Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Water for Elephants," a Chick Flick, but I liked it too.

I just about passed up going to see this movie. With my 30 year old daughter and a couple of her girlfriends on Facebook gushing about how they HAD to see it, and when I saw that the brooding vampire guy from the Twilight series was the romantic lead, I figured it would just be another romantically overdone chick flick.

But finally we went ahead and bought tickets for it. I mean I needed SOMETHING to watch while I ate my popcorn, so we settled on “Water for Elephants.” Basically, we chose it through a process of elimination. One of the other three at the local quad was a Filipino flick—sorry, not much on those. And then there was “Thor,” an okay show that I’d already seen a few days before. And the third, “Fast & Furious Five” has no appeal to me at all—narcissistic jerks in flashy cars, thrashing and crashing to urban thug music—no thanks.

In hindsight, I never should have resisted going to see “Water for Elephants.” I enjoyed it from the opening scenes, which harkens back to the way Titanic opens, another popular period piece from 1997. Both “Water” and “Titanic” have centenarians tell their stories many decades after the events portrayed in their respective movies, recalling the times when the old tellers were still young, dumb and wrinkle free.

Titanic uses this device with 100 year old Rose Dawson telling her story as the camera fades back to April 1912, when she as a teenage Rose begins her sea journey aboard the doomed ship. “Water” starts similarly with Hal Holbrook playing a crabby old fellow named Jacob Jankowski, also almost 100 years young, telling his story to a modern day circus boss.

Holbrook, basically in a cameo role, starts off as a seemingly cantankerous curmudgeon before rousing the curiosity of the circus manager. This “Big Top” fellow, who up until then only cares about returning the old man to his nursing home, can’t help himself when he learns that Jankowski actually witnessed the legendary 1931 Benzini Brothers circus tragedy (fictional of course). The manager opens a file drawer and pulls out an ancient picture of a beautiful blonde woman atop an elephant, circa 1931, and hands it to Jacob who seems stunned by it. Jacob’s eye glaze as he gazes at the photo of his late wife as she looked when he first met her all those years ago.

It’s dark and stormy out. Holbrook as Jankowski is deeply affected by the old photo. He asks the circus boss if he has anything to drink. The circus manager breaks out a bottle as the two of them sit down. Jankowski begins telling a tale of how he ended up working for the ill-fated Benzini Brother’s circus, back when he was a homeless young man during the Great Depression. The voice of Hal Holbrook playing a centenarian in modern times starts out cracked and shaky. In midsentence, the aged narrator changes seamlessly to 23 year old Robert Pattinson. As the narrator’s voice becomes young and virile the viewers find themselves in 1931.

So that’s how the film starts and where my account of the plotline ends. It’s not my purpose here to recount the entire story start to end; you can read that on Wikipedia if you want. After watching “Water” however, I am compelled to develop some of the thoughts that occurred to me during the movie.

On that note, lately, I haven’t much remarked on films. For a while there I reviewed just about every one I viewed. Now, it takes an exceptional flick to inspire me enough to write about it. In this case I feel that inspiration, mostly because of the intriguing historical and social aspects presented in the film as follows:

• The era of The Great Depression: The film mostly takes place in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. The extreme hardships of those times play an important role in the film. Men are desperate to work and August, the German American owner of the circus, takes advantage of their misery by shorting their pay or by not paying them at all. There are times even, when his goons simply throw workers off the fast moving train, often to their death, to avoid paying them. In the movie this brutal practice is referred to as being “red-lighted.”

• German August vs. Polish Jacob: Eight years from 1931, Nazi Germany will invade and cruelly crush the people of Poland. I see it as no coincidence then that the classic conflict in this movie between the evil and the virtuous reflects the coming international conflict, when a malicious Nazi Germany attacks and subjugates an innocent Poland, an event that marks the start of WWII. In effect then, this film presents a microcosm of how Nazi Germany enslaves the rest of Europe, with Rosie the Elephant, representing the allies (USA, USSR), coming to Europe’s rescue and bashing the murderous Nazis into submission. Unlike the events of WWII however, where Germany had its way with Poland, in “Water” Jacob the Pole provides a much more satisfying ending when he becomes responsible for the end of the German’s reign of terror. This happens when a prostrate Jacob, himself just about to be killed by one of August’s henchmen, commands Rosie the elephant with his last breath to bludgeon the German with a spike as the crazed Kraut, using a bull pike, chokes the life out of his wife, Marlena, Jacob’s future wife as it turns out. As soon as I saw the actor who plays August, Christoph Waltz, I recognized him as the Nazi SS officer from “Glorious Basterds,” so it was no stretch to see him as the symbol of a nasty Nazi, especially with his slightly German accented English.

• Prohibition: In 1931 the Prohibition Era still has two years left to go. This period in American history plays prominently in “Water for Elephants.” In almost every scene the circus workers are seen defying the law as they drink alcohol. In one scene August, Marlena and Jacob are drinking in a “speak easy saloon” when the cops raid the place. Marlena and Jacob escape together and get separated from August; this is when they steal their first adulterous kiss with each other.

• Adultery: The moviemakers seek to justify this wrongdoing by showing the extent of August’s horrible treatment of his wife, Marlena. Through much of the movie, Marlena attempts to resist her attraction to Jacob, but August’s viciousness worsens to the point that he actually pushes Marlena into Jacob’s arms. Jacob also struggles to do right, but his love for Marlena drives him to want to protect her from August whenever the circus owner goes into one of his out of control rages.

• Jamaican Ginger Extract: Also due to the ban against drinking alcohol at the time, one of Jacob’s circus buddies, an old man named Camel, who had come to Jacob’s aid when the young man first jumped the train, has the dangerous habit of drinking Jamaican Ginger Extract (also known as “Jake” back in the day). After years of indulging in this unhealthy so-called “patent medicine,” Camel develops a form of paralysis, as the extract actually contains a neurotoxin called Tricresyl phosphate. Camel’s sickness prevents him from any work, a kiss of death for anyone working for The Benzini Brothers Circus. Jacob tries to save Camel from being “red lighted,” but once August finds out about the bedridden Camel he has the stricken man tossed from the speeding train. Ultimately this sadistic act results in the end of August and The Benzini Brothers Circus.

• The string of “necessary” human foibles (as a cinematic device): The wanton murder of their paralyzed addicted circus buddy is more than several of the long oppressed workers can stomach. They exact their vengeance on August and his goons by releasing caged circus animals into the crowds at the height of a performance. It is during the ensuing mayhem, while the desperate circus goers seek to escape being mauled by the big cats, that the decisive act of the movie takes place. Innocent people are trampled, mauled and killed, this is when the disgruntled men murder August’s hated enforcers. So, one could say that without the desperation of The Great Depression, without Prohibition and the lawlessness it spawned, without Camel’s addiction to the toxic “Jake,” without August’s abject inhumanity, and without the forbidden love between Jacob and Marlena, the entire amazing story could not happen. Using a bit of alliteration, I guess you could say that human foibles, failings and folly make for fully fantastic fables! (Yes, I came up with that.)

One of the reasons I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie is that by the end of it, virtually every loose end is taken care of. Every bad guy is dead at the hands of the good guys and not so good guys (subjecting innocent circus goers to danger and death? That is NOT good). The REALLY good guy ends up with the good gal after rescuing her, along with a very good elephant. All in all we get to see one of those “and they all lived happily ever after” endings. I LIKE that.

But not every one likes it as much as I do. In doing some post cinematic viewing research, I see that a lot of professional critics, unlike the amateur reviewer that I am, fault the onscreen relationship between Jacob and Marlena. This is decidedly unjust criticism. Evidently, what these “critics” are all clamoring for is something more passionate between the two romantic lead characters; they claim that “chemistry” is lacking between Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. I say bunk to that. When I watched them together I appreciated that the director was trying to capture what it feels like to be in a forbidden adulterous relationship. What these numbskull critics are doing, if you ask me, is projecting modern values on a time when doing such a thing would have made the participants extremely uncomfortable. THAT 1930’s discomfort and angst is what I believe was well captured by Pattinson and Witherspoon. Once again, being the contrarian that I am, the thing hated MOST by the professional reviewers is what I liked THE most. Besides, when you look at Pattinson’s so-called onscreen “chemistry” with Kristen Stewart in the Twilight series, it is not a whole lot different. And truthfully, I’m still a bit mystified by exactly what they are referring to when these supposed experts refer to “chemistry.”

At the end of “Water for Elephants,” despite my determination not to, I misted up. It starts in the last few minutes of wrap-up when, back in modern times, we learn that Jacob, Marlena and Rosie have led a long and fruitful life together resulting in a slew of children, and that the two original “girls,” Marlena and Rosie, have both long since passed on, leaving Jacob behind.

What put me over the edge, taking me from tight-throat swallowing to full-blown teary blinking, is when Jacob asks the circus boss for a job. The manager pauses for a second to consider it and then warmly responds, “Sure, why not? You’ll be one for the record books—the oldest person ever to run away with the circus!”

Old Jacob merrily responds, “No! I’m not running AWAY. I’m coming HOME!”

At that, I lost it. “Sniffle, snuffle, choke. Dang it, I got something in my eye.”

I’d held it together pretty well until that doggone Hal Holbrook as old Jacob utters that final line. Brilliant!

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