Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tears for Fears (War Horse and Melancholia)

Most of the cinephiles I know really love Steven Spielberg, which surprises me, because the more movies I see (often from their own recommendations), the flimsier his work becomes. Yet even the lot of them are straining to praise War Horse, one of Spielberg's flimsiest films to date, along the bottom middle rung of his oeuvre. A case could be made that it's his John Ford movie: a yarn about a young Irish Englishman (Jeremy Irvine) who trains a horse to plow his father's farm, then follows the steed, named Joey, into the hell of the First World War. Adapted from a children's book by Michael Morpurgo (and previously an acclaimed stage play), War Horse has an episodic narrative that's fairly unconventional and daring and might have developed into something interesting, had the filmmakers realized who their protagonist really is.

Our putative hero - for the front and back halves of the movie, at least - is Albert Narracott. Unformed and untested, yet brave and resilient in the googly-eyed Ethan Hawke manner from Dead Poets Society, Albert gets a crash course in the school of hard knocks after his essentially decent yet stubborn alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) purchases Joey at a village auction, outbidding his villainous landlord (David Thewlis, wasting his talent) with an absurd sum. We know the landlord is a monster because he dresses in fancy clothes, wants to be paid his monthly rent, and scoffs when Albert trains Joey to plow a fallow field. So incredible is this last development that all the villagers, with apparently way too much time on their hands, gather round to gape at the sorry spectacle - until it starts raining and Albert and Joey finally succeed at their task (because nothing says victory like soggy trousers). This is Spielberg at his vintage-worst, piling on the obstacles rather than trusting the inherent drama to suffice. (Lest we think rain is the farmer's friend, a subsequent storm comes soon after to flood their crops.)

Just as things seem to be veering into the miserablist territory of Frank McCourt - with Emily Watson (as Albert's patient, suffering mom) ready to lead the way - good news arrives: It's war! Sadly, Albert is still too young to serve, but Joey isn't, and Papa Narracott gets out of debt by selling him to the Irish cavalry. The horse, I mean, not his son. The narrative picks up a bit as Joey comes under the ownership of kindly Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, and his Zelda this time out is friend and commanding officer Maj. Stewart (the sonorously voiced Benedict Cumberbatch, from the terrific BBC series Sherlock and on his way to becoming a big star). In the movie's best sequence, Nicholls and Stewart lead a Light-Brigadish charge against a German garrison, and Joey and his equine companion, the beautiful black Topthorn, are captured by the enemy.

I won't recount my year-old post on my issues with Spielberg, except to revise a statement that couldn't have been more wrongheaded. "Spielberg is a unique enough stylist to avoid obvious homages," I wrote. "You don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his." Having invested a fair amount of time this year to furthering my knowledge of the history of cinema I know this to be untrue, and as War Horse began to split into a series of vignettes I thought of not only the works of John Ford but also contemporary westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales. The difference is those films have a clear and consistent point-of-view, whereas Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), after leaving Albert for nearly the entire middle of the movie, won't commit themselves to their obvious choice of protagonist. What makes Carroll Ballard such a great director of "animal movies" (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma) is he never anthropomorphizes them; he takes them on their own thrillingly mysterious terms. Spielberg makes a few feints toward depicting events from Joey's point-of-view (mostly overly expressive closeups of the horse's eyes that look suspiciously like half-assed CGI) but drops the idea every time it's raised, his insecurities as usual getting the better of him.

What's left then? A series of aimless episodes featuring a gallery of barely sketched-in German, French, and English characters. (Ford usually made his supporting players colorful.) Spielberg makes a heartening effort to humanize the Jerries this time - his disinterest in taking sides admirable - but having all the characters speak English gets confusing (not to mention ultimately Anglocentric for all the generous dispersal of empathy), and leads to botching what should be the film's highlight. Joey gets trapped in the barbed-wire mesh of No-Man's-Land, an English soldier leaves his trench to retrieve him, and a German soldier follows from his side of the battlefield to assist. Not trusting the power of the image, Spielberg has the two engage in enough Richard Curtis-y banter to anticipate Hugh Grant popping up through the gaseous mist. ("I-I-I say, th-that's qu-quite a horse you've g-g-got there. Tally-ho. Pip-pip!") By this time Albert has reappeared, serving his country with honor, yet blinded right before a climactic reunion that's a variation on the emotional climax of A Little Princess.

"Climactic" of course is a relative term, because the Fates must conspire yet again to keep Albert and Joey apart for as long as possible. There's another interminable auction, a forgotten character emerges to outbid Albert for the horse, then, after spending a windfall, comes the thrilling denouement: "Never mind." After thanking Mr. Deus ex Machina, and receiving not only his beloved four-legged friend but also his father's sash from the Boer War (which makes its rounds through the narrative like Vin Diesel's unlucky letter in Saving Private Ryan), Albert returns to the Narracott farm with Natalie Wood Joey in tow, a gorgeous sunset in the distance. I didn't care much for War Horse, but I did like the tentative handshake Albert's father offers to welcome him home. It's the kind of simple gesture filled with emotional heft that Spielberg has largely abandoned. Encouraging as it is to see him return to classical filmmaking, following an overlong stretch of brutalist showmanship, he's still stuck creatively between these poles, a remarkable director tangled in mesh.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia suggests that the end of the world is preferable to the values our world holds dear: following that premise to its audacious conclusion, he's become an optimist. I make that claim somewhat facetiously and completely hesitantly, this being the first von Trier film I've watched from start to finish. I've seen parts of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville and found them fascinating, yet to be perfectly honest, they're the work of a filmmaker who scares me a little. Making me afraid is a talent I respect; I still haven't screwed up the courage to see Antichrist, yet Melancholia is a relatively accessible depiction of the apocalypse. Unlike Spielberg during the latter half of his career, von Trier isn't working against his gifts. He's elevating his art into a stark clarity reminiscent of how Kael characterized late-period Luis Bunuel: growing almost fond of his characters' foibles.

Robert Altman also springs to mind, as Melancholia begins with the most scabrous nuptials since A Wedding. It's funnier than Altman's vision too, albeit mordantly so, making random observations of bad behavior on the fly rather than rubbing our noses in it. Kicking off with the perfect image of a stretch limo struggling to navigate the sharp turns of a long road leading to a country estate, von Trier casually introduces a patently eclectic ensemble through the eyes of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst): her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), her sister/hostess Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), brother-in-law and estate-owner John (Kiefer Sutherland), young nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr), her unscrupulous boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and her estranged father and mother (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling). I think I surrendered to von Trier's vision the moment I saw Rampling appear at the swanky dinner reception wearing a casual t-shirt, offering a toast where she declares herself vehemently opposed to marriage. The first cracks in Justine's smiling facade begin to emerge - Dunst's sunny screen persona has never been put to more effective use - and gradually she goes out of her way to lose her job and husband over the course of the evening.

This, it turns out, is only the prelude, as the second act switches to Claire's point of view with the dire news of a planet - the titular Melancholia - approaching Earth. A fine actress, Gainsbourg nonetheless seems miscast, and not just because she and Dunst aren't physically convincing as sisters. Claire, we learn during the wedding sequence from her and Justine's mother, "seems bewitched" by her opulent lifestyle, and Gainsbourg doesn't do bewitchment. She's a clear-eyed pessimist - von Trier's stand-in - and her mounting sense of doom about the world's end comes too naturally to her. Dunst, however, is sensationally good as Justine comes to accept her fate more readily than she did her marriage. Melancholia is described as a "friendly" looking planet, and funnily enough it is, its luminousness a reflection of Dunst's own.

I've neglected to mention other pleasures, some significant (the acclaimed overture of not-quite-still surreal tableaux foreshadowing events to come), others incidental (John Hurt teasing a waiter by stealing spoons at the reception), yet all coming together in as impeccably structured a narrative as I've seen all year. Like Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, another modestly-scaled (if conceptually very different) vision of the end times, Von Trier keeps his scope small while managing to pull off startling effects: a rain of hail on Claire and her son, for example, as she attempts a getaway. To where? is the critical question, for it becomes clear that there is nowhere to hide...except there sort of is. Accessibility and friendliness notwithstanding, Melancholia becomes a unnervingly haunting and unsettling experience. As Justine and Claire struggle to hold it together, so too does the movie. Like a number of great films, Melancholia comes very close to being a bad one: watching von Trier navigate that line is part of the thrill.


JM said...

Aww.. I liked Frank McCourt's memoirs. My guess as to the love for War Horse is
A)it was released at Christmas
B)everyone secretly harbors a ten year old girl's love of horses.

Sam Juliano said...


Both WAR HORSE and MELANCHOLIA made my recently-published Ten Best list.

We are still friends, right? LOL!

Just kidding of course. I wrote my own essay praising Spielberg's movie to high heaven so I'll just say that your brilliantly-penned takedown is food for though no matter how one stands.

Craig said...

Thanks, JM. You might be right.

Sam: Ha, of course. Believe me, I want to like Spielberg, but with few exceptions his films over the last several years just aren't doing it for me. I did like Melancholia a great deal. It's in my top echelon, too.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK, War Horse ...

We saw a lot of the same things here. Indeed, this seems like a movie that's unsure of its protagonist (not that a movie needs just one; it's the uncertainty that's glaring). Indeed, having the Germans speak German and the French speak French and so on wouldn't have just erased some of the confusion, generally classed up the joint and added emotion to the moment when the German proves to "speak English well," it would have also underlined the vastness of the war. With everyone speaking accented English, it's less that Spielberg avoids choosing sides than he makes everyone seem to be on the same side, albeit momentarily opposed (as in, "It was only a matter of time before we all got back to getting along..." which of course isn't the tone of that war at all).

As for this, "You don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his," I generally think that's true, but certainly not in War Horse, especially after Albert returns to Tara at the end.

I don't have an especially strong opinion on Spielberg in general. It's debatable how many great movies he's made -- although I do think he's made a few -- but he has a remarkable ability for making very good movies, and few of his failures are painful (although The Terminal sure is). I got the sense while watching War Horse that, as much as certain shots remind of Spielberg at his best, his heart just wasn't in this one. I'm not saying that's the truth; it's just how it felt. Still, I will predict that 20 years from now someone will write a biography of Spielberg that will try to reason away the forgettableness of War Horse and Tintin by suggesting that Spielberg was dealing with some personal crisis while he made those movies -- perhaps the death of a family pet.

Craig said...

With everyone speaking accented English, it's less that Spielberg avoids choosing sides than he makes everyone seem to be on the same side, albeit momentarily opposed (as in, "It was only a matter of time before we all got back to getting along..." which of course isn't the tone of that war at all).

Excellently put. It makes Joey's journey feel a lot less epic. And you've underscored the problem with the ballyhooed No-Man's-Land scene, where little feels at stake if the characters really aren't so different to begin with.

Still, I will predict that 20 years from now someone will write a biography of Spielberg that will try to reason away the forgettableness of War Horse and Tintin by suggesting that Spielberg was dealing with some personal crisis while he made those movies -- perhaps the death of a family pet.

Since Zanzie will be writing it, let's ask him.

Hokahey said...

I agree, Craig, that there are many irritations in this film. Jason would agree with that. But there were elements and scenes I really enjoyed. Could have done without most of the farm scenes, except for the scene in which Mum shows Albert the war medals. Could have done without a second auction. Could have done without the French grandpa and girl. But there are some striking images here that I pinpoint in my post.

Again, I share the frustration with Spielberg. He may have been half-heartedly invested in this movie, as Jason states, but also he's over-extended (Tintin and Lincoln going on at the same time) and he's getting old and careless - and he's got the money to do whatever he wants and people will go and see his movies. But as for making a truly well-made film, scene for scene, he's his own worst enemy.

Craig said...

Thanks, Hokahey. I like what somebody commented elsewhere: "It has some well-made scenes, but I still hated it." And I still feel that Spielberg, for all the risks he takes, still isn't willing to go as far as his power and creative freedom could take him. (I can imagine the pre-production discussions: "Kids hate subtitles, so better make all the characters speak English.")