Monday, August 11, 2014

Too-Heavy X-planations

...This speaks to a larger issue in moviegoers and TV fans trying to solve everything whether or not it's a puzzle – every ambiguity has to be a clue to something much larger. But that robs so many films of their power. Would "Picnic at Hanging Rock" or "L'Avventura" benefit from solutions to the mysteries that Peter Weir and Michelangelo Antonioni weren't interested in solving? "Room 237" is a fascinating look at movie obsession, but the film doesn't reveal what "The Shining" is about so much as it reveals that the film is practically designed to be a cinematic Rorschach test
The timing of this article is uncanny, coming as it does at almost the exact same time as I saw a vague and confusing (to me, anyway) movie last Friday night that I ended up walking out on. Understand, I almost never walk out on movies. I make a concerted effort to avoid wasting my money on a movie however I can - which is absolutely not the same thing as resisting a challenge. In the recent past, I've paid to see movies such as The Tree of Life, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave knowing that these movies would be difficult, knowing that they were unique, artistic expressions that defied convention, and while I may have found some of them confounding, or difficult to sit through, I do not believe that they were wastes of money. I sat through all of those movies from beginning to end.

Last Friday was different. I saw THX-1138, the debut film from George Lucas, from 1971. I saw it under very special conditions: it was playing at the Celebrate Brooklyn arts festival in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the same place where I saw He Who Gets Slapped last month, and it was accompanied by a live score from an avant-garde band called the Asian Dub Foundation, who combined traditional instruments with electronic beats and samples and other digital sounds for a score that fits the dystopic, austere future envisioned in Lucas' film. This was a performance commissioned by CB's parent organization, Bric Arts Media, specifically for CB. I was eager to see this screening. I vaguely recalled seeing THX once, long ago during my video store days, but remembered next to nothing about the plot, so this would be as if I were seeing it for the first time again.

I was lost almost from the beginning. ADF wasn't bad, but I remember peering out over the audience into the pit where they performed and wondering how much of what I was hearing was live, because it didn't look like they were doing a whole lot. (I freely admit not knowing for sure either way; I had never heard of these guys prior to this show.) One of the band members played a flute, and at one point, almost before I walked out, he did a short sequence that sounded like he combined the flute-playing with beat-boxing, and that was impressive. That was lively. Much of ADF's score, however, was so synthetic by contrast, that they could've pre-recorded the whole thing and I wouldn't have noticed the difference. They didn't move me the way the Alloy Orchestra did for Slapped.

That might have been okay, though, if the movie was worth sitting through. THX struck me as a 1984/Brave New World ripoff: future society of ultra-surveillance by a nebulous authority; citizens controlled by drugs; sex outlawed, or at least rendered taboo. I tried, I really tried, to stick with this movie because I was interested in finding the roots of Star Wars within it. They're certainly present: Lucas' propensity for alpha-numeric names, a sharp technology fetish - and how refreshing it was to see actual, physical, mechanical objects interacting with the human actors. Coming as this did in the wake of sci-fi game-changers like 2001 and Planet of the Apes, I imagine that movies like that were the template that Lucas worked from.

With THX, though, I didn't feel anything, in large part because I understood so little as to what was going on. Why was Robert Duvall's character condemned for having sex with his wife? (I assume that was his wife.) Who was Donald Pleasance's character supposed to be? I thought he was an authority figure at first, but then we see him in Duvall's "cell," if you can call it that, ranting and raving about something to the other "prisoners," if you can call them that. See, I'm not even sure who's supposed to be what in this movie. I got that it was some sort of one-man-versus-the-system kind of tale, but it was cold and inscrutable and opaque and never drew me deeper into this world beyond the surface. This was the point in which I left. It might have been around the halfway mark.

Bringing it back to the article quoted at the top, however: I get that some story elements shouldn't be explained, and I agree that there is a tendency these days for every plot thread to connect in some way and point to one overarching Big Bad behind it all, or one event that rationalizes everything. In THX's case, though, I needed something concrete to wrap my head around, to make sense of this bizarre, alien dystopia, something directly related to Duvall's character. I didn't get it, and I don't feel that I should have to struggle for it, either. A little ambiguity can go a long way, but it's all in the way that you use it.

The screening/performance wasn't pleasant in other ways. The cell phone users were more annoying than usual, and at least one person was smoking somewhere to the left of where I sat. I've been to CB a number of times over the past several years, for concerts as well as for screenings, and this was the first time I honestly didn't enjoy myself. It certainly won't keep me from returning - CB still has an excellent track record, and for three bucks, it's an outstanding bargain - but I guess I'm disappointed because I've come to expect better, and this was the first time I didn't get it. Eh. It happens. The worst part is that I could've gone to a show in which my jazz musician friend Dave was performing, and I didn't! 

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Related:
The big sleep: do 'boring' movies have value?

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