The Good, the Bad, and the God-awful
What precedent, if any, exists for movie directors making public apologies for their work? Vincent Gallo was rumored to have done just that at Cannes this year, in the wake of his contentious The Brown Bunny, before a precise transcript of the interview in question proved otherwise. And long before Gallo, there was D.W. Griffith, who fashioned Intolerance as a kind of amends for the racist attitudes in Birth of a Nation. But has any director come right out held a news conference, for example to plead for public forgiveness, to seek absolution from those moviegoers unlucky enough to have surrendered two hours of their lives to his or her unfortunate opus? If not, is there any reason why Martin Brest, in light of his abominable Gigli, shouldnt start such a trend?
By the time I got around to Gigli, in the second weekend of its release, the cinemas showing the film had already turned into cold, forbidding, empty places. Not that they had been significantly cheerier locales the weekend before, when Gigli had eked out a mere $3.8 million gross from some 2,000 nationwide engagements. Long before this pairing of the pop-culture icons known as Ben and Jen finally appeared, the word was on the street: Gigli was DOA. Yet, despite the ushers insistence that many Gigli showings had played to completely empty auditoriums all week, there was a scattering of curiosity seekers at this particular Sunday-afternoon show connoisseurs of displeasure, clearly come to examine the smoldering wreckage, to see for themselves if Gigli really was, in the words of The Wall Street Journals Joe Morgenstern, the worst movie of our admittedly young century.
Much as Id like to report otherwise to proclaim that Giglis vitriolic dismissal was a case of mass critical delusion on the order of Heavens Gate Im afraid that, at least this once, everything youve heard isnt just true, its too kind. Gigli isnt merely bad or terrible; its horrifying. What makes the movie a special case (and worth discussing, even now) is that its the kind of gigantic, tremulous failure like Barry Levinsons Toys or Lawrence Kasdans Dreamcatcher, only much worse that only very talented people with lots of unchecked creative freedom can end up being responsible for. Its not stultifying in the way of, say, last summers debacle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, or unintentionally self-parodic like Battlefield Earth. No, Giglis cataclysmic badness the screechingly overwritten dialogue; the use of lesbianism and mental retardation as metaphors for free-spiritedness; the lunatic scene where J. Los ex-girlfriend bursts in out of the blue and promptly slits open both her wrists stems from the movies labored desire to be quirky and unexpected at every turn, to dazzle us with its originality. And by the time a frazzled Al Pacino shows up, delivering an indecipherable, seemingly improvised monologue before splattering one characters brains all across a giant fish tank, youve traded wondering What were they thinking? for What am I thinking? as the movie before you begins to resemble nothing so much as an unsubtitled foreign-language film. Gigli may be the best record we have of a filmmaker experiencing a full creative breakdown in the course of shooting a movie.
Of course, once movies get under way theres rarely any stopping them; they cant be tucked away in drawers like unfinished novels or thrown out and begun anew like unwanted canvases. And even when they nose-dive as spectacularly as Gigli, they no longer disappear quietly into the night, for there are video and cable and DVD to keep them coming back, to gift even the worst of films with immortality. (Which means that while Gigli may be, at present, something more rumored than known, it will not remain so for long.) And we must also consider the possibility that Gigli is, in fact, the movie Brest wanted to make, given that he is the sole credited writer on the project, is one of only two credited producers and had final cut over its assembly.
Which brings us back to the question of an apology. Twice before, Brest has removed his name from his own movies from the heavily recut (mostly for length) television versions of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black in favor of the pseudonym Alan Smithee (since retired by the DGA). Will the same hold true for Gigli? Will the inevitable DVD, with the inevitable directors audio commentary, serve as Brests mea culpa or merely his self-defense? Or will he snap to his senses before then and have the movie permanently withdrawn from circulation?
Truffles, Peter Mayle tells us in his wonderful memoir A Year in Provence, grow a few centimeters beneath the ground, on the roots of certain oak trees, and are best obtained between the months of November and March, using a scent-trained animal (dogs are preferred to pigs) as your guide. No finer analogy to the practice of film criticism do I know, particularly in that off-season of summer, when truffles are so much less plentiful than the manure one must plow ones nose through in order to find them. (Can it be mere coincidence that perhaps the funniest scene in perhaps the summers funniest film, American Wedding, brings together these two worlds: truffle and shit?)
Upon reflection, Gigli seems one of the few honestly received ventures in a summer where many movies got less than they deserved in terms of either money (Terminator 3) or acclaim (American Wedding, The Matrix Reloaded), or both (Hollywood Homicide) and a few (X2, Bruce Almighty, Pirates of the Caribbean) got inappropriately generous helpings of just about everything. As usual, the seasons better offerings 28 Days Later, Man on the Train, Capturing the Friedmans et al. were indies and imports that flew well below the media radar, counterprogramming pitched at viewers fatigued by the studios bloated-budget fare. Similarly, the best of the blockbusters werent so much genuine delicacies as shake-and-bake ventures keen on satisfying their core fan bases and few others. They were, in short, movies with precious few aspirations to art and, least of all, respectability whereas respectability and artistic pretension, at the expense of anything resembling wit, energy or imagination, were part and parcel of X2 and Pirates.
How fortunate, though, that we now have the August 16 issue of Entertainment Weekly the common mans Variety to set the record straight, to inform us, in a cover story written by hands other than those of the magazines regular critics, that not only was Pirates of the Caribbean (a sure-fire hit that even a 3-year-old could have spotted from miles away) the summers surprise smash, but that X2 is arguably the greatest superhero movie ever. (And perhaps it is, if the only other superhero movie youve seen is Ang Lees Hulk.) Even more noteworthy, that same issue of EW contains not one but two reader letters (imagine how many were actually received!) chastising one of the magazines real critics, Lisa Schwarzbaum, for her mixed review of Pirates, which she awarded a grade of C. What in the heck is going on with your movie reviews? queries Lyn Jameyson of Grand Rapids, Michigan, before going on to explain that he/she fully expected the film to receive a well-deserved A- or B+. Well, Id like to take this moment to respond to Mr./Ms. Jameyson on Ms. Schwarzbaums behalf, by saying simply this: When such praise is not only expected but given to such movies and indeed, both Pirates and X2 received their share of raves that may be the moment when critics and moviegoers have begun to collectively engineer the downfall of cinema, like the humans who inadvertently give rise to the deadly machines of the Terminator films. Or it may just be an indication that Martin Brest neednt worry about where his next meal is coming from after all.
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