Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part VI: I hope you're proud of yourself—and those pictures you took


WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT

Zemeckis reemerges with one of the most technologically audacious films of all time, a spectacle worth watching over and over again for the sheer complexity of its achievement.

1988
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman ("based on" the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf, but at least the book properly punctuates its title)
With Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant), Charles Fleischer (Roger Rabbit, Benny the Cab, and several weasels), Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit), Lou Hirsch (Baby Herman), Stubby Kate (Marvin Acme), Alan Tivern (R.K. Maroon), and Christopher Lloyd (Judge Doom)

Spoiler alert: forget it, reader, it's Chinatown


You can argue that there's more going on in Who Framed Roger Rabbit if you really wanted to, but there's really just no avoiding the film's most obvious description: it is, fundamentally, a technical exercise.  Of course, it began as a technical exercise: the source novel captured the attention of Disney's Ron Miller all the way back in 1981, and he saw it as a way to save the House of Mouse's dangerously ailing feature animation division by giving the people something similar to Disney's popular live-action/cartoon hybrids of yesteryear.  (And, considering what Disney actually turned out to have up its sleeve during the larger part of the 1980s, the desperation you can probably already recognize in Miller's conviction that Who Censored Roger Rabbit? would be a hit gets thrown into extremely sharp relief.)  Either way, when Michael Eisner took over in 1984, he picked the project back up, with the exact same belief in its capacity to restore Disney's reputation as America's premier cartoon factory—and, in combination with Steven Spielberg at Amblin, he finally got the damned thing made, after only seven years of development.  Yet, if it did begin as a technical exercise, that phrase barely even seems to encompass what happened when its director entered the picture.

Eisner had initially sought Terry Gilliam—and, fortunately, he turned it down, insofar as while a Gilliam-directed Rabbit might've been even more precious in its strangeness, I also suspect it would've been something akin to completely unbearable.  In any event, with Gilliam out, that left the one man who'd been waiting since 1981—Robert Zemeckis.  He'd lobbied for the job back when Miller was in charge of it, and Miller, being a businessman, can be forgiven when he looked at Zemeckis' objectively terrible resume and said "no."  Obviously, by 1985, when development on Rabbit began in earnest, things were very different: we can be relatively secure in our assumption that the participation of Zemeckis' pal Steven couldn't have hurt him, but the director was also coming off that year's single biggest hit.

And, when you consider what kind of film Rabbit was meant to be, it's honestly kind of surprising they ever could've wanted anybody else.  Even if he had no direct experience with animation, Zemeckis had still spent his whole career making live-action cartoons.  Now, with those cartoons full of flesh-and-blood actors finally achieving real success, it was time for Zemeckis to make, literally, a live-action cartoon: a noir pastiche colonized by the absurd, yet still taken more-or-less seriously—or, at least, on its own terms—and crafted with the finest, most state-of-the-art effects possible, yet with one eye to the past in order to ground it all in a kind of half-cynical nostalgia that goes further than the mere pleasures of recognition.  So, as much as the Zemeckis of '81 obviously wasn't ready, the delays in Rabbit's production turned out to be awfully serendipitous—because when it came to the reconstructed Zemeckis of '85, a newly-made master in search of a new challenge, this wasn't just his dream job, it was, in a way, his calling.

Above all, it gave Zemeckis a taste for the blood he found dripping off cinema's cutting edge—and, for better and for worse, he'd be addicted to the sweet nectar of technology for the rest of his days.  Back to the Future might've been effects-heavy—but BttF wasn't revolutionary.  Rabbit was.

So, Zemeckis' great inspiration for Rabbit?  He refused to shoot it like a cartoon, or even a live-action film that was supposed to have cartoon elements in it.  Instead, he shot it—provocatively enough—like a movie.  And this is how Zemeckis, with Spielberg's backing, came to hire his animation director Richard Williams, a Briton with little patience for Disney's methods—and the one man in animation who told him that this was actually possible.  (Insanely labor-intensive, time-consuming, and expensive?  Oh, my, yes—but possible nevertheless.)  Further, Zemeckis was still in the midst of his collaborations with cinematographer Dean Cundey, who enthusiastically joined his director in their hobby of making lives miserable at Williams' English sweatshop, as well as at ILM, where Ken Ralston had been tasked to composite all the various layers of animation in a bid to match Cundey's sculpted lighting scheme, thus rendering the animated characters as integral parts of a "real" world.


Some of this, it occurs to me, seems a little quaint now, in an age where the sight of Hulks hanging out with Iron Men is entirely mundane—but it pays to remember how involved the process was in the old days.  (Speaking of involved processes: some of the film's most celebrated and essential moments—although not, for my money, the most memorable—come courtesy its executive producer's efforts on behalf of his film.  Yes, without Spielberg, it is still possible to imagine Zemeckis in Rabbit's director's chair; but it is not really possible to imagine the once-in-a-lifetime dealmaking that allowed Zemeckis to deploy not just Disney characters, but his favorites from Warner Bros. and other studios, without whom the premise is not even half as convincing as it is.)

As for the result of all these labors, if Rabbit is most aptly described as a technical exercise, it is also one of the best technical exercises in all film history.  It is simply captivating to behold it—and no matter how many times I watch it, I simply cannot get over the uncanny verisimilitude of the fucking thing, or all the work that so clearly went into it.  And, of course, Zemeckis doesn't want me to ever get over it: for Rabbit is one of the most arrogant, show-offiest works of cinema I can name.  It throws its technical virtuosity directly in your face, and it does so in scene after scene after scene, long after it has established its bona fides.  It does so because it can, and because it's awesome.

It all starts with the most well-mounted "1940s" cartoon there ever was—it is, as has been pointed out by others, severely implausible as a work from that era, not least because it's in an aspect ratio that wouldn't exist for several years.  Yet the aesthetic feels ineffably right, and it should be, insofar as Rabbit is a very, very serious work of aesthetic mimickry.

This is where you're initiated into the trickiness going on here: we're not watching this as a finished cartoon, after all (even if we did see an opening title card—please, don't overthink this too much).  Well, either way, the lunging, swooping camera of "Something's Cooking," Rabbit's "opening short," is not within our characters' world.  But other cameras are, something we discover to our shock when Zemeckis immediately takes us beyond the infinite.  He tracks back from the refrigerator that's just smashed in our deuteragonist's head, and reveals that the painted backdrops have always been a full-fledged movie set—and one populated by that race of lovable abominations against God, known popularly as "Toons."

But, now that I think about it, there might be nothing in this movie that makes me happier than the fact that their horrifying existence is never really more deeply explained than what I just laid out in that sentence.

And this is as good a time as any, I suppose, to move us in the direction of the film's plot: Roger Rabbit is our Toon actor's name, and turning his wacky invulnerability into laughter is his game.  Unfortunately, he's off that game lately, thanks to his seemingly treacherous femme fatale of a wife, Jessica, who's been running around town and getting her name in the gossip columns.  This is how Eddie Valiant, P.I., enters the picture: Eddie's been tasked by Roger's employer with getting some solid proof of Jessica's infidelities, so that his boss can push his star past all the denial and delusion that's been interfering with his work.  Now, Eddie hates Toons—a rogue Toon killed his brother, years ago, which is what's turned the once-promising police officer into a perpetual drunk who steals rides on the Red Car and bums cigarettes off ten year old boys.  Still, Eddie's a pro (and, clearly, Eddie needs the money), and so he gets the photographs.  Roger sees the photos; Roger goes bananas; and Roger only fails to go through the roof because he goes through the plate-glass window instead.  And, by dawn, Jessica's so-called "sugar daddy," Marvin Acme, is dead.

It does not take finely-honed detective skills for the cops to put this together, but when Eddie discovers Roger holed up in his office, pleading his innocence and begging for help, the two become unlikely allies in search of the real truth behind Acme's assassination.  It leads them into an underworld of corruption, and it's obvious to the audience even before it's obvious to them that it has something to do with the newly-elected fascist, Judge Doom—who has invented a solvent called "Dip" that can kill the otherwise-unkillable Toons, and who is far too clearly evil to not be the mastermind of this complicated scheme.  It might well have something to do with the dead Acme's missing will, too—for Acme was the owner of Toontown, the Toons' major settlement here in Hollywood—and that will, according to Toon legend, would have left Toontown to them.

It is, it should be pointed out, a good story—even a really good story!—and, as previously intimated, it is so hugely indebted to Chinatown that, without Rabbit's genre- and medium-bending form, I can't really imagine anyone giving it the time of day.  Its more mundane "twists" are satisfying enough, but there is almost nothing at all that cannot be predicted with both a working knowledge of Chinatown and our first look at Christopher Lloyd in his all-black get-up.  In retrospect, probably the most surprising thing about Rabbit is that it turns out Jessica—"I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"—really isn't villainous, and is (in fact) probably the most heroic person in the movie.  Or, it could be that I'm just inured to Rabbit's most delicious twist—something that is so heavily foreshadowed that I'm surprised it caught me off guard, even when I was six—which, of course, is that Doom isn't merely human evil.  It's something of a testament to the generic enjoyability and mechanical solidity of Rabbit's screenplay, however, that when the film ties Eddie's quest into his pursuit of personal vengeance, it somehow still feels earned and correct—even though, as an adult, I recognize immediately how closely to the edge of awful contrivance that Rabbit's script is dancing.  (It is, however, a hell of an efficient script, so closely resembling Zemeckis and Bob Gale's style that I would bet a dollar that Zemeckis had a large hand in reshaping it during production; but, then, it's intermingled in Zemeckis' equally efficient visual storytelling, including an utterly characteristic scene of props-as-exposition that also doubles as a reasonably poignant introduction to the depths of Eddie's misery.)

But, I think I did mention that this film was principally a technical exercise, didn't I?  And in technique—in the image—there's enough to make you forget about any overly-pat screenwriting.  (The image of Doom revealed as a Toon is, alongside E.T., the scariest thing I ever saw in a movie before my age had hit double-digits.  However, that's actually intentional with Doom, and there's some really nice body horror to come: it is the only part of the movie that makes me wish it had been made earlier than it was, since I suspect Spielberg might have suggested making Doom's demise, already quite the nasty riff on Wizard of Oz, even more grotesque.)

Anyway, we return to where we began: the collision of animation and live action.  Christ, is it good.  The Toons are rendered lovingly as objects in themselves, yet interact with the physical world in virtually every last frame they're in.  And they are so convincing, between the miraculous shadow-driven dimensionality of their forms—not to mention the hugely apparent reality of their ability to affect objects made of actual atoms—that it's honestly kind of frightening, even before we get to Doom.  But they're frightening in a good way—thrilling, perhaps.  Production designers Elliot Scott and Roger Cain have, in many subtle ways, heightened Eddie's physical world, in order to bridge the gap between the two regimes—yet the Toons nevertheless play, to me, as endlessly-fascinating invaders from the unknown: so hyperreal my eyes do not trust their existence.  And that's why it's such a delirious delight to watch them go, from Roger's gloriously destructive clumsiness to Jessica, whose frankly grotesque dimensions and deviant sexual appeal are the kind of thing that get under your skin even more insidiously than a melting cartoon supervillain.  (Oh, yes, that Jessica Rabbit: there's a balancing act undertaken in Rabbit that I have rarely seen performed so well, between an acknowledgment of the repellent unsavoriness of cartoon sexuality and a wallow in its charms.)

On the other hand, we have Rabbit to thank for Cool World.  So this cuts both ways.

And should I mention that it's funny?  Of course it's funny, or trying to be funny: it's Zemeckis.  As Romancing the Stone and BttF before it, it succeeds in being funny by not trying so hard—or, if that doesn't strike you as remotely correct, it succeeds by presenting its enervating zaniness (there's that word!) in a context where it comes organically, from characters that are incorrigible on a constitutional level, and thus Rabbit turns out to be the most natural habitat for Zemeckis' most worrisome inclinations.  (And yet I have an urgent need to point out, somewhere, that Eddie's pratfall-heavy resolution to his contest against Doom's weasels is also, very easily, my least favorite part of the film.)  In any event, the zaniness of Rabbit is more like enthusiastic characterization than anything else—but it is, I should add, laugh-out-loud funny practically never.  Indeed, other than Roger's blithe escape from handcuffs (the best joke in the movie), the only gag that really makes me laugh is also Roger's most "subtle" one, where the animators use the outsized facial expressions possible in their medium to deliver a supernaturally-withering glance in Eddie's direction, as Roger opines that his (dead) brother Teddy seems like "a sober fellow."  It is still amusing in other places, but it's the sort of humor you look at and appreciate, like a piece of art, rather than guffaw at.

Yet none of this would work without the right technology and the right technique!  I keep coming back to that, and it is represented in no single object more than in it is in Bob Hoskins.  To be sure, Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner are doing God's work (and Charles Fleischer, at least, was working hard, too, on set every day with Hoskins in order to sync their performances).  But Hoskins, confronted with rubber stand-ins and dangling props and Zemeckis' legion of incredibly creepy robots (who would later be animated out of the frame, of course), doesn't miss a damned lick: in our 21st century, where you often get the feeling that actors have no idea what they're supposed to be looking at or why, it's revelatory to watch Hoskins blazing this trail, and still walking it better than so many performers who came after him.  It is never, ever in question that Hoskins is in the same room as this invisible rabbit—and maybe that's why it's easy enough to forgive one of the film's most anachronistic reference jokes, since for Hoskins, making this movie really must have been like living inside a real-life version of Harvey.

The flaws of Rabbit's filmmaking, either technical or artistic, are few: there's a bit where it's relatively clear that Hoskins is being lifted by a crane, not a Toon; the animation on Jessica sometimes insists so heavily upon "sultriness" that it lurches right into "awkward" (though to the degree this is unintentional is actually rather unclear); and about half the things we see once Eddie arrives in a bluescreened Toontown actually kind of suck, foremost among them the way Eddie is flattened into a pancake by the acceleration of an elevator, which breaks with the logical coherency of the premise in a seriously unappealing way.

And it does it all for a really dumb joke that would play much better if, like his brother, who was fucking killed by Toon shenanigans, Eddie actually faced some manner of biological consequences from Droopy's otherwise-enjoyable low-affect shittiness.

The problems are jarring when they come, but mainly because everything else is just so superb.  Now, it is in some respects a "cold" movie, or at best lukewarm: no one is really asking you to care about Eddie's loss, at least not any more than you absolutely need to, in order to get to the end of the plot; and it definitely doesn't care whether or not you notice how it vaguely feints in the direction of allegories about race in America or real-life Angeleno corruption.  It is, as I said, only a good story; but then, a great story probably only would've gotten in the way of the great movie that Zemeckis preferred to make instead.

It's fitting to close on the film's legacy: besides being a technological marvel that created the paradigm for the special effects filmmaking of the future, it also did exactly what Miller and Eisner had hoped it would—reignite America's passion for animation.  (The Little Mermaid arrived the next year; the rest is history.)  I am, however, at something of a loss to really explain Who Framed Roger Rabbit's mass appeal: it's a weird movie, isn't it?  But sometimes weird is what the people want, especially when it's done this well.


Score:  10/10

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