Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Night at the Museum 2" & "The Incredible Paintings of Felix Clousseau"

I have a very scattered taste in movies, which sometimes leads to disbelief and guffaws from my more snobby film friends. For example, a fellow film programmer in college came over to my house for the first time, and seeing the Spy Kids 2 DVD on my shelf ( I have, and still do claim, this is a masterpiece and rRod’s best) said “Oh. You weren’t kidding.” So it will surprise no one that despite my meager Chinese salary at the moment, I paid to go see Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian on the big screen.

Now, I am not going to say that this film is on par with Spy Kids 2. This is no masterpiece (though having the Giant Jeff Koons balloon dog bounce around the Smithsonian art galleries happily for half the film is a stroke of genius). It is however, a piece of unashamed fun.
Even more than the first film, NATM2 threw in every possible exhibit
imaginable. Tuskegee Airmen, Amelia Earhart, General Custer… the list goes on and on. You could almost hear the cheers of elementary school history teachers in the background. Not to mention the cheers of the Smithsonian board: the film was literally a giant infomercial for the Smithsonian itself. There were of course some genuinely un-funny catering to the kids jokes. I could have done without the singing cupids for example (but yes Hank Azaria and his lisp were amazing). But these moments are not really what gives the movie its “fun”.

What is so nice about the Night of the Museum franchise is the
unabashed enjoyment of good old-fashioned imagination: the idea of things that we already suspect are, and wish were, alive coming to life; and the resulting wonderful chaos. This kind of chaos is portrayed as a good thing, not something to be controlled or stopped. In many ways, despite the fancy schmancy Smithsonian website and the heavy use of CG, the film’s message is very anti-technological (see the last scene of the film for example and what becomes of all Larry’s exhibit friends in the end). Larry’s (Ben Stiller’s character) dissatisfaction with his success is crystallized in his being chained to his blackberry. All the old exhibits are going to be replaced by very hollow holograms (the horror!). These days with Tickle me Elmo and all kinds of think- for-you, you-don’t- need-imagination toys, its nice to see a message encouraging imagination and the chaos that comes with creativity and play. The advice of Amelia Earhart (played by Amy Adams) to Larry to just have fun, is almost a message to the audience. The film is less a movie about the suspension of disbelief and more about belief itself. It is a giant “What if?” What if you had a magic tablet that made everything come to life? What would it be like? It is the child’s version of fantasy dinner party.

As a pairing, I actually suggest a book. One of my all time
favorites: The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by John Agee. It tells the story of a man who paints pictures that come to life. His paintings, as long as they remain contained are lauded, but as soon as they begin to misbehave and cause chaos, Clousseau is thrown into jail. Like with NATM2, the chaos that creativity creates is treated as something to be contained by the rest of the world but something to be cherished by the hero of the story.

We all know that
paintings cannot “actually” come to life. But I like to think that the best paintings create a world that we feel as if we could dive into. Just as the best history books make us feel (if not wish) to travel back in time to participate in historic battles and events. It is nice for once to not be reminded of the restraints of reality and be encouraged to imagine a world in which one can dive in and out of paintings and worlds and not worry about "real world" consequences. So for all you film snobs out there: you used to be kid. Remember?

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