Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looper - A Glossary of Terms

Writers of science-fiction novels just love inventing terminology for the trappings of their sci-fi worlds. Some novels pile on the terminology so thick that, thankfully, a glossary of terms is provided. (I find sci-fi novels like that very irritating; more artful are the novels that introduce invented terms sparingly in such a way that the story teaches you the terms as you go along and a glossary is not needed.)

The problem with some sci-fi movies is that they include so many gimmicky terms that you can’t keep them straight. This is not the problem with Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller, Looper. Mercifully, Johnson has not piled on the terminology to the point of obfuscation, and the terminology invented is clearly defined by the main character's voiceover. Though the film might lose you in respects to its time-travel conundrums, it doesn’t lose you in a sea of labels.

Still, I would like to supply a glossary just for fun. Mild spoilers ahead.

Glossary of Terms:

looper, noun: a hit man from the year 2042 who is hired by a mobster from 2072 (when time travel has been invented) to assassinate enemies sent back to 2042, bound, hooded, and strapped with a payment of silver bars, to be shot and disposed of without incriminating the future mobster. Clever! In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper who is good at his job, as you see in a repetitious montage of hits so repetitious as to be entirely tedious.

Joe kneels next to cane field holding a shotgun. Joe looks at his watch. Victim suddenly appears on a tarp waiting to receive him. Joe shoots victim. Victim flies back off tarp. Done. (So why doesn’t he place the tarp behind the spot where the victim is predestined to land?) This sequence is repeated multiple times. (Also, for security reasons, you'd think the loopers would choose a different location for each hit. Change it up a little!)

Gordon-Levitt, who is supposed to look like a younger Bruce Willis by means of prosthetics and CGI, looks like someone who had a very bad experience with a surgical makeover to the point of looking frightening throughout the film. Nevertheless, through the fearsome mask, Gordon-Levitt is able to express Joe’s developing compassion as he learns the meaning of love and family and starts to salve over inner wounds. This aspect of Joe’s moral progress gives the film heart.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quell and Dodd: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens with the close-up of a World War II soldier peering from under his helmet, an image reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which soldiers peer from under their helmets at the horrors of war. At one time, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, may have been one of those men, but we never find out. Instead, the film cuts to discordant music and a beach where traumatized soldiers seem to be recuperating in a frenetic orgy of wrestling, sculpting lewd sand sculptures, humping lewd sand sculptures, drinking, and masturbating. We never find out what has traumatized Freddie Quell. Perhaps, Randle McMurphy style, he’s feigning his condition in order to be close to sources of alcohol and to get out of work, or perhaps Freddie Quell has always been a solitary, alcoholic, sex-addicted outcast.

This is one of the many enigmas that make Anderson's inspired creation, Freddie Quell, a compelling character, especially when allied with Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, another enigma. Lancaster, Dodd, suggested by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics, is a domineering, sometimes brilliant, sometimes childish, volatile, often weird singer of songs, creator of the Cause, a self-help cult that promotes a hypnosis-like therapy called “processing” for connecting with and healing past traumas. As Hoffman portrays Dodd’s passion, it would seem that Dodd really believes in all the hocus pocus he has conjured up and continues to change. But, as Dodd's taciturn son (Jesse Plemons) finally says to Quell in the one of the best moments in the film, “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

The greatest pleasure of this film is watching Anderson’s film craft. He makes something memorable out of the shot of a desperate man running across a field. He brings a 1950s department store to nostalgic life. Compelling too are the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman. While Hoffman sometimes slips into histrionics that reveal Hoffman through the artifice, Phoenix totally transforms himself into Quell. He morphs body, face, and speech. Speaking out of the side of his tightly clamped mouth, his speech is sometimes hard to follow, but the affectation effectively evokes the turmoil inside this troubled soul. Walking as though it is painful, suffering through Dodd’s processing sessions, ripping apart a jail cell, Phoenix always makes you see Quell.

Much like a Dickensian character bordering on caricature, a troll-like Mr. Quilp or a writhing Uriah Heep, Phoenix’s Quell constitutes the film’s compelling core. In the beginning, as a troubled loner; as a photographer in a department store until he beats up a customer; as a cabbage field harvester until one of his caustic alcoholic concoctions poisons a fellow worker, Quell is fascinating to follow, and I found myself preferring the film’s picaresque first chapter to the Dodd chapters that follow. When he hooks up with Dodd, he is again the enigma. Does he become a true convert to the Cause, willing to play the goon, a zealous “brownshirt” roughing up hecklers for the charlatan Dodd? Or is he just an opportunist going along for the ride, enjoying the action until it’s time to move on? With all the tension that seems to be building between Dodd and Quell, or between Dodd and his followers, or between Dodd and his loopy wife, superbly played by Amy Adams, lurking mysteriously in the background, it seems that a dramatic denouement is promised. Alas, it never comes.

Yes, I suppose the film takes Quell to a subtle denouement. In one of the best scenes, he has gone back to Lynn, Massachusetts, to look up the “girl next door,” perhaps the one true love of his life. In this quiet scene in which the girl’s mother tells him she has been married for five years, Quell comes to grips with his flaws and fatalistically embraces his aimless destiny. Quell is back to where he started, alienated and solitary, drinking heavily, trying out Dodd’s processing therapy on a whore. Perhaps Quell has not changed at all. He’s back on the beach. This ending is, perhaps, appropriate, but the viewer is left with a film that employs skillful filmmaking to depict two compelling characters who are never taken toward a compellingly dramatic conclusion.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Random Thoughts on The Words

I enjoyed The Words for the intricacy of the plot. The Words is a story wrapped around a second story that flashes back to a third story which includes a fourth story.

The third storyline is set in a very picturesque post-World War II Paris. Ben Barnes plays a young American who comes back to Paris after the war, falls in love, and tries to become a writer. The idyllic street scenes set the tone for this story of a young man who would like to be the next Hemingway. The romantic setting suggests the magic inherent in the act of writing. The novel that the young man eventually writes is shown in glimpses as he writes it, and as another writer later reads it and word-processes it. This presents the novel with a sense of wonder that makes it believable that it becomes a much-loved bestseller.

Dennis Quaid is quite commanding as Clay Hammond, the author of a book called The Words, which is about an unsuccessful, aspiring writer named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who finds the lost manuscript of the young writer in Paris (Ben Barnes as the young man/Jeremy Irons as the old man) and calls it his own.

Once again, Bradley Cooper plays a wayward, aspiring writer, as he does in Limitless. In both films, his character is faced with a choice. In Limitless he writes a successful book by taking a drug that enhances his mental processes. In The Words, he takes a lost manuscript, calls it his own, and becomes a bestselling, award-winning writer. Cooper does quite well depicting Rory's anguish when faced with his moral dilemma.

I love movies that depict the act of writing. We see someone writing with a pen, with a typewriter, with a word-processor. A gripping, passionate scene captures the torment and hard work of writing. (It also deals realistically with rejection and the difficulties of getting published.) I remember those manual typewriter days! Love the shot of the young writer struggling with a typewriter ribbon. I remember banging away at a ribbon until I could no longer ink the paper. The film also depicts the torture of writer's block, and I like how it portrays the enigma of creativity. The same young man who can't seem to join words together effectively suddenly finds inspiration and pours out a heart-felt story. That's how it can work sometimes.

I love the film's simple paradigm: young man, old man, lost manuscript, aspiring writer, moral dilemma, choice, repercussions. But there is a lot going on in this simple pattern. The Words is about passion, the imagination, moral choices, justice, and living with an immoral choice. At the same time, the cinematography employs a minimalism that nicely frames the conflcts: writer with laptop; writer with typewriter; Rory faced with his choice; Rory and old man in Central Park; Clay Hammond with book entitled The Words.

Primarily, The Words is about words and the challenging, painful, elusive art of writing. We see words on a laptop screen. We see them scribbled on scratch paper and on a file folder. We seem them in English and French. We see them printed in a hardback book. We see the young man's clear, Hemingwayesque diction typed on age-yellowed manuscript paper, the pages placed in a folder, the folder kept in an old leather briefcase. You can feel the writing going on.