Goodlands

I hate every name that describes what I love. Cin­e­ma. May­be it’s that final “ma” syl­la­ble (just like dra­ma) but I sound like a douche every time I try to use it seri­ous­ly. Plus it’s one of those names for inex­plic­a­ble things that comes through the util­i­ty door : the ear­li­est machi­nes that both record­ed and pro­ject­ed the mov­ing images were called cin­e­matographs. Lat­er, the halls and the­aters where they were exhib­it­ed were referred to as cin­e­mas. And of course, the law of lin­guis­tic metas­ta­sis requires that even­tu­al­ly such a name will become the short­hand for the entire expe­ri­ence.

Film. Ugh. You can almost imag­ine where this one came from — “I loved watch­ing your mag­i­cal light show. But how did you con­jure it?”

I ran a bunch of pho­tographs strung togeth­er fast enough to cre­ate the illu­sion of motion.”

Hot shit. But how did you get it on the wall ? I thought pho­tographs were opaque.”

Yup­pers. Instead of paper I used trans­par­ent cel­lu­loid with a thin film of sil­ver emul­sion that allows images to be pro­ject­ed with a light source.”

What the…? You made mag­ic with a film?”

Okay, sure.”

Sick. Got any films with asso­cia­tive dialec­ti­cal mon­tages that resem­ble Marxist/Hegelian philoso­phies enough to claim a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary art form ? Or, if not, any films with naked girls?”

I’ll check.”

Using the word film to describe the art form is like call­ing nov­els pages or paint­ings can­vas­es. And film­mak­er? Even the teenagers mak­ing lat­tes at Star­bucks have cool­er names than that. Then there’s the word I use the most : movies. It’s corny and grace­less, and it cre­ates a false dif­fer­ence between films and movies. But the one thing it has going for it is accu­ra­cy. As Dieter said to Eddie Mun­ster on Sprock­ets, “Susan Son­tag said that cin­e­ma lies at 24 frames a sec­ond, Eddie. Any com­ments?” Movies are still images sep­a­rat­ed by dark­ness, mov­ing fast enough to fool the brain into per­ceiv­ing motion. Does it mat­ter ? Prob­a­bly not.

Except wait, it does. 

When stu­dios and his­to­ri­ans start­ed try­ing to cre­ate a for­mu­la for suc­cess­ful movies, they noticed that the ones peo­ple liked best seemed to work the same way good old fash­ioned yarns and tales worked, and they start­ed turn­ing those books and tales into hit movies. And in the 1980s, film schools took up the cause, giv­ing pri­ma­cy to der screen­play über alles. The screen­writer (notice the trend in util­i­tar­i­an names?) ascend­ed near­er to (but nev­er reach­ing) the lev­el of the direc­tor. “A bad movie can come from a good script, but a good movie can nev­er come from a bad script,” was repeat­ed over and over in screen­writ­ing class­es, and it prob­a­bly still is. Soon, dia­logue start­ed to sing off the page, back­sto­ries oozed through the com­plex and tight­ly formed plots, and the three act struc­ture gave sto­ries a rigid, artic­u­lat­ed spine — the mimet­ic ape of verisimil­i­tude stood erect and walked just like us, talked like us, and at last, char­ac­ter was king. We were cer­tain this was an apex moment because right there, on the screen, we saw more than we’d ever seen before, more than dream, more than fan­ta­sy and jour­ney — we saw the human con­di­tion, star­ing us right in the kisser.

Unless what hap­pened was that we killed every­thing gos­samer and gassed up and hot damn about movies and turned them into nar­cis­sis­tic self-ful­fill­ing prof­it­sies. For me, movies are pho­tog­ra­phy. First and fore­most. They engage us visu­al­ly before they ever get to sound and struc­ture. That we can make them feel famil­iar and pre­dictable doesn’t mean that’s what they are. Movies aren’t sto­ries, they aren’t plays, they aren’t musi­cal arrange­ments. They’re mov­ing pic­tures, and when they try to be some­thing else, they get it wrong.

Moon­rise King­dom is wrong. I had planned to see it in a the­ater with my son, but sum­mer was busier than usu­al and we nev­er got the chance. I love Bot­tle Rock­et and Rush­more. We both love Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox. I haven’t real­ly bought into the rest of Wes Anderson’s work, pri­mar­i­ly because I find the fetishiz­ing of sym­met­ri­cal wide shots, Futu­ra typog­ra­phy, throw-away jokes, and wist­ful 60s/french pop music to be less “indie” and more of the “less-is-more” gen­re. But some­times movie folk grow into their skill set — Alexan­der Payne had nev­er seemed to be capa­ble of any­thing like The Descen­dants; I thought Polanski’s best years were decades behind him until The Pianist — so Oskar and I watched Moon­rise on pay-per-view. Oskar loved it.

The sym­me­try is oppres­sive because it is unground­ed. For the first half hour, almost every shot is aligned on a 90 degree axis, and the cam­era movies only side­ways or back and forth in straight lines. Because the sto­ry takes place in the past in a place that doesn’t exist, the excru­ci­at­ing painter­li­ness of the sets and sce­nes pum­mel you into receiv­ing all this as the nat­u­ral order.

As usu­al, Anderson’s eye is remark­able. The col­or pal­lete is con­trolled ; the sets are desiged with care and exquis­ite detail. Cos­tumes, sets, even the weath­er are care­ful­ly designed to belong only to this her­met­ic her­mitage : a pleas­ant­ly benign world where obses­sion and pas­sion are allowed to frol­ic in a nerdy human zoo. Just because the movie is visu­al doesn’t mean that it is pho­to­graph­ic. The pho­tog­ra­phy is beau­ti­ful the same way that fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy is beau­ti­ful. It sat­is­fies with­out leav­ing room for any oth­er con­nec­tions. It’s the visu­al equiv­a­lent of bad improv. (Robert Yeo­man has pho­tographed all of Anderson’s movies, and as a mat­ter of dis­clo­sure, he was kind enough to pho­tograph my first moviemak­ing adven­ture — for me he was a sal­va­tion, while for a more sure hand like Ander­son he is an artist).

I quick­ly start­ed to see sim­i­lar­i­ties with Ter­rence Malick’s Bad­lands. My own nerdy obses­sion with that film might allow it to be said I see sim­i­lar­i­ties with Bad­lands every­where, but I couldn’t agree less. If it were so, the world would be a stranger and more beau­ti­ful place. But once the two young pro­tag­o­nists exe­cute their planned elope­ment, it’s hard to ignore the facts. Suzy and Sam set off togeth­er after their “crime” of leav­ing home and scout camp. Kit and Hol­ly do the same after he kills her father and burns down the house.

Then there is a peri­od where Suzy and Sam enjoy a brief idyll in the wilder­ness, at the beach, where they cre­ate a peace­ful world that allows them to be them­selves. Kit and Hol­ly do the same in their tree house by the river. Sam and Suzy even mim­ic the scene in Bad­lands where Kit and Hol­ly dance around the fire to Mick­ey and Sylvia’s Love is Strange. One nice dif­fer­ence between the two is where Kit and Holly’s sex­u­al­i­ty can be summed up by Holly’s reac­tion — “Gosh, what was every­one talk­in’ about?” — Suzy and Sam have a sur­pris­ing­ly real and erotic encoun­ter that seems both far beyond their years and exact­ly true to their hearts. It’s the one moment that didn’t need the per­fect arhi­tec­ture and com­po­si­tion and dis­tance to appear real.

Suzy and Sam are caught, Kit and Hol­ly aren’t. But in both cas­es, chaos ensues until they are caught again, this time once and for all. In Suzy and Sam’s case, the plot descends into hijinx involv­ing scout­mas­ters, cheat­ing par­ents, a lone­ly cop, and social ser­vices. Emo­tions are man­u­fac­tured, moments are misiden­ti­fied, as though it feels like the movie is bid­ing its time to resolve and end. There is even an extend­ed flash­back to when Suzy and Sam met the year before (which I think is where the heart of the movie would be found, not in the after­math a year lat­er). In Kit and Holly’s case, it’s about… well it’s not about any­thing. There is no attempt to make sense of or under­stand what hap­pens when Kit and Hol­ly go on the run.

Bad­lands is of course also a pas­toral dream ver­sion of real­i­ty. The Stark­weath­er mur­der spree wasn’t ele­giac or pro­found. It was shock­ing. But the movie Mal­ick made grew from that hor­ror like a tree from a seed, and the result is as over­whelm­ing and impos­si­ble to explain as a tree itself. Mal­ick allows his movie to speak first to the eye, not to the ear or the mind. The love­ly voice-over and spare dia­logue, along with Carl Orff’s beau­ti­ful pieces from Schul­w­erk, don’t tell the sto­ry. They aug­ment and some­times con­tra­dict the pho­tog­ra­phy, cre­at­ing a broad and var­ied matrix where there is enough room for mean­ings and feel­ings to col­lide and coa­lesce. This leaves you feel­ing dis­turbed, enlight­ened, and unsure of what you’ve seen : my def­i­n­i­tion of a per­fect expe­ri­ence.

I am nei­ther claim­ing nor fault­ing Moon­rise King­dom for bor­row­ing, steal­ing, pay­ing homage to, or sim­ply ref­er­enc­ing Bad­lands. I think that’s part of what mak­ing art is about and I prob­a­bly do it more than any­body in my own efforts. Ander­son him­self did it to good effect when he lift­ed some of Fran­ny and Zooey for the The Roy­al Ten­nen­baums. But where Bad­lands left me dizzy and lift­ed, Moon­rise left me sour and low. Both direc­tors are gift­ed and orig­i­nal, and both have made bet­ter and worse movies than the­se (Days of Heav­en, The Thin Red Line, Rush­more, The Dar­jeel­ing Lim­it­ed).

But I think where this and many movies today fall short despite their pedi­gree is that too often peo­ple try to put into their movie what they hope audi­ences will get out of it : heart, love, hope, wis­dom, etc. It’s to the point where many first time movie mak­ers eschew almost all atten­tion to pho­tog­ra­phy for the sake of “per­for­mances” and “sto­ry”, and the end up with talk­ing oat­meal. This approach only works in gen­re movies — hor­ror, action, heist, and love sto­ries — where all that is want­ed from the audi­ence is vis­cer­al respon­se. That’s how movies work. That’s why Hitch­cock, Ford, Bertoluc­ci, Scors­ese, etc., are so very suc­cess­ful : they under­stand the vis­cer­al, phys­i­cal pow­er of com­bin­ing pho­to­graph­ic sequences in ways that are impos­si­ble for the eye to ignore, and at the same time they provide enough for the ear and the brain to cre­ate a fourth organ. When a movie can open this mind’s eye, then, hot damn, you have some­thing.

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