Saturday, November 22, 2003

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

The main reason to see Looney Tunes: Back in Action is that Joe Dante directed it. For many of us, that should be enough. He's in full-blown Gremlins 2 mode here; nearly every crazy frame contains some in-joke reference to another film. When this movie hits DVD (and it won't have long to wait, I suspect), videophiles will wear out their freeze-frame buttons trying to spot all the background gags. You could say this is Dante's equivalent of Kill Bill, in that all his influences -- Warner Bros. cartoons, bad '50s sci-fi, comic books, vintage Hollywood -- are placed on display for your delectation. Then again, the same could be said for just about any of Dante's films.

It's also safe to say that this is the best feature film to date starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, though it's largely by default. Most Looney Tunes features have been cut-and-paste affairs using late-period shorts and limited animation. The dismal Space Jam is the sole exception. It never warranted so much as a chuckle, but for some unfathomable reason people went to see it. Now we have this film, which tries to recapture the spirit of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons -- in particular, the wild-and-woolly work of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.

Alas, Back in Action doesn't make the grade. It forgets that the classic subversion of Looney Tunes never depended just on wall-to-wall action. It was never the explosion, the fall, or the splat that made us laugh; it was the split-second of silence just before disaster struck. That silence is largely missing here, as are far too many of the laughs. I'm not willing to blame Dante entirely for this; it's pretty clear to me that the movie has been hacked to ribbons by people who didn't quite understand what it was trying to do. But the worst, most frantic excesses have Dante's fingerprints all over them.

The film would have been better, I think, had it jettisoned its action-adventure plot, and simply let classic Warner Brothers characters run loose in the studio. One scene in the commissary features Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzalez complaining about how political correctness has made them unemployable; there's enough subversive wit in that brief exchange to sustain a feature film in itself. (Political correctness may have tarnished Speedy Gonzalez's reputation, but as the only ethnic cartoon character to have attained widespread popularity, he's become -- paradoxically -- a major icon of Chicano Pride.) Speedy and Porky have been deemed offensive; Daffy is underappreciated; Bugs is revered, but never gets to torture his adversaries like he used to. Even Yosemite Sam and his cartoon henchmen are reluctant to throw a stick of cartoon dynamite because "it would send the wrong message to the children." Most of the film's best scenes feature classic characters grumbling about their reduced visibility in a culture that can no longer openly appreciate their anarchic energy.

If there's ever another Looney Tunes movie, I humbly suggest this idea: Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Speedy, Tweety, Sylvester, Coyote and Road Runner are kidnapped by a P.C. Disney-loving wannabe, and forced to make a film with oodles of family values and positive social messages. In special celebrity cameos, Bob Dole and Joe Lieberman make a special visit to the studio, and witness all the newfound social responsibility. Finally fed up with goody-goody pablum, Bugs and company bust loose, tormenting the director and trashing the set.

I'd pay to see that -- at least, if Joe Dante directed.

Update: A loyal reader asks me to name my favorite Joe Dante film. The best one I've seen is Matinee, starring John Goodman. Superficially the film is a modest coming-of-age comedy, but the subtext is quite provocative: It contrasts William Castle's shock-schlock entertainments with the global terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dante's off-kilter visuals suit the material perfectly, and he keeps his manic energy in check until just the right moment. I was one of the fortunate few who saw Matinee in theaters, and I loved every minute of it. It's available now on DVD.

Friday, November 21, 2003

More Stupid than My Dog

My dog may be stupid, but Anne Lamott is a raving idiot.

Don't take my word for it. Ask her.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Mail Call

A loyal reader from New York weighs in:

1. The courts did not integrate water fountains (or other public accomodations). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did.

Yes, but the court system made those gains concrete. White Citizens' Councils fought integration tooth and nail, suing for segregated lunch counters, bus stations and water fountains. In many areas of the South, they were aided by local judges and police, and managed to keep public facilities segregated for some time after the Civil Rights Act.

2. The courts did not give black people the right to vote. The 15th Amendment (passed in 1870), as enforced by the Voting Rights Act (passed in 1965) did. Ultimately equal access to the polls stemmed from the blood and iron of the Federal government. (The VRA essentially told the states -- let black people vote, or else we will take over your elections and do it ourselves).

Again, it was the legal system that enabled Black citizens to exercise their right to vote. Even after the Voting Rights Act, many states and counties simply prevented Blacks from voting. The right to vote had to be enforced through numerous civil lawsuits.

3. The public schools of the Deep South were not integrated until fifteen years after the Brown decision. (Oddly enough, it was the Nixon Administration that did it, even though Nixon himself didn't much care for integration).

That depended on where you were in the Deep South. Some Southern schools were integrated by the late 1950s (and many of them were integrated peacefully); others required a great deal of litigation. Again, integration depended on judges who were willing to enforce the law.

Likewise, the Massachusetts Supreme Coupt hasn't granted same-sex couples the right to marry. As the majority opinion notes, the state constitution has granted them that right already (or rather, it doesn't take that right away). But the court has prevented same-sex couples from exercising their right to marry until the legislature can do something about it.

It would be as if a court had said that Black children had the right to attend the same public school as White children, but that they couldn't actually attend those schools until Whites could build new segregated-but-equal schools for them. Had the American judicial system behaved in such a timorous manner during the civil rights movement, the federal laws would never have been enforced.

By the way, thanks for writing in so I could clarify that point.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Boston Marriage?

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that Gays have a right to marry under the state constitution. Andrew Sullivan rejoices, claiming that in one state at least, Gay people are "Free at Last!" But don't start cutting the cake or throwing the rice, gentle reader. Just because same-sex couples have the right to marry doesn't mean they can, you know, actually get married. Not yet.

Instead of granting marriage licenses to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the court has given the state government six months to rectify the problem. Legislators now have several options. They could simply grant Gay people the right of marriage, which would be most in keeping with the principle of "equal protection under the law." Or they could pass complicated civil unions legislation, as has occurred in Vermont and California. But most likely, given the Catholic Church's intractable stance against same-sex couples (and now, Gay and Lesbian individuals), Massachusetts will put the kibosh on the whole debate by passing a "heteros-only" constitutional amendment. (11/19 Update: A loyal reader informs me that such a constitutional amendment can't be passed until 2006. Maybe the courts can delay same-sex marriage that long -- or maybe not.)

So hurrah for the Massachusetts Supreme Court ... sort of. If America's courts had taken a similar stance half a century ago, our Deep South would still require Black people to use those "Colored" drinking fountains -- after all, it would be obvious (to racist Whites) that non-Whites weren't ready to use the same facilities as everybody else. Instead of integrating public schools, our courts would have maintained the doctrine of "separate but equal." And states would have had several long months to work out that whole thing about minorities not being allowed to vote, instead of registering Black voters right away.

Protecting individual liberty and ensuring equality of right under the law, have never been matters for the weak-minded or the faint-hearted -- as the Massachusetts Supreme Court has just shown. What a bunch of cowards.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Movie Review: Gospel of John

The MPAA has given the new movie Gospel of John a PG-13 rating for "violence involving the crucifixion." I don't quite understand their decision, since the footage cited is not especially graphic. Twenty-four years ago, an adaptation of Luke called Jesus received a G rating, even though its crucifixion scene may actually be a bit more gruesome than the one here. For those who crave some serious gore with their salvation, Mel Gibson's upcoming Passion of Christ promises to stick it to Jesus like a cheap pincushion. I predict it'll be the biggest thing to hit religion since Freddy Krueger pointed at his glove and said, "This is God!"

Of course, there's a better reason for that PG-13 rating, though the MPAA would hesitate to mention it directly: Among the canonical gospels, John is far and away the most anti-Semitic. The medieval church used one passage (John 8:41-45, if you must know) to call Jews "sons of devils." Today, the Christian Identity movement still propagates the theory that Jews are biological descendants of Satan. Compared to statements from non-canonical gospels, these bilious diatribes are fairly mild -- which should give you an idea of how bitter the rivalry between Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism got in the first few centuries A.D. Still, the author of John influenced nearly two millennia of pogroms and persecutions. He has much to answer for.

Visual Bible International, a Christian-entertainment company based in Nashville, has produced a word-for-word film adaptation of John for about ten million US dollars (or 17 million Canadian, according to IMDB). Adjusted for inflation, that's considerably less than Jesus cost Warner Brothers in 1979, and probably a good deal more than Pasolini spent for The Gospel According to St. Matthew in 1964.

On a large screen, the limited budget of John is easy enough to spot: Machine-stitched costumes, blurry CGI effects, and phony matte paintings testify that the producers pinched their pennies till Lincoln screamed. However, on a small screen -- which is where I suspect this film will find its audience -- such defects will be invisible to all but the keenest eyes. For my part, when it comes to problems of this sort, I'm generally forgiving. I even liked those fake matte paintings; they lent an aura of old-Hollywood artifice to the proceedings.

As one might expect from a Bible film, the actors sound like they all came from the same second-rate Shakespeare company. Henry Ian Cusick looks pretty much like most celluloid messiahs -- thin and pale, with brown bedroom eyes and a proper upper-crust accent. He might be a good actor, but he doesn't make much of an impression here. Then again, neither does anyone else.

I doubt director Philip Saville, a veteran of 1960s British TV, will list this film too prominently on his resume. Still, he does about as well with the material as anyone could. The film's main problem comes from above: The producers have insisted that it feature every word in John's gospel (albeit from the dumbed-down "Good News" version). Not one word is omitted or altered -- though one brief scene detailing the Jewish leaders' fear of Roman authority has been added to keep the film from becoming too anti-Semitic.

Given these restrictions, the main challenge facing Saville and screenwriter John Goldsmith is to wrangle this unwieldy gospel into an honest-to-God movie. Unlike the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, John avoids basic questions of character or narrative, and focuses on theology. John treats major events such as the crucifixion perfunctorily, and gives special emphasis to minor confrontations and conversations. Most importantly, his Christ gives several repetitive speeches, and doesn't tell parables to make the point go down easily. One speech at the Last Supper is the longest of the lot, clocking in at five full chapters -- nearly one-fourth of the entire gospel. It is a strange text indeed.

As Pasolini did with Matthew, Saville breaks long speeches into relatively short scenes. Screenwriter Goldsmith does his part by inventing lots of character business to accompany the text. But the film's most obvious stylistic component is the constantly moving camera. It pans, tracks, and glides through every scene, frequently cutting from one visual field to another. Sometimes the movement is utilitarian; for example, Saville uses dolly shots and rapid cutting to make small groups look like large crowds. But more often, the camera movements seem to exist for their own sake, independent of any obvious agenda or narrative referent. This is not to say that the camera swerves and dips arbitrarily (as was the case with the sublimely bad From Justin to Kelly earlier this year). It's just that the reasons seem to pertain to the camera itself, and not to the narrative events the camera may purport to document.

The restless, independent camera attains a cockeyed subjectivity, and thus becomes more interesting than anyone or anything before the lens. Indeed, I often found myself thinking of the camera as if it -- or rather, an implied intelligence behind it -- were the film's true protagonist: What is "Mr. Camera" doing now? Why is he over here and not over there? What is he feeling right now, and how does his movement reflect his mood?

Oddly, the images in Gospel of John possess a genuine emotional effect which can't be ascribed to any single thing -- or combination of things -- within the frame. When "Mr. Camera" paces back and forth within a scene, it betrays a certain impatience for action, a desire for the actors to stop talking and get on with the plot. Such a reaction seems justified in the middle of a forty-minute speech (yes, the film turns that five-chapter speech into forty minutes of excruciating chatter), though no one onscreen is permitted to show the slightest hint of fatigue or boredom. Thus, the camera acts out the audience response which everything else in the mise-en-scene conspires to repress.

There are plenty of other examples, too. Often the camera seems to stalk Jesus, tracking behind tents or trees, or alongside the crowd to get occasional glimpses of the man. These particular visuals flourishes have led some critics to praise Henry Ian Cusick's portrayal of Jesus as "charismatic," even though the camera actually creates whatever appeal he might have to us in the audience. Again, images have an emotional impact that exists almost in spite of their objective content.

Gentle reader, by now you've guessed that the Gospel of John is not exactly a good movie. In many ways, it's barely a movie at all -- though to be fair, it wasn't meant to be one. The Gospel of John is an extended Bible-study tool for the dowdy church-lady set, and most viewers will agree that, at a little over three hours' running time, it has the "extended" part down pat. That the film is even remotely watchable is a major surprise, and I suppose the producers at VBI have director Saville to thank for that. Within a year, this movie might even turn a slight profit -- no mean feat for Christian filmmaking.

Why do I volunteer to watch movies like this? Well, I do so because very strange movies like The Gospel of John teach me how to appreciate what actually happens on screen. In this case, the utterly routine nature of so much of the film led me to consider its sole element of visual audacity. Once I understood the film's camera-eye as a subjective character rather than a mechanical device, the visual scheme of the film took on a life of its own, outside of the ostensible narrative, characters, or action. I could easily do without this particular movie, I think, but I wouldn't mind spending a little more time with its eccentric camera-eye.

Postscript: As far as I know, the only canonical gospel which has not been directly transcribed to film is the Gospel of Mark. Although its writing style is sloppy and disjointed, it possesses a swift, clean narrative, and a consistent, though bleak, tone -- both of which would make it ideally suited to the cinema. In addition, Mark is also the only canonical Gospel without an account of the Resurrection: The original version simply ends with the disciples "fleeing in terror" before an empty tomb. I'd like to see a sandal epic close with that disturbing little image.

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