Talking Movies

February 28, 2021

Any Other Business: Part LXVI

As the title suggests, so forth.

The Sound of 2001…

I recently rediscovered a cassette tape from the 2004/5 academic year, and what a nostalgic blast it was listening to it. But along with the expected Morrissey, Killers, Franz Ferdinand, U2, Auf Der Maur, and Gwen Stefani tracks there was also a clutch of Smiths songs and Simon & Garfunkel tunes. Because discovering those albums were equally a part of my experience, musically speaking, of that year. Which led me to thinking about 2001, and how my musical memories of that year are largely the latter kind of listening: the Pixies B-Sides being released was really the only ‘new’ music that connected. The rest was finally listening to Bowie’s Scary Monsters and U2’s Rattle and Hum, rediscovering Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, David Byrne’s Uh-Oh and the Doors’ first album. Because… in a world of Limp Bizkit rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, where the White Stripes and the Strokes were being feted for doing not very much of anything at all, it has to be said that 2001 was a pretty bad year for music. As it was, as has been noted previously hereabouts, also a pretty bad year for film. 2001 – what the hell was that all about? Some sort of psychic collapse or exhaustion from the anticipation of the new millennium?

St Vincent: Fear the Producer

Only three months to go until St Vincent releases a new album! And yet I am not doing the dance of joy, because I fear that bad production may have mangled outstanding songs. Listening to Masseduction and MassEducation in the last few days, along with a YouTube performance of ‘Savior’ and my DVR recordings of her appearances on Later… with Jools Holland with piano and band for ‘Los Ageless’, ‘New York’, ‘Masseduction’, and ‘Slow Fast Disco’, it has become apparent to me that the finest version of all of these twice-recorded tracks are actually the live ones. Annie Clark had produced Masseduction alongside Jack Antonoff, and MassEducation alongside pianist Thomas Bartlett, so I am at a loss as to what exactly went on that allowed drama and emotion to be swamped. But I still remember the dismay and shock I had when, after her appearance on Later… in late 2017, I heard ‘Los Ageless’ on the car radio, and didn’t recognise it till I made out familiar words in the chorus.

June 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

2001: A very bad year

Well, I finally saw Evolution last weekend. Just because it was on. And because I was eating dinner. It was a sorta ambient film-watching experience. Watch 45 minutes. Tape the rest. Watch that during lunch the next day. Wonder then why I bothered watching any of it. Muse on not knowing about Head & Shoulders’ efficacy against aliens. Cheer on some truly minor TV actors in small roles. Wonder why on earth David Duchovny took the lead. Muse on whether its failure stopped him from parlaying his X-Files fame into a leading man career on the big screen. And then remember that, even though it was from the director of Ghostbusters, I’d skipped the film on purpose in 2001 from a complete lack of interest. A lack of interest not limited to Evolution. There were multiple reasons why I saw only eleven films in the cinema in 2001, an alarming number of them rep showings. But one of them is that the year 2001 was not a very good year for cinema. In fact it was by way of being a very bad year. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tigerland, which were 2001 highlights for me arrived here then but were actually 2000 films. And the hangover went the other way with Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc being 2002 experiences here. Shrek, Planet of the Apes, AI, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Fellowship of the Ring. These were the films of 2001 I saw on the biggest screens in the Savoy and Ormonde during 2001, and if not for the Antipodeans Luhrmann and Jackson unleashing immortal classics in the final four months of the year what a washout it would have been. I don’t know if anything can really be said to cause a slump the likes of which Hollywood experienced in 2001 but it was a slump for sure.

John Cusack: Former Film Star

John Cusack turned 54 yesterday which led me to the question: What in the hell happened to John Cusack? In what should have been the decade of his career in which he played a defining role, like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or John Wayne in The Searchers, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko or Keanu Reeves as John Wick, the best that Cusack rose to as a fortysomething was his lead role in the minor Stephen King horror story 1408 and his hero repeatedly escaping just ahead of the shockwave(s) in Roland Emmerich’s over-egged disaster pudding 2012. What went wrong? How did he end up making so many films that were not released, barely released, or sunk without trace here? 1408 and Cell, his two Stephen King horrors with Samuel L Jackson, got cinema releases in late summer 2007 and 2016 – they almost neatly cordon off the decade of disaster under scrutiny, and the decline in Cusack’s celebrity, as the latter went to VoD before a very limited cinema release. Before 1408 came Grace is Gone and The Contract. Ring a bell? Nope… 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine while not great films got wide releases and made money. The Raven and The Frozen Ground are better films but got less wide releases and made considerably less money. They also flag a recurring problem – there are way too many films here that merge together when you read the loglines; impressive casts assembled for some glossy crime thriller, involving a serial killer or assassination or heist: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Bag Man, Drive Hard, The Prince, Reclaim. There’s even a Phone Booth–like appearance in Grand Piano. And what’s stranger is that in the midst of these formulaic films Cusack made We Are Not Animals in Argentina, about a Hollywood star fleeing formulaic films, and then went back to Hollywood to make more formulaic films. There have not been enough meaty roles like his older Brian Wilson in the split-focus biopic Love & Mercy. Instead he’s made cameos in The Paperboy, The Butler, Adult World, taken more substantial roles in glossy films that sank without trace (Dragon Blade, Shanghai), indie films that failed to connect (Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq), and somehow bungled a spiritual sequel to his towering 90s achievement Grosse Pointe Blank in the shape of War, Inc. Cusack has not stopped working, and perhaps that’s the problem. Like Matthew McConaughey, he needs to say no to a looooot of scripts for a while if he wants to get back on track. Otherwise Cusack will continue to work steadily, but solely on trashy nonsense (constantly declining in quality), that is made for midnight drunken Netflix buffoonery, and clicked on increasingly only by people who remember that his was once a face that appeared on posters inside cinemas.

December 5, 2011

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

Gladstone in the Disestablishment debates of 1869 was fond of referring to the Irish Church as the Upas Tree, a popular contemporary botanical metaphor based on an Indonesian plant that poisoned everything else that tried to grow in soil around it even as it thrived…

I’m tempted to rename The Tree of Life to Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree because I’ve been complaining for a while that a too rigid adherence to an eminently predictable three-act structure is a major source of Hollywood’s current woes, and that loosening up the structure of mainstream cinema would be an exciting development, only for Malick to drive audiences demented with his unstructured rambling magnum opus. During the summer reports of walk-outs, sarcastic laughter, ironic applause, and worse floated in from all quarters as responses to Malick’s film. I heard of three men getting as far as the appearance of the dinosaurs before one went, “Ah, here. Scoops?”, and they just got up and left. I was at one of the last screenings in the IFI in its tiny second screen in the afternoon with an audience of Malick devotees. I’d been trying to concentrate on just luxuriating in the visuals of the creation of the universe montage and trying not to think too critically about it. The choral soundtrack got louder and louder and I was thinking about how on earth Malick was achieving this, was he adding in extra singers for each verse, when a man a few seats down from me turned to say to the woman next to him, “Oh, this is just pretentious f****** nonsense! It really is…” Unfortunately, in a hilarious occurrence straight out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, at that precise moment the soundtrack went mute and his shouted whisper bounded around the entire room and was heard by everyone. You could feel the audience stiffen in their seats, some offended by this philistinism, but many more I think suddenly roused, out of somnolent acceptance of Malick’s montage as Art, back into consciousness and a critical evaluation of what the man had just said – and do you know what, I swear that I felt most of the audience suddenly silently agree and think, “It is pretentious f****** nonsense, isn’t it?!”

The first 30 minutes of the film are largely dispensable, as are the last 20 minutes. The creation of the universe montage is not art but empty bombast masquerading as profundity, while the end of the movie hilariously resembles an advertisement for life insurance as white-suited people walk around a beach smiling beatifically at each other. There is a decent movie buried in between these two extremes about a 1950s Texan adolescence, but it’s not a great movie. It wouldn’t be great, even if you could unearth it, because the central child becomes a deeply unpleasant protagonist who, in shooting his guitar-playing brother in the finger out of jealousy and spite that this bonds the younger brother to their music-loving father, approaches borderline psychosis. The most egregious failures in The Tree of Life are the least mainstream elements, while what little that works does so because it’s mainstream. Just like Let the Right One In critics have been praising as creative ambiguity what is in fact terrifying vagueness. I was stunned to discover in the credits that Fiona Shaw was the children’s grandmother, from the movie that’s not at all obvious, she appears to deliver a horrendous line to Jessica Chastain merely as an awful neighbour who is quite rightly never seen again by the family. As for what happened to the brother…as with people reading meanings into 2001 that they got from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, people saying the brother obviously committed suicide only think that from knowledge of Malick’s own life. It is not in the movie. Sean Penn is absolutely right in saying he doesn’t even know why he’s in the movie, but his comments about a dense and beautiful script which does not appear on screen are infuriating because they suggest that Malick once again signed people up for one film and then shot too much unscripted, irrelevant, but pretty material and edited together from endless incoherent footage an entirely different, philosophically slight, and inferior work.

Malick’s ideal viewer would appear to be an agoraphobic shut-in, with no access to the many nature or physics documentaries on TV. Be brutally honest and you will admit that the creation of the universe montage is so deliberately vague in its focus on the micro rather than the macro that if you didn’t know what it was beforehand you’d be unlikely to find out from watching it. The mind boggles that Doug Trumbull was involved in making that sequence as it’s inferior to depictions of the self-same cosmic events on most television documentaries. The dinosaurs are more convincing than Terra Nova’s creatures but they’re curiously inert so let’s not kid ourselves that the CGI is that much better than the Discovery Channel benchmark. An even greater problem is Malick’s apparent belief that pointing the camera upwards at the slightest provocation plus blasting majestic John Tavener choral works at ear-splitting volume equals Transcendence. Do you ever look up at a tall building, feel dwarfed by it, and go ‘whoa’? Do you sometimes walk around after heavy rain to appreciate how all the foliage looks somehow greener? Do you occasionally look up at the sunlight coming thru the leaves of trees in dappled patterns? Do you always slow down when walking so as not to scare a wild animal in order to fully appreciate stumbling across it by observing it? Congratulations, you have reached a state of deep commune with nature that Malick thinks few people ever have. Worse still, the great philosopher-poet of cinema, as the adulatory reviews would crown him, spends two and a half hours in tangentially making the point that Moulin Rouge! only needed a rhyming couplet to deliver – ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’ The conflict between Nature and Grace outlined in voiceover by Jessica Chastain at the beginning needs dialogue to be developed. Instead Malick thinks he can explore it with clichéd and irrelevant nature imagery.

My objections to the idea that complex ideas can be communicated visually rather than verbally are old, but watching this movie I also discovered something new. I am so decadent as to require a smidgen of narrative amidst visual paeans to the beauty of nature. This is why I dub what Malick has produced an Upas Tree. He may bask in the glory of his film being a philosophical masterpiece saturated with, and directing people’s attention to, the beauty of nature, but anyone else attempting to throw away the three-act structure will now be instantly reminded that The Tree of Life proves that you can’t abandon it and be stopped dead in their tracks. Hunger may have rewritten the possibilities of cinema, but it retained the bare bones of a three-act structure to supply narrative momentum, and realised that one extended dialogue scene discussing ideas could support far more screen-time devoted to art installation style visual explorations. The Tree of Life though eschews either that sense of narrative drive or that necessity for dialogue in the exploration of ideas, and by its failure seems to proclaim that abandoning the three-act structure is not the way to go, and, at a time when its detailed proscriptions badly need re-inventing, that makes me mad. Steve McQueen’s work seems to demonstrate that the classic three-act structure is not always necessary, but some semblance of artistic purpose is indispensible. Graham Greene’s definition of a film as a series of particular images assembled in a particular way to achieve a particular effect still holds true. One could contrast McQueen’s tightly controlled visions with Malick’s free-for-all ‘shoot everything and find the movie in the editing room’ approach. The true contrast between them though is that McQueen finds beauty in the mundane and ugly, so that you go ‘whoa’ watching a floor being disinfected, while Malick finds beauty in the beautiful – which recalls Joyce’s dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as propaganda for that which needs no propaganda…

Terrence Malick is now making two more films rather quickly. He may have deeper philosophical messages to impart from his life experience, I certainly hope he does, but I think he would be well advised to re-watch his debut Badlands and remind himself that having a sense of narrative drive, be it e’er so dreamy is not a bad thing.

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