Friday, November 11, 2005

Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the summer, and now that it's out on DVD, I've finally gotten around to seeing it. The film follows the lives of two teenagers who were molested by their little league coach ten years prior and are each struggling to deal with the ramifications of what they went through. The film's notable for its structure, which follows two completely different plot line until the very end of the film, when our two main characters finally meet and sort through their issues.

The opening sequence of the film, which contrasts the two boys' abuse experiences is really well done, with a nice use of voiceover to convey narrative information. I love the opening shot with Apple Jacks falling down onto young Neil's head, leaving trails of sugar in their wake as they bounce off his hair. Another really striking image is the UFO over Brian's house, an image that remains unexplained in the rest of the film. Either his whole family had a mass hallucination, or there really was a UFO there. But that UFO serves as a crucial character motivator later in the film, regardless of its reality. The scenes with Neil and the coach were getting close to painfully awkward. You know something bad is going to happen, and it's just a matter of waiting for things to go wrong with the relationship.

The twist that the film puts on the abuse scenario is the fact that Neil actually likes the coach and he never considers himself a victim. Even though his experience clearly caused massive psychological trauma and led to his destructive behavior patterns, Neil finds that he never was able to find someone who would make him feel the way that the coach did, though he is not reticent in seeking out that love.

In the present, the film splits into two parallel narrative tracks, following Neil and Brian seperately. The two stories have quite disparate tones, but I think they work well together, and in light of the finale, it's clear that the film needs both stories to have its full impact. Neil's story is the more serious and developed, following his journeys as a male prostitute. His best friend is Wendy, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, and I'm really glad to see that she's choosing challenging roles in her post-Buffy days. Of all the actors from the show, she's done the most quality work, between this and her all too brief turn on Six Feet Under. She's good here, but is firmly in a supporting role, used to show us more of Neil and help us understand him. I really like their discussion in front of the movie screen, the idea that they would want to watch a movie of their lives that ends with them standing in front of the screen is definitely something I could see myself saying.

Concurrently we follow a slightly goofier plot with Brian and his investigations into UFO culture. Now, we already know that he was not abducted by a UFO, that it's actually the coach, which changes the way that we view these scenes. Brian's arc is his struggle to finally face what happened to him, to clear away the mental blocks that he has built up around the experience. It was good to see Mary Lynn Raskjub, so brilliant on 24, getting some work. She's good here as someone who's quite delusional. If we are to use logic, it would imply that she too was abused, and has masked it behind this story about aliens, but at the same time, it's possible she is telling the truth and Brian sees her zeal as a way to avoid confronting his own issues. The scene where Avalyn comes on to him and he awkwardly rejects her is tough to watch because it's the first time we really witness the extent of the emotional trauma he has suffered.

About halfway through the film Neil heads off to New York and Brian meets up with Eric, Neil's friend. The scenes with Brian and Eric are some of the most fun in the film, as we see Eric gradually move Brian towards the point where he can resolve the issues he has surrounding the abuse experience. We get the sense that Eric is his first real friend, and through their relationship, he gains the courage to stand up to his father and more easily express his feelings. Even though the real torrent of emotion comes at the end of the film, it is his experiences with Eric that allow Brian to finally let go at the end.

In New York we see the at first glamourous life of Neil as a prostitue. The scene where he takes on a john with AIDS is disturbing and has you fearful for the character, who is so self destructive. He has a sheen of invulnerability and can just coast along without concern for the trouble he leaves in his wake and seeing the AIDS victim is like seeing his own future if he's not careful. This invulnerability is completely destroyed in the harrowing confrontation with the man from Brighton Beach who rapes and beat Neil, leaving him bloody and broken. It's a really disturbing scene, the first time that Neil completely loses control of a situation.

The ending of the film is great, as Neil finally acknowledges the damages his actions have done, particularly to Brian. Both Neil and the coach were responsible for what happened to Brian, and that's no an easy thing for Neil to admit. I love the camera move up at the end of the film leaving the two characters crying on the couch, with their pasts finally revealed, the harsh reality torn from the hazy construct of memory. The stories have been destroyed and with only the reality left, they have no choice but to cry, alone in a house that has moved on. Throw in some Sigur Ros and you've got a great ending for a film.

One of the film's greatest successes is its visual style. The camera captures some gorgeous images and the stylization in the memories is striking. Even though the abuse sequences are difficult to watch, they are filmed in a way that works to convey the impact of what is happening, and the restrictions required by the use of such young actors actually ends up helping to create a more stylish depiction of events. I really liked the look of the New York sequences, particularly the stylish bar where Neil 'works,' and also the early 90s goth punk stylings of Wendy and Eric. The music is great as well, with wonderful looping, ethereal guitars adding to the film's beautiful, dreamlike feel, with the Sigur Ros at the end a notable highlight. It's a dark film, but the music manages to make everything palatable, not diminishing the intensity of the impact, but rather placing the viewer in a state where it's acceptable.

Even though it's needed for the story, I think the film does suffer a bit from the divided structure. It's an episodic film and only the two main characters get significant development, the others are all there to serve the needs of the plot. Obviously it's difficult to create a lot of fully fleshed out characters in a 100 minute film, and these aren't grievous offenders on the exposition front, but I'd still have liked to get a bit more insight into what drove Wendy or Eric. Though I guess it's proper that we only see them in relation to Neil or Brian.

The other thing preventing me from fully embracing the film is that the subject matter is difficult. This is a film you respect more than really love, though perhaps like Irreversible, the impact of the violence will lessen on future viewings and it will be easier to watch and enjoy. On the first viewing it's sometimes difficult for me to survey the full impact of a film because I'm anxious about how the narrative will resolve itself, and that was the case here. There were a lot of scenes where the awkwardness made things a bit difficult to watch.

So, on the second viewing I'll make the final decree, but the first viewing definitely proves that this is a top notch film. It uses music and visuals to create a unique mood and supports them with a compelling narrative. A film can make up for a lot of sins if it leaves you with a great ending and that was certainly the case here, the final image was striking and the last scene a great catharsis. This is definitely one of the best films I've seen this year.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Belle & Sebastian: 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress'

A new Belle and Sebastian album is looming close on the horizon, and judging from the couple of new songs I heard at Across the Narrows, it's going to continue with the style they created on their previous album 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress.' Even though I love their early stuff, I'd say that DCW is by far their best album, one of those really special pieces of pop, where every song is brilliant and just listening to it really makes me smile, something that none of their previous albms, no matter how good, can do.

The album kicks off with 'Step into My Office Baby,' a fantastically cheesy song that consists of a series of offce work related double entendres, such as the chrous:

"We need to talk
Step into my office, baby
I’m going to give you the job
I’m pushing for a raise
I’ve been pushing now for days"

The lyrics are fun and playful in a way that none of their songs prior were, just going so far over the top you can't help but laugh, and the music backing it all is great as well, with a nice drum pattern and some cool backup vocal stuff on the middle "I'm a slave to work..." section.

After this great opening they segue into the title track, which is a bit darker, but nicely backed by a driving string line. I love the way that B&S work a lot of instruments into their songs. The strings make this song work. After that is the laid back "If She Wants Me," which has a great chorus and a nice happy, but resigned feel.

"Piazza New York Catcher" is more in line with their early stuff, a song where the lyrics are the main focus, and are backed by acoustic guitar work. It's a funny song, with the great line, "Piazza New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay," one of those really witty things that they manage to work into their songs. I like the fact that you can listen a B&S song either as a great musical piece, or if you single out the lyrics, most of their songs tell an interesting story.

On this album they've embraced a 60s pop feel. Some of their EP stuff flirts with it, like Dog on Wheels, but the closest predecessor to this is 'Legal Man,' with its 60s spy movie feel. 'Asleep on a Sunbeam' definitely has the hippie pop feel, with one of the few vocal contributions from Isobel.

Next up is one of the album's best tracks, a near perfect pop track, 'I'm a Cuckoo.' It's not a particularly retro feel here, it's just an upbeat, well constructed song. I love before the chorus when Stuart has a long line of words to fit into a small space, and the instrumental section after the end of each chorus is great as well. It's a joy to listen to.

Next up is 'You Don't Send Me,' another strong track, followed by 'Wrapped Up in Books,' which I love. The ascending scales after the title lyric are great. 'Lord Anthony' follows, which is the most old style B&S track on the album, but it really works here. I love the story of the song and the light instrumentation. The lyrics have a very unique flow, constructing sentences in a way different from virtually any other band I've come across. The highlight here is the end of the track.

My second favorite song from the album is 'If You Find Yourself Caught in Love,' which is so over the top joyous it's unbelievable. The lyrics here are great, twisting the typical "I'm alone and sad" emo thing into a really upbeat happy anthemic song. The 60s style echo backing vocals are great, and for such a poppy song, the lyrics are interesting as well. So, check this one out, it's genius.

It's followed by Roy Walker which is also retro feeling, but a bit more country. It's another great track, with the questing chorus and excellent horns throughout. And the album ends with its best song, "Stay Loose." Here they move from 60s style to 80s style, with some keyboards and vocal distortion. It's unlike any song they've done and is one of those great album closing tracks that hints at the potential of what the band could be. I love everything about this song, the way the band enters on the chorus, and best of all, the great guitar soloes at the middle and end of the track. It's one of those songs where you just don't want it to end.

There's really not a bad song on this album, and there's some extraordinary ones. I love the blend of poppy sound and structure with the really complex, interesting lyrics, and the full, varied instrumental backing. Busting out strings and horns is always great, and it really works well here to create some fantastic songs. While I love their other albums, this new incarnation of Belle and Sebastian is an improvement on the old.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Filming Original Works

I watched the first X-Men film a few days ago, inspired by my marathon journey through Claremont's X-Men run, and watching the film furthered a lot of what I've been thinking about recently in terms of filmmaking, most notably, the question of why someone would want to adapt another work into a film.

So, let's say it's 1987, the era of X-Men comics I reviewed in my last post. Chris Claremont has been writing the book for 120 issues, and you're given the task of making this into a film. Well the obvious place to start would be to look at what makes Claremont's work successful, what would make people want to follow this book for so long, and this is the long form character development. Claremont's writing is brilliant because of the way he gradually changes characters, and makes you feel like they're real people, living real lives, no matter what extraordinary events they come across, everything makes an impact on them and causes changes. However, Claremont's strength, the longform character development, just can't be done in a feature film, where story guides things instead of character. That's why an X-Men film can never be as strong as the comics, because it can't go into anywhere near the depth that the comics work does.

The X-Men film isn't bad, however it suffers from the same thing that mars numerous films based on other properties, namely a divide between telling the film's story and at the same needing to please the film's fans. In this case, that means that characters who have complex, developed arcs in the comics are reduced to caricature here. If you were doing an X-Men film in 1988, it would be impossible to make a satisfying Storm because she's a character constantly in flux. Post Claremont, she settled into a safe personality, and that's what's represented in the film. There's no sense of the conflicted, layered character from the comics, and Halle Berry's apalling accent doesn't help. Nor do lines like "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?" Similarly, Scott is reduced to a couple of character traits and Jean is just an object for Logan to be attracted to. They don't really serve the story, they're just there because you need to have some X-Men in the movie, however Storm, Jean and Cyclops add very little to the plot. If you were to write this film from scratch, there's no way you'd include these three deadweight characters, instead Wolverine would go after Rogue himself and confront Magneto one on one, backed by Xavier.

Similar problems occur in Serenity, where complex characters from the series are reduced to a few specific traits and shoehorned into easy goal-based arcs. For example, Kaylie wants to get together with Simon, she has some problems, and then she does. There's no complexity there, it's just a setup and knock 'em down, clean and simple. Compare that to the more complex courtship they had in the series.

Now, you may say that these films are based on long form works and are the exception rather than the rule. However, in adapting novels you run into the same problems. A book usually has too much material for a film, so you have to streamline things, cut out parts and give the characters simple, easy arcs, and still, people will say that the book was better than the movie.

Take something like From Hell, it's a decent film, but it's a completely different thing than the book. The book reveals who the killer is in the second chatper, and then is about exploring what drives someone to kill, and what the consequences of his actions are on his mental state. The film is a whodunit, for which the climax is the revelation of the killer. It's a completely different story, but with just enough of the book to make you annoyed about the copious amounts of brilliant material that got left out. From Hell the book is so well structured to fit into the comics medium, a deep, challenging, intellectual work that is perfect in and of itself.

So, the question arises, if adapting a work is so problematic, why is almost every film coming out based on a pre-existing property? The obvious answer is money. Studios want something that audiences will already be familiar with, because that means all they have to tell people is when it comes out. The audience will already know whether they want to go or not.

However, what reallly bothers me is why, as a filmmaker, you would want to adapt another work? This question gets to a core issue about film that bothers me to no end and that's the fact that even people working in it see it as somehow an inferior medium to the written word, which is so wrong I can't even say. Film is the ultimate medium, combining the best elements of prose, theater, music and painting, and when applied properly, the medium can touch you emotionally in a way that no others can.

Now, when I approach a film, I don't see writing, directing and editing as three seperate processes. They're all intertwined in creating the film. When I'm writing a movie, I'm transcribing the film that's already in my head, and when I'm shooting I'm trying to match that. So, I see the writing as an essential part of the filmmaking process, I wouldn't write a film and not direct it, or direct a film I didn't write, because the two are so intertwined.

Similarly, I would be very hesitant to do a story I didn't come up with. I don't understand why it's acceptable to adapt a work from another medium into a film. For one, it's constricting and rarely produces a truly great film. But it's also this implication that so called 'literary' work is better than 'the movies.' If someone was to write a novel version of Magnolia, do you think the literary community would be calling it the best novel of the year? And yet every year at the Academy Awards, you see films based on novels being acclaimed as the best of the year. It's ridiculous, I want films that bring something new to the world, something unique to the director's vision, you should be in film because you have ideas and a desire to say something, not just because you're able to read a book.

Am I saying that films based on other works shouldn't be honored? The vast majority of films I love are original works, but some like Ghost World or Batman Returns are based on existing properties. In his latter days, Kubrick worked from pre-existing properties as well. But, what Ghost World did was function more as an additional story in the universe, rather than just an adaptation. And with Batman Returns and The Shining, they are both films that are clearly the product of an auteur, who chose the material specifically to put his stamp on it.

However, I still would prefer to see original material, specifically created for the screen. When you watch a Wong Kar-Wai film it's incredible the energy that it exudes, because he's actually a filmmaker rather than someone who writes and directs. What's the difference? WKW works out his films by shooting footage and then seeing what works. So, rather than essentially making the film with the script and then hoping that it works when acted, he makes the film in the filming. Similar methods are used on Irreversible and Elephant, films that are created in the process of their filming, with heavy improvisation, both from the actors and in the style of shooting. And all of these films feel unique and vital, they're stories that could only be told in the medium of cinema.

I guess that's what I'm getting at. The best works aren't just good stories, they're specifically tailored to their medium. That's why adaptations of Alan Moore's works inevitably fail, because he's so good at using that which is specific to the medium of comics, so the story is good, but it's really in the telling that the brilliance emerges. Someone else writes Watchmen, it's a solid revisionist superhero story, like Rising Stars, but Alan uses the medium itself so thoroughly that the work becomes something more.

And when you make a film off a book it's very tough to do that. Books are written based on internal narratives, and usually involve the characters' thoughts in some way. Films can't do that, so you can either end up with a voiceover, which seems forced and stagy, or copious exposition to get points across. Similarly, books usually aren't designed to be that visual, because you can't see what happens in them.

Film has so many unique capabilities, it's foolish to harness yourself to a medium that doesn't allow for these. I consider Magnolia a brilliant film because it uses the medium so well. The use of cutting to connect the characters is something uniquely filmic. He lets the images and music speak in a way that no other medium could do well. Magnolia is a great story, but because of how it's made, it transcends to one of the greatest works of fiction ever made.

So, in light of this, it always bothers me when I hear that someone's adapting a book for the screen. Did you become a director to tell someone else's stories? Is Ron Howard so passionate about the Da Vinci Code that he needed to film it, or is he someone who doesn't really have any stories left to tell and decided to look for something that would likely be popular? Similarly, why is Peter Jackson making a King Kong film? I know it's the movie that inspired him to become a director, but I'm not going to go out and do a comic book remake of The Invisibles, or film another Star Wars. What could doing that remake possibly acheive, the story has been told, and the ideas it has are already out there.

Remakes are the most creatively bankrupt exercise possible. Could you imagine someone saying I've decided to do a rewrite of Catcher in the Rye? "The first one was good, but it's been a while and we could use another version." That sounds ridiculous, and a film remake should sound just as ridiculous. Film is art, and you're not contributing anything by doing something that's already been said. Just because there's a precedent doesn't mean we should accept this behavior.

That's not to say that every story has to be completely original. Tarantino loved old Kung-Fu movies, but he didn't decide to remake 'Lady Snowblood,' instead he took what he loved from them, the feeling they gave him as a viewer, and distilled it into one film. It's the same thing that Morrison did with Flex Mentallo, rather than remaking silver age comics, he distilled the sense of wonder he felt reading them into the book. That's what gives us Star Wars and Indiana Jones, whereas the remake gives us Flash Gordon.

And it's only getting worse. Very few people can get away with writing an original screenplay, and most of the successful films are based on something else. I guess what we need is a revolution wherein the people who make films aren't ones who just know how to use a camera, they're people with stories to tell, who write, direct, shoot and edit their films, true filmmakers rather than an assembly line. Story is the most powerful tool and the fact that our most culturally important medium is getting hand me downs from books and comics is unacceptable. If you're a director who's adapting something else, maybe it's time you got out of the game and let people with stories to tell make their films.