Talking Movies

September 8, 2010

Salvage Operation: Reign of Fire

2002’s failed blockbuster Reign of Fire is not a good film by any means, but it does contain at least one genuinely great idea which should be salvaged for posterity.

In a post-apocalyptic world caused by the accidental unleashing of dragons from underneath London Underground the world as we know it has ceased to exist. Christian Bale and some other survivors live in small pockets of human resistance to the fiery reign of the dragons. In one early scene we see Bale and another adult entertaining the surviving children of their group by re-enacting Star Wars. Bounding about a make-shift stage like giddy children themselves they make light-saber noises as they swing wooden swords, a wheezing sound between lines when playing Darth Vader, and the old hand up the sleeve trick for Luke losing his hand, before the children en masse gasp in shock and disbelief at the line “No Luke, am your father”.

It is a hilarious and great scene in an uninspired film, not least because its idea is so telling. In the event of an apocalypse with only youngish men being left as the elders of a community it’s highly unlikely anyone would be able to remember all of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Hamlet or Great Expectations but it is entirely (and disturbingly) plausible that a bunch of twentysomethings would between them remember most, if not all, of the dialogue and scenes of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Hurley writing the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back in LOST when he’s stuck on the island in the 1970s. It’s also entirely likely that the children they entertained with their physical theatre re-enactment would indeed lap it up. And furthermore while the notion that, in the event of an apocalypse, all of Western civilization and culture would be erased save for George Lucas is on the surface deeply troubling, on second thought it’s not so bad. Lucas after all was so heavily indebted to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in his initial drafts of his saga that saving Star Wars would in fact mean saving classic story-structures and archetypal characters with mythical resonance beyond the surface nonsensicality. And with resonant stories the past wouldn’t be lost…

And so Reign of Fire may in fact have contained one truly great idea amidst a sea of CGI dragon-fire and shirtless Matthew McConaughey. Who’d a thunk it?

August 29, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Few people have understood cryptic references in interviews by other actors over the decades to Harvey Keitel’s unusual powers. Keitel is in fact a master of the mystic arts, an American Magus, who has used his powers to escape disastrously prolonged shoots twice in his career…

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY, 1976
HARVEY KEITEL, DENNIS HOPPER, SAM BOTTOMS and ROBERT DUVALL are walking thru a jungle with electricity cables and camera tracks running thru it. Disorganised CREW yell at each other about the chaos while various lights fall off of the rigs shambolically connected to the trees.

KEITEL: (looking around him) I have a bad feeling about this…
DUVALL: I passed on that script. I’ll tell you this for free, George is just selling out with that project.
KEITEL: No, I meant I genuinely have a bad feeling about this, right here. I think this film’s going to get badly out of hand. In fact, I’m going to check. (He pulls a pen and paper from his pocket) Sam, can you meet me in my trailer in half an hour with the following items. Don’t stress about the eye of newt if you can’t get it readily…

Keitel hurriedly scribbles a list and hands it to Sam Bottoms who takes off running.

KEITEL: (gravely) Let’s all pray that I’m wrong…. (he holds out his hands)
DUVALL: Pray my ass. I’ve got better things to do, I’m going to go ring George again, make him cry by quoting him at himself again. “Anyone can drown some kittens and make the audience cry”. Oh yeah George, and what do you call the Millenial Falcon swooping in to save the day at the last second then?
KEITEL: Look, just what is this script that you’re so bitter about ‘passing on’?
DUVALL: Doesn’t matter. I passed on it. I did pass on it. It’s rubbish. I’m not bitter. Juvenile trash. Regurgitated Joseph Campbell. Didn’t want to be in it anyway. Only read the script as a favour to him.
HOPPER: Dude, I heard he wanted you to wear a wig for the audition. A wig! Full on Sinatra… (starts to giggle uncontrollably, while Duvall stops and the others do too)
DUVALL: (tense beat) Dennis, remember when you said you were going to strap dynamite to your chest and blow yourself up as part of an art happening, and I said that’s not performance art you moron that’s suicide with the potential to become mass murder. Well, I was wrong Dennis – absolutely do that if it feels right to you.

Exit Duvall, grumbling about space smugglers needing hair to look properly roguish.

KEITEL: (He grabs Hopper before he can follow Duvall) Dennis, I want you to listen to me very carefully. On no account are you to strap dynamite to yourself and attend an art happening.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
One hour later. FREDERIC FORREST walks into Keitel’s trailer to find Bottoms, Hopper, and Keitel, in a hooded cape and muttering readings from a book, gathered around a steaming cauldron, which is placed in the centre of a chalk pentagram.

FORREST: What the hell’s going on here?
HOPPER: He’s using the mystic arts man. Weird sister hoodoo is going on right here.
BOTTOMS: He’s reading the runes, and they are far-out my brother.
HOPPER: Psychedelic indeed, just grasp it – we have an authentic mage in the cast.
FORREST: Huh, trippy man.
KEITEL: Could everyone try very hard to be just a little less of a walking hippie cliché for a moment while I try to concentrate on reciting this Latin right?!

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA is storming thru the jungle with his PA. He is bellowing constantly at various crew members that drop ever more lights off trees in their fright.

COPPOLA: I’m surrounded by incompetent amateurs. Where is my espresso?
PA: We’re in a freaking jungle! Accept that there is no espresso machine here.
COPPOLA: Well, what am I supposed to do to keep alert in this absurd humidity?
PA: Here’s a pill.
COPPOLA: A pill. I ask for espresso and you give me NASA food. What is it?
PA: Do you care?
COPPOLA: (beat) No. (pops the pill) What’s the worst that could happen?

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Frederic Forrest is storming around Keitel’s trailer running his hands thru his hair.

FORREST: HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO BE HERE?!
KEITEL: A year and a half at least seems to be what the powers are indicating. Divination is not an exact science. It’s not actually a science at all, technically.
BOTTOMS: Oh man, will the drug supply last that long?
KEITEL: Believe me when I tell you Sam that the drug supply will last long after everything else has run out, including sanity.
HOPPER: Oh man, can I righteously wait that long before dynamiting myself?
KEITEL: Not that sanity was in much supply to begin with… Gentlemen, it’s been… peculiar, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to contrive to get fired as soon as I can.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Keitel knocks on the door of Coppola’s trailer. He thinks he is interrupting but it turns out that Coppola is merely bellowing orders at a tree thru the window for no reason.

KEITEL: Francis! Glad I caught you. I had some ideas I’d like to run past you.
COPPOLA: Come on in man, come on in! That’s what doors are for!!
KEITEL: (sits nervously) I want to do at least one scene thru interpretive dance.
COPPOLA: Groovy. I love interpretive dance. (He gets up and starts to dance)
KEITEL: I’d also like to juggle chickens during the plantation dinner scene.
COPPOLA: Sure. (He sits down and starts juggling cigarette-lighters, and drops them all quite quickly) Sure, sure, I’m sure you can pull it off with practise. You, man. You. (beat) You.
KEITEL: Yeaah. I, uh, I want to interpret Willard as a tomato filled with self-loathing at his hyphenated status who slowly learns to overcome his liminal status by embracing it. But only in alternating takes. The other takes – I’ll be a French mime.
COPPOLA: Interesting take on the character… Really ties in to the politics of it all.
KEITEL: I also have deep ethical issues with actually killing a cow with a machete.
COPPOLA: You’re fired.
KEITEL: Thank Christ. I was beginning to think I’d never push you over the edge.

Keitel pulls his cloak around him while he stands up and disappears in a puff of smoke. Coppola observes this without emotion, but eventually starts to look askance.

COPPOLA: I’m requesting an espresso machine gets flown in first thing or we’re never going to get any work done around here.

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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