“Never well regarded as an actor, Satan moved into the production side of the business in 1921.”
Nitrate film clipping from Charles Urban’s When the Devil Drives (1907).
If the fog was thick we might not see the ocean, but the one infallible sign that we were nearly to my grandparents’ house on the coast was the sudden, strange blanket of ice plant that grew in the sandy soil on either side of the highway. Being small I liked to imagine myself big and this sort of landscape helped. In the afternoons I was a giant running up and down the dunes through the miniature forests of ice plant. At dinner I tore up broccoli oaks from the mashed potato hills and crushed them between my molars.
We spent two nights on the central coast last weekend. At the local toyshop in San Luis Obispo my daughter picked out a Playmobile set with a little girl and boy like herself and her brother, but three inches tall. We spent an afternoon at the beach. The wind was cold and our ears began to hurt so we explored the sand dunes instead. My son and daughter, little people just moments before, ran towering over the familiar forests of my childhood.
We went to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The movie is based on the Borrowers books by Mary Norton and concerns a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a house. In one memorable scene Arrietty steps from a small borrower-sized passage into the vast cavern of the humans’ kitchen. We experience a similar change of scale, perhaps, when we enter the high airy theater where giants and giantesses act out (on the screen) their literally larger than life conflicts and romances. On the big screen even little people like Arrietty are brobdingnagian.
Coincidentally, I just finished reading T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose about a lost colony of Lilliputians living on a dilapidated English country estate. White tells us in the first paragraph that his heroine, Maria, was “one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward. When she met cows, however, she did not like to be alone with them.” I kept expecting the phantom cow (mentioned twice more) to arrive on the scene at a crisis in the plot. It never did. Rather than a Holstein or Jersey, this one was a MacGuffin.
Like Alice we find ourselves little one moment, large the next, then little again. These transformations follow their own schedule, you can’t plan them. The professor in Mistress Masham says that “people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.” Trying to be little because you are big is just as hopeless. My son recently told me that the “Kid Community” (himself and his sister) wanted rights. What rights do you want? I asked. “We want to be treated like miniature adults,” he said. When I was eight years old I thought I was a grown-up too. Now, at thirty-eight, I feel more like a child.
For artistry and skill of execution, Henry Selick’s Coraline leapfrogs over his 1993 stop-action feature The Nightmare Before Christmas – and mercifully keeps the musical numbers to a bare minimum, with no Danny Elfman in sight. On the downside, the plot beggars any sense of necessity, with gaping lacunae and complex metaphysical mechanics passed off without explanation (blame Neil Gaiman). But the sheer spectacle of it all left me feeling uncommonly generous and I gladly forgave every fault for the sakes of Misses Forcible and Spink and for the dumb childish joy of Bobinski’s Jumping Mouse Circus. (Put those mice in front of me two minutes after an inoperable cancer diagnosis and I’d smile away Death himself.)
Stop-action is really something special. It preserves the glorious imperfection of all hand-made animation techniques while giving us a dose of the spooky realism of CGI at its best. Of course, stop-action isn’t always spooky: think Wallace and Gromit or the Rankin/Bass holiday specials. But while Selick’s sentimentality is still in evidence, with Coraline he returns stop-action to frontiers of the uncanny last traversed by Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay. There’s something about watching a stick figure doll of a girl walk frame by frame through an old house that gives you an eerily novel perspective on your own creatureliness – and a dread of every supposedly inanimate object in the room.
It’s fun to watch movie stars age along with you. Last night the wife and I caught a showing of Revolutionary Road and I was pleased to see that Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio (both about my age) are showing the same kinds of lines, the same crow’s feet around the eyes, etc., that I am. It’s an odd comfort between strangers: we’re all in this together, I guess.
The movie itself was about as bleak and devastating, and stylishly achieved, as one would expect from Sam Mendes (dir. American Beauty), with strong performances all around but especially from Ms Winslet, who is my Great Film Heroine these days. Yes, she got a Best Actress nomination for The Reader, which I haven’t seen yet, but Winslet was snubbed by the Academy when she didn’t get a nod for this one too. Michael Shannon got one for his supporting role as the mentally disturbed grown son of the Wheelers’ realtor (he’s a dead ringer for Robert Lowell circa 1955). But I find it strange that Mendes, a Brit, should spend so much of his creative energies on the mores and domestic tribulations of middle-class Americans. I wonder if he’s just pulling a Christina Stead. Stead, of course, was the gifted Australian novelist who set her semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, in the U.S. so that, one supposes, she’d have more luck cashing in on it.
Overall I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with Oscar-bait films this year. Sure, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (except for the disfiguring-children scenes) and if Man on Wire doesn’t win for best documentary, I’m going to break something. But I’m polishing a grudge against Darren Aronofsky and so I’ve delayed seeing The Wrestler, despite all the praise it’s getting. Aronofsky’s last, The Fountain, was such an abortion of a film and such a waste of a perfectly good Rachel Weisz that I’m still sore about it.
In Antonioni’s film L’eclisse, the luminous Monica Vitti visits the Rome stock exchange, where her fiancée, played by Alain Delon, works. Delon points out a fat man who has just lost 50 million lire. Intrigued, she follows the man. He orders a drink at a bar, barely touches it, then goes to a café where he orders an acqua minerale, which he again barely touches. He is writing something on a piece of paper, and leaves it on the table. We imagine that it must be a set of furious, melancholy figures. Vitti approaches the table, and sees that it is a drawing of a flower…
[T]he joke is nicely on us. We had a stock idea of how the financial victim responds to catastrophe – collapse, despair, self-defenestration – and Antonioni confounded our expectations. The character slips through our changing perceptions, like a boat moving through canal locks. We begin in misplaced certainty and end in placeless mystery.
~ James Wood, How Fiction Works
It was fun watching the applecart being upset… but now where do we go for apples?
That’s Paul Schrader, screenwriter for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. The quote is lifted from Robert Fulford’s National Post article surveying the long wreckage left in the wake of Pauline Kael’s reign at The New Yorker. Ever since 1967, the idea goes, when Kael came out swinging for Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde, American film has been steadily vulgarizing.
The trouble with the democratization of taste is that you too often end with something unpalatable. It’s a popular sentiment among the mandarins of culture, as well as the creatively frustrated and underappreciated, and perhaps there’s some truth in it. But it’s not enough to fault the critics for the trend, and Fulford admits Kael can hardly shoulder all the blame. Her career was simply emblematic of her era. Rather than summoning and driving it, Kael too was a victim of that fleeting specter -the zeitgeist- that so single-mindedly set about dismantling bourgeois sensibility and prejudice in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
We all get a little spooked by the zeitgeist. But I wonder if the critic, like the artist, isn’t a little more susceptible to a good spooking than most. Perhaps, like a 19th century medium channeling spirits, a critic who manages to levitate his way to prominence does so by an especially effective channeling of the zeitgeist’s own critical genius. In which case, Kael may have given herself and her colleagues too much credit when she complained:
When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.
Is it really so bad? Have we fallen so far? Are the Love Gurus, Terminators, Armageddons and Independence Days that have plagued American box offices these past twenty years the truest, best representatives of the age? Was cinema and artistic sensibility prior to the Kaelian Revolution such an unadulterated paradise? Surely, no one who has seen American Pie or Superbad can deny there’s been movement toward greater vulgarity, even compared to the teen movies of my own generation like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club.
But I think there’s something more fundamental at work here, something that trips up all would-be romanticizers of the heretofore. We fall victim to that ruse of perspective by which the far horizon seems full of towering achievements only because its lesser works are rendered invisible by distance. If we’re unable to see any legitimate cinematic achievements in our own age (I nominate There Will Be Blood), it’s because we’re so thickly surrounded by the present undergrowth of lesser works which will, with time enough and distance, find a merciful oblivion.
We were so eager for happiness, we forgot we weren’t free.
That’s one of the more poignant lines from Marjane Satrapi’s beautiful film, Persepolis – adapted from her graphic novel of the same name. It tells the story of Satrapi’s own life: her childhood in Tehran, the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the turmoil of the eight-year war with Iraq. Especially powerful are the portraits of her grandmother and an executed uncle, and the frank, mesmerizing sequences that lead us through her student years in Vienna and subsequent (temporary) return to life under the ayatollahs.
After Persepolis itself my wife and I watched the “making-of” documentary also included on the DVD, which delves into the rather old-fashioned techniques used to such rewarding effect in the film. Entirely drawn and inked by hand, the months of detailed labor behind Persepolis was once par for the course but in the era of CGI requires a special devotion to craft that is vanishingly rare. The robust, magical, shadow-theater quality of the final product is worth every hour poured into it.
Satrapi herself comments on the decision not to use computer-generated imagery. The trouble with CGI, she suggests, is its absolute precision, and hence its inhumanity. That sounds about right. By their very nature, computer-generated images are the product of mathematical perfections alien to the human eye and hand. I recently heard a Pixar director describe how in order to create a CGI image which will be received as true-to-life one has to engineer the illusion of dirt and flaws. With traditional animation, on the other hand, one may strive for perfection in line and form as ardently as one wants without fear of actually achieving it, and the results are immediately received as true and familiarly human.
A CGI movie may tell an inspiring story, then, and it may be a technical feat, but it can never be art in the same sense that a film like Persepolis can. The greatest achievements of art are necessarily imperfect. Their imperfection is inseparable from their greatness. The poet Robert Lowell came to the same basic idea when he declared that “imperfection is the language of art” – by which he meant any true and truly human art.
Whether bequeathed us by swooning Greeks or as a side-effect of progress in science and technology, there is a mathematical idea of perfection at work in culture today which we’re frequently tempted to admire for the wrong reasons or apply in the wrong cases. We’re so eager for perfection, you might say, we forget that we ourselves are imperfectible. This misunderstanding is one of the more irksome and self-defeating pathologies of modern man. Geometry, after all, may deliver us the distance of a star and chart out the recesses of space, but it will never map the abyss of the heart.