Monday, January 11, 2010

Cinema in 2010

A good friend of mine reads this blog and calls me a movie critic. This gets under my skin just a little and I try to defend myself, thinking - nay, Hoping - "I write about more than film" - but I know, as Tags prove without a doubt, that Beyond The Veil could easily be called Beyond the Concessions Counter. Would you like to get a large popcorn for just a quarter more? That kind of thing. Films are an easy entertainment option, with the definite upside of having so much potential to speak to us about ourselves and society. They are important. They are art. They are fun. They are also hyped, expensive, and often, a big letdown. I owe that friend a debt for the above graphics, from "The Great Train Robbery" of 1903 to today's current blockbuster, "Avatar", have we really come so far? Is this start pretentious enough?

I stumbled onto studying and making film, needing a diversion from the sale of office furnishings. How could film not be attractive when your daily concern is selling more stuff? And film can be Cinema, the great god of visual art and narrative. On that level, film truly is mythical. But, as is the case with everything, everyone has a different opinion about what that level, that narrative, that mythical plateau, is.

Luckily, making a film was fun - it really takes a lot of work, and usually a lot of people, but I believe everyone's academic career should involve making at least one fictional narrative film. The process and the concerns of the filmmaker are not as readily understood, even in our Hollywood-based culture, as I would have expected. Which meant that, as I became more interested in interpreting and analyzing film, I found film school to be even more valuable. In today's world, understanding the flood of images and discriminating among them is an immense and important tool for living. I never had this type of training in visual analysis, though I do think many high schools and even grammar schools now teach some film analysis. That's a good thing.

Film is a heady environment, with artists and failed artists discussing what works and what doesn't; the form of film is mythical in itself: a narrative, with imaginal happenings taking place every second, almost always trying to connect to an underlying something. Cinema is Cinema because of those underlying somethings. Cinema is Cinema because we can go back and re-watch, ponder and intuit every detail. The mise-en-scene is so important to how we connect to a film. One of my favorite films of the winter so far is "Sherlock Holmes". There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that I'm a Sherlock Holmes fanboy, but what's relevant is mise-en-scene: in that traditional style of the detective film, every little thing Holmes does during the film, every object he touches and even glances at, is important to his detection. Not surprising cinematography, but fun and thoughtful. That can surely be enough at times.

I knew making film was not going to be my new career, but I also realized the film school I was in was not going to gain me access to Graduate level film programs. I tried, but ultimately settled on Myth Studies, choosing elucidation of story and imagination as my chosen field. As I've noted already, there is work to be done on the mythical structire of cinema in addition to the analysis of the content. My graduate program seemed open to film, and I was assured that many filmmakers passed through the hallowed halls. I took the bait and jumped.

I finally had the first session of the required Film class, and I'm feeling somewhat perplexed right now. One problem is that after delving into myth - which turns, for me, on philosophy and imagination - I am wondering why Film gets so hallowed a place as to have a class devoted to it. Though film pervades every aspect of our lives, it seems to me there are other forms of media and story that should be equally emphasized. On the required reading list is Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", an excellent beginner's text into reading comics as a frame-by-frame structural art. There is some overlap with Film (being of course a frame-by-frame medium that just goes really fast) but the teacher was a bit confused when I asked whether I could do a project based on Comics, rather than Film. I only asked because McCloud was on the reading list. For me, the structure of the form of Comics is more mythical because we get to breathe between panels; we add our thoughts and imagination to the work. Film forces an identification on us, if we're lucky, that we ride till we reach a suitable point; for me, hopefully that point is the end credits. There could be many more facets to this discussion, but the Film class this time around had missed potential. Simply identifying an identification works well in psychological analysis, but sort of "loses the plot" and subtlety of film discussion.

In today's world, there are discussions to be had on almost every level of society about - well - every level of society. Film (and film of the fantastic has a special role here - see past posts) is able, when it is Cinema, to evoke feelings and thoughts at a high level. So - how far have we come from "The Great Train Robbery" to "Avatar"?

One film that sharpened the focus on my cinematic discomfort was actually incredibly enjoyable: "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" (see yesterday's post). Though I smiled and laughed throughout, I walked out thinking it had really missed the mark. Though I don't always care if a film hits any mark at all, one with such an interesting incursion into ideas should spend some time developing them. I kept thinking here was a typical film - so many people involved that the final product doesn't really have cohesion. How many films get made for how many millions of dollars that have key scenes that simply do not make sense? How does this happen? Well, it could be anyone's fault - if footage doesn't work, or there is bad editing, or if the producers and directors get fired and then new personnel change the script but try to use footage from the script as previously shot, etc. etc. etc. Or, by golly, as it seems to be the case with Terry Gilliam, perhaps the money runs out. There are so many reasons for problems in film. This is why teaching kids to be able to analyze visuals is so important.

And how could money run out on Gilliam? Why would anyone want to fund something other than Cinema? If Gilliam didn't have to worry about funds, it seems his films would be the most entertaining as well as the most thought-provoking. The money ususally only goes toward entertaining - if thought is provoked, that's a bonus. I don't know Gilliam's story, but this is my guess from the little I have heard.

But perhaps the majority does not want thought to be provoked. It seems they just want to react. I was appalled at having to see clips of "G.I. Jane" in my recent film class. A good friend described it well when she said she "loathed" that film. And what is "Avatar" but another cowboy/Indian movie, even if what we are reacting to these days is our allegiance with the "Indians". Is this enough for us? One interesting possibility in myth is forming a new third that includes both sides of a duality - getting beyond that friction by including it in something new and hopefully "better". In movies, it seems war is always the answer. Though an audience sometimes just wants to react, must we always want to react by winning, by beating something down? In "Avatar", the expected and happy result occurs at every plot point. Thus, number one movie, of what, ever?

I have seen five films at the theater this holiday period, probably three or four more than I usually do. "Fantatsic Mr. Fox", "The Road", "Avatar", "Imaginarium" and "Sherlock Holmes".

"Imaginarium" tried the hardest, but probably failed the most because of it. "Avatar" is Gonzo, and "Sherlock Holmes" opened well with fall-off crowds from the packed "Avatar" theaters. As I have said, I love Holmes, and this film surprisingly did not stray so far from what I have always loved about him, but this is pure Hollywood. Which, when done right, is a huge compliment. "Mr. Fox" is charming, animalicious and gave me my favorite new swear phrase - "This is a cluster cuss!". It was brilliant, but I think most adults would not be seen going anywhere near a film like this. Too bad.

My favorite? The most depressing film I've seen in awhile, "The Road". It's a journey (mythically we're talking Senex/Puer) in a post-apocalyptic world in which not much happens - but it is thought-provoking and humanly honest - mythical at every level. Even the end, which seemingly is a "happy" note, personally gave me the creeps. But no one is really talking about this one. Everyone just wants to win in the end.

But winning isn't everything.

The Road

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

I saw Terry Gilliam's new film last night and have been prodded to write a bit about it. It is a hard film to put words on, as it tries really hard. For the most part, it succeeds - purely as entertainment, I can only say I had a smile on my face almost throughout the film. It was big, colorful, imaginative - as with most films of the fantastic lately, the production design and spfx departments were working overtime to good effect. My favorite scene is depicted above, with Jude Law on some really tall stilts. Delicious camera work put me in a jolly mood and made me want to try out some stilts.

But as with many films these days, this could have been so much more that ultimately it was disappointing. I have not seen all of Gilliam's films, but I loved "Time Bandits" as a teen and have seen "Baron Munchausen". It seems these films all have similar problems. Ultimately, the script is circular, by which I mean circling around ideas without ever evoking a final meaning.

One problem may be my own - perhaps my hearing is getting poorer as I get older. But I think the sound is just poorly done. As "Imaginarium" is Heath Ledger's final film, it would have been nice if I could make out his lines. The only lines I consistently heard completely were the diminutive Percy's. Perhaps I also have a problem with the accents, but I recall hearing every line of dialogue in Altman's "Gosford Park" clearly - and there were some major overlapping British lines in that film. No - I just think a bit more money should have been spent on sound. This is a problem I encounter more and more these days. I want to suggest that perhaps this film would make more sense at home on the DVD player with subtitles turned squarely on.

So perhaps the film makes perfect sense if you get all the lines. Perhaps. But my real problem is the missed opportunity in which this film had to explore story and what it is and does.

The Imaginarium is a travelling show - through which audience members can enter their fantasy worlds in full reality. The women who dream of Faberge eggs and giant shoes - not usually a particular high point in any dreamed possibility of mine - really are a high point here. But every fantasy is shown to wonderful effect. The problem is thematic. Early on, we see Dr. Parnassus as one of a sect of monks who, through the telling of stories, keep the world alive. Though the Devil (Tom Waits, who is always wonderful) shows him that their story is not what keeps the world alive, Parnassus believes others are telling stories as well and still believes in story.

A bet with the Devil leads Parnassus to form his Imaginarium and see how many people he can influence and engage by allowing them to see their internal story in full-color.

Story keeps the world alive, but does story keep individuals alive? Since Parnassus is having rough times in today's world, Gilliam's answer seems to be "less and less". And it seems people's fantasy stories are getting more banal - though the shoes and Faberge eggs are cool, ultimately, they are shoes and Fanerge eggs. The final fantasy explored is one in which deception is used to tell a lie, not a story at all. It's fascinating, but somehwat unintelligible.

I was hoping for an exploration of story keeping the world alive, which, for me, is yet another perfectly workable definition of myth, but only got really pretty pictures. Really pretty. Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp almost-but-not-quite playing himself again. Fun, but oh what it could have been.