Thursday, April 23, 2009

Roy & Me

When I did the characters meme a while back, I knew in my heart that I had left off a film character that is of vital importance to me, one that I identify with on both a personal and cosmic level. But I also didn't want to write a quick paragraph to attempt to convey my feelings, either, so it was probably best that I save it for a separate entry. In Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary is awakened to the profound beauty and mystery of the Universe through contact with extra-terrestrial life forms.

This is a concept that has always intrinsically appealed to me, that of spiritual transcendence via interplanetary contact. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and De Palma's Mission to Mars are the only films I can think of besides Spielberg's film that liken extra-terrestrial contact to a religious experience. In terms of practical, scientific concepts of God, alien life would be just about the closest we could come in the known Universe. The notion that we're not alone in the Universe is one that is extremely humbling, and the notion of life reaching out to other life is one that I've always found to be incredibly profound. Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn't cast the aliens into a generic monster role--- though it does acknowledge that fear is a natural reaction to alien contact, but rather these aliens are benevolent harbingers of goodwill. Which makes sense, as I can't imagine life-forms making their way across the Universe (can you imagine the traffic?) simply to blow the shit out of us, as so many films seem to depict (including Spielberg's own War of the Worlds).

Since Spielberg is a deeply spiritual film maker, it's no wonder that he would treat the idea of alien contact with a God-like awe. He recognizes that religion, art, and science are all separate means to the same end: to better comprehend the world around us. Spielberg is criticized for so often using aliens as plot devices in his films, but I don't see this as a problem. The profound rumination on narrative in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed to fly over the heads of the Nuke the Fridge crowd, who were more interested in focusing on trivial semantics than sub-textual meaning. Spielberg's interchanging of religion and science fiction as the central McGuffin is actually a perfect articulation of the themes of emotional and psychological interchangeability that he has been making films about most of his career. And it started with Close Encounters.

But these themes of cosmic and spiritual wonder could not be properly expressed without the deeply moving performance of Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, humankind is given a stand-in in the form of Keir Dullea's Dave Bowman. Kubrick was an artist who analyzed humanity on the macro-cosmic level, from the top down (some have called this approach 'cold', though I don't agree), and thus Dave Bowman is lacking in a truly identifiable personality, since he's essentially a stand-in for us all. Spielberg, conversely, is an artist who works on the microcosmic level and thus is deeply emotionally involved in the odyssey of Roy Neary, whom he is clearly using as a stand-in for himself. It's the only time he's put himself on screen in such a blatant way.

Though there is a big difference between the first cut of the film and the 1997 edition, my preferred cut of the film, and that focus is what I feel makes the difference between a flawed work of undeniable vision and a perfect distillation of a mature artist. The original 1977 cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is kind of all over the place and the parts lack cohesiveness, to the point that they almost feel disjointed from the whole. This is because the 1977 edition hones in less on the Roy Neary narrative, and thus the film has no real emotional center. Rather, the 1977 cut has an ideological focus instead, and this makes it feel almost like an Altman-esque network narrative. While the intent is certainly ambitious, ultimately, I don't feel as though it works as strongly as it could have. I love the movie in all its forms (and I plan on writing about the three versions here at Medfly someday), but I also feel that Spielberg's maturation over the course of 20 years ultimately helped make the film everything it should have been in the first place. He found the film's emotional center in the odyssey of Roy Neary over that time, and thus found his voice.

I saw an interview with Spielberg where he described where he got the idea to make Close Encounters (naturally, I have been unable to find the interview subsequently, otherwise I'd post it). He was driving alone at night and came to a large, empty field. He stopped there and laid looking at the night sky, and suddenly he got the vision of a UFO landing in the exact spot he was, and the aliens inviting him to go with them. He honestly thought to himself about what he would do in the event that this situation arose--- and came to the conclusion that he wouldn't go with aliens, in spite of his curiosity. This notion bothered him so much that he left his spot as quickly as he could.

So, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is in part about dealing with the fear of alien contact as well as the massive psychological weight that such a revelation would carry with it. When Roy Neary first sees the flying saucer, its light is literally overpowering; it blinds him, burns him, and damns him in a sense. It awakens his senses to something beyond his job, his wife, his children, and even his planet--- but there are consequences to this enlightenment. This knowledge comes with a very deep price, as Roy Neary's simple life has been forever altered, for better or worse. The light, or rather the light's implications, consume him to the point where he is at the very edge of sanity.

On a shallow level, we could say Spielberg made this film about running away from parental responsibility. Roy goes on a roller coaster ride with funny looking little men to get out of being a husband, father, and working a 9-5. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes the decision Roy has to make seriously, acknowledging the damage that Roy's obsession was causing within his family. Though this is another aspect underdeveloped in the 1977 cut, because Roy himself is underdeveloped--- Spielberg skirts around the issue of parental abandonment in the original cut, perhaps because he's scared of it. Because Close Encounters in its original form is about avoiding parental responsibility, Spielberg more or less spends the scenes with Roy's family building a case for Roy's eventual abandonment of them--- in the 1997 cut, the issue certainly isn't as cut and dry, because he more vividly paints a picture of Roy's family dynamics. Again, Spielberg's maturation over 20 years helped him flesh out themes that were initially only on the surface.

Like Lynch's Eraserhead, made the same year, Close Encounters also articulates apprehensions about being a father--- about resigning yourself to being a 'family man'. Spielberg has said that, if he'd made the film today, he never would have had Roy Neary leave his wife and kids behind--- because, having become a father, he knows in his heart that's something he would never do, regardless of the circumstance. This is understandable, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind was made before he was a father, and what we're left with is a film that shrugs parental responsibility in favor of a joy-ride round the Universe. Maybe it's my youth, but the idea of having children pretty much makes me want to run to the hills, so this is another aspect of Roy that I connect with. Maybe if I were a father, I would think of this character differently.

I think we've all felt like we simply didn't belong at some point in our life. The feeling of isolation can lead us to dark places. This is, of course, an ongoing theme in Spielberg's career (E.T., Empire of the Sun, Amistad, A.I., and The Terminal have that theme as their either main or tertiary focus), and it's probably a large part of why I connect with his films. He so perfectly enters the subjective frame of mind of the 'outsider' that we feel like we're there with him, on the outside looking in. In High School, when I first saw the film, the idea of leaving the world behind and going on a transcendental journey of cosmic enlightenment is one that struck a deep personal chord (especially having just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months before). I remember feeling like, in many ways, High School was actually suffocating my internal growth and quest for knowledge, and Spielberg's film is one of the key experiences that awakened me to things beyond my day-to-day existence.

It's Richard Dreyfuss' eyes that speak to me most in the performance, and the sad longing that they convey. The notion that something inexplicable, intangible, is just missing. Since the beginning of mankind, we have looked to the stars for answers as to our place among them, and we have channeled these existential queries into our art. Spielberg takes this one-step further by making the stars themselves the answer--- that wordless, cosmic mystery that drives us to make sculptures out of our dinner and found garbage. The childlike awe that is the only reasonable reaction to a notion so extraordinary. He conveys these mind expanding and earth-shattering themes through Roy Neary, which is why the character touches my heart in a way like no other character does.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Characters with Character

Oh dear. I've been tagged, it seems. An internet meme (some would say plague, but not I...) has been taking over the world of blogger, and that meme involves bloggers listing their 'favorite' movie characters. Greg over at Cinema Styles has tagged me so, if you find this painful, go over there and yell at him. Seriously, you have my blessing.

Characters are our emotional gateway into the themes a movie presents, so it's natural that there would be some who would strike a deep personal chord with us. We see something of ourselves in them, like a mirror in motion. I'm not going to pretend that this list represents my unequivocal favorites, but today, this is what feels right. So here ya go, in chronological order:

Emil Jannings as Hotelportier, The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)

It's hard not to love a character who gets the last laugh, who rises out of the muck to join the prestigious ranks of the upper class, by sheer chance. The legend is that they forced Murnau to change the ending from what it originally was, which had the Hotelportier dying in the same washroom he was once the attendant of. Personally, I love the film, 'compromised' ending and all, and its delicious irony is part of the joy of it. The title The Last Laugh would be kinda irrelevant without that final scene, honestly.

Jacques Tati as Hulot

(Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) & Trafic (1971), Jacques Tati)

Again, it's hard not to love Hulot. He's a bumbling, clumsy, accident proned observer of all of humanity's foibles. While the silent comedies from which Tati was inspired derived their laughs from the characters getting annoyed at the main character, Hulot never seems to inspire anger or outrage, no matter how badly he screws a situation up (though, in Mr. Hulot's Holiday, it seems that the characters are oblivious to the fact that he's the one who causes the mayhem). But the fact that he's funny is not why I love Hulot so much (though that's certainly part of it); it's because he is one of humanity's sharpest observers, always lurking in the background, observing us with an eye that is simultaneously loving, critical, and benevolent.

James Stewart as John 'Scottie' Feguson, Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

One of cinema's great tragic figures, Scottie Ferguson becomes enveloped by love that evolves (or regresses) into obsession. While most of us have never been pushed to the ends that Scottie finally is in the film's heartbreaking, soul-crushing final scene, I think most of us can still identify with not being able to get a person out of your head, no matter how hard you try. You see the person everywhere because they have, in effect, become part of you. His monologue to Kim Novak's character at the end is one of the most intense moments I've ever seen in any film--- his anger, heartbreak, and righteous indignation are all there for the audience to see. When she takes the final plunge, and the mystery woman is out of his life forever, he finds himself right back to where he started. As though she was never even there.

Frank Sinatra as Dave Hirsh in Some Came Running (1958, Vincente Minnelli)

Another tragic figure, this time played by ol' blue eyes in Vincente Minnelli's masterpiece-of-masterpieces, Some Came Running. I love this character because of the way his past literally explodes in his face, and he needs to come to terms with the friends and family he wronged before abandoing them. Along the way he gets mixed up with something of a bad crowd. It's an old and familiar story, but I don't think it's ever unfolded quite like it does in Minnelli's film. Also, here Sinatra plays against his friend, Dean Martin, in some of the finest acted scenes I've ever seen.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel

(The 400 Blows (1959), Antoine et Collette (1962) , Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed & Board (1970), Love on the Run (1979), Francois Truffaut)

Watching Antoine Doinel grow from petulant, misunderstood child to petulant, misunderstood young adult to somewhat petulant husband is one of the great joys film has to offer. Brought to life by French New-Wave icon Jean-Pierrre Leaud, the odyssey of Antoine Doinel is just about as enjoyable as it gets. But, like everyone else, it's the image of the directionless young boy alone on a beach that sticks with me to this day. I think we've all been there.

Jean-Paul Belomondo as Pierrot in Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)

Poor Pierrot. As you can see, by the end of his story he gets himself into something of a desperate situation, painting his face a hideous shade of blue and preparing himself to strap dynamite around his cranium. But, can you really blame the guy? He lives a boring, tranquil life with bratty, aggravating children. But he's invited to start a life of crime with the irresistible Anna Karina, and that's when the self-fulfilling Bonnie & Clyde prophecy begins to pan itself out. He and Karina are really just playing out roles they'd seen in dozens of American pictures (notably Nick Ray's They Live By Night). From the moment the journey began, it had to end with Pierrot blowing himself to kingdom come. It just couldn't have gone any other way.

Douglas Rain as HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

This will probably sound strange, but has there ever been a more human character in films than the immortal HAL 9000? Obviously, he's simply a high-functioning computer, but more profound questions on the nature of humanity have never been raised. The human beings we see in this film are more or less mechanical beings, relying on their technology to do their bidding. But HAL has a soul. He remembers his childhood. He remembers his first teacher. He knows all the words to "A Bicycle Built for Two". The scene where Dave removes his memory is one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of cinema. If humanity is indeed defined by our memories, both individual and collective, then HAL is about as human as they come.

William Finley as Winslow Leach/The Phantom in The Phantom of the Paradise
(1974, Brian De Palma)

A tragic self-fulfilling prophecy, Winslow Leach was just asking for trouble giving his cantata to the insidious Mr. Swan. He'd poured his heart and soul into a full rock-opera version of Faust that he handed over to the record producer Swan in hopes of notoriety, but Swan simply stole the sound and trashed it up and dumbed it down for mainstream consumption (without giving Winslow credit, no less). De Palma's film is one of the most critical takes on what industry does to art, the fundamental differences between the two enterprises; and the character of Winslow Leach is the ultimate sap who gets his life-worked scorned in the name of mainstream pap. It's like the lyrics to the Billy Joel song "The Entertainer"; You've heard my latest record/It's been on the radio/Ah, it took me years to write it/They were the best years of my life/It was a beautiful song/But it ran too long/If you're gonna have a hit/You gotta make it fit/So they cut it down to 3:05. Eventually, Winslow sets himself and everyone else free of Swan, but only by sacrificing himself. I find his death scene deeply moving, even in the context of this kind of goofy post-modern mash-up.

Woody Allen as Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry (1997, Woody Allen)

I probably could have littered this list with Woody Allen characters, but I settled on Harry Block because of the way he channels his life into his work. As Woody Allen says in the film, his character can't function in life, but in art. It's a more hard edged version of my favorite Francois Truffaut quote, "I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself,". But Woody Allen's film is also about the wall that must be put up between the artist and humanity, in order to effectively capture it. Deconstructing Harry is as profound a rumination on the relationship between art and the artist as Fellini's 8 1/2, and with Woody's trademarked wit. Oh, and it's one of the most deliciously vulgar movies I've ever seen, with profanity elevated to poetry.

Jeff Bridges as the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998, The Coen Brothers)

Sometimes....there's a man. And that man is The Dude. I know it's something of an obvious choice, and picking him makes me your typical 20-something-stoner-slacker, but that doesn't mean that I don't attempt to embody The Dude's spirit. Jeff Bridges really brings what could have been a cardboard cut-out character to life, and gives him a personality. Not to mention, he has a killer fashion sense.

Jude Law as Gigolo Joe in A.I. (2001, Steven Spielberg)

If anyone ever abandons me in the woods, I sincerely hope I run into a Gigolo Joe. He's just a class act, and he's a lady-killer if ever there was one. Not to mention, his head seems to be a juke-box which plays very romantic old-standards, which helps liven up the mood. I really want one of those. While it is indeed a fantastic character, it's Jude Law's performance that makes the character unforgettable; he carries himself with all the grace of a classic Hollywood icon, and he is consistently a joy to watch. A huge smile just envelops my face whenever he's on screen.

Bill Murray as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
(2004, Wes Anderson)

Sometimes you see elements of yourself in a character. Sometimes, you almost feel like the person on the screen is you. And, sometimes, you see yourself and your parent in a character or characters, and in this case it's myself and my father. Steve Zissou being a man simultaneously in awe of the beauty of the world and embittered by his life experience is something I see very much in my father. And the way he gets re-acquainted with a child he'd never known only to have to say goodbye again so soon feels like it was almost transposed from my life, though in my case there wasn't death involved. As for his propensity for marijuana, alcohol, and films...well, yeah, that's me. There are also touches of Werner Herzog in Steve Zissou, his insatiable desire to go out, make films, in spite of the fact that common sense dictates that you should stop. But, as they say, 'this is an adventure'.

Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy Go Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

Shit, I realize at the end of this post: no women. While Sally Hawkins in last year's Happy-Go-Lucky doesn't necessarily embody strong feminist values, her attitude towards life is one I aspire to have, though in not quite such an outward way as she does it. Being 'happy' isn't something that just happens, it's a moment-to-moment attitude that you either embody or don't. Poppy doesn't let anything or anyone get her down, instead relating to the world in her own bubbly, humorous way. But by the end, she realizes the effect she has on people (both positive and negative) and the consequences of her actions and the actions of others. Poppy is made immortal by a fantastic performance from Sally Hawkins, who is a joy to watch in one of the best films of last year.

So, that's 13, but I don't feel like taking anyone off the list, so you're just gonna have to deal with it. I live by my own rules.

I tag Rob, Keith, Ali, Ted, & Jim. Not that any of you actually look at my blog, but if you did, you'd be tagged.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

If Animation Has a Name, Then it Must Be Charles M. Jones

"I’m not particularly known throughout the world for being a conductor of oceans, but I bet I’m one of the best. "

Last week, TCM broadcast the original documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood, and it was one of the more illuminating half hours of television that I've recently seen. Using a technique similar to that of the recent Oscar nominated short I Met the Walrus and The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (the creators of the latter short made this film), the documentary animates the recollections of childhood that Jones describes, giving his stream of consciousness explanations of his life an added twinge of poignancy. Also, the cartoon figure that the film uses as a stand-in Jones as a child was drawn by Jones himself. It's a self-portrait in motion.

The film uses segments of an interview conducted with Jones before his death in 2002 to get to the core of his childhood, which helps illuminate why his characters have such universal appeal. They aren't just cartoon archetypes, they represent a portion of his psyche. This is why the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series have had such continuing impact; they aren't just strings of jokes and sight gags, the cartoons are representative of a world view that was shaped by experience.

"When I was two years old I think the event that occurred then probably had a great deal to do with my becoming an animator. Because I fell off a second story back porch on to a hunk of cement. I’m sure that it jostled my brain cells out of any hope that I would be a very logical child."
Watching Jones hand draw the Looney Tunes characters is one of the great joys of this documentary. It adds a personal touch to the characters we're all so familiar with. Jones talks about how these characters are, in essence, a part of the very fabric of his being.

"Pepe, he assumes immediately that he’s irresistible, so that’s actually the opposite of what I felt. I felt I was very resistible. People ask me about whether I’m some of the characters like Pepe. Of course I am, but I’m Daffy Duck, too."
It's this personal touch that separates Jones from the rest. Jones was so obsessive about his work that he believed that a single frame could make the difference between a good joke and a bad joke, and he would go through his films a frame at a time until they were just right. He treated his form like it was music, with every frame being a note in a comedic symphony. His films played with the synchronization of senses that Disney's Silly Symphonies had helped popularize, but I think the Warner Brothers shorts went even deeper with that core idea, because they played with that concept of image and its relation to music in unique, unexpected, and consistently hilarious ways.

The tone that runs through the documentary is one of poignant melancholy. One gets the impression that Chuck Jones was one of those people who had it all figured out, and we were lucky to get a glimpse of that understanding through his work. Many of his films stand out as the very best of the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, which would put them among the best films ever made, and he among the great film makers. It's incidental that his understanding of humanity took the form of slap-stick one reel cartoons, that's merely the way in which he related to the world. "If I can find the quirk to something, I think I can understand a little bit about it." Perhaps Jones was a forebearer to Wes Anderson in that sense.

Being the shameless self promoter I am, I'd like to use this post as a chance to formally announce what I hope will be a recurring series for Medfly Quarantine, the Looney Tunes Project; where myself, my darling co-curator (still waiting on a contribution from her...), and anyone who feels like contributing will write up a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies short. Be sure to check back for updates.