Sunday, May 27, 2007

Burton Batman and superhero flicks, Part 2

As Andrew Wickliffe elucidates so well in his review at The Stop Button, the "realism" of Batman Begins is only realism the way a geek like David Goyer would imagine it. Wayne Enterprises is a bigger company than Sony and G.E. put together. The mystical ninja "League of Shadows" isn't literally immortal, they're just a centuries-old secret society with more influence than the Illuminati. Batman didn't build a bat-looking supercar just for the hell of it, he just happened to have an experimental prototype supertank that no one at his company would recognize being driven around town. We are asked to accept that the Batman lore can be down-to-Earth , with a few fantastical coincidences and circumstances. This denial of fantasy only makes the inescapable fantasy of the material painfully awkward.

Where to begin counting the missteps? Comparing the production design of Burton Batman to Nolan Batman (the "Nolanverse," as the geeks already gleefully refer to it) to demonstrate the disparity in visual splendor is a moot point. Burton's films were designed to be enthralling, living comic book art. Nolan, with "realism" as his mantra, set about to make everything look indistinguishable from any other crime film and did this by mainly filming in the real city of Chicago and using an almost monochromatic color palette of Brown and Black. To be fair, Burton Batman is mostly Black as well - but it has stylized design and intricate detail. Begins was intricately designed to be drab and nondescript.

Defenders of Nolan's quasi-naturalist art direction will no doubt claim that by making Gotham City less fantastic and more like a real city, he allows Batman, Scarecrow, and in time The Joker and Two-Face to stand out from their surroundings more. This might be the case but for the fact the characters have been scaled down as well. If anything, their appearances are now ridiculous in a way that entirely deflates their appeal. If we think of Gotham as a stage upon which these very theatrical characters play out their drama, it only stands to reason that the stage be designed for it's actors and not vice versa. When you make that stage into a real location, and modify those extreme characters into non-theatrical plot ciphers, you're destroying the very thing the audience came to see - because, one more time - even though Batman and his villains are mortal humans doesn't mean there's anything remotely "realistic" about them. And Gotham City was never meant to be like a real city any more than Neo-Tokyo.

Tim Burton on fan casting vs thoughtful casting, from the books Burton on Burton and Tim Burton: Interviews:

"I looked at actors who were more the fan image of Batman, but I felt it was such an uninteresting way to go...Taking someone like Michael and making him Batman supported the whole split personality idea...He has a lot going on inside him, there's an explosive side; he has a temper and a great amount of anger - that was exactly the Bruce Wayne character, and not some unknown, handsome, strong hunk."

"...The thing that kept going through my mind when I saw these action-adventure hero types come into the office was, 'I just can't see them putting on a bat-suit. I can't see it.' I was seeing these big macho guys, and then thinking of them with pointy eyes, and it was 'Why would this big, macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God's sake?'...I'd worked with Michael before and so I thought he would be perfect, because he's got that look in his eye...It's like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he's not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It's all about transformation..."

Both guys look a little ridiculous, but be reasonable, the second man looks far more ridiculous with his practical batsuit than Keaton ever did in his theatrical one - who cares if Keaton couldn't crane his neck? (nerds care) The main thing is: there's a bigger margin of difference between Keaton in his suit and out of it than Bale, who looks exactly as silly as Burton predicted a "handsome, strong hunk" would be in a full body costume. The same logic applies to Robocop, where Paul Verhoeven was smart enough to put a slender actor like Peter Weller into that big bulky cyborg costume because it would look ridiculous slapping the stuff onto an already-Schwarzeneggerian he-man.

The conceit that a strong man, already physically imposing and crazy enough to fight crime on his own would want to wear a crazy costume on top of that only works in the comics. In live action, having a man of average build wear a costume for transformative effect is EXACTLY how you make the fantasy plausible - not by bending over backwards to rationalize the irrational and drain all the fun and drama out of things.

Again, Burton:

"You can't just do, 'Well, I'm avenging the death of my parents - Oh! A bat's flown in through the window. Yes, that's it. I'll become a Batman!' That's all stupid comic book stuff and we don't explore it at all. He dresses up as a bat because he wants to have an amazing visual impact. It all gets away from the fact he's just being a simple vigilante, something I always loathed about the character. He's creating an opera wherever he goes to provoke a strong, larger-than-life reaction. He switches identities to become something else entirely, so why wouldn't he overdo it?"

And a big factor in creating that mystique is that Keaton's Batman almost NEVER speaks. When he does, it's in that thin rasp and for only a few blunt words:

"I'm not gonna kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me."
"I'm Batman."
"You killed my parents."
"I made you, you made me first."
"Hold on."

Those are all from the first film, and I swear to god there's maybe 20 more words he speaks in the entire thing. That's possibly less than Arnold has in the first "Terminator." Why would a man wearing a costume intended to scare you, who wants to make a strong impression and remain a mystery yak his head off for too long, under any circumstances? The longer he talks, the less of an imposing figure he becomes and the more time someone has to think, hey - this is just a guy in a costume. Bale's Batman, by contrast, has dialogue in every single costumed scene, and his Eastwood-with-Laryngitis variation on the Keaton template literally made me laugh every time I heard it. Consider all those scenes where he's talking to his girlfriend, far more than Keaton ever spoke to Basinger while in costume. Bale is Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit. Keaton is Bruce Wayne, and Keaton is Batman when he's suited up for it. They're truly two different sides of a damaged psyche.

Look: real life criminals would not be frightened by a man in a Halloween costume, even if he were using a scary voice. That is a fictional conceit created for a comic book. Insisting on the rationality of the situation is a losing argument. The entire purpose of Begins is to be an APOLOGIA, delivered with pathetic religious reverence and stooping it's shoulders every single minute to justify the premise of Batman into reality through a long series of contrivances and really shitty expository dialogue.

Some of the worst aspects of the first Burton Batman were such expository passages - tedious scenes of the marginally amusing Robert Wuhl and living mannequin Kim Basinger slowly, slowly illustrating that Bruce Wayne is a rich loner with murdered parents. Begins is comprised of nothing BUT that awful exposition, and where Burton allowed the audience to fill in the gap between that childhood tragedy and current crime fighting with the knowledge that he has immense wealth to finance this obsession, Nolan comprised about half of his film with farfetched justification that not only is he rich but there's ninjas and secret military technology and blah blah blah. Who but the comic book obsessives need to know every minute detail? LET there be some mystery! That's part of his character! If "his parents were killed by criminals and he's rich" isn't enough of an explanation for how someone decides to become Batman, no amount of backstory will likely suffice for one's own lack of imagination in that area. At least not from a hack like David Goyer.

Batman's origin is so simple it only took Bob Kane and Bill Finger two comic book pages to illustrate, and we believe it. We believe because it's so simple, and strikes on a gut level - personal loss as inspiration for vigilantism. To pick it apart and put the process of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman under the microscope only calls attention to how unlikely it really is, outside of a comic book. Children's parents are murdered in front of them every day in real life, and they don't all become costumed vigilantes based upon which animal flies into their study window at just the right moment, or upon which animal scared them the most prior to their parent's death.

The key distinction between Nolan and Burton's approaches might be this: Burton acknowledges that Batman is fucking INSANE, and doesn't hold it against him or try to make excuses for it the way fanboys have reverted back to doing:

"Unlike Superman, Batman isn't simply a good-vs-evil thing. You get a lot of grey areas with Batman...I wanted the villains to be these weird but interesting characters who could fill in those grey areas in Batman's life."

Is this a more nuanced outlook than the comics fans can handle anymore? The best and most popular Batman comics of the 80s, from which Burton's film drew inspiration, were all about the ambiguities and insanity at the core of the character, and the thin line between him and his enemies: The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum. Bats is well meaning, but by definition the man clearly just has some issues. My best guess for the turnaround is that in the wake of so many persecuted, sympathetic protagonists like the mutants of X-Men and relatable, likable guys like Peter Parker in Spider-Man, the bat-fans began feeling a bit self conscious about their most fucked-up and self-isolated member of the Justice League.

People often explain Batman's continued appeal through various incarnations as due to the fact he's fully human, and not super-powered. Exactly right, but there's another essential ingredient: Zorro, The Lone Ranger and The Shadow may have worn masks to conceal their identities, but Bruce Wayne dresses up to become an ANIMAL MAN. There's something more primal happening there. Even the early 1940s comics, more preoccupied with action than psychology, expressed the innate darkness of this fantasy world with a canvas of night skies and shadows - the noir outlook - which of course found it's way into the films of the period. This is the world re-created by Burton Batman, and neutered by Nolan into generic "gritty" city streets we've seen in a zillion run of the mill cop movies. He neither allows the characters nor the world of Batman to be truly larger than life, and we the audience are left dispiritingly un-amazed.

To mistake the idealization of Batman as a self-made force of nature for admiration is immature. To marginalize the character's weirdness and ultimately equate him with Superman as another well-meaning do-gooder as Nolan did is just as glib and superficial an interpretation as Adam West on the 1960s tv show. The only difference is the 60s show was intentionally funny.

I've gotten this out of my system a bit, but if I come back to the topic it'll be to explain why this...

...Looks a lot better than THIS:

...Though I hope it's already fairly obvious: a man disfigured into looking exactly like a clown was too UNREALISTIC. They had to ugly him up some to make it "believable." God forbid we treat fantasy material like a fantasy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Downtown marquee sighting

Oh boy oh boy oh boy

Susan Sontag...IS... "Against Interpretation"

It's gotta go back to the library today, so here are some choice quotes from this handsome woman's vital 1964 essay - of which JC recommends - and which should be required reading for anyone even remotely considering going to school for "The Arts."

This, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance."

"Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?"

"The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermenuetics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation...For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives as well as text - all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret, And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it."

"In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling."

"In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capacity, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art...To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world."

"...It should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, as is applied to works of every quality."

"It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else. Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories."

"In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret...The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds."

"If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence..."

"Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are."

"Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture."

"Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there."

"The function or criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what is is, rather than to show what it means."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Burton Batman and superhero flicks, Part 1

Batman is the only comic book superhero I really care about, and aside from Spider-Man and Superman he's the only one to have had some good live action movies. Tim Burton's two entries in the franchise simultaneously enthralled and horrified me as a child, to my eternal gratitude. I despise Batman Begins as a lumbering, ponderous church service for passionless geeks, one of the worst examples of superhero nerddom which thrills no-one. In a mounting wave of reactionary resentment against Joel Schumacher's amusing but frivolous Batman Forever and gratingly frivolous Batman and Robin these nerds demanded and eventually received a new film version of Batman and his colorful world completely drained of color, fantasy or fun. The public was informed by studio press materials and the uncritical parroting of these materials that the latest incarnation would be a return to fundamentals the likes of which we'd never seen on screen - not only undoing the camp damage of Schumacher but the supposed frivolity of Burton as well.

Whereas Batman and Batman Returns had been increasingly well regarded over time, slowly the tide began to shift when Warner Brothers had to kowtow to an increasingly vocal strain of superhero nerd elitists who had convinced Hollywood that they were responsible for the financial successes of more and more superhero movies and franchises in the 2000s, beginning with 2000's X-Men. Here was a movie that self-consciously declared emancipation from the oh-so-dreadful comic-bookyness of comic book movies past ("What did you expect, yellow spandex?") and was helmed by a respectable and acclaimed director (Brian Singer, who made his rep with The Usual Suspects) of which hadn't really been assigned since Burton for Batman and Richard Donner for Superman. Two years later Sam Raimi attained the mainstream success he'd been seeking throughout the 90s with Spider-Man and suddenly the superhero genre was the place to be. Name directors and actors have been flocking to it ever since.

The ugly rub it's taken on our beloved Batman has resulted from typically dumb Hollywood copycat theory on the most superficial elements of those two trendsetters. From X-Men we have the need to neuter costumed flamboyance - hence the uniformity of both hero and villain costumes - and from both films we have the trademark Marvel Comics focus on interpersonal drama as an emotional anchor and sometimes counter-effect to the fantastic. This works for both films, and the main reason is that Marvel characters' fantastic powers are far more limited than their DC predecessors - guys like Superman and Green Latern are so omnipotent as to have basically arbitrary abilites which are revised every few years. Guys like Wolverine or The Incredible Hulk have been popular without major revisions to their abilities every few years. So for Hollywood marketing committee-types feeling more beholden to the hardcore fan lobbies than ever, the following conclusions were reached about the base - ie, the people who'd see the first film in the would-be franchises no matter what:

1) Fan audiences want their superhero adventures to bear fidelity to the source material, at least as it currently stands

2) Audiences want their superheroes' alter egos to have real pathos and humanity

Noble sentiments, to be sure. On that second point, what makes Raimi's Spider-Man better than Singer's X-Men is what makes Spidey a better character, period - for all the relatable trouble in Peter Parker's life, there is joy in his friends and loved ones. For all the burden of being Spider-Man, there is joy in swinging through the skyscrapers of New York. Compare this to the X-Men, in which multitudes of characters are burdened not only by exile from normal society but the perpetual threat of civil and racial war hanging over their heads. If compromise were possible it would mean the end of the story.

DC characters, however, came before Marvel characters and thus were never intended to be identified with except in the abstract. Jungian, not Freudian. Archetypes, not personalities.

Though I appreciate Richard Donner's Superman movies, I'm not a fan of the character and haven't made seeing Superman Returns a priority. It's now become a non-priority. The tepid reception across the board seems to have a recurring complaint that Superman himself is frequently too depressed too melancholy, his behavior bordering on bipolar. The obvious lack of new villains and situations was discouraging to a non-commited casual moviegoer like myself (Lex Luthor again? Seriously?) and the only promises thrown out to draw in non-fanatics were that we'd get a more in-depth and layered portrayal of the character, from none other than Mr Singer, and that hey - it's a new Superman movie! It certainly has been a while since the last one, hasn't it? You even had a "name" actor in the Luthor part, like in '78 - first Hackman, now Spacey. And yet audiences called bullshit because Superman himself isn't supposed to be humanized to the degree they attempted.

He likes being the literal ubermensch. He's not even technically HUMAN for god's sake! Not every superhero is Tobey McGuire!! But that's the Hollywood copycat mentality.

These were the exact same promises offered to casual fans or potentially non-interested parties of another Batman film. Having actually seen that one I can attest it falls flat on it's face just as badly as the critical and not-so-critical-fan reception of Superman Returns. This is simply the wrong approach to both characters, and yet Batman Begins has been lauded not only as a triumph but the first successful Batman film to date.

Bull. Shit.

The self-described superhero "fanboys" are trapped in a losing battle of their own devising. These superhero movies are the public face of their obsession, the legitimizing form which elevates their perpetual adolescence into something less embarrassing. The Superman and Batman movies helped, but as the genre goes through it's second cycle on the big screen, the desire for further respectability grows stronger. Though the fanboys believe they are guiding the creative development process due to their 18-hour life cycles on the internet, endlessly signing petitions and "making their voices heard," it's quite the opposite. The studios play them like a fiddle by hiring moderately talented or expensive talent for their big-name franchises and thus putting up the airs that they're being properly respectful to the legend - does it ever occur to these guys that the studios might be putting popular names in the marquee because that's what sells movie tickets to the rest of the population who doesn't think of Thursday as "new arrivals" day at The Android's Dungeon Comics & Collectibles II?

Talented as they may be, Singer and Raimi were not exactly expensive hires for big studios, they mainly wanted to do the material because they were fans. When a second-tier property like Daredevil is arranged for the movies, we see a no name hack director and a cast of mass-appeal mediocrities: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Ferrel. When a third-tier property like The Fantastic Four is arranged, we see no name hackery on both fronts, but for the fanboy-safe novelty of Jessica Alba, fresh off of Sin City. There's your increased respect for the genre. Why spend more money when you can be sure the arrested development cases will see the movie simply for being the movie version of their beloved characters, to say nothing of the actual, literal children of the world who care even less if Doctor Doom is actually made of metal instead of wearing armor?

In the case of Batman Begins we have a perfect storm of cynical marketing and fanboy flattery. Christopher Nolan was announced as the picture's director more than a year before it's release, and statements were made that this version of Batman would be more "realistic" and more faithful to the comics, fanboys hungry for that intangible quality of mainstream legitimacy for their hobby were more than happy to begin conflating the two concepts. Like Singer, Nolan was a director of "real" movies, and not flights of fancy as Tim Burton was, after years of praise, now guilty of. The undue adulation for Nolan's promise and fulfillment of a comic book movie that was nothing like a (gasp) comic book in terms of tone or visual impact reveals the fanboys' weakness: contempt for their own obsession and desperate longing for transcendence. Therefore while Burton's Batman was regarded as stylistically and thematically in tune with the spirit of the Batman characters, he was turned on in two seconds when claims arose that the new film would make Batman more like an episode of Law & Order.

Burton has been conflated with Schumacher by the fallacy that the character is capable of a practically realistic live action portrayal, and that the noirish tonality of the material necessitates this.

Based almost entirely on the police-drama type story "Batman: Year One" by Frank Miller, the Batnerd establishment - by which I mean people who actually subscribe to the damned publications, not just sincerely enjoy the character - began revising the "perfect" approach to a live action movie in their heads under the presumption that since Batman and his world were populated entirely by human beings rather than superpowered aliens or science fiction creations, the film should be approached basically as an action-adventure crimefighting story in which costumes were more or less incidental. Batman's outfit is even more overtly a suit of high-tech battle armor than it was in the previous films, and the bat motif was chosen because of several coincidental encounters with the animal before and after his training with a clan of ninjas - the real reason he is inspired to become a vigilante. The one masked villain to make an appearance - The Scarecrow - is a drug dealing doctor who wears a burlap sack over his head to trip out people who are high on his hallucinatory nerve gas.

In other words, the film is insistent that neither is wearing their costume to become the avatar of their true self. It's just convenience and coincidence wrapped around their otherwise mundane M.O. Despite almost all the comics' incarnations being situated in psychodrama, absurdity and Wagnerian power struggles, the fanboys were convinced that to transfer this into live action as Burton had done was silly. Batman was to become as non-fantastical as possible, despite being the adventures of a man who dresses as a bat fighting men dressed as clowns and cats. The new common wisdom is that this is what we should want to see depicted "realistically," simply because there are no literal super powers involved.

Here's an early poster showing Batman falling asleep at his own movie, to reassure that it will be respectfully dull:

In part 2 I'll explain why Burton's movies, for all their studio-mandated flaws, had the perfect approach and why Nolan's are doomed to boring joyless fanservice of the worst kind.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Thoughts on Inland Empire, 2nd viewing

Last Thursday I went with Nick and his friends to the Michigan Theater's screening of Inland Empire. It was the second time I'd seen it, but the first time for Nick and his friend Lorne and his girlfriend. Last time I'd gone was in December at the IFC Center theater in New York, at a midnight show. This one was 8pm and it makes a difference with a three hour film.

To begin with, everything moves much faster. That first 45 minutes or so in which events have some linear path and resemble reality is a bit like that climb up the hill of a roller coaster before the drop. I'd forgotten that prior to this climb there is a small hurdle of abstraction - our first looks at the teenage girl viewer, the rabbits, the Poles and a prostitute. Rather formalist, since those are all the elements which are abstracted upon after Laura Dern sleeps with her co-star and we go to crazytown.

That first time last December, the experience felt long, but not detrimental. It's impossible to know what's coming next, so if you can't let go for the experience, it'll really feel like three hours - Lorne's girlfriend hated it, though she's liked a lot of other Lynch. The funny thing is, Inland is what Lynch's critics have inaccurately condemned him for years of: making pure abstractions of ideas rather than stories. This is the first time where that really applies. I haven't seen Mulholland Drive, but it's fans seem to know what's going on by asserting that part of it is clearly delineated as a dream. In Lost Highway, which I have seen, many paradoxes fall into place if you decide that the first and most important impossible occurrence delineates the beginning of a dream. From there you can interpret these scenes for their meaning rather than rationality, and compare them against the scenes which do take place in reality. Inland is a bit trickier because of that prologue, but in both viewings I'm still viewing the 45 or so "rational" minutes as the reality from which the abstractions must be extrapolated.

Lorne's girlfriend thought that the prologue centered the entire film around the crying girl - since she seems to be watching the movie itself and turns out to be inside the brick house which Laura Dern spends so much time in. That brick house is also probably the one which the gypsy woman makes reference to being her own, in the scene between her and Dern. There are clearly many patterns to pick up on the first viewing, but on the second viewing you'll find more than you even suspected. Once that roller coaster starts hurdling down and around it's like a party - no longer so suspenseful, but still thrilling. I was able to leave and get popcorn at one point without guilt. I looked forward to the Loco-Motion and the credits dance number, nodded my head and tapped my feet. Fucked up fun!

The broader meaning I was able to find in terms of story was this: if what we see after Laura Dern sleeps with her co-star is an examination of her psyche, then her death at the hands of the screwdriver-wielding woman is a payment for her sins. It's after she bleeds to death that we finally re-enter the world of the filmmakers - the director Jeremy Irons - and her final journey to the brick house happens through passage of a movie theater. That Polish guy whom she has to shoot to end the nightmare is the same who cast a spell on the screwdriver woman. We hear her claim this in the interrogation room scene, and much later we catch a glimpse of that man waving his finger and speaking mumbo-jumbo. The screwdriver woman is also the doppelganger of the fictional wife in "On High the Blue Tomorrows" who's married to Justin Theroux, as we see when Laura Dern seems to wander into that movie but can't convince Justin that he's his real self, and not the movie character.

One other thing I missed first time around - there's a funny shot of Laura Dern in black and white referencing that "Salome" movie by Eric Von Stroheim and starring Gloria Swanson, as featured in "Sunset Boulevard" - another great metaphysical movie about movies which David Lynch actually screened for his "Eraserhead" crew before they began production.

Wherever that "see it again for the first time" advertising line came from, I doubt it applies to any film more than this one.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Across the Universe, the most original and groundbreaking motion picture of the year

This will be a great movie for suckers.

They actually had the balls to name the main character Jude? How many times must this fictional guy hear "hey Jude" in a week? How many times are we going to hear it in the movie before snickering? It probably happens only once, to not call attention to the head-slappingly apropos nature of the choice, but downplaying it only points more attention to it.

That's the least of the problems, of course. Imagine (if you'll pardon the choice of word) the committee of board members at Sony, proud owners of at least part of The Beatles catalogue of songs and the movie studio to cash in on it. They know the most popular band on Earth will sell at least a few movie tickets, even if the band themselves aren't in it. Witness sometime if you dare the 1978 guest star clusterfuck Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band starring The Bee Gees - THE BEE GEES! - as stand ins for the fab four. That was the first naked cash-in and this one deserves to tank just as hard at the box office so we'll perhaps be spared another 25 yeas before the next one.

The premises of the two are at least apparently equal in corniness. But whereas The Bee Gees played starry eyed innocent musicians seduced by the phony world of the music business before chasing after their magical instruments, which are to be used by an evil organization whose motto is "We Hate Love, We Hate Joy, We Love Money" (re-read that sentence again if it helps), "Across The Universe" is rooted in cliches that hadn't yet crystallized before the Baby Boom generation was quite old enough to begin congratulating itself at every opportunity for virtually any reason.

Here we have a starry eyed young innocent, or several of them, who only want to enjoy peace and love and generally fuck around doing nothing at their leisure. They go to New York City, the place where at least in the movies, fatuous dreams come true. Wouldn't you know it, though, at this point in the trailer we realize it's the 60s - or is it? Hard to say when the period costuming is analogous to a Gap commercial.

As every review of this film will glibly point out (on behalf of the Sony marketing department), setting the story in the period of the music's origin adds "resonance" and "relevance" to an otherwise pointless excuse for making some new Beatles music videos and stringing them together into a movie. After all, isn't Iraq the same as Vietnam? The producers would prefer you think it is, otherwise the film just seems all the more like...well, cynical marketing. Surely the music of The Beatles wouldn't be exploited for such capitalistic means?

All that said, those music videos strung together around some threadbare "give peace a chance" plot (gotta love the shot of someone watching televisions behind a store window showing MLK, Vietnam et all - wow, there sure was a lotta crazy stuff happening those days!) don't even look particularly exciting on a visual level. At least Sgt. Pepper: The Movie had the forbearance to be awash in the gaudiest of 70s excesses for future generations to cringe at. Hell, it even literalized "For the Benefit of Mr Kite" first, which you can see a snippet of Eddie Izzard doing AGAIN for this film at 01:58.

"Across The Universe" seems doomed in it's feelie-goodie blandness to be fast forgotten as anything but another monument to White Suburban Baby Boomer's endlessly egomaniacal self-mythologizing, and their shameless eagerness to claim credit for anything cool or fun from the 60s like The Beatles as a part of their deliberately nebulous "revolution" which ended promptly soon after the draft was over. More insidiously, it's an appeal to their children (people like me) who've been raised to idealize them and their youth culture as the 20th century's penultimate highlight.

The only people who deserve a free pass for wanting to see this thing are 12 year olds who have just decided The Beatles are like, the greatest band ever (as they probably are), and aren't too discriminating or cynical enough to avoid being target-audienced by a slick con job of insincerity like this one. Anyone else is either a sucker or doesn't give a shit about artistic integrity. Stay home and watch one of the movies The Beatles were actually in, for god's sake. Moulin Rouge! didn't have this much exploitation of brand recognition.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

John Carpenter Cinefantastique interview, Part 2

Here we go - I darkened the scans a bit to improve legibility, hope it helps.

There are some excellent passages regarding film-as-art vs film-as-entertainment. I particularly like this one on page 10:

"There was great deal of pretension in film during the '60s and '70: filmmaking is art. The idea was that you are delivering a message of great importance. This goes back to Antonioni and Fellini, the influence of the European film. Now we're going back to the American cinema, filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Hitchcock, and John Ford - entertainment movie-makers. I'm happy, because this is the best kind of film there is."

And how terribly cruel that a man who so well understood and respected the necessity of commercial interests as a filmmaker would be denied the full resources of Hollywood for the rest of his career when The Thing had the misfortune to be released after E.T. and Big Trouble In Little China released before East-meets-West action genre hit its stride with stuff like Rush Hour. The fact that both are now regarded as genre classics should confirm that for all his dedication to genre he was simply too much ahead of his time, too much of the time.

Even a work perceived as minor and/or frivolous, like They Live (which still ellicits only trivializing and simplistic comparisons to Invasion of the Body Snatchers) was extremely prescient of trends to emerge in sci-fi films like The Matrix: vast technological alien conspiracy, the metaphysical theme of "sleep" and humans as unwitting slaves, and alien "agents" in human form among us were all concepts employed by the Wachowskis ten years later.

At least from 1978-81 the man's films were alligned perfectly with the pulse of America...note his plans on the last page for "a real nifty one called Escape From New York City," which is his masterwork.

Yes, it's the martyrdom of the initials JC...both were carpenters, after all.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

great Public Domain movies

I was talking to my friend Nick the other day about the Lon Chaney classic "He Who Gets Slapped," about a man who goes insane and becomes a circus clown when his life comes apart, and it reminded me how many awesome movies you can see at the click of a button on Google Video and Internet Archive because they're all in the public domain.

"Public Domain" refers to a legal status for artistic work when it's copyright expires 20 years after it's filed, and isn't renewed. This can happen for a variety of reasons, and once it does the work is considered public property. Unfortunately a lot of companies have gotten smarter about this in recent years, so the number of PD movies after the 70s sort of trickles down into nothing.

The internet makes checking these films out easier than ever! You've probably seen a lot of them cheaply repackaged by small companies over the years for a quick buck, even on DVD. Around 1993 I remember purchasing "Night of the Living Dead" in MPEG form on CD-ROM and thinking it was just a neat novelty.

If you've been to film school you may have seen some of these screened and discussed before, because it doesn't cost the school any licensing fee to screen them, duh! Your tuition at work. It's surprising how many well known classics are actually public property, which is why you see some of them sampled a lot in other media.

In some cases Google Video will charge you a couple bucks for the only available links to certain movies, but I've yet to do that. Here are my favorites so far, well known or otherwise:

silent horror
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)

talkie horror
White Zombie (Victor Halperin)
The City of the Dead / Horror Hotel (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Night Of The Living Dead (George A. Romero)
The Last Man On Earth (Ubaldo Ragona & Sidney Salkow)

silent comedy
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)
The General (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton)

silent drama/thrillers/noir
M (Fritz Lang)
He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjostrom)

talkie drama/thrillers/noir
Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
Detour (Edward G. Ulmer)
D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate)
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

roger corman irreverence
The Little Shop of Horrors
A Bucket Of Blood

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

John Carpenter Cinefantastique interview, Part 1

From 1980, Volume 10, Number 1. Found at the lovely Kaleidoscope collectibles store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is the longest interview with JC superstar I've seen anywhere, and it's great stuff. I'll get the rest up soon.

"When Dan (O'Bannon) directs his first feature film, I guarantee it will be something to go see."

No kidding - that would soon become the utterly brilliant The Return of the Living Dead.