Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon)

Furry tail

I'll say this much for Disney's live-action remake of their animated feature: it improves on one scene, where Belle (Emma Watson) gushes to the Beast (Dan Stevens) about Shakespeare's Verona-set tragic romance. The previous incarnation of Belle sang about her love of books but never once mentioned a title or author, just details about some generic standard-issue romance (Stephenie Meyer? E.L. James?); at least this one volunteers an actual name, a published work, a real writer.

The Beast rolls his eyes--of course she'd pick that! Belle indignantly demands that he suggest a better alternative, and he promptly leads her to his vast library stack, with shelves stretching above and away from her. Yes the earlier flick did turn on their supposed love of literature but in this one you actually feel the sexy give-and-take of two bibliophiles wrangling over their preferred texts. 

And the Beast's eye roll? Who has ever run their fingertips across a sheet of pulped wood and scribbled ink sniffing its heady aroma and hasn't felt some measure of condescension for the relatively uninitiated? It's the movie's best moment, so funny and honest (particularly because the Beast doesn't think much of his expensive education, possibly because it failed to lead to a high-paying job) it actually made me sit up and pay attention for maybe O an entire minute.

Which was it for me alas; found myself soon sliding back down to my habitual slump, not to come out till the end credits rolled. 

This should really be my cue to use the earlier animated picture to bludgeon the brand new live-action remake into hamburger but sorry not a fan of the 1991 'classic' either--aside from the my sneaking suspicion that Belle's 'philia is only skin deep, I thought the movie every bit as sentimental as most other Disney features I've watched (the rare exception--Sleeping Beauty--being such a grandly expensive emotionally cold visual banquet it lost an equally grand stack of money at the boxoffice). 

Seems to me comparing remake and original here is like judging  contestants in an ugly pageant--not only is it difficult to pick a winner (Stale banality versus freshly overproduced?) but the whole exercise is silly; you could and should be doing better things with your time.

Like watching TV. The fable is flexible enough to be employed not just in different productions but different mediums. Noah Hawley's Legion for example is a psipunk take with paranormal powers in place of magic (or are those just differing names for the same fabulist effects?), imagery drawn not only from David Lynch (the strobe lights, the dead silences, the surreal horror imagery) but David Cronenberg (Are the episodes' end credits designs from Naked Lunch?). Confusing and not as moving? Good--hate hate hate Disney's insistence on catering to the ADHD emo crowd, who demand an action sequence or sight gag crammed into a movie every three minutes; hate hate hate hate Disney's insistence on jerking your tears (and other less socially appropriate bodily fluids), to the tune of a Broadway power ballad. 

Then there's Guillermo Del Toro's woefully underrated Crimson Peak with Mia Wasikowska as the hapless Beauty, Jessica Chastain as her gorgeous evil witch of a sister-in-law, and Tom Hiddleston as the more morally ambiguous more sexually potent Beast (He's apparently capable of love and lovemaking, only which beauty are we talking about?). The effects are digitally (if lyrically) realizedthe eponymous mansion in which all three reside a production designer's Gothic nightmare of a wet dream, looking all the world like a malignant growth sprouted straight from the skull that just kept going, for several stories.

But never mind Del Toro or Hawley or for that matter Tim Burton ("You're Beauty and the Beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack!"); we always come back--you know I'll always come back--to Cocteau. His La Belle et la Bete begins not in a French village or gloomy castle but in a classroom, with folks walking up to scribble the beginning credits on a chalkboard.  

Poet and filmmaker, Cocteau knows that to achieve a tangible sense of the fantastic you need to focus on texture, objects, everyday business (chalk, chalkboard). When we meet Belle's family they're a vulgar bunch, with brothers firing arrows carelessly into windows and sisters who think they're still upper middle class (the dad is one of the nouveau poor, his wealth wiped out when his fleet of ships sank). The narrative action is initiated out of strictly mercenary motives--the father hears news that one of his ships made port, and sets out to collect what money he can get; when he's lost along the way he seeks shelter in a castle, runs afoul of the Beast, is saved when his daughter Belle volunteers to take his place. Property rights and negotiated transactions, plus a generous helping of Stockholm Syndrome--not the most promising ingredients for a fairy tale, but Cocteau manages.

Doubt if Cocteau presented with the option of going digital would do so, would instead stick to the same stage-magician tricks he's used before, in Blood of a Poet: doors that open by themselves, a mantelpiece face with smoke curling out the nose, candelabra that flare up and follow your progress down a dark hall (basically human arms poking out of walls, the candles filmed as they are extinguished, then projected backwards). Cocteau presents the everyday and the fantastic side-by-side then refuses to differentiate between them, the fantastic as solid and matter-of-fact as the everyday, the everyday as mesmerizingly framed and lit and shot as the fantastic--a trick Cocteau achieves on a small budget, with seeming effortlessness (Del Toro for all his talent threw a lot of money at his Mervyn Peake pastiche, and you can't help but see the dark circles of sweat round his armpits from the effort). 

Could there be a better version? Arguably and unbelievably maybe: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong has the biggest most ferocious Beast of all (he battles T-Rexes and swats down biplanes) in even more enchanted settings (an island with a skull-shaped mountain populated with mythical beasts; a city crowned by the world's tallest building, populated by seen-it-all wiseacres). If Cocteau followed the principle of working from the humblest material, Cooper and Schoedsack take the most disreputable of concepts--the gorilla picture grafted onto a dinosaur flick--and turn them into Gustave Dore gold, an unsentimental one-sided love story where the Beast is a stone-cold killer (he pulls a woman out of her umpteenth-story apartment, realizes it isn't his love, immediately tosses her aside), and Beauty an unaffectionate shrieker with undeniable sex appeal and a heady aroma (after plucking at her underwear Kong sniffs his fingers appreciatively).

It's fast, it's for kids (?!), it's subversively unwholesome; youths who grew up in the '30s probably never knew what hit them, and are forever grateful for it.

Do I find Cooper and Schoedsack's ungainly masterwork more moving than Ashman and Menken's (the Disney versions' true auteurs)? Lemme put it this way: Disney's Beast animated or live-action begs for your sympathy for practically the length of the picture. Kong demands nothing more and nothing less than fear and awe--if we see him grimace in bewildered pain it's a privileged moment only minutes before the film's end, so brief should you blink you might miss it. Kong never once asks for pity; he's a far subtler (and more effective) performer than anything (or anyone) Disney could possibly conceive. 

Tale as old as time? Maybe; some folks reckon the story was composed six thousand years ago. But really you only have to read Beaumont's 1756 condensation of Villeneuve, or Cocteau's 1946 film adaptation, or Schoedsack and Cooper's delirious 1933 mashup to experience the story properly told, full of danger and darkness and unnameable delights

First published in Businessworld 3.23.17

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