Friday, June 30, 2006
Superman Returns (USA, 2006, Bryan Singer)
The movie just didn't work for me. I found that the story really just plodded along during the first hour, when exposition was king and eyelids were droopy. When we finally got to the set pieces, only the "Superman saves the plane meets 9/11 meta-commentary" sequence had any urgency or visual excitement to it. Singer's never really been my cuppa tea as a director, so perhaps there's something about his approach that just doesn't click for me, but I found the pacing of the movie was startlingly pedestrian for an action film. As for the characters, I felt like I'd walked into the b movie version of Spiderman. Both movies are primarily set in a newsroom, yet not a single casting choice here matches the quality of actors working in the Spiderman series. Langella as a supposedly fiery newsroom editor proves to be muted and uninspiring when compared to J.K. Simmons, while Bosworth is a milque toast version of Dunst's Mary Jane and Routh is a watered down Tobey Maguire. Even more disastrously, there isn't a single bit of chemistry between any of the actors (Routh, Bosworth, Marsden in particular. Spacey and Posey fare somewhat better, as they at least appearing to be having some fun) who are supposed to feel so passionately about each other. No sparks, just a big old wet blanket.
Getting into the mythology of Superman, there's something about the whole character that bugs me. Like most superheroes, he's a walking deus ex machina, which is reason enough to dislike him (where's the suspense when you know Superman's gonna show up imminently?), but more importantly, I wonder about his purpose on this planet. Is his raison d'etre really to save people whose brakes have failed? Are there no larger problems he could tackle? Also, while the film gives some lip service to the notion that Superman's heroics will act as inspiration to humans, who might then improve their own lot by upgrading their behaviour to match Superman's. Yet, can anyone point to a single character who makes any significant step forward toward heroic levels of greatness other than Superman? Sure, Parker Posey feels bad, and weeps for Superman, but fat lotta good that does him. Luthor still stabs the lad with cryptonite.
I'm reminded of Bill's (David Carradine) monologue in Kill Bill about how Superman is really a critique of humanity, via the character of Clark Kent. Kent is how Superman REALLY sees us. Well-intentioned, sure, but in the end, clumsy, inept and ineffectual. That's pretty much the way I feel about this film as well.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (USA, 2005, Wes Anderson)
Anderson is a substantive feel-good story-teller. His point of view is essentially wholesome and forgiving. All of the foibles and antagonisms are what make the characters interesting and their relations entertaining. But underneath everything is real affection and this gives us a warm feeling inside. Personally, I like it. Call me an old fashioned square but it is a nice change from all the cynicism and irony and crass, abusive rudeness that so often passes for humour. Anderson creates a slightly unreal, phoney, falsely-safe universe in order to show us the basically positive emotions genuinely felt by the characters who express them. A bit silly, the message running through it all is that it is still cool to love other people.
He seems almost dogmatically committed to the love triangle as a catalyst for moving from the first presentation of things to the next, deeper level, ultimately to play its course as merely instrumental. Sexual passion and potentially dangerous eroticism is kept at bay. It's all about sincere attachments and the need to be appreciated for who you are. Whether almost-ready-to-be-a-man in Rushmore or almost-over-the-hill in TLA, romantic assertions are just vehicles for the pursuit of authentic friendship. Given my own age and time of life, I can relate to Steve Zissou more than I can relate to Max Fischer. But I can't honestly say that the middle-aged crisis of the former is more profound than the rite-of-passage crisis of the latter.
You are right that TLA is more ambitious than Rushmore and TRT. Anderson is moving beyond the situation of the school/home town of Rushmore and the domestic sphere of TRT to the wider world of vocational calling, professional status, commercial competition, mistakes made, sacrifices endured and penultimate achievement or masterpiece in one's life's work as well as the misrepresentation of nature in adventure journalism and the symbolic meaning of the sea in cultural forms. I would not want to exaggerate the depth of these themes in TLA but I can see why you called the film Anderson's Moby Dick.
With respect to the last two themes mentioned, I was particularly taken by the use of obviously false - i.e. animated - depictions of the aquatic life. I think this lends itself to a wide range of interpretation. Here's mine. Like the ship-set cut-away Monica so spoiled for me, this animation breaks the frame. I see a couple of contradictory signals. The first is critical of the bogus and exploitative presentation of nature by the likes of Marlin Perkins and so forth, what I have been calling "nature pornography" for years. On the other hand, there is a left-over resonance of a boyhood idolization of nature documentarians like Cousteau and a sincere cinematic respect for the footage they captured. It would have been easy enough to secure the rights to some good solid marine shots, but to use them would have been disrespectful of both the guys who filmed it and the wildlife shown. And this hooks up with the Moby Dick vibe because at the climax of TLA, we must met a leviathan that is larger than life, a "monster" of the imagination that can only appear to us as if by an act of magic. Of course, it validates Zissou professionally, is cathartic for him personally and constitutes the emotional cement for everyone involved. So the creature is about keeping the faith. It has to sparkle and sway like a cartoon Christmas tree in the breath of wonder.
The main weakness of TLA and the reason why it is not as tight as Rushmore and TRT is the action. Anderson doesn't know how to film it. It is vague and distant and doesn't do what action is supposed to do for us viscerally. No doubt, he is not practiced in this area. But the problem comes from a more serious place than technical inexperience. The problem is conceptual. What purpose does the action serve? The most I could say is that it satirizes the nature documentary another notch by transforming it into the action genre. Be this as it may, the comedy falls flat. Especially troubling is the violence that involves death. This may or may not be fertile for laughs but in the case of Anderson's universe, it is out of place and works against everything that grounds his perspective. His characters simply do not travel in those psychological realms, they do not have the required motives. These people hardly have the energy to fuck, forget about fight and kill. Sure, every comedy wants to partake of a little rough housing and slapstick if possible. TLA cannot afford too much of this and it loses its way.
Could the film work without Murray in the lead role? I doubt it. Love him. And like all great funny guys, he's much more than funny.
Anderson as a sorta urbane Frank Capra. I like the notion. Anderson, like Capra, clearly likes people and really believes in them. His characters are messed up, but in somewhat correctable and (more importantly) entirely forgivable ways.
In Anderson's films his characters are all looking to find wholeness and happiness by creating a world that feels like a great big extended family wherein everyone loves and abides by one another. In the first act of his life Max does this at Rushmore, and later more successfully at the public school. Royal tries to pull his family around him as he enters the third act of his life. And Steve Zissou, late in his life's second act, does the same aboard his ship. It's no accident that his (possible) son rounds out the crew. And if you look at the way Anderson works, his films are like extended families. He always works with the same people behind and in front of the camera. There's a real spirit of 60s commune about it all, the world is one big dysfunctional and loving family, and it is clearly one of the things that endears Anderson's films to me. I'm gonna get to hang out with the old gang again. Cool!
Anderson also embraces the theatricality and artifice of life. He is infatuated with the way things look, the way they are constructed and connected.
The show-stopping cut-away of Zissou's ship is the most obvious example of this, but really, look at he way he immaculate way he composes all of his shots, the sophisticated set design, the plethora of period detail littered throughout every scene. It's exhausting and fascinating, a treasure trove of minutea that adds up to something. Not sure what. But something.
Your critique of Anderson's action sequences is pretty accurate. It looks like he has no appetite for this stuff. His camera is most comfortable when set down in one place, recording the people cleverly conversing while moving through his incredible sets. His characters are not action heroes, they are slaves to words, words, words. It is a problem for Zissou because he is Ahab, on an obsessive quest to avenge his friend and resurrect his flagging career. It seems a bit early for Anderson to be lugging such concerns before the camera; after all, he's still young (by my standards) and quite successful, something of a critical darling. Still, I think he does a plausible job of building a 3-dimensional and empathetic character in Zissou, and Murray does all of the heavy work necessary to lift me past any plot contrivances (pirates?) Anderson tosses hin his way. As you say, without Murray, the film's in some trouble. With him, it is, if not a triumph, at the very least joyful and life-affirming. As you also note, Murray is so much more than the sad-faced clown. He's man who carries a knowledge of the way the world is, who is familiar with the way life can cut you down to size, yet who refuses to cave into despair. He's not a dopy, sunny-faced optimist; he's a wary but hopeful realist.
I may not love this film the way I adore Rushmore, but it's still the sorta film that I know I'll be able to return to in years hence and have lovely waves of happiness wash over me. It's all good.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Fight Club (1999, USA, David Fincher)
Well you can't help enjoying this picture even though its sheer existence vitiates most of what it has to say. All of the adolescent male, anarcho-punk, pre-fascist anti-mobilization mobilization nihilism is 100% sublimated, domesticated and commodified in obedience to the dictates of currently fashionable cinematic style and yet another helping of the ersatz critique that is postmodern irony. After all of the jumpy cuts and snappy dialogue - some of it really cool dude - the dull and disappointing fact remains that FC is an advertisement for Starbucks, Ikea and everything else it claims to attack. Gosh, the product placements alone, yeah yeah, they're ironic, uh-huh, see the sentence above. A little less offensive is Brad Pitt giving a speech about how we were all told that we would be movie stars, but this was a lie we were stupid to believe, so let's all make bombs. He's great in the role and I appreciate that he just wants to do good work like the next professional, but come on, the guy is on the cover of every fucking magazine all the time. I could cough up a hefty package of these example but I'll give just one more. Early on in Ed Norton's voice-over narration he mentions that after a mere month of living in the condemned building, he no longer craved television. Later, when the new model army is chilling in the living room, they are all tuned in to the news on television. Of course I can met the screenplay halfway and fill in the credibiliby blanks. That's not the point. The point is that television returns like the sunrise after the dark night. It is just there - naturally. The talk about not needing it, not wanting, not having it - just talk. Same for anything else the film is supposedly out to annihilate. It's all so much hot air for a teenage temper tantrum. And then it totally sucks out at the end, by making him mentally ill and even worse, sane enough to be sorry about everything and desperate to prevent the destruction. Unlike you, I was not chilled by the final scene of the buildings going down, even post 9-11. This was just giving the paying customers what they paid to see, wonderfully satarized on SCTV by those two dorks who are happy when whatever "blowed up real good." But like I said, it's actually quite an entertaining movie. I rather like it. It's too bad it couldn't have seriously explored the only genuine topic it considers, namely, male bonding through aggression. The film is very homoerotic and was afraid to enter into this. To close, I did very much like the abuse of self-help in our culture. Funny and true.
Before reading your review, I'll show you what I wrote for Apollo Guide back in 1999. The review's abridged, but I can't remember what got chopped out to make the edtorial limits of the mag. Something brilliant, I've no doubt. It's clear that I liked the film, but was having none of the hyperbolic praise being heaped upon it at the time.
"Society rewards compliance while encouraging consumerism as our central means of self-expression. But Fight Club is going to save us. Maybe.
Fight Club is an extremely well-made but rather muddle-headed film that delivers a solid blow to the belly, yet does not stand up to rigorous intellectual examination. The film is best when it skewers some of the odious aspects of our consumer society. When Jack (Ed Norton) and Tyler ( Brad Pitt) steal the fat from a liposuction clinic in order to make designer soap, which they then sell to fashionable boutiques at twenty dollars a bar so that the women who frequented the clinic can go home and wash themselves with their own fat is so richly layered in irony, that one cannot help but laugh. We are, they note, slaves in white collars working for companies where everything and everybody is a copy of a copy of a copy.
'Self improvement is masturbation. Now self destruction…' Tyler's words betray the fascist ethos of the Fight Club, a subterranean after hours club of brutal fisticuffs that injects meaning into the lives of the benumbed participants. There, they assert the masculinity that has been robbed from them in lives governed by routine. 'You weren't alive anywhere like you were there, notes Jack. Fighting is a religion, 'like being in a Pentecostal church where everybody is speaking in tongues,' which is an ironically appropriate analogy for the confused ideas at the centre of this film.
Fight Club is obsessed with man's emasculation at the hands of a culture that has made us soft. 'We are a generation raised by women,' notes Tyler. The film is punctuated with platitudes that would be amusing if they weren't meant to be taken seriously. Tyler shouts, 'Let's evolve! And let the chips fall where they may.' 'Things you own end up owning you.' 'We are God's unwanted children.' It is surprising that the filmmakers elected to go that extra step back into their Nietzchean cave and declare that God is dead, so everything is permitted. Where do we go with this knowledge? The film's final scenes show us. 'On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone is zero.'
Director David Fincher is clearly a talented filmmaker, and Norton and Pitt deliver knockout performances, but Fight Club is not the great film that Fincher's acolytes would have us believe."
I think we have similar feelings about FC, although as is our tendency, I am less tolerant.
I too enjoyed the line about self improvement being masturbation and I had planned to use it in my review but I ran out of time. Notice how my review finishes with my nod to the abuse of self-help. I liked all of that in particular and the revulsion with consumerism in general. But I maintain that neither the left-anarcho nor the right-fascist flirtations in the film are seriously developed, that in the end it is hollow entertainment. The raw energy on which it all burns might have been refined in interesting directions. The aberrant masculinity presented as a social critique is jive but the nonconformity of the behaviour does lend itself to a gender analysis of what "masculinity" means these days. In this regard and as I indicated already, as far as I can tell, FC is super-gay.
Well, I mark your pronounced intolerance, your naturally prickly (diss-)orientation, down to your American heritage. After all, we Canadians are the world's peacemakers, and blessed are the peacemakers, for we shall inherit all the messes.
I remember liking Fight Club's satire, while being wary of its contradictions, many of which you have capably pointed out. I agree that the attack on consumerism is ultimately suspicious, an Antoinettian attempt to have its cake and eat it too, with designer names dropped like Reese's Pieces to lure the jaded po-mo ET audience with its hipness, only to betray 'em when it came time to say something significant. Then there's the whole problem of the film itself being a product that is mass-marketed on the celebrity of Pitt and Norton, rather than on the film's potential subversiveness, in the hope of attracting the largest audience possible.
I like your description of the film as super-gay. It most certainly would have been more fun if Norton and Pitt had got it on, but then the whole third act would have revealed that as masturbatory, which, while probably a good description of the third act, might have lessened the film's effect even more.
Rushmore (USA, 1998, Wes Anderson)
Where the love for Anderson flows...
As you know better than I do, the so-called "independent" film is no such thing. We've had it now for about 20 years right? Not unlike so-called "alternative" rock music, these cultural products emerged in the 80s from creative forces that could not tap into existing sources of financing but nonetheless had to rely on existing outlets of distribution and promotion. In retrospect we can confirm that it amounted to a way for commercially untested talents to break into the market, not really about independence or alternatives at all. Hollywood underwent a restructuring just like other industrial sectors in which de-centralized and deregulated out-sourcing and niche marketing were modalities intended to offset labour costs and investment risks to front-line producers unprotected by large capital assets in the industry. It was in this context that, say, the Cohen Brothers and Steven Soderburgh and the Sundance Festival graduated to the big league.
What, if anything, then, can we identify as aesthetically distinctive about the independent cinima development I have adumbrated? I am hardly the guy to answer the question but as I happen to be the guy who is writing this paragraph, I have to suggest that it is a quirky sense of humour. It has to be humour because the practitioners are novices working self-consciously and are simply too inexperienced to be pretentious, at least if they are smart. It has to be quirky because it is conceived and executed in a low-budget context. This means that fabulous slap-stick based on big special effects is not an option. Nor is super-slick one-liner dialogue, the sort cranked out by an expensive sit-com-type gag factory. It has to be quirky because at rock bottom it lives and dies on the degree to which we enjoy entering into a modestly idiosyncratic situation featuring unthreatening odd-ball characters who we find charming simply because they are not genre-bound and are played by relatively unknown actors. The latter is key I suspect.
Billy Murrray in Rushmore may seem to disprove my rule but actually I think he is the exception that proves it. So much of his star persona is a sort of diminished anti-persona, such a B-flat dullness, he is one droll dude, (love him). But whether you give me my rule and Murray too, Rushmore seems to me to be an exemplar of what I am trying to theorize about the independent vibe, fundamentally an orientation to humor. I like the film a lot. It is charming and warm and funny. A very nice exploration of true friendship. And what a motly crew. Watching it for the second time, I think a direct line may be drawn from it to Napoleon Dynamite. You are more knowledgeable than me. I bet you could throw a bunch of other pictures into the pot I am stirring. Clerks comes to mind.
In any case, the Max Fischer character in Rushmore is a delight. And almost credible. He is a genius of sorts and could be getting straight As but he wants to spend the rest of his life at Rushmore because it is an upper class haven for a working class boy with no mother. I love the plot for kicking him out of the private - also called "independent" these days - school, for allowing him to bring his mad methods to the public school, where he continues to be himself and come into his own. Sure, sure, there is no class conflict, there are classes but no conflict, life is benign and this is light comedy. Even so, his academic and sexual maturing is predicated on class recognition of himself. He finally introduces his father the barber, not the brain surgeon, to his friends. And even though the film is called Rushmore, he does not return.
And Dan Adds:
Your analysis of the death of true independent film is pretty much spot on--those filmmakers we label indie today are merely one step removed from the studio system, not independent of it at all. Names I'd add to your list (you mention Clerks, which is a Kevin Smith production) that you might recognize include Richard Linklater, who, like Soderbergh, alternates between mainstream studio productions and more intimate "indie" films like Before Sunrise/Sunset, Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Jude, Code 46), Chris Nolan (Memento) Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) Larry Clark (Kids, Bully), and Darrren Aronofksy (Pi, Requiem for a Dream). There are a few Cassavettes-style iconoclasts left, such as Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66, Brown Bunny), but he's the sort best identified as the exception that proves the rule. His films are seen almost exclusively by film festival types, and are so wild and provocative that they have little hope of ever being picked up by a distributor. In the end, most of these guys end up like Soderbergh, the Coens, Linklater, squarly inside the studio system, making mainstream entertainments hoping that their success will allow them to get the financing to make the smaller films that become their signature statements. However, a sample of the films above puts the boots to your suggestion that these films are united by a quirky sense of humour. A self-conscious and quirky world view, perhaps, but there just ain't that many laughs in the films of fellas like Kelly, Clark or Aronofsky to support such a genralization.
Now, onto Rushmore, which remains my favourite Anderson film. Unlike, say Kevin Smith, who, despite being a pretty good writer, is simply unable to frame an interesting shot, I contend that Anderson is unable to frame an uninteresting shot. He is first and foremost, cinematic. I make this distinction because it is clear that his material , particularly in his first two films, is deeply indebted to the literature of J.D. Salinger, with Rushmore being his homage to Catcher in the Rye, and Tenenbaums his affectionate tip of the hat to Franny and Zooey/9 Stories.However, rather than offering up a slavish recreation of Salinger's world, Anderson (and his writing partner in these 2 films, Owen Wilson) adapt and personalize it. In the case of Rushmore, that means moving the story out of New York and it to their own neck of the woods, central Texas. It also means removing most of the dark undercurrents that haunt Salinger's films. Even the attempted suicide scene in Tenenbaums, the closest that either of these films comes to staring personal torment square in the eye, and arguably the most powerful scene in Tenenbaums, is not allowed to linger too long, as Luke Wilson's character is resurrected and redeemed quickly. Most importantly, Anderson fills his films with childhood memorabilia (all the theatrical productions in Rushmore refer to films that shaped the filmmaker's consciousness, whereas in Tenebaums you need look no further than the games closet for signs of similar inspiration). So, depsite being inspired by Salinger, these films are in the end distinctive and distinctly personal statements by Anderson and Wilson.
I'd even argue that in the case of Ruhmore in particular, that they are an improvement upon Salinger. Anathema, I know, for a teacher of literature to argue that the movie suprasses the novel, but at the end of your review you alluded to the element of Rushmore that makes it a more interesting work. The one thing that always grates on me about Holden Caulfield, and the world he inhabits, is its suffocating aura of privilege. For all the astute comments he makes about the hypocrisy of the world he moves through, Holden is a part of the same world. His parents are loaded, and he attends expensive prep schools, and for all his criticisms of the people in his world, he makes no attempt to look at the flaws inherent in the system that produces such people. Max at least steps out of the rarified air of Rushmore (true, against his will, but still) and moves his show into the real world. And whattya know, he does much better there! It turns out that this is his real milieux. And, of course, we also have Murray's Harold Bloom, who, in one of the best movie speeches ever, urges poor guys like Max to take dead aim at rich guys like him. Not exactly the stuff of Marx, but it's a step up in awareness from Salinger/Caulfield.
Okay, so granted, as a so-called indie filmmaker, Anderson is no Cassavettes when it comes to getting to the emotional nitty gritty of human relationships, nor is in the league of a Robert Altman when it comes to dilineating the relationship between human behaviour and t he underlying social order. But he's one helluva good filmmaker nonetheless whose wacky universe I'm happy to spend 100 minutes inhabiting. Over and over and over again.
My favourite part of your discussion is when you refer to "Salinger's films."
About Salinger, I think we have talked about him before. You got to him at the right time in your life. I read Catcher on a beach in Thailand when I was 30. The rich kid problem you identify was just the beginning of my irritation with Caulfield. The whole thing was so oriented in a 1950s cultural framework. Everything he was objecting to and the way he objected to it struck me as so tired, passe. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg when I was a teenager as well as transcripts of Lenny Bruce, this after Vonnegut and Catch-22. I read Rise High the Roofbeam etc. in my late 20s before Catcher. But The whole Salinger thing has simply passed me by, my fault for being behind the curve I suppose. I acknowledge that he continues to impose a big shadow on any intelligent approach to adolescent male angst, but the upshot here is that I am perfectly comfortable with your view that Rushmore is an improvement on Catcher, and not just because the reason you give follows on my own appreciation of the class awareness in Rushmore. Hey, speaking of cinema inspired by the Holden model, have you seen Igby Goes Down?
I have not seen TRT for some time and I have only seen it once. Whereas I have seen Rushmore twice and just days ago. Still, I have to agree with you that of the three I've seen by Anderson, Rushmore is the most fully realized. In my review of TLA, I speak to what I consider to be the central weakness of that film. As for what makes Rushmore work so well, I can only suppose that Anderson lived with that material for many years before he finally got the opportunity to bring it to the screen. It's coming from a place he knows through and through, perhaps even from personal experience. Ditto for Wilson? You mention that they locate Rushmore in their own neck of the woods. I wonder if either or both of them found it in their own lives.
I also return to my point about seeing an unknown actor in a leading role. ( I still don't know the name of the actor who played Max Fischer.) This brings a freshness to our experience of the film I believe cannot be overemphasized. It helps that the actor eats the part up with a spoon. Without getting into a big critique of celebrity and how it commercially interferes with the theatricality or illusory power of performance, to say nothing of the sincerity of art, it is simply impossible to tease out an actor from his act if you have never seen him before. This makes for a very powerful character. I know Bill Murray brings a great deal to the table in Rushmore, but what he brings there he also brings to Lost in Translation and TLA and so on. For all I know, the actor playing Max Fisher IS Max Fisher. Same for Napoleon Dynamite. Speaking of which for the second time, how do you like that film? I was completely won over by it.
You mention how Anderson is not Cassavettes or Altman. It would never even have crossed my mind to compare him so. Of course, I have only this week latched on to his name. I find his work lightweight but pleasant as all get out. Perhaps I am missing some of his more serious overtones. I'll see what you have to say in response to my TLA review.
I mention Cassavettes and Altman as examples of independent directors of the past who have followed their own visions in order to make highly personal films, which is what Anderson has done with his first three films. He's not at their level or depth (and may never be), but I have yet to grow tired of his work.
The lead in Rushmore is played by Jason Schwartzman. Jason is the son of Talia Shire, whose bloodline I bet you know very well. Jason is another Coppola, like Nick Cage, who chooses to fly his kite under a different banner. Schwartzman effectively disappeared off the scene after this film, appearing in mostly forgettable stuff as the token teenager, until he grew up and reappeared in a relatively serious way recently, starring I (Heart) Huckabees with David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), another of these young-ish "indie" directors whom I could have easily included in my list. Dunno if he'll ever shake off the role of Max Fisher completely, though. It's his Rocky. Heh.
And oh yeah, I like Napoleon and his dynamite. Good goofy fun. And that actor (John Heder) is forever branded. He'll never play a serious part. At least, not convincingly. And, yes, I've seen Igby Goes Down. Pretty good job of picking at the Salinger scab.
Wilson and Anderson were high school buddies who attended (and got kicked out of, I believe) the same Houston prep school. Anderson went onto film school, Wilson to fame as Jackie Chan's buddy (I love their work together, btw; they are great comic foils. Wilson is all about the words; Chan is all about the action.)