Prentiss Riddle: Movies

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Invasion of the decline of the barbarians

I saw The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares) yesterday, sequel to one of my favorite movies, The Decline of the American Empire by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand. I managed to rent Decline and re-watch it first, which I recommend: it gives the pair a time-capsule quality like Michael Apted's Seven Up series. Not only do we see the changes in hair styles and attitudes we could find in any two movies from 1986 and 2003, but we also see the physical changes and, more importantly, the persistence of personality in the characters (and the actors) over 17 years. Nothing strengthens an examination of youth, maturity and mortality like watching it happen.

Decline and Invasion are talky movies. Both concern a circle of old friends who talk incessantly about their past, about aging and about history. American viewers may be reminded of The Big Chill (1983) and the John Sayles movie it ripped off, Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), but a better comparison would be Alain Tanner's For Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). History is experienced unconsciously in the American movies, but consciously in these Swiss and Canadian ones; in fact Jonah and Decline both begin with a teacher standing in front of a class giving a history lecture.

But don't think these movies are dry. The're funny and sad and engaging. For instance the characters talk a great deal about sex and, in Decline anyway, act on their talk. (It's unclear whether they are reenacting the Summer of Love as they hop in and out of each others' beds or following an older philandering tradition.) One of the most notable differences between the two movies is that the younger characters in Invasion, grown children of the principals, are devoid of both humor and sex. The death of sex could be attributed to AIDS, I suppose, but not that of humor. Does Arcand really believe the baby boomers had a lock on belly laughs? He doesn't address pop culture much, so no Simpsons, Onion or Internet memes are seen to serve as counterexamples. Maybe he dismisses humor experienced via a glowing screen and is only interested in humor experienced live, with friends. If that's so, he could have a case.

His political and historical points are also obscure, at least for this resident of the empire. Each movie has an overt thesis: in Decline it is that decadence and the pursuit of personal happiness are signs of the collapse of a great power; in Invasion it is that 9/11 was a watershed not because of the relative handful of deaths but because they occurred in the heart of the system. We also see a contrast in the value of being just outside the splash zone; in Decline the characters revel in being Canadian and Quebecois, at arms' length from the cultureless Americans, but in Invasion it's clear that being outsiders has its costs. (Has the Canadian health care system really turned into a bombed-out Sarajevo hospital?)

There's more talk on each of these themes, but the movies seem more complicated than such simple points. Which is why I've enjoyed watching Decline several times over the years, and plan to do the same with Invasion.

movies 2004.03.14 link