Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blogathon Ahoy!


Boy, it's been a while since we've had one of these, isn't it? Feels that way, at least. Maybe it's just that it's been so long since anybody bothered to tell me about one of these. Okay, I see how it is.

But I'll get my revenge later. For now, it's important to focus on the topic at hand, which is a Nicholas Ray blogathon, hosted by the effervescent Tony Dayoub, of the great blog Cinema Viewfinder. Ray, as I'm sure you're all aware, was one of the giants of mid-century Hollywood filmmaking, and he is as worthy a subject for a blogathon as you'd imagine. So why don't you all take part? Head on over to Tony's place and read the details. You should know, though, that I plan on taking part in this one myself, so don't you go picking the movie I'm going to write about, or else I will punch you so hard.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What Has Been Must No Longer Be


This coming Tuesday, Criterion will be releasing to discs that bear certain striking similiarities. One is a re-release of Jean Cocteau's magnificent Orpheus from 1950, and the other is the complete works, meager in number though they unfortunately are, of Jean Vigo, the French filmmaker who died at age 29 from tuberculosis, shortly after the release of what naturally turns out to be the centerpiece of the Criterion set, his one feature length film, L'Atalante. So yes, both are French and end with with the word "Fin", but would you believe it goes beyond that?

Cocteau's Orpheus begins with narration explaining that the film is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euryidce -- her death, his journey to the Underworld to save her, her release from death on the condition that Orpheus may never look at her, and the consequences of doing so -- and that while this telling may seem modern, it can be understood to have taken place and any time, and any place. (A minot point, maybe, but I like the fact that Cocteau's Orpheus and Eurydice, played respectively by Jean Marais and Marie Dea, are simply named "Orpheus" and "Eurydice". I can easily imagine a modern retelling of the myth in which the lead character's name is "Orville Pheus", or something equally ridiculous.) What's interesting about Cocteau's film is how it reveals to us that Orpheus and Eurydice's marriage is weak at its core, and that for Orpheus the Underworld beckons, because he has fallen in love with, literally, Death itself, or herself (Maria Casares). But all of the tragedy and most, though by no means all, of the heartbreak that accumulates as Orpheus goes along is reversed, so that passion is replaced by a fresh ignorance. As happy endings go, it's not that happy, though the alternative is impossibility.

The brilliance of Cocteau's film is the easy touch of his fantasy -- these elements of the film have a floating quality that reminded me of the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound, but without that ruthless explanation of every little bit of weirdness. Plus it just looks great -- the shot of Orpheus and Heurtebise (Francois Perier), Orpheus's guide to the Underworld, falling sideways along a wall is seamless, and might well have been the inspiration for the best scene in Nolan's Inception, the zero gravity hallway fight.

L'Atalante doesn't contain any actual fantasy elements, though it does have its share of strange imagery. Such as:


I mean, that's not normal. And even in the 9 minute Taris, which is a mix of documentary, instructional film, and promotional piece for chamption French swimmer Jean Taris uses the same film-reverse technique featured more hauntingly by Cocteau in Orpheus. More to the point, though, is the fact that Vigo's last film -- and the Criterion set also includes Vigo's gently If...-like Zero for Conduct, which at 44 minutes is the second-longest film Vigo made; as well as two shorts, Taris and A Propos de Nice -- also depicts the collapse of a romance, only to see it rebuild in the final moments. Not just that, but Jean Daste', who plays the jealous groom, works and lives on a river barge, which is a stinking job, and a weird world for Dita Parlo as Juliette, the bride, to find herself in. Though barge-life is not presented as sinister, there is an underworld, or Underworld, quality to it all (shipmate Michel Simon's puppet show is, perhaps inadvertantly, kind of terrifying), though both bride and groom seem able to exist there together. It's when the regular world breaks in that jealousy and the desire for what you don't have, start to shake Jean and Juliette apart.

In both Orpheus and L'Atalante, an unpleasant, unhappy, and undesirable world set far apart from what most of us know, and as a place where dreams come true -- both films are surprisingly pro-death -- while simultaneously stealing away every other part of your life.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Disaster!

Boy, what a piss-thin week of blogging, am I right folks? More like hogging, because I’m hogging my free time by watching Game of Thrones, not by…not by blogging. Maybe this lack of writing has been for the best.

I do have my reasons, not that you care. But just in case you’re curious, there was, you know, just this little thing called an earthquake! I even felt it! I was at work, and I was like “What?” So I’ve been rattled about that, plus, less hilariously, this weekend promises a little thing called a hurricane, sort of almost smack dab where I live. I am not looking forward to this. Not that I fear for my safety or anything – I did just survive an earthquake, after all -- but because there’s an excellent chance I’ll have no power for a day or two. Boo hoo, yes, I know, children are dying somewhere, but if there’s one positive aspect to all those global tragedies, it’s that they have very little impact on my blog. I was watching the news recently and there was this terrible disaster over in, I don’t know, let’s say New Zealand, loads of dead kids everywhere, and I said to my wife “Well, at least my blog’s okay.” Because without perspective, I do believe I would go mad.

The same cannot be said in the case of Hurricane (pronounced “hurri-kin”) Irene. Her ferocious winds will not increase my blogging productivity in any way. This concerns me, in an actual sense, because I have a couple of obligations in this arena that I have to make good on in the coming days. In order to do so, I’m going to have to hastily reshuffle some things (or be less lazy for one day), see what I can churn out on short notice before losing power (which I regard as an inevitability), then hide under the bed and hope for the best.

At least I’ll be able to crank James McMurtry’s “Hurricane Party” up on the ol’ iPod and say “Exactly. That’s exactly right. Hurricanes and so forth. Yes."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

For We Are Many

What people don’t think about when they think about the Exorcist movies is that there are five of them. They don’t think that the Saw films exceed Exorcist films by only one. They don’t now consider that the new Final Destination movie actually makes that franchise even with the Exorcist series. The reason that no one regards the five Exorcist films as any kind of regular horror franchise must be because the sequels, as an extension of the Friedkin/Blatty original, are so wildly scattershot. William Peter Blatty is the original creator, and he only sanctions two of the four follow-ups: Exorcist III, which he wrote and directed himself, and which, regardless of the studio imposed ending, still bears his unmistakable, oddball Catholic stamp; and Dominion, the 2003 prequel written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr and directed by Paul Schrader. That leaves John Boorman’s batshit Exorcist II: The Heretic and Renny Harlin’s alternate universe prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning (clever!) unaccounted for.
The battle (a tad grand, I know) between those films Blatty approves of and those he doesn’t is at the root of the series’ let’s-try-this-again awkwardness, and apparently constant state of reboot. This is true even if Blatty, specifically as a figure making these movies, outside of his role as the creative force behind Exorcist III, doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that Blatty wrote the original novel and, years later, a sort-of sequel called Legion, which followed Boorman’s film and acted as though – and quite rightly, too – it never existed. So it would follow that Blatty’s own film adaptation of Legion would ignore Exorcist II (and would carry over only supporting characters from the original, unless you count Jason Miller’s Father Karras, which you can, but also can’t, depending on how you feel). What matters is in 2002 or 2003, the studio that hired him looked at Paul Schrader’s Dominion and were, for some bizarre reason, so put off by what they saw that they scrapped the post-production and turned the Wisher-Carr script over to Renny Harlin(!), who rejiggered quite a bit, and ended up making a movie which tested so badly that the studio, Morgan Creek, gave Schrader a little money to finish Dominion, and then said “Fuck it, we’ll just release both.” Which is sort of admirable.

Now, clearly, none of these films would have been made if The Exorcist, the original one, hadn't been such a hit, so the desire for financial gain was the catalyst. So take that, corporations, I'm on to you. But beyond that, the artistic drive to make these sequels -- and I think it's fair to say there was more artistic drive behind most of these sequels than any of the Saw or Final Destination films -- seems to be based entirely on a misunderstanding of Blatty and Friedkin's film. Let's kick things off with some of John Boorman's comments about Exorcist II: The Heretic, made several post-mortem years later in this interview:

The film that I made, I saw as a kind of riposte to the ugliness and darkness of The Exorcist – I wanted a film about journeys that was positive, about good, essentially. And I think that audiences, in hindsight, were right. I denied them what they wanted and they were pissed off about it – quite rightly, I knew I wasn't giving them what they wanted and it was a really foolish choice. The film itself, I think, is an interesting one – there's some good work in it – but when they came to me with it I told John Calley, who was running Warner Bros. then, that I didn't want it. "Look," I said, "I have daughters, I don't want to make a film about torturing a child," which is how I saw the original film. But then I read a three-page treatment for a sequel written by a man named William Goodhart and I was really intrigued by it because it was about goodness. I saw it then as a chance to film a riposte to the first picture.

To begin with, to say that The Exorcist is a film about torturing a child...fuck off. Deliverance is a film about torturing Ned Beatty. How does that feel, John Boorman? Not so good, probably. But I guess because Boorman doesn't have any Ned Beattys, he can't really feel it as intensely.
Second, and more importantly, is his implication that The Exorcist somehow isn't about positivity or goodness. Perhaps he's forgotten the ending, but Damien Karras goads the demon into leaving Regan, the young girl, and possessing him, Karras, at which point Karras sacrifices himself by jumping out a window, removing the demonic threat from the girl, and from the house. This is good. This is positive, if you understand that defeating a demon at the expense of the life of a good man is a victory, which Karras clearly believed it was. And so did Blatty, so much so that his fear that the victory inherent in Karras's sacrifice would be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just plain missed, that he would eventually recut the film, add scenes that Friedkin has taken out, for the "producer's cut" that came out in 2000. I did, and still do, believe that this was a mistake, because this version of The Exorcist simply doesn't work. But apparently Blatty was right to have these misgivings, because on the DVD commentary for Dominion, Schrader says that...well first he says that the conceit of Dominion, as devised by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, that the possessed character would be an ill person who got better while the world around him went mad, was ingenious, but a poor engine for a horror film. All this does is prove that Schrader has a depressingly narrow view of what horror can be, but never mind. What he says that's more relevant is that he wants his film, which focuses on the crisis of faith of Father Merrin (played originally by Max von Sydow in the first two films, here, and in Renny Harlin's take, by Stellan Skarsgard), to be a journey for the lead character. Presumably this journey is about Merrin for some reason getting over the hump of his crumbling faith to find God anew. Remember that. And as bit of an ancillary example, to just give some evidence that Blatty's fears were not for nothing, I'll note that Edgar Wright, in one of the DVD extras for Hot Fuzz, describes Karras's death in the original film as Regan "compelling" Karras through the window. So, Karras sacrificed nothing, and was instead murdered. This is exactly the idea that Blatty didn't want people to carry away from the film.
This sort of thing makes me wonder if the whole world hasn’t gone mad. Schrader seems to believe that the journey in Dominion – and I like his film – isn’t simply a retelling of the one in The Exorcist. In other words, Karras/Merrin loses his faith and only regains it when confronted by a cosmic evil. Oh, excuse, Karras/Merrin/and also Lamont from Exorcist II loses his faith and only etc. Every single Exorcist film revolves around a crisis of faith (or never having it and then finding it, as it’s unclear if Lt. Kinderman in Exorcist III ever believed, prior to that film’s action) that is resolved by facing off against demonic forces, yet Boorman and Schrader act like they just invented bread. This is Blatty’s whole thing – well, obviously not just his, but his own devout Catholicism has been expressed through stories that employ some variation of this idea. See also The Ninth Configuration, novel and film, in which skepticism is confronted not with an ultimate evil, but with an ultimate good. So the idea that Boorman’s film is a “riposte” is simply inane – his film is, at best, a restating.

And anyway, at least Schrader had the decency to make a good film. Boorman's is ridiculous, with a brief nice moment here and there, and a cast that seems gathered together to prove that if Friedkin could get Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn and Lee J. Cobb, then he could get Von Sydow and Louise Fletcher (more or less fresh off her Oscar win) and Richard Burton and James Earl Jones! Blatty talks about seeing Exorcist II and laughing from the beginning, though for me the journey from "This is just stupid" to actually laughing was a bit longer. I didn't find anything really hilarious in Boorman's film until Linda Blair, here about eighteen years old, starts to be sort of (but not really?) possessed again, and she makes just the cutest face:

Look! She's like a little bunny rabbit making its angry face!

So that movie didn't work, though it set the template followed by all subsequent films, save Blatty's own, in that it focuses on, or locates its secrets thereabouts, Father Merrin's life in Africa prior to the events of The Exorcist. Merrin isn't even mentioned in Blatty's Exorcist III, and my understanding is that even Jason Miller's presence in that film was enforced by the studio. Butchered ending notwithstanding, Exorcist III is a terrific film, strange and funny and genuinely frightening -- that long hallway scene with the nurse is a classic -- as well as ultimately moving, though not as hopeful as Legion, Blatty's novel (which he himself was planning to diverge from, anyway), with a strong and idiosyncratic cast headed up by George C. Scott, who reportedly loved what Blatty was going for. It really is the only sequel that counts for me, and I think it's the series' bizarre, jumbled, see-what-sticks nature that allows for that kind of disconnect from all the other films.

The backstory behind the two prequels, recounted earlier, is really sort of amazing. I've heard that Stellan Skarsgard had some reservations about repeating the role he'd just completed for Schrader under another director after Schrader was fired, but Schrader urged him to do it because what other actor would have the same story to tell? Who else has played an entire role for a basically finished film, only to be told that movie isn't cutting it, here's a new director and a reworked script, now go do it again? This would all be even more interesting if Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning had anything at all to recommend it. Harlin is sort of a punchline, but I'll freely admit that he's made some fun trash. The problem here is, nobody wanted his movie to be trash, exactly. They wanted it to be commercial, but this is The Exorcist we're talking about here, so it had to be serious. Well, apparently when Harlin goes serious, he also goes hopelessly dull. There's nothing that's even absurd enough to really justify watching it. Actually, no, there is the bit at the end when the possessed woman (Izabella Scorupco) is running through a tunnel at a stationary Skarsgard, windmilling her arms in a way that is I guess supposed to ward of Catholicism, but then just as she's about to get to Skarsgard, Catholicism punches her in the face. Killing her, I hasten to add. This would count as a botched exorcism in my view, but it ended up getting Merrin the gig in Georgetown, so I guess we all have different standards.

What's really strange is watching the Harlin and Schrader films back-to-back, because it's pretty hard to imagine what Morgan Creek saw in the Schrader film that so put them off (or that so convinced Schrader that he was somehow not making a horror film). It's well-made, just on a basic competency level, which Harlin's film can't always boast, but it's also suspenseful, eerie, mysterious, it has violence and gore, which is the sort of thing you'd imagine, not having seen either film, Morgan Creek wanted Harlin to cram back into the story, and a performance by Skarsgard that is real and moving, and actually acting. In the Harlin version, he clearly does not give a shit. The novelty that Schrader supposedly convinced him would be enough to carry him through turned out to be not so powerful, and he just wants to get through this ridiculousness. In the Schrader film, though, he cares.
And even if all these sequels are just weaker versions of what The Godfather Part II did, which was to underline all the important stuff from the first movie, Dominion approaches the ideas introduced in The Exorcist differently. Here, the demon (played by Billy Crawford) doesn't present itself as some ragged and wounded, disease-ridden creature, but as something beautiful and androgynous -- in other words, not so much Satanic as Luciferian ("I am perfection," it says at one point). There is a real Biblical, and Miltonian, power to this that could have perhaps been exploited more completely, but is certainly better and more interesting than we've gotten elsewhere. In Exorcist II, the Catholicism takes a backseat to some moronic science fiction contraption, and in the Exorcist: The Beginning, it's a plot point. But in the other three, the Friedkin, Blatty and Schrader films, the horror and the struggle with religious faith and ritual are inseparable. The suffering -- the "torture of a child" -- is part of it, the hell and nightmares, the sacrifice and triumph, are all part of it.

This is why only three of the films succeed; well, that, and because the exorcism subgenre is, as I've said before, extremely narrow, and when you perfect it right out of the gate, as Friedkin and Blatty did in 1973, the only thing that will allow a new film to stand on its own is style, intelligence, and craft. Three out of five isn't bad, I suppose.

Seriously, though, John Boorman, you're a good director, but come on, man.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Waiting for Katelbach


If I may speak very generally, I've recently noticed that Americans and Europeans, or at least the filmmaking population within each group, regard the sea -- any large body of water, really -- quite differently. In American films, the beach or the lakeside is usually a good-time destination, and while hiccups may occur along the way, such as the mass slaughter of teenagers, the land adjacent to water is never really looked at askance. It is still lovely and pure and nice, in theory. Often in actual practice, even. European films, however, often depict the land itself as homely, rocky, an obstacle. Those who would seek out this land upon retirement or even just for vacation are often doomed or damned -- at the very least, they're kidding themselves. In an American film, a divorced woman would go to the beach to drink wine and be free and eat spaghetti or whatever; the European equivalent could easily find that same woman seeking death, either by her own hand or someone else's. What might be seen as a symbol of possibilities can easily be seen by another as both symbolic, and a literal example, of sudden endings, as well as the flyspeck nature of our place beside it.
Such a film is Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac (pegged for a Criterion release tomorrow). In it, a surprisingly trim Donald Pleasence and his young wife, Francoise Dorleac, have recently retired to an 11th century seafront castle. They are by turns snippy and goofily affectionate with each other. Though when we first see them they are saying goodbye to visitors, it's very clear that they are basically cut off from the rest of the world, unless they choose otherwise. Or unless otherwise chooses them, as happens when two gangsters, one fit and snarling (Lionel Stander), the other weak and dying (Jack MacGowran) force their way into the couple's lives. MacGowran is hardly a factor here, and dies soon anyway, but Stander's hurricane force immediately takes over everything, and the film becomes, while ostensibly a thriller, also a kind of Beckettian comedy of manners, and a Beckettian sexual farce (of the type where sex is never had), and what would happen if Beckett ever wrote a gangster movie.

Except in this case, Beckett obviously didn't, despite a plot structured around the anticipation of the arrival of a mysterious, never-to-arrive man named Katelbach, and for all its claims to strangeness, Cul-de-Sac in fact follows some rather standard narrative lines before reaching its violent, absurdist climax. For one thing, instead of a "Magical Negro", Cul-de-Sac has a "Magical Gangster", close cousin to the "Magical Hobo" (see Boudu Saved from Drowning). There are many obvious differences between these two ideas -- the former exists in a world of sentimentality, the latter in satire and cynicism -- but both are types that exist to shake up the characters who surround them, either for the better or worse. In the case of Cul-de-Sac, it's ultimately for the worse, but that's only because Stander has helped to highlight all the faults in both the Pleasence and Dorleac's marriage, but the bourgeois (well of course) uselessness of their lives, and the lives of their friends.

The problem seems to be that they are modern, in that they live now (or in 1966, but you get my point), and that...what? The past was more honest? No...but the castle they inhabit would appear on the surface to be a haven, a dream. At the same time, this means they're living in a euphemism for excess ("This place is a castle/palace!", etc.). As if that wasn't enough, the castle endures (like the sea, come to think of it) -- 900 years old, and Pleasence and Dorleac will be as remembered within its walls as a sneeze. This despite their efforts to have some connection that medieval past -- at one point, the characters drink mead. But the last guy to drink mead in that castle's gone too. His drink is remembered better than he is.
All of this Polanski buries under an unfortunate layer of academically acceptable farce. I say "academically acceptable" because there is a strain of humor to be found in the arthouse (as well as in Literature, with the big "L") that attempts to wring laughs from the premise of a grown up person with grown up problems which are also metaphorical, doing things that would have made them laugh when they were twelve. In Cul-de-Sac, see the hotfoot Dorleac gives Stander. See also Pleasence dressing all funny, which is to say cross-dressing, and stumbling around. This is all very low level absurdism, and has never been Polanski's strong suit. There is humor in his best films, such as Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, but the jokes rarely announce themselves as jokes. In his comedies, among which this film must be counted, along with the equally and similarly problematic (and equally great-looking) The Fearless Vampire Killers, the jokes are presented as jokes, without sophistication, and as such are deadly. The idea, I guess, is that they are childish jokes in a setting where one would hardly expect a childish joke. And comedy is all about upending expectations. So there you go.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shooting Horses Out of Season

My goodness, but The Killing looks good, some fifty-five years after its release. And I can testify to the fact that one does not need a blu-ray player, or, so it follows, a blu-ray disc, to appreciate the forthcoming Criterion release of Stanley Kubrick's early noir classic. You may pick your poison, but my standard DVD presents the film as just as gorgeous and gray and deep and dark and cavernous and sunny as it ever was. As you see:

The Killing finds Kubrick, the hungry young pup, in efficient artist mode, the kind of filmmaker the auteur theory seemed made for, though he would obviously shrug off the whole "efficient" part soon enough. Which isn't a knock, because I will punch you in the teeth if you try to speak ill of Kubrick, but boy is this thing brisk and to the point. There's no meandering as the racetrack heist is planned, carried out, and then imploded. The implosion, in particular, seems to happen all at once, or like the rapid pops of a string of firecrackers.

You might say there is meandering of a sort in the various acting styles employed. Kubrick famously liked big, howling performances, stylized to the hilt, and while his cast is led by the ever business-like Sterling Hayden, and also includes the well-trained meekness of Elisha Cook, Jr. (poor bastard), you have, on the other hand, Timothy Carey, one of cinema's great loons. How Kubrick must have laughed at Carey's bizarre performance -- the guy hardly ever parts his teeth when he talks. It's like his character's jaw is wired shut, except it's not. Here's Carey pictured with James Edwards, who, six years later, would freak out memorably in The Manchurian Candidate:

Edwards seems barely able to contain himself in his few scenes -- whatever emotion he happens to be feeling in the moment, he's feeling the ever-loving shit out of it. Then, also, on yet a third hand, you have someone like Kola Kwariani in his only film role. Kwariani comes off as a more avuncular Tor Johnson, and about as coherent. A wrestler and chess enthusiast, Kwariani has long stretches of dialogue that sound like complete gibberish, but given both the film's strangeness and its expert pacing, this never matters. Kwariani's the muscle, and otherwise sort of gentle. There you go.

What you have ultimately with The Killing is one of the great heist clusterfuck movies, and one of the great fate movies. That last one is what noir is supposed to traffic in, but it doesn't always, and even when it does fate tends to loom like a buzzard, or, more precisely, like a buzzard's shadow. That's not to say you don't sense fate constructing its plot against Hayden's Johnny Clay -- it's just that you don't hear the thud of approaching doom. You expect it, but you don't hear it. In keeping with The Killing's police blotter narration, read by Art Gilmore, the film proceeds like a news story, the summarizing headline of which you've already read, so you can read along and marvel at the foolishness of those who you know to be dead, or lost, or gone away.
There's some rich humor to all this, too, shot throughout, but the end of the film is a wild contrast between an "oh shit!" kind of laugh and an...I don't know, appreciation seems too weak a word for how I feel about what Sterling Hayden does in the film, from the moment he arrives at the airport to check his bags to the moment when THE END fades up ominously on screen. Hayden was one of the great no-bullshit actors, and in films like this, and also in this film (I feel it's important to not forget that), he was almost always the smartest guy there, whether he played a cop or a hood. But the masterpiece of acting in The Killing, if it has just one, is when Hayden, as Johnny Clay, realizes that he messed up bad, and has to try to talk his way around it, like a normal citizen, to a couple of airport employees who won't budge, because they can't, but are entirely professional and polite about completely, albeit unbeknownst to either of them, destroying Clay's life. And Clay is a professional in his own right, and he's trying to hang on to that, because to lose it would be to lose his last hope. But just to watch a big, tough, un-fuck-withable guy like Sterling Hayden scramble like this is kind of amazing. It's like watching Lee Marvin get lost.

The Criterion disc for The Killing comes with one of the more exciting extras of the year -- a whole entire other Kubrick film. Killer's Kiss, from 1955, is not Kubrick's very first film, but it's the first film he was willing to acknowledge might be worth anyone's time to watch. Another film noir, what struck me most about watching it today -- and I'd never seen it before -- was that in the opening credits it says that the story was an original idea of Kubrick's. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Kubrick's widow Christiane says that one of the great frustrations of her husband's life was that he was unable to invent his own stories, and was therefore driven to adapt all his films from other writers' work. All his films save Killer's Kiss, but you can see here that this brief, at 67 minutes, film doesn't have much of a story at all. The narrative of Killer's Kiss seems less like an idea than an excuse -- an excuse to film boxing scenes, an excuse to film a rooftop chase, an excuse to film in a mannequin warehouse. Especially that one. The film is full of contrivances to move the plot, such as these couple of jokers:

...taking Jamie Smith's white scarf just so he can chase after them and take himself away from where he needs to be, thereby being missed, ruining plans, endangering others, and all the rest of the things you need to keep it moving. Of course, it wouldn't be the first film helped along by contrivances. Hell, The Killing has the tire-puncturing horseshoe, one of the more desperate lunges for irony I can think of. No, Killer's Kiss is not a film noir in the mode of The Killing. It's part of the tradition that includes Blast of Silence and, actually, a genre switch here, but also Carnival of Souls. You can see the kinship with Blast of Silence, for instance, in the shots of New York, as it was then at that moment -- the shop windows with the creepy automaton Santa Claus and the pastries and the wind-up swimming toy, and the rooftop chase.

Boy, though, I don't like the ending too much, the reunion in Grand Central Station. One of the parties that make up the reunion does not deserve the ending they're being granted, which might be the point, except that the swell of romantic music doesn't support this. Still, though...


Oh, to hell with it. That shot is just too good.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

Smother the Demons


Well now here's a thing: the title of Michael Tully's very, very curious film Septien has no clear meaning, or even oblique explanation, within the film itself, but once the interested viewer begins his or her search, they will very quickly come across the name Rafael Septien. Septien is a former place kicker for the Dallas Cowboys who, in 1987, was convicted on child molestation charges, and has since vanished from the public eye. If you encounter this information after watching the film, your reaction will probably be to say "Oh", because that actually is something of a clue, and it would be hard to view the connection between the film Septien and the facts of Rafael Septien's crimes as a coincidence. Even if you somehow could manage that, Michael Tully has already addressed all of this in a short piece posted on NBC's Dallas-Forth Worth website, in the section devoted to the Dallas Cowboys:

[A]ccording to Tully, the film's writer, director and star, “the word ‘Septien’ captures that nostalgia we feel towards our boyhood sports idols and the disillusionment we experience when we find out our heroes are not the people we thought them to be.”

Leaving aside the unlikelihood that any sports-inclined child would idolize a place kicker, I must say that as an answer that could not possibly be arrived at by information contained in the actual film, Tully's explanation for why he called his movie Septien is pretty damn good, as far as I'm concerned, and manages to enrich the film (I like an interesting title) considerably. This is good because the film needs it.

Which is not to say that the film is bad, because it's not. It's actually pretty involving, and manages to build a very strong amount of queasy suspense very quickly. It begins with a series of painting, over which the opening credits play, that look like what might be produced by an unholy hybrid of Hieronymous Bosch and Bill Sienkiwicz, if one or the other of them played sports (or hated sports, or both). These paintings are the work of Amos Rawlings (Onur Tukel), one of three brothers around whom the film will revolve. Amos paints away in the shed of a family ranch, which is now being run by Amos's brother Ezra (Robert Longstreet), a fastidious man, and a religious man, one who objects to Amos's obscene artwork in a general but unobtrusive way, and still brings his brother a glass of orange juice every morning (as well as to Wilbur Cunningham, played by Jim Willingham, a simple-minded friend of the family, it would appear, who lives on the ranch and is doted on by Ezra). These quiet, vaguely tense lives are upended when Cornelius (Michael Tully), the third brother, returns after having disappeared for 18 years.

The film turns out to be less about Cornelius than it first appears, although the reason behind his disappearance turns out to be central, as does the fact that he was a big-time high school athlete, mainly in football, but in just about everything else, too, as we see him hustling people at neighborhood tennis and basketball courts. But the film is about all the brothers equally, and the way Tully reveals the degrees to which each of them has had some aspect of their sexual lives either warped or repressed comes to define everything else. Rafael Septien wasn't chosen just because he was an athlete who was attached to a scandal, you know, but that really only takes care of one brother. Ezra -- and Longstreet is really excellent in this -- does not know anything about why Cornelius ran away for so long, and one key element to the brothers is that Ezra is the outsider. Amos and Cornelius are outside of everyone else on the planet, and are close as a result. But somehow Ezra is even further outside, even though he seems to be the most functional. The truth is that Ezra is gay, and due to his various circumstances would probably much rather not be. This has led him to become the almost mothering figure he is at the beginning of the film, and it's this quality that has put off Cornelius and, especially, Amos.


It's also around here that the film becomes unhinged. A plumber and one-time high school football coach (Mark Darby Robinson) enters the picture, and I'll leave most of what happens from there for you to discover. But the film becomes quite bizarre in a way that isn't particularly welcome. If one had to compare Septien to anything else, it felt to me very much like a cross between Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories and Terry Zwigoff's Crumb -- I was entirely on board with that unlikely mix. In the last twenty minutes, though, Tully decided to add (I mean this in terms of tone and style more than actual incident) Steve Balderson's Firecracker, that bullshit piece of phony Southern Gothic dumbassery that Roger Ebert, and only Roger Ebert, loved so much. That film was a dishonest bit of rural, carny, grisly New Age hokum, and Septien decides to follow suit. In short, the film becomes magical, and, worse -- or rather, this is the bad part, because "magical" might have worked -- easy. As long as I'm comparing Septien to every movie under the sun, I might as well point out that once it starts reminding me of Firecracker, it also starts reminding me of Good Will Hunting -- something very awful and traumatic gets talked through by way of a mantra. But this film's Robin Williams is magic, so I suppose they got around my objection this time.

Worse than that is how the film comes to treat Ezra. It turns him into a grotesque, and as a man who somehow has something to answer for. The fevered mania of Septien's climax is actually rather objectionable, because while Cornelius and Amos are treated with some weird kind of dignity, Ezra is shamed, and we're meant to laugh at him. This is especially odd as we're not meant to dislike the man, but we are supposed to believe that something in him should be corrected. Not his homosexuality, mind you, but his "motherly" tendencies, although what his brothers and the film regard as unappealing and presumptuous and bossy, I regard as productive and helpful, and you fuckers would starve without his mothering. So fuck you. And then, yes, we aren't meant to object to Ezra's homosexuality, but at the same time that's weak spot the filmmakers pick when they want knock him off his pedestal. Very odd.

But anyway. This is largely a good and interesting film, one that grew, and abstracted itself, from a strong notion, but one that finally loses itself in its own weirdness. This is something that often happens, I've noticed. Still, if Rafel Septien ever comes to know of this film, he will have to view it as a terribly bizarre form of immortality. And to think that's just what he's been trying to flee from all this time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Capsule Reviews: An Assortment

Here, read these.
Pearl of Death (d. Roy William Neill) - The truth of the matter is this: I do not think very much of Basil Rathbone's take on Sherlock Holmes, and, really, never have. When I was a kid, he seemed stiff, and now as an adult who has read his fair share of Doyle's stories, I realize that the problem -- which is less Rathbone's than the tone of the movies -- is that he's only playing Holmes's intelligence. If Holmes was just some super smart fellow, he never would have taken off as a character, and yet the defining cinematic presentation of him to date depicts him as just that, and nothing more. It wasn't until Jeremy Brett's relevatory, and frankly kind of batshit, turn as Holmes the series Mystery that I, as a fan of the stories, really understood what had always been missing.

Even so, Pearl of Death is a good entry to the series of films Rathbone made as Holmes, with the completely wrong and out-of-character Nigel Bruce as Watson. The thing about Bruce's Watson, though, is that wrong though he may be, the character is actually funny, bumbling doofy-ness and all. You can't argue with what works. Also working is Miles Mander as Conover, the main villain who wants the titular pearl, and Rondo Hatton in his first appearance as the back-breaking killer known as "The Creeper." Hatton is the reason I checked out Pearl of Death in the first place, as I knew who Hatton was but had yet to actually experience his on-screen presence for myself. And quite a presence it is. His appearance, the result of the long-term effects of poison gas, gave him a quite unexpected career, albeit a small one, in films, mostly as a weird bit of scenery until the Creeper came along. In any case, his very being adds an uneasy tilt, like the swaying camera that zooms in on the freaks in carnival and circus movies, to a solid but otherwise rote movie.

Good Neighbors (d. Jacob Tierney) - This dark Canadian thriller caught me completely unawares. It stars Emily Hampshire, Scott Speedman, and Jay Baruchel as neighbors in an apartment building who become friends, and more in some cases, against the backdrop of a Quebec neighborhood that is being terrorized by a serial killer. So which one of them -- specifically, which one of the two guys -- is the killer, right? Well, that's what I figured this thing was about for about 60% of its running time, and then it blind-sided me. Not with some whiplash of a twist, but a natural progression into a different sort of film, one much more interesting and strange and disturbing. Speaking of, that's one more thing you might be unprepared for if you decide, as I did, to casually, even lazily, purchase Good Neighbors on PPV: it contains one of the most unpleasant and harrowing and awful moments of violence I've seen in many a moon. This scene is also kind of funny, in a way that will make you feel deeply ashamed.

But this is a good movie. Check it out.

The Driver (d. Walter Hill) - I've always been something of an agnostic when it comes to Walter Hill, having been underwhelmed at a young age by several of what I was told were his very best films. But every so often, I'll cave in again and decide to see if I'm more in tune with his stuff, which I should be, by all rights, given my tastes. When it comes to Southern Comfort, which I rewatched not too very long ago, no, I'm not, unless you're talking about the last fifteen minutes, in which case yes, I am. So impressed was I, this time around, with that film's ending that I figured I'd better keep going (it even erased the whole rest of the film in my mind, which still does nothing for me), and so over the weekend I watched The Driver , Hill's second film. Starring three-time good movie-maker Ryan O'Neal as the title character, The Driver is a classic of '70s crime cinema, which puts it right up there pretty high in the genre's Hall of Fame. Like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, the film is about cars, and character types (who aren't given names -- O'Neal plays The Driver, is nemesis Bruce Dern plays The Detective, and so on), and, like so many heist films, which this sort of is without ever quite seeming like it, it's also about doing the job. Not to mention dealing with the shit that comes with that job. It's all so very well-made, so precise and lean -- "expertly sketched", is what a book critic might call it if The Driver was a novel. It's pure cinema, though, and bracingly brutal, too. And Ryan O'Neal should probably send Hill a Christmas card every year, because that part where he shoots that dude from behind the car door must be the coolest thing O'Neal has ever been allowed to do in a film.

Battle Beyond the Stars (d. Jimmy T. Murakami) - These new "Roger Corman's Cult Classic" DVDs they have now are sort of odd. I'm not debating the need for a deluxe DVD of the original Piranha or Humanoids from the Deep or Death Race 2000 or anything like that. But some of these films are so limp, even in their attempts to exploit all the things we want to see exploited (rarely have I see nudity more half-heartedly filmed than in Slumber Party Massacre). And if you're not going to exploit anything, and want to skew younger, then you'd better be as insane as Starcrash. Because if you're not crazy, and you're not exploitive, you know what you are? You're Battle Beyond the Stars, a film whose deluxe DVD exists solely because people think nostalgia is nice.

It would appear to be a can't miss ripoff, in that it is, in Corman's own words, "Seven Samurai in space", but none of the characters who are being recruited by our fresh-faced hero (Richard Thomas) to take down the guy who wants to kill everybody (John Saxon) registers beyond their make-up. Well, George Peppard does, because he's the Han Solo character, and Sybil Danning does because of being Sybil Danning, but that's it. And the other thing that filmmakers who use this structure must remember is that when your samurai stand-ins start dying, it had better be interesting. In other words, if you need to kill one by having their spaceship explode, try to limit that to just one. Here, it seems like half of them go out that way, or in ways so similar as to be indistinguishable. This, I'm afraid, is boring. When James Coburn dies in The Magnificent Seven, he throws his knife into a piece of wood before falling. And don't even make me bring up Toshiro Mifune in the film that got this ball rolling. "Seven Samurai in space" is a premise, not a film.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tick...Tick...Tick...(Or Whatever Sound a Calendar Makes)

Today is August 1st, which puts me just two months away from the beginning of everybody's favorite month, October. And October is the month where, around these parts, I do shit like this. I've done this for three years now, and every November 1st I think "Well I'm never doing that again. Fuck that. That's dumb." And I maintain that rough attitude right up until about mid-September, when I decide that I'd better do it again or else I'll have nothing to write about in October, and I'm supposed to be at least in part a Person Who Knows and Likes Horror, so...

But now, already, at the very beginning of August, I'm already excited to get back to The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I'm approaching the whole idea with a renewed vigor. Part of it could be that at least three times now I've already said to myself "Oh, I can read that!" -- it's nice to have ideas early, especially if they're early enough that I can get a legitimate jump on not just the reading, but possibly the writing. But a greater factor in my excitement, verging on impatience, to do this project for a fourth year must be the genre itself, and genre fiction in general. You're probably tired of hearing me talking about it, but it took me many, many months to read Infinite Jest, and I knew, when I was at about the halfway mark, that when I was done I was going to dive headlong into the genre fiction I was intentionally denying myself. This was not just horror fiction, of course -- I also got a powerful hankering for crime fiction and science fiction, and, in fact, I've sometimes wondered if I could someday pull a stunt similar to The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!, but with crime and science fiction. Unfortunately, there is not yet a holiday celebrating the time Bonnie and Clyde killed all those cops, or the day that the one science-based event occurred, but not really, it was more just an imaginative extrapolation of current technological and sociological ideas, so the timing of either one would have to be entirely arbitrary, and therefore easier to blow off if I ever even settled on a date. Then, too, I must remember that my interest in science fiction doesn't translate into any kind of expertise, even of the very low, amateur/enthusiast level I manage with horror, and crime fiction, unlike horror fiction, thrives in novel form, much less so in the short story, for whatever reason, don't look at me, I don't decide these things. But speaking on a purely practical level, that leaves crime fiction right out.

So horror it is, and ever shall be. Upon finishing Infinite Jest, I've already managed to read three horror or horror-adjacent books, and while I won't be writing up any of those three in October, the fire has well and truly been lit. And while this post may read to you as nothing more than an announcement that I'll be doing that thing this year that I do every year, I wanted to get it off my chest anyway, because I'm sort of psyched, and I didn't expect to be. So there.

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