Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Cutting Edge of Yesteryear=Old News?

In the past twenty-four hours, I saw two movies: My Dinner with Andre and Suspicion. Normally, when I see two movies (or, really, experience two of any kind of artistic expression) in a short period of time, both necessarily inform the way I experience, remember, and think about the other. I find similarities between them, see similar influences, and come up with ideas relating to one that I never would have thought of had it not been for my recent viewing of the other. It's an amazing process and it's a great way to experience art in general; it unlocks all sorts of possibilities and trains of thought, it can renew your appreciation for something old and familiar, and, most importantly, it reveals the beautiful web of influences and homages connecting everything in the whole world of art. Sadly, this did not happen for me when I watched these two movies.

Which is not to say that I didn't like them. In fact, I really liked both of them, but, let's face it, they're almost exact opposites. Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre is a postmodern masterpiece about the intersection of art and life as is literally discussed by two actors playing themselves over the course of an extended dinner scene, while Suspicion is a Hitchcock film about a woman who thinks her husband might be trying to kill her. The one obvious similarity between these two movies is that - as is the case in any great movie - the joy in watching is not in seeing what happens, but in seeing how it happens.

In My Dinner with Andre, nothing happens, in any real sense of the word; two friends meet for dinner at a New York restaurant and they talk and talk and talk until the restaurant closes. That's the movie. In Suspicion, on the other hand, plenty happens, but, as is the case with most Hitchcock films, there's little in the way of surprise. Many of the tropes of the suspense genre that he pioneered have since become hackneyed and cliché, making his films seem overwhelmingly predictable to a modern audience (in almost every Hitchcock film, the killer turns out to be the first suspicious character to have the bad luck to wander in front of the camera).

As annoying as Andre's apparent inactivity and Suspicion's predictability may seem, they do have the pleasant side effect of allowing for - and, in fact, encouraging - a different kind of appreciation for these films. The viewers of these two movies have the distinct pleasure of focusing on the narrative and visual methods employed by these two great directors to get us from point A to point B. I admire Malle for his use of bare-bones camera work in conjunction with a subtly pervasive production design, both of which draw the viewer deeper and deeper into Wally and Andre's conversation, inviting him/her to participate by pondering the very questions that the two characters are discussing. Hitchcock, on the other hand, has a wonderful hand for omenous foreshadowing that has since been imitated to death, but never quite properly reproduced.

Malle and Hitchcock were both pioneers of cinematic style in their own way. My Dinner with Andre had the daring to break the fourth wall, not by having the fictional characters speak directly to the camera, but by fictionalizing real people - Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play themselves, wrote their own dialogue, and discuss events from their actual "real life" lives throughout the movie - thereby blurring the line between art and reality and possibly paving the way for the contemporary phenomenon of reality TV. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was a veritable trailblazer for suspense movies; he practically invented the genre.

The question, then, is not whether these two movies (and their auteur directors) were influential, but whether they have aged well and are still relevant to the modern viewer. In the case of My Dinner with Andre, the answer is a triumphant yes. The topics discussed by this movie - specifically the question of whether there is more truth in life or in art - are still pertinent today and the form in which they are presented is still stunning and impressive. Sadly for Hitchcock, the answer is less enthusiastic. The answer is still yes - Hitchcock still has a lot to offer in areas like camerawork (specifically in films like Rear Window) - but my appreciation of his work has taken on a certain element of irony. Perhaps it's because he was working in what is to me a more distant time than Louis Malle was, thus making his latent misogyny and occasionally melodramatic staging seem more campy than anything else. Even when allowing for the passage of time and the shifting of cultural mores, I think Malle and My Dinner with Andre are the clear winners; the style and content of this film really transcend time and space and, barring a major shift in Western culture, will continue to touch the core of what it means to be happy and successful in society.

Perhaps this comparison isn't fair. In fact, I know it isn't. These two movies are from two different times and two different genres and it doesn't seem to me that Hitchcock had anywhere near the same ambitions with Suspicion that Malle did with My Dinner with Andre. All the same, they exist in the same canon and it's only natural for comparisons to be made.


Blogger Quimby said...

Dude, I love ya, but even by the end of your musings you fail to establish any reason for placing these two movies in the same review except for the fact that they're both kind of old and you happened to watch them on the same day.

That being said, you made me think about my most recent double features (i use the term, as you suggest, liberally): last week, I saw "You and Me and Everyone we Know" and then "Mysterious Skin" (a movie about homosexual molestation); and just two days ago I saw "Wedding Crashers" and then went to an exhibit of Irving Penn's photographs at the National Gallery of Art. I haven't really given much thought to how those pairs may have informed one another--probably for the better.


July 26, 2005 6:57 PM  

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