' Cinema Romantico: Movies: The (Real) Magic Kingdom (2000th Post)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movies: The (Real) Magic Kingdom (2000th Post)

Believe it or not, Cinema Romantico has been clogging up the interwebs for going on 2000 posts now. I have no long wind-up regarding that milestone. I only have this post. And thanks for reading.


Abbas Kirastomi’s “Taste of Cherry” ends with the protagonist laying down in a dirt hole of his own creation in the midst of a rain storm, the sky hardly illuminated by strikes of lightning, to pass away, possibly, and wait for another character to show up to bury him, possibly. This is a substantial open end, paving the way for much rumination, not so much narratively as philosophically. But then something happens. Another shot appears, and we are suddenly watching someone film a movie. In fact, we are watching Kirastomi on location filming the movie we have just finished watching. It is jarring, pulling you out of your emotional experience and reminding you that “it’s just a movie.” And that, I confess, is why I sort of hate it.

A couple Julys ago I watched “Un Plan Parfait” as part of The Music Box’s French film festival here in Chicago, and I mostly did not enjoy it. And that’s fine. You can’t enjoy every movie, unless you lie to yourself, and once it ended I could vanquish my seat and leave it behind. Except, I couldn’t, and I couldn’t because “Un Plan Parfait” chose to slap a smattering of comic outtakes over the closing credits. Naturally this caused everyone to stay in their seats until the outtakes concluded, and as I had chosen a seat in the center, I was stuck. I lowered my head and sighed. I, in fact, went so far as to do what we all do these days when momentarily outraged – I Tweeted my abhorrence of closing credit outtakes. A friend replied in the spirit of Kirastomi that “it reminds you it's all just a structured fantasy.”

This was my re-brought to the forefront of my mind in light of a recent New Yorker article by Ben Yagoda examining the phenomena of comedians “breaking”. The main example they cite is Jimmy Fallon, the Tonight Show host and one-time Saturday Night Live cast member who was constantly guilty of “breaking” in those late night/early morning sketches. Yagoda goes back and forth, providing points and counterpoints, citing as illustrious an example as “Hamlet” to demonstrate that breaking is bad but also noting how when a performer who rarely breaks – such as Stephen Colbert – does break, it kicks the humor up a notch. None of that is what truly stoked my interest, however. No, what did was a quote from the legendary Peter Sellers when it was revealed that his director on “Being There”, Hal Ashby, chose to include outtakes of Sellers breaking over the closing credits. Sellers was furious and cried: “It breaks the spell, do you understand? Do you understand, it breaks the spell! Do you hear me, it breaks the spell.”

A spell, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is “a spoken word or form of words held to have magic power”, and the cinema, as Orson Welles instructed, is “(where) the magic begins.” “The camera,” Welles said, “is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.” In that sense, the camera becomes the sorcerer, we its subjects.

Oh, it can be dangerous to wade this far off the shore of reality and into the Magic of the Movies mill pond. “Is there a phrase more hackneyed than ‘the magic of the movies’?” wonders J. Hoberman. Then again, Hoberman does not necessarily dispute the argument that movies are magic, noting that “From the moment of their invention at the end of the 19th century, motion pictures have been perceived as simultaneously hyper natural and supernatural.” Rather his overarching thesis states that “Movies don’t necessarily record reality but they always construct it.” He concludes: “That’s what makes them magical.”


To that point, one of cinema’s most eternal tales goes that the Lumière Brothers’ 1896 public showing of “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, a 50 second silent film documenting, uh, a train’s arrival at La Ciotat, the audience members screamed and fled for fear the steam locomotive was about to magically emerge from the screen and plow over them. This incident has been debunked, and argued for, and debunked again because just like scientists going over every inch of Loch Ness with sonar, scholars are always yearning to prove and disprove myths rather than allowing myths to remain, you know, mythical. And as Parker Tyler once so astutely noted: “Myths are not factual but symbolic. I assume movies are likewise.” In other words, whether or not audience members at “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” factually feared for their lives is less the point than the urban legend’s symbolic underpinning – that is, reconstructing the reality of an arriving train paved the way for believing the train was about to magically depart the screen.

I took in “Million Dollar Baby” at the theater four times, and each time when Maggie Fitzgerald first emerges from the gymnasium darkness, hood drawn over head, a smile less cocksure than confidently quaint, and steps toward the camera, almost into it, she became my personal Train at La Ciotat. Perhaps my conscious knew she was merely a character on a screen but my subconscious presumed her to be alive - or, at least, an apparition, floating just out of reach in the motion picture ether. This is the Magic of the Movies in which I devoutly believe, not some cockamamie Academy-scripted banter between Ben Stiller and Kayley Cuoco.

A movie may reconstruct reality but it still casts a spell, and to egregiously slap a few ham-fisted outtakes to garner a few extra laughs on the end or to present raw footage of yourself, as director, on location with a camera and lighting and sound equipment and best boys? I cannot abide.

It breaks the spell, do you understand? Do you understand, it breaks the spell! Do you hear me, it breaks the spell.

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