Friday, May 28, 2010

Titanic (1997)

Spoiler Alert: The ship sinks in the end. (...that one never gets old, does it?)

this is where we first met

I love Titanic unconditionally. I hear a lot of people talk a lot of shit about it and I can see where they're coming from and I just don't care.

In eighth grade I went to see it a record seven times1. That reel-'em-in formula mixture of romance and adventure worked on me back in middle school in a way no film since has come close to matching. It probably never will be topped, either2; I will never again (we can only hope) live with the same bleeding-hearted, adolescent, martyr-syndrome, romantic hopelessness that I wore around like a badge of honor in middle school. When you're the kind of twerp that daydreams about melodramatic heroism but you're too weird, bespectacled and chubby for any of the girls at school to take notice and you watch Star Wars all the time, an epic story like Titanic is your bread and butter.

Titanic and me? We go back a long way.

you want to go to a real party?

My age-old stance is that when something in Titanic rings untrue, 99 percent of the time it's the script. I remember when everybody agreed Leonardo DiCaprio was terrible here — he was so mediocre that in a massive Academy Awards sweep he couldn't even get a nomination.

At the same time, though, he certainly struck a chord with the young ladies of the era. Looks alone a great performance do not make, but given his time-and-again proven ability to ugly up and disappear into a role (even a ham-fisted one like the Dooley Ahppointed Feduhruhl Mahshall in Shutter Island), I have to take the side that he knew exactly what he was doing here. It's not that he's been maturing as an actor in his latter years; he's always been mature, even when playing somebody patently not.

Jack Dawson is a myth — or at least, he's mythological. There's no record of him onboard the ship (he won his ticket in a "lucky" hand at poker) or anywhere else in the world and (presumably all of) his drawings went down with the rest of the steerage. Titanic is the ship of dreams to everyone but Rose DeWitt Bukater, and Jack Dawson fills that void. Everything she's not and the polar opposite of everything she hates about her life, the love story works through Jack's casual one-dimensional charm.

Billy Zane's Caledon Hockley is that which Rose hates, which means that when people accuse Zane of overacting, he's actually just countering Leo's androgynous perfection (not an easy task), matching him charisma for charisma. I hem and haw occasionally in polite company when people ask me if I really think Titanic is one of the great movies of all time, but I never hesitate to sing Zane's praises. He's sniveling and dastardly, but he's also certainly a more layered character than Jack. When he opens his safe to discover the drawing of Rose, I really dig that Zane inflects Cal's reaction with a hint of actual heartbreak. He's only ever been the man society made him and he loses out to a resilient gutter rat who society tried its best to cast away. I dig every succeeding beat as Cal spends the rest of the movie vainly trying to buy, shoot and deceive his way off the sinking ship, finally stooping to pretending to be a little girl's father to earn passage onto a lifeboat.

Leo is unfortunately saddled with a good percentage of the film's bad dialogue (he runs neck and neck with Bill Paxton3 for a while, but surpasses him in screentime) as a result of being the paper-thin dream-boy his character has to be. Easily the worst scene in the film is the one set in the Titanic's gymnasium, in which Jack must talk Rose into reversing her (mother's) decision to never see him again.
ROSE: No, Jack, no. I'm engaged. I'm marrying Cal. I love Cal.
JACK: Rose, you're no picnic. All right, you're a spoiled little brat, even ... but under all that you're the most amazing, astounding, wonderful girl — woman — that I've ever known and-
ROSE: Jack, I-
JACK: No, no, let me try and get this out- you're- you're amaz- ...I'm not an idiot. I know how the world works, I've got ten bucks in my pocket, I have nothing to offer you, and I know that. I understand. But I'm too involved now. You jump, I jump, remember? I can't turn away without knowing you'll be all right. That's all that I want.
ROSE: Well I'm fine. I'll be fine. Really.
JACK: Really? I don't think so. They've got you trapped, Rose. And you're gonna die if you don't break free, maybe not right away because you're strong, but sooner or later, that fire that I love about you, Rose? That fire's gonna burn out.
ROSE: It's not up to you to save me, Jack.
JACK: No, it's not. You've got to do that yourself.
This stuff would be impossible to defend if Leonardo DiCaprio didn't sell it so hard. And the greatest defense of his performance is, finally, the fact that it worked on so many legions of teenage girls - exactly the demo Jack is delivering it to in the film.

never let go

Speaking of Jack being perfect for Rose, she's perfect for him as well. See, in a way, they're both psychopaths. Rose hangs off the edge of a boat not because she wants to jump but because she wants somebody to 'save' her (which is exactly what Jack is talking about in the gym). If Rose was actually going to jump, Jack says to her: "You woulda done it already." She needs a specific kind of attention she doesn't get from Cal and along comes this boy with a serious savior complex. Many have dismissed Jack and Rose's relationship as being too heavy on him telling her what to do and how to live her life, but that's exactly what she's asking for. He teaches her to save herself (and she saves him right back a couple times along the way) — leave it to Cameron to write a scene as poorly as "They've got you trapped!" and still make it be a turning point in the central relationship's arc.

Anybody who's ever dealt with people like this can tell you that relationships like these burn out fast. In fact, there's a lot more to the Romeo and Juliet comparison than you might think. Though not as well written, here is a pair of teenagers who put romance at a premium, even (maybe especially) at the expense of logic, personal well-being and the opinions of their respective communities. They aren't in love with each other so much as they're in love with the idea of each other and so they plunge into it with wild abandon.

That the ship sinks the night they consummate becomes, actually, thematically cross-stitched with their doomed romance. What happens to Rose and Jack, after all, when the ship docks at New York? She's gonna go with him, claims Rose - but given Cal's violent temper, his former-policeman right-hand man and her mother's dependence on their marriage for her social status, it's difficult to imagine her flight not impeded by crewmen, the master-at-arms or the New York City cops.

Jack and Rose would each get the most out of each other if they went separate ways after they leave the ship - Rose by living a full life and not riding side-saddle, Jack by having successfully convinced Rose that life is worth living.

And this is, to me, a beautiful, profound breed of love. It's something that only exists in the vacuum of adolescence and, when you experience it, it sticks with you for the rest of your life, even if the effect it has is one that must be denied or bottled up. You hear people talking about their relationships in high school or middle school and they say, "That doesn't count." We were foolish and naïve and innocent and now, red-faced and taciturn, we pretend to be different, better people. Likely, Rose and Jack would've done the same if they didn't meet the same fate as their Shakespearean predecessors.

This, by the way, is also why my generation has turned against Titanic, a film they went out for in droves at the time. It's an adolescent zeitgeist of which we are now ashamed, as though it were merely a fad like Pogs or the Macarena.

my heart will go on

I saw this movie seven times in middle school and even then I knew about the power of the audience: each of seven times they loved it. I still remember the gasps, laughter and tears elicited by this film across hundreds upon hundreds of movie-goers in three different Western Massachusetts theaters. I can feel the nervous, erotic tension during Kate's nude scene and I can hear the gentle sobbing of every teenage girl as Leo fails to wake up when the boats come back. This wasn't the kind of audience that hoots and hollers at cheap racism and fast action of the Michael Bay variety.

No, Cameron connects with his audience through a visceral mixture of raw emotion and peerless action. Titanic features one the great setup-and-payoffs in the history of action cinema: Bodine's computer reenactment of the sinking during the prologue. For the uninitiated, Cameron sets up every detail of the Titanic's demise in one hot minute so we know exactly what is going to happen. We just don't know when. This is why little moments like the smokestack's collapse on poor Fabrizio or the infamous "propeller guy" are so dramatically satisfying. Cameron takes a historical event, lays out the beats and then shows it happening to human beings (of arguable dimension).

There was a time when everybody loved this movie. I was there. I can admit I was deluded by the cloudy situations of middle school, but I swear I was not alone.

We all loved it then. But now, for some reason, we're embarrassed. Is it because the film absorbed us and made us vulnerable in a way we weren't quite comfortable with from our mainstream entertainment? It's not a challenging piece of art. Were we all shocked that it moved us with its simplicity? What's happened to Titanic is the quintessential backlash — it is the nature of a thing so massively popular.

Ever since middle school I've been living with this scenario wherein somebody cooler than I gasps, "Whoa, you like Titanic?" and compares me to a teenage girl. I tuck my tail in and stare at the floor, wondering how can I be the only person who loved a 1.8 billion dollar movie that made everyone cry and swept the major awards. Well, you know what, oh you masses of strong-hearted, stable-minded cool kids? Even if it is through something as simple as a connection to my lost youth and innocence, I love this movie with all of my heart and I'm not ashamed to admit it. To be ashamed requires too much effort. The heart will go on and on.

1.) The record was later broken by Monsters, Inc., which still holds it at nine. I had all the showtimes memorized; I would get out of high school Senior year and go catch the three o'clock. [back]

2.) Unless they figure out a way to sell over-priced IMAX tickets to my heart. [back]

3.) Paxton gives the only truly bad performance in the film. In the opening minutes, Brock Lovett (which really sounds like a porn name) delivers an (ostensibly intentional) melodramatic speech into his camcorder about the Titanic's "long journey down from the world above" only to get mocked by portly sub-mate Bodine. His reaction is to put the camera down and continue speaking slowly and melodramatically. Paxton is like a singer without a sense of pitch. [back]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

What follows is a lengthy rant about the unsatisfying conclusion to the twentieth season of Survivor. It'll probably make the most sense if you watched it, but I'm going to include some footnotes for the uninitiated. If you aren't watching Survivor, you're seriously missing out.

"There's a flaw in the game of Survivor," said Russell Hantz in the Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains reunion show this weekend. He's right, though his proposed solution of giving America a percentage of the vote is nonsense. The problem with Survivor - and I say this as a vocal, devout fan of the game - is the decline over the past two seasons in sensible jury votes1.

Russell is a divisive character. I used to hate him, too, back in the early days of Survivor: Samoa2. I can understand why people get mad at him — but anger is irrational and what I can't figure out is the inability to let go of your anger and admit that he is hands-down the best Survivor to ever play the game. It's one thing when you're a television audience — we're an irrational lot and still we've awarded Russell the $100,000 audience vote twice consecutively — but it's another thing when you're playing the game and another thing still when you're a veteran.

In two consecutive games, Russell whipped the competition and landed squarely in the Final Three only to lose the vote from a bitter jury. Obviously, playing to the jury is crucial to any Survivor's strategy. But the point is that they're never going to want to vote for anybody. It's up to the jury to decide who is most deserving of the million-dollar prize. Not who they feel made them look less like a bunch of fools.

But in the past two seasons, this is exactly what happened. And so Sandra Diaz-Twine was crowned the first two-time winner of the game, despite being an unlikable failure from day one to day 39. Here is a 'Sole Survivor' who discussed at Final Tribal that her single mission the entire game was to get Russell voted off. And she couldn't do it. Ever.

Russell played this entire game with a target tattooed on his increasingly-skinny back and out-maneuvered the competition every single time.

Let's examine the incident with Tyson Apostol, who changed his vote at the last minute despite a rock-solid Plan Voodoo3 of Boston Rob Mariano's devising and ended up getting the boot himself. This has been heralded as a dumb move on Tyson's part (and it is), even getting him nominated for the cruelly lame "Dumbest Move in Survivor History" fan vote at the end of the season. But has everyone forgotten that this was entirely Russell's doing? He had an idol and everyone knew it; Boston Rob had a (nearly) fool-proof plan to split the votes three-three for Russell and ally Parvati Shallow4, eliminating whichever one of them played Russell's idol.

What did Russell do? He selected Tyson, pulled him aside and got in his head, telling him he was voting for Parvati and Tyson might as well do the same. Tyson made a dumb move, but it was the result of Russell's manipulation. This is an incredible thing that Russell does every single time he's in a bind — using only his wits, he manages to manipulate the competition into acting against their better interests. This is a founding tenet of Survivor strategy5.

Russell did the same thing to Danielle DiLorenzo much later in the season. He tried to play her and Parvati off each other, which failed — their alliance was too strong and Russell immediately got caught in the lie. Rather than back down, he blazed ahead with full confidence right into Tribal Council, where he berated Danielle until she broke down in tears and confessed to an unbreakable alliance with Parvati. Russell then called an audible, mouthing "Danielle" at Jerri Manthey, the swing vote that sent Danielle packing.

These are the actions of a born Survivor player. Russell is so good at the game that he made even the Heroes vs. Villains cast of veteran all-stars look like the amateur schlubs of Foa Foa and Galu with which he swept the beach in Season 19. Russell didn't lose the jury vote because he played 'dishonestly'. He lost the jury vote because he bruised the fragile egos of 9 veteran reality TV stars.

Russell doesn't play to assuage the jury — he admits it, and I can admit it, too. His strategy is to convince them that he is the most deserving of the Sole Survivor not through kind words at Final Tribal but through absolute domination through 39 days of game play. Russell's undoing in Survivor: Samoa was that he counted on a jury of amateurs to observe his professional game. His loss in Heroes vs. Villains, it turns out, is the same harsh lesson folded upon itself.

I've written previously about the four types of Survivor contestant6. Russell is the quintessential Challenged Self: a man who swore on his first of 78 consecutive days of Survivor that he was the best and would prove it. Prove it he did, and soundly.

The silver lining to Russell's backhanding by the Samoa jury was the knowledge that he would immediately have a one-off shot at revenge. The Heroes vs. Villains season billed itself as one of revenge and redemption. These are returning champions and almost-champions looking to prove what they failed to prove the first (or second) time around. As the seasons were filmed back-to-back, Russell had this one fleeting chance to play again and use his revolutionary cutthroat strategy, unleashing it on an(other) unknowing tribe of castaways.

There's no question that Russell is great at what he does: the problem starts when he reaches the jury and everybody is too pissed off to vote for him to win. My hope — and Russell's — was that the Survivor veterans would see what he was doing and reward him for doing it so damn well. Instead Russell was so much better than the JTs and the Boston Robs of the Survivor Pantheon that the seasoned veterans were actually more upset at him than the cast of Season 19.

Obviously, playing for the jury vote is a huge part of Survivor. The facet of Russell's strategy that sets it apart from the rest of the "villains" is that his grab for jury votes is never borne of false sympathy, flattery or modesty. He tells it like it is: "I'm the best and that's why I deserve it."

The problem with Survivor — not every season, but certainly in these past two and especially in Heroes vs. Villains — is when the jury fails to recognize excellent game play and votes not for the best player but for the one who had the least to do with bruising their egos. This is apparent not solely in their refusal to give Russell a single vote but in the awarding of the million dollars to Sandra over Parvati.

Now, I can't stand Parvati, but I begrudgingly admit that she's an excellent player. I compare her to the New York Yankees: she's evil, but dammit if she's not great at the game. Though Parvati undeniably did some coattail riding off Russell in Heroes vs. Villains (look at her sharing all the idols he found and escaping votes thank to his manipulation) she also did have several big moves of her own. In addition to dominating in challenges, her idol split between Jerri and Sandra was one of the season's great blindsides that nobody saw coming. Not Russell, not Sandra or Jerri, not the Heroes, not the television audience. Russell admitted as much at the reunion show: between Parvati and Sandra, Parvati should've won. All Sandra ever did the entire season was talk about her husband in Afghanistan and fail to get rid of the two more-powerful players. The only reason she made it to the finals was because circumstance consistently brought her to the block last in her dying alliances.

Giving Sandra the million dollars was the action of a cowardly jury. In a 6-3-0 vote, Danielle, Jerri and Benjamin "Coach" Wade voted for Parvati — Danielle because Parvati's hand-holding got her as far as she did and Jerri and Coach because they held on to a modicum of respect for the game Parvati played. In that jury, I have a lingering affection for JT, Amanda Kimmel, Rupert Boneham, Colby Donaldson and maybe even Candice Woodcock and I am so disappointed in them — "heroes" all — for taking the avenue of the reality fame whore, upset because their spotlight got dimmed.

This is not the role of the jury. Making it to the jury on Survivor is an honor all its own, and with it should come a sense of duty to the game. If you get ousted by a player of Russell's caliber, you owe it to that player and you owe it to the game to show some goddamn respect. If Amanda Kimmel and Colby Donaldson and "America's Tribal Council" winner Rupert Boneham can't muster any respect for the game, how am I ever going to get anybody else to?

1.) The jury is the linchpin to the Survivor rules. Every season, with two-or-three finalists, the previous nine-to-twelve cast members "voted off the island" cast the votes for who wins the million dollar prize. This means that if you want to win, you have a Final Tribal Council during which you must convince the people you double-crossed why you deserve the money more than your fellow finalists. [back]

2.) Hantz played consecutively on the last two seasons. After stealing the show and losing the final vote in season 19 (Survivor: Samoa), he was invited back for this most recent one, the all-star Heroes vs. Villains, which was filmed in Samoa immediately after the previous season wrapped. [back]

3.) One of the devices added to the game several seasons in is the Hidden Immunity Idol, which can be discovered any number of ways (usually buried and located by following a series of clues) and may or may not be kept a secret from the other tribe members. The Idol is played at Tribal Council after votes are cast, nullifying any votes for the Survivor who played it and voting out the person with the next highest number (often this person gets the boot with only one or two votes). Russell is a mastermind at locating them, and likes to brag about it. So: when the rest of your tribe knows you have an idol, one way to get rid of you (and/or it) is to execute Plan Voodoo. The outnumbering alliance splits their votes — half for the idol-bearer and the next person they want to get rid of (usually the idol-bearer's ally). If either one of them plays the idol, the other one will get the boot. [back]

4.) Her last name is Shallow. I hate her. [back]

5.) Not only did this move get rid of Tyson, but Russell's speech in handing the idol over to Parvati was deliberately delivered to the pompous Coach, attempting to put the Dragonslayer squarely in Russell's pocket with nothing but flattery and a little talk of "honor". [back]

6.) The four types of Survivor contestant: The Walkabout, The Challenged Self, The Fame Whore and The Crazy. [back]

Monday, May 17, 2010


On the surface, Babies is a masterwork of precision. The documentary, following the first year in the life of four human babies, is frame-by-frame exactly what it intends to be — that is, not very much. It offers a slim 80 minutes of footage of babies being cute. If director Thomas Balmes is trying to offer any kind of thesis or perspective, it's nothing more than "babies are cute", illustrated by the similarity of behavior across racial and cultural divides. Without even a hint of narrative (falsely constructed or otherwise), the film plays out like an 80-minute YouTube video. Why should we be taking this seriously?

According to the audience I saw it with, this thing is a laugh riot from start to finish. It recalls the inaugural Springfield Film Festival entry "Man Getting Hit By Football", which would later be remade with George C. Scott to beat out "A Burns For All Seasons" at that year's Academy Awards. It's an uneasy aggregate — a juncture between high and low art that asks nothing of its audience and is applauded for its simplicity. But what really bothers me about Babies is that the film is a stepping stone in our cultural devolution, and a deeply exploitative one at that.

The film plays out like any nature documentary (that's exactly what it is), with the infant hero a rare human subject that will not visibly alter its behavior under the influence of observation. Babies will laugh, cry and fall over whether or not they are being recorded. However, Balmes goes to great lengths to establish a fourth wall to 'protect' them: from the careful excision of the omnipresent parents to the stasis of the camera throughout the running time, we are (mis)lead to believe we are watching them through an inert window. It is as though we somehow deserve to do so - as though we are there with them.

But the fact is, unlike a lizard or a bird, these four will one day become self-aware. How will they feel about being the subject of something like this, having their naked bathtub photos already preserved on DVD and Blu-ray long before they have a chance to bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend? Did this occur to the parents, edited in here as though they are no more aware of the cameras than their children? It's a dazzling stylistic choice: a manipulation of our observation such that we forget we are witnessing this through the middleman of a film crew invasion. If there isn't a camera, the babies aren't being recorded and they're just there being cute. In pursuit of its purity of content — "Babies are cute!" — it omits the necessary facet of a film of this conceit: that babies are people.

We're here laughing at the foibles of strangers, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the white American girl gets the least screen time. To draw up another Simpsons reference, let us recall the incident of Homer watching a Bollywood musical suggested by Apu:
BART: This movie you rented sucks.
HOMER: No it doesn't, it's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes! Look at what they're wearing!
Have we so little conscience about the sources of our entertainment that we're willing to make a cheap joke out of a goat drinking the baby's bathwater in Mongolia? Calling this a low common denominator doesn't really seem to do justice to the project, as a transcultural simplicity seems to have been Balmes' plan all along. The jokes are cheap, yes: easy, and of little value, but also they ring out as indicators of how little we require in our quest for superiority. We say we are laughing because the babies are cute, but really it's because they are different from us and in their pratfalls we can feel the wisdom of our age — we condescend to canonize them in a clip show with a wisp of relief that our babies, see, they don't have goats drinking out of their tubs.

On the other hand, if we choose not to laugh at the helpless infants, there remains some value in the piece as a great example of how anyone can film anything these days, and anyone will.

Perhaps we don't think about it too deeply because the little red light is ubiquitous now. Millions and millions of babies born to Americans in the past few years have already generated the raw footage necessary to cull together a "documentary" like this, and a sizable percentage of their parents have already done so on YouTube and Facebook. As we pawn off our privacy for the cheap cost of fifteen seconds of internet fame, the value of our children's privacy becomes difficult to calculate. They'll have facebook pages set up in their names before they know how to speak and if their clip on YouTube gets a million hits then, oh, then they've earned their Gerber.

They won't even have a chance to defend themselves.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

In many ways the antithesis to the Batman of Christopher Nolan's films, the Tony Stark of Jon Favreau's Iron Man franchise is everything a billionaire playboy should be. Compare him to Christian Bale's somber, sober Bruce Wayne — the men are equals in their respective comic book universes. Both are rich, both are surrounded by beautiful women and fancy gadgets, both lost their fathers at a young age, and both are mortals entering into the superhero game behind sheer chutzpah and a lot of armor. The difference is that Stark immediately shuffles off the onus of secret identity, going public with his superheroism at the first chance he gets. For a rich, fun-loving, womanzing alcoholic sociopath, this actually makes a lot of sense.

Tony Stark is a damn likable guy and he adores the attention, which makes it all the more remarkable how depressing an experience it is to sit through Iron Man 2. The central foundation to the franchise's success is the idiosyncratic narcissism Robert Downey, Jr. brings to the lead role. The actor has more fun with his words than his character does gadgets. So, I'm baffled at the choice to send Stark into a depressed funk through the majority of the runtime, slowly dying due to his worsening condition, drinking more and more heavily and itching from a severe flare-up of Daddy Issues.

The light bulb in his chest is no longer doing its job and several enemies (foreign and domestic) want to either steal or copy the Iron Man weapon-suit. This means the film will climax with a lot of Iron Man-like machines having it out with Stark – just like the last one, except now there's a plurality of evil iron men. I find myself wondering, knowing so little as I do about the Iron Man mythos, if there will ever be any bad guys in this series that aren't iron men trying to steal Tony's thunder.

The plot is incidental, though, really. We're here to watch Downey snark around and to maybe watch stuff blow up, and frankly there's not enough of either. There's a plethora of new characters — some interesting, some not, all rushed on and off the screen, all requisitely sexy — and the process of juggling them while seeing the second act through to the third proves an arduous task for director Favreau and his hired gun screenwriter Justin Theroux. Theroux can pun with the best of them, but I get the impression he didn't have a lot of room to get creative with anything besides wordplay. There are triple agents, lovers' spats, DUI Iron Manning, winking references to other Marvel superheroes, hot chicks, big guns and a cast of stellar underutilized actors, from Clark Gregg and Don Cheadle to supposed “lead” villain Mickey Rourke. Rourke has maybe thirty lines: he's there to look foreign and evil, and I suppose he does get the job done.

Maybe the only actor who does get his due is Sam Rockwell, playing an American arms manufacturer named Justin Hammer with some mean Tony-envy. He tries to build his own suit and he tries to sleep with the same women as Tony. He fails in both cases. Preening and peacocking without any feathers to show and armed with a supply of bizarre, hilarious non-sequiturs courtesy of Theroux, Rockwell manages to steal the film from Downey. This is no small feat, but it’s never something that should've been allowed to happen.

The audience of cheering fanboys gave up their biggest hollers of the night to the trailers for Inception and The Last Airbender and to the post-credit sequence exposing half-of-a-second of imagery promising a future release from Marvel Studios. The entire machine becomes about not what we're watching now but the anticipation of what's coming next. If there's an hour of downtime in the middle of the film, it's okay because we know both good guy and bad guy are working on their Iron Man weapons and will likely finish up around the same time so they can battle. "Iron Man 2 was great," they want us to say. "And it was so cool how there's going to be more." Second verse, same as the first.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blog Notes 5/10/10: Please Give

I'm proud to announce my debut over at Venus Zine, the preeminent publication and website for which I hope to be contributing on an irregular basis. Click through to read my review of Nicole Holofcener's newest, Please Give.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Tenuous Ultimacy of the Ultimate Edition


Though my years-old DVD copy of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is labeled as the "Ultimate Edition", there have been countless successive home video releases of the film, including an "Extreme Edition" and one that arrives in a novelty box shaped like a Terminator's endoskull. A cursory examination of the "special" features reveals these discs are all more-or-less the same.

Three of James Cameron's films have been widely distributed in "special editions" much longer than their respective theatrical releases: Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Allegedly Cameron's preferred version, the extended cut of Aliens was released in 1992, the same year as the seminal Director's Cut of Blade Runner. It's funny how even at the birth of the "special home video edition" phenomenon, the term 'director's cut' was being misappropriated.

In his exhaustive tome Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, journalist/author Paul M. Sammon describes the tangled web of miscommunication that transpired between the collaborators working on the Director's Cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. At one point, two "Director's Cut"s were in assembly, one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Scott himself had written some notes out and left the project behind to work on 1492, leaving Warner Bros. and a series of editors and producers in charge of the project.

This fiasco left the door open for yet another cut, the allegedly Final one, which was released theatrically in 2007.


One of the more egregious fallacies perpetrated on the movie-buying public is the increasingly ubiquitous notion that 'more' equals 'better', which has lead to every other film on the shelves at Best Buy sporting stickers that say things like "Extended!", "Unrated!" and "xx Minutes of Footage too hot/scary/gory for theaters!" They sound like porno buzzwords, which is more-or-less what they are (and it's only barely tangential to bring up that the pornography industry is exactly what we have to thank for every single home video market takeover, from VHS over Betamax up through Blu-ray over HD-DVD).

This leads to the carefully-edited1theatrical cut of a film becoming devastated by the thoughtless insertion of unnecessary scenes that were originally left on the cutting room floor for a good reason. All too often, this becomes the only version of the film accessible to a collector. One great example of this is the "Unrated Director's Edition" of Miami Vice, which almost any Michael Mann fanatic will tell you travesties the smash-cut club-set opening of the theatrical cut with a lame boat race credits sequence and a spoon-feeding explanation of everything you're about to see in the former version's immersive opening set piece. This is the only version of the film available on Blu-ray.

Of course, even when the various versions of a film are available, the onus is left to the individual to slog through two cuts of a film so that he can decide for himself which is the "better"2. You have to really love a movie to be able to put up with something like this; as for myself, there's more-often-than-not another movie that I haven't seen in any iteration that will take priority. For the purposes of my Cameron retrospective on this blog, however, I managed to sit through 289 minutes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 291 minutes of Aliens, and 309 minutes of The Abyss. Were it not for the easy superiority of the Aliens extended cut, I would've found this a deeply resentful task.

Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which exists, across three films, in lengths that can run you anywhere between 558 minutes and a superlative 682. I can tell you right now that, having experienced them in their shortest forms, I cannot imagine any future circumstance that would bring me to sit through 11 hours and 22 minutes of that bunk - especially when their creator, Peter Jackson, is on the record suggesting that the extended cuts are for fans only (my phrasing, not his3).

The Abyss' extended cut presents a good example of Jackson's "immerse them in the diegesis" school of editing. While the "killer wave" finale adds a good ten minutes to the runtime, most of the meat that gets added is comprised of small character beats and scene extensions. If you love these characters and you want to go back and watch all of them singing along to the entirety of Linda Ronstadt's "Willin'", here's your chance. But it only serves to make the piece, as a whole, bloated and over-long.

The extra scenes in the longer version of Terminator 2 are downright awful, from the soft-focus daydream sequence featuring a cameo from Michael Biehn to the "Dyson family at home" scene in which Mrs. Dyson talks her workaholic husband into turning off his computer on a Sunday to take his kids to the amusement park. The scene ends with mother, father, son and daughter embracing, shouting "Hooray!"

There are, admittedly, some nifty special effects worked into the extended cut, most notably the trick shot in which the camera peers deep inside the Terminator's metal skull while he looks on from the mirror completely naturally. But a nifty special effect is just that and doesn't make a good movie, no matter what some adolescents tell you. Special effects, increasing in 'awesome'-ness at an exponential rate (or, as the T-800 might say, a geometric rate), are troublesome. One of the stated reasons for cutting The Abyss' tidal wave sequence in the first place was that they lacked the proper amount of technology and money to finish it for the theatrical release. Rather: Cameron worked with what he had, solved problems and turned in a film much tighter than he'd written on paper.

Similarly, Cameron claims that he'd drafted Avatar as early as 1995 but took fifteen years with it because he was waiting for the technology to catch up with his vision. This, from the man who made the swarms of Aliens with just six men in black latex suits.


George Lucas is the great criminal in terms of constructing movies around special effects rather than the other way around, and yet with every travesty of his original Star Wars trilogy, he pulls the "original vision" card. With the 1997 "Special Edition" theatrical re-releases, Lucas opened a watershed that would engulf his long-awaited prequel trilogy and result in Hayden Christensen getting digitally inserted into Return of the Jedi for the sake of some bastard continuity.

The failure of the prequel trilogy to garner much more than scorn from anyone but the most devoted (read: desperate) of Star Wars fans can be viewed in microcosm during the scene in The Phantom Menace in which Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn provides a scientific explanation of The Force. In an instant, the decades-old notion of an intangible, mysterious divinity that guided (or misguided) our heroes in a galaxy far, far away was made banal by a species of blood parasites.

This scenario is recalled in Jackson's description of the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings. Only a person very different from me would be interested in seeking out an explanation for how Darth Vader is able to choke people from across the room - it's so much more interesting as an old-time religion, part voodoo and part martial art. Similarly, only a person very different than me is so interested in the Baggins clan that they're willing to sacrifice artistic integrity for the sake of a more-expansive mythos4. In most cases, the excised material serves to over-explain or corrupt one-or-more of the film's themes, as in The Phantom Menace5, and as in T2's "If we flip this switch in his head the machine can learn to be human" scenario and as in The Abyss' "supposedly benevolent alien intelligence becomes complicit in our cold war theatrics" finale. Perhaps you needed this stuff to think your scriptwriting to its endgame; again, you cut it from the finished product for a reason.


Aliens provides a notable exception to this trend; for the theatrical release, all mention of Ripley's deceased daughter was excised, robbing her relationship with Newt of a crucial layer. The movie works without it, but it's better with. In the theatrical cut, the arc shared between the two girls becomes concentrated on notions of dreaming (the literal kind) - a mundanity made poignant by the image of a daughter and mother learning to sleep soundly again because they have each other. This is not to say that their surrogacy is vague or incomprehensible in the theatrical cut; rather, the mention of Ripley's daughter is a rare example of Cameron writing a realistic, layered character and not hitting us over the head with her politics or clumsy evolutions. The business of Ripley's daughter is good and deserves to be seen.

The sad fact of the matter is that for every film that is released in its writer's or director's intended form, there are ten that aren't and Aliens (in 1986) and Blade Runner (in 1982) were two of them. Those two films got recut and released in special editions in 1992, and it's telling of the Hollywood machine that it took Blade Runner an extra four years and they still got it wrong; it would take Ridley Scott another 15 to release his definitive version and he still couldn't call it that because the '92 version had become canonized as the "Director's Cut".

Frustratingly, in working for so long at so extraordinary a stature that he was afforded the right to keep editing a big budget Hollywood movie for 25 years, Scott was also allowed to go retroactively reshoot parts of his film, right down to a digital insertion of Joanna Cassidy's head over that of her obvious stunt double. On the DVD release of that "Final" cut, there is a behind-the-scenes featurette in which one of the producers of the reshoots describes the process of organizing the original release's storied errors into "Beloved Flaws" and flaws they could get away with changing. If Scott gets a pass to revisit Blade Runner because of its disastrous production, I say he shreds it when he goes in for horseshit like these reshoots.

This 2007 release is, allegedly, the intended version of Blade Runner, but what happens when Scott decides he likes another actor better than Joanna Cassidy for the role? At this moment in time, with photorealistic Na'vi and a terrifyingly computer-generated thirty-something Arnold Schwarzenegger making appearances in the multiplex last year, the onus lies squarely on the shoulder of the man with the rights to make these kinds of decisions and change or not-change his films.

Any powerful-enough director - Cameron, Lucas, Jackson, Scott, et al. - has today an all-too-easy path to meddle with previous films, and the money-back guarantee of a repackaged DVD makes this kind of thing a no-brainer for the studios and distributors. An extended edition of Avatar is already geared for a theatrical release later this year, and surely we can also count on a follow-up home video release in time for Christmas. So what of the film in the theater, man? What happens to the movie that you spent fifteen years putting together that drew America together in arguments both juvenile and philosophical not four months ago? What happens when George Lucas decides he wants to destroy every copy of the movie that generations grew up on because it doesn't have Hayden Christensen in it?

The community of a theatrical exhibition is being desecrated left and right these days, and in this case it is at the hands of the people in charge. Quit it!, already, with the bigger, badder, meaner DVD re-releases and try getting it right the first time. Put your damn film in the can and move on. The movie is an extant piece of art and once it leaves your hands, it's up to the evolving, mutating audience to judge, decry, revere or refute as they so choose. It's the audience that will breathe life into a film after it's done. If you, the director, never let go of the thing, how can we ever hold on to it? What will your film even be?

1.) We can only hope it's carefully edited. [back]

2.) Or the funnier, or more interesting, or more precise... [back]

3.) Peter Jackson, discussing the extended editions:

"For [The Fellowship of the Ring] we also had certain benchmarks that we wanted to reach in terms of the pacing. We wanted the Hobbits to leave Hobbiton within 25 minutes of the movie's beginning; we wanted them to get to Rivendell by a certain time because we wanted the decision to destroy the ring to be no more than halfway through the movie. There were certain structural things that felt like they were sort of marker posts that we wanted to work with. [...] Also what I like about putting more scenes back in the DVD is the fact that if you dig the movie, if you did like the film, and you want to sort of see more of it, if you want to learn more about who they are and what they are and learn more about their motivations, then there's these scenes that do exist that actually give you that information, that background information. So, it's nice to be able to give people an opportunity to see those if they want to."
In other words, the theatrical cut is paced like a movie should be paced and the home video cut is for die hards with a lot of time on their hands. [back]

4.) At this point, my less-than-popular opinion that the Lord of the Rings films aren't very good is more than evident. To each his own, but I believe my point stands even if you love them. Perhaps: especially if you love them. [back]

5.) I realize I'm here discussing the prequel trilogy - not actually a three-feature series of deleted scenes - as though it is little more than a series of half-baked ideas, afterthoughts and ciphers best left on the cutting room floor. Exactly. [back]

Monday, May 3, 2010

Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) & The Terminator (1984)

This is supposed to be about honesty, and specifically about confronting the action movies that I loved as a boy through the perspective of what I now humbly refer to as "adulthood". I have to engage in conversation with my younger self and try to figure out what was wrong with him and also what was working out all right. I'm not embarrassed that in the seventh grade I loved Titanic. I might be a little red-in-the-face for liking True Lies as much as I used to (but then, if Cameron's made any single film exclusively for the narrow demographic of male teenagers, it's that one).

I grew up with Cameron's movies, and the fact that, until recently, I had never seen one of them presents something of a conundrum. Cameron took a mulligan on his first feature and now we have to think of him as having two separate and distinct debut features. As a kid I actively sought out all of his work, but somehow (and I was perfectly aware of its existence) Piranha II: The Spawning got left off the list. So what's it like to revisit a beloved first film that you've seen countless times in juxtaposition to an alternate first film that you've never seen at all?

The Terminator is almost always checked as Cameron's first; most people give him the courtesy of reserving Piranha1 for the punchline or leaving it off the list entirely. His first of three sequels to his name thus far, Piranha is inarguably Cameron's "least good" movie. The story goes that it was another in a line of special effects gigs for Cameron, who took over after the original director departed. It was a promotion and a paycheck and Cameron has since disowned the film.

I think that's too bad.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't conceive of the thing and wasn't allowed in the editing room (another 'citation needed' urban legend tells of Cameron trying to break into the editing suite in Rome and getting ousted by security guards), is there any merit to his film as the juvenilia of a first-timer who would go on to make several of the best action movies ever made? I say there is, especially when compared to Terminator.

Cameron started his career with two movies that can easily be classified as 'horror' films. In respect to the traditional merits of that genre, both are failures; he hasn't been back to the well since. And to be completely honest: I've seen Terminator so many times that its cheese emerges now as more pungent than I'd have thought possible, while there's a novelty to Piranha that I find refreshing. These are surprisingly similar pieces by an audacious young director not yet capable of mixing his Ideas™ with his characters in any graceful fashion.

Now an icon, The Terminator was an out-of-left-field hit, the massive popularity of which far outweighed its overall quality. Though filled with great Ideas™ and cracker-jack suspense, the decades have made it far too easily conflated with its superior sequel. Piranha is little seen yet consistently the butt of jokes - it's actually underrated (albeit not severely so). The films share a hokiness that might be less intentional in Piranha but there's plenty of unintentional humor in Terminator if you're willing to go there in a movie you grew up on.

Take Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese. Cameron and Biehn would team up in three consecutive movies (four if your count his deleted scene from T2) and ultimately The Abyss' Lt. Coffey would merit an Oscar campaign from Twentieth Century Fox. But their formula for a malleable, humanized alpha male wasn't quite perfected yet in The Terminator, saddling Biehn with some really unfortunate turns of phrase. Linda Hamilton, never exactly a high-caliber actor, only helps to bog down the romance between Reese and Sarah Connor. It doesn't take long for the pair to turn into mouth breathers.
SARAH: Kyle... the women in your time. What are they like?
KYLE: Good fighters.
SARAH: That's not what I meant. Was there someone special?
KYLE: Someone...
SARAH: A girl? You know...
KYLE: No. Never.
Never? I'm sorry. I'm so sorry ... so much pain.
KYLE: Pain can be controlled. You just disconnect it.
SARAH: So you feel nothing?
KYLE: John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old. Torn.
Faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just ... a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line. Every curve. I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.

The Terminator, like Cameron's latter-day successes, works in spite of its bad performances and worse dialogue. A huge factor in making the film a hit was that nobody saw it coming; recycled into the fabric of the popular culture, decades of parody and copying have made it a little worse for the wear.

But there's a great piece of connective tissue between Piranha II and The Terminator: police officer Lance Henriksen. A Cameron repertory player up through the 1998 Martini Ranch music video "Reach"3, Henrisken delivered some of his best character work (in a career full of understated, underrated character work) in Aliens, The Terminator and, yes, Piranha. The fanboy in me has to feel a tingle in my spine during Piranha's sub-Bass opening credits wherein the actor, billed third, shows up in an emphasis-box: "Lance Henriksen as Steve".

In The Terminator, Henriksen plays garrulous Detective Hal Vukovich, teaming up with Paul Winfield's Lieutenant Ed Traxler and Earl Boen's Dr. Silberman to provide the film's only running comic relief4. The three men are here to provide comfort to Sarah and protect her from the two crazies (nobody believes they are actually soldiers from the future) out to get her, but of course Silberman leaves his videotape running to allow our heroine to see Kyle shouting about how she's as good as dead. Traxler and Vukovich both get a spare few character beats that stand out in the film: Traxler trying to light a cigarette only to discover he has one already going in his other hand and Vukovich telling stories and showing off scars he received in the line.

They're side characters in the film, but when Traxler gets shot during the Terminator's riveting, wrenching raid on the police station, Cameron pauses long enough to allow Vukovich a fleeting "Ed!" over Traxler's body. This gets me, partially because Henriksen is so adept at infusing melodramatic material with his grizzled, steadfast humanity. Henriksen is real, and he's equally good in Piranha, if not better. He's got the lead here: if the whole thing was made to cash in on Jaws, Henriksen is Chief Brody. Of course, the quantity of screen time here can't match the quality of his minutes in The Terminator, but to Henriksen it's all a wash.

I love how seriously he takes this preposterous scenario. Paternal towards both his son and the resort community he serves and protects, Chief Steve spends the whole film worrying. Like Chief Brody, he's the only one who grasps that anyone's lives are stake throughout most of the running time, even as bodies are piling up. Of course, why would we take this seriously? The mere suggestion of genetically-altered, man-eating piranha that can fly out of the water at you because they have wings is as ridiculous to a beachgoer as it is to a moviegoer.

But part of what I find fascinating is that these movies are, in essence, about the exact same thing - and it's the exact same thing that almost all of Cameron's movies are about: a military designed future-weapon flails out of our limited control and comes back to bite us in the ass5. In Aliens and Avatar, we try to gain control of a weapon that isn't ours and in The Abyss and Avatar the non-human intelligence teaches us a lesson about the weapons we desire to wield. The premise of Piranha II is so thematically in line with the rest of Cameron's ouevre, it's almost as if his entire career has been a response to the failure of this C-movie fiasco: "No, no, this is what I am interested in and I will do it better again and again just to show you I was right."

At this point in time, the familiarity of The Terminator works against the film. It's a classic, sure, but can't match Cameron's three follow-ups in terms of cast, suspense, action or theme. Really, the only of Cameron's films that it looks good against is Piranha II, which, since I tend to root for the underdog, only makes me like Piranha all the more. I may or may not ever sit through it again, but I'm glad I've finally seen it once.

1.) The full on-screen title is Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which I greatly prefer. And in case you're wondering: no, I've never seen and cannot comment on the film's predecessor, though my impression is that they are about as disparate as two films about killer piranha could possibly be. [back]

2.) There probably ought to be several more ellipses in that transcription. [back]

3.) This eight-minute Cameron-helmed music video, stars Aliens cast members Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Paul Reiser. In addition, it features Academy Award Winner Kathryn Bigelow as a sexy cowgirl mercenary leading a posse of sexy cowgirl mercenaries, and resurfaced on the internet during the "non-feud" between Cameron and Bigelow that took up too much of this year's award season. It is, to borrow a term from my friend Daniel Gorman, 'essential' viewing. [back]

4.) Silberman is the only one of the three who lives to see Judgment Day; in the sequel, his character is far less exuberant, though he has made his career on the committal of Sarah Connor (as he foreshadows in the first film). Presumably, having walked out of the police station and crossed paths with the machine that would kill almost everyone left in the building, he's been traumatized into humorlessness. [back]

5.) In the case of Piranha's sublimely ridiculous underwater scuba sex cold open, they will bite us in the ass – literally!! [back]