Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dogs of Straw and Dogs of Plasticine

Question: which film is more violent:

A) 'Straw Dogs'

B) 'Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit'


Answer: B), of course.

I really didn't care for either one, although the cinematography in 'Straw' was intriguing, and the animation in 'Were-Rabbit' was of course brilliant. Thing is, when a film is off-target from the get-go, and all the elements are considered, chances are iffy that it will get better.

'Straw' hasn't aged well. Dustin Hoffman's character is a vacuum-brain type, but he's actually very 21st century in his self absorption, narcissism and simple selfishness. He's supposedly a 'pacifist', but seems more interested in smoking cigs than anything else. He FINALLY blows up at the intruders who are closing in on his house, though he doesn't even know that his wife has already been raped repeatedly. Poor but Brit-pretty Susan George does her best, and David Warner (unbilled) does what he can with his greasy hair, but everyone else is a tedious contributor, and not much more than a parody.

Now I think Peckinpah is an interesting director, and not just because of the much-hyped violence factor. 'Major Dundee' was truly a different kind of western - edgy and uneasy, in the guise of a mainstream vehicle for Chuck Heston. But with 'Straw' Sam P. doesn't seem to know if he should do a 'Wuthering Heights' approach or play it as a 'Sky West And Crooked' (i.e. bucolic Englishness) gone horribly wrong. I for one know firsthand how off-putting rural Cornwall can be. (I spent a bleak midwinter there), but, except for some action with Dustin's Triumph Stag and some interplay with a neat old beater lorry (a Commer?) driven by the hooligans, the scenery could just as well have been cardboard. Any Cornish bleakness was squandered in favor of cig smoking and chalkboard backgrounds.

While 'Straw' of 1971 is of course a period piece that was breaking awkward new ground in pushing the borders of violence, 'Were-Rabbit' of 2005 was manufactured (because it is a construction first of all, and a film second) well within a mainstream where violence is a foundational ingredient in roping folks into picture shows, because even more than sex, violence always sells - and for all ages, too!

But wait - the premise of 'Were-Rabbit' may be quasi-spooky, but the application of the violence therein is so aggressively done with gentleness that any Great British censor, like grumpy old Lord Harlech, would have to find it unimpeachable in its kiddie appeal. It's in the Road Runner category where its non-stop action is concerned, but without the brevity of wit.

This kid-friendly picture aspires to be 'very British' (or more accurately, 'very, very English' - or even Home Counties-ish) in its' appeal, but I'm afraid it doesn't do that very well at all. Charm-wise, this ain't no 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' or 'Genevieve'. Any Englishness that it tries to extol is cut and pasted into the fabric with ham-fisted forcefulness. Like Shostakovich was said to say about the final movement in his Symphony #5, it's 'forced celebration; we ORDER YOU TO CELEBRATE. WE ORDER YOU TO CELEBRATE.' This may sound a bit cruel to apply to a DreamWorks animation masterpiece for the whole family, but I swear, the assertiveness of the film ruined any chance it had to be a winning bit of now-vanished Albion. An Austin Seven does not a Penguin Book-perfect portrait of postwar Britain make.

In Peter Greenaway's 'Drowning By Numbers', a remarkable ambience of Englishness is presented in multiple ways, most memorably in a nighttime scene of lovemaking amidst a fall harvest's bounty. The strange comfort of that scene was so perfect, so accurate, and completely genuine. Not that I expect it to be reproduced in a Wallace & Gromit adventure...

(I wonder if 'Were-Rabbit' director Steve Box is related to the stellar John - David Lean's premier production designer, or Betty, one of the most durable of rare women producers of the 40s-70s...)

Actually, I really shouldn't push the violence issue with 'Were-Rabbit'. That isn't the main thing that rankled me about it. It was simply too much - as in, excessive. Excessive cleverness, excessive skill, excessive frenzy, excessive anxiety to top the previous scene with eye-popping ingenuity. 'Were-Rabbit' tries - oh, how it tries - to make something of its opportunities, but it suffers from a lousy, unfunny script. Ralph Fiennes's character is supposed to be THE butt of jokes and slapschtick, but like John Candy, I was waiting in vain to crack a smile. Ten seconds of Terry-Thomas is better than the whole of this strained affair.

The music score is, well... pretty dreadful, I think. But I know that the makers were very pleased with it. I suspect they were hoping for a bit of grand old Arthur Sullivan or Eric Coates, or even Ketelby, but to me Julian Nott's music inspired a sort of biliousness that some of the visuals merely completed. Why? Excessiveness! Trying too hard. American brashness instead of English understatement. Missing the target, old boy.

I just can't get away from being repulsed by the makers' standards of human or animal appearance: the polished eyeballs and tooth-baring mouths (easy for animators to rotate, easy to reach all the teeth...), which constricted the individuality of the characters, so that only hairstyles or 'Freaks'-inspired craniums seem to be their standout features. The Vicar and the Lady Totten-whatever characters possessed hair that looked like some sort of ghastly glandular discharge that has been coagulated and modeled. I know, it was supposed to be bizarre and funny and over-the-top. A satire on the aristo classes. But... but... very off-putting, chaps. Laid on a bit thick, eh?

In the grand scheme of W&G lore, it is, I'm afraid, a fatal mistake not to have Gromit able to talk - even in dog language. The poor pup doesn't even get to have a mouth! Instead we are too dependent on Wallace (voiced by saintly/beloved Peter Sallis, who does the cliched old brick routine ad nauseum). And somehow, I just can't leave behind the Gromit/Vomit word association. Who would name a nice puppy something like that? Gromit is of course a can-do hero, and his makers chose to make him the strong, silent type - a shocking bit of cruelty, as far as the way they do it. I'd take the wise-cracking Charlie Dog any day.

There's no doubt that 'Were-Rabbit's intentions are sincere. Yet it's as if the freedom of its technical abilities has ruined any chances of deftness or wistfulness or even quality entertainment. I admire the makers' skill of course, but I feel sorry that they couldn't combine with, say, a John Mortimer or a Harold Pinter (both now, alas, no more) or a Bob Larbey or someone who wrote for 'Red Dwarf' or 'The Brittas Empire', for crying out loud. Get your ingenious script FIRST, then apply your ingenious animation to it. I really did want 'Were-Rabbit' to be a stunner. I just couldn't lie to myself that it was.

Finally, I confess, I didn't finish watching 'Were-Rabbit'. I forget exactly where I left off. Oh, I think something fantastic and carefully animated was happening. That much I know. (I assume the bunnies who were trapped in the Dyson-ish vacuum chamber were cheerfully rehabilitated...) I actually made it through 'Straw' though, but emerged, as Sir Walter Scott would say, unamused and unrefreshed. Sometimes I'm just out of step with films, (I never bought into the whole 'Star Wars' wonder-package) but I readily own up to such a responsibility. On the other hand, some films, despite their craft, have no art. To have art, you have to have a soul, and some films just don't have one.

1 comment:

  1. big!pink!drowningbynumbers!bunny!September 8, 2009 at 3:21 PM

    Coincidentally enough, just acquired a copy of 'Staw Dogs' and feel no need to disagree with your assessment - bespectacled Hoffman did grate on my nerves a bit with his wavering, hesitations & indecisions 'til he finally resolved to perform like he had a pair; perhaps Sam P's intent all along, as his objective (as gleaned through supplemental disc & essays via Criterion edition) to demonstrate the conflict that resides in us all. But yah, it "wudn't" no 'Wild Bunch.'

    And a big hi-5 on name-droppin' Peter G! To my mind, not since Pasolini's dread 'Salo' has someone so effectively collided the opulent smack into the brutal. Great writer/director, his pieces always rife with those evasive crannies & nooks with repeated views (not to mention the occasional "Did you know...?"). Chompin' at the bit for the home-viddy release of his recent 'Nightwatching' - honestly hadn't expected it to actually happen!

    So, evidently I'm a bit too preoccupied with claymation novelties~