Sunday, February 26, 2006

Koyaanidragons

A study in contrasts: a showing of Koyaanisqatsi with Philip Glass and his ensemble playing the music live, followed up by Dungeons and Dragons 2: Wrath of the Dragon God.

I'm usually not into "arty" stuff. The thing with an idea like Koyaanisqatsi (and after you've seen it, everytime you think of the name you'll hear that booming chorus intoning "Koh-yeah-nee-skat-seeeeeeeee") is that if it isn't done with total genius, it'll flop. It's sort of the opposite of the hamsmacker type of idea -- instead of being so brilliant it's hard to live up to, this is an idea so simple that only if it's executed with genius can it produce something truly powerful.

Shots of nature, shots of cities, shots of people, no dialogue, no story, just the music of Philip Glass. It could totally suck. It SHOULD totally suck. But Godfrey Reggio pulls genius out of the cinematic hat here, and despite the inherent bias of the title's meaning ("Life out of Balance"), the film itself lies open to multiple interpretations.

Walking home after the show, we discussed the contrast between the breathtaking shots of clouds, canyons and deserts and the depressing vistas of abandoned tenements, oppressive factories and claustrophobic offices. One of the pivotal shots in the film is of the moon rising up past glowing skyscrapers -- nature vs. technology? Hardly an original thought.

It's possible to start out a little skeptical with Koyaanisqatsi; I did. When the first images featuring human efforts begin to appear, you can yawn and say, "Yeah, yeah, human beings are so terrible, look at how they make these ugly things." But the film doesn't rest with that sort of easy distinction. At some point in the long tracking shots of the abandoned housing project I realised that my impression of these places as ugly stemmed from my preconception that a housing project ought to look well-kept, like a nice place to live.

But a sand dune doesn't look like a nice place to live, so that can't be any gauge of beauty. Why is the sand dune beautiful and the tenement ugly? Is it just our imposition, our expectation that a home should look a certain way? An expectation that we don't bring to the sand dune? Why are broken windows and stained brick ugly, but desolate sand and stone beautiful? Is it pride on our part that blinds us to the actual nature of the things we build, and lets us see only how they fail to fulfill their original purpose? What purpose does a sand dune fulfill? None, of course. So why is it so hard to see a building in the same way and not judge it by how well-maintained it is, but instead appreciate it in whatever state it happens to be in?

Which brings us to Dungeons and Dragons 2, sort of.

Now this film is basically crap. It's very cheap crap, too. Substantially cheaper than the first film, which had both higher highs and profoundly lower lows than this one, and with far less personality or charm.

Keep in mind that Steph and I are fans of the first film. It carries the same gee-shucks charm that 1980's fantasy films had, like The Sword and the Sorcerer. Crappy films, but made with heart and an earnest effort to delight their audiences, crippled only by the lack of ability on their creators' parts. Poor acting, stumbly writing, but with some shining moments of ingenuity and hard work. The two leads of the first film were charming and had good chemistry, and a couple of the sequences (the Thieves' Guild trap maze, Damodar getting his little "friends", and the final aerial dragon battle) came together well with real thrills. Some of the fight sequences worked pretty well, too.

The sequel has much less going for it. Better performances all around (although less is asked of the actors: most of the "party" have no more than a couple of lines -- and the barbarian is especially unconvincing as a combatant), less total goofiness in the story, and more of Bruce Payne as the tormented Damodar, chewing scenery even BETTER than Jeremy Irons did in the original. But there are no truly memorable moments anywhere, no personality to the characters (Steph said, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I miss the dwarf"), and no cleverness to it at all. The bad guy hangs around in an empty hall waiting for the heroes to reach him, and when they do, they pretty easily handle him, rendering the rest of the film tension-free. There aren't even any good fight scenes.

But maybe that's just my expectations talking. Maybe I should be appreciating this film for what it is, not what it could be. Maybe I shouldn't be disappointed because it isn't what I think it should be. Maybe it's a sand dune, serving no purpose, just being its beautiful, perfect self.

Maybe.

But maybe that's what art is: objects that ask to be judged according to how well they fulfill their purpose. There's always a problem of course determining exactly what that purpose might be, and there's always arguments over how well it might be fulfilled, but ultimately "Art" is what the artist tells us is art, and when the artist tells us that, we come to the art with the expectation that it will move, edify or entertain us somehow.

And somewhere between the art and our expectations is where the really interesting thing happens, where we can actually learn something about ourselves and our world.

One of the suggestions of Koyaanisqatsi is that our world is just that: the separation between man-made and natural is a false distinction, one born out of our own pride that convinces us we are something other than what created the mountains and drives the clouds. We are the art and the audience. And maybe the artist, too.

Which I guess means we're all to blame for crap like Dungeons and Dragons 2: Wrath of the Dragon God.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hamsmacking With JC

Some ideas are so great, so brilliant, so immediately obviously earth-shaking, that it's almost impossible to live up to them. The KLF's "The Queen and I" -- as soon as somebody tells you that it's "Dancing Queen" with kazoos you get hamsmacked by the raw genius of the whole idea. And then you hear it, and, well, it actually gets kind of tedious after a while. The IDEA is still brilliant, it's just that in reality it doesn't quite kick as much butt as it should. It overstays its welcome.

Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter! is kind of like that.

I mean, if this is the first time you've ever heard of it, you're right now smacking yourself in the forehead and exclaiming theatrically "Why didn't I think of that?"

(that, by the way, is a hamsmack -- getting smacked while hamming it up)

Which is exactly what I did.

And then I watched it, and you know, it's funny. It's pretty funny. There's some pretty funny stuff. There's even some REALLY funny stuff. It's just not, you know, AS funny as Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter!.

That said, there's a lot to love. Mexican wrestlers, hapless lesbians, atheists, ,motorcycles, fight scenes, and musical numbers -- this is all very, very good. Packed full of stuff -- we've identified that before as a good thing in a film. And although it is very, very packed full of stuff, JCVH never quite gets up off the ground the way Tsui Hark's POB does.

Part of that is the inherently dreary nature of Canadian story-telling. Some famous person I don't remember said of Canada, "I find their jokes like their roads: they travel endlessly through unchanging terrain, getting slowly closer to a resolution that grows steadily more obvious with each passing second."

Something like that, anyway. I've been reading in a couple of places of how the much-vaunted (in Canada, at any rate) Canadian "funnyness" is actually not very funny, that in fact Canadian comedy tends towards tediousness. I disagree, but JCVH isn't the best evidence to counter that assertion. It's got that earnestness to it, that determination to make sure you've understood each and every point, that characterizes so much tedious Canadian cinema.

I'm ragging on it too hard, it's true. JCVH is a silly little film full of silly little jokes. One wishes, though, that each joke got only 75% of the screentime that it gets, that the whole film was just a little shorter than it is, that everything happened just a little faster than it does.

You have to salute the film-makers, though. The idea is a hamsmacker, and it's done with a lot of heart and energy. It's just kind of like ABBA with kazoos -- such a great idea, but just not enough to keep the whole engine going.