The Rear-View Mirror: Out of Sight (1998)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There is nothing that can date a movie like style for style’s sake. It’s one of the hallmarks that betrays a movie’s age, and while some stylistic choices can turn a movie into a classic, other styles might simply not age that well. Think about small things like lens flares. Or think about the dogma certificate. That doesn’t mean that they are bad movies; it’s just that sometimes, movies get stuck in the times they were made. Nostalgia isn’t the worst reason to re-visit a movie you haven’t seen in a long time.

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Up in the air with flying foxes and less-than-fantastic goats

What’s the best thing about an11-hour flight? It can’t be the dodgy movies on the in-flight entertainment system, can it? (I once failed to go to sleep on a flight that showed Marley & Me and Paul Blart: Mall Cop on all the screens. The lambs have barely stopped screaming on that one, Clarice.) Well, yes, it can, on one of those snazzy new planes where even down in Economy Class, with all the third class Oirish having a fun time before the plane hits the iceberg, you have a choice of oodles of films, music and games. And since Who Wants to be a Millionaire? loses its interest after a handful of games, especially when there’s no oily showmaster-wala with an Indian accent to foil your attempts to get the money and the girl, I decided to dedicate at least some of my flying time to watching first The Men Who Stare at Goats and then The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Men, goats, intense stares… George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey – what could go wrong? Well, it’s not so much what went wrong; it’s more that way too little went right. The film is a brilliantly cast neat idea spun out over 1 1/2 hours, which makes for a great trailer (minus Ewan McGregor’s horrid American accent) and a decidedly mediocre film. It isn’t really worth saying all that much more about it, except to bleat mournfully.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though? I’m still surprised to say that I genuinely enjoyed it. I’ve had problems with the two Wes Anderson films I’d seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s a great aesthete, but his style got in my way of enjoying both movies to a large extent. The problem is that the films and their characters are so stylised, in their looks, behaviour and neurotic quirks, that they feel wholly static – so when the plot contrives to make them tragic, I don’t buy it. The pathos turns into mawkishness, and when it kind of works in spite of the artifice, it’s largely due to the borrowed emotions of the songs Anderson chooses. To my mind, characters can only become tragic if there’s the illusion that they are free, or at least struggling to free themselves, from the master puppeteer that is Fate, the Script and/or the Director – Anderson’s characters have often struck me as being puppets at the mercy of a master stylist who doesn’t have freedom anywhere on his palette.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W460QxYQgh4]

I suspect that what makes Mr. Fox work for me is this: animated films are stylised to begin with. They are entirely created. And ironically that makes Mr. Fox feel less constricted by Anderson – whereas real people in a live-action film are made less unreal by the artifice that seems to be his favourite stylistic choice, the animated foxes, moles, possums and badgers, not to forget farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean), are infused with humanity, for want of a better word. The style becomes a part of the whole rather than being the whole and thereby threatening to suffocate both the actors and the characters.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is very clearly a Wes Anderson film – the look, feel, costumes, even the character setup (father-son conflict anyone?) feel familiar… but by sidestepping live-action for once, Anderson’s made the first film that, being entirely artificial due to being animated, feels real to me.

And it’s got this lovely scene with Michael Gambon (as farmer Bean) and Petey, as played by Jarvis Cocker:

Out of Sight – not out of mind…

Out of Sight will always have a special place in whatever chamber of my film nerd’s heart is reserved for films. For one thing, it was my first taste of Soderbergh’s work – and, in spite of his lesser films, he remains one of my favourite directors. However, and this may sound strange, I like him most for the editing of his movies… even though he didn’t edit most of his films.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that he doesn’t just leave the editorial work to his undoubtedly talented editors – many of his films play with jump cuts, freeze frames and achronological editing, whether he’s the one sitting in the Avid chair or not. There’s a strongly impressionistic feel to how Soderbergh places his scenes in relation to each other, to the point where it can become annoying for audiences that aren’t made up of editing geeks like me. The Limey is a case in point (and, even more film nerdy, the director’s commentary on the DVD edition plays the same games with jumbled chronology as the movie – I got a kick out of it, but chances are I’m part of a very exclusive club there).

What strikes about Out of Sight is how effortless the fractured chronology is presented. People were confused by Pulp Fiction‘s B-A-C-style narrative, but that’s nothing compared to how this film jumps, starting pretty much in the middle and liberally moving back and forth. Nevertheless, you’re never confused as to what is going on in the story. Soderbergh hides his positively avantgarde  editing in plain sight.

And it’s rarely been done as successfully as in the love scene between George Clooney (pretty much at the beginning of his career as an actor rather than clothesrack) and Jennifer Lopez (has she ever been better than in this film?), which cuts smoothly back and forth between the actual lovemaking and the buildup. The spark between Clooney and Lopez is made into one of the most erotic love scenes in American filmmaking. Yet the fades and the music also have something sad – it’s clear, somehow, from watching the scene that this will be the one and only time the two characters are in effect together.

P.S.: To be fair, the scene is not entirely original. Soderbergh has obviously watched his Nicholas Roeg closely, getting his inspiration from the Julie Christie/Donald Sutherland love scene in Don’t Look Now (gotta love the accidental synchronicity between the two films’ titles) which jumps back and forth between sex and the couple putting their clothes back on afterwards, infusing the mundane married life with the erotic.

P.P.S.: For anyone interested in the art of editing, do read In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, Jarhead).

The man whose career could survive a moustache

I’ve never seen the first film version of Solaris. I have a fairly high tolerance for slow movies, but I’ve never dared to test this tolerance on Tarkovsky’s film. (Personally, I blame Russian Ark, a slow Russian film that I found offensively boring.) However, being a Steven Soderbergh fan, I’ve seen – and enjoyed – his version* several times now. I love its elliptic quality. The film isn’t willfully confusing, but neither does it believe in making everythign absolutely clear – which, more often than not, I find utterly boring and just a tad offensive. I enjoy having to use my brain at least a bit when watching a movie, I like having to put in an effort to get something out of a book or film, because in the end you tend to get more out of such books and films.

It’s also one of the first films that show George Clooney’s acting range. He’s not perfect, and there are one or two scenes that stretch his abilities perhaps a bit too much; but then, what is the convincing way to react when you’re millions of miles away from Earth and wake up to find your dead wife in bed next to you?

(Beware: the excerpt above is 9+ minutes long, but it highlights the film’s beautiful cinematography and its wonderful, hypnotic score.)

Before Solaris, I thought that Clooney was best at the Cary Grant type of role, as he does so well in Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11. To my knowledge, Solaris was the first time he didn’t put in a movie star performance, where he wasn’t suave and glamorous (much like Brad Pitt in Babel). And after that, he showed that he could pull it off convincingly in Syriana and in his lovely little performance in God Night, and Good Luck, his second directing stint. I admire his willingness to put the film and the other actors first. There are few stars with his charisma that succeed as well at letting others dominate the screen when it’s right for the film. And there are few stars that are as willing to make a complete fool of themselves when the movie requires it.

Tom Selleck called. He wants his ’stache back.

And to conclude this Clooney love-fest: if you haven’t seen his first directing stint, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, do so. It’s an intriguing, clever, highly entertaining film – and it’s got a wonderful sight gag that puts George’s mates Matt and Brad to perfect use. Talk about lead actors who can take a back seat, literally!

*I honestly wouldn’t call Soderbergh’s Solaris a remake, just as no production of Hamlet post-1603 is a remake of the original staging.