Sunday, January 02, 2005

Filmed Grace

We seem to see a lot of movies during these late December into January weeks. Not a lot compared to what I used to see (at one point in my life, about 10 a week) but compared to the rest of the year. It's partly due to Margaret's vacation from school, so our viewing time at night gets extended from the usual one hour, and partly because we had movie cards for the local cinema, and the films have to be seen within the calendar year ending on December 31.

It's also partly due to the fact that I no longer feel bound to see lots of movies when they first come out, for real or imagined professional reasons, as I once did. I also don't like as many movies, possibly because they aren't as good. As for the better foreign and independent films, I don't often find their subjects (young love, tortured relationships) as worth dwelling on as I might have in the past. You know, been there, done that, don't remind me.

But I can still be persuaded by a big bag of popcorn, so we started at the Minor Theatre by seeing "Sideways," probably the most relentlessly anti-Hollywood-film ever made. It's the story of very unattractive people (except for one, Virginia Madsen, who I had a feeling was a talented actor even in her youthful bloom when all she had to do--- and all she was allowed to do-- was to be stunningly beautiful). They wear very unattractive clothes, go to unattractive places (as well as attractive places photographed to look unattractive) and do unattractive things.

It's an intelligent film, a pretty well told story, and of course, with very "real" characters, which I guess was the point. So yes, the anxious, jilted teacher desperate for his break as a writer, and the washed-up actor who still takes an actor's point of view on life, are pretty dead-on, and in the case of the writer, quite uncomfortably so. But not only don't I want to see a movie so relentlessly ugly, I would really hate to live those ugly lives in that ugly world. None of them have the slightest sense of style. They are aesthetically underprivileged. Surrounded and imbued by such slovenliness, they can't help but be miserable. And I can't help but be miserable watching them. The fact that this is very recognizable and realistic is exactly zero compensation. Between "Sideways" and, say, "Shall We Dance" (the Fred Astaire version), there has to be some ground to live on.

We then did several nights of DVDs, which I selected from a depressing and depleted field at the video store. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that we hadn't seen them. But they turned out to have several common threads running through at least two. "Cold Mountain" (Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Renee Zellweger who won best supporting actress Oscar, directed by Anthony Minghella) and "Malena" (from 2000, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, of "Cinema Paradiso" fame) concerned women waiting for their men at war in dangerous communities. "Cold Mountain" and "Beyond Borders" (Angelina Jolie) involved women in love with men they hardly knew, and whose single conjugation produced a child that survived one of the dead parents.

They were all quite good, if also quite long, and with too much graphic violence for Margaret. The directing was excellent, and the cinematography and music were exceptional for all three. I came away with greater admiration for the actors I knew of, and for the Italian actors I hadn't seen before in "Malena" (which at times seemed like an Italian version of a Truffaut film.) Angelina Jolie is another actor known primarily for her beauty who always seemed to me to have some substance (and the same could be said of Jude Law, actually), and she was not only quite good in "Beyond Borders," but it was a fine commitment at this point in her career to do a feature film which showcased the worldwide human tragedies-the starvation, devastating illness, homelessness and violence---caused by warring. Then to see the Civil War devastation in "Cold Mountain," and see how little has changed except the scope. Nicole Kidman also strikes me as a brave actor with special skills and versatility who perhaps doesn't get as much credit for that as does, say, Renee Z.

I've said this before, perhaps in this blog, but I am a huge fan of DVDs. Not only is the picture and sound so much better for me, but I love the commentaries, the interviews and documentaries. "Cold Mountain" included a concert of music and readings. So much so that while Margaret went off to use her last film on the movie card, I stayed home to watch DVDs of movies I was screening for a couple of projects I'm working on. Alone, I watch the movie with the audio commentary and subtitles. I don't get everything of anything that way, but enough of something. I was asked by the New York Times for ideas on how to cover the upcoming Episode III of the Star Wars saga, so I watched the DVDs of I and II (which both were somewhat different from the theatrical releases.) “The Phantom Menace” DVD has a remarkable documentary on the making of that film: not the usual after-the-fact summary that looks like an extended trailer, but film shot as the movie was being made. In some ways it’s better than the movie it is about. My favorite line in the whole DVD package was from George Lucas. He was listening to someone explain that if they used one process it would cost “only” about a million dollars more than another process. George shook his head sagely and in a quiet voice he said, “A million saved is a million earned.” I often say that myself.

One of these films (for a different project) didn't have commentaries, but watching the 1950s George Pal version of "War of the Worlds" was pretty remarkable anyway, because I watched it on my laptop and listened through earphones. I saw that movie when it first came out, and several times since, but I heard more this time than ever, if only the carefully layered background chatter.

But the unquestioned hit of the vacation watching so far has to be not a movie, not a DVD movie, not a DVD movie about a DVD movie, but a television series on DVD: Northern Exposure.

It’s hard to believe but Northern Exposure had its first run at the same time as Twin Peaks, and Star Trek The Next Generation (NE and Next Gen were both nominated for Emmys as best dramatic series the same year). Seeing the first season on DVD reminded me of how my Jungian education more or less began with Northern Exposure and Next Gen. And that Northern Exposure was the first TV series to take Native contemporary life seriously (as seriously as any other kind of life, that is), at a time I was first exploring it.

It was also on at the time that Margaret and I met. So we got the DVDs of the eight first season episodes (it started as a midseason replacement.) The DVDs themselves are unadorned; just a few deleted scenes besides the episodes, but the episodes (great color and sound, and of course no commercials) are enough. If this wasn’t the greatest TV series ever, it has to be in the top 5, absolutely the top 10. We just started watching season 2, with more interesting deleted scenes, too. But there are only 7 more episodes on these DVDs. There were more than 100 over 5 years, so we’re hoping the DVD elves are hard at work.

On New Year's Eve we watched Mickey Lemle's documentary on Ram Das, "Fierce Grace." It was both a sobering and inspiring way to mark the end of one more year, since it deals not only with the life of a leader of My Generation, but how this spiritual leader had to learn to cope with the effects of a stroke. And there was wily old Huston "Mr. Comparative Religion" Smith, as respectable as they come these days, talking about his LSD trips. And Wavy Gravy, being wavy. And all those sixties and seventies kids, dancing around in circles and looking ecstatic, likely with a little help from their friendly drugs. And then all those 21st century people---old ones, young ones, very young ones---dancing around in circles to various sweet versions of Hare Krishna music, looking ecstatic. But now they've earned it. It's clearly beautiful now, so maybe we can let ourselves recognize: maybe it really was beautiful then, too, after all.

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