Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fairy Sue

"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet - only fifteen and a half years old." - "A Trekkie's Tale"

There wouldn’t be much need for hyper-vigilant critics (or hyper-critical vigilantes) like me if Mary Sues were always so obvious. Unfortunately, Mary Sue technology has advanced significantly since the early appearance of the clunky wish-fulfillment bots in the ghettos of 1970s Star Trek fan fiction.  Nowadays, they've become so sophisticated that they walk among us, undetected, infiltrating our favorite stories - books, movies, TV shows, you name it.  Your favorite movie could be harboring one right now.  Tragically, that’s the case for The Brothers Bloom, one of my new twitter follower Mae Batista’s faves. Fortunately, I’m Sam “Reese” Lively, Sergeant Tech-Com, DN38416, sent back in time (2009 in this case) and assigned to protect you from faulty entertainment choices. 

Or, if Reese is too intense, think of me as one of those Terminator-sniffing dogs, poking my big wet nose where it isn't welcome. Speaking of dogs, in the time-honored tradition begun in last week’s Usual Suspects review, let’s introduce the companion dog to Bloom’s cheetah: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  Both released in 2009, both highly stylized, and both fairy tales centering on con men.  Parnassus is also a dog of a film, so there’s that.

The con man/fairy tale dichotomy is the heart of both narratives.  In Bloom, Adrien Brody is the reluctant con man who wants to believe in the fairy tale webs his brother Mark Ruffalo weaves for their marks. In Parnassus, con man Heath Ledger is the carnival barker for Christopher Plummer's traveling fairy tale generator.  Each film eagerly casts asides at the thematic parallels to their own craft: are they telling stories to deceive and profit or to teach and edify?  Is it about the money or the magic?  Or, better yet, is it some deliciously bittersweet combination of both – a juicy mouthful of the pluot that is human nature?  These are the immediate questions that leap from the material and they were tantalizing enough to capture Gilliam's and Bloom writer-director Rian Johnson's full attention.  In their eagerness, however, both artists left another, more fundamental question that they left unconsidered: when a storyteller tells a story about a storyteller, is he really exploring human nature or is he just writing fan fiction about himself?

The answer to the last question lies in the ability of the teller to find some objectivity.  It can be done.  The pioneers of the reflexive fantasy genre – Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson – have provided us with successful examples: Kaufman’s Adaptation and Anderson’s Life Aquatic. Their combination of exhaustive attention to (and disciplined application of) detail and a firmly established perspective keep the risky process of critical self-portraiture from degenerating into a montage of preening, posing and flexing in front of the mirror.  To the degree that they deviate from these object lessons, Bloom and Parnassus drift away from the canvas and towards the mirror.

In matters of detail, Johnson wields his brush with the panache of an accomplished BS artist, with one hand calling your attention to a nice bit of detail work here (e.g. Rachel Weisz' allergy to the alloy in hypodermic needles was a clever little touch), some high culture name-dropping (Herman Melville, Russian novelists) over there.  Meanwhile, he's using his free hand to fill in the blank expanses with broad strokes of arbitrary color (e.g. the ridiculous - and feebly animated - juggling of chainsaws and camel-chugging of whiskey flasks) and hide unfinished or ill-conceived details under blobs of quirkiness (give your hazy outline of  a villain a silly name and costume and you're all set!).  I’ll give Johnson credit for trying; in Parnassus, Gilliam forsakes all pretense of discipline, eats all his crayons and proceeds to barf color all over himself for 123 horrible minutes.

But all that is just confetti for the parade.  The narrative is where the Mary Sues rear their implausibly beautiful heads.  Don’t let the Brothers in Brothers Bloom fool you – they are both Rian Johnson, even more so than Charlie Kaufman and his made-up twin in Adaptation are Charlie Kaufman.  They both display the tell-tale signs of a Mary Sue: they are fantastically gifted from a young age; women everywhere throw themselves at Brody, while Ruffalo has his own pet Asian chick; they are witty, hipster-stylish and they literally have cards up their sleeves. 

Their problems? Poor Brody feels guilty about all the illicit booty (I’m just too tragically attractive!) and Ruffalo’s con writing, though impressive, isn’t quite convincing enough to assuage the guilt.  Enter Weisz – an adorkable heiress who can give Brody the loving & lifestyle he needs, some additional quirky-cred and, by virtue of her magical virginity (on loan, along with epilepsy, from Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State), return his own lost innocence.  Meanwhile, Ruffalo manages to die the cleverly heroic death he always dreamed of (with sense of humor and style intact), and his passage is mourned with much sobbing. 

See if you can spot Gilliam’s Mary Sue: Dr. Parnassus is an aging British entertainer, unappreciated and underfunded by the masses. Little do they know that he’s actually an immortal sorcerer, waging a battle with the devil for their souls. Gilliam could tell you who he’s really talking about, but modesty prohibits.   

Lest my haughty tone deceive you, I am not unsympathetic to the filmmakers’ plight (just condescending). As an avid amateur navel-gazer, I know well how easily a well-intentioned introspection can succumb to the mighty undercurrents of vanity and be swept off into indulgent daydreaming.  How much more difficult, then, to stay afloat when your mode of introspection is a fairy tale, a format built around wish-fulfillment? The overwhelming temptation for Johnson and Gilliam and any other artist entering their own incipient fairy tale universe is to start granting all of their own wishes.  

It seems an innocent enough mistake to indulge that temptation, but doing so undercuts the premise of both films, as well as a central tenet of the creed that motivates artists to spend so much time, money and psychological energy in telling stories.  The sacred, philanthropic power that Bloom and Parnassus ascribe to the storyteller is wasted on self-delusion.  The fairy godmothers, having taken all the seats in the pumpkin carriage for themselves, leave Cinderella in the dust.