August 28, 2005

Incredibly Shrinking Donnie

Finally saw the director’s cut of Donnie Darko and while I like it better overall (Kelly has deepened all the relationships, I think, in ways that for the most part are subtle and lovely), I hate the substitution over the prologue of the INXS song “Never Tear Us Apart” for Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”. It’s not just that the latter has a sense of suspension that the former doesn’t (making sense of Kelly spare, poignant use of slow-motion) but that the latter also speaks more eloquently to the kind of childhood’s end that I think is Donnie Darko’s chief recommendation. Close analysis of both openings also reveals that the Director’s Cut softens the noise of a passing car and almost mutes completely the sound of Donnie’s bike - where in the theatrical cut, the passing car becomes part of the song (menacing); ditto the bike (rattlesnake, and menacing, too). I understand that the INXS song was the original choice for the scene and that after Sundance, Kelly was forced to sub the Echo and the Bunnymen tune because of prohibitive licensing costs (and besides, happy accidents are the stuff from which masterpieces, even minor ones, are made) – but I don’t agree with the rationale that this song fits better during the party scene where it directly presages the death of the girlfriend. That’s the kind of shit I precisely dislike about cut-and-paste soundtracks – but putting it way at the beginning, especially with that brilliant minor guitar sting launching from the white-suffusion. . . I don’t know that there’s a more perfectly stung moment in film that year.

Another story of man in time, space, and the quagmire of existential identity is Jack Arnold’s long-out-of-print The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) that, widely available on eBay in fairly decent DVR editions (most of them packaged with a trailer narrated by Orson Welles, on the Universal set while shooting Touch of Evil), has been denied a proper DVD release because of some stupid thing or another. As you gaze down the endless walls of super special editions at Blockbuster, weep a little for the masterpieces (major this time) that either sit unreleased, or have only ever gotten substandard treatment (like Weir’s Fearless or Penn’s Night Moves) by distributors too lazy or too venal; waiting to release a second wave special edition should the barebones version do surprisingly well. But as the rationale was once explained to me, why promote what no one’s going to see anyway? Good thinking, yes? My dad once told me that it wasn’t wise to argue with idiots because idiots are never wrong, and so my solution isn’t a letter-writing campaign a’la Marge Simpson, but just to shell out the ten bucks ad by the bootleg.

Because The Incredible Shrinking Man is an extraordinary film – perhaps the pinnacle of the 50s science fiction cycle in that it addresses theology from a Kirkegaardian sense (hero Scott Carter must shrink to escape his prison) but also the disintegration of the myth of the fifties suburban utopia. Carter has it all: beautiful wife, beautiful house, beautiful car, and, apparently, a yacht where, one afternoon, he’s exposed to a radioactive cloud that mixes with a pesticide on his skin and sends him on a journey inward. With one of the most unusual endings in film, Carter first loses every single accoutrement of what it meant to be a man in the popular consciousness at the time (and always): he loses his ability to please his wife (a wedding ring slides off his finger in the film’s most loaded metaphor), becomes literally a child all of tantrums and long reaches, loses his job, runs out on his wife, is attacked by his housecat, and is, finally, forgotten by friend, family, and lover alike in a dark basement that he describes as “a vast, primordial plain.” Reduction of man to his basest elements, Carter nonetheless proclaims that he will master his new environment as he did his last – Nietzche rears his grizzled head even here among the spiders and the matchheads – but Carter keeps shrinking, and The Incredible Shrinking Man becomes one of the most thoughtful and philosophically rich pictures in American flickers.


Besides, it has a spider-fight that Peter Jackson appears to have at least borrowed from heavily for The Return of the King’s Frodo vs. Shelob.

8 comments:

Carl Walker said...

I'm almost surprised that you didn't remark upon the obnoxious title cards inserted into the film, apparently excerpts from the website, that now purport to "explain" the rather silly sci-fi stuff and make it overt, when a) it was better when it was left more to the imagination, and b) it's somewhat offensive that a director would add things to his own film to make it easier to understand, as if this is always the goal of a film in the first place.

Other than that I mostly approved of the changes, although I don't remember the original music choices (save "Head Over Heels" and of course "Mad World"), and honestly I had to use IMDB to help remind of which scenes had been added and extended for the most part. Had he been able to spell things out more for us with something he'd actually shot at the time, though, I think I'd begrudge it less.

Bill C said...

Shame that Jack Arnold spent the twilight years of his career under the thumb of the decidedly un-cinematic Sherwood Schwartz, but I've always been fascinated by the subtle differences between his episodes of "The Brady Bunch" and, say, Oscar Rudolph's. Arnold, in fact, directed my favourite episode of "Gilligan's Island", "Castaway Pictures Presents," which brilliantly, mercilessly makes a student-film cocktail of stuff like Persona and 8 1/2 as part of a silent movie the castaways produce to get themselves rescued. It goes on to win the Cannes Palme d'or, natch. (Bergman, in what must be a '60s-sitcom first, is mentioned by name; ditto Fellini.) It's kind of a fogey thing to do, but I'm sure the art films that were all the rage (in some cases, with 'reformed' B audiences) made Arnold feel pretty obsolete.

jer fairall said...

OK, your paragraph on why "The Killing Moon" was a much better opening song than "Never Tear Us Apart" is much more eloquent than my reasoning: namely, I just always liked what I thought was a sly foreshadowing joke (BUNNYMEN, get it?) that I see now turned out to be one of said happy accidents. There's a definite geek high to be gotten out of watching the Director's Cut, for sure, but when you've seen the movie as many times as I have over the course of just a very few years, there's a level on which any change at all to the film is a subtle brand of heresy.

Still, the Aimee Mann fan in me is certainly ecstatic over the addition of "Voices Carry."

Anonymous said...

Recently, I became a huge fan of Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" -- which, its rather obvious metaphors and subtexts aside, I find to be at least as shocking and rebellious as its predecessor, in a practical middle finger towards audience expectations. For some reason, when you discussed about DVD availability in bare-bones editions, this was the one that came to mind; it's barely got any indication of what the movie *is* -- beyond the title, the DVD cover slapped with Dennis Hopper's cowboy visage; you can barely make out the chainsaws in his holsters. It being so hated for its time, I'm probably lucky to have the film on DVD at all, and cheap-o horror films like these might actually benefit from bare-bones editions with muddy, scratched-up transfers. But man, what I wouldn't give to have a few special features to go along with it.

Anyway, there's always the dubious notion of remakes reinvigorating interest in certain films. It may be the most ignorant of all DVD marketing practices, simply because it's one of the most obvious examples; but it's kind of lucky for the right cineaste. (My old "Dawn of the Dead" '78 DVD needed a good replacement, and an edition of the original '33 "King Kong" will certainly be released upon the arrival of Jackson's version.) With IMDb reporting that - God help us all - Keenen Ivory Wayans will be helming a remake of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" next year, perhaps it will result in a DVD release of the original. It feeds into your point about DVD releases in general... and Wayans' film will certainly be a haven for poop and dick jokes... but, well, spoonful of sugar, and all that.

-- Ian

Bill C said...

Rumour has it that Blue Underground had been trying to lease the rights to TCM 2 from MGM prior to the Sony buyout with the hopes of giving it the Special Edition treatment. Be worth it alone if they restore the original art parodying Annie Liebovitz's iconic one-sheet for The Breakfast Club.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ian, check out the work that Carol Clover did on TCM2 in her book Men Women and Chainsaws. She's wrong a lot about a lot of things, but I think she's always articulate and dead on about TCM2.

That original one-sheet if fricking genius. We should just review poster art from now on - says volumes.

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