Monday, May 7, 2012

Death, beneath all

Private tragedy forced, painfully, into the public arena
The highest compliment I can pay to Life, Above All (2010) is that I was startled to learn that the film is based on a book, on a book by a man, on a book by a Canadian man.  It feels so authentic, so personal, so finely observed that it feels as if there is no distance between the finished film, its characters and the events of their lives.

And yet, for me, the film kept recalling that most formalized and schematic of modern dramas, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, because of the respective society's attempt to use shame to crush non-conformity or dissent.  What Life's protagonist, Chanda, has to navigate through is burden enough, especially for a 12-year-old, but its taking place under public scrutiny increases the pain exponentially.  The social stigma of and ignorance about AIDS proves more debilitating than the disease itself.

The story is built on incident virtually without plot.  The net effect is that neither Chanda nor the audience know what to look forward to, which means we share her feelings of frustration and even hopelessness.  The film does end on a note of reconciliation, but it comes without preparation, and feels a bit tacked on, although, personally I'm a sucker for Zulu harmony singing, so it got to me.

My only other observation is that cinematographer Bernhard Jasper has taken the trouble to work out how to photograph dark-skinned people in dark rooms.  They are vibrant and present and far more visible than in many more celebrated films.  Cinematographers need to study this one as an example of how to shoot black skin--in fact, it might even have made some very sick characters look too beautiful!

Death hovers just below the surface of We Bought A Zoo (2011), which is probably not mentioned very prominently in the marketing materials.  But that may be what gives the film a peculiar gray emotional undertone, and gives the rather chaotic and sloppily assembled screenplay some unity and resonance.  Without the presence of death, this could be filed next to those made-for-Saturday-matinee movies they turned out in my childhood, like Clarence the Cross Eyed-Lion and Hello Down There.

It seems truly perverse that an intended family entertainment is so death-ridden, beginning with the death of Matt Damon's wife (before the story begins) which is the inciting incident for him to buy a zoo, and continuing through the acceptance of the death of old tiger as a healing mechanism for Damon to accept his own loss.  That may be kind of weird, but it is one of the things that unquestionably works in a script riddled with red herrings, cul de sacs, extra characters, scenes and situations.  It has the marks of a three-hour script having been cut down to two, and not all that comfortably.

One note in its favor -- the film literally features lions and tigers and bears and doesn't cute them up.  The only monkey is a fleetingly viewed capuchin, and most of the other animals seem hazardous or just not people-friendly -- exotic porcupines, snakes and camels.  The "awwww" factor has been reserved almost entirely for Maggie Elizabeth Jones, as Damon's 7-year-old daughter.  Jones is ridiculously cute without ever being cloying, although she is made to say the title of the film too many times.  (Under my son's secret rules, when you say the name of the film, the film must end.  Clearly this rule was promulgated under the influence of The Importance of Being Earnest.)  But there are some impressively scary shots of big scary teeth in POV shots which omit the principal actors, but had to pose some hazard for the photography crew, at least.

Ultimately, it doesn't make any sense.  It's never really clear why owning a very marginal zoo (are there such things in the US--privately owned for-profit zoos?  The real story took place in England) is such a happy resolution.  It just seems like buying more trouble.  Perhaps sensing this, co-writer-director Cameron Crowe cooks up a finale with the departed wife rejoining her now-happy family in the cafe where husband and wife first met.  Given that we have only seen Mom in still pictures or fleeting glimpses until now, the whole scene has an odd overhang, like a cantilevered canopy that threatens to fall on the people underneath.  The movie ends with scads of happy people in the happy zoo and Matt Damon having been kissed by Scarlett Johannson (the little hussy), and it feels fun, but it never ever really feels right.

Oh, and speaking of Miss Scarlett, in this film she takes on the new role (for her) of Workboots Girl.  Workboots Girl is the inverse of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she performs the same plot function.  Where MPDG unleashes the protagonist's inner desire for freedom and creativity, Workboots Girl teaches the dreamer How To Do Practical Stuff.  She is a bit like the Hawks Woman, but the Hawks Woman does not need the man, nor does the man need her.  Workboots Girl, on the other hand must solve the protagonist's problem, or she will not be.  In this Syd-Field-Robert-McKee, we must never have a character who is just enjoyable to be with--they all must have A Function in the Story Arc.  ("Arc! Arc!" The cry of the Hollywood development executive...)
One last thing--few directors or producers seem to realize how damaging it is to film to be deliberately unclear about where it is taking place.  There seems to be a fear that if a story is grounded in a particular geography, no one who lives anywhere else will relate.  This is too obviously ridiculous as to spend any time refuting -- all identification is rooted in specificity.  The events of We Bought A Zoo took place in England, but evidently Cameron Crowe would have been uncomfortable with that, or Matt Damon signed on early, but for whatever reason, the zoo got moved into some strange landscape that bears no resemblance to any urban-suburban-exurban environment in the United States.  There are no landmarks, no local characters, no sports teams, no TV stations, nothing to ground it anywhere.  The "charming cafe" where Damon met is wife is so generic that it can literally be in any town in the world.  So when you read that the factual basis of the movie has been completely twisted and distorted, you're not surprised-- this story really feels like it never happened, and it really never happened no place.

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