Friday, February 17, 2012

Following the Rules - "The Artist"

It has been argued that art benefits from limits. Sonnets must have 14 lines and adhere to structures of rhyme and meter. Great artists don’t say, “I can’t work with those rules” but take up the challenge. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, not including those in his plays.

Some limitations of art can be attributed to choice and some are imposed by circumstances. The producer Val Lewton made low budget horror films in the 1940s. He didn’t have the money for elaborate special effects for films like “Cat People” or “The Seventh Victim” so he had to use shadow and impressions to scare the audience. And arguably his films where the frights took place in the minds of the audience better than some films of the period that now seem dated by laughable creature effects.

The Production Code of the Hayes Office limited what could be openly shown and talked about in mainstream Hollywood films. And though I’m not an advocate for censorship, such films as “Casablanca” and “Notorious” are much more subtle and even adult in dealing with issues of sexuality than most modern films that are free to show more body parts.

Michel Hazanavicius, the French writer and director, of last year’s acclaimed film, “The Artist”, imposed upon himself several rather daunting limits. Set in Hollywood from 1927 – 32, the film, like those of the silent era has no spoken dialogue (mostly), is black and white and uses screen proportions of those years in film. Interestingly, it also complies with the content restrictions of the era (mostly; with the exception of a rude hand gesture and an implied act of violence that might not have made it to the screen at that time.)

Jean Duardin plays a swashbuckling star of the silver screen (think Fairbank/Valentino) named George Valentin at the peak of his career who meets a young starlet on the rise (Peppy Miller played by Berenice Bejo). The advent of sound proves devastating to his career as it was for many silent stars.

Ultimately, “The Artist” is a story about pride; a man too proud to accept help when it is needed, even to accept love.

When his studio switches to making “talkies” exclusively, Valentin uses his own money to make an elaborate silent film that, along with the market crash, leads to his financial downfall.

He turns out his faithful servant who desires to still serve and resists help from Peppy who desires to return the favors he granted her.
As Proverbs 29:23 teaches, “Pride brings a person low.” The question in the film is whether Valentin will fulfill the second part of that verse, “but the lowly in spirit will gain honor.”

Hazanavicius playfully uses the conceits of the silent film, the facial mugging and exaggerated gestures to kid, but not mock the films of that period. He also strategically uses sound effects to hint at the great changes to come in the film world. He wisely uses the limits to push himself to make his art.

Just as art is often improved by limits, God provides limits for his people to improve our lives. His commands are not impediments to our happiness, but like a rhyme scheme for a poem, a challenge to live richer, more creative lives for him.

(And on a side note, if you have never taken the time to watch the great silent classics, you are missing some great fun. Comedy in particular found a unique “voice” in this era that is only hinted at in “The Artist”. Start with Charlie Chaplin [“City Lights”, “Modern Times”] and Buster Keaton [“Sherlock Jr.”, “The General”] and discover a treasure trove of laughs, and yes, art.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Favorite Jokes #4

Yes, they are very morbid, but I've long had affection for "Mommy, Mommy" jokes. But I'll just put one of the less gross ones here. (This one also appeals to my love of movie monsters.)

"Mommy, mommy, what's a werewolf?"

"Shut up, and comb your face!"

(Aren't you glad I didn't do, "Mommy, mommy, what's a vampire?")

Review of "Nerd Do Well", a memoir by Simon Pegg

One usually reads an autobiography because of admiration for the person who wrote the book. So it is disappointing when when one finishes the book thinking less of the person who wrote it.

Sadly, that was the case for me here. I’m indifferent to Pegg’s TV series, “Spaced”. But I’m a big fan of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” and I think Pegg is one of the best things in the last couple of “Mission Impossible” films and the “Star Trek” reboot.

You never can know an actor from his screen persona, but since Pegg had a hand in the making of his Edgar Wright films, his personality is a bit more on view.
Pegg is rather dull at times in the book, which is certainly forgivable. But his editor should have told him that his fantasy sequences interspersed with the autobiographical sections just don’t work. They have funny bits, but the joke runs dry and isn’t helped by crude references.

And his analysis of “Star Wars” (a chapter long) and other films brings nothing fresh that most nerds have not thought of themselves or read on hundreds of message boards. “Harry S. Plinkett” at Red Letter Media and Patton Oswalt have covered this material more thoroughly and with much more wit.

But at times the author doesn’t seem very bright. On a section on VHS films which he watched in his teen years, he writes this about British censorship, “I certainly wouldn’t want my teenage child watching a film that made violence titillating, promoted misogyny or featured truly disturbing imagery. It’s just a shame these sel-appointed guardians of decency lacked the guile and intelligence to distinguish between smart cinematic genre pieces and witless exploitation.” And later he talks about banned films in the UK, mentioning “Last House on the Left”, “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and says “It that respect, it (“Texas Chain Saw”) is far more worthy than either Craven (“Last House”) or Gast’s (“I Spit”) schlocky, unpleasant efforts.”

Pegg seems to have little problem with censorship, but just believes the right people weren’t doing it.

The thing that I found most unappealing was Pegg’s snarky , off hand atheism. He talks about the time he stopped believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and God. He refers to Jesus as “another much loved historical crackpot”. These remarks make Pegg to me like a thoughtless twit.

He regrets telling stereotypical humor in the past, but it didn’t stop him from using stereotypical humor about Christians and rural Americans in “Paul”.

Pegg’s most endearing trait in the book is his continuing adoration of film makers and stars. I was just sad that my admiration of him slipped after reading this book.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Favorite Joke #3 (Knock, knock variety)

1) Knock, knock!

2) Who's there?

1) Interrupting Cow.

2) Interrupting...

1) Moo.

(With this joke, of course, timing is everything.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Favorite Jokes #2 (Will I get to ten?)

Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?

It was dead.