Monthly Archives: April 2007

The Feel Bad Movie of the Year

Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2005)

When I saw Terry Gilliam’s Tideland at the Melbourne Film Festival last year, my immediate reaction was that the film was unreleasable. Its appearance in Australian cinemas has obviously proven me wrong. Yet its exposure to a wider population allows the opportunity to see how many, like me, find the film virtually unwatchable. Gilliam is an enormously talented filmmaker, and Tideland isn’t bad in any of the usual ways. It’s not reprehensible, or stupid, or poorly made. But it’s a deeply unpleasant experience that just doesn’t work at all.

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All Bodyguard, All the Time

A colleague alerted me to this interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) that looks at a bunch of boffins who think they’ve come up with a mathematical means of identifying hit movies. It contrasts their belief that there are rules that can identify potential hit movies with William Goldman’s famous dictum that “nobody knows anything,” and suggests there are two basic approaches to the idea of “rules” in art:

What Goldman was saying was a version of something that has long been argued about art: that there is no way of getting beyond one’s own impressions to arrive at some larger, objective truth. There are no rules to art, only the infinite variety of subjective experience. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves,” the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote. “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” Hume might as well have said that nobody knows anything.

But Hume had a Scottish counterpart, Lord Kames, and Lord Kames was equally convinced that traits like beauty, sublimity, and grandeur were indeed reducible to a rational system of rules and precepts. He devised principles of congruity, propriety, and perspicuity: an elevated subject, for instance, must be expressed in elevated language; sound and signification should be in concordance; a woman was most attractive when in distress; depicted misfortunes must never occur by chance. He genuinely thought that the superiority of Virgil’s hexameters to Horace’s could be demonstrated with Euclidean precision, and for every Hume, it seems, there has always been a Kames – someone arguing that if nobody knows anything it is only because nobody’s looking hard enough.

I’m inclined to think that Gladwell’s boffins are barking up the wrong tree, with way too many variables in their system to ever allow reliable calculations. Gladwell starts by talking about music, an area where it seems more persuasive that their approach might work: I can see how there might be particular patterns of beat or melody that just “sound right,” and which could be mathematically described. For example, Gladwell mentions that Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” scored super-high on their scoring system, and this seems plausible: if ever there was a song that sounds like it would max out a computer’s hit-single algorithm, it’s that one.

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A Cutting Room Floor a Long Time Ago

When George Lucas created the Star Wars: Special Edition (which soon became Star Wars: The Only Edition) he re-introduced two major deleted scenes into the film. The first was the awful Jabba scene early in the film, and the second was Luke’s reunion with Biggs, his old friend from Tatooine, just before the final battle. While fans mostly dislike the Jabba scene, generally the Biggs scene has been accepted as a good addition to the film. Biggs’ death in the final battle now has a little more weight, and incongruity in the original cut of Luke fighting alongside his friend (or someone with the same name) with no explanation is eliminated.

However, a much longer scene with Biggs was left on the cutting room floor, and it’s easily the most interesting of the various deleted scenes from the Star Wars trilogy.

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Deep Space

Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine has a guaranteed cult following already. It’s a seriously intentioned, adult-oriented science fiction film, and these are few and far between. There’s a sector of the nerd audience out there that latches onto any science fiction film that moves even slightly beyond Star Wars style space pyrotechnics; this is a fan base that gets its regular sustenance from literary science fiction but which will eagerly devour the few scraps of “hard” sci-fi that Hollywood gives it. Sunshine, unfortunately, might need this fan base to keep it going. Boyle has made three quarters of a great film, but I suspect those not predisposed to enjoy this genre are going to struggle to forgive its flaws.

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Here, Under Protest, is “Beef Burgers”

Now here’s an oddity. For years a bootleg audio-tape has circulated of Orson Welles berating the directors of an advertisement for frozen peas, complaining about the script and the quality of their direction. It was a strange little curio, mentioned in David Thomson’s Welles biography Rosebud, and one of those little pop-culture artifacts with its own tiny infamy – witness the existence of its own Wikipedia article. (Just thinking about it now, I wonder if it wasn’t also the inspiration for the routine in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey complains about the script for an ad in which he played a tomato.)

Anyway, that bootleg was the inspiration for a sequence in the nineties TV cartoon Pinky and the Brain where a slightly cleaned-up version of the dialogue was performed by the mice. (Maurice La Marche, who voiced the Brain, is known for his Welles impression: he overdubbed Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood). And now someone has gone and reunited the original Welles audio with the Pinky and the Brain animation. The result is, well, an even stranger little pop culture oddity. (This was brought to my attention, as so many of these kind of things are, by Jaime J. Weinman over at Something Old, Nothing New).

Incidentally, I asked over at the the original post what The Brain had said instead of “I’ll go down on you,” and apparently it was “I’ll make cheese for you.” Which is a fortuitous substitution, as it preserves the lip-synch.

If nothing else, the existence of the original Pinky and The Brain animation is a testament to the strange kinds of things that get slipped on to kids television when nobody at head office is paying attention. What on earth did the 99% of people who’d never heard of the “Frozen Peas” tape make of this?

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Western Art

McCabe & Mrs Miller (Robert Altman), 1971)

When Robert Altman made McCabe & Mrs Miller, he wasn’t the stereotypical New Hollywood director. In his mid forties, with many years in the industry (obscure B-pictures in the fifties, and television throughout the sixties), he was an emerging talent but still a product of the system. Yet McCabe & Mrs Miller is nevertheless classic New Hollywood: it takes an established Hollywood genre and deconstructs it; it focuses on amoral (or at least non-heroic) protagonists; it’s downbeat; and it’s photographed and constructed more like a European art film than American genre films typically had been until that point. You can see why canon-building critics like Pauline Kael, eager to welcome in a new wave of filmmakers, flipped for it. Kael wasn’t wrong – it is a great film. Yet I think it’s worth another look because the response to it is very telling about the way audiences and critics respond to the collision of art and genre.

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