This is the season of the Prestige Release.
Prestige releases are characterized by their serious subject matter, and lately, by the presence of British principals, both behind and before the camera (as if good taste had been subcontracted to a friendly cousin). As a result, they're movies without immediate mass audience appeal.
Such movies are important to a studio for reasons that are mostly intangible, but sometimes not -- reasons that add up to the elusive word "class." People in Hollywood are businessmen, but they're people, too -- they want to feel that their industry isn't just a way to sell popcorn, and that yearning expresses itself in the prestige release. Affirmation comes in reviews, but more importantly, from the Academy Awards. Sometimes, a raft of Oscars can translate (as it did for "Gandhi") into millions of dollars -- the best of both worlds.
Naturally, the prestige release comes with its own marketing strategy. The film is "platformed" in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto sometime in November or December. The idea is to avoid competing in a nationwide setting with the more commercial releases that hog the yuletide screen, but to qualify for Oscars the following spring. Then, armed with good reviews from the national news media and enthusiastic "word-of-mouth" (which lead to "know-about" and "want-see"), the film is opened wide, as screens are added in January and February.
Which is why "The Killing Fields" and "A Passage to India," after considerable attention elsewhere (including, for "Passage," the cover of Time), have only now come to Washington. Both are dyed-in-the-wool prestige releases. "A Passage to India's" writer/director and prime mover, David Lean, is British; British producer David Puttnam, the man behind "The Killing Fields," is the personification of a cinematic class act ("Chariots of Fire," "Local Hero").
Neither suggests itself as the kind of movie you'd want to relax with. ) Most importantly, both deal with that most daunting of Hollywood subjects, politics: for "A Passage to India," the rites of British imperialism, as captured in the 1924 E.M. Forster novel on everyone's 18-carat syllabus; in "The Killing Fields," the horror of the Cambodian holocaust, as retold in Sydney Schanberg's article in The New York Times Magazine, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," upon which the film is based.
In "A Passage to India," British imperialism isn't so much a bad thing as a comic one. The protagonists, visitors to India, grow irate with the endless round of polo matches and cucumber sandwiches that epitomize the White Man's Burden, but Lean doesn't -- it's just a joke for him. As a military band of Indians plays "God Save the Queen" in silly uniforms, each with a sort of red cocktail napkin perched on his helmet, or the camera cuts from the bustle of the Indian marketplace to the sterile, manicured suburbs where the agents of empire take their tea, the whole idea of imperialism is made to look ridiculous. You can't watch the collector of the port, with his penurious, buttoned-up mouth and the cretinous snobbery of his heavy-lidded gaze, without howling -- he's Margaret Dumont, ripe for Harpo to blow a horn in her ear.
This isn't satire, really, for it lacks satire's seriousness or sense of danger. One wag has called "A Passage to India" "the Best Movie of 1947"; the joke points up not just the movie's stylistic anachronisms, but also its failure to enter the mood of the period. Every scene in the movie betrays Lean's advantage of hindsight, his knowledge that the sun will indeed set on the British Empire.
Worse, in the 1947 of his mind, Lean sees the issue of imperialism in terms more absolute than a realistic observer might venture today. In the case of India, the postwar wave of nationalism would seem to have been a success. But in the rest of the world, the legacy of anti-imperialism is not so clear. Almost uniformly, the wages of decolonization have been murder and the plundering of oligarchs, pestilence and tribal and religious warfare (the enmity between Hindus and Moslems in India, so important to Forster's scheme, is mostly lost in the movie).
The point here is not to take issue with "A Passage to India" on political grounds, but simply to suggest some questions that the movie never raises; not to say that Lean is in some sense wrong, but that the issue is susceptible to those nuances of argument of which the movie is wholly bereft. Maybe Lean has it right, and the guys in the white hats really are the good guys -- but parsed that way, it's just not serious politics.
"The Killing Fields" shows the same kind of political naivete'. The friendship of the two protagonists, New York Times correspondent Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his guide and assistant, Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), evolves against the backdrop of Cambodia's national tragedy, first when it was subjected to the "secret bombing" orchestrated by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, afterwards when the Khmer Rouge drove the entire population into the countryside, where 3 million of a nation of 7 million were either murdered or starved to death.
There's a powerful argument that the bombing, by destroying the delicate tissue of agrarian life that held Cambodia together, made the Khmer Rouge possible, if not inevitable; and that, by supporting the Lon Nol coup through the CIA, America eliminated the one man, Prince Sihanouk, who (whatever his faults) could have kept a lid on things. The counter, of course, is that the bombing was a projection of power calculated to enhance American objectives in pursuing, and ending, the war; and that the actions of the Khmer Rouge have nothing to do with the bombing, but stand instead as an object lesson demonstrating the inevitable excesses of the left.
Again, the point is not to consider the merits of such contentions, but to recognize the slipshod way they're translated to the screen. When, in "The Killing Fields," Schanberg is asked by fellow reporters about the relationship between American policy and the Khmer Rouge, he rattles off a blithe remark about how that's what happens when you drop several million tons of bombs on people. More generally, the movie tries to equate Schanberg's complicity in Pran's suffering (after he leaves him behind) with American complicity in the Cambodian holocaust, and Schanberg's feelings of guilt with national guilt over what occurred. The filmmakers' lack of sophistication reaches its nadir at the end when, while Pran embraces Schanberg, John Lennon's "Imagine," with its programme of "no country" and "no possessions" and all the rest, swells in the background.
Luckily for the film, the impact of "The Killing Fields" stems not from the connections made in the script, but from the unutterable power of its images: maimed bodies strewn around stacked cartons of Coca-Cola; children of 15 parading with automatic rifles; Pran slitting the flank of a cow and sucking its blood, like a horsefly, in a fit of starvation; and the endless fields of decomposing bodies.
The message of "The Killing Fields" is as simple as "war is hell"; as Chris Menges' camerawork seizes on first one character, then another, crisscrossing amidst the chaos, the toll of war on pitiably small human desires (Pran's great ambition is to be a journalist, of all things) grabs you by the throat and never lets go. The complexities of Cambodia as a political subject are lost, but who cares if "The Killing Fields" wouldn't pass muster in a seminar at Georgetown? However simple-minded, "The Killing Fields" works because we and Cambodia would have been better off if David Puttnam, and not Henry Kissinger, had been running things.
Successful movies about politics can be made -- as recently as last fall, "The Little Drummer Girl" triumphed both as politics and as entertainment. The failure of " Passage" and the considerable problems of "Killing Fields," stem not from any defects inherent in the medium, but rather from the nature and enshrinement of the prestige release as a formula.
For the essence of the prestige release is that it makes Hollywood feel good. The fact that black actors can hardly find work in Hollywood can be forgotten so long as "Gandhi" wins Best Picture. These movies lack the skeptical spirit that is essential to politics -- they look for agreement, for a field of moral self-congratulation. The prestige release searches for those historical battles of the left that have ossified as taboos -- imperialism, Vietnam, the Klan, Victorian oppression of women.
In so doing, Hollywood epitomizes the stalled and embattled state of American liberalism, the glorying in past triumphs and the vacuum of ideas. Like the American left generally, Hollywood's version of politics functions on the level of what linguists call "performatives": "unions-good"; "imperialism-bad." Opinions aren't held with conviction, but as badges of membership in the club of the righteous. Movies like "A Passage to India" and "The Killing Fields" give us a left hunkered down in its trophy room, bashing old adversaries (Nixon, the Raj), locked in the past.