Speed Racer is a movie that could not have been very good to begin with, but it’s certainly a very curious one. It’s several degrees more artificial than other CGI-dominated films such as 300 or Sin City, and therein lies its whole appeal – along with the fact that this is an adaptation of a silly Japanese cartoon from the sixties, so we don’t have to be worried about the nasty artistic-philosophical pretentiousness of the Wachowski brothers. But who cared about Speed Racer, the cartoon, in the first place? What made Joel Silver and the Wachowskis think that kids today would be in any way interested or have any affinity with the wacky 60s excesses so faithfully recreated and amplified in the movie?
Speed’s little brother, Spritle, and his chimp, Chim Chim, are the heart and brain of the movie. This is a movie suited to their sensibilities – there is a sequence in which the two watch cartoons and pretend to fight like their heroes that is supposed to have a degree of fantasy, but as the film progresses we realize that there is no such thing – there is no divide between Spritle’s kiddie fantasies and the actual world of Speed Racer. This is a film for Spritle and the chimp – who else would think in any way cool a pilot throwing a beehive into another during a race? There are a number of excessive elements that seem to be geared towards another kind of audience, one that’s not even real, that is either Spritle or the real audience of Speed Racer the cartoon, but that cannot exist today. This is evident when Spritle and Chim Chim break the fourth wall and intervene during the outcome of the last shot of the movie – the one when Speed and Trixie kiss – alerting the audience that what we’re going to see is somehow disgusting, asserting that in some way it is their 10-year old sensibility that is shaping the whole movie.
When it’s moving – during the race or fight sequences – Speed Racer does exactly what it sets out to do, and it’s fun in its unique, excessive and hyperkinectic visuals, especially when it acknowledges its camp and comedic nature. When it’s not, which is most of the time, it doesn’t quite work and the visuals seem forced and excruciating. We don’t have to thank the Wachowskis for this, but George Lucas, whose second Star Wars trilogy is the biggest influence here: pretty much everything is done in CGI, the dialogue is painful and puerile, and the whole thing is just an extension of the pod-racing sequences in Episode I, even making the same mistakes Lucas did. It’s an interesting exercise in pastiche even if it doesn’t have an audience, and proves that there is an undeniable appeal to the late 60s excesses that seem relevant today (I don’t know why, don’t ask me) – even if Speed Racer tries too hard sometimes. A more fruitful experiment would be, in my mind, a 60s campy version of James Bond.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, his penultimate film, is definitely a strange one. On the one hand, we have a solid thriller, with extended virtuoso suspense sequences that rival some of Hitchcock’s best work; and on the other, disjointed and odd conflict of tones. Bits and pieces of it work tremendously well, there are some of his funniest scenes and some of his scariest, but nothing much in between. It seems that in this one Hitchcock went for the extremes, and left the center somewhat uncared for.
For the first time there’s nudity in a Hitchcock film, and this is a big step forward in the sense that in Frenzy he doesn’t want to hold anything back. We are to be grossed out by that long, nervous scene of the killer raping and strangling Barbara Leigh-Hunt, which is extremely graphic for Hitchcock, but not for 1972. Still he manages to make it throroughly disturbing, aided with astonishing editing. In the first murder scene, we don’t see the victim’s face until the very end, and when we do, we can’t keep our eyes from her protruded, stiff tongue; in the second we only see brief flashes as the murderer recalls, in despair, having lost a pin that would incriminate him. The relentlessness of these sequences, and the one that follows the second murder, an extended and tense ride on the back of a potato truck, make it almost subjectless. We never sympathize with the killer – or with Jon Finch’s character, who is injustly accused – and still Frenzy puts us face to face with the ghastly business of murder, clumsy and more grisly than anything we’ve seen by Hitchcock.
We know who the killer is, and he’s not an interesing character – there are none, in fact. There are lame and superficial discussions of the nature of the killings, but these characters are way too flat. The “hero”, after learning that his girlfriend (Anna Massey, who was also in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom) has been murdered, shows not one ounce of emotion. This being Hitchcock, we should take all this with a grain of salt, and ask whether it is intentional. The film seems to be only about being as dark and unflinching as Hitchcock can be, but not on terms of plot or character.
A perfect foil to all this are the scenes with the police inspector and his pseudo-gourmet wife, who keeps feeding him the most unedible (although fancy and with French names) meals. Here the film takes a chance to replay the plot to the audience, as the inspector tells his wife, on the dialogue level. But we laugh at the inspector’s attitude towards the repulsive food he’s given to, which result in very funny scenes, but that also comment on this flat-out, on-your-face exposure of the murders. Now come to think of it, so does the opening scene on the Thames enbankment, where a crowd spots a floating body with a tie wrapped around her neck. An old lady says that the killer’s a “Ripper,” to which one guy replies that Jack the Ripper used to take the girl’s kidneys out – or were they livers? The gross-out aspect is clearly the key, and whether it elicits comedy or terror seem to be what Frenzy is all about.
Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse was fortunately released separately in Europe, which means one doesn’t have to sit through Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror to get to it. This version also adds some 20 minutes of scenes to the Grindhouse version, which should be source of enthusiasm for the fans. Unfortunately, it’s probably no better than Planet Terror, since it appears that Tarantino has dug himself a hole so deep in his own “mythology” that his film is only a rehashing of his previous work and old films. It’s even more pointless than Kill Bill: it’s about nothing and contains nothing.
Back in the 90s, when Tarantino was good, he had aptly infused his first films with an awareness of their debt to the past, filling them with references and “witty” ironic dialogue. But Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown were not just empty pastiches and homages to old movies, they had a life and style of their own (endlessly imitated and parodied). With Kill Bill, he apparently decided that he was tired of the irony: he wanted his movies to be anachronistic 70s exploitation films, and devised a three-hour pastiche of kung fu movies and spaghetti westerns, rooted in the most reliable of plot devices: revenge. Death Proof is in the exact same mode, but even less reliant on conventional movie structures. Plot is nonexistent, instead there are drawn-out, protracted dialogue scenes swarming with references not only to Tarantino’s favorites, but his own body of work. It’s as if the dialogue is there as a check list or test of how much of a Tarantino expert you are and how many allusions you can spot. He abuses of effects to convey the appearance of a 70s exploitation film (the cheesy titles, film specks and scratches, and clumsy splices), as if he wants us to really believe this time that this is no different: he is making a exploitation film.
It’s not, obviously, as he thinks he can improve the template. It wouldn’t have much of an artistic merit if it were an all-out imitation of an old film (Gus Van Sant did that with Psycho, and look how it turned out), and Tarantino knows this. Halfway through the movie he abandons the silly effects, clearly signaling (by having the entire middle reel in black and white, and then moving to perfect, crisp, color film, with no defects) that he only wanted to lure you in. From that point on, it’s a modern film in all aspects (one particular scene in a diner emphasizes this by using a contemporary and even annoying camera setup). It also divides the movie in two distinct halves.
In the first, a group of girls spend an evening in a bar in Austin, Texas, and Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a stunt driver who has a “death proof” car, uses it as a weapon to murder them. He gets away with it, as the two cops from Kill Bill tell us, there’s no way of proving it was homicide, and he gets off sexually through it. More on that later. In the second part, Stuntman Mike is stalking another group of girls. Two of these are also stunts working on a film, and they want to perform some dangerous stunts with a 1970 Dodge Challenger, the same make of car that was used in the movie Vanishing Point. The homage here is not only explicit, but the characters themselves are engaged in reliving a movie experience. It’s their chance to “live the dream” as it were, and perform a kind of real-life pastiche and catharsis. Therein may lie the key to the film.
In horror movies, the killer or monster always shows up at this moment of fulfilling — which is usually associated with sex, e.g. the kids are finally going to do it — almost a paternal forbidding that disallows the realization of desire. Stuntman Mike shows up, in another car, to stop the girls from doing this, almost killing them. He’s not careful though, and gets shot when he leaves the car for an instant. He cries and whines like a baby, and the girls chase him down. In here, unlike Kill Bill, there’s not even a reversal of values, and the movie ends with the three girls kicking Stuntman Mike’s ass, almost in cop-out fashion, without any further contextualizing. The whole movie has been driving to this conclusion, and their actions have no further consequences.
What is odd is the de-sexualization that occurs in Death Proof. The film opens with sexy girls talking about sex, but there’s none of it, or nudity, even. An in-joke is that, apparently, in true “grindhouse” fashion, the reel with all the sex is missing (I’ve been told this is more true of Planet Terror) — but it hardly explains why all the sex is only alluded to indirectly, and there’s not even a single bare breast in sight. In a true exploitation film there would be dozens.
All the sex has been diverted to the figure of the car. Stuntman Mike literally uses the car for sexual fulfillment, conflating sex and death as he kills the first set of girls. A number of critics have raised the comparison with J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, in which there is a similar act of charging the car with sexual meaning. It’s a long stretch because Stuntman Mike is an all-out psychopath who’s only interested in using the car as a weapon to chase and murder girls, whereas Ballard’s Vaughan is a far more complex and confused creation. The point about diverting sexuality to the car is interesting, though. We see the second set of girls finding some sort of liberation as they are driving the Dodge Challenger. It also empowers them — sexually — to chase down Stuntman Mike and emasculate him. The closest to regular sex we have in Death Proof is a tame lap dance performed by Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito), which is of little sexual value to Stuntman Mike and to the viewer. Who’s really sexy is Zoe Bell, atop the hood of the moving Dodge Challenger.
In this sense, Death Proof has nothing to do with Crash: it is, like Crash, a response to the conflation of sex and cars particular to the late 60s and early 70s: the fetish of the car paralleling a courtship, the car chase a sex scene, and the crash as orgasm. Tarantino has lost either the ability or the will to say anything new or even his own: now he’s just mouthing the words made by others, and Death Proof is the confirmation of this decline and total acceptance of his influences — he’s no longer using Pam Grier to act in a Tarantino film, he’s driving the 1970 Dodge Challenger in the Vanishing Point roads listening to songs by Jack Nitzsche, crashing into Pulp Fiction.
Charles Mudede has written a rather misguided piece on Stanley Kubrick, kindly pointing out the fact that Kubrick must have been a misanthrope and hated humans: just look at his films. “No matter how far we go into the future, into space, toward the stars, we will never break with our first and violent world. Even the robots we create, our marvelous machines, are limited (and undone) by our human emotions, pressures, primitive drives. For Kubrick, we have never been modern.” Is that really what 2001 is saying? Leia o resto deste post »
The trailer for Michel Gondry’s latest flick, Be Kind Rewind, was just released after an early showing at the Comic-Con. It is apparently the story of two video store clerks — played by Jack Black and Mos Def — who end up remaking a lot of popular movies after all their VHS tapes are erased by some bizarre magnetic accident (maybe some Tesla coils involved, who knows). One may wonder why bother renting VHS tapes in the first place, but I am sure Michel Gondry will give us some very entertaining and post-modernistic explanation for this. After all, isolated funny moments saved The Science of Sleep. This new movie in any case is hardly something to be waiting for — the entire story is completely explored and saturated in these two minutes only, and unless Gondry has a really good screenplay, I cannot imagine how he could save this from becoming a collection of youtube fanfilms.
Click here to see the trailer.
ABC’s Masters of Science Fiction premiered this Saturday, August 4th on the US, with the episode “A Clean Escape.” Click here for summaries and links for clips of the first six episodes. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed — I really expected something of a promising story and actors with the caliber of Judy Davis and Sam Waterston. If you don’t want spoilers, better go elsewhere.
The general idea for the episode is pretty good and could have led to a number of interesting developments. ABC’s official synopsis is:
A dying Dr. Deanna Evans refuses to believe that her patient, Robert Havelmann, cannot remember the last 25 years of his life. It remains unclear why she has been so obsessed with this particular patient until the final, shocking conclusion.
We gradually learn the conditions that have led to this predicament, from the point of view of Judy Davis, and it’s rather curious to watch Sam Waterston keeps coming back to his psychiatric sessions with no memory whatsoever of the previous scenes (or his life in the past 25 years in fact) as if someone had rebooted him. He has done something terrible and his mind has found a way to block it by having just a forty minute memory. Davis suspects that he might even be faking it, because then he doesn’t have to face the consequences. This is a good start and if the story had developed from there, it could’ve been great.
But it becomes clear that they’re not interested in the more psychological side of science fiction, but in the usual, clichéd and boring one. Waterston was in charge of a disastrous military move that led to a nuclear holocaust and everybody on the planet was killed. Only 870 of them remain in an underground bunker, which is where they are located. It feels like they added this apocalyptic backstory just for show, to appeal to the science fiction fans — which in itself is okay as background, but as soon as it is revealed, all psychological complexity that was briefly and slightly hinted at in the beginning just goes out the window.
To top things off, Davis has some unnecessary and goopy flashbacks about her kids, who have of course died, and some other scenes that are just filler. The acting by the pair of leads was good, until the end, when it goes over the top with the lame melodrama.
And oh, the “hosting” by Stephen Hawking is just his [computer’s] voice bookending the episode with the moral of the story so you won’t miss it.
Books about Stanley Kubrick range from the excellent to the incredibly stupid. Following the previous post, this is a brief assessment of the major volumes written on Kubrick currently in print:
- Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey, by Michel Chion. The single best volume on Kubrick. Chion, a renowned French artist and critic, is brilliant and his analysis manages to shed light in places where others have invariably failed. A particularly fascinating section is the discussion of the use of music in 2001. The close reading of every scene is also very enlightening. Works extremely well a companion piece to Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.
- A Cinema of Loneliness, by Robert Kolker. A volume about auteur American cinema which has chapters on Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg (previous editions had Francis Ford Coppola instead). Contains some of the best and most lucid analyses of Kubrick’s main body of work and places him within a context — something critics forget sometimes.
- Kubrick, by Michel Ciment. Includes three great interviews with Kubrick (also found here)
- Kubrick, by Michael Herr. Herr is a fantastic writer, and his insights on Kubrick are remarkable and full of wit. Tells you more about Kubrick the man in a hundred pages than any other book, including LoBrutto’s biography. My favorite anecdote is when Herr, in Kubrick’s computer room in the early 80s, suggested he turn the computers off when not using them. Kubrick just said: “They like to be left on.”
- Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays, edited by Robert Kolker. As title states, these are new essays on 2001 (the book is dated 2006) by leading scholars about the film from a variety of perspectives, hoping to cover all bases. So there’s an essay about its critical reception, one by a computer scientist about HAL (not the best essay here but some may find interesting), sharp analyses by renowned Kubrick scholars such as Susan White, and even a lyrical appreciation by writer-scholar George Toles.
- Eyes Wide Shut (BFI Film Classics), by Michel Chion. Chion always finds novel and interesting ways in which he can approach a film (read also his superb analysis of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line) that strike you as logical and simple, but that somehow it managed to elude every viewer and critic. If you have any doubts about Eyes Wide Shut‘s qualities, better read this.
- Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, by Thomas Allen Nelson. Intelligent and informed discussions of every film, from Fear and Desire to Eyes Wide Shut. Scholarly, yes, but not difficult and always refreshing. Can be a little obvious sometimes, but good as an introduction.
- The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel.
- Stanley Kubrick: A Visual Poet (Taschen), by Paul Duncan. Not much in terms of commentary here, but cool for your coffee table if you can’t afford the mammoth-sized Stanley Kubrick Archive (now out of print! with that one you could spend literally DAYS with it). A much better alternative to the Duncan is Michel Ciment’s Kubrick which has excellent analyses, even better photographs, and the endlessly fascinating Kubrick interviews (and some with collaborators and actors).
- Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, by Mario Falsetto. This is an expanded doctoral thesis defended at NYU I believe, firmly grounded in narratological theory. If you fancy that kind of approach, go for it, because there is interesting material here. If not, stay away.
- Stanley Kubrick (Biography) by Vincent Lobrutto. Goes up to the mid-90s and is endorsed by Kubrick’s family, unlike the Baxter biography. I wonder what exactly did Baxter say… If you’re interested in Kubrick’s working process in-between movies, this is a good source of information. There isn’t much about his personal life in later years.
- The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick, edited by Gene D. Phillips. Only if you want the most specific and obscure details. There are loads of interesting information here.
- Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, edited by Gene D. Phillips.
- Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis, by Alexander Walker et al. Some of the commentary here is interesting, but mostly it isn’t very deep — and I’m not talking about critical vocabulary. Walker’s analyses can be totally worthless, like his take on Eyes Wide Shut. The visual side of the analysis is not helped by microscopic and blurry film stills.
- The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, edited by Stephanie Schwam and Jay Cocks. Mainly a reprinting of some of the material of Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 and some scattered material. If you already have Agel and access to the Internet, forget about it.
- Kubrick’s 2001: A Triple Allegory, by Leonard F. Wheat. This is definitely the worst thing every written on Kubrick and probably on any filmmaker. Wheat tackles 2001 with all sorts of pseudoscientific and pseudophilosophical apparatuses, from numerology to just plain wrong interpretations of 2001, Homer, and Nietzsche. There’s even one very convoluted section about anagrams (like TMA-1 is an anagram of “NO MEAT”) and how “Frank Poole” is a “95%” anagram of “Walk on Rope,” part of his lame attempt to link 2001 and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A 95% anagram is imperfect because the letter F had to be changed to a W in order to complete it. If you see any copies of this at your local bookstore or library, BURN IT.
There are a couple of volumes missing, which I hope my collaborators will add.