Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Watching the reruns on That 70's Show

Politically and culturally, ours is a backward-looking nation. In our politics, we endlessly battle over the legacy of the 60's, and much of our pop culture still takes its cues from the 70's (not coincidentally, the era in which the mutual co-optation of our political cultures first took form). That observation goes double for the movies - the tail end of the 70's (and the cusp of the 80's) was the period in which the blockbuster and the video game emerged, cable TV first splintered the national audience, and the comic book was posited as a format for A-list production.  Those tropes and issues have been working and re-working their way through the multiplex ever since.

What's most fascinating about these developments, however, is that they seemed to nip the last great flowering of American film in the bud. Indeed, by the mid-80's it was clear the movies had taken a nose-dive in quality - a collapse from which they've never fully recovered. One by one the old arthouse masters fell silent (Bergman bade farewell to film, Fellini foundered), while the mainstream auteurs, the ones who hoped to yoke high and low together onscreen, were heard from less and less (Hitchcock and Lean died, Kubrick's output dwindled).

What was more surprising was that all the young turks who had dominated the American screen in the 70's suddenly hit a wall; Coppola never recovered from the debacle of One from the Heart (1982); Spielberg repeated himself or groped for a vision after E.T. (also 1982); Polanski remained in exile; Woody Allen began his long decline; Lucas openly declared himself the effects engineer he had always been.  The slide didn't feel like a crash because there were still pop pleasures to be had (Aliens, Back to the Future) - and quirky new talents did appear (Terry Gilliam, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton, the Coens).  But slowly it sank in that none of this latest generation of filmmakers was able to scale the heights of their predecessors - much less carve out movies that could transform the culture.

Why that should have proved true is the kind of question that, if film criticism were a science rather than a degraded form of cheap rhetoric, it might be equipped to answer.  Certainly Reagan's reactionary 40's mentality (so oddly mimicking the 40's pop-surround of Star Wars) had something to do with it; politically, America was in a retrenchment (from which, again, it has never fully recovered, and which may destroy the nation yet).  And as noted before, technology continued to crib on the cultural space of the movies, and further fragment a diminishing audience, while general cultural literacy (necessary for any serious art form) continued its steady descent. And the business codes of the industry evolved from skepticism to something like hostility toward individual vision.  In this regard the annual slate of Oscar nominations operates as a sad palimpsest: in 1975, the nominees for best picture were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville; in 1988, the nominees were Rain Man, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and The Accidental Tourist. Other years, Out of Africa and Driving Miss Daisy actually won the trophy.  Sigh.

Cross this with The Goonies and you have what Super 8 hoped to be.

These thoughts came to mind (again) as I sat through two recent movies that both felt like repeats of that 70's show: J.J. Abrams's Super 8, a Spielberg homage produced by the master himself, and Terrence Malick's big, beautiful new bore, The Tree of Life.  Both were striking in their devotion to the zeitgeist of that benighted decade (in one case, the director borrowed from himself), but both attempts at cultural ventriloquism - or should I say turning back the clock? - essentially failed.  And as I watched them, I sensed a drifting pop establishment once again attempting to re-connect with its roots, but failing to do so.  Which again, made me heave a heavy sigh.

But I couldn't help but notice what was missing in each case - in Super 8, it was particularly obvious (and thus had its own kind of added poignance).  I admit that J. J. Abrams is brilliant at triangulated audience-development strategies - he got people to buy into the ever-sillier elaborations of Lost, and then his empty "re-boot" of the Star Trek series, too.  But you could never pretend to yourself, while you're sitting in front of the screen during one of his pictures, that Abrams has any real talent as a filmmaker.  Where he places his camera, how he structures his sequences, how his themes develop - all this feels either borrowed or banal (his one talent is for casting). And so it seems to me Abrams shouldn't set himself up before the example of Spielberg - a natural with the camera if ever there was one, who even in his lesser films will startle you with a scene that in purely cinematic terms is so inspired it's close to perfection.

And there are a lot of sequences like that in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (complete movie above), which, if you combined its spookier sequences with the Goonies (and added a few jolts from Jaws and other Spielberg flicks), appears to have served as the template for Super 8.  Don't get me wrong - I think Close Encounters is at times a bit flaccid in its uplift - Spielberg was never a screenwriter - and it's probably ground zero for what a friend of mine snarkily calls "The Spielberg Facial," in which a character - and sometimes character after character - stares in awe at the approaching shark/spaceship/dinosaur as the director zooms in for the money shot.  But I have to admit that many of the sequences in CE3K are nonetheless unforgettable, even if they depend on the Spielberg Facial; editing, imagery, action and, of course, music (by the amazingly versatile John Williams) cohere into scenes that still look, well, awesome.  Indeed, just about every appearance of the alien craft in CE3K is the kind of cinematic tour de force that George Lucas could only dream of.  Spielberg just had it goin' on.

But J.J. Abrams doesn't.  He couldn't orchestrate a scene if his life depended on it.  Half of Close Encounters was burned into my memory back when I first saw it in 1977 (I even remember the theatre I saw it in, which you usually do when the picture is a great one).  Meanwhile, only a week has passed since I caught Super 8, but already I can hardly remember anything about it.  The young actors were subtle and affecting, I remember that; the special effects were certainly convincing (but they always are, these days; special effects are the one thing Hollywood can still do).  The conceit of the movie -that Abrams's nouveau-Goonies were making a Romero-style zombie film - was hilariously realized over the final credits.  And the period - actually, the year, 1979 (you can pinpoint it) - was invoked almost as a fetish. from the pop songs on the radio (My Sharona, Heart of Glass) to the introduction of the Walkman to the faint yellow stains carefully painted onto the stars' capped teeth.

But for all that, the fraying, frazzled sunniness of the decade - the loose, cynically genial attitude that Spielberg conjured effortlessly in Close Encounters - somehow never came over; a blandly ironic millennial self-consciousness was always just being held at bay.  And the film's plot, like its tone, refused to cohere - indeed, the fact that the kids had accidentally photographed the monster terrorizing their scrappy little town eventually felt like an afterthought in a movie that seemed to be running on several separate tracks at once.  By the finish, Abrams had begun jumping from one digital setpiece to another with predictable crudeness, and more and more scenes felt like half-hearted glosses on Spielberg's early hits.  Most critics have praised the film for being better than  Thor and The Green Lantern - which I'm sure it is.  But it's still mired in its own under-achieving period - i.e., the millennium - so why pay to see it when the real thing is available on YouTube for free?  I'm afraid the ultimate message of Super 8 is a dispiriting reminder to America that you can't go home to the multiplex anymore.

An inside look at how Malick created the exquisite look of his 70's masterpiece, Days of Heaven.

Somehow, though, Terrence Malick didn't get that memo. He literally tries to go home in The Tree of Life - and not only to his childhood home in Texas, but all the way back to everybody's home, the primordial soup of the cosmos. I'm not kidding; after a brief introduction to his characters - a 50's family much like the director's own - this Rhodes scholar backs up the way James Michener used to in blockbusters like Hawaii to tell his tale from the very beginning: we stare in ravished disbelief as galaxies form, and amino acids coalesce into proteins, and eventually dinosaurs rule the earth (albeit with curiously soulful attitude).

The only director who has ever brought this kind of thing off, of course, is Kubrick (in 2001:A Space Odyssey, produced just before the high tide of American cinema). But much as J. J. Abrams is no Spielberg, Malick is no Kubrick; while 2001 opens with a stunningly photographed prehistoric drama which poetically compresses every theme in the ensuing film, Malick's "fantasia" (yes, I also couldn't help but recall that corny Disney visualization of Rite of Spring) is merely stunningly photographed (ironically enough, it was photographed by Douglas Trumbull, one of Kubrick's special effects men on 2001).

But then almost everything in The Tree of Life is merely stunningly photographed - it's basically a catalogue of Malick's familiar concerns, stripped down to their imagistic essence. I suppose the director's central theme is evanescence, so the arc of his career makes its own kind of stylistic sense; whereas in his early, great films (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Malick at least lightly tethered his haunting imagery to sturdy plotlines, in his later, more self-indulgent work he has begun to skimp on that boring story-structure stuff, the better to riff on his addiction to luminism. In short, this self-serious director was always episodic; now - despite pretending he's telling a story so big it has to start with the Big Bang - he's purely impressionistic. Indeed, sometimes his movie boils down to simplistic existential questions literally whispered over the pretty pictures.

Although don't get me wrong - those pretty pictures can be pretty seductive; indeed, the luminousness never stops in The Tree of Life; Malick seems to be able to find it anywhere. Whereas the famously ravishing Days of Heaven depended on what photographers call "the magic hour" for its haunted look, Malick now seems to be able to tease a delicately soulful glow from any time of day. And to be fair, there are moments of wide-eyed wonder here that capture precisely what it's like to see the world as a child does (that is, as mysteriously new), as well as several inspired images - like the moment in which sunlight flickers on a wall like an errant soul - that can stand up to anything in this director's earlier achievement.

It's always the magic hour in The Tree of Life.

Which makes sense, as the embedment of the spiritual in the physical is one of this director's conceptual hobbyhorses, and in Tree of Life it's more apparent than ever that there's a streak of Melville in Malick - he shares the great novelist's spiritual homo-eroticism (as do many, if not most, heterosexual men - they're all in love with innocent guy-ness). Thus there's a curiously obsessive undertow to Malick's adoration of the crewcut boys who figure as his heroes (and who struggle, in predictable fashion, with their thorny but loving father, played by Brad Pitt); they're not only freshly minted Holden Caulfield clones but also little Billy Budds running innocently around their tiny town (one of them, we know, will die at the end of adolescence). But again, to be fair, there's a clear-eyed awareness at work, here, too - Malick's boys (one of whom is a dead ringer for Pitt) break windows and gleefully strap helpless frogs to fireworks, just the way real boys do. Indeed, Tree of Life is most affecting when it dances along the line between Buddhist reverie and an acquiescence of the hard truths of human nature.

Still, we slowly zone out on all the zen, and Malick doesn't even attempt the development of the kind of climax that Melville always relied on. The movie begins to feel less and less, rather than more and more, coherent, as Malick starts hopping back and forth between his boys' childhood and adulthood - and by the time a strange kind of Rapture (we saw Mom floating around earlier) has begun to take place at some heavenly beach, we find ourselves patting back a smile rather than tearing up. (Needless to say, the picture closes with ANOTHER galaxy forming - the cycle begins again, Little Grasshopper!)  We also begin to sense an off-putting self-absorption operating beneath Malick's twilit Eden; he and Pitt, for instance, can't really make their iconically prickly father figure come alive - and Sean Penn, who plays one of the boys all grown up, just looks lost; all the auto-erotic innocence apparently precludes any messy adult complexity.

Thus we're left feeling that we're watching a different kind of reminiscence - one for a time in which Terrence Malick could actually pull his philosophical visions off. It's fairly apparent that The Tree of Life only got made because of the participation of Pitt and Penn; interesting movies are only made by studios these days because of pressure from actors (not the audience). And like many stars, these two are no doubt nostalgic for the old mojo of American film - when they could be confident, at least now and then, that they were devoting themselves to art, not commerce; and Malick is one of that tradition's last living auteurs. Only his highbrow well seems as dry as Spielberg's middlebrow one - indeed, one thing we wonder while we're watching the wondrous imagery of The Tree of Life is why the movie exists at all; in some deep way, it feels oddly superfluous. Tellingly, when Robert DeNiro tried to explain why he had voted to give it the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the actor stammered that "It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize." Okay.  Note he didn't mention the "artistic success." But I doubt we'd have to go back to the dawn of time to explain that ellipsis; we'd probably only have to go back to 1973.


  1. As genial as Close Encounters was, there was always that unsettling, weird journey of Roy Neary. His mad, voice-in-the-tract-housing-wilderness crack-up was particularly troubling to watch as a young kid.

    It is a thread Spielberg has tinkered with in subsequent "editions" of the film. He has confessed that if he were to have made CE3K after he had children, he would never have had Roy leave with the aliens.

    My favorite post-Days Malick is The Thin Red Line. But, even there, he seems lost in a story/he couldn't quite nail down before he began filming.

    I admit that you are probably right about our withering nostalgia. I go to each new release by one of our 70's Golden Age masters with hopes that I will see at least a few trace flourishes from the time when they were at the height of their powers. What is waning is my hope that I will be seeing a masterpiece.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Art - but don't you think Spielberg is at least aware of those issues himself? Pretty clearly he addresses the family-threatening allure of the aliens in his subplot with Melinda Dillon and her little boy (a family which holds together at the finale, with the little boy whispering "Bye" to the departing mothership). It may interest you to learn (if you didn't know already) that after his parents' divorce, Spielberg lived not with his mother but with his father (who was an electrical engineer and tinkerer, somewhat like Roy Neary, who is a model train enthusiast, much like the director himself).

    I agree that The Thin Red Line - or at least its first half - is superior to either The New World or The Tree of Life. Although as you point out, it eventually jumps the rails into incoherence. One popular misconception about Malick is that he hasn't been busy of late. There's a twenty-year gap in his career between Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line, but he has actually been pretty active since then, though usually as a producer or writer.

  3. I didn't know that about Spielberg's father!

    It makes a lot of sense. I do know that the film's original release was rushed to theaters and Spielberg was never really happy with it.

  4. Yes, but I think he has drifted back and forth on exactly why he was dissatisfied. Remember for the "Special Edition" a few years after the premiere, he actually added a brief scene inside the mothership, which would seem to emphasize his identification with Neary's departure (the opposite of his stance today).