Movies within Movies. Films reviewed: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, The Wagner Files, Saving Mr Banks
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
There are movies… and then there are movies within movies. This week I’m looking at some juicy brain candy, films that cross or blur the barriers between movies and real life. There’s a documentary with a Marxist lecturer who steps into the movies he talks about; a dramatized documentary that answers Bugs Bunny’s question What’s Opera, Doc?, and a drama set in Disneyland… about trying to make a movie.
Dir: Sophie Fiennes
What does the shark in the movie Jaws have to do with totalitarianism*? Well, a lot, if you listen to Slavoj Zizek.
If you haven’t seen him before, Slavoj Zizek is a real hoot. He’s this huge bombastic, bearded Slovenian who likes to talk – a lot.
A Marxist, he approaches ideology in unusual ways: pop culture and totalitarianism; Lacanian philosophy and The Big Other; social class and sexuality. A typical topic: how come Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was a national anthem for everyone from the extreme right to the extreme left? From Nazis to Peruvian Maoists? He seems to make sense — even when it’s complete nonsense.
You might think – how can I listen to this guy lecture for two hours straight? The way the movie works is he shows a clip from a film – say Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will – and the next scene has him, in black and white, dressed in period uniform. He talks about a movie, and then he’s in the movie he’s talking about.
If you have an itch for some complex political chatter about pop-culture, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is the perfect place to find it.
(*In case you’re wondering about the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws… Zizek says it’s the Big Other, a way of reducing all of society’s fears and anxiety into a single entity. Fascism uses it to galvanize the population against a single feared “enemy”.)
Moving from the broad to the specific, here’s a new, experimental documentary about Wagner, called:
Dir: Ralf Pleger
Wagner! He’s the 19thcentury German composer best known for his symphonies and operas. You’ve heard the expression “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”? They’re talking about the valkyrie Brünnhilde from Wagner’s ring cycle.
But who was Wagner? Not what you might think. This doc digs up the skeletons in Wagner’s closet. He was born in Leipzig and became a composer famous across Europe. But it turns out his trips to Paris, Venice, Munich were partly so he could outrun his creditors! He was deeply in debt. Then there’s his friend Hans von Bulow, an aristocrat and musician. Wagner was sleeping with von Bulow’s wife, Cosima, a raven-haired beauty who was also Franz Liszt’s granddaughter. She gave birth to Wagner’s kids while still married to von Bulow. Scandal! Sounds almost like a soap opera.
Then Wagner befriended King Ludwig of Bavaria – a crazy gay king who built a castle inspired by a Wagner opera. They had a passionate – though non-sexual – affair, and he became Wagner and Cosima’s patron, showering them with money and paying for his four-part opera and the Bayreuth festival in Bavaria devoted to his work.
Wagner and Cosima also had a dark side. He wrote a virulent tract against Jewish musicians and composers, saying they were members of an “inferior race” ruining German culture. And later (after Wagner died) the widow Cosima became closely tied to Hitler and the Nazi party, a tarnish still associated with Wagner’s work.
The movie uses both experts — conductors, historians, writers – and actors who portray Cosima and Richard… but in 20thcentury settings: Cosima posing dramatically; Richard rolling around in his pink feather boas. Half drama, half doc, German dialogue, English narrator. This is a strange but endlessly fascinating movie.
Dir: John Lee Hancock
Mrs Travers (Emma Thompson) is an uptight, posh writer in her 60’s living in London, sipping tea and reading Gurdjieff.
She wrote Mary Poppins and Disney has been trying to buy the rights to it for decades. Finally, in 1961, she agrees to fly to LA to meet Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks).
She is not impressed by America. She says it smells like chlorine and sweat. And she’s creeped-out when she finds her hotel room filled with stuffed, giant Mickey Mice. At the studio she objects to everything the writer and songwriters (the Sherman brothers, played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) show her. Who are these penguins? She said no cartoons! Why is Mr Banks (the father) portrayed as mean? And the mother as uncaring?
But then her childhood is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks. She’s actually not English at all. She grew up in the Australian outback. Her mom was depressed. Her dad (Colin Farrell) was an alcoholic bank manager who hated his job. He told her life is just an illusion. And then there’s the inspiration for Mary Poppins.
Can Walt discover what’s holding her back from making a movie? This is a cute, heavily nostalgic and somewhat moving biopic, about turning a book into a movie script. The songs are great and lots of fun. Emma Thompson is terrific as the hard-to-like Mrs Travers who gradually opens up. Totally believable. Tom Hanks role is less rounded, more superficial. Why? Think about it: a Walt Disney movie about their founder shot on the Disney backlot? It’s like a Vatican-made drama about the Pope. So the Disney scenes are restricted, but the Travers scenes allowed to blossom.
The Wagner Files — at the Carlton — The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — at TIFF — and Saving Mr Banks all open today in Toronto. Check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com