Fly-by Fingerings on Four Films

Crank (2006, Neveldine & Taylor)

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These two are an odd duo, certainly. While I can’t in all good conscience call this a good film, if only because there’s just one-too-many attempts at that really banal type of ‘trendy’ humor (you know the kind: hey, he’s ordering tacos, and now he’s dancing. Ha ha!) paired with a soundtrack that seems to run the gamut of every band I’ve ever hated ever, this does – in contrast to it’s sequel, which I’ll confront momentarily – show the directing team of Neveldine and Taylor somewhat in control of what they’re doing. And, while a lot of the elements that made that second film so — durned annoying are still present, it’s a much more coherent film, formally. In particular, there’s actually a pretty well-orchestrated chase sequence in the film’s final third – you know the one; with Chelios simultaneously receiving a blowjob from his wife while trying to fend off his pursuers. While the extraneous zoom-ins do get a little distracting here and there, Neveldine and Taylor aren’t just throwing things at the screen all willy-nilly. This is also evident in the chase through the mall, earlier in the film. At the very least, we can process what’s going on.

Neveldine and Taylor’s films seem marked by a propensity toward a sense of visual toilet humor and frenzy, and yet – aside from the occasional buttock-in-a-hospital-frock shot of Statham astride a motorcycle – this is a relatively straight-forward actioneer, interspersed here and there with some pseudo-witty banter about “tacos,” or sex right out on the streets of Chinatown, or a joke about how the recently dead void themselves. In fact, much of the humor seems to come more from how the film treats its characters as objects, and indeed, the style bares a lot of resemblance to a sort of live-action hyperactive extension of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto video games. Neveldine and Taylor seem to acknowledge this connection, as the film begins with bits of Atari-esque sounds filtering in against a title screen with SNES typeface and graphics. They take this a step further in the opening of the second film, which gives us an opening graphic recapping Chelios’ fall at the end of this film.

And, wading through it all, there’s Statham, wearing an almost comical grimace on his face – the man has a face like a mountain, he really does. But, what takes you off-guard is his gift for comic timing, whether it be prodding a hospital nurse impatiently like a kid, or – after being given only rage-filled screams for six minutes or so – his first line of dialogue being the softly spoken “get a cell phone, honey. Please?”

All of which – just seems to lead to more questions about what exactly happened, with it’s sequel. And Gamer, by all accounts. While this film isn’t bereft of stereotypes, or the occasional barrage of nonsensical imagery as a transitional tool, it doesn’t rely on them for the sort of tired humor that permeates High Voltage.

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009, Neveldine & Taylor)

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This film, on the other hand, well – everything positive I wrote about the first film above? It’s absent, here. Neveldine & Taylor seem to have gotten the idea that what was so successful about that first film was the constant barrage to the senses, and with that in mind, they’ve crafted a film that reminds one of nothing so much as that little annoying kid you used to hang out with, who used to awkwardly make high-pitched Asian voices and draw pictures of anime characters with guns that shoot guns that are made out of smaller guns. You know, the one who’d just blurt out anything that came into his head without any sort of forethought? That’s this film, and – like that kid – you just want to smack it in the back of the head and tell it to “shut the fuck up.” But, it won’t.

Although, if I wanted to be kind, I’d say that this film bares an intriguing similarity to the recently-released Wii game No More Heroes, but – what works in a game doesn’t always work in a film, and to be honest, this wasn’t really all that funny there, either.

Patrick Svennson, with whom I did the George Miller round-table, says the main character Chev Chelios  “…is in the running for the most dimensional character in the history of action films. He’s very complex, his primary motivations color every move he makes, his adrenaline constantly barreling through anger, lust, confusion, confidence, and desperation.” Additionally, he’s also written two short pieces on the character over at Ijustknowit, which I do find myself agreeing with, to some extent, although I don’t think either Neveldine or Taylor really had anything of the sort in mind when they were setting finger to keyboard. However true that might be, you can find Being: With Statham and “to explode with great grace– “at their respective links.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008, Alex Gibney)

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This documentary from Taxi To the Dark Side director Alex Gibney starts off with one of my favorite Thompson quotes being read by Johnny Depp, from the end of Hell’s Angels:

“It was always at night, like a werewolf, when I’d take the thing out for an honest run down the coast — there were no helmets on those nights, no speed limits, and no slowing down around the curves — letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge… The Edge. There is no honest way to explain it – because the only people who know where it is are the ones who gone over. The others – the living – are the ones who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever it was they had to when it came time to choose between now and later. But, the edge is still Out there.”

– such a quote provides an apt summary for Thompson’s life as the film lays it out over the next hour and thirty minutes,  as we watch him grow from would-be fictional writer to an almost universally renowned rock-star journalist, the first of his kind, and then into fourth gear, shifting down after the debacle in Zaire. Interspersed with interviews from his wives, his publisher Jan Wenner, and various other people who figured prominently in his most active writings, are bits and pieces of rare footage from his time running for sheriff in Aspen, on the campaign trail following McGovern, and – interestingly enough – what appears to be film shot during the Vegas trip. More than a bit of this is taken from the BBC documentary Fear & Loathing in Gonzovision, which was included on the Criterion release for Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, I noticed.  But, it’s the footage that’s exclusive to the film that’s the most appealing – it paints a picture of a writer trying to live up to, and eventually being overshadowed by, the public image he’d created for himself.  In one black-and-white piece of footage shot during the ’72 campaign trail, Thompson sees a camera aimed at him, and almost self-expectantly pulls out a tab of speed and tells us, “I guess I’ll do some speed, now. I might as well be frugal – only do half.” In another, he tells an interviewer: “well, when I get called to talk at a college, I’m not sure if they want Duke or Thompson. So, I-I’m not really sure who to be. … I may have to kill off one and start a new life elsewhere.” In a way, the whole film seems epitomized by a bit of footage shot just after Thompson had published Hell’s Angels, from the sixties show To Tell The Truth – where the judges call out, “would the real Hunter Thompson please stand up?” And a slightly bashful looking guy slowly rises from his seat.

The film doesn’t shy away from confronting the introvert that Thompson had become during his later years, or the impact his frenzied life-style had on his surroundings – son Juan, now in his thirties, when asked about his father, says: “he’d get up at five ‘o clock in the afternoon, I’d be having dinner, he’d be having breakfast. It’s shame he wasn’t around more often, but that’s who he was.” But, even more telling are the varied reactions we’re given to his suicide – ranging from his publisher Jan Wenner, who breaks down in front of the camera, to his first wife, who questions those who call it some sort of tragically heroic act with him docking out of the game while he was still on top (because, well, he was far from the top, at the time), to even Pat Buchanan who, while reflective, can still manage a chuckle or two.

His is an interesting life, Thompson’s. I’m half-tempted to try to write something about him, actually.

Animal Farm (1954, Halas & Batchelor)

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Halas and Batchelor’s Animal Farm opens with a stirring, bombastic portion of Matyas Seiber’s score – it’s repeated three more times during the film, and takes the place of Orwell’s Beasts of England. And, one of the only real misfortunes of the film comes of it missing the opportunity to show the song spreading outward, infecting the cities and being sung from the church spires. As it is, the song is used primarily to underline the film’s theme of revolution, with each of the scenes it’s featured in marking some point of rallying political change, within the farm. The first time it’s heard, the animals have just begun to rally together, and in the best scene of the film, the animals stand in a circle bathed in the fire-light produced by the burning remains of  Jones’s reign – singing it to the sky, in unison, as the plumes of flame grow larger and larger. The final time we hear it marks the films biggest departure from Orwell’s novel, as the animals, led by Benjamin the Donkey, emerge from the smoke and dust to reclaim the farm, just before the end credits. And, perhaps that’s why it worked so well, despite it’s shady origins.

Orwell’s book always seemed to me like it would be difficult to translate to screen, being as it is full of broad narration and with no identifiable main character – something that Hallmark attempted to rectify with their 1999 adaptation, placing the character Jessie at the center of the story. Here, this film sidesteps such an issue by – well, not side-stepping it at all. The closest the film comes to having a protagonist is with Benjamin and his relationship with Boxer, and it’s these two that provide the film with some of it’s more affecting scenes – which could similarly be said of the novel, but the film takes it a step farther, with it’s previously mentioned ending. It’s also sans much dialogue, as well – most of the time, we’re informed by the overseeing narrator, and when characters do speak, it’s only to underline something thematically substantial. For the majority of the film, they crow, they squeak, they moo and bark – and, they howl in anguish.

This film stands as an interesting progenitor to Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs, and the rest of their ilk, thematically –  and, like those two, it provides an interesting contrast to the type of films that Disney was producing, at the same time. Being as it was the middle of the fifties, Disney had long stepped out of the realm of interesting films like Pinocchio and Bambi, and with the exception of maybe Peter Pan and Robin Hood, the fifties really marks the era where their work began to gradually become more homogenized, both mechanically and technically – to shorthand the production of certain films, more and more they’d began to out-and-out trace scenes from their past films, without really attempting to hide it. Standing in sharp rebellion against such a thing, there’s Animal Farm – and, while it’s nowhere near as naturalistic as the latter two, it certainly goes in that direction, while also remaining of a style that kind of reminds one of Ub Iwerks, just a little. And, against it, Halas and Batchelor allow Orwell’s fable to play out, with only one or two real contentions, it seems.

You know, I don’t remember Orwell painting Snowball as negatively as the film does, here – perhaps that’s because I am, or I was at any rate, a fire-and-brimstone student of Bakunin and Proudhun and all of those cats, but  Snowball seemed to function in the novel as the only one of the pigs with altruistic intentions, the Trotsky to Napoleon’s Stalin, and the figurehead of what Orwell saw as the fantastic possibilities that socialism in Russia might have had, had it not fallen into the hands of the greedy little hustlers that it did. Here, the film goes to great lengths to portray him as only a bit less rude than Napoleon, but every bit as corrupted.

Strangely, I was surprised at myself – that I enjoyed the ending that had been famously foisted onto the film by the CIA (which also explains the portrayal of Snowball, now that I think about it). Although, it does kind of give rise to a strange, ironical sensation of: “Well, they’re rebelling against ‘The Establishment,’ but isn’t it The Establishment that’s telling them how, and to, rebel?” Because of the distance of time, and how well Halas and Batchelor integrate it into the story, the pause such a thing provides is relatively slight – but, it’s still there. Such a thing doesn’t come from any sort of artistic integrity, so it makes you feel just a little dirty to have your blood roused by it.

But, rousing it is.

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5 thoughts on “Fly-by Fingerings on Four Films

  1. […] Originally posted here: So, what about it? […]

  2. Toongirl says:

    Which scenes in ‘Animal Farm’ made you think Snowball was of the same cloth as Napoleon? To my memory, Snowball was shown truly trying to make things better for the animals, and then Napoleon steals his plans for the windmill. Snowball also actually fought in the frontlines against the humans, unlike Napoleon.

    • henryjbaugh says:

      Well, the film outright says it – the first time we meet Snowball and Napoleon, the both of them are shown brusquely pushing their way to the front of the crowd, and the narrator says something akin to, “and, then there was Napoleon. Just as forthright as Snowball, but even less polite.” And, throughout the film, they make a point to give the character the same kind of smug demeanor and callous vocals that are given to Napoleon – there’s no real differentiation between the two of them, in the film.

  3. Toongirl says:

    If in your eyes, the film is showing how future political leaders show a similarity in self promotion & self-centeredness, then I see your point. Especially if the two pigs are supposedly Lenin & Stalin. Left to their own characterization in the film however, I still think Animal Farm would have been better off under Snowball than Napoleon.

    • henryjbaugh says:

      I believe it’s always been maintained that Snowball was Trotsky, in this analogy. Lenin always seemed to be jointly represented with Karl Marx in the Old Major character.

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