THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 01: Romeo Plus-Sign Juliet Plus-Sign Baz

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2016 by drayfish

romeo-plus-juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

On the front of my Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet there’s a quote from Baz Luhrmann, taken from an interview with the director of Romeo + Juliet (1996) conducted in 1996, that reads:

‘Romeo was your first “rebel without a cause”.’

Which is true. You know, as long as you don’t count the fact that he rebels against his family’s entrenched blood feud. And the casual cynicism of a society that has stopped believing in romantic attachment. And his friend’s misogynistic peer pressure. And his parents. And his faith. And the Bro Code.

But aside from all of those things that he vehemently rebels against on deeply held ideological grounds – yeah, he doesn’t have a cause. Sure.

To be fair though, I sort of get what he’s going for. After all, Romeo is a bit of a loner. A free spirit. Following his own desires. Willing to defy his society. It seems to position him as the origin for a whole character archetype. He’s the ‘rebel‘. He’s James Dean. Han Solo. Fonzie. Maverick from Top Gun. He must have inspired all of them! His ego was writing cheques that his body couldn’t cash! In a way I even understand the impulse of the publishers to slap it on the cover:

‘Hey, that Romeo + Juliet film sure was popular. People love things that aren’t stuffy and old. And ‘rebellion’? Who doesn’t like that? Conformists? Who cares? They’ll buy whatever we tell them to.’

But to me, the play gives a distinctly different, and far more interesting spin on the character. Because contrary to this stereotype, Romeo has many causes. That’s precisely his problem.

Even before he meets Juliet – before he realises that all his hollow romantic simpering can have substance – he has a cause. He’s not just rebelling against ‘whatever you’ve got’ – he believes in stuff. Oftentimes his ideology is undercooked, but it’s real. He believes in capital ‘L’ Love – even if it is just a flimsy, cartoon version of it at first, symbolised by the unseen, swiftly-forgotten Rosaline.

He believes in peace – he sees the meaningless, entrenched blood feud of his friends and family (literally without meaning: no root cause for this conflict is ever revealed) and he rebels against that, later even willing to die in the cause of love when Tybalt threatens him. He sees a world that glorifies hollow displays of masculinity and would rather spend his time moping alone or unburdening himself to a friar (because yeah, the ‘rebel’ is best friends with a friar. Hardcore). For the entire play Romeo’s one defining trait is that despite being annoyingly emo about it, he believes, no matter how unpopular those causes might be.

Probably what Luhrmann meant was that like James Dean’s Jim, Romeo is a character that has rejected the bankrupt ideology of his facile parents. He is a character whose personal convictions allow him to see through the empty redundancy of the status quo, when a cycle of vengeance between two warring families has degenerated into a soul-numbing normality. But again: that’s a cause. Rebelling against a cycle of unceasing violence perpetuated by irrational hatred? That sounds pretty cause-y to me.

So when you unpack this quote, what you end up with is a superficially persuasive sentiment that is substantively all but nonsensical. …Which, now that I get to it, is pretty much my problem with all of Luhrmann’s work.

Because for me, Baz Luhrmann’s films (and this can serve as a pull quote review for every one of his movies) can be encapsulated in two words:

Not. Subtle.

His grand meditation on doomed love, Moulin Rouge, had all the gravitas of a drunken snog at an ill-lit karaoke night, including obnoxious strobe lights firing into your retinas. His Gatsby was gaudy pretention, mawkishly trying to stuff an unjustified tragic love story into what is supposed to be a tale of artifice and pretence. And Australia mimicked only the worst elements of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, becoming a bloated, overwrought, and racially condescending grind. To me, every one of his films play as maudlin, schizophrenic pastiches, consistently trading coherency for operatic hysteria.

…So why do I like his Romeo + Juliet so much?

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IMAGE: Moulin Rouge – I mean, The Great Gatsby – I mean, Romeo + Juliet (2006)

Because all that stuff is on display here. All his hammy, melodramatic excesses make an appearance. The ‘comedic’ mugging for the camera (in the hyperkinetic introductory fight scene at the petrol station Jamie Kennedy seems to think he’s playing a cowardly basset hound in a Looney Tunes short). The frenetic smash cut edits. The overwrought, saccharine score. The fast motion. Crazy costuming. The signature Luhrmann set decoration of kitsch, neon-soaked bric-a-brac, like someone hosting a rave party in their grandmother’s attic. The irrational amounts of candles. And of course, it’s here that he discovered the tragic love story archetype he has been mining with diminishing returns in every film since.

But here it all works. Here Luhrmann’s signature style is married perfectly with his subject matter, the quirks and failings that mar his other films this time actually elevating the themes of the original text.

Now, one might be tempted to say that Shakespeare’s tight plotting and characterisation make it near impossible to screw up, but as anyone who has ever sat through a bad production of Shakespeare can attest, it can be done. And Luhrmann’s version certainly has its detractors. Luhrmann makes cuts – controversially drastic cuts, in fact – to the text. It’s estimated that only about forty perfect of the original text survives the adaptation. Arguably essential moments are expunged – such as Romeo’s fight with and murder of Paris, and the ambiguous ending of the parents ‘settling’ their feud. He rearranges scenes; he swaps out lines. He uses the bard’s text as a temp track that he can sample from and remix.* But personally, I think the spirit of the play survives, with much of the cut material resurfacing in the visual imagery.

Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tale that is meant to be felt. It’s a play about the first burnings of lustful desire. Young love. Stupid, irrational adoration. When it feels like the whole world will burn up if you cannot be together. When it feels like time itself has carved out a little space for you to live inside. It’s about loss. Inconsolable, incomprehensible loss. When it feels like the weight of all human happiness rests on something as inconsequential as a delayed letter. For every teenager who has ever stared a hole in their phone waiting for a text reply from that someone they long for. For all the young lovers who have known the electricity of sneaking around behind their parents’ disapproving backs. For everyone who has been alone in their sorrow, feeling the universe cave into a tomb when their heart was broken. Shakespeare literalises all of it. He not only taps into these fears, he gives them substance and weight.

And for all of his other cinematic bellyflops, here Luhrmann’s operatic hysterics soar. We get locked in the perspective of these overheated teenagers. We feel all their giddy excess and thunderous disappointments as though – like them – feeling all these emotions for the first time.

Their parents become a blur of inconsequential nonsense in the background, blasting in and out of the young lovers’ lives in order to spout contradictory inanities and bark irrational orders. They are loud and hypocritical – just as they should be. The nurse is a loveable doof, all banalities and base cravings. The Montague and Capulet boys are braying thugs, and the friar, in yet another striking performance by Pete Postlethwaite, is all bluster and false hope, condemning Romeo as a horny teen one minute and agreeing to marry him off to a girl he barely knows the next.

Luhrmann’s aesthetics are equally on point. His sand-blasted, decayed urban sprawl nicely captures the stately desiccation of a city wracked by generations of gang violence. It becomes a space in which symbols of divine beauty and grace are emptied of meaning to become gauche decoration; where the image of the Mother Mary engraved on the handle of a gun perfectly encapsulates the play’s central theme of love and war: love perverted by war; war perpetuated by love. You feel the weariness that Shakespeare loaded into his narrative, that these families have been playing out this same tired grudge for so long that it no longer even functions as back story. It is no wonder Luhrmann makes one of the signature locations in the film – the place that Mercutio is killed; where the narrative tilts irreversibly from comedy to tragedy – the crumbling shell of a stage, rotting on the beach.

He likewise nicely captures Romeo’s early, insufferable pretentiousness. In the film, Romeo is introduced sitting alone on the beach, smoking, filling a journal with adolescent poetry. I’m not entirely convinced that Luhrmann realises that Romeo’s verses here are meant to be corny (much as Ewan McGreggor’s character in Moulin Rouge thinks that ‘love’ means spouting greeting card clichés to a tune, his Romeo emotes all of this drivel as though it is the pure mana of unfettered truth), but even this works perfectly with the themes of the play. Of course Romeo would pose himself on the beach on a crumbling arch, smoking artfully, watching the sun burn over the horizon, all affectation and theatricality. The guy who keeps yammering on about ‘love’s transgression’, and love as ‘a smoke made of the fume of sighs …. a sea nourished with lover’s tears’ would do exactly that. It’s intended to be pure drivel. Shakespeare is presenting the early, mooning Romeo as an angsty twit, spewing hollow Petrarchan verse. And just as Benvolio waves him away in the play, here in the film he it gets poured into a notebook thankfully no one will have to read.

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IMAGE: If you look close, you may see a subtle crucifix, Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Luhrmann actually manages to use clichés in order to upend their familiar banality. By placing Romeo and Juliet into costumes when they first meet – Romeo the knight in plastic armour; Juliet the pure white angel – we are primed to read them into roles that are almost immediately transcended. Romeo is hardly the chivalric warrior; and Juliet is a profoundly more complex, human rationality and desire than a pair of tiny strap-on wings would imply.

But most important of all, when he made Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann had not yet forgotten how to use stillness. He was willing to de-clutter the screen and allow for moments of meaningful quiet.

Indeed, stillness comes to be a recurring motif throughout the central romance. When we first see Juliet she is in the bath, plunged face first into the sensory tranquillity of an underwater shot. She is at peace in this isolation, the chaos of the family that longs to dress her up and parade her around momentarily reduced to a distant murmur. When she and Romeo first see each other it is a flirtatious stare through a glass fish tank, all darting eyes and teasing smiles, and played, blissfully, without chatter. They awake from their one night together as a wedded couple into one silence; and later, when they meet each other again in Juliet’s tomb, on the last bed they will share together, Luhrmann lets a ghastlier quiet creep in, giving each creak and click of that lonely space sound like a cannon.

Because as Luhrmann’s version shows: the genius of Shakespeare’s original work is its deconstruction of language itself. For a play written by the greatest poet, speech is ironically devoid of meaning in this play. This, famously, is the play in which Juliet questions whether a rose would smell as sweet if it were called by another name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes,
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (II.2.43-9)

Names, she says, are arbitrary, only given meaning in their application, and she invites Romeo to join her in a namelessness free from prejudice and expectation.

And this is consistently Juliet’s role. As a thirteen year old woman growing up in a patriarchal nightmare, she – unlike everyone else around her – can see through the empty rhetoric of her society, calling its accepted ‘truths’ into question. She balks at the vulgarity of being married off like property to a man she does not know; she tries (unsuccessfully) to reason with her parents when they accuse her of ‘disobeying’ them; and she undercuts Paris’ over-familiarity with her. She even chastises Romeo when he starts praising her with empty compliments and hollow professions of love. When he tries to slather her with more of the wet poetry he was wasting on Rosaline, she stops him:

ROMEO: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops –

JULIET: O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.107-11)

She cuts through all of his crap – his proclamations of love to the stars and the moon – and re-educates him in a truer affection. One that goes unspoken – professed in action, not declaration. An eternal, unspoken, unspeakable love.

It’s why Luhrmann’s willingness to slow his film down, suspending his lovers in a transitory quietude, works so well. His Juliet (the sublime Claire Danes, long before she was trapped in the sloppy, inflammatory fever dream of Homeland) embodies this philosophical serenity, re-educating the overeager Romeo (an energetic Leonardo DiCaprio, long before he was sexually assaulted by a bear), and the solace they find in each other contrasts powerfully with the frenetic hostility everywhere else in the film.

Which brings me, finally, to what I think is Luhrmann’s greatest achievement: his balcony scene. Again, we see him playing with cliché, using his audience’s familiarity with the scene to transform it into something more. We see Romeo creeping up the walls, earnestly setting up his most famous metaphor:

‘But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’ (II.1.44-6)

He is so busy working himself into a poetic state – Juliet is light; Juliet is the dawn of a new day; she’s a life-giving spring – and we are so trained to see this moment as the swelling prologue to Romeo and Juliet’s reunion, that when it is instead the nurse’s head that emerges from the curtains, blowing all that romanticised projection apart, both Romeo and the audience are invited to shake off their presumptions and approach this story fresh.

Here, Juliet is not elevated up on some pedestal, she’s just taken the elevator to the ground; and Romeo is not some dashing beau, he’s tangled himself up in the Christmas lights. We are able to witness their flirtation not as the catalogue of two lovers fated to meet and die to satisfy an ancient blood feud, but as the communion of two alienated souls who speak to each other in a way that their families literally do not yet have the language to comprehend.

They’re not rebels without causes – no matter what Luhrmann was aiming for with that quote. But it is true to say that what they believe in cannot be quantified, or categorised, or contained. It eclipses language and expectations, carving itself out a space beyond the rote familiarity of names and oaths and honour, all of which, both play and movie reveal, have already been debased through meaningless repetition.

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IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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Next time, Australia’s Macbeth (2006). Spoiler alert: It’s terrible. But ‘I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as going o’er’.

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* And it’s hardly as great a crime as David Garrick mangled version of the play (only one in a list of altered versions by other writers), in which Rosaline never existed, all the bawdy humour and sexual references are stripped out, and clumsy, newly written melodramatic dialogue is crammed into the text in its place. In Garrick’s version Juliet awakens just in time to chat with Romeo while he chokes to death on her lap. …But gee, thanks for saving us from all the smut talk, Garrick.)

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Texts Mentioned:

Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann, adapted from William Shakespeare (20th Century Fox, 1996)

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and T.J.B. Spencer (Penguin, 2005)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE: Prologue: A Re-New-View of Shakespeare

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2016 by drayfish

shakespeare by pablo lobato

IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.

(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)

That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.

That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.

But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.

That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.

Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).

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IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)

But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.

Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)

It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.

It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).

The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.

And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.

And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.

His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.

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IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)

I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.

Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.

So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).

Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.

I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).

I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.

I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.

But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).

I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.

How dare you.

Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.

So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*

Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.

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IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)

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If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.

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* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?

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Texts Mentioned:

Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)

Vale David Bowie: He’s A Star, Man.

Posted in criticism, music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: David Bowie, 1975

According to a group of international scientists, humanity has now had such a detrimental impact upon our own world that we have actually managed to shift the globe into a new geological epoch. Between our burning of fossil fuels, our addiction to driving species extinct, the dumping of toxins, the use of plastic and concrete (so ubiquitous that our oceans are now riddled with microplastic decay – yum), deforestation, reliance on fertiliser, and use of nuclear weapons, we have taken a process that usually takes millions of years of incremental evolution – from Triassic, to Jurassic, to Cretaceous – and squeezed it down to just shy of 16,000 years.

Because we’re humans. That’s what we do.

Bigger! Better! Faster! Howling as we hurl ourselves untethered into the abyss. Trying to convince ourselves that the world is not burning beneath us.

The scientists are therefore proposing a name change, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Because that’s the other thing we do. We name things after ourselves.

A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and loved ones revealed that he had died, surrounded by his family, after a year and a half battle with cancer. And as hyperbolic as this will risk sounding, I cannot seem to disentangle the two events.

Not, I should warn, because I am going to try and make some hyperbolic, farcical declaration that there was a before and after David Bowie. That human history as we know it would not exist were it not for Aladdin Sane. (…I might make that argument for Station to Station, but that’s another matter.)

Because in my head, Bowie isn’t Earth, or history itself. He isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.

He’s those scientists.

Bowie was an artist who had the capacity to name, to give shape, to epochs. Try thinking of the sixties without ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Letter to Hermione’ (even if that self-titled album only snuck in half way through 1969). Try thinking of the seventies without ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, etc. etc. etc… The eighties without ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, or ‘Dancing in the Street’. The nineties without ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, or Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’. The 2000s without the post-9/11 grim introspection of Heathen, the career-spanning Reality album tour.

Try growing up without having Labyrinth fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in your soul; or forgetting his hilariously deadpan scene in Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). Try denying the genius of his music videos, each one a unique experimental art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).

And even now, in the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’ that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.

Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations. He poured all of it into his music and his personas – from pop psychedelia to crunchy rock, from glam cabaret, to freaky folk, through jazz and disco and electronic and crooner, he refracted it through the multiple character masks he employed that each embodied their age: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself. Each album these figures produced offering an anthology, perfectly articulating the angst of the time in which it was released.

And like that body of international scientists, what his music described, again and again was that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. Burn out in rock and roll suicides. Even the melodies could sometimes barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his final album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart at times, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.

He knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s no doubt why his work was peppered with references to anti-utopian literature – Orwell’s 1984; Burgess’ Clockwork Orange – nonetheless his songs were still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.

Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgemental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen. Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It is an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.’

For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we accept all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.

Because we’re humans. That’s also what we do.

And right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own – and humanity’s – demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:

Look up here, I’m in Heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.

Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvellously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ But that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.

It’s also why the cover of his final album – the last album he knew he would release before his death – is so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, the final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It is a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state off self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.

In his music David Bowie transcended the temporal. He seemed to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. To name what we couldn’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defined and gave voice to the experience of decades of lost souls. Those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.

Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible, eclipsing death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music – music that, like its creator, was intimate and alien in one – will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being. But that was always, in some way, true – and they are no less powerful for that. The music locates us, in time and experience, a campfire around which we gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.

So vale David Bowie; man who named the world.

Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.

Blackstar_album_cover

IMAGE: Cover of Blackstar by David Bowie

Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, philosophy with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by drayfish

avengers_age_of_ultron_team

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

Don’t you hate product integration?

You know, when you’re watching a film and it becomes painfully clear that some company or piece of merchandise has been shamelessly shoehorned into the scene. Like when Spiderman uses every object ever stamped with the Sony name in both his private and crime fighting life. Or when a character (maybe in a teen horror film), searches for information online (perhaps for the dark history of werewolves), and decides to inexplicably ignore the existence of Google, bouncing instead straight over to their to Microsoft PC to load their Microsoft Internet Explorer program and type ‘Werewolf’ into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Also, later in the film that werewolf will be using a Zune.

It’s just cheap and tacky, and always so blatantly obvious that it ends up insulting its viewer, who is suddenly ripped out of the film/television show to realise, in a disorienting rupture of the fourth wall, that what they are watching is an insidious, corrosive ad. A narrative experience compromised (or at least uncomfortably massaged) by the need to shill for more cash.

Anyway. Apropos of nothing, I went to the movies the other day to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron.

[WARNING: Mild, mild spoilers for the first five minutes of Age of Ultron to follow]

I was (as most of the world seemed to be) a big fan of the first one. Writer/Director Joss Whedon had danced a merry, impossible jig: wrangling multiple, franchise-carrying stars; blending wholly disparate genres (Iron Man’s playful action snark, Hulk’s body horror, Thor’s Shakespearian Sci-Fi, Captain America’s unapologetically hokey heroism); he gave the world a proper Black Widow (seriously: where is her solo movie, Marvel?!); and he wrapped it all up in a smart, snappy, romping spectacle that insulted neither the film’s audience nor its material. He validated the universe building of the Marvel movie franchise – something so audacious and unprecedented that I find it somewhat extraordinary how infrequently it gets mentioned.

An interconnected web of big budget franchises shouldn’t, on any rational level, be possible – but Avengers defiantly, proudly proved it could be.

So obviously I was keen to see the next one – the next major tent pole in the Marvel bid for world domination film franchise, written and directed by Joss Whedon while he sits on his surprise announcement of Serenity 2 (DON’T TREAD ON MY DREAMS!)

The cinema lights went down, I weathered the previews dancing at me like I owed them something, and the film began. And straight away, there it was: the party from the first film still raging. No, ‘We have to regather the team to face the encroaching blah blah blah…’ Just, ‘Everyone, keep doing that thing you’re doing…’ And it was great. Perhaps a little jarring straight out of the gates, but that’s clearly the point. I’d joined them mid-climax. A cohesive team. Game ready.

Avengers gif

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

I watched happily, already lost in the deceptively effortless interplay of the characters. Saw them carve through a soviet base full of cartoonish bad guys and crack wise. Saw that same frenetic ballet of ‘splosions and bons mots. And then, in the middle of the fray, Tony Stark – Iron Man sans the suit – was creeping around a lab, looking at a giant behemoth hanging from the ceiling. When suddenly the creature roared awake, tore through the roof, and shredded everything in its path of destruction!

And oh, no…

There they lay, all of the Avengers, dead and dying. Stark looking down as they each eased out their last breath, the broken detritus of a dream for colourful heroism scattered.  Defeated.

No doubt it was just a dream. That woman who looked like the Olsen twins seemed to have worked some dark magics on Stark before he freaked out (one might even say she was a Witch, some sort of scarlet-hued witch), so he was probably just having a twisted prophetic vision.  But still, all appeared to be lost…

And then the whole cinema switched off.

The projector died, the sound dissolved, and the lights reduced to a lone emergency globe, a feeble gleaming above the exit.

Controversial choice, I thought. Make a film that runs only ten minutes. Don’t have the villain show up at all. Brutally kill off all of the titular Avengers. And most egregious of all: there was no after credits scene. …There weren’t even any credits!

Joss Whedon seemed to be making some bold choices in this, his final Marvel franchise film. No wonder critics have been childishly snitty and whining about this sequel. No wonder ‘fans’ have been throwing heat at the movie online.

Eventually we were told by a weary cinema attendant that the power to the building had gone out, and that they weren’t sure when, or if the movie was going to be able to continue.

Wow, I thought, this Scarlet Witch hallucination is really elaborate. Joss Whedon has gone super meta this time.

Turns out there really was a power outage. The whole complex was down and I would have to return another day to see what would come of this dire hallucination, to know what carnage was wrought from Tony Stark’s existential dread. But as I sat in that darkened space, the narrative stalled so unceremoniously in a state of murky, unresolved anticipation, I suddenly wished that I had something to read – something to help pass the time that might offer me insight into Joss Whedon’s oeuvre, and his numerous experimentations with genre and form.

And it was then that I remembered the new publication from Titan Books, The Joss Whedon Companion (Revised & Updated Edn). Oh, how I wished I had a copy of such a fine collection to while away the hours, waxing lyrical on Whedon’s many triumphs.*

‘But, aren’t you published in that book?’ said a voice in my head. I think his name was Shame. ‘Yeah, haven’t you got an article on Cabin In The Woods published in that? …So isn’t this all just a brazen, insulting, misleading plug for your own work?’

Shut up, you! I said to myself, and sat twisting in self-loathing in the darkness.

Product placement, I thought. What an insidious, underhanded practice it is.

And then I went out and bought all of the Stark Industry products I could find.

It just seemed the right thing to do.

So, anyone want to buy a War Machine suit, slightly used?

Joss Whedon Fully Revised Cover

IMAGE: The Joss Whedon Companion (Titan Books)

* Isn’t it funny how people confuse the phrase ‘while away’ with ‘wile away’? The correct usage means to fill up time, to spend a ‘while’; the other means to be cunning or sneaky, to use your ‘wiles’ to disarm or dissemble. Don’t know what made me think of that. ALL THE COOL PEOPLE READ BOOKS!

Boasting, Hubris, and One Exceptional Birthday Present

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by drayfish

Vogels 2015 shortlist

IMAGE: The Vogel’s Shortlist (The Weekend Australian, 18-19th April, 2015)

I’m not very good at boasting.  I’m just a completely awesome person that way.

…See what I did there?  Seamless.

But this past week I had the extraordinary honour of being one of four writers shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for my as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Sign. 

If you are interested in reading an extract from the work, or seeing my pasty, egg-shaped face (the photographer from The Australian performed some kind of dark magic and made me look vaguely human), you can find the announcement article here on The Australian’s website.

The entire experience has been delightful.  From the welcome and kindness shown by everyone at the publishers Allen & Unwin, to the encouragement of the judges, to the continued generosity of the Vogel family and company for funding the award, to the other nominated authors who could not have been more lovely.  I keep waiting for everyone to yell ‘Psyche!’ and push me in a puddle.

The winner was the richly deserving Murray Middleton, whose exceptional collection of short stories, When There’s Nowhere Left To Run, proves yet again that despite what conventional nay-saying wisdom has been bleating on about for the past few years, the short story form is not just still alive, it is happily, proudly thriving.

So, a rare, good week.

And again, not that I’m going steadily mad with hubris or anything, but did Shakespeare ever shortlist in The Australian/Vogel’s Awards? Nope.  Didn’t think so. So that’s one/nil Shakespeare!*

Murry Middleton Cover

IMAGE: When There’s Nowhere Else To Run (Allen & Unwin)

* Don’t wave those exquisite, soul-penetrating works of immortal artistic wonder at me, Shakespeare!  You’ve been riding on those for years.

Poetry Unearthed By Legitimate, For Real, Authentic Poetic Research (Now With Facts!)

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by drayfish

What was before a Chicken or Egg?

I despise April Fools Day.

A completely arbitrary mark on the calendar, used to justify telling outrageous lies and spreading often galling misinformation. And for what?  Just to make others feel stupid?  To exploit their trust in us?  To laugh at how foolish they must be to ever take at face value something we – their friend, family, colleague, newspaper, government, or scientific body – have told them.

Clearly the only real fool is anyone stupid enough to take the hard-earned faith of their fellow human beings and toss it in the trash for a cheap gag.  You’d have to be a shameless, self-destructive narcissist to do anything so glib and facile.

So anyway, apropos of nothing, I did some research on the weekend, and found a heretofore undiscovered poem by the iconic Romantic poet, John Keats.

Yeah.  That happened.  Why not?*

Like his poem ‘Bright Star’, said to have been discovered in the front cover of Keats’ collection of Shakespeare’s poems, I tracked this one down in his thoroughly dogeared copy of 101 Chicken Jokes for Transcendently Tortured English Poets (3rd edition).

I include it here without alteration, including his haunting postscript.

Let history make of this bombshell what it will…

On Looking Into Why Everything Tastes Like Chicken

by John Keats

Oft have I sought to roost in solemn dark,
to scratch for seeds and preen a lyric phrase,
Only to wake, my nests dissolved away.
A nightingale? A Grecian urn? A star?
What was all that about? What drunken haze
Sought ‘truth’ in chirps, space gas, and lumps of clay?
But lo – at last – a vision clears the strife:
two-legged waif, a symbol left unuttered,
Eternal, fowl conundrum: Which came first?
We, the cockerel’s dame, ripe with sunlit life,
Poised upon the threshold of the gutter,
Designed to fly, but doomed to walk the earth.
O chicken – ruffled, squat pedestrian!
Thou knowest where to cross; not why. Not when.

Signed, John Keats

And yes, I am the real John Keats – the one who wrote ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and all that stuff. So anyone who finds this poem should probably be given a Nobel Prize in Literature, or something.

And also a Playstation 4.)

He was a true visionary.

John Keats by William Hilton

IMAGE: Sony Fan Boy John Keats by William Hilton the Younger (National Portrait Gallery London)

* Because facts.

2014 in Film: A Redundant, Ranty (Apparently Alliterative) Round-Up

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by drayfish

Lego Movie eyes

Okay, so I’m obviously not the biggest fan of the Oscars.

In a previous post I slagged the entire history of the award, mouthed off about their tragicomic irrelevance, and petulantly whined that a faceless mass of self-proclaimed cinephiles had different opinions to me about what makes a great film – all while somehow restraining myself from mentioning that ‘Dick Poop’ gaffe.* And now that their kitschy lavish spectacle has once again bloomed and withered back into its eleven month irrelevancy, having dragged the otherwise unassailable award show host Neil Patrick Harris down with it, how could I possibly follow up such a mature and objective discussion?

Why, by indulging every bit of my crippling narcissism and going off on a shamelessly subjective rant about the films of the past twelve months that I thought were great, of course. …And apparently by also throwing in a few more petty digs at a completely unnecessary, largely ridiculous award ceremony that has no impact on anything at all.

So… maturity.

Because to my surprise, I thought 2014 was a pretty great year for cinema. And that was particularly true in the realm of ‘popular’ films – the ones the Academy usually ignores as being too far down the ‘shallow end’ of the cinematic pool, only throwing them the occasional patronising special effects or sound design award.** In truth, many of 2014’s major releases were more experimental and daring than the turgid dramas – usually historical, or vaguely sepia-toned character pieces with stilted dialogue – at which the Oscars usually swoon.

Sure, 2014 had the usual slew of laughable, lamentable turkeys…

Saving Christmas

IMAGE: Kicking you in the face …for Jesus (Camfam Studios)

Like some kind of reverse-Christmas miracle, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was even more cheap and smug than whatever you are conjuring up in your head right now. Playing as an exercise in glib sophistry, Cameron plays the role of that condescending relative you have to be polite to at the holidays who wants to tell you – for an eternal hour and a half – why he knows what’s wrong with society. The result is a Powerpoint presentation about how the shameless commercialisation and mass-marketed kitsch of the season is actually a blessing, and ultimately feels like you’re watching him press Santa and Jesus’ faces together, demanding they kiss.

Men, Women and Children too turned out a feature length sermon – this time about the death of humanity in an age of social media. But rather than actually say anything revealing it played more as the Reefer Madness of facebook and was every bit as tedious, supercilious and ham-fisted as that asinine YouTube poem all your friends insisted you watch last year. You know the one. About how, because you were looking at a smart phone screen that one time, you missed the love of your life, and will now never have a moment of true joy and die alone, unloved, and filled with regret.

So click ‘Like’ and share, guys!

There were Michael Bay’s two attempts to destroy all that is good in the human soul: Transformers 4: Age of Shameless Pandering to the American and Chinese Military and Teenage Mutant Roided-Out-Sex-Pest Turtles. Both of which are literally less enjoyable than watching a five year old smash toys together and go ‘Kerplowsh!” for five hours. At least the five year old is using some imagination.

The-Amazing-Spider-Man-2

IMAGE: ‘I love you, so emotionally crippling you is cool, right?’ The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Sony)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is probably best avoided until you’re recovering from some kind of head injury that requires being heavily medicated and bombarded with pretty colours. With zero story coherency, camp and maudlin histrionics colliding randomly, and acting performances that induce tonal whiplash, Peter Parker appears less a conflicted hero and more a self-involved jag weed who spends the majority of the film either stalking or negging his grieving girlfriend. Incomprehensibly, the film is such a mess it makes whatever was going on with emo-Peter in Spiderman 3 look profound.

(And apparently I’m not the only one who would now probably take Jazz-hands Macquire Spiderman over Garfield’s tweaked out hipster wall-crawler, because less than a year after its release Sony has already announced they are rebooting the franchise and handing over partial custody to Marvel.***)

Meanwhile A Million Ways To Die In The West was Seth MacFarlane.

All of him.

There can be no more damning praise than that.****

a_million_ways_to_die_in_the_west_2014_movie-t2

IMAGE: Ironic Comedy (place inverted commas around whatever you want); A Million Ways To Die In The West (Universal)

But despite these predictable bellyflops, overall the year’s output was a surprising blast. Franchises that had seemed to be drifting into self-satisfied bloat came back lean and slick and audacious. Sequels proved to be far better than they had any reason to be. And fresh intellectual properties emerged with a confident strut.

In the Marvel universe, although its television spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a bland start that seemed to be a warning sign of narrative fatigue, its cinematic siblings seemed reinvigorated, eager to expand and explore something new (even if, to get needlessly picky, they are still sticking with the three act rising climax MacGuffin-heavy narrative spine).

Guardians of the Galaxy made the superhero and sci-fi genres fun again, front-loaded with emotion and character, but driven by comedy and building to epic stakes. It reminded audiences what it was like to go to the cinema and lose yourself in a grand, wildly imaginative adventure, running to catch up with charismatic almost-heroes, rather than getting pummelled by the pretentious mire of a super snuff film like the previous year’s asinine Man of Steel.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-zoe-saldana-chris-pratt

IMAGE: Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier injected as much paranoid social commentary as it did ‘splosions and dynamic action. Suddenly the interrogation of what a symbol like the Cap’n even means anymore in a world of drones and NSA spying, wasn’t just some thematic wrapping paper, but a vital part of the mythos. It was so pointed that it even shook up the status quo of its own metanarrative, tearing down the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the catch-all clandestine service that has so far played as the connective tissue for this universe (something that may prove to be ultimately perfunctory, but that had great resonance here in a tale about a soldier questioning authority).

Also on the plus column for The Winter Soldier? Giving Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow more screen time is never a bad idea. (Seriously, where is her stand-alone movie? After stealing every scene in The Avengers and effortlessly transcending the Captain’s buddy foil role to become the best thing in his film, it’s getting silly now.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past used a prequel-sequel time-travel conceit to soft-reboot the series, playing with any and all of the best elements of the previous films – berserk Wolverine; steely Fassbender; rich (if sometimes a little muddled) social justice metaphors laced with explosions – and gleefully obliterating anything Brett Ratner touched from the canon. It was the cinematic definition of having your cake and eating it too: it had comic book fan service out the yang, got to indulge the anything-goes abandon of alternate realities, and was so rich with talent that it had four of the most astonishing actors currently working tag-teaming two roles. And yet, throughout it all, the film somehow never felt as convoluted or indulgent as it had every reason to be, somehow seamlessly threading multiple time frames, juggling a bevy of returning mutant characters and introducing several others, and flirting with real-world history and its own established lore. The fact that it found a legitimate way to hit the do-over button while keeping whatever worked from the previous films turned a contractually mandated gimmick into something inspired.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved that the reboot/prequel of a few years ago wasn’t a fluke, legitimising the series as a speculative fiction alternate universe in which CGI primates presented some of the most complicated, nuanced acting of the year …only to inevitably have it ignored entirely by the Academy Awards yet again. Oh well, maybe they’ll get a patronising clip reel during the ceremony or something. No? Not even that? Well, they can dream. (Note: they are not allowed to dream.)

How To Train Your Dragon 2

IMAGE: How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dreamworks)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 showed that sequels to animated films need not just spin their wheels and retread the same tired formulas. It went bigger, and darker, and deeper, and offered a more focussed and moving experience than its predecessor. Considering that the first film was a delightful surprise (a burst of originality and sincerity from Dreamworks, a studio that seemed to have settled into a complacent groove churning out increasingly superfluous Shrek sequels), the second was just straight up astonishing. There were revelations, real stakes, and it refused to talk to its audience like they were malleable idiots to be blasted with toy commercials and Burger King promos. In the end of the first film, the protagonist and his dragon are scarred, but that makes them stronger; by the end of the second they have both been deeply emotionally traumatised, but it makes them know the value of loss, the power of forgiveness, and the ephemeral, precious nature of peace. As far as children’s entertainment goes, it made the Smurf and Chipmunk movies look like they were drawn with crayon on garbage.

In the comedy world, 22 Jump Street likewise had no right to be so good. However, considering that the first film (an adaptation of a cheesy, late-eighties television show that was an unmistakable product of its time) somehow managed to outstrip every expectation, that the sequel was great was less a shock than it was a testament to the entire creative team that brought both films into being. And that final credit sequence of endless faked-up sequels was sublime. I would watch every one of them. You’re telling me we need five Twilight films in this world, and yet the Moonraker-style 2121 Jump Street remains only a punch line? No thank you, reality.

And to my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the first part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay quite a bit. Yes, it was undeniably a cheap cash-grab of the studio to segment it into two parts. Yes, when you parse out the details of the story very little actually happens. Yes it’s annoying that Katniss is so weirdly hung up on one dude when a nation of people are being slaughtered. And yes, the military seems to have spent all their money on green screen technology and not training their people to be able to spot glaringly obvious doublecrosses. But despite that – sometimes because of it – I thought it was an enormous step up from its predecessors, finally throwing into relief what the series has been primarily about: propaganda.

Hunger Games logo

IMAGE: The Hunger Games Logo (Lionsgate)

In the previous films the groundwork was already laid – there was the oversimplified division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that tapped into a slightly on-the-nose post-Occupy Wall Street mentality; television (reality television in particular) was a manipulative opiate for the masses – but in this third film, all those disparate themes of fashion, celebrity, and the cultivation and falsehood of fame, coalesced into a single critique of merchandised ideologies. The promised ‘revolution’ was itself another layer of propaganda designed to exploit their Mockingjay – now more a symbol than a person – as a catalyst for change. And the way that the film actually integrated its own advertising, even employing the font and logos of the film’s own marketing into the ‘news’ reels used to bolster Katniss’ rise to notoriety, was ingenious. A sprawling metatextal franchise exploring the building and exploitation of hype, with Jennifer Lawrence who (as one of the celebrities whose phone was hacked and personal photographs leaked online) had her real world life impacted by a sickening invasion of privacy, convincingly playing the role of a woman trying to hold on to her identity amidst the dehumanising machinations of a relentless, exploitative publicity campaign.

Peter Bloom, a lecturer at the Open University, took a rather less flattering view of the film, but his argument struck me as a little unfair. He criticises the way in which the movies (and presumably the books before them, I’ve not read them) use the narrative expediency of personifying an ideology in the-evil-tyrant-who-must-be-overthrown, saying that this is too simple a good-versus-evil conceit; but he seems to have missed the fairly overt way in which the film presents the rebellion’s actions as being similarly manipulative for their own ends. What I actually like about this third film is that it makes it clear no one is really the ‘good’ guy, and no one is above using manipulation and rhetoric to achieve their ends.

Maleficent, too, had an intriguing conceit. Much like Wicked before it (from which, frankly, it clearly drew a great deal of inspiration), it was designed to reappropriate and realign the back story of a familiar fairytale, Disney’s own version of Sleeping Beauty, redeeming the ‘evil’ villainess by exploring the motivations that led her to appear monstrous. Although the result was a flawed movie (it didn’t seem sure of exactly who it’s central character was meant to be, and try explaining that ripped off wings rape metaphor to whatever kids you took along to the cinema), Angelina Jolie was game, and the premise – exploring some moral complexity abstracted from a cartoon whose strength, arguably, was its oversimplified contrast of virtue and malevolence – is well worth playing out further. Maleficent may not have been an entirely successful experiment, but it was good to see Disney doing something more interesting than the parade of live-action animation remakes they have announced for the foreseeable future: from Cinderella, to Beauty and the Beast, to The Jungle Book to …Tim Burton’s Dumbo?! Why?! Why have you forsaken us Mufasa?!

Edge-of-Tomorrow

IMAGE: War of the Worlds – I mean, Oblivion – I mean, Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)

In the world of new and original concepts, despite what was apparently a less than stellar performance in cinemas (although, with international box office, still profitable), I thought Edge of Tomorrow was fantastic. I may, at some point, write about it further, but for a film that was essentially Groundhog Day meets Aliens, it was a wonderfully fresh take on some familiar tropes. Funny, frenetic and imaginative, the film is based on a book, but actually feels more like the perfect adaptation of some videogame that never existed – with respawning, rage quits, and grinding to level up all essential parts of the narrative. After several less than stellar projects (what the hell was Knight and Day?!) it also managed to remind me why Tom Cruise has been a movie star for so long. His pivot from facile, preening weasel to stoic, embittered hard ass was one of his best, and most self-aware performances to date.

The Lego Movie, a film that had all of the warning signs of being a crass, two-hour commercial for the overpriced (yeah, I said it) exponentially expanding licensing universe of Lego, instead became an earnest, heartfelt ode to unbridled creativity, and the beauty of madcap, unfettered play. Like its eponymous toy bricks, it stuck together the framework of a narrative from disparate pieces – a classic heroic journey, a Matrix alt-reality riff, an anti-utopian totalitarian regime, a convoluted heist, a diabolical villain, a soothsayer, a frantic chase, a band of misfits – shook it up, stuffed it with hilarity, and then, when it was already the most imaginative film of the year, transcended itself with its third act jump to the real world – using tiny yellow dolls with claw hands to flirt with metaphysical questions of predestination and free will.

warner-bros-lego-film

IMAGE: The Lego Film Movie Picture (Warner Bros.)

It was a film about nostalgia and the promise of the new; it was for all ages and yet felt profoundly intimate; it was absurd and yet deeply heartfelt; a celebration and rejection of commercialism all at once; about play as a space for self-expression, communication, and experimentation.

…So obviously the Academy Awards didn’t even bother nominating it.

Because shut up, that’s why.

Speaking of the Academy Awards embarrassing themselves, at least they managed to throw some love at more experimental cinema for once, with Birdman (although not my favourite Arty, weird and idiosyncratic film of the year) proving an uncharacteristically respectable winner. Thinking it through, it wasn’t exactly a surprise (the Academy liked the story about the aging, supercilious actor who is afraid of encroaching technologies and despairs at the entertainments of the youth? …shocker) but at least it actually did have something to say, contained some career-best performances from actors willing to play on their own public personas, and had an energy all its own.

Personally, I was more impressed with The Grand Budapest Hotel – perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson of movies. A tribute to his obsession with boxes – both his eye for the formal precision and quirky vintage of dioramas, and the breadth and history of the cinematic frame itself – The Grand Budapest Hotel was a layer cake of tales within tales, oral history and facade, and the charming, quirky, inscrutable con man at the centre of any narrative Art form. It may not be my personal favourite of his films (I suspect nothing will manage to shift Rushmore from its lauded place in my heart), but I think it might well be the one that makes the clearest, and most elegant statement about his work. Aesthetically whimsical and yet emotionally tumultuous, fascinated both by an impossible nostalgia, and the poised, charming exteriors that barely conceal depths of dysfunction and self-delusion, it is all about the creative process; a filmic essay on Romanticism, and the malleability of truth in our efforts to transcend time. So of course, I adored it.

Grand Buhapest Hotel

IMAGE: Boxes. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight)

And so, to the actors…

For me, acting MVPs of the year would have to be Chris Pratt and Scarlett Johansonn.

With The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, his continued work on Parks and Rec., and just about the most charming run of publicity interviews ever, Pratt has become a delight to follow on screen. And with rumours of a forthcoming Indiana Jones casting and his role in the imminent Jurassic World, where he appears to have pet raptors (pet raptors!), his streak will hopefully continue …as long as none of these raptors learn how to talk.

Meanwhile, for the second year running – after last year’s double header of Her and Under The Skin, in which she mined unexpected depths from a computer artificial intelligence and an extraterrestrial sex-predator – Johansonn did it again. As already mentioned, her Black Widow was the best thing in Captain America’s movie, and against all logic she managed to give Luc Besson’s completely bonkers Lucy a legitimacy it frankly didn’t deserve.

Like a number of Besson’s other films (I’m looking at you, Fifth Element), Lucy took a sumptuous, visually stunning romp, and bogged it down in a bunch of incoherent (and yet somehow still utterly pretentious) pseudo-science and glib philosophical rhetoric; and yet Johansson, at the centre of the crazy-storm, managed to imbue the character of Lucy with an emotional range and nuance that (fittingly) transcended the idiocy of the plot she was trapped within. From the terrified woman dragged into a seedy underworld of drug trafficking, to the unstoppable ubermensch, her mind aflame with a torrent of infinite knowledge and cosmological expansion, she seemed to be acting in a different film, one not subject to the silly cartoon logic Besson frequently substitutes for character and plot.

Lucy

IMAGE: Lucy (Universal)

And that final obnoxious declaration before the credits roll:

‘Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.’

Urgh. I sure do. Because a billion years is too short a time to waste on any more Luc Besson films. At least until he bothers writing a second draft on his scripts.

But my pick of the year? The film that I personally felt outshone all of this other goodness?

Well I haven’t mentioned it yet, and it’s already proving itself the darling of every other critic and award ceremony (aside from the Academy Awards, natch), so it’s not that hard to guess…

Drum roll please…

Actually, you know what? Why not wait and reveal it in my next post?

It’ll be great. A narcissistic, myopic spectacle of self-congratulations that’s all preamble and no payoff. An announcement that’s predictable, tired, and of little to no relevance to anyone.

Just like the Oscars.

Bam.

So see you then!

…It’s Boyhood.

It’s Boyhood, guys. I loved Boyhood.

I mean, of course I did.

boyhood-2014-01

IMAGE: The Best. (IFC Films)

* Oh, and just in case you thought maybe the Oscars voters couldn’t look worse, along comes a series of anonymous interviews with the Academy voters to remind you that people who secret themselves away in a private club with labyrinthine exclusivist rules in order to award themselves chintzy plaudits can sometimes be deplorable, superficial, inward-looking racists that proudly celebrate mediocrity. So that’s nice.

** I mean, if Roger Deakins’s sumptuous cinematography on Skyfall wasn’t enough to pull a statuette, why even pretend that a ‘popular’ film has a chance in future?

*** Give me Donald Glover as Miles Morales! Also, give me Donald Glover in Community again! And more Marshall Lee in Adventure Time! …Basically Donald Glover is the secret sauce for all good things.

****…I mean seriously, humanity. You saw him host the Oscars. You’ve seen him in interviews. You’ve had over a decade of being pummelled by the cumulative onslaught of Family Guys and Cleveland Shows and American Dads. What did you think was going to happen? Oh look: a Back to the Future reference. Yep. That’s a thing I watched once. Now back to ‘How funny is racism?’ and the jokes that go on too long about how jokes often go on to long. Hmmmmthat’sgoodsatire.

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