What kind of movie is this, anyways?

Some films try to straddle the line between different genres, or blend the different emotional tones that are characteristic of these genres. In some cases, this effort has become a formula, and it become its own established genre, such as the “Romantic Comedy.” In many cases, this can lead to novel and moving films, but perhaps more often it seems that the efforts to move in one direction cancel out the efforts in another. Rather than allowing a filmmaker to achieve a harmonious counterpoint, there is often an unsuccessful result that causes the audience to ask, “what kind of movie was this supposed to be?” Not just anything can be tossed in a blender and come out appealing.

Did someone say, “Blender?”

I recently rewatched Joe Dante’s 80’s Horror-Comedy film, Gremlins. I hadn’t seen it in perhaps decades, and I wanted to watch it with my teenage daughter. I found it held up as a very satisfying mix of spooks and laughs. I was a kid when this movie first arrived in theaters, and I did not see it at that time. I do recall friends telling me about the splatterfest kitchen scene, though, which indicated to my imagination that Gremlins was a pretty serious horror film. Viewed from my vantage point today, I see it much more as just a broad comedy with a few jumps and gross-out moments. Tellingly, perhaps, however, my daughter asked me if it was supposed to be funny (though all the while she was laughing at the absurd hijinks of the monsters on screen). Viewers unexperienced with this sort of mix might not be sure that they are getting the joke, but I think for a seasoned moviegoer, it is pretty clear, and pretty funny.

Don’t you know who I am, Billy?

Of course, to those in the know, Dante telegraphed his intentions partly through a fairly gratuitous cameo by the great animation director Chuck Jones in the early scene in the bar. This cameo is a lot like the cameos of Stan Lee in all the current Marvel Comics movies. Dante is paying homage to the influential creator whose work is an inspiration to the film we are watching. It may seem strange to think that Jones, who is associated with the Roadrunner, Pepe le Pew, and many of the most famous Bugs and Daffy cartoons, might be the inspiration for a comedy in horror film trappings, but a closer look at his work might give some more clues to Dante’s sources of inspiration. In cartoons such as Hair-Raising Hare, Scaredy Cat, and its remake, Claws for Alarm, Jones mines a great deal of humor from the horror-genre settings of a haunted house and the castle of a mad scientist. Gremlins is effectively a live action cartoon in this tradition, filled with the sort of implausible action and laughable villains that might populate a Looney Tunes short.

Attercop, attercop!

Perhaps the most extreme way that a filmmaker might attempt to mix moods is by making a genre film that parodies the conventions in the genre, while simultaneously trying to be an exemplar of that very genre. This rarely works, as the filmmaker is basically trying to have his cake and eat it too. An example which I think does pull it off is Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.

Police work, like comedy, is serious business.

Every convention of the Buddy Cop film is skewered and exaggerated for comic effect, but at the same time, Hot Fuzz is a great action cop film. When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters have a movie marathon, dipping into an enormous video library of buddy cop movies, the audience is getting a knowing wink from the director that functions much like Chuck Jones’s cameo in Gremlins. By calling out the source material for the film, Wright is implicitly inviting comparison. In a parody, referencing the source material is an almost indispensable device for establishing the context of the humor, but in a straightforward genre movie an homage can backfire merely by reminding you of a much better film. So while it takes a degree of confidence to pull off any genre mixing, it takes even more skill to succeed in lampooning the very type of film you are celebrating. The type of self-aware storytelling that this involves can be condescending to the audience or induce them to start rolling their eyes. The frequent result is a jumble of emotional beats that undermines credibility and sincerity. However, in their playful mix of genre conventions, Hot Fuzz and Gremlins both trip along confidently, where other films might just trip and fall.

Jurassic Park, Directed by Robert Altman

Hey Alan, can you believe that we’re surrounded by Dinosaurs and all this guy can think about is hitting on me? Can you believe that it’s actually working?

With all the current hype about Jurassic World, I thought it would be fun to do something I have wanted to do for several years, which is to revisit the franchise-spawning original, Jurassic Park. I was further inspired to watch it with my two oldest kids, who I judged to be the right age to experience it, one a little older now and one a little younger than I was when the movie arrived in 1994.

Unlike many films revisited after a span of years, my opinions and evaluation of this one has stayed essentially unchanged from when I first experienced it as a teenager. The scary sequences, notably the T-rex scenes and the Raptors in the kitchen scene, are still first rate thriller scenes. All of the “science” stuff is goofily dumbed down, and at times seems pointlessly inserted into the film. What, for example, is the purpose of showing that the dinosaurs were able to reproduce? What is the point of mentioning the Lysine contingency, and why was John opposed to it at that point in the story? Basically, the movie is great as long as the characters were not talking, or at least not talking about science.

But the speeches of one character in particular always bothered me a bit from not for the content, but from a stylistic point of view. When I first watched the movie, and even today to a degree, I had an uneasy feeling watching Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jeff Goldblum, but I didn’t understand his halting and overlapping form of speech. It seemed so out of place with the carefully scripted and performed speeches from most of the other characters. He seemed to be almost improvising his lines, and the stylistic discontinuity made me feel uncomfortable.

Having significantly broadened my experience of film in the intervening years, and in particular, having come to know many of the films of Robert Altman, this makes me feel a lot less uncomfortable. One of the well known traits of Altman’s directorial style is the overlapping and quasi-improvisitorial style of dialogue like that in Goldblum’s performance in Jurassic Park. Goldblum’s first significant role was in Altman’s Nashville, ironically in a character that has no dialogue at all.

Tricycle Man. He’s like the Marlboro Man, but trippier.

It now seems obvious to me that Spielberg likely intended Goldblum’s less controlled performance to be emblematic of his character’s studies of “Chaos theory.” At this point in my movie watching career, I suppose it works well enough.

To slightly stray from the stated topic, it may be no surprise to those that know me that my favorite Goldblum performance is in one of my favorite films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where he plays Bill Murray’s professional and romantic rival. Although his turn as a lawyer in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was a highlight as well. In both those films, his slightly odd, slightly self-conscious mannerisms, seeming to be improvised but actually highly controlled, seamlessly blends into the working style of the odd, self-conscious, and highly controlled Anderson.

He has a losing hand here. Nice shirt, though.

Rio Largo: Movies that Need a Trim

Do I have time for another? Yeah, there’s still 40 minutes left.

I watched Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo for the first time yesterday. Somehow I missed that one when I was watching so many of the Duke’s films in my high school and college years.

It was a thoroughly entertaining film, meaning that there was never a dull scene in the picture. And yet, I can’t help thinking that it could have been a lot better by being much leaner. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes. That’s a pretty remarkable length for a movie whose primary plot can be summed up as: a sheriff jails a bad guy and then must guard him for several days against his brother’s forces seeking to break him free. Of course, there are subplots involving the Drunk (Dean Martin), the Gunslinging Kid (Ricky Nelson), and the Disreputable Lady With a Heart of Gold (Angie Dickinson), but none of these amount to a justification for a runtime over 2 hours.

I am really curious how audiences of the time enjoyed a movie like this, versus how it might be perceived today. Although I wasn’t there to witness it, apparently it was common for people to come in to movies throughout the showing, and then stay through the next showing until they had seen it all, leaving when they got to “This is where I came in.” Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) famously played against that notion as part of its sensationalistic ad campaign.

Don’t be late to this film. Or I’ll tell Mother.

But I think of Rio Bravo as part of a self-indulgent streak in Hollywood films around the late 50s – early 60s. To me, the poster-movie (as opposed to movie poster) for this trend has got to be Ben-Hur, which is also on my short list of most overrated films. Ben-Hur is essentially an epically long movie trying to justify the creation of one fantastic sequence (the chariot race).

In 1960, the top grossing films in the US included 3 bloated epics–SpartacusExodus (which I have not seen), and The Alamo–plus Swiss Family Robinson, which could arguably be included in that category. Rounding out the top 5 was Psycho, a movie far leaner at 109 minutes than Hitchcock’s previous feature, 1959’s North by Northwest (2 hours and 16 minutes).

I’m not against long movies by any means, just because they are long. Some of my favorite films are in the over three-hour range. I wouldn’t lose a minute of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (3 hrs. 48 min. in the theatrical cut), or Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (4 hrs. 20 min.). But I do contend that a move has to have a sort of justification for crossing the 2 hour mark, and the more it nears 3 hours, the more justification it needs. There has to be something exceptional about the plot, something about the characters, something to justify not calling the editor back in for another pass.

And I submit to you, Doctor Zhivago (1965), that more shots of moist-eyed Omar Sharif staring forlornly after his lover is not a sufficient justification:

How much more of this can we take?

Peter Jackson, with his most recent trilogy, (The Hobbit: The Desecration of Tolkien) has become a living filmmaking cliche for bloat. But anyone who examined his 2005 King Kong remake should have seen this coming. Encouraged by the success, both financial and critical, of the Lord of the Rings films, he took exactly the wrong lessons to heart. The 1933 King Kong was a thrilling fable that lasted for 1 hour and 45 minutes, give or take. Jackson took this source material and gave it the same treatment that would doom his approach to the children’s fable, The Hobbit. He added in an excruciating array of sequences that bloated his take on the giant ape to almost double the length, at 3 hours and 21 minutes. Of course, there is an extended director’s cut available on disc. Stravinsky attributed to Da VInci as having stated that “strength is born of constraint, and dies in freedom.” Like a house of cards, sometimes the more you stack up, the more fragile and vulnerable the structure is.

I love a good, long movie, but there is much to be said for saying less. But perhaps storytelling economy was at odds with the economy of the box office in the day. Making bloated epics certainly made for box office success, at least for a time.

Der ursprüngliche Titel ist in Französisch.

I am not pleased with the translation of the title.

Why is it that some foreign films become known in the English world with their original language titles intact, and others are known by translations? This is a rhetorical question, mind you. I’m sure there are particular reasons in each specific case, which may just boil down to what distributors thought would sell more tickets.

Some movies, like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, aren’t even translations, but re-titling. If there were a reason for this, such as that a foreign idiom would be lost in the translation, then it would be understandable. But in this case, the original title, Kumonosu-jō seems far more evocative when you use the literal translation, “Spider’s Web Castle.” Someone in charge of marketing this film for the English speaking world clearly disagreed. Maybe they thought it sounded too much like a Hollywood monster film with that title.

There isn’t even a consistency among the works of a particular director. To stay with Kurosawa, many of his films, like Seven Samurai are known by the English title, but others such as Ikiru or Kagemusha are exclusively known with the Japanese title.

My friend put to me the case of the French film Murmur of the Heart (which I have not seen). In English, the title has a non-standard syntax for the adjectival noun, which mirrors the French syntax closely. The resulting poetical lilt to the title may or may not have been intended in the original French,  Le souffle au cœur. The film’s protagonist suffers from the medical debility of a literal heart murmur. Does the title, Le souffle au cœur, have the same clinical sound to the ears of a native French speaker that the English Heart Murmur would have?

Are there any other examples of oddities in the translation of Film titles? Feel free to share in comments below.

The Suspension of Belief

Most of the time, a work of art–especially a dramatic work–is at pains to draw you into the story. In addition to the suspension of disbelief with regard to the story, there is a sort of suspension of the senses with regard to the technique, in which we enter into the world of the work of art on its own terms. The observer is not usually intended to focus on the technical means of producing the artistic effect, or the means by which the story is told. The tools used to create the work are not part of the work itself. Most of the time, these are means to an end. The viewer can of course be conscious of them, but they are still tools and techniques, and not the subject of the work of art.

Sometimes, however, an artist will employ a self-conscious or even self-referential display of these tools or techniques, intentionally drawing attention to the means of making the work, in order to convey a meta-message, or to enrich the storytelling in surprising and paradoxical ways. The medium of film has perhaps some of the greatest potential for showing the viewer the methods of its own production. But it is important to remember that the filmmaker, when showing you the “behind the scenes” footage as part of the main product, has made a conscious choice of what to reveal. Moving what should be behind the scenes in front of the camera does not make the product less scripted, more authentic, more real. No one is under the illusion that “reality” TV shows show us anything that isn’t scripted up front and then shaped in the editing room to form whatever narrative is desired. But should we not be just as skeptical about documentary films? And on the other side of the coin, are fictional films less true because they are made-up stories?

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