Friday, June 15, 2012

The depths of the unknown: PROMETHEUS

Note: I was going to talk about George Steven's Swing Time this week, but after watching it for the first time, realized that Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee deserve the praise that this film just didn't inspire in me. If you are are looking for the perfect night to bask in the heaven that is Fred and Ginger, rent one of these instead. 

"Big things have small beginnings" 

The opening credit sequence of Prometheus (Scott, 2012) will take your breath away. The camera flys above lush green valleys with icy blue water running through it like viens. Cliffs of ice and snow create fortress of rock and create an ambiance of fear and awe. The sequence ends at a raging waterfall. As the camera flys above the torrent of clear and dangerous water, a man, full formed, appears at the top of the falls along the edge. The use of both practical effects and VFX design make this white skinned giant appear human while also creating an unworldly feel. He drinks from a small capsule, which oozes a black liquid that comes alive in front of his eyes. The substance enters his system and rapidly eats away at his skin and bones until he tumbles from the cliff into the water below, breaking apart as he falls. He hits the water with a loud thunderous crash. Welcome to Prometheus.

This film is masterful in the hands of its cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. The sweeping camera angles and creation of space on the newly discovered planet incorporate a mythical and sinister feeling that alerts the audience to the fears they know are sure to unveil themselves around the next corner. Ridley Scott directed Alien in 1979. Alien is a film that stumbles upon a monster and inevitably becomes a fight for survival about all else. Prometheus, probably much to the dismay of Alien fans, is not that kind of film. Scott takes on a much more metaphysical approach in this film. His characters are seeking, not stumbling, to find answers to their past, present, and future. They seek out the monsters, hoping instead to find a land of ancient men. But even this naive search can lead to death and destruction for all who seek it. The title stems from the ancient greek myth of Titan Prometheus, a servent to the gods who gave human beings the gift of fire, leading to both prosperity and invention and also impending and inevitable destruction.

Noomi Rapace masterfully plays Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist on the verge of a major archeological discovery. With the aid of her fellow scientist and lover, Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) they set out to find an ancient race, one they believe we have descended from. They seek to meet their makers and what they find instead both destroys their belief in faith itself, but also leads to there emotional and physical devastation. Michael Fassbinder effortlessly plays the android David, seemingly human but lacking in compassion and sensitivity. His separation from humanity is something that Scott is intent on exploring. The themes of human nature, destruction, dependence, faith, and trust are built and shattered as this film burns slowly at the beginning and builds to its climactic final moments. Due to the impeccable costume (Janty Yates) and set design (Arthur Max), the actors were able to truly inhabit the space of the ship and the planet outside of it. The helmets and space suits both protect and entomb the characters as they move from the space ship to the outside world. The production design is delicate yet forceful and precise.

I don't believe that this was a perfect film, but it was expertly crafted, and the acting, especially by Rapace and Fassbinder, was chillingly perfect. Rapace was the perfect successor of Alien's badass female lead, Sigourney Weaver. Shaw is a fighter but she is also wounded and vulnerable. Towards the end of the film, she realizes that her insistent search for the answers to the past has irrevocably altered her future. This film sets out to explore the implications and possibilities of immorality. The financier of the expedition, Peter Weyland (played by a expertly made up Guy Pearce), seeks to find a way to erase the inevitability of death and never have to resign his "throne" to his family. This is a creation story, a exploration of myth and fantasy. It will not answer our questions about god, the afterlife, and inevitable nature of mankind, but it will make you hesitant to ask those questions in the first place. Sometimes what we seek to find only leaves us shattered and more lost then when we began. This is one of those films.

 The engineers 

 Charlize plays Ms. Vicars, the expeditions overseer 

 Elizabeth as she enters the alien ship 

 The tomb of the engineers 

 Amazing production design, the mist and the vases. 

 Director Ridley Scott hard at work on set. 

 David discovering a whole new world 

 David watching Shaw's dreams 

Landed on the planet. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

I am not an animal: THE ELEPHANT MAN

"I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!" 
-John Hurt as John Merrick 

David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) was only his second feature film after his experimental feature debut Eraserhead. Mel Brooks, the famous satirical director, fell in love with Eraserhead and helped to finance The Elephant Man. This film was Lynch's first studio picture.

The Elephant Man seeks to explore deformity and social exclusion and its effects on society and its "freaks". This film is based on the life of Joseph Merrick who died at the age fo 27 at the Royal London Hospital. This film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won none. This film inspired the Academy to create a category for Best Film Makeup after Christopher Tucker, the chief makeup artist, did not receive commendation for the creation of the elephant man. To create the impecable realness of the deformities, John Hurt's makeup was crafted from casts of Merrick's actual body. The casts had been housed at the Royal London Hospital. This makeup took up to 8 hours a day to apply and created a realness that only makeup effects can duplicate.

Lynch insisted that this film be shot in black and white and, thanks to Brooks, was granted the artistic license to do so. The black and white photography, shot by director of photography, Freddie Francis, is so integral to the overall story and mood of Lynch's characters. The muted tones and dark shadows serve to define the overall themes of the film. Lynch seeks to explore deep longing, disguises and betrayals, both physical and emotional. John Merrick (played perfectly with passion and angst by John Hurt) comes to life with the shadows that Lynch painstakingly creates. There is a gorgeous sequence when Dr. Frederick Treves (in the best performance of his career by Anthony Hopkins) is introducing Merrick, stripped down to his deformities, to his medical colleagues. Instead of showing us the man as monster, Lynch illuminates a curtain from the front and John's twisted body shines through in shadow. We can hear Treves describing Merrick's various deformities but we are not a witness to his humiliation.

Lynch begins this film with an experimental montage. He superimposes images of a woman, screaming in pain, and the images of large elephant heads. A haunting musical score plays in the background as the woman's face and the elephant's face become one. This opening montage serves to disorient the audience. We are never sure what we are looking at. We enter this film under the guise of disorientation and like Treves slowly seek answers to the truth about the woman and her place within this dream world. We first meet Treves as he snakes his way through a carnival. He seems to be following someone, deeper and deeper into a maze of freaks and horror seekers. He enters the freak show through a back alley tent and we soon find he is searching for a scientific study patient. He slowly maneuvers his way to The Elephant Man tent and finagles a deal with the master of ceremonies, Bytes (played by Freddie Jones). Bytes reveals The Elephant Man to Treves and a slow push in reveals a single tear fall gracefully down his cheek. Treves is forever altered in this moment and at once sees a medical mirage and an abused man living like an animal. He insists that Bytes trade him, Bytes will get paid and Treves will have a medical marval to showcase in front of his colleagues. But the relationship begins to change when Treves learns that there is a man under the cloak of deformities. A man lives and breathes under the bulbous head, the crooked spine and the useless hand.

In a beautiful moment where Treves tries desperately to get John to talk to him, to show him he is a man, not some deformed animal. John speaks to Treves, telling him his name, forming words and sentences of great poise and grace. John is a man, a well spoken, gentle man, who until this moment has been treated no better than a mangy dog. Treves and Merrick become fast and fervent friends and Treves slowly tries to assimilate Merrick into civilized society, but then struggles with the moral implications of trading one freak show for another. Lynch spends the majority of this film weighing the cost of humanity. Merrick seems to be the only truly selfless human being and the rest of us are turned into monsters. Merrick makes a very poignant statement to a friend when he says people fear the things they do not understand, absolving the people surrounding him of their cruelties. It's the ultimate sign of forgiveness and humanity.

Dreams and fantasies play a large role in all of Lynch's distopias. Merrick, due to his deformities, is unable to sleep laying down. He has to sit upright or his body would be able to sustain life. There is a painting in his room at the hospital of a boy tucked into his oversize bed, fast asleep, safe and protected. John yearns for this sense of stillness and warmth. He spends every night watching this sleeping boy and wishing that he could lay his head down and dream with the same childhood innocence. John seeks nothing more than this small kindness. In the end, that kindness is granted.

I had the rare honor of seeing this film projected at the New Beverly's David Lynch retrospective a few weeks ago. This film was one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences of my life. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor, watch it now.

 John laying down to sleep 

 Dr. Treves watching through the Freak Show

 Torturing John 

 John single greatest moment of divine pleasure

 John being beaten by "his master"

 John meets Dr. Treves for the second time

 The study of a man

 John as Romeo

 John trying to get back home

John mesmerized by his new gifts 

The Elephant Man Trailer