Vampyr (1932)

Today’s cinema adventure: Vampyr, a 1932 French/German horror film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, about a young man, obsessed with the occult, whose wanderings lead him into the dark troubles of a remote countryside manor, where the owner’s mysteriously ill daughter may be in the grip of horrifying powers from beyond the grave. Dreyer’s first film using sound, it was also his first effort following The Passion of Joan of Arc, a feature which, despite enthusiastic acclaim from critics, had been a box office disaster. With no studio willing to take a chance on the basis of his artistic promise alone, Dreyer found private financing from Nicolas de Brunholz, a young Baron who was a fixture of the Parisian social scene, known for his extravagant parties and his patronage of the arts, who would later become a prominent fashion editor for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (and a mentor for designers Bill Blass and Calvin Klein, among others). De Brunholz’s condition for backing Dreyer’s film was that he would be its star; under the pseudonym of “Julian West,” assumed to assuage his prominent family’s disapproval of his acting ambitions, he portrays the wispy focal character of Allan Grey, and though his acting abilities were decidedly limited (and wisely un-stretched by Dreyer’s demands), his tall, slender frame and his handsome, elegant appearance set a distinctive tone at the center of the movie, aptly suggesting a strong spirit that has perhaps found himself over his head in a situation beyond his grasp.

Nevertheless, despite the support and participation of one of Europe’s most prominent society figures and the attendant buzz which surrounded it, Vampyr proved to be a worse flop than Joan of Arc, booed at its debut screening and, this time, even derided by the critics, who found it slow-moving, incoherent, and/or laughable; for many years it was widely considered Dreyer’s worst film, falling into such neglect that all but a few damaged original prints were lost. Indeed, produced to capitalize on the popularity of such American horror films as Dracula and Frankenstein (though it was initially conceived before these films had been released), it had such a marked difference in tone and style that it is easy to see why it perplexed and disappointed movie-goers of the time. The film’s failure contributed to Dreyer’s declining financial and emotional stability, which led to a nervous breakdown and kept him from making another film for another 11 years. It was only after his subsequent career and the retrospective appreciation of a later generation that reassessment granted it a status more deserved by its innovative and unique contribution to the horror genre and to cinema in general.

Ironically, many of the elements which made Vampyr such a flop are the reasons it is considered such so significant today. On a superficial level, it is one of the first horror films to feature a female vampire (and an elderly one at that) as its main antagonist, having been partly based on the short story Carmilla, by L. Sheridan La Fanu, a popular 19th-century fiction known for its decidedly lesbian overtones- some of which carry over into the film. It was also one of the first times the obvious sexual implications of the vampire myth were explored more overtly; though there is no explicit reference or depiction of sex, the metaphoric connection is clear, particularly in the decidedly romantic manner in which the young heroine is seen being victimized by her attacker. The film is also notable for its re-imagination of the standard, Dracula-based formula seen in most vampire movies; although it features most of the key archetypes inherent to the story, many of the familiar stock characters are absent or significantly changed, and the locations, though suitably grim and antiquated, are not the gothic staples of our expectation- the village is an idyllic, sun-scaped riverside town, devoid of torch-waving mobs, and in place of a foreboding castle for the vampire’s lair, we are given a decrepit flour mill.

More important, however, is Vampyr‘s visual and thematic style, and the underpinnings of its influences from dominant artistic movements of the time. Dreyer’s artistic sensibilities, while distinctly his own, were clearly influenced by his involvement with the French art scene, resulting here in a movie reminiscent of works by his more directly avant-garde contemporaries such as Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. His stated intention with Vampyr was to take the art of cinema in a new direction, using a vehicle which lent itself to imaginative treatment by nature of its supernatural content; in realizing this goal, he blended his own passion for realism (enhanced by his use of natural lighting and authentic location photography) with the heightened theatricality and Freudian overtones of Expressionism, the seemingly nonsensical and dreamlike imagery of Surrealism, and the piecemeal construction of Impressionism. The resultant film glows with an ethereal beauty, combining a variety of cinematographic techniques (exquisitely executed by Rudolph Maté) that range from the sharply defined to the gauzy and murky; the narrative is deliberately cloudy and illogical, filled with non-sequiturs and credibility gaps, creating the feeling of a dream or even a delusion, an effect bolstered by camera trickery that gives us such jarring elements as shadows moving independently (or in compete absence) of their owners, and otherwise commonplace actions occurring in reverse; deeply symbolic or arcane iconography is everywhere, and the screen is filled with a rich and varied texture of design- mostly the result of decor and objects inherent to the actual shooting locations; and finally, the overall effect of Vampyr is created by a cumulative process in which the broad and vivid strokes of its seemingly disjointed progression combine to form a complete picture that is unified and harmonious- if somewhat unsettling.

Adding to the hallucinatory feel of Vampyr is its primitive use of sound. The European film community was behind the curve with the new technology of talking pictures, and the location shooting of Dreyer’s movie only exacerbated the difficulties, as did his plan to shoot the film in three separate languages- French, German, and English, though the existing print was restored from surviving copies of the former two versions and there is no evidence that the latter was ever completed. The problems were surmounted by a screenplay (co-written with Dreyer by Christen Jul) containing a minimum of dialogue, mostly cryptic exchanges that were overdubbed in a studio after the fact by actors other than the ones onscreen; however, the inclusion of aural elements was an integral part of Dreyer’s technique here, and he utilizes a wide variety of eerie effects, not only to underscore the action (along with an elaborate and effective score by Wolfgang Zeller- a pioneering inclusion for early sound films, which were mostly devoid of musical accompaniment), but also to aid in telling the story, with several key scenes relying heavily on soundscapes to convey important events that are taking place off-camera.

However, even with full appreciation for the skill and artistry with which it was made, watching Vampyr is hardly a thrilling experience; with its emphasis on atmosphere and its artistic conceits, it fails to concern itself with such usual priorities as pacing or continuity, and in spite of the macabre crisis it depicts it is largely lacking in suspense or action, contenting itself instead to create a series of elegiac encapsulations of mood and concept. As it approaches its ending, however, Vampyr suddenly shifts gear and delivers a pair of sequences that transform it from an intellectual exercise into a genuine horror movie. First is an extended set piece in which its protagonist has a premonition of himself lying wide-eyed in a windowed coffin, being prepared for and carried off to burial. Through the use of first-person perspective, Dreyer creates a highly uncomfortable, claustrophobic identification of the audience with the corpse, forcing us to imagine our own death and experience the ominous finality of these moments, as well as conjuring the universal fear of being buried alive. Continuing to capitalize on the latter, we are shortly afterward given a scene in which one of the characters, trapped at the bottom of a storage shaft and surrounded by the cold sterility and inhumanity of ominous industrial machinery, is slowly submerged in a cascade of sifted flour until his desperate cries for help are silenced by death. These sections of the film distill its underlying theme into a direct and palpable form; for Vampyr, at its core, is ultimately a meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the fear of which, as Dreyer rightly understood, is at the base of all our obsessive fascination with the dark mythology of our folklore and fiction. When we cringe at the imagined threat of the undead monsters or unspeakable diseases that haunt our shared nightmares, we are really responding to the shadow of our own mortality; and though an iron spike through the heart may end the vampire’s reign of terror, and an emergence from fog into a sunlit clearing may temporarily provide the comfortable reassurance that all will now be well, we know that staving off these supernatural horrors can only delay the inevitable fate which awaits us all. The power of Vampyr derives from its recognition of that fact; and though much of the film expresses the concept of death through motifs and moods that impress us without involving or exciting us, it blindsides us in its penultimate scenes with these visceral evocations of our most primal fear, rendering hollow its obligatory happy ending and leaving us with an indelible sense of the bleak hopelessness summed up in the familiar words inscribed on the lid of our hero’s hallucinatory coffin: “From dust are you made and to dust you shall return.” It’s an uncomfortable reminder, and one which Vampyr provides more vividly than the vast majority of gruesome splatter-fests that represent the horror film genre of today.

Blowup (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Blowup, the 1966 feature by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni; an existential mystery set against the backdrop of “Swinging London’s” hip fashion-and-art scene. Concerning a successful young photographer who begins to suspect he has inadvertently captured images of someone being murdered in a park, the film is really an exploration of alienation and desensitization in a culture obsessed with image and surface, as well as a meditation on the deceptive nature of perception and the uncertain boundary between illusion and reality. Setting up his theme from the very first scene, in which a truckload of exuberant mimes careens into a London plaza, Antonioni proceeds to perpetrate a cinematic sleight-of-hand by luring our focus onto the ostensible subject- a callous youth, played by unlikely leading man David Hemmings, and the intrigue into which he stumbles- while using the surrounding environment to convey the real purpose of the movie. As surely as the significance of his leading character’s photos lies in the grainy, uncertain corners of their background, the real mystery of Antonioni’s film reveals itself through examination of the peripheral details of its central plot.

The action of Blowup takes place in a world full of vapid fashion models and disaffected posers, communicating in brief, distracted ambiguities and seemingly trying to appear as disinterested as possible at all times. It’s a place dominated by a game in which style is substance, and the master of this game is the photographer, Thomas. As a creator of image, he is at the center of the “in” crowd, and he flaunts the power granted him by his status; surly, entitled, smugly insolent, he treats everyone as an object or as a means to an end, striding confidently through his day and seeking relief for his terminal ennui from momentary whims- whether buying a propeller from an antique shop, having a naked romp with a pair of underage would-be models, or clamoring for a scrap of a rocker’s smashed guitar at a concert- and then becoming disenchanted as soon as he achieves his fleeting gratification. He is a reflection of the culture of desire and acquisition that surrounds him, completely disconnected from others and encased in a self-absorbed bubble of over-saturated perception; and when reality asserts itself in the form of his unwitting involvement in the enigmatic experience at the park, he is completely unprepared and ill-equipped for the situation, failing to control it with his usual tactics and unable or unwilling to communicate it to any of the emotionally distant friends or vaguely hostile strangers he encounters.

It would be easy to slide into a complex morass of analysis in discussing Blowup. It is a deceptively simple film that opens up into an unending progression of dovetailed themes and implications upon even the most superficial examination. Suffice to say that in his portrayal of this ultra-specific time and place, Antonioni captures timeless issues that affect the society of popular culture and commerce no matter what the details of their outer trappings; and in Thomas’ obsessive quest to determine the truth about what he has seen, enlarging his photos until they become as abstract as a Rorschach ink blot, he illustrates the impossibility of objective certainty and suggests that the difference between truth and illusion exists only within our highly suggestible perceptions. Ultimately, all that can definitively be said about Blowup is that it is about a man who, for a short time, at least, pays attention to something.

More to the purpose, here, is a discussion of the artistry involved in bringing all these heady concepts to the screen. Director Antonioni, already renowned for his work in Italian cinema with films like L’Avventura and La notte, enlisted the help of noted playwright Edward Bond in writing the dialogue for this, his first film in English. The resultant wordplay is a brilliant reflection of the themes explored within the screenplay (which Antonioni co-wrote with Tonino Guerra); the characters speak in terse banalities, expressing half-truths and absurdities which stand in contrast to their actions and fail to convey their true intentions- almost everything they say represents a pose, an image they wish to present, and when they must try to convey something more direct or meaningful, more often than not they collapse into an inarticulate and incomplete breakdown of communication. Yet every exchange reinforces the film’s central ideas, from the first line (one of the mimes telling a bystander, “Give me your money- do it!”) to the inscrutable response of top model Verushka when asked if she is supposed to be in Paris (“I am in Paris”). The actors contributions serve as varied brushstrokes on Antonioni’s canvas, creating the necessary blend of textures which completes the picture. Vanessa Redgrave is the mysterious woman whose secret dalliance in the park may or may not have more sinister implications; tall, bird-like, and awkwardly elegant, she superbly conveys a desperation which continually threatens to crack the mandatory veneer of cool disinterest, and gives us a character whose determination and intelligence are plainly evident (though Thomas, her circumstantial antagonist, can only see the vulnerability of her surface) and she suggests a connection to the machinations of a larger world that exists outside the insulated niche in which the film is set- one in which things actually matter. In smaller but no less important roles are Sarah Miles and John Castle, as Thomas’ married friends; standing in for the masses whose interests are captured by those who put on the show, she shows us (with minimal dialogue) the timidity and guilty fascination of someone drawn to the shallow flash represented by Thomas over the weightier substance of her painter husband; and he embodies an obtuse, intellectual aloofness that makes him simultaneously attractive and repellant. The aforementioned Verushka makes an unforgettable impression (as herself) in the iconic scene in which she is photographed by Thomas, writhing on the floor as he straddles her in a highly sexualized encounter which underlines the replacement of actual experience with the artificiality of image. As Thomas, our photographer “hero,” the previously unknown Hemmings became a major star and a symbol of the mid-sixties “mod” lifestyle; his performance, while necessarily limited in range by the scope of his character, is perfect for its purpose within Antonioni’s vision. Though Thomas is arrogant, unpleasant and shallow, Hemmings somehow manages to make him likeable in spite of these qualities, showing us the giddy and rambunctious child beneath his ultra-cool mask in the moments when he is alone, and allowing us to be comfortable when we are forced by Antonioni’s focus to identify with him.

The star of Blowup, though, is the cinematic auteur behind the camera. The film is almost certainly Antonioni’s masterpiece, a vibrant, stimulating work of art that delivers brilliantly both on the surface and on a deeper intellectual level; the entire film leaves the impression of a stunning visual experience, yet though it is filled with indelible images created by the director’s masterful eye for composition (and captured by cinematographer Carlo di Palma), the grand picture we are left with is a synthesis of all we have seen- an intangible and non-existent zephyr. Much of the film’s powerful cumulative effect comes from Antonioni’s use of contrasts- between speeds, colors, textures, people- and his knack for portraying mundane, everyday occurrences in a manner and context that makes them seem hallucinatory and surreal. His use of sound is also important; in particular, the haunting sound of the wind in the trees during the all-important park sequences suggests the vastness and the irresistible force of the ultimate reality which surrounds all the meaningless illusion with which his film’s denizens are preoccupied. His musical choices play a big part, too: the jazzy score by Herbie Hancock captures the hurky-jerky energy of the fast-paced culture in which he has immersed us, and an underlying zeitgeist is evoked by the raw and angrily frustrated sound of The Yardbirds as they play for a seemingly unimpressed crowd of club-goers in their now-famous cameo scene.

Watching Blowup today, it’s easy to see why it has been lauded as an influential classic and been the subject of so much homage and emulation. It captures a perfect snapshot of the fleeting era in which it is set, yet at the same time presents us with a timeless metaphor for our existence in a world of never-ending sensory stimulation. Though the technological methods depicted as central to the story are dated in today’s digital age- in which high-resolution photographic manipulation is instantly available in the palm of everyone’s hand- the basic theme of seeking validation for our perceptual experience is not. Furthermore, it is impossible not to observe the parallels between the pop-obsessed society depicted in the film and that which exists today: in his personification of the mod dilettante at the center of Blowup, Hemmings could just as easily be portraying (if you’ll pardon the expression) the archetypal hipster douche-bag of our contemporary world; and the crowd that surrounds him, the clubs and parties he goes to, and the interests he pursues could all be found on any Saturday-night excursion into the hip-and-happening world of our current youth culture. It’s a movie that became, no doubt with intentional irony, the “next big thing” perpetually sought by the crowd it both portrayed and appealed to; thanks to the far-reaching vision of its director, it was more than that, and it has deservedly become a cornerstone not only of cinema, but in the collective consciousness of our modern world.

Pinocchio (1940)

Today’s cinema adventure: Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature, based on the classic children’s story by Carlo Collodi, about a puppet bestowed life in answer to a kindly woodcarver’s wish for a son.  As the follow-up to Disney’s first foray into feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it represented an enormous leap forward in the development of the art form, with the animators taking huge strides to overcome the difficulties they encountered- and correct the mistakes they had made- with their first effort,  resulting in a visually stunning masterpiece which has, in many ways, never been surpassed.  In particular, Pinocchio represents a watershed moment in the advancement of effects animation (as opposed to the character animation at which Disney’s artists were already adept), with its extensive depiction of such elements as fire, smoke, magic, and especially water, creating a dazzling and fully realized environment in which this metaphorical fairy tale can be played out.  Additionally, thanks to the use of live action footage and articulated models (maquettes) as a reference for the animators, the film incorporates a level of realism which enhances its ability to engage and transport its audience, as well as featuring inventive angles and perspectives which would directly influence the advancement of cinematic technique in live-action filmmaking.  Finally, Disney’s development of the multi-plane camera, which allowed the combination and separate manipulation of different layers of imagery within a single shot, yielded an illusion of depth which prefigured the use of 3-D technology, and helped to narrow the gap between live-action and animated filmmaking- a gap which grows ever smaller to this day.

Of course, it could go without saying that Pinocchio, as with all of the Disney features released during the initial Renaissance of the studio, has become a classic, revered as an iconic milestone in the genre of animation and beloved by generations of audiences as a cornerstone of family entertainment; indeed, critical appraisal of the film has been almost universally positive from the moment of its release, though the outbreak of WWII prevented it from becoming financially successful until it was reissued several years later.  However, though its status as a pinnacle of animated art has never been questioned, there have been numerous dissensions over the years regarding its content.  Much of the criticism revolves around the divergences Disney made from the source material in order to make a more marketable film: Pinocchio was transformed from a sarcastic, mischievous hooligan into an inexperienced, innocent naïf who is only led into trouble through his good-hearted gullibility, and his design was softened to resemble less the pointy-nosed, spindly marionette of the book than the real boy he will eventually become; the cricket, a minor character in the original story, was developed into a central figure and anthropomorphized to the point that, in the words of his supervising animator, Ward Kimball, “the only thing that makes him a cricket is because we call him one;” and a number of bizarre and/or gruesome incidents and characters were either removed or revised in order to present the story more as a heart-warming fable than as a cautionary tale.  The objections to this sanitization of Collodi’s novel stand alongside countless protests surrounding the studio’s similar treatment of other classic sources, fueling the long-standing criticism of the studio for “Disney-fying” its material- producing films that subvert the original intention of the authors and sugar-coat their messages for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience.

Thankfully, it is not my role to determine the validity of either of this viewpoints here; though it seems to me they are criticisms based on opinions of what the film should be, rather than reactions to what it actually is.  Pinocchio is, first and foremost, exactly what it was intended to be: a visually stunning and highly entertaining work of art.  Whatever social or literary obligations the Disney artists might have disregarded, they succeeded beyond reasonable expectation in their goal to create a finished project that holds up to every standard of excellence- not only does Pinocchio exhibit a still-breathtaking mastery of technical skill, it features an intricate, meticulously executed artistic design that is evident in every frame.  From the dozens of whimsical clockwork devices on display in Geppetto’s humble cottage, to the rustic Italian Alpine village in which the story is set, to the garish and foreboding over-stimulation of Pleasure Island, to the wonders of the undersea world where the climactic segment takes place; the entire film vibrates with a life and personality that can only result from the passion and enthusiasm of its creators.  Even more remarkable is that all this dazzling work is never gratuitously applied, but is wholly dedicated in service to the story: the quantity and humor of Geppetto’s constructions speak volumes about his character, the lurid excess of Pleasure Island clues us into the menace lurking behind its surface, the painstakingly immersive depiction of the ocean environment transports us there with Pinocchio- every tiny detail serves a purpose, and instead of overwhelming us and reminding us of the artificiality of our experience, the richness and variety on display here draws us in and gives us the feeling that the world of Pinocchio is just as real as any place we have seen in our own lives- and perhaps even more so.

Of course, no matter how fully-realized this spectacular world may be, it must be populated if the story is to be told.  The characters in Pinocchio– even the minor ones- are as richly developed as the elements which surround them, designed and animated to such specific perfection that the breadth of their characterization is visible in every frame they inhabit: Jiminy Cricket, with his instantly likable blend of gentility and earthiness; Honest John the Fox, the picture of tawdry pretension and avaricious hunger, and his mute sidekick Gideon the Cat, a sort of skeevy Harpo Marx; Stromboli, a menacingly immense combination of flamboyance, volatility and mean-spirited cruelty; Lampwick, the ultimate hoodlum, cocky and uncouth, yet ultimately pitiable as he suffers the direst fate of any character in the film; even Monstro the whale, aptly personifying the unstoppable, chaotic wrath of the universe; and, of course, Geppetto, lovably dotty and infinitely kind, with his pets, Figaro and Cleo, the lovable kitten and goldfish pair that provide gentle comic relief with their yin-and-yang interplay as they respond to the various events taking place around them.  As for the star of the show, Pinocchio is crafted as the epitome of innocent boyhood; his sweet nature and his excitement for the brave new world before him are his defining characteristics, and he is in a constant state of action, exploring possibilities, embracing experiences, and honestly seeking to please- even when he lies to the Blue Fairy, we get the sense he is doing it as much to save her from disappointment as to save himself from trouble.  As a result, he comes off as a plucky and enthusiastic young hero, instead of the cloying and disingenuous brat he could so easily have become if his creators had chosen to make him deliberately cute or precocious.

The personalities of all these now-iconic characters are a completed by a collection of carefully-chosen voices.  Pinocchio was the beginning of a long Disney tradition (now standard for animated productions but at the time unprecedented) of utilizing seasoned and recognizable talent to provide the vocal contributions to their films, featuring Cliff Edwards (as the cricket, a then-popular singer well-known for his work on Broadway and early talkies), Walter Catlett (as the charlatan fox, another Broadway actor familiar to audiences at the time for a string of high-profile character roles in films like A Tale of Two Cities and Bringing Up Baby), Christian Rub (a distinctive and much-loved radio and film performer who not only gave Geppetto his voice but was used as a physical model for the character as well), Evelyn Venable (a popular screen ingénue renowned for her beauty, austere but warm as the Blue Fairy), and Dickie Moore (as Pinocchio, a seasoned child actor with several high-profile live-action roles under his belt).  All of these, as well the other, lesser-known voices, fit their parts to perfection, as definitively as any live-action cast embodies their characters.  It is impossible to imagine any other voices coming from the figures onscreen in Pinocchio– which is yet another testament to the gifted artists who brought them to life, incorporating the nuances of the already-recorded dialogue into their final rendering of the film, an effect that is perhaps not too unlike that of a motion-capture suit of today transforming an actor’s personality into an animated form.

As if all this sublime artistry were not enough, there is still the perfection of the musical score.  Music plays an important part in every Disney classic, and it has never been better than in Pinocchio; the background score by Paul J. Smith is an indispensable part of the film’s character, as are the songs of Ned Washington and Leigh Harline, which are interwoven seamlessly to it throughout.  Though all of these songs are well-known by generations of children who have grown up with them, one in particular (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) has become not only the signature tune of the Disney empire but an anthem for optimists the world over; as crooned by Edwards over the film’s opening credits, it sets a tone of wistful longing and lets us know that in the end, though there will be much adversity to be faced, everything will come out right.

It’s hard not to gush about Pinocchio: by way of disclaimer I have to admit that it was my favorite Disney movie as I was growing up, with its metaphor of “becoming a real boy” providing me with much food for thought on my way through childhood and adolescence.  Despite this personal bias, I feel completely justified in my enthusiastic assessment of this film.  It is still, over 70 years later, consistently listed as one of the top ten animated films of all time, and it has provided immeasurable influence not only on the art of cinema, but throughout popular culture in general.  It is widely considered the pinnacle of achievement by the studio that created it (no small feat, considering their impressive track record) and it set a high standard for so-called “family films,” providing stimulating entertainment at all levels of maturity rather than just presenting formulaic pablum designed to occupy juvenile minds for 90 minutes- an egregious cheat still perpetrated by far too many so-called artists who churn out such sub-par, straight-to-DVD fodder.  Though today’s high-tech animators can render remarkable imagery that looks far more realistic than anything in it, Pinocchio can hardly be called crude or primitive- it is a work of pure art, exquisitely produced using techniques which have fallen out of fashion in an era that seems only impressed by the newest innovations in a rapidly accelerating parade of obsolescence.  Thankfully, it hasn’t gone anywhere: it is still out there, in home video cabinets the world over, captivating yet another generation of young minds and reconnecting parents to their own childhood, and thanks to painstaking restoration and the ready availability of high-resolution formats, it looks as good as new- perhaps even better (see, I do like technological advancement).

As for those who complain that the movie is not an authentic representation of Collodi’s novel, I think it is only right to point out that several other screen versions have been made of Pinocchio, many of them striving to remain much closer to the source material.  Without exception, they have all bombed, both critically and financially.  Perhaps the latest incarnation, currently in production and starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, can break that unfortunate cycle; but until it, or yet another attempt, succeeds, the Disney version will continue to reign supreme.

Drive (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Drive, the slick 2011 crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for high-dollar robberies; a highly marketable package featuring a lot of action and a little romance, which garnered much praise for its visual style- a glossy mix of 1980s-flavored grittiness and edgy contemporary flash- and drew controversy for its bursts of brutal violence.  Essentially a post-modern film noir, set in a seemingly lawless Los Angeles populated and controlled by ruthless criminals, it seethes with an atmosphere of cynical amorality in which life is cheap and trust is for suckers and fools; and yet for all its hip, hard-edged posing, this movie is, at its core, pure Hollywood fantasy of a decidedly old-school nature.  In essence, in fact, it’s a modernized, urban reworking of Shane, the revered and iconic western classic from 1953.  All the plot elements are there: a loner with a mysterious past befriends a struggling family and becomes their protector against the machinations of a powerful gang of thugs, eventually taking justice into his own hands and embarking on a one-man crusade to eliminate the threat once and for all.  Though the details have been modernized and reconfigured a bit, the structural blueprint is the same, from the dominant themes of family and justice vs. power and greed to the fact that its tarnished hero doesn’t carry a gun.

If noting this obvious parallel to a cinematic touchstone sounds like a negative criticism, it isn’t: many good films are built upon a framework borrowed from great films that came before, and although its plot line is clearly second-hand, Drive certainly re-interprets the story on its own terms.  Part of the credit lies with Hossein Amini’s terse screenplay (adapted from a book by James Sallis), which cleverly updates the details of the plot and its characters while retaining the essence of its central conflicts.  The foremost contributor to the success of this re-invention of cinematic myth, however, is director Nicholas Winding Refn, a Danish-born filmmaker whose lack of native familiarity with the distinctly American setting and milieu has allowed him to approach the material with the empirical eye of an observer.  One of the consequences of his outsider’s viewpoint is the superb use of the L.A. locale, so often taken for granted by resident directors; he takes full advantage of it, not so much in his depiction of specific landmarks, but in the way he captures the character of it, particularly the Echo Park district where much of the action takes place.  He also brings a detached objectivity that somehow adds to the emotional resonance of the story, helping it to feel freshly-minted despite the echoes of its heritage that bounce through every scene.  With the help of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, he fully utilizes his locations to create an impressive visual coherence, infusing the squalid city streets with a slick, art-house sheen that echoes the feel of genre icons like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. while still asserting Drive’s independence and modernity with its own up-to-the-minute, slo-mo/hi-res personality.  This effect is enhanced by the dreamlike electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which also facilitates the deliberate build-and-release of tension that pushes the film towards its inevitable conclusion.

On the business end of the camera is an attractive cast comprised of talented up-and-comers, seasoned veterans, and a strategically familiar collection of supporting players.  In the latter category are a trio of high-profile TV transplants: Christina Hendricks (compelling and memorable in a bad girl role that allows her to show a markedly different side than the one we see on Mad Men, but ultimately wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo), Bryan Cranston (in a kinder, gentler variation of his Breaking Bad persona as Gosling’s employer and surrogate father figure), and Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman (lending his star power and his imposing presence to a part that could otherwise be played by any tough-guy actor).  As the little family whose plight provides the catalyst for the film’s action are Oscar Isaacs (playing admirably against expectation as the ex-convict father striving to break free of his shady past, and nicely fleshing out a character which is ultimately little more than a plot device), young Kaden Leos (projecting a muted wisdom beyond his years and showing considerable onscreen chemistry with Gosling in their scenes together, which goes a long way towards providing the heart of the film), and English actress Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan has perhaps the most difficult role here, in which she is required to maintain a quiet, attractive nobility while navigating a complex subtext of resignation, repressed attraction and nagging fear.  She manages it well, inhabiting all those facets and bringing intelligence, sweetness, and dignity to the part (making it seem, perhaps, much more fully realized than it actually is), as well as creating her own chemistry with co-star Gosling; their scenes together are nearly wordless, for the most part, yet the pair infuses the silence with volumes of unspoken feeling, and when they finally kiss, the cumulative passion of their previous interactions is sufficiently powerful to warrant the highly cinematic approach with which director Refn chooses to showcase it.

Which, of course, brings us to our star: Gosling’s character (never named, but listed in the credits merely as “Driver”), like his cowboy counterpart in Shane, is rough-edged and dangerous, despite his All-American good looks and his quiet demeanor.  Yet, street-savvy thug or not, he is also possessed of a resolutely ethical core which drives him from within just as deliberately as he himself drives his own restored 1973 Malibu.  In order to successfully embody this urban paladin, Gosling must convincingly seem both too hard to be good and too good to be true- and he must do so with an amount of dialogue that can be described as sparing, at best.  He pulls it off brilliantly, managing to be believable on both ends of this extreme spectrum with a likeably stoic performance that is (appropriately enough) reminiscent of Steve McQueen at his anti-heroic best.  It’s a hypnotic performance, and watching the young actor confidently stand in the center of this film, it’s easy to see why he is one of the hottest leading men of the new Hollywood generation.

As good as Gosling is, though, the standout performance in Drive comes from a surprising source: Albert Brooks, known for his comedic work both as an actor and filmmaker, here plays against type as a ruthless gangster.  It’s a shrewd bit of casting, and Brooks takes full advantage of it, undercutting the cold-bloodedness of the character with his familiar, likeably nebbish persona; the result is a contrast between charm and menace that makes him easily one of the most chilling big-screen bad guys in recent memory.  Despite the impressive work of director Refn and the stellar turns of the other leading players, his performance is perhaps the one element of Drive which elevates it from the level of a well-made potboiler to that of a potential Hollywood classic.

As to that, only time will tell.  Drive has a dazzling quality that keeps you mesmerized while its subliminal elements do their work; fooled by the flashy surface, we fail to recognize that we are being shrewdly manipulated by the familiar undercurrents that pull our sympathies and shape our expectations.  As a result, we are more inclined to suspend our disbelief in the blatantly romantic premise at the core of the movie, a premise summed up in its tagline, “Some heroes are real;” or at least, in theory we should be.  Some viewers, however, may not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors, and may find they are unwilling to buy into a plot that, though appropriate for a larger-than-life epic of frontier justice and heroic gunslingers, seems decidedly unconvincing for a gritty tale of corruption and betrayal in the seedy urban underworld.  It should also be noted that, in spite of its family-friendly roots, this movie contains some very graphic and disturbing violence- in particular, an elevator scene (from which the aforementioned controversy resulted) that had to be edited into a toned-down version, and which is still shockingly gruesome- so more squeamish viewers should stand warned that they might want to stay away.  However, for most filmgoers- particularly those with an admiration for the nuts and bolts of the art- Drive will likely provide a rich experience, perhaps even more so for those savvy viewers who can recognize the archetypal formula from which it is derived.  Though its plot may hold few surprises (at least for anyone who has seen Shane), and though it may, in the final analysis, be unconvincing, there is still a fascination in seeing the ways in which Refn and his crew have molded it into its new form, and the attendant implications that arise from its transposition in setting, such as the differences (and similarities) in the portrayal of masculine and feminine roles, the metaphoric associations of our obsessive American car culture, and the difficulties of defining ethical behavior in a world complicated by conflicting moral standards.   Unacknowledged remake though it may be, it is nevertheless an inventive and original piece of filmmaking, and even if we already know where its taking us, it makes getting there an exhilarating ride.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Today’s cinema adventure: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the much-beloved 1961 romantic comedy classic widely regarded as the ultimate vehicle for its star, Audrey Hepburn. Adapted from Truman Capote’s semi-autobiographical novella of the same name, it is the story of the relationship between Holly Golightly, an unconventional “free spirit,” and a young writer who becomes her neighbor; drawn by her zest for life, he grows closer to her, discovering along the way that her true nature may not be as carefree as it seems. George Axelrod’s screenplay updates the action to the then-present day from the 1940s setting of Capote’s original story, and makes other significant changes to give it a more cinematic flow as well as to make it more palatable for audiences of the time. Most notably, it removes several potentially controversial elements, such as Holly’s unwed pregnancy and the homosexuality of the writer (unnamed in the novella), the latter adjustment also allowing the transformation of the central relationship from a friendship to a romance- a decision undoubtedly motivated by a goal to help the film become a popular hit- a goal which, needless to say, ultimately proved successful.

Despite the changes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains surprisingly racy for its era- both central characters are openly depicted as prostitutes, more or less- and the plot remains somewhat uneventful, on the surface at least, focusing more on the unfolding of character than action. However, director Blake Edwards guides it well, wisely allowing the effervescent charm of his leading lady to captivate the audience, and supporting her by never letting his camera stray too far away from her for very long; he prevents the apartment-house setting from becoming monotonous with frequent expansions into other, well-chosen locations (taking full advantage of New York’s local color, as captured by cinematographer Franz Planer), as well as with a fluid camera continually finding new perspectives from which to view the action, and the occasional diversion into a suitably zany situation. He coordinates all the pieces- particularly Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning score- with care, to make the entire package seem a bubbly, delightful romp, in spite of the bittersweet sense of melancholy that underlies much of it; this surfaces in moments that feel poignant rather than heavy, and in the end, though the film’s resolution may be its most un-Capote-esque characteristic, we are left all the happier for having had our heart-strings tugged, just a little.

There are many things about Breakfast at Tiffany’s that have become iconic: the opening sequence of Holly eating pastry outside the window of the eponymous store, the little black Givenchy dress she wears (possibly the most well-known and influential piece of women’s clothing of the 20th century), her sunglasses and impossibly long cigarette holder, the irresistibly charming marmalade cat, and of course, Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Oscar-winning song, “Moon River,” wistfully performed by Hepburn as she sits on the fire escape with a guitar; but by far the most iconic element of the film is Hepburn’s performance itself. As Holly- a role she reportedly found challenging due to her own natural shyness, in direct opposition of the character’s extroverted, impetuous and gleefully shocking behavior- she embodies the kooky, waifish image she came to represent, exuding intelligence, sweetness, exuberance, and, above all, elegance; and in the service of the character, she captures both the genuine delight she takes in her existence and a sense of the nagging fear and sadness that pursue her. She is, in the words of one character, a “real phony,” and one who is never, for a moment, unlikeable, even in her most selfish and spiteful moments- you somehow know that, before much time passes, her natural goodness will come shining back to the surface and all will be well. Capote wrote Holly Golightly with Marilyn Monroe in mind, but it’s hard to imagine anyone except Hepburn in the part; her work here established the persona for which she would be best remembered and set the tone for the characters she would play for the next decade. In short, it was one of those rare matches of actor and role that seem almost to be the result of divine intervention.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not a one-woman show, however, no matter how much it may sometimes feel like it: there are other actors here that deserve some credit for making it such a special film. Most obviously, of course, is George Peppard, giving perhaps his most memorable big-screen performance, as the smitten writer; he makes a good match for Hepburn, establishing an easy chemistry with her and making their too-good-to-be-true romance seem believable, as well as showing us his growth (thanks to Holly’s influence) from disillusioned self-loathing to determined self-confidence. As the wealthy married woman who “keeps” him, Patricia Neal gives us a necessary contrast to Hepburn, with a jaded frankness that feels far phonier than Holly’s good-natured pretension; and, in a turn that revitalized his career and led directly to his success on television’s The Beverly Hillbillies, Buddy Ebsen gives us a tender portrayal of Holly’s abandoned backwoods husband, who comes to the big city trying to reclaim the darling girl for whom he still carries a torch.

There is, of course, one ugly, distasteful flavor in this otherwise delicious confection. Any discussion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, sadly, must include mention of the notorious presence of Hollywood veteran Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s long-suffering Japanese neighbor. The casting of a Caucasian actor in an Asian role, unfortunate as it may seem, was fairly standard practice at the time this film was made, and is not, in itself, so unforgivable; however, the clownish, offensively stereotyped performance given by Rooney, the result of director Edwards’ choice to make the character a source of wacky comedy relief, is so outrageously over-the-top that it was immediately branded inappropriate and racist even at the time of the movie’s release. Not helping matters is the ridiculous “yellowface” makeup worn by Rooney- including a cartoonish set of prosthetic buck teeth- that seems completely out of place in a film which is otherwise grounded in a fairly realistic- if romanticized- sensibility. For their part, all those involved in the decision to present the character in this manner- including Rooney, who insists he was playing it as directed- have apologized repeatedly and expressed their regret for making such an ill-considered choice; but, nevertheless, it remains as a nadir in Hollywood’s difficult history of racial insensitivity, and as a black mark on a film that is otherwise worthy of being considered a true gem.

Setting aside Mr. Yunioshi, there are other, less-disturbing quibbles which might be made about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, primarily by those who feel, perhaps rightly, that the re-invention of Capote’s narrative as a love story undermines its original intention as a slice-of-life remembrance in the vein of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, not to mention converting it from a candid observation of human nature into a starry-eyed, feel-good Hollywood romance; but there’s enough of Capote’s worldly view in its screen incarnation to make sure that, in spite of its sweetness, it’s never syrupy, and his creative force is certainly preserved in the fullness of Holly Golightly, his own favorite of all his characters. It’s a testament to the power of his talent that we love her so much, and it is because we love her that we wish for her happiness. Let’s face it: there is something in us all that wants to believe in a dream-factory fantasy which permits two such flawed, potentially tragic people to come together and escape the tawdry reality of their world. By permitting Holly Golightly to finally make the jump, and allow herself to belong to another person (and a cat), the film version gives us hope and makes us strive for the happy ending in our own lives. After all, on some level, we are all “real phonies,” and it’s good to see one of our own find happiness.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)


Today’s cinema adventure: Snow White and the Huntsman, a visually arresting 2012 feature that reinvents the classic fairy tale as a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with a message of female empowerment. In this version of the familiar story, the Queen is in fact a powerful sorceress who preserves her youth and beauty by draining the energy of young women, and the princess, foretold to be her undoing, is her prisoner; when Snow White escapes, the Queen sends a drunken wastrel to recapture her, but he instead becomes her protector and mentor, helping her to find the heroic force she needs to fulfill her destiny. The story is filled with great ideas, grafting elements of a medieval Arthurian-style quest saga into the Grimm Brothers’ original tale (with a dash of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), shedding insight on the origin and cause of the Queen’s wickedness and turning Snow White from a passive victim who must be validated and saved by a man (or seven) into a self-determining warrior princess who has the power to not only solve her own problems, but step into the traditionally male role of leader and bring the entire kingdom into harmony. Aiding considerably in the realization of these thematic twists is a stunning visual style that draws cinematic influence from Kurosawa and John Boorman’s Excalibur, coupled with a highly imaginative production design (under the supervision of Dominic Watkins) incorporating visual elements from the courtly romantic paintings of such artists as John Waterhouse and overflowing with the creative use of bird imagery. elemental contrasts, and the mystification of nature; of particular note are the costumes created by Colleen Atwood, especially for the Queen, and the magical CG artistry that brings life to the various fantastical settings and creatures- including the dwarfs, who are recognizable, full-scale actors rendered onto the necessarily diminutive bodies, a process that yields remarkable results but which also drew heavy protest and criticism for denying work to actual little people.

It would be nice to say that all this impressive conceptual and technical artistry was the basis for a great final product; but Snow White and the Huntsman, though passable enough as a lightweight summer diversion, fails to generate the kind of excitement and stimulation promised by its ambitious conceit. Director Rupert Sanders does a superb job of combining his various inspirations into a visual style (with the help of cinematographer Greig Frasier), but it seems hollow, lacking in the resonance and meaning required to elevate it beyond the level of a good imitation. The screenplay (by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini) fails to fully explore the possibilities suggested by the ingenious mash-up of sources at the base of their story, instead relying on familiar clichés and giving lip-service to the mythological principles inherent in the material, referencing the symbolic touchstones with all the conviction of marking off items on a checklist; the end result feels like a concept without a real direction, a meandering trip through a hodgepodge of mixed-up fantasy formulas that only pulls itself together into a resolution when it has run out of set-pieces. Likewise disappointing is the musical score by James Newton Howard, serviceable and predictable, providing the standard symphonic accompaniment heard in uncountable fantasy-adventure epics instead of taking advantage of the possibility to try something unorthodox. The acting isn’t horrible, though accents slip and mumbling abounds, but it isn’t really great, either: Charlize Theron, once again cast as a frosty bitch, manages to make us see the underlying pain of the Wicked Queen (which feels as perfunctory and inadequate as the rest of the unrealized story elements), but in the end she delivers a scenery-chewing performance that is, after all, just as over-the-top as we expect it to be; Kristen Stewart succeeds with the sweetness and vulnerability of Snow White, but somehow lacks the kind of strength to make a convincing transition into a force of destiny; Chris Hemsworth, as the roguish bad-boy who serves as secondary hero, comes off the worst, delivering a stilted, lumpish performance as a character that should provide the heart of the film. The rest of the cast all serve their purpose without surprise, providing us with the comfort of familiar stock characters instead of taking advantage of the chance to turn them inside out- a whole slew of missed opportunities in a film already over-filled with them.

That pretty much sums up the problems with Snow White and the Huntsman: despite offering a fresh perspective on its material, it’s a film which squanders its potential, offering new ideas and suggesting thought-provoking implications but delivering, in the end, just the same old Lord of the Rings-flavored conventions that make it so easy to dismiss the fantasy genre as fluff. Don’t get me wrong: I love Lord of the Rings; it’s an incredible piece of work that elevates fantasy to the level of deep, archetypal myth- but it’s already been done, and personally, the only other movie I want to see that feels just like it is the long-awaited version of The Hobbit which finds its way into theatres later this year. With Snow White and the Huntsman, I wanted something crisp and delicious, the exciting taste of a new hybrid flavor; but all this movie provides is yet another poisoned apple.

Trainspotting (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Trainspotting, the 1996 breakthrough feature by future Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, a harrowing portrait of working-class youth embracing the self-destruction of heroin addiction to escape the bleak environment of economically depressed Edinburgh. Combining the most imaginative elements of the theatrical and the cinematic, Boyle’s wildly youthful, energetic filmmaking- utilizing his now-trademark innovative visual style and edgy pop soundtrack choices- makes this highly acclaimed and popular slice of the squalid life into a treat for the eye and ear, an entertaining wild ride through a nightmare world that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is horrifying.  John Hodge’s screenplay, based on a novel by Irvine Welsh (who incidentally appears in a small role), tackles its subject without ever resorting to preachiness, instead presenting the degrading roller-coaster-existence of a drug addict as a progression of events, seen from the inside perspective, which illustrate the way their habit transforms a normal, mundane life into an surreal caricature; influenced by the “kitchen sink” and absurdist theatre styles which dominated the stage and screen dramas of mid-century Britain, Hodges grafts elements of both into an electrically contemporary milieu, undercutting the grim realism of the subject matter with ironic humor and a distinctly modern cynical edge, disarming the audience and allowing us to laugh even as we are being appalled- which gives the tragic moments the even greater impact that comes with surprise.  The young cast is uniformly superb, but the undisputed standout- and rightly so- is Ewan McGregor in his star-making performance as Renton, the central protagonist; his charisma and intensity are so powerful that he remains infinitely loveable- and believable- whether he is philosophically enduring the debasement of his addiction, gleefully pursuing criminal activity to support it, or resolutely dedicating himself to rise above his sordid background.

Listed by the British Film Institute as one of the top ten British films of all time and consistently named as one of the best films of the ’90s, Trainspotting is not for the squeamish or for those uncomfortable with moral ambiguity, and it should be said that the thick Scots dialect can be difficult to penetrate for the first 20 minutes or so; but the rewards of this vibrant, influential movie are well worth the patience and the effort for those who are up to it.  Boyle may have since surpassed his work on this early masterpiece, but for sheer audacity and unabashed youthful bravura, it still stands among the finest films of his career.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock fantasia with sexy, charismatic performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, and Christian Bale, a film that has gained a loyal and substantial cult following despite the poor reception it received upon its initial release. Boldly structured in the mold of Citizen Kane, it follows the attempts of a journalist to piece together the decade-old mystery surrounding a glam-rock superstar who unsuccessfully faked his own assassination before fading into obscurity. Interweaving scenes of the writer’s quest with flashbacks depicting the rise and fall of his enigmatic subject, Haynes’ film plays fast-and-loose (deliberately) with facts and fictionalizes significant real-life figures as it pays tribute to- and laments the fading of- the musical and cultural mini-era on which its focus lies. To this purpose, the film’s designers have crafted a dazzlingly surreal and authentic recreation of the English rock-and-roll scene in the early seventies, reconstructing the peculiar mix of tinsel, trash, and haute couture that defined the look of the period, as well as the darker, grittier eighties of the film’s parallel narrative. In particular, Sandy Powell’s superb costume designs succeed in capturing both the outrageous fashion of the rock-and-roll glitterati and the more subdued flavors worn by their less-glamorous followers and fans. The sparkling package is wrapped in the vivid cinematography of Maryse Alberti, which evokes the authentic photography of the day so completely there are times you swear you are looking at archival footage.

Inhabiting this time capsule world are several superb performers, each in the early stages of their highly successful respective careers. In the key role of Brian Slade is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively embodies the ultimate glam rocker, channeling the spirit of David Bowie (on whom the character is heavily based, along with, to a smaller degree, Marc Bolan) and yet investing the performance with his own energy as well- cheeky yet vulnerable, jaded yet naïve, sexually charged yet romantic, he manifests the image of the androgynous bad boy while letting us see into the complex personality beneath it. He is matched by Ewan McGregor (as Slade’s collaborator and lover, Curt Wild- inspired in equal measure by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), who likewise presents a convincing portrait of an archetypal glam figure- but a distinctly different one, rougher-edged yet ultimately, perhaps, deeper. The two performances complement each other like a dovetail joint, and both men are at their most impressive- and mesmerizing- when they are called upon to perform in the numerous musical sequences, pulling off the full rock star act with exuberant bravado and absolute confidence. In a less showy role- but no less superb- is Christian Bale, playing the journalist and former fan who is haunted by memories of his youthful involvement in the glam culture and of his personal connections to both the iconic stars in the history he is tracing; always a deeply compelling actor, Bale is effective throughout, but he is at his best as the rosy-cheeked youth of the flashbacks, riding the extremes of his adolescent emotions as he tentatively explores his own developing sexual and ideological identity and comes of age in a heady time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Toni Collette is both deliciously tawdry and surprisingly grounded as Slade’s wife Mandy, impressively evolving with the character in an arc that takes her from hippie muse to jaded has-been; and Eddie Izzard is appropriately loathsome as the oily manager who shepherds Slade into the world of rock-and-roll excess.

Despite the considerable strengths described above, however, Velvet Goldmine is not an unqualified success. Haynes is a gifted director, justly acclaimed for his ability to translate complex and esoteric themes into a compelling screen experience, but often criticized for failing to create a cohesive whole; his films often seem more interested in conjuring elemental forces than in using them to work toward a specific purpose. Of course, such a technique allows the audience to form their own personal conclusions; it’s an impressionistic style of filmmaking, and like other impressionistic art forms, it’s not to everyone’s taste. With this effort, his passion for the period and the attitudes it represented is very clear, and he succeeds admirably in approximating the glam milieu and bringing it to the screen. However, the formula he chooses to do so creates some problematic issues: the investigative drama which drives the plot seems a brilliant device for exploring this seminal period in contemporary pop culture, allowing him to explore the what made it such an appealing time for those who embraced its spirit and why its memory and influence linger today; however, the brooding, mournful tone of the mystery- as well as the deeply personal importance placed on discovering the answers by the film’s protagonist- suggest a weighty significance at the core of the nostalgic proceedings that somehow feels misplaced. To be sure, Haynes is presenting a document of a time in which a generation overflowed with the excitement of changing attitudes and the promise of freer personal expression, a time which was to morph all too soon into a glitzy, self-centered era in which shallow, self-destructive excess would take a heavy toll; the collective loss of innocence resulting from this social odyssey certainly spawned the kind of emotional wounds reflected by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, and the healing power of reconnecting with these cultural roots, of rediscovering the spirit that generated the whole process in the first place, is clearly a major part of the film’s intended effect. In these terms, Brian Slade provides the perfect metaphor: hungry for the freedom to be himself, whoever that may turn out to be, he soars into a fantasy world made real- only to eventually succumb to the lure of nihilistic hedonism, transforming his existence into an unsustainable nightmare from which he must eventually choose to escape or die. However, Slade is not an Everyman, not even a glorified one like Charles Foster Kane, and his experiences, though they may resemble a magnified version of those shared by many who participated in the glam sub-culture and the disco era which followed, ultimately seem more the consequence of individual character makeup than a reflection of some greater social phenomenon. More germane to the group experience, perhaps, is Bale’s journalist, burned by the broken promise of his youth and seeking a way to come to terms with the deep longings left unfulfilled; but the plot on which his redemption hinges, the conceit of uncovering the secrets of a former pop icon’s decline and fall, ultimately feels forced. After all, there is no mystery to be solved- the story to be told is so common as to be predictable- and in the end, there are no real answers to be found there, only an implausible plot twist and a phantom wound that will never stop itching. To make a resolution even less palpable, Haynes’ screenplay (from a story written by himself and James Lyons) wraps the plot about a man exploring an enigma in another, larger enigma: invoking the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, he introduces a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial gem which secretly links the characters and their histories to a long procession of pop superstars, suggesting that the cycle of fame is some sort of mystical cosmic reflex which affects our social evolution, and even hinting at the deliberate manipulation of our pop culture by an unseen and arcane outside force. Another apt metaphor, and an interesting proposition- one which seems borrowed from the handbook of glam-era theatricality as represented by such flights of fancy as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, a source of much inspiration to the events portrayed in the film- but in this case, perhaps, a needless complication in an already over-complicated mix.

Speaking of Ziggy Stardust, it seems necessary to also remark that the heavy fictionalization of the figures represented- which amounts to the creation of a sort of alternate glam universe- has been a point of considerable controversy surrounding Velvet Goldmine. Taking well-known real-life icons and re-inventing them for dramatic purposes is an acceptable tactic that goes back, no doubt, to the very beginning of story-telling; however, Haynes has here blended real events so completely into the soup that the result could be very confusing to those unfamiliar with the true history of those involved. Though Brian Slade is not David Bowie, he certainly feels like it; indeed, Bowie himself, initially involved in the project, pulled his support and the rights to use his songs after discovering that the script incorporated elements from unauthorized biographies by his former wife and others. To make matters even more confusing, mixed in with the original musical selections composed for the film are older songs by such glam-era artists as Roxy Music, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, among others, performed by the fictional singers as if they were themselves the originators. Though I’m not one to quibble about adherence to historical accuracy- after all, my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, and my love for Shakespeare is in no way affected by his fondness for rewriting history to suit his needs- in this case it seems appropriate to suggest that, before making any assumptions based on the recognizability of the figures on display in Velvet Goldmine, it would be wise to do some research and decipher who these characters really are (or, rather, really aren’t).

Nevertheless, Haynes’ film provides many pleasures: the aforementioned musical sequences, mounted with a gaudy theatrical flair that captures the glitter-rock essence to a tee, are the film’s best scenes, nostalgic yet freshly minted; and there are moments throughout that reach through the layers of conceit to grab at your heart-strings, electrifying touchstones that instantly transport you to the memory of some shared, universal experience- the yearning, impossible ache of a teen-aged Bale staring at homoerotic photos of his idols; the sharp humiliation of Collette’s Mandy Slade as she confronts her husband in the midst of his dehumanized, drugs-and-sex-saturated oblivion; the explosive, adrenaline-fueled vitality of McGregor’s first stage performance as Wild (in which, incidentally, he strips naked for his adoring audience). All in all, the exponential popularity of Velvet Goldmine is not surprising, nor is it undeserved: though it may leave us unsatisfied on some nameless level, and though it sometimes feels as though it takes itself far too seriously, its youthful exuberance and its visual perfection go a long way towards making up for its shortcomings; and even if it ultimately leads us to prefer and embrace the real-world history which it distorts for its desired effect, it seems fitting and desirable to find satisfaction in that which is real rather than in a glittery fantasy- and that, come to think of it, is perhaps the true message of Velvet Goldmine.

Dali in New York (1965)

Today’s cinema adventure: Dalí in New York, a 1965 documentary by Jack Bond depicting the visit of the infamous Spanish surrealist to Manhattan in conjunction with the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. Shot in a distinctively sixties-avant-garde black and white by Jim Desmond, this brief (57 minutes) visit to the world of the 20th Century icon was made over two weeks prior to the opening, as Dalí made the rounds of the New York art and society scene, attending gatherings, staging “events” (such as a procession in the streets with a plaster cast of a Michelangelo statue and a photo session involving the artist lying in a coffin with an ant-filled egg in his mouth, surrounded by a million dollars in cash and an ocelot), and conversing with Bond’s collaborator, actress/writer Jane Arden- that is, until she falls from Dalí’s favor in a controversial exchange in which she refuses to humor his assertion that “everyone is my slave.” The conversations yield little by way of meaningful exchange- Arden tries too hard to engage the painter in a dialogue about his work and Dalí steadfastly resists, preferring instead to make characteristically inflammatory proclamations and declarations of his own supremacy- and the film ultimately offers little direct insight into the artist or his philosophies. Nevertheless, much can be gleaned by watching his antics and his interactions; throughout the film, he is obviously aware of the camera at all times, his eyes constantly darting to the lens as he orchestrates his image for mass consumption. Always the showman, his outrageous acts and statements are clearly calculated to promote himself and his art, and even his creative process itself seems to be little more than another tool for publicizing the “cult of Dalí,” as evidenced in the remarkable closing sequence when he paints for an audience, accompanied and inspired by the music of flamenco guitarist Manitas De Plata and singer Jose Reyes. The entourage with which he surrounds himself, which includes a “military advisor” and the supposed reincarnation of his dead brother, are all extensions of his own bizarre personality, conforming to the roles he has assigned them for his- and presumably their own- personal benefit; and his wife and muse, the austere and vaguely contemptuous Gala, is presented, as he presented her, as an idealized icon of feminine detachment: she says little, and by saying little, speaks volumes. All of this is interlaced with lengthy sequences (designed and photographed by Tom Taylor) showcasing Dalí’s familiar art, depicted by a fluid camera lovingly examining the details of his imagery and revealing some of the unifying thematic elements that were continually present in his body of work- though the black-and-white cinematography robs us of his stunning and effective use of color, making us long to rush to the nearest bookstore and browse through one of the many coffee table books offering high quality Dalí reproductions.

Dalí in New York was largely forgotten for many years, a parenthetical curiosity from a period when the famed artist was being overshadowed by representatives of the more modern movements of art, such as Warhol, whose vision of themselves as the ultimate manifestation of their work was prefigured by Dalí himself- something he alludes to in the film. After a 2007 screening at MOMA, it has been resurrected as a document of a figure whose importance to the art world is still being debated. In the twenty-plus years since his death, Salvador Dalí has become less and less remembered for the outrageous circus with which he surrounded himself and his enormous catalogue of paintings have become more and more familiar, many of them having achieved the status of icons. This little documentary is by no means a complete picture of the man or of his work, but it does offer a rare opportunity to get close to a figure who, during his life, was often dismissed as a charlatan and an opportunist, but whose work has undeniably exerted an unfathomable influence on western visual art. Most of Dalí’s rhetoric can be assessed as showmanship, not categorizable as true or false, but at least one of the statements he makes in this film is clearly wrong: at one point he declaims that his work is not important, that only Dalí himself matters. Time has thankfully proven this to be an overstatement on his part.

The Great Train Robbery (UK Title: The First Great Train Robbery) (1979)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Train Robbery, a 1979 period caper comedy directed and written by Michael Crichton, based on his own book, which in turn was based on the real-life 1855 theft of gold bars meant as pay for the English soldiers of the Crimean War- the first robbery ever to take place aboard a moving train.  Painstakingly accurate in period detail, expertly played with just the right blend of devilish humor and edgy thrills, it features sparkling chemistry between its three stars (Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down), a clever depiction of the intricate and crafty plot, a rousing score by ace film composer Jerry Goldsmith, and a magnificent climactic sequence featuring Connery (doing his own stunt work) navigating his way across the roof of the train as it speeds through the idyllic English countryside.

Crichton’s original novel, which took the facts of the real-life heist and transformed them into a fictional narrative by using pseudonyms, composite characters, and clever re-imagining of the details, became a best-seller in 1975 and seemed tailor-made from the outset for translation onto the screen, particularly in the wake of such successful genre entries as The Sting and Murder on the Orient Express; and while an author’s helming the adaptation of his own work might seem ill-advised, at best, in this case the choice was right on target.  Crichton was a jack-of-all-trades if ever there was one, and his understanding of the film medium here resulted in a crowd-pleasing piece of cinematic candy that sparkles with contemporary style even as it maintains its commitment to the demands of its Victorian setting.  For, though the historical accuracy of the events depicted may be tenuous, attention to period detail is rigorously observed.  Crichton paints a vivid picture of the Industrial Age, not only with the meticulous detail of the sets and costumes, but with his emphasis on the dehumanizing conditions, the corruption and inequity of the social order, and the contrast between extreme poverty and ostentatious wealth.  Not that The Great Train Robbery is a film devoted to deep meaning or social commentary; these elements are present to fuel a decidedly modern anti-establishment undercurrent and elicit audience sympathy for the roguish trio of anti-heroes, despite their unabashedly selfish motivations and their ruthless tactics, by casting them in the mold of populist outlaws- a sort of Victorian Bonnie and Clyde, plus one.  This perceptual conceit is part of what makes the film so much fun; we can be firmly on the side of these wrongdoers as we watch them execute their audacious scheme, and Crichton ensures our continued interest by doling out the details of that scheme in small pieces- we are given just enough insider information to know what is going on without being deprived of the thrill and surprises that come from seeing it carried out.

It helps that The Great Train Robbery is beautifully photographed by the legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth- one of the last films to claim that honor, it is dedicated to his memory- and that the aforementioned set and costume designs (by Bert Davey and Anthony Mendleson, respectively, in collaboration with Production Designer Maurice Carter) are sumptuously executed; each of these artists play an indispensable role in realizing the elaborately recreated 19th Century London in which the bulk of the film’s action plays out.  The previously noted Goldsmith score is effective throughout for setting the mood and tone; but when the setting finally opens up, for the climax, into the countryside, his music makes its most magnificent contribution, adding to the giddy feeling of freedom conjured by the wide open locale, and to the breathless excitement of watching as the final stages of the robbery take place- and as Connery makes his death-defying journey along the length of the moving train.  It’s a payoff almost as satisfying as the one enjoyed by the film’s characters.

The Great Train Robbery is not a profound movie, nor a deeply layered one; it is hardly one of those sublime masterpieces which holds up to repeated viewings throughout a lifetime, and yet when I watched it again recently after having not seen it for a number of years (more than I’m willing to admit to), I was thoroughly delighted to find that it was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it as an impressionable lad, sitting in a darkened theatre and wanting to grow up to be Sean Connery.  Often when a movie strives only to entertain, it falls short by trying too hard, or aiming too low, or- worst of all- trying to pretend it has a weightier agenda than it really does: The Great Train Robbery suffers from none of these shortfalls.  It sets out only to deliver a thrilling ride and it succeeds at exactly that- which is more than can be said of most of the overachieving would-be crowd-pleasers being offered up by filmmakers today.  Of course, they don’t have the benefit of Sean Connery…