Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The Monsters Now
In his directorial debut I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND Robert Zemeckis presents the Beatles in their appearance on Ed Sullivan even though no Beatles were actually in the film. This is accomplished by very clever staging, blocking and the actual footage of the legendary program. Not only does this anticipate roles that famous people will play in films he would make such as BACK TO THE FUTURE and FORREST GUMP, but it looks forward to how he would use the alchemy of film to convince us of the impossible. I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND also has a bit where the late Wendie Jo Sperber, desperate to get out of a moving car, simply opens the door and crashes onto the sidewalk. The go-for-broke feel of that moment is one of the things that I love in his early films and it’s hard not to miss it when looking at the direction he’s gone in.
I’ll always have a fondness for the early films that Robert Zemeckis created with his partner Bob Gale all those years ago. I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, USED CARS, the BACK TO THE FUTURE films and Spielberg’s 1941, which they co-wrote, all seem to exist together as a piece and they go together as well as the films of Preston Sturges did. If only there were two or three more Zemeckis-Gale collaborations. But instead, Robert Zemeckis went down a road which favored technology over people. I would say that this is puzzling since this is the man whose first film presented a budding romance between the amazing team of Eddie Deezen and Wendie Jo Sperber. After giving the world such a miracle, how could anyone possibly have an interest in computer generated characters?
I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND is about a group of teenagers who try to go see the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and is a terrifically funny movie. Several years ago Zemeckis and Gale contributed a very good commentary for the DVD. Zemeckis sounds distracted at first, almost as if his mind is still on a sound mixing session for THE POLAR EXPRESS, but he becomes more engaged as the track goes on, laughing heartily as he remembers this film he directed long ago. But that film was a long time ago and on his commentary for USED CARS, the director frankly states that he loves the film but could never make it now, saying that it needs a “young man’s energy”. It’s a surprisingly frank admission that a director, or any kind of artist, naturally changes through the years. It’s not necessarily about growth as much as it is that you’d expect a person and their interests to change over the years. For better of for worse Zemeckis has clearly become more interested in providing us with images which no one has been able to present before. Maybe it’s that new kind of electric train set he can play with more than anything else. It’s just the way I am that this sort of thing is never going to interest me as much as watching actual people so to me a degree of soul has been lost from his films, but the skill that he brings to it is undeniable.
After BACK TO THE FUTURE, the director’s interest seemed to gradually change from an interest in the people in front of the camera to the visions in front of the camera. The somewhat invisible effects shots throughout CAST AWAY are an interesting melding of the two, but now he seems to have left those people behind in favor of how he can manipulate the images of those people—BEOWULF lead Ray Winstone looking decidedly different in the film from how he appears in real life, for example. But there’s a genuine awareness of the craft which Zemeckis brings to it that separates his film from a piece of junk like 300. The random style of cutting that is seen in most action sequences these days is totally absent here. Instead we get his awareness of how to block these scenes, how to stage them so that one shot moves into another. It’s like a combination of what the director has always known about the language of film and the direction he insists that film is going.
What I’m trying to say is that if this new version of BEOWULF has to exist then it’s a very fortunate thing that it’s being brought to us by someone who clearly understands film grammar as well as he does. It’s a form of technology that I guess I’ll never be that interested in, but watching it in the new Digital 3D format I have to acknowledge that this is something I’ve never seen before. The leap from how it appeared in THE POLAR EXPRESS to now is palpable and even if this makes it clear how transitory the state of this technology currently is, that doesn’t diminish the technical accomplishment on display here. Is that display of technology enough? Maybe for the two hours the film runs it is.
I never read the epic poem of which Alvy Singer said to Annie Hall, "Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf," so I’m unqualified to comment on any liberties the adaptation by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary takes. It’s a very good script, though it doesn’t hold together the whole way for me. Some of the plotting that could be expected from a Robert Zemeckis film doesn’t really feel like it’s there but in place are some of those breaking-the-laws-of-physics-type setups that he’s been toying with for the past several years. At one point a character thrusts a giant sword right at our POV (nice in 3D) then the “camera” swings around and moves into a medium shot so we see how the blade is mere inches from someone’s eye, a shot that would be impossible if shot “normally” but extremely well-executed. So the question would be, is this film really about telling a story or is it about astounding us with the visuals we are witnessing? Maybe that’s what’s keeping the story from really taking hold for me.
I’m not going to go on about every single impressive aspect about the film, though I could mention the uniqueness of Winstone’s lead performance, how Brendan Gleeson still manages a genuine human presence within this, the perfection of Angelina Jolie’s casting, how truly astounding the Digital 3D is. One element which stands out more than anything is Crispin Glover as Grendel. Obviously it’s not just Glover, but also many effects artists creating the character. But once he speaks and I realized who it was, Glover’s personality does genuinely come through. And the character of Grendel, not burdened with having to resemble human beings like other characters in the film, is a truly amazing accomplishment and performance by all involved. More than anything, he looks photo-realistic to my eyes. Seriously, Gollum is a Hanna-Barbera cartoon in comparison. Despite any lack of interest I may have in this technology, when I’m confronted by something like this I have to acknowledge that the possibilities of what we could see in front of our eyes in the future and actually believe could be limitless.
If I sound conflicted about this, maybe that’s because I’m wrestling with the thoughts of what I want to see, what I miss in a director I always liked and the awareness that there are new ways of doing things that I have to acknowledge. Go see BEOWULF in the best Digital 3D theater possible. Then check out the DVD of one of his early films and wonder what the happy medium between the two could possibly be. If it even exists.