Monday, July 28, 2008

away notification

We've been continuing with Film Club in recent weeks, and we've seen some interesting stuff, including Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Joe Swanberg's LOL, and I'm planning to do a paired write-up of those two films.

However... I'm also in the throes of executing a cross-country move, from Chicago to the Greater Boston Area, and my days have been pretty consumed with packing, purging, and lugging. Thursday (the 31st) I drive halfway to Boston and Friday (the 1st) I go the rest of the way, and this blog will update again not long afterwards.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

moral configurations

Those of you who weren't / aren't gamer geeks may not be aware of a funny little merit of the Dungeons and Dragons character-generation system, which is that one of the attributes you set for yourself is your "alignment," a value that stands in, essentially, for your morality.

I've always liked the way that the alignment system works in Dungeons and Dragons because it's a two-axis system: there's the basic good-to-evil axis that you'd expect, but there's also an axis ranging from "lawful" to "chaotic," which describes your degree of attraction to order. If you were to draw this out as a scatterplot, it would define four major areas, which, in Dungeons and Dragons parlance, are Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

Last night I saw the new Batman movie (OK, OK, The Dark Knight) and one of the things that I noticed about it is that its major characters align to these four areas. To wit:

Chaotic Good: Batman

Lawful Good: Harvey Dent

Lawful Evil: Two-Face

Chaotic Evil: The Joker

This is not that interesting, in and of itself, to anyone except former gamer geeks like myself, except that it highlights the film's interest in these polarities, in the way that good defines itself against evil, and in the way that order defines itself against chaos. Especially interesting in both Dungeons and Dragons and The Dark Knight is their refusal to conflate good with order and chaos with evil. These pairings can be, and are, often found together (and Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker is nothing if not a memorable embodiment of Chaotic Evil in its most prime manifestation), but they also can be, and are, often decoupled. A recognition of that allows for a more complicated and rich moral universe, and The Dark Knight's exploration of these different configurations is, to my mind, the film's greatest strength.

[A sad closing note: the Wikipedia article on alignment informs me that the new Fourth Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules has gone the simpler route, eliminating both Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good. Bloody dualists!]

Monday, July 14, 2008

rosencrantz and guildenstern are dead, by tom stoppard

So last week we watched The Adventures of Mark Twain, a film that makes use of some famous characters from literature to tell its narrative. Our follow-up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, similarly raids the storehouse of classic literature for characters—this time drawing from the works of Shakespeare, instead of the works of Twain.

There's one important difference between the two films, however. The Adventures of Mark Twain recontextualizes Twain's characters by writing them into an aeronautic adventure, one never penned by Twain. The central plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, by contrast, will be familiar to anyone who has read Hamlet.

For those of you who need the Cliff's Notes version, here it is: these two guys are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played most excellently by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman):

These two are old pals of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who, at the outset of the story, has been acting pretty eccentric. They enter into the play because they're called in by the King to use their status as Hamlet's trusted friends to get close to him and figure out what his deal is.

This is kind of a sleazy request—imagine being called in by the stepfather of any of your close friends to do the same—but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree, and they meet up with Hamlet and basically attempt to perform some amateur psychoanalysis on him. Hamlet's much more deft than they are, however, and he spends most of this conversation engaging them in wordplay, feeding them disinformation, and generally running rings around them.

Eventually, he grows impatient with their duplicity, and he arranges, through his own act of duplicity, to have them both be executed by the King of England.

All of this material appears in Hamlet and it appears in the movie in a way that is more or less faithful to the play. For instance, in any scene where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak to Hamlet, the King, or the Queen, all of the dialogue is completely faithful to the dialogue that appears in the original.

What's interesting about this, though, is that these scenes are relatively few and far between. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't very major characters within Hamlet, and so they're off-stage a lot of the time. What director Tom Stoppard endeavors to do with this film is show what these characters are doing when they're off-stage. It's here where Stoppard breaks with the Shakespearean trappings: he has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak in a more modern idiom, play word-games, and indulge in anachronistic hijinks:

The end result is something of an absurdist, inverted version of Hamlet, in which the status of minor characters and main characters are reversed. Hamlet is a fabulous choice to do this with, because it is already metafictional and self-reflexive to begin with: even in its original form it contains a play-within-a-play, performed by a troupe of travelling actors, that retells some of Hamlet's backstory. Stoppard—who comes to the cinema via his background as a playwright and theatrical director—amps up this element, partially by loading the film with stage-sets and and audiences:

...and partly by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the actors spend their "offstage" time together, with the end result is that we see even more staged versions of the Hamlet plot points:

All of this gamesmanship is a lot of fun, but there's something deeper in it than just play: it also invites reflection upon the nature of identity and existence. There's something about fiction in general that encourages us to muse upon whether we can trust our own ontological status or sense of reality—it has something to do, I think, with the way that fiction presents us with characters who have realistic thoughts, and internal consciousnesses that resemble our own, but who also have a clearly invented status. You don't have to ruminate on these ideas for long before you're reflecting upon mortality and fate, and, if the title didn't clue you in, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is very interested in indulging those reflections:

In my opinion, the film holds up less for its gags (some of which are very fine), but more for the sense of deep melancholy at its core. It's the rare example of a film that can be both absurd and yet also deeply affecting. Next week we'll be delving even deeper into theatrical existentialism, courtesy of the master, Samuel Beckett: we'll be watching an adaptation of his play Krapp's Last Tape.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

my movie life

This post is not part of Film Club proper, but is part of Culture Snob's "Self-Involvement" Blog-A-Thon, running July 9-13th. For this Blog-A-Thon, Jeff's asked film bloggers to blog not so much about movies, but about oneself, as seen through the lens of movies. As an example, he linked to an old piece of his writing, "My Movie Life," sharing some key personal details about, well, his life and the movies. That proved too irresistible a model not to follow steal. So without further ado, here's a cool thirty fragments of my own movie life.

1. The first movie I remember seeing was Star Wars (1977), which I saw with my parents at the local drive-in theatre. I remember items in the car (in particular, a Styrofoam cooler) more than I remember anything about that particular viewing of the movie.

2. I feel fortunate to have had that drive-in theatre as a place to hang out in my adolescence, an experience that nothing else really substitutes for. Movies I can remember seeing there: Jurassic Park (1993), Total Recall (1990), Mom and Dad Save the World (1992). The site of the drive-in is now a Target.

3. I can remember having to leave the theatre early during a viewing of Superman (1978), because I was sniveling and crying. (I think the reason for this was because the non-Superman parts were too slow and boring, but I cannot really recall the incident.)

4. The first cinematic nudity I ever saw was on videotape; a friend showed me Risky Business (1983) and the nearly-forgotten My Tutor (1983).

5. The first cinematic nudity I saw in the theatre was Revenge of the Nerds (1984). (I was with a group of young men who went for a friend's birthday party; we were accompanied by his father.)

6. The only R-rated movie I can recall being turned away from at the box office was David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986); it is still one of my favorite movies.

7. I can remember seeing a videotaped copy of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in around sixth grade, and I remember the first murder in that film made an astonishing impact on me. I still can't watch that movie without feeling a mix of anticipation and genuine dread as that scene approaches.

8. In the wake of this, I spent maybe five years watching as many different 80s slasher or monster movies as I could get my hands on, most of them not very good.

9. The films that mark the end of this phase, for me, are Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), both of which I saw in 1990 or 1991, and both of which left me feeling depressed and more than a little unclean. My relationship to horror has been love-hate ever since.

10. Around 1988-1990 I saw videotaped copies of Blue Velvet (1986) and Pink Flamingos (1979), both of which, in their own ways, provided the same visceral shock that Nightmare on Elm Street had provided, but both clearly had agendas that were more complicated than mere shock. Each of these dramatically expanded my sense of what cinema could legitimately try to do.

11. I saw Wild at Heart (1990) three times in the theatre. Its prurient mix of sex, violence, and Americana really was pretty ideal for me at age 17. (As an adult, I've come to think of it as one of Lynch's weaker films.) A few years later I saw Pulp Fiction (1994) in the theatre three times. I believe the most recent film I've done that with was The Incredibles (2004).

12. Eraserhead (1977) was a David Lynch film that was legendary in my suburban neighborhood (this was in the wake of Twin Peaks, when David Lynch was getting cover-story profiles in Time) but copies of it were hard to find—there was only one video store in the area that carried it (Southampton Video). That was the first movie that I went substantially out of my way to see. (It is still one of my favorite movies.)

13. Delicatessen (1991) was the first film that I read reviews of when it was still in theaters, and travelled into Philly from my suburban home to see at an art house theatre (the Ritz, where I would later work for a short stint). The second film I did this for was Naked Lunch (1991). (Both of these are still among my favorite movies.)

14. The first film I ever saw that I wanted to watch again the second I finished it was Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985).

15. Movies I owned, early on: I recorded Yellow Submarine (1968) off of television; I bought a copy of Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) when the video store was liquidating their Betamax stock; I purchased a copy of Heathers (1989) in 1990 and began to wear a black trench coat almost immediately thereafter. I've probably seen each of these films at least ten times, and I don't think I've seen any of them in the last ten years, although I still own a copy of Yellow Submarine.

16. The first foreign-language film I ever saw was probably Fellini's Amarcord (1973).

17. The first foreign-language film I ever counted as one of my favorite films was Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).

18. I owe a lot of my film literacy to my years at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, which had a private screening room in the basement of the library that students could use, and a fairly good stock of freely-available films. This was a great resource at a time when I had little money, and I saw an incredible number of important films in that little room.

19. One of the things I watched down there was Fantasia (1940), which also marks the first time I ever took acid.

20. I took a few great film seminars at La Salle, including one on Hitchcock and one on Coppola, Scorsese, and Woody Allen (a course inspired, I believe, by their pairing in the relatively weak New York Stories (1989)).

21. The first film writing I can ever remember doing I did for these seminars: I remember doing a "close reading" on a scene from Taxi Driver (1976) and one on the dream sequence from Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945).

22. Also at LaSalle, some other film geek students and I formed a film club. We were allowed to use one of the screening classrooms as long as we could make the argument that we were using it for educational purposes; to this end, we were required to have a student give an informative lecture about whatever film we'd screened. I can recall personally giving lectures on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barton Fink (1991).

23. Also at La Salle, in someone's dorm room, I watched my first pornographic video. The name eludes me but I did not find it especially erotic. (I am pretty sure that on the same day and in the same dorm room, I saw Blade Runner (1982) for the first time.)

24. I am seldom aroused by film (including porn); that may be a side effect of being in my mid-thirties, but I can't remember being especially aroused by any earlier films, either. Perhaps it's the mediating effect of cinema, but movies make sex or nudity seem weirdly abstract or stylized somehow (I think it may do the same thing with violence, only to a net positive effect instead of a net negative effect). In any case, film ranks a distant fourth in terms of its erotic impact on me (behind interpersonal interaction, imagination, and language (either written or spoken)).

25. Along these lines, I mostly don't get crushes on actresses, although there are at least a few who have done a scene here or there that is stored somewhere in my erotic memory. I will confess, however, that in early adolescence I found Wendy Schall's character in The 'Burbs (1989) to be the paragon of female beauty. And there was a period where I probably wanted a girlfriend like Beetlejuice / Heathers-era Winona Ryder. More recently, I wanted a girlfriend like Patricia Arquette in True Romance (1993), and I appreciate every moment of her smokin'-hot presence in Lost Highway (1997).

26. The last movie I can remember feeling aroused by while viewing was Sex and Lucia (2001). If anyone's got a more recent recommendation of something that Worked For You, well, that's what the comments box is for. Bring it on.

27. The last movie that made me squirm in my seat with discomfort was Oldboy (2003), and the one before that was Audition (1999). I found the first Saw (2004) to be laughably tame by comparison. Again I'll ask for recommendations.

28. I went through a period where I didn't watch many movies, roughly 2004-2006.

29. I got re-interested in them through a project where I tried to come up with a "canon" of 100 important films for a friend. The final version, as I came up with it, is here, and the set of posts that documents the entire long process of brainstorming it can be found here. This made me realize how much I liked film, and how many important films I still hadn't seen.

30. I keep track of everything I see nowadays, and export the results to a webpage which can be viewed here. I try to do at least a short write-up of nearly everything I see and many of these get cross-posted to Netflix. My reviewer rank at Netflix, as of this writing, is 36,928, and if there's anything more self-involved than monitoring your Netflix reviewer rank, I don't know what it might be.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

the adventures of mark twain, by will vinton

So, following up on Svankmajer's Alice, this week Film Club tackled another "literary" animated film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, which is a far weirder film than it might initially appear.

The premise of the film is intriguing right out of the gate. Adventures is neither a biopic of Twain nor a straight-ahead adaptation of Twain's work, but rather both of these, set in the context of a third thing: an adventure tale in which Twain pilots an airship into space to observe Halley's Comet.

That's odd enough as an artistic choice, but the film complicates the story considerably by having Twain be joined by three stowaways: Twain's own fictional characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher.

So, OK, this is enough to qualify the film as a kid-friendly entrant in the series of films we did a while back that combine re-enactments of a writer's work with the story of a writer's life in various complicated ways (American Splendor, Adaptation, The Hours, and Naked Lunch). And this business wherein fictional characters meet their creator collapses two layers of reality, which always has the potential to be deeply fraught. If the characters recognize what's going on, they're going to realize something about their own status as fictions, and this leads into some pretty tricky existential problems. After all, What would you ask if given the potential to directly address your creator? [I'm reminded here of the culmination of Grant Morrison's run on the comic book Animal Man, in which Animal Man, who has had his wife and children murdered during Morrison's run, essentially asks "Why did you make me suffer?" Morrison's response is honest, yet cruel: because it helps sell comic books.]

Anyway, the film flirts with this possibility—there's a "Table of Contents" on the main deck that the passengers can use to access re-enactments of Twain's works:

...and at one point they notice "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" listed in there (as well as the "Injun Joe" episode from Huck Finn's life).

However, they avoid drawing any ontologically-problematic conclusions from this. That's not to say that the film never gets dark. Twain aficionados will know that Twain was born in 1835, when Halley's Comet passed by the earth, and that he correctly predicted that he would die when the comet returned. The film informs us of these details at its outset, and is completely explicit about the fact that the airship voyage is a one-way trip from which Twain will not return.

In this way the film begins to resemble a film like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, a single extended meditation on the transition into death. The children recognize that they are being carried along on this voyage, and rightfully recognize that this puts them in substantial peril: much of the film's conflict derives from their attempts to escape Twain's company and return to safety on the ground. At one point in the film, Sawyer, freely speculating about how the newspapers will describe their escape, conjures up the headline "Tom Sawyer, Aeronaut, Saves Airborne Friends From Madman's Deathwish," and by this point in the film Twain has, indeed, begun to be represented as a somewhat deranged figure, haunted, morbid, grief-obsessed.

The film highlights this even further by choosing to present adaptations of Twain's lesser-known and more esoteric or cynical works, including (most notably) the incomplete manuscript The Mysterious Stranger, a work which features Satan as the main character:

...and which emphasizes human suffering as a central thematic concern, which the film doesn't exactly skimp on representing:

This is pretty dark stuff for a young audience, and the resolution is "happy" only on a philosophical, near-mystical level, dealing with such concepts as literary immortality and reconciling the duality of the self:

In short, totally fascinating. Thinking of all this business regarding literary figures taken out of their usual context (and then using this as way to get at an extended meditation on death) put me in mind of Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which will be my pick for next week.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

alice, by jan svankmajer

Those of you who try to keep your eye on subcultures (or who have ever been inside a Hot Topic) may have noticed that there's a faction within the Goth subculture that embraces cute shit. There's something about the space where cute shit meets morbidity that creates a very fertile delta, that a lot of creators have been mining for over two decades now: think of Jhonen Vazquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, or Roman Dirge's Lenore, or anything by Junko Mizuno. The King of Goth Cute, however—the only purveyor of the aesthetic to burst through to the mainstream—is Tim Burton, with his two animated films Corpse Bride (2005) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) serving as canonical examples of the form. (The animation pedant in me has to mention that the actual director of Christmas is not Burton at all but rather animator Henry Selick, but Burton's involvement with the film is so thorough that he's generally considered to be the auteur at work there.)

In any case. This week Film Club looked at Jan Svankmajer's Alice, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland created with a mix of live action and stop-motion animation. Certainly it is possible to do a fairly straight-up animated adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, something without any real taint of darkness, in a vein we might call "Straight Cute." (Disney's already done the definitive Straight Cute version, with their cel-animation Alice, back in 1951.) It is also, however, a story that seems ripe for a Goth Cute adaptation: girls are cute, but a lost girl is Goth Cute. Nor is it difficult to imagine Goth Cute stop-motion versions of any of the book's characters: whimsical, yet slightly creepy, the kind of thing that could be converted into a cool vinyl toy.

Svankmajer's adaptation is interested in the dark side of the story, no doubt. But don't go into this thinking that it's going to be cute. Svankmajer's version is from 1988, when Goth Cute, as a movement, basically doesn't exist. (Burton's Beetlejuice had just come out, Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas are still years away, and Jhonen Vasquez is 14 years old.) And Svankmajer is from Czechoslovokia, a country not exactly renowned for its cute export. (It's no Japan, let's put it that way.) Svankmajer's characters are creepy, but not exactly Cute creepy... here's his White Rabbit, for instance:

...which I'm fairly sure is just an actual dead rabbit with some kind of armature taxidermied inside it. Svankmajer highlights this with a pretty dramatic departure from Carroll's book, namely: the Rabbit makes its first appearance uprooting himself from a specimen case.

If you look closely at the second screencap there you'll see the nails in his paws, which he has to literally pull out with his teeth:

So... yeah. That's not the only time Svankmajer uses some kind of taxidermied thing to stand in for a character...

(The animation pedant in me again has to speak up and point out that the use of dead things are actually part of the tradition when it comes to stop-motion, dating all the way back to pioneer Ladislas Starevich, who is animating dead beetles way back in 1908. Check out the elaborate and strange narrative The Cameraman's Revenge (1912), available for viewing at UBUWeb.)

Even Alice herself isn't really "cute," as such. She's actually got a fairly severe, determined-looking face:

...which is a good match for the fairly severe, determined-looking doll that she turns into when she eats the transfiguring tarts (again, not particularly cute).

And I don't even really know what to say about this:

So, as far as Alice adaptations or hypothetical Alice adaptations go, this one is reasonably grim and disturbing. The production design helps with this: everything is dark, and nearly everything is filthy:

And there are times when the film evokes nothing as strongly as sequences in American horror films: these screenshots seem less to be taking place in Wonderland and more like they're taking place in Freddy Kruger's lair or a squalid set from one of the Saw films:

None of this is said to disparage Alice, which is actually completely compelling on its own terms. However, I will say that I'm looking forward to our next foray into animated literary adaptation, which promises to be a little more, er, light, although perhaps no less odd: we're going to do Will Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain, in which a Claymation Twain and some of his characters foray off in a spaceship to visit Halley's Comet.