Jun 30, 2012

Some day my princess will come

My column about Disney Princesses for The Guardian: —
It’s been a great year for warrior princesses at the movies —  even better if they come bearing bow and arrows. First we had Everdeen Katniss, as incarnated in the svelte, fearless form of Jennifer Lawrence, eyes narrowing as she strung her bow and sent The Hunger Games $672 million into the black. Everdeen was followed by Snow White, as played by sullen beauty Kristen Stewart, her sword slicing the air to save the kingdom of her late father and topple The Avengers from the top spot at the box office. And now we have Pixar’s Brave, boasting the studio’s first female heroine,   flame–haired, cinch-waisted Princess Merida, “dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.” 
So wrote Marc Twain of Joan of Arc but he could as easily have been describing the new breed of warrior princess riding, fighting, shooting, scything their way across our screens. As Sasha Stone commented at Awards Daily, it’s hard not to look at 2012 and not declare it the Year of the Girl.” although these feisty female role models have not met with universal approval.  Merida could have used “a few more pixels in her waist,” complained Peggy Orenstein, author of Cindarella Ate My Daughters: Dispatches From the Front Line of the New Girly-Girl Culture. “Merida doesn’t really grow,” pointed out Mary Pols in Time   “She’s simply extended her time as a tomboy, another archetype, less a girl than a stereotype of a kind of girl." 

Certainly, Disney princesses have been ploughing the feisty furrow for some time, at least since Princess Jasmine ran away from home rather than be married off at her father’s behest in 1992’s Aladdin. Jasmine, Pocohontas and Mulan were all touted, in their time, as “new”, “empowered” Disney heroines who refused to sit at home plaiting their hair waiting for their prince to come. Clearly, some stereotypes are better than others, although even calling “stereotypes” in a Hollywood movie is a fraught activity, given that the semantic overlap between that and what most screenwriters would call “characterization.” Either way, we have come a long way from the days when Snow White could arrive at the seven dwarves home and immediately start house-cleaning without a word of complaint. 

In a study conducted at the University of Connecticut, Dawn England and Lara Descartes divvied up the screen-time of all eight Disney Princess into three categories, “”domestic work”, “interacting with animals”, and “other”. They reached the following conclusions:— 
“Princesses performing domestic work was only portrayed in the first three princess movies and again briefly in Pocohontas. However in the first two movies it occupied a significant amount of time. Time spent interacting with animals was very prevalent in the first four movies decreased slightly in the next three, and then significantly increased in Mulan.” 
In Pocohontas’ defence, it should be pointed out that Teepees get messy very quickly without regular housecleaning, and that Mulan was accompanied throughout much of the film by a red-and-orange Chinese dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, who is better better classified under “comic relief”, perhaps, than “interacting with animals.” But no matter — onto the Princes, whom they scored for personality traits ranging from “assertive” to “troublesome” then comparing them with the Princesses scores:— 
“The princesses were significantly more likely to be cooperative, nurturing, tending to their physical appearance, and troublesome. While the princesses were not likely to be portrayed as physically strong, unemotional, or inspiring fear, these characteristics were more common among the princes. The princes were least likely to tend to their physical appearance.” 

(Here Brave scores very highly, some of its strongest jokes coming at the expense of the young Scottish Lords all vying for Merida’s hand — a rogue’s gallery of narcissists, boneheads and Tennis-pro preeners.) 
“The Princes were action-oriented, often performing the climactic rescue that brought the conclusion of the movie. Over time the princesses roles changed form being completely passive or asleep during the final rescue to assisting the Princes.” 

“Asleep” seems a little harsh on Sleeping Beauty — the poor girl had hardly nodded off — but perhaps the most surprising observation was this: —  
“Among the princesses, assertiveness was more common in earlier films and fearfulness and tentativeness were depicted more often in later films.” 

Huh. The modern princesses are more fearful, and less assertive than their predecessors. And yet, at the same time, they lead the action more and need rescuing less. What’s that about? After much mulling on the matter, it occurred to me that this might be a side-effect of greater psychological verisimilitude coupled with the old Hemingway paradox about the brave man not being the man without fear but the man who feels fear and still acts. The princesses are showing more fear because they were doing more. 

It certainly explains why these films have been such hits, even with boys. Female protagonists means greater asymmetry of battle (they are outmatched) means greater suspense (they could lose) means bigger thrills (they must keep their wits about them). Snow White and the Huntsman boasted enough swords, scimitars, axes, and snares to keep a horde of Hobbits busy for a month of Sundays, drawing   the admiration of none other than James Franco who chivalrously defended Stewart’s performance from its detractors, she has worked her ass off. Whatever Snow White may be, Kristen is a warrior queen. Give her the crown.” Or, as Twain said:—
“Supremely great souls are never lodged in gross bodies. No brawn, no muscle, could endure the work that their bodies must do; they do their miracles by the spirit, which has fifty times the strength and staying power of brawn and muscle. The Napoleons are little, not big; and they work twenty hours in the twenty-four, and come up fresh, while the big soldiers with the little hearts faint around them with fatigue. We know what Joan of Arc was like without asking — merely by what she did. The artist should paint her spirit — then he could not fail to paint her body aright.”  

Jun 28, 2012


'At one point, a character paraphrases a remark of Saul Bellow’s that since “the real modern action” is in America, it is the only place to be. Does the formulation still hold at a time when the U.S. has developed its own case of post-imperial anxiety? Possibly, Amis said, though there’s a major difference. For the British “the ideology that we call PC or level-ism actually sweetened the pill of decline. It was saying, ‘You haven’t got an empire anymore, but you shouldn’t have had an empire in the first place. We don’t like empires.’ It sort of soothed our brow. There’s no great fury about decline in England.” Americans, he thinks, will react differently. “They’re not going to be docile and stoic like we were.” What should we expect instead?” Amis’s replies are normally prompt, but this time he paused over his beer. “A fair amount of illusion.” — Amis in interview with Sam Tenenhaus, The Daily Beast 
The best explanation of Fox news, the Tea Party and America's drift to the right I have yet come across.

REVIEW: Brave (dir. Andrews)

Things we liked about Pixar's new feature, Brave:—
1. The Rebekah Brooks hair (so wasted on Brooks. That hair is the hair of the woman who blows the whistle on Murdoch).
2.The way Merida and her mother both exit their argument consumed, not with hatred of the other, but with self-loathing.
3. The way the transformation plot gave body to a child's worst suspicions about their parents.
4. The point-scoring against machismo / narcissism particularly in the Djokovic-lookalike.
5. The aerodynamics of the flying arrows.
6. The riding and arrow-shooting combined.
7. The rain (always a Pixar strength. Fond memories of the moon-through-raindrop effects in Toy Story).
8. Merida's puppy-fat.
9. La Luna.
And things we didn't like so much:—
1. The way the plot loops back and repeats itself. When I found out we were going back to the castle (only to escape again) my heart sank. Denied the satisfactions of a quest.
2. Merida needed to rescue her mother using all the skills her mother frowns on (archery, riding, etc) at the climax. Fishing montage not enough.
3. Mom didn't go further in her transformation. She should have been fully wild for at least 10-15 minutes.
4. Too much bear slapstick.
5. Merida a little too exasperated / on the back foot. Wanted more bravery.

Jun 25, 2012

What is the most beautiful film in the world?

From the top: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Days of Heaven, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Playtime, Raise the Red Lantern, Manhattan, Barry Lyndon, Pierrot le fou, Paris, Texas, Black Narcissus,  The Conformist, The Double Life of Veronique, The Night of the Hunter and The Royal Tenenbaums. Here are David Thomson's thoughts on the Malick film:-
'... Such beauty is a tricky thing. It's not that photographic beauty is actually that difficult: the art of the camera begins with making the world look pretty, elegant and desirable when, in truth, it's far more complicated. That's why so much advertising is so good-looking; it makes us want to purchase. Thus, beauty sometimes can smother meaning... The heavenly feeling in the movie is not really there in what happens to the people. The plot is full of tragedy, loss and separation, and of a briefly glimpsed paradise that cannot sustain human shortcomings. But heaven is there in the light on the grass, in the romantic aura of a house and in a few people in a place where there is no one else.'
And here is Anthony Lane on Raise the Red Lantern, sounding a similar note of caution:-
'Can a film be too beautiful? It is not a question that gets asked much these days...  The film may lack the emotional vigor of its immediate predecessor, the great “Ju Dou,” yet there is brio in its wielding of color that even Michael Powell, fresh from “The Red Shoes,” might have applauded'
I once had the good fortune to ask the art critic David Sylvester what his definition of art was. He responded, "a leopard moving too fast to notice how beautiful it is." I'm not one for definitions on the whole, but this one has gotten me out of a few tight corners. The films above are all leopards of various spots, sizes and speeds — more suggestions welcome. 

Blade Runner's 30th anniversary

'The script took a year of rewrites. Fancher had done a good job in fleshing out Dick’s story,  but it still read like a stage play:  there were few exteriors, and the world his characters inhabited remained unexplored. One day during their script discussions, Scott asked him,  “Hampton, this world you’ve created — what’s outside the window?” Hampton admitted that he hadn’t a clue. “Well, think about it,” replied Scott, and suggested he read a sci-fi comic called Heavy Metal — the same comic Scott had used as inspiration on Alien. The next day, Fancher, “came back in all excited, going ‘Yeah, let’s go outside the fucking window!” Quite how far outside the window  Scott wanted to go, the writer soon found out.   “His imagination is like a fucking virus,” said Fancher, “it keeps growing and spreading and mutating. Ridley’s mind is almost too fast for his own good;  very often, it pulled ahead of himself, at great speed. Then he’d tumble over it, ideas were pouring out of him so fast.”  
“The idea of making it on a  set on a Warner backlot  was almost unthinkably expensive,” says Scott, “ and yet that was the most practical way to go. I researched and did a little bit of travelling. I’d been to Hong Kong before, I’d shot a commercial there for Benson and Hedges, and I always remembered the sheer density of the city, and thought this would be the benchmark for my film. That would be the future. Particularly if you’re on the west coast of America, the majority I felt could be either Hispanic or asiatic, or a strong melange of all three.  That’s how I gradually built the process of Blade Runner: all those years of commercials, all that awareness of urban deterioration and disintegration. You have these cities that become retro, with their guts on the outside. The guts can be beautiful.”  
 Scott kept urging Fancher to give him more clues, more mystery — more detecting — but the writer felt out of his depth and so Scott instead turned to David Peoples, who  took Dick’s world and populated it,  but still came up short on plot.  “Clues are not my strong point,” said Peoples. “If anybody was authoring it at this stage it was Ridley. He was dominating, supervising and caring about what went on here... I would sometimes be writing a scene that Ridley would be shooting the following week, and twice I guess I was writing stuff that was going to be shot that day and just frantically trying to make certain changes to solve this particular thing or that particular thing.” 
Principal photography began on March 9th 1981, and immediately the film fell behind schedule.  “After the first day of shooting the production manager called me to say were now five days behind,” remembers Alan Ladd. “Ridley had  shot smoke all day.”  The first scenes to be shot were on the elaborate Tyrell Corporation set, with nearly 6,000 square feet of polished black marble and six enormous columns, but Scott had walked in, took a look at the columns, and said, “Let's turn them upside down.”  "Ridley literally changed everything. I can't think of one set we went into and shot the way we found it," said art director David Snyder, "It was brutal."   Actor M. Emmett Walsh  complained to Snyder that "by the time you guys get finished lighting, we're lucky if we have time for three takes." For one scene during which Walsh had to repeatedly smoke a cigar which left him choking on smoke, he muttered, under his breath “You son of a bitch. You should be hung up by your balls and left to twist in the wind.” To his horror, Scott heard him. “I feel that way now,” he replied.  
By day three, they were two weeks behind schedule, and Tandem’s financiers  started hovering at Scott’s shoulder. The film’s $18 million budget was a three-way split between   The Ladd Company, who would release the film through Warner Brothers,  Hong Kong film mogul Run Run Shaw, and Tandem, who had been  brought into the deal on the promise that they would get the next Star Wars. Instead, they saw   nothing but rain, gloom, a woman being shot in the back, and a relentlessly perfectionist director who shot the same sequence over and over again, all day long. They questioned Scott on everything — “Why are you taking so much time to set things up? Why so many takes? We don’t have the money for this” — and every time they did,  he flew into a rage. ‘’It was the first time I’d worked extensively  in Hollywood, and suddenly the new kid on the block was faced with the facts of life here” says Scott. “There was an inordinate amount of explanation that had to be done... I was not as independent  as I thought I was. It got hard, I had to give a lot of explanations which I’d honestly felt I’d earned the right not to have to do after all those years. After shooting over 2,000 commercials and The Duellists, and Alien, suddenly there I was I was still explaining myself. So I got very short-fused. I was getting pissed of. Pissed off regularly. Every day.”  
“It was just wretched awfulness, really.  Blade Runner was a monument to stress,” said Kate Haber,  “Tandem was furious with Michael and Ridley, Ridley and Michael were battling Tandem and our leading man and director got to the point where they were barely speaking to one another.” Ford was driven to distraction by  Scott’s attention to his sets; he would look up and see Scott perched way up on a crane 30 feet in the air, peering into his lens, composing his perfect shots, and wonder: what am I supposed to be doing here? ‘”I played a detective who did no detecting,” he complained, “There was nothing for me to do but stand around and give some vain attempt to give some focus to Ridley’s sets.”  
 “Harrison wanted to be directed,” says Ladd, “and Ridley wanted to fool around with light. Harrison just wanted to be reassured, and Ridley didn’t want to be bothered. At that time Ridley was very shy, and didn’t want to deal with actors. It was the same on Alien. He knew what he wanted but didn't know how to explain to the actors how to get there.”  Eventually the two men stopped speaking to one another, says Ladd:   “Harrison wouldn’t speak to Ridley and Ridley wouldn’t speak to Harrison and I was stuck in the middle, ‘Could you tell him to do this, or tell him to do that?’ It was difficult.” By the end of the shoot, Ford was “ready to kill Ridley,” said one colleague. “ He really would have taken him on if he hadn’t been talked out of it.”   
“Harrison and I are very similar,” says Scott. “It can  be perceived that we’re bad tempered and crotchety and actually we’re not. We’re actually relatively good fun, [but] if you have a discerning actor, who is smarter than most, he’s gonna ask questions, and you’d better have your answers. If you haven’t got your answers there’s likely to be a row. You have a row and your adrenaline flushes out all the other  stuff you’ve got going through your mind and you suddenly come up with a very distilled answer.... rage flushes it out. I get very articulate.” By the time the picture wrapped, on June 30, it had gone five million over-budget, and on July 11th, Deeley and Scott received a letter from Tandem’s  attorneys telling them they were off the picture.   
The first test screening of the film did not go well. “Almost dead silence greeted the end of the film,” said Deeley. “As the lights came up, the audience filed out as quietly as if they were leaving a funeral service.” They found the film too hard to understand, too graphic, too slow and draggy, and the ending too abrupt. “A lot of things went straight over  the head of the audience,” says Scott, “partly because they were trying to follow the main line, which was actually pretty straightforward, but somehow got veiled in complexities that it didn’t have. Part of this was that the proscenium was so exotic, the world you were looking at was so interesting that that was a distraction, but then at the end of the day that is part of the interest in watching the film. It was a new kind of film: because the world was almost as important as the story.” 
Tandem  insisted he shoot on a new ending,  showing Deckard and Rachel driving off happily,  removing any hint that Deckard was himself a replicant, and provide the movie with a voiceover, although according to Alan Ladd,    “it was Ridley who came up with the narration. He said ‘I loved all those Phillip Marlow stories, Sam Spade and all that. We should put the narration into it.” It was the first time Scott had experienced the  preview process, and he  thought, “'My God, maybe I've gone too far. Maybe I ought to clarify it.' I got sucked into the process of thinking, 'Let's explain it all.' " 
Blade Runner took only $14.8 million upon its June release, and promptly disappeared from screens. As a blockbuster it was bust, but a bust of a very particular breed, for soon the film's designs began to show up everywhere from  Brazil to the stage sets for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour, and when laser discs appeared on the market in 1989, Blade Runner  became Voyager's top-selling disc, and didn’t budge.  In Japan, where the film was a huge  success, its art directors were treated like kings, the fans  too in awe to even look them in the eye. “Blade Runner had kind of resurrected itself,” says Scott. “but it didn’t resurrect itself on its own. I think MTV did it. That whole MTV generation saw the romanticism and retro neo-classicism —  where it’s always raining and always dark — and saw this world as a romantic world. It certainly influenced  so many filmmakers particularly  in that video world: suddenly every other band had a neo-Blade Runner background.  I think gradually kids got it, then they started to see it in the video store — usually on a badly degraded tape — and finally got with it. Its a funny cycle, but it’s great that it resurfaced that way.”  
The film thus turned out to be one of those rare, radioactive masterworks that cinema seems impelled to throw  up every now and again:  toxic to all who touch it at the time, and leaving many careers in fallout, but exerting a mesmeric  glow that  only increases with the years. From its opening shot of LA’s ziggurats belching fire — as great a flame-grille opening shot as that adorning the front-end of Apocalypse Now — to its spiralling descent into the streets below, to the sound of Vangelis’s arpeggiated electro-harps, Blade Runner is one of those movies that keys into cinemagoers’ eternal desire  to be swaddled in wall-to-wall gorgeousness. “If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” says replicant Roy Batty, as played  by Rutger Hauer as as kind of Nietszche-in-cycling-shorts. What those eyes of his can see, on the other hand, is another matter, for if you want to know what picture it was that turned  the lights out on American movies, plunging such pictures as Se7en  and  The Matrix into a pitch of Stygian gloom, then Blade Runner is your picture: there was one scrap of sunshine in the original film, but Scott soon removed it with his director’s cut. From the cigarette smoke that fills its interiors, to the rain that  drenches its exteriors, Blade Runner wages one serious war on  fresh air,  further fuelling the  suspicion  that Scott is far more in love with mysteriousness, than mere mysteries, or their solution. 
He never did get enough detective work into his picture, which lacks the bloodhound pant of the great detective flicks.  Blade Runner instead moves with the stateliness of one of those advertising blimps that patrol the streets advertising off-world tourist destinations. It's full of slow-blinking owls and dilated irises. Becalmed by its own beauty, Blade Runner is a pedant’s dream — a million tiny details in search of an auteur — and the hawk-like gaze with which the movie’s fans fix upon it is born of a movie  which seems to find its somnolent narcotic centre in the scene where Ford pour  himself a scotch, and sits back to issue dulcet instructions to the film’s coolest toy: a voice operated photo-enhancer that allows its user to get inside any photograph and nose around it, in 3-D. Sam Spade never had it so easy: the world’s first fully-automated private eye. You can see why the film had such an afterlife on video and DVD, formats which allowed the viewer to pore over the movie with a leisure matching Deckard’s own. Scott is right, in a way: Blade Runner was a new kind of film, certainly one that you watched in a new way. You didn’t watch it so much as get sucked into it, and lost in it, just like its director: you followed the minotaur into his labyrinth.'
— excerpted from my book Blockbuster, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Blade Runner's release on 6.25.82. Stills courtesy of Beautiful Stills From Beautiful Films

Jun 23, 2012

Quote of the day: Tad Friend

"Hollywood's peculiar secret is that it's just as tough to cook up a memorable commercial movie as a critically lauded indie film — indeed because there are so many chefs over-egging the pudding, it's tougher." — Tad Friend, The New Yorker 

How Tom Cruise came back

My column about Tom Cruise's comeback for The Guardian:
'Tom Cruise has all the qualities of a great movie star except relaxation. Most of the greats — Bogart, Mitchum, Hanks, Willis — seem so at ease on screen you could balance a golf ball on the end of their nose, but Cruise has never once lived up to his name: he guns it, every time. He approaches each role like a Chinese gymnast approaching the bars. Critics may have pummelled his new eighties-retro musical, Rock of Ages, but they have all been holding up a “10” for Cruise’s performance as Stacee Jax, a dissipated rock legend attempting a comeback after rumors of Satanic religious activity have driven him from favor.    "People say your fame has turned you into nonsensical recluse," he is asked by a hot Rolling Stone journalist.    Stacee fixes her with a Cobra stare that seems to go right through her, as if his fame had rendered other people transluscent. Staring into the abyss, he sees only his own oversexed legend staring right back.
 "Do they even know themselves?" he replies and taps the side of his head. "I know better than anyone. I live in here."  
Cruise is, of course, turning in a parody of his own out-to-lunch intensity, although the performance goes beyond mere self-send-up, and is already picking up some awards-season heat, despite the film’s poor showing at the box office. There, Cruise has the success of last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to provide him with cover from his critics. The Golden Rule of Comebacks? It’s the same rule that pertains to snake bites: just suck out the poison and spit it back out. 
 Comebacks are an elastic phenomenon these days. In the 24-hour ubiquity machine that is E! entertainment Glam Cams and TMZ  scoops, a celebrity’s Twitter feed need only fall silent for a day for someone to declare their career dead, buried and in urgent need of resuscitation. The term is really the prerogative only of those whose Wikepedia entry contains the words “box office poison”. When Mickey Rourke pleaded “I just don’t want you to hate me,” in The Wrestler, the line pierced our stony hearts because Rourke had been languishing in the wilderness for over a decade. When Quentin Tarantino staged an intervention on the career of John Travolta, the star was appearing in Look Who’s Talking Now opposite a talking dog voiced by Danny De Vito. He hadn't disappeared. He’s simply fallen several echelons of cool, which for the creator of Tony Manero and Danny Zuko may have amounted to the same thing.   
Cruise’s ‘comeback’ is of the latter, semi-skimmed variety: more of a reputation nip ‘n’ tuck than a full facelift. The charges against him in the court of public opinion are twofold: 1) belonging to a creepy religious cult which believes humans to be a secret race of extra-terrestrial Thetans trapped in earth bodies; and 2) sequestering his wife and children away from the kind gentlemen of the press who wish nothing more than to liberate them from whatever cruel psycho-sexual brainwashing they are undergoing behind the walls of Cruise’s castle. Or, to put it in plain English: he is guilty of practicing a religion of his choice and protecting the privacy of his family. 
You wonder how all of this is going to look in fifty, even 20 years time. Are people going to look on the hounding of Cruise the same way we now look on the shaming of Ingrid Bergman? When Bergman ran off with Roberto Rossellini, the father of Italian neorealism, it dealt a double hammer blow to the American heart: guilty of cheating on her husband and living in sin with a foreign-sounding –ism. By contrast, the ionic charge surrounding Cruise had grown so nebulously toxic by 2009 that all it took was one misjudged chat-show ‘bit’ — in which the star, juiced up on the whoops of Oprah’s live audience, jumped on her sofa, sending the crowd wild — for all good, reasonable men to be of one opinion: the blaggard could not be trusted. 
 Cruise responded the way stars have always responded, from Gloria Swanson to Frank Sinatra, by getting back to work. He slugged his way through the set-pieces of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with mastiff determination: tendons as taut as ship’s cable, nostrils flaring like a show horse, shoulders in urgent need of a massage. The films success at the box-office was a nice reminder that Cruise was the first to show us — before even Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies and Matt Damon in the Bourne films — that the new digital age was going to require more physical dexterity from actors than just bulldozing through plate-glass windows, like the Terminator. Performing much of his own stunt-work, Cruise dangled and spun and leapt and dived, turning his own body into its own special effect.  And now we have his Stacee Jax, another master-class in aerobic  physicality: shoulders thrust back, pelvis forward, Cruise seems to be channelling all his psychic energies through the jewel-studded cod-piece at his crotch. Feasting on groupies like a vampire fending off boredom, he is Cruise’s reptilian report back from ground zero of the superstar Id. Like most great performances, it is powered along by a nifty paradox, one teased out expertly by In Contention’s Guy Lodge 
“For all the romantic leads he's played and magazine covers he's graced, the perennially tidy-looking Cruise has always been an oddly sexless star: not in a particularly virtuous or immature way, mind, but in a guarded, reserved one. We've seen his immaculately sculpted torso any number of times, but his characters routinely seem politely cut off at the waist, burdened with too many other responsibilities to fuck.” 
But then that’s the dirty little secret of most sex Gods, from Mae West to Madonna: professional Dionysians tend to be strangely unsensual creatures, doomed to turn sex into a continual act of provocation or performance, but denied the one thing everyone else uses it for: contact. They’ll happily raise the rafters with their raunch, but put your hand on their knee and they’ll jump through the roof. Stacee Jax’s guiding light is not eros but thanatos. He is fuelled less by lust and more by what fuelled Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey, the "woman-taming" self-help guru in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia: rage. 
Rage at the machine, rage at the public acclaim that has him fixed in its cross-hairs — rage at his own audience. When Stacee Jax finally takes to the stage, he prowls from end to end, like a Tiger pacing his cage, bellowing into his microphone, and at the sea of people just beyond, the ones bellowing his name back to him. 

Jun 16, 2012

Loving not wisely but too well

"The actual subject of this post is scuttlebutt: the things that people have been saying about “Moonrise Kingdom” and the way they’ve been setting it apart from Anderson’s other films, as if embracing this one while distancing themselves from the others, suggesting that they approve of the way the young fellow is turning out. It’s not enough to love a movie—it’s important to love it for the right reasons. “Moonrise Kingdom” is not a drastic departure from Anderson’s first six features but rather an intensification of their characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation. To love “Moonrise Kingdom” at the expense of “The Darjeeling Limited” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is to love it lightly. And if there’s one thing that “Moonrise Kingdom” is about, it’s the sanctity of a total, soulful, insightful love." — Richard Brody, The New Yorker 
You see, this is why I could never be an auterist. I don't want to like all of a filmmaker's movies. I want to like some of them, and sometimes just one. The idea of signing on, lock stock and barrel, to a filmmaker's entire ouevre, without the ability to prefer this one over that, smacks too much of slavery, coupled with a wilful blindness towards the collaborative accidents that make for great films.  It is this blog's belief that great films are never born from one man's mastery: the most creative point in a filmmakers life is when he loses control, and turns that slippage into something airborne. Or experiences a creative clash with a temperamental opposite. Which is why I love The Wrestler but no other Aronofsky films: because Rourke wrested control of the film away from him and injected some pathos into Aronofsky's bloodless patterns. The same with Kubrick's The Shining: the only Kubrick film I really like because of Nicholson. And why I love Chinatown, for what I truly love is the conversation going on in the film between Polanski and Towne — never to be repeated. It broke Polanski out of his characteristic solipsism. The same with conversation between Fincher and Sorkin in The Social Network. The sad fact is that the movie business tends to drum the freshness out of talent. The longer careers go on, the more conscious directors become of their own themes, and the more that feeds back into the work, swelling and distorting it. The opportunities to slip your own leash get further and further apart. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is is many ways the superior film to E.T. because it is the last film Spielberg made before becoming aware of what "Spielbergian" meant: it was all being mapped out for the first time.  Badlands is the only Terrence Malick film that deserves the term "masterpiece" precisely because a masterpiece is what the others strive to be; they are merely faux-naif, where Badlands has the quality of genuine innocence. (There is only one 'name' filmmaker working today whose creative growth is a picture of organic health and that's Ang Lee, but that's another post.) Interesting that Brody should get the subject of Moonrise Kingdom subtly wrong: it's not about "the sanctity of total, soulful, insightful love". It's about first love — puppy love. Soulful, all-consuming, sweet, short-lived. My advice to Anderson? Make a movie with just three main characters again.  

Dealing With Nerd Rage: This Time It's War

From my Guardian column:—
'... Last week saw the US release of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited follow-up to his 1979 sci-fi-horror hybrid Alien. The film had already opened in the UK, where it had met with a mixed reception with both critics and fans. Many American fans, on the other hand, had yet to have the film open in their city, thus setting the stage for what soon turned into an all-out firefight, waged on fansite message boards and comment threads, as disillusioned Brits engaged in a vigorous sperlunking of the film’s plot-holes —  why does Michael Fassbender’s android keep switching sides?    Why doesn't Idris Elba seem to care about his crew? Why is Guy Pearce in old man make-up when they could have just hired an older actor? — while infuriated Americans, still in a state of peachy expectancy for the latest installment of this beloved franchise, hurled accusations of deliberate transatlantic spoilers. Insinuations of British miserablism quickly followed, to be countered by sly characterisations of the gullibility of the American national character. Then someone decided to bring up the revolutionary war of 1775.        
“I liken the engineers to the English, I mean British empire,” taunted M3Princess, referring to the Godlike Engineers who lord it over the human race in Scott’s film, over at at Prometheus-movie.com. By the end of the weekend, it boasted some 7060 discussions, containing 92,936 posts written by some 9,167 fans, in various states of defiance and distress. “You guys are acting like Ridley personally butt-raped anyone who ever liked Alien,” raged one of the film’s defenders at the sci-fi mecca Ain’t It Cool, where founder Harry Knowles ended his largely positive review by advising his commentators not to "just circle up into bitching circles.” So naturally his readers all linked hands, said a prayer and shared, in a spirit of love and service, the exact level of mental retardation required in the gene pool of the previous commentator and his immediate family in order for him to espouse the views he has just spelt out in ANGRY CAPITAL LETTERS in the comments section above.    
 “I feel terrible that your ten year old has a retard for a father,” snarled one. “I hope he gets the care he needs after they lock you away for being an idiot.” Elsewhere, the fight   divided up  along generational lines. My parents hated Prometheus so much, mom went on a rant about it for 30 straight minutes. It was a proper nerd-rage. It’s kind of adorable,” tweeted one movie’s fans on Tumblr. “OH MY GOD WHILE I WAS WRITING THIS POST SHE STARTED UP AGAIN.” 
Only a prequel can inspire this much passion. Sequels can fall short or fail to honor the memory of the original — there are some Alien fans, this writer included, who fail to acknowledge the existence of the fourth film, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, let alone the Alien vs Predator spin-offs — but a prequel, particularly one made by the father of the franchise, returning after a 30-year absence, remixing the “DNA” of the original film, threatens a particularly intimate form of violation. It’s like someone messing with your movie memories. When George Lucas released The Phantom Menace in 1999, the effect on the fans was spectacular and divisive, this once-strong fanbase cloven neatly in two, the ‘Bashers’ and the ‘Gusher’s’ arguing tooth and nail as to whether Lucas could really be trusted with his own saga. It became known as the ‘Gusher-Basher’ wars.    
The fighting was as long, hard and bloody as only internecine warfare can be. “I fear there can be no true reconciliation,” intoned one of the group’s elders finally, with a weariness worthy of Obi Wan himself. The wiser among them broke away from the group and attempted to broker a peace within themselves, recognizing that there was a bit of Basher in every Gusher, and vica-versa. They wrote long-form essays with titles like ‘Learning to Cope With The Phantom Menace,’  in which they mined their mixed feeling for hard-won wisdom. “People like me, who enjoyed The Phantom Menace more on repeated viewings, did so because we began to tune out Jar Jar,” wrote one girl, hitting a peculiarly modern note: the plaintive sound of a disappointed fan, returning to see the film, again and again, in the hopes that she may one day grow to love it. 
The air of Oedipal heartbreak hanging over Prometheus — the sense of the Great and Mighty Oz exposed — was twofold given that this was partly what the movie was about: meeting your maker, only to find that he is a genocidal creep. “A king has his reign, then he dies,” says Charlize Theron’s Vickers, intent on the same patricide that has animated Scott’s protagonists from Blade Runner to Gladiator. Did Scott know when he was devising his film that he was drawing up a blueprint for the fan’s reaction to it? Did the fans know that when they drew together in the chat rooms and on message boards, to compare notes, they bore a distinct resemblance to Noomi Rapace, scanning cave hieroglyphics for signs of meaning in a meaningless universe? 
 “I came here to find some answers, discussion, camaraderie and way to make sense of it all” said one of the commentators at Prometheus-movie.com, towards the end of a long week, by the end of which the film was finally in wide release. Fan reactions had caught up with their British counterparts; there was a note, if not of forgiveness, then of weary reconciliation in the air. “Tensions are VERY high and people are acting out of character,” said one. “It's just a movie isn't it ?” suggested another. Someone else posted helpful quotes from Psychology Today Magazine by one Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D:— 
 "Disappointment is a profound way in which sadness is experienced... In an obstinate way, anger will allow you to continue idealizing what could have been while consciously denigrating it, and you will hang onto it only because it's what you needed at the time. Disappointment accepts reality." 
 There had been war. There had been bloodshed. We had lost some good men and women along the way. Now there was a tentative peace. All that was left was for someone to put Jones the cat in his cryo-tube and we could all slip into deep, dreamless hyper-sleep.'

Jun 13, 2012

PROFILE: The Queen of England

My piece on HRH for Newsweek:—
'Like so much in British life — scones, soccer, the Battle of Agincourt — the story of the Queen’s relationship to pop culture comes in two parts. The first unfolds in a state of siege. In 1977 the Sex Pistols rhyme “Queen” with “fascist regime” on God Save The Queen, cut-n-pasting her image, ransom-note style, onto the cover. The BBC ban the record and it goes to number two in the charts, marking a new low in public protocol towards the Royals. A new era of pop-cultural plunder dawns. The Queen is paraded in comic effigy by the makers of Spitting Image, flattened into a silkscreen by Andy Warhol, rugby-tackled by Leslie Nielson in 1988’s The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, and mooned by Mike Myers in 2002’s Goldmember. Both comics are Canadians, too. Her majesty sits purse-lipped, disapproving. She is not — as they say — amused.  
Then comes Diana, or more importantly, Elton John’s rendition of Candle in The Wind at Diana’s funeral: an unprecedented pop flourish amid the solemn protocols and processionals of Westminster Abbey. Diana leaves behind her two young princes, trailing iPod’s, iPads and Nintendo game-consoles around the palace. The Queen’s secretary lets it be known that Her Majesty is “addicted” to the Nintendo, and when the movie The Queen comes out, she receives the director and star, Helen Mirren, for tea. She ‘gets’ it.  In 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, she watches Paul McCartney sweat his way through his 1969 ditty Her Majesty — “Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say” — looking as shame-faced over his former cheek as a kid forced to repeat the joke in front of the class. The Queen sits Sphinxlike, neither amused nor unamused, much as she sits through African tribal dances, while the ghost of John Lennon chokes on a semolina pilchard in the corner.  
The Queen and popular culture just don’t mix, which is precisely her appeal in the popular imagination: a symbol of all that is most timeless and proper about British life, she cries out for boisterous mash-up. A Whoopie cushion for Hollywood, a piñata for the rowdier species of rock star, she is the ultimate empathy challenge for novelists: how unstiffen that lip? In the novel and play, The Queen & I, Sue Townsend ransplants her to a working class council estate, where she has to learn how to zip herself and feed the Corgis on a state pension. In the novella An Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett sends her on a marathon reading binge that takes in Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Becket, even the “notorious jailbird and homosexual” Jean Genet. “I think I may be turning into a human being,” she notes primly. “I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development.”    
Bennett has been here before, in his play A Question of Attribution, where the Queen makes a cameo appearance as a shrewd connoisseur of duplicity, in both art and life.  Her own tastes run, famously, to the middle-brow and dustily pre-War: she disdains literary novels, preferring farces, once giggled through Wagner, preferring show tunes from the 1930s like the ones loaded onto her iPod by the Obamas. The Queen’s relationship to popular culture is fascinating precisely because she largely predates it. The only still-serving world leader outside of Fidel Castro to have seen the arrival of the internet, the pop single and television, she acceded the throne while Britain was still in it’s infatuation with wireless radio, on which listeners could look forward to having their socks blown off, if they were lucky, by a singer plus piano accompaniment, broadcast “from a factory somewhere in England as one show had it. Or the latest news about the royal family. The thing most closely resembling what we would now identify as popular culture, funnily, was the Queen herself, whose image was printed on coins and stamps, hung in pubs and town-halls, sewn into every inch of British public life save the cinema, where impersonation of the monarch was forbidden. Otherwise it was Queen for breakfast, Queen for lunch, Queen for afternoon tea. 
 “The Queen views the monarchy as a kind of national adhesive,” writes Andrew Marr in his recent biography, The Real Elizabeth, quoting one of her ladies-in-waiting as saying “we’re in the happiness business.” The story of the monarchy in the 20th century is largely the story of its battles with, and eventual accommodation of, new media — George VI’s struggle to master radio, Elizabeth’s battles with the tabloid press which came to a head after the death of Diana, when the palace was caught with its flags at half mast, engulfed in a froth of public indignation, whipped up by the tabloids. Essentially, it was a fight over iconography. The press were asking the Queen to produce something she had not been asked to show in her nearly five decades as monarch, but which happens to be the price of admission for any public figure in the era of Oprah and Hello: a display of emotion. They wanted her to act like Diana, which is to say — like a celebrity.  
Round one went against the Queen: the tabloids were never her medium. They belonged to Diana, that child of the celebrity-driven eighties, the pop princess incarnate, friend to pop stars and fashionistas, and arch press manipulator. But replay those events on the big screen, as Stephen Frears did in his 2006 film, The Queen, and it’s a different story, quite literally. For all their gimcrackery and glamor the movies are much more sympathetic to emotional reserve and the telling gesture, and so it was with Mirren’s Elizabeth who sheds a single   tear for Diana with her back to camera, a touching fig-leaf of dignity which seemed both an answer to the public clamor for Royal waterworks and a rebuke to it. The Queen’s tacit endorsement of the film may, in time, come to seem one of her smartest moves as monarch: that winning display of humor and shrewdness seemed to usher in a new era of pop-cultural glasnost with regard to the Royals, who have received noticeably better treatment since, in books Bennett’s and Marr’s. After Kate and William’s recent wedding, the palace echoed to the sound of God Save The Queen, this time played, with punning obsequiousness, by Brian May of Queen. It’s hard to pin that all on one movie, yet maybe the Queen simply found her medium. She turned out to be a movie star, after all. 

Jun 11, 2012

How to deal with not liking The Avengers

A lovely piece of writing (worth checking out in full) from Nico Lang:—
"You aren’t a good liar, and so you practice lying about the film in the mirror in case people call you out on not liking it. You ready your shocked, aghast, flabbergasted and surprised faces, like you’re in a Spanish soap opera. You buy a glove to slap people with. You work on your I’m-in-an-episode-of-Smash drink throw. You perfect your impromptu yawn that says, “Wow! I am suddenly too tired to finish this conversation” or you go back the gym and hit that treadmill hard, in case you need to flee from your assailant. You watch Runaway BrideMarathon Man and Chariots of Fire to get tips and old tapes of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders to perfect the perfect stiff arm. If you get trapped by a mob of angry comic book fans, you scream: “Look! It’s Alan Moore and he brought scones!” — Nico Lang, Thought Catalog

Jun 10, 2012

REVIEW: Prometheus (dir. Scott)

One of the things I love about Alien was the imaginative effort it took to live up to its title. Unlike so many past attempts to imagine aliens and their worlds, Scott's gyno-shocker-masterpiece presented us with something that seemed genuinely other, exotic, non-human. It seemed alien. From the Giger-designed creature itself  — eyeless, with an extended cranium, and its endless sets of jaws-with-jaws — to the space wreck in which we first found it, with its rack-of-rib-lined corridors and fallopian-tube doorways, the film presented us with a queasily beautiful mixture of the mechanical and the organic, like a cross between a cathedral and a quadruple bypass operation.  Scott's new movie, Prometheus, blithely undoes all that, reconverting all that foreignness back into the reliably humanoid.  The space jockey is just a suit; underneath it looks just like a human, or to be more specific, a glow-in-the-dark ancient Greek, entombed in a room of ancient hieroglyphs. Here is Scott:—
“[I've wanted to revisit it for] years! Years, years, years… I always wondered when they did [Aliens] 2,3 and 4 why they hadn’t touched upon that, instead of evolving into some other fantastic story. They missed the biggest question of them all: who’s the big guy? And where were they going? And with what? Why that cargo? There’s all kinds of questions.”
Why did the other directors pass up on the space jockey? Why would anyone want to make a film about Hannibal Lecter's last victim but one? Who cares? That lordly condescension towards the other directors in the series is what tips the wink as to what he is really up to here: it's a pissing war, with Sir Ridley come to reclaim what is rightfully his and reproclaim himself lord of the manor. He has made one of the most expensive category errors in the history of movies — gussying up a fragment of McGuffin like a Faberge egg. Trust Scott to mistake a beautiful detail for an entire movie: his films are nothing but details. Larded with mythopeic themes and pseudo-religious pontification, the film is inferior to its predecessors in every way save that of hardware and landscapes — we get one of the best-looking space ships ever put to film, plus some fabulous, roiling skyscapes once we touch down — although it begs the question dodged by Lucas with his Star Wars prequels, namely: how come the technology is more sophisticated than that seen in the first film? After Alien's revolutionary experiment in post-industrial grunge, we're back to shiny, silver space-suits. In tone, Prometheus is actually rather similar to Dan O Bannon's script for Alien before Walter Hill got his hands on it. There were pyramids, and holograms, and an all-male cast, who spoke at length about “what should be done” in stiff, officer-class locutions,  but never got around to doing very much:—
STANDARD steps forward and slaps ROBY across the face.
The others are shocked.
HUNTER: Hey now, what is this?
STANDARD: Ask him.
ROBY: I understood why you did that.
After a hard stare at Roby, Standard give him a curt nod and turns his attention to the machinery.
It read like The Last Days of the British Raj  — all curt nods, hard stares and stiff upper lips in space. “It had not even B-picture merit,” said Hill.  “Nobody could take it seriously. It had a ‘Jesus gadzooks’ quality about it”.  Hill dropped the pyramids, introduced a computer called mother, made two of the characters women, introduced a note of oily class warfare between the officers and the working-class crew, and streamlined the whole thing with his headlong, hard-boiled style — somewhere  between  “staccato and blank verse”:—
A red stain.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his tunic is ripped open.
 A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The tiny head lunges forward, comes spurting out of Dallas’s chest trailing a thick body.
Spatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters. 
What Scott and writer Damon Lindelof have done is reconvert the Alien franchise back into its Gadzooks phase: there are pyramids and holograms and stiff office-class locutions from an icy Charlize Theron — a one-woman repository of curt nods and hard stares. We even get a nod to David Lean, courtesy of David the android's obsession with Lawrence of Arabia: all very interesting, if you buy into the idea of Scott as a purveyor of high-quality epic, but I longed for a burst of Hill's hard-charging rhino momentumScott has made it clear that his isn't quite a prequel in the normal sense, but a film which incorporates "the DNA" of the series, which is a fancy way of saying he wants to prod the franchise for every viscous drip — we get no less than four types of alien creature, a self-inflicted birth, more milky-blooded androids — without the discipline involved in cleaving to its rules. It takes a giant crap in the space helmet of the series. Turns out: when John Hurt lands on the alien planet* at the beginning of Alien, he need only have rolled that ship over an inch and he would have found the flattened form of Charlize Theron. And the alien is really the grand-child of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. No.  C- 
* Some kind souls on Twitter have pointed out to me that Scott has set this on a different planet to the one we see in Alien. To which I can only say: excuse me? You mean to say that Scott's own stated reason for making the film — to show us who the space jockey was, where that crashed spaceship came from and why it contained alien eggs — that was all a feint, too? We're not even scratching that itch?

Jun 9, 2012

Best Albums of 2012 (so far)

1. Home Again — Michael Kiwanuka
2. There's No Leaving Now — Tallest Man on Earth
3. Port of Morrow — The Shins
4. Slipstream — Bonnie Raitt
5. Some Nights — Fun.
6. Voyageur – Kathleen Edwards
7. Making Mirrors — Gotye
8. Something — Chairlift
9. Happy to You — Miike Snow
10. Silent Hour — Daniel Rossen