Suspension of disbelief is not a given. It’s not a license you hand a movie as part of your admission. It’s a negotiation; the suspension needs to be earned. A movie has to win it, minute by minute.
I’m thinking about this because of Pacific Rim, which by turns validates my suspension of disbelief and then squanders it.
Before I get to the why and how (and do some plot spoilage), a primer on the movie: The global menace of the near future turns out to be the “Kaijus,” a breed of Godzilla-sized aliens that appear regularly off the coast of major cities, which they ravage until such time as they are stopped by “Jaegers,” a kind of skyscraper-tall humanoid mecha we’ve designed to battle the Kaijus. The mental effort of manipulating the Jaeger, it is said, is too great a “neural load” for a single person. The solution is that two operators will typically pilot a single Jaeger, requiring them to mind-meld via “the drift,” a method of connecting two minds.
There’s a key scene in Mike Mills’ 2010 film, Beginners, that I think is worth looking at in some depth. But to get why it’s meaningful, it will help to have some context.
Beginners alternates between two timelines, both following artist and Angeleno Oliver (Ewan McGregor). One story has him taking care of his dying father, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, who came out not long ago after the death of his longtime wife, Oliver’s mother. The other story, told in parallel, is Oliver’s new romance with Anna, one that begins some months after Hal has died.
Each of these plots is smartly written and performed, but there’s much more to love here. For one, there’s its tone: Lonesome and quiet, the movie’s approach to death and love is reserved. Also, maybe most importantly, it manages to make the whole context and history of 20th century America seem as though they are waiting just off screen. It does this through occasional sequences composed of stills and footage — the President, a shot of the night sky, the colors of the rainbow flag — forming a haphazard assortment of facts about our lives and culture of the past several decades. These odd little sets of curated images are like a slide show, with voiceovers from Oliver that sound like the field notes of a very sad anthropologist.
It’s hard to imagine that Google directed you here because you were looking for an article about Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, rather than the Beauty and the Beast with animated dancing teapots or even the Beauty and the Beast TV series featuring romance-novel Hellboy. But Cocteau’s masterpiece is what this post is about, so, sad to report, if you were hoping to hear about candlesticks voiced by Jerry Orbach, you’re out of luck.
That said, Cocteau’s take on the classic story still feels fantastical, even at a remove of nearly 70 years. For whatever reason, I find it somehow gratifying to find that a film from just after the Second World War could use practical effects to evoke magic so … magically … and without the raw power of CGI. This occurred to me in an early scene, when Belle’s father stumbles into the front hall of the Beast’s enchanted manor. The candelabras lining the walls are held up by human hands and arms, and as he walks forward, the candles suddenly light and the arms extend in turn, evidently living but also doing a perfect imitation of an unliving mechanical process. A moment later, a disembodied hand in the table pours Pops a drink while the eyes of statues follow him around the room. This is typical of the Beast’s residence, which seethes with animation, and not of the cartoon sort. Continue reading →
Over Christmas, I finally picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for years: John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio. The book is Dunne’s reporting on Twentieth Century Fox and its head of production, Richard Zanuck, ca. 1967, when Zanuck gave Dunne reign to poke around the studio and write up it with little-to-no supervision, to such a degree that Dunne himself didn’t understand why Zanuck was so open.
That is to say, there is much to anticipate from a book with such unfettered access, and yet, it’s never clear to me what Dunne is intending to show with his reporting. He offers us transcribed conversation after transcribed conversation – a great primary source about what Hollywood was like in the late sixties, to be sure – but I still can’t figure out what he thinks it all means or whether it hangs together. It’s as though Dunne believes that the significance of the episodes he recounts is always self-evident. Either I’m too dense to see the significance, or (I pray more likely), Dunne just didn’t put it in there.
I only finished the book, actually, hoping Dunne would end on an editorial note that would at length or even briefly touch on what he thought of the preceding scenes. Not so, even when it would seem ideal for Dunne to step in and weigh in on what he’s recounting. This failure might be most acute when Dunne quotes Darryl Zanuck, Richard’s father and president of the studio, talking about how the life of Malcolm X might make a good story. As quoted by Dunne, Zanuck the elder explains the social impact of the Studio:
A picture like this can make a social contribution. Like The Snake Pit. After I made that, eleven states changed their laws about insane asylums. And How Green Was My Valley. It was laid in England, but it was the first picture to attack unfair unionism.
My second-worst summer job in college was a waiting gig. It was at a chain restaurant that was a Denny’s in all but name and branded color scheme, an all-night diner that was only a step or two up from being fast food. I was 19 and more or less consistently miserable as a person, but especially as waiter.
This was also the first summer I had a car, a beat-up Nissan Sentra whose most important aspects from my perspective were a) it was a working automobile and b) it had a CD player. I was told that I would make wads of cash from people who were kicked out of the bars at 2 am, so I asked for overnights, and when I got off work at 5 in the morning, instead of going home to sleep, I’d take an hour to drive around the woody periphery of St. Paul following a few favorite routes, listening to the Best of U2 1980-1990 on repeat. Continue reading →
Another summer done, another summer of good and bad and mostly forgettable popcorn flicks.
Though it seems like just another summer, our summers have changed over the last decade or so; on the occasion of this end-of-summer it occurs to me that movies featuring superheroes – though we now expect their regular release – were invented as we know them almost entirely in my lifetime. Put it this way: While you and I can still recall a time when superhero movies were produced only sporadically, the child born today will probably think of the genre as a given. At some point, it’s likely the elements of a superhero movie will be taken for granted, the way film noir, screwball comedies, and action films are now so fundamental to the culture it’s hard to imagine they were ever a new phenomenon.
You get glimpses of why art is magic once in a while. This week, I was lucky enough for it to happen twice for me. One of those times was for Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Listening to the song, it’s easy to focus on what the singer wants from the titular Tambourine Man: “Take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,” the singer asks. With a little imagination, it’s easy to read the song as a simple request for deliverance via the art of song.
By the way, when I talk about songs, I like to refer to the narrative voice of the song as “the singer,” because “narrator” sounds wrong for the medium, but let’s not confuse “singer” in this discussion with Bob Dylan himself. Anyway, the “singer” here makes it sound as the the Tambourine Man can transport him to a place of grace and joy, it’s fair to say, and I don’t know that there’s much to say about this aspect of the lyrics other than than there’s some beautiful phrasing. Continue reading →