March 29, 2007
A Double Dose of Dopey Derring-Do
It's high time for a real post. I have been throwing all of my writing energy in other directions for the past week and a half, but now I'm back again. I saw two movies . . . when was it? Gosh, two weeks ago now . . . that I wanted to write about, because they were basically from the same genre and shared some of the same flaws from that genre. I rather enjoyed the first and squirmed uncomfortably during most of the second. They were Curse of the Golden Flower and 300.
Curse of the Golden Flower was just an outrageously fun movie in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero (but not as good as either of those) in terms of genre conventions (but without any flying). If you can't deal with the silliness inherent in the outrageous (but frickin' cool) acrobatics and ridiculous overkill (like the arrows in Hero), then this really isn't for you. I think that's a shame, personally, since I believe the heavily stylized should never be judged by its resemblance to reality. It's like hating a piece of modern art because it doesn't look like what it's supposed to be. You can hate the style if you must, but don't complain that it's unrealistic.
Anyway, Golden Flower is a sumptuous production, beautiful to behold. The costumes got an Oscar nod, and the sets and art direction are rich and ornate to match. It wouldn't be hard to sit and drink that in and enjoy it without paying any attention to the plot or the dialogue.
As for said plot, it basically boils down to this: The emperor of China won't be dead anytime soon, but he's got his eye on the question of succession. He brings the whole family (three sons and an estranged wife) together on the eve of an approaching holiday to have a little fun (sound familiar?). Golden Flower basically combines the scheming and intrigue of The Lion in Winter with the violence and high body count of Hamlet and tosses in a dash of the madness of King Lear and plenty of Oriental flair to produce something that is less satisfying than any of them, but still a heck of a lot of fun without taking itself too seriously.
See, the emperor is slowly poisoning his wife with a medicine that will eventually drive her insane. The empress has been having an affair with the oldest son (who is a product from an earlier liason of the emperor's). This earlier liason is now the wife of the ingratiating court physician, who is working with their daughter to produce and serve the empress her medicine. Said daughter, meanwhile, is in love with the oldest son (both being completely unaware of the looming shadow of incest).
The second son, oldest child of the empress, will soon be receiving the title of crown prince now held by his older half-brother, but feels compelled to join his mother in a rebellion against the emperor in an effort to save her sanity. And on and on it goes as the intrigue swirls in tight circles, revelations and counterrevelations are made, and the whole Forbidden City becomes a giant battlefield in reflection of the chaotic relationships between the members of the royal family.
Golden Flower in a nutshell: Imagine Ophelia going crazy and getting killed by ninjas instead of by a pond.
As for 300, well, that's a very different story. I'll try not to let my critique of the movie turn into a critique of the movie's fans. However, if I do and you are one, understand that I'm not talking about anyone I know, I'm talking about a vague, hypothetical "average movie-goer." With that disclaimer in place, I will accuse anyone who takes offense of having a guilty conscience . . . but feel free to defend the thing, if you can.
For those of you who are spelunkers, 300 is a movie based on a comic book inspired by a '60s movie about the Battle of Thermopylae (during which a ridiculously outnumbered Greek force held off the Persian army for three days). As such it would be fairly disingenuous to engage in a rigorous historical critique, since none of the filmmakers are officially pretending that this is historical. At the same time, there is a definite historiographical perspective at work here, and it is none too subtle (or, to me, palatable).
I'd be lying if I said I didn't think the movie had some pretty cool parts, but there were much longer stretches during which I was fantastically bored. And, over and above everything else, I had a distinct sense throughout that somebody was coming after my brain to scour it with lye soap and steel wool. 300 is intellectually idiotic and ideologically iniquitous, and for things I hate it's hard to beat the festering combination of dumb and preachy.
Nearly every spoken word in 300 is so disconnected from its actions that one would almost suspect it of having been completely redubbed by the studio months after production wrapped. Imagine walking into a movie theater of the future and seeing a member of the KKK in full regalia stand before a burning cross and give an impassioned recitation of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as the soundtrack swells gloriously. That is how confused this movie is. Picture flipping through channels and seeing a televangelist fornicating on-stage while he preaches a sermon on sexual immorality. That is how revolting this movie is. There is a values system at work here that is outrageously simplistic, deeply offensive and fantastically off-base.
Morality in 300 is literally only skin-deep. If you are a good person, you are also a good-looking person . . . If you are an evil person, you look like a freak of nature . . . or vice-versa. The looks may well be the cause and the behavior may be the effect as far as we are given to understand. What is completely disorienting, though, is that what sane, civilized people recognize as good and evil are mixed together like a chocolate and vanilla swirl, and every Spartan gets to snack on a tasty scoop of ambiguity.
Let's review: The Spartans stand for truth, justice and the American way. Their government is some sort of happy enlightened monarchial republic thing where women have a voice. They prize freedom and courage and masculine virtue. They also have legalized baby murder. Their male children are torn from home at the age of seven, brutalized and brainwashed in preparation for a lifetime career based on the idea that there will always be someone to dismember. Meanwhile, the most beautiful females get shipped off to spend their lives in a drug-induced haze of sexual exploitation at the hands of the corrupt, diseased and lecherous priesthood. But hey, at least they hate faggots.
And those are just the heroes. I'll choose to ignore the Persians as a sodden mass of underdeveloped cannon fodder. They aren't villains, they're target dummies. For the most part, their sins are no different from the sins of the Spartans, they are merely carried out on a much grander scale. Seriously, the Persians don't do anything that the Spartans don't do, they just do a lot more of it and it looks wierder. Perhaps their only unique crime is in being too inclusive. Anyone can join the Persian Empire; true Spartans insist on racial purity.
So, forget the Persians. Let's talk for a moment about the only two interesting characters: Theron and Ephialtes, the Spartan traitors. Theron is a namby-pamby peacemonger. This is reason enough to hate him, certainly, but we find out later that this is actually because he has cannily sold out the Spartans to the Persians. In the end, it seems that he is an evil hater of freedom because he is a thinker and a talker instead of a fighter. I couldn't shake that feeling everytime he slunk onto the screen.
Ephialtes looks like some sort of hideous hybrid of Quasimodo and the Elephant Man. He is an outcast whose parents were forced to flee Sparta rather than have their infant child dashed against the rocks (now there's an enlightened free society to give your life for). His father taught him how to fight, and he is nothing if not courageous. But King Leonidas won't accept his service . . . he's too short to be of any use in a phalanx. Ironically (moronically?), the Spartans go on to break formation during virtually every battle sequence so they can grandstand solo, so there was really no reason to shut Ephialtes out.
Rejected outright by the Spartans, the bitter Ephialtes naturally goes straight to the Persians and delivers the tactical weak spot to them. The muted implication surrounding the character is that he stands as a vindication of the policy of infanticide. If his parents weren't so weak and compassionate, his tragic existence would never have brought about such an unfortunate outcome.
There was a rather "healthy" discussion about which of the two movies was better (worse?) after we saw them. For me it boils down to this: Curse of the Golden Flower has a charming literacy going for it, whatever its flaws. 300 relentlessly subverts its own perverted logic while affirming the most loathsome elements of jingoistic machismo.
March 28, 2007
Deathly Hallows News
Okay, you've probably already seen it, but . . .Harry Potter cover art! And this will be the second-longest book in the series behind Order of the Phoenix. But I'm still bitter about the release date. Why not 07/07/07? Why not?!
March 19, 2007
Tom Jones: Best Picture, 1963
What an incredibly strange batch got hauled in at the 37th Annual Academy Awards (hosted by Jack Lemmon). Tom Jones was nominated for 10 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Art Direction (Color), and 3 for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman). It won the first 4. Ironically, the winners were not present for the first 3 of those 4 awards, and they were accepted by someone else.
As for the rest, Best Actor went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas for Hud, Best Art Direction to Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Best Supporting Actress to Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s (also starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). 1963 was one of those years where Oscar didn't pick many movies that people would remember favorably (if at all) . . . an off-year (awful year?) if you will.
Tom Jones is based (heavily or loosely, I do not know) on Henry Fielding's massive 18th century novel of the same title. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, the movie maintains a relentlessly frenetic pace as much for slapstick effect as to cover even just the bare bones of the original plot. Squire Allworthy, a bachelor living with his spinster sister, retires to his bedroom one evening and discovers an illegitimate infant boy occupying his bed. Blame for the child's existence quickly falls on Jenny Jones, a household servant, and she is promptly exiled along with the local barber accused of being the father. Squire Allworthy adopts the baby, dubbing him Tom Jones and raising him as his own (sort of).
Before long, the squire's sister marries and has a son of her own, Blifil, and the two boys grow up together. Tom is a rollicking, lusty lover of fun and sport, while Blifil is a model student and a prim, stuck-up prig. Both men love Sophie Western, but she only cares for Tom . . . this is unfortunate since he can't seem to keep his pants on around a large segment of the local female population. Blifil soon exposes Tom's wicked ways and he is exiled, leaving Blifil the logical choice to marry Sophie and unite the estates and fortunes of Squires Western and Allworthy. Sophie, horrified, runs away with her cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and half the major characters follow in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Tom falls in with all sorts of entertaining people, and starts bed-hopping again. Everyone winds up in London for a long interlude of dancing around social conventions and whatnot. Tom carries on more affairs and gets in more trouble, and finally all sorts of revelations are made just in time for a climactic last-second rescue from the gallows and a happy ending for Tom.
Tom Jones is chaotic and unfocused, and its pacing is a disaster. It has definite flashes of genius, and a good deal of honest hilarity. However, by the time the ending rolls around, it is difficult not to feel that the film has long since worn out its welcome. Far too much screentime is taken up by material that is either boring or irritating.
Albert Finney is fantastic in the title role, charismatic and fun throughout. His performance here is certainly far better than the one that would get him his next acting nomination over 10 years later (as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). Finney inhabits and possesses his character completely, and it is difficult not to find at least a little enjoyment whenever he is on screen. Tom Jones is also blessed with some magnificent set pieces, including an enormous, rollicking and elaborately-staged fox hunt featuring some great aerial shots of the action and a rich and magnificent costume ball full of rich and fantastical outfits of all kinds.
The movie further benefits (occasionally) from a style that rarely takes itself seriously, lampooning older movie conventions along the way. Tom Jones opens like a silent film, complete with melodramatic music and title cards, and isn't above frequent slapstick and "Keystone-esque" sped-up chase scenes. Like much of the repertoire of Monty Python (which Tom Jones almost seems to foreshadow from time to time) some of this works extraordinarily well while some is just too silly or outrageous to elicit more than a groan . . . and it is often not clear why some things work and others don't.
Ultimately, though, it's all just too much. Tom Jones drags too often, and in all the wrong places. Perhaps if an additional half-hour of subplots had been shaved off, or if the characters weren't so constantly interacting at a fever pitch, it would be an easier movie to watch and enjoy. There are certainly plenty of glimmers of a much better movie showing through beneath its exhausting and campy tone.
I've only seen three of the movies involved in the 1963 awards (besides Tom Jones), but it seems to have been something of a year of "ultimates," particularly in terms of ensemble casting. The three I've seen are The Sword in the Stone, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Great Escape. And I've seen a handful of others that weren't noticed: Hitchcock's campy The Birds, Peter Sellers' hilarious The Pink Panther, and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant's magnificent pairing in the comedy/romance/thriller Charade.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but at 192 minutes, it's probably the longest. And it probably has the most epic all-star and comedic cast you're ever likely to find on a single screen: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Jim Backus, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, and the Three Stooges. I remember watching the final climactic scene (a masterpiece of juvenile slapstick) over and over and over again when I was younger. Mad World was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 1 (Best Sound Effects, now Best Sound Editing). It lost Best Original Score to Tom Jones.
Then there's The Great Escape, the ultimate prison camp movie. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, et al came together for a fantastic film with lasting appeal . . . and Oscar missed the boat altogether. The Great Escape was nominated only for Best Editing and lost to another ultimate: How the West Was Won. That film was nominated for 8 awards, including Best Picture, and won 3. It featured performances from Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, and Spencer Tracy (as the narrator). And, of course, there's the infamous Cleopatra, widely considered to be one of the most ostentatious failures in movie history. However, it still racked up 9 nominations (including Best Picture) and 4 wins.
Selecting from an admittedly limited pool, my pick for best of 1963 would fall on either The Great Escape or Charade.
March 17, 2007
Scent of a Woman
This is actually a discussion of my experience watching Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but I couldn't resist that title. The film was an enrapturing story full of thought-provoking beauty; a moving fable on the power and meaning of love, prone at times to displays of what many might consider profoundly disturbing excess. Perhaps they would be right, perhaps not. But I doubt that I shall be allowed the experience a second time, and so, like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (the title character), I will try to preserve it here.
Unlike Grenouille, I don't think I'll need to kill anyone, but it will be necessary to reveal the ending. I don't think that should stop anyone from reading this. For most, you will finish reading about the movie here and know that you're never going to go see it. For the rest, I don't believe that knowing how the story plays out in advance has any effect on the enjoyment of this particular movie. I went in knowing all about it because I felt the need to read up on it heavily before deciding whether to go see it. I should note one source in particular, this essay from from Metaphilm. Its observations on Grenouille as a Christ figure heavily informed my viewing. However, aside from that guiding framework, the thoughts here are my own unless otherwise noted.
Perfume was directed by Tom Tykwer, director of Run, Lola, Run. In terms of style, I don't think any two movies could be more different. Where Lola's frantic, music-video pace leaves audiences gasping for breath as they struggle to keep up with the mad dash, Perfume lingers seductively amidst breathtaking sets and locations. The film is based on Das Parfum, a 1985 novel by Patrick Süskind that filmmakers have been begging to adapt for two decades. Stanley Kubrick declared it to be completely unfilmable.
Tykwer's Perfume is the most expensive German movie to date (it's in English, by the way), with a total unknown (Ben Whishaw) in the lead role. John Hurt provides his always reliable narration skills, Dustin Hoffman appears as aging Italian perfumer Baldini, and Alan Rickman shows up as Richis, Grenouille's self-appointed arch-nemesis. John Hurt narrates. The only other player American audiences are likely to have seen before is Rachel Hurd-Wood, who played Wendy in 2003's Peter Pan, and here portrays Richis' daughter and Grenouille's prime target, Laura.
The film opens with a young man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, being hauled out of a dark cell onto a balcony. There, in the middle of the night and in front of a howling mob, a sentence of execution is announced. The setting is the 18th century, somewhere in Europe. Flashback a few decades to Paris, where a stinking fish merchant gives birth to a baby boy amidst the rotting remains that litter the floor of her stall.
The woman has already experienced four still-births, and she has no reason to expect this to be any different. Unfortunately, this numbed sense of resignation will be the death of her. The infant is, in fact, alive, a fact that is soon discovered by everyone around her when it begins squalling. The mother is perhaps the most surprised of all to hear the cries of a living baby emanating from just under her feet, but that doesn't save her from an appointment with the gallows for attempted infanticide.
The child, who will somehow acquire the name Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, goes to an orphanage. Immediately, everyone around him can tell that there is something different about him. They are unnerved by him, and from the very beginning he is emotionally severed from the rest of humanity. What truly sets him apart though, is his mutant-like sense of smell.
Grenouille's nose can distinguish between an infinite quantity and variety of smells at a phenomenal distance, and can even (for instance) smell an apple that someone has just thrown at the back of his head in time to dodge. Perfume is 2.5 hours of tightly-packed narrative that would take far too long to summarize completely. It essentially consists of three acts and a final denouement, with the transition between each marked by a moment of discovery.
He moves from the orphanage to a tannery, and from there to become the apprentice of a perfumer after a chance encounter on the street leaves him determined to learn how to preserve scent. A girl selling fruit draws Grenouille helplessly towards her. He approaches her haltingly from behind, drawing her scent in, and stops just behind her. Naturally, this behavior startles her, especially when he refuses to speak and she hurries away. He follows her to a secluded spot and sneaks up on her again.
His actions are intensely creepy, but purely innocent. He doesn't know, has never had a way of knowing, what normal human interaction is like. He is used to being ignored or feared, and it doesn't occur to him that he might have the ability to put people at their ease. Maybe he can't.
In any case, the girl is frightened enough at finding this shady character hovering just over her shoulder that a scream escapes her. Grenouille, equally frightened, grabs her, covering her mouth and nose with his hand. His grip tightens as a passing couple pauses nearby to flirt, and by the time they are gone, the girl is dead. His sadness quickly turns to complete devastation when he realizes that her scent has dissipated with her life, and is now gone for ever. This moment will haunt his dreams and drive his obsessive quest to preserve scent.
Baldini informs him that all perfumes consist of 3 chords, with each chord composed of 4 notes (or scents). The ancient Egyptians, he is told, believed that the ultimate perfume would also require a final 13th note to achieve perfection. Aside from this bit of foreshadowing, his time with Baldini reveals only that the perfumer will be unable to teach him what he wants to know. For that, he will have to travel to Grasse, semi-utopian capital of the perfumers' art. He sets out, armed with journeyman perfumer papers, and along the way he discovers for the first time that he has no scent of his own. He is a soulless void within his own frame of reference.
In Grasse, Grenouille manages to discover a process whereby he can distill a small vial containing the essence of a human being. The process is not fatal, but it would require the complete trust of another human being, something Grenouille has no idea how to gain. So he kills. It begins with prostitutes and the like, while he is conducting his experiments, but once his process is perfected, he targets only the most beautiful women (mostly the daughters of the local gentry). Before long, Grasse is in an uproar. Curfews are imposed, men roam the streets in mobs after dark, and the local priest prays fervently for salvation from heaven . . . all to no avail.
Slowly, Grenouille's box of vials begins to fill up. There are 13 slots, and the women of Grasse are dying to fill them. The final slot is reserved for Laura, who (we are given to understand) possesses a scent of the quality of the girl Grenouille accidentally killed back in Paris. Unfortunately for Grenouille, Laura's father is the only worthy adversary he has. Richis is a formidable opponent, but Grenouille inexorably tracks them wherever they go, and inevitably gets what he wants even as everything falls apart around him and people realize that he is the serial killer. He completes his perfume just seconds ahead of the arrival of the posse from Grasse.
Grenouille is to be strapped to a cross, beaten with an iron bar, and left to bleed to death. As he is driven to the execution block in a carriage, we know that he has already unleashed his perfume on the jailers. The courtyard is packed to the brim . . . standing room only, people covering the balconies and rooftops in all directions. And the sense of hatred for Grenouille is palpable. We see him dab a few drops of perfume on himself and his handkerchief before he steps down. The crowd is loud, but everyone near the accused is strangely silent. He steps up to face the executioner, an imposing figure with the customary black hood . . . and the iron bar falls to the ground as the executioner drops to his knees. The hood comes off, and the executioner cries out, "This man is innocent!"
Most of the crowd is dumbstruck, but those standing closest understand. The handkerchief emerges from Grenouille's pocket and he salutes the crowd with it on each side. We can almost see the scent traveling outward as row after row of people arch their backs and squeeze their eyes shut in ecstasy. Within seconds the entire plaza has fallen on its collective face to worship the man they all hated. But now they feel nothing but love, and the effect has transformed every face in the crowd. Grenouille lifts the handkerchief high above his head, and allows the wind to catch it and carry it slowly over the people's heads.
Hands reach out to grasp it as it flies just beyond their reach . . . floating slowly like a baseball foul landing in slow motion in a crowded stadium. A dozen arms reach out for it as it floats within reach, the crowd surges, and for a moment it looks as though there will be a riot. But there isn't. Instead, the crowd quite literally explodes into an outpouring of love. At least, that is the idea . . . how do you show that? How do you show that an entire crowd has just been swept away by transcendent love for one another? Well, in this case, with the largest orgy scene ever filmed.
I don't want to dwell on this, but I couldn't help but be somewhat impressed by the planning it must have taken to get 700 people to have an organized orgy in a courtyard with the cameras rolling. It is perhaps hard to imagine, but the scene wasn't titillating. The transformation scene in Orlando is the linchpin of that movie, and it is crucial that it be simulatenously graphic, artistic, and tasteful for the scene to work (and it does). The same principle applies here, just on a larger scale. It is a powerful scene, but the most incredible part is yet to come.
Richis, thanks perhaps to a much deeper hatred, is the only one unaffected by the perfume, and he approaches Grenouille with sword drawn and ready. Richis makes it all the way up the steps of the platform before he, too, is overwhelmed. Grenouille murdered his only daughter, but Richis' hatred is no match for the power of love that has been unleashed upon the city. The sword falls and Richis' knees bow. Tears gush from his eyes and he embraces Grenouille about the waste, begging for forgiveness.
And at that moment, Grenouille, experiencing love for the first time in his life, realizes its true power . . . and its true nature. He flashes back to his first fateful encounter with the Paris fruit vendor, but things are different. He sees himself approach her with love, as one human being to another, and he sees her reciprocating. He realizes that he could have had what he wanted all along, but had it on his own merits, had he been willing to win it over instead of wrenching it violently away. He has been a consumer and a destroyer because he didn't know of any other way to achieve the love and the connection that he didn't even realize he desired. And, flooded with this new knowledge, Grenouille begins to cry.
Grenouille leaves Grasse behind him and sets out to return to Paris. The world is at his feet. The narrator tells us that Grenouille could do anything: He could show up at Versailles and ask the king of France to kiss his feet. He could write a perfumed letter to the pope and have himself declared the new messiah. He doesn't want any of that. With the power to command the love of all humanity at his fingertips, he feels strangely empty, for he still lacks the simple power that other humans have: to command the love of another person because you have earned it on your own merits.
Arriving back in Paris, he stumbles upon a group of beggars who are warming themselves around a fire. He pulls out the vial of perfume, and deliberately dumps it over his head. In seconds, the beggars are swarming around him, and in minutes they have devoured him (body and blood) so that there is nothing left. They go away transformed by this strange communion, each feeling that they have committed an act of purely selfless love for perhaps the first time in their lives.
I am rather tired at the moment. Watching Perfume was a bit of a draining experience, and writing about it was even more draining. I'm going to be lazy and let that essay I linked from metaphilm conclude my thoughts for me. I expect Perfume to return to my mind at some unexpected time in the future and grant me a new insight into something as yet unforeseen, or at the least a thought-provoking connection with something else I may be writing about. But for now, the thoughts offered by Tim Stanley (even if I'm not sure I'm in full agreement) will more than suffice:
The perverse and heretical interpretation of Christianity’s central figure could cause the Christian to blow this film off. But the reason I believe Perfume is so important is that its savior is so absurd. The great danger that faces Christianity today is the assumption that its truth is mundane, if not completely normal. As Slavoj Žižek has recently been writing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his essay “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy’” in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Žižek argues that “far from being boring, humdrum, and safe, the search for true orthodoxy is the most daring and perilous adventure.” In other words, orthodoxy is out of the ordinary, if not absurd. Does not the Christian tradition feel this every time it attempts to express itself in secular society today? The power of Perfume is that it allegorically reminds us how strange Christianity’s central character is—even if this is done by depicting him in one of the most sinister ways possible.
The fact that Christians worship a human man who was crucified as a criminal is all too easily tin-foiled over like the wrapper on a Cadbury egg. How do Christians celebrate the Eucharist without even the slightest disgust recorded in John 6.56 after Jesus announces, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”? Have Christians lost the revolutionary feeling in the command to love their enemies? Such an ethics is utterly absurd after the Holocaust. How do Christians love Hitler?
Like all good jokes told too many times, Christianity can easily lose its impact and timing. It is because of films like Perfume however, that Christian orthodoxy can regain a sense of the power of a radical punch line. Christians believe Jesus really did die on the cross. The Eucharist really is a taste of the divine. Loving your enemies really is the heart of Christian ethics. Now more than ever will the Christian tradition look back to the brilliant comic genius of St. Paul: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18). Or, more appropriately in this context, as he told the same church later,
“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2.14–16, NLT).
Until today, I don't think I even knew that I had this list, but I've checked something off of it anyway. It's my "Things Not on My 'Things To Do Before I Die'" List. Apparently, one of those things was "Dress up like a giant cartoon recycle bin named 'Gappy' and mingle with a group of Longview children," and I can positively say that I've done it. Allow me to explain.
Today, St. Patrick's Day, was "Super Science Saturday" here at the library. It is a hectic morning for the children's librarians at the best of times, but this morning there were a record 30 kids, and the usual 4 staff members involved in the activities unexpectedly dropped to 2. Today's topic had something to do with recycling, and so of course the plan was for "Gappy" the city's recycling mascot (I don't know. Please don't ask.) to put in an appearance. The suit resides in our break room, and somebody needed to wear it. I happened to be at the top of the short list of possible volunteers, and (being a good sport) I reluctantly agreed to step in to those extra-large shoes. For the children.
At about 10:45, one of the children's librarians helped me into the thing so I could make my strange debut. The costume consists of the following: A blue shirt with long sleeves and straps at the wrists that hook around your fingers; a pair of blue sweatpants with straps at the ankles to hook under your feet and a pair of red shorts that go over the sweatpants; extra-large cartoonish red-and-white gloves; a giant pair of red-and-white felt tennis shoes, with laces and everything.
And then there's the pičce de résistance, of course. The body is a big, blue recycle bin with big cartoon eyes, a round nose, and a huge, open-mouth smile. The holes for the arms are in the front, under the mouth. Protruding from the top is a random assortment of actual garbage . . . pardon me, recyclables (and advertising opportunities): a Domino's pizza box, Diet Coke container, box of Rice Krispies, KFC tub, etc. This large, unwieldy mass is lifted above one's head and lowered down over one (the inside is completely empty except for two padded "crossbeams" that bring the costume to rest on the wearer's shoulders). Your arms come out through the correct holes and have hands added to them, and you are ready to go.
I am apparently slightly better coordinated than the people who generally wear the costume . . . It was expected that I would need to pretty much be led by the hand, but this was not the case. The gigantic (and rather loosely-fitting) shoes took a few steps to master, but my vision wasn't as bad as I expected. Moving around was chiefly a matter of discovering what sort of clearance I was capable of and turning sideways when necessary. Happily, Gappy is a mute, communicating only through body language and gestures.
Our route to the large room where such activities take place led out of the break room, past the administrative offices, through the children's section, and past the circulation desk and the narrows of the security measures at the entrance. The first person I saw (passing through the children's section) was a very small Hispanic girl, maybe two or three years of age, weeping openly. This would have been a somewhat disheartening beginning, except that I had noticed her crying when I went back to put the costume on in the first place, and so did not feel responsible. In fact, we paused as her mother brought her over, and after a few uncertain moments, she smiled and returned my wave. We proceeded without incident.
When my presence was announced to the roomful of children and their parents, the greeting was effusive. I moved forward slowly, feeling a bit disoriented by the level of activity in the room and the small knots of children edging in. Those that were smiling seemed to me to have a strangely feral glint in their eyes. My waving grew more frantic, and I threw in a little friendly bobbing. I felt ready to shake some hands . . . and then I discovered a problem.
I don't know how many of you have observed this, but children are short. The average child in that room passed completely out of my range of vision when they got within about five feet of me. I could feel them clustering in close . . . were they hugging me? tugging at my hand? punching me? attempting to climb my legs? I had no idea. I reached out blindly to pat heads and shake hands, and fumbled around a bit. I was touching someone, somewhere, but I had no idea who or how. The thickness of the costume made it impossible to tell. I decided I should stop before something bad happened, and I started sticking exclusively to gestures and waves.
I could hear fairly well, because kids are loud. After the initial rush a few boys started dancing around me in circles. One wanted me to "throw him in the trash" (he asked me this several times, and would go away for a few minutes only to return and renew his request). I don't know if he meant that he wanted to be stuffed into the nearest waste receptacle or perched atop my costume. Either would have been amusing enough, but neither was particularly feasible.
A hearty-looking lad (okay, he was fat) wanted me to give him something to eat, presumably out of the bounty he observed atop my head. My arms didn't even extend out of the costume as far as the elbow, so I couldn't have obliged him anyway. But I did helpfully point out a box of graham crackers on a nearby table.
Soon, the crowd dissipated a bit and I was able to move about the room freely. I have a strong feeling that there was a mischievous imp following very closely behind me during most of the time I was there, but I couldn't have turned fast enough to see anyway, so I ignored the feeling. I waved and bobbed all over that room . . . had my picture taken with a kid twice (his mom accidentally deleted the first shot out of her cell phone). A little girl with a hard-to-resist gap-tooth grin wanted me to come see her little brother. The brother proved to be an infant who was sitting with his parents against the far wall. I wandered over, and her dad called me "a brave soul."
I was probably only there for 15 to 20 minutes . . . and then I waved goodbye and clomped back to the break room to transform back into myself. I was starting to sweat in that thing, and I had an itch in the middle of my back that needed attention. I hope I didn't do too well . . . they might want me again.
March 14, 2007
One of my favorite websites used to be theforce.net; the place for everything Star Wars. I discovered it back in 1998, and it had everything (it also looked a lot better . . . the site was "revamped" sometime between Episode II and Episode III, and I don't like the change). One of its several dozen features was periodical editorials about all sorts of topics. The first one was about the superiority of Star Wars over Star Trek, but there were all sorts of topics: merchandising debates, endless thematic analyses.
Then, during darker times, there were defenses of, and predictions for, the prequel trilogy. They had titles like "Why Episode I is Brilliant." Never underestimate the power of denial. I don't know whether the people involved ran out of topics or ran out of enthusiasm, but either way the last editorial was posted in April of 2003. My own rabidity towards the subject flickered and went out a little over a year later, and I haven't thought about those editorials at all in a few years.
I don't remember what I was doing at Strange Horizons. Just one of those things you stumble across when you're wandering the interwebs. On the site, I found this essay . . . a smart, funny, and scathing critique of the prequels that should be read by everyone who either enjoyed them or was vaguely bothered by them (I guess I was both). The author addresses too many points to summarize, and references everything from Oedipus Rex to Dune along the way. Great essay. Check it out.
And while you're at it, take a stroll through the article archives. Just this afternoon I've read several fascinating essays on such disparate topics as the variety of "megastructures" in science fiction, the use of maps in modern fantasy, firewalking, a scale for assessing horror flicks, linguistic misconceptions in constructed languages. I think I found at least one topic to interest every single member of the Shadow Council . . . and more than one that would interest most of us. Happy reading.
March 07, 2007
The Departed: Best Picture, 2006
The Departed was nominated for 5 Oscars at the 79th Annual Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mark Wahlberg). It lost only the last, to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. It is the 4th Martin Scorsese film that I have seen. I really thought Taxi Driver, an urban story of isolation and twisted virtue, was an excellent and amazing film. It was nominated for 4 Oscars and won none. Gangs of New York, a sprawling historical tale of rival Irish gangs and political corruption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, was pretty good, but perhaps overlong. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and also lost every single one. The Aviator, as I've mentioned recently, I disliked a great deal. A vast biopic of wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes, it was definitely overlong. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and took 5.
The Departed is the story of two men of Irish descent, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who join the Boston Police Department at around the same time and become involved in an investigation hoping to take down Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costigan is recruited by Dignam (Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) to go undercover and get as close as possible to Costello. Meanwhile, Sullivan, befriended by Costello at a very young age, is busily feeding him information from inside the force. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before the two moles become aware of each other's existence and each is forced to attempt to be the first to discover the other's identity. Meanwhile, unbeknowst to them, they have both fallen in love with the same woman.
This is really an excellent and carefully-crafted set-up, with an equally great cast. It is truly surprising that Wahlberg was the sole acting nominee, because there is fantastic work here all around. Nicholson, as usual, is outstanding, as are both DiCaprio and Damon. In fact, I think this may be my favorite DiCaprio performance to date. I'm surprised Nicholson didn't get a nomination for his performance. Maybe they thought, with 12 previous nominations and 3 wins behind him, why bother? Then again, Meryl Streep got nominated. In any case, I found the characters very believable and compelling, and I was very caught up in what was going on. I didn't get bored or feel the need to check the time at all.
Of course, part of that strength lies as much with the screenplay as the performances. There is a lot to like here with the slow building of very palpable tension, several surprise twists scattered liberally throughout, and cat-and-mouse antics that are as original as I've seen in recent memory. The ultimate fate of the characters is unpredictable, not because the ending cheap-shots the audience out of nowhere (it doesn't, really) but because the movie appears willing to let the story play out naturally instead of contriving a particular ending.
Nevertheless, it has its failings. They are, perhaps, not very significant alone, but together they make this film far from perfect. As great as the story is, I got the very distinct feeling as it drew to a close that the manner in which things played out would fall apart if I were to watch the movie again. A few things didn't quite add up. I was never sure, for instance, how Costigan wound up seeing the same woman that Sullivan was dating. I'm willing to overlook the improbability of it because it added so much to the story, but it seemed much too convenient. I can't discuss other developments in detail for fear of giving away the movie, but there were a number of inconsistencies and one or two major events that didn't seem plausible to me. These occurred mostly in the last 20 minutes of the movie.
I'm not sure where fault for my larger complaint should lie: with the editing, the directing, or the screenplay. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Gallagher walked in and joined us after the movie had been going for about half an hour, and he said at the end that he didn't feel like he had missed anything. In a movie where so much depends on character development and small details, being able to miss a good 20% of the runtime with no loss to understanding seems to me to indicate self-indulgence on someone's part. Leave more on the cutting room floor.
Actually, the movie had been playing for at least fifteen minutes already and we felt we were "in the thick of it" ourselves when suddenly the screen went black and "The Departed" flashed in front of us. Someone observed that that was one heck of an opening sequence. Waiting that long to announce the film's title is stupid, and I can think of no good reason for it. It breaks the flow. Really, thinking back, it's a testament to the movie's excellence in other areas that I wasn't more distracted throughout.
There were a number of weird, almost dreamlike breaks that cut in on the actual narrative here and there and disappeared just as quickly; things like Nicholson's character spraying cocaine through the air while a scantily-clad hooker looked on. These brief cuts were irrelevant to whatever was going on before, were gone as quickly as they appeared, and didn't seem to relate to anything that came after. Sloppy and surreal, a bad combination. They didn't happen often, but they shouldn't have happened at all.
That brings me to my final praise/complaint: the music. The music was great. It really was. The main theme was a haunting piece that came across as The Godfather with Celtic overtones, and a lot of the other music was fun Irish punk rock type stuff reminiscent of Flogging Molly. So, it sounded good and it fit very well with the mood and tone of the film. Props to the composer. But I have seldom heard music used so ineffectively and intrusively in a movie. At completely random times for no reason at all the music would fade out, grow suddenly louder, or cut off completely and abruptly (mid-note and mid-scene) for a few seconds before jumping back on at full volume. It was incredibly annoying and distracting, and I thought it was tacky and pretentious.
I would call The Departed a truly high-quality film experience that doesn't stand up well under very close scrutiny. Gallagher wondered aloud at the end how this movie stood up against Snatch and The Boondock Saints. At first I thought he was talking about general quality or something similar . . . he was actually talking about f-bombs. I guess there were quite a few. Randy and I didn't really notice after the first few, and I still don't have vivid memories of there being a great many, but there were. I guess that's a testament to how comfortable I am watching movies with everyone that was in the room (I only notice things like that if I feel like someone in the room is noticing . . . and disapproving).
Anyway, Gallagher was inspired to check, and discovered that there were 237 uses of the f-word and its various derivations. That's approximately one every 40 seconds for two and a half hours. In case you were wondering, The Boondock Saints has 246 f-words, or one every 28 seconds or so, while Snatch weighs in with a paltry 153 for an overall concentration comparable to that of The Departed. I was quick to point out that Gallagher has never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. Pulp Fiction has 271 (1 every 34 seconds), and Reservoir Dogs has 252 (1 every 24 seconds).
Having since investigated the matter on the internets, I find Casino with 422 (1 every 25 seconds) and Twin Town with 320 (1 every 19 seconds). Both are blown completely out of the water by Nil by Mouth with 470 (1 every 16 seconds), which (incidentally) stars the guy who plays Nicholson's right-hand man in The Departed. I should point out, in closing, that 2005's documentary F*ck contains an astounding 857 f-words (no, I don't know if that is counting the title), cramming in 1 for every 7 seconds of runtime . . . but that's not really fair. As the word is the subject of the documentary, the uses can't be considered completely gratuitous. In any case, point taken. The Departed definitely holds the record number of f-words for a Best Picture winner, since Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump in 1995. But really . . . who's counting?
As for the other serious contender for the Best Picture award, you may have noticed that I saw Babel last week. What a powerful and aptly-named film this is. In the midst of Morocco, a goatherd buys a high-powered rifle from a friend to help rid himself of a jackal problem, and sends his young sons out to tend the flock. Playing around with the weapon, one of them shoots an American tourist (Cate Blanchette) in a passing bus. Hours from civilization, her husband (Brad Pitt) rushes her to the nearest approximation to a doctor in a local village and starts frantically phoning his embassy.
Meanwhile, the couple's two children back in California are being cared for by their housekeeper of many years, and illegal immigrant from Mexico. Her son is going to be married back in Mexico, and with her employers' return delayed and no one to watch the children, she takes them with her to the wedding. On the other side of the world, in Japan, the deaf/mute daughter of a wealthy businessman has just lost her mother, and is searching desperately in all the wrong places for some kind of satisfying emotional connection to another human being. The international incident in Morocco, a tragic accident that is rapidly being blown out of proportion, will have a profound impact on the lives of the characters in Mexico and Japan.
Transpiring in at least 5 languages (counting sign language) and jumping rapidly between the dirty streets of Mexico, the techno-pop Japanese night life, and the primitive desert of Morocco, Babel is like a very concentrated shot of culture shock. The film poignantly illustrates the impossibility of communication across thick barriers of language and culture, and the tragedy of this breakdown in human connection, while at the same time hinting that there may be hope for those with the humility and the sensitivity to try to build relationships. It is a message that is both timely and timeless.
Babel only won Best Music (Score) out of its seven nominations, an award I still think should have gone to Pan's Labyrinth. However, as to the rest, I suspect that it split its own Best Supporting Actress vote, allowing Dreamgirls to walk off with it. Both Adriana Barraza (as the Mexican housekeeper) and Rinko Kikuchi (as the deaf/mute Japanese teen) did incredible work. Because of the masterful way in which it splices and weaves its four stories together into a unified whole, and jumps between them in a way that is both startling and artful, I don't understand why Babel lost Best Editing to The Departed . . . especially considering the flaws I already pointed out in the latter.
I feel that Babel is a genuinely important film with a positive and vital message that should speak to anyone anywhere in the world. The Departed is smart and well done . . . great filmmaking, to be sure. But ultimately I think The Departed is entertainment where Babel is art. Babel is highly original and worthy of imitation . . . The Departed is imitation; a nearly identical remake of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs (2002) done over with a new location, an all-star cast and a less meaningful ending. What does that say about where Best Picture and Best Director should have gone? Well . . . there it is.
March 06, 2007
I've had something, a bit of an informal undertaking if you will, taking shape slowly somewhere in the back of my mind for some time now. During the past week and a half or so, that shaping has built and accelerated rapidly into a full-blown project to which I expect to devote my resources and a fair portion of the free time that I have. I don't want to overstate things . . . I'm not going all-out. But it seemed like a fun thing to do, so I'm going to do it for as long as I care to and as much as I feel like.
Of course, I discussed here my plans to watch the Best Picture winner and other nominees for this year and write down my impressions. Then, somewhere between receiving Babel from Netflix and watching The Departed this weekend, my plan to someday mark all of history's Academy Award for Best Picture films off of my "to see" list went from vague ambition to active pursuit. And naturally I'll want to blog the experience.
If you pay attention to that sort of thing, you'll already have noticed that I've grabbed an Oscar-winner here and there (as the opportunity arose) over the course of the past semester and a half. I picked up the pace in the last month, and in-between waiting for this year's nominees to come in from Netflix I had accrued quite a little pile from the library. Plus, I own several myself.
On the day The Departed arrived, I started counting and discovered that I had 20 Best Picture winners sitting in my apartment. Bright and early Monday morning, I started combing shelves and nearly doubled that. I was further inspired by this fun feature from Rotten Tomatoes. Pretty cool. I then used Netflix to easily check off which films I had already seen and which I was still lacking.
Meanwhile, I fiddled with my Netflix queue and had 22 more winners lined up at the top (they were all already on there, but a lot of them had clumped near the bottom). That covers over 75% of the total, right there. A few more should be coming back in over the next few weeks. There are a handful that I have both seen before and would probably be too much trouble to bring back in that I may not bother to re-watch (I've seen Gladiator and The Sting several times, and I just saw American Beauty, for instance). On the other hand, depending on the breaks, I will try to re-view as many as possible.
Because this was in part an exercise to see how many I could easily bring together under one roof, I grabbed several that I've seen just in the past weeks and months (All Quiet on the Western Front, Bridge on the River Kwai, All About Eve, Ordinary People, etc.). These I probably also will not rewatch unless I feel that I didn't "soak them up" effectively. Read: okay, maybe I will. On the other hand, Rachel might go for my jugular if I try to watch The English Patient again. Hmmm . . . Tied with the above for "lowest priority."
As for the rest: There are 36 Best Picture winners that I've never seen at all, nearly half from before 1950. They obviously have top priority, and include Patton, Rocky, Tom Jones, Titanic, Dances with Wolves, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, In the Heat of the Night, and Million Dollar Baby. Needless to say, I'm more anxious to see some of these than others.
Then there is the mid-level priority: movies that I've seen before, but haven't seen since I started keeping track. These range from A Man for All Seasons and Chariots of Fire, which I'd want to rewatch anyway, to Ben-Hur, Gone with the Wind, and Lawrence of Arabia, which I'm still kicking myself about. I watched those almost right before I started the movielist, and while I don't necessarily object to watching all of them again, that kind of time is hard to come by when you want it all in one lump sum.
Nevertheless, it's been long enough for most of these that they deserve a rewatch before I write anything about them, and I want them on the list anyway. Oh, yeah, there are also a few that I saw some time ago and loathed. In all fairness, they get a rewatch . . . The two that come to mind are On the Waterfront and Gigi.
And, finally, there are the ones I've seen within the past few years, possibly more than once, that I'm always willing to see again: My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, both parts of The Godfather, Schindler's List, Amadeus, even Return of the King. However, since I've seen them so many times, and I own most of them, they may have to wait awhile before I get to them.
If you're around and you'd like to join me for any of the watching, let me know. I'll try to keep you up-to-date on what and when. And, hey, if you're not around, join me anyway long-distance. You might be able to get ahold of a fair number of the candidates yourself. It'll be fun.