Friday, February 24, 2006

Mirror Crack'd

I love Time Out for the moments of utter last moment woo it allows you. I stopped picking up the mag a year or two ago (I decided that £2 a week was too much to pay for the illusion of a cultural life) but just by chance I flicked through a copy in the office the other day. There, nestling in the also-rans in the film section, was a single line: a one off showing of Mirrormask at the NFT, followed by a Q&A with Dave McKean.

I think I may have actually squeaked out loud in the office.

Alas, on ringing for tickets the NFT tell me it's booked up. But I can queue for spares 30 minutes before doors open.

Oh yes. Yes, indeed.

Mirrormask first popped into my conciousness... ooh, years ago. I like Mr McKean's work very much - even looked into getting him to do something for the Dr Who website, only to be given a polite 'he's busy' by his agent. So the idea of a whole film done in his painterly goth-collage style was... overexciting. I'm a sucker for a pretty movie. But then it all went mysteriously quiet - a website appeared, but no release date. No advertising, no fanfare. It seems to have snuck in to the NFT by the back door, slinking through the shadows in Gaimanesque style.

I've even had the script book sitting by my bed for months - since may, in fact, when Ian bought it as a courting present. It was unread, as I didn't want to go in knowing too much about it.

So... I was pretty excited when I managed to get tickets after getting up at the hellishly early hour of ten last saturday. And then, the film.

It's great. Really. Flawed, yes, but very very lovely. It's classic Henson, too - a dark fantasy for solitary ten year old girls who don't like boy bands, and right out of the Labyrinth / Dark Crystal tradition.

From the Q&A afterwards it was clear that McKean sees the failings of the film; if anything, he was much to hard on it. Artistic training tends to teach you to criticise your work - it's how you improve - and I suspect that he was only seeing the shots-that-didn't-composite properly, or glitchy CGI. But the audience just don't see that - it's the kind of thing you only notice when you've been locked in an edit suite for two years. The audience saw a dark fairytale, unlike anything else filmed before.

Actually, the only thing it needed was a bit of ruthless exec-ing; it looses pace about three quarters of the way through, and a tiny bit of tightening up would make it a world-beater. Specifically, it doesn't need the 'Close to You' mechanical dolls section; whilst beautiful, and cool sounding on paper, it just disrupts the flow of the story, and doesn't really give any more depth to any of the characters. Alas, I get the feeling that it was the only bit that Gaiman (the co-writer) and McKean really agreed on, which is why, I assume, it made the final cut.

Gina McKee is a fantastic choice for the mother/evil queen role; she has a slightly ethereal quality which sits uneasily alongside her very real presence, which makes the transition between Mum-to-a-difficult-teen and jealous-faerie-bitch quite natural. And of course, Rob Brydon is just genius. He's so bloody affable!

But the look of the film is a triumph. I was really wondering how McKean's work would translate into motion graphics; it would be hard to maintain the level of density and constructedness in his illustration in a film setting. But it turns out his bricolage technique - compositing by any other name - is simple to translate. I asked him about the challenges of going from flat to film, and he basically said that as he works by building raw images up into a whole on a computer, it was pretty simple to extend that to see the shot footage as just more source material.

The man has a good eye, too - the direction was unobtrusive, but not pedestrian at all.

So what are the stand out images? Well, the visual density of the piece makes it hard to single anything out - it's like dipping your eyeballs in golden syrup and glitter. The Sphynx are great - they get the human-face on puppet feel of a Tony Oursler but have convincing weight and solidity in the story world. Sequences with the black Queen vomiting out darness are as disturbing as a Chris Cunningham video. Throwing down books to hitch a lift is a genius sequence, well executed. The Cities are marvellous, with a sharded, changeable feel that suits the hypnogogic imagery.

It seems a shame, then, that Sony don't seem to know what to do with the picture; how or whether to market it, or what market it's for. And it needs a cinema release; it will be beautiful on DVD, yes, but you need a twenty foot screen to appreciate the richness of the visuals

So - to sum up. An amazing opportunity to see a film that will become a lost masterpiece even before a commercial release. I feel sad that so few others got the chance to see it too.


Anonymous said...

It's getting a cinematic opening over here: March 3rd, according to the posters in the tube.

I saw it at the London Film Festival. I think the problem is that if you don't know Gaiman's work (or if you do but you've already read Coraline, which is very similar) it's hard to see what the fuss is about. Structually it felt like the kind of thing that might have been shown in four or five episodes on the BBC at 5pm on Saturday a few years ago; and it also exposes the lazy habits that a writer accustomed to the 24pp monthly comic-book format can acquire. In other words I didn't like it.

kim said...

Well... OK. I'm not at all a Gaiman groupie; if anything, I got overexcited about the film because of the combination of Henson and Dave McKean.

The bitty structure is exactly the thing that could have been tightened by better exec oversight and script editing, which is what I think the film needed, to be honest.

What is good about it, though, is the absolute purity of the visuals; it's one person's visual world, built from the ground up, and it's incredibly rare that you see that level of craft from an individual on a film.

The visual richness carries it.