The dim month after the year-end Oscar drive — Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Bride Wars, The Unborn, Notorious, My Bloody Valentine, Inkheart, Outlander, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, et al. — looked to be brightened by the revival of François Truffaut’s Wild Child at the Ken Cinema beginning January 30. It has been many, many moons since Landmark has put on a revival to rival it, and in truth the theater chain over the past year has cut back on revivals at any level of competition. Unhappily, word came down that there would be no press screening of it, and I hardly feel equipped to write at length about a film I haven’t seen in decades. I could have had a DVD screener of it, thanks very much, but then again I could have watched it on video and written about it at any time I pleased in the last umpteen years. It pleases me instead to see it in a theater. The best I can do for now is to offer the sort of superficial introductory remarks in which Robert Osborne traffics before prime-time presentations on Turner Classic Movies. Picture me in silk tie and creaseless suit, with mouth slightly agape.
Here are a couple of things to be aware of when watching it. The first is that Truffaut — aficionados kindly pardon my ABC’s — launched his filmmaking career with The 400 Blows, and even before it with the short film The Mischief Makers, as something of a champion of anarchic youth, the spiritual heir of Jean Vigo. And as a leading figure in the first swell of the New Wave, not to mention previously as a firebrand critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, he stood for the New Way: anti-Establishment, independent, unconventional, iconoclastic, insurrectionist (albeit apolitical), young and reckless and free. His films, to be sure, had already blended into the commercial mainstream prior to the end of the Sixties — The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid — but that’s just life. The compromise, the irony, the joke of life.
The second thing to keep in mind is May ’68. I won’t insult you, nor embarrass myself, by explaining what that was and what it meant, beyond saying for purposes of clarity that the spirit of revolution, sans guillotines, had once again reached the streets of Paris, and especially the students of Paris. See, if need be, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers for reference. Or think Kent State ’70 multiplied exponentially. It was against that backdrop that Truffaut cast himself (a starchy nonactor) in the role of a doctor in the age of the French Revolution, who took upon himself the taming, civilizing, acculturating of the titular and emblematic wild child, the unmythical Mowgli, the nature boy, the fledgling noble savage. Never mind its intrinsic merits, although these would put it in the running for the finest film ever made about the loftiest subject: education. The thought I wanted to convey is simply that this going against the grain — this bucking of the trend — this flying in the face of fashion — to say nothing of this personal reversal of field — is quite extraordinary, quite valorous, quite quixotic, and not quite what we came to expect of the ingratiating Monsieur Truffaut. In a black-and-white period film of nearly forty years ago, that might not be as apparent today as it was at the time. And now, let’s roll film....
Meanwhile, readers of the Reader, by which I mean readers of the tangible tabloid-sized paper named the Reader, will have been unaware of the online appendix to my 2008 wrap-up, in specific the extended volley between two loggers-on whose handles, or usernames, or whatever, are “joshb” and “johnrubio.” I realize that it has become the custom for a writer in my position to wade into the middle of such an exchange and trade blows. Three things deterred me. First, I make it a point of honor never to write anything for free. Even an obligatory thank-you note must be construed in my mind as completion of a contract for goods or services rendered. Second, my mental concept of the paper still seems limited exclusively to what’s printed on actual paper, and my sense of the glamour and romance of the profession runs instantaneously out of oxygen in cyberspace. No doubt embryonic or larval journalists in the 21st Century dream one day of writing for a website when they grow up. I was born too soon. And third, “johnrubio” ably represented my interests, as he has done in the past, without need of my intervention.
All the same, now that I am again scrabbling for filthy lucre, I might belatedly inject a few points that won’t be completely incomprehensible to anyone who failed to wander into the crossfire. First point: the one area where I would have tightened the rein on “johnrubio” is his contention that I go to movies in search of masterpieces. I grant that “masterpiece” is in my vocabulary as well as in my faintest hopes, and furthermore I bitterly lament the devaluation of the word “great” in critical discourse. Great Books of the Western World were never meant to accommodate the works of Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly, and even though it was one of my top picks of the year, The Promotion is not by a long shot, “joshb” to the contrary, “a great film.” (Wild Child, Truffaut’s masterpiece, could be called great. Though I should probably see it again before committing to it.) As a general rule I am well content to settle for nothing more at the movies than a good time, just as long as I don’t, for publication, have to trump it up into a great time. What constitutes a good time is of course no less open to dispute.
Second point: I must lodge a small protest at the distortion of my opinion on the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, which I deliberately did not mention by name and which I did not intend to include in the discussion. In context, I reckoned it should be clear that I “wasted my time” at it only in the sense that it delayed the time when I would get around to the unanticipated delights of The Promotion. Obviously, I chose to see Bigger, Stronger, Faster first because I initially had more interest in it, and anyone who had bothered to check the website for my capsule review of it could have discovered that I considered it a respectable little documentary.
Third point: my snap diagnosis of what ails “joshb” is the common misapprehension — other sufferers will have their own individualized versions of it — that the job of a film critic is to express the views of “joshb.” More broadly, he believes that the job of a film critic is to be right, and that no one knows what’s right better than “joshb.” Thus, a good deal of his argument runs along the lines of so-and-so says such-and-such is A, but it’s not A, it’s A-minus. To which the most appropriate response seems to be, “Sez you!” A critic has his hands full just trying to figure out what he himself thinks. He can’t expend a lot of energy trying to placate every taste. As for the sensitivities of his readers: well, anyone who takes personal affront at an opposing opinion really isn’t ready for grown-up conversation. For certain, matters of taste are “personal,” and differences of it may be taken personally. If, for example, you’re on a first date and your tablemate confides that his or her all-time favorite film is There’s Something about Mary, you then have a useful indicator of your future together. But nothing will be served by throwing your chardonnay in his or her face. Such a clash of personalities on the page ought to be so much easier, so much less awkward, than across a restaurant table. Set the offender aside, remove yourself, don’t come back. You needn’t even wait around for the check.
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The Oscar nominations.... Oh, dear. Button, Slumdog, Button, Button, Button, Slumdog, Button, Slumdog, Button, Button, Slumdog, Button, Slumdog, Slumdog, Button, Slumdog, Slumdog, Slumdog, Button, Button, Slumdog, Button, Button. And that’s that. With Sally Hawkins shut out of the Best Actress derby (and less startlingly, Clint Eastwood out of the Best Actor), I have nothing to root for and no new reason to give the awards credence. I saw Hawkins’s excessive display of emotion at the Golden Globe podium as a measure not of how seriously she took the award — God knows it’s next to worthless — but of how seriously she took the work. Young though she is, she must have had an inkling that Happy-Go-Lucky was a once-in-a-lifetime role, whether or not she had an inkling it wouldn’t even carry her through to Oscar night. I can feel relieved that her exclusion at least eliminated the possibility of her spontaneous combustion on stage.
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Festival season opens this weekend with the sixth annual San Diego Black Film Festival, formerly the Noir Film Festival, January 29 through February 1 at the Regal Horton Plaza. You can view the full schedule, heavy on shorts and documentaries, at sdbff.com. And next week kicks off the nineteenth annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival, a nice balance of documentary and fiction, February 4 through 15, at the AMC La Jolla for the most part, and at the UltraStar Mission Valley, the Reading Carmel Mountain, and the Jewish Community Center Garfield Theatre for other parts. Go to lfjcc.org/sdjff to see what’s where, when.