Friday, December 12, 2003

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) and The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003) 

Last week, I saw Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a film that almost seems to defy analysis. Van Sant's method, as with his previous film, Gerry, strives for something as close to utter objectivity as you can get in a fictional narrative film. He follows several groups and individuals at a high school on the morning before a shooting not unlike the one at Columbine five years ago. His camera follows each character -- including the killers themselves -- in almost exactly the same medium-range tracking shot, leading right up until the climactic moment, before the film cuts away to cover another character. It's an undeniably fascinating method; we don't get much time to know the characters, but we get the details that seem to make up the kinds of kids you're likely to see at an average American high school. We don't exactly understand why the killers do what they do, but neither do we despise them; fundamentally, their interests and backgrounds don't seem particularly different from the kids who didn't become killers (though Van Sant's film stumbles during the few times he tries to add "explanations" for their behavior, an attempt that's plainly fruitless and unnecessary).

Still, while the objectivity of Elephant is unusual and striking, it leaves you wondering exactly what, if anything, Van Sant is trying to say. Nothing at all? Is his point simply that no one knows the answer, so why bother providing one? That may be correct, but is it enough to base a film on? Isn't that disrespectful to the real victims of Columbine? One part of me says that it would actually be more disrespectful to the real Columbine victims to make attempts at explaining or classifying the tragedy -- you know, so we can all forget about it and dismiss it -- but another part wonders at the usefulness of Elephant at all. So we don't know the answer -- do we need a film to tell us that?

These thoughts were still knocking around in my head later that week, when I went to see a film seemingly designed to throw the casual observance of Elephant into sharp contrast: Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai. Here's a film that very clearly has a point to make, and it takes all the necessary steps to make sure you get that point, even if it'll kill you. It's about an American Civil War hero (played by Tom Cruise) sent to Japan to train the Emperor's soldiers in combat with modern weaponry. Long story short (if you've seen the trailers, you know the whole thing already), he gets captured by samurai warriors rebelling against the Emperor's new ways, and through a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, finds himself convinced of the samurai's viewpoint, ultimately deciding to fight on their side.

The Last Samurai has handsome production values going for it, along with some impressively-mounted battle scenes and a terrific performance from Ken Watanabe as the head samurai, but it's also a film in which the ultimate message (old=good, new=bad) is perfectly obvious from the start, and it makes little-to-no changes or variations on that message for the entire 2 1/2 hour running time. In other words, ho-hum. Zwick likes to make epic films, and boy, does he know it: The Last Samurai is an Epic, so therefore, every scene has to be Epic, with swelling music, a bit of screaming and/or crying, and suitably drawn-out slow-motion punctuation for the most dramatic part of the scene. The samurai are rendered in the most heroic manner possible, and the Americans and other such imperialists twirl their moustaches while Hans Zimmer's score throbs menacingly beneath them. You know how you're supposed to feel about these people, and even if you don't, Zwick's going to make sure you do, dammit!

And naturally, this kind of emotional railroading starts to work against The Last Samurai when your mind eventually wanders around to the questions that should have been pondered by the film. Might Japan have had legitimate reasons to modernize? Was this samurai way, supporting a possibly oppressive feudal system, really so great? Would the Japanese people of today really care to live like the people in this movie? Isn't it a little condescending for some American filmmakers to suggest what would've been best for the Japanese?

Oddly enough, while The Last Samurai has a very clear agenda, it's a film that ultimately feels empty, and while Elephant steadfastly refuses to state what its agenda is, it somehow feels richer for it. Ultimately, I think there may be a point to Elephant, lying in the margins, in the title's referral to the metaphorical elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, in the seemingly extraneous Gay & Lesbian Alliance conversation about not judging people by their looks, and in the randomness of the closing scene followed by a shot of an indifferent sky: appearances are inscrutable, and you can't get all the answers just by observing. A greatly profound point? No, but certainly open for consideration. The point is, I had to think about it. Meanwhile, considering the themes of The Last Samurai only got me frustrated at how the film had already shot them down. Elephant: B+; The Last Samurai: C+

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The Missing (Ron Howard, 2003) 

Upon viewing the trailer for The Missing, I had the immediate urge to remark, "So, it's The Searchers by Ron Howard." (I restrained myself, however, as I'd already made snide remarks about most of the ads that preceded the trailers that preceded the film, and figured enough snideness was enough.) The film did little to wash away that impression; it's about the search for a kidnapped daughter, with some (unavoidably modernized) tension between white folks and Native Americans. I suppose that's one point in the film's favor: it helped me to better appreciate The Searchers and how much more streamlined John Ford's narratives are as compared to anything Ron Howard could ever produce in his life.

The problem with The Misssing is that it's so obviously a construction; very little about this film (save for the performances of Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones) feels at all organic. Howard's method -- which works well on thriller-type narratives like Apollo 13 -- is crushingly inadquate when it comes to crafting morally-ambiguous westerns. I kept flashing back to Ron Howard's commentary for A Beautiful Mind, where he talks about how every editing decision he made was simply to improve "tension" and "flow". In other words, just in service of the plot. The Missing is all plot, all set-pieces used to set up more set-pieces; there's little discernible attempt to get down-and-dirty with the complex themes brought up within the narrative, and only the most obvious points are made before we can be shuttled off to yet another Big Emotional Moment or Thrilling Chase. The Missing is similar to A Beautiful Mind in that respect, only the thematic material is even more clumsily treated this time around; a scene that literalizes the subtextual theme of Christianity-vs.-Native-Mysticism comes off all the sillier because of it's garishly obvious content (and also because when a film fails to establish that supernatural powers actually exist in its world, a late scene in which they suddenly, inexplicably do feels just a little bit stupid).

Perhaps if Howard's set-pieces were as creative, unpredictable, and thrilling as, say, Quentin Tarantino's, I wouldn't mind so much. Unfortunately, they're not; each one plays like it's been lifted directly from a film-school textbook. Does Howard have any actual passion for this material? Any personal demons he wanted to exorcise by making this film? I doubt it. The Missing feels like it was simply borne out of Howard's desire to make his own John Ford movie. Well, The Missing is certainly identifiable as a John Ford homage -- and that's about it. C

(P.S. James Chen, brother of Jeff Chen and a contributor over on the Cinemarati boards, made a good point about the title: it's false advertising. There's very little time during which "The Missing" person is actually missing. For most of it, we and the characters know exactly where she is. Why Howard would allow such a generally "tension" and "flow"-killing narrative element to invade his film is a mystery, but there you have it.)

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