Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #9: Witness

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
If you'll recall, I started this feature with Footloose, a film that I incorrectly thought was about people who were sort of closed off from the world and maybe a little Amish.  They weren't.  I don't know if it's possible for a person to be "a little Amish".  Those people are usually just called puritanical.  Or, hypocritical. Depending on the individual in question.  Either way, I've rectified the vaguely Amish situation by watching the movie actually about Amish people: Witness.  Watching Witness I was reminded how surly and irritable Harrison Ford was in the 80's and made aware that Lukas Haas is one of those people how has always looked gawky and never quite grew into the strange proportions of his face.  He still looks pretty similar and will always be Brick's The Pin for me; sitting at his mom's kitchen table talking drugs and murder with a rooster pitcher stage left.  I don't think that mental-picture Lukas Haas will be replaced with young Samuel in plain dress, accidentally spying Danny Glover getting lethal in the men's room at the train station.  Speaking of trains and bonnets: the only place I ever really see Amish people round these parts is indeed in Chicago's Union Station.  They're always there.  Seriously.  So, I feel Witness has an ounce of credibility and am totally comfortable believing that if anything crazy was going to happen to an Amish family, it just might happen on a stop-over.  I mean, I've seen a lot of crazy things in the train station..but who cares about that? 
You already know the plot. Because you've seen it.  As the poster reads: Harrison Ford is John Book, a rough and tumble Philly detective who gets assigned to investigate the incident young Samuel observed taking place.  Samuel identifies the killer and it turns out that man is a crooked cop.  One thing leads to another, lives are at stake, and Ford's driving Samuel and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) back home to the grassy hills of Amish-land where he can hide with them.  The plot sounds stable, solid.  There's nothing quite like a good thriller where the authority figures are inverted and the righteous vs. criminal are all screwed up.  Yet, for some reason, Witness felt incomplete to me.  On the surface it was an entertaining thriller, and everyone likes a good fish out of water story (especially one that lets Harrison Ford start punching people's faces in), but as dramas go, I didn't feel the intrigue.  Though the bad guys chased and the gunfire hailed, there were really only a couple points at which I felt Book, or any of the characters, might actually be at risk (grain silo of doom!).  Mostly, Witness seemed to be a diluted thriller blended with a rough sketch of a meditation on the violence of our culture contrasted with the peace of the Amish, and the conflicting emotions that occur when a quiet people are forced to get mad as hell. 

Director Peter Weir, who's responsible for a slew of other films that leave me equally ambivalent (Truman Show, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poet's Society), seems to suffer from a case of disparate intentions.  His thriller must be deeper than an action film, it must be a drama.  His drama must be rooted in romance.  His romance must be peppered with forbidden love.  All of this must be lightly coated with that aforementioned displaced person humor so prevalent in 80's mainstream cinema.  There's something funny about Harrison Ford in a hat on a farm.  We don't know why, but there is...even though Han Solo's day to day garb wasn't necessarily that different from Amish sartorial sensibilities, just a little more rocked out.  Weir has to mine that in part because Ford is such a natural at deadpanning and half-smirks that the smart ass in him tends to permeate most any dramatic role you place him in.  It's unavoidable.  That was fine, but once he started singing and dancing "(What a) Wonderful World" to Rachel while fixing up the car I started having visions of Harlequin paperback covers and started feeling a hint of the awkwards.  It's not that I didn't believe even the most pious Amish lady wouldn't start having doubts if a Harrison Ford in his prime wanted to serenade her...let's be honest, that makes perfect sense.  It was just the nature of the scenes and the way they continued to build like the set up to a Victorian amatory bodice-ripper.  My mind said "no, it's ok, it's totally logical" and "they're not going to take it there" while some other instinct screamed "ruunnnnnn awaaayyy! The cheeeese! The purpled virtue!"  In other words, I got worried, and my worry started to flail about and destroy everything.  It was very distracting.  I didn't like it.  I didn't need any sort of focus on the potential for a relationship past making eyes.  I don't know, I'm just so picky about the elements I want in my thrillers, or the way romanticism can be intermixed with them.  Witness was, for all practical purposes, a good Hollywood film. The only way you could improve on it would be to stretch it out another 30 minutes, upgrade the photography and meditativeness of the story, and allow long sequences of silence with Terrence Malick in the director's chair.  Now that movie would be something...I could probably love that movie. 
Sometimes I wonder if I'd been born into a Pennsylvania Dutch community, into the orders of the Mennonite, or any other belief system apart from the belief of not knowing and frequent disbelief or slack-jawed ignorance (make sense of that, I'll pause)  if I would be able to effectively survive that experience.  How much is nature, how much nurture?  One would presume that being born into Amish-ness, prior to rumspringa (best word for adolescence ever), I would have little working knowledge of the world outside of my community, and my questions would be limited by experience.  I suspect, though, that I would make for a terrible Amish person.  Terrible.  Worse than John Book, but probably without a gun.  I'd just be hanging around provoking people.  I'd be that Amish person who goes all Claudia Kishi and decides to tie-dye their headcovering or something. I'd rollover in bed and be like, "yeah, you want me to get up and milk the cows? What if instead we paint the cows neon orange and hike up the road...they sell milk in gallons there.  We don't have to be up at 4 AM." I'd probably punch in a couple walls and re-invent the eye roll.  I'd be a terrible Amish person.

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