Charlie Don't Surf

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Brothers Quay

To Mark Dansereau, 4/25/06

I just got back from a Filmfest DC movie with friends Tom + Christie. I badgered them into seeing a Quay Brothers film -- the Quays are proteges of the fabulous Czech animator Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Alice, Little Otek). Like Svankmajer they do these very paintaking stop-action films, as well as the occasional music video, and while their shorts achieve a much more eerie, wordless, transcendent effect with their spinning objects and doll-heads than Svanmakjer aspires to, they have little of his visual humor. The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, their first feature-length film in several years, is mostly live action and (unfortunately) only has bits of their characteristic animation, where bits of string fly through the air and wrap themselves around twirling wooden figures. The film was highly atmospheric, fever-dreamy and excquisitely designed: instead of a location, I think they built a soundstage for scenes set in a birch forest by the seaside. The story has some gothic-horror elements: a creepy "doctor" (.... as in Dr. Caligari?) covets a beautiful opera singer and abducts her after she suddenly collapses dead at her wedding, then brings her back to life in his remote island sanctuary, where he's built several Rube Goldberg-y mechanical display-boxes he calls "automatons," employs a group of dancing gardeners, and keeps a sinister, smiling woman-in-black around for company. A piano tuner is summoned to adjust the automaton boxes, and he serves as our point of view; he falls in love with the zombified soprano, who wears a back veil, stares out at the waves (which we rarely see, only hear) and pines for her lost groom. Ultimately we see that the obsessed Dr. Dros has a grand plan for achieving some sort of immortality by staging a concert where zombie-lady will sing "my music."

In the end, a long tentacle bursts out of his forehead and sprays a mist of mold spores everywhere.

The film is partly based on Jules Verne's 1892 gothic novella The Carpathian Castle. After the first 10 minutes it's exceedingly cryptic and glacially paced, filled with odd sleepwalky line readings rendered in deeply accented English by actors of several nationalities. Almost more allegorical than real, like Guy Maddin's stagey films are sometimes, and while it conjured an other-worldly atmosphere, I often got frustrated with the relentlessly surreal dialogue and general obscurity of the events. While watching it I was remembering the Quays' last live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta from 1996 I think, and how I'd been similarly disappointed then by their odd scripting, their apparent lack of touch for actors' performances and their insistence on sacrificing comprehensibility to mood and design (sets, models, shadowy lighting and focus, sound effects, and a color-drained palette that betrays how they seem to prefer working in black-and-white). I think all in all they're better in the short pieces than long-form.

"Piano Tuner" capsule at Filmfest site:

Quay Brothers' site:

Thursday, April 13, 2006

On "V for Vendetta" and Alan Moore

To Mark Dansereau, April 12, 2006

I kind of didn't know what to make of "V." I very much wanted to like it and was rooting hard for it. I remember Alan Moore & David Lloyd's 1990 (?) comic series as being exceedingly bleak and dark in both narrative tone and illustration, but I don't remember it well enough to judge if they screwed it up or not. Lloyd has said the Wachowskis' script adaptations were pretty faithful, though they changed the Evie character from a tiny teen waif into a 20-something woman for Natalie Portman. I don't remember a lot of knife-throwing in the books. Alan Moore completely disassociated himself from the film, and asked that his name be removed from the credits and his share of the $$ given to Lloyd -- though I think all in all this is a much better adaptation of his work than either "From Hell" or the execrable "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which captured none of the dark and funny perversity of Moore's books. (In the LXG comics, the Invisible Man is a psychotic who is discovered molesting girls at a private school. Eventually, after he betrays their group to the invading Martian tripods in Book 2, Mr. Hyde traps the Invisible Man at their hideout, reveals that he has always been able to see him, and, laughing, merrily proceeds to rape and then dismember him.) So, I was disappointed that Moore had taken such a hard line on the movie given that in the Wachowskis, he had two guys who appreciated his immense stature as a comics writer and were willing to work with him -- but Moore is an eccentric who has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with Hollywood any more, forever.

I think they handled the deepening mystery of who V is pretty well, but the Wachowskis have a tin ear for overly speechy dialogue (one of the things that brought down the two Matrix sequels). But they're so powerful that nobody in the production process can tell them that -- so their crappy writing ends up on the screen. Poor Hugo Weaving had to find a way to deliver that droning stuff on and on, and it may have worked in the comic but not really in the movie. It's a rare situation in which I find myself rooting against auteur-type freedom for directors (or producers in this case) because normally the accursed pablum-churning studio system would have at least provided a check upon lousy writing -- but they have no power against the Wachowskis, who can write their own ticket and preserve final cut for themselves. Still and all, I'm glad they're around -- they are huge comics enthusiasts and they publish two rather funny/violent titles called Shaolin Cowboy and Doc Frankenstein. W

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Victory in College Park

Last night when the Maryland women's basketball team won the national championship with a fantastic comeback, after Kristi Tolliver swished a huge, stone-cold-deadly 3-pointer to send the game into overtime, I leaned out of the window at 11:30 pm and yelled "Go TERPS!!" but heard nothing out there. So on a lark I got in my car and drove to College Park to see if they were destroying the campus. When I got close, there were all these cops out, and they had barricaded off Route 1 with flares and were diverting traffic into the campus. I ended up parking in some dormitory lot and hoofing it from there. I had a vague memory that the 'Vous and the Cornerstone were good campus bars. As I walked across the long greens it was quiet, but there were maybe 100 students who had gathered out by the big UM sign in front of the main green on Rte. 1, just hanging out and high-fiving pretty quietly. There was a helicopter flying low, circling around and around and around with a searchlight. I guess some kids had started burning a pile of garbage or something in the middle of the intersection of Knox and Route 1, near the bars, but it was extinguished by the time I got there. I counted 10 riot police in black SWAT outfits with helmets, shields and clubs, all lined up on one of the campus walkways, with what seemed like very little to do. If they were expecting the student body to erupt in violence and merriment, they were wrong; the kids were mostly just gawking at the riot cops, at least they were by the time I got there. The Cornerstone was pretty crowded and loud at midnight, with lots of kids in Terrapin red, but it seemed like it could have been any college bar -- though when the ESPN screens showed replays from the game, they all started whooping a bit. I'm not sure what I was hoping for -- I thought maybe someone would show up in a giant red turtle costume and we would all bow in a circle before him, and sing the Maryland fight song, which I don't know, or set fire to a building, or maybe I would drink a lot and climb up a roof or a flagpole with 127 frat guys and end up in the hospital. None of that happened; I just got a beer and had a smoke outside with a throng of kids who were so deeply intoxicated they appeared to have trouble remaining conscious.

I text-messaged Frank to see if he might want to drive through the barricades too, but he called back to say he was in Houston covering the Enron trial for the Post. At least I think that's what he said, through the pandemonium in the bar. I really thought Maryland's women's team had done something special -- they weren't favored to beat most of the teams they beat in the tournament, certainly not Carolina or Duke -- and outside among the throng I shook a lot of hands and offered congratulations. Many young women were outside shivering in little black tops with spaghetti straps -- it was like there had been a dress-code memo. I wanted to lend them my sweater, but I didn't, I just talked with whichever drunk guys were still awake. After a little while, I asked myself, "Why are you here, old dude?" and had no good answer, so I walked back to my car, looking for the trail of bread crumbs I had left. All the kids gathered at the campus front had dispersed, the riot cops had gone home, the helicopter had pissed off and the barricades were gone. Now if the University of Detroit had won the title, that would have been excellent mayhem.