Thursday, December 4, 2008

The hunger for story

Don’t see “Australia” on an empty stomach.

The epic – and I mean epic – movie starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is easily two and a half hours long. You’ll faint from hunger unless you lug a giant tub of popcorn into the theater with you.

“Australia” director Baz Luhrmann calls big, sweeping dramas like his film "banquets of cinema." But “Australia” is more like a strip-mall buffet restaurant of cinema: mounds of reheated, generic glop and none of it fully satisfying. The film tries to be a drama/adventure/comedy
/Western/love story/hero vs. villian/historical pageant. Oh, and also an expose' of white Australia’s many sins against the continent’s Aboriginal peoples. It doesn’t quite succeed in any of those genres.

Still, I enjoyed it. In a world of “Saw V” and moronic computerized cartoons, I’m thankful for any movie that attempts to tell a dramatic human story – and takes right and wrong semi-seriously.

Sweeping epics are very expensive. Movie studios fear spending big money on productions that don’t appeal to their main target audience: action-hungry teens. But Susan King of the Los Angeles Times wrote an interesting piece about the appetite people still have for big, dramatic, emotional stories:,0,2446854.story

King writes:

“Australia” deliberately hearkens back to the kind of filmmakers and films (think David Lean and "Lawrence of Arabia" or John Ford and "The Searchers") that gave cinema its bigger-than-life scale. The kind of epics that few directors or studios even try for anymore … .

[Baz] Luhrmann believes passionately that audiences still crave the epic. "The way the world is at the moment and the feeling of great fear and trepidation, there is a function for cinema to allow people to pull into a world and really feel direct, hard-core emotions," Luhrmann said….

Film historian Joseph McBride remembers a conversation he once had with "Lawrence" star Peter O'Toole about what made Lean's epics so memorable. O'Toole told him "that the secret of David Lean's success with epics is that they were almost intimate personal stories where it was about a small group of people that you deeply cared about and got to know well.

"But they stood for something larger. They were part of a large event. That is what makes an epic -- it focuses on certain people, but they represent all of society or a big part of society."

Epics, of course, have been around as long as there has been storytelling -- "Gilgamesh" and Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," for example. Cinema has embraced the epic genre dating to the Italian 1912 version of "Quo Vadis" D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War tale, "The Birth of a Nation," was the first real American cinematic epic ….

[Filmmaker Ed] Zwick believes there are several factors as to why Hollywood has been shying away from traditional epics, including an "unwillingness to be embarrassed about certain kind of themes" ….

Despite the plethora of special-effects movies, film historian Leonard Maltin agrees that audiences still want to be swept away on a tide of emotions."The enormous success of 'Titanic' proves that audiences' tastes for epics have not vanished," he said. "Even in this hip, postmodern era, I don't think audiences have changed that much. I think filmmakers are more cynical than audiences."

Amen to that. People are hungry – as they always have been – not just for something larger than their own lives, but for meaning, for story.

The greatest epic of them all is the story of God’s quiet but dramatic personal entrance into human history.

The Christmas story.

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