Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Core Curriculum in Cinema

Little Miss Sunshine was surprisingly decent. The family feels real because they're more all-over-the-place than made-for-tv dysfunctional. They clash, but in unpredictable ways. It's more a Rushmore than a Royal Tenenbaums, in that the emphasis is less on stylization (although that's there) than on taking classic themes like death, geekiness, and unrequited love , but in an original way.

I was worried I'd find Sunshine grating, though, since everyone kept saying there was this great movie about Proust and Nietzsche, and that seemed like it could go one of several ways, none too pleasant. It could be a standard-issue indie film, but with names dropped to make an audience educated enough to have heard of these people chuckle and feel good about themselves, like when a few words in French are gratuitously dropped into a movie in English. Just a way for a movie to announce that it's a serious film without having to actually be one. Lame.

Or, it could be a serious treatment of the works of these authors, a movie you could only understand having read them, in which case what, exactly, is the point of charging people in major cities and perhaps elsewhere $10 to see something few would understand? I read Nietzsche in the Core along with the rest of us U of C types, but would I have a clue if a romantic comedy was intended to be Nietzschean? Not so much.

The only possible way for Great Books and great movies to blend is for the films to make sense both to those who've done the reading and those who have not. (Or, to those who remember what they learned in "Philosophical Perspectives" as well as those who do not.) It has to be that what matters is not so much the great works themselves as the characters' relationships to them. What does it say about X that she carries around The Republic? Will people who haven't (argh!) read The Republic totally miss the point of the movie, or is this detail merely add to the character for those who have?

In La Petite Jerusalem, protagonist Laura sees Kant as her link to something other than her family's Orthodox Judaism, just as Dwayne, in Sunshine, sees Nietzsche as an escape from his crazy family. Does it matter why those philosophers in particular? Unclear. I haven't read Kant or Nietzsche enough or recently enough to comment. Proust, on the other hand...

When Frank, the gay Proust expert, runs into the grad student (who inspired the unrequited love that leads, indirectly, to his suicide attempt) at a random roadside convenience store, wrists bandaged, and about to purchase, of all things, a pile of straight porn and a slushee, you feel for him whether or not you see some connection to Swann, to Proust, or any of that. When his grad-student love goes off with the other Proust scholar, who's just won a MacArthur "genius" award--and in doing so really puts Frank over the edge, you feel for Frank whether or not you notice the "LOST TIME" vanity plate on the other professor's convertible. It's an awesome moment in the movie, whether you get the reference or not.

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