The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009, USA)

Perhaps it is the recent passing of the fiftieth anniversary of his death that brings it more readily to mind, but the spectre of philosopher Albert Camus seems unquestionably to hang over the characters in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The film is, in a very broad sense, existential, but more specifically it seems to be confronting those issues which troubled the French-Algerian writer throughout his life: how are we to live our lives in a universe so apparently devoid of meaning? If all is ultimately futile, is there anything which makes suicide an unacceptable escape? Can a morality still exist, and how, if at all, may one achieve a ‘happy death’?

In McCarthy’s vision, death is the only certainty, and one that constantly looms so close as to be able to touch it. An unspecified disaster has befallen the Earth – viewers may speculate as to its exact nature – which has set in motion an unstoppable environmental catastrophe: the sky grows ever darker, life has all but died out, and what remains is a deserted world of ashen, moribund tree husks and the abandoned wreckage of buildings, roads and vehicles. A handful of starving humans roam around in cannibalistic tribes scavenging for any remaining food and commodities, and as the story progresses we will see glimpses of the desperate, horrifying depths to which they have sunk in order to survive.

Also roaming this barren wasteland is an unnamed man and his young son, struggling with their cumbersome trolley loaded with what goods they have managed to forage for themselves. Through parallel flashbacks interspersed through the story we see glimpses of past events: golden-hued memories of ‘before’ and the man’s loving relationship with his wife, the coming of the apocalypse and their child’s traumatic birth, and finally the couple’s increasingly disparate reactions to the ongoing destruction, resulting in her complete abandonment of hope and flight from the family home.

In the present timeframe, the man has determined that the pair head south and towards the coast, and so the story follows their labourious journey, flanked by the twin vultures of death by hunger and murder at the hands of a cannibalistic gang. Their significant other companion is the man’s gun, loaded with one bullet for each of them, and which the father repeatedly and frantically reminds the son how to use on himself if the worst happens; better this than the prospect of being raped and eaten alive. As in reality, the role of the parent is to prepare the child to face the world without them.

Tales of earthly apocalypses are ten-a-penny in Hollywood, but however bleak their outlook, there is always the certainty in such films that their protagonists will in some way save the day in the last two reels. Not so here; the tone is unremittingly bleak, the world terminal decline and in the process of taking its last few gasps of air before expiring forever. Where, then, can any sense of hope be derived from this situation? How can the father make the son believe that life is worth living for a second longer?

It is a truism, if a trite one, that the road movie is seldom about the destination but the journey itself, and this is never a more correct observation than in The Road, though here it is a more philosophically abstract idea. Take two comparable films; firstly, Children Of Men (2005), also set in a world where life (and hope) is slowly dying out, but which observes the narrative trajectory of a thriller once the key plot point is revealed. Similarly Stalker (1979), which is more philosophically complex, yet still has a clear destination end point – the mysterious ‘Zone’ to which the characters are heading.

The question in The Road, perhaps related to the MacGuffin of the nature of the disaster itself, is why is the man so insistent in heading both south and towards the coast? Does he know it is safer there? His reasoning is never made explicit, likely because there isn’t one; it is just important that they have a direction, some form of purpose. In a later scene, when the pair discover an underground cache of supplies, enough to keep them alive and more comfortable for months, they continue on nevertheless. Survival is not enough; existence precedes essence, but it is not enough on its own; the man has embraced the Absurd and transcended it.

Director Hillcoat’s previous film, the superbly grimy The Proposition (2005), took the template of the Western and reinvented it in a nihilistic late nineteenth century Australian Outback where the rule of law is unenforceable and morality is an unobserved luxury. The Road takes this further: law is not only unenforceable but has been dispensed with altogether, along with any value attached to money or property. What remains of humanity?

What is fascinating is the divergence in political attitudes between father and son. The older, more world-weary character sees fear and danger behind every corner and in every person they meet, and is careful to delineate to his son the idea of they as the ‘good guys’ and others as the ‘bad guys’; the child, seeing through kinder but perhaps more naive eyes is less inclined to believe his father’s snap judgements, and as the film progresses is clearly forming a moral code of his own, constantly questioning that of his father. Perhaps ‘before’ the father was less wary of others, while the child, born into this new world, lacks this frame of reference. Their moralities, then, are hugely subjective, borne out of circumstance and forged by experience.

A story which is so unremorseful in its depiction of a future deprived of any sense of hope might seem like an unrewarding, morose watch, and yet the overriding message is a positive one. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus in the darkest days of World War 2, exiled and alone in Paris, staring down the barrel of an oppressive, authoritarian future. And yet he looked to Greek myth and found the most hopeless of all characters – the man condemned to spend eternity rolling a rock up the side of a mountain in the knowledge of the certainty of its fall – and found hope, and laughter, in its Absurdity. It is the triumph of The Road that it also manages to find, even the the face of the most unrelenting despair, enough to suggest that life must continue be lived, and embraced.

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Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009, USA)

The brevity of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are its story contained in only a few hundred words and a few dozen pages of illustrations – shows the other side of the coin of the problem of literary adaptation to, say, Watchmen (2009). Instead of what Zack Snyder had to do with that film, i.e. condense a large, sprawling work down to a coherent audience-friendly narrative, the job for director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers has been to conjure up a feature-length picture from the bare bones of a relatively sparse source.

In theory at least, this should be the easier task, and one which opens up the possibilities of exploring avenues of theme and character absent or not fully fleshed-out in the book. In fact Jonze and Eggers have gone one step further in overlaying broad new ideas over the story’s template. The approach has worked to a large extent; Where The Wild Things Are has benefited greatly from this room for manoeuvre which has allowed both of their distinct authorial voices clearly to emerge in its story. Yet the lack of narrative meat in the source material proves to be the root of film’s biggest weaknesses.

Sendak’s simple story centres on a young unruly boy named Max who one day travels by boat to an island populated by large hairy monsters; they duly appoint him king and he remains for a while as their monarch before returning home. The most immediate difference that Jonze and Eggers make is with Max himself, rounding out his personality and back-story by making him emotionally isolated – apparently friendless, his mother frequently busy with work or with her gentleman friend, his teenage sister hanging out with her friends – an isolation which causes or at least exacerbates his tendency for violent tantrums.

Max is a creative child, a teller of fantastical stories, so when he eventually runs away from home to set sail for the imaginary island of monsters we can expect it to be a product of his imagination. Once on the island and acquainted with its inhabitants, what swiftly becomes apparent is that there is something deeper going on: again supplementing the original book, here in the film the monsters are all physical manifestations of the different sides of his personality: most immediately the short-fused Carol, quick to lose his cool and throw a wobbly, represents Max’s ill-temper, but so too the timid, seldom listened-to Alexander who personifies (or monsterifies?) his loneliness, and the elusive K.W. who appears to be a product of with his longing to be close to his sister.

It is a novel approach to interpreting and expanding on the book, and is particularly effective in developing the bildungsroman idea of maturity deriving from a loss of naïve innocence and the discovery and acceptance of both one’s own imperfections and those of others. The stories we tell, whether we are a child or a successful filmmaker, are in some way reflective of our own subconscious. As such, as Jonze has been keen to point out, this is an often melancholy film about childhood rather than for children, and a PG certificate and a frequent sense of fun should not be enough to dissuade otherwise.

This setup is very elegant, but such pop-psychology does not make for a good film in itself, and for all of its merits there is a feeling incompleteness to the film as a whole, a problem which seems to go back to the paucity of the Sendak source. The thinness of the plot renders large stretches of the film whimsical and at times, much worse, boring; it is the absence of what forms the basis of many classic films from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Labyrinth (1986) and beyond: a central quest or goal to sustain the film for its duration.

Max’s self-discovery comes as a character development but not a dramatic one; indeed his decision to return to reality comes late into the film and more as a product of fear of the island’s inhabitants rather than anything along the lines of a there’s-no-place-like-home feeling, by which time the inconsequentiality of the goings-on on the island have become more than a little tiresome. If Jonze’s previous feature films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and, ironically, Adaptation (2002) – have been narratively obtuse then it has been the sheer ingenuity of their Charlie Kaufman scripts which has kept them so watchable; here Eggers’ psychological insights come at the expense of a tight storyline.

It is a shame that Sendak’s wonderful book has not made for the great film that it perhaps could have done, but I suspect there may be something inherent in the simplicity of the story which prevents it from translating to the 90-minute-plus mark. A shame, because it proves to be a rich resource of visual imagery, the scale of which translates comfortably to the big screen; the island and its natives are delightfully brought to life through a winning combination of puppetry and CGI, giving them a tactility and warmth lacking in so many other purely-rendered fantasy realms. And a shame, since Jonze’s and Eggers’ vision of Where the Wild Things Are as a parable about innocence and maturity feels so very right.

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009, USA)

Thanks to a resurgence in its popularity following the box-office hits Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) earlier in this decade, the zombie film has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the past few years, culminating in the relatively low-key Zombieland topping the US box-office chart ahead of its bigger budget screen rivals. Its arrival is something of a significant one; while Shaun, and to a lesser extent Dawn, were clearly produced by die-hard fans of the genre, Zombieland’s existence appears to be largely a product of the increasing mainstream appetite for what could be happily dubbed the zom-com; in short, the undead have become socially acceptable.

The standard formula for this kind of film is a simple one: take some easily-identifiable stock characters, preferably of radically different demeanours and outlooks on life, throw them together and allow them to run amok in their newly-deserted surroundings, give them enough time to learn to rely on each other in a survival situation, add some witty one-liners and some inventive zombie deaths, and wrap things up fairly quickly before the audience starts getting twitchy. Easy, yes? Of course, it really isn’t that straightforward, and Zombieland, for its enjoyable performances and at times very witty script, fails to satisfy not for want of containing all of the above constituent elements but on a more basic, fundamental level – the underlying story really isn’t up to much.

Not that the setup isn’t without promise. We are instantly thrown into the immediately recognizable post-apocalyptic world of the undead, seen first through the eyes of a highly neurotic young man who explains that his very survival is surprisingly a result of these. He narrates us through his Scream (1996)-like list of rules key to the surviving of a zombie invasion, rules which will be pretty well familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple of these films – fitness, making sure the zombie is fully dead, and the all-important observation of proper seatbelt-wearing procedures – the narration accompanied with the text of the rules graphically incorporated into the unfolding carnage. While it is hard to argue with the rules themselves, the exercise itself is gimmicky, mildly irritating and, on a purely practical level, not nearly comprehensive enough.

Our young guide wants to travel from Texas to Ohio to find out whether his parents have succumbed to the living dead or not, and eventually strikes up with a rather deranged truck driver, insistent that they refer to each other by the impersonal names of their hometowns, Columbus and Tallahassee respectively, in case one needed to expediently dispose of the other one. Tallahassee, it turns out, is also on a mission, though a rather less noble one: to find out if this post-apocalyptic world still contains any Twinkies before they all pass their expiry dates.

There is, however blackly, something inherently funny about a world being overrun by the living dead, and the film-makers here are clearly aiming for the audience’s funny bone rather than the cerebellum. In terms of comedy they largely succeed, thanks to their trump card of the choice of actors playing the two male leads – Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. With the former playing an even more nervous Michael Cera and the latter seemingly playing a less restrained version of the his Natural Born Killers (1994) role, the two together make for as amusing a chalk and cheese duo as could be imagined; not only does the dialogue fizz with glee at their unlikely partnership, but both actors share a gift for physical comedy which is well exploited by director Fleischer.

Zombieland seems to tick a lot of other boxes too. The duration – a crisp 82 minutes – is on the money for a light comedy, and it is creditable that rather than carefully set up the world of the undead we are dropped immediately into it, dispensing with the all-too-common rigmarole of a long-winded prologue. Comedy is clearly what the director is best capable of handling, and in keeping matters light and frivolous never falls into the trap of either lurching into any kind of inappropriate sentimentality, or attempting to shoot anything genuinely nerve-jangling. Last but not least, a cameo in the film’s second half, while gratuitously shovelled into the storyline, offers some unexpectedly rich avenues of mirth – just wait for it.

Yet for all of what the film does right, there is too much of a lacklustre feeling to it all. Individual reels are fairly well self-contained, but the narrative threads linking them together are ragged and poorly thought out, and as such the film feels like a series of short sketches rather than a unified homogeneous story. One might easily forgive these inconsistencies in the plotting and tone if the film had more of a sense of charm or innovation, but these appear not within its ambitions. The film actually becomes a something of a bafflingly obtuse genre puzzle, for here is a film with horror elements but which isn’t even remotely scary, a road movie but which lacks any real sense of direction, and a character-based comedy but where the most clearly defined motivation is one man’s search for a sugar-rich cake snack. Eisenberg may be a funny performer, but his nerdy loser schtick was fleshed out much better in the recent Adventureland (2009), while the main female character Wichita is relegated to being the all-too-easily identifiable Hot And Fairly Kickass Horror Female. In sketching out such predictable, two-dimensional characters, when the film slows down and tries to form a romantic sub-plot, it falls woefully flat.

Zombieland entertains more than most comedies, largely thanks to its two leads, but the flaws in its conception and execution betray a certain degree of disingenuousness surrounding the film. The reflexivity of Columbus’ ‘rules’ appears to suggest an homage to the zombie movie genre, yet the film-makers fail to display this anywhere else; is the film therefore as much a superficial cash-in on contemporary big-name successes as the likes of Scary Movie (2000), Meet the Spartans (2008) et al? It is a mark of how far zombie movies have come from the realm of exploitation into the mainstream consciousness. But like the elusive Twinkie that Tallahassee is seeking to find, Zombieland may taste superficially deliciously sweet, but it leaves an uncomfortable sickly feeling in the stomach afterwards.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009, USA/Germany/France)

Rightly or wrongly, Quentin Tarantino continues to be in the unenviable position of being the one film director simply everyone must have an opinion on, whether it be the most highbrow of the critical oligarchy or the most casually infrequent of film-goers. Drawing a dividing line between his supporters and detractors is not a straightforward matter, since there is no one simple parameter which defines a Tarantino fan; his broad appeal seems to be a reflection of perhaps his greatest merit as a filmmaker: at his best, his work is a seamless marriage of inspired visual technique and pop culture referentiality, a complex patchwork of cinematic magpie-theft from which still emerges a coherent, distinctive whole, and one equally nourishing for both cinephile and mainstream audiences.

Fifteen years after the breakout of Pulp Fiction (1994), his much-imitated style has become so familiar that it is easy to forget that he is essentially still something of an experimental director, just one whose box-office receipts happen to match those of the blockbusters. Easy to forget, since each new film he releases comes under such intense scrutiny as inevitably to disappoint – it would appear that Tarantino’s biggest problem is that he must always work in the shadow cast by his previous artistic heights. By this measure, Inglourious Basterds unquestionably falls some way short of the director’s best, yet to use this as an excuse to dismiss it outright is facile at best; despite its structural flaws there are enough moments of characteristically idiosyncratic flair and invention, and some ideas about the medium of film itself, to raise it above the ordinary.

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France” reads the subtitle of the film’s opening chapter, and from this obvious cinematic reference we are thrust pretty well immediately into a very Leone-like fantasia of amorality, the world of World War Two in direct parallel with that of the spaghetti western . Predictably, the universe of Basterds bears as little relationship to actual history as The Producers‘ (1968) Springtime for Hitler, and naturally, this is not the point: this is not a war film – there are scant glimpses of actual combat – but neither is it simply pastiche of war films. At its centre is a film-within-a-film, a blatant piece of propaganda in the mould of Leni Riefenstahl, and illustrating one of the key underlying themes: how popular cinema has been used and abused as a political tool.

The film takes its title from the US title of Enzo G. Castellari’s Nazi exploitation film Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978) and how typical of Tarantino to juxtapose so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; Riefenstahl, despite her allegiance to Hitler, is commonly held up as being a major figure in the development of film aesthetics, while Castellari is quickly written off as trash. But there is no doubt where Tarantino’s sympathies lie; here in Inglourious Basterds we are in the realms of exploitation, an alternative view of history where we are clearly not being invited to enter into a moral engagement with the evils of the Holocaust, just smirk with glee as a band of Jewish vigilantes enact revenge on German soldiers. Do people really think there a wider issue at stake here? If so they might want to revisit those Indiana Jones films with the same sobriety.

The title is something of a misnomer, since the vengeance-wreaking Basterds constitute but one part of the film’s multiple narratives, each divided off initially into their own chapter, before they eventually coincide in the denouement. We open with the story of dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite and his slow interrogation by specialist “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa. It is a magnificent bravura opening: slow, carefully paced, abetting the air of nerve-jangling suspense as Landa’s tries to draw out his cat-and-mouse game to discover LaPadite’s secret. The multiple-language dialogue is exquisite, the camerawork pitch-perfect, and the tone reminiscent of those famous first shots of C’era una volta il West (1968) where we are made to wait interminably for the inevitable explosion of violence.

The following chapters introduce a large cast of other characters. We switch to the battlefront and the titular band apart: the Basterds led by Brad Pitt’s ridiculously jaw-jutting Aldo Raine, and flanked most notably by baseball-bat bludgeoner Donny “The Bear” Donowitz. Their mission: to collect as many Nazi scalps as they possibly can, or die trying. Meanwhile in occupied Paris, Shosanna, seen earlier fleeing from Col. Landa and his troops, now runs a cinema and is courted by German war hero Frederick Zoller; it turns out he has had a film made about him, the première of which is rumoured to be being attended by the Führer himself, through which Shosanna sees an opportunity to exact revenge. On the other side of the English Channel, Lt. Archie Hicox is briefed by one of Churchill’s Generals of a separate plan to hijack the film’s première and nobble the attendant German high command, thus ending the war, a plan which involves actress and secret British spy Bridget von Hammersmark.

The astounding volume of characters and storylines goes most of the way to explaining the film’s long, frankly too long, 153 minute running time. There simply isn’t enough interest in all of these different strands or in how they combine, nor in the overall sweep of the film’s scope in order to justify such an epic length, and while the individual chapters are well-measured their cumulative duration detracts pace from the whole. Perhaps the stories, each of which is interesting in themselves, would have been better presented interweaved, as in Leone’s epics, a format which would allow a more textured, overlapping narrative structure. As it is, the heavily chaptered structure is episodic to the point of feeling like a portmanteau, and the over-expositionary nature of the early chapters makes the film feel unbalanced and stop-start.

That the story strands are presented unbroken does, however, show off Tarantino’s skill as a writer. The best example comes in a scene set in the basement of a tavern, where von Hammersmark is ostensibly celebrating with friends but covertly conducting a rendezvous with her co-conspirators. The majority of the scene comprises a light-hearted card-game, the dialogue on the surface natural yet beneath the facade lurks a tension rooted in the fear of discovery. Much like the opening scene, the tension is expertly crescendoed until released with predictable violence. And yet, and it may seem absurd to level this as a criticism, there are too many of such scenes, most frequently meandering and not advancing the plot sufficiently. It smacks of a writer/director unwilling to sacrifice parts of the script best left out for the good of the film.

The wordiness, whilst something of a flaw, is also a point of interest. For a director whose signature trademark is his use of dialogue, whether expositionary or entirely incongruous, it is noteworthy that this is a film less about dialogue and more about language itself. Though plans are hatched around him, the one character who is shown to be most in control is Col. Landa, and much of this power derives from his mastery of different tongues: to comic effect in a later scene with his grasp of Italian, but also to tragic effect in the early scene where he switches between French and English to devastating effect. The Basterds are all-powerful when having use of a German translator, but later helpless when floundering without. Note also the sly nod to Gordon Jackson’s linguistic-based demise at the end of The Great Escape (1963) – in war, language can very seriously mean the difference between life and death.

As well as being mostly monolingual, the film’s other characters are painted with such broad strokes as to make Christoph Waltz’s Landa the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional figure, and it is his performance which clearly stands out above the other thanklessly undemanding roles assigned to the cast. Whilst on the one hand ruthless and cunning, Col. Landa also possesses a charm and likeability which, if he were in a situation other than the one he is in here, might see him presented as a hero, lionized in much the same way as Zoller is by the German military establishment. He is presented as the least shallow in terms of his motivations: where others are driven by bloodlust or revenge, his is a more inquisitive drive, and as such is the most intriguing character, and is what saves the film from constituting a mere mass of caricatures.

The game of reference-spotting is of little interest to me, and the more overt mentions of Pabst, Clouzot, Emil Jannings and David O. Selznick, to name but a few, become like a tiresome reading of a checklist of names from 1940s cinema. But the film-within-a-film and the positioning of its screening as the central event which everything is building up to presents a reflexivity I don’t feel like we have seen in Tarantino’s work previously, and points to something approaching a mature understanding of the social, rather than aesthetic, functioning of the cinematic artform. As Stolz der Nation plays to the assemblage of both its own cast and the cast of Tarantino’s film, and as Zoller shakes his head at the inaccurate inadequacy of his how his story has been presented, one feels this dual-layered artifice hits upon a truth – that cinema of any kind is a falsification, and as such is inherently a manipulation of the viewer by the filmmaker. And, reductio ad absurdum, if there is no obligation for film to tell the truth then why not use it to blow Hitler up inside a cinema?