Friday, July 26, 2013

The Fear is in the Atmosphere ~ A Look at The Neverending Story

I haven't done a scene or theme analysis in a while, so I thought I would randomly throw a curve ball out there today.

As a young child my favorite movie was The Neverending Story. I even used to put necklaces over my head and wear white sheets to dress up like the childlike Empress. I have a hilarious memory of being in daycare (age 6) and bringing the film to share with everyone and watch. (Even then, I was passionate about films!) I presented my case, but the caretaker ignored me and said we were going to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang instead. Now don't get me wrong, I liked that film too growing up, but I was so passionate about sharing my favorite movie that I ran off into a corner and sulked until my father came to pick me up after work.

While this is a film that definitely reeks of it's 1980s origin, with some points of bad acting (I personally could never stand Bastian or the Empress), some cheesy moments and terrible green-screen flying scenes, I still think it's a good film because it's got it where it counts... the heart. The themes and morals presented struck my heart even as such a young girl and I never forgot them.

I remember the huge pang I felt when Artax the horse dies. Not just because he dies, which is sad enough, but the manner in which he dies sinking into the Swamps of Sadness. The idea of losing hope and dying because you've given up is something that has always been unfathomable to a naturally hopeful person like me. Atreyu's character is bravery and hope personified, so watching him lose someone he loves to something so opposite his character- despair and sadness- was extra painful for me as a viewer. I think it was the first time a movie moved me to tears.

Atreyu's character is easily the best part of the movie. I didn't have a crush on him or anything, I simply admired him. He willingly laid aside his own life to journey for the good of all. He didn't know what that would entail or how high the cost would be, and he chose to lay down his weapons, leave everything behind, and go. Atreyu is such a strong symbol of hope... and often seems to be the only person who makes any logical sense in their whole silly world. Even after he lost his horse, and that stupid turtle Morla told him he shouldn't even bother trying to help Fantasia, he still trudged through the Swamps of Sadness and, even as he sank, he kept reaching upward, moving forward when all seemed hopeless. THAT is what I call a hero, pressing on toward the goal.

What I'd like to discuss in this post specifically though is the element of fear and how powerfully this film communicates that. My favorite scene, even though it terrifying as all hell, is the ending scene where Atreyu confronts Gmork, the creature who has been hunting him since the start of his quest. Gmork is a huge black wolf with some serious fangs and a desire to see "The Nothing" consume their world. He is the entity of darkness, despair, and defeat.

This scene is established with the element and atmosphere of fear to perfection. You already feel tension having known that Atreyu was being followed, but by this point you kind of forget because so many other events have taken place.

The final painting. I'd make that face too, kid!
Atreyu ends up alone, and wandering the last piece of his crumbling world. As he walks through the stony labyrinth he sees a series of paintings... paintings of himself. I remember being severely creeped out by those. They show every major event he encounters on his quest, including the death of his beloved Artax. He follows the paintings in a linear timeline until suddenly you see one of a huge, black wolf with bared fangs attacking...

Then, a grumble and a sharp blunt of abrasive music almost channeling Hitchcock's Psycho. Atreyu turns to find Gmork sitting, waiting for him in a cave. It gives me chills every time. When you build up an air of creepy uncertainty through subtle imagery, its far more horrifying to meet the end result.

Now as for me, I would have ran away screaming probably have gotten eaten in the process. But Atreyu sits down, as if he knew eventually this would happen, and the two begin a very intense dialogue. Gmork's voice, the manners in which he moves his mouth, and those glowing eyes scared me to death. He is definitely not a CGI creation but an animatronic, and that makes him ten times scarier in my opinion. I even read some funny comments on YouTube from men in their 30s saying Gmork still scares the crap out of them. Oftentimes a childhood fear carries strongest into adulthood and honestly, as a filmmaker, you want to inspire such unforgettable emotions.

Atreyu faces Gmork, a fanart. 
Even though I was afraid, I remember listening intently to the conversation. It completely enveloped me. I loved the themes and ideas expressed throughout, and also the fear of knowing that eventually they would have to stop talking and one would have to kill the other. Though faced with an obviously powerful adversary, Atreyu simply warns him, "I will not die easily, I am a warrior." In some ways Atreyu, a preteen with shiny, long hair, is more of a badass than half the grown men we see in contemporary cinema.

Gmork teases him about being a "brave warrior" and challenges him to fight The Nothing. Atreyu says he can't because he can't reach the boundaries of their world, as he's been trying to his whole quest. Gmork lets him know, Fantasia has no boundaries.

This truth shakes Atreyu... but he continues to listen. Gmork reveals, "Fantasia is the realm of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind, therefore, it has no boundaries."

Atreyu: "Why is Fantasia dying then?"

Gmork: "Because people have begun to lose their hopes, and forget their dreams, so The Nothing grows stronger."

Atreyu: "What IS The Nothing?"

Gmork: "It's the emptiness that's left. It is like a despair destroying this world, and I have been trying to help it."

"BUT WHY?" asks Atreyu. Knowing that Gmork is also a product of Fantasia and must be bound to it's fate.

Gmork: "Because people who have no hopes are easy to control, and whoever has the control, has the power."

I love what happens next, because it isn't what you'd expect. Atreyu looks at Gmork with a face implying he doesn't buy Gmork's words at all. He asks, "Who are you really?"

Gmork: "I am the servant of the power behind The Nothing. I was sent to kill the only one, who could have stopped The Nothing. I lost him in the Swamps of Sadness. His name was Atreyu!"

During this conversation, The Nothing is breaking down the world around them. Atreyu falls backward and grabs a sharp rock.

Atreyu: "If we're about to die anyway, then I'd rather die fighting! Come for me, Gmork! I AM ATREYU!"

And that's how it's done. I really wish they could have had an epic battle, it feels like Atreyu kills him too easily. However, I do know that an epic battle with an animatronic in those days would have looked awful, so I am really glad they didn't.

The idea that mankind is losing their hopes and dreams is something that I've noticed since those days as a little girl sitting wide-eyed in front of my VCR. I felt a stirring in my soul to do something about it, and I realized that by promoting hopes, dreams, truth, love and grace in my films and writing was my way of battling "The Nothing" and evading our own Gmork, the enemy, who daily prowls around seeking those to devour.

I saw someone on YouTube say that The Neverending Story is "a delicious metaphor thinly disguised as a kid's movie." I completely agree. It's not an amazing movie by technical standards, but if you watch the film, especially as a child, simply to get the golden nuggets of wisdom and provocative thoughts, you will enjoy it far more. Since the whole film is about reading books and using your imagination, pick up the original book by German author Michael Ende while you're at it. German's definitely know their stuff when it comes to fairy tales.

Until next time!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"They will join you in the sun." - Man of Steel

I have to laugh a little first, I think the reactions to this film are hilarious. So many people do not like it, and seem kind of outraged or something. I’m completely aghast, because it’s the first (and only) good Superman film out there in the world, but people just aren’t having it. I thought we wanted less cheese, more grit… and this film gives that, but now people are whining that there’s too much grit and not enough cheese! I guess filmmakers just can’t win!

Anyway, I’m choosing to write about this film because I personally loved it, even moreso on a second viewing. It is very different and a little weird to digest, it’s true. The pacing is odd, but I kind of liked that about it. It’s definitely not formulaic at all and the story isn’t told chronologically at times. I loved that they did this because even for those who know the story, it didn’t feel stale at all, you weren’t sure what to expect.

I also just have to give a shout out to Hans Zimmer for his AMAZING score. This is one of the best scores I’ve heard in a good while. It’s dramatic when it needs to be, and soft and subtle everywhere else. It’s perfect for the atmosphere and telling of the story. (I’m actually listening to it as I write this) and it chokes me up a little because it’s so filled with purpose and emotion. Thank you, Mr. Zimmer.

Superman is a very unique superhero, believe it or not. Many people I’ve talked to say they don’t like him because he’s “too perfect.” My question is, why is that a bad thing? When so many heroes in comics or otherwise are very flawed, but interesting, doesn’t it kind of jazz things up a bit to have a hero that is, indeed, greater than those he’s saving? If Kal-El (Superman’s real name) was a tyrant, and abuser of his gifts and powers, then indeed he would be a loathsome hero, but he is not. Kal-El is humble, selfless, and ever willing to surrender and lay down his life for others. He is a Christ-like figure and, I dare say, that is what makes many people’s skin prickle. As humans, and especially in the Western world, we don’t like seeing someone of ultimate power humble himself before others. That isn’t our human nature. We are always striving to be the best, to be on top. Therefore, when we see someone who actually can boast being on top and not using that to control or belittle others, we just cannot understand it. We are baffled by such love that lays low so that others may rise up.

I personally love Superman for these reasons. I didn’t always love him. I, too, initially found him too perfect and boring, but when you really think about him and his story, it’s fascinating and unique to the comic book mythology. I can pinpoint to the moment I changed my mind about him, it was when I watched Kill Bill Volume 2. In the film, Bill gives a speech to “The Bride” about Superman, and he puts it in quite a provocative way it made me rethink Superman entirely. (You can listen to the monologue HERE, it's short).

Superman is so obviously a messianic hero that I don’t feel it necessary to point that out too much. So many superheroes struggle with themselves. They are either insecure and it shows, or they are insecure and they cover it up with an overcompensating confidence. Kal-El never does this. He seems to rarely think of himself, except perhaps when he was a child and not fully matured into the man he was supposed to be. It is natural for a child to be confused about identity and discovery. Kal-El, unlike the others, has a confidence in his purpose, and this confidence comes from his fathers.  

I read a fantastic POST on Cinemagogue about Man of Steel and Kal’s submission to the will of his fathers. I’d also like to expound upon the subject myself here as it was one of the most emotional aspects for me in the film.

Jor-El and Lara, his birth parents, planned Kal. On their planet, Krypton, people aren’t born naturally anymore, they are designed, bred, to become whatever society needs. There is little choice, and little hope for the people of Krypton. Jor-El and his wife share a vision for a brighter future and decide to conceive Kal and give birth to him naturally. He is the first natural birth in centuries. His parents gave him purpose, he was intentional right from the start, but they also wanted him to be free from their society to label him with a purpose and have him find his own. Their world is dying, both literally and figuratively, so while they love him deeply, they know the best thing is to give him up to a better destiny. The “S” symbol, is the symbol of the house of El, which means hope. Like the people of earth who have crests and heraldry to honor their families, those of Krypton have family house symbols. I love the Krypton mythology. I could watch a whole movie just about that.

So when Kal comes crashing in his little pod down to Earth, he is most fortunately found by a barren couple in the security of a farm in Smallville, Kansas. Like Christ coming to Bethlehem, it is the humblest of places for this mighty child to rest his head, yet that is what makes it so perfect for him. His Earthly father, Jonathan Kent, also saw immediately that he was special and meant for a greater destiny. Jonathan’s presence in Kal’s life was always wisdom. He taught his son to control his power and his feelings, and above all taught him patience. He knew that the world would need a very specific time for Kal to make his presence known, and also that he would have to mature first before this could happen. It may have seemed to Kal at first that his father was being over-protective, but in reality he was preparing him for his destiny by teaching him to wait.

A deleted scene! Aw!!! 
One scene that just tears me up is the scene of Jonathan’s death. They are driving along a highway and a tornado is in the distance. Jonathan helps people, including Clark (the Kent’s name for him) and his mother Martha, to get to safety under and overpass. They realize they’ve left their dog inside their car, and Jonathan tells Clark to stay behind, and he’ll get the dog. The tornado comes in too strongly though, and after an injury it is obvious that Jonathan will not make it to safety in time. Clark moves to rush toward him, he could have saved him in a split second, but Jonathan holds his hand up, and peacefully shakes his head. Though torn, Clark obeys him, and Jonathan is carried away with the wind. It was heartbreaking because Clark trusted his father and knew that the time was not right for him to show the world his full power, even to save his own father. This showed a father's sacrificial love for his son, and his awe and humility knowing what and who Kal is, and also it showed the deep trust and respect Clark had for his father.

Though both Russel Crowe and Kevin Kostner are not in the film for very long, their presence as his fathers is so strong and moving. From Jonathan’s subtle look as he holds hand up to Kal telling him to wait, or the way Jor-El first looks at his son with complete wonder and awe as he is breathes his first breath. Both of these performances (well, all the performances in my opinion) were so beautiful and I think they picked the perfect actors to show what these characters needed to represent. Superman was always strong with Father/Son themes and they nailed it in this film.

The star performance, I feel, goes to Michael Shannon as General Zod. He is a growing favorite of mine and always impresses me with his ability to spring from one colorful character to the next. I actually felt sympathy for Zod, as Shannon seems to be able to show Zod’s regrets and intentions with mere looks. Zod was a victim of Krypton’s breeding for purpose. Without his purpose, he loses his soul and his identity. It’s quite sad, and an interesting look at the effects of pouring one’s self into what one does, rather than having identity be given from a higher call.

I adore the cinematography in this film, led by Amir Mokri. It’s gritty and authentic, but not without being beautiful and full of interesting color composition to make it still fantastical. The way things are shot adds so much emotion and relativity to the scenes. When paired with the film’s exceptional score, the visuals alone can get the job done.

Adorable magazine shoot! 

I hope they will make another film soon and continue the story. They've only scratched the surface and there’s so much that can be done. While America seemed to struggle accepting this darker version of Superman, I embrace it entirely and say bring it on!