Rightwing Film Geek

A spoiled masterpiece

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LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (Joe Dante, USA, 2003, 7)

That “7” is misleading. This film should have been one of the year’s best. It only stars two of the greatest comic performers of all time, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the top of their game. Isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings? But how can a great movie result from a screenplay that reportedly went through at least 27 revisions and was the subject of constant quarreling between writer, director, animators and front-office suits.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is very much less than what it should have been and sometimes even is — it’s brilliant around the edges and vacuous at the center. A casualty of pomo self-consciousness. And the part that really hacks me off is that it seems to be deliberately made that way. To cite Pauline Kael, this is the kind of film that results when a director contents himself with “express[ing] himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” It’s a masterpiece in every insignificant, irrelevant detail.

The main plot is just some silly spy intrigue rejected from the Austin Powers assembly line. The result is bland and watered down at the center, but so brilliant, saucy and anarchic at the edges that you’d really rather look at it on DVD, so you can rewind and use the slo-mo to see what you only half-saw in the theater. I can still bring himself to helpless giggles by remembering — the Jerry Lewis posters decorating Paris, Sylvester getting skinned, “that’s not boxing; bite his ear,” “that would send the wrong message to children,” the snatch from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and the race through the paintings in the Louvre, Daffy’s facial expressions in the reprise of the “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” exchanges, and all the hundred various asides and uninflected jokes at the edge.

wilemartin.jpgUnfortunately, the pomo filmmakers feel the need to “air out” the Looney Tunes characters by putting them in a live-action world to show off the greater technical prowess of animation today, as though animation in that sense was what the Looney Tunes were noted for. As for the human actors … frankly who cares? Joan Cusack and Steve Martin give wonderfully fruity cartoon performances (though I wonder whether Martin is finally a wee bit *much*). But Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman? Who cares? They’re like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Who would rather watch them than Bugs and Daffy, or maybe more of the other Warner Brothers characters, like Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester and Tweety?

Now, its not any postmodern premise or the style itself to which I object. Nor were the Warner Brothers cartoons above such techniques as spoof (“Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” the celebrity caricatures in “What’s Up, Doc”), in-joke references (Daffy as “Robin Hood”; the way the ritual line “What’s Up, Doc” spawned jokes riffing off that expectation), self-consciousness (the way Bugs’ antagonists became increasingly bizarre — from Elmer to Daffy to Yosemite Sam to the Tasmanian Devil — and his line to the audience “of course, you realize, *this* means war.”) or even outright deconstructions of textuality (“Duck Amuck”).

So it’s not as though postmodernism isn’t a fertile source of humor. But the pomo comic techniques in the Looney Tunes originals didn’t go “all the way down” and didn’t assume a thoroughly pomo audience. In other words, “Duck Amuck” shows how a cartoon produces meaning, but shows the animator at the end, preserving the illusion of the author-god, so to speak. And Bugs’ “this means war” aside is to an audience that didn’t expect asides every time and accepted the illusionist conceit that the war Bugs was promising existed for its own sake (they knew it was fake, of course. But as pro wrestling shows, there’s a fundamental difference between knowing something is fake and being told by the fakers that it’s fake).

Here, the innocent surface is absent. The filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence to make a straight cartoon movie, to try to tell a coherent first-level story appropriate to the characters. Instead, textuality gets thrown in right away as Bugs and Daffy “play their characters” as Warner Brothers stars negotiating their contracts, rather than just “be their characters.” There’s even a moment when Fraser “plays himself” in split-screen with his character in the movie, and it’s just showing off and winking at the audience. The result is the decadent selling of the jokes the audience expects.

Now, the original Looney Tunes animators used this sort of “playing themselves” premise freely themselves (remember Daffy pitching “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” or the two competing in “Show Biz Bugs”). And Bugs and Daffy can still “play themselves” brilliantly — isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings?

daffyanger.jpgIn this particular movie, the “pitch” premise produces a great early scene in which Daffy’s sputtering outrage is being deliberately tweaked by the WB suits’ estimate of his worth. But what tarnishes even some of the great stuff going on around the edges is that its hollowness is sometimes underlined or the lines merely references rather than used. For example, Bugs, Daffy, Elfman and Fraser are walking in the desert and we get an offhand reference to “a left turn at Albuquerque.” Except they’re not underground, they don’t wind up anywhere as a result of the mistake or anything else. Or the singing lunchpail frog appears at the table in the background as a deal is being brokered (but unless you’ve seen the original, there’s no joke). They’re just referents to name-drop, an assurance that the filmmakers have seen the originals too, the equivalent of Eric Idle’s “I’m trying, really” nudge in the ribs.

Though this is an infinitely better film than SPACE JAM, the tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Take a look at “The Simpsons,” which has *both* good stories and lots of jokes at the edge of the frame. Or take a look at “South Park,” self-conscously pomo decadent though the show is, but which uses its characters as themselves in pomo ways, rather than as “playing themselves” fodder for another bit of metacinematic fiddle-faddle.

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November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Shameless promotion of others, part 1

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ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Shunji Iwai, Japan, 2002, 9)

I’m gonna do something I’ve never done here before — plug a DC-area screening. The Japanese movie ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU is getting a onetime screening this coming Wednesday at the University of Maryland Hoff Student Center. I won’t be able to go myself (work schedule), but this film never played in Washington (or very widely in the US at all) and I only saw it because a friend had a tape. But LILY CHOU-CHOU made my Top 10 for last year and I want to get the word out on a great and profoundly-moving film that deserved a better chance than it got to find an audience.

Despite this fellow’s enthusiasm for it, I had trepidations about LILY CHOU-CHOU, which is a longish, slow-moving Japanese film about sullen, alienated teens — a genre that also includes the annoying “blue,” which Charles Odell called (on his Sept. 9 entry) “the most boring film about teenage Japanese schoolgirl lesbians possible,” and EUREKA, which bored me so silly that it has become one of my “pet hate” films.

ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU does require patience. But if you can go with its plaintive, dreamy rhythms, it turns out to be one of the saddest, gentlest, most-poignant films ever made about teenage loneliness, centering on the gap between the hellish time they have in school dealing with bullies and cliques on the one hand, and the fanboy gushing on message boards over Lily Chou-Chou on the other. But unlike some such movies, stuff happens in LILY CHOU-CHOU — there is an arc, though it’s not always transparent. Characters develop and have some believable good times (there’s an Okinawa trip captured on the kids’ home videos), the students turn from friends into enemies and try to connect with one another.

lilypiano.jpgThe movie has two basic levels of reality, first, the daily life of school, and then, attempts to escape its misery through the Internet, centered on worship of the title character, a little-seen or -heard J-pop star. The Internet board “scenes,” which constitute about 25-30 percent of the running time I’d guess, are made up of Japanese script being typed onto a black screen. That’s it. While the amount of time and visual redundancy drove batty this usually on-target guy, I found the conceit thrilling. It keeps the kids’ identities secret from each other and us, while at the same time creating them as online personae (a theme that should resonate around the blogosphere). The blackness and its disconnect from ordinary visual storytelling emphasizes the gap between the students’ real lives and online lives. The blackness literalizes both Lily’s Ether and the ethereality of fame, meaning and connection. The ending absolutely depends on that blackness, as if even Lily fandom is not only not enough to unite the two boys, but that commonality is precisely what made the bullying finally intolerable (“your devil is not wholly Other”).

Mike also complained that Lily is not an interesting singer, which is a reasonable opinion (though I found her ethereal, Enya-Sadeness style an interesting and thematically apropos choice), but the movie’s themes might resonate even more strongly if Lily stunk as a singer — sorta like in MEMENTO, “we all have to have a god in our lives, even if it’s an unworthy or nonexistent one.”

lilyfiels.jpgShot on Hi-Definition Video, LILY CHOU-CHOU is also one of the gorgeous-looking video-shot movies ever made, but in a most peculiar and hypnotic way. There are repeated nature images, of long shots of tall green plants rippling in the wind while the kids play their Discman (supposedly of Lily’s music, but Claude Debussy’s lush Romantic melodies are what *we* hear from the film’s soundtrack). The pictures and their florid color are overripe and alienating, simply exemplifying what AMERICAN BEAUTY preached and preached and preached about that stupid paper bag and the unbearability of natural beauty and even beautiful music while your soul is in torment. Again, in contrast to the Internet’s darkness.

Unlike AMERICAN BEAUTY and some other Western films about alienated teens, LILY CHOU-CHOU is blessedly free of sarcasm and caricature of parents and adults. They want to help and they sometimes even do, especially early on, but they finally are just outsiders who CAN’T get it. It’s L’AVVENTURA for Generation Wired — one teenage friend on a private discussion group called it “the greatest movie ever made about the Internet,” and it’s hard to think of a topper. There’s a whole series of brilliant sequences near the end, including the climactic scene, one of the very best of last year, where Lily sings in concert and we finally see her, on a jumbotron outside the arena. And to her music, we see a boy, mesmerized by her image while his heart breaks. A weaker man than myself might have cried.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Shameless promotion of others, part 2

I have a good gift idea for any movie fans on your list, particularly fans of classic and silent movies. Some people at alt.movies.silent, a Usenet newsgroup where I have posted some (but mostly lurk), have put out the 2004 edition of their annual silent-films calendar, which you can order here.

The 2003 edition is peering over my workspace right now. This month is Mabel Normand; past months have included Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and the German cartoon THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. All money beyond production costs goes to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for preserving silent films. The 2003 calendar raised almost $700 — not bad for the avocational project of a silent film orchestra.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Chagrined promotion of others (or DVD pricing strategies, part 1)

smublackfilms.jpgA selection from the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, consisting of movies made for segregation-era black theaters by black artists, has been preserved and put onto video by Southern Methodist University. Although I recognize both the specific titles cited in the AP article and I know some stuff secondhand about the director of MURDER IN HARLEM (Oscar Micheaux), I’ve never seen any of the “race films” made in the silent and early sound era.

So obviously, it’s great that these films are being preserved, put on disc and distributed to museums and schools. I suspect from what I know of Micheaux that he wouldn’t be to my taste, but I’d love a chance to look.

However, it doesn’t look like SMU really wants me or other members of the general public to buy or rent these discs in the open marketplace. The cost is $250 for a 3-DVD set. Ouch. I agree that the potential market for these films is probably small, but it’s not as though there’s a studio’s need to make a profit from the small number of expected sales, the commonest reason for exorbitant pricing. SMU did the restoration under a grant. Confining these films to institutions is false to the populist nature of the medium, particularly for “race films,” which were not made by the sort of heavily-capitalized major studio that could afford to lose money on some “prestige” or “artistic” films.

ossiedavis.jpgI’m certainly not gonna pay $250 for anything short of the missing nine-hour print of GREED. And I’m not a normal person. I’m the sort of person who’ll watch a film he’s pretty sure he won’t like just because he thinks he “should.” Who’ll watch a film just because he wants to sample a genre or style he’s never seen before (I went to see a 30s Yiddish-theater melodrama at a film festival last year). Who’ll plunk down $20 to buy a film sight unseen just to be a completist for a favorite director (Tsai Ming-liang’s REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, I’m thinking of specifically). If *I’m* not willing to consider such a purchase, how many others would? What’s the point of Ossie Davis saying the films show the “ ‘do-for-self’ spirit of blacks just after the turn of the century. They had to make do with nothing. And look what they did’,” if people are priced out of access to what these artists did?

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

DVD pricing strategies, part 2 (Laurel & Hardy)

dvdboxlh.jpgI suppose I should say to myself “what do you expect from a 2-DVD set you picked up for $6 in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart?” Well, some truth in advertising. That impulse pickup was of a Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy DVD set, put out by Platinum Disc Corp. under the “TV Classics” series. I’d be madder than I am if I weren’t enjoying some of what I’m seeing in the stead of what I expected.

On the box cover, you see the pair in their classic look — their familiar bowler hats, with Stan in his bowtie and dumb innocence and Ollie’s girth and moustache. Thing is though, that of the “14 episodes” advertised (actually two features and 12 shorts), only in the features and “as celebrities” in a Pete Smith short, do we see their familiar “Stan & Ollie” characters. And of the 10 other shorts I’ve now either seen or been able to trace the Internet Movie Database credit, only in one do they act together onscreen, and it’s not in their iconic roles … but more on that in a second. The others have one or the other acting or Stan directing. Before Hal Roach put the team together in 1926-27, Ollie had been played supporting “heavy” roles in shorts by the likes of Larry Semon, and Stan had played a more hyper (but equally clueless) character and directed some.

semon.jpgThe real discovery for me in the several shorts was Larry Semon, who starred in THE SAWMILL and KID SPEED, with Hardy playing the villain. In the early 1920s, Semon was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, though he’s hardly known today. Unlike many of the silent comedians, his slide was not the result of sound — he died in 1928 and his career had been on the skids for a few years even before that. Still these two films, from 1922 and 1924 respectively, give a good sense of what Semon had going for him.

Of all the silent comedians, his style was the closest to that of a traditional circus clown — he played a child-like dynamo with a rubberlike face and large features exaggerated by a thorough face-blanching makeup job (KID SPEED has a couple of whiteface/blackface gags that I did laugh at). His clothes were even more ill-fitting than Chaplin’s: he wears a bowler hat with overalls that almost reach his armpit. That small body and delicate-looking hands make him an ideal “victim” for the massive Hardy. And Semon’s films feature some spectacular stunts amidst broad physical knockabout — of cars crashing off bridges and people falling several stories onto one another. There’s even space for the subtlety of Semon sitting on a log that gets sliced in half lengthwise, missing his back by inches.

Unfortunately, the pictorial quality of these prints is not very good (there are a lot of visual hiccoughs, even stepping on the punchlines) and the scores just have generic-sounding piano music seemingly played at random. Semon’s character doesn’t (for now) seem that deep, but he looks like a comedian who’d be worth a rediscovery and a proper restoration of his work, a surprising amount of which survives.

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The Laurel & Hardy “together” short that I saw was LUCKY DOG, their first appearance together. But it’s from 1921, several years before they became a permanent team. This film (only the first reel of which was on this DVD set, though) starred Stan as a naif dandy and Ollie plays a mugger who holds up Stan at gunpoint. It’s amazing in retrospect that nobody thought to team them up before Roach did several years later, realizing that their contrasting personalities and “Another Fine Mess” story lines could get you several laughs for the price of one — the gag itself; Stan’s vacuous, puzzled reaction; Ollie’s frustration with Stan; Ollie turning to us to plead for our sympathy for having to deal with this dolt; Stan’s solicitousness with regard to Ollie’s (often unjustified) exasperated superiority.

But LUCKY DOG doesn’t rely for its interest on a trivial bit of casting coincidence — that Stan-Ollie dynamic, what made the team tick, is amazingly present in this 1921 film. For example, when Ollie tells Stan at gunpoint to turn around, rather than go against the fence, Stan does a 360. When trying to fish out his wallet, Stan unthinkingly hands his dog to Ollie, who unthinkingly accepts it before bursting into rage. These are jokes that could easily have come from one of their 1930s Hal Roach features.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Mel to make a misstep?

I have repeatedly backed Mel Gibson against charges of anti-Semitism and theological error over THE PASSION OF CHRIST, to the extent one can from the POV of not having seen the film. Neither Jewish groups nor self-appointed theologians’ circles have either the moral entitlement to final cut or the right to issue moral imprimaturs. But he may be about to make a mistake.

The latest talk in the entertainment industry is that federal authorities are investigating the New York Post over its forum on THE PASSION OF CHRIST, possibly for piracy and copyright violation, and there is other word that Gibson may sue the Post himself over the forum, which I blogged on last week.

There may be a theft issue here — which the Post denies. And I understand that if we’re gonna make a big flap over Academy screeners, studios and distributors have to defend their copyright (after all, that security is what allows more-than-homemade movies to be made at all). There is something a little off about writing about a film based on an unfinished rough cut. Professional critics sometimes do it reluctantly, but almost always with the caveat stated explicitly (and thus implicitly saying: “readers, adjust accordingly.”) The Post did state that caveat in this case, though you had to bring along your magnifying glass.

Further, there are rough cuts and there are rough cuts. There are quickly- and cheaply-made videos used just to check final continuity issues (is a character’s collar buttoned the same way and are the props in the same place throughout a scene — that sort of thing) at one end of the spectrum and the actual work prints sans title credits or subtitles at the other. I would like to think that at least Post critic Lou Lumenick would be sensitive to these matters of print quality and how they affect the aesthetic experience of THE PASSION OF CHRIST or any other film. The Post merely said that “the rough-cut version of the film that we screened – with temporary English subtitles, no credits and further editing changes likely.” And if you read the wording of the Post’s intro carefully with this thought in mind, you realize that never did the paper originally say whether the five viewers saw the movie on videotape or on film.

So all these criticisms of the value of the Post forum are perfectly fair to make, and I added my doubts about what the viewers said last week. But I think Gibson would be making a prudential mistake to pursue legal action against the Post. It would just look too much like he’s suing over a bad review. And that would just be fodder for Leno and Letterman. Yes, there are other issues, but appearances matter and Gibson would just be giving too much and too easy ammo to people eager to interpret his actions in a bad light. Of which there is no shortage.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Jews for Mel (sorta)

Some sanity comes from a couple of America’s leading rabbis, one of whom who has seen THE PASSION OF CHRIST and expressed reservations over it.

Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, while not backing away from his criticisms, said that Jewish groups should not boycott the film but should take a different tack — try to use the occasion to teach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

eckstein.jpgAnother senior rabbi, Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says it is not wise¹ for Jews to be seen as trying to dictate Christian artists’ interpretation to their own religion. Plus Jews have much bigger fish to fry in the world today and he compared focusing on Passion plays as generals still fighting the last war. Amen.
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¹ This link goes to a Salt Lake City Deseret News article in February 2004, later than this article’s time-stamp. The Baltimore Sun article I linked to when I first wrote this post in November 2003 was no longer on the Web when I reposted this entry in January 2008, unchanged in its text, except for this footnote and the photo(see the original here). Even though the February 2004 Deseret News article cites a press statement from Rabbi Eckstein from that week (“Tuesday”), you can see that the Rabbi is making essentially the same points I cited him as making the previous fall.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The master-slave dialectic

I am not making this up. Los Angeles County wants computer and video companies not to use the terms “master” and “slave” to describe interfaces between two machines in which one tells the other what to do. This insane e-mail cites concerns “based on cultural diversity and sensitivity.” I wonder whether the use of the terms “male” and “female” for plugs that fit together reinforces patriarchal notions of heteronormativity and oppress the LGBTQ Community?

In the guts of the story it says “a black employee of the Probation Department filed a discrimination complaint.” Why didn’t his boss laugh in his face and tell him to get a clue? While the county said it wasn’t “workplace discrimination,” why did the Affirmative Action Office “take seriously this person’s concern” and cite any “(constant) need to be conscious of these issues.” Remember: this is what discrimination laws now mean; this is what “sensitivity” and “cultural diversity” now means; this is how affirmative-action offices think; and the fact this worker was taken seriously tells us what public standards now are (fear of the most paranoid idiot drives people’s actions).

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment