Friday, October 15, 2004

donnie darko

people have been raving about this film for a while now, & the DVD cover isn't exactly empty of praise: "a compelling motion picture", "a shattering, hypnotic work" etc. triple j (an australian 'youth' radio station) & now SBS's central movie buff, megan spencer, proclaimed it "one of those rare movie gems. truly flawless, unforgettable, & exciting". i expected something more formally risque than the sleek intelligent teenage page-turner 'donnie darko' turned out to be.

'donnie darko' is more seamless than flawless. it successfully combines bits & pieces from various niche-genres which festered throughout the 90's - the teenage horror-thriller (admittedly these have been around for bloody ages, but they had a serious resurgence around the time of 'scream'), the detective-fiction-inspired whodunnit-multi-plot-mystery (in which various plot strands/characters combine & culminate in an explanatory ending that's only 'exciting' once; see 'the sixth sense', 'the usual suspects' etc), the fast-talking, quick-scripted pop-culture-savvy-bourgeois-adolescent/mid-twenties drama (see a kevin smith flick, or maybe 'reality bites') & the music video (donnie darko makes apparently amazing use of short, tracking-shot set pieces backed by famous 80's tunes; these are interesting but hardly artistically formidable, & they only work to distract us from the old-hat linearity of the film as a whole). indeed it probably derives its mildly exciting linear style (i.e. chapter-title-like headings, "2 october 1988, 20 days remain" etc, every 20 minutes or so) from kubrick's 'the shining', even tho kubrick's 'chapters' are far more effective because they have such an ambiguous temporal function.

ambiguity is good, filmmakers! ambiguity is not the very 'american beauty'-ish electro-piano score that seeks to infuse every scene with a sense of neat-suburban sadness. ambiguity is not in the ambivalence of this film's 'edward scissorhands' stylistic attitude to small-suburbia itself; it's all very well to shed a laughable light over suburban homes/schools & personalities, but to then unashamedly utilise almost every american-suruban-teen-film plot/character device available (the 'different' but cool lead character, his disenchanted but intelligent lover, the two dumb-talking court-jester kids (through whom is best expressed the kevin smith slacker script-spirit), the two rude & equally stupid 'bad guys', the completely off-the-planet gym teacher, & the mildly off-the-planet but loving & stable parental unit) - what does this say of the director/writer's underlying motivations? that he overlaid this movie's 80's-based-strange-time-travel-slasher-detective-fiction-subject-matter on an essentially generic (read: unambiguous & unchallenging) linear-narrative template. this film ain't nothing new. it's "ferris bueller's day off" + the stylistic/narrative influences i mentioned above. which is not necessarily a bad thing.

& yet there's potential in various aspects of this film - the wonderful performances & chemistry between gyllenhaal & jena malone, the fine song-selection in certain scenes (the final 'mad world' montage is moving, in spite of it being based on an archaic & out-of-place omniscience), the pristine outdoor lighting - to suggest a truly hypnotic & unforgettable step forward for the artform might be just around the corner. perhaps.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

the elephant man

this film is troubling me. not so much for its psychological impact (isn't lynch lauded as the great weird/freaky/psychological auteur of our time?) but because i can't resist thinking it's a pretty mediocre movie. it's so very odd the way it drops away beyond that wonderful first 30 minutes i mentioned the other day. a gradual disintegration of depth, focus, power, pace, cinematographic care & narrative flair.

lynch likes it better when we can't see john merrick's face. he does the initial freakshow tension wonderfully well - the mystery of the flashback/explanatory prologue (featuring the extremely effective motif of merrick's mother screaming with the elephant; a sexual, sonic impregnation, i guess) compounded by the gorgeous 19th-century fair/freakshow & industrial settings. anthony hopkins has this first half hour all to himself, & he simply owns the screen. to kick things off, he does this brilliant swivel towards the camera - figuring himself in the role of an oddly introspective, medicinal impresario (a role he regrets later in the film). his initial examination of merrick is interesting for various reasons - the sound of merrick's breathing dominates the scene (perhaps inspired by kubrick's heavy-breathing spacemen in 2001?): this kind of concern for auditory detail is an impressive feature of the film's early stages (lynch strikes me as being a very auditory director, & rightly so; for goodness sake, so few film-makers harness what is an obvious dramatic advantage of their art - it can tap into/manipulate nearly every human sense!). the scene is interrupted by a knock at the door; merrick's breathing becomes fast-paced, intense - as viewers we have no idea what's going on inside that bag on his head (complete with extraneous black hat & a small, suggestive hole, it's a very memorable prop). hopkins ducks outside & a friend mentions that he must have "quite a find in there!". when we re-enter the examination office we get this superb shot of the room as a whole - one's eye searches around for the hidden elephant, cowering gently in a dark corner.

this scene, the scene previous (the 'private showing' of merrick by the theatrically manic owner/proprieter) & the scene following (the john merrick lecture to some kind of scientific society - hopkins's high-point) - are surely the best of the film. as an audience we still have no idea what merrick looks like - this tension jars against the very fine rendering of genteel, 19th-century men of science. it's when the bag is lifted & we first see merrick (via the effective device of the innocent, breakfast-serving nurse) that things start to fall apart. suddenly we (& lynch, it seems) care more for character study than evocative social horror. such character study entails a wave of dramatic low & high points, sad & happy points - merrick's revelatory eloquence & intelligence, his befriending of various high-society figures, counteracted by undeniably disturbing scenes of mass bullying & exhibitionism, culminating in his re-kidnapping by the owner/proprieter. this kidnapping kick-starts an extremely uneven freakshow sequence, in which merrick suddenly escapes his owner with the help of other 'freaks' & is seen traversing across 'the continent' & back to england on a ship. it's almost amateurish the way merrick's ultimate proclamation - "i am not an animal! i am a human being" - comes at the end of this poorly paced montage-sequence. it completely detracts from the character drama we're supposed to be appreciating.

which is the primary problem with this film - i'm not sure whether lynch wanted it to be a full-scale psychological horror-portrait (something he might have easily achieved had he kept up the industrial-auditory thematics of the film's early stages, & perhaps honed in on merrick's subtly-suggested sexuality), or a full-scale freak/other-being-accepted-back-into-society character drama. either way the eventual acceptance of merrick into aristocratic english society seems strange & unlikely. there are real dramatic possibilities in hopkins's self-conflict over his role as well-mannered freakshow impresario (the culmination of his guilt might've been the standing ovation (?!) merrick receives while sitting in a box at the theatre), but this theme, as well as, criminally, hopkins himself, are drowned out by our concern with merrick's plight (which reminds of a side-note i wanted to make; merrick reminds me a lot of HAL from 2001; perhaps it's the perfect politeness or something), & the concentration on certain side characters who work only as devices (amazingly, john gielgud seems to struggle through his first few scenes).

i really can't think of more appropriate subject material for a so-called psychological master than merrick's story - the ostricised, deformed but polite freak living in industrial-gothic, hostile times. the move to black & white was a step in the right direction, no doubt, & the first 30 minutes are superbly executed - but the rest of the movie just doesn't do it for me. the painful final suicide/sleep scene (complete with a very 2001-ish imagistic re-birth epilogue) is certainly sad, but pretty much anything can seem sad when backed by barber's 'adagio for strings'.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


it's been a while since i've updated - sorry. been well & truly sidetracked by literary (& political, ugh) matters. will try & get around to watching something soon.

having said that, i did arrive home stoned the other night to find lynch's 'the elephant man' was on tv. never seen it before (i've stupidly ignored lynch for too long), & after watching the first half hour or so before passing out, i came to the conclusion it's in a different stratosphere to most films. impeccably crafted, filled with a meditative kubrickian tension - twas bloody ludicrously good.

i promise to review something in full soon.
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