2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Friday, November 21, 2003

The Big and The Small

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Electric Eye Cinema

Scale. You can tell from the title of my post that its been on my mind. Actually, it just popped into my head tonight, as I mused over the last 24 hours of my filmgoing experience, but it does make sense. Last night, after work, I had planned on seeing Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action (side note: is this a marriage between director and subject matter or what? Check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's enthusiastic review here), but the release of The Cat in the Hat changed the screening schedule (speaking of family films, I'm just put off by the newest Dr. Seuss travesty, since I'm only a hypothetical parent, I would skip the movie and read the book), and dammit, I was going to a movie, hell or high water. Despite Joker's tepid remarks, Peter Weir's new film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was the only thing playing at the time that I hadn't already seen, so I plopped down my $8; bought my doughy, lightly-salted megapretzel with a side of cheese, from a surly teenager in an ill fitting polyester tuxedo; and sat down in the plush, reclining stadium seats of the new Ultrascreen (or as I now call it, "Not Quite the IMAX" or the "Guarantee for Motion Sickness"). I wasn't expecting much from the film, but after it was over, I didn't think it was all that bad. Kinda' good actually, not that it was worth my $8 (matinee or cheap theater?...maybe...DVD rental?...definitely).

Until the release of the film, I was unfamiliar with the series of historical novels written by Patrick O'Brian which form the basis of Weir's film, a $130 million opus, with an unwieldily title, backed by three separate Hollywood studios. They certainly sounded promising: a historically detailed, swashbuckling adventure. It's certainly detailed, I guess I could have learned a lot about early 19th century sailing, if (a) I could understand half of what the characters said, and (b) I had a sailor-to-English glossary. Still, I was impressed with both the attention to detail, as well as the what I took to be authentic production design (I was reminded of the Winston Churchill quote "All naval history is nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash," Master and Commander features lots of rum, and a little of the lash, but unless I blinked and missed something, no sodomy). The HMS Surprise was simply beautiful, in my opinion, and it had the feeling of a real, lived in space.

Unfortunately, the "197 souls" which crews the Surprise may look and sound like Napoleonic Era British sailors but with only a couple of exceptions, I could barely tell them apart. Yeah, I could pick out a couple of faces, and remember even fewer names, but for the most part, the majority of the characters were a blur of grimy faces and Cockney accents. For example, during one of the film's main set pieces, the rounding of Cape Horn, one of the most popular crew members drowns in the churning, storm-driven surf, the flotsam that could have saved him cut away by the Captain in order to save the ship. The film marks this as a big moment, but for the life of me, I really have no idea which character actually died, it was just too dark and rainy for me to visually identify the character. That's the problem, a lot is made of the crews sacrifice, but again, with a few exceptions, the characters are fairly underdeveloped, if at all, so when they die, you really don't feel anything (i.e. the attempt at the elegiac ending, though the earlier death of the cowardly leftenant is kind of visually haunting, harkening back, like much of the Galapagos sequences, to Weir's earlier Australian work, like The Picnic at Hanging Rock).

This would be a much more severe problem if it wasn't for the presence of Russell Crowe, again bringing his literally commanding presence to his role of Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. Hell, after this role, and his role of General Maximus in Gladiator, I�d follow this guy into battle. Aubrey is a good-natured, laid-back, sailor's sailor, a man who deserves and commands respect (a lot of reviews I have read have referred to Aubrey's pursuit of the French privateer Archeron as Ahab-like, but this is misplaced, as the film doesn't portray his "obsessive" pursuit as pathological or particularly negative), a natural leader. He's a consummate man of action, and is balanced by the onboard presence of Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the bespectacled ship surgeon and naturalist. Aubrey and Maturin have an intimate friendship, in several lighter scenes they perform string duets in the captain's cabin (Aubrey playing the violin, Maturin the cello) to the disgust of the salty steward. But more importantly, Maturin, being the only man on the ship outside of the naval chain of command, is the only one who can openly question the captain's decisions, often attempting to act as the voice of moderation and reason (Maturin is presented as something of a precursor to Charles Darwin, if not for duty to crown and country). Not that Maturin is some kind of weakling, this is a man who operates on himself, removing a musket ball, and then goes on a 10 mile trek across the rocky lengths of one of the Galapagos islands. Plus, in a pinch, he proves handy with a saber (this makes more sense in the books, because I guess, SPOILER for the novels and perhaps future sequels, Maturin is actually a spy.End SPOILER ) Of all the other characters, the only other one developed to a significant degree is the young, angel-faced Midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis), who loses his arm in the first engagement with the Archeron. Throughout the film he straddles the line between the two main characters, Aubrey and Maturin (not that a lot is made of this possible struggle for Blakeney).

These characterizations actually point to what could have been a potentially interesting intellectual conflict, which is set up during the central part of the film, is disappointingly left unresolved. This intellectual conflict, befitting the setting during the late Enlightenment, is between Reason (as represented by the cultured Dr. Maturin, the doctor and scientist) and the irrationality of superstition, which is not only shared by the lower-class men, but the majority of the officers. The conflict comes to a head as the Surprise is caught in the equatorial doldrums, and the crew quickly comes to blame their bad luck on an unfortunate Leftenant, which they refer to as a "Jonah" (as in the bible). As I said before, the film sets up this conflict between the rational and the irrational, but it ends up kind of muddled. After the Leftenant commits suicide, the sails almost instantaneously begin to fill. What are we to make of this? That the sailor's superstitions were correct? However, Reason is not totally rejected, it's just used pragmatically by Aubrey when he takes the lesson's of Maturin's proto-evolutionary discoveries to heart, in a bit of subterfuge.

This all may sound kind of negative, but then, I didn't go to Master and Commander expecting any sort of intellectual treatise. I did expect an action movie, and there was plenty of action. Personally, I preferred the cat and mouse conflict between the Surprise and the Archeron, as I found most of the main battle scenes to be extremely confusing. Specifically, I'm referring to the final battle, which consists of quick cuts, whip pans, and blurred images (all obscured by billowing smoke), all of which I'm sure was purposely done so that the audience would experience the shipboard confusion and chaos of the characters. Hell, most of the time, I had no idea who was stabbing or shooting who (those black armbands didn't help).

Back to scale though; even though this film was created on a vast canvass, I valued it much more for it's smaller moments, the mysterious trek through the Galapagos; the look on the battle-hardened, yet increasingly squeamish, face of Aubrey as he watches his best friend operate on himself; the stories about Lord Nelson (I have a new toast that I've cribbed from the film "Here's to our wives and sweethearts, may they never meet!"); the shipboard snowball fight as the Surprise sails near the Antarctic; and the musical scenes between Aubrey and Maturin. Yeah, it was those small moments which saved Master and Commander from being the thundering mediocrity it had the potential to be.

Speaking of small (nice segue, eh?), tonight, I attended the monthly Electric Eye Cinema, Madison's contribution to the Microcinema Movement, and it couldn't be more different from Thursday's screening of Master and Commander. For one thing, it's held in the back room of a local coffee house, where you have to sit on torturously hard chairs (though they are an improvement over the old metal folding chairs), and endure the dull roar of the cappuccino machine in the background (good food though, I had a nice BLT served to me by a cute hipster chick, though it was made for me by a surly raver dude). I actually haven't been to an Electric Eye Cinema screening for over a year, but since this week's Cinematheque offering was not that interesting to me (actually the second half of the Cinematheque schedule this semester hasn't been all that exciting to me, hopefully it will pick up next year), I decided to check it out. Electric Eye Cinema is principally dedicated to the screening of independently produced and distributed documentaries, which are often politically charged (my two favorite Electric Eye Cinema screenings where back in 2001, two hilarious documentaries by director Jim Taylor, his film Subdue the Universe, about the fringe candidates in the 1996 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, and Run Some Idiot, where Taylor documents his own foray as a fringe candidate in the 2000 New Hampshire primary).

Electric Eye Cinema is also a venue for local filmmakers to screen their works; the two documentaries are preceded by an hour of "Open Reel" where anyone can submit a video or DVD for screening, as long as it is 10 minutes or less. As you can guess the "Open Reel" films vary in quality, though none tonight were particularly insufferable. The highlights tonight were a pair of computer animated shorts, an excerpt from a documentary which followed a rather unique community radio station fundraiser, and, suprisingly, a film called Beauty and the Beast. It was actually sent to the Electric Eye Cinema curator by an art student from Syracuse University, and consisted of reedited segments from the the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, which is set to audio interviews given by porn actors (the editing makes it look like the animated characters were mouthing the words, and it was actually done very well). It really didn't add up to much, but it was hilarious, and I was half expecting the Mickey Mouse patrol to burst through the door and confiscate the tape, especially given the fact that they were later screening a documentary that was critical of the Disney Corporation. I figured I was one of about five people, in an audience totaling around 25, who was not in someway connected to one of the "Open Reel" filmmakers, but what I really enjoyed about the experience was the enthusiasm, camaraderie, and encouragement that these small, independent filmmakers share with one another. It was great, and I think I�m going to check out the Kino Club next time it meets, or maybe I'll make my screen debut as an outer space, interdimensional, zombie (one filmmaker was soliciting extras). By the way, anyone want to screen there video to a small yet appreciative audience, feel free to email me so we can make some arrangements (Milk Plus Distribution?)

The two documentaries that are screened at the Electric Eye Cinema are typically grouped together by some common subject. Tonight's screenings were odes to street protest. The first documentary was called Who�s Not Irish (d. Lyell Davies, 2002), a short video documentary about the efforts of Irish-American LGBT activists to gain access to the NYC St. Patrick�s Day Parade, as well as their own efforts to create and sustain an "all inclusive St. Patrick's Day Parade" in Queens (which is more of a multicultural festival, but it looks a lot more fun than the Manhattan parade). Identity, both cultural and sexual, is at the center of Who�s Not Irish, the LGBT activists and their allies ironically pointing out that romantic fiction that the Ancient Order of Hibernia (the conservative, Irish-Catholic organization that puts on the St. Patrick's Day parade) has about Irish identity and Ireland, where LGBT organizations already march in St. Patrick�s Day parades ("We March in Dublin! We March in Cork! Why Can't We March in New York!"). An interesting film, and a sad statement on the continuing homophobia in America.

The other film was a German documentary (it was on a DVD, and the curator couldn�t figure out how to turn off the German subtitles) about a NYC anti-corporation, anti-globalization activist named Bill Talen. The documentary is called Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping (d. Dietmar Post, 2002), which is in reference to Talen's character; see Talen and his group of activists (he is some sort of college instructor) are practitioners of guerilla street theater; Talen targets the exploitation of Third World workers, the destruction of the local economy by chain stores, and the alienation of consumerism by adopting the dress and mannerisms of an evangelical street preacher named Rev. Billy (his "followers" like members of a gospel choir, and they employ the trappings of a revival meeting, lots of "Hallelujah's" and laying on hands). The antics of Rev. Billy is often hilarious, but the ideas behind his politically charged sermons are deadly serious. His modus operandi is to enter his targeted chain store and begin his preaching up until the police escort him from the building, where the protest continues on the sidewalks (I only slightly feel sorry for the employees who have to deal with him, similar to a Michael Moore film; like Moore, but to a lesser extent, there is the hint of self-aggrandizement and the love of the spotlight). His first target is one of the three Starbucks within a block of each other at Astor Place, then the Disney store in Times Square (for the 29th action). Most of the film is actually taken up with his efforts to save the Edgar Allen Poe House (where Poe wrote his famous poem "The Raven"), which was set to be demolished by NYU so that a law school building could be built. Here street theater moves into civil disobedience, as Rev. Billy occupied the building until arrested by the police. Apparently, his efforts paid off, as NYU reached a compromise with the activists which at least saved parts of the building. That's about it, the fight goes on, as Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping forges on, fighting the good fight.

Yeah, that's it, the big and the small. They both have their place, and I pity the person who can not enjoy both. Though this time, the small won out. And now I'm worn out. Later.