Saturday, June 25, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)

Hayao Miyazaki followed the critical and commercial success of his debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), by creating a manga series known as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  The origins of the series, which began its twelve-year serialized run in 1982, are somewhat controversial.  Some say that Miyazaki originally intended for Nausicaa to be an anime, but couldn’t find funding for a feature film, while others claim that the director started the manga on the condition that it would never be adapted to film, and that he was only later convinced by financers to turn his story into a theatrical release.  Regardless, Miyazaki wound up releasing a filmic version of Nausicaa in 1984, adapting only the portions of the story which he’d already completed in the manga (roughly a quarter of the story that was ultimately completed in 1994).

Like Cagliostro, Nausicaa freely blends medieval fantasy adventure with space age sci-fi, though it replaces the earlier film’s spy elements with a post-apocalyptic wasteland motif.  The story is set a thousand years after a world war known as “The Seven Days of Fire,” which destroyed the earth’s ecosystem and turned human civilization into a scattered series of settlements.  The various villages face the constant threat of being engulfed by the toxic jungle that now takes up most of the earth.  While humans can’t survive long in the toxic environment, insects have thrived and become enormous, threatening beasts.  Princess Nausicaa, a skilled wind glider who often enters the toxic forest in order to gather supplies for her settlement, is one of the few who seem willing or able to communicate with the insects rather than enraging them.  But when several other warring kingdoms crash land in the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaa and her peaceful settlement are thrust into a complicated conflict involving a long-dormant “Giant Warrior” who may be able to eliminate the insect threat, but who may also pose a lethal threat to the humans.

The plot is about as convoluted as it sounds, and probably more well-suited to a lengthy comic book series than a two-hour film.  Sadly, the film quickly gets bogged down with long expository scenes, and Miyazaki never finds a way to effectively incorporate all of the plot points and characters into one distinct, compelling vision.  Cagliostro had several peripheral characters that seemed to have been included simply because fans of the Lupin the III series would expect them to be there, but every character besides Nausicaa gets short thrift in Miyazaki’s second film.  While the characters in Cagliostro were largely archetypal in conception (and in their physical design), many of them were given enough personality to at least partially transcend their generic origins.  Not so in Nausicaa, which features such hackneyed figures as the noble swordsman, the blind but wise old lady, and the arrogant and power- hungry soldier, and then doesn’t give any of them enough screen time to become anything more than walking action figures.  Miyazaki is wise to temper his earnest environmental and anti-war themes by acknowledging that nature is often harsh and inhospitable to humans, and the animators admirably make no attempt to make the slimy, multi-eyed giant bugs cute in any way.  But otherwise the low level of ambiguity and nuance in the film seems wildly out of proportion to the complexity of its plot.

Fortunately, Nausicaa’s stunning hand-drawn animation ensures that the film is at least as compelling as it is frustrating.  The world of the film may be made up of a thousand different fantasy and sci-fi clichés, but its indigo hue and wide-open vistas are as unique as they are breathtaking.  There are a lot of nice little touches, such as the way that the wind rustles through the characters’ hair, that earn the animators points simply for degree of difficulty.  Nausicaa’s action sequences aren’t as crisp as those in Cagliostro, but they do feel impressively huge and they are edited with a clarity that is sadly lacking in most modern action films.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is bloated with plot and underdeveloped characters, but it is proof that even a heavily flawed Hayao Miyazaki film is well worth staring at for a couple of hours.

UP NEXT  Castle in the Sky

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Nashville

Year of Release  1975
Country  USA
Length  160 min.
Director  Robert Altman
Screenwriter  Joan Tewkesbery
Cinematographer  Paul Lohmann
Editors  Dennis Hill, Sidney Levin
Sound  Chris McLaughlin, William A. Sawyer
Original Music  Robert Altman, Arlene Barnett, Jonnie Barnett, Richard Baskin, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Gary Busey, Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Juan Grizzle, Allan F. Nichols, Dave Peel, Ben Raleigh, Joe Raposo, Lily Tomlin
Cast  David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert Doqui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allan F. Nichols, Dave Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, Keenan Wynn, voice of Thomas Hal Phillips

Beauty  Though it’s widely regarded as a classic today, Nashville was a somewhat controversial film in 1975.  Many real-life Nashville musicians found the film to be an inaccurate portrayal of the city’s music scene, and felt that the songs used in the film (most of which were written or co-written by the actors singing them) were inferior to the songs actually being produced in the city at that time.  This ignores the fact that many of the songs used in the film aren’t necessarily supposed to be good, and one of the chief pleasures of Nashville is that it provides a wide variety of music that is being performed by characters of convincingly varied skill levels.  The tone is set early on, as the film keeps editing back and forth between an old populist hack (Henry Gibson) singing a hilariously overwrought Bicentennial tribute and a passionate gospel group that is belting out a sincerely soulful tune.  Musical performances take up at least an hour of the film’s 160 minutes, and they run the gamut from the old-fashioned country of a psychologically troubled starlet (Ronee Blakley) to the slick post-hippie folk rock of a noted womanizer (Keith Carradine) to the unskilled shower singing of a waitress (Gwen Welles).  In each case, the music feels appropriate for the character performing it, which is an impressive feat considering the variety of genres on display.

Strangeness  Taken individually, the stories of Nashville’s twenty-four main characters would not be that interesting.  For the most part, they are each fairly one-note and would probably come off as fairly banal clichés if they weren’t played by such an excellent ensemble cast.  But the strength of Nashville, and what makes it such a distinctive and unique film, is that it brings the clichés of different types of music-industry stories and brings them into contact with each other in every conceivable combination, producing genuinely exciting and odd results.  Broad, cartoonish parodies of red-state mentalities (Gibson) rub up against tragic tales of damaged stars (Blakley), while an assassin out of a psychological thriller (David Hayward) shares scenes with a wide-eyed groupie (Shelley Duvall) from an exploitation movie.  It’s as if Robert Altman had considered every generic way to make a movie about this subject matter, and then threw them all into a blender to produce a stranger, more exciting result.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The mosaic structure of the film’s various plotlines is reflected in Chris McLaughlin and William A. Sawyer’s innovative sound work, which uses extensive multi-tracking for overlapping dialogue.  Altman had been working on various methods of creating the aural equivalent of deep focus cinematography since at least McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), but Nashville undoubtedly represents his most sophisticated and masterful orchestration of audio cacophony.  The sound work is a perfect fit for a movie that criss-crosses genres and storylines so freely.

Tradition  The granddaddy of large ensemble films is Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), a film that clearly had a strong impact on Altman’s trademark style.  The rule-breaking dissections of the French New Wave also served as an inspiration, with Jacques Rivette’s genre cross-pollination serving as a general forbearer to Nashville’s aesthetic, while the famous traffic jam sequence from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) seems to have directly inspired a similar scene in the first half hour of Altman’s film.  Large ensemble works without a central character seem to have proliferated since Altman’s ‘70s glory days, with examples ranging from Paul Thomas Anderson’s early films through Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000) taking inspiration from Nashville.  Altman himself tried several times to repeat the formula of Nashville, in films such as A Wedding (1978) and Short Cuts (1993), though often with diminishing returns.  Large ensemble storytelling has ultimately found a home on serialized cable television, where ambitious shows like Deadwood and Treme have enough time to fully flesh out their many characters and give a 360-degree view of their settings in a way that movies can barely approach.

Repeatability  There is enough going on in Nashville for it to remain compelling on multiple viewings, and the overlapping stories and dialogue bits make it possible to experience the movie in different ways at different times. 

Viewer Engagement  Since Nashville doesn’t have a main character or central identification figure, it is largely up to the viewer to determine how they experience the film.    Different bits of dialogue and storylines may pop out at different viewers on different screenings, and the cacophony of the dialogue and the flexibility of the script allow the audience many opportunities to choose what to focus on.  Unfortunately, the film is occasionally weighed down by a cold and distant cynicism that seems at odds with its spirited aesthetic, and the wild shifts in tone can make Nashville a somewhat baffling, if exciting, experience.

Morality  A large part of what makes Nashville such an interesting and vital film is its refusal to settle on any one style or point of view, as it is constantly reshuffling characters and putting them in contexts that challenge the viewer’s perception of the film’s milieu.  The free-form, non-hand holding approach does make the film somewhat uneven in both tone and the quality of its individual scenes (in addition to giving a number of its characters short thrift), but that is forgivable considering the impressive ambition of its approach.  Sadly, Altman drops the ball with a heavy-handed finale revolving around an assassination at a political fundraiser, ending with some sledgehammer visual symbolism as storm clouds hover over a giant American flag.  In fairness, this final scene is reasonably well-executed in its own right, but it seems to belong to a different, simpler film.  Altman should’ve left the political sloganeering to the sleazy political vultures, corrupt managers, and careerist musicians that Nashville spends so much time making fun of.

Nashville fails the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A much smaller-scale look at the art world, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso