Where the Wild Things Are

I’ve forgotten how it came up. My guess is that my niece, just turned ten, asked which books were the current favourites of my daughter, a little past two.
Click-Clack-Moo, and Where the Wild Things Are”.
From there, I think that I can quite faithfully paraphrase the heart of the conversation:
“Have you seen the movie?”
“No. The book has only a few words, I didn’t think it would make a very good movie”.
She was wrong; I was not blunt when I told her so.

Besides the issue of tact, I had remembered that the nieces are notorious for their ability to be terrified by even the most mild of films. (I first witnessed this when I tried to show one of them, age about four, Snow White. Most recently, last Christmas, they were given a copy of E.T. The thank you was tempered by an admission that it was a bit too scary.)

That niece was right to doubt the prospect of expanding the original book – 368 words, and **** illustrations by Maurice Sendak – into a full-length movie. But the most delightful aspects of Wild Things is exactly that the screenplay (Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers) managed to pull off this stunt. This is also to the credit of Sendak’s book: spare in words, but spectacular for its ability to nudge loose its page-bound text…. not just allowing readers to expand the story, but setting their imaginations to twirl.

The movie wanders from Sendak’s pages, imagining details big and small, and then returns again almost faithfully. Almost nothing strays from the spirit of the original. (A bit of superfluous romance is the only exception I can think of).             
The Wild Things are given names, and relationships among themselves.
As in the book, the Wild Things adopt Max as their king. The screenplay fleshes out this rail from which things veer – with an exploration of the persistent longing for leadership, gullibility and suspicious, stubborn faith and disappointment. This is the largest of the screenplay’s innovations: Max eventually leaves the place here the Wild Things are, not just because he is homesick, but also because he learns the cost of promising things pulled from his imagination. The magician who pulls a rabbit from a hat, without honestly considering his abilities, is a magician soon to be bitten.
The book plays on a thrill: the Wild Things are terrific fun, but they are friends who turn from playful, to vicious, to loving and then are lost to rage. Set in motion, the Wild Things are moody… wonderful, but frightening, as friends.
There are lots of brief delights of added detail, faithful to the spirit of the book. The Wild Things, when they are getting along, love to sleep in one big heap.
The ending is different, straying close to sentimental: the Wild Things are sad, not angry, when they find out that Max is leaving. I think it’s saved from schlock because it reflects, but does not speak, a belief which I can not shake outside the cinema: it is painfully natural for anger to be followed by sadness.

* * *

The workings of imagination, story-making and (day)dreaming have been woven into the movie. Borrowedvisuals: a ball of

string reimagined as a house where a Wild Thing lives. Max copes with loneliness by retreating into his imagination. When Max manages to snare his mother’s attention three times: once by prying her from work with a story, once by embarrassing her with wolf-suited antics, and once by running away to the place where the Wild Things are.

* * *

I’ve caught myself focusing on plot over film-making.
Let me try to make amends:
The movie’s Wild Things are giant puppets from (the late) Jim Henson’s studio. Each is played by at least one “suit-actor” and a voice-actor, overdubbed in a largely improvised studio session. Together, they excel at communicating the wildly swinging emotions of the Things. Maybe this was partly achieved with C.G. trickery – but, considering the question would require a fourth viewing, it must have been with a subtlety lacking in the adnauseum of recent C.G.-assisted films.
Puppets (and Max) are captured by film shot with an appropriate (illusion of) rawness… faithful, I thought, to the rough cross-hatching of Sendak’s drawings. (director of photography: Lance Acord). Hand-held camera is used, but thankful sparingly. The most striking contribution was made an unusual habit of lighting the action from behind. The result is a camera dazzled by fleeting bits of sun in its eye.

* * *

One last note:
I really like movie trailers.

As a kid, allowed 30 minutes per day of television, it was not uncommon for me to spend it channel-surfing in the pursuit of advertisements… but trailers are so much more fun than ads. Besides, you have to see a lot of movies to become irritated by being subjected to the same trailer over and over again.
I hate arriving late to a movie, partly because it means missing out on the trailers.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of trailers which promoted movies which I wouldn’t see unless handcuffed to the most idiotic of companions.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of trailers for movies which turned out to be brutal disappointments.
Like the opening shots of movie, its trailer(s) are often a movie’s most creative pieces of film.

But there are also lots of cases when I want to throttle a trailer’s maker… and the studio executive who ok’d its release.  Trailers avoid the obvious pitfall: never give away too much of a plot.  What they much too often do is spoil a precious moment which should be wrapped in the complete movie… typically a line of dialogue.
The trailer which I’ve seen for Where the Wild Things Are offended badly in exactly this way. In the ridiculous hope that it might, someday, somehow, be expunged, I will not repeat it here.  I will say that it was the worst part of the movie, but since a perfect film seems impossible, the trailer (a side-show) place to screw up.

Like my habitual relationship to film (or written fiction), I find the bible most interesting for its structure. For better or worse (my own loss perhaps) the plot seems much less interesting.

This interest has the gospels at its heart. The life of Jesus is told four times in four differing versions. (We should also add the lost and heretical gospels which were excluded from the canon, plus the narratives related by film makers such as George Stevens, Terry Jones, Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, plus one more: scholar Bart Erhman argues our habit of conflating the differing gospels into one single narrative creates yet another gospel. In this last gospel, Jesus says and did all things recorded in each of the gospels, and ignoring any contradictions).

This gospel-structure swirls with wonderfully post-modern questions. Deconstructed, what is the meaning of the common phrase “the gospel-truth”. Is one of the gospels correct, a true version of the story? Does the truth lie somewhere between the various versions?  (If this is the case, can we trust ourselves to distinguish between understanding and our habitual conflations?). Can a particular string of chronologically narrated facts be truthful? (Indeed, did any of the authors even wish to be read in such a way?). Are our minds capable of reading a text in this way? Is it possible capture such a method in words? (Listen for the word of god – rather than the more common listen to the word of god – is the best I know).

Finally, my favourite:

Who can/could point to Jesus?

Was he a man, contained in flesh?, or is he some sum total of how others saw – or believed, remembered and said about – him?

Cockelshells

Baraka (1994)

I’m not interested in fingering Baraka as my most favourite film, but there is one piece of evidence which is hard to otherwise explain: I have been out to see Baraka, played on the big screen of a cinema, over a dozen times.

One factor is that a viewing of Baraka – leagues above all other films, of which I would advise the same – is enriched by the cinema.  The large format provided by the dvd played on a big-screen-TV is nothing to sneeze at… but it’s missing a bit of collective magic.

Baraka – cousin to the Koyanistsika-Poyoniscasti-Nacognicasti trilogy and (later) films such as Kronos(?), under-sea(?) – rolls without any dialogue. Sound from a few scenes filter through; very occasionally such sounds emerge to the very surface. But shots pass silently beneath a musical soundtrack.

The musical soundtrack is point upon which I grumble a little. The score (by Michael Stearns) teeters near the brink of new-age-style slock. The “official soundtrack” cd released – by selecting too much of the most lyrical passages – falls beyond this threshold.  The film’s complete audio is not bad enough to cause my grumbling to interrupt my viewings. But from a distance – especially compared to Philip Glass’ score for Koyaniskaski (one of the greatest works by one of the late-20th century’s greatest composers) – I’ve always considered Baraka’s score regrettable.

I find watching Baraka to be like dreaming. (If it weren’t such a terrible cliché, I might use the word experience).  Baraka can be described as a long series of shots – of astonishing variety, without being disjointed. Watching minds alternate between wandering and being riveted, struggling to make sense of the flow and forgetting to bother. I think that I dream the same way: when I wake, my mind has sometimes strung together fragments into a (somewhat) coherent narrative, other times it has only confusion, yet others it has forgotten everything.

I find watching Baraka in a cinema to be an extraordinary experience of collective-dreaming.

Besides dreaming, Baraka also has the feeling of a Keith Jarett solo-piano improvisation. During these improvised performances (especially the Vienna Concert, La Scala), a theme emerges from near-incoherence, drifts and at some (not-quite-pinpoint-able) moment shows itself as a new theme. A sequence flows like this: a Sanskrit book in the lap of a chanting Hindu aesthetic (Sandu) cuts to an a book of Hebrew prayers open in the hands of a Hasidim… the bowing-like gestures of Hasidim at the Western Wall cuts to the bowing of Sufi dervishes… each bowed dervish receiving his teacher’s/leader’s(?) kiss cuts to the ritual kissing a shrine’s padlock by a Shiite pilgrim… and so on.

The cuts suggest dividing Baraka into sections, chapters or passages. Like our dreams, the lines between these are occasionally abrupt, but more often uncertain.  Once I began to watch the film this way, I spent some of my energy trying define each the bounds of each passage, and then to wonder if it had its own theme.  I have now – at the risk of ruining the mystery by looking too closely – have meticulously collected, and looked at, images snapped from each of the film’s shots… I can still say that Baraka seems to be in the process of dividing itself into chapters… the lines between each remain uncertain, and themes seem present but – dreamlike, again – nebulous.

With curiosity, I divided Baraka into 15 chapters; a rather anal-retentive exercise to be sure. The dvd itself divides the film two ways: the menu offers five chapters and sixteen imbedded chapter-points (which you advance through via the skip button on the remote control).  Despite feeling uncertain about the points which I identified, changing my choices a few times, these three lists mostly agree.

The photography, shot on six continents, is wonderful. (However, it is not as universal as this might suggest… sub-Saharan Africa is missing). The image quality – captured using 70mm cameras (rather than the traditional 35mm, or the new norm of digital) – is spectacular (provided the reels being shown are in good condition).



Baraka plays terrific games with both time and movement.  The camera variously stands still and floats, pans or zooms.  There are aerial shots slowed down to a graceful glide.  A shot begins by looking as if it has been slowed down, but then you find yourself watching sky full of stars race across the background. Cityscapes – wildly accelerated – pulse with frenetic exuberance/madness. Some of these sequences are familiar from earlier films, especially Koyonaskasi, but improved filming technology offers an enriched portrait of pace spun out-of-control. Figures stand motionless, looking directly into the camera as life goes on – rushing or inching – in the background.

The pace and structure of Baraka is unusual. We are very accustomed to films raising and lowering their tension, but rising to a single major climax. Baraka seems to pass like a series of waves. The first wave crests a about fifteen minutes in. Thinking carefully about these crests, I realized that their mood varies. Intensity rises to make the heart speed, but other times it rises to grip us in mourning.

Finally, as I watch Baraka, my dreaming position shifts. I am watching people who are completely unaware of my gaze. Sometimes this divide seems natural, other times it feels odd. Other times I am gazing into somebody who’s gaze is fixed on mine… lucid and intense.  Dreaming, I suppose, is the same: a path of lucidity dissolving and then returning – gradually or with startling abruptness.

Smoke
(1995)

Smoke is built around a Brooklyn smoke-shop, and its owner Auggie. From there, it expands to include Paul (a novelist, lost in writer’s block), Rashid (a teenage runaway), and (briefly) Ruby (an ex-girlfriend from Auggie’s distant past).

Auggie – at first straightforward – turns out to be the key to the film’s most interesting themes, rendered with quriky poetry.  For years, every day, at 8am, he has been taking a photograph of the same street corner… “…it’s just one little part of the world, but things take place there too, just like everywhere else.” And the Christmas story told by Auggie… “the best Christmas story you’ve ever heard. And I’ll guarentee that every word of it is true”.

I like Smoke despite its uninteresting film-making.

Like a wound-up film-student, I usually dislike movies into which as all the creative energy is spent on plot and dialogue, with little (apparent) time given to film-making as a craft. I want film-makers – directors, editors, cinematograher and (increasingly) computer animators – to make a distinct mark on their films.

Some movies roll almost like stage-plays; the camera functions as a recording device. I want something besides the mechanical repition of what the actors did in front of a camera. (This is, I admit, an illusion. Any movie is constructed from multiple versions, shot by several cameras, edited together. But some seem shot and edited to avoid intruding on the action).

The filmmaking of Smoke is not without a few (brief) intrusions.  I found Auggie’s photographs fascinating, and oddly stunning. We are once treated to a series of them filling the screen. Smoke’s narative structure is unusual: divided into sections, each starting and finishing with one character’s story, with other stories woven in.

Like any good story I’ve every met, Smoke plays with a tangle of themes… The pacing of life, an eggshell between estrangment and reunion, the patience required to find beauty in the mundane, and gems like truth and kindness engineered from make-believe.


La double vie de Veronique (1991)
Krzysztof Kieslowski

I  don’t remember the first time I saw The Double Life of Veronique. It was probably the revue cinema in Peterborough… my habitual seat, near the front, left of center.  Whatever…

Double Life is not to everyone’s taste, but it is to mine. It’s not without flaws, especially: some of the acting is an embassaly earnest. (I rarely think of acting – compared to
directing, lighting, editing, etc – as a noteworthy topic. Unless, that is, its illusion is cracked by some ineptitude).

There is an real character to Double Life. The plot – built around a mystical connection between two strangers – seems to be told without the demand that it be
completely believed. It is, visually, intensely stylized. Like the a puppet show contained in the story, the film maker s have made no attempt to hide their hands.

Doub le Life is shot usin g coloured filters and ornamental lighting. So many scenes are bathed in richly coloured lighting that the few w hich are naturalistic seem oddly surreal… (I doubt that this was not calculated). When awakened by a late-night phone call, the lighting of Veronique’s face slowly increases as her grogginess lifts. The streets of Krakow are shot through grey-beige light. Other scenes are swamped in warm yellow-gold and an oddly beautiful green.

Camera-motion is kept short of a gimmick… the gaze o ccasionally follows a character’s vision, tilt ing and in one case, f alling to the floor.

Almost all movies confine any abstract visuals to behind the opening credits. In Double Life, the screen dissolves into a several abstract shots and short passages. Intense eroticism is amplified by a close camera and the blurred results of an extremely short focal length… like eyes struggling to focus.


The plot manages to peek and then hold my interest and curiosity. (Again, this is unusual. Like acting, I most often find plot to be of only minimal interest… not infrequently an excuse to keep the film rolling).

The plot of Double Life manages to be both subtle into grandiose,

The plot is decorated with visual symbols and meticulous self-references. Sometimes cryptic, these are not essential to the story and usually avoid tackiness, choosing instead to allow its audience to miss, or manage to notice them. They are always unimportant enough to the story to avoiding turning the film into a frustrating exercise in puzzling… but relevant enough for them to enrich repeat viewings.

Besides storyline, the plot devotes its attention to themes of love, companionship and solitude. Veronique quits singing (breaks with teacher). Veronika goes to Krakow to visit her aging Aunt, leaving behind her lover. Both Veronique and Veronika have tender, loving relations with their fathers and have lost their mothers. When we first meet Veronique she is making love to a man who, minutes later, she does not allow to stay. The subplot involves a lie about intimacy. A character turns the pursuit of intimacy into a game. There are co-incidences between characters who never meet. A hotel room is oddly furnished with two single beds pushed together. The story has Veronique, in several different senses, looking at herself. And finally: most central of all, there is the mystical link between (French) Veronique and (Polish) Veronika.

The ending of Double Life was re-edited for release in the US. It’s actually not terrible (such things, of course, are plenty to provoke a cringe). This alternative ending does not even destroy the closing of the original version. It does, however, wrap what is the film’s most cryptic moment within a bit of extra narrative. This makes it more palatable to anyone who does not like the unsettling feeling that they may have missed something.  On one hand,  Kieslowski is to be admired for creating a film so rich and complex while not poking his audience with that irritating feeling. I think audiences should feel curious, not taunted.
…still, I prefer the original ending.

The Straight Story (1999)

directed by David Lynch
written by John Roach  and Mary Sweeny

Often, I love the opening shot most of all. (In fact, the first shot has been the only tolerable part of plenty of terrible films). The Straight Story begins with a gliding abstract made from the rows of an  Iowa corn field. Our view gently turns to follow, and then pass barely over, a combine cutting its first row through the field. Beautiful to look at, and a nicely gentle hint at a film which follows an absurdly slow-moving vehicle across the midwestern landscape.

The film’s pace, especially after its opening third, is strikingly relaxed. But don’t think of anything like a 1950s melodrama… Straight Story, more than requiring patience, is patient. Taking a close look back at the opening credits, I found a sensible fact. The editor – crafter of Straight Story’s dawdling pace – was also a co-writers of the spare, unhurried script.

Also in the opening credits, the name of the director rings an odd bell. Not many people follow directors, or give them much thought. But a (very) few call out a widely known signature. David Lynch is certainly one of these… and Straight Story – far from creepy, frightening, confusing and perverse – is almost as different as possible from Lynch-expectations. It is – literally a Walt Disney production. (The credit immediately precedes Lynch’s own name).

Straight Story’s narrative follows Alvin Straight, travelling by lawnmower to visit his estranged brother. The film drastically condenses the trip (240 miles, which actually took Mr.Straight six weeks to complete) – a wonderfully strange counterpart to the film’s overwhelmingly slow sense of pace. We watch Alvin sharing evenings and one barstool afternoon with strangers – with a teenage runaway, members of a cycling tour, a fellow veteran, and a country priest… plus an undefined span in the backyard of a kindly stranger while waiting for repairs.

These encounters move at the same speed as Alvin’s lawnmower. Long silences are studded with sadness, memory and wisdom which manage – against all odds – to be sentimental, but not saccharin.  I think it’s gentleness which avoids me bracing with annoyed cynicism. Despite straightforward simplicity, I don’t feel whacked over the head.

A caveat… There are aspects of Straight Story which I have to will myself to get through. I am tired of celluloid simpletons, here Alvin’s daughter Rose. Maybe it’s important that Alvin has a daughter in his mind, maybe it’s important that somebody both tries to convince him not to go on his ridiculous road trip, and then understands that he must.
To be honest, the film’s opening quarter – which seems to be trying to be quaintly cute – comes off as juvenile.  If you’ll forgive, it makes the rest of the film seem even better.

Straight Story ends with one last encounter. Alvin, and us along with him, eventually reach his brother Lyle.  After all that way, they say very little to each other. But what pair of estranged brothers would?

Watch, through his eyes, Lyle’s mind churn.

“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”

The Science of Sleep (2006)

(written and directed by  Michel Gondry)

What follows has suprised myself a little. I am normally less interested in a film’s plot than the way in which it is shot and assembled.  What follows is largely devoted to the plot of “The Science of Sleep” (SoS).

It’s not that this film lacks craftsmanship.
But maybe it’s for the best… it’s plot which interests most people, and the story in SoS is far enough from the mundane.

Stephan has returned to his childhood home in France, an apartment belonging to his mother.

The ridiculous toque which Stephan wears is a first hint of his character. This unfolds as childish, akward, dazzlingly imaginative… and crumpled by how difficult all this make his life.

Stephan can barely make himself understood in French.

The job which has been arranged for him turns out to be nothing like he had expected.

He is charming. He is socially both delightful and inept.

The film swerves in and out of sleep. Some dreams are surreal, others are only subtlely distorted. Dreams fold into each other, they open like a Russian doll which we don’t realize we’re opening.

We experience Stephan waking from a dream, then find that what we had assumed to be wakefullness drifts into nonsense. Wakefulness cuts off dreams some dreams after only a moment, others are sustained through elongated swirls. Some dreams are lucid, some are completely out of control, others fall in and out of the dreamer’s grasp. Sometimes Stephan is startled by finding himself in a dream, other times we all fail to notice.

Watching Stephan through his dreams, I keep marvelling… yes, our brains are amazing for their ability to concoct spectacularly bizzare imagery. But even more wonderful is our brain’s capacity, in that dreaming moment, to be calmly convinced.

Not every moment of every dream is absurd. Not every waking moment makes any sense.

As Stephan says in a moment of whimsy: “The brain is the most complex thing in the universe… and its right behind the nose”

As it befuddles the separation of dreaming and awake, the film is filled with wonderful oddities. Glasses which allow you to “see real life in 3D”, a sink pouring cellophane water, a “one second time-travel machine”, a galloping stuffed pony, objects like Oldenurg sculptures, a universe build from cardboard tubes.

The story is full of hopes which turn out to be foolish, disappointment which turns out to be misplaced, kidding which which suddenly stumbles into catastrophe.

All of this reminds me that sometimes what is real is fantastic. We call this play… twiggling the line between real and make-believe. Pretending is difficult enough to manage within oneself, but to play with others is doomed to (at least) occasional disaster.

Are you we pretending? Are we still kidding?

Is Stephan awake. Are we are we dreaming?

One last reason that The Science of Sleep appeals to me:  There are many times when I wish that dreaming and the wakefulness of day-to-day were closer together. Dreamscapes might improve reality, so often horribly dull.

I forgot to mention that movie revolves around a love story.   Anyway, it’s sweet.

Lou Reed. Berlin (2007)

It’s quite rare for me to have much interest – let alone go on and on about – a concert film.

But here it is:

First:  few people who are not Lou Reed fans will be able to  enjoy Berlin. The fortunate ones can look forward to 85 minutes of magic.

The live performace of an album named “Berlin”, was filmed by Julian Schnabel (Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls). Ala Andy Warhol and Lou Reed’s Velvet Undergound days, Schabel projects a mostly abstract video feed on the set.

Lou is old now,  and he looks it. But it suits him so well that I actually can’t picture him as a young man anymore.

He’s wearing honest-looking, worn jeans, rusty red t-shirt, frameless spectacles… He told one interviewer that, in the past, he would have worn sunglasses, as something to hide behind.
His skin is deeply creased with a scattered network of wrinkles.

Don’t know the original (1974) album Berlin?

“Berlin” is a suite of songs which you can listen to as another Lou Reed album, and then be shaken when you listen to it carefully.

From the introduction written Julian Schnabel: Berlin is about “love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage and loss”. That’s just about right.
Reminiscences fond and bitter, drugs used to the point of oblivion, domestic violence and a suicide.

It’s a stunning musical performance… elaborate without swamping the material. The core band (Lou Reed plus a guitar, bass and drums) plays its way through the entire suite.  Occasional texture is added – an occasionally explodes – from four horns and winds, three strings, extra guitars, a second bass, piano, two backup singers and a dozen members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir.

In his virtually deadpan way, you can tell he is having a great time… at least until they reach what would have been the second side of the original LP, when pain mounts too high.  With its concluding song (Sad Song) – you see the release of regret and relief.

AntonyThe first of three encores, is a startlingly beautiful, and lullabye-like. Antony (Antony Hegarty) emerges from his shadowed stool. Singing backup, his voice was quirky and effeminate… up front, it is angelic and ethereal. With lips curled oddly over his teeth, he sings most of Lou Reed’s tender, sad “Candy Says”: /…What do you think I would see, if I could walk away from me?../
As the last chord is played, and the crowd applauds, the sincerest of grins spreads across his face… loving pride shines from behind his spectacles.

With the next song, classically grim Lou Reed returns. Swooping, heavily distorted guitars alternate with spare, crystal clear chords beside Lou’s voice. /“…They’ve tied someone up, and sewn up his eyes…”/

As is his odd beauty, Lou Reed’s voice is mostly monotone, painted with moments of melody… occasionally perfectly pure, sometimes grasping at the tune.

Berlin seems raw and lyrical, but honest.  It’s completely convincing as a confession… but (if you need to know) the entire thing is actually fiction.

As for the title and the setting of Berlin, Reed bluntly told the NYTimes: “I’d never been there. It’s just a metaphor. I like division.”