Sunday, March 17, 2013


This time around, the people of Oz will decide whether fear wins over freedom

Three films encountered over the past week grapple with the question of belief, not in the context of conventional religion, but along the porous border of Faith and Science which has become the new
demilitarized zone, except it's not so demlitarized -- bombs seem to bursting overhead every day.

As this is written Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) is the number one film in the US and worldwide.  Films can be successful merely by being fun, but this level of success suggests that Oz has some resonance for the audience, something beyond pleasant diversion.  The audience we saw the film with applauded at the end, and that is by no means a common experience anymore.  I believe that much of that resonance comes from the filmmakers' genuine respect for a central tenet of the L. Frank Baum legacy:  this is, above all, an American fairy tale.  Yes, there are princesses and witches, but the stakes are not so much personal ascension to prominence and wealth, but securing peace and freedom across a very diverse, and often strange and dangerous land.  Moreover, Baum was, more than anything, all about the dawn and the promise of the 20th century, a would-be tinkerer in the Age of the Tinkerer-King, Thomas Edison (who is rightly cited as an inspiration by Oz in the film).
The power of credentials:  cynical or self-affirming?

So, whereas the heroes of the 1939 MGM film (to which Oz pays much deep homage) were in search of personal redemption and rescue, and had to be exhorted to only believe in the powers that they already possessed, Oscar the hero of Oz must save the entire land and its varied peoples from tyranny and the rule of force.  And, taking a page from the classic film, he takes inspiration from the Wizard of Menlo Park to create an illusion of superior force and power, with the collaboration of entire race of Tinkers.  The day is won, then, not be actual superiority, but by its perception.  What can be more American than that?  We are the capitol of self-aggrandizemnt and humbug.  But as many have pointed out before, Oz wins by being the biggest and best humbug around.  And, in an improvement over the original, Oz enlists his people in creating many of the triumphal illusions.  Perhaps the people of the Land of Oz will lose their fear of magic in favor of mastery of technology.  (Will the Tinkers become the new priests of Oz?)  Arthur Clarke would weep in happy recognition.  (Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.")

I suspect that those critics --and there are many-- who are describing the film as lacking heart and emotional engagement, saw the film in a screening room without "hot bodies" (as the stage director George Abbott described paying customers).  Those bodies warm up the film with their own enthusiasm and with the joy of making connections with the MGM film, most notably, the sepia Academy ratio prologue (in a drab Kansas) expanding to a full-color 2.39 widescreen image, the nod to the Yellow Brick Road, Dark Forest and Emerald City and most particularly the transformation of Theodora into the Wicked Witch, which is a worthy analog to the earlier film's transformation of the image of a troubled Auntie Em (the Good Mother) in the crystal ball into the cackling cruelty of the Wicked Witch (the Bad Mother).

Personally, I regret that the producers' number one and number two choices for the title role, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp, respectively, turned them down.  (I thought of them myself as I watched the film, and learned later they had a history with the property.)  Downey and Depp would have had the convincing theatricality to carry off the charlatan magician.  Mr. Franco is famous for pursuing his education, but he has a thick tongue, the California nasality that disfigures the speech of actors such as Kevin Costner and Chris O'Donnell, who sound inept in period roles, suggesting a surfer taking a pause between the waves.  Nor does Mr. Franco have the control of his hands and body that would be de rigeur for a working magician.  My hope is that he does not consider tackling the classics until he goes back to school again.

A society of mutual belief
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for example, seems as though he could be a fine prestidigitator, especially with the façade of calm confidence he exudes in The Master (2012).  The faith of Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie in Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is perfectuly understandable.  Dodd's faith in Freddie is the puzzling core of this puzzling film.

What writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson does with great facility is to create a complete and detailed imaginary universe right next door to the world we know, close enough so that we recognize a few landmarks, but very far distant in terms of human motivations and desires.  Given that his story is merely about the unfortunate and unproductive attraction between two men who cannot and will not do each other any good, it is unclear why Freddie needs an elaborate backstory in his World War II service, drifting and alcoholism, or why, for the purposes of the narrative, Dodd needs to have created a complex system of belief which brings both followers and the unwelcome attentions of the authorities, which chase Dodd and his believers all the way to England.  At least, we're told it's England, although what we see is a few hallways and an office with a big window--an architectural flourish you will never ever see in sunshine-deprived England.

The thing that gives the Dodd system the slightest bit of plausibility (leaving aside all the borrowings from the life of L. Ron Hubbard) is that it places itself at the intersection of medicine and magic.  The original medicine men were magicians and, when it comes to mental health, they haven't moved that far from those origins.  Thus, most patients require neither consistency or cohesion.  Relief from suffering is enough to trigger acceptance of all explanations.  But the story would have been just have effective if Dodd had been a singular fraud, a traveling charlatan who does Freddie some good despite the shady origins of Dodd's skills.  The whole invented belief system is an iceberg, the bulk of which is hidden from us, which is simply unnecessary.  Anderson has put a loaded gun in the drawer, occasionally taken it out to look at or polish, but he has never fired the gun, and my friend Anton Chekhov would be pretty darn steamed.

The larger question The Master raises is, can acting performances be great when they story which embraces them is an intellectual cul de sac?  Can we applaud the actor's specificity and care of observation when the result leads nowhere and yields nothing?  I am perfectly prepared to find out I am wrong in a few years -- many people think other PT Anderson films are as empty as I think The Master is, so my mind may well change.  But for the time being, The Master is a film about belief which fails to induce it.

Kenneth asks Darius to trust him and she does.
I guess sincerity matters, because the characters in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) may be just as insane as those in The Master, but they are clearly more earnest, well-meaning, lacking the narcissism and solipsism of Anderson's world.  Kenneth's claims are far madder than Dodd's, yet Kenneth has far less to gain personally.  He is not building an empire, but trying to fix the past.  Kenneth avers he has built a time machine, and rather than travelling in time, the whole movie is going to be spent trying to figure out if he's a genius or a madman. And to their credit, writer Derek Conolly and director Colin Trevorrow balance it pretty well.  Duplass seems both sincere and unstable; the government men following him seem both genuinely concerned and paranoid screwy at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Aubrey Plaza's role was written for her, because if her laser-like skepticism about everything in the world did not exist, it would need to be invented in order to tell this loopy story.  And given how rarely Plaza smiles un-ironically, the payoff is that much greater when she finally drops her guard, gives her heart and commits herself to belief in Kenneth.  Happily, unlike Looper, Primer and Timecrimes but like the careless shaggy dog indie, Sound Of My Voice, Safety need not ever address the paradoxes and inconsistencies of time machine movies.  We take it -- on faith -- that time travel is a matter of faith.

Then, sadly, the film blows itself up.  If you want to know how a film's conclusion can be both exhilarating and disappointing, watch Safety Not Guaranteed right to the end.  I guess I prefer ambiguity to certainty, which is why I prefer art to religion.

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