Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rank and File #3: Peter Jackson Beyond Middle-Earth

Art is not a competition...but it sure is more fun that way.  To celebrate the conclusion of The Hobbit trilogyRank and File considers those Peter Jackson films conspicuously lacking in orcs, elves, and wizards.

Peter Jackson has devoted more than a decade of his life to creating a cinematic record of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, first with the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then the slightly less impressive series of films based on The Hobbit, the third and final of which debuts a week from today.  (I've covered the first two here and here.)  While these movies, especially The Hobbit trio, are perhaps as personal as mega-blockbusters can get in the aftermath of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, there's no denying the influence that the twin shadows of Tolkien and New Line Cinema - and later Warner Bros. - have cast over them.

What really interests me about Jackson, though, is the filmmaker who emerges when the stakes are a bit different.  His career trajectory - from B-movie maven to Hollywood rainmaker - reveals a man of more diverse talents than most realize.  And through it all beats the heart of an impish prankster, the outsider from the far-flung colonies who built his own castle on a hill, the jack-of-all-trades hustler who suddenly became the kingmaker.  But as he's moved closer to the corridors of power, has he also distanced himself from his audience?  

To understand where Peter Jackson will land after The Hobbit, we need to see where he's been.

The Splatter Era

For his debut film, the amateur splatter-fest Bad Taste (1987), Jackson was about as far away from the blockbuster-industrial complex as a horror-obsessed Kiwi could be.  Shooting on weekends off from his day job and enlisting his friends as actors, Jackson was a veritable one-man production company - he's credited as a director, producer, cinematographer, co-writer, co-editor, makeup artist, and special effects supervisor.  And as if that wasn't enough, he also plays two of the main characters in the film - a reckless government scientist investigating the alien invasion of a rural New Zealand village, and the dimwitted henchman of an extraterrestrial overlord (Doug Wren) collecting Earthling specimens to test as a new dish for his intergalactic fast food franchise.

Despite its lack of formal polish, Bad Taste has an infectious, Sam Raimi-influenced energy, moving rapidly from one gross-out action setpiece to the next.  But even more than the over-the-top viscera, the film's best joke is the informality of Kiwi culture: Jackson and his mulleted, pickup-driving, metalhead cohorts aren't vigilantes, but the official representatives of a federal bureau on E.T.-related investigations.  They're the kind of plucky, determined heroes Jackson favors, confronting a danger so far over their heads that their naiveté doubles as uncommon courage.

The vulgarity is dialed up a few notches in Meet the Feebles (1989), a backstage puppet musical that resembles the Muppets by way of The Jerry Springer Show, TMZ, and Tijuana bibles.  Feebles' thin main plot - a puppet troupe mounting a live television tryout for their own syndicated show - is really a bunch of comic vignettes, flashbacks, and musical numbers sprinkled over 90 minutes.  The depravity of the movie's drug-addicted, sex-crazed, and generally unscrupulous fuzzies is a joke that quickly wears out its welcome.  But Jackson, in his first collaboration with creative (and life) partner Fran Walsh, keeps pushing it to such ridiculous extremes that it's hard not to watch with a kind of perverse fascination.  Still, it's mind-boggling to think Feebles was conceived as a television series before investors decided to make it a feature film instead.

After introducing each character's vices (save for the lone innocent, a lovelorn hedgehog, who serves as an audience surrogate) many of the film's subsequent scenes have a kind of numbing effect.  Once you're keyed into the film's central inversion of kiddie show tropes, you can pretty much predict what's going to happen.  Sometimes the results are too queasy: a subplot involving one of the show's main stars, a promiscuous rabbit trying to keep news of his unnamed illness out of the tabloid press, too closely resembles the era's AIDS cover-up scandals.  Yet I can't help but appreciate the loving attention Jackson gives to the fucked-up details: the S&M gear designed for a cow, the elaborate Deer Hunter parody starring puppet frogs, the gusto with which the housefly character gobbles up the others' excrement.  Meet the Feebles is wrongness done (mostly) right. 

In retrospect, Jackson's first three films follow roughly the same formula: naive pushovers are taken to their limits by casually amoral antagonists until turning the tide in a final conflagration of righteous violence.  This formula doesn't really get old; in fact, it reaches near-perfection in Dead Alive (1992), also known as Braindead just about everywhere outside the U.S.  In the film, Lionel (Timothy Balme) lives with his overbearing mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) in 1950s New Zealand.  When Lionel embarks on a tentative romance with sweet shopgirl Paquita (Diana Peñalver), his jealous mum follows the couple to the zoo where she suffers a fatal bite from a Sumatran rat-monkey.  But, as the title implies, Vera's not really dead - she's undead, and it's up to Lionel to keep her from turning the rest of his small town into ravenous flesh-eating zombies.

Besides from an opening sequence showing the transfer of the cursed rat-monkey from the presciently-named "Skull Island" to New Zealand, Dead Alive devotes its first act to slowly developing Lionel's relationships with Vera and Paquita, giving the audience a emotional beacon for the impending bloodbath.  Similarly, Jackson gives the zombie crisis an unexpected texture as the gentle Lionel tries to seek a humane solution for the undead problem, instead of annihilating them outright.  The movie gets to that eventually, but the gratuitously violent climax that overwhelms the frame with gore is entirely earned by Jackson's earlier dramatic legwork.  Love is a force multiplier in Dead Alive - a horror classic with plenty of heart.

Hello, Hollywood

Heavenly Creatures (1994) is a turning point in Jackson's career for several reasons: it was his first film acquired by a major distributor (Miramax), it garnered his first Oscar nomination (with Walsh, for Best Original Screenplay), and it spurred the creation of Weta Digital, the special effects house that would eventually become the biggest competitor to George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.  Based on the infamous case of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teenagers whose obsessive friendship led to the  murder of Parker's mother in 1954, Heavenly Creatures is also Jackson's first ostensibly "mature" film, but only in the sense that it has the gloss of prestige that non-horror fans and Academy voters would like.

Surprisingly, Heavenly Creatures is potentially even more shocking than Jackson's gore-fests.  The film focuses on the relationship between Parker and Hulme - played by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in their respective film debuts - up until the murder, eschewing the sensational trial and media firestorm that followed.  The resulting film tries to shed a sympathetic light on two bright, lonely, outcast teenagers in a conservative community.  It's clear that Jackson also identifies with the girls' imaginative sides: together they create a fantasy world called Borovnia, complete with a detailed royal lineage and "saints" culled from their crushes in celebrity magazines.  Fittingly, Heavenly Creatures blurs the line between fantasy and reality - it advances a theory that the girls' mutual attraction went beyond friendship, which the real Hulme has denied - and ponders what can happen if you allow your own narrative to spiral out of control.

With Heavenly Creatures standing as a serious departure from his earlier work, Jackson's next project, horror-comedy The Frighteners (1996), is eager to prove he hadn't forgotten what it was like to muck it up in the genre trenches.  Michael J. Fox plays a psychic investigator who truly can communicate with the dead, and uses this ability to pull scams in which he provides phony "extermination" services after enlisting his ghost buddies to haunt unsuspecting locals.  It's a wonderfully irreverent premise that's paired well with Jackson's macabre sarcasm and makes the inevitable pathos-laden backstory (there's a car accident and a dead wife) less of a chore to reveal.

However, the movie's seams begin to show to more Jackson tinkers with its tone.  His careful combination of a sad little ghost story and a sharp Ghostbusters-adjacent farce is disrupted by a mystery plot that features some dubiously convenient insanity.  The Frighteners' broad third act turn forces it to abandon much of what makes it special.  Still, there's no denying the energy behind the camera, as Jackson seems chuffed to have the mid-90s equivalents of a major budget and cutting-edge CGI effects to make his out-there B-movie.  The supporting cast alone - Elliot's mom from E.T.!  The mad scientist from Re-Animator!  Gary Busey's son! - signals that this is a film destined for cult appeal, and The Frighteners is at its best when embracing its weirdness.

Lord of the Multiplex

Up to and including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson's geographic isolation and low cultural profile gave his films a unique timbre - an almost mythic sense of foreboding combined with an alternately goofy and morbid sense of humor.  That sensibility endures in his remake of King Kong (2005), but it's also the first Jackson film where the audience got exactly what it expected: a three-hour adventure epic (nearly twice as long as the 1933 original) pushing the envelope of visual effects and populated with archetypal pulp heroes and villains.  King Kong is a film where the story being told - which is admittedly slight - is not nearly as important as how Jackson visualizes it.  It feels like a movie that's been playing out in his head since he was a little boy.

It takes cojones the size of the titular ape's to remake a well-known classic like King Kong, but Jackson's fanboyish enthusiasm ensures that it never feels calculated or mercenary.  That same aplomb, however, sometimes works to the film's detriment.  Apart from a lengthy prologue in Depression-era New York City, King Kong's charge is to cram a lovingly-curated bestiary of fearsome creatures into a string of nonstop action sequences.  It's all impressive and imaginative, but also exhausting and repetitive, like a kid spilling out the contents of his toybox and proudly describing the figures one by one.  And it's impossible to watch King Kong without doing a bit of mental re-casting: Jack Black is the most awkward fit as megalomaniac filmmaker Carl Denham, but Adrien Brody (as a sensitive writer-turned-jungle commando) and Kyle Chandler (as a cartoonishly arrogant actor) appear equally uncomfortable.  Naomi Watts, however, is unassailable as Ann Darrow, the ingénue who forms a special bond with the giant ape (a CGI character digitally captured by Andy Serkis) and lends Kong the air of tragic romance that sets it apart from the typical blockbuster smash-up.

The longest interim of Jackson's career saw him flirting with being a Lucas-esque godhead, guiding The Hobbit through development hell (which finally ended when he struck a deal to direct the trilogy himself) and advancing film technology through his special effects companies.  In that sense, The Lovely Bones (2009) - the story of a teenage girl observing the aftermath of her murder as she tries to leave the "in-between" stage of death and ascend to heaven - is a strange marker in his directorial career.  On paper, Jackson seems like an inspired choice to guide Alice Sebold's best-selling novel to the big screen: it's a deceptively sprawling story with several key subplots, it demands the creation of a striking fantasy world, and it even shares some tonal similarities with the dreamy and dread-filled Heavenly Creatures.

However, the difficulty of keeping one foot in reality and one foot in the afterlife quickly overwhelms the film.  The Lovely Bones is unfocused and maudlin, and features Jackson's least imaginative rendering of a world beyond our own.  Susie Salmon's (Saoirse Ronan) trek through purgatory is blandly beautiful:  snowy hills, sunsets, wheat fields.  Yet that's more than can be said for the unappealing stew of suburban drama, true crime grimness, and punchy comedy that comprises the rest of the film.  The Lovely Bones has its moments - many courtesy of Ronan and Stanley Tucci as the Salmons' creepy neighbor - as well as an interesting take on how tragedy can unexpectedly lead to other, more comforting paths.  But lacking clarity and control, it's a worrying symptom of Jackson's increasingly clumsy attempts at big-tent storytelling.

Odds and Ends

A couple more non-directorial efforts bear mentioning.  The whimsical fantasy Jack Brown Genius (1996) - which Jackson co-wrote and produced under his Wingnut Films label - is an uneven but amiable quirkfest about a humble inventor (Dead Alive's Timothy Balme) who's temporarily inhabited by the spirit of a medieval monk (Stuart Devenie) obsessed with the idea of human-powered flight.  Frequently distracted by its many hit-and-miss subplots - not to mention some weirdly offensive humor involving Asians and the mentally ill - the movie gets tangled in Jackson's predilection for obscure detail.  The film's backbone is strong, though: Balme delivers another terrific performance as a charming misfit whose dogged determination and purity of heart inspire others to rally around him.  He would have made a fantastic hobbit.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) arrived with much fanfare, the first in a diptych of motion capture-animated films to be produced by the creative dream team of Jackson and Steven Spielberg, who also directed the initial effort.  The final product wasn't bad at all, just a bit disappointing considering the track record of everyone involved.  Spielberg's Tintin takes far too long to set up its centuries-spanning adventure plot and suffers from the lethal dullness of its main character - Tinin's (Jamie Bell) great moments of discovery rarely feel like more than declarative exposition.  The performance of frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis - as the sympathetic drunkard Captain Haddock - is a triumph, as are its lively action sequences and its puckish sense of humor.  But as for that planned Jackson-helmed sequel...I think I can wait a little longer.

The Verdict

Ranking the 7 non-Tolkien films directed by Peter Jackson...

7. The Lovely Bones
    Death is boring

6. Meet the Feebles
     Yes, we get the joke

5. King Kong
    Indulgent, but mostly entertaining

4. The Frighteners
     The endearing orphan of the bunch

3. Bad Taste
    Cheap, fast, and out of control

2. Heavenly Creatures
    A shape-shifting teenage tragedy

1. Dead Alive
    The perfect blend of silliness and sentiment

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