Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Clear Cut debuts on Sundance Channel

A couple years ago a fellow I know named Peter Richardson directed a documentary called Clear Cut: the Story of Philomath, Oregon which focused on the controversy surrounding the unique Philomath High School scholarship and the Clemens Foundation. As a graduate of PHS and native "Philomath-ian," Peter was in a unique position to be granted interviews with the big personalities involved in the conflict. The doc had its "premiere" here in Corvallis and was then shown at various film festivals throughout the country, winning several awards and ultimately playing at Sundance.

This week the film has its broadcast premiere on the Sundance Channel as part of Redford's new series "The Green." It is being promoted as an eco-film but that is, in fact, an oversimplification. Yes, environmental issues are addressed in it (particularly with regard to the logging industry), but the film is actually more of a fascinating insight into human nature and the role it plays in city-school politics; a microcosmic picture of our nation's culture war: the "battle" between newer, more liberal "politically correct" ideas and older, more "traditional," conservative values. Unlike a Michael Moore product, however, Clear Cut has no agenda. Telling its story without the use of a voice-over narration (which is actually very difficult to do), Clear Cut presents an incredibly objective and balanced portrayal of both sides of the argument. It highlights the complex issues that were involved in the town's nationally recognized story and shows that there is no real "clear cut" answer behind it. Were it not for the fact that I personally knew the director, I would never have been able to deduce his own perspective on the events from what is depicted onscreen. In addition to being one of the finest documentaries I've ever seen, it's one of the best works of cinematic journalism I've ever witnessed.

Finally, because the director is well-acquainted with me and my family, my sister Debra, who is currently trying to break into the music industry, was asked to compose the film's music score (her first effort in that area) and I think what she came up with was very good, similar to the kind of work produced by Phillip Glass for an Errol Morris documentary. Now, naturally I am, of course, biased in my opinion of both the film and its music, but don't take my word for it. If you get the Sundance Channel, check it out and decide for yourself. Clear Cut shows Friday, June 1st at 10:35 P.M. and Sunday, June 3rd and 3:35 P.M.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

DANNY ELFMAN: a highly personal musical journey

Danny Elfman turns 54 today and because it's been a while since I did one of these personal musical journeys (and with the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon less than a month away) I figured I'd take this opportunity to highlight some of my favorite scores by this supremely gifted composer/singer/songwriter who, along with the great John Williams, happens to be my all-time favorite maker of filmmusic. Unlike Williams, however, and as he is fond of reminding people, Elfman is completely self-taught (Hey, that’s okay, Danny! So was George Gershwin!). Yet no formal training, and a background that includes mostly garage rock bands (the most famous of which would be Oingo-Boingo), seems to have given Elfman a strangely subversive “counter-culture” postmodern musical voice. Elfman’s scores are highly instinctual, remarkably appealing and amazingly versatile. Bursting onto the scene in the mid-80’s, Danny has since established himself as a wholly unique presence in the world of movie music and has worked with such distinguished directors as Brian DePalma, Sam Raimi, Warren Beatty, Richard Donner, Taylor Hackford, Gus Van Sant and Peter Jackson. However, his most frequent collaborator has turned out to be the very man who gave him his first shot: the equally dark and twisted Tim Burton. The two have proven to be “brothers of the macabre.”

So, here are my favorite Elfman scores (in alphabetical order):

BATMAN – This is, in my opinion, Danny Elfman’s finest hour. Perfectly complementing Tim Burton’s vision of a dark and oppressive Gotham city, Elfman wrote an ominous, brooding score, typified by its character’s main theme (a simple ascending of five notes that he brilliantly weaves into a rich, multi-layered tapestry) which reaches its zenith of power in the cue “Descent into Mystery” (played during the scene where the Batmobile races at full speed back to its lair). Of course, Elfman gives the villain of the picture his own motif as well, but by going against our expectations and providing the Joker with something seemingly innocent and benign (such as a sweet-sounding lullaby or that lovely tune “Beautiful Dreamer”), Elfman makes the character even more chilling and frightening. I shall forever be haunted by “Face-Off” the exhuberantly joyous waltz that plays while the Joker gleefully empties round after round into his old boss (Jack palance) who betrayed him. Bombastic, intense, fast, exciting, lush, elegant, suspenseful and, at times, even sad... Elfman’s score covers a multituide of ideas and emotions. In the same way that John Williams’ theme for the first Superman movie embodied the tone and personality of that character so effectively that it informed all composers who would follow, so has Elfman created the quintessential “Batman sound” that has already become a classic. So much so that, although Elfman has clearly influenced all subsequent cinematic incarnations of the pointy-eared superhero, his work for the original Batman (and its sequel Batman Returns) is still far superior to what Elliot Goldenthal did for the two Joel Schumacher embarrassments or the throbbing James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer score for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It's interesting to me that two good composers working together couldn't produce something equal to the caliber of one great composer working alone.

BEETLEJUICE – This is such a fun soundtrack! Perfectly capturing the manic personality of its ghoulish title character (the hardly recognizable Michael Keaton), Elfman’s score bounces effortlessly back and forth between the bizarre and the lighthearted. At times dark and twisted, at other times harmlessly wild and wacky, Elfman’s music, like Burton’s film, plays like a perverse carnival ride. The catchy main theme, for example, provides us with the musical equivalent of a roller coaster (It’s interesting to note that when they made a Saturday morning cartoon from this movie, the opening title sequence had Beetlejuice and Lydia actually riding a roller coaster to said theme). Other highlights include “The Fly” (which for some strange reason showed uncredited up in a Tim Allen / Kirstie alley comedy called For Richer or Poorer) “Beetle-snake,” and the exciting finale (“It’s showtime!”)

BLACK BEAUTY – Listening to this soundtrack, one would never guess that it was written by the same guy who did Batman, Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and The Simpsons. Apparently writing the score after a rather emotional divorce with his first wife (similar to what inspired Dave Raksin's Laura theme), Elfman outdoes himself with this gorgeous, subtly understated gem. The movie, whose story focuses on a beautiful black horse and its many owners, is worth seeing, but the music makes for an emotional listening experience on its own. It’s hard to hear those meaningful melodies (filled with such longing) without being somewhat moved. This is a phenomenal score.

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – Considered by many to be his greatest and most poetic work, Elfman wrote a beautifully melancholy collection of cues for Tim Burton’s tragic fairy tale about an afflicted, childlike soul named Edward, the unfinished creation of a mad scientist, who yearns for love and acceptance and finds only fear and distrust. Sweet and sad to the extreme, filled with such brilliant pieces as “Storytime,” “Suburbia,” “Edwardo the Barber,” “Ice Dance,” “Cookie Factory” and Edward’s heartbreaking “Main Titles” theme, this score never fails to evoke some kind of emotion in the listener. Elfman himself has confessed that this is his personal favorite score and portions of his music have been incorporated into a recent ballet based on the film.

MEN IN BLACK – Taking a cue from some of his previous works (Beetlejuice comes to mind), and adding a slyly fresh spin on them, Elfman wrote a satirical score to accompany this clever sci-fi/comedy about a secret organization that protects Earth from alien scum. Elfman used an orchestra, lots of percussion and even an electric guitar to create something that is simultaneously eerie, exciting and humorous. Amazingly, it even manages to venture occasionally into the poignant (“D’s Memories”). The ultra-cool “Main Titles” theme perfectly captures the confident demeanor of our heroes in the dark suits and sunglasses. Elfman was FINALLY nominated for an Oscar for this movie.

MIDNIGHT RUN – Writing for a small band rather than a full orchestra, Elfman proves his versatility with this snappy, fast-paced and highly uncharacteristic work. Elfman was still working with Oingo-Boingo at the time that director Marty Brest asked him to write for this delightful action/comedy about a gruff bounty hunter (perfectly played by Robert DeNiro) trying to bring in a bail-jumping, million dollar embezzling accountant (hilariously played by Charles Grodin). A little bit of country, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, and even some rock thrown in for good measure, make this score a constant joy to listen to. It’s foot-tapping, finger-snapping good!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – Demonstrating that sometimes an artist can produce his best work when under heavy pressure (he was a last-minute replacement for the dismissed Alan Silvestri), Elfman wrote a moody, suspenseful score that aptly blends the classic 60’s style of Lalo Schifrin (who scored the original TV series) with very contemporary “Elfman-esque” sounds. At times the score is minimalism at its best (during the prickly “Red-Handed” or daring daylight “Heist”) while at others it is as big and bombastic as they come (as in the exciting Helicopter / train chase finale). Elfman makes good use of the show’s dynamic main theme on several occasions (as well as a slightly-lesser known Schifrin piece called “The Plot”) and manages to weave in elements of his own quirky personality. The slow-building, paranoia-inspiring “Mole Hunt” (which culminates in an explosion of horns and percussion to accompany the image of Tom Cruise leaping from a wall of water) and the disheartening “Betrayal” (as Cruise’s character discovers who the bad guy really is) are also outstanding pieces.

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS - Earlier I mentioned that I think Batman is Elfman's best work. Well, this effort runs a very close second. Collaborating again with Tim Burton, Elfman creates his "magum opus" in the musical / opera(etta) format. Though by now it needs no introduction, The Nightmare before Christmas is the tale of a melancholy skeleton named Jack who has grown dissatisfied with his work and wants to change, but finds that he unable to be anything other than himself. However, in learning to accept who he is, Jack discovers true happiness and contetnment (and the love of someone whom he might not have found otherwise). It is dark, funny, scary, sad, weird and very moving. It is, in other words, quintessential Elfman. The songs are eminently hummable. Memorably wacky numbers like "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," "This is Halloween," "The Oogie-Boogie Song," "Town Meeting" and probably my personal favorite "What's This?" are all outstanding pieces, but it is in the heartfelt "Jack's Lament" and "Sally's song" where the story's heart and soul lies. In the character of Jack Skellington, Elfman finds a true alter-ego through which to express his own voice (quite literally since Elfman provides the singing voice of Jack). As if the great songs weren't enough, Elfman also provides one of his best scores, working his own songs into the melodies of the pieces but never forgetting to emphasize the action or enhance the emotion of the scenes. Nightmare is, in short, a masterpiece. I've actually been thinking, for the past few years, that this story is simply begging to become a piece of musical theatre. If they can turn Lion King and Beauty and the Beast into stage musicals (and make a ballet out of Edward Scissorhands) why can't they do the same with Nightmare? It means, of course, that Elfman would have to write even MORE music to pad the story out to a reasonable length for an avarage show... but I wouldn't complain.

PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE – Elfman’s first movie score (and director Tim Burton’s first full length movie) still remains one of his best. Taking its cue from the film’s sardonic sense of humor, Elfman wrote a score of circus-like sensibilities that simultaneously evokes shades of Nino Rota / Federico Fellinini collaborations and old Warner Bros. animated shorts. Makes sense, since Burton was, after all, a former animator and the film has the feel of a live-action cartoon. So many great pieces, so little time! The Bernard Hermann-esque “Stolen Bike,” the sweet “Simone’s Theme,” the thrilling “Studio Chase” and the nightmarish “Clown Dream” are all marvelous pieces, but the most memorable composition would probably have to be “The Breakfast Machine.” I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. I remember first seeing the movie as a kid and not being able to shake the feeling that there was something different about the music. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it was somehow “new.” It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, but I liked it. Years later, after I had subsequently fallen in love with the score for Batman and the theme to the The Simpsons, Weird Science and the short-lived TV series Sledge Hammer, I made the shocking, but pleasant, discovery that they were all done by the same dude (I had a similar revelation about John Williams at one point too). That’s when I knew this guy was one of my favorite artists.

SPIDER-MAN – In the same way that he designed a signature "sound" for Batman, Elfman created a musical personality for the latest big-screen adaptation of a classic comic book hero. Like his percussion-heavy Men in Black (but without all the tongue-in-cheek aspects) Elfman wrote music that is sometimes heroic, sometimes sad, but always enjoyable. Like the Sam Raimi film (and its sequel), Elfman focuses on the inner struggles of Spider-man / Peter Parker (writing two distinctly separate, but nonetheless similar, themes for the two different identities of the character) and provides an emotional core for the character, never sacrificing the drama for the sake of the action or the suspense. Unfortunately, while scoring Spider-man 2, Raimi and Elfman has a HUGE falling out and apparently won't be working together again anytime soon. Though his themes were used, his influence was sorely missed in the third Spider-man film. Hopefully, Raimi and Elfman will reconcile (as Elfman and Burton eventually did after the "break-up" that followed their working on Nightmare together) because their artistic voices, if not perhaps their personalities, mesh extremely well.

HONORABLE MENTIONS - Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Good Will Hunting, Dick Tracy, Dolores Claiborne, Scrooged, Mars Attacks, Red Dragon

Monday, May 28, 2007

Earn this.


Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

And an extra special thanks to those who gave their lives so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have today.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

STAR WARS: the selling of a movie

Despite my rather crazy schedule now in preparing for a last-minute theatrical performance on Friday, I desperately wanted to participate in the STAR WARS blog-a-thon that Ed Copeland was hosting in commemoration of its 30th anniversary. Though this post doesn't deal with the STAR WARS series itself as much as it addresses the transformation of movie merchandising over the past few decades, my thinking on this subject was prompted by STAR WARS and, thus, I thought it would serve as a fitting contribution to this celebration of what is arguably the most influential franchise in movie history.


I doubt there are many who would deny the historic and cinematic significance of Star Wars, how when it was released in 1977 it "changed everything" (from the way we watch movies to the way movies were made), how it became a phenomenon of virtually unpredented proportions. While it may not have been the first "summer blockbuster event" movie (that "honor" belongs more to Steven Speilberg's Jaws released two years earlier) but it is probably the biggest movie event of all time, not just in terms of box office numbers but in how it penetrated the cultural cosciousness in a manner that no film has been able to accomplish since. If Jaws lit the fuse, Star Wars was the explosion.

Another area in which many have spoken of the influence of Star Wars was in the realm of movie marketing. By marketing I am referring primarily to merchandising. Star Wars was just as much a phenomenon in terms of toys, book, video games and other media, again, in numbers that had never been seen before. The merchandising became part of the event, but the Star Wars phenomenon was first and foremost a cinematic one. Before all else, it was a movie and everything else Star Wars-related (magazines, mugs, t-shirts, calendars, etc) built upon that foundation.

Of course, movie/TV merchandising was not a new concept. Grown-ups in the 70's (who had been children in the 50's and 60's) had already grown up with Davy Crockett coonskin caps, James Bond toy cars, Superman dolls and so forth, but with Star Wars merchandising had reached "critical mass," a sort of atomic explosion, and the movers and shakers in Hollywood began to see the enormous profit potential with extending a movie's success into other areas of entertainment. People have argued that since Star Wars Hollywood has basically been approaching movie merchandising in the exactly the same way, that the studios, their parent corporations and affiliates have all adopted the "Star Wars philosophy" of how to sell a movie. While it seems clear to me that it certainly started out that way, and remained that way for a while, I actually believe that that philosophy is now quite different.

I was recently watching Kevin Burns' Empire of Dreams, an excellent documentary about not only the making of the Star Wars movies but their legacy, and was struck by something that I had never really thought about before. One segment of the documentary focuses on the merchandising of the original Star Wars and, in particular, the infamous "empty box campaign" is discussed. Because Star Wars was not expected to be a big hit at all, the amount of toys produced in conjunction with it was minimal. When Star Wars took off the toy companies were caught completely by surprise and despite rushing to production were unable to meet the huge demand. Their plan of attack was to sell vouchers for Star Wars toys several months in advance. The customer would essentially buy an empty box with the promise that they would eventually get a Star Wars figure once enough had been manufactured.

In watching this, I realized that this was a tactic that would never EVER fly today, but in 1977 people were so hungry for Star Wars toys that they went along with it. As I remember my own childhood, I can understand this. My friends and I played with Luke, Han, Chewie, Vader and Obi-Wan figures in my backyard because we loved the movies and this was part of our way of sharing that love with one another. Owning Star Wars paraphernalia was a way to express one's affection for the movies. So, in a way, the attitude towards merchandising was (to use its most vulgar terms) to promote the movies. However, somehere along the way a shift took place. Whether that shift was sudden or whether it happened gradually I do not know, but it seems pretty clear to me that we live in an age where the concept of merchandising has radically altered from the 1970's.

If I were to try to depict the two distinct ideas in visual terms I would do so like this. The following diagram represents, accurately I think, the relationship between the movie and its merchandising tie-ins back in the late 70's-early 80's.


Notice that the Star Wars movies function as the central "entity" in the overall scheme, the main unit from which the various other merchandising outlets stem. This was because the Star Wars movies were essentially personal artistic expressions of their creator George Lucas. Star Wars was never produced with the sole intent of making money; they were produced with the intent of telling a story and communicating an idea held by their creator. The merchandising served as subsidiaries to that intent. Granted, there would have been people involved in the Star Wars series whose primary motivation was to make money (probably more at the executive level) but in general the money-making ventures of the various toy, clothing and book endeavors were merely extensions of the Star Wars movies.

This dynamic between the movies and their merchandising served adequately for many years (the model accurately represents, I think, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and even Gremlins), but by the time Batman was released in the summer of 1989, the "shift" was already taking place and by the end of turn of the millenium (a period of The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and even more Star Wars movies) the change had, to use Star Wars terminology, "now been complete." The emphasis on merchandising had reached a level of equal, if not perhaps even greater, importance to the movie itself. By this time, the quality of the movie wasn't nearly as crucial as the degree of which the merchandising was being consumed. This is probably the reason why the majority of these movies aren't that good anymore. They are merely one more element in a large multi-faceted, money-making corporate campaign.

I can recall my frustration in discovering, for example, that the second Matrix film (a movie which I was very much looking forward to) was going to be connected with a video game, entitled Enter the Matrix, which gave somewhat of a different perspective (an almost parallel storyline) to the events depicted in the film. It was going to contain details that could actually "deepen" one's understanding of the "Matrix universe." Thus, the accessibility of the films now relied on elements outside of the films themselves. Prior to the film's release there was also an anthology of animated vignettes (called the Animatrix) which provided some backstory to the first movie as well as further information on individual characters in the Matrix "mythology." In other words, fully understanding the Matrix movies now depended on playing the game and the viewing the animated DVD. The movies could no longer stand on their own. They relied on the merchandising for their comprehension and perhaps even existence (as opposed to Star Wars where the movies were "stand-alone" entities; the merchandising hinged on the movies rather than the other way around).

The visual that I think best represents this mode of thinking would be as follows:


Notice, now, that the merchandising is no longer an extension of the movie, because the movie itself has ceased to be the main "entity" in the overall picture. The movie is just part of an extensive package that is being sold to the public. If the movie was once considered the "body" of the octopus, it was now merely a "tentacle." Consequently this mode of thinking has started to affect the production of the films themselves. Kevin Smith tells of the period of time in which he was writing the screenplay for a re-launch of the Superman franchise (a script that would ultimately be rejected). In discussing the project with producer Jon Peters, Smith was encouraged to create characters of a certain nature (robots, aliens) such that a corresponding toy of them could be made and sold. The script was being altered not for artistic, storytelling purposes but merely for commercial merchandising intent. In this final regrettable step of the metamorphosis, the merchandising had become the main "entity" and the movie merely a subservient extension. Toys were no longer being produced to promote movies, the movies were being made to sell toys.

In the summer of 2007, predicted one of the biggest moneymaking summers in history, we find ourselves surrounded once again by a number of big-bidget Hollywood products including Spider-man, Shrek, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Transformers (a movie that, not coincidentally, derives its inspiration from a line of toys). Though the quality of these movies will certainly vary, the merchandising machines attached to each one are already in full swing. One cannot look anywhere without seeing fast-food tie-ins, comic book adaptations, video game commercials and so forth. As a movie-lover I find myself more more inclined to "buy the movie" rather than any of these other related products, but it doesn't escape my notice that what Star Wars created in innocence and naivete has grown to become an enormous "empire" of crass commercialism and has changed the identity of the public from movie-going audiences to mass market consumers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I guess I'm Henry Ford!

In addition to movies, another one of my passions happens to be the theatre. I have acted in and directed numerous local productions, but am not involved in any shows at the moment, nor was I intending to be for a while. So, you can imagine my surprise when my friend Mary Jeanne Reynales (the woman who directed me in Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago) showed up at my doorstep this morning asking me if I'd be willing to play Henry Ford. She is currently Ragtime. It closes this weekend (I had already purchased my tickets for Saturday night), but it turns out the actor portraying the part of Henry Ford had a conflict for Friday night. Despite the notoriety of the character, it's apparently a pretty small part (he only has one solo song which lasts about 96 seconds and is otherwise just a member of the chorus in the opening number). She told me that she thought of me because I can carry a tune, am a quick study when it comes to lines/blocking and, not least of all, I can fit into the costume.

Naturally I was flattered, but I had never seen Ragtime nor, quite frankly, know anything about it (aside from the fact that one of my friends loves it... primarily I think because Brian Stokes Micthell was in it). So, I borrowed her CD and listened to the two songs that I'd presumably be singing in. I thought they were both quite good. Thus, because the commitment was minimal (one night's performance only) and this was a something that I had never attempted before (stepping into a ready-made role almost practically at the "last minute"), I told her I'd do it.

Some actors simply dream the actor's nightmare, but I get to actually live it. If I can accomplish this task at a reasonably competent level, I'll feel pretty good about myself. It'll mean that I've conquered an acting challenge that I've never had to confront in my theatrical "career." Granted, it'll be a little weird to appear in a show before I've even had a chance to see it, but in all honesty I'm actually looking forward to this. I think it'll be fun. Oddly enough, I don't feel any stress or pressure about it. If I'd had more time to think about it-if I had been approached a week ago for example-I'd probably be nervous, but since I go on in three days, the truth is I don't really have any time to develop any worry.

Anyway, this should be interesting and I'll be sure to tell you all how it goes. In the meantime, I need to go listen to the CD about eighty-six more times between now and Friday... just to be safe.

Monday, May 21, 2007

And I used to like Richard Schickel!

Just in case you haven't already heard about this, in "Not Everybody's a Critic" Richard Schickel declares how "useless" bloggers are to the world of film/literary criticism (I guess it wasn't his first time doing so either). I'd like to respond to this but because I a) have a day job that I need to get to, b) am being kept rather busy in my spare time watching movies/writing about them for my upcoming "31 Days of Spielberg" project and c) am not a "real" critic (although Matt Zoeller Seitz, who I do consider a "real" critic, recently called me one), so whatever I have to say on the matter won't make any difference anyway, I'll just leave it to others to express their reactions.

-Warner Todd Huston at Newsbusters
-Ron over at Gallycat.
-Jason Comerford at One Letter at a Time.
-Josh Gettlin of the L.A. Times.
-Moviezz over at his blog.
-Alan Vanneman at Bright Lights After Dark.
-Ted Pigeon's open letter to Schickel at Cinematic Art.
-Chuck Tyron at Newcritic.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Coming this August: "31 Days of Spielberg"

Currently, over at Dennis Cazzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, there is a discussion about the film 1941 going on. I have already taken the time to chime in with my own two cents and, given the fact that many people probably already know me to be a tremendously huge Steven Spielberg fan, my opinion of the film might surprise some. One of the things that I said, though, in response to Dennis’ post (along with a couple other people I noticed) is that I am "always in the mood for a discourse about Spielberg." However, for some reason it seems as if whenever I'm involved in one, I spend most of my time vehemently defending his “artistic status." As a hardcore "Spielbergian" I feel like I am almost always, by default, his constantly on-call apologist. I tend to feel that most of his films, and not just the more “serious” ones, aren’t given nearly the level of appreciation they deserve. As a showman people seem to love Spielberg but as an artist I think he is grossly undervalued.

Then, last night, I got an idea. I think I am going to attempt an experiment, an undertaking that has been burning inside of me for a very, very long time. It is going to be a rather monumental enterprise and it's very possible, even likely, that I'll get halfway through it and, very much like Spielberg himself did in the middle of shooting Jaws, say to myself: "Why on earth did I agree to do this? What have I gotten myself into?" Nevertheless, it’s just something that I feel I should do; in fact, I think it is probably long overdue. I’m calling it 31 Days of Spielberg and it’s going to look like this: I will view each and every available Spielberg film, write a corresponding piece about it and then post them here on my blog, one a day throughout the entire month of August (31 days, 31 posts). The plan will be to start with his earlier work and then go through each film chronologically all the way up to the present.

So, the schedule would end up looking something like this:

DAY 1: Prologue
DAY 2: Night Gallery – “Eyes”
DAY 3: Columbo: Murder By the Book
DAY 4: Duel
DAY 5: The Sugarland Express
DAY 6: Jaws
DAY 7: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
DAY 8: 1941
DAY 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark
DAY 10: Poltergeist
DAY 11: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
DAY 12: Twilight Zone: the Movie – “Kick the Can”
DAY 13: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
DAY 14: Amazing Stories – “Ghost Train” & "The Mission"
DAY 15: The Color Purple
DAY 16: Empire of the Sun
DAY 17: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
DAY 18: Always
DAY 19: Hook
DAY 20: Jurassic Park
DAY 21: Schindler’s List
DAY 22: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
DAY 23: Amistad
DAY 24: Saving Private Ryan
DAY 25: A.I.: Artifical Intelligence
DAY 26: Minority Report
DAY 27: Catch Me If You Can
DAY 28: The Terminal
DAY 29: War of the Worlds
DAY 30: Munich
DAY 31: Epilogue


I can already see people out there shaking their heads in bewilderment and disbelief, the biggest question looming in their forefront of their minds probably being: “WHY SPIELBERG? Out of all the possible filmmakers you could have chosen, why him? With so many wonderful, talented, lesser-known artists out there in desparate need of attention, why pick the most popular, most financially successful and, quite frankly, most talked about director on the planet to write about? Hasn’t more than enough ink already been spilled on this man? Haven’t we heard his name and seen his iconic images far too many times already? I mean, even if you wanted to focus a prominent director, rather than an obscure one, then why not do Kubrick, Welles, Capra, Hitchcock, Allen, Eastwood, Scorsese, DePalma, Altman, Truffaut, Bergman or Coppolla? Just anybody but Spielberg. Why Spielberg?"

Well, there are a few reasons why I’ve chosen Spielberg.

First of all, while I admire all of the great directors previously mentioned, the truth is quite simply that I prefer Spielberg. They say that a blog resembles the personality of its host, and my personality is such that I happen to like Spielberg. So, why shouldn't my blog reflect that? I also know more about Spielberg than I do any other filmmaker. My own personal regard for the man has caused me to study his life and work more than any other filmmaker. I know a little about a lot of directors, but I know a lot about this one particular director. Furthermore, since I’ve started blogging, it has not escaped my notice that my knowledge and understanding of cinema's history, language and aesthetics is grossly insufficient (as opposed to when I’m in the video store talking to customers and I feel like an encyclopedia). As much as I love being a part of the film blogosphere and wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world, sometimes I feel terribly inadequate compared to some of my fellow cinephiles. I am not haughty or elitist enough to consider myself an extremely knowledgeable individual when it comes to movies, but I’d like to think I’m not completely ignorant of it. One comforting revelation to me was when I realized a while ago that when it comes to cinema you never completely “arrive,” you are a life-long student of film. So, I eventually accepted the fact that I will continue to learn about movies (and from movies) until the day I die. I learned from my friend Tucker (who opened my eyes to a whole world of films I had never been exposed to) in my first year in college that “I was an ‘expert’ in a subject that I really knew nothing about,” and everyday I am constantly being reminded of that fact. So, perhaps this is, in some ways, a bit of an “ego boost,” because this is a subject that I actually do know a lot about it. When it comes to Spielberg, I feel like I have something substantial to contribute to the conversation.

Finally, and this is probably the most important factor in my deciding to do the experiment, although it is true that a great deal has already been written about Spielberg, I tend to feel that a lot of the writing is spent focusing on the wrong things. I think Spielberg’s work, generally speaking, is not typically approached in the proper manner. Usually his movies are either addressed purely as entertainment (and consequently evaluated from that mindset) or are minutely dissected from a socio-political standpoint. On those rare occasions when they are analysed artistically, it’s usually from the perspective (unwarranted in my opinion) that they are sorely lacking; that their artistic merit is at best severely handicapped and at worst completely subverted by their commercial intent or desire to appeal to mass audiences. Obviously this is a contention that I do not agree with and I would like an opportunity to present my case for it. I just think this is the best way to do it: watch all the films and write a reaction to each one. This is not to say, of course, that I am going to give every movie a “free pass.” Not at all. I shall attempt, which as much honesty and integrity as I can muster, to give each movie as fair and objective critique as I possibly can. I can admit to being extremely biased in favor of Spielberg, but I can also concede that he possesses enormous weaknesses (particularly his tendency to over-dramatize emotions and wallow in sentimentality, a shortcoming that he himself has acknowledged) and that a number of his films are indeed highly flawed. Again, I’d like to think that I am not a "blind" Spielberg fan, but throughout my experiment I suspect I’m going to be more “open” to where his films are trying to take me than a lot of people are. I confess I am more pre-disposed to give him the benefit of the doubt whereas others might be more inclined, given his extreme level of popularity and success, to be harsher/stricter on him, but who knows? Maybe, throughout the course of all this, I'll become a more "balanced" Spielbergian and manage to find the middle ground.

I would also like to present this as a chance for others to share their own thoughts and opinions on his work. As I said before, I love talking about Spielberg and am always open to the opportunity to hear others do so as well. I would like to make it clear that anyone is welcome to join in and say whatever they like about Spielberg. Rest assured, I am not going to be monitoring the discussions with the intent of deleting anyone who disagrees with me. My only wish is that we can all remember to be polite, civil and respectful in our words. You do not have to temper your passion or emotions, whichever side you fall on. If you feel strongly about something, you are certainly more than welcome to express that, but my hope is that we can at least try to keep it from turning personal. I especially hope to hear from fellow Spielbergians Ted Pigeon and Matt Zoeller Seitz as well as perhaps some of the regular posters over at Spielbergfilms, a website that I have little doubt I'll make ample use of throughout the month of August in addition to reading, and in many cases re-reading, as many books on Spielberg that I can get my hands on (not to mention online interviews, DVD bonus features and other various sources of information).

I wish I could claim that there is something special about the month of August that makes it an especially suitable time to do this experiment, but alas there is not. There isn’t even anything singular about this particular year to make it a significant one in his life and/or career. There are no Spielberg films coming out soon (unfortunately) with which to mark this occasion. This just happens to be the time that this idea has come upon me and I wanted to do it as soon as possible before the summer ended (which I do think is appropriate given that Spielberg all but invented the phenomenon of the "summer blockbuster event" with Jaws), but not during the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon (which will no doubt keep me extremely busy) and after the month of July because that's when I take the first real vacation I've had in a very long time. Besides, I am going to need the time in advance to re-watch all of Spielberg’s films and compose something about each one. For the most part, this is a prospect I am looking forward to, especially for the films which I’ve seen only once (Amistad, Color Purple, A.I., Lost World and Sugarland Express). There are of course the films I never, ever tire of watching (Raiders, E.T. and Jaws) and the films that I truly treasure (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). It also means, unfortunately, that I have to sit through 1941 again (which I swore I’d never do), but I guess that’s life, isn’t it?

As the list indicates, I shall restrict myself (with the notable exception of Poltergeist for reasons I will get into later) to viewing only the films that Spielberg has directed. I don’t plan to examine the films that Spielberg has produced and/or executive-produced (Gremlins, Back to the Future, The Goonies, etc). Nor is my intent to discuss Spielberg the entrepeneur or Spielberg the studio head/executive. I want to focus on Spielberg the filmmaker. To watch the movies that bear his name (and not in the manner of “Steven Spielberg Presents,” but in the manner of “A Film by Steven Spielberg” or “A Steven Spielberg Film”). I will also, as much as I can, try to refrain from doing a “biography” of Spielberg. Though I know I will not be able to avoid discussing his personal life in some of my reviews (since I already know it informs a great deal of his work), I shall try to limit the degree to which I do so and only insofar as it applies to his professional career. It is for this reason that I have chosen to view the films in chronological order because I think Spielberg’s work can only be best appreciated in the context of where he (and the culture) was at the time. His career has been, at the very least, a unique journey and the changes he has undergone (not to mention we have undergone) are reflected in the work and in people’s reactions to them. I should prove to be a very stimulating, provocative and hopefully enlightening endeavor for all of us, not least of all myself.

There’s no telling what I’m going to look/sound like on the other side of this thing. By the end of it all I may be so over-saturated in “Spielberg-ness” that I am sick to death of his movies and never want to watch another one again. Then again, by immersing myself in his work, I may develop an even deeper respect for his gifts than I ever had before. I don’t know. At the very least, I hope that when all is said and done, I will have gotten most (if not all) of what I think and feel about Spielberg out of my system and will then finally be able to move onto other great directors of whom I can conduct an in-depth study. I may even find that I so enjoy experiencing a filmmaker's work (and then writing about it) in this manner that I decide to do at least one of these a year, always on a different artist. In the meantime, this is what I need to do for right now. So, if you happen to love Spielberg, hate him or are just indifferent to him, feel free to stop by Windmills during the month of August for my own private film-blogging experiment 31 Days of Spielberg.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Being Left "Breathless" by Pan's Labyrinth

It feels almost providential that last night was the night I chose to watch Breathless for the first time because when I got online today I happened upon this article at Moviezzz, where its Criterion release is all but announced, as well as finding this 6-month old post on Culture Space via the "external favorite" links on the blog Critical Culture. In both cases, be it from the cartoon "clue" or the photograph of the lovely Jean Seberg, I wouldn't have otherwise known what film served as the subject of these posts.

What finally prompted me to do Breathless, despite the fact that I felt any self-respecting cinephile has to have seen it, was that I recently watched a documentary entitled The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (which may perhaps prove the subject of an upcoming post) wherein the film's innovative quick-cutting style was prominently featured. I also viewed Truffaut's Day For Night (which I positively adored) not too long ago and although I am embarassed to admit that I had yet to see a single Godard film (aside from the opening shot of Contempt) the fact that this story was at least partially written by Truffaut automatically elevated it in my eyes.

At any rate, I quite liked it. I thought the two leads were great and I thoroughly enjoyed the film's style. I'm not sure I "get" it yet. I think I need to see it at least a couple more times to unwrap its intricacies, but that is a prospect which I am not at all opposed to. I don't really know too much about Godard or his films (aside from his notorious ad hominem attacks on Spielberg, which don't exactly endear him in my eyes) but I'm willing to learn.


On a completely unrelated note, I finally got to watch Pan's Labyrinth on Sunday (it comes out on DVD today) and was completely captivated by it. I wanted to see it in the theatre but for a variety of reasons didn't get the chance. Now, of course, I can't believe I waited so long because it was an excellent film; a beautiful, disturbing fantasy (a superb "fairy tale for adults" as people like to call it). I won't say too much about it because so much has already been said, but it did have the effect, among other things, of making me want to watch all of Guillermo Del Toro's films. I'd already seen Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy (all of which I thought were great) but now I feel like I need to check out Cronos and Devil's Backbone as well. So many movies, so little time.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

The "Noir-ness" of Body Heat

Before creating the enthusiastically optimistic Western Silverado, before almost singlehandedly starting the “oldie-scored nostalgia” film genre (thank you very much, Cameron Crowe) with The Big Chill and before interweaving multiple stories into a deep and richly textured study of racial prejudice and urban living in modern day Los Angeles (pre-dating Crash by a good 14 years) in Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan-then known primarily as the co-writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back (movies that, for my money, represent the best of their trilogies) brought to theatre audiences in 1981 one of the sexiest, most stylish and most thoroughly engaging pieces of neo-noir to grace the silver screen in a long time. I am talking, of course, about Body Heat.

By the late 70’s/early 80’s, film noir had become virtually non-existent. Several directors had attempted to recreate this much beloved and time-honored type of film but, aside from a few notable exceptions, with little success unfortunately. This prompted many film scholars and historians to declare, as many still do today, that film noir was essentially a dead genre. Film noir, as the intellectual elite elucidated, was the kind of movie that resulted from a very specific economic, cultural and socio-political climate: namely post-WWII. Thus, outside of that particular period of history, film noir didn’t (and couldn’t) exist. Like the screwball comedy, noir was only a temporal manifestation in motion pictures; a fond memory of a bygone era. It was great while it lasted, but it wasn’t coming back. Flying in the face of this conventional wisdom, Lawrence Kasdan attempted to prove that film noir was not only alive, it could actually be more relevant than ever. However, while selecting a genre that many consider to be long-deceased may be a bold move for any filmmaker, doing so for your debut picture is practically suicidal. If he was going to make it work, Kasdan needed to demonstrate a thorough knowledge and understanding of the material; a firm grasp of the “essence” of noir, not just its surface. He needed to reproduce both the form and the function of film noir.

To accomplish this, Kasdan turned to one of the most perfect, and most iconic, examples of film noir to come out of Hollywood: Billy Wilder’s classic Double Indemnity. The premise of a man who has an affair with a married woman and eventually conspires to murder her rich husband and inherit the insurance money seemed like appropriate fodder for a film that was going to deal with the darker, uglier side of human nature (as film noir, by definition, does) but rather than attempt to carbon copy Wilder’s masterpiece, Kasdan wisely uses it merely as the “starting point” from which he then ventures off into different territory, creating his own characters with their own dynamics, his own environment with its own atmosphere and his own distinct story with its own twists and turns. While it does indeed parallel Double Indemnity in many key spots, this endeavor allowed Kasdan to bring his own unique vision to the process, his own “take” on the subject matter. Body Heat is not a remake of Double Indemnity, nor is it, to use contemporary nomenclature, a “re-imagining.” It is an original story that simply derives it’s inspiration from the classic movie, but which also stands on its own as a fine piece of filmmaking.

Kasdan begins by “upping the ante” with the film’s locale. While Indemnity took place in the heart of Hollywood, Body Heat opens in Florida during one of the hottest summers of the state’s history. With temperatures at an all-time high, and people’s comfort levels at an all-time low, Kasdan establishes a world of intense irritability and tangible sensuality, where tampers can flare up at any moment and passions can ignite just as easily. In the film’s opening scene, after a wonderfully moody main title sequence, we are introduced to Ned Racine (William Hurt), a shady lawyer whose incompetence annoys judges but proves surprisingly effective in the courtroom. He is a none-too-bright character, doing most of his "thinking" not with his brain but with a certain other part of his anatomy. Still, Hurt plays him with such an earnestness and charming aloofness that he is eminently appealing. The first glimpse we get of Ned, he is standing shirtless in his apartment, having just done the “horizontal tango” with a waitress acquaintance of his (not unlike John Gavin’s character in the introductory scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho), sweating as he stares out the window at a large fire burning across the town that is nearly lighting up the night sky, another in a string of arson incidents plaguing the area. This time, however, the building being destroyed is from his own past, a place of personal relevance to him (his family used to eat there when he was a child). “My history is burning up out there,” he says to the unsympathetic woman lounging on his bed. Something valuable to him is being taken away. Alas, it is a harbinger of events to come; the first of many things he is will lose before the film is over.

As is always the case with these kind of stories, there is a woman, a gorgeous woman, a sexy woman, a dangerous woman. Her name is Matty Walker and she is played by the then unknown Kathleen Turner in her first film performance. I have long been of the opinion that Turner (much like Cybil Shepherd) was born at least three decades too late. Had she been around in the 30’s and 40’s she would not only have been a star (as she is now), she would have been an icon. There is a classical element to her beauty, a sort of “old Hollywood” allure that truly shines in this film. She's like a young Lauren Bacall, finely-chiseled features, husky voice, smarmy demeanor... She is, in other words, the ideal woman for this kind of role. While watching some of the more recent attempts at noir, it occurred to me that there aren’t many actresses that can convincingly pull off these kind of “black widow” characters anymore; who can balance both the danger and the attraction without it seeming incongruous; who can be tough, hardened women without seeming like they’re just weaklings pretending to be strong; who can be drop-dead gorgeous without looking like they’re just posing and preening (Scarlet Johanssen? I don’t think so). Turner was a rare breed and Kasdan could not have cast his femme fatale more perfectly.

When Ned first lays eyes on Matty in her all-white dress (in true film noir fashion) he is immediately taken by her… and so are we. He approaches her and engages in the kind of dialogue that we just don’t hear in movies anymore.

NED: I need tending. I someone to take care of me, someone to rub my tired muscles, smooth out my sheets.
MATTY: Get married.
NED: I just need it for tonight.

Scenes like this emphasize another major difference between Body Heat and most other recent attempts at film noir: this story is set in a modern-day world (or what was modern in ’81). Although it is, again, a risky venture to try to capture the essence of film noir outside of its post-WWII setting, Kasdan boldly drops all pretense of “period” and makes his neo noir truly “neo,” a modern story with very modern sensibilities and attitudes. As in What’s Up, Doc?, Peter Bogdonavich’s love letter to screwball comedy (especially Bringing Up Baby), Body Heat still has a number of the “trappings” of the genre but they have been updated and modernized. Paradoxically, this makes the elements a far “purer” translation of the original than if Kasdan were to simply imitate them. The verbal exchanges in Body Heat, though far more blunt and graphic than the old Hays Code would have ever allowed, are fundamentally of the same ilk that Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck traded forty years earlier. The flirtation may have become more overt but the motivation is still the same... as is the result.

Eventually, in what is probably the film’s most memorable sequence (I saw it spoofed on an episode of Moonlighting once), Ned finally seduces the beautiful blonde (or is SHE the one really doing the seducing?) after she invites him over to her house to look at her... *ahem* windchimes. She teases him a little bit, locks him out and then stands staring at him through the window. Finally, Ned tosses a lawn chair through the glass, rushes in and takes her right there at the base of the staircase. The scene is incredibly sexually charged, not because of what it shows but rather because of what it doesn’t show. Kasdan demonstrates that the artist's most powerful tool in making a movie of this nature is the audience’s imagination. To help cut the film, Carol Littleton (future editor of E.T.) was hired, perhaps to present a "female" perspective on the love-making, and it seems to me that her presence helps give these scenes, as aggressive as they are, a somewhat romantic, almost lyrical, quality; a sort of (dare I say it?) sensitivity that makes it all seem far more potent and meaningful than just two people screwing. Despite its very lurid title, Body Heat is NOT a pornographic movie (though it did cause a bit of stir when it was released), but it is an extremely erotic movie. There are no “money shots” in it. The nudity is mostly implied and the sexual acts themselves always occur outside of the frame. This is, as it turns out, very consistent with the film’s themes. This is a story about desire, not satisfaction; about the illusion of something versus the reality. At any rate, the sex scenes are certainly steamy, but they feel more explicit than they actually are.

Before long, Ned has become obsessed with the woman and after meeting her creep of a husband (Richard Crenna who, ironically played the Fred MacMurray role in an embarrassingly bad television remake of Double Indemnity) realizes that the only way he can ever truly have Matty is if Crenna were out of the way. Though he does fight the temptation, to quote MacMurray, "he doesn't fight hard enough,” Ned eventually succumbs and in one of the film’s best shots, Ned and Matty embrace in his office while he drops the “bomb” and tells her that they are going to kill her husband for no other reason than they want him dead (“He doesn’t deserve it. Let’s not ever say that.”). As they look intensely into each other’s eyes, the camera shoots them both in profile and then slowly starts to ascend up toward the ceiling until it is looking down on the two of them.

MATTY: It's real then?
NED: It’s real, all right... and if we’re not careful it’s gonna be the last real thing we do.

It’s a haunting moment and the great John Barry is right there with his music to support it. His main theme swells with a series of rising notes (accompanying the visual elevation) and becoming equal parts passionate, mysterious, dramatic and frightening. While on the subject, I should probably mention that Barry’s lush, jazzy score for the film is not only one of his best efforts but one of the best examples of its kind. Though the principal instrument is a sax, Barry uses his entire orchestra to its full advantage. The main theme is quite hummable and captures the sultry essence of the film beautifully. It’s a great score by a great composer.

I should also point out that the cinematography is another outstanding element in the film. Though using a lot of the traditional motifs of noir (dark shadows, sparse rooms, ceiling fans, foggy nights and those all-too familiar Venetian blinds), cinematographer Richard H. Kline, following Kasdan’s lead, doesn’t just transpose the “look” of classic noir to contemporary color. He creates a thoroughly modern-looking film, marrying the gritty with the glossy and creating a very “balanced” final product, where the camera can move with confidence (swaying and swooping in a balletic fashion) but also knowing when/where to let it rest in a static shot and simply allow its characters to inhabit the screen. He also manages to capture the titular "heat" quite brilliantly (not just the sexual heat but the actual, physical heat). This film really does look hot and humid. You almost feel like perspiring just watching it. Finally, he knows how to tell a story and/or communicate an idea visually. There’s a moment later in the film, long after the murder has been committed, where Matty and Ned are standing in a room arguing with each other. By this point, things have begun to go bad and the facade of their relationship is starting to come crumbling down. Things are spiraling out of control and they are beginning to feel differently about each other. Kline captures this by shooting them standing on opposite sides of the frame, emphasizing the distance that lies between them (whereas earlier in the film, they were always intimately close in shots, literally “on top of each other”). It’s beautifully stylish, and yet at the same time absurdly simple, camerawork.

I haven’t yet mentioned any of the colorful supporting characters who provide Body Heat with some of its most entertaining moments. J.A. Preston plays Oscar Grace, an investigator (more or less the equivalent of Edward G. Robinson’s “Keyes,” though not nearly as charismatic) who slowly, and reluctantly, begins to suspect his friend Ned might have had something to do with the murder. A young Mickey Rourke plays Teddy Lewis, an explosives expert who helps Ned with his murder weapon: a time bomb intended to make the murder look like a simple accident that occurred during a botched arson crime. Rourke doesn’t have much screen time but he does have one of the best lines in the film: "Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you're gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you're a genius... and you ain't no genius." Coincidentally, there’s a virtually identical line in Coppolla’s adaptation of the Grisham novel The Rainmaker, which also stars Rourke.

The best character in the entire film though is Ned's sleazy lawyer friend and competitor Peter Lowenstein (marvelosuly played by Ted Danson). He posseses even less moral fiber than Ned does, and has no qualms in frequently making that known, but he is nonetheless incredibly likable and manages to effortlessly steal every scene he's in because, in a magnificently inspired bit of weirdness, his deepest desire is apparently to be Fred Astaire. Everywhere he goes, Danson is dancing. He is incapable of simply picking up his coat and walking out of a room. He has to grab the coat with flair, do a little turn and slide out the door (“They can’t buy me. I don’t come cheap.”). There is a wonderful nighttime scene near the end of the film where Danson is waiting on the end of a pier for Ned to come by, as he always does, while jogging. Naturally Danson can’t just stand around doing nothing. He simply has to be dancing and Kasdan virtually stops the movie to allow us to watch him step, leap and twirl across the wooden boards for a few brief seconds before Ned arrives.

STELLA: Why does he do that?
NED: He’s pretty good. That’s the weird part.

It’s a great character and a bravura performace, arguably some of Danson’s best work.


*SPOILER FOLLOWS*

The final image of Body Heat is, along with Being There, perhaps one of the most ambiguously satisfying ones I have ever seen in a film. Unlike Double Indemnity, where the villainess is ultimately punished for her crime, Matty gets away. Ned discovers (via a high school yearbook he had delivered to his cell) that she was never who she said she was; that she had assumed the identity of someone else allowing her to disappear and live exactly the kind of existence she’d always wanted: “a rich and prosperous life in an exotic land somewhere.” The final shot, done entirely in close-up, shows Matty reclining on a tropical beach looking off as some nearby man comments on the heat. Matty, lost in her own thoughts, doesn’t hear him and so asks him to repeat it. When he does, she agrees and puts on a pair of sunglasses. I always loved this ending because it seemed to suggest to me that the last words she said to William Hurt, before she was "killed," might have indeed been true; that she did love him and that although she had now gotten everything she always wanted, it wasn’t enough for her. She wasn’t satisfied. She felt guilty for what she did to her lover and now she couldn’t even enjoy it all. That’s why she put on the sunglasses, so nobody could see the regret in her eyes. To me, this seemed consistent with the Stanwyck character from Indemnity (not her fate so much as her apparent “change of heart”).

Viewing the film again recently though, I was struck by something else in this last shot. As it turns out, there isn't necessarily anything substantial in Turner’s performance to indicate a “change of heart.” Her lines are delivered not with a sense of sorrow or regret, but with a lack of emotion. Her delayed response to her unseen male companion does not necessarily reflect introspection on her part but instead perhaps sheer boredom. Her final gesture of putting on the sunglasses, rather than an attempt to hide her humanity, could simply be a demonstration of a cold heart and a calculating mind. Perhaps there is no humanity there to hide. Perhaps Ned’s final diagnosis was right. Matty was someone who would do “whatever it takes” because she was the ultimate femme fatale.

This mystery of Matty’s true state of “soul,” this elusiveness of her inner workings, makes her all the more interesting, and simultaneously maddening, of a character. Although both Kasdan and Turner have said they believe Matty was sorry about what she did in that last shot, I don’t think it’s an accident that they decided nonetheless to construct the film's final image in a rather “non-specific” manner leaving more than one way to interpret it. Her face is almost like a blank canvas onto which we can project our own inner wishes and desires. How we interpret Turner’s expression at that moment says more about us than it does about Matty. What do we want her to be thinking? Do we want her to feel bad? If so, is it not possible that have we also been duped, in much the same way that Hurt’s character was, into believing there’s an actual human being beneath that flawless exterior? Could the final joke be on us? In any case, it’s a brilliant "capper" to the film.


*END OF SPOILER*

When you watch Body Heat now, it certainly has the characteristic of coming out of a certain time and place, namely the 80’s: a decade characterized by greed and excess, and these qualities are typified not only in the film’s content and themes but in the film’s aesthetic as well. Body Heat is a very sumptuous movie loaded with larger-than-life characters, melodramatic emotions and extreme circumstances, but these are all staples of film noir. What impresses me most about it when I view the film, what jumps out at me, are the film’s subtleties. Kasdan’s touches of humor, irony and sometimes just flat-out bizarreness (such as the shot involving a clown which I'm still not 100% sure I understand) that make it just as much "post-modern" as modern. There is a scene where Matty buys Ned a gift: a hat. Not just any hat though, one of those sharp grey fedoras with a black band; the kind of hats worn by EVERYONE in classic film noir. He tries it on and she laughs at him because it does look a little awkward on him. The filmmakers simultaneously “tip to their hat” to what has come before and bring it into the modern era by acknowledging its age and absurdity. This gives Body Heat, I think, a somewhat timeless quality.

Body Heat is a very self-aware example of film noir (it almost borders on satire at times) and Kasdan’s intent, much like his delightful Western Silverado, is clearly to have fun with the genre, to share his passion for the material and hopefully create an enjoyable viewing experience for the audience as well. This he absolutely does. Whether there is anything deeper going on is debatable. Steve Jenkins once wrote that “film noir, if it is to be successfully reworked, needs to be approached with a sense of analysis, rather than simple excess.” This is a criticism that could perhaps levelled at Body Heat, but I tend to feel that the film's strengths overcome its weaknesses. There have been a variety of different attempts to do film noir in the last thirty years. Some have cleverly transposed a “noir narrative” to a different setting (Brick, Blade Runner), some have more or less spoofed the elements of noir (The Big Lebowski, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sin City, The Man Who Wasn’t There) and some have tried simply to re-create it in its original form, both successfully (L.A. Confidential, Devil in a Blue Dress, Chinatown) and unsuccessfully (Mulholland Falls, The Black Dahlia, The Two Jakes). Body Heat is one of those rare neo-noir films in that it employs (I would argue even celebrates) the language and iconography of the genre while bringing it into a present-day paradigm in an attempt to highlight the disparity between the two eras and yet simultaneously emphasize their similarities (the only other films I can think of that do this are Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Robert Benton's woefully under-appreciated Twilight with Paul Newman). After all, did not the 80's and 90's (and now the twenty-first century) have its fair share of "darkness" and be just as capable of producing "noir" stories as the 40's and 50's? I think so.

In spite of everything else, and although it may be disputable whether or not the film succeeds at its intended goal, Body Heat is in the end, a damn good entertaining movie and it's one that I happen to have (along with my father who first introduced me to it) great personal affection for.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Oh, the Irony!


Not that I am trying to load this blog with Spider-man or Star Wars-themed posts, but I found this little tidbit from IMDB amusing:

George Lucas has joined the major newspaper critics in their negative appraisal of Spider-Man 3. In an interview with FoxNews.com's Roger Friedman, Lucas said, "It's a silly movie. ... There just isn't much there. Once you take it all apart, there's not much story, is there?"

So, George, you thought Spider-man 3 was "silly," eh? It "didn't have much story," did it? Well, it's not that I necessarily disagree with you, but, REALLY, George... "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Post Was With Them After All

Recently I wrote a blog about a photo my friend Erin took. It was of a friend of hers slipping a letter into one of those "R2D2" mailboxes that the post office has borught out in commemmoration of Star Wars' 30th anniversary. Apparently since then the photo has really taken off receiving hundreds of comments and thousands of "views" on sites like Digg, Flickr and Reddit as well as being featured on blog after blog after blog. The best part of it all though, as I found out from her family at church this morning, is that apparently Erin received an e-mail yesterday from an employee at ILM who said they are currently passing the photo around the office and that everyone is getting a huge kick out of it. This means it's actually very possible that George Lucas himself might get to see the image.

Now, it really doesn't get much cooler than that.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Will the REAL Spider-man please stand up?

There’s a moment in Spider-Man 3 when Kirsten Dunst asks Toby Maguire, “Who are you?” As I sat beside my younger brother at a Midnight showing of the film, I realized this has been the primary question of the entire Spider-man series. The opening line in the first film is “Who am I?” and the last line answers it (“I’m Spider-man.”). The same question and answer are then repeated in the opening narration of the sequel (“Who am I? I’m Spider-man given a job to do.”). In some form or another this question has surfaced in each Spider-man movie, the search for identity being the key "journey" that the protagonist Peter parker/Spider-man has had to wrestle with repeatedly and answer almost constantly. In Spider-man 3, however, the question is asked not by Peter himself but by Mary Jane (which actually echoes a moment in the first film where she, having just been saved by Spider-man, asks “Who are you?” to which he replies “You know who I am.”) after a particularly uncharacteristic display of selfishness from Peter. His lack of self-examination, his complete resignation to his own darker instincts (exacerbated, of course, by a symbiotic alien life form that has latched onto him), his indulgence in his baser desires, has more or less created a "monster," it has turned him into an egomaniac and he has ended up alienating the people around him who care about him.

I mention all of this because one could almost say that the Spider-man series, like the Spider-man character, has fallen victim to this very phenomenon. It's almost as if life has imitated art and the movies have become the very thing that they are dramatising. It was only two short years ago that Spider-man 2 was being hailed as the “greatest comic book movie ever,” making some critics’ top ten lists and receiving almost universal praise across the board. Both it (and its predecessor) ended up with about a 90% on rottentomatoes. The latest one, however (despite being one of the most highly anticipated films of the year) seems to have left more people dissatisfied than not. Currently it's "tomato-meter" reading is around 60% and opinions seem to range from lukewarm to negative, from mildly pleased to outright hostile. To a certain degree, of course, all this won't really matter as the film is sure to rake in tons of money at the box office (reports say it has already had the largest opening day ever) but what will word of mouth be like? Are people loving the film? Not really.

So, what happened? What could have transpired to make the Spider-man series, recently so "on top of the world," fall so low in so many people's eyes? Have the filmmakers lost themselves somewhere along the way? Have Raimi and his actors fallen prey to the same kind of arrogance that Peter has in the film? Have they let all the financial success of the first two films (not to mention the attention and adulation that was heaped on them for the sequel) go to their heads and consequently affect their work? Well, it’s certainly possible. In 2004, long-time friend and collaborator of Sam Raimi, composer Danny Elfman, shocked filmmusic fans by saying that scoring Spider-man 2 was a “miserable experience” and that he would never work with Sam Raimi again. Elfman has been quoted as saying: "My connection to Sam got completely severed. As far as I'm concerned, he went to sleep and somebody put a pod next to him and when he awoke, he wasn’t the same person I've known for a decade." This is probably just a coincidence but it’s interesting that the language Elfman uses to describe Raimi’s “change in personality” almost exactly parallels what occurs to Peter's possession by the alien force in this film.

There is another possibility to consider though, one that is a bit less comforting to us but no less plausible. Perhaps the fault lies not in the filmmakers but in us: the audience. It could be that the level of expectation brought to the film has resulted in an almost self-inflicted sense of disappointment. Were our hopes too high? Were we not approaching the film with the right attitude or mindset? Well, one certainly has to acknowledge the possibility. I am not necessarily suggesting that the film is perfect because I don't think it is. I am not trying to suggest that it has no flaws because I believe it does, but maybe the flaws appear bigger in our eyes than they actually are because of our inflated level of gratification. Some people, for example, have said they positively cringed during a montage in which Peter is seen indulging in his “bad” side: wearing black, pulling his hair in front of his eyes, strutting down the street a la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and just generally making a fool of himself. Whether these folks are cringing because they are embarrassed for Peter or they are embarrassed for the filmmakers is unclear, but either way that particular sequence seems to really upset some people. “Corny," "campy" and "lame" are terms being used to describe the sequence (as well as “doesn’t belong in a Spider-man movie”). Yet, a virtually identical (and I would argue equally as “corny”) montage in the second film depicting Peter getting his life back on track (doing well in school, walking down the street happy; all to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") didn’t seem to arouse nearly the level of venom (no pun intended) being directed at this one. What exactly is the difference? Is there even one and if so, where does it lie? Is it in the movies or is it in us?

Another criticism that has been aimed at Spider-man 3 is that it “tries to tackle too much” (I believe one critic has cleverly observed that “Crash didn’t have this many sub-plots”) including no less than three villains. I think this is a fair criticism and could be, as I said before, an indicator of the filmmakers thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. And yet nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that another highly praised and very successful recent comic book movie, Batman Begins, also took on quite a bit in its story (and, incidentally, also had three villains in it). Not to sound haughty myself here or anything, but I recall that I was one of the few people out ther saying that maybe Nolan and his crew should have been a teensy bit less ambitious with Batman Begins (though I still loved the movie). Again, where exactly does the difference lie? Is there really such a huge difference between these films or are we just approaching them differently?

What makes this question of particular interest to me is that I see hardly any difference at all between the three Spider-man films. It is rather puzzling to me that so many people see such a vast disparity in quality between the first and the second movies as well as between the second and the third movies. I remember having a similar opinion of people’s response to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Those who raved about the first one seemed to really despise the second whereas I found them to be more or less the same film. I went into Pirates 2 with pretty much the same expectation that I took to the original and I wasn’t really that disappointed (I plan to do the same for the third). Am I suggesting that we should lower our expectations going into a movie so we’ll be happier with the finished product? Of course not, but I do wonder how “open” a lot of us are for the “kind” of movie that is being produced for us; how much resistance we put up for where the filmmakers want to take us.

This is a bit tangential here, but there’s another scene in Spider-man 3 when Peter starts to cry because something emotionally devastating happens to him. At that moment a rather obnoxious fellow in the theatre started laughing hysterically. I was a little annoyed (even angry) at this outburst because I found it to be a very genuinely moving moment (and a fine piece of acting by Maguire) and his mocking seemed like a deliberate attempt to let everybody know he was too “cool” to be caught up in the drama of what was happening on screen as well as an attempt to sabotage anyone else's being caught up either. Did he not know that there was going to be an element of this in Spider-man 3? Did he not see the first two films (which spent just as much time on their characters' relationships as they did on the action and special effects)? Later I realized that I probably should have anticipated something like that occurring because before the movie started I glanced around and observed that, in a sold-out audience of hundreds of people, I was the oldest one there (I am 30) and it has not escaped my notice that young movie-goers today are becoming increasingly more impatient with their art/entertainment and cynical in their attitudes toward it. During the action scenes everybody was more than happy, but seemed to be a bit restless during scenes that dealt with the Peter and Mary Jane's relationship or the heartfelt conversations between Peter and Aunt May. For me, on the other hand, it was almost the opposite. A lot of the time I was more engaged by the dialogue scenes than I was by the action scenes, particularly the first one (a fight between Peter and Harry) where I admit I actually had some difficulty distinguishing what was going on sometimes. At any rate, I suspect these are probably the same individuals who cheered during the battle sequences in Lord of the Rings but gagged when Frodo and Sam actually showed some affection for each other (I also remember the audience loving the action sequences in Jackson's King Kong but overheard someone whispering "This is sooo gay" during the scene on the frozen lake). To quote Jonathan Schmock in Ferris Beuler's Day Off: "I weep for the future."

I waited 48 hours before writing anything about Spider-man 3, because I thought I should let it “digest” a little bit. It's not that I don't know what to think of Spider-man 3. I know what I think of it. I just don't know what to think of what I think of it (I also don't know yet what to think of what other people think of it). I am not a big fan of “knee-jerk” critiques. So I wanted to get away briefly from the experience before formulating an opinion ("committing" to a particular "take" on it if you will) and sharing it with the world. I also wanted to wait and see how other people responded to it and whether or not their experiences matched my own. For the most part, I seem to be somewhat in the minority. I confess that I got very caught up in the film, but whether that was due to the quality of the movie itself or to the opening night atmosphere I’m still not sure. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Spider-man 3 and found it to be of essentially the same "ilk" as the first two. Granted, it’s probably the least of the three (with the first one still being the best IMO) but it is in no way a bad movie. It is certainly not, as some have claimed, “crap.” I could get more into the specifics of what I thought worked in the film (almost any scene with James Franco) and what could've been done better (at times it almost felt like Spider-man: the musical) but this post is already too long. Those particulars I shall have to save for another time, perhaps after I've seen it again (as I think back on it right now I realize that I saw the first two movies twice in the theatre, so I probably shouldn't give the third any less regard). As my friend Tucker, or Cineboy, likes to say: “You’ve never really seen a film until you’ve seen it three times.” I tend to agree. It's really on subsequent viewings that a film’s organic unity and artistic value (or lack thereof) come more into focus. Subtleties that were missed the first time get seen, things that were first perceived as flaws possibly become strengths and other (perhaps more glaring) flaws that went unnoticed initially become more apparent. Perhaps Spider-man 3 will go up in my estimation. Perhaps not. I don’t know. At this point I will just say that should this prove to be the last Spider-man film, I don't think it is that bad of a note to go out on. I do not share the opinion, articulated by some, that this series has run dry of inspiration, that there is nothing left to do with these characters or with this world. I think there are still some interesting places to go and directions to take these characters (there's certainly a lot more stories left untold from the film's source material: the comic books) and I'm not ready just yet to give up on Raimi and his gang. There might still be some spin left in this spider after all.