Manic Regression


With DreamWorks’ new all-digital confection, Shrek, computer animation has finally achieved a dismaying marzipan-ness. Three dimensions are strenuously feigned, but everything seems to be molded from the same elastic nougat. Truly, the film is an eruption of Hildebrandtian faeriescapes, sunset-burnished flower fields, and lava pits, with some cosmic attention devoted to grass blades and sunflowers. But the effect isn’t appreciably different from the last dozen FX-laden bustblockers; in the watching, Shrek becomes just another movie, albeit one in which the actors are only nominally more organic than the bystanding scientists in the computer game Half-Life.

Actors are the eight-track tapes of the New Hollywood; they had a good run, but the industry no longer seems to need a pulse. With Shrek and the oncoming Final Fantasy, George Lucas’s technocratic scheme to outmode human performers sees its first volleys fired. Will audiences buy this weirdness? Shrek is not in essence a cartoon—it’s an Umberto Eco-style hypercinema, stuck between being drawn and being photographed as Disney’s Celebration U.S.A. is stuck between life and entertainment. Spectacle this is—like a Grucci blastoff, impressive for having been manufactured—but Shrek is at the same time witheringly cynical. Desperately avoiding the risk of even a half-second of boredom, the movie is wall-to-window-to-door noise, babbling, and jokes (the first minute sees the first fart gag), and demographically it’s a hard-sell shotgun spray.

Producer-DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has made the movie something of a personal statement. If DreamWorks is his market revenge upon Michael Eisner for not forking over $580 million in shared profits (after he had already doled out a $100 million parting gift), then Shrek is Katzenberg’s most juvenile affront. The hair-trigger Disney lawyers are dared to man the ramparts at every turn: Ethnically persecuted “fairy-tale creatures” (Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the three tri-colored Sleeping Beauty pixies, etc.) are rounded up by evil supremacist Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) like European Jews and sent off to “designated resettlement facilities,” and though the character designs are generically non-Disney, the gags are spiteful. Farquaad’s sprawling kingdom is quite Magic all on its own, replete with roped-off waiting areas, turnstiles, souvenir shoppes, cheap Tudor facades, over-manicured town square (“It’s very clean,” somebody compliments the tyrannical lord), and staffers in giant character heads.

If these bons mots hit pay dirt, they’re also a bit callow coming from Katzenberg. Ruefully, little is done with the Holocaust parallel outside of a torture session with the Gingerbread Man, who has the nerve to spit a sprinkle at Farquaad and squeak, “Eat me!” The interface with William Steig’s modest, 32-page children’s book is minimal, beyond the primary tribulations of the titular ogre (voiced by Mike Myers). Shrek is compelled to quest for the title-hungry Farquaad’s princess bride only after the displaced fairy refugees are dumped on his property. A fearless, pea-green misanthrope in Tor Johnson’s body, Shrek carries out a Bogart scenario, enduring his Walter Brennan-ish sidekick (a talking, corgi-shaped donkey named Donkey, spoken by Eddie Murphy) and rescuing the maiden (Cameron Diaz) while pretending to care only about himself.

Four screenwriters—and 27 credited “additional dialogue” writers and “story artists”—toiled here (Steig must be roaring), and the result is hyperactive cliché. Song interludes further distend the material—though the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung by John Cale, over a lost-love montage seems like a move that slipped by the marketing department. By and large, Murphy is the movie’s only plugged-in source of amperage, and Donkey is drafted for maximum expressiveness. But Shrek is a lumpen cipher unleavened by Myers’s indistinct delivery (trotting out again that soft Scottish burr), and Diaz’s go-girl Fiona is, by mortal standards at least, an awful actress. CGI movies can limn the sunlight on butterfly wings all they want, but the characters had better hum.

As littered with arbitrary anachronisms as A Knight’s Tale and as beholden to the WWF as The Mummy Returns, Shrek never broaches the miniaturist lyricism and snapping-rubber-band wit of the Pixar films, but it hardly tries. The driest irony is that for all of Katzenberg’s potshotting, Shrek cannot shake the Disney paradigm—mocking old movies and theme park absurdities doesn’t mean DreamWorks can defy the most ubiquitous and powerful entertainment formula of the last 100 years.

Visual bedizenment taken to its own particular Euro-plateau, Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) rocks, rolls, upchucks, and offers a spittle-flecked grin. Fellini’s first film in color, and still so symptomatic of his style that it merges in the memory with his other films, Juliet is both a festooned grotesquerie and a film of its moment. Seesawing between monstrous faces and contrived vanishing points, decked out with polyester, lacquer, feather boas, green eye shadow, and ivory, shimmying to Nino Rota’s self-amused, faux-jazzy xylophone scat, it’s a movie as bad-taste time capsule—which was surely part of the maestro’s scheme. Few films get lost in their own excesses as this rococo orgy does, and few filmmakers muddle psychosocial critique and fashion lampoon as fecklessly as Fellini. Interpolated often enough with symbolic Fellini-isms and tableaux out of an Artaud theater piece, Juliet takes no prisoners among middlebrows primed for a little Significance with their freakshow tour.

The new, pristine rerelease—struck from the freshly restored negative—is a clear view on the ham-and-cheese side of the Art Film Golden Age menu. Among the imported auteurs from the late ’50s to the ’80s, only Kurosawa was as universally respected as Fellini, and it’s telling that Woody Allen repeatedly referenced both of them. (The Coen brothers still say, in unison, “Fellini” when asked about their fave moviemaker.) Populist, self-promotional, and burlesque-crude, Fellini was the Italian film genius for people who hated Italian film geniuses, and Juliet is a work of bludgeoning gaucherie.

Today, his decades-long hold on the minds of international moviegoers looks like an extraordinary, protracted grift, a circus dazzle so extreme and frantic that we never noticed our pockets being picked. Only 8 1/2, a misogynist yet self-crucifying dream trip into narcissistic despair, seems integral. Juliet excels at distraction: Fellini set out to make a film about the inner life of a bourgeois wife with an unfaithful husband, starring his reportedly unhappy wife, Giulietta Masina, and ends up with a kaleidoscopic ghoul parade that explores neither marriage, women, nor the middle class with any insight. (Andrew Sarris astutely compared it to Contempt at the time.) Obligatorily, the mad housewife’s reality, memory, and fantasy get mixed up, but the subject seems to be how much overdecorated claptrap Fellini can pack into his images: peacocked harridans, forced perspectives, menacing silhouettes, obese matrons in ostrich plumes, oiled boy-toys, burning visions, cherubs, pancaked gargoyles, demimondaines receiving lovers in liquor-equipped tree houses, blood-red rooms, keening mediums, gesturing exotics, all of them stuffed into shots like apples into a pig’s mouth. (His signature mise-en-scène is tracking after an actor or actors until a foreground face fills the frame, often blabbering right into the lens.) That Fellini demonstrated nothing so much as loathing for his characters and his wife is inarguable; his films feel like the playground tauntings of an insecure child. Peaking with the famous children’s passion play—fashioned like a Roger Corman Black Mass with shadowy nuns and red-paper flames—Juliet is never less than eye-catching, but is rarely more.

Authentic burlesque—where nothing is intended except raw, primitive amusement—can be had in a rare nudie-revue movie revival: Jerald Intrator’s 1954 Striporama, an entrancing glimpse of true underground Americana, the kind of ephemeral old-Deuce entertainment that nobody bothers to copyright or review. (On the other hand, Something Weird Video offers them for retail by the score.) Flabby skid-row vaudeville comics Jack Diamond and Mandy Price (one of those post-Laurel and Hardy duos whose routines involve sleeping in the same bed) decide to convince a new Council for Culture to include burlesque in its 1950s time capsule by holding them at gunpoint and showing them one-reel strip shows—including Bettie Page in a bubble bath. No less than a Fellini debauch, Striporama is a time capsule, too, occupying a nudity-free yet salacious middle ground between, say, Singin’ in the Rain (the “Beautiful Girl” fashion show is echoed here) and progressive seaminess like Ed Wood and Stephen Apostolof’s Orgy of the Dead. As film it’s a train accident, but at least the participants are recognizably human.