Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road

Although it’s clear that The Road (2009; dir. John Hillcoat) takes place in the southeastern United States, beginning in the Appalachians and moving towards the Atlantic coastline, geography and place matter only incidentally. Civilization has come to an end through some unspecified disaster. It’s not culture, or the wealth of centuries of human achievement, that the two main characters are struggling to preserve. They’re struggling to preserve their own lives, struggling in a sense—at least the father is—with the idea that their lives are worth preserving. The few remaining members of the human race are organized in savage bands, killing and cannibalizing the stragglers they encounter. The father and his young son try to avoid discovery by these bands. They keep heading south, towards the coast, towards some rescue that we know, that at least the father knows, is not there.

As dark as this film may be, the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy on which it’s based is even darker and more brutal. The film preserves a few of the darkest moments from McCarthy’s story, for instance the departure of the man’s wife, the mother of his child, who has decided that there’s no purpose to their continuing struggles to survive. She knows that if they’re caught, which she believes will inevitably happen, she and the boy will be raped, that they’ll all be killed and eaten. She wanders off into the woods to kill herself. Another instance is when the man and boy discover people held captive in the dark basement of an abandoned house. The people are naked and filthy and faded in color, so that they hardly appear to be human. They’re livestock awaiting slaughter as food for their captors. Mostly the film focuses on the lonely trek of the father and son towards the southern coastline.

The film lacks the rich, stark language of the novel. In its place the film uses vivid images of a devastated landscape, of ravaged, incinerated cities, of empty human skeletons. While the man and the boy in the novel have a kind of generic, anonymous quality, so that we can imagine them as we will, the film personalizes the two through the actors who portray them: Viggo Mortensen is the father and the mostly unknown Kodi Smit-McPhee is his son. Charlize Theron portrays the mother, primarily through a series of brief flashbacks. None of these characters are given names. Although the woman’s character is somewhat more prominent in the film than the novel, her role is essentially the same. All three actors are excellent in their roles, for the most part evading sentimentality or bitterness, though it is bitterness that drives the mother to suicide.

The difficulty with a film such as The Road, based on a well known and widely read novel, is that those viewers who have read the novel can never view the film on its own terms. They must always see it in the context of its source, almost as a kind of appendage. This is not to suggest that the film should not have been made—it should have been—nor that readers should avoid the novel if they plan to see the film. It is simply to acknowledge a matter of fact—the inseparable link between the two forms. Although some may disagree, it seems to me inescapable that if one sees The Road and finds it successful or at least interesting one will necessarily seek out and read the novel on which it is based.

Admirers of McCarthy argue about whether there is cause for optimism when the novel ends and the boy, his father having died, is taken in by a family—the only other family in the story. The world is still dead, or at least dying, and there is little hope of its recovery, unless one takes the novel’s final paragraph, a vivid description of a trout swimming motionless in a stream, as a foreshadowing of the future rather than a memory of the past. There is no such moment in the film, unless one counts the small beetle—still alive--that the boy discovers late in the film. In the film the boy is also rescued by a family—a man, a woman, and their two children. The man agrees that he is carrying the fire—that he and his family are the “good guys.” The boy wants to be assured. Carrying the fire, being the good guys, these are the terms the boy’s father uses when he talks to his son about keeping moral values alive—values of virtue, of civility—even though he makes clear to the boy that he will resort to almost anything to protect his son, even though the boy is the only way these values retain any meaning for him. The man’s struggle not to abandon those values is a central theme of the novel and film.

The film version of The Road offers no more hope for long-term optimism about the boy’s survival or the fate of the human race than the book does. But because the film ends with the glimmer of a smile on the boy’s face as he agrees to join the family that is offering him protection, and because the viewer—this writer at least—will seize on any evidence that allows him to avoid complete nihilistic despair, the film in a small and muted way offers faint hope.

The film is a reading of McCarthy’s novel. In general it preserves the major events, themes, and emphases of its source. The changes that Joe Penhall’s screenplay makes to McCarthy’s story are for the most part not major and do it no disservice. There are differences. The language of the novel has a vivid intensity that the film lacks. The novel gives special emphasis to garbage—garbage is all that is left of human civilization. McCarthy makes this most clear when the father (who may have been a teacher) finds the rotting books of what was once a library and realizes that the sodden pages are all that remains of the great monuments of human achievements. Garbage is the novel’s metaphor for environmental and self-destructive human recklessness.  The film offers many scenes of ruined buildings and garbage and smoking cities but doesn’t make as much of them.

Robert Duvall makes a brief appearance as a wandering old man whom the father and son briefly encounter on the road. The boy insists that they share food with the old man. Duvall’s brief appearance is the best moment in this generally remarkable, deeply sad, and melancholic film.


Avatar (2009; dir. James Cameron) was thoroughly entertaining, even enthralling. If one scrutinizes too carefully, weaknesses will appear. But from a purely vicarious point of view, it is hard to beat. It is also perhaps the only film I have seen so far that effectively uses 3-D technology. The setting is vividly realized—a fusion of Maxfield Parrish and Henri Rousseau and Frank Frazetta. On the one hand there is no doubt that the alien world of the Na’vi is a digital graphics world, but it is detailed, colorful, and detailed and it draws one in. It’s artfully created and deeply realized, with a geography and biology and culture that, while borrowed in various ways from the world we know best, are convincing. The plot is not particularly novel (there are similarities to Dances with Wolves), but it is substantial enough, and the world in which it takes place more than overshadows any deficiencies. The film’s pace is break neck, with few lapses in action. With a culture partially drawn from Africa and partially from Native America, with a large dose of New Age hoo-hah thrown in for good measure, the Na’vi world is one whose veracity you rarely doubt, however implausible it might sometimes seem. Some might term this film science fiction, and certainly there are sci-fi elements here. To me it is straightforward fantasy. Avatar is so well done that it more than lives up to all the hype. Among the best scenes is one in which the central character Jake is waylaid at night in the Na’vi forest and chased by fantastic beasts. In another Jake is accepted into the Na’vi culture when he learns to ride a huge flying reptile—the sequences in which he rides this creature and soars through the air are the highpoint of the film. There are many other such scenes. Avatar will certainly reward subsequent viewings.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Three elements stand out for me in Inglourious Basterds (2009). First is the acting of Brad Pitt, who is effective in his role as Aldo Rainey, the leader of the commando squad whose mission is to kill and scalp Nazis. Pitt’s Maryville, TN, accent is suspect, but he carries it off and convincingly parodies the image of a Sergeant York hillbilly war hero. Because of his notoriety as a Hollywood pretty boy and husband to Angelina Jolie, viewers may overlook or forget that Pitt has repeatedly shown his ability as a character actor: consider Twelve Monkeys (1995) or Burn After Reading (2008).

The second element is Tarantino’s typical reliance on long, slow scenes in which tension slowly, inexorably builds. The first time I encountered this method was in Tarantino’s early film Reservoir Dogs (1992), where a cop is tormented and tortured in a warehouse scene that seems to go on forever. We encounter these scenes again in Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004). In Inglourious Basterds, one such scene occurs at the film’s beginning in the house of a dairy farmer, another in a Parisian bar, still another in an isolated location where Rainey’s commando squad is interrogating three Nazi soldiers. For long periods in these scenes nothing happens. Inane conversation takes place. Yet you know something is coming. You’re not sure what it will be or how it will transpire. The tension can build to extreme levels. When the tension explodes, whether the payoff in cathartic release is worth the long stretches of dull and boring inactivity is a subject for examination.

The final element is the climactic scene that features the murder of Hitler and Goebbels and most of the German high command in a movie theater fire, effectively ending World War II. Although the plot of the film had moved towards this moment, my assumption was that in one way or the other it would not happen because, historically, it did not happen—Hitler and Goebbels died, probably by suicide, during the last days of the war. Even though the story in this film is fictional, the world Tarantino places it in is historical (or so I assumed). In such a world Goebbels and Hitler are not assassinated. But in the world of this film they are.

Alternative realities are a characteristic of postmodernism. As a filmmaker who has built his method on imitating and quoting the cinematic styles of other filmmakers, Tarantino certainly qualifies as postmodern. But for me the manner in which two of the Nazi era’s most heinous villains died in this film had the effect of invalidating its story.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

A Christmas song I particularly like is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Written in 1943 by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, first performed by Judy Garland, the song does not suggest that Christmas will take away the troubles of one’s personal life and of the world. Rather it suggests that the holidays offer a brief respite from misery: “from now on, our troubles will be out of sight”; “from now on, out troubles will be miles away.” The song hearkens back to “olden days, Happy golden days of yore.” What these are, the song does not say, but the idea is that in comparison to a happier past the present day is a time of difficulty and woe. When I hear this song, I hear an underlying sadness and sorrow, a sense of diminished expectations, that the holiday season may enable one to forget briefly, but not to leave behind. The song’s final stanza suggests the tenuousness of life. The holidays are a time when family and friends come together “through the years” but “only if the fates allow.” Written during the years of the Second World War, this Christmas song reflects sadness and anxiety on the American home front. But its sober appraisal of the ephemeral nature of holidays against the more realistic problems that beset human experience makes it singular.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Why do I bother to watch films like this one? I was off from work for the holidays, no one else was at home, and in a weak moment I decided to indulge in something inexcusable. First I tried Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). Then I resorted to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008; dir. Rob Cohen). This is the third film in the resurrected Mummy franchise, all of them featuring Brendan Fraser as Rick O’Connell, famed hunter and battler of resurrected mummies. The first of these films was entertaining, with suitable special effects, decent acting, and some truly frightening scarab beetles. The second film was less impressive, basically focused on the desire of the mummy from the first film for revenge against O’Connell. The third film moves to China, where O’Connell’s son, following in his father’s footsteps, unearths an army of terracotta soldiers, all of whom come back to life in time to give the retired O’Connell and his wife an excuse to come out of retirement and join their errant son in China to battle the moiling mass of mummies.

It seems pointless to note that this film relies on CGI effects. They are everywhere, and CGI is basically the medium of choice. There’s little attempt to merge it with actual film images. It’s just there, take it or leave it. It’s become its own form. It has been applied here with all due diligence but no real enthusiasm or creative energy.

Fraser is a very fine actor. But his role in the mummy films seems to have pegged him as the actor of choice in half-wit adventure films for which Harrison Ford is unavailable or too old or plagued by some degree of self-respect: we’ve seen Fraser in too many films with names like George of the Jungle (1999) and Dudley Do-Right (1999), and Adventure at the Center of the Earth (2008). He was very fine in Gods and Monsters (1998) and Blast from the Past (1999) and Bedazzled (2000).

Fraser is hardly the only actor of note in this third mummy film. Jet Li is here, along with the excellent Michelle Yeoh. That they are here makes no difference. The film required no real acting—only available bodies to occupy the requisite roles, to carry out the necessary motions of swashbuckling and leaps and bravado.

I was ashamed at how I’d spent my time once this film was over. A test pattern might have been better.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Is it redundant to state that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) is about product placement? It is first of all a matter of franchise—establishing momentum in a series of intense-action films about giant robots engaging in an ongoing battle of good and evil. Revenge of the Fallen is the second Transformers film, and surely it will not be the last. In the final scene the voice of the uber-robot Optimus Prime assures us that the transformers and the human race will be allies for years to come—enough logic for a sequel. The Transformers films are based on a line of toy robots manufactured by Hasbro, a company which surely must share in whatever profits the film earns, and that will sell more toy robots as a result of the interest it generates among the toy-purchasing population.

To make this clear, or at the least to make clear that it makes no pretense about motive, a message early in the film announces that it is based on a line of toys created by Hasbro.

A major flaw in this sequel is the over complicated story. In the first film there is a certain novelty in the revelations that giant and not-so-giant robots lie hidden in cars, toasters, cranes, and other mechanical or electrical devices, and that their mission is to protect the human race from undisclosed menace. In the sequel, novelty is replaced with an overly complex mythology involving Egypt and ancient rivalries between a race of robots, loosely resembling the ancient war in heaven that is part of Judaeo-Christian mythology. The more the story unfolds, the more ridiculous it becomes.

Another element of product placement in the film is Megan Fox. In between this sequel and the 2007 original, she became a popular culture phenomenon, fetishized by the media, teenage boys, and apparently also by Michael Bay, director of the Transformer films. Bay’s name is appropriate to one of the primary cinematic devices in the film: slow-motion camera sequences focused on flimsily clad, highly developed, usually female human bodies moving in slow motion down the beach. This technique alone made the 1990s television show Baywatch what it was, which was not much. In Transformers the camera focuses on Fox’s pulsating, heaving breasts, partially hidden (and revealed) by whatever flimsy shirt or blouse she is wearing, as she runs straight on towards the camera, or across the screen, fleeing from marauding hostile robots. Fox is Mikaela Baines, the girlfriend of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf), the presumptive main character of the film. While he leaves for his first year at college, she stays at home, painting designs on motorcycles and cars—at least until hostile robots threaten to take over the world and destroy the sun. But Witwicky is not really the main character—Megan Fox is, along with the oversized robots that compete with her for time on screen. Next to them, the plot and LaBoeuf’s Witwicky matter very little if at all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Storm Warning

Storm Warning attempts to take a strong moral view of the Ku Klux Klan, but it does so in such a timid way that the Klan and what it represents is hardly recognizable.  Released in 1951 and featuring Ronald Reagan in the lead roles, with the support of Ginger Rogers and a young Doris Day, Storm Warning is a film noir of sorts.  It presents the Klan as a group of community hoodlums who for relatively hazy reasons occasionally attack people identified as enemies of the community.  Most often these turn out to be enemies of the Klan.  In an early scene a reporter who has been investigating the Klan, and who has been jailed on trumped up drunk and disorderly charges, is hauled out of jail, beaten, and shot to death.  Ginger Rogers, who has come to town to visit her sister (Doris Day) witnesses the murder, and this becomes a key event in the film.

Storm Warning views the Klan as a dangerous vigilante group that threatens law and order in the town.  The men who belong to the Klan, most of them upstanding local citizens, have joined either because they believe government is too weak to maintain order, or because they've been pressured.

The film barely hints at the racist bigotry at the Klan's heart.  Even though the Klan in 1951 was well known for its Southern origins and activities, the film camouflages its setting.  We know that the film is set somewhere in the South, as opposed to the North, because folks keep speaking with disparagement of the way things are done up North.  No one speaks with any accent.  No cultural or regional markers connect the small town in which the film is set in any way with any sort of distinctive place.  It could as easily have taken place in Southern Los Angeles, or Southern Idaho, as somewhere in the American South.

Why?  In 1951 the McCarthy hearings were going full tilt.  Communists (so Americans were urged to believe) were threatening the woof and warp of American society.  In some sense does the film's portrayal of the Klan as a menace to social order make a veiled commentary on the commie danger?  What the film does seek to do is take a stand against hooliganism and vigilantism.  But it portrays the Klan members as hooded thugs, not as white supremacists. 

Explaining himself to Ginger Rogers' character, the leader of the Klan explains that his group exists to ensure that the streets will be safe for people like her.  Why would she be in danger to begin with?  She walks the streets of the small town at night in complete safety.  But what the leader is implying (and one has to lean over backwards to get the implication) is that the Klan ensures that white woman such as she will be safe from black men.  This is the closest the film comes to any open acknowledgment that the Klan has a connection to black people and civil rights.  It's a moment easily missed.

My colleague John Inscoe notes the similarity of aspects of the film's plot to A Streetcar Named Desire.  The film was released in the same year as Storm Warning, so any influence would have come from the published play or Elia Kazan's Broadway production.  In both works an older sister comes to visit her younger sister, who is married to a working class young man suspicious of the older woman.  Both works feature a subtle sexual tension between the man and the unmarried sister; in both works the younger sister is loyal to her husband despite all his faults.

Ronald Reagan is more than serviceable in his role as a young district attorney.  He's determined and ethical and not easily cowed.  He has integrity, and even when his legal career and (possibly) his political future are threatened (the Klan leader is one of the most powerful men in town), he stands tall.  What he lacks is heroic stature of the sort we see in Gary Cooper in High Noon or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Reagan’s character is devoted to doing his job and doing it well but has no philosophical vision, ultimately. He views the Klan as a bunch of lawbreakers and is eager to take it down.

Storm Warning would like to be a drama of conscience.  Its focus is Ginger Rogers, who witnesses a murder and who, when it comes time to provide the courtroom testimony that will implicate the Klan (and her brother in law), suffers a failure of courage.  Again, the McCarthy hearings come to mind.