Thursday, August 28, 2008

Scratch Sheet

Right away in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) swindles a valuable four-volume edition of Don Quixote from the collection of a stroke-silenced patriarch. He deals with the book collector's greedy heirs, who wouldn't know what he's talking about when he references the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili but are wowed by his estimation of their father's library's value. The tack Polanski takes here is that of the unbeliever changing money in the temple: literature and the occult have their prices, and their predators and prey. The truth of a thing? Beside the point.

A thought: Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. are Hollywood's two best fortysomething male stars. (Sean Penn gets mentioned for this sort of honor a lot, but he doesn't really "act" these days, does he? In the normally even-keel Clint Eastwood's most frenetic and frenzied film (that I've seen), Mystic River, Penn spews out his lines too much like tortured poetry. I couldn't take it.) If Depp is indeed to play the Riddler in the next Batman movie, I may actually have to see it—though it's bound to be even worse than the painfully mediocre Dark Knight.

Nolan's Batman films are not very interesting to me, though the embrace he's received from most onlookers suggests he's found his element, so maybe I should just shut my mouth. (The indie filmmakers who debuted in the 1990s have shown that their inexpensive calling cards deservedly land them what they've wanted to do deep down all along: make expensive, accessible pop art. Still, I'm inclined to think that veteran Sam Raimi is doing a better job than Nolan, Singer, et al.) The most interesting Batman scenes Nolan made were the first half-hour (ish) of Batman Begins, which I perversely enjoyed for its almost mistakenly open militaristic-fascistic inclinations. Of course then the film goes back into the safe, muddled waters of the spectacular mainstream, and its follow-up The Dark Knight hardly deviates from this lucrative comfort zone. ("Ambiguity" is the hoped-for interpretation plastered like a salve over the film's deliberately muddled status quo politics, methinks.)

(Speaking of Downey and of superhero films, I still have yet to see Iron Man...)

Back to The Ninth Gate—a good, basic, "termitish" movie. What's not to like? In the blockbuster age it is refreshing when a mainstream film (about rare book collections and the occult, no less) keeps its claims modest, makes no huge gestures by the end. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, suggests this is a fault. I don't think it is; I like these mainstream genre films that gently stir up huge questions but don't presume to provide summary philosophical answers. The film tickles you, but doesn't scratch the itch: you must look elsewhere, outside the film, to continue the thread. I watched this film years ago, and took another look at it (in about thirteen segments) on YouTube, where I've enjoyed watching several contemporary Hollywood movies over the last few weeks. (Call it a "new media research project" with a team of one.) There's a difference between the ambiguity of a film that is all over the place, over-reaching itself and its own sense of importance, and the ambiguity of a film that never presumes its own high value, that plays its hand close the chest.

5 comments:

edo choi said...

Speaking of watching films streaming, I finally got a chance to watch a certain James Gray film you've raved about on this site. I next need to see it on DVD or in a print, but that means Gray certainly has my enthusiasm. Thanks for the recommendation, Zach.

Kimberly said...

I often think that I'm the only person in the world who likes The Ninth Gate so I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

I have problems with Depps performance a little. I'm always waiting for him to dig deeper into his characters but he often seems to float a little too close to the surface. I still like him a lot though and I agree that he and Downey are two of the better actors working in Hollywood right now.

Campaspe said...

Excellent points. I love the observation about Penn in Mystic River -- you finally put a name to what nagged me about his performance.

But god did this line make me feel old, as someone who remembers Less Than Zero AND 21 Jump Street: "Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr. are Hollywood's two best fortysomething male stars." Crikey.

ZC said...

Edo, glad you liked it! Have you been able to see The Yards or Little Odessa?

Kimberly, it's reassuring on this end, too, to have another Ninth Gate devotee. There are more of us. We're just waiting another 10 years so that we can more properly write it up as a neglected minor gem. Depp does seem to shy away from "digging deeper" in a lot of his roles--but I like the element of opacity he tends to bring to his projects, it suits the offbeatness of Burton, et al. (and saves those pirate movies from aesthetic oblivion).

Campaspe, I would hate to make you feel old. But speaking of fortysomethings, I think I saw that today was Charlie Sheen's birthday and he is only 43! I felt like he's actually much older but I suppose it's just that he's been around so damn long.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about The Dark Knight. I thought the film's "politics" were muddled, intentionally so, which is why I thought every side of the political spectrum trying to make the definitive claims ("it's fascist!" "pro-Bush!" "anti-Bush!") on the film were wrong, because the film was hesistant to be anything - a serious fault. The film and its reaction reminds me of a certain candidate... trying to have it both ways.