Oscar time is coming up, and the hype machine is going into overdrive. Though the candidates are generally worthy ones, I'm struck by the fact that three of my favorite films from last year have essentially been ignored: Mulholland Drive, Waking Life and Ghost World. Each of these films has notable flaws, but one thing that unites them in my affections is that they all create a cinematic dream world and achieve a kind of transcendence. In the case of Mulholland Drive, the previously obscure Naomi Watts turned in one of the most miraculous acting performances in recent memory, playing the dual roles of a dream girl and her dreamer. Still the Academy, in its infinite idiocy, chose not to acknowledge her with a Best Actress nomination.
The promise of collective liberation is one of the most seductive features of moviegoing. All too often, however, the intoxicating potential of film is despoiled by "magic of the movies" technophilia. While I love some F/X extravaganzas like 2001, Blade Runner and even the Terminator movies, the sci-fi films that usually get made are numbing spectacles that leave me feeling pulverized. Consequently, I avoid movies where the special effects are an expensive end unto themselves.
Simon Wells' adaptation of his great-grandfather's novel The Time Machine is thankfully not one of them (which may be due in part to the fact that much of the film is set in turn-of-last-century New York). This is a brisk and tidy film, and it moves through the exposition quickly: A young scientist, Alex Hartdegen, suddenly loses his girlfriend in a botched Central Park mugging. The grief-stricken inventor hops into the time machine he's been building to try and reverse the tragedy. When this proves to be impossible, he turns his machine toward the future, to ask the presumably wiser people there why the past can not be undone. Unexpectedly, he finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world, in which the surviving humans are living once again like stone agers.
Australian actor Guy Pearce plays the inventor, making it twice in the last year that he has played a man lost in time. In last year's surprise indie hit, Memento, Pearce floundered about searching for his wife's killer, burdened by short-term memory loss. Here, as a man trying to revivify his girlfriend by traveling through time, he's rather unappealing--his hair is long and stringy, and his gaunt features are highlighted. He stammers and flails, but fails to find a human being in his performance.
In fairness to Pearce, the thinness of the script is no doubt part of the problem. I've not read H.G. Wells' novel, but I understand that his story has been dumbed down considerably. That's a shame, because the equipment is there. There are a couple of lovely sets, and some wonderful images. The time machine itself is a quaint piece of work, a weird chair-thing that's all brass and teak, like a robber baron's yacht. The film's vision of the New York Public Library, 30 years from now, is particularly felicitous. Although those lions continue to stand guard outside, inside is a hologrammatic librarian, whose digital brain contains every last fragment of human knowledge and culture. In 2030, books are as passé as the stone ax--the information is what counts. While this strange virtual librarian initially seems like a nightmare vision of the near future, the character takes on a certain poignancy in the film's last act 800,00 years hence, in which he and our time traveler are the only surviving witnesses to the brief flowering of human culture.
Though The Time Machine is a shallow film that feints at ideas rather than generating or exploring them, I still found myself pleasantly distracted by the kinds of questions that used to haunt my sleepless teenage nights. Like, when did our ancestors figure out that they could dominate those terrifying animals out there in the Serengeti? Will our great cities and marble monuments wash to the sea, along with the ruined temple of Shelley's Ozymandias? Are the works of Plato, Shakespeare and the Backstreet Boys doomed to oblivion? Stanley Kubrick tackled much of this in 2001, however, and The Time Machine is a pale competitor to that film. It's more like a shadow, a flickering approximation of an interesting movie that makes you think about what's not there. However, the film's very modesty makes this kind of reflection possible, and this is why I found some pleasure in a film that is really little more than a rainy afternoon time-killer.
More than any other serious artist, it was probably Shakespeare who understood the need to entertain, to give the audience what it wants. Despite his palpable disdain for the groundlings who "most tyrannically" cheer for the cheap stuff, he always made sure to put on a good show, complete with song and dance, sex and blood, pratfalls and swordplay. In other words, Hamlet.
Which brings me to John Q.
John Q. was released nearly two months ago, and at a cumulative gross of 64.5 million, it is the biggest hit in a fallow season. This happened in spite of the critics: The scorn that greeted the film was unanimous, except for rent-a-ravers like Joel Siegel. To be sure, the film is ham-handed, predictable, simplistic and stuffed with clichés. No argument there. All the same, I confess that I enjoyed almost every second of it, better judgment be damned.
It probably helps that I saw the film amid a huge crowd that responded with noisy laughs, sighs, gasps, jeers and cheers at all of the film's button-pushing moments. Although many of my favorite films are of the artistic and subtitled variety, I cling to dreams of a populist cinema that can unite and rouse the masses. This leftist vision of mass culture essentially died in the 1950s' Communist witch hunts, but a few of us still hold out for that kind of political cinema.
Now, director Nick Cassavetes is no Shakespeare, but he deserves a lot of credit for making John Q. work. It isn't easy to get people to swallow a story about a man who takes over a hospital waiting room in order to get a heart transplant for his dying son. Several high-end critics have clucked over this movie's celebration of a hostage-taker, but I think the audience knows damn well that they're only watching a movie. John Q. taps into a huge reservoir of frustration and rage--not just among the 39 million Americans who lack health insurance, but the millions more who, like Denzel Washington's character, have inadequate coverage. If you've ever felt the powerlessness of being uninsured and sick, or had to beg for pro bono care, then this film will strike a chord.
John Q. probably won't bring us universal health coverage, but it does help expose the contradictions of a country in which politicians sign over blank checks for the wholesale demolition of foreign lands, and run screaming from the room whenever anyone suggests that we should provide health care for all. For all of its shamelessness, this film is an effective populist fantasy, one that is a welcome respite from the maddening priorities of our waking world.