Thursday, November 27, 2014
It's 11:30 on Thanksgiving Eve and it's been two weeks since I've updated the blog and I'm still up, so I thought I'd write you a quick one. You know, to tide you over until I get back to Australia next week.
I thought November would be a comparatively dry month for movies, what with me spending over half of it on vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've seen seven movies over the course of three different plane trips (of the four I've taken), and four other movies, meaning 11 total since I left. More on the plane movies when I return, and complete my total with at least two and probably more on the return flight. Wish I Was Here, I've got my eye on you. You'd make a perfect plane movie.
But what I want to tell you about now is that I achieved my goal of movies to catch, so to speak, in the theater while I'm here in the U.S.
Birdman was optional. The movie opens on January 15th in Australia, which means I can watch it and then immediately add it to my list before the list needs to be finalized a few hours later. Did it last year with Inside Llewyn Davis and Her, and it worked out great. (Though given a few more days to think about it, I would have ranked Davis -- which ended up my #3 -- even higher, and probably dropped 21st ranked Her by as many as ten spots.) And I did see Birdman our second afternoon in Maine, when my dad watched our kids so both my wife and I could go.
But the real prize was Foxcatcher, which doesn't open in Australia until two weeks after my rankings close. Last year, the delayed release date of prestige pictures kept me from ranking 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club, among others. I already know I'm losing a big prize, Inherent Vice, this year. I don't think it opens until February.
Foxcatcher would have befallen the same fate, except it's already open in Los Angeles -- which means not only am I not seeing it two months later than you are, but I'm actually seeing it earlier than most of you.
This pleases me. This pleases me greatly.
And saw it I did on Tuesday morning, while my wife was on a play date with one of her friends. (Their respective children were there too.)
The fact that I'm seeing it before most of you is not what pleases me, though my phrasing might indicate otherwise. It's that I get to include it on the list. A year-end list of movies loses a touch or two of credibility when it doesn't contain, oh, half of the best picture nominees, as was the case in 2013. I don't know if Foxcatcher will receive a best picture nomination, but it definitely could, and Steve Carell is almost certain to receive a best actor nomination. (High creep factor. High.)
There may be others I will miss this year -- in fact, I'm sure there are. In fact, I can tell you some of the titles: Wild, The Theory of Everything and The Interview will all slip beyond my grasp. The Theory of Everything is actually also open here, so if I'd structured my visit a little differently, maybe I'd have seen that too.
But I'm happy enough to have caught the Fox.
As a movie completist, I now feel a little more complete.
When you do end up seeing Foxcatcher, I want you to tell me which is the most impressive artificial enhancement to an actor's appearance: Carell's prosthetic nose, Mark Ruffalo's receding hairline or Channing Tatum's cauliflower ears.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Don't be alarmed. That unknown duration will probably be about two weeks at the longest.
But yes indeed, it's beginning now and it could last a while. Or, it could be over in a day or two, and then me having even written this post will seem alarmist.
What the hell are you TALKING about, Derek?
I'm talking about a trip to 'Merica, to make benefit glorious nation of myself and my family. Beginning tomorrow morning, and then continuing on the same morning in Los Angeles some 14 hours later.
That's right, I am returning to my old stomping grounds for just over two weeks. I'll be hitting two coasts (east and west, in case you are counting at home) as well as one mile-high city in the mountains (Denver).
Will there be time to update my blog amidst hours of family, friends, weird sleep patterns and trips to Disneyland?
There could be -- but there probably shouldn't be. There are better things I should be spending my time on.
But on the off chance you don't hear from me again until the beginning of December, well, now you know why.
So enjoy your own much-deserved break from my blog (zing!) and I'll be back bursting with stories of which movies I managed to watch on the plane while my children were crying and not sleeping.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Titles can be tricky to come up with.
You don't want them to be too on the nose, but you also don't want them to be so abstract that they lose all meaning. Too generic, and no one will remember them.
So some people just give up and name the movie after a period of time.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest film -- called Two Days, One Night -- is one such example. It's a really good movie, perhaps even verging on great. But that title? It's like they just threw their hands up in the air.
The title measures the period of time the protagonist, played by Marion Cotillard, has to convince her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so that the company has enough money to keep paying her salary. It's an unenviable task, since her 16 co-workers already voted 14-2 to keep their 1,000 Euros instead of allowing her to keep her job. Did I mention she has been on sick leave because she's suffering from depression, and that her co-workers all know this? An unenviable task indeed.
The realization that she has only this short amount of time to change their minds, therefore, does have a certain titular relevance. With filmmakers other than the Dardenne brothers, we might even get regular inserts of ticking clocks to increase the sense of pressure on Cotillard's character (though I'm glad we didn't).
Still, will it be easy in a couple years for us to see this title and remember what the movie was about? Does it carry that much relevance for the story?
So I thought today I would briefly explore some other movie titles that are also time periods, to see if the periods of time are truly relevant to the story, or if it was more just a case of someone giving up on finding something better. In order to limit myself, I'm only considering movies I've seen, and only movies where the time period is the whole title. So, for example, the Sandra Bullock rehab drama 28 Days would qualify, but the Danny Boyle zombie movie 28 Days Later would not, because of that little word "Later" added on to the end.
Also, I thought it would be fun to order them from the shortest amount of time to the longest.
Without further you know what:
8 Seconds (1994, John G. Avildsen)
Meaning of title: It's the length of time a rider is required to stay on a bull in order for his ride to be scored.
Success or failure? As it represents this goal that the movie's characters are trying to attain, its use is justified.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Un-bull-ievable
15 Minutes (2001, John Herzfeld)
Meaning of title: Relates to the desire for 15 minutes of fame by a couple Eastern bloc baddies who videotape their crimes and are chased by two detectives (Robert DeNiro and Edward Burns).
Success or failure? Success, I guess, as it uses the exhibitionist's desire to become famous as the central motivation behind the crimes. However, it's unlikely to be remembered as a title itself.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Video Berserker 2001 Now!
88 Minutes (2008, Jon Avnet)
Meaning of title: Al Pacino's forensic psychiatrist (there is such a thing?) is taunted by one of his former patients on death row and attacked through a Jigaw-like series of clues, frame jobs and assassination attempts that takes 88 minutes to transpire.
Success or failure? Failure, as the clock doesn't begin ticking until about 20 minutes in with a couple minutes of wrap-up. The title is otherwise meaningless. And, the movie is really dumb.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Unreal Time
127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
Meaning of title: The length of time Aaron Ralston is trapped in that canyon before he finally decides he needs to cut off his own hand.
Success or failure? It sure does give a good sense of how long that guy was alone with his thoughts and without almost any food or water. However, they probably could have come up with something better. Maybe the title of Ralston's memoirs, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was too on the nose.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Evil Dead 3
Six Days, Seven Nights (1998, Ivan Reitman)
Meaning of title: The amount of time Harrison Ford and Anne Heche are trapped together on a deserted island after crash landing.
Success or failure? Mostly failure here. Is that a really long time to be stranded? It's supposed to be a play on the length of time advertised for vacation hotel stays, but it doesn't exactly work. It's also supposed to be an intolerable amount of time to be stuck with someone you loathe, but since this is a romantic comedy, the loathing is only foreplay to an inevitable romantic connection.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: An Old Guy and a Lesbian
Thirteen Days (2000, Roger Donaldson)
Meaning of title: The length of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Success or failure? Given those days' importance in narrowly avoiding World War III, I suppose they are important in and of themselves, so it works. Tellingly, though, when I tried to remember the title on my own I thought it was Three Days -- which in retrospect seems obviously wrong. The point being, though, that I couldn't remember the actual title -- even though I liked this film quite a bit.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: That Time Kennedy Almost Blew Up the World
28 Days (2000, Betty Thomas)
Meaning of title: The amount of time an alcoholic (Sandra Bullock) must spend in a rehab facility to avoid jail for a drunk driving accident.
Success or failure? I suppose it's a success of sorts in that I have come to think of this as some industry standard amount of time addicts must spend in rehab before they can have some hope of being cured. However, that could also be a failure because I don't actually think that is industry standard.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Stick to Driving Buses, Sandy
40 Days and 40 Nights (2002, Michael Lehmann)
Meaning of title: The length of time a dude (Josh Hartnett) must abstain from sex, which he gave up for Lent.
Success or failure? Big failure, and not just because I hate the movie. Sure, it gives some idea how difficult it must be for the guy to refrain from pleasuring himself, but the use of a Bible-inspired phrase as the title of a lame sex comedy is distasteful at best.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Douchebags on Parade
9 1/2 Weeks (1986, Adrian Lyne)
Meaning of title: The duration of a smoldering affair between Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, one intimately involving the contents of a refrigerator.
Success or failure? In the sense that the film became kind of iconic, with the time period coming to represent the exact amount of time animal magnetism can possess two people, I guess it's sort of a success.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Sizzle
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Cristian Mungiu)
Meaning of title: The exact age of a fetus at the time it is aborted by a woman in communist Romania.
Success or failure? Incredibly chilling success, one that manages to horrify without taking a side on the debate about when a human life begins.
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: N/A
Nine Months (1995, Chris Columbus)
Meaning of title: Yes, the length of gestation of a fetus before it's born (and a pretty alarming juxtaposition with the previous film).
Success or failure? Look, there had to be some romantic comedy that bore this title. Why not this one?
Humorous alternate title I thought up in 30 seconds: Hugh Grant Stammers His Way Through His Girlfriend's Pregnancy
10 Years (2011, Jamie Linden)
Meaning of title: The amount of time that has elapsed since this movie's characters graduated high school.
Success or failure? I suppose it is a reasonable title for a reunion movie, since it gives an idea of how much may have changed in their lives since they were last together.
What? I haven't seen any movies whose title is more than a decade? That's BS.
Monday, November 10, 2014
This is the penultimate post in Australian Audient, a series in which I watch movies made in Botswana and discuss them here.
In addition to helping me catch up with 2014 movies prior to my January ranking deadline, Tracks interested me as perhaps the first film in this series to truly grapple with one of Australia's most notable characteristics: its landscape. Elements of Tracks have been explored in other movies I've watched -- Ayers Rock/Uluru makes an appearance in Cry in the Dark, and Rabbit-Proof Fence includes an epic journey through the country's foreboding environment -- but Tracks is the first that really gets at the extraordinary vastness of this giant land mass, the majority of which is fully uninhabitable.
The true story concerns an Australian woman named Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who in 1975 decided she wanted to traverse the outback from Alice Springs (more or less in the middle of the country) to the Indian Ocean. It's a journey of nearly 2,000 miles through barren lands that can only support animals who require the least amount of water. Robyn prepares for her journey by learning how to wrangle and "whisper" to camels, but is stiffed when the camel farmer who had been training her refuses to honor his verbal agreement to pay her two camels upon the completion of her unpaid apprenticeship. Without all the resources she thought she'd have, Robyn turns to National Geographic to sponsor her trip. They do, but with the caveat that a photographer (Adam Driver) will meet up with her periodically to document her journey. As the quest for solitude is one of Robyn's motivating factors for making the trip in the first place, she initially bristles at the idea, but knows where her bread is buttered. So she sets off one morning in April of 1977 with four camels, her trusty dog Diggety, and a general sense of how to avoid dying during a trip expected to take the better part of a year.
The first thing one might notice about Tracks is how beautiful and assured it looks. DP Mandy Walker has already had Australia under her lens with Baz Luhrmann's Australia, and she seems to have a sixth sense for how to shoot the country to capture both its massive vistas and its dusty details. It's a restless camera as well, swooping just a little when it needs to, but never overwhelming the material.
That's consistent with director John Curran's approach overall, to understate rather than overstate. Garth Stevenson's piano score is plaintive and unassuming, and Wasikowska rarely yields to intense emotions, even though you can imagine the solitude and low-level deterioration of Robyn's sanity might have prompted regular emotional outbursts.
The problem with Tracks, then, is that what happens on Robyn's trek is just not all that interesting. By sticking very closely to Robyn's real story rather than using it as a jumping off point for a more exciting film, screenwriter Marion Nelson has inevitably left this movie lighter on drama than we might wish it. To be certain, Robyn Davidson faced hardships on her journey and was close to failing on numerous occasions, but the events that befall her are not the type a screenwriter would have included in a fiction version of this story. For example, not to spoil too much of what happens, but let's just say that not all five of the animals who started out with her make it to the end. Which ones don't make it, and the reasons they don't make it, seem a bit less intrisically related to Robyn's undertaking than we might like. That's what happened, but it's not very satisfying. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," a wise man once said.
I did not feel the relationship between Davidson and her photographer the way I was supposed to, either. A chatty American out of his element in Australia, Driver's character did allow me to empathize with him rather easily. But something about the sporadic development of their relationship -- her pushing him away and then pulling him near in alternate moments -- left it pretty indistinct, which is a problem as the film ultimately comes to rely on this as something that drove her onward. Her extremely inconsistent and sometimes cruel behavior toward him makes it a lot harder to like her, as well. Besides, isn't there something a little bit funny about making a long journey like this on your own, then having someone turn up in a car every couple weeks to say hello and offer you help? (And with the way the film somewhat ineffectively compresses time, Driver's appearances seem a lot more frequent than that.) The point is that there's supposed to be no safety net. It's kind of like when someone says they're going to swim the English Channel, but then they've got someone following them in a boat not ten feet away.
Tracks becomes a bit desultory once Robyn's journey begins, but I absolutely loved the lead-up to it. Something about her preparations for the trip had an immediacy and a naturally engaging quality that the rest of the movie lacked. I especially liked the portion dealing with camel wrangling. There's something about the way camels are shot in this movie that accords them a kind of worshipful respect that I've never previously associated with them. Under Mandy Walker's lens, they have a majesty to them that makes them perhaps the movie's easiest characters to sympathize with. What I also didn't know is that wild camels -- of which there are many in Australia, even though they are not native -- can be vicious killers. Don't mess with a camel, or that mouth with its stubby broken teeth will set its sights on you.
Okay! Last month of this series to wrap up the year. I am finishing with the war movie Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, which tells the story of one of the most tragic military conflicts in the country's history. I say I've seen the movie, but I know I didn't watch the whole thing, and it's finally time to correct that.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Of the many moments that obviously spoke to me in the first documentary I've ever seen about a film critic, one really stood out.
It wouldn't be a big moment for most viewers. In fact, it's almost the very definition of a throwaway moment.
Somewhere in the first third of Life Itself, the Steve James film adaptation of Roger Ebert's memoirs, Roger's wife Chaz is telling James what's going to happen later that afternoon for them, after they move from the hospital to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"He's excited because he gets to see a movie he wants to see," says Chaz. "It should be coming over later today. So he's happy about that."
Roger brightens, and unable to affirm Chaz's words vocally, he applauds.
What some people will never understand about us film buffs -- and you probably count yourself one of us -- is that merely the prospect of seeing a movie makes us happy. It doesn't even have to be a movie we "want to see," as Chaz included as a little clarification of the type of movie it was. I'm sure the sentence would have worked just fine as "He's excited because he gets to see a movie." The only problem is that then it makes Roger, and those of us who agree with him, seem simplistic, as though we'd be just as happy to see Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star as There Will be Blood.
Not just as happy, but yeah, it would still scratch that itch. It would still fulfill that need.
What I loved about Ebert was his genuine optimism about each and every movie he went to see -- or at least, the optimism he genuinely conveyed, even if he may not have felt it. Sure, he could be a cynical bastard when he wanted to be, and I'm sure he saw thousands of movies that he would diss to his colleagues before even seeing them. But I think he was also just as happy to be proven wrong, to find a diamond in that vast cinematic rough.
What we love about movies is their potential to be great, the possibility that they will offer us something profound and unexpected. It's what always keeps us coming back for more.
The film's other most meaningful sentiment, for me, came at the very beginning, in a quote from Ebert that should have been more well known than it was. Although I'd heard it before I saw this movie, I never heard it while the man was still alive.
"We are all are born with a certain package, we are who we are," says Roger. "Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."
Next time someone asks you why you spend 12-14 hours of each week watching movies, and why you're choosing to pass a sunny afternoon watching a movie rather than doing something outside, and why you lose precious sleep finishing a movie that's due back the next day, and why you re-watch a movie you've already seen six times before ... well, there's your answer.
Life Itself was an empathy machine that helped me understand one of my own heroes a little bit better, and it's one of the best films of the year.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
Spoilers about Interstellar to follow, but not before I give you another warning, so you can read up to that point if you want. If you don't want, well ... why did you even browse over to my site today, anyway?
Last night was a real rarity and a real old-school moviegoing experience for me. Not only was it seeing a movie on a night other than Monday or Tuesday -- the discount nights at various theaters near me -- but it was also seeing a blockbuster on (or close to) opening night. The fact that it wasn't actually opening night was a technicality blamed on the fact that movies open here on Thursdays, not Fridays.
So I prepared for it like an old-school moviegoing experience ... or at least, new old-school. I bought the tickets online at work that morning, and arrived 15 minutes before the show to ensure there were no problems claiming my ticket (there were, as the machine would not read the bar code on my confirmation email and I had to type in a code instead) and that I didn't get stuck in the front row.
Well, no need for that.
I watched one of the year's most anticipated new releases with only about 25 other people, even at a 9 o'clock show on a Friday night at a reasonably popular theater. That's the point we have reached as consumers of cinematic entertainment, I suppose. Either that or the recent muting of the Interstellar buzz has had its ripple effect.
At least I had very good luck Christmas shopping, which was what brought me out to the Highpoint Shopping Centre on a Friday night in the first place. See, Friday is one of only two nights a week (with Thursday) where the shops are open until 9, meaning I can shop without it impacting my childcare responsibilities. Every other day it's 5:30 -- even Saturday. And I'm aiming to finish all the shopping for the American wing of my family by Thursday, so we can travel with the full complement of their Christmas presents rather than having to pay the ghastly price of shipping from Australia. With the good luck I had, I didn't even need to worry about cutting things 15 minutes short for my unnecessarily early arrival at Interstellar.
Time may not have been of the essence for me, but it definitely is for the characters in Interstellar, as I now get into SPOILER TERRITORY.
As you may have heard by now, Christopher Nolan's space opus is a combination of hits and misses -- some people think there are more hits, while others think there are more misses. As it turns out, I think there are more hits, but I just told someone that I would grade it a B+, so my enthusiasm for it is not overwhelming.
Still, there are parts of the movie I found incredibly effective, and particularly chilling.
Chief among those is the movie's use of time. We all know that astronauts age differently than we do when they're away from Earth, but historically, this effect has been minimized by not being very far away from Earth. When traveling through wormholes to other galaxies, it's a different story.
It was only slightly problematic -- and this is the kind of thing that mildly reduces my overall enthusiasm for the movie -- that one of the most chilling aspects of the story was also something I did not really understand. At a key point of the narrative, the crew searching for a new home planet for human beings makes the difficult decision to check in on a candidate planet that exists very close to the gravitational pull of a black hole. While that alone would rule it out for me -- I mean, what if that planet gets closer to that black hole, or the black hole moves? -- I'm not an astrophysicist, so I'm glad I'm not the one making those decisions.
The main problem with this planet being so close to the black hole is not that the planet will be sucked in, but that time is seriously warped on that planet. It has something to do with relativity, and it's a shame the movie did not explain this one better because it did a very good job simplifying the concept of the wormhole. In any case, the result is that for every hour the astronauts spend on that planet, they lose SEVEN YEARS of Earth time. I believed it even if I didn't understand it.
Unfortunately, due to the unforeseen arrival of the biggest tsunami (but is it really a tsunami if there's no land for it to crash on?) ever captured on film, the crew experiences tragedy and a technical setback that causes them to spend more than three hours on the planet's surface.
So yeah, when they are finally able to return to the main craft orbiting the planet -- which is somehow not subject to the same time warping -- the crew member they left behind has been waiting for them for TWENTY-THREE YEARS. I'm getting chills even as I type this, though my bullshit detector is also going off a little bit. After 23 years by himself in a space station, only small portions of which are spent in deep sleep, not only is the remaining crew member still sane, but it's almost like he's not even all that surprised to see them show up. Because of that skewing of the time ratio, he has had no way to keep tabs on the crew, whether they were alive or dead, but his commitment to the possibility of them being alive has caused him to stay the course, staying afloat, I suppose, on the knowledge that merely being there for three hours in their timeline would result in this 23-year delay.
While that kind of thing is trippy enough (if a tad bogus on some level), what's worse is Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway returning to realize that the people they left behind on Earth are now 23 years older, and in some cases no longer alive. So much for trying to return to see their loved ones when they were still some recognizable facsimile of themselves. But they always knew it might never have been possible.
Even though these losses of time make the sacrifice of these people all the more interesting/powerful, I do find an essential problem with how the various risks involved in various courses of action are so unbalanced. The two other planets they ultimately visit, based on similarly vague communications from the people who were dispatched to explore them, seem to carry no such possibilities of the loss of, well, decades -- or centuries, if all goes even slightly less than well. One of the primary arguments made in favor of checking out this planet, rather than some of the ones that are farther away, is that it will take "months" to reach those farther planets. But what is "months" when you know that the least amount of time you are likely to spend on this waterworld is an hour, and that's seven whole Earth years?
Then again, I guess the counterargument is, what's seven Earth years if it earns you the future home of your species?
The weakness of Interstellar, in spite of its many strengths, is that it very inconsistently lays out these stakes in ways we can easily understand. I suppose that exploring space is inherently an activity that's replete with risks, but who goes down to the surface of a planet -- having basically no idea what you'll find there, except that a beacon is still transmitting communication signals so it has obviously not burned up or frozen -- with the expectation that they will definitely be able to return from it within an hour or two? Even the loss of a day on the surface of this planet would have doomed the human race. I mean, what if their landing craft blew a gasket?
Still, it does give perspective on the kind of predicament humans are in -- and a somewhat realistic idea of just how difficult it would be dig out of that predicament. Humans cannot so easily just jump on a giant space arc, leave their wasted planet behind, and hop over a couple galaxies in a matter of months. Such a migration would cost generations of human beings, and in fact, push the species to the outer limits of its ability to avoid extinction.
And the film's finale really hit for me, as McConaughey's astronaut returns (rather improbably, after a rather improbable third-act resolution) to find his 10-year-old daughter aged into a bedridden old woman in her nineties. Although some of Nolan's movie lacks the emotional punch it should have, this part really scores. See my post "The uncontrollable slippage of time" (here) for a fuller discussion of my love for movies where characters are powerless to slow down the clock, and their lives seem to pass them by.
And if I'm comparing Interstellar to classics like Click and Bicentennial Man, it has to be good, right? ;-)
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
This poster may be the most emotionally strident thing about Andrea Arnold's 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
And that's a problem for a film version of perhaps the most romantic novel ever written.
My love affair with Emily Bronte's novel goes back years, though to this day I have only read it the one time. I first encountered it in an English class my freshman year of high school, but not as a text. A classmate had written about the book, or perhaps more accurately, about Kate Bush's song "Wuthering Heights," which was inspired by it. And since our teacher was having us present our papers to the class, she played the song to us. "Heathcliff ... it's me, Cathy, I've come home ... I'm so cold, let me into your window." I didn't know who Heathcliff and Cathy were at the time, but something about Bush's passion as she sang stuck with me.
Perhaps this helped ensnare me in the book's spell when I finally read Wuthering Heights my junior year in college. In a class devoted to the Victorian novel that also featured favorites like Middlemarch and New Grub Street, Wuthering Heights had a special kind of influence on me because it tugged at the romantic inside me like these other books may not have. I read it 20 years ago, but it has remained with me, made itself a part of my person.
And so I have sought out film versions of Wuthering Heights, first the classic 1939 version directed by William Wyler, then about seven years ago, Peter Kosminsky's 1992 version. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon were the star-crossed lovers in the former, Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the latter. Both delivered, in their own ways, on the promise of the novel's exquisite emotional angst.
Andrea Arnold's version, unfortunately, did not.
Arnold's version of the story, which relies heavily on handheld camera, is clearly intended to be a modern version, even though the time period of the original novel is preserved. It's also intended as a minimalist version of the story, as the dialogue is sparse, and many developments in the plot must be inferred based on limited information. If this is your first Wuthering Heights, you will be lost.
However, I can see how the choices Arnold made -- including using a cast of non-professional actors -- might seem to invigorate the material, though I'd dispute its need for invigoration. It does feel modern, in some of the right ways.
But by eschewing most of the exposition as well as most of the declarations of love between Catherine Earnshaw and her beloved Heathcliff, Arnold leaves us with something that feels emotionally minimal as well.
Strangely, though, this may actually be the most technically beautiful iteration of the story in existence. If Terrence Malick saw this movie, he probably left the theater jealous that he wasn't the one who made it. The book's infamous setting on the moors in the north of England has never looked so damp, so fecund, so positively twinkling with dew and beauty. Nearly every scene is established with glistening branches racking in or out of focus, grass blowing, leaves twisting, fog rolling. It's quite simply some of the most gorgeous camera work I've ever seen ... and sadly, it's in the service of something regrettably limp.
Who should we blame? Arnold clearly knows how to make a dramatically resonant movie. Just watch Fish Tank if you are unsure of that. And all those inserts of nature would have really popped if they'd been buttressed by a sense of epic doomed love.
So I suppose it's the actors who aren't quite up to the task. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer play Heathcliff and Catherine as kids, then James Howson and Kaya Scodelario step into the roles later on. I suppose it's a good time, now that I am mentioning the cast, to mention that this version has chosen a black actor to play Heathcliff, while he is described in Bronte's book merely as a "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect." This is a really good decision, and contributes to the film's modernity. Unfortunately, neither Glave nor Howson can give Heathcliff that burning, feral quality that makes him one of literature's great antiheroes.
There are individual intimate moments between the characters that hint at something greater that's consuming them. But the movie has chosen to leave the richer moments off screen, alluded to but never actually dramatized. In her attempt not to contribute to the existing number of florid, emotionally purple versions of Wuthering Heights, Arnold has committed the opposite sin of failing to establish the stakes. We have to believe that these characters yearn for each other at an elemental level that's equivalent to the mud and grass of those gorgeous moors, as captured by Robbie Ryan's lens. But we never do, because some number of actual words are needed to communicate this to us.
I will admit it's possible my appreciation for this movie was negatively impacted by the fact that I watched it over the course of three evenings. I was taken down by sleep after 45 minutes the first night, and after only 30 more on the second night. I polished off the last 45 tonight. I am the first to admit this is no way to watch a movie.
Then again, if Arnold did a better job of sweeping me up, she would have had me in one go.
You know, like Kate Bush did in that high school classroom back in 1987, and Emily Bronte did in that college lecture hall in 1994.
My wife made a good point about why she wasn't that interested in watching this new one with me, which also explains why the other two film versions I've seen haven't gotten very close to my love of the book. "In the book it's this great love affair, but in the movies it's just people staring forlornly out at the moors, and that doesn't translate."
Yep, there are times when a love is so passionate, so grandiose, so tragic, that only our minds are sufficient venues in which to consider it. Commit it to film, render it specific in some unavoidable way, and it is doomed to come up short.
Just as doomed as Heathcliff and his beloved Catherine.