Of Thee I Sing (On the Waterfront)

I’ve thought of another question that a reviewer always asks herself in the claustrophobic darkness of a screening room, unseduced by trailers or Junior Mints or luxuriantly large screens. The question has echoed in my ears since the United States signed on for another four years of plundering, imbecility, and the general decline of the American Empire — since John Kerry ceded the election to George II. The question is: why bother?

This is not an existentialist rant about the point of film or film criticism when the country is going to hell in a handheld flasket. It’s just that there are certain films and certain days that make me wonder why the filmmaker bothered, why the distributor bothered, why I bothered. There are days when the impetus for a particular film seems cynical or sophomoric or just plain off. And days when even the best movie offers scant comfort once you return, blinking, to the relentless light of reality.

As much as I admire Anthony Lane’s agility and wit — his are the only reviews I cannot read while I’m drinking hot liquids lest I snort through my nose — I don’t aspire to his level of critical ennui. It is clear he’s come to loathe most contemporary films. In his pieces he mostly dwells on the physical attributes of featured actors, and, like the snickering boy in the back of the classroom, he concocts elaborate jokes that only tangentially relate to the movies themselves. Lane singlehandedly has set an unfortunate new bar for cinematic criticism: irreverent and, well, irrelevant.

But I still write because I love movies and because I think they help the human condition. I’m still desperately glad there’s an excuse to creep back into the womb — especially when there’s so much to creep away from. It’s just that a pall has fallen since November 2, and the screening room has not provided the succor I seek.

Today waiting for a film to begin, I overheard two fairly famous critics (who shall remain unnamed) hold an exchange that resonated with me uncomfortably:

Critic John Doe: Do you know how long this movie lasts?

Critic Joe Blow: I don’t know. God, I hope it’s not long.

Critic John Doe (glumly): I know.

Schoolhouse rumblings or elite media discourse? Potato, potawto.

That said, if you reside in New York City, go see the 50th anniversary re-release of working-class hero On the Waterfront at Film Forum. It’ll cure what ails you, albeit for two hours. Karl Malden as an activist priest is hokier than a hooker with a heart of gold; Lenny Bernstein’s score sometimes intrudes rather than interludes; and the happy ending in which the dockworkers unite to oust the mobsters rings about as true as Bush’s election promises. But it’s a rousing ending, nonetheless, and, hell, ain’t grand, rousing endings why we go to the movies? For those, yes, and for such elusive, gorgeously suspended moments as when Brando absentmindedly tries on the delicate woolen glove of the girl (Eva Marie Saint) he’s chatting up on an overcast, wintry day.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy