Sunday, October 02, 2005

Esprit de "Corpse"

SPOILER WARNING! I will be discussing crucial plot points of the showy mediocrity known as "Corpse Bride." If you have any desire to view this lame film, best come back after doing so.

After loving the sweet and whimsical darkness of "Nightmare Before Christmas," I was excited for the release of the new Tim Burton Clay-cgi-mation picture. Burton is not one to held prisoner by outdated notions of life and death (not the way he is to the happy, vacant conventions of American cinema anyway - but more on that later).

The movie was disappointing. Not funny, no memorable tunes, not really worth watching at all.

One of the film's main Burtonisms is that life is like a boring black-and-white film, while death is like living in New Orleans. This paradigm impressed many reviewers, though none I read thought to point out the curious, unintentional irony that hurricane Katrina brings to the matter. At one point the dead come to the world of the living, bringing the party with them and really livening the place up. This does create a bit of a poignant moment, for rather than terrorizing the living, the event joins together loved ones long separated by death and intervening years. For the dead remain quite themselves, and though their flesh has dissipated, their spirits still burn bright within the vacant confines of their skulls and they yearn for their dearly un-departed as much as they are yearned for.

And the moment provides a happy inversion for those who put their love, faith, and trust in others: The characters who suffered the harshest loss and sorrow in days past find themselves the happiest at seeing the dead, while those who have never invested any love in another soul are merely frightened.

Still, I am quite disappointed that none of these fun-loving dead thought to make a jape of shambling around moaning "brainnnnnssss." Ah, missed opportunities.

The whole thing sounds like a real flight of fancy, I am sorry to say that it wasn't. Perhaps Mormon sensibilities are a hedge against enjoyment of Burton's vision. Our own contrast of the lone and dreary world compared to the nonstop party of Celestial glory keeps a "the dead have all the fun" paradigm from seeming terribly creative.

As I am wont to do when disappointed by a film, I imagined how I might have done it better. As Victor prepares to marry the dead woman while the living fiancee prepares to marry a money-hungry killer, I thought the film's denouement would be set up with the living bride crashing the dead wedding as a newly minted corpse, murdered by her new husband on their wedding night. Wouldn't it be a pickle! And such a shift in circumstance - for then Victor would love two dead women, and would then really have to choose between the dull, comfortable familiarity of life and the women he loves. Immortality and polygamy become unerringly bound together.

That's not how it went, more's the pity. For, though the evil seldom win out in cinema, all too often do they do so in real life. In this film there was the opportunity to show that even when evil triumphs over good, they cannot do anything of lasting consequence to the good and innocent. Death would put them beyond the power of greed and avarice.

But it's not that kind of movie. Burton is not faithful to his storytelling paradigm, choosing instead for a very cheerful, very American conclusion where some eternal rule not previously mentioned allows the corpse bride to de-complicate the love triangle by changing into...butterflies...I guess, who wing off into the whiteness of elevated eternal life. We must take for granted that this is an improvement for the corpse bride, though how will she play the piano anymore?

Burton also takes for granted the rules of the world he's created. When the dead carry off the newly-deceased murderer Count, he kicks and screams in horror. Why? He's dead too, what can they do to him. A fate worse than death? It would have to be, I suppose. Or something even worse than that.

At the end, the happy couple goes back to their wretched world, to be married and mousily beholden to their wretched relatives. The whole thing's quite pointless. So much could have been said about the trials and misery of mortality, and a thin morality tale about repressed Victorians taking all the fun out of life is a rather saccharine substitute. I think Burton has it backwards. The dead have very little to worry about, being dead and all. Nothing stops them from filling their existence with carefree trivialities. It takes a particular kind of courage to live life cheerfully, risking pain and regret all the while.

(And anyway, the best statement that could ever be made about being dead was already made, by the dead man Arnold J. Rimmer on the television program Red Dwarf: " like going on holiday with a group of Germans.")

(I know "Esprit de corpse" is the most dull, unpunniest pun ever - switching the final word from one language to another isn't such a creative leap - so don't bother bringing it up.)

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