Nothing like a blast-furnace weekend to make you appreciate the cool spaces of a movie matinee. So off we went to the Loews to see Wall-E and that’s where I had my first of two movie-related realizations of the weekend.
Wall-E itself is wonderful, not only for the quality of its animation — in this, Pixar continues to set the standard — but also for the wit and economy of its storytelling. Roughly the first third of the film is devoid of dialogue as the eponymous robot scuttles about a deserted, garbage-suffocated Earth, and yet the film conveys a great deal of information through purely visual means. I’m always annoyed when a reputed masterpiece pf “pure cinema” like Blade Runner needs to open with a blurt of text exposition — “It is the year blah-blah. Mankind has created artificial humans . . .” — when all that information could be conveyed more gracefully through character and visual clues. It’s not simply a failing for science fiction films, either: plenty of mainstream or historical films open with dopey mini-lectures (“It is the time of the Gang Lords. It is the time of Al Capone.”) instead of turning images and story into tools of discovery.
Stanley Kubrick manages to convey some rather sophisticated concepts through the wordless opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood tells us everything we need to know about Daniel Plainview without a scrap of dialogue. The first words are spoken roughly a half-hour into the film, when Plainview starts to con his victims, but by then the essence of the man has been conveyed. Wall-E uses the detritus of consumer society as a vehicle of exposition, and it does so beautifully.
I also like the way Pixar films build their emotional peaks through generosity and big-heartedness instead of ham-handed pounding at people’s sentimental buttons. It would have been easy for Wall-E to score cheap satirical points by having the bloated, mechanically pampered humans cling to their infantile existence; instead, given a chance to experience life directly, they leap for it and Wall-E becomes genuinely inspiring. There are plenty of scenes exploiting the little robot’s E.T.-like cuteness, but when the story requires something more, the film rises to the occasion. Think of the way Ratatouille gives its villain, the cadaverous food critic Anton Ego, the chance to sum up its story: “Not anyone can be a great artist, but great art can come from anywhere.” I don’t know about you, but to me that delivers a bigger, better punch than umpteen listenings of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” And when the creatures in Monsters, Inc. learn it’s more powerful to engage people’s imaginations instead of just relentlessly exploiting their fears, I wonder if the Pixar crew didn’t have a crystal ball that let them warn us about the incoming Bush administration.
I also saw The Dark Knight, and can confirm that everything you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is true. I though Batman Begins was a decent enough relaunch, though frankly I have trouble remembering all the arcane training stuff that took up so much of the running time. The Dark Knight stands head and shoulders above its predecessor, by virtue of its script and its acting. I like the way Ledger played the initial meeting with the mobsters, nervous and somewhat uncertain, yet so crazy he soldiers on with his plan. (The “magic trick” with the pencil nicely punctuates the scene, so to speak.) “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger,” the line that introduces the Joker, could serve as the omnibus title of this whole series. Christopher Nolan is still learning his way around big action sequences, but when the script (co-written by Nolan and his brother) and performances are this good, who cares? I’ve already seen plenty of car chases.
The film opens well, but at first I thought I was watching another case of a film generating pre-release expectations beyond all possibility of fulfillment. But about halfway through, as the stakes and emotions continued to mount, I realized that comic book movies are the grand opera of the 21st century, and Chris Nolan is their Verdi. (I guess that makes The Dark Knight the modern equivalent of La Forza del Destino.) The outsized emotions, the larger-than-life characters and costumes, the broad and often quite memorable music, the plots that are too ridiculous to take seriously unless you’re completely caught up in them — it’s all grand opera, folks, only the women in the winged helmets aren’t built like tanks and the men don’t look like they had to be pried loose from the concession cart before the overture. Instead of Tosca jumping off the battlement, you get Two-Face and Batman hurtling from a construction site. (Handy things, those half-completed office buildings — where would action movies be without them?) You get the music and the emotions without the long recitatives. As someone who was never much of an opera buff to begin with, I find that a good tradeoff.