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Some genres should never be attempted

MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.

On Friday night, I was going to check out “Near Dark” playing at the local theater. It was a 35mm print, I’ve never seen it before, so I was really jazzed to go. On the eve of the Oscars I thought it would be fun to catch up on one of Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier films. I haven’t seen any of them.

But then I ate these frozen mini quiches for dinner. Waves of nausea blindsided me and I had to lie down. I was nervous, because I only had a few hours to improve my condition. I drank Pepto. I watched TV until the pain would go away. I willed myself to get better and vowed never to go to France. When 9:30 came around, I realized I was doomed to stay in for the night. I had to miss a golden opportunity and watch something at home instead.

In retrospect, I wish I went to see “Near Dark” even if was interrupted by short bathroom breaks so I could projectile vomit.

Sam Neill starred in two back to back effects-driven films in the early 90’s. One was “Jurassic Park” and the other was “Memoirs of an Invisible Man”. I mention them because one raised the bar on special effects, and the other did not.

I sympathize with the task of making an invisible man movie. It’s difficult. The concept lends itself well to a movie, like a joke you think is funny in your head until you say it out loud. “Memoirs” turned out to be like that joke. It’s a really clumsy endeavor. A more modern, updated interpretation with better effects only proves how hard it is to get right. See “Hollow Man” with Kevin Bacon.

I offer these as examples because they were both directed by competent filmmakers who are capable of rising to the task of pulling off a great IMM (Invisible Man Movie). “Memoirs” was John Carpenter; “Hollow Man” was Paul Verhoeven. Carpenter was hot off “They Live” when he did this. At his complete prime. Verhoeven was hot off “Starship Troopers”, computer effects heavy but still considered canonical in his filmography (what a comeback after “Show Girls” but history seems to now favor that movie as well).

Therefore, I am going to argue that even the best “sci fi” filmmaker can’t make the IMM successful. And if these guys can’t do it, I don’t think anybody can.

What’s worse: Carpenter was never the same after “Memoirs”. I don’t know if it was just the experience, or Chevy Chase, but this is the first time he drops the ball and never quite picks it back up again. That’s pretty serious if you think about it. I have this idea that for better or worse, there will never be a great IMM. No filmmaker can save it from itself, in other words. It will even take down a filmmaker’s career along with it just to prove its point.

There are ridiculous challenges to overcome in an IMM.  The biggest is special effects. If they don’t seem convincing, which they do not here, then there’s your first problem. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for a second, especially when objects dance in mirrors, curtains are pulled by themselves or chairs demonically recline without anybody in them. The digital effects don’t convince, and the practical ones don’t either. It’s an awkward position to be in as an audience, but imagine how bad it is if you’re a filmmaker trying to make it play. Panning around a room with someone invisible occupying it isn’t as interesting as you might think. There’s no reason we need to have scenes that literally lack life in them. This movie’s about a guy who’s invisible to other people, not to us. And Carpenter never gets around the trouble this brings. It results in the equivalent of dead on-air radio time.

Another hurdle to overcome is Chevy Chase. I won’t knock him at all as an actor. I think he’s one of the funniest guys around, and I love most of the “Vacation” movies (I watch Christmas at least once a year with my family). I was intrigued by the decision to cast him in a more serious role. I knew he wouldn’t play it entirely straight. He brings a levity to everything he does. His character isn’t the weird type that’s going to spy on naked girls or commit crimes. This isn’t a story about a good guy gone bad because he’s invisible. It’s a story about a guy who’s invisible even before he’s invisible. I think that’s even a line from the movie. The only downside to the casting of Chase is that he brings a lot of leg room for comedy, which results in some strange shifts in tone. It’s a comedy, but then it’s a drama. Tonal back-and-forth swinging like that was not good for me especially since I was trying to keep those mini quiches from making a reappearance.

One good example of this is the scene where Chase is eating dinner with Darryl Hannah. She’s put makeup on his face so he can be himself in public. When he wipes his mouth after eating he accidentally rubs some of the makeup off. It looks horrifying, but it was played for laughs.

See for yourself:

Maybe Carpenter was just applying strategies from “They Live” to this project. But in that one he made drama and humor both tongue-in-cheek. All I’m getting from this one is teeth-in-cheek and it’s a little creepy.

The third hurdle: Script. It has to be the dullest, least interesting story anybody could have created. And William Goldman is the credited sole screenwriter. The same guy who wrote “Chinatown”, “Princess Bride”, “Misery”, “All The President’s Men”. He wrote the book on screenwriting. Literally. After watching the movie I still don’t grasp the mechanism that turned Chase invisible, why Sam Neill’s character kept chasing him so aggressively after he knew he wasn’t going to cooperate, and why anybody expected the audience to give a damn about it anyway. Not even the irrelevant appearance of Stephen Tobolowosky made it any easier to swallow.

I guess I need to read the book it was based on, because Goldman sure as hell didn’t provide enough interesting scenery to chew on.

I’ll give the script one thing. There’s a scene where Chase’s character is hiding out at his friend’s beach house. They come by for an unexpected weekend retreat.He eavesdrops on their conversations and keeps an eye on one of the guys who’s trying to creep on Darryl Hannah. The sequence captures a light tone that I mistakenly thought the entire movie could sustain. So amid a lot of extraneous, boring scenery there is one moment where the film comes to life.

But it’s not enough. The lesson here is that not even a great filmmaker can turn a pile of crap into something that shines.

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2 responses to “Some genres should never be attempted

  1. B-Rock ⋅

    You better replace Chinatown with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Robert Towne wrote C). After that, run out to Barnes and Noble or the library and read Goldman’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man chapter in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? You’re going to have a nice laugh and then want to write a response to your own review.

  2. Oh yeah my bad. I should know that, I met Robert’s daughter.

    There is a library book sale on Sunday so Im hoping Goldman’s book is there so I can pick it up for 30 cents.

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