Wednesday, April 29, 2015

this is not a love story

(636)

(500) Days of Summer was the #9 film it's opening weekend. I saw it with my wife at Arclight Hollywood, I'm pretty sure. The #2 movie that weekend was a movie I would only see later (but also in the theater)--and I would not watch it every day, but Lawrence Dai would, and his blog would become part of the inspiration for this one. That movie was Julie & Julia. Also in theaters that weekend (that I would see in the theater at some point or another) was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Hurt Locker, Up, Star Trek, Bruno, Terminator: Salvation, Moon, Food, Inc. (actually, i might not have watched that one until DVD), The Cove, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Land of the Lost, Away We Go, X-Men Origins: Wolverine... I suppose it was a busy year for movies. But, not really. That's just my life occasionally. You should see my movie lists for, like, December and January when I'm playing catch up on Oscar hopefuls.

Most of those movies above, I saw by myself. When we got together, my wife was barely into movies, and while I had a decade or so to change that, she was never as into them as I was, as I am. She'll still see the interesting arthouse movies these days. As will I. But, obviously, we don't see them together. Our 500 days are long gone. Movie just got to Day 303 and Thomas barely manages to walk into work, his hair and his clothes a mess. I've been there.

More than once.

I remember when I broke up with my first girlfriend, I had several months of absolutely not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to go to work. But, I went. I managed. For a while. Then, I made sure I had a bit of money in the bank, I quit my job and I just took a break. Let life try to reset. Mission Impossible II and Gladiator were in theaters at the time, as were U-571 and Erin Brockovich and Return to Me. My new girlfriend would drag me out of a California for a while. I would only see two movies in the theater from that fall to the next spring. The fall movie was Unbreakable--not anywhere as good as The Sixth Sense but better than so much that Shymalan has done since. The movie the next spring was Valentine, a not so great horror film.

That fall, the first movie I would see would my then future and now past wife was Monsters, Inc.. Riding in Cars with Boys, From Hell, Serendipity, The Others, Life as a House--those were top 20 movies that same November weekend that I had seen in the theater.

Day 314, Thomas sits alone in the movie theater. Reminds me of when I lived alone for a while after my wife and I separated the second time. I used to go to a theater in a neighborhood that was more Chinese- than English-speaking. It was a multiplex but I tended to feel quite alone there. At the time, it was actually rather comforting, not the depressing scene with Thomas on Day 314.

Day 402, on the train, like old times, they don't know any better. Been there too. It's easy to do, slip back into old rhythms, forget for a moment why you're not together anymore. The train reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think, aside from at Disneyland or Travel Town, the only train I was ever on with any girlfriend was with my then future and now past wife. She had come to California twice already. We'd spend a handful of days together. Now I was in Pittsburgh. We went to see the movie A Walk to Remember.

Day 408, the dual screen of Expectations and Reality. Probably the saddest bit of the film. Other moments are more overtly sad, overtly tragic, but the subtle differences, those little details you wish are real but just aren't quite there--those are the painful ones. When life is nothing like the expectation, that's disappointing, but hey, there's no hope on the edge of that disappointment.

The worst thing in Pandora's Box.

Hope.

When life gets close to what you want, and you can't quite push it toward what you want. That hurts more. Finally get up the nerve to ask that girl out out, and she's not single anymore, for example. Been there.

Anyway. Apparently, neither of my daughters like this movie. I rather do.

And, I'll be writing more about it the next two days. Because, if there's nothing else I love (aside from, you know, those daughters, and my son, and I suppose some other family members), I love movies.

it's not in the cards for me

It's interesting that the CliffsNotes for The Notebook suggests a religious theme to the story. On the surface, I don't think there is one... at all. Sure, the swan could be taken for its Christian symbolism (though I am not at all sure where that association comes from; some versions of the Bible list the swan among unclean birds but otherwise, the swan is not in there), OR it could be taken for its symbolism in that swans supposedly mate for life. (Plus, the whole migration thing I already mentioned yesterday.) Taking the presence of swans together with the clothing at Allie's family dinner, we get an interesting thing, though. While Fin and Sara dress in white and blend right in with all the rich folk, Noah wears black, standing out like a black swan--which in science is an unpredictable outlier (or something like that). Let us assume that Noah is not an unexpected thing existing simply to disrupt Allie's life... but not go so far as the CliffsNotes author who brings up fate as if this story has anything to do with that.

Anyway, yeah, I don't think that there's any religious theme in this story. Not on the surface. But, the faith inherent in love, especially a) the lifelong love in Noah's and Allie's story and b) the love we see all the time on film, is a bit like religion. There's nothing objective to base it on, it's all just a feeling that we latch onto because it makes us feel good about life...

And, I really don't feel like taking the comparison any further. Cinematic love is simplistic and foolish. It's as simple as that. Oh, there are exceptions, movies that really seem to involve something deeper, but ultimately, even that is based on our misguided notions of romance in reality. Love ain't a thing. It's just a word we use to describe a whole set of other things that together become quite complicated.

And, obviously, I'm feeling a bit cynical about that whole thing today. I'm too busy for it even if I believed in it right now, anyway.

Noah and Allie never even get married; seriously, she's still "Miss Hamilton" at the nursing home and there is absolutely nothing in this movie that suggests a feminist notion like her keeping her family name. And, she forgets who Noah is. That is not romantic. It's tragic.

It's also tragic that this movie just isn't that romantic. This ending also goes on way too long. Maybe, instead of skipping past people falling in love earlier you could have cut down the old people part of the story.

But anyway, I am done with The Notebook. And there is only one more movie to go for this month of recommendations. Then Groundhog Day, then a new set of movies back on the usual schedule, 7 days each.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

no. no second thoughts

The opening shots of The Notebook evoke something peaceful, natural. Noah (though it might not actually be Noah in this instance) rowing in the early morning suggests something pastoral. Something timeless. In cinematic terms, it places the story within this film in the context of something bigger. There's a good reason, perhaps, that Noah has little more personality than crazy, borderline-stalkerish guy, who now 15 minutes in is seeming more free-spirited and maybe--just, maybe--a little less insane. He's the adolescent impulse to pursue the girl. That's it. Noah--his name even evoking something from long ago--is a guy who could be living in any time, any place, not just 1940s America. (Hell, after Allie leaves and he goes to war, his hair suggests someone who's a bit of an anachronism.) Gosling's character in Blue Valentine could be this same guy--and I don't mean to dismiss his acting ability; rather Noah Calhoun and Dean Pereira are like two ends of a spectrum, or their stories are. Cynthia "Cindy" Heller and Allison "Allie" Hamilton are like two sides of a coin--the decades between their lives change the details but the brushstrokes are much the same. She's the adolescent impulse toward love, girlish but with ambition to more. Her role would almost be feminist except it's hard for there to be feminism in a film in which the lead female's mother explains to her how she, too, loved a man of which her father did not approve, and she chose a more "suitable" boy. Allie--her name suggesting nobility, not just the upper class in which the film places her but something more special. She's idealized beyond Noah and his interest, beyond the fantasy.

Blue Valentine is like the darker sibling to The Notebook. The main relationship is really just as broken, just as twisted, and just as saccharine, but this lighter sibling is not nearly as painful. Pain is glossed over, left behind for new ventures. Noah moves on to war and then Martha minutes after they break up. (And Fin dies almost as a sidenote... oh, SPOILERS) Allie moves on to Lon minutes after that. Time is not real in this film but a shrunken-down thing that exists solely within film--

(and the fantasies of adolescents in love... not that Noah or Allie are, strictly speaking, adolescents, but aren't we all adolescent when we're in love, or lustful, or infatuated, or even just nursing a crush? Age becomes an irrelevant detail, as does most everything in the world.)

--and important details are glossed over. Allie falls in love with Lon in a sentence. Noah goes "a little mad" and gets to work on his house in another sentence. I've already mentioned above how Fin dies in passing. So does Noah's father. Relative to the timeless love story this movie is trying to tell us, these things--even life and death--just don't matter. Backtrack to that parenthetical just now and of course this stuff needs to be glossed over. Everything exists right now and everything else--even "falling in love" in the case of Allie and Lon--is extraneous details on the road to Allie and Noah being together.

Metaphors are a bit obvious, too. It's like this movie exists in the mind of teenagers in love as much as its plot invokes them. The birds, for example... I was just doublechecking whether those were swans or geese and I found the CliffsNotes for The Notebook. That these exist is a little frightening--I know Nicholas Sparks has some fans and this book (and film) has a bit of a cult following, but it's hardly a classic--and a little disappointing as whoever wrote this particular entry on the chapter entitled "Swans and Storms" is not particularly objective... Just read:

Noah tells Allie, "You are the answer to every prayer I've offered... I don't know how I could have lived without you for as long as I have [14 years, in the book, by the way, not 7]. I love you, Allie... I always have, and I always will." These lines connect the thematic topics of religion, faith, fate, free will, and spirituality, leaving both Allie and readers speechless.

Now, even if that last bit happens to be true--and I'm guessing anyone who would read The Notebook is probably not only speechless (which is a strange choice of words for a reader) but in tears at Noah's declaration--you don't include it in the CliffsNotes.

(By the way, the entry on the chapter "An Unexpected Visitor" mentions how, "The shorter chapters... increase the pace and suspense of the narrative, contrasting with the leisurely pace of the time Allie and Noah spend together alone." So, the book works a bit like the movie in that regard, speeding through some elements to spend time on Noah and Allie. I mean, just look at the boat scene with the swans (and geese, as well, apparently), for example...)

Regarding the birds, Noah tells Allie, "They're supposed to migrate to the Guatemala sound."

"They won't stay here," Allie asks.

"No," Noah replies, "they'll go back where they came from." Just like he expects Allie will. Just as she did years earlier.

A bit on the nose. Then comes the storm... But first, Allie observes, "You're different."

"What do you mean?"

Just the way you look," she says. "Everything."

You look different, too," Noah replies, "but in a good way."

Allie adds, "You know, you're kinda the same though." At this point, they are of course still transitioning, still stuck at least partly in their past selves, their past ideas of who they are and how they can be together. Then comes the storm. A cleansing rain like The Shawshank Redemption, Garden State, Forrest Gump, and (in a reverse cleanse) Unforgiven... not to mention so many more that just aren't coming to mind right now. It's a bit obvious, but we fall for it often. Water washes away the past, washes away mistakes. And, on film, we like our metaphors to be a bit obvious sometimes, so we can move on to other things.

The rain also places what should be the climax of the film out in nature, like the evocative opening scenes. I say "should be" because we've still got Anne and Martha and Lon to deal with, not to mention an extended sequence in the present with old Noah and old Allie. Structurally, it's just a bit off. Still, it brings us back to nature, and puts love right up against a rainstorm as a natural element of the world that we cannot fight. We just gotta let it soak us.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

you don't do what you want

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams--two beautiful people cast to tell, well, a beautiful story I'm guessing. I've never seen The Notebook. I was busy its opening weekend seeing Fahrenheit 9/11. That's the kind of thing I was watching then--not that romantic movies were every my thing, really. Also in theaters, though I didn't see any of these until video or cable: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (hilarious), The Terminal (a solid film), The Day After Tomorrow (a ridiculous little mess), The Chronicles of Riddick (not even close to being as good as its predecessor, Pitch Black, but it had its moments), Napoleon Dynamite (didn't care for it as much as some people, liked it more than others), Mean Girls (I remember liking it but barely remember much of the detail), Man on Fire (pretty solid action drama), Hellboy (a pretty good movie and a damn fine DVD), The Story of the Weeping Camel (I barely remember this one but I know I liked it), and The Punisher (not anywhere close to the best of the comic on which its based)... (I'm only scrolling down the top 40 movies that opening weekend, or we'd be here all day.)

Movies I had seen in the theater that were still around when this one came out: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (not that I haven't spent time complaining about Chris Columbus recently, but getting him away from the Harry Potter films was what made that series great), Shrek 2 (better writing than the first one but not as genuine), Troy (solid film, great DVD), Super Size Me (despite some potential factchecking issues, a solid documentary), Kill Bill Vol. 2 (not Tarantino's best, but his films are always good)...

One of my favorite movies ever was in theaters that weekend, actually--Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--though I'd seen it probably 14 weeks earlier when it first came out. Now, there's a love story. This one--The Notebook--I'm not getting an immediate sense of why these two people should be a couple, what they have in common. Love doesn't always make sense, of course, but... other than them both being beautiful it seems like we're supposed to assume more than the film is offering us. A problem with a lot of love stories. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on the other hand, we get to know Joel and Clementine as they get to know one another. Noah and Allie are cute, they make a nice couple... Actually, she just got a lot more interesting when she couldn't help but interrupt their first attempt at sex because she's thinking too much. Maybe I just want too much from a movie sometimes. And, the basic setup, the guy who's not good enough for the girl--hell, her parents just sent police out to find her--cinematic-shorthand-star-crossed-lovers. Instead of "Allies was surprised how quickly she fell in love with Lon Hammond" I think I want to see the process, see the feelings.

Earn me caring.

Sometimes that can come from the script, sometimes the direction, sometimes the actors. Ryan Gosling as Noah, Rachel McAdams as Allie--these two can almost make me look past the the script. Lon is so obviously a speedbump on the way to a reunion the way the film skips right past any detail of Lon and Allie's relationship.. Seriously, he's like Noah-lite and he's proposing within minutes (screentime) of meeting Allie. There's no substance to it. But we're supposed to believe Allie fell in love. I mean, sure, she's falling for him because of the desperation in him that surely reminds her, and definitely reminds us, of Noah, but still...

Or, maybe I'm mistaking what the movie is about. Maybe it's not about that falling-in-love moment and that's why it skips past it, or shorthands it. The framing story tells us that this movie is not simply about a love story, nor simply about love. It's the story part of it that matters. The Notebook is about memory, about the story of a relationship, however it began, however it continued. And, like I said yesterday, we want our stories to be magical. In a story, you can fall in love in a moment. In a movie about a story, that's just a given. Boy meets girl and... Actually, boy just saw girl from a distance and he's in love, and it makes perfect sense. It can work that way in a movie. It should work that way in a movie.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

jesus, kid, you can drive

It's time, ladies and gentlemen, for the classic Groundhog Day Project exercise--the Christ-Figuring. I don't mean to spend too much time on it, though. I'm less interested in the score than in why a film like Speed Racer would need a Christ-Figure (assuming that it has one).

(For anyone new, this is Kozlovic (2004) adjusted. You'll catch on.)

First criterion: Racer X--no, I'm not Christ-Figuring the title character--is tangible. 1/1

He is not central to the film. That is because he is definitely, and quite deliberately an outsider. 2/3

He is not divinely sourced, but he is sourced into the story from outside. I'm going to give him this one. 3/4

No bonus point for miraculous birth, but Racer X definitely has an alter ego and the special/normal division. 5/6 (For those of you new to this, the bonus points are not counted in the overall denominator, but do allow for additions to the numerator. It's just... a thing. Deal with it.)

Racer X certainly has a cast of supporting characters--his twelve associates [it doesn't have to be 12]--or he would if this were his story. Speed, Trixie, Pops, Mom, Sparky, Inspector Detector, Taego, Horuko, Minx, Spritle, even Chim Chim (actually comes close to 12). 6/7

Going by the age of Scott Porter--

(By the way, I have neglected to mention that Taylor Kitsch, star of The Grand Seduction, the film that preceded this one in this blog, starred in Friday Night Lights along with Scott Porter, who plays the younger version of Rex here.)

--Rex/Racer X... should I have SPOILER-tagged that one? Anyway, Going by Porter's age, Rex comes close to Kozlovic's holy age criterion. Porter turned 28 during production, so he's not too far off from 30. In fact, Speed specifically mentions how Racer X appeared 2 years after Rex "died" so Racer X debuted at age 30. Matthew Fox, who plays Racer X turned 41 during production... the two actors, while 13 years apart in age, share the same birthday--July 14--so it makes sense that they could play the same character. I'm giving them this one. 7/8

There is no clear Judas-Figure for Racer X. Given his girlfriend's name, though--Minx--I will grant him the point for Mary Magdalene-Figure. 8/10

No bonus point for a Virgin Mary-Figure but I will grant Inspector Detector the John the Baptist-Figure tag. 9/11

Racer X owes his entire existence to a death and resurrection that allow for triumphalism. He definitely operates in service to lessers unbeknownst to them; when Inspector Detector brings him to the Racer house, Spritle thinks they're all in danger--Racer X is "the harbinger of boom." Rex made a willing sacrifice to become Racer X. 13/15

No bonus point for torture. If Racer X was ever presented to Cruncher's piranhas... But, he isn't. No bonus for stigmata either. I will, however, give him the bonus point for atonement; arguably, he helps Speed in order to make up for abandoning him years before. 14/15

I'll give him the innocence point because he is working with Inspector Detector and the Corporate Crimes Division of the Central Intelligence Bureau when he is thought to be a bad guy. 15/16

No cruciform pose that I've noticed but Racer X's costume is all about the cross associations. 16/18

My impulse was to not give him the miracles and signs point because he doesn't do much that is more miraculous than anything Speed does. But, then I remembered the bomb early in the film, the quick response breaking of the broom handle, the exploding go-kart. That shit was impressive. 17/19

No point for simplicity or poverty. Nor Jesus garb... In fact Speed's white and blue racing outfit suggests the garb of good far more than Racer X's black costume. No blue eyes either. 17/23

The only holy exclamation in the film is today's title, and Racer X says it, referring, if to anyone, to Speed. (Although, to be fair, Speed does refer to Royalton as "the Devil.") 17/24

Finally, there's no J.C. initials 17/25

He doesn't score as well as, say Superman in Man of Steel or Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, but 17 is not half bad. I would argue that Rex Racer/Racer X is, indeed, a cinematic Christ-Figure. And, I think a movie like this, with its technicolor dream imagery operates quite well with a Christ-Figure in its midst; that the film is so deliberately unreal evokes not only dreams but religion. What better place for a Christ-Figure than in what is essentially a fantasy film. This should be a sports film, structurally, but it doesn't really work that way.

Or does it?

I haven't really explored sports films in this blog yet but it occurs to me that the Christ-Figure could actually fit quite well in a sports film. The team coming back from behind could use a Christ-Figure--a star player like Jason Street before his accident, perhaps--to help them win. Speed needs Racer X to get through this film. And, there's a reason we need a Christ-Figure to get through some stories--we want the miraculous, we want the larger-than-life. A movie like this should been more successful than it was. Especially, since this was the Wachowskis coming off of the Matrix films and giving in to the unreal. As Digibro says:

...it's world resembles ours enough to be relatable but less realistically than even the alien worlds of Guardians of the Galaxy [and] it doesn't even pretend to take place in our version of reality... Everything in Speed Racer operates on the emotional and symbolic level before it bothers to work on the rational level.

That's how a fantasy needs to be, that's how a story with a Christ-Figure ought to be. It's what we want when we don't want down-to-earth, realistic stories. Just watch Speed leap out of his moving car and land on his feet. This isn't reality. It's something else, something better, something we want our reality to be.

Especially if we're kids. Every toy car I ever played with as a kid could do the crazy jumps that Speed does with the Mach 5. Every toy car I ever played with as a kid could take turns in such a way that momentum and inertia and drag and gravity are forgotten. Just like with the Mach 5 here. This movie was made for little boys who love cars and the men that used to be those boys. It's got elements for everyone else, sure, but that's the immediate audience. And, I don't know about all the other little boys who had toy cars or toy... anything, but there were always certain toys that would save the day when the rest were in trouble. I swear I had Christ-Figures in my room all the time, not because I was particularly religious (obviously) but because that is just a thing we want, a thing that (maybe) we need for the action to make sense... or maybe making sense isn't the appropriate description. It's not about making sense. That's the point. It's about feeling right. The long lost brother who fakes his own death and now returns to save the day--that is not the thing of rational experience. It's pure feeling.

And, Speed Racer evokes that feeling, and the joy of childish play. The bright colors, the unreal physics--this is far from the cynical darkness of so many other films, even supposed kids' films. This is something... special.

It's got a few things blatantly wrong with it, but it's definitely special.

Friday, April 24, 2015

it's like a religion

So anyway, last night I was so tired that I'm surprised I made it through the entirety of Speed Racer; aside from a couple musicals, it's the longest movie I've watched for this blog. Though I did not fall asleep--unlike, say, when I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street--it played like a weird dream... which is appropriate since the Wachowski's constructed the film visually like a technicolor dream of sorts, a live action cartoon.

It's not just the color, either. Though the palette of the film is far broader and brighter than many a movie of late--seriously, just today, I saw a video in which someone brightened up Man of Steel because, well, Superman should not be dark, but that's the way of movies lately, most everything's a little dark and dreary, and far too many movies have that teal and orange thing going on. This movie plays like something not only outside our normal reality but very much outside the movie reality.

For example, Royalton and Speed just now--they're clearly being filmed in front of a green screen but they're also being filmed separately. The hands don't quite match up with the arms... Have a look:

I've seen these blatantly fake sets before--Sin City and its sequel, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the Star Wars prequels... But this plays with the surroundings differently; it's not just the alien landscapes of Star Wars or the steampunk world of Sky Captain or even the unreal hellish cityscape of Sin City, it's race tracks and futuristic cityscapes plus an anime-style exaggeration of visuals, blurring of backgrounds, and camerawork that just wouldn't be possible in a real environment.

That shot right there is from a conversation scene. Speed turns down Royalton's offer and things get heated. The camera moves around Royalton and the background blurs into the same lines we see during the racing scenes. Conversation and racing the same... it's a common visual for manga or anime, but not American film. Even though the background is not usually in focus--though that's even changing with stuff like High Frame Rate 3D--we want it to be something that's actually there. This film almost barely goes more than a minute or two without overlaying one image over another, often with the top image in motion. Everything in this movie evokes movement. However long the film is, there's just no time for stillness or quiet.

Dexter Palmer at tor.com points out:

By the standards of conventional filmmaking, [Speed Racer's] terrible--it has only the merest suggestion of plot and character, leaving nothing worth noting but a 135-minute exercise in style. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Well, no. It's not. The energy, the color, the simplistic big business versus the independent plot--this makes for something quite watchable and fairly enjoyable (if a bit long and repetitive), regardless of whether it qualifies as, say, art.

And, I don't mean the usual argument you might hear--that we need "popcorn fare" as much as "arthouse" pics. Just like I've said time and time again that every movie will tell us something about gender roles at the time the film is made, or about social roles in general, about the state of society here and now, so does a movie like Speed Racer. Look at when this movie came out. September 2008 release date, principal photography a year earlier (June to August 2007). Meanwhile, in the US, you've got a financial crisis in the works, leading into the so-called "great recession" around the world. In fact, the European sovereign-debt crisis happened right as filming of Speed Racer in Germany was winding down. Coincidence?

Probably, but still, it's no coincidence that this huge visual extravaganza finally got made (film rights had been lingering around for a decade and a half) just as the divide between the rich and the poor around the world was becoming clearer than it had been for a while. This is spectacle, something to distract the audience from reality. It's got simplistic themes because that's what should attract the biggest audience. That Speed Racer didn't actually do that well at the box office should not get in the way of looking at what the movie represents. (Keep in mind, as well, that Iron Man, the beginning of the new Marvel cinematic universe, was in theaters at the same time.) A spectacular action film, with visuals that would have been impossible a handful of years earlier. This was filmmaking for the new millennium, and something deliberately extravagant, exploding with color and excitement for an audience that could really use it... Aside from the economic precipice looming, there was also America's "War on Terror" that had been going on for too long. Speed Racer offers up clear villains, moneyed villains, and makes it easy to know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. Reality was not so neat.

a totally different nothin'

(This month is a little different than usual. Instead of four movies for a week each, I've got 10 movies recommended by other people--family, friends, regular readers--three days each.)

This movie is like a live action cartoon. Which makes sense, considering it's a live action film based on a cartoon. By the way, it's Speed Racer. And, I have seen so many episodes of the show--not that the individual episodes were all that unique; the closeups and the blurred lines for a background--that is very much my memory of the show.

I didn't see this movie in the theater. It was #3 its opening weekend. #1 was Iron Man starting its second week. I saw that one opening weekend. I'm trying to remember what I was doing spring 2008 that I wasn't seen a lot of movies. Seriously, out of the top 20 movies that weekend, I only saw 3 of them in the theater (the aforementioned Iron Man, The Visitor and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hear's a Who. I'd eventually watch on cable or video Foorgetting Sarah Marshall, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and 88 Minutes but that's still just 6 out of 20 that I've seen... at all. Expand out to the top 40, and I could add Son of Rambow (video), The Counterfeiters (theater) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (video).

I had just returned to school is what was up. Dropped out the first time in college. I returned to school January 2008. We were also dealing with adoption stuff--I specifically remember reading for my History 117 (Spring 2008) while sitting in the waiting area at the courthouse. Here's Speed, trying to figure out his family's future, and I was doing the same in reality at the time. I'd call it poetic but that would be lame.

Anyway, the movie...

So. Much. Color. And they are so vibrant. Reminds me of Pushing Daisies. The unrealistically complex race tracks remind me of the Star Wars podracing game I had on my Nintendo 64.

Day one with a movie I've never seen, not a lot to say. The movie is over-the-top ridiculous in its visuals but pretty straightforward in its plot. It's basically a sports movie with all that entails. Specifically, it's a David and Goliath kind of sports movie, big corporate team versus the little guy and the little guy wins based on sheer skill.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

every consequence of happiness

I forgot to mention yesterday that I was writing from the plane. It was a very long travel day, a couple hundred miles by car, a couple thousand or so by plane. I had intended to look over the blog entry before I posted it but by the time I was home, I was far too tired. I can barely remember what I wrote, some rambling about Murray and his wife, Murray and Paul, Paul and his fiancee, Paul and the postmistress. I think I might have said that these men of Tickle Head wanting to bring the oil company to their town just to have a good paying job was a bad thing. Well, maybe I didn't say it, but I feel like I implied it. I do sort of side with the postmistress--her name is Kathleen, by the by. She rejects the idea of the factory coming to Tickle Head specifically because it's the oil company. Sure, it's a "petrochemical repurposing plant"--essentially a recycling plant, but just a PR thing the oil company is doing--but it's still "the oil company", shorthand for, you know, greedy bastards. But, all the men (and women) of Tickle Head want is to be able to make something of their lives, to feel useful. To be happy.

If it takes buying into factory jobs--there I go again, implying the negative, but seriously, whatever it takes to be happy, as long as it doesn't detract from someone else's happiness, do it. Matt Zoller Seitz, at rogerebert.com, calls The Grand Seduction "a formulaically constructed [film] filled with astute details, striking scenery, and well rounded characters living in reality." And, in reality, people lie to get what they want. That doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them people.

We all put on our best selves sometimes, when we've got a date or a job interview for example. It's not necessarily dishonest... unless you go by the most strict of standards. Hell, I may risk sound like a big proponent of moral relativism--not that there's anything wrong with that--but I'm not sure it's dishonest at all. We decide who we are on a regular basis. We reinvent ourselves constantly. We choose every time that we interact with other people which parts of ourselves to present and which parts to hide. Sure, there's got to be a line between this casual invention and outright lies, but I think that line is blurry when it comes to things like romance, and The Grand Seduction surely is a romance. It's a romance about a town--as if it is its own entity--trying to seduce a young doctor. This is the romanticization of the small town once again. In that entry linked there, I quoted Gene GeRue's (2009) How to Find Your Ideal Country Home: A Comprehensive Guide:

[It's] tempting to romanticize small towns and life therein [because cultural, if not personal] Memories persist of clean, uncrowded, crime-free communities, of warm evenings on front porches, of shy boys kissing giggling girls behind blue lilac bushes.

And, why not?

It doesn't matter what you really think of the small town. It doesn't matter what the small town might actually be like. You've got to romanticize something that you want and want something that you romanticize. If you don't do that from time to time, then you're not living Simple as that. No point in chasing after anything if you can't romanticize and idealize it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

it's your civic duty

The Grand Seduction, like any movie—seriously, read back through this blog and you’ll see it time and time again—tells us something about gender, gender roles, gender expectations; and it also tells us something about living in a conservative, capitalist world. These two things twist together in the subplot involving Brendan Gleason’s Murray and his wife.

We learn right away he is not only cashing his own welfare check, he is also cashing the check of a dead friend—he insists that as long as that friend remains on the government books, he has an moral duty to keep cashing those checks (and he has “power of attorney” paperwork, though it’s not clear how legal that paperwork is). Still, he wants to work. That’s the world in which Tickle Head exists, a world in which everybody (even the characters who seem much too old for factory work) would rather have a job—even an oil company job—than welfare. We’re presented Murray and his wife as a sort of counter to the flashback to Murray’s childhood home that begins the film; where Murray’s father (and the other men of Tickle Head) would spend the day working hard as fisherman then come home to their loving wives and, well, rather noisily have sex each night, Murray and his wife seem a little less... content, happy, attached to one another. Murray’s energy seems concentrated on loving Tickle Head itself. He is one of the only people who attend the village meetings. When the mayor moves his family “into town” (which means nearby St. John, Newfoundland) secretly one night, Murray becomes de facto (and maybe somehow actual, though we don’t see the process) mayor. As much as Murray (and, by extension, everyone else in Tickle Head) wants to work, he loves Tickle Head too much to leave.

Really, that is what the film is about. Murray loves the (“not a”) village so much that he considers it his civic duty to save it. And, his love affair with Tickle Head he tries to pass on to Paul (Taylor Kitsch’s Dr. Lewis, whose first name I didn’t remember yesterday, and IMDb was no help). Using what he knows about Paul—by, among other things, tapping the phone where Paul is staying in Tickle Head—Murray sets up the villagers to transform their home into something Paul will love and manipulate Paul into loving it.

Basically, Murray is Phil Connoring Paul, just not into a love affair with him but with the (“not a”) village. As I noted yesterday, there are hints of a cinematic spark between Paul and the postmistress, this film is not about that. That’s actually a good reason why Paul’s fiancee quite rightly should not be a character that we actually see. His relationship with her is not what matters because that stands in the way of his relationship with the postmistress. What stands between him and a relationship with Tickle Head is quite simply the fact that he has someone, anyone, to call back home. The details might just attach us to the fiancee or distract us from Tickle Head. It is vital to the plot that there be no substantial attachment between Paul and the world outside Tickle Head. In fact, we first meet him at the airport (one of only a few scenes that take place outside Tickle Head at all) he’s on the phone with his fiancee but that relationship is immediately undercut by a flight attendant saying, “Goodbye Paul.” The implication being: Paul has been flirting with the flight attendant. He may be engaged but he’s not engaged. He also just finished his residency as a plastic surgeon. He’s in a liminal stage, a transition period in his life. And Tickle Head calls out to him. Murray calls out to him.

But, I was talking about Murray and his wife.

While Paul’s fiancee is unseen, we meet Murray’s wife. We see her go “into town” for work, which at first doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But, then we learn that going “into town” for work means she has taken an apartment in St. John. She has left her husband. Murray seems to think she will immediately return if he can save Tickle Head (and he turns out to be correct). Still, when news that she’s leaving reaches Murray’s old friend Simon, he asks Murray, basically, now that his wife will be the one making the money, who will make the decisions? Who will “do the driving”? To this one, he adds, specifically, “in bed.” It is not just Simon but the film itself that suggests Murray has been emasculated by his wife’s leaving, by his wife working, by his not being the breadwinner any longer. Meanwhile, Paul exists as a victim to Murray’s lies. His stay in Tickle Head is pleasant, there is that spark between him and the postmistress, but the Tickle Head he sees is a lie. As much of a lie as his relationship with his fiancee. And, it’s a little limited, but I’d guess the reason Paul has specifically just finished his residency in plastic surgery is because of the association between plastic surgery and, well, lying. Lying about who you are...

Specifically, lying about who you are in order to impress everyone else, to be attractive. Tickle Head is made over to attract Paul—not surgically, but still. The difficult thing about The Grand Seduction is figuring out if we’re necessarily supposed to be okay with it. If everyone is lying to everyone else, can we pass judgment on some lies but not others? Is the film accepting lying as something people just do? I mean, Murray is basically lying to himself about being able to save Tickle Head, but his lies push everyone else to lie—and steal—until eventually, his lies bring forth the truth he’s been seeking... I think the film may not give us enough reason to think that Paul is seeking that same truth. When he says he became a doctor to help people, it is just dialogue; it doesn’t follow a nice sequence like that one in Doc Hollywood with the house calls; it doesn’t flow from the character, only the script. If we look at this as a film about Paul, it just doesn’t work. Not really. But, as a film about Murray, it does work. He wants to work, and he takes on the task of saving Tickle Head (and saving his own marriage) because he wants to world he grew up in. He takes on this task and he works for it, he lies and he gets others to lie and he makes things happen. Lies become just one more tool in the toolbox.

Lies aren’t bad... as long as they serve the community.

The factory comes to town. Murray’s wife returns. Paul sticks around (and starts a relationship with the postmistress). Everything is happy.

It’s actually a strangely cynical message in such a blatantly wholesome film—the ends justify the means. Paul’s fiancee cheated on him, but do we get to know the reason? No, that would distract. The folk of Tickle Head lie to Paul, and they do it to save their community, a community that is movie-small-town-cute and -pleasant.

Monday, April 20, 2015

right now, lies is all we got

Take a bit of Waking Ned Devine, some Doc Hollywood, a dash of Funny Farm, some themes left over from the likes of Brassed Off and The Full Monty and Billy Elliott (with those last two, I do not mean the dancing or the stripping) and you've got The Grand Seduction, an English-language remake of the French-Canadian Seducing Doctor Lewis. It's the simple story of a small town... village... "harbour" lying to an out-of-town doctor to convince him to settle there so an oil company factory will also settle there and the locals will all have jobs again. The film begins and ends with nice down-home narration about the importance of hard work--and the sex to be had at night when your tired, which, with at least one local woman, has amounted to a few too many kids.

(Anyone who has seen the film might note a mistake there. Since the past seven years in town have been mostly everyone collecting welfare checks because their fishing industry dried up, that woman has not had all of her children because of the after-work sex but, I guess, some bored-without-a-job sex. Still, these are people who know how to enjoy their lives, and each other, but really just want to work and feel like they're accomplishing something with their lives.)

The movie is a bit schmaltzy but relies on some good deadpan performances from Brendan Gleason and a few other inhabitants of Tickle Head, who can turn simplistic dialogue into punchlines. It certainly thrives on the idea that small town folk are all good people just trying to get by. Hell, even the doctor, a plastic surgeon not unlike Doc Hollywood's Benjamon Stone, is really an all around nice guy who enjoys watching and playing cricket, listening to jazz, and misses his fiancee and his dog back home. We meet Dr. Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) at the airport, where he is detained because he's got cocaine, a situation that quickly spirals from him trying to bribe the security agent with free plastic surgery to that agent getting him stuck in Tickle Head for a month, to test out the place. It's a contrived setup, but the movie quickly moves past it, except for a brief, and quite amusing exchange between Brendan Gleason's Mayor Murray and the doctor, while fishing...

MILD SPOILERS ARE COMING.

So, they're fishing because the local phone operators are listening to all of the doctor's phone calls home. They've discovered that Dr. Lewis doesn't have a father, so Murray takes him fishing and makes smalltalk, including an inquiry about his lovelife, a comparison between Dr. Lewis and Murray's (invented) dead son, and an offer of cocaine, because if the doctor really needs it, the folk of Tickle Head are "down with it." Otherwise, Dr. Lewis never seems like a guy who uses cocaine... whatever that kind of guy would be like. In cinematic terms, he doesn't feel like a guy who would be caught with cocaine.

Instead, he's a romantic, worried that his dog back home isn't being taken care of well enough, and worried that his fiancee is growing distant. She is--MAJOR SPOILERS--in fact cheating on him, and has been for three years, with his best friend. But, we never see this fiancee or the best friend. They are voices over the phone, extraneous details to a story that is not quite about Dr. Lewis even though it seems like it wants to be. There is, for instance, the local postmistress, who Murray wants to be flirtatious with Dr. Lewis. She refuses because she knows that Dr. Lewis is engaged. The movie hints at a relationship--that I figured would play a lot like the one between Dr. Stone and Lou in Doc Hollywood, her helping him figure out the real draw of the small town and the good people, him becoming a bit less selfish and dickish... except Kitsch's Dr. Lewis never comes across selfish. He's the victim of a ruse and is never the bad guy. Hell--MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER--even when he finally learns of the lies all around him (and this on the very same day he has learned that his fiancee and best friend are having an affair), he recognizes that the people of Tickle Head need him to survive and, with nary a thought, agrees to be their doctor.

Therein lies the primary fault with this film. Though its themes are tired and its plot seems like pieces of numerous other films before, it still feels so pleasant watching it that it works. Except, there are no real character arcs. Murray is the same guy who loves his town and wants to save it at the end of the film that he was at the beginning. Dr. Lewis is the same doctor he was when he arrived--though he comments on how he became a doctor to help people, we never really get the sense that he ever became anything else (even if "plastic surgeon" is Hollywood shorthand for money-hungry doctor). While there is a spark between Dr. Lewis and the postmistress, and the film hints at romance, this comes to naught until the plot has wound down and the film is ending. What seems like a film about romance brewing between a man and woman but is actually more like a romance between that man and the harbour (village) of Tickle Head turns out to be, well, neither. The film turns out to be so slight that, while pleasant, I'm not sure there's much to think about after.

Not that there isn't room for slight entertainment in cinema.

The Grand Seduction is enjoyable, certainly amusing, and oh so wholesome. There's just not a whole lot of substance to it.

(Not that I won't probably insist on the opposite tomorrow, of course.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

everybody's worth as much as everybody else

Though it is day three with After the Dark (AKA The Philosophers), I don't think I have much to say about the film as a film. It's shot well enough, the acting is good for such large cast, some with only a few lines to work with. A warning going in: if you don't like Sophie Lowe's whispering in the opening scene, you should know that she continues to talk like that. Though she tells him to be quiet, ostensibly because someone is in the house with them--he assures her that they know she's there--she is not actually whispering to be quiet; that's just her voice. She will continue to talk like that and will not have many facial expressions either. Somehow, it kind of works for her character. A big problem this film has, generally, with its cast is some of the lesser (meaning, less screen time) characters have more personality than the leads--Petra, Mr. Zimit (James D'Arcy) and James (Rhys Wakefield). Freddie Stroma's Jack, for example, is more expressive with only a handful of lines than just about anyone in the film.

As for the production, it looks nice--apparently at the potential expense of the cast and crew's safety while filming near Mount Broma. All five major locations--the schoolroom, the bunker, Prambanan, Mount Broma and the island are all beautiful locations that I'm sure many a filmmaker would love to shoot. I'm not sure how Huddles managed it when he had only previously been involved with a couple films I've never heard of. His original concept--to combine a thriller and a thinking film:

[D]uring an old-school atomic apocalypse, a group of high-school seniors would be forced to make brutal choices about their fate and the fate of their friends, using philosophy and logic not academically but as actual tools to decide who lives and who dies. Thrills + thoughts. (Huddles, 2014, February 14)

That is a) not what the film is, but b) definitely what the film wants to feel like. I've already written about the Identity problem--that the fictional nature of the setup in the bunkers detracts from the drama when the film can only succeed if we care about that part of the story--the bunker scenarios take up most of the film.

But, I thought I had little more to say about the film itself, so I wanted to get into the bunker scenario directly. So, here are the original roles offered up:

  • Petra – structural engineer
  • James – organic farmer
  • Georgina – orthopedic surgeon
  • Chips – carpenter
  • Jack – PhD in chemistry
  • Bonnie – soldier
  • Andy – electrician
  • Vivian – zoologist
  • Beatrice – fashion designer
  • Parker – gelato maker
  • Utami – opera singer
  • Poppie – psychotherapist
  • Omosedé – U.S. Senator
  • Kavi – real estate agent
  • Russell – harpist
  • Plum – hedge fund manager
  • Toby – poet
  • Nelson – housekeeper
  • Mitzie – wine auctioneer
  • Yoshiko – astronaut
  • Mr. Zimit – [unknown, because he keeps it that way to make himself a wild card]

The movie is not actually playing right now--having some wi-fi issues so I can only do one screen--so I'm going by memory on a lot of this. I think Georgina (orthopedic surgeon) is the first to justify her inclusion, though Petra (structural engineer) and James (organic farmer) have already been de facto included. They also take Chips (carpenter), Jack (PhD in chemistry), Bonnie (soldier), Andy (electrician), Vivian (zoologist), Osmosede (senator), Kavi (real estate agent) and Mr. Zimit (wild card). Upon announcing he's a poet, Toby is shot in the head by Mr. Zimit (in the fantasy, not in reality). They want the electrician not for the obvious reason, in case anything goes wrong inside the bunker, but (Jack mentions later) to get "the grid" working later; that is, so they can have electricity after the year in the bunker. This seems silly to me. They are ten people--though Mr. Zimit has established 1,000 bunkers like this for a hypothetical human population of 10,000 individuals, there is no reason why these small populations should immediately go in search of one another (unless the locations are mapped ahead and they know where to go)--and a population of ten people does not need electricity. They do not need a structural engineer for that matter. I think the soldier and zoologist were only included to have more women because Mr. Zimit says reproduction is the most important thing after the bunker. (In iteration two, of course, the goal is to have a successful pregnancy before even leaving the bunker.) I suppose the chemistry PhD is useful for future reproduction as well--that kind of intelligence and ambition will be good for the gene pool. They keep the soldier because she can maintain order and the senator because she can lead. A group of ten people should not need such a leader or such order. The psychotherapist, on the other hand, could help them all deal with their situation. Aside from the farmer and maybe the surgeon and maybe the carpenter, none of these seems mandatory. Hell, depending on how bad the destruction is expected to be, I'm not sure if the farmer will be able to do anything that nature cannot manage on its own--ten people do not need a farm. I'm not sure if the carpenter serves much purpose unless every building other than the bunker(s) has been destroyed. If there is vegetation anywhere nearby, the group could still live in the bunker and forage for food. Personally, since I'm American, I would prefer the U.S. senator were left out of the mix--she's probably a lawyer and just as capable of being dishonest as leading. Senators are not, in fact, supposed to lead; they are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. The soldier--if that is all the information I get, I'm not sure I need her except inasmuch as, yes, females are important for survival beyond the bunker. They leave out the astronaut because they won't be sending anyone into space anytime soon, as if astronauts are only good for that; astronauts tend to be fairly intelligent, often have degrees to rival that PhD in chemistry or that structural engineer, and they would probably be physically fit.

Second iteration, secondary traits are included. Keep in mind, they are supposed to get reproduction underway before the year in the bunker is up. (And, no, I didn't get this list from memory. I bookmarked a list someone else made.)

    Petra – structural engineer – also an electrical engineer

    James – organic farmer – gay

  • Georgina – orthopedic surgeon – recently exposed to ebola
  • Chips – carpenter – sterile
  • Jack – PhD in chemistry – “won the genetic lotto” meaning he won’t get any major diseases and will live to 103 barring some sort of accident
  • Bonnie – soldier – has an eidetic memory
  • Andy – electrician – has fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic disease which causes the tissues in his body to turn to bone while repairing injury, no matter how small.
  • Vivian – zoologist – writes a blog for PETA
  • Beatrice – fashion designer – created an award winning outfit from bamboo cashmere, meaning she’s a “left brain/right brain” thinker
  • Parker – gelato maker – no secondary trait
  • Utami – opera singer – speaks 7 languages, however has throat cancer that will render her unable to speak in 3 years, although she will survive
  • Poppie – psychotherapist – hysterectomy at age 12 due to ovarian cancer
  • Omosedé – U.S. Senator – would have become the first female Chief Justice of the supreme court
  • Kavi – real estate agent – also a midwife
  • Russell – harpist – autism spectrum disorder
  • Plum – hedge fund manager – because of a fear of the apocalypse always carries $5 million in gold, platinum, diamonds and sapphires with her at all times
  • Toby – poet – [shot again, so he doesn't announce his secondary trait]
  • Nelson – housekeeper – the nicest guy ever, the sort of person the angels in heaven will bow down to, assuming there is a heaven
  • Mitzie – wine auctioneer – has an IQ of 200
  • Yoshiko – astronaut
  • Mr. Zimit – [still a wild card--SPOILERS--though now we know he's the bunker builder so only he knows the bunker's exit code; in the first iteration, they all died inside after excluding him as they closed the bunker doors because he'd done the humane thing of shooting everyone they were leaving outside.]

Given the task of procreating--and going logical--I'd make sure females outnumber males. James being gay (and, as it turns out, Jack being gay as well because other than the traits on paper they retain their real-life traits) is irrelevant. If he's really going to have trouble having sex with multiple women for a year we'll include the psychotherapist--despite her inability to have a child--to help him work through it... and make the other men have sex with him, too, to keep things fair. It will be a hippie commune free-for-all. Can't risk ebola so the surgeon is out--we can figure out how to set bones like humans once had to. The carpenter is sterile and we can live out of the bunker rather than rebuild right away anyway, so he's out. If this is really about repopulating, rebuilding society, I'd prefer to make it anew, include the poet instead of the engineer, definitely include the opera singer. In fact, she can teach everyone new languages so we have something to do in the bunker. Realistically, she doesn't know she will have cancer; nor do we. But, even if we did, we have three years of her voice and her tongues, plus she can still bear children and I have not heard of a prevalence for throat cancer necessarily being genetic. Keep the wine auctioneer with her 200 IQ. Intelligence is a must for our new society. Keep the housekeeper, but not for the reason Osmosede suggests--that any society needs a working class and Nelson the housekeeper represents that. We take him because he's nice. We don't need a working class if we are ten individuals. We will all do our part.

In the movie, they choose the hedge fund manager for the second iteration because of her jewels and gold. We do not need this any more than we need a working class. However, her diamonds might be useful for getting out of the bunker... which brings me back to Mr. Zimit.

Leave him out. Don't care if he's got the code. We've got a year to figure out how to manufacture some explosives to get out if we need to. We've got a certified genius. And, maybe a fucking astronaut. She's sure to know something about fuel.

Anyway, After the Dark is simplistic, but it's okay that characters make stupid choices, sometimes for stupid or offensive reasons. They are, after all, human. Mr. Zimit's problem is not that he values logic, it's that he apparently values nothing else.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

the land of the blind

Parts of After the Dark work, but the whole is lacking... something.

One problem: the bunker scenario that drives the film doesn't feel like a last day of senior philosophy class exercise, especially at this international school in Jakarta where, Petra tells us, all the students are overachievers. It feels like a day one exercise. Seriously, I think I used the life raft exercise on either the first or second day of my middle school debate class, and the premise is the same. Given a group of characters with particular occupations (and in our exercise, each with a particular piece of equipment from which he or she could not be separated), we had to limit the pool to as many as the raft could carry. This is not a complex philosophical exercise. It's about as basic as the three examples given early in the film--the trolley problem, the ignorant bliss problem (I wasn't familiar with that one but it seems pretty basic), and the infinite monkey theory... which really, that last one has nothing to do with philosophy; even in the film, they don't connect it to philosophy but use it as a way to understand eternity, which also has no link to philosophy. I think Huddles (the writer/director) just wanted to throw that in because he found it interesting. I know I used the infinite monkey think in an impromptu speech at least once... except I used it as a way to dismiss theory in favor of practical reality; in this case, there were two practical exercises that worked with the infinite monkeys. First, there was a computer model that could run iterations faster than any actual monkeys could, but the flaw in it is that if the "monkey" managed to get any string of characters "typed" that matched up with any Shakespeare it would be kept and if it didn't, it would toss out the characters and start again. After some huge number of iterations, a single Shakespearean sonnet had actually emerged, once. Second, there was an experiment--at a Chicago zoo, I believe--in which a computer was set up just outside a monkey habitat, the keyboard where the monkeys could reach it. After something like a day, they had managed a broken keyboard and a screen full of the letter S. The problem with trying to imagine infinity or eternity is not that its difficult but that its pointless. Unless you're into some theoretical mathematics or something, these are nothing more than words that fill in for ideas bigger than we ever need.

The ignorant bliss problem is interesting but not particularly philosophical. The version in the movie is simple: you're hanging off the edge of a building, you call to your friends for help but they get to the edge and are too scared to help you, you fall but you survive. The problem then is would you have been better off having never tested your friends? For me, the answer is simple. It is good to know what your friends are actually capable of on your behalf, but their inability to step to the edge of a building should not be reason to dump them from your pool of friends. This is not a philosophical question--though the question of being "better off" frames it as one.

The trolley problem is a better philosophical exercise, something these students should have dealt with a long time ago--my philosophy 101 class in college got the trolley problem out of the way on day one. The basic setup, in case you aren't familiar: a trolley is speeding down the tracks and there is a group of people on the tracks who will be killed if struck; there is a lever that will divert the trolley to another set of tracks where only one individual will be killed. Should you activate that lever? One of the students immediately chimes in here the movie to point out that utilitarianism suggests you should because the group of people are worth more than the one. Mr. Spock would concur, I suppose. Again, this namecheck of utilitarianism seems like Huddles took a basic philosophy course, took some notes on day one and was so enamored that a) he never attended again and b) he immediately got to working on a script--I don't think I mentioned yesterday that After the Dark was originally called The Philosophers. The original title is a bit pretentious but at least accurate to what the movie is trying to be. The title it bears now makes it sound like a horror film--I was hoping that, if not a horror film, this was actually about a group of students surviving in a bunker after a nuclear cataclysm. Alas, there was this instead. Don't get me wrong; the film is not awful. It's just a little trite, obvious, and the tacked on coda(s) are extraneous.

And some of the plotting is lazy. For example--minor SPOILERS ahead--part of the lead in to one of those codas comes from Mr. Zimit having manipulated the roles for two of the characters for personal reasons. This is where the suspicious coughing that I mentioned yesterday comes in. I almost would have rather had Mr. Zimit be dying than the real reason. He coughed to cover up how he was manipulating secret compartments inside the box out of which students were drawing the cards with their roles on them. Thing is, if you've got a magic box with secret compartments, chances are that thing has been made so that the compartments open and close without making noise; if magicians were always coughing as they opened their magic boxes, we would be rather suspicious. It is only much later that James is suspicious and asks about the coughing. As far as the script goes, that is the entire reason for the cough--so James will question the box later, because Huddles had to add an extra element of plot to frame the philosophical exercise. It gives us one of the codas and undercuts Mr. Zimit's insistence on logic, which is a big part of why some folks on IMDb call this "hippie crap." Petra's choices for the third iteration of the bunker exercise is a nice, touchy feely, the-human-condition-is-to-live-not-just-survive response to Mr. Zimit's hardline logical approach. Except, even her choices are undercut by two things--more SPOILERS follow, of course. First, one of the other codas deals with the character of Chips--a carpenter in his bunker role--describing what happened with the group that didn't get into the third bunker. It's amusing but a bit immature for an overachieving senior; he kills off the various males in his group arbitrarily and proceeds to live with six females as if they're his harem (even though his bunker character's secondary trait is that he's sterile. The somewhat low brow premise here undercuts a lot of the seriousness the rest of the film has targeted. The second thing that undercuts, specifically, Petra's choices (she gets everyone to agree to her picking who goes in rather than everyone voting, and they go along with because... reasons--for the third bunker. She chooses the options that make the stay in the bunker more pleasant as opposed to being more able to "survive" and "rebuild" afterward. But, choosing a pleasant environment--for example, she chooses the opera singer so they can fall asleep to music--is selfish, which Petra has not been prior to this. The other problem with her choices is in how they relate to the premise to the bunker exercise itself. They are supposed to choose ten people to stay in the bunker for a year because that is what it can support, with food and water and air. If Petra's point is to have them all live and, according to Mr. Zimit, not have a chance at survival afterward, why not just put everyone into the bunker and live even shorter. After all, she tells Mr. Zimit, "We live briefly, but we don't mind. And when it's time to die, we don't resist death. We summon it."

It's a nice little summary of something I've argued for in this blog time and time again, something Phil Connors would understand. Life is temporary... a far greater idea to fathom than eternity, to be sure. So, yes, we should live and not just survive. But, choosing the wrong candidates for the bunker makes Petra, ultimately, as petty as Mr. Zimit in insisting on the right candidates. In the end, this pettiness is the point to the movie, but it shouldn't be. The majority of the film seems to want to be a serious discussion about who we choose to value and why, but in the end, our lead character made her choices simply to make a point to Mr. Zimit because--SPOILERS, again, and really you should expect them--they had (or still have) a relationship and she is going off to college in America with James instead of staying in Jakarta to be with Mr. Zimit. Seriously, that is what the film boils down to after spending so much time on something bigger--a love triangle.

Maybe there's a place for love squabbles to take precedence over the survival exercise. I mean, that is essentially the setup for The Walking Dead or just about any zombie film--humanity's issues keep us from working together to survive. I'm reminded of the movie The Hole, in which some teens get locked in an underground bunker and, it's been a while since I've seen the film, but I recall their personal relationships and squabbles being a big part of their problem right along with survival or escape. There is a place for the human side to get in the way of the survival side, for emotion to trump logic. It's just, Huddles (as our implied narrator) is almost as insistent on logic as Mr. Zimit is, and then undercuts it not as a plot point but an afterthought. He undermines his own structure when Petra's humanist approach to the third iteration makes the point better than anything in the codas does. In fact, if that third iteration had not been purely Petra's choice but voted in based on her suggestions, explained for the class instead of for Mr. Zimit, the pettiness would have been a lesser thing. Additionally, as one could argue--though I don't think anyone in the film makes this point--the failure at breeding in the second iteration may come from the stress of the situation and the less stressful environment in the third iteration might allow for successful breeding. You do not need engineers to survive or rebuild society. Anyone can build a basic structure. The orthopedic surgeon is useful, of course, but poets and harpists and opera singers should not be dismissed outright because they are not useful. They are still humans and humans have ideas. A logical set of choices for the first iteration...

Actually, my explanation for the choices may take a while. I will save that for tomorrow.

Friday, April 17, 2015

time to fly or die

I don't particularly know where this film is going. But, it's opening scene intrigues me. We open on two young people, naked in bed, kissing. But the film doesn't really show us their bodies. So, we know this film won't shy away from human feeling, from sensuality, but we also know this film is probably aiming for a PG-13.

Second scene (not counting the guy from the previous scene waking up late and running to get to what turns out to be school) is a philosophy class. Hard to know if this film will succeed in being thoughtful but it certainly wants to be.

The movie, by he way, is After the Dark.

This philosophy class--it's the last day of the schoolyear--gets underway first by discussing the usefulness of philosophy then covers a few basic philosophical exercises--the infinite monkey idea, the trolley problem, some other one I hadn't heard of involving trying to get your friends to save your life--then they move on to a bigger idea (which I think is going to sustain the film as a whole). They are collectively imagining a nuclear cataclysm. They've got 21 people and a bunker for 10 and they to decide who gets to survive. Another basic philosophical exercise, but writ large.

Professor has a serious cough... prediction (not a SPOILER as I have not seen this movie before): he's dying which is why he's got his class thinking about death, the end of the world... there's something here that reminds me of The Truth podcast's "That's Democracy." SPOILERS for that: a teacher who had planned to kill himself instead comes to his class to give them a lesson in how democracy works with fatal results.

I'm wondering if there's a reason this film takes place specifically in Jakarta or if it's just a bit of cultural appropriation because we might think of that being part of the world where philosophy is a little more accepted. This is a British film, by the way. Jakarta was a major English trading center. I don't know what the location means for Brits, though. I could only guess. My most basic guess is that it seems romantic, seems like the place for a film that clearly wants to come across as intelligent.

The first iteration of the bunker exercise takes place at the Hindu Prambanan Temple. A second iteration follows. The new location is Mount Bromo (named for the creator Brahma). This as the focus is not just survival but successful breeding. In the first iteration, each student was assigned an occupation by which to be measured for usefulness. In the second iteration, they are given secondary characteristics--diseases, personality traits...

On the one hand, adding these details out of nowhere works because it's essentially the same process that goes into creating these characters in the first place. These are all actors, all playing roles. If the roles change, it's no big deal, and maybe a good exercise in characterization.

On the other hand, who these characters are inside the bunkers is somewhat superfluous. This is just a thought exercise after all. It's the Identity problem. If you've not seen that film, the premise is a bunch of people with nothing in common end up, through a rather contrived sequence of events which makes for some cool visuals, end up at the same motel in the middle of nowhere, and drama and some violence ensues. SPOILERS ahead. This action keeps crosscutting to a mental hospital, a patient being assessed. Turns out all of these people are different personalities within him. Which is a cool idea, but once we've established that none of these characters exist (even within the reality of the film) their deaths (or not) in the final act are meaningless. There is literally no reason to care anymore.

Here, there is a similar problem. When there's a conflict over the secondary breeding plan in the second iteration, while there's a nice idea there, it's a decidedly small idea in context. That Bonnie refuses to have multiple sexual partners just doesn't matter when there is no actual coupling going on. It's a problem with a lot of philosophical discussion, actually. Without something practical, something tangible to structure the discussion around, the philosophy doesn't matter.

In my middle school debate class last year, I would actually use a life raft exercise to get students to argue about who should survive and who shouldn't. They were not roleplaying like this, but the discussion also ended after about 20 minutes. No need to linger and leave time to consider the irrelevance.

Not to imply that philosophy has no relevance. But, I really just disagree with Bonnie, I guess. She argues that philosophy is not morality and logic has its limits. Morality and philosophy are both just sociocultural inventions we use to decide what is worth doing. If survival of humanity is on the line, then Bonnie loses to logic and I think Mr. Zimit was correct, not only logically but morally--but I accept that others may disagree on that last point--in saying she needed to have sex with all the males in the bunker for survival to be an option.

Third act, third iteration--an island. Notably, Mr. Zimit--an easy stand-in for God in the previous iterations--stays out of the decision-making process this time. He still turns on the humanist angle of the choices.

I will leave this Day One with After the Dark with Toby's poet's original poem recited during the third iteration:

Junk the ancient rules of thought
By which our predecessors fought
Their clashing minds did throw a spark
That scorched the world and wreaked the dark
Let no science fix our path
If only numbers make its math
Our brains will run, we'll surely see
On some sweeter philosophy
Until beneath a quiet sky
Atop the rubble we will stand
And finally demystify
The message in fate's reprimand
Even an atomic blast
Can't rub the future from the past
If with incinerated grace
We still become the human race

Thursday, April 16, 2015

no day but today

In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.

First of all, I'd change that ending to, well, ever; just cut it off at "the terrors of life." Forget the millennium; live this every day. Reach out to people, connect. Second of all, those were some of the final words written by Jonathan Larson, found on his computer after his death. For those of you not paying attention, Jonathan Larson wrote the stage version of Rent.

In his analysis of Rent, Scott Miller says quite succinctly (and obviously), "Rent is so many things to so many people." As it should be. As any movie should be. As any story should be. In Rent, we've got eight principal characters--Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Angel, Collins and Benny. We probably shouldn't identify with Benny, but hey, jerk landlords deserve to see themselves on the big screen just like anybody does, and in a not-really-that-bad light either, played by someone hot instead of, say, a fat sweaty guy in a dirty tanktop, as a landlord might be in some other movies. Maureen doesn't necessarily have much of a story arc--she remains a self-centered, narcissistic (and, though those two things may seem redundant, Maureen is extra of both, so they will both remain), sexual being. But, we can identify with her, or want to. Who doesn't wish she had the confidence of Maureen Johnson? For that matter, who doesn't wish (at least some of the time) he had the (seemingly) secure lawyer job Joanne's got? Of course, if you're a fan of Rent--a Renthead--you probably identify with Mark or Roger, a struggling artist waiting for a big break that doesn't also feel like selling out. Or maybe your life isn't going so well and you relate to Mimi, or (absent the drug problem, of course) you want to be Mimi. She's got some confidence, too. She knows who she is, even if she lies about it from time to time, numbs herself against it some of the rest of the time, and (seemingly) wants to change who she is. I remember the actress who played Mimi at the last production I saw had this amazing mix of wholesomeness and sexiness that I'm sure some women aspire to. Mark gets his big break (READ: sells out) and regrets it because he's not being true to himself. Who can't relate to that? Even if you aren't an aspiring artist of some sort. And then, there's Roger. When I first saw Rent, I could relate to Roger the most. Not because I was an aspiring singer/songwriter but because, well, my life kind of sucked. I didn't have an ex-girlfriends who "left a note saying 'We've got AIDS" before slitting her wrists in the bathroom."

(I'll reiterate, again, that the film audience doesn't know she killed herself. We might just assume she died, as Angel does, from complications related to AIDS...

(And, I've got to interrupt my interruption to make another point about the problem in translation from stage to screen for Rent. The example here is the transition from "Life Support" to "Out Tonight." In the film, "Life Support"--

(Let's just Inception this thing with lots of layers of interruption. I've got to say something about "Life Support" specifically. Movie version: Gordon says... No, let's start earlier. Mark introduces himself awkwardly, there's a brief bit of silence and then he Markwardly asks, "Does anyone have a problem if I film a little bit of this..." Then he adds in his Markward movie-version-douche-Mark way, "For a documentary." Members of the support group shrug. It's like they're dying anyway, why do they care? Which is a horrible thought to have, but that's how that shrug seems to me. And, that notion is almost the exact opposite of what this story is supposed to mean. Mark sits down, and things get underway. Gordon offers, "Yesterday, I found out my T-cells were low." Paul replies, "Well, what was your reaction?"

"Scared."

"How are you feeling, today, right now?"

Gordon responds, "Okay. Alright. Pretty good."

Paul asks, stupidly, "Is that all?" Seriously, there's no reason for that question in this version of the exchange. Gordon has not only answered the question three times, all of his answers were positive. Maybe you ought to back off, Paul, accept Gordon's day as "pretty good."

Still, Gordon responds one more time. "It's the best I've felt in a long time... months."

Paul really shouldn't be running a support group. I don't think confrontation is the way to go. He asks, "Then, why choose fear."

Gordon responds with the always amusing, "I'm a New Yorker; fear's my life."

Stage version:

Gordon sings, "Excuse me, Paul. I'm having a problem with this... this credo. My T-cells are low. I regret that news."

Paul: "Alright, Gordon, but how do you feel today?"

"What do you mean?"

"How do you feel today?" Paul may be repeating himself, which out of context could seem like the same badgering fella in the movie, but it comes across more pleasant, more caring.

Gordon replies, "Okay."

"Is that all?" The question works better here because Gordon has only answered once, and with the plainest of the answers. He has not already qualified his response for the better.

Gordon replies: "Best I've felt all year" which rhymes with Paul's reply, "Then, why choose fear?" The exchange flows better, and it doesn't make Paul look like a dick.)

Anyway, in the film, "Life Support" ends with a momentary silence, a Markward silence as, instead of lingering on the folks dying from AIDS, we linger on Mark and his camera, its handle winding to a stop. Then, we cut to an establishing shot, because movies need establishing shots. The city streets, the outside of the Cat Scratch club, because if we didn't see that sign we would have no idea where the next scene takes place, even though it has already been established that Mimi dances at the Cat Scratch club; hell, Mark even reiterated it when Mimi left her note on the window--

(That note is just another symptom of the movie script's inexplicable choice to expand the single night of Act One of the stage version into that night and the next day into the next night. There's got to be a good reason for that, but probably it's just to make sure we see even less of movie-version-douche-Mark because he can't sing "Halloween" (filmed but cut from the movie) without referencing that it was "one magic night" that got this story going... Here, enjoy some lyrics you won't find in the movie:

How did i get here?
How the hell....
Christmas
Christmas Eve - last year

How could a night so frozen
Be so scalding hot?
How can a morning this mild
Be so raw?

Why are entire years strewn
On the cutting room floor of memory
When single frames of one magic night
Forever flicker in close-up
On the 3D IMAX of my mind

That's poetic
That's pathetic

Those last two lines, especially--they humanize Mark so much more than this entire movie version does. It makes being Markward kinda adorable.)

Anyway, establishing shot then finally into the Cat Scratch club for Mimi to start singing "Out Tonight." And, don't get me wrong--I actually rather like the staging of "Out Tonight" in the film. Starting it with Mimi working, then having her walk home and feeling antsy about being home--"Can't sleep in this city of neon and chrome," she sings--and that gives us a fantastic glimpse into Mimi as a character, maybe more than just her dancing provocatively in the stage version does (even if it might be a blasphemy to say such a thing if any Renthead might read this).

My point, since I have not made it clear, is this: the smash cut in the stage version from the end of "Life Support" to "Out Tonight" is just one example of how the stage version shoves these various stories and characters--not just the eight principals but also various recurring homeless people--up against each other. One song becomes part of another. One story becomes part of another. Mimi needs life support, too. She thinks that means she needs to go "Out Tonight" but all she really wants is to find someone else to spend time with, to feel less alone. She sings in "Out Tonight" (in a rather awesome lyric, even if it is kinda depressing), "So, let's find a bar / So dark we forget who we are" but she doesn't need to forget who she is... Well, maybe she wants to forget she's dying, but that's not the same thing. Mimi--if I can play psychoanalyst for a moment--just thinks she's living by going out. She is trying to move beyond defining herself by her disease, her drug problem. Attaching herself to Roger (or to Benny, or anyone) is just another way to ignore the big Truth of her life. I'm not saying that she and Roger are not going to do well together; maybe they can connect with each other over their mutual impending doom and build something nice. That's what we want when we're watching the show (on the stage or the screen); we want them to get together and make each other's lives together because that's the point. To Rent. To life.

The slower transition from "Life Support" to "Out Tonight" draws a line between Mimi and everyone else. It creates a gap. Roger can barely close the gap there on stage. A bigger gap just makes his job harder, and the movie is practically asking us to look at these characters separately, and that is not what Rent is about.)

Where was I?

April.

The film doesn't let us know that she killed herself because that would be too depressing. Seriously, Chris Columbus (the director) said the scene of April dead in the bathtub was "too much." They filmed it and everything. If he was really worried about too much a) maybe he shouldn't have directed the film adaptation of a musical, especially Rent (but, let's move beyond that point) and b) maybe don't show us April in the tub. Just put more Mark back into the beginning of the film, give us his "close up" on Roger. Let Mark be more useful as our introduction into this world. Let him not be so Markward.

Anyway, I related to Roger when I saw Rent the first time, not because I was dying or had an ex-girlfriend who killed herself, but because my life seemed empty and I didn't want to go out any more than Roger does. Mark, for all his cute, pathetic Markwardness actually not only wants to go out, but does go out. Sure, he (perhaps) hides behind his camera, but he does get out into the world and looks at the people in it. For a while I could relate to Mark more, because a) I've written screenplays (and novels and short stories) and I've had no "success" with them (for the most part), nothing to write home about; b) I've got exes that, I'm sure, I would do favors for if asked; and c) I want success but don't really want to "sell out." I would love it if one of my novels got published properly, but I doubt they would ever be particularly popular or commercially successful. Their themes and characters are probably too outside the "mainstream."

But, this isn't about me.

Or maybe it is. It is.

Lately, I relate to Collins a bit, I think. He's a teacher, though we don't get a good sense of him as such. We know he doesn't teach like every other teacher. He got fired because of his "theory of actual reality" after all. And, I relate to Mark and Roger, aspiring artists who go unrecognized (and probably wouldn't know what to do with success they got it). And I relate to Mimi, but only in retrospect, because I know what it's like to make stupid life decisions because you think you don't deserve better than the thing that is right in front of you (and, not, I don't mean Roger, necessarily). I relate to Joanne, wanting someone (or something) but it remains just out of reach. I relate to Maureen, with crazy ideas that need to get out into the world. And--I shouldn't admit this--I wish I could flirt with girls in rubber like she can. I don't mean the "rubber" part as what I wish for, though that would be fine. I mean the flirting thing. I've been overweight for so long, and then I was married for a decade, that I just don't often feel like I deserve a response even if I do find someone to flirt with, dressed in rubber or not.

I think my pending divorce--though I tend to refer to my marriage in the past tense, and there is paperwork filed finally, I am still legally married, even if I have not been practically married for a few years now--might add to me identifying with Collins lately as well. I like that he seems to be okay after losing Angel. I like the idea that we can move on and still value the memory of things we no longer have.


(The problem with staging Angel's funeral as an actual funeral in the movie--and I'm not saying it wasn't, strictly speaking, a bad idea--is that Collins is alone when he sings the reprise of "I'll Cover You". On stage, Collins sings alone, but the group lines up with him as it goes and by the time it transitions into a reprise of "Seasons of Love" they are all together. Collins is not alone.)

But, that's not really my point today, is it?

I want to come back to Larson's lines at the top of this entry, the idea that we can learn from, well, not only people who are dying, but people who are living. From everyone. We should never isolate ourselves like Roger does, never numb ourselves like Mimi does. We need to get out there and meet people, talk to people. Live.

That's kind of been the recurring theme of this blog. It's a big part of Groundhog Day. It's been a big part of so many other movies I've watched for this blog or watched for life. It's possibly the most important theme you can take from anything.

There's only us
There's only this
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss

No other road
No other way
No day but today

I will end with this:

I need more than three days with a film to do it justice--

(For example, I haven't had the chance to get into, small example, get into why Benny's wife's akita is named Evita, or, big thing, what the title of Rent really means. Jonathan Larson's favorite iteration of what that word means was not the money we pay for something on, say, a monthly basis, or even a metaphor for that money (the effort we've got to make to keep what matters in life), but the sense of being torn, like one might rent one's clothes out of extreme anger or grief. Everyone in this film is dealing with big, emotional decisions about what their lives are going to be, who they are going to be with, or not. Everyone is torn. Like the final line of the title song: "Everything is rent."

And, rent is everything. Rent is what it takes to live life. Rent is what it takes to be together, what it takes to be... just to be.)

Hell, I need more than seven. I think, really, I need more than 365. Every film, even sad little things like The Room, teach us about film, about the world, about us, about life. I once wrote in this blog, "every piece of art deserves to be studied and broken down. Every piece of fiction deserves to be dissected until we know not just what it means but what it can mean." And, really, yes, every film can and maybe should be broken down interminably. It's a metaphor for life. Break it down. Explore its nooks and crannies. Get to know all of its players. Relate it to everything in your own life. And, be better off because of it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

it's too late for that, man

(Before I get into Rent for today, a note: Once again, I am writing a blog entry on a plane--on the way to Ohio for a speech tournament--and it still amazes me that I can do this. I know my thesis I'm working on--and after this week in Ohio I'm planning on getting into the work part of it finally, going back through the more than 600 entries now and coding them for content--is ostensibly about the presentation of self, the re-creation of self through writing... through blogging, but there's something to be said for the practical part of it as well. I started this blog in a one room apartment, writing on a desktop computer while Groundhog Day ran on my tablet next to the desktop monitor. I was stuck in one place if I wanted to save time and write while the movie was one--and I did want to do that. An hour and forty-one minutes a day for that movie was a lot of time as things kept going. Writing during the film (most of the time) made things a lot easier. I graduated for a while into watching the movie(s) on the television, writing on the tablet. That gave me a little more mobility, but not much. When I wrote on planes before I had to just write, focus on the writing. At least one of those entries--I will paste the link later if I remember--turned out to be fairly thoughtful, so I'm glad the writing was separated from the viewing. But, last year, I finally got a smart phone. So now, when I'm at home, I can watch on the television, write on the tablet, and have research bits open on the phone. I used to print everything I'd use in this blog. I've got several binders worth of Groundhog Day stuff plus a couple binders on horror films, a binder on romantic comedies. Binder 8 (which is somewhat appropriate since the figure 8 turned sideways is infinity) may end up being the final Groundhog Day Project binder because I just don't need to print most of my research anymore.

Right now, I've go the movie playing on my tablet, and I'm writing on the phone. It's nice. It's something thoroughly modern... as if blogging itself were not. I started the movie as we left the ground, but didn't get the my wireless keyboard out for a little while. I think I just wanted to sit with the movie for a bit...)

...and maybe that was a bad idea because something I mentioned yesterday stood out even more. Lyrics spoken do not sound like dialogue. I told my friend Greg yesterday that musicals are more realistic than movies. And, this adaptation speaks to that point quite readily. The characters only seem real when they are singing... or at least more real when they are singing. There's a reason musicals work the way they work. Not just because the audience can interact with the performance; plays and musicals have been successfully adapted to the screen. Hell, I think the West Side Story film adaptation plays more like a film than an adaptation of something from the stage... except maybe for a couple of the dance numbers. Right now, as I write, Mimi's performing "Out Tonight" and there's something that I think works pretty well with her walking home from the Cat Scratch Club singing in the dark and dirty street. Like the montage of her dealing with her drug addiction later, it's something that really captures the character on screen... not better than the stage but differently.

Mark gets lost in this adaptation, an afterthought beside the other duos. Similarly, Benny gets lost a bit. Mark is supposed to be our in, our ticket to the show, our doorway into these lives; his narration plays like conversation if you watch Rent on stage, but here it plays like stilted film narration, bad documentary narration. Benny is supposed to be the villain whose seeming change (back) to the better is somewhat inexplicable but welcomed. We're right there in the theater with him and we want him to change, we want him to be better. And, this Benny--Taye Diggs--is charming, and when he sings about his cyber cafe and letting the profits keep him and Mark and Roger living in the building, you can sort of side with him, you can imagine it, too. Sure, there's all those other tenants that will be removed, but you get it. With Taye Diggs, the role works on the screen, but then he's gone for a while, shows up for a few lines in the Life Cafe and disappears again for a good long while. His presence at the funeral here seems unimportant... I only just realized that the subplot of Mimi cheating on Roger with Benny is not in the film version at all. It's strange how being more familiar with the stage version, especially the soundtrack, which I've listened to many times, I don't even notice that some things are missing. I just assume they're there, because that's what I know.

(I actually wondered recently if I watched Groundhog Day and some scene had been cut, how quickly I would notice--

(If you're new to this blog, for whatever reason--a Renthead maybe who found me during these three days with Rent, perhaps--you should know that this blog takes its name from how it started; basically, I watched Groundhog Day every day for a year. I've moved on to other movies, usually for a week at a time, but this month is special--movies recommended to me by other people, regular readers, family, friends. Ten films, each one for 3 days.)

--how quickly I would catch that something is off. Would it be surreal, like the opposite of deja vu? Now, I'm wondering if I would even catch it at all. Would my brain just fill in the blanks? Like that video with the people passing basketballs around a circle and you're supposed to count the passes, but the trick is not that you can't keep up, it's--SPOILERS, especially if I remember to link to a copy of the video online... seriously, if there is a link here, click on the link, watch the video, then come back for the SPOILER...

Okay, you're back.

Or I forgot to insert the link. If so, look it up yourself. But anyway, the SPOILER: the trick is not that you cannot keep up with counting the passes, it is that while trying to count, you don't notice a person in a gorilla suit walking right through the circle of people, even stopping to look at the camera. Your brain can focus on something so much that it just missed other stuff nearby, even if that other stuff should be obvious.)

As "I'll Cover You" just ended, I should point out something that got lost in the changes between stage and screen. Angel still buys Collins a new coat, but he never--that we saw--told her that he lost his coat... or rather, "They Purloined my coat." And, don't forget the defiant followup: "Well, you missed a sleeve." That's who Collins is on stage. He's a guy who can get mugged and still be defiant about the fact that one of the sleeves of his purloined coat ripped off so all they got is a one-armed coat. Hell, he's the kind of guy who will use the word purloined casually enough to include it in the first minute of meeting someone new.The romance between Collins and Angel still means something on screen, of course, but it's diminished a little by both a lack of depth and a lack of intimacy. Angel dancing right in front of you during "Today 4 U" is an amazing thing to see. The performance in the film, while bigger, is less personal.

Angel's loss is also changed, made a little less personal. The film starts with "Seasons of Love A" which doesn't come until the start of Act Two on stage. And, that's fine. AS I said yesterday, seeing the eight principal cast members together on a stage is a nice love letter to Rentheads. The empty audience might be a little strange, but the scene works. Thing is, "Seasons of Love B" never happens. Well, it does, but it's heard over other action. We never get the missing-man-formation lineup, the principal cast members with a gap where Angel should be. Hell, we don't get any extra performers in that song, either. That extras and supporting cast members in the stage version become recognizable--at the production I saw this past fall, for example, Mark's mother was also a police officer and a homeless woman and one of the Bohemians at the life cafe. The homeless black woman who tells Mark, "My life's not for you to make a name for yourself on"--she got the big solo in "Seasons of Love" in two different productions I've seen. Here, it hardly matters to someone new in the audience who has that solo because we don't know these characters yet--

(That's one reason that opening number doesn't work; while the lyrics to "Seasons of Love" are nice, the film audience should not have to know who these characters are, should not be glad to see them all (well, six of them) again like they're old friends. I wonder if the stage number should have been saved for the end.)

--and it's actually quite nice that a bit player gets the big solo. In the audience, we might relate to that actor over the leads. It's like it could be us. We could be up there singing the solo... if we weren't stuck with day jobs or night jobs or both. We could be artists, we could be living the Bohemian life... and, we hope, not be dying from tuberculosis or AIDS or anything.

(We might also miss the homeless cast who sing "Christmas Bells" on stage. They make for a nice sort of comic relief even while framing the stark reality of their homelessness in winter.)

Speaking of dying, something I like about the staging of "La Vie Boheme" in the film is that since there is a fourth wall, the scene is not staged like it's The Last Supper. To be fair, it is like the last supper, Angel the Christ-Figure who will be sacrificed for the rest of these characters to figure their shit out and get on with their lives. It's no coincidence that Collins, who is closest to Angel and Maureen, who seems to already know Angel, both have their selves figured out more than, say Roger or Mark.

Longtime readers, don't worry, I won't be throwing in a Christ-Figure analysis of Angel to fill out one of these three days with Rent. I don't need to. I think it's obvious. Scott Miller, in his analysis of Rent (which, again, I'll link to later if I remember), focuses in on Angel for a bit. He writes:

Angel is the wise wizard in this collective hero myth story. She's almost other-worldly in her Zen-like understanding of the world around her, her wisdom, her compassion. She's there to teach the others (and us) a valuable lesson, to see the world in terms of what we can give instead of what we can get. As Collins says to Roger in Act II, "Angel helped us believe in love. I can't believe you disagree."

...Angel teaches her friends – and us? – to be more Christ-like.

After all, Rent is about "the least of these," the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the rejected, the kind of people Jesus hung out with. For much of the twentieth century, Alphabet City has been where mainstream society's rejects form their own community, their own support system, to some extent even their own economy. It's the place where Mark can toast, "To being an us for once, instead of a them." It's a place where Mark can ask, "Is anyone in the mainstream?" because he knows the answer is no. Not here.

There is no mainstream. There is only us. There is only this.

And, I don't know about you, I want to be closer to these characters when I see it on stage, and I feel closer to them. On the screen, though, there's a separation. It's broken down here and there; I rather like, for example, how the camera follows Roger and Mimi around during "Light My Candle." In the film version, when Angel grabs the trashcan to break the padlock, it's a nice human moment that exists only in this version. Collins asks, "Baby, what you doin?" Then, when she heads for the door with trashcan in hand, he says, "You're drunk." Angel, quite simply, responds, "No, I'm not." It's brief, it's straightforward, and it tells us something about Angel almost as much as her grabbing that trashcan does. It's one of the few additions that adds something to the story. Alexi Darling--the movie version adds... something, but I'm not sure if it's good... well, it does allow for this awesome framing:

(And, in naming that image, I just accidentally coined an awesome word for anyone named Mark who happens to be socially awkward--you're welcome, Marks. That word is Markward. Or, if your name isn't Mark, let's use it to describe that third wheel--or, is it fifth wheel?--feeling, when you're the Mark in a cast full of couples--

(Benny, notably, is married to Muffy, who we never see, but also (in the stage version, at least) also hooks up with Mimi, while Mark hooks up with no one. Maybe they should have hinted at a relationship between Mark and Alexi if they were going to go with the interesting casting choice of Sarah Silverman.

I kid.

That would be a horrible thing.)

Maybe I'll find a way to use this new word in this blog at a later date, like Phil Connoring someone, which, really can be a little Markward if you're not good at it.)

Despite my complaints about changes, and my unvoiced (so far) complaint about the commitment party setup, I rather love Mark's mother's "Maybe now you two can get back together." She is almost as Markward as Mark is.

It occurs to me that "Take Me Or Leave Me" is like the song that, if a musical could sing a song, the stage version of Rent should sing to the film version, or to Chris Columbus. Maybe Robert DeNiro (who produced this) could have gotten Martin Scorsese to direct (as he tried to) if the script had been closer to the original. Columbus and--insert the name of the credited screenwriter later--should learn to Take< the show for what it is and not try too much to change it. I'm not saying they should change nothing. Some of the montages are quite nice; the three-dimensional, hey-there's-a-fourth-wall staging can pull us into some scenes more than the stage version might be able to; and it's much easier to see the passage of time on the screen. That's a conceit we're used to. In the audience of the stage version, if you don't look in your program, and miss a line or two because--I don't know--you're distracted by your milk duds spilling on the floor, you might be confused that it's Halloween suddenly or that Christmas shows up again. The montage, the jump in time--that's normal for the screen. On stage, you get--blanking on the title and I can't look it up, but that song with everyone under the sheets writhing around, culminating in breakups and Angel's death, the song left out Markwardly by student productions but (maybe) left out less Markwardly here.

You know what else is Markward: that cut from Collins' "I can't believe this family must die" to a reaction shot from Benny, the guy who arguably is least part of the family.

Roger's little trip to Santa Fe was always Markward. Getting some location shooting in it is nice, but it doesn't make it any less... insubstantial.

You know, since Roger knows Mark and Mark knows Maureen and Maureen knows Angel and Angel (maybe) knows Mimi--Angel may have just lifted her drumsticks to Mimi after "Rent" to relate to a fellow human and not a friend--Roger should have gotten himself some inside information to Phil Connor Mimi into falling for him a little more thoroughly.

(Sorry, newbies. You'll just have to figure that one out yourself. I'm not sure if I can find the entry in which I coined the idea of Phil Connoring someone later. But, I'll try.)

Actually, Mimi should have Phil Connored Roger. I'm sorry for being sexist and putting the onus on him. She's the one who threw herself at him. She's the one who blew out her candle at the mention of his ex-girlfriend. A little more personal information and maybe she could have gotten Roger to get past his emotional baggage a little sooner, and they could have had more time together.

Instead of being so Markward together.