Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Golden Compass - The Film

Why exactly were Christians suggesting boycotting the film "The Golden Compass"? I recently saw the film and cannot see any reason for it. So I must assume it has something to do with the book it was based on, which I haven't read yet.

I did start it though, so I guess I'll know more when I'm done. I can say that in the first fifty pages the young heroine, Lyra, is depicted drinking liquor and smoking cigarettes, which is not surprsingly missing from the film. But if that is the type of thing leading to boycotts, almost every religious person I've ever known needs to be boycotted - but that's a subject for another time.

I can only look at the film I actually saw and offer a few thoughts. It was a spectacular looking film, for the most part. The animal daemons (or souls - hmm, maybe that's the issue) were extraordinary, brilliantly animated and a major piece of the movie's charm. As well, the directing, acting and production were at a high level. The young actress playing Lyra, the main character, was brilliant.

I can't discuss how the book was translated to screen yet, but I can say that in the screenwriting there were some problems.

When a book is made into a movie, which in Hollywood seems to be a large majority of the releases, there is an outcry over what is lost, missing, changed and, as the criticism usually implies, destroyed in the translation. One need only search out Tolkien scholars' discussions of Peter Jackson's trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. But I will say this - as movies, Jackson's work held up on their own and were seamless. Confusion was held to a minimum. Whether they adapted Tolkien's work correctly is irrelevant to this discussion - they were straightforward and spectacular Hollywood films, if you like that sort of thing. And they made sense.

Which is not to say that "The Golden Compass" does not make sense. It just seemed to miss opportunities to give us more information. It rolls along and we must accept what we are told and roll with it. But we sense a deeper backstory of which we know nothing. Perhaps when I finish the book, this feeling will go away.

But a book and a movie are completely different entities. You should never have to experience both to understand either. I hold to an old adage that the book is always better than the movie, but cinema is such a huge canvas that it is increasingly the only way people come to know the written works of the world. So they need to get it right.

A land of giant polar bears, a bunch of witches and a prophecy about Lyra that everyone seems to know, but that we are never told, are all elements that made me wonder what world we were actually on. World-building is a very important topic in fantasy criticism. The examination of how a world is constructed and whether all the elements fit together to unify the created world as a place we can accept is essential to belief in the story. In The Golden Compass, I never could figure out exactly how the world so spectacularly shown on-screen was held together. When the witch shows up for the first time, I actually had a "huh?" in my mind. Witches? And when the witch army is shown in silhouette on their brooms in the air, I first thought, "Ah, that's cool," but then, "Huh?" again. We did not know enough about this world for all these elements to add up.

I believe the book will do a better job, as in the first fifty pages Lyra has a run in with some ghosts due to some of her constant trouble making. A detail like this may have made the witches seem less out of place. The story still made enough sense that unaddressed questions did not take away from the visual splendor. Ultimately, as a Hollywood movie, it was an enjoyable ride. When your second most important character is a giant polar bear, and it works, you are definitely having some fun at the theater.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brigadoon - The Movie

Brigadoon is a musical from 1954, directed by Vincente Minelli, starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. I was led to it by a line from another Waterboys' song (more about that later) and intrigued to find out the story.

Basically, Brigadoon is a small village in the Scottish highlands. To prevent the village from changing due to outside influences, the village preacher makes an arrangement with God to have the village appear only once every hundred years for one day. To the inhabitants of Brigadoon, the century will seem to be only one night: they go to sleep, a hundred years pass, and they wake up the next morning. The only thing they cannot do is leave the village. If they do, the compact is broken and the town will fade.

An odd story, but an interesting idea and worth seeing how it plays out. The film is staged in an interesting manner. On large soundstages, elaborate Scottish highland sets were built and elaborately painted backdrops were used. When something is clearly not real, I believe we are more easily drawn into believing it on the level of the fantastic (an aside: for me, this is why Ray Harryhausen's clay creatures work so well - they do not look real, so can be believed as real, being mythical creatures anyway). Strict reality is discarded, yet all other film conventions are used. We easily slip into the landscape of Brigadoon.

This is never more clear than toward the end, when the characters played by Kelly and Johnson decide they must leave Brigadoon. Minelli brilliantly cuts from the village fading into the mists to a panoramic shot of New York City, showing Manhattan's urban lights and skyscrapers in all their glory. The cut is so effective because up till then, we have been in Scotland, on a soundstage. NYC is majestic too, but we are soon in a nightclub with swarming urbanites talking over each other and demonstrating the kinetic energy that one either thrives on or despises. With maybe ten minutes left in the film, the change in place and scale is epic. This being a Hollywood musical, we know our characters will want to go back to Brigadoon, but as the audience, we get the opportunity to consider the differences and how we would want to choose.

The only movie I had seen by Minelli previously was "Meet Me in Saint Louis", whose scale was much smaller. I was not prepared for the wide shots and open landscapes of "Brigadoon" based on that film. Perhaps the songbook is not so memorable, but the Scottish touches are charming and Minelli gets good performances from the actors. Even more, "Brigadoon" is well worth seeing for the cinematography, production design and lighting. And really, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are pretty classy stars from Hollywood's past. That glittering Hollywood world is a pretty fantastic place all on its own, but in this case, is just a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Brigadoon - The Idea

"I saw the lone empty valley
you saw Brigadoon"
(Lyrics from The Waterboys, appearing on: New York January 1985 / London Feb 1985 On "This Is The Sea", "Best Of", "Live Adventures" and "The Whole Of The Moon".)

The lyrics above are from The Waterboys song "The Whole of the Moon" and led me to the movie "Brigadoon" (see previous post).

The film has its charms, but more interesting to me is the meaning of the lyrics above: how the same place (or person or thing) can be seen by any two people and register different thoughts and feelings in both. In the film, this is not so clear, as both of the New Yorkers who stumble upon Brigadoon eventually are ensnared by the simple village life and want to stay. But early on, some of the best moments come from Van Johnson as the cynical urbanite finding the singing Scots to be way too much. Van doesn't see a lone empty valley, but he is certainly not immediately charmed by Brigadoon. Gene Kelly of course sees a beautiful valley and is hooked from the start.

But the lyrics say more than the movie shows, because they have implications for hopes, attitudes and the personal views we all bring to everything we experience. When we only see one side, and cling to it without acknowledging the other side's meaning to, and appropriateness for, someone else, we do ourselves and others a great unjustice. A "lone empty valley" or "Brigadoon"? Is there any way to say which is correct? Allowing others their views, as long as they allow yours, is for me the basis of living with other people. Hopefully everyone is diligent in having reasons for the individual views they espouse and not just repeating what someone else said.

Even more hopefully, in the great expanses, when we look and see the dull and the lack of, perhaps we can look a little closer and a little longer. We may see Brigadoon eventually after all. Remember, it only comes around every hundred years.

But I think it would be worth it to get that very rare experience.