Sketchpad: The Burbs


The Burbs Tom HanksWhen I watched American movies in my UK-based youth, I barely noticed that they were foreign. There was something slightly exotic about paper boys throwing newspapers over sprinklers and onto lawns from their bikes, about screen doors, pies with pumpkin in them, Halloween, and the fact of Corey Feldman’s existence, but I had little sense of the USA as a place on a distant continent, populated by another people. I’d seen so much of America on TV and film that t barely felt like a foreign land. It’s only later in life (i.e. about now) that I really feel the distinct separateness of America, the knowledge that it is not the country I grew up. This should be surprising, since many of the films I was watching (usually because they were the films most forcefully marketed into my face) deliberately set out to make the of middle-American or suburban everyday seem strange and malevolent. I’m thinking specifically of the films of Joe Dante (GremlinsExplorersTwilight Zone: The Movie, InnerspaceMatineeSmall SoldiersThe Hole…), for whom this has been something of a defining trait.

Gremlins Invasion of the Body SnatchersIn Dante’s movies, action is bordered by representation. People receive instruction and commentary from movies and TV: think of how a key scene in Gremlins is echoed by the TV on the wall showing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if the world of movies was issuing a dire warning. In The Burbs, there are screened references from Mr Rodgers (the ultimate and absurd example of good neighbourliness), The Exorcist (less so), and a few others. As in so many of Dante’s other works, the cartoonish, gothic excesses of American sf and horror B-movies are splashed directly all over neighbourhoods which are otherwise clean and close-knit, if a little overs-stuffed with eccentrics and obsessives.
The Burbs Wendy Schaal and Bruce Dern
This is a little like a Looney-Tunes Spielberg mashup, or maybe just a bug-eyed remake of Rear Window, where neighbourly nosiness segues into passive-aggressive territoriality before sliding down into outright paranoiac prejudice. But it does remind me now of what a delightful physical comedian Tom Hanks is (was?), and that before they straddled the globe with giant robots and crusading capers, American movies kept their allegorical turf wars picket-fenced and local.
Tom Hanks in The Burbs
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Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass


[See also Toy Story 3D]

I hope that the makers of both Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3 will keep good on their implicit promise that these are the concluding chapters of their respective franchises, but for very different reasons. While the Shreks have become increasingly tired, desperate, repetitive and, by becoming what they used to mock, cynical, the Toy Story team have miraculously kept things fresh, developing their ideas rather than chasing their own tail for one last elusive chew of the same old piece of meat. Shrek Forever After moves quickly enough that you might not notice how heavily it is wheezing, hoping to squeeze a bit more milk out of the CGI teat before you get too bored. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, makes a virtue out of the story’s frailty: as a trilogy, Pixar’s three films have grown into an achingly beautiful introduction of themes of mortality, obsolescence, the passing of time and making the best of what you have before it’s gone. It’s about death, ageing and decay. You know, for kids? Instead of fabricating some tosh about wishing on a star, your dreams will come blah and your prince will meh, Toy Story reminds that you’re going to die – don’t waste the time you have in denial. Embrace the ephemerality of life – it’s what makes it delicious and thrilling. As this film heads towards its end it becomes clear that the toys are heading for retirement, and the suspense becomes about how they’d like to go out – fighting, passive, dignified, accepting?

Hopefully, kids won’t come away with a feeling that they’re hurtling towards the grave, though. Beyond that wish, I won’t try and second guess what an 8-year-old will find loveable about this film. I’ll just speak for myself. And I’m determined to keep this short and pithy, not least because you’re going to die, and you’ll be wanting to make the most of the time you have left.

Read on…

From the Earth to the Movies


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This blog has become a bit obsessive about Georges Méliès lately, after a lengthy discussion of Le Voyage dans la Lune and a much shorter one about his vanishing lady illusion. It’s a phase I’m going through. After this, there’ll be one more post about his appearance in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then I’ll give the old guy a rest for a while. But my latest GM-related discovery has been an interesting one that I wanted to share. I’m not sure how I missed out on this one for so long, but thanks to Gareth for the loan of the DVD boxset, I’ve now been able to catch up with the 12-part HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. With its twinkling, near-constant fanfare-for-the-common-man style score and misty-eyed nostalgia, this show lays it on a bit thick for my taste, but there’s genuine meticulous craft in its reconstructions of landmark moments in the Apollo Space Program. That’s partly the problem, though: it’s too reverent to allow much soul-searching about the bullishly patriotic rhetoric that fuelled those rockets and risked those lives to stick a flag in a distant rock, and just about every character portrayed is tiresomely noble. Maybe NASA was really like that, but it’s a lot of nobility to take on board over the course of an eleven-hour series. As a NASA assistant said in an episode of The Simpsons: “The public sees our astronauts as clean-cut, athletic go-getters. They hate people like that.”

I’m being facetious, of course. There’s plenty of room for a sciencey historical series that doesn’t generate artificial conflict for the sake of crowd-pleasing drama. It shows the minutiae of moonwalks as if it was all just another engineering job. I once shared the boyish, slack-jawed fascination with the moon and space flight, so I know why these guys are so passionate about what they do. I just never needed a full-blast trumpet section to make me feel it.

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What piqued my interest in From the Earth to the Moon was the final episode, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Nice title, and an unusual way to end a series so firmly rooted in a particular period of American history. Intercut with scenes of the Apollo 17 moon landing and exploration (the last moonwalk to date) are recreations of the shooting of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon. Now, the parallel is obvious – the end of the Apollo program is viewed through its opposite bookend of an imaginative “beginning” seventy years earlier. They could’ve gone back to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or German rocket scientists in the 1920s and 30s (whose discoveries fed directly into American rocket science of the postwar period), but Méliès’ film is positioned as a thought experiment that made conceptual room for the later excursions into space (cynics might say that GM is a “safe” antecedent to the space program that avoids formalising the debt to Russians and Germans). Executive producer Tom Hanks, who also wrote the episode, could have given himself any role in this series, but chooses instead to humble himself with the part of Melies’ long-suffering assistant Jean-Luc Despont. He clearly takes seriously the link between the making of a fiction about a distant dream of space flight and the hard science involved in its achievement – whatever the technical obstacles, his NASA boys are filled with enough wonder to keep trying every trick to get those rockets into space.

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I like to see reconstructions of actual movie sets at the best of times. Even lesser films are elevated for me when they include these scenes, as in the making of Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire, Citizen Kane in RKO 241 and a whole bunch of crap in Ed Wood. I love to cross-reference these scenes with the real thing; I find it riveting (usually) to see a well-known two-dimensional filmed image from different angles, so I was especially keen to see From the Earth to the Moon’s version of Le Voyage dans la Lune, a film with which I am minutely familiar, and even more excited to find that the whole thing was shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on his trilogy and the monumental Comrades.

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Tchéky Karyo (in a rather dodgy skullcap) plays Melies as a passionate shouter on set, gesticulating fulsomely and talking his actors through the scenes as they play out, semi-improvised but always emphatically directed (thus capturing that nice contrast in Melies’ work between meticulous control and rather chaotic crowding in the busier scenes). There is little interest in the finer points of his life and psyche – he’s really a cypher for the dream of space flight, and the 1902 sequences are much jauntier in tone than the Apollo sequences. There are some direct comparisons between these two distinct timespaces: the making of A Trip to the Moon is juxtaposed with the broadcast of the Apollo 17 mission, showing the disparity between the wonderment of first imaginings to the bored, overfamiliar indifference of sated audiences in the twinkling of a match-cut; the rehearsal of a volcanic eruption on the 1902 film set is followed by the search for evidence of previous volcanic activity on the Moon’s surface in 1972, playing off a pyrotechnic fantasy against the long-form legwork of full-on geological investigation; a shot of sleeping astronauts is matched to the scene of Melies’ moonwalkers dreaming of stars. If you want to compare the modern reconstruction of A Trip to the Moon with the original footage, check out the images on my earlier post.

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Seeing A Trip to the Moon performed “live” and in full colour is a pleasure, and will do nicely until a proper biopic (I might even waive my distaste for this silly little genre in the case of a Melies film) comes along. The conclusion that Melies was ruined by Edison agents copying his film may have a slight basis in truth (he was never really able to keep up with dupes of his films and the ever-evolving production methods of his competitors), but it wasn’t as immediate as suggested here. Positing A Trip to the Moon as a false-start highpoint of his career just makes for a convenient parallel with the close of the Apollo space program – both events are made to seem like wasted opportunities, thwarted by executive interference. Melies is a useful icon for the show’s rhetoric of progress and glorious exploration, ignoring the possibility that his intentions might have been satirical, mischievous and less starry-eyed. Accounts of Melies’ life and career dote on the fact that he ended up selling toys in a train station. Knowing that this purveyor of fantastic stories of flights to the heavens was eventually stuck on the peripheries of a more mundane mass transit system lets us congratulate ourselves for recovering an under-appreciated genius, or lets us imagine that we too are neglecting a chance that future generations will gladly revive decades from now. But aligning one’s enterprise, whether its a Space Program or a TV programme about space, with one of cinema greatest pioneers is the quickest route to romanticising it by claiming that you yourself, unlike those earlier fools, recognised the importance of fantastic cinema all along.

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  • Edward Bowen has written a fine analysis of this episode, which you can read by following this link. He has also edited and uploaded the footage of the reconstructed Le Voyage dans la Lune to YouTube, and you can see the two-part video below: