Saturday, December 3, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 33, 32 & 31

33. Jack Black - Gulliver’s Travels (that’s right, it’s good)

(If you do not laugh at this...this movie is not for you. Kind of NSFW, language.)

For the last ten years, there is one question that preoccupies my every waking moment; how can Jack Black have a good movie career? Like all the great movie stars, Jack Black is one of the world’s most indelible brands, a one-joke comedian whose joke never ages. In everything he does, he is Jack Black - the force of nature with entirely too much confidence for a fat guy, and that confidence is hilarious. Virtually every Tenacious D song (that I know) is a mock tribute to the epic power-ballads of the early 70’s, with Jack Black inevitably cast as the hero. Virtually every movie in which he stars asks us to consider Jack Black as a heroic character, and it never fails to be funny, just because the very idea of Jack Black as a movie hero is hilarious in itself.
But it wasn’t until I saw Gulliver’s Travels that I finally got my first good night’s sleep in a decade. Critics hated it the movie being unserious to the original, and moviegoers ignored it doubtless for fear that it might be too literate. The truth is, no, it’s not a faithful adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, nor is it quite as fantastically juvenile as some of his other movies (though it comes close many times).
Basically, this is a movie where nobody has a pretense to act as though playing at anything but ‘hey, this is Jack Black in a literary adaptation,’ and Jack Black’s brand seems to rub off on everything from the screenplay (my personal favorite line: ‘Please use your indoor castle voice.’), to the casting choices (only in a Jack Black movie could Billy Connolly be a legitimate choice to play a King), to the production (my favorite set-piece is the Lilliputians enacting scenes of Gulliver’s stories of adventures in his world: which consist of scene from Star Wars, Titanic and Lord of the Rings).
It will probably never happen, but the way to save Jack Black’s career would be to create a whole series of literary adaptations around him: Jack Black’s Faust (with Vince Vaughan as Mephistopheles), Jack Black’s The Odyssey (with Jonah Hill as Telemachus), Jack Black’s Don Quixote (perhaps as Sancho with Will Ferrell as the Don), Jack Black’s Metamorphosis. Jack Black could get through the entire Great Books catalogue and middle schoolers would never have to get through another book report....though I’m not sure how you could film Spinoza’s Ethics.

32. Vinni Pukh - The Soviet Winnie the Pooh

(Is what I’ve written below some kind of parody? I’m not sure.)
It’s a little amazing to think that the Soviet Union would ever allow a book like Winnie the Pooh to be filmed. Winnie the Pooh is exactly the sort of book which you’d think the Soviet authorities would find offensive - a bear who steals honey from worker bees, visits friends during the work-day, and consumes every last bit of other people’s hard-earned honey. Winnie the Pooh is precisely the sort of 100 Acre Wood bourgeois plutocrat to which the Commissars would take offense. What made the Soviet Union such a scary place was that this is precisely how Soviet bureaucrats thought, even if it seems absurd to us. But these shorts were made in the early 70’s, when the clampdown on freedom of expression was relatively lax in comparison to what it had been earlier in the Soviet Era.
But frankly, this Winnie-the-Pooh blows the Disney version out of the water. The Disney version is what it always is: well-drawn, with good production values, and an eye for the kind of adorableness that can sell billions of dollars in merchandise. The drawing in Vinni Pukh is extremely crude (Vinni doesn’t even have thighs to connect his torso to his knees), but it hews closer to the source material than Disney ever dared. In some ways, this Winnie-the-Pooh is nowhere near as loveable - he’s seen in no uncertain terms manipulating his friends, putting his own desires over friends’ needs, oblivious to his friends’ wishes. But this is a kid’s tale so he always gets his comeuppance.
I suspect that this is much closer to what A A Milne had in mind. Winnie the Pooh is unfailingly polite, with all the old-world courtliness of a country gentleman, and concealed beneath his manners and deep-sounding ruminations beats the (undoubtedly clogged) heart of a sociopath.
Then again, Winnie the Pooh was always my favorite character as a kid. Pooh’s a lazy fatso who’s always hungry and says extremely dumb things as though they’re intelligent....I’ve seen someone like that somewhere else....

31. The Borgias - The TV Show

I hated, hated, hated The Tudors. I didn’t hate it because it was a travesty of history, or because the production values glammed up a world shaped by diseases transmitted through feces. I hated The Tudors because it reduced one of the most fascinating epochs the world had ever experienced to a midnight Skinemax soft-core. It was literally soft porn masquerading as history. One of the least commented effects of easy access to internet porn is the disappearance of allegedly high-class movies which were really an excuse for pornography - these movies can be as different as Last Tango in Paris and Lady Caroline Lamb, but in both cases the primary objective was arousal and both provided an intellectual high-gloss as cover. There is still an audience for work like The Tudors, but it’s fundamentally an older audience.
It would be lying to say that The Borgias does not have a similar soft-core element to it. And as a portrayal of history, it’s not great (even if it’s leagues better than The Tudors). But as an introductory discourse on what makes Renaissance Italy an even more amazing period of history than Renaissance England, The Borgias is superb.
If The Tudors is about putting a gloss on history which it didn’t have, then The Borgias is about showing the motives of powerful people as they actually are - with all the evil, betrayal, perversion, greed, hypocrisy, and ugliness that should imply. There is no attempt to hide the fact that The Borgias were anything but evil people whose moments of goodness were all too rare. Yet just as in The Godfather, we invariably side with them. It seems as though their way is the way things are done, and they just happen to be still more ruthless than anyone else. But who’s to say The Borgias were not the lesser evil? When evil ruled a land as it did for so long in Italy, perhaps some family would have come along that made The Borgias seem like saints.
Few things in The Borgias are prettified. Yes, the sex is often prettified, but the violence is most certainly not, and the motives of the people are always precisely as ugly as they seem. Like all the great movies about crime, what makes The Borgias work is that it dares us to like people to whom we should be repulsed, and we like them because some demented recess of our psyches encourages us to do the same.

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