On my way to see Blancanieves today I contemplated tweeting “hey anybody else want to see a Spanish silent movie that mashes up Snow White with bullfighting in the 20s,” but didn’t. The mixture of silent-movie formalism, fairy-tale goofiness, incantatory flamenco sequences, and febrile Iberian melodrama seemed as if it were tailor-made for an audience of one when I first saw the trailer in January, and come hell or high water I was going to see it. So I caught the first matinee that played Chicago, and enjoyed myself utterly.
Even in a post-The Artist cultural landscape, I don’t suppose it will be very popular — there are a lot of hurdles for a modern US audience, perhaps most notably that the baroque horror of bullfighting is central to both the plot and the emotional structure of the film. Those elements were perhaps the least believable, and not because I’m particularly an animal-rights advocate; as a metaphor for humanity’s struggle with nature/God/the unknowable, bullfighting can be a powerful narrative tool. It just wasn’t here. Writer-director Pablo Berger seems to have been waylaid by the usual danger of pastiche, which is to make the original object — romantic Andalusian bullfighting melodrama, which was a thing long before Hemingway — a fetish in itself rather than telling a new story using the old tropes.
Indeed structurally it was far more like a traditional melodrama — the kind of thing most of us know best in the form of nineteenth-century novels — than like the compact three-act structure of a Hollywood movie (though more faithful to the tradition of the European silent drama), sprouting prologues and epilogues and one extremely silly subplot that I was afraid was going to be a lesser version of the dog in The Artist but turned out just to be more grist for the movie’s deliciously macabre streak.
But whatever structural issues I had with the film, I couldn’t have been happier with its sensuous skin. It’s utterly gorgeous in design, photography, and casting — Maribel Verdú in the always-juicy role of the wicked stepmother is particularly magnetic, and should be a fashion inspiration for Halloweens to come — and the soundtrack, a combination of sumptuous melodramatic score and taut, soleá-palo flamenco, is ravishing. I also couldn’t help seeing it through a Tumblr lens — fandoms deserve the opportunity to have a field day with the film’s broad spectra of gender presentation, allusive kink, and maybe most notably little-person actor Sergio Dorado as the handsome romantic interest.
If any of that sounds appealing, consider yourself nudged. Now I’m regretting not sending that tweet, because I don’t have anyone to talk to about it, and I have many more thoughts than a post directed at people who haven’t seen it will hold.
If I didn’t see Oz the Great and Powerful in precisely ideal circumstances, I was only a row away from them: I sat in front of a young child who was familiar with the Oz books and the 1939 musical and was vocally appreciative of the new movie’s gestures towards them, helpfully filling in his or her (I didn’t look) father on any details he might have missed.
I am pretty well committed to watching anything based on a book I loved as a child (click on the tag for further confirmation), and I certainly loved the Oz books as a child — not in the deep, almost sacred way I loved Narnia, or in the intense, fevered way I would come to love Middle-Earth, or in the fascinated, almost fearful way I loved Moominland, but in a friendly, homey sort of way. Oz was American through and through, and I understood its Munchkins and Winkies and Quadlings and Gillikins, and all the strange pocket civilizations and uncharted races within their borders, as an ad hoc extension of the democratic jumble of the U.S. itself: the sharp division between Man and Elf and Dwarf in Tolkien, or even the distinction between a Son of Adam and the Talking Beasts in Lewis, were nowhere here. Sure, in the later books Oz had a queen, but Ozma acted more like a celebrity raised by popular acclaim — a Mary Pickford of fairyland — than a head of state. (The sorceress Glinda was the real power behind the throne, if there was any; unless you count the standing army existing of one elderly man with a blunderbuss, or Jinjur’s knitting-needle feminists.) As I grew older I moved on to more seriously-intended fantasy worlds, and rather despised Baum’s love of puns and willingness to make hay of anything that came into his head, but both the memory of my early love and the power of John R. Neill’s illustrations stayed with me, and rather more frequent recourse to the MGM movie in my teen years and beyond kept the quote-unquote magic of Oz still flickering.
So I suppose I was as primed as anyone to enjoy this new Oz movie. And I did. On cool reflection, it’s not a great movie; neither the emotional arcs nor the physical plotting hang together with a lot of coherence, and the rather hodgepodge assembly of dramatis personae assembled from dimly-remembered bits of the first book in the series — and always bent towards echoing the 1939 movie (but not too strongly, because Warner Bros. owns that copyright, not Disney) — is pretty unsatisfying either as a pre-echo of Dorothy’s collection of companions or as a convincing set of personalities in their own right. (The 1985 Return to Oz was much better in both regards, and as a dramatically satisfying piece of work, and on the Oz-nerd level; but its effects weren’t so hot.)
But moment-to-moment it’s engaging, and the visuals are pretty spectacular — sure, they’re over-the-top CGI and fake, but in that sense Raimi is just following the super-saturated set decoration of the 1939 film. Danny Elfman also borrows liberally from Herbert Stothart’s original score: I recognized direct quotes a number of times, and allusions all over the place. I got to the theater late enough that I was forced to sit in the first row — with 3D glasses yet — so I’m not sure I can say much useful about the acting, other than that I frequently wished the film was following Mila Kunis’ story rather than James Franco’s (but then I suppose it would be Wicked, and Wicked already exists), and that Franco’s shit-eating grin was both perfect for the part and, in the middle of all that dizzying spectacle, too small a performance. To be fair to him, the role calls for transforming, essentially, from Sméagol to Gandalf; I don’t know that anyone could have pulled it off properly.
Some deep part of my 80s childhood has been satisfied; not the part that loved The Hobbit, that traced each step of the trail to the Lonely Mountain in a cabin in the Northern Arizona pines, or some years earlier, banged a plastic bat on the floor in excitement when Balin scooped Bilbo into the branches of the tree, the wolves nipping at his heels. That part is untouched by Peter Jackson and the video-game-level designers at WETA. But the part that imagined fantastic and gruesome adventure from the cover of the VHS of The Goonies has had his dreams realized. Which is just as well; it’s not like I was ever going to watch The Goonies.
It was probably unwise of me to stay up for Thursday’s midnight showing of Wreck-It Ralph, not because my experience of the movie was irreparably harmed thereby, but because my Friday was. But the complaints of a man who has slept in until noon, wandered into a new neighborhood sandwich shop while listening to podcasts, and is currently engaged in drinking a mocha half the size of his head are worth not very much in the abstract and nothing at all this week.
The movie confirmed in me two opinions that have been bubbling around in my head for a few months now: first, that some of the most creatively complex and emotionally engaging filmmaking of our time is in animated children’s movies; and second, that Sarah Silverman is just the greatest. I don’t know a lot of people who would disagree with the first premise, even if they disputed specific examples — the culture-wide lionization of Pixar was complete some years ago — but the second is I think a harder sell, especially among people for whom her hyper-offensive stand-up persona of the early 2000s still looms large (and, I guess, the fuckwitted misogynists who gather in comment threads to fight about her looks). I know her these days mostly as a podcast guest, which of course is its own form of performance, but where she’s a laid-back, occasionally insecure, occasionally insightful, and frequently very generous presence — a human being, in other words, and one with a quick comic wit far more wide-ranging than the baby-voiced Jew-joke/black-joke/rape-joke caricature she’s often painted as.
That voice, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to be the single most emotionally affecting element in Wreck-It Ralph. The trailer, in which John C. Reilly huffs “I dunno, why are you so freakishly annoying?” sets the tone for her character — and for the video-game world in which she resides, a tooth-achingly cute landscape apparently inspired equally by 80s girls’ cartoon-toy worlds (Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.), and Japanese kawaii culture. But it’s the world we spend the most time in, and the way the movie performs an elegant bait-and-switch on just whose story is being told is sure to enrage redditors and delight younger sisters; or maybe I’m just extra-sensitive to the story of a self-pitying guy who is made more human by setting aside his unresolved masculine ambition in order to engage with the actual life-or-death issues of a young woman, no matter how annoying, or cute, their expression might be.
Silverman’s voice is undoubtedly distinctive, but she turns in an amazing performance here — at one of the emotional climaxes of the film, I had to fight off tears entirely due to how anguished her cries were — and if Reilly’s relatively more subdued performance fits the character perfectly, my perception of it may also be colored by the far more desperate and nervous version of John C. Reilly that Paul F. Tompkins has created (I am such a podcast nerd, you guys). A dragée reference would have broken my brain, I think — but there were plenty of references anyway, even some that a non-gamer like me could get (the Tarantino parody that was Jane Lynch’s character’s backstory was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a theater in a long time).
I would not at all mind if this became a Toy Story-like franchise, with plenty of room to explore the rest of the arcade’s inner worlds — or even featuring the characters having to negotiate the closing of the arcade (could they escape to the Internet? and now I’m just sloughing off sequel pitches). On the other hand, it’s a little hard to believe that any other combination of story and performance could push my buttons exactly the way this did.
(Spoilers. Skip if you don’t want the movie ruined.)
I saw Looper last night, a movie almost entirely about boys needing mommies, the cruel systems men devise when there are no women to make them behave, and (spoilers, seriously) the time-bending paradoxes required to make suicide a heroic act. It was the last one that spoke to me the most, though my reaction was primarily envious: that bugger Rian Johnson, he nailed it.
A couple of minutes before the previews started last night, four white-haired citizens in matching red Tea Party t-shirts sat down in the row ahead. The one closest to me was wearing a gun. They laughed hardest at the “all politicians are stupid and venal” jokes, but seemed to enjoy the dick jokes and the slapstick just fine too. Not a peep out of them when Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow were on the screen.
Which gets to the primary failing of The Campaign — it pulls its punches. Not that I’d expect any different from a Will Ferrell movie. This one treats politics the way Blades of Glory treated ice skating and Talladega Nights treated racing: as a not-taken-seriously pretext for jackass behavior and increasingly ridiculous setpieces. There’s another, possibly more interesting movie buried within, the one Zach Galifianakis is starring in, gesturing feebly towards ideas about masculinity, community, and non-conformity (with Brian Cox doing his best Rip Torn); but other than a half-dozen sharp political jokes in the first half, neither movie has much to say about the actual ways political power is used to help or harm the polis, inventing a cartoonishly implausible worst-case scenario for the villains to cackle over, and mouthing unconvincing nostrums about getting big money out of politics in place of acknowledging serious ideological disagreement. The mid-credits epilogue even admits that its campaign-finance-reform platform has essentially been a MacGuffin in the wake of Citizens United, and invents a dumb criminal-conspiracy charge to nail the Motch brothers with.
I laughed a lot, especially in the first half, but I muttered to myself more than once toward the end, “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” It fails even in a politics-as-camp sense, since the shaggy plot doesn’t convince on either an emotional or a comic level; aside from Ferrell and Galifianakis, the characters are developed not by performance but by casting. Looking the part was apparently enough.
Which might function on its own as a satire of political theater — the bright, color-saturated visual style of the film certainly reads as a parody of campaign advertising — if there were a single idea that followed from a previous one, instead of just a string of meaningless jokes.
Oh, this movie. I want to watch it again and again. There is so much at work here, much that was beyond my understanding, and much that is beyond my authority to speak to. In some respects a simple fable, in others a bracing vision of life’s possibilities, in the most aesthetically disentanglable ways a tour de force of physical acting from the entire ensemble. Meaning keeps turning over in the mind many hours and several other immersions into narrative later.
The theater was nearly full of mostly comfortable middle-aged white folk who laughed and sighed and gasped and sniffled in all the right places, and applauded in pockets when the credits rolled. I did not feel certain throughout that we were not being Black Poverty tourists; and the discomfort of receiving very few reassurances from the film itself propels me back into it.
The monsoon’s been hanging over Phoenix for the past week, the air thick with moisture. Thunderstorms crack and roll at night, and my car seat is still damp in the golden, humid morning. I roll down the windows of my car and sweat it out. Even the slow roll-out seems perfectly timed.
As an individual piece of filmmaking, Brave is almost entirely a success: gorgeous, well-made, exciting, funny, heartwarming, etc., with a fine story that both digs deep into traditional folk tales (Scottish and otherwise) and speaks to modern concerns; even if few of us are bound by ancient tradition to wed the scion of a warring clan, most of us have experience of being torn between the demands of those we love and our own desires.
As THE FIRST PIXAR MOVIE WITH A FEMALE PROTAGONIST, however, it’s a bit of a disappointment. It is, of course, exactly what you would expect a bunch of good-hearted male nerds with daughters to come up with: The Hero’s Journey, But For Girls! You can do anything you set your mind to, honey! Shoot, ride, swing swords! Adventure isn’t just for boys anymore!
But Pixar, especially lately, has trained me to expect better. Almost none of their previous movies can be boiled down to The Hero’s Journey (and the ones that can — the Cars movies — are generally agreed to be the worst of the lot). They’re stories about the social order (The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life, the Toy Story trilogy), about coping with loss (Finding Nemo, Up), about the artistic life (Ratatouille), about human destiny (Wall-E), about the wonder of imagination (Monsters, Inc., the Toy Story trilogy again), and (every single one of them), about establishing communitarian ties — about creating families out of what would otherwise be pretty sad and lonely individuals.
So when THE FIRST PIXAR MOVIE WITH A FEMALE PROTAGONIST is instead about the pressures of already-extant family life — when the scope of the story is limited, in its essentials, to an intimate portrait of a specific mother-daughter relationship with no indication that anything but personal pride is ever really at stake — when, after all the shots have been fired and all the rides have been ridden and all the swords have been swung the world, the interpersonal relations, and the social order are exactly the same as they were when the story began, the underlying message is: you can shoot and ride and swing swords as much as you want, honey, but you’ll never escape the domestic sphere. Everything, in the end, comes down to how much you love your mother.
Looking broader than Pixar, this could be seen as a balancing of the scales for all the motherless-to-a-woman Disney Princesses. They, of course, were traditionally proscribed by the fairy tale form; and come to think of it, the sheer domesticity of the fairy tale, the one traditional form of European narrative that is allowed to have a female protagonist (other than the saint’s life) is striking; compare fairy tales to the extended romances written in the same centuries about Lancelot, Roland, El Cid — stories about empire and ambition and tragedy, rooted in history however fantastically arranged. (You can almost hear a fourteenth-century editor explaining patiently that men are just submitting more epic poems, and with greater confidence; the stories that nurses, mothers and grandmothers tell on the hearth are no doubt very good of their kind, but they’re not really what the National Ballad Awards were created to recognize.)
To boil it down even more: not a single other Pixar movie is about how its hero is male (or male-identified). None of them even spend any time thinking about it. This one is very much about how Merida is a girl. And while that is not at all surprising, it kind of sucks.
None of this is to be taken as suggesting that I didn’t enjoy the movie. I very much did. As someone who has taken twenty years to recover from the realization that his life was not going to fall automatically into the Hero’s Journey, I took great comfort in those familiar beats; and as someone whose first completed piece of prose narrative submitted for the approval of others featured a red-haired medieval Celtic princess who (I’m pretty sure) swung a sword once or twice, I took a very old satisfaction in the Gaelicisms of the voice acting, the set design, and the soundtrack. I’m well over it now (thank you, Internet), but it was not unpleasant to be reminded of my fourteen-year-old self’s romantic fascination with all things Celtic for two hours.
My $12 contributed to Marvel’s the Avengers’ immense opening-weekend box office; the desire to be entertained for two hours trumped my ethical qualms about how Marvel has treated Jack Kirby and his heirs. (If you don’t know about this particular concern, it’s worth reading up on it. Of course everything we consume has been made, funded, and delivered to us by morally compromised means; that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to consume ethically when we can.)
I certainly was entertained for two hours. Marvel’s the Avengers is an efficient entertainment delivery system, and my kneejerk suspicion of Joss Whedon’s facile nerdbait plotting and scripting was overridden by my very nerdiness; of course I geeked out at “I’ve got red in my ledger” and “Hulk?” “*grunt*” “Smash.” and “To attack them is to court death.” “*evil grin*”. I retain enough comic-geek lizard-brain that helicarrier and kinda-sorta-Skrull and Thanos reveals functioned — as they were intended to — as a sort of endorphin shot, excitement all but packaged in a bottle and squirted out at appropriate junctures.
But what truly overrode my critical faculties wasn’t the dialogue, which would have died on the page, or the merely-competent camera work, but the acting: Downey Jr.’s hyper egotist, Evans’ slightly pained professional soldier, Johansson’s camera-angle-interrupted stoicism, Hiddleston’s slow and careful transition from barely-sane uncertainty to wonderfully despicable certainty, and especially Ruffalo’s too-gentle neurotic, rage competing in his eyes with the resignation of the terminally depressed.
Everyone says the Hulk was the highlight of the film, and everyone is right; the unleashed masculine id which superhero stories are always gesturing toward is nowhere more perfectly expressed than in the grunting ballet of orgiastic violence inhabited by the big green lummox. Something deep and primal in the human (or perhaps merely the male) psyche is satisfied by his outbursts, by the sheer wanton effectiveness of his engorged body.
(Shout out, by the way, to the ahem-feminist director who ensured that there was a lovingly lingering shot of the ass of every woman with two or more lines in the movie as she stalked, arch-backed, away from the camera.)
After the movie, I spent the night revisiting the comics that had made me fall in love with the Marvel Universe, and discovered — what I already knew — that I now found them unreadable: the pages of crabbed little figures in preposterous poses squeezed in between infodump balloons written either entirely without wit or with the kind of wit that makes you long for the sophistication and perceptiveness of Two and a Half Men; the endless, wearying and utterly ineffective violence, a fight scene every three pages like clockwork; the sheer numbing exhaustion of the fact that none of the stories ever end, that fifty years has not been enough time for an aging fanbase (which now includes the “creators” of new landfill material) to allow these paper puppets to rest.
If what was first satisfying about the movie was that it was so precisely thorough in its entertainment value, the last and most satisfying thing about it was the scene at the end where they go their separate ways in civilian clothing, rest earned, life resumed. The ethics of cinema require that some semblance of humanity be put forth in order to arouse our sympathy; in comic books, human existence happens in the white space between panels, and so was never there.
Of the two movies I saw last night, one is the very funny story of a whiny, self-centered man-child who has to learn that the relationship networks he’s already involved in are more important than his dreams of professional success, and the other is a Judd Apatow production.
For some reason, Jason Segel has become the de facto representative of my generation (of schlubby white guys who are a little too sensitive to be bros and a little too comfortable to be ambitious) on screen, something I’d be less okay with if he wasn’t so good at petulant discontent; his performances almost never let you fully sympathize with his characters’ wallowing, since he’s such an overgrown child. Emily Blunt was fine as the out-of-his-league girl that the Apatowiverse requires; but a couple of camera angles where she looked a bit like Kristen Wiig made me wish for the comedy of equals The Five-Year Engagement could have been, rather than the essentially melodramatic story with comic sequences happening around the fringes it was — the secondary storyline, the one where Andy Dwyer and Annie Edison (sorry, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie) make a far more unlikely pairing work with a minimum of self-pity or angst, would have made both a much funnier and a more interesting movie. Pratt stole every scene he was in anyway; those eyebrows!
The Pirates! Band of Misfits was my second 3D movie, and probably my last. It was quite fun, though the perfunctory emotional beats made me long for the much more heartless Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which for all its faults at least never had a Self-Pity Montage (set to Flight of the Conchords or not). The production design, stuffed with jokes and charming details, was far better than either the MacGuffiny plot or the characters, who never rose above their single-attribute names to be worth hanging out with.
When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books — the first five or six, anyway, the ones that my school library had, and which had all been meticulously defaced in such a way that I went for years believing that the Frank Frazetta covers to the 70s mass-market paperbacks had originally depicted entirely naked, rather than merely practically naked, women — over the course of a couple of months. I tried revisiting the first one a few years ago — public domain, fond memories, why not — and realized that I had aged out of Burroughs.
The propulsive, breathless quality was still there, but the imagination was dry and insipid, his characters mere props in a gallery of grotesquerie that corresponded all too closely to the racialized fantasies of colonialism peddled by Rider Haggard or Fenimore Cooper. When I was a boy, I’d found it a struggle to picture the things Burroughs had described; as an adult, it was all too easy — half the production design of the original Star Wars trilogy was right out of Barsoom.
John Carter both acknowledges and repays the debt, and confirms me in my suspicion that it wasn’t pulp I’d grown out of, but pulp prose. Though it takes a while to get going, and Burroughs’ tin ear for evocative naming makes the chunks of expository dialogue all the more undigestible, the movie’s genuinely fun, with all the awe-inspiring vistas and mind-boggling civilizations that had long since turned into cheap words on the page. There’s still the nasty undercurrent of racialized typification — tharks are Africans or Native Americans, only even more savage and Other; the “civilized” “red men” are “acceptably” foreign (to a turn-of-the-century American), Mediterranean or Latin — and in the meantime of course, the gentlemanly, brooding white man saves everyone.
But Taylor Kitsch can brood on my screen any time he wants — Texas forever, Riggins! — and the semaphoric language of movies works much better to paper over the lack of depth of characterization (of course he’s a person, you can see him right there!) than the dull plod of prose. I also appreciated that the production team turned into the skid on the Helium-Zodanga typification, making them appreciably “ethnic” in a modern American sense (Greek? Italian? Armenian? Jewish? sure, why not) rather than the Hollywood Anglo-Scandinavian norm for fantasy. I also appreciated the opening half-hour or so spent in nineteenth-century America; rather perversely for someone who insisted on reading fantasy, I was always just as if not more interested in our heroes’ home worlds as in the ones they visited.
It’s been a long, shitty week, and I needed something that would be rousing, funny in bits (here mostly due to Woola the “dog”), spectacular (if it knows nothing else, modern Hollywood knows spectacle), and not emotionally involving in the slightest. I got what I wanted, and then some — even the score was great — and because I went to the dinner theater, I had real food and a big beer, which no doubt did its part to recommend the movie to me. It’s pretty dumb, but it’s dumb in an old-fashioned, even a classic way, so I liked it a lot.
I’m not a Studio Ghibli fanatic — in fact I’m so benighted in my experience of modern nerd culture that I haven’t even seen Spirited Away — but I am a Mary Norton’s The Borrowers fanatic, so of course I was going to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The fantasy of little people, or rather the fantasy of being little, of interacting with the world on a completely different scale from the one I’m used to, was one of the major touchstones of my imagination as a child; and the movie gets that part exactly right: the sense of space and scope, the to-what-use-would-I-put-this-object mental game, the hyperbolic, as it were, sense of coziness, a tiny corner of the world which is one’s own. Japan is nearly as good as England for the deeply embedded idea of conservation of space, as befits an island nation filled with large cities.
Maybe I was just too restless to drink it in properly — take an ibuprofen or something when you have a headache, kids — but I did have minor complaints. That thing in traditional animation where it’s obvious which portion of the environment is going to move because it’s drawn, not painted, has always bugged me (I think I just resent the idea of limited environments; video games always bore me too, because I can never interact with the virtual world as deeply, or as off-script, as I’d like to), but I’m also not a fan of the particular Japanese mode of comic relief which expressed itself in Homily’s and Hara’s over-the-top slapstick reactions, preventing them from being characters of any depth.
I also have never given a shit about The Boy in any iteration of The Borrowers — I dislike having a point-of-view character spoonfed to me when I can relate just fine to Arietty, thank you — so the relationship between her and “Shawn” bored me. Beautifully-animated, of course — and I’m being quite ridiculous with my niggles. It’s a gorgeous movie, thoughtful and meditatively paced, and although I suppose there must be a plot in a movie, I much preferred the exploration and quiet routine of the first half to the outwit-and-evade mechanics of the second.
Ultimately, I wish the movie were much, much longer. Which can only be a compliment, I think.
I took my sweet time getting round to seeing The Artist not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it — I was pretty sure I would — but because it seemed aimed so suspiciously exactly at my tastes (I love silent film, I’ll watch any story that purports to be about the making of entertainment, and Singin’ in the Rain was my first favorite movie) that the part of me that’s the reason we can’t have nice things kicked in, and I found myself rolling my eyes when it was listed week after week on the local arthouse’s website. To my tastes, and (relatively) popular? It must be the worst thing in the world!
It’s not. Sure, Jean Dujardin is definitely an odd leading man for someone raised with American cinematic sensibilities — like most French actors, he can brood like no one’s business, but his wide homme qui rit smile reads as insincere until you get used to it (or maybe it’s the pencil mustache) — and I was slightly annoyed by the way at least one of the silent-movies-within-the-movie was exposed at poky modern frame rates. But the sheer sensuousness of the film took over soon enough.
The story wasn’t much, standard melodrama which might even have been heavy-handed in the silent era, with paper-thin characterizations and an overrreliance on cute business in place of meaning — which only meant that the cute business was the meaning. Though ostensibly about the 1920s and 30s, it’s in fact a movie of the Internet age, a clever run through prefab templates, with little surprise bits of business — short, Youtube-length setpieces — that comment reflexively on the action and flatter its audience’s understanding of film tropes. There’s even, Internet-like, an adorable animal, to which the audience awwwed on cue.
This isn’t, oddly enough, a criticism; making a movie that played entirely by the rules of silent film in the era of silent film would be a stale exercise in historical formalism, and doomed to failure because its only criteria for quality would be the depth of its historical research. But making a movie that brings a modern sensibility, even if it’s a fannish cult sensibility — a fanfiction sensibility — to a largely-extinct form, breathing unexpected life into it through the charisma of the performers and the filmmakers’ somewhat eccentric faith in what used to be called “movie magic” (that reliable combination of vaudeville mugging, photographic trickery, and the ineffable sense of something very important being withheld) is something that could only be accomplished in the retromaniac 2010s. Running through the decades, stealing at will: Dujardin is clearly meant to recall Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, as Bérénice Bejo’s toothy smile and long limbs evoke a winning combination of Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse (even Missi Pyle does a great Jean Hagen), and flashes of everything from Sullivan’s Travels to Citizen Kane to Umberto D. pepper the plot.
Between Hugo and The Artist (and relatedly but different in concept, Midnight in Paris), the current (relative) appetite for examinations, or perhaps remixes, of Film’s Golden Past strikes me as both a wonderful and a somewhat worrying thing. Wonderful, because I am a strong partisan of the past, of the value and the beauty* extractable from it. Somewhat worrying not because I subscribe to the idea that a culture overwhelmed by its past will neglect to have a future (the future will arrive whether we will it or no, and no amount of archival retromania can prevent it), but because I’m enough of a participant in the ideologies of hip and mainstream that if my (relatively) eccentric tastes are becoming even minor box-office hits then I can’t help feeling that my own role in the culture is diminished; I am no longer the principled curator-archivist of my imagination, just another consumer slotted into a demographic.
Which I always was, of course. Which is why I was so reluctant to see The Artist in the first place; because I’m a child who thinks that loving something makes it mine, and everyone else needs to keep their dirty hands off it. Okay, that’s enough. I’m going to go grow up now.
*I haven’t even talked about the suits. Let me just say THE SUITS OH MY GOD, mention that John Goodman’s wardrobe inspired me to even more envy than Dujardin’s, and lament that it’s now impossible to wear spats in public without looking like a jackass.
I saw Hugo two days ago, and the first words I jotted down were: “captivating, astonishing, thrilling, glorious.” I almost don’t want to say anything about the plot in order to avoid giving anything away (though I knew the bare bones going in, and it was still great). Just… look out for Joyce, Dalí, and Reinhardt. And even more briefly, Hulot. And I’m sure there were more. I’m almost willing to shell out another $12.50 just to look at the background characters some more.
The primary criticism I’ve heard is that it’s slow. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand it as a general criticism (dullness has nothing to do with pace, and everything to do with shoddiness), and I certainly don’t understand it here. Not only is it visually exciting, it’s emotionally compelling in a way that I’m not sure I would have expected from a summary of the plot. There are standard kids’-book tropes — the haunted orphan, the autodidact who uses a vocabulary just beyond her age, the inexplicably mean adults who turn out to have their own reasons — but these are rescued by the performances. Asa Butterfield turns in a great lonely-scared-angry kid performance, one which rides the line between social awkwardness and Asperger spectrum until the speech about how maybe the whole world is a machine and you just have to find out what part you are is its own gear clicking into place. Chloë Moretz does her usual too-old-for-her-age act and it mostly works. Sacha Baron Cohen is fantastic enough to make me wish it were a slightly different movie, one which never left the station and spent the entire time with the variously maladroit character actors who populate it.
But the movie primarily belongs to Ben Kingsley as the bitter and cantankerous Georges Méliès, though Scorcese takes his time letting us know that. When the giddy and surreal tribute to the history of film finally breaks through the expertly-posed children’s story, it’s glorious; if in retrospect it seem like two (or possibly three) stories crammed somewhat awkwardly together, the sweep of the movie itself is never less than magisterial. Scorcese knows what he’s doing by now.
It was, it turns out, the first time I’ve seen a movie in 3D. (Uh, except for Captain EO when I was ten.) I was pretty tired of it by the end of the movie, and while I doubt that the hangover-style headache I’ve had all next day has anything to do with it, it’s the kind of coincidence that will make me hesitate the next time I have a choice. But it was perfect for the movie (if less perfect for all the movies in the trailers; the 3D Beauty and the Beast looks excruciating), which is all about exploring spaces, tinkering with three-dimensional objects, and the magic of illusions. I’ll admit that (serious spoilers here) the first time I saw depth of field applied to what was clearly an ancient print from the 1910s, I was jarred; but eventually it begins to make a kind of sense. It’s a superb movie to be your first 3D movie, in case there are still any other 3D virgins out there. I remain agnostic as to whether 3D is, in general, a good idea — I can only say that here, it was.