Monday, April 30, 2012

One Hand is Tied To the Tight-Rope Walker, the Other is in His Pants

I confess that I am, or was until yesterday, completely free of any experience when it comes to the once cultishly popular genre of "sociological" exploitation documentary. I've never seen any of the Mondo films, or anything else that would fall under that general umbrella. I have my reasons, which needn't be explored here, but I did just test the waters very slightly by hosting for myself a double feature of two such films by British director Arnold L. Miller: London in the Raw and Primitive London. This double feature was made possible by the fact that both movies have just been released on one disc by Kino Lorber, through their Jezebel line. Filmed, respectively, in 1964 and 1965, London in the Raw and Primitive London could easily be mistaken for the same movie, and watching them back to back as I did has made me vaguely uncertain about which is which. But I do know that London in the Raw is the one where the narrator of both films (David Gell) makes fun of people, and Primitive London is the one that opens with a graphic depiction of the hideous miracle of childbirth.

Both films are quite strange, or are probably very much on track with other films of this type, but were quite strange to me. In London in the Raw, as I've said, Miller, who wrote both films, takes a mocking tone towards his subjects, at least for a while. The idea seems to be that London, you see, is changing, and not for the better. It opens in a nightclub where a singer performs a satirical number about Britain's drift towards Liberalism, and I assumed, and in fact had probably assumed even before I started watching, that if anyone was going to be sent up in these films, both of which are blatant and unashamed about staging certain events, it would be the Squares, because those guys are such squares. But not so. A nostalgia-themed London restaurant, which as far as I know never even existed, is depicted as the hangout for young folks who don't really know or care what the restaurant is being nostalgiac about, and also, what do they know of love? Real love, I mean. Similarly, a bunch of Beatniks are shown lazing about in an apartment, sketching one of their female friends, who is nude, and then later wind down from their creative efforts by eating cat food. I will own up to not having a great deal of love for Beatniks, at least as a general group -- I suppose one or two of them might have been okay -- but did they really prefer to eat cat food over (I'm assuming this was the point) getting jobs that might enable them to afford, say, bread? I know Max ate dog food in The Road Warrior, but he was living in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, where the only thing cheaper than dog food is one's dignity. In any case, my Google search for "beatniks cat food" was, at best, inconclusive.

And needless to say, that whole bit was staged (it also segues into a scene of a non-Beatnik woman feeding her cat roast turkey, the object of Miller's derision in this case being cats who don't know their place, I guess). As are many other bits, such as one set in a high-class eatery where diners are treated to nude models who they are allowed to sketch or paint before, during, and after their meals. I twigged to this being a set-up when Miller cut to one of the patrons holding a painter's pallette and a paintbrush and wearing a beret. So it's hard to know what to make of it. I'm in the same spot I was in with the Beatniks eating cat food. Were there ever establishments such as this? Because it's a pretty dumb idea. Real or not, we're not spared Miller's judgment, or "judgment", as the scripted voice-over of one of the models reminds us of the discomfort and subtle dehumanization of it all (though she's gotten used to the latter, which of course makes it all the more horrible. But at least, whatever the hell that scene was, it had something Miller could hang his sneer on. Elsewhere, he offers snide remarks to balding men who seek some relief from that condition, and people who exercise at gyms. Both are nothing more than symbols of our collective -- and apparently newfound, in the 1960s -- vanity. There is no other reason anyone might go to the gym, or exercise at all, other than to look good. All is vanity, and I kept expecting the focus to shift over to those sadsacks who can't bear to defecate in the middle of the road like all those who are unencumbered by ego, and therefore retreat to the shameful privacy of a bathroom.

Eventually, the staged events ease up, as does the mockery, as Miller takes on various ethnic enclaves within London as his subjects. A Jewish theater group is shown performing, we're taken inside a Greek restaurant, as well as a German nightclub whose patrons are all looking for an excuse to return home. The German section is interesting in that the voice-over here -- which I'm also guessing was scripted -- makes some mention of the new generation of Germans struggling with their country's recent, horrible past. It made me wonder if a documentary, one contemporaneous with London in the Raw and Primitive London had ever been made that focused on whatever ther German equivalent of the Baby Boomer generation is. That would be fascinating, in a way that Miller never tries to be, or, in fairness, wants to be.

But it's these scenes, where there is some clear hint of real life being captured on film, that is the real source of any genuine interest in either of Miller's films. (See also Cockney singer Tommy Pudding and his extraordinary teeth.) There's much more of this sort of thing in Primitive London. The conceit of that one is that the baby we see being born at the beginning will have a lot of hurdles to leap as he makes his way in this crazy new world we've created for ourselves. This idea is abandoned until the end, when we see the baby again and narrator Gell wishes him a hearty "Good luck!" (paraphrased), but in between, when we're not seeing nude dancers perform their entire acts while we're being told that this is no kind of life, there are occasional scenes where Miller takes his camera out among actual people. The angle is to let teenagers look stupid, which is both welcome, to me, and easy, and, of course, again he starts with the Beatniks. Nothing much of insight is captured on film, but real people in the mid-1960s are, and that in itself is impossible to be indifferent to. The teenagers at the Beatnik bar almost all claim they're not Beatniks (Miller really has that shit on the brain), but just hearing a stupid 1960s teenager say stupid 1960s teenager things is sort of riveting, as this sort of thing is as close to a time machine as we'll ever get. Miller moves on from Beatniks to the Mods (who he only pauses on long enough to make fun of their clothes, which, fair enough) and then to the Rockers, who wear leather and make-out and don't read books, all to the tune of that notorious proto-punk anthem "Can't Buy Me Love." But as absurd as Miller is, it's all, in a way he likely didn't anticipate, good stuff.

And anyway, the moralizing becomes pretty funny very early. For one thing, it's all a pose, a fact so self-evident that I can only assume it's a pose he had to strike in order to legally distribute his nudity-packed films. But even when you think he might be trying to make a sincere point, he falls on his ass. When the subject of drug addiction is raised, Miller's attitude towards addiction, if not towards drugs themselves, is more liberal than I would have guessed, he nevertheless seems willing to believe, or at least earnestly repeat, a statistic claiming that, at the time of filming, Britain housed within its borders a mere 600 drug addicts, as opposed to America, which house however many thousand he says. I don't know that I believe there is a country on Earth at any time during human history that only had 600 drug addicts among its population. Then again, Miller isn't counting alcoholics, which feels to me like cheating.

In any case, it's all a ruse, to some degree. By the end it's clear that the true sociological importance of London in the Raw and Primitive London comes from the things themselves, and the man who made them. And perhaps even for their impact on documentary filmmaking as a whole, where staged events, reenactments, and made up restaurants where naked ladies let you paint them, are now the building blocks of the form.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Workingman Blues

Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer, which Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray today, is, I’d say, about half of a truly compelling film. That half consists of a large group of factory workers in turn-of-the-century Turin who, following an accident where one worker gets his arm caught in a piece of machinery, decide enough is enough, now is the time to stand up for their rights. They work 14 hours a day and are paid nothing close to what they at least feel they deserve, and there is no system in place to care for the injured worker, or others like him, so the workers band together and talk about unionizing. Monicelli’s story at this point is about the big picture – while some focus is trained on individual workers like the teenaged Omero (Franco Ciolli), whose youth does not exclude him from the domestic role of head of the house, and the burly Pautasso (Folco Lulli) who has an occasionally abrasive relationship with his colleagues, it’s the group that interests Monicelli.
What makes the early stages of The Organizer work is this broad view of the situation, and also Monicelli’s unwillingness to ramp up the nobility of the workers to the realm of the heavenly. In his essay that comes with the Criterion booklet, J. Hoberman points out that Monicelli thought of his early 50s films as “neorealist farces,” and this isn’t too far from the impression I got from the first half of The Organizer, which came out in 1963. The workers’ bumbling may not reach actual slapstick levels, but the need for the individual of the title is very evident. A planned hour-early walkout is fumbled out of apathy, uncertainty, and fear, and the blame for the very idea of it is placed by the bosses on Pautasso, the only man who fulfilled his role. At a meeting to try and get things straight and on the right track, a thickly-accented man stands to speak his mind, and one of the union leaders on the dais mumbles “Shit, I didn’t catch a damned word of that.” All of this is played pretty lightly – the stakes don’t feel genuinely raised until one worker seeks permission to break the strike the workers have finally decided to stage, and the union’s outrage isn’t dampened until they’ve seen the poverty the man and his family live in. Which is another strong element of the film’s first chunk: rarely are scabs given a fair shake in films like this, but here they are. Monicelli acknowledges that someone may turn scab or cross a picket line because, you know, they desperately need to earn a living. Of course, this also serves to underline what kind of a living is being earned by working in this particular factory for 14 hours every day.
The Organizer turns on a scene in a train yard, one in which a shouting match between strikers and scabs turns into a somewhat comical fight. This comedy is intentional, yet leads to a fatality, and the loss of a character I believe the film could ill afford. By now, the organizer himself, Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) has started to take center stage, and after the tragedy he takes over almost completely. Sinigaglia is a strange mix of hobo, professor, and union rabble-rouser, and Mastroainni is entirely swell in the role, but now the focus of the film doesn’t so much shift to him as zoom in on him. And I simply didn’t care that much. There’s an old saying, “You gotta dance with the one that brung you” (there are probably more grammatical versions out there, but this is the one I know), and The Organizer doesn’t do that, to its detriment. A not insignificant portion of Sinigaglia’s story, once he takes center stage, is given over to a cursory romance with a sympathetic upper-class woman, a storyline that is not exactly off-topic, but is also nowhere near as vital, on any level, as the lives of the factory workers. Perhaps Monicelli didn’t want to spend any more time immersed in their inability or unwillingness to do anything more than complain and gather together in meeting halls, but I did. There was a particularly unusual and dark comedy fighting for life in that material that was eased aside for the gentle bumbling and wisdom of a good-hearted professor.
Of course, the film gets dark again right quick, as Sinigaglia’s organizing finally takes hold all in a rush, and the workers and the strikebreakers clash. Hoberman makes the point that The Organizer ends on a note, not of defeated optimism, but rather optimistic defeat. There’s an interesting music swell as the factory reopens, and a hard determination in the eyes of the boy who is far too young to be working anywhere walking through the gates of the factory to begin his first day there. But the meandering nature that often gives neorealist films their vitality, and a digressive, everyday quality, here is used rather ungenerously. If we’re to meander, why not share the wealth, and follow around Omero a bit more, or Pautasso, or anyone? Better that than to let the title character overwhelm everything.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

With a Willing Heart

Two films I watched over the weekend, one just released by Kino Lorber's Redemption line and the other set to pop on April 24, show that the horror genre has an interesting range when it comes to instilling the audience with feelings of hopelessness and despair. I'm not sure if this could be considered an undervalued goal for horror, but it's certainly one that, in cinematic terms, is rarely talked about, but it's part of the whole package. Nowadays, you do see it, in films like Martyrs, say -- in other words, very extreme movies where despair is linked to the graphic destruction of the characters, and the possible physical discomfort of the audience. This can be legitimate, as I'd argue is the case with Martyrs, but you might also end up with Frontier(s), with that dumb-ass parenthetical "s", and that's just a waste of your life.
The common line on modern horror films that has the nerve to not take gore as its sole purpose for existing is that such films, if I may be vulgar, are chickenshit, and are nothing more than, at best, the result of some sort of commercially-minded compromise. But 1972's The Asphyx -- which hit stores last Tuesday -- would like to offer up a word of protest. The Asphyx, the only film directed by Peter Newbrook, a regular camera operator for David Lean, and shot by Freddie Young, who won three cinematography Oscars for his work with Lean, chronicles the quite rapid devastation of a family, headed by patriarch Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a relentlessly cheerful scientist who, around the turn of the 20th Century, is preparing to marry Anna (Fiona Walker), as well as to marry off his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) to his daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire). Everyone is meeting up at Hugo's sprawling home, joined as well by Hugo's other son Clive (Ralph Arliss), and things are quite sunny. Hugo has great plans on the career front, too, which involves both his early adoption of then-current photography and filmmaking technology, and his investigations into the possibility of capturing the image of a dying person's soul as it leaves the body.
Things are looking so up, in fact, that tragedy cannot possibly be far away, and indeed it is not. Death strikes the family with great suddenness, as well as a touch of absurdity, when both Anna and Clive are killed in a boating accident while posing for Hugo's camera -- the filmmaking type of camera -- and later, as he morosely yet desperately works to develop these images he finds something else there, something that he comes to believe is his son's asphyx, which is some mixture of ghost, soul, and angel of death. From there he deduces that the physical, as opposed to merely on film, capturing of a dying person's asphyx would result in that person becoming immortal, and this becomes Hugo's obsession.
There are many logical leaps of the "What's that smudge next to Clive's head?" "Maybe it's his asphyx" variety throughout the film, but once you realize that The Asphyx is, in fact, essentially a remake of Frankenstein it becomes quite a bit more interesting. This is perhaps counter-intuitive, because you'd think a film could only become really interesting once you discover that it's striking out on its own, but The Asphyx is part of the last gasp of this particular kind of horror movie. The kind in question is the kind where a scientific quest to defeat death is met with tragedy, disaster, and ethical blindness, not to mention that never-considered horror of immortality itself. These films were thick as flies back in the old days, with Boris Karloff himself, starting with Frankenstein, being responsible, in the thespian sense, for a good dozen all by himself. Another way to categorize this subgenre would be The Horror of Good Intentions, and it's a rich and interesting vein to mine, but when was the last time anybody tried? Fuckin' Flatliners? May God have mercy on us all.
The Asphyx goes far beyond thematic similarities to Frankenstein, however. There is a creature of sorts, though its function is entirely different from that of Frankenstein's monster -- the asphyx itself is made to appear malevolent, but narratively it works about the same as the electricity in the James Whale films. But look: a scientist forging a path in a controversial, fringe arena experiences sudden family tragedy which leads him to try to use his scientific knowledge in this fringe arena to find a way to conquer death so that no one, specifically no one he loves, need ever die again, only to find that his attempt to tamper in God's domain makes everything endlessly worse and more tragic. Leading to only one option, which Frankenstein and Hugo pursue differently, based on their own situations.
Like Frankenstein, The Asphyx is ripely melodramatic, which is entirely fine. Robert Stephens is asked to play almost nothing but emotional extremes, which even when pulled off successfully can seem exhausting, but somehow he makes Hugo's emotions play as the fuel that drives him. Off the cliff, eventually, but the point is that Stephens is quite good here as a man whose life becomes one of infinite sadness. He carries the film through some rough patches, which include a rather...curious? Okay, a rather curious make-up job at one point, but part of why that unfortunate make-up is easy to shrug off is because it involves the film's bookend scenes, which take place in the present day (or 1972, the present day then), a fact which gains significance pretty quickly. But boy are the implications of those scenes almost shockingly merciless. It's as soul-crushing a fate (never mind the further implications of what actually happens here, and what must follow) as one could imagine. And all without the horror staples of boobs and gore.
Which is why we have Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, due on DVD and Blu-Ray this coming tuesday. Based on a novel by the Marquis De Sade, Justine is an exploitation film that is maybe not as, er, philosophically faithful to De Sade as Pasolini's Salo, but it certainly comes closer than Quills, the sort of biopic of De Sade that depicted the man as a depraved yet principled antihero, as opposed to simply depraved, full stop, the end. Justine is a horror story as picaresque, an unusual structure for a horror film, I think we can agree, and you might think for a while that for all its roughness and off-kilter sex, the filmmakers, director Chris Bolger and screenwriter Ian Cullen, approach to De Sade is to view him from the sporadically popular view -- I'm not sure where we are with him right now -- as the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, but from a long time ago. He was like the original E. L. James! Except that no. Justine, the character, played here by Koo Stark, is an innocent, one who takes her virtuousness seriously, but who is met at every turn in her life by debauchery and libertinism: at the convent where she lives early on, from the nuns and priests, from her sister Juliette (Lydia Lisle) who views a debauched life as necessary for independence, until the force of it all carries Justine into a brothel where, with Juliette, she's expected to give up her virtue for money (this section features Barry McGinn as the coked-up house stud, in a performance that made me wonder if I was even going to be able to finish this thing). But she flees, straight into the mouth of hell.
The horror of Justine reminded me of a moment in Neal Stephenson's novel Quicksilver. I don't remember the context too well, but at one point one of the main characters is on a ship at sea that is attacked by pirates. The pirates take the ship, and a minor character -- an unlikable man, as I recall -- is casually, almost in the background of the scene's main action, raped by on the pirates, has a weight tied to his ankle, and is thrown overboard. All of this is presented in one, maybe two sentences, ones not overly burdened with detail or description. I don't imagine Stephenson expected this to have the effect on any of his readers that it had on me, but I've never been able to shake it because I think of that man going from a state of safety, and maybe feeling smug about it, to being raped and tortured and thrown without care into the sea to experience a death that will take however long it takes. What got under my skin about this was not the pain of it, nor even the fear, but the confusion, and the fact that the man had nobody there who thought enough of him to say to the pirate "No, don't." This is something like the tone that Justine will eventually come to adopt. And the message, which I don't believe Bolger and Cullen are necessarily interested in delivering, but which is somehow delivered anyway, is that no one will ever help you. Have a good one.
By the time Justine: The Misfortune of Virtue (also known by the less particular title Cruel Passion) came out in 1977, the world had already been treated to The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all sort of other movies of that general type, but, more than at least the most famous of those, Justine offers you nothing to think about by the end, nothing to intellectualize, and no hope. The Last House on the Left wants you to wonder "Hey, what about revenge, though?" and in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Sally may have lost her mind, but she got out. Being the first film ever shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Justine is obviously not cheap-looking enough to be praised for its grimy realism and thereby follow Texas Chainsaw Massacre into MoMA, nor thoughtful or glossy enough to function as European art film depravity. Its a progression of horrors that mocks the very ideas of innocence or virtue, just as De Sade would have wanted. All Justine has to offer is one word: No.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Don't Read the Latin

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods was originally slated to hit theaters sometime in 2010, and after I saw the film last Friday night I imagined the wait for them to the their film finally released, a hold up caused by MGM’s money troubles, must have been especially grueling. I can’t help but thinking that Goddard and Whedon suspected they really had something here, even if that something was merely a really good time at the movies, which is in any case certainly nothing to sneeze at.

But if what they have is something beyond merely a good time at the movies, what is it exactly? Another thing I thought while watching The Cabin in the Woods was that it would be really nice if talented guys like Goddard and Whedon could make a horror film that wasn’t about the fact that it was a horror film. Or that fewer contemporary filmmakers believed that one of the essential components of a horror film is that it be a comedy. And so on. But in fairness to Goddard and Whedon – Goddard, who directed, co-wrote the film with Whedon, who also produced – they’re really goddamn clever, and, as a result, The Cabin in the Woods is a really goddamn clever movie, one that eventually broke down all – okay, most – of my defenses. Plus, it’s not like it blindsides you with its irony, if that’s really what we’re dealing with here. Contrary to the belief of some people, The Cabin in the Woods is not full of plot twists and reversals. As horror writer and critic Kim Newman has pointed out, it’s not a film with a twist; it’s a film with a premise. The film begins with Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the film’s most powerful weapons, engaging in small talk about fertility and cabinets and so forth while ambling around their vaguely science-y, vaguely governmental, vaguely military workplace. What that workplace is, and what it’s for, is what some people are regarding as a twist, but what must more accurately be regarded as the story the film is telling. In any case, this scene leads to maybe the funniest title card I’ve ever seen, the appearance of which should destroy any illusions you might have about what kind of film, tonally speaking, this is.

Yet while “twist” is the wrong word, I’m still loathe to reveal where the story goes. I mean, why ruin the fun? Myself, I was ultimately very glad to go into this thing cold, as much as possible anyway, and I was also pleased that I saw the film on opening night, since the commercials that have aired on TV since include images I wouldn’t have wanted in my head, anticipating when they’d arrive as I sat there watching the film. So if you haven’t seen the film, I don’t know what to tell you, other than marketing sucks, I guess. But where the story begins, after the Whitford/Jenkins prologue, is with five post-graduate students – a stoner (Fran Kranz), a blonde, party-ish type girl (Anna Hutchison), a smart jock (Chris Hemsworth), another smart jock who is I guess less of a jock than the other one (Jesse Williams), and our heroine (Kristen Connolly), the more demure of the two females, who is not actually a virgin but who will eventually find herself behaving, to her surprise, as though she was – heading out on vacation to a cabin, which is in the woods, belonging to Hemsworth’s cousin. On their way there they meet a creepy and rude gas station attendant (Tim de Zarn) who lets fly with some smirking warnings about the cabin – he’s one of those characters who will warn you that you’re heading towards your doom but will not hide the fact that he’s kind of hoping you don’t listen to him – and you, the audience, are quite aware that you’ve seen all this before, and since the scenes with the young folk are given, at this stage, no particular spin or, I don’t know, spark, it’s hard to not hope that the curious Jenkins/Whitford stuff, which has by now begun to sprinkle itself throughout the proceedings, turns out to be something at least a little bit novel.

Well, good news, because it does. I don’t think it’s revealing too much, and anyway I don’t know how I could continue with this review without making note of this, that Whitford and Jenkins’ job is, and the whole governmental-esque facility where they work exists to, plan, control and orchestrate the horror film mayhem that is about to befall our young heroes, and to do so with a very conscious understanding of the tropes and clich├ęs that surround the other, very different kind of movie that is transpiring in that cabin in the woods. So yes, it’s like that, but it’s a good thing that it’s like that. The Whitford/Jenkins material (and it’s not just them, Amy Acker is there, too, and is very good, as is Brian White as a military man whose burgeoning conscience adds a bit of heft to the whole thing) serves to save the cabin material, which if anything can occasionally threaten to become too self consciously by-the-numbers. This is by design, but is also, practically by definition, potentially enervating. It teeters on the edge, at least, and the Whitford/Jenkins stuff is sometimes called on to steer everything away from the precipice, which it very ably does by virtue of having all the best jokes, and also all the intrigue, mystery, and inventiveness the cabin scenes intentionally lack.

About jokes, briefly. The Cabin in the Woods is a funny movie, occasionally very funny, but I'd like to pick a nit or two. There are two kinds of jokes that bug me which The Cabin in the Woods engages in. Not egregiously, but enough to make me want to bring it up. One is the kind where one character will say something that no one would ever say just so another character can deliver the punchline. This kind of strained set-up/knock down is what I shall now refer to as the Social Network Gershwin Joke. The other kind bothers me a little bit more, because it means a good joke gets diminished. What happens in The Cabin in the Woods is Bradley Whitford is given a terrific throwaway line that turns out to not be a throwaway. Goddard and/or Whedon believe, and many other writers agree, that everything must be paid off eventually, so the terrific throwaway is forced to build to something else. And it doesn't even build to anything great. If I told you the line, and gave you some context, you could predict what the payoff will be. Meanwhile, the great throwaway has to now be looked at askance. This is a little bit like the need to explain everything in a horror film, or remove the mysterious dread. It's not quite the same as explaining a joke, curiously enough, but like horror movie explanations it restricts the audience's imagination, which is part of what makes the original, now only onstensibly, throwaway so funny. This is, in fact, my one big gripe about Shaun of the Dead, a film I otherwise adore.

But in the end that's okay, because The Cabin in the Woods has a lot more to offer. This is a stretch, but what they're going for here is not entirely unlike what Poe was after with "Premature Burial." I don't want to make too much of this, because that would be ridiculous, and I suspect I'm only making the connection because Poe has been on my mind due to the pending release of that, I can only assume, piece of horse-, bull-, and dogshit The Raven, but anyway, in that story Poe essentially sketched out the psychology of the horror genre, and laid bare why he wrote the kinds of stories he wrote. It's possibly his masterpiece, and in that sense, the sense of weight and power and all that, it's nothing at all like The Cabin in the Woods. But Goddard and Whedon sort of are trying to encapsulate modern horror and its hold on us within this one crazy little movie. In doing so, they sometimes slip under the weight of their ambition -- for instance, some of the references to other horror films are very general, while one or two are off-puttingly specific, such as one to Bryan Bertino's The Strangers that is so precisely about that movie that for a little while The Cabin in the Woods starts to feel like a spoof -- but their film shouldn't be written off as a goof. It's deeply thought-out, if not especially deep itself. And besides, if nothing else, it's a really good story, well told, one that only gets more interesting and satisfying as it goes along. The answer to the question of what this is all in aid of is one of my favorite things about The Cabin in the Woods. How often can anyone say that?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Typical Wednesday Movie Night

I'm actually not pictured. I was asked to go out for cigarettes and Taco Bell. No clue what they're watching here. They wouldn't tell me. I also asked if I could get a picture with them all, watching our next movie, since it was my home, but they said no, and then left. I ended up watching Hobo With a Shotgun by myself. Maybe they're not my real friends.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Anemia

The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse (d. Steven Spielberg) - As an unrepentant fan of the films of Steven Spielberg, I was chagrined by my own reaction to the announcement of two new Spielberg films hitting theaters in 2011, to be released a mere week apart. That reaction was basically "Oh, well, okay," because, for all the time I've spent defending Spielberg to his wrong-headed detractors, I had to admit that neither The Advenutres of Tintin nor War Horse particularly, on the surface, turned my crank. The former, based on the the beloved comic book by Herge', was one of those new "motion capture" dealies, a technology I'm ambivalent about, and leaning towards weary over, and War Horse, about a horse that passes from owner to owner during World War I, appeared to show the director wallowing in all his worst tendencies, of which only his most wrong-headed defenders could deny he has many.

So. Plus you have to remember that either one, whichever came first would be Spielberg's first film since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, from 2008, a film that is not -- and almost physically could not be -- as bad as so many claimed, but is still not very good. And I couldn't work up any enthusiasm. Therefore, it follows (maybe not for you, but it does for me) that I skipped both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse in the theaters. I've since caught up with both, however, and I'm here to tell you that I was only half right.

The Adventures of Tintin is pretty spectacular, I must say, one of Spielberg's best and most inventive action films in a very long time. Those raised on the comic books have bemoaned the loss of Herge's clean and clear drawings in favor of what they might regard as clutter and havoc, but as clutter and havoc go, it's still awfully clean and clear. It's a film that steadfastly refuses to let up, but at no point was I unsure of where I stood, of what was happening, or why. And the action itself is completely thrilling, from an an escape from a ship full of gun-wielding thugs into the middle of the not-necessarily-less-dangerous ocean, to a "one take" (not really sure what that means when motion capture is at play, but regardless) chase after various pieces of paper caught in the wind, or being snatched from one character by another, and back again, to the climactic crane fight (the big metal ones, not the birds), all crunching steel and shattering glass...well, it's all pretty breathless. And a lot of damn fun, to boot, and you don't even have to make excuses for the motion capture. It makes a lot of this possible, and given that unlike most uses of this technology on this scale, Spielberg is adapting drawings, not attempting to represent reality, so the character designs and their broadness of motion and action are entirely fitting.

War Horse, though, is about what I expected it to be. It's not quite as tiresome as I'd feared, I have to say, but it's still a big, epic, sentimental animal movie about a brave horse and the brave boy who volunteers to fight in World War I so that he can find the horse he raised and bring him home safely. Now, I'm not a total grump, I'm not entirely immune to this sort of thing, but I have my limits, and when a climactic scene -- this is going to count as a Spoiler Warning -- can be paraphrased like this:

"That horse needs to be put down. It's for its own good."

"Wait, a young blind boy is whistling! Everybody stand aside! I have no good reason to believe these two things are related, but let's not shoot the horse until we see how this pans out."

...then something's wrong somewhere. Specifically, Spielberg is either too devoted to the idea of replicating a certain time-honored, or shopworn, romanticism that he allows his imagination to run thin, or he's too willing to fall back on that romanticism as an excuse. That thinness of imagination affects his approach to combat and violence in War Horse, which is necessarily toned down from his usual approach, this being what might be called a Family Movie. And I'm entirely on board with that, and looked forward to seeing what he did with those restrictions. In some cases, as when the execution of two deserters is obscured by the slow arc of a windmill blade, it works a treat, but on a larger scale the results can be unintentionally close to slapstick. When Spielberg cuts from a wave of British cavalry to a wall of blazing German machine guns, and then to a shot of riderless horses racing over the German line, I was reminded of all those cartoons where a horse, or some other similar animal, suddenly realizes his rider has gone missing, only to find him stuck in the low branches of a tree. I also thought that those horses were damn good at dodging hundreds of bullets fired by dozens of machine guns.

The damn thing just didn't work. The episodic nature of War Horse keeps things moving at a better pace than I would have thought possible, and there are some acting highlights along the way -- Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, and Niels Arestrup were all very strong -- and I wanted the horse to live as much as the next guy. But if accepting the danger the horse is facing means I have to accept that, for instance, a German tank would go out of its way to kill a random horse for no particular reason, other than the well-known hatred Germans have for horses...well, okay, I guess now that I say it out loud it makes sense.

Fascination and Lips of Blood (d. Jean Rollin) – Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a guy who said they’d discovered this blog while searching for articles about the horror writer T. E. D. Klein. He’d found my post about Klein, and, in reading other posts by me on similar topics, had learned about Robert Aickman, and was inspired to read Aickman, whose writing he now loves. That’s a very nice thing to hear, but what I found interesting about it was that someone could be deep enough into horror literature to know Klein, but to not have even heard about Aickman. It’s certainly not inexplicable, of course – I knew about Klein before I knew about Aickman, myself – but it did make me wonder about my own gaps, in a “we don’t know what we don’t know” kind of way.

Which brings me to Jean Rollin, a filmmaker I’d never even heard of before reading a description of a scene, or an image, from Rollin’s Fascination in Steve Erickson’s film-mad novel Zeroville a few years back. Needing a good running start as I do, it took me until this past Monday night to finally get around to watching Fascination, my first Rollin, and then Lips of Blood the next night, and by then I’d learned, somewhat to my surprise, that he made the kind of 1970s horror films that were almost as much about the quantity, and quality, of the nudity contained therein as anything else. Or, sort of, anyway. Fascination is a terrific movie, and doesn’t need me or anyone else to make excuses for it. It’s set in Old Timey Days, and the plot, briefly, is a thief (Jean-Marie Lemaire) steals from some other thieves and is caught, but before they can kill him he escapes and ends up on the grounds of a beautiful old French manor, in which he finds only two young women, Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Mai), who claim to be servants. Everyone else is away, they assure him, but will be returning before too long. In the meantime, what Bernie Bernbaum once termed “bed artistry” is engaged in by Eva and the thief, and Eva and Elisabeth, with the promise of more to follow.

Except we know there’s something much more sinister going on, as Rollin’s eerie prologue, involving society women hanging around what appears to be a slaughterhouse, drinking blood from wine glasses, suggests. The vampirism that we might assume is set to pop at any moment turns out to be not quite that, but something altogether, somehow, more skeevy and unnerving. You might say it amounts to the same thing, but it feels quite a bit more unhinged to me. In any case, it all pays off beautifully, with Rollin somehow making the introduction of a coven of nude women wearing only brightly colored, but entirely see-through, sort of...smocks, I guess, not seem gratuitous. Or if it is, it’s not only that. In fact, I’d say that for all the seemingly endless attempts by writers and filmmakers to marry horror to eroticism, Rollin seems to be one of the very few to really know what he’s on about. There’s a dark thrill to it all, and to bring Freud into it, which is often the default mode in these kinds of things, is to simplify it to the point of pointlessness. Its visceral in a thoughtful way, but not an academic one. Plus, Brigitte Lahaie. Homina homina homina.

Lips of Blood is an almost, but not quite, altogether different kettle of fish. The naked ladies with the flowy pink smocks are in this, too – different ladies, but the effect is much the same – and there’s still a man wandering into worlds he’d be better off, probably, keeping clear of. But Lips of Blood is much more bizarre. As a plot, Lips of Blood has a bit more of a hook to it, a nice, old-fashioned piece of horror weirdness involving our hero (Jean-Loup Phillipe) seeing a landscape photograph used for an advertisement, on display at a party. He’s immediately absorbed by it, certain that he’s been to that place before, as a child, and met a young girl there, next to whom he slept all night. This sets him off on a quest to find out where that place is so he can go back and maybe see the girl again. Things go hinky almost right away, as the photographer who took the picture informs him that she was paid a great deal of money not to reveal that information to anyone, and as he begins to see the girl (Annie Belle) appear, and disappear, several times along his journey. The photographer, who ends up dead shortly after agreeing to give him the information she was supposed to keep to herself, only adds to his dismay.

A couple things about Lips of Blood: 1), if it contains the gratuitous-but-also-not brand of nudity featured in Fascination, it also has a fair bit of the straight-up gratuitous kind, which, as someone who would not consider himself a prude, I’m pretty much okay with, but watching this after the intriguing balance struck by Fascination, I was concerned that that film was maybe a one-off, and that from here on out a certain cheapness, in terms of straight filmmaking, would start to creep in and pollute the well a little bit. That sounds more judgmental than I’d like, but I mean it strictly in terms of Very Good Movies vs. Pretty Good Movies. However, 2) as Lips of Blood unspools it becomes, as a horror film, much more mysterious and ethereal. A bit goofy, too, as the man with the gun on the train can attest, but Rollin closes his film with a massacre and a kind of floating, spiritual doom. There’s a little bit of Roger Corman’s Poe films in this ending, even more so than in the seemingly more Corman-esque Fascination. By the end of it, Lips of Blood, a film set in the year it was made, is concerned with matters far more ancient than Fascination, with its period trappings. None of which is meant to imply that I don’t think Fascination is a better film. I remember reading someone exalt one particular film over another particular film by saying it was “more complete.” I’m not really sure what that means, but whatever it means I bet it applies here. But if Lips of Blood isn’t better, it is more interesting.

So, Grapes of Death next, probably. Or The Night of the Hunted.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Today is a Day of April Firsts!

Shopping cart! Shopping cart! Oh my no, I am stuck in shopping cart rolling away! I AM ROLLING AWAY! Who is it to save me!? My fear is of cars! Oh, who can put me inside of a shopping cart!? And for why is their reason!? To destroy my life?! Below you can see a shopping cart very much not at all different from the one I am in going into the street with cars. My death is soon.

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! AH AH HA! I FOOLED YOU ALL! Today I am not within a shopping cart to my death! Today I am at home safely, no shopping carts or death even near me! But why would I do this? On today of all the days!? Because today is a "April First", or "Fools" Day, and on the day you fool all who love you into thinking you will die. APRIL FIRST!!!

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