Bottle Rocket

This is my review of Bottle Rocket, the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bottle Rocket on Blogcritics.

THE FILM

Bottle RocketBottle Rocket is the debut film from director Wes Anderson and introduces brothers Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson. The Blu-ray edition was released by The Criterion Collection in late 2008, fully four years after its release of Anderson’s second film Rushmore. Though less polished and flashy than Anderson’s successive work, Bottle Rocket remains Anderson’s most genuine, warm and sophisticated film. My appreciation for it seems to grow with every viewing thanks to its subtlety. Fortunately it is one of the most re-watchable comedies I have ever seen.

Bottle Rocket is a quietly funny masterpiece. There are no major gags, no crazy set-pieces, and it’s not a jokey movie at all. Its hilarity comes from the depth of its touching characters. A nuanced character study is not usually the most fertile field for comedy, admittedly, and it might take viewers a few watches to appreciate the precision of Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script (and of course Luke and Owen’s performances). But the film’s honesty shines in the hands of Wes Anderson and these talented actors.

James Caan has an good interpretation of the title, as mentioned in the commentary. A bottle rocket is a small explosive. As a kid, you might be excited to light one off, but the explosion is more or less tame and probably won’t get anyone into serious trouble. And that is true of these characters and the movie as a whole. All have a beautiful capacity to dream, but the goals are never as big a spectacle as the enthusiasm. As the film’s biggest dreamer Dignan plans a bookstore heist featuring explosives and a .357 Magnum, he draws himself as the star on the map because in his own mind, he is a star. Naturally he draws the getaway driver Bob as a “zero”.

When Anthony’s enthusiasm ignites Dignan, we want to see his dreams explode into reality. Although he’s not that smart, has skewed morals, and is a terrible criminal mastermind, we want Dignan to succeed because we know how happy it makes him to live out his fantasies. Characters without cynicism are rare these days. Owen Wilson’s enthusiasm is hilarious, but his fragility is heartbreaking. That is the theme of Bottle Rocket. These characters struggle to bring their dreams to life, to have that explosive moment of danger.

These characters are products of an environment that requires no risk. Anthony has retired to a mental hospital for exhaustion despite having never worked a day in his life. Dignan has a criminal mind but uses the money he steals for pinball and fireworks. Bob is well dressed but still lives with his parents, where he grows marijuana plants. Only Mr. Henry (James Caan) seems to be successfully living his dreams. Mr. Henry inspires Dignan to make his mark as a criminal while Anthony’s little sister, the most cynical character in the film, acts as the voice of reason.

Anthony is on the verge of growing up. When he meets Inez, a housekeeper where the gang is laying low, his emotions threaten Dignan’s 75-year plan. But Dignan is an iconic dreamer. Like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, Dignan always wanted to live outside the law. But his dreams take him further from reality; when his big heist falls through he literally seeks escape in a door labeled “No Exit”. His plan of incorporating dynamite, laughing gas, and pole vaulting into crime were never going to happen. His dreams are destined to fail because they are unrealistic. Even still, we get the sense that for Dignan, their attempt, their brief brush with danger, might have been enough. Maybe his dreams were only ever meant to be dreams.

THE DISC

The video, 1080p at 1.85:1, is a nice improvement from standard definition, but the clarity does not blow me away. I am able to make out some nice background action, out-of-focus business I hadn’t noticed before in standard definition. But some noise is there if you look for it, especially in scenes with washed-out, overcast skies. Considering Criterion released Bottle Rocket several years after its first DVD release, I was hoping for a better image.

The making-of documentary, new for Criterion, is an interesting 25-minute retrospective that incorporates the memories of several key players including the three Wilsons, Wes Anderson, James Caan, James L. Brooks, Mark Mothersbaugh and plenty more.

The disc includes a commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson. Recorded exclusively for Criterion, it’s a nice casual dialogue which starts slow but adds a few nice insights and two likeable opinions. One story told by Anderson fits nicely: a big screening in Santa Monica went brutally, and only one comment card was full of enthusiasm for Bottle Rocket. They kept the card and memorized it for inspiration. Later Anderson coincidentally met the girl who left the card and said, “Here’s our audience. One in five hundred.” Fortunately the careers of the key players following the movie have helped that number significantly.

Deleted scenes are raw and unpolished, but a welcome bonus of somewhat indulgent scenes. Correctly edited out, in my opinion, there are still good laughs and more content for enthusiasts. An anamorphic screen test gives us a taste of what could have been a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it has promise. Murita Cycles by Barry Braverman is a strangely tangential short film that chronicles the life and junk-hoarding of a bicycle shop owner in Staten Island. Murray fills his shop and house with junk and excuses this with a type of sententious dementia. The short film shows a depressing version of the life of a dreamer and in truth, I would rather not have seen it. Though it was supposedly a heavy influence on Bottle Rocket, the tone is just the opposite.

A photo collection from Laura Wilson is a fine special feature; storyboards are for the completists. A storyboard is a tool and I don’t really get the appeal of looking at them. Yes, they came from Wes Anderson’s own hand, but he certainly didn’t imagine stick figures talking in the final film, and he’s no Picasso. The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1 is a mildly interesting talk with Tony Shafrazi, an eccentric art dealer, but the feature feels too pointless and egotistical to take seriously, despite being called a “lecture”.

As with most Criterion Collection films, this Blu-ray is the current definitive edition on the market. The supplements exclusive to his verison make it a worthwhile purchase. Bottle Rocket is a gem, and in my opinion one of the best comedies of all time. Martin Scorsese thinks so too.

A Far-Off Utopia

Science and religion don’t traditionally get along. The premises of religion are scientifically untenable while religious experience remains unquantifiable by scientific method. Of course being religious doesn’t mean you can’t be scientific and vice versa, but it occurred to me recently that science and religion don’t work together because they face opposite directions.

The scientific worldview gets more and more refined through time. It offers increasingly accurate discovery of our world, more and better ways to deal with problems, and continually improves on itself (in theory, at least). Science progresses along a forward timeline towards a far-off technological utopia.

Many religions, on the other hand, feel that we live in dark times. Hindu belief calls this age the Kali Yuga, as in Kali, the demon of confusion and pain. They consider it an age of spiritual degeneration, a dark age. Many Christians would agree that we live in an age of moral disintegration marked by vice and irreverence. There is something slower, more solemn, and holier about the past. They long for Eden.

The scientific person might say the religious person longs for something that doesn’t exist. Science considers the beliefs of the olden days naive; they didn’t have the tools or knowledge we have today. Since the scientific acumen of the people grows constantly, the people of the past must have been exceedingly dumb, relative to today, and especially relative to tomorrow.

The religious person has faith in a different mode of existence outside the scope of science. They don’t really look to go back in time, they are looking to get outside of time. Their Eden (or Heaven, for that matter) represents an extra-temporal mode of being, free from degeneration. Scientists can scoff all they like, the religious person isn’t worried. They can feel sure such a mode of existence is real, even without direct experience, because it has been documented through all stages of history as a fundamental human experience.

Technological utopia is unrealistic. As the leading-edge of technology is pushed further and further by specialists, the ability to integrate systems becomes harder and harder. The pursuit of technological achievement fills our world with cancer, confusion and noise in a way that makes it very difficult for us to find the sacred.

Eden is a mystical fable written by a desert-mad prophet and its lessons contribute very little to modern humanity. Longing for simpler times is fine, but shying away from technological convenience pulls one out of step with the rest of society. The world keeps getting noisier and the effects are inescapable.

If scientific and religious progress stopped, the scientifically-minded could still look for their utopia by looking outward towards an integrated, perfected whole while the religious-minded could look for their utopia by turning inwards to the realms of personal experience. Religion and science would still be looking opposite directions.

Maybe this is a good thing. Two heads are better than one, and if you look two different directions you have a better sense of the big picture. Interestingly, where history meets the future and the inner intersects the outer, we find the here and now.

The Secular Bible

This is the third time recently that Mark Frost has influenced my post (seeTwo Things “Argo” Missed‘ and ‘Walking With Fire‘). Through his Twitter feed I saw this article by Hunter Stuart about a “Hollywood Power Couple” trying to advertise their new History Channel program The Bible by advocating for The Bible to be taught in public schools.

The point this couple raises in their article (which you can read here) is that The Bible is important as a fundamental text of Western civilization, never mind the religious ethos attached to it. Fair enough. There is no doubt The Bible is one of the building blocks of our culture. It is still by far the best selling book of all time, even beating out 50 Shades of Grey.

They claim The Bible is responsible for many of the phrases that some people use every once in a while. They also claim the allegories originating in The Bible made possible the work of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Matrix and so on. They even quoted the Supreme Court:

“[T]he Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” (Abington School District v. Schempp)

Naturally the sticky part here is the separation of church and state. The Bible is the foundational book of one specific religion, so the outcry from non-Christians would be unstoppable. It could be argued also that The Bible had a comparable impact on the formulation of The West as Roman imperialism and Greek philosophy. Why should The Bible, taken as a historical and literary document, take prominence?

Because clearly there is more to their agenda than English and History class. If we believe, as Roma Downey and Mark Burnett do, that The Bible is the living Word of God, we have to admit that God borrowed a lot of those stories. The New Testament borrows from the Old Testament. The Old Testament borrows from Egypt, Zoroastrianism, Babylon, and more. Christianity itself would never have existed without Neo-Platonism, but I don’t remember Plato or Plotinus from public school. Don’t we care about the foundations of the foundations of Western civilization?

And as for the literary merits of The Bible, Downey and Burnett might feel a little differently if The Bible was thrown into the English class alongside The Catcher In The Rye and 1984. Imagine the book reports.

“Moses: Murderer Hero” by Little Tyler

“Leviticus: A Comedic Interlude” by Little Billy

“Sexual Motifs and the Mother of Prostitutes in Revelation” by Little Monica

The whole idea of an “historical” Bible stripped of its religious principles is absurd. Were it not for the religious aspect The Bible would not have proliferated as it did, people would not have been “converted/saved” and other people wouldn’t have been burned to death as “heretics”. Are those nasty bits part of the curriculum as well?

In order to have real significance, a reading of The Bible has to presuppose the validity of Christian metaphysics, Christian morality, and the supremacy of YHWH, the Jewish God, who is one of several gods mentioned in The Bible (and the supposed author of the book…but I’m sure He’s impartial).

Please leave your book reports in the Comments section for grading.

Two Crucial Things “Argo” Missed

I’m a hardened cynic when it comes to the Oscars. My favorite pictures are rarely nominated and I haven’t been impressed by a Best Picture winner since No Country For Old Men in 2007, and before that, Unforgiven (1992). If you think I give the Oscars a cold shoulder just because I’m not part of the fun, please read this article, published in The Atlantic by an Academy member. It’s a side of Oscar night you don’t see on television.

At the time of the Oscar telecast I had seen exactly zero of the Best Picture nominees (though I was fortunate to catch Searching For Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary). Unimpressed with Ben Affleck’s previous efforts, I had no desire to see Argo. But I’m an open minded guy, right? So I challenged myself to watch and enjoy it.

Argo passed the first test. It was watchable. At no point did I want to shut it off and mourn my wasted time. The narrative is effective; I found no terrible plot holes or useless scenes that dragged down the pacing. In fact, if you’re looking for a movie to take up two hours of your life, this one is just fine.

My cynicism isn’t purely negative; it grows from my optimism that the televisual arts can be much more than time filler. And in this sense Argo failed. Here are two crucial elements Argo missed that a great film should have.

Character/character development

Every movie is a world. Rather than passively observing, we rely on characters to act as our surrogates in a journey through this world. The more thoroughly developed a character is, the more we identify with the character and the more immersed we become in the conflicts this fictional world provides the character(s).

In Argo there were no characters that I could discern. Instead of characters we are given a series of characterizations. Characterizations are the superficial elements of characters such as the things they say or wear or own. Because Argo moves the plot forward so mechanically, we never see the characters conflicted to the point where they have to make revealing choices. Instead the characters just do what they do to move the plot forward.

Robert McKee wrote correctly when he pointed out that a choice between good and evil is no choice at all. A good character will choose the good, and an evil character will choose evil, and we learn nothing about either character in this case. True character is revealed in the choices the character makes under pressure. Even more revealing is when a character decides between two goods or two evils.

McKee uses a good example I’ll reiterate. Two people are driving down a highway, one in a clunker and the other in a Ferrari. They come upon a burning bus with people trapped inside. If the guy in the Ferrari stops to help and the other person doesn’t, we’ve learned much more about them than the type of car they drive. If they both stop and try to help, we learn about true character by how they do it. Does one person automatically try to rescue the women before the men? Does one of them reach for the only white person? Does one charge blindly into the fire while the other calls the police? These actions reveal much more than dialogue or fashion.

Ben Affleck’s character has no journey, no character arc through this film. Sure he makes decisions under pressure, but his inner strength or convictions are never threatened. He simply moves the plot forward. We’re told at the beginning of the film that he’s “their best guy,” and he just does the ideal thing in each situation. There are a couple scenes that mention he is estranged from his wife and son, but (spoiler) when he escapes from Iran, his wife simply accepts him back. He does literally nothing to overcome the conflict with his wife (which is meant to show us his character and humanity); it is resolved for him mechanically and for no apparent reason.

Likewise we see no telling decisions made by any of the other characters. In Argo, if a character is meant to be funny, he or she says funny things. If a character is not trusting, he or she argues. We never see characters faced with any meaningful choices, and the characters undergo absolutely no internal change from the beginning to the end of the movie. Thus Argo plays like a soulless, clockwork fiction.

Something More

Now more than ever Industry kills Art. I romanticize a time in history when art was made simply to instill a sense of the sublime and the beautiful, but successful art in our culture must put asses in the seats. In fact, our artistic industries only demand that asses make it into seats. Whether the product is sublime or beautiful or meaningful is completely secondary to the bottom line. Because of this I go to very few theatrical releases.

2001: A Space OdysseyFilms that move me have something extra. Call it an X-factor. A great movie should engage our reason and intuition as well as our emotions, and it should project us toward something more than what is seen and heard. We should come away from a movie still thinking about it, still moved by it, or still involved in its mystery. A perfect film achieves all three. I want a movie to take on an inner life in my psyche that draws me deeper into the spirit of the experience. Otherwise the movie is just a two hour experience like any other. A car ride can take two hours, and it may or may not be enjoyable, but at least it takes me somewhere. I look to art and films in particular to invoke wonder.

Placed next to Lost Highway or 8 1/2 or even Goodfellas, Argo looks about as interesting as a menu. Topical entertainment has its place but it is most effective when it places the particular inside the context of a bigger picture. Why is this topic important for our current marketplace? Yes Iran is in the news, but is that enough? I wonder if people are simply looking for an entertaining confirmation that what they hear in the news is correct (i.e. that Iran is bad). Of course any serious thought on the issue shows it to be much more complicated than that.

A film should have something meaningful to say. You might say that Argo celebrates creative, non-violent problem solving. Okay, fine, but the message starts and ends there. People talked about how smart the sci-fi movie District 9 was because of its parallels to apartheid, but what does the movie actually say about apartheid? It says “Apartheid is bad,” and that’s all. How provocative.

Voting Argo Best Picture is like saying the height of cinematic achievement is that it can make us sit still for two hours without being pissed off. With all that money and talent Hollywood should aim for a little more.