Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle

Hayao Miyazaki is an adored and respected director of animated features. His films, hand drawn rather than computer generated, for the most part, are painterly and sumptuous, like picture-books come to life. His visual style is inherently quaint and charming but also staggering in its attention to detail. There is so much to see in his movies and so many marvelous little details to appreciate and enjoy.

Miyazaki often writes his own screenplays and his stories are intelligent, thought-provoking and incredibly even-handed. His villains do more than simply advance the plot or create conflict and their motivations are often explored and explained; in some instances they become as endearing and relatable to the audience as the heroes themselves.

I have seen three of Miyazaki’s movies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and each one centers around female protagonists and antagonists. There are always male characters who are essential to the plot but, in Miyazaki’s world, the women really seem to run the show. One of the things I love most about Miyazaki’s leading ladies is their compassion and their empathy. His villains often turn out to be unhappy misfits and his heroines are heroic, in part, because they recognize their adversaries for what they truly are and reach out to them. Sometimes they even rescue them. It’s a romantic notion, like Beauty saving her Beast, and it really appeals to me. Rather than vanquishing the enemy a Miyazaki story is just as likely to conclude with all the characters befriending one another and forming some kind of quirky surrogate family. That has certainly been the case with both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.

The Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle is a charming, attractive wizard who also happens to be moody, immature and something of a coward. He uses his considerable skills to conceal his whereabouts from a scorned lover, a witch who would steal his heart, quite literally, for herself, and various political leaders, who want him to fight in their various propaganda wars. Or, something like that. Honestly, I had a hard time keeping all the plot threads straight in my head. Miyazaki is working from someone else’s material in this movie (a novel, of the same name, by Diana Wynne Jones) and maybe that accounts for the odd, scattered feel of the story. It leaps off in too many directions. It bears a striking resemblance to Spirited Away but it lacks the earlier movie’s focus. This in no way means it isn’t worth seeing, I just think it’s slightly less brilliant than the other two Miyazaki movies I’ve seen (when the visuals are this stunning and carefully crafted I can make allowances for less than stellar storytelling, though a well-told tale always enhances a viewing experience).

Despite the title of the story the star of the show is actually Sophie, a sensible young woman who works in her family’s hat shop. Sophie’s chance encounter with Howl stirs the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who was once the wizard’s sweetheart and still carries a torch for him. In her jealousy the witch casts a spell on Sophie that transforms the girl into an old crone. Sophie is not particularly bothered by her change in appearance but she does not care for the aches and pains that have accompanied her rapid ageing process. She sets off in search of Howl and his travelling castle, to see if he might break the spell and return her to her true form.

Of course Sophie finds Howl and takes up residence in his fabulous moving castle, an enormous, clamoring mass of wood and metal that walks around on mechanical legs. Naturally she falls in love with him and he with her, despite the fact that she’s an old crone (though her age shifts throughout the story and as her love for Howl grows her age appears to decrease). Howl, it seems, is under a spell of his own; something to do with the fire spirit who lives in his home and the spurned witch and the political leaders. Again, I really can’t explain it because I really couldn’t follow a lot of it. But the moments where Howl transforms into a giant bird, a process that is painful and increasingly difficult for him to reverse, are great. And Sophie always loves Howl, no matter what he looks like on the outside, the same way Howl can’t help but love Sophie no matter what age she appears to be. I like that Sophie has to save not only herself but the man she loves, along with most of the secondary characters in the story. And I love the voice contributions from the American and British actors who helped bring the English-language version of the movie to life. Howl might be a sullen, shallow nitwit at times but he’s voiced by Christian Bale, who manages to make the character appealing, sexy and a tad bit dangerous. Billy Crystal’s contribution, as Calcifer the fire spirit, is funny but never oversteps into self-indulgence. Emily Mortimer and the late, great Jean Simmons do a terrific job with Sophie at her various ages and Lauren Bacall is perfect for the Witch of the Waste, who starts out as a menace but becomes one of the more endearing characters by story’s end.

I’m certain that any knowledge of Japanese culture only enhances the viewing experience with Miyazaki’s work, as I’d imagine that some of his imagery and story elements derive from Eastern myths and legends. His themes are timeless and resonant but his visual style and offbeat characters are arresting and unique; his movies have the feel of something that is at once ancient and familiar but also new and original. And that is almost always a combination worth seeing.

Monday, April 12, 2010


My husband is not a fan of David Lynch. He likes The Elephant Man and The Straight Story well enough and he’ll admit that Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are decent. He’ll even acknowledge, begrudgingly, that Lynch is one of the finest living directors we’ve got but, at the end of the day, he really doesn’t care one way or the other about the man or his artistic output. I love my husband in spite of this and, in return, he tolerates my Lynch love.

My affection for the director and his work began on April 8, 1990, when the pilot episode of Twin Peaks aired on ABC. Last Thursday marked the twentieth anniversary of that memorable debut and I used it as an opportunity to sing the show's praises on all the various social networking sites that I frequent. This is what I had to say about it on the Knoxblab:

I think it helped that I was a thirteen year old girl when the show debuted. if I'd seen the series for the first time when I was older I'm sure I would've liked it but I probably wouldn't have been as obsessed as I ended up being. This was my first exposure to Lynch and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It blew my little mind. The show shaped my tastes and my sense of humor to some extent. I love it not just for what it is but for what it meant to me when I was a dorky teenager.

My affection for Peaks prompted me to seek out Lynch’s film work. Most of his movies initially freaked me out but I came around, eventually. Like many avant-garde directors his style and themes are idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable, even to a casual follower: his protagonists are typically nonconformist or, at the very least, deny expectations. He often explores the seedy underbelly of some typical trope: first it was small town America but for the last decade or so he has fixated on Hollywood and all that it appears to offer. He incorporates dream sequences into his stories and, sometimes, he'll apply dream logic (an oxymoron if ever there was one) to the whole production. He always seems to be digging at the surface of his subjects and trying to get down to the meaty stuff buried underneath. His movies work on an aesthetic and subconscious level and if you think you understand what’s going on then you’re probably missing the point.

The 2007 documentary Lynch, which I watched last weekend (husband suggested it for some reason. He did not make it to the end), is meant to provide a peek behind the red curtain as Lynch works on various projects, including his most recent movie, Inland Empire. It’s an aimless and poorly made movie (the filmmakers may have been trying to create something quirky and Lynchian but; if that’s what they were going for, they failed) but it’s worth seeing if you’re a devoted fan of the director. I enjoyed the footage of Lynch creating enormous mixed media pieces, out of things like tiny plaster buffalo forms and cigarette butts, as well as the little glimpses into the director’s working relationship with the wonderful Laura Dern. Inland Empire was Dern’s third starring turn in a Lynch movie and the two of them appear to have genuine respect and affection for one another; she seems to get him and I think, every time they work together, she is committed to helping him realize his vision. He’s lucky to have such a talented and fearless woman in his corner.

I guess David Lynch is something of an acquired taste but, really, aren’t most things? You’re probably gonna like what he does or you aren’t. I’m sure nostalgia plays a role in my love of all things Lynch (I’m too self-absorbed for it not to play one) but, whatever the reasons, I feel it’s fortunate that we have him. Maybe some day we’ll even get a decent documentary about him, too.*

*I’d love to see what someone like Werner Herzog, a director I’ve come to love because he’s one of my husband’s favorites, could do with Lynch as a subject.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Third Man

I remember the exact moment that I fell in love with Joseph Cotten. It was Fourth of July, 2008 and Turner Classic Movies had chosen to celebrate our Nation’s birthday by scheduling a Hitchcock marathon, which I thought was a terrific idea. I was happy that I woke up in time to watch Shadow of a Doubt that morning; I had never seen it but my mom had recently watched it for the first time and raved about it, so I was anxious to check it out for myself. Cotten’s Uncle Charlie hooked me the minute he appeared on screen, lying, almost corpse-like, on a bed in a seedy motel, smoking a cigar. And when he opened his mouth to speak, with that sonorous, sinister but incredibly seductive voice of his, it was like being struck by lightning. I was gobsmacked. Who on earth was this glorious creature? And why hadn’t I noticed him before? I didn't even know if I’d seen him in anything else because surely, if I had, I'd have remembered him. I sat, spellbound, for the length of the movie, which I thought was fabulous in every way, and then I set about researching Mr. Joseph Cotten. I quickly realized that I had actually seen a handful of his movies and was surprised that he had failed to make more of an impact on me, especially considering that two of the movies I’d seen, Citizen Kane and The Third Man, were thought to be two of his very best roles.

Though I’d watched Kane a couple of times and found it entirely underwhelming (I really like it now but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it), The Third Man was a movie I’d remembered enjoying, even if I could remember little else about it. I caught it at Downtown West on its fiftieth anniversary run in ’99, mostly because I knew it was the movie Juliet and Pauline went to see together in Heavenly Creatures. I remembered Orson Welles, of course, especially the bit where the kitten sidles up to him in the alley and starts batting at his shoelaces, but Cotten had failed to leave a lasting impression, despite the fact that he’s in practically every frame of the film.

Joseph Cheshire Cotten was dapper and elegant. He was tall (6’2”) and he carried himself gracefully. He even had his suits specially tailored without pockets so that he would appear more streamlined. He had a handsome face and wavy hair. He was a little bit older than your average matinee idol when he began his film career (after a stint on Broadway with Kate Hepburn and Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story) but, otherwise, he had all the makings of a dreamboat leading man.

But here’s the thing about Cotten, and it’s one of the things I love most about him: not only could he disappear into a character he was playing, he could fade into the fabric of the film itself, so that other players, like his buddy Welles, could shine. A role like Uncle Charlie is brash and showy, which is why it got my attention, but a role like Jed Leland or Holly Martins is something much subtler and, I would think, much more difficult to pull off with success. Cotten almost never seemed to be trying to draw attention to himself but I think that makes him all the more magnetic. It also makes him well-suited to playing underdogs, sad sacks and dupes, which he did on a fairly regular basis and never with more success than in Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s sublime The Third Man.

Poor Holly Martins, pulp western author, drunkard, hopeless romantic, finds himself in post-war Vienna at the request of his longtime pal Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job with his medical charity. But by the time Martins arrives Lime is dead and the police are accusing the dearly departed of all sorts of nasty illegal activities. Martins ought to have the good sense to turn tail and head home to America but, maybe because he’s confused himself with a hero from one of his books, maybe because he likes the look of Lime’s girl, the lovely, melancholy Anna, he decides to stick around, butt heads with Trevor Howard's (quite wonderful) Major Calloway and restore his pal’s good name.

The movie, usually classified as film noir, works so well, in part, because it defies categorization. It’s tragic, romantic and darkly comedic. It’s mysterious and suspenseful. It’s a little like Casablanca, only most of the characters act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the greater good. Even honest, sensible Holly Martins is in it for himself, if only to feel a sense of pride for having done the right thing and helped the damsel in distress out in the process. Martins is a lot like another of Greene’s protagonists, The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle, who tries to impose his simple black and white worldview onto a situation with no easy solutions; these lines, paraphrased from The Quiet American, spoken in reference to Pyle, could even be applied to Martins himself: “I should have known that saving the girl and saving the country would be the same thing to a man like Pyle.” In both stories, the naivete (coupled with a skewed sense of moral rightness) of these quiet Americans, ends up having disastrous consequences.

Cotten certainly plays Martins as a fool but he’s a likable fool and his antics are entertaining and oddly endearing. Both Carey Grant and Jimmy Stewart were considered for the role of Martins and either man could have played the part convincingly but not as well (and I realize I’m terribly biased) as Cotten; Grant would have to have gotten the girl, in the end, and for the movie to work that just cannot happen (this wasn’t a problem with an actor like Cotten in the role, because he almost never got the girl) and Jimmy Stewart’s usual awe-shucks persona might have come across as over the top in the understated environment that Reed constructs. I think Cotten could better project the sense of defeatism that was necessary for the role. He can stumble about, earnestly, for the better part of the picture, trying to right the wrongs and save the girl, but you sense that, deep down, he knows he’s always going to come out on the losing end.

If The Third Man dealt in typical heroes and villains, Lime, played by Welles, would be the black hat to Martins white. He’s up to no good, for sure, but Welles makes him so gregarious and appealing (and, like Uncle Charlie, more than a little sinister-seductive) that it’s hard not to root for him a little bit despite the atrocity of his crimes. Because he’s a big personality it’s right that he has so little screen time; he doesn’t need any more than he gets to remain memorable to the viewer.

Alida Valli’s performance as Anna impresses me more every time I watch the movie. She’s perfect as a sad woman who is entirely resigned to the circumstances of her existence. Her love for Harry is genuine but tempered by practicality. She knows there’s no future for the two of them, she doesn’t even want one, but, no matter how dark his secrets may be, she goes on caring for him all the same.

I am so grateful that, eleven years later, I was able to see this marvelous movie on the big screen again, when I could better appreciate its brilliance (and seeing it in the beautiful AFI Silver, truly a treasure for any cinephile, only made the experience more special).