Monday, December 14, 2009

Cinematic Impressions Subject To Change (With Notice)


An Education (2009; Dir.: Lone Scherfig)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; Dir.: Wes Anderson)

Here are two films that, for me personally, demonstrate that, yes, even (nonprofessional) film critics can evolve in their opinions of films over time. Not even we are wedded to positive or negative first impressions!

A couple of weeks removed from finally seeing the much-hyped British film An Education, I'm finding myself less enamored of it as a whole than I was immediately after the screening. For a film that focuses in large part on main character Jenny's (Carey Mulligan) desire to break out of her sheltered existence and see the wider world, An Education is mostly lacking in similar worldly wisdom, preferring to pitch most of its supporting characters as broad stereotypes and generally shoving aside real-world complexity for standard-issue coming-of-age homilies.

Still, as I watched the film, I found myself identifying so completely with Jenny's desires to expand her horizons that I can't quite bring myself to hate on this film too much, as simplistic and visually unremarkable as it is. It's not so much Carey Mulligan's charm that slays me in this regard (though, make no mistake, she's pretty much as magnetic as you've heard). No, I think it's mostly just a personal thing: As someone who still lives at home with his parents in central New Jersey, and who has always had an inferiority complex, justified or not, over all that I feel I have yet to experience in life and art, I was probably primed from the outset to see myself reflected intensely in Jenny's yearning to break free from her own sheltered home life and run off with the supposedly more experienced, "worldly" David (Peter Sarsgaard). Hell, I'd love to experience Paris in all its glory if I could do it on someone else's dime. Wouldn't you?

Which is why it's ultimately disappointing to see An Education go in the reductively moralizing direction that it does in its last 20 minutes or so, as David is revealed to be a world-class cad and Jenny finds her life in a rut as a result of his deceptions—lies, it must be said, that she probably allowed herself to believe in the glamour of it all. Earlier in the film, Jenny passionately argues against what she had come to see as a deadening focus on book-learning at her private school; this struck me as having an unmistakable ring of truth: there are just some things about life you can't learn in a classroom. Once the bottom has come out from under her life, however, the only thing Jenny has learned from all this, apparently, is the value of staying in school. All well and good, of course...but what of all that high culture and worldly awareness she's supposedly picked up, for well and ill? All for nought, it seems, in the film's mad dash toward a tidy resolution. It's as if the film ultimately slaps her—and, by extension, us in the audience—in the face for achieving a level of the sophistication she yearned for so poignantly from the beginning. I feel like the true lessons of her unfortunate story are more complicated than An Education is prepared to admit; that's why, once the resonance of its evocation of youthful awakening has worn off, the film, in the end, feels far less than the sum of its parts, the more I consider it.

The kind of worldly wisdom An Education pretends to offer is in full supply in Wes Anderson's stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox—a film that, in contrast to my experience with An Education, only gets better the more I think about it.

To preface, a confession: When it comes to the films of Wes Anderson, you can call me an agnostic. I've always recognized the heart and sincerity behind Anderson's fussily designed cinematic worlds, and I always believe I grasp what it is he's aiming to evoke or explore in a given film of his. But, with the exception of Rushmore—and with the caveat that I still have not caught up with his 1996 debut feature Bottle Rocket—his films have mostly left me unmoved, with the sense that there's some kind of block preventing me from fully responding to his films the way I feel like I should. Is Anderson, with his penchant for the self-consciously whimsical and overdesigned, to blame? Not sure; I can always tell he's sincere and engaged even as he's, say, dazzling us with a Jerry Lewis-inspired cross-section of a boat in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Maybe I just keep hoping for more emotional directness in his family stories than he's willing to provide: his quirky sense of clever humor masks unspoken emotional turmoil, but the armor is very thick indeed. I see Anderson's notes, but, with isolated exceptions in all of his films, generally I have trouble hearing the music.

Now, with Fantastic Mr. Fox—his first animated feature—I feel like I've inched closer to hearing that music...and what beautiful music it is! There are still moments of his distracting ironic distance—music cues, for instance, that play as trivializing counterpoint to the emotion of a particular scene—but for once I left a film of his feeling that perhaps he does have something valuable and wise to impart to us after all. Maybe, with stop-motion animation and furry creatures to work with, Anderson has indeed finally discovered the logical toy box on which to splash his sense of visual play—a playfulness that makes Anderson one of the few filmmakers working today since Jacques Tati who demand you roam your eye all over his widescreen frames—while aiming for a grand, resonant consideration of universal childhood and adulthood in all of its joys and compromises.

Fantastic Mr. Fox clarifies at least one aspect of Wes Anderson's art that has always been a source of both fascination and frustration: While he is surely interested in real life and human beings, he has always couched his inquiries amid whimsical backdrops that beguile on the surface while daring you to discover the darker emotions underneath the look-at-me surface oddities. The Royal Tenenbaums explored upper-class family tensions in a picture-storybook setting; The Life Aquatic took stock of its titular explorer/filmmaker's life amidst a marine dream adventure world; The Darjeeling Limited used India as the setting for a brotherly reconciliation. Not all of his films necessarily take place in what one would recognize as "the real world," yet Anderson always aims to evoke hidden currents of real-world darkness among his human characters. Now, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, he even ditches human beings—and yet, even as he emphasizes these creatures' animal natures (a refreshing emphasis after the too-cutesy anthropomorphism that marred the otherwise wonderful Up), the moments of melancholy peek through even more strongly, and touchingly, than ever. What felt evasive previously simply feels true here.

The distance between a character's inner nature and the civilized front he puts up—possibly a concise description of Anderson's multifaceted vision and aesthetic, come to think of it—becomes more of an overt theme than in his previous films. Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) has turned away from a life of chicken thievery in order to settle down and raise a family, but his animal restlessness remains: he continues to cause mischief on the side. His side mischief gets his family and friends into trouble when his activities land him in dangerous hot water with three vengeful farmers. But Anderson is not interested in creating a simplistic morality play about settling down, paying more attention to your wife and child, etc.; Anderson's vision is more complex and empathetic—a bid for understanding and acceptance rather than easy moralizing.

There's plenty more to parse and savor in this film, but for now, I'll just say that the more I reflect on Fantastic Mr. Fox, the more impressed and moved I am by it. I look forward to seeing this again on a big screen; I also look forward, once again, to revisiting his previous films to determine whether I have indeed evolved in my appreciation of the ever-elusive Wes Anderson. It wouldn't be the first time I've turned around on my attitude around on a filmmaker or film I've previously been cold on, and it surely won't be the last.

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