The wit of Anthony Lane, like the sex life of Grace Kelly, is one of those refined but rustic matters that we can admire readily, and dissect in detail, but never really hope to understand.
Or emulate, alas.
But he’s fun to imitate.
At the risk of invoking Freud, you have to wonder why movie stars are attracted to big, long films about towers. “The Towering Inferno” had Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden; it also had Fred Astaire and O. J. Simpson, a pairing so exquisite that Luis Buñuel must have wished he’d thought of it first. Now we have “Tower Heist,” which features Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Matthew Broderick, and Judd Hirsch. None of these, I concede, are up there with Fred Astaire, but, then, who is? What counts is safety in numbers—actors mustering together to lend bulk and momentum to a tale that they know to be dumb. The difference is that in 1974 they got away with it.
Lane does credit Tower Heist with one “pleasingly brazen image”—of a car dangling off the high rise—and concedes that “this cruddy movie” has one perfect moment: Mathew Broderick’s scene after he’s lost his job at Merrill Lynch, and his apartment, and ends up, in a cheap motel, pondering becoming a male prostitute. The director, Brett Ratner, late of the Rush Hour trilogy, has a style, Lane writes, in which “early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.”
He’s a bit arch, I’ll give you that. But Lane gets as sincere as he gets, and as passionate, when he next takes on the spectre of video on demand (VOD). In an experiment, Tower Heist is being offered to half a million households weeks after its theatrical debut—for a mere $59.99 each.
One’s immediate reaction to this news was: sixty bucks! For a Brett Ratner movie! It’s like one of those cafés in Weimar Germany where a glass of beer cost you four billion marks. The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the “Tower Heist” experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge. Download a Ben Stiller movie in Atlanta, and you wind up, a few years later, with a nation of vacant auditoriums. Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won’t go.
Lane agrees: VOD is the death of cinema, and he explains what will be lost. Were I in my old haunts I’d surely mourn with him. For years I’d leave our farm and drive twenty minutes to our small town’s Cineplex beside the mall, or even more cheerfully shoot downtown to a cozy boutique theatre. What was wunderbar was to teach and then amble across campus and catch an early movie and then wing back to our hilltop. My experience of watching Charlie Kaufman’s Jungian masterpiece Synechdoche, New York owes everything to seeing it, two or three times, in that little art house.
But now I’m in the city, actually somewhere amidst hundreds of acres, maybe thousands, of suburban sprawl, and haven’t got my bearings yet. There’s a Rave16 fifteen minutes away, but the heavy, fast-moving traffic often gives me pause.
So I cocoon, happily.
Because for once this late adopter, thanks to our daughter, suddenly possesses a “smart TV,” not only with high def flat-screen but capable of streaming from Netflix and Amazon, plus CinemaNow, whomever that is. And I can listen to Beatles Radio, or Dylan Radio, or Alison Krauss Radio, whatever’s my whim to create, on Pandora. So I’m consuming lots of movies, and while it isn’t cinema, Tony, it beats a couple years of scarce moviegoing while this country mouse adjusts to the city.
Yet, I know, by the time I join Anthony Lane in his VOD boycott, cinema will have shrunk—actually I don’t think it will die completely—knocked off its loop by the aimless bombardment of streaming digital technology.