Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fracture Lines

The Boy and I went to see Oz, the Great and Powerful the other night. And this should warn you; if you haven't seen it yet and want to - there be Spoilers About Oz Ahead.

Anyway, the original plan was to go see the film playing down at our local St. John's theater as Family Movie Night. But the Girl felt poorly (she had been fighting a stubborn cold for the past day) and she begged off, asking her mother to stay home with her.

Had it been her brother I would have suspected that he was sandbagging, using the cold as a face-saving way to avoid seeing a film that (from the trailers we'd seen on television) had some fairly frightening moments.

But Missy is a fearless little soul and she seems to have a much firmer grasp of what is fiction and what is fact; she can view films and stories and television that scare her older brother witless without so much as a shiver. "That's not scary." she will announce in that flat tone that little girls who are dead solid certain of themselves can employ.

So, instead, the Boy and I drove to "downtown" St. Johns in the spitty rain and ran inside the arcade that shelters the doors to the old building.

The moviehouse is a great old place; it has been showing flicks since it was built in 1925 (as "McCreadie's Venetian" - see the picture below) and as we waited in line at the small ticket window I couldn't help imagining that some earlier St. Johns father and son - perhaps even the father and son that had moved into our little house when it built just three years earlier - had waited in line for the original Wizard of Oz back in '39.

I got myself a beer (a nice dry-hopped IPA, too, to celebrate the repeal of the Prohibition of McCredie's day) and a slice of pizza to go with the Boy's popcorn and soda; the joint is now a theater-pub sort of place, very popular here in Portland since the advent of the McMenamin's chain. We settled in with our snacks through the endless previews (although the Boy did like the looks of the upcoming entry in the G.I. Joe franchise so I may be in for another movie night soon, just me and him...)

And then the film began.

Let me say upfront; it's not a "great movie". Frankly, I loves me some Sam Raimi and expected better of him. It's overlong. It drags in stretches, and the opening Kansas sequence is kind of a bust. And I wasn't able to pin down what the hell Michelle Williams was trying to do as Annie/Glinda. Was she trying to seem flirtatious? Mysterious? I have no idea. She's very good at cute and spunky, though, and that went a long way towards making her Glinda likeable.

But that really didn't make a difference. A Wizard of Oz movie isn't about "good" or "bad"; it's about magic.

And flying monkeys. And even MORE bizarre creatures. And little girls made of porcelain. And wizards, munckhins, and spectacle.

And Oz has all that in job lots.

The Boy liked the heck out of it. He was frightened by a couple of the scarier moments - he really is a very gentle little guy for all that he pretends to be rough and tough. He loved that the Head Witch (Evanora, the future-wicked-witch-of-the-East) could throw lightning like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars,

and (true movie geek - or at least Star Wars geek - that he is) noted that Evanora/Palps both turns her sister into Darth Vader...

...AND has a final throwdown with Glinda/Yoda in the throne room/Senate Chamber complete with lightning sumo.

I enjoyed it, too, for what it was; a sort of simultaneous riff on and tribute to the original. It hit all the canonical nodes (flying monkeys, green witches, munchkins, Winkies marching around chanting "Ore-e-o") while being very much different in spirit. The 1939 Wizard was all about home, and finding your place, and reaffirming the beliefs and loves you'd always had and never appreciated.

The 2013 Oz is about the journey, and exploring new worlds, and finding in them and within yourself new beliefs and loves you hadn't thought you had or ever could have.

But, oddly, the one thing that I really, truly, genuinely loved about the film was China Girl.

I have to stop here and admit something; there's a point in the film where the Wizard and his faithful companion Finley are heading out to the Dark Forest to find and destroy the person that they've been told is the Evil Witch (she isn't, but that's another story). They get to a crossroads, and there's a signpost; one arrow reads "Dark Forest". The other reads "China Town".

And I hate to admit this, but for a moment my mind stopped dead, gibbering.

China Town? In Oz? China Town?

I had a sudden mental image of a pigtailed, squidgy-eyed, bucktoothed cartoon Chinaman - Chink-ee from Gene Yang's American Born Chinese - bowing and chanting "Me doo-ee washee? Velly good washee! Ah-so, Chinkee Chinaman velly good washee-washee!"

I hate it when I do that.

Remember that I was a kid in the Sixties. The popular memory of that time was the Summer of Love and hippies in sandals and VW Bugs. The reality was very different, and included a lot of vicious, open racism. It wasn't just about whites and blacks. I vividly remember hearing a Chinese friend of mine, a slim quiet girl named Anne Kwong, called a "slope" by one of the drumline thugs my freshman year in high school; to my shame I did or said nothing.

But the worst part of that sort of thing is how insidious it is. A lot of that time, and a lot of those thoughts, and words, and images, still live inside my head and struggle to escape, usually at the very worst moment.

But of course, the "China Town" of Oz isn't "Chinatown". It's just what the words say it is; a China Town.

A town made of china.

The China Town sequence was Raimi at the top of his game, and the main character you meet there - the China Girl - was a creation of absolute magic. While I'm an animation fan and a CGI enthusiast in general I'll be the first to admit its limitations. It is very difficult to get a genuine "performance" out of a CGI character; the essential inhumanity of the pixels always seems to force its way through onto the screen.

But when you meet China Girl there is none of that.

I'm not sure why. Some combination of the character design itself, the voice acting of Joey King as well as the way the other actors play off her, and Raimi's direction. But the overall effect is winning, and winsome, and very poignant. I defy you not to love the little character. She's terrific.

And this is where I link to my friend Maia's blog. Because her little girl QQ was another person who fell in love with China Girl.

QQ is a lucky girl; her mom and China Girl got together to make some real magic happen. Go ahead and read her blog post; it is achingly sweet.

But the thing that makes it as touching as the character herself is the teardrop at the heart of the story of the little girl in Denver who is going to sleep tonight with her new friend. As Maia says;
"I'm sure that it did not escape her that this character is an orphan, left without a family or a country, and that she is desperate for a family. Also that she is fragile and injured, but also stubborn, tough and brave."
And - in very different but very similar ways - both are China Girls, who have to find a way to find a new belief, and a new love, with a new family they never expected or hoped to find.

I won't pretend I didn't tear up reading about little QQ's quest for, and meeting with, her little china doll friend.

The other night, though, there was none of that sweet sentiment.

The Boy and I rode home having a discussion of near-critical geeky mass about the parallels between Star Wars and Oz (we agreed on Palps-Evanora-Yoda-Glinda-Vader-Theodora but never could decide who was the Luke Skywalker character; Boy held out for the Wizard, while I insisted that there was no direct match).

The house was dark and silent; we brushed our teeth together barging against each other quietly. He washed his face and gave me a hug and I breathed in the boy-and-popcorn scent of his hair against my cheek. And he went into his bed to burrow into the immense pile of stuffed friends inside, and I went to the computer to blog-read and wait.

And, surely enough, about an hour later I heard the sound of crying.

At first I wasn't sure whether he was awake or not. He's had "night terrors" before; horrific things that simulate nightmares but are far, far below the dream-layer. This wasn't one of those. Boy was barely asleep, frightened by the afterimage of some frightful moment in the film. He was shaking, and crying, and (unlike the night terror state) scooted quickly over into my arms.

I kissed his forehead, still slightly damp with fear, and told him that I had stayed up to watch over him. I asked him if he was frightened by the scary parts of the movie and he nodded, shrinking deeper into my arms. I suggested that, instead, he might dream about how he could make a place for a puppy we might foster over the summer; how he could build a house for the puppy, and make a place for it to play, and all the ways that he could show the puppy that it was safe and loved and welcomed.

And, whether it was the pleasant thoughts of pets, or the sound of my droning on, or the steadiness of my arms around him, the Boy's eyes started to droop. He roused himself to give me a final hug, and tunneled back below the top layer of stuffed critters.

The bare leg that remained exposed looked very fragile and unprotected, like China Girl's as she lays shattered amid the ruins of her family. For we all have our fractures, don't we? Our planes of weakness, the mend-lines of our old breaks like the patterns of ancient porcelain that run across our limbs, like China Girl's.

Or sometimes across our minds, or our hearts.

I stood in the twilit doorway listening the the sound of the Boy's breathing, peaceful again, gently closed his door until just the faintest pillar of light remained streaming out of the room and turned back into the darkened hallway.


basilbeast said...

I saw it when it opened, and I appreciated the attempt at a prequel.

It's difficult to base a movie on a character who has no redeeming moral qualities, and who is the basis for the idiom about looking behind the curtain and being told not to see what you do see. The 1939 wizard tosses out some medals and high-tails it out of town, leaving the girls Glinda and Dorothy to get to the resolution.

I do give credit to Franco and Raimi for doing the best they could with that, although it is Franco's actions that are a catalyst for Kunis' transformation. So when guys do evil, it's OK with no consequences and no need for atonement, but when gals do it, it's irrevocable?

The Witchy is Bitchy, to the Max, just for gullibility.

Go figure, when one turns evil, green skin, pushed up and exposed boobies and a stylish outfit are the rewards! ( Geeky note, Susan Oliver in the original pilot of the original Star Trek, eh? )

A couple of groaners, at the beginning with the crippled girl who later morphed into China Girl and the similarity to Star Wars. I can see Franco as Luke, and Glinda as Obi Wan. Bruce Campbell as the door sentry was a nice touch. All in all, decent, but meh.


Syrbal/Labrys said...

Damn it, now I am going to have to go read ALL the Oz books, aren't I?

basilbeast said...

There's a lot of 'em.

I read them all as a little kid and they're not that bad for adults.

The ancestors of modern SciFi and Fantasy, like Burrough's Princess of Mars and Tolkien?

Baum himself is an interesting character. An early supporter of women's rights, and controversy over what to do with the Indians. I believe his writings on the subject were like Swift's writings on how to deal with the Irish, but the family did apologize to the Sioux nation just a few years ago, which I just found out meandering through Wikipedia.

Here's one reason to like the movie, and Labrys, you don't need to spend money to read the first book

One more link


Syrbal/Labrys said...

Thanks, BB! I did read the Burroughs books as a teen. And later, almost in my 20's heard something about the Indian issue...that was one reason why I did not read Baum's books. I was, at that time, very busy explaining to a host of old ladies I did volunteer work for that the Indians protesting at the Wounded Knee site were in the right.

Hey, everyone had to get their self-righteous priggness out SOME time...

FDChief said...

Funny, I hadn't actually read the Baum books in decades. I went to see what all the fuss was about and was reminded of how very different the styles of the first half of the 20th Century were.

IMO the pulp writers like Baum and Burroughs are nearly unreadable to a modern. The conventions of their time seem either ridiculous or insulting; you mention Baum and the Indians; nearly all the other genre writer of the period had similar blind spots. I recall inheriting some sort of gawdawful Tarzan-knockoff from my grandmother ("Bomba the Jungle Boy" sounds familiar) and even in the Sixties I was pretty stunned by the racism; Bomba is "better" than his jungle cronies because, of course, he is White. Pretty much every red, black, yellow, or brown character in them is either craven, moronic, greedy, outright Evil, or some combination of the above.

It's kind of a tribute to the imagination of the writers themselves that they managed to transcend the limits of their genre to the extent that their stories and characters are still viable and enjoyable today once you've knocked off the encrustation of racist bullshit...

Leon said...

Heck, even good writers like Tolkien couldn't escape their background. It's my favourite novel(s) but it's filled with the subtext of blonde-haired white people good, swarthy people bad.

FDChief said...

Leon; good point. And, again, these guys could still write. It's just that much more difficult for a modern reader to get past the old-school style and the upfront racism/sexism/other-isms that kind of slap you in the face.

Don't get me started about Two Black Crows in the RAF...