Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Childhood's End: Revisting Coraline, Pleasantville and Watchmen

When I was a kid, I used to love those pop-up books where, when you turned each page, the characters (and their peculiar characteristics) would jump out at you. In Henry Selick’s animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s SF fantasy novel Coraline (2009), he elegantly employs 3-D to essentially invoke the same effect (as Martin Scorsese would later do with wondrous aplomb in his 2011 Hugo). Yet you don’t find yourself thinking about how Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas) achieves the kind of macabre splendour he does here, but rather, you become saturated by the tempest of a young girl’s runaway imagination. Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) has just moved into Palace Apartments with her socially-conscious parents, Mel (voice of Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (voice of John Hodgman), who are so busy working on their new gardening book they don’t notice that their precocious daughter could care less about foliage and dirt. Due to her parents’ neglect, she becomes curious about a tiny door in their living room wall. Although she initially fails to find out what’s inside, one night, a small mouse leads her behind the door where she encounters a replica of her family – except these parents are “perfect” and cater to her every whim and desire. What Coraline soon realizes, though, when she sees that her “other” parents have buttons for eyes, is that things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

While Coraline has a direct antecedent in Alice in Wonderland, with the little door substituting for a rabbit hole, the spirit of the story is less hallucinatory than in Lewis Carroll. Coraline is dreamy and with a nightshade spell that is less hallucinatory than Alice. Wonderfully barmy characters continually turn up as well, like the feral cat (voice of Keith David), the Russian tenant, Mr. Bobinsky (voice of Ian McShane) who has a dancing mice circus, Ms. Spink (voice of Jennifer Saunders) and Ms. Forcible (voice of Dawn French), the two former actresses who have grown senile (and curiously resemble the psychic sisters giving dire warning to Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). Coraline’s one playmate is the spunky irritant Wyborne (voice of Robert Bailey Jr.), who peddles around on an electric bike and wears a variety of masks.

The uncovering of masks is the underlying theme of Coraline where, out of lonely abandon, a young girl gains perception by learning to see behind appearances. (It’s no accident that it’s the eyes, what we watch movies with, that reveal the true illusion of the “perfect” family.) In life, we don’t get to choose our parents (anymore than they get to choose us) and Coraline is about how we come to terms with that reality. And to reach this particular epiphany, Henry Selick gives us a truly magic carpet ride.

Gary Ross's Pleasantville (1999).

If you discount the pulpit ranting of Network (1974), there have been very few movies that tap our daily allegiance to television. Although not entirely successful, Gary Ross's Pleasantville (1999) opens up the subject in a number of compelling ways. On a superficial level, Pleasantville performs a virtuously noble civic's lesson out of The Twilight Zone while contrasting the banality of Fifties suburban TV dramas like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver with contemporary realities. Brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jen (Reese Witherspoon) are the children of divorced parents in the suburbs. When Jen acts out her rebellion by playing the role of the coolest chick around, David longs for the conservative family values expressed on his favourite retrograde television program, Pleasantville. One night, with the help of a wizardly TV repairman (Don Knotts, from The Andy Griffith Show), they fall into their television set and into the Pleasantville show, becoming "Bud" and "Betty Sue," the son and daughter of George (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). Besides being totally in black and white, the world they've entered into seems like an idyllic American smalltown.

On first glance, it might be the borough of Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942), except Robert Cummings isn't around to discover Freud and Ronald Reagan isn't getting his legs amputated by a psychopathic doctor played by Charles Coburn. You could even confuse the town Pleasantville with the Lumberton of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), only there's no virginal innocent like Kyle MacLachlan hiding in sultry Isabella Rosselini's closet or Dennis Hopper shouting menacingly that he'll fuck anything that moves. Pleasantville isn't a satiric drama about the darker underside of the white picket fence American town. Folks who live in Pleasantville, where sex and violence are as absent as rain, think it's paradise. Rather than go for a dichotomy between the "fake" and the "real" America, as in Kings Row, Blue Velvet and other lesser films, Pleasantville tries another perspective. David feels right at home in the bosom of his new loving parents – the comfort of a family circle he's never known. At first, Jen is aghast at the blandness all around her and desperate to leave. However, when she introduces one of the boys from school to sex, Pleasantville slowly begins to change from black and white to colour. The town also transforms into a contentious place where art, music and politics evolve into a living history that changes the lives of everyone – including David and Jen – in unexpected ways. In other words, the propulsion of forces that became the cornerstone of the cultural revolution of the Sixties would both expose and transform the America that lay dormant in the shadow of its founding ideals.

The conformist America of the Fifties, explored and smartly satirized in black and white with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), is the antecedent for the insipid homogeneity that swept America while it was napping. But what happens in Pleasantville is the reverse. It's about a "pod" America that's brought back to colourful life. What's more, in Pleasantville, we see an America full of disguises, where masks also become mirrors and the quaint America created by Louis B. Meyer and Irving Thalberg in Hollywood is undermined by the vibrant, sometimes frightening one hidden away. Although this theme is spelled out a little too blatantly in Pleasantville, there are moments that still carry a reverberating tremble. Brief glimpses of a remembered authentic America burst through the movie's obvious metaphors. The attack by the black and white people on the newly created "coloureds" conjures up every Civil Rights march from Selma to Little Rock. Listening once again to Etta James singing "At Last," just as the teenagers start to discover the joys of sex, you can hear a sigh of satisfaction in her voice as if it took centuries to be expressed. Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," with its rare use of quintuple 5/4 time, jumps out of the mix with cool ebullience to underscore the herky-jerky adolescent jump of kids at the soda shop. When the opening notes of Miles Davis's sly and quietly alluring "So What" and Buddy Holly's sprightly "Rave On" are heard, they don't strike pangs of nostalgia in the way songs often do in period films. It's the opposite in Pleasantville – you hear them as if for the first time, and the music has you looking ahead rather than looking back. At its best, Pleasantville is about the desire to both account for and then transcend one's adolescence.

Zach Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen (2009).

It’s often assumed that if a movie adaptation is literally faithful to the source book the film will be successful. Zack Snyder’s largely true rendering of  the plot of Alan Moore’s sprawling graphic novel Watchmen unfortunately illustrates the opposite. While Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, Man of Steel) accurately gets many of the story points, an Eighties murder mystery set among a group of former superheroes, the tone and spirit couldn’t be more different. Moore drew on the mechanics of film noir to get inside the divided souls of his heroes; while Snyder turns to the simple, cerebral world of the action genre, which concerns itself more with the body count. Put simply, Moore’s novel is a study of morals where Snyder’s film is a moralistic study.

Watchmen is set in an alternate reality that comes close to mirroring the America of the Eighties. New York police are investigating the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), formerly known as “the Comedian,” a superhero whose comic smile hid a dark, violent spirit. When the police end up down blind alleys, a costumed vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), whose image-shifting disguise lives up to his name, picks up the search. While Rorschach tracks down the others in the group that made up the Watchmen, he uncovers a plot by the government to wipe out costumed superheroes. As he further unravels the mystery of Blake’s murder, the Watchmen come to discover something more grave than the death of one of their own.

Alan Moore’s book clearly took the themes of the great adventure superhero comics like Batman, Superman and the Marvel collection of adventurers and examined the hidden motives behind masked vigilantes who call themselves heroes. In doing so, he explored how recent American history, from the assassinations of the Sixties to the fake optimism of the Reagan Eighties, rendered the superhero as potentially superfluous, an anachronism with no souls to save. (In the book and film, Richard Nixon gets a third term as President and the potential of a nuclear holocaust is still a foreshadowing.) The diversity of characters from Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a scientist who is mutated by a failed experiment like The Amazing Colossal Man of the Fifties, to the second Silk Spectre, his lover Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Ackerman), become by-products of dashed ideals and false hopes.

But the film fails to distil the dispirited tone of Moore’s prose. For example, in one scene where Rorschach dispatches of a depraved killer, the book has Rorschach chain him to an oven, hand him a hacksaw, then set the building on fire, daring the killer to hack his arm off to get free. As he waits outside, the building is consumed by flames and no one emerges. He replies to himself, wistfully contemplating his actions, “Nobody got out.” But in the film, Snyder drops the line and instead has Rorschach go on a bloody rampage, gleefully justified in committing murder. All through the picture, Snyder tries to follow the story, but he keeps losing the thread. Watchmen ends up trafficking in a primitive catharsis with all the moral complexity of a Dirty Harry movie. From the opening moments of the picture, Snyder lays on the literal symbols with a trowel: the key music of the time ("The Times They Are A-Changin'"? From when to what?), a badly caricatured Nixon, plus some deadly heavy-handed hard-boiled dialogue that would make Mickey Spillane blush. The picture also clocks in at a hefty two hours and 43 minutes. (The director’s cut is even longer.) 

The divided spirit of Watchmen, which cancels out the film's possibility of being relevant as a cultural touchstone, pales next to something like the animated The Incredibles which, with a playful cleverness, already took us inside the fractured spirit of the superhero and our ambivalent relationship to them. And those films did it without trashing the intimate bond that we have to those tormented characters. (Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy also sunk under the solemn weight of its own gloomy, incoherent pretensions.) Watchmen essentially breaks faith with the audience. Instead of engaging our childlike fascination with superheroes and bringing us to childhood's end, Watchmen's infantile machismo plays to our most basic desire for bloodlust.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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