Toronto capsules — Day 4
DORIAN GRAY (Oliver Parker, Britain, 4)
A few years ago, I gave Skandie points to Oliver Parker for the script of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, even though I had said everything that he did to the play was a mistake. When someone took me to task for this (my memory tells me Noel Murray or Donna Bowman), I said “the category is ‘best script,’ not ‘best adaptation job.’ Parker was working with the greatest comic play ever written in English, and most of that is intact and it’s thus one of the year’s best scripts.” Here, Parker has done something VERY different. Not only is every change he made to an Oscar Wilde work again a mistake, but there’s an overarching vision change and some major additions to the novel. In other words, he finally succeeded in truly effing it up.
What Parker has done is make “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as a pretty straight-up horror movie — complete with creepy, portentous score, lengthy zooms up to doors that a character is about to open not knowing what lies behind it, shrouding a piano as if it were a coffin. The novel’s eponymous picture not only ages and gets disfigured, but even has maggots crawling out of it, and comes to life and roars off the canvas in partial 3-D when threatened. And if DORIAN GRAY’S NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sounds like a good idea for a movie, Parker pulls it off, I guess. I know that the novel has its gothic elements, but pushing those elements into this territory just make the whole work come across as trivial — underplayed or ignored are such minor matters in the novel as the poisonous French book (probably Huysmans) and decadence, and Wilde’s critique of them.
Parker also added, for Rebecca Miller I assume, the character of a daughter to Lord Henry whom Dorian maybe kinda falls in love with when he returns to London after 25 years of debauchery on the continent (the scene of Dorian’s return to a society party where everyone else has suddenly aged decades since our last view of them, but he still looks like Ben Barnes, is one of the few things that work in the movie). But I suspect adding the daughter character allowed the audience to root for Colin Firth at the end, contrary to the novel, where he’s the devil in a Faust template. It also permitted a final suspense-action showdown — because we all know Oscar Wilde needs that — involving Dorian, Henry and her fighting over a key to the attic where the painting is kept. And again, what this costs the film, by giving Dorian a different set of motives near the end, is downplaying one of the novel’s most important but least fashionable themes — the repentance arc.
VALHALLA RISING (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/Britain, 6)
Like a Chinese movie I saw earlier today, this is very much an “it is what it is” take on the film. If you go in expecting a Norse saga, VALHALLA delivers that, for both good and ill. Refn composes images of windswept braes and crags, complete with dirt and wind and fog. The film largely takes place in northern Scotland and it looks right (if not exactly “good” … these aren’t pretty images at all). The music is funereal electronica, which is dramatic and appropriate, but also a bit offputting as music. The dialog is also as spare, declamatory and stylized (though not “eloquent” or exactly “quotable”) as an ancient saga — my favorite example: “We claimed this land in the name of Our Lord” / “How did we do that?” I must add that I found a Norse saga in which the Christians among the Vikings all speak in Scottish accents to be a little odd, though I eventually accepted the idea once I realized the film’s early scenes are set in Scotland (I walked in a few minutes late).
There’s also plenty of violence and an invincible hero at the center of it. He’s called One-Eye and played basically without dialogue by Mads Mikkelsen from Refn’s PUSHER trilogy, though he’s probably best known as the villain Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE. VALHALLA basically tells his story which begins with him, as in the still I used, as an enslaved gladiator-type fighter who, while chained to the pole, still took on two not-thus-constrained champions of a rival chieftain, and killed them both. He’s too dangerous to ever be freed, so he has to fight this way. The still is also typical of the film’s image style — lots of shots of heroic men framed against the sky or the mountains. A lengthy central sequence involves One-Eye helping several Christian Vikings on a quest to retake the Holy Land, only the entire journey the ship is surrounded by fog and it’s not obvious where they’re going — there’s a Hitchcockian LIFEBOAT quality in the dynamic among the seven or eight men in the boat, including a little boy One-Eye has adopted (or is it vice versa) and has made clear he doesn’t want harmed.
There’s a Herzogian quality to the last third of the film — to say more about what film would say too much I think. It’s not a great movie by any means — TIFF bud Dan Owen found it tedious — but it does deliver the goods if you want a chilly windswept Norse saga of heroes on a quest.
THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, USA, 7)
This is also the story of people on a quest, though it couldn’t be more different from VALHALLA RISING. In this tension-filled picaresque, there isn’t really a destination that makes sense; the father-and-son team in a post-apocalyptic world are headed for the sea, though it’s not clear why getting to the sea would provide either refuge or easier food. It also has more on its mind — man in the Hobbesian state of nature, the lengths to which parents go to protect their children, and the nature of conscience.
It’s a heady brew all right, though THE ROAD seems more popular among people who haven’t read the Cormac McCarthy novel (which number includes me). Perhaps that’s because besides losing the prose style (voiceover simply doesn’t suffice), you also lose the suspense and the gnawing discomfort of a world where death lies around every corner. It’s not clear what exactly has happened — why civilization has collapsed and we’re basically dealing with the last few men on earth — but the film lays on the details efficiently and deftly. Money is ignored (what does “exchange” mean outside the context of civilization); the need to avoid cannibals makes suicide a sufficient likelihood for a father to show his son how to point the gun into his mouth properly.
Still all the talk within the film aside, and also leaving aside the utterly bleak landscapes with the barely-recognizable shadow of what was once civilization, I was surprised how little violence and how few gang-cannibal appearances there actually are, which is the entree into the first theme I was surprised by — the difference in the moral views of the father and the son, which are almost the opposite of what I expected. In one scene, the father finds an old can of Coke that survived years in a long-abandoned machine — apparently, the boy, who looks about 8, has never drank a soda and in another scene, dad observes that “you must think I come from another world,” meaning the civilized world we know. In other words, this “state of nature” world is all the son knows. And yet, it is the father who has the savage morals that Hobbes described as rational in the state of nature, while it is the son who thinks exactly as Hobbes predicted he should not.
In such scenes as the old man played by Robert Duvall, the thief near the end, the little boy in the town (was he real?) — it is the son who displays the milk of human kindness, the more-trusting nature, the lack of what Hobbes calls “diffidence” (that is, uncertainty about others’ intentions is reason to assume the worst, because the cost to oneself of guessing wrong is thereby minimized). In contrast, it is the father who acts with pre-emptive violence, and takes the slightest risk as reason to move on — most particularly in the one idyllic scene the movie has, when the pair come across a time-capsule island of food, shelter, hot water and other creature comforts (conservatives will appreciate the exact nature of this idyll). Dad hears, or thinks he hears people and a dog — and immediately abandons the place because “we’re not safe here.” But then, that’s can be viewed also as the responsibility of being parent — paranoia about anything that might harm your child, even if it probably won’t, because “I’d never forgive myself if I let anything happen to you,” a view shared by approximately 0.0000000001% of the children in question in human history. Also, perhaps knowing what has been lost with the end of civilization, as the father does and the son does not (“this is called shampoo,” he says), makes one more jealous about preserving the little one does have, while having spent your whole life scavenging for the equivalent of M&M pieces under the couch has made that your normal. On this take, THE ROAD would be saying that what Nietzsche mocked as slave morality is actually natural and even pre-cognitive — at several points in their quarrels, dad says “why do you wanna do X” and the son would say “I just do” — while it is experience and history that lead to other values.
The film has flaws — primarily an overly sentimental mickey-mouse score during the last reel, most especially the next-to-last scene, where it’s so spectacularly inappropriate that I was reminded of some of those South Korean movies. And I’m not sure how well it might stand up to a second viewing, given how central how unexpected-threat is to the narrative tension. But I enjoyed it more than I expected given the mediocre buzz.
BIG DIG (Ephraim Kishon, Israel, 1969, 8)
Really glad that this was the City-to-City film I chose to see — BIG DIG (also known as BLAUMLICH CANAL) not only is an utterly apolitical film (there was no mention at all of the fuss surrounding the program), but also an expertly-done vaudevillian farce of a kind that we rarely sees today and I doubt we could see because the preconditions for it don’t exist.
In the tradition of classic farce, it begins with a single illogical, unlikely event — in this case a man escapes from the insane asylum, steals a jackhammer and at dawn one day starts tearing up Tel Aviv’s busiest intersection. And then it follows the repercussions with perfect logic — through a large and uniformly excellent cast of pettifogging bureaucrats, glory-hogging bureaucrats, glory-hogging politicians, election-obsessed politicians, martinet policemen, mindless manual laborers, townsfolk who take advantage of the situation, townsfolk who are hurt by the situation (including newlyweds who just want peace and quiet for … well … you know), demanding fathers-in-law, sexy secretaries who can’t type, and more.
Like THE ROAD, the end doesn’t quite come off. Or rather, it’s a perfect capper, but instead of “and here’s what Tel Aviv did with this impossible situation” as a short punchline, BIG DIG tries to make it into a new sequence, and it just goes on too long, Plus I really don’t like for comedies to have the characters laugh onscreen at the last joke (though this one actually is quite funny it still comes across as self-congratulatory). But there’s too much to like hear to complain. Several wonderful montages are cut like I like — quick, direct and blunt — a tea-drinking meeting, a phone call to the national government, a sabotage plan being carried out. Other scenes take a single idea and push it into insanity. For example, Transportation Department flunkey Ziegler — eager to gain a promotion, impress his fiancee and prospective father-in-law, and protect his boss like Smithers does Burns — tries to sneak into a rival department to steal some plans. He sneaks in dressed like a movie private eye, only to find that the department doesn’t exactly react to him as expected.
The key is the performances. Starting with Bomba Tzur as the asylum inmate, the cast all know how to handle farcical acting and situations. Tzur combines the body and gait of Zero Mostel with the innocent viciousness of fellow mute Harpo Marx. In one scene, the neighborhood families explain to an Israeli court the noises they have to put up with, and the six or seven perfprmers — all middle-aged or old — each start repeating a sound of some major piece of equipment until they all blend into a fugue of city noise as convincing (and therefore funny) as the real thing. One can’t help think of the major role Jews have historically had in vaudeville and theater, and then in later standup comedy throughout Europe and the U.S. (though I’ve been told in several different contexts that Israeli culture is very different from diaspora Jewish culture). And then one wonders (well, I do anyway), where are the performers with the training and experience necessary to do this kind of material today? And where could anyone develop such chops in a world where live theater is weaker than ever, vaudeville is dead, and TV is being de-sitcomized in favor of reality TV and other non-performed shows?