Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Glove Compartment: An Education

The key object in An Education, a peculiar but stifled new English film based on a memoir by Lynn Barber with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, is a glove compartment. The glove compartment is in the car belonging to David (Peter Sarsgaard), which itself may have been stolen, considering that he is a professional thief. He has seduced—or almost seduced—a sixteen year old girl named Jenny (newcomer Carey Mulligan). It is London in 1961. Jenny is a schoolgirl at a London prep school where she plays the cello and dreams of getting in to Oxford. Her schoolteacher (Olivia Williams) has warned her about the difficulty of being accepted in to such a prestigious university, and Jenny’s parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) mainly seem to care about whether or not it will whisk Jenny away to a respectable future—and whether or not they can afford it. When Jenny meets David, she finds an affluent man who, if almost twice her age, will take her to Paris, to Oxford to meet C.S Lewis, and will buy her whatever she wants. Even when she finds out how he makes his money— by stealing various collectibles and selling them, and by renting out illegally acquired property—she decides to turn the other cheek. But there is always the question of the glove compartment; first, Jenny finds cigarettes inside, and promptly takes up smoking. And there are other prompts inside.

An Education is, in the most intentional way possible, a British School Film. Its place must therefore lie, quite awkwardly, amongst past British School Art. Generally, the Brits don’t like school too much. As early as Roald Dahl’s story “Galloping Foxley”, the horrors of boarding school were disclosed in great detail. Lindsay Anderson declared that the headmasters should be shot down in student revolt in If… Pink Floyd made an ensemble of children tell us that they didn’t need no education. The Harry Potter series, most recently, have been books based on the childlike conceit that school, or even all childhood, should just be like that. An Education stands as the conservative counterpart to all that noise. It’s message is that one should get educated; not just in life, but in the traditional sense, doing homework, applying oneself, getting in to good universities. This is a good way to spend your youth. And no, it won’t turn you in to a total bore.

No viewer is going to believe that Jenny—this spunkily pretty, intelligent girl—is going to become a bore. If anything, it is the one’s who have not gotten any education who are ignorant bores; David’s friends and partners in crime, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), for instance. But the film’s parental stance might be easier to take if it didn’t also lack a certain degree of horror and confusion that artists such as Anderson and Dahl knew should be present in stories involving growing up and mistakes. The central situation in An Education is one of sheer perversity. Here is a con-man (and we, the audience, know it from the start), who romantically desires a much younger girl, and society is not just okay with this, it is enabling it. All Jenny’s parents want their daughter to do is to find someone else to take care of her. Her friends don’t think it’s remotely strange that she loves an older man, they think it’s terrific. Her headmistress appears to take the position that Jenny is just a foolish girl, and a lost cause. The film doesn’t take these attitudes as perverse and confused, it looks at them as charming misconceptions of a bygone era. It makes them beside the point with Jenny’s ridiculous affectations and the question of her virginity. Only Jenny’s teacher tries to let her know what she is getting herself in to. But once she helps Jenny come to her senses, we are faced with an unrealistic solution to the horror and confusion that were never there; maturity can come about through studying and achievement and reconciliation can make all ends meet.

It seems that if there were any film that should question societal morality, even if of a specific time period, An Education is it. But director Lone Scherfig stifles any serious questioning, preferring to tell a story about a cute, wayward girl, who makes a mistake, gets out of it, and makes some societal observations along the way. Carey Mulligan has created an odd and believable character, as has Sarsgaard, yet the direction did not do them justice. Scherfig has a talent of crafting pure situations; he knows that the glove compartment is pivotal and that what’s inside has to be key. He doesn’t know what to make of the world outside of the car.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Motion Studies: The Action Image

It is heartlessly impossible to describe and analyze almost any image from Fritz Lang’s Spies. This is because they are clever pieces of bait that scream to be appreciated rather than explained. Unlike most action films made today—and Spies is a sincere, modern Mission: Impossible before there was a hokey, post-modern Mission: Impossible—we take the bait and love it.

That bait includes such images of a female hand holding a cigarette, while the other gently swings a gun in to the frame, a sinister icon-shot of one of the masterminds who keeps the main characters in his clutches, a Japanese diplomat committing slow Hari-Kiri, and an oncoming train barreling in to another train in a tunnel. All of it’s images are action images. They are obsessed with motion in it’s fastest, most sensational and outrageous forms, and they pursue all the details that are possible within these forms to build on the story. One of the more decorated of these images is an overhead shot of a boxing match that takes place in the ballroom a ritzy restaurant. An orchestra is accompanying the match. The area is lit with only two overheads, so that the flailing shadows of the boxers can be seen on the upper and lower sides of the ring. Shadows were an epitome of German Expressionism—a movement that was shriveling away by 1928 in the purest sense—but Lang made sure to reconcile it’s conventions with this quite new genre; the espionage thriller. This boxing image holds on to these expressionist notes for about ten seconds (and for several other quick, inserted shots), before pulling the rug out from under our eyes. A boxer is knocked over and he stays down for more than five seconds. The orchestra raises their violin bows and light floods the ballroom in a second. The bourgeois audience who has been sitting at their tables in a circle around the ring, in the dark, leap to their feet and crowd the ballroom, dancing waltzes around the boxing ring to the orchestra’s inevitable change of music. Then the camera has nothing else to do move in to the heat of the party and focus in on two pivotal characters, one of them a spy.

Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner probably sensed these shots were a suspension of the story per se, but he probably didn’t care. It gave him a chance to light a scene more dramatically than anything else in the film. Lang must have known the boxing interlude, and the shift to the bright light and dancing was not a pivotal moment to the forward momentum of the story in and of itself, but he chose this moment—simply a weird introduction—in to a grand showmanship moment, where the audience would feel yet another thrill go down their spine. This is probably the essence of the action image: thrills at all times, and at all costs. As long as these thrills are playful, as long as the details are strange and unexpected, each thrill can do the last one one better.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson, in his ongoing quest for the perfect image, has recently ditched live-action, for the time being, and turned to Stop-Motion. In a way, this seems like his natural calling; here is a way, finally, to arrange everything so perfectly that not only are accidents not acceptable, they do not even figure in to the vocabulary of a stop-motion image. The whole point of stop-motion animation is calculation, and the masters of the form—Jan Svankmajer, The Quay Brothers, Nick Park—have used calculation to stunning, dreamlike, free-wheeling effects. Anderson is not looking for those effects, but he clearly is in reverence to stop-motion as a form. As a result his new film Fantastic Mr. Fox has some technically stunning stop-motion animation; leaves of grass, dirt, and light is shown in lovingly jerky motion whenever possible, and several scenes on a speeding motorcycle are particularly impressive. The film is also notable, if unintentionally, for inverting the clich├ęd scene of a character trashing a room in despair. Plenty of live-action films have this scene, but to this critic’s mind, nobody has ever thought to animate it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on the Roald Dahl story of the same name. In it, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), having changed careers from stealing chickens to writing a newspaper column years ago, is compelled to buy a new home in a scenic location in a tree. But once he does, he sees that three farmers—Boggis, Bunce and Bean—have built up their farms on the surrounding hills of their’ peaceful animal kingdom and his old ways come back to him. With his son (Jason Schwartzman), a very spacey possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and his nephew (Eric Anderson), Fox will set out to show the farmers who’s boss by stealing their chickens. But the farmers are soon on to him, and before Fox knows it, he has lost his tail, both literally and figuratively. Also, his home is being demolished, his marriage is on the rocks and all the other animals are fairly ticked off at him.

This sounds like the frilly, whimsical-drama type of material of Anderson’s other movies, and he follows through accordingly. As such, we are treated to the usual array of trademarks and quirks that the director’s fanatics find endearing and others find irritating; the constant presence of 60’s and 70’s music as if from an iTunes library put on random; the way each character dresses as if they are either a prep-school student or teacher; the way each location is treated as a tableau in which something cute will happen as opposed to a real place. Unfortunately for the non-fanatics, we will have to give Anderson a pass on these tendencies, and grant him a degree of poetic license. But something that should not be excused is the way that Anderson solicits us in to faking sympathy for his characters, something he has done time and time again. In Rushmore, Max is an arrogant, but gifted student, but it all has something to do with how his mom died when he was young, so we should feel bad for him. In The Royal Tennenbaums, Luke Wilson attempts suicide, but he’s attracted to his sister, so give the guy a break, he’s got issues. In The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray is certainly a remote hard-ass, but he abandoned his son who only just came back in to his life, so it’s a bittersweet comedy. These are reductionist characterizations that are meant to make us believe we are watching insightful human dramas, but in fact we are watching people being reduced to objects of curiosity. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, we are meant to believe that the reason Fox’s nephew, Kristofferson, is such a timid, dorky kid has something to do with how his father taught him to practice meditation, and should be tempered by the fact that his father is now ill with pneumonia. For Mr. Fox himself, his reckless attitude has something to do with always wanting people to think he is ‘fantastic,’ which is the strongest excuse Anderson and Noah Bambauch (the screenwriters) could come up with. In Anderson’s worlds, people are so unique that all we’re required to do is marvel at them rather than get to know them. In this sense, there are few major filmmakers in history who are more dishonest.

But okay. Fantastic Mr. Fox is just a film for kids. And anyway, the characters aren’t even humans this time, they’re animals. But Anderson, like all other people today working in animation, intends to give his animals a full set of human characteristics, right down to discussing mortgages and confessing pregnancies. They even exchange notes with the farmers. If animals are going to be this human, then kids won’t buy it at the end, when Mr. Fox has apparently come to some revelation and now is in the eyes of every one else, ‘fantastic.’ Kids won’t believe that he’s any more fantastic than he was at the start of the film, and they’ll be right.

Another common pitfall has befallen Wes Anderson in his search for the ideal image is: a loss of directorial common sense. He thinks he can insert close-ups wherever he wants and the effect will always be magical and he has made the nonsensical decision of giving the animal characters American voices while the human characters have British accents. Whether this was an artistic choice or an easy way of being able to work with his favorite actors—who are all American—is uncertain, but it strays too far from the original source and does not fit with the setting.

All filmmakers, to some degree, are looking for perfect images. But Anderson is more accurately trying to mold perfect images to fit his worlds, and all other aspects of storytelling—character, dialogue and location—will have to be molded as well. Anderson manages to come up with some ingenious images within the form of stop-motion, and he is still capable of genuinely clever narrative flourishes. But why, Mr. Anderson, are you concerned with making images that are the same kind of perfect? Don’t you realize what it’s done to your’ stories?