Thursday, June 26, 2014

Her: Why Is This A Movie?

We watched Spike Jonze’s Her the other night. I enjoyed it, and found the story, the aesthetic and dramatic execution gently provocative. But when the end credits rolled I was left wondering, “Why was that a movie?”
"Maybe for the movie poster?"
The reflexive answer (not the one I’m after, but let’s out with it) is, “Why shouldn’t it be?” No reason, of course. People make movies of just about anything, and good on ‘em. But my question isn’t directed against Her’s existence; it’s more of a “Why this, not that?” question. In this case, why is Her a Big Movie, and not a long short story? What does it accomplish as a Big Movie that it couldn’t possibly in the pages of the New Yorker (where it could have surely found a home)? My two cents: the aesthetic aside, not much. So why is it a movie?
It's a question I asked — a lot — back when Kenneth Branagh was throwing Shakespeare at the Silver Screen. Branagh's abilities as a Shakespearean actor were unparalleled, and he clearly had what it took to nudge similar levels of insightful performance from his cohorts. I had few doubts he was a sensational director for stage.
Branagh's grasp of cinematic potential, on the other hand, was rudimentary. Long, static shots, close-ups that forced the actor to twitch and snort to hold viewer attention. And one hoped in vain for any cut-away to supply ironic contrast.
In that same era, Richard Loncraine's direction of Ian McKellan was gloriously distinct from all that. Here's the memorable, “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, in which Loncraine and McKellen exploit cinema's full potential to dramatic effect.
It's brilliant enough that Richard begins by publicly toadying up to a roomful of people he justifiably holds in contempt, then morphs to the inevitable admission of self-loathing — in the pissoir. But using a dollyed close-up of the bathroom mirror to break the Fourth Wall? For the second time in two minutes? To invite and incriminate the viewer in Richard's evil scheming? Oh, bravo, sirs — bravo!
The closest Branagh came to realizing similar cinematic success was his We're-sayin'-all-the-words! Hamlet, an epic production that would have had a much harder run of it on-stage.
Anyway, I saw all the Branagh movies, usually more than once, and certainly didn't begrudge the time spent. But for most of them, the question, “Why is this a movie?” had only one plausible answer: “To reach a wider audience.” No small thing, that. Wider audience = industry recognition = a better shot at career longevity doing stuff that genuinely engages the artist, and not having to put on a Starfleet uniform to pay the bills.
Ditto: Her. More people will watch a movie than read a New Yorker story. Fair enough, no hard feelings. But coming from the director of Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, I'm just surprised the bar wasn't set a little higher.

Related: P.T. Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Baz Luhrmann, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson love 'em, hate 'em, or both those cats are clearly making Movies, dammit.

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