As an English Major in another life, I’m not uninterested in poetry, or Keats in particular. Movies about poetry are another matter. It’s difficult to imagine a less natural source material for the eminently visual medium of cinema than poetry. You can mute the sound, drain the color, or take off the 3D spectacles, but the one thing you can’t subtract from movies is the moving picture.
Other filmmakers have tried to visualize essentially invisible things before: scents (Perfume), academic research (The Da Vinci Code), and math (A Beautiful Mind, Pi). The handful of movies about writing (Capote, Factotum, Henry & June, Wonder Boys) are nearly outnumbered by movies about not writing (Shakespeare in Love, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Shining).
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”
When it comes to poetry, the most internal and abstract form of writing, it’s slightly disappointing that the most writer/director Jane Campion makes of it is to have her characters read verse aloud. However luscious the cinematography, it doesn’t help that the historical Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) weren’t all that interesting as dramatic characters. The former is a lovestruck obsessive and the latter a sickly artiste not meant for this mundane world. It’s the standard biopic cliché: the insufferable wunderkind and the suffering woman that loves him anyway. At least, in this case, Keats wasn’t an addict (q.v.: Factotum, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, Walk Hard, etc.).
Fanny reads Keats’ sonnet about her “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” at the close of the film. She lived to witness his posthumous recognition, and never stopped mourning him.
This blogger finds most so-called biopics wanting. The two to three hour feature film format is more akin to an essay or short story than a book, and as such is ill-equipped to sum up the entire life of a human being in more than just a string of highlights. Yet studios and filmmakers keep churning out parades of Classics Illustrated-like films that seem to exist mostly to grant actors Oscars and Golden Globes based on their abilities to imitate historical figures. The best of them ought more deservedly to be recognized for their abilities to create new characters from whole cloth.
But I reserve a special degree of hate for musical biopics; I’m looking at you, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, and El Cantante! They all seem to be forged from the same template: troubled genius beset by addiction, and the woman that loves him anyway. Comfortingly, the existence of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story proves I’m not alone in bemoaning this most pathetic genre. Walk Hard touches on each cliché in turn: physical infirmity (Cox is tragically “nose blind”), drugs, disapproving parent, dead sibling, etc.
At its best, director and co-writer (with Judd Apatow) Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard is a history of popular music and narcotics from the 1950s on. The chameleonic Cox evolves with the times, beginning as a diamond-in-the-rough Ray Charles type, breaking through like a young Johnny Cash, becoming a pop superstar Elvis Presley, passing through a Bob Dylan folkie stage, and ending up as a Brian Wilson, an obsessive pop genius unable to complete his unachievable masterpiece (like Wilson’s own notorious Smile). The best running gag in the movie involves Cox’s succession of drug addictions (pot, cocaine, heroin, pills, and, well, everything…), which no doubt gave the MPAA a heart attack.
Lest I sound like I’m praising the film for being clever, here’s the bad news. The self-proclaimed “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut” DVD edition repeats the same jokes over and over. Its idea of hilarity is to repeat the name “Cox” as much as possible, which should give some hint as to the overall level of sophistication. Each character explicitly verbalizes and explicates the genre clichés and their own character types: the unsupportive starter wife, the doomed sibling, the venal music studio boss, and the disapproving father (whose refrain “The wrong kid died!” follows Cox through his life as both curse and motivation). Historical celebrity cameos are repeatedly signposted with their full names, lest anyone in the audience not catch on that the batch of four candy-colored lads from Liverpool noodling on sitars in an Indian ashram are, in fact, The Beatles. It is great fun, however, to see Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, and Jack White do their best Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, respectively.
One little quibble: as the characters age, the makeup jobs are actually too good, far better than, say the outrageously silly age makeup for Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. This unfortunately ruins the genuinely funny gag that John C. Reilly plays Cox as a teenager with no attempt to hide his age. Why not carry it through to the end, with Reilly looking exactly the same when Cox is supposed to be 70?
Does anybody remember when Reilly was a serious actor? I’m happy for him that he’s no doubt building a significant nest egg off his recent string of lowbrow comedies (Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, etc.), but I hope we will see more of the fine actor of Sydney (aka Hard Eight), Boogie Nights, and The Hours.
I always find it interesting to ponder my preconceived notions of a movie after I’ve actually seen it. The marketing and buzz on I’m Not There mostly centered on two talking points: the quirky device of multiple actors all playing incarnations of Bob Dylan, and Cate Blanchett being just plain amazing as usual (what else is new?). The first point is what gave me pause: how much sense would this film make to someone who is not a Dylan fan and scholar?
All I really know about Dylan comes from the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and even that paints a sketchy picture of the man. Dylan has been an enigma throughout his long history in the public eye, often speaking in riddles, and (at least in his early years) inventing a fictional backstory. The press and even his own paying audiences were often openly antagonistic, so it’s no wonder he was so famously combative and evasive. Prefiguring the modern-day chameleons David Bowie and Madonna, Dylan presented a series of personas: American roots folkie, political agitator, rock ‘n’ roller, born-again Christian, Hollywood actor, and so on. The question being: how much of this evolution was sincere growth and change, and how much was performance art? Who is “Bob Dylan”?
Director and co-screenwriter Todd Haynes, having already deconstructed David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, tackles the many aspects of Dylan perhaps the only way possible: fracture his key facets into multiple characters. As with the Bowie analogue Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, none of the Dylan figures are actually named Dylan, but then again neither is Dylan himself, whose actual surname is Zimmerman. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, interpreting Dylan’s Christian period, and Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a pretty literal interpretation of Dylan’s years in the wilderness after his fame peaked for the first time. Adding an extra layer of postmodern complexity, the late Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, a film actor famous for playing one of the fictional Dylans in a biopic. And of course, Cate Blanchett is amazing. As Jude Quinn, a reluctant celebrity fending off the attacks of the press, she triumphs by avoiding mere impression. Sure, she’s wearing a fright wig and shades, but her expressions and body language capture Dylan’s paradoxically wordy elusiveness.
The result is part faux documentary, part fiction, but provides a truer overall picture of Dylan’s complicated character than a mere biopic ever could. Perhaps at some point after his death (may that be a long time from now), we will see a conventional musical biopic made of his life story (a la Bird, Ray, or Walk the Line), but I certainly hope critics and audiences will remember I’m Not There.
The DVD edition is the only I can think of that incorporates long on-screen text introductions (more than one, in fact). Does this reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers or distributors in the home viewers being able to comprehend the film, or is it more in the vein of the scholarly introductions that preface Penguin Classics volumes? Either way, it only reinforces the impression that you have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate the film (which, incidentally, turned out to not be the case).
And finally, I detected a few references to director Richard Lester: Robbie Clark (Ledger) walks through the set of the 1968 film Petulia, during an early scene in which women in neck braces leave a freight elevator before a party to promote highway safety (attended by the likes of George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and the Grateful Dead, so it’s not at all unlikely Dylan could have been there too). But even better is the best Beatles tribute I’ve ever seen: the Fab Four breeze through as the epitome of carefree fun, literally speaking and moving in fast-motion. They tempt Jude Quinn’s (Blanchett) desire to escape, until they are chased away by A Hard Day’s Night’s screaming sycophants.
Julian Schnabel is an artist-turned-filmmaker, evidently preoccupied with the lives of other artists and writers: Jean-Michel Basquiat in Basquiat, Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, and now Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Several years ago, this blogger designed Fine Line Features’ official website for Before Night Falls. But frankly, I had trouble working up the enthusiasm to watch a biopic (absolutely not one of my favorite genres) about a tetraplegic. But please do not be dissuaded by the admittedly depressing subject matter. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is utterly beautiful in every way, and moved this hardened Dork Reporter to tears in the end.
Mathieu Amalric (who resembles a more symmetrical Thom Yorke) plays the real-life Bauby, a fashion magazine editor who suffers a stroke. He survives with “locked-in syndrome,” the proverbial fate worse than death: near-total physical paralysis but with full mental faculties intact. In the true spirit of a French film, Bauby is surrounded by beautiful women. No less a French hottie than Emanuelle Seigner plays Céline, the estranged mother of his children. In a moment of bittersweet humor, the despondent post-stroke Bauby is partially consoled when he first meets his two utterly gorgeous physical and speech therapists (Marie-Josée Croze and Anne Consigny).
According to the DVD bonus features, screenwriter Ronald Harwood conceived of the powerful visual device of using the camera as Bauby’s point of view, simulating his sole means of communication: blinking. He is, blessedly, able to move one eye, and painstakingly dictates his autobiography letter by letter.
The soundtrack is excellent, including Tom Waits, Joe Strummer (a really great song, new to me, called “Ramshackle Day Parade”), and the best possible use of U2’s “Ultraviolet.”
I’ll have to gang up with the general critical consensus around Elizabeth: The Golden Age, best summed up as: Cate Blanchett is astounding, as usual (yawn – the Academy Award nomination was virtually assured before the cameras rolled), but the movie is a disappointing sequel to a powerful original.
Oh, and did I mention that Cate is great? Oh yeah, you don’t need me to say that.
The cinematography is lovely but the editing a little choppy for a timeline that spans so much time. The staging is somewhat less than epic; even large CG set pieces like the Pirates of the Caribbean-style sea battle between the English and Spanish armadas seem under-staffed by background actors. A typical line of dialog, quoting from memory, is the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) killing two cliches with one stone with a humdinger like “We’re only human; we do what we can.”
Erm, that’s about it. I’ll try to think of something smarter to say about the next one.