Tuesday, December 29, 2015

" "

[Velazquez] would paint a turnip seriously; but never with that blatant materialism that seems to say in every line, "this is a turnip; you have often seen one before."  His picture would say, the one lesson of all art all philosophy, all religion, "this is a turnip.  You have never seen one before."
--G. K. Chesterton


Saturday, December 26, 2015

Two Christmas Movies: Miracle on 34th Street, The Snowman


Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947) Rating: 8/10 Stars.
Disapproves of public drunkenness, single mothers, apartments in the city, overly-serious children, commercialism, capitalists, money in politics, skepticism, psychiatrists, and common sense.

On the other hand, the profit motive, political cowardice, and bureaucratic shortcutting can work together for the good of all.

Reactionary and wonderful.


The Snowman (Jackson, Murakami, 1982) Rating: 10/10 Stars.
Superficially similar to Frosty the Snowman but superior in every respect, this utterly simple, old-fashioned film is one of the great classics of world animation.  Hand-drawn very consciously with colored pencils to imitate the style of Raymond Briggs' children's book--which in its wordless frame-by-frame storytelling is practically a storyboard already--the pictures shimmer and breathe with cel-by-cel crosshatching, every image labored over with human fingers.  (Incidentally, this aesthetic would have fit Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express far better than dead-eyed, slack-jawed motion-capture.)  The film is wordless but for Briggs' deep-voiced intro and the central song, but still enthralling for even small children, as Howard Blake's beautiful score guides us through the rhythms of the narrative.  The way the horse moves, the way the fields and towns--not simply background paintings--flow by beneath the boy and the snowman; the whole film has a dreamlike sense of being magicked to life.  And the song, "Walking in the Air," performed by choirboy Peter Auty, endows it all with a sense of the sacred.  So of course it's so beloved in the UK that they have profaned its memory with multiple inferior sequels and licensed the Snowman's image for dozens of commercial products and TV advertisements.  Ah, well.

While it's almost unheard of in the gen. pop. of the U.S., my sister and I watch it every year.  I love few films more dearly.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)

So after the biggest media hype in the history of movies, what do we have?

The first half hour is wonderful, with a mythic scope tinged by nostalgia, but new characters we can instantly accept.  Abrams can be great at evoking wonder, and here he really feels like the guy who directed Super 8.  I was surprised to see how much of a fan of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind he apparently is, though; the intro of Rey is almost a straight lift of the intro of Nausicaa.  Daisy Ridley proves herself a star.  John Boyega already proved himself a star in Atack the Block, and he’s not as good here, but I’ll take him anyway.

Anyway, the high point is the first flight of the Millennium Falcon, which is glorious, wide-screen moviemaking.  And then they bring back Han and Chewie and everything goes to heck.  How does that happen when grumpy old Han and hilariously laid-back Chewie are so enjoyable and welcome by themselves?  I have no idea, but I think it might have something to do with “fan service.”  Basically, the nostalgia stops adding a tinge of myth and starts becoming actively crippling.  The narrative outsources all the really important narrative beats and reveals to later installments--though why they didn’t explain what the galactic situation was, who the First Order is, and why there’s still a Rebellion in the opening crawl, I’ll never know--and there seem to be dozens of plot holes, at least on a first watch.  Why on earth do they have to blow up another Death St--sorry, Starkiller Base?  Just because its name is an in-joke about Luke’s original last name doesn’t mean you can be this lazy and get away with it.  Aside from that first flight, the only action scene with any bite is Rey's lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren, and even that requires a willful act of acceptance on the part of the audience so we don't wonder out loud why Ren can't cut her to cauterized shreds.  (It does look great, though, at night in the snow and all.) 

But what really saddens me about this movie is that I came out of it feeling, for the very first time, that the Star Wars galaxy was smaller than it was when the film began.  Say what you will about the prequels, they always made you feel there was more out there to see, more stories to tell, more life forms and exotic planets and gorgeous vistas just waiting to be discovered, and that was not true here.

I miss George Lucas.


Rating: 7/10 Stars.  *shrugs*  Eh, it’s Star Wars.


(poster from IMDB.com)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Ray Bradbury on Walt Disney



Happy Birthday to Walt Disney, born on this day 114 years ago.  I've written little on here about him or his films, but he remains, for all his flaws, one of my heroes.

This is an undated article by Ray Bradbury (another of my heroes) that was finally published in the 2006 collection, Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars.  I think it's one of the best, most infectious things ever written about Walt Disney, animation, and for that matter, theme parks.  I couldn't find it on the internet anywhere, so I figured copyright be damned, I'm going to just post it here.

_____________________________________________________


MOUSER (UNDATED)

I have imagined but failed so far to sell the Smithsonian on allowing me to fabricate and shock to life a series of garages with shut doors.  Open the first set of doors and you find Henry Ford shunted under his first car, busy at repairs.  Shut the doors.  Move on to the next garage, open wide.  Two bicycle repairmen within add wings to their bike and sail it over Kitty Hawk.  Other doors open to discover Theodor von Karman and his Caltech students inventing the Jet Propulsion Lab to take us to Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, and beyond.  Yet another door opening, and a young chap named Wozniak is blueprinting and wiring an Apple as big as the world.

Now, quickly, back to Garage Number Three, which we have not as yet opened.  Open it.

Inside, a man with a mustache, drawing a mouse.

A mouse that one day would stand astride the world.

Born in a garage in Glendale, California, in 1922.

The man is Walt Disney.

Shall I tell you how I first met him and what happened then?

Yes.  But first encounters first.  Sometime in 1928 in a dark theater in Waukegan, Illinois, I saw the Disney Studio’s wondrous sound film Steamboat Willie.  That was super, but what happened soon after rooted me, walking backward in the dark.

Skeleton Dance.

It was a five-minute lighting bolt that knocked the soul out of my eight-year-old body and vacuumed it back in, bright, clean, refurbished, hyperventilated, new.  I loitered all day in the Genesee Theatre just to see that incredible five minutes of drawn terror and delight reinvent itself on the vast screen.  Those skeleton acrobats, catapulting their bones about a graveyard and bounding out of tombs and shoving their skulls at a special boy in the front row center, caused him to sit through two performances of some dumb Adolphe Menjou let’s kiss again and cause a run on disgusted boys bolting back and forth to the men’s room and drinking more pop to make more pee.  In the middle of this racetrack routine, having seen the skeletons perambulate in syncopation for the third time, my father appeared and dragged me babbling home to a cool reception and a cool dinner.

I joined the Mickey Mouse Club not long after, and every Saturday for four or five years saw ever Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony ever made, at least twice each matinee.  I had been there when Disney added sound and music to his cartoons.  I was there when he painted the cels and added color.

I was there opening day in Los Angeles to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, eight times in the first two weeks, paying twice, the remainder sneak-ins.

I was the nineteen-year-old newsboy selling the Herald every afternoon for a year in 1940 raising a fist and shouting at God, “If you let a car kill me here in traffic before Fantasia opens, you’re in big trouble!”  I lived in terror of being struck dead before I had seen the greatest film in world history.  My judgment was right.  It was.  Give or take some room for Citizen Kane.

It’s been the long way ‘round to my meeting Disney.  Thanks for waiting.  Here he comes.

At Christmas in 1964, I was wandering through I. Magnin’s vast Beverly Hills store when I saw a man advancing up the aisles with his chin tucked over an armload of gifts.

My God, I thought, my hero!

The Mouse Maker of skeletons and ducks and dragons himself.

I dashed up to him and cried, “Mr. Disney?”

“Yes?” he said.

“My name is Ray Bradbury.”

“I know your books,” said Walt.

“Thank God,” I said.

“Why?” said Walt.

“Because someday soon,” I said, “I want to take you to lunch.”

There was a long pause while Disney took a breath, smiled, and replied, “Tomorrow?”

Tomorrow.  My God, when was the last time you heard someone say that?  It’s usually next week, next month, next year.  Don’t call me, I’ll call you.  But . . .

Tomorrow!

And tomorrow it was, seated at a card table in his studio office, devouring soup and salad and babbling.  His was quiet, mine was loud.  I lived the hour, tasting nothing, my homegrown skeleton rattling with joy every time Walt asked a question or served an answer.

We talked a dozen things in one hour.  I had been warned by Walt’s secretary that I must leave promptly at one, as his was a busy schedule.  So we ran up and down lists of loves and hates.  Above all, we hated people who put up world’s fairs one year and ripped them down twenty months later.  Why not leave one up forever to recharge batteries young and old, spin people through what I called Schweitzer’s centrifuge, which meant Do something wonderful, someone may imitate it.  World’s fairs, with museums, were the concrete realizations of impossible dreams.  Their purpose to so stun you with the past that you spun in circles in the present and charged off to revamp the Future.  I had already contributed to such an overflow of ideas and rambunctious creative behavior by writing a four-hundred-year history of the United States, seventeen minutes in length, with narrator and full symphonic orchestra for the United States Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair earlier that year.  Walt had seen, heard, and liked my prose poetry declaimed by John McIntire, hence this rattling good lunch.  Promptly at one I leaped to my feet, seized his hand, and said good-bye.  “Hold on,” said Walt.

And steered me out for a go-round of visits to the then-building People Mover, a new hippo for the Jungle Ride, and an improved Gettysburg-speaking robot Lincoln.  When we wandered back into Walt’s office, it was after three, two hours late.  His secretary skewered me with her stare.  No, I pantomimed, pointing to Walt, him!

How come?  Obviously he had X-rayed the skeleton dance in my face, along with Maleficent, more than a hundred Dalmations, the twilight bark, and a clutch of Fantasia dinosaurs lumbering into eternity.  He could have read in a dark room by the light in my cheeks.  He had to respond to that.

There followed a series of lunches with all the men who had created Snow WhiteBambi, and Disneyland itself.  They all knew how I had written letters to uncounted magazines defending the Magic Kingdom against the cold marble New York intellectuals whom I challenged to sail just once on the Jungle Boat, where I had traveled with Charles Laughton to watch him transmogrify into Captain Bligh on the instant.  I had soared with him over Big Ben at midnight and if it was good enough for Charles Laughton, one of our greatest actors/directors, it was good enough for me.

I watched the blueprinting and laying of the foundations for the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, meanwhile planning and replanning cities and malls in my head.  One lunchtime I said that Los Angeles needed a really good creative mayor like Walt.  His swift response:

“Why should I be mayor, when I’m already king?”

No argument.

At our almost final lunch, Walt turned to me and said, “Ray, you’ve done so much for us, what can we do for you?”

Without hesitation I said, “Open the vaults.”

Without hesitation he picked up the phone, dialed a number, and said, “Open the vaults.  I’m sending Ray over.  Let him take anything he wants.”

Open the vaults!  My God!  Hurrying, not walking, across the studio street to the archives, I recalled my first days in Los Angeles when I was fourteen, going to the L.A. museum every Sunday at noon to visit one small room where they had laid out, under glass, single animation celluloid panels with images of Skeleton DanceSteamboat Willie, and Flowers and Trees on display.  I devoured these and came back week after week, month after month, for years, loving and desiring to own just one, just one single cel!  And here I was on my way to filch and carry, carry and filch, give me some of these, some of those, from the candy store.

In the vaults that lay open, I forgot how to breathe or see, the selection was so vast and historical and life-threatening.  I grabbed cels from Snow White and the Seven DwarfsSleeping BeautyAlice in WonderlandBambiFantasia, and not only cels but drawings, sketches, watercolors.  I had nothing to carry them in so had the archivist load my arms.  Clutching some twenty or thirty pounds of my most dearly dreamed life, I staggered out through the studio gates, fearful of being arrested by some art police, lurched into my taxicab, and drove home, looking back, wondering what was wrong with these people that they didn’t realize I was stealing from the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Washington, D.C., National Gallery.

Years later every single cel that I clutched in my arms towered in value to ten thousand, twenty thousand, or one hundred thousand dollars apiece.  One cel alone, the Dwarfs washing their hands in a tub, with fully illustrated background, would have brought two hundred thousand from such as Steven Spielberg, who destroyed the competitive market in the late seventies by throwing a walletful of thousand-dollar bills into the auction.

But then, there, on that day, in that taxi, with me running like a thief in broad daylight, no one cared.  I was the rare idiot in the museum stillness, age thirteen, who had devoured, digested, and distilled animation cels directly from eyeballs to heart’s blood.  I was the crazed enthusiast who spent all the money I earned, ten bucks a week, to buy tickets to Fantasia in  1940, watching my friends’ faces in the dark, and if they didn’t like the dinosaurs, ostriches, hippos, and that gesticulating Lucifer atop Bald Mountain, off with the friendship!  Forever.

I was the one who, at Disneyland, four or five times a year from 1956 to 1964, bought cels for five bucks apiece from trays in Tomorrowland, where they lay neglected by nonappreciative dumbos.  I already had one hundred or more cels picked up in an almost free market.  Now, with incipient heart failure, I was rocketing home carrying Mona LisaGuernica, and The Last Supper.  Hell, no, better than that.  At home, where the cels still live today, I waited for an archivist’s telephone call to damn well lug back the stolen goods.  It never came.  I suffered a meltdown of bliss.

Lunches with Walt grew more infrequent.  There were rumors of illness and impending mortality.  His death, to me, was a death in the family.

Late in 1966 I got a phone call from Richard Schickel, who was writing Walt’s biography.  I was supposed to have lunch with Schickel, and on that day he called with the news that Walt was gone.  Did I want to cancel lunch?  My God, no, I said, there’s all the more reason to see you now, so I can tell all I know about the Mouse and the Mouser.  At the end of his book, Schickel quoted Walt’s remark about not being mayor, preferring to be king.

Rumors began immediately that Walt had been flash-frozen, to be opened in another year for some future life.

Nonsense, I protested.  His life had been so full and rich and royal he didn’t need to be turned into a 2001 Popsicle.

The lies still persist.  So much for royalty.

On the day of Walt’s funeral, CBS Radio telephoned to interview me.  My wife answered and on the air, live, told CBS I wasn’t home.

Where was I?

On my way to Disneyland with my four daughters.

When I returned with the kids late at night and heard of my wife’s remarks broadcast on the CBS Network, tears burst from my eyes.

What a grand epitaph for a man who had caught, inspired, and changed my life.

Only for the good.

Scarface, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Scarface was a first viewing, the other two are old favorites.



Scarface (Hawks, 1932) Rating: 9/10 stars.

Hecht Hughes Howard Hawks Howard
This movie is insane. Makes Bonnie & Clyde look like Bugsy Malone. No wonder they started enforcing the production code.
I feel like every gangster movie I've ever seen was just taking one or two scenes from this as models for their entire plots.



Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939) Rating: 10/10 stars.

Never have didactic, dialectical proofs of patriotism been so sincere or so convincing. The lofty ideal is constantly contrasted with the on-the-ground real, naive faith with weary cynicism, and somehow--almost miraculously--pragmatic cynicism is what starts to seem fake. After all, all those corrupt politicians and hateful journalists are living among buildings and monuments which have stood for generations, and Mr. Smith comes from a region where the peace and beauty of nature are free and evident for everyone to enjoy. (Note that Smith already knows the skills of the land [bird calls, Indian signs]--the film is his education in the skills of politics.) The American land itself bears the ideals of liberty and honest democratic government marked upon and within it--what are the life-spans of corrupt politicians and businessmen compared to that of the country?
Still, the drama and despair of those final scenes cannot be underestimated. All that seems certain about the final triumph of justice starts to fall away, and a gaping hole of horror opens up; Smith is there on the floor of the Senate, on sacred ground, but he is cut off from the People, and the People from the truth. Victory only comes with the abdication of the enemy, when the guilt and horror become too much even for a man who had sold his soul long before. Naive faith and idealism is therefore revealed as the most desperate, difficult, and heroic thing imaginable.
Should be shown (and often is) in every Government and Civics class in America. (Perhaps with Spielberg’s Lincoln as well?)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962) Rating: 10/10 stars.

This movie really does seem like a culmination of Ford's filmography, and much more than just giving a great summing-up epitaph in "print the legend"--for one thing, that line isn't nearly as affirmative as it is often taken to be.  Ambivalence and complication infuse every layer of this film.  The line might be taken as resignation, or asking with Orson Wells, How can one presume to make judgments about something like that?
The movie brings together the two halves of Ford's sound westerns/history films. James Stewart standing in for Henry Fonda roles in Young Mr. Lincoln and My Darling Clementine, the straight-arrow man of righteousness, rule-bound, reluctant, a true believer. Stewart's work for Capra is the obvious touchstone here. He's an orator like Lincoln and Judge Priest--but with a little less Western humility and a little more Eastern certainty. Remember the parodies of highfalutin' oratory in those films? Stewart and Edmond O'Brien's newspaper editor might be those figures redeemed. Or, alternatively, they might be intended to gradually recall those parodies, and become somewhat critical depictions of politicians themselves; righteous certainty can easily be corrupted to wrong ends.
John Wayne is here perhaps the ultimate tragic version of his persona for Ford: the individualist, the tough guy, the man's man, the rule breaker, a resenter of authority and pretension. He's Ethan Edwards without the cause or the hate, and hence crippled by uncertainty and choices, incapable of adapting to the changing world.
Like Young Mr. Lincoln and the Judge Priest films, this is a movie about democracy and politics, but here the arena moves beyond small town problems to become a story of territory and state politics, and eventually standing in for the whole West. More than any other, this is his film of the passing of the West, of the coming of modernity, and modernity is not well-liked by Ford. Many of his films are about the passing of an old order and values and the tragedy of change. The future is sometimes looked to with hope as people build a new country, but more often it seems ominous and uncertain. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is able to encompass both moods and so display the full extent of Ford's wisdom.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Uptown Tap

This is just too good not to share.



Monday, November 23, 2015

On Mizzou, and Yale, and Claremont Mckenna, Too

A passage from Joan Didion's seminal essay, "The White Album."  She does not answer many questions, much less provide solutions, but I suspect that many of her observations here would resonate significantly with events and figures of the current campus unrest.

. . . .

9.

At San Francisco State College on that particular morning the wind was blowing the cold rain in squalls across the muddied lawns and against the lighted windows of empty classrooms.  In the days before there had been fires set and classes invaded and finally confrontation with the San Francisco Police Tactical Unit, and in the weeks to come the campus would become what many people on it were pleased to call “a battlefield.”  The police and the Mace and the noon arrests would become the routine of life on the campus, and every night the combatants would review their day on television: the waves of students advancing, the commotion at the edge of the frame, the riot stick flashing, the instant of jerky camera that served to suggest at what risk the film was being obtained; then a cut to the weather map.  In the beginning there had been the necessary “issue,” the suspension of a 22-year-old instructor who happened as well to be Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, but that issue, like most, had soon ceased to be the point in the minds of even the most dense participants.  Disorder was its own point.
I had never been on a campus in disorder, had missed even Berkeley and Columbia, and I suppose I went to San Francisco State expecting something other than what I found there.  In some not at all trivial sense, the set was wrong.  The very architecture of California state colleges tends to deny radical notions, to reflect instead a modest and hopeful vision of progressive welfare bureaucracy, and as I walked across the campus that day and on later days the entire San Francisco State dilemma--the gradual politicization, the “issues” here and there, the obligatory “Fifteen Demands,” the continual arousal of the police and the outraged citizenry--seemed increasingly off-key, an instance of the enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’clock news.  “Adjet-prop committee meeting in the Redwood Room,” read a scrawled note on the cafeteria door one morning; only someone who needed very badly to be alarmed could respond with force to a guerrilla band that not only announced its meetings on the enemy’s bulletin board but seemed innocent of the spelling, and so the meaning, of the words it used.  “Hitler Hayakawa,” some of the faculty had begun calling S. I. Hayakawa, the semanticist who had become the college’s third president in a year and had incurred considerable displeasure by trying to keep the campus open.  “Eichmann,” Kay Boyle had screamed at him at a rally.  In just such broad strokes was the picture being painted in the fall of 1968 on the pastel campus at San Francisco State.

The place simply never seemed serious.  The headlines were dark that first day, the college had been closed “indefinitely,” both Ronald Reagan and Jesse Unruh were threatening reprisals; still, the climate inside the Administration Building was that of a musical comedy about college life.  “No chance we’ll be open tomorrow,” secretaries informed callers.  “Go skiing, have a good time.”  Striking black militants dropped in to chat with the deans; striking white radical exchanged gossip in the corridors.  “No interviews, no press,” announced a student strike leader who happened into a dean’s office where I was sitting; in the next moment he was piqued because no one had told him that a Huntley-Brinkley camera crew was on campus.  “We can still plug into that,” the dean said soothingly.  Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment: the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be “addressed,” plans to be “implemented.”  It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be “a very healthy development,” that maybe it took a shutdown “to get something done.”  The mood, like the architecture, was 1948 functional, a model of pragmatic optimism.

Perhaps Evelyn Waugh could have gotten it down exactly right.  Waugh was good at scenes of industrious self-delusion, scenes of people absorbed in odd games.  Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious: they were at any rate picking the games, dictating the rules, and taking what they could from what seemed for everyone else just an amiable evasion of routine, of institutional anxiety, of the tedium of the academic calendar.  Meanwhile the administrators could talk about programs.  Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerrillas.  It was working out well for everyone, this game at San Francisco State, and its peculiar virtues had never been so clear to me as they became one afternoon when I sat in on a meeting of fifty or sixty SDS members.  They had called a press conference for later that day, and now they were discussing “just what the format of the press conference should be.”

“This has to be on our terms,” someone warned.  “Because they’ll ask very elading questions, they’ll ask questions.”

“Make them submit any questions in writing,” someone else suggested.  “The Black Student Union does that very successfully, then they just don’t answer anything they don’t want to answer.”

“That’s it, don’t fall into their trap.”

“Something we should stress at this press conference is who owns the media.”

“You don’t think it’s common knowledge that the papers represent corporate interests?” a realist among them interjected doubtfully.

“I don’t think it’s understood.”

Two hours and several dozen hand votes later, the group had selected four members to tell the press who owned the media, had decided to appear en masse at an opposition press conference, and had debated various slogans for the next day’s demonstrations.  “Let’s see, first we have ‘Hearst Tells It Like It Ain’t’, then ‘Stop Press Distortion’--that’s the one there was some political controversy about . . .”

And, before they broke up, they had listened to a student who had driven up for the day from the College of San Mateo, a junior college down the peninsula from San Francisco.  “I cam up here today with some Third World students to tell you that we’re with you, and we hope you’ll be with us when we try to pull off a strike next week, because we’re really into it, we carry our motorcycle helmets all the time, can’t think, can’t go to class.”

He had paused.  He was a nice-looking boy, and fired with his task.  I considered the tender melancholy of life in San Mateo, which is one of the richest counties per capita in the United States of America, and I considered whether or not the Wichita Lineman and the petals on the wet black bough represented the aimlessness of the bourgeoisie, and I considered the illusion of aim to be gained by holding a press conference, the only problem with press conferences being that the press asked questions.  “I’m here to tell you that at College of San Mateo we’re living like revolutionaries,” the boy said then.

. . . . 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road


Second viewing, this time in re-released IMAX 3D. On first viewing I thought it was terrific, though not as overwhelming as I'd been led to believe. Four months later, this viewing confirms it as a masterpiece.
Some observations:
•The scope and volume and intensity of the action are obviously next level, but what makes it so enjoyable and engaging to watch is the intelligence on display in both the construction of the sequences and the actions of the characters. Watching Max and Furiosa interact is to see a chess match played out through glances and sudden movements. They are constantly alert to threats and opportunities, they recognize the same quality in each other, and therefore communicate with a minimum of words.
•The subtlety and depth of Tom Hardy's performance came through much better this second time--the amount of feeling that he carefully keeps out of his face. Mel Gibson was hardened and cocky; Hardy has gone beyond that, so dead inside he can barely make himself intelligible to others.
•In the Mad Max films, George Miller uses the grotesque to first demonstrate the perversion from the norm of his dystopian society, but then, in a maneuver going back to Tod Browning's Freaks, he moves past grotesquerie to find a deeper humanity underneath. The various deformities of his characters are functions of the deformity of civilization, caused variously by malnutrition, lack of healthcare, inbreeding, and radiation poisoning. But lumbering giants who at first present as violent monsters turn out to be as innocent as babes in both Mad Max and Beyond Thunderdome, and the terminally ill Nux in Fury Road has a change of heart. Both society and people are diseased, but the fact of disease is no reliable guide to good and evil individuals. This goes some way to divining how Miller manages to plunge his audience into a world of horror and nihilism and somehow emerge with hopeful assertions of human compassion, connection, and dignity that ring genuine and true.
•I caught more of the brides' dialogue this time, and realized they each do have a distinct personality. You can sense that they were given backstories by the writers and were thought through by their actresses, even if the material didn't make it on screen. And as nice as it would be to get to know them better, there's simply no time. The movie is better-served by maintaining its breakneck pace than it would be by adding in scenes where the women could introduce themselves and display their personalities for us.
•What we can make out from the brides' conversations is the way they have reacted against the totalitarian war religion of Immortan Joe by developing their own principles of how things ought to be. Exposed to Joe's sexual slavery (and pillow talk?) and hence hypocrisy, and well-kept in their apartments, they can see everything wrong with their society and long for a better world. But their non-violent ideals have to come down to reality, which is more vicious and complicated than they imagined.

Each of these paragraphs could probably be taken a lot further, there are so many details to unpack. What a movie.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

David Fincher and Gone Girl



David Fincher is an expert director in technical terms, but he’s often at the mercy of his scripts.  He’s capable of making a weak script formally interesting, but not profound.  He also has a cynical sensibility that tends to cheapen and bog down his projects, keeping them from achieving genuine masterpiece status--Se7en being the prime example.  (Zodiac and The Social Network come the closest to greatness.)  If he’s one of our great directors, his understanding of human nature is limited.

Gone Girl does nothing to dissuade me from this judgment--it’s not a masterpiece, it’s characters are profoundly awful human beings--but it’s still a heckuva movie, and worth revisiting and discussing.  And since I listed it as one of the best movies of lat year, but never got around to writing about it on the blog, let's do just that.

Fincher’s technical precision is evident from the opening credits, a montage of buildings in a sleepy midwestern town: words are pressed down in surprising corners and shots end an instant before you expect them to.  It perfectly sets the scene and establishes tension, and we haven’t even been given any narrative information yet.  The whole film proceeds in this utterly precise, clean, rigorous fashion, like a well-oiled handgun.  

The film doesn’t really have much to say about actual marriage, though apparently the feelings of drifting apart and the concerns about disappearing jobs, judgmental in-laws, costly mortgages, etc. hit home with a lot of people.  I suspect, though, that the large number of think-pieces inspired by this aspect of the film were at least somewhat due to the writers’ inability to discuss the second half of the film for fear of spoilers--even though the second half completely undermines everything those pieces said about the film’s economic topicality.  In terms of gender politics--such a flashpoint at the time of the film’s release, with accusations flying about the film’s misogyny left and right--I actually found it to be more of a misandrist revenge fantasy gleefully skewering worthless entitled lugs and playing back and forth with power relationships and the battle of the sexes.

But maybe the best way to look at it is as a second-coming of Hitchcock à la Brian De Palma.  After all, the influence on Gone Girl of Psycho, Vertigo, and Suspicion is deep and obvious.  Suspicion is about the possibility that a spouse could be a murderer, Psycho unfolds with a similar structure of twists and reveals, and Vertigo is also a mesmerizing investigation of one particular woman who is not what she seems.  More than that, we can read Gone Girl as drawing on Hitchcockian imagery in surprising and evocative ways, deriving meaning from these images where more topical themes seem insufficient.  Amy is in fact a Hitchcock blonde who decides to reject the role imposed on her, take over the story and become a protagonist.  Rather than be trapped in the gaze of her husband and her neighbors like Kim Novak trapped by James Stewart, an idealized image of beauty and womanhood doomed to crack and drown, she executes an elaborate plan to control the nature of her own image and write a new ending for herself.  Her image is her power, and the more she resembles a Hitchcock heroine the more power she has.  She loses her blondness when she goes undercover, and consequently loses her power and is robbed and humiliated.  When she goes to Neil Patrick Harris’s house she regains her blondness and then her power, seducing and murdering him like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, another Vertigo riff.  As her madness is exposed her power paradoxically grows, until she has rebuilt her life with herself in control.  Ironically, that new life is simply a renegotiated version of the role already predestined for her, a rebuilt image of perfected beauty and womanhood.  The difference is she’s now in control of it, she defines the limits and manipulates the media’s gaze to strengthen.  In fact, she is now in control of every element of the image, including her “perfect” husband.  In a sick joke representative of Fincher, Ben Affleck ends the movie as an abused spouse still hopelessly attracted to his abuser, forced to stay in the relationship for the good of the child.  There’s a situation you don’t see many leading men get into in movies.
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If I could return to that De Palma comparison, though, I must say I find the juxtaposition intriguing.  Both Fincher and De Palma love manipulating their audiences.  Both have been influenced by Hitchcock--De Palma more so, but De Palma loves Hitchcock more than anybody; half his movies seem to be tributes.  Fincher gets that formal perfectionist streak from both Hitchcock and Kubrick; he tends to be more socially relevant than Hitch, but not as cosmically authoritative as Kubrick.  All four directors get a perverse satisfaction from punishing their audiences, though not all for the same reasons.  All four have been accused of misogyny.

Both Fincher and De Palma have been heavily influenced by the Zapruder film.  Paranoia, surveillance, and conspiracies are recurring themes across both of the oeuvres.  Lisbeth Salander’s hunt through digital photos on a computer in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo finds its analogue (heh) in John Travolta’s reconstruction of magazine photographs and sound recordings in Blow Out.  De Palma’s style is generally more wild, featuring baroque camera movements and a love of excess.  Fincher is more locked down, occasionally even stately--the exception is Panic Room, where he employs digital effects to make his camera execute impossible movements even De Palma couldn’t have managed before.   Interestingly, it’s the elder director who likes to live in Movie-Movie Land, while the younger wants to seem like he’s in the real world most of the time.  But Fincher likes games and manipulations, too--see The Game and Fight Club.

In Gone Girl, many tropes that De Palma employs are evident: a bifurcated narrative, replays, cameras, ruses hinging on what people see or don’t see, a blonde woman of mystery, lust and consequences, the flipping of gender roles, femme fatales, and shocking sexual violence.  It’s a slow burn rather than De Palma’s usual florid emotionality, but by the end Fincher has left reality behind.  The violence achieves a certain Gothic grandeur appropriate to the director of Alien³ and Se7en.

In the end, perhaps the most important distinction between them is this: Brian De Palma is a filmmaker of the 20th century; David Fincher belongs to the 21st.