Friday, July 12, 2019

Of Kaiju, Robin Williams' suicide, and the cinema of Vincent Ward

Personally, I would rather an interesting but flawed film than a perfectly-made, empty bit of idiocy.

I went, for instance - somewhat against my better instincts, caving in to curiosity - to see the new Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the other week. It's flawless in terms of craftsmanship. The special effects are terrific, and, while I'm not really a fan of the sort of smoky, red pallet that cloaks everything, no one could say it was poorly photographed. I'm sure the performances are fine, too - though I have begun to forget the details already. I recall that I spent a distractingly long amount of time wrestling over whether the lead actress was Sarah Michelle Gellar or Maggie Gyllenhaal, to discover to my embarrassment that she was actually Vera Farmiga (whom I liked in Source Code but haven't seen so often onscreen), and I always like to watch Charles Dance, based on a lasting fondness for his pre-Hollywood work in such films as White Mischief. (There's even a connection with the filmmaker I'm actually going to write about, as soon as I finish this preamble). Hell, I even kinda like Kyle Chandler; he's the perfect leading man for a big-budget sci-fi/ horror film (witness also Super 8), and it isn't his fault if it happens that he has only been in one film I enjoyed (Peter Jackson's 2005 version of King Kong, probably the last film of the summer-blockbuster type that I was really, really entertained by; Kong: Skull Island was also okay, mind you - but nothing particularly great).

The problem with Godzilla: King of the Monsters was not the craftsmanship: it was the utter and complete lack of ideas or passion. It attempts nothing. It's interested in nothing. It has no real ideas at its core. There is nothing special or outstanding about it that sets it above, say, Pacific Rim, or the previous American Godzilla film, or any other vast, empty spectacle that exists so people without a thing in their heads can gorge themselves on explosions and monsters and excitement. Of course, I'm not actually a huge fan of the original franchise of Godzilla movies, after the first one, and I'm sure this new film might be different to an actual student of kaiju - but there seemed pretty much nothing to care about in this reboot at all, for me. Even as a non-kaiju fan, I bet I could find 100 more interesting things to think about, and derive 100 more enjoyment-units of enjoyment from, say, watching War of the Gargantuas, which is also not exactly a film for intellectuals (I'm picking it as an example of truly bottom-drawer kaiju action, in fact). I would, I am sure, feel less like I wasted my time.

Damn, now I want to see War of the Gargantuas again. (It really upset me at age 10 or so when one of' 'em picked up the poor terrified lady and popped her whole in his mouth and chewed her up. I had watched a lot of kaiju movies, and probably even Harryhausen dinosaur movies - including ones where dinosaurs eat people - by the time I saw it, but the "chewing up the woman" scene just seemed so damned nasty and sadistic by comparison - maybe because the Gargantua in question seemed more human like than the reptiles in those films - that it counted as maybe the fourth most traumatizing childhood movie experience I've had, after a) the Flying Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz (at age 5 or 6, with my parents, who had to remove me from the theatre - the Stardust! - because I was crying so hard in terror of what would happen to Dorothy at the hands of those fucking... flying... monkeys); b) Ida Lupino being attacked by maggots in The Food of the Gods (filmed on Bowen Island!); and c) the TV trailer, late at night, for Larry Cohen's It's Alive.

(RIP Larry Cohen. You dyin' made me really wish I'd written a certain article last year - because I briefly had a window where I might have interacted with you, and I didn't. Thanks for Q, particularly, and for whatever the hell effect that It's Alive trailer had on me as a child. You were also an interesting filmmaker of imperfect cinema, although very different from Vincent Ward.)

But I digress.

To return to the main point (or arrive at it for the first time, really) as is emphatically not the case with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, there is a TON to care about in the films of Vincent Ward, even if, the further into Hollywood he gets, the less perfectly his ideas make it onto the screen. His best films by far (not counting his documentaries or his small-budget first feature, which I have not seen) are his first two big-budget features, Vigil - a pagan coming of age movie about a young girl growing up in a misty, green, romanticized version of New Zealand, with landscapes that will remind you more of the early films of Werner Herzog than the shorn rolling hills the English settlers created in that country to make it seem like back home (and provide pastureland for sheep); and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a fantasy about a small band of emissaries from a plague-ridden village who make an unusual pilgrimage into the modern day, hoping to save their people with an entreaty to the Gods, as laid out by a child in his dreams. (The whole main adventure in the film is sort of contained within an "it was all a dream" frame, but one of the most unusual and interesting such frames ever employed; no idea what it means, but it's utterly unique). I saw that film about five times, theatrically, back when it was first run here, where it was clunkily befitted - in an early example, I believe, of Miramax meddling/ dumbing-down -  with an idiotic opening subtitle, so idiots in the theatre would know what they were watching.

Vigil (pictured above) and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (pictured below) are Ward's two perfect films. They are also screening this July at the Vancity Theatre (click the titles for event listings).

Alas, because of those two films, Hollywood noticed Vincent Ward. I'm not sure how Ward feels about his 1990's output; both the features that he managed to direct, Map of the Human Heart and What Dreams May Come (which features an appearance by Werner Herzog!) are ambitious, idea-rich, and full of stunning, striking imagery - they're both really interesting films! But you also kind of want to read between their lines a tale of strife and frustration on Ward's part; I know nothing of what he went through, but it's very easy to imagine, when the films get excessively melodramatic, cute, or seem structurally less-than-perfect, that it's due to the demands of producers saying that this scene should be there, or needs to be shorter, or so forth (I know very little about their production history but you kinda develop a nose for these things). Only about 85% of either film really seems to work, as I recall, but you end up disinclined to blame the 15% that doesn't on Ward, because you suspect it's not fully his vision you're seeing on the screen.

Map of the Human Heart - which connects the dots between life in an Inuit village, a residential school in Quebec, and bombing runs over Germany in World War II, while also finding time for a love story and a betrayal - needs to be about an hour longer to not feel rushed. It tries for vastly more than it is able to fully accomplish, giving it a dizzying effect; I would be unsurprised to learn that there's a three hour cut out there, somewhere, that no one has ever seen.

What Dreams May Come - well, it's been a long time since I've tried that film, but considering its visions of heaven as an impressionist painting, and its casting Max von Sydow as a Charon-type boatman, it must have made at least a few missteps that I've avoided visiting it for years. It's adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, and not produced by Miramax, maybe because of whatever experiences Ward had with them in his previous work...? I don't have vivid recollection of why I found it a flawed film, but it is very, very possible that it suffers from "Robin Williams syndrome," being made at a time when it seemed impossible for anyone to reign in Williams and make him give a disciplined performance. At least the film isn't marked by his apparent desire to take off his pants and caper about naked, as he does in The Fisher King - which is the one film I've seen from the period that almost crafts a story that can contain and channel the intensity of Williams' exhibitionistic excess.

Both films are ambitious and respectable attempts to do something magnificent, even if they don't ultimately live up to their immense potential.

Of course, the last time I saw What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams was still alive. I am somewhat afraid to revisit this film, which deals in part with suicide, for the emotions it may bring up. I do not fully understand Robin Williams' decision to kill himself, am saddened by it, and at the same time reluctant to invite his films deeply back into my life. (I actually kind of understood Henry  Rollins' reaction - almost an angry one, though I was also glad Rollins apologized for it later; save for one very deliberate viewing of The Fisher King, I don't believe I have watched a single film of Williams' since his suicide, which I have not yet found a place for. It is weird to deal with grief for someone you did not actually know, but whom you knew, in part thanks to his exhibitionistic streak, so damned much about!).

We also probably owe much that is interesting about Alien 3 to Vincent Ward, as well, since he was the director to begin developing the project - which, by the by, is the Charles Dance connection mentioned above. Ward, for reasons I forget, was eventually removed from that film, and replaced by a novice director (which must have stung, at least until that novice - David Fincher - proved himself to also be a singularly talented filmmaker in his own right, even though, compared to Ward, he is the lesser artist. Maybe the better craftsman, but the lesser artist).

Sadly, Ward's later career, since he left the bigger budgets of Hollywood, has been less than prolific in terms of film, amounting, since What Dreams May Come, to a documentary and only one fictional feature (an interesting Maori adventure called River Queen, starring Samantha Morton and Fear the Walking Dead's Cliff Curtis; it won't be screening at the Vancity). It's telling that that feature saw him returning to his native New Zealand; one kind of assumes Hollywood is now behind him (which is probably for the best, really, since his New Zealand years were his best years - but it would be great if he was still making movies!). Ward is truly a visionary filmmaker, very unique, trying to do vastly more with cinema than almost any other filmmaker to command a big budget in North America. People with an interest in storytelling, in myth, in film as a sort of mystical experience should seek his films out. What's really remarkable about his Hollywood years is not that Miramax or whomever managed to leave their money-man-slime-trail on portions of the films, but that so much of his idiosyncratic, striking vision actually DOES make it onto the screen. Maybe that's a better way of looking at it.

So kudos to the Vancity for programming these films. Also, if you haven't seen it (and aren't working Monday, since it's an afternoon screening) Tom Charity will be presenting on the superb space-race film The Right Stuff, as part of their Film Studies series. Personally, I don't really give a damn about rocketships, and for me, the words "land speed record" are a reference to Husker Du, but even still, I found this a gripping film, and the cast is great (I mean, Sam Shepard? Ed Harris? Fred Ward? Lance Henriksen? VERONICA CARTWRIGHT!???!... are ALL IN THE SAME MOVIE.. with apologies to Scott Glenn and Scott Paulin and Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey and other fine actors who are also in it too...). The film proves that something can be perfectly made AND interesting at the same time, which contemporary Hollywood could learn a real lesson from.

So there's some good stuff happening at the Vancity in July! (And a lot of stuff I know nothing about; The Serengeti Rules sounds interesting!).

Also, if you didn't read my Straight piece with Carin Bondar, about the Nerd Nite series, do so, and watch the links... That event has passed, but the article has penises in it, and there will be other Nerd Nites in the future!

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