Monday, May 31, 2010
Friday, May 28, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Early in Mad Love (d. Karl Freund), an audience is seen watching Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) performing in a Grand Guignol play, in which she appears as "The Torturee". This crowd is there to hoot at the wild, over-the-top grotesqueries of what happens on stage, but one woman finds it all too horrible, and buries her face in her husband's shoulder.
Because the play is not being taken seriously by anybody else, nor was it intended to be, the woman's emotions are found to be amusing by her husband and by the people around her..
Later, Freund will imply that Yvonne Orlac's "Torturee" has been burned by a hot poker somewhere below frame, as it were, and Peter Lorre's obsessive Dr. Gogol, in his usual box seat at the theater, reacts in a way that implies he wishes he were that hot poker. So who's reaction makes more sense: the woman, or her husband? Mad Love will continue on to reach heights of high Gothic absurdity -- which I mean as a compliment -- that might elicit from its viewers the kind of hoots that most of the Paris crowd was directing at Yvonne Orlac's play, and those hoots will have been anticipated by the filmmakers. It will also present, in Lorre's Gogol, one of the truly unique and most unnerving characters in horror films.
All of which makes the choice to drop that shot of the woman cowering against her husband an interesting one. I've mentioned before my interest in horror movies and literature that explore the genre itself as the source of our unease. I can't quite twist Mad Love into enough knots to make it that kind of film, but the woman's disturbance, and the way it differs from the rest of the audience, isn't there for no reason.
As a genre, horror, at least on film, has devolved into something that we're not supposed to take seriously, and to shrink from it (never mind actually objecting to it) is met with anything from mild to severe derision. Or gentle patronizing, which is what the woman's husband offers her. None of it's real, he reasons, and besides that it's all too absurd. He thinks this while overhead a small bald man with protruding eyes who has never experienced love is having his warped headspace filled with the theatrical images below, images that will keep him going until they're taken away. At which point he'll begin to bust loose.
Taking things seriously, no matter how absurd they are, is not always such a bad thing. While I may not share all the same cultural tastes as her, it seems to me that the woman in the audience has a pretty healthy aversion to simulated torture (when you get right down to it, what is there to enjoy in such a spectacle?). Perhaps she's experienced enough real-life horror, or at least ordinary human unhappiness, to not want to seek it out in fiction. Perhaps her reasons are her own. Or perhaps it's the lack of horror in the rest of the crowd, less than what's on stage, that really makes her cringe.
Pull yourself far enough back, laugh in death's face too long, and you might find yourself like Rollo (Edward Brophy). Guilty, remorseless, and facing the guillotine, all he can muster by way of emotion is an admiration of the blade that will soon remove his head from his body. Push yourself far enough back from feeling anything -- because it's not real -- and that remove can extend beyond the theater, and fiction. Soon you might find it useful to apply this distance to strangers. Then to acquaintances. It becomes easier to act only for yourself. Then it becomes easier to intentionally act against others. And the distance broadens to take in friends, family. Finally yourself. Nothing matters. It's all so absurd anyway. Your body's not even your own. Soon it's as if your hands were acting of their own accord.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
This is going to be one of those lazy posts that I sometimes do. I just wanted to remind everyone that comedy doesn't often come with this much exuberant imagination, or even, well, comedy, as This is Spinal Tap. Cherish it! Watch it tonight! Also, remember: David St. Hubbins believes virtually everything he reads, Nigel Tufnel will rise above it, you should really check out Derek Smalls' new Jazz Odyssey, and Tucker "Smitty" Brown is just as God made him.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
This latter detail highlights why I won't be getting into the politics of Avatar -- or indeed any aspect of Avatar -- very deeply. The basic reason is this: while the politics are there in Cameron's film, and while I detest them, they are also completely moronic, barely thought out, and utterly toothless. They're also kind of an afterthought. Cameron has been kicking around the idea for this film for a very long time, or so I understand, and I doubt the Iraq War and Sept. 11 material was always on his mind. When he got around to actually making the film, he just threw everything in, getting so mixed up in the process that he credited his Sept. 11th allegory to those who were, in reality, the victims of it (the crumbling WTC, incidentally, is evoked in a scene where US forces launch a missile strike against the Na'vi's very best tree), but he never really cared about it that much. I mean, he meant it, but he didn't care about it, because James Cameron is essentially a gearhead, or a tech-geek; what matters to him is creating big worlds with big effects, the likes of which haven't been seen before (well, on movie screens, at least -- book, magazine, and album covers are another thing, because those can't move). Ultimately, and broadly, I'm ready and willing to give the political aspect of the film a pass, or ignore it, because it's clear so little effort was put into it. The only thing I really object to is being forced to notice the analogy, and then asked to not follow that analogy through to its logical conclusion, which should be self-explanatory to anyone who watches Avatar and makes note of the rooting interest Cameron wants us to take up.
But anyway! So with the politics dispensed with (in a more involved fashion than I'd planned, but oh well), what's left? Top of the line special effects, occasionally stunning imagery, all to the service of a nearly three hour film, most of which time is taken up with learning how all our brains are connected to trees' brains. Avatar is a thuddingly dull film for great stretches, with no new ideas, but some pretty great technology at its disposal. The whole film is a rehash, sometimes of classic science fiction, sometimes of Cameron's own films. Giovanni Ribisi's Parker, for instance -- the casually evil corporate goon who's behind all this -- is just a less-well imagined, boiled down version of Paul Reiser's Burke from Aliens (by the way, I've heard some people criticize Ribisi's performance, but I think he does a pretty good job of playing the character as written; it's the character as written that's the problem), and Michelle Rodriquez's tough-girl pilot, and the whole space marine thing, are from Aliens, too (and, erm, from Heinlein's Starship Troopers).
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Monday, May 10, 2010
So my idea -- and I have no idea for an actual story, just a form -- is to write a more-or-less naturalistic story about people, and their day-to-day lives, in which the horror, specifically of the supernatural variety, appears intermittently, almost as a subplot which can comment, or enhance, or color, or whatever, the more realistic story that surrounds it. Perhaps you can guess at the many pitfalls inherent in this idea, but in any case they are many, and I haven't cracked it yet.
.Conor McPherson has, though, or at least he's come awfully damn close. His new film The Eclipse (based on a story by Billy Roche, who appears in the film in a cameo role) is pretty extraordinary, in my view, in the way it uses supernatural horror as no more than one element of a story about a widower named Michael Farr (a superb Ciarán Hinds) who volunteers as a chauffer at an annual Irish literary festival. In the film, he chauffers two writers -- Lena Morelle (Iben Hjelje) and Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), the latter of whom is a particularly obnoxious and self-involved American-Irish writer who is one of the festival's big "gets". Farr also has two children who he's raising by himself since his wife's passing a few years previously, and an elderly father-in-law (Jim Norton), who lives in an nursing home. This father-in-law begins appearing to Farr as a corpse, after a short period when Farr hears strange sounds in his home, and even screams, not just outside his home, but outside, or in, Lena's hotel, as well.
These elements appear sporadically, though, and often take a back seat to Farr's relationship with the two writers. Lena is a sweet woman, a good writer who is shy of the public. Her friendship with Farr is based, in the beginning, on a shared sadness, or a haunted quality, though what specifically haunts Lena, we don't know. Lena's romantic past with Holden also comes into play, as does Holden's aggressive pursuit of her. He's married, but claims to be unhappy, and claims further that Lena brings out a kindness in him that he thought was gone, though the audience never quite notices that.
What was startling to me as I watched The Eclipse was the realization that these various threads -- the supernatural, the love triangle, Farr's strained relationship with his children, and his continued grief over the loss of his wife -- all play out in parallel, as different facets of Farr's life that never quite intersect. Both he and Lena hear a chilling scream one night, that they both try to pass off as the cry of a bird. When Farr's father-in-law appears to him as a corpse, he initially writes it off as dreams or hallucinations, until he feels he no longer can. He does not, however, hire a paranormal investigator to solve the mystery, nor does he consult occult texts. The best he can do is make a fumbling, ultimately abortive, attempt to tell Lena about it.
.What makes this film so fascinating also occasionally works against it. McPherson uses pretty standard "jump scares" for his moments of supernatural horror, and these sometimes sit uneasily with the spare, quiet naturalistic scenes (indeed, the most effective and visceral moment of horror is not supernatural at all). But if you want the supernatural to sit back a bit more, how far back do you go before this whole approach to the genre becomes too smoothed over and beige? And then that question raises another one, which is how much do you want your new horror model to be explicitly noticed as such, rather than simply as a story about these people in these situations? I don't know. Still, if the "scare" scenes in The Eclipse don't always quite work, I'm glad McPherson chose to present them so directly. The harder to ignore they are, the better.
In a way, The Eclipse brings horror back to its roots, which are the emotions of fear as they pertain to grief and mortality. This is often what supernatural horror is meant to represent, but most of the time the characters who face it are meant to wage war on it. The ending of The Eclipse will (and has already done so) elicit from audiences reactions like "That's it!?", but I think the film ends on just the right note. Farr deals with ghosts and hauntings the way the rest of us deal with our real-life fears: he learns to live with them.
The Collection Project Film of the Day:
So I'm not sure if Don't Look Now (d. Nicolas Roeg) can, or could have been, called a Brand New Thing when it came out in 1973, but it does have a connection with The Eclipse in that it's a horror film rooted in grief. In Roeg's film (based on a story by Daphne du Maurier), the grief is being suffered by a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who lost their daughter. They travel to Venice in an attempt to rejuvenate themselves psychologically and emotionally, but are haunted by a small, fleeting figure in a red raincoat that resembles their daughter, and by unnerving psychics, and by Venice itself.
The Eclipse carries with it more than a whiff of hope; Don't Look Now does not. Also unlike McPherson's film, Roeg's is relentlessly stylized, and the oppressive atmosphere of doom is close to relentless. Where Farr seems to reach some sort of level ground by not seeking answers, Sutherland and Christie's John and Laura Baxter doggedly pursue an explanation that might bring them closure, or an ability to breathe cleanly again, free of the mourning that chokes them. What it brings them instead is unimaginable horror, a fresh kind, that leaves one of them spending their final moments of life gasping and gawping like a beached fish, and both of them further away from peace than ever before.
Friday, May 7, 2010
You're on your way home from work, or maybe to a bar to unwind. .
A guy comes running into the mostly empty street, a haggard-looking guy who forces you to stop your truck. He throws open your passenger door and gets in.
.He wants you to just drive. He has a gun, but he says he won't hurt you. Why'd you have to drive this way tonight? You don't want trouble.
You don't know what to say to this guy. Then:
You don't know what happened, but you're gone. You can't have any time to think, because there is no time. If you could, you might wonder why the guy with the gun sitting next to you gets to home tonight, but you don't.
The Coen brothers are often accused of not liking their characters, or mocking them, or any number of other related things. So why, in No Country for Old Men, when this nameless truck driver gets shredded by shotgun blasts simply because he stopped driving for a few seconds, do I feel it so deeply? In a way I can't define or describe, the Coens make these random killings in their films -- of which there are plenty -- truly hurt. Perhaps its because the worlds they create are so precisely realized that nobody you see feels like an extra, even if you never hear them speak.
If we laugh at this stuff (but who laughs at this man's death? Anyone?), as the Coens are often reprimanded for forcing us to do, whose fault is it? In Fargo, when Carl Showalter is peeling out of the parking garage after his ransom drop with Wade Gustafson has gone horribly wrong, we see the parking lot attendant asking for Carl's ticket, and we laugh. Why? Because in the midst of this monstrous behavior, this idiot is actually being polite? Because we think he's goofy looking, and we're secretly all bullies?
When Jerry Lundegaard drives by that attendant's post later in the film, and we see that the man is dead, that Carl has shot him, nobody laughs. We didn't know him, didn't even know his name, but Carl shot him, for no good reason. Whatever's wrong with us, whatever it is that makes us laugh at people who don't deserve it, the Coens have a way of bringing that out of us, and then cutting right through it.
At least half the work that went into this post was done by Greg Ferrara, of the currently, but hopefully not permanently, idle Cinema Styles. Thanks for the screengrabs, pardner.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
They're having a day out, the three of them. Months of deep, familial strain are easing off Honora's shoulders as she enjoys her day with her daughter. This big day includes a bus ride, which pauses at one point so the passengers can refresh, and get something to eat. Honora, her daughter, and Juliet go to a cafe, and eat from a trey of little cakes. Honora is enjoying them very much, but isn't sure she should eat more, due to a conflicting desire to watch her weight. Juliet and Pauline urge her to treat herself, because they know that her waistline could not be more irrelevant. Honora doesn't need to worry about that, or anything, anymore, because this day, that Honora has been smiling and laughing through, jubilant over finally feeling some affection from her daughter again, has been planned by the two young girls as the day that Honora will die. Which she does, by their hands. The murder itself is awful, because Jackson gets across not only Honora's fear and pain, but her confusion, as well, which is a state of mind that in some contexts can be the saddest thing in the world.
What makes me so angry about this murder, more than pretty much any other murder I've seen in a film, is that these two monstrous girls, Pauline in particular, don't know what they're throwing away with this imperfect but still good-hearted woman whose skull they're going to crush with stones. And they don't realize how deeply cruel the kindness they think they're showing Honora in her final moments really is. The bone-deep selfishness, if that word is even anywhere strong enough, of Pauline and Juliet is breathtaking.
I hate watching these scenes so much that I rarely want to watch Heavenly Creatures at all, as great a film as I think it is. It is, in my view, the best film Peter Jackson has ever made that isn't Lord of the Rings. I just can't bear watching that poor woman end her days like that.
Hell of a post as a lead-up to Mother's Day, isn't it? Well, I'll try to lighten things up by then.