Monday, January 14, 2008
A Unilateral, Concerted, Diplomatic Effort
Just to clarify, I like SWEENEY TODD but it suffers from the same problem each Tim Burton film since MARS ATTACKS! has, namely a total lack of Martians who repeat “ACK ACK ACK ACK!” over and over again. It wasn’t received very well at the time, then a few years later there was a period where the very nature of the film was probably a little too touchy for the real world, but now it seems we’ve come full circle and are more than ready for this jet-black comic world that Tim Burton and company seem more than willing to destroy. It takes a lot to get me to laugh when I’m sitting by myself watching a movie. MARS ATTACKS! has always been able to do it. In many ways, the film is like the culmination of everything Burton had done in film up to this point, the closing of the first chapter of his feature career that started with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Sometimes the look of his films is criticized as appearing too dark and dingy but maybe with this film he was getting using as many colors as physically possible and he’d never have to use any of them ever again.
It’s Burton’s most wickedly funny film, both in love with the characters in the frame and more than willing to treat many of them in as sadistic a manner as possible—much emphasis seems to be placed on how painfully it actually is when the characters are disintegrated by the Martian’s rays. This is the only film on record which puts Jack Black, Joe Don Baker and Sylvia Sidney in the frame at once and there are numerous other such combinations throughout that only add to the fun. As a matter of fact, it’s a flat-out bizarre cast, with other scenes that give us combos of people like Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Pierce Brosnan, Paul Winfield and Martin Short (Martin Short??). Not quite Black, Baker and Sidney, but still pretty impressive.
Maybe it’s arguable, but his films in recent years feel slightly more impersonal than what he directed in his first decade. Whatever their respective sizes, BATMAN RETURNS and ED WOOD feel like they share a very distinct sensibility and MARS ATTACKS! (the screenplay is credited to Jonathan Gems but Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski worked on extensive rewrites as well) may be an outgrowth of that but it’s a baffling one. It almost defies analysis. The BATMAN sequels are about the wearing (and not-wearing) of masks, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD are explorations of the nature of creativity and how personal that can be. What, then, is MARS ATTACKS? It’s anarchic, yes, maybe taking some of what Joe Dante did in the two GREMLINS films a few steps further but more than anything the answer may simply be that it’s the one true Tim Burton expression of creativity and what he loves about movies, from its rimshot punchlines that end scenes to the wide expansions of its settings to the scattershot idea of who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I may identify more with the eagerness of Lukas Haas’s misfit than the self-satisfaction of Michael J. Fox’s reporter, but the thought of swigging martinis in the “Kennedy Room” certainly sounds appealing, especially if it’s scored with the kind of lounge music Danny Elfman provides. I just hope that the company would turn out to be a little more pleasant. The Martian Girl is of course played by Burton’s then-paramour Lisa Marie. here’s very little sexuality present in the film among any of the female characters apart from her and even she is a very bizarre example. The kicker is when her dead body is being examined, Burton stages the scene so someone walks in front just as the top of her dress is being pulled off. He knows that we’re wondering if we’re going to see Martian breasts and he teases us with thinking we’re going to see it until the last possible second. It’s a small touch but one given to us by someone who fondly knows the feeling of hoping for something forbidden in a movie, even though we know that it’s never going to actually happen.
But more than anything is the impression that Burton has taken the gleeful viciousness of how characters were killed off in Irwin Allen movies, tossed in various wicked STRANGELOVE vibes and updated it all to apply to our modern-day world. It’s now more than a decade old, but after various events of the past few years it feels timelier than ever. The simple juxtaposition of the headlines on the New York Times-like paper (“Existence of Interplanetary Life Comfirmed”) and the one on the correctly-named New York Post (“MARTIANS!!!!!”) feels more pointed than anything in all of INDEPENDENCE DAY but the constant scenes of those in power bickering endlessly just seem flat out true today. Maybe that’s why the most ferocious fight between Nicholson’s President and Steiger’s General “(Annihilate! KILL!! KILL!!”) gets me laughing no matter how many times I see it.
Whether this is reading too much into it, I don’t know. But viewing these people of power react in their various ways to the attacking aliens is strangely liberating when the real-world equivalents are doing the things they do. It’s a cheerful apocalypse in MARS ATTACKS! and if that seems a little harsh coming from what should be simply a wacky comedy, it’s hard not to take a look at the headlines of today’s paper and realize just how much the movie gets right. Maybe if there is any message within the anarchy of MARS ATTACKS!, it’s to do what you think is right in this world, rather than what you think you’re supposed to do. Maybe that’s a way to watch films as well.