The Movie Audience with the Mind

"Long live the consciousness of the pure who can see and hear!"
That statement by pioneer Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov kept reverberating in my brain after my prime movie experience this year -- watching his silent extravaganza, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), with a score performed live by the astonishing three-man Alloy Orchestra at the 1500-seat Castro movie palace in San Francisco. The sold-out house handed it a five-minute standing ovation that would have gone on longer if the staff hadn't needed to clear the theater.

Attending The Man with the Movie Camera with a crowd alive to every nuance reminded me of how electric it can be when a huge audience -- not a clique or a cult or a coterie -- connects with something worth appreciating. Vertov's chef-d'oeuvre isn't merely a celebration of the joy of movement and the gift of sight. With unbounded optimism, he salutes the variety of everyday urban life. Setting his prototype cameraman loose to chronicle an unnamed Soviet city from dawn to dusk, and without any narrative, he wrings lyricism from the commotion in the street and the trolley yard and comedy from newfangled exercise devices and a bureau that handles both divorce and marriage. His protean style deploys every device from split and superimposed images to pixilation and freeze-frames.

Every now and then, you need a Man with the Movie Camera to remind you of the basic reasons any sane person watches movies: the promise of open-minded, eye-filling explorations of an infinite variety of subject matter; unjaded delight in technique; the revelation of hidden pleasures in milieus you thought you knew from your own experience; and the chance to discover something fresh and to do it with viewers who are lifted beyond schisms of race or class or gender.

"On the movie-house habitue," Vertov once wrote, "the ordinary fiction film acts like a cigarette on a smoker. Intoxicated by the cine-nicotine, the spectator sucks from the screen the substance that soothes his nerves. A cine-object made with the materials of newsreel largely sobers him up, and gives him the impression of a disagreeable antidote to the poison."

Had Vertov been able to attend American art theaters in the Nineties and had he seen the reverence accorded to dogs such as Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, he might have been moved to stand up and proclaim (as he did in a 1924 journal): "We are carrying the battle against art cinema, and it is hurled back at us a hundredfold!" When art-house audiences continue to confer respect on chic, snickery art things such as the Coen brothers' Fargo, you may echo Vertov's demand for "conscious people, not an unconscious mass, ready to yield to any suggestion!" If they weep through flabby religious exotica such as Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves and applaud the heavenly church bells of the ending, youou might want to take up Vertov's slogan "Down with the scented veil of kisses, murders, doves, and conjuring tricks!"

With the split in the general movie audience becoming ever more pronounced between crowds that go out to action hits such as Broken Arrow and those who eat up feckless Jane Austen adaptions such as Emma, the debate over what constitutes a "chick flick" and a "guy flick" has entered serious conversations. The best movies obliterate those categories.

Alan Taylor's Palookaville (written by David Epstein) may sound like a guy flick, but its wry, fond manner wins over women, too. This North Jersey street fantasy centers on a trio of buddies -- stolid William Forsythe, antsy Vincent Gallo, and genial Adam Trese -- who think that plotting a major theft will help them kick-start their stalled lives. If Taylor and Epstein's touch were less sharp and affectionate, you could say the film described dysfunctional friendship. But it's really about sticking together through thin and thin. Cinematographer John Thomas gives the film a mulchy, autumnal richness, and the performers are droll -- they don't tip their hands to the audience or condescend to their roles. And there's something daring in a male-hanging-out film that gets you rooting for one of its heroes not to pull the trigger on a gun.

Writer-director Matthew Bright's spunky Freeway jumps the lane divider but stays on its own wayward course. This feminist update of "Little Red Riding Hood" gets you rooting for the wrong-side-of-the-tracks teen heroine (Reese Witherspoon) to pull a gun, a knife, or anything lethal on the movie's Big Bad Wolf (Kiefer Sutherland), a child psychologist turned serial killer. Also shot by John Thomas, this time in a lurid, cartoonish style, it's one of the year's wittiest, most audacious, and free-spirited indies. Witherspoon's performance is a thrill -- fearless and funky -- and Sutherland matches her, bringing a smart spin to the kind of feral pig he regularly plays in commercial clunkers such as A Time to Kill.

Dan Ireland's The Whole Wide World (which has yet to open in Miami), the true story of the unconsummated love affair between Robert E. Howard, the king of pulp who created Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price, a schoolteacher, addresses the gap between the masculine and the feminine with sympathy and unsettling streaks of manic farce. As they argue and enact their roles of village madman and schoolmarm, they come to embody divergent strands in movies and in culture generally: Our senses and unruly ids thirst for Howard's rambunctious, adventurous release, but our hearts and minds also yearn for Price's civil wit and sociability. Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard fills out the bold outlines of a man who has lived through florid rhetoric -- whose last words, found in his Underwood typewriter, were "All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre/The feast is over and the lamps expire." From homespun materials and high-flown aspirations, Ireland has fashioned a tribute to a pulp writer's untamed imagination and an elegy to the steadfast friendship he shared with an educator.

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