Left: Miramax Film Corp, ©2005. Right: Reddy Kilowatt Ashton B. Collins Sr. ©1926.
Now that summer is here and my children are out of school, I have embarked upon a series of seasonal activities familiar to working mothers everywhere. Such activities shlepping foremost among them frequently involve sitting in hyper-chilled movie theatres to watch PG-rated feature films which are, for the most part, really bad. When my children were younger and I could count on at least one of them ending up on my lap, I would routinely lean my weary head against their tiny shoulders and catch up on a few minutes of much-needed sleep. (Sleep-deprived parents can doze pretty much anywhere, and, I can say from hard-won experience, they generally seize any opportunity to do so.) Lately, though, I've managed to stay awake and, in spite of the tedium that characterizes most of these cinematic excursions, I've noticed a subtle, yet stunning undercurrent of Good Design.
Brainwashed I may be, but I distinctly noted an homage to Salvador Dali with perhaps a gentle nod to René Magritte last night while sitting through Robert Rodriguez's ludicrous, yet oddly luscious new movie, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D.
Let me say from the outset that the critics nailed it early on: it's a really lame excuse for a film, allegedly inspired by the whimsical imagination of the director's own 7-year old son. (As a sage editor of mine once said, "I love my children, but frankly, I see no reason to deify them." Sadly, Rodriguez seems to have missed this valuable little tidbit of parental wisdom.) Plot-free, poorly acted, inconsistently shot and with no shortage of saccharine illustrations of Family Values, there is precious little to redeem this tale of an innocent 9-year old misfit whose "dream journal" lands in the hands of the class bully. Ten minutes into the film, the 3D glasses go on for a headache-inducing hour of what I can only liken to a cinematic spin cycle: a protracted adventure-story-dream-sequence thus ensues, that includes a disembodied robot; oversized cookies used as a raft in a sea of warm milk; and a "dream graveyard" paved with dead, monochromatically-rendered toys. (In a small detail sure to prove irksome to the observant parent, even the Gameboy has been left for dead. Who among us can possibly keep up with the insatiable thirst for novelty demanded and dominated by the toy industry? And who would want to? That's no dream: that's a parent's worst nightmare.)
Yet buried in this haze of congested goofiness is a kind of arresting, surreal beauty. There's a scene with a series of clocks, floating aimlessly in midair, each a whimsical relic recalling a different period of analog or digital time. There's a river that's the protagonist's "stream of consciousness," and a runaway subway car that's his "train of thought." There's even a "brainstorm" brains falling freeform from the sky in a kind of suspended animation that seemed the sort of thing De Chirico might have imagined. Gimmicky, yes and to be sure, the metaphors here are so laden with Hollywood symbolism that the headache would have likely come about quite easily without the 3D glasses.
And yet, there's something enchanting about this loopy dream-world, a landscape of odd juxtapositions and delirious visual excess. At the core of the movie's dramatic eccentricity lies Mr. Electric, the movie's principal villain, who is based on a character introduced so briefly at the start of the film that it caused my cynical 9-year old companion, (Freudian-in-training that he is) to question the plausibility of his instantaneous metaphorphosis, a mere day into the school year from mild-mannered teacher into sinister fiend. Yet to anyone over, say, the legal drinking age, Mr. Electric's a dead-ringer for spokestoon Reddy Kilowatt: only in this movie, it's not light but pure, obliterating darkness he craves. The symbolism at this point drips with a kind of self-satisfaction that only Hollywood could conjure: a duo of super-hero kids symbolize the triumph of natural elements fire (Lava Girl) and water (Shark Boy) as they set off to defeat the industrial villain who is dead-set on driving the planet to evil, technological ruin.
Now here's where I became positively giddy.
Mr. Electric's bad-guy posse consists not of thugs, but plugs yes, the three-pronged kind, their long, electric-cord bodies snaking through the labyrinth of an underworld vaguely reminiscent of the Art Deco majesty of the 1939 World's Fair. Arguably, real fans of cartoon bad-guys might be better advised to sit through the equally tedious Madagascar, if only for a glimpse of those mobster penguins facing a Pinter-like moment of shocking self-awareness while stranded in an Antarctic blizzard.
Buried in Shark Boy and Lava Girl, if you can stay awake for it, is a brilliant send-up of a kind of marvelously retro view of the world of tomorrow: dark and menacing but deliciously utopian at the same time, like a Fritz Lang movie or a Hugh Ferriss drawing. References to surrealist heavyweights aside, this movie's destined, I fear, to tank at the box-office. But on a sleepy summer afternoon, there are perhaps a few worse things than retreating to a dark, cool place to watch clocks floating by in mid-air. At the very least, bring along a small child. Maybe you can lean against them, and nap.
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