Sunday, 24 February 2008
There’s only two kinds of really great films. There’s the stimulating films like Persona or Chien Andalou, fascinatingly inscrutable parables which you could watch endlessly and still want to see again. Then there’s the nourishing films like La Regle Du Jou or To Kill a Mockingbird, which feel so richly humane and heartwarming you cannot help but feel touched by, meals which you couldn’t bear to think you’d never see again. Yet Wings of Desire is somehow both. It’s survived being turned into both a Hollywood classic and a car advert to remain essential viewing.
“For me the film is like music or a landscape. It clears a space in my mind, and in that space I can consider questions.” – Roger Erbert
It’s not a film that’s going to appeal if you hold to the common idea that film is something linear, or a novel which is just acted out in front of you. Like many of my favourite films it’s immersive nor discursive, it’s more like a piece of music which engulfs you and takes you over with its mood.
Set in divided Eighties Berlin, the film might appear a timepiece. Carl Jung once said of the Berlin wall, “the world is now dissociated like a neurotic”. But this is far from a historical record of life in a divided city. For one thing it casually jumps around time, turning a corner it finds itself in a bombed-out wartime Berlin. But more importantly it uses the divided city as a metaphor for a divided humanity, everyone walled inside their private self.
“They no longer sit in a circle, but rather sit apart. And one doesn’t know anything about the other.”
A key image in the film is the library - each inside his own cubicle thinking his private thoughts. The angels however can pass between the solid barriers and eavesdrop on each of these thoughts. (One of which is the old poet’s given above.) Unseen the angels converse only with each other, sharing such observations.
“When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream?”
However, it boggles my mind how few people actually seem to understand the role of the angels. Many seem to assume they inhabit a state of ‘pure spirit’, above mere humanity to which we should aspire. The references to childhood which open the film (quoted above) are often taken to be a reference to humanity’s unadvanced state. But these notions can be answered with a simple point. This is not a story of a human who became divine, but an angel who became human.
It may be illustrative to compare the angels to the Tralfamadorians, the aliens in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five. Like the Tralfamdorians, the angels have amazing perceptive powers such as the ability to see through time. But while the Tralfamadorians have reached a state of Zen-like superiority the angels are outsiders, trapped inside their powers. They’re aware the humans live much more limited lives, and see all their failings, but still look to them longingly.
The quote about childhood seems to me a more accurate description of the angels’ state than the humans. The angels are unattached, floating, groundless, without a specific place or purpose in the world. They watch the world attentively, even lovingly, but never quite comprehendingly. Their habit of listing their observations, like they can’t quite see the joins between things, is very childlike.
Damiel, our key angel, becomes human partly out of love for a human girl. (Though also to get the feeling of newspaper ink upon his fingers.) When he succeeds he recites to her an almost exact reversal of the ‘when a child’ speech – essentially “we are here, it’s now, it’s life, let’s live it.” Childhood, free from cares and commitments, is simultaneously free from involvement in the world. It’s a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to settle down there. When Peter Falk reveals he too was once an angel it’s suggestive that perhaps we all were once. (“Oh yeah! There’s lots of us.”) In this way the film is a rites of passage between childhood and adultness.
Simultaneously the angels are artists. They watch life from outside, taking notes. Much of the content of the film is from things Wenders observed in exactly this way, and decided to add. (For example Peter Falk’s sketching of people.) The human Damiel falls for, his route into the human world, is a trapeze artist. Associatedly, the angels are the cinema viewer. Rober Erbert has written of how the “camera seems liberated from gravity; it floats over the city, or glides down the aisle of an airplane. It does not intrude; it observes”. In this way the camera is another airplane. Their world is black and white while the ‘real’ one is in colour. In The Wizard of Oz, filmed in a black-and-white era, it was the fantasy world which burst into colour. These days even newspapers are in colour and black-and-white has become an ‘artistic’ frame.
“I want no longer to hover above, I want to feel a weight within me, abolishing limitlessness and binding me to earth.” – Damiel
All these views are valid and complementary, and in no way vie with one another. However, it’s simultaneously true that the film is ultimately about alienation. Damiel escapes the role of a mere observer of life by embracing humanity. But let us not forget the city where the film is set. The film is not some glib New Agey parable about “following your bliss”. In many ways the humans are as alienated as the angels, locked in their subjectivity, writing epic poems they hope will make everyone else understand, never finishing them. As Richard Raskin has said; “Damiel’s quest is not a denial of the spirit but a wish to live a life in which spirit and body are united.” The trapeze artist aims in her art to achieve weightlessness as surely as Damiel longs to feel weight, and that is the magnet which attracts them. The humans and the angels have the two halves of something which must be put together – empathy for others combined with a will to live.
When Damiel first becomes human, Peter Falk exultingly tells him what he has to look forward to. “When your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things!” Like the graffiti on the Wall, the film often manages to find colour in the bleakest-seeming places. Some films manage to make you see cinema in an entirely new way. This film reminds you of things in the world outside the cinema, things you’d always known but had forgotten to notice. It reminds me of the final line in the Glenn Dakin comic strip, Mr. Night Disappears, “to boldly go where everyone has gone before.”
You know, I even kind of like the sequel…
Sunday, 17 February 2008
PLOT SPOILERS occur here (if not of the size of the beast that besets Manhattan about twenty minutes in… oh bugger, that’s a spoiler in itself!)
What was the old TV show where contestants had to perform one thing “in the style of” something else? King Kong in the style of Wagner and the like? Cloverfield feels like it’s been made on just such a dare, performing Godzilla in the style of Blair Witch Project, using jerky hand-held camera as faux found footage. In case you’ve been vacationing on the moon here’s the set-up - a bunch of Manhattanite yuppies just happen to be filming their party when a Godzilla-like hits New York and they keep filming during the resultant carnage.
Where it’s different to Blair Witch is in theme. Blair Witch was a much more personal and intimate story. It focused on the fraying state of mind of college-aged youths who, despite their talismans of maturity (camcorders and maps, though inexplicably not mobile phones), have their feelings of adulthood progressively stripped away. The film charts their reduction to fearful children. In this way Blair Witch was personal and psychological, while Cloverfield is concerned with the social.
The odd-sounding title was actually just a placeholder, a cover to hide any genuine info leaking out until the makers chose to release it. But the placeholder name gained currency on the net, so came to be left in. In many ways the monster, an unnamed Godzilla-like, feels like a placeholder too. We’re deliberately withheld a decent view of it until the very end, and any info on its origins or motivations are kept firmly at the level of speculation. (For those that really want to know that sort of thing, there’s some ‘viral’ marketing on the internet to clue you in. But that merely confirms the speculation of one of the characters, and doesn’t really have much to do with the film’s theme anyway.) The point is that we quite literally only see the monster from the characters’ perspective, who would know nothing of such privileged information. The film drops us into the chaos, hysteria and uncertainty that get thrown up, and doesn’t deign to offer us such reassuring pegs.
And those characters? Well they’re pretty much placeholders too. In Rolling Stone, Pete Travers described them as “walking MySpace profiles”. (A term that becomes all the more ironic when you learn the makers even gave these characters MySpace profiles as part of their marketing.) Though Travers uses the phrase as an insult, this actually works surprisingly well. After all this ain’t an attempt at Checkovian realism. The characters are supposed to be everymen with nothing special or unique about them - except for the single fact that chance put them in disaster’s path. When, for example, Rob has to tell his mother on the phone about his brother’s death, we know nothing of the particularities of their relationship. Instead we’re asked to consider how we’d cope with such a situation. (In fact a weakness of the film is that it doesn’t go down that path enough. The opening ‘party’ scene dwells on ‘characters’ who don’t – to put it mildly - reward our attention. It’s true we need some normality before disaster strikes, but the scene lasts too long and we end up checking our watches for the monster’s unsurprising arrival.)
Travers goes on to insist “Clovefield’s virtues are all mechanical”, and he’s certainy right it’s a film very much concerned with formal innovation. Back in the days of matte paintings and stop-motion, inserting special effects into the frame used to be dependent on locking the camera down. The sudden lack of camera movement often came to be a clue a ‘special effect’ was just about to occur. We’re used to faux-docu footage and we’re used to big scary monsters, to the point where both long since became clichés. What we’re not used to is seeing both put together. (Even Blair Witch showed nothing scarier on screen than some strangely assembled twigs.)
However, Travers is surely wrong to suggest this reduces the film to the ‘mechanical’. Early films used to show something like trains steaming into the camera, a formal device which still had an impact upon the audiences of the day. Similarly Cloverfield works best when it restricts itself to a conviction in it’s own central device, but find abundant amounts of courage in it. The combination of verité footage and giant monsters is less a nifty novel means to tell us the story than the very thing the film comes to be about.
It works like a trained musician restricting himself to three chords, but finding lots of sub-varieties within them. The ‘plot’ is often perfunctory and predictable. (Will our heroes obey army orders to evacuate Manhattan, or will they brave adversity to rescue their missing friend Beth? Go on, you’ll never guess!) But the wrings the film can pull from its device are many and varied, making it more a haiku device than a gimmick. Unlike Blair Witch it is filmed in near real time, enhancing our sense of being trapped in the moment. It smartly allows for quiet and uneventful moments, rather than reducing everything to a shrill headlong rush. It even finds a way to incorporate a flashback structure. (The videotape being used is filming over an earlier romantic moment between Rob and Beth, which the film keeps cutting back to.)
This sense of immediacy also feels like a welcome change when you hear producer JJ Abrams and writer Drew Goddard previously worked on such fodder as Lost. Lost seemed entirely predicated on the idea that we’d search the frame for ‘clues’, then swap them with our mates (or more often total strangers) on internet message boards. I am heartily sick of this reduction of films and TV shows to honorary computer games, and glad to see two of its worst proponents doing something quite the opposite here. (Disclaimer: there are ‘clues’ hidden here but they have nothing to do with following the front-story. I missed every single one of them while watching the film, and didn’t feel like I was losing out on anything.) It’s also rare to see a Hollywood film that does stick to a single idea, they normally suffer from the death of a thousand chefs where each one has squeezed in his own half-baked notion.
Every review I read of Cloverfield mentioned the September 11th connections at some point or other. Some call these crass, others cathartic, others just find it a marker-point where S11 became do-able in the cinema. And yet New York has been destroyed on film many times, both before and after that auspicious date. Godzilla himself was invited to trample Manhattan back in 1998 while the Big Apple was destroyed in both 2004 (The Day After Tomorrow) and 2005 (War of the Worlds) – you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a year when the city didn’t buy it. (And that’s ignoring the glut of such gung-ho-flavoured direct references such as 2006’s World Trade Center.) Clearly what’s triggering those associations is the faux-docu filming. Unlike many previous disasters S11 is imprinted in our memories through the types of filming we associate with small, intimate events such as weddings or parties - bringing home the notion that that was the day terror was brought home.
Admittedly, the makers do everything they can to reinforce this picture. Beth, for example, has to be rescued from a set of twin towers – one leaning precariously on the other. But the biggest memory-jogger of all is the sequence used in the trailer (and doubtless the film’s central image) – when a huge object hurled down a Manhattan avenue is revealed to be the head of the Statue of Liberty. It’s hardly possible to see such an image without being reminded of one thing – They Hate Our Freedoms. Yet the film’s monster is revealed to be brutish rather than sentient, even running round on all fours. It’s not at war with capitalist democracy, its just banging into buildings which happen to be in its way. It’s a powerful image, but also misleading and ultimately something of a cheat.
Reeves complains the film has “no politics” and thereby no meaning. Certainly what politics it displays seem confused. The military are very much movie-military. In one cringeworthy scene a major allows the gang to defy evacuation orders and continue searching for their missing friend - on camera even. In any real martial law situation, let alone such an extreme one, Rob’s remark “you’ll just have to shoot me” would lead to one response only – “I’ve already thought of that!” (Surely the faux-footage motif obligates the film to have some concessions towards believability.) But then at the end we discover the videotape we’ve been watching is being held by the military, obviously covering up their inability to cope with the crisis.
But again, these criticisms partly come from misunderstanding the very nature of the film. As Alan Vega said of his New York punk band Suicide “people were coming in off the street hoping they’d be escaping, and all we were doing was shoving the street back in their face again”. Cloverfield was marketed on the notion that many of us would pay good money to have bad memories shoved back in our faces again, and it seemed to be working at least on the night I saw it. In this it reminded me in many ways of the ‘re-imagined’ version of Battlestar Galactica. Galactica is a much wider work, taking in not only S11 but Vietnam, the Civil Rights turmoil… virtually every dark moment in modern American history. It’s opening episode, for example, is often said to be reminiscent of S11 but works as a much closer fit to Pearl harbour.
But the psychology is the same - using fiction as a piece of dispelling magic to take everything out there that’s fucked up and stick it all in one place. The bad stuff in the world is thereby made to feel containable by the very fact that you created a container for it. The advantage of having a Book of Everything That’s Fucked Up is that you can then shut the book anytime you want. Cloverfield is therefore no more interested in the military’s tactical response to the monster than it was the monster in the first place. It’s only question is – what if all this happened to you?
Of course Cloverfield’s immediate success, finding a dramatic device that fits our zeitgeist, may turn out to be its long-term failure. While it would be meaningless to speculate how this film might look in the future, where it leads now feels a much more closed question – it doesn’t. Like most Hollywood films, we’re given a coda that leaves the door open for a sequel. But what kind of a sequel could that be? Abrams has pointed to the many scenes where other bystanders wave camcorders and cameraphones, and suggested a follow-up could be made by following any of those people. But as we’ve seen, the whole point about these characters is their very non-specificness, that they were just chosen randomly from out of a crowd. Once you’ve had one everyman, the last thing you need is another one. Of course we could follow the military high command or delve into the monster’s origins, or one of many other plot points the movie leaves open. But that would by necessity create quite a different kind of film to the one here. Sequel proofness isn’t always a bad sign, I can’t imagine a sequel to Solaris or Weekend for example. But here it adds to the feeling that this film is primarily staking out a piece of territory to sit on, not invite further development. It found a style that hadn’t (until recently couldn’t) been used before, and it found that style summed up a very zeitgeisty moment. At the time, many suggested Blair Witch Project might throw open whole new ways of making movies. But all it really led to was a sequel almost everyone found pedestrian. Cheap camcorders were a great way to make that movie, not necessarily any other.
That observation may turn out to be ten times as true of Cloverfield. At a time when films seem to be getting longer, it’s a mere 85 minutes. But (particularly with that opening party scene) it would probably have been more effective had it been even shorter. It’s noticeable that the trailer, rather than acting as a teaser for the movie, effectively presents it in microcosm. It gives us the ‘normal’ opening, then throws the Statue of Liberty’s head down Manhattan. Some have argued we shouldn’t be given a full view of the monster, even at the late stage it appears. But it’s arguable all we should have ever seen was the trailer, with the monster left forever offscreen and unknown.
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
In case you haven’t heard this sad news already, comics writer Steve Gerber died in Las Vegas last Sunday.
Though Gerber had lately returned to comics after a stint working in animation, I dare say it’s his original Seventies years with Marvel comics which were his finest. In fact I don’t think it’s going too far to call Gerber the Alan Moore of his generation. He looked an immature medium in the eye and refused point-blank to recognise its limitations. His output was admittedly uneven, but that’s what you get with pioneers.
Tom Spurgeon makes a good point when he describes Gerber as “imbued with an underground comix sensibility but as overground as the spinner rack at your local supermarket.” Though of course his relationship with Marvel was to sour, his work still best exemplified the aspiration that radical ideas can sometimes be brought intact into the mainstream. Before I’d heard of either Alan Moore or underground comics, I was able to buy Gerber’s stuff via British Marvel reprints in my sleepy English hometown. I’m really not sure I was ever the same again…
Another good point was made in Mark Evanier’s tribute: “He was a sharp, brilliant human being with a keen understanding of people. In much that he wrote, he chose to depart from reality or (more often) to warp it in those extreme ways that make us understand it better.” I quickly lost interest in most of Gerber’s contemporaries (Starlin, Englehart, etc), who seemed to quickly get lost inside the cosmic. It was like their work became a hermetic arena where their crazy ideas could rattle around endlessly, but never actually get out and signify anything. Gerber could go cosmic too, but always managed to keep one foot plonked firmly in the everyday. While he strained at the leash of what could be put in a Marvel comic, he never forgot that Marvel comics had started with Spider-man sewing up his own costume in his tiny bedroom.
He had a fascination with losers such as Richard Rory, who were fairly transparent stand-ins for himself. These losers never turned green or mighty nor even saved the day all that much, they mostly just bumbled slightly uncomprehendingly from one issue to the next. This would reach its epitome with Howard the Duck, an autobiographical character barely disguised by being given a Donald Duck look. “Trapped in a world he never made” ran Howard’s strapline.
Though he could seemingly write anything from horror to comedy or absurdism to melodrama…though he could seemingly write all of those at one and the same time… at heart Gerber was a satirist. The old-fashioned Hogarthian kind who mocks the world not to titter but to rail. He’d put himself into his comics then pillory the fads and dud ideologies that surrounded him. He felt himself insulted by those things. He felt you should be insulted too.
Despite Howard and unlike Moore, Gerber never got to be as well-known as he should have been. Perhaps his return to Marvel was never blazing, more of a guarded rapprochement. Perhaps comics fans were never as keen to grow up as he was to give them grown up material. Though much of his classic material is now available it’s mostly crept into reprint, via the consolidated repackaging of Marvel’s Essentials volumes. At my local comic shop there’s a hefty one-stop section dedicated to Alan Moore, just like there should be. A fair and just world would have one for Steve Gerber.
Some Steve Gerber you really should read:
Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1
Includes the earlier strips from Adventure into Fear, but doesn’t really hit its stride until he’s given his own title.
Essential Defenders Vol. 2 & 3
Unfortunately Gerber’s issues are caught in the change-over, meaning you have to buy two hefty volumes when his strips alone would have fitted inside one slimmer one. You could of course read the issues not by Gerber which get included here… it’s a free country…
Essential Howard the Duck Vol. 1
The whole kit and kaboodle!
We also need an Essential Daredevil Vol. 5 solely for the Gerber stories therein!