Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

God from the Machine

Usually, when something outside of a story’s established boundaries resolves that story’s central conflict, critics refer to that kind of ending as a deus ex machina.  This means “god from the machine,” a reference to ancient Roman dramas where an actor playing a deity would descend onto the stage, riding in some contraption, in order to bring an end to a story whose conflicts and problems were too complicated to be untangled any other way.  An example includes the out-of-nowhere earthquake (or something like one) that solves all the crises at the end of Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1857).  Deus ex machina endings are usually quite unsatisfying because an audience has (one hopes) become involved with the dilemmas of a story’s characters, only to have those problems concluded by some unconvincing contrivance.

There are exceptions to this, though.  The earthquake in Little Dorrit may have come out of nowhere, but an earthquake at the climax of a story set in 1906 San Francisco is acceptable because the history of that terrible temblor is well known.  This doesn’t mean that some grand historical intervention can settle things in too pat or too tidy a manner, but what might look like an egregious artifice in one context might be acceptable to an audience prepared for something major to intercede in the characters’ lives. 

That said, I’m not sure how satisfying the deus ex machina ending of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) is.  For the length of the film, we become absorbed in the agonizing ordeals of a Mayan inhabitant of pre-Columbian America, only to see his antagonists and torments brought to a screeching halt by the arrival of Europeans.  On the one hand, the hero is passively rescued by a bolt from the blue, and audiences tend not to be keen on passive resolutions to stories.  On the other hand, the fact that Apocalypto is a major-studio (Disney) film set in pre-Columbian America in the first place (with its actors speaking in subtitled Mayan dialogue) sets up the viewer for the eventual inclusion of white faces in the story.  But it seems to me that a narrative “resolved” in this abrupt way was exactly the kind of story that Gibson wanted to tell. 

Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, ‘Apocalypto’s’ protagonist

Once one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men, Gibson might be thought of these days more as the director of The Passion of the Christ (2004), the biblical film that became a lightning rod in America’s culture wars, just as that year’s presidential campaigns heated up.  It’s well known that Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who believes in the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the church, there is no salvation.”  Or put another way, if you’re not Catholic, you’re not going to heaven.  Religious faith is so central to Gibson’s worldview that he financed a very religious film, with a very doctrinal (and, some would say, anti-Semitic) message, out of his own pocket.  But Gibson’s mixing of religion and filmmaking didn’t end with The Passion of the Christ.

How do Gibson’s religious views inform Apocalypto?  To begin with, the film’s title has biblical connotations.  Literally, an “apocalypse” (from the Greek ἀποκαλύπτω) is a revelation, an uncovering of something previously unknown.  “Apocalypse” is also an alternate name for the biblical Book of Revelation.  Because the subject of that section of the Bible is the “end times” of Earth and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the word “apocalypse” has also come to mean any kind of catastrophe or cataclysmic event, particularly one that terminates something of considerable size or scope.  So, with its very title, Apocalypto carries instant associations with biblical revelation and with the end of the world.

In the film’s climax, the long shot of the Europeans rowing their boats toward the shore of the American landmass includes the figure of a monk holding aloft a cross.  This is arguably the shot’s most prominent element.  Combined with the soundtrack score’s solemn but sweet music, and the awe with which the Mayan characters react to the sight of the ships, this climactic shot invites a religious reading. 

Given Gibson’s theological leanings — and his willingness to incorporate those leanings into his filmmaking — I think that Apocalypto’s sudden conclusion is an analogy of the Second Coming, of the return of Jesus Christ from heaven, which is anticipated by many Christians.  Just as the European intruders portend the end of the way of life for Apocalypto’s Mayan characters, the Second Coming, Christians believe, will put an end to life on Earth as we know it.  And it will do so suddenly and without warning.

In other words, just as the agonizing ordeals of Apocalypto’s Mayan protagonist — that we have been witnessing for the last two hours — don’t really matter, given how his land will be utterly transformed by the European newcomers, the earthly strides and struggles of us mortals — that we have spent our entire lives experiencing — don’t really matter, given how they will ultimately come to an abrupt end, Christian teachings say, upon the Messiah’s imminent arrival. 

The scene’s religious analogy isn’t all-encompassing: rather than moving towards the representatives of religion, like a good Christian, the pagan main character runs away from the boats and avoids them in the film’s denouement.  Still, the very last shot of the film is a curious one: the branch of a plant that the characters — who are obliquely shot and moving in and out of focus —brush past.  Given the incidental (if not unnecessary) function of this branch in the scene, one would expect the image to fade to black as soon as the characters leave the frame.  But the camera lingers for a few seconds on this odd image of the branch before dissolving into darkness. 

Given the religious implications of the shot of the Europeans, the image of the leafy bough, while probably not the exact same vegetation, brings to mind the symbol of the palm branch in the Christian faith.  The palm is emblematically important in Christianity because the Bible says that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (riding on a donkey) in the days before his crucifixion was greeted by bystanders waving palm branches and strewing them onto his path.  This event gives the name to the Christian moveable feast of Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.  So, to many Christians, since palm branches greeted Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the palm is a symbol of Jesus’ imminent re-arrival on Earth.  Apocalypto ends on the lingering image of a palm-like branch, thus concluding on an icon of the Second Coming, reinforcing the foretold event’s importance to the film, as the delayed fade-out on the immobile branch is bewildering to the average viewer.

If one considers a boat to be a “machine,” liberally defined, and if one considers the monk on the boat as bringing the word of God, then one can regard the climax of Apocalypto as a — literal — deus ex machina ending.  Gibson resolves his main character’s torments with a grand intervention by an outside force.  But as a traditionalist Catholic, Gibson believes that — as grand as that outside force was — it was only a small-scale parallel to the great deus ex machina ending to the workaday lives of everyone on Earth, when providence so chooses.

The last four minutes of Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Pinetop Davenport?

Fun fact: The picture that illustrates the song “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith on the iTunes version is actually a photo of fellow blues pianist Charles Edward “Cow Cow” Davenport.  Not long after making his landmark record “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” in 1928 (whose influence can be heard in Ray Charles’s “Mess Around,” among other recordings), Smith was killed in a shooting incident in 1929 at age 24, and no photographs of him are known to exist. So, why not use a photo of Davenport instead? Apparently, one blues pianist is just like another.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Bondage Novel in a Bind

I’m going to write about something I don’t know about: the novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its in-the-works film adaptation.  Many readers are probably already aware of the novel, from its phenomenal sales to its mainstreaming of BDSM to its unlikely origin as Twilight Internet fan fiction.  I haven’t read the book myself because most of the reviews I’ve seen have arraigned author E.L. James’s ungainly prose. 

The reason I’m writing about a book I’ve never read and a film that has yet to be made is because their very existence raises issues about the depictions of sex on the big screen.  By all accounts, the hallmark of Fifty Shades of Grey is its descriptions of BDSM sex, descriptions that, I’m told, leave very little to the imagination.  As one reviewer put it, “the sex scenes don’t fade to black.”  And I think a greater openness and understanding of non-mainstream sexuality (however compromised its representation might be) is, by and large, a good thing.

However, Fifty Shades of Grey is now being adapted to a medium in a marketplace with certain restrictions, at least in the U.S.  Based on what I’ve read, it seems to me that a faithful adaptation of the novel — one that preserves its fascination for the intricacies of a sexual relationship involving practices that many Americans see as deviant — would result in a motion picture rated NC-17.  I’m not saying that such a film would need to be hard-core pornography, but a film doesn’t need to be hard-core pornography to garner an NC-17 from the Motion Picture Association of America.  Still, I do think that such a movie would need to go beyond what the industry calls a “hard R,” a picture that pushes the sexual (or other) envelope but still receives an R rating.  A Fifty Shades of Grey movie would need to be unapologetically NC-17.  And Hollywood avoids an NC-17 like an STD.

In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic BDSM novel, is being adapted to a format, a big-screen Hollywood movie, that is inhospitable to its content.  I’m anticipating that the forthcoming motion picture, at least in its U.S. edit, will become a vanilla-flavored version of the book by diluting its sex scenes, thereby gutting the property’s raison d’être — while possibly keeping some allegedly awkward plot points — and paving the way for risible results.  The written descriptions of sexual bondage in the book may not “fade to black,” but Hollywood may very well compel the movie’s bondage scenes to do so in order to get a coveted R rating.  This property about a woman being tied up is in a bind.

Furthermore, as the big-studio story editor Billy Mernit says on his blog, it’s doubtful that a novel which gained popularity within the anonymity of an e-book would lure its audience out into the open where they can be seen buying a ticket in public.  And on top of all that, a recent article in Entertainment Weekly says that sex scenes in movies are an endangered species, with audiences for regular Hollywood fare turned off by on-screen hot-and-heaviness.

However, one forum where none of this is a problem is pay TV.  Premium channels like HBO and Showtime can screen boundary-straining depictions of sex without needing to navigate the ratings board’s approval.  I suspect that a number of pay-TV sex scenes in the past that bore the (relatively) uncontroversial rating TV-MA would have been rated NC-17 if released theatrically.  Given all of this, it seems to me that a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey would reach its best audience as a TV movie for HBO or Showtime.

Now, I’m sure that Universal Pictures (the studio making the movie) has done its math and determined that a Fifty Shades of Grey theatrical release is a viable project.  Still, the mismatch between the graphically sexual novel and a movie presumably requiring nothing stronger than an R rating gives the undertaking — at least from what I’ve gleaned about it so far — an aura of impending disaster. 

The cover to the November 22, 2013, issue of ‘Entertainment Weekly’
featuring the stars of the upcoming film version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Nobody asked me, but here’s what I would do if I were overseeing a Fifty Shades of Grey audiovisual adaptation.  I would make it for pay TV (preferably HBO or Showtime), where a sexually incisive finished film would find a friendlier audience (I would expect the final cut to get a TV-MA rating).  I might do Fifty Shades of Grey as a stand-alone movie or combine the novel with its two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, and make it as a mini-series.

Next, given the critical drubbing of Fifty Shades of Grey’s prose, I would hire Richard LaGravenese to write the screenplay.  I would want him to do for Fifty Shades of Grey what he did to another virtual two-hander bestseller that was critically scorned, The Bridges of Madison County, and turn it into an insightful and engrossing character study.  For director, I would want someone like Stephen Soderbergh, who usually strikes a fine balance between an uncompromising art-film attitude and giving the masses what they want. 

However — news flash — I’m not in charge of the project.  Whether the final film version of Fifty Shades of Grey will be a success or a misfire or something in-between is for time to tell.  Still, the novel has made a breakthrough of sorts by bringing what was once considered a perversion, BDSM, to mainstream audiences.  But given the increasing sexual conservatism of Hollywood’s big screen in order to avoid NC-17 ratings, I can’t help but feel that theatrical distribution will transform the novel’s wide-open eroticism into a movie that’s merely erotically ajar.