Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Put the blame on Mame, boys, for filling her widower pad with eccentric whimsy, or Frank Capra, for filling our heads full of pro-capitalist blarney, either way we're at a saturation point with "quirky" indie family comedies; anything after this and the flood will get into the basement and warp the floorboards of cinema. Hopefully this weekend's release of the tepidly reviewed "never should have escaped Sundance" LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE-cum-DAN IN REAL LIFE style quirky family comedy "about heart, about growing up, and growing old..." this Alan Alda-Matthew Broderick senile old bonding movie, DIMINISHED CAPACITY,  is the water line by which overdone cliches meant to pacify the whole extended family will now be over and done with. Presuming the poor film makes no money. I love Alan Alda, so it's a shame, who can I blame? Capra would scoff, and Mame would shudder with douche chills at this toxic level of cutesy-poo clowning.

There's a real comedy in there somewhere, maybe in a real early draft of Sherwood Kiraly's adaptation of his own novel. I mean, the pitch is great: a senile old man with a zest for zaniness heads to Chicago with a priceless old baseball card he finally wants to sell. The card is a great mcguffin, as nephew Broderick has to continually void all the bad deals the demented old man gets hoodwinked into (like swapping it for an editor's promise to print the old man's fish poetry -- don't ask). But along the misadventure-strewn way just about everything original must have been sifted from this idea and discarded; instead of an analysis of the meaning of value--an old, ugly, tiny piece of cardboard with a face of an ugly ball player being priceless, for no earthly reason--we're stuck in the mind of a senile fish poet (tell ya later), the cookie cutter mold is enforced right down to the hometown girl--divorced with clumsy child-- who Broderick leaves behind (Virginia Madsen, quietly searching for someone equally awake to do a scene with). Can you guess that the kid is a little league space cadet who keeps dropping the winning ball and it all comes down to him catching the card as it almost falls into a janitor's pail of soapy water? You can?

Luckily I was seeing this at the Sunshine in downtown NYC and so wasn't the only one groaning as quirk after tired quirk was upturned and exposed like so many bugs under rocks scored to mopey tunes off Sufjan Stevens' Illinois album.

A glimmer of blessed anti-sunshine arrives late inning in with Dylan Baker as a dealer at the Chicago baseball card convention. Playing a very serious Cubs fan, Baker lends a world-weary dignity as a guy who must continually endure the repeated failures of his beloved team. Wisely realizing Baker is really the only one in the cast halfway on the ball, first-time director Terry Kinney lets his scenes play longer than they need to, and for the time Baker's onscreen it's as if the clouds of stale cliche part and something hilarious, twisted, and true comes out. You can see the assemblage of quirky actors--Broderick, Alda, Madsen--watching him from the other side of the collector's table in awe, wishing his part started earlier and set the mood. Before Bakers' arrival, it's almost like a trading card session between two Sundance workshop veterans: "I'll trade you a quirky gag involving fish writing poetry for your 'learning to shake off your doubts and achieve greatness with your life' arc, I'll even throw in a white trash relation struggling with the first step of AA."

Of course the baseball card changes hands more times than an intercostal clavicle or secret roll of microfiche... as does Alan Alda's southern fried accent. His eccentric Uncle Rollie apparently orders his quirks from an old Sears catalog, whether baiting lines attached to typewriter keys so fish can type poetry (now you know) or drying his socks on an indoor gas grill; Ruth Gordon is probably rolling atop Harold, still screaming, in her grave. Sure Matthew Broderick has his chops, but I want to punch him even now for Bueller's interminable smugness. I don't feel sorry for him being stuck in this mess, but Alda is still way too witty and physically agile to be convincing as a coot and meanwhile the other actors all stand around looking like they can't find their chalk marks. But even so, Broderick looks mere stiff-jointed steps away from being 93, while Alda's still a breath of fresh air.

As long as it's not completely terrible, we can fall into any movie like a dream, emerging only when the credits roll or the phone rings or when we need to go to the bathroom or refill our whiskey highballs. Similarly, the spirit upon leaving the body becomes amorphous intelligence seeping into the interlocking gazes surrounding it, merging with the all-seeing I.

Who is to say, after all, that when a really good actor dies on screen, that we do not also die, or that this character is really reliving his life through us, through our eyes, the way we might look in awe at photos of ourselves as babies, the way a chimp or Hamlet studies the human skull? It's astounding, Roderick, the basis of consciousness, the mirror regarding itself into infinity. That's why a much better movie was the one I revisited after trudging home from Sunshine Cinema: ALIEN: RESURRECTION.

The astounding mirror character I am talking about here is the reincarnated/cloned Ripley character played by Sigourney Weaver. Is she the "same" Ripley who died at the end of ALIEN 3? Did her consciousness transfer via the cloning process of mad scientist Brad Dourif? The transmutation of self, of sentience, of soul, is what is the issue here. Is the soul as we perceive it really ego, and is ego really just an obsession with one particular locus of identification, with the body you inhabit at this point in time? Is ego then not a kind of imprisonment, being trapped outside the free floating locus of Polydent-ification?

The way Sigourney Weaver grasps these paradoxes is nothing short of poetry. Ripley is egoless and animal-like; sublimely sexy, languid and lolling like an already cool person taking ecstasy. I didn't like ALIEN: RESURRECTION the first time I saw it--in the theater with a backache the day after Thanksgiving visiting my girlfriend in Portsmouth, NH; but it's better with repeat viewings. There's a steady stream of redeemable moments all the way through though, like robot Winona Ryder jacking into the computer mainframe by sticking a tube in her vein like an Oxycontin IV. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet clearly takes the time to make each outlaw character memorable and not just a few cliche'd quirks stapled onto an actor, the way they are in CAPACITY.

Another way to picture it as three different levels of identification- which brings us from movie watching to being to watching being:

First level is identifying with a character in a story; second is "becoming" other people in the cast, wherein we can still shift the locus of our ego identification from one to another; third is one amorphous intelligence that moves from individual to individual voice and mind, staging its own elaborate rituals for self discovery. To see or hear someone or something is to become the seen or heard. Ultimately isn't all that is alive or ever was just DNA talking to itself? The paint paints itself through the painter, and it sees itself through its beholders. Your eyes are the mirror in which colors comb their hair --an endless cycle of creation and destruction, the brush, the brain, the subject all along one hideous serpentine chain leading straight
up/down into the void; perception and perceived merely frets and bridge on the same instrument.

How's that for motherfuckin' quirky, Uncle Rollie? While the tired and overly cautious filmmakers carefully weed out the genuine eccentricity from their films, real life goes on all around, more baffling and phenomenal than even the looniest Frenchman's conception of science fiction.

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