Quick takes

Maybe it’s the 100-degree heat, but I’ve been feeling somewhat logy and disinclined to do much of anything lately; it also may be that my so-called chronological film-viewing project has now been going on for six-ish months, and I’m ready to move on to some new material.  This week I surveyed several films from the early ’90s, none of which I had seen before, as is the general rule governing the chronological project.  But none of them left me anxious to rush off and write something about them.  So here’s my attempt to cover three films in three (somewhat long) sentences.

I decided to watch Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992) mainly because of its huge, if mostly regrettable, cultural impact on 1990s film and late-night cable TV, it having virtually apotheosized the “erotic thriller” (with which genre Michael Douglas will forever be associated), but while it’s nearly always interesting to look at films like this as cultural artifacts that still wasn’t enough to make me enjoy actually watching it, because this is a really, really dumb film, and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s acting alone is enough to make me want to drive an ice pick autoerotically into my skull.  

A radical switching of gears: I’m sorry to report that, while highly praised, The Scent of Green Papaya (dir. Tran Anh Hung, 1993) struck me as a cliché of a foreign film, with its delicate, measured camerawork, conventionally poetic imagery (shots of flowers and fruit and such), attempts at whimsy (look! a cute little boy farting! etc.), and familiar story (“a young girl’s journey to womanhood…”)—the kind of middlebrow fare that appeals to people who like movies, especially foreign films, to be “nice,” which is to say pretty to look at and vaguely culturally edifying and generally non-threatening. 

After these two disappointments, Quiz Show (dir. Robert Redford, 1994) arrived as a kind of miracle—that rare type of “mainstream” Hollywood film that manages to be both smart and great fun to watch; that deals entertainingly with ideas; that avoids the common problems (mannerism, romanticism) of the “period piece”; and that sports some truly fine acting, esp. by Paul Scofield and Ralph Fiennes (that accent aside) and David Paymer and, well, really everyone, so that even when the film gets a bit somber and important at the very end you feel like you’ve actually seen something made by an unusually high number of people who all knew exactly what they were doing.    

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