Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who Is the Coolest?: Lee Marvin’s Shirttails in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)


The geography for the stage of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in 1945) is a massive barbell, choked in the middle by the single street of Black Rock, opening at either end into dusty orange desert vistas. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by ghost train at one end of the street, wanders back and forth to solve a mystery that resides somewhere in the wasteland at the other end. There is a story of the hard, bitter little city, the sins of all one-dozen-or-so residents, and the status of a missing Japanese farmer given the improbable name “Komoko”; this is the narrative meat proper, but the skeleton of Black Rock is filled out -- or picked away and revealed -- as the camera approaches each of these desert lizard-people as mysteries unto themselves. Macreedy is the town’s first visitor in four years, and the locals hate him before he steps into town, eyeing the slowing train with silent panic and confusion. Once they have to interact with him, every conversation is an exercise in concealing data, lying, talking circles around the topic. Getting information out of these people is like pulling teeth, and even the small talk is a particularly harsh enamel scraping.

So this is the shape of the Bad Day, Macreedy pacing and studying the land, everyone engaged in a game of Who Is the Coolest?, until all players crack and all secrets are outed. Each piece of character backstory or nugget of truth about their universe is hard won -- by Macreedy in most rounds, though sometimes he has to give some ground in the short view so an opponent will lower his guard. Who he is and what he wants, being the question actively playing on every set of lips in Black Rock, are the cards Macreedy won’t show until absolutely necessary. The allegorical wireframe about quiet, stoic heroism and insulated communities who poison their own wells is overlaid with the paper-mâché skin of its residents and weather-blasted buildings. The Bad Day is about a lot of things, macro and micro: the interment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War, the Hollywood blacklist, American racism, mob violence, the myth of the American West and various untenable molds of masculinity. The story in whole chews on these thoughts, the scenes are of people chewing on each other. So after a fashion, Bad Day’s scenes are driven by a question which is not “What Happened to Komoko?” but: “Who Is the Coolest?” This death match is determined through the gradual accumulation of curious details, actorly peculiarities; the Bad Day is the process of grit settling into grooves.

Macreedy keeps one -- presumably useless -- arm stiff at his side, fist shoved deep into jacket pocket. Unseasonable black off-the-rack suit adhering to his torso, Macreedy’s sweat soaks through the fabric as he ambles about in the blazing sun; Tracy looks like a baked potato seeping butter through aluminum foil wrapping as he rolls about on a very large grill. He makes some kind of point of remaining uncomfortable in the heat, ordering hot coffee at lunch to accompany a bowl of chili, and later claims he is the kind of man who has “never thought much” about lemonade. In that particular competition, Macreedy wins against a nerve-jangled telegraph operator in just a few moves, and the poor fellow is starry-eyed in terror that he has met a man who has never even thought about lemonade.

Pete Wirth (John Ericson who later teamed up with Anne Francis again for Honey West on TV), the dumbbell hotel clerk seems to want to deny Macreedy a room because he makes a visual rhyme with the “one-armed bandit” slot machine in the corner. In an entrancing bit of business, Tracy opens a fresh pack of cigarettes with one hand. There is dialogue, perhaps it is even plot-related, but the whole picture is suddenly about the tension and marvel of Macreedy popping the wrapper and biting off confetti strips of the inner foil, spitting the paper to the floor.

The back of Lee Marvin’s shirt refuses to stay tucked into his pants throughout the day. He fixes it at least twice, and it flaps around like a lazy flag. It is not really a wonder, since Marvin keeps covertly maneuvering his big log-limbed scarecrow body into contorted positions. Here his angry idiot ranch hand, called Hector, sprawls half-propped-up across Macreedy’s rented bed. James Dean strikes a similar pose in Giant, lazily stretching across the width of the screen, a little house on the horizon appearing to plop into his lap; Hector has climbed inside that building, legs poking out the windows like a cowpoke Alice in Wonderland, as Macreedy studies him, a sedated Bill the lizard. In another interesting shot, Hector leans his elbow against a wall some four feet away from his torso, surely providing more stress on his frame than relief. Hector picks postures for maximum silhouette impact. Hector has the moves and spirit of intimidation down flat, his signature feint being to act weird and simmer with vaguely motivated violence. But he gets flummoxed fast, mainly by Macreedy’s technique of questioning the literal logic of any insinuated threat. Long enough to look like he’s going to bow the hotel bed, boots surely ruining the bedspread, and glowering intently at his burning cigarette, Hector’s materialization in Macreedy’s room is a calculated intrusion of lanky non sequitur. In this match, Hector loses, unable to be more startling than an old man in a bathrobe who refuses to act the least bit surprised.

Meanwhile, Ernest Borgnine as Coley chortles and bounces about like a fleshy rubber ball with a grinning, google-eyed goblin face painted on it. He is giggly with delight over the opportunity to bully anyone, as if he has been deprived of opportunity for years. Macreedy stares at Coley, memorizes his opponent’s malevolent hop-about, until Coley dances to the end of his chain, and lashes out in a vehicular attack on a desert road, and in a perhaps even greater violation, dumps a whole bunch of ketchup all over Macreedy's chili. Macreedy seems to endure the outbursts only to gather facts and figures, place the violence in a diagram of Coley’s attack pattern. Next time the issue is raised, Macreedy swats Coley out of the way like a slow-pitch softball. It's one-armed judo precision against an inept berserker telegraphing his moves.

John J. Macreedy makes his way to the outskirts of Black Rock, to the ruins of Komoko’s farm at Adobe Flats. He paces. He crouches. He studies the depth of a well, the composition of the dirt, the flora of the area. It takes three minutes, and he has sized up the situation. Adobe Flats gives up all the backstory that the citizens will not; the dirt and plants and rocks and holes do not care who is coolest.

“I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad,” Reno Smith tells Macreedy. The town heavy is Robert Ryan, whose career-long refinement of tough-souled goodies and baddies suppressing a psychotic streak is distilled into this pared-away Big Boss tyrant. Reno holds the town in hand by virtue of a few more IQ points, and at least understands the game they are playing. Do not flinch, do not back away, do not break eye contact first: Who is the Coolest? He is actually “mad” all the time, constantly fuming at flunkies Coley and Hector, and the entire colony of Black Rock. What he really means, though, is that man-size is determined by what makes a fellow completely lose his shit. For Reno, and by his own account, it took Pearl Harbor. So he’s at least as big a man as the entire country. And what’s bigger than that? For Macreedy, it takes the whole of the species’ fears, cowardice, inhumanity and intolerance.

Both men have already erupted in loud preaching, but only one lost an arm fighting for the country; the other incited a mob to murder. Reno gives a flame-eyed speech about desire to protect the Western country he knows, while Macreedy’s righteous rant is truly about personal bravery and individuality, his breaking point breached when the nitwit hotel clerk is too chickenshit to stand up for himself. When these symbolmen finally duke it out, it’s Reno the enraged, irrational, indignant going nuts with a gun, while Macreedy, beleaguered and persecuted, defends himself with methodical Molotov cocktails. All speechifying becomes irrelevant. Everything they mean and stand for is observable in how they fight, defined by their combat in the last round of Who is the Coolest? If Reno is the Big Boss of Black Rock, Macreedy has him beat. He’s bigger than the whole damned town.

Meanwhile, Hector’s shirttails flop out again, and billow in the hot breeze.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.12 - "Omega"

Dollhouse Season One debuts on DVD and Blu-Ray disc in one week. In celebration, Exploding Kinetoscope presents the season-finale-proper installment of "Active Engagement" (held back to artificially create excitement and demand!)...


Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: Get out your knotcraft manual. Alpha has left with an Echo Imprinted with an old Whiskey personality. They play Mickey and Mallory Knox, kidnap a girl called Wendy, and retire to Alpha's lair. Alpha pumps Caroline into Wendy's head, causes a Composite Event in Echo by cramming in all her Imprints at once. Knighting the composite as "Omega", Alpha's convoluted Nietzschean plan is supposed to end with Omega blasting brain out of Wendy-cum-Caroline: Echo has to kill her weak former self to ascend to godhood. Meanwhile, Agent Ballard grudgingly assists the Dollhouse in locating the escapees, and the 'House grudgingly explains Alpha's backstory (quick: he was insane prior to Doll-ing, remains insane), and Dr. Saunders has, like, the shittiest day of all. In the end, Ballard sort-of triumphs in saving a girl, but mostly sells his soul. Whatcha' gonna do?


DUTCHOVEN 1.12 - "Oh My God --"

Janani: -- because we have a Hawaiian president...

because that Beck song enhances memory retrieval no matter which story you are in...

because 38 personalities blended together = a) Faith? and b) a new self and a new life, no matter what Echo says, and the Caroline-wedge should have shattered on the pavement...

because man, that was some silly acting all around except for ...

Whiskey,

who walks off with the entire show in her lab coat pocket,

not because she knows who she is,

but because she's decided it.

for now.

Chris: Yes, I say... Bravo.

And I am delighted that Mutant Enemy spent so much of their music budget on a Beck song. They usually only spring for unsigned and indie artists (usually, yes. BtVS highlights were Cibo Matto, Aimee Mann, er, Sarah McLachlan). "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" was, pointedly, last heard on the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack.

Knowing full well that the season would end with slow gliding pans across each character in isolation and pondering what we have all just been through -- a Whedon classic, though given the producers' better taste in music, The Sopranos may trump our boy on this one -- I'd been hoping for weeks that the song for this inevitable montage would be:



Actually, readers should just keep playing this as they skim this conversation and shrug their shoulders.


JS: Nobody will shrug once they see this graphic for the ages!


Echo may reset at zero each week, but every imprint interacts with the previous ones in ways unknowable, every imprint represents an irreversible enlargement of the world, every imprint strays beyond the boundaries expected by the Dollhouse and, later, by Alpha. And at the end we have this seashell-like aggregate - an abstract (also "crapstract") rendering of the brain of PolyEcho.

You hoped long back that Echo would learn from her various personalities, that she wouldn't shed them but carry them with her and find them useful. Looking at this, I realize that PolyEcho is wrong when she says, "none of these is me." Individually none may be, but collectively they are her -- and they're no less legitimate than the single Caroline lifeline preceding them! Of course, in the blending of imprints, the more brash and athletically inclined ones won out (didja see Esther in there anywhere? or Alice? even Margaret? oops) -- but, after all this, how can one return to being a mere Caroline? I was creeped by the sight of Madeline Costley returning to her "life" minus a clue, and Caroline should not do the same. What struck me most about Ballard rescuing the Caroline-wedge was the fact that that wedge now seems... impoverished. Seeing Ballard save it was like watching someone lunge for an old cassette -- sentimental value, sure. But the songs are dated and it's time for something new.


CS: The Dollhouse "self" is a mystery on par with the Buffyverse "soul". And too, this central philosophical question is used as a nearly identical plot device. Angel's detachable soul, like Caroline's wedge of consciousness in "Omega", gets waved around and endangered as a truly strange and disconcerting suspense device all the time. Topher sneers at Ballard's accusation that "you steal their souls": "Yeah. And then we put 'em in a glass jar with our fireflies." (Mutant Enemy has, in fact, captured souls in jars, and what is Firefly but nine souls in a jar hurtling through space?) But... but...

We've back and forthed about the degree to which Echo's Imprints are in/valid experiences. We seem to have our ladders against the same wall on that one. The show is even more preoccupied with their authenticity, but concedes to no definitive answers. We weren't in Echo's Imprint-glutted head, nor Alpha's, so it is impossible to say what that felt like -- were they all of those composited people? None of them? Their self-selves with added fighting prowess and radio static? An all-one super-empathetic creature or a sucking void of identity: Universal Mother or Nowhere Man? As Alpha is nuts and Caroline is overwhelmed, I doubt their testimony is fully trustworthy.

Dollhouse also seems to believe strongly in an unshakable Core Self, alterable perhaps through life experiences but untouchable by Topher's Twinkie-smeared fingers. Ballard calls it a soul and says that it can't go away, Topher says "their whaaat?" and that he can erase that, DeWitt says it is "not relevant." I'm not sure I am inclined to agree with Ballard, Topher or Mutant Enemy on the matter of where consciousness stems from. It seems to me that consciousness is such a specific byproduct of how ones personal synapses fire, individual body-chemistry, the accidents and choice-chains, the developmental history that leads us to the moment... you can't stick a developed personality in another brain for the same reason you can't replace a Chevy Vega engine with a baboon heart. The hardware can't process that information, right? This isn't me being unwilling to suspend disbelief -- it's that the fantastic premise diverges from the stem in such a way that it may not be able to provide answers to its own question. Yet in the end I get the feeling that perhaps Dollhouse knows this, and hints at such.

In the moment, 1000-Imprint-Echo is wrong -- the voice saying "none of these is me" is being generated by the "me"s, but she's right, none, nor the composite girl is Caroline as she existed before entering the Dollhouse... and the wrong-embodied Caroline is now altered by witnessing the events.

Topher and Ballard's arguments are particularly wonderful, and I love the way Tim Minear writes them not so much in disagreement with one another but talking past each other; they aren't defining their terms or listening. Ballard insists "I still don't believe you can wipe away a person's soul" but means "who they are at their core." All Topher hears is a traditionally spiritual/mystical term and shoots back "good luck with that God thing," though no one has mentioned God at all. Topher scoffs, but only because he does not call those things "souls." The Buffyverse Soul is a physical aspect which can be captured in glass jars and sent to Heaven and Hell, but that wispy glowing thing is just a metaphor for (an aspect of?) consciousness. Its function is never fully explicated but seems to be some gut-level instincts of humanity, specifically a tendency to feel remorse and empathize with emotional pain. The soul Ballard is talking about seems to simply mean the incorruptible spark of Self, and Topher does worry about those -- he stores them on circuit boards. He knows/believes they can be eradicated, both by Chair (and death?), but can't force himself to admit that if he needs equipment and process to make it go away, that means it is there.

There is a problem with much speculative fiction that prods at its own What If? for moral lessons, in that they often do not follow through. Two Spielbergian examples: Minority Report asks what is dangerous about preemptively punishing crimes which have not yet occurred but will occur. Answer: the system might be wrong, misinterpreted, or sabotaged. BZZT. Wrong. The question was supposed to be "what's dangerous when it works perfectly?" Jurassic Park tries to adapt Crichton's allegory about what happens when human minds try to grapple with chaotic systems and come up short; instead of a black comic allegory of the limits of an ambitious species to intervene in the complexity of nature, we just wonder if the park would've worked if a jerk hadn't sabotaged it. JP The Movie still delivers a fine story about the sanctity of death and robust vengeance of nature, but the What If? is off balance.

Dollhouse and "Omega" give forum to a lot of loudmouthed opinions and perspectives, but the final say is given to the quietest voice, whispering to herself, unheard by others but curious and confident: Dolled Echo in bed tells herself "Caroline." Nobody else was 100% right, and it seems acknowledgment that the premise is not possible and that consciousness is existence's central mystery. What If you could erase a personality from a body and give it a new one? Well you can't, because the personality is a function of the specific brain and therefore reliant on its specific body, the body a product of experiences accumulated by the mind. We have witnessed many brainwashings, deaths of minds and bodies, backups of selves placed on disc, and Imprints gone without incident... yet the last moment of the season resists postulation of a mind-body duality, and the hour is absurd existential brain-in-jar slapstick that may/may not agree. Third option, too, and my favorite, least tied to politic, theology or science, is Dr. Saunders 2.0, who looks at her cards, grimaces at the hand dealt, and plays it as best she can: "I know who I am." She's not whoever-she-was-before, she's not Whiskey, she's not Crystal, can't even be nice Dr. Saunders. Her past circumstances washed away, simply by being made aware of them: the first step in navigating a maze is knowing you are in a maze. Given no solid foundations, Whiskey is free to rebuild how ever she damn well pleases.

"I know who I am"? Sure, Whiskey. But consider that the proper chaser -- for anyone at any time -- may be "I know who I am... Whoever that is."


JS: For me this episode was not only about "whoever" but about “wherever," ringing vividly in Ballard’s question

WHERE’S KEPLER?

which is really a metaphysical question:

WHERE IS THE KEPLER I KNOW?

Gone, Paulie, gone. Untraceable and irretrievable not only in physical coordinates, but temporally too. Time swallows identity; again and again we feel the flush and satisfaction of certainty about how we are, who our fellows are -- and, just as reliably, its fade (even Echo's whispered "Caroline" seems like a brief flare to me, no more). Ballard's “you can’t wipe away who someone is at their core…” talk dissolves in the air -- which someone and when? whose is theirs? can someone have multiple cores? And by the time we watch Omega/Echo/Caroline face off against Alpha/Alpha/Carl vs. Carolined Wendy, the usually helpful markers of "me," "you," "us," "ours," "mine," "yours," "not yours" have been exposed for what they are: the weakest of struck matches, the rottenest of basement steps in the dark. The episode cracks several great severed-mind jokes ("baby, meet yourself" and "I'll blow your brain out" and "your head...which is my head" being among my favorites) and by the climactic lair-battle has blown to bitsy pieces the promise of a secure, uniform, integrated, indivisible, monadic Self -- hey, what if a self is a crowd? You mean a man is not an island but an...archipelago?

One of your great loves in Buffy and in JW storytelling in general seems to be the practice, the discipline, indeed the ethic of immediately problematizing any idea or motto that has become too stable and comfortable. Dollhouse blows raspberries at "I have control of my body," it confounds "I belong to my body," it stomps all over "I belong to my brain and my brain belongs to me and I alone control my brain"...it even recognizes the overemphasis on Wendy's body as the repository of Caroline's Self and, before Omega gets too confident in that correspondence, the show puts a bullet in Wendy's throat. As fast as a certainty can begin to form, it gets shot down. (Note of appreciation: while watching I had to pause every 15-20 seconds for notes, and just to keep track of all the former strands being woven and hyperbraided, threads pulled from everywhere, all the ends tucked back in.) In the end I'm left thinking -- even if Omega + Wendy + a wedge = a problem of three minds and two bodies, even if nobody's parts are stuck where they should be... are we really worse off than we were before?


So... this is what the famous Composite Event is all about. We've seen Dominic fret about Echo resembling Alpha before his Composite Event -- whether occurring naturally or by wild teevee coincidence/SYENCE MISHAP, Compositing presents something to fear, something creepy and unmanageable. But Dominic needn't have feared Echo cutting up a bunch of people (it seems that you have to hone the knifework before you get Dolled). Nor does it seem strictly necessary to have 30+ voices roaring in your head. To have truly Composited you need to comprehend 100% that you are a Doll, in the Dollhouse, who receives Imprints -- a creature with history who acts, will act, and has been acted upon; you need to grasp that you have not only a present but a past, a future. You also need to experience a definite separation from, breakage from, confrontation with your past-self - how you conduct yourself toward that self, that person who is no longer you, says worlds about how you're going to tackle the future; and so Alpha smashes Carl, Omega tries (maybe too hard) to save Caroline. It's especially interesting to me that Omega revives from her Composition in extreme rage, waking up on the wrong side of the chair, so to speak. How did the anger kick in so quickly -- how did she know, almost with an infant's basic animal intuition of distress, that Alpha "wanted her to kill herself," translated to "YOU WISHED ME HARM?" Does Composition rejuvenate the emotions as well as the intelligence and pipe-handling skills? ("Omega, you hit me with a pipe!" is probably my favorite line of the episode...)

But WAIT! Alpha's "I understand hell now" and Echo's "Now I understand everything" are not the only wakeup utterances, they are not the only ones aware and observant of the people swarming through them and the complexities of their newly crowded "selves." As you hinted, Whiskey's "I know who I am" is also the rueful footnote to a successful natural Composite Event. Maybe not according to Topher's specs -- she may not be in conscious dialogue with a million other Imprints, she hasn't handled and destroyed her own wedge, she hasn't gotten to stand face to face with her "self" and wipe her "own" mascara-loused cheeks... but wait, she sort of has. On a computer screen. And it makes her ask: WHERE IS THE SAUNDERS I KNOW? The answer is: right here. Topher and Langton are both righter than they knew -- the transformations they effect are childbirth and dying rolled into one, one self dying to make way for a new. There is no going back to being Pure Carl, to Pure Caroline, or Pure Amy Acker. Ballard may have been partly right -- "you can't wipe away who someone is" -- but he was also partly wrong -- you also can't wipe away EVERYONE ELSE THEY ARE AND HAVE BEEN. “I can slip into them... they slip into me… they hollowed me out… there’s no me. I’m just a container," says Omega... but it's not true. Omega's not just-a-container any more than Saunders II, handing out lollipops like her "father" before her. These new selves may not be superior, but they are, in fact, larger and ampler than the selves that preceded them.

Returning to Alpha, I did wish for more coherence in his story and in the ongoing murmurs about "being one's best." Really, what do the Dolls mean when they say this? Do they even have the ability not to try their best, to sabotage themselves? What does not-best mean to them, and if they don't experience jealousy or self-loathing or the basic ability to compare themselves to others, does it even matter? Are they kept on a sort of gentle cruise control, urged mildly to use all their capabilities, to Keep Trying? In the end, the BESTEST ECHO also seems to be Alpha's creation, a fantasy as thin as Lars's or any other Dollhouse customer's; in a way he's the last customer of the season, although he grabbed her for free and does his Imprinting in-house. (It's also not a long step from Alpha and his penchant for "art"work to Topher and his wedges -- when you think about it, those represent hundreds of hours of careful crafting.) And so the artist raves at his muse, "I thought you were exceptional..." an exceptional what? Exceptionalism is its own reward, it seems. When he lectures Omega about Ascending and Perfecting, he's pretty much ceased to see her at all, and by the time he's threatening endless clonings and killings of Carolines, he seems to be improvising madly, or at least considerably off his intended script. I wish he hadn't unravelled so, but he didn't know that he gets thirteen more episodes to torment Adelle and Co., so maybe he'll roar back next season saner and more lethal.


CS: Like the man says, "Wherever you go, there you are." You "are" who you are in the microsecond of self-evaluation, in whatever chamber you make that stock check. Even when the history that leads you there includes passages of not behaving "like yourself" or, say, total memory wipes. Whether we like the circumstances or not, choose to move the ball by hand or alter the landscaping, the game is always, as the golfers know, to play it where it lays. That can sound nice, can serve as a center from which to muster strength, but as Dr. Saunders Mark II demonstrates, it can be awfully cold comfort. Except...

Except -- as we rotate the board -- you may be frozen in place in someone else's perception, memory... conception. The on-screen evidence is that November gets her pre-Dollhouse self back, unscathed. She gets to go back. Who's to say if her "who they are at their core" ever went away, but she is evidently unscathed and unchanged by the experience; time will tell if that sticks. Whiskey/Saunders begins to understand this too, in her shell-shocked confrontation with Topher. He built her not only as a reflection/repository of his self-loathing, but with the talent via computer skills and psychiatric training to eventually throw it back in his face. It is not so odd as Whiskey supposes that Topher's means of coping with the moral struggles of the job is to unload his doubt and pain into an Active. What is odd is that he builds her as a self-untying knot.

And too, many convoluted logical hoops are conjured, set aflame and leapt through to illustrate that, for all his multi-'Print megalomania, Alpha is still Carl At Heart. His belief in a core self "soul" belittled at every turn, Ballard is rather validated in the sickest, least reassuring way. Once a mentally ill face-slasher, forever a mentally ill face-slasher. Which, of course, begs a question you have also begged for: "soul" means "who they are, at their core"... so what does that mean? Carl's psychosis is his core? Echo's is the spirit of resistance? What's Topher's? Wait, I know:

We may both be falling into some logical and emotional traps, avoiding others. Any potential homily (at worst) or grand, definitive statement (at best) is given a counterweight, contradiction or, yes, stomping, smushing, tearing. Dollhouse thwarts deterministic message-seeking critics and, thus far, the more didactic tendencies of the artists themselves. I admit to erring in that direction sometimes. On an auto-reactive level we may want to agree with the ultimate conclusions of the work, but that does not always happen, and Dollhouse sets everybody up for a perpetual fall. I mean, who thought they could walk right in, when everybody knows the Dollhouse is invisible? We are both normally high minded about this, but Dollhouse is designed not just to baffle our assumptions about from whence identity stems, but to unsettle. No matter one's pet philosophies, favored neuroscience reports or abiding faith, Dollhouse has something to flap your unflappables. It is a Voight-Kampff test designed to get you to flinch and blush. Moving into the flinch and blush, then...

It only now occurs to me that one of the spooky ideas floating around in Dollhouse is that any of us could have signed up for a five-year mission and no longer remember it. What may have happened to or been committed by any of us in those pockets of life we do not recall? Plot fact acknowledged: Actives apparently do remember the act of signing their contract. Which, gut-level again, I would suppose makes matters far worse. Associated Horrors, Inc.! Imagine waking with this knowledge. I admit, pushing aside all theory and politic, the first unshakable question would be "who had sex with me?" We cannot pretend in some abstract realm that this does not matter -- we would not dare tell the Active's real-life equivalent that the experience does not matter because she blacked out. And yet, this one might fade, with the larger, if less traumatic, issue: what did I do in this world, and am I responsible?

It is difficult as well to reconcile the problems of Caroline The Ideal, the Body, the Wedge and the Omega. We can intellectualize it, but the girl should by all rights fight for her mind back if it is available. Whatever silliness, useless protest rally and Phish concerts may be stored in that wedge, Caroline worked hard to accumulate that collection. She oughtta be attached to it. And whether I think it is "possible," I rather like uberEcho and disembodied-Caroline's attachment to Caroline's body, beyond just the obvious, "soul"-deep and likely near universal desire for your consciousness to remain united with its body while still alive and on the planet. Contrast with Margaret of "Haunted", who was all to happy to be shed of her body, never sinking in that her identity was being damaged, bent or just changed by Echo's shell. Not in a biochemical sense -- Dollhouse hasn't yet gone there, though I would love for them to take that trip -- but in every social interaction. Topher doesn't make Dr. Saunders out of Whiskey. There is Old Doc Saunders in there. There is a community of Dolls in need that make her a "doctor". There is the circumstance of Adelle's approval of inmates as Actives, and Whiskey's scarring by Alpha that put her on in-house duty. It takes everyone's help to make a You!

Ooh, Alpha's plan. I'll 'fess up to what was either a bad call or a reaction to a strange set-up. It looked all season like Alpha's plan was to aid Caroline in self-actualization. Not totally off-base, but a little to the left. Alpha wants Echo to Become. More to the point, rather than Dollhouse becoming a cautionary tale of how all this brain-futzing leads to the inevitable creation of a terrifying Übermensch, it leads to the creation of a beast too nutzo to predict. Alpha's plan looks less like a season-long perfect storm than a series of jabs and dodges. He's definitely playing Xanatos Speed Chess by the middle of "Omega", if not all season. This makes Alpha's approach to Dollhouse-infiltration and Caroline-rescue not unlike Ballard's, though Alpha lands blows while Ballard lands only on his face.

But look at that. Agent Ballard saved the Girl. Not through punching. Not through good police work. His biggest action hero success of the season is standing beneath Echo and catching a circuit board. In that moment, he is receptive. Oh, he is dogged, persistent, strives to be noble -- and by these standards does rather well, the rescue even less impressive than refusing to interfere in the life of Madeleine Costley*. So note again, Agent Ballard saved the Girl. Not by busting in, gun blazing, badge flashing, no prince with sword drawn.

He makes a deal with the Dollhouse.

*er, this is not gonna go well for Maddy.


JS: He'll have the summer to think about that. As will we. Until July 28th and "Epitaph One"! Thanks for letting me blog with you, Topher.

AND ME TOO

AND ME

DON'T FORGET ME


Uh...all of them say thanks too.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Darkest Art: HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Written in November 2005. Four years of distance has not made Mike Newell's Potter film any more coherent or compelling. Side-by-side comparison with the maddening Order of the Phoenix, however, might gain Goblet of Fire some points. In any case, feel free to wince all over again, as now-irrelevant notes evaluate how well Goblet does or does not set up Phoenix. End result was: it didn't matter.

These notes were written for a small audience of friends already familiar with the novels. So they buzz through information that readers know, take the form of pro/con checklists, and are aimed to evaluating the success of the adaptation process.


Plotio: Harry Potter, Magical Childe, just wants to get a date to the dance, and make it through the Tri-Wizard Tournament international witch contest without getting smashed by a dragon. But his nemesis Lord Voldemort (previously a face stuck to the back of a head) has a scrawny little body now, and is grumpier than ever!

Every-Favor Spoilers ahead! Books! Movies! Unwritten books and unfilmed movies! ALL SPOILED!

In an early scene of Goblet of Fire the Weasleys, Diggorys, and Harry trudge of a hill in the British countryside at sun up. Director Mike Newell's camera speeds up the scrubby terrain and swings around a lone discarded boot, perched at the top. Newell finds a distinct and fitting look for the film, shooting everything with a sad autumnal golden haze. That dirty boot, back-lit by the cold orange morning sun, revealed like it's the most important, beautiful thing in the world, is the best part of the film.

It's not just a great moment: it's mostly downhill from there.

Look guys, it's the fan-favorite novel. It's 734 pages long. Something was bound to snap. Voldemort's eyes are not red in this movie. But Daniel Radcliffe's aren't green, so whatcha gonna do?

If Chris Columbus' Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets are middling movies and acceptable (and plodding, and rote) adaptations, and Alfonso Cuarón's Azkaban is a great film and decent adaptation, Goblet of Fire is a confused, uneven movie and a singularly poor adaptation. That is the short of it.

The trouble doesn't lie in the inner disgruntled fan of all Rowling readers ("oooh, I wanted to see Charlie Weasley!" "What!? Both Patil twins in Gryffindor?"). The trouble is that the artless gutting of the book consists of lopping out large sections of story, even when they are relevant to the plot. It's a grand story badly told.

Azkaban, in its breathless rush not to be as stodgy as the first two pictures, fumbled a couple opportunities. For example, that notoriously unscratched itch, the plot hiccup in which Harry never learns that the Marauder's Map was created by his father and friends. It's a detail that could have been handled with a single throwaway line of dialogue, and greatly cements a number of story elements. Most importantly it strengthens Harry's bond with his father. It is one thing to long for and idolize an absent father, and another to feel connected because he was just like you and would approve of your specific mischief. It is also a concrete moment of James assisting Harry from "beyond the grave" before the finale when Harry's Patronus takes the form of his dead father. It's variation and theme moment of some power in the novel, lost in the film.

But you ain't seen nothin' compared to Goblet of Fire.


At their core the Harry Potter novels are classical gothic mysteries, and this is a primary gear that makes them go tick-tock. Mike Newell grasps the basics of character relationships, handles the soap opera of the romances well, and understands (if only occasionally demonstrates) the humor of the universe. What he cannot do in any way, and what Rowling excels at, is lay out clues, tease with red herrings, show people investigating, and satisfyingly solve a mystery. The mystery in Goblet of Fire is so hopelessly botched it doesn't register as intrigue.

The trio doesn't solve the mystery of weird-ass new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody's real identity, as they do in the book. Instead, they are helplessly yanked along through the story -- giving Ron and Hermione zero function in the Tri-Wizard or mystery plots -- until the Polyjuice Potion just happens to run out at an inopportune moment and the villain spills his guts. It's a Big Lebowski gag: you didn't solve the mystery, someone just explained it to you.

In the smart and subtle Azkaban, Cuarón could throw out clues you didn't notice until you needed them. In a personal favorite scene, Harry stood in the school clock tower, glowering down over the grounds, foreshadowing the revelation of the Time Turner. In Goblet we are treated to Mad-Eye Moody swigging out of a red-flagged MYSTERIOUS flask after SUSPICIOUSLY making sure no one is watching, and Harry wondering aloud what it could contain, all replete with seemingly unmotivated musical stings and conspiratorial close-ups.


Severus Snape
It is one thing to streamline a detail-crammed novel for the screen, and it's another to end up with an undercooked chop suey of a screenplay in the process. No audience needs a 10-hour Harry Potter movie (though we may "want" one), but this script bears a whiff of "Uh... We Don't Have Time for This." I'll leave it to the unappeasable literalists to complain about what they missed, but here's what does and does not work for me in the film:

Though the opening at the Dursley's is one of the funniest of such episodes in the books, the visits to Privet Drive have begun to feel like chores in the films. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. Bypassing the Dursleys seems harmless, but causes unseen damage to Order of the Phoenix, which offers answers to "why would Harry go home every summer?"

Mercifully, the book's weakest subplot -- Hermione's crusading House Elf liberation society, SPEW -- is excised. Along with it, some assistance offered to Harry by House Elves is gone. This is pretty seamless story-repair in Goblet, but a regrettable result that none of the novels' cumulative thoughts about race issues are going to bear out properly. This through-line climaxes in Phoenix, where Harry understands the true meaning of the fountain in the Ministry of Magic, depicting all the magical races in a Free to Be You and Me pose: the wizarding world is riddled with hypocrisy, fear and denial. [Note: Hey, what'dya know, the SPEW plot truly pays off in Deathly Hallows - good luck to Mr. Kloves, who one presumes is kicking himself right about now. ] A long list of great Potter moments involve these themes -- from Dobby's Emancipation Sock-lamation, to Firenze the centaur's arc in Phoenix -- and the films' inability to plumb these depths is beginning to show. Beyond that, they're simply going to need Winky the Elf in Order of the Phoenix. They're going to need Percy Weasley as well, but hey, thank God we had time for six minutes of Moaning Myrtle looking at Harry's balls in the bathtub.

Rita Skeeter (here: Miranda Richardson) as Rowling writes her, is not a particularly funny character -- apart from the Dursleys and Gilderoy Lockhart, most of her broader caricatures are grating and off-key -- but in the novel Skeeter serves a story function. In the film, she's been deprived of her ultimate fate and most of her power to get under Harry's skin: she's neither punished (literally, or in a meaningful dramatic sense), nor revealed as an animagus. This might be fine, but her storyline is meticulously set up even as the character has been rendered totally superfluous.

Extremely long build-up to the Quidditch World Cup, including fully animated fireworks... and then a smash cut away the second before we can see any of the match. The World Cup itself may not be vital to this tale, but it's doubtful there's an argument why dancing leprechaun fireworks are more important than the pleasure value of finally seeing pro-level Quidditch.


Remus Lupin
The Tri-Wizard Tournament tasks are mostly well-mounted special effects sequences, and the movie's penchant for showing off is appropriate here. But Rowling uses the tasks as far more than just action set pieces, filling them with drama both psychological and symbolic. It is fair to wonder if we're so very short on time why in the first task (dragon egg-stealing) Harry and the Horntail end up clawing along the edge of the Hogwarts roof. The rooftop fingernail-hanging chase is the hack screenwriter's go-to idea of big excitement, and this truth is not diluted by integrating a dragon. Ponder also why in the second task (underwater friend-rescuing), Harry seems more interested in saving a little girl he doesn't know than Hermione. Certainly the thrilling third task, a maze full of Blast-Ended Skrewts and... wait, no, it's a maze full of wind. Wind. I shit you not, friends. Mike Newell and Steve Kloves thought it would be cooler to have wind blow through the maze than a sphinx.

Hey, don't shoot the owl. I just deliver the parchment.

Perhaps it's for the best though. The series has always had creature-design issues (see under Troll), but the beautiful work on the Azkaban hippogriff set a bar so high it looks like even Peter Jackson's King Kong is going to have its work cut out for it. QwikList: beginning with a dodgy CGI snake, the dragons are acceptable and unimaginative, the mermaids are weird, Desiccated Voldemort is cute, and grown-up Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) looks like Modulock from Masters of the Universe.


The Courtship of James Potter & Lily Evans

All wand-carriers, be prepared to explain most, if not all, of the Voldemort plot to your friends. Why does Harry find Barty Crouch knocked out or maybe dead or maybe drunk in the woods? Why is Hagrid taking the kids into the woods in that scene anyway? Why do we cut from finding an important government official dead in the forest to an unrelated scene with no further mention of the incident? What's prior incantatum? If there's no way to bring back the dead, why did Harry see and communicate with his dead parents? What is Crouch Jr.'s fate? Oh, and as long as the movie is called Goblet of Fire, any textual evidence of how Harry's name got in that rascally flame-cup? No? Sorry folks, get a library card.

Story trouble aside -- it's mostly Steve Kloves' Swiss cheese screenplay's fault -- Mike Newell has no affinity for or personal take on this material. Far surpassing even Four Weddings and a Funeral's cheek-pinching preciousness, Goblet of Fire is so whimsical you can feel the sweat-beads, it's whimsying so hard.

Painfully unfunny visual buttons, one-liners and slapstick blows punctuate literally dozens of scenes. The worst offender is probably an otherwise well-tuned scene about George and Fred giving Harry and Ron pointers on getting Yule Ball dates, as Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman) is overseeing a Potions exam (uh, what class is this where fourth-years and sixth-years are sharing tables?). Rickman spends the scene rolling his eyes, huffing, and, in total out-of-character lack of decorum, smacking the boys over the heads. The punchline for this scene is too much of a dud to recount. Snape is too busy hitting students to remember that he can take House points from them. Awkward and beat-too-long too, is an uncomfortable scene with Moaning Myrtle in the prefect's bathtub (Merlin's beard, why did Chris Columbus let Shirley Henderson use that voice? Now we're stuck with it for seven movies!). The film's approach to comedy violates the performers' natural, easy charm and runs counter to the sense of humor already integral to the books.


None of this holds a candle to the moment when the Weird Sisters appear. The wizard rock band, portrayed by Jarvis Cocker, members of Pulp, Radiohead and others, play original pop songs at the Yule Ball. The Ball, Prof. McGonagall has just assured us, is a long-standing formal tradition, to be taken seriously. Don't believe it for a second. The embarrassing songs couldn't be more inappropriate or rupture this fantasy world more if the Weird Sisters were "Weird Al" Yankovic. In this pivotal moment, Newell strip-mines the series' integrity.

Newell just doesn't seem to get the wizarding world. He unveils every magical event with a flourish and a trilling musical sting and someone's jaw dropping in glass-eyed wonder. Harry himself can barely believe that -- get this -- the inside of a tent is larger than it appears outside. Not only was Dr. Who not allowed at the Dursley's, but Harry has apparently forgotten that he is a wizard, has been for four years, and that most of the people he knows are wizards. Demonstrating again that Azkaban was a special gift that may not be repeated, recall how Cuarón's camera would pan past throw-away magical gags (moving photos, self-pouring teakettles, the Leaky Cauldron being invisibly tidied-up) like they were no big deal. In this world of everyday magic, they aren't a big deal.

That Newell blows it so very badly most of the time makes it surprising and more frustrating when he gets it right. The new magical device of portkeys is set up with confidence (though in action they look like standard CG squish-n-swirl). The mechanics of the pensieve are a little muddy in explanation, but play out well. A marvelous scene in the DADA classroom gracefully explains the Unforgivable Curses. What could be a confusing or encyclopedia-entry exposition scene -- recall the Rules of Quidditch sequence in Sorcerer's Stone -- explores not just the rules of the curses, but their allure and moral complications, investigates Moody's character, and has a chilling turn in tone from laughter to horror as the class realizes the implications of the Imperius Curse.

There are a couple of smart detail shifts away from the text, like Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) giving Harry the gillyweed he needs to compete in the second task. Neville is one of Rowling's most elegantly written characters, and his increased role in Goblet is welcome and will make his growth in Phoenix even more profound. But the impact of revelations about the Longbottom family are nil here, another miscalculation so gross your muggle friends won't even notice the plot point unless you tell them. Kudos to Mr. Lewis anyway on his sweet performance. Neville's preparations and late return from the Yule Ball are the first time a supporting Hogwarts student has registered as a complex human being. Now if only he didn't have those horrid fake teeth.

Daniel Radcliffe is a superb Harry, sincere and churning, conjuring up with conviction any number of nameless emotions. Another of the God-they-nailed-it scenes takes place in the empty owlery, as Harry asks out Cho Chang (Katie Leung). It's perfectly staged, and beautifully played. It's not just a scene about having a crush on someone and being turned down. From Harry, through rejection, there's that slightest twinge of creeping arrogance: what do you mean someone's asked you? I'm Harry Potter. And from Cho that great response: sorry. Really and truly sorry, but... sorry. This lays exciting groundwork for the characters' heart-rending and painful scenes in Phoenix.


Cho's selection of enormous leg-warmers in the film is a startling character choice.

Radcliffe and Rupert Grint are both improving vastly, giving funny and nuanced performances. It's Ron's indignation in his fight with Harry that brings his family's underdog fire back into the story. It's Harry's reaction on returning from Hell with another child's body at the end of the Tournament that literally brings tragedy home. Emma Watson mostly overacts, wriggling her eyebrows around and stuttering like Newell thinks he's directing Hugh Grant. She redeems herself thoroughly in the Yule Ball scenes, as Hermione finally cracks her nerd-chic facade and tells Ron the worst thing he can hear. And really, it's not her fault Hermione has nothing to do in this movie.

Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps) are hysterical this go-round, though Kloves has missed something key about the characters: their inventiveness and ambition. They are self-confident and anti-authoritarian jokers, but the film makes them out as total goofs, and there is no indication that they can become triumphant self-made men. Anyway, it's nice to see them register as people.


For the rest of the cast: Robbie Coltrane is still a pitch perfect Hagrid (sadly his relationship with Madame Maxime is robbed of its dimension of racial self-acceptance by the whitewashing screenplay). Michael Gambon continues to surpass to Richard Harris' perfectly acceptable but uncomplicated take on Dumbledore. Gambon plays more to the flickering benevolent madness in those reassuring eyes. You can't be the most powerful wizard in the world without being a little scary.

Clémence Poésy as Fleur Delacour is a lovely non-entity, and so, far as the movie is concerned, entirely human. The entrance of the ladies of Beauxbatons is fine enough (uh, where'd the boys go? No matter), but again, Ron's infatuation Fleur goes nowhere but fizzling punchline. David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr. is godawful, his spastic, performance tipping off the solution to the final mystery in the stroke of one mannered facial tic repeated ad nauseum. He gives Timothy Spall as Wormtail a run for most obnoxious overstated acting.

Ralph Fiennes does the best under the circumstances that he possibly can. Voldemort as he appears in this story, while sadistic and gross is not scary. The dialogue is arch; the motivations are puerile and uninteresting. The character remains this way after Half-Blood Prince, where his damaged soul is out in the open air, but in the meantime, we must deal with this cardboard boogeyman.

Brendan Gleeson's take on Mad-Eye Moody is miles away from the potential locked in the part, and plays cartoonish and dopey. Rowling's Moody is scary and gruff, undomesticated and dangerous, but commanding of respect: he's smarter, tougher and worldlier than you. The part is begging for Tom Waits or Ron Pealman. Gleeson is certainly dirty-looking, but there's no hint that he's the roughest toughest meanest hombre in the aurer biz. The costume, however, is top-notch!


Costume design has always been remarkable in the Potter films, and it's one of the areas where Goblet is still distinguished. However, the continued decrease in school uniforms is distressing. The set decoration is suffering here too. These films have never been particularly good at conveying the feeling that Hogwarts is a functioning school, but in Goblet the House colors are almost nowhere to be seen.

The movie ends on a flat note with the trio promising not to write each other over the summer. The Durmstrang and Beauxbatons transports depart in pretty special-effects ways. And we may realize that the best part was a kid getting turned down for a date in a dung-covered owl roost. The best part was a raggedy boot sitting on a hill. Rowling's is a dingy, battered, rainy, foggy, sooty, sad and beautiful world. And Mike Newell only gets it in his muggle-grip for a few moments.


Sirius Black

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Boy with the Thorn in his Side Who Lived : HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

This review of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was written in June 2004. My opinion of Cuarón's filmmaking in Azkaban has grown even higher in the wake of the dull-spirited films following the third entry, and stance on the screenplay remains up in the air. The Azkaban script is certainly full of holes and missteps, but can only look like a masterpiece next to the slash-and-burn nonsense of Goblet and Phoenix. Either way, it remains a wrestling match between this and A Little Princess as Cuarón's best film.

I also note how very much I used to love parenthetical asides.


This school year Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, hair finally as unruly as it should be), boy-wizard, is troubled by further ramifications of his parents' death at the hands of magic-Hitler Voldemort. Suspected You-Know-Who henchman and convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, dressed as Charles Manson) is escaped from Azkaban prison, and certainly zeroing in on destiny-confounded Potter. Little will play out as expected from there.

Alfonso Cuarón has eyes that do not see like yours, and the skill to make you see with them. What has carried Cuarón's films through their uniformly shaky narratives, is remarkable visual invention and sensitivity. This is not the same gift possessed by Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam, whose hand-crafted cartoonish visuals that proles call "eye-candy" match their cockeyed storytelling, cramming beautiful sets full of interesting design— though Prisoner of Azkaban is beautifully designed, to be sure. I mean that Cuarón has Werner Herzog eyes. Nic Roeg eyes. Every shot is infused with a sense of poetry that doesn't have a lot to do with special effects. He's right for this material because he finds a graceful cinematic language for exploring the material.

It is in the silent-picture style fuzzy iris-in that Cuarón uses as his main transitional device. It is in the observant light-play pre-title scene (the qualities of light under a white sheet) that turns into a giggly dirty joke (Harry furtively practicing magic under his covers). It is in the hyperventilating motion-blur of the film's closing scene, that puts one in mind of Zero for Conduct or young Godard: while the special effect of a flying broomstick was likely expensive, the decision to end with on a blurry close-up freeze-frame was not. Chris Columbus' charming but thuddingly literal films seem like expository bludgers as Azkaban speeds past them like a joyful Golden Snitch.

Cuarón's film is interested in weather above all, and for the first time Hogwarts and environs seem to be set in a hidden outback of the English countryside. Every form of precipitation and cloud-cover known to man are lovingly detailed. A whole suspense sequence is built out of Ron Weasley's hand against a pane of fogging glass. The late autumnal chill pervades and the schoolchildren's pasty white faces glow out of a murk that finally fits J.K. Rowling's melancholic vision. Rowling is an avowed fan of comic mope-rockers The Smiths: like Morrissey, her strongest storytelling tools are English gloom, ironic self-effacement and outsider's pain. Her wizarding world is rife with murder mysteries, ghost stories, and her hero's tale is primarily about coping with and growing up in the wake of the death of one's parents. To be fair, Columbus managed some of the atmospherics necessary for a cracking Gothic mystery, but here the entire landscape is depressed.


A Man Escaped II: Escape from Wizard Island!

The energy that binds the film together is about this feeling of confidence. Cuarón trusts that background details work better when left in the background (those Mexican candy skulls in Honeydukes, Lupin's spinal cord candles, or even the Headless Hunt), or perfect little cameos (the boy's dormitory consuming novelty animal-roar candies instead of having belching contests). Trusts that we can join a Quidditch match mid-game. Trusts us to keep track of throw-away clues with little reiteration. Likewise, the at-first baffling relocation of the Whomping Willow is to be forgiven by it's slight design overhaul (it's more sinewy than the ugly knob it resembled in Chamber of Secrets), and that it just works better there. The thematic maturation is in the source material, the storytelling confidence is heartening.

But... for every plot detail the film wisely streamlines, it botches another two.

Avoiding turning this into a book review, Rowling has set up an unbelievably complex narrative structure for her novels, in which every book follows the same rough patterns: starting at the Dursley's, a wild journey to the school, trouble with the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, with the Quidditch season, and House Cup competition, and an honest-to-God clues-and-suspects mystery as the guiding structural beams in each book. But the over-arch of the entire seven-novel story has to cohere. And we arre also, at least in our lifetime, caught up in the soap opera serial romances and political intrigues. This sometimes works, though in Books 4 and 5, Rowling's lumpy untrained writer's narrative sense is more charming than useful.

Rowling's far better at constructing a satisfying mystery than Cuarón (if there is further doubt, see every plot revelation in his Great Expectations) and screenwriter Steve Kloves. You might not get much sense of exactly how terrified the wizarding world is, of the Prisoner of Azkaban himself. Or the nature of how he "betrayed" the Potters. And you'll be hard-pressed to figure how he escaped from Azkaban. And you may be confused as to why Prof. Lupin recognizes the Marauder's Map, why there seem to be no ghosts in the Shreiking Shack, though it has been driven home that it is "the most haunted building in Britain," or why Harry's patronus is suddenly in the form of a white stag. It is also jarring that there is no mention of the House Cup competition, which was a compelling narrative through-line in the first two films, and that the Quidditch season apparently ends because Gryffindor's seeker wrecks his broom.

Rowling's strengths are story and character, but the movie's design team's got her whipped, hands-down for visual invention. It is her admittedly ace idea that Azkaban's guards, the Dementors, are clinical depression made manifest. The Dementors are realized looking like pale, rotting pumpkins wrapped in robes of moldering black burlap, swirling through the skies like koi tails gliding through water. Hogwarts itself, while fundamentally the same design, is exploited far better, both visually and thematically; the castle is certainly lit and shot to look older, used, and as if it could actually house a Chamber of Secrets. Constant revisitation of a giant clock built into the castle is a recurring motif that reminds one that Sirius Black draws ever near, prefigures a third-act timepiece-related revelation, and provides an unexpected visual quote from The Shining, as Harry, in black, glowers through the glass face of the clock tower like Jack Torrance over the Overlook's hedge maze. Azkaban also makes more use of the living paintings decorating the castle halls, a grazing giraffe wandering through dozens of frames finally leads us to the end of a sequence, just as a rolling crystal ball, escaped from the Divination classroom, unites another.

Speaking of that Divination class, Emma Thompson's turn as Prof. Sybill Trelawney may look cartoonish, but it's a one-joke character (how can she see the future when she can barely make out the present?), comic relief by design. And be assured, her moments will come. She's funny and grotesque, and the staff member that seems to share Dumbledore's daft and intuitive nature, and it is right that she clash with Hermione (the trio's intellect) and shine to Ron (the heart).

The entire cast seems to have upped their game as if to compensate for shorter screen-time. The Boy Who Lived mostly has the job of feeling increasingly persecuted, what with this the fourth major attempt on his life. Fear and anger pervade, as they will for some time, and Radcliffe gets to hide some of his anguish under an invisibility cloak, but certainly sells his most challenging scene, in which Harry vows to get revenge on Sirius. Perhaps inspired by his personal hero, Gary Oldman, or maybe just having practiced his craft, it's Radcliffe's best performance, and if his fine readings in the final showdown with Peter Pettigrew are any indication, he will be up to the challenges ahead.

Emma Watson has always been talented enough to play Hermione as not just smart and capable, but compensating for her mixed-blood background. Here she colors the part additionally with stressed-out overachiever snippiness, and the awkwardness with romance that all adolescents feel... but nerds feel more deeply. She's more attractive than Rowling's Hermione, which is happy for Emma Watson, but unfortunately undermines some wonderful moments in Goblet of Fire.

Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley is mostly wasted in the film as comic relief, and is waylaid in the medical wing for the third act. The character has more depth than has been explored -- his readiness to make sacrifices for friends, and his impoverished roots are critical to the continuing story. But his slighting in this chapter is only fair given that Hermione spends half of Chamber of Secrets in a state of petrification.

Michael Gambon's Dumbledore seems less grandfatherly and more like the most powerful wizard of his age, albeit gone slightly mad. I prefer his take on the character: Hogwarts now seems less like a project he oversees because he loves children, and more like a home for his fellow headcases of all ages.


It's time for 3rd Year Potions!

Gary Oldman takes a character that's a bit of a cipher in the novels, and makes the problems of Sirius Black's contradictions work for him. He's been tortured to the brink of madness by Dementors, guilt and vengeful rage. But when he does that difficult about-face in your heart, he's both lovable and still dangerous. It's the title role, but the Prisoner is off-stage for most of the show, so his furious charisma has to pervade the film.

Fellow new cast member David Thewlis, as mysteriously-facial-scarred new Defense teacher, Prof. Lupin, also does a great trick: he's not the Lupin we may have imagined, but delivers something finer. Too many tragedies have swirled around Lupin: his own, the Potter's, Black's, and now the younger Potter's... and he's exhausted. While Harry's met scads of people who knew his parents, this is the first inner-circle dear friend of his father's he has known . Their scenes together could have played like an uncomfortable Meatballs retread, but feel instead like two outsiders reaching out to each other. The previous films' depiction of the school feels like no learning is ever going on, and is rectified by Lupin, obviously the best teacher the class has ever had.

As any Harry Potter fan, I've got my own pet fidelity gripes. Two of my favorite characters have been slighted by the narrative compression. I missed that Snape, upon confronting Black, was both exacting petty revenge and taking a genuine, touching risk for Harry. Alan Rickman, looking so dour he's nearly monochromatic, still gets the best laugh in the film, when he slams all the classroom window shutters on a sunny day (for that matter, he presents my second favorite gag, a hilarious Grecian urn depicting a werewolf attack). The pumped up black levels in Cuarón's color palate have served Snape beautifully. Rickman's is still the best performance in the series, not painting Snape as a violent menace, but giving one long slow brood. But part of Snape's complexity is that he saves Harry in nearly every book, but they never go soft on each other. For all Snape's sneering condescension, he makes consistently moral decisions. I don’t believe these are fine points; I think that one of the story's great themes is that one shouldn't judge people by their appearance or immediate demeanor: the Houses will have to work together in the end.

I missed also the slow-build to Harry's eventual confused relationship with Ravenclaw Cho Chang, by forgoing any early glimpses of her. Cho has no compelling moments in the book, but why leave Cho out but bother casting a girl as Parvati Patil? Like Percy Weasley's brick-by-brick corruption, Cho's arc is supposed to run parallel to Harry's, and is about the nature of mourning and recovery. It will simply not be as effective for Harry to start noticing Cho in Goblet of Fire.


Yay for Cho Chang, the girl with the worst excuse
for a pretend Chinese name in pop fiction!

But I can't gripe for long. The director simply has an affinity with the material. One wishes Cuarón could stick around for upcoming chapters, in which Ron's class-struggle angst and Hermione's mixed-race indignation become increasingly important. His sad, up-all-night-crying Great Expectations, visually built in equal measure of Victorian decay and morning-light spring greens turned Dickens into a coming-of-age class parable. And his ode to storytelling, A Little Princess is a fantasy about finding personal strength while growing up without parents or being racially oppressed. Both prefigure Azkaban and the next two Potter chapters nicely.

However... the Chris Columbus films' obsession with canon detail might have done away with the unfortunate courtyard fountain, depicting an eagle fighting a snake. While Mr. Cuarón no doubt intends it as a nod to the Mexican flag, on Hogwart's grounds it would depict Ravenclaw House mauling Slytherin. Talk about your Unforgivable Curses...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Avada: Thoughts on J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2005)

Harry Potter and the Exploding Kinetoscope -- In preparation for the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, ExKin is posting a series of archival essays on Harry Potter media. Basically, here are some old pieces I wrote elsewhere, years ago, which am reprinting (and slightly revising). While my occasional predictions of future Potter Universe events is sometimes (self-)satisfyingly accurate, I assure readers that I was once fully convinced that Ron Weasley's death had been meticulously foreshadowed since the first novel, and would tell anyone who cared to listen. Though this is primarily a film and television blog, on this eve of the Half-Blood Prince film, I was revisiting my notes on the novel, and find them a fine celebration of exactly those elements in Rowling's books that were lacking in the last two film adaptations.

These notes were written in July, 2005.


Like the rest of you I devoured HBP in two days, but then I stewed for a week writing the below. I will be ironing out the typos and grammar errors and elaborating a few points over the next few days. Enjoyus!

WARNING: I solemnly swear I am up to no good
This post is predicated on spoilers, contains spoilers in every paragraph, and spoils every single Harry Potter novel. This is not a review proper, but closer to "first thoughts on Half-Blood Prince."


Every Flavor

You're doing something right when hours after your novel is published, fans are speculating on the next book and obsessively combing 3365 pages of past volumes for clues.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about how Harry Potter, adolescent boy-witch, learns the origin story of fascist newly-embodied black mage Lord Voldemort (silent T, says J.K.R.!), investigates a string of assassination attempts at school, falls for a little red-haired girl, and learns to disdain celebrity hangers-on. In the end, Mr. Potter is set up for a black future, largely by his own personal problems.


I've heard of House Elves, but this is a baby!

It's a wild ride, Half-Blood, the mile-a-minute plot developments betray Rowling breaking into determined sprint, her finish line finally in sight. The Potter novels are lovable, scruffy books for several reasons, most heartbreakingly because they try their damnedest to be all things for all readers. Not in a Spielbergian broadest-common-denominator sense, but instead by cramming the books full of something for every disparate genre interest: global politics, race wars, teen romance, Gothic horror, British humo(u)r, high abstract fantasy, nerdy alternate-world fantasy, frothy Jane Austen comedy of romantic manners, young adult persecuted orphan tearjerker, red-herring-and-secret-passage Agatha Christie page-turner. So say what you will about her increasingly scatterbrained plotting: J.K. Rowling is an overflowing font of story.

Popular reports have it that Prince is a breezier, funnier, more taut adventure and return to form after the impenetrable, overlong Order of the Phoenix. That's slightly accurate, in that it's a shorter novel, with more tangible plot developments, but with the need to report on the ever-swelling ranks of cast and geography of magical Europe, and diverse expectations of a planet of fans, Rowling will never write a Harry Potter mystery as meticulously plotted and coolly perfect as Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. But this not a problem, so much, of a garden grown out of bounds, but necessary expansion: Books IV-VI are not as hermetically sealed as I-III, but Prince's developments in the seven-novel arc are inventive, earned and feel fated.

Vanishing Cabinet

Subverted expectations are the only certain rule in Harry Potter, and the longer an assumption is held, the more likely it is to be undone. Genre tropes will be inverted, stereotypes will be strongly implied then shattered, history has always been distorted by misinterpretation, and every, every story has two sides. If you didn't become wary when supposed uber-nerd Neville exhibits the toughest kind of bravery in the first book, well fair enough. If you didn't learn your lesson when escaped ex-con Sirius Black, wizarding's Charles Whitman, turned out to be Harry's dear-heart godfather, shame on you triple. If you thought Chamber of Secrets seemed a curiously stand-alone volume, Half-Blood Prince brings it home.

The title mystery ("who is the Half-Blood Prince who previously owned Harry's loaner Potions textbook?") is a bit recycled. If Mr. Potter is seriously trusting the advice of magical used books after Ginny Weasly was nearly killed by one in Chamber of Secrets, well, ten points from Gryffindor for being a dumbass. The ultimate revelations about the brilliant annotations in the Prince's Potions book are perhaps not world-shaking. The identity of the Half-Blood Prince seems set-up as the centerpiece mystery, but as usual what appeared as the B-plot is the real key: what is Draco Malfoy up to? Rowling's a master of diversion because her red herrings have payoffs. And if you haven't learned your lesson about Rowling's skill for planting information to yield a jaw-dropping crop later, so much the better. Ever since Harry talked to a snake in Philosophercerer's Stone only to find out what that predisposed bilingualism Really Meant in Chamber, and that the Parselmouth plot thread continues to pay-off through the subsequent books, the astute reader may be convinced that every cute detail is a story unto itself.

But metaphorically, the title is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because the book is a grand summary of Harry and Professor Snape's relationship. Throughout the books, Harry reaps the benefits of Snape's begrudging assistance and protection but ultimately never trusts him. That is both of their faults, through personal prejudice to family history to personality incompatibility, and the finale is the ne plus ultra of Snape taking an extreme risk and Harry subsequently misinterpreting and condemning Snape's actions.

Oh you may not think I’m pretty,
But don’t judge on what you see



What House do YOU belong in? Probably Hufflepuff, you dork.

Half-Blood Prince concludes by having compromised some of Rowling's great humanitarian themes, and not setting them right.

A key idea in these books is not to judge people by physical appearance, and not to let personal prejudice or circumstantial evidence outweigh a person's deeds. And I'm talking about Severus Snape here. That human cumulonimbus, Snape, is Rowling's most fascinating and complex creation besides Harry himself. And if you think for a second that Snape's loyalties aren't to the Order of the Phoenix, you're not paying attention to these books' plot, sensitivity to dynamic characters, or morality. In the same scene that Snape is forced to take Dumbledore's life, he saves a child from becoming a murderer and/or a murder victim. In the same scene he kills his savior (for it was Dumbledore who gave Snape a shot at redemption), Snape is under complex possession by the devil (for he's under Unbreakable Vow, and almost certainly on Dumbledore's orders). Judas figures are complicated and tragic: they're not merely backstabbing sell-outs but Agents of God. History remembers them as monsters, when they're necessary factors in equations of messianic sacrifice.

Do you see the parallels between Hermione and Snape? Both are braniac outcasts of impure stock, driven to overcompensating to protect their secret, yearning hearts. The difference is Hermione has good friends who care about her. When you are the cleverest witch of your age, persecution for nerdiness and parentage beyond your control, in spite of your merits, is likely to drive you inward. Being smarter than everyone else is a dangerous and lonely talent. The greatest tour de force moments in Phoenix are Harry's illicit trip into Snape's Pensieve, the only glimpse we have gotten -- and given the ex-Potions Master's acumen at Occlulmency, probably the only one we'll get -- at Snape's injured soul. One only hopes when the Dark Lord's veil is lifted that Severus gets to grieve. Snape is Dumbledore's man, through and through.

The P is His Scar!

Where is the Famous Harry Potter in this mess? It is good for the world that Harry has been forced to grow up fast, no longer wallowing in the guilt, anger and adolescent outbursts that define him in Phoenix. Phoenix is an angry, black political fable, difficult to look at because our hero is such a mess and behaves like an ass throughout.

At the beginning of Prince, he's still grappling with his avoidance issues in situations where his insensitivity hurts others. He still owes Cho Chang a serious apology, still needs to recognize the humanity of people he doesn't like, still needs to recognize his terrifying capacity for corruption, and still needs to work out anger and grief without letting them force his hand to violence. A key moment in Stone is the Sorting Hat nearly placing Harry in Slytherin. It has nothing to do with being "evil," Slytherin House, it has to do with cunning, and willingness to achieve goals and gain power through any means at your disposal. We've seen Harry lie, steal, sneak, spy, use violence both physical and magical, and in Prince nearly kill Malfoy. What makes Harry a Gryffindor is a surplus of bravery. One by one Harry confronts these problems. Dumbledore has been supplying advice all along, but now Harry is given object lessons in these ideals.

In Percy Weasly's seduction into heartless bureaucratic tool, Harry sees how idealism and inflexibility can be manipulated and corrupted, no matter the intentions. Percy loses sight of the essential human dimension at the core of wars and political conflict. Harry learns your lot in life is not improved if your friends are lost. Harry has been handed through inheritance the celebrity and socioeconomic relief that Percy pursues and that tortures Ron. When offered Percy's life by Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic, it's the example of Ron's and Arthur's integrity which gives him pause.

Harry heeds another dark mirror of his own life in Draco Malfoy, previously the most gleeful and willfully cruel character, now led into a life-threatening, inescapable assignment by an extremist Order once joined by his father. If Mr. Potter can't relate to that, then no one can. Harry can draw a hard line when it comes to sympathy, but when he spies on Draco crying alone in the bathroom, it jars Harry as much as the dive into Snape's Pensieve: everybody has their reasons. Malfoy is a scared boy trying to save his imperfect dad, agent of apocalyptic evil or no. And what he lacks is an excess of bravery.

Harry's ability to empathize with the enemy must be important. It is essentially Dumbledore's last school-room lesson to show Harry every available scrap of humanizing memory of Voldemort that he can locate. The Dark Lord is probably the most frustrating, faceless lead villain in the series, because he has been merely abstractly Evil. For several books, this looks like a mis-step of Rowling's, but now now the design becomes clear. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is an abstract repository for all of society's fears and a scapegoat excuse for oppressive behavior by other authorities. It's always been Dumbledore's special talent to counter that: it's Dumbledore that encourages Harry to use Voldemort's name. So when Dumbledore gives Harry a crash-course in Tom Riddle back-story, is it any surprise how many biographical details mirror Harry's?


Ginny Weasley: Her orange hair steals our hero's heart!

The stand-up-and-cheer moment is Harry and Ginny's triumphant first kiss. Like George and Fred's exit from Hogwarts, it's one of those soaring scenes that are the pop fic equivalent of a big power chord sing along chorus. But what makes the scene deeper and greater, is the tempering memory of Harry's heartbreaking, confusing real first kiss. Harry will probably never recognize it is survivor's guilt that bound him to Cho Chang. But in Ginny, he finds the strong-willed, resilient woman he will need to stand by him. Cho and Giny can both relate to his pain, but only the unflappable redhead is fighter enough to deal with Harry's constant mortal peril.

Which brings us inevitably back to...

Kadevra


Exclusive costume design drawing for GoF movie.

I'm obsessing over Snape, I know, because he's pivotal to the series beyond previous indications. Snape is the second title character of Half-Blood Prince for the reasons above. Just as the anguished, complex and epic Order of the Phoenix in many ways was the definitive statement on Harry's relationship with Dumbledore. There's a sea-change moment in Phoenix where Dumbledore confesses his failure of judgment, and weeps. The scene humanizes Harry's idol for him. A lot of Half-Blood Prince is given to private briefings between Dumbledore and Harry, and finally they go on one grand, scary adventure. After all this time, the master and apprentice are side-by-side in battle. It's a final reminder of why we love Dumbledore -- from his daft gentility to ferocious power -- right before he is taken from us. It is both a gift and makes his death hurt all the more.


He could turn into a deer.

In some ways, Harry has never appreciated James and Lily Potter's sacrifice. When he learns in Snape's Pensieve that the Potions master wasn't lying about James' flaws, part of the blow is realizing how he has deified his father. Harry's never known his parents so they were guardian angels. Dumbledore has made sure this boy he loves most knows him as fallible man and a personal friend. So Dumbledore's is the sacrifice that may resonate the most deeply. The final scenes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince show Harry finally purposeful and full of clear-eyed resolve. The Boy Who Lived (Again) is the Man Who Lived. They grow up so fast! Good trick.

Note: Special thanks to Hannah, who drew the Sorting Hat, James Potter and Snape pictures. Though her website from which I swiped the drawings is long gone, her art lives eternal.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ghost Train: The Lost Pauline Kael Review of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

This post is in participation with Cinemastyles’ Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon, organized in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but covering any and everything remotely related to Mr. Wood... or that exudes that rare Ed Wood Feeling. Put a bookmark in your copy of Death of a Transvestite, pour a glass of Imperial whiskey and get busy reading! Most of the articles are along the lines of re-(re)-evaluating Wood’s life and work, but Exploding Kinetoscope offers a special history-making report.

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Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, the 1965 book spanning her pre-New Yorker work from 1954-1965, is generally understood to be the critic’s first collected volume. Following Kael’s death in 2001, references were found in personal papers to a small press volume predating the publication of I Lost It, though no copy was located in Kael’s personal collection. After several years of scrambling and red herring sniffing by film historians, Kael obsessives, and rare book collectors, only a handful of copies (three in total, two complete, none in better than VG condition) have surfaced. Going Down On the Movies, (according to indicia) published by Trap Street Press, 1960, collects various Kael juvenilia, scattered previously published reviews from KPFA radio broadcasts and pieces from magazines (City Lights, Holiday, McCall's, etc.) not represented in I Lost It – even a small collection of screening notes and capsule reviews handed out to patrons of the Berkeley Cinema Guild in the late ‘50s.


The two copies of Going Down to enter the marketplace were snatched up at four-figure prices (on AbeBooks for $1200 and a tense eBay auction closing at $3650). Luckily, one fell into the hands of a rare bookseller in Los Angeles, who has graciously allowed a digital scan of the cover, and photocopying of the following excerpt. Special thanks to Blue Room Books of Los Angeles.

The Exploding Kinetoscope proudly presents Pauline Kael’s review of Plan 9 From Outer Space, reprinted for the first time since 1960.


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GHOST TRAIN

With the unfancy plainness of a nightmare being reported by The March of Time, anything goes in "Plan 9 From Outer Space", so long as it is weird, shuddery, sexed-up and antisocial. Martians [sic] with a taste for the sensual (they wear satin pajamas, their space-aircraft carrier shaped like a mammary gland... one is named “Eros”) and distaste for Earthly violence, resolve to end the arms race. Along for the ride, and part of that Ninth Plan, are marching ghouls who handle the dirty work – they’re freak-cartoon parodies of lives no one ever lived: a vampy wastrel beatnikess, a rasping butterball Swede cop, and Bela Lugosi.

“Plan 9 From Outer Space” is set and shot in the corners of Los Angeles where most movies would not be caught dead — the far-ends of choked boulevards where traffic wears out, the dollhouse suburbs of Burbank, and subterranean studios which house pateboard sets, painted cloth backdrops indicating skies and lumpy rugs serving as grass. The matter-of-fact presentational style of director Edward Wood is so honest and unglamorous that the homemade anonymity of the sets seems to be a point unto itself. Wood also wrote the swozzled script, which keeps throwing out corkers until they finally pile up into something like thematic unity. There’s a satirist’s glee in the movie’s conundrum about violence and military secrets, and before you know it the American heroes and the hostile spacemen have swapped places; the visitors have come to halt the progress of advanced weapons before we blow ourselves away, but their deadly Plan 9 is like beating a dog for chasing squirrels. Everybody’s wrong, but it’s hard to hate them for it. It’s an evolutionary and political stalemate. A little scaredy-cat cop rolls up his sleeves, climbs into a grave and groans “why do I always get hooked up with these spook details?” — Hamlet, gravedigger, and Stan Laurel rolled into one. The human scale is always dragged back into it. A compassionate colonel tells us “Then they attacked a town. A small town, I’ll admit, but nevertheless a town of people. People who died.” We're all eventually hooked up on spook detail. One hopes that future doomsday comedies will have the guts not to hammer the jokes to the wall, the sophistication not to drown the horror in cynicism or sheer scale. Whenever the movie paints itself into a political corner it drops the brush and levitates over the wet floor: a square-jaw reacts to a (hypocritical) pacifistic alien’s speech by popping his opponent in the mouth.

The kitsch has handily been drained out of the material in advance thanks to the spare, rawboned style. In a brainstorm of flying saucers, misty cemeteries, walking corpses, plastic skeletons, and cadaverous vampires, Wood keeps piling up the spook show gimmicks until they achieve a kind of loony grandeur. The picture isn’t overly fat (and it runs 79 minutes), but it’s maybe a little crazy. Wood is like a carnival barker doing a last push before closing time, but when you climb into this ghost train, the insides aren’t all hype, but crisp, chilly, and fresh. The spirit of Nouvelle Vague hangs about this spookhouse. Though the camerawork offers no pyrotechnics, Wood slices Lugosi’s death scene short — when the old fellow is splattered by a speeding auto, the shot cuts off with his consciousness, a life compacted into ten seconds of smelling a flower and being creamed by an unseen Packard. In the middle of languid scenes, the jump cuts bounce us to unexpected perspectives. With clever miniatures and a bizarre but striking eye for stock footage, Wood places his spaceships over freeways and television studios. Nowhere particularly photogenic, just someplace real.

“Plan 9” also merges the threadbare, daily life reality of Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the fairyland) and Burbank with the wooziest, spookiest dreamworld since “The Mummy”. In that film, Karl Freund’s camera caressed every crease in Boris Karloff’s makeup, as if his cadaverous cheeks were dusted with fragments of ancient broken hearts. Edward Wood slides into a similar thick, fever-dream pool for all the spook stuff. His ghouls shuffle toward us out of a black velvet void, or appear in their weird Gothic glory in the middle of tatty suburban bedrooms. And like in so many very bad dreams, everyone screams and flinches and motions to escape, but doesn’t seem able to run. The way the young lady playing Lugosi’s wife (“Vampira” the film hostess from television, and a sex kitten, sure, but with a dead rat in her mouth) moves her body, we can’t be sure she was alive in the first place. In the clammiest scene, a rotund police detective rises from his grave, and the darkness swirling around the hole makes his whitened visage into a morbid, grimacing moon.

Burly Tor Johnson plays Inspector Clay as a giant in body and spirit. He’s one of those fellows that was built for underlings to scurry beneath and hang by their fingernails from his every word. The big man gives off erotic energy like an oil drum on fire, even when no women are around. When he laughs off danger, chuckling to a pal “I’m a big boy now, Johnny!,” we half expect Johnny to sigh “don’t I know it!” Johnson looks so fierce among a cast of scrawny beat cops that we imagine no force in the rest of the movie could tangle with him: this guy could eat two of those flying saucers for breakfast. So when the most magnetic character in the picture does, in fact, meet his match, nothing could be tenser. Maybe no death on the screen has had such emotional wallop since “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Thankfully, Johnson isn’t entirely out of the picture after this — his white-eyed creep is a walking case of the heebie-jeebies.

“Plan 9” never loses that sexiness, though it admittedly decreases once Inspector Clay goes mute (he becomes less a villain than a beautiful, melancholy bear, befuddled and forced by captors to maim enemies). When appealing hero Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott, who shone for a brief moment as an MP in the dismal “Mister Roberts”) heads off on military mission and says goodbye to his wife, Paula. We start to roll our eyes, because it’s the sappiest of scenarios, lovers parted, the warrior going off to battle. We’re expecting fake feelings, false nobility, unwarranted nobility, maybe all three. But the music starts purring strange lazy draubs of Martin Denny style jazz, Paula coos to Jeff that she’s intending to maul his pillow as a substitute lover. It’s very probably the wiggiest, earthiest expression of libidinal heat between married people ever put on screen. The Trents job in any other movie would be as bloodless good citizens; Wood and his actors make Jeff burn at his center with righteous indignation (at anyone, everything), and Paula is flush with good humor. Between the Trents, Insepctor Clay and the shouty little monkey cop, the Earthlings are a rowdy, worthy crew to go up against the wacked out spacemen and, for that matter, their haunted, soulless dead slaves. The movie is a whole funfair midway full of interesting folks. Among the aliens, Dudley Manlove plays the funniest, Eros, as a big soft baby, always raging, petulant, or sleepy. When he rants about the logical conclusion of the human arms race— a hair-raising vision of a sun-exploding bomb — Manlove's apoplexy blows off the screen, making the whole idea of 3D movies look superfluous. As Eros' boss, John Breckenridge marshals a queenly regality — he’s somehow swishy and sinister and a lot of fun. As he explains the science of how the dead will be animated, the details are authentic sounding, but The Ruler yawns through it like the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland”.

Presiding over the other characters, famous TV personality Criswell narrates, sometimes on screen, and he sounds mournful and despairing, his eyes look off into the netherworld distance. He warns of Death the Proud Brother, of time and fate and doom locked in confusing dance, and even insinuates that some of these screen devils may follow us out of the theater. "Perhaps, on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it... for they will be from outer space,” he says, the perfect parody embodiment of this age’s anxieties — Space Race, invisible agents, privacy violation. Almost all of Cris’s speeches have some knockout idea buried in the poetry. Wood the screenwriter uses him like a Biblical prophet coming down from Mount Lee, to articulate his most lyrical themes.

“Plan 9”’s greatest trick is one I don’t think we’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Edward Wood turns hokey kid’s Poverty Row stuff into something freaky; he doesn’t try for glitz and fail, neither does he wallow. It’s easier to say what “Plan 9” is not than what it is. The movie spins like a Hula Hoop, gyrating between slightly stoned slice-of-life skits, the inspired blood-curdling stuff, grungy reality and, we may as well go ahead and say it, the strangest dreams expressed on film since Dreyer, or maybe Méliès. Waking up from a dream — and so with “Plan 9 From Outer Space” — we’re stupefied for a second. What just happened? Criswell asks us the impossible question: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”