Sunday, May 9, 2010
The Last Game
I spent ten minutes or so of my life watching His Last Game, made in 1909, without a credited director. It’s the story of a native American, a star baseball player, wrongly sentenced to death for murder (“Western justice” says the caption), but allowed a reprieve to win one more for the team; afterwards, he faithfully delivers himself back to the firing squad, which finishes him off just moments before a pardon arrives from the judge. You couldn’t find a simpler piece of cinema. Scenes are framed simply, and play out in a single take, without editing or camera movement. The extremely condensed narrative gives it a melancholy matter-of-fact quality; at the end, when the reprieve arrives, they sadly acknowledge their error for a few seconds, and then walk away. It’s an exciting viewing experience because of the percolating ambition; at this point, the technical execution remains primitive (presumably audiences were sufficiently astonished though) but it’s already telling real stories. In less than a decade, the medium would already be generating epics, and everything else flowed from there.
A few days later I watched Watchmen, which I didn’t see when it came out. Although not what I usually call “my kind of movie,” it’s rather fascinating. Set in an alternative future wherein Richard Nixon remains President into the 1980’s, it examines a group of costumed crime-fighters, forcibly retired now, but perhaps more necessary than ever, especially as the world pushes itself to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Running around three hours, it’s an extraordinarily ambitious creation, cramming in multiple plot lines, flashbacks, shifts of tone and visual changes of tone. It’s often wantonly eccentric, following single characters for long periods of time, often in what might seem like disposable situations; it frequently succumbs to a dreamy romanticism or to open melancholy. It’s obsessed with its own genealogy, introducing survivors from a previous generation of crime-fighters, fussing over the details of how things got to where they are, often threatening virtually to disappear inside itself.
It might sound from that as if Arnaud Desplechin decided to make a genre movie. But the film also has a very high cheesiness quotient, lamely parodying such easy targets as the McLaughlin Group, and tiresomely conventional in its cartoon violence. Numerous actors look ridiculous in their costumes, even if that’s largely deliberate, to reflect the poignancy of the Watchmen’s diminished status. The rather obvious sense of reaching for pop culture melting pot greatness (playing Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ under the opening titles for instance) is intermittently off-putting. I don’t know at all what to make of some of it. Billy Crudup plays the so-called Dr. Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist rendered by a freak accident into a being of almost God-like powers- he’s also bright blue. The character is rendered in endlessly pious and stuffy terms, and seems to belong way outside the internal rules governing the rest of the film. On the other hand, it certainly increases the headiness of the mix.
Watchmen shimmers with care and craft and enthusiasm. It wasn’t a great success though. It was based on a pre-existing comic book, and I’m sure for those who were familiar with and cared about that, it was an entirely different kind of viewing experience. Beyond that though, lots of people didn’t get it. It’s certainly a more intricate piece of story telling than Avatar – which has its own cheesiness problems galore – but it doesn’t offer such straightforward, enveloping pleasures. On the other hand, withholding those pleasures doesn’t lead to any intellectual or other pay-off; for me at least, Watchmen doesn’t seem to be about anything much, beyond its self-absorbed self. It’s as if the director Zach Snyder implicitly said, give me your three hours and your ticket price, and I’ll just give you back whatever I feel like.
Never Been To Vegas
Recently I was saying to someone I’ve never been to Las Vegas and never intend to, and he said even if I might not expect to like the glitz and the excess, it’s something everyone should see at least once. I asked why I should prioritize seeing Vegas – the pinnacle of a cultural strand I’m obviously familiar enough with (neon and glitz and excess, OK, I got it) - over somewhere that would actually be new and informative, like going to India for example. He didn’t really have an answer. But we’re not living in an age where knowledge and experimentation are particularly prized. If we’re talking about travel, at least you have to acknowledge financial constraints: Vegas is a more practical destination than India. But then, so are any number of natural and historic wonders that attract only a pittance of tourists by comparison.
I know a lot of intelligent people who profess an interest in seeing good movies, and they ask me for recommendations, but virtually never end up acting on them. Everyone’s time is carved up a hundred different ways: if they end up with two hours to watch a movie, they’re going to play it safe. I don’t mean the movie has to be good: actually, maybe it’s easier if it isn’t – it might be easier to invest the time on something of accessible and familiar badness. There’s something deeply corrosive about how even mainstream news shows assume we’re meant to know and care about the travails of disposable pop culture figures like the Gosselins. It’s deeply linked in my mind to the media’s excessive focus on disposable scandals, remote but easily understood risks, and political point scoring. We’re like laboratory mice, pushed this way and that by cunning stimuli, merely experiencing the illusion of progress and growth. Meanwhile, every meaningful indicator on the planet just gets worse.
The Last Game
Escapism is understandable, but subject to subtle rules. The failure of Watchmen speaks to the reluctance merely to be seen escaping – because that’s what geeks do. The movie is too much about itself and not enough about us. Avatar is ingratiating – it’s bright and bouncy and has lots of easy points of reference. Reality TV, to a lot of people it seems, is worthwhile by definition – it’s real, like terrorists and swine flu, so it validates you…however, happily, it’s not too real, in the way that makes your head hurt. Sports are real of course. Things that give the illusion of actual activity and accomplishment, like rock band games, are real. If you ever momentarily doubt any of this, the prevailing discourse rapidly puts you back in place.
I like to go back sometimes to the dawn of popular culture as we know it, and to watch something like His Last Game. It’s refreshing. It’s like, I’m told, when you hold your newborn baby, and you’re overwhelmed by the miracle of life and the specialness of the moment. If one could hold that thrill and live your life in its aura, things might turn out so much purer. But then you leave the hospital, and the logistics kick in, and your story again becomes like everyone else’s.