Monday, December 12, 2011

You Go Scorsese!

Hugo is not simply the best movie I've seen this year, but it has immediately gained entrance into the Jeff Katz All-Time Greats list. It's touching (though not cloying), funny (though not buffoonish), effect laden (though not empty) and educational (though not pedantic). Hugo is as magical as the films of Melies it brings back to life.

I'm not going to recount the plot; you can look that up elsewhere.

After preview upon preview of CGI movies to come (I'm looking at you Tin Tin), it was a big adjustment to Hugo. Here was a large movie, an epic of imagination, that had a cast of humans! And big time humans like Ben Kingsley, Jude Law and Christoper Lee. It took a while for me to get used to it, like those 10-15 minutes of Shakespeare that one has to pass through to reorient their ears and get the hang of the language. That sense of semi-reality only added to the storybook experience.

Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector. Is there anybody funnier? He brings a sly and somewhat perverse characterization to the movie which gives it great depth. All the characters have something happening; there's not a useless member of the cast.

Seeing Georges Melies' films, even in clip form, on a giant screen is pure heaven. The hand tinted frames bleed gloriously and still, over a century later, you wonder "How did he do that?" My lord, it's wonderful. Scorsese manages to infuse screen history into a child's tale and, in doing so, makes the best film about the spell that movies weave. (No disrespect meant for Sullivan's Travels). In great part, Hugo is about film preservation and restoration, a cause dear to the director's heart. He makes a tragedy out of something long forgotten, and that isn't easy. The scenes of Melies' studio and the filming of the filming of the films is spectacular.

It's been said that Hugo makes the most of 3D. It does. The special effects are totally organic. There's no flash, no in-your-face moment. There's a point being made here, and that point is subtly and quite cleverly played out not once, but twice. Train Entering the Railroad Station, one of the first silents, is simply that: a train entering the depot. Much has been made of how the audience of 1898 recoiled in horror as the steaming locomotive approached, fearful that it may leap from screen to lap. Scorsese shows that two times.

Think about that. An audience of sentient adults, all clearly in three-dimensions and in color, could not separate themselves from a flat screen presentation of a black and white train. They were truly frightened that the one world would infiltrate the other. It worked, and set the table for the cheap 3D jolts to come: the thrown spear, the reaching hand, any old protuberance that would make the audience jump.

Scorsese's 3D does none of that and yet results in more genuine emotional reaction than any stunt. It does what it's supposed to, presenting depth with reality, not as a hoax. In that way, Hugo feels real and swallows you up in its world. It was a shame to leave it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Avant le déluge

My cultural world has been taken over by 1963. It wasn't planned, it simply became. My recent records, books and DVD watching have made me wish I were alive in the year before the 1960's began. Technically I was among the living, but what does a newborn know in his world of diapers, baby food and cribs. You call that living?

Kookie!, an album of almost music by Edd Byrnes, was actually released in 1959, but Byrnes' show, 77 Sunset Strip, ran until 1964. The entertainment, as it were, of a record like this, filled with anonymous studio rock 'n' roll of the period and the talk-singing of the Kookie character is pure hokum and innocence. Byrnes' street rapping hipster, whose innocence makes The Fonz seem like Tupac, splutters enough "babys," "daddy-os" and "like, wows" that I wondered how this was mistaken for edgy beatnik talk. Songs titled "Kookie's Mad Pad, "The Kookie Cha Cha Cha," and the boffo hit "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" are sweet in their faux-cool. All is not as it seems in retrospect, we all know that, but somehow the kind of world that could produce an album like this made me long for a happier time.

That hackneyed time travel sentiment is the subject of many a Twilight Zone. I'd always wanted to see Season 4, the year CBS executives forced the creators into one-hour long episodes. Having now seen all 18, I can say that the doubly long programs have been unfairly maligned over the years. Everything I've read about the January - May 1963 run has damned them as too long and unable to hold the quality of the 30-minute versions. Not so. The weaknesses of the shows are similar to those of all lesser Zones. There are several purported comedies; Rod Serling never did funny very well (though "The Bard" is a hoot, highlighted by Burt Reynolds' spot-on Brando impersonation).

I've been working my way through Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, published in '64 but set in '63. Similar to Faulkner, Kesey jumps from first-person to first-person without a heads up. That's where the similarity ends. Notion is just alright. It's not particularly difficult, or interesting, but I'm only half way through and, perhaps, there's good stuff ahead. The novel was seen by some critics as a "work of new consciousness" and, perhaps it will be by the time I close the covers. So far, I don't see it. Kesey has his counter-culture cred intact with Cuckoo's Nest and the Merry Pranksters, and with that in mind, his story of The Stamper family's generational conflicts presages what lurks right around the corner, the schism of the second half of the decade.

"Passage on the Lady Anne" is the penultimate show of Twilight Zone Season 4. It centers around a young couple, probably in their late 20's, trying to save a rocky marriage. They're a typical pair of the time, young people who look, dress and act twice their age. What was it about 25-30 year olds of the mid-60's that made them so beaten up and overly mature? Was it the Mantovanni records? The couple is headed to England by cruise ship, a decrepit vessel populated by ancients on their last voyage. You can guess where this one goes.

Would Allan and Eileen even know what was waiting for them in 1963 Swinging London? Would they even guess that a band of four boys from Liverpool was driving the Old Sod insane? How could they know that in a mere few months The Beatles would hit America and change the world? 1963 was the last year before the culture cracked. It's been fun to visit.