Saturday, November 6, 2010

Severed Heads and Vomiting Cats

In the world of bizarre films, there comes a time in every such film when the viewer asks him or herself: "What the fuck am I watching?" Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (or Hausu), from 1977, may reach that moment in record time, when the film's title is preceded, accurately but still inexplicably, by the words "A Movie". Then the title, House, appearing as puffed up, living animated letters, rises up, a deep, rumbling voice utters the title, the "O" turns into a mouth with big teeth that chomps down on nothing, then opens again, and from nowhere a severed hand falls from the maw. And we're off.
House is a true cult item, and it's recent DVD release from the good people at Criterion has turned it into one that all the kids are talking about (some of that talk has included what I suppose were at one time called "wags" wishing that Criterion were instead releasing House, Steve Milner's 1986 horror comedy, featuring William Katt, George Wendt and Richard Moll. Having seen that film, I have earned the right to wish those people would be quiet). However, the most interesting thing about Obayashi's film, at least to me, is that it counts as a cult movie only in the non-Japanese world. At one point in House, a girl goes outside and is accosted by the severed, sentient, flying head of one of her friends. The head zooms around cackling, and bites her friend on the ass. The girl runs away screaming, and the head vomits. Then it turns into a watermelon that all the other characters eat. In America, this is pure, nonsensical madness. In Japan, this is archetypal -- this is Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces-type shit. Or, knowing as I do that in Japan House was a mainstream hit, so I'm forced to conclude.
A plot summary of House is futile, and would be boring. Outside of noting that the film involves seven schoolgirls whose plans for an outing to "training camp" are upended, so they instead travel to the house of one of the girls' aunts, house and aunt both turning out to be haunted, any summary of Obayashi's film (based on an idea by his 11-year-old daughter) would just turn into a list of its insanities. This review may well turn out to be that anyway, but if so at least I'll go about it my own way. The problem is, I do not know what to do with a film like House. I am aware of some people who've put their bafflement over what Obayashi has offered them to one side, or at least tamped down on it a little, and attempted some sort of critical exegesis. More power to them, I say, but I'm neither capable nor interested in following suit. Put it like this: House goes so crazy so quickly, that an early scene in which the two main schoolgirls, named Fantasy and Gorgeous (Kumiko Oba and Kimiko Ikegami) lovingly embrace led me to think "They're going to kiss. Or turn into kangaroos." It's the kind of movie where, once the guy falls down the stairs, and his ass lands in a pot, and he begins to scoot all over the road, weaving through traffic, on his ass, in that pot, you figure everything else might as well happen, too.
Don't be fooled into thinking that House is nothing but an incoherent mess, however. It sort of isn't! In terms of narrative, and logic, and all that stuff, sure, but visually -- which you sort of have to sense is what really matters to Obayashi -- it really is pretty consistent. Theoretically, I suppose that's easy enough to accomplish in a film where anything goes, but you can't watch House and not understand that Obayashi is a director who knows what he wants. Whether or not you want the same thing is an entirely different matter, and as captivatingly absurd as the film can be at times, I found it at least as often to be the kind of movie that I wanted to tell to go fuck itself. Though far less appalling, House is not unlike Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, in that it is stylistically relentless, even assaultive, and there are times while watching House, as while watching Natural Born Killers for the first (and only) time, when I became simply bored with Obayashi's fairy tale/comic book/haunted house shenanigans. The big difference is, in House those moments of boredom alternate with other moments of shocked amusement (or whatever -- there are lots of shadings to the reactions you're likely to experience here), whereas in Natural Born Killers that moment of boredom began in minute one out of 119, and never stopped.
I don't know if House will end up being any kind of Rorschach test for its Western viewers, if one's reactions to its images of man-eating pianos and blood-vomiting cats will come to be seen as revealing of one's inner life. I hope not, and anyway, so far I don't see anyone trying to turn it into that -- it's all delighted confusion, from what I can see. My own delight is more than a little bit tempered, but even so it's nice to watch a film about Japanese schoolgirls being eaten by a house and realize that the girl named Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is the resident badass among the secondary characters, and that if the schoolgirls from House were to be interpreted in terms of American action/horror movies, she would be Jesse Ventura from Predator. She was my favorite, Kung Fu was, and I was really sorry when whatever the fuck happened to her happened to her.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I'm wondering if there is a significant difference in seeing House in a theater, as I was able to, rather than on DVD? Not simply because of the screen size, but also being around other people who are laughing or screaming (mostly laughing).

I've checked out Obayashi's earlier, experimental films on Ubuweb, as well as seen three of his other films on imported DVDs. I think one of the problems with the critical response to House is that it has often been viewed and written about without knowledge of the filmmaker, or of any knowledge of Japanese horror movies, especially the ones involving cats. I am fairly certain though that even if someone gave him more money, Obayashi would still make his films with cheap, or cheap looking, special effects.

bill r. said...

Well, I'm not entirely ignorant of this particular brand of Japanese cinema. That doesn't make it any less insane. I can see where watching this with an audience would be rather fun, though.

I don't know what aspect of the critical response you're taking issue with. Are you troubled that it's not being taken more seriously in America? Because the response has been positive, from what I can tell. Personally, I enjoyed HOUSE, and I'm glad I watched it, but my patience for this kind of thing is finite.

MP said...

I share your point of view Bill. I didn't know what to expect when I watched House and I must say that I was a bit confused at first but then I embarked on the wagon and I was in for a lot of fun. I recently reviewed House on my blog. Here's the link if you're interested:

bill r. said...

Michaƫl, you clearly put more thought into what in the world HOUSE is supposed to mean, or add up to, or whatever, than I did. Which is perfectly fine and understandable, and your take on the film certainly sounds workable to me. I just can't bring myself to view a movie like HOUSE in that way -- I'm personally interested in the insanity as insanity, rather than as symbol. I've been told that's a shallow way of looking at it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I think Peter is onto something in terms of experiencing House communally, or a W.C. Fields comedy, or a Marilyn Monroe musical, for that matter. I've seen all three with an audience in the past year, and been able to compare seeing the same movies in isolated home-theater situations within that same year, and there is an energy from a live audience that lends itself to the insanity of a movie like Obayashi's. Being able to draw enjoyment and excitement from an audience that is really responding in a genuine (nonironic) way to Fields muttering under his breath, or Marilyn's eyes widening and fluttering in the presence of a diamond tiara, or a girl being eaten by a piano is something I'll always treasure. I certainly understand your resistance to a movie like House, Bill, and I think I might have found it perhaps more trying rather than transporting had I not been lucky enough to see it with an audience first. That said, wow, the Blu-ray looks smashing.

Peter, was Oayashi a director of TV commercials at some point? If so, the difference between him and Tony Scott and Alan Parker is amusing at the very least!

bill r. said...

Jeez, guys -- I didn't think this review came off as negative as all that. This sort of craziness is not completely thrilling for me, but I do appreciate it on a certain level. Does that not come across?

Peter Nellhaus said...

Bill, your review did not come across as negative.

What bothers me is that Obayashi seems to be treated as some kind of one-hit wonder from most of the writers I have read. There appears to be little or no interest from these other writers in trying to place House within the context of Japanese horror films, or Obayashi's other work. Not that I know that much about either Japanese horror or Obayashi, but I wrote about three of his other films primarily as a response to the fact that there was little in English about Obayashi, as if he had made only one movie and nothing else.

bill r. said...

Well, I knew from Chuck Stephens's liner notes for the Criterion disc that Obayashi's had a long career. There ain't much out there that a guy like me can get his hands on, though Netflix has another Obayashi film, called SADA, which I'll definitely check out now.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated the craft and creativity of the film, yet still thought it never really pulled together. I found the interview with the director very interesting, where he recounts how they released the story of "House" in almost every conceivable medium other than film just to pressure the studio to finally produce the feature. I'd like to hear the "House" radio drama, now. Also I love the poster with the house and its giant tongue lolling down a hill, looking for its next snack.

Greg said...

I haven't seen it yet, but I think it's about the indomitable human spirit. That's what I got from your description, at least.

Yeah... yeah, definitely indomitable human spirit.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I had a great time watching this in a theater, though the tension got pretty thick as half the audience wanted to crack up, and half the audience was enraged that these ironic NYC moviegoers can't shut the fuck up and watch a movie on its own terms. Personally, I think we're supposed to laugh---to a great extent, the movie is a parody of horror movies, and particularly of the Italian flicks that I assume would've been widely available in Japan at the time.

Does it mean anything beyond movie-movie-groovy? I'd have to watch it again to say. I liked Michael's theory that it's a battle between mothers-to-be and the barren, but it's hard to say if that's deliberate. Still, even if it's not, there's a place for movies that are just out to entertain the living shit outta you, and HOUSE definitely qualifies there.

Michael C said...

Hi Bill,
I'll take a different tack to the thread of the comments and say this - I came across your piece through a mention on Dennis Cozzalio's blog. After reading what you said, I wanna watch it. I mean, hell, I was curious already, it seemed to be getting mentions EVERYGODDAMNWHERE around Halloween-time, but after your piece, my curiosity shifted to "yeah, why the hell not?" So, I'd thought I'd just say thanks for that, because isn't that what any piece of writing on film is supposed to do - poke and prod at the curiosity-button? Cheers.

bill r. said...

Anonymous - I'm not sure a movie like HOUSE can come together. What would "coming together" even mean with something like this? But I agree that it doesn't. I'm just not entirely convinced that matters.

Also, yes, I would love to hear the radio version of this. Not speaking Japanese would be a huge problem for me, though.

Greg - Kung Fu definitely represents the indomitable human spirit. You may be on to something.

Fuzzy - How can you not life? I hate ironic hipsters, too, but I think resisting ordinary human response like that can cause disease, or something. I think it's not even a question that you're supposed to laugh at HOUSE. From beginning to end, maybe not, but that's absolutely part of the idea.

And who cares if it means anything? If you can eke something out of it, then go to it, but I prefer to just let it wash over me. Or not, not "wash over me", considering what goes on in this movie, know...I prefer to just let it be.

Michael C - Thank you very much. I was very flattered by Dennis's mention, and I'm flattered by your reaction. But if you're undecided, I think "why the hell not" is the perfect approach to something like HOUSE. I means, what's the worst that can happen? But if you have any taste at all for this sort of thing, you will be at least partially rewarded. Now, how's that for ambivalence??