Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

In the dim past of cinema history, a kind of Early Cenozoic when movies did not yet have the capacity for speech, Georges Méliès found "Un petit diable," a little devil--lost now, but I'm sure as startling as any of his astronomers and imps, rocketships and submarines, living playing cards and posters--555 films in seventeen years that asked us not to believe, but to see. His films still can captivate--maybe more so now than then, since their scratched and grainy jump-cut surfaces have taken on a sputtering glow, a surreal non-logic. The last hundred years have accustomed our eyes to the dark, and we see things in his little magic tricks that breathe their own life.

The inheritors of this visual legacy have never forgotten their first glimpse of that dream-cinema. Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Dziga Vertov, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Jan Svankmajer, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Guy Maddin, David Lynch--who am I leaving out? Many many more, I'm sure, all of them--including big shots like Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam--children of the first magician, Méliès reborn everywhere you look.

And for the Quay brothers, looking is everything. They have been making alternate-universe animations for more than thirty years; but as strange as their world is, it has become familiar to anyone who's seen certain Kafka-Goth music videos of the '90s, or watched the world unspool in CGI-driven ads, or simply sat through even the tawdriest post-Millennial horror film, infused with Japanese swirls of hair and sudden lurching camera jumps, layered soundtracks indebted as much to the anxiety-dream soundscapes of a Quay brothers short as they are to the wheezing-slaughterhouse tape loops of The Exorcist. Whether we know it or not, we're all surrealists now.

So don't be afraid to be confused, even bored, by the Quay brothers' The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, one of two feature-length films they've made. It combines the fable-logic of another pair of brothers, the Grimms, with the insect-skitters of the Quays' own classic shorts (which you can rent from Netflix). Just be warned that all you can expect to do is look at this movie; "understanding" it is almost a waste of time. Each moment makes sense--inside of itself, if you watch closely enough--but as a whole it doesn't matter. I have inferred a meaning from The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (and what an apt Magic Realist title, sounding like one of Gabriel García Márquez' "tales for children"--"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" comes to mind); but any meaning inferred is as much my fault as the film's. The real effort is to resist meaning, to allow the animations, the floating arias, the tantalizing fade-outs, the mysterious utterances, to be themselves, whatever that is. Learn to watch: This is definitely not interactive cinema, but the triumph of two-dimensional film, all surface--and all mesmerizing.

Behold! Méliès' "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (1898):

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just Around the Corner (1938)

So you* love movies, you've seen a million of 'em--you even respect them, more or less, and accept The Cinema as an art form, perhaps the most important of the past hundred years. In recognition of their stature, you try to watch "classic" films, the kind that make the all-time-greats lists. Consider the latest Sight and Sound/British Film Institute best-of, compiled only once a decade; the most recent is from 2002:

1. Citizen Kane
2. Vertigo
3. La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game
4. The Godfather, Parts I & II
5. Tokyo Story
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Battleship Potemkin
7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (tied with Potemkin)
9. 8½
10. Singin' in the Rain

I'll bet you've seen at least some of them--and good for you: By and large, these movies are not only "important" but "entertaining," at least because they're well-made, with compelling story-lines and performances. So they're not only good for you, they're good.

But does your cinephilia demand you watch a movie from the number one box-office draw of the late 1930s? That would be Shirley Temple--and of course you know her name and are certain you've seen a few of her pictures--but I'll bet what you're remembering are snippets from compilation shows, montage tributes to the Golden Age of Hollywood, little moments captured in amber--tinged with gold, to be be sure, but fading.

Well, here's your chance to cross one more cinematic obligation off your list with Just Around the Corner; but this is more than taking your medicine. This "happy little ditty" stands near the end of Shirley's girlhood--she was all of ten years old when it was released--and knows without a doubt that it's a "Shirley Temple Movie," providing ample opportunity for pluck and luck and song, with generous measures of the kind of sentimentality requisite for one of her vehicles.

Added to the usual heart-string-tugging is a typically Twentieth-Century-Fox take on the Depression, acknowledging it exists but blaming it mostly on a lack of "confidence" in zealous entrepreneurship bankrolled by the right tycoon to save the day. Shirley's architect father is reduced to fancy handyman in the very building he designed (a suitably Deco series of curves and sweeping lines), while his dream project lies waiting for the necessary backer--here provided by an Uncle Sam lookalike whom Shirley befriends, assuming he's the real Uncle Sam, "a tough old bird."

Along the way, we get improbable musical numbers, an encounter with dese-dem-dose versions of Our Gang, a boy-meets-loses-gets-girl secondary plot--and Bert Lahr "singing" in his usual surreal warble. And two more presences, irreplaceable, unforgettable: Franklin Pangborn and Bill Robinson, the two of them lifelong experts at what they need to do: one spluttering, the other gliding effortlessly amid lesser lights--although Shirley gets it, and has her usual fun following him; talk about artists at their height.

I'll confess that my affection for Shirley Temple movies stems from family viewing habits when I was a kid: channel 48 in Philadelphia ran Bowery Boys, Blondie, and Shirley Temple on Sundays, so if you wanted a movie you watched what you could get. My sister loved Shirley, and like most siblings in a one-TV family, I learned to defer. And good for me: I understand Shirley better than I otherwise would've, her hard work looking easy, her place in cinema history never in the High Culture Top Ten, but packin' 'em in their seats when needed; like the song says,
"Just around the corner,
There's a rainbow in the sky,
So let's have another cup of coffee,
And let's have another piece of pie."
Irving Berlin's song was almost cruel in 1932; but in Just Around the Corner, it could look back at the decade and start to shrug it off--just in time for the next weight to carry. But that's another Instant Play Pick: Battleground, anyone?

*This "you" does not include fellow film geeks; we've already watched more movies than we should.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Moon (2009)

If you already know Moon--and enjoy old-timey, puzzle-solving SF--you don't need me to encourage you to watch it. But the movie did kind of slip in and out--so what a treat for those of you who don't know it.

Look at the good stuff: Sam Rockwell in virtually every scene; Kevin Spacey as a maybe-he's-HAL-from-2001 computer/robot--and speaking of Kubrick's milestone, a production design that hearkens to 2001's black-and-white Lego geometry (in a movie filmed at Kubrick's haunt, Shepperton Studios); all in a film directed by David Bowie's son (I wish my middle name were "Zowie").

The film itself deals with a tried-and-true SF concept: the isolated human (here, at a mining base on, you guessed it, the Moon) facing a mystery--with only his own wits and a reticent artificial intelligence (and all the Asimovian paradoxes that come with such intelligence) to depend on. It's cool to look at, intriguing, and sometimes funny--which brings us back to Sam Rockwell, about as dependable an actor a filmmaker could hope for. Once Rockwell accepts a gig, he gives it everything, no irony, no easy outs. He reminds me of Nicolas Cage--at least when the latter isn't just bouncing around special effects; and like Cage, Rockwell brings a nuanced, off-center quality--in other words, he makes us believe he hasn't read the script, and isn't sure what even he himself might do next. And if that weren't enough, Spacey once more plays his voice like a musical instrument of subtle range, keeping us guessing even when he tells the truth.

Despite Rockwell's and Spacey's assertive presence, Moon remains a solid SF story, its look and attitude crisp and engaging, its plot (again, aside from some inevitable cheats) both reflective and suspenseful. I'll admit I'm always eager for a solid dose of Golden Age SF; but even if you're not a like-minded geek, Moon will draw you in to its low-gravity center.