Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies). I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened. Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view. There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins. I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone. Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright. Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be. Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch. Those titular beasts were stupid, though. Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.
Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)
Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever. My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother. Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old. One step forward, one step back for the genre.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current). I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death. Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject. To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore. Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).
It’s no Pan’s Labyrinth (even though the story, image, and thematic similarities between the two are downright startling…the Spanish Civil War, the first image of a child lying on the floor bleeding, the most moral adult character in each film being brutally murdered as seen in an all-encompassing long shot, kids and the otherworldly winning out over grown-ups who just don’t understand, etc…), and in fact it’s very, very predictable (Michael Bay-like slow-mo explosion with the old man getting thrown back, seriously? and the villainous Jacinto is basically a Snidely Whiplash by the end, despite a late, beautiful moment where he muses over an old photo of his parents and for a moment seems human and even sympathetic…maybe my favorite moment in the entire film). And the ghost is actually pretty lame once del Toro decides to show it in all its glory (which is sooner than I had anticipated)…it had much more power to instill fear when it remained in the shadows, sighing, early in the film, but sadly not often. But damned if that watery basement set isn’t GORGEOUS, and one of the creepier sets I’ve seen, the way it’s lit and photographed, making for a great initial reveal of the ghost, as well as an outstanding climax (one thing’s certain, even if his screenwriting skills are suspect, del Toro’s artistry with the camera and sets and lighting and weirdities can turn even the most flawed screenplay, and what should be a boring Spanish history lesson, into something visually captivating). And the kids collectively give a great performance, even beyond the coolness of them going all Rambo at the end. This could’ve devolved into cliches of the new kid, the bully, the pipsqueak sidekick, etc., but the way they all band together for a common cause by the end is admirable, and one thing about the film that isn’tthat predictable. Started out slow, got much better as it went along, even if the appearance and nature of the ghostly Santi didn’t follow suit. I liked this
“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death?”
Wow. Did this movie really begin with a narration like that? An introduction showing the heavens and the clouds and speaking those heady, heady words, and quoting Eurypides and Keats, no less? With an intro like that, you’d expect “Portrait of Jennie” to be the most philosophical and symbolic work of fiction ever conceived…which of course it isn’t, and thus that introduction where a booming voice says, “Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever” comes off as pompous, over the top and incredibly ill-conceived. Like the blank canvas used by Joseph Cotten’s penniless artist Eben Adams to passionately draw the titular portrait, this film should’ve been a blank slate, allowing the actors, the unearthly atmosphere, and the oddly supernatural take on the romance and mystery genres to speak for themselves, allowing viewers to interpret for themselves. That introduction is over after a couple of minutes, but it nonetheless left a sour taste in my mouth for the duration of the film – what I was looking at was a somewhat endearing story of romance and finding the will to fulfill one’s true purpose in life, and a pretty interesting mystery and quasi-ghost story, but what that introduction was setting me up for was something with a lot more depth and symbolism – the kind of stuff you’d study in a literary theory class, and this worthwhile yet relatively minor piece of supernatural melodrama was not that. I felt gypped, and fooled into expecting one thing and getting another, but putting that aside, what you do get is flawed, but very nice.
To its detriment, there’re plenty of lame lovey-dovey lines that’ll make your skin crawl, to the effect of “I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart” and “there is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death” and all the standard we-were-made-for-each-others in between. In a similar vein, there are some instances in which you’ll practically be blinded by the high-key lighting emphasizing every pore of Jennifer Jones’ face, in an overdone at best, shameless at worst attempt to overly-glamorize the girl. The bottom-line is that every high-key light in the world could’ve been shined on Jones’ face and the screenplay could’ve made use of some of the most romantic words you’ve ever heard in her interactions with Cotten, but I still wouldn’t be able to understand Jennie’s appeal or buy completely into the romance, because frankly the whole concept is just too weird for any kind of traditional romance to succeed as a narrative device. Never mind the fact that Jennie is either a ghost or a figment of Eben’s imagination and that she grows from artist’s muse into love interest as the film progresses, consider how Eben meets her as a precocious little girl unknowingly plucked right out of the 1910s and transposed into the 1940s, and every time they meet in the park, she inexplicably grows years older, until she becomes a young woman and college graduate. She begins as Eben’s muse, young and playful and with a crush on the older man, only to age decades in the span of a few months to the point that that crush can be consummated, and an artist/subject relationship becomes a romance. I’m sorry, that’s just plain creepy, the thought of a man meeting a little girl and then all of sudden being able to romance the young woman who mere months before was dancing around and singing songs in the park.
That creepiness may’ve made me shudder and made my skin crawl, to the point that any genuine passion that this romance has (and there is genuine passion, despite the dialogue clichés and what-not) is practically negated by that creepiness lurking in the back of your mind, but that could also be a testament to just how bold this film is. In the height of the Code era, when studios were practically puritanical in dictating what was and wasn’t morally acceptable on the screen, what other film would dare to involve a grown man falling for a little girl, albeit innocently and purely for artistic innovation at first, and then for all intents and purposes consummating that love? Even disregarding the odd romance, there’s a surprising amount of narrative subtleties at play here, making for some damn fine psychological mystery. As far as I can remember, you never quite find out what the real deal is with Jennie – if she’s a ghost, why is Eben of all people the only one who can see her – not his friend at the bar, nor the acerbic yet sympathetic art curator Miss Spinney (played wonderfully by Ethel Barrymore as a kind of confidant and quasi-mother figure to Eben)? If she’s a figment of the imagination of Eben, a struggling artist desperate for inspiration, how would he know all the details of her life as they happened decades before, now being relived in the mind of this mysterious apparition? I’m glad there are lots more questions in regard to this matter than there are answers, as well as how Eben simply accepts the fact that this girl is pretty much aging in dog years and rarely questions how odd that is, and that the film simply lets him accept it without outside commentary nudging us and saying ‘look how weird this is.’ Over the course of this film, Eben quite clearly loses touch with reality, going along with the situation of the his rapidly-aging, chronologically displaced, ghostly love interest as if it were as commonplace as buying groceries. It may not be realistic, as he investigates the mystery of what happened to Jennie at that lighthouse years before and tries to prevent it from happening again, and then at the drop of a dime try to woo what is essentially thin air, but what it is is weird, and in an era like the ‘40s when clichéd melodramas and dull romances were being churned out to theaters by the dozens, weird is good.
I could’ve done without the green tint during the big climax – probably meant to signify that by this point Eben is way, way within his own surreal world but is just more distracting than anything – ‘cuz the way I see it Joseph Cotten’s performance perfectly represents Eben’s dogged, near-crazed determination on its own. Always a low-key actor, Cotten’s understated dryness and wry, swaggering persona are a perfect complement for the subtle nature of Eben’s madness – his passion for Jennie becomes outright obsession, but that obsession always remains bubbling below the surface, as Joseph Cotten keeps his emotions at bay in a way that only Joseph Cotten could. If the actual meetings between Eben and Jennie are disappointing – Jennifer Jones just being shrill whether she’s playing a child or a grown woman, and their sappy words for each other being utterly useless and detrimental to an otherwise fine film, then it’s when they’re apart, when you can feel the loneliness and feelings of worthlessness oozing out of Joseph Cotten’s stone-cold face, when this film’s really in its element. A late scene in which Eben simply sits in his dark apartment while his friend plays the harp – yes, the harp – and sings a song with the constant refrain of ‘yonder, yonder’ is absolutely beautiful. The harp and the singing sound lovely and mournful, the shadows palpable and the cluttered room filmed perfectly (maybe the highlight of the entire film’s great cinematography), and as Eben stares off into space – there may have never been a better actor at staring off into space than Joseph Cotten – you know exactly what, or more precisely who, he’s thinking about. If more of this film were this ethereally beautiful and peaceful, if Eben’s loneliness and the nature of Jennie were more of an enigma instead of the film trying to turn this metaphysical mystery into a typical romance, this would’ve been a masterpiece. As it stands, a culturally risky premise and an air of unsettling ambiguity make this into something unique, where the answers about Jennie and about Eben’s passions and desires and morality lie yonder, yonder.
You wouldn’t know it from the picture above (other than the dried-up blood on the girl’s green shirt), but these fine people were either witnesses or direct parties to a fatal, gruesome automobile accident mere moments before – one where quite a few nasty words were exchanged, I might add. But now, of course, in typical Godard fashion, they’re posing together as if the guy in the fucking Sears photo studio told them to make their best mug shot faces. I’ve tried to make myself numb to these little eccentricities of Godard’s by now – the weird intertitles/commentary, the humor of which goes completely over my head more often than not, the extreme closeups of those faces as chaos ensues with the aftermath of that car wreck, the long tracking shots, the random recitation by this character or that of a thing resembling philosophy or poetry – but “Week End” is certainly, by Godard’s standards, the tippy-top of his eccentric-meter: a gory, bizarre journey for a despicable couple that’s a biting-as-hell criticism of…what? Comsumerism? America? Capitalism? Greed? Sexual repression…or sexual excess? Maybe all of the above, but I don’t care, ‘cuz all “Week End” is trying to be is a big shock and awe campaign against anything and everything Godard finds irritating about society, meant to incite and to infuriate. Well, it sure as hell infuriated me, but I’m not infuriated at what Godard’s infuriated at, I’m infuriated that I wasted a good 90+ minutes sitting through this failed experiment in testing the limits of political correctness in film, that turns into little more than a maddening exercise in style and shock points, that tries to make some grand message but just repulses, angers, and annoys. “Week End” infuriated me like few films ever have.
Alright, so it starts with some bra and panties-clad woman seen in semi-silhouette giving her husband a looong description of her previous sexual exploits with another man and woman, as descriptively as you can imagine, using words and descriptions of anatomy and sex acts I never thought I’d hear in a film from the 1960s, even a French film, far from the puritanical confines of Hollywood, and it’s all set to sarcastically ominous music. Okay, I thought, this is pretty interesting, and faux-mysterious/sarcastic, and this story she’s telling, and the droll way she’s telling it, is pretty damn hot. Hot, but also cold and distant with how disinterested both storyteller and listener are, and with that music: an interesting little critique of sexuality in society. I was intrigued.
Clearly, Godard’s challenging the viewer to care about “Week End”: utterly reprehensible protagonists encountering utterly reprehensible people and incidents on the road. The world sucks, Godard seems to be telling us. Everything about it is dog-eat-dog, and devotion to sex and material objects seems to be the culprit – according to Godard. The problem is, Godard seems to think that rape, cannibalism, murder by arson, and car wrecks equal clever critique. It’s overkill from the start, and in my eyes, this film was doomed from the start of that famous tracking shot of the traffic jam. So what, an unending shot for 10-15 minutes showing every inch of a traffic jam, complete with drivers tossing beach balls around, and yelling at each other, and increasingly clever ways to show exasperated drivers and cars in positions they clearly weren’t built to be in, is supposed to be the be all and end all of skilled filmmaking? Big fucking deal, any monkey can glide a camera down a dolly track for 15 minutes and tell extras when to act funny. This wasn’t an impressive feat of single-shot filmmaking, it was an infuriating waste of time, every second of it punctuated by the sound of car horns (thank god I was watching the movie via headphones, so I could take them off after a while and prevent myself from going batshit crazy). It’s Godard trying to get under your skin, and by god it worked, but I wasn’t mad about some cockamamie message he was trying to send about dehumanization or whatever (materialized through the long shot’s payoff when the gory cause of the traffic jam is finally – FINALLY – revealed), I was just plain ticked off that so much of my time was wasted watching and listening to one annoying as all fuck thing for SO much screentime. Go ahead, tell me I’m an impatient, uninitiated filmwatcher who doesn’t get Godard’s subversive artistry and eye for unique cultural criticism, ‘cuz y’all can go fuck yourselves – this was just plain excessive and agonizing, for all the wrong reasons.
What follows is a series of episodes in which our repugnant protagonists pass the violent aftermaths of car wrecks left and right, as well as an increasingly bizarre cast of characters, from the gun-toting, sheep-materializing magician to the riddle-spouting couple seemingly out of a fairy tale to the activists who speak for each other to the forest-dwelling cannibals. Clearly Godard’s trying to shock his audience with how reprehensible everybody behaves, from lighting people on fire to the man sitting back serenely as his wife is raped, to a carjacking-cum-stabbing, to fiery wrecks to cannibals killing pigs and chickens (animals were most certainly harmed in the making of this film) and making some random chick strip while frying an egg on her crotch or something, I dunno…and all the while that couple we follow, who in their own right wish for the death of her parents so they can inherit the money, and in the process murder each other, lament their most unusual situation and dryly observe how strange this movie they’re in is becoming (about the only joke in the film I actually liked). The ultimate irony is that Godard’s trying to be utterly unpredictable and as shocking as possible in showing rape, bloody bodies and fiery car wrecks strewn across the road, murder, arson, and animal slaughter, but really it’s all quite predictable – pass a car wreck, find a capitalist weirdo, dispatch. Pass a car wreck, find a capitalist weirdo, dispatch. Pass a car wreck, find a capitalist weirdo, dispatch. I get the feeling that all the terrible things we see happen in “Week End” that test the limits of what a film in 1967 could show you represents everything Godard himself wanted to do, but as a law-abiding citizen couldn’t, so he could only do it vicariously through cinema. Alright, I get it, Godard really hates America and materialism and capitalism. And nevermind that there’s no plot or that the film’s an incomprehensible mess, ‘cuz if done tastefully that’d be a good thing: a subversive, image-based critique of material excess and dehumanization. And the idea of a wrecked-car-and-corpse-laden, neverending road representing a materialist dystopia is actually a fascinating one, but could’ve been, and has been, handled better.
But “Week End” is utterly tasteless. It’s bad enough Godard felt the need to interrupt everything for a 15 minute traffic jam where I had to press the mute button and start biting my fingernails impulsively, or have a couple of young idiots ‘speak for each other’, so that we just stare at an unmoving face for about 5-10 minutes each while the other, off-screen, recites some shit about African poverty or something that’s practically from a textbook. That in and of itself is tasteless, and every single word of that scene went in one ear and out the other (if that’s Godard’s intention, to make fun of lecturing activists by employing lectures in all their maddeningly boring detail, then he succeeded, but…why?), but those images of destroyed cars and bodies, of cannibals and stabbings, of just-offscreen rape and murder by lighter, lacks a single miniscule crumb of what could be considered good taste. When a filmmaker tries to disguise tasteless, hate-filled images as cynical criticism of society, and combines that with a maddeningly long tracking shot punctuated by a single sound more annoying than Lloyd’s most annoying sound in the world in “Dumb and Dumber,” and another maddeningly long tracking shot of some farm or something while some asshole plays the piano, as we travel across the entire lot back and forth at least a few times, and other long scenes of stylistic excess that give me the feeling that Godard’s jumping up and down begging you to pay attention to him the way a kid jumps up and down begging mom to look at the pretty picture he drew, the result is horrifying. “Week End” is a collection of images that beg you to be repulsed and dare you to be titillated, but in short order it became so predictable, so unexpectedly formulaic for a film so non-reliant on a typical plot structure, that I sure as hell wasn’t titillated, but was repulsed – not by the materialistic and fetishistic society Godard’s apparently trying to lampoon, but by 1) how hateful his worldview seems to be, and 2) his stylistic eccentricities that once again went over my head and I had to disregard as overly-stylish, silly nonsense. Yeah, society’s reliance on material objects sucks, but I at least try to have a somewhat positive worldview, and don’t see every materialist as a shrill, philosophy-spewing, gun-toting, wreckless pig deserving of and destined for either a car wreck or a horrifically gruesome death. Fucking sue me. Although, maybe my optimistic worldview is wrong, considering all the reviews I’ve read praising this as a subversive and important masterpiece, that infuriating traffic jam a brilliant piece of skilled filmmaking. Give me a fucking break. This was attention-craving, overly-stylized trash.
“Week End” so ridiculous and offensively nonsensical and BORING (traffic jam, the two men speaking for each other, just how plain predictable the formula is despite Godard trying to shock us with images…), that I hope, I pray, that this was some kind of very expensive, very long-thought out joke by Godard, the man who played subtle little jokes like the sudden spurts of violence in “Masculin féminin”, but is going for the full-on Aristocrats joke here. I mean, this was a joke, right? It has to be…after all, I just wrote the longest review I’ve written in a long, long time on a film I hated more than any other I’ve seen in an even longer time. The joke’s on me. I guess Godard succeeded in getting an extreme reaction from one more viewer after all.
Subliminal images! Cross-dressing! Girl on girl-disguised-as-boy love! Molestation! Youth nectar! Mad scientists! Mindless slaves! Harps, breasts, penises, holes in the back of kids’ necks, aerophones, the watch tower, weird intertitles! What a surreal, unsettling nightmare! I don’t know how many more exclamation marks I can use in describing Guy Maddin’s grand experiment in essentially making a modern, manic update on the silent film, but if any modern film deserves an over-the-top, exclamation mark-laden description a la an ad for a circus freak show, here it is, folks. “Brand Upon the Brain!” is a full-on spectacle, an assault on senses and sensibilities, a total mindfuck, a perfect simulation of a weird, weird, dream, and every other cliché in the book. And that circus-esque spectacle factor isn’t just because of the film’s original road show-like presentation, with in-house orchestra, Foley artists, and narrator. Even without that fascinating presentation (something I really wish I could’ve experienced), to still just watch this at home via a DVD player is still a unique, over the top experience.
Yeah, there’s a plot – Guy Maddin (at least a fictional Guy Maddin) returns to his childhood home, an island orphanage, to paint the lighthouse and remembers back to his childhood, featuring a sexually envious mother, flirtatious yet sexually repressed sister, sinister goings-on involving the orphans and Guy’s father’s late-night experiments, and the investigation of all of this by the teenage detective duo, the Lightbulb Kids. But all of that really doesn’t matter. All you’ll care about is how fast one image replaces another, the grainy, black and white cinematography that’s anything but steady, the bombastic score, the sounds, the facial expressions, the intertitles providing a bizarre commentary to the just as bizarre goings-on, repeated images and subliminal images, the stream-of-consciousness-esque editing. A nightmare. “Brand Upon the Brain!” is one big nightmare, an embodiment of Guy Maddin’s (the movie’s Guy Maddin – and hell, probably the real Guy Maddin too) deep-seeded psychological issues and sexual frustrations – the same issues any given person would have and try to hold back in waking life, but would come screaming to the forefront in the realm of dreams. There’s the mother’s phallic search light; the implications of Wendy Hale of the Lightbulb Kids, disguised as her brother Chance, seducing Guy’s older sister Sis with the touching gloves, and Guy, enamored with the harp-playing, Venus de Milo-esque Wendy, finding out; the mother getting a little too close, physically and emotionally, to Guy; the Father’s phallic…well, thing, that he sticks in those poor kids to extract their precious nectar; the Aerophone device, that allows contact between Mother and Guy due to, of all things, their love for each other. Every plot point and many of the images in “Brand Upon the Brain!” are sexual in nature, namely sexual/gender confusion and sexual repression, namely from Guy’s point of view – a surreal take on the classic pubescent identity crisis, magnified infinitely.
It’s a surreal and upsetting nightmare, a personification of pubescent sexual anxiety, not just because of the images, but because of how those images are presented. This is the second film of Guy Maddin’s I’ve seen, and in both this and “My Winnipeg,” he cobbles together techniques of era after era of cinema, namely silent expressionism and 40s/50s melodrama, like he’s Dr. Frankenstein, and what emerges in this case is a silent film that looks like it could’ve been made in the 1920s, yet at the same time feels like something that’s never been attempted before, and is thoroughly post-modern and unique. The images are grainy and black-and-white, the faces practically made for a piece of 1920s German Expressionism, yet the sporadic editing and lightning-quick transitions from one image to another give this old silent film a cruel reminder that it’s living in the 21st century. The lack of voices and over-the-top orchestral score scream silent film, but then that musical silence is punctuated by the startling sounds of footsteps going up a wooden staircase, the innane garbling of mother’s voice over the aerophone, the slow creek of an opening door, the wind howling, the ‘castrato’ providing a singing voice for Sis – all of these sound completely artificial, obviously the work of Foley artists – but a movie like this wouldn’t have it any other way. In a movie as bizarre and as displaced from any given time period as this, artificial sound effects add to that aura of the unexpected, of the bizarre, of the unsettling. I haven’t done this film any kind of justice in describing it through words, and that should be taken as the ultimate compliment to how unique it really is. It’s not completely unreliant on plot the way a pure piece of surrealism like “Un chien andalou” was, but in no time at all, really, I didn’t care about the plot that this did have. “Brand Upon the Brain!” isn’t about plot, it’s an assault on the senses – you smell the fresh air in the forest and the salty air of the coast, you feel the corkscrew thingie plunging into the back of Sis’ neck, you taste Sis’ lips as she and Wendy/Chance have their tryst, you hear that grating scream of Mother over the aerophone that Guy feels compelled to obey as he longs for Wendy and for what Sis and Chance have, and you see all of these, and fleeting microseconds of memory with no distinct pattern – just like how a real mind works, both awake and within the subconscious. It’s a challenging film, and not exactly comfortable to watch at times, to say the least, but boy, what a sensual experience – and just think what it would’ve been like to see it live, with all the bells and whistles of a narrator and orchestra and Foley artists! I watched this with narration by Isabella Rossellini, her voice in and of itself providing a surreal contrast to the point of view of the male Guy Maddin, and the Criterion DVD features many more narration tracks by the likes of Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, and (the real) Guy Maddin. That alone gives me the opportunity to experience something new with many rewatches to come, but even if I only had the one narration track, there’s enough dynamic images, presented indiscriminately and disjointedly and subliminally enough that I’d experience something new with every rewatch anyway.
Boy, would I love to see a making-of documentary of this. A 90 minute, single-take journey through the Hermitage museum in Russia, with gazillions of extras dressed in outfits from various eras, all of whom had to be at a specific place doing a specific thing at a precise moment, or else EVERYTHING would be for naught, and the entire production would have to start over? AND Sokurov and his cast and his crew had just ONE day to do it in? What a task, what pressure to make sure that everything is perfect! What if the cameraman tripped over a discarded tissue while following the Marquis through that grand hallway, or one of the dancers in the grand ball that closes the film bumped into the camera, or the conductor or lead cellist in the orchestra sneezed? One little mistake ruins everything when your entire movie consists of one take, but obviously they got it right – fourth time was the charm if IMDB’s accurate – so I guess it’s my duty to put that idea of the sheer epic magnitude of the production challenges aside and judge “Russian Ark” in its finished form. So I guess the real litmus test is whether “Russian Ark” has any value other than the maybe-gimmick of a 90 minute single take, whether the substance and the material would work and be compelling if the production were just a regular ol’ shot-cut-shot-cut, ‘ordinarily’ edited film. Well maybe it’s just my complete and utter lack of interest in Russian history, but what can I say, what’s essentially a walking tour through the Hermitage with an unhinged Marquis, encountering this historical figure or that, wouldn’t exactly call me into action. There’s no plot to speak of (not a criticism, I’m just pointing it out, so all you plot haters leave me alone), other than the Marquis and the unseen narrator journeying from room to room, era to elegant era, and the Marquis’ interactions with historical figures both famous and inconsequential. Really, what’s the point of such a thing when you’re gonna show it in an ordinary, nothing special fashion? Frankly, I think it’d be an utter bore – a nifty idea, playing with the fabric of time within the confines of a single building as a man travels from century to century seamlessly, but still a rather pointless bore if portrayed using conventional film methods.
So I guess that means that “Russian Ark”’s success hinges on the technical qualities, on the images, on that single-shot gimmick. If you want to call that a major fault, that’s certainly valid, I suppose that indicates an inherent flaw in the substance behind the technical qualities, at least for my American ass who can’t tell Catherine the Great from King Ralph – but my god, what a technical marvel this film is! Is it a gimmick, having an entire 90 minute film be comprised of a single moving shot? Of course it is, but even then, you gotta give Sokourov and all involved – cameramen, actors and extras who had to be in a precise shot at a precise moment, production managers and key grips who had to make sure everything went smoothly lest the atom bomb of a dreaded slip-up go off, have to be given an A++++++ for effort just for the sheer difficulty of pulling something like that off. Whether there’s even a point to doing something like that is another story, but props for at least accomplishing something that difficult.
The production values and the images are impeccable and beyond beautiful – this IS the Hermitage, one of the most glorious art museums in the entire world, after all, so obviously “Russian Ark” gets a free pass on that one, and I’ve already gabbed about the cinematography to death, and the music – some classical, some original to the film – is beautiful, a perfect complement to the beautiful artwork. But you just have to marvel at the creativity and the staging of it all, how the hyperactive Marquis is being followed, disappears so that we’re left to wander those magnificent halls and its temporally displaced inhabitants alone, only for the Marquis to just enter the frame from the side of the screen unexpectedly, all of course in a single take. Or, how the Marquis wanders through a throng of museum-goers, all talking amongst themselves in rather indistinguishable conversations (I got a real Altman vibe from scenes like this), entering and exiting the frame like the entire film is a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have to be placed precisely, yet still flow freely and animatedly. Just remarkable how this was all put together. And who better to guide us through this building that transcends time and space than the Marquis, with his black outfit, frazzled hair, unhinged demeanor, bizarre form of hitting on female art admirers and cultural criticism (“Russian music gives me hives”), his ability to go from sheer ecstasy to cranky pouting at the snap of a finger, and limitless energy? I’m quite convinced that this man was completely insane, or at least had SEVERE a.d.d. or something, but who could possibly be a better choice to guide us through a single-take journey through a museum where one room being browsed by people in Victorian garb gives way to men in modern-day business suits in the very next room (and yes, the Marquis’ reaction to this unexplained shift in eras is just as bizarre as the shift itself)? And just like the sights and substance of the film itself, the Marquis’ success as compelling guide depended almost entirely on the single-take gimmick – we’re following him nonstop, camera often shaky, and his exiting and entering the frame at the randomest of moments only adds to his deranged (and enormously entertaining) demeanor. As nonsensical as the whole fluctuating time period structure of the setting and the ‘narrative’ was, a little rat of a man who’s just as nonsensical provides the perfect complement, just as the music provided a perfect complement to the images.
“Russian Ark” is a technical masterpiece, one of the most impressive on-screen efforts I’ve ever seen. It’s just too bad I had barely a shred of emotional involvement in it (might’ve been the 4 hours of sleep I was riding on, but I did pretty much doze off for a moment or two at least a couple of times. Just sayin’…). Hell, I’d have to say that almost all of my appreciation and awe for it comes not in the finished product, but the mere thought of how hard it must’ve been to put it all together. The camerawork was impressive, to say the least, and the Hermitage is clearly a magnificently beautiful place – that’s pretty much all I got out of this (well, ok, the Marquis was cool…). Yeah, the huge ball at the end is grand and magnificent, but it’s only really special because of how effortlessly the camera glides through that busy ballroom, miraculously not disturbing the participants in their precise dance. Honestly, how many ball scenes, even as grand as this one, have we seen in hundreds of films before this, the only difference being that this one is shown to us in one take, in the middle of the action? I just don’t know what, if any, point there is to this whole thing, even with the subtle and utterly mesmerizing transitions in time periods from room to room, other than demonstrating the utmost extreme in just how impressive a long dolly shot and one’s skill with a camera can be. With that in mind, I’d be tempted to call “Russian Ark” little more than a substance-lacking exercise in style, but that style, that impossible-to-fathom effort to put that style on screen, is so hypnotic and graceful, where the effort of perhaps the most complicated single tracking shot ever is made to look effortless, so how could I possibly insult it so?
So it seems that Zack Snyder has found the precise formula for creating the perfect, seamless blend of cliché AND pretentiousness: a sex scene aboard a giant mechanical owl set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” When the most faux-serious (in other word, most overused) song you can think of is combined with two lousy actors playing two exceedingly good-looking superheroes making the goofiest and least convincing O-faces imaginable, and the whole thing just leads to an entire theater full of people cracking up, that’s a pretty good indicator that that scene was just plain ill-conceived.
But otherwise, fuck me sideways, “Watchmen” was alright. I came in expecting to hate this adaptation of the supposedly unadaptable graphic novel about an alternate 1985, where costumed heroes were once plentiful but now outlawed, a blue, god-like superman led the U.S. to victory in Vietnam, Tricky Dick Nixon is serving his 5th term, and the Russkies have their nukes readied and aimed (though The McLaughlin Group is as much a mainstay in this alternate reality as it is in our own 😛 ), expecting to see every reason why Alan Moore would disown it, but 2 and 3/4 hours later (a 2 and 3/4 hours that isn’t nearly enough to cover the epic scope of the comic), I came out satisfied. Not floored or anything, but satisfied. Obviously I could’ve done without Zack Snyder’s typical slow-mo ‘look at me, I’m a Gen-X Sam Peckinpah!’ bullshit and other hyperstylized “300” leftovers (Silk Spectre and Nite Owl have been out of the superhero game for a long time now, but all of a sudden they can take on a group of hardened criminals during a prison riot and dispatch of them all flashy and special effectsy-like like they’re Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the flip of a switch? Really? c’mon…), and the soundtrack, a collection of GREAT songs, nevertheless felt more superfluous than anything – just throwing in easily-recognizable songs for the sake of throwing in easily-recognizable songs a la “Forrest Gump” (Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is one of my all-time favorite songs and one I could listen to over and over again, but to use it out of the blue for of all things The Comedian’s funeral? Just feels weird. And I’ve already covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” 😛 ). As for the performances, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and the lovely (to say the least) Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre have no charisma and even less chemistry, are just there for show, as is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias (smartest man in the world? I sure hope not…). But Jeffrey Dean Morgan is cool in flashback as the doomed Comedian – a man who we see do some terrible, terrible things, but we still have a small kind of understanding of because he knows how shitty and hypocritical the world really is and acts accordingly. Billy Crudup (or at least Billy Crudup’s voice, straight out of the Mastercard commercials, and CGI-ified body…and package 😕 ) brings just the right mix of total detachment and ever-so-slight child-like innocence to the metaphysical, deity-like Dr. Manhattan (though I didn’t exactly wanna have his babies or anything, like Roger Ebert did…), so that you sympathize with his plight of growing more and more emotionally detached from the human race that he once inhabited, but no more (a human race that now uses he and his awesome abilities as a potential weapon against the Soviets, like any other nuke – a far-cry from the mild-mannered physicist he once was before the ‘accident’), embodying one of the comic’s key conundrums on what it means to be human during his self-imposed exile on Mars (one of the best parts of the graphic novel, and done nearly as beautifully in the film). But the real star, the showstopper, is Jackie Earle Haley as the paranoid, unhinged Rorshach. Complete with ever-shifting inkblot mask, trenchcoat and hat, and the same voice that Christian Bale used for his Batman in “The Dark Knight” with near-disastrous results, Haley as Rorshach is a monotone, emotionless near-psychopath with only the slightest hint of an understanding of the difference between right and wrong – brutally efficient in acts of violence and brutally cynical in his Travis Bickle-like observations of the world around him, he’s both our frighteningly subjective eyes and ears and narrator to the story, and, oddly enough, its comic relief. With a movie and story as bizarre, nearly nonsensical, and over-the-top as “Watchmen”, a performance as over-the-top as Jackie Earle Haley’s fits right in.
So, does “Watchmen” the movie live up to the holiest of holies for comic book geeks, “Watchmen” the graphic novel? Hell no. The comic is hailed as a landmark for a reason – a sprawling soap opera of so-called superheroes who (other than Dr. Manhattan) are really just neurotic schlubs in goofy costumes trying to hide their insecurities about themselves and the hopelessly shitty world around them. It had that semi-realism slant to it, but also some fascinating philosophical issues involving what gives one’s life meaning, what role, if any, love and compassion have in defining one’s purpose, the importance of the individual versus the importance of the masses, and just how far you can ethically go in securing peace and harmony – all lofty, headache-inducing stuff that belongs in a long and protracted medium that you can take as much time as you need to digest and consider – hey, whaddya know, a serialized graphic novel. With a boatload of special effects, some cool and some arbitrary, and just 2 3/4 hours, the makers of “Watchmen” the film can only hope to scratch the surface of the graphic novel’s depth. It’s as if Snyder felt obligated to copy panel after panel from the graphic novel perfectly to be as accurate an adaptation as possible (although, a key change is made in the film concerning the graphic novel’s big climax – a change which I’m sure will be controversial but I personally welcomed with open arms), but in copying images, the spirit behind those images gets a little lost in translation. Who knows, maybe this would’ve worked better as a 5-part miniseries or something, just to let such an abundance of characters and material breathe a little, in terms of both the overarching themes as well as the plot structure that goes back-and-forth through time, from the 1940s to 1985 – handled perfectly in the graphic novel, but a little confusing, though still fascinating, in the film. Still though, this is a great-looking movie with plenty a thrilling moment, and enough hints of depth and philosophical/psychological quandaries (chiefly involving Dr. Manhattan, Rorshach, and the real reason behind the nefarious plot to pick off ‘masks’ and endanger the world) to at least spur the uninitiated to seek out the graphic novel. “Watchmen” the movie is some action-packed, slightly thought-provoking, good old-fashioned fun – a far-cry from its deeply provocative source material, and a bit of a mess, but an awfully pretty and rockin’ mess.
The middle ground. The whole big stink that Brad Pitt’s Benjamin and Cate Blanchett’s Daisy make in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is about the middle ground: how a woman who ages normally and a man who ages backwards, born as an old man and destined to die as an infant, can meet up in the middle, the same age both chronologically and physically at least for a short while, so that they can enjoy that little bit of time together as a normal couple before things get really awkward again. They were looking for that middle ground in the thing called life, but I was looking for a different middle ground: the middle ground between different media, between literature and film. Before I saw this, David Fincher’s gazillion-dollar epic, I knocked off the great F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story in, oh, less than an hour. In short story and film, a man ages backwards. Other than that, there’s not a single similarity. I thought Fitzgerald’s short story was too simple, written too plainly and without flourish to be anything special or profound: like a throwaway story you tell your kids off the top of your head with the ‘this happened and then this happened and then this happened’ type of narrative. Very forgettable. Fincher’s movie, on the other hand? Boy, what a 180˚ turn: so much shit happening I couldn’t keep track. This ain’t the case of Benjamin Button, it’s every nook and cranny, every unfathomably extraordinary event of the life and times of Benjamin Button. Fincher, with his usual visual flourishes, and screenwriter Eric Roth, taking a cue from his previous handicapped-man-seeing-extraordinary-things saga “Forrest Gump,” try to turn Benjamin Button’s life into the most interesting life ever…nevermind the whole aging backwards thing, ‘cuz we need some world traveling and naval battles to spice that up a little. Fitzgerald’s story was too simple, and Fincher’s film is too convoluted, filled with too much…stuff. So where’s the middle ground?
It tells you something when a movie is over two and a half hours long, and it’s too short. The overriding key to the narrative is supposed to be the love between Benjamin and Daisy that transcends time, distance, and reverse-aging, but damned if that was able to shine through the various and extraordinary events of Benjamin’s life. There was little if any narrative flow, it was just a series of completely separate vignettes showing this odd event in Benjamin’s life or another. You know, I have the striking feeling that this just would’ve worked better as a TV miniseries rather than as a movie that tried to piece these episodes together halfheartedly. Hell, all the separate stories are the ideal candidates for the perfect episodic miniseries formula. Here’s the episode when a young Benjamin with the body of a seventy-year-old man is raised by his adoptive African American mother in an old-folks home and then visits the brothel in slummy New Orleans. Here’s the episode when Benjamin has the affair with the British spy’s wife in Russia. Here’s the episode when Benjamin and his merry band of sailors go to war. Here’s the completely inexplicable episode where Benjamin, his narrative even more jarring than usual, explaining how coincidence after coincidence led to a tragic accident…a bizarre and unnecessary, albeit visually cool, scene practically lifted right out of “Magnolia.” And here’s the episode when Benjamin and Daisy reach that all-important middle ground and settle down. There’s barely a connection between these stories that justifies cramming them all into a single movie. I mean hell, at least Forrest had Jenny to think about as he was wading through the marshes of Vietnam or running cross-country ‘cuz he felt like running. “Forrest Gump” is an overrated bore of a movie, but at least it had that innocent, child-like bond between simple-minded man and his girl to weave separate, extraordinary events together. That’s almost nonexistent in “Benjamin Button.” You don’t get the sense that Benjamin’s thinking about Daisy back home while he’s at sea in that shitty little tugboat or carrying on that affair with Tilda Swinton, or unknowingly having a drink with the father who abandoned him years before. They’re just disjointed episodes, spectacles for the sake of being spectacles, each with a different tone and presentation that just about makes the movie as a whole an aimless mess of a story that happens to look really, really great. Over the course of two and a half hours we’re watching a man slowly make his way towards the infancy that every other human has the luxury of getting out of the way right out of the womb, but I wanted to see the motivation, the reasons behind the extraordinary things Benjamin sees and does, rather than just those events themselves.
But maybe I’m way off. Maybe David Fincher wanted to create a fable, a parable, a fairy tale on a scale above and beyond F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. Maybe that’s why a lot of Benjamin’s early life (lived in old age) is portrayed as spectacle, with the special effects of naval battles and that signature unreal lighting you’d expect from Fincher. It’s the same production value that elevated “Zodiac” above the traditional police procedural, made “Fight Club” the subversive bible for the A.D.D. sufferer, and made “Se7en” a moody neo-noir minor masterpiece. Fincher’s tradition of atmospheric lighting, shadow, and darkish tint are all here, and some of it looks great. 1920s and ‘30s New Orleans, though dark aesthetically, is bristling with life. The film’s opening story about the construction of a backwards-ticking clock by a grief-stricken clock maker is shot strikingly, almost like a colorized silent film. From the set design to the use of period music, you get a grasp of what decade it is as the story moves forward without being told. Daisy dancing ballet on-stage and later for Benjamin in the gazebo, as she becomes a silhouette before the bright lights, is stunning, as she, or at least the person Benjamin sees, becomes a thing of myth. A man aging backwards is mythic enough, I guess the expressionistic lighting and what-not are supposed to make Benjamin and Daisy kind of metaphoric, star-crossed lovers, and I gotta admit, the lead-up to their eventual union at that all-important middle ground, when Benjamin’s done with his whole geriatric James Bond / Indiana Jones phase, works. At last we can forget for a minute that this is supposed to be a fantasy epic and we can watch two normal people have a normal romance and courtship, and the way these two just fawn over each other is sweet. But of course things are destined to get awkward again once their roles reverse: Daisy gets old, Benjamin gets young. I’m assuming that I’m not exactly spoiling anything when I say that that’s the way things are gonna be, and it is sad, and downright tragic, seeing the beautiful Daisy grow old and we see Benjamin, once an old man with a child’s energy, become a child with dementia. It’s that sudden fall from grace into the tragic innocence of youth where Fitzgerald’s story started to succeed (too little, too late though), and Fincher’s film is also much more involving, and moving, in its second half.
A healthy young girl meets a young boy with the body of a seventy year old: separate in body, similar in spirit. She grows older, he grows younger while setting out to find himself (or something like that…) until they meet up in the middle and see that as their ticket to fulfill their every desire. Then, the process reverses: she grows old, he grows younger and younger to the point that a time will come when she’ll have to raise him as if he were a helpless child (a possibility they plan for while living together and starting a family in that middle period). But really, is that very far off from normal life? As Benjamin faces the prospect of becoming a tiny, helpless child with diminished mental capacity, is that not nearly the same as simply growing old and feeble with diminished mental capacity? Is the prospect of an elderly Daisy caring for a now-infant Benjamin so different from an elderly wife caring for an old and sick and senile husband? I really wish this movie touched more on that – how Benjamin’s condition is indeed extraordinary, but even with the backward aging and the many adventures he has, he’s not all different than any other person who must accept aging in whatever form, as well as changes in one’s self, the world, and the love of his or her life. He has a one-of-a-kind condition that’s extraordinary, but he’s still a human being with a human soul. Instead, David Fincher is biting off more than he can chew, with a story (or stories) that’s trying to be too grand in scope (case in point, the modern-day scenes in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina that just about exploits that terrible day), can be too Forrest Gump-ish here and there (the schmaltz, the little man drifting through huge, famous historical events, etc.), a production that can bombard our senses too much at times, and no performance that particularly stands out (Brad Pitt holds his own, but really, anything resembling a ‘great performance’ is just the work of a boatload of makeup and his face seamlessly superimposed onto a tiny, old body). The idea of a man aging backwards and falling in love is extraordinary enough. No need to give a movie with that basic premise the tell-tale signs of “epic” like a long run-time, globe-trotting, and CGI, because the groundwork for an emotional, philosophically fascinating story was in the middle ground all along.
Well, here it is. If you don’t count “King Kong” and its combination of lousy acting and occasional shot or two of the monkey, “The Thief of Bagdad” is the effects-soaked spectacle that began all effects-soaked spectacles. Alright, so maybe “King Kong” does still hold that illustrious (or dubious depending on your type of movie) title, but seven years later, “The Thief of Bagdad” went above and beyond the unrequieted love-laced metaphor and cheese factor of “King Kong,” throwing its chips all in and going for straight, mindless spectacle. It’s mindless, it’s cheesy, some of the effects are hideously outdated…but I liked it. Sure, to say that I’ve seen films that are “deeper” is the understatement of the 21st century, and the effects-soaked spectacles of today are garbage, but maybe it was the novelty of “The Thief of Bagdad” that drew me to it…like looking in an old, dusty textbook on film technique, to see how effects that were taken for granted even in the 1960s were done for the first time. But most of all, it doesn’t even try to be anything deep, not like King Kong’s heart-wrenching death throes atop the Empire State Building. It’s just a cheesy romance, a dastardly villain, and a young hero the kids will love who goes on a grand adventure. I’m not even gonna give my typical “it’s a bad movie, but it’s innovative and set a precedent, so I have to appreciate it” excuse. It is a good movie, because it’s the spectacle it set out to be, and it’s the mindless entertainment it set out to be…and the kids will love it, and who better to judge a fun little fantasy like the kids, right? Stupid kids, haha…
The story, and many of the performances, are terrible. John Justin as the usurped prince and June Duprez as the princess he falls head over heels for are nothing more than eye candy staring like sheep into the camera, talking in monotone. That’s the bad cheesy, but just about all the rest of the cheesiness is good. Conrad Veidt of “Casablanca” fame really seems to be enjoying himself while playing Jaffar, the Arabian equivalent of Snidely Whiplash, and 15 year old Sabu, as Abu the Thief, has all the energy as a hero that his counterpart the prince doesn’t. Just like the Michael Bay-ish blockbusters of today, “The Thief of Bagdad’s” plot is irrelevant – it’s just an excuse to get the prince out of the way and for Sabu to get shipwrecked and find the genie and get into wild adventures, and it’s table dressing to show off what in 1940 were mind-blowing special effects. Some of those effects, like some of the first use of blue-screen to show a grand city behind a crowd, or the now-age old perception trick to make the genie seem hundreds of feet taller than Abu, stand up pretty damn well. And the colors (and I wasn’t even aware color movies were around in 1940) are MAGNIFICENT. Other effects, like the princess’ man-child father riding a toy horse through the clouds or the genie flying (and suddenly turning into an action figure 😉 )…not so much. And that spider Abu fights on the giant web – was that plaster of paris covered in fur? 😕 – ain’t exactly Shelob from the Lord of the Rings movie. But even when this movie’s age spots are at their most prominent, there’s something endearing about all this. Something about Abu berating a genie a hundred times his size like it were his dog, or cautiously slinking through an ominous cave, or Conrad Veidt sleazing it up trying to seduce the princess, or a 2 mph carpet ride over a bluescreen Bagdad – something about all that that brings a goofy little smile to my face. It’s a time capsule, showing how a bevy of directors (another unfortunate legacy of “The Thief of Bagdad” on today’s blockbusters – special effect after special effect drowning out any relevancy the director might have as an auteur) tried to make something grand out of nothing (and with this shit screenplay, I really do mean nothing 😛 ). Where would today’s special effect powerhouses and the jaw-dropping blockbuster business be today without the lousy bluescreen and toy-spider-hanging-on-a-string and flying genie doll and huge-sets-made-out-of-styrofoam of “The Thief of Bagdad” (all you blockbuster haters / minimalist lovers, don’t answer that)? So why can’t I like such an empty, outdated effects-fest? Do I need an excuse? It’s fun to make fun of how outdated it is…it brings out the kid in me…the sets are pretty…some of it is genuinely exciting…Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola really like it, so I should too…I just like it, do I need a reason? Fuck you, get off me! 😆
Look at this picture of Bela Lugosi in his signature role. Study it well. And most importantly, get used to it, because once you delve into “Dracula,” you’re gonna be seeing that face, that facial expression (complete with the Mr. Spock cynical raised eyebrow), and that head taking up that much of the screen a lot. In this first official screen version of the Dracula tale (actually based more on the play than on Bram Stoker’s book), Tod Browning will lean on that face and the presence of that wily Hungarian Lugosi like a crutch, completely banking on the possibility that Lugosi has a kind of terrifying psychosexual aura that transcends a typical villainous performance. So is it there? I guess it is the first couple of times you see those hypnotically intense eyes staring you down, but after another 9 or 10 times, it gets stale. Actually, other than the outstanding beginning passages in castle Dracula, “stale” is the perfect word to describe “Dracula.”
Here’s some irony for you: “Nosferatu,” made 9 years before “Dracula” when cinema was really on its first legs, was essentially a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” because F.W. Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to the story and basically just changed the title and character names. Despite that, “Nosferatu” was and is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest horror film ever made. And nine years later comes the official “Dracula” film, and what’s the verdict? Well, it feels a lot like a rip-off of “Nosferatu,” the original rip-off. But first, the good – the element of “Dracula” that’s most similar to “Nosferatu,” and therefore the best, and that’s the opening section where real estate agent Renfield ventures to the ominous Transylvanian castle to do business with the Count. Plot-wise the two films are exactly the same here, all the way down to the agent in both films pricking his finger while eating, and the Count looking on ravenously. The dread of the townspeople is just as exaggerated and laughable as in the silent “Nosferatu,” but you get past that once you see what everyone’s shitting their pants over. The set design, and staging of the characters in it, of Dracula’s castle is magnificent. Entering the castle, Renfield is but a tiny blip, swallowed up by the massive and dark hallway, complete with that grand staircase and the cobwebs to make it all the more ominous. Bats can be seen and heard flying by the window, and cuts to rats, bats, and other vermin scuttling across the ground are frequent both here and in the Count’s coffin chamber, as if the awakening of he and his brides upset nature itself. Lugosi’s entrance is appropriately celebrated and famous, with his stiff movement and extremely inflected speech, his words like macabre poetry (“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!”). When he ascends those stairs and that poor sap Renfield can only look on in confused terror, the Count seems to glide rather than walk…and notice how he starts walking toward those cobwebs, camera cuts to Renfield, and then back to the Count, now behind the undisturbed cobwebs. It’s all very subtle stuff pulled off with grace by both Lugosi and Browning.
And then there’s those eyes. The first time we see Lugosi’s face up-close, shadows conceal his lower face, with his eyes, wide and terrifying, bathed in light. It’s a startling shot that grabs Renfield, and grabs us. It’s a testament to Browning’s outstanding use of lighting and shadows in an already ominous setting, maximizing the dread as Renfield becomes a small and cowering figure in the midst of the dark and unusually large castle, and the tall and confident Count Dracula. This is horror-expressionism at its finest (it’s just too bad that “Nosferatu” staked a claim to this exact territory nine years earlier 😛 ). It’s just a shame that that face is meant to be as deep as Lugosi’s performance will go. First time, it was startling. By the eight or ninth, I started chuckling, as Lugosi’s face of death just seemed to get more and more exaggerated. And it’s when that face starts repeating, once Dracula moves to jolly ol’ England, when the movie comes crashing down.
In Transylvania, Lugosi’s Dracula was a demigod in his macabre domain, as sinister as the castle around him. Once in England, though, he just takes a back seat as others sit around and share stories about the biology, physiology, psychology, and consumer spending habits of the vampire. Van Helsing’s there to lecture us on stuff we can pretty much pick up from what the movie shows us anyway, Mina’s the helpless, innocent victim, and John Harker’s her idiot Prince Valiant…all while a deranged, spider-eating Renfield (practically the one thing about the LONG England stretch of the film that was damn-near interesting) frequently interrupts their little closed-door meetings. And the best part is, they’re basically offering themselves up buffet-style while they sit around planning this and that, and Dracula, who I guess is supposed to be immortal and super-strong or something, can come in and feast on some good old’ O-Neg whenever he likes. Instead, we get a shitty-looking bat model hanging from a fishing line flying outside the window or, yes, shots of Lugosi’s intense-to-a-T face. What’s he waiting for, the salt and pepper shakers to give his prospective victims some seasoning first? And it doesn’t help matters that there’s no musical score. Believe it or not, having no music actually works in the Transylvania scenes, as the deafening silence around that shrew Renfield makes you that much more apprehensive that something’s lurking in the shadows, and as a result, the emergence of Dracula’s brides from the hallway and the Count himself from the window, all descending upon the fainted Renfield to no music, no sound, is actually really creepy. But cut back to England, where we basically have a parlor play that’s boring as all hell, and Tod Browning doesn’t even give us the courtesy of a score to take our mind off of the mind-numbing dialogue. When you’ve got zero musical score, glaring plot holes (one subplot in particular involving an undead Lucy, first victim of the Count, kidnapping children in the night, one that I would’ve loved to explore deeper, is unforgivably glossed over after one mere mention), and a huge chunk of time where plot progression is stopped dead, a horror movie becomes an exercise in looking at your watch.
The idea of a regal, hyper-sexual bloodsucking demon ingratiating himself in a huge, unsuspecting society is a frightening one, but in Browning’s film that idea falls flat. I want to be scared by a horror movie, but one extended scene of genuine tension at the beginning, followed by an hour of nothing ain’t gonna cut it. In “Nosferatu,” Count Orlok was one of the most terrifying creatures ever put on screen just by look alone – the shriveled physique, the two front fangs, those HUGE eyes and fingernails, that ethereal rise from the coffin. Just watching that…thing carry his coffin around gave me chills. Here, though, I’m sorry, but I’m just not as intimidated by a handsome, well-spoken Eastern European who hob-nobs it with England’s elite. There are moments where Lugosi is brilliant, especially when he is indeed the king of the castle, and others where he’s laughably over the top (as in his wide-eyed war of wills with Van Helsing, complete with forceful but mispronounced “Come HURR” 😆 …my apologies to any Hungarian who might be reading this). It’s an elegant and commanding performance in the expressionistic realm of Transylvania, but in England he’s woefully out of place. It’s funny, “Nosferatu” had all music and no dialogue, and was a brilliant bundle of tension with one of the most romantically surreal endings you’ll ever see, while “Dracula” has no music and a shitstorm of dialogue, and ends up collapsing within itself, complete with one of the most rushed and generic endings you’ll ever see. Sorry, that face that’s launched a thousand vampiric imitators is great and all, but I guess I just prefer a hideous bat-like, pointy-earred abomination of a face to get my vampire kicks.
Yeah, you’re supposed to be at the edge of your seat, concerned about Mina and her waning health as the Count, as a man, wolf, or bat might be right around the corner, but when all was said and done, all I could think about was how when the Count didn’t have a reflection in the mirror and somehow his tux also managed to vanish in that mirror. Obviously vampires have no reflection, but what about a vampire’s tuxedo? Does anything even touching a vampire not have a reflection? Was it a special Transylvania-brand tux that conforms to a busy vampire’s non-reflection needs? Did Tod Browning just get lazy? Of all the things to get bothered about with “Dracula,” this of all things bothered me the most, and boy is this a pointless way to end everything I have to say about the movie. But I just had to get it off my chest, it pissed me off that much 😆 .