Saturday, November 17, 2007

Visiting Neil, Part II:
Beowulf, Artifice, War

I awoke this morning with images from Beowulf erupting in my head, always a good sign with a film that it hit me at a primal level. The primal 'winner' of November to date remains Sean Penn's excellent Into the Wild, a truly great film that kept me awake for two nights afterwards (I could not shake the movie).

Beowulf's images that bubbled up front and center, though, were odd: it's not the story, the narrative peaks, that malinger. It's the crystalline clarity of digital imagery, the microscopic fidelity to manufactured reality, that seemed to most haunt my unconsciousness: the compelling intensity of the simulcrum, the virtual humunculi, that inhabit the film. The 'big moments' aren't what thrust themselves to the fore: it's the intimate details of Beowulf's face, of the simulation of flesh, that peppered my dreams.

All cinema is artifice. It's the nature of the medium, the persistence of vision we grow up with sustaining the alchemy of light, successive images projected at a proper frames-per-second rate, and our mind's fluid sustenance of that into movement. But Beowulf is a new artifice, the latest in the CGI realm's reinvention of invented realities, and the 3D viewing experience pushed that further on an organic, animal level for me.

Digital projection (and the creation of digital images) works differently, and my mind is reacting to seeing in a new way -- I'm referring to seeing in a new way as a biological function, not a response to Beowulf's vision or aesthetic, which is secondary to how my eye/mind is reacting to a sustained new viewing experience of a wholly new nature. I cannot react to Beowulf without acknowledging this more fundamental aspect of the new reality of seeing movies on the big screen:

The magic lantern, reinvented.

More later...

I was also awakened at one point last night dreaming about the night of my draft lottery back in the early '70s, amplified horribly. I fear for the resurrection of the draft, an inevitable consequence of how badly President Bush and his cronies have manhandled, misused and stretched the volunteer military to a break-point. The dream was likely prompted in part by Marge and I seeing Dartmouth's production of Hair in the Moore Theater, in part by my ongoing fears for my son and his generation: an old mirror restored, the new reality's urgency.

My son Dan's childhood friend Chris Whitney is in Iraq now, and has been for years; that's never far from my mind. "How did we allow this to happen again?" -- we have so shafted our sons and daughters with our shared complicity in this madness.

More evidence of our military straining under the gross (I would and have said 'abusive') incompetence of our Commander in Chief continues to simmer in the news, the first news story in que on the computer this AM.

It resonates with the splinters from that mid-morning dream; the signs on the highway en route to Neil's house offered hand-painted odes to "our troops," which Neil noted yesterday has changed many times in its wording over the past years. Here, in the idyll of Neil's wonderful home and hospitality, the heart of the mid-American continent, I wake and worry for my son and for Chris and their time in manufactured hell, present (Chris) and projected (Dan), compliments of our Commander in Chief and his cabal.

Have a great Saturday; we will, I hope... Neil's making pancakes, off I go to breakfast...

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A Brief Before Bedtime...

I'm in the guest room/library at Neil's house, settling in for the night after an easy flight, pleasant car ride, grand day and fun evening -- day one of our interview session with Neil, with dressing. Neil is, of course, an ambulatory toast, having been up for 26 hours flying back from the UK, but by far the most affable and articulate toast of 2008 thus far. He's hopefully sleeping now.

The early afternoon walk with the dog was a wakeup for all, including a visit to Neil's hives (where Neil essentially "put them to bed" for the winter) and a jaunt around the grounds that were impassable woods and brush when I was last here over a decade ago.

As for Hank Wagner and my reason for this trip, our first interview session went well; we covered some fresh ground with Neil, I think, and laid the foundation for richer plowing tomorrow. Afterwards, Lorraine, Jenn, Hank and I made the pilgrimage to the nearest digital projection theater to catch Beowulf in 3D (not an option in my home area, and a real treat).

Beowulf is the new standard for non-Pixar CGI animated features, and a fascinating new wrinkle in the pepla revival (300, Pathfinder, etc.) -- I'll post a full review when time permits, after I'm back home. They haven't quite got a consistent sense of weight and, more importantly, the genuine spark of life in the eyes of the characters, who too rarely seem to make eye contact with one another. That said, Ray Winstone's Beowulf is a convincing presence throughout, and it's a quantum leap over Final Fantasy, Polar Express and similar CGI TV series efforts over the years. I must admit, though, that the 3D Coraline preview -- Neil's upcoming animated feature directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) -- was an even tastier & oddly more tantalizing slice of eye candy, in part because its stylization wasn't evocative of either live-action simulcrums or video game imagery. Still, Beowulf's alternative reality suffered few lapses keeping this viewer from steeping and often losing himself in the hyper-real realm it explores.

The definite Beowulf highlight for me was Crispin Glover's Grendel (a fresh, imaginative take on this most venerable of all monsters), with a startling opening massacre that had one family fleeing the theater with an unhappy 11-or-12-year-old son in tow, clearly wishing to stay. Be warned, if you're planning on taking younger viewers. The film was the goriest PG-13 film in over 15 years, bar none. Sure, it's animated, but it's surprisingly explicit in the onscreen mayhem department, including a plethora of injury-to-the-eye (including one critter orb ruptured from within) imagery, spurting blood splashing down on the audience, dismemberment, a disembowelment and impromptu heart surgery of saurian proportions, and lots of bemusing male nudity teases with Beowulf and a dangerously-close-to-disrobing King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) to balance out the publicized virtual-Angelina Jolie nudity as Grendel's Momster. Had this been a live-action epic, it would have earned a hard 'R' -- curiouser and curioser, the MPAA.

The 3D was a complete surprise for me, and I'm glad Neil insisted upon our seeing it in this format with the option to do so in such easy reach. The illusion works marvelously and the film was grand fun, though my eyes began to feel literally peeled by the final 20 minutes -- an oddly physical reaction, sans the usual headache induced by the red/green lens 3D or Polaroid 3D of yore, and far more effective than anything I've seen outside of an Imax.

I always stay for credits, but we all sat through the scroll to applaud Lorraine (Garland)'s onscreen credit, which completely flummoxed the usher cleaning the theater.

OK, off to bed -- have a great weekend, one and all...

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