Thursday, December 29, 2005

Musing Pictures: What this Blog is All About

This blog is not about film reviews. Everyone writes film reviews. In these posts, I will not rate a movie with stars, or thubs, or tomatoes. I will avoid telling you what you should or shouldn't see.

This is a blog for thoughts and discussions about movies -- both current and old. This is a blog for film lovers everywhere to unite in conversation, discussion, and reflection on the art, science, culture and entertainment of moving pictures.

These posts began on livejournal, where they were buried between various other unrelated entries. It's about time "Musing Pictures" was its own blog.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Musing Pictures: Munich

I am very surprised at some of the negative press this film received before its release.

I had an opportunity to see "Munich" on Friday, catching a mid-day matinee on the first day of its release.

It is a very delicate film, despite the strength with which it comes across -- and it is one of the darkest, most subdued of Spielberg's films.

It begins with the Munich Olympics massacre, in a sequence that combines re-enactment and a combination of authentic news footage. The combination allows us to feel the horror of the event while feeling the truthfulness of it -- regardless of whether everything else in the film happened the way it did, the massacre at Munich is real, is caught-on-film, and as such, that gives the re-enactment a great deal of weight and significance.

Spielberg has made films about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and African Slavery. For the first time, he has made a film about an event which he can remember, himself. I imagine that Spielberg's memories of Munich are from the news media -- and he gives us, especially those of us too young to remember, not just the opportunity to see the news reports he saw, but, through the dramatization, he grands us the opportunity to experience it all with an immediacy that a history lesson can never convey.

And that sets the tone for the film that follows -- a film that is a dramatization, inspired by true events, but never claiming to be a full representation of them. In its deviance from pure fact, "Munich" manages to tell a story of meta-truth, capturing the great complexities of this chapter in Israel's history in one story. Thankfully, Spielberg does not try to dillute those complexities. In bringing them all down to just a few characters in one relatively limited series of events, Spielberg manages to concentrate those complexities, to bring them all in to full-view all at once.

The power of "Munich" is that it manages to express the deep trauma of Israel in a universal way -- and I say "of Israel" because both Spielberg and the film's primary writer Tony Kushner, care deeply about Israel. As complex as the film is, its views on Palestinians are exclusively views from-the-outside. This is a personal film, and as such, any attempt at a more personal view of Palestinians would have detracted from the film's honesty. Palestinians have a voice, and a very interesting one, but it is not a voice that is different from the voice of Palestinian Public Relations offices all over the world -- and it is combined with the voice we hear of terrorists and the folks who encourage and support them (in case you worried that Palestinians come off as peaceniks -- they don't.)

"Munich" is a Jewish film, about a Jewish state that struggles desperately with the double-need to both exist and to do the right thing in the face of not an in-human enemy, but an enemy with a face, with a name, and with its own claims. Too often, on the news, we hear about Israel killing X number of people. It's too rare that we see the agony people face, on their own and among their friends, when trying to decide whether to pull the trigger, or detonate the explosive.

I am relieved about one thing: In his effort to try to convey the complexity of the conflict, Spielberg could have run in to the trap of making stuff up -- and I don't mean in terms of the basic narrative.

Spielberg shows the Israelis struggling with killing people who are VERY guilty of severe crimes. He shows them going to extreme lengths, jeopardizing their own mission, to avoid killing civillians and bystandards (even when they use bombs (!!!)) This has been a public conversation in Israel for thirty years, so it's not made up.

To balance this off, Spielberg could have portrayed the Palestinians as somehow similarly humane... but since Munich, the approach of Palestinian millitants has been purely terroristic -- that is, not only have they not made efforts to avoid killing civillians, but they have actively pursued policies of killing civillians at random and without mercy. Spielberg does not try to portray Palestinian terrorism in a "better light". On the contrary, he keeps bringing images of the Munich massacre back, to remind us, over and over again, just how horriffic that type of violence is, and just how important it is to respond very strongly to it. Spielberg eventually questions the particular response, but not the need to respond harshly.

Were the film to suggest a conclusion to the whole mess, it would be a weak film. It is a film about the confusion of the situation, and about the difficulty of actually, truly rising above it.

If you have a strong opinion against the film, I urge you to take a look at Spielberg's own defense of the work -- a defense I feel he shouldn't have been put in the position of having to make. His comments are here: and here:


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Musing Pictures: King Kong (2005)

Ok, Ok, Peter Jackson can finally count me as a fan.

There are potential spoilers below, but come on, you KNOW what happens!

As you may recall, I was half-hearted in my appreciation of each of his "Lord of the Rings" films, especially the first one. This had mostly to do with certain techniques that Jackson employs (slow motion, "flickering" images (it has to do with doubling certain frames and eliminating other frames in a regular pattern if you want to get technical about it), and an uncomfortably close dance along the edge of the "too much happening on the screen" line (which is one that Lucas, for example, crosses religiously in the recent "Star Wars" additions.))

Jackson used the same techniques here, in his carefully wrought re-make of the 1933 Cooper and Schoedsack classic, "King Kong", but the film tells a much smaller story than the one he had to tackle with his "Rings" films, and that makes a huge difference.

What made the original '33 "King Kong" such a lasting success wasn't the special effects, and it certainly wasn't the camerawork (which tends to be very static and plain). What gave the original film the right to call itself a classic was the efficiency and effectiveness of the story.

"King Kong" is not only a near-perfect three-act narrative (Going to/confronting Skull Island, Adventures on the Island, Adventures in New York), but it also incorporates very strongly those necessary points along its narrative arc that give it direction -- The incident that incites the action is straightforward and believable, the parallel narratives of Darrow/Kong and Everyone Else/Island Creatures are crisply interwoven, and the twist at the end of the second act that slingshots us in to the third act is absolutely perfect.

It is with this moment that I would like to begin my musings.

The third act of a (good) film is not merely resolution. It is often an escalation that follows what looks like it should be a resolution -- and it's an escalation that leads to a new, often more extreme result.

If King Kong had been a bad film, it would have gone like this:

Carl Denham goes to Skull Island to get footage for his film. Ann Darrow gets kidnapped by the Ape. Rescue party formed. Adventures in Jungle. Ann is rescued. Everyone goes home.

Clearly, this would be a fairly mundane, uninteresting story. The brilliance of King Kong is that in order to make this an excellent story, NOTHING IS CHANGED, but something is added. It's the 2nd act twist:

Denham's intentions (but not his motivations) change. He thought he would make a movie, but oh no, now he can do something better: He can capture Kong and bring him back alive.

This twist launches us beautifully in to the third act, which shows the bitter consequences of Denham's ambition, with Kong famously ripping up New York.

I was pleased to see that Jackson knew where the Kong story's effectiveness lay. When the Ape is finally put to sleep at the end of the 2nd act, Denham remarks that in a few months, Broadway will be lit up by the words "Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World". Fade to black, and up comes the third act, with the Broadway sign, and patrons clamoring at the theater entrance for a ticket. It is line-for-line, shot-for-shot the transition that Cooper and Schoedsack employ in the original film. Jackson made no attempt to bring us back on to the ship, to show Kong being transported, to show Darrow telling her story, or any of that stuff that we are left to imagine in the original film. He knew, without a doubt, that the strength of "King Kong" lies deep within that transition, that elision of time which allows us to complete our film's journey.

Jackson knew some other things, too.

He did not only borrow moments, shots, lines and transitions from the original film, but he made sure to incorporate some of the music, as well.

Few people realize that "King Kong", in 1933, was the first film to have an underscore -- music that plays along underneath certain scenes. The music, by Max Steiner (famous for his scores to "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca") makes an appearance (very appropriately) during the New York "premiere" of King Kong -- it is played by the theater's pit orchestra.

And that leads me to something fascinating about both the 1933 and the 2005 versions of the film.

They both seem to be simultaneously praising and putting down their own medium.

"King Kong" is a film. In it, there is a character who sets out to shoot a film. That film which he shoots includes King Kong. He decides, though, that oh no, film is grand and all, but you know what would be better? THE REAL THING. In this way, he becomes a theater producer in an instant. So, theater is all well-and-good, but do you know what happens next? In theater, the Monster doesn't stay stuck in two dimensions, on a canvas screen. In theater, the monster CAN EAT YOU. And it does. And aren't we all just so reassured that we're not watching a play right now?

This is a subtlety of the 1933 version of the film which Peter Jackson openly challenges.

Ann Darrow wants to be an actress in the theater. Denham's film canisters break open, leaving him with no useable footage (which gives him a stronger motive to decide to bring Kong back). Jackson introduces a new character to the story -- a playwright named Jack Driscoll (played by Adrien Brody) who is recruited to write Denham's film. Driscoll doesn't seem to like movies much, and says so on at least one occasion.

Most interestingly, Jackson adds a scene in which Darrow, at a loss for what to do as Kong's latest captive, begins to pull tricks out of her vaudeville routine, slowly discovering that Kong finds her amusing -- it is their first real interaction, and as such, it is a testament to the power of the theater -- or, at least, to the interpersonal, direct nature of the theater.

I don't have anything against the theater, but I'm not so sure I like the way Jackson balances things out here. It's a (very slight) deviation from the simplicity of the original story, and although it's interesting to think about in its own right, I wonder if it really works for the film.

But these are all details! Details!

For those of you who want to know if I liked the film -- I did. Quite a bit, in fact. It was a thoughtful adventure, much slower than modern adventures (but modern adventures are impatient and deceptive -- this is not a modern adventure). And it was very genuine.

One more digression: Communication.

It is amazing how many movies there are about communication and miscommunication.

It seems as though every major cinematic conflict could be resolved if people knew how to talk to one another. If Kong could talk... or if Vader and Luke had only spent some time around a coffee table... There's a lot of anxiety when people talk to each other but don't understand each other... especially when we seem to understand both of them. I think that's where a lot of the suspense in "King Kong" comes from -- that and the fact that we KNOW what will happen next (and as such, we know we can't avoid it).

It's interesting how much more conscious we can be of Destiny when we're watching remakes...


Monday, December 12, 2005

Musing Pictures: Syriana

Who is Stephen Gaghan?

At the end of "Syriana", credit is given to Gaghan for both writing and directing the film.

Looking him up, I was not so surprised to see that one of his (relatively few) other credits was for writing the screenplay to Soderbergh's "Traffic".

"Syriana" is like "Traffic" but with Oil Money replacing Drug Money as the root of corruption in a web of even more corruption that reaches the highest levels of governments that are already (you guessed it!) corrupt.

I remember "Traffic" being refreshing -- it was a web, and a complicated, disjointed one, but it was also cohesive in its clear condemnation not only of drugs, but of the terrible blood-economy of their trade.

Although "Syriana" is somewhat of a repetition of "Traffic" (that is, although it is by now approaching formulaic), it is still a fascinating film to watch.

Unlike "Traffic", the elements of the story all interrelate much more directly -- but the clarity that "Traffic" had is missing from this film.

"Traffic" did not offer any solutions to the problems of the drug trade, but somehow, in a film about the evils of the people who bargain for national oil supplies, it's hard to say that folks who drive cars, or folks who heat their homes in winter are doing something wrong -- heck, it's hard to say that folks who negotiate shady business deals in order to offer cheaper, competitive oil prices are doing something wrong (especially when we're all still paying around $2 for a gallon of gas here, compared to what we paid a year ago). Unlike "Traffic", which is a film about selfishness on a grand scale, "Syriana" seems to be an even darker film, about selflessness failing.

The CIA agent who devotes his life to his work seems to inadvertently cause the very act he hopes to prevent. The oil barons who want to make sure that their customers are buying cheap gas, that their investors are earning dividends, and that the Chinese economy doesn't out-pace their own, end up de-stabilizing the oil market and instigating their own downfall. The lawyers who want to make sure things are done according to Law discover that the Law would throw the lives of everyone around them in to chaos, if it were only adhered to. The Prince who Would Rather Be King has strong, progressive ideas, but they get him killed, rather than getting him in to power. And even the Iranian kid, who wants to find work to bring his mother out of Iran ends up a suicide bomber -- a terrorist.

"Syriana" is a depressing film, but a fascinating one -- all of these characters, with their very different stories and very different backgrounds become involved one way or another with the Big Picture. And isn't that what movies seem to be about? The Big Picture?

I've seen some wonderful intimate portraits on the screen -- films about a particular person, etc. -- but it's always about taking that person and making him or her larger-than-life. Gaghan, it seems, does the reverse. He takes The Big Picture, and somehow manages to make it fit on The Big Screen (which, of course, is much smaller than The Big Picture ever was). In that way, though, this becomes a film about ideas, and not about characters. I don't remember their names, but I remember what they stood for -- and every character in the film stands for something. That's the greatest tradgedy of it. No one is right.

I read somewhere that this is a film that doesn't aim at a conclusion. It doesn't try to solve the world's problems. I'm glad that I read that before I saw the film -- otherwise I might have expected something that wasn't ever going to be there.

I'm glad that the next movie I'm seeing is going to be light. Even though it's star probably weighs quite a few tons... "King Kong" (the 1933 version) is the next film I'll be teaching, and I'm showing it tomorrow, less than twelve hours before Peter Jackson's version goes in to wide release...


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Musing Pictures: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Although I saw this film in its opening weekend, it has taken me a while to figure out what I want to write about it.

The "Harry Potter" films, so far, have served me well as examples of what to do and what not to do when adapting from a book.

The first two films of the series, in sticking so closely to the structure of Rowling's story, were long, drawn-out, and ultimately, quite slow. They were certainly enormous fun to look at (I remember being particularly tickled by the moving staircases and the animate paintings), but even the special effects did not quite lift those films beyond being simiply allright (which, considering the strengths of the books off of which they were based, is far worse than those films should have been).

Those first two films, directed by Chris Columbus, whose 1990s successes, including "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" are noteworthy achievements, did do one thing quite well: They prepared the stage marvellously for the two films that followed.

Alfonso Cuaron, who boldly deviated from Rowling's written word, could not have gotten away with such machinations of plot had Columbus not satisfied the world's fans first by sticking so closely to the narrative. Once fans saw what a close adaptation would be, they were more willing to accept the work of a director like Cuaron (who is certainly not "standard fare" when it comes to family entertainment).

And that brings us to Harry Potter IV, directed by Mike Newell, yet another unexpected helmer, who is known for films like "Donnie Brasco" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral". Here, it is clear, he had flexibility. The success, both popular and academic, of Harry Potter III gave Newell a great deal of leeway in terms of his adaptation of the book to the screen.

Frankly, I do not remember the book enough to know the differences, but I am sure that there are many. Part of my certainty lies in the pacing of the film itself.

A book is generally paced in small segments -- usually chapters -- each of which has its own mini-climax, and its own mini-resolution (which is often no resolution at all other than a convenient place to stop reading for the night). The first two Harry Potter films maintained a great deal of this pacing as a side-effect to staying so true to the books' narrative flow. Movies, though, aren't things that we see in short bits, the way we tend to read books. On the contrary, it is fairly rare that we don't see a movie straight through (and when we see a movie on TV, the commercials really do feel like interruptions, rather than coherent breaks).

What Cuaron did with the third Harry Potter film, and what Newell was wise to continue doing with the fourth, involved a re-working of the plot to eliminate the heavy down-beat of a chapter's end. Rather than telling the story in mini-chapters, each fragment of the tale wove cleanly in to the next, so the film's momentum never fell.

And who is David Yates?

The director of the next Harry Potter film, due in theaters in 2007, seems to have done a handful of TV movies and miniseries, including one called "Sex Traffic", of all things... and a few theatrical short-films... and just about nothing else. Now, I'm Really curious...