view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
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... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

War of the Worlds

wotwSo, once again we're subjected to the onslaught of a gigantic add campaign for a mediocre movie. To be fair I was pleasantly surprised in the first act of this film. The acting was great, I was interested in and believed Tom in his role as an apathetic dad, and this film was shot really well. Spielberg practically invented the heightening of drama by slowly pushing in on his actors. But his old tricks seem fresh and more mature, gritty even. It's when the running and screaming starts that things start to unravel.

Steven these days seems to be all about the set up, but a tad weak in the follow through. The reports are that this movie was rushed through production in record time, and unfortunately it shows. It shows in the script that is thin to the point of being empty. When I first heard he was going to remake WOTW, my reaction was "why?" Why do this movie now? We've had decades of alien invasion stories, all paying homage to and going beyond Well's classic. It's basically a glorified Twilight Zone episode, filled with passive participants, and a "twist" ending that we've seen coming since 1898. So it comes down to a matter of spectacle. Just like King Kong in a few month's time, the only reason that makes any sense as to why remake these films, is now we have better visual effects. We can destroy cities and it will really look cool! So what? It's a pretty weak reason to spend millions.

Like I said, the movie starts well enough, but despite some great sequences, it quickly falls into farce. At one point the aliens are zapping humans, turning them to dust. Then people are stabbed by huge blood sucking needles. Then they're rounded up and sucked into a grotesque orifice. There's a crashed plane with no bodies, then much later, empty clothes fall from the sky. None of it makes sense. I'm ok with movies that don't explain every last detail, leaving us to wonder at the mystery and unknowable aspects of things. But this is just ridiculous. It really seems like a team of writers were brought in one at a time, picking up where the last guy left off, with no regard for continuity.

In fact, the whole film seems to be nothing more than a series of sequences strung together. There's no feeling of an overarching story or a continuum at play. We don't know how much time is passing. We don't have a good sense of where we are. Maybe this was intended to show a sense of dislocation, but it doesn't work. The whole movie is a series of scenes with interesting images that the filmmakers seem to have fallen in love with, but with no regard for how they play together, or what, if anything, it adds up to in the end.

Our friend Doug sees the movie as a story of one man learning to become a father by protecting his kids from a threatening world. If you look hard enough, that story is in there, but what a minutely thin idea to string such an overblown behemoth on. How lame is it that in order to become a real man, we need an alien invasion to destroy our cities and threaten to exterminate all human life!? It's only then that we can prove ourselves. Please.

But then, sometimes it does takes a disaster to shake us out of our complacency, to wake us up to a wider world and become better people. Unfortunately, thousands have lived through such a disaster, and Spielberg seems deaf to it's relevance. By far my biggest problem with this movie is the callous misunderstanding of what the images convey. Spielberg shamelessly calls attention to 9/11 over and over again, and I'm left with just how insanely inappropriate this is in a summer pop corn movie. One London magazine described it as "disaster porn." I really think that Spielberg just doesn't understand the weight of the images he's using.

I noticed a similar feeling when I was watching another crappy disaster movie a couple of years ago. The Core, has a sequence where San Francisco is destroyed by a solar flare. The science is lame, but it's the images of the Golden Gate bridge collapsing and hundreds of cars falling into the bay that left me ill. I realized then that after 9/11, this kind of imagery is no longer entertainment. There was a time when seeing our cities destroyed gave a vicarious thrill. But since so many have lived through the real thing, we need to seriously reconsider what we call entertainment.

Tiff and I saw The Day After Tomorrow in New York a while ago. The audience was going along with the silliness of it all, but then there came a scene in which a tidal wave destroys Manhattan. Giant walls of water rush through the canyons between midtown buildings, and the audience got real quiet. This was a little too close to home. These are people who'd seen the real thing, walls of ash smothering these same streets. The disaster movie had crossed a line and was no longer enjoyable.

After that screening I was wondering if we'd finally outgrown this tired genre. The vicarious desire for spectacular self destruction might have run its course. Can we please move on now?

But here we are yet again, faced with War of the Worlds. If you're going to set out to remake this film, you'd better have something to say. There are some interesting moments depicting the crazed breakdown of civility, but they play more like anecdotes, adding up to nothing. In the end we're left with very little to take away from this movie. Were we scared? Were we thrilled? Do we feel relief that we've survived something immense? Our emotions have been tugged and pulled, but we also laugh at the corniness of the telling. At the end of the day, it's a pop corn movie, filled with expensive visuals, told clumsily by the most successful entertainer in history, signifying nothing.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Last American Man

This morning I finished a book. It's a big event for me, not that I'm semi-literate or anything so drastic, just that I am much better at acquiring and starting books than I am at finishing them. At any given time I'll have bookmarks in 10 or 15 books strewn around the house. There's something wonderfully various about having so many choices, so many voices at your fingertips. Conversations begun weeks, months or years earlier, a journey and adventure to be continued as if we never parted, never detoured into other novels or ventured into other non fiction landscapes. At the flip of a bookmark, there's my old friend, right were we left off. I have books half read back in LA, and unfinished books in boxes from 10 years ago. When it comes to books, I'm a devout polygamist. I don't think the books mind, they're allowed to reveal their secrets slowly. Books are, among other things, very patient.

Of course, this whole running from the start of one book to the next, acquiring books way faster than I can ever read them, probably says a lot about me that I won't get into just yet. Yes, I've thought about it, and I have theories, but ease up. There's plenty of time for psychoanalyzing later.

So, this morning I removed a bookmark. (Of course, it should be noted that yesterday I bought two new books that I'm excited to dive in to, so the pile is no smaller.) The travelling companion this time was The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it's one of the few books that came to London with me last year.

Last American ManWhat a great book. It tells the true story of Eustace Conway, a guy who for the last 20 years has lived off the land in the Appalachian Mountains. He wears clothes that he's made from animals that he's trapped for food, lives in homes he's built himself, makes fire with sticks, and lectures to school children on the wonders of nature and self reliance. It's pretty inspirational stuff. Eustace "wanted to alert people to the woeful beating that the modern consumer-driven life delivers to the earth. Teach people how to achieve freedom from the softening and vision-curbing influence of the city. Train them to pay attention to their choices."

Along the way the author delves into the nature of masculinity and what it means to be a man in modern American society. "We Americans have the only major culture in the known world that never held romantic love to be a sacred precept. The rest of the world gets Don Juan; we get Paul Bunyan. There's no love story in Moby-Dick; Huckleberry Finn doesn't get the girl in the end; John Wayne never dreamed of giving up his horse for the constraints of a wife; and Davy Fuckin' Crockett doesn't date!"

Ours is a masculinity based on the ideal of the rugged individual, the frontier life. It's grand stuff, but it comes at a price. We can build a nation, tame nature, but we tend to lose our humanity in the bargain.

The book raises some interesting questions about the relationships in our lives – between fathers and sons, mentors and students, lovers, and of course where we sit with the natural world and all its inhabitants. It paints a picture of masculinity that's inspiring, troubling, complex, rough, grand and a little lost. Kind of like America. If, like me, you were entranced by John Krakauer's Into the Wild, check this one out too.