The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse (d. Steven Spielberg) - As an unrepentant fan of the films of Steven Spielberg, I was chagrined by my own reaction to the announcement of two new Spielberg films hitting theaters in 2011, to be released a mere week apart. That reaction was basically "Oh, well, okay," because, for all the time I've spent defending Spielberg to his wrong-headed detractors, I had to admit that neither The Advenutres of Tintin nor War Horse particularly, on the surface, turned my crank. The former, based on the the beloved comic book by Herge', was one of those new "motion capture" dealies, a technology I'm ambivalent about, and leaning towards weary over, and War Horse, about a horse that passes from owner to owner during World War I, appeared to show the director wallowing in all his worst tendencies, of which only his most wrong-headed defenders could deny he has many.
So. Plus you have to remember that either one, whichever came first would be Spielberg's first film since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, from 2008, a film that is not -- and almost physically could not be -- as bad as so many claimed, but is still not very good. And I couldn't work up any enthusiasm. Therefore, it follows (maybe not for you, but it does for me) that I skipped both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse in the theaters. I've since caught up with both, however, and I'm here to tell you that I was only half right.
The Adventures of Tintin is pretty spectacular, I must say, one of Spielberg's best and most inventive action films in a very long time. Those raised on the comic books have bemoaned the loss of Herge's clean and clear drawings in favor of what they might regard as clutter and havoc, but as clutter and havoc go, it's still awfully clean and clear. It's a film that steadfastly refuses to let up, but at no point was I unsure of where I stood, of what was happening, or why. And the action itself is completely thrilling, from an an escape from a ship full of gun-wielding thugs into the middle of the not-necessarily-less-dangerous ocean, to a "one take" (not really sure what that means when motion capture is at play, but regardless) chase after various pieces of paper caught in the wind, or being snatched from one character by another, and back again, to the climactic crane fight (the big metal ones, not the birds), all crunching steel and shattering glass...well, it's all pretty breathless. And a lot of damn fun, to boot, and you don't even have to make excuses for the motion capture. It makes a lot of this possible, and given that unlike most uses of this technology on this scale, Spielberg is adapting drawings, not attempting to represent reality, so the character designs and their broadness of motion and action are entirely fitting.
War Horse, though, is about what I expected it to be. It's not quite as tiresome as I'd feared, I have to say, but it's still a big, epic, sentimental animal movie about a brave horse and the brave boy who volunteers to fight in World War I so that he can find the horse he raised and bring him home safely. Now, I'm not a total grump, I'm not entirely immune to this sort of thing, but I have my limits, and when a climactic scene -- this is going to count as a Spoiler Warning -- can be paraphrased like this:
"That horse needs to be put down. It's for its own good."
"Wait, a young blind boy is whistling! Everybody stand aside! I have no good reason to believe these two things are related, but let's not shoot the horse until we see how this pans out."
...then something's wrong somewhere. Specifically, Spielberg is either too devoted to the idea of replicating a certain time-honored, or shopworn, romanticism that he allows his imagination to run thin, or he's too willing to fall back on that romanticism as an excuse. That thinness of imagination affects his approach to combat and violence in War Horse, which is necessarily toned down from his usual approach, this being what might be called a Family Movie. And I'm entirely on board with that, and looked forward to seeing what he did with those restrictions. In some cases, as when the execution of two deserters is obscured by the slow arc of a windmill blade, it works a treat, but on a larger scale the results can be unintentionally close to slapstick. When Spielberg cuts from a wave of British cavalry to a wall of blazing German machine guns, and then to a shot of riderless horses racing over the German line, I was reminded of all those cartoons where a horse, or some other similar animal, suddenly realizes his rider has gone missing, only to find him stuck in the low branches of a tree. I also thought that those horses were damn good at dodging hundreds of bullets fired by dozens of machine guns.
The damn thing just didn't work. The episodic nature of War Horse keeps things moving at a better pace than I would have thought possible, and there are some acting highlights along the way -- Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, and Niels Arestrup were all very strong -- and I wanted the horse to live as much as the next guy. But if accepting the danger the horse is facing means I have to accept that, for instance, a German tank would go out of its way to kill a random horse for no particular reason, other than the well-known hatred Germans have for horses...well, okay, I guess now that I say it out loud it makes sense.
Fascination and Lips of Blood (d. Jean Rollin) – Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a guy who said they’d discovered this blog while searching for articles about the horror writer T. E. D. Klein. He’d found my post about Klein, and, in reading other posts by me on similar topics, had learned about Robert Aickman, and was inspired to read Aickman, whose writing he now loves. That’s a very nice thing to hear, but what I found interesting about it was that someone could be deep enough into horror literature to know Klein, but to not have even heard about Aickman. It’s certainly not inexplicable, of course – I knew about Klein before I knew about Aickman, myself – but it did make me wonder about my own gaps, in a “we don’t know what we don’t know” kind of way.
Which brings me to Jean Rollin, a filmmaker I’d never even heard of before reading a description of a scene, or an image, from Rollin’s Fascination in Steve Erickson’s film-mad novel Zeroville a few years back. Needing a good running start as I do, it took me until this past Monday night to finally get around to watching Fascination, my first Rollin, and then Lips of Blood the next night, and by then I’d learned, somewhat to my surprise, that he made the kind of 1970s horror films that were almost as much about the quantity, and quality, of the nudity contained therein as anything else. Or, sort of, anyway. Fascination is a terrific movie, and doesn’t need me or anyone else to make excuses for it. It’s set in Old Timey Days, and the plot, briefly, is a thief (Jean-Marie Lemaire) steals from some other thieves and is caught, but before they can kill him he escapes and ends up on the grounds of a beautiful old French manor, in which he finds only two young women, Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Mai), who claim to be servants. Everyone else is away, they assure him, but will be returning before too long. In the meantime, what Bernie Bernbaum once termed “bed artistry” is engaged in by Eva and the thief, and Eva and Elisabeth, with the promise of more to follow.
Except we know there’s something much more sinister going on, as Rollin’s eerie prologue, involving society women hanging around what appears to be a slaughterhouse, drinking blood from wine glasses, suggests. The vampirism that we might assume is set to pop at any moment turns out to be not quite that, but something altogether, somehow, more skeevy and unnerving. You might say it amounts to the same thing, but it feels quite a bit more unhinged to me. In any case, it all pays off beautifully, with Rollin somehow making the introduction of a coven of nude women wearing only brightly colored, but entirely see-through, sort of...smocks, I guess, not seem gratuitous. Or if it is, it’s not only that. In fact, I’d say that for all the seemingly endless attempts by writers and filmmakers to marry horror to eroticism, Rollin seems to be one of the very few to really know what he’s on about. There’s a dark thrill to it all, and to bring Freud into it, which is often the default mode in these kinds of things, is to simplify it to the point of pointlessness. Its visceral in a thoughtful way, but not an academic one. Plus, Brigitte Lahaie. Homina homina homina.
Lips of Blood is an almost, but not quite, altogether different kettle of fish. The naked ladies with the flowy pink smocks are in this, too – different ladies, but the effect is much the same – and there’s still a man wandering into worlds he’d be better off, probably, keeping clear of. But Lips of Blood is much more bizarre. As a plot, Lips of Blood has a bit more of a hook to it, a nice, old-fashioned piece of horror weirdness involving our hero (Jean-Loup Phillipe) seeing a landscape photograph used for an advertisement, on display at a party. He’s immediately absorbed by it, certain that he’s been to that place before, as a child, and met a young girl there, next to whom he slept all night. This sets him off on a quest to find out where that place is so he can go back and maybe see the girl again. Things go hinky almost right away, as the photographer who took the picture informs him that she was paid a great deal of money not to reveal that information to anyone, and as he begins to see the girl (Annie Belle) appear, and disappear, several times along his journey. The photographer, who ends up dead shortly after agreeing to give him the information she was supposed to keep to herself, only adds to his dismay.
A couple things about Lips of Blood: 1), if it contains the gratuitous-but-also-not brand of nudity featured in Fascination, it also has a fair bit of the straight-up gratuitous kind, which, as someone who would not consider himself a prude, I’m pretty much okay with, but watching this after the intriguing balance struck by Fascination, I was concerned that that film was maybe a one-off, and that from here on out a certain cheapness, in terms of straight filmmaking, would start to creep in and pollute the well a little bit. That sounds more judgmental than I’d like, but I mean it strictly in terms of Very Good Movies vs. Pretty Good Movies. However, 2) as Lips of Blood unspools it becomes, as a horror film, much more mysterious and ethereal. A bit goofy, too, as the man with the gun on the train can attest, but Rollin closes his film with a massacre and a kind of floating, spiritual doom. There’s a little bit of Roger Corman’s Poe films in this ending, even more so than in the seemingly more Corman-esque Fascination. By the end of it, Lips of Blood, a film set in the year it was made, is concerned with matters far more ancient than Fascination, with its period trappings. None of which is meant to imply that I don’t think Fascination is a better film. I remember reading someone exalt one particular film over another particular film by saying it was “more complete.” I’m not really sure what that means, but whatever it means I bet it applies here. But if Lips of Blood isn’t better, it is more interesting.
So, Grapes of Death next, probably. Or The Night of the Hunted.