Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Have you ever re-watched a beloved film from your childhood through an adult set of eyes? It can sometimes be a maddening experience. Case in point: THE MONSTER SQUAD. I loved that film when I was a kid. Looking back on it now, as I did a few months ago when the 20th anniversary dvd was released, I saw it for what it was -- total crap. Granted, I still enjoyed it on a purely sentimental level, but I was astonished by how cheesy it was. Well, last night was a different story. I threw on Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1988 film THE BEAR (****) and was completely and utterly floored; the film is a masterpiece, one that I have an entirely new respect for, and one that I look forward to re-watching again and again as the years progress. I saw the film in the theater with my parents when I was eight years old and I remember it making an immediate impact. Naturally, I was too young to appreciate the stunning quality of the filmmaking or the boldness on the part of Annaud to be as subversive as possible within the kids film genre. Back then, all that resonated was the sight of a cute bear cub running around and playing in the mountains. I got scared at some of the more intense moments, but what eight year old wouldn't? Now, looking at the film at the age of 27, I was just not prepared for the experience. This film is fucking INCREDIBLE. I can't think of another film quite like it. Devoid of dialogue almost exclusively and told mostly through the point-of-view of a bear cub, Annaud weaves an emotional and visceral story of love, survival, and friendship that is undeniably effective. The simple set up is this: a cub's mother dies and he is left on his own in the wild until an older male bear befriends him and protects him from a pair of hunters and the dangers of the wilderness. Working from Gerard Brach's script (which is based on a novel by James Oliver Curwood), Annaud and his phenomenal cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (DANGEROUS LIASONS, BIG FISH, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) tell the story in an almost wordless fashion, resulting in some of the best visual storytelling that I've ever seen. The sweeping vistas of the Italian Dolomite mountain ranges and the Canadian Rockies (the film is set in the Rocky Mountains) are breathtaking to behold and ponder. And one shot, that of a bunch of bullets standing up right with the moon perfectly in the middle of the hollow points, is beyond description; it's one of the best single shots ever put on film. THE BEAR was shot old-school; 35 mm film (I presume) and with zero computer generated imagery (this much is clear). They made it the old fashioned way. Go out to a real location and shoot; damn the weather, damn the inconvenience. And then there are the surreal leaps of fancy that Annaud and Brach take. For instance, they imply that bears dream while they sleep, and we're treated to various dream sequences that the little cub has. Startling and fascinating, these sequences went over my head when I was a cub myself. But the film's real kicker has got to be when the cub accidentally eats some poisonous mushrooms which takes him on a psychadelic trip similar to what you might expect if you ate some "magic mushrooms." A bear tripping out. Now I have seen it all! But beyond these wacky bits, the film is about friendship, courage, and ultimately, love. At the risk of spoiling the end, here's your fair warning -- I am about to discuss the ending. After the hunters have tracked the adult bear and the cub across the forrest, and after one of the hunters survives a near-fatal run in with the adult (the scene was fucking terrifying when I saw it in the theater and is still chilling to watch now), the hunters and the bears make a quiet pact with each other to let life prevail over death. Now, fine, you could argue that Annaud and Brach have contrived their narrative to fit their own ideas about nature and man and the difficult balance that the two have always fought for. But I don't care. The mere idea that the film ends in the way it does and tells it's story in the fashion it does pleases me to no end. Upon its initial release, THE BEAR grossed roughly $32 million (per imdb.com); that'd be something like $65 million now, right? The sad fact is that if a film like THE BEAR could actually get made in today's movie climate (I don't think it could...), it'd never gross $65 million in this country. Today's kids movies are hyperactive to within an inch of their life and are pitched at the highest decibel level possible. THE BEAR is that rare children's film that works for adults in equal measure. This is a glorious film, a film I look forward to showing to my kids when that day arrives. I cried when I was eight years old and I cried last night while re-discovering this majestic work of art. If you've never seen THE BEAR, I urge you to put it at the top of your netflix queue or run down to your local dvd rental outlet and pick it up. It's a ravishing accomplishment.


Mister Rick said...

This was one of the fine films of the 80s, though I didn't cry. I did get a little weepie, but no actual tears

Actionman said...

C'mon...admit it...you cried you big softy.