January 4, 2010

Dead girl metaphysics and the prog rock beyond: The Lovely Bones

Funny this: everyone has been making a fuss about how James Cameron’s brave new world of Pandora turned out to be something cooked up by Yes sleeve designer Roger Dean in the early 70s but no one seems to have told Peter Jackson that the land-between-life-and-death visions in his film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones look like the worst ideas Storm Thorgerson never had. If that Lovely Bones image of giant ships in bottles crashing into a beach isn’t an Alan Parsons Project album cover waiting to happen, then I don’t know what is.

But seriously: in its bizarre tonal inconsistencies, Jackson’s much-vaunted return to human-scale realism after four oversized fantasy remakes is less the Heavenly Creatures flipside – getting inside the teen-girl mind through the murdered this time not the murderer – than a revisit of The Frighteners, still Jackson’s worst film. Both Frighteners and Bones are clumsy mixes of the supernatural, the sentimental and the comic. But this one is a little more persuasive thanks to some emotional investment in the core relationship – the killer (Stanley Tucci done up like a pervert out of central casting as George Harvey) and the killed (Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon) with effective acting by Ronan especially, working alone with just the effects team for the most part. But Jackson’s afterlife imagery, removed from any obvious religious or metaphysical system, is twee and literal – and when not literal, meaningless – with the dead Susie acting as detached and awestruck observer of the cosmic wonders around her (meaning that both this and Avatar have metaphors for their own consumption built into them: central characters as audience surrogates and fellow consumers) while the terrestrial scenes are strangely lightweight. This is a murder film with no body, no funeral and no tangible sense of grief. Back in the Salmon house in suburban Pennsylvania, life just kinda goes on. Nothing happens until all of a sudden something does. It’s weirdly indirect: for the most part, it seems to be doggedly not about the rape and murder of a teenage girl or even the mind and motives of a killer, or the Salmon family's dysfunction.

Or do we have it all wrong? Last month, it was reported that the wide US release on January 15 will follow disappointing early reviews and word of mouth that have caused a quick rethink of the marketing: now the target is the teen-girl audience. When I read that report, a film that had struck me as a failure suddenly took on a new dimension. This kind of treacly, morbid and fantastic material -- and I should add that “morbid” has never been a pejorative in my book -- is teen-girl catnip and you can see its characters working at some archetypal level for that audience: the evil neighbour, the doting dad, the remote mother, the nutty grandma, the loyal sister. Also, something in the sad roll-call and reunion of murdered girls near the end of the film tells you that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens might have their fingers on the pulse of some quality of teen-girl morbidity, especially as they set the scene to that classic ‘80s weepie, This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song to the Siren”. These days, teen-girl sorrow and sensationalism is the vein mined very profitably by Stephenie Meyer, while in my day they were all about the sickly novels of Virginia Andrews – maybe Walsh was reading that stuff while Jackson was unravelling the mysteries of progressive rock album covers. We may never find out how Jackson really feels about having his grown-up would-be art film re-angled by the studio but he might just have made an accidental teen-girl cult classic. Who knows -- they might even like the cutesy topiary animals and the leaves that turn into birds and back into leaves.

Speaking of morbid, some news that could be a sequel to
this -- RIP Rowland S Howard.