19 March 2010

Art Films

There’s something to be said for sloppiness. This thought occurs as I watched, in quick succession, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-action animated film; and Tom Ford’s A Single Man, a live-action drama. Neither can be termed a conventional “art film,” and yet both movies are showcases for three-dimensional artworks. Anderson’s movie relies on beautifully crafted dolls (and brilliant voiceover work by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and others); Ford’s, on exquisitely tailored costumes and impeccably decorated interiors. Ultimately, while Ford’s movie hit closer to home (or should have), I found Fantastic Mr. Fox far more persuasive — and the reason, I think, is its sloppiness.

Anderson’s figures recall those of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit movies, in which the animators are encouraged to leave their fingerprints on the clay models, keeping the visual style more personal and thus more characterful. In the same way, there’s no attempt to maintain “continuity” between shots of Anderson’s critters, and their shifting fur patterns become a quirk, a style. You don’t ever feel as if you’re watching an impersonal, industrialized entertainment machine, like so many computer-animated movies: a handmade movie seems homemade, friendlier, more playful. Those elements that are rendered more smoothly and realistically — especially Mr. Fox’s quite eloquent eyes — become more prominent, and therefore more expressive. (We pay closer attention than we would to Shrek’s eyes, for example.)

Fox and His Friends

And since the movie is about ingenious solutions and celebrating unique abilities — about friends who come to understand themselves for what they are, and in the process of that understanding, are saved — the look is a perfect match for the story Anderson is telling. Even though somebody else is doing the animation, and even though (for once) he’s using source material written by somebody else, it’s as personal as any of Anderson’s live-action movies.

Meeting cute: Goode and Firth*

A Single Man is a personal vision, too, but in this tale of suffering among the prosperous, the good taste is so relentless that I left the theater eager to break something precious and to wear ugly, sloppy clothing. (Actually, I was already halfway there.) It’s not a bad film, but it cheats: George Falconer, the immaculate character played by Colin Firth, does in fact let his emotions spill out, in extremely messy fashion, in two scenes with his best friend, played by Julianne Moore.

Ford is so nonplussed by this that he can’t even come up with dialogue for the more important sequence: having just learned that his lover (Matthew Goode) has been killed in an accident, Firth charges into the pouring rain, runs to Moore’s house, and collapses, sobbing, in her arms. We see that they’re speaking, but all we hear is the music of the soundtrack.

Tears in the rain: Moore and Firth

Firth does an absolutely heroic job of showing us both the depth of his character’s feeling and the extraordinary effort required to maintain that unnaturally serene, crisp and polished surface. (He wears a pressed, tailored shirt and necktie even to take his morning crap.) I just wished that Ford had worked equally hard to tell that story. He certainly didn’t reveal why everybody in the movie is as perfectly dressed and groomed as George Falconer, whose neat-freak self-control thus becomes less extraordinary, and less interesting.

Warning: Not all L.A. hustlers look like this guy.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a fashion designer finds surface images so seductive, or, for that matter, that he’d hire a top model (Jon Kortajarena) to play a parking-lot rentboy. Yet Ford doesn’t seem to understand that no English professor in the history of the world has ever dressed so nattily as does Firth’s George Falconer (not only on what he intends to be his last day of life, but every day that we see him) — or that a couple of flaws might be revealing.

Even when a guy is striving to carry out the most perfectly ordered plan, there will sometimes be a hair out of place. Just look at another man with a plan: Mr. Fox. His message — “We’re all wild animals” — has a place in A Single Man, too.

Creature comforts: Mr. and Mrs. Fox

*NOTE: The publicity stills I found for A Single Man are, almost without exception, close-ups — which is why you can’t tell that Matthew Goode is wearing a naval lieutenant’s uniform in this scene. Interestingly, the French subtitles identify him as a soldier, and thus we can deduce the inevitable result of not liberating this country every few years: the French no longer know one branch of the U.S. armed services from another.

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