Monday, July 16, 2012

More wander, less lust

Wet Hot American Summer, Part 2

Wanderlust (2012), which is a pretty uneven entertainment, is interesting mostly as another bid for mainstream success by members of the sketch comedy group The State, whose heyday was 20 years ago. Given that the group had 11 members, it is not surprising that they have divided into various writing and performing teams, many with overlapping membership. Of all these groupings, the most successful in the movie business has been the screenplay team of Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, the moving forces behind the relentlessly unfunny Reno 911 and creators of the almost-as-unamusing Night in the Museum series (the entertainment value of which is almostly entirely derived from the odd-couple teaming of Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney). Lennon and Garant are also engaged to “punch up” other writers scripts and have even published a book on how to sell out and write crappy Hollywood movies.

Director and co-writer David Wain and co-writer and actor Ken Marino have done the most to keep the anarchic spirit of The State alive, progressing from the episodic cult hit Wet Hot American Summer through the sketch comedy The Ten (of which I am,as far as I can find, the world's only fan although I think less than half of the movie works) to the mentorship of Judd Apatow, who sponsored Wain and Marino's Role Models, which made enough money to make Universal ask for another film from the Wain-Marino team, again under the Apatow aegis.

Whereas Lennon-Garant have mastered Hollywood formulas well enough to vomit them back up between the covers of a book, Wain and Marino still have to graft stray bits of stories from other movies onto their sketch ideas in order to get their 90 minutes of entertainment to resemble a movie. Most egregiously in Wanderlust, they manufacture a crisis for the entire cast of characters very late in the second act without a scrap of foreshadowing, then dismiss it with the airiest of deus ex machinas, almost as if to acknowledge that narrative is a stupid waste of time in their eyes. From interviews with the creators, it is evident that they write by proceeding from ideas and concepts rather than characters, a procedure which is painfully obvious in the finished work.

Moreover, when it comes to the jokes, Wain and Marino veer rapidly from drastically overstating and repeating their jokes to throwing them away so as to be almost invisible. Endless amounts of time are spent on toilets in this movie, with little additional comic effect after the first statement of the joke. On the other hand, one of the best laughs in the film is invisible as Justin Theroux dismisses Paul Rudd's categorization of his group as a “commune.” “Communes” he scoffs, just means “hippies smoking pot and playing guitars” as he leans against a doorway through which we see and hear a room full of hippies smoking pot and playing guitars. There is no cut-in, no take, no signal to the audience that there has been a joke, which is admirable, but perhaps self-defeating.

The single best comic performance (other than Alan Alda, who gets better and better at kidding his own persona) is by the film's editors, David Moritz and David Nassau who create and improve innumberable jokes with some superb cuts and juxtapositions.  In fact, the very first out-loud laugh in the film involves the cut into the title card itself.  

The question remains as to whether Wain and Marino will ever successfully fuse their sketch-oriented form of humor, based on wildly exaggerated characters and an improvisatory freedom with a real story in which real characters wrestle with real stakes.  In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr described Harold Lloyd as an "architect of sympathy," building the gags in his films into a narrative structure that virtually forced the audience to feel for the main character and want his dreams to be realized.  What made Lloyd (and Chaplin and Keaton) great is that the narrative push in their best films was not imported from exterior sources but grew up out of the characters and the visual comedy they were prone to, given the quirks and proclivities of those characters.  Character, narrative and gag were all fused, rather than being pasted together.  That takes a lot of time and a lot of films (Lloyd may have made 100 short comedies before arriving at the character who made him great.)  I hope Mr. Wain and Mr. Marino have the opportunity and the ability to realize that fusion.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Anderson in the ascendant

It will be difficult to write anything new about Moonrise Kingdom (2012).  It's the kind of film that makes people who want to write about film want to write about it.  I will try to make my own observations, but it is unlikely that they will be unique to me.

The signature Anderson shot is what I call the Dollhouse shot, in which Anderson's camera roams through divided spaces to show how they are connected (and how they are on a set, which has an anti-realistic effect).  I first noticed it in Life Aquatic, and Mr. Fox is full of them.  But Moonrise Kingdom begins with one. (The picture on the right is a set photo from this sequence.  It is really a photo, though when reproduced in a small size it really looks a Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.) I am reminded of how Alfred Hitchcock found it necessary to put his own cameo earlier and earlier in the film so as to get it over with and leave fans undistracted to follow the film.  In Moonrise Kingdom it may have the same function, as well as being a somewhat defiant setting of tone.  "This IS a Wes Anderson film!  You know what that means, and I'm not going to apologize for it."

It is a little appalling to see so many critics jump on Mr. Anderson for having a distinct style.  That doesn't seem to bother them with Hemingway or Faulkner or Dickens or Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver.  It doesn't bother them with Hitchcock or Welles or even Spielberg, who has a very particular way of using his camera.  But because Anderson uses conventions from other media, including the fine arts, illustration and the theater, the critics are all jumping up and down and turning blue!  How dare he have a distinctive voice!  All the really good directors are anonymous journeyman utterly without any element of personal expression.

There is a reason critics get excited this way.  They are all Salieris.  Third-rate uncreative nonentities, fully aware that the subject of their scribblings will far outlast those scribblings.  They are also mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging morons.

From this categorization I separate the valuable journalists and historians who deal in fact, like David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.  These are the kind of film writers who literally count frames.  Some writer who is obsessive in just that way should tell us if Wes Anderson has ever done a push-in with his camera.  The camera always seems to move laterally, and when there is movement in depth it seems to progress in a straight line from the horizon line toward the viewer.  There are no diagonals in Andersonland, and there are no dolly movements in towards the actors.  Too emphatic, perhaps?  Or maybe the Coen Brothers used up the quota of push-ins before Mr. Anderson could get to them.

Two things Anderson gets right that few filmmakers do.  One is very early love.  There is a wonderful mix of narcissistic unawareness of one's actions and their possible consequences and self-conscious detachment in that first fine fall into passion.  At the same time a person is engaged in headlong and reckless acts to pursue the object of passion, one is also aware that First Love is a landmark in one's life and should be observed and considered.  And one can't help wondering if one is doing it right.  Anderson and his young actors get that spot on, doing insane things and analyzing them in an overly sane way.

The other thing is the 1960s.  Most filmmakers visiting the 1960s seem to believe that 1968-1973 was when the 60s took place.  Mad Men has corrected this impression to a great extent, and yet the tone is still off in many cases.  Few things evoke the 1960s so well as the battery-operated phonograph playing a 7" 33 RPM single from Europe, and the single is by a name forgotten to all but a few of us over 50, Francoise Hardy.  That is not an exercise in obscurity, but in precision.  Also, I can't help but be delighted to hear Leonard Bernstein's recording of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with narration read by young Henry Chapin (plus a snippet of Carnival of the Animals), a recording my son used regularly to fall asleep to during one early phase of his life.

[On the other hand, I have to admit to being embarrassed that, as a big fan of Benjamin Britten, I was unfamiliar with Noye's Fludde, the excerpts of which sounded wonderful.  Also, it looked great in the film.  Here's a picture of it on the right. I have resolved to hunt a recording of that work down.  Britten also provides the best underscoring cue in the film, a string pizzicato melody from the Simple Symphony, another piece unfamiliar to me.  Seriously, I know a lot of Britten's work very well, but he was quite prolific.]

Noyes Fludde reinforces the film's mythic and fable-like qualities.  To the critics who find this arch, I would direct them to Homer and the Bible and see if those aren't a little non-realistic as well.

Also assisting the period feeling of Moonrise, there's the color. At least in the print I saw, the film looked as though it had been shot in the 1960s on Ansco Color which had since gone a bit green.  Hard to say why, but it helped.

We didn't realize it 15 or 20 years ago, but what cinema needed was more Bob Balaban.  Glad to see Anderson doing his part to correct this problem, and made him omniscient, as is only right and proper.

Is this the first major commerical feature shot made entirely in Rhode Island?  Having summered in Maine throughout my childhood, I can't tell you how familiar and comfortable much of the film looked.  It is the cramped shabbiness preferred by members of the meritocracy.  (See also On Golden Pond.)

Here is a very nice video about Britten's opera I found at the website of Focus Films, distributor of Moonrise Kingdom.  It is quite engaging and I hope it makes up for this very dull post about a very lively movie, which you should see especially if you have ever been in love, or a child or outdoors in the rain.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

You're going to thank me.

I am herewith posting for your benefit, the only 19 or 20 minutes of Skidoo (1968) that are worth seeing.  That said, they are extremely worth seeing.  They are simply buried inside a cinematic tomb that rivals anything old Cheops cranked out.

The backstory. Old-fashioned but still-skillful producer-director Otto Preminger decides to make a film about the scourge of the nation, LSD.  But, being an honest man, he tries it.  And he decides it is NOT the scourge of the nation.  But he's committed to make this movie with a large bunch of mismatched middle-aged and even elderly movie stars which is both for and against LSD.

I have to back-pedal even farther.  When I was growing up, Preminger was a star-director name nearly on a par with Alfred Hitchcock.  He made big pictures about big issues and he plastered his name and face all over them.  And he was not unjustified.  His films got big audiences and made big money.  And his technique, which he had been developing since the mid-1940s was extremely well-suited to the wide-screen epics of the 1960s.  Specifically, he preferred long, complex master shots, sometimes reframing the action with camera movement rather than recutting.  Paradoxically for such a control freak, this procedure gives power to the actors, who control the tempo and feel of the scene.  He counteracted that tendency by calling for extensively repeated takes, wearing the actors down.  (Also paradoxically, Preminger was an actor, and in films such as Wilder's Stalag 17, a good actor.)

His career breaks into distinct phases, beginning with the romantic noirs of the 40s, most famously Laura, and my personal favorite, Where The Sidewalk Ends.  The next phase began with The Moon Is Blue a standard-issue sexless sex comedy from a Broadway boulevard play.  But the heroine referred to herself as a "virgin" and the words "pregnant" and "mistress" were bandied about, causing pearls to be clutched across the country.  The film went out without an MPAA seal, made a pot of money from disappointed filmgoers who expected something sexy and turned Otto onto the controversy racket.

The last phase begins roughly around the time of Exodus in 1960, when controversy transmogrifies into international all-star epic.  Thus follows Advice and Consent, Hurry Sundown and The Cardinal.

Back to LSD.  Otto changes his mind and decides to make a pro-hippie movie.  Or at least a movie that suggests that these crazy kids might be worth listening to.  The first clue is in this unconventional opening in which husband Jackie Gleason and wife Carol Channing (bizarre couple, yes, I know) fight over the remote control, a fight seen from the TV viewer's POV.  (Note the inclusion of Preminger's own In Harm's Way in the onscreen melange.)  [Apologies in advance for any ads inserted by Daily Motion.]

Fairly early on, for reasons not worth delving into, Jackie gets his consciousness raised via an acid trip.  So far, so good, except that the sequence bears no resemblance to any acid trip taken by any known person.  It is fun, but fun like those goofy early 1930s movies packed with random non-sequiturs in the place of actual jokes.

Far better than seeing Groucho's head in place of a lightbulb is the acid trip experienced by veteran character actor Fred Clark, which is not only accompanied by a charming Harry Nillson song, but features some of the wackiest dancing and carrying-on by Clark as a prison guard who has unknowingly dropped LSD.   Clark was usually seen as grouchy bank officials turning down nice people for loans or mean neighbors who won't give the kids their football back and rarely had the opportunity to clown this way. The song in question begins at the 3:00 minute mark in this clip.

Finally, we have the last nine minutes or so of the film.  This includes the rather catchy title song, accompanying an incomprehensible sequence in which Carol Channing and her daughter's hippy friends occupy gangster Groucho Marx's yacht, while Groucho turns on and becomes a Buddhist.  I include this clip principally for the final few minutes in which Harry Nillson sings the credits.  All of them.  Right down to the wardrobe mistress and the production accountant.  That's freakier than Gleason's acid trip.

Make no mistake.  By no means is Skidoo a good film.  But it is an instructive bad film, and one with some moments of inspiration of enchantment.  Personally, I would never have thought Otto had it in him.