Monday, June 24, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 5: Smooth Sailing

The man, or the character, pictured above is known only as either "ConSec Scanner," or, in an even greater blow to his humanity, "First Scanner." He's played by Louis Del Grande, though not in the still offered here -- Del Grande would not have been needed for that take. To give credit where it's due, which is sort of where I'm going here, and to put a face to a name, here's First Scanner in happier times:
These two versions of First Scanner, and Louis Del Grande, combine to form the central image, not only of Scanners, the film in which they appear, but arguably of David Cronenberg's entire career, and his is a career absolutely stuffed with defining imagery. Scanners, the filmmaker's follow-up to 1979's The Brood, was released in 1981, and was based on a concept, though not quite script, he'd previously called The Sensitives, and which had been floating around in his head for a long time. Scanners would go on to become Cronenberg's first major hit, of which there haven't been a great many, and I think it's reasonable to say that what put asses in seats was that exploding head. There had been exploding heads in films before, and not even long before -- Tom Savini blew up a zombie's head in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead from 1978, and he blew up his own head in 1980's Maniac, directed by William Lustig. The difference, I suppose, apart from distribution issues (which probably has more to do with the impact at the time of the Scanners scene than anything I'm about to say), is the fact that in the Romero and Lustig films, the bursting head arrives either in the midst of other violent mayhem, or follows several such moments, so that you already know what kind of film you're dealing with. The explosion, on the other hand, of First Scanners' head is the point in Scanners where you realize what you're in for.

I'm focusing, for the moment, on this scene, because for one thing in writing about Scanners you can't not, but also because Louis Del Grande gives one of my favorite performances in the film. He's not in it much, he only has the one scene, but in his few minutes he gets across solid, slightly bored, slightly impatient, but not rude, professionalism, as he attempts to conduct a kind of seminar on and demonstration of the telepathic abilities of the titular "scanners," as well as, following his key mistake of selecting as a volunteer a man named Darryl Revok who looks uncomfortably like the intense character actor Michael Ironside (Michael Ironside), confusion that quickly changes to fear that quickly changes to terror that is quickly washed away by a kind of pain and loss of bodily control that we can't even imagine, particularly when we see where it leads. What must it feel like just before that happens? I'm not saying Del Grande's performance makes it possible for us to know, but it does make it possible for us to think about it. It's all brought about by Revok, of course, and forget about his casually half-assed "I didn't do it," a claim whose believability doesn't seem to concern him even as the ConSec agents who swarm around him just seconds after First Scanner is shown across take him into custody. We'll learn soon enough why Darryl Revok doesn't give a shit who does or doesn't believe him.
Some narrative context is probably in order here, but please, not too much: Darryl Revok is a "scanner," a telepath of immense power -- though the level of power is not equal among scanners -- who is tracking down other scanners across Canada in order to recruit them for his underground army. If they say no, we learn, he murders them. Most of this happens off stage, though, as the film focuses on Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), an apparently homeless man who we first meet stealing food from treys in a mall food court. Vale is also a scanner, but doesn't know or understand any of this -- as far as he knows, he's just crazy, though the negative physical impact his thoughts can have on others must, at a certain point, have gone beyond mere coincidence in his mind, but he couldn't tell you any more than that. That is until he meets Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the man who knows more about scanners than anybody else (we will also learn, without shock, that he's the person behind this phenomenon, having developed a drug called Ephemerol, whose use and impact recall the thalidomide tragedy), and whose corporation, ConSec, has designs on scanners, and Vale in particular, that while hardly selfless -- the word "weaponized" makes an early appearance, though less is made of this than you might expect -- is at least gentler and less globally destructive than what Revok has in mind. The gist of the plot, its structure, is that Vale, a scanner whose powers we gather are at least on par with Revok's, at Ruth and ConSec's bidding, goes on a journey to track down Revok and stop him creating a scanner army powerful enough to take the world over from "normals." Us, in other words.

This summary, which gave me no pleasure to write, does nevertheless illustrate what the whole thing is with Scanners, which is that it's practically an action movie. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Chris Rodley says it's the closes Cronenberg has ever come to science fiction -- this, if I may say so, is hogwash. Science fiction is a strong element to almost every film Cronenberg made up to M. Butterfly and Crash, which are the last two films covered in Rodley's book. As I've said before, his first two, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, are quite pure examples of a certain type of science fiction, and science fiction is as important to Shivers and Rabid and The Brood as it is to Scanners -- it's just that Scanners has more computers in it. But it's built in a fairly typical way: innocent but unique man is recruited by powerful organization to track down and defeat a renegade version of himself. The formulaic nature of Scanners may or may not contribute to a very curious facet of my relationship with the film, which is that I've now seen it three or four times, yet going into this last viewing I clearly remembered only two things about it -- the exploding head, and the blown out eyes that feature later in the film. Ordinarily when this happens, the actual rewatching of a film that has dropped through a hole in my memory will spark some amount of recollection, as happened when I recently rewatched The Brood. Nothing really came back to me with Scanners, so my third or fourth viewing, which occurred yesterday, might as well have been my first. I remembered nothing about the plot, or the characters, or the relationships between them; I recalled only a couple of the show-stopping effects, and not even many of those (Scanners racks up perhaps the biggest body count of any of Cronenberg's movies). I find this very curious, though you may not find it very interesting, and why should you? But I'm still left wondering why this happens with Scanners.
In any case, it’s a strange thing, as Scanners is both good and memorable, or you’d think it would be, anyway. Yet there’s still something standard-issue about it. Of his state of mind while making the film, Cronenberg tells Rodley:

I’d remarried; I’d had another kid, and was feeling much more optimistic about things in general. I was exploding heads just like any other young, normal North American boy.

So Scanners is the kind of movie you make to celebrate moving past the unpleasant experiences that led to The Brood. Fair enough, I’d say. But there’s a personal, individual aspect that’s missing from Scanners. This isn’t to suggest that an artist needs to be in the throes of misery in order to do great work, because that’s stupid, but I am left grasping for the kind of intangible quality, the mysterious element that is so commonly a part of Cronenberg’s work. As I said in the last installment of this series, The Brood works within a formula as well, but in that case the formula is inextricably bound up with the strangeness and the emotional punch that help make it so interesting, and so great. In Scanners, the formula is not so intimately tied with anything else. In a sense, I suppose The Brood and Scanners are similarly hitched to their formulas, but the difference is that Scanners carries nothing else along with.

All of which sounds very negative, and also puts me in the unusual-for-me position of seeming to rag on the concept of formula. As much as I loathe the phrase, and the thinking that leads to it, writing about Scanners has made it slightly (slightly!) easier to understand how someone can find themselves writing the words “It transcends its genre.” But please note, I haven’t said that, and if I ever do you have my permission to shoot me dead. It’s just that, and I suppose this should be obvious, all things being equal, “formula” is usually not as good as “formula plus something else.” And ultimately, Scanners doesn’t distinguish itself, in terms of concept, from similar films and novels that preceded it, like The Fury or Firestarter.
Still, enough with the negativity. It’s a good film. Cronenberg brought together a mostly fine cast, with Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside providing wonderful presence and menace – McGoohan, with whom Cronenberg had a somewhat fraught working relationship, is the kind of actor who only needed to show up to get the job done (Cronenberg is fond of the actor’s beard in this role, and he’s right to be), and Ironside, nice guy though I’m sure he is, was blessed or cursed with the face of a villain. But Ironside-as-villain was not the cliché in 1981 as it would eventually become, and Darryl Revok is not merely the slimy, ruthless, arrogant kind of villain Ironside would eventually play again and again. Revok certainly is ruthless and arrogant, but he also goes into terrifying rages that help bring home the threat at the root of Scanners -- this would be an Apocalypse film, if things worked out somewhat differently.
Which, okay, might as well get into it now, brings up the idea of Scanners being an optimistic film. Cronenberg implies it in the above quote, and Rodley says explicitly that Scanners is more optimistic than one is used to from his films. However, the frankly insane, horribly brutal showdown between Vale and Revok at the end – the Apocalypse in miniature – does not signal any kind of lightness of mood with which the viewer can leave the film. Even when Jennifer O’Neill, as a good-hearted scanner Vale eventually joins up with, stumbles upon the aftermath, and finds that the skin-flaying, fiery, blood-spattering battle turned out slightly better for Vale than we’d believed, and the defeat of Revok was of a rather different nature than we’d assumed, you still have…well, okay, spoilers, what happens is, somehow or another in Vale’s bloody defeat of Revok – and the two, we’ve learned, are brothers – the mind of Vale, or the consciousness, was transplanted, or transported, to the bod of Revok. Neither man’s physical body, you’d think, would have survived the battle in a state conducive to things like “standing up” or “breathing,” but that’s how it worked out – the film takes enough of an awed view of the powers wielded by Vale and Revok that this is easy enough to go along with. But the thing is that the last image we have is of Michael Ironside as Vale/Revok, revealing himself from under a coat, having been in a corner huddled under this, wide-eyed and saying something like “We won” before the screen goes to white. And this is Ironside saying this. There’s more than a tinge of “…Yay?” in one’s, or my, reaction to this. The worst part of Revok may have died, and the best part of Vale may have survived, but the person telling us this looks insane, and his capacity for destruction we know to be enormous.

And of course we know this not only because of that Revok/Vale showdown, during which both men had to pull out every ounce of their power in the face of something at least as strong and dangerous as themselves, but also because, way back near the beginning, First Scanner, a man we can only assume had the ability to look at us funny and thereby cause us to hemorrhage, sat down to do what he believed was a routine task, thinking that later on he’d head on back to ConSec and file a report and maybe get lunch. But instead Darryl Revok sat down next to him, and caused him very brief but unspeakable anguish, before releasing him. If there’s something intriguing and mysterious to Scanners, it can be found in the head of First Scanner. For a few moments, anyhow.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ashes and Pus

In his essay included in the booklet that accompanies Criterion's release of Frantisek Vlacil's Marketa Lazarova, Tom Gunning says (among many other things, obviously), "I confess it took me four viewings before I figured out the incidents of Marketa Lazarova's plot (I am still not sure I know the names of all the characters or can fully explain their family relations)." Which, boy is that a relief. Marketa Lazarova is not a film that lends itself to easy absorption, but one doesn't like to learn that one is alone on these matters. And it's not as if the film is so utterly bewildering -- my moments of uncertainty while watching it were signaled not by thoughts of "What the hell!?" but rather "Well but wait a second." You can see the distinction, I hope. Films like Marketa Lazarova -- not that there's so very many of those -- challenge the viewer's ability to find a grip on the narrative very insidiously by not seeming to be that challenging in that regard. It's not obviously fragmented like Godard, nor is it such a naked piece of lunacy as, say, Sweet Movie (and thank Christ for that), but the logic it follows is not necessarily your logic, which, given all sorts of things, is fitting.

So the the thing to do here is to let Marketa Lazarova just happen to you, which I was eventually -- some way into it, I'll admit -- able to do. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that my favorite chunk of this 165 minute film was roughly the last hour. But I believe I'm getting ahead of myself here. Marketa Lazarova begins with a scene that actually establishes quite a bit of context for what follows. Set in the Czech region during the medieval era, Marketa Lazarova opens with a royal procession riding through the countryside. Two men who are not part of this procession are nearby, one, named Mikolas (Frantisek Velecky), is observing in secrecy from a cluster of tall grass, and another, named Adam (Ivan Paluch) -- a one-armed man who we will learn is Mikolas's brother -- makes some glancing contact with some of the soldiers, who regard him as a helpless peasant. This assumption helps lead to their downfall, as first Adam, then Mikolas, and then others following their lead, attack the procession, killing many, plundering all, and taking one prisoner, a young man named Christian (Vlastimil Harapes). This raiding party is part of one vast family, or at least a village of raiders that is led by one family, and ruled by their patriarch, Kozlik (Josef Kemr). Found scavenging by Mikolas among the wreckage of the decimated procession -- which was in service of the king, remember -- is Lazar (Michal Kozuch), the leader of his own, rather less aggressive clan. As Mikolas threatens Lazar's life, for trying to reap the spoils, or some of them, of his own clan's murderous work, Lazar pleads for mercy on behalf of his daughter Marketa (Magda Vasaryova), who he says would be ruined, and doomed, without him. Mikolas bends, and takes Lazar captive, for a while. More immediately important is the fact that the actions of Mikolas and his men have urged the king -- who we never see -- into retributive action, and he sends out what I guess would be called a military deployment, led by Captain "Beer" (Zdenek Rehor)(and "Beer" is a nickname, by the way), to defeat Kozlik's family. The fact that none of these three groups are notably different in kind from each other is not at all easy to lose sight of. Lazar may be less easily moved to brutality than Beer or Mikolas or Kozlik, but that's only because he's found that a lack of honor provides its own temporary rewards.

You may have noticed how nimbly I glossed over the presence of Marketa, Lazar's daughter, even though she is our titular character. Until the last section, Marketa, who is nevertheless very present, is not the central focus. For a while, she exists as a figure in vague, ethereal flashbacks, sometimes flashfowards, maybe dreams. Her father’s belief that she would be helpless without him is perhaps true – throughout the movie, she is either being made to do something, such as enter a convent, or victimized, as when she is kidnapped by Mikolas. Yet even so, she’s introduced to us with images that include this:
What is this? Does it hint at some hidden level of sinister motivation in Marketa? It would seem to initially, but finally doesn’t. This is the beginning of Marketa Lazarova’s fog of unanswerable mystery, which persists even if, on a narrative level, the film appears to scan. But throughout, Vlacil adds oddities of sound and image that made the whole thing seem distorted and otherworldly: voices echo strangely, some voices come from nowhere -- in one scene of dialogue between two characters, I wasn't sure the actors' lips were moving. Before Marketa steps forward to take part in the "present day" action, can we be sure that her scenes have actually happened? I'm going to go with "yes" on that one, simply because as the film progresses such dreamy, or nightmarish, moments do not belong to her exclusively, and the impact of some of what occurs in those scenes is clear and lasting.
The otherworldly nature of Marketa Lazarova does finally seem logical. Among other things, the film strikes me as one of the most authentic ever set in the medieval era. Authentic to me, anyway, which is no kind of bar for anyone to be proud of clearing, but even so there's an everyday quality to the grime and the brutality here, nothing ostentatiously designed about any of it. If Terry Gilliam was one of the first roughly mainstream directors to put the shit back in the Dark Ages, he still wanted you to know he'd put the shit there. Vlacil just puts the shit there. But Vlacil's great accomplishment in terms of tone and style here is achieved through the photography, on which he worked with cinematographer Bedrich Batka. Marketa Lazarova is a gorgeous film, and the black and white images are the sort that make you think the natural color reality being photographed wasn't all that colorful to begin with. We've landed on black and white from black, white, and brown, so that somehow the stylishness of black and white mixes with a realism that is then juddered off its axis. Water looks like dirty milk, and dead trees make you doubt they were ever leafy, and wolves look and behave like wolves but also call to mind demons or angels of death. There's a major character who is introduced about halfway through the film, a strange monk named Bernard (Vladimir Mensik), who has an unnatural relationship with his sheep. There's a huge number of things that Vlacil does not do with this information, to the degree that this is all close to being merely implied, but anyway at one point the sheep is killed and beheaded, not by Bernard, and its head is hurled into the woods. Vlacil shoots the head flying away from the camera, striking the ground, and bouncing and rolling down a hill. Many things are communicated, but one of the more hidden, yet obvious, is the fact that this is a grotesque, surreal, nightmarish image that did not need to be manipulated in any way to achieve that tone, short of film it in black and white, which, as I've said, is just one level of color less than we would have gotten anyway. More than anything, it reminds me of something that William H. Gass (I believe it was) said, which, to paraphrase, was that in prose a decapitation could be described with as much beauty as a flower.

That's Marketa Lazarova, in the smallest nutshell I could find. It's rich, perplexing, strange, horrifying, and graceful -- graceful in its craft, and achieving grace through the suffering it depicts. Sort of, or almost.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

All the Universe

Recently I've been catching up a little bit with the major novels of H. G. Wells. One of those is perhaps his most famous work, The War of the Worlds, from 1898. Late in that novel, after it seems well-established that mankind is doomed to at best, or perhaps at worst, to wind up its time in the universe as ants to the terrifying Martians who have brutally invaded Earth, the unnamed narrator is faced with a terrible moral dilemma as the behavior of the man to whom he has found himself unwillingly hitched, a curate who is also unnamed, becomes increasingly unhinged and threatens to expose them both to the nearby aliens. The steps the narrator takes to save himself help to shape the novel into a somewhat fascinating look at the shifting morals of people in extreme crisis, but it's not what interests me at the moment. What interests me is what the curate says at one point that helps lead the narrator to conclude that the man has gone insane:

"It is just, O God!...It is just. On me and mine be the punishment laid. We have sinned, we have fallen short. There was poverty, sorrow; the poor were trodden in the dust, and I held my peace. I preached acceptable folly - God, what folly! - when I should have stood up, repent!...Oppressors of the poor and needy....The wine press of God!"

Disjointed, I think we can agree, not to mention simplistic in his willingness to throw all of humanity on the trash heap for what he regards as his own failings. I don't believe Wells would disagree with those objections, but it's also pretty clear, even if you know just a little bit about Wells (for the record, I know just a little bit about him), that the general sentiment behind the curate's word is one he would embrace. Social reform, in the form of Socialism, and pacifism, among other perhaps related philosophies, drove much of his writing life, which was far more expansive than most people realize. But what I find somewhat interesting about the curate's rant is that it's meant to be the key to the reader that the character is now beyond saving. This can be taken any number of ways, I suppose, among them that this is simply an example of the stock sandwich board-wearing madman shouting mad prophecies that, we only realize later, contained at least some truth. In any case, it sets up a conflict within The War of the Worlds between how we might wish to be and how catastrophe sometimes forces us to be.
In his excellent commentary track for the upcoming Criterion release of Things to Come, the Alexandra Korda-produced, William Cameron Menzies-directed, but H. G. Wells-dominated 1936 science fiction social and technological "history," David Kalat points out that this sort of conflict, even contradiction, between Wells's early fiction and his politics was not uncommon, and not lost on Wells himself. This understanding helps lock Things to Come, which was based on Wells's 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come, as a kind of deck-clearing, with the space created meant to be filled with this film: This Is What I Believe. And you shouldn't be concerned that those beliefs might be expressed too subtly for you to grasp -- this is the kind of film in which one soldier races to the side of one of his wounded comrades and says "When will we stop murdering each other!?" Things to Come is an intense piece of rhetoric and sermonizing, mixed with equally intense predictions (which obviously go hand in hand with the former), ambition, and cinematic design. As Kalat makes clear in his commentary, the world and ideas and people, such as they are, and intellectual and moral force were all Wells, while the visuals of the film belonged to William Cameron Menzies, the legendary production designer and art director, who also turned his hand to directing his own movies from time to time. As a director, Menzies' most famous film would have to be 1953's visually wonderful Invaders from Mars, but, while the goals are rather different, his work in Things to Come is no less impressive. The model work here, of which there is a great deal, struck me as practically seamless, and the progression through time of the film -- from 1940 to 2036 -- feels both believable and natural.

Things to Come is really the perfect vehicle for Menzies' talents, in that it doesn't require its director to focus on those things that do not capture his interest, which in the case of Menzies, as Kalat points out, included character, performance, or (though Kalat doesn't mention this) story -- the great shame of Invaders from Mars is that it was clearly inspired by, but just as clearly not written by, Ray Bradbury. The disinterest in these elements in Things to Come is in fact part of its ambition (excluding, perhaps, performance, as actors such as Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey have to struggle to bring anything to the screen, and even if their efforts are lost, they're still appreciated). The film is structured as a series of vignettes that take us through the depths and heights of a Western civilization in flux over the course of a century. It is sort of a dramatization of a history that didn't happen, though we only know that now. At the time, it was a straight prediction (Wells knew there was a big war coming, for instance, though in 1936 I'm not sure how many points he should get for that one). Characters don't mean much, some are only in it for their vignette, which might last only a few minutes. Actors might reappear, generally as the descendants of their earlier characters, but in terms of the performance required, Massey, for example, only needed to remember that he was playing the guy who was right about everything all the time. The positive side of all this is that it makes room for visionary science fiction, real science fiction, real extrapolation and thought and imagination.
As a work of political lecturing, Things to Come is interesting in retrospect, as a piece of history itself, but I have a hard time taking any of it very seriously. This sounds rather dismissive of one of the giants of science fiction, I'll grant you, but I can't, one way or the other, get very worked up about what H. G. Wells, almost eighty years ago, thought was going to happen in about one hundred years. I mean, he was wrong. Now, the accuracy of prediction is not something I require of my science fiction. In fact, the stupidest criticism of 2001: A Space Odyssey ever written was the typically stupid Stephen Hunter's dismissal of Kubrick's film on those very grounds (the piece, which I've been unable to find online, was written, I believe, in 2001, and Hunter might as well have written "A-ha!" and left it at that). But when the predictions are off, the accompanying politics lose out, too. Of course, in a way this approach made it easier for me to enjoy Things to Come because if I did take Wells' philosophy more seriously I might have been outraged by his desire for a tyrannical Utopia. In his commentary track, Kalat points out that the scene in which the wonderful airborne Utopians use chemical weapons to put down their opposition, is rather alarming, yet rarely commented on. I was somewhat stunned to learn that this is rarely commented on. The fact that the chemical weapon in question is, laughably, sleeping gas, is pretty much irrelevant -- more relevant is the fact that the gas has, somehow, killed the one guy the Utopians are really better off being thoroughly rid of. But Wells chatted with Stalin, so you can hardly say the man, good intentions or no, was as clear-eyed about things as he liked to believe he was.

But Things to Come wins out in the end, because Wells had a ferocious imagination (just think about all the science fiction concepts that are as common to that genre as ghosts and vampires are to horror that Wells did first), and here he was joined up with the technical genius of William Cameron Menzies and the outsized ambition of Alexander Korda. And even if Things to Come is wrong about where we've come in the last eighty-some years, it is specific and thoughtful enough about the time in which it was made, that the filmmakers were building from, to achieve its own historical significance, and its own place in the annals of 20th Century imaginative philosophy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 4: We Plant Pumpkin Seeds


In both David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg and Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker talks about his life in 1979, and how it led to the film that would follow Fast Company in pretty much the exact same terms. This is perhaps to be expected, but it's the first time while reading these two books that there has been such a heavy overlap in Cronenberg's words. After Fast Company, he was scheduled, through the Canadian tax shelter he was using to finance his movies, to make a film, the germ of which would eventually become Scanners. But at the time, he was going through a divorce with his first wife, and a related and painful custody dispute involving his first child, a daughter. Cronenberg feared for his daughter's safety, because he says his wife was involved in a near-cultish, semi-hippie group of people, and wanted to take their daughter to California. This situation culminated in Cronenberg taking -- "kidnapping" is the word he uses -- his daughter away from her school without permission, which itself led to his ex-wife signing over the parental rights to him. All of which, in turn, got into his head in a way that he was driven to write, and push to film, not the early version of Scanners, but something else far more personal, personal to a degree he says he's never experienced since, the angriest, most bitter, most desperate, and probably the scariest film of his career. The film, which came out in 1979, the same year as Fast Company, is The Brood, his first masterpiece, and a film, he tells Grunberg, that has "a real sense of vengeance in it."

Which comes through pretty clearly. There's a great deal that's very interesting and very disturbing, in, I'd say, the best possible way, about The Brood, and so I'd like to dispense with the dreaded plot synopsis right out of the gate, because one of the interesting things about the film is where the characters are, and where the viewer is, when the film begins. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) are divorced. Their daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) lives with Frank, while Nola is secluded at the Somafree Institute, where Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is conducting experiments and performing therapy sessions based on "psychoplasmics," which is intended to purge the patient of the psychological traumas of their pasts by forcing that psychology to manifest themselves as actual physical changes in their bodies. This is not based on nothing, as Cronenberg has pointed out that, for instance, a person under heavy emotional stress can break out into a rash, as a direct result of that stress. In the first scene, we see Raglan in a kind of theater, sitting on the stage with a shirtless man in front of him, one of his patients, going through a kind of role-playing therapy, with the patient playing his childhood self and Raglan playing the parent being addressed. This all seems like the kind of faintly absurd, or clearly absurd, sort of New Age-y psychothreapeutic nonsense many of us enjoy making fun of, until the session ends and the patient collapses into Raglan's arms, and we see sores, or lesions, all over the man's back. In the audience watching this is Frank, who has come to the institute to try and see Nola, but he's informed, as he has been before, that Nola is in no state to be seeing visitors, least of all visitors with whom she has such an emotionally tumultuous relationship. This situation disturbs Frank, but for now there's nothing he can do about it.

So this is the first interesting thing about The Brood, in a formal sense. There are three key figures in this disintegrating marriage: Frank, Nola, and their daughter Candy. In the course of the film, Frank and Nola won't even share a scene together until the end. Nola and Candy never do. What split this marriage apart, we don't know. What brought them together in the first place, we don't know. What kind of relationship Candy used to have with her mom, we don't know. But we sense there are real and specific answers to all of that, that are nevertheless irrelevant at this stage. It's all crashing down now, that's all that matters. And Cronenberg is able to do this, and avoid all of the "Well but why should I care about these people if I don't know how they met?" bullshit that plagues so many other filmmakers, how exactly? It may simply be the genre he was working in, or timing -- audiences and critics were less wound up about backstory back then, and willing to let the filmmaker tell the part of the story it was interesting to them to tell. Whatever the case, the result is that The Brood kicks off on a desperate and harried note, with Frank introduced to us as a man already in it up to his neck. Given the way things will eventually escalate, it's a wonder the man comes through it with his sanity intact. And it all, somehow, matters. I said something like this in my post about Rabid and Shivers but it bears repeating: knowing nothing but the actions on screen does not need to rob the viewer of the ability to empathize. As in Rabid, we meet the characters in The Brood after everything is different for them. What we're never told is, different from what? Yet the emotional impact is there. It speaks well of Cronenberg's grasp of general humanity, as it indicates that he doesn't need to drown you in it.

But we're not even into the meat of this thing. From here, Frank has to go back to his daily life. Candy lives with him, and he needs babysitting help. His mother-in-law (Nuala Fitzgerald) is helping him out, and shares his fear about what is happening to Nola under the care of Raglan. Then, while she's watching Candy, a series of crashes from the kitchen draw her to investigate, and she's viciously attacked and killed by, from what we can tell, a child -- blonde, like Candy -- wearing a snowsuit. This all leads to some pretty crazy shit, all adding up, finally, to the most traditional horror film Cronenberg has ever made. He himself acknowledges this, noting the "it's not over yet" stinger, and the implications of that stinger. I'd throw in that the film is structured almost like a slasher film, even though it is not that at all. But the action rises to a murder, and falls into aftermath, and rise to a murder, and so on. There's also a mystery element to this, a pretty heavy one, of the kind that slasher films originally only pretended to have, and even to the mild degree that they did stick with it, they usually let it fall away. But The Brood is a classic horror film in that the mystery (which he pays off in a hugely powerful way) doesn't have an answer that can be easily guessed, and the not knowing provides a context to shots that, without that context, could read as innocent, but with it they become creepy, eerie, and terrifying. "Scary" is not a word that often applies to Cronenberg's horror film, though "disturbing" often rushes in to take its place. The Brood, though, is scary.

That effect is strengthened by what the terrifying elements leave behind. Few directors are as attuned to the unpleasant realities of the human body, pre- and post-mortem, as Cronenberg, and the way he films the corpses here is as explicitly about them as corpses as anything from any of his later films that are perhaps more directly about violence as violence. Late in the film, Frank is seen holding in place the head of a dead woman as he checks to see if she might still be alive. When he gives up hope and takes his hands away, her head drifts and slumps in a way that is so subtly yet entirely lifeless that it's impossible to not see what Frank has seen -- or rather, not see what he has not seen. It's chilling and horribly universal: our heads will one day slide like that. It put me in mind of the flutter of Brendan Gleeson's eyes as his own lights go out in In Bruges. Both moments are like nothing else I've seen in a film in how they confront the viewer with the immediately visible biological process of death.

And all of this is even thematic, if you care, and why shouldn't you? "What is the theme?" is a question that typically bores me stupid, but not when it comes to Cronenberg (and others, but anyway), and besides that, besides his intelligence and thoughtfulness and seriousness (even through his frequent humor, which, nevertheless, Cronenberg acknowledges The Brood lacks completely) there is the fact that The Brood does something with the same kind of unabashed confidence exhibited by the only other kind of horror films that had the stones to do it. What it is, is putting his thematic concerns so far into the foreground that they not only become obvious; they become plot. The other kind of horror films that really did that, without shyness, were the classic films of the Universal era (though this does not exclude non-Universal horror films of the era). The similarities between The Brood and those films perhaps ends right there, but it's still refreshing, even exciting, to watch The Brood and see the idea that rage can infect a person and literally make you mentally and physically ill turned into the actual story. Almost every time we see Nola, she is taking part in one of Raglan's psychoplasmics therapies (as a result, Samantha Eggar shares the screen almost exclusively with Oliver Reed, and they're marvelous together; while earlier Cronenberg films had good actors and good performances in them, a corner was turned when certain internationally famous, and talented, actors began to work with him, and The Brood was that corner), and we learn, if not why her marriage failed, then we at least learn that the source of the anger that Raglan -- a mad scientist, maybe, but not an evil one -- is trying to purge from her, can be found in parts of her life and past that have nothing to do with her husband. And so when we learn that, the victims that these strange and violent little children have been murdering, begin to make sense. And the existence of the children makes sense. It all, somehow, makes sense.

Even the slide of that dead woman's head makes sense, beyond the physical reality of it, because what is The Brood if not a story about aftermath? This, again, is "theme as plot." Cronenberg's divorce and the ensuing custody battle left him bitter and angry, and, considering certain details related above, rather frightened. All of that is put on screen in a form that is entirely unhidden. Rage is the action, anger -- there's a distinction -- is the aftermath. Anger as the aftermath -- specifically, the aftermath of divorce; the film's not even an allegory! -- feeds off the characters, and makes them sick, and makes those around them sick, or it outright kills them. But it's the aftermath that is incalculable, as the film's ending makes clear. It's not a stinger in the "Oh shit here we go again!" sense that paves the way for The Brood 2; it's a stinger that acknowledges the truth of this very specific situation, in both the fantastic grotesquerie of the film we've just watched, and in its real world counterpart.

The Brood is a hugely exciting film, even now. Rarely are horror films this intelligent, both weird in their economy and economically weird, and emotionally devastating. Along with everything else, Cronenberg brings across the catharsis he felt in making the film by depicting what he dreamed about (all's I'll say is, I'm pretty sure Lars von Trier has seen The Brood) but would never, and should never, do. I'm not putting words in Cronenberg's mouth, either, he says as much in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. But it all steamed up and boiled over and spilled out and became The Brood. Horror films, and horror literature, rarely feels like it exists because the creator needed to release it. The Brood needed to be released, to infect the rest of us.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

I Am Happy


The reputation of Alan Clarke, the British film and TV director who passed away in 1990, rests primarily on four films: the TV films The Firm about soccer hooligans starring Gary Oldman and Made in Britain starring Tim Roth as a skinhead, his unusual, bleak, near-silent short film Elephant, which consists entirely of a series of brief scenes depicting seemingly random murders, though the context of the times in which it was released made it clear that Clarke was commenting directly on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Scum, a movie Clarke made twice, first for TV in 1977, and then again, because the original version was censored, in 1979 as a theatrical feature. Scum has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and I watched it last night.

Though fascinated by Elephant, I recall being dubious about The Firm (I haven't seen Made in Britain), so I believe my expectations were reasonable going in. But I do have a certain wall up when it comes to what appears to have been Clarke's philosophy, or part of his philosophy, for making films. If you're not familiar with his work, you should at least be able to tell from the not-even-thumbnail sketch of what three of his most famous films are about that Clarke was a socially-minded artist, one who wished to open the audience's eyes to what he viewed as certain social injustices or issues of the day. Okay, but there are problems inherent in this approach that I think Clarke illustrates quite handily in Scum. Scum stars a very young Ray Winstone as Carlin, who, when we meet him, is being dumped into another in a series of borstals -- what we in America might call "juvie" -- and he comes with a reputation as a tough kid, maybe a thug, bad news in any case. It is the plan of the adult administrators and guards at this new borstal to break Carlin, and to do so they place him in the same dormitory as Banks (John Blundell), the young inmate who currently runs the borstal's population through brutality. Carlin seems to not be too bad a guy, really, and along with the meek Davis (Julian Firth) and the smirking, rebellious Archer (Mick Ford), the three of them form a kind of moral coalition within the dangerous and unforgiving prison.

But here's my problem. When you read about movies, and you read the opinions people have about movies, often you'll find the complaint that a given movie has "two-dimensional characters," and, should the occasion call for this distinction, "two-dimensional villains." Myself, this kind of talk about film characters is exasperating, more often than not, for reasons not particularly relevant at the moment, but there are, I've noticed, a few exceptions to the rule that villains should not be "two-dimensional" (or "cardboard thin," if you like). First there's certain kind of action movies, which exist for reasons that render this whole point moot, but after that you're also given the all-clear to depict your villains thoughtless, uncomplicated sadists just for the sake of it all in satire, and in social issue dramas. Satire I could go on about, and I shouldn't, but okay basically what satire is now, as it's practiced today, is, is it's a license to boil the complexity out of current events because that's funny and because people will say "Hey you're pretty smart!' and then you go "I know I am!" and then when you don't make any money you can say "Man I wish people would embrace satire as a form" and the first guy will see "I agree." That's what satire is used for now. But moving on, you get to do this in social realism dramas, which is what Scum is. And please understand, it's not that I think Scum is wrong. The film takes a stance on borstals that is somewhat less that laudatory, but I will readily admit that the state of juvenile prisons in England over thirty years ago is not really my area of expertise. So in terms of what Scum is aiming for -- it's "point" -- it, and Clarke, could be dead on the money. But I'm less likely to accept that a filmmaker is in a position to make such a point if he or she sets up the adversaries of that point in his or her film as the kind ridiculously vile caricatures Clarke offers here. In order to intelligently debate a point of view, you're supposed to be able to counter the most intelligent argument the opposition can mount. Most artists who are drawn to making issue films of this sort have no interest in going that deep, so that you actually have a scene where Archer, the smart inmate, has a conversation with one of the few sadism-free prison administrators, and of course Archer, who's been in the system for a little over a year, talks circles around the man who has worked in it for thirty. Young people is where it's at! Maybe. Anyway, it's transparent nonsense -- not Archer's argument, necessarily, but the absence of any other argument, even coming from the one character who might actually have one. This, meanwhile, is the best of this sort of thing that Scum can manage. Otherwise, the prison admins do thing like look through a window at a young helpless boy being gang-raped by three other inmates, and smile. That's the argument that Clarke has it in him to tear down.

None of this is why I watch movies, though, so how is Scum with that removed? Pretty good! Ray Winstone is extraordinary -- he was something like 22 or 23 at the time, but he seems at that time to have already grown into his considerable talent. I know Winstone is kind of ubiquitous now, and everyone's pretty sure they know how good he is, but the reason for that he's ubiquitous is Scum, which kicked off his career in England, and his performance in fellow Alan Clarke alum Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, a performance that made everybody who saw it say something along the lines of "Holy shit." In Scum, Carlin is a guy who clearly has an anger problem, but isn't some kind of monster (he's not a warden for Christ's sake!), and for much of the film Winstone has to play Carlin's anger and desire for payback as something that he has entirely under control. Think about that -- it's not really bubbling just under the surface, which is a way to play both things at once. Winstone has to play one thing in a way that makes you aware that Carlin has the other thing taken care of. I don't think that's a common type of performance. Of course, eventually Carlin snaps, as he must, and that's actually a bit of a disappointment, but oh well, Scum is a prison film at heart. And as such, Clarke makes it very hard to not think about Robert M. Young's Short Eyes from 1977, the same year as the TV version of Scum but two years before this version, though the similarities here may be entirely superficial -- it's been a while since I've seen Short Eyes. But I thought about it a lot. Regardless, more clearly a source of inspiration is Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to a degree that I might regard as unfortunate if Clarke didn't pull off his version of certain moments his own blunt aplomb. Plus, in fairness, Scum passed its DNA off to, among other films, Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys from 1983. I'm thinking of a particular scene here, involving snooker balls in Scum and cans of soda in Bad Boys, that is, in its own nasty and vicious way, hugely satisfying. Which is the thing about Scum, and about Clarke -- whatever issues I take with the way Clarke chooses to depict what I believe he believed was the most important facet of this movie, the social element, he was a gifted enough artist to overcome that and create a film that is powerful as a work of art. Despite many, many claims to the contrary, these are different things, and different goals. Clarke's art succeeds, and his lecture fails, but who wanted the lecture anyway?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 3: Go Like the Pros


Back in the late 80s, David Cronenberg was tapped by Paramount to make a film about the rivalry between Formula One racecar drivers Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. The film, which would have been called Red Cars, never happened, but if it had Cronenberg's 1979 funny car action drama (or whatever) Fast Company would be viewed now as less of an anomaly. Because taken as just a film among all his other films, Fast Company makes no sense. And granted, the Cronenberg of the 1980s, when he would have made Red Cars, was quite different from the Cronenberg of the 1970s, as would the Cronenberg of each subsequent decade, but at least "cars" would now be established as a thing in his films. Even though, yes, Crash would have to be Cronenberg's other "car" movie, and there are some pretty nifty car crashes in several of his other films (Rabid has an especially good one), but cars as cars have never been an obvious element. This despite the fact that Cronenberg's love of cars and motorcycles and racing is no secret, and that, say, the telepods in The Fly were designed by Cronenberg and based on the engine of his Ducati motorcycle.

And in fact, in David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg, Cronenberg admits that he made Fast Company, which was brought to him, rather than originated by him, for the money, to support his family, and to further establish himself as a professional filmmaker. But he also says:

...I loved the subject matter and I also got into the idea of making a real B-movie, which normally wouldn't be an attraction to me. But I had John Saxon and I had Claudia Jennings and I had William Smith, so I got excited about that.

Meanwhile, in Cronenberg in Cronenberg, even though he acknowledges Fast Company as his least personal and the film in which he had the least emotion invested, he says this:

What I like most about [Fast Company] came out of my appreciation and understanding of race cars and racing machinery, which I get very metaphysical and boring about. Secondly, it really did spring out of me. I knew about racers and raced myself. I got the drag racers' particular version, which is very much a beer-drinking, wet T-shirt thing. They even had T-shirts that said "Suck my pipes": a great phrase. I made sure I got that in. Great stuff. Not my sensibility, but definitely theirs. I was doing a bit of documentary film-making with that movie. I was reading those Hot Rod magazines and was ready to build myself a hot Camaro. So I wouldn't disown one frame.

Which is what, finally, is interesting about Fast Company. The aspect of cars and such about which Cronenberg says he can be metaphysical and boring about is not really present in the film, though there are some shots from within the car, with the driver -- who, even though we know which character it is in any particular shot, is masked and helmeted and faceless and could be anybody -- dealing wordlessly with mechanical issues, that could, if you chose to go that far, be read as having something to do with an individual's separation from everyone else, and with the car as the body, and other things that, and here I agree with Cronenberg, are boring. And anyway, you have to decide that stuff's there; I don't actually believe Cronenberg was actually interested in putting it there. What Fast Company is, is what it seems to be.

Plus, it's good. This surprised me, watching it a second time. The first time I saw it, I think I was simply dealing with its very existence as a David Cronenberg film, one that had a theme song ("You're livin' in the heat!"), and other songs sprinkled around in there ("We'll go rockin' in the moonlight...we'll go rollin' into daylight!"), one that contained shots like this:

...and had some lame jokes that were only there because such jokes were expected to be in a film like Fast Company. And I couldn't wrap my head around it, coming to it so late in my experience with Cronenberg. To put it in perspective, the last two Cronenberg films I saw for the first time were Cosmopolis and Fast Company. So there was a whole career there for me to deal with. There are a couple of jokes stacked on top of each other, about two-thirds of the way through Fast Company, that are so bizarre when compared to the rest of his films as the sexually aroused insect typewriter in Naked Lunch is to the rest of human existence. But it's a good example of the kind of film it is, which sounds patronizing, though in truth I was quite pleased to be sitting there watching this movie about an aging star drag racer named Lonnie Johnson (William Smith), whose race team is sponsored by a motoroil-and-such company called FastCo. FastCo's rep is Phil Adamson (John Saxon), a corrupt man, who will work against Lonnie, Lonnie's team, and FastCo itself, for extra cash and power. Adamson forces Lonnie into taking a major race away from Billy Brooker (Nicholas Campbell), an up-and-coming young funny car racer on Lonnie's team. The resulting animosity causes Lonnie to publicly humiliate Adamson, and, later, when Adamson insults Lonnie's girlfriend Sammy (Claudia Jennings), punch his lights out. This in turn leads to more Adamson skullduggery, and an attempt by Adamson to bring Lonnie's rival, Gary Black (Cedrick Smith) into the FastCo fold. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, and Adamson is, it turns out, willing to go very far indeed.

The upshot of all of this is, Fast Company is a fun movie. There is not, I don't believe, a great deal to dissect about it, on the usual Cronenberg level. William Smith is quite good -- Cronenberg points out that as originally written by Alan Treen, Lonnie was like a character out of a Saul Bellow novel, which was both wrong for the racing environment that Cronenberg knew, and wrong for William Smith, who had been cast by then. So Cronenberg, who has a screenwriting credit, changed that. Smith plays a man who seems authentic. A good racer, a nice guy, not especially intriguing as a person, which in my view is one of the things that's intriguing about the film. More intriguing is John Saxon's Phil Adamson. Here's what's interesting about him. At one point, he goes into a pool hall to talk to Gary Black. Black is shooting pool with a guy from his crew. Adamson asks the other guy if he'd mind getting scarce for a minute, and the guy says yeah he does mind actually, and talks some sass to Adamson until Black says it's okay, take off for a minute. Another time, Adamson orders a woman under his employ to seduce Lonnie, and she refuses. He says if she refuses, then she's fired, so she says "Then fire me," and walks off. Cronenberg holds on Saxon at this moment, and while Adamson doesn't throw a fit, Saxon's expression, which is kind of blank, reads to me as the face of a man thinking "Goddamnit, why doesn't anybody do what I tell them!?"

He really is a wonderfully powerless and disrespected villain. This is not to say that at no point does he outsmart Lonnie, or win temporary victories, but pretty much everybody hates him, nobody gives a shit about what he thinks or says or threatens them with. He's just a fucking snake and when he's gone another snake will be let loose in his place. That snake might even be better, because he could hardly be worse. And Saxon, like I even need to say it, is wonderful. He's one of those seemingly effortless talents, who can sketch in a lot just with the way he looks at somebody. There's another scene where Adamson walks in on an intimate moment between Sammy and Lonnie. Adamson didn't used to be married to Sammy, he doesn't even know her as far as we can tell, but the look on his face is one not just of embarrassment, but of sadness. I don't think I'm reading too much into this. But the thing is, as I've said, everybody hates Adamson, and he knows it. He's alone. Because he's an asshole, but that doesn't make being alone any better. It's there on Saxon's face. I'd swear it is.

The ending of this film is slightly nuts -- and Lonnie has a moment that is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, but I couldn't help thinking how appallingly reckless it was, but as it turned out this is just a movie -- in a way that's both ridiculous and quite enjoyable. It's fitting, anyway, if only barely. Where you end up on the other side of Fast Company is a good, professionally made B-movie. Precisely what Cronenberg set out to make. He never gets metaphysical or boring about cards, but my, it could have been interesting if he had. Or if he'd been able to make Red Cars, which I think would have brought out the boring metaphysical side in the most glorious way. That didn't happen, so he made Crash. I think that's how this all connects up. In any case, Cronenberg was about to, or was going through, a very difficult personal upheaval at around this same time, and the film that came out of it all is, well...it's not about drag racers.

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