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The future of an illusion

By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 15, 2006

Would it be 1966 all over again? Two years later, in 1996, it seemed a possibility as Hollywood did a double take when it realized that, technically speaking, every film nominated for Best Picture was a non-studio, “independent” production (the worst of which, the insufferably pretentious The English Patient, won). Meanwhile, New Waves had sprung up in China, Iran, Taiwan, and Korea. And then, in 1997, the Best Picture Oscar went to — Titanic!

Okay, so it wasn’t such a bad movie. But it did suggest that the future of film belonged less to Polish filmmakers than to bloated budgets, mind-boggling special effects, simplistic love stories, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Not to mention that some of the great hopes of a couple of years before seemed to fizzle. Kieslowski, for one, quit making movies and promptly dropped dead. Tarantino, on the other hand, effectively quit making movies (for a while) but was distressingly omnipresent, gabbing away on talk shows and hamming it up on the Broadway stage. His stalled creativity, meanwhile, was taken up by a host of imitators trying to repeat his ironic, multi-narrative, show-offy pulp-cinema grab bags.

So, back to the usual whining. And yet . . . and yet. In 1999, things looked to be getting worse with George Lucas and the greatest PR campaign/merchandising tie-in operation in the history of hoopla about to roll out Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Millions of fans lined up in embarrassing costumes waiting for the first film Lucas himself had directed since — could it be? — the original Star Wars in 1977. And the unthinkable happened; in two words: Jar-Jar Binks.

40th_matrix
The Matrix
The Phantom Menace would still make nearly half a billion dollars. But films outside the studio empire would clean up as well: the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix; M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense; and, achieving the greatest profit ratio in the history of movies, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (cost $60,000; grossed over $100 million).

These films not only made money, they were good. So were Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Alexander Payne’s Election, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. . .

I couldn’t help myself; I was excited. I wrote a long article in which I burbled something about the Second Coming being at hand . . .

What happened? Well, after two awful Matrix sequels, the Wachowski Brothers are currently adapting Speed Racer to the screen. Shyamalan has turned out increasingly awful movies culminating in this year’s Lady in the Water and is trying to fashion himself into a diva along the lines of Michael Cimino, though with less talent and more ego. And has anyone heard back from Myrick and Sánchez?

So, never again. No more busted hopes or pooped-on illusions. Except . . . Martin Scorsese has returned to form with The Departed and has signed with a studio for four more films. And, though not many others had as high an opinion of Marie Antoinette as did I, I’d make a small wager that Sofia Coppola might yet take up the torch fumbled by her father. And Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering have gotten good buzz. And who knows what David Lynch’s Inland Empire is all about.

Mostly, though, I keep the faith because I know that somewhere out there some other 14-year-old is watching a life-changing movie and 40 years from now will look back at it with nostalgia and renewed hope.

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