June 21, 2005

CineVegas. A Tale of Two Lands.

Jonathan Marlow on the latest films from the CineVegas Vanguard Directors.

Land of Plenty If all things are merely the sum of their parts, CineVegas can be distilled into one day and two choices. Director of Programming Trevor Groth cleverly paired two features at the close of the festival and, by extension, two Vanguard Director awards to deserving filmmakers Wim Wenders and George Romero. Both, in their own way, inspirations for my own aspirations as a filmmaker (and clearly many other folks in the industry as well). In the case of the former, The State of Things gives evidence to what is truly possible when presented with an impossible situation, both real and imagined. With the latter, Martin demonstrates (in much the same way as the Dead pictures) a startling expression of the human condition in allegorical terms.

It is not by coincidence that these two programs, presented consecutively (although requiring some unexpected tricky maneuvering to attend both) deal with the shape of the world through the prism of American influence and interference. Wender's Land of Plenty is a quasi-realistic drama of a young, idealistic woman returning to a post-9/11 America to find her uncle, a Vietnam vet who envisions himself as an independent secret agent in the "War on Terror." Romero's Land of the Dead, presented as a World Premiere (it fortunately opens nationwide this Friday), is a "scenes from the class struggle" sort of film, pitting the haves, the have-nots and the undead. If you've seen the three previous installments, you can likely guess where it will all lead.

America's declining relevance on the world stage, despite much bluster and fear-mongering, make both films timely if not equally well-crafted. Land of Plenty, filmed when the financing of Don't Come Knocking stumbled (since completed and recently screened at Cannes to mixed reviews), views America as somewhat off its natural path in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Due perhaps to the relative youth of the team that brought the film to completion, Plenty supports a heavily plotted script that uncomfortably sports a superficial take on our disconnected world. Lana (the persistently earnest Michelle Williams) serves as the catalyst for a Pollyanna-esque viewpoint. The film's bewildering solution to our problems? Things are not as bad as they seem.

Land of the Dead This opinion is not shared by Romero's Land of the Dead. The end times are no longer nigh, they are upon us. Day, the weakest of the four Dead films, established that the undead possess the ability to learn. Heaven help us if these abilities lead to some form of collective intelligence. Without getting into the specific machinations of the plot, imagine a spunky Thunderbirds-like crew set in an Escape From reality (in reverse) where the living are segregated to an island and flesh-eating zombies rule the outside world. A restored skyscraper, remade into the model upscale community Fiddler's Green, becomes a beacon for Big Daddy and his rag-tag army of flesh-eating stumblers. The words are uttered by the have-nots but the actions are left to the undead - in your numbers, rise up and take control.

Where Plenty evokes the Lord in its Mission setting, Dead speaks in Biblical proportions. Harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? Kaufman (the perfectly cast CineVegas Creative Advisory Board Chairman Dennis Hopper), chief architect of this hierarchical setting, is not a reflection of the way things will be. As with all Romero films, Kaufman is a reflection of how things are today. His crass lack of concern for anyone but himself channels Dick Cheney and his cronies' Ameri-centric efforts in a form that other US fiction filmmakers are evidently unprepared to address. During a conversation at the CineVegas closing night party, LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called the film Romero's masterpiece. I would still reserve that distinction, if only by a slight edge, to Dawn of the Dead. Given that US screens are frequently filled with Romero-lite horror fare, it is a treat to see the real McCoy back behind the camera with a reasonable budget and cast. These upstarts have nothing on the man that essentially (re-)started it all. Wenders, however, in the midst of a decade-long narrative decline, is in need of a rediscovery of his "vanguard" roots - a move fully in evidence in New German Cinema compatriot Werner Herzog's three recent films. Not fair to compare, admittedly, but the truth is there. If Romero can return from the Dead, as it were, twenty years later, anything is possible.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at June 21, 2005 4:42 AM


Not entirely appropriate to include with the other piece but a brief remark on movie-inspired slot machines in Las Vegas seems in order. Back in January during CES, GreenCine co-founder Dennis Woo and I entertained ourselves for a few minutes with the ALIEN machine, new (at least to me) at that time. Television has long been a source of material for these money pits but only recently have manufactures opted to license well-known contemporary properties to lure the unfortunate masses.

Now, if you're so inclined, TERMINATOR, MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS sit next to the earlier CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN games. A familiar sucking sound can be heard at the STAR WARS machines, where you can see Obi-Wan strike down Darth Vader in a light saber battle during the bonus round -- revisionist history worthy of Lucas himself. As the casinos become latter-day video arcades, a walk through simulacra Paris and Venice will allow you to relive, in audio, the highlights of your youth. "No blasters! No blasters!"

You'll still find me, however, at THE MUNSTERS machine (if only for the theme music)...

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at June 21, 2005 10:11 AM

Jonathan, at the risk of coming off completely link-nuts, your comment does remind me that Gary Dretzka had a fun piece on these machines some time back (and, while I was looking, two more Vegas-related pieces as well: 1, 2).

Posted by: David Hudson at June 21, 2005 10:43 AM

Any chance Wenders will direct a zombie film? Perhaps that would ironically revive his career. Or at least, *I'd* look forward to it.

Posted by: Craig P at June 21, 2005 11:48 AM

I thought that someone should write an article about these damn machines. Pleased to read that Gart Dretzka already had! It figures that you would know about it, David.

As for Craig, I can only say one thing -- if Wenders were to make a zombie picture, I wager it would have to be a road movie. Not a half-bad idea. Perhaps not a half-good one, either...

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at June 22, 2005 9:07 AM