Friday, February 27, 2015

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

(As kind of makeshift tribute to the late Vulcan, I use arguably the best film he's ever done to bash the remake--affectionately, affectionately, of course. You can I suppose visualize the scale and intensity of my regard for the former, from the scale and intensity of the dents on the latter)

(Warning: important story points discussed in close detail!)

The rap on Khan
Have not the time to do a properly researched and reviewed post on the brand new Star Trek movie, so I suppose this will suffice for now.

Hated the action. I'd hope that J.J. Abrams' previous foray into feature filmmaking, Mission Impossible III would prove to be only an anomaly, but no, this is apparently the filmmaker's signature style: handicam footage so shaky only an epileptic viewer could make sense of it, cut together so swiftly and in such a confusing manner audiences have to watch the film twice to understand what's happening, who it's happening to, and why (which may be the intent all along).

I've seen better. Nicholas Meyer's The Wrath of Khan is funnier, more thrilling, more poignant overall (maybe it's my taste, but watching a bunch of kids find their destiny isn't half as moving as watching a bunch of aging has-beens realize their destiny has pretty much passed them by, or is at the point of doing so. Plus, of course, there's the treat of watching Kirk get his comeuppance--I mean, finally come to terms with the 'no-win scenario').

But it's more than a crotchety old fart thinking the old ways are best, I think (well, I hope). Two reasons why:

1) The action. Not just that Meyer took his time with his shots and edited them together coherently, but that he gave the battle sequences a distinct look and feel, like that of sailing ships of old. The Enterprise in Khan was shot and lit to look like a magnificent man-o'-war, with the engine nacelles resembling masts, and the control saucer tilting to the left or right like a mainsail.

It isn't just the resemblance; the ships moved like naval vessels, snuck past each other around a moon the way warships snuck around an island or peninsula. When they attacked, they slid past each other, cannons--sorry, phasers--blazing away; photon torpedoes weren't weightless SFX fireflies but resembled fiery cannonballs, with heft and momentum, and when they struck they slammed into a ship's hull with the proper destructiveness. These ships were massive, they had a sense of grandeur; they were relics of the past, brought to spectacular life.

The way the crew spoke about their ship carried the metaphor further; I'd catch Kirk yelling "swing her around!" to initiate another attack, or whispering "full stop," and wait like a dead fish for the enemy to surface (In space? But the metaphor's so strong and Meyer has you so caught up in the action you can't help but buy the idea).

It was different, is all; it offered an alternative to the Star Wars movies' headsplitting shock-n'-awe style of interstellar battle (which were based on an entirely different kind of battle: World War 2 aerial combat footage). One might think suspense and thrills are more difficult if one refused to resort to fast cutting, but no, I'd argue the opposite is true: it's actually easier to create suspense, build tension, and overall send a thrill up one's spine when the camera stays on a movement or action from beginning to end. One wonders (when the motion is started): will it succeed or fail? Will (while the motion is ongoing) it be interrupted? When the movement is concluded, one feels a surge of satisfaction, as if watching a crack crane operator successfully fit a thousand-pound steel beam into a particularly tricky slot.

Would like to go on the record and say that while I'm not a big fan of the shaky-cam, chop-suey editing style of filmmaking, I don't quite disapprove of all such practitioners. James Gray, for example, manages to employ handheld camerawork brilliantly in We Own the Night; Joss Whedon used a handheld camera in Serenity, but does so without the operator acting as if he were falling-down drunk. Whedon follows the action in Serenity, shoots it with clarity and coherence, pretty much treats it (as he should) like a musical dance number, where conveying a sense of the choreography is all-important (but then he did do "Once More with Feeling," which pretty much is a dance musical).

2) The cunning. In this latest film the solution is provided by a late addition to the cast, who comes almost literally out of nowhere. Yes, he did stay 'out of the way' so certain personages could kindle certain chemistries, but still, he had to hang around and provide hints and allegations as to the ultimate outcome. In Meyer's film no such person pops out of a magic box; Kirk and Spock pretty much have to deal with Khan as best they can, through sheer deviousness (remember that Meyer, who wrote the script, is a veteran at ingenious crackerjack storylines--H.G. Wells hunted Jack the Ripper in Time After Time; Sherlock Holmes met Sigmund Freud in The Seven Percent Solution. In The Undiscovered Country, the original Star Trek cast's final film, Meyer married current events (the collapse of the Soviet Union) with Holmes deductive techniques and a plot straight out of The Manchurian Candidate).

(Where is Meyer anyway--did he feel too old to do this sort of thing anymore? Ah, well)

Worse than the action or the science are the emotional implausibilities. Given that Nero's home planet was accidentally destroyed, that he's fallen through a black hole and gone back in time, wouldn't one's priority be to warn said home planet of impending doom? Granted one wants revenge, but shouldn't one do home planet first, maybe hand over advanced tech to one's family ancestors in the meantime, before risking life and limb on a bid for revenge (a bid, incidentally, that resembles in no small way Khan's obsession with Kirk in Wrath of Khan).

And given that an Academy rookie has tried to usurp one's position, and is more or less an all-around pain in the ass, isn't it a bit, well, excessive of Spock to maroon said rookie on a nearby planet? Yes, there's a Federation base eleven miles away (which you have to get past several nasty monsters to get to) and breathable air (but not a friendly climate; he should have been marooned near a more Jamaica-like environment), but whatever happened to the possibly quaint notion of confining the prisoner to his quarters? Does he consider Kirk that dangerous? If Spock could cite some provision in Academy law that allows him to do this then maybe, but far as I can remember he doesn't. Kirk had a basis for replacing Spock all the time, right there.

But still, but still. Abrams is worthless as an action director but unlike, say Christopher Nolan, he does fill his film to the brim with interesting ideas. I've heard it mentioned elsewhere that if you're going to do prequels, this is the way to do it, not, say, George Lucas' way.

But I'm being unfair to Star Trek. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy, closer to Lord of the Rings than to real science fiction. Star Trek is science fiction--not great SF, not even scientifically accurate SF (the ships still make popping sounds when going into warp drive, and one wonders why with all that faster-than-light technology they still haven't invented seat belts), but at least a sincere stab at science fiction, with at least a cursory attempt to root some of the more outrageous ideas in scientific fact.

That 'red matter' business, for example--on paper it sounds like the film's silliest idea, but if one has read Larry Niven's "The Hole Man" it becomes a trifle less so (Niven doesn't actually suggest that you can siphon off quantum black holes, though, or float them around like so many interstellar vacuum cleaners, sweeping up pesky nova explosions).

And I may rag on Abrams for having Spock strand Kirk, and rag him further for the enormously ridiculous coincidence of having Kirk and the older Spock meet (of all planets, of all the ice caverns!), but here I think we go into mythmaking or fabulist territory. Younger Spock is right to maroon Young Kirk because the latter has to meet Older Spock; Young Kirk and Older Spock have to meet because Young Kirk needs Older Spock's advice (not to mention he's the last person in the universe we expected to see, and a great WTF moment). Older Spock giving advise to rookie Kirk is an idea far more entertaining and ingenious and resonant than say, 900 year old Yoda giving advise to either Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker (think of Odysseus consulting with the gods, or of King Arthur receiving guidance from Merlin--Abrams is linking Kirk and Spock to that kind of storytelling mojo). I can see Nimoy's Spock popping up once in a while to give sage or at least mysterious advice in succeeding instalments, maybe even popping into his own alternate reality to check in on aging Kirk to see how he's getting on. It's Spock as his own oracle. feeding him his own wisdom. Cool and narcissistic at the same time.

This is Star Trek despite all the revisions, and recognizably so, and here's my favorite reason why: Kirk and Spock are back. The eternal romance has been rekindled. "You are and always will be my friend"--who're ya kidding, ya sentimental Vulcan?! The two have been and always will be an item, and an eternal source of fascination--just hasn't been the same since Jean-Luc Picard and his bland o'brothers took over. Star Trek's appeal has been and always will be the homoerotic subtext--that, and the cheesy sets and costumes (Abrams got the costumes more or less right, wish he had the guts to go for cheesier sets). Star Wars has always aspired to be opera; its unforgivable crime for me is that it's dull opera, a charge you can't level against Kirk and Spock, one of the great gay-coded couples of pop culture (ideally the couple is completed in the next movie as a menage a trois, with McCoy as third wheel, competing with Spock for Kirk's attention--something this already long and busy movie couldn't include).

Ultimately, I approve. Not the best Trek film ever, not even the best feature film this 2009 (arguably that's either James Gray's Two Lovers--if you can consider it '09 and not '08--or Henry Selick's Coraline), but maybe the best blockbuster hit I've enjoyed in many a year. May it endure and flourish.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis,1993)

Rinse; repeat 

(Warning: film's plot and twists and ending all discussed in close detail!)

Funny how Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993) opened to respectable but not spectacular reviews--Roger Ebert sensed that it was "basically a comedy, but there's an underlying dynamic that is a little more thoughtful;" a critic opined that the film "will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress." Twelve years later Ebert includes it in his list of great movies, saying "few films...burrow into our memories and become reference points," and yes--the Library of Congress has declared it a national treasure, of sorts. It's as if everyone who nodded and dismissed it as a charming but relatively harmless fable went through a Groundhog Day of their own (the film managing to "burrow into our memories") and came out the other end as total converts--it's that kind of film.

Funny how religious groups and theologians (Buddhists especially but not exclusively) have adopted the film and its implications--our hero meteorologist Phil Connors (Bill Murray) descends to Hell, or Purgatory, and has to claw his way out of his self-centeredness (call it a variation on Sartre: hell is yourself, forever and ever). As Ebert rather tritely puts it: "Phil is gradually able to see the error of his ways" (to be fair his second review is considerably more thoughtful). Dr. Kubler-Ross might say he's working through the five stages: anger ("This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat."), denial ("Think it'll be an early spring?" "Didn't we do this yesterday?" "I don't know what you mean." "Don't mess with me, pork chop! What day is this?"), bargaining ("I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over, and over, and over?"),
depression ("I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life"), acceptance ("I'm a god." "You're God?" "I'm a god. I'm not the God... I don't think").*

*("Waitaminute," you might ask, "aren't those the five stages of response to death?" To which I might reply "you usually have to die to go to Hell")

I'm thinking of a more grounded metaphor: that Phil's situation in the film is not like death, not like Hell, not like Purgatory or some struggling ascent towards Heaven or Nirvana but like prison.** Ramis at one point speculated that Phil must have spent ten years reliving Groundhog Day; he later revised that to thirty or forty. I suspect if Phil had been sentenced to a thirty- or forty-year term his reaction behind bars wouldn't be all that different from his reaction onscreen--if anything, they'd be numbingly familiar to anyone who has worked in or experienced the system firsthand.

**(From Hell to prison--aren't we digressing? But I'm reminded of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno, their tongue-in-cheek take on the first third of Dante's allegorical epic. Where Dante wrote of a nightmare land on which God inflicted everlasting revenge on wrongdoers, Niven and Pournelle proposed a more progressive motive behind the suffering: that Hell is really a place of therapy and rehabilitation, the tortures designed to break down sinners' resistance and urge them to move on, to not stay fixated for an eternity...)

Phil's first day's like any first day in any placement: disorientation, disbelief, dismay. Worse, perhaps; Phil isn't assigned a mentor, he has to feel his way around (I'm guessing the process'll take at least a year, easy). Once acquainted with the system he starts setting himself up--the quick grab at money, the sleeping with willing and available (and for all we know unavailable) women, the indulging in every vice in the dictionary (of which only a fraction can be shown or mentioned--this is PG after all), the becoming for all intents and purposes a god (Phil speculates: "maybe He's not omnipotent; maybe He's just been around so long he knows everything"). This might take some fourteen years.

Then dissatisfaction and despair; prison after all is a radical imposition on one's freedom of movement (in this case thirty to forty years in one small town) no matter how comfortable, and Phil has sensed and realized the limits of his incarceration. He wants out; he can't get out. He despairs (another form of wanting out), but nothing changes (x number of escape attempts, x number of suicide attempts). Call this period four or five dark dark years.

Once all thoughts of escape (through flight, through death) have been put aside, once he's accepted his situation, accepted he can change only what he can change--himself--then progress finally begins.

Mind you, he has to do this all himself; there are no counselors, no clinicians, no psychologists, no chaplains; no one who can know his situation for more than a day (remember, at 6 am everything except his memory resets). He struggles at self-improvement: French poetry, piano playing, even ice sculpting with a chainsaw. He grows to love the town and its people. This should take the remainder of his term: ten or twenty years.

More telling he learns to love his beautiful producer Rita (Andie McDowell, complete with thick and rather charming North Carolinian accent), who seems resistant to his omniscience and omnipotence, no matter how many times he tries, no matter how thoroughly he studies her ("No Rocky Road, no fudge" "Are you making some kind of list?").***

***("Hold on," you ask: "Can Rita really tell when Phil's insincere?" To which I offer this slim piece of evidence: neurologist Oliver Sacks in his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat describes Jimmie G., a patient suffering from Korsakoff's Syndrome, unable to form new memories since World War 2. Jimmie is almost totally helpless; Sacks asks "is he soulless?" The nuns caring for Jimmie ask Dr. Sacks to watch Jimmie sitting in a chapel, receiving Holy Communion. 

So does Rita have a will and sensibility that can survive the Groundhog Effect? Can't say for sure; what Dr. Sacks saw, as he admits, isn't measurable in any scientific manner, but is unquestionably visible to any human observer: "continuity and reality, in the absoluteness of spiritual attention and act.")

Rita is the ultimate test; once Phil passes--once he's proven he can win the love and approval of a fellow human being--he's released from his curse/time-loop/prison term. Happy ending; cue theme music; roll credits. 

Phil's story is an idealized case of reform: what makes the narrative convincing is Ramis' and Murray's (and writer Danny Rubin's) determination to add detail and texture to Phil's agonized progression, in as realistic a manner as possible. What makes the narrative truly convincing is the fantasy element: the suggestion that this is how the prison system should work, given unlimited resources and the ability to bend time and space and reality. 

Meanwhile this is what we have: slow, expensive, horrifyingly crude--like performing brain surgery with flint knives and maggots--but once in a blue moon effective. Until something better comes along, in which case someone should think of doing a sequel. 

First published in Businessworld, 2.19.15 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Winner of the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture

Bird man

In time for Oscar Weekend, my own little piece about the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Picture--

William Wellman's 1927 epic Wings won in 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's very first awarding ceremony, and you can see the thinking behind the choice: it's a boxoffice hit that capitalized on the aviator craze (Lindbergh had just crossed the Atlantic); it's big in terms of scope (furious aerial dogfights and sprawling ground battles) and emotional scale (Patriotic sacrifice! Love triangles! Brotherly love!).

Wellman by this time had directed a few films, mostly low-budget silent Westerns; he was picked for this, his first major production, reportedly on the basis of having actually flown in the first World War, with the Lafayette Flying Corps (three kills, five probables, shot down once). He directed fast, though he was rough on actors; the drama--and comedy for that matter--was often unconvincingly saccharine (Jack (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) taking leave of beloved Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) and unrequited lover Mary (Clara Bow)), but it moved, and once in a while was even moving (Mary's humiliation in a hotel room; Jack and David's farewell to each other).

In the air the film was a different creature. Wellman learned to shoot against land or cloud formations, to give the flying sequences a sense of speed and scale; he managed to intercut comedy with peril (clueless Mary knocking about in an ambulance while a German Gotha--a gigantic plane shot and framed to look as wide as a landing field--prepares to bomb the little town she's driving through), peril with pathos (David, having made a daring escape in a stolen German fighter, is attacked just as he approaches friendly territory). Wellman (or at least his writers Hope Loring and Louis Lighton, from a story by John Monk Saunders) even manages to insert an anti-war message without being too obvious (Jack in his thirst to avenge David, attacks David's stolen German plane). In other words: the German you hate may turn out to be the brother/friend that you love

Wellman would with better material go on to direct better films: The Public Enemy (1931) subverted the American Dream (work hard and aggressively, and you can own the criminal underworld); The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark's classic plea against vigilante justice for the big screen and gave it a claustrophobically stylized intensity; The Story of G.I. Joe (1945; his masterpiece, in my book) took its cue from Ernie Pyle's Pulitzer Prize-winning stories and insisted a major share of the cost of war is not the battles fought but the interminable time of waiting and surviving in between. Wellman would push that thesis to its immersive extreme four years later with Battleground (1949), his neorealist take on The Battle of the Bulge.

If there's an image in the film that stays with you, it's that of the pilot in his cockpit, staring straight at the camera--Director of Photography Harry Perry figured out a way to mount the camera in the cockpit, operable by the pilot, and when you saw the man grimace in fear while the world spun out-of-control about him, there wasn't much acting involved: he really was terrified. The shot will inspire and influence countless imitations, in nearly every aviator film ever made, from Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) through George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983) to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), among many others. In defiant refutation of the Copernican model of the universe, the shot puts neither universe nor sun nor even the earth but man at its center, in all his fleshy vulnerability and matchless ability to express emotion, the rest of reality wheeling vertiginously in his trail. 

Hughes' Hell's Angels is an interesting study in contrast--where Wellman's film peaked with its Oscar win and has grown hoarier in reputation every year since, the stock of Hughes' epic has only risen, championed by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Scorsese (whose 2004 biopic of Hughes does an elaborate tribute and re-enactment of scenes in the film). You can understand the auteurist admiration: Wellman was making a pop entertainment, with something for everyone--a little sex (Mary behind a screen, undressing); a little beefcake (Gary Cooper appears for ninety seconds onscreen, achieves screen immortality); a little comedy (a drunken Jack demanding to see champagne bubbles everywhere he looks); a little drama (Jack and David quarreling and making up, quarreling and making up); a lot of war (The Battle of Saint-Mihiel). Hughes attempts the template (Jean Harlow representing a cruder, more knowing kind of sex) but it's a half-hearted effort (James Whale had to assist with the talky scenes), and you can see where his heart really lies: in the whir and thrum of zeppelin engines; in the dive and roll of fighter planes (one of which Hughes flew, for a stunt considered too dangerous--and promptly rammed his plane into the ground); in the near-Hawksian drama of men wordlessly giving their lives that the dirigible might live (two years later Hughes would collaborate with Hawks, this time transforming the gangster genre).  

Difficult to call Hughes an artist--Wellman in fits and starts here and in his later work would prove to be the better overall filmmaker--but in his obsessive zeal to orchestrate the details, his heedless sacrificing of immense resources including his own time and energy, Hughes comes to evoke some of the qualities of an artist attempting a great work.  

Meanwhile we have this, which on the ground hasn't aged well (most everything that doesn't involve homoerotic tragedy, really), but in the air--in the air it soars.  

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