Archive for July, 2012


Pocahontas

The other day, fresh off reading 1491, Charles C. Mann’s brilliant meditation on American Indian history, I watched Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) for the first time in years. I had the flu, which is maybe the best way to watch this feverishly grand re-imagination of American mythology. It goes without saying it’s one of my favorite films, but I was particularly keen on analyzing it as a precursor to The Tree of Life, which I consider the Great American Movie. I believe Malick’s five features (released over a period of 38 years) form a kind of epic story cycle with American history as its subject.

My lingering impression after this viewing was being enchanted all over again with the film’s interpretation of the character of Pocahontas. The Powhatan “princess” as written by Malick and played by the stunning Q’orianka Kilcher (a force of nature in her feature debut at age 14) is a beautifully realized vision, a delicate combination of ethereal spirit child and mythological earth mother, incorporating innocence and wisdom, strength and vulnerability, effervescent joy and tragedy in shifting layers as complex as the film’s hyperkinetic editing.

The movement of her body, the way she makes all of her interactions into capricious play or interpretive dance, display a level of unselfconscious freedom and grace that few in our society attain; while her manner of constantly talking to Spirit via the monologues laid over the film’s montage-like narrative indicates profound, prayerful reverence and gratitude. She seems to dwell comfortably in the space between earth and sky, just as she dwells on the chaotic and dangerous boundary between English and American culture, beholden to both, but contained by neither. On this viewing, the significance of these monologues jumped out at me; it now seems obvious that they’re precursors of, or even part of a continuum with the conversations with God that are such an important part of The Tree of Life.

To me it’s not merely a fascinating performance; there’s something instructive about her character and the virtues it represents that distills Malick’s holistic views of philosophy and spirituality. Pocahontas represents a tragically lost possibility, a peaceful blending of cultures that might have changed the course of world history. But on a simpler level, she just shows us a better way of being. Put it this way – if you’re not making this gesture from time to time, you’re probably not living right:

Here’s a collection of some great writing about this masterpiece:

Terrence Malick’s New World, an in-depth analysis of the film’s philosophical and cinematic language by Richard Neer of the Universty of Chicago at nonsite.org

Best of the Decade #2: The Myth Maker, an appreciation by Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot

Also at Reverse Shot: A Stitch in Time, by Chris Wisniewski, analyzes the unorthodox editing in both The New World and Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979)

Beautiful Stills from Beautiful Films is where I found most of these images

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In case you were wondering what Christopher Nolan’s Inception would look like as an Ottoman miniature, the internet has come through yet again:

There are more here, including the likes of Kill Bill, Star Wars and GoodFellas:

Classic Movies in Miniature Style

They were done by a Turkish art student named Murat Palta. They’re all pretty clever; some are better than others. I like the Inception one because of the way it depicts the different levels of the film’s dreamworld on different panels. I also dig the Kill Bill one – love his interpretation of Uma’s signature costume. I do wonder about some of the choices he made – for instance, why is the van in this one a horse and carriage, but the snowmobile is just a boxy-looking snowmobile? Either way it’s fun to study the details in all of them. (Though I skipped over the Scarface one – I really hate that movie and wish people would stop treating it like a classic.)

For great insight into the history of this kind of art (and some brilliant storytelling), read Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name Is Red.

Small-Screen Nostalghia

Last night I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on MUBI. Released in 1983, toward the end of the great Russian director’s life, it’s the next-to-last of his seven features, and the first one shot outside of the Soviet Union. The plot, such as it is, concerns a Russian writer on a sojourn in Italy searching for… actually, it’s not clear what he’s searching for, not even to him, but he begins to think he might discover some kind of truth from a so-called lunatic he meets in an old Roman bath in the country who has visions of a local saint.

I’m not going to attempt to analyze it in depth it at this point. Suffice it to say there’s a lot going on in this profoundly dreamlike work. My lingering impression this morning is that I’ve never seen a film incorporate surrealism so organically into its narrative – the very strange things that happen, the mind-boggling things we see, seep into the story like water seeps into the Roman bath, and seem to grow out of it as naturally as the moss and lichens that grow on its walls. In the light of day it feels as if I myself was dreaming while watching it.

The question on my mind right now is whether it was a bad idea to watch it on my 11-inch Macbook Pro. Nostalghia is characterized by compositions that are as densely packed with (weird) images and ideas as they are vast in scope. It’s a HUGE film in all ways. It’s common to say, “This film must be seen on a big screen.” OK – but that’s true of most films. But say there’s not a Tarkovsky retrospective happening in your town anytime soon and you just want to check his stuff out. Is it some kind of betrayal of his work to watch it on your laptop? Is it an artistic crime?

Last night after watching the film, I was thinking about Roger Ebert’s vow: “I will never, ever watch a movie on my iPhone. Nor will I read a book on my thumbnail.” I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. But when I looked it up this morning, I found this answer to a reader’s question, with a much softer and more pragmatical stance, and one that would make anyone who grew up loving movies in humble circumstances proud:

From Rodney Welch (Elgin, South Carolina):

Is watching a movie on a cellphone an artistic crime? 

Probably, and I’ve never done it – but then I remember that as a budding movie lover I grew up watching classic cinema on a small portable black-and-white TV. That’s where I fell in love with Citizen Kane, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca and all the other Hollywood classics. I was 10 or 11, and I couldn’t have cared less about aspect ratio or poor lighting. All I cared about was decent reception and sound – and if I had that, then I have to say that at that time and that age I had as fine an artistic experience as I could have hoped for. The story, the performances, the script, the allure – all those most important elements can very definitely come through a tiny screen if you’re an alert and interested viewer who yearns for a good story. Didn’t Scorsese grow up the same way – watching afternoon movies on the tube? Didn’t we all?

Watching a movie on your cellphone, with stereophonic sound (if you use headphones) is actually probably a step up from what I had then. If you handed me an iPhone and a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription in 1974 – I would have thought I had died and done to heaven! (Especially if you grew up in the rural South, and you knew that you would be forever denied any chance at all of seeing a movie by this guy Buñuel that Pauline Kael raved about unless you moved to a big city.)

By all means I think you should see a movie on a big screen with a fantastic print and superior sound – that’s the ultimate experience – but if a cellphone is all you have to work with, go for it.

The other night I watched Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are for the first time. It was a random pick on broadcast TV, and I had no expectations at all. It turns out I thought it was actually pretty great. I was working on something else when my wife put it on, but I eventually set my work aside and become lost in this uniquely lovely and engrossing film.

(Andrea from Galway and Jason from Denver like this.)

CHERYL (Toronto): Agreed!

MY DAD (Fairmont, West Virginia): I agree – I enjoyed it.

CARLOS (New York): My reaction exactly

WADE (New Orleans): It was the unrealistic expectations that caused the backlash.

Backlash? I vaguely recall something about this loose adaptation of everyone’s favorite book from childhood being poorly received, but I wasn’t paying attention. Was there a backlash? I try not to pay much attention to the ongoing glut of adaptations and remakes. Occasionally there’s a really good one (Tron Legacy comes to mind.) But Where the Wild Things Are really caught me off guard with how different it was willing to be not only from the book but from other films of its ilk, and the way it was written, acted and shot like an indie drama. The cinematography is brilliant. I just love the shots of those expensive animatronic puppets with their faces obscured by shadow. It seems bold and kind of pretentious, but also perfectly natural – an idea whose time has come, especially if special-effects and color-correcting technologies make it more and more feasible. About the special effects: at many points I could not tell what was a puppet and what was enhanced by CGI. So either the effects in this film are amazing, or I’m getting old and I’ve lost touch.

The mumblecorish-ness of the dialogue really worked for me too, with the rambling, chaotic interactions between the affectionate but bitchy monsters (played by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker among others) coming across like a documentary of a struggling indie band depicted with puppets. Bottom line is these puppets talk to each other in very serious, adult tones about ridiculous things, and it works. The ingenious screenplay was co-written by Jonze with Dave Eggers. I would like to point out that both of these gentlemen were born within about a year of me.

The whole package is sort of like a cross between Peter Jackson and Wes Anderson. And I mean not only the Jackson of The Lord of the Rings, but of the much more disturbing Heavenly Creatures; Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, released at about the same time, is one of the more obvious recent touchstones with which to compare this film. Wild Things is not a masterpiece on the same level, but good enough to be in the conversation. In the “indie fantasy” scheme of things, I think it would make a great companion film to this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Karen O’s orchestral-indie soundtrack (somehow rough-hewn but shimmery at the same time) ices the cake – say as if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were covering Sufjan Stevens for kids.

I do have one complaint though (and maybe this was part of the backlash which I missed): why, why, WHY did Jonze choose not to depict the transformation of Max’s bedroom? Considering that’s the best thing about the book, and considering he had such a great design team, including KK Barrett, who did Being John Malkovich, they kind of dropped the ball there. (By the way, I recently saw Karen O’s “psycho opera” Stop the Virgens at the Sydney Opera House, which was also designed by Barrett. My review is here; you have to scroll down a bit.) That said, it’s a very beautiful film, with the wonderfully realized puppets, the jaw-dropping art and architecture created by Max and the monsters, and the many gorgeous compositions in the gloaming of sunset or sunrise, like some fantasy version of a Terrence Malick film. And my momentary disappointment was soon forgotten – at a certain point I forgot I was watching a Maurice Sendak adaptation and was just into the story that Jonze and Eggers were telling.

JOHNNY (Wiesbaden, Germany): I saw it at a movie theater and was actually bawling. The film exposes the nature of human relationships in a brutally honest way, but in such a beautiful and childlike way that you can’t withdraw from it.

WADE: People got bent out of shape because they thought there was little-to-no joy in the film. Grown-ups got upset that it was too honest about grown-up relationships and how our grown-up disfunctions and problems weigh on kids – which was often distilled in the criticism that it was too heavy or dark for kids. And it is a heavy movie for kids. Heavy, but not too grown-up, because, as Johnny pointed out, the film is about how a kid sees and internalizes grown-up relationship problems.

As for the transformation of the room, I would guess having Max run away instead was to create a real sense of separation or danger for Max’s voyage. It would have been easier for the viewer to withdraw if he could simply say “This is all in his imagination. Remember when we saw his room turn into a forest? It’s just a dream, and he’ll wake up when he smells his dinner waiting for him.”

Oh, and as to the “no joy” argument, where is the joy in the book? Maybe for three pages of Wild Rumpus. Other than that, it’s about an out-of-control kid getting punished, imagining a life away from his family and problems, and then longing for his home and family, even though that was what he wanted to escape.

Wade and Johnny are exactly right. I thought we already had this settled, but maybe it’s worth pointing out again: the best children’s literature is pretty dark. I’m not only talking about the gruesomeness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales – though here, in true fairy-tale fashion, the threat of violence constantly hangs over Max’s relationships with the monsters, who often wonder aloud whether they should continue hanging out with him or eat him. But I’m also talking about the loneliness, alienation and trauma inherent in childhood classics from The Wizard of Oz to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to E.T. Let’s face it, kids like their fiction weird and disturbing. And if there’s a distrust of authority in there, that’s only natural, and it doesn’t even have to be subversive. These kinds of stories are how kids work out their feelings. Remember how hilariously ambivalent Time Bandits was about parents? Remember how melancholy and weird the The Last Unicorn was? These are the films that speak right to us when we’re young, that we can’t pull away from, that seep their way into our consciousness and stay there as classics for the rest of our lives. Where the Wild Things Are is no doubt having that effect on a generation of youngsters even as I type. (Actually, I think it had that effect on me, too.)

I’ve never read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; so if you were hoping for an informed perspective, you should click on to the next thing. (I refuse to feel bad – I’m watching At the Movies right now and Margaret is admitting she’s not qualified to review Ted because she’s never seen Family Guy.) But in assessing Emily Arnold’s feature-film adaptation, I’m not sure it matters whether I’ve read it or not. I’m not even sure  it would matter whether Arnold had ever read it. Her film approaches adaptation as an extreme sport. The story’s themes, characters and plot are present in what is presumably a recognizable shape, like points on a constellation, but otherwise complete liberty is taken. Perhaps this is expected these days; Shakespeare is adapted so freely on both stage and screen in contemporary times that we’re actually surprised by more traditional interpretations. But Hollywood and BBC costume dramas based on classic novels follow such a standard form that I guess there’s still a bit of shock left to mine from re-interpretation with contemporary aesthetics and values. Either that, or Arnold is particularly good at ruffling middlebrow feathers, because her version of Wuthering Heights has been called controversial, difficult and dark. It’s certainly dark, I’ll give you that. I liked it quite a lot.

Brontë’s 1847 novel is known for its bleakness and strangeness anyway, and was already controversial upon publication. Clearly Arnold felt she had to get even weirder in order to register the same impact. In her hands, the tale has become something beyond Gothic – primal, elemental, brutal. Whether life on the Yorkshire moors of the 19th century was as grim and downright Medieval as it’s depicted here is up for discussion. But there’s almost no doubt we’ve been kidding ourselves with our sanitized versions of Dickens and Austen; life in northern Europe at any time, and for any class of people, before the inventions of indoor plumbing and electric light would have probably seemed pretty grimy and, well, dark to us. So this film exaggerates (maybe) to make a point. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which I love) leans a bit in this direction, with dark interiors, a tomboyish and messy-haired Elizabeth, and gaggles of farm animals running around the periphery of the rather scruffy Mr Bennett’s country house. Arnold’s film makes that one look very tame.

I saw Wuthering Heights late one rainy Friday night towards the end of Sydney Film Festival. I was alone, tired and in a bad mood. I sat in the front row of the State Theatre, which never seemed so cavernous and absurdly ornate. It was the perfect way to absorb, or rather to be absorbed in, the film’s chilly, haunted atmosphere. It’s not only the way Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan create such an evocative world onscreen – an unearthly place where the wind always blows, where the distant sunlight glints off the raindrops and pale purple heather and hardly warms the wood and brick dwellings. It’s the way they make that world seem so real and tangible (and achingly beautiful) – with softly focused closeups of rough-hewn wood, rough fabric, dirty hands, flowers, birds and animals, warped glass refracting external forms like ghosts.

The characters seem like ghosts inhabiting this place. They’re not always in focus; we don’t always understand what they’re saying. They nearly always seem to be cold and wet (even indoors) and unhappy. Two of the young ones, a young lady named Catherine and Heathcliff, a foster child who is treated like a servant, develop an animal affection for one another that blossoms into love. They steal a little time in between harsh, gutteral reprimands from Catherine’s stern male relatives to explore the delicate, primordial miracle of their feelings, before everything falls apart and everyone dies or goes home miserable.

Sure, Heathcliff’s black. Sure, the young Catherine dresses like a neurotic art student, with trousers under her skirts and a beat-up cardigan. Sure, her brother has a shaved head, and he and Heathcliff talk to each other like yobs from contemporary Liverpool. But it’s not that Arnold is just casually asking “Why not?” She doesn’t seem to be playing around with the iconography of the novel for a good laugh; her commitment to its creepy, doomed Romanticism is total. More than any recent literary adaptation, its anachronisms force us to ponder the set of aesthetic or cultural signs that define “history”, or what distances us from the past. Other than the odd electric cable and a few plastic microchips, what separates our world from the bleak, lonely world in which Emily Brontë lived and wrote anyway? Didn’t we simply inherit its cruelty, its racism and its messed-up notions of love? Maybe it’s time we stop kidding ourselves?

Anyway, I got pretty wrapped up in Arnold’s vision, though there are weak spots. The largely unknown leads inhabit their roles with conviction, but the acting falters in the crucial later scenes. And I admit the grottiness goes overboard – the scene in which a playful romp in the rain between Heathcliff and Catherine devolves into a mudwrestling bout is a bit too precious; the scene where she licks his wounds (after he’s beaten with a whip) too indie-grimy. But it never lost me completely; and the film’s excesses seem perfectly in line with the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, which was pretty freaky in the first place (think Edgar Allan Poe, incest, necrophilia, premature burials, etc.) About the worst to be said of the film is that the characters are often swallowed up in the blurry, almost Expressionist atmosphere. But with atmosphere this good, I’m not sure that’s a knock. Certainly it’s destined to be a slumber-party classic among lonely Goth-minded youngsters for years to come, and I mean that as high praise.

Anyway, I’ll probably read the novel soon.