This week on the mighty Movie Morlocks blog I futz with Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER (Read it here). It's a perv-y, suffocating vision of two dull class-climbers pursuing their version of the American dream. Made by Joseph Losey and Dalton Trumbo who were both soon blacklisted, it's a thoroughly disillusioned take on American institutions. Van Heflin dominates with his horny resentments against the upper classes. Evelyn Keyes falls for his dubious charms out of sheer boredom - and the couple leaves a body in their wake. Fun and games. Today's its last day at the Film Forum (who quoted my enthusiasm on their site, and added a necessary exclamation point!), so if you're in NYC, it's imperative to swing by.
Surrogates feels like the least interesting film you could possibly make out of some very interesting material. It presents a world, adapted from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, full of bold ideas and rich thematic possibilities, then ignores that world completely for an hour and a half to tell an off-the-shelf hard-boiled mystery story. This is one of those movies that makes you angry, not because of anything it does, but for all the things it doesn't do and could have if only it had taken some risks. If you're going to go to a casino, you might as well place some bets.
In the world of the film, advances in robotics now allow humanity to live their lives without ever getting out of bed. Instead of venturing outside and running the risk of bodily harm or illness, people remotely pilot these cyborgs called surrogates. These surrogates look better than regular humans, and have enhanced strength and durability, which is particularly handy should you find yourself in the middle of a rote movie chase scene and have to leap from car to car to escape Bruce Willis. Surrogates seem foolproof — harm inflicted upon them isn't passed along to their operator, sending violent crime rates plummeting downwards — until one winds up severely fried in an alley and its operator is discovered dead along with it. Enter Willis' FBI Agent Tom Greer to figure out how such a thing could happen and to ensure that nothing even remotely interesting is done with Surrogates' premise.
I mean, think about the possibilities here. Obviously, the idea of living vicariously through artificial creations or virtual reality helmets invites comparisons to video games. But surrogacy also works as a metaphor for voyeurism in general and for moviegoing specifically, for living vicariously through the eyes of another person for as long as the film runs. The surrogates drive a wedge between Greer and his miserable but gorgeous wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike); that could be used in the service of a story that explores the way people allow technology to mediate intimacy, and how it often offers the promise of freedom at the price of dependence. Director Jonathan Mostow visualizes the surrogates' physical perfection by airbrushing out the wrinkles and blemishes of the actors playing them; most of the surrogate extras look like underwear and swimsuit models, an invitation to some pointed commentary on the unrealistic body images presented in most Hollywood fare.
If any of these ideas were truly explored in Surrogates it would be a movie worth seeing, but really, these are just the things your mind wanders to when it becomes disengaged from what is an utterly mechanical tech-noir thriller. It is competently directed by Jonathan Mostow and well cast with watchable actors like Ving Rhames, Radha Mitchell, and James Cromwell, but it takes some really juicy ideas and and turns them into just another sausage from the Hollywood meat grinder. At just 88 minutes long, Surrogates doesn't even have enough time to properly tell its main story, much less explore the myriad possibilities of its setup. As Willis tracks one lead after another with the same blank stare on his face (appropriate when he's playing a robot, less so when he's walking around in the flesh), I kept hoping the camera would stop following him and just wander into any of the buildings he passes. What would a gym look like in a world of surrogates? Or a movie theater? Or an airport? Or a grocery store? Or a pro football game? All the movie cares to show us are laboratories, FBI offices, apartments, and laboratories.
With a much better script than the one by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who wrote the last two Terminator films and apparently are the only people in Hollywood qualified to write movies about lifelike robots), Surrogates had the chance, I think, to be a truly great sci-fi movie. Instead, Surrogates almost becomes a surrogate itself, a blandly attractive surface designed to obscure the depth and complexity that exists underneath.
I'm going try and update my various maneuverings back here at Termite Art, which I've been painfully neglecting for months now. Perhaps decades. So unless it's too annoying, I'll be linking to my TCM posts every week back here, with valuable additional commentary. This week, I watch John Carpenter's Elvis (1979) on the new Shout Factory! DVD and admire quite a bit of it. Link......here.
The movie's worth it for Kurt Russell's athleticism and Carpenter's roving camera. The script is riddled with pop-psychology and bio-pic cliche (it is a TV-movie, after all), but its plastic beauties are formidable.
List of the week: Most Interesting Faces I've Seen This Year (TM)
1. John's craggy pockmarked visage in Sweetgrass
2. John Travolta: scrunched, goateed cue-ball in From Paris With Love
3. Anne-Laure Meury: inquisitive, radiant, edged with baby fatin The Aviator's Wife
4. Stephen Baldwin: a sagging potato-sack with a five o'clock shadow: Sharks in Venice
The Blues Brothers manages to be a great movie without being a very good movie. On a rational, critical level the film is difficult to defend. It's overstuffed with too many characters and too many subplots (Nazis? Nuns? Old blues man cameos? Car chases? Country bars? Concerts? Used musical instrument shops? Car chases? Gospel numbers? Car chases?). The two main characters, Jake and Elwood Blues have purpose they're on a mission from God but no personality. They're a big pile of coolness, musical chops, and little else. They don't even have eyes, or if they do we never see them, since they wear dark sunglasses constantly, even indoors, even at night, even to sleep. So you have characters you don't especially care about, in a story that makes little sense, in a movie that's too long. By any standard measure, that should make it a forgettable movie.
And yet, it is a great movie, a movie I have seen dozens of times, a movie I can quote from memory, a movie I am always pleasantly surprised by when I return to it after a few years away. It is too long, or at least at two hours and thirteen minutes it seems like it should be too long for a Saturday Night Live sketch blown up to feature length. Hell, calling it a sketch may be giving it too much credit; John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd never did comedy on SNL as The Blues Brothers, they played blues music as the "characters" (really just the costumes black suit, white shirt, black tie, black hat, black sunglasses and the goofy dancing) with Howard Shore and the show's house band. And yet somehow the movie isn't too long at two hours and thirteen minutes. It's too short. I've determined this via a highly scientific method. Here's how it works. Some home video releases contain an extended cut that runs fifteen more minutes, and if you let me choose which I would prefer to watch I'd pick the one with the extra footage every single time.
Characters would be nice, but that was the remarkable thing about John Belushi: he didn't need a character to be worth watching onscreen. Quick: describe Bluto from Animal House using words that don't also apply to Belushi? What was his life like before college? What are his goals? How'd he come to Delta House? Who's his favorite Delta? Why does he like wearing togas so much? The vagueness with which Bluto was drawn didn't stop him from becoming maybe the single most beloved college student in cinema history. The reason why is a single word, and it rhymes with "Smelushi." The same applies to Jake Blues. Here inscrutableness is written right into the character. But there's something so utterly charismatic about Belushi that he makes the character's lack of definition seem like intentional mystery rather than a screenplay deficiency. We may not know too much about Jake, but Belushi sure seems to.
The most famous line in the film, the one everyone on Earth knows, even people who've never seen the movie or know who the Blues Brothers are, is the one about how no one can stop them because they're on a mission from God. God, in this case, is named John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave and Ray Charles. For Jake and Elwood (and, I suspect, for Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), music is religion, a point made with perfect clarity when Jake has his evangelical epiphany in the middle of James Brown gospel tune. Though the narrative finds Jake and Elwood searching for $5,000 to save the orphanage they grew up in, their real task is to share the music they love with their film's audience. They're musical missionaries and their means of conversion is the series of exuberant numbers featuring many of the artists mentioned above. Music in this film has a power akin to demonic possession: people can't resist it, succumb to it, as when Ray Charles starts playing "Shake a Tail Feather" and passersby burst into a synchronized, choreographed dance.
The whole film operates that way. Passion outweighs precision. Energy trumps efficiency. The Blues Brothers have a complete and total disregard for rules and the film shares that spirit. It breaks just about every rule of "good" moviemaking. No screenwriting coach or studio executive or focus group could manufacture The Blues Brothers. It had to come from a couple guys who felt so strongly about this stuff that they were ready to proselytize for it any way they could. The film stands as a testament to their great success.