Archive for The Big Lebowski

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through — an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

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The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2008 by dcairns

Chig

So — am attempting to find something to say about every film I watch, so that puts a little pressure on to react to the Coens’ latest offering, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

There are three broad kinds of reaction folks can have to the Coens’ oevre:

1) Liking the films. I was basically in this camp until INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS, which seemed to mark a colossal decline, and which incidentally were the first films the Coens had made using other people’s source material, a process which has continued with NCFOM, a fairly faithful adaptation, by most accounts, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. (An earlier adaptation of James “Deliverance” Dickey’s To The White Sea failed to find backing, leading to the present cycle of films.) Previously, I had tended to find that I liked each film a little less than the one before, the decline starting after RAISING ARIZONA. So I am now in category 2 —

2) Liking some and not others. Since some Coen Bros films have been big box office hits and some have been flops, maybe most of the film-viewing western world is in this category. But it always puzzled me, since the sensibility on display is so consistent. If you liked FARGO, why wouldn’t you like THE BIG LEBOWSKI? (Up until this current release, Coens films with short titles have consistently done better than ones with longer). There is a recognisable Coens attitude (they like to appear smarter than their characters) as well as a set of self-conscious motifs (which the brothers like to point out, helpfully: weird hair, blustering titans, vomiting, fat men screaming) and a self-conscious visual style (toned-down slightly in FARGO and NO COUNTRY). But it’s now clear to me that not only are a couple of the Coens films markedly inferior, compromised works, but that I am becoming slightly less enamoured of the whole Coens vibe, leading my position ALMOST to border on category 3 —

3) Those who don’t like the films. While Coens detractors may admit that the films are well-made, even stylish, and the brothers certainly have some flair for dialogue, the argument against tends to centre on a certain lack of feeling. The Coens like to write about dumb people doing dumb things, often with a high mayhem factor in the outcome. At the same time, the writing-directing-producing-editing team are keen to show off how smart they are, with showy film technique, extravagant dialogue and cultural references — several Coens films are overt pastiches, almost amounting to plagiarism, of the styles and stories of James M. Cain (BLOOD SIMPLE), Dashiell Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING) and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), while OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fuses various scenes and satiric approaches from Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS onto the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.

fugitives from a chain gang

This tendency to set themselves up as superior to their characters is quite objectionable to some, but while I detect its presence and admit that’s what’s going on, it never bothered me too much. Whether the Coens have contempt for their characters, or love them, *I* like H.I. and the Dude and Marge, which is enough for me. I also see the Coens as working primarily in a comic register, even in an apparently serious flick like BLOOD SIMPLE or MILLER’S CROSSING, so the use of slightly dopey characters is a genre convention and comedy device that I can’t particularly object to. It’s apt that the Coens finally referenced Preston Sturges, who has a similarly aloof relationship to his characters, although I think it’s clearer that he sympathises with them (and also, he doesn’t inflict gory violence upon any of them, except in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the imaginary sequences of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS — come to think of it, he’s gorier than any contemporaneous comedy director).

Capitalism and Labour destroy each other

Seeing the C-Bros as comedy filmmakers may reduce the obnoxiousness somewhat, but it perhaps becomes a problem in their latest, which isn’t overtly hilarious at any point. Despite its dramatic surface, as David Ehrenstein has argued, the film more or less continuously puts the spectator at an advantage over the characters: we generally know they’re going to die long before they do. Using dramatic irony or poignancy is a standard thriller device, but it’s unusual to see protagonists as continually predictable as this. The film generates surprise more by throwing in random plot developments (a car-crash from out of the blue) and violations of genre and narrative conventions (major characters eliminated off-screen, villains unpunished) than by interesting character psychology.

So, if the film is not consistently funny, what is the point of this God’s-eye view of the characters? The ironic distance seems more a matter of habit or compulsion than a necessary approach to the story. The Coens have never cared for theme, or making a point, or teaching a lesson, or even putting over a world view: their films are too filtered through books and other movies to comment directly on any form of reality. They are interested purely in story, in tall tales which feature surprising twists, tone shifts and genre-bending — the films are fairy tales, devoted to the plot and nothing but the plot.

(Javier Bardem’s unpronounceable psychopath in NO COUNTRY is a near-supernatural monster, implacable and seemingly impervious to pain. Tommy Lee Jones’ dream of his approaching death at the end seems intended to turn the story to some kind of semi-baked allegory, with J.B. as Death Incarnate in a page-boy haircut. The Coens’ fairytale world has made earlier use of such folkloric figures: an angel and demon in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA, and just about everybody in OH BROTHER…?)

snow country

It’s not surprising that NO COUNTRY, like FARGO, comes to centre on a suitcase full of money — the ultimate empty MacGuffin, a motivating object that require no explanation at all, and can disappear from the story once it has inspired enough carnage. The film, like previous Coen Brothers projects, is essentially about nothing.*

SO — if I’m starting to like the Coens less, it’s not because I object to their tone, it’s simply because, with each stylish, empty film, they seem to repeat themselves a little more, and it doesn’t feel like they can become more interesting unless they take a giant step and actually engage with something in the real world that they care about, if such a thing exists.

*

Footnote: Kelly MacDonald is really good in this film. Hardly anybody has mentioned her in reviews, but I think her journey as an actress has been considerable: barely acceptable in TRAINSPOTTING, frequently mis-stressed her lines. Gradually rising to full adequacy, she has now surpassed that status with a rather strong, touching performance. She deserves more recognition for it, since it’s been achieved (after her first lucky break) through sheer hard work. (Plus I’ve met her and she’s really nice.)

*See also: most of John Hodges’ scripts for Danny Boyle. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY all revolve around cases of cash!