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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

DVDs: Little Ashes, Soul Power, Michael Jackson's This Is It

COME FOR THE SURREALISM, STAY FOR THE GIBBERISH. Terrible in a dull way that once would have been termed “unreleasable,” “shelved,” or “rightfully forgotten,” Paul Morrison’s “Little Ashes,” (E1, $27) starring Twilight biter Robert hellodali_67.jpgPattinson, doesn’t rise to the level of dreadful. Pattinson plays a young, sallow, flabby Salvador Dalí; Matthew McNulty, who looks nothing like the cockeyed, boxer-stout filmmaker Luis Buñuel is a classmate and poet-playwright-activist Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) becomes the center of the picture, which insists on a sexual obsession between he and Dalí. Beltrán’s sturdy, unlike the other actors, but like the other actors, isn’t given a modulated style of performance over the film’s duration. “I’m trying to be constructive here!” a character bellows in a scene that may as well have been played up against construction paper in a high school production. “Listen! I’m part of this underground movement,” García Lorca explains. The only instant that rises from the doldrums is a scene that draws on the historical fact of García Lorca’s assassination; the reality is touching even when the scene’s shot through blurred frills of field grass in an olive grove to the murmuring in English over the murmuring in Spanish of one of his seriously bloody poems. Also typical of the visual furze is a sunset scene where faces aren’t lit, golden hour replaced with molybdenum. (Call it “day-for-Twilight.”) Seriously, young Pattinson is given help by neither director nor editor, seeming in every other scene like he’s suffering the actor’s equivalent of dreams where you’re naked in a restaurant. To be more charitable, he delivers a rapt portrayal of mild bowel irritation. The gay and/or homoerotic component is negligible, even if you include the goopy, carbonated slow-motion scissor kick underwater to suggest twinkly infatuation between Dalí and García Lorca as well as a scene where Dali masturbates to the other man fucking a female friend (the fright-coiffed Marina Gatell) in a nearby bed and the composition of two shots centers oddly, even in an unrated film, on the woman’s bared, posturing anus. “We’ll go for breakfast at the Pelican and you’ll paint all afternoon!” A better line might have been “My best friend got executed in an olive grove and all he got was this lousy biopic.” The typing and formatting of the screenplay is credited to Philippa Goslett.
Rock around the doc: Soul Power, Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Two musical documentaries from Sony this week: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power is superior in every way to Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Little-seen in its theatrical run, Soul Power ($29) as more than an oddity: a director editing the footage of ace cameramen decades after a shoot into his own dynamic documentary. My interview with Levy-Hinte is here.
Is This Is It all there is? A dog’s breakfast of scraps from on-the-fly, sloppily-shot rehearsal footage of his not-to-be final tour, Michael Jackson’s This is It excited some first reviewers enough to suggest the movie’s good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. Unless you really, really care about Michael Jackson, it’s not much of anything: it’s hushed hagiography as sandpapered as Jackson’s own nose, less documentary than séance. It’s also debt warmed over: On the verge of losing his many possessions after decades of incautious spending, Jackson had to do something as creditors circled. A tour, with multimillion-dollar advances from mammoth tour promoter AEG, was the choice. Interest must be paid. But the final evidence of that choice, compiled by director and “co-creator” Kenny Ortega, with the furious assistance of editors Don Brochu, Brandon Key, Tim Patterson and Kevin Stitt, MJTII would surely embarrass the late ditherer. As Vladimir Nabokov reputedly said, “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.” (Nabokov’s heirs, three decades on, recently published that writer’s unfinished final novel, having allowed the sputum to age and mellow.) A difference scatological reference came to mind walking out of the theater. What’s the line from Withnail and I? “It feels like a pig. Shat. In. My head!”

Like an extra for a ten-DVD set, the theatrical version of MJTII is weightless, with so little there, aside from numbing necrophiliac fascination, it’s possible to read almost anything into it. (It may also be why reviews seem either very, very forgiving, or very, very cutting.) Even though Jackson is only in walk-through mode, not quite ready to subject his long-unused voice to strain before a 50-date stand, there’s no way of knowing precisely how much audio multitracking and pumping-up of soundtrack makes this assembly even vaguely listenable. But keeping his energy level down means the skeletal man with the damaged husk of a face, looks like death in a hurry, a scarecrow wanting to be found out as the man behind the mirror, all-in in love with miserable death. Befuddled, babbling, not a single utterance shows verbal coherence or acuity on Jackson’s part. If this is the best of the desultory footage, it’s hard to imagine just how shatteringly sad the other hundreds of hours must be. “MJ,” as he’s usually called, whines at one point, “The value would be greater! If you let it… rumble!” When he can’t hear something, it’s missed “my own oratory ears.” A song’s bridge needs two or three additional notes, but he can’t just say that, he stammers, mumble-splutters, “you gotta move it so it has to simmer, bathe it in the moonlight, let it simmer.” He’s impatient with a soundcheck, he doesn’t want to be doing it. Petulantly, he says he wants it to sound “like the record, the way the audience hears it.” Yes, Michael, everyone says. Yes, Michael. Then asking him another way, another way, firm, simple, patient. “MJTII” opens with dancers weeping through their eyeliner for being in Jackson’s sainted presence. Musicians say things like, ‘It’s remarkable, there’s some genius stuff going on here, y’know,” and then there’s a cut to a broken man trying to make sense of it all.
“God bless you” and “I love you” are common too, the sort of things murmured by the elderly as they feel the life force draining away. The indifferently shot footage was for Jackson’s own use, and most of it does him no favors. Ortega co-stars, a glib, sinister presence, beaming, patting his belly, tossing bromides like bread rolls, leaving in footage of himself saying “rock-‘n’-roll!” a lot as well as one odd moment where his shirt rides up and contrasts his great girth and the rim of his boxer shorts to Jackson’s anorexic form. (They’re sharing some kind of joke about “stewardesses.”) We witness a mutilated man, a shriveled soul, die. For a man with a Christ fixation, this is the final crucifixion. And as a film portrait of all-American hubris and failure, it’s up there with Overnight and American Movie. [There are over 100 minutes of extras.]

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