Friday, June 03, 2005

70s Cinevisions: Velvet Goldmine and The Virgin Suicides

The 1970s are widely regarded as the best era of Hollywood cinema, an oasis of art and creativity before video and a culture of blockbusters, as well as expensive failures like Heaven's Gate doomed the auteur movement in Hollywood. This whole era is chronicled in the really interesting book, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, a really fun read. However, while the era is gone, it lingers on in the memory of cinema, notably in two films I recently watched, Velvet Goldmine and The Virgin Suicides.

Velvet Goldmine is a film by Todd Haynes, the genius behind Far From Heaven, Safe and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, all films which I've reviewed previously here on the blog. All three of these films have a lot of depth, and, while they've all got great emotional beats, it's really the intellectual content that's most impressive. Goldmine is different in that it's much more about creating the atmosphere of a time and place rather than developing character or emotional lines. The film is about Brian Slade, a David Bowie analogue, and the 70s glam rock scene that sprung up around him. The framing device for the film is that a one time glam rocker goes back to investigate Brian Slade's mysterious disappearance from the public eye, and in the process brings back memories of his own experience with the scene.

The film is really unique in that it isn't reliant on a traditional character or plot driven narrative. We get to know the characters, but the film story is told through mixed media, like music videos, news footage and dream sequences, with almost constant musical backing. So, we very rarely actually hear Brian speaking, and there's no attempt to explore his psychology or what drives him to dress glam. Instead, we just observe him putting on the show he put on for the world. I love this sort of filmmaking, which places a stress on music and visual rather than being strictly tied to the need to convey a narrative. You really get the feeling of the period, and understand why people were so drawn to the person. The film keeps you slightly separated from the character, which makes you relate more with Arthur, the audience point of view character, the fan of glam rock.

The music in the film is crucial, and I was a bit disappointed that there were no Bowie songs in the film. A quick bit of research reveals that Bowie did not approve of the script, and as a result, refused his songs. However, Haynes did a great job of assembling a soundtrack that sounds like Bowie's stuff and captures that 70s glam rock feeling, with assistance from many artists, including Thom Yorke of Radiohead. I hadn't heard the songs before, but I felt vaguely like I knew them, and that's probably what they were going for.

The film draws a lot from Citizen Kane, and is structured in the same way as that classic. There's a lot of little references to Kane, mostly the shots in the nightclub with Mandy and the guy in the wheelchair starting the story. I really liked the framing story, which actually provides most of the film's emotional impact. The story of Arthur might be an obvious one, but after watching an hour and a half of tribute to glam rock, to see him make the decision to go for it and become part of the scene is great. The framing device gives us the film's basic thesis, that glam rock was an escape from normality, and gave us a glimpse of a completely different, liberated world, a world that was destroyed with Reagan and the neocons in the 1980s. Brian Slade's reinvention is the proof of the fallen culture.

Visually, the film is extraordinary. The opening with a UFO flying through Victorian England is dazzling, and the reprise of the UFO with Curt and Brian later in the film is even better. I love the whitescreen video Brian does, as well as the concert sequences, particualrly the death of Glam Rock one.

The film draws a lot of its structure from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Besides the obvious similarities in subject matter, the mixed media style is almost identical. This film even plays out one scene with Barbie dolls, referencing that film. Ironically, Superstar is more effective at creating characters you sympathize with, despite the characters being plastic dolls. However, Superstar is intended more as a melodrama, while Goldmine is a celebration of a scene, and a more upbeat film.

I could see why people would dislike this movie, admittedly it is more style than what would usually be considered substance, but in this case, the substance is the style. The whole point of the film is to replicate the excess of the glam rock scene, hence the excess of filmmaking. I think a film can succeed in just creating visual moments, the story is sometimes secondary, and that's why this film works. I would say it's actually the best of Todd's features, though Superstar is still the best he's done overall. This guy is one of the best filmmakers working today, and everything he's done is inventive, unique and challenging.

Switching gears to something rather different, I also rewatched Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. It's one of the best debut films I've seen for someone who isn't coming into the business with experience in music videos or commercials. She crafts a completely coherent universe, full of melancholy. The film is about a group of teenage boys who are obsessed with the Lisbon sisters, five girls living in a very strict household.

The best thing about the film is its combination of visuals and music. The score is by Air, one of the best bands out there, their music is extremely moody, perfect for a film. Combined with the gorgeous shots of the town and Lux in the field, it creates an atmosphere and feeling that reaches the audience directly. The story could have been a fairly conventional teen film, it's in the filmmaking that this film is elevated to greatness. The film's score is primarily based around variations of "Playground Love," Air's best song. I'd love to see them do some more film scores, but to date, this is it.

The other musical choices are great as well. The "Magic Man" montage introducing Trip Fontaine sets off the best segment of the film. Trip's quest to woo Lux provides for some great moments, particularly the awkward TV watching scene, followed by the great kiss in the car. You can crack on Josh Hartnett all you want, but he's great in this film, making Trip simultaneously charming and clearly so self involved you wouldn't actually want to know him. The dance scene is great, and really the climax of the movie. I love the use of Styx's "Come Sail Away."

After that, the film sort of cools down, and just coasts out, but I don't mean that in a bad way. It lets you revel in the atmosphere, even though the plot doesn't develop that much. It's more about the boys (and by extension, the audience) viewing the girls and trying to understand them, rather than about the girls themselves. So, they've already become legends, and the suicide crystallizes this. The actual suicide scene doesn't seem as shocking as you might think it would be. Sofia doesn't film it in such a way that you should be surprised, it's just something that should happens and the film continues along in the odd kind of funk that has presided over the whole thing.

I love the closing minutes, with the gas mask party and final voiceovers about the girls' legend. The film doesn't really depend on any characters, despite some good performances, it's much more about a feeling, and in creating a feeling, the film is extremely successful. In her next film, Lost in Translation, Coppola again creates a really moody, not really narrative film, but that one has much stronger characters, and that's why I'd consider it a better movie. But, this is still a really great film, and between the two, I would say that Sofia has surpassed her father as a filmmaker already, and I can't wait to see her next, a film about Marie Antoinette.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Rest of the Summer...

Now that the last Star Wars film has been released, the major thing I've been looking forward to for years now is gone. But that doesn't mean that there isn't some cool stuff coming up soon.

One week from today we've got the new season of Six Feet Under. It's been a while since I watched the show, I finished the fourth season back in September, but watching the trailer for the new season has me excited to see it. The people behind SFU make the most amazing trailers for the new seasons. The one for the fourth season was what made me watch the show in the first place. The trailer for this year was excellent as well, nicely showing the changes the characters have undergone over the course of the series, as they drive by past and future incarnations of themselves.

Judging from Yahoo's preview of the season, it looks like Billy is going to be playing a big part, which I'm happy about. Him and Brenda are my favorite characters on the show, and his interaction with the other characters always produces odd, uncomfortable moments. TV series need those characters that make people break out of their normal behavior patterns, because that's how deeper character traits are revealed.

This is the last season of Six Feet Under, and hopefully it'll be a satisfying ending. The past four seasons have been so great, I seriously doubt that Alan Ball and co. will screw things up, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what their final statement is.

I'm not really looking forward to any of the major movies coming out this summer. I'll definitely go see Batman Begins, War of the Worlds and some other stuff, but the slate is genuinely uninspiring. I guess it's more my changing film taste than a change in movie quality. Now, I look forward to the Holiday award movie season more than the summer blockbuster season. One film I do really want to see is Burton's Charlie and the Chocalate Factory. It looks like a return to the over the top visual style that has been on hold in his past two films. Plus, Johnny Depp is always entertaining.

Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears is another movie I do want to see, though I'm really not sure how good it will be. It seems to be along the lines of Bad Santa, which I did really like, but I don't really want to see a rehash of that. Plus, this one doesn't have Lauren "Fuck me Santa" Graham, who was essential to the success of the film. But it's Linklater, so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The other big summer release I'm most looking forward to is not even happening here, it's happening in Korea, where Chanwook Park's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance gets a release. Park is the master behind Oldboy and Lady Vengeance is the finale of his 'Vengeance Trilogy.' Oldboy's one of the most well made films I've seen, and I can't wait to see his next. Even though I didn't like JSA or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as much as Oldboy, his films are always interesting because Park has such a great eye. He composes shots that are always interesting to watch, that's his greatest strength as a filmmaker.

I'm not sure if it's just because we get their best stuff, but it seems like the films coming out of Asia are much more concerned with being visually interesting than American films. In American movies, the story and characters are definitely priority and the visual is an afterthought, while the directors there seem to be much more visually motivated. Both are important, but I find the Asian approach much more interesting to watch. A film like WKW's 2046 uses the medium so much better than the most critically acclaimed films here, things like Million Dollar Baby. That was a good story, but it's utterly uninteresting from a filmmaking standpoint.

A lot of people seem to equate style with showiness, and the idea is that it must inherently detract from the story, but that's not the case. In the best films, the stylistic choices are beautiful on their own and also enhance the viewer's enjoyment of the story. I would point to Irreversible, a film that is so technically dazzling and calls a lot of attention to its style, but all in the service of immersing you in the emotional beats of the story. Million Dollar Baby makes you feel for the characters, while Irreversible makes you feel what the characters are feeling, and that's a huge difference.