Monday, July 28, 2008

Less Than Meets the Eye

Recently a friend mentioned that she loved the Transformers movie, and I said I disagreed. When she pressed me for an explanation I demurred, for a couple of reasons: I wanted to marshal my thoughts with more clarity, and I didn't want to sully an otherwise delightful group lunch with what could easily become a semi-coherent rant.

But yes, I hated the Transformers movie. It goes beyond my dislike for director Michael Bay, who is only Uwe Boll with a megabudget. It's more than my dislike for the charmless, gormless Shia LeBeouf. As pretentious and snotty as this may sound, I hate the Transformers on moral grounds.

Here's why. The original Transformers were Japanese toys first.

Then the animated U.S. show was created around them. That made the program essentially a commercial aimed at the members of our society most vulnerable to advertising, children. And, since it debuted in the ultra-materialistic Eighties, it was a huge success, paving the way for many Japanese shows designed strictly to sell tie-in products (Pokemon, Digimon, Cardcaptors, etc.).

Consider why this is wrong. There has always been tie-in merchandise connected to popular art, going back, I believe, to Dickens, who called it the "Whoosh." But the merchandise always came after. Something hit the public consciousness and then was exploited, often far beyond the line of tacky. Just look at the things Lucas has licensed for Star Wars over the last thirty years. Yet Star Wars came first, then the toys and bedsheets. Transformers cynically reversed that, and then took aim at kids far too young to know their chains were being yanked. In the process, it altered the whole concept of childrens' programming, which up until then at least had to pay lip service to the concept of educating its viewers.

Creating what is essentially a half-hour toy commercial, then disguising it as a "tv show" aimed at the least discriminating audience demographic, is a form of societal child abuse. Parents aren't blameless in this--after all, they paid for the toys. But it inculcated a whole generation with the idea that nothing of value exists if it isn't accompanied by a parade of merchandise. The experience of enjoying something on its own has been subsumed in the desire, culturally across the board, to acquire things inspired by it.

So now we have Transformers, the live action movie, which actually starts with the credit "Paramount Pictures and Hasbro present..." It stars this week's Sexiest Woman Alive (Megan Fox), features state-of-the-art effects and, as most movies aimed at children do nowadays, pushes the sex and violence as far as its PG-13 rating allows. It cost $151 million to make, and grossed over $700 so far.

Think about those numbers, and think about the state of the world today. Think what the initial investment could've done for, say, victims of Hurricane Katrina. Think what a difference the box-office returns would make if they were given to, say, famine relief. Now think about that money poured instead into a toy commercial.

Yes, movies are made to turn a profit. Yes, the same complaints could be made for all big-budget fantasy epics, from Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Dark Knight. But goddamn, people: it's not a cultural icon like Superman or a beloved franchise like Indiana Jones, it's the goddamned Transformers, created for no other reason than to sell toys. Yes, there's more than meets the eye here, and it's the utter blank core of the typical American satisfied to become part of this obscene, in the truest sense of the word, revenue stream.

And that is why I hate the Transformers.

And it appears I'm not alone.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Music from Hell's Waiting Room

Last night the family went out for post-dinner ice cream at the local Culver's. We sat outside, since in the shade it was quite pleasant. However, we could still hear the background music, probably more clearly than the lucky folks packed inside. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in order, the music from Hell's Waiting Room*:

Ever Changing Times by Michael McDonald & Aretha Franklin

You Light Up My Life by Debbie Boone**

Morning Train by Sheena Easton

When You Love Someone by Bryan Adams

The Gambler by Kenny Rogers

Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins

I felt the most sympathy for the young man in the Motorhead t-shirt; he might actually need therapy. True metalheads can only survive a few seconds of exposure to The Gambler. Luckily it's July, and ice cream melts quickly, so I think he left before the song reached toxic levels. I hope we did, too.

* As designated by my brilliant wife, the Mater Familias.

** Unless you lived through it, you can't imagine how ubiquitous and omnipresent this song was. In 1977 it dominated the radio. Your parents loved it, your Sunday School teacher approved of it, Ms. Boone (daughter of white-bread born-again rocker Pat) performed it on each of the many TV variety shows, and it was just plain inescapable. Not even Meco's discofied version of the Star Wars theme could overpower it. It spent ten weeks at number one on the Billboard chart. Fortunately Ms. Boone also won the Best New Artist Grammy Award, often the kiss of career death (i.e., Starland Vocal Band, Christopher Cross, A Taste of Honey, Jody Watley, Mark Cohn, Paula Cole, and most recently, Amy Winehouse), and thus disappeared from the national scene.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Winter Passing: between the reaching and the touching

Movies about writers tend to be pretty dull, because unless you're sitting inside our skulls, what writers do is pretty dull. We stare at blank paper or screens, mutter to ourselves a lot, pace mindlessly and drink way too much (coffee and otherwise). Even writers with exciting lives don't always make exciting films. For example, the atrocious In Love and War wants us to believe that dewey Chris O'Donnell could grow up to be Ernest Hemingway; I suspect just one of Hemingway's sperm could kick Chris O'Donnell's ass. But I digress.

I actually want to praise a wonderful movie from 2005 called Winter Passing. Written and directed by Adam Rapp, it tells of a New York actress faced with the chance to sell love letters from her father (a J.D. Salinger-like recluse) to her mother (a recent suicide). This entails visiting her old home in Michigan, and reopening old family wounds.

So far, so trite. But it's the execution that makes this film stand out. Thematically it's about the difficulty of expressing feelings, and because none of the characters are very good at it, the film has a firm sense of reserve. The scenes draw you in: you have to pay attention to subtle changes of expression, slight inflections in words, and the rhythms of body language. There are moments that could be played as full-blown Lifetime Network scream-and-sob fests, but instead are pitched as mild, realistic conversations true to the characters having them.

The cast gets it exactly right. Zooey Deschanel, whose minimal style has been problematic in a lot of her roles (i.e., SciFi's miniseries Tin Man), is spot-on as the daughter who, it's implied, has become an actress because she can express none of her own emotions. Ed Harris plays her father not as a egocentric tyrant but a kind-hearted yet befuddled man overwhelmed by his life. Even Will Ferrell backs his energy way down as one of Harris' housemates, a sad outcast looking for purpose.

I know it sounds like a downer, but Winter Passing is not at all depressing. Nor is it a cheesy "love conquers all," hugs-and-lessons fest. The characters don't overcome their adversity, they just make small steps forward, and it's that understatement that makes this so affecting.

For example, Deschanel has nursed a long-held grudge because her parents only came to see her perform once, in high school. A lesser film would have Harris in the front row on opening night of her next play, smiling with paternal pride as the music swells triumphantly. But instead, here he sends her an inscribed copy of one of his books, all he's emotionally capable of doing. And she understands this, and accepts it as intended.

I think the central dilemma, the inability to really connect with other people (especially family), is something a lot of writers face. The distance between our inspiration and the effect we have on our audience is considerable compared to the more immediate arts. Musicians can play their song for you in three minutes; a painter's finished product can be taken in at a glance. It takes a long time to write a book, and a long time to read one. So there's often quite a lag between the reaching, and the touching.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Death and Grazia

The city of Ur, now located in Iraq, is considered one of the world's oldest civilizations. Its name has become synonymous, therefore, with the first recorded instance of something. And so, in that spirit, I give you Grazia, the Ur-Goth.

Grazia, played by Evelyn Venable, is the heroine of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. And she is in love with death. I don't mean in any abstract way, either: she is literally in love with Death, personified by Frederic March.

The film is based on a play titled La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella; the English-language translation by Walter Ferris is still occasionally performed by community-theater troupes (probably because the rights are pretty cheap). The spirit of Death takes a long weekend off from his job to chill (heh) among us mortals and find out why everyone fears him. Grazia is already half in love with Death as an abstract concept; when she meets him in the flesh, she falls the rest of the way. At the end she elects to join him in eternity and ease his loneliness, which is different from dying (although exactly how is left a bit vague).

Modern folk will recognize this basic story from two contemporary works: the song (Don't Fear) The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, and the film remake Meet Joe Black, in which dreamy Brad Pitt replaces actual actor Frederic March. The remake is also, at three hours, over twice as long as the eighty-minute original. Whether that translates into twice as good I'll leave to individual tastes.

I love this film, stage-bound and hokey though it might be. I find March's portrayal of Death, both in his traditional Grim Reaper form and his mortal disguise Prince Sirki, to be touching, humorous and just a bit rauncy in the way pre-Production Code films could be. He plays Death divorced from any specific religious connotation, describing himself as "a sort of vagabond of space. I am the point of contact between time and eternity." Later, as Sirki, he takes offense when Death is referred to as "the Old Man." And he's hysterically discomforted in the subtle but, to a modern audience, obvious scene where he experiences sexual arousal for the first time.

Grazia is no slouch in the poetic-dialogue department herself. She tells Sirki, "When I'm with you, I see depths in your eyes that are like the worlds I visit in sleep. And beneath your words is a sound I've heard in dreams. When you leave me, the light goes from the sky. You're like the mystery that's just beyond sight and sound. Always just beyond my reach. Something that draws and... frightens." Yes, this is overblown and melodramatic, but Grazia is no poser pretending to court the Reaper. She sees what's inside him for what it really is, and still longs to join him. Take that, typical Hot Topic customer.

And I can't tell you how annoyed I am that the only way to find Death Takes a Holiday on DVD is to buy the special edition of Meet Joe Black, which includes the original film as a bonus. Note to filmmakers: unless you're absolutely dead-on sure that you've made a better version, do not include the original on your DVD. It only makes you look sadder than you already do for doing a remake in the first place.