Monday, May 28, 2012

The Light I Never Knowed

Ingmar Bergman is not a filmmaker I find it especially easy to associate with summer. This despite the fact that, for the filmmaker not only of Smiles of a Summer Night, but Winter Light and Autumn Sonata, seasons were important (why no Spring? I know, The Virgin Spring, I thought of that, but it turns out he's talking about something else there). But typically, my approach to Bergman's films, and to the films of almost any other director with a deep catalogue, is to pick and choose what seems most interesting to me. This lack of any kind of deliberate approach has left me with the possibly not entirely accurate view of Ingmar Bergman's films as medieval and wintry and angry at a God he doesn't believe in, despairing when they're not being terrifying. Even the comic Smiles of a Summer Night has stuff about suicide in there. So the upcoming release by Criterion of Bergman's tenth and twelfth films, respectively, Summer Interlude from 1951 and Summer With Monika from 1953, left me wondering about this presumably sunny side of Bergman with which I had been previously unaware.

Well, I needn't have worried. While there are long stretches in both films depicting -- even, if you like, celebrating -- young love and freedom and happiness, both also ultimately deal with the death of romance. Not just romance as in between a young man and a young woman, but in the naive beliefs that such men and women sometimes have that they are different from everyone else, that their lives will be special. That makes Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika sound cruel, and they sort of are, but Bergman is not out to gleefully obliterate anyone's dreams. He's just acknowledging that those dreams will probably be obliterated.

In Summer Interlude, Maj-Britt Nilsson plays Marie, an accomplished ballerina who is at the tail end of rehearsals for a production of Swan Lake when she receives in the mail a package containing the diary of Henrik (Berger Malmsten), a young man she loved for a brief time when they were both very young. She doesn't know who sent the diary, but it becomes pretty clear that it didn't come from Henrik, and that, in fact, there may no longer be a Henrik. Far from delighted, Marie falls into a melancholic revery that leads her to travel back to the lakeside spot where she and Henrik had been together, and where, also, she spent time with her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), an "uncle" not by blood but by family friendship, a man whose relationship with Marie's deceased mother was, as far as Erland and Erland only was concerned, transcended mere friendship, and he seems to want to translate that gnawing desire to Marie. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, and charts the passionate yet mostly innocent relationship between Marie and Henrik as it would naturally play out, the frustration of their first fight being a moment of high drama here.

Summer Interlude is largely pleasant, though the sadness of the older Marie is never far away, but in Bergman terms it is a lighter, sweeter film than I, at least, am used to. What takes me aback about the film is how the end comes about, and how sudden and senseless and arbitrary it is. What happens in Summer Interlude, and what causes Marie, at Erland's rather appallingly devious suggestion, to erect an emotional wall around herself, is the kind of thing that must happen, somewhere, every day, but can have the effect on film of seeing simply too absurd to be accepted. But Bergman plays it as something entirely real that must be dealt with, somehow. At Summer Interlude's end, Marie is shown dealing both with her current boyfriend (Alf Kjellin) and this distant tragedy whose very nature makes it nearly impossible to keep at bay. In the final moments, Marie has either succeeded, or perhaps Bergman is anticipating the ending of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! Either one makes sense.
Summer With Monika, meanwhile, is a bit more obviously bitter. Not necessarily in any sort of personal way, but it's a bitter story. Based on a novel by Per Anders Fogelström, the title character is played winningly, initially, by Harriet Andersson (in the first of many performances for Bergman) as a fun, slightly goofy, young woman whose home life consists of a half dozen people living in maybe two rooms, most of them young, loud children, Monika's siblings, their mother no longer having the energy to control them much, though she's willing to control Monika because she, at least, is old enough to obey. Throw in a drunken father and a job at a grocery store where she is repeatedly groped by various men, and it's a wonder Monika has any brightness left within her at all. She meets and charms a shy young man named Henry (Lars Ekborg). His father is still alive, but his mother has died, and he lives with his aunt, and he works at job that seems to mainly consist of boxing up and delivering glassware. His boss and co-workers are hard on him, and it becomes very easy for him to be swept up in Monika's pursuit for freedom, which leads them both to taking a boat and sailing off alone, from secluded beach to secluded beach, eating what they find, a little of what they bring with them, have sex, and in general bask in the sun and the wind and their youth.

A key scene in Summer With Monika, one that seems quite lovely when you first see it, shows Harry and Monika docking near an outdoor party. Monika wants to dance, but Harry is uncomfortable around these other people, possibly not only because of his natural shyness, but because they are a part of the world they're both trying to get away from. So taking pity on him, Monika agrees to leave, and so they take their boat to another dock, this one empty and some distance from the party, but not so far that they can't hear the music. Bergman shoots them from a distance, dancing together and alone, which is all they want. But Harry is 18 years old and Monika is 19, which is just about the right age to still think this pipe dream of dropping happily off the grid might not end in disaster. Before that happens, Monika mentions in a breathtakingly offhand way that she is pregnant. She thinks this will all work out swimmingly, but in mere days she's complaining that all they eat anymore are mushrooms, and shortly after that she's stealing roasts right off people's dinner tables.

It's Harry and Monika's return to society, which they manage with a minimum of shame and with, at least as far as Harry's concerned, a determination to work and make their own way in the world, that signals the true end of it all. Monika becomes an awful creature, one delighted by the idea of motherhood but horrified by the reality, one who cheats on her husband because he makes her save money and she's bored. Watching Harry's life come apart is very difficult because he's a decent kid who is only dumb in the way that all kids are, but he's willing to learn. Monika is not at all willing. Bergman may want us to take pity on Monika as well, but I myself found that I had very little pity to offer her. I cared only for Harry, and for his baby daughter. Harry closes the film sadly remembering the wonderful part of the summer with Monika that just passed. I'd like to shake him and demand that he let it go, but Bergman himself had it more clearly. In an interview with himself printed in the Criterion booklet, Bergman says that if we must reduce Summer With Monika to a message, about the good things in youth that end up horribly wrong, which is to say, about youth, he chooses these four words which he indicates are from Fogelström's novel: Get out! But return!

More enigmatically, though, Bergman asks himself about any "beautiful moments from the shooting of the film," and Bergman's response (to himself, remember) is one that describes his film in a nutshell, and adds one last thing that perhaps could count as something Harry should bear in mind:

One morning at six o'clock, we were on our way to location, the engine of our little boat, the Viola of Ornö, thumping across the still waters. The horizon at sea fused with the sky, the islets stood like floating octopuses in all that soft white. Up above, the fiery button of the sun was burning. It was warm and unusually still; there wasn't even a swell, not a ripple. It was like eternity itself. It was like being in eternity. The smell of the sea, the quivering in the hull, the murmur around around the stem, and the high silence -- the summer of eternity.


Nothing. That was it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

It May Be the Devil or It May Be the Lord, But You're Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

Jim Van Bebber began production on his intensely violent and bizarre film The Manson Family in 1988, and due primarily to financing issues wasn't able to complete it until 2003. In the intervening years, Marcelo Games, the actor playing Charles Manson, quit, which you might be tempted to think should have put the kibosh on the whole affair. But somehow, no. Part of this was luck because Van Bebber had finished shooting most of the scenes involving Games, and part was due the very nature of the film, the gist of which can be gleaned from the title. Van Bebber's film is more about the members of Manson's cult, and their journey from good-time idiot commune hippies out for drugs, sex, and some form, any form, it doesn't matter, of enlightenment to becoming, with bizarre ease, the men and women who, through the summer and fall of 1969, actually carried out the series of horrifying murders under Manson's burnt out direction that have cemented Charles Manson's name -- but somehow not Tex Watson, Patty Krenwinkel, Sadie Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and others -- in the annals of American murder. Not to attach a motive which Van Bebber may have intended but which doesn't really blatantly announce itself through the film itself, and so much the better, but The Manson Family is a sort of corrective to that in the sense that Manson is an essential figure in the film, but more essential are the people who, as one character points out, put the bullets and the knives into the bodies of the victims.

The Manson Family isn't a film I'm prepared to recommend, by the way. It's probably a cop out to say that it resists such notions as "bad" or "good," but many people have and will continue to hate it, and many probably have good reason to. It was made very cheaply and looks it, almost all of the acting is weak and unprofessional, which follows given that none of the actors were professionals, but Van Bebber doesn't show much facility for dragging anything interesting out of that situation as, say, Steven Soderbergh has done. Also, functioning as it does, in part, as an exploitation horror film, many would no doubt balk at the rudimentary spook-show imagery -- Manson and Watson appear as the Devil during moments of either hallucinatory drug binges or murder -- as well as some even more rudimentary symbolism, such as when Manson is dressed as Christ and takes part in a blasphemous crucifixion. But where Van Bebber's critics don't have much ground to stand on, and the angle I've gathered many of them have taken, has to do with the film's violence, which is substantial and graphic. As you'd probably expect, even though this story has been dramatized with considerably more coyness in that regard several times in the past.
But shouldn't a much more direct approach also be...what's the word I want here? "Worthwhile" and "of value" and "desired" don't quite seem to illustrate why an extremely violent film about the Manson murders might be something other than trash. Especially given that the film is clearly coming from a tradition of trash, though trash of a, somewhat and depending on who you ask, relatively respectable type. Van Bebber travels in circles that include William Lustig and Buddy Giovinazzo and so forth, for example. So like I say, it depends on who you ask. But if you're asking me, or anyway if I'm telling you, The Manson Family contains scenes of the most uncomfortable and disturbing violence I've ever seen. This is violence that actually made me consider the act of murder as a thing that some people actually commit, far more than any of the more loudly debated horror films could even imagine. At one point, a character says something to the effect of "This is Hell," and I was left thinking, even in my admittedly removed role as an audience member, "Well, maybe."
My reaction could perhaps be explained as a natural byproduct of my knowledge that the events depicted in The Manson Family are based on fact, but I promise you, I've seen Chuck Parello's The Hillside Strangler and Matthew Bright's Ted Bundy and Jenny Ash's The Night Stalker, and all of those are based on real murders and all of them are also useless garbage. More to the point, I may have felt disgusted while watching each of those (maybe not The Night Stalker, which I remember as being more stupid than anything else), but I was never moved. And The Manson Family is somehow moving. The murders -- of Gary Hinman, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Sharon Tate, and Leo and Rosemary LaBianca -- all occur in the film's final third, and Van Bebber does not try to take us into the lives of any of the victims at any point during the film. We only meet them in the seconds before they're going to be killed. Gary Hinman is sitting in his car, and then Tex Watson (Marc Pitman) is shooting him. Wojciech Frykowski is shown lying on a couch for a few seconds before Krenwinkel (Leslie Orr) is on top of him. But it is the physical work of the murders, the, if you'll pardon this phrase, labor of them, as Van Bebber films it all, that somehow translates into a horror that is far less distancing than you might expect. The actors playing the victims rarely have a chance to act anything other than shrieking terror before they're each reduced to an object whose purpose, for those present, is to have knives stuck into it. There is a fever to the perpetrators, and Van Bebber plays it up with shots of Pitman's Watson as the Devil, and weirdly effective cuts to Orr and Maureen Allisse as Sadie Atkins, grinning like funhouse clowns, but Van Bebber portrays that fever as an occasionally tiring struggle, as in two moments where Watson is shown leaping on barely living victims so that he may deliver another couple dozen wounds. It begins to look as though he is, in his mind, doing nothing more significant than hammering nails.
The murders become many things under Van Bebber's lens, many of them expected and natural, even hoped for -- reacting with horror to this material is, I'd say, a thing to be desired -- but as the majority of this curiously structured film (to avoid complicating this post, I'll simplify my description and just say it's set up as a fake documentary) is told from within the Manson family, I never lost sight of the fact that, to Watson and the others, this was a task to be completed, at the command of Charles Manson. The murder of Rosemary LaBianca is grotesquely drawn out, but the power of it comes from the fact that for much of it she is lying face down and motionless while her killers just relentlessly stab her in the back. The total lack of empathy expressed by the characters of Krenwinkle and Atkins and Watson in the film, and embodied to the hilt by the actual murderers, could not be more chillingly illustrated than by the depiction of Rosemary LaBianca as little more than a bloody dress, with apparently something inside of it. When Krenwinkle is shown stabbing and stabbing and stabbing her, and then pausing as if to leave the room, only to turn back and stab her a few more times, it's as if she's adding a few more touches, sanding down a corner or smoothing out a wrinkle.
How is it that this manages to imbue the fictional representations of the Manson cult's victims with humanity? I'd say it must be because Van Bebber successfully shows that the dehumanizing of them by their butchers was so complete. These are not murders as most filmgoers have been conditioned to expect to see them dramatized. There is little time to beg or scream, and in fact some of the victims could reasonably be assumed to be dead less than halfway through the attacks, though the murdering of them still goes on. The freedom from empathy experienced by the Manson cult is total, so as an audience member it is perhaps natural for a human being watching The Manson Family to home in on the only other human beings on display. I'm perhaps grasping for an a way to explain how this extreme level of film violence can have a humanizing effect, but that is, somehow, what Van Bebber achieves here.

Van Bebber has his limits, though. The murder of the eight-months-pregnant Sharon Tate is the least graphic one in the film, by a huge degree. Even Van Bebber is capable of flinching.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hear That Undertaker's Bell

[Spoilers for both Chronicle and The Grey follow below]

Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis's found-footage superhero origin film Chronicle begins with unhappy teenager Andrew (Dane DeHaan) setting up a video camera in his bedroom and announcing to his angry, drunk father (Mike Kelly), who is pounding on Andrew's bedroom door that he is going to "film everything." Well, sure. You have to let the audience in on your conceit somehow, and this line functions in that way, and also serves to scare off the father, who might reasonably wish that his drunken abuse not be captured on video. Of course, it's strange that the father seems to regard his son's decision with the same gravity he would afford to a TV news crew who are in possession of the correct permits, as opposed to saying "Oh yeah?", busting down the door, smacking his kid, and smashing the camera, as one might expect an abusive drunken father to do, but what Chronicle is really doing in this early scene is making its own announcement, subtly but unmistakably, which might best be boiled down to "We don't know what the fuck we're doing."

Approached with this understanding, Chronicle delivers, and how. In the telling of its story, about three teenagers -- Andrew the sullen outcast, Andrew's cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who is very smart and is able to quote things, and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) who is popular and running for class president -- who, while attending one of those horrifying parties where people wave around glowsticks in the hopes that passers-by will kick each of them square in the teeth (I can only assume this is their motivation), find a hole in the ground that leads to a cave that has a big bright thing with lights in it that gives them nosebleeds and also telekinetic powers which they are eventually able to control so well that they are able to fly, Chronicle pulls a District 9 on its whole found--footage idea. In case you've forgotten, District 9 began in the style of a documentary made in the aftermath of the actions eventually depicted in the film, but after a little while it kind of sheepishly put that aside and went on to be what it was always going to be, an action movie with some aliens in it. In the case of Chronicle, the idea that everything we're seeing was filmed on home video or camera phones or whatever by the characters in the film isn't so much set aside as it is used as a (poorly executed) con job. Found footage movies are the thing now, or were the thing, and continue to occasionally be the thing, especially in the horror genre, but even the worst films of this type, that I can think of anyway, tend to actually want to be that thing, or at least stick to it out of a sense of honor. Chronicle has no honor, and it's very clear that it exists in the form it does only because someone noticed how much money the Paranormal Activity films raked in. Chronicle doesn't need to be made like this, and Trank and Landis don't want to deal with the limitations inherent in the style, so they make the creative decision, or whatever the opposite of "creative decision" is, to not deal with those limitations at all.

Well, they almost do. The one clever loophole Trank and Landis provide themselves is they make Andrew so proficient with his new powers that he's able to do whatever he doing while manipulating the camera with his mind at the same time. So sometimes when no one is in the scene who might be holding the camera, and the camera is even panning and so forth, you can say "Well, those kids have telekinesis, so that explains that." And it does, and it was a good idea. But not only does the idea get abused (Andrew likes overhead shots at funerals, apparently) but it also finally gets shitcanned. The film's closing action scene, which involves Andrew, who by now has let his sullen teenager-ness get the better of him, so that now he views himself, in evolutionary terms, as an alpha predator, even though he never actually preys on anything, acting as the film's super villain, and Matt, who is a good guy who for whatever reason has hitched his wagon to a smirky blonde stuck-up little princess (Ashley Hinshaw) who also happens to be recording her entire life on video, just in case these guys ever need some 2nd unit work done, or even coverage, is, the action scene I'm talking about here, a fucking disaster. Who, I wonder, the hell is cutting this shit together? If Andrew is deploying his floating camera when he and Matt are hovering in the air yelling at each other, why is he, as must be implied, giving them each their fair share of close-ups? And again, who cut this shit together??? NASA? Trank even calls attention to his own stylistic cowardice by showing a group of people inside an office watching these two super beings and filming them with their camera phones. This shot is from inside the office, so it must be assumed that the shot was taken from one of those phones (by NASA) in a sobering nod to How Technology Has Effected Our Lives, but no effort is given to explain how any of the shots that were not taken from an established and identified source (there are some good shots meant to have come from police helicopters) were achieved.

This happens throughout the film, which ultimately reveals itself to be just a cynical piece of garbage that is supposed to make us reflect on how difficult it is to be a teenager, and how power in the hands of the abused can be a dangerous thing. And those powers change, too, because at one point one of them seems like maybe he can control lightning? And in another scene, one of the kids has a bus thrown at him and the bus hits him and then he and the bus slam into a building but he's okay, but shortly thereafter another of the kids gets a metal pole thrown at him and he dies. Telekinesis is an unpredictable force.
The complete absence of craft or brains on display in Chronicle is reasonably appalling, but so far this year there has been at least one other kind of sleeper genre hit that should restore faith. Joe Carnahan's The Grey is a survival-adventure-thriller about members of an oil-drilling team in Alaska whose plane goes down in the middle of nowhere. The survivors must battle the elements, and, perhaps more to the point, a pack of deadly wolves who seem to be killing them for sport rather than food.

As is usually the case in films like this, one man steps up to rally the other men, to give them hope that they might live through this ordeal, and to lead them through his greater knowledge and experience. In The Grey, that man is Ottway (Liam Neeson) who was hired by the rigging crew to shoot wolves that threatened the men’s safety. Now, though, he is without his rifle, and the group’s success depends more on wits and luck than anything else.

So the story, as you can see, is simplicity itself. What’s surprising about The Grey is how seriously it takes its themes of survival, and hope versus hopelessness, “hope” not necessarily being a winner in that match-up, and how intelligently it deploys its story to their service. The fact that Ottway is shown early on to be suicidal (due, we learn through some actually quite good narration from Neeson, to something about a woman who, for reasons we will learn, he’s no longer with) might indicate that Carnahan might choose to scream his points, or even – and frankly his filmography up to now made this a real possibility – fetishize the idea of Male Existential Suffering, but no, Carnahan means it, and is serious about it.

It would be very easy to praise this film in the way I want to praise it and accidentally make it sound ponderous or pretentious or dumb. For instance, the title, The Grey would appear on the surface to be a reference to those wolves mentioned earlier, and it is, but as the film goes along, and as the despair of the survivors, whose number is dwindling, threatens to reduce them to immobility on the grounds of there clearly being no point in this charade, “the grey” can be taken instead to represent the middle ground between the blackness of the void and the whiteness of…what? Its opposite? “Not dying,” anyway, would appear to be the primary goal. But you see what I mean about praising this film while also doing it a disservice. If Carnahan had anyone make plain what I’ve just written, if he’d made Neeson or Dermot Mulroney (a name not chosen at random, he’s in the film, too, and is very good) break into the bawdy laughter of his fellows as they sit at night around their campfire telling stories and trying to stave off their bleakest thoughts, and say “When I was a about ten years old, my dad got his leg caught in our thresher. I was playing catch with my brother, across the field there, and I could see it happen. He looked like a puppet. Near about tore his leg clean off. He lived another three days, and when he was conscious me and my mom and my brother, we’d all sit with him, and when he was awake he’d joke with us, just like always, and we’d laugh with him. But other times he’d pass out ‘cuz it hurt so much. It’s like for those three days he was stuck in the grey…” – if Carnahan had done that, you would picket outside his home, and you’d be right to do so. He doesn’t, though, he just lets things lay there, and when he chooses to address things more directly through his characters, it plays like these guys talking about it because what the hell else are they gonna do?

Probably the best indicator of the film’s strength is the way it approaches the deaths of its various characters. After the fast obliteration of the plane crash, the first death comes as a man lies dying, but unaware of it, amid the wreckage. Ottway is aware of it, and instead of having Ottway try to trick the man into his grave, as most films would do, by having Ottway tell him he’ll be fine, just relax, we’ll get you taken care of, he instead tells the man, bluntly, but with gentleness, that he is going to die. It will be warm, and he should think of someone he loves and let that person take him to it. Rarely have I watched a scene that was at once both so chilling and so moving. And while some of the early deaths-by-wolf do follow a certain thriller/horror pattern (without ever being egregious about it), this approach relaxes as The Grey eases into itself and becomes a film about dying, rather than a film about getting killed.

Before watching The Grey, I was rather down on the works of Joe Carnahan. I never saw his first film, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, whose title betrays its desparate need to be seen as tough, and the greatness of the opening scene of his second film, Narc, was not paid off with a film that actually managed to live up to it. After that the wheels really appeared to have come off, as the withering Smokin’ Aces led, some years later, to the dull The A-Team. But it was on this latter film that Carnahan met Liam Neeson. Or maybe they’d met before that, I have no idea, but if The A-Team played some part in allowing The Grey to happen, then I shall allow it to continue to exist. Because one thing left unsaid by me so far is how crucial Neeson is here. This is one of his best performances in years. I could speculate about why, but the result would be a mixture of unnecessary, tasteless, and probably just outright stupid. All I will say is that The Grey makes me kind of angry with anybody who says Neeson is coasting into the “paycheck” phase of his career, and makes me wish, even more so than usual, that they would shut their goddamn mouths.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Where Black is the Color, Where None is the Number

So I'm really getting into this Jean Rollin fellow, and Kino Lorber continues to be the best source for his films on DVD and Blu-ray. Recently, they released three of his films -- Requiem for a Vampire, The Demoniacs and The Rape of the Vampire -- on this latter format, and I watched them all. Please for to see below.
Requiem for a Vampire - This film, from 1973, is pretty singular in its weirdness, even after Rollin bails on, or moves on from, the deep craziness of its first two-thirds. It begins with two young women (Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent) dressed in clown costumes firing guns at someone or another from a car speeding down a rural French road. Driving the car is a man who will very shortly be killed, leaving the two clown women to fend for themselves (after having, apprently, given their pursuers the slip). The film, also known as Caged Virgins, which is as accurate a title as Requiem for a Vampire, which is to say "pretty accurate," proceeds from there almost silently through a series of odd and spooky encounters, which includes one of the girls being almost buried alive when she falls into an open grave, and on to the point where the girls seek refuge from a general lack of resources inside an old castle. There they meet a woman who is almost a vampire, a woman who is sort of the middle manager of things, three rape-minded men dressed as either aristocrats, in the case of two of them, or a barbarian of some sort in the case of the third, and a full-blown vampire for whom we shall presently be experiencing a requiem. The idea is that he is the last vampire, and in order to propogate his kind he needs to transform these two women, who are virgins, and in the meantime task them with luring victims back to the castle for him and the near-vampire woman to feed on. One of the women, Dargent, takes to the idea more or less willingly, while the other, Castel, is a good deal more reticent -- she ends up storing her chosen victim safely, she hopes, within the castle.

That's the plot, and most of it comes in the film's last chunk. Rollin seems to have disdained dialogue, preferring to function as a strict mood filmmaker. A lot of the imagery inside the castle, when the girls first arrive, is of the Halloween haunted house variety, with skeletons wearing clothes and chains on walls holding decaying corpses, and even a green glow when the vampire first arrives and spreads his cape. The "What is that about?" nature of the clown costumes (which are shed as quickly as possible, in favor, at first, of nothing, and then of what I guess would have to count as regular clothes) initially gives the film the kind of dreamy tone Rollin so liked to imbue his films with, so it's sort of surprising that he bothers to offer an explanation for them later. Surprising and disappointing, to a degree. Also somewhat disappointing is the sudden rush of plot, but here Rollin is actually heading somewhere rather interesting. There are a few things about Rollin that are unique to this kind of film, and that make their way into Requiem for a Vampire. Among them is that the lesbian scenes, of which he was a great supporter, aren't really there just to be there. Castel and Dargent's naked lounging may at first seem like gratuitous skin, and it certainly is that, but as the film goes along you realize that they were lounging naked not because it's the 1970s and these chicks'll do whatever, man, but because they actually have a relationship together, which becomes important. Important also is the film's title, its original title, and it's fascinating the way Rollin brings an air of melancholy to the film's climax. It's not melancholy in the way vampire stories tend to be melancholy, because a vampire's life is so very difficult, but because the vampire in this film is the last, the end. We may not like vampires much, you and I, but he's not only the last of a breed, as it were, but of a culture, which is maybe perhaps part of what Rollin's on about here. Not specific vampires, but the Gothic tradition in horror was not to be popular, or even practiced, for very much longer, by 1973, and Rollin might well have sensed the end. In Requiem for a Vampire, he may have been preparing to say goodbye to the kinds of films he loved. Of course, as it happens, the end was not quite so imminent as all that.
The Demoniacs - In this film from 1974, set in an 18th or 19th or something century port town, Rollin at first appears set to continue his mostly dialogue-free ways, but only after introducing his four villains (John Rico, Willy Braque, Paul Bisciglia, and Joelle Couer as the shockingly perverse Tina) by showing us their faces and describing the rough personalities of each and the roles they play in their group of “wreckers,” that is a team of scoundrels who lure ships with fake signals to crash on the rocky shoreline, after which point the wreckers commence plundering and raping and killing any survivors. The Demoniacs begins with such an assault. Following an unseen shipwreck, the wreckers descend upon the casks and boxes and crates that wash up on shore, as well as the two young women (Lieva Lone and Patricia Patricia Hermenier) who emerge, ghostly and dressed all in white, from the surf. The brutality that follows is, as I’ve implied, nearly wordless (because what needs to be said?) and lasts for several minutes. The violence is broken up by shots of Joelle Couer parading nude or rutting (the only word for it) with John Rico. However, through what can only be described as clumsiness on the part of the two lower-rung wreckers, the girls escape, and make their way to a haunted island where their thirst for revenge will be indulged by a man who may actually be the devil.

The Demoniacs has a wonderful folkloric feel to it, and turns out to be relatively talky (it’s also the nakedest Rollin film I’ve watched so far, and that’s really saying something). The events on the haunted island, which involve a helpful clown and, as I’ve said, maybe the devil, are reasonably bonkers, but they feed into the legends being whispered on the mainland, where the wreckers know that something terrible is heading their way. That terribleness does not come in any ordinary way, and in fact Rollin might well be accused of allowing his film to turn a bit flabby in the final stretch as he chooses to restore his heroes to some kind of humanity, but as a result turns a great deal of set up into a lot of wasted breath. Though I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For people like Rollin and Mario Bava, with whom he has a few things in common, a rigorous adherence to plot, either in terms of coherence or even classic structure, are not especially important. Of the Rollin films I’ve seen, The Demoniacs actually comes the closest to this kind of storytelling, (barring perhaps Fascination, which may not have much plot, but sticks to what it has), but the story finally becomes a meandering tour through the various sights Rollin would like to show you. Ultimately, I don’t really have a problem with this because The Demoniacs concludes on a note of what I’ll have to describe as localized Apocalypse. There’s nothing much good to take away from the water-logged horrors of the ending – even Joelle Couer’s nudity, up to now used as an enticement of an admittedly depraved sort, becomes a symbol of full-on hellishness. But her character always was the siren of the group, and you all know where sirens lead you.
How a film can contain this image and somehow not be ridiculous is a question I'm afraid you'll have to take up with Mr. Rollin

The Rape of the Vampire - And of course, just when I thought Rollin's films couldn't get any more bugfuck, I watch this one, his 1968 feature length debut. Subtitled a "Melodrama in Two Parts," The Rape of the Vampire somehow manages to be at once itself and its completely off-the-rails sequel, the climax of part one seguing into part two without changing scenes but still being a completely different animal. The first half of the film tells the story of a psychiatrist (Bernard Letrou) and his two associates who seek out four women who have secluded themselves in a Gothic manor, where they either are, or simply believe they are, vampires. They are supported, and in fact possibly brainwashed, into this belief by the elderly lord of the manor. The inhabitants of the surrounding village also believe in their vampirism, and rather quickly any naive belief the viewer might have that this will be some quiet mood piece is shattered. The Rape of the Vampire is a film that rather amazingly includes things like gunfights and car chases, but in the film's first story these elements appear as the signal that reason, what little of it that was available, is shattering around the psychiatrist. Not a vampire story in any ordinary sense, this section of the film is already anticipating the horror, and specifically vampire horror, deconstruction of films like George Romero's Martin, while never distancing itself from the Gothic trappings of torch-lit duels at night or tortured maidens in nightgowns. Or, for that matter, death on the rocky beaches of France, the tides washing over fresh corpses, images and ideas Rollin would return to again and again in, for example, well, The Demoniacs, as well as Lips of Blood.

As good, and as interesting, as the first part of The Rape of the Vampire is, however, it's the second part, called "The Vampire Woman," that truly reveals that Rollin was already, with his first film, playing a game far different from everyone else. Utterly bizarre, relentlessly so, the film's second half begins on the aforementioned beach and shifts gears from our piles of bodies from the previous story to the Queen of Vampires (Jacqueline Sieger) and her quest for women recently killed violently, and her clinic run by a doctor (Jean-Loup Phillipe) who has been tasked by this queen to find a cure for vampirism. The story here is so mental that, in his essay about the three films discussed in this post that is included in each of the Kino Lorber discs, no less an expert on this sort thing than Tim Lucas was moved to call the film "baffling." And so it is. But fascinating, too, in the way it continues the subversion of vampire films it began with such relative subtlety earlier. Here, though, vampires as an idea are so thoroughly upended that they might as well not even be vampires -- they could be creatures of any undead sort, so little do they pursue normal vampire interests, nor do they go out of their way to avoid what a vampire might ordinarily want to steer clear from. Eventually, The Rape of the Vampire will become positively Bergmanesque in its imagery, and even in the sound of the words being spoken, by which I mean the tone of voice, and the cure, when it is revealed, and for reasons beyond its spooky similarity to drug use, addiction, and overdose, is a devastating punchline, one that reminds me, just now as I write this, and in the most ancillary way imaginable, of Isaac Asimov's "The Obvious Factor," one of his Black Widower mystery stories. In both the Asimov story and The Rape of the Vampire, which otherwise resemble each other not in the least, reason, or a version of it in the case of Rollin's film, is restored through simple logic. The reception of this logic is one of the many differences between the two works -- in "The Obvious Factor," it is greeted with a kind of smug delight (not a knock on the Asimov story, which is the kind of mystery story that can only be written once, and so it has been, by Asimov, so that one is now completely off the table), while in The Rape of the Vampire the characters regard it with humble dismay. Of course that's the answer. What a nightmare.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It Sure Do Bother Me to See My Loved Ones Turning Into Puppets

In the satirical interview with director Spike Jonze conducted by Perkus Tooth (it's safe to assume this is actually Jonathan Lethem, "Perkus Tooth" being the name of a character from Lethem's novel Chronic City) printed in the booklet for the upcoming Criterion release of Jonze's Being John Malkovich, Tooth, or "Tooth," gets going early on the joke with this:

[A]t 4:15 John Cusack sits on his couch beside Elijah the chimpanzee, desultorily paging through the New York Post, an edition celebrating New York Yankees pitcher David Cone's July 18, 1999, perfect game. The front-page headline reads, "Awesome!" while the rear sports page indulges the woeful pun "Conegrats!" "Awesome" and "Conegrats" together can be anagrammatized to "Get across name woe," "Came onstage worse," while "Conegrats" by itself translates to "Angst core" -- perhaps a tad unsubtle here? David Cone's special rooting section was known as the Coneheads -- derived, of course, from the Dan Aykroyd-Jane Curtin franchise Saturday Night Live sketch -- and they often wore the plastic head costumes, thereby in totality conveying the rebus: alien visitor (alienation) plus head plus cone (or funnel, or tunnel) plus Post (delivery, i.e., birth canal). For the more alert viewer, you barely needed carry on with the film beyond that point, its payload had been so satisfactorily conveyed.

Pretty funny, and also not an altogether bad idea. Being John Malkovich is of course the well-known brain-teaser from 1999, directed by Jonze and written by the then mostly unknown Charlie Kaufman, in which a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich is discovered behind a filing cabinet by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), in his exceptionally low-ceilinged workplace one night while working late and pining over the sexy but cold-hearted Maxine (Catherine Keener) and basically acting outside of his home as though his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) doesn't exist, or only barely exists. Cusack is a file clerk by trade for a company called LesterCorp, headed by the obliviously eccentric Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), but a puppeteer at heart, of the not very common deep art/street performer variety, and in the scene directly preceding the one where Craig finds the Malkovich portal, Craig explains to Maxine that puppetry is a way to live inside someone else's body and see through someone else's eyes. Then a minute or so later, boom, Malkovich portal. Rarely have I seen a metaphor or theme stated so baldly, and then so rapidly and shamelessly manifested as plot. This is the sort of thing that, 999 times out of 1,000, will get any other film crucified, but in 1999 Being John Malkovich found that post-modern, mind-game sweet spot that apparently everybody, or enough people, hadn't realized they'd been longing for, and as a result the film very routinely finds itself on lists of the best films of the 1990s. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman got careers out of it, with Kaufman being one of the few screenwriters to be noticed as a human being with a name, and his particular brand of smirking unusualness knocked more than a few people for a loop.
Myself, I've never trusted the guy -- I say this even though one of Kaufman's early credits is as a writer on my beloved Get A Life. But I very quickly became sick -- this happened as I was first watching Being John Malkovich in the theaters, in fact -- of Kaufman, for instance, stripping very old science fiction concepts of their SF accoutrements and riding that disguised genre into the open arms of people who think they don't like genre material and therefore don't read/watch it, and therefore marvel at the very idea that anybody, say Charlie Kaufman or whoever, could ever come up with stuff this original and smart, never mind that Kaufman and Jonze have already treated you as so thunderously stupid that you needed to be explicitly told what the film was about right before being shown what it was about. Show, don't tell, but if at all possible do both very loudly. So Kaufman would do this sort of thing, or he would take a genuinely good idea, an actually new approach to post-modernism, and then panic when things started getting too sincere. I'm talking about Adaptation here, a film about the act of literary-to-cinematic adaptation, and about what's lost and what's compromised, and about writer's block, and about Charlie Kaufman, and about commercialism and art, and reality, all that. But more than anything, Adaptation is a film about becoming a joke, and making everything that had come before the joke a joke, too, and it's about people deciding proudly that the only way to not like the joke is to not get the joke, and come on, you like jokes, don't you? Quentin Tarantino said of Adaptation something to the effect of (paraphrased) "Never before have I been so invested in a movie only to be completely thrown out of it by the end." I know how he feels.

Being John Malkovich has its moments. My favorite performance in the film is by, no, not Cameron Diaz, silly, but rather Orson Bean, who is never less than funny as the bizarre company head who it is later revealed to have a somewhat wearisome connection to the Malkovich portal, and I'm grateful to at least Jonze for introducing me, as far as I can remember, to Catherine Keener. And by far the most interesting thing about the film is where it's willing to leave John Malkovich himself. Malkovich is also extremely good in what in concept must seem like an entirely bizarre role, but which he quite effortlessly racks it up as another in a long line of calmly, smartly and articulately intense performances. But anyway, the film leaves Malkovich as Malkovich in a place that is fairly ballsy -- people who play themselves in movies are not often made to portray themselves being so thoroughly destroyed, as Malkovich is here. But of course, the film sort of carves itself out a door, there, by naming Malkovich John Horatio Malkovich, not the real Malkovich's real full name. It's unclear to me why Jonze and/or Kaufman (or Malkovich?) would consider it necessary to hedge their bets in this way, but it of course has the effect of slightly undermining whatever effect Malkovich's fate had achieved. But then again, this is one of those movies That Says A Lot About Identity, so maybe this is just part of that. Except, however discerning my taste for post-modernism, I always liked the whole Malkovich angle here, and would have vastly preferred it if Kaufman and Jonze had not fucking winked their way through that, something that is already one massive wink, as well. In any event, just as a by the way on the topic of celebrity, Being John Malkovich extends its approach to the subject beyond Malkovich himself (or, you know, "himself"; rarely has a film been more filled with quotation marks) to include a few other celebrity cameos -- for jokes! -- and while I'm not against this very popular custom in theory, I'm beginning to think I am in practice, because never before has it left me with such a sense of spiritual deflation as when Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn suddenly show up here.
I lay most of the blame for all this, needless, probably, to say, on Kaufman, Jonze seeming to me to be a quite good director who has grown past his knock-off Coen brothers ambitions in Being John Malkovich to the much more interesting and individual (for all its already noted faults) Adaptation, and on to the, to me, legitimately brilliant Where The Wild Things Are. I'm sure Kaufman thrust his scripts upon an unwilling Jonze. So I've been mostly down on Kaufman, is my point, for years, with the maybe glancing exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which struck me as quite possibly a good film, and one that I might consider watching again someday. I'm afraid that's as much as I'm prepared to offer on that one. Just to square the ledger, I'll note that I've seen Kaufman and director Michel Gondry's Human Nature, and it functions for me as perhaps the inverse of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that it struck me as an exceptionally bad film I hope to never have to even think about again; and also the Kaufman-scripted Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a movie I actually kind of like, but which Kaufman has disowned. So make of that what you will.
Oh, but we're not done yet, and who looks stupid now? Having put it off for years, I finally settled down last night to watch Kaufman's directorial debut, the divisive Synecdoche, New York, and I came damn close to loving it from beginning to end. The richest film, by far, of anything Kaufman's had anything to do with up to now, Synecdoche, New York picks up on several of his pet themes, such as death and aging, art and failure, sex and gender confusion (what was little more than a gag in Being John Malkovich becomes here a real, but not overblown, aspect of the personality of Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as the concept of a meta commentary on all the things being commented on, and the mode of comment, and the medium, and whatever the fuck else, it's all here in Synecdoche, New York. The film is unquestionably in keeping with Kaufman's shtick, but with the film, at the same time, Kaufman seems to be saying, among lots else, "Sorry for being such a dick before." Though tough and even a little cruel at times, Synecdoche, New York is more than anything (well, maybe not more than anything) a very kind film, and generous, in a lot of different ways.

To try to summarize Synecdoche, New York, while maybe not a fool's game, it's at least a considerably more reductive one than summarization normally, by definition, already is. But anyway, Caden Cotard is a theater director who, at the beginning of the film, is staging a production of Death of a Salesman with an all-young cast. He is married to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of very small pictures, and has a daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein). At his theater, he has a flirting relationship with Hazel, the girl who runs the box office (Samantha Morton), and is possibly worshiped by his lead actress Claire (Michelle Williams). As Caden finds himself crumbling in the face of Hazel's considerable charms, his marriage is slowly coming undone, helped along in part by Caden's exhausting hypochondria, and also by a revelation from Adele at their couples' therapy that she'd fantasized that Caden was dead and she was free to start over, and also by Adele's dismissal of his production of Death of a Salesman, which in fairness is pretty ridiculous, as just a waste of time he could be spending on creating something new and vital and his own.
The film proceeds from there to show Caden taking this last bit rather too much to heart. Awarded a Macarthur Genius grant, Caden moves to a new theater -- a massive one -- and brings together an enormous cast and crew to stage what will eventually turn out to be Caden's own life, every part of it, parts being rehearsed (which is the other thing, the play is in a perpetual state of rehearsal) the day after the real events happened. But of course Synecdoche, New York is miles stranger than that. It's a film that includes things like one character, Hazel, purchasing a house that is always at least a little bit on fire (not my favorite bit of the film); or, after Adele has taken Olive to live in Germany without Caden, Caden finding his four-year-old daughter's diary, which at first is filled with adorable four-year-old girl things, but continues on, as the film does, through the years to contain all of Olive's experiences as she grows older (this was one of my favorite bits, clever and sad and endlessly rewarding); or Caden turning his stage into basically an exact copy of the city where he lives, with full buildings and streets, and nothing open to the audience (non-existent anyway) because to have buildings with open walls would be fake. And this last is really, finally, what the film is, structurally, or what it will ultimately become, as Caden's rigorous pursuit of the "real" and the "tough" results in various Cadens (one most prominently played by Tom Noonan) and Hazels (another played by Emily Watson) and maybe two Claires, as Caden must not only portray, say, a domestic scene, but now he must portray his attempt to portray that domestic scene. And all of this proceeding at the same pace as life, rehearsing on into old age.

What Kaufman is himself doing with Caden is taking an artistic archetype that is often romanticized -- the shy hypochondriac who is struggling to create his masterpiece -- and depicting him as essentially useless. Not worthless, which is pretty key, but useless in the sense that such a temperament will result in nothing more than an endless loop of a grind of a miserable self-hating chamber of anxiety and dread. So don't do that! Well, Kaufman isn't trying to solve anyone's problems, but he is looking into the soul of such an artist, or just anybody like that, and finding it wanting. Of course, Kaufman does still have a bit of that "Let me tell you what I mean" business going on, but here, late in the film when Dianne Wiest rather too clearly explains Caden's character to him -- meaning Caden in the play, but also, we know, Caden himself, because, well... -- Kaufman cuts this with a joke, a not unusual occurrence in his work, but, crucially, a much better joke than I'd heretofore been used to from him.
I said earlier that Synecdoche, New York is in some ways a cruel film, and I just a second ago said that Kaufman looks into Caden's soul and finds him wanting, but Kaufman does not do that thing that artists for some reason are not supposed to do, by which I mean, he doesn't hate his characters. Even though he invites us to laugh at Caden (he may be a hypochondriac, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a lot wrong with him, and when he has a seizure at one point and manages to punch out a call to 911 and croak out "I'm sick!" to the operator, the operator's response of "Ma'am?" made me laugh really hard) it's only because Kaufman knows full well that none of us is any better or different or more, or less, worthy. That a film can be a great deal more soul-crushing as well as much funnier than the more easily slotted black comedy Being John Malkovich without being any one particular thing -- not even, somehow, particularly soul-crushing, finally, when you think about it, I think -- is a very hopeful clue that maybe Kaufman has shed the smart-ass side of himself. Or tempered it. Synecdoche, New York does still have a lot of smart-ass in it.