Monthly Archives: December 2010

Old and New Grit

In a New York Times article on John Wayne’s True Grit (1969), Michael Celpy describes the film as a last bastion of the classical form, one in competition with bold new hits like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Celpy speculates that the Coen brothers, ever the explorers of expired genre, might dig closer to the soul of the Charles Portis novel True Grit was based on. Without Wayne domineering the screen verbally and physically (the Duke was 6’4”), the complex character of Rooster Cogburn, and his hunt for the coward Tom Chaney, would be allowed to take centre-frame.

I read Celpy’s interesting rehash before seeing the Coen’s True Grit – a real work of art, if not always likeable – and then watched director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation. While many pieces of the dialogue (presumably lifted from Portis’ book) are exactly the same, the two films could not be more different animals. In general, Hathaway has gone for the sunny and saccharine: a familiar (overly so, in my opinion) Western at the end of the genre’s heyday. The Coens, unsurprisingly, have embraced the stark sensibility of the novel, using their trademark irony and coal-black humour to re-imagine True Grit.

The Landscape

Their revisionism discards some of John Ford’s iconography, including the panoramic backdrops of the glorious American Southwest. Hathaway loves his wide-angle lenses, hardly missing an opportunity to frame Wayne with a stunning mountain, cliff, or other postcard section of Colorado or California. Look at the title card:

And now look at a frame from the 2010 version:

Part of the difference is technological. Hathaway was shooting in vivid technicolor, while the Coens might have used  filters to achieve a more washed-out look. The 2010 film also employs more close-ups and medium shots, largely ignoring the landscape. Hathaway is a resolute classicist, using medium shots and continuity editing. We are meant to see the landscape, the characters, and the action as we would if we were watching the action unfold in front of us, not through the highly controlled medium of film.

Instead of romanticizing the American frontier, the Coens turn up the grit meter. Their Dardanelle, Arkansas is dusty and dirty. It is, like in the novel, winter, not yellow-tinged spring/summer in Hathaway’s adaptation. Hathaway’s set designer Walter Tyler gave Dardanelle a clean, wholesome sheen. It is basked, like most of the film, in cloudless sunshine and its inhabitants dress colourfully, which brings me to…

…Mattie Ross

Kim Darby as the plucky  heroine in 1969:

And Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in 2010:

Steinfeld is clearly in her father’s clothing: the wide-brimmed hat, thick coat, and belt are too big for her. She is trying to step into his shoes, literally and figuratively. Darby has her own clothing: orange-brown sweaters, feminine jackets. More colour. Her androgynous bowl cut make her seem younger; Steinfeld’s stern (and long) pig tails suggest an intense drive for preparation and presentation.

Casting Kim Darby as an assertive young woman was possibly, for 1969, a feminist statement, but the Coens toughen their Mattie Ross even further. Steinfeld never mourns for her father. She is all business and no-nonsense Protestant work ethic. Darby is caught weeping and gazing at her father’s coffin, while Elmer Berntsein’s emotional chords make a go at your heartstrings.

The Music

Bernstein’s score sounds like a variation of his superior work on The Magnificent Seven (1960). The theme is bouncy, raucous, and goes down easy. In 2010, frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell looked to religious sources for inspiration, borrowing piano arrangements from Protestant hymns for a minimal score.

Rooster

Jeff Bridges wears his patch on his right eye; Wayne wore it on the left. Maybe it’s a sly statement by the Coens that they are not reprising a John Wayne character. Bridges, in a scraggly beard and unkempt clothes is a baroque disaster. He does not strut and drawl like Wayne, but slouches and speaks out the side of his mouth. Both are colourful, self-conscious performances (even Bridges, the most natural actor out there, is mugging for the camera), and both, in their own way, are great characters. Wayne is especially engaging when he tells Darby about his divorced wife and estranged child, a moment when he sheds the grand gestures for more vulnerable confession.

La Boeuf

In 1969 and 2010, the pompous Texas ranger enters with the clank of his enormous spurs, dressed in the best frontier fashion and sporting a cowlick. Matt Damon is a serious-faced fool in the Coens’ version, while country singer Glen Campbell is hokey – or maybe he just appears that way because of the buck-teeth and the forty years of irony-saturated culture that have passed since he played La Boeuf.

Like Rooster, the 2010 La Boeuf has facial hair – changing attitudes to beards, maybe? There is also less regard for assuring the audience that Mattie is safe from two grown men. In 2010 Mattie awakes to find Damon’s La Boeuf smoking a pipe, staring at her from across the bedroom. When he tells her he was considering kissing her in her sleep (as Cambpell did in a different context in 1969) it comes off a touch creepy. This could be the Coens playing dark tricks, or maybe a move to instill unease in the viewer, to align us with Mattie’s loneliness and vulnerability at the hands of patriarchy.

Tom Chaney, the father-murdering coward in question is a whiny  Jeff Corey in 1969 and a whiny Josh Brolin in 2010. The latter radiates more danger, and equal amounts of odd stupidity (“Everyone is against me”). Hathaway cast a young Dennis Hopper as the unfortunate Moon, who tells Mattie and co. when Ned Pepper’s (Chaney’s boss) will arrive. He is stabbed by his partner Quincy, an eerie night scene cinematographer Roger Deakins lit in flickering candlelight in 2010. Of course, that same moment occurs at sunny midday in 1969.

Overall, the Coens deliver a grittier True Grit. While most of the plot is unchanged from Hathaway’s film, a few key differences do make all the difference. La Boeuf splits off from Rooster and Mattie in 2010, giving more screen time for the pair to banter, fight, and develop an unusual but endearing relationship. There are more moments when the protagonists are on the verge of giving up; Wayne and Campbell, meanwhile, are always certain they are hot on Chaney’s trail. In 1969, therefore, the plot moves along on a comparatively straightforward path. In 2010 the characters waver, bicker, abandon and save each other.

There is a lot more desperation in the Coens’ envisioning of the frontier. When Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake, Jeff Bridges charges over moonlit fields, first on a horse and then on foot, to get the child home before the venom kills her. In contrast, Wayne rides the horse out (but does not shoot Little Blackie in the head, as Bridges does) and steals a horse and wagon from some cowboys. His trek, in daylight and Bernstein’s uptempo music, feels like high adventure. The Coens have never been so optimistic.

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An Appraisal of the Sickness Ailing Postmodern Humanity And the Clash Between Art and Life in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room

My friend Dan Miller, an aspiring film scholar, has taken an exacting eye to Tommy Wiseau’s grossly underrated 2003 dramedy The Room. The following is an abstract for what will hopefully be his doctoral thesis:

It is not often that film can perfectly imitate life. It may not even be possible. When one sees a movie one is suspending their own reality by sitting in a darkened cinema and accepting the existence of another world. We hand ourselves over, briefly, to this existential film universe, with the existence of the film needing to proceed the essence. In this scholarly work I will be discussing the relation between postmodernism and existential loneliness in the film The Room. More specifically I will talk about how the incredulity towards multi-narratives effects the structure, form and style of the film and how the reactions to existential loneliness effects the actions of the characters with a focus on the themes of trust, betrayal, and death.

The new poster boy for postmodernism?

Keeping with the theme of postmodern irony The Room eschews multi-narratives by first proposing them. Early in the story we are introduced to many subplots that are never revisited. Lisa’s mother Claudette mentions how she has breast cancer but there is no further mention of her condition. There is a young ward named Denny who is seen early in the film purchasing drugs and getting accosted by a drug dealer but this plot is later abandoned as well. The reason this is done is of course to be ironic. Multi-narratives are parodied by these empty stories which in some cases are introduced and never returned to (as in the aforementioned ones) and in other cases are only seen near their end with no explanation to their beginnings. Characters are introduced relatively late in the film and treated as if they were important friends of Johnny and Lisa.

These obvious plot holes serve two equally supportive purposes, they draw attention to the narrative and its strange irony, and they place the viewer in an excessively obvious and undeniable position as the viewer. This prevents the viewer from losing him or herself in the film. As I mentioned before, people leave their lives when they go to the cinema. However, when viewing The Room they are constantly barraged with moments of sheer absurdity and thus forced to reexamine their roles as viewer. This reinvention of roles is another hallmark of the postmodern aesthetic.

By drawing attention to the narrative the film is forcing the viewer into an uncomfortable position where they become aware that they are watching a movie. They are forced to constantly reevaluate their relation to the film. Also, many basic characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema/viewer relations are ruined here. The audience cannot build up a relation to any of the characters and are thus alienated from the plot. They are aware that they are watching a film but are unaware of how to react. When a shocking moment is introduced it is not uncommon to hear laughter from The Room’s audience. Many people consider The Room to be a poor movie, but it is important to note that Waiting for Gadot was unpopular too when it came out. The Room challenges all notions as to what a film can be and as such would work best on an audience that had never before experienced cinema. But film does not exist in a vacuum. People gauge movies by other movies.  Thus the modern viewer is left baffled by many of the film’s sequences, and in a confused state many will just laugh. This is not a sign of the movie’s comedic value but rather the uncomfortable position it places the viewer. The Room is made to confront the modern viewer, and its difficulty to grasp coexists with the difficulty of its higher subject matter.

 

Nothing like some passionless pre-coital tomfoolery.

In the postmodern world humanity is affixed with new ailments which are explored to great depths here, one central theme is the destruction of civil people and the community in the favor of empty self service, and anonymous urban existence. One negative consequence associated with the world of today is the demise of community in favor of self-serving relations. Johnny is a caring individual who treats his future wife Lisa “like a princess”, he has a very strong relationship with his best friend Mark, and he even takes care of a local ward named Danny whom Johnny is trying to help through college. Johnny seems to be the perfect model for how a well functioning person should live their life. But instead of being rewarded for his good heart, and trusting nature he is punished. With deliberate postmodern irony both his best friend and future wife betray Johnny when they engage in a long lasting affair which serves as the main plot function in the film. Betrayal is perhaps the strongest narrative theme in the film. Johnny puts his trust into Lisa who responds by getting him drunk so she can spread rumors about him. Johnny of course does not drink and this element is representative of his own innocence and naivety. She lies to him about being pregnant, and she tries to pit him and his best friend Mark against each other. In the frightening self-serving world of today nobody can be trusted and selfish opportunists will punish a good man. In the end the honest soul cannot win. Everyone will cry over his body in death but they never truly loved him in life; except for Danny who truly did.

The demise of Johnny represents the demise of trust in society, the demise of personal relations between people, and the impeding cold world of technology that we are left with. The Room is a film about the changing world; it both embraces and effaces this world. When Johnny takes the gun to his head and proclaims, “I’m sick of this world!” he is talking about the new world that has grown up around him. It is a world that he cannot understand. The question is not whether one can flourish in a world of Lisas and Marks, but whether one can survive. Danny is hopeless without his provider, and is sure to fall back into the life of unspecified drugs. He is not one of this world either. Johnny is like an alien: he speaks in an incomprehensible accent not native to any region on earth: he is like everybody and nobody all at once. He kills himself to escape pain but the postmodern pain of his existence is not truly escapable, even in death the film is bitterly ironic as Lisa and Mark mourn for him. And in the background the sounds of sirens, a nondiegetic addition, announce it is all but over. Pain and struggle, life and death, actions and reactions, all encapsulated within ourselves, like a room. When it comes to the incredulity to multi-narratives and existential postmodern loneliness, no film captures these difficulties in such a brazen and ironic way. Mourn for the death of Johnny, but save a tear for all of us. Tennessee Williams could not have done a better job himself.

In a world of lions, how can the lamb survive?

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The Legacy of Tron

Disney is not one for subtlety.  The name Tron: Legacy nudges us to consider the franchise as a technological stepping point, a unique moment in the development of computers, video game, and science fiction in the 1980s. The 1982 original and the oddly timed successor (28 years later?) definitely do stand out. Not considering any of its cultural merits, Tron has an odd story.

It began when animator Steven Lisberger looked at a reel of computer generated imagery from the firm MAGI in 1976. It was also the year Atari released PONG as a video game. Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner saw the potential of animated entertainment drawn in binary. After being turned down by Warner Bros, MGM, and Columbia, they went to Disney (then having difficulties producing financially successful movies) with storyboards and sample graphics. Disney executives were understandably nervous about bankrolling the project. Mixing digital and live action was something that had not been done before, and Lisberger was pitching an original concept with not even a video game franchise to draw upon.  (See John Culhane’s 1982 article)

However, Tron did find its fans. Arcade lovers and a growing video game subculture saw the promise of the project. The future of film, it seemed, was in the digital realm. I suspect the attraction of Tron was not its themes (ambition, authorial control, competition) but what went into its creation. The film was, and still is, celebrated as a groundbreaking technological achievement. It’s no small wonder Disney felt it necessary to print “A milestone in the history of digital animation” on the DVD cover. Tron did indeed pave the way for CGI, and everyone from Steven Spielberg to Pixar has a debt to the maverick designers in 1982.

Pixar is an interesting heir to their legacy. In 1995 John Lasseter directed a visually brilliant and an engaging movie about toys. Toy Story is an achievement in animation, story (the emotional lives of children’s toys? Clever) and character. I can’t help feeling that Tron and its “sequel” (more on that later) had a great premise that was not properly executed. Or maybe I’m searching too deep in a Disney film.

Let’s look at what Tron is really about: the interactions between programs in computers. Programs in human bodies, programs with their own hopes, fears, and feelings. Imagining a computer grid as an electronic metropolis is, I have to say, pretty cool. Jeff Bridges gives a stirring voiceover introduction to Legacy:

The grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.

The idea, like Toy Story‘s idea, is mesmerizing: the emotional lives of computer programs. In the original film Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is sucked into the world of his former employer ENCOM’s mainframe. Flynn is there to find proof that his projects were stolen by rival programmer Henry Dillinger (David Warner as the Euro-villain), now head of the company.

The journey into binary looks alien but feels pretty familiar. Flynn is soon fighting alongside rebel programs persecuted by MCP (Master Control Program), a manipulative supercomputer. Echoes of MCP can be seen in I, Robot‘s VIKI and Eagle Eye‘s ARIIA. In Tron he wants to cut off access between the real world and the Grid, initiating a conflict between freedom fighters and oppressive minions. Oh, and the Rebel Alliance starships are regrouping to fight the evil Galactic Empire….this is what fantasy is made of: a journey into the underworld of Mordor only to emerge victorious. Katabasis for the computer era.

It doesn’t help that Tron looked both ahead of its time and a decade behind it. The actors are filmed in high contrast black-and-white, clad in neon-laced body-suits. They look antiquated, like characters from B-class 1960s sci-fi. The action sequences, meanwhile, can still excite. The lightcycle scene is a true moment of digital wonder, one that has not aged poorly.

The film secured its place as a science fiction class, though it did not do great business. For a $17 million dollar budget $33 million at the box office is nothing to sniff at, but it’s nowhere near the kind of business Disney is hoping to do with Legacy (the weekend numbers are in: $46.6 million domestic b.o. in three days). Somehow Tron became an identifiable brand. See the montage of Tron pop culture references to get a sense of its impact.

Video games released after the film cemented its ties to the gamer community. Brad King quickly tracks the development of the Tron game franchise at In Media Res. Most of these games do not use characters or storylines from the film, which on its own would not have guaranteed an eventual sequel. Lisberger created a technological event that triggered a series of spinoffs in other mediums, a world of discs, grid bugs, and tanks that transcended the mere 96 minutes of screen time. It is unlikely Disney would pump a rumoured $300 million into the sequel without this multi-platform heritage (and fan base) to draw upon.

So what can the guys behind Legacy offer us? Liam Lacey of the Globe concludes:

Tron: Legacy follows what did and didn’t work the first time – another weak story with sub-B-movie dialogue, partly compensated for by intensely conceived geometric design and special effects. First-time director Joseph Kosinski is a former architect; the designer Darren Gilford comes from auto design. In other words, this is a movie for your eyes only.

it certainly is. Gilford’s sets and backdrops are stylishly minimal, punctuated by strips of bright orange or blue light. Daft Punk’s score is electrifying when its electronic, integrating seamlessly with the dark visuals. The French duo’s orchestral arrangements sound curiously like Hans Zimmer’s string-and-French-horn-obsessed repetitions on the Inception score. The film looks and sounds compelling, but is an entertaining blockbuster and not a thought provoker. One can see the film as a metaphor for open source, as JustPressPlay‘s Arya Ponto does. If so, it comes off as bombastic that Kosinski would compare Clu’s destruction of ISOL’s (isomorphic algorithms) to the Holocaust. And Disney, as we all know, is like Smaug the Dragon when it comes to guarding its copyrighted treasures.

I suppose we should accept Legacy for its undeniable sheen, and disregard the film’s attempts to be epic. This is not a visionary moment in cinematic history. Last year’s Avatar (also released in December) made the most recent giant leap in on-screen technology. Legacy is following in its wake, not blazing a new circuit.

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