Monday, 28 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Four

21/01/2013 - 27/01/2013

Celia [Ann Turner, 1989]:  With the significance of its white rabbit, precocious child protagonist and world of imagined fantasy as possible evidence of potential mental illness, the film is suggestive of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Not so much in its storytelling approach - which is much more simple and yet somehow more complex than Carroll (as the "wonderland" of Turner's film is based very much in the actual reality of the period, making the character's movement between worlds purely psychological) - but in the tone of the film; that spirit of childhood adventure as metaphor for discovery, full of horror and imagination.  It reminded me very much of a film like The Curse of the Cat People (1944), where an evocation of a seemingly idyllic childhood is off-set by the loneliness and alienation of its central character, and where the subtle references to the horror genre are used to disguise what is effectively a sad and depressing story of a child's inability to connect with the world.  The punctuation of loss and the often disquieting tone, especially in the film's second half, are not necessarily intended to scare or disturb the audience (as in a conventional horror movie), but illustrate the impact that the world (with its prejudice and hostility) can have on a character with an over-active imagination, already left somewhat disconnected (or disenchanted) by the death of her grandmother in the very first scene.  In some respects, it's impossible not to be reminded of one of my favourite films, Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1997), with both of these stories sharing a similar emphasis on childhood alienation, the turbulence of the late 1950s (or early '60s for Jordan) and the intrusion of disturbing fantasy sequences that illustrate the tenuous grip on reality held by these young protagonists as their lives are slowly beset by heartache and despair.  While Jordan's film is unequivocally one of the great Irish films, Turner's captivating and emotionally complex debut must surely rank as one of the great Australian films, finding a perfect balance between sensitive character study, childhood adventure story, horror movie and social parable, where the history of the country, in particular the anti-communist sentiment of the time and the outbreak of Myxomatosis - which leads to one of the film's most heartbreaking sub-plots - both prove to be disastrous to the emotional development of this loveless little girl. 

Cars [John Lasseter & Joe Ranft, 2006]:  I suspect one of the main reasons why this film was treated with some suspicion on its initial release is not because it takes place in a world entirely populated by cars with human characteristics, but because it exposes many of the more glaring imperfections that exist at the core of even Pixar's most celebrated works.  The almost oppressive yearning for the innocence of yesteryear seems especially hollow when we take into consideration the company's continued use of new technologies.  After all, it was the peerless computer generated animation of Pixar's first success, the still hugely popular Toy Story (1995), that arguably killed off any interest contemporary audiences might have had in traditional, hand-drawn animation.  In Lasseter's world (or his ideal of it), the technology used to create these films would be seen as a distraction from the simple pleasures that make life, to him, worth living.  In Cars, the message - to slow-down and appreciate what we have while we have it; to reclaim that innocence of a bygone age when people lived for the joy of living and took pleasure, not from machines or materialistic pursuits, but from social interaction - is nullified by the existence of the film, which is itself a kind of distraction (unless we assume Lasseter is trying to have his cake and eat it too?)  Other problems, like the film's cheap stereotypes and the all-to-neat 'building block' approach to storytelling are self-evident, while the endless self-references and the cutesy in-jokes to previous Pixar projects only gives the film a feeling of over-familiarity.  Still, Cars is entertaining, for what it is, but a lot of the film feels self-consciously manufactured, almost as if the entire thing has been created to fit into a particular idea of what a Pixar movie should be.

Cars 2 [John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011]:  Call me absurd, but not only do I consider Cars 2 superior to its less maligned (but still somewhat maligned) predecessor, I also think it's a far more imaginative and ultimately more satisfying film than Pixar's previous hit, the almost universally acclaimed Toy Story 3 (2010).  Personally, I liked the idea of framing the return of these characters as a throwback to old spy movies, with the race used simply to provide a context for its espionage-themed plot.  The filmmakers have  dropped the preachy message of the first film and embraced a full-on action/adventure story that reminded me of the best aspects of Pixar's earlier hit, The Incredibles (2004).  Like that particular film, Cars 2 is enlivened by its allusions to other movies of the same genre and a lot of the fun comes from spotting the occasional references to things like James Bond, Harry Palmer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible.  There are still several flaws consistent with the first film, with the appalling use of "ethnic" stereotypes unsurprisingly exacerbated by the globetrotting nature of the plot, which also isn't helped by the film's continual emphasis on the character of 'Mater' the tow-truck, probably the most grating caricature from the original film.  In the first Cars (2006), 'Mater' was presented as the worst kind of stereotypical "bumpkin" and his flaws and failings were used to derive easy laughs from an audience almost encouraged to see his simple-minded homespun "philosophising"  as typical of the innocence of people who live in smaller, isolated communities, that move too slowly for the modern world.  There's a lot of this same patronising attitude presented here, but interestingly the filmmakers also turn the joke against the characters (and in turn against the audience) by having 'Mater' eventually become conscious of these particular criticisms of his character and express an obvious sadness and disappointment at having been reduced to the butt of the joke.  This kind of complexity isn't rare for Pixar, but it is an idea that works against the breathless action and adventure of the main plot, turning the film into something more than just an entertaining spy-movie pastiche, but something almost self-aware. 
By Bogdanovich [Adam Hulin, 2011]:  As a career retrospective, Adam Hulin's By Bogdanovich is almost as essential as its subject's own 1971 study of the work of John Ford.  Bogdanovich, as interviewee, is simply a great raconteur, full of stories and insights into Hollywood and the business of making films.  As a subject, he's candid, reflective, not afraid to namedrop and just about loquacious enough to hold the interest of the viewer for the entirety of this feature-length work.  He is also refreshingly self-deprecating, acknowledging his failings on a personal as well as professional level, and generally shedding some light onto his process as a filmmaker, his influences and the often tragic circumstances that have defined the course of his career.  For someone of my age, born in the 1980s, it's perhaps difficult to remember a time when Bogdanovich was one of the leaders of a generation of filmmakers that came to prominence during the 1970s.  While the names of his contemporaries, such as Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese have endured, Bogdanovich seems to have been forgotten by the culture that once accepted him as a legitimate talent, despite the remarkable back-to-back successes of films like The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).  I suppose, to put it into a modern-day perspective, we might think of someone like M. Night Shyamalan (though both filmmakers would reject the comparison); a director initially celebrated for a particular kind of film, only to be denigrated for the same kind of film only a few years later.  Watching this two-hour-plus interview conducted by Hulin, I found myself growing ever more sympathetic towards Bogdanovich, who seems to have been a victim of his early success and the subsequent weight of critical expectation.  The reflections here have definitely led me to re-evaluate the classics, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, while also inspiring me to track down some of Bogdanovich's other, less popular films, such as Daisy Miller (1974), Nickelodeon (1976), Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed (1981).