Thursday, April 21, 2005

Three by Herzog

If you've never seen a film by Werner Herzog, you absolutely must. Here are three great, strange films.

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
Aguirre is the story of a 16th Century expedition to South America. The story is told with minimal dialogue but astonishing imagery. The opening titles occur as the men of Pizarro are making a long trek down a mountainside that lasts for some time, but is hypnotic to watch. The mountain is so high that the peak is hidden within the clouds. The explorers, conquistadors, are searching for the El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, and are becoming more and more frustrated at their lack of success.

A smaller party led by a nobleman, Don Pedro, scouts upriver. Aguirre, played by the mesmerizing Klaus Kinski, is Pedro’s second-in-command. Their journey is slow and full of death and madness, with the alienness of the river and forest always creeping in as if these men (and two women, one of them Aguirre’s daughter) are on another planet. One of the movie’s strengths is the way it makes the rainforest jungle feel alive; the film would not be as powerful without it. My favorite image in the film is of a boat, high in the branches of a tree that seems dozens of feet high. How did it get there? Imagining that is enough to dizzy the senses.

Aguirre engineers power plays between some of the men, ingratiating himself to whomever will lead. One man, Ursua, declares himself their emperor, and Aguirre seems pleased to be the strongman behind the throne, as if imagining himself as a powerful general in El Dorado. Aguirre will not let the mission be slowed, violently making an example of one man who talks of mutiny by cutting off his head in full view of everyone else. But one by one, the crew succumbs to madness and disease, until only he is left, still talking to himself and planning his empire, sailing off alone into the mists towards his inevitable death (one assumes).

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a film that hypnotizes and at times repulses the viewer, but a movie that is never boring and always interesting.

NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT (1979)
Werner Herzog likes to make the audience feel removed from reality in his films, so it is no surprise that he would remake Dracula by remaking F. W. Murnau’s classic 1922 film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens. Herzog goes Murnau one better by keeping the names from Dracula (Murnau changed the names when he couldn’t get the rights to the novel).

The film is more stylish than most versions of Dracula. The action takes place during a plague, and rats and dead bodies line the streets, making the appearance of the count’s victims less shocking. Herzog equates vampirism not with evil, but with an illness, which takes over the mind of Nosferatu’s protege, Jonathan Harker, who becomes a vampire at the end of the film. Also, Herzog knows that the best horror stories are really dark fairy tales, and instead of trying to shock the audience, he creates a mood and tone that envelops the viewer into observing, even sympathizing with, acts of depravity. The film moves slow and lingers in shadows, creating a feeling of inevitability.

Klaus Kinski plays the vampire, and Herzog puts him in makeup similar to that worn by Max Shreck in the 1922 version. The makeup – long front teeth, pale skin, ears that appear to be withering, very long fingernails – take Dracula away from the romantic figure of many films, and turn him into an animal dying a slow death. His lust for blood is a disease feeding itself; like the parasites spreading the plague among the dead rats and humans in the street, vampirism becomes a parasite that preys on the soul and the mind, inexorable and slow.

EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1969)
This was Herzog’s second film, and as far as I know, one of only two films with a cast of only little people. Dwarf inmates at an asylum have revolted against one of the directors, who has locked himself in his office with a hostage. The director is forced to watch and await the return of the asylum principal while the inmates run amok.

The inmates, however, don’t know where to go or what to do with their freedom, so they spend most of their time destroying things: telephone poles, typewriters, and other symbols of civilization, but also trees and pigs. They set a car racing in a circle and leave it there, spinning around and around and returning to it occasionally to play with it or throw things at it. They amuse themselves by taunting the blind inmates, trying (unsuccessfully) to get two inmates to have sex with one another, and burning flowers. Every attempt at civilization – such as the dinner scene where one inmate tries to say grace before the food begins to fly – is a mockery. Even the chickens resort to cannibalism, pecking at one another and eating their dead.

The movie is full of Herzog’s sense of alien imagery that astonishes the viewer – chickens eating one another, the inmates slowly circling in on the blind, the cruel crucifixion of a monkey in a total mockery of religion. They finally set two roosters on one another in a graphic fight to the death. But aside from the look of the film, Herzog’s tone is striking. As always, scenes that could degenerate into wild chaos are calm, lingering, allowing the full effect of weirdness to envelop the viewer. It is not shocking or scary, but discomforting and strange. Herzog is making the case that the sane (the director) are prisoners in a surrounding and encroaching world with no order, no conventions, and no laws. In the end, the director succumbs to madness himself, and the final, unforgettable image of one inmate laughing at the pain of a camel that cannot raise itself gives no hint to the end of the insanity.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

You Got Some Wrong-Headed Views, Boy!

It’s no secret that I hate fandom and fandom hates me. It’s been suggested to me in the past that I have wrongheaded views of the genre. That I go against the "common" wisdom of the other fans, and am therefore somehow wrong in my opinions--which, as I point out repeatedly, cannot be right or wrong by definition. They just are, and that’s that. And so, because I apparently don’t piss off enough people, I proudly and confidently (or, perhaps, stridently) state my wrongheaded views.

1. Flash Gordon is more fun than Star Wars.
Who wants to live in a world where individual will means nothing? In the world of Flash Gordon, the 1980 film generally considered a disaster, an average football player of less than average intelligence goes to Mongo, turns on a hot Italian princess, ends rivalry between tribes, fights for his life, overthrows an evil emperor and saves the Earth in the process. None of that destiny crap, just a lot of fun. Sure, it has a crappy rock soundtrack, ridiculous costumes, and barely passable special effects, but it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.

2. Who cares about children’s cartoons from twenty years ago?
The year is 1986. My favorite shows on television are Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. I am ridiculed in school, lose literally every one of my friends, and even get beat up because I make no secret of my continuing love for children’s cartoons and action figures. I am ten years old. Did this happen to anyone else? Excuse me if it rankles me that comic book publishers and toy manufacturers are making money hand over fist off guys who felt they had to grow up faster and miss their childhoods. Suddenly, two decades later, it’s cool to like this junk? I’ve gone back and looked at those shows, and Thundercats, and Masters of the Universe, and what have you from the eighties, and it’s all stuff that only a kid could love. Nostalgia overlooks the flaws. Sure, I was still ten and loved cartoons, but I didn’t grow up to become a firefighter and have my name legally changed to Optimus Prime, like some loser in New Jersey did.

3. Howard the Duck is a pretty good movie.
I know, I know, anything George Lucas does that isn’t Star Wars sucks; but I liked the movie. True, it’s a terrible adaptation of the comic – it has a duck named Howard who comes to Earth and meets a girl named Beverly, and there the similarities end – but it doesn’t take itself seriously and is actually pretty funny. Really, is it too much to ask that movies be enjoyable rather than groundbreaking? The term "groundbreaking," as people use it today, seems to mean that it’s boring as hell but has excellent special effects – Star Wars, The Matrix, etc.

4. Alan Moore is overrated.
Sure, he’s a genius. I’d put anything he wrote over anything by, say, the current top writer in comics, Brian Michael Bendis. But here’s the difference between the two: Bendis can write six issues of a comic book in under two years. I’m sorry, but when you’re writing a monthly comic book – or even a bi-monthly one, for that matter – is it too much to ask that you do the work before you reap the benefits? His writing is impressive, but it might be more impressive if he had the ability to meet his third deadline, much less his first. I know we humble readers aren’t supposed to demand unfinished work, but when you have a schedule to keep, act like a professional.

5. Steven Spielberg is a dope.
This guy’s completely forgotten how to make a film. Sure, he had talent once, despite overdoing the emotion and not being very thoughtful. My own feeling is that he’s made about six truly great films, possibly seven, and now the guy just sucks. He makes formless, unwieldy entities, with acts that go on too long and come to no real conclusions. He has nothing to say, and he takes nearly three hours to say things like "war is bad" and "I hate my mother" and little else. Sorry, maybe he had the magic once, but it is long gone. And it applies to his vanity label of a company, DreamWorks SKG, Universal’s Oscar-baiting bitch. They are currently putting out not only the worst films in America, but some of the worst films ever made.

Corollary to this is my opinion that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is way better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If Raiders of the Lost Ark was a 1930s serial, then Temple of Doom was a 1950s jungle adventure flick. Some of the grosser moments (monkey brains, Mola Ram pulling a heart out of someone’s chest) and some of the more annoying moments (Kate Capshaw’s entire performance) have ensured that all anyone remembers these days is the furor over the ratings, leading (along with Gremlins) to the PG-13 rating. But the movie is fast, fun, and has some very memorable shots. Last Crusade may have had Sean Connery, but it plays like a remake of Raiders (all the same characters in the Middle Eastern deserts looking for a Christian relic) as an apology for Temple of Doom. Connery’s presence is appropriate, because much like the Bond films, you could feel the formula setting in.

Another corollary to this is that I am dreading a fourth Indiana Jones movie, because there seems to be no reason for it. Indy was a childish character whose only real friends were other adventurers, weak older men, and children. But at the end of the third film, he finally gained his father’s acceptance, and he doesn’t really need to be Indy anymore. He’s a whole person. Besides, do we really want to see it from this Spielberg – given the shape he’s in now, we’ll have a formless, boring, heavily backlit three-hour sleeping pill with yet another meandering score by John Williams desperately wishing he was Claude Debussy.

6. Can we at least wait for things to be successful before the marketing blitz comes out?
Come on, guys – statues for characters in a comic book miniseries that hasn’t even come out yet? Really shows you what companies think of comic book fans – we might as well just have dollar signs instead of faces. The worst is when they try to play up the sexiness of a character as a turn on for (hopefully) the prepubescent boys. It’s a drawing, guys, try to show a little dignity. Sneak a look at your daddy’s Playboys, that’s what they’re there for.

7. Manga and anime are largely crap.
Generally, people fall in love with the first anime they ever see; for me, that would be No Need for Tenchi! – at least, that’s the first anime I saw that I knew was anime; a few years ago it became "okay" for people to like Transformers: The Movie and ThunderCats because they realized these were made by Japanese studios. And, really, I have no time for it anymore, because I got tired of seeing the same thing over and over and over again. Most of it is either a group of teenagers with powers (and sexy misunderstandings), cute young girls with bunnies and crap, giant robot stuff, vampire stuff, and tentacle porn. That covers about 90% of the genre. Really, I only appreciate the (very) occasional film or anything by Hayao Miyazaki. Too much of what comes over here is lowbrow crap tailored for tech nerds, geeks whose greatest dream is to copulate with their computers, and child molesters. The porn is only distinguishable from the rest by the nudity. The comic books are even worse, and up until recently it was very cool for American artists to rip off the style, which was irritating (Jill Thompson doesn’t know what she’s doing anymore). I just have no interest in it, and with the exception of Musashi Tanaka’s wonderful Gon graphic novels and the much welcome reprints of Lone Wolf and Cub, I have no time for it.

8. Invader ZIM, Farscape, and Futurama are canceled: GET OVER IT.
You didn’t even watch them when they were originally on, anyway, so don’t get all indignant now that they’re gone. Without vocal and monetary support, these shows go away because they’re too smart for people. It may sound like a cruel thing to say, but science fiction shows are thoughtful (if they’re good and aren’t, say, StarGate or any Star Trek series), and people don’t watch television to think. It’s not set up that way. If you didn’t buy from the advertisers and let them know that you buy the products because they advertise during your show, you can’t complain. If you didn’t watch it and let the networks know how much you love it, you can’t complain. Fight capitalism with capitalism, or there is no fight. It’s fine to blame Nickelodeon, the SCI FI Channel, and Fox for being too dumb to understand/support/promote the shows they actually pay money to air, but the fight is over and we lost. Buy the DVDs and move on with your lives.

9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a low point in TV history.
Why is it so cool to be detached about everything? Are emotions now passe? This show catered to the point of pandering, with its faux-intellectualism and its "ironic" comments on itself. How does a show admitting that it’s crap make it a quality show? By making you feel like you were too good to watch a "real" vampire show? Maybe I missed the point of it (and if I did I honestly don’t care), but life’s too short to devote time to something that pats me on the back for being "cool" enough to get it. Angel is only marginally better, but they had an episode with possessed puppets, so there's any chance at building an interesting story gone... And don't get me started on that Firefly bullshit.

10. Oh, yes there would have been a Toy Story if Tron had never been made.
I get this line a lot when I make no secret of my contempt for Tron. Actually, "contempt" is too strong a word, because I don’t really devote much mental space to Tron. But for some reason, people at the comic shop or in some of my classes bring up Tron (do they just show it on cable a lot?) and when I’m asked for my opinion, I simply say, "I don’t think it’s very good." And then someone says, "Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story!" And this makes Tron a good movie? Look, people have made too much out of this myth that Tron is a computer animated marvel; most of the special effects, except for a few really big sequences (i.e. vehicles), are done with animation, saturating the film negative, and reflective tape. And it’s not even that good at hiding it, either. If you want to be technical, the first computer effects ever seen in a movie were in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, during the scene showing the simulation of the Genesis Device. It was done by Industrial Light & Magic, which was owned by Lucasfilm. George Lucas also started Pixar, but after they animated the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes, he saw little use for the company and sold it to Steve Jobs. And the rest is animation history. So don’t give me Tron, here, alright?

11. No comic book adaptation is ever going to be exact, so you might as well stop clicking your heels and bitching about The Hulk right now.
Content reinforces form, and form reinforces content. A movie is not a comic book; it costs more, and is aimed at a wider audience, and therefore needs to have a broader appeal than the fanbase. Stop pointlessly worrying that a movie doesn’t capture the comic exactly; the only question that matters is whether or not a movie is good on its own. A good adaptation is not necessarily a good movie, nor is a bad one necessarily a bad movie. Of course, that said, I'm really nervous about this upcoming Fantastic Four movie--it looks awful.

12. Hey, you spent 16 years whining that George Lucas just had to make Star Wars prequels, so stop complaining now that you have them.
How is it possible that going to see a movie made in 1999 is going to be exactly like seeing a movie made in 1977 or 1980? Keep in mind that you were 20 years older when you saw the prequels, alright? A lot of people moan that The Phantom Menace is made for kids. Guess what? They all were! If you’re so offended by it, why buy into it? Why stand in line and go to the movie? You can’t cry foul when you’re standing in line to be willingly cheated, can you?

If you want to talk Star Wars, my next question is are the Ewoks really that bad? I think most people hate them because they are forcible reminders that the Star Wars trilogy is made for kids. You can attach Jar Jar Binks to that, too. Personally, I like Jar Jar; I think he’s a relief in a movie that takes itself too seriously. He doesn’t have to be in every scene, sure, but he’s basically a huge rip-off of Goofy. And I like Goofy. As for the Ewoks, they’re harmless. Return of the Jedi may have been the film that most obviously went for easy laughs and pandered to children, but that’s only one aspect of it. Jesus, it’s a kid’s movie – grow up and at least pretend you’re sophisticated.

13. I’m glad that Sandman is over.
I really am. I didn’t even read it until it had been over for years, because all of the Sandman fans I knew in high school annoyed the crap out of me with their Goth makeup and their poseur brooding (I know that not every Neil Gaiman fan is like that, but they represent the most vocal one and therefore are most identified with him). But, having read the comic book, I would easily put it on a list of top comics of all time. It’s an amazing journey from beginning to end, and definitely a shining example of how to do a comic book well. But I can’t agree with people who clamor for more and wish it had gone on forever and ever. Isn’t it nice that we have a comic book that ended before it got embarrassing and stupid? I wish I could say the same about Uncanny X-Men! It’s a finite story, it ended, and now we always have this unassailable classic. Asking for more is just needlessly greedy.

And speaking of more, I’m glad that Xena: Warrior Princess is over, too. See above point. Seriously, the last two seasons were crap except for a few episodes here and there. No momentum, no characters, and the sudden bashing of its fans. It was dying a slow heat death and needed to be put out of its misery – they weren’t even trying anymore.

14. Would you at least read a Harry Potter book before you bash the whole thing?
It’s not just for kids; there’s a lot of work and referencing that goes into this stuff. It’s not a case of saying, "They’re good for children’s novels." They’re just great books, period. This is the best contemporary fantasy literature has to offer. It’s nice as a genre fan to look at Harry Potter and beam with pride, instead of looking at Robert Jordan and wincing in embarrassment. These are usually the same types of people who devote endless thought to the minutiae of Star Wars and change their names to Optimus Prime. If you aren’t going to read it, I don’t want to hear your "opinion" of the books.

Whoa. Is it nasty in here, or is it just me? Oh. It IS me.