Rightwing Film Geek

Melies > Marty

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HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2011, 5)

If the credits were removed from this movie, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Un Film de Steven Spielberg, what with the state-of-the-art special effects, the daddy abandonment issues and the combination of Jude Law and robots. (Spielberg IS releasing a 3-D movie based on a beloved piece of kid-lit set in a retro French environment this Christmas, isn’t he?) Jokes aside, what makes the first half of HUGO so dire is that feels like a mere entry point, Scorsese going through the motions to get to what he really cares about (and if you know what the second half of the film is about, the wheel spinning becomes actively painful). Scorsese is too much of a sheer cinematic virtuoso to produce something literally without merit, but the first hour of HUGO comes pretty doggone close. Practically the first thing written in my notes is “trying so hard to be ‘magical,’ just coming across as bossy.” The next thing is “oh no … grumpy adult meets cute moppet, why O Lord.” And finally “a key hole (on a broken robot, vjm now) in the shape of a heart, WHY O LORD!!!” And there were plenty more examples of plot points and (especially) dialog that was so on-the-nose, underlined, highlighted and with arrows-pointing that all I could do was snort in disgust. In the worst bit, two kids, the titular Hugo and his adventure-seeking Girl Friday discuss his obsession with clocks and robots: “I’m sad looking at machines that don’t work … it’s like they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” (by this point, the conversation subtext is perfectly clear) / “maybe people are like that” (vjm starts to groan) / “like Papa Georges” (vjm tosses head against back of his seat in disgust). At the very end of the film, for the really really REALLY dumb, Papa Georges credits the boy “who saw a broken machine and fixed it” (vjm throws popcorn at the screen; or would have if he’d gotten any).

There are other problems with what we might call the “human” stories surrounding Hugo, apart from minor annoyances like French signs while everyone speaks British English, even when reading aloud from a book whose French words we can see on the page. More importantly, there are just too many cinematic allusions here, so that you feel exhausted even before you actually get to the Georges Melies Film History Lecture. The magpie-written script steals from everything from THE 400 BLOWS and UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS to GRAND ILLUSION and THE RULES OF THE GAME; and those are just the French talkies. And it’s all in service of a “human” story that is hackneyed and uninteresting … just warmed over tropes from hundreds of better kids films, such as the Spielbergian Absent Daddy.

Sasha Baron Cohen’s bumbling French railroad inspector is potentially a fun character. But the leg calipers and war wounds wear too heavily on a role that’s basically a John Cleese imitation of Inspector Clouseau (at one of Cohen’s metronomic interrogations of Hugo, I wanted to interject “this parrot has ceased to BEEE”). And his comic broadness also works against his scenes courting a flower girl, which I think are meant to be poignant on account of being a homage to Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS or something.

So Scorsese failed to create characters and situations that matter, but what he HAS done that merits the mixed 5 grade, beyond the Melies homage, is make the first film to give me a half-second’s pause about my ideological opposition to 3D (even Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS used 3D to take full advantage of a pre-existing world, not to create a fictional one from scratch). Partly, it’s that Scorsese uses the process not for loud action but for some lovely and magical effects — the ashes from the burnt notebook, the floating of Melies’ sketches throughout his bedroom. But it’s also that he integrates it with conventional cinematic grammar and directorial stratagems, making 3D seem more like a tool than a mere gimmick. A simple focus pull within a shot acquires 10 times the force when the newly-in-focus object pops out the screen at you as well. Scorsese also uses every angle in the book, especially overheads and low-angle shots. The multiple planes and internal spaces that 3D accentuates acquire a prominence beyond “look what I can do,” becoming instead a bid to create the comprehensive space of an entire world. And while Cohen’s leering face was an obvious effect, his Doberman pinscher’s much less comic snout and teeth were thereby not.

Scorsese also picked — segue alert — a subject more ideal than you might have thought for a 3D homage. It’s not just that Melies was an inventor and a mechanical tinkerer, but also that his films, with their tableaux stagings, artificial sets and fantastical storylines profit handsomely from Scorsese’s 3D re-creations of the films and the Melies studio near the end (aquarium lobsters FTW!!). He also uses the most-iconic, if possibly apocryphal, story of early audiences’ reactions to movies and re-creates it for us, translated into 3D that even in 2011 we’re also still only semi-used-to. Though I think it was a little much to use the SAFETY LAST shot in the same movie in which the character in question had watched the Lloyd film, Scorsese does get away with a separate cheat (and then a double cheat) thanks to a line about the nature of the movies from earlier in the film.

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I also noticed (and noticed nobody else noticing) how Scorsese got right something about Melies films that must have been a bear to reproduce — their color schemes. Melies hand-tinted many of his films but the resulting look was nothing like hard-edged, realistic color photography, but had the texture of castor sugar. The films thus more resembled chalk drawings in various pastels, as though objects or clothes or backgrounds were bonbons or various flavors of ice cream.

I do think, though, that Scorsese way overreached in one respect of his cinema history segment. I am a huge fan of silent films and Lord knows I’d love to see 1/10 of HUGO’s audience be sufficiently intrigued to check out Melies, some of the other silent films Scorsese referenced, and then branch out into others. So this error does not detract from God’s work. But Scorsese is simply not correct that World War I gave people so much reality that they weren’t interested in Melies’s magic any more. First of all, his studio went bankrupt in 1913, before the war, squeezed out by bigger more factory-like studios in France and abroad. Second of all, it was the war mobilization and the post-war depression that REALLY damaged European film industries (not a shifting audience). And even those non-film damaging factors merely created a vacuum that, because they left the US relatively unscathed, Hollywood was able to fill and become dominant by decade’s end and ever since. Third, the early-1910s were also a time of great strides in the cinematic art — films began telling sophisticated stories, directors like Griffith and Sjostrom began to use editing and closeups to create great performances, Italians like Pastrone began to make lengthy super-spectacles. Melies’ short magic-stage acts simply got left in the dust. And lastly, it is simply inaccurate (and hard to see how soneone familiar with 20s movies could think it IS accurate) to suggest post-WW1 audiences had no taste left for fantasy. To see this claim in a movie that also name-checks, among others, Douglas Fairbanks, is embarrassing special pleading. Don’t misunderstand me … Melies was a pioneer and his films really do stand up today as entertainments without historical affirmative action beyond the unavoidable. But he was a pioneer who got left behind by the state of the art and his poor business skills. It’s happened many times since.

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December 7, 2011 Posted by | Martin Scorsese | 2 Comments

Candle in the Wind: The Movie

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Simon Curtis, Britain, 2011, 6)

About halfway into MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, I was getting ready to dismiss it by saying “Elton John did this much in 1/30th of the time and for a helluva lot less money.” But then we got some private scenes between Monroe and Colin Clark, a 3rd assistant director who wormed his way (not terribly convincingly) onto the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, the film Monroe is shooting in Britain with Laurence Olivier. In those scenes we get something more than the latest “imitate an icon and win an Oscar” beg and get a glimpse of the private side of this most-public of women.

Michelle Williams isn’t exactly doing an imitation — in closeup, her face isn’t really right and in longshot, her figure isn’t. But she does manage to exude Monroe’s spirit, or at least the spirit she projected to the world — a deeply insecure little-girl-lost who only really comes alive and can act naturally by Being Sexy for the gaze of others. And whose great tragedy (and this comes out during those intimate scenes) is that she knows this about herself and has resigned herself to this fate. “As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run,” she says. Monroe’s persona, while not wholly “calculated” in the sense that a timed bank robbery is, was still somewhat “calculated” in the sense it was who she was (or at least became). A day date with Colin is the only real spontaneity she gets, interacting with a worshipful but manageable public — the staff at Windsor Castle and the boys at Eton — and tossing off one-liners that indicate her mind was just fine. But even in those moments, she was “Marilyn,” not, as Elton John would put it, Norma Jean. Colin offers her (unrealistically, but nevertheless) a normal life with him and leaving Hollywood behind, but she just smiled and turned away. “You can be happy / I am happy / Of course you’re happy, you’re the biggest star in the world.” But when her acting coach tells her “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you” in the “this too shall pass” reassurance mode, Williams plays the moment as terrifying.

What will get lost, I fear, in the adulation Williams is (deservedly) receiving is Kenneth Branagh’s terrific performance as Olivier, against whom he was already being measured back in the 80s. It too is not an imitation (or if it is, I couldn’t tell since the uncostumed Olivier of that period is not terribly well-known to me), but Branagh’s gesture-y fussiness blends well with a peculiarly British mixture of face-to-face polite impatience and behind-closed-doors explosiveness we know is wrong. I couldn’t stop laughing at the line that getting Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger” (which, yes, is a writer’s very-written line but it has to be delivered in the right register to work). Branagh also plays Olivier as the wisest man in the room who still isn’t as wise as he thinks. He also nails the way Olivier felt just as inadequate around Monroe as she did around him because she had gifts he didn’t have and — more importantly — couldn’t acquire, just stand in awe of in the screening room.

Even with all that, MY WEEK never exactly transcends the “fan mash-note” genre. There are some narrative clumsiness (Was she pregnant? Did I miss some earlier exposition?) and the subplot of the costume-girl Colin is also wooing gets as much the short shrift as the character herself does. And as Colin, Eddie Redmayne is at best adequate, which is not adequate. There’s also the subject matter, which kinds left me wondering “what’s the big deal.” Olivier and Monroe were obviously a badly mismatched pair on screen (never mind on set, though that too), and the film they were making couldn’t have been more trivial. MY WEEK practically comes out and says Olivier made that film because he wanted to seduce Monroe. It also sideways acknowledges the unsuccess of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL by putting more weight in the closing title cards of Monroe’s and Olivier’s next projects — their iconic roles in SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE ENTERTAINER (both stage and screen), though Olivier basically never directed another film. Indeed, you can read this film in a Camille Paglia-ish way about Marilyn as a femme-fatale destroyer — using her sexual power to dominate the world around her and leave the men who want her frustrated in her wake.

I was reminded in an odd way of two other films currently in theaters — Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA and Steve McQueen’s SHAME — the first by being about a depressive who can only function in an environment of utter collapse, a collapse she helps bring about; the second in being about a sex addict. Monroe uses sex differently from Brandon in SHAME. It would be more accurate to say she’s addicted to her sex appeal (and to her insecurities, ultimately) and what being a sex object gets for her in terms of power over men than she is to the sex act itself (or to its appeal to Brandon — that notch on the belt at the end of the day). MY WEEK intimated that Monroe never slept with Colin; certainly she’s not shown going farther than a kiss. But Monroe and Brandon are caught in the same yo-yo of acting out and regretting it.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Simon Curtis | 1 Comment

Romanian archaeology

ERUPTION (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1957) 5
DANUBE WAVES (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1959) 7
FOREST OF THE HANGED (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1965) 7

When you go into a series of movies with that country and those dates, you just have to accept certain things, primarily that you’re gonna see Communist propaganda, to a greater or lesser degree, and the style of Socialist Realism, in all its blunt overtness. Within these historical and systemic constraints, as you can infer from the grades, Liviu Ciulei managed to make some enjoyable films in different registers. He made only four films as a director, though he apparently had a greater reputation in Romania as an actor and stage director. But if he truly was the best Romanian director prior to the early/mid-00s flowering, as was the subtext to the series I saw at the weekend when I wasn’t being corrupted by drunks like Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz, well … you can infer something else from the grades. Both about Romanian Communist-era cinema, and, maybe the structurally equivalent systems.

After being subjected the catastrophe of the anti-oil propaganda film THE MUPPETS, it was refreshing to see the building of an oil rig turned into a glorious project of profitable construction. ERUPTION is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Romanian Oil Industry in one of those kitschy title cards that accompany totalitarian-regime propaganda, and the first shot actually shows real promise. A full symphony plays a propulsive but menacing-sounding score that, like a more classically-arranged version of some of Jonny Greenwood’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD riffs, simultaneously both plays against and plays up the fetishizing images of the oil rigs. It also counterpoints both the bubbling crude (Romanian Rum) that oozes off the screen during the titles and the Hot Chick Student from Bucharest whose arrival at the oil field for work experience provides the narrative entree. The problem is that Ciulei and/or his script have no sense of cinematic rhythm whatsoever, especially in the first half. The pacing of (and within) sequences is eccentric and the film just lurches from scene to scene without ever really “building.” Here’s a bunch of weakly-drawn people at a barren oil field, they have some semi-conflicts and some things happen. He tries to create a community without the ability of Altman at his best to make it flow.

Still, this very simplicity yields, almost by the very way of its Griffith-like crudeness, some moments of archetypal elemental power — The Dark-Haired Tramp racing up the oil well in shame over the (very clumsy) exposure of her past while The Worker climbs up after her. And the last part of ERUPTION, after they strike oil and the well blows and has to be capped, goes in to full Socialist Realist Propaganda mode with montages of the working class being mobilized racing against time, as the filth-caked rig men heroically battle the gushing oil, an old night caretaker tries to bust down a locked door, and a phone operator tries to get out the word (more Griffith) — and the film becomes almost a kitschy hoot. My favorite bit was when a worker is wounded but taking him away on a stretcher will require men needed to cap the gusher. One man intones solemnly “this is the party speaking. We have no right to let him die, not even for 1,000 wells.” It’s so overt and a historical lie, that you can’t even laugh at it. Fortunately the wounded guy hides (freeing the labor) and recovers (how?) by sequence end. I was sniggering — all those 30s kulaks were … just … hiding. But as a film, ERUPTION’s recovery is as if the Commie Propaganda genre requirements finally straightened things out.

Which provides a nice segue to DANUBE WAVES, which is almost a perfect example of Manny Farber’s “Termite Art” and was the best and most fully realized of the three Ciulei’s films I saw. It’s a straight-up genre piece, telling a single small story about an operation as part of a broader war — in this case, World War II in 1944, after Romania had entered on Nazi Germany’s side but with the tide having turned and the advancing Soviets over the horizon. It’s three strongly-drawn characters on a single journey — a Romanian soldier on his honeymoon (Ciulei himself), his bride (Irina Petrescu, who presented the film in person), and a Communist partisan posing as criminal labor to get on the soldier’s boat as he sails it up the Danube on an ammo-delivery mission. The bride is attracted to the “criminal” and figures out the truth, bringing elements of POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could imagine Raoul Walsh or Henry Hathaway or maybe even Howard Hawks doing the Hollywood remake of DANUBE WAVES in 1962 or 1963.

As it is, the Romanian DANUBE easily meets Hawks’ famous “three good scenes, no bad scenes” definition — in spoiler-free terms, the floating mine (which is prepared for in the pre-credits sequence of the risks of minesweeping); the second German soldier, who “has no objections”; the walk to the wedding-night suite. Ciulei’s direction gets taut and brutal here and sometimes even dry and understated. The performances in the three lead roles avoid declamation while filling the genre types — Lazar Vrabie’s partisan is heroic without being Heroic; Ciulei is cynical without being Cynical, and Petrescu is sexy and torn without etc. … There is a late moment that I’ll just call the DOUBLE INDEMNITY shot and I said to myself “film over” … but it isn’t and the last five minutes are Regime-Mandated Filler involving an overt battle followed by the victory of The Romanian People and Their Heroic Soviet Liberators (one person at the screening, not myself amazingly, laughed at the line “Romania will soon be free”). It’s not my repulsion for Communism that is the issue exactly; I don’t care for speechifying about Truth, Justice and The American Way in Hollywood’s “films among the grunts” either. It’s that it detracts from the bleak end of the conflict between the three characters on the boat (and a boy they pick up along the way). And is poorly done to boot. As much as I liked this film, Ciulei cannot stage a battle scene — an earlier scene’s insertion of stock footage of Soviet bombers is iconically clumsy.


In another pattern not unfamiliar to Western capitalist cinema, Ciulei’s next film was a bid for “White Elephant Art,” in the form of a 160-minute prestigious literary adaptation about a big subject (World War I intrigue in the Austro-Hungarian Army, centering on an ethnic Romanian soldier 1). And while it’s a useful term of critical description, as my grade for FOREST OF THE HANGED implies, I don’t at all share Farber’s distaste for White Elephant Art. In the particular case of HANGED, the novelistic source gives the film both sweep and scope, and opportunities (which Ciulei takes) for great set pieces, while setting up traps (which he also takes) of episodicness and rambling. Without (anachronistic in 1916) communist cheerleading, the best parts here hold up better in 2011 than comparable sequences in DANUBE and ERUPTION while the weaknesses become less excusable. Basically everything after the decision to desert is just marking time and the hero becomes way too much of an existentialist Gandhi-type for my taste. There’s a whole subplot involving an authentic romance with a Pure Peasant Girl that feels completely tacked on (though it does … EVENTUALLY … lead to the film’s triumphant end). The last half-hour of the film feels like pages 900-1,000 of one of those lengthy Russian novels, where you appreciate the journey but your eyes are starting to glaze over and you can’t avoid thinking, “yes, Leo, you ARE Tolstoy, but you still only get one chance to wrap things up.”

But, like with Tolstoy, there’s too much here to cavil too much. The first thing we see is a mass of soldiers marching ahead of the camera, until a single soldier gets pulled out by looking back (at us, implictly) as Ciulei’s shock cuts and dissonant orchestra music intersperse that image with the credits — think the opening credits of PERSONA, though Ciulei doesn’t Bergman far down that road. The lengthy opening scene is of a deserter’s execution and even though there’s not the slightest narrative suspense and Ciulei eschews obvious “goosings,” it works kinda like how I said Satyajit Ray’s shooting of THE MUSIC ROOM did — the extra time makes things felt. An image of some characters coming across a passle of maybe 12-15 corpses hanging from trees made me wonder if a certain Greek Communist saw FOREST and was taking notes. There is a protracted Austro-Hungarian attack on a Romanian searchlight that is not only gripping but manages to be a political-consciousness metaphor that is also an actual military attack (at its best, FOREST suggests PATHS OF GLORY). Again revealing its novelistic roots, character touches abound, like the intellectual who stores an aristocratic-style carriage, like the way people jockey for assignments (from cowardice and bravado, or both at the same time), like the stolen glance of the hero’s mother done in a shock montage with stabbing music and blown-out lighting. FOREST also walks off with a lengthy, deafeningly-silent meal that had me wondering whether Horatiu Malaele had whole levels of in-joke and Romanian-cinema satire in SILENT WEDDING that went completely over my head, even though I still think that sequence is one of the funniest ever made. You also get the benefit of learning that the Romanian word for “Fire!!!” (the command form of the verb, not the noun) is “Fooock!!!”
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1 At the time, there was a country called “Romania,” but it was only about half the size of the country by that name now. Transylvania, though largely populated by ethnic Romanians, had long been ruled by Hungary, and as a result there were ethnic Romanians on both sides of the war. Here’s a time-changing map of the country’s boundaries.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | Liviu Ciulei | Leave a comment

What is Romanian for Le Havre?

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MORGEN (Marian Crisan, Romania, 2011, 4)

… “In Portul” for the record, though even if Kaurismaki never existed, MORGEN would still feel like a tedious redundancy. Once you know this movie’s premise — everything is laid out for you and you see absolutely nothing that even threatens to deviate from the premise’s two genres, Grumpy Adult Bonds With Cute Moppet and Rich Westerner Experiences Moral Growth by Helping Smuggle a Poor Immigrant. The combination of these two genres probably convinced the Romanian Academy that submitting MORGEN would give their country its best chance at its first ever Foreign Film Oscar nomination (if so … they’d be correct, sad to say).

There IS a (pseudo-)twist in that the Cute Moppet is an adult, though Yilmaz Yacin is considerably smaller than Romanian Andras Hathazi and plays the Turkish immigrant as a frightened little boy. The fact that the Turk speaks no Romanian and the Romanian no Turkish means that there can be no real relationship between humans here. The film doesn’t subtitle the refugee’s words, so unless the repeated use of “Alleman” rings bells for you, you don’t have any idea what he’s pleading about. Admittedly, neither does the Romanian, but after a certain point that theoretically justifiable representation of non-communication simply becomes non-communication itself and blocks anything else from developing, particularly of the “humanistic” variety MORGEN seems to want.

A story between two non-communicative mutes (which is what we de facto have) can work as an outright farce or deadpan black comedy, like Kaurismaki at his best. And there are moments and scenes when Crisan hints in that direction and MORGEN temporarily spasms into life. The Turk gets across the border into Hungary as part of a soccer-supporters bus (police aren’t gonna check every cheering, drunken lout) but, rather than escape, comes back to the game and starts cheering the Romanian club in its “Ultras” section as things degenerate on the field and in the stands. Another ruse involves getting on a work team that will be painting the stripes on a border-spanning road. The first scene, at the Hungary-Romania border, also promises a pitch-black East European Bureaucracy Farce (the dawn scene is brilliantly lit so the border guards are faceless). But that kind of irreverence would get in the way of Author’s Message Homilies about “what’s he done to you,” on how “this is the EU now, there are no borders” and in giving the sadsack hero a bitch of a wife so she can say things only a bitch would say, like “he could be a terrorist, he could be carrying a disease, don’t you watch TV?” And then … what happens at the end … trying to be vague … if it was that easy, what was all the earlier complicated stuff about.

December 3, 2011 Posted by | Marian Crisan | 1 Comment

Traiasca Romania

What kind of insane nut goes to New York for two days to see a bunch of Romanian movies he’s never seen, including three from a dead Communist-era director whom he’d never previously heard of? If you don’t know the answer to that, you haven’t been reading this sight much. Before I head out for the train, here is my schedule. Anyone who’ll be at the Walter Reade and wants to meet up, during or after, is welcome to let me know and I’ll be on Twitter.

Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 1:30 PM Morgen Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 3:45 PM Eruption/Eruptia Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 6:00 PM Forest of the Hanged Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 9:00 PM The Danube Waves Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Sat 12/3/2011 7:30 PM Principles of Life/Principii de viațã Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Sat 12/3/2011 10:00 PM Loverboy Main
1x Adult

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s time to get things restarted

SMALL FRY (Angus McClane, USA, 2011, 7)
THE MUPPETS (James Bobin, USA, 2011, 8)

I saw a movie this week in which a character enters a years-unused performance arena caked with dust and cobwebs but decides to use it again for one last show … cut to a montage of people sprucing the place up. I also saw THE MUPPETS.

I saw a movie this week in which a children’s-genre character wants to become one of pre-existing group of similar characters. I also saw THE MUPPETS.

The former is a reference to THE MUSIC ROOM — and I couldn’t help chuckle at the same scene in a musical fantasy like THE MUPPETS immediately after that powerful tragic drama. Or was I laughing at how that powerful tragic drama used a trope long favored in musical fantasies — “hey kids, let’s fix up the old place and put on a show!!”?

The latter is a reference to SMALL FRY, the Pixar “Toy Story”-series short that played before THE MUPPETS. A mini-Buzz fast-food toy escapes from the restaurant, switches himself with the “real” Buzz and joins the rest of the gang. Woody et al aren’t buying that he’s Buzz — the size and voice make the ruse so absurd it’s funny, like a kid pretending to be his dad and expecting mom to buy it. Meanwhile, in the comic heart of the film, Buzz is trapped in a support group for discarded toys (all from previous fast-food promotions of ‘fictional’ movies with probably real-life analogs). These absurd little trinkets sit in a circle and say things like “even though I’ve been thrown away, I am not garbage,” while Buzz is rolling his eyes and saying he hasn’t been thrown away (“you’re in denial”). It doesn’t tread ground Stewart Smalley didn’t, but it’s funny, and the merchandizing parodies are creative, if fish-barrel territory.

But the thematic similarity with THE MUPPETS (and … ahem … Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY) was striking; if I were a pretentious frog-philosopher type, I would call it The Issue of the Simulacrum in Post-Modernity. As it is, I’ll say that both the short and the feature grapple with the “copy” problem, if in the specific context of pop-culture familiarity with the original. In SMALL FRY, the issue is more existential — what space can a barely-valued knock-off have; while in THE MUPPETS, the textual issue is more the original’s obsolescence decades after its success, and there’s also the critical background question, “why make this movie at all, Jason Segel?” Or why is Victor, a 45-year-old man, watching this movie with no children in tow (I got a weird look when I bought a single ticket to WINNIE THE POOH earlier this year).

Both the TV show (I’m told) and the original MUPPET MOVIE, as I argued the other day, were totally self-referential entertainments, which makes it fair and in the originals’ spirit for Segel, as star, writer and executive-producer, to make the film about those very problems. Why get the Muppets back together (in the story) or make a Muppet movie (Segel’s issue), now that they’re obsolete? It also becomes a fair solution to use as the story entree two new “muppets,” Segel’s character Gary and the puppet Walter, supposedly the most identical twins since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The issue of “man or muppet” even comes up later, now that the two have grown apart in the obvious physical way. But in the very fact of their Muppet-worship, their disappointment to see the disrepair of Muppet Studios and their determination to get the gang together for one last movie show to foil Evil Nefarious Villain, they become surrogates for an audience that has shelled out $10 or more to watch a Muppets film in 2011 — a new generation for whom Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie are memories, if that, whom we want to see back together.

That would be moot if the film weren’t surface entertaining, but it most definitely is. I was bothered by the fact that, even as a non-Muppet boy-fan, I could tell Miss Piggy and Kermit weren’t the same voices, but I forgot about it soon enough.It has fun with its own anachronisms (I lost it at the sound of a dial-up modem) and its self-aware elements — Chris Cooper isn’t gonna win any Oscars for the role of Evil Oil Magnate Tex Richman (“rich man,” get it?) but he does exactly what’s required with rap songs and lines like “maniacal laugh” and plays them utterly straight.

So it’s wrong to dismiss THE MUPPETS as mere nostalgia, though nostalgia is definitely its subject, it’s more about the process of realizing a dream, specifically that the elements of Segel’s one’s childhood can be vital and made relevant today. The film also introduces both the difference between good nostalgia and bad nostalgia, in the story of what Fozzie is doing “now” in Reno, and the reason why even the “anachronistic” Muppets might be valuable today, in the TV programmers scenes (#TeamPunchTeacher should join #TeamPunchSimon). Nor is it fair to pick on THE MUPPETS too hard for foregrounding Walter and Gary for the first half-hour, since their relationship is so Muppet-like and that part of the film shares the same sense of humor. It’s absolutely NOT like the “normal” characters in MGM’s Marx Brothers movies, who clearly WERE residing in a different, totally-flat and utterly-uninteresting universe from that of the Brothers. For example, the music number “Everything Is Perfect” is much more sly than its Precisely Too Much on the Nose title, in lines like “Life is like a filet fish” (puzzled look for a rhyme) “yes, it is” and gestures like the whole town collapsing in “glad THAT was over” exhaustion and saying “OK, they’re gone” once Gary and Walter get on a Greyhound bus to leave Smalltown and its FW Woolworth on the square. It’s fun to pretend the world is perfect and everyone can be happy, even while knowing it can’t be; the artificial pretence is the fun. Even if only for the lovers, the dreamers and me.

To make one more wack comparison and confirm that this Nostalgia Is Its Own Glory theme is an official Trend, let me also cite 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA, in which the iconic character gets a bid for a last moment of Old School glory against Classless Newcomer (hey, *more* shades of THE MUSIC ROOM). Rocky doesn’t quite succeed but puts up such a good fight that he leaves the ring to the cheers of the crowd before the decision is even announced, the fight’s loser on the books but the winner in everybody’s eyes. Of course, Stallone’s pulling this film off this late in his career means he gets Rocky’s glory-in-defeat reflected back on himself, only as pure glory. Appropriate changes in the proper nouns, that is more or less what happens in the story-conflict of THE MUPPETS.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | James Bobin, Muppets | Leave a comment

I wish I were Indian


THE MUSIC ROOM (Satyajit Ray, India, 1958, 9)

I don’t know if Satyajit Ray was actually an apologist for monarchy / aristocracy; what I know of his biography and the Indian political environment of his lifetime suggests not. Nevertheless, if I were asked to name the film most sympathetic to aristocracy ever made, THE MUSIC ROOM would probably be it; certainly it’s on the short list with the likes of THE LEOPARD, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, DEATH IN VENICE (significantly, all four of these films are to-some-extent-tragedies about an aristocracy’s death). Indeed, THE MUSIC ROOM would almost certainly rank among my all-time favorite films if it weren’t for one big honking caveat, and even that is a weakness not of Ray’s film but of myself, which I allude to in this post’s title and will detail later.

THE MUSIC ROOM tells the story of the decline of landed aristocrat Biswambhar Roy, a man whose sole passion is music, even above his land (which the river is threatening, to his uninterest) and his family (one of the few intimate family scenes shows him teaching music to his son). His principal foil is an arriviste neighbor merchant named Ganguly for whom he has nothing but contempt, calling him “the son of a money-lender.” But this man tries to worm his way into the lord’s graces as an equal based on his increasing wealth and “my interest in music too.” (The poor basically don’t exist in THE MUSIC ROOM, shown only as the recipients of alms, first from Roy then from Ganguly.)

It’s impossible and in a sense pointless to ask about this class conflict, “which of the two men and/or the virtues and vices they represent does Ray ‘side with’.” But two questions are meaningful to ask — (1) “whose point-of-view, if anyone’s, does Ray privilege”; and (2) “does, and to what extent, the film contain ‘the aristocratic critique of the bourgeoisie’ and/or ‘the bourgeois critique of the aristocracy.’? And at that level, it’s hardly even a contest.

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December 1, 2011 Posted by | Satyajit Ray | 2 Comments