Saturday, December 11, 2004

League of Extraordinary Gentemen Volume II

A couple of years ago, a movie was released entitled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, aka LXG. This movie was rather bad, with generic black trenchcoat, dark alley production design, zero character development, and a convoluted, and ultimately unsatisfying plot. However, the movie was based on a comic series by Alan Moore, one of the medium's greatest writers. League was not anywhere near his best work, but it was an extremely entertaining romp, that mined the pulp tradition in a way that recalls Indiana Jones or Warren Ellis' Planetary.

I liked the first volume of League, but it spent so much time setting up the premise and assembling the characters that it never quite made it to greatness. The second volume picks up pretty much where the first left off, and in the first issue, sets up the basic plot, that martians are invading England, and it's up to the League to stop them. However, rather than going for a huge, epic type confrontation with martians, Moore takes the focus off plot and puts it firmly on character. The three characters who get the most development are Mina, Quatermain and Mr. Hyde.

A lot of the stuff with Mina in this volume relates to her encounter with Dracula back in the book Dracula. In grabbing a pre-existing character, Moore is able to take full advantage of her backstory, through the reader's knowledge of it. I don't think there is ever specific reference to her encounters with a vampire, or that she was in Dracula, but by the context, it becomes pretty obvious. Mina and Quatermain had a really interesting relationship here. The scene where they're having sex and she asks him to bite her was so twisted, and the payoff with the reveal of her neck was genius. I love the fact that Moore is able to create a clearly flawed character and still have her be a hero. She's got a lot of issues, but that doesn't stop her from doing the right thing. The final panels are a really tough ending, and make you sympathize with Quatermain.

The other really interesting character here is Hyde. In the first volume, the focus was mainly on Jekyll, and his attempts to keep the monster in check. What happens here is much more interesting. Jekyll basically vanishes and we get much more character development on Hyde. He clearly is in love with Mina and that makes for a really interesting dynamic. It's almost a Spike/Buffy dynamic, where he's trying to do the right thing to please her, even she clearly has no attraction to him. But, this is played a bit more twisted than that. Before going off to fight the martians, he asks her for a kiss and to feel her breast, which I found hilarious. It was at once so tender a moment, and so clearly wrong what he's doing.

But, despite clear sympathy for the character, the violent streak is far from gone. Hyde's treatment of Griffin was brutal, incredibly wrong, yet perfect for the story. The irony of the very thing that Griffin did to the girls' school back in Volume I being done to him was great, and the reveal of Griffin's fate made for the most awkward dinner scene since Darth Vader and Han Solo ate at Cloud City. I love the moral ambiguity of what Hyde did. He thought he was acting in the right, and Moore at once sympathizes with it and clearly rejects it.

I love the fact that the volume was more character oriented. Very little was seen of the actual martians, they were only a device to explore the characters. It felt much more intimate than the first volume, and also more surreal. The Dr. Moreau stuff was extremely bizarre, and was perfectly illustrated. If I had one complaint, it would be that the first issue is basically indechipherable, and completely unrelated from what happens later on.

So, I'm hoping for a volume III soon. Considering the end of II, it would be very different from what's come before, but I have the feeling Moore knows what he's doing.

Related Posts
Promethea (2/22/2005)
Watchmen (12/8/2005)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Wong Kar-Wai

I watched the movie Fallen Angels yesterday, a film by Wong Kar-Wai, a brilliant director, who did the movies Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. Fallen Angels contains a story that was originally going to be the third part of Chungking Express, but instead was cut out, and put into its own movie, along with another story. The movie concerns a hitman and his partner, who is in love with him, even though she never says so, as well as a mute guy, who "re-opens" stores after they close for the night. It feels a lot like Chungking Express, in that there isn't an overarching plot, it's more just a bunch of events that happen, contributing to a feeling, rather than a story.

In this way, the film functions in a similar way to how David Lynch works. The emphasis isn't on constructing any sort of linear narrative, it's on moving through the film in a way that feels right, using techniques to convey character emotions. Wong Kar-Wai doesn't play with the narrative structure, like Lynch does in his third period, but he operates with a similar disregard for the strict logic of plot. Within the multiple stories in this film, and the stories in Chungking Express, there are a ton of emotional connections and parallel story elements. The expired pineapple reference is the most obvious, as well as the presence of the Midnight Express food stand from Chungking at the close of this film. Another major connecting element is Charlie's frequent references to a woman named Blondie, which recall the woman in the blond wig from Chungking Express, as well as the woman in the blond wig the hitman in this film takes up with. Thus, the situation of Charlie's jealousy of her blondie is paralleled with that of the partner's jealousy of the hitman's blond woman. Much like Magnolia, there a ton of parallels in the different stories.

Wong Kar-Wai makes great characters, but he's most notably a visual filmmaker. While I don't thlink everything in Fallen Angels hangs together, the movie is so beautiful that it doesn't really matter. Practically every shot seems perfectly composed, both from an aesthetic point of view and as a means of telling the story. The use of grainy black and white is striking, as is the incorporation of video. The video sequences provide some of the best emotional moments in the film. The use of distorted, wide-angle lenses makes for some phenomenal shots, notably at the end when the partner is sitting in a noodle bar, framedon the right, extremely close to the camera, as a brawl goes on in the distance on the left side of the frame. It's an amazing composition, and tells us everything we need to know about her.

The motorcyle sequences in the film were also brilliantly done. The sense of speed is perfectly conveyed, and Hong Kong looks very Blade Runneresque, a city of the future almost. The way the lights blur as the bike moves, but the characters stay perfectly still was genius. I also love the shooting in the bar scene, when the characters have a kind of blur about them, as if we're seeing them through a haze.

Wong's most successful movies are the ones where he has the most to work with visually. Days of Being Wild is a good movie, but it isn't great, because the settings just aren't as interesting, and the potential for interesting shots is not as large. The semi-sequel to Days, In the Mood for Love, is a much stronger movie, becuase Wong creates much more striking visuals. Clearly, he had massive growth as a filmmaker between Days and Chungking, and continued to grow, culminating in In the Mood for Love, which is absolutely gorgeous.

His next movie, 2046, is part sci-fi, part 60s, so I'm really looking forward to it. The stills I've seen have been extremely striking, with really interesting costumes and settings. In his best movies, Wong makes the setting into an extension of the characters, and this film seems to have the most interesting setting of any of his stuff yet.

Related Posts
2046: Screening with Wong Kar-Wai (6/16/2005)
Wong Kar-Wai Day (8/3/2005)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology

Yesterday I was talking about Before Sunset, and I feel the need to talk about it again, because it's both an amazing movie and a movie that means a lot to me personally. In 1995, a movie called Before Sunrise was released. It was about Jesse and Celine, two strangers who meet on a train, and spend a night wandering about Europe, talking about philosophy, society and many big issues. Nine years later, they meet again, and Before Sunset chronicles the eighty minute discussion they have after meeting each other.

The reason I saw Before Sunrise was because it was directed by Richard Linklater, who made School of Rock, but more importantly, he also made Waking Life, which is another of my favorite movies. Waking Life actually features an appearance from Jesse and Celine and their dialogue in the movie, about her idea that she is an old woman looking back on her life, is lifted from Before Sunrise. Waking Life had a nominal main character, but it was really, much like Linklater's debut film Slacker, a collection of short thoughts from a large variety of people. We don't stay on anyone too long, and each of them gets just enough time to give us a little speech on what they're interested in.

While it's tough to say which is the better film, because Waking Life has so much I love in it, the Before movies do something that no other Linklater movies does, and that's spend a lot of time developing the characters. I don't think either of the Before movies have the sheer variety of interesting concepts presented in Waking Life, but when the characters talk about something, it's a lot more interesting, because you know who these people are, and the experiences that they bring to the discussion.

The two most influential pieces of fiction I've ingested in the past couple of years, probably even since Star Wars, have been The Invisibles and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What Before Sunset does is combine the intellectual questioning and exploration of ideas and thoughts of The Invisibles with the emotional drama of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In doing so, Before Sunset represents where I'd like to be, and in a lot of ways where I am now.

Waking Life, for all its passion, is ultimately a movie of the brain. You watch it and your mind is challenged, but emotionally, it doesn't really hit you. Before Sunset is emotionally overwhelming. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Jesse is talking in the car, and we see Celine reach out to touch him, only to pull her hand back. We can see her longing, but she just can't quite make the connection.

The movie's primary emotional temperature is frustration. Both characters are frustrated with the fact that they want something more from life, they want to live out what their night in Vienna, in Sunrise, promised them, and no matter what they do, there'll always be the specter of that hanging over their heads, their younger, more romantic selves, the people they can never be again. Rewatching Sunrise after seeing Sunset, one exchange really stands out, and that's what Jesse says to get Celine off the train and into the city with him. He says "Alright, alright. Think of it like this. Um, uh, jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you're married. Only your marriage doesn't have that same energy that it used to have, you know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you've met in your life, and what might have happened if you'd picked up with one of them, right? Well, I'm one of those guys. That's me, you know. So think of this as time travel, from then, to now, uh, to find out what you're missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband, to find out that you're not missing out on anything. I'm just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you're really happy"

So, in Sunset, it is the fact that they did go to Vienna that leaves them thinking. Jesse is married, and it's not going well, and a large part of that is probably due to the fact that he can not fully commit himself to his wife as long as the idea of Celine remains in his memory. The years of separation only build up this legend of her in his mind, and the night becomes legendary. It's like she was his true love, and to accept his marriage would be settling for something less than what he really wants.

The end of Sunset has a great emotional payoff, and I feel like the last half of the movie really appeals to my Buffy sense, the interest in seeing characters explore angst. Buffy's was always a bit more epic than the stuff that Jesse and Celine go through, but it's the same basic principles. These characters have issues that develop for a while under the surface and then finally break out and have to be explored. If I had to compare Before Sunset to one Buffy episode, it would be Entropy, where not too much happens, but the characters have fallings out and comings together just based on what has happened in previous episodes, and the revelation of things that they'd been feeling.

But, the thing that makes the Before movies unique from a more traditional romance movie is the high level of intellectual discussion that they engage in. Jesse and Celine, more notably in the first movie, engage in a lot of really interesting discussions on big issues. They talk about their place within the universe, within society and in relation to other people. I found the scenes in Sunset that focused on Jesse's feeling of inadaquecy because he's not out there changing the world very interesting. Jesse is the sort of person who clearly has all these grand notions, but finds it tough to put them into practice when he's stuck in the lifestyle neccesitated by his marriage. His interest in Buddhist concepts reminds me of discussions I've had with Jordan, and his feeling of wanting to do something huge and earth changing, but instead getting caught up in the frequently mundane nature of day to day life reminds me of myself sometimes. I love the contrast between Jesse of 1995, who holds all these romantic ideals, but keeps pushing them off, and the Jesse of 2004, who feels like time has past him by, and it's too late to change things. This contrast is made even more interesting at the end of Sunset, which is much more pure and romantic than the ending of Sunrise, despite the veneer of cynicism over the movie.

Richard Linklater is the most talky director of anyone working in film today, but his movies aren't talky in the same way that Kevin Smith's or Quentin Tarantino's are. His talk isn't about being cool, or dropping pop culture references it's truly about communication, the communication of ideas. Starting with Slacker, which is basically the camera following a bunch of people around, and listening to them tell someone what's important to them. In the very first scene of his filmmaking career, Linklater himself appears, talking about parallel universes, and the vast changes that little differences in someone's action could have on the universe. I've had the idea that a world exists for every single possible action we could take at any possible time, in which case there would be an infinite number of worlds, and it was really cool to hear a similar idea on screen with Linklater.

Waking Life makes explicit the thesis of all Linklater's work, which is that the most meaningful connection that people can make is in a discussion with someone else, when you reveal your ideas and inner self. The blond woman talks about it, how language can represent ideas and concepts that would have been impossible for primitive people to convey, and that it is in discussing indefinable concepts, like love, that we find meaning. In my own life, I've found this to be true. A lot of my best memories are just of talking, about the universe, anything, talking which wasn't about passing the time, but about really conveying some deeply held beliefs, and debating them with others.

That's one of the things that made The Invisibles so special to me. Not only did it create a bunch of new ideas in my head, but it also allowed me to discuss these new concepts with other people who had read the book. The Invisibles served as a base from which we could go off to discuss many other things.

When I first saw Waking Life, I loved it, but I saw it as a collection disparate scenes. On a second viewing, and after many great discussions, I realized that the film was about the act of communication through discussion, and thus, every single scene was in fact contributing to the central theme. Before Sunrise/Sunset takes this theme and plays it out on a more personal level. It's crucial to Linklater's world that Jesse and Celine's relationship is not based on the physical, that's not what made it special, it's the emotional connection that they cultivated through their discussion. They presented a deep part of themselves to each other, connecting in a way that just doesn't happen that much. Jesse says it in the coffee shop scene in Sunset, that you think you'll meet a lot of people you connect with it, but you only meet a couple, and that's why he regrets letting Celine go. Sunset is only talk, the setting doesn't matter, they barely even touch each other, it's all about meeting on a mental level, with real dialogue, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. That's what this film is about and it's what all of Linklater's best films are about, the meeting of minds to convey ideas.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Writing People

I'm working on a movie right now, which I'll be making over winter break, only two weeks away. So, in the past week or so, I've been writing a bunch of script. I love writing script, in some respects even more than the process of actually filming, becuase you're not really held down to any rules. Actually filming can be great, but it can also be pretty annoying. That's the part of the process that in many ways feels the least like art. You have to deal with so many differnet issues, technical things, time constraints, working with people, and also the constraints of reality. When you're writing a script, if the image is in your head, it doesn't take that much to get it on the page. However, getting from script to reality is extremely tough. Even for Hollywood people, with millions of dollars at their disposal, the reality of the thing can never match the vision in your head, and as someone who doesn't really have any budget, that's doubly true.

However, the coolest thing about writing script is when you really know the characters, and can speak through them essentially. For this project, Jordan and I split the writing, and it's pretty amazing, because when I compare the stuff I wrote with the stuff he wrote, the people talk exactly the same. We both know how the characters function well enough that we can replicate their speech patterns. When you're writing dialogue, it's a lot like what is stereotypically associated with acting, the idea that you have to get into character, and find out "what's my motivation?" In some movies, there's a tendency to make every single line important to the plot, and I don't like that. I think you can reveal character traits through dialogue without having them actually talk about something that's essential to the plot. Seeing someone's opinion of current events or pop culture can tell you a lot about them. I love a really well done pop culture reference in a script, but most are really bad. Having someone say "Luke, I am your father" into a fan for the twelfth time isn't funny anymore, but if you have people talk about Star Wars in a way that actually says something about their character, more than the fact that they like Star Wars, then you've done your job. The Trio in Buffy were really defined by their love of pop culture, and the trivilaity of their discussions is brilliantly juxtaposed against the very real evil of their actions.

There's something very magical about summoning a character out of nothing, and turning him/her into a full fledged being. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have talked about this, the idea that creating fiction is making something out of nothing, and is thus a magical act. The Invisibles was designed as a sigil, to come out of the fiction and into our reality, and while I'm not at that level yet, just to create a fully functioning fictional world, and make people interact in it is very cool. It's really tough to write something where you don't know the people. You have to understand the character's motivations, their internal selves, and the front they present to the world, and then you can write them well. Every character has a piece of yourself in it, but if you can make a character speak completely different from yourself, and yet still be a coherent, consistent person, it's very cool.

I read an interview with one of the Buffy writers, where he said that he gave a line that was Willow's to Xander, and when reading the script Joss told him, "That line's a Willow," and that says a lot about how well defined those characters are. Everyone has a specific way they speak, and even on the page, it's completely unique. All the Buffy characters do have a similar way of speaking, but clearly, there are subtle differences between the way, say, Buffy and Willow talk. The Invisibles is really unique, becuase, despite being a comic, each of the characters has a differnet sound. Dane's dialogue is written in such a way that it sounds uniquely British, even though it's just words printed on a page. Similarly, both Fanny and King Mob have distinctive styles. It's difficult to write someone like Fanny without going into caricature, but I think Morrison pulls it off.

The best written movie, dialogue wise, of recent times, and possibly even all time, is Before Sunset. The movie is one 80 minute conversation, and it's absolutely riveting. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wrote a script that is a perfect example of how to craft dialogue that says a ton of things at once. In the first chunk of the movie, we see Jesse and Celine wandering around the city, making small talk, when clearly they want to talk in depth with each other, but just don't know how. Jesse at first doesn't mention his marriage, however, he goes on to say it's good. It's pretty basic, jokey discussion, but we know there's a lot more going on, and that's conveyed both through the performance and through the dialogue itself.

Then, in the second chunk of the movie, everything starts to unravel. The careful guarding of emotions from the first half breaks down, as each of the characters breaks down to some extent, and talks about how unfulfilled they are in life, largely because of the amazing night they shared together back in Before Sunrise. The dialogue perfectly captures the way real people talk, though perhaps with less likes and ums, and the two characters are so fully formed, we can discern exactly when they're hiding something, or telling a white lie. The movie has so many memorable exchanges, and through the dialogue, we find out not plot events, but discover fully realized characters. The end of the movie is a little more visual, becuase we've reached the point where we know these people so well, they don't even need to talk, just looking at each other speaks volumes. And, the two words that end the movie say so much. The movie uses talk to both shield emotions and to reveal them. Linklater is the master of dialogue, as seen by his Waking Life, Slacker or this movie's predecessor, Before Sunrise, but in Sunset, he takes everything to a new level, and incorporates a really strong emotional story with the dialogue, making for one of the best movies ever made.

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)