Saturday, June 29, 2013

Restricted Viewing

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is a powerful and much-maligned organization that practices "voluntary" censorship on movies made and released in the United States. Of course, it continually denies that it is involved in censorship and claims only that it is performing a service to moviegoers - particularly those with children. It provides guidance to parents about a movie's content that is supposed to help them choose which ones are suitable for exposure to their children. A rating caveat is assigned to every movie, from G for "General" audiences, "all ages admitted", to NC-17 for "no one 17 and under admitted".

Nowadays, movie producers tolerate such blatant censorship for liability reasons: if a parent tries to bring legal action against them because the content of a movie was unsuitable for a child, a producer can always use the MPAA rating caveat in his defense. The sheer paucity of films designed for adults cries out for a revamp of this necklace of skeletons that hangs around the industry's neck.

Over the years, as violence and sexuality have grown increasingly graphic in their representation in movies, the MPAA has reserved its hardest ratings, "R" and "NC-17" for movies that are - supposedly - off limits to under-17-year-olds. While the majority of movies manage to land a PG or a PG-13 rating, even when, in some cases, they are extremely violent, many adults - moviegoers and critics - have sought out movie material that is suitable for grown-ups, that don't cater to a juvenile audience or to a juvenile mentality or morality. Since most Hollywood products have the combined intelligence quotient of a flea, this has often been a lonely hunt for grown-up moviegoers.

Since the majority of the blockbuster movies in release are derived from comic books or their euphemistic equivalent, "graphic novels," movie producers have tried to tailor them to teenage audiences (even when so many comic book fans are old enough to have teenaged children of their own), and have to persuade the MPAA to refrain from applying a rating stronger than a PG-13. As anyone who watched the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado unfold on TV (I was able to do it from the opposite side of the earth), The Dark Knight Rises, which was having a midnight showing, was rated PG-13. It was so violent that, when James Holmes entered the theater - filled with children and teenagers - firing his weapons, most audience members believed it was a stunt staged for the special screening.

Since I am not a parent and I don't have to worry about finding anything but stupidity objectionable, the ratings are pointless to me. If they are going to persist, however, why not have one that cuts both ways, that serves families with children that need protection from sexuality and violence as well as adults who want protection from infantilism? I would like the MPAA to do me small favor. If a movie is tailored to appeal to children, like the Harry Potters and Hobbits that stink up the multiplexes, they could put some teeth in the rating system by restricting the audience to people under 17. No adults should be admitted without the accompaniment of a child. If nothing else, such a rating system would remind some people that they're too old to bother with such childish things any more. And it might even give them an appetite for more "adult" fare at the movies. Wishful think, I know.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Death of a Character Actor

The things people say about you after you're dead are forgivable only to an extent. On the negative side, Baudelaire once asked, apropos the hysterically hostile obituaries of Edgar Allen Poe, "Is there no by-law in America to prevent dogs from entering cemeteries?"

On the positive side, excessive praise can sometimes invoke eternal damnation for its intended beneficiary. Think of Ronald Reagan or the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher. Ultimately, what does it matter what people say about you when you're dead?

At the death of James Gandolfini this week, which wasn't altogether a surprise considering his size, I found that the sheer volume of praise expressed day after day was getting tiresome. And virtually all of it was for one role - Tony Soprano - which I never liked. How hard was it, really, for a big Italian man from New Jersey to play a mafioso?

I first noticed Gandolfini in Tony Scott's True Romance (1993). With a script by Quentin Tarantino, could the subject of facile violence have been avoided? Gandolfini played Virgil, a hit man (he claimed he was inspired by a friend who was a hit man) whose longest scene called for him to beat Patricia Arquette all over her cheap hotel room. When he finds her defiant to the last, he opens his shirt and tells her to give him her best shot. She drives a corkscrew into his foot, which inspires an even more brutal beating. (Arquette eventually kills him with a toilet tank lid.)

Gandolfini didn't get my attention again until Get Shorty (1995), in which he played a bodyguard known as Bear. Once a stuntman, Bear dreams - like everyone else in the Get Shorty - of making it big in movies. Since he gets beaten up every time he goes up against Chili Palmer (John Travolta), Bear's incipient humanity has a chance to show itself. Though it was the usual sort of role for a man his size, Gandolfini brought to his performance just enough truth to make me believe in him.

Listening to all the praise for Gandolfini was too often quite silly. They all managed to say pretty much the same thing - that he made audiences care deeply for Tony Soprano, who is a professional murderer. Did anyone in the series have the nerve to inform Tony that the real reason he was depressed and needed therapy was because he was a blood-thirsty murderer?

Post-Sopranos, which was an example of immorality masquerading as amorality ("Shakespeare didn't balk at writing about murderers, did he?" Yes, but Shakespeare never expected anyone to feel sorry for Macbeth.), Gandolfini's performance in the otherwise useless The Mexican (2001) stole the show away from its putative stars, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. He played a hit man again in that film, with the preposterous name of Winston Baldry, but we learn some time after he kidnaps Samantha (Roberts) that he is gay, and the film slows down considerably to indulge Winston in a fling with another man he meets in a truck stop. It was a surprisingly off-beat role for the redoubtable Tony Soprano. Gandolfini was clearly trying to stretch his image.

I next noticed him in Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), playing the mayor of New York City. His last scene with Denzel Washington, thanking him for his acts of heroism during the movie's long hostage ordeal, was touching. Gandolfini next played a voice role in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009). I found the film disappointing, since Jonze reduced Maurice Sendak's book, which I loved since I was a boy, to a rather dimly-realized shadow of itself. But Gandolfini's unmistakable voice for the wild thing Carol was a surprising presence, and the rock bottom gentleness of the big man shone through - even if Carol is little more than a more animate muppet in Jonze's sorry movie.

The last thing I saw him in was Killing Them Softly (2012), but neither the movie nor Gandolfini's small part in it - yet another hood, this time named Mickey - were otherwise mentionable.

James Gandolfini had a great deal going for him as an actor, and being deprived of his future performances, in which we would have seen more of his talent in a wider range of roles, is a true loss for everyone. His size was, as he knew too well, a shortcoming to be surmounted. It seemed to me that his physical presence, just like Shaquille O'Neal's on the basketball court, probably accounted for a large portion of his success as an actor. But he had a tough time convincing producers that he could do something more than beat the crap out of Patricia Arquette, even if he did it with so much aplomb and panache. But he wasn't, alas, the Great Actor everyone said he was this week. He was just getting started when his heart stopped.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Grey

There is a TV commercial currently airing here in Asia for the luxury Shangri-la Hotel chain that is like a gripping mini-movie. In the commercial, a man is alone in a forbidding snowbound landscape, apparently fighting to stay alive. The snow is deep and wolves are stalking him. His flashlight flickers out and he is overcome with fatigue and lies down in the snow. When the wolves approach him, they do something astonishing - they snuggle up around him, and when the man awakes he finds he is surrounded by warm sleeping wolves. Then a caption appears on the screen: "To embrace a stranger as one's own. It's in our nature."

What the commercial is supposed to mean, and how on earth it's supposed to represent Shangri-La Hotels, is subject to interpretation. But, in a powerful way, Joe Carnahan's 2011 movie, The Grey, is a perfect antidote to such unnatural nature.

The movie, with its uninspired title, is more exactly reminiscent of the world of Jack London's most elemental stories of man in extremis than any other film I've seen, especially the miserably lame movie adaptations of White Fang (1991) and The Call of the Wild (2009). Because they are narrowly regarded as "animal stories," I first encountered those books when I was in my teens in the "juvenile" section of a public library. This stupid categorization has resulted in a general underestimation of London's writing and its appeal to more than just juveniles. He was an uneven but an often serious writer whose work, inspired by an uncompromising view of the cruelties of life, is overdue for reconsideration.

The Grey is the story of seven survivors of a plane crash in the wintry Alaskan wilderness, led by John Ottway (played by Liam Neeson), a man who works for an oil pipeline company, protecting its workers from the large predators they inevitably encounter in Alaska. I lived in Anchorage for a few years. It's the largest city in the state, but if one were to take a secondary road north, south or east of the city for ten miles, especially in winter (October to April), one would be in a place remarkably similar to the one in which the seven men found themselves.

The plane crash is easily one of the most frightening of such scenes ever filmed, with unrestrained passengers depicted being thrown violently around the cabin, and the fuselage breaking off, exposing Ottway and others to the cold blast of air outside, as the plane descends. Ottway awakes, still secured to his seat, now sitting by itself in a snowy field, his face dusted with blowing snow. He finds and rescues as many men as he can find, but all but seven passengers are scattered, with the fuselage, over a large area, and wolves begin to turn up to devour their remains. Ottway takes charge, despite some resistance, and the men spend their first night taking turns watching out for the wolves. One of them, dropping his guard to urinate during the night, is found torn to pieces the following morning. Ottway determines that the group of survivors must walk to a distant forest if they are to escape the wolves.

There is an altogether unnerving moment when the men hear a wolf's growl in the dark, and Ottway grabs a flaming torch to find out where it is. All that the men can see, staring at them from the darkness, is a pair of illumined eyes, then another, and then a multitude of them, lit by the light of Ottway's torch.

From that moment, until the end of the movie, the filmmakers pursue, with commendable honesty, the grim fates of the men. The movie's lack of critical and commercial success was probably due to its very determination to be truthful to - if nothing else - the odds of survival under such circumstances. The final confrontation between Ottway and the "Alpha" wolf ends - for those who sit through the end credits - ambiguously.

There is a scene near the end of the movie that Catholic groups found objectionable in which Ottway, who has just watched the last of his companions drown, sits on the riverbank and shouts at the blank sky, "Do something! I'm calling on you!" It is Ottway's pathetic, desperate appeal for divine intervention. "Fuck faith! Earn it!" he shouts. He swears to God that, if He saves him, he'll believe in Him for the rest of his life. There were also complaints, believe it or not, about the portrayal of grey wolves in the movie. I found that the use of prosthetic wolves in some scenes was a little obvious. But at least the filmmakers avoided the horribly dishonest portrayal of the dogs in the two Jack London adaptations mentioned above.

The nearly exclusive cast of men (0ne woman and a little girl appear in flashbacks) reveals a degree of intimacy on the part of the director and script writers (1) of such places as a remote industrial outpost. Much of my experience in the military was similarly remote from the opposite sex. While not entirely like prison (it lacked only the interminability of prison), such societies suffer in many ways from the absence of women and their humanizing influence. In The Grey, the scenes in the makeshift after-hours club - the chaotic brawling, the sheer desperate exclusivity of it - comes across tellingly. The machismo among the crash survivors is chastened, but enough of it remains to create conflict. Besides Liam Neeson, still imposing at 59 when the film was made, some other notable performers, like Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney, turn up in surprising guises.

When the wolf pack shows up with its imperious hierarchy, the filmmakers obviously meant for us to notice the parallel with the hierarchy among the men. Ottway assumes leadership because he is the strongest and the ablest of the group. The strongest compete for leadership of the group, while the weakest, one after another, are killed, die of hypoxia, or just give up and, in a painfully moving scene, explain how they can't - and don't want - to go any farther.

I can't say to what extent the raw power of the movie is derived from the story, "Ghost Walker," by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, on which it is based. The movie is reminiscent of another story, by Jack London, called "Love of Life," (2) in which a man becomes separated from his companion in the wilderness because of an injured ankle. He has a rifle, but no ammunition, and can only manage to survive the following days on some ptarmigan eggs, a few minnows, and the pink bones of a dead caribou calf. As snow begins to fall and he realizes he is starving, the man discovers that an old, sick wolf (what Ottway would've called an "Omega") is following him. He is entering a delirium brought on by starvation, and his hallucinations are hard for him to distinguish from reality.

He is finally reduced to crawling on his hands and knees. He finds more bones, and realizes they are the remains of his companion, attacked and eaten by wolves. The sick wolf continues to stalk him, approaching when he seems to fall asleep, but the wolf's wheezing breath and cough awakes the man. Finally, half-alive, the man and the wolf engage in a life-or-death struggle, with the man succeeding in biting the wolf's throat so deeply that he drinks its blood. The man is later discovered by a scientific expedition:

"From the deck they remarked a strange object on the shore. It was moving down the beach toward the water. They were unable to classify it, and, being scientific men, they climbed into the whale-boat alongside and went ashore to see. And they saw something that was alive but which could hardly be called a man. It was blind, unconscious. It squirmed along the ground like some monstrous worm. Most of its efforts were ineffectual, but it was persistent, and it writhed and twisted and went ahead perhaps a score of feet an hour."

They take the man aboard their ship, and he slowly recovers his senses and his health. He returns to civilization, but the savagery of nature that was London's subject, and the subject of Joe Carnahan's movie, is unforgettable.

(1) Joe Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers.
(2) Both the film and the story utilize remarkably similar poems that capture their grimness. In The Grey, Ottway recites, on two occasions, a poem he believes was written by his father: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." The story, "Love of Life" begins with a stanza from the poem "The Gold-Seekers" by Hamlin Garland:

This out of all will remain--
They have lived and have tossed:
So much of the game will be gain,
Though the gold of the dice has been lost.