moments of pure, almost silent movie romantic beauty, but then came The Wrestler and its shameless use of Mickey Rourke. I dislike that movie, and it sheds a new light, or “explains” Requiem in an unflattering way. It’s as if Burstyn and Rourke were baring their souls and Aronofsky was off to the side, gazing at them with insincere admiration and secret contempt.

Also in 2000, there was James Gray’s The Yards, a slow, deliberate, painterly gangster movie that was shot and edited in an entirely original style. After I saw it, I rented Gray’s first film, Little Odessa, which had a similar, not quite developed rhythm and shy sense of music and composition. I eagerly waited for Gray’s follow-up. And waited. And waited. In 2007, there came We Own the Night, which still feels to me like a near-great film, not as all-encompassing as Lynch’s Mulholland, but large, anguished and as formally inventive as anything made this decade. This year, Gray’s Two Lovers only confirmed how special he is, and the good news is that people who are serious about film are finally starting to see that Gray is as promising a director as is working today.

The years 2002-2006 were a truly miserable time to live in Manhattan, and the movies that were made in those years are tainted for me; I have only to see a film listed on television that was made in 2002 or 2003 to feel a queasy kind of depression and overall “what’s the use?” vibe that clings to them like barnacles. There are exceptions to this, like Robert Altman’s The Company (2003), which is one of his best works, serene, highly sensual, sometimes hateful in his “honest” mode, but filled with curiosity and life in all of its frames; we lost one of our major American artists when Altman died, and I was grateful to get a few more jazz riffs from him. In the same year, Steven Spielberg made the revealing Catch Me if You Can, with its eye-opening, old-fashioned credit sequence, its lust for fantasy life, and its debilitating knowledge of real life compromise, as honest a film as this problematic director has ever made.

I recently re-visited Sofia Coppola’s much-lauded Lost in Translation, which came out in 2003. Everyone seemed to go wild for that movie at the time, and I was no exception; I wrote a long rave of it for Film International that really embarrasses me now. Seeing it again, it looked flat, ignorant, self-pitying and off-putting; even Bill Murray’s work didn’t feel fresh anymore. I can only guess that it hit some kind of nerve in 2003 that isn’t available to us now, and I’m glad to be rid of that particular nerve. We treaded water for quite a while, and I believe American cinema reached some kind of bottoming out with Little Children (2006), which is hands-down the worst and most insultingly ugly new release I saw during this decade. Awful bits of it are still in my memory, just as shimmering pieces of Mulholland Drive still bob up in my consciousness to startle and delight me, every now and then.

2007 was the year where a kind of footing was regained, a tension was released. I’m not sure how some of the films released that year will age, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the Coen Brothers’s No Country for Old Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and Gray’s We Own the Night all had an ambition that felt bracing after the dead, constricted movie years that had come before them. As a bonus, two still-active members of the French New Wave put out succulent valedictory works, Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon and Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais; this was a kind of bounty that was heartening to experience after so much depressive time-serving. 2008 brought two favorites: Jonathan Demme’s surprisingly emotional, almost O’Neill-esque Rachel Getting Married, and the Coen Brothers’s Burn After Reading, which seems to me after three viewings like a future comedy classic, an almost improvisatory yet perfectly judged and balanced cruel farce.

And what of the other major David, Cronenberg? I can’t say I liked his two biggies from this decade, A History of Violence (2005) or Eastern Promises (2007), but each of them had admirable formal sequences and I have a feeling that they might grow in my mind as time goes on; they might even survive this period better than some of the other movies I’ve loved. I was mostly bored by Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies and reached a plateau of impatience with him when Lucy Liu recited an old Trix commercial in the first installment. This year’s Inglourious Basterds felt bizarre, an experiment with Leone/Hawks time-stretching and ambiguous wish fulfillment, predicated on a “great” performance from Christoph Waltz that I was tired of about two minutes after he started giving it. Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun was made in 2005 but is only now getting a release here; it’s a fascinating look at the Japanese Emperor Hirohito that has remained with me long after I caught it on DVD.

There were single episodes of The Sopranos that were more intuitive and scathing about our culture than anything I saw at the movie theater, and I’ve heard repeatedly just how good Deadwood and The Wire are. In New York, there were rewarding film retrospectives, none more impressive than the nearly full season of Roberto Rossellini at the Museum of Modern Art and the event-like Jacques Rivette retro at Museum of the Moving Image, both in 2006. Film Forum released Jean-Pierre Melville’s long-unseen Army of Shadows (1969), a masterpiece that amplified and colored all the other new movies around it. I was stunned by Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’Amour (1937) at a BAM Grémillon festival. Frank Borzage’s reputation has steadily risen, from a good cross-section retro at Museum of the Moving Image to the Murnau, Borzage and Fox DVD set, which made many of his best early films available. And Turner Classic Movies continually arranged mini-film festivals, filling gaps in our knowledge and offering unexpected rarities.

At galleries, I was blown away by a dual Jackson Pollack/Lee Krasner show at Robert Miller and a Louise Nevelson show at Pace Wildenstein. I swooned as I listened to Jean-Yves Thibaudet play the melancholy second movement of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” at Carnegie Hall. In the theater, we had Edward Albee’s The Goat, a tough, major new play that actually ran on Broadway for a few months and seemed bolder and better every time I saw it (I wound up going three times, twice with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruel, and once with Bill Irwin and Sally Field, who was magnificent as the wounded wife). Ingmar Bergman crowned his career as a theater director with defining productions of Strindberg and Ibsen at BAM. The ever-hungry Marian Seldes confirmed her position as the Grande Dame of the New York theater in play after play. Gabriel Byrne went all-out on Broadway in O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. Debra Monk was unforgettable in a revival of Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo at Lincoln Center. Mary-Louise Parker did a real old-fashioned theater star turn in Proof. There was a lot of innovative work done at Soho Rep, especially a razor-sharp production of Maria Irene Fornes’s Molly’s Dream. And no one who saw her will forget Meryl Streep as Mother Courage in Central Park, particularly her first act closing, “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” which was as physically thrilling as descriptions of Olivier on stage at his best.

On an acting level, Streep had a triumphant decade, moving from her fluid performance in Adaptation (2002) to her popular success in The Devil Wears Prada (2007), while Judy Davis did some of her boldest work ever on television (be sure to catch her lethal turn as Sante Kimes in A Little Thing Called Murder {2006} when it turns up on TV). Dina Korzun was heartbreaking as a Russian trophy wife in Ira Sachs’s beautifully made Forty Shades of Blue (2005), and Anna Faris did a comic tour-de-force in Gregg Araki’s little-seen Smiley Face (2007), finding new and inventive and often unflattering ways to be stoned out of her mind in every single scene. Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose (2007), and she has many detractors who felt that she was over-the-top, but I couldn’t disagree with them more; it’s a huge performance, like Tilda Swinton’s outrageous yet well-disciplined star turn in this year’s Julia, yet always invested with an emotional specificity that does full justice to the hard life of the great singer. Then there was the guilty pleasure of Mike Nichols’s Closer (2004): Has there ever been a sexier movie scene than the strip club confrontation between walking hard-on Clive Owen and a lusciously turned-out Natalie Portman?

Early in the decade, there was Isabelle Huppert’s career-best performance in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). I often dislike Huppert on screen, sometimes quite intensely, but there’s no arguing with the depth of her work as Erika Kohut, a woman whose sexuality is so twisted that she inspires a sense of awe. “Fearless” is an overused word when it comes to describing performances by actors, of course, but surely it’s a necessary term to describe Huppert’s work as Erika; she dives so deep into horrific sexual impulses that I had never seen or even guessed at before that I kept thinking, “Alright, Isabelle, you’ve gone this far, you might as well go further!” I don’t know how this decade will look to us in the coming years, either socially or artistically, but I assume that since we’ve gone this far, we might as well go further.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.