that sinking feeling

after fifteen years of blissful ignorance, this week i wandered into my local theater to take part in the 3D extravaganza that is the re-release of james cameron's titanic (1997).

now, if you're a regular around here you know it's generally my editorial policy to not spend time talking about movies i don't like. it only really comes up during queue de grâce weeks when what i am watching isn't up to me. i don't do this for a living so i usually have the luxury of only focusing on things i am excited about and want to share and i like it that way. i only make this exception because my other filmgoing experiences this week stand in such stark contrast to cameron's film and illustrate what i find so great and perplexing about the movies.

leaving titanic sunday night, i wasn't feeling much. i didn't like it, but it didn't go much beyond that. i felt disdain for cameron but that's nothing new. i tried to find a way to judge it based on how well it achieved its own aims but i couldn't find very much to acquit it even then. the positives - i love gloria stuart. i have since 1932, figuratively, and it was nice to see her, leo's boyish charm was well-used, unlike almost every other role he's done in the last decade where he looks like a child playing dress up in daddy's overcoat, kate winslet was beautiful and her costumes were immaculate, and it looked expensive. i am not sure that that's an achievement, as it cost 200 million dollars to make, but you could see dollars on the screen. that's about it. walking out of the theater that's all i had - an impressive technical spectacle, perhaps, but little else. as the hours wore on, though, something else crept in. you could possibly chalk this up to only getting three hours of sleep between the movie and going in to work the next morning, but i began to feel worse. the more i thought about the movie, the more i felt, for lack of a better phrase, bereft of hope. alone.

and i can't even attribute that to the content or presentation of the film. like i said, it could have been sleep deprivation. it could have been low blood sugar. it could have simply been a long, dark night of the soul that coincidentally rammed into an existential iceberg. all i know is my mood took a drastic downturn and the catalyst for it seemed to be this movie. slowly but surely, though, everything else i watched this week filled the sick void that cameron left behind. the first thing i saw in the wake of this was michael r. roskam's excellent bullhead (2011).

ostensibly a crime film, it turns out to be something much more poignant. this belgian import begins as a tale about the hormone mafia in the corrupt cattle industry, but quickly reveals a damaged heart built on childhood trauma and the making of a human monster. the hulking brute at the center of the story is sensitive and intuitive, demonstrating instincts his criminal brethren don't possess and a desire for love that is impossible. ultimately, be it because of how he is perceived by others or the result of a life of steroid abuse, he is just too much of a blunt instrument to bridge the gap. the finale reverts to crime film structure, but even that is handled well, as the section is cleverly edited as if he were a literal human bomb. even though the character comes to an end that is inevitable, it was blessedly not obvious. raise a glass to movies in which you can't tell everything that's going to happen twenty minutes ahead of time. titanic could have been exclusively about the two radio operators on board, as much as it was telegraphed. i don't understand why people want to pay for the privilege of knowing everything that's going to happen. why bother? bless bullhead for reminding me that not every film is made with cookie cutters.

the next reinforcements arrived in the form of pjer žalica's fuse (2003).

this excellent dark comedy was part of the austin film society's essential cinema series focusing on films of southeastern europe. this latest program is our local offshoot of los angeles' SEEFest and the screenings on 5.15.12 and 5.22.12 will actually be hosted by that festival's curator, vera mijojlic. set in the years just following the peace accord between bosnia and serbia, it follows the efforts of a small bosnian town to prepare for a visit from bill clinton. tensions between the bosnians and their neighbor serbs, with whom they are forced to put on their best cooperative faces, are never far from the surface. the gift of this film that titanic didn't come within twenty thousand leagues of? subtext. we americans are, fortunately, 150 years down the road from our experience with civil war. as with any subject that far in the dear, dim past, its impact is lessened, its history romanticized. when you have bosnians and serbs appearing together in a political film dealing, even peripherally, with their conflict, the screen almost cannot contain the subtext. filmed just a few years after they were literally committing atrocities against one another, the things unsaid between the characters and the actors portraying them are nearly overwhelming. i am afraid, without such grievous wounds so fresh in our collective memory that we cannot completely comprehend everything this film has to offer. we can certainly give it our best, though. it was a complex and entertaining reminder that we, the audience, have an equal responsibility to rise to the occasion when filmmakers put everything of themselves on the screen for our benefit. it's a mutually rewarding experience. give me something i can dig this deeply into and that offers me something new to think about every time i consider it. it was the antithesis to cameron's blockbuster, in which the only thing below the surface was leo in the final reel.

finally, we go tragic for tragic with werner herzog's complicated rumination on the death penalty, into the abyss (2011).

much like everything herzog does, it is not your garden variety examination of the subject. instead of overtly politicizing the already volatile subject matter, he instead traces the course of pain reverberating outward from a triple homicide in conroe, texas. his approach succeeds where titanic absolutely fails - putting an honest, identifiable human face on extraordinary tragedy. as just one example, when lisa stotler-balloun, whose mother and brother were two of the three victims, recounts how her family was essentially wiped out over the course of six years it is heartbreaking. relating the simple detail of how she got rid of every telephone she owned because she couldn't take another call that was bad news was better than anything james cameron is capable of writing. titanic's dialogue was written on a level just above catchphrase, obvious and clumsy, truly terrible. the performances weren't much better. by pointing his camera at regular people and giving them room to tell their stories, herzog captured ten times the emotion and a raw honesty that cameron can only dream of. it's truly a shame, because the story of that ill-fated ship is fascinating and rife with potential but when you dilute your story to the point that it's geared to appeal to the largest number of people as possible what you are left with is so bland and dumb as to be embarrassing. confident storytellers offer something unique. if it's done well the audience finds themselves in it, rather than having everything spelled out. i am grateful for an artist that has enough faith in himself that he refuses to pander and enough faith in his audience that he sees no need in making his message remedial.

it was insisted to me that i would like titanic. all i can figure is that somehow, inexplicably, my friends still don't understand what i go to the movies for. i don't go to waste my time on the obvious. i don't go to just "turn it off" and kill a couple of hours being mindlessly entertained. i don't buy the myth that thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. it may have hit all the right beats and functioned just like a blockbuster is supposed to but why do you want that if it offers you nothing beyond expensive clockwork? i know i don't. i don't find obvious inspiring. as bad as cameron's extravaganza made me feel, though, my week was saved by artists doing complicated, challenging, entertaining work.

no thanks to titanic, my heart will go on.

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