Thursday, December 16, 2010

Life among the obnoxious

Let me say this straight out: the voice of a character is not the voice of the author. Otherwise intelligent people get this confused all the time. They rail against movies, plays or television shows with characters who are violent or homophobic or racist or serial litterbugs. But seriously, how can one write about social progress without addressing its opposite, and creating characters who embody that undesirable behavior? By this theory (which is NOT political correctness--that's something else), Dickens should not have created Ebenezer Scrooge, because he was endorsing stinginess and self-centeredness.

(Have you ever thought that the people who only knew Scrooge after his reformation, who must have far outnumbered the ones who knew him before, Scrooge's name must have been a byword for generosity and charity? In that world, people would say "It's Christmas -- be a Scrooge and give generously!" The Scrooge Foundation would have been known far and wide for building hospitals and orphanages.)

The people of Nancy Holofcener's Please Give (2010) are not stingy, but they are self-centered, which stymies any attempt they make to find meaning and purpose in life. But their myopia is as funny as Mister Magoo's. And rather than take real steps toward finding meaning, Kate (played by Catherine Keener) seeks charitable work, then dissolves in tears over the mere thought of other people having needs. (This is clearly a novel thought to her.)

There is not much too much to Holofcener's cinematic technique here, which seems to be limited to designing some echt-New York apartments and setting Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Ann Morgan-Guilbert loose in them. Morgan-Guilbert, Millie from The Dick Van Dyke Show is insanely funny as a bitter, difficult old woman for whom everyone, including her grand-daughters and the people who have already bought her apartment, is waiting to die. But if the characters are all horrible -- not monsters, but small and lacking perspective -- you can enjoy them the way you can enjoy George Costanza, as an unholy fool.

There's not much to enjoy about Michael Douglas's Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man (2010). His portrayal of a dying and failing auto salesman doesn't differ much from the jerks he's played in Wall Street, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt or countless other "love me, I'm an arrogant jerk" movies. The discovery that Douglas might himself be dying, made after the release of this film, doesn't improve it. In fact, it increases one's desire to remember Douglas playing a decent guy trying to improve things, as in Traffic and The American President.

Moreover, although the film takes the form of the "lost weekend" it rambles and meanders through a series of disjointed encounters, mostly with college students who seem to be impressed with this jackass. Jesse Eisenberg is out of his element playing someone easily fooled, he exudes too much intelligence. And the college women the 60-something Douglas pursues make him look like a pedophile. (There is a charming encounter with real-life Douglas friend Danny DeVito, but that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the rest of the movie.)

Still, as I said, portraying a jerk doesn't make the author a jerk. But writer co-director Brian Koppelman has nothing to say about this man that we haven't already thought. If you make bad choices, use people and throw them away, you will have no friends or loved ones and you will be unhappy. There's no twist, no irony, no redeeming perversity. It's a classic case of "why are you telling me this?"

Which could also apply to Color Me Kubrick based on some true anecdotes, in which John Malkovich plays a man who, though he looked nothing like him and had no discernible talent or taste, told strangers he was filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and cadged meals and drinks off them. I have now recited not only the premise, but the entire plot of the film. A con movie should have the ability to deceive the audience, have some concealed twists and turns and a build-up to a grand deception. Instead, over and over, people think this man called Alan Conway is Kubrick, find out he's not and dump him. Sometimes it's not even that. Martin Freeman starts chatting Conway up, listing his favorite Kubrick films and throwing in a film by Stanely Kramer, which Conway cheerfully takes credit for. Freeman points out the mistake and suggests Conway study his subject harder.

I did enjoy the story of the real-life former theater critic of the New York Times, Frank Rich being taken in, as Rich is a fatuous blowhard who could use some knocking down, but the makers of Color Me Kubrick should have had the courage to stray farther from the facts. Couldn't their character have raised the money to get a small film started, then arrived on the stage and tried to direct without the knowledge or the talent? That would have been amusing. Because ultimately this is a film about a person who wants praise and adoration without having earned it. It could have been a general critique on celebrity culture, but given that most of Conway's victims are buffoons themselves, there is no room for satire to have grown and developed. An idiot tricks other idiots. Is that a story?

Separate Lies (2005), on the other hand is all story and no characters. Written and directed by Julian Fellows, screenwriter of Gosford Park it shares that English weekend-country-place feeling, right down to the rather genteel killing that starts the film. Like City Island, all the characters are lying to each other, but lies that seem to be covering up a crime are only actually covering up an affair. The only complication is that, being English, the truth about sexual fidelity must be kept a far deeper darker secret than that of homicide. Embarrassment is far worse than incarceration.

As they will, lies engender more lies and the complications heap up until there is no way to turn back, no way of going back to the way things used to be. Which is sort of the point, I guess. The problem is that rather than creating characters for whom this journey would be of interest, Fellows has cast Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett, capital actors all, providing of course that they have something to act. So, for example, once Wilkinson establishes that he is all polish over ruthlessness and acquisitiveness, he is more or less done, reduced to quiet wimpering once all is lost. Emily Watson is interesting, but never believable as Wilkinson's long-time wife. And it is never explained why the bland and amoral Everett would be preferable to Wilkinson. All rather a bad lot, and get lesser punishments than they deserve. Only the low-key lighting of Tony Pierce-Roberts seems completely admirable.

And, since I brought up Scrooge before, let's dispose of last year's Robert Zemeckis motion-capture atrocity, Disney's Christmas Carol (2009). Something has to be done about these films, perhaps federal legislation. So far we've had The Polar Express, Beowulf and now this. I think there is comprehensive proof that this is not a valuable or expressive form that adds anything valuable to the vocabulary of film. They're not unwatchable films (except maybe Polar Express, which is kind of ghastly), but there's nothing indispensable about the motion-capture format. Taking Christmas Carol to be the technological highpoint so far, the characters are still unable to focus their eyes, and their heads still look as though they were either carved from foam or slightly over-inflated balloons. Look at this illustration. Who are the characters looking at? Clearly not each other. Nor is the motion produced much more graceful or expressive than that of any stop-motion animated film. Put this film next to the work of Pixar, and you will see what real animation by real animators can accomplish. (It is appalling to have this stuff released under the Disney banner.) And then someone decided that since this was animation that the film had to be aimed at children, and that there's nothing kids like than aimless, pointless cruel and illogical slapstick added to a tale of Victorian moral reclamation. Does anyone have any idea why Scrooge had to be shrunk and slung around the icy landscape in a wacky chase sequence? What story did that tell? If you make bad choices, you will shrink and slide on ice?

There are good things. Carrey's voice work as Scrooge is first rate, especially since it sounds nothing like Jim Carrey. (His work for the first two ghosts is not so strong, with weak Irish and Scots accents respectively, and diluting the strength of his work as Scrooge.) The face of the Scrooge character is rendered with a detail and expressivity lacking in most of the other characters. (Nephew Fred fits Colin Firth's voicework probably because they decided to make Fred resemble Firth, the only character that bears such a correspondence to the voice actor.) Gary Oldman's work is rather good, and the screenplay is among the most faithful to Dickens, even eschewing some of the favorite later additions to the Scrooge saga (especially those of screenwriter Noel Langley for the beloved Alistair Sim version).

But here's an example of things gone wrong. This is a little-noted incident during the Ghost of Christmas Present chapter, just before we enter the Cratchit household, when Scrooge and the Ghost observe that people like the Cratchits, who do not own an oven, use nearby bakers' ovens to heat their food, but that given England's blue laws, they could not do so on Sunday when all the shops are required to be closed. Scrooge remarks that this has been done in the name of the spirit, or his family. In Dickens, the Spirit replies, "There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred , envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name." And here Zemeckis inserts: "These men of the cloth." Thus he creates an equivalency between bigotry and oppression and the clergy which Dickens did not write, and we have no reason to believe he felt. After all, you don't have to be a professional to use the Bible as a cudgel to hurt other people. So while I was delighted to see this arcane and interesting bit restored to a dramatization of Dickens, I deplore that it was felt necessary to distort it to engage in an attack on the clergy.

But finally the sum is less than its parts. This Christmas Carol has lots and lots of parts, and incorporates as much beloved Dickens dialogue as might be possible in a film of reasonable length. And yet for all the ghosts, it is without spirit. Everything feels like a dutiful recitation, without real despair or real exhilaration. Dickens can survive all sorts of misguided tributes and adaptations, but he can't survive sterility.

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