Friday, April 28, 2006

79. Doomed

As the landscape rushes at you, or the corridors unwind--and the inevitable sudden forms loom or arc down from the sky--you either fall into it or you don't. I did: In a computer far, far away--the mid-1990s--I amazed myself by downloading a free demo of Doom, and, herky-jerking around the slate-Lego architecture, my shoulders unconsciously twisted and my head ducked as demons hissed and spat fire, and grunting soldiers shotgunned me plenty. The "physical" experience of playing made me feel funny--and then I read in Time magazine about "D.I.N.S.": Doom-Induced Nausea Syndrome. If you get close enough to your computer screen and play long enough, your head starts to wrap itself like a fist around your eyeballs and stomach, and, like I said, you fall into it; once again, the eager surrender to persistence of vision.

I have always understood the attraction of video games, especially first-person shooters--but even the ones in which you follow around a car or Angelina Jolie (obligatory "woof!")--because of that nausea, that dizzy hypnotic swirl. I don't play much, but I do remember trying out the first version of Wolfenstein and knowing I was watching a whisper of things to come. Doom, though, is my favorite: simple, scary, satisfying, a dark carnival try-yer-luck. And the subsequent incarnations of the game over the years have grown scarier; a few months ago I rented it, and my kids would play until things got particularly dim and growly, and would hand the controller to me and actually leave the room--and me, to my, ahem, doom. Which it was. (I said I liked Doom; I didn't say I was any good at it.)

Now, I've never been a big fan of that element of video-gaming that asserts the player's need to "control" the story. In fact, I'm fond of exasperating my children by pointing out that video games actually control the player, forcing him/her to follow the proper trails, obey detailed instructions, learn and remember--or else. The video-game urge to control narrative--as illusory as it may be--for me is eminently resistible. It is a desire shared by all gaming kids, from video-heads to live-action-role-playing supernerds, kith and kin of the Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering ultra-supernerds, godblessem. Me, I'm happy to let the screen do the work; I prefer a certain passivity, willing to be drawn along by the game's narrative, as simple as it may be. Again, the dizzy feeling I get when I play video games, that home-IMAX effect, is the reward for surrender to the game.

Of course, such swooning also is at the core of the movie-watching experience; we should never forget those earliest movie-goers, yelping as trains rushed at them or the Eiffel Tower's elevator rose. So not only do I not complain when a video game becomes a movie, I understand such an adaptation makes perfect sense. To gripe about the lack of plot in a game-movie is disingenuous, to say the least--not to mention redundant. Keep in mind the free pass fans have given virtually every James Bond movie--and also admit how easily Bond translated to a game. I'm happy if a game-movie captures the essential dual motion of video games, a forward progress built of widening circles, as each new level recreates the architecture of its predecessors in new settings: the corridor becomes the street, the street the coastline, the coastline the jungle trail, and so on. And while the better game-movies recognize the movie-instinct toward plot, they still adhere to the roots of cinema: the level gaze at objects moving parallel with or toward the viewer. Anything beyond such gazing can be almost distracting.

The Doom movie, for instance: It surrenders with honest glee to its game-source, pausing only long enough so that we can decide which character-players we want to live or die, then killing them anyway. Its star, The Rock, inherits the Schwarzeneggar legacy, although The Rock does not distract us with his voice, and he is actually not particularly stiff. Best of all are his eyes. His pro-wrestling career has taught him to stare at his enemies with conviction. "Acting" it may not be, but acting is mostly in the eyes, and so at least he does not irritate with the impression he'd rather be looking at something else. And of course, the movie is famous for its five-minute first-person sequence, which simply allows one to watch the filmmakers play the game. I must admit I've at times enjoyed watching my kids play video games. It is the ultimate in passive viewing. Doom accepts this passivity with complete honesty, and to complain about that is to admit you don't like video games. And while I admit that's a pretty smart thing to do, I have the benefit of watching movies like this with a twelve-year-old, one who knows it's all hollow--oh but momma, that's where the fun is.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

78. The How and Why of Wonder

Over the years, the dramatic qualities of movies have waxed and waned in their importance to me. Naturally, like anybody I can become deeply engrossed in story, eager to follow (not anticipate; that ruins the fun) every twist and turn. This is of course the not-so-secret secret of the success of all those Law and Order incarnations. When I was in high school or thereabouts, I remember my sister noting that, if you wanted to--and as you may already know, you really didn't--you could see Lucille Ball four times a day. And that was on pre-cable VHF/UHF TV. Law and Order has filled--with much less drek--the ubiquity-gap Lucy left behind. In the movies, I'm drawn to heists, trials, and spy-chases. I wouldn't mind if Edward Norton (the Younger), Tom Cruise, and Matt Damon made three a year, each: I'm more than willing to watch all kinds of Italian Jobs, Bournes, and Firms--not to mention a De Niro go-get-'em or two, him and Jean Reno lookin' sharp and figuring it out. And on the quiet side of the room I'm happy with a three-hour '50s soaper or a 90-minute Hugh Grant change-of-heart weep-and-grin-fest.

But the older I get, the more I find myself staring--I know, I know: creeping senility, ha-ha, snap out of it, grampy--and not slack-jawed, but stunned: at sudden images that well up on the screen, lost for years in the bigger, older, messier filing cabinets, then one day right there in the movie--where it always was--popping open the drawers, spilling out addenda and effluvia deep enough to wade around in. This happened to me last night while watching Bell, Book and Candle (1958), which I hadn't seen in years. At the start a Siamese cat leaps on Kim Novak's shoulder. My sister had a Siamese, Chi-Chi, and when I was a little kid I always enjoyed seeing one in the movies (I direct your attention in particular to Lady and the Tramp, "if you please"). It was like spotting your hometown or a piece of furniture you owned. So last night I saw the cat and Kim and stopped short--only in my head, of course; the movie kept going in its oddly unsettling pre-Bewitched manner, James Wong Howe reportedly unhappy with Technicolor (but getting even by doing his usual expert job), as Jimmy Stewart fell for a witch--and the image of Novak with the cat clambering and perching on her shoulder brought back a simultaneously specific and elusive memory: seeing the movie for the first time and knowing things would work out well for Novak and Stewart, somehow because of the Siamese. Growing up with one, I've never seen them as some others do--regally stand-offish or I'm-watching-you creepy--but as intelligent, semi-interested visitors, never quite judging, but still on their own, the first cats who "walked by themselves," as Kipling would say. I'm neither a dog nor a cat man, but living with Chi-Chi has conjoined in my head with seeing Novak's cat, and I was filled with my usual maudlin foolishness, riffling through the file in the dim light, peering at fading images of myself and my sister as kids, the cat off to the side, thinking of crickets she'll be catching later in the basement; but I have no argument with such memory-recapture. It's harmless--and I'll go further: It can be either electrifying, a sudden bolt-upright surprise at the past's uninvited visit; or salubrious, like a nap or a solitary half-hour on a quiet back porch. And afterwards conducive of a little self-indulgent melancholy, too, as one gingerly touches one's own past, full but fleeting, before trailing oneself back to the present.

Look at what I mean: I was wandering around James Lileks' "Institute of Official Cheer" (a link to his blog appears on this blogsite), and found this image:

It hit me with almost physical force, all those afternoons thumbing through old comics and kid-books, a little bored but almost content to be so, wandering around stuff I'd seen 1000 times before, like this back cover, the same one for every How and Why Wonder Book. When I was little the knight reminded me of The Sword in the Stone, which I missed because I had a sore throat; but my sister got to go, and as consolation they brought home a program--and do you remember movies with programs?--and I nodded in recognition of the need for a book on rocks (I flirted with geology for a while; the weight of my rock collection broke a drawer in my bureau--does anybody use that word anymore?); and I liked the Flying Tiger better than the T. Rex, whose head seemed a bit small; and so on. If you are middle-aged, you might have felt the same backward-falling vertigo of this image. But if not this, then another--I hope for your sake--in a book, on a website, in a movie--and even, dare I admit, in real life--if only so that you can stare and remember not to forget, even the little half-memories that lie in the back-files, closed cases in which everyone was innocent.

77. Are the Kids Alright?

We've suffered a loss in our town recently: A preschool teacher at the school where my wife teaches fell gravely ill and passed away. She was only in her mid-40s, and left behind children, one of whom is a first-grader. She worked with the local high school's cheerleading squad, and both schools will be closed tomorrow for her funeral. When the closing was announced over the high school's P.A. system, students cheered at the news they were getting a day off. One of them said to my wife that it was sad she died, but why get angry when something good--a day off--comes out of it? My wife maintained the kind of silence we reserve for such moments, when we're reminded of nature's grabby little heart.

But thinking of the disconnect between my wife and me and kids like that, I was reminded of the moment in A Christmas Story (1983) when the teacher, Miss Shields (Tedde Moore), interrogates her class after Flick gets his tongue stuck on the flagpole: "Now I know that some of you put Flick up to this, but he has refused to say who. But those who did it know their blame, and I'm sure that the guilt you must feel would be far worse than any punishment you might receive. Now, don't you feel terrible? Don't you feel remorse for what you have done?" Jean Shepherd is quick to cut in: "Adults loved to say things like that but kids knew better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught." And I can remember talking to a teenager--a perfectly nice person--after seeing Larry Clark/Harmony Korine's Kids (1995), whose comments made it clear she knew what those kids were doing was pretty horrible, but typical. She did not share my dismay and despair. Now, Kids' world is Hell compared to Ralphie, Flick and Co.'s, but I don't think they are separate, like, say, good and evil are. I haven't thought this through, but it seems I cannot shake the desire to see the world as I'd like it to be while still knowing it spins along its own greasy wheels, driven by flame and leaving behind our "smudge and smell," and heaven help you if you don't know it.

I just wanted that teacher to go gently, but I also hear the grating whine of our orbit, hurtling through the dark. When I was in high school we had a spate of bomb threats--all idle, all rumored to be called in by students attempting to avoid various tests or assignments--and the school would dutifully send us all home--at our leisure, as I recall, since we were permitted first to go to our lockers. I was at mine, and a guy next to me asked what the homework was for one class or another. Clever me, I told him it didn't matter, since the school wasn't going to be here tomorrow anyway. A teacher overheard, spun me around, pressed my shoulders to the locker, and yelled at me to get my stuff and go home. (This was a Catholic school, so we were brought up "by hand," as Dickens put it.) Hmm. When young Bill Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) in John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987)--an autobiographical film about his childhood in London during the Blitz--arrives at school one morning, only to discover it has been bombed to rubble, he joins the celebrating crowd of children, raising his eyes skyward and shouting, "Thank you, Adolf!"

So I guess the kids are not alright after all; and I also must admit that there's "alright," and there's "alright," and we can only hope to grow into the better of the two--or, failing that, to see our failure as clearly as we can. Right now, I can only manage a shrug and a sigh, and attend the funeral.

Monday, April 24, 2006

76. Seeking Asylum

In the mid-'70s the midnight/cult movie was a new idea--and an exciting one, even if all-too-quickly the stultifying odor of marketing crept across that "phenomenon," turning it into another brand name, like "indie film." I was in college, and new theaters were cropping up in Philadelphia--the legendary Theater of the Living Arts/TLA and the Ritz--dedicated to non-Hollywood movies, domestic and foreign, old (TLA) and new (Ritz). I went online, and found that the Ritz has multiplied like Starbuck's, and still seems committed; but today there's a market for non-Hollywood movies--especially the ones Hollywood distributes--so it's no surprise that one can readily see Tsotsi and The Notorious Bettie Page, even in the multiplex. In 1974, though, you had to keep your fingers crossed, and jump when you had the chance.

It was in this atmosphere that I saw 1966's King of Hearts, in which Alan Bates' Private Plumpnick--"Pumpernickel" or simply "Nickel" to his clueless commander--discovers in the waning days of World War I a lasting truth of the cult movie world: that crazy is saner than sane, and that, as the film's famous final moment asserts, one needs to enter every world naked. Its satire is a bit heavy-handed--although that seems redundant--and its love of the topsy-turvy a bit precious, but I cannot feel superior to a film that borrows so convincingly from Fellini, both visually in its town-square surrealism and aurally in its circus-music soundtrack, and features Genevieve Bujold in full-'60s fawn-mode--and manages to evoke three or four moments of genuine feeling and truthful meaning. I watched it again yesterday, with my twelve-year-old son--who was mystified by its dogged lack of logical behavior--but he does not yet need to understand the liberties necessary in such a film to get Character A on a head-first collision with Character B--or maybe he simply knows better than the old man that when something doesn't make sense, it doesn't fully work, despite the cute distraction of capering whimsy. No matter: King of Hearts, while necessarily showing its age, holds up well, particularly in its sweet-natured affection for, well, affection--there are more than enough hugs and kisses to go around, as well as spontaneous sentimental tears and uplifted smiling faces--not to mention the occasional small, solemn moments in which the escaped mental patients--free to roam in the abandoned town (the Germans have planted a booby-trap that will explode the entire town by midnight, and all the regular citizens have evacuated)--reclaim their pasts--or invent new presents, becoming the town's nobility, prostitutes, generals and barbers--as well as circus performers and Bishops--and enjoy a new, one-day life of exuberance and left-handed wisdom.

This we're-all-mad-here/wrong-is-right disposition is, of course, a cliche. But as I recall, King of Hearts was the first film I saw that put on this antic disposition, and so I forgive it now when it creaks. It remains a happy movie, eager to tweak war's nose and invite one to come out and play. This past weekend I also watched Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), and there too saw this impish urge: When Chaplin so gracefully, insanely, attempts to tighten with his wrenches every nut-shaped object in sight--and not just those comic shirt-buttons and nipples, but the nuts themselves of the machine as it grinds him beneath its wheels--I saw King of Heart's dervish-glee--and its smile-though-your-heart-is-breaking pathos. Always the softy, I find this a combination difficult to resist, and given Bates' quirks and befuddlement, and Bujold's open-eyed invitation, and the circus procession of the blissfully blind, I too wanted to go knocking at the asylum's gate.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

75. Where the Film Takes Place

At what point does a movie become "independent"? This is not a low-culture/high-culture question--although it could be; today, though, I'm interested in what I wishe were something simple: the relationship between technique and meaning. More than a decade ago--and I'll never get tired of wondering where the years go--everyone who followed film trends weighed in on "Dogme '95," a movement that can in part be summed up in its rules, or "Vow of Chastity" (quoted from its website):

I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.

And, best of all, a postscript:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.

This was signed in Copenhagen, Monday, March 13, 1995, by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The website lists 101 films; I just saw the third, Mifune (1999), directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) has just married the boss' daughter, when he receives news that his father has died. The real news for his bride is that Kresten ever had a father; she is immediately off-put--then more so when she discovers Kresten had grown up on a farm, and oddly familiar yuppie-vs.-redneck classism hovers threateningly. It is a life Kresten is eager to divorce himself from; indeed, when he shows up, all it takes is two minutes in the farmhouse to make him throw up, little difference whether it's the smell of his laid-out father or the nausea of remembrance. And there are more uncovered secrets: Kresten has an adult, brain-damaged brother, Rud (Jesper Asholt), who makes crop circles and waits for the alien heroes from his comic books to arrive. And not only visitors from above, but below: When Rud is upset, to soothe him Kresten clambers down to the basement, there to confront "Mifune"--that's Toshiro Mifune, whom Kresten challengingly, joyfully greets as "you seventh samurai!" Kresten rushes up the stairs, a colander on his head, a pole in hand, gloves flapping like samurai-helmet-flaps alongside his ears--straight into Liva (Iben Hjejle), who has answered Kresten's more-than-slightly-misleading ad for a live-in housekeeper. She, too, has her own secrets: She is a prostitute from Copenhagen, tired of her life and frightened by a phone-stalker whose breathless verbal obscenities upset her more than the physical ones of her clients. She also has a brother, Bjarke (Emil Tarding), a wanna-be-hipster snob--and kind of a punk. He is kicked out of boarding school, and arrives at the farm, coiffed and disdainful in his black blazer; his sister comments to Kresten that he "looks like a Japanese tourist."

The plot moves serio-comically toward various resolutions; on its surface it is a classic indie-film quirkball comedy, with a nasty jolt or two thrown in. But I think the Dogme vow has an influence on Mifune that distinguishes it and addresses the technique-meaning issue. In forcing the film to work within physical restrictions, the vow does encourage a kind of chastity: Kragh-Jacobsen's abstentionss seem to free the film--especially from genre restrictions (see #8). More than that, though, is the notion that the "artist" is encouraged to disappear; I think this too can be liberating. The symbolic gesture of erasing the director's credit uplifts the film with the freedom of anonymityy. Of course, none of this might matter--after all, we do know the director's name, and Mifune features what one could construe as "superficial action" (#6) (fisticuffs, a near-rape or two)--if it weren't for the largest concession, #3's handheld camera rule: "The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place." Here, technique--or the lack thereof--and theme finally reach an agreement. And I assert this despite my unbounded admiration for the manipulators of cinema, from Chaplin to Ozu, Welles to Kubrick, Scorsese to, yes, even Tarantino, as hollow as his pictures may be. Watching Mifune, I was in a sense relieved that I did not have to stand in awe of craft, but passively consume the action, like the film's camera, which does become the servant of setting and character. The result is intimate, private cinema. The goofy qualities of the characters were not part of a larger worldview--a postmodern fragmentedd collage of hyper-realized culture/self-references, double-underlined by the camera, lighting, editing, ultra-processing; instead, the characters' quirks became their personalities, not our sideshow, and I could worry about and hate and love them on their own terms.

Hold on; this seems oddly familiar ...

John Cassavetes, you scamp! You already did this, maybe not entirely in 1959 with Shadows, but there it is in Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). He let everything else go--the camera, the music, the lighting, even the editing--for the sake of his actors, and in that sacrifice he does feel like Dogme 95's father, encouraging submission in the director. If Mifune, then, is an "independent" film, it's because of its independence, not from the evil studio and its money--the battle-cry of the indie-philes--and yes you can read such anti-Hollywood diatribes as well in Dogme 95 statements--but more so, in its ideal form, independence from the director.

The religious language of Dogme seems apt, then, since its virtue lies in withholding technique in order to embrace--not "theme," the more I think of it, but "where the film takes place." And in many ways that place is first inside the actor's head, then into the camera, then the audience. What a relief Dogme must be; such surrender can be sweet liberation, just as Mifune's characters seek to free themselves from their own pasts--and, more critical, the futures others prescribe for them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

74. Land Grant

A few years ago we decided to add some rooms to our too-modest home. There are five of us, and two bedrooms plus a half-finished half-storey upstairs was simply not enough, at least not for five open-space-lovin', elbow-room-needin', feelin'-like-the-Torrances-in-The-Shinin' Americans. We had one bathroom--plus a shower "area" in the basement--and a kitchen that, once the portable dishwasher was wheeled up to the sink, held no room for people; we couldn't even fully open the back door: the oven was in the way. All we needed was a little more room. That's what we said--and to our credit, we knew in our hearts those were famous last words.

This obviously takes us to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), in which Cary Grant splutters, stammers, and double-takes his way through what may be my favorite of his non-North-by-Northwest performances, perhaps even better than Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940)--well, again, perhaps. Still, Jim Blandings has become a character I understand. I'm reminded of all those children-in-peril movies I watched after I'd stopped being a child myself but before I'd had some of my own. I was able to observe their troubles, even demises, with cool detachment: "The dingo ate your baby, eh? Tough break." But that all changed after our first in 1988. I couldn't even bear Dumbo's "Baby Mine" lullabye scene. And so it is with Mr. Blandings and his foundation-to-attic stupefactions, which extend even to his personal life, in which, maddened essentially by the sound of constant--and ineffectual--hammering, he suspects his wife (Myrna Loy) of having an affair with his friend/lawyer (Melvyn Douglas--and you may pause a moment to savor the thought of such a cast). I did not go so far as to suspect my wife of dalliances with the laborers, but I will admit that madness has its place in home improvement. And that place is right in your home. I envy those upwardly mobilized types who can actually vacate the premises while the job is in--dare I use the word?--progress. To be right there as the dust billows and the crunching and rending builds--while the builders do not build--as the new bathroom shrinks and the new wall cracks, as kitchen cabinets lie on their sides, drowsing in the slanting rays of yet another afternoon--many months more of afternoons than anyone dared even hint at--encourages a kind of inuring panic, a constant state of anxiety whose greatest danger is that you get used to it. You pass beyond the jitters and become the jitter yourself, resigned to a deep truth made metaphor by one's contractor: that life is process, not product, one dedicated to reducing you to irrational suspicions about things you know nothing about--joists, drywall-taping, circuit boxes--while keeping you equally irrational about The End.

But it does end. Watching the Blandings family, beaten but not bowed, finally take possession, I recognize their final, inevitably irrational--but necessary--turn: They love their house. So do we, ours. It's only been about three years, and already some things are falling apart, but our time with the builders seems a distant event, barely real, while the new kitchen allows us to float around like Food Network chefs and the extra bathroom prevents almost every emergency and the separate bedrooms nudge us toward a separate peace that doesn't passeth all understanding at all: We survived our dream house so that we could live in the one we have.

Monday, April 17, 2006

73. Onward

I first read C.S. Lewis' Narnia books in college, after encountering him as a "religious" writer. I was wandering around my high school's library when a title caught my eye: The Screwtape Letters. These words of advice, in what I think used to be Lewis' best-known book, from a senior devil to his junior counterpart on Earth, busy tempting his human to damnation, discomforted me: Screwtape's ideas seemed damnably (sorry) familiar, and led me to question deeply--ah, the irony--my deep questioning of my faith. I felt a bit cornered. It was not a happy read, but in the end Lewis filled me with the kinds of doubts that did the most good when I needed them, at sixteen or so.

As an English major--also before finding Narnia--I read Lewis' A Preface to Paradise Lost, a humane, sensitive, but also matter-of-fact reading of Milton's poem that righted that blind(-ing) monolith, as in its time Screwtape had upended me. In the Preface as elsewhere, I found in Lewis a critical voice I wanted to emulate, in its subtle conjoining of the personal and the analytical, with a hint of pipesmoke and the small flash and crunch of a firelog spilling open. (If anyone is curious about the Anglophilia that comes so easily to English majors--and not just those happy toilers, but many more who, with varying degrees of pride and embarrassment, turn their faces to Avalon--one need look no further than that ubiquitous, very British tone of straightforward sensitivity encountered everywhere in its literature's old-guard canon, often directed toward the "homely virtues" of the welcoming hearth. Speaking of which, I admit that in college I also discovered The Wind in the Willows, and so powerful was its domestic romanticism that my affection for it withstood even the savage deconstruction of the National Lampoon parody I also read at the time, "The Wimps in the Pillows." What wildly veering turns we do make, even on the short trips.)

But aside from engendering sentimental affections, Lewis encouraged me to accept the--I want to write, the "martial" elements of faith. As I made my way through college, I felt more clearly my own sense of competition, the urge to win. It bothered me, because I knew much of that just greased the machine's wheels; I was enough of a latent Marxist to recognize the semi-conscious conspiracy to keep me occupied with Major Awards so that I would not notice the real losses incurred by playing the game. But the Narnia books were filled with conflict; and in my confused state I had slurred together "conflict" and "contest," and the desire to win in both had taken on an equivalency they did not warrant. So the more I read Lewis the more I could figure out the distinction, that conflict was not contest, and that settling conflicts was not as clear a job as winning contests. Despite all those swords and conjurations, crownings and thrones, Narnia was still not a place where prizes were awarded, but problems solved. That was, in the end, its greatest attraction for me. I could finally see a life in which the force of my soul (to use Gandhi's phrase) could have the same assertive force as arms--but not (the Mahatma again) as mere "body-force," the exercise of violence out of fear, but as the force of love and reconciliation. Lewis' idealized world remains real because it responds to the martial air with a bowed head and, in low tones, remonstration and forgiveness.

So when Aslan takes Edmund aside for a private talk in the recent film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and they return, and everyone moves on, I was relieved that Disney did not damage the book beyond recognition. I'm not yet sure of my final verdict, but after one viewing I can assert that the movie makes some interesting decisions, and most of them are commendable, if not always as engaging as I'd like them to be. I was worried about the color palette of the movie--the posters and brief scenes I'd allowed myself to glimpse over the past few months made Narnia seem a bit too snappy--but those pastel tents and ultrablue skies have a near-Technicolor brilliance that heightened the movie's urge to raise up the human children to a world they needed to inherit, but still had to earn. (And besides, color is on my mind: I'm getting ready to teach a film class soon, and a good friend suggested I show Singin' in the Rain primarily to wallow in Technicolor. Narnia in this light--so to speak--looks more like Warner Brothers' Sherwood Forest than Peter Jackson's Middle Earth; but such comparisons are for another time.) And Lucy's copious tears, to a jaundiced eye, might seem too frequent, but in the four-sided person the children become she is the conscience, and that can be tearful work. Other elements of the film are visually attractive--the sheer variety of creature has a "Carnival of Animals--Plus" feel that posits Narnia as a Big Place-- and Tilda Swinton brings a proper portion of pre-sexual dread to the White Witch--and I should mention the snowy forest, as cold and richly textured as it should be; those sequences are among the best in the movie.

But again, if Narnia matters to me, as a book or a movie, it is because it provides an expression of the urge to accept, not merely the comforts of hearth and the swell of victory, but the problem of conflict divorced from contest, in which one may be crowned, but still has to go home, be the good brother or sister, friend and someday lover, bound by promises that cannot be broken. The trick is to make such promises to those who deserve the bond; there, perhaps, is the rub: It's difficult to spot the White Witch for what she is; all that Turkish Delight, you know. But in Narnia one is given the opportunity to test the promise, to sever the ties that would drag one down, and, hardest of all, to sacrifice oneself to the bond. Sorry, but in Lewis' world a promise is a promise, and while it may be wrestled with as much as submitted to, the promise--as long as it is made in love--is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

72. Distant Music

I was sitting in my office--students outside, working, talking, another level of offices and student areas above me. I was listening to music--a long list of jazz and '40s-'50s vocalists (the iTunes-life-soundtrack effect)--and realized I heard other music, live, someone singing upstairs: "Santa Lucia," high and soft. Maybe a co-worker's child? A student from the choir? I'm not sure; but her voice was clear--"a port in air," as Wallace Stevens might put it--albeit sweetly weak. I turned off my music and listened. One verse, a pause, a second verse. No applause, no approving murmur of voices. Here and gone.

This occurred just as I had begun to think of writing on Jean-Luc Godard's 1962 film, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live). A "user comment" on the Internet Movie Database asks plaintively for the title of the "catchy" song Nana (Anna Karina), a young woman who falls into prostitution--then further down--plays on the jukebox. More music, also fleeting.

At the risk of sounding a bit too precious, I think Godard's "Film en douze tableaux" shares space with such music. It is elusive, from its twelve-scene structure to its stubbornly still and obscurely placed camera, showing us the backs of heads and blurred reflections, or only one figure, the other off-camera, speaking but absent. The cinema of preterition, in which conclusion is thwarted by concision. Godard seems almost unconcerned with Nana's plight; but as the film moves through its chapters, it extends to Nana a courtesy: By holding back, Godard admits it is not his life he is filming--let alone his audience's--but Nana's, "hers to live," ours to observe--but discreetly; if there is sympathy for Nana, it comes without a proprietary impulse masked as affection.

We know how "Santa Lucia" goes, so we "own" it in that sense. But as I heard it this afternoon, the singer unseen by me and I by her, I was reminded that others' lives play without us--and you can take that in many ways--and sometimes our greatest show of compassion is a respectful distance. I wanted to see Nana more closely--she was so beautiful, and thoughtful, and sad--but Godard knew that the closer I approached her the more I would project my self, my expectations, my needs, onto her; and so he restrained me, for my sake as well as Nana's. I will not tell you, then, what happens to her. In the spirit of Godard's music from upstairs, I too will hold her off to one side, her face turning away, and invite you to listen on your own some time.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

71. Still Wondering

I never entirely awoke from the dream, in large part because the inducing night has lasted so long. In the dark, my rapid eye kept moving: I was twelve when 2001 was first released, and sitting in the front row of the massive Moorestown Plaza, the triple-threat envelope of Cinerama closing around me, I was drawn like a folk-tale child into deep woods, where my breathing kept pace with Dave Bowman's, and every blink of the eye re-imagined the landscape--and remade the eye. Raging Bull held me, and squeezed; and when I heard something snap, it was almost with relief that I knew it was the end, one I could clearly see. Diary of a Country Priest filled me with so much, it felt like joy, even as the notes it sang fell down like sweat. Spirited Away folded like origami into shapes I'd never seen before, yet knew all along.

These are not childish things, which is why I have never put them away. Even King Kong, shrunk to Gumby-size as I made my way into adulthood, tilted his head and stared at me, holding my changeful heart still to be an appalled witness to his death. Every third movie I watch triggers post--oh, I'll be honest: mid-hypnotic suggestions, and I fall like the beast, where the movie itself can stand over me and mutter platitudes--no matter, though: It feels beautiful, and I let it go on, part eulogy, part invocation. All this and a box of popcorn.

My father is gone, and I do not have a brother, but my son is twelve, and my girls are in their teens, and along with their mother we often dream together, way leading on to way any number of times with The Lord of the Rings, softly cloaked or reluctantly armored, jaunty with waybread and dawn or anxious as the trees close in. When Peter Jackson decided to remake King Kong, I was relieved, if only because I had been dreading another remake, convinced no one knew Kong. Spielberg gets close, occasionally disassembling the movie machine enough to find its human heart: E.T. and Close Encounters are giddy with love and expectation, and Minority Report and Schindler's List scoop midnight so we can drink from its cold black well. But Jackson's generous, almost passive surrender to his source material with Tolkien made me feel his remake of King Kong would not be superfluous.

Watch the way Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow woos Kong: She looks at him closely and becomes what he desires, anticipating him, then re-inventing him. Jackson releases the sexual subtext from its post-adolescent bonds, allowing it to become its deeper, more instinctual self, the one that fears isolation. The original Kong's sexuality was overt; but Jackson slips his hand beneath the beast's stiff nape to find that at the core of that fear is yearning itself. And to do this, not so surprisingly he engages in unashamed passion. I find myself wanting to find movies I can describe as "delirious"; the best movies are a dream-state, where one pattern--the sexual, the social, the territorial, the moral--expresses the others, and joy meets irony in ecstatic mutual understanding.

How many Brontosauruses does one need for a stampede? How many T. Rexes for a truly thrilling battle? How many incredibly creepy crawlers in a culvert? There is an excess in these sequences that made me laugh out loud with joy. Jackson knows about dreams, that too much is not enough--but more than giddy excess, the whirling dance leads to clarity--and providential exhaustion: During the movie's pauses--as brief as they may be--Jackson allows Ann and Kong not merely to rest but to approach one another with unselfconscious grace. Their relationship is the central risk King Kong takes, and Jackson, his cast and technical crew lead us gently to the heart of this most dreamlike of images, absurd but natural--and how's that for the affirmation of a dream?

I love Jackson's in-jokes, the sly references, the Trivial Pursuits of the Nerd-king. But more than that I love the unbroken line he draws from Merian C. Cooper's Kong to his own--and more than even that, the promises he's kept, promises movies have made to me--that King Kong has made to me, since I was small. I've mentioned before that when I was a kid I thumbtacked a poster of King Kong on the ceiling of my room, the first thing I saw every morning, the last thing at night. And I've mentioned before--too many times, I know--how scared I was of scary movies. But Kong promised to mediate between what I feared and what I hoped, and to draw them together--not reconciled, but at least in agreement: that in dreams they would negotiate their places in my life, and that in movies I would see--well, just see.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

70. Wonder

In some fond dream I'm back on Mifflin Street in Philadelphia, where I was born, but it's the 1930s and my father is my brother, and I'm his little brother--have to be: my father's nickname was "Big Chief." And was it his size, or the size of his nose? One or the other, or both. We make our own rough world, naming each other like Adam did the animals, as judgment and certitude: There goes Big Chief and his little brother--and my nickname is "Butch"--oh yes it is, because that's what my father called me when I was little; this is the same man who named our dog "Spike." What a good big brother he would have made--makes, as we walk up the street. Where are they going?

"Where you going?"

"Taking my little brother to see King Kong."

And I follow him through what we do not know is the Depression--and even living in it, we saw it only second-hand, with both parents working--one sewing clothes in a factory, the other mending suits for Captains of Industry stripped of their medals in the fitting room at Brooks Brothers. My grandmother--my mother, now--told us she was at the butcher in front of a woman she knew who bought three pork chops, but there were four of them at home, so my mother bought the lady another chop. Still, many times our own lunch was just fried onion sandwiches--but no complaints here, fat and toasty-sweet, dripping from the roll a little, softening the waxed paper.

When my father took us to the movies, my little sister would go for free, sitting on his lap, and he saved a dime; as he figured it, they were selling the seat. But today it's just my brother and me, off the trolley and walking toward Market Street, the day hot, the sun coming up at us from the pavement like bars of lead against our temples. My brother says that's why we're going to the movies, for the air conditioning--"20 degrees cooler inside"--because he's seen King Kong already, and I'm such a baby I'll stay in the lobby through it. My protest and denial are automatic, as heartfelt as the insult itself, which isn't saying much. It is his duty to give me the business, and mine to complain about it; always following the rules, I shoot him a small Bronx cheer as we arrive at the theater, the Mastbaum.

He buys me a Coke at the counter; later we might get an ice cream from one of the guys wandering around the theater, hawking stuff as though we were at a ball game. The empty Coke bottle would come in handy during a quiet spot in the movie: You just roll it down the aisle, its grinding music clear in the still dark.

But there is no still in this dark. The movie barrels at us like the great ape himself, one breathless sequence after another. It's like all the chapters in a serial run at once, with no stop, just a moment or two of wide-eyed panting before it's off again, tearing down through the centuries until the dinosaurs arrive, and then back again, swooping up to catch the sun on the biplanes as they bear down on Kong, who has scared me plenty--but I admit it's a small, dark part of me that's glad he topples; that arm reaching in through the window, those sliding eyes in closeup above the frozen grin, some fur-rippling mechanical bank that eats you up like coins: This is no Eighth Wonder of the World, but a real nightmare drawn out of the spot not on any map; it makes sense that Kong is taken from a place called "Skull Island," because that's where he lives, you know, underneath. So I was scared, as much as I ever was--or would be--by Frankenstein and Dracula in their endless re-releases throughout the '30s and '40s--or by all the rest of them in my waking life, the Blob and the Saucer Men, the Living Dead and little Regan possessed. But another part of me, with my brother, with Kong, feels--well, not safe, but not simply terrified: Kong shows me that the movies are beautiful because they ask me to love a terrible monster, to want him to get back to the island, the lonely king on the cliff. But I also know that loving Kong drags him to the top of the Empire State building, just as his own love has done to him, cornered by impossible desires. This dream follows me until I'm myself--or the dream leads me to myself, willing to suspend my disbelief over yawning chasms so that I can see all the way down.

Leaving the Mastbaum, cold and shivering and shocked in the July heat, I turn to Peter Jackson's King Kong, and the promises he keeps. A dream starts again on the trolley as I lean against my brother, still young enough to nap after all that.

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