Archive for Joseph Campbell

A Labyrinth of Pans

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2018 by dcairns

I recently read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the novel version, for the first time. My, it’s good. I was struck by how none of the films capture its bizarre humour, or its strange and melancholy conclusion. And the character of Peter himself, arrogant and “heartless” but insistently attractive (or so Barrie keeps telling us), is never really attempted.

There’s three films that work on their own terms ~

The silent PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon, 1924) is really lovely. At times, it feels like a record of the play, an opportunity to time-travel back and see what Edwardian audiences saw. But has enough cinema to it for this not to become a drag factor. We get the best of both worlds (stage/cinema, London/Neverland). And the cast is ideal.

The Disney version of 1953 ruthlessly homogenizes Barrie’s vision, as the silent did before it, but the visuals are attractive (those blue night skies!), the animation superb and the voice casting pretty fine, with even the Americanization of Peter working to its advantage — Bobby Driscoll is the elated Yank showing the stuffy Brits how to live/fly. The ending isn’t Barrie’s bleak last chapter, by any stretch, but in its way it’s poetic and magical and odd. The image of the flying ship is introduced here — Barrie doesn’t have it.

(I haven’t seen the belated [straight-to-video?] sequel, RETURN TO NEVERLAND, but I assume I’d hate it: imagine suddenly being shown a reproduction of your childhood only all your friends and relatives are being played by impostors with painted faces.)

FINDING NEVERLAND is pretty satisfying, though I’m not a fan of the director. It skirts around the more awkward questions, but it works, I think. Johnny Depp’s accent isn’t exactly a realistic Scottish accent but he isn’t exactly a realistic actor. It works too. And the outtakes of Kelly Macdonald as the stage Pan, flailing about on wires crashing into the set walls are fantastic — buy the DVD for those alone.

Oh wait, YouTube. Got to 2:17 and it all happens.

How, then, to explain the three monstrous, bloated and charmless renditions of Barrie’s work?

HOOK (1991) is probably the first Spielberg film I truly hated on sight. I remember getting stupidly annoyed at the plastic frost decorating the windows — they had all the money in the world to make this, why couldn’t they do convincing frost? I just rewatched forty minutes, in a kind of gaping disbelief, and this time focussed myopically on a really bad cut in the opening children’s play. Peter’s daughter seems to teleport. The disruptive continuity howler — some things really DO pull you out of a movie — occurs in front of an entire audience of potential cutaways, so there is no conceivable reason for it except sloppiness or exhaustion.But these focal points barely even qualify as symptoms of the big-picture rot. Our old friend James V. Hart, of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA fame, scripted. I’m in two minds about his high concept premise — “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Part of me thinks the answer is, “If that happened, you would lose your USP.” And this is what in fact happens – you get a Peter Pan film without a Peter Pan.

There are compensations, if you forget about why you came. The idea that Peter would forget who he is ties in with his infantile amnesia in the book — Peter forgets everything unless it’s actually active in his life — this leads to the final chapter where he can’t remember Hook, or Tinkerbell, or even Wendy. So Hart’s treatment is a little more faithful to the story than I used to give him credit for. And there’s a good nightmarish anxiety to the situation he then finds himself in — abducted to this fantasy land he can’t remember, and expected to play a role that’s no longer him. (They should have made something of a kid in the opening play being unable to remember the lines.)It’s just that the way it all plays out is gaudy and vulgar and ugly. The sets are simultaneously massive and expensive-looking yet horribly bright, clean and cheap-looking. They want to get some kind of theatrical stylisation going but it all has to look epic and belaboured. There’s not quite enough cartoon expressionism in the shapes to give a sense of lighter-than-air fantasy. And yet, squinting hard, I can’t put my finger on why this stuff feels forced while an MGM musical could pull off the same sort of look. I think it probably has more to do with what’s going on IN the sets.

Robin Williams ought to be a good adult Peter, if anyone ever wanted to see such a thing, at the end, when he acquires what I suppose we must call Panhood. But there’s such a struggle to use his manic, improvising persona in the early scenes, where he’s supposed to embody the worst aspects of adulthood (from the perspective of a disappointed son or a millionaire fantasist) that the glee is spurted out prematurely and we never get the melancholy Barrie clearly felt about growing up, which is what the movie desperately needs. The Depp of FINDING NEVERLAND would have been a better fit here. And I think Williams could have aced it, if they hadn’t kept trying to force him to be his usual self.

The idea of a violent Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) playing Three Stooges routines with the fortysomething Peter is lifted from the battering Carol Kane gives Bill Murray in SCROOGED, where it was also quite out of keeping with the source matieral but at least was an original take. And funny.Then there’s Dustin Hoffman. Spielberg had apparently been really keen to work with Dustin Hoffman. I guess maybe this cured him. But he didn’t really get any of the benefits of working with Hoffman — you know, the skilled, credible performance. All he got was a putrid Terry-Thomas impersonation, plus the downside of working with Hoffman, which is having to hang out with Dustin Hoffman.

Bob Hoskins embodies Smee beautifully. Hoskins was pretty much always good, and Smee is the character who always seems to work. Barrie sketches him in lightly, but the suggestion that Smee is a lovely, sweet man who thinks he’s a terrifying pirate, and even Hook doesn’t have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, always seems to emerge somehow.I also remember being offended by the multi-ethnic Lost Boys. It’s a nice thing that Spielberg wanted to get some diversity in. But why, then, are they all American? Why are they all boys? If they’re boys because we’re being faithful to Barrie, then they shouldn’t be American. They can be any ethnicity, his descriptions don’t preclude that, but he’s clear about how they talk. America is quite a big problem in this film — the whole opening has to set up a world the film will then abandon, in favour of London, which it then has to abandon ALSO. Oh, and the kids have basketballs and skateboards. They are all Poochie from The Itchy and Scratchy Show.

And Peter has to rediscover who he is to be a better father — except that Barrie’s Peter would make a TERRIBLE father, seeing as he’s totally self-centred.The film is full of evidence of Spielberg’s skill, and cinematographer Dean Cundey emits some gorgeous lighting — the real beauty seems to emerge from unexpected places, while the stuff the movie NEEDS to make beautiful tend to be leaden, garish or puddingy. Like Stevenson’s description of Mr. Hyde, the movie somehow imparts an impression of deformity without having anything you can really point to as proof of disfigurement.

Spielberg had a kind of Peter Pan obsession for a while, and talked about doing a version starring fellow enthusiast Michael Jackson, but I never heard any realistic plans for how they were going to make that work. A black, or originally-black Peter, sure. A Peter played by an adult who THINKS he’s a kid, maybe not. I believe Jackson tried to sue Spielberg when he made HOOK instead.

But look at these pretty things! I particularly admire the map markings on the actual geography of Neverland.

P.J. Hogan’s 2003 PETER PAN is also pretty repulsive. The cinematography is actually pretty tasteful as long as there are no special effects involved, but the long shots of Neverland, the skies etc, are all lurid monstrosities, Maxfield Parrish with the chroma turned up until your retinas catch fire.

Ever time a cherub vomits, a cloud is formed.

The departures from Barrie are striking,and pointless. The kids have acquired a meaningless auntie, and though it’s always nice to see Lynn Redgrave, she doesn’t get to have any fun here. Jason Isaacs plays both Captain Hook and the kids’ dad, which might make a kind of sense if he were the slightly oppressive, comic patriarch of Barrie’s opening chapters (the Disney film probably captures that guy best, and there Hans Conried voiced both Hook and Mr. Darling, and it DID work), but here he’s a milksop clerk, so there’s no resonance in the stunt casting. I guess Hogan just really likes Jason Isaac,Richard Briers is Smee. Works like a charm, though there’s nothing SURPRISING about it — except for the always pleasant surprise of finding Briers in a film. (The real Briers loved nothing better than SWEARING HIS HEAD OFF, and I wish there were a movie that indulged this. But I know of none.)

My assumption on reading Barrie is that the viciousness in the book would be toned down in movie adaptations, but this is not really so. We first meet Isaac with his hook off, and he’s sporting a graphic, scarred-up stump. Unlike in Disney, where Hook is humourously chased over the horizon by the crocodile, here he gets the demise Barrie planned for him, though having the kids taunt him for being “old” is a fresh bit of nastiness, and I couldn’t work out what benefit we were meant to derive from it.A book about being a kid, and staying a kid versus growing up, morphs into a film with teenage stars, which makes a kind of commercial sense, though I think you’d only get smaller kids and their parents going to see this. Rachel Hurd-Wood is an extremely toothsome Wendy, and Jeremy Sumpter is another American Peter, with an impressive young bod and a tendency to overdo the character’s crowing (which Barrie reports faithfully but winces at) so that he seems at times like a gloating bully.

Alan Moore always talked about doing an erotic Peter Pan, which eventually evolved into The Lost Girls, a graphic novel exploring the grown-up sex lives of Alice (of Wonderland), Wendy (of the Neverland) and Dorothy (of Oz). He was convinced, before it became fashionable to say so, that the Barrie book was laden with unconscious sexuality, which may be true. There was something that fascinated me as a kid in the Disney film and comics — something polymorphous and kinky. Hogan’s movie has a lot of arse jokes and lighthearted child nudity that’s quite eyebrow-raising now, and tries to concoct more of a teen romance than is really there, but leaves out the heartbreak which could have really made it worthwhile. It could have worked for teenagers the way Baz Luhrman’s souped-up, soaped-up ROMEO + JULIET clearly did, if there had been anything to get weepy over.

The visual effects, apart from being nauseatingly gaudy, do allow Peter to dart about in the air just as Bobby Driscoll’s cartoon avatar did. No need for the ponderous bobbing of an actor on wires — or rather, Peter and Wendy can float weightlessly, but then flash from one side of the room to another, like humming birds, which we suddenly realized we always wanted them to be able to do. Disney’s flying ship is back, and looks quite lovely at times. It’s a relief to escape back to London and get away from those chocolate box skies.

Joe Wright’s PAN is probably the most annoying of this trio although, to be clear, they are all absolutely INFURIATING. It has some of the same ugly visuals, although again it does better on London. WWII London, oddly enough. A story positioning itself as a prequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan for some reason sets itself historically afterwards. Why? It’s not really clear. It allows them to have flying galleons (Disney again) and Spitfires in the same scene, but this doesn’t in any way impact the wider plot. I have a theory for this madness, but I have to save it up until the end…Levi Miller makes a very beautuful Peter — we first encounter him as being bullied and starved by nasty nun Kathy Burke in an orphanage during the Blitz . We get a bit of what the BBFC quaintly calls “mild language.” Then flying pirates start abducting kids, and Peter follows them through space (the Hogan movie also includes a bit of interplanetary zooming, although Barrie’s Neverland is obviously an island, not an alien world). Then Peter is enslaved in a fairy-dust mine by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, giving it his all), and meets James Hook, who isn’t a pirate, but rather an Indiana Jones/cowboy type played by Garrett Hedlund.

There’s so much wrong with all this that I can’t even begin to sum it up, but let’s start by agreeing what the Neverland is supposed to be. In Barrie, Wendy and her brothers all know the Neverland from their dreams. It’s the place of adventure that children dream about, so naturally it’s a whole incongruous mixture of genres. The only justification for Barrie mixing pirates, Indians, fairies and mermaids in one story is that he’s recreating the Jungian collective unconscious as a kind of children’s theme park. One thing he omits to include, and I suspect it was intentional, is slave labour. You don’t start your awfully big adventure by getting shackled in a salt mine, especially if you’ve just escaped from a Dickensian orphanage,

Peter discovers he can fly around this point, but then loses the ability and doesn’t remember how he did it. An earthbound Peter who lacks confidence isn’t the Peter Pan we know at all, but I guess we’re here to find out how he becomes the legend. But it’s a bit like HOOK, a story designed especially to deprive us of the expected pleasures.If I wanted to do screenwriter Joseph Fuchs’ job for him, I would suggest starting either with a Victorian orphanage (so that the story would actually predate the novel), or else the background of child evacuees (so that the story is actually specific to WWII). But for all I know he thought of all that and the execs forced him to Fuchs things up. But since Peter doesn’t age, I’d be tempted to start him out in an even earlier period, perhaps contemporary with Hook, who should be a proper pirate.

As I realised that Peter’s brief burst of flight was going to be followed with an hour of performance anxiety, I suddenly flashed on DUMBO. That’s where this story idea comes from. Fuchs is going full Joseph Campbell on us, mashing up bits of familiar stories in the hopes of capitalizing on their resonance. It’s like he read the Umberto Eco piece on CASABLANCA and didn’t bother to fact-check it, took it all quite literally. So Hook, who is already Indiana Jones, makes a last-minute redemptive return EXACTLY like Han Solo in the first STAR WARS; Peter is the son of the Fairy King and a human mother, EXACTLY like Jesus. And so on. In fairness, Barrie was doing a kind of mash-up of his own, but he seems to have been having a lot more fun.

A prequel to Peter Pan that casts Peter and Hook as buddies, it seems to me, should end up by telling us how they became enemies. It’s not like we ever had a burning desire to know how they MET. And yet, this crucial scene is not included, as if the makers hoped for a sequel. Hmm, a sequel where the hero is betrayed, lops of his friend’s limb and leaves him for dead? Sounds like REVENGE OF THE SITH. Which did OK box office, I believe.The crocodile does appear, but doesn’t get fed Hook’s hand (Barrie’s most grisly and amusing idea, the great reptile enjoying the taste so much that it follows Hook doggedly from then on, hoping to snaffle the rest of him). Tinkerbell appears, but doesn’t get to do anything to distinguish her from the swarms of other humanoid fireflies. The mermaids appear, a shoal of Cara Delevignes, but do literally nothing. There are Never Birds, which are usually left out: they all look like THE GIANT CLAW. Tiger Lily is whitewashed into being Rooney Mara. Too old for Peter, too young for Hook: this makes the film completely sexless. I’m guessing that, if the previous PP was aimed at girls, this violent and dour Neverland is boy’s own territory.

So, everything is either neglected, absent, or all wrong. At the end, it’s Hook who says “Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” only he leaves out the word STAR, rendering the line both prosaic and meaningless, which sums up the whole enterprise.Oh, there’s a very characterful fellow called Adeel Akhtar, who is the Ideal Actor to play Smee. Who is now for some myterious reason Sam Smiegel. To get in a bit of LORD OF THE RINGS “resonance”? Akhtar is great, though, maybe the greatest Smee in a long line of great Smees. Smee alway works. He’s like Renfield and Goebbels. You can’t go wrong.

In fairness to all those who have tried and failed, what Barrie does is strange, hard to pin down, and difficult. Nearly all his considerable wit is contained in the descriptions of characters’ thoughts, and therefore not directly filmable. (A movie’s narrator can only do so much: they have to shut up eventually.) His plotting is loose, to say the least: he spends a lot of time setting up Hook’s poisoned cake plot, and then throws it away with a single line. He implies a near-infinite array of stories, almost impossible to choose from, and doesn’t traffick in satisfying pay-offs, preferring to pull dramatic rescues out of his ass whenever required. Deus ex anum. And all of this serves him very well on the page. The trouble with the screenwriters trying to fill his shoes is that they display all the same faults, which are much more destructive in a movie, and have none of his virtues. Hart, Hogan and Fuchs seem all curiously devoid of humour, to the point where I really wonder what would attract them to this material. (I know PJ Hogan had a background in comedy, but it’s deserted him here. He’s trying for laughs, but without being amused himself.)

Somebody should do Peter Pan again: it’s worth getting right. They will need to remember it’s a children’s story; that Peter and Wendy are children; that the Never Land is children’s dreams of adventure; that the book is funny both ha-ha and peculiar; that the brighter the colours, the more taste you need to apply. Have fun!

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Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2008 by dcairns

TLP

Tearing myself away from the Lithuanian baby racing (banged a tenner on a sprog that threw a tantrum on the final stretch) I turn my gaze upon more from Stanley Donen. LATE PERIOD Stanley Donen.

I thought this would be interesting, having recently “enjoyed” his musical parody MOVIE MOVIE, which was a very mixed bag. I remember seeing stills from THE LITTLE PRINCE in old movie mags when I was at school, and discussing it with someone (a Gene Wilder fan, I think) who had seen it and hated it. So I was fascinated (those stills were intriguing!) and also rather wary.

I. Loved. It.

Based on the story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, adapted into musical form by Leopold and Loeb. No wait, not them, the other two — Lerner and Lowe. Much better choice. Still it’s a weird book that I couldn’t get on with as a child, but which I’d probably love now. One of those “children’s books” that’s probably wasted on kids. It’s very peculiar and so is the film.

The Rose

it’s also made in quite a bold style that possibly seemed dated when the movie came out (1974) — Donen uses stylised sets not just for the fantastical otherworldly bits, but also for the desert at night, even though the daylight stuff is mostly shot on real locations (Tunisia). But this isn’t like Billy Wilder using rear projection for car journeys in BUDDY BUDDY (1981), Donen’s choices make sense for the film he’s making. Looking ahead to modern cinema we could even say he was ahead of his time.

In fact, when the central characters pass a giant fish skeleton in the Tunisian sands, and a soft-edged wipe takes us on to the next scene, it’s easy to see George Lucas MUST have seen this before embarking on STAR WARS. Everybody assumes those are sand worm bones in A NEW HOPE, but that would suggest Lucas had read Dune. I’m not even convinced he’s read Joseph Campbell.

Bones

Plot: An aviator crashes in the Sahara where, as he desperately tries to repair his plane, he encounters an extraterrestrial child who tells him his strange story… it’s like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, only with more dancing.

There is quite a bit more to it than that, but describing it would get us into the pernicious realm of spoilery, and I quite liked not knowing what was going to happen in this case. I must say I would NOT have predicted the ending. Crikey.

Graham

Incidentals: travelling through space, our little cosmo-lad encounters several eccentric characters, played by eccentric actors of various type: Joss Ackland from England, Graham Crowden from Scotland, Victor Spinetti from Wales and Clive Revill from New Zealand. Not major stars, but with impressive track records of cult cinema trailing in their wakes. Each embodies some aspect of adult human folly.

Two of them appear on giant spherical sets, and two appear filmed with a fish-eye lens that folds them into a spherical image. This must be one of the most brazenly stylised devices ever deployed in a mainstream entertainment. It’s pretty alienating and freaky, but so’s everything else. What I actually loved in this film are all the things than probably made it completely unacceptable to my schoolfriend.

Clive of India

Once on Earth, the little guy (a rubber-faced child with albino eyebrows and a fright wig, also a curious flattened delivery) encounters a snake, who offers to return him whence he came by killing him (all in song form) and a fox who wants to be tamed. The snake is Bob Fosse and the fox is Gene Wilder, and they don’t use animal costumes or special effects, just a few jump cuts to equate each with the animal they’re playing. It works marvellously well, but might be a stretch for little kids. Kids would always rather have a talking animal than a great actor or dancer.

(The tacky part of the film is actually the flock of birds that transport our miniature hero through the stars — they’re poorly drawn and animated and clash with the rest of the film. I assume that animation was used only because real doves couldn’t be tied to a child and unleashed. We’re not talking Hitchcock and “Tippi” Hedren here. Maybe, in keeping with the more theatrical approach to the talking animals, the birds should have been invisible, with sound effects only, or something? I actually think they would have sucked even if they’d been better designed and animated.)

The Birds

Fosse is amazing here. Fiona found it disconcerting to see Bob Fosse dance moves actually being danced by Bob Fosse. He’s styled kind of like Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe, and some of his moves and dress sense call to mind Michael Jackson, which is alarming. Both Fosse and Wilder’s scenes involve SEDUCING A CHILD, which obviously complicates our responses to the scenes, but I enjoy a healthy dose of malaise and discomfort in my entertainment so that didn’t spoil things for me.

Fosse!

Gene Wilder is doing his saccharine thing as showcased at the end of WILLY WONKA (he’s wonderfully sinister in the rest of that film) and it’s slightly problematic for me. I prefer Wilder when he’s funny. But he features in one of the film’s most lovely and weird shots:

Gene Wilder, Party Liason

It’s almost like a William Hurt hallucination from ALTERED STATES, as is most of the film. In Ken Russell’s psychedelic sci-fi extravaganza, stoners would famously lurk in the lobby during the talking bits, until a hallucination came on, then they’d rush into the cinema to experience it. In this movie they’d never have to leave their seats.

My biggest problem with the film was leading man Richard Kiley, a baritone voice with legs. At first I misread the credits and thought it said Richard KIEL, the hulking Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which would have been a miraculously brave choice. The kid would have barely come up to his calf. Kiley sings with that rather strenuous, fakey passionate commitment that I associate with the more generic kind of Broadway entertainment, and he kind of acts that way too. But in a strange way he balanced out with the non-acting, non-singing kid. By the end I liked them both. I mean, I liked the kid from the start because he’s a shaggy foetus in a frock coat, and you don’t see enough of those, but by the end I also RESPECTED him. He can pop round for a biscuit anytime.

Kiley and Warner

The songs and music sometimes tend to the sugary as well, but I Never Met a Rose was lovely and Fosse’s number was spectacular (and looooong — Fosse fans will not feel cheated) and any film where you get Joss Ackland singing will score highly on the old Weirdometer. He can kind of carry a tune, but more importantly, he can bulge his eyes like an ill frog.

Having cringed slightly at the stylistic vagueness of MOVIE MOVIE, I was thrilled at most of Donen’s visuals here. He seems confident, imaginative, on close to peak form. There are some very odd camera moves — when the Prince first appears it’s in a little crane shot, descending to earth so the kid sort of grows, which can only be explained in fairly abstruse psychological terms, but works, in some way. A lot of the moves are beautifully counter-intuitive. I get the impression Donen is enjoying himself, which didn’t so much seem the case in MOVIE MOVIE.

Cinematography, favouring the wide-angle lens, is by Christopher Challis, who did beautiful work on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and shot most of the later Powell & Pressburger flicks — films that aren’t as good as the ones Jack Cardiff filmed, mostly, but which are every bit as beautiful. And it’s worth getting his book.

The Planet

I was lucky enough to see Challis introduce P&P’s OH… ROSALINDA! here in Edinburgh. After he’d trashed the film, which everyone involved in considered a total failure, he observed that this was a restored print. “I’m not quite sure what that means, but when I look in the shaving mirror in the morning I do sometimes wish there was a restoration scheme for aging photographers.”

Myth Takes

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2008 by dcairns
Dragonslayer 
A mystery Shadowplayer, who wishes to remain anomalous, dropped in to add some thoughts to the mythic storytelling discussion. We’d been discussing stuff like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Propp’s Morphology of the Folk tale.
‘Part of the problem is that both Campbell and Propp have what seem to me v. mechanical understandings of myth (tho the latter is sort of interesting til one gets his point, which happens pretty quick). Compare that to the understandings of roberto calasso (who you shd read), Joyce, Rilke… Jung is more interesting than Campbell and Eliade maybe more interesting still.
‘Victoria Nelson’s SECRET LIFE OF PUPPETS is a plenty intriguing modern study.’
I was promoted to reply, thinking of Campbell:
‘Listing the most common features of world mythology is sort of interesting but does that mean we SHOULDN’T take inspiration from less popular myths? George Lucas would presumably say YES.’
The Mystery Man shot back:
‘Not only that, but the Propp/Campbell (and to a lesser extent Jungian) models all focus on similarities and neglect or shave off difference. Whereas someone like Calasso, in his retellings, makes the crucial point that myths EXIST in their variants, their sum-total of tellings, and resist any “definitive” form. So laying them down on a structural grid, and cutting to fit the pattern, may have some interest, but it’s also a considerable violence.’

Me:

And again, it CAN have a rather deleterious effect on the imaginations of those seeking a “mythic model.”

Him:

‘It has a “deleterious effect” on EVERYONE.’

I've had it up to HERE with you

This is our fear: that people have a one-dimensional idea of mythic storytelling, in which all the individual quirks and strangenesses are chiselled away, and what’s left is a styrofoam Arnold Schwartzenegger or something.

Or a CGI Ray Winstone.