December 26th, 2001
Coming off of having just reviewed Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," and then seeing Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" brought to light a personal truism.
I'm an old man. Old, at least, in tastes, it would seem.
Where LOTR failed miserably to entertain me, despite (or due to) it's garish and overblown use of computer effects, Altman's pic had me riveted throughout its 2 hours and 10 minutes. Truth be told, the film could have ran another 48 minutes (equaling LOTR's running time) and I would have still be enthusiastic about watching, something I can't say for Jackson's effexfest.
"Gosford Park" is a remarkable work, not only for its style, cleverness, nonchalance and characters, but also for the fact that it got made. Hollywood is not a place that allows much character development, but even as Robert Altman fills the screen with over 15 leads, by the end we know something personal about them all, something hidden, something very real. Normally, in the fare vomited up by those ill-advised suits on the Quake Coast, even with three hours of film trolleying through the projector we'd be lucky if we knew more than the lead character's favorite catch phrase. "Yippeekayay, motherfucker" comes to mind. Can one person who hadn't read Tolkein's novel tell me, based on Jackson's first film installment, what motivated Saruman's switch to the Dark Side (or whatever they call it)? Other than, of course, expediency of plot?
"Gosford Park" tells the story of a dinner and shooting party held in an old English estate, and the interactions between the rich guests and their innumerable servants. It's also a whodunit, with a murder occurring virtually in Act 3, bucking Hollywood's usual penchant for putting it in during the opening credits. But the mystery is very much secondary, almost a second film in itself that is interwoven with such excellence one really feels they got twice as much bang for their box office buck. It's important to relax while watching "Gosford Park;" the barrage of Altman style crosstalk, thick British and Scottish accents, and jumping scenes from upstairs to downstairs character development can be intimidating at first. Trust Altman, this is his skill; by the end you will know what and who and when, and walk away feeling very much like a guest at the party, having come to know some of your new acquaintances better than others, but with opinions about them all.
Sets are gorgeous, both the ornate "upstairs" rooms of the estate, as well as the dreary "downstairs" cubbies and workspaces of the servants. Costuming is marvelous, lighting realistic but at times expressive. In fact, realism is the key production design element of "Gosford Park," realism in sets, in characters, even in dialog. The film reveals aspects of servant life that we modern types could never imagine, such as the organizational requirements of planning large dinner parties in an era of firewood-cooked meals. Boring? No, this is the context of the film, the atmosphere the characters move through, as necessary as water to the goldfish.
I could go on, but you get the point. "Gosford Park" is a true film, one that touches the viewer on a very personal, but not intrusive level.
Yeegads, but what does this mean about me? Which is, of course, why you read reviews... to learn about me.
My favorite film of all time is "Il Postino." I like "The English Patient." I think Welles' version of "The Trial" may have surpassed Citizen Kane.
But in my list of favorite films of all time are such genre flicks as "The Road Warrior" and "The Crow." I'm a "Godzilla" fan, for heaven's sake. I've WRITTEN comic books. So what gives with my reactions to the latest batch of genre releases, such as LOTR or Phantom Menace or Burton's "Planet of the Apes," all of which were, in my view, crap?
Well, whereas the fanboy geeks who largely drive the genre picture business have, for reasons I might postulate in a future article, stopped their maturation dead in its tracks, rolling through their twenties, thirties and forties still convinced that Twinkies make one helluva breakfast, Hulk # 145 was a travesty, only real men plan Dungeons & Dragons, a goatee makes you look tough (even if you still tip the scales at 200+) and using Stan Lee-like Shakespeak in normal conversation is the mark of intelligence, some of us moved on.
Some of us recognized that life is more than the immediate thrill, more than the adolescent notion that pleasure is something obvious, that realism can be as engaging as fantasy. Some of us know that good food isn't always sweet, that the better beverages aren't the ones with the highest alcohol level, good movies aren't the ones with the best effects, and the best actors aren't the oldest guys with the strongest British accents.
Point being, genre films need to raise their standards so they appeal not only to the stunted sensibilities of special effects fans, even if their numbers are growing at a frightening rate.
The oh-so-occasional gem like "Gosford Park" serves a dual purpose: to remind us how good films CAN be made in this age of lowered expectations, and at the same time point out what a sad day it is for Hollywood that these films only come about so infrequently.
Why bother with this whole article? First, it's a review of "Gosford Park" --- really, it is.
Second, it might help to explain my position on films a bit better for those who are still stunned to find out that I think the last few years of genre films largely sucked. Geeks be warned.
Maybe it's age, maybe it's simply that I'm turning into a stuffy, opinionated old bastard. Or maybe --- just maybe --- Hollywood sucks worse than a French whore on a German sub, and simply lacks the creative will to put out good movies that can appeal to both the geek and the intellectual in me.
Thank goodness for the Altmans and Finchers and Mendeses and Nolanses. They are exceptions to the rule.
My rating: A