Posted by: travishawkins | May 9, 2008

GO, SPEED RACER, GO!

As anybody who’s anybody knows, the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer movie comes out soon. Growing up, I was obsessed with the Speed Racer cartoon, on which the movie is based.

For the uninitiated, the show was about a hip young racecar driver named (oddly enough) Speed Racer and his rad car the Mach 5. The Mach 5 could do all sorts of cool tricks like drive underwater, cut down trees, and blast into the air on hydraulic jacks. One of the coolest characters was the mysterious Racer X, who was secretly Speed’s older brother (Rex), who ran away from home many years ago.

Speed Racer was a Japanese homage to American culture. It was a strange cocktail of ingredients: striking imagery, laughable animation, dialogue performed without taking a breath, a near-surrealistic sense of pacing, zany comedy (intended and otherwise), and excessive violence. In the title sequence, Speed waves at the camera just before running another car off the road. The ensuing explosion fills the screen.

Speed Racer featured some wonderful villains with even better dialogue. At their sinister midnight meeting, the leader of the evil Car Acrobatic Team encourages his drivers to “gather [their] strength from the violence of the elements!” In another episode, crime boss Cruncher Block laughs as he demands another sandwich, explaining: “I always get hungry when I’m up to skullduggery!”

I’m sure that’s more than you wanted to know about Speed Racer. I think my childhood obsession was fueled by when the show came on during the day: I would run home just in time to hear “tune in tomorrow to see if Speed survives his showdown with the monster car!” And let’s not forget that awesome theme song. Here are both the American title sequence and the original Japanese title sequence, which benefits from additional gunplay and a stampede of giraffes.

EDIT: Just saw the movie.  A LOT better than I had dared to hope; I give it four stars.  Maybe four and a half.  But I’d be interested in what someone who never watched the show thought.

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Posted by: travishawkins | May 3, 2008

MONSTER TEACHER

Many of you have heard my stories from my Meisner class in Los Angeles, about Bill Alderson (my teacher) telling the girl that she wasn’t attractive, or telling the students to get out for talking during Johnny Cash songs. Well, here is Meisner himself: we watched this (unavailable) documentary on him in my class.

A word of introduction: if I walked into a room full of scientists talking about the best way to split an atom, I wouldn’t understand a word. But if they were the real deal, I wouldn’t walk out saying “those guys don’t know what they’re talking about” simply because I didn’t understand it. I would think “they must know something I don’t know.” And if I was into science, I would want to learn what that “something” was.

When you watch (if you watch) these exercises…especially the much-lampooned “repetition” exercise…you may get the same feeling. You can even read it in the student’s faces, because they’re new to the technique. But Meisner did indeed “have something to teach, something that was practicable,” as Mamet says in this clip. That is, it was something you understood by doing, and something that you could do, unlike some acting techniques.

Meisner was not a nice guy, and his laryngectomy makes him even more spooky. But take a look at the number of great actors that sing his praises. Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, I like this stuff, and I find it interesting. Maybe you will too.

Posted by: travishawkins | April 30, 2008

IS THE LAW OUR ENEMY?

I hope to write here about something more personal and important than bad movies (see last post). Have a look at these verses:

Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Psalm 16:5-7, 11

Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you.
If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.
I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life.

Psalm 119:91-93

So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in Gods’ law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:21-25

…If you are like me, you think of grace as the “good guy” and law as the “bad guy.” But is that the case? David delights in God’s law. So does Paul’s “inner being.” He asks not for rescue from the law, which his mind affirms as good, but for rescue from his sinful body. Which is not to say that flesh (or matter) is sinful…simply that it is unable to uphold the perfect law that emanates from God’s person. This is where Christ steps in to bridge the gap by satisfying the law of God for us.

When I think of the law in this way…as an extension of God’s character that governs the universe…it brings me great peace. We are not a cosmic accident. Our lives are not a succession of absurd and meaningless moments. There is a plan in place. Life makes sense if we will only assent to God’s law. And, finding ourselves unable to keep the law which our spirits affirm as “good,” we find it kept in Christ, who in turn keeps us.

Am I off base here? I never went to seminary, you know. I studied theatre.

Posted by: travishawkins | April 27, 2008

A BAD MOVIE

I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.  Let me first offer my apologies for what follows to those of you who liked this movie.  I thought it was bad.  I thought it was really bad.  I thought it was so bad that it got me thinking about what makes a movie truly abysmal.  In the list below, I use At World’s End as an example.  All in good fun, of course.

In order for a movie to be truly abysmal, it must:

1) Be boring.  That may seem obvious.  But there are many “bad” movies that redeem themselves because they’re so funny (Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Godzilla movies).  An abysmal movie has no such entertainment value.

2) Undermine itself with ludicrous stakes.  In the first Pirates movie, we have an undead pirate crew who are brought back to life.  In the second movie, Jack Sparrow willingly sacrifices his life by entering Davy Jones’ Locker, from which he is rescued in the third movie.  If life and death have no meaning, as clearly they do not in this trilogy’s universe, who cares what happens to the characters?  If they die, oh well, there’s probably some magic talisman or map that will bring them back.  This is the problem with Superman.  If he can reverse time by changing the rotation of the earth, why bother to stop the bank robbery?  He can always fly around the world again and take care of it later.

3) Present a constant barrage of narrative.  This is my problem with the Harry Potter movies.  I make no judgment about the books, which I have not read.  But watching the movies is like reading Cliff’s Notes.  “We’ve got a lot of information to get through here, so let’s blaze through it as fast as possible.”  With movies like At World’s End, it’s always “we have to get this jewel so we can get that ship so we can rescue so-and-so so they can do thus-and-such” and then the movie is over.  Is there ever a doubt that the characters will be able to pull it off?  That’s assuming that you care about the characters, which you do not, because they are so two-dimensional.  How could it be otherwise in a film so obsessively plot-driven?  It has all the appeal of watching someone check items off their grocery list.

4) Be formulaic and predictable.  There is a scene in At World’s End where all the pirates are fighting, at which point I began to count the seconds until someone fires their flintlock in the air and all the pirates fall silent, mid-punch, as if they had never seen a gun before.  Why not throw in some dialogue like “that was easy!”  “Yeah…too easy.”

5) Waste a lot of money, talent and resources.  As C.S. Lewis said (I’m paraphrasing), “it takes a great man to go truly wrong.”  It is hard for a low-budget movie to be truly abysmal, because your expectations are so low.  If the movie is good at all, it is a happy surprise.  But when you dump millions upon millions of dollars, excellent actors, and fantastic special effects into a movie and it is still bad, then you do not have a disappointment on your hands, you have a tragedy. This is the key characteristic of an abysmal movie: it must have promise.  Which At World’s End has in spades.  What a wonderful character Davy Jones is!  Sadly, he finds himself sabotaged by market-driven filmmakers and cast aside creatively, as surely as he is cast (warning: spoiler ahead) into that whirlpool near the end of the movie.

…Which is perhaps an excellent metaphor for this aberration of a film: a giant whirlpool, drawing cast and crew into its bottomless maw, with a loud sucking sound.  I know what you’re going to say.  “It’s just a movie!  Relax and enjoy the ride!”  Well, I feel I am a pretty forgiving audience member.  There are a lot of flawed blockbusters that I enjoy (Transformers, for instance).  A film may contain one or more of the above characteristics and still be enjoyable (see Superman).  But when all of them are present, what you have is an entertainment abomination (see The Fifth Element).

Thank you for letting me exorcise my aesthetic demons.  My apologies to Johnny Depp.

Posted by: travishawkins | February 20, 2008

DAVID WILCOX

Tonight I went with Kevin and Amanda to see David Wilcox at Workplay.  …Between typing that last sentence and this one, five minutes passed as I struggled to put the experience into words.  About a third of the way into the evening, my spirit was full.  These songs are so rich and so powerful that I was overwhelmed.  The air felt heavy.  I was lightheaded.  I thought I would have to leave the room.

You know when you have a conversation with someone, and it’s like they’re reading your mind?  This was like one of those conversations.  But it kept going and going, and of course I couldn’t respond, and I felt like I would burst. That is David Wilcox’s gift.  He captures something vital in his songs that disappears the moment you try to examine it.  

Watching this guy give a show, it’s more like witnessing a preacher or a shaman.  He is tapping into something greater than himself, something for which he is only the conduit.  Afterwords, I asked him if he would consider writing some worse songs, so that he could play them as filler in his shows, and I could catch up emotionally.  

Why am I going on and on about David Wilcox?  I don’t know.  He’s not even someone I listen to that often.  But listening to him, it makes me proud to be an artist, if I can even use that word of myself.  Someone has said that being a writer is easy: you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.  It takes something out of you.  

But there is also great joy in writing a story, or painting a picture, or making a film.  And if you do your work well…for one moment…loose ends come together for the audience.  Things make sense.  The world looks a bit brighter.  They experience a brush with the inexpressible. 

That’s what David Wilcox does for me, anyway.  You most likely have your own shaman, your own conduit.  And if you’re like me, they are always changing.  They spring up in the most unlikely places.  Here’s a song I requested of Wilcox a year or so ago when we shot him at Workplay (with cameras).  It made the DVD.

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