Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Irony and Filmgoing

As someone who absolutely loves movies, I think there's nothing better than going to a film with an audience that loves it and is completely engrossed in it. Watching Star Wars: Attack of the Clones at a midnight screening was probably the best filmgoing experience I ever had, it wasn't the best film, but I never had more fun, or was so connected to a collective feeling during a screening. Before the film started, I over heard the people behind me talking coolly about the film, clearly not expecting too much. Anyway, the Yoda lightsaber scene hits, and the guy was practically hyperventilating just repeating "Oh shit" over and over again, the film had completely broken his ironic shell and hit him on some pure level and I was right there with him, just unquestioningly loving the film. Watching the film on your own, the flaws are more magnified, but in the context of a group that was there to love the film, it was just a sublime experience, everyone bought into the film and loved it.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum was when I went to see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. All throughout the movie this guy a couple of seats over was making sarcastic comments about the film, and towards the end, I had to tell him to shut up because it was just taking me out of the world of the film, and the guy questioned me, and I did not back down, and him and his girlfriend left. But still, to some degree it was difficult to get back into the film. Getting truly lost in a great film is a delicate process, and even one dumb comment can completely ruin a moment. I know whenever I watch Mulholland Drive, people always try to translate the Spanish lyrics in the Club Silencio sequence, completely missing the fact that the reason Lynch put the lyrics in Spanish was so that you would just feel the song rather than try to apply it to the narrative. It's probably the most powerful moment in the film, a superb confluence of audio and visual, but it's ruined if someone is talking. If you truly get lost in that scene, it's emotionally overwhelming, and I don't care what she's singing about.

I think we all hate the clueless filmgoer who is always asking questions about the plot, but there is a type of filmgoer I hate even more, and it's one I encounter a lot here at Wesleyan: the ironic filmgoer, who, no matter what film he/she goes to, he thinks of himself as above the material, looking down to occasionally chuckle at something that someone has put years of life and care into. Watching a film is like going into a cave, when you first enter, you can see everything pretty clearly, but as you go further into the cave, you don't see like you do in the outside world, you just see things in the light of the cave. This is what you do when you see a film, you move out of your world, and into the world of the film, where your vision and understanding of things is different. And thus, things that would seem ridiculous if you watched them out of context can be incredibly profound.

I think the best example of this is the singing sequence in Magnolia. Two hours into this film, Paul Thomas Anderson has all the characters start singing along to Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up,' which we first hear on the stereo of Claudia, but gradually moves out to all nine main characters. It's a moment that would be absoultely preposterous if you just watched it on its own, but in context, it's the most powerful moment in the film, and just kills me every time, because I love getting lost in the world of the film.

But, what about the 'ironic viewer'? This is someone who refuses to surrender himself to the power of the film, and instead keeps a critical distance, laughing at any sign of sincere emotion. So, this incredibly emotional scene would be treated with some laughs, and it would kill the moment. On his commentary for Amelie, Jean Pierre Jeunet talks about the scene at the end of the film where Amelie and Nino stare at each other in silence, and he says if someone laughed at this point, it would absoultely kill the film. This is what the ironic viewer does, laugh at sincere displays of emotion, or anything that could possibly be construed as funny.

Maybe these people enjoy the films, but I don't think they can enjoy it in the same way that someone who surrenders to the film does. See, I feel like these people are best suited to watching high brow comedies, where everything can be laughed at, even scenes with sincere emotional content.

See, I love movies that go over the top emotionally, and even if I don't love the film, I'm always going to give it the respect of not laughing at it. Now, you may say, how could this same person enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000? The difference is there you're looking to laugh at the film, when you go to the theater, and pay $10 to see the film, you want to enjoy it, not poke fun at it. Yes, some films are awful, but I try not to go to those, and even if I do, I try to focus on the positive.

I guess I differ from most people in the sense that the films I hate most are stupid comedies. I'd take any sort of sincere attempt to make a good film over something that is meant to just poke fun at stuff. I can love comedies, but usually they have some sort of dramatic character base for their riffing. Ghost World is a hilarious film, and is largely about viewing life ironically, but it examines this sort of worldview and engages the difficulties with it.

What really bothers me about the ironic viewer is that they make it difficult to really enjoy the film because for one, they take you out of the film with annoying laughter, and second, by taking you out of the film, make it impossible to reengage on an emotional level with the characters, and thus, you see things the way they do, distanced and looking for irony rather than sincerity. When watching films this is not the way to do things. Every film I watch I hope to love, and I'm going to try to give it the respect of not laughing at it.

What brought on this rant? It was watching Todd Solondz' Happiness, a film that refuses to break the critical distance between filmmaker and character, and instead views the characters as almost a freakshow, so that at any moment, you could be either engaging with the characters or laughing at them, and in a theater environment, I'd imagine there'd be a lot of laughter. Another film that does this, a film that is apalling and awful, and makes me question society's values yet again, is Napoleon Dynamite, a film that is basically there to let you laugh at these people for an hour and a half. Why would you want to do this, freakshows went out of style in the 1900s, and there's no reason to adapt this awful exploitation to film. I don't want a film I can laugh at and not care about, I want something that will stick with me long after, and take me on an emotional journey.

You know a film is successful when you accept more and more ridiculous things within it, such as in Magnolia, when the frogs appear. By this time, you're so far into the film, you just accept it as something that fits, and it's a sublime, powerful moment, one that you could either laugh at or be in awe of, and I choose to be in awe of it.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Batman Returns

I watched Batman Returns yesterday, because I'm going to write a paper on it for my class on action cinema. This is the film that is #8 on my Top 100 Films list, and even I sometimes wonder what the hell it's doing there, but then I watch the film and I'm once again dazzled by just how amazing it is. I've got a 15 page paper to do on the film, so I'll be covering it pretty in depth, but there's a surplus of material there, this is a film I feel like I could write a whole book on, just because it's so deep, and yet so entertaining on the surface at the same time. Watching it, I'm at once entertained on a really superficial level, looking at stuff blowing up, but there's also a lot of really strong character stuff in the film.

What makes this film stand out as one of the absolute greatest films of all time? One big thing is that I'm a huge fan of director Tim Burton, his visual style, his themes and his collaboration with composer Danny Elfman. And this film is the most Tim Burton of all his films, falling as the dark middle act of a thematic trilogy consisting of Edward Scissorhands, this film and The Nightmare Before Christmas. All deal with characters feeling alienated from a deeply conformist society, struggling to deal with their difference.

I love Edward Scissorhands, and this film serves as essentially a darker version of that story. Scissorhands is much simpler, this film has a lot of complexity with the relationship between Bruce and Selina. Selina Kyle/Catwoman is one of Burton's best characters, and just owns every moment she is on screen. The scene where she and Bruce Wayne are dancing and realize each other's secret identity is amazing, one of Burton's best scenes.

Visually, this film is just so over the top, you could watch it without dialogue, and just the visuals and music would be enough to make a great piece of cinema. The opening sequence is so over the top icy beautiful, and the whole finale with the penguins and the zoo blowing up is just ridiculous. Danny Elfman's score here is his best, and one of the absolute best in all of cinema. It's operatic and omnipresent, informing events. This is a film where the score is an integrated part of the storytelling rather than just being background, and that's where music belongs in film. This feels like a complete cinematic immersion, something that is achieved by very few other films. Just watching the final scenes, the music alone would make it awesome.

The visuals and music are so great, they almost overpower the really witty script. There are some awful lines ("Girl talk" and "eat floor" come to mind), but on the whole the dialogue is entertaining, and full of bizarre double entendres and outlandish jokes. The film does a great job of exploring issues of duality, basically destroying conventional ideas of good and bad, replacing them with a morally ambiguous film in which the only character who is unquestionably a villain is the normal guy.

This is a film I wish people would rediscover, looking at it not as a Batman film, the title character doesn't have the most screentime, or serve as the primary narrative catalyst, but rather look at it in the context of Burton's other films, and as an unconventional character study. Yes, much of the plot makes no sense and is left unresolved, but who really cares what happens with the power plant. This is a film that is all about characters and visual spectacle, and in that sense it's really an art film.

And I feel like this film makes the upcoming Batman Begins seem so irrelevant. There's no way Nolan can top this film, and in making a Spider-Man style blockbuster out of Batman, he'll just embrace the commodification of Hollywood that is preventing really personal films from being made. Batman Returns is so unique because it's one of the most personal blockbusters I've ever seen. You can sense Burton's involvement in every level of this project, and maybe that's why the film wasn't successful. To make a film that some people will really love, you're going to alienate others. But, I'd rather have a film that a few people absoultely love than one that everyone likes.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

What's wrong with Lost?

At the beginning of the TV year, I watched one new show, and that was Lost. It had a great premise, really strong critical buzz and was from JJ Abrams, creator of Alias, so I figured this would be quite the series, and the pilot certainly sold me on that. Really interesting characters, tons of interesting conflict, and the promise of more good stuff in the future. And, I really liked the show, it had its ups and downs, but I enjoyed each episode, but lately, I get the feeling more and more that what once seemed like it could be the next Buffy level series is just not going to make it, and here's why.

At this point, Lost is basically handicapped by its structure. For some inane reason, the producers decided to stick with having character flashbacks to the mainland long after these have outlived their usefulness. At the beginning, it was cool to see where each character came from, and they did a good job of setting up what this person brought to the island. And for character, the first flashback episode was interesting enough. However, at this point, the flashbacks are just a drain on screentime and a distraction from what's actually interesting on the show. In the most recent episode, we saw Jack preparing to get married, and having some issues with confidence. On the island, he is also having issues of confidence, but just being a parallel story does not mean that this flashback is worth including. In the end, it had no impact on the events of the episode, and didn't tell us anything important about Jack that we didn't already know.

I wouldn't have such a big problem with the flashbacks except for the fact that with such a big ensemble cast, it means that the screentime taken up by the pointless flashbacks precludes us from checking in with most of the characters on the island. In most episodes, about ten of the fourteen main characters actually appear, and only five or so have any sort of significant role. It's not that the cast is too big, it's that one third of the running time is taken up with things that have no bearing on the narrative. The occasional flashback episode can be great, as in the episode of Firefly where we see how Mal met his crew. This fills in backstory we didn't know before, while still telling a story that moves things along.

However, the pointlessness of these flashbacks comes to the fore because even as we learn more and more pointless minutiae about these characters' past, they still show no signs of changing in the present. The characters were all archetypal in some sense, just like in Buffy, but the problem here is the characters haven't moved beyond their one sentence description. No one has any depth or does anything unexpected, and all the chaacter dynamics are the exact same as from the first episode. There've been a ton of episodes where Kate/Sawyer/Jack have tension between them as they try to get something they want from Sawyer, but what happens in the past never seems to affect how they behave in the present. They go through the same dance over and over again, eventually Sawyer shows he's not all bad and helps them out, which Jack grudgingly accepts.

The only characters whose status quo has really changed is Jin and Sun. Now that they're split up, you'd think there'd be plenty of space for exploring how the characters are dealing with it, but they basically function exactly the same way, just apart now. I'd love to see Sun and someone get into a relationship, to see how that affects Jin.

That's one of the biggest problems with the show, no one gets into relationships that could cause tension. They get Sayid and Sharon together, but then kill off the primary obstacle to them being together, her brother Boone. I'd have loved to see that triangle play out, but instead the element of tension is removed. It's writing 101 that you should give your characters obstacles to overcome, and that's something that just isn't done on the show. Everyone has settled in on the island, with no evidence of psychological wear. Where's some Lord of the Flies style de-civilizing?

I think part of the problem is that between the flashbacks and arbitrary problems that arise every week, there's no room for character development. There doesn't need to be a crisis every week, just letting the characters stew, and seeing what tensions arise would make for a much more interesting show. There's so many issues that would arise being stranded on an island, and the only discussion about it is very brief and not in depth. I'd play up more romantic relationships, because that would lead to more character tension. When you're on an island, there's nowhere to hide from each other if something goes bad.

Ultimately, the show needs to upset the status quo more. The worst thing a show can do is settle into a routine, and that's what has happened at this point. There's no progress forward for the charcters, it's almost like a sitcom in that respect. A bunch of things can happen, but people don't change and on a long term series, that's the worst thing that can be.