Monday, May 02, 2005

Short Cuts: May '05

A Thousand Acres
d. Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1997

Revisionist Shakespeare. The entire conceit is problematic: flip King Lear, making Regan & Goneril (here Rose & Ginny, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange respectively) the 'good team' and Lear (here Larry Cook, Jason Robards) the bad guy. Whether it be a mistake in the novel (written by Jane Smile), the screenplay (Laura Jones), or the directing, one cannot reverse 400 years of evil by making the Lear character a child molestor. When Ginny's husband, in the last act of the film, throws just an inkling of shadow on the angelism of Ginny and Rose, I jump right then and there to believing his word as gospel. It seems that every "bitch" hurled at these women is well-deserved. Compounding this problem (which it seems the filmmakers were unaware of, at least if the film as it stands conforms in anyway to their ideal) is the fact that there is no real theme to speak of. Okay, incest is bad. Okay, families are tricky. Okay, life sucks. Why? What's the point? Excepting some choice moments by Pfeiffer and Robards, this is a terrible film all around. I strongly suggest avoiding it, especially if you have any respect for the original source material.

F for Fake
d. Orson Welles, 1974

There isn't a lot for me to say, as I'm still blown away by the geniuses of this film.

1. The editing genius of Welles.

We all knew he could work a camera, act, and direct, but this - this - is amazing. Really clever sound editing (bested only by The Conversation, at least as far as I know) and a visual track that's simultaneously symbolic, existential, tongue-in-cheek, "hanky-panky", and whimsical. Concomitantly serious and frivolous.

2. The geniuses within the film.

Fakes, forgers, and frauds, but - above all - geniuses. Welles shows himself foremost in creating a docu-something about an art forger, a book forger, and a...well...Howard Hughes. His (that is, Welles) trick is in creating an absolutely protean persona (rather: personae) that seems to be crying out for understanding while ensuring that this understanding can never be arrived at.

3. The genius of the idea.

Make a film about fakery whose form, content, and integrity are constantly on the verge of becoming falsified. The real genius is that in this film about fakery one gets closer to Welles than possible anywhere else. I get the sense that fakery is at the heart of Welles, and he hides behind it like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain and glowing face. Here the impish side of Welles, Toto-like, peels back the curtain for 88 minutes, revealing (in cryptic form, of course) the realized jigsaw puzzle that is Orson Welles. It is a strange film, definitely, but one well worth the time. Bogdanovich is spot-on in his intro on the Criterion disc when he says something to the effect of you have to let the film take you without you trying to decide its course. If you can do that, give it a spin.

d. Franco Zeffirelli, 1990

A mediocre adaptation marred by an inconsistent Hamlet (Mel Gibson), questionable editorial decisions, and a laughably bad staging of the final duel. Mel Gibson is sometimes engaging, particularly in moments of passion or when playing opposite another actor. His soliloquies, of which Hamlet has many, are more reminiscent of Theatre Arts 101 than the work of a professional actor (his 'to be or not be' speech, the one exception, hits some high notes toward its beginning.) Gibson also missteps in those pivotal early scenes, wherein Hamlet feigns madness and toys with Polonius. Hamlet's supposed madness, in the hands of Gibson, becomes actual madness, as if both Mel & Zeffirelli missed the intention of the play. Later on when Hamlet mentions his sometimes-madness to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, claiming it as feigned, it seems - rather than a substantial explanation - a contradiction. In the editorial choices - which of the original material to exclude - Zeffirelli, et al eliminate any semblance of Hamlet's extraordinary intelligence and balance, leaving him as a character driven solely by passion and revenge. The film is entertaining enough, and certainly not a waste of time, but - especially in relation to the source material - it little more than an occasionally engaging film without much soul.

The King is Alive
d. Kristian Levring, 2001

Those crazy danes [insert pseudo-recriminating finger-wagging that leads to that totally unfunny arms akimbo "you naughty boys" look.] Admittedly, the plot is ludicrous: a passenger bus full of tourists (and surprisingly devoid of a toilet) breaks down in the middle of the desert. One tourist leaves to get help, the remaining pass the time (sex helps, of course.) Being a dogme film, the usual hyperbole is a non-issue - no vultures, no "this is my last match, if I screw this up we don't have fire" moments, no fending off bad guys. What we're given though (and it is a mighty improvement) is Shakespeare. Namely, King Lear. The ersatz thespians take a crack at Lear, using a recalled script from a former actor, now Hollywood script-reader among the destitute. The film devolves toward the end, the nadir being a man peeing on a dying woman out of spite. (Are you sure it wasn't LvT who directed this?) Before that, though, things are pretty interesting. The parallels drawn between the characters and those found in King Lear are spot-on and Levring realizes (unlike most) that Lear is about much more than insanity and old age. Levring instead focuses on the "nothing" of the play, i.e. the subtraction/destruction of societal order and the vacuousness left over when all is said and done. These people are walking shells; one sarcastically says, "We're on holiday," getting it, but not quite, that this is about as far from a holiday as one can get. Solid execution of theme, really fun digital cinematography, and (more or less) a good plot.

The Man from Laramie
d. Anthony Mann, 1955

Much to my chagrin (mostly because of the 2 day turnaround @ Netflix and the dwindling amount of time left for me to complete my finals project for English), the assertions that The Man from Laramie has Learish themes is a little overblown. If anything from Shakespeare's play, it resembles the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund storyline. I'm sorry: going blind from age does not even remotely equal going insane from being betrayed by your two daughters, whom you gave the world to. Luckily, it wasn't an entire waste of time. Even though I kept waiting for the Lear (which, I imagine, lessened the impact of the film as - you know - a film), Mann's flick was far from disappointing. It is a western by coincidence, focusing - rather than on the banalities of western life - on timeless ideas. Alec Waggoman is a man who wants to maintain the integrity of his ranch (i.e. his kingdom - ok, I guess that is sort of like King Lear, but it strikes me as coincidental. If it is the author's intent to conjure Lear, it is only a passing homage - a point of reference - and not a thematic foundation for the film.) Waggoman clearly wants immortality, for his life's work to live long after he ceases to. His son - capricious like all young bucks - wants pleasure, now. He wants to make his own fortune, but - and this is the rub - he cannot do it without his daddy's money. Naturally, people die. Jimmy Stewart (as the outsider) acts as a catalyst, setting this tragic series of events (not Lear tragic, asshole) into motion. It's nice as a change - instead of wagon teams and homesteaders and shoot-outs and sunsets and town drunks and cattle drives and Injuns and John Wayne and John Ford and hangings and liquor and ten-gallon hats we get this: a pitiful old man, going blind and grasping at straws.

Scotland, PA
d. Billy Morrissette, 2001

It isn't a very good film - it succumbs too often to low humor, which results in a nasty bit of bathos - but Scotland, PA is at least somewhat interesting for the trend it signifies. Since Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho in 1991, Shakespeare has become, for lack of a better word, cool. Dropping lines verbatim (Intolerable Cruelty, Elephant), cribbing significant plot points (The Lion King), and adapting the Elizabethan English or locale out of the film (Scotland, PA, "O", William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet) have all become accepted and admired forms of acknowledging the influence of Shakespeare. Scotland, PA is one of the less successful of these, hampered by bad acting (everyone except Chris Walken) and a general low-budget aura (not the good kind, either.) Nonetheless, the idea of adapting Macbeth to a hamburger joint in 1970's Pennsylvania is inherently clever and provides the film with some solid moments (Duncan's death by deep fryer being the most of these.) Remarkably, the original plot is kept largely intact, which, if nothing else, makes it fun to go through and notice the di-/convergences.