Friday, April 21, 2006

Capsules: Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1979)/Aliens (Cameron, 1986)/Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1949)

Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1979):
I'm going to do a silly thing: I'm going to try to loosely define art as it pertains to storytelling. Artful storytelling does not merely reiterate plot points, it is not just exposition, it does not exist to take a person from point A to point B without something to reflect on in between. If art aspires to higher modes of thought or emotional experience, perhaps even higher modes of existence, Superman: The Movie is not art. It is a poorly conceived action comedy that is haphazardly paced, badly shot and edited, utterly inane, and wholly awful.

It is not only the lack of "food for thought," or lack of aspiration, that cripples this film. It's simply a bad movie, let alone bad art. Money was obviously spent on these setpieces, and it's wasted on cramped talking-head compositions and editing that is at best predictable and at a frequent worst jarringly awkward. What's that whirling thing in the background? Eh, must not be important, since we can't get a good look at it.

Early in the film, Superman is sent to earth on a manger representing the Bible's Jesus' manger. I won't even get into how the film completely misses the mark in following up on this at least borderline provocative idea. I was disenchanted from the start, and by the time Lois recites grade school poetry in voice over during the hackneyed flying romance sequence, the film was dead to me. Yet I still had to live with it for a baffling forty minutes (?) or so longer.

An episodic wasteland of cliché heroics, embarrassing slapstick, and poor filmmaking.

Aliens (Cameron, 1986):
I had seen Aliens once before, and thought it was a poor excuse for explosions and creature effects. Now, a less-jaded me thinks it's a good excuse for explosions and creature effects.

I once mistook filmmakers for being sincere. So, when I first saw Aliens, I took the paper-thin badassery of the infantry to be sincere. It isn't, I now realize. On a thematic level, this is a struggle between corporations, politicians, and decision makers (usually and in this film, all the same entity), and people, especially people under the influence of instinct, whether that be the instinct to stay alive or the instinct to save one's child. Long story short, a corporation screws a bunch of people over, a businessman continues to screw people over, and meanwhile some military people, Ripley, and a girl that comes to be a surrogate for her long-dead daughter try to survive against a hostile, deadly, and very photogenic alien race.

The film is a strong display of the motherhood instinct. When she meets the queen alien, Ripley shields Newt, shows the queen what her flamethrower can do, then points the flamethrower at an egg. This is mother talk for "Let my kid live and I won't kill yours." One thing leads to another, a reprise of the ol' stowaway gag from the first film, and there's a badass showdown between Ripley-as-dock-worker and Queen-sans-eggsac. Cameron isn't the most artful of directors, but he's very good at keeping hold of all the threads that hold a big film like this together and crafting something that warrants respect, if not divine admiration.

Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1949):
Young Mr. Lincoln is a bit simplistically conservative, sometimes faux-sentimental, occasionally bordering on hagiography, but cumulatively is a nice film. A nice film, that is, and not a whole lot more.

If John Ford's style could be summed up in a word, that word could be "simple." I do not mean this in a derogatory way; simplicity is sometimes a thing to be valued. What this simplicity does, though, is coddle the audience into being manipulated by the daintiest of strings. There is scarcely a moment when you are unsure what to feel, thanks, of course, to the score-as-emotional-cue. There's similarly nary a moment when you will question Young Old Abe's judgement; in Ford's world, he even gets away with cheating in a tug o' war contest.

Early in the film, Lincoln announced regarding law: "That's all there is: right and wrong" (paraphrased). For a moment, one may think that this would be a pitfall, and by the end of the film Mr. Lincoln would acknowledge the plethora of grey in the world. But no, the "young" of the title refers merely to Lincoln's age, not his youthful ignorance. For Lincoln as seen here is always right, always pleasant, always the life of the party, always winning, and always admirable. He's the most consistent feller this side of... anyone.

Ford makes likeable pictures. This is a film that any one of any age could watch and have his or her interest maintained. It's easy to digest, and if you don't think about it too long you'll probably want seconds. I'm not saying that the film is offensive intellectually, morally, or in any other way, but just acknowledging the film for what it is. You could do far, far worse than Young Mr. Lincoln, but you could do better as well.


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