Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shut Down

After a few particularly trying weeks, during which time I repeatedly felt like pushing the keyboard aside so I’d have the room to bang my head upon the desk, I ended up spending the last couple of days researching Italian horror films of the 1970s and 80s. As a genre I had no previous knowledge of or real interest in, the most I could glean was that this particular branch of the industry is run by a bunch of phenomenal crooks that even puts Hollywood players to shame.

By early yesterday afternoon I figured that if I stayed in front the computer much longer I was liable to go insane so, in keeping with my half–arsed resolution to see more movies upon their initial release rather than waiting the four months or so until they pitched up on shiny disc, I pushed off to the cinema. Frankly, it was a mistake. I should have gone for a walk through the nearby park and up around the hill to help clear my head, then picked up some takeout on the way back and settled down to something a bit daft but nevertheless entertaining like Rocketeer or The Poseidon Adventure.

Being Friday I was looking actually forward to QI but upon checking the television listings I discovered that the regular BBC schedule had been ripped up in favour of the godawful Sport Relief. I have nothing against giving money to charity but these telethons are like watching a cute puppy roll over and then slowly be sick for hours on end. After a couple of minutes of watching the typical parade of clueless gurning media whores fumble about on live television any sane viewer would no doubt happily pledge all their worldly possessions just to make it all go away. So a trip to the pictures seemed by far the best alternative.

When I eventually got there I plumped for Shutter Island. It wasn’t my first choice but the journey to the multiplex took longer than expected, meaning that I’d already missed the first twenty minutes of Green Zone by the time I got to the box office window. The only other alternative was to catch The Bounty Hunter and I couldn’t really see that happening. Although I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s quintet of Kenzie and Gennaro novels and Mystic River, I was disappointed with Shutter Island when I first read it in hardback. I could see where Lehane was going when he said it was, “an homage to gothic, but also an homage to B movies and pulp,” but I still felt short–changed by an ending that probably would have worked better in a short story or a novella than a 325–page novel.

Still, it seemed a worthwhile idea to see what Hollywood would make of it. After all, Lehane had been reasonably served well with Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s take on Gone Baby Gone, although the latter suffered somewhat by giving exceedingly short shrift to the character Angie Gennaro. Not only that, The Culture Show had recently broadcast an interesting interview with Martin Scorsese, conducted by the art critic Andrew Graham–Dixon, in which the director talked about what he had set out to achieve. Except somehow those good intentions didn’t seem to have translated onto the screen.

Scorsese may have picked up on Lehane’s homage to B movies but with the large budget and much longer running time Shutter Island felt like someone had taken an old jukebox classic and tried to turn it into an opera. Literally introducing a “locked room mystery” but quickly expanding it into a locked island mystery, it lacked the true psychological suspense by spending fat too much time lingering over long, static conversations. Throwing out multiple theories about what was actually going on at the isolated, inhospitable Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane might have worked on the page, but onscreen it felt like the narrative was going around in circles without going anywhere.

It didn’t help that the obtrusive pieces of previously recorded, “modern classical music”, most of which sounded like a punch up in an over zealous percussion section, intruded on a number of these discussions between investigators, patients and staff, rendering their suppositions almost unintelligible on all counts. And what was with the flashbacks? Having read Lehane’s novel a second time sometime during the summer of last year, I knew they were there by couldn’t remember so much emphasis being put on the liberation of Konzentrationslager Dachau. Although Dachau had Arbeit macht frei worked into its wrought-iron gates, the entrance to the camp shown in the film, with the motto inscribed over the gate, resembled Auschwitz.

Too obvious to be a simple error made by Dante Ferretti, Scorsese’s regular production designer, it made me wonder if this had been specifically introduced into the script. Because Ashecliffe was meant to be the first of its kind in the treatment of the criminally insane and Dachau was the Nazi’s first concentration camp, I wondered if the surprising prominence of the phrase was meant to be a visual clue. If so it was particularly heavy–handed, but then of course I entered the cinema already knowing the plot turns in advance.

Of course it may be that more was expected from Martin Scorsese, and to be honest this is the first film of his I’ve seen on its theatrical release since I gave up an afternoon poolside to watch Bringing Out The Dead at the small cinema on the eastern end of Key West. Sitting watching Shutter Island I wondered what the end result would have been like if Wolfgang Petersen, who had originally optioned the novel, had been behind the camera. Either way the film would perhaps have benefited without Leonardo DiCaprio playing the harried lead. Even in his mid–thirties he still looks like an upper sixth former fretting over his upcoming A–level exams.

Although Mark Ruffalo didn’t get the amount of screen time he deserved, whenever he appeared his demeanour made me think that perhaps he should have been cast as Jim Rockford in David Shore’s remake of The Rockford Files instead of Dermot Mulroney. If that was going through my head while I sat in the auditorium it obviously shows that I wasn’t really connecting with the film. Maybe to truly go back to the pulp roots of the B movies it would have been better if Shutter Island had been more black and white on all counts.


At 7:37 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

For my money the picture flirts with the ludicrous and doesn't always win. I had the same thought about black and white maybe suiting it better, but on reflection suspect that we'd probably be sitting there thinking of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

At 12:12 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

And then every time someone mentioned “Dr Cawley“ there would be a crash of lightning and the sound of horses whinnying.

One thing that did make me sit up and take notice was the very end of the film. The last scene in the hospital grounds follows Lehane’s novel almost exactly with the pair sitting on the hospital steps smoking cigarettes as the doctors and orderlies stand off to one side.

Whereas the book finishes on Chuck saying, “We’re too smart for that”, and Teddy replying, “Yeah. We are, aren’t we?”, Laeta Kalogridis‘ script adds that extra line about being a good man or a monster, which completely alters where the characters goals are at that point in time. It was almost like they had to go for a happy ending of sorts and make out it all worked out in the end.

At 4:46 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

There's a book to be written about what last lines do to movies - how about it?

At 5:49 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Brian, that’s a terrific idea, I’m with you all the way on that one.

I’m reminded of something Michael Caine said about how to succeed in the restaurant business. It went along the lines of serve good bread when the diners arrive and good coffee at the end of their meal because their first and last impressions are the most important.

I had to be cryptic discussing Shutter Island so soon after release because if I spelt it out the Spoiler Police would be round to beat me with a stick. But the film certainly softens the bleak ending of the book.

Still, with the exception of a brief final shot the film does end on a last line, whereas so many films nowadays go for a final image rather than words. Or is that a disgusting sweeping generalisation and my memory is, for the moment, failing me?

I’ve just sat here for about five minutes looking at the DVDs on the shelves across from the computer trying to work out which films end on words and which end with pictures, shall we say. Which have important dialogue and which go for something seemingly banal (but still saying something about the characters and their situation).

If I wasn’t currently only getting about four or five hours sleep a night I would have a smarter answer, but that is certainly intriguing. I’ll drop you a line because I think there’s something there.


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