22 March 2011
Much like I did to Dr. Strangelove the other night, I actually combed through this film with my thumb on the pause button and wrote down each story beat as I went so I could better analyze the structure of a multi-plotline ensemble film. Of course, Dr. Strangelove is a 90-minute high-concept story with very few scenes, locations, and characters. It has virtually no subplots, just a handful of threads that all tell their part of a single story. By contrast, Magnolia is a 3-hour tapestry of nothing but low-concept subplots (and one big Event), so it actually took a lot more out of me to write it all down.
Two dying fathers suffering the regrets of their earlier dalliances -- both of whom cheated repeatedly and flagrantly on their wives; one who may have/probably did abuse his daughter and the other who abandoned his dying wife and teenage son when the scene got a little too "real" for him. The daughter has become a coked-out wreck who takes home strange men and lives like an angry child, unwilling and unable to let go of her past. The son has become a self-styled exaggeration of the aggressive macho bullshit he saw in his father, a stunted man-boy unwilling and unable to acknowledge the existence of his past. The first father is the host of a popular game show produced by the second father's company. The daughter has a chance encounter with a loser cop on a particularly bad day and the two awkwardly agree to fall in love and help support each other (in a dynamic later explored under different-but-similar circumstances in P.T. Anderson's next film), and although she never reconciles with her father, she at least manages to reconnect with her mother. The son doesn't quite reconcile with his father, but he at least acknowledges through catharsis his father's role in his life and admits to needing him not to die.
On the other side of the spectrum, two damaged boys. One, a former "quiz kid" from the 60s (living in the shadow of his past), now an adult with more neuroses and problems than can easily be counted, who loses his job, drunkenly embarrasses himself in front of the big-dumb-pretty bartender he's in love with, and robs his former employers in order to pay for braces he doesn't need to be somehow closer to the bartender. The other, a current "quiz kid" with no friends other than books (living the past that will overshadow his future?), and already well on his way to his own highly complicated set of neurotic tics and phobic anxieties. In the middle, bridging these distant poles: a shy but compassionate male nurse; a manic and/or bipolar golddigger who's grown a conscience; and the adorable, affable loser cop mentioned before.
The pacing is pretty intense throughout, I realized, and one of the ways it manages to keep so much story going at once is with a surprising number of rapidfire montages, often set to music. That none of it's boring or just feels like spinning plates is testament to a lot of strong characters and stories. That the dialogue could be this stylized and the tension this high for so long (and the emotions and tones so varied from story to story) without ever collapsing or tearing itself apart is again testament to the strength of the story.
At the time this was released, I considered this one of the greatest films I'd seen in the last ten years or so. Now, especially if I compare it to Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, the film comes off a lot more poppy and overpolished than I remembered. It's amazing to return to a massive, unmarketable three-hour film like this -- one that Anderson was only able to make because Boogie Nights was such a huge success, and he struck while the iron was hot -- can come off so commercial feeling, but there it is. As good as Tom Cruise's breakdown scene is (and it's still good), it comes off as the "big Oscar moment" for the "big bankable actor," even if he's playing against type (and yet, playing so perfectly into his own public image). The quirkiness and originality of it (structure, tone, the climactic self-conscious deus ex machina) are all a lot less refined and confident, almost too bombastic and bold -- not refined enough, maybe -- when you look at his next two works.
But Magnolia holds up well. It makes me nostalgic for Aimee Mann songs, makes me love intense/vulnerable Melora Walters, makes me miss dramatic actor John C. Reilly, makes me look back in wonder to an era where nobody's heard of Patton Oswalt, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, or where small cameos by Luis Guzman, Clark Gregg, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Felicity Huffman, and even William Mapother (Ethan from Lost! ...also Tom Cruise's cousin) might go almost unnoticed. And now I have an intricately charted beat-sheet to go through sometime, and see what kind of wisdom I can glean from it, how ensembles can be put together, and how you keep so many engines running all at once without a story falling apart. (Something to look forward to, when it's not four in the morning!)
21 March 2011
I recently had a conversation with a friend about the subtler messages in The Social Network, like the ways it shows how interactions change, and fail to change, in the wake of the Facebook explosion (of course Facebook is just the biggest peak in a pre-existing and still-continuing wave of social network trends, neither the first nor the last, but this isn't some technological history paper, it's a blog post about a specific dramatic movie, and I think that movie chose the right representative of the ongoing sociological phenomenon). The film intercuts the drunk debauchery of the Final Clubs parties that Mark wants into with Mark (drunkenly) building Facemash, paralleling the social world he wants to be a part of (self-conscious and somewhat artificial "raucous party" behavior; entitlement buoyed by exclusivity) with the prototype of the social world he's creating to replace it -- small groups or individuals, anyone anywhere really (stairwells, coffee shops, dorm rooms), sharing the same sense of self-conscious, artificial entitlement and exclusivity: both groups objectifying women and lording a kind of judgmental, pseudo-discriminatory power over those outside the group.
This parallel continues as Eduardo goes through the stages of entering these self-same clubs, while Mark (not invited to join) goes through the stages of tearing down the powerbase and redefining the market value for the only commodities the Final Clubs have: selective entry and "coolness." It's oversimplistic to say the entire movie hinges on jealousy of Eduardo (just as it's oversimplistic, despite the ending, to say the whole thing hinges on his bruised feelings over Erica's rejection of him), but to the extent that the movie does play with the motivation of jealousy, these scenes almost play out like a race: Eduardo jumping through hoops to get into the castle while Mark jumps through hoops to tear down the castle walls.
Aside from these parallels, and after last night's beat-by-beat analysis of Dr. Strangelove, I really would like to see a diagram of the intersecting storylines here. The way the present-past (or future-present, if you prefer; once we get deep into depositions vs action, it doesn't matter which is more "present") interact and the way the various strands come together makes for a beautiful and complicated story.
Mark lashes out, angry at Clubs and Erica (girls) and looking to rile people up, eager to bring down Harvard's servers. This gets him on the radar of the Winklevosses, which directly inspires him to create Thefacebook.com (historical accuracy bores me; the fictional movie's story is clear enough in its order of events and that's all I care about). Once we enter act two and (The)facebook.com becomes the main objective, Mark manages to make it Mark vs. Winklevosses and Mark vs. Eduardo -- he turns both (sets of) allies into not just antagonists, and just as the story's main line of Mark vs. Exclusivity is dually represented by both Girls(/Erica) and Final Clubs, now the dual obstacles are the two lawsuits. I don't think Mark set out to make enemies out of friends; I think he set out to change the world in his image and this kind of act of megalomania often involve casualties.
But I digress. The point I was aiming for is, there are so many layers to how the two depositions and their corresponding "flashback" scenes interweave, everything is locked together like the tightest dramatic and thematic jigsaw puzzle I think I've ever seen. It's not just that a scene from one will bleed smoothly into the other, or that the results of one scene will inform or expand the relationship depicted in the next; they also propagate each other causally, act as counterpoints to each other philosophically, and seem to run circles around each other. I want to cite examples, but the scenes are too intertwined for me to pick them apart from memory. Maybe I'll go look for a beat sheet one day, or write one up, and be in a better position to defend this point. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of levels at play here, and none of them seems accidental, out of place, or (worse) shoe-horned into the story. It's all smooth and organic.
This is the third time I've seen this film now, and so the third time I've blogged about it (see here and here), and each time my respect for it grows enormously. I always feel like I want to say more, to pick apart deeper themes and hidden signals -- I still believe this is the film about how humans interact in the early 21st century -- but it's just so dense that I only get so far. I recently read a critique that said the only films it's fair to compare The Social Network to are Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood. Even while reading that I thought it was slightly outlandish, but I also think there's something to it at least. Stories about larger-than-life men who have the power to shape the world in their image but who lack the power to overcome even the simplest and most basic of human weaknesses -- and truly great pieces of capital-c Cinema, that the world would be a worse place without.
20 March 2011
Tonight I watched this film and kept copious notes of pretty much every beat and scene for the entire film, as research for a project I'm working on. I wanted to pay close attention to the structure of it, and since I can't find a copy of the screenplay anywhere (and honestly, a "beat sheet" is more useful anyhow), I just went ahead and did the legwork myself. Looking at it as closely as that, it's interesting to note who's "crazy" and who's "sane. To twist an old writing adage, I think one of the best ways to make absurdity work in a comedy (or in any story, I imagine) is to have sane ("ordinary") people treat insane ("extraordinary") circumstances in totally reasonable ways, or have insane ("extraordinary") people react to sane ("ordinary") circumstances in insane or unreasonable ways.
Here, General Jack T. Ripper sets the whole thing off by reacting to, ostensibly, the real-life situation of an increasingly tense arms race and cold war (whether you call that "ordinary" or "extraordinary" circumstances probably depends on your political and philosophical views). He is insane -- the only one in the film depicted as actually, dangerously nutso, and not just goofy or quirky or hilariously ill-equipped for their position. Mandrake, by contrast, though a bit of a passive coward, is decidedly sane, perhaps (in that British-prim-and-proper way) too sane for his job, and he reacts to the insane situation sanely -- that is, he acknowledges that the situation is insane.
President Muffley, General Turgidson, and the absent Premier Kissoff, are all quirky and out of sorts with your expectations for their roles; all are sane but in their own ways seem to be handling the situation before them unreasonably, the way insane people might. Muffley and Kissoff are nervous nellies, concerned with oversensitive telephone etiquette (to be fair, we are told Kissoff is drunk; Muffley has no excuse and comes off more like a nervous chief accountant than a Head of State). Turgidson is an exaggeration on military men: practically a little boy with too many wonderful toys to play with, beamingly proud of them all and quick to forget the gravity of their intent. The titular Dr. Strangelove... well, he might be legitimately insane as well, it's difficult to say. At the very least he's a mad scientist a little too in touch with his god complex, and he definitely reacts to the situations with what I would have to call unreasonable reactions: like Buck Turgidson, he's proud of his evil toys; but like Jack Ripper his answers are cut-and-dry, brutal, beautifully extreme and megalomaniacal. And he is the end-all/be-all voice of reason for the President and his staff here; all questions filter through Strangelove, and nobody questions his wisdom (except when asking for more juicy details). In short, nobody in the War Room are technically "sane" in their reactions; although the broad strokes remain reasonable, the details from each of the key players are decidedly less so.
By contrast, nobody aboard the bomber in flight is shown as anything but perfectly rational: bold, brave, direct men of action who've been trained to do a task and carry it out right down to the letter. In fact, aside from some color commentary from Major "King" Kong, nobody aboard the bomber has any agency at any point in the story. Every choice and (meaningful) line of dialogue is a script laid out for them, a program running. They hit conditionals, conditions are met, the proper response is given, and so on. Even (especially) when things go wrong, all there is to do is go down the checklist and act accordingly. Primary and secondary targets are out of reach, there is no choice but to look up in the books what the closest potential target is and to move in that direction. Right down to Kong personally climbing into the bomb bay to get those doors open, and riding down one of the two hydrogen bombs -- Kong is the Major after all, and it's his duty above all else to protect his men and ensure the success of his mission. Wearing a cowboy hat and yahoo'ing like a, well, like a total yahoo -- that's all Kong, I admit; but the choice to do so was written before the Plan R order went out. Just look at Colonel Guano who shows up to arrest Mandrake, and how difficult it was for him to sidestep the strict and preordained sequence of commands, to allow a "prevert" like Mandrake to try to call the President. Soldiers here are cogs; this is shown with full respect of the job they do (at least for the bombardiers, who do their job well, bravely, and keep their spirits up), bur they're cogs all the same.
The danger isn't soldiers gone astray. The danger is soldiers too good at doing the tasks laid out for them, cogs too efficient in a program too automated. Of course it's well-known lore that Dr. Strangelove started life as a non-humorous, deadly serious thriller novel, and that Kubrick tried for a long time to adapt it in that tone before realizing it only worked when it was played for laughs -- it's too gruesome not to laugh at -- and that's why the film works. The events are all feasible, even when the characters and their beliefs, reactions, dialogue, and personalities are thoroughly and wonderfully less so. But the villain here isn't Ripper -- he's just the macguffin that sets things rolling. The villain here is a system set up to make a chilling, world-ending series of events deliberately and pointedly unstoppable. In fact, it's Ripper's madness, his obsession with with his Purity of Essence, that saves them all -- a sane general would not have picked a three-letter code that his XO could so easily figure out, nor would he doodle it all over the papers on his desk. And lest we think the film claims the U.S. were crazy and the Russians mere victims, remember that it's the Russians who'd devised the actual Doomsday Machine which upped the stakes from merely one messy nuclear war to the devastation of all life on the surface of the Earth. And then, oh, that end!
What keeps me coming back to this film, I think, are three things. First, the dialogue and humor: so deadpan, so outlandish, so wonderfully theatre of the absurd. Second, the audacity of the thing, a black comedy about the end of humanity not through some kind of hubris but just through paranoia and automation -- that the film ends with all those nuclear detonations, the end of civilization everywhere, and the song "We'll Meet Again" has obviously had an enormous impact on me (and this particular script). And third, the delicate balance of tone, where we watch those unreasonable and implausible characters react semi-reasonably and semi-plausibly to a situation so frighteningly plausible (despite a warning at the front assuring us this could never actually happen)... it's exciting to watch a filmmaker daring you to laugh at the things that terrify him (and all of us, especially then) the most, and also daring you to take serious a story that on the surface is a comical farce full of sex-puns and a kind of pent-up energy, like at any point the tension could snap and the whole thing will devolve into slapstick (true story: there was a filmed deleted scene in which the entire War Room gets into a massive pie fight). There's nothing more serious than good comedy, and I think Kubrick knows it. Off the top of my head, I believe this was his only comedy film? Unless you count A Clockwork Orange?
So yeah, this was writing research more explicitly than anything else I've watched lately, but it's still not very surprising I keep coming back to this film again and again.
17 March 2011
I've been reading the Complete Peanuts books lately and in a strange way have fallen in love with them, an impulse I had because so many respected writers and artists I know speak so lovingly of them, and because I'd remembered from a couple years back discovering that the Charlie Brown cartoons aren't funny but painfully, unsparingly melancholy. The comics, even more so. By the '60s it feels almost like Charles Schultz is no longer trying to be funny. I think he knew that nostalgia for a certain kind of childhood anxiety and emotional despair was plenty charming on its own. And I think he is right. There is something weirdly beautiful about Charlie Brown's endless, year-to-year cycles of the same kinds of pain, and Linus's neuroses, and Lucy's fussiness, and Snoopy's fantasies, and Schroeder's borderline-autistic love of music.
Halfway through rewatching it, I described A Boy Named Charlie Brown as "the unrelenting psychic dismantling of an over-anxious all-around failure, played as bittersweet nostalgia." Scene after scene we watch Charlie fall apart. He can't fly a kite. He can't manage a baseball team (or pitch). Lucy shows him a slideshow, categorizing and illustrating in painful, traumatic detail every single fault within him. Even when trying to cheer him up, Linus can't help but beat Charlie Brown at tic-tac-toe. Charlie Brown says he is a "born loser." Linus convinces him to join a spelling bee, and a couple of lucky words gets him past the local and state tournaments and into a national competition, where he agonizes over spelling rules, loses sleep and becomes a delirious wreck. When finally excelling at something, he finds he is more miserable than before.
Then of course, all that minimal success and popularity (even the other kids tune in to see, and after his own mini-crisis with a misplaced loaned blanket is resolved, Linus sits in the front row with Snoopy, eager to support his friend) is just a build-up for an even bigger failure than he's ever experienced before, as Charlie makes it to the last two spellers and blows it on the easiest word, the breed of his dog. He spells "Beagle" as "Beagel" and loses, in front of everyone he knows, when he was right there and could have had the trophy.
The spelling bee itself lasts about sixty seconds. The drive home after losing lasts something like five minutes, followed by Charlie walking the empty streets, Charlie going into his empty house, Charlie undressing and crawling into bed -- where he remains through the whole next school day and after. There is no question that this is being milked for all its poignancy and pain, basking in the miserable afterglow of failure. Linus comes to try once again to cheer up his friend ("We played a baseball game without you today; it was the first time we won all season,") and finally all he can say is, "Well, I can understand how you feel. You worked hard, studying for the spelling bee, and I suppose you feel you let everyone down. You made a fool out of yourself and everything, but did you notice something, Charlie Brown? The world didn't come to an end." It's the best he can offer, and it's enough to convince Charlie to get out of bed, get dressed, and go out.
Wandering by friends at play (mostly ignored) he goes to the baseball mound and kicks up dust. And from there he sees Lucy, her back turned, goofing with the football. He creeps up on her, momentarily confident all over again -- hope springs eternal -- and rushes her for a kick. But -- yank! -- Lucy was ready for him, and he goes flailing and crying out in true Charlie Brown fashion ("Auuughh!"), and lands unceremoniously on his ass. Lucy comes up to him and says, sort of sweetly, "Welcome home, Charlie Brown."
You fail at everything, Charlie Brown, but look on the bright side: your friends are still there to tease you, and there are always more opportunities to fail ahead. (In one strip, Charlie Brown tells Linus, "I've come up with a new philosophy: now I only dread one day at a time.") Children's humor doesn't get much blacker than Peanuts, and this film is a perfect, unapologetic example of that. The closest thing to a happy ending in Charlie Brown's world is the recognition that nothing has changed, even when he fails so spectacularly as this.
The thing is, I don't find any of it depressing, and I don't revel in the depression of it. I find it all enlightening, and even a little energizing. Not to get all hippie-deep on you, but: That's life, man, you know? Not to get all existential-nihilist on you, but: Life will continue to be absurd, cruel, and kick you when you're down, and your only choices are to get up or lie still, and neither will drastically change what happens next (life will continue to be absurd, cruel, and kick you when you're down), and so you might as well get up. Reading Peanuts and watching this (and, if memory serves, its successor, Snoopy, Come Home), I am reminded of one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes: from the underrated Timequake. When Vonnegut wonders to himself "Why bother?" he comes with this response: "Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'"
Again, not to get all touchy-feely about a late '60s cartoon based on a popular newspaper strip about a bald little boy who sucks at everything, but: What can I say? There's something thoroughly grand and humanistic in this, a certain emotional and dramatic territory and language that gets almost no attention in the funny-pages or in children's cartoons. How could I not love it?
15 March 2011
It's odd watching this movie as an adult, especially as an adult with (to be perfectly honest) a lot lower tolerance for silly comedies than I had when I was a kid. So much of the movie exists just to build to weird gags and setpieces that barely work (Ramis as an ESL teacher getting his class to sing "Da Doo Ron Ron?"). The movie ends up being more charming than funny, which isn't so bad.
I once read that Bill Murray contacted Johnny Depp and warned him not to sign on to Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, because after playing Hunter S. Thompson himself, Murray felt he couldn't get the man back out of him. Rewatching Stripes, which came out the year after Where the Buffalo Roam, it's hard not to notice Murray's character Winger go into (probably ad-libbed) energetic, sharp-barbed diatribes that sound more than a little like Thompson, and he even calls people "weird mutants" twice. Make of it what you will, but I found that an interesting thought. On the subject of performance: Harold Ramis is about as good an actor here as Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld -- he tries from time to time, but he's always smirking a "hey look, I'm acting like I'm acting" kind of smirk.
Don't get me wrong. The movie is fun. I watched it, believe it or not, as part of character reference for a project I'm writing (one of the characters I have described as "Peter Venkman-like"), and I'm home sick and half out of it, so I wasn't looking for anything too challenging here. It feels a little (actually, a lot) like a smarter-than-average Police Academy movie, and even knowing it's Warren Oates in the G.W. Bailey role, I still can't see that as the hard-faced anti-hero of some of the best Pekinpah movies. (I realize Police Academy came several years later and it's very obvious that Academy was in fact pretty clearly a cheap, silly knock-off of Stripes and not the other way around, but I guess I grew up watching those fairly horrible movies more often, and between that franchise and playing basically the same character in Mannequin, G.W. Bailey really owned the role of Capt. Harris for me, I guess, even as he made it more cartoonish and one-dimensional than Oates's Sgt. Hulka.)
Anyway, a silly movie. Fun. Fairly pointless. And I still rambled endlessly about it. (Hardly shocking.)
11 March 2011
I haven't done any research into when this came out in relation to other stories of this kind, but it feels like Colossus: The Forbin Project suffers from a case of undercooked ideas, like maybe it was the first time a computer-taking-over-humanity story had ever been made as a film. Certainly it suffers a little because there's not much more to the story than that simple premise. It's so procedural and direct about its "What would happen if a master computer was put in charge of our nuclear weapons and took its job as Overseer too seriously?" storyline that it lacks any good give-and-take (or even a decent subplot, apart from some chemistry between Forbin and Markham). We see our protagonists, Dr. Forbin and the other pesky humans, reacting to the situation as hostages react to a bank robber with a machine gun, or as any victim of terrorism reacts when capitulating. They stall for time, they adhere to the barest minimum requirements of each demand, and they look for clever ways out of their situation. The implication at the end is a kind of Twilight Zone realization that there's no way out, but to me it seemed like it was only just getting good when the credits rolled.
I know they're remaking this (and I think with Will Smith? oh well) and for my money I'd like to see the entirety of this film compressed into act one, or at the very least make the "You will now comply with me and one day learn to love me" seemingly-dead-end-for-humanity's-agency speech be the act two midpoint. There's a lot more story after this, even if the humans fail to regain control of the planet. Hell, I know this movie doesn't have the following required for such a gambit, but I'd be much more interested in a sequel akin to TRON: Legacy than a straight remake. A modern-day retelling of this would lose almost all of its punch instantly, since there's hardly anything shocking about networked computers, panopticon-esque surveillance, or complicated intertwined technological systems doing most of the decision making for mankind. Plus, we don't have a Cold War, and Cold War stories redesigned as U.S.-versus-Middle East stories always feel cheap and silly to me. But if they left the original as a relic, then leapt ahead 32 years or whatever and showed us an alternate future where Colossus/Guardian was running every little thing and humanity's own interests were being "served" by a sort of mechanized übermensch -- I could get behind that. In fact, you could be really sneaky and show us an alternate future where a giant machine took over the planet in 1969 and now humanity is now a slave to this higher power, and you could show us how this alternate world was almost totally indistinguishable from our own in meaningful and poignant ways, suggesting maybe our real world isn't as much humanity's domain as we think. What with mega-corporate superstructures and media-based cultural and ideological control and decisions being made way over our head and all.
But I digress. The film is decent, fairly tense, does a nice job of showing the fear of losing global and political control (though everyone gave in a little too readily for my taste), but too much of it was talking, and too much of the talking was one-sided (for most of the story Forbin advocated immediate capitulation; those advocating resistance never put up a reasonable fight). I don't want action, but I'd like more visual storytelling and less verbal story telling. Still, not bad. Interesting. Dated. Interesting precursor to a lot of films and stories I enjoy, most notably stuff like WarGames and even TRON.
09 March 2011
Now here's a nice continuation of tonight's theme of crime melodramas. Shockproof was (ostensibly) about a morally upright man driven to the dark side by love of a woman; As Tears Go By was about an amoral man tempted toward the light side by love of a woman, but ultimately brought down by brotherly love for a fellow gangster; and here, The Godfather is about a shrewd, smart man born into amorality who tries (twice) to let the love of a woman keep him from slipping, but ultimately his responsibility to and love of his family draws him back down.
In a way it's always been odd to me that Brando is all over the posters and movie boxes for this. I mean, literally speaking he's the title character, but the story is really about Michael Corleone's transition from golden boy/war hero into the next Don/Godfather. It's the story about the position or role of "Godfather" and its power, and the gradual but inevitable transition from too-smart-to-get-involved Michael into cold, shrewd, too-smart-to-do-anything-else Michael. Of course, it's also about the family and the role of family and about the transition from one generation's way of thinking into the next and how the departing seat's values ought to be respected but considered skeptically by those coming into power, and about the nature of (and right time and place for, and right time and place to avoid) violence, and the value of firm action over mere words (this at least is something I could easily argue is echoed throughout As Tears Go By and is perversely, poignantly missing from Shockproof). But I always look to drama and character first, and the story isn't Vito's, it's Michael's. Part II splits its focus between the two, to both the benefit and detriment of the film if you ask me, but Part I here is strictly Michael's story.
I'm not actually making a case against Brando being on the posters, of course. Brando is the big-deal actor, and the iconic figure of the story. It's Michael who's the classic hero here, who resists and then answers the call to action, who faces demons in a cave, sets sail for distant lands, usurps his father's throne and returns home a changed man, but it's Vito Corleone casting the looming shadow over everything: Vito is at various points nemesis, trickster, attractor and mentor. He's the key to everything. Of course he's on the poster.
But the story belongs solely to Michael Corleone, is all I'm saying.
It seems kind of perverse to me that Wong Kar-wai's first film, his only fully scripted film, is his highest grossing and most successful film in his native Hong Kong. I'd seen this once before about five years ago, and it's a lot stronger than I remember it being, but it's just not the caliber of his subsequent, more loosely structured stories. It's easy to see how this led smoothly into what followed, though, and by the standards of what I've seen of Hong Kong crime-melodramas of the era (seems like crime melodrama is the theme of the night, doesn't it?), this is still a little more free-floating, with a handful of subplots circling each other -- or maybe circling our hero.
This doesn't quite have the slippery-slope-descent to it that Shockproof, the other film I finished tonight, had though; here it's more like a morally fallen man sees a glimmer of hope, reaches for it, but is unwilling to let go of the further-fallen friends (particularly Fly) that he's keeping propped up. The tragedy here is that Wah's fate is already decided for him; he's already committed to protecting Fly and keeping him from getting himself killed, and when Ngor (Maggie Cheung, looking so young!) arrives in his life with the open promise of redemption, he is damned if he follows her (and leaves Fly to his inevitable fall -- as the names are Chinese I'm not going to make much of that particular wordplay) and damned if he stays inside the gang world to protect Fly (linking his own fate to Fly's). The protagonist here loves his foil -- who by dramatic definition is unable to change within the story -- and so his fate is all but decided. It's almost Greek, when you look at it like that.
Still, for all its dramatic value and beautiful scenes and nice performances, the story slags a little through the second half, as so many of the confrontations-with-bad-ass-bosses seem the same, becoming variations on a theme rather than new and escalating obstacles. I don't know if that's the limit of the genre (Hong Kong films all tend to have the kinds of scenes we have here, fights in late-night cafés or pissing matches over mahjongg) or if it's a conscious comment on that limit. It doesn't ruin the story, either way, but it does wear the viewer down a lot. All you have to do is compare this to his next film, Days of Being Wild (made only two years later), to see what Wong Kar-wai can do with a little more freedom and a lot more confidence.
Seems like every other film I put on at random speaks to my shelved "crime road movie" idea about the well-meaning couple who commit a crime and flee from Washington state to Mexico and lose their soul along the way. Shockproof is definitely a film in this category. Or at least, it wants to be. Somewhere in there is the story of a man who falls for the wrong girl and does crazy things for her, sacrificing incrementally more and more of his principles and reputation (in other words, his identity) to be with her; and somewhere in there is the story of a girl pushed back and forth by two love-mad men, one a smalltime bad-guy and the other a smalltime good-guy, only each shove pushes her further away from any reasonable moral center. Somewhere in there is a story that asks is love bigger than the troubles of real life, or are the troubles of real life bigger than love? And the answers are almost interesting.
It's hard to say if what holds it back is the romance backbone of the story, the Douglas Sirk melodramatic tone, or the populist expectations of the era. A little research suggests that the original ending of Samuel Fuller's screenplay had Griff "violently rebelling against the system that tried to keep him and Jenny apart." Instead, here, we have Jenny realize how far through the muck she's dragged this poor guy and turn herself in, only to be rewarded by a weird and abrupt one-eighty by her antagonistic former love interest, when he decides to drop all charges, apparently rendering the apathetic cops unable to convict them of anything. (Note: Jenny didn't "drag" Griff through any muck, actually; in fact he dragged her practically kicking and screaming into virtually every mess they find themselves in. Griff Marat has got to be the most cracked, poor-judgment parole officer in the history of criminal law, but I guess love'll make you do crazy things, right?)
The story undermines itself completely before the end, and to make matters worse it seems to only have two modes: heavy-handed symbolism and overwrought, too-thematically-spot-on dialogue. My instinct is that the former is Sirk's touch and the latter Fuller's, and neither helps the story work. Basically, this isn't the very best movie ever made, but it hits on some pretty interesting themes and has, until the (anti-)climax at least, a pretty decent structure. Something just got overcooked along the way, and the result is a somewhat toothless, stale romantic fantasy.
But it's really so close to something... it really is. Oh well.
04 March 2011
I just mentioned this recently, actually, but one of many unrealized projects I have floating around waiting for me to get back to is a crime/road-movie about a trio of people with a too-good-to-be-true shot at millions of dollars if they just do one quick criminal act and then drive quietly down to the Mexican border. Katalin Varga has vague overtones of that kind of a story in its DNA, I admit, but almost no story is as big an influence on this idea as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The idea of well-intentioned desperate people, facing the challenges of character most people don't have to actually face, and learning what kind of a human you really are, has no greater forebear I know than this (though I have always wanted to see Erich von Stroheim's Greed).
Casting Bogart in what might be one of my favorite Bogart roles, a sort-of-against-type/sort-of-perfectly-to-type ruffian who slips a little too comfortably into the role of paranoid murderer as the story goes -- even his fairly brutal (though off-screen) death -- I always wonder if there's a bit of stunt casting in that. I mean, he'd been a box-office star for seven or eight years at that point, had already done Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and so on. Here he starts out down on his luck (even begging from an eerily dapper-looking John Huston cameo) but charming enough, and there's no reason going in to assume that this is going to end with him a raving, dirty, bearded lunatic, a killer and a thief, hacked to death by bandits while trying to flee like a coward. It's perverse, and it gives a little extra oomph to the idea that greed can turn even the best of men into monsters.
The whole cast is brilliant. The story is unexpected and beautifully told. It's also unblinkingly intense without feeling unusual for its time or place -- that's a hard concept to articulate right now (it's pretty late as I write this, to be honest), but it's something John Huston has always seemed a little better at than most of his contemporaries.
I have seen the first half of this movie a dozen times now, and the second half about twice. That's not a judgment on the film but on the bad timing of when, over the years, I've chosen to put it on. It's a weird kind of brutal-comfort film for me, somehow, possibly because of my own story that was borne spiritually out of combining elements from this and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. But regardless, there's very little negative to say here; I love this movie. One of my favorite classic films.