Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Mystical Chapter 7

illus. by W. Graham Robertson (1908)
      As the 19th century rapidly became more industrialized, a renewed cultural interest in the nature-god Pan became more evident in western art and literature. By the time the 20th century rolled around it seemed as if the goat-like creature of legend was here to stay. Pan found his way into the works of Saki, Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs and many other notable authors. Perhaps his strangest and most celebrated appearance came in the seventh chapter of Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The Wind in the Willows first published in 1908. A story about the gentle friendship and adventures of several animals (most notably the irrepressible Mr. Toad), Grahame's novel takes several episodic detours into uncharted and fantastical waters.

If you open any unabridged copy, smack dab in the middle, you'll find the short chapter entitled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In this sometimes excised section, the protagonists Mole and Ratty go searching for Portly, the young son of their friend Otter. Led upstream in their rowboat by the sound of magical piping, they soon discover Portly safe and asleep in the dense woods of an island beneath a mystical visage that is almost too spellbinding for their souls to bear. They have come face to face with the unknown, the great forest god himself.

illus. by Paul Bransom (1913)
Although he isn't called by name in the book, Pan uses his powers to wipe their memories clean of his overpowering and awe-inspiring presence. Perhaps he does this so that they can get on with things as usual, to return to the simplicity and beauty of their predetermined lives and not have to live forever haunted by his image the rest of their days. Grahame was quite clear, and insistent about the importance of this chapter, that the animals were never afraid of Pan. Like anyone who has ever seen a ghost, or experienced their own encounter with the supernatural, life can sometimes take on new meanings or directions.

As human creatures, we are often challenged by what we don't know or can't understand. It is this simple philosophy that the gods are indeed among us, always pulling us in the right directions that makes this world an infinitely more beguiling place. Pan's place in the book reminds us of our own forsaken connection to the divinity of nature and the instinctual world in exchange for a false dependency on logic and rationality (or as Joseph Campbell once said: "You see this thing up here [points at head], this consciousness thinks it's running the shop. It's a secondary organ. It's a secondary organ of a total human being and it must not put itself in control.") Grahame's enchanting chapter has also inspired many musicians as well, from Pink Floyd to Van Morrison. The god himself was reinvented for a new audience in the 21st century, by fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Del Toro was even working with Disney on a new film adaptation of The Wind in the Willows but walked out over creative differences (they wanted Mr. Toad to have a skateboard and say "radical dude" things; del Toro famously replied "It's been a pleasure").

director Guillermo del Toro's vision of Pan from sketchbook to screen
Whatever you make of it, however he influences you, the piper lives on.

illus. by Justin Todd (1988)

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Hijacking a Classic

A side-by-side image comparison of the opening Krypton sequences from Richard Donner's Superman (1978) and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel (2013). What struck me the most, despite the obvious deviations (flying creatures, skull-shaped genetic codex flash-drives and rocket-powered dildos) and the reorder of certain details, Man of Steel presents us with a thoroughly hijacked series of images. Zack Snyder had this to say about his film:

"...we’re making a movie that finally goes with the approach that there’s been no other Superman movies. If you look at ‘Batman Begins’, there’s that structure, there’s the canon that we know about and respect but on the other hand there’s this approach that pre-supposes that there haven’t been any other movies.  In every aspect of design and of story, the whole thing is very much from that perspective of respect the canon but don’t be a slave to the [previous] movies."

In hindsight, the name of Christopher Nolan's production company (a fusion of the words "synthetic" and "copy") which adorns the screen before Man of Steel begins took on a whole new meaning for me.

Images from Superman (1978) on the left and Man of Steel (2013) on the right

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Ten

William Hurt performances.

10. A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
The brainchild of original short story writer Brian Aldiss and director Stanley Kubrick who handed the project over to Steven Spielberg, A. I. was one of those interesting hot messes that only a die hard fan of the principals involved could truly love. Hurt played a small but pivotal role as creator/god in the piece. He made us hang on every mad word.

9. Dark City (1998)
Egyptian-born Aussie filmmaker Alex Proyas' neo-noir extraterrestrial fairytale. William Hurt in a fedora proving once and for all that he was born to play a character straight out of a Damon Runyon, Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler novel. If only the film were more about Hurt's detective and less about those leather-clad Rocky Horror Picture Show cosplayers.

8. I Love You to Death (1990)
Harlan, or was it Marlon James? Either way, Hurt played the ultimate aging stoner dude long before Jeff Bridges donned the scruffy beard and wavy locks. The fact that Hurt manged to be arguably the funniest thing about an already extremely funny film is nothing short of astounding.

7. Altered States (1980)
Director Ken Russell instructed Hurt and his fellow costars to speed up the delivery of their tedious techno-jargon dialog, angering original writer Paddy Chayefsky so much that he had his name removed from the credits. It was a wise decision on Russell's part considering the amount of material they needed to plow through without sacrificing the intelligence of the script. Hurt plays a man of such high intelligence that it's a wonder he is able to put his shoes on correctly every morning. His slow descent into madness is so palpable you can almost taste it.

6. tie: 
A History of Violence (2005)
I didn't care much for this movie back when it was released theatrically. At the time I thought that David Cronenberg had finally gotten stale. Little did I realize I only had to wait several more years for 2011's A Dangerous Method for a true loaf of stale Cronenbread. It also didn't make sense that Hurt was nominated for an Academy Award for his near walk-on performance as an eccentric mob boss out to settle old accounts. Now it's easy to see and hindsight is always 20/20. Hurt was the heart and soul of the whole film.

The Accidental Tourist (1988)
Geena Davis may have stolen the spotlight (and won an Oscar) for playing the kooky love interest, but it was Hurt's quiet and introspective performance as a grieving father that anchored the film. Sometimes the less showy role is the hardest thing to pull off. Hurt has made a long career out of taking on these types of parts, more often than not hitting them straight out of the park.

5. Body Heat (1981)
It's difficult to convey the genius of Lawrence Kasden's directorial debut by plot alone. It's the same as nearly every neo-noir (much like two of the classic film noirs that inspired it: Double Indemnity and Out of the Past) with little deviation. The thing that separates this one from the rest of the genre is the sleazy protagonist played by Hurt. How he makes us genuinely sympathize for him is the biggest mystery the film has to offer.


4. Broadcast News (1987)
James L. Brooks specializes in making schmaltzy bittersweet romantic-dramedies (Terms of Endearment; As Good as It Gets) and this film should not be excluded. While Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks maniacally vie for center stage, it's Hurt who quietly walks away with the picture. He plays a man who knows his limitations all too well, and very easily could blend in with the wallpaper if it weren't for the gifted and charismatic leading man playing him. Incidentally, that red tile in this pic should look familiar to anyone who's ever had a layover at BWI Airport before.

3. Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin has been quite vocal (no pun intended) over the years about her tempestuous and abusive two-year relationship with Hurt during and after the making of this film. It's hard to believe the same man who played such a gentle and understanding role could be doing drugs and beating his deaf live-in girlfriend at the same time. I guess that's the mark of a brilliant actor, folks. Separate the art from the artist as I'm always fond of saying. Hurt's language teacher at an all deaf school is one of the best performances of the 1980s, or any other decade. The fact that he is the only actor in the film speaking and signing practically every line of dialog (including interpreting those of his deaf costars) is a stunning achievement. Oh, and Hurt apparently tried to patch things up with Matlin; depending on whose account you believe.

2. The Big Chill (1983)
Of the four films Hurt made with writer/director Lawrence Kasden during the 1980s (the last one coming out in 1990), none have made such a lasting imprint as this one. It's easy to dismiss the film as a Baby Boomer nostalgia trip (when is Generation X gonna get their film: a group of 40-year old's born in the 1970s sit around reminiscing and singing along to Beastie Boys songs on somebody's iPod?) but that isn't really fair. The film has no cultural agenda. It's a story about how people come together, grow apart and how old wounds sometimes take a lifetime to heal. The fact that it's so endlessly entertaining is a testament to not only the great Motown-laced soundtrack, but the amazing ensemble of actors (especially Hurt) as well.

1. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
I once read that Hurt and his brilliant costar Raúl Juliá were originally cast in opposite parts. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing Hurt's character Molina. Essentially it's a two man show so one performance cannot truly exist without the other. The tenderness and vulnerability that Hurt exudes led directly to him winning his first (and so far only) Academy Award for Best Actor. I never once questioned that Hurt wasn't actually Brazilian, as his character's name almost certainly implies. It's just one of those things you have to see before you die. Absolutely essential.

honorable mentions:

Smoke (1995)
Wayne Wang proved he was the one-two-punch indie king of the mid '90s with Smoke and his slightly more whimsical followup Blue in the Face (1995). Hurt played a lonely denizen of a Brooklyn cigar shop who goes about his days masking some seriously deep emotional wounds. Writer Paul Auster has a knack for weaving these simple tales of ordinary people who are beset by fate or coincidence, depending on how you look at it. It's a film of small moments, populated by a cast of titanic talent.

Second Best (1993)
Hurt plays a Welshman with a Welsh accent. If at first this seems odd, my best advice is to quickly get over it. It's a brilliant piece of film-making from a director who fully deserves the label: underrated. Chris Menges is more well known as a cinematographer (Kes; Local Hero; The Mission), but the handful of films he's directed starting with 1988's A World Apart up to 1999's The Lost Son are true revelations. In between he made this little seen and virtually unknown gem about fathers and sons. If you ever get the pleasure of seeing it one day, consider yourself truly fortunate.

Changing Lanes (2002)
Director Roger Michell is more well known for the box office smash Notting Hill (1999), but his next film was a far more interesting take on the complexities of human relationships. At its heart, it's a thriller of the Falling Down (1993) day from hell variety. It's also an unexpectedly smart and insightful morality play, that may end up a little too tidy for its own good. Hurt lends brief but able support as a no-nonsense sponsor to Samuel L. Jackson's recovering addict with a far more serious dilemma. It's that rare type of Hollywood message movie that deserves a far bigger audience.

The Doctor (1991)
Hurt was reunited once again with director/producer Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God). No one but Hurt could convey all the anger, frustration, desperation, disbelief, hopelessness and ultimate endurance of anyone facing a life-threatening illness. His transformation from arrogant to humble is peerless. Co-star Elizabeth Perkins (playing a woman living with an inoperable brain tumor) was also quite memorable. It seems like the Academy went to sleep on this one. It was their loss.