Scott Heller

Scott Heller writes about books, film and culture for various publications.

Recent Articles

Let's Make a Difference

P ay It Forward is the kind of film I approach with dread. Hollywood strikes many discordant notes, but self-satisfied celebrations of communal uplift land with an especially abrasive clang. Frame a public injustice as a mystery and let a flawed crusader clean things up--an Erin Brockovich, a Lowell Bergman, or even that violin teacher Meryl Streep played in Music of the Heart -- and I can walk away satisfied. It's the big canvas, the panoramic vision, the strained, hopeful statements about All of Us that Hollywood inevitably mucks up. In the ads, the coming attraction, and the prefabricated Oscar buzz, Pay It Forward promised to press exactly those buttons. The film's premise could be lifted wholesale from an Oprah segment or the playbook of either George Bush. What if--oh, such dangerous words--an individual selflessly helped another? Instead of repaying the good deed, what if the person who was helped went on to do something wonderful for three other people? And...

Places of Peace

G eorge Washington opens on a close-up of a boy's sneakered feet carefully maneuvering along a rusted beam. Dusted in sunlight, it's a quintessential image of American boyhood, evoking freedom as well as risk. He may be a kid killing time, testing his balance on a fence. Or a wanderer on a train track, both eyes focused on a destination far away from home. George Washington doesn't give us time to decide. The boy skips off the end of the beam, and before we can see what happens, director David Gordon Green cuts away. Did the boy land safely? Or did he tumble to the ground? Did he hop right up again, sturdy and hopeful, sure in his body and his heart that he can't really be hurt? Or did he learn a small, harsh lesson, the first of many? By the time Green's remarkable debut film is over, we've been swept along by a stream of haunting, dreamlike images: a boy in an alligator mask reciting Bible passages in a desecrated school gymnasium; a spindly redhead in a neck...

Up in the Air

F lying cross-country after a photo-op with the border patrol, newly appointed U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield tries to rouse his troops. Thrusting out a dimpled chin as only Michael Douglas can, Wakefield dares them to be creative. "I want everyone thinking out of the box for the next few minutes," he barks in the most telling scene in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic . "The dam is open for new ideas." Soderbergh's camera coldly eyes the lavishly appointed cabin. One after another, the lawyers, military officials, and policy wonks on the drug chief's staff throw back only blank stares. Even 30,000 feet above a narrowed political landscape, they have nothing new to say about the perennial problem of drugs. Ambitious and panoramic, yet as gripping as a crime thriller, Traffic could have been the mass-market film to trigger a bold discussion about the failures of U.S. drug policy. The impulse to muckrake seems to have fueled the project. Coming off the...

The Anti-Auteur

R emember the name: Michael Winterbottom . Not yet 40 and already the director of eight features, Winterbottom is the remarkably versatile, remarkably gifted Englishman one great film away from a place among today's moviemaking elite. His latest and most ambitious effort, The Claim , won't be that launching pad. A romantic epic set just after the California gold rush, it's too subdued, too snowy (literally and figuratively) to reach a big audience. But like almost everything else the director has touched, whether scaled small or grand, set in the Old West or today's London, it's beautifully acted and physically sumptuous, marked by moments of rare visual power. Only a few other directors--Martin Scorsese, certainly, but also Zhang Yimou ( Raise the Red Lantern; To Live ) and Claire Denis ( I Can't Sleep; Beau Travail )--so deeply understand that an exalted cinema depends on the intense interplay of music and image as well as word. Even when his films don't fully come together, their...

Glad to be Unhappy

R ock critics a few years back coined the clever term miserablism to describe a brand of guitar music light in metallic crunch but heavy with emotional self-flagellation. It wasn't a compliment, exactly. Yet with songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," bands such as the Smiths and their flamboyant lead singer Morrissey proclaimed their angst so grandiosely it became, for fans, sublimely comic. If cinema has a poet of romantic miserablism, it's the virtuosic Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who has made seven feature films--each unforgettable. The Smiths drew their inspiration from British camp icons like Oscar Wilde; Wong follows a French path, Baudelaire by way of early Jean-Luc Godard. But instead of trenchant Godardian critique, Wong indulges his characters' youthful follies, their meandering and alienation, their futile efforts to find meaning in the ephemeral present while simultaneously waxing nostalgic for the past. Wong's is a world of missteps and...

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