Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Snowden

Out of joint 

Call Tim Burton's latest his idea of an X-Men movie--a group of super-powered mutants aliens whatever, this time children hiding from a hostile world.

The material doesn't come from a comic book though, but from Ransom Riggs' first book, its story revolving around a collection of curious antique pictures depicting curious antique characters. Maybe what's most fascinating is the feel of the pictures--many of them doctored to odd and even bizarre effect--which have accumulated a thick yet unseen patina, a genuine sense of belonging to the past (if not strictly to that past's reality), set alongside text that embroiders their circumstances and ties them together in a narrative strand.

Burton's film doesn't try for the same effect, or rather relegates the photos (adorned--unnecessarily in my opinion--with whitened eyeballs, giving them the look of Victorian postmortem photographs) to the opening credits. Not quite what the book intended, though it's Burton in one of his more macabre moods.

That said if I like the film it's because Burton seems to have avoided most digital cliches (no objects rushing at the screen ending in a blackout, no roller-coaster POV shots or cameras zooming up and down cables or tubes) while putting some thought into integrating digital and practical effects, adding texture to computer constructs (the faint  rubbery-gray cetacean skin of the hollowgasts for example), wielding lighting and transitions (how, say, an Ymbryne transforms into a bird) such that the picture is less a digital extravaganza than a showcase for all kinds of effects (Finlay's stop-motion crustaceanlike monsters, or those wonderfully Harryhausen skeletons), some digital.

And perhaps even more appealing is the tone Burton carefully cultivates, both melancholy and sardonic, of children looking in from the margins not just of society but of the conventional straightforward flow of history. These children (unlike Professor Xavier's more self-absorbed, melodramatic students) handle their abilities and circumstances with remarkable poise and aplomb; if there's a tragedy to their situation they hide it well, which only accentuates (in a bravely understated manner) the tragedy of their situation. 

This is time travel of sorts--the 'loops' occurring in various locations on Earth and periods in time--but of a strictly limited kind, with carefully defined consequences (long lifespans, a somewhat detached point of view). The result is a film that itself feels out of time--closed off in a loop, hermetically sealed not just chronologically but emotionally, like the arrested state of development one might see in a traumatized child. 

Pure as the driven 

Snowden is troubling in a way director Oliver Stone probably didn't intend--not so much the questions raised about the US government's propensity to spy on its people (it does), but about the possibility that the movie whitewashes the man and his actions.

Not an expert on the issue of privacy vs. security overall; best I can offer is Slate journalist Fred Kaplan's summary of the fudges and distortions found in the movie, with the added comment that if you've followed Stone's work through the years you pretty much know what you're getting: a starkly black-and-white view of the world, not a little romanticized, heavily dramatized.* At best Stone can be said to surround his subjects in a visually varied style.

*(Arguably the most ambivalence Stone has ever shown any of his characters was towards America's 37th president in Nixon (1995), where he presented a tragic figure of Shakespearean dimensions--and still the movie felt uncomfortably like a snow job)

Perhaps my biggest complaint about Stone's take on Snowden is that much of what he omits would actually create a more complex compelling view of the man--if say Snowden wasn't as smart a programmer as he (or the movie) claims he is, isn't it that much bigger a miracle that he got hold of all that info? If Snowden did hurt intelligence operations and fellow intelligence officers (by asking for and misusing their passwords, for which said officers were penalized), how does this sin stack up against what he achieved (a national conversation on the issue; some walking back of the powers of the NSA)? Call him hero or traitor what he did was no small thing, and probably came with a price; trouble with Stone is that he frames that price in the same martyred-warrior mode he inflicts on all his heroes (the young soldier and benign veteran in Platoon; the feckless veteran in Born in the Fourth of July (the earlier picture's unofficial sequel), the ambitious stockbroker and his salt-of-the-earth blue-collar father in Wall Street; the crusader lawyer and his saintly president in JFK).  

I remember Orson Welles playing Captain Hank Quinlan opposite Charlton Heston's Mexican narcotics investigator Miguel Vargas in Touch of Evil. Quinlan cut a seedy corpulent figure opposite the tall nattily dressed Vargas, suggesting that one is disreputable and the other noble, pure; as the story progresses Quinlan casts an ever deeper shadow over the narrative, often undercutting and casting doubt on Vargas, having Vargas' wife shadowed then menaced, framing Vargas the way he has every criminal he pursued and captured. 

As the story progresses and we come to know Quinlan he captures our sympathy--his obsession with criminals stems from personal tragedy, and his often hilarious disbelief at Varga's starchiness often puts us emotionally on his side (it helps that Heston, often faulted for being a Caucasian miscast as a Latino character, personally embodies Vargas' starchy self-righteousness). Sometimes we even forget who's the good guy who's the bad as we root for Quinlan to put one over Vargas yet again. 

Though eventually we don't; eventually Welles sells us on the rightness of Vargas' crusade, as we follow him sidling past oil pumps and wading under bridges, to listen to the full sweep and horror of Quinlan's corruption--which is my idea of how to present a moral position: dark seductive mournful sweet. Stone's approach sounds more like one of those used car ads that yell at you at three in the morning.

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