Annual resolutions to be more accepting, more broad-minded, more in-touch, proved impossible to keep in the face of an entity like The Book of Eli, first film of the new year. And calculating the difference between The A‑Team and The Expendables, let alone between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, seems tantamount to calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What difference is the difference? Things have pretty well settled into a pattern in the past thirty years, no relief in sight. Star Wars, Superman, Halloween, Animal House, and away we went. Same old same old. To shuffle in some high-def video here, some 3‑D there, some computer animation elsewhere, looks unlikely to usher in a renaissance.
Wait’s over. My feeling at the movies of late has reminded me often of my feeling at Tower Records (but how I miss it now it’s gone!) when I would be trying to browse the DVDs, maybe buy some Brahms, and the speakers would be blasting some ghastly shrieking metal racket that would say to me: We don’t want you here, Pops. Bug off. Old Hollywood, it would not be mere nostalgia to recall, always strove to be inclusive. Not with every movie, but with the aggregate. These days I find myself asking after a movie — a gestating new critical criterion now aborted before its public debut — whether, if I were not a critic, I’d have gone to it, and whether, having gone, I was glad I went. The declining percentage of affirmative answers translates into a declining percentage of hope. So I find myself, behind the wheel in the well-worn groove to the AMC Mission Valley 20 to see the likes of Hot Tub Time Machine, feeling an awful fool. The foot wants to ease up on the gas pedal.
With the flow of foreign films down to a dribble, the legion of independent filmmakers keen to sell out, digital talking-heads documentaries a dime a dozen, I’m more and more inclined, induced, inspired, to pursue some solitary line of inquiry such as why Jason Robards in the role of Doc Holliday doesn’t in my eyes damage or diminish Hour of the Gun, doesn’t dislodge it as my preferred version of the Wyatt Earp legend despite the better Hollidays in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Tombstone. Why (or when) is it that such an apparent weakness doesn’t weaken? I could churn out a few hundred words on the topic, but not without consciousness of slipping into a state of solipsism.
Attractive alternatives are fewer and farther between. Appaloosa, a thickly disguised reworking of the Earp-Holliday tale, was a chewable bone thrown to us Western bitter-enders two years ago, but we would have to dig back five more years for another such bone, Open Range. A healthy movie industry ought to be hatching five of those every year, not one of those every five. It goes against my sense of the fitness of things. Could Hickey and Boggs or its equivalent come out today, a pair of marginal L.A. private eyes on a case that embodies E.M. Forster’s slogan of “only connect,” it would be by a mile the year’s peak pleasure. An inconceivability. The long and short of it is that what seems nowadays to fire up other people (3‑D, CGI, comic books, video games, Brangelina, the weekend box-office) seems unable to fire up me. That was always true to some extent, given the disparity between a casual interest and a vocational one. But the extent has yawningly widened.
No leave-taking would be quite proper without some paltry expression of gratitude to an understanding and uninterfering publisher who for reasons of his own, reasons unknown, left me pretty much unsupervised for pretty near the whole of my working life. I couldn’t have asked for less. Another such expression should go to any reader who ever sent back an encouraging word. It seems almost as if there were not so many of them that I couldn’t thank each of them by name. Almost. One encouraging word weighed more than a thousand discouraging, and went far to alleviate any feeling of futility and absurdity. I appreciated them all, and, self-motivated though I am or was, I needed them. I suppose in some way I needed the discouraging as well — the way the Red Sox need the Yankees — although I concede they were seldom so appreciated.
The timing is such that Harry Potter and the Twilight people will have to finish their respective courses without me. But that’s one of the benefits. I won’t be standing in line to find out how it all turns out. This is, for me, virgin territory. Up to now, and for a lot longer than thirty-eight years, my goal has been to go to as many movies as possible. First it was a habit, then a job, finally a slog. All of a sudden the goal requires adjustment. My romance with movies, if that’s what it was, has cooled. Hasn’t, heaven forbid, ended. And it will be interesting indeed to discover how often I am willing to fork over the price of a ticket, brave the cellphones and the iPods, endure the preludial advertisements, attempt to blend in with the crowds of kids, etc. We shall see. Correction: I shall see. Franchisewise, it is with somewhat greater regret that I’ll miss out on writing about the forthcoming chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia, but I’ll not miss out on seeing it (in 2‑D if given a choice). There will always be, would always have been, something.
More agonizingly, I won’t be sharing any thoughts on the new treatment of True Grit come Christmastime. It’s the Coen brothers. It’s a Western. How could I resist? Oh, I can resist, even if this would have at least afforded me an opportunity to voice my dismay at an edit in the Henry Hathaway original, which I not long ago watched again on TCM. When Rooster has recounted the anecdote of how he once chased off the remnants of a posse on his tail by rounding on them with his reins in his teeth and a gun in each hand, Little Mattie ought to respond, “That’s a big story,” meaning a bunch of hooey, and Rooster in turn ought to toss back words to the effect that, well, she can believe it or not, but that’s how it happened. A crucial exchange — missing from the Turner print (the official DVD also?) — to set up one of the glorious moments in John Wayne’s career, when right before Mattie’s bugging eyes the “one-eyed fat man” hauls out the same tactic against Lucky Ned Pepper and three confederates in the mountain meadow. But there. I’ve already taken the opportunity, and I’m highly dubious about any re‑do of True Grit (though it won’t be too hard for Matt Damon to improve on Glen Campbell), and the year-end glut never allows time to do justice to any movie anyway. And what I’d really rather do is to step into a time machine and re-see the original at the Orpheum theater in downtown Minneapolis in the summer of ’69. How did Tennyson put it? “So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.”
Enough said. ■