The Brattle Film Notes blog has my take on Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets.
I’ve got an essay up on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang over on the Brattle Theater’s film notes blog.
And hey, happy holidays!
Why does Zack Snyder, director of the forthcoming Batman v Superman, see in Excalibur, John Boorman’s wildly uneven telling of the King Arthur saga?
Snyder has put this movie among his very favorites, but after some 10 minutes into Excalibur, I was already worried that I had rented the wrong movie. I couldn’t understand what Snyder, no slouch himself, could see in a movie that was only about as good as you’d expect from the director of Zardoz.
For what it’s worth, when I say this movie isn’t sound, I mean starting on the level of some basic storytelling mechanics. At times, it labors just to convey what is happening. Years – decades? – pass between some scenes, with nary a montage or even fade out to suggest the passage of time. Instead, one scene follows another and only goatees where there were once bare chins are there to tell us that time has elapsed.
I’ve sometimes thought that it would be great to see a show devoted to an ingenious detective who only solves decidedly minor mysteries, but with all the gravity and dedication normally reserved for homicide investigations. In this show, a missing stapler might occasion a full forensic analysis of the surrounding desk, exhaustive analysis of fingerprints, and all-night interrogations.
In part, I just love absurdity, but I also conceived of the show as a kind of response to the incredible preponderance of foul play in the world of prime-time TV. Murder is so frequent on TV, so deeply baked in to multiple genres, that it seems almost preposterous to me that shows don’t regularly address the unlikelihood of it all.
I had never seen Murder, She Wrote until this week, but from what I can tell, the show is the acme of the near-ubiquity of murder on television, as lots and lots of people have already noticed. The sheer number of murders in Cabot Cove, Maine — the tiny town that Jessica Fletcher calls home — is enormous, and to watch the show on anything but a completely incredulous level, you need to accept the fantastical statistical anomaly that is the town’s murder rate.
You know you’re a tabletop game nerd when you don’t understand why other people don’t find them as fascinating as you do. And you know you’re a rules geek when you reach for the instruction manual almost eagerly, with a glint in your eye.
I am both. You can probably understand without trouble the concept of a board-game obsessive, but a board-game obsessive that is also a rules geek is something rarer. Put it this way: I’ve happily spent an hour composing a forum post that makes a detailed, multi-paragraph argument about the interaction of the Moat and Noble Brigand cards in the game Dominion. (Dominion is much like a board game, but is played entirely with cards. You also know you’re a tabletop game nerd when you realize that calling yourself a “board-game nerd” will be clearer for most readers, but the inaccuracy makes you wince.) I’m the sort of guy who will joyfully perform a close reading of the card text and think about the significance of text placement (below or above the horizontal line?) and I’m willing to cite the game designer’s comments in a forum post as though they constituted case law.
So, yeah, that’s the kind of nerdery we’re talking about.
It took a reading of Macbeth for me to realize that most of the long-form theorizing ad nauseam I’ve done about time travel in movies applies just as well to any story with prophecies or other sorts of fortune telling. If a character doesn’t traverse time, at least information can.
To summarize my taxonomy of time travel: The only two legitimate sorts of time travel in movies are “closed loop” versions (a common term, evidently) of time travel and, on the other side, what I labeled “open loop” universes. You can go back and read my explanations of those, but the gist of it is that in closed loop universes, fate fixes the future; there is only one future and it has already been determined, even if a temporal tourist attempts to tweak it. In open loop universes, however, time travel itself changes the future so that there’s always some question about what is to come. Of course, this allows a place for free will to trump destiny, where in a closed loop situation you’re pretty much stuck with whatever is going to happen.
Now, to Macbeth: At the beginning of the play, the Weird Sisters tell Macbeth that he’ll be Thane of Cawdor (a “thane” is a title of yore) and then even King of Scotland. Given this information about the future, the astute time travel connoisseur will immediately want to know what sort of universe William Shakespeare is positing — implicitly or explicitly — in Macbeth. Is Shakespeare’s story one in which, once a vision of the future arrives in the past, it has the ability to upset the course of events so that a new, unseen future comes into being instead? (That would be open loop.) Or, alternatively (and, more to the point, mutually exclusive with the open loop), is the Scotland of the play a place where the future is already definite – a future where Macbeth has “already” (so to speak) achieved the crown? (Never mind the paradox that maybe Macbeth only commits the murders that he does because he is prompted by knowledge of a future where he has already done so. That is, he does it because he learns that he will do it. This is actually a pretty okay paradox by time-travel standards.)
In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reel released for Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, Mark Hamill narrates on the significance of this new Star Wars chapter:
You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I means everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed.
It’s reminiscent — maybe on purpose — of the common notion that a good movie just reformulates an already-familiar truth, kind of like a song that feels like a classic even on first hearing. (I feel like I’ve heard this idea floated before, but I can’t find a web reference for it. Take me at my word? )
This is not at all unexpected, but it does remind me of an ongoing reservation I have about even the best of popular entertainment: I feel like movies shouldn’t be so comforting that they could double as a warm blanket. The best of film is too fresh, too hard to process to ever let you feel like “nothing’s changed.” I suppose what I’m saying is that even when perfectly executed, a movie whose purpose is to refeed you what you’ve already been fed before is a movie that needs a different reason for being. A movie whose goal is not to put on the screen a new vision of art, but to return us to somewhere we think we already know, well that’s art that is aiming too low.