Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Doubt Is My Bottom Line

When Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004, I knew him primarily as an actor. I’d seen him in The Killing Fields, the filming of which was an experience he would later mine for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, and Steven Soderbergh’s underrated King of the Hill, and any number of other small appearances over the years . I also knew he was a monologist, an artform I’d had little experience with, and recognized primarily, and no doubt unfairly, as a haven for the narcissistic and pretentious. Both of which may well be true, the narcissistic part almost certainly, though in the world of the creative arts why I should have singled out monologists, as opposed to everybody, I don’t know. I could try to work it out here, and the eventual answer would doubtlessly involve Eric Bogosian in some way, but I won’t bother since it doesn’t matter.

In any case, Gray’s suicide made me interested. This is a thing that happens to me when an artist I am only tangentially aware of dies suddenly, and it’s morbid and shallow and I wish it were otherwise. I’d seen clips of his monologues over the years (and I also remember Michael McKean doing a dead-on impression of Gray during McKean’s short stint at Saturday Night Live), and I was aware that two genuine filmmakers, and also Nick Broomfield, had committed some of Gray’s pieces to film. Jonathan Demme directed Swimming to Cambodia, Broomfield did Monster in a Box, and in 1997 Steven Soderbergh took on Gray’s Anatomy, about a persistent eye problem Gray began to suffer from while writing his novel Impossible Vacation, and the proposed corrective surgery for which he did just about anything he could think of to avoid. Last week, Criterion released Gray’s Anatomy as well as Soderbergh’s fascinating 2010 documentary about Gray called And Everything Is Going Fine. The two films, as well as (what I’ve seen of) their generous extras, have been instructive.

There is a problem at the heart of Gray’s Anatomy that nagged at me as I watched it, but became much easier to define later. In releasing Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything Is Going Fine, Criterion has included as an extra on each disc filmed performances of two other Gray monologues: Sex and Death to Age 14 on Fine and A Personal History of the American Theater on Anatomy, both filmed in 1982. Watching the former last night was something of a revelation. It’s just Gray in a chair at a table with a glass of water, telling several individual stories all caught up in the flow of one about his early experiences with death (the Gray family should not have been allowed to own pets) and sex. That’s it, and it’s riveting. Granted, the audience he’s performing in front of seems to think that since the monologue is meant in part to be funny, that must mean everything is funny, so they laugh a lot at times that must have confused Gray, but apart from that Gray simply tells his story. There was an indefinable charisma to Gray, but more than anything he was a terrific storyteller. And completely unadorned, is where my point is leading. In terms of language, Gray avoids anything that doesn’t sound conversational, and if he’s goosing his words a bit you can see him searching for a good way to say something, an entertaining or interesting way to express a thought or description, and even though I know he was, he seems in no way prepared. There is an ease to this performance that is almost shocking. He consults notes, but rarely seems to need them, and his ability to hold an audience’s attention, or that of a home viewer through a stationary video camera, is impressive. What Gray did wasn’t stand-up comedy, not only because Gray’s stories weren’t strictly comic, but the two forms are related. There’s a relationship with the audience, whatever their temperament, that is vital and energetic like that of a comedian with his or her audience – you don’t see a lot of filmed stand-up specials with the comic doing their act to an empty room, and I believe Gray needed that, or at least hugely benefited from it, as well.

This is not a power that particularly interests Soderbergh in Gray’s Anatomy, however, to the film’s detriment. Soderbergh’s film features only Gray (there are some interesting ancillary interviews with people who have suffered unusual eye injuries, but these don’t interfere with Gray) but he removes the audience and gussies up the performance with cuts and super-imposed effects and sound and wonky lighting, all in an effort, I can only assume, to enhance Gray’s words. Filmed plays, by which I mean plays filmed as they’re performed on stage live for an audience, rarely have any life to them and seem weirdly strained, and perhaps this is what Soderbergh was trying to avoid, but as I’ve implied filmed monologues are not filmed plays. Gray’s weren’t, anyhow; they were pure storytelling. When you’re face to face with a person who has a story to tell and is good at it, you don’t think “I wish when he was talking about the green light he saw inside the house, there was a green light behind his head.” Soderbergh seems to want to show at the same time that Gray is telling, and it’s an uneasy mix. The level of pure storytelling is the level – a very high one, by the way – that Gray operated on, and it is not, as such, cinematic. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is cinematic – what interests him is figuring out interesting ways to film things he hasn’t filmed before. He’s very formal – clinical, those less enamored with him might say – but with Gray’s monologue he’s trying to solve a problem that isn’t even a problem. I admit that I haven’t seen Demme or Broomfield’s films of Gray’s performances, so for all I know Soderbergh is only the third director to make what I consider to be a mistake in their approach to this sort of material. Whoever took that video camera in 1982 during Gray’s performance of Sex and Death to Age 14 and nailed it to the floor and then went to get a sandwich had the right idea.

Thirteen years on, Soderbergh might have clued into this when he was making (“building” might be a better word) And Everything Is Going Fine. Whatever his thinking was, the whole point of that film is to let Gray and, with one exception, Gray alone speak, shed of all the adornments others might wish to impose. Constructed from years of monologues filmed in the same way Sex and Death at Age 14 was (the empty chair that opens that video also opens And Everything Is Going Fine), as well as various interviews Gray gave over the years, including one conducted during Gray’s painful recovery following a terrible car accident in 2001 (the depression that followed is believed to have contributed significantly to Gray’s decision to end his life), Soderbergh’s documentary is very subtly chronological – it strikes me a little bit as an amazing bit of obsessiveness. Technical obsessiveness, along with some other kinds, and in this case that’s all to the good. And Everything Is Going Fine is pretty extraordinary, a feat of architecture as much as of editing, and one that is profoundly reverent of its subject. Gray was preoccupied by death, by suicide – it was in his family – and by the divide between his early years being raised by a Christian Scientist mother, with the attendant dismissal of medical science, and his eventual separation from that religion whose power never quite released him (this is the mostly light-hearted subtext of Gray’s Anatomy, where he fruitlessly pursues all sorts of dead-end spiritual treatments before succumbing to the surgeon). Soderbergh’s documentary lets Gray tell it all, his own way, in bits and pieces, from beginning to end.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Crazy Month

Several years ago I read John Buchan's short thriller from 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps, and after an intriguing and suspenseful beginning I found it to be a very strange grind to get through. Again, it's very short -- my Wordsworth Classics edition comes out to only 98 pages -- but I poked my way through it over a course of I don't know how many days. I think, or at least I hope, I read other books in the meantime, picking up Buchan's most famous novel only here and there, with the thought that if I stayed away too long I'd never finish the damn thing. Lots of pages -- about 90 of them, I'd estimate -- of the hero, Richard Hannay, walking fast with the hope that no one would see him walking fast. Eventually he stopped walking because everything was okay again.

As you may have guessed, I remember almost nothing about the book now, but Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film version, which Criterion will be re-releasing on DVD, and for the first time ever on Blu-Ray, on Tuesday, and which I just watched for the first time, did ring occasionally familiar (Hannay's take over of a Scottish political rally, for instance), but at no point did I feel like I was being cast back to those brief and confusingly dull moments of reading the Buchan novel because Hitchcock, along with his writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, his stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, and cinematographer Bernard Knowles, took the story and somehow managed to produce a breezy, effortlessly entertaining, funny, thrilling, even beautiful little film. Which probably stands to reason, because the raw materials are pure Hitchcock. However I regard it, John Buchan wrote a book that now seems tailor-made for the young (well, 36) Hitchcock. Many of his pet obsessions were already there, and some that weren't necessarily there could easily be made to be there -- blondes, for example.

The plot of The 39 Steps (the film shifts to numerals, and so shall I) is very simple. Richard Hannay (Donat) is attending a performance of music hall performer of eidetic feats of wonder Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when someone fires a gun. In the ensuing chaos, Hannay meets a woman (Lucie Mannheim) and brings her back to his apartment. There, she claims to be on the run from foreign agents who are trying to gather some particular bit of British aeronautic information, and will use violence to get it. Hannay is dubious, but his doubts are wiped away when we wakes up in the middle of the night to find the woman gasping out a warning with her last breath and with a knife in her back. From there, Hannay is, of course, implicated in her murder, and the rest of the film chronicles, primarily, his run from both the spies and the police, and his attempts to clear his name. The film is not very plot-driven, really, and is much more episodic. Hannay finds himself in the middle of the aforementioned political rally, or he charms a Scottish highlands housewife, and fails to charm her mean and duplicitous husband. I suppose this is common for "wrong man" films, or "man on the run" films in general, but Hitchcock includes some curious bits here and there, such as a glimpse at the aftermath of that Scottish housewife's defiance of her cruel husband. There's a nice sense that the lives Hannay, and eventual love interest Pamela (Carroll), pass through existed before they showed up and will continue after.

Speaking for myself, the best thing about The 39 Steps is the wonderful just barely, in the grand scheme of things, post-Victorian feeling of it all. The fact that a good chunk of the action takes place in a section of the Scottish highlands that it not only overly populated, but is also not much concerned with what's been going on since Queen Victoria was shown across. In any case, the point is really that the film looks great, especially when things are happening at night. The shadows, the dusk, the grass and bushes graying into black. A long section of the film involving a bed and breakfast, a capture, a nighttime ride, and an escape is very attuned to the look and feel of a certain time of night, say about 10:00 on, spent in a certain kind of place. There's very little music in the film, and so a brief scuffle on a stone bridge provides the only sound at that moment. The rest of the planet appears to be quiet. Aviation plans notwithstanding, The 39 Steps seems a little bit out of time, and therefore timeless.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

You’re Tired of Yourself and All of Your Creations

[Some spoilers for Prometheus follow]

In his study The Nature of Evil (1931) Radoslav A. Tsanoff cites a terse reflection set down by the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen in 1847, when he was seventeen years old. "Man is a self-conscious Nothing," wrote Bahnsen. Whether one considers these words to be juvenile or precocious, they belong to an ancient tradition of scorn for our species and its aspirations. All the same, the reigning sentiments on the human venture normally fall between qualified approval and loud-mouthed braggadocio. As a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: "If you can't say something positive about humanity, then say something equivocal."

...In Bahnsen's philosophy, everything is engaged in a disordered fantasia of carnage. Everything tears away at everything else...forever. Yet all this commotion in nothingness goes unnoticed by nearly everything involved in it. In the world of nature, as an instance, nothing knows of its embroilment in a festival of massacres. Only Bahnsen's self-conscious Nothing can know what is going on and be shaken by the tremors of
chaos at feast.

- Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

"You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?"
"Your question depends on me understanding what you hoped to achieve by coming here."
"What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place."
"Why do you think your people made me?"
"We made you because we could."
"Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from
your creator?"

- dialogue between Charlie Holloway and David, a robot, from Prometheus

Yellow matter custard
Dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife
Pornographic priestess
Boy, you've been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen

- The Beatles, "I Am the Walrus"

I have not read a word of any of the reviews for Ridley Scott's Prometheus. All I know about the reactions from both critics and the public is, roughly, that while some people have been impressed to varying degrees, from praising it enthusiastically as a smart and visually stunning piece of science fiction, to appreciating it as a good time at the movies, most seem to look at it as a crushing disappointment, one that is even, to hear some tell it, catastrophically stupid. These negative reactions seem to have stemmed, at least in part, from a belief going into the theater that Prometheus was intended to be a prequel to Scott's 1979 masterpiece Alien, with all the links and nods and associated gewgaws that go along with that idea. Scott himself has denied this, or rather has hedged his bets by saying that Prometheus was not strictly that and shouldn't be approached as such. And guess what, he's right, it isn't and shouldn't be. It's true that Scott announces that this film very clearly exists in the universe of Alien and its sequels, in ways both subtle and extremely blatant, but for myself, I couldn't care less about that. Not that I disliked the moments that connected to earlier movies -- specifically Alien; the later movies don't even seem to be a consideration here -- but rather that I think Prometheus is entirely a stand-alone film, paired up with the 1979 original only in the same way that The Honeymoon Killers and Barton Fink pair up by virtue of both taking place in the 1940s.

No, what Prometheus is playing is an entirely different game. Within the same genre, obviously -- like Alien, Prometheus is a science fiction film until it's a horror film. The script by John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof plays things very mysterious, from the beginning, which depicts a strange white alien consuming water from a river and seeming to disintegrate, or to begin to, to an ending that acknowledges everything we don't know about what has transpired. In between, it tells the story of a group of scientists, led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are sailing through space in a ship called Prometheus and owned by the Weyland Corporation, to a destination and for a purpose few of them know, until they're awakened from their two-year cryogenic sleep by David (Michael Fassbender), a robot who appears to have spent much of his lonely down time obsessing over Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a film he has watched over and over again. Once awakened, we get a sense of some of the other scientists and crewmembers, such as Janek (Idris Elba), the Prometheus's captain, and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland representative and the mission's true boss who doesn't seem to have to work very hard to tamp down on any sort of natural empathy that might otherwise get in the way of her making the hard decisions. That mission, we soon learn from Elizabeth and Holloway, as well as a hologram of the ancient and, the hologram assures us, dead by the time of this viewing, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), is to locate a planet in a galaxy far beyond our own that has been mapped out using clues that Elizabeth and Holloway have discovered in ancient Earth cave drawings, clues that have led the two scientists to believe -- and Weyland, too, when he was alive -- that Earth was visited by aliens long, long ago. Evidence even suggests that these aliens were our own creators, that is, they somehow created all of humanity. Though he knew he wouldn't be alive to witness this, Weyland's hologram says, it is his desire to facilitate the meeting of our makers.

For a while, the plot proceeds along about how you'd imagine: the Prometheus finds and lands on the planet; a scientific expedition sets out and finds that aliens were here and were of a very extraordinary intelligence, to the degree that within the bizarre buildings they constructed they also managed to create a breathable atmosphere; and soon things become weird and unsettling, as no actual living aliens are found, but the corpse of one is discovered, apparently decapitated by a door, and the head, with some difficulty, is bundled up and brought back to the ship.

And then a lot of other stuff happens. At a certain point, Prometheus quite frankly goes bugfuck. It has also set up a lot of ideas that are pretty damn big, so big that for a while I was unsettled about how it was all going to be handled. For starters, Elizabeth is a Christian, of the sort who is always searching, optimistically, even a little moonily, for answers. And the film's title, and the ship's name, comes from the Greek myth of, logically enough, Prometheus, who, among other things, was said to have created humanity from clay. Then, too, you have David, the robot, whose own existence is a modern and potentially possible literalization of the Prometheus myth. Then later, in a moment that earns that whole "on the nose" epithet they got now, a conversation between Elizabeth and Holloway, who are lovers, about the now-apparent ease and unexceptional nature of creating life, reveals that Elizabeth is unable to have children, in other words, unable to create life herself. But where this all goes is entirely shocking. Elizabeth's mooniness is hers alone.

Along with the eventual bugfuckery, Scott begins to let influences become absorbed into the narrative. The film opens with a shot straight from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and after a while David goes all HAL on everything, becoming quietly and alarmingly sinister, his motivations occasionally unclear, but you get the sense that whatever else he's been programmed to do, he has himself begun to wonder about his own place in the chain of life and to aggressively manipulate those parts of humanity available to him so that he can make clear to himself, and to his creators, that everything is nothing, and that existence may be desirable, but is also the sprawling endless desert he knows from his favorite film. Another of Scott's big influences seems to have been his own Blade Runner, and why not? David's malevolence may be quieter than that of Roy Batty, but it is no less destructive, or, finally, no less easy to understand. I'm also reminded of a line change from Blade Runner, where originally a bit of dialogue was written to include the word "father" but was replaced in the film with "fucker," for various reasons, and how the word "father" is used in Prometheus in a possibly similar context as it was meant for in Blade Runner, or then again maybe not, and how in any case the ambiguity that word completely fails to clear up in regards to a particular character's identity rather nicely matched other science fiction themes Scott enjoys exploring. Except in his final cut of Blade Runner, where he wants more or less plain answers to a question that I, personally, never wanted asked in the first place. Which means I like the theatrical cut of Blade Runner the best. Is all of this neither here nor there? Despite appearances, it might not be.

Anyway, not only is existence nothing, but creation itself is at best an indifferent act, and at worst a malicious one. Throughout the film, creating something results in that creation being unwanted, or hated, or hating its creator. Most commonly the creator, which may sometimes be a symbolic role, loathes and wishes to destroy what it has made. Why? Sometimes that's clear, sometimes it's less a question than a philosophical howl that could be simplified by another unanswerable, even rhetorical, question, for those who possess a certain life philosophy, of why, if God exists, there is so much room for horror in life. But you have a woman devastated by her inability to conceive going to extreme lengths to rid herself of the one ghastly version of conception the universe has seen fit to bestow on her (in a scene that, by the way, is one of the craziest bits of horror movie chaos I've witnessed in an ostensibly mainstream film in a very long time), and you have a direct question asked by the hopeful and wonder-filled to what can only be thought of as their God responded to with a frenzy of wordless murder. In Prometheus, asking the basic questions about life will lead only to death and terror. Going about your life with your head down might be the more rational way to go.

In this way, and others, Prometheus is not unlike the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, in which Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik gropes for answers as his life shatters into ever-smaller pieces, until by the end he is perhaps facing death, his community and family possibly the same, his questions greeted with gibberish or silence. But not, perhaps, hopeless silence. Prometheus presents another questing believer, though Elizabeth will not budge in the face of the sprays of blood and wild destruction by the creator of the created. She still wants to know why. Near the end of the film, she expresses a desire to know why certain minds have been changed, and it's a line, in retrospect, I wish to a degree had never been asked, though in fairness that line's very existence allowed me to realize that I hadn't missed a crucial point -- the shocking thing at the heart of her new quest simply happened, and was as unknowable as it appeared.

Despite everything, a continued need to believe and ask questions might signal an optimism in Prometheus that doesn't exist, at least not in any kind of clearly understandable way, in A Serious Man, but Scott continues on with one more scene that many people would probably brush off as Scott's most explicit link to Alien, and possibly even a winking acknowledgment that should all go well financially we could all be in store for a sequel, but what it really is, in tone and philosophy, is one more example of creation horror. Life brings death, says biology, but life brings violence and murder, says Prometheus. Prometheus, which I consider (perhaps in a knee-jerk way since I just saw it this morning) one of the finest horror movies of the past decade -- and it ends up as that more than it begins as a work of science fiction -- follows what horror writer Thomas Ligotti has often argued, and which you don't have to believe yourself to feel the fist in your gut, which is that existence and creation are terrible mistakes, and to blunder along engaged in either one will only lead to suffering.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'll Give You More Gold Than Your Apron Can Hold

In This Is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdonavich asks the great director about Charlie Chaplin, and Welles says that while Chaplin was unquestionably a genius, Welles preferred Keaton because Chaplin never made him laugh much. I'm not about to argue with Orson Welles, so let me respectfully state that I do not really understand this. The Keaton part I get, but I don't get the concept of not laughing at a Chaplin film. Take, oh, let's say, just as a random example, The Gold Rush (which, hey, Criterion is releasing today on DVD and Blu-ray!). Early in that film, Chaplin's Little Tramp, here credited as "The Lone Prospector," is trying to find his way through the snowy wilds of the Klondike, and as guidance he's shown consulting his compass, which is just the four points written on a sheet of paper. The way he positions it, holds it still, and then moves his body around so that he is now walking North, is simply hilarious. I know, I probably don't make it sound like much of a gut-buster, but trust me, it's a brilliant throwaway, and simply one of probably dozens of kinds of jokes that Chaplin puts to use.

Last year when I wrote up The Great Dictator I made the same point about Chaplin's comic inventiveness -- for all his later, and eventually much focused-upon by critics, social conscience (which is obviously in full force in The Great Dictator, and somewaht less so, but still there, in The Gold Rush), I find it hard to think of Chaplin as anything but a comic filmmaker, first and foremost. I almost said "comedian", but that's only half the story. Watching Chaplin, or any of the great silent-through Golden Age-through Jerry Lewis comic filmmakers, really throws into relief the paucity of invention in the vast majority of modern comedies. And I like modern comedies, the funny ones anyway, but how often are any of them visual? There's Woody Allen when he's being funny, the Coens when they're being funny and then who? Most of the time, the director of a modern comedy, even the ones you might have to sort of think of as auteurs, like Judd Apatow, will simply make sure the people who are saying the funny things are in frame. The writing is the point, and having the dialogue spoken aloud. Few people use the medium to help craft the jokes. It can be really stunning to see how much further out on a limb the silent filmmakers were willing to go creatively, back when there weren't as many cliches to fall back on.

All of which is to say that The Gold Rush is a very funny movie. But Chaplin manages more, as he usually does. I think just in terms of plot The Gold Rush is an odd bird. Never mind how much he manages to cram in there in under 90 minutes, but in the first twenty minutes, along with all the famous set pieces (the shoe-eating comes pretty early), you have two murders and the sudden death of Black Larsen (Tom Murray), the guy you'd been led to believe was going to be the villain. You have the discovery of gold and the wounding-into-partial amnesia of Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a key character whose temporary disability will suddenly drive great chunks of the plot. Some of Chaplin's narrative devices here might be considered clumsy by some, but I think that could only be because we're used to something neater and more cleanly plotted. A half hour of snow, murder, avalanches, chicken suits, and starvation jokes go by before Georgia (Georgia Hale), Chaplin's love interest, even turns up. The film is almost over before Georgia returns his affections. Yet none of this is ever rushed, but rather purely economical. Although its economy, or the success of it, is rather mysterious. How can a good ten minutes of screentime be given over the famous scene of Chaplin and Swain trapped inside a cabin that is teetering over a cliff, leaving maybe another ten minutes to get across that the two men are rich and Georgia and the Lone Prospector are in love, and have it all play smoothly? Who can do that? And how can they do it? And how can that same film include the most moving use of "Auld Lang Syne" that I, at least, have ever seen, even though no vocals can be heard, and even though the actual music is an orchestral version laid over the scene 82 years later?

Chaplin's ambitions led him to tell big stories, which he then put under a microscope, so that a film with a title as sweeping as The Gold Rush basically has only three or four major characters. This allows for an intimacy that a more tedious form of ambition would naturally have to sacrifice. Chaplin's best films tend to be very noticably structured as a collection of long scenes, almost a series of unified sketches, but this is noticable only to the degree you realize how long certain scenes are allowed to play out. The flow of narrative is there, however, and if Chaplin craftily makes you accept certain absurd leaps in logic in order to be swept along, the more power to him. Even if you can't fully, Chaplin provides an emotional heft to The Gold Rush that, hefty or not, is applied lightly. The ending of the film is interesting when you consider how he used another version of it, heavily tweaked, at the end of City Lights six years later. In comparison, you could almost call the ending of The Gold Rush the cynic's version of the later film's famous last shot, but in fact it's just the fantasist's version. It's nice to imagine things playing out this way. City Lights might make you wonder what happens after the ending, and The Gold Rush might not, but you also shouldn't need to.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I've Only Known Careless Love

Tomorrow Criterion is releasing two fairly well-regarded cult films -- Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. I watched both over the weekend, and was unfortunately less than enthused (I'd seen the Boyle film before, years ago, and liked it, but time has a habit, and so forth). I get into why below.

It's very possible I've said something like this before, but Danny Boyle has made several films that I wish someone else had directed. One very good example of this is Millions, a film I liked a good deal, and whose Frank Cottrell Boyce script tells a warm, sad, and funny story about childhood, fatherhood, and loss. All of this material manages to survive Boyle's direction, which is the kind of stylized about which one can only say "That is stylized." It serves no other purpose. For the most part it's also relatively restrained in that film, hence Millions finally coming out ahead. The material rises above the filmmaker.

The same cannot be said for Boyle's 1994 debut Shallow Grave, although I'm not prepared to solely blame Boyle in this case. Nobody really steps up here, which was a surprising realization for me as I watched the film this past weekend after not having looked at it in many years. I'd remembered Shallow Grave as a dark, funny, surprising crime thriller, but what it actually is, at least as far as the current version of myself is concerned, is a desperately unfunny and self-conscious crime thriller that contains a grand total of one surprising element (as opposed to one surprising thing, so that's something anyway). The story is simply this: three friends (Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston) have an apartment together, and they're looking for a fourth roommate, who they think they've found in the, I guess, gruffly cool Keith Allen. But then right after he moves in, that guy dies of a drug overdose, and while going through his stuff, and before they call the cops, the three friends find the fabled box of money, which they decide to keep.

What follows -- gruesome body disposal, moral panic, the appearance of violent men who want the money back -- is meant to be, I can only assume, reminiscent of films like the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, but the thing about Boyle is that he has no style unless he's being stylized, and it feels as though, in Shallow Grave, he was still working up the courage to go as wild, or "wild," as he would eventually go. So while you have the kind of approach to hip humor that the 1990s were known for -- namely, for example, during a montage of the three leads treating roommate applicants rudely for their own enjoyment, at one point you see McGregor ride by in the background on a bicycle, because he's "weird," the kind of weird that defines the type of person who says "I'm pretty weird!" in order to mask how tedious they really are -- and an opening credits sequence during which the camera moves pretty fast, you don't have much else. You have competence, but not craft. So not Blood Simple, in other words. In that film, the Coen brothers' constructed a terrific sequence involving a dead body not being dead, crawling from the car that was carrying it to its burial site, and being retrieved by a man who suddenly finds himself willing to become a murderer, as a tractor trailer, headlights blazing, comes roaring from the distance, threatening to expose everything (to say nothing of the scrape of a shovel's blade on asphalt). The Shallow Grave equivalent is three people digging a grave when it's kind of dark.

Plus, the morals of this thing...look, all three lead characters are hopelessly unlikable. This is not noted as a demerit, although I think we are supposed to like them to the degree that we'd better find them entertaining, which I, at least, don't, but anyway, they're unlikable, okay, fine. Where I do take exception is in the way Christopher Eccleston's character proceeds towards damnation. Eccleston, and his character, is the one interesting element I mentioned earlier, and the one character in the first half who seems to possess any kind of moral compass. Despite his uneasiness about the whole enterprise, it falls on him to violently remove identifying features from the corpse prior to burial. The highlight of the whole film is later on, as the cracks in Eccleston's psyche are beginning to show, when McGregor is whining about some selfish matter involving their inability to reap any benefits due to Eccleston's rigid safety measures, and Eccleston shuts him down by simply stating "Yeah, but you didn't cut his feet off." The problem is that it soon transpires that Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge seem to honestly believe that the conscience of the group shifts to...maybe not Kerry Fox, given certain things, but maybe Ewan McGregor? AKA, the biggest asshole in the group? Only inasmuch as Eccleston becomes creepy and violent and MacGregor hasn't, but where do McGregor and Fox get off wringing their hands over two men Eccleston kills when those two men would unquestionably have killed Fox and MacGregor otherwise? And not hang-wringing in the "What do we do with the bodies??" sense, but in the "What has become of our friend??" sense. He's the only one keeping up his end of things, is what happened, you couple of cowards. Which is perhaps all part of what Hodge and Boyle are after, but if so it can be hard to tell. It seems more like they think of McGregor as some modern day Han Solo.

Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, on the other hand, is a film that I'm fine with Ashby having directed but wish someone other than Colin Higgins had written it. Or more to the point, that Ashby had directed something else entirely. Quite the beloved and influential piece of work, Harold and Maude is nevertheless, as far as I'm concerned, a waste of talent all around. It opens with a wonderful tracking shot that follows Harold (Bud Cort) as he solemnly prepares to hang himself, to the tune of "Don't Be Shy" by Cat Stevens, who wrote all the songs for the film. Once Harold's mother (Vivian Pickles) discovers her son hanging there, she knows, and therefore reveals to us, that this is just another in a string of suicide-based hoaxes on the part of her son, who we learn is a withdrawn and death-obsessed young man who goes to the funerals of strangers just to feed his habit. At one of these, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited woman of 79 years. Over the course of the film, the young Harold will fall in love with the elderly Maude, and they will learn things about themselves, and so forth.

Harold and Maude is one of those well-made bad movies which I'm not sure really exist anymore, but used to be at least not entirely uncommon. It's a pleasure to look at, and though it's always been a surprising thing for me to admit, I really like the music of Cat Stevens (Donovan, too). This is good for me, because for about the first half hour or so, Stevens's songs are used so ruthlessly that at times it felt like I was watching an unofficial Cat Stevens rock, or folk, opera. The problem is that the film fancies itself to be something of a satire, and so we have to suffer through barely-imagined caricatures of the rich and militaristic (which are quite brave targets if you ignore the fact that for all intents and purposes, they have been basically the only targets of satire for the past 50 years or more) and then later hear from Maude what the correct and moral way to think is, just before she steals another car. Because possessions are for squares. Anyway, she has some freedom to experience and she's old, so ease off. Though Ruth Gordon no doubt felt differently, in the film Maude reeks of the patronising "old people are adorable" approach that films like, say, Make Way For Tomorrow directly refute, but which will hang around forever as everybody who gets old also gets replaced by people who think they're adorable. So that's a problem, as is Higgins's, or Ashby's (or maybe both) to cram every personality trait they don't like into one person, however conflicting and incongruous the combination may be, just so they don't have to consider the flaws of people not entirely unlike themselves. This results in Sunshine (Ellen Geer) a pretentious and self-important drama student who is, remember, called Sunshine, and who also -- and this is 1971 -- in love with the military. Because this was a pretty common stereotype back then. Yes, Sunshine only appears in one scene, but it's a pretty telling bit of evidence that we're not dealing with a film made by anybody who, at least in this case, were particularly interested in self-criticism.

I liked Cort, though. And Gordon, too, but Cort has a scene where he's explaining the moment in his life that caused him to be so morbid, and it's not the story, which is far too neat anyway, or even necessarily the way he delivers it, though that's fine, but there's a pause in between the story and and message when Harold looks at Maude with this uncomfortable stare and then very quietly laughs at the ridiculousness of it all. It's a terrific and natural bit of acting, and Cort and Gordon both serve the film better than it deserves. One thing about Harold and Maude that has long made me curious -- and I did actively resist seeing this film for many years, so you may make of that what you will -- is the knowledge that watching it was a formative experience for Wes Anderson, one of my favorite filmmakers, though I suspect too much has been made of the influence. For all his flights of whimsy and intentional artifice, Anderson has never made a film that felt as blatantly removed from actual life as Harold and Maude, and I'm including Fantastic Mr. Fox in that assessment.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The World Has Gone Black Before My Eyes

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist has been sitting in my head since I first saw it three years ago while I wondered around trying to figure out what to do with it. Widely mocked and reviled in 2009, though not by everybody, Von Trier's genuinely shocking and unnerving horror film has struggled to shrug off its tiresome reputation as controversial so that it can be approached on its own terms, for better or worse, or both. Probably both. In any case, I liked Antichrist a great deal in 2009, and then promptly ran away from it, not happy with much of what I was reading about the film but singularly unwilling -- I claimed to myself, modestly, that it was more like I was unable, but I also didn't try very hard -- to offer up any kind of productive retort. Well, I was never proud of that reaction, so I watched the film again tonight, and so now I, like...I don't fucking know, man.

Well, that's not entirely true. The best, and easiest, way for me to approach Antichrist is as a horror film. It's a horror film about grief, a not entirely unheard of realm for the genre, but certainly not that common. The story is broken up into chapters bearing titles like "Grief," "Pain," plus other, less literal ones, and features also a prologue and epilogue, filmed, unlike the rest of the movie, in black and white, and each set to Handel's aria "Let Me Weep," a title which itself could also function as a plea from Charlotte Gainsbourg's character to her husband, played by Willem Dafoe. The prologue shows Gainsbourg and Dafoe (unnamed in the film, referred in the credits as simply "She" and "He," a bit of on-the-nose branding for which Von Trier took some heat, though I think it's worth reminding those unhappy with the choice that this is only in the closing credits, and perhaps shouldn't be held against the body of the film) having sex, oblivious to the fact that their infant son Nick has climbed from his crib, climbed into an open window that has been blown open during a snowstorm, and fallen to his death. Apart from the beauty of the imagery, this prologue is notable for including a close-up shot of graphic sex, doubled by a pair of porn actors. It's the first, and least, of several moments throughout Antichrist that earned hoots of outrage (something like that) from several critics and general audience members, and it manages to, on first viewing, seem entirely gratuitous, and to remain that way on second viewing, but to also be very clearly relevant as the film goes along.

When we return to Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg is shattered by grief and Dafoe, a therapist by profession, is trying to lift her out of it. He appears to have shunted aside his own intense mourning for the sake of his wife, but Dafoe's character, when Antichrist is written about, tends to take a beating from critics. He's perceived as arrogant, and at one point Gainsbourg charges him with this directly, and perhaps he is, but he's also superhumanly patient with his wife whose grief can loose itself with astonishing cruelty. Early on, she tells Dafoe that the previous summer, which she spent with Nick at a cabin secluded in the woods, he was a distant husband and father, and that since this turned out to be the last summer of Nick's life, his choice turned out to be really kind of too bad. Further, Gainsbourg asserts, Dafoe is indifferent to their son's death, a claim which an earlier shot of Dafoe at the funeral would seem to belie. Anyway, I'm quite willing to admit that Dafoe's character might be a bit full of himself, and that by the time the end credits roll it's hard to not think, the results being what they turn out to be, that there must be better therapists out there. But I wonder about the idea that Dafoe is somehow uncaring, although taking his side at this point can't help but turn problematic as the film eventually opens up to its subject.

Which is. When Gainsbourg was in the cabin during the last summer of her son's life, her goal was to work on her thesis. The bulk of the film involves Dafoe taking her back to the cabin in the woods, which she now, following Nick's death, claims to be afraid of. Among the things that happen in the cabin is that Dafoe finds the work she left behind -- abandoned, really, because she says Dafoe made her feel that her subject was stupid. The thesis was to be about misogyny throughout history, and the aspect of human nature that allows some to commit acts of evil against women. But Gainsbourg has come to believe that women are inherently evil, and that the misogyny she was studying was justified. Somehow. Dafoe himself tries, with some element of desperation, to argue her out of this, but even he begins to wonder -- and even the audience wonders, or is meant to wonder, or is provoked to wonder (that one, probably) -- if she might be on to something when he is reading the autopsy report on their son, and sees that the pathologist noted a deformity in his son's feet, something that is not connected to the accident, but is mentioned in passing. Inspired by this revelation, which he didn't know anything about (and why not?), Dafoe then notices in various pictures of Nick that his son was wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. He sees this over and over, and asks Gainsbourg about it. She chalks it up to a thoughtless day, but these photos are from various days during her trip with Nick the summer before. Von Trier even treats us to a flashback (but from whose perspective? Are we seeing what happened, or what Dafoe has assumed must have happened?) of Gainsbourg putting Nick's shoes on incorrectly, and the poor boy crying out in pain as his flesh and muscles and bones are forced into unnatural angles. Over a period of many, many months, we can assume.

But when we see Dafoe pondering the autopsy report, this, too, is a flashback. He's in the cabin at the time, but at least some of his conversations with her must be colored by this knowledge. But which conversations? Practically every one of Dafoe's reactions to something extreme, before Antichrist really approaches the concept of extremity with its eyes wide open, is unusual in its distance. His wife's early cruelty is absorbed by his role as a professional therapist, which, fair enough, but Antichrist is a horror film not just of the psychological variety, but of the supernatural variety as well, and it is Dafoe who is confronted by an eviscerated fox who speaks to him, saying "Chaos reigns." His reaction to this is something less than what you might expect. This experience is also absorbed, somewhere, somehow. It could be that he's simply taking the fox's rebuke to heart, given that his own attempts to rationally chart out his wife's progress and psychology through her grief aren't panning out exactly as he was positive they would, and plus here's this fox talking to him, basically proving the point it's making at the exact time it's making it. Dafoe's own reserve is maybe based half in professionalism -- Gainsbourg's his wife, but also, as he points out again and again, his patient -- and half in the guilt that is driving his wife mad.

The guilt Gainsbourg feels is only in part of the variety that any parent would likely feel, rationally or not, under the circumstances, but also mainly and specifically from her own sexual desire, which led to the physical act, which left her and Dafoe insensible and therefore oblivious to their son's walk to doom. It's interesting that we're not shown who instigates the sex. Based on Gainsbourg's breakdown, and the source of it, it might be safe to assume she did. Not that it would matter in the least, as far as how she should feel about it, as opposed to what she does, but it's left an open question in any event. For his part, Dafoe refuses to blame her, and reminds her that he was there, too. She perhaps comes around to his point of view when the film follows Gainsbourg into madness and shows her final attempt to (violently) have sex with her husband descend into hell. The couple have sex often in the film, against Dafoe's better therapeutic judgment, because Dafoe says that he can appreciate that she finds it to be a distraction. For more reasons than just that one, "distraction" is probably the word Gainsbourg is prepared to forever associate with sex, and so she finally decides to blame sex itself, maybe, and she grabs a log and smashes her husband's erect penis, shocking him into unconsciousness. More follows, which I won't get into, but it's interesting to me that in all the hubbub that kicked up around Antichrist and its very graphic nature, the subsequent self-mutilation of her own genitals is the one always pointed to, when by my count two separate, and opposite, pairs of genitalia are pretty badly mistreated. I found one no less horrifying than the other but what happens to Dafoe is somehow not a step too far, but what Gainsbourg does to herself is. If Antichrist is misogynistic, as it's often charged with being, and with some reason, it maybe clears the path to judgment if you limit your disgust to the mistreatment of just the one gender.

Oh, but there's more, much more to try and reconcile. Because as I said early on, and then seem to have promptly forgotten about, Antichrist is a horror film, and it signals this, well before the violence, in a number of ways both subtle and not. As always with horror films, one of the questions is, what is the source of the horror? So for instance in relation to Dracula, the answer to that question would be Dracula the Vampire. In Antichrist, what is it? Until the chips are really down, the only character who expresses fear is Gainsbourg. Her fear, she claims, is of the woods where the cabin is located (an area called Eden, which is, yes, a bit much, but which is also very easily and very profitably gotten over). Later and more directly, Gainsbourg says that "nature is Satan's church." Many people reacted to this line with something akin to "Pffff! No it's not!" but I myself am unclear why such a line should not appear in a horror film of this type, which is the kind that is about nature and ancient evil and is called Antichrist. Plus, hey, she might be right. When the two are hiking to the cabin early in the film, once they reach the patch of land that is technically called Eden, Gainsbourg says that the ground is burning. Dafoe assumes this is part of her temporary psychosis, but when she takes off her boot and sock she does, indeed, have blisters. But maybe that's just from hiking. And indeed, later stabs at therapy seems to remove this particular danger, so maybe Dafoe is right. Which is a thing that would be easier to accept if later both Dafoe and myself didn't see, with our own eyes, that fox say "Chaos reigns." And so all I can think about is that in horror movies when something unholy attempts to step onto holy ground, or is touched by some kind of holy object, the unholy thing burns. Of course, if I'm onto anything here, and if nature is Satan's church, which there are eventually decent reasons to at least consider being the case, this would make Gainsbourg holy. The church of the unholy must burn the holy. I think that's the essential idea behind Hell.

This leads me now, again, to consider the source of the horror, and to consider how far back it goes. Gainsbourg was (possibly?) (intentionally?) torturing her son by making him wear his shoes wrong well before we, the audience, witness anything going wrong in the lives of this family. Yet we're told that Gainsbourg experienced a severe and radical rethinking of her thesis on misogyny (titled "Gynocide", by the way), and she did this in the cabin, in Eden, a place that, when she's away from it, she's afraid to return to. Dafoe is shocked to hear that his wife has come to accept misogyny as just, which of course means that, at least to his eyes, this is entirely unlike her. Now, of course, we're given reasons to believe that Dafoe doesn't know quite as much about his wife as he's so very confident he does, but I don't think too many people would regard a woman's moving from a feminist chronicler of historical misogyny to one who believes that maybe ancient witch-burners might have kind of had a point as part of the natural drift of personality. And it is at around this same time that she began to put Nick's shoes on backwards. And it is at this point that Antichrist becomes a film about demonic possession. Very literally, as literally as The Exorcist. Gainsbourg has been targeted, and her eventual self-hatred, and her guilt, and perhaps even her decision to have the kind of sex that obliterates all other thoughts or considerations or obligations that would allow her to forget for a while that she even had a child, is all part of the lingering, somewhat weakened by distance, power of Satan's church. Which is not nature as a whole, but Eden. The film's epilogue shows Dafoe encountering a flood of faceless women walking into Eden, the victims, it would appear, of the same ancient evil.

Under these circumstances, perhaps Nick's death was inevitable. What happened afterwards, though, was perhaps not, had Dafoe thought of some other form of therapy than to drag her back to the place that terrified her the most. It might have done them both a world of good if he'd simply let her weep.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury

He had never liked October.  Ever since he first lay in the autumn leaves before his grandmother's house many years ago and heard the wind and saw the empty trees.  It had made him cry, without a reason.  And a little of that sadness returned each year to him.  It always went away with spring.

But it was different tonight.  There was a feeling of autumn coming to last a million years.

There would be no spring.

- Ray Bradbury, "The October Game"

Monday, June 4, 2012

Come Out, Ye Gifted Kings and Queens

I don't know if this is the first time I've done this or not, and I don't currently feel like checking the archives, but anyhow, so, like, in about four months it will be October, and every October, including, for reasons that escape me, this coming iteration, I write about horror fiction every day for the entire month, all posts falling under the The Kind of Face You Slash title. I've been doing this for four years now, and while I have the structure and general approach down, it can be a struggle to find enough material to write about for 31 days straight. Now I fully understand this is not because there is any kind of paucity of horror literature available, but one person -- me, in this scenario -- can only learn about so much of it, and anything I can do to ease that burden will, you know...ease my burden.

So I'm asking: any recommendations? I already know some writers I'm planning to cover, like Graham Joyce, Gaston Leroux, Seabury Quinn, Quentin S. Crisp, and Walter De La Mare, so you needn't bother recommending them. I also try to not repeat authors, although sometimes I feel it's necessary, and have done it on more than one occasion. But if you click on that link (and honestly I don't know if that links to every Kind of Face You Slash post I've ever written, but it should show most of them) and at least scroll through, you should have some idea of what I've already gone over. But even of those authors already touched on, if you know of a particular story by one of them that you really think I should check out, don't hesitate to tell me about it. I'd already written about Ramsey Campbell on at least two other occasions when a reader recommended I check out Campbell's story "The Companion," which I did, and which was awesome, and which I wrote about, so good was it. So don't let the concept of "ground well covered" stop you.

Mainly, though, I'm looking for fringe stuff. By which I don't, or don't necessarily, mean horror writers who wallow to varying degrees of childishness in sex and violence, but stuff that has been unfairly overlooked, or, better yet, forgotten. Even if you think I might know a particular book or author, tell me anyway, because I might not, or might not know too much about it, or whatever. Just recommend away. Recommend like the wind. Below in the comments, please, if you will. Thanks.