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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/21/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 25
Table of Contents
The State of American Film (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
My parents have officially served notice. They are going on strike. They will no longer rent any Hollywood action movie. I think I understand how they feel. In the human development you reach a point, a state of maturity, where bigger explosions, longer and more action-filled car chases, and even better kick- boxing just does not do it for you. In fact, I am thirty years their junior and it sure does not do it for me. What is happening to the American film industry?
Well, a number of things are happening. The first is that making a profit on films has become more of a science. The demographic that has the most money to spend on films is males age twelve to eighteen. Studios can aim for a different audience, but they are aiming where there is less profit to be made. And of course, the more that the filmmakers aim for male teen audience, the more people outside that demographic become frustrated with the films being made and go to theaters in smaller numbers. So the prophecy that those are the people buying the tickets more and more fulfills itself.
Another trend in the film industry is internationalization. At first look that should be a good thing. After all, we have known for a long time that some of the best films to see are foreign films. A Kurosawa or a De Sica film can be much more powerful than the standard fare that Americans make for themselves. But only a small part of the foreign audience is so discerning. Sadly a lot of the Japanese and French and Italian film market like "blow 'em up real good" films. Paddy Chayevsky said "Television is democracy at its ugliest." The film industry is worse than democracy, it is a situation of each movie ticket bought is a vote. And there are a lot of people out there who want to see martial arts fights on the big screen. There is a lot of effort to sensitively take someone baring their soul and to translate it into Japanese, French, Spanish, and Italian. But explosions, chases, and fights transcend the language barrier. Action films sell the best in this country, are the easiest to translate to other languages, and sell best in other countries. No wonder then that as big multinational corporations acquire film companies, they want them to concentrate on the most profitable product.
Before films can be made there have to be ideas for films. You cannot demand that some author go out and write some new material that will illuminate some previously unlit facet of the human soul. That takes real inspiration. Moreover if the assignment is that the author thinks of a situation that will entail two car chases, three explosions, and numerous fights with martial arts, nearly any writer can meet that demand. It takes very little imagination to figure out how to rework the Boris Karloff THE MUMMY to use CGI special effects, martial arts fights, and chases.
As a side note, I think people have been seeing this happening for a long time and many seem to want to blame Steven Spielberg for the problem. And Spielberg has certainly made his share of action films. Blaming him always bothers me since I see Spielberg as doing something else entirely. Spielberg more than most other filmmakers is a student of what makes a good film in a particular genre. Yes he will make an action film, but it will be an exercise in the principles of what makes an action film good. A fair percentage of the time that will make a good action film. But he also makes serious films exercising principles that make serious films good and frequently that will result in a good serious film. The name I most associate with just making exploitation action films is Jerry Bruckheimer. He seems to make one soulless and successful action film after another and nobody seems to tag him for his part in the deteriorating state of the American film.
It may sound like things are getting worse and worse with American film. To some extent they are. But in some ways the Internet can save the filmgoer, for those who know how to use it. Next week I will talk about how I use the Internet to improve the set of films I see. [-mrl]
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Three hours of what may be just about the best fantasy film ever made tells the story of J. R. R. Tolkien's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Intelligent and visually beautiful, Peter Jackson's first film of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is an instant classic and quite possibly this generation's GONE WITH THE WIND. Rating: 10 (0 to 10), +4 (-4 to +4)
Years ago, there were animated versions of parts of J. R. R. Tolkein's THE LORD OF THE RINGS made for television, and Ralph Bakshi made one for theatrical release. None was very satisfying. But the technology of creating images on the screen has advanced a very great deal since that time. Today, if you can visualize it, it probably can be put on a screen. How difficult a task is it to make a definitive version of Tolkien's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING? Two tasks are necessary. The novel is already intelligent. What is needed is a way to abridge the very long story down to a screenplay without sacrificing the spirit or the intelligence. Also, for years Middle Earth has been beautifully visualized in the paintings of the Brothers Hildebrandt. Theirs have become as much the classic images of Middle Earth as the John Tenniel's illustrations have become the classic images of Lewis Carroll's fantasy world. What is required in making a film version is to have every frame of the film look like a Hildebrandt illustration. Both are impressive tasks that require a lot of hard work, but neither is insuperably difficult. Peter Jackson saw that both tasks could be done and the result would be one terrific film. We have that film now, and it delivers a heavy load of adventure, spectacle, and beauty, three hours with too many delights to list, all for the price of a standard film ticket.
Ironically, the filmmakers have to contend with how well-known and respected the original story is. Indeed, my wife can list a multitude of small variations from the book. They are of the sort "When Frodo escaped by boat he was invisible and Sam saw only what looked like an empty boat. The film has him visible." And people who love the story do pick up on changes to the story like that. But nobody criticizes THE GUNS OF NAVARONE for what are far greater variations from its source novel. Indeed, few criticize even THE TEN COMMANDMENTS so much for liberties taken with its so- well-loved source material.
Dramatically, the biggest problem of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is the classic one going back to the first publication of the story. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was one mammoth novel that the publisher arbitrarily decided had to be split into three pieces, published at six-month intervals. It is a story without an ending since Tolkien intended only a chapter break at that point. The film has the same mid-stride ending. Peter Jackson has promised his films will be released at twelve-month intervals to catch three Christmases.
The anticipation for that second part is already building. The public's keenness of the first film, based on rumors and the trailer, has been very great. Now that the public has seen a much bigger sample of what Jackson can do with the story, the expectancy for the second film will probably be much greater. By the time the third film is ready to be released the phenomenon will probably be stronger than the STAR WARS phenomenon. George Lucas pointed the way to what computer effects could do for the fantasy film with his STAR WARS films. But he has had to write his own material and he is no Tolkien, so none of his films have been as well-realized as THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
As few viewers will need to be told, the story is of a ring that holds absolute power. But the power it represents seduces and corrupts absolutely the person who wears the ring. A great and wise wizard, Gandalf the Grey (played by Ian McKellen), knows the power and the seduction of the ring. So he does not want to possess the ring himself but asks an innocent, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), to take the ring and carry it where it can be safely destroyed. Thus Frodo begins a dangerous trek through Middle Earth, a magical world created by Tolkien with accents of British and Germanic folklore. Jackson moves the story right along as there is much territory to be covered, literally and figuratively, in a story that is rushed to be told in a three-hour film. Along the way the filmmaker gives us one beautiful scene after another. He needed a wide variety of shooting locations, but with a little help from computer enhancement, he managed to create the settings he needed all in his visually diverse homeland of New Zealand. But the plot is still complex. Those unfamiliar with the story of THE LORD OF THE RINGS can expect to be lost by the background and history sequences which move fast and violently in the first part of the film. But the viewer is not lost for long. The world soon simplifies to the travelers, their allies, and their enemies.
Throughout the film familiar faces appear. Christopher Lee shows up here, Cate Blanchett there, but no single actor dominates the film. Not even Elijah Wood, who plays the main character, dominates. Actors seem to have been chosen because they were right in the part, not because their names would sell tickets. Nobody will think of this as a Liv Tyler film or a Sean Bean film. If it is anybody's film, it is that of forty-year-old Peter Jackson. Jackson has shown continuous improvement since his 1987 feature film debut with the aptly named BAD TASTE. My advice to him would be not to try to improve at this point. If he makes three LORD OF THE RINGS films of consistent quality that play like a single film, he will have a great artistic and financial success. His series will be the standard and the benchmark of fantasy on film. If, like George Lucas did, he falls into the trap of trying to outdo himself each outing he will end up with mismatched and less satisfying pieces. He has an excellent start. I admit that I am partial to the fantastic on film, but I rate THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING a rare full score of 10 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +4 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
VANILLA SKY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Reality gets seriously bent in a film that breaks the barriers between a dreamlike reality and realistic dreams. Tom Cruise is the vertex of a love triangle we are sure will end badly. But when it does end the strangeness is just beginning. This would have been a good film at 45 minutes. Nearly two hours is too much of perhaps not a good enough thing. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4) Spoiler warning: as a friend cautioned me, this is a film that the less you know about it going in, the better the film will be. I have tried not to put in any spoilers, but perhaps my friend is right.
A lot of films these days start well, but the writer does not know where to take the story. Much rarer is a film like VANILLA SKY in which the writer had a pretty good idea how to end the story but fumbles badly in getting to the point where he can use the ending. This is a film with a lot of seemingly pointless material, and most of it is in the first half of the film. I cannot fault the ideas behind VANILLA SKY, but several times I found myself frustrated waiting for them to appear. Writer-director Cameron Crowe plays with the audience and mysteriously hints that there may be more going on than meets the eye. Some of the hints mean something, some are red herrings for the sake of style. As good as the end is, it may not be worth the patience that the buildup requires.
"Open your eyes." They are the first words of the dialog, the title of the film on which VANILLA SKY is based, and words that will take increasing significance as the story progresses. David Aames (played by Tom Cruise) is the playboy heir to a publishing empire. With money, power, and good looks his every wish is someone else's command. The Board of Directors of his company would be happy to be rid of him, but his father died leaving most of the company's stock to him. David's lover Julie (Cameron Diaz) is hoping that David will get serious sooner or later, but David cannot be serious about work or about play. When David's best friend Brian Shelby (Jason Lee) shows up at David's birthday party with his new girlfriend Sophia (Penelope Cruz), David and Sophia are immediately attracted to each other and Julie is not happy to discover she has just lost her future. Cameron Crowe fills the story with flash-forwards, flash-backs, and scenes that turn out to be dream sequences. There are weird visual images and odd little background touches. The final effect is to disorient the viewer. It may be just me, but I did not particularly care if David would find love with Sophia. In a story of many questions, will David be successful is one of the first asked and one that Crowe may have been interested in only slightly more than I was.
VANILLA SKY is Crowe's remake of Alejandro Amenabar's ABRE LOS OJOS (OPEN YOUR EYES). Spanish director Amenabar's only English- language film, the ghost story THE OTHERS, turned out to be one of the surprise sleeper hits of the year. Once again he shows that if one patiently sticks with one of his stories there is a rich and thoughtful idea awaiting to engage the viewer. VANILLA SKY is a film that has a lot of nice details done very precisely, but which for most viewers first seeing the film will fly by totally unnoticed. It may well be that for many viewers a second viewing will be more rewarding than the first.
Crowe uses motifs that seem to recall Cruise's recent work for Stanley Kubrick. At some point in the plot masks become very important. It is reminiscent of the masks in EYES WIDE SHUT, though Cruise's character is somewhat different from the one in that film. There he was on the outside of philandering looking in, here he is on the inside looking further inward. Even the titles seem linked. That was about having EYES WIDE SHUT, this is a remake of OPEN YOUR EYES.
VANILLA SKY is a film in which it becomes clear there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. That is achieved in part by Cameron Crowe making sure that so little of what is happening actually meets the eye until major clues are given toward the end of the film. What is wrong with the film is not that it is a deep intellectual exercise but that for so long it gives so little hint that that is what all its strangeness is leading to. It is a riddle too well wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. (Personal note: My initial rating on leaving the theater was considerably lower based on the film's slow development. As the film unwinds in my mind I see more and more to like in what was done. That, by itself, is probably an achievement.) [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favors. --Francois de la Rochefoucauld
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