Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End & The Recent History of the Sequel

Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the third installment in the director's 'tent-pole' franchise, opened on approximately 11,500 screens in more than 4,300 theatres en route to box office receipts totaling $139 million domestically and $251 million in 102 foreign territories. Both numbers place Verbinski's latest second to Sam Raimi's third installment in his tent-pole Spider Man franchise - released less than a month ago. Add to these the third Shrek film, released between the two, and we have witnessed a fifty percent increase in the number of $100 million openings in the previous month.

We are in other words in the midst of a discernible historical moment in which sequels - and particularly those comprising so-called tent-pole franchises - are dominating the business, but in a rather unique fashion: by opening to unparalleled numbers before dropping off precipitously thereafter; these films are making a good portion of their budgets back right away. The model may be relatively new, even if the sequel is far from it.

At the same time, all eras are not so inclined toward the sequel. For example, of the 16 films made between 1992 and 1998 that rank among the all-time top 100 box office champions, only one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) is a sequel. This was the period of the prestige blockbuster, i.e. Titanic (1997), Forrest Gump (1994) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), making it a throwback of sorts to the biggest grossers of the early 1970s, that is to The Godfather (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Exorcist (1973), all of which contended for Academy awards before generating sequels - with only The Godfather, Part II (1974) equalling the original in prestige and ambition (and none besting the original at the box office). That is, Coppola's second is the only of these that does not appear to be exploiting the success of the original, but building on it.

By contrast, six of the ten highest grossing films thus far this decade have been sequels, with two more the first installments in future franchises: Spider Man (2002) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001). Few of these have been mistaken for pictures of quality, for better or for worse. For a comparable period, one might look back to the 1980s with the second and third Star Wars pictures, the Indiana Jones franchise, and the sequels to such highly successful pictures as Ghostbusters (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) led at the box office. Few of these films can claim a high level of ambition, though most of their sources are similarly outside the picture-of-quality prototype.

So that leaves Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End squarely within the latest instantiation of a sequel-driven box office, made to open in 4,000 theatres and quickly drift the viewers' thoughts with the next spectacle opening on an even greater number of screens. Verbinski's sensibility seems to correspond nicely to this system, delivering films that are essentially a series of spectacles or attractions, often lacking a clear sense of how the episodes follow one another. It just one set-piece, one boffo special effect after the next. Hence, not only are we in a moment when opening weekend numbers seem to portend events even more than in times past, but we have a filmmaking style to match: heavy on the events, light on artistic ambition. That is, we have filmmaking for the sake of producing spectacle, not for telling a story, or more importantly in my mind, saying something about the world in which we live. It is not art for art's sake, but art for spectacle's sake - and there is a difference (see the electric color palette of Michael Mann's Miami Vice for a recent example of the former).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the return to the prestige picture either: honestly give me the latest Pirates of the Caribbean over Forrest Gump any day. History tells us rather that the pendulum will swing back, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to see quality, don't think you're going to find it in the blockbuster, and don't bemoan a time when The Godfather or even Titanic was its year's highest grossing film. Most years that distinction belongs to Ben-Hur's or the Independence Day's of the world. If you want to see the best films in the world, attend a film festival, or better yet, buy an all-region DVD player and a $5 region 6 copy of Jia Zhangke's 2006 Still Life on-line. Just don't expect to find it in Pirates of the Caribbean or even Forrest Gump.

So back again to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which I found overly-long, often times boring though not without its sporadic pleasures: not the least of which is the alternative swashbuckling seven-seas that Verbinski and company have created - Verbinski and co.'s Singapore, their glacier-filled polar locales and a beautiful, nocturnal starry sky. Also, I enjoyed the filmmakers' Once Upon a Time in the West [1968] reference - the musical riff - during the show down where Jack is traded to the other side. And, is the presence of 'the green ray' from Jules Verne or Eric Rohmer? Either way, its a nice touch, though the difference between Verbinski's and Rohmer's green rays speak volumes.

Then again, was it really necessary to inject supernaturalism into the story in the first place (this goes back to the first film and especially Dead Man's Chest)? I suppose so given its spectacular purpose, even if pirates being pirates is interesting enough in this spectator's view. For what its worth, I still prefer the Disney World ride to any of the three films.

And I have one more departing suggestion for Disney: why not a prequel? After all, this is Verbinski's Return of the Jedi, isn't it? We have our Princess Lea (Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann does find herself temporarily in the role of sex slave before being coronated - as a king as it happens); our Ewok village (Shipwreck Cove); et al. Wouldn't it be nice to see Jack Sparrow doing his worse for a change, earning his reputation for more than some petty double-crossings here and there? Though I'm joking, it does seem to be the next logical step, especially if Johnny Depp (wisely in my opinion) walks away; besides which, a similar experiment did initiate it would seem the current sequel-obsessed epoch: when George Lucas inflicted Star Wars Episode 1 upon the world. And to think Return of the Jedi was my favorite movie when I was five.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Film: Still Life & The Boss of It All

Jia Zhangke's Still Life opens with a pair of extended duration, lateral camera movements that showcase the passengers of a river ferry en route to the Three Gorges's city of Fengjie. The last of the riders is Han Sanming (the name of both the actor and the male protagonist), who has arrived in search of his ex-wife and estranged daughter, neither of whom he has seen in sixteen years. After being extorted first by a group of small-time con artist, and then a young man who offers to take him to his wife's former address - which like much of Fengjie is now underwater - Han has a tense run-in with his ex's family. After discovering that she is working elsewhere, Han spends much of the remaining film, shuttling across the region, helping to the level structures chosen for demolition for 40 0r 50 yuan a day with his fellow laborers.

In fact, as Jia emphasizes, the water level was set to rise on the first of May, 2006, displacing an even greater number of Fengjie residents. Throughout the film, we see reminders of this fact in both the markings painted onto the sides of condemned buildings (noting how high future water levels) and also in the collapsing structure themselves, which the aforementioned laborers continuously level with their sledgehammers. Parenthetically, it remains worth noting that Jia made a second film on the same site last year, the non-fictional Dong, that details the same process of destruction.

After transitioning to the film's second part, utlizing a digitally-enhanced, unidentified flying object to bridge the split, Jia turns to Hong Shen's (Tao Zhao) search for her missing husband who disappeared two years earlier. Unlike Han, she and her husband seem to be more affluent, thereby figuring China's nouveau upper class, buffered by the nation's 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics.' Indeed, Hong attends a gathering on a balcony overlooking the region, where upon the flat-owners request, a bridge is illuminated, providing one of the year's most indelible visuals. As one of the party-goers puts it, "Chairman Mao dreamt it," but this gentleman "made it happen."

Indeed, Still Life highlights the substitution that has recently occurred in the country: China's latter-day, fugitive brand of capitalism has replaced the earlier cult of personality. Whereas the former transformed the once-idyllic landscape, submerging the ancient valley communities and displacing more than one million of its residents - perhaps more than any of the director's previous work Still Life highlights the human cost of communism - the scavengers of the new order prey on persons like Han, doing anything and everything to get ahead. Jia is dubious toward both, lamenting each's role in facilitating the cultural amnesia of the present. In one of the film's many concrete symbols, Han holds a bank note with Three Gorges in front of the landscape. Commerce has replaced art in the new China.

In fact, the history of Chinense visual aesthetics is cardinal to Still Life: that is, Jia repeatedly echoes Chinese landscape painting in his multi-plane compositions of Fengjie and its environs - especially in the film's opening shot that simulates the lateral expanses of scroll painting. In Jia's deep space compositions, registered in DV with that medium's seemingly infinite depth-of-field (the director's chosen format since his 2002 Unknown Pleasures), the filmmaker emphasizes the transformation 20th century landscape under Maoist communism - finding form in the high-rise tenements that surround the water; the demolition of these structures by the low-paid unskilled laborers, to make way for the flood waters; and the river itself, concealing centuries of Chinese history.

As with his previous masterpieces Platform (2000) and The World (2004), Still Life ultimately figures cultural erasure - the disappearance of a uniquely Chinese civilization - finding expression in the film's focal bodies of water; its collapsing Communist-era housing complexes; a series of once popular products from China's past, each of which Jia details via on camera titles; standards passionately sung by a child and replicated in ring tones; and finally, the two couples searching for their disappeared loves. Of these figures, it is likewise worth noting that they often occupy the foreground, in front of the sledge-hammeer swinging workers, and the waters beyond - each therefore conveying the film's principle theme on a series of receding planes. Hence, the director has not only discovered the perfect site for his subject, but has produced compositions to amplify these concerns. In other words, Still Life may be the director's finest film to date, reaffirming Jia's status as the greatest director of China's 'Sixth Generation,' and one of the few mainland directors who has produced works equal to those of its Republic of China counterparts, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang.

In comparison to the exacting control Jia maintains over his mise-en-scène, Danish auteur Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All literally leaves it to chance: von Trier utilizes a new technique he calls Automavision, which "entails choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to choose when to tilt, pan or zoom." In The Boss of It All, von Trier's randomly-generated compositions (after the initial set-ups) frequently crop the picture's actors. The film's takes are uniformly very short, with "jumps" occurring even on lines of dialogue. In sum, von Trier's style operates independently of his content, stressing the artificality of its implementation and even the absurdity of reading form in content. However it is von Trier's emphasis on the former - on artificiality - that is continually highlighted by his aesthetic (or one might say his anti-aesthetic). To this end, von Trier himself appears reflected in the glass of office structure in the film's first shot and in a subsequent set of voice-overs where he refers to his manipulation of narrative information.

Likewise, the above self-reflexivity is figured in The Boss of It All's subject: of an actor (Jens Albinus) employed to pretend he is the eponymous "Boss of it All," which the film's actual boss Ravn (Peter Gantzler) uses as a diversion so that he can treat his employees poorly. For their part, from the barometer-obsessed, rage-filled country bumpkin Gorm to the sexually forth-right, if financially imprudent Lise, Ravn's employees are as quick-witted as their new supervisior - which is to say that they have been duped by their deceptively pathetic boss in his quest to sell to an Icelandic gentleman who still harbors a chip on his shoulder over 400 hundred years of Danish rule.

As much of The Boss of It All's success depends on the last-minute plot twists, I will avoid saying anything else about von Trier's latest, except to say that its humor often hits the mark - though it is a more conventional office comedy than the recent BBC and NBC depictions of the subject; if anything, the comedy compares to the automatically-generated plots of situation comedies (thank you to my viewing companion Lisa for the insight) such as Extra's meta "When the Whistle Blows" - The Office's evil twin. Perhaps this is one of the reasons von Trier so insistently reveals the device, beyond the director's sometimes knee-jerk rejections against conventional structures (like his own). Regardless, The Boss of It All is easily my favorite von Trier film since Breaking the Waves (1996) - though I will admit I am hardly an advocate of the director's work. For what its worth, Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) remain two of my least favorite films of the decade, the former for its audience-directed hostility and the latter for its support of the slaughter of U.S. innocents. Then again, I guess von Trier is interesting enough to have gotten me to see his latest film, in spite of these earlier atrocities - whether that speaks well of von Trier or poorly of me is not clear.

The Boss of It All is currently screening at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village and is destined eventually for the television network of the same name. Still Life, which was recently screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, is also available on remarkably inexpensive English subtitled Region 3 and Region 6 DVDs.