The Cat's Meow; Panic Room

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Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher

Eddie Izzard's broad English face doesn't look much like Charlie Chaplin's, but suggests the baby-fat brashness and world-weariness of the young Orson Welles'. This incongruity exposes the personal basis of director Peter Bogdanovich's cinema a clef in the historical Hollywood film The Cat's Meow. Bogdanovich finally gets to address his mentor Welles without doing so directly but subliminally, emotionally. This brash and world-weary tragicomedy, detailing the painful relationship between newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, silent comedienne Marion Davies (the subjects of Welles' Citizen Kane) and Davies' consort Charlie Chaplin?and the triangle's involvement with the mysterious death of early movie pioneer Thomas Ince?is as close to a masterpiece as any Hollywood-set film has ever been.

As in Bogdanovich's great The Last Picture Show, Texasville, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, these characters suffer with much dignity. Bogdanovich isn't simply worshipful of film history's legends; he has sympathy for these artists' passions and is sensitive to the paradox of public ambition and personal failure. Besotted with movie lore, The Cat's Meow is at times heartbreakingly poignant about famous people foundering just like anyone. Elinor Glyn, the famous 20s wit (played by Joanna Lumley), lists several symptoms of Hollywood's curse:

(1) See yourself as the most important person in the room; (2) Think money is the most powerful force in nature; (3) Your morality vanishes without a trace. This could all be cynical, but Bogdanovich makes the high-rolling players Glyn describes irreducible to formula. An actor as remote as Edward Herrmann usually is maintains our distance from legend by presenting Hearst with a heavy, pathetic face and heart. Dimply Kirsten Dunst has her best screen role yet as the yielding Davies. "I'm all he's got keeping him a human being," she says of the older millionaire who dotes on her. Small as she is compared to Hearst, she's girlishly adorable, a big man's weakness.

Chaplin's attraction to Davies is better than conjecture. It's part of the film's beautifully observed humanizing of genius. Chaplin, Ince, Hearst (like Welles) are victims of their own talent, appetites and needs. Respectively a winner, loser and sufferer, they provide Bogdanovich with a gallery showing what can happen to one's humanity in Hollywood. (Slyly, it's as much an insight into Welles as his 1968 Targets inquired into Boris Karloff.) Superb moments like Davies' flirtatious mourning, or Hearst's sad distraction and self-absorption, link to a violent climax and a fantastic, quivery reaction by gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilley). It's the way movie violence should always be responded to, an unforgettable, humane response.

?David Fincher can declare himself a genius (and if he doesn't, thousands of contemporary film-school students are willing to do it for him), but no one can legitimately claim he's an artist. It takes ingenious amounts of nerve to palm off a siege thriller like Fincher's Panic Room, when all you've got up your sleeve are tricked-up cgi camera movements. For a generation enamored of technology but unsophisticated about storytelling and characterization, Fincher looks like a prophet. Panic Room, less spectacularly awful than his 1999 scam Fight Club, still has his unmistakable?patented?mixture of sardonicism and dystopia. It's "smart," full of up-to-date pop references and genre imitations in that too-knowing way that has taken the place of sincerity. There's Seven's same apple-green, piss-yellow visual scheme and gotcha shocks of violent dread (like Aliens 3) that altogether jolt naive viewers into thinking the experience is profound rather than irritating?ya know, "genius."

Jodie Foster plays Meg Altman, a well-off New York divorcee who moves into an Upper West Side brownstone with her teenage daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). On their first night settled in, they are besieged by urban riffraff?a trio of thieves including a scheming white scion (Jared Leto), a malevolent Latino (Dwight Yoakam) and a conscience-stricken black man (Forest Whitaker). While The Desperate Hours, Wait Until Dark and Lady in a Cage variously imagined modern social problems attacking the American hearth, Panic Room might be a yuppie's idle nightmare. (Gentrification fears that spring up between sips of wine.) Fincher's too hip to merely imitate Pacific Heights; as in Fight Club, he indulges a specific neurotic obsession. This time, Meg embodies the defensiveness of class and feminism, and the intruders, particularly Whitaker's Burnham, embody a pathetic desire for social mobility. Fincher works from a script that glosses all this, but the gloss, in our shallow movie era, seems like substance.

Movies are often used as panic rooms?the fortified space where Meg and Sarah hide. They're safe houses providing the comfortable exploration of generalized fears. Leisure-class filmmakers hoodwink audiences into sharing the privileged positions of fantastically wealthy protagonists; that's why Meg has a bank of video monitors that survey the invaders' movements?it provides the ruse of omniscience. This gimmicky convention doesn't require Fincher to do anything more than exercise a high-concept situation. And Fincher's penchant for exploiting new visual technology wows folks; his tricks?like peeking inside the chambers of a door's lock, or seeing through floor boards?seem to be advancing the medium. But in fact, these echoes of Hitchcockian point-of-view don't suggest Rear Window so much as a Rearguard Window.

Fincher's frozen city panoramas during the credits (underneath fake Bernard Herrmann percussion, with the cast's names embossed upon the imagery) establish end-of-civilization paranoia. But once the story rolls, Fincher's camera dollies incessantly. Its showy perambulations differ from the sinuous movements in a De Palma film that give suspense a physical sensation. Fincher's cinema physics have no psychological weight. Too much cgi frees the imagination, yet it has no perceptual basis?it's not grounded in real-life perception or credible rules of nature. Viewers' imaginations aren't ignited but merely manipulated. In Panic Room's bad geography, you never know where you are in the house; but that doesn't matter anymore cuz Fincher's audience doesn't care about spatial or moral orientation. They accept what Fincher does as simply a workout, a thrill ride.

So far, I can give Fincher credit that he hasn't surrendered to the digital video craze. He remains a pretender of celluloid luxe. But instead of revolutionizing camera esthetics, he reverses them. At the end of Panic Room, you'll wonder who is this woman and from what world were these bumbling thieves hatched. Fincher puts more concern into staging a shot of a woman tossing sleeplessly in bed while an unseen intruder quietly hovers in the background than he does into developing the scene (and the characters) beyond a mere premise. Everything's just edgy?hitting both boomers and Gen-Y'ers where they don't think. Distracted by the coolness of Meg making her bed with blue-gray sheets coordinated to the new house's decor, they're content with the consistency of Fincher's style.

Fincher's novelty "art" was perfectly contrasted last year by Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie. Both directors are from the world of tv commercials, but they use their talents differently. One day I'd like to investigate that contrast in detail, showing how Jeunet has made style out of technology that subsumes style. (The crucial difference in Amelie is Jeunet's sense of the fabulous; Fincher is just appallingly hip.)

Sam Peckinpah's rarely screened masterpiece Straw Dogs demonstrates why Panic Room is insufficient. Peckinpah got to the core of one gender's paranoia and the social anarchy that besets everyone. Panic Room refuses to go all the way with its theme of bourgeois protectiveness. Surely after slowing down the story with Whitaker's gentle black giant (a tribute to the actor's fantastically nuanced humanity) Fincher owed respect to viewers' modern consciousness by having Burnham dispatched just the way it's done these days?41 bullets expressing authority's discontent. By cutting at the end from a closeup of perplexed Meg (Foster's always emotionally efficient) to Burnham surrendering to police and letting go of his purloined fortune, Fincher retracts into fanciful meaninglessness. If it looks substantive, that's only because Fincher masters the art of superficial persuasion. He unarguably has the commercial genius of tv ads, which have overrun cinema. Panic Room works for audiences who don't question why a filmmaker thinks we need to be manipulated (or scared) in this purposeless way. Is Fincher selling us soap, or dope?

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