Saturday, September 6, 2008

CTJ/The Cinemaddict's Fix

CTJ/Wise Blood **** (Dir. John Huston)

I am officially a Flannery O'Connor convert. A Flannery O'Connvert, I suppose. When I first heard about her and her status as one of America's literary greats I suspected that I would find her to be someone else's treasured wordsmith and not my own. But she has found a home in my heart, her wise blood intermingling with my own.

I bought my sister Alyssa Wise Blood a few years back in paperback form, knowing that she was a book junkie who would probably enjoy it. I had not read it myself. I had simply heard good things about it, so I bought her a copy.

I usually find "classics" to be creations that often do not speak to me or this day and era. I look at an Academy Award-winning film like A Gentleman's Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a reporter who poses as a Jewish man so he can see what kind of persecution Jews experience. Today the film feels like an anachronism, almost insulting. I thought Wise Blood would read similarly -- like some relic of a bygone era that had about as much relevance to me as Eli Whitney's cotton gin.

But when I actually sat down to explore the book on my own, I found myself standing in one of the weirdest worlds I have ever discovered. It's so weird to me that a Southern woman novelist would write something as enigmatic, horrifying, and ugly as Wise Blood, but this is also what thrills me when I think of the book. I recently found out that the Criterion Collection is going to be releasing John Huston's filmic interpretation of the novel on DVD next year. It has never been available in any digital format, and VHS tapes of it retail for upwards of $50 online. Last week I discovered a DVD bootleg of the film and bought it immediately. I had to know how John Huston filmed this elusive work.

I found out this morning that he followed Flannery's footsteps pretty much note-for-note. As films go, it is true to its literary source, and it is equally cryptic. The protagonist, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), is a backward, black-hat-wearing preacher who heads the Church of Christ Without Christ. He is a bent-nail of a man who is intent on driving himself into the lid of his own coffin. He believes Jesus is unnecessary, irrelevant -- yet he cannot rid himself of Him. A man without a home, he buys a rusted bucket of a car that hacks and wheezes like an old man with emphysema. "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," he says. His car is a visual metaphor for his independence, his determination to live life apart from Jesus. Even though it gets him where he needs to go for the most part, he is a man who is content not with second best, but with fourteenth or fifteenth best. Sure, he is able to live on his own terms, but is he really living? He believes that he is clean, that he needs no redemption, that his own blood is his salvation.

The story is my kind of fare, as Mr. Motes' world is populated by a circus-like cast of characters that only a surreal vision of the South could ever yield. There is Enoch Cameron, a buffoon of a boy who follows Hazel like some dumbed-down disciple. When Hazel preaches that the world needs a "New Jesus" that looks nothing like any Jesus anyone has ever known, Enoch steals a mummified child from the local museum -- a bloodless, shrunken, unresurrected shell of a stand-in for Jesus. It is a ridiculous action, and it is ever bit as weird and out of place as it sounds. O'Connor has a way of making the most ridiculous things imaginable stand out like sore thumbs so people cannot help but stumble over them. The book/film is also populated by characters such as the wandering blind preacher Asa Hawks (the peerless Harry Dean Stanton) and his white trash daughter, who is smitten with Hazel. Throw in a town prostitute, a gorilla suit, some QuickLime and a hammy huckster who wants to compete with Hazel's Church of Christ Without Christ by forming his own church of the same name, and you begin to realize that you are nowhere near Kansas. This is otherworldly stuff -- mysterious stuff that cannot be sorted out. It is worlds away from Hollywood's paint-by-numbers studio fare, and it is black enough and surreal enough that it really feels worlds away from any ideas of life that we might have and hold dear.

Even more, it is puzzling enough to leave even David Lynch scratching his head. Wise Blood is the sort of corkscrew narrative that winds its way into your veins, into your bloodstream, into your mind, making your body -- the Temple of the Holy Ghost, as Ms. O'Connor puts it in a short story of the same name -- a haunted house. It is as if Flannery O'Connor read the Bible, went to mass weekly, and dumped all of her religious influences into a burlap sack and jumbled them altogether, only to empty the sack's contents on the floor and reassemble things in her own unique way. The picture of faith painted in Wise Blood is one that feels as if it has never been painted before and, as such, it does not go in one ear and out the other. Wise Blood is faith turned inside-out, grace in the most grotesque of places.

In Bruges ****1/2

Some films are lifeless collections of parts, Frankensteins that never rise up and walk. Sure, a story is told, but only in a functional, mechanical way, like a marionette with strings for all to see. There is no life in them because there is no Dr. Frankenstein working behind the scenes, using his mad genius to bring his creations to life.

In Bruges is a film that is completely alive, a collection of parts in which each line of the script, each acting performance, each shot, feels like it is part of a greater, integrated whole. It excels because it is able to juggle humor and regret, corruption and shame, without losing cohesion. So many films only know only tune, and they play the same three chords over and over, but this film is as varied and flexible as the human soul itself.

The writing in particular is very notable, as the characters all feel like people who could stand alone outside of the film, apart from the plot, apart from the confines of the screen. They feel real, and throughout the film they explore the full spectrum of emotional and psychological experience.

I have no interest in telling you what the film is about. Let it suffice to say that you should see it for yourself. It is a worthy comedy/thriller/crime drama/whatever-else-it-might-be. I mean, usually Colin Farrell annoys me, but I thought he was wonderful in this movie. See it if you loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or if you love Scorsese. In Bruges resides in a similar neighborhood, but it has a life of its own.

Shattered Glass ****

Most days, if you asked me what it would look like if wood tried to act I would say, "Well, just look at Hayden Christensen." Hence my hesitation when it came to seeing this film.

Throw out what you know, or what you think you know, and see this film. It is a stunner.

It is based on the true story of journalist Stephen Glass (Christensen), who wrote for The New Republic in the late 90s. All the references to the classic All the President's Men apply here, but this film occupies a journalistic niche of its own. I do not want to spoil anything, so I will simply say this: The film does an excellent job of exteriorizing Glass' interior state, of making his pathology yours, of awakening you to the discrepancies that exist within your own heart. It is a film that brands you with a moral cattle prod and dares you to flinch. As with In Bruges, this film excels because it captures things that cannot actually be filmed. For me, at least, it was less about what was happening onscreen, and more about what was happening to me as I watched it.

It is easy to forget that the same depravity that lands crooks and killers behind bars is present in all of us to some extent. We would like to think we are immune, but we have criminal hearts too. We lie, we cheat, we think racist thoughts and feel that we are above racism simply because we do not act on them.

Shattered Glass is an excellent psychological portrait of a man whose life is best seen as a cautionary-tale -- a Scared Straight not for juvenile delinquents, but for all of us who believe we are entitled to the good life, exempt from the rules, above protocol. Guilty as charged, and glad to be after seeing this gem of a film.

The Dark Knight ***1/2

DJG and I have conversations about Christopher Nolan's films all the time, and usually they go like this:

DJG: Christopher Nolan bores me to tears. I never care about his characters.

CTJ: I think he's a gifted filmmaker. I'm not his biggest fan by any means, but I mean, he's good at what he does.

DJG: I just hated Batman Begins.

CTJ: Yeah, I was so bored with it. Do you think you'll see The Dark Knight -- or rather, the Dork Newt?

DJG: Maybe when the hype dies down. But I probably won't like it.

In addition to disliking Nolan's approach to character development, Danny has repeatedly stated that he feels like Nolan's realist take on Batman sucked all of the fun out of the franchise. Take the comic out of the comic book, and you're just left with a book. And when you are expecting to find a filmic translation of a comic book and you only find a book, color Danny disappointed.

My friend Brandon and I went to see The Dark Knight yesterday in Overland Park at the Palazzo Cinema, Dickinson Theaters' flagship venue in the area. My reaction? It was better than Batman Begins, but I suspect Danny's review would be a one-liner: Z-z-z-z-z-z... Granted, there's a lot of action, and there is humor along the way, but I found it hard to connect even though the whole picture felt solid. I mean, the direction, the acting, and the writing were strong. But when characters died I didn't even flinch. I simply said, "Oh, okay." And when things exploded I thought, "Oh, okay. More explosions." The sound design was particularly percussive -- concussive, even. And visually the film was eye candy like all good summer blockbusters are.

I think for me the best films are the ones that span the divide between screen and mind, working their way into your psyche like filmic phantoms. The Dark Knight lived within the confines of the screen, and that's not necessary a bad thing. I would go so far as to say that it is actually a good film, and I enjoyed it. I just had problems with its design, its construction, its machinery.

And now to acknowledge the white, lipstick-smeared elephant in the room: Brandon noted that Heath Ledger really disappeared into the role of the Joker. I agree wholeheartedly. He really did do an excellent job in this film, and he felt authentically psychopathic. Nicholson's Joker in Burton's Batman was playful and whimsical and sick, but Ledger's Joker channels Charles Manson and appears to be ready to howl at the moon at anytime. Is it an Oscar performance? I don't know. If he gets to the award simply because of his death, I will be frustrated. But not that frustrated, because I am pretty disillusioned with the Oscars already. But a performance is a performance is a performance, and Ledger's death should not be considered part of his final act in The Dark Knight. Sure, it's tragic to be sure, but let's leave what happens offscreen off of the ballot. Last year's best supporting actor award was given to Javier Bardem for his performance -- not because of anything he did at home. Let's keep the standards consistent.

So the verdict is that The Dark Knight is solid enough, an enjoyable film if not an overlong, slightly bloated affair. Should you see it? Sure, why not. Weigh in for yourself. It certainly couldn't hurt. But expect to see more of Nolan's realist Batman, sans comic book-ishness.

No comments: