Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fifty Shades of Wicked

Franco shows Kunis the way in Oz the Great and Powerful.

««« Oz the Great and Powerful. Written by Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novels by L. Frank Baum. Directed by Sam Raimi. 

Maybe I need a brain, but I like Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. And apparently so do audiences, who gave it a crushing victory over Jack the Giant Slayer in last week’s fable-on-fable duel at the box office.
          L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) wrote 17 books set in his fantasy world of Oz, so you’d think his work would be a prime candidate to become a Hollywood franchise. Trouble is, Baum’s books no longer present the definitive version of their own universe. Instead, multiple generations of kids grew up watching the 1939 Victor Fleming adaptation of just one of his books, The Wizard of Oz—on TV, usually around Thanksgiving time. Now Oz is synonymous with Dorothy, ruby slippers and cowardly lions, regardless of the fact that Baum created dozens of other memorable heroines and villains. Try a Baum reboot and you invite the wrath of millions of fanatical fans, ready to lay waste to sacrilege as utterly as a swarm of flying monkeys.
          Until now, the only reimagining of the Baum universe that has seen serious traction is Stephen Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), the bestselling novel that gave rise to a Broadway musical. Maguire’s decidedly womynish take on the back story of the Wicked Witch, Glinda, and the Wizard seems to have primed some of our feminist sisters to expect something similar of Raimi’s film (see, for instance, here: jezebel.com/5989268). But of course, there was nothing particularly feminist about the 1939 movie. True, L. Frank Baum himself had convincing suffragist credentials. But as we already have established, Oz belongs to Judy Garland now, not Baum.
          Instead, Great and Powerful offers the origin story of the Wizard himself, aka Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (James Franco). We meet him first here as a two-bit carnival showman in 1905 Kansas, bilking audiences out of coin with his low-rent spectacles. He’s also something of a womanizer, which gets him in trouble with the circus strong man (Tim Holmes). Lighting out for safer pastures, he flies his balloon into the path of a plains twister—and ends up you-know-where.
          He finds an Oz as politically polarized as the 113th US Congress. The three resident witches, sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) are locked in a death struggle over control of Emerald City, each accusing the other of poisoning their father. More out of hope than evidence of his magic skills, they take the stranger as a great wizard, savior of the kingdom. After seeing the Emerald City’s treasury (lots of gold but, alas, no emeralds…), Oscar is in no hurry to correct them. Theodora in particular falls pretty hard for Oscar’s smooth carnival patter—with wicked consequences for all.
          With its three powerful women executives aching for a man to come and settle their troubles, this fairy tale is admittedly a disaster from a feminist perspective. No doubt, Great and Powerful plays into certain modern anxieties of the post-feminist culturescape—namely, the fear that women’s empowerment, despite its power suits and sensible shoes, just isn’t satisfying enough. Indeed, how else to explain the continued existence of Cosmopolitan magazine, or the success of Fifty Shades of Grey? If you bet whether many successful women out there—if not witches, exactly—would give it all up for Franco’s kind of handsome, shit-eating grin, you’d win that wager.
          Dig a little deeper, however, and the news isn’t all bad for feminists. After all, if the witches’ attraction to Oscar represents some repressed desire for male control, then it’s a pretty weak version of patriarchal power. Smoke and mirrors, actually—the kind that the heavenly Michelle Williams, as the good witch Glinda, winks at and permits to exist.
          But the most inconvenient truth is that we need Raimi’s phallocentric story now more than we need another Tangled, Brave or similar tale of girls’ empowerment. Newsflash: there’s no shortage of strong, plucky heroines in Hollywood anymore. Quite the opposite, girls kick butt just about every mainstream fantasy these days, big screen or small. Meanwhile, one big question remains unanswered after the feminist revolution: what does it really mean to be a man today, if the traditional models of protector and provider have become not just outmoded, but offensive? In Great and Powerful, we see Oscar learn that becoming a man isn’t about being great and powerful at all, but instead something very basic, yet ultimately more fulfilling. It’s a story that the current generation of young males, who are disconnected and restive and falling behind their sisters in virtually every measure of educational achievement, need to hear.
          Not that kids need to be consciously aware of any of this. Refreshingly, Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell) eschews cynical Dreamworks-style triangulation between adults and kids. There’s no smug double entendre in the script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, no knowing cultural references meant to bemuse hipsters and sail over the heads of children (aside from allusions to the 1939 movie, of course…). This a kid’s movie that is happy to be just that. And that’s not nothing. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Go Forth and Multiply

Terah Maher ad infinitum in Choros.

«««« Choros. Film by Michael Langan & Terah Maher. Available for streaming at http://langanfilms.com/choros.html.
«««« Solipsist. Directed by Andrew Huang. Available for streaming at http://vimeo.com/37848135.

Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Likewise, many film critics complain about the lack of inspiration, the dismaying sameness of mainstream American movies—yet they go on reviewing the same feature product, week after week. Entertaining as they may be, does anybody really believe that The Avengers or Wreck It Ralph represent the very best we can do? Is Jack the Giant Slayer really as imaginative as it gets?
          This week we do something about it. There are two experimental short films available now for online streaming that are well worth checking out, and they don’t even demand ten of your hard-earned bucks. In exchange for twenty-three minutes of your time, these films will 1) blow your mind, and 2) restore your faith that it’s still possible to do something truly visionary with a moving picture camera.
          Michael Langan and Terah Maher’s Choros (2011, 13 minutes) is a seductively hypnotic dance film. Using an advanced video compositing (essentially, combining multiple images into one), Langan captures 32 temporally-offset images of a dancer (Maher) as she moves to Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”. Though the idea is simple in principle, the results are spectacular: Maher’s movements are ramified in almost sculptural fashion, pouring through postures in a way that suggests some third mode of being between stillness and movement.
          The filmmakers are well- aware of the historical legacy of their project. In the late 19th century, Eadweard Muybridge used multiple still cameras to capture successive images of moving figures, making the world look at movement in a new way (and, in the process, presaging the new art of cinema). In 1968, Normal McLaren used conventional celluloid superimposition to make his classic Pas de Deux. The technology of McLaren’s time, however, permitted him to shoot his dancers only in black and white, with no pauses in motion, and only against a black background. Modern video compositing freed Choros of these limitations—a liberation the filmmakers wryly celebrate when they describe their film as a pas de trente-deux.
Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase"
          In an important sense, though, this film harkens not to other films, but to modernist landmarks like the Marcel Duchamp painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). Where Muybridge essentially taught his audiences to see cinematically, to give in to an illusion of movement built out of still elements, Langan and Maher follow Duchamp in envisioning a subject that is neither still nor moving, but in a fluidic state that is validly (and entrancingly) its own. As Maher’s body(ies) evoke helices, landscapes, butterflies and a thousand other fleeting forms, we begin to appreciate what she and Langan are on to here: a merging of traditional art and modern technology that multiplies the expressive power of both.
          Equally good is Andrew Huang’s astonishing Solipsist (2012, 10 minutes). A visual symphony in three movements, this combines elements of dance, costume, puppetry, video compositing and old-fashioned physical effects into a wordless poem to growth, evolution, and enlightenment. Movement one presents two dancers swaying in unison as they are gradually enveloped by a riot of vaguely organic detritus, until they become a gently undulating polyp. In movement two, worm-like, feathery organic forms swirl and pulse in an alien ocean, combining into ever more complex, baroque forms. Or are they nerve cells in a developing brain, boot-strapping their way toward consciousness? For the purposes of Huang’s theme, it hardly seems to matter whether these are dendrites in an infant’s cerebrum, or dwellers in the sub-ocean of Europa.
The dance of evolution plays on in Solipsist.
          Movement three gives us two figures on a beach, oddly aloof to each other until they merge in a surprising way (hint: think about the party scene in Donnie Darko). In each of these tableaux, Huang seems to allude to evolution and sex and development—the essential dramas of organic life—but also conjugations and conjunctions more spiritual in nature. In either case, the film seems to belie the isolation implied by its title.
          Perhaps Huang is suggesting the distinction between physicality and spirituality means not much. Or perhaps he’s just messing around with cool imagery. In any case, there’s more to marvel at and more to think about in Solipsist than in all 139 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
          One can’t help thinking that visionaries like Langan and Huang are like the bright, quick mammals waiting for their turn during the twilight of the dinosaurs. Choros is in regular rotation on European television, but as described on Langan’s website, it is “not coming to a theater near you.” Solipsist got made after Huang raised a mere $9000 on Kickstarter.com (the budget for Tree of Life: $32 million). The multiplex may be wall-to-wall T. rexes for now, but rest assured, the asteroid is coming. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro