Sunday, October 23, 2005

Musing Pictures: MirrorMask

I saw MirrorMask in the middle of last week with my close friend and collaborator, Josh. In our conversation about the film on the way back from the theater, Josh said something that struck me as particularly apt and true. I paraphrase: "It was an art film that had no bones about being an art film -- it set out to achieve something, and it achieved it".

MirrorMask, the tale of a young girl who encounters a strange, dream-like adventure when her mother falls ill, has been compared to other young-girl-on-a-dream-mission stories like "The Wizard of Oz". Unlike that 1939 film, MirrorMask does not play to the typical mainstream. It takes the age-old motto, "there's no place like home", and begins pondering whose home that refers to -- is it my home? your home? Is one home better than another?

But the art and artistry of MirrorMask is in its visual tapestry, which is mostly righ out of the crazy mind of graphic artist and co-creator, Dave McKean.

An aside on digital effects: There is a huge quest underway in the filmmaking world to create digital effects that are more realistic than anything that came before them. In an article I read recently, the folks who created that fabulous character, Gollum, in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trillogy, talk all about one-upping themselves with his upcoming "King Kong" remake. It's all about crisp clarity, about "every hair on Kong's back", about every eyelash being absolutely lucid.

And there is why so much of MirrorMask struck me as so fascinating. MirrorMask's images are not crisp. There are layers, hints, as if each frame is its own graphic design. The actors interact in a CGI landscape that includes hand drawings and various other forms of animation interweaving and overlapping. It is a film that attempts to make graphic art move.

If you go to see this film expecting a straightforward, easy-to-follow story, you'll get more out of it by closing your eyes -- the visuals, which we usually rely on to understand the films we see, are so far from what we are used to that they can become very hard to follow. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward, but to really appreciate the film, I think you have to accept that the narrative isn't so significant. The point of this film is hidden somewhere among the drawings, paintings, renderings and animations that dance on the screen.

But this is why, when it comes down to it, I don't feel that MirrorMask is a fully successful film. There is a lot to be said for art films, but for an art film to be a narrative art film (as opposed to a purely experimental art film), it needs to work with its audience in mind. Films like "Memento" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", both of which I see as intentional works of art, were both made with a clear eye to the mainstream audience. experimental art films like Andy Warhol's "Sleep" (it's about eight hours long. Go guess what it's about.) are clearly meant to be concept-pieces (And I think even Warhol would have been really creeped out if there were millions of people flocking to theaters to see this film...) MirrorMask falls in between, somehow. It tells a mainstream story, but uses a technique that is not refined for storytelling in this way. Although I enjoyed the film a good bit, I would have had a much easier time recommending it if it were more 'crisply' visual -- if the images were clearer than they are.


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