24 May 2008

74. being john malkovich

and so begins the real career of charlie kaufman. i remember not liking this much when it came out, although that was almost 10 years ago and now i can't remember why i felt that way. looking at it now, it is of course remarkable.

the step-up is quick and great. it hooks us in -- a puppet show! cut to see the master puppeteer alone in his studio, looking dishevelled and drinking a beer. he's broke, and his dowdy wife's work at a pet store doesn't help. he needs a job, any job. and so: the 7 1/2 floor, at which point he finds the portal and eventually becomes able to puppet a real human being.

the movie is really about the artistic process of any kind. our hero is a starving artist before he finds his muse. then, the portal to malkovich is described: "it's a god-like thing." it a literal way to describe what writers, actors and others do: they get into someone else's skin and see the world through their eyes.

because it is about the artistic process, it also hits on a theme that kaufman discusses in "adaptation": staying true to your vision. by staying in malkovich for good, cusack is using someone else's fame to advance his art. not bad to put puppetering into the mainstream, but he doesn't do it himself, so it doesn't count as a victory.

that's why he's stuck in another body at the end, still longing. he'll never be satisfied unless he does it on his own terms. so, like so many artists, he'll never be satisfied -- he's stuck forever.

05 May 2008

75. high noon

the above image is the key image of the film. as the train comes in and the tension built in the movie is at its apex, we get a big, obvious crane shot showing how completely alone our hero is. in most action or adventure films, westerns being the biggest genre in that category during the 1950's, we have a hero character who is alone in a certain fight because they are prinicpled, they have honor, they must do their duty. see subsequent examples such as john mcclaine in "die hard", john rambo in "rambo", william wallace in "braveheart". all those heroic traits are here, but this never before and never really since have we seen a hero go to everyone they know for help -- beg for help! -- and get rebuffed; never have we seen such deserting. cooper's character comes back to town initially on principle, but in the end he fights out of sheer desperation and survival. that's the difference and the deflating of the western myth -- unlike most classical hollywood films, the movie is less a celebration of the community (think "it's a wonderful life") and more about how the community fails him. that's why, when cooper and kelly get sent off at the end and ride off into the sunset in that iconic way, it is less a celebration and more an indictment.

it is well-recorded that this film is an allegory for the HUAC situation at the time. the filmmakers clearly intended to show how every single person in the country and in the hollywood community must stand up to the tactics mccarthy and others were perpetrating, that they all must stick together or else risk their survival. everyone must be a hero, or else the whole community falls apart. john wayne thought that was an utterly anti-american idea, and that's why he made "rio bravo" with howard hawks.

in strict craftsmanship terms, the movie is a marvel. it contains no dialogue for the first few minutes while giving us a sense of dread and tension, introduces us to our hero and his wife and their conflict (he must commit acts of violence, she is a quaker), and gives us a more realistic and vibrant portrait of a small western town in short order. it also manages to give us important information -- cooper's relationship with the mexican woman, cooper's fear of the killer -- in a piecemeal fashion that allows for the audience to remain stringed-along and interested. and, as aforementioned, there is the ending shootout, and then, without fanfare, the end. it reminds me of billy wilder's maxim that you "shouldn't hang around" after the 3rd act is over. this does that.

what it doesn't do is age well. there is much too much exposition in dialogue, and even those the movie was subversive and genre-bending at the time, we have since had "unforgiven" and other westerns which make this one seem creaky. the real-time chronology is still a good trick, and i can't think of a movie that has done that one better.