Saturday, October 22, 2005

American Beauty and Six Feet Under: The World of Alan Ball

A couple of days ago I rewatched American Beauty for the first time since seeing the end of Six Feet Under. Before I go on, this article's going to go into stuff from the end of Six Feet Under, so if you haven't seen the whole series, don't read it.

But if you have seen the series, you've come to the right place. The thing that Six Feet Under and American Beauty have in common is the fact that both are works by Alan Ball, he wrote American Beauty and created/wrote/directed SFU. American Beauty is one of the rare films where I'd consider it as much a product of the writer as the director. I suppose that's mostly because Ball went on to make SFU, while Mendes has only done one film since, and it wasn't particularly thematically connected to American Beauty, whereas SFU has a lot of commonalities with American Beauty.

First off a bit about the film itself, this is a movie I've loved from the first time I saw it. It's probably the best film to ever receive the best picture Oscar, and the only best picture winner in the past ten years that was truly a great film. It's a film that some people find depressing, but is exhilirating to me. It's a movie that covers a lot of the themes present in my work, the need to stop messing around in a routine and start doing what you really want to do.

The film tells the story of a guy who starts living life how he wants to instead of how he's supposed to, and ultimately he dies, the implication being that society will not tolerate people who so blatantly flaunt its rules. If you compare Lester's arc to Nate's, there's a lot of interesting parallels, and also a lot of insight into the difference between the differences in story construction between film and television.

Both me follow the same basic arc. Numbed by the difficulties of family life and work, they find a female muse who reignites in them something that was lost, and pursue her, until they're struck down and suddenly killed. However, the morality of their actions are presented in opposite ways. The entire movie glorifies Lester's new outlook on life, whereas Nate's actions are presented as troubling at least, morally unforgivable at worst. I seriously doubt it's coincidence that his AVM strikes immediately after having sex with Maggie.

So, why is Lester a hero for what he does, while Nate is bad? A lot of it is in the fact that this is a pattern for Nate. Lester is someone who's been trapped in this life for years and just accepted it, whereas we'd already seen Nate struggle to adjust to married life. During the Lisa arc in year three, the implication was that Nate couldn't adjust to married life because he was in love with Brenda, and it was that sense of missed opportunity that stopped him from being happy. So, let's imagine that Lisa hadn't died and Nate had stuck with her for twenty years, growing more and more numb. Then, we could probably sympathize with Nate shirking responsibility in favor of getting what he wants.

However, the narrative of Six Feet Under seemed to be leading us towards a happy romantic resolution for Nate and Brenda. When Nate has sex with Maggie, it devestates the audience because it means that Nate doesn't live up to our expectations for the kind of man he should be. It's the same as when Brenda goes on her sexual journey in season two, she's pushing Nate away, except that Lisa's pregnancy takes away from us blaming her. At the end of season five Brenda is trying, and has overcome her demons. One of the most devestating images from the season is Brenda sitting alone in the Quaker church, while Nate and Maggie are at her apartment having sex. That really got to me, she was giving everything she had to Nate and he was behaving inexcusably.

But, is what Nate did really that different than what Lester did? Both of them saw a woman who would make them believe they were something they weren't. For Lester, Angela's youth and beauty would allow him to tap into an energy that he's long since lost. He saw her as someone with all the fire that Caroline has lost through the years.

For Nate, Maggie would allow him to recapture some of the idealism of his youth. Nate is someone who's spiritual, and I would imagine back in Seattle he was involved with all kinds of New Age and Buddhist stuff. Maggie, and her Quaker faith, would put him back in touch with this spirituality, and make him a part of something bigger than himself. As Brenda says, Nate wanted someone who could make him seem like a better man than he is. This came at a time when he was beginning to realize that Brenda wasn't what she used to be. She had lost some of the crazy fire that first attracted him to her. She grew out of the youthful restlessness that had dominated her life until her breakdown in season two, Nate never reached that breakdown point, he was always able to get by no matter what he did. In season three, Nate's little rebellions against Lisa could have eventually led to a breakdown, but he didn't reach that point until he slept with Maggie. That was the act that crossed the line, and he was appropriately punished.

Lester never actually crosses that line. When he's given the chance to have sex with Angela, the reality of who she is intrudes on the mental fantasy he has constructed for himself. The sexual temptress of his dreams turns out to be a virgin once her masks fall away. For Nate, Maggie was purity and goodness, an image that he destroys by having sex with her.

The joy of American Beauty is in watching Lester gleefullly trump societal taboos. It's basically a fantasy for people stuck in a routine, he tells off his boss, smokes pot when he wants, buys the car he wants and works a job so meaningless it becomes entertaining. He consciously chooses to live like he did when he was a teenager, and as a result is happier than he ever was before. In the entire Alan Ball-verse, Lester is the character who encounters the least problems, and in the time we see him, is almost always happy. He's able to accept death because he knows he's lived his life to the fullest, for Nate, death is something to fear, because he always feels like he's lost something by choosing to come back and work at the funeral home. He's lived the exact life he didn't want to lead, and that's what makes him forever restless.

Ball clearly supports Lester, but how does the work present the morality of Nate's actions? To my mind, Nate is a character with a fire for life and a constant desire to move forward and try to reach a utopian existence. This is the thing that keeps him forever moving forward, but it also prevents him from being happy in the moment. Lester is able to find joy in the little things, but Nate can never stop thinking about the big picture and the fact that on some level he considers his life a failure.

That's one of the most interesting things about Ball's work, the characters all have grand ambitions for their lives, but they're radically different. Nate has it all, but he can't stop wanting more, whereas his brother David wants is a normal life, family and kids. However, the fact that he is gay means that wanting this puts him into conflict with society. He has to struggle to get that which Nate takes for granted. Claire is more like Nate, she's always reaching for something more, yet she finds herself in danger when she takes a temp job at an office and finds herself getting increasingly drawn into the routine of office work. If she continued down that path, it's likely she would find it impossible to break out and return to her art. And then, what she abandoned would become a psychological cancer destroying her like missed opportunity ultimately destroyed Nate.

One of the other major themes the two works share is the characters' desire to be unique, as Angela says "There's nothing worse than being ordinary." This is the governing principle of Brenda and Claire's lives, even though they would never admit it, because to do so would imply that their uniqueness is a conscious effort rather than just how they are. Angela's situation is different from Brenda and Clarie's in that she sees being ordinary as blending into the background, whereas she always wants to be the center of attention. That's what grates her so much about Ricky being with Jane, he shows no interest in her, seeing through her glamourous mask to the inner beauty of Jane. Jane is a proto-Claire, with a similar attraction to slightly insane boys. She doesn't have that much depth though, I suppose her biggest act is her decision at the end of the film to abandon the pre-chosen societal path and go to New York with Ricky. Seeing what 'normal life' has turned her parents into, she decides that this isn't for her and instead chooses to run away and try something completely different.

Like Jane, Claire runs away to New York at the end, but because of the development that a series allows for, Claire has passed through that rebellious period and instead leaves for New York on good terms with her family. I like the fact that both Claire and Brenda, who were so obsessed with remaining unique, ultimately end up embracing traditional values, but doing it in their own way. So Brenda winds up with kids, and family has her top priority, but the family she's assembled is unique, I love the scene in the last episode with Olivier, Margaret, Billy and Brenda all gathered around Willa.

I think the ultimate rejection of the idea that being ordinary is so bad comes when Claire and Ted speak in the last episode. Claire pokes fun at Ted for his decidedly unhip musical tastes, to which Ted responds that being hip is a decidedly adolescent concern. He says he'll listen to what he likes and not care what anyone else thinks, as long as it makes him happy. So, Ted, even though he may be listening to what society tells him to, is actually following his own impulses more than Claire who struggles to remain above the mainstream, even though it alienates her.

There's a whole bunch of other parallels, but this is something to think about. Even though I love American Beauty, Six Feet Under is just so much deeper because of the time allowed to develop character. AB does so much in its running time, but Nate alone has richness enough to talk about for pages on end. Then again, American Beauty does have "Fuck me your majesty!" That makes up for something.

Ultimately, Alan Ball's work always touches on really interesting issues that no one else is talking about, issues of purpose in the modern world. I think he's one of the most talented and entertaining writers working today and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Creator Control: The Magnificent Ambersons and Claremont's X-Men

For class yesterday, we watched The Magnificent Ambersons and read a bunch of articles about it. Ambersons was Orson Welles' followup to Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest film ever made, and to this day, very few films have surpassed its awe inspiring cinematography. So, after dropping this film, Welles moved on to another ambitious project, an adaptation of the novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

If one were to just watch the film, it would probably seem bizarrely disjointed, with some flashes of greatness, but a general lack of narrative cohesion. As is, the film is something like David Lynch's Dune, a film with a lot of good stuff in it, but one that never quite comes together as a finished product. The way it is now, Ambersons has a lot of bits that don't make much sense, and character arcs that aren't properly laid out, as well as a very cheesy ending.

However, perhaps more interesting than the film itself is the tragedy behind its production. Welles shot and edited together a 130 minute cut of the film then went to Brazil to shoot another project, at which point disasterous preview screenings led executives to recut the film, bringing it down to 88 minutes, and losing roughly 50 minutes of Welles footage in the process. Welles claimed that the film was even better than Kane. Looking at what is intact, I'd doubt that, but I'd imagine it would have been another masterpiece.

At this time there was no market for deleted scenes or director's cuts, so the footage was burned to make more storage space, and with that, the original Magnificent Ambersons was destroyed. This incident is probably the most grievous example of the perils of working within the Hollywood system, without final cut on a project. Welles had no ownership of the project, and because Kane was a box office failure, he had little influence over its direction. There was nothing he could do to protect the film from the editing because the director had no rights under the classical Hollywood system. And this continued for the rest of Welles' career, he was unable to get funding for projects, and had to make to do with lower budgets and inferior facilities.

Film is, unfortunately, a medium where you need a lot of money to realize a vision. Even with the proliferation of really good CG stuff, a certain base amount of money is needed to get a project going. For all its other merits, the way that digital is democratizing the medium is something to be thankful for. David Lynch is now able to make films on his own schedule, with no studio influence. However, working from self financing, he's not able to get the budget needed to do some things. So, he couldn't make a Dune on his own, those sort of ideas still require studio money, and with the money comes the ceeding of control.

I guess what bothers me so much about the Welles thing is that the footage is just gone. Somebody burned it and with that a work of art is out of this world forever. It's such a transient medium, and with one bad choice, an entire historical record is destroyed, never to return again. What was so briefly in this world, seen by only a few people, is now lost in time. In 'film heaven,' this is one movie that I'd like to see.

But beyond this awful situation, what does the Welles situation tell us about the role of creators vis a vis their creations? There's so many potentially great stories that were never told because the money didn't come through, or personnel dropped out. This is particularly true in comics where Alan Moore's Big Numbers only made it to two issues, and will never be finished. I haven't read it, but I've heard about the table size outline of the character arcs and that makes me sad it will never happen. Similarly, the end of Neil Gaiman's run on Miracleman is locked in legal limbo, and will hopefully make it back in a few years when the lawsuit with McFarlane is settled.

But, the greatest victims of corporate interference are people who work within a corporate system, like old Hollywood or big two comics. Chris Claremont created the X-Men. I know Stan Lee technically made the concept, Len Wein technically made the 'all new, all different team,' but that doesn't matter, because Claremont was the one who made the X-Men we know today. He built characters who have generated billions in merchandising revenue and his stories paved the way for the two films, as well as the thousands of comics made involving the characters.

And from 1974 to about 1985, he had total control over the direction of the X-Men's story. At first it was only one book, then he added New Mutants, a book that was still tightly integrated with the narrative of the main book. However, as the book became more popular, he became subject to more editorial pressure, culminating in an expanding world for the characters, one that forced Claremont to adjust his plans. The most notable affront to his work was bringing Jean Grey back, thus nullifying much of the impact of the original Phoenix saga storyline.

In the 80s, Claremont became more subject to the whims of the editors, and he was forced to indulge in a number of crossovers to build sales. Generally speaking, he made these crossovers work creatively, but in this environment, he was losing control of the world that he built, and the fearful executives forced him to move the characters back towards a more identifiable status quo. Hence Magento returns to being a villain, nullifying years of interesting character development.

The greatest affront to Claremont occurred in 1991 when he was thrown off the book he wrote for fifteen years, with no chance to resolve the plot lines, just left with nothing. It's mind boggling to think that this guy who was solely responsible for making the book into the biggest seller in comics could be let go with barely any notice. Ever since he left, the books had a big decline creatively, at least until the Morrison run in 2001.

So, the lesson of Claremont's experience is have control of what you create. He worked for fifteen years, making countless characters, but when he was fired from the book, he was left with nothing. That's likely why he willingly returned ten years later, because the characters still meant something to him. I find it unbelievable that he'd willingly return to the people who had previously screwed him over, but I guess that sometimes money trumps principle. Not everyone can be Alan Moore when it comes to burning bridges.

If Claremont hadn't been fired, I wonder if he would have ever left the book, or if he'd now be entering his thirtieth year on the title. I think he would have found it difficult to shake things up as he did in the 80s, now that the company sees itself more as a media licensing firm than a storytelling entity in and of itself. His success was ultimately Claremont's undoing, it's what turned one cohesive title into fifteen, and saw legitimate characters turn into static archetypes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Work of Directors: First Impressions

Today I got the box set of the four new DVDs from the Work of Directors series, DVD collections that contain the music videos by a certain director. The original three (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham) have been some of my most played DVDs, and Gondry's in particular has some awe inspiring videos. And now there's four more. I've only had a chance to look at a couple of videos on each, but here's my thoughts on them.

From what I've seen so far, Mark Romanek seems to be the standout in the collection. He directed the film One Hour Photo, which was good, but his strength seems to be in his ability to change styles to adapt to whoever he's doing the video for. I'd already seen his video Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt, and it's one of the most emotionally affecting videos I've ever seen, very powerful images. For the first time, I watched No Doubt's Hella Good, a song I love, and it has a very cool video. It's washed out black and white with the band going around an abandoned ship. The oversaturation of the image maes for some striking visuals.

Then I checked out Jay-Z's 99 Problems, another video I'd seen before and loved. I love the rhythm in the editing, and the intercutting of still and moving shots, particularly in the breakdown sequence with all the dancers, as well as the Rick Rubin appearances. Next was Fiona Apple's Criminal. I knew the song, but not the video, and it's one of the best I've seen, capturing this porn vibe. Apple was apparently only nineteen when this was shot, and she looks a lot younger, the video plays on the idea of her as a sexually abused child, or at least a girl who's in a relationship with an older man. It's slightly disturbing, but the atmosphere of the video is so unique, I deeply respect it.

Next up was Stephane Sednaoui. I only watched two videos from him. First was U2's Discotheque. I love the song, but I'd never seen the video. U2's videos usually aren't that good, but this one was the exception. It takes place inside a disco ball and has all kinds of crazy imagery, vivid colors and a lot of quick cutting. It's very cool. I also watched The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Give It Away, which was ok, it's got some cool stuff, but was ultimately a bit too long.

I followed this up with one video from Jonathan Glazer. He's only got eight videos on the disk, and I've already seen most of them. I rewatched Radiohead's Karma Police, a very cool video for a great song. The way he builds the car into a living thing is great.

Then I rounded things out with Anton Corbijn. So far, I'm not a big fan of his. The video for U2's One wasn't too interesting, a bunch of black and white photography of the band dressed as women. It didn't capture the scope of the song. Then I watched the video for U2's Electrical Storm, which had the exact same visual style as One. He loves the slightly grainy black and white stuff. It's a great song, and there's some cool stuff in the video, but on the whole it's not that great. After that was Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence, which was a pretty cool video, but another one that was a bit too long for what it should have been.

So, on the whole these disks are pretty solid. No one's on the level of Gondry, but there's certainly a lot worth watching.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Mirrormask was a film I was really interested in seeing because it's made by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Gaiman wrote the incredible comic series, Sandman, one of my favorite pieces of fiction. It's a landmark work in the history of comics and is certainly the best comic ever made that's not by someone named Moore or Morrison. McKean did the covers for Sandman and also has done some incredible comics art himself, including the great book Cages.

The film is very similar to their previous works, but the change of medium makes this forgivable. It's often difficult for artists to make the transition to directing film. If you've got a crew, it's pretty easy to shoot a film, but a lot of people moving to film from other mediums end up shooting stuff like Sin City, very static, sticking closely to storyboards and not really using what's uniquely cinematic. It's difficult to say how much input Frank Miller had into the direction of Sin City, but the film adds very little that wasn't already in the comic, so even though I enjoyed the film, I didn't feel like there was a particular reason to make it, other than to just get the stories out to more people.

McKean does not direct like Miller did, the film he makes has a lot of moments that are uniquely cinematic, and he created a really interesting cinematic world and style. The opening sequence is really well put together. I loved the cutting and visual saturation of everything. You were drenched in visual excess and that was very cool to experience. I liked the subtle use of split screen when Helena was speaking with her mother. And even though I don't generally like circus stuff, this was really interesting to watch. The filmmaking makes you experience the feeling of the circus more than just sticking the camera in one place and letting the people perform would.

This movie falls firmly into what I call the '80s Fantasy' genre, which consists of a teen protagonist who lives a boring life expressing a desire for something different, at which point they're taken into a a fantasy realm, where they have a whole bunch of adventures and return home with a new appreciation for their everyday life. In making this film, Gaiman and McKean set out to create a Labyrinth for the 21st century, and the influence is obvious, right from the sock puppet business at the beginning. The entire narrative structure is the same as Labyrinth.

The surprising thing about this film was how compelling the real world sequences were. Normally the filmmakers are trying to get into the fantasy as quickly as possible, but there was a lot of really interesting emotional stuff going on here. I actually wouldn't have minded if the entire film focused on the real world problems because McKean was able to shoot those segments in a really interesting way. I loved the setting outside the apartment, with the vast landscape off in the distance. Emotionally, these scenes were very strong and I really felt for Helena, and the mix of guilt and fear she carries.

Even though I love Gaiman's writing, he's got a lot of things that bother me that constantly pop up in his work. His strongest stories are the ones that are dark and serious, when he does whimsical stuff, the work frequently seems like it thinks it's more clever than it actually is, and he frequently gets in the habit of throwing out a bunch of wacky concepts rather than focusing on the emotional development of the characters. Most of Sandman stayed in a dark, serious place, meaning that the pieces that were comedy, like Delerium, worked well because they were the exception. When it's all this goofy comedy, it just doesn't work.

Mirrormask has a plot that's very similar to Coraline, his young adult novel about a girl who wanders into an alternate dimension. Both works are good, but the restrictions of a young target audience seem to lead to the works holding something back. Mirrormask has a lot really dark, great stuff, but isn't there consistently enough to be a truly great film.

I wasn't a fan of the sock puppet thing at the opening, that seemed like something that had been done too much, Labyrinth pulled off something similar, but twenty years have passed, and it's not fresh any more. However, after that, there's very little of the bad Gaiman tics. The opening chunk of the film is some of his most grounded, realistic writing and it's emotionally affecting.

For me, the beginning and ending of the film are great, it just suffers a lot in the middle. My biggest problem with most films in the '80s Fantasy' genre is the fact that there's not quite enough story to make a film, so they always rely on having the main character running into some wacky stuff along the way, some hilarious episodes that will show off the visual skill of the filmmakers. There's always that point where the film's sort of adrift, where the person's in this new world, but isn't sure what to do and just wanders around meeting strange things. I enjoy non-narrative filmmaking, but the problem is the things the filmmakers come up with usually aren't clever or entertaining enough to justify their screentime.

And sadly that's the case here. The first time the Sphinxes appear, they're very cool, and the book stuff is pure Gaiman, but by the time they get to the Sphinx with the riddles, I just wasn't dazzled by this stuff anymore. The film was progressing forward slowly without any emotional development for Helena.

Also, this was the only point in the film where I felt the presence of the green screen. In later scenes, the effects were completely seamless, but when the story was weak, I was taken out of the world. However, throughout the film, the acting is top notch, particularly from Stephanie Leonidas. It can't have been easy acting in a greenscreen world, but she pulled it off in a really top notch performance.

I will say that even though I thought the exploring the world section hurt the film, it was beautiful and very cool to see the McKean style in a film. I liked the fact that all the masks made the characters look like McKean drawings come to life, and on the whole, the effects were seamless. It's astonishing that they pulled this off with a 4 million dollar budget.

So, the film was losing me, but once Helena gets captured by the queen, it all picks up and up until the end is really great. I loved the 'Close to You' sequence, the combination of music and visual was perfect, making a really surreal moment. I loved the design on the jack in the box things. Also, I really liked Helena's goth fabulous wardrobe at the end, I'm sure a lot of Gaiman's fans who see this movie will be appropriating the style, that is if they don't already have lace up leather gloves.

As the film ends, it implies that the entire middle section is a dream, and if you view it that way, the conflict at the end, between the two Helenas, is essentially Helena confronting her guilt over what she said to her mother. Earlier, she said that she wanted to live a normal life and when Anti-Helena steals her life, she sees what that normal life would consist of. As a circus performer, they all hold on to something essentially childlike, a view of the world as full of wonder, something that's reflected in her drawings. However, Anti-Helena tears the drawings down and rather than existing in the realm of imagination, she lives on a purely physical. She smokes, she 'snogs' with boys and dresses in a cliched rebel teen style.

So when she looks through the windows she sees her wish fulfilled, and realizes that it's not what she reallly wants. This life repulses her and makes her appreciative of what she does have. So, at the end she has to consciously reject this lifestyle, and reclaim the life she did have, except now she knows that this is actuallly what she wants. She doesn't need to grow up so fast.

I'm a little hazy on what happens at the end to allow Helena to reclaim her life, but I figure that's the dream breaking down, so it doesn't have to make that much sense. Basically, the world is subject to Helena's will, and when she demands her life back, she gets it. And at the end, she's backk at the circus, only happy now instead of unappreciative.

The ending of the film raises some issues. Is it right for Helena to shy away from the adult world, most notably her quite repulsed reaction to seeing herself 'snogging'? I take it to be more that Helena is rejecting this accelerated development. Rather than having meaningless physical relations, she would want a relationship that goes deeper and fires her imagination. The most troubling thing for her is the destruction of her art, and by extension of the person that she is. She really likes the life she has, and the guilt she has over what she told her mother plagues her throughout the film.

The other thing that was great throughout the movie was the music. Reading Cages, you could tell that McKean was a big fan of jazz, and this film has a great score that's a combination of jazz and electronica. I love the trumpets and clarinets, it really helps to build the mood of the film, and is totally integrated into the storytelling. It's one of the most unique film scores I've ever heard, and it worked perfectly here, with the 'Close to You' scene as a highlight.

So, the film concluded on a real high note, and was generally top notch. Gaiman and McKean certainly made no concessions to the studio, this is a very pure hit of their vision. The problem with it lies in the second act, which makes the film good, instead of great. Of course, on a second viewing, maybe I'll appreciate it more, but we'll have to wait on that. On the whole though, they were completely successful in making a 'Labyrinth for the 21st century,' and I would argue this film actually surpasses Labyrinth, though I do miss the Bowie presence. However, in most other respects this film surpasses it, and I think it's that rare film where the cliche is actually true, it's got something for the whole family to enjoy.