April 15, 2013

Wife's Choice: EMPIRE OF THE SUN With A Side Of Angry Split Pea Soup


"It's at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out.  In between it's like a country club."
I feel like my articles are starting to get a tad dry.  A lot of talking about the films' substance and not so much about the actual experience of watching them.  That will certainly be the case more often than not, but I also want this writing to be personal, to talk about what I'm bringing to the table and how the movie actually affects me, if at all.  I don't want this to become some kind of angst ridden personal journal, but this whole thing is a journey and the details of traveler are just as important as the locations he visits.

When I first set out on this adventure, I mentioned the importance of context.  The circumstances surrounding a screening as well as the emotional state of the viewer can often influence the viewing experience for better or for worse.  For example, while I recognize and understand that The Butterfly Effect starring Ashton Kutcher is not a good movie, I still have a soft spot for it.  Why?  Well first of all, I love movies that have a science fiction premise or backdrop but are really focused on simple human drama.  (Better examples of that concept would include Donnie Darko, Safety Not Guaranteed and Another Earth.)  More importantly, the theatrical cut ends with the hero sending himself back in time to prevent him from ever becoming friends with the girl he loves, because he knows it will mean a better life for her in the end*.  The first time I saw it was with the girl I'd been dating all through college and it was at a moment in time when we both knew that life was taking us in different directions.  The way we felt about each other hadn't changed, but it would soon become logistically impossible to for us to stay together.  This mediocre (at best) movie suddenly made me wonder if it wouldn't be better to just break up sooner rather than later.  Was it really worth staying together for another six months knowing that our relationship had an expiration date?  It led to a long conversation that night, and we eventually broke up and got back together (twice I think) before we finally split up for good.  The movie itself and the end of that particular relationship are now inextricably linked in my head; whenever I think about The Butterfly Effect, I think of that night with her.

It's within that context that I have to discuss Empire Of The Sun, Jamie's selection for this week's Wife's Choice.  Usually I watch her picks on Wednesday night while she's off at French class, but this week I had a friend in town for one night, so I delayed Empire until Thursday night when we'd both be home.  Jamie's a second grade teacher and we were coming up on the end of the quarter as well as spring break, meaning that she had a mountain of grading to complete and her students were getting antsy.  Suffice it to say, she was a little stressed.  The night started off innocently enough, as we caught up on some stuff from the DVR and munched on some cheese, crackers and soppressata, a popular snack in our home.  I'm not going to go into the details of what happened next except to say that we ended up getting in a big fight about dishes, cooking, listening and time management, among other subtexts.  I don't mean to make this sound like we got in some kind of a serious knock-down drag-out; it was basically your typical domestic argument, the kind of fight that, after a few days you forget what you were even arguing about.  (Literally, it's been a week since then and when I showed this to Jamie she'd forgotten that we'd even had a fight.)  It all ended with Jamie slamming the bedroom door and me reheating a pot of split pea soup that would eventually go uneaten. All this when I was about seven minutes into the film.

Most people probably wouldn't want to sit down and watch a movie after all of that, certainly not a two and a half hour war story about POWs living in terrible conditions next to a Japanese military base. Then again, when it comes to cinema, I'm not most people.  I often find movies to be very centering, a good way to focus my energy and attention when I'm stressed out, angry or depressed.  I once got in a fight with an ex-girlfriend, stormed out of a restaurant, and immediately walked into the theater next door just to calm myself down before going home.  (Thus Dopamine is another marginal film that has left an indelible mark ala The Butterfly Effect.)

Once I finished with the destined-to-be-neglected soup (the smell of peas makes me vomit) I settled back onto the couch and got back into Spielberg's WWII epic.  I'm not gonna lie, the beginning is pretty slow and, in the emotional state I was in, I found it a little hard to engage.  Granted it's not a setup that the majority of audiences is super familiar with, that of many western Europeans living in China on the eve of Japanese occupation, so I understand the desire to take time properly setting the scene.  But still, it seems to take forever just to get into gear.  Once John Malkovich and Joey Pants show up things get a little better, but it's not until they arrive at the Soochow prison camp (and the film literally jumps forward a few years) that it really takes off.  Malkovich and his crew of American prisoners (including a very young Ben Stiller) are simply great, and it's easy to see why Christian Bale's Jim would worship them the way he does.

Oh yeah.  I haven't mentioned it yet but the main character, Jim, is played by an 11 year old Christian Bale in his first big starring role.  He plays a young boy who gets separated from his parents and ends up with a Fagin-like drifter in a Japanese prison camp.  The kid is a survivor and despite his posh upbringing he's soon got the run of the camp, knowing exactly how to play everyone to keep himself and those he cares about living comfortably, relatively speaking.  Unsurprisingly, Bale's amazing.  He gives one of the most riveting performances I've ever seen and he hadn't even hit puberty yet.  Seriously, the guy's talent is just unreal.  I basically walked into this movie completely cold, not realizing who was in it, what it was about, or even that it was directed by Spielberg.  Having 25 years of hindsight, it's easy to see why these guys are still enjoying phenomenal success.

Anyway, like I said at the top, I didn't want to spend a lot of time analyzing the film itself.  It's very good, but I wouldn't call it great.  Much like Titanic, I think you could cut about 30 minutes from the first half to make a much tighter story.  Spielberg can shoot the hell out of a movie (no shit) and Empire Of The Sun was his followup to The Color Purple, marking the beginning of his shift towards grand scale, awards-bait films.  However, the stuff in Soochow still retains a lot of Spielberg's trademark pulpy adventure sensibility and there are certainly a few lines and images that will stay with me in the future.

Only time will tell if the memory of split pea soup fades away.**



*The director's cut, which is bonkers, ends with Ashton Kutcher sending himself back to the womb to strangle himself with his own umbilical cord.  Seriously.

**To be clear, I'm not implying that Jamie and our fight "ruined the movie" for me.  But I'm fascinated by the way that movies can trigger specific memories, instantly transporting us back to a time and place that may have been long forgotten.  Right now I can't think of Empire without thinking of that fight.  I'm sure that months from now that will change, if only because the fight itself didn't carry tremendous weight or long-term implications.  Memory is weird that way.

---------------------------------------
Title: Empire Of The Sun
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Phillips, Miranda Richardson, Ben Stiller
Year Of Release: 1987
Viewing Method: DVD