Friday, December 6, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
American movies used to be aromatic. In the so-called “Golden Age”, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, you could almost smell the images. I’m not just talking about the most artful moments: the bag of oranges in The Godfather, the seedy bank in Dog Day Afternoon, the horses in Junior Bonner, Keith Carradine’s bed in Nashville. I’m thinking of the simple things, too—the desert landscapes in the first Planet Of The Apes, the shadows of the subway system in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the upside down bathrooms in The Poseidon Adventure.
Whatever the merits of the movies in question, it would be hard to deny their odorous vitality.
Look no further than the remakes of the latter three films to see how cleaned up, how body-washed and speedstick-scented our cinema has become. Yes, occasionally we get the quixotic victory of a Mickey Rourke comeback movie to remind us of our once pungent glory, but most of the time we’re treated to airbrushed remakes that have no touch of the concrete.
I defy anyone to entertain the water as a serious threat in the utterly forgettable remake of The Poseidon Adventure, known only as Poseidon, as if dropping the article and losing the adventure amounted to an intensification of the experience. The computer generated imagery may have given a lissome spin to the waves, but it doesn’t make us feel the weight, the terror, the overwhelming smell of real H2O. Don’t get me started on the retarded treatment of Planet by a misguided Tim Burton, and I can already see a mile away that the new Pelham won’t hold a scented candle to the gutter grittiness of the original.
So imagine my surprise when I walked out of two new movies with my senses enraptured, as if I’d spent a few hours in Times Square, circa 1976, instead of the usual stale Orgasmatron. In Pixar’s Up, a true masterpiece of the American cinema, I felt a thrill of rapturous movie joy when sunlight refracted through a wash of balloons to fall into the room of an unsuspecting girl. Right! I thought. Balloons are translucent. That’s their terrible, unbearable beauty.
In Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, it’s liquidity that excited me, and I’m not talking about Citibank. When the corpse of the ghastly gypsy woman who curses the protagonist falls out of her coffin on top of the pert blonde loan officer, played by a very game and soon to be gamier Allison Lohman, a syrup of pale green death goo spills from her mouth and into Lohman’s. For all I know, it was computer generated goo, but I swear on a stack of Sid and Marty Krofft DVD’s that I could almost taste the stuff. It reminded me of chicken stock.
Both Up and Drag Me To Hell took me right back to the tactile quality of those 1960’s and 1970’s movies. They made me feel their airy glidings and oozy slitherings. It’s a triumph worth celebrating, because the movies aren’t meant to be hardcore realism. They’re fantasies, and yet they occupy a level of reality that the multiplexes in which I saw them have yet to reach.
I don’t mean to scant other virtues. Both films are directed with smarts and joy. Both pay constant attention to story, character and detail. Even when Raimi’s movie is silly, it’s a silliness that adheres with ferocity to the logic of the tale he has constructed; it’s a tight, thrilling, exalted silliness. And Up? It simply and unobtrusively tells the story of the life and death of dreams in a few small lives, using the physicality of balloons to tease us along to its conclusion.
Up takes us to heaven, Drag Me To Hell takes us, well, elsewhere. We may not be able to identify every ingredient in the perfume, but we have at last definitive proof. The afterlife smells.
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