Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Red as Blood

This wanders. Bear with me for a bit.

When I was in college, I took a class in 19th and 20th Century art that used as its text a book called Mainstreams of Modern Art by John Canaday. About halfway through the semester, the professor went off script. We spent a week and a half on the Pre-Raphaelites and their descendents and most of the material came from other sources. "Canaday isn't very good with the Pre-Raphaelites," she said. "Around the time of the Impressionists, Canaday acquires a plot, in which modern art marches inevitably to its summit mid-Twentieth with the abstract expressionists and post-modernists. It woefully neglects movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco because it doesn't feed the narrative. A more honest text might make note of the fact that there's a divergence that happens in art around 1870, or so, in which art history bifurcates, with one stream of history valuing form and with the other valuing content. For a long period, Canaday's narrative--the one valuing form--has been the dominant one. But there's another history, in which the Pre-Raphaelites give way to the Symbolists who give way to Art Nouveau who give way to Art Deco. Virtually all commercial art from 1880 until the 1980s was descended in one way or another from this secret history. Occasionally, these two streams would reunite in artists like Andrew Wyeth (whose father was the great illustrator, N. C. Wyeth). This secret history is beginning to prod into the art mainstream, with the work of illustrators like Maxfield Parrish and Virgil Finlay commanding prices previously only seen on works from the dominant narrative. The last time I was in the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, N. C. Wyeth was hanging next to Charles Scheeler. The worm is turning. I mention all of this because there was a post over on Jim Emerson's excellent Scanners blog a few months ago called "Thomas Kinkade has won and we, all of us, have lost." Its thesis is that in an era of CGI, the light in filmmaking is more and more resembling the kitsch of Kinkade's sofa art. Kinkade is a descendent of the Pre-Raphaelites, though one would think that he's a descendent of the Impressionists were you to take his trademark as the "painter of light" seriously (and I don't suggest you do). All this is on my mind right now, having just seen Snow White and the Huntsman (2012, directed by Rupert Sanders). Both that blog post and the movie itself tell me that this bifurcation of the histories of art is ongoing.

I should stop for a moment to suggest that Kinkade is merely a product of the secret history of art, not its apotheosis, or even a particularly good example of it. Using his name is akin to the critic who referred to the decor of Peter Jackson's first Rings movie as "Pre-Raphaelite ren faire kitsch."

What do you want from art? What do you want from movies as an art? Do you want visual beauty? What kind? Do you want bold statements about the human condition? Do you want someone to tell you a story? Do you want challenging formal innovations? Are you satisfied if you see a movie that only does one or two of these things? Or focuses on one of them to the exclusion of the others? Do any of these define the word "art?" My answer to the question "Yes, but is it art?" is usually "Of course it is." "Is it art?" is the wrong question, though. Of course it's art. Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and turning it upside down and calling it art is art on several levels, from the industrial design of the urinal to the pranksterism of the act itself. So is Roberta Finlay smearing herself with chocolate pudding. Most human endeavors that aren't aimed at subsistence are art. No, the question that should be asked instead is, "Is it good art." It's worth noting that idioms are neutral on this point. There is good abstact expressionism. There is good Pre-Raphaelism. There is good commercial art. There is good fine art. There are also bad examples of all of these. You have to separate the content from the container, if you get my drift. The same is true for film.

Snow White and the Huntsman is probably not going to top critics lists, nor will it be nominated for anything but technical awards at year's end. It doesn't fit the narrative of cinema as fine art, and film critics have been slower to shake off the dichotomy than has the art world. Not only is it commercial art, but it's art from the secret history rather than from the dominant history. It's got "Pre-Raphaelite kitsch" all over it. It's a movie that aspires to a certain kind of visual beauty and if you look down on that kind of beauty, this is not the film for you because it expends all of its resources pursuing this aesthetic. It's a lovingly created object d'art that might sit well in an Edwardian parlor, if such a thing were possible. This is not a film about the formal qualities of film itself, it's not a movie that's concerned with the quotidian lot of here and now humanity, it's rather, a tour de force of film craft. It's all about the look, which, as it turns out is kind of appropriate (I'll come back to that). Is this art? Yes, of course. Is it good art? That's the question, eh?

Roger Corman once noted that film craft--production value, its usually called--is better than it's ever been, and that's certainly true of this film. There is no detail too small to be designed within an inch of its life. There's the risk of over-designing things or becoming too precious about it, but the tone of the movie keeps this in check. This is most immediately apparent in the costumes. Given that this is a movie about women, there's an emphasis on costuming its women in ornate, flattering gowns. The gowns designed for Charlize Theron's evil queen are downright baroque. The Queen's wedding gown is a delirious mixture of medieval brocades and skeletal origami, while the gown made from black and green rooster feathers becomes a special effect unto itself when she's struck by an axe and explodes into an unkindness of ravens. The piece de la resistance, though, is the dominatrix drag they put her into at the end, a dress that hearkens back to that skeletal motif in her wedding gown. Given the medievalism of the film, it's tempting to write all of this off as "Pre-Raphaelite kitsch," but it's not. Not really. If we take it within its idiom, it's a tour de force of the costumer's craft. It's art of a very high order within its chosen idiom. But it's more, too. There's an otherness about these costumes that aligns them also with trends in haute couture, an element that's emphasized by draping them over Charlize Theron, herself one of the most beautiful women in the world. The costumes serve another function, too, in so far as the theme of the movie is at least partially derived from challenging myths about beauty. The queen's wardrobe finds great beauty in things we would otherwise find dark and ugly. Kristen Stewart's wardrobe is significantly less outre and partially designed for practicality (she has pants under her gown during the film's mainline of action), but it's no less minutely detailed with embroidered flourishes. Stewart's armor at the end of the movie becomes a kind of haute couture statement all on its lonesome even though it reads as historical armor (a short digression: the armorers of the middle ages and renaissance were great artists all on their own, and in their art is the origin of intaglio printmaking, so this isn't such an odd thing at all). No character escapes this attention to detail. The dwarfs each have a signature look tailored to the actors who play them--Nick Frost's costume is a rustic echo of a motley, for instance, while Ian McShane's costume seems vaguely mercantile. Costume designer Colleen Atwood already has three Academy Awards, but this is her masterpiece.

The other element of this emphasis on the look of the movie is the environments, and here, it makes familiar tropes look new. Snow White's plunge through the Dark Forest, for example, has its echoes in the Disney movie, but it also goes past Disney into the roots of fantasy illustration in painters like Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich. Certainly, the woods occasionally look like the forest of dead oaks in Friedrich's "Cloister Graveyard in the Snow" and convey a similar sense of desolation. When the action in the film moves to its version of fairy land, the movie filters its wonderment through the lens of the surrealists. Hence, a tortoise becomes a living landscape, strange mushrooms hang off a trees like orchids and pulse in the air like jellyfish. It's a fairy land that might have been designed by Bosch rather than Alan Lee. "Fairy land" is a concept that could sit in the mouth of the audience like treacle, but it's so strange in this movie, that its sweetness is tempered, in the way that chocolate is tempered by a touch of bitterness. It's a razor's edge that production designer Dominic Watkins walks here, but he's been singularly fortunate in his cinematographer, Greig Fraser, who lights everything in a way that is more Terrence Malick than Thomas Kinkade. This film has a perpetual crepuscular gloom to it that enhances everything.

This is all aided and abetted by the continuing advance of special effects, of course. Some of the vistas seen in this film could not have been filmed twenty years ago. Certainly, the technology deployed to turn the cream of British actors into this film's dwarfs borders on the miraculous. It's easy to praise films for having good special effects these days because the state of the technology is so high anymore. It's all in what filmmakers do with that technology. I was complaining some months ago about the depressing sameness in movie concept art these days, and how that translates onto the screen. This film does not suffer that problem. The deployment of special effects in this movie serves a visual sensibility that's more akin to Guillermo Del Toro or Ridley Scott at their best than it is to a stock Hollywood blockbuster. For example: Trolls have been featured in several films in the last decade, but the troll in this movie doesn't resemble any of them. It's sui generis (apart from the fact that it dwells under a bridge, but that's traditional and to be expected in a movie that values its roots in fairy tales).

So, Snow White and the Huntsman is a visual marvel. It's a nexus, too, where the two strains of visual art intersect, which makes for a film with ravishing visual textures.

Every narrative filmmaker navigates the balance between what makes a good shot and what makes a good story. As a negotiation between the two, Snow White and the Huntsman is less sanguine than it is as a purely visual object.

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is one of the Grimm's nastier stories. I remember the first time I read it when I was a kid only to discover that the ending of the story is utterly horrific. The gore-loving kid I was grooved on it, and resented the Disney movie for not having the dwarfs forge the queen a pair of iron shoes, just as I also resented the fact that Disney's version of Cinderella didn't feature the wicked stepsisters lopping off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. This film doesn't shy away from the essential darkness of the story. It announces its intentions fairly early when Queen Ravenna murders her new husband in their marriage bed. This film conflates Snow White with the Elizabeth Bathory myth, too, which fits it well as it turns out. This might be the best vampire movie in which Kristen Stewart will ever appear. This is an elaboration that reminds me of Angela Carter, actually. This movie sinks deep wells into European myths.

One of the film's failings is its examination of the beauty myth. The backstory it gives its evil Queen is an interesting extrapolation of her obsession with a magic mirror. It gives the classic "Mirror Mirror" rhyme a sinister meaning. The Queen's power derives from beauty, as does Snow White's. The Queen, for her part, maintains her beauty by depriving it of others. At about the midpoint of the movie, though, it does something interesting. Snow White and the Huntsman, having escaped the Dark Forest, wind up in a village of veiled women, all of whom have carved scars on their faces to deny the queen their beauty. There's a hint of subversion in this part of the movie, a hint that it is NOT physical beauty that will overthrow the queen, but its abnegation, and more than a hint, actually, that a few physical scars on the surface do not hide true beauty. Its an interesting idea, but one casually discarded by the movie's obsession with both its own visual beauty and the beauty of its stars. There's a strongly feminist film buried here, but its (male) filmmakers have no interest in unearthing it beyond Hollywood's usual light feminism for the chick flick audience. Pity.

Ah, and there's another chink in the armor...Mirror mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Charlize Theron would be my choice among this film's actors, but this is a prejudice of mine that also questions the way this is framed in the Disney movie, too. The Queen is the most interesting character in the story, and by necessity, the most beautiful. Disney's evil queen was regal, domineering, gorgeous, and fascinating. Their Snow White? An ideal submissive little wifey, but one you couldn't ever imagine taking to bed. Seriously. The Queen offered the promise of carnal torments and delights. Snow White? Not so much. Snow White is a better character in this movie, but so, too, is the Queen. I don't have any beef with Kristen Stewart, and the part that's been written for her does her no favors, but Theron is one of the premiere actresses of her generation and one of the most formidable beauties, and she blows everyone else in the movie off the screen. Whenever the film averts its gaze to follow Snow White, there seems like a lack on screen.

The Huntsman, played by emerging superstar in the making, Chris Hemsworth, is also interesting. He, too, could lay a claim to the title "fairest of them all," if the movie wanted to swing that way. The movie goes out of its way to dirty him up a bit to emphasize its actresses, but not too much. This movie uses the Huntsman to subvert the conventions of the fairytale romance in which prince charming sweeps in and saves the day. Prince Charming does indeed sweep in to save the day in this movie, but not until after The Huntsman has already done so several times. One of the film's cannier conceits is to have The Queen disguise herself as the prince instead of a kindly old woman in order to deliver the poisoned apple. If Snow White loved the prince, and she probably did, this neatly snips her connection. How can she ever trust him when his image, his beauty (and Sam Claflin IS beautiful in the role, make no mistake) has been used as a weapon against her. "True love's first kiss," which breaks the apple's spell, is in this movie both unexpected and inevitable given the way the story is framed. Mind you, this is a Hollywood blockbuster targeted at Kristen Stewart's fanbase as much as anything, so the obvious, but unstated potential for a polyamorous triad between our three heroes is never explored. Pity.

Stewart, for her part, is a perfectly fine Snow White. It's a mistake to conflate actors with the characters they play, but it's hard not to see Snow White as an improvement on Bella Swan and an improvement on Stewart's part as an actress. (Assuming that you didn't see her play Joan Jett, I guess, because she was stellar in that role.) She's a good actress and shines in when she's well-cast. The end of Snow White and the Huntsman, particularly when she's awakened from her enchantment, requires some serious emoting, taking her from love so intense that she weeps from it to Henry V (cribbing from his "band of brothers" speech). Stewart is certainly up to the task. It's not her fault that she's paired with actors who have that "it" factor that makes a movie star. I don't know if she has "it" or not, actually, but I'm willing to remain open-minded.

The demands of commercial Hollywood cinema leads the film into some of its stupider blind alleys. The most egregious of these is the reduction of the seven (actually eight) dwarfs to a plot mechanism. They exist for two purposes. One of them is fridged to give Snow White motivation (unnecessary), while the rest are the means of getting into the castle. This is kind of a waste given the variety of interesting actors playing the dwarves (including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones). This is a missed opportunity, and one suspects that the filmmakers only bothered with the dwarfs because if you make a movie with "Snow White" in the title, you have to provide dwarfs. They might be right about that, actually, but they almost seem like an intrusion. More vexing is the transformation of Snow White from sheltered princess and prisoner into medieval badass at the end of the film. This is something demanded by the need for action, but it's silly. Don't get me wrong: Kristen Stewart would make a splendid Joan of Arc on the evidence of this movie. But that's not Snow White. It's just not. I take some comfort in the fact that this mix has successfully drawn an audience and that, maybe, between Snow White and the Huntsman and The Hunger Games, the one coming on the heels of the other, Hollywood will take note that women can anchor big stupid fantasies and action movies just as well as men can.

Anyway, these are annoyances, but they aren't crippling. The movie seems disinterested in internal consistency and I can't really get upset about that given the nature of fairy tales. Fairy tale plots are almost completely arbitrary, as is the logic of nightmares, both of which are elements of this film. The visual design of Snow White and the Huntsman is fundamentally oneiric, so it's not such a reach for its plot to follow a similar design. If Snow White and the Huntsman's aim is to provide a state of waking dreaming, then it largely succeeds.

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