Big movie or little one? The distinction lies largely in the eye—and heart—of the beholder. There’s less to those bloated sequels of Shrek, Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean than their production costs and attendance figures suggest, while several brilliant little indies are pulling in impressive—and impressed—audiences. Last weekend, Waitress cracked the national box office’s top-10 list. So did the British buddy-cop spoof, Hot Fuzz. The artful zombie flick, 28 Weeks Later, took third place on that list, and the lovely Irish fable, Once, opening in only two theatres, registered a higher per-screen average than Shrek, which played on 4,000 screens.
I can and do appreciate full-scale studio stuff when it’s good. From my perspective, though, the best antidote to all that’s bad and crass in movies these days is a small, unassuming film that sneaks up on you and makes you its grateful captive.
The process is always surprising, though not necessarily mysterious. Take the 18 extremely short segments, each by a different director, that celebrate the City of Light in the recently released Paris, Je t’Aime. Some work well, others don’t, but one of them, the seven-minute piece directed by Alexander Payne, is a perfect example of how the smallest of films can stir the soul in no time flat.
The scheme is straightforward. Carol, a frumpy, middle-aged Denver letter-carrier played by Margo Martindale, is telling her French class about one special day in her recent trip to Paris. As she speaks, in earnest French with a fingernails-on-chalkboard accent, we see her exploring the city on her own. Carol is an unprepossessing figure, if not a faintly ridiculous one, and she scrambles some of her facts: Jean-Paul Sartre was not married to Simóne de Beauvoir. But her ridiculousness recedes and soon vanishes as she acknowledges old romantic yearnings, thinks quiet thoughts about her mortality, and considers her loneliness without flirting for a moment with self-pity. Then, something happens as she sits alone in a Parisian park, “something”, as she recounts it, “very difficult to describe”. What Carol succeeds in describing, with piercingly simple eloquence, is nothing less than her epiphany, a stunning emotional climax to a snippet of film that defines a whole life.
That sort of compression is often a hallmark of little movies with big pay-offs. Once is most readily described as a love story between two musicians who meet on the streets of Dublin, but it’s also about music, creativity, collaboration and the banked fires of love lost. Waitress, which presents itself as a whimsically optimistic little fable in which everything works out for the best, is all aswirl with strong feelings of anger, anxiety and longing.
Longing, in its turn, leads to another hallmark that, like Carol’s epiphany, is difficult to describe, though the word ineffable comes close. The ineffable beauty, for instance, of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, which is all about romantic longing. And which, at its 98-minute running time, may be as magical as it is because of its compression, having been distilled from the much longer and explicit (or effable?) tale that the film-maker originally shot. Or the ineffable, if readily explicable, passion of Bernardo Bertolucci’s low-budget, 93- minute-long Besieged, in which David Thewlis’ Jason Kinsky, an English pianist and composer living in Rome, falls madly in love with his African housekeeper, Shandurai, who is played luminously by Thandie Newton.
Elusive charm accounts for the enduring popularity of Bottle Rocket, the fragile little fable of cockeyed innocence that brought together, first as a short and then as a short feature, the talents of Wes Anderson and the brothers Wilson, Luke and Owen. The same is true of Danny Deckchair, the endearing Australian film in which a cement truck driver played by Rhys Ifans sails off to a new life in a deckchair lifted aloft by helium-filled balloons.
And one of my favourite little treasures, Big Night , only seems to be about the travails of two brothers struggling to keep an Italian restaurant afloat on the New Jersey shore. The film is equally astute, and ineffably charming, in what it says about the conflict between business and art. Great depth doesn’t require great length, or grotesque cost.
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