A Trio of Creative Geniuses Become Fodder for Romantic Melodrama
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Seeing Edward naked might get more people into theaters than telling them to watch a drama about love, art, and betrayal with Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dali. But "Little Ashes" (opened June 5 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) takes the high road... at least in terms of it's marketing campaign.
The idea of a film about the college days in 1920s Madrid of surrealist painter Salvador Dali, poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel sounded fascinating. But Little Ashes squanders the opportunity by turning the lives of these three creative geniuses into a soapy melodrama filled with tepid sex scenes and lots of languid stares. Now it's always difficult to try and portray creative genius, and here we have three. But British director Paul Morrison and writer Philippa Goslett spend very little time trying to convey their creative genius and almost all their energy trying to craft a tender, tragic tale of forbidden love.
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Here's how Morrison describes his film in the press notes: "For me, Little Ashes is first and foremost a love story, moving and tender. This is a forbidden love between two men that moves from a silent, aching longing to one incandescent and glorious moment of promise, only to end in rejection and disillusionment."
Focusing on an aspect of Dali's life that he only began to acknowledge decades later has the potential to be interesting. But when that love story is reduced to insipid clichés and its lovers turned into one-dimensional character types all interest starts to fade away. One of the first problems is that British actors Robert Pattinson (playing Dali) and Matthew McNulty (playing Buñuel) have a hard time convincing us of who they are. Only Javier Beltrán is actually Spanish, but all three look so similar and act so sulky that in the early scenes I started having trouble telling them apart.
In turning the story into a Spanish flavored Harlequin romance Morrison misses the opportunity to weave a fascinating story about three great artists and a tumultuous period in Spanish history. Morrison says his film is "about a moment in time, about a political and personal change in a period of upheaval and reaction. This generation of young artists — Buñuel, García Lorca, Dalí — were viscerally in revolt against the forces of bourgeois conformism — church, state, army, landed aristocracy — into which they were born, and which Surrealism aimed to subvert. They allied the wild joy and exuberance of youth to the transformative role of the artist and they worked alongside the tremor of the political and social movements sweeping through Spain." In real life that's what might have been going on and that's what these artists did but we don't see it in "Little Ashes." Morrison doesn't provide the social, political, and religious context with enough force or insight. The press kit includes an interesting "Historical Context" section but little of that effectively makes it into the film.
All three men seem too wrapped up in their own personal dramas to show any interest in the world around them. Buñuel's shocking and groundbreaking "Un Chien Andalou" is reduced down to these personal terms too as Garcia Lorca takes the film as a direct insult to him (since he was Andalusian). Now while that information has tabloid appeal the film was about far more than that and to treat it so tangentially and simplistically again is another opportunity lost.
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Morrison has trouble with even the simplest of things like García Lorca reading his poems. The film is entirely in English yet when he reads his poems he speaks Spanish and Morrison then overdubs with the actor translating into English. Why? We lose the beauty of hearing the poems in their original language and the overdub in English just reminds us of the artifice involved. Why not subtitle the poems so we can appreciate García Lorca in his native tongue? Morrison tells a story about three of the boldest, most audacious talents in the art world and then insults them by chronicling their lives in such mundane, conventional fashion. I'm sure all three are rolling in their graves or maybe they're having a good laugh. Either way the incongruity is monumental. At least Julie Taymor attempted to find a cinematic style and level of inventiveness to match her subjects of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Her film Frida was flawed but at least it erred on the side of ambition and it did find moments of inspiration that allowed us insight into the artists. "Little Ashes" never finds such moments. We see little of the creative process, little of the finished works, and little of the artists' interaction with the world around them (we don't get a sense of how radical their works were and the effect their art had on audiences and society).
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Pattinson's notoriety as Edward in the recent "Twilight" movie doesn't help him here. I don't know if this project shot before of after "Twilight" but it allows Pattinson to show he's not confined to vampire roles but he uses about the same emotional range and languid, hooded-eye stares. He displays a bit more skill here but the script is so thin I'm not sure anyone could have really made the part work. Even sulkier is Beltran with McNulty adding some homophobic storming about. None deliver anything remotely approaching a fully fleshed out character.
"Little Ashes" (rated R for sexual content, language and a brief disturbing image, and in English and Spanish) goes beyond mere disappointment as it insults the artistry of these three men with its trite tale. I'm sure everyone involved felt they were paying the utmost respect to these artists but in this case intentions get you nowhere.
Companion viewing: "Vincent and Theo," "Un Chien Andalou," "Mysterious Skin"
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