weekend update

So I rented a couple of movies this weekend, Cube and The Maltese Falcon. Spoilers abound, but since I imagine everyone who might see this has already seen the movies I doubt that matters much.

I thought Cube was good, but not great. What struck me most about it was that combined so many really, really good elements with some pretty bad ones. The whole idea of the Cube, and the group of people each with special skills to help them get out, was very cool. It succeeded in being very suspenseful, and kept me nervous through the whole movie to see what would happen next. In addition, I always like movies that incorporate some sort of intellectual thing, in this case geometry. One piece of dialogue in particular stood out for me, between two of the characters: Dr. Holloway asked Worth how long he knew people were being put in the Cube, and he said he had known for a couple of months, to which she responded, “That’s not long, considering your whole life.” I thought this showed a real sensitivity on the part of somebody to the complexities of human nature. Cube turned a couple of movie stereotypes on their heads in very interesting ways: the strong character, the typical movie-hero type, was the one to crack up and ruin everyone’s attempts to escape; while a character who is a pretty bad person, and is aware of it, turns out to be a hero. This isn’t done in a facile way, though, since we remain aware of his shortcomings. I got the sense that we were exploring these characters, each of which had good and bad elements in their personality; and under the pressure of the situation either the good or the bad in each comes to the fore. No character is made out to be the big hero who saves the day, or even redeems him or herself in an unequivocal Hollywood fashion.
However, this interesting piece of dialogue and sensitive characterization contrasted sharply with some cringeworthy exchanges that completely snapped me out of the story, thinking “This is not a real person. No real person would ever say that.” Actually, most of the dialogue was like that. I think the problem was with the script rather than the acting, I thought the actors were doing the best they could with what they had. Also, though I found some of the treatment of the characters to be interesting, long stretches of the movie were fairly boring in this regard.
This perplexing juxtapation of the fascinating and the humdrum was perpetuated in the handling of the movie’s overall message. I admired the restraint of the moviemakers in not telling us where the cube was, who was behind it, and other backstory. The movie wasn’t really about the cube, we weren’t really supposed to believe in the cube, it was simply a way of conveying a message about the way the world works. Any attempt to situate the cube in the real world would have ruined the movie. Thus, I didn’t have any trouble suspending my disbelief regarding the problematics of how the cube would actually work (though the idea of rooms that move without the people in them being aware that they are moving seems to crop up every once in a while in movies. This is a pet peeve of mine; if a room you were in moved, you would know it! You would feel it moving! But anyway). This restraint stands in stark contrast, however, to the fairly hamfisted way the movie’s moral was drummed into our brains: if we couldn’t figure it out ourselves, the character Worth actually spelled it out for us in so many words (too many words), then we went on to reiterate it a few more times. The moral was a good one. I took it to be that indifference, not hatred is the opposite of love, in the words of Elie Weisel. However, in addition to making this moral much too explicit instead of letting us figure it out, the movie didn’t really have any layers of meaning beyond that. I rewatched the beginning of it to check out who we saw first, how they all met, and so forth; and tried to make something out of the characters’ names (especially Worth and Leaven), but finally gave up–what you see is what you get in this movie.
It was a good movie, well above average, but the strange gap between the good stuff and the horrible parts was startling, as if the movie was created by two different people who had very different talent levels and ideas about what the movie should be. I would definitely recommend it, though.
I bought the book The Maltese Falcon for something to read while I was at summer debate camp (yes, I’m a dork), back in high school. I read it, and it didn’t make any sense at all. It has about five million characters in it and I could never remember who any of them were supposed to be. I watched the movie some time after that, and though it has fewer characters I still didn’t really get it. I rented it this weekend in hopes I could finally solve the mystery of What is this story supposed to be about? I think I got it this time. If I had to write out a plot summary it would probably still be kind of vague, but basically it’s about this bird, everybody wants the bird, but it’s not really the bird. Also, some people get killed, but none of them are important.
Excursus: In the movie Murder by Death, Truman Capote plays a rich man named Lionel Twain (ha ha) who summons several famous literary detectives to his mansion to solve a murder that has not yet been committed. In the course of the movie, Mr. Twain accuses several of the detectives of not having played fair with their readers. The accusation that he levels against Sam Diamond (the movie’s spoof of Sam Spade, the detective in The Maltese Falcon) is that “you introduced characters in the last few pages that were never in the book before!” I was pleased that Neil Simon agreed with my assessment, I feel validated by that. Funnily enough, this movie also has rooms that move around without the characters knowing, or any type of dislocation of furniture or small movable objects. Aren’t coincidences like that interesting? Is anyone still reading this? If so, please stop–you are only encouraging more long rambling posts like this 🙂

25 Responses to “weekend update”

  1. Jon says:

    While I love the hard-boiled style of writing (Raymond Chandler in particular), it’s not surprising you couldn’t make sense of the book “The Maltese Falcon”. Dashiell Hammett’s prose manages to be turgid, boring and confusing all at once. I couldn’t even make it halfway through “The Glass Key” and that’s supposed to be his best novel.
    The movie, on the other hand, is one of my very favorites. Talk about perfect casting — Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre don’t even have to act, they ARE Sam Spade and Joel Cairo! Add to it a cleaned-up script and some of the wild camera angles (particularly those with the overweight bad guy) and you’re talking cinematic magic. I just saw “Casablanca” for the first time a few weeks ago and that’s another great Bogart/Lorre pairing.
    The less said about “Cube” the better. Great idea, bad acting, bad resolution. Just IMO, of course.

  2. alan says:

    I agree with Jon’s terse assessment of the Cube. It struck me as an inspired concept that they couldn’t figure out how to bring to the silver screen. Any clever ideas were undermined by false dialogue and inconsitent production values. Properly done, it could have been a cult classic rather than a mildly fascinating B-grade flick.
    I haven’t seen the Maltese Falcon since my Film History 102 class (end of the Silent Era to post-WWWII), but you’ve made me want to find it again and sit back with a tub of buttery popcorn. Thanks!

  3. michele says:

    I have The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett burning a hole in my bookshelf here–maybe I should save that until later though. After a quarter of sorting out pharoahs and Hittite rulers, I don’t want to have to figure out another massive cast of characters:)

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