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Oscar Contenders Round-up

Oscar nominations drop in less than a week. Yes, awards season is heavy upon us, with all its implicit fun and horror! I’ve already reviewed three big Oscar players—The Tree of Life (love), The Help (hate), and Midnight in Paris (eh)—but have yet to touch on the season’s other talked-about titles. The following is my attempt to rectify that:

The Artist. I was delighted by the cuteness and chemistry of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who give a spry pair of performances attuned to the film’s silence. And writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has an eye for visual gags, which dot the film: the dancing legs, the take-after-take courtship, the ascension of Peppy’s name, etc., etc. But The Artist never really coheres, coming across more as a set-piece variety hour than a fleshed-out feature film. Its tragedies, when they arrive, don’t stick—Dujardin’s alcoholism and depression always seem to have a wry smile lurking beneath them, and a climactic suicide attempt is punctuated by a joke. The film’s story is all but an afterthought, schematically stitching Singin’ in the Rain onto A Star Is Born.

Guillaume Schiffman’s gleaming photography gorgeously invokes the memory of “classical Hollywood,” but to what end? The film never really gets beyond the shock of its own retro-novelty, preferring to be vaguely about the idea of “silent movies” rather than any historically real silent cinema.* (This meta-silence explains its “Dream Factory” Hollywood setting, which could’ve been constructed from issues of Photoplay.) When it does make concrete allusions (to Citizen Kane and, infamously, Vertigo), they’re hollow and don’t fit their contexts. The Artist suggests the gist of silent movies (i.e., “they didn’t talk”) but doesn’t follow through; it’s very limited in outlook and execution. Kudos, certainly, to Hazanavicius and company for merely making a functional latter-day silent movie. I just wish they’d made more than a broad pastiche that teeters toward “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” pandering. Well, at least the dog’s cute.

*Hazanavicius himself seems strangely misinformed about 1920s filmmaking. In one interview, he claimed that under the Hays Code, “People don’t kiss, there isn’t any kissing in my movie, the dancing scenes are the love scenes.” I’m really curious where he got the impression that no kissing signifies “an American way to tell a story.”

Next: Hugo, The Descendants, War Horse, and Moneyball.

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Horror is everywhere (3)

By Andreas

Since The Mike, of the truly excellent genre film blog From Midnight With Love was on vacation, I volunteered to help keep FMWL (and its June theme of ’80s horror) going in the meantime. To that end, I wrote a continuation of my “Horror is everywhere” series from Pussy Goes Grrr, delving into the scary side of five ’80s movies that aren’t technically horror: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The King of Comedy, Blood Simple, Ran, and Blue Velvet (the last of which I also addressed over at The Film Experience). Head on over to FMWL to read “Horror is everywhere (3)”!

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E.T.: The Sacred Cow

I want to perfectly straightforward about this: I have never liked E.T. (1982). For whatever reason, the universally beloved sci-fi classic never resonated with me as a child. So, when I learned about Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg Blogathon, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, I hadn’t seen it in maybe 10-15 years; maybe my reactions would be more positive this time around? Alas, they weren’t. For all its considerable virtues, I still find the film treacly and phenomenally overrated.

This is one of the difficulties of criticizing E.T. It’s so intensely adored and consistently praised by legions of fans that in maligning it, I feel like I’m kicking a puppy. But what can I say? I don’t like it. It doesn’t work for me. At the heart of the film, and my dislike, is the relationship between Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. Normally, I love relationships between children and their secret friends (see, for example, Let the Right One In), but here it’s played as self-consciously cutesy, darting back and forth between broad comedy and unearned pathos.

One second I’m being cued to laugh as E.T. waddles around, comically exploring life on earth, and the next second I’m prompted to cry because this all-important friendship is in danger. “Look, isn’t this tragic?” the movie seems to ask. I’m also turned off by Elliott’s constant, grating self-righteousness—his assumption that, in his state of innocence and childish wonder, he’ll know what path is best to take – and the way that Spielberg implicitly agrees with him. Worst of all, though, is John Williams’ score. It pounds in every emotion, leaving nothing to the imagination, letting you know the awe or sadness or relief you’re supposed to be feeling, and never lets up.

I have other quibbles with E.T.: its soppy melodrama; its flip-flopping about whether the government agents are good or evil; its endorsement of consumer culture as synonymous with childhood, as in the scene where Elliott cross-promotes Star Wars merchandise to his new buddy’s delight; and finally, that fucking rainbow as E.T.’s spaceship flies away. It’s so garish and unnecessary. I understand that the moment is meant to be magical and enchanting à la The Wizard of Oz; the rainbow is the gilt on the lily.

All of this is not to say that I find E.T. totally worthless. I just don’t think it deserves the enthusiastic critical accolades it’s received since its release, setting it up as this unassailable masterpiece. For me, it’s symptomatic of Spielberg’s worst and best qualities. In terms of the former, it’s ultra-commercial (and with one rerelease after another, the E.T. profits never stop flowing), preachy, and about as subtle as a hammer to the face, painting with the very broadest of strokes.

On the other hand, it is technically marvelous, and the special effects that create E.T. are wonderful. It’s also very scary when it wants to be (especially as the government agents invade the house), a reminder of Spielberg’s considerable talent for white-knuckle horror from Duel to Jaws and Jurassic Park. Early on, the film shows an interest in the clichés of Cold War sci-fi—note the resemblance between E.T.’s fingers and those on the Martians from War of the Worlds (1953)—and, until it descends into the childish hi-jinks that dominate the film, it does its best to toy with genre conventions.

What I like most about E.T. is how Spielberg lovingly evokes small-town California and realistically depicts familial relationships. The banter that flies between Elliott’s mother (Dee Wallace-Stone), brother (Robert MacNaughton), and sister (Drew Barrymore) is what really works here for me. It rings so true, and therefore contrasts all the more with the human/alien interactions, which come off as precious.

E.T. contains bits and pieces that I love, but it’s all overshadowed by the film’s insistence on Elliott and E.T.’s relationship as self-evidently tragic—and on E.T. as a goofy, childlike messiah. Beyond that, I’m just a little peeved by the film’s glowing critical reception from 1982 to the present day, whose language often implies that to not enjoy E.T. is to not enjoy the cinema, or life. I do not enjoy E.T. Make of that what you will. What about you?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

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