Saturday, November 21, 2009

It means never having to say you're sorry.

There's a scene in Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer in which Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attends a house party thrown by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and we see in split screen the difference between his expectations of what will happen at the party (which, more accurately, are his desires) and the reality of it.

Intermittently during Nicholas Jasenovec's faux documentary, Paper Heart, elderly couples recall the stories of when they fell in love or how they first met à la When Harry Met Sally. But instead of simply talking heads, Charlyne Yi, the film's protagonist/subject, recreates these scenes with paper cutout puppets and landscapes.

(500) Days of Summer and Paper Heart are two distinctly different films. The former foregrounds its own artifice, with its broken narrative and fantasy sequences. The latter, while ultimately a pretty thinly-veiled ruse, keeps up the pretense of being a documentary. But in their own way (as in the two episodes above, for example), they find mutual ground, arriving at a similar point about the uniquely nebulous idea of love--or, should I say, LOVE.

In Paper Heart, Charlyne Yi--comedienne and all-around goofy gal--isn't so much in search of love in the same way many of us are. Instead she is looking for some kind, any kind, of definition for love and then whether or not any of that can apply to her. When she meets Michael Cera (SuperbadJuno), the quirkiest of couples emerges and the question of whether true love is in the cards for her is put to the test. In (500) Days of Summer, the question of true love is never in doubt for Tom. True love is the destiny of all, most certainly him. So when Summer floats into his orbit, it's a fait accompli--the two will spend the rest of their lives together. Well, at least he thinks so.

Their stylistic differences aside, on some level these characters are interchangeable. Tom could have easily been wooing Charlyne instead of Summer; and Summer would have been just as reticent to engage in anything serious with Michael as she was with Tom. It is the classic inversion of the gender stereotype--the hopelessly romantic male and the wild, cynical female he attempts to tame. And as both films are essentially false constructs, they point to a fundamental aspect of love--especially to that of love in the movies. Love isn't so much an actual thing, even a feeling, inasmuch as it is itself a construct, no more than an idea that people create in their heads. Like film itself, it's a mere projection. Any number of Summer Finns could have waltzed into Tom Hansen's life and the story would have played out similarly. When Michael enters Charlyne's world, it isn't really their emotional status at stake, it's the movie's. The premise of the film asks whether love has a place in Charlyne's world, not if Michael does.

I'm beginning to think that this is the ultimate fallacy of love. The marginally humble opinion of this writer is that one of the major reasons love tends to fail is that people are unwilling to recognize the large distance between expectation and reality.  At their core, both films are significantly more hopeful than this cynical (realistic?) stance, but the inclusion of the episode in (500) Days above or the reenactments in Paper Heart make them more fully engaged with the nuance of adult relationships than most of their mainstream counterparts and, resultingly (or maybe unwittingly), more critical of it.  Oh, and they're hilariously funny.  What else do you want from a romantic comedy?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I leave tear stains on the ground.

When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, one of the oddest chapters in modern popular culture ended nearly as abruptly as it burst onto the scene. In the weeks and months prior to his now controversial passing, Jackson was working on a massive concert tour called "This Is It." The director of the series of concerts was Kenny Ortega and, culled from the significant amount of backstage footage, he also directed the behind-the-scenes look, Michael Jackson's This Is It.

The film isn't at all about Michael Jackson the man. None of his childhood, his personal demons, the controversies, the scandals are in this film. It isn't the biography of a life or even a career. Rarely in the past 15-20 years has the name Michael Jackson been mentioned purely in terms of his artistry. Instead, through his own actions and our own need for salacious headlines, we tend to bury the lead. But in This Is It, that's all pushed aside and we see the musician and performer, the talent that first put him under the spotlight.

I'm a big fan of these sort of inside looks. Whether it be a movie, the recording of an album, the story behind a great novel, or the production of a concert, there's something I find immeasurably satisfying by having the curtain pulled back and observing how art is created. I love listening to early demos of my favorite songs, or hearing the outtakes of studio sessions of my favorite albums, or watching a DVD with the director's commentary playing.

In a roundabout way, it's like a distant cousin to criticism, except it's traveling in the opposite direction, heading towards each other. Criticism, at its core, is really a type of deconstruction. It takes the work apart and tries to make sense of it. Things like the Beach Boys' Pet Sessions, and The Beatles Anthology series, and "Project Greenlight", are what I would call pre-constructions. It shows what goes on before the work is complete, the false starts, the misguided rewrites, the trial-and-error. And the final product is where the two streams meet in the middle, or from where they depart.

Ortega is to be commended for how he assembled the footage in the film. As a doc, it's episodic, yet thoroughly focused. There's very little filler here, not much in the way of extraneous material. It's simply about the work that goes into putting on a show of this proportion. "That's why we rehearse," Jackson says a couple of times in the movie as they perfect the show.

But beyond the filmmaking technique, a documentary is only as strong as its subject and Jackson is the drive behind all of it. What's apparent after stripping away all of the controversy is that he still had it as a performer. He sounds as good as he ever has and it's riveting to see someone maneuver in such a focused manner. In a way, it's better than the concert could've been. Here we don't get to see all the bloated effects and pyrotechnics. What's left is a portrait of a performer as lean as the man himself. And that's the way he should be remembered.

The vocal-only track of probably my favorite Jackson song.