Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cold Mountain (DVD) Review

I rented Cold Mountain, because it had Jack White in it. The therapeutic ratio of this movie is the 155 minute running time divided by the time JW's on the screen which is about 6 minutes, making the ratio 25.8. That's high, although I've watched dreadful movies for less Jason Isaacs in the past. Since I had to watch it all the way through, here's my thoughts on the subject.

By thirty minutes into it, I wasn't that overwhelmed. It reminds me of The Patriot - the horror of war contrasted with the pale and comely humanity of young love and other sick-making platitudes. I suspect that the beardie old scarecrow Teague is going to be the bad guy, rather than the elegant and savage Colonel Tavington of The Patriot, which is not an improvement.

It's managed to pile in every cliche in the book so far. The beautiful blonde middle-class preacher's daughter (Nicole Kidman), the young tongue-tied farmhand (Jude Law), the old preacher with the slight movie-cough that spells Doomed in capital letters, the insane ballet of gobbets of bodies flying through the air after a nice big blowage-of-shit-up, and quite remarkably, a shot of one man dying in the trenches cut to a white dove battering against the church windows followed by - get this - someone letting the soul oops I mean dove back out of the church followed by another cut to the man in the trenches starting to move again. Is that last one a cliche negated or a cliche squared? I can't tell! My sense of art (with a capital F) is all tangled up with with my astonishment that anyone would try such comic book cuts.

There's a Brit and an Aussie attempting ante-bellum (or in this case peri-bellum) American accents with their very best Gone-With-The-Wind enunciation switched on. There's also a lot of music so far which has reminded me that (white) American folk music is still on probation with me. I've never really liked it, finding it maudlin and superstitious, and it's on sufferance right now because so many people I respect seem to love it. But it could easily overstay its welcome in this rather syrupy incarnation. If P T Barnum or whatever his name is and Jack White were involved in it, one would expect it to get better. (Later note: Not P T Barnum. I meant T Bone Burnett.)

Spoilers oh ye who haven't seen it.

There is a much taught concept in screenwriting called "Plot Point 1". At this point the simple narrative (e.g. Jim's greatest need in life is to go to the shop to buy his wife a birthday present) takes a Jovian-gravity-sling sized turn around a pivot and jumps into the actual subject of the movie, which is about a thousand times as powerful (e.g. Jim gets halfway to the shops when a giant robot emerges from the earth and eats New York). This precipitates Act II (Only Jim knows that the monster has a vulnerable underbelly and the rest of the act is about Jim finding an F-16 and flying it into the monster's weak spot. Birthday is forgotten.) According to Syd Field, who wrote the book (literally) on this, Plot Point 1 should occur just before Act II, on pages 25 to 27 of the screenplay, or as we punters call it, at about thirty minute mark of the movie.

At thirty-eight minutes into Cold Mountain (it's a long movie all around so the points are stretched out), preacher-Dad with the slight cough dies suddenly, his death simultaneous with a rainstorm signifying Great Change and Turmoil blowing over Cold Mountain. About one minute before he died, we learned that his beautiful daughter can't cook. Therefore I predict the rest of the movie will be about her not being able to cook. This is a movie with Symbols all over it, so Not Being Able to Cook will entail being utterly destitute. And meanwhile her tongue-tied young man is on his way to fight the Yankee. What will she do?

The second part of the movie proves to be much funnier, so all is well. Renee Zellweger turns up as a sort of cross between a kobold and a farmer, choosing to live with Nicole Kidman for no apparent reason. She teaches the helpless woman how to till the soil and milk the pigs, or whatever it is people do in the country. She's as strong as a donkey and filled with wisdom. I can't understand a word she croaks, but I guess it's folksy and uproarious. Her character is called Ruby Thewes. "Thews" means "muscle" and comes from a word meaning virtue or character. You can tell that she is Flesh and Blood because she is thews and rubies. This is Deep. It is a Deep film.

I did manage to catch that the first word she learned to spell was "catastrophe" - funny plus foreshadowing plus Symbolism! Nicole's character could not deal with the farm's rooster, so Thewes ripped the cock's head off, which was pretty funny, and very Symbolic also.

Back to Jude Law's character. He's deserted the blood-filled trenches. The Home Guard is killing all deserters and those who support them, so he's walking home rather circumspectly. He meets a man at a ferry point. Hm. First suspicion that we are in a mythological world here. A ferry point? The ferryman, or in this case ferrywoman, agrees to get him and the man across the river. The Home Guard catch up at the bank and shoot the ferrywoman. This is after she'd offered to have sex for money - a typically Hollywood scene. A woman can't take charge of sexual matters and go unpunished. That rather startling shooting managed to be both funny and Symbolic too. Her purpose was to ferry the hero from one square on the board of his life to another. Usually the ferryman gets there alive with his charges, but this one hadda ruin it by offering Inman sex, so she serves the dual purpose of ferrying Inman out of the war and dying for being sexual.

Is he really called Inman? As in Man and In? He isn't called Emmanuel ("God is within") he's called "Man is within". Not a particularly lucky name. Let's hope it's IN this MAN to get through the movie in one piece.

I'm enjoying this movie now. Still can't tell what Zellweger is saying, though I think she's a Magical Negro. The film's first successful bout of non-clicheing is to have a white, female magical negro instead of Morgan Freeman or Morpheus from the Matrix. I'm sure she'll do a good job magicking Nicole Kidman out of middle-classdom and getting her in touch with her roots, literally as she's clearing a cornfield. (Though the first thing she does is build a sturdy fence. A fence! This is going up to 11 on the Symbolism scale!)

I'm following Inman's journey with bated breath. He's well on the path of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey now. Having been ferried out of his familiar surroundings (the war) he and the fallen preacher are tempted by the sirens that tempted Odysseus' sailors, the libidinous giants that dwell on the threshold of the familiar. Inman and the sidekick are dumb enough to follow the sirens. The scene starts out realistically enough with a dead bull in a stream, but once inside their house the lighting gets darker and more smutty (as in soot/smut and sex/smut) and irreal until we're in what Campbell calls The Belly of the Whale. The belly of the whale is the darkness closing over the hero. Next he should set out on The Road of Trials. Hey, I guessed right. The Home Guard have turned up to give our hero some of those trials.

Inman is rescued from his ordeal by an old crone (with attendant goats) in a magic hut in the woods. She's even mixed up a potion to cure his ills. I really had been given the impression that this was a movie about a bloody war, and in fact it's a typical fantasy. It's more Star Wars than anything remotely realistic. Remarkable. I have both Syd Field and Joseph Campbell's books open and I'm following along. The screenplay's writing itself at this point.

Inman's just met Natalie Portman as the Mother Goddess. She's carrying a giant baby about the size of a pantomime horse. What does Joseph Campbell say? Ah yes, "The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage (hieros gamos) of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart." Inman sleeps with her, but does not touch her. And the Goddess' baby won't suckle. We have bad omens, folks. (All snarkiness aside, Natalie and her giant baby had me in tears. Not bad going for a mainstream movie.)

The Dark Night of the Soul and stuff.

Hooray! Jack White's turned up and he seems to have cured Zellweger's crush on Nicole Kidman with just a couple of twinkles of his eyes. I can see how that happens. He's a musician and his name is Georgia, which makes for another brief funny during a tense scene where his mates have been captured and he's hiding from $Bad_Guy. The dumb good guy blurts out, "Where's Georgia?" Instead of narrowing their eyes, realizing they've failed to capture all the men in the party, and beginning a methodical search for the missing Georgia, everybody laughs, thinking $Dumb_Guy doesn't know where Georgia is! Haha! Geddit! Who said this movie was all about hacking limbs off and dying of gas gangrene in the snow? It's pretty funny!

I think I know where we are in the war, but that's only because I know the words to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. If this is the winter of 65, then everybody's hungry, just barely alive. And presumably old Dixie is shortly in for it. The ground is frozen and barren. Snow is falling, coating everything. Mythically speaking, the land needs the return of the king to heal it.

And on cue our hero is back. Jude Law really is beautiful. He was a youth with that luminous presence, but unlike most young stars he kept the perfect symmetry as he grew up and now he's a spectacular looking man, with those widow's peaks to add a little touch of dignity. Alas all he and his earthly queen are doing in this part of the movie is talking about his loss of innocence. That won't heal the land and I suspect a twist ending coming up. Oh noes!

Yes, the twist ending came up, though it's rather predictable. Inman destroys the Home Guard including $Bad_Guy and the bad guy's obligate sidekick, the Eeevill Albino. They were the blight on the land, but the blight has destroyed the hero too. Inman is killed by the albino. And guess what! Nicole actually says those words in the character's voice-over, "The land won't heal – too much blood." Nice to know the script and I are both on the same film textbook.

The land is healed! Yay! Flowers in White Stripes' official
colors all round!

But we get a tacked-on happy ending of sorts. Jack/Georgia's still alive. He's married Ruby Thewes. It's spring again, the ground is unfrozen and everyone has had babies, including the sheep. But one sheep baby has lost its mother and one sheep mother has lost its baby. Nicole Kidman (still don't know her character's name) skins the dead lamb and puts the skin over the living orphan and the surviving ewe is fooled into accepting the lamb as its own. Not sure exactly what the writer's getting at there. Turn our coats? Hide our true natures? Something about a new skin, anyway, if we are to survive. Anyway, now the Goddess of the World's symbolic baby is thriving again. Fooled by a trick, the land at least appears to have healed.

Overall, I liked the format of the women being at home, the solid matrix, with the men being peripatetic. That's a recurrent theme in my fiction and done very well here. The cinematography is quite beautiful. I guess they couldn't cut that first half hour, even though it really does not fit the movie, as that would have reset Plot Point 1 to the start and taken out the slingshot-power of the change of focus in the movie. Shame though, as it really is an off-putting beginning. I won't watch it again and in future I will keep an eye out for films with a therapeutic ratio less than about 10.


KaliDurga said...

Have you read the book? It still predictably follows the hero's journey mythology, but Frazier's writing beats the hell out of the movie screenplay (big surprise there). I actually enjoyed the film more than I expected to, mostly due to Jude Law and the gorgeous Romanian scenery, though I won't ever forgive the writers or Nicole Kidman for screwing up Ada's character.

And, now that I'm a pretty Jack White fan, I'm also more than a bit annoyed that they down-sized Georgia's role.

Peromyscus said...

No, I hadn't read the book but I'm not surprised to hear it's better than the screenplay. I hadn't realized Georgia's role was downsized. Hm, I wonder if we can clamor for the deleted scenes to be released (if any)?

KaliDurga said...

Considering the way the story was re-written, there might not be any deleted scenes to release. It still wouldn't have been a big part, but the book included more of his background, more of him with Stobrod and Pangle before the Home Guard arrives, and a bit between him and Inman.

It had to be a hell of a job to cram that book into a screenplay. I certainly don't envy the writer who had to do it, which is why I overlook many of the liberties they took.

Anonymous said...

Ruby chooses to live with Ada because it was a hardscrabble life, people starving to death and dying of exposure was a daily occurrence. Moving in with Ada in her warm spacious farmhouse would mean food, shelter and security. As for her "crush" on Ada, I do believe that it was actually a crush on the farm itself, the very thought of "homeless mountain trash" like herself living and running an actual farm, too good an opportunity to pass up. Note her dad's look as he leaves the house after they patch up his hand, and she tells him she's not a servant there, his impressed look clearly says "you done good for yourself, girl".


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