HIGH ART IN `MONSTERS'
In the beginning, God did not create "high" and "low" movies. For filmmakers from Chaplin to Hitchcock, "unpopular" was not a badge of pride for movies but rather a sign that they were somehow flawed. Now, of course, we have two contenders: in that corner, weighing in at $100 or $200 million, are "blockbusters" like Armageddon; and in this corner are the 98-pound weaklings of the film industry, "independent" movies like Gods and Monsters. From the former we can expect special effects, saccharine plots and Bruce Willis; while from the latter we can expect intellectual affects, subtle plots and a British actor who just finished a run in a critically acclaimed drama on the West End, and of whom you've likely never heard. One is edging ever closer towards television, the other towards drama, and we who enjoy both, or neither, are left in the middle hunting for that elusive genre, the movie.
What's sadly ironic about this is that Gods and Monsters deals with the final days of James Whale. Whale was the director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, films that were immensely popular in their day and can now be found on film school syllabi. Moreover, as Gods and Monsters illustrates in a couple of touching scenes, they can still be enjoyed today: These were and are, above all else, movies.
So one gets the sense that James Whale may have given Gods and Monsters an unfavorable review. Granted, the acting is stellar: Ian McKellen turns yet another masterful performance as the aging filmmaker, Brendan Fraser gives a surprisingly adept take on Clayton Boone, the naive young love interest of the homosexual Whale. Lynn Redgrave, heir to her family's tradition of great acting, takes on the role of Hanna, the staid housekeeper who mediates between Whale and Boone with notable sensitivity, making sympathetic a character who could have been made merely boring in less talented hands. The screenplay too, authored by director Bill Condon, is unflaggingly sharp.
The quality of the acting and writing here, however, belies the failing of Gods and Monsters: It could have just as well been produced as a play. The difference between action movies and independent films seems to be that the one has lots of explosions, and the other has lots of conversations. Lots of them. Whale talking to Boone. Boone talking to Whale. Whale talking to Hanna about Boone. Boone talking to his buddies about Whale. Whale talking to Boone about his buddies talking to Boone about Whale. Enough. This is not to say that what Gods and Monsters needs is less talking and more explosions. It just seems that the My Dinner with Andr‚ school of filmmaking, in neglecting the visual and visceral possibilities of the screen, inevitably seems more fit for the stage.
There are, thankfully, some notable exceptions in Gods and Monsters, namely Whale's dreams and flashbacks. The former have him in his own movies, playing the Doctor Frankenstein to Boone's Monster and vice versa. Shot in retrospective monochrome, the film here manages to capture the beauty of Whale's movies without distracting the viewer from the matter at hand--Whale and Boone's increasingly complex relationship. Similarly, the flashbacks to the war, and to Whale's wistful memories of "love in the foxholes," are masterfully done. Alas, these all have the ulterior motive of emphasizing the film's already overweighted point: that gods are monsters, monsters are gods, and filmmaking, war and homosexuality are really, in the end, the same thing. As pure cinema, however, stripped of their obligation to make an argument, these scenes are nearly perfect.
Putting these qualms about the current state of movies aside, Gods and Monsters is undoubtedly worth seeing, perhaps worth seeing twice. It is without doubt the most human film to have come out this season. That is to say, it concerns itself not with explosions, but with people. There is a certain Lolita-esque aspect to Whale's pursuit of Boone--the degenerate European going after the ingenue American--but this is balanced by the film's ultimately sympathetic portrayal of both characters. There's something worthwhile in the tension between a film dealing with homosexual love and a heterosexual audience member: unable to rely on the stock clich‚s of romance, the film is forced to go about its business more subtly. Gods and Monsters does this, and does this well.
By the conclusion of the film, the audience mourns for Whale because McKellen and this film have made out of the man--aging, bitter, out of favor with Hollywood--an endearing figure. Stepping outside of the theater, though, one cannot help but mourn for the real James Whale, for the days when a director could make a movie out of a Mary Shelley novel--not for the prestige granted to recent film adaptations of Henry James, but for the quality of a swift story, of one that engages intellectually, emotionally and viscerally. And for the spectacle of a monster given life by the sheer genius of a scientist, as movies were once engendered by directors like James Whale.