Let’s face the oil well and dance…

There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.

On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:

There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.

Is it better to rule in Hell…?

I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.

Prince Valiant, the Cleaner

P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!

The Miami boys have lost their pull

It had to happen eventually, but still… for the first time in months, the top post in this blog isn’t the one about Crockett and Tubbs. What will I attract readers with now? According to the search terms used most often to get here, Hellboy’s become more of a pull. Sorry, Colin Farrell – some big red dude with filed-off horns gets the virtual punters in the seats these days!

We’ve now finished Jackie Brown (this blogger here is getting old – halfway through JB I realised that it was way past my bedtime… and that before midnight!), and it definitely more than holds up. The care Tarantino takes with his characters is wonderful, and not a little surprising: I’m more used to Tarantino caring about his lines and close-ups of feet than about characters.

More than anything, Jackie Brown is the most (perhaps even the only) mature film Tarantino has made. Now, his appeal doesn’t necessarily lie in his maturity – in fact, his adolescent hyperactivity is part of his appeal – but it’s beautiful to see his talent put to the service of a story that is not just a fun ride. In our youth-obsessed pop culture, it’s rare to see such a perfectly executed, entertaining film that is essentially about getting old but that takes its older characters seriously.

P.S. for all the Hitchcock fans out there: Vanity Fair has done a photo shoot of iconic Hitchcock scenes with today’s actors. People might ask what the point is – I don’t. I think the photos are eminently cool. The lighting, the painterly, expressionistic colours, the actors chosen… it’s perfect. Check all of ’em out here.

Okay, the seagull on her head may hamper the effect a tad for some…

And now I’m back/From outer space

Okay, actually it’s Davos I’m back from – although it does feel rather spacey during the WEF Annual Meeting. I mean, how often do you go to the men’s room and then wash your hands next to Henry Kissinger? (I didn’t, but I helped look after someone who did.)

Anyway, this entry isn’t about taking a leak with the high and mighty. It’s basically my way of saying, “Hello. I’m back. Miss me much? Hello? Anyone listening?” And then, tumbleweeds and the sound of crickets.

So, to ease myself back into this blogging business, I’m going to make it semi-easy on myself. And to give the title of this entry some minimal relevance, here’s a cartoon by Tex Avery. More will follow later – unless there’s a flood of comments telling me, “We hate Tex! Want more Miami Vice!” In which case I may just retire to some snowy peak in the Himalayas where I will dispense wisdom and computer game cheat codes from the ’80s to unwary yaks and passers-by.

League of Extraordinary Literary Self-Indulgence, part III

Alan Moore’s latest, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (formerly Dark Dossier) has been in the making for a while. It was delayed a number of times, but there was enough information to get any self-respecting Alan Moore fan salivating. Here’s what the Hairy One himself said about the project: it’s

not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.

(Gotta love the understatement in that quote…)

Black Dossier

Now, as I wrote before, what I liked most about the previous League books was that beyond the cleverness and the erudition, Moore told a good tale and he gave us fascinating, ambivalent characters. Those qualities are much less prominent in Black Dossier, which is perhaps less a new League adventure than a companion piece to the other books. (This is probably also the reason why the book isn’t Volume 3 – that one is coming out this or next year, in three installments.) Much of the book is rather an exercise in literary pastiche: there are a number of texts telling of earlier incarnations of the League: for instance the first two scenes of Faerie’s Fortunes Founded, purporting to be a lost history play by Shakespeare  and a prequel to The Tempest, describing the creation of the very first League; the quite hilarious “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!”, a memoir conflating the Wooster & Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse and the Cthulhu mythos (with the League saving the day); or The Crazy Wild Forever by Sal Paradyse, in the style of Kerouac’s On the Road. There’s also a cutaway drawing of the Nautilus, an illustrated erotic history of a previous League written by none other than Fanny Hill, and Sexjane, a “Tijuana Bible” insert published by Pornsec, the pornography division of Big Brother’s government.

All of this is very witty and very well executed, but without a strong story to connect the pieces, it feels unsatisfying, at least to me. Moore is good at pastiche, but he’s shown this before; and frankly, sometimes reading Black Dossier felt more like hard work. Faerie’s Fortunes Founded especially isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more gripping pieces, and I managed perhaps three or four lines of the Kerouac parody before giving up. Again, if I’d given a damn about the story connecting these pieces (or if I had known not to expect much story at all), I might have enjoyed these pieces more – but it felt at times like Moore added the story without caring that much about it.

Faerie’s Fortunes Founded

What grated more than that, though, was Moore’s tendency to preach towards the end. In many ways, the last section of Black Dossier (a magnificently executed 3D sequence – tinted glasses are included in the book) is a retread of the last volume of Promethea. Moore’s credo seems to have become something like this: Language equals magic or godhood, because via language we create, out of thin air, things, beings and whole worlds that didn’t exist before. Fiction and imagination, via signs (such as language and images – hence the comic genre being Moore’s chosen form of expression in the League and Promethea), signify freedom from narrow material reality and from those who purport to define what is real. Via language and fiction we ourselves become Creators, challenging those who define reality for us as a means of exercising power.

All of this is nice and good, and I agree with it to some extent. (I think Moore himself is aware of the limitations of this sort of ‘magic’,  where the magic we wield with words can still be vanquished, at least in the present, by the ‘magic’ of those in power, such as force, laws and norms.) What I don’t like is being preached to – especially if I basically agree in many ways with the one doing the preaching. Moore’s writing and his works may be technical tours de force, but increasingly my reaction goes along the following lines: “Yes, I know. And yes, you’re very clever. Can we get on with it now?”

Perhaps it’s also that I think storytelling is a more convincingly, more successfully form of “magic” if it doesn’t preach. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a case in point: in the second and third book of the trilogy, the story takes a backseat to Pullman’s soapbox proselytising for atheism. I agree with so much of his criticism of organised religion, and he shows time and again that he is a good writer – but even the best writers are brought down by polemics, above all if they’re the writers’ own polemics.

Volume III

For the third volume of the League’s adventures, I do hope that Moore lays off the heavy-handed preaching for a while. I don’t want to read a third version of Promethea‘s apocalyptic finale. I don’t need to be more convinced of Moore’s beliefs and ideologies. I want him to show that he can still tell a good, clever story with fascinating characters and depth that needn’t be signaled in big flashing letters.

Or otherwise I’ll send Mister Hyde to break his writing pen. (Ouch!)

P.S.: I’ll be travelling for work during the next two weeks, so I can’t guarantee regular updates. I’ll see what I can do, though.

P.P.S.: Miami Vice has now garnered me more than twice as many hits as the next highest search term. What is it with all those people Googling  “miami vice”? Pastel has a lot to answer for…

Superheroes the world didn’t need

Elephant man! Elephant man! Does whatever an elephant can! Look out – here comes the elephant man!

Okay, I admit it… that was rather bad. Personally, I blame it on the effect of post-New Year’s Eve lack of sleep and a general tendency towards silliness when I’ve just got up. (Those who know me might say that this tendency generally lasts until I go back to bed…)

Elephant Man, together with The Straight Story, is one of the films by David Lynch that even people who don’t know Lynch and wouldn’t sit through five minutes of Lost Highway or Blue Velvet will have heard about. Regardless of this, though, the film is very much a product of Lynch’s aesthetic sensitivities. The many long takes of smoke and textured surfaces that aren’t immediately recognisable, the underlying mechanical sound effects (as if a large engine was powering the film and its world), especially the beginning and the ending. There are moments that recall his earlier works but also his later films. In this respect, Elephant Man feels more obviously like Lynch (if you know his films a bit) than The Straight Story, in which the Lynchian element is a lot more covert.

On a different note: why is it that half the hits to this website come about because people are looking for Miami Vice? Yes, I’ve posted two entries on the movie remake, but I’m surprised that a) people would find Eagles on Pogo Sticks and b)
Miami Vice would be such a popular search term. (Well, I definitely prefer folks getting here googling “miami vice” to those who find the blog googling “panty sniffing”. The latter are also more likely to be disappointed by the actual content of the blog, I think/hope…)

Second chances (cont.)

I finished (re)watching the Miami Vice movie yesterday, and I can confirm my impression that it improves on repeat viewings, at least for me. It’s still one of Mann’s weaker films, mainly because the characters are more sketchy, but it makes for a nice change from all of those ’80s and ’90s cop buddy movies. The main reason for this is the characters’ professionalism. You get the impression that these guys are good at their job, and so are the criminals.

In so many other films, neither the good guys nor the bad guys are very professional. Usually, the cop characters seem to be (bad) stand-up comedians first and policemen second. Similarly, the villains of such pieces fail because they’re so easily manipulated. How often in these action movies do you have to suspend your disbelief so much that it’s almost at sea level because the characters act in such stupid ways?

Yes, the professionalism of Mann’s Miami Vice also means that it packs less of an emotional punch. To some extent, the conflict between the guys wearing white hats and the ones in the black hats is so cerebral that I was fascinated, but I didn’t necessarily care. Ricardo’s relationship feels a bit more real, because there’s a sense of history; Sonny’s affair with the high-class gangster moll doesn’t seem like the sort of relationship that has a future, but the erotic charge between Colin Farrell’s Sonny Crockett and Gong Li’s Isabella is nevertheless quite effective.

It’s unlikely that anyone who completely hated the film the first time or who doesn’t like Mann’s work would like Miami Vice on a second viewing. If you don’t fall into either one of these camps, you may want to check it out again in the slightly extended version.

P.S.: And to make up for yesterday’s puerile homoerotic joke, here’s a different ’80s joke. Enjoy! (Note to self: Mwahahahahaha. Erm.)

Second chances

Yesterday I started watching Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s recent film update of the quintessential ’80s neon series. I’d seen it at the cinema, and while I’d enjoyed the gorgeous visuals, I’d been rather underwhelmed on the whole. Now that I’m seeing it on DVD (in a slightly longer version), I like it a lot more. Some of that is probably down to the lack of expectations on my part. (I’ve talked about my Mann-love here before), some of it may be due to the Michael Mann atmosphere: his films tend to have a strong streak of loneliness going through them, which may not work as well in a packed cinema.

It’s rare that my appreciation of a film changes from “meh…” to something better on repeat viewings. The opposite happens a bit more frequently, but it’s still fairly unlikely. But sometimes I see a movie at the cinema and something about it stays with me. SOmehow my brain knows it needs to give this film a second chance. And sometimes it’s those films that I end up liking most.

Just for the record: 12 Monkeys was a film that I needed to see two or three times to like.

And now, for your appreciation, some more Mann love:

Brokeback Speedboat