13 July 2009

Transforming Poetry

I was so excited after watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that I composed this poem:

Bay’s Movies

A movie of Michael
Bay’s showed an Autobot,
at evening in Los Angeles,
battling a Decepticon, watched

by two young, seemingly
hot people, on a sound stage adjacent,
the classic boy and girl
of the story, any one

one cares to tell. So
years pass, of course, but
I identified with the young,
embittered Shia LaBeouf,

knew his almost complacent
banality and the distance
he felt from Megan Fox.
Yet another film

of Bay’s has the
aging Optimus Prime with his
awkward armor standing
in a CGI desert, of ruined pyramids,

dazed, bleeding, both he
and LaBeouf are,
trying to get back to
the Princeton dorm room, itself of

no great size. It
moved me, that
life was after all
like that. You are

in love. You stand
in the CGI desert, with
an Autobot, bleeding.
The story is true.


(Tip of the cap to Roberts Bresson and Creeley...I'm sure they would have wanted it this way.)

05 July 2009

Not Done with 2008 Quite Yet

WTT more or less dismissed 2008 as a terrible year in film but I have just seen a film, Tarsem's The Fall, that is, shall we say, a piece of candlelight guttering in the wind. Or, to borrow an image from the film, an elephant swimming through a tropical reef. So what if the film was made in 2006, it came out in 2008 damn it. If nothing else, Tarsem proves himself superior to McG in the one-named music video and commercial director category.

I have to take a moment to wander into autobiography and consider Tarsem's only other film, The Cell. When it released I had no clue who Tarsem was but I knew exactly who Jennifer Lopez was--2001 was the apex of my Jennifer Lopez affection. The Cell became the most hotly anticipated release in my 16 year old life because it was rated R and I would have to sneak past the authorities to get in. And I had been stopped before (note: at 16 I probably looked the same way that McLovin looked at age 12). Somehow, possibly because I looked older in my clever brim-low baseball hat disguise, or maybe because the guy selling tickets was 16 himself, I got in. And then The Cell! About which I remember exactly one scene, the one where the horse gets chopped up...

(And not even a good J Lo outfit...)

It is possible that I've forgotten the other great shots from The Cell and will similarly lose track of the tremendous visuals in The Fall. But I doubt it. The film was made over four years and shot in 18 countries, a Wong Kar Wai pace to movie making that I admire. While I wouldn't compare Tarsem to Kar Wai, it's obvious that both put a premium on unforgettable images.

In addition to the parade of lush shots, The Fall has two titanic dissolves that deserve special mention. Early in the film we are introduced to our four heroes, who are stranded on a tiny island, united in their hatred of Governor Odious. One of them, a naturalist named Charles Darwin, describes a rare specimen of butterfly that Odious killed and sent to him. We get a shot of the gorgeous blue and green butterfly fluttering then a dissolve back into an extreme long shot of the island, which turns out to be butterfly shaped. I should note that I think the film is worthwhile on the strength of Darwin's flamingo coat alone:

The other dissolve is more surprising. A close up of a priest's stony face at a wedding turns into black rock strewn steppe where the heroes are tethered and left to die. It actually takes a few moments to parse what's happened, as the temporal shift is so pronounced. Many other great visual concepts are well-executed. How about a burned man born from a tree?

Or how about a massive castle surrounded by a blue moat of houses?

On it's glittering surface, The Fall is reminiscent of Pan's Labyrinth, which I loathed. There's a girl being told and then participating in a fantastical story.

Young Alexandria bests Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth for cuteness and humorousness, and The Fall is able to enter a world of pure fantasy without overdone metaphors about Justice and War. Where the ending of Pan's Labyrinth is inevitable and dull, there is actually a good deal of drama in The Fall as fallibility of Roy, the man telling the tale to Alexandria, intercedes in and complicates the narrative. Emotions ran so hard that I had the idea that I could possibly, maybe, even shed a tear.

A good counterpoint to The Fall is Jesse Ball's 2009 novel, The Way through Doors, which is itself a sort of variation on the classic Scheherezade situation. The book's looping narrative and syntactical inventiveness mirrors the recursive imagery (of horses, boxes, water and much more) in The Fall. We tell each other stories in order to live and Tarsem has made an indelible moving picture of one such story.


Public Enemies was on the top of my list this summer. It's Michael Mann's follow up to Miami Vice, about which I still need to write a long, meandering paean of praise. Enemies arrived buzzingly, without the baggage of Vice, presumably because critics have inflexibly decided that Johnny Depp is a good actor and Colin Farrell is a bad one. Regardless, the promise of a Mannian shootout will get me into the theatre.

And Depp's Dillinger does deliver. I loved his little sideways smiles bridging the gap between Gilbert Grape's cuteness and this character's murderousness. And it's important that Depp be so charming--Enemies is more or less a series of repetitive shootouts interrupted with underdeveloped subplots. It's tough. My main criticism of Heat (which Enemies mirrors in many ways) is that the subplots get too much attention and are too cliched but here there are not enough secondary relationships. I'm particularly disappointed because Mann is weak at writing women but strong at writing men and here is (theoretically) a great collection of colorful male characters to play with. Opportunity lost.

Dillinger's counterpoint is Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover's new face for the FBI. Bale does a fine job--confident in himself, with the same whiff of douchebaggery he brings to Bruce Wayne. But he doesn't have the operatic antagonism of Al Pacino in Heat. This is a place in the film where Mann could have added some more spice--I just needed one shot of Purvis checking out Hoover in some ladies undergarments (J. Edgar supposedly had a thing for dressing up in silk and lace).

Is the above image in the film? That necklace looks amazing...

Anyway, Marion Cotillard and her awesome accent are a highlight of Public Enemies. Her character is better developed than most of Mann's women--she actually has agency in some scenes!--and Depp's mixture of harshness and tenderness with her is superb. I'm sure young men across the globe are rolling out variations of his "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars... and you. What else you need to know?" pick up line as we speak. And though she doesn't say "time is luck," we know it is always on the tip of her tongue. When Billie breaks down at the end of the film, she's earned it much more than Ashley Judd in Heat.

The principles are surrounded by what I'm sure was an outstanding supporting cast. I recognized nearly all of the assorted gangsters from other movies but didn't get to know them. Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson...all these beautiful names stay names. Maybe if I knew more about weaponry I could deduce their characters from how they shot Tommy guns. I guess Nelson screamed while shooting more than most, revealing his undisciplined persona. But there's nothing close to the memorable work done by Luis Tosar and John Ortiz in Vice or Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer in Heat or Wes Studi in Last of the Mohicans, etc. etc. Dark-lensed Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) was the most gripping Enemies bit player, perhaps because Mann originally wanted to make a movie based on his life (this is probably the film Mann should have made).

The savior for Enemies, the factor that still allows me to award it a passing grade, is the extraordinary camera work. I can't recall more stylistically inclusive shotmaking. Scene to scene we go from a Robert Altman style (the constantly moving, smooth fluidity of the first Dillinger heist, for example) to a Paul Greengrass style (the handheld juggle in even intimate scenes, like Billie and Dillinger's last car ride) and many more. There are extreme long shots and gripping close ups. Even as the characterization and plotline failed me, the cinematography kept me very attentive to the screen. Mann's move to digital film has been a boon--the video quality is so high I found myself watching in awe individual shards of glass spray out before bullets.

I had to appreciate the smaller pleasures of Public Enemies, like how it proves true two things that I have long suspected. When Dillinger is arrested and told he will be extradited to Indiana, he says, "There's absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana," thus voicing the opinion of any sentient being forced to enter the Hoosier State before or since. Dillinger also unlocks an important truth when he walks through the Dillinger squadroom of the Chicago Police Department, only to find the officers crowded around a baseball broadcast on the radio: All Cubs fans are idiots.