Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Too Shebulba

It was exactly five weeks between when I received Youth Without Youth in the mail and when we finally watched it on Saturday.

My wife and I both knew the critics had railed against Francis Ford Coppola's movie. But the reason I originally moved it to the top of my queue was that she had expressed some interest in seeing it. Since that made two of us, I knew it would get watched, eventually. Had I had my way, we would have watched it weeks ago -- I like to keep my mail rentals moving back and forth. She, on the other hand, was daunted not only by the expectation of poor quality, but by the running time. It was only just over two hours, but she had it in her head that it was pushing three.

It may just as well have been. When the credits started rolling, I turned to her and said, "You know, that film kind of reminded me of--"

"Shebulba?" she finished.

There's a reason we're married.

"Shebulba" is our nickname for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. In The Fountain, Hugh Jackman's character is floating through space on a crop of land enclosed in a bubble, which is dominated by a giant tree. We're never told quite what to make of this tree, but we know Jackman's character is immortal, because we see him as a conquistador, as a doctor fighting to cure his sick wife (Rachel Weisz) in present day, and presumably in the future, when it's possible that the only parts of Earth that remain are him and this tree, floating through space for eternity. At several points, he looks up at the tree, or outer space, or something, and reverentially whispers the following word: "Shebulba." Who or what Shebulba is, we also don't know.

Youth Without Youth was definitely a little too Shebulba.

(Some minor spoilers ahead.)

There's no immortal man or immortal tree, but a 70-year-old Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) does rejuvenate into a man half his age after being struck by a bolt of lightning that basically incinerates his body. Instead of dying, he's suddenly younger, he grows a new set of teeth, and he has the ability to absorb all the knowledge of a book just by passing his hand over it. This is to say nothing of his new ability with languages and his unexplained telekinetic powers. Oh, and did we mention that he now has a doppleganger who may or may not be imaginary? But the comparison with The Fountain really kicks into gear when Dominic's decades-spanning soulmate is introduced. We learn at the start that he loves someone named Laura, and later he meets her -- though she's now known as Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) -- just before she's about to be struck by lightning herself. The lightning doesn't have the same effect on her -- instead, it makes her think she's someone living in ancient India, who can speak only Sanskrit. She eventually shakes herself free of the split personality, but only temporarily. Each night she awakens speaking a more and more ancient language. It's an epic love story, these lightning strike victims with their very different powers.

If that last paragraph left you wondering what the hell Coppola was thinking, you're not the only one. (He didn't actually make up the story -- the movie was adapted from a story by Romanian author Mircea Eliade.) I actually found this one more watchable than The Fountain, but not by much.

So it got me thinking which other films are way too Shebulba for their own good. Without any further ado:

1) Solaris (2002, Stephen Soderbergh). Ponderous existential sci-fi movie in which characters may or may not actually be there, and people may or may not actually be having the experiences they may or may not actually be having. You heard me right. I don't know if Andrei Trakovsky's 1972 original was any more clear, nor whether it was even supposed to be. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who worship Solaris, but I'm not one of them.

2) Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch). I'm not sure if it's fair to call David Lynch's films "Shebulba," exactly -- he's got a whole brand of weirdness going on that's unique to himself. But Mulholland Drive deserves the designation if any of his films do, though I may be saying that primarily because the whispered word "Shebulba" reminds me of the whispered word "Silencio" that factors into the ponderous third act of Mulholland Drive. I understand The Lost Highway is pretty Shebulba, but I haven't seen it so I can't attest to that personally.

3) The Tree of Life (2010, Terrence Malick). Okay, I'm cheating a little here. This movie has not even come out yet, so I can't possibly know what kind of movie it is. However, it does involve an actual Shebulba in the title -- a life-giving tree, an immortal tree, something like that. And having seen a couple Malick films and written quite a bit about Malick recently, I'm convinced that he's got a Shebulba in him, even if his films so far have had the kind of surface-level realism that should logically remove them from the Shebulba realm.

4) Lady in the Water (2006, M. Night Shyamalan). There are no time jumps or alternate layers of reality in this movie, but all the discussion of narfs and scrunts and other mythological creatures takes this movie into the same la-la-land of inscrutable ambitiousness as Shebulba. Plus, I like any opportunity I get to dump on this movie, which I consider one of the worst I've ever seen.

A couple films I love despite their potential Shebulbosity: The Cell, Donnie Darko

I'm sure there are more, but all this thinking about Shebulba makes my head hurt too much for a Monday morning. I'd love to hear of any Shebulba films you might like to add.


moviesandsongs365 said...

I recently enjoyed the "The Vanishing"(1988), and I couldn't help comparing "the golden ball in space" from "The fountain" to a segment in that film. The similarity was remarkable. ( :

By the way, I think The Fountain is great. The "2001 a space odyssey" of our time, I would say.

Isn't the ending of "2001" kind of weird/shebulba?, or what about these:
Being John Malkovich ?
Lars von Trier's: Antichrist ?
Wong Kar-wai's: 2046 ?
Cube ?
Eraserhead ?
How to Get Ahead in Advertising ?
Identity ?
Hal Haberman's: Special ?
The I Inside ?

and so on, ad so on

Simon said...

Yes, well, Tim Roth gives it an instant pass.

Shebulba has officially entered my everyday vocabulary.

Vancetastic said...

MAS365 - Excellent choices. I especially relate to 2046 and Antichrist. I think Being John Malkovich at least obeys its own rules, and I'd say the same of Cube. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is interesting, but I think it's too small in scale to qualify for me, plus (like Malkovich) it's a comedy -- I think a Shebulba movie has to take itself way too seriously. As for Eraserhead and 2001, I considered including both of them, but in the case of Eraserhead, I was already including one film by Lynch, and with 2001, I consider that to be very similar to Solaris. I should have included both of those last two in the very brief list of good Shebulba movies.

Simon - Totally agree on Roth. He's even made Lie to Me continue to be interesting, despite the fact that it has revealed itself as not much more memorable than most other conventional procedural dramas.

Don Handsome said...

I wonder what it says about me that I like Shebulba. Excepting Lady in the Water (which I would argue sucks DESPITE of being Shebulba) I think that I enjoy all of the films you mention as being too Shebulba. Shebulba can bring an artistic jump-start to a film and can launch a film from being mundane to being transcendent. Case-in-point for me is the world of David Lynch which always teeter on the edge of Shebulba, but its that moment when Ben lip-syncs to Shebulba to pleasure Frank, when Agent Cooper crosses over to the Shebulba Lodge, when Alvin drives by the Flaming Shebulba on his lawnmower, or when Marietta Fortune smears Shebulba all over her face that kick these productions up into gear for me. I don’t pretend to always understand them, but their flourish, their inherent-but-misunderstood importance, and their weirdness definitely add to my experience of the film.
I think there are instances where Shebulba can derail a film for sure – especially where it feels forced and fakey. I don’t think its possible to be a Shebulba poseur – either it benefits the film or it doesn’t. And here are some films that don’t benefit from Shebulba:
The Matrix 2 and 3
Southland Tales
The Box

Vancetastic said...

Don, I love the second two Matrix movies as Shebulba movies. I disagree on Adaptation because I don't think it involves anything mystical -- it has a complex narrative, but Charlie Kaufman's narrative agenda is quite clear to me. For me, Shebulba has to involve ponderous mysticism rather than ordinary mysticism. For example, in Avatar, yeah, it's mystical -- but it's not hard to understand the mysticism. I think it's overstepping to say that any film that involves mysticism is Shebulba. Then again, I'm kind of changing the definition as I go.

Also glad to see you dumping on the weaker Richard Kelly movies, which I think both have major Shebulba aspects to them. I actually think I may have been rushing to finish the post when I called Donnie Darko and The Cell "good Shebulba movies." The Shebulba parts of The Cell are within the inner mental life of the serial killer, and therefore are operating under that set of rules -- the Silence of the Lambs part of that movie are very straightforward and realistic. As for Donnie Darko, it involves time travel and a couple WTF moments, but I actually think it obeys its own rules reasonably well as well.

Don Handsome said...

How about these:

Magnolia (just Shebulba enough, if you ask me); and

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Cyrstal Skull (way too Shebulba)

moviesandsongs365 said...

a non-shebulba comment

I hope you review Cyrus (2010) soon, which I can see you've just viewed ( :

Vancetastic said...


Yes on Indiana Jones, I think, though it may be a bit too pedestrian to qualify. I think a Shebulba film needs to have more ambition. When it fails, it at least fails nobly. The failure of Indiana Jones is nothing if not ignoble. I'd almost say Temple of Doom is a bit more Shebulba because it has the magic stones and the guy pulling out people's hearts. For Magnolia, I'd say no. The plague of frogs is the only unrealistic thing about the movie, and it's presented matter-of-factly, almost without the characters even making reference to it. It would cross over into Shebulba if the plague were blamed on the whims of a time-traveling Hindu elephant.

Thanks, MAS365, but I don't submit all that many reviews for their own sake. (What other people may define as reviews on my blog, I usually define as think pieces.) If I'm trying to really pimp a movie (like Agora) I may write a piece about it just to spread the word, but otherwise, you won't necessarily hear a huge amount about the movies I love. That's probably a bit of a paradox, and maybe I need to re-think that! Anyway, I'm glad to say that Cyrus falls into that group of movies I love. But it did not inspire me with a particular angle to take on it, which is where I usually get most of my ideas of what to write about. For me, though, it was a close to perfect movie.

Anonymous said...

He is talking about Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Anon! That certainly makes sense in context.