Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DVDs: Ratatouille, We Own the Night, Only Angels Have Wings

I was looking at Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007) on DVD again and on second and third viewing it's even more unimpressive than ever. 

Yes, as Bourdain notes, they get many of the moves right (though I still maintain that the omelet Remy cooks is overdone, and no self-respecting fine dining restaurant would ever put on marquee lights that bright and vulgar), but it's basically your Pixar/Disney movie with the usual concerns found in American animation: guy/mouse must go after girl/dream/acceptance, and not let villain/critic/weak-willed self get in his/it way. If it comes to animation about food, the Japanese have done better, not just once but twice, maybe more. That hair-control bit still seems silly (in the DVD extras they show more reasonable alternatives, with Remy guiding Linguini's hand or hiding in a drawer while sipping soup), and I still can't believe that Linguini is stupid enough to send Remy away for stealing (I don't care if Remy stole the Crown Jewels, or crapped in Linguini's underpants, or copped a feel from Colette's ass; you don't throw out your meal ticket to fame and fortune, not for any reason).

Then there's Anton Ego's (Peter O'Toole) monologue towards the end, where he basically eats crow. "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy," he begins, and right there we disagree. Critics unless they have television shows and maybe several books to their name (I'll not name names, except that the 'critic' I have in mind discussed his colonoscopy a few years back) do not earn a lot; most I know sideline in related fields (teaching, advertising, technical writing, event management, marketing and promotions); the Filipino critics I know mostly ride public transport and have daytime jobs that buy their daily bread, the critical work being mostly a labor of love. Critics as a whole get precious little respect and even less money.

"We thrive on negative criticism--" Speaking for myself (though I'm sure there are other views), there's nothing more disappointing in the world than a bad movie. A movie, any movie represents many hours of work and money put together by mostly talented people in a sustained, concentrated effort; to sit down and watch only to find that it's a piece of shit doesn't please me in any way, shape, or form. So when I sit down and find myself sinking deeper and deeper in my chair, realizing that what I'm watching would do better service to the world being chopped up and spread over a wheat field, I'm not delighted, I'm pissed; the filmmaker has just wasted both his time and mine. If at times I vent my anger and frustration in my articles, well...all I can say in response is "go see the picture yourself" (if you did see the picture and disagree with me, that's a whole other matter).

(Now's as good a time as any to point out that while it's true that Ego is a food critic and I'm all knotted up about Bird's misrepresentation of film critics, I do think that 1) much of what I said applies to both, and 2) Who are we kidding? Bird's a filmmaker, not a chef, and he's addressing film, not food, critics directly with that little speech (though I can't imagine why he's so defensive; he's made some of the best-received pictures in years))

"We risk very little--" Yeah, right. Spoken like one who's hung his balls out in the open for everyone to aim at. We risk ridicule, harassment, plenty of extremely negative emails, one or two suggestions at expiating our sins that seem painful in the extreme and not a little humiliating to carry out (you'd never believe some of the stuff I received after writing about Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ (2004)--and from priests and pastors, too!). But that's just salad dressing; I'm more worried about writing a bad article on a film, of course. Of not doing justice to something I liked, of being too unfair to something I didn't like, of being totally off the mark with my reading of the film. I'm also in constant fear of actually boring someone, somewhere.

Ego goes: "the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so--" this being easily the most offensive and wrongheaded bit of text in the whole movie. Criticism can be art; Agee, Bazin, Farber, Rosenbaum, Kehr, even the occasional Kael piece can rise above mere pan or praise to approach, however distantly, the peaks of literature. Whereas almost anything from Disney and Hollywood in general is worse than junk (junk can be recycled): it's toxic waste, actively softening our craniums and molars and encouraging us to settle down to a lifetime of gumless chewing of the well-marketed mediocrity.

The speech isn't exactly Brad Bird's proudest moment as a writer. It's a failure of imagination, I think, an inability on the part of the filmmaker to put himself in a real critic's shoes. More, the character of Ego is essentially dishonest--Bird's fantasy of a critic humbling himself before the greatness of an artist rather than a real character dealing with the inversion of all his assumptions. Give me Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis (2007) anytime.

Looked at
We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007) on DVD as well, and it's as handsome, complex, subtle and enthralling as I remember--the shrinking to a TV-sized screen has done little to lessen its impact. The dialogue is functional, reflective mostly of character and social class, and only occasionally striking ("Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six") as I think dialogue should be (we're not Cary Grant, and our conversations are not written by Preston Sturges). The acting is superb--more realistic by far than the epic scenery-chewing Daniel Day-Lewis had to do to earn his second gold doorstop. The camerawork--well, on the commentary Gray cites Coppola (of course), Visconti (the slow zooms and pans across rooms), and even Mikhail Kalatozov's Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964) as influences and yes one can see them in this; one can also see the care Gray takes in keeping everything authentic, the occasional telling detail (the aforementioned dialogue; the charcoal poured down the mouth; the way guns are held and fired) taken from Gray's many ride-alongs with the police.

Gray in the DVD commentary talks about Bobby Green's destiny, and how the slow and leisurely pans and zooms reflect its inexorable pull over Bobby's life; he also points out how the car chase that occurs two thirds of the way into the picture is in a way a parable of Bobby's life--a planned and predictable transport going suddenly, unavoidably wrong. He notes how car chases in most movies fail to include two major elements: point of view and weather (the last mainly because no stuntman in his right mind would stunt-drive a car in the driving rain). The film's major setpiece does much to correct that neglect--the rain is a hurtling, slanted hell through which the vehicles attain a terrifying velocity (think of a speedboat racing down a raging river--the turbulent water only increases the sense of unstoppable speed), the wipers slapping windshields as if in panic. Much of what follows happens from Bobby's point of view, and as a consequence much of what happens is startling, incomprehensible, and all the more frightening.

Gray confirms the thesis I put forth, that Bobby attains some kind of redemption, only to pay a terrible price. Can't say a lot about this kind of validation--it's a bit unsettling, to agree with a director this much; Gray could have talked more about trivia and biographies and left some of the mystery in his intentions and technique intact--but that could just be me and my preference for mystery talking. Said this before, will say it again: a great film, and easily my favorite American feature of 2007.

Howard Hawks'
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is striking for the way it covers a period of time and a great deal of space but still manages to evoke a sense of intimacy; the way it includes outdoor scenes of great heights and vast expanses, but sets much of the action indoors, in cramped little rooms (corollary to this is the observation that, like in Hawks' own His Girl Friday, much of the film takes place on overtly theatrical sets, but the overall effect is undeniably cinematic).

Then there's the use of signifiers, a la Bresson. The roar of a propeller engine is a signal for instant attention: of some thing approaching, bringing good or bad tidings. The lookout's voice is a seer, giving the pilots advanced warning of danger ahead. Fog and rain are veils that hide possible disaster, wind the agent that brings said veils to fore. Women and their emotionality are a different kind of veil--trouble, in other words, to be avoided if possible; so are condors, oddly enough (though women have their compensatory virtues--there's no warmth to high-altitude rain, and it's no fun kissing a condor). A man or woman looking off into the distance is cause for concern, or for an extended period of tension (the direction in which his or her gaze is turned gives us a clue as to the direction of the source of concern). It's as if Hawks, recognizing the gargantuan task he has undertaken, seeks to cut corners--seeks shortcuts towards achieving his effects, saves money by showing the response to an event (a plane's approach, for example), instead of the event itself, stretching an admittedly large budget because, large as it is, it's not enough to show everything.

And the special effects--the model work with all its astonishing detail, the use of wind and splashing water to add speed and life to a takeoff or landing, the textures (the weather effects in particular) still beyond the capabilities of the most powerful computer to imitate. The effects are so wonderful that when you see real footage of planes in flight--a breathtaking shot of a plane rounding a plateau, for example--the sense of wonder remains largely undiminished.

The ending is a masterpiece of signifiers. An all-clear radio call; a woman packing her baggage; an unresolved conversation; a coin, closely examined; a wide-open smile on a man taking off--all point to a pure and powerful emotion rushing like a tidal wave over the people involved and, by extension, the audience at large. A great film, definitely. 


Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Noel,

Your reaction to the Anton Ego speech is intriguing, and makes me want to re-assess my evaluation of Ratatouille. At first, I thought that moment was the heart of the film but reading your observations, I can't help but agree. Excellent commentaries, as always.

Noel Vera said...

Hm, thanks. I don't often find myself changing people's minds, it's a rare pleasure to see someone actually think I'm not crazy...

That said, I'm thinking of tweaking what I said a bit.

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The Siren said...

I agree with Oggs, you've cast a different light on that speech, and largely an accurate one. But for me (and I liked Ratatouille) the key moment is not the letter, it's the marvelous instance, my favorite in the film, where one bite takes Ego back to a sunlit kitchen from his childhood. To me, the point is not that he abandons criticism so much that he abandons ascetism.

And if he's a stand-in for all critics, you're right, the letter is inherently unfair. But I think he's a stand-in for those big guns you allude to--and not Ebert, who still loves movies. No, I think he stands in for certain bigshot critics (I name no names!) who really do seem to have developed some kind of cinematic anhedonia. Ego is no longer a film critic, he's an ME, dissecting food like it's a corpse. Remy brings him back to life.

anyway, your exigesis of the letter was the most thought-provoking thing I've read about the film yet. So sometimes a disappointing movie does bring out the best in a critic. :)

Noel Vera said...

On Ebert--he loves movies but boy is he ever clueless about them. Read his pan on Passion of the Christ. It's unforgivable. Not intentionally so, but still unforgivable.

And I wish Cooking Master Boy was more widely available. They have that "one bite and a flood of memories/emotions/special effects pour out of the sky" moment happening every episode.

You may or may not want to read the moment I describe in this article, but...

1) I think it's not just a throwback to a powerful early memory, but a far more complex and dramatic moment, with tones of irony and bittersweet;

2) On the other hand it's a big-time spoiler...but to a TV series I doubt will ever come to the United States.

Noel Vera said...

Whoops, I meant 'Ebert's praise of Passion of the Christ' is unforgivable.