Archive for Steven Spielberg

The Spielberg Transition #2

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2019 by dcairns
Bana hulks out.

MUNICH is one Spielberg I hadn’t seen until recently. I still haven’t managed to steel myself to run THE TERMINAL or THE BFG, but I guess I will at some point. They’re sitting on the shelf opposite as I type this, looking at me with their big puppy-dog eyes.

But MUNICH seemed like it was at least an attempt to do something interesting and different, so I felt vaguely ashamed of not giving it a shot. And I recall an interview from the time of production where Spielberg was talking about how the movie was going to make EVERYBODY angry. The great crowd-pleaser, going out of his way to be unpopular. This seemed worthy of attention.

Well, in a way the film’s refusal to firmly endorse or condemn the Israeli assassination programme depicted (targeting those responsible for the Munich Olympics atrocity) is standard Hollywood hedging, but Spielberg is right too, in that the film isn’t going to satisfy anyone with an entrenching position on the Palestine question. You can probably position Spielberg, based on this film and his other work (notably the penultimate scene of SCHINDLER’S) as a Zionist with qualms.

Fine, I’m a Zionist with qualms too. In that Israel exists and is here to stay, and you can question whether its creation was a good thing, but that’s wholly academic because what acceptable action would dissolve the state at this late stage? You can’t be genuinely anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, because what’s your non-genocidal solution to Israel’s existence?

On the other hand, I’m opposed to practically everything Israel is doing in the name of self-defense. It’s apartheid, it’s a slow-motion genocide, it’s not even in any sane conception of Israel’s own best interests.

My problem with MUNICH started with my inability to accept the arguments Golda Meir, or the film’s version of her, puts forward in favour of the assassinations (or “executions,” as Kevin Macdonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER disgustingly calls them). So, although the film tries to take you on a journey from accepting the mission to questioning it (without ever arriving at a definite position), I was never on board to begin with. So, although I found the film “interesting,” I wasn’t INTERESTED, apart from when Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale showed up (“Things always get better when the good actors show up,” said a distinguished produced friend once, talking about Bob Hoskins as a dwarf, but the point stands).

Spielberg described his influences as European thrillers, and one thinks Costa-Gavras, or Melville, but Lonsdale suggests a more Hollywood influence: DAY OF THE JACKAL. And it’s all very loud and impactful and bloody and explicit. It has the first, I think, full-frontal nudity in a Spielberg joint, both male and female, but predictably the straight male audience wins out with a voluptuous enemy honeytrap (Marie-Josée Croze) while everyone else has to content themselves with Ciaran Hinds’ small dead cock.

The image up top is Bana, near the end of the film, having sex with his wife but seeing images of terrorist massacres, and the machine gun fire from his fantasy (a flashback to events he didn’t witness?) illuminates his face in the present tense reality — I found this ludicrous, but I’m actually going to semi-allow it because it’s certainly BOLD.

But earlier in the film, while travelling by plane, Bana has another flashback to events he didn’t see, the Munich massacre itself, and that has two fantastically horrible transitions. First, we move into the aeroplane window as Bana gazes at it, and the terror attack becomes progressively more visible. I’m reminded of the supremely eggy moment in Polanski’s BITTER MOON where Emmanuelle Seigner’s face appears in the plane window as a Romantic Vision. I think that film is a grotesque comedy (Polanski’s funniest film?) so the moment kind of works, even as it makes me cringe. And I guess both filmmakers were thinking of a kind of in-flight reverie and trying to evoke that sort of boredom-distraction-fantasising. But, you know, it doesn’t WORK.

But the really bad one is the end of the fake flashback (he wasn’t THERE!), when automatic rifle fire rakes a poor Israeli athlete and Spielberg shows bullets tearing up a blood-spattered wall, then dissolves/morphs to little pink puffy clouds seen through that aeroplane window.

I have no words. Except these ones: What. The. Hell?

Well, all really impressively bad ideas have something good going on in them. As with the eros + massacre up top, the idea of something attractive being infected by a vision of something murderous isn’t a terrible one. Nic Roeg would probably have made a hard cut here, and left the audience the option of seeing a connection between the bloody, perforated plasterboard and the sunrise sky, or of seeing the things as merely contrasting. Spielberg is more controlling, so he can’t bring himself to leave that to chance.

Or, as Fred Schepisi advised Spielberg when he heard about SCHINDLER’S, “Don’t do it, Steve. You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.”

I think SCHINDLER’S LIST works, or works well enough overall. But I think there’s a transition in there that might be worth talking about…

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The Spielberg Transition #1

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2019 by dcairns

One of the things Steven Spielberg vocally admires about David Lean is his imaginative scene changes, of which the most celebrated is the “match cut” in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Spielberg has emulated the technique a fair bit, often with enjoyable results. But sometimes he gets it wrong.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK is the kind of thing Spielberg is supposed to do well, but it’s an oddly confused film, from its back-asswards title on down. I don’t think his heart was in it.

How do you know when there’s a tyrannosaur in your tent?

The first JURASSIC PARK is, on the whole, really good (haven’t bothered with any of the non-Spielberg sequels). It’s fairly faithful to Michael Crichton’s page-turner, though most of its departures are disimprovements. And while the novel is very clear that bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a disastrous idea, you get the sense that, even though this plot point is ported over from the book, deep down Spielberg thinks it would be awesome (which is why the park’s creator doesn’t have to die, despite being responsible for all the other deaths). I don’t necessarily disagree (there’s a weird meme in popular culture, particularly Doctor Who: whenever dinosaurs get revivified, the wonderment is promptly quashed by a sentimental death scene. Dinosaurs can come back, but only for a few minutes. It strikes me like giving a kid a toy and then taking it away again.)

Well, Crichton wrote a follow-up book that wasn’t worth filming, so screenwriter David Koepp threw it away and came up with a story that flatly contradicted the thrust of the earlier film: now Jeff Goldblum, the anti-dino rock ‘n’ roll chaos theoretician of the previous film, wants to save the poor T-rex, just about the scariest threat he faced (it ate a man on the toilet, ffs). The last tenth of the film abandons the titular location to run amock in America, a clear violation of the Platonic unities as well as various traffic statutes.

But the rot sets in early on: with the introduction of the hero, in fact. The threat is set up efficiently in scene one. Spielberg had listened to the criticisms of little kids (really?) who didn’t want to wait so long to see the thunder lizards, so he brings on some miniature CGI beasties to attack a child right at the outset (maybe he didn’t really take too kindly to the criticism?). Mom runs up and sees daughter in trouble, and SCREAMS ~

And we CUT TO Jeff Goldblum yawning against an unconvincing tropical palm background. The scream continues but now it’s something else: the roar of a subway train.

Goldblum steps screen left and the pan takes us away from his backdrop, now “revealed” to be a backlit holiday advertisement, and we learn he’s in the subway.

These kind of gags, where a background turns out not to be real practically never work, because the background practically never looks real. Our initial reaction is likely to be “That looks cheap and fake as hell,” and though the reveal provides an excuse for the phoniness, it fails to provide a pleasing surprise.

And the yawn? It’s hard not to see it as a gesture of contempt towards the material or the audience or both.

But the worst thing is the fanciness. Remember, the LAWRENCE cut has only a few elements, really. Lean doesn’t try to align the match with the rising sun, pictorially. The connection is merely conceptual: the desert is, in some way, like a flame that can burn you, and a man like Lawrence might enjoy that. The sound of Lawrence’s breath extinguishing the match carries across the edit. And that’s it.

Whereas LOST WORLD has the audio transition of the scream/subway, the visual match of the screaming woman/yawning man, and the fake background of blue sky and palm trees. It’s all busy, and all ugly, and all ineffective and fighting against itself. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This isn’t just plain awful. This is fancy.”

There’s maybe an actual artistic principle here: the more artful a transition, the more simple it needs to be.

More Spielberg awful soon!

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!