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Two Movies

The Green Mile and Magnolia

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 09, 2000.

Reviewing potential topics this morning, the tendency is to gloat over the Republican blood bath, or to furrow the brow and emote for the ages on air safety, or Russian foreign policy, or the French birth control pill. But, I wanna talk about movies. Okay, truth time. When was the last movie you saw you considered remotely original? Where you could not predict the ending, and who would bed who, and did not find yourself mouthing slightly ahead of the actors some snappy response, because they whole thing seemed to have been concocted by our collective unconscious and run through research groups.

When was the last movie you saw that you wanted to talk about right away, right after it was over and before you started to forget? For those my age, remember the first time you saw 2001, A Space Odyssey? How about X, the film about the Greek resistance to fascism? Okay, you name the movie. Not felt obligated to talk about it, but wanted to talk about it. In fact, had to before you burst.

I don't get to see many movies any more, so I have to say that my recent enthusiasms are quite possibly tainted by the fact that I'm easily impressed these days. But I don't think so, I'm pretty sure that my cynical outlook is intact. I've seen two flicks, both three hours long or more, and I was absolutely blown away with both of them, though for different reasons. The first is the Green Mile, which was impressive not because of the story line - which is fully in the manner of Aesop - but because of the quality of the acting (and David Morse ought to be mentioned) that elevated this good hearted fable about the penalties of meaning well feebly. It is, most of you know, a Stephen King work, the first movie of over which he held total control. The Green Mile is a fragile glass; one mediocre or even less than excellent performance would kill it utterly. So the first thing that held me was the quality of acting in a movie that really was an ensemble piece. But the other thing is that the pacing is the writer's, not the director's, not the studio's. It is reflective. It gives you time to contemplate what you have just seen in transition scenes. It ends about ten minutes too late, for Stephen King's melodramatic endings are anathema to me, but this fable on capital punishment and its moral sustain themselves. It was over three hours in the seat, and despite the shameful lack of naked women, I thought it much shorter. How many movies can you say that about? How many movies with Adam Sandler have you imagined were at least three hours?

Magnolia, the other movie, is far less popular, and shows signs of being an actual bomb despite the hype. Nonetheless, I thought it remarkable.

Supposedly inspired by the work of an unknown writer and friend of Theodore Dreiser named Charles Fort, Magnolia is probably more of a tribute by the director to the singer Aimee Mann, on whom he dotes rather too much on the website. Mann does much of the highly affecting and somewhat affected soundtrack.

Despite its three hours, Magnolia has no wasted moment, although some moments are less successful than others. Its preface is based on Internet urban legends that may, actually, be true. These are the benchmark that the writer sets for his own reality to follow. He uses Biblical equivalents for his conclusion. He has one scene that recalls Stephen Bochho's show about singing cops. It is a movie that could easily have erased in memory all of the bad movies ever made had the performances been less terrific, less dead on, less risky. There is no safe story line, they are all on the edge of believability, and again, a false step at any point could have sent it and the audience into hysterical giggles on the way out. There is an early murder that you forget about. There are people holding up signs that are clues to the action, children reciting new schoolyard poems, now called Rap, about the plot; then, there are those amphibians, but you either know about that or not.

Here are two movies that bring the pendulum back towards the screenwriter, who may or may not be the director, and away from the mentality of the studios, whether allegedly independent or not. Magnolia is a movie almost guaranteed to appeal to no demographic group outside suicide cults of percodan junkies, yet it deeply affects everyone who sees it: they either hate it straight through or find the sort of spiritual massage that happens too seldom to me anymore. I was actually thrilled - a word that does not trip lightly off of this tongue - that someone had the artistic guts to make this film, and I cannot speak too highly of it. Even its weaknesses worked for me. And I was really appreciative of the fact that no purposeless violence, which I hate, or purposeless sex, which I love, was slotted in to pull up what most producers and studios would consider dead air. These were movies that had the self confidence to feel they could successfully create a bizarre world and take the audience with them. I like that, I'm glad to see it, and although the Green Mile is a hit because in stars Tom Hanks, I hope Magnolia finds its audience. These are proof that long movies do not have to be Biblical or historical horrors, and that audiences do have attention spans longer than the wet dreams of fruit flies.

I hope they don't give Adam Sandler ideas.