Sunday, August 29, 2021

King Kong (2005).

I'm being honest when I say I have no clue.  Don't get me wrong, this is not a question of vitriol or resentment.  In fact, if I'm being even more honest, I sort of can't tell just what other people think of Peter Jackson at the moment.  The fault seems to be entirely my own, by the way.  After a certain point, I appear to have just stopped paying attention.  He's an artist I've sort of let slip from my mind.  Nor does this seem to have been a conscious decision on my part.  From what I can recall, a whole lot of other stuff just kept coming along, and it was easy to get caught up in it all.  Somewhere along the way, I'm afraid it was all too easy for Jackson and his work to get lost in the shuffle.  I've caught snippets of what he's been up to since then.  However, I'm afraid I don't know any real details.  It probably doesn't help that I have no real interest in trying to play catch-up, either.  All this might count as a strike against me.  For his die-hard fans, or those who just like keeping tabs on artists like him, my lackadaisical approach to Jackson's work might come off as unprofessional.  As I've said, I have neither a clue, nor much of a concern about that.  Besides, I've always been convinced that professional criticism always amounted to more than just the hottest media gossip of the week.

The real reason for being here today is because of one of those passing flukes of the mind.  I was there when hype was first building for Jackson's remake of King Kong, you see.  For quite a while, it seemed like the big project that everyone was talking about.  There was a great deal of hype surrounding the film, and what it might turn out to be.  This was helped in no small part by the relentless marketing machine that the picture had supporting it.  A lot of that also seems to have been down to the skills of the director himself.  I'm not sure how many out there have stopped to think about this, yet in addition to whatever other accolades he might accumulate, there is one other talent to the director of Middle Earth that probably never gets as much consideration as it deserves.  Jackson seems to have a natural talent for generating hype in whatever project he's got going at the moment.  It's a skill he was able to play like a harp all the way back to the first rumblings of The Fellowship of the Ring.  When the prospects of that earlier film became serious, Jackson was there right out of the starting gate, helping to spread the word, and generate interest with a number of successful on and offline media blitz strategies.  It all seems to have paid off, at least if we're talking about long-term success.

When it came to working on Kong, Jackson took very much of a similar approach.  If I had to point to any real difference in the marketing deployment for the Great Ape picture, as opposed to the Rings film, then perhaps the major distinction came from the sense that this time Jackson was a lot more in the driver's seat on this one, whereas earlier you could tell he was working in cooperation with others.  I also think it's possible to tell the reason why that should be the case.  Lord of the Rings was Jackson's big breakout directorial effort, at least as far as the worldwide audience was concerned.  He'd made a name for himself in the industry already, yet before then it was mainly as a director a cheap, low-budget, exploitative Horror genre affairs (the one that stands out the most in my memory right now is the somehow wonderfully titled Bad Taste, which went on to have the distinction of being mocked by none other than Ray Bradbury, of all things, a feat which probably deserves a medal all its own).  This, however, was what help the director gain a name for himself.  It established him as a potential major figure on the world of big budget fantasy filmmaking.  It was a reputation he seemed eager to capitalize on the follow-up on his first success by tackling a different type of fantasy in a similar way.

It is just possible to point to another reason why the Kong hype was so much of everywhere at the time.  In addition to being a skilled marketer, Jackson had his own reasons for tackling a remake as his next movie.  While there's no mistake that he's at least some kind of Tolkien fan, the Skull Island film seems to have been the one that Jackson lept into with what I can only describe as a greater amount of enthusiasm.  Middle Earth was the work of a fan, yet it was Kong that seems to have been his passion project, the one he was willing to bank all on, even if it meant having to fund everything out of his own pocket.  Perhaps that's the final explanation for the marketing strategy of this film.  The main way Jackson promoted the flick was by keeping up a meticulous filmmaker's diary of just about every major day he spent on the set of the movie.  They would be released on either a daily or weekly basis from what I can recall, and it seems to have been what kept the media, critics, and film buffs talking.  If this was indeed the strategy all along, then I suppose Jackson deserves applause just for knowing how to keep the crowds riveted, and hanging on his every word and gesture.  It's a skill some would envy.

At the end of the day, though, I think that matters very little.  The only thing that counts in a business like his can be boiled down to just one, singular question.  Is the story any good?  It may sound simplistic to some reading this.  If so, then I have no apologies on offer.  I've never been one to mind if a special effect comes off well.  That said, I've noticed when the special effect takes precedence over good writing.  When that happens, its usually a clue to me that I'm watching a probably bad film.  In that sense, everything in any given flick lives or dies on the strength of its underlying narrative.  When Jackson's remake was first released, I can recall that I liked it very much, to be honest.  I have vivid memories of the constant sense of excitement that I felt as I watched the drama unfold.  I was even hyped about the movie enough to start trying to compare it to the works of other, actual literary book writers.  Then, as I said, time passed, and other things wound up occupying my mind and imagination.  I only thought of going back to take a look at it just recently.  So what do I think about it after all these years?  Well, I guess you could label my response as revealing.  Maybe I should just try and explain.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

I'm sort of lat to the party on this one.  I first got to learn the particular joys that come from reading detective fiction sometime around my elementary schools years.  It was around then that I first made the acquaintance of the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street.  It was one of those gateway experiences that is able to both introduce the novice to the mystery genre as a whole, as well as grant them access to a host of similar authors, and their respective fictional shamuses.  From the fog swept lanes and alleyways of Conan Doyle's London, I soon found myself migrating to the gritty mean streets investigated by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.  From there, as best I recall, it's sort of been all points in between since.  I haven't made anything like an authoritative, all-encompassing exploration of the Noir or Mystery genre as a whole.  I think it's like I've gotten close to reading and listening to enough stories in this particular neck of the woods in order to start forming my first, nascent ideas about what this type of story is, and what it's up to.  I think a lot of what's helped me in this regard is just how closely related Noir fiction is to another favorite childhood standby, the Horror genre.  It seems to me that both types of writing share the same Gothic sensibility at their core, which perhaps explains the sometimes casual ease of overlap between of these respective, yet related stories.

Looking back on all this now, I'm sort of surprised at just how much info I've been able to put away on this subject.  In addition of Doyle and Chandler, it's curious how a lot of other great yet forgotten fictional names keeps coming back to me now.  Off the top of my head, the list would include: Leslie Charteris's Simon Templer, a.k.a The Saint; a superhero precursor known as The Shadow, who was portrayed by Orson Welles, of all people; then there was Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade; Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe; and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Then of course, there was the gradual acquaintance of giants in the Suspense field such as Robert Bloch, James M. Cain, and John D. MacDonald.   The point is I seemed to have stumbled my way through or towards a very casual kind of literacy in the Detective genre.  There seems to have been nothing intentional on my part.  The only thing that seems to have guided the whole thing was a Gothic fan following what seemed at first like vague trace elements of the terror tales I loved growing up as a boy.  If there was even the slightest hint of the horrific in what I was listening to or reading, then I made an unreserved beeline for it.

At first it was this basic thread of Horror that kept drawing me further into the world of the private eye.  In time, however, my tastes began to develop into a genuine liking for the Mystery genre on its own merits.  I don't recall that there was ever anything conscious about this, it was more like just following my own bloodhound instincts, if that makes any sense.  Even if it doesn't, there's just not much I can do there, I'm afraid.  It's merely what happened, you see, and it's an artistic experience I've sort of been grateful for ever since.  At some point my mind wandered off down other avenues, and for the longest time I sort of lost track of this particular branch office.  I've just had time to make my way back towards it very recently, like visiting one of those old neighborhood sandlots that you used to play around in as a kid.  When I first got back here, it was sort of gratifying.  It was like discovering that everything was still in its place, and exactly as you left it.  It's as if I'd done no more than step out to run an errand, and everything was still waiting for me when I got back.  I don't know the exact word for that kind of experience, yet I'm glad it's what happened to me.

There is one name out of all that list that I never seem to have gotten around to, at least until just recently.  For the longest time, Agatha Christie has been one of those names that crops up in passing here and there while I was on my way to other business.  Without going into too many details, let's just say it took a long time before anything like a genuine interest was kindled in her work.  In a way, that's sort of the explanation for choosing this film as the topic for discussion.  When it comes to Christie, I guess you could say I've chosen the easiest point of entry.  Whether this can or should be held against me is something others can decide for themselves, and then leave me out of it.  I have no time to worry about the right way of approaching an author like this.  All I know is that Kenneth Branagh's 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express seemed like as good a place as any in helping me to continuing to get reacquainted with old childhood haunts.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Movie Brats (1979).

Not so long ago I had a chance to watch a multi-part series on Francis Ford Coppola.  What the whole amounted to was more or less a career retrospective.  This wasn't one of those professional, well put together productions like the kind you're likely to find on TV by chance if you're flipping through the air waves.  This was an independent opinion piece assembled by one of by now countless vloggers out there on the Net.  I think I have to give the guy in charge of the whole thing at least this much credit.  He knew how to make it all look professional.  His camera work, lighting, editing, sense of pacing, and overall choice of of clips from the back catalogue of footage that has accumulated around Coppola over years demonstrates a decent enough hand when it comes to technical matters.  I think that's also where the praise has to end, at least with me, I'm afraid.  The reasons for that seem to be twofold in nature.

First, there's the simple matter of individual critical perspectives.  It shouldn't have to go without saying, however the evidence that more than two separate human minds can exist on the same globe should stand as a testament the seemingly eternal fact of individuality.  What I mean by this is that the very fact that other people exist seems like its own guarantee that different life outlooks are pretty much a fait acompli.  That's a maxim that seems to apply to the world of the arts, as much as to anything else.  This in itself does not appear to be outside the norm of things.  I think it's just that I find it ironic for the perspectives it winds up leading me to take.  I have no idea if Patrick H. Willems' viewpoint on Coppola, or film in general, is the de facto paradigm for cinematic or general artistic criticism.  All I know is the more I watched his documentary series, the more he continued to talk about the director, the history or question of Coppola's development as an artist, and how it all fit in with the history of the medium of filmmaking, a funny thing happened.  It would be easy to say I came away disagreeing with Willems' take on things.  It's also selling my own conclusions a bit too short.

What happened, instead, was that I kept paying careful attention.  As the documentary series unfolded, Willems would keep bringing up this or that topic in relation to Coppola's life and work.  As he did so, this in turn would keep triggering a developing line of thought in my own mind.  The vlogger would bring up the topic of, say, the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking, and I would be there watching all this and thinking, "Yes, but have you ever stopped to notice this or that element"?  Or Willems would try to provide summaries of his ideas on what this means about cinema as a whole.  As a result, my mind would perk up and think, "Aren't you forgetting or overlooking something?  What about this author's influence on the medium?  Or what about the context of the contributions of auteurs like Orson Welles?  Why leave all that out"?  Yeah, as some of you can probably tell by now, what happened is that a silent debate got started between a pair of lame wad film nerds.  It's the kind of thing that will never be all that important to the majority of people out there.  That's still the only way I can put it, or the terms I  can discuss it in  The best way to say it is that Willems has acted as a very unintentional springboard for my own thoughts on the subject.

The way he did it was simply by bringing up a lot of topics that were important enough to me, at least, to the point where I felt there just had to be more to the subject he was discussing than the vlogger was even aware of.  A lot of it came from what I can't help but regard as a dichotomy between the way Willems discussed and presented Coppola, and the actual facts he seems to have uncovered, while remaining blissfully unaware of them the whole time.  In that sense, watching the retrospective on the director has been something of an eye opener for me, as has helped to clarify a lot of my previous thinking on many artistic subjects.  The perfection of irony in all this is that it really can be accused of all trending in an exact opposite sort of direction from the one Willems was trying to maintain.  He liked to present Coppola as a "bad boy" who "needed to break the rules".  I think it's a sentiment that jumps out a me for the way the rest of the events he depict subtly undermine that premise without his being aware of it.  Instead, his presentation of the director's life and art sort of help burst a lot of the bubble reputations that have gathered around guys like the director of The Godfather.

It doesn't lesson the quality of that film nor a handful of others.  Films like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now will forever have to remain as milestones in the history of cinema.  It's just that Willems has unwittingly helped me to gain a better sense of perspective on them, one that qualifies and tempers some of the more radical sounding superlatives that have traditionally gathered around them over the years.  Willems did this by showing me more or less "the rest of the story", the one that happened after we stopped paying attention.  I'm not gonna lie, it ain't pretty.  Willems tries to present what happened in the wake of Apocalypse Now as a continued example of the "bad boy" finding ways to stick it to the man.  The reality seems to be a lot more of a tragic case of the author either losing his muse, or else it could be something a lot more ironic than that.  It could just be that the career of Francis Ford Coppola is an object lesson of the filmmaker's ambitions running up against his own limitations as an artist.  After the 70s ended, it just seems as if the director had played himself out.  No other film or topic he turned his hand to after that was ever able to recapture whatever it was he had with films like the Corleone Family Saga.  Instead, he wound up as a guest on Saturday Night Live, or working on a children's TV show, and his boss was Shelley Duvall. 

To be fair, it is possible to defend at least some of this later work.  I like what he did with Duvall on her TV series, and even Michael Jackson's Captain EO has its own 80s form form schlock charm.  The rest, however, is too much of a mixed bag to be of any big consideration.  Willems tried his damnedest to paint the director as being in a much better place than any of his other contemporaries.  However, words from Coppola himself tell a far different story.  "In 2015, Coppola stated "...That's why I ended my career: I decided I didn't want to make what you could call 'factory movies' anymore. I would rather just experiment with the form, and see what I could do, and [make things] that came out of my own. And little by little, the commercial film industry went into the superhero business, and everything was on such a scale. The budgets were so big, because they wanted to make the big series of films where they could make two or three parts. I felt I was no longer interested enough to put in the extraordinary effort a film takes [nowadays] (web)".  As a result, I have Patrick Willems to thank for arriving at a very paradoxical conclusion.  With the case of Francis Coppola, perhaps the real truth has always been that we were witnessing the meteoric rise and fall of a proclaimed giant, while the artist himself was always less than he seemed, or was trumpeted to be.  His greatest triumphs being more the product of the Imagination proper, and far less to do with the personality of the artist as a human being or auteur.

It's a very ironic (some might even say heretical) vantage point to wind up at.  If that's the case, it's an irony I then compounded by asking myself how did this apply to the rest of the filmmakers of Coppola's generation?  What about the other directors?  Were they luckier than him, or did they all wind up in the same boat?  Which of them were able to swim on, and which sank like weighted stones?  It turned out to be one of those ideas that, once they enter certain minds, they just can't be left alone.  So, like a diligent enough(?) bookworm, the answer was relatively simple.  All one should have to do is go to the back catalogues, and filmography records, and see what it reveals.  Well, I went looking for answers, alright.  Boy did I ever get it.  The final results have been just more of the same, old irony, if that makes any sense.  What I discovered seems to be a continuation and carry-over from the results of Willems' efforts.  I can no longer just leave it at Coppola.  Instead, what I've looked at has forced me to construct a wholesale reconsideration of the cinematic generation of the 1970s, what it was versus what the critics versus the audience thought it was, and what it all means for the state of the art today.

That's where a book like Lynda Myles' The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation took over Hollywood comes in real handy.  It offesr me a further springboard from which to share what I've learned, while comparing and contrasting it with the initial critical claims, praises, and appraisals that greeted this informal collective of movie buff friends as they first started to make names for themselves.  It's a story that's interesting for the final way it all ends up at this current moment.  It's a tale of hindsight versus whatever aspirations might have been in play at the time.  What the final results have turned out to be may come as a shock to some.  However, perhaps its best if we take our time here.  Let's start with the basic premise of Myles' book.