Friday, January 25, 2008

GTAAM #1: Langella's Skeletor

Just because I feel like it, I'm creating a new feature here at the oft-not-read Bite Me Fanblog. So, with little pomp and unimpressive circumstance, I offer the first installment of:

Great Things About Awful Movies

Today, we look at Frank Langella's performance as Skeletor in the 1987 Golan/Globus production of Masters of the Universe. As I was a 7-year-old kid, this was to have been the biggest moment of my life since He-Man: Live at Radio City Music Hall. That was, of course, until I saw the damn thing in theaters. I remember it well (sadly); and yes, I own the DVD, thinking, naively, that perhaps repeated viewings every year or two will alter the film itself.

Alas, no such revision occurs. Dolph Lundgren never gets interesting. Billy Barty's ill-conceived role as Gwildor never eclipses the disappointment of not seeing Orko (if ever there was a part for a little person from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, that was it). Courteney Cox never gets less annoying (her fault? or the fact that the whole "trip to earth" is such a bad idea?). There is one saving grace, however...

Langella's Skeletor -- while a far cry from the blue, muscly, nasal-toned baddie in the show -- is a joy to watch. Once a fan gets over the film's almost total lack of resemblance to the cartoon, Langella stands out as exceptional. He makes something out of nothing. The most pat, cliché lines come across as genuinely sinister and dangerous, rather than as the sort of one-dimensional villainy that the square-jawed hero will have no trouble flicking into defeat. Langella (who said he took the role only because of his children's wishes) knows that the only way to sell such absurdity is to play it absurdly (not insincerely, per se, but with just enough oomph to create a heightened reality).

It's a very broad performance. Langella's technique is utterly theatrical. He belts nearly every line. He treats the camera frame as a proscenium, using every angle and gesture to change perspective to his advantage (watch how he uses the edges of his hood). I'm giving performer, rather than camera, the credit here. A good actor knows what he/she is doing... knows how to manipulate image just as much as filmmaker. Actors can be filmmakers in their own right. Look at Dietrich, who was said to have known as much about cinematography as Von Sternberg did, and even had mirrors set up so she could watch her own lighting during takes. Stanley Kramer said that even though he saw Milton Berle leave frame in every frantic group shot on the set of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the dailies always came back with Berle running back on camera, squeezing in an extra moment of scene-stealing slapstick at every turn. Langella may or may not have had an inkling of the bigger picture's quality here, but he certainly is in control of his own, very nuanced performance.

And creating nuance with strokes that big is hard. He's the Van Gogh of 1980's bad guys (does that make Predator the Bosch?). The performance puts me in mind of Olivier's Richard III. Indeed, Skeletor's own dialogue paraphrases a line from the Bard: "I am not in a giving vein this day." Why do I have a feeling this was Langella's idea? Frank writhes upon, hops about, and fondles his throne with Olivier's almost comedic gusto. He manipulates the rhythm and meter of his dialogue erratically, and to great effect (Langella finds iambs and caesura in some of the least poetic dialogue imaginable). He is a time bomb. His outbursts come without warning, but always seem dramatically "earned." He speaks every thought as a decree, and everything he says sounds like it's the most important thing he's ever said. It is a commanding, maniacal, unpredictable screen presence.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is what Langella can do from behind that rubbery, unforgiving makeup. It's a nearly-unmoving shell, a mask rather than a face. But what Langella does with eyes, voice, angle, and gesture overcomes the shortcomings of his ridiculous latex-and-facepaint husk. It's as sinister as anything David Prowse and James Earl Jones created as Darth Vader (granted, Langella has his eyes to use). On that note, it's amazing that Langella creates something unique, given how uncannily Vaderesque the design of his costume is (and the helmets of Skeletor's guards are downright visual plagiarism).
Indeed, Masters steals unrelentingly from Star Wars. The design of the Death Star and Williams' score are all over this turkey, and it may be this thievery that is accidentally responsible for one of the only things the film gets right from the show. This world exhibits a beautiful mix of technology and magic. He-Man has always seemed a bit Conan-like to me, but as much as these muscle men trust in steel and voodoo, they ride jet gliders and fire lasers. That's as true in the film as it is in the show. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and no one does it better than Langella. Skeletor may use guns and microchips to help him seize power, but it's the magic that really makes him powerful. He's a wizard who can use a computer. Come to think of it, Star Wars walks a similar line with the force. But Langella doesn't mystify Skeletor's mysticism. He wears it on his sleeve, whereas Vader and the Jedi keep it in their elite club.

Vader it's not. Nor is it the cartoon's Skeletor (amazingly voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, by the way). Langella's Skeletor is something that stands alone, frightening in its own right, in the midst of what is otherwise a cinematic catastrophe. Props to Frank. This performance lingers in my mind with the best of them, and I nominate it for one of the great overlooked villains in movie history. God only knows what we'll see if the new rumored live-action He-Man is a go.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The World's Biggest Metaphor (and the One That Failed)

Ok, I can't resist. I have to talk about Cloverfield. I will resist a detailed diatribe about the film's inner workings and many flaws (as I see them, anyway), but I want to talk about broad, poetic strokes.

If you're making a kaiju eiga (Japanese-style giant monster flick), then why don't you embrace the form fully? Cloverfield, I know it's on your mind, what with the Japan references and the "Godzilla March" Variations during the end credits. So why hast thou forsaken the simple, elegant, poetic qualities of everyone's favorite atomic lizard?

Godzilla (especially in the original, 1954 Japanese cut) is such a sound horror film metaphor:

Godzilla = Atrocity of Atomic Warfare (Hiroshima)

The G-Man embraces his "high-brow" significance, but does not get bogged-down by pretension, delivering, always, what the audience came for: Godzilla smash Tokyo and absurd monster fighting. But along the way, the metaphor can reinvent itself to talk about many issues. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster dealt with environmental issues in the 70's. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla may very well be about our (Japan's) over-dependence on technology. Godzilla 1984 is about nuclear disarmament and Cold War tensions (instead of the "elephant in the room" we have the "big lizard in the harbor").

But in all his incarnations (1998 American remake aside), Big G never takes himself too seriously. The Toho G movies are chock-full of comedic moments (and attempts there-at). He never forgets that he is a big radioactive iguana, as if to say, "Ok, now that we have that symbolism out of the way, we can get to the blowing $#%& up." I mean, can you really talk seriously about a giant monster without a grain of ironic salt? Apparently, Cloverfield (if we're calling the monster that) thinks you can.

So, ok, I was a liberal arts student, I can bs this. Cloverfield... go:

New York... attacks... destruction... panic... martial law... trust/mistrust of government... conspiracy theory... mis- and disinformation... threat levels... forced evacuation... surveillance... reality TV... digital cameras... loss of privacy... erosion of liberty (ooh, look, they decapitated Liberty)... war... "mission accomplished"... no winners... no answers... fear... paranoia... detachment... moral ambiguity

Fine. Great. All things worth talking about. Godzilla is to Hiroshima as Cloverfield is to 9/11. I'll go there. But Cloverfield's conspicuous decision to give us no answers (no origin of the monster, an elliptical ending, etc) is a cop-out. And don't tell me that's the point. Don't tell me, "We don't get any answers, just like the world we live in." Crap. Bull. Not explaining how any of these ideas come together isn't a meditation on the ambiguous signs of the times... it's just not having anything to say about them. It's pretentious, self-congratulatory cleverness without any follow-through or substance. This is most evident in the film's title -- an arbitrary code word, signifying nothing, supposedly lifted from the street name of J.J. Abrams' production company.

Ultimately, it's a rejection of the beauty (such as there is) of both Godzilla's purity and his purism. Cloverfield says, "Godzilla, you don't have the balls to take your poetry seriously. You hammer your metaphor over the heads of your audience, and leave nothing to subtlety and somber contemplation." But in taking this position, Cloverfield forgets that a giant slimy monster -- especially one with airs of symbolism -- is inherently ludicrous. Nothing could be less subtle than a titanic lizard or fish beast devastating a cityscape, and I like my giant monster movies that way. Cloverfield rejects that simple, elegant form -- but more's the point -- takes itself so seriously as to tell us that we can't have fun this time (Godzilla, save us!). Godzilla entertains, Cloverfield alienates.

I suspect that I would have liked it much more if I'd actually dug the monster, but it bored the gamma-irradiated snot out of me. Let me just say this: Godzilla would mop the floor (or Central Park) with that oversized guppy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Know, For Kids

Richard Knerr, repackager of the Hula Hoop and importer of the Frisbee, is dead. The story is here. May he rest.