Wednesday, September 22, 2010

By the Time You Read This, I Will Already Be Dead

Dead set on cranking up The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!! again, that is!

Yes, October is peeking around the corner, which means that very soon film and book bloggers everywhere will be assaulting their readers with horror and Halloween themed posts. 'Round these parts, what I do is, I read horror fiction all month, and every day I write about what I've read. Simple! Yeah, for you maybe! To be honest, I came very close to not doing it this year, because -- without getting too whiny about it -- this project is a pretty big commitment. But I've done it two years in a row now, and given my tastes I want to do something for October, and if not this, then what? And if not me, then who? I mean, other than Will Errickson.

For those of you new to this blog, or at least to what I do every October (or rather, both Octobers), this link should take you to every The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!! I've written so far, so you'll have a pretty good idea of what this entails. One thing that might not be obvious is that I do my durndest to focus each post on one, or possibly two, writers I haven't covered before (which is the other thing -- every novel and story I write about will have been read for the first time, by me, for the purposes of this October dealy). I admit that I haven't stuck to this arbitrary rule every single post -- I've written more than one post at least partially covering fiction by Steve Rasnic Tem, for instance -- but for the most part that's been the plan. This year, I can't say for sure if it still will be. As I say, it's a more or less arbitrary rule, and as I enter, which I'll be doing Oct. 1st, my 63rd post of this type, the number of writers that I both want to write about, and whose work I have ready to hand, and who I haven't already covered, dwindles. Dwindles, I say, but doesn't expire, so we'll see what we'll see. I'm just giving you a head's up, for whatever that's worth.

The only other thing I want to mention here is that as I prepare for The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!!, you'll probably see far fewer new blog posts until October. I'd really like to do as much early prep work as I can before we begin, to ease some of the daily grind. So for the next eight or nine days, don't expect to see much, or anything, new here. But after that, you won't be able to get away from me! There'll be so many new posts that you'll be "Hey, that's a lot of posts! Stop it, you dick!" And I'll be "But I thought this is what you wanted!" Then you'll grab your keys and storm out, slamming the door behind you, and I'll fall to my knees sobbing. By that time, October will probably be over, so who cares?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'm Indisposed

Granted, if they lose, I'm setting myself up for a lot of shit talk in the comments from a bunch of stupid jerks, but whatever. Go 'Skins.


Friday, September 17, 2010

The Collection Project: You are Big Time!


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight is not exactly a young man’s film, but in some ways it is very much a young man’s screenplay. In the DVD commentary track, Anderson talks about struggling with the script almost from the start, and saying the way for him to bust through that is to put two characters in a room and get them talking. This method resulted in Hard Eight’s wonderful opening, with John (John C. Reilly) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) sitting in a Reno, NV diner, over coffee and cigarettes, the mysterious Sydney offering to help the sad-sack John – who’s just come from Vegas after failing to win enough money at blackjack to pay for his mother’s funeral – avoid becoming a homeless Reno reject.

As I say, this is a great scene, highlighting Reilly’s effortless comic abilities, and Anderson’s considerable gift for dialogue. It also subtly clues you into the fact that the only reason Hard Eight exists at all is because Philip Baker Hall is an actor who is alive now on this planet. Though I had, by the time Hard Eight came out on video and I was able to see it for the first time, seen Hall in Altman’s Secret Honor (as well as – and this is not insignificant – the episode of Seinfeld where Hall plays the library cop), Hall’s work in Anderson’s debut feature was still a revelation for me. Sydney is one of my favorite film characters, certainly of modern times, and Hall gives what I consider one of the great screen performances. From the beginning of the film, you know just enough about Sydney to be fascinated by him, and to admire him (so fascinating that Hard Eight is one of the films from my burgeoning movie geek years that I got my dad to watch. This sort of thing didn't always work out too well, but after watching the film I remember my dad telling me that he didn't like it at first, but the further along he got, the more he thought, to paraphrase the line he most often quoted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "Who is this guy??"). Sydney’s a remarkably decent person, decent in a very old-fashioned way, who appears to know more than anybody else how to get buy in towns like Reno and Vegas, and it’s this knowledge he’s offering to John. But there’s a very sharp edge to him as well, shown first when the knuckleheaded John (who is nevertheless expressing some understandable paranoia) reacts to Sydney’s offer of help by saying he’s not gay, so if Sydney’s looking for some boy hooker, he can forget it. Sydney’s response is to say no, that’s not what I’m after, and this is the last time I’m going to offer my help.
At various points throughout the film, Sydney is shown to be quietly angered and frustrated by any person or encounter that proves to him that basic civility and manners are evaporating, though his only recourse seems to be to make sure those values remain intact within himself, as well as, to the extent he’s able to control such things, John. A sticking point for Sydney is John’s friendship with Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a flashy, loud-mouthed, low-rent dickhead who works security at one of the casinos. When Sydney and Jimmy first meet, Sydney is playing Kino by himself when John and Jimmy come by. As they do, Jimmy uses his outside voice to comment on the physical attributes of their departing waitress. When Sydney quietly objects to this behavior, Jimmy condescendingly explains that these waitresses not only enjoy such compliments, but they’re all whores anyway. To which Sydney says, “I just don’t want it coming from my table.” It’s possibly my favorite line from the movie, delivered by Hall in a way that somehow mixes civility, exasperation, and a kind of suppressed danger.

To counteract, among other reasons, John’s friendship with the loathed Jimmy, Sydney constructs an introduction between John and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of those waitresses Jimmy was talking about. Clementine is typical Reno damaged goods, a nice young girl, lost, or close to being lost, to a life of being a waitress as a cover for really being a hooker. Paltrow is very good here, but it’s around the time of her introduction that Anderson’s writing methods, and his youth, start to show their negative influence. Shortly after Clementine and John first make googly eyes at each other, John calls Sydney in the middle of the night, begging for help. When Sydney arrives at the motel room where John told him they’d be, Sydney finds a terrified John, a tearful, weirdly angry and withdrawn Clementine, and another man, unconscious and bleeding on the bed. That man is or was one of Clementine’s clients, but for some reason he refused to pay her for services rendered, so she or John or both of them knocked him out, tied him to the bed, and called the guy’s wife, demanding Clementine’s fee as ransom.

This is, we can all agree, a very stupid thing to have done, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the long scene that follows, in which Sydney announces how stupid this is, and alternately offers the best practical advice he can and refuses to help at all, feels exactly like a scene that Anderson had no map for when he began, but he kept writing it until he’d found the exit. I’ve mentioned that Anderson is an enormously gifted writer of dialogue, but if screenwriters ever put together audition reels of their best writing, Anderson should leave this bit off. All you really get here is characters saying something, and then a minute later shouting out the same question or statement or insult, slightly reworded, or, if things have gotten really tense, one character will say “Fuck you!”, and then another character will say “Fuck you!”, or words to that effect.

I criticize with love, though, because I feel like I know what he was going through. In my own humble way, of course, and I’m in no way trying to associate myself with Anderson, but I don’t think anyone who has tried their hand at fiction, either in script form or prose, doesn’t know what it’s like to hit a dead end in your story that you simply try to write your way through. It’s like a car being stuck in the mud, and you keep the wheels spinning in the hopes that something will grip. Sometimes it do, sometimes it don’t, and this scene from Hard Eight don’t. At the very least it should have been tightened up, if not ditched outright and completely rethought. But the good news is that the narrative goal of that scene (the scene has other things on its mind, to do with character, which I suppose are more or less accomplished, however clumsily) is simply to find a reason for John and Clementine to get the hell out of Reno and leave Sydney alone with Jimmy, thereby setting up Hard Eight’s brilliant final stretch. In that stretch, which I won’t describe in detail, you find out why Sydney went out of his way to help John, a stranger at the film’s beginning, and while that explanation might be a bit too neat in terms of cause and effect, Sydney remains a largely mysterious figure by the end. Less mythic, perhaps, but still mysterious, and, in any case, Hard Eight, while by no stretch Anderson’s best work, does contain my favorite last shot (or shots) out of any of his films, and those shots would have no weight, or wit, if Sydney’s myth hadn’t been shattered.
This post is part of the Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon, hosted by Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Collection Project Capsule Reviews: We Knows What We Knows and We Keeps it to Ourselves

From Beyond the Grave (d. Kevin Connor) - This was the last of Amicus's series of anthology horror films, and it's a classic, in its way. I wouldn't claim that From Beyond the Grave is as consistently involving as earlier such films, either by Amicus (like, say, Asylum) or not (Dead of Night, which probably has yet to be beat, in this horror subgenre), but it sticks to a strong and proven formula by pulling its stories from the work of a single horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes (Robert Bloch seemed to be Amicus's go-to for this sort of thing, but not here), and gluing everything together with a thin, but still intriguing wrap-around story, which features Peter Cushing as the proprietor of an antiques shop who seems to judge people based on whether or not they wish to talk him down in price. Either way, though, if you buy something from his store, or even plan to buy something, then your goose is most likely cooked.
The quality of the stories is a bit sporadic, with the worst coming in the third out of four -- it stars Ian Carmichael as a man who talks Cushing down on a snuff box. As Carmichael leaves the shop, Cushing says "I hope you enjoy snuffing it", which gives a hint that this story is going to be the "funny" one, which was unfortunately part of the routine, more often than not. The gist is that Carmichael now has an elemental hanging around on his shoulder. An elemental is an invisible and malicious spirit, and Carmichael's, upon his return home, tries to murder his wife (Nyree Dawn Porter). They call a clairvoyant (Margaret Leighton), who Carmichael met on the train home, and whose warnings about the elemental were blithely dismissed. Well, now who looks stupid. Leighton is given the sorry role of trying to be funny without having anything actually funny to say, and much of this story, breezy as it is, comes off as a chore. What's strange about it, though, is the ending turns out to actually be quite creepy, shifting from a light-hearted tale of haunting to, in its final moments, one of genuine demonic evil. It's hard to tell if this tonal shift really works, but it's nevertheless appreciated, as it makes From Beyond the Grave's weak middle-to-end pretty bracing, in a chilling sort of way.
Meanwhile, the best story, and by far the strangest, comes just before, and it stars Ian Bannen as a sad-sack office worker whose wife despises him. He shows kindness to Donald Pleasance, an old soldier selling a meager trade on the corner, and even seeks to impress the old man by claiming a military past for himself. This lie draws him to Cushing's shop, where he tries to buy a medal to prove his past, and claims, to Cushing, that he's replacing a medal he lost. But he needs a particular certificate to show he's due such a medal, and not having one, can't buy the medal. And he never gets it, but that doesn't stop the curse of Cushing's shop from dragging this already sad man down even further into the weird and blackish world of Pleasance and his daughter (played by Angela Pleasance), a grinning, big-eyed void of a girl who somehow draws Bannen to her, due likely to her general niceness and availability.
This one, the Bannen/Pleasance story, is, as I said, quite strange, and beautifully played by Bannen and the two Pleasances. There is something about Bannen that makes him seem particularly undeserving of his fate, and the idea that Cushing's shop might only punish those who've sinned (however small that sin might seem to us) is smashed to rubble here. Cushing's shop is called "Temptations, Limited.", but poor Bannen is tempted only to go outside of his family to find someone who might be nice to him. He just didn't know how deeply within his family the bad blood actually ran.
Spider (d. David Cronenberg) - Speaking, as I was recently, about transitional films in the career of David Cronenberg, Spider, his adaptation of the Patrick McGrath novel about a deeply disturbed husk (Ralph Fiennes in the film) newly released from an insane asylum only to find his past rising up to remind him why he was locked up in the first place, strikes me as especially important. If you've read McGrath's novel, you know that it's not entirely lacking in the kind of grotesque imagery that a younger Cronenberg would have made a meal of: for instance, there's a potato that, when you cut it, bleeds, and a jug of milk in which Spider finds a tiny, shriveled, lifeless fetus (he drinks the milk anyway). McGrath has said that when Cronenberg signed on for the film, he was very excited to see how the director would execute some of those images, but Cronenberg fooled everybody by not filming any of it. Instead, Spider is almost relentlessly quiet and patient, because while co-stars Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, both excellent, kick up a storm playing two or three versions of their characters, every so often in the same scene, Fiennes barely speaks. At least, he barely says anything you can understand, instead communicating largely to himself in whispered mumbles, and scribbling in his diary, in an alien alphabet. His hallucinations are almost functional in that they deal specifically with who he is and why he is where is, and where that is. Cronenberg has stripped away the strong indications of madness McGrath supplied him with, and instead focused on evidence that is somehow both more clear and more obscure.
Spider is the kind of story that has a twist, but in this case, instead of rendering what's come before irrelevent, everything seems so much sadder at the end. Fiennes' stunning performance isn't a show-boat "I'm crazy!" piece of acting, but instead so completely removed from general humanity that unless the camera is pointing right at his face or nicotine-stained fingers, you might think he's simply bled out into the background. Cronenberg has dotted the film with a number of strong supporting actors -- such as Lynn Redgrave as Spider's unsympathetic landlady, and John Neville as his eternally fascinated and also-mad fellow tenant -- and has even made room for some of his often ignored humor ("I got a letter today from that Sophia Loren." "Oh, and what did she want?"). But most interesting of all is the realization that Cronenberg's previous film was eXistenZ, which was full of meat guns that shot teeth and fleshy game controllers whose penises you plugged into your spine. With that film, he seems to have washed his early work completely out of his system. I'd say "for better or worse", but Spider is one of his very best films, so I'm not sure there's an answer to give, or a choice to be made.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quizmaster Drei

Though he claims to be merely the conduit of one "Professor David Huxley", I know for a fact that the man behind the latest movie quiz I've been forced to complete is none other than the Diabolical Dennis Cozzalio. The upside this time around is that it's not 95 questions long. So let's just get this over with.

1) Classic film you most want to experience that has so far eluded you.

"Eluded" how? Because it's generally unavailable, or because I just haven't seen it yet, or are you saying that you want to like the film, but don't? If the first, then, I don't know, pick one: Ulzana's Raid or Losey's The Prowler, and like that. If the second, then the list is too damn long to put here, but today I'll land on...I don't even want to say. Okay, Nosferatu. Shut up, I tried to get it from Netflix a while back, and the damn disc they had was some public domain crap, so now I have to buy it. Which is fine, I just haven't yet. And if you mean the final interpretation, then Peeping Tom. I don't really dislike it, but everybody else in the world is over the moon about it, and I'm not. I really wish I was, though.

2) Greatest Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release ever.

Jeez, I don’t know. There are some beautiful ones, ones I even own, that I haven’t gotten around to watching yet, so I can’t really comment. I can say, though, that the year that Mamet’s Homicide and Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle were both released was pretty amazing. It’s like the Criterion folks said “You know what? This is Bill’s year! Come on, everybody, let’s make this a good one for him!”

3) The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon?

The Maltese Falcon. I like the novel better, which might well have something to do with it, and I like Spade more than I like Marlowe. It’s just a preference thing.

4) Jason Bateman or Paul Rudd?

Batemen stunned me on Arrested Development. He’d been completely off the entertainment world’s radar at the time, and his very appearance in the commercials made me wonder if the show was even worth my time. Then I started watching it, and he was outstanding – a brilliant comic actor. Then again, I feel like Rudd – who’s no slouch himself -- has better taste in movies. Bateman might be the best thing in a bad movie, while Rudd is more likely to be the best thing in a good movie. Plus, Role Models. So, Rudd.

5) Best mother/child (male or female) movie star combo.

Patty Duke and Sean Astin.

6) Who are the Robert Mitchums and Ida Lupinos among working movie actors? Do modern parallels to such masculine and no-nonsense feminine stars even exist? If not, why not?

Regarding Mitchum -- of course not. You might as well ask "Who's the new Lee Marvin?" There isn't one. And why not? You really want to know? It's because we're all sissies now! Myself included! I can barely hammer a nail, let alone run moonshine, and even though I smoke, I'm one of those guys who's regularly told "You don't look like a smoker." No, I don't -- Robert Mitchum looked like a smoker, and Lee Marvin looked like a smoker. I look like a guy who picked it up in college (which is more or less the case).
Regarding Lupino -- also no. Part of it here (and honestly this applies to the lack of Mitchums, too), if not much or all of it, has to do with self-consciousness. Lupino, at least on screen, lacked all self-consciousness. She just was. Being no-nonsense in the way Lupino was would now require, in the minds of those who might wish to try it, a kind of slumming attitude that would just kill the whole idea. Of course, all of this makes it sound like I hate modern movies and actors and I absolutely don't; it's just that there are new priorities and attitudes about performance now. They don't make 'em like they used to, and all that.

7) Favorite Preston Sturges movie.

The Lady Eve. It has everything, by which I mean it has Barbara Stanwyck being utterly winning, and it’s damn funny, to boot.

8) Odette Yustman or Mary Elizabeth Winstead?

Ah…I haven’t seen much of either. But Winstead, I guess. She's cute.

9) Is there a movie that if you found out a partner or love interest loved (or didn't love) would qualify as a Relationship Deal Breaker?
No, and I hate the philosophy that such things can or should be deal breakers. It requires a kind of arrogance that, even if I do possess it deep down, I try very hard to suppress, in the same way we all try to suppress unpleasant thoughts that pass unbidden through our minds. Well, okay, I guess certain things, if my "love interest" was a fan, would be hard to get past, but that would generally be because they’d indicate something more about the person, something beyond taste (and what I have in mind are things I’ve hammered on so often that I’m not going to bother listing them again). Aesthetically, though, no, I can’t think of anything. I’m lucky anyway, though, because I remember one time, waking up in the morning to find my then-girlfriend, now-wife watching Barry Lyndon, just because she was interested. She liked it, too! Unfortunately, I’ve pummeled her with movies since then, so I don’t even think she likes me anymore.

10) Favorite DVD commentary.

I don't know that I have just one. I'm a big fan of these in general, and so it's hard to narrow down, but basically any classic horror film with commentary by Steve Haberman (his one for Dracula is pretty ace) or Kim Newman and Stephen Jones (they tend to work as a pair, and I enjoy the ones they did for I Walked With a Zombie and Mark of the Vampire very much); or any classic noir with commentary by any number of people, but especially Eddie Muller. Muller is a favorite because he combines a sharp grasp of the history and biographies of those involved in the film with a genuine love of the films that he's not shy about expressing. His commentaries for Otto Preminger's Angel Face and Fallen Angel are love letters. He can barely contain himself at the end of Angel Face, for example, but he knows his shit, too. I love that.

Having said all that, the extended improv that makes up the Talladega Nights commentary is pretty hilarious, too.

11) Movies most recently seen on DVD, Blu-ray and theatrically.
I'll answer the DVD part in two ways, because I want to count rewatches and never-seen-before separately. As a rewatch, it was Joe Giannone's Madman, which is a Friday the 13th knock-off that I like because the score sounds like it was lifted from unused tracks of the BBC television version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; and never-before-seen goes to Fassbinder's Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, which is kind of a gripping oddity, I suppose. The satire on Communism seemed pretty biting to me, but I've since learned that those crazy Reds liked the movie. Whatever, dudes.

In the theater, it was The Other Guys. I don't get out much.

12) Dirk Bogarde or Alan Bates?

I want to say Alan Bates, but I’m not sure why. I've probably seen more Bates films, but both he and Bogarde were familiar to me early because of frequent, but long ago, viewings of Richard Attenboroughs' A Bridge Too Far, which featured Bogarde in a prominent role, and Mike Hodges' A Prayer for the Dying, where Bates plays the villain, and Mickey Rourke pronounces "father" as "fa'er", because he's Irish.

13) Favorite DVD extra

Well, I haven't actually partaken in this one yet, but I love that Criterion's set of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales comes with Rohmer's collection of stories, also called Six Moral Tales, on which he based the films. I plan on using that book as my gateway into his work.

14) Brian De Palma’s Scarface— yes or no?

God, no. That movie’s the worst at everything.

15) Best comic moment from a horror film that is not a horror comedy (Young Frankenstein, Love At First Bite, et al.)

What about in Witchfinder General when they torture that one guy! What, too soon?

16) Jane Birkin or Edwige Fenech?


17) Favorite Wong Kar-wai movie.

I’ve only seen two. So In the Mood for Love.

18) Best horrific moment from a comedy that is not a horror comedy.

Can I choose an episode, or rather half an episode, of a TV show? Just tonight, I watched the episode of Extras when Andy is on the cusp of getting signed to the BBC to shoot a pilot of his sitcom, but he tells his friend that the network script editor he's working with is "too gay". The aftermath of that is fucking brutal.

19) From 2010, a specific example of what movies are doing right…

Well, if what I've heard about Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan is anywhere close to accurate, then Movies in 2010 have landed on precisely the formula I've been mentally pitching to them for a long time now.

20) Ryan Reynolds or Chris Evans?

I kind of like Reynolds – he seems okay in certain roles. But I think Evans has some untapped potential. I thought he was very good in the it-sucks-but-we-have-to-do-it-anyway leadership role in Sunshine.

21) Speculate about the future of online film writing. What’s next?

That it will continue? Probably? I mean, that's my guess, anyway.

22) Roger Livesey or David Farrar?

I'm not pleased that my knowledge of Farrar's work is so sketchy, but if he manages to somehow be better than Roger Livesey, then God bless 'im.

23) Best father/child (male or female) movie star combo.

Gary and Jake Busey.

24) Favorite Freddie Francis movie (as Director).

The Skull.

25) Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth?

Is it permissible that I haven’t seen The Awful Truth? Because I haven’t. I love Bringing Up Baby, though.

26) Tina Fey or Kristen Wiig?

Fey. I think they’re both funny, but Tina Fey wears glasses.

27) Name a stylistically important director and the best film that would have never been made without his/her influence.

Robert Altman. Magnolia.
28) Movie you’d most enjoy seeing remade and transplanted to a different culture (i.e. Yimou Zhang’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.)

Maybe House of Whipcord in Japan. Wait, no, I think they already did a version. How about South Korea?

29) Link to a picture/frame grab of a movie image that for you best illustrates bliss. Elaborate.
Now you want me to elaborate? Oh yeah, I'll elaborate on that, all right! You just...wait, does that work? Is "elaborate" dirty?

30) With a tip of that hat to Glenn Kenny, think of a just-slightly-inadequate alternate title for a famous movie. (Examples from GK: Fan Fiction; Boudu Relieved From Cramping; The Mild Imprecation of the Cat People)

Jesus. The Decent Escape? Puns and I don't get along.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Semi-shitty day at work, capped off by finding that neither my keys nor my wife's keys would facilitate domestic ingress. Maintenance was called, and etc. Point is, the post I'd intended to write (which actually has nothing to do with the above-pictured film, but rather is my answers to a certain quiz that's been floating around) will have to wait a day. I know, but dry your eyes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Collection Project: A Deep Penetrating Dive into the Plasma Pool

An overview of the career of David Cronenberg would have to mark his 1986 remake of Kurt Neumann's The Fly as something of a watershed. In the view of many people, including myself, Cronenberg's The Fly is easily one of his best films, but it also works as a transitional film, coming after his semi-big Hollywood turn as the director of the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. That film feels particularly un-Cronenbergian, and in this sense the ultra-Cronenbergian The Fly could almost stand as his Blue Velvet, following his own Dune, The Dead Zone. That analogy can only really work if anybody thought The Dead Zone was any kind of disaster, but nobody does, because it's terrific and popular, so the analogy turns out to be a big whiff. In any case, the fact that The Fly is a remake is almost incidental, as the material -- especially the way the science of the story was refigured from the 1958 film, credit for which Cronenberg gives to the writer of the original draft, Charles Edward Pogue -- is so in line with what Cronenberg was all about in the early-to-mid-stages of his career that the whole project, and finished film, seems like an absolute natural for him, in the same way that J. G. Ballard's Crash would a decade later.
The film is, in short, disgusting, one of the most disgusting films of Cronenberg's very disgusting career. In Neumann's film, a scientist, through a mishap with his newly invented transportation device, is fused at a genetic level with a housefly, which results in his own head, and one hand, being replaced, respectively, with a fly's head and, ah, hand, I guess. Pogue's idea, which Cronenberg ran with, was to have his scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) suffer a similar mishap, but, instead of an instant and partial transformation, he would transform in stages, and the transformation would present, to borrow medical terminology, as his body gradually disintegrating. That's what happens in Cronenberg's The Fly, and the breakdown -- which starts, cruelly, with Brundle enjoying increased strength and energy -- is by turns sad, grimly funny, and stomach-churning. Of course, this breakdown isn't just a breakdown, because while certain aspects of his new bodily existence, such as copious vomiting, naturally appear to be the symptoms of a man who is desperately ill, they're also part of a new, accidental evolutionary step, from Seth Brundle/housefly to, as Brundle himself terms it, Brundlefly.
There is much going on in this film. First, there is Cronenberg's major early theme of body-horror, used to describe and depict in grotesque metaphor the way any of our body's might casually betray us with disease at any given moment. At one point, Brundle even says that his transformation is showing up as a sort of cancer. My problem with focusing too narrowly on this idea, in any of Cronenberg's films that employ it, is that it tends to miss the forest for the trees, which is how I feel pretty much any time someone tries to boil down the work of an artist I admire. Cronenberg himself is explicit enough when talking about his work that all that stuff is indeed on his mind (AIDS wasn't, though, when he made The Fly, despite any number of critics trying to cram that particular metaphor in there), but, as I hinted above, there's the strangely hopeless view of evolution running through The Fly, which is underlined with some vigor at the film's climax, when Brundle has been mangled up into some ungodly amalgam of man, insect and machine.
Beyond all this metaphor, though, The Fly is an intense depiction of a single character, Seth Brundle. The film really only has three characters -- along with Brundle, there is Veronica (Geena Davis), Brundle's girlfriend, and the reporter covering the various stages, first, of his work on the transporter pods which he believes will change the course of history and mankind (an ambition that is itself almost evolutionary in its scope) and later of his disease; and Stathis Borans (John Getz), Veronica's editor and former lover -- but for obvious reasons everything else in the film revolves around Brundle. And the key thing about Cronenberg's The Fly, and about Goldblum's extraordinary performance in it, is that Brundle is not simply the vehicle through which Cronenberg can express his themes and ideas. Brundle is a complete person (hell, even Borans and Veronica aren't simply idea markers here), and his graphic tragedy makes The Fly the most emotionally devestating film of Cronenberg's career.
There are certain things about The Fly which, watching it again today, struck me as newly interesting, but the emotional power wasn't one of them. I saw this film when I was about eleven, probably ten, and by the end I was a sobbing wreck. Okay, so I was a kid, but I felt almost as helpless and desolate today, as I watched Brundlefly finally give in to his despair and, his body now a complete disaster, lift the barrel of the shotgun that Veronica's holding, up to his forehead. What happens in this film is so terrible, so unfair and cosmically absurd, that you can never view Brundlefly as a monster, even at his most physically monstrous.
Which is fitting, since The Fly is also a bit of a throwback. There's a great deal of Frankenstein in Cronenberg's film ("Are you a bodybuilder?" a woman asks Brundle after he breaks a man's wrist in an arm wrestling match. "Yes," he says, "I build bodies."), both in the mad science element, and in its mournful atmosphere. But you can throw it even further back than that, because The Fly is at heart a classical tragedy. Brundle's flaws are outsized ambition and impatience (and let's not forget all the tampering in God's domain he does), and he dies for them. And the film gets there with such precision -- Brundle's rise, if only in the eyes of Veronica, and fall are sketched out in just enough detail, as is the intense love affair between himself and Veronica, which, along with the great work done by Goldblum and Davis, carries the film's emotional weight despite the fact that not a hell of a lot of time is given over to it before things go haywire. Even Borans comes through, as an asshole who might only be an asshole out of desperation.
The Fly is really pretty amazing. It's a metaphorical horror film structured as tragedy that doesn't let its themes overwhelm the people inside it. It's a gory horror film in which only one person dies (though it does make room for one of the most psychotically inventive cripplings of a character I've yet witnessed), a monster film in which the monster's lone rampage in a public area is motivated by the need to talk to his girlfriend in private. It is, in fact, the kind of film I dream about: a horror film about people and emotions, the kind of film that -- and you really must pardon me for what I'm about to do here -- fuses its genre trappings with a classic, character narrative. The maturity that Cronenberg really began to show in Videodrome and The Dead Zone was confirmed here, in spades. There was no looking back.
This post has been part of the Cronenberg Blogathon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder. I promise nothing, but I hope this is only my first contribution to this particular blogathon.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Capsule Reviews: One-Line Wonders

I think what I'll do is, I'll blow through a few movies from my collection, limiting my thoughts on each to one sentence. The movies in question are ones that I honestly don't think I have anything more to say. This is just a bit of Collection Project house-keeping, really.
Overnight (d. Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana) - Pure, glorious schadenfreude.
Not Another Teen Movie (d. Joel Gallen) - I...I swear to God, I remember this thing being's not, though.
Three Amigos (d. John Landis) - Three Amigos, on the other hand, is a friggin' hoot, and God damn anyone who says otherwise.
Turistas (d. John Stockwell) - This is basically the same experience as any number of other professionally made modern horror films, though I will note that the moral ambiguity of the villain -- his slaughtering of American tourists is motivated by the absence of good organs for donation to needy South American patients -- is pretty badly and cynically undercut by making him a cold-hearted racist.
Big Bad Wolf (d. Lance W. Dreesen) - I'd be curious to know if any of you guys have seen this thing, because it's fucking terrible.