Archive for November, 2008

Back to the Future Returns to DVD

backtothefuturemikefoxYears ago, I went through a period I can only describe as a psychotic episode. I imagine most people go through something like this — you’ve just gotten married, you’re about to finish college, and the world you once thought fit into a nice, neat little black and white bubble suddenly looks a whole lot bigger.  Everything takes on a kind of angry melodrama not unlike a bad after school special.  Feelings of guilt creep into your conscious awareness, provoking a response. Mine was to get rid of any movies on the shelf that contained “offensive material.”

As you can imagine, this means I eliminated a fair quantity of my inventory.  Looking back at the purge, though it embarrasses the hell out of me, it did help shape my understanding of stories, my response to them, and the tension between the sacred and the profane.

Among those discarded films was Back to the Future (HT: FilmChat), which will get a new 2-disc DVD release on Feb. 10th.

The way I see it: if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

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Happy Thanksgiving!

thanksgiving-dinner-1-tA few Thanksgivings ago, soon after my brother first got married, I hitched a ride with them to visit the grandparents in Kentucky.  They had never met my sister-in-law, and it had been, well, years since my brother and I had seen them.  On the way there, we decided to warn my new sister-in-law about the turkey. 

My grandfather had strange eating habits.  He took coffee, strong and black, with every meal, and never took a sip until he cleaned his plate.  He liked his food well overcooked.  That means steaks and pork chops in their house looked as thin as cardboard, and felt like cardboard in your mouth when you chewed.  I still imagine cardboard tastes better. 

The Thanksgiving turkey received the same treatment, and my brother and I wanted to make sure my sister-in-law knew what she would have in front her at the table.  I don’t remember who brought up the idea of stopping at Captain D’s.  Fish on Thanksgiving kinda dampens the sentimentality of the holiday, but we were there to see family and visit, and we saw no reason why these activities should include eating dried turkey. 

When we showed up at the grandparents’ house, we insisted we had already eaten, but my grandmother’s insistance is a powerful and formidable foe. I don’t know why we did not anticipate this, but she cajoled us into sitting down and at least having a little bit of leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

To this day I refuse to believe the bird sitting in her fridge was cooked in her oven.  I do not often use the word “succulent.”  Some food just does not earn such a stong, compelling adjective. This turkey sure did, and darned if we didn’t sit there and stuff ourselves.

I’m not really sure what the moral of this story is, or if it even has one.  Were I to try and glean one, it would be that no matter how smart you think you are, God will find a way to undermine your schemes, and do not think for an instant that He will refuse a chance to have a good natured laugh at your expense.  Just remember He invites you to laugh with Him.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Upcoming Review

fearlessI first saw this movie one night on HBO years ago (I think I was 14) and never really got to see the whole thing.  I knew the premise, but not much else.  I came in a few minutes before Rosie Perez’s character suffers a complete mental breakdown over losing her child in the plane crash, and watched in stunned, perfectly riveted silence as Jeff Bridges strapped her in the back seat of the car, and plowed into that brick wall. 

Watching the tool box come flying through that windshield still haunts my brain. 

Of course, when you’re 14 and you attend a church that thinks movies were made by the devil’s minions, sharing the experience of watching something like that earns you some scary looking glares.  Anyway, 14 years later, I have a used copy of the film coming in the mail.  After reading Robert K. Johnston’s writing on Peter Weir, I’ve wanted to dig in to trying to parse the meaning and significance of his films myself.

Notorious (1946)

notorious2Anyone who’s ever spent enough time listening to music knows when someone with real, palpable talent picks up an instrument, and you can begin to discern the differences between your buddy rocking out in the garage on his guitar, and the confidence of Eric Clapton’s fingers as he plays the strings.  Often called one of Alfred Hitchcock’s strongest films, Notorious plays the suspense spy thriller with similar, masterful grace. Watching this film, you know you’re watching something crafted by a master talent. 

It’s 1946, and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) watches as her father goes to prison for conspiring with the Nazis.  In order to discern the secret stratagem of the Nazis, American agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits Alicia, a German expatriate, to infiltrate a Nazi cell hiding out in Rio.  One of the cell’s leaders was an old friend of her father, a fellow named Alexander Sebatian (Claude Raines) who had once tried to court the fair Alicia, as men are wont to do. 

Alicia’a frank sexual drive, penchant for booze, and overall bratty demeanor make her less the unattainable beauty typically associated with Bergman.  Her spoiled nature would appeal mainly to predators, but she somehow manages to charm the steely agent Devlin, and he quickly falls in love with her before learning his superior’s intentions. They want Alicia to court Sebastian and learn the Nazi’s evil plan. By any means necessary. 

This complicated web of intimacy stirs a tense plot.  As Alicia works her way deeper into Sebastian’s heart, he asks her to marry him. 

Hitchcock makes some interesting choices in deciding how, where, and when to present information to the audience, particularly involving Devlin and Alicia’s relationship.  Though she marries Sebastian, the only actual romantic interaction the audience witnesses in the film is the now-famous kiss with Devlin – a long kiss, followed by several smaller ones that follow the pair from the hotel balcony, through a phone call, and into the room.  In one take.  (You can catch the first half of the scene here.) No doubt constrained by censors, Hitch does not show the lovers in any real stage of undress, or even under the covers.  The kiss itself was structured as such to get around the rule that lovers’ lips could touch for only a few seconds. Hitch stretches the kiss for just under three minutes. And it works. 

Bergman and Grant are, well, Bergman and Grant.  Though the performances ring with a touch of melodrama avoided by today’s working actors, it’s easy to say what made these two stars in their day.  When they step into their roles, they inhabit their character whereas many screen talents today seem to project a stock personality onto whatever script they’re given.  Grant and Bergman bring something different to each of their roles — Bergman leaves no trace of the lovely Ilsa anywhere in this film, and Grant keeps things wonderfully understated.  

Ben Hecht’s script creates a nice backbone for Hitchcock to work his magic.  The film keeps a steady pace, though some might find the ending a little abrupt.  The story avoids any real contrivances, allowing character’s choices to drive the plot.  Hitch had a reputation for working closely with his writers, and the film creates some wonderful opportunities for him to flex his developing reputation as master of suspense.  The camera work took an innovative turn for a film in 1946.  Hitchcock employs a fair amount of handheld camera work, keeping the movement more fluid and exciting, and even created a trend with his long tracking shot from an upstairs balcony that zeroes in on a key in our heroine’s hand. 

The film touches on several issues, running the gamut between Alicia’s patriotism, her alcoholism, and Sebastian’s castrated relationship to his mother (perhaps a precursor to Norman Bates).  Front and center, however, is an intimate examination of love, betrayal, and devotion.  Devlin’s courtship of Alicia receives little real exposition – he’s fallen for her, and in turn, she’s given herself to him.  Alicia never attempts to gloss over her sordid “notorious” habits, and once she’s given herself over to the villain, Devlin remains determined to protect her. 

Devlin’s devotion somewhat recalls the story of Hosea and Gomer. The story in the book of Hosea allegorized Israel’s wayward relationship with God, and both the biblical narrative, and the film, deal in the theme of devotion juxtaposed with betrayal.  The children of Israel had prostituted themselves out to other Gods, turning away from their first love to pursue other interests.  God allows his wayward children to run, but illustrates His devotion in Hosea’s act of purchasing back his wife after she had returned to a life of promiscuity. 

Devlin knows his job is to ready Alicia for a trip into the arms of the enemy, but he is at first unaware of the specifics, and having allowed himself to love Alicia, hates to tell her the extent of her mission.  It is Alicia’s promiscuity that the government agents which to exploit to learn the details of Sebastian’s operations.  As Devlin watches her descend deeper into hell, he is both repulsed by her and drawn to her. 

The film’s strongest facet, and again, more evidence of its composition in the hands of a master storyteller, is its subtlety.  For a spy thriller, tensions run palpable and taut, and yet not a single shot is fired.  The narrative is charged with sexual tension, yet not a single crude moment finds a way onto the screen.  Capable artists have handled crude material with a certain amount of style and acceptable grace, and Hitchcock’s creative choices likely stemmed from the limitations of his censors.  As John Nolte pointed out recently, those limitations forced some of the greatest creative work that inspired a generation of moviemakers, and helped turn Hitchcock into a true craftsman.

Looking back at a moment from The West Wing

What began as a comment on a post at Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog ran a little long, so here is my response to the post in its entirety.

Quick summation–Overstreet linked to an article (Part 1 here, part 2 here) written by Laura Braman Good at Image magazine concerning her reactions to Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

I read both parts of Good’s series, and I was reminded almost immediately of a story arc that ran through the first season of THE WEST WING. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne has a liaison with a woman he later learns is a prostitute (or, as he prefers, “call girl”).  Throughout that arc, lovable Sam does his best to steer the woman, named Laurie, away from her night life.  She’s studying to be a lawyer, after all, and she has bills to pay.  Near season’s end, Sam is caught handing Laurie a gift — an innocent thing, really, but he is a White House staffer and she is a call girl.  The usual hand-wringing ensues, and Sam receives a slap on the wrist.  The president, in his benevolence, has this to say about the call girl:

“You should tell her,” Bartlett tells Sam, “that if she passes the bar exam, the US Attorney General will personally see that she’s admitted to the bar.  Tell her the President of the United States says congratulations on getting her degree.”

In the school of art and story interpretation, I am still a learner, and when I feel affected by something, I want to try and articulate it.  That moment in the show, while I appreciate its sentiment, never sat well with me, and thanks to Good’s article, I think I figured out why.

I’m sure there’s probably more “Lauries” out there than I want to think about.  I think I am safe assuming that not all of them have the shameless determination Laurie in the show seemed to possess.  And almost all likely do not have a dashing hero who will enter their lives, nor will they ever get a pat on the back from the president for “earning her degree.”

Just as Good anticipates that “any field [in her database] beginning with the word PROSTITUTION would end with the terms PORNOGRAPHY, STRIPPING, DANCING, CRAIGSLIST,” I doubt “trying to pass the bar exam” would ever make the list.

People that know me know I admire Aaron Sorkin.  I like his use of rhythm in dialog, and I like the symmetry with which he crafts his scenes, and I like how he has at times tried to explore both sides of a sensitive issue.  For all his worthy talent, however, this singular moment turns tragedy into fairy tale.  The realization of this tarnishes some of that admiration, because I find it indicative of much of Sorkin’s work, particularly on television, the more I think on this.  More on that, perhaps, another time.

For art to reach hearts, it has to at least reflect truth, even in the myths that seem to remove themselves just a touch from our world and its set of rules.  The audience never gets the chance to see Laurie again, know if she passed the bar, or if the emotional scars of giving herself to man after man ever affected her.  We’re left with a moment designed to evoke sympathy built on a paradigm that should have led to very different ends.  Like we learn in kindergarten, you cannot fit square pegs into round holes.

Pins and Needles; Trailer Watch

avatar

First, Ain’t it Cool News posts a photo of boxes supposedly containing a four-minute trailer to Avatar, James Cameron’s first film in 11 years (12 by the time it hits theaters). Yesterday, Cinematical posts what they think is the first piece of official artwork from the production. 

Principle photography wrapped months ago, which leads me to ask: are we ever going to get a look at this movie? 

The film is still more than a year away from release (Dec. 17, 2009), and thought it’s rare, trailers have run that far in advance before. I guess I’m just antsy. 

Cameron started dropping hints about this film as far back as 1997, supposedly waiting until now for effects technology to reach the point of making his vision possible to capture on film.  Avatar will screen in 3D, similar to the technology used for U2 3D released earlier this year. 

Critics will debate the merits of his work—style over substance, etc.—but he is a true innovator, and to me, a compelling storyteller; one whose spectacle serves the story rather than his story serve the spectacle. 

I do not care about his politics. I do not care that he tried to “prove” Jesus never rose from the dead. When he steps behind the camera, his imagination soars, and I have never not enjoyed the ride.

(note: the poster, I’ve learned, is a fake – I just like the look of it)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

picnic_hanging_rockThe most problematic element of Picnic at Hanging Rock is that it will likely soar right over the heads of most viewers born after 1985.  Thrillers and suspense yarns have had their high principles undercut by overused conventions and stylized pop that have contributed to the waning appeal such stories used to make on our conscious perceptions of grand thematic ideas.  In 1975, director Peter Weir could make this film without having to live under the heavy shadow of hockey mask clichés or Scream parodies.  Today, this is a rare find, and a lovely blend of genres and textures.

On Valentines Day in the year 1900, the girls of Mrs. Appleyard’s College prepare for a day-long visit to Hanging Rock, a 500 foot tall dormant volcano.  Four girls separate from the group to explore the rocky base and attempt a climb the rocky slopes.  Three of them never reemerge. As the hour grows late, their caretaker attempts to locate them, and disappears as well.  The one girl left behind arrives at the base screaming, witness to an invisible horror.

There is no easy way to classify Picnic. Rather than shape the film’s horror around a conventional villain, Weir instead molds it from the chaotic, unhealthy mind of unchecked, unmeasured desire.  Every character yearns—be it the school girls’ romantic longings, or the cold, rigid pursuit of strict behavior and pragmatic, passionless logic shown by some of the teachers.  The disappearance of the girls is only the catalyst that cracks each character’s safeguards and strips away all pretenses, revealing their inner strength, or frailty.

This is not to say that the film is without any dramatic tension.  Weir takes his time to pull his narrative threads taut. Certain moments ring with the ticking clock of suspense that characterized much of Hitchcock’s work.  Yet these moments never lead to any of the presumed ends an audience would expect.

As the mystery surrounding what happened on the rock unfolds, the film offers little to no answers.  It extends, in a way, the notion that what you cannot see is much scarier than what you can.  Instead, Weir postulates that what you don’t know — what remains unsolved, irresolute — is more disquieting than what you do.   This would shock any viewer accustomed to the paint-by-numbers scare fests that fill theaters today, but to succumb to the temptation to provide all the answers in a neat package at the end betrays the film’s core motivations: character and desire.

Desire abounds among the film’s players—between one student for another, between two boys watching the girls hike up the rock, and between the teachers and their ideals. The opening trip to Hanging Rock is fraught with the girls’ warm and silly romantic ruminations on love, purpose and eternity; the kind of vague naivety common to young ladies on the cusp of womanhood, their pure ideals as yet untainted by the world’s cruelty.  Chief among them is Miranda (Anne Lambert), a lovely, graceful presence whom one character even calls a “Botticelli Angel.”  Juxtaposed to Miranda is Sara (Margaret Nelson), ordered that day by Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) to stay behind at the school under the pretense of falling grades.  Sara’s aloof nature separates her from her peers, though she retains a strong attachment to Miranda, hinting at her own buried desires for love, friendship, and perhaps even companionship.

Most of the cast serves the material beyond what’s on the page.  Certain portions of the film focus so much on the girls’ charged emotionalism that it almost overwhelms.  The film receives a breath of life from smaller moments and characters influenced by healthier expressions of desire—two caretakers discussing the bizarre details of the mystery, the calm persistence of the constable’s investigation into the case.

Weir’s choice of composer Bruce Smeaton for the film’s score anticipates his later selection of Maurice Jarre for Dead Poets Society.  In both films, the score complements the tension surrounding pivotal moments, playing soft chords that grow steadily louder as the moment evolves.  Smeaton even manages to capture the eerie ambiance of the late summer quiet.

This delicate, methodical study on desire earns its merits by exploiting the strengths of film as a medium.  Weir spends as much time on the intricate landscape of his characters’ faces as he does on the jagged outcropping of rock, lending a strange, ethereal bent to the world of the film.  No doubt some viewers will feel jilted by the film’s lack of closure, but the resolution does offer a sort of close, suggesting in the end that Weir wanted to give us a fable — tough comeuppance awaits the heart that blindly surrenders to its desires.