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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trailer Talk: "Casino Royale"

I wish I knew why I get so excited when a new James Bond film is about to hit theaters. For a long time, I've suspected it has something to do with the gadgets (I was a HUGE "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" fan when I was very young, and I guess I must have sensed the presence of that magical car's creator, Ian Flemming, in the more mature Bond films)

I just took my first look at a long trailer for the new Bond film, "Casino Royale", with the new Bond, Daniel Craig. One of the things that fascinated me was a Halle Berry -esque shot of a swimsuit-clad person walking out of a perfect-blue resort-type ocean... but that person wasn't the typical "Bond Girl"... it was a muscular, shirtless James Bond himself. Certainly the ad campaign would be smart to target a wider demographic (aiming for the group of female twentysomethings to complement the series' predominantly male audience), but I wonder now, does the film itself aim for this shift? What struck me more was that the trailer didn't really feature the typical "Bond Girl" in the usual swimsuit or negligee or what have you. There's something shifting in the Bond world, and it's not just the new casting. The director, Martin Campbell, directed one of the better Bond films from the Brosnan era, "Goldeneye", so I remain hopeful.

-AzS

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Departed

I was amazed at one moment in this film. It's a moment I can not write about without "spoiling" something, so I'll tiptoe around it (and those of you who don't trust that I can keep much of a secret, stop reading now).

I was amazed at how startling a gunshot can be in a movie.

In many movies, gunshots are quite common. There's even a moment in one of those "Hot Shots" films (the parodies of "Rambo") where it's just a whole lot of shooting, and on the screen, a tally of the hero's kills, rising like the score on a pinball game.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter was probably one of the first people to startle an audience with a gunshot, when he has a character point a pistol at the camera (and, as such, at the viewer), and fire a blank. The Movies were only about six years old at the time, so it's no wonder people were scared.

We've gotten rather dull about gunshots since then. They're just not surprising or startling much, anymore.

Scorsese managed to give gunshots a force that is not one of power, but one of wild lack of control. There is no way to stop a bullet without being stopped cold by that bullet, and when that gunshot rings out, it's not meant to be just another sound effect. It's piercing, loud, and committed.

I'd be curious to look and listen more closely to the gunshots in "The Departed", and to compare them to some other gunshots innovations of the past century -- especially gunshots in films such as "Schindler's List" or (the totally different) Indiana Jones films. Was it the narrative that made the gunshots in "The Departed" seem so much more deadly than in other films? Or was there some sort of trick of the eye, or trick of the ear, or editing finery that caused the effect? Anyone have any ideas?

-AzS

Monday, September 18, 2006

Musing Pictures: Thelma & Louise

I saw Ridley Scott's 1991 film a few nights ago for the first time. It's a good film, and an important one, even if it leaves a guy like me frustrated with its portrayal of capital-emm Men. (there's one male character who might actually be a nice guy, perhaps, but he's just as sexist as the rest of 'em, in his own, quiet way...)

But I want to talk about something else, briefly. As I prepared to write this post, I typed the title of the film in to the "title" field as "Thelma and Louise", noticing only later that I should have used an ampersand instead.

The effect, though, is fascinating. It brings the two names more closely together, linking them in a way that is somehow different than the word "and". It provides a hint of what may be inseparability (which, in fact, fits the film nicely), whereas the word "and", as written, seems to connect two distinct, separate, individuated elements.

The ampersand can be found in various film and television titles, and I think that its effect is quite consistent: Law & Order, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Dumb & Dumber, Will & Grace, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Lilo & Stitch, Starsky & Hutch, Wallace & Gromit, etc. etc. etc.

Note the way the "And" feels in other titles: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Josie and the Pussycats, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Arsenic and Old Lace, Lady and The Tramp, Romeo and Juliet...

and of course, every so often, we find someone trying to be creative... Here, a symbol that seems to imply something other than what the "and" or the ampersand can imply: Romeo+Juliet, or the more recent Tristan+Isolde. It's a tighter connection, but an emptier one, too... perhaps more frantic, more hurried, two quick lines on a page, before time runs out...

-AzS

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Musing Pictures: Superman Returns

"Superman Returns" is all about symbolic images, and that is quite fitting for a film with such a pop-cultural icon at its center. Plenty of other films have made heavy use of iconography and classical symbolism in the past, but few use so much of it so well (a good example of mis-use of classical symbolism can be found at the end of "Signs", when director M. Night Shyamalan turns a wonderful sci-fi story in to a Christian allegory, complete with Holy Water and a reincarnation) Director Bryan Singer's reliance on classical iconography is often obvious in "Superman Returns", but it is never blatant, and never disruptive. He begins by throwing the audience an early bone: Lex Luthor (the arch-villain, for those of you who are not so familiar with mythology) re-tells the myth of Prometheus in a sentence or two, and compares himself to the tragic, mythic character. From this point, once Bryan Singer has set up one myth-myth comparison, he is free to work with plenty of other parallels (and those in the audience who remember their studies might pick up on these additional textures). Superman, of course, is the central icon, the central image of the film, and of course, it is Superman who receives the greatest mythic treatment by Singer. At one point in the film, an earthquake dislodges the large, spinning globe that sits atop the skyscraper that houses "The Daily Planet". It's large, made of steel, and it threatens to crush lots of people below it. Singer knows that if Superman were to fly in and grab this large, plummeting globe from the top, it would be a moment in a film, but if Superman were to fly in under the falling globe and catch it on his shoulders, with his head at an angle and his arms straining to balance the thing, that would be Classic -- and not just classic, CLASSICAL. Superman is Atlas, known to the Romans as Titan. Yeah, This Guy. It's an image, and Singer knows it so well, he even has Sam Huntington (played by Jimmy Olsen), a news photographer with The Daily Planet, snap lots and lots of photos (significantly, Huntington's first "good" photos of the superhero). When Superman runs in to trouble late in the film, he falls from the sky, first with his feet straight and his arms stretched out (a cross, a Chrystological martyr-figure) then, as he falls, his arms and legs bend, and he approaches a fetal position, wrapped in his red cape, a more universal image. And as I watched this moment in the film (not quite a scene, more than a shot), I couldn't help but think of Icarus, whose flight took him too close to the sun, melting his wax wings...

This dedication to images -- classical interwoven with modern -- is what made "Superman Returns" really work for me. Singer knew well that Superman needs to be iconic, and he was smart to make full use of the powerful mythic icons the Western literary canon offered.

**********************************

An entirely separate note from the film.

A scene that struck me very much comes early. Lex Luthor, after stealing alien crystals from Superman's secret, polar hideaway, discovers that even a tiny speck of one crystal, when put in to water, reacts very powerfully and catastrophically. To demonstrate this, he has one of his cronies drop a grain of this crystal in to a "lake" -- a model lake, to be precise, in a beautiful, elaborate model railroad setup (a "model railroad pike", if I recall the terminology correctly). The crystal, when placed in water, grows very quickly and destructively, pushing through anything in its way. In this particular case, it throws the entire model city in to an earthquake-chaos, and Bryan Singer thrusts us right down in with the model citizens, watching the model trains crash and burn from the two-inch eyelevel of the plastic, painted figurines. This in itself is a creative way to demonstrate the impact of what Lex Luthor has in mind (the ultimate use of the full-size crystals), but it's not everything. Watch the scene and listen carefully. There are sounds of trains, of explosions, even, amazingly, of people screaming. It's a model, and it looks like a model, but in an odd way, it attains the gruesomeness of "the real thing".

This scene impressed me not just because it was a clever way to convey an idea, but also because it seems as though every filmmaker who had a train set as a kid spent at least some time trying to do something cinematic with it. Spielberg, it is said, made movies with his trains, and if you look through my old videotapes from middle school (or even early in high school, really), you'll find my own train set among the footage. I've seen model trains in movies, but this really was the first time that I've seen a model train used in a film the way a kid with a train set might imagine it being used -- and it's used very successfully.

-AzS

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Stepford Wives (1975)

So I've finally seen "The Stepford Wives" (the original one, from 1975), and boy, is it creepy!

It's a somewhat dated film, but, after seeing it, I sort of got really peeved at the Frank Oz re-make from not too long ago. Oz turned it in to some sort of sordid comedy, whereas the original was really, truly, honestly creepy (as it should have been!)

One thing about it that struck me as a bit dated (thank G-D, too) was the "men are evil" attitude that it presented -- all of the men in Stepford (which is really little more than a stand-in for the rest of the civilized world) are selfish, ambitious, domineering and violent when it comes to women -- all they want is a sexual-satisfyer who will also keep the house neat, keep the kids well-trained and stay out of the way of business and other assorted "manly" things. I'm glad that men are being viewed a little more fairly these days than they used to be (I recently read "Self-Made Man" by Norah Vincent, which seems to be a part of a re-balancing trend...)

-AzS

Musing Pictures: Nacho Libre

Parodies can be wonderful, but they're tough to pull off well. Nacho Libre is a fight-movie parody, in some ways transplanting the narrative from the Far-East, where such films often originate, to a sort of timeless, quintessential Mexican Nowheresville.

Nacho Libre, embodied here by Jack Black, is a Mexican wannabe-wrestler, whose life as a friar in an orphanage leaves much (including a pretty nun -- played by Ana de la Reguera) to be desired.

There's a lot of potential for humor here, but somehow, moments that could be riotously funny just aren't. There are some good chuckles, here and there, but to my mind, the film's greatest error is that although it is a fight-film parody, the fight scenes themselves are the least funny parts of the film!

When you think of a war film, you might think of battle scenes, but you'd also think of generals rallying their troops, soldiers commiserating in foxholes, etc. In a parody of a war film, all of those elements have to be transfigured in to something really funny, really hysterical (and of course, this is not the same as a comedy about war, a-la M*A*S*H -- only of parodies of serious movies about war). Since "Nacho Libre" is a parody of fight films, the elements that one thinks of in a fight film (especially the fight sequences that are always central to fight films) need to be funny.

There are a few notable elements to "Nacho Libre", though, that are interesting, but which have nothing to do with the content or quality of the film. There are a few sequences of un-translated, un-subtitled Spanish in the film, which, to a non-speaker of Spanish, were rather startling in a political and not-at-all-funny sort of way. Those segments, unlike untranslated or un-subtitled segments in other films, were presented as if they contained something important (that is, they were not background chatter), but non-speakers of Spanish were left (intentionally) out of the loop. It was as if the film were punishing non-speakers for not knowing Spanish (remember, I paid to see a film, anticipating that I would be able to understand it -- it's true of foreign films, too -- I pay to see them with subtitles, after all). If I know that a film is in a language other than English, I expect to be warned if it is not going to be translated in some way, so that I don't waste my money on a ticket to a film I won't understand.

And I'm not opposed to having extended sequences of American films done in other languages. I think "Traffic" was a triumph of multi-lingual film. But of course, with "Traffic", the subtitles were essential to those of us whose Spanish is limited to the digits from one to nine.

It's stuff like that, when a film tries to snub its audience, that makes me a little squeamish.

-AzS

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Mortal Storm

This is an obscure film, and that is exactly what is surprising about it.

Here's what it's about:

-A German family, comprised of an Arian mother, Arian children and a Jewish step-father, gets slowly and agonizingly torn to pieces during Hitler's rise to power.

Here's what it contains:

-Frightening and accurate scenes of Germans being moved and inspired by the Nazi propaganda machine -- in some cases, inspired to do violence and injustice to the people who they once admired and loved.
-Unequivocal condemnations of Nazi social policies, especially pertaining to concepts of 'racial purity'.
-Images of characters in a Concentration Camp

Here's what's so surprising:

This film was produced and released in 1940.

There is a great deal of talk about how Hollywood never really addressed antisemitism in its films until "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) (in which the Holocaust is mentioned almost as an aside), and the Holocaust itself doesn't really become a serious topic until "The Pawnbroker" (1964) (with occasional films that handled the issue at arm's length, like "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959)). But here, a film about the Holocaust that was released before the general public really had any clear sense of what was going on!

The scenes of the concentration camp are particularly surprising, because this was a time when no images, moving or otherwise, were available to anyone, anywhere, of the camps. It's just about the only historical image that is not accurate in the film (they got their uniforms perfect! Even "Schindler's List" didn't do that!) but it's pretty frighteningly close, right down to the spotlights on towers, the tall, ominous fencing, and the forced labor.

After seeing this film, I was filled with questions:

How did they know? (apparently the film was based on a book of the same title, which was written several years earlier!) There is so much in the film that is so accurately portrayed... it's amazing that the director, Frank Borzage, somehow managed to get it all right...

How was the film received? I wish I could find reviews -- did people realize that it was all true, or did they see it as a fiction? To what extent were American moviegoers aware of what was going on in Europe in 1940, and how much did this affect the way they received the film?

Why is it so obscure? It seems to me that "The Mortal Storm" should have much more significance in today's discourse on important Hollywood films. Aside from its subject matter, it is an exceptionally well-crafted film (it's very much a high-craft Stuido picture, right from the beginning), so there seems to be really no reason not to consider it quite highly. Evidence of its general obscurity includes the fact that IMDB has the wrong picture on the film's page, and it is not available on DVD anywhere.

I've found the VHS version of this film at only two libraries in Eastern Massachusetts, so if you're around here, you may have to fight to get ahold of it. If you're interested in examples of a more activist Hollywood, or if you are interested in the first Hollywood reaction to the Holocaust (which had barely begun at the time!), this is an absolutely necessary film.

-AzS

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Musing Pictures: X-Men: THe Last Stand

More can be said for conviction than one might expect. The third film in the "X-Men" trillogy, "The Last Stand" delivers only some of what it promises.

Remembering the first X-Men film, which was made and released in pre-9/11 America, I recall finding it refreshingly slow -- an action film that was more about characters and concepts than the typical action film. Although it suffered in the same way that any first-in-a-series film suffers (it has to squeeze a lot of back-story in to two short hours), it gave me a good sense that an interesting, complex world had been created, and that subsequent films would make good use of that world.

The second X-Men film is the reason for the first line of this post. "X-Men United" was a film made by a team that believed what they were doing. Whereas the first X-Men film was a foray in to new, uncharted territory, the second X-Men film was approached with the confidence of people who knew what they were doing -- who knew what world they were in. It was a surprising film in that it came at a time when we still believed that sequels are never as good as their predecessors -- X-Men 2 is partially responsible for deconstructing that belief.

X-Men 3 concludes the story (although the parting shot leaves us wondering about what happens next, there are clearly no plans for yet another X-Men film, nor should there be.) Sadly, whereas the first X-Men film successfully built the world, and the second successfully textured that world's deep, painful dramas, this third X-Men film (directed by Brett Ratner, rather than Bryan Singer (who helmed the first two films, and whose work we'll be seeing soon, when "Superman Returns")) is back where the first one began -- unsure of itself, unsure of the rules, and unsure of the real root and heart of the story. A story's ending is like the end of a gymnastics routine -- it has to stick, and in order to stick, it has to be told with conviction. A storyteller who does not believe the ending of his story is in trouble from the start.

What does lack-of-conviction look like on screen? For the most part, it comes across in performances. When the incomparable Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen sound like they're acting, it's a good hint that someone (probably the director) isn't so sure what he wants, and as a result, the actors can't be sure of their characters anymore. But it also comes in inconsistencies, and this particular film, especially the ending of this particular film, happens to contain inconsistencies that are simiply inexplicable (and here I mean narrative inconsistencies, not the occasional mistakes of continuity that can creep in to a production).

I do not believe that "X-Men" went 'one film too far'. I just wish that the production's footing was more sure before the film was produced.

-AzS

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Trailer Talk: World Trade Center

When I saw the trailer to Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" at the screening of "The DaVinci Code", I was struck by two things:

1) It makes the film look very commercial, the way that some of the "United 93" trailers made that film appear. "United 93", thankfully, turned out to be very tastefully, delicately, and powerfully constructed. "World Trade Center" might turn out to be an excellent film (Oliver Stone is no slouch), but I wonder about it... One of the things that made "United 93" work is that it is a very limited film -- it's about one aspect of the events of one particularly eventful day. The film is so dedicated to its story-within-a-larger-story that we never even see the towers fall (for me, and I imagine, for many people, the difinitive moment of that day's experience). "World Trade Center", by its title, and by the preview, focuses on those towers, and on the rescue personnel who went in to try to keep the worst from happening. Approaching this type of story, a question is begged: The events of September 11 were terrible to watch from a distance -- the story of the witness-from-the-living-room can be chilling and dramatic enough -- so why do we need to go inside (and if you look at the trailer, we do go inside the building, in to what appears to be its lobby, as it is coming down. Even in the trailer! The Naudet Brothers' documentary on 9/11 included footage from inside one tower as the other tower collapsed, and most of that footage was utter darkness. If Oliver Stone asked himself this question, then I suspect that the film will have an answer.

2) You need to see this trailer in theaters in order to understand what I mean by this point, because computer screens won't get it: They matched the weather. I don't know how the heck they did this, but they matched the weather. I was in the Boston area in September, 2001, and the weather on that particular day was pretty much identical between Boston and New York. One of the first things that struck me as I watched this preview was that the color of the air somehow matched my recollections. This was something that I noticed in "United 93" as well -- the color of the weather (call it color saturation, call it color-balance, call it what you want) matched my memories. And the absolutely fascinating thing is that between "United 93" and "World Trade Center", you have two very different approaches to the way that particular day looked, but both seem equally true-to-the-original. I think that the key to why this works lies in the way each film sets up what "outside, during the day" means. The outdoors of New York City of each film is an outdoors in relation to an indoors. The exteriors are contrasted with interiors. I suspect that the reason both "United 93" and this "World Trade Center" trailer seem to accurately mirror my memories of that day's weather (despite the differences between the films' "look") is that both films are very concscious of making the day look a certain way -- bright, sunny, cloudless... and each film approaches the exteriors by contrasting them with interiors, and by matching the visual style of the exteriors to the visual approach to the interiors. Okay, this is getting a little technical. In "United 93", there's a lot of grainy, over-exposed stuff, even on the interiors of buildings. The colors are muted, but the whites are harsh. When we see the outdoors in that film, they are even brighter -- it all looks as though someone pointed a camera without adjusting to the fact that it's such a bright, sunny day. And that makes it seem even brighter and sunnier. "World Trade Center", judging by the trailer, is shot in a bit of a more standard way, with cleaner, crisper film stock, and with a better balance of colors... so its approach to what that type of weather looks like involves emphasizing the blue of the sky, and emphasizing the effects of sunlight on different colors (making them more vibrant, more 'alive'). I can't know how much of this is true without speaking with the postproduction supervisors of both films (they would be the ones in charge of conveying color conversations from the director to the people who actually handle color correction and all of that.)

One more interesting note on the trailer comes from The Professor, and can be found here: http://nightspore.livejournal.com/146457.html

-AzS

Musing Pictures: The DaVinci Code

There are many new films these days that begin with baggage. Some are sequels, entering theaters only to face a crowd of comparers -- an audience that is all too eager to go home, to tell friends "it was better than the first one". Some are re-makes, with the same problem: "It was better than the original" is the best they can hope for (and the least likely of possible outcomes).

"The DaVinci Code" comes with its own baggage, of course. Many moviegoers will be eager to compare it to the book, itself a sequel.

I have seen several reviews of "The DaVinci Code" that claim that it does stand on its own quite well (that it is not one of those films where if you didn't read the book, you won't understand the movie). Why is this assertion so necessary so often? There have been quite a few big hits lately that are literarily-inspired, from the Harry Potter films to the Lord of the Rings trillogy. Those films didn't require a familiarity with their source-material. Why do people keep expecting this?

Perhaps it's the sequence that does it.

People assume that sequels necessitate a familiarity with the film which they follow. You have to see film #1 before you see film #2. That is always the order of things: thing #1 has to come before thing #2. You have to see the original before you see the remake (or, at least, that used to be the way of it. How many people who saw Peter Jackson's "King Kong" made a point of seeing the Cooper/Schoedsack original?) It seems to be the same with books -- you have to read the book before you see the movie.

Interestingly, this idea wasn't originally a matter of understanding.

Of course, movies are made in such a way that they can stand on their own -- even sequels, nowadays, are structured so as to appeal to an audience that is broader than that of their preceding film. Movies based on books, too, are made so that you don't have to read the book. They have to be, especially in a culture that tends to watch movies more than read books.

So why do people seem to ask "will I understand it if I haven't read the book"?

I don't really know the answer to this. Certainly with the "Lord of the Rings" films, knowing the books meant knowing a richer backstory (but not necessarily a necessary one, as far as the films themselves are concerned). "The DaVinci Code", though, is a very dense film that stays very true to the book it is based on (at least, very little is added, even if one or two moments are taken away). But even with "The DaVinci Code", if it were a film that you could only understand if you had read the book, it would be failing as a film. And this is true of any book-based film. Movies are supposed to stand on their own.

A coda pertaining to the third installment in the new Star Wars trillogy: Here is an example of an intentional deviation from this unspoken "rule" of cinema. In the third installment of the new Star Wars trillogy (this would be the sixth Star Wars feature, then), there is an entire battle sequence with a robotic creature that seems to come out of nowhere. Apparently, this sequence is really the conclusion of an entire narrative that takes place between that film and the film before it -- a narrative that is explained in a short graphic novelette (a part of George Lucas' franchise, of course). Is it fair to put the end of this episode in to a film in such a prominent way without explaining the backstory (even in a rudimentary way) within that same film? some have suggested that in doing so, Lucas has developed a new form of movie -- one that takes advantage of the age of multimedia -- by incorporating multiple media sources and bridging one narrative across them. Imagine, then, a story that is told partially through a book, partially through a movie, partially through a radio show, and partially through a play, where you have to go through all of those media in the right order to get the story straight. It strikes me as an interesting idea at first, but also as a tiring one. What's the point, other than to make more money by selling more tickets for one story? It might be interesting to have a narrative presented in a book that will only conclude on screen, but only if I can get both for the price of one, and only if I can somehow get them at the same time, or in the same way. It forces too much work on the viewer/reader/listener to be a practical concept, as far as I can tell.

But who knows? Perhaps there will come a visionary mediamaker at some point who will be able to combine all of these different modes of narrative expression in to a coherent, multimedia narrative? I'm sure people are striving towards that end already, so it's probably a matter of time before it happens.

Meanwhile, movies based on books will still be made so that you don't have to read the book to understand the movie.

-AzS

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: A Scanner Darkly

I got a chance to see this, Richard Linklater's latest, in what is probably close to the best setting for it -- on a college campus. I say this is close to the best setting because I imagine it as much more of a dorm-room film, something a bunch of sophomores would excitedly watch in groups of five or six at three in the morning.

I like it when Philip K. Dick's narratives get translated to the screen ("Blade Runner" and "Minority Report" are, admittedly, the only two I've seen thus far, but I have vague memories of catching parts of "Total Recall" on TV a while back...) but I guess what I like is the noir-ish ambiguity of the future that defines "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report"... If "A Scanner Darkly" had been made in that sort of way, perhaps it would have impressed me more... As it was, though, it came across as sort of a middle-aged-hipster-meets-The-Future type of movie... sort of an answer to the question "What if the guys from 'Dazed and Confused' grew up in the future?" with weird politics and a twist ending that might have been fascinating had it been closer to the point of the film...

What was the point of the film? I can't quite tell. It might have had a pro-drug sort of message, or, at least, an anti-drug, pro-druggie message, or, perhaps an anti-drug, anti-druggie, pro-experimenting-with-drugs message, or... see, it sort of loses itself in itself. After the screening, several students commented to me that just watching the film (rendered in a weird, quasi-animation type of styling (much like Linklater's "Waking Life")) gave them the sense that they should wait an hour before driving home.

I've seen movies about drugs in the future, and I've seen them better -- 'THX1138' is, interestingly, the first to come to mind. Interestingly, both films have the drugs being provided by an overwhelmingly powerful entity that intends to weild those drugs as a method of controlling and profiting off of a large part of the population...

Another recent film, 'V for Vendetta' (which I hated, but which had elements that I loved) takes this sort of tack, but approaches it in an extraordinarily different (but frighteningly similar) way, to good effect (perhaps that's the next film I'll write about?)

Ultimately, 'A Scanner Darkly' didn't settle. Perhaps this was its purpose? The undercover police force in the film goes around in pattern-shifting suits, so no officer can be identified, even by other members of the force. It's both hard to watch and fascinating (and sometimes, it's so captivating as to trump the significance of whatever the character in the suit is saying). Is that unsettlingness the point? I don't think so -- in a film where nothing is settling, somehow, even unsettlingness itself never quite solidifies as a central theme or concept, and I'm not sure why. Although "Dazed and Confused" was very similar, it got to its point much more clearly, as I recall. Perhaps there has to be clarity in order for non-clarity to be apparent, and quiet for dis-quiet. Perhaps that is at the center of what's missing. There's lots of talk about a good, clean, happy world going berserk in the film, but all we see is a film gone berserk, and it's not set far enough in the future for me to believe that between now and then there was a time of relative peacefulness and harmony. If it were set a thousand years from now, rather than maybe twenty, perhaps I might have found it compelling (and with all of that new, weird technology, perhaps I would have found my disbelief more easily suspended).

-AzS

Monday, May 08, 2006

Musing Pictures: United 93

Yes, yes, I know, I know, it's too early to make a film about the events of September 11... or, at least, that's what I keep hearing.

I know that people aren't forgetting that, in fact, there was plenty of filmmaking going on about that difficult day very quickly after the events themselves took place. There was even "9/11", a striking, moving documentary about the whole ordeal that was completed by March, 2002, and broadcast on national television on the one-year anniversary of the attacks (http://http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0312318/). It was nominated for five Emmy awards (and won two of them). And how many documentaries have there been about it since then? A few hundred? A thousand?

"But those are documentaries!" some might say, arguing that this somehow gives them more credibility. Take a look at one of the Emmys that "9/11" took home -- "Outstanding Sound Mixing for Non-Fiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera)" It's an incredible mix, but let that be a reminder to all of us that even when we're watching a documentary, what we hear is rarely a "document" of the sounds of what we're seeing. In some ways, it can be the best kind of historical fiction.

But I digress. There is a new film out now, "United 93", directed by Paul Greengrass (yes, the guy behind "The Bourne Supremacy") and it doesn't pretend to be a "document" of the events themselves...

So, perhaps, here's a point of comparison: Documentaries try to portray truth as-it-is, or as-it-was -- 'show the historical film, show the "experts" talking about the historical film (although, to its credit, "9/11" has no "experts"), present all the visual materials as "evidence" of something, and then make your point.'

The fear about "United 93" is the fear about any fiction that attempts to tell history as narrative: In the conversion from history to narrative, certain details are lost, and certain interpretations that do not exist in the threads of fate make their way in to the storytelling. This happens to be true about documentaries, but for some reason, this doesn't bother people as much.

Now, yes, I do feel that it is too soon for certain treatments of the 9/11 attacks -- a "Towering Inferno" or "Poseidon Adventure" type of approach (i.e. '70s disaster film with an ensemble cast and a happy ending except for the death of someone we like) would be awfully disrespectful (yes, the date and its events have attained a certain secular sacredness, it seems), but "United 93" stays very clear of all of that.

In some ways, "United 93" acheives something that documentaries can not acheive (some might say that they can, on rare occasions, but I have yet to see it). It tells the history as fiction, allowing the viewer to enter the scene as one enters a story -- without concern for one's own well-being, because stories aren't real -- the monsters can't hurt us. When we see a documentary, we know that we are seeing something real (even if it isn't), whereas when we see a fictional narrative film (especially a Hollywood film, and especially in the theater), we know that we are seeing something that is ultimately fake (even if it isn't).

Much of the cast of "United 93" is composed of people playing themselves. Air traffic controllers, military leaders and mid-level bureaucrats in the film are often not actors, not even re-enactors, but the actual people who were involved in the actual events on which the film is based. In a documentary, they would be talking to us directly, through the screen. We can not feel what they felt -- even if the scene is re-enacted in a documentary. On the other hand, if these were all actors in the scene, re-enacting the experiences of people not-themselves, we might feel empathy for the characters as we watch, but the "this is fiction" safety net is always there for us to fall back on if we need it. Fascinatingly, since we are in a movie theater, and since we know this to be a Hollywood film, we let ourselves deep in to its fiction, only to discover that the fictionality of it is very thin -- thinner than even a very carefully researched re-enactment, because many of the re-enactors act from first-hand experience. It becomes a much more emotionally dangerous film because it is almost participation -- certainly it is closer to participation than a documentary could provide.

So, is it too soon for this film to happen?

Imagine if a film were made before 1950 about the Holocaust with survivors or liberators or what have you honestly and genuinely returning to the "scene" of the crime, re-creating it for the rest of the world to see, understand and remember. Imagine how much more powerful it would be than even the best documentaries or the most careful, sensitive re-creations. I am thinking now to the future -- fifty years or so, let's say. Sure, there will be plenty of folks who remember the events of September 11, 2001, but how many of them will remember well enough to act their reactions out, to demonstrate the shock of it? Will there ever be actors who can "fake" it well enough for anyone to understand? Despite all the films about Pearl Harbor, do any of us who do not remember that day have even the foggiest idea of how shocking it was?

I can't speak for every piece of fictionalization that will be coming out about the 9/11 attacks over the course of the next few years, but I can say that "United 93" could not have waited a moment longer. It is a closer account of the events than just about any documentary (perhaps with the exception of the Naudet Brothers' film), and it is a more involving and more directly emotional account than I expect any films could be many years from now, because the people who made it, who are in it, were in it.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the goings-on on the airplane itself, which, of course, is somewhere near the center of the film... Perhaps I'll leave that for another conversation.

-AzS

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Truman Show

Peter Weir caught my attention a little late. When I saw "Master and Commander" several years ago, I was struck by his ability to tell a swashbuckler of a story with hefty visual effects (and with both visual and narrative confinement) without losing track of the characters. At the time, Weir's name was fairly new to me -- I had not seen any of his earlier, equally well-known films (like "Witness" and "Galipoli"), and "Dead Poets Society" never really struck me as being all that great (I remember it as being engaging, but really quite slow. I wonder how I'd feel about it now that I am probably a decade or so older than I was when I saw it last). "The Truman Show" was one of his more popular films which I had also not seen. (I admit, I did see "The Mosquito Coast", and I found it quite odd... I've only now realized the connection, though.)

It was interesting, seeing "The Truman Show" in the age of 'Reality TV', especially considering the film was released two years before "Survivor" took American television by storm. I liked that it was not as angry a film as it would be today -- there is a clear "good" and "bad", but not a polarization of it. Here's what I mean:

Truman lives his little life in relative comfort in front of all those (5000 or so) cameras. His producer, Christof (Ed Harris), seems to love him, and not just because of all the ratings and all the money and all the power. Yes, it is clear that Truman's life is a bad thing, ultimately, and that when Christof finally loses his power over Truman (i.e., when Truman finally leaves), that is a good, positive development in the grand scheme of things. But it is also clear that Truman is walking in to a world where he will never again be able to lead a private, small-town life (of all ironies... he's stepping away from the cameras, only to face an international mob...) When Christof tells him that the world beyond the TV "set" (not the television, but the set on which the show is shot) is cruel and dangerous, he's right. And the fascinating thing is that he's speaking almost as an overprotective father (and in some ways, he is more a father to Truman than the man Truman believes is his father -- that father, after all, is just an actor. Christof really means it.) Yes, there are moments when the good/evil line seems more clearly drawn... but only barely. Truman, on a boat, racing towards the edge of his world, inspires Christof to call down a storm (get off the boat, Jonah!) which threatens Truman's very life. Are we to believe from this that Christof wants Truman dead? I think not. Ed Harris pulls off an excellently understated performance here... he's not just an overprotective father, but he is a proud one. Earlier in the film, he concedes that if Truman were ambitious enough, the gig would be up absolutely. Here, Christof does that very traditional father-son thing -- he throws Truman in to the water to see if he'll swim.

And Truman swims, and Truman finds the end of the world, and crosses its threshold. Christof looks disappointed, but not in the usual supervillain sort of way. There's no thrashing about, no angry retorts, no firing the guys whose neglegence allowed Truman to escape... There's just a sigh of sorts. His son has grown up, has left the house, has gone beyond his control... and his show just ended. Time for retirement, I guess. It's resignation that I see in the performance, and I really like that -- it's something we can all identify with, in a way.

I'm afraid that today, there is so much animosity towards "reality TV", especially in the realm of fiction-narrative filmmaking, that "The Truman Show" could never be made well now. Christof would be too cynical, too uncaring about anything other than revenue, and Truman's life would be too pitiful...

Movies with a message are tricky. I tend to gravitate towards those where the message is mild, and as such, real. When films are too angry, or too ham-fisted about the point they seem to want to convey, I get nervous. They are coins with only one side. I don't mind good and evil -- heck, there are some great films out there with good and evil -- but even Vader has some good in him, and Luke Skywalker knows more of the dark side than he'd like to believe...

And of course, the philosopher in me loves all the metacinematic possibilities in "The Truman Show"... there's even a TV-show-within-a-TV-show-within-a-movie... and there's an actor who is playing a non-actor surrounded by actors... an actor as a non-actor? Fascinating! It calls to mind that usual question of how much of cinema is real, and how much is imagined? It's a trickier question than you might think.

-AzS

Monday, January 30, 2006

No. No. No. No. No. Yes.

It is I, Smeliana, here yet again. You thought I'd disappeared. In fact, I just have a job and an active social life. I know. I know. I'm sorry. But I'll try to make it up to you. I just saw When Harry Met Sally, again. And, if I may spoil the inevitable but brilliant romantic comedy ending, I'll pontificate for a moment.

I'm going to assume that we all know the movie. And it's wonderful. It's fabulous. The comic timing, the editing, the pacing, the colors, the juxtopositions, the split screens, the racial/ethnic undertones, the City are all incredible. Just so good.

Harry and Sally are just complex enough that the film can hold up over time and it has several canonical scenes spurring debates throughout the ages. (I mean, the movie is almost 17 years old. That's practically FOREVER.) I'm in no mood to pander to you and tell you all of the ways in which this film is gold. I have a very specific question.

What's with the ending?

Harry comes to his senses and realizes exactly what he's supposed to realize; he loves Sally and wants to be with her. He even spouts a perfect "I Love You" Monologue:

I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.


How much do I want someone to say that to me? Hell, I could even write it beforehand and give it to him; I wouldn't want him to strain himself. My response (and Sally and I are VERY similar) would be to promptly pick myself up off the floor (I would have buckled at "sleep at night"), grab him, kiss him, and say, "Really? Go on..."

But no. Not Sally. She says that she hates him. She hates him because he says things that make it impossible to hate him. At this point, I'm with her, a bit. Alright, Sally. You want to be mad. Mad is a graspable emotion. It makes sense and has a standard protocol. It's fun to hold onto. There's always something to do. But he's so great, and so you're struggling. Rightly so. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

But then she just repeats, "I hate you. I hate you. [shakes head, tears up, and mouths again] I hate you." And then he kisses her! And they kiss! And then you have the pullback to the crowd and the cut to them discussing their marriage and happiness.

Am I the only one who finds this disconcerting? Do I hate conflict that much? Why does he kiss her? She just told him she hates him! Shouldn't that wound him a bit? Shouldn't he care if she hates him? Or shouldn't he worry that she still wants to hate him? If I confessed my love to my best friend and then he said he hated me and started to cry, I couldn't kiss him. I would cry too. "What did I say? What did I do wrong? I love you!"

The repeated, "I hate you" would just be such a blow to my ego that I couldn't kiss him right after. Is Harry cockier than I am? Is he so confident that she can't cancel out his determination? Is this a case of "when you know, you know"? Is love when both of you understand that the words coming out of your mouth are false?

I don't know how I feel about that. Maybe I've never had true love. Maybe I'm more emotionally specific than most people. Maybe my skin is too thin. But I don't think I could kiss someone after they say they hate me.

And what does it mean that it's okay that he did it? What kinds of gender ramifications does it have? "Don't listen to the crazy woman. She doesn't know what she's talking about! Kiss her! Win her!" Could it ever work the other way? He would say, "I hate you" and that would be it. Over.

Do you think this is unsettling?

Musing Pictures: "The 40 Year Old Virgin"

Comedy is tough. Whenever I see a comedy that I enjoy, it occurs to me that I should pay more attention, because comedy is tough.

"The 40 Year Old Virgin" is a comedy of awkwardness, in the way that everything from Charlie Chaplin to Mr Bean is comedy of awkwardness. The nice thing about the film's star, Steve Carell, is that he manages to pull off some true, genuine sentiment, in a way that is closer to Chaplin (or, really, to Buster Keaton, who, I feel, is better at it, because of his face). Despite its bawdy subject matter, the film really comes across as a pleasant, genuine little story, and it's Carell who is responsible for that.

Perhaps seeing a similarity to Buster Keaton isn't as farfetched as I thought it would be a few sentences ago. As I think on it, the film does include some physical, chase-related comedy (in cars, on bikes, on foot, etc.) and throughout it, the funniest part is Carell's face. His gift for comedic expression is remarkable, especially considering how quickly other actors over-emphasize their reactions to get a cheap laugh.

To my mind, there's something very intricate about comedy, and somewhere tied in to that intricacy is the supremacy of subtlety in comedic arts. I think that's why I prefer Keaton to Chaplin (although Chaplin knew extremely well the importance of subtlety, as well). I think that's why "Old Stoneface" Keaton hasn't been matched by other physical comedians/stuntment like Jackie Chan (who is quite funny, but not as sublime).

No, Carell is not a stuntman, as far as I know, but his ability to not only control his face, but to understate his own expression is where I feel he is most like Keaton. I wonder what his career will look like down the road. Comedians with highly over-expressive faces (Robin Williams, Jim Carrey etc.) have been attempting transitions to non-comic forms (Williams has been more successful, it seems... Jamie Foxx has been most successful of any of them). A subtle, under-expressive face seems more at home in drama than comedy, so I wonder, twenty years from now, when Carell is tired of that Same Old Thing, what will his dramas look like?

Also, a side-note on the film: It looks like a sitcom -- the lighting, the sets, even the staging of characters. Interestingly, the cinematographer (Jack N. Green) has had almost no interaction with television at all (although he was cinematographer for the cinematic adaptation, "Serenity", which had its origins on TV). The director, of course, (Judd Apatow), is a veteran of the television world, and a relative newby to the big screen (this is his first stint as director...)

-AzS

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Musing Pictures: "It's a Wonderful Life"

I was introduced to the film "It's a Wonderful Life" at a production meeting, of all places.

The fellow who suggested that I see the film introduced it roughly like this: "When it begins, you'll think there's absolutely no way this film can work, but you'll see, by the time it's over, it kicks like a mule."

Like a mule? I was curious.

Frank Capra's film, which has become an annual holiday event of sorts on TV (though it's much reduced, usually, when it is broadcast), begins with a conversation between a twinkly light in the sky, and another twinkly light in the sky. These are angels, discussing the saving of a poor fellow named George Bailey from his intended suicide. You'd think you were watching some bad, early Hallmark telefilm.

But here's the thing. Capra takes it all totally seriously.

We see the town (Bedford Falls). We see kids playing. We see George Bailey's story unfold (and the role is completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart), and Capra takes everything in as matter-of-factly as he possibly can. To Capra, this is not schlock. This is important. And that makes it all the easier for us to take it seriously.

I found myself buying in to the film's premise quite quickly, and, in fact, being rather taken by it -- moved to the verge of tears by the end (which is something very few movies can do to me).

I spent some time, after seeing the film, pondering Spielberg. He said, once: "Before I go off and direct a movie, I always look at four films. They tend to be The Seven Samurai, Lawrence Of Arabia, It's A Wonderful Life and The Searchers" (http://www.tiscali.co.uk/entertainment/film/biographies/steven_spielberg_biog/5)

That's an interesting spread of films, and "It's a Wonderful Life" fits in there in an interesting way -- it is the most heartwarming, the most uplifting of the films. Strangely, the director who seems to be known for playing his audience's heartstrings very well takes most of his cues from dark films, where characters die, and where people skirt the edge of reason or even turn completely evil before all is said and done.

But "It's a Wonderful Life" stands out, and I suspect that I know why. It's a completely effective film that somehow avoids falling in to all of the traps of a sentimental family picture. It's sentimental without sentimentality -- without coming across as being made of maple syrup. For Spielberg, who loves to tell uplifting stories (even though, lately, he has taken a dark turn), I can certainly understand why "It's a Wonderful Life" is such an influential film that he will re-watch it before every film he shoots.

An aside: I wonder how "Its a Wonderful Life" will affect me in forty years. Today, I am much more like the young, ambitious George Bailey. I'm not yet a family man, with kids, with that day-to-day grind, and with curbed ambitions. It strikes me as the sort of film that affects people very differently, depending on their age and stage of life.

-AzS

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Princess Bride

"The Princess Bride" was a film that I was introduced to fairly late, probably by someone who said to me "What? You haven't seen 'The Princess Bride'? Go see it!" I don't remember when the first time I saw it was, but it was on TV last night, and I found myself quite engaged by it, yet again.

What really, truly struck me about it this time around was its sheer technical simplicity -- and the fact that it still "works" despite its technical simplicity.

Here's what I mean.

Andre the Giant plays a giant. the people with the swords are people with swords. The sky is a painted backdrop most of the time (especially at the top of that cliff, early on) but we don't care, because we're too busy laughing at lines like "I am not left handed".

There is plenty in "The Princess Bride" that doesn't look real, and that isn't meant to look real. Rob Reiner is so confident in William Goldman's script that he just lets the sets do what they've done in theater for thousands of years -- imply a location for us so that the story (the STORY!) takes precedence.

I wish today's special effects films would take a note from films like "The Princess Bride". Peter Jackson, for example, spends too much time admiring his own creations in his films (and yes, although I did like the new "King Kong", he's very guilty in that film, as well), and Lucas, unfortunately, since he spent twenty years selling his special effects innovations via ILM, does little more than showcase his technology in his latest "Star Wars" films. Spielberg, along with (possibly) the much younger Shyamalan, seems to know how to weave high-end effects in to an engrossing story (see "Indiana Jones" or "Jaws", or, for a more subtle example, "Minority Report"), but I can't really think of anyone else who does that well. Maybe Joss Whedon? He's too new to tell (and I'm still irked by that line about the "thirty coin" quip that the token Jew in "Serenity" mutters).

-AzS

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Abyss

Whenever I heard mention of James Cameron's "The Abyss", I would get intrigued.

Here is a film about a bunch of reluctant explorers (there's that concept again) underwater, discovering new, weird, crazy things.

I was intrigued both for the mystery of it -- the "what's down there?" aspect -- and for the special effects, which were considered fairly top-of-the-line at the time (and they are).

What disappoints me, now that I've seen it, is that the film is actually a weak, underwater remake of Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (which I feel is one of his most undervalued films). I think its weakness is most pronounced when its heavyhanded anti-violence, anti-war, anti-nuclear rhetoric overtakes the plot. It's an interesting story, but then the story stops so we can witness some demonstrations about how the military is inherently evil (which the film simply assumes). Basically, the military people in this underwater laboratory go insane -- or, at least, one of them does -- and all sorts of bad things happen. I'd be fine with this if it was just another character going nuts. And I'm fine with films that are genuinely critical of the military, or of militant types of authority. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is brilliantly critical by showing that the military, with all of its good intentions, simply doesn't understand what's going on along with everyone else -- and perhaps because it's the military, it can not afford to be as imaginative as regular people. That's a genuine critique, and it is woven very deftly in to Spielberg's narrative. In "The Abyss", Cameron, who can do short sequences really well (the sinking of the Titanic, or the emergence of the Terminator, etc.), can't seem to blend the storytelling with the preachiness, and the effect is that the film pauses every time Cameron thinks he has something important to say.

It wouldn't surprise me if someone remakes "The Abyss" someday. It will be a better film if the military's role is downplayed, and if the awe and wonder of exploration is really given its due.

-AzS

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Media Chick: School of Rock

Here I am again, loyal droves, to give you some more analysis. And if you're new to my writing and you wish there were more of it, go visit my personal Smelblog. It's the same, witty Smeliana with dirtier language and pictures. (No dirty pictures...yet.)

I Always Think There's A Band, Kid


It took me three years to see School of Rock. Why? Why would I wait so long for unbridled hilarity? Because I'm a snob. A stupid snob who likes to feel like her films are commenting on society and history and theory. And if they're not depressing treatises, I like them to be cheeky satires or meta-rants. So I avoided School of Rock because I thought it wouldn't thrill me. And then I would have to explain to the plebian masses why I wasn't rolling in the aisles whenever Mr. Black raised his eyebrows. And that, my gentle readers, would be too much with which to deal.

So I've waited until today to watch my roommate's copy. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why didn't any of you tell me that School of Rock was a modern-day Music Man???

I'm a little disappointed in you all. I would have watched it much sooner had I known. We have the idealistic dreamer who comes across as a slackerly, commitment-phobic huckster in our hero. We have the begging-to-be-unwound teacher/principal/librarian/pseudo-love interest. (She even gets propositioned by a more successful version of the hero during the film's climax.) We have the old friend who abadoned the dream to come work in the situation in which Mr. Music finds himself. Friendo here has got a girl whereas Mr. Music is loveless, albeit searching. He wins over the kids, sometimes as a group and sometimes confronting individuals' needs, giving them special parts when requested. And, when the moment that the kids have been working for suddenly arrives, he has been intimidated by the parents, run out of town, only to be ushered back by his believing flock, pleading for his leadership and turning his lessons of confidence and joy back onto himself in the nick of time. Huzzah!

I know the love story elements aren't as strong. There aren't any bandleader/baton girl romances. And the kids aren't exactly the same. But there is a fat Black girl with an Arethavoice, a scared Asian boy with a penchant for Classical piano and books, and a skinny whitewashed Jewboy who is the brains behind the music. That totally modernizes the fatherless Irish boy with a lisp. If only the grade-grubbing Hapa girl had been sisters with the uptight principal...

(The ever-talented Joan Cusack looks significantly less ugly here than she usually does. I think she's the ugliest successful actress in Hollywood. Except maybe Uma Thurman, but she has her good days, at least.)

Anyway, what more is there to say about School of Rock that can't be concluded by my racial stereotyping? I would comment on the actual rock elements of the film, but as I would say, I don't know from Rock. But the movie was really fun and peppy. I bet it's a great babysitting flick. And then you can do air guitar with your kids. That'd be good.

Also, what about the bassist chick? She's totally ignored in the plot. I know you can't have a plot around every kid, but, come on! She's a female, 10 year-old bassist! You gotta give her some attention or no one ever will!

And don't even get me started on the gaygaygay little boy fashion designer. The only way they could have exagerrated that further would have been to have him hit on one of the other rockers. "I love your leather pants. They fit so...well. They'd look great on my floor in the morning..." (Overeducated, gay 10 year-olds speak with many ellipses. It's a mix between closeted fear and fabulous confidence.)

So that's my take on School of Rock. Sorry, Dr. Stoner, that I didn't write about How Stella Got Her Groove Back yet. I don't know if I should tackle the racial angle (He's always blacklit and she always spotlit, making him appear even darker and she lighter, a dynamic that fits right in with their power struggle.) and/or the gender angle (Is this an objectifying of the man a reclaiming of female sexuality, another tickmark in the history of objectifying Black men, or a dual-objectification of both of them, because they're both just so damn gorgeous?). And all of the bell hooks texts in my brain are screaming at me. "How dare you purport to suggest that one could ever separate the racial and gender angles! And what about the class issues?! That boy went from wealthy in Jamaica to working-class among the vacationing wealthy to rich in San Francisco! Where is the nuance in those societies? And what about addressing the poor Blacks in the areas?! No successful Black woman should live without acknowledging her less fortunate sisters in the ghetto! Where is this movie's class/racial/gender consciousness? It's in the dumpster, chucked to make room for a couple of steamy sex scenes! Well, I never!" You see, bell hooks is a very angry woman. But Lord does she have a right to be...

Anyway, next time I tell you my brain is overflowing after a movie, it's with rants like that. Just so you know.

So, whaddya think?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Musing Pictures: Aguirre -- Wrath of God

Depressing films are not new, but they do bring to mind an interesting question, which I will get to later.

I recently had an opportunity to see the 1972 German film, "Aguirre -- Wrath of God", which had been sitting, un-watched, on my shelf for several months. My first introduction to the film was by name, only, on a movie list from a 10th grade film teacher (Media Chick remembers him, too). Fast forward to my sophomore year of college, the intro film history class, and there it is again, Aguirre, in a dramatic final scene, standing aslant on a rickety raft, sailing down a tropical river with monkeys and corpses for company. The professor showed only that one scene, and it was all I knew of "Aguirre -- Wrath of God" for several years.

When I finally popped it in the VCR (yes, VHS tapes are really cheap, so I still buy them) all I knew to expect was that Aguirre would stand alone, with monkeys, in the end.

It's a very strange film, and of course, a very dark one. Aguirre, the head of a mutinous band of explorers, pushes them beyond their abilities and beyond their sanity in a quest to find the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. It is a study in leadership, and in insanity, and in the relationship between the two.

When I think of tales of exploration, the ones I gravitate towards are triumphant -- Neil Armstrong, Vespucci, Magellan, and yes, even Columbus, before the butchery. In my capacities as a dreamer and a storyteller, there is little more fascinating than the promise of just beyond the dip of the horizon. In "Aguirre", Werner Herzog paints a dark promise: there is nothing over the horizon but more horizon. We know that El Dorado is a myth, and that knowledge forces us to not only frown on the stalwart explorers, but to feel anger, as well, at Aguirre himself (played brilliantly by Klaus Kinski), for driving them so hard towards something that Just Isn't There. I think that's the difference between "Aguirre" and other exploration stories -- we know the ending, and we know it can't be good. When we first saw "The Wizard of Oz", we didn't know the ending, but it was good. The end of the rainbow proved to be a warm, happy, safe place. Although Magellan died before his circumnavigation of the globe was complete, we know that the task he set out to achieve was completed successfully, and GPS systems everywhere are now named after him. At the Olympic Games, we watch eagerly to see someone rise to victory. But there is also that dark fascination with watching another's failure. That is the fascination that makes "Aguirre" so powerful.

It's dark, and it's depressing, and we sometimes wonder, "who wants to see a dark, depressing movie?" I admit, I don't like them, most of the time. I love the cinema that transports and uplifts me -- the grand, sweeping, operatic stuff that leaves me desperately happy. But there's a fascination, nonetheless, with a fall. King Kong (the remake) is all about that -- a three hour film that culminates, literally, in a character's fall. Although I enjoyed the remake of Kong, a student of mine made the astute observation that it's just not fun to have so much pity for a character that you can't do anything to help.

There's a theory, and I don't think it has a name, that says: a strong source of tension in film comes from the desire to help a character, conflicting with the realization that you can not reach through the screen to the world of the film -- the desire and the inability to help.

Hitchcock takes full advantage of this type of tension, showing us just a little more than a character knows, and teasing us by placing the character in just the situation that makes the knowledge we have most relevant and most urgent. The key to Hitchcock, though, is that the character we care about gets out of the situation somehow. Our tension is released through relief. In "King Kong", and in "Aguirre", our tension is released through dispair and disappointment, if it is released at all. Rather than laughing, we cry, or brood. Sometimes, it just turns in to frustration. And it is not the same as crying when a beloved character dies "naturally" -- when even had we been able to provide information through the screen to the film, the character would have died. That is a death we can feel genuinely sad about, because there is no guilt associated with it. The character died, and it's sad for everyone who is still alive, but we don't have the frustration associated with the unrelieved tension.

"Munich", also a depressing film, works because even if we think we have the answers, we know that even within the film's world (which is meant to mirror our own), there are no clear answers. Even if we could reach in and say something, it wouldn't have an effect. (and yes, Spielberg does have his Hitchcock moment, when the little girl comes home early, and the bomb meant for her father threatens to take her life instead... but that moment, true to Hitchcock, allows for the right kind of release -- relief, rather than frustration.)

In "Aguirre", as in "King Kong", we have a feeling that we could step in and explain things. We could tell the world, "King Kong is just a Big Monkey with a Heart of Gold and a Penchant for Blondes!" or "Come on, guys, can't you tell Aguirre is insane? Feed him to the monkeys, and let's get out of here!" And we know we're right, and the screen prevents us from being able to say anything, and it's frustrating.

Werner Herzog's recent "Grizzly Man" is on my list of films to see. From the sound of it, it's also depressing in the same way (it's the tale of a man who devoted his life to protecting Grizzly Bears, only to get eaten by them one day.) I'm sure I'll have the same reaction to it, wanting desperately to tell this guy to get out of the woods, but not being able to because of the glass or the canvas that divides reality from the world of the film. [and a twist on "Grizzly Man" is that it is a documentary... time itself becomes a barrier, too.]

Monday, January 02, 2006

Media Chick: Match Point

Woody Allen wishes you would just admit to your despair. He used to be some adorable little man who spent his days worrying about his inadequacies. You thought that was so cute. "Ooooh. Look at him ponder and pace and pout! Isn't he darling! The jittery little Jewish man is so insecure!" But, gentle readers, you were wrong. Woody is 70 now and the nervousness has given way to an air of wisdom about the world. And, turns out, the world sucks. Or, as he put it in three quotations I found, "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." And, "Most of the time I don't have much fun. The rest of the time I don't have any fun at all."

Sounds hopeful, right?

Wrong.

"Match Point" is about the supremacy of luck. (Luck is the absence of reason or a cause-and-effect system of occurences.) One character states early on, "I think faith is the path of least resistance." And this ideology carries throughout the film. I'm not sure if Allen thinks that everything is a waste of time (maybe not sex...) but hope sure is. And even hedging ones bets seems to be fairly futile. Along with Allen decrying faith, he heralds the failure of Intelligent Design. (While the Godlessness of the world is merely a corrolary to "Match Point"'s metaphysics, this is the same Allen who said, "I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it's the government.") Anything that is under our control is just as quickly out of control. Forces of nature, logic, reason, or history can change without a moment's notice and we're left to cope with the pieces. Or we're not left at all.

Don't get me wrong. "Match Point" was a fantastic film. Unlike most depressing works I've seen, it had a cogent outlook on the world, presented clearly, convincingly, and completely. The entire film fit under this rubric, cleverly laying piece after piece down, until its events seemed to point to the only logical construction of the universe. Allen seems to have it all worked out. I just hope he's wrong.

I could talk about the fabulous casting, the hottttt sex scenes (more like sex snippets), or the excellent discussion about class. I could talk to you all about how Allen's New Yorker frankness served as a perfect implied counterpoint to this film about highly British manners. But, really, I'm too depressed.

Upside? Filmmaking is alive and well. Downside? It's alive in a man who once said, "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

Isn't that special?

Media Chick

Hello everybody! It is I, AzS's new partner in legality, Media Chick aka Smeliana. I have been one of AzS's foils in celluloid ever since our high school days in good ol' Waltham, MA. He and I used to sit on a bus traveling around Israel, talking all about movies we loved and recommending whole lists to each other. Maybe, just maybe, next time I go home to Beantown I'll bring that journal back and document those lists. How have our lists changed, five years later?

Anyway, AzS and I have always been a great tag team because our interests are along different angles of the vast cinematic universe. AzS, as far as I can tell, is a lover of film as an art form and a communicative medium for filmmakers to speak to audiences. I, on the other hand, am a bit of a media slut. I love the blunt instrument of the widescreen, the sledgehammer of popular opinion that is generated through ad campaigns, and the capitalist wars that are waged through studio competition. It's all so crude and animalistic. And yet, every so often, some people know how to wield these impossible tools to create multi-fronted attacks on the populace that grab their attentions such that forking down $10.75 seems a natural instinct.

Okay, that's ideology, albeit in a caricaturized nutshell.

Biography? I went to high school with AzS. I then fled Boston with the speed of an overhyped, newly shorn centerfielder and came to The City (New York, that is) to go to college at Columbia. I majored in American Studies, focusing in sociology and movies. I wrote my thesis on the evolution of the portrayal of gay men with AIDS in film. (Yes. I saw "Philadelphia".) And now I'm living in this big City, with all its bright lights, and trying to break into journalism. Turns out "freelancer" applies mostly to the amount of money I'll be working for and the pain that the search inflicts. It's not an easy business. But I've tried other things and this writing thing is what I love. I guess that's when you go into it. So this blog, as well as my personal blog get me writing and even get other people reading me. What could be better?

So check back, often, to see my thoughts on the films I see. I'm going to be the one to address the celebrity-driven backstories, media campaigns, implications and expectations of the films in addition to their actual stories/artistry. It's all very meta. But don't worry. You'll be able to keep up.

And I'm the one who uses the dirty words. You'll want to keep reading.

Feel free to comment. I'd love to hear what you think!