Film: The Old-Fashioned Way

Big-budget studio movies, like the Clinton administration, are monsters of majority rule. Concocted by committee, they are painstakingly engineered to appeal to the largest possible number of potential viewers, a goal that necessarily precludes such superfluous adornments as wit, eccentricity or a strongly individual point of view; for the same reason, anything that might tend to contradict the conventional wisdom of Americans under the age of thirty is ruthlessly excluded. Such films are marvelously precise barometers of current cultural attitudes, but are rarely fun to watch, at least for anyone with a brain in his head.

The market giveth and the market taketh away, however, and though it is undoubtedly the fate of the big-budget movie to get dumber and dumber (that being how markets work), an alternative has begun to emerge (that, too, being how markets work). In recent years, the actual cost of filming a no-nonsense, no-effect movie has plummeted. If you know what you’re doing, you can shoot one for peanuts, and hundreds of bright young filmmakers are now doing just that, underwriting their activities with credit-card advances and loans from family and friends. Some of these independently produced films eventually find major-studio distribution, and a few become modest hits; even those that fail to pique the interest of Hollywood are finding favor among disaffected moviegoers who long for more challenging fare than Armageddon, and because they cost so little to film, it’s possible for their makers to stay afloat and live to shoot another day.

To be sure, most of today’s “indie flicks” are politically correct and fashionably self-indulgent—the cinematic equivalent of the I-slept-with-Daddy memoir—and should be avoided at all costs. But I’m struck by the increasing frequency with which the better independent filmmakers are turning to a genre currently held in disdain by the major studios: the light romantic comedy. Time was when such films were the stock in trade of Hollywood and many of them were very good indeed. Lately, though, the form has all but died out, killed off by the determinedly unromantic attitudes of today’s twenty-somethings and the tiresome desire of their older brothers and sisters to have their say about what they insist on calling “issues.” (As Good as It Gets, a particularly vexing example of the latter tendency, was a sermonette about tolerance ineptly disguised as a romantic comedy.)

Yet a quick trip to the neighborhood art house, or an afternoon with the Sundance Channel, reveals that film romance is far from dead: It’s just gone underground. Neither does Whit Stillman, the reigning genius of the indie flick, have a monopoly on the light touch. More than a few of the independent films I’ve liked best—Doug Liman’s Swingers and Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl come immediately to mind—have been intelligent, issue-free romantic comedies in which the eternal verities were deftly translated into contemporary terms. So, too, is Brad Anderson’s Next Stop Wonderland, an irresistibly charming movie about young love that I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone interested in dipping a toe into the semi-subterranean world of independent filmmaking.

Shot on location in Boston, Next Stop Wonderland is one of those movies (Sleepless in Seattle is the best-known example) in which the protagonists don’t actually meet until the last scene, at which moment they fall instantaneously and irreversibly in love. Erin (Hope Davis) is a night nurse who, dumped by her long-time live-in boyfriend, plunges into the urban dating scene, discovering in the process that a good man is hard to find. Though we realize early on that Alan (Alan Gelfant), a plumber who is studying to become a marine biologist, is her dream lover, the two never quite contrive to be in the same place at the same time, though they come tantalizingly close. Instead, they start dating the wrong people and very nearly settle for second best; fortunately, love conquers all in the nick of time and Erin and Alan end up walking hand in hand on a deserted beach as the credits roll.

Described as baldly as this, Next Stop Wonderland sounds like purest cliché. But all cliches are true (that’s why they’re cliches) and Anderson proves himself to be a master of the small touches that make old truths shine anew. Erin’s ex-boyfriend, for instance, is a radical activist who gives her the push by handing her a videotape in which he enumerates her various deficiencies, simultaneously saddling her with a cat named Fidel; the breakup, which occurs at the very beginning of the movie, is written and played with sly perfection, but it’s the name of the cat that puts exactly the right spin on the scene. No less fetching is Claudio Ragazzi’s score, which consists mainly of bossanova recordings from the ’50s and ’60s. Yes, we’ve been here before—many times—but good music is good no matter how often you’ve heard it, and the airy sweetness of Joao and Astrud Gilberto adds immeasurably to the film’s overall effect.

To be sure, Next Stop Wonderland wouldn’t make nearly as strong an impression were it not for the indelible presence of Hope Davis. Indie-flick connoisseurs will remember her as the wronged wife of Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers, and she is just as good in the role of Erin. “You are sad and happy,” a Brazilian suitor assures her at one point. “You do not smile, but you are content.” Surely those lines were written with Davis in mind; her striking face, not quite beautiful but definitely not plain, glows with a gentle melancholy that leaves you wanting to tell her a really good joke. If the definition of a star is someone to whom your eyes automatically go in a crowded room, then Hope Davis is clearly destined for stardom.

But Anderson’s dryly funny script, written in collaboration with Lyn Vaus, is more than just a showcase for a delightful actress: It is also a singularly timely defense of the transfiguring power of romance. It is, I suspect, not coincidental that Next Stop Wonderland contains no nudity and no sex scenes, an unusual omission for a film about dating in the ’90s. The point, I assume, is that Erin knows that sex without love is meaningless and degrading, a notion so radically heterodox that only an independent director could get away with putting it in a movie. Therein lies the significance of Next Stop Wonderland. You don’t have to spend much time talking to Gen X women to get a feel for the havoc wrought in their lives by the sexual revolution, which purported to put them on equal terms with men but in fact has stripped away the mystery that makes romantic love possible. Simply by taking romance seriously (for there is nothing more serious than comedy), Brad Anderson has arrayed himself unequivocally on the side of the angels.

Darren Aronofsky’s π brings an equally unexpected perspective to an even less likely genre: It is a film noir about the religious implications of higher mathematics. Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who is just right) is an ambitious young number theorist whose research has led him to conclude that the recurring numerical patterns found in nature prove the universe to be orderly and meaningful. Not surprisingly, he suffers from crippling migraines and a galloping case of paranoia, the latter exacerbated by a group of Wall Street thugs who want to use his equations to predict the rise and fall of the stock market; things grow even stickier when his work comes to the attention of a community of Hasidic Jews whose leader believes that Max has discovered a 216 digit-long sequence of numbers that will allow them to decode the cabalistic secrets of the Torah. Trapped in the vortex of his own imagination, Max resorts to a spectacular act of self-mutilation in order to free himself from the oppressive knowledge that is about to destroy him.

π is so utterly self-assured that one can scarcely believe it’s Aronofsky’s first movie, much less that he shot it for $60,000. The twitchy black-and-white cinematography is a near-ideal visual equivalent to Max’s paranoia (few movies have captured New York’s grubby side more vividly), and Clint Mansell’s electronic score vastly enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere. But it’s Aronofsky’s script that makes π work. Not only does he succeed in bringing a highly intellectual concept to pulsing dramatic life, he also invests it with rich spiritual implications. I don’t know what Aronofsky had in mind when he made π, but it’s hard to interpret it as anything other than a drama about heresy—specifically, the Cartesian belief that ultimate knowledge can be attained through exclusively rational methods of inquiry—and its withering effects on the soul.

I saw π not long after reading “Making Sense of Science,” a special issue of The American Enterprise in which an impressive array of conservative thinkers held forth eloquently on such matters as the coming reconciliation of science and religion, a topic that is currently all the rage on the right. I wouldn’t dream of discouraging such talk, but I strongly recommend that anyone who believes that scientists can think their way to heaven make a special point of seeing π. For the interesting thing about Max Cohen is that his relentless quest for the absolute is unaccompanied by any spiritual consciousness whatsoever: It is, rather, a pure act of curiosity. “When I was a little kid,” he recalls, “my mother told me not to stare at the sun. So I did.” As an adult, he continues to stare at the sun, and in the process eventually catches a fleeting glimpse of truth so dazzling that it strikes him blind. Some truths, it turns out, are meant to be seen only through a glass, darkly.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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