Movies are a medium of illusions, and perhaps one of their greatest illusions concerns the medium itself. Whether it's movies or cinema, we tend to think of this peculiar art-entertainment hybrid as something static, given. Everyone knows what movies are, surely. The individual films may change from year to year, but the thing itself remains pretty much the same, right?
Of course it doesn't. Year to year, the medium changes in ways that are both subtle and dramatic. And if those permutations end up affecting everything we mean when we say movies, they often begin with alterations in the technological environment that conditions us as surely as it affects our favorite modes of imagistic storytelling.
I was reminded of the importance of these technological evolutions this year when I received an e-mail from a San Francisco filmmaker named Caveh Zahedi, who makes a crucial appearance in Richard Linklater's shot-on-digital-video-and-then-computer-animated 2001 film Waking Life.
In his e-mail, Zahedi said that someone who'd found my review of Waking Life on the Internet had sent it to him, and that he found my comments on his role in the film interesting. He added that if I would care to see some of his own work, he'd be glad to send it to me.
At this point, let me note that I've been reviewing movies for almost a quarter-century, and several of the technologies mentioned so far in this article either didn't exist or had no impact on my life as recently as a decade ago. Inevitably, with the emergence of each of these technologies, our understanding of cinema and its possibilities (including those of film criticism) has crucially shifted.
The digital camera and computer animation techniques in Waking Life literally result in a kind of movie that was only imaginable a few years back. The Internet has given every "local" film critic a potential worldwide readership. E-mail makes it possible for filmmakers, critics and cinephiles to engage new kinds of discussion and contact.
And that's only the iceberg's tip.
This past summer I purchased a new Macintosh iBook. Though I intended to use it mainly for writing, I bought a model with a DVD player. The first couple of times I tried watching a movie, I found the experience odd. I couldn't figure out how to position the computer. Eventually I settled on holding it in my lap, like a cat--or a book.
Watching a couple of favorite Hollywood thrillers, De Palma's Blow Out and David Fincher's Fight Club, I was pleased by the attention to visual detail that the iBook's proximity allowed. Still, this didn't wholly compensate for the sensory impact the movies had on the big screen.
The new medium began to make a lot more sense when I put on a movie of Caveh Zahedi's that he'd sent me. Recalling the autobiographical work of North Carolina's Ross McElwee, In the Bathtub of the World is a diary film that Zahedi made by filming a little bit of his life every day during the year 1999, using a small digital video camera.
The wit, originally and craft of Bathtub (the title comes form a John Ashbery poem) made it easily one of my favorite films of 2002. What's more, it intriguingly posited the first-person-film-on-DVD/iBook as the best manifestation yet of cinema as a form of personal poetry.
Pondering Zahedi's work I was struck by the distance it represents from where I began as a critic, when most movies--even those by artists like Fellini and Cassavetes--were labor- and capital-intense industrial productions made (on celluloid!) by crews of specialists, distributed by national media companies and watched by groups of customers in commercial theaters.
None of the above applies to Bathtub, which was made for a shoestring by one guy and isn't even distributed in the conventional way. (If you want to see it, you'll need to order it from www.cavehzahedi.com.)
Where are these technological evolutions leading us? My 10-best list for 2002 perhaps reflects a decisive breakthrough for digital cinema, and there are some happy portents in its implications. Besides allowing Caveh Zahedi to film his own life and distribute his work nationally without corporate sponsorship, digital technology has permitted New Wave master Eric Rohmer to conjure a painterly vision of the French Revolution; Russia's Alexander Sukorov to shoot a whole feature in one take; and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami to fashion an unusually intimate picture of the lives of Iranian women.
For artists and audiences who pay attention to them, then, the new technologies represent expanded and expanding creative possibilities. That's the upside.
The downside is that while the artistic margins grow more expressively empowered, the great center--where movies meet the general moviegoing public--seems to grow more bloated, homogenous and resistant to anything resembling art. The best indication of that was a recent New York Times article observing that today's Hollywood studios no longer make the kinds of movies that the town's Academy Awards were created to honor.
Films like The Hours, Gangs of New York and Far from Heaven--which fit the traditional definition of movie art--are now made almost exclusively by New York-based "mini-majors" like Miramax, Focus Features and Sony Classics. Hollywood's majors, meanwhile, spend their enormous resources cranking out empty, lowest-common-denominator spectacles designed to fill multiplexes before word spreads that they're not half as appealing as their glitzy ads.
There's thus an increasing disparity between movies as small-scale art and movies as mass eye candy, a disparity which suggests that the future of cinematic creativity may belong more to the iBook than to the movie theater. My admittedly idiosyncratic list marks one stage in that epochal shift.
Cheshire's 10 Best for 2002
The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, France). Rohmer's revisionist drama of the French Revolution sandblasts two centuries of political pieties with a fiercely uncompromising humanism, recounting the true story of a spirited English noblewoman's attempt to survive the Terror. Ever the innovator, the octogenarian director also made one of the most creative uses yet of digital imagery.
Russian Ark (Alexander Sukorov, Russia). A history-making film: the first commercially released feature to be comprised of a single shot (a feat possible thanks, again, to digital technology). But Sukorov's witty, mesmerizing dream-trip through Russia's Hermitage Museum is no mere stunt; it's also a fascinating meditation on memory, art, Russian history and cinematic possibility. Upcoming in the Triangle.
Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, USA). Derived from Andrei Tarkovsky's '70s Russian sci-fi classic, Soderbergh's coolly modulated space odyssey returns us to the Planet of the High-Concept Art Film. Like Antonioni in outer space, with judicious nods to Kubrick's 2001, the year's most daring American film is no less fascinated with the interface between technology, desire and loss than was the director's groundbreaking sex, lies and videotape.
What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan). One of the Taiwanese cinema's modernist visionaries, Tsai continues to refine his spare style and seriocomic thematic preoccupations in this wry, wistful, weirdly humorous tale of a Taipei mother and son dealing with the loss of the paterfamilias. The great Asian masterpiece of 2002, the film unfortunately went unseen at Triangle art houses; it's now available on DVD.
About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, USA). Jack Nicholson's bravura turn as a suddenly widowed Omaha retiree--the first time in recent memory he's played a character rather than "Jack"--evokes the cinematic tradition the actor so memorably inhabited in Five Easy Pieces and other '70s classics. Like many of those films, Payne's sharply crafted road movie probes the American character with an intelligent mixture of sympathy and skepticism, humor and pathos.
10 (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran). Via a pair of mini-DV cameras mounted on a car's dashboard, Kiarostami watches and listens as several Tehran women--and one extraordinary little boy--argue, empathize and try to make sense of their private dissatisfactions. Less allusive than the director's past work, the film resembles a series of precise snapshots that insist on the importance of their emotional facticity. A spring release in the U.S.
In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi, USA). Zahedi's digital diary of the year 1999, noted above, evokes the myriad delights and possibilities of poetic first-person cinema. Sure, anyone with a DV camera could make a similar work, but this one happens to have been crafted by an artist with an exceptionally keen sense of the new medium's formal potential. Order it from www.cavehzahedi.com.
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, USA). The lives of three women--Virginia Woolf in the '20s, a California housewife in the '50s, and a present-day New York lesbian--are interwoven in scripter David Hare's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel. No auteur piece, this sumptuous modern version of the old-fashioned Hollywood literary melodrama rests on star turns by three great actresses: Nicole Kidman (whose Woolf is the film's masterstroke), Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, USA). Sure, Scorsese's evocation of the nativist-versus-immigrant gang wars of mid-19th century New York is a sprawling mess. Detractors dismiss it as nothing more, where we admirers find that the film's discombobulating energy, panoramic social canvas, wealth of expressive details and personal feeling add up to a brilliant if uneven whole.
Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, France/Palestine). Palestinian actor-auteur Suleiman visualizes the current bitter stalemate in the occupied territories as a bleak postmodern absurdist comedy. More Brechtian than embittered, this uniquely trenchant and original work was denied the possibility of a foreign-film Oscar on the grounds that Palestine is not a nation. It opens in early 2003.
Selected honorable mentions: Jiang Wen's Devils at the Doorstep, Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, Rob Marshall's Chicago, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' The Son, Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle, Babak Payami's Secret Ballot, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Jia Zhang Ke's Unknown Pleasures, Ebrahim Hatamikia's Low Heights. Christopher Nolan's Insomnia.