Thursday, September 4, 2014

Revisiting 1991's Hook, the Most Important Bad Movie of My Life

There are few movies that I liked better as a child than Hook, and there are also few movies that were bigger debacles in the careers of great directors. Steven Spielberg regards Hook as the worst movie he's ever made, and he's embarrassed to even watch it now. Roger Ebert panned it, along with most other major critics. The movie made money, but also fell hugely short of expectations.  All of the film education I've given myself as an adult should have prepared me to see it for the failure it is, and yet I can't. I acknowledge that huge chunks of it are an unmitigated disaster. The sets and production design are terrible. They make Neverland look like it was designed during Michael Jackson's worst kind of sleepover. The final set piece of the Lost-Boys-versus-pirates-war is reprehensibly cheesy. Dustin Hoffman gives what might be the worst performance of his career, so overacted that the titular character is turned into a Looney Tunes parody. It takes waaaaaaay too long to get us the hell to Neverland, spending almost 40 minutes with a cell phone as the movie's breakout star. And yet, there's so much magic here bubbling up from all of the bad decisions. 

The great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said that a bad film by Jean Renoir (who he regarded as the greatest filmmaker ever) was far more interesting than a good film by a lesser director. The takeaway is that hugely talented people reveal something to us through their failures that's still fascinating, and those failures allow us to see their genius in interesting ways. And so it is with Spielberg's Hook. Spielberg is not an art-house auteur, but he's almost inarguably the greatest mass-audience filmmaker of all-time. He's the auteur of the people. One thing Spielberg is fantastic at, even when everything else is going wrong, is making his audience (i.e.: everyone) feel the magic. There's a scene in Hook when the adult Peter first encounters the Lost Boys, and they refuse to believe he's their former leader. Peter doesn't believe it himself, until one particularly young Lost Boy dares to look past the obvious and find the extraordinary. 

Everything about this scene works. The lighting, the incredibly subtle and powerfully nostalgic John Williams score that envelops us in crashing emotion at just the right moment, the silly-putty ability of Robin Williams' face and the look of confusion in his eyes, and the excitement on the faces of the rest of the Lost Boys as they receive their first indication that maybe this really is Peter Pan. I have seen this scene dozens and dozens of times--I just watched it another three times while writing this--and it has never failed to give me goosebumps. But something that took me a long time to realize is that it's not the story that's giving me goosebumps. Even as a child, it wasn't my desire to believe in Peter Pan that was having a physical reaction on my arms and the back of my neck. It was the filmmaking. This is just a marvelously executed moment that figures out how to sell the viewer on a world of magic without actually showing or mentioning any. 

Hook has a handful of moments like this. Dustin Hoffman, for however bad the bulk of his performance is (and to be fair to him, it's a terribly written part that he had no way to save) still manages to give one of the film's best moments. When Hook is first confronted with an adult Peter Pan that doesn't remember who he is, Hoffman gets very close to him, slowly pulls down his glasses, and in an exaggerated voice that sounds like half-southern drawl and half-British aristocracy, calmly says "Can it really be you, my great and worthy opponent?" Spielberg's camera is so close to the faces in this moment that we're basically analyzing the rings on their cheeks to determine age, and Hoffman draws out the word "opponent" as though he's trying to fill up the time quota in high school speech class. And it works. It's another mini-moment of magic. 

In Roger Ebert's list of the best movies of 2005, he wrote of King Kong, "If movies like this didn't delight us with the magic of cinema, we'd never start going in the first place." That quote has stuck with me because I'm fascinated by the origins of ideas. Loving certain disciplines and fields might be something that we're biologically predisposed to do (maybe), but even if that's the case, the predisposition still has to get fertilized. Maybe the genetic raw matter swirling about my head suggests that I was likely to fall in love with film as an art form, but something still had to trigger it into action. I've always told people that my two film Eureka! moments were seeing Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in theaters when I was thirteen, and that those two movies awakened in me my love and appreciation for cinema. But I realize now that's only a partial truth. After all, if something in me hadn't already been awakened, then I wouldn't have been seeking out movies like that as a thirteen-year old. The more and more the idea marinates in my head, I think Hook might have been my Eureka! movie. Even if I now see it as a movie whose flaws heavily outweigh its attributes, its still those attributes that speak loudest to me. Amidst everything Spielberg did wrong in Hook, his natural talent for selling the magic of cinema found ways to shine through. 

About two thirds of the way through, there's a truly awful extended sequence of Captain Hook teaching the other pirates how to play baseball, to try and win sway over Pan's son. Every time I watch the movie, I just want the scene to end. Nothing about it works. But the ending of that scene directly leads to Peter's own Eureka! moment, when he remembers who he is. This is where Robin Williams is at his best. I re-watched Hook most recently the day after Williams died, and it was this scene that most struck me. Hook is both the best and worst role of Williams' career. On the one hand, it's perfect for him, because he plays a character that's supposed to be an eternal child. On the other hand, this specific movie saddles him with being a boring adult for the vast majority of the run time. It's sort of meta, because the viewer is trapped with Williams' fake/bad adulthood as much as the character of Peter Pan is. But it's also a waste of his strengths as an entertainer. When Peter finally seizes back his youthful identity, we see all over Williams' face how much he seems to have found his true self. It's another transcendent moment, and Spielberg nails it. Just as Williams is lost in his newfound childhood, Spielberg is visually drunk on his ability to create it. 

Of course this high can't last. Just minutes later we see the Lost Boys "armor up" for the big war, and it's easily the worst sequence of the movie. It's so bad that watching it as an adult makes you want to reach back through time and slap yourself in the face for not realizing how bad it was when you were a kid. But whatever. By that point, the movie has already won. You're still watching because the isolated moments of true greatness have permeated so deep into your desire to see high seas adventure that you can no longer be discerning about the form in which it manifests. It doesn't matter that the rest of the movie is bad, because you're still high on the moment where it briefly became everything you wanted it to be. I remember watching that scene with my mom once back when I was a kid, and I told her I didn't understand how Peter was suddenly wearing his green tights just because he remembered how to fly. My mom laughed and basically told me not to worry about it, and that characters can just do things like that in movies. I still think about that plot hole every time I watch it, and then I still heed my mom's advice and stop worrying about it. Even though they're everywhere in Hook, the flaws aren't the point. They just make the few great parts even better. 

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