Film

CinemaDope: Reel vs. Real

Violence at the movies

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Thursday, August 02, 2012
Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight
A strange encounter in Beasts of the Southern Wild

One of the funny things about print journalism is that you can never quite count on your timing. Newspaper and magazine design departments need to time to lay out pages, and editors need a chance to fact-check and proofread. So some columns or features are written well ahead of a publication date—this column will appear in our issue covering the week of August 2 through 8, but I'm writing it on a stormy Tuesday during the last full week of July.

I mention it because that time lag lent the July 19 CinemaDope column ("Song and Dents") an odd timeliness that could easily be mistaken as morbid. That column, about the latest Batman film, focused on the nation's penchant for action movies, and specifically those in which the hero moved on the edges of the law. In it I wrote that our cinematic obsessions had "refocused on action, and especially on tales of beyond-the-law redemption, of vigilantism, on those tales where the hero and the villain both wore black hats...since the days of Dirty Harry—when the vigilante was at least still a cop—the lone gunman has only gotten more popular, more violent, and harder to distinguish from the men he kills."

Just hours after that column appeared, James Holmes opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd in a Colorado theater, killing 12 and wounding dozens more before being apprehended in the parking lot. And while I stand by what I wrote, I don't—despite Holmes reportedly referring to himself as Batman villain "the Joker"—aim to draw any direct lines between celluloid violence and the real thing. It's far too easy a leap to make, and in taking it we jump right over all the real problems that are much harder to pin down. What happened is a terrible thing, to be sure, but the fact that it happened at a film premiere will likely prove the least notable thing about it. Violence like this is never so simple.

As for cinema, one thing it has always been great at is escapism. The medium has always pushed the boundaries of technology to tell its tales, continually coming up with new gambits to better mirror our own ever-fertile imaginations. This week brings to the area a clutch of films that use tricks old and new to help us lose ourselves for a while.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is often cited as a favorite Woody Allen picture by those people who like every Woody Allen picture. (That's a good thing.) Mia Farrow stars as Cecilia, a Depression-era waitress and unhappy wife who finds an escape in repeated viewings of The Purple Rose of Cairo, a film-within-the-film. The RKO-style screwball comedy features dashing Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), whose character can't help but notice how often Cecilia is in the crowd. "My God, you must really love this picture," he says—before stepping right out of the screen to join her.

Together they go on the run for a bit, each finding a new kind of life in the other. Meanwhile, the rest of Tom's movie is going to pieces as the remaining cast begins to mutiny. To get Tom back where he belongs, the film's producer calls out the big guns: Gil Shepherd (also Daniels), the handsome actor who plays Baxter. If you're feeling that you could use a bit of wonder, this is the film for you. It screens Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening in Amherst.

*

Also this week: Beasts of The Southern Wild, also at Amherst, tells the tale of Hushpuppy, a daring six-year-old on a search for her lost mother. Set in a remote bayou, writer/director Benh Zeitlin's film features a richly imagined world where a father's failing health can result in melting ice-caps, rising waters, and the waking of the now-extinct bull-like creatures known as aurochs. To put everything back into balance, Hushpuppy must find her mother before it's too late.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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