Friday, July 26, 2013

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013); Superman ll (Richard Donner, Richard Lester, 1980)

Things that make you go 'hmmm'

James Wan's The Conjuring, about the Perron family's struggle to deal with the supernatural forces infesting their beautiful Rhode Island home and the ghosthunting couple (real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren) who agree to help them, is arguably his best most earnest attempt to emulate the realism of The Exorcist, still the granddaddy of all possession movies. Wan does well enough: the movie starts slow, lets us get to know the people in question, lets us soak in the group dynamics of the family before the spooky stuff takes over; as for the spooky stuff Wan patiently starts small and builds gradually--sounds in the night, boarded-up cellars, unexplained bruises, hide-and-clap games with uninvited guests.

Nice to see Wan avoid obvious digital effects; nothing sillier than to start with an ostensibly realistic story and destroy the illusion of realism with digital crap (about the most obvious evidence of any computer tampering I can see are a blanket assuming a startling shape and a bird attack on the house).

How accurate is the movie? Well, the doll seen above which opens the picture for one: the real Annabelle was an honest-to-goodness Raggedy Ann doll, a rather innocuous-looking one; nothing raggedy about the doll the moviemakers came up with (a pity; there is something creepy about Raggedy Ann but it takes a patient and truly perverse talent to bring it to fore). Questions on realism aren't relevant, when you think about it; what made The Exorcist so convincing wasn't so much the historically accurate details (the true story had later been turned into a more faithful-to-the-facts movie, a not very good one) as William Friedkin's meticulously evoked atmosphere of realism--the spooky stuff, as we put it, kept strictly in the background, the scares (based on what was depicted in William Peter Blatty's novel) carefully orchestrated and never for a moment allowed to work against the realism. Significant to note that Friedkin uses music only twice in the picture, the second time during the closing credits; significant also to note that the sound design is superb, its use of silence as important if not more so than the outlandish roars and groans of the possessed girl.

So: any good? problems with The Exorcist aside (the most important being the fact that choice is never an issue), Friedkin's movie did this much right, it offered at least a shadow, the merest suggestion that perhaps the girl wasn't possessed by a demon, but was instead troubled by family problems (Blatty worked harder at this suggestion, offering alternate explanations as far into the novel as possible); The Conjuring makes it clear that the Perron family is being totally victimized; there's not even a whisper of domestic discord. One of the girls, the eldest, shows signs early on of being sullen perhaps even rebellious, but nothing much comes out of this; the Perrons hint at financial troubles, though never enough for husband to lift a hand against wife. Mother stands firmly with father stands firmly with the five girls behind like a reincarnation of the Von Trapp Family Singers. 

One more thing: Andrew O'Hehir in his Salon review huffs at the suggestion that the poor women burned at the stake in Salem really were witches after all, an assertion akin to believing that Hitler might have had a point about the Jews; methinks he's a tad too indignant (he proudly declares his Wiccan ancestry and calls a curse down on the filmmakers), but the picture does give off a faint whiff of the self-serving: certainly the Warrens  (Ed passed on in 2006; Lorraine is still around and active) benefit from all the free publicity. What really leaves a bad taste in the mouth is Ed Warren's assertion in a closing title, that “The devil exists. God exists. And for us as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

I don't know; I can see that evil exists, but as often as not it's the belief in a supernatural devil that gives rise to most of the trouble (Exhibit A for the prosecution: the aforementioned shenanigans in Salem). Sure there's evil, tremendous evil, and it comes under many names, some in the recent past (Hitler, Mao, Stalin) some even contemporaneous (Marcos, Taylor, Pinochet, Hussein). Compared to these folks the Devil probably can't help but feel like a mere amateur.

Supermen two

(Story and plot twists of Superman II discussed  in close detail)

Thanks to the influence of the huge Hollywood superproduction that is Man of Steel (which I happen to despise) I was finally motivated to watch the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, and while I concede the technical superiority (the effects, music and overall tone have more of an organic whole) I do think the existence of this version only confirms what made Lester's version so memorable.

The Paris sequence, for one: I love Lester's introduction of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) as someone who absolutely no one takes notice of, his super quality hinted at only when the hat he flips catches perfectly on a hatrack; I love the scene under the Eiffel Tower where Lois Lane (trying to get close to some terrorists threatening to detonate a thermonuclear device) is caught by a police officer, and with the aid of an English to French translation book neatly sidesteps his watchful gaze. Little touches like these, 'Lesterisms' if you like, liven up the film and remind you of what Lester seems to insist on in all his films (that life is absurd) and I think insists on in particular with this film (life is absurd enough to allow for the possible existence of a superhero). In comparison, Donner's dead earnest retread of the high points of the first Superman feels just that: a retread, a longer one at that. 

Donner has Lois try prove Kent and Superman are the same person by stepping out a window; his sequence showcases Kent's ability to think quickly and work invisibly. Lester's sequence involving the Niagara River is more of an extended gag, more persuasive (Lane floats along and isn't plummeting down the side of a building, giving Kent more time to think things through), with just the slyest suggestion that on some level he's enjoying this--he's paying Lane back for all the neglect and abuse she's heaped on him. 

Then there's the admittedly well-written, well-acted scene where Lane shoots Kent (again an attempt to out his secret identity). I find Lester's version--Kent stumbles and sticks his hand in a fire--again more persuasive: in Donner's scene you want to ask "why didn't he check the gun with his X-ray vision?" With Lester the random, absurdist forces of the universe--the Lesterisms--are simply (and consistently) hard at work (one may exclaim "Superman would never stumble!" and one would be right only I suspect Kent meant to deliberately stumble and overplayed his clumsiness).

Lester has Superman confront General Zod and friends and turns New York (sorry--Metropolis) into a gigantic playground; he enhanced the impression with a few comic touches, especially during the sequence when the supervillains inflict their superbreath on the populace (a man loses his toupee; another's ice cream scoop flips out of its cone; a biker accelerates out of control; a phone caller laughs long after his booth has blown away). Possibly Donner meant a more serious, more dramatic battle, but what I submit Lester was going for was something altogether more unsettling, a vision of the world as seen through these superbeings' eyes: anything and everything is an oversized toy to shatter and crush and hurl against each other, in a shared temper tantrum the size of a major metropolitan city; Superman only really wakes up to what he's doing--endangering innocent bystanders--when Zod threatens them directly. This playfulness--this sense of childish superbeings at play, with serious consequences just slightly out of mind and waiting to happen--is muted in Donner's less humorous version.

Even more altered is Lane's parting conversation with Superman. In Donner's version they're tragic lovers forced to part ways but hopelessly loving each other; in Lester's they're perceptibly mature lovers, trying to work out a knotty, impossible relationship. There's a bitter edge to Lester's scene that's missing in Donner's, the sense of a more sophisticated sensibility trying to focus on important issues and being hopelessly distracted. Donner sees the two as Romeo and Juliet, soon to part with sweet sorrow, more adolescent than adult; Lester sees the two as Robin and Marian, a man and a woman having to deal between them with the lifelong burden of one man's legend. 

Kent's redemption scene undergoes perhaps the most radical change of all: in Donner's version Jor El (Marlon Brando--we get so much more of him here and unfortunately he's an even bigger pompous bore) has planned for his son's rebellion all along; in Lester's version a random accident saves the day. In Donner's version Jor El is the God figure who knows all and prepares for all, ultimately sacrificing for his son's sake; in Lester's version there is no one and nothing watching over events--it's only the merest luck that Lane happened to hide the crucial crystal under her handbag. 

Between an all-knowing, all-wise Kryptonian (a long-dead one at that, though there are suggestions that Jor El lives on however vicariously in the Fortress' computer) and the workings of blind chance, which is the more pessimistic and ultimately darker vision? Perhaps Lester isn't as comic as people suppose him to be, or perhaps he practices the kind of comedy that recognizes the true, ultimately despairing nature of life: that we're all molecules randomly--comically--bouncing off each other, and no one can really say what is or isn't impossible.



Lisa said...

The Raggedy Ann doll would have been much creepier and made a lot more sense. Why would 2 college-age women have such an ugly wooden doll? Thanks for posting that!

The whole Annabelle storyline didn't make much sense to me. How was the thing that was haunting the Perrons able to strike out at the Warrens? Through the locket? Is this supposed to prove it's a demon and not a ghost, because it can move so far? And why would it target Annabelle?

Still, I love a good scare and this kept me jumping in my seat. Luckily, I don't require that everything make sense.

Noel Vera said...

"Why would 2 college-age women have such an ugly wooden doll?"

Partial blindness?