500 (Days of Summer) & Moon

Here’s a little teaser excerpt from a book I recently finished writing. All about movies.

Publishing and what-not I’ll worry about tomorrow…


Comedy/Romance   95 min   USA   2009
d, Marc Webb; w, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
An offbeat, freewheeling rom-com with a beginning, a middle and an end, but rarely in that order. With Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the sometimes compatible, sometimes less so, maybe meant for each other, maybe not, couple. A lively, tender glance at young love, all good, the ecstatic highs and the devastating lows…


Science Fiction   97 min   UK   2009
d, Duncan Jones; w, Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker
Smart, atmospheric and suspenseful, that increasingly rare thing: a straight-up piece of science fiction more about ideas than special effects. Stationed alone on a distant lunar base, an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) is coming to the end of a lonely three-year shift, when a near-fatal accident throws his whole world into total disarray. With his satellite link back to earth broken, and only an intelligent computer for company (voiced by Kevin Spacey), can he keep from going mad?

In the most recent of our ‘phone dates,’ my good friend Rob took some obvious delight in telling me that he quite liked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, sure in the knowledge that I didn’t. True to form, we both exaggerated our contrary perspectives, him trying to paint me as all too predictable a snob, and me countering with the claim that anyone whose favorite film is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai knows better really and doth protest otherwise too much. Not for the first time, there was hardly any danger of us switching sides. We didn’t get very far but, as is reliably the case, the getting there was fun. Rob did, though, I must admit, ask one question that nudged me to regard Michael Bay’s career from, if not a different angle altogether, at least a slight head-tilt to the side.

Where’s the harm?

If you start by ignoring Bay’s flagrant and leering objectification of women, misogyny by any other name, it’s a question that can prop itself up a little too sturdily for comfort. At least, that is, until you regain your senses, realize that the objectification of women is a stupid thing to ignore, and stop needlessly second-guessing what wasn’t even a guess in the first place. No: sorry, but if you genuinely believe that the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen of this world have nothing harmful in their blackened soul, then either you’re a friend winding me up for kicks, overwhelmed by good graces I know nothing of, or are part of that thing we usefully call ‘the problem.’ If this makes me sound like a frightful snob, then so be it; opinions are nothing to be overly enamored with, I agree, but some leave only crushing voids behind when tossed too lightly off.

Movies deserve better. The less that we accept, the more impoverished we become. And, as far as younger people go, the more we excuse a Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by saying ‘it’s simply what they want,’ the less we value their capacity for outpacing us, the measure of their imaginations, their quickness and cunning. Film is special, and if we treat it any differently, we diminish it. It can carry tremendous weight, and lightly at that. It can stretch our attention far, high and wide, yet still keep such a firm hold over it that the world beyond the screen can disappear completely. It can make us care, deep down to our very bones, about storylines and characters, though we know these are written and performed. It can compel us, in a room full of strangers, to laugh, scream, shudder, shake, whoop, cry, and cheer. It can upset, even change altogether, lifelong beliefs, or else reinvigorate, with redoubling intensity, half-forgotten fancies and cherished enthusiasms alike. All of this it can do without us even pausing to think it remarkable.

When, however, a director is so bored by his characters talking that he dumbly whirls his camera round them in ever-growing circles, the only thing to stop and note is a bar being lowered about as far as it can go. These are not merely characters lazily drawn, they’re an inconvenience – in the same precious real estate that Lawrence of Arabia used to roam, where Holly Golightly finally fell in love, where Dirty Harry raised ‘the most powerful handgun in the world,’ and Mrs. Robinson Benjamin Braddock’s blood pressure, with black stocking over leg. Where’s the harm, indeed? It’s in getting to a point where filmmakers have only the paltriest of expectations to exceed, and the boundless possibilities of the medium become so debased that we settle, like such a lot of idiot robots, for stuff exploding nowhere in particular and for no apparent reason. A flabby, putrefying prick in the future where feelings count for naught, a sorry squirt out of which 150 minutes of CGI ‘action’ is held to be a fair substitute for storytelling, and not the desperate endgame it actually is: a leveling of the Himalayas, a draining of the oceans. Cancer is the harm. Cancer of the mind, cancer of the heart. After all, when your film’s loftiest aim is a marketing campaign at Burger King, you may as well as just stuff us full of cigarettes and lead.

Ah, but as far as I can see, the most depressing thing about a bad summer blockbuster is only readily apparent when the end credits roll. Especially for those that are special effects heavy, the nine out of every ten: just look at the veritable phonebook of names! So many people, so much time, and so much money that could – if only wishing made it so – have been more gainfully employed. Even for a film as vacuous as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, you can’t doubt the expertise that must have gone into parts of its construction, the technicians involved, the craftsman, the programmers, the interns scrambling for attention. Everyone doing what they do, at length, not for the greater good of cinema but in the service of a lifeless script and a hack who seemingly couldn’t care less either way.

Where’s the harm? It’s in the increasingly corporate belief that throwing money at a film makes up for a deficit of competence at the top. That what you can do on a computer is more important than the contents of a script. That box office takings either indicate or safeguard longer-term affection (what price a ticket stub in the trash next to a memory we hold tight forever?). Not only do movies deserve better, then, but so too do the people who are actually good at making them, who don’t treat filmmaking with cynical indifference but delight, instead, in the warmth of its embrace. Answer this: wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hollywood were more of a meritocracy? Or, at minimum, if everyone working there had talent commensurate with the great privilege of filling worldwide auditoriums with images and sound?

The shame, I suspect, is that this isn’t far from being true – just that a rotten few spoil it for the rest. Might we dare still imagine, though, what films go unmade, what new stories never make it further than a handwritten note, and what reservoirs of time, money and skill are willfully diverted, as every juggernaut of junk goes its sorry way. If life’s too short, God only knows that cinema’s too small – for anyone to fritter.

How much more agreeable, then, to celebrate the other movies made that give and go, that offer plenty in return for their time in the sun, and which eloquently prove that imagination is a far richer resource than any bucket load of cash. In my last week of movie-going alone, two debut features: Moon, a little sci-fi gem from director Duncan Jones, and (500) Days of Summer from Marc Webb. The former a triumph of a powerful, central idea executed with impeccable judgment, the latter of a great many smaller ones motoring smartly and zestfully along (even, for example, in a vertical split screen before the opening credits are done, a dandelion ‘blowing’ into bubbles). Let’s celebrate their directorial flourishes and flair; their chemistry (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel); vigor (a performance from Sam Rockwell better seen than described); jump-cuts; moonscapes; music; romance, its pleasures, impossible to forget, and its pains, impossible to ignore. Let’s hope, too, that Jones and Webb find a way of having long careers still to come, and continue to be as thoughtful and as buoyant. Because if they do cinema will likely show, once again, the best of itself, less expensive and less aggressive but many times more appealing – an aspect so alluring it cannot help but glorify, incidentally, an often unbecoming whole.


About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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