Friday, November 22, 2013

cannibal bunny ferox

         Laying eyes on the unpromising poster for Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger (2013) in the lobby of my local cineplex about 8 months ago, I turned to my companions--whom I think I'd just seen Spring Breakers (2012) with--and said: "It's a plot. They're trying to turn it all into the same movie." Yet another moribund property that wasn't doing no harm to nobody had gotten sucked up into the Viacom-Disney-Bruckheimer-ComicCon vortex and was soon to be spat out into theaters in some vaguely recognizable and eminently forgettable form. A not unreasonable assumption, given the State of Things in Hollywood Today, but one which sitting through The Lone Ranger confounded, since it really doesn't play like anything else this year.
         Now, this is not to say it doesn't play like other movies, since it's basically an antic patchwork of Western tropes, with specific references made to Dead Man (1995), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Little Big Man (1970), and easily three dozen others, the frenzied action sequences and surprisingly high nastiness quotient evoke Temple of Doom-era Spielberg, and Gore Verbinski's own Pirates of the Caribbean movies have the same everything-the-kitchen-sink-and-a-giant-stonking-octopod approach to narrative. But unlike the Pirates movies or the Robert Rodriguez fanboy wank fiesta of the month, it uses its overflowing box of borrowed parts to make a statement about American history that's halfway coherent if you look at it from the right cockeyed angle, essentially giving us a depiction of capitalism as a psychotic organism, a vampire squid that spread its rail-tendrils across the West, suffocating all that was weird and good in the landscape and native peoples only to later resurrect them as sad, farcical carnival attractions. Which bitter truth is then refracted through the prism of tragicomic madman Tonto's (Johnny Depp) fevered brain as he narrates his and the legendary title character's early adventures from inside one such sad farcical carnival attraction, an otherwise static historical diorama, to a doe-eyed kid in a Lone Ranger costume. And the whole thing might just be that kid's fantasy or hallucination, considering Tonto's Golem-like presence makes little logical sense, and that, judging from the size of the kid's peepers, he may have consumed some peyote-laced cotton candy just before wandering into the movie.
         The message is nothing new, and despite the semi-clever metafictional element, this is hardly the most sophisticated rendering of it thus far presented to us, but encountering it in a $250 million blockbuster produced by the Walt Disney Company is nonetheless bracing. Many were quick to call hypocrisy, but now that the movie's acquired the status of a film maudit (critically lambasted and financially disastrous,* this year's (more or less pre-)designated whipping boy for the excesses of Hollywood), it's a little easier to reconcile its anti-capitalist message and its bloated, wasteful production. The dissonance isn't resolved, exactly, but it now has the kick of spending a profligately expensive and debauched night out on the boss's dime, the boss in this case being Mickey Mouse.

         It's a dicey position to be in, making movies on this scale and actually wanting to communicate something. Christopher Nolan tries, but tries so hard and with such humorless bombast that the fact that his movies are Saying Something eclipses whatever they're actually saying,** which reached its nadir with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), a half-assed salad of culturally-loaded signifiers adding up to absolute zilch. Verbinski takes us to some serious territory here, but he never gets drunk on Significance. He makes his point and moves on to the next booth at the geek show. This can be jarring, but I find The Lone Ranger's much-pooh-poohed schizophrenia of tone--which at its most extreme takes us from outrage and grief over a Commanche tribe massacred by gatling gun (which basically functions in the movie's schema as stand-in for the entire Native American genocide) to a weird sight gag about a horse in a tree in about a minute of screentime, to be far preferable to Nolan's relentless dourness. I think my preference has something to do with that famous line from another iconic duo, Deleuze and Guattari***: "A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch." 
         Nolan is Hung Up, see: there's the dead wife complex; the flat left-brain tidiness of his images and concepts; the logorrheic self-explication (whether it's in the form of exposition or clunking subtext-as-text thesis statements); the way his movies hype themselves up trailer-style with quick spatial-relations-who-needs-'em crosscutting and a near-constant assault of booming, brooding music. Both he and Verbinski like convoluted narrative structures, but Nolan needs his structures to be perfectly symmetrical and clean and for the most part doesn't seem to care much about making the people wandering around inside them have the full, messy presence of organic life. Verbinski's structures are allowed to evolve more organically and teem with life--weird, messy, funky life, from snaggle-toothed henchmen who like to dress up in nighties and bonnets to menace their captives, to cannibal bunnies,**** to something as simple as a gross closeup of a desperado's urine streaming voluminously into a cuspidor.
         Certainly there's an element of the mechanical in his work. His crazier action sequences can play like some nightmare Rube Goldberg would wake up from in a cold sweat, gasping "What have I wrought?" But the mechanical is always overlapping with the organic, the big CG displays punctuated by gags from the Buster Keaton playbook (sometimes from some throwaway appendix of BK's playbook, but still fully in the tradition), the actors never quite becoming weightless puppets despite the touch-and-go relationship with earthbound physics, Armie Hammer always retaining his essential Armie Hammerness even as he and his steed (Silver here is reconfigured in a typical Verbinski touch as some kind of mystic destiny horse prone to erratic behavior) gallop down the length of a CG train speeding through a CG mountain range to the strains of the William Tell Overture, which climactic sequence made me feel ten again for a few fleeting minutes.
        All of this is not to suggest that I am as over the hill for it as some of its other defenders. A few of the gags and one-liners are kind of lame, and while I admire the degree to which the romantic subplot depends on glances and implication, it's still a bit anemic. But I can get behind Verbinski's gonzoid M.O., and that counts for a lot. His stuff is the closest thing we're going to get to cinematic anarchy on a nine-figure budget, at least until people who know and care about movies-as-movies are back in a position to greenlight them in mainstream Hollywood again.

* Though it still made enough money to fund 4000 Computer Chesses.
** His stuff reminds me of the way you'll sometimes find "deep themes" or "mature storylines" on the features list on the back of a videogame box, just above "17 Awesome New Power-ups."
*** Deleuze: The Lone Ranger. Guattari: Tonto. But I will listen eagerly to arguments for the inverse.
****Another sticking point for people, and yeah, one could make the argument that they're a good example of the downside of Verbinski's excess. But having the coming of the railroad and all it portends actually drive the fauna insane extends the movie's critique of capitalist greed to an elemental level. All of which is gotten into at greater length and depth in this lovely exegesis by Ryland Walker Knight, one of the reasons I watched this thing in the first place.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

repleteness, or four minutes of Frederick Wiseman


         Initially, it seems we're supposed to be aghast that she's not teaching them Wordsworth or Tennyson. That might well have been Wiseman's intention, but the scene exceeds it. Sure, it's a hokey attempt to make poetry hip, and the prospect of her having them break the song down into "setting" and "thematic words" to determine what Simon and Garfunkel "want to say about our lives" is eye-roll material, and probably all too familiar to anybody who's taken English classes in an American public high school in the last 5 decades.*
         And yet the lyrics considered as poetry aren't all that bad, not outstandingly original by any means, but certainly possessing enough grist for a productive classroom discussion. Wiseman takes up the lyrics for his own purposes, to comment obliquely on the problems High School (1968) diagnoses. The many scenes where the faculty is too incompetent or mindlessly authoritarian to forge meaningful connections with the students are given an analogue in the the ennui and disconnection of the song's couple. Is the sum total of these students' experience in the public education system going to resemble that of an unfulfilling relationship, in which communication has degenerated to the level of such bourgeois banalities as "Is the theater really dead?" So we're still to some extent in the realm of critique. But when she starts up the tape recorder, the scene becomes, as do so many scenes in cinema that prominently feature a piece of pop music, about time. The most obvious cue is a closeup of a watch on a young man's arm, followed one cut later by the lyric "in syncopated time."**

         But time is also brought to mind by the succession of closeups, each an indelible snapshot of human beings existing at a particular moment. Of course that could be said of many scenes in High School, but the combination of elements here--the tender, slightly cornball tone of the song, the biting melancholy of its lyrics, how the closeups thrum with present-tense aliveness (the handheld camerawork slightly unsteady, most of the students in repose but never quite entirely still)--casts us--casts me, anyway--into the sort of reverie a certain Marcel would wholly endorse.

         And then, the song still going, we cut to a girl standing out in the empty hall: boredom, loneliness, dejection, abandonment. Or, alternately: that air of expectation that used to hang in spring gardens inhabited by nymphs and faeries, but is more often found today commingling with B.O. in the corridors of American high schools.

* While I'm absolutely in favor of nursing the critical and interpretive faculties of people from the earliest age possible, the way literature is usually taught in public schools is a bit like trying to do thoracic surgery with a buzzsaw. 
** Another resonance Wiseman plays with: the preceding lyrics "Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm / Couplets out of rhyme" are not at all an inaccurate description of what it feels like to be your average sexually-hypertrophic adolescent spazoid.