Category Archives: Jeff Bridges

Chivalry in the Cracks

The other Terry Gilliam movie I’ve been meaning to see for a long time is The Fisher King (1991), a modern take on the grail legend. It’s uneven and too long, but, as usual, gives you a lot to chew on. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a narcissistic radio hosts whose comments unwittingly compel a man to shoot up a restaurant. After his wife is killed in the massacre, Perry (Robin Williams) slips into homelessness, madness, and a quest to find the Holy Grail. To help him cope with his guilt, Jack tries to help Perry regain sanity and find love.

It’s messy, lovely, funny, and overburdened with too many scenes and too many outbursts. But it’s also got a very sweet theme. Despite the cold alienation and mundanity  of twentieth century life, moments of romance, imagination, and grace appear to those who look for it. The grail becomes a symbol for redemption and meaning in the flowing crowds and taxis of Manhattan.

Enough summarizing. Let’s recap the traditional Arthurian legend of the fisher king.

The Curse of Desolation

He’s called the Wounded King, the Maimed King, Lord of the Waste Lands, Pellam, and in my edition of the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Roger Lancelyn Green, 1953) King Pelles, lord of Castle Carbonek. According to Green’s sources, Sir Balyn the Savage was visited by an image of the Grail at Carbonek. A voice, presumably God’s, told him to quell his temper, but instead he grabbed a spear and stabbed Pelles, a reenactment of Christ’s stabbing by Longinus. This so-called Dolorous Stroke permanently wounded the king and turned his lands barren and fallow. In some versions he has a son who fishes in a river by the castle, hence the Fisher King and his father the Wounded or Maimed King.

Later, when the image of the grail revisits Camelot, the knights quest after it. Sirs Gawain and Lancelot arrive in Carbonek to find Pelles old and thirsty, his people distressed. As Sir Percivale approaches, Naciens the hermit proclaims:

King Pelles and all you people of the Waste Lands, rejoice and be exceeding glad. For Gawain has taken away the Curse of Desolation which Balyn brought upon you when he struck the Dolorous Stroke. Therefore be sure that the Grail Knight draws near, and the long penance will soon be ended.

Pelles is cured by the blood of Christ dripping off Longinus’s spear – it appears along with a lot of unaccounted for grail maidens in white. The body of the sovereign is the microcosm of the body of his people, his state. So his lands grow fertile again, and he doesn’t have to fish no more.

Enter Eliot

Jack’s sarcastic catchphrase on his radio show is  “forgive me.” Forgiveness for his rude and condescending behaviour to his callers, and later forgiveness for triggering the restaurant shooting. Like humanity waiting to be redeemed for their sins by Christ, like the people of Carbonek waiting for their crops to grow, Jack takes three years off from work to “sort out his emotional issues”. In exile, he drinks too much, mistreats his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) and spurns the rest of the world.

Pelles’ story has been frequently alluded to in art. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is a poetic reinterpretation of the Fisher King, setting the wounded Pelles in post-World War I London. There’s disillusionment here too, and a search for growth and vitality:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you only know / A heap of broken images.

Gilliam and Bridges amp up Jack’s desperation by making him a barren soul. His apartment is walled with glass and tiled in black; it has the studied nihilism of Patrick Bateman’s aesthetics in American Psycho. Visually the point is clear. Jack is empty, arid, a stony rubbish that needs some water. By forming a bond to Perry (Percivale) and losing himself in the troubles of another, Jack finds the grail of friendship. I think this is the humanist and slightly saccharine point Gilliam is trying to make: we are each other’s Holy Grails.

What’s pretty cool is how the set design shows the flowering of old stories in between the skyscrapers and asphalt of New York City. Gilliam finds classical figures like arches to introduce scenes when Jack encounters Perry:

Or placing important plot points such as Perry’s pursuit of the Red Knight and the monologue about the Fisher King (a little different from Green’s) in Central Park, a jewel of nature blossoming in the centre of a metropolis:

Or a Corinthian column outside the window of Perry’s hospital bed:

So there’s definitely a connection between antiquity, nature, and Perry, the deluded Grail Knight. He praises the romance paperbacks Lydia (Amanda Plummer) buys every two days:

There’s nothing trashy about romance. In romance there’s passion, imagination, beauty. Besides you find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.

This might as well be Gilliam speaking. The ex-Monty Python animator makes no distinction between “high art” and “low art”. His films are smart and crude at the same time. Perry’s mythical infatuations and hallucinations of the Red Knight are heavy in symbolism and folkloric history, but he’s not above letting a nude Robin Williams loose in Central Park, screaming “it’s good to let the little guy hang out”.

Eliot is more pretentious, seeking the self-contained order in literary works to stave off the “anarchy and futility of contemporary history”. Quoting Dante, he turns London into a congregation of soulless workers:

Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. / Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…

One last comparison. There’s a scene in Grand Central Station when Perry falls under the trance of Lydia, a woman who hasn’t met him yet. The flowing crowds suddenly pair up beautifully into waltzing pairs, turning the pulsating terminal into an elegant ballroom. Here’s the before and after.

In the end Perry becomes the ailing king, beaten by two very 90s street thugs into a coma. I’m not sure what the switch in roles means, only that Jack has to get himself in emotional order and break into a billionaire’s house to steal the cup of Christ – or a placebo of the cup of Christ – to pull Perry back into consciousness. Since I can’t resist quoting more Eliot, here’s are a few lines at the end of The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore. / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Read a book, watch a good movie. It’s a good start.

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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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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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