Friday, November 28, 2008


Australia is the kind of movie that makes you remember what movies can do, it’s the kind of movie that wraps you up in the story and creates more than just striking images, it creates incredible film moments. Most movies are about telling stories, they go through the beats of the story in a perfunctory way, playing out the script to its conclusion. Some movies spend a lot of time on the visuals, and create beautiful images. But, truly great filmmaking is about a lot more than capturing interesting images. It’s about combining those images with music, and the emotion you get from being engaged with the narrative to create something transcendent. Watching this film, I kind of knew most of the story beats, things proceed as you’d probably expect them to, but, like the best stories, it made me doubt that what I knew would happen would happen, making the moment that might seem objectively inevitable so powerful in the happening.

I love both Baz Lurhman’s previous films, but see flaws in them as well. Moulin Rouge is a really frustrating movie for me in some ways because there’s moments in there that are as amazing as anything in cinema, think the love song medley atop an elephant, which culminates in an utterly exhilarating, swirling 360 camera shot, or the harrowing “Come What May” finale. But, then there’s moments that are just awful, like some of the goofier stuff with the Bohemians, and the “Like a Virgin” sequence. Romeo and Juliet is equally full of brilliant moments, the scene where Juliet walks past the fish tank with angel wings on is one of the most memorable single images of film in the 90s, and I love the overwhelming neon crosses lurking in the background of seemingly every scene.

Australia scales back on some of the eccentricity of his previous films, and their hyperpop postmodern aesthetic. It feels in a lot of ways like a lost film from classical Hollywood, epic in scale and emotion in the way those films were. An epic romance between an initially stuck up society lady and a roguish, but charming man against the backdrop of war could just as easily summarize Gone With the Wind as it could this film. Most classical Hollywood films didn’t have the veneer of irony that lies over so much of our cinema, and culture in general, today. We can watch them and laugh at the overblown scores or overwrought acting, disparage the films instead of engaging with them. Admittedly, some of the films were just bad or overdone, but at its best, classical Hollywood managed to make films that created these exquisite emotional dramas and then played them to the hilt.

Think of Casablanca, a film that holds up today, and will forever. It’s such a perfect mix of personal drama and larger scale conflict, using the war to magnify the individual stories. Without the war, the Rick/Ilsa drama doesn’t mean as much, and without their relationship, the war story feels remote and intellectual, instead of emotional. The oncoming troops may be a real danger for all involved, but we feel that danger because of what it means to our heroes. One of the few films more recently that captures that feel is The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a film that features a similarly big score and emotional scale, the doomed lovers and the evil empire are the same, only the circumstances are different.

Australia manages to capture that same feel, with its blend of interpersonal romantic drama and larger scale conflicts, each accentuating the other. It’s not the most innovative or groundbreaking film that Baz has done, but it made feel so much for the characters, get so absorbed in the emotional moments, that’s why I loved it.

The film has two fairly distinct parts, the cattle drive section resolves itself in such a way that the movie could end there and be perfectly satisfactory. This sequence has a lot more in common with most classic Hollywood Westerns than most of today’s gunslinger driven Westerns. Driving cattle around, was always the big thing, with the conflict between the wild and civilization as the centerpiece. The film echoes the iconic opening and closing shots of The Searchers a number of times, with its positioning of Sarah in the door frame, looking out at her ranch. The traditional Western deals with a protagonist who is too wild for civilization, and spends his time on the outskirts, making new territory safe for the people in town. Hugh Jackman’s Drover fits this description pretty neatly, and as is typical, he meets with up a civilized woman, who he in turn brings into his world, liberating her from stuffy societal expectations, and freeing up to a new kind of experience.

Like a lot of old Hollywood stars, Nicole Kidman has a very specific star persona. She has taken on a wide variety of roles, but there’s always an essential coldness to her, and Baz plays on that cool here by starting her out as the very English ice queen, then gradually melting her through her relationship with The Drover. Nicole is widely known, but I don’t think she’s ever been a huge draw at the box office. A lot of people dislike her, and my favorite roles of hers do play on that image, particularly her work in The Hours and Dogville. There’s a lot of joy in watching Sarah learn to do these wild things, like try to herd cattle or try to console Nullah after his mother died because we want to see Nicole Kidman do the same things. How would Nicole Kidman talk to you if your mother died? She can’t express feelings, right? Well, the film plays with that, and lets us see her develop in the kind of person who can feel.

In this film, the conflict between the wild and civilization is incarnated in Nullah, the mixed race child. He is not at home in either world at the beginning, bound by Fletcher and societal rules that could get him taken away from home and sent to a mission. Over the course of the film, he embraces both sides of his personality, using the Aboriginal ‘magic’ to connect with his grandfather, and save the cattle from going over the cliff. That moment was one of the awe inspiring bits I’m talking about. We watch the cattle running wild, the horses teetering on the edge of the cliff, tension is huge, magnified by Flynn getting run over. It’s all building up to this lone kid standing on the edge of a cliff, hoping to hold back the horde, and then he does it. In film, it’s the build up where you really feel things. Even if the cattle ran over the edge, that would still be kind of an emotional release, you’d know what was going to happen. The tension is in uncertainty, in the cattle running at this kid as he grits his teeth and prays that he can stop them.

Another great setpiece is the entrance of Sarah, The Drover and the cattle into Darwin. It’s an epic scale scene, with hundreds of cattle running around. Normally, why would you care who gets the army’s beef contract, but the film makes you care. You’re caught up in this struggle, even if the villains are pretty one note evil guys, not unlike Moulin Rouge’s Duke. It’s the emotional engagement that matters, and as tension builds while The Drover is looking for a way to stop the cattle, you’re caught up in that moment.

I think a large part of the reason why I loved the movie, and why so many seem to have mixed opinions on it, is the film’s total lack of irony or distance. We’re so used to watching films that put emotions in quotations marks, that leave enough distance that if a scene doesn’t work, you can just say, well, you weren’t really supposed to care anyway. It’s safer to do that, if you shoot something that’s supposed to be bad, whether it be bad or good, you’ve succeeded. This film turns the emotion up to 11, and if you’re not engaged with the narrative, I’d imagine it would come off as cheesy. But, the more you risk, the greater the payoff. By trying for real emotion, the film will ether totally grab you and put you through the wringer, or leave you cold. I don’t need a film that everyone’s going to like, I’d rather have a film that some people will love and some will hate. I loved the film so much, I feel like everyone would love it, but I suppose it is just as possible that people would be bored, or react against it.

After the cattle stuff is over, we get the wonderful kissing in rain sequence. One of the things I love about all Baz’s films is that he really thinks in cinematic terms. The visuals are the characters’ emotions, flooding forth onto the screen. Then, there’s a bit of a Return of the King situation where we get what could very easily be an ending to the film, only to segue into some darker times, as everyone leaves Sarah behind, and the war comes to Australia. The war section of the film is even stronger than what came before, culminating in the film’s best setpiece, the bombing of Darwin/rescue of the children sequence.

Watching this sequence made me that a filmmaker can still get this kind of budget to not do a sequel or blockbuster action movie. It’s an idiosyncratic, singular vision, and Baz got the money he needed to realize it. It’s so rare that you get a big budget movie like this, and if the Oscars are worth nothing else, they’re worth it for making these movies financially viable. Without both the prestige and financial reward that Oscars bring, the studios would have no reason to fund a film like this.

The scene uses a lot of outright melodramatic techniques to engage you emotionally. There’s the lengthy period where the Drover believes that Sarah is dead, her belief that Nullah is dead, and of course the fact that there’s twenty helpless children endangered by evil enemy soldiers, and for a time, we’re led to believe they’re all dead. I just wanted them all to get back together, and be happy again, and I think that’s a testament to the film. This one passed all those intellectual filters, that feeing that movies shouldn’t just have a happy ending, I wanted everyone to be okay, and was riveted as they all struggled back together.

Visually, I love the way they made Darwin look, a post apocalyptic world set against an expanse of surreal orange sky, or the way the soldiers were faceless specters that arose out of smoke and disappeared back into it again. The rescue of the children was really well done, leading up to that most melodramatic of moments, Sarah waiting, hoping that Nullah will return even as everyone says she has to leave. She’s going to go, but the boat’s right there, how can she not see it? And then, Nullah starts to play “Over the Rainbow,” and it’s just totally heartrending. She hears it, the song crosses the sea, and she looks out to them and they’re there. This finally leads to the reunion, drawn out shots build the suspense, until finally we get the embrace and reunion we’ve been waiting for.

The story ends with a reconciliation of the wild and the civilized, of white and black. King George will take Nullah on walkabout, but he’s not going forever. George also says that this is “our land,” he’s accepted Sarah and The Drover, he knows that they love Nullah and respect his values. It’s a mysterious ending, the story will continue even though we’re not there to see it.

This is my favorite film of 2008 so far. It hit me on a deep emotional level, and felt so much more alive and urgent than most movies out there. You can see a joy in the storytelling, a love for the material and a total investment in the emotional world of the characters. That’s what great cinema is all about, and this is great cinema.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Star Wars: A New Hope

I’m rewatching “the trilogy” this weekend. I suppose future generations might think of Lord of the Rings, or perhaps even the prequels when saying the trilogy, but for me, there’s only one set of films that will forever be known by that name. I think it’s so hard to look at the Star Wars films as films, apart from the merchandising empire, and the troubled prequels and other spinoffs. I wrote about this a bit when I reviewed Empire last year, and I think the release of the Clone Wars film and animated show has only exacerbated a lot of the issues already out there.

Watching Star Wars this time, what jumped out at me was a couple of things. One was the astonishing production design. There’s so many iconic visuals from the film, the Darth Vader outfit, the stormtrooper outfits, the various ships. It’s easy to forget that all of these things didn’t just exist, somebody had to go through and design all this stuff. Lucas pioneered the concept of the lived in universe, and that’s really what you feel as the film begins. This is something that exists somewhere out there, and we’re just looking at it. Lucas had a documentary background, and this film does have a slightly edgier, more verite feel than the other films in the series. It’s got a carry over from 70s filmmaking, while the other films in the series feel more timeless.

That’s not just true of the visual style, the principles of the film are very much in tune with that 60s generation. I think part of the reason that these films are so much more successful than the prequels is that the conflicts of the prequels are very complex, and more ambiguous. The story of the prequels is about the gradual corruption from within of essentially good institutions. I think one of the most audacious things that Lucas did in the prequels is to make it clear that to some extent, the Jedi had become apparent, and were complicit in their own downfall. Obviously, that sort of genocide is never justified, but the Jedi largely bring it on themselves by trying to stifle all of Anakin’s emotions, and not evolving with the times. Anakin was prophesied to bring balance to the force, and that’s what he did.

What the Jedi in the prequels, and even Yoda in Empire and Jedi say is that you have to disconnect from your feelings to be a Jedi. Yoda doesn’t seem to understand why Luke would run after his friends, surely his training would take priority? What Luke does in Jedi is channel his emotions into fighting the Emperor and Vader, he’s not removed from the world, his friends are his strength, the rock that lets him pull Vader back from the brink and ultimately pave the way for a new kind of Jedi, one that’s less monastic, more integrated with the world.

The thing that frustrates me about the prequels is that the ideas are a lot more complex than those in the original trilogy, and when you talk about the films from an analytical point of view, they’re full of endless material for analysis. The issue is with the moment to moment to execution, and just one good script pass, and someone to tell Lucas to hold back on the CG and you’d have a trilogy of masterpieces. I think a large part of the problem is that Lucas sees things in big picture terms. He saw the prequels as something he had to do, to complete these vague outlines he had from years ago. It’s like building a house that’s architecturally incredible, but a total mess inside, so you can’t totally love it. I read once that if Revenge of the Sith was a foreign film, people would absolutely love it, and I really agree with that. Look at Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, the same kind of philosophical musings that Western critics loved in his other films were criticized when they actually heard them spoken aloud in English. I think it’s easier to give leeway to a foreign film because we assume that weird stuff is a cultural difference, and the dialogue in Clones or Sith would play a lot better with that in mind.

But, there’d still be the CG issue. I think one of the things that people who use a lot of CG in films forget is that the joy of special effects wasn’t just about telling the story, it was the spectacle on its own terms. There’s a reason George Melies was both a magician and a filmmaker, special effects should have that “how’d they do that” element, and on the original trilogy, that’s definitely there. Watching Jedi, I have no clue how they got so many ships flying around, watching the prequels, you know it’s just CG. I think CG can look totally photorealistic, and still take us out of the film on some level when we know that it can’t exist in the real world. When you’ve actually built something, it’s there and we believe it because it exists. With CG, it’s a lot trickier, and I think that leads to one of the key things that artists have to keep in mind in a new CG age, namely just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, sometimes limits help art.

Looking at the mishmash special edition cut of ANH that’s on DVD, the CG elements jump out as totally removed the rest of the film’s world. The incredible documentary realism of the film is broken when you’ve got a giant animated lizard walking around. That Jabba the Hutt scene is probably the worst offender, but those random CG critters in Mos Eisley take you right out of the film. Now, maybe that’s truer to Lucas’s original vision, but film is a medium where reality and vision have to meet in order to work. There’s a reason that totally invented universes frequently fail, it’s because the crazier you go in someone’s vision, the more difficult it can become for people to engage with it. The CG environments of the prequels feel inherently unknowable on some level, while we can all relate to the desert or snow or barren industrial corridors. In the end, film isn’t about throwing the images in your head onto the screen, it’s about working with actors and set designers to find a way to realize those images in a believable way that works with the narrative.

If you want to pass a couple of hours, head over to The Secret History of Star Wars, a site that looks behind a lot of the myths surrounding the production of Star Wars, and explores how the films we’ve got now came about. The key theme of the site is the idea that what made the original trilogy so great was Lucas’s collaborative partners. On the original Star Wars, it was his wife, Marcia Lucas, and screenings with his creative friends, like Coppola and De Palma, that helped shape the film into what it is today. The basic thesis is that Lucas didn’t “lose it” with the prequels, he just lost the strong collaborators who could help realize his ideas in successful ways.

I think that’s true for a lot of artists. A lot of times you need that Lennon/McCartney antagonistic relationship to keep pushing things forward. Once people decide that you’re a genius, and you can surround yourself with people who won’t challenge you, it becomes a lot harder to make good art. I still love the prequels because I see so much brilliant filmmaking there, and can look past some of the surface flaws, but those films don’t match up to what the original trilogy was.

Anyway, going back to the original film itself, watching it what really jumped out this time was how Lucas reconfigures the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey myth to fit with the concerns of the world at that time. It’s simultaneously a very classical story and one that deals with what’s going on in the world, and I think those are the best kind of blockbusters, the films that really resonate with people. The only film since I can think of that fuses these two things so well is The Matrix. I love art cinema, but there’s something amazing about watching a film that can simultaneously be as artistically successful as this one and incredibly popular.

So much has been written about the connections to classical mythology, but the film also feels very much at home amidst other 70s cinema classics like Easy Rider. This is a film about a young man’s journey away from his boring home to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment in a politically radical protest group. It’s a fusion of 70s spiritual and political concerns, all the while taking on a government that abuses peoples’ rights and tries to stop this ragtag band of freedom fighters. I think Star Wars is one of the best films that kids could watch because it instills values that are very positive. Unlike most blockbuster films, it’s a refutation of the status quo and governmental order. It’s a call to revolutionary action and consciousness evolution. I think it’s easy to forget that when you focus on the coolness of the fights, but listen to what Obi-Wan says about the force here, replace the lightsaber with a bong and you’ve got Easy Rider.

What Obi-Wan is telling Luke is essentially the path to enlightenment, about transcending the material world and existing on a higher level of consciousness. The blaster shield helmet sequence is about Luke learning to look beyond the material world and realize that there’s more out there. As Obi-Wan says, “Strike me down and I’ll become powerful than you can possibly imagine,” he’ll finally transcend this reality and become one with the force. Han Solo is a materialist, as are most of the Imperials. They denigrate this “old religion,” the Empire is a world that doesn’t believe in anything more than cold physical reality. Ironically, it’s run by a borderline insane Sith lord, but I’m guessing the Emperor didn’t show that side of his personality much in the later years. It would have been appropriate to end the series with the Emperor never existing at all, the idea that they built this Emperor figure as a way to create a self sustaining bureaucracy, a pyramid scheme where everyone reports to someone higher up, but there’s no one at the top.

Having the heroes as “rebels” is by no means something only Star Wars did. Most blockbusters involve battling some kind of oppressive force, but what Star Wars makes explicit is the idea that revolution is a viable thing to fight for. In a post-Bush world, I think it’s inspirational to watch a film like this and see those small planes fly in and destroy something so much larger. We just kind of took it for the past eight years, where was our rebel alliance? The sad reality is that most of us would just live under the Empire and not try to fight back. I think the live action Star Wars show could get great mileage out of exploring the way that the Empire tries to frame the Rebel as domestic terrorists, and uses the “war on the rebels” as an excuse for huge weapons projects like the Death Star. I also think there’s something very relevant about the idea that you can build this gigantic battle station and have it undone by one person who’s totally committed to take you down. That’s why we can never win this ‘war on terror’ when all it takes is one insane person to take down anything we can build.

Another notable 70s era element is Leia. In recent years, the strong female protagonist has become something of a must have for action movies, they’re not just there to get rescued, but at the same time, they still exist as an object for male lust, a supporting character for the central male hero. Here, the narrative initially places her in the damsel in distress role, but once she gets rescued, she takes total control of the characters, and leads them out of the Death Star. She’s the political leader, and has the most agency in the narrative.

I saw Star Wars when I was three or so, I have no memory of a time before I’d seen Star Wars, I was always obsessed with the movies, they’re what made me want to make movies myself, starting from an early age. So, the films are just sort of logged in my subconscious, and as such, they’ve influenced my perception of the world. I never saw women as the sort of “princesses” you see in most Disney movies, objects to be rescued and adored, Leia is how I imagine a princess should be, doing her own thing and taking charge when she needs to. There is something of a love triangle in the film, but it’s only the men who talk about it, she’s not really involved in the romantic side of things, she’s too in to her mission. Admittedly, in Empire, Leia takes on a more traditional romantic role, but the brilliance of that film is the way that her and Han are treated as equals. It’s very much that 30s Tracy/Hepburn equal partnership kind of relationship.

Star Wars has the unfortunate reputation of marking the end of 70s auteurist cinema and instituting a period of soulless blockbusters that persists to this day. To some extent, that’s true, but it’s no fault of the film that it connected with so many people. Watching the movie, I did wonder why I sometimes have such a commitment to make more obscure films. Isn’t there some joy in making a movie like this, something that’s smart and true, but still accessible to a lot of people. Hollywood dreams of making four quadrant movie, films that appeal to all audiences, and I’d imagine a lot of filmmakers want to do that too, but it’s so tough to do. I think most “four quadrant” films wind up aiming squarely at 13 year old boys. Star Wars is a film that kids can watch and love, but I wouldn’t call it a kids movie, or a family film or anything like that. It’s a throwback to classical Hollywood in a lot of respects, a movie that everyone can love.