It's all about Willie

When I first heard that Tim Burton was going to make a new film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", with Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka, I thought this I gotta see. Not only did I love all three previous collaborations between the two (Ed Wood especially), but Tim Burton's quirky imagination, sense of the gothic and affinity for outsides and weirdos seemed perfectly suited to the book, and aside from the fact that I'll see anything with Johnny Depp in it, I was interested in what he'd do with the character.

Somehow though, between reviews that complained his Willie Wonka was too much like Michael Jackson, others that called the movie just plain unsatisfying, and being in France at the time of its release, I managed not to see it. Until yesterday, that is, when I found out that sometimes you should just ignore reviews and go with your gut instinct, because this film is a near-perfect visualisation of the book.

I think what's different between me and say, MaryAnn Johanssen on this count, is that I had read the book about twenty times by the time I saw the 1971 version, and that, to be honest, I didn't really like that movie. Gene Wilder was pretty ok, alright, I'll admit, he was a good Willie Wonka, but the rest? It was just too different from the book, and I didn't see the point of what they added. To MaryAnn, however, the 1971 movie is the benchmark, and I can see why this movie could disappoint if you were expecting a retread of that film: it forgets that film ever existed, and goes back to the book. While watching, my family and I agreed that somehow it felt like we'd seen it before, and this has nothing to do with the 1971 film (I think I'm the only one who has seen it) but everything with how visual the book already was, and how closely the film sticks to it.

I think what makes Roald Dahl and Tim Burton fit so well together here is their sense of exaggeration. They know that sometimes things need to be over-the-top to be truthful. Dahl's bratty kids were so awful they could barely exist, and their punishments grotesque, but the conceit worked because of this. Like the chocolate factory in the title, everything was oversize, the imagination taking just one step further than you would have expected, and Burton understands this like no other. The house the Buckets live in is not just crooked, it's leaning over so far it's a wonder it hasn't falled over, and even the door is so slanted that the characters have to bend to enter. When a chocolate palace collapses, it does so completely and violently, giant columns of chocolate falling down. Burton undertands that it is necessary for everything to be so big, larger-than-life, he understands that the boat they use to travel down the chocolate river is made from candy and it looks it.

In fact, the only parts in which the film kind of fails are the ones that were added. Granted, the idea of Willie Wonka having a dentist father is a good one, and having the father played by Christopher Lee is a stroke of genius, but aside from this the backstory's just a little too neat psychologically. Dahl's Wonka didn't need a reason to be strange and arbitrary, didn't need a reason to have isolated himself from the world. He was just weird that way. Depp's Wonka however - and I blame this solely on the script - cannot say the word "parents", and a neat resolution of his complexes is in store for him at the end. The end doesn't work: Dahl knew the importance of a swift happy ending without much thought of the consequences, in fact, when he did write about the consequences, in his follow-up book "the Glass Elevator", he failed miserably, but Burton wanted more than just saying "and they all lived happily ever after" and leaving it at that, and it's too bad.

One last thing I would like to comment on is the Michael Jackson thing. I think that so many people saw Michael Jackson in Depp's performance has to do with how they viewed the film, with the trial at that point fresh in everybody's mind, because I looked for direct evidence and it just isn't there. Yes, Wonka is effeminate, and yes, he lives in his own fantasy world, but he hates children! Violet hugs him and he's horrified, just as Wonka in the book would have been. He is mean and he does not need a reason for it. He lures children into his Neverland not for his own purposes, but because he has no choice, and he has no trouble dispatching them one by one.
It might be that what confuses people is that they are used to looking for connections with reality. I often do it too, and often with reason: I'm almost sure the references to 9/11 in War of the Worlds was intentional, and it's not hard to find the criticism on forcefully bringing peace in Serenity. Tim Burton is a different creature from most directors, however, because he doesn't care much about reality. His mind is celluloid, and I don't think he intended any real world parallels with this film. With Tim Burton, it's all about the pretty pictures, it's about celebrating weirdo's, not about any contemporary allusions. Even other films do not interest him that much, because they are in reality. He only has one major reference to another film (well, films, but it revolves around one in particular) and it is, appropriately, in the Mike Teavee sequence.

If there is a message to this film, it is the same as the one in the book: it's a celebration of imagination. That's why Dahl opposes TV so much: not because there aren't worthwhile programs being made, but because it "makes the brain lazy". Mike Teavee is a smart kid, more so in the film than in the book, even, he figures out the "system" to find his bar (although I found the reference to the Nikkei index kind of ridiculous), he immediately sees why Wonka's idea to send a chocolate bar through the TV would not work, he is the voice of reality, in a way, seeing right through the "pointlessness" of Wonka's entreprise. Wonka's answer? Like in the book, he simply ignored this "voice of reality", tells Mike he's mumbling and that he can't understand a word he's saying. I believe both Dahl and Burton are trying to tell us this way that we shouldn't always restrict ourselves to reality, and that imagination is vital. I couldn't agree more, and I think the movie is worth seeing if only just for this: it shows just what is possible if you refuse to be restricted by reality.

There's only one other director who might fit Dahl just as well. It's Wes Anderson, of course, and he is currently working on an animated film based on... "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". I'm looking forward to it. Maybe these movies will be enough to make us forget the saccharine horror that was "Matilda".


Gay? Big deal. He's Dying.

Also from the Boomerang, but without the wretched first sentence.

The New York times probably put it most dramatically. “The Winner is…only acting gay” is the attention-claiming title of an article published not too long ago, an article that proclaimed a gay revolution. The Guardian, titling this year the “year of the Gay”, is not far behind. So what are these papers so in uproar about? What’s their big point?

Six, no fewer than six movies with gays in them are coming out this fall, count ‘em! No need to worry, though, both articles haste to comfort us, the actors playing them are very much straight. It’s Oscar time, people, and it seems playing gay is this year’s playing disabled, this year’s impressive weight loss or gain. Will the strategy work?

Include dramatic sigh.

Of the New York Times’ big invasion, only one film can be considered mainstream (the film adaptation of the musical Rent). Not only is the renowned newspaper clearly grasping to find a phenomenon to report on, but the angle they put on it is outrageous. Their main point? Playing gay is only accepted, nay, only possible, if the actor’s sexuality is decidedly “normal”.

Take Heath Ledger in what I confess to have called, like so many others, “the gay cowboy movie”, Brokeback Mountain. If we believe the New York times, the only way we can appreciate this love story between two men is because we know that Heath is a manly man in real life, who’s even knocked up his on- and offscreen wife/girlfriend, Michelle Williams. The Guardian goes so far as to suggest she’s been cast merely as a “sexual alibi”. And of course the fact that Peter Sarsgaard, who portrayed gay characters in several films, “appears in gossip columns linked with Maggie Gyllenhaal” is crucial. How ridiculous their point is, is best seen when using their own words: “Our awareness of these nonfiction roles makes it easier and maybe more acceptable for middle-class heterosexual viewers - a group that does, after all, include most of us in the audience - to embrace characters whose sexual preferences we don't share.”


It just makes you want to flee to France, where they – at least on film, and in film criticism- have a more relaxed way of dealing with the subject. Take François Ozon, for example, one of France’s most prolific and interesting directors at the moment. The main character in his new film, , “Le Temps qui Reste” (the time that remains) is gay, and dying. In any American film, his illness would have been Aids. In this film, he gets cancer. Admittedly, this is necessary for a later plot point, but still: it shows that to this director and writer, the sexual orientation of this character is not the only thing that’s important. Despite some rather graphic scenes (yes, this is what my mother and I do for quality time) the film might not have been all that different had the main character been straight.

For all the above, but also for the beautiful music by Arvo Pärt, for the astounding cinematography, for the chance to see Jeanne Moreau shine on screen again, for some scenes that really worked, I would love to proclaim this film a masterpiece. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

It’s a pity really. Some parts here work beautifully, other almost do, but as a whole the film is ultimately unsatisfying. It charts what happens to beautiful, arrogant and yes, gay, photographer Romain after he finds out he only has a month or two to live. He pushes everyone away, his family, his boyfriend, and tells only his grandmother (Moreau) what’s going on. He goes to a darkroom. He sees himself as a kid. He has a conversation with a waitress in a diner who thinks he’s beautiful. In the end, Ozon returns to his fascination with beaches and lets his story end.

As the summary above, the film feels to episodic, too aimless. There are some nice moments with the boyfriend, and the short segment with his grandmother is wonderfully worked out, but in the end we have no insight whatsoever into his relationship with his family, with his sister especially. We don’t know why he reacts the way he does, why he shuts everyone out. We spend a whole movie with this man, but while it would take me a long time to grow weary of watching the beautiful Melvil Poupaud, we ultimately get no insight into who he is. As an exploration of death and how people deal with it, Ozon’s own “Sous le Sable” is a much better film, and it’s a pity, because this one shows the potential to be just as great.

Do actors win Academy Awards just for morphing, for once not their appearance, but their sexuality? Is Philip Seymour Hoffman a contender for best Actor this year because despite their differences in statures and physique he managed to embody who and how Truman Capote was, or because Truman happened to be gay? Until the media starts growing up and out of its jitterish and exalted treatment of homosexuality, it will be hard for movies that feature homosexual protagonists to be judged on their own merits.

Art and Reality

My "editorial" for this month's Boomerang...So yes, real published work! Enjoy. More to come.

‘tis the season to be jolly…and the season of gold. The Academy Awards are coming up and in the US most films aiming for one or more little statuettes are being rolled out in December: early enough to still qualify and late enough that they will be fresh in the voter’s memory. Remarkable again this year is how many of the contenders have a basis in reality. Last year this trend was already visible – four out of the five nominees for best actor were portraying real people – and this year continues it: hopefuls include Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s second film as a director about the reporter Edward Murrow and his fight against McCarthyism, Capote, a film documenting the writing of “In Cold Blood”, Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel, and Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash. Steven Spieberg’s Munich, about the killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in Munich in 1972 and the retribution that followed it, has yet to come out but is already rumored to be one of the front runners. The only film not based on reality that stands a chance to win Best Picture is Brokeback Mountain and this was enough for some ridiculous responses in the media, as you can read in the article on Le Temps qui reste.

It makes you wonder: do we need art to put reality in perspective? Can art only be considered to be “high art” if it takes reality as its basis and transforms it? And if the answer to these questions is yes, why is the non-documentary film rated highest on rottentomatoes.com King Kong, not exactly the most realistic film?

The question arises whether the films based on “true stories”, and for that matter all art that has a basis in reality, merely reflects it or transforms it in a subtle way, reinvents it so to speak. For example, the photographs by Rinke Dijkstra, an exhibition of which Floor reviews, come as close to objectivity as photography allows yet we look at them with more interest than at random snapshots because she chose these people, these children to photograph. Simply this makes them more important, more mysterious and more intriguing than they would otherwise have been. Rineke Dijkstra’s work was also on display at this year’s Museumnight in Amsterdam together with other works that can be seen in the context of their manipulation of and influence on reality and how we perceive it. Aansan reports especially on those by VJ Erwin Olaf, whose works according to her “[play] with reality on the edge of fantasy and dream”.

Then there’s Bob Dylan, about whom it’s always been almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Scorsese made a documentary about him –also reviewed in this section- but didn’t even try to disentangle truths from falsehoods, the invented from the real, just observed. Still, why is it worth mentioning that Scorsese directed it if not because this influences the end product greatly? By leaving some things out and putting others in, by lingering on Dylan’s face sometimes a little longer than we’d expect, by superimposing specific comments over certain images, he molds reality to become art and as such he influences how we see it.

Umberto Eco recently wrote in the Telegraph that while ours should be a cynical age because we’ve mostly let go of God, we live instead in a world of endless credulity. It is understandable in a way that people nowadays blend fact and fiction, with reality shows that might or might not be scripted and truth often seeming stranger than fiction. The Da Vinci Code is not only a best-selling book but many follow it as some kind of evangelism while other books like the Da Vinci Code decoded attack is as if it were a history book, and not conspiracy theory escapism. Eco argues that it is the lack of religion that makes us turn to other “spiritual” avenues, books like “the Celestine Prophecy” for example, passionately defended by Orr Shomroni here.

Sometimes it would seem that we need art to understand reality, almost. That we need some kind of fiction as a comfort in our lives. How else to explain the popularity of astrology and similar things? Art might be as good a way as any a lens to see the world through. If God is dead, let’s hope it makes art live a long and healthy life.