Friday, December 29, 2006

I missed Life Is Beautiful; I'll probably watch The Tiger and the Snow twice to make up for it

Trailers can get in my head in either of two ways. Usually, it's quick and clumsy, by showing me a bunch of cool scenes set to brute force music, as happened with 300, Rocky Balboa, and most comic book movies. Funny thing - when it works that way, I usually get really excited about the trailer, but I often don't get to see the movie. I still haven't seen The Marine, for instance.

The other way it can happen, though, is more viral, and probably more effective in the long run. When there are a few disparate elements and approaches that engage me to the trailer and invite me into the movie, I tend to become fascinated with the idea itself, rather than simply enchanted by the music and the effects. That's how it worked with The Assassination of Jesse James, if you remember, and that's how it's working now, with The Tiger and the Snow.

I didn't see Life is Beautiful, the first movie by Roberto Benigni, who directed this one. I'd like it see it. I've heard it was good. Still, I'm a little skeptical about Nazi death camp films, especially when they're intent on drawing such a contrast between the desolation of the Nazis and the humor used to survive their oppression. I understand why culture, especially high-brow and intellectual culture, is still obsessed with the Holocaust, and I understand why we're still struggling to understand that time period, whether it's in mediated biographies like Maus or in fictional memoirs like Everything Is Illuminated. Even so, it's almost too much to see a dedicated fairy-tale humorist pitted against the concentration camps. That's why I never jumped at the chance to see Life Is Beautiful. There's simply too much weight to the premise of the film.

The Tiger and the Snow slips out from under that weight for a couple reasons, and these are a few among the reasons it caught my attention.

REASON THE FIRST: like Life is Beautiful, this film seems to balance its grave narrative themes (war, death, trauma) against a pervasive sense of levity and humor (strange animals in the streets, a goofy professorly type who consistently acts like a doofus). However, this contrast is much more salient to me, because the heavy themes of the movie are current. We don't have history and a body of scholarly work to distance us from the war in Iraq; it's real, we haven't settled on a way of understanding it, and the attempt to see it through the eyes of a hopeful romantic still seems like a daring experiment.

REASON THE SECOND: It's truly interesting to me that they present us with a genuine, old-world romantic hero. The main character seems to have a habit of translating all his experiences into poetry, and though this may not be to everyone's taste, it's definitely right up my alley. To me, this is one of the noblest heroes of modern cinema, because he lives, breathes, and thinks poetically. Optimism and sympathy are virtues that we take for granted in our protagonists, but for this balding professor-type, those are the only characteristics that mark him as heroic.

REASON THE THIRD: As if all the interesting imagery and emotional juxtaposition wasn't enough, they had to add Tom Waits into the mix. Is there anyone more perfect to fill in an auxiliary role in a movie like this? Tom is known for his unpredictable flirtations with both hopeless romance ("Downtown Train") and with gritty cynicism ("Swordfishtrombones"), and his presence in this film gives us a beautiful gateway into its emotional schizophrenia.

There was no punching or CGI in this trailer, but as I watched it, I discovered things that will make me love the film itself, rather than a few scenes or a key fight sequence. I hope to rewrite this entry in a few months, when I've seen this film; and when I do that, I hope I'll be able to confirm all these affectionate suspicions about this movie: that it's thoughtful, well-rendered, and fully satisfying to my sentimental needs.

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