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Monday, August 18, 2008

Funny Futures (originally published 5/05)

Science fiction has traditionally been the literature of wonder and imagination, designed to appeal to our sense of awe at the marvels the future might hold. Motion pictures and television play into this sense of the fantastic exceptionally well, using special effects technology to show us what it might be like to float in the rings of Saturn or to navigate a spacecraft deftly through an asteroid belt.

Occasionally, however, science fiction cinema lets its hair down, choosing to appeal more to our sense of humor than to our sense of wonder. That's the idea behind "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a newly-released big-screen adaptation of the popular BBC radio series by Douglas Adams. The idea of turning a science fiction premise on its ear for a laugh is fun, but by no means new. To see how earlier films have played such material for comedy, look for these titles on home video.

"Sleeper" (1973). Woody Allen's science fiction variation on the Rip Van Winkle theme finds health food store owner Miles Munroe (Allen) being roused from two centuries of cryogenically frozen slumber into a brave new world. Allen uses this premise to satirize everything from fast food to Howard Cosell. This practice of using an alternate world to ridicule the real world is one of the traditional hallmarks of good science fiction and fantasy, going all the way back to "Gulliver's Travels." Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for "Sleeper," courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Dark Star" (1974). Before he hit it big with "Halloween" (1978), John Carpenter was just another aspiring filmmaker looking for a way to catch the eye of studio executives. He did it with this student film, a parody of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). With some modest funding from a small distributor he was able to expand his original short subject into a low budget feature. The production values are minimal, to be sure, but the story of a bored crew of astronauts on an extended mission is funny and imaginative.

"The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension" (1984). This astonishing picture landed with a thud at the box office when it was originally released, due in part to the fact that the studio simply had no idea how to promote it. It's a one of a kind original that defies attempts at synopsis or pigeonholing. Peter Weller stars as Buckaroo Banzai, a kind of latter day Doc Savage who is, among other things, a skilled neurosurgeon, particle physicist, and rock musician, and who represents the best hope of Earth in the face of an alien invasion from the eighth dimension. Earl MacRauch's script crackles with wit while playfully challenging the viewer to keep up. Since its initial box office failure, this quirky comedy has become a revered cult classic, with a following every bit as devoted as the famously rabid fans of "Star Trek."

"Repo Man" (1984). The Orwellian year of 1984 produced one other enduring science fiction comedy cult classic, this one from the delightfully demented mind of writer-director Alex Cox. The setup is straightforward enough: a Los Angeles slacker named Otto (Emilio Estevez) falls in with an automobile repossession man (Harry Dean Stanton) and becomes his protégé. The story takes a bizarre left turn into the realm of science fiction when the two repo men join the hunt for a very special 1964 Chevy Malibu, for which a $20,000 reward is being offered. What makes the Malibu special is that it is being driven by a mad scientist who has the bodies of three aliens stashed in the trunk. Unfortunately, the bodies are highly radioactive, causing anyone who is foolish enough to open the trunk to be vaporized on the spot by the intense radiation. As Allen did in "Sleeper," Cox uses the lens of science fiction to satirize human folly, from religious cults to UFO cults.

Ironically, each of these futuristic films can now be obtained on a small silver disc, playable through a TV or, with the appropriate hardware, through a computer monitor. A couple of them are available in "special edition" formats, including alternate versions and/or commentary by the filmmakers. History, it seems, has overtaken science fiction. In many ways, we're living in the future that science fiction warned us about. And that in itself is pretty funny.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bard of Asia (originally published 3/05)

We were talking last week about movie adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, and I mentioned that there were three great film interpreters of the Bard. I talked about Olivier's magnificent "Henry V" (1945) and Orson Welles's audacious "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). The third great translator of Shakespeare to the screen has given us memorable adaptations of "Macbeth" and "King Lear," but his approach to the plays is very different from that of Olivier or Welles because the dialogue in his films is in Japanese.

Akira Kurosawa, by common consent Japan's greatest filmmaker, has long been acknowledged as a major influence on world cinema. The American Western classic "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), for example, was based on Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), directed by Sergio Leone, was based on Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (1961).

But Kurosawa's influence wasn't limited to Westerns. He also led the way in showing how story lines can be translated across cultural contexts with "Throne of Blood" (1957), his version of "Macbeth." Consider the problem he faced: how would you make an effective version of a Shakespeare play if the original lines were unavailable to you? You could simply translate the lines into Japanese, of course, but your translator would need to have as great a command of Japanese as Shakespeare did of English. The content might survive, but the poetry in those immortal lines must unavoidably fall by the wayside.

Instead of trying to do a Japanese version of an English play with a Scottish setting using Japanese dialogue, Kurosawa shifted the setting to feudal Japan and adapted the story to a samurai context. Then, at home in his own cultural sphere, he could draw on his own considerable cinematic talents to replace the missing verbal poetry with visual poetry.

Kurosawa's "Macbeth" character in "Throne of Blood" is a samurai general named Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune. While lost in the forest, Washizu encounters not three witches as in "Macbeth," but rather a single witch. She predicts that he will be a ruler who will be invincible until the forest itself moves against him. Washizu, egged on by his wife, takes this as a license to murder his lord.

It's Shakespeare's story, all right, but in place of the Bard's powerful words Kurosawa gives us powerful imagery. Trying to describe the images here is as futile as translating Shakespeare's text into Japanese, but let me just mention a couple of scenes.

Toward the end, as Washizu holds a war council in his castle, the large room is suddenly filled with panicked birds. The men can't agree on whether this is a good omen or a bad one, but we know that the birds are there because Washizu's enemies have driven them out of the forest by chopping down trees to use as cover. The forest is about to advance on the castle. It is a potent and affecting scene. Washizu's death is equally unforgettable. He is caught in a terrifyingly dense hail of arrows, shot, as it turns out, by his own men. The image of this lone figure, impaled by dozens of arrows but still walking, lives on in my mind just as firmly as any of Shakespeare's soliloquys.

"Ran" (1985) is Kurosawa's adaptation of "King Lear." It tells the story of an aging Japanese overlord who decides to divide his kingdom, not among three daughters, which would have been unthinkable in feudal Japan, but rather among his three sons. As in the Shakespeare text, one of the siblings falls out of favor by refusing to flatter the monarch. Kurosawa balances the gender reversal of sons for daughters by replacing Shakespeare's scheming Edmund with a scheming woman. She works her wiles for vengeance rather than for ambition, but she is every bit as cold-bloodedly calculating as Edmund.

Kurosawa's amazing eye for the dramatic use of color cinematography was never put to better use than in "Ran." I won't even try to describe the visuals here; go and watch it for yourself. It is a mature masterwork by an elder statesman of the cinema, marshaling the full force of his visual eloquence to comment on human folly. That this eminent Eastern artist should have chosen to cross-pollinate his vision with that of the West's greatest playwright is the icing on the cake.

Cinematic Shakespeare (originally published 3/05)

Although I have never cared much for the writings of film critic Pauline Kael, I am fond of one remark attributed to her. "If you think movies can't be killed," she once said, "you underestimate the power of education." But it's not only true of movies. More than one creator of living art has discovered that the attention of the academy is both a blessing and a curse. Too often, the price of admission to the required reading list is the squelching of the fire and passion in your works.

Down through the years, no one has suffered more in this way than poor old William Shakespeare. After nearly four centuries of the ministrations of university graybeards, not to mention critics, it's amazing that the old boy's plays are still around at all. Their survival can only be attributed to the actors and directors who regularly revive them on the stage and on the screen. Their work keeps us reminded, if only just barely, that those dusty old tomes contain not only fodder for scholars, but also great theater.

The latest filmmaker to take on this noble task is Michael Radford, whose recent production of "The Merchant of Venice" will soon be released on DVD. If you happened to catch the film and found that Al Pacino's spirited incarnation of Shylock whetted your appetite for more, there are plenty of excellent earlier film versions of Shakespeare's plays available on home video. Lots of talented filmmakers have adapted the Bard for the screen, but there are three who tower above the rest.

Laurence Olivier is perhaps the most obvious one. Renowned as a stage actor, his film work is sometimes unjustly overlooked. Once he realized that film acting is different from stage acting, Olivier got the hang of performing for the camera very quickly. But even more impressively, he became an accomplished film director as well. In particular, his eye for pictorial composition was sharp and inventive.

His "Hamlet" (1948) and "Richard III" (1956) are both excellent, but my own favorite Olivier Shakespeare film is his first one, "Henry V" (1945). He was encouraged to make it because its story of an embattled England steeling itself to fight a formidable enemy resonated with the then-current threat from Nazi Germany. Olivier used a wonderfully imaginative device to frame the play. The film begins in London in the time of Shakespeare. The camera takes us into the Globe Theater for a performance of "Henry V." We even get a peek at the backstage bustle and fussing with props just prior to curtain time. The play begins, still on the Globe stage. Then, as we are drawn into the story, the confines of the Globe are gradually left behind. By the time we reach the Battle of Agincourt, the film has long since moved entirely to naturalistic locations. By the end of the film, Olivier has reversed the process, bringing us back to the Globe for the final scene.

Orson Welles is the second great film interpreter of Shakespeare. His moody, quirky "Macbeth" (1948) is fascinating and his recently restored "Othello" (1952) is sublime, but my favorite is an audacious masterwork called "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). Because of the length of the plays, you can't very well do Shakespeare on film without cutting some of the lines, but no one had ever had the nerve to perform the kind of radical surgery attempted here. Welles decided to make a film about the relationship between Prince Hal (who would grow up to be Henry V) and the two men who most influenced his life. One of these was his royal father, Henry IV, and the other was Sir John Falstaff, the rotund blowhard who was Hal's drinking buddy throughout his misspent youth. But because these relationships are played out over the course of several individual plays, Welles found it necessary to collapse material from "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two" into a single sequence of events, while mixing in bits from "Richard II" and "Henry V." The exemplary result is a finer commentary on the meaning of Shakespeare's histories than any grind of a scholar will ever produce.

The third great film interpreter of Shakespeare took a somewhat different tack than either Welles or Olivier, but with equally impressive results. Next week we'll take a look at his unique adaptations of the Bard's plays.