"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Movies have trouble with The Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time. . .I attended movies at our Morris Theater when it was privately owned. For a time I attended a movie a week, largely because it seemed therapeutic, never mind if they all didn't pass muster in terms of quality.
I remember seeing "The Brothers Grimm" in 2005. I went knowing the movie hadn't won any special acclaim.
I held my expectations down. But then I reasoned: how could a movie based upon Grimm fairy tales be bad? The stories were such a treasure trove of imagination and mystery.
The moviemakers weren't to be faulted on complexity of plot. Truly they rolled up their sleeves in this regard. But this, alas, happened to be part of the problem. Either the story was too complicated to be followed easily, or at the midway point I just didn't care enough to keep following it.
Terry Gilliam was the chief creative mind. He gives us an exaggerated and fictitious portrait of The Brothers Grimm as traveling con artists in French-occupied Germany during the early 19th Century. The film was shot entirely in the Czech Republic.
I was hoping the movie would at least give us a wondrous glimmer of the magical and often eerie storytelling.
Had the movie somehow incorporated this, unimpeded by Gilliam's intent to weave something new, I might have left feeling delight. I might have walked out across East 6th Street with my mind still fixated on that distinctive genre of storytelling. It's a genre that many of my generation were exposed to in elementary school. I'm not sure it's still taught today. Maybe there are political correctness obstacles.
Robert Ebert described the movie as "an invention without pattern, chasing itself around the screen without finding a plot."
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm created a transcendent franchise of literature. Ebert says the movies have never really been able to capture key qualities. Ebert cites the "eerie" quality of the original. Indeed that word seems to say it all.
The stories can be scary and disturbing in a way that can really get into your head. This happens in a way that has nothing in common with seeing a slasher movie. Much is left to the imagination. The Big Bad Wolf grows into a truly lurking menace as you read that story.
It's interesting that Hollywood with its genius in giving us "the dream factory" can't really latch onto The Brothers Grimm. I guess it's a testament to printed literature.
A San Francisco Chronicle writer said of the movie: "Will and Jake Grimm are two guys in the woods, surrounded by computerized animals, putting audiences to sleep all over America."
I have a theory about the movie's shortcomings. Hollywood hesitates to present good and bad as absolutes and with no shades of gray. "Heroes" must be shown in movies as people having faults. It's a trait of much of the creative world, to affirm that people are a mystifying combination of good and bad.
Often movies go out of their way showing us how good people have a dark side. Boomers of my vintage learned in our formative years that the president of the U.S. could be a crook. That crook left office in 1974. It was my freshman year of college. We could have forgiven an awful lot if he had expedited our departure from Viet Nam. That historical chapter reached its denouement like a disturbing fairy tale.
Whatever suffering happened in fairy tales - and there was a lot - we also had an unobstructed view of virtue and evil. Indeed, this seems the whole point. Virtue is rewarded and misbehavior punished.
Boomers can remember when TV westerns were crafted in much the same way. Hey! We never realized that Chuck Connors as "The Rifleman" goes down in storytelling annals in league with Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and The Frog Prince.
Remember the character "Johnny" intoning "Rapunzel!" in "Airplane?" Such is the staying power of the Grimm stories in our minds. Such references are readily grasped.
TV westerns through the 1960s tended to be one-dimensional, usually without sub-plots, and we know the climax will come with clear understanding of good and bad - good guys and scoundrels. Part of that code was the "black hat" associated with the scoundrels. Nuance was rare.
"Ben Cartwright" was a pillar and patriarch (and any other noble-sounding term you can come up with).
Ironically, Lorne Greene had previously played characters not so virtuous! He was the coward in the movie about Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) and the Battle of New Orleans. He was the city father who wished to avoid conflict and essentially capitulate. Oh, and it's even worse in the movie "Peyton Place" in which Greene was the bad guy lawyer, casting aspersions on the female defendant who had been raped.
But Greene, professional actor that he was, was about to do a turnaround for "Bonanza." He was every male boomer's father!
The late iconic reviewer Ebert indicts "The Brothers Grimm" on its moral vagueness. (I have found myself recently trying to call up an Ebert review of a current movie, only to suddenly realize he has left us for that theater in the sky. I'm sure others have had the same experience. It was a knee-jerk thing to do, to look for an Ebert review. I wonder what he'd say about "the Lone Ranger," the bomb of the summer of 2013.)
It's pertinent that I bring up "The Lone Ranger." Speaking (as we are) of shifting moral sands, we seem to have that problem with the Armie Hammer character. The original Lone Ranger was one-dimensional in his goodness, to the point of some caricature. But that was the whole idea. It worked for its time.
Simplicity seemed essential in TV's earliest days. As time progressed, storylines and characters became more sophisticated and complicated. Bringing The Lone Ranger back in 2013 just doesn't seem practical.
Young moviegoers of today don't endorse any sort of strict code for identifying qualities like virtue. Would we be better off if they did? Interesting question.
Ebert wrote that the strict code is "lacking in the movie (of The Brothers Grimm)."
We see Jacob and Wilhelm, played by Heath Ledger and Matt Damon, respectively, in one moment liars and charlatans, in another brave and true. Ultimately "the movie fails to engage our imagination," Ebert wrote.
Let's truly appreciate the real Brothers Grimm and their niche in world literature. Let's put aside that life in early 19th Century Europe was a real bummer. The storytelling is a wellspring of intrigue and imagination.
W.H. Auden praised the story collection as "one of the founding works of Western culture." Auden made the comment during World War II when the Grimms unfortunately picked up another ally: Adolph Hitler. We learn that the German despot "praised the folkish tales showing children with sound racial instincts seeking racially pure marriage partners."
The Grimms' body of work survived this historical black mark.
Jacob and Wilhelm were patriots who wanted to preserve German folk tales. These they collected as a way to serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it. Reading the stories underscores the obvious: Life in that time was capricious and often cruel.
Misery indeed comes through in Terry Gilliam's 2005 movie. but it's not in a context that ultimately leaves you feeling satisfied that justice was done and goodness prevails. It's just misery and it's disturbing. The real Grimm brothers wouldn't have wanted their stories to leave such a taste.
There were 86 stories in the Grimms' first edition, published in 1812. Several more editions followed. All were extensively illustrated. The stories today are read in 160 languages.
Let's spell out the essence of the Grimms' tales. "Once upon a time" takes us into a timeless realm where an array of characters that would befit "Harry Potter" fall in love, seek riches, quarrel with neighbors and have mystical adventures. Digesting all this, we see that very real truths about human nature are learned and affirmed.
Cinderella, Snow White and all the others are transfixing, especially for the young.
Unfortunately I saw little of this quality in the cinematic interpretation as given us by Gilliam in 2005. Instead I trudged out of the Morris Theater, probably shooting a wave at Curt Barber, as I just had another night of relaxation in that darkened old cave of a building, sipping on my large Pepsi, one of just a Gideon's band of people who were enjoying a movie that night.
No wonder a co-op had to eventually take over.
The Morris Theater today is a dinosaur, sorry. Everything I read about the direction of the movie industry spells bad news for the model as represented by our Morris Theater. Elvis isn't coming back. We need to adjust.
I should add that my inspiration for writing about The Brothers Grimm is my recent experience watching the Irondale marching band in Morris. The Irondale musicians have a current performance theme inspired by The Brothers Grimm. We watched at Big Cat Stadium.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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