16 October 2011

Stewart Raffill and Standing Ovation

Last night I showed my nieces Standing Ovation, a musical comedy by Stewart Raffil. I had seen the movie 1 1/4 times previously. It was their first time. At first they weren't excited. Multiple times they asked me how I had heard about the movie. They seemed to find it interesting, perhaps even alarming, that a) this movie existed b) I knew this movie existed because I had seen it before.

Stewart Raffill's career strikes me as enviable. He specializes in films made for children. I speculate that making children's films for a lifetime could result in a lifetime of endless fun. Exhibit A: In 1974 Raffill made his feature debut The Tender Warrior. This is the synopsis for that film, taken from IMDb:
The sheriff of a small Georgia town on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp does nothing to stop a family of white-trash moonshiners from trapping and killing defenseless animals. But Sammy, a young swamp-boy, takes matters into his own hands. Assisted by his pet chimp, Chuck, Sammy launches a campaign to free the trapped animals. "Pa" Lucas and his idiot sons don't take kindly to Sammy's scheme of beating them out of butter-and-egg money, and are soon chasing Sammy and Chuck over swamp and quagmire. As if young Sammy didn't have enough troubles eluding the Lucas family, he soon finds himself being hotly pursed by a leopard, an escapee from a circus.
As of today The Tender Warrior has an average IMDb rating of 4.5, which is a fairly typical average for Raffill, whose films have low averages on IMDb. His average rating on IMDb shouldn't be important to him, because he's making movies for fun, and having fun making movies, and making movies for kids. His highest average is 6.3, for 1974's When the North Wind Blows, his second film, the follow up to The Tender Warrior (NB: I'd like to encourage my friends to nickname me The Tender Warrior). His lowest average is 2.9, for 2010's Standing Ovation, his eighteenth feature film, and the film that started me talking about Raffill today.

Raffill isn't only the director of these wonderful (?) children's movies, he's also wrote many of them. I wouldn't have guessed, judging by Standing Ovation alone, that Raffill was the writer of at least sixteen prior features. But I'm happy to learn. Tammy and the T-Rex is my favorite title within his filmmography. Mac and Me is his film that I've heard of the most, though I often encounter, and considering purchasing, the The Ice Pirates dvd. I'm 75% sure that I saw his movie Mannequin: On the Move on cable when I was a child; my memories of this movie are fond. By far my favorite poster for one of his movies is:

I would hang the High Risk poster over a desk I planned to work from, and every day it would bring me inspiration and motivate me to travel further into my imagination.

My nieces were reluctant to watch Standing Ovation because the Netflix average user rating was 3 stars. I told them my star rating would be higher and not to worry. Briefly they considered watching Tangled for an eighth time, but either I convinced them to try something new, or Olivia did not want to watch Tangled for an eight time even if Claire did so there was going to be no watching Tangled and why not watch what Uncle Shawn wants us to watch.

Immediately they commented, to my genuine surprise, that some of the acting in Standing Ovation is bad. They made this observation within the first couple minutes of the movie, and repeated it throughout the movie at irregular intervals. Sometimes they recoiled in their seats and commented on how a thing happening in the movie was bad or awful or ridiculous or was I serious. My surprise was due to the fact that I had watched some Disney Channel shows with them, and had considered the acting in those shows bad, but had never heard them say so, although during Standing Ovation they said so many times. This is probably because the "bad acting" in Standing Ovation is actually a complex mixture of bad acting, bad writing, bad staging, and bad directing. My nieces knew when something was wrong, but, owing to the recentness of their sense of critical awareness, were not always able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

Early into the movie I had to pick up a third niece from her high school homecoming dance. The trip took about ten minutes. When I returned it was the scene in the movie when The Five Ovations are eating at the same place as The Wiggies. I could tell my nieces were now hooked because when I entered the room Claire told me "I love Joei!" The song in this scene, Soup to Nuts, went over really well, and the nieces kept repeating "Sit up straight, or you get no food," even after the scene was over. We were perhaps howling with laughter and slapping our knees or something, can't remember, but it was definitely good times at this point.

We all four of us let go and began to really (?) enjoy the movie. Letting go is something you have to do when watching a movie like this, and when you do a kind of magical thing happens. Not sure I can describe it - something to do with how "good" or "serious" movies require you to be "good" or "serious" during them, while during a movie like Standing Ovation you can be yourself. I think something about the film's flaws ultimately makes the movie easier to watch, which perhaps sounds ironic, but isn't. Think about how perfect seeming people are sometimes harder to talk to than people you can easily relate to and feel you share a handful of traits with.

Joei was a huge hit, as was her purse of bottomless surprises, of course. She was probably their favorite character, followed by Alanna Wannabe. Strong characters and personalities can be really important, whether it's a good movie or bad movie. Joei and Alanna are terrific characters because they're so expressive and funny and interesting. They're two smart roles to write for kids because kids want to be larger than life and centers of attention. If there's a character you can connect with and enjoy seeing, however ridiculous the movie, you are more likely to want to keep watching the movie.

I hyped up the final musical number, Shooting Star; like I told them "this is my favorite dance scene in the movie" before it began. It has a great opening that they appreciated, "I am D2, intergalactic space traveler with a female interface. Make. Me. Dance." And then Alanna is like "woo-ooo-ooo" in a high-pitched dreamy voice. Strong opening. When the energy began to dip Claire asked me something like "so what's the big deal" and I said "here he comes" because I had seen the movie and it was true that right then the little boy came out and said "I am D3, intergalactic space traveler with a male interface. Make. Me. Dance." and then he does all those dance-jumps and they my nieces were like quiet and totally into what was happening.

That night when they, my nieces, were going to bed, I told them that I hoped they danced in their dreams. I'm pretty sure they knew what I meant, because we had just watched Standing Ovation.

11 October 2011

Margaret (Finished 2006, © 2008, Released 2011)

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a massively impressive but imperfect depiction of a massively imperfect but impressive character, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin). I saw the movie twice in two days and was more affected by the blemishes of both the movie and its lead character on the second viewing. My dissatisfaction was either heightened by or a product of the fact that two friends of mine shared my second screening as their first. I had told them it was a very good movie, and I had told them it made me laugh and cry within single narrative moments. With their eyes I tried to look, and I kept wondering "what are they thinking?" and either because I kept wondering and worrying about their thoughts, or because of the movie itself, or because of a little of both, I was less captivated by the movie, overall, the second time, and in fact fell asleep for a short period. Still, the next morning I found myself unable to stop my thoughts from returning to Margaret and how it further complicates my thoughts on the already complicated relationship between imperfect narrative and imperfect character. 

Even if you think the narrative is flawless, which you probably don't, it's still another matter to consider the ways possible for liking and disliking Lisa Cohen. She is frustrating to various degrees. Andrew O'Hehir wrote that "she belongs to a constitutionally irritating class of person — the overprivileged New York private-school teenager — about whom no more movies need to be made, by anyone, ever. (I live in New York and don’t want to know anything about those people. Perhaps, though, they are more tolerable viewed from afar.)" O'Hehir's compulsion to issue a blanket judgment on Cohen's personality type is in fact a terrific testimonial to the necessity of this film's perspective, which O'Hehir would see if he wasn't being such an asshole. That I think O'Hehir is being an asshole in his review doesn't mean I think he is wrong about Lisa, just like I don't disagree with everyone in the movie every time they are mean to Lisa. I do think he is wrong about the movie; specifically, as he admits, his perspective on the movie is narrow and limited, and his ridiculous qualifier is so obviously the real truth that it's absurd to mention it glibly. Yes, Mr. O'Hehir, art wishes to endure, and the view is from afar - either from outside NYC at any point in time, or from outside the moment of now from any place. Lisa's view is limited, but the audience member's view needn't be.

Similar to Lee Chang-dong's Poetry, a movie superior to this one, my inability to wholy appreciate, understand, or enter the life of the protagonist doesn't interfere with my admiration for the filmmaker's dedication to a narrative of comprehensive and specific nakedness. Narrative sacrifices for the goal of full disclosure are beneficial for the film if the narrative sacrifices are meaningful distortions of dramatic traditions and favor the realities of the protagonist. In the instances of Poetry and Margaret, the filmmakers chose for the narrative's angle of vision a porthole from their protagonists' souls or emotional selves, and just as it'd perhaps be preferable to stand outside a ship and have a panoramic view of the surrounding area, rather than use the porthole, the reality of the porthole isn't wrong, it's its own distinct, unique reality. Do you see what I'm saying about portholes? A.O. Scott wrote that towards Margaret's end "[t]he dialogue becomes louder and rougher; the scenes screech to a halt (or else just keep on screeching); and the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." The criticism is equally relevant to the protagonist's journey as to the film, viz., the criticism attacks a part of the film that is an essential component for understanding Lisa Cohen. The film's last hour tracks the transference of the dramatic stakes from objective and outward principles to emotional and interior ones. Earlier in his review Scott noted this when he wrote that "Lisa’s subsequent attempt to make sense of this trauma — to figure out how it counts as something that happened to her and to assimilate it into her developing sense of the world — is at the center of 'Margaret.'" Scott saw both these points at once, but for obscure reasons didn't connect them. That's odd. Let's say you (real-life you) dedicated yourself to a cause, with total vehemence and conviction, and at the tail end of your efforts experienced drastic disillusionment. I'd expect the emotional and personal value of your original dedication to equal your subsequent disillusionment, in your eyes, for separate but vitally important reasons, as they're both transformative episodes.

What Margaret doesn't do is fix Lisa, or attempt to sublimate her quest into dramatic edibles. Owen Gleiberman wrote that Lisa "makes the accident about her, which is why she must learn that it wasn't. The trouble is, it's a lesson we grasp all too early on. Margaret may be the longest film ever made about the moral education of a selfish, annoying princess." Gleiberman's criticism connotes a personal superiority that should remain independent from Lisa's experience. His criticism wants to deny Longergan the right to grant Lisa the right to a) be who she is, and b) learn her lesson as herself. Gleiberman's desire for back-seat driving is an inhibitive response - filmmakers needn't avoid excruciating or agonizing particulars of individual existence. I believe it's perfectly acceptable for a filmmaker to point the narrative mirror at the protagonist, to contemplate from the protagonist's viewpoint, even when that viewpoint is less refined or mature than his own, even when it's tedious. Sometimes life is tedious. If some films want to forget or ignore this reality, that is fine, if some films wants to mention or depict this, that is fine too.

Some of the potential faults of the movie are addressed as topics within Margaret. For example, an early conversation between Lisa and Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon), about attempting to be interested in things one would not regularly be interested in, seems to prepare the audience for its confrontation with Lisa's quest. There seemed to me to be many conversations within the film that foreshadowed and echoed the film's events, instances I'd like to explore more thoroughly after repeated viewings. One unmissable instance is the movie's final scene, which seems to demonstrate the potential value of the film and art in general. As Margaret and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) have a moment of catharsis during an opera, we the audience are inspired to have our own moment of catharsis, and also to come nearer an artform, as they do. We share feelings with the characters. This is possible only because Lonergan has made a promise to the audience to always tell the truth about his characters' feelings. If Margaret is sometimes heavy, as life is sometimes heavy, than that heaviness contributes to the powerful lightness of the final scene. Though Lonergan sometimes depicts Lisa at a level of truthfulness that damages the film's accessibility and enjoyability, his unwavering faithfulness to his characters means that we the audience can't help but sometimes have a distaste for these characters, but also can't help ourselves from loving them, despite themselves and ourselves. I'd argue that the hate and love we experience during Margaret as an audience is more like how hate and love operate in real life, compared to other dramatic performances that perhaps favor embedding love and hate in dramatic traditions.

What about, however, me falling asleep and being bored and kind of restless during certain scenes on my second viewing? Valid problems, like bad acting moments, lines, and scenes, are present. They are disruptive to the viewing experience. I wonder about Lonergan's editing problems and the film's delayed release. I wonder if sometimes a scene is bad because in real life the scene would be bad, if that's what Lonergan wanted. How can I know? Sometimes in real life I'm a bad actor, and it's painful to experience, painful for me and the persons present. Sometimes my life is poorly written. Sometimes I'm given good advice in broken, unpolished ways. Sometimes I give and receive good advice for bad reasons, or bad advice for good reasons. If I seem to have avoided confronting these weaknesses in Margaret, it's because my thoughts are overrun by the depth of deliberation, feeling, and honesty that Lonergan invested in his film, and because the film itself is ponderous about the complexities of perspectives and opinions and personalities. Margaret says these things exist in life, and has a kind of self-consciousness that makes me feel like the movie implicitly confesses to these problems within the film. One of Lonergan's requests for us as an audience is to puncture the surface flaws. Why can't an artist ask this of us? If I want to tell you something, but admit I don't know the perfect way to say it, should you not listen to me? I believe the character of Lisa is a symbol of this request. Margaret is a film of deep convictions and desperate questions, it is that above all else. It has material worth talking about beyond dramatic form, and for that reason alone I lament how it has been overlooked upon release. I've seen films play every note right and come close to perfection and be meaningless, while I consider Margaret's imperfections immensely meaningful.