Thursday, December 29, 2016

Trailers and ghosts

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

It’s a common complaint that trailers nowadays give away too much. I haven’t seen America’s Sweethearts, but on the basis of the trailer, I feel like I have. Of course, depending on how you look at it, this might mean that the trailer functions just perfectly, allowing the viewer to save the ten bucks without even minor regret. I was also sure that the Planet of the Apes trailer had given me all I needed, but since the film’s directed by Tim Burton I went anyway. The film was just as dull as the trailer – and, of course, about sixty times as long. Probably the main advantage of seeing Planet of the Apes was that the five or six trailers preceding it gave me lots of additional insights into movies I can avoid over the coming while. Of course, the trailers are all on the Internet nowadays anyway, so there probably wasn’t even that much real advantage.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

If it’s the job of a trailer to make the film look as good as possible without yielding up all its secrets, then the one for Hedwig and the Angry Inch must be the recent best. On the basis of those three minutes, the film is a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like cornucopia of outrageous gender-bending tableaux, including lyrics up on the screen for audience participation, cartoon inserts, and general unpredictability all over the place. It looks like a matter of taste, sure, but you imagine the film’s going to be consistently wacky and diverting. Well, I now know that the trailer was concocted only by meticulously pruning the film’s most eccentric and colourful moments. The rest is oddly dour, even depressing.

The film is written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also stars in it (quite impressively). Hedwig is born a boy behind the Berlin Wall, but undergoes transgender surgery to marry an American GI. That gets her to freedom in the States, but the GI soon walks out on him, and then the Wall comes down anyway. Hedwig now tours through a series of dismal concert venues with her inexplicably faithful band, capitalizing on her sexually ambiguous persona. Much of the film consists of musical performance (the songs generally aren’t at all bad, both on their own terms and as knowing parody of the glamrock idiom); in between, Hedwig bemoans its past and present problems.

Hedwig’s surgery was botched (as one of the songs puts it, “Six inches forward and five inches back; I’ve got an angry inch”) and the character occasionally marshals this trauma as performance art. At other times, Hedwig’s seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. The film constructs a surprisingly comprehensive study of the character, and there’s something grandly imaginative about the notion of sexual confusion served up as a legacy for political transgression. It’s a rather hermetic metaphor though, and the film never manages to override an air of “So what?” Through sheer force of will I guess, Rocky Horror still manages to make a lot of people buy into its worldview – if only for 90 midnight minutes every now and then. Hedwig is just too reticent: ultimately, it seems like little more than another sob story. Except for those few scattered moments (about a trailer’s worth) of eccentricity.

Ghost World

I haven’t seen the trailer for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, but I feel confident in asserting that it couldn’t possibly have succeeded in giving away the whole movie. This is about two young women – apparently congenitally ironic and apathetic and distanced from most of their peers – in the weeks after high-school graduation, hanging out around their boring neighborhood and wondering vaguely what to do. One eventually goes to work in a Starbucks clone and gradually seems to be inching toward normality. The other holds on longer, but she’s clearly under siege. She’s played by Thora Birch, who’s just about perfect – as opaque as a truly alienated teenager should be, but no more than that.

The movie has lots of funny lines, generally rooted in sarcasm or in the sheer consistency of Birch’s resistance to much of what surrounds her. But the film’s real strength is in how it defines and maintains a rather unique mood of creeping dread – rooted in Birch’s pervasive antipathy, her secret nervousness about the course she’s on, and her reluctance to change. During the course of the film she tries out a vast array of clothing, from a tacky dinosaur T-shirt to the almost elegant (her friend at one point refers to her former “old lady period”). She’s trying identities on for size, but not realizing how her experimentation has to go deeper (her helmet-like black hair and heavy-framed glasses seem like a perpetual armor). In one scene she rants against “extroverted” types; in the next scene, she’s enjoying a radio DJ (extroverted, of course) that her companion yells at for being unbearably shrill. In school you can maintain arbitrary self-definitions because it’s sheltered and your little subgroup’s in it together; step out into more open territory and things quickly start to break down.

Psychic territory

Birch meets a dorky middle-aged old-record enthusiast (played by Steve Buscemi, in a performance that should conclusively dispel his ratbag image) who grows on her. He impresses her by virtue of his difference, even if the way in which he’s different doesn’t have much in common with the way in which she is. Their relationship is very sweetly portrayed; neither fully understands whether the territory they share is superficial or deep, and by the time they think to ask, it’s probably too late. When they sleep together, it carries absolutely no Lolita-type subtext – itself a sign of how well the film avoids the norm. Sometimes, as in the scenes involving a pretentious art teacher played by Ileanna Douglas, Ghost World does take easier paths, but since those scenes are consistently among the film’s funniest, it doesn’t seem to matter too much.

The film has a fanciful ending, in that it manages to avoid compromise and to allow Birch to retain most of her psychic territory. It’s also the only time that the film seems to take the supernatural undertones of its title too literally. But that hardly matters either. Ghost World lasts 111 minutes, and yields at least 109 minutes of satisfying movie watching – a ratio directly opposite to the other pictures I mentioned.

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