Film Sense and Sensibilities

1995 in Review

by Patrick Taggart

Some last thoughts on on 1995 before the new year becomes old:

Tsunami used to be a good word, I suppose, before it was kidnapped by television's talking dog news anchors and employed for descriptions of just about everything. That includes what it really is -- an ocean wave caused by a volcano or earthquake -- to the Republican takeover of Congress to the flood of Beatles Anthology albums at the record stores.

And I would likewise be misusing it if I said it is the proper word to describe the continuing ascent of the independent film in the American moviegoing consciousness. The year's big blockbusters included Apollo 13, Pocahontas, Seven, and The Bridges of Madison County -- not Crumb and Lotto Land. Much as we might like to see the indie market expanding -- and I believe it is -- the holiday mall-goer is never going to clone himself just to have more opportunities to see Kids or Once Were Warriors.

Still, you don't have to have read the Top Ten lists in last week's issue to see that 1995 was as good to off-mainstream films as the stock market was to your 401K plan. In addition to a few respectable mainstream blockbusters -- Apollo 13, Heat, Seven, The Bridges of Madison County, Toy Story, and Pocahontas -- there were three times as many smaller, more modestly budgeted or independently released films that got critics excited and, in a few cases, a larger audience as well... for example, The Usual Suspects or the utterly delightful Babe.

A Top Ten list can't contain all the goodies. In addition to The Usual Suspects and Babe, there were Clockers, Crumb, Devil in a Blue Dress, Double Happiness, Kids, Living in Oblivion, Lotto Land, Once Were Warriors, Persuasion, Shallow Grave, Smoke, The Brothers McMullen, The Crossing Guard, Plutonium Circus, The Postman, and The Underneath.

And, of course, Sense and Sensibility -- not an independent film but one blessedly free of the stink of an Eszterhas screenplay, a Disney story conference, or a series of test screenings... each with a different ending.

The Society of Texas Film Critics, a loose-knit organization now in its second year and including a couple of us from the Chronicle, picked The Usual Suspects as best film of the year. This sets us apart from other organizations in the U.S., primarily in New York and L.A., who favored Leaving Las Vegas and Sense and Sensibility. Other winners were Bryan Singer, director; Christopher McQuarrie, original screenplay; Kevin Spacey, supporting actor -- all for Suspects. Adapted screenplay went to Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility; best actor and actress were Nicolas Cage and Joan Allen, for Leaving Las Vegas and Nixon. The Lone Star Award, for best film set or filmed in Texas: Apollo 13.

I have found it surprising, if not stunning, that many critics across this great land have found Nixon to be the film that rehabilitates Oliver Stone. You know, that Oliver Stone of JFK and Natural Born Killers?

Sure, Nixon is less hysterical than JFK. (What isn't?) Yes, he has put away much of the sophomoric manipulation of camera angles, film stocks, and editing devices that made Natural Born Killers such an empty and dizzying experience.

But Nixon is yet another clumsy paranoid fantasy, and one that ultimately doesn't even have the courage of its insecure convictions.

A quick pair of points: Much of the time, Nixon is shown to be drinking, and drinking rather heavily. During his presidency this happened only rarely. He was known to have had great difficulty metabolizing alcohol, so that an amount of booze that might have you and me feeling just unusually witty and charming had him crawling on the floor. As a result, he drank little. Stone cartoonishly smears fake sweat on Anthony Hopkins' upper lip for much of his time on screen, implying Nixon's entire political life was a kind of panicky retreat from oblivion. The only time Nixon really appeared sweaty was during the famous 1960 debate with Kennedy and at his resignation.

Little time and energy is spent on an issue that still remains something of a mystery about Nixon, which is how such an insecure and inarticulate man (in speech) could be so successful at international diplomacy. Jimmy Carter brought Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together in part because of his personal enthusiasm for them. The best relationship the U.S. had with the crumbling Soviet Union came as a result of personal affection -- no other words for it -- between Reagan and Gorbachev. It's hard to see how Nixon, with his fake smiles and endless supply of blandishments, small talk, and hyperbole, could be as effective as he was in the world court.

The largely unflattering portrait of the late president concludes with a voiceover by Oliver Stone. The voiceover proves what a ramshackle piece of machinery Nixon is. Stone apparently realized at some point in post-production that he hadn't explored enough of the good stuff about Nixon, so he decided to simply tack on 30 seconds of redemptive blather (the China initiative, etc.) and roll credits.

So the film is long and wrong and lazy, too. n

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