In the name of frightening beginnings and questionable progress, Mark Hay, Bwog’s resident expert on movies, hotdogs, and the relations between the two, brings back his Netflix column with three film recommendations.
Would it be trite to use the start of the school year as the basis for a(nother) list of recommendations of coming-of-age films? Definitively, yes – but only so much as college life, for all its wonders, becomes horribly hackneyed all too soon. So instead of offering another veiled and self-indulgent reflection upon the new and exciting, here’s a list in honor of questionable progress. More specifically, here’s a list in honor of the sublime and awful glory that is the Lerner Hall Hotdog Machine and all the chance, turmoil, fear, and general existential crises that it undoubtedly represents.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
It is hard to say which of Hayao Miyazaki’s achievements as a director/animator is more beautiful – his superlative animation or his rich and complex characters, simultaneously human and archetypal. Princess Mononoke carries through on all the promise of Miyazaki’s fanciful and blunt style, but it is the crowing achievement in his pursuit of morally conflicted characters, enabled in no small part by the chaos of the world they inhabit.
The world of Mononoke is one of progress and all the turmoil it inspires. The film takes place in the dawning of a new, imperial age – the age of the gun – and man and spirit alike must fight in the throes of madness as the quest for iron and power tears the world apart. It is this struggle and displacement that pitches the protagonist, Prince Ashitaka (voiced in the English version by Billy Crudup) into the melee.
A strange god with skin of putrid snakes, oozing blood and pus, attacks Ashitaka’s remote village. Though Ashitaka saves his village from doom, his reward for slaying the god is a curse: a scar gripping his arm and forcing it to independently commit violent and vengeful acts. Ashitaka is exiled to the west to seek the source of the god’s madness and a cure for his wound. His quest to cure his curse, and “to see with eyes unclouded by hate,” leads him into contact with all the forces of progress the new technology has inspired: Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), a monk/spy/soldier using chaos for opportunism; Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), an empowered ruler of an iron mine and forge embracing progress at the expense of the gods; and San (Claire Danes), a girl raised by the wolf-gods, fighting to restore the old balance. Though each character is singularly driven, none is secure or defined- as brilliantly illustrated by the moderate and calm Ashitaka’s physical struggle to prevent his arm from killing Lady Eboshi. (It should also be noted that the love story between San and Ashitaka is one for the books). The interplay between these characters, clashing in their orbit around Irontown, creates a beautiful and inventive tale of the search for place and identity in a new world.
Scotland, PA (2001)
Before saying anything of this film, it should be noted that the author has included it out of a personal bias. Every film nut has one guilty pleasure, and for the author that is Shakespeare adaptations, a love stemming (oddly enough) from a scarring encounter at age nine with Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus. That said, Scotland, PA is an excellent example of a loving Shakespeare adaptation, transferring the world of Macbeth from a castle in Scotland to a fast-food joint – Duncan’s – in 1970s rural Pennsylvania. Director Billy Morrissette opens the film with Joe McBeth’s (James LeGros) introduction of a new drive-thru system for the restaurant and apprehension of thieving manager Doug McKenna (Josh Pais). Unrecognized for his innovations and loyalty by proprietor Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), and pestered by his wife Pat (Mayra Tierney), Joe … well, grab the Sparknotes for Macbeth, replace certain nouns with “burger joint” and you’ll get the idea.
The film is not particularly innovative in its treatment of the play, but it is a wonderful rumination on the repetition of old stories and insanities in every period of progress throughout history. The words of Marx hold true here, that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” The death of Duncan by deep-fryer, the replacement of the three witches with truly baked hippies (warning: this scene contains an undesirable appearance by satanic-spawn Andy Dick), and Christopher Walken’s performance as Lieutenant McDuff, a vegetarian amongst carnivores, all fit the mold. Perhaps not the most innovative movie in the world, but a less introspective, more comic contemplation of cyclic history and the pains of forward motion.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
What can be said of director Stanley Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece that greater minds have not already tackled? Probably nothing, but that has never stopped Bwog before. It was inevitable that this film should be included on this list, as its central purpose is to provide a meditation upon the evolution of man. From its opening and iconic scene, in which a tribe of apes encounter a black monolith and are suddenly inspired to use basic tools (and to use them to kill) to the last encounter with a monolith outside Jupiter and the evolution of astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) from man into “Star-Child,” Kubrick details pivotal moments in the evolution of the human consciousness and the horrors that accompany it. In the past this is the creation of warfare, in the future, the creation of the chilling HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain).
The silence of the film (the only words of importance are, oddly enough, HAL’s computerized pleas for life as Dave disables his mind after HAL’s homicidal bender on the spaceship) in concert with the film’s painstaking detail and score, presents the viewer with an extraordinary abstraction- a feeling of documentary observation absent from almost every other work of fantasy. Long and elaborate scenes depict every last detail of life in the future and allow the viewer to live as Dave does, to walk beside these future men as a silent observer. Kubrick forces the audience, so blocked from participation in their own lives and locked into tedious and mute footsteps, into meditation upon the continuities of human nature and the extraordinary, fantastic achievements of days to come (along with the absurdity, magnificence and transience of our own time).
Images via imdb.com