Monday, December 31, 2012
No. Sorry. That's a line from "You are old, Father William" by Lewis Carroll. Wrong bit. This is my bit.
And now for something completely different.
As a child, I was often confronted by experiences of the direct cognition of emptiness coming at me from the adult world. What Buddhist's call, "Sunyatta the Void" and urban hipsters call, "Shit that don't make sense."
That shmaltzy song; "And They Call the Wind Mariah."
OK. "They call the wind Mariah." And?
They call the wind "Mariah." They call the wind "Good Time Charlie." So what?
But ... "Mariah."
There seems to be some deep, hidden, underlying significance to the name. After all, the moaning singer seems to be making such a big damn deal out of it. "And they call the wind Mariah." Wow, really. So ... is it an alias? An insult? A sexual reference? And while we're on the subject, who the hell are "They"...?
Whatever it is, whoever "They" were, the adults seemed like they were in on it. I always figured when I grew up I'd understand what the big damn deal was. Nah.
If anyone knows, pass it on.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Sunday, November 11, 2012
I could multiply examples and start fights, but you get the idea.
Cloud Atlas has been bashed for being predictable, but that misses the point. This is a movie about reincarnation and eternal recurrence -- reflecting the belief system of about a billion people on this blue marble. I've always had a fuzzy notion of what reincarnation would look like. This makes it clear. Pods of connected people, moving through time. Based on their choices, some people get better, some get worse. Tom Hanks' character starts as a murderer, ends up as a savior. Hugh Grant's character is merely pompous and irritating. By the time we reach the dystopian far future, he's a kill-crazy cannibal. Karma at work, folks. Not exactly instant, but effective.
Structurally, the screenwriters took the six interlocking narratives of the original novel (six stories, interrupted then continued) and presented them as six parallel stories (six stories, going on at the same time). Each tale is a tale of repression and liberation. To reduce it to a Marxist fortune cookie: Solidarity is eternally at war with exploitation.
Now, imagine that war, going on for generation after generation, with a new cast of characters with the same old souls burning inside.
That's the movie.
It's not a materialist world view. It's not a Judeo/Christian worldview. There's no messianic savior. Just a congeries of souls, eternally linked together, their every decision resonating. That's a fair description of what Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.
The critics have a problem with the philosophy, so they have a problem with the movie.
In future lives they may yet change their minds.
Friday, October 5, 2012
- Well, as anyone who's seen "There Will Be Blood" can tell you, the emerging technology of petroleum exploration was far more dangerous. In fact, I have sad family history associated with that. Oil killed my grandfather.
Mt. Pleasant, MI Oil Well Explosion, Jul 1931
GUSHER BLAST KILLS SEVEN
Victims in Michigan Disaster Sprayed With Flames.
MT. PLEASANT, Mich., July 19. - (United News) - The first major disaster of the newly-developed Michigan oil fields had taken a toll of seven lives today after a wild gusher exploded and scattered blazing oil over a crowd of 2,000 persons.
Men, women and children, who had flocked to see the state's biggest oil "strike" were caught in the fiery blast shortly after nightfall last night. The well was a column of flames today while hundreds of men fought to bring it under control.
The known dead were:
Marion Fugate, 28, Mt. Pleasant.
Mrs. Walter L. McClanahan, 35, wife of the well owner.
Mrs. E. J. Guy, 45, wife of the general superintendent of the Roosevelt Refinery.
Ruby Melvin, 13, Mount Pleasant.
Mrs. Robert C. Guy, 18, Mt. Pleasant.
Arwin E. Gorham, wealthy Mt. Pleasant manufacturer.
Mrs. Thomas Lamb, 25, Mt. Pleasant.
Two others were so seriously burned that they are not expected to live.
A cigaret carelessly dropped by a member of the crowd was blamed for the tragedy.
--The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA 20 Jul 1931
- Walter McClanahan was (I think) my grandfather's cousin, another oil man. He was one of the ones seriously burned. It took him over a day to die.
- His 7-year-old daughter witnessed her mother, father, uncle and various other friends and relatives burned alive in a second. She remained emotionally fixated at age 7 for the rest of her life -- and grew up to be a painter in the Fauve style of some note. Critics commented on her childlike style, not knowing its origins.
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Re-read Ellison’s criticism of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in Harlan Ellison is Watching -- a collection of Ellison's film and TV reviews and essays. A review from 1969, no less. A raw gut reaction, unfiltered, when the movie was new. A negative review. Harsh. A slap in Kubrick’s face.
Ellison thought the movie was The Emperor’s Space Clothes. He thought it was a vapid, empty exercise that all the cool people (Rob Reiner, et al) were praising for its profundity – which they all assumed was there because they just didn’t get it. But there was nothing to get. The Space Emperor was naked.Thus spake Harlan.
According to Harlan Ellison, 2001 was all flash and filigree. But had no story at its heart. Sound and fury signifying big box office numbers. But not even a tale.
OK. So I rocked back on my heels. Then I thought about it.
No story? Really? Is Ellison right?
Kubrick was a formalist; he was interested in patterns of images for their own sake. He built those patterns on the foundations of stories, but story wasn’t what he was interested in. Kubrick wasn’t a storyteller. For Kubrick, the story wasn’t the goal; it was the excuse. But he knew he needed good ones.
That’s why Kubrick built his movies on solid storylines. Strong foundations created by Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen King, Gustav Harford, Anthony Burgess, et al. Real writers. Real storytellers.
So, the stories were there in Kubrick’s movies.. They were the foundation. But you probably wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t read the original stories.
In Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence, the writer, doesn’t feel like a man. After all, in America’s Calvinist mind, a man is defined by his job. A man is paid for his craft; he brings home the bacon. Jack isn’t and doesn’t, and feels useless, a failure to his family. Then Jack gets a temp job taking care of the Overlook Hotel in the winter – and brings his family with him. The malevolent spirits inhabiting this hotel seduce Jack with the one thing he can’t resist. A job. A very important job. Jack’s the hotel caretaker. (AKA, the spirits’ meat puppet doing their bidding in the physical world.) But Jack’s family might take that job away from him. Which is why the spirits tell Jack to kill his family. That’s why Jack goes nuts.
That’s in King’s novel. It’s implied in Kubrick’s movie adaptation. But you’d never know it from watching the movie. It’s the foundation holding everything up. It’s hinted at. But it’s never spelled out. As far as you know from watching the film, Jack goes nuts for no reason whatsoever.
In 2001, aliens leave a sentinel on the moon. These aliens have jump-started human evolution. If humans ever evolve to the point they leave earth and land on the moon, they’ll notice the sentinel’s magnetic field and dig it up. This will trigger the sentinel to send a signal informing the aliens that we’ve made it this far – and are ready for the next phase of evolution.
That’s clear in Arthur C. Clarke’s original short story – and his expanded novel/screenplay based on that short story. You could figure it out from a close reading of Kubrick’s movie. After paying very close attention and seeing it a half a dozen times. It’s implied. But it isn’t spelled out. It isn’t made clear. There was, originally, a voiceover narrative. But Kubrick got rid of it. He didn’t want to make it clear.
Kubrick wasn’t interested in the story. He was interested in the imagery.
Ellison, on the other hand, is interested in both story and imagery. He’s exceedingly visual. His writing has burned indelible images in my mind. Eyes turning to whorls of dust and melting from their sockets; a gargoyle pulping New Yorkers with the 30 Rock globe; the three eyes of a damned soul trapped in a Vegas slot machine – I could go on. A great imagist, dig? But Ellison always yokes his images to the tale. He has no patience for writers and filmmakers who don’t.
So (according to another essay in The Glass Teat), Ellison thought Roman Polanski’s The Tenant was crap and the original Curse of the Cat Woman was brilliant. Really? The Tenant was all image and implication; Cat Woman was a creepy urban legend with a dash of Freudian crap – but a solid, pulpy tale nonetheless. But Ellison got it backwards. The Tenant never fully defined what was going on. But it gets under your skin in a way that Cat Woman (which defined everything) never does. The Tenant was brilliant. The story wasn’t clear – but the film was brilliant nonetheless. To Ellison, that does not compute.
Ellison thought Kubrick’s 2001 had no story. Because the story behind the movie was opaque, he assumed it had none.
Story. That’s Ellison’s blind spot -- as a critic.
He’s a brilliant storyteller and a brilliant imagist.
Kubrick was brilliant; Polanski still is. They (and a handful of other genius filmmakers) were (and are) passionately interested in throwing brilliant collages of images, mood and association at you, and half-hearted at telling tales. Ellison can do both – and do both brilliantly. Not every filmmaker can. More importantly, not every filmmaker wants to do both – even the brilliant ones.
For all his brilliance, that’s the one thing Ellison doesn’t get.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Monday, August 6, 2012
Sunday, August 5, 2012
OK, just caught “Total Recall,” though strictly speaking, it should be “Total Re-recall.”
Yes. It's a remake. Of "Total Recall." That Schwarzenegger movie from 1990? Yeah, that one. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. Why would anybody ... Well, they did.
I was just as shocked as you were. But facts are facts.
Fact: As improbable as it may seem, director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback felt compelled to do a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale.” Fact: Somebody convinced the money people that a remake would make money. Fact: They actually made this movie.
OK, I got over it. I accepted it. I gave the 2012 remake a chance. I even got my !@!#$ hopes up. After all, the trailers looked great. The promised movie would’ve been great. And now I've seen it.
Well, the movie looks great. Lousy future rendered in Academy Award-level CGI. A beautifully painted nightmare. But not a great movie. Why not? I'll get back to that.
First, here’s a Total Recap, in easy-to-swallow capsule form:
The year is 2084. The remake substitutes Australia for Mars and the UK (rebranded as the UFB) for Earth. (It’s a post chemical World War situation: those two islands are the only habitable territories left.) As Earth exploited Mars, so the UFB keeps its boot heel on Australia. Geography shifts, but the plot outline doesn’t. As before, Doug Quaid, a working class slob, goes to Rekall to implant false memories of an exciting life as a spy. This triggers his buried identity as a real spy. Complications, double-crosses and chase scenes ensue. Again.
Oh God, you're choking on the capsule? Here. Drink this glass of water. You OK, now? Great. As I was saying ...
Basically, Earth turns into the UFB and Mars becomes Australia. Schwarzenegger played Quaid the last time; Colin Ferrel plays him now. They go through shit, and it's more or less the same shit. Other than that, it's pretty much the same movie. But this time around, it’s not as fun. Why?
To put it another way, why was the first movie so much fun?
Consider the material.
The weirdness of it. The rules broken. The odd bedfellows involved.
Dick’s original short story was, like most of his stories, a parable for his convoluted gnostic philosophy. What is reality? It was a joke when The Firesign Theatre said it. To Dick, that question was no joke. It drove him nuts and compelled him to pop pills and pound out tales like this. Surprisingly, Verhoeven took the seed of Dick's crazed little story and grew it into a 113-minute joke -- an over-the-top, cheesy sleaze fest. Surprisingly, drug-fueled religious mania and a cynical dirty mind from Holland made a great combination. Two great tastes that tasted great together.
But they shouldn't have.
The original movie had every reason to fail. (The way that Verhoeven's execrable adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers failed.) The 1990 movie broke all the rules. Rule-breaking in itself is not a rule. The first movie succeeded in spite of itself. Not that you asked, but I'm going to tell you why anyway.
Verhoeven's adaptation had two levels. Surface level: Comic book action movie in which conventional action hero defeats the evil forces opposing him and saves the world. (In this case Mars.) Subversive subtext level: This is all bullshit. The hero is an ordinary slob who has paid to have a comic book dream. The plot is idiotic for a reason. It's not real.
The first movie shared DNA with Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In that movie, Sam Lowry, a clerk with comic book dreams of heroism, went to war against the State to win the woman of his dreams. The State lobotomized him. But in his mind, Sam dreamed a dream of heroic triumph. Objectively, he's a drooling idiot. Subjectively, Sam was a hero out of Joseph W. Campbell.
In the first movie, Quaid's fantasy was similarly immature. He dreamed that he was "an invincible secret agent from Mars who's the victim of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think he's a lowly construction worker."
In "Brazil," we saw the hero's triumph -- and in the next scene see that he's been lobotomized.
The 1990 "Total Recall" also shows us the hero's triumph. Then it ends.
But Quaid may also have been lobotomized. He may also be living in a drooling idiot's fantasy. Don't take my word for it. Verhoeven says so on the DVD commentary.
So, is it real or is it Rekall? The first movie bounced back and forth and never said yes or no. The second movie throws that out the window. Quaid is a spy. This is all real. There's no subtext. This is all really happening.
And that's why the movie ain't so great.
Director Paul Verhoeven's 1990 "Total Recall" was an adaptation of SF writer Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" -- a dark, gnostic parable from 1966. The original movie was a freaky combination of Verhoeven's cynical, dirty-minded humor and Dick's crazed escape attempts from the prison of fake reality. The first movie was cheesy, sleazy, trippy, camp, over-the-top, hallucinatory, self-contradictory, disturbing, subversive -- and something we'd never seen before. The 2012 remake strips away Verhoeven's sneering jokes. It also strips away Dick's obsession with reality and illusion. What's left is a series of futuristic chase scenes, rendered in expensive, Academy Award-worthy CGI. The new movie looks great. But we've seen it before.
Blade Runner was great because it was different and weird. If Blade Runner becomes a template, it's not great. Constant rain, Japanese advertising and flying cars won't make your SF movie a bloody masterpiece.
In terms of science literacy, an elevator through the earth's core from England to Australia transcends mere stupidity. This level of stupidity demands a new word. Not just stupid. Stooopid. Stooooopid.
The Matrix (a PKD rip-off if ever there was) was a cool movie. It worked. Once. OK? In 1999. Now let's move on. From now until the end of time, please spare us the bloody messianic revolutionaries spouting fortune cookie drivel. "The past is a construct in your mind. The truth is not in your head but in your heart." For the love of Christ, spare me. If there's a messianic revolutionary, make him a Dennis Leary asshole. Who never uses the passive voice. Please.
Friday, July 13, 2012
Obviously, this is why professional sports rely on cameras, instant replay, yattayatta. But when all you have to go on is human perception and memory, the definition of "truth" becomes a contest of wills.
Being disinterested and objective is the referee's job. The opposing teams want to win. Each team fights for the version of reality in which they win. Each team is doing its best to shove this "truth" down the referee's throat. It's a dilemma, folks. Ironclad. Inescapable.
To see the world clearly, you can't take sides. To change the world, you have to take sides.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is as perfect as a movie can be. I don't say that often. Even about movies I really like (Prometheus, for example), I’m usually thinking, “Ah, that scene is too long. That character wouldn’t say that. OK, that doesn’t make sense. Arrgghh! A yawning plot hole! Arrghh! Anachronism!" Not this time.
Spot-on '60s references; vividly drawn characters; stellar cinematography and art direction; great acting; great directing; fine script. Loved it.
Time: 1965. Setting: a mythical New England island. Anderson opens with formal tracking shots through what looks like a life-sized dollhouse. (Actually, a converted lighthouse.) Suzy (the preteen problem child played by Kara Hayward) searches for something with a pair of binoculars. That would be Sam (Jared Gilman) -- an orphaned problem child who was impressed by Suzy's role as the Raven in last year's production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. (Sam is nerdy but self-confident, like the dude in Rushmore.) After secretly writing for a year, Sam and Suzy meet and run away. As this is a tiny island, that's a problem. Another problem: a killer storm is coming. Noah's Flood will be playing out for real. Adults and a troop of pesudo-Scouts give chase. The clock is ticking. Comedy, complications and suspense ensue.
That's the plot. But the plot doesn't tell you much. In another director's hands, this could be twee, manipulative sentimental crap. In Anderson's hands it isn't, and it's hard to say why.
Some random observations ...
This movie is intrinsically a movie. You could adapt it as a novel. But its form is intrinsically visual. Think: beautiful paintings that move. Moving pictures. Literally. And they're all ridiculously gorgeous to look at. Anderson is the Willy Wonka of cinematic eye-candy.
Excellent comic touches, comic casting in particular. Child actors Gilman and Hayward play it dead serious -- which makes it dead funny -- and never come across as forced, cutesy or fakey. Action icon Bruce Willis is hilarious as a loser bachelor cop with a nowhere beat. This is a Wes Anderson movie, so, according to Federal law, Bill Murray is in it. He'd be hilarious playing a rock. Francis McDormand, Ed Norton -- they're all screamingly funny and funny in character.
There's a running gag framing the inner world of the Khaki Scouts (led by Ed Norton's chain-smoking troop leader) in the cinematic cliches of a WWII guys-on-a-mission movie. The gag is a howl -- but Anderson never elbows you in the ribs to spell it out. It's Inglourious Basterds, get it? He hits just the right note, and pulls the gag off.
Excellent narrative structure, too. Sometimes, Anderson tosses crumbs of information. You find out in passing that the estranged Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Murray and McDormand) are lawyers. Other times, Anderson flat out tells you. He shows maps. Or Bob Balaban functions as Mr. Exposition. His character breaks the fourth wall (occasionally turning on lights so you can see him) and moves the story along.
Anderson consistently plays against type and expectation. It's a Wes Anderson movie, so that's easy to overlook. He has an instantly recognizable style. You tend to forget how many rules he breaks. For example ...
Incompetence is funny. That’s one of the basic laws of comedy. The Three Stooges are lousy plumbers; The Dude is a lousy detective; Homer Simpson is a lousy nuclear safety inspector. That's how comedy works. But Anderson defies the laws of comedy physics, like a bee that flies when it’s supposedly impossible. Almost all his characters are very good at what they do. Anderson's young hero has excellent wilderness survival skills. The Khaki Scouts (Anderson's affectionate, paramilitary parody of The Boy Scouts) is a marvel of efficiency and order. There are no lousy parents. The Bruce Willis character is a good cop. Everybody does their job and does it well.
Stupidity is also funny -- another basic law of comedy. But this is a movie about smart kids and (mostly) smart adults. The movie opens with the Bishop kids (the ones living in the lighthouse) listening to an LP of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Nobody's forcing them. Sam and Suzy are also Brainiacs. They read. They know how stuff works. In Sarasota, they'd both be Pine View students.
In the standard romantic template, Suzy and Sam would be beautiful outsiders -- outside a rotten society. In this corner, losers and loners. In that corner, jerks and authority figures. Anderson doesn’t work that way. His society thinks better of its judgment and rejection, and ultimately rallies together and saves the prepubescent lovers.
So, why's this movie perfect? I still can't say why, exactly.
Anderson broke the rules. Plenty of other directors do too, and their movies suck. Anderson knew which rules to break. Obviously, there's no rule book for that. Or every movie would be this perfect.
Obviously, they're not.