Sunday, October 28, 2012

Some thoughts while waiting for the Sky(to)fall




The new Bond film did record business overseas this weekend. The movie doesn’t arrive to the US for another two weeks, and I’m beginning to feel the anticipation—which has been otherwise surprisingly light. Luckily, I have neither the time nor much of a connection to the internet these days, so I’ve not been too worried about spoilers, but still I’m becoming increasingly anxious.

In the last couple of months, I’ve seen a ton of traffic to the blog, despite my own (usual) inactivity this time of year. Most of it, unsurprisingly, has been to this old, long popular piece, a few thoughts about what it meant at the end of Quantum of Solace (2008), the previous Bond film, when James Bond told M (Judi Dench) she was right about Vesper—a reference that only makes sense if one’s seen Casino Royale—the first Daniel Craig Bond film. Even then, I’m not sure it does make sense, though, since the exchange seemed to me to be a rare gap in Casino Royale—Vesper didn’t “save” Bond. The Quantum organization spared his life because he knew the password to access the money from the high-stake poker game. Perhaps it just speaks to the limitations of M’s knowledge.

Anyway, a lot of people get to the end of Quantum of Solace and don’t know what to make of Bond’s final, cryptic line—which is less mysterious and intriguing than it first sounds. And when they get to that moment, a lot of them then seem to end up at my blog—though I’m not sure if I really clear it up for them, because I think it’s a mess to begin with (and, really, that last line is one of many reasons why Quantum of Solace is just not a very good film). Anyway, I’ve chalked the uptick in traffic to the notion that a lot of people have been revisiting the 2008 film lately in preparation for Skyfall, even though by all accounts there is little, if any, continuity between the two movies (Quantum’s sole redemption, to me, was that it at least attempted to be a direct sequel to events in Casino Royale).

*   *   *

Something I never really mentioned here before, I think, was that my essay on Casino Royale was actually published a couple of years ago in Christoph Lindner’s collection from Wallflower, Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale. No surprise given the publisher, I never received a copy myself, but I did once track down one through interlibrary loan when I taught at Northwestern. Its a solid collection overall, edited by one of the good guys in the profession. My contribution wasn’t as good as I remembered, though I usually tend to feel that way once something of mine is actually published. The idea, I always feel, is better than the reality. But it’s not too bad, if anyone wants take the time to track down a copy—the writing style feels surprisingly rushed and bloated, a relic from my more indulgent, autobiographical days. But the content is still solid, accurately reflecting some of the narratological reasons for why I was so taken in by a movie I still feel is possibly one of the 3 greatest Bond films ever made.

Last summer, I re-watched Casino Royale for the first time in probably three years and I was amazed at how well it held up. I don’t think there’s a major false note in the whole thing. I really don’t. It’s a true action epic. Anyone who thinks it’s too long doesn’t really understand what’s at stake—for Bond’s development and for the narrative (and doesn’t understand the original book to which it’s oddly faithful despite being completely different). Or they are trying to fit Bond’s origin story into a blockbuster formula that doesn’t really work. It was just as good as I remembered, and it felt surprisingly fresh too. It’s a reminder not to overdo one’s favorite films. Once every several years really allows one to savor it with fresh eyes.

*   *   *

Speaking of “greatest Bond films”: some of the hype for Skyfall has bordered on obnoxious. While I’m glad to read that it’s a major improvement on Quantum of Solace—though that’s not hard to do—I don’t believe a single soul who argues that it’s the greatest Bond film ever, and there have been several anxious to make that careless claim. The main downside to having some of my personal favorite franchises revitalized in recent years (Bond, Star Trek) is that a lot of so-called experts who claim to know the franchises so well have come of the woodwork. But really they are just general movie buffs whose first loyalty is to the shining allure of the “New”—and the perpetual insistence that newer equals better. 

“Dark Knight is the greatest superhero movie ever because . . . Christopher Nolan!  Because . . . Christian Bale!  Because . . .  IMAX!  Because . . . I don’t really remember any of the other ones that well.”

Star Trek is the awesomest Trek movie ever because . . .  J.J.!  Because . . . BIG budgets and special effects!  Because . . . everyone is so much younger and sexier than the old cast.  Because . . . they cram so many non-sequitors into two hours that I don’t have to think about anything!  Because they take everything I didn’t care for in the originals—like character development, intelligent pacing, deep philosophical themes, and basic story logic—and ditched it all for great CGI and beautiful people.”

I don’t hate the Nolan Batman movies or JJ’s version of Star Trek so much as I loathe how historically ignorant the indiscriminate hype around them is routinely is.

I'm probably not the first to notice that the fanboys have become the new Hedda Hoppers.

Anyone who says Skyfall is the greatest Bond movie ever is not a real Bond fan, just someone who has caught a few of them on Spike TV the last few years and is easily distracted by whatever new toy comes along. I know Skyfall’s not that good without even watching it. Nothing would please me more than for that to be true--for it to be the best Bond ever. But a real Bond fan who knows the franchise in and out would know how extremely unlikely that possibility is—that a true masterpiece in the franchise only comes along once every 15-20 years. And the media's uncritical obsession with so often proclaiming how great new high-profile franchise films always are makes me that much more skeptical.

And what is troubling is how the raised expectations may end up ruining the experience for me. Just writing this, I know the hype now has robbed something from me as a fan. For various reasons, I knew Quantum wasn’t going to be very good before I walked into it, and so I wasn’t as disappointed as I might have been. I don’t need another Casino Royale. I only want to have mixed feelings about Skyfall because I don’t want to be let down. That cast is hype enough.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A master . . . any master . . .

I just finished sending off the afterward on The Master for Blossoms & Blood, which means that all new content for the book is complete. It came in right at about 4k words, which means that it will be less than half the size of the other chapters. This was partly for time reasons and partly because I just didn't go into the production history and critical reception, as I had with the others. In the end, its really just a lot of old-fashioned textual analysis, which is about the only framework which feels appropriate at this time. If I ever do a second edition of the book 10-20 years down the road, I will take advantage of hindsight and evaluate its larger historical context. But at the moment it all feels too premature.

I have to say that writing on The Master was an interesting throwback to (what I imagine as) the earliest days of scholarly film criticism--before videos and DVDs--when your only access to a movie was to just sit and watch it from start to finish, no rewinding, no freeze-frames, etc. It was both frustrating and exhilarating. I went to an early (11am) screening yesterday morning--my second viewing of the film--with the express intent of seeing anything I might have missed, as well as looking for specific details which fit the first draft I'd already put together. I ended up adding another 1k words yesterday afternoon, and spent this morning mostly polishing and proofreading. It was perhaps a good thing that I couldn't pause The Master, as then I probably would have written another 20 pages with all the details I left out/forgot.

It was actually liberating to write something under those circumstances, and with the understanding with UT that the length would be limited. It freed me to just focus on one or two key ideas, developing those as best I could, and then just letting go . . .

In truth, then, there was a great deal of sadness for me yesterday. For one, to know that this is finally the end of the book--not the end of the editorial process by a long shot, but the end of my new contributions to it after over two years of writing and another piece always just around the corner. For another, I know there's so much more to be said about the film than I got to in the afterward--but, as is life, one just keeps running out of time. Of course, so much as already been said too, and that may be part of the melancholia (at a certain point, I just had to block it all out to get the writing done). The material works better as an extension of the book than an analysis of the film on its own. But there was also a third reason--I've really, really, grown personally fond of Anderson's latest film. A second viewing really drew that out for me. Whereas the first time I watched it a few weeks ago, I was just anxiously trying to figure out what I could say about it--this time I was trying to fill in gaps in the argument but also just enjoying the film more without that anxiety since I knew the project was safely near completion.

Do I like the film more because I spent so much time thinking about it and trying to analyze it? Quite likely, but I have to say that I really noticed more so the second time through how much this movie speaks to me personally. That's ironic, of course, because of all of Anderson's six films, The Master is by far the one least interested in generating an emotional reaction from its audience, I think. Do I love it as much as Punch-Drunk Love? No. Do I think its as good as There Will Be Blood? No. But a lot of the ideas and themes and journeys in The Master have resonated softly and deeply in a way that has really taken me by surprise in the last month, and which my scholarly analysis does not really (explicitly) account for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Revisiting Fedora

In preparation for the upcoming class on Billy Wilder, I recently watched a late film of his that I'd long been curious about but had yet to see (primarily because its one of many "forgotten" Hollywood films that never made the transition from VHS to DVD): 1978's Fedora. By the time it came to my attention, old video copies of it were long out of print, and there was never the urgency to track down a copy until now. Fedora intrigued me not only because it was one of his last films, or because it was his last work with frequent collaborator, a perfectly vintage William Holden (who remains one of my all-time favorite actors)--the intrigue was also based on its status as a symbolic sequel/remake of Sunset Boulevard (1950), arguably his most celebrated film.

The similarities between the two Wilder films are indeed unmistakable (and no doubt influenced by some intended ironic impulse, which for me never quite came into focus)--both star Holden as a failed Hollywood player (first screenwriter, now producer) who is forced to deal with an old movie star living in seclusion with her eccentric staff. Both are structured heavily around his not-always-accurate voice-over narration. Both feature cameos by established movie stars playing themselves. Both express open--if underdeveloped--disdain for the industry itself. And both even open with violent deaths which then lead into extended flashbacks explaining what happened. Wilder even spoke about the crossover here in a 1979 interview with The New York Times.

Fedora wasn't literally Wilder's final film. Three years later, he reunited again with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (a comedy team he helped create with 1966's The Fortune Cookie) on Buddy, Buddy--a lightweight but generally well-received, and similarly nostalgic, career capstone. Fedora features a cameo by Henry Fonda and makes direct reference to Mister Roberts (1955), which a close viewer will note is also the film which brought Lemmon to Wilder's attention. Yet, despite Buddy, Buddy, Fedora certainly feels symbolically like his final film, both in its stubborn, disorienting adherence to the old formal conventions of Classical Hollywood storytelling--both form and content--in the Post-Classical age, and in its defiant rejection of a changing industry its struggling mightily to understand. Some important spoilers follow.

Fedora is the story of an independent producer (Holden)--on his last creative and financial leg--traveling to a reclusive location in Greece to track down a retired movie star from the classical era named only "Fedora" (a commentary or foreshadowing of the likes of Cher or Madonna, I suppose). The producer's interest is both imminently practical--he has funding for an adaptation of Anna Karenina but only on the condition Fedora stars--and quietly nostalgic--he spent the night with her decades earlier when he was a young production assistant. Fedora lives with a Countess who keeps her locked up in a mansion. Or so it seems. People are struck by how good she looks for her age, but the twist halfway through is that Fedora is actually her daughter, who looks a lot alike, and the old Countess is really the original Fedora. Nobody seems to notice this, even after the "new" Fedora starts appearing in films again.

Part of the story involves an underdeveloped critique of plastic surgery--everyone buys the young Fedora because they think it speaks to the wonders of this "new" innovation, while the real Fedora went into seclusion because a plastic surgery procedure went horribly wrong and permanently scared her face, which she cannot bring herself to reveal to the adoring world. This also leads to a strange subplot involving the real Michael York and the younger Fedora's eventual suicide (ambiguously introduced in the beginning) which seems to exist narratively only to force the revelation of the plot twist. After her death, fans still believe the "real" Fedora has died--thus the Countess sits quietly in the shadows during the public wake, watching admirers who've come to mourn what they think is her death.

From a film critic's standpoint, the movie just doesn't work, even if we read the film with a heavy dose of irony towards the old melodramatic Hollywood conventions, which was no doubt intended. The film has its knowingly satiric moments--in the opening sequence, Holden begins the trademark Wilder first-person voice-over narration, only to be interrupted and pushed aside by another character. The final scene, meanwhile, works beautifully--but as a meta-commentary on Wilder's career achievements and not as a satisfactory resolution to a thoroughly messy plot. The premise stretches credibility, the performances are erratic, the voice dubbing is terrible (Wilder had the same woman record the voice for both mother and daughter, which results in a jarring experience on a number of levels), the larger themes seem confused, and the distant framing of actors (probably motivated by the convoluted plot twist) is frustrating and off-putting. Even the use of Holden and his familiar voice-over feels like little more than a nostalgic throwback to the classical period.

Meanwhile, the humor seems often out-of-place--whether its the obnoxious Greek hotel owner whose entire overdone performance feels lifted from an old screwball comedy, or whether its the trademark zingers directed towards the industry. Consider this one-liner that Holden delivers midway through:

The guys with beards have taken over [the "New" Hollywood]. They don't need a script anymore. Just give them a hand-held camera with a zoom lens . . .
Its a mildly amusing observation and accurate to a point--but if the idea is to mock someone like Robert Altman (who, perhaps aside from the hand-held crack, would seem to fit the description) then it falls pretty flat as an incisive comment on the industry. Not to belabor the point, but Altman was doing far more interesting work in the 1970s and beyond than Wilder was by then. Its one thing to critique the crass commercialism of the emergent blockbuster mentality, but that's not what's going on here. In the end, Fedora feels like an awkward anachronism which painfully foregrounds how out of touch Wilder and Diamond were by the de facto end of their careers. In Fedora, we see a brilliant filmmaker unable to adjust to the times, and, with that, perhaps some better understanding of why he didn't--or couldn't--go on making films (even though Wilder lived another 25 years).

Yet those evaluative comments miss some more interesting historical aspects of the film. The idea that it was originally written for Garbo as a comeback (with whom Wilder was always obsessed) helps its existence make a bit sense. She reportedly turned it down, believing--rightly--that the whole premise was insane. But had she appeared in it, then Fedora's inherent power over audiences, her fear of mortality and the appeal to old Hollywood, would have been more convincing and absorbing to audiences than a movie starring a couple of unknowns who are completely unsympathetic and even deliberately kept at a distance. The result is that we never have an connection, let alone sympathy for her, which is a sharp departure from the delusional, dangerous but nonetheless genuinely sympathetic Norma Desmond.

The weird mix of professional frustration and uncritical nostalgia directed at Hollywood in Fedora is a striking contrast to the unrelenting bitterness of Sunset Boulevard, where the studios do nothing but chew you up and spit you back out. The reversal from the earlier film is telling--in SB, the industry has ungratefully tossed the bitter old movie star aside, whereas in Fedora the industry is still enamored with its old icon, who willingly plays the part of the recluse because she cannot accept her own changes (unlike Norma, whose in complete denial about her own mortality, let alone the transition to sound films). Rather, in Fedora, its the struggling filmmaker (sound familiar?)--and not the still beloved star--who cannot deal with a rapidly changing Hollywood.

And perhaps therein lies its confusion. Fedora still believes in the power of old Hollywood glamour, even as it tries to mock the emptiness of that facade, which the final scene makes clear--fans of movie stars are ultimately more in love with an idea, a fantasy, than with a person. The film is nostalgic for the old ways, and critical of the new trends, yet it also presents Hollywood as just as enamored with the Fedoras (i.e., the old stars) of its past as ever. Holden's character is struggling, and filled with bitterness and anger. But, like the film itself, he doesn't know who he's really angry at.