Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Lonesome, Paul Fejo's near-silent masterpiece from 1928, is being released today by Criterion, and reading through some of the essays and excerpts included in the Criterion booklet has been sort of depressing. Not because of what became of Fejo, who seems to have lived a pretty fulfilling life, both in and out of film (in one of the essays included, Phillip Lopate notes that Fejos's name is probably more recognizable now in anthropolgy circles, due to his career in that field, than among cinephiles), but because of what's been lost over time of his movie work. So it's depressing for me, is what I'm saying.

An excerpt from an interview with Fejos for Columbia University's Oral History Research Program and included in the Criterion booklet, about how Fejos, a Hungarian immigrant, got the gig to direct Lonesome is both fascinating and kind of hilarious. Fejos had made a film called The Last Moment that impressed Hollywood pretty thoroughly, so that everyone wanted to work with him. But Fejos didn't want to work with just anybody -- they had to bow to his terms that he be allowed to make whatever film he wanted, in the way he wanted to make it. As a result, he walked out on one studio meeting after another. The story reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" which starred Ida Lupino as a fading, aging, delusional former star who wouldn't listen to any studio talk of giving her roles that maybe suited her age rather than the young romantic ingenue, the difference being that Fejos was young and vibrant and maybe a bit too cocky, but it eventually paid off for him (as it sort of did for Lupino in the episode, but only in a manner of speaking). Anyhow, after his final meeting with Universal, and with Carl Laemmle, Jr. intervening on his behalf, Fejos was finally given what he wanted, and from that we got Lonesome.

And it's a pretty stunning film. It's a simple story, whose theme is announced right in the title, about two New Yorkers, Jim (Glenn Tryon) and Mary (Barbara Kent) who day in and day out are put through the grinder of the metropolis, squeezed in by buildings and trains and other people they don't know, only to end up back in their shabby apartments alone at night. We see both of them turning down offers to accompany friendly couples as the third or fifth wheel on some kind of gleeful outing or another, which leads both of them to Coney Island, where they meet, and are separated, and meet again.

In the interview, Fejos calls the story "high corn," and he appropriately means this as a compliment. It is corny, but in the most emotionally sweeping way. Tryon and Kent are wonderful -- less so, maybe, in the few "talkie" scenes that Fejos includes -- and it's very easy to find a rooting interest for these two crazy kids to get together (Barbara Kent being unbearably adorable don't hurt, I'll admit). I found Tryon to be particularly interesting, as a "type" anyway, because in his first scene he's called on to do some frantic, silent-era physical comedy, which he pulls off just fine, but it's interesting that Tryon did not remotely look the part of a comedian, silent-era or not. Though maybe not quite so worn down by the world around him, he had a little bit of John Garfield in his face, so that his antics feel not quite as much like a lark as they might otherwise.

The pull of Lonesome comes not only in the emotion of the story, but in Fejos's groundbreaking, almost manic and frequently fantastical visuals. I mentioned before that a few scenes incorporate sound (and it's interesting that the image in these scenes is immediately much crisper than the rest of the film), but that's just part of it. That image at the top of this post -- that's Tyron and Kent dancing, roughly at the moment they realize they're in love -- is a good example of the almost ethereal nature of the color effects Fejos employs. Coney Island may be a madhouse, but it is, at least under these circumstances, a glorious one. One of the sound sequences features Tyron and Kent sitting together on a bench, sad at the thought that their evening could be ending, and as Fejos designs it, the world sheds all its dead weight so that it can be narrowed down to the two of them. It's very theatrical, almost literally -- they appear to be on stage, characters in a play rather than a film. Later, the inevitable crisis occurs, in the form of a near-accident on a roller coaster. There are two tracks, with Jim in a car on one track, and Mary across from him on another track. A wheel on Mary's car catches fire, and Fejos uses sharp wooshes of red to signify flames, and I'll be damned if it doesn't work -- that thing looks hot, even if it doesn't actually look a bit like fire.

Anyway, this being "high corn," things...well, you can watch it, and should watch it. Fejos ends on a shot that struck me as just about perfect, and peculiarly modern in a way I can't quite put my finger on. But I'm still depressed. As I said earlier, Fejos got the job to direct Lonesome through a low-budget effort called The Last Moment, which was about the final, life-passing-before-your-eyes thoughts of a drowning man. Supposedly, it was an amazing piece of work. Sadly, it's lost. For good, I guess. Goddamnit, I want to see that movie.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Alive Forever

My obsession with the films of Jean Rollin continues, apparently. This time around, I've been facilitated by the pending Kino Lorber release of two latter-day Rollin films, The Living Dead Girl from 1982, and Two Orphan Vampires 1997. To begin...
The Living Dead Girl - Counting the two movies under discussion tonight, I have seen seven Jean Rollin films this year, and I keep expecting one of them to bore me, or to be something less than interesting. Well, I'm not there yet, and this one, along with Fascination, is one of the best yet. In fairness, I figured that if I ever were to be bored by Rollin, this wouldn't be the one to do it, largely because in his essay about these titles that is included with both discs, Tim Lucas says the climax of The Living Dead Girl is "...one of the most emotionally incendiary finales in horror film history." I have to admit that getting there is not necessarily a jaw-dropping experience, though it's not a bad one, either. The film begins with three grave robbers plundering the tombs beneath an old French castle where Catharine Valmont (Francoise Blanchard), dead two years as the film begins, is interred. Or she's supposed to be dead. She's not, though, obviously, or not dead dead, and she rises from her coffin and rather brutally takes them out (toxic waste plays a small part in these killings, for no particular reason -- if the implication is that Catharine is revived by this stuff, it's not made at all clear, but anyway I don't believe that's one Rollin was going for). Catharine's history and relationship with Helene (Marina Pierro) is revealed in flashbacks, and essentially the deal is when the two were young girls they made a blood pact, promising that when one of them died, the other would follow fast behind. This didn't happen, Helene is still alive and well, and Catharine is left wondering the castle and the fields that surround it, where she is seen, and photographed, by Barbara Simon (Carina Barone) who is travelling the countryside with her husband Greg (Mike Marshall).

So. Helene and Catharine meet back up, and Helene, with some degree of uncertain eagerness, takes it upon herself to feed Catharine. Catharine needs human blood, or human flesh, or both. The film's original title is La Morte Vivante, which means "living death," so even if you choose to go by that title rather than the Americanized The Living Dead Girl, you still get some Romero color to it all. And this film is quite gory, occasionally in the way Romero had, at that time, recently become famous for. Even so, Catharine seems less like a zombie than a vampire, or vampire/zombie hybrid, and the relationship between Catharine and Helene prefigures, a little bit, the one between Eli and Oskar in Let the Right One In. The other side of the Helene/Catharine relationship is what was it exactly before Catharine died (we never find out how she died, by the way)? It seems pretty clear to me that it was a romantic and sexual one, but Rollin is never explicit about that. Which is the other thing about Rollin. I've said this before, but nudity and sex in his films can often function in ways that carry it beyond exploitation. There's a fair amount of nudity in The Living Dead Girl, but none from Marina Pierro, and, it should almost follow, and does here, no sex between Catharine and Helene. So if they are lesbians, they're lesbians just because the characters are lesbians, not for titillation.

Anyhow, the ending of the film is where the fascination really (pun not intended, but also unavoidable) begins. And I don't care to give it away. But the "emotionally incendiary" is just part of what makes the last ten or fifteen minutes of The Living Dead Girl so unusual. The other part is that at one point Rollin very consciously tells his plot to go right out and fuck itself, in a way that might strike some viewers as absurd, but which played to me as an invigorating refusal to be hemmed in by what more narrow-minded individuals would consider the necessities of formula. It's pretty obvious to me at this point that formula didn't interest Rollin at all, but rarely have I seem him say as much with such vigor. And then, yes, that "emotionally incendiary" climax...I'm here to tell you, Tim Lucas ain't wrong. It ends with a howl of despair and loss and blood and meat, and it can't be quickly forgotten.
Two Orphan Vampires - More abstract, weirder, clumsier, shaggier, and occasionally more haunting is this film, which, Tim Lucas's essay informs me, was being prepared shortly after Rollin was diagnosed with kidney failure. He would go on to live another fourteen years, but Two Orphan Vampires is even more death-haunted than The Living Dead Girl, and even more so than the vast majority of films in the genre, which you'd think would have "death-haunted" as its absolute baseline requirement, but oh well. Two Orphan Vampires (which has, by a huge margin, the least amount of nudity of any Rollin film I've seen so far, a point that may seem irrelevant and childish to you, but which I nevertheless find genuinely interesting) stars Isabelle Teboul and Alexandre Pic as Henriette and Louise, two young vampires who are, indeed, orphans, and who are also blind. As the film begins, they are being adopted out of the Catholic orphanage run by kindly nuns by Dr. Dennary (Bernard Charnace), an eye doctor who is intrigued by the enigmatic nature of their vision loss, but whose actions are inspired by his being naturally good-hearted.

What Dennary doesn't realize about these sweet young ladies is that, for one thing, they're vampires, and for another they actually can see, sometimes -- at night, specifically, when they can "see blue," a visual idea that manifests itself through Rollin's camera in about the way you'd expect. But it's at these times that the girls go hunting, and while we see the whole film from their point of view, and while we can even sympathize with Henriette and Louise, Rollin doesn't choose, as so many others would, to portray any of the victims as flippantly unlikable. You don't generally know much about them, but Rollin stages these killings with an eye towards morally unbalancing the viewer -- you might want to like these girls, but you never can quite, and if you think you can then you're fooling yourself. One killing in particular is chilling in its...not casualness, exactly -- it's the one time when the girls actually aren't that casual about what they're doing -- but I suppose its almost Chabrol-like directness. These girls are vampires, but for whatever reason -- the fantasy element of such stories, probably -- when a vampire kills someone it's never thought of as "murder." But this one, this is murder.

None of this gets across what an odd film Two Orphan Vampires really is. The girls travel outside even during the daytime, when they are, in fact, blind, and often they will meet someone, another woman, another horror creature...one time they meet a female werewolf, untransformed at the time, and another time they meet what I guess is a kind of vampire queen, who protects them for a night. This stuff is, as you'd guess and as I've implied, quite odd, and not entirely successful. It's strange enough to be interesting, but not good enough to work. Still, these scenes do fit into the film's overall rambling, plotless vibe, which itself fits into what is at the film's heart.

Which is what? Also odd is how vampire-like Henriette and Louise are -- they have fangs, but the story they relate to each other -- each is the only one the other has to talk to, no matter how kind anyone else is -- is about a never-ending life, or death, or living death, or death in life. They talk about being killed, but they always seem to, eventually, come back. This isn't something we ever witness, but I have no reason to doubt their word. So the film is about the existence of these girls, and their friendship and love (this relationship appears to be platonic), and essential loneliness and need for each other. Occasionally the film can take on the air of your typical French coming of age film, as when Henriette and Louise con their way into buying a bottle of brandy, and we see them giggle as they nervously sip their way through it. That Rollin can make a film that is that, as well as being the bizarre horror film it is on its surface, is quite impressive. More impressive still is Rollin's ability to surprise and thrill this late into his career.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Oh, By the Way...

Oh, hello everybody. So, like, I have screeners coming my way over the course of August's waning days, and also other, more different screeners coming in September. The acceptance into my possession of these screeners obligates me -- obligates me happily, I hasten to add -- to post, or "write", about them, but I have to say that outside of them shits, there will be no other posting on this, The Kind of Face You Hate, my personal blog, where I record my dreams and hopes and desires and wishes and heart's songs, until October. In the next paragraph, I will reveal the reason for this.

The reason for this is because in October, as some of you may know, I will begin The Kind of Face You Slash, my annual, 31-day-long collection of scholarly essays on the subject of horror fiction. Last year I was able to get ahead of the game a little bit, with some posts written early and whatnot, but this year the plan is to get even more ahead of the game by writing even more early posts. And I have so much reading to do, you guys! So time being of the essence and everything, and all that, etc. You get where I'm going with this. So if the news of an upcoming paucity of new material on The Kind of Face You Hate fills you with an unnameable terror, well fuck you, I'm not your doctor. Just hold on for a few week's for shit's sake. Jesus H. Christ.


The full title of the film we now know as Black Magic Rites is Riti, magie nere e segrete orge nel trecento, which, according to the English translation, comes out as Rites, Black Magic, and Secret Orgies in the 14th Century. This sounds like a college class I might have been interested in taking, had I the opportunity, but it reflects on the actual film made by Renato Polselli only glancingly. Black Magic Rites is fair enough, although just as accurate titles include Naked Witchburning and Wait, Dracula Is In This?.

Yes, Dracula is in this. No, I don't know the answer to your follow-up question. The film, which is being released on Blu-ray tomorrow by Kino Lorber, is, in a word, or three words, loopy as hell, and good thing too, because something other than nudity needs to be there to pull the viewer through to the end. Which it just barely did in my case, and even then not without a lot of sighing. This is my first experience with the work of Renato Polselli, and I'm not claiming I've been put off for good, but just what the hell is this thing? Its baffling nature can best be summed up by the late-in-the-film revelation that all of this -- the naked women disappearing, the naked women having their hearts ripped out and their blood poured over what seems to be the naked corpse of a woman we come to learn is a witch named Isabella (Rita Calderoni), the burning of that same witch (which, curiously, did not seem to cause any actual burns, fatal though it apprently was) sometime in the past (the 14th century, I'm guessing), and so on -- relates in some way to, you know, Dracula. Who is barely in the thing anyway, and unless I misremember somehow chose to be a famous vampire, rather than having that office thrust upon him. But it's really a witch movie, and a Satanic cult movie, two things that can easily go hand in hand, although once Dracula shows up you wonder why Polselli didn't add a werewolf and a mummy. The mummy could be like "Hey, we have to help revive Isabella from her decades-long death slumber" and the werewolf could go "Okay." It would have made as much sense as anything else.

Along with Cardeloni, Black Magic Rites also stars Mickey Hargitay as the father of Laureen, also played by Rita Cardeloni, and therefore, obviously, pretty key to the whole Isabella revival idea. But the film is literally just an excuse for ample female nudity set against a variety of moods, from somewhat psychedelically lit terror, to softcore threesomes cut to the rhythms of whatever the Italian equivalent of "Yakety Sax" is. This latter, by the way, is actually featured in the films last third, and is returned to periodically, not for reasons of contrast to the Gothic horror of the rest of the film, but just because there's boobs there.

It's a strange film, is what I'm getting at, oblique only because Polselli doesn't seem to have much of an idea what's going on himself. Black Magic Rites would suffer terribly when contrasted against the work of, say, Mario Bava or Jean Rollin, the latter of which Polselli seems more consciously trying to emulate than the former, countrymen though they may be. But Rollin's films were bizarre, bloody, nudity-packed, and Gothic as Polselli's is, but in a completely different way. So though Polselli would come out the loser, it might be beneficial in a general way to pair this film with almost any given Rollin movie, just to note the difference between someone who's doing something because they mean it, and someone who's just taking a shot at it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Making Good Use of Hatpins

In the last year, I have watched more silent films than I had in the previous 35 years of my life combined. If your takeaway from this statement is that this hardly makes me an expert, that would be both fair and accurate. Nevertheless, I found it interesting while watching the just-released-today Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Louis Feuillade's 6 1/2 hour pulp crime serial Les Vampires that I had never before seen, or at any rate noticed, any silent film outside of this one use the change from blue tint, for a dark room, to black and white, for a well-lit room, when a character flips a lightswitch. Feuillade does it time and again in Les Vampires, and it's so simple, and so obvious, and so primitively effective in its altering of the scene's perspective that I had to wonder if this was everywhere in silent films and I just hadn't been paying attention. Les Vampires was made in 1915, after all -- pretty early days. Surely someone at least copied him? I'm honestly asking.

More significantly, I suppose, is that "1915" business. Basic math will reveal that this is nearly 100 years ago, and you'd be hard pressed to find a book that old in the kind of near-pristine condition of this Les Vampires release. "Near-pristine" is probably an exaggeration -- it's a very old movie, and looks it. But given the volatile nature of celluloid, it's awfully impressive anyway. As for the film itself, by which I mean what it is and what's in it, the Internet informs me that Les Vampires is considered one of the longest films ever made, though this designation feels like a cheat (and a useless one at that) since Feuillade's film is a serial -- I'd imagine you could find any number of serials that, when taken together, come out to at least 6 1/2 hours. In any case, as it's a serial, Les Vampires is broken up into ten chapters, running in length anywhere from 14 minutes to almost an hour. Most of them are closer to an hour than 14 minutes, and I don't really know what the deal is with that particular episode. It was a structural problem that Feuillade needed to solve, I'm guessing. But anyway, it's a very pulpy story, and very violent, occasionally sluggish, particularly during its rare but curious moments of domestic comedy. In terms of plot, it is, like most serials, more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel. Lots of different schemes are planned and executed, with varying levels of success, by the titular crime syndicate, and they are thwarted, or not thwarted, by journalist Philipe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) and one-time Vampire turned crimefighter Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). The whole thing ends in an astonishing and, I have to admit, pretty damn hilarious frenzy of dancing and violence.
Which, if there's a problem here -- and I'm inclined to think there actually isn't one, but if there is -- it's that the film can be funny when it's not trying to be, and not funny when it is. I'm not too keen on mocking (what to me would be) the peculiarities and eccentricities of an older filmmaking era, but when faced with Les Vampires's insane climax, it's pretty hard to get all stone-faced about it. Meanwhile, Mazamette functions as the comic relief, in addition to being an action hero, and, well, one can only take so much mugging. But Mazamette is still interesting, in that initially it seems like he's going to be just the comic relief, a loveable scamp of dubious ethics but a good heart, but after a while the dubious ethics fall away and he's kicking in as many doors and shooting as many murderers in the face as the ostensible hero Guerande. And on top of that is the fact that the heroes themselves seemed to have been judged somewhat boring, a not unfair assessment, and so the lion's share of the film's running time is given over to the criminals.
Chief among those guys being, of course, Irma Vep (Musidora), which I don't need to tell you is an anagram for something or other. I've seen Olivier Assayas's film Irma Vep, in which a film about that character is being made in modern France, and there's all sorts of interesting metatextual whatnots going on...that's a film I liked a lot, and wish now I had near to hand. It could only be more interesting now that I'm familiar with the source. But it's pretty easy to see why Assayas was drawn to Vep, and it's also pretty easy to see that Feuillade was just as taken. She's sort of the whole movie. Throughout, Grand Inquisitors and Grand Masters and various other higher-ups within the Vampires organization are killed, or imprisoned and then killed, or commit suicide, but Vep, a lieutenant in the organization, marches on. And while there's a certain level of figurative mustache-twirling in the performances of those male villains, Musidora really doesn't reach for the female equivalent -- it wouldn't be right to call her performance spare, but it's not exactly a villain performance, either. She is a bad guy, but she's not playing a bad guy. And she loops in and out of the strange stories, barely surviving sometimes, triumphing on a rare few other occasions, always eventually getting her comeuppance, which, eventually, is permanent. But Irma Vep, you understand pretty soon, is the smart one among this group of criminals. A devious and ruthless group, and a powerful one, whose leaders nevertheless die at an alarming rate, so they can't really be doing that much right.

Anyway, it's a hoot. Most of the time, anyway. It can struggle under the weight of repitition, which is unavoidable, I would think, with something like this. But if you're able to go with it, and it's not that hard to do, it's a lot of fun. It creates and tosses off and then forgets about a lot of good old-fashioned pulp strangeness, of the type that nobody who thinks they're recreating this kind of pulp actually manages to duplicate. It's the real thing, is what I'm getting at.

Monday, August 13, 2012


When last I spoke of European filmmakers, I basically accused them of gleefully killing any animal that might be nearby when the cameras were rolling. Please note, however, that at no time did I specifically mention Belgians. This is a relief, because tomorrow Criterion is releasing two films -- La Promesse and Rosetta -- by the Belgian filmmaking team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and I'd hate to start off talking about those films on a sour note. The fact that a rooster is killed in La Promesse should not hinder us because that happens off-screen.

Prior to this weekend, when I watched both films, I'd only seen one Dardennes offering, L'Enfant, which I thought was a terrific and terrifically focused piece of almost neo-realist filmmaking about impoverished, fringe lives and the moral quagmires desperate people can sink themselves into. I say "almost neo-realist" because, while meaning no disrespect whatsoever to that form, classic neo-realism can sometimes, and paradoxically, call attention to its particular brand of "real life." This can be a side effect of using non-professional actors, or simply a natural result of being compared to melodrama or other forms of stylized filmmaking, which neo-realism in its infancy was consciously doing. Possibly because neo-realism eventually joined forces with kitchen sink realism, and soon became just another thing, rather than an explicit reaction to a very different thing, the Dardennes' style is able to at least appear to very smoothly exist within the worlds they create. And while I can't pretend to know the biographies of the actors who have appeared in the three Dardennes films I've seen, I'd be very surprised to learn that many of them are or were non-professionals.

Take Olivier Gourmet, who appears in both La Promesse and Rosetta (and L'Enfant, as well). He's a supporting actor in each, but, in La Promesse in particular, he lives and breathes with seeming effortlessness and specificity, with his thick glasses and jogging suit and perpetually unshaven face, as the monstrous Roger, father of Igor (Jeremie Renier), the 14-year-old protagonist whose moral awakening occurs when he witnesses, and helps, Roger ruthlessly exploit the undocumented workers who filter their way through the tenement house where Roger, basically, stores them. One day, when some investigators are coming by to check the documents of the men Roger employs in his construction business, one of the workers, Amidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), dies in a fall. Igor's attempts to save the man's life are thrust aside by Roger, who would rather save his own neck by letting the man die out of sight of the inspectors, and disposing of the body later. From there, the film follows Igor's struggle for redemption as he tries to help out Amidou's widow (who does not know she's a widow, believing instead that Amidou is laying low due to gambling debts) played by Assita Ouedraogo. After a certain point, Roger drops out of the film physically for long stretches, though the danger of his presence never does. Olivier Gourmet's performance makes sure of that, and he does this by making Roger a very ordinary kind of shitty person. Roger is not from a movie, somehow.
In Rosetta, Gourmet plays a somewhat more likable man, though he's probably no less a coward. He's also less vital to the proceedings, playing the owner of a waffle stand where the title character, portrayed by the remarkable Emilie Dequenne. As in La Promesse, our hero is a teenager, although morally, or ethically, or something like that, speaking her journey is rather less optimistic than Igor's. Rosetta goes from smart, angry, but good-hearted, to the kind of desperation that fuels some rather hideous decisions in L'Enfant, though for the most part Rosetta's better sense tends to win out. Mostly. Out of La Promesse and Rosetta, I found Rosetta to be the more difficult, and pitiful, and exhausting to sit through. They are not dissimilar, however. In Rosetta, Dequenne plays a girl who is forced to be an adult, because her mother, for reasons we're never told (the Dardennes are not big on backstory, and God bless them), has fallen so low that she accepts booze for sex. As you might assume, she doesn't work, so any money coming into their home -- it's just the two of them, in a trailer park -- is coming from Rosetta, who keeps losing her jobs for seemingly arbitrary reasons. When we first meet her, storming after her boss in an anonymous factory, she's demanding to know why she's been fired. Because the probationary period is up, she's told. And they don't need her now, apparently. She gets a job at the waffle stand twice; the first time around, she's let go by Gourmet's apologetic, hassled, weak-willed boss because, he says, his son "is a fuckup" and needs the work himself to get on track. At this point, Rosetta's panic is such that she ends up on the floor of the kitchen, clutching a bag of flour. Thinking, perhaps, that since they need the flour for the waffles, and she's holding it, they can't lose her.
But anyway, what I was getting at is that in both films, the teenage leads are never shown having any fun. There's no time for it. In La Promesse, Igor at least had a go-kart he was working on, but by the time of the film's action he's about to have to make the decision to leave that to his friends to take care of. He's about to become very busy taking care of people in the way that perhaps Roger, his father, should have been. Rosetta, you get the idea, would really like to be having fun, but, again, there are only so many hours in the day. At one point, during a brief period when things are looking up for her, she's lying in bed, checking off the things that went her way that day, and among them is "I made a friend." I don't know about you guys, but I can't take that kind of thing. The Dardennes may not butcher live animals on screen, but they do have their ways.

Usually, though, the sad lives of their child heroes are not so explicitly laid out. Most of the point is gotten across by showing Igor and Rosetta riding home quietly on the bus, doing nothing but looking out the window. Not listening to music, not talking to anyone, not even, it doesn't appear, thinking about much beyond whatever the next chore or errand is. Their days are full, I'll give them that. These bus scenes -- and both films have them, as well as other riffs on the same idea -- are among the Dardennes' most striking. Their films are not about the emptiness of boredom, but the emptiness of one damn thing after another that has to be done, that can't not be done if there are to be too many days more, of anything. These films are about survival, of a very quiet sort.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

For the Sake of Authenticity

The slaughtering of the water buffalo in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has never bothered me. Not too much, anyway. It’s all rationalization, but I think the reasons for this are that, for one thing, I’ve been watching the film for decades now, I’m used to it, and I imagine when I originally saw it there was a certain morbid thrill inherent in seeing for the first time, as far as I knew, an actual living thing being actually killed. None of us are free from a certain morbid curiosity. More importantly, possibly, is that I was told that this water buffalo was being killed as part of a native ritual that was going to happen whether Coppola pointed his camera at it or not. This was helpful to me because it removed the responsibility of the buffalo’s death from Coppola and put it in the hands of a primitive culture that was, on a certain level, none of my business. In any case, I could compare it to watching a nature documentary.

Except that over the years I’ve come to realize that I don’t like those kinds of nature documentaries, and more to the point I’ve long understood now that the actual, unsimulated killing of animals, or torture of same, in films is my one big taboo. I can’t say I will avoid films containing such scenes at all costs, because that would be a lie, but it’s the one thing that will make me avoid a film to the point that if presented with such a film that I’m otherwise interested in seeing, I will consider actually never seeing it. I fully realize that I’m far from alone in this, and one of the dangers I’m trying to avoid in writing about this topic is taking on a judgmental, long-suffering, more-sensitive-than-you tone. But put it like this: years ago, when John C. Reilly dropped out of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay reportedly because Von Trier planned on killing a donkey on camera, I was fully behind Reilly’s decision, and kind of hated Von Trier, whose reaction to losing the actor was essentially “What’s the big deal?” But he was sort of -- sort of -- right. One of the reasons I need to watch my tone here is because if I get too self righteous about this, the levels of hypocrisy that will be in play the next time I cram a roast beef sandwich into my face or get bummed out because my steak isn’t rare enough will have become insupportable.
And anyway, for all my mostly internal anger towards movies that contain real animal killings, it’s not like I’ve been particularly good at avoiding them. Even once you get past the era of American film history when horses were regarded as disposable as matches, if you watch a lot of movies, and cast your film-going net as wide as I try to, you’re going to see some that were made in Europe. In European films, particularly those made in the 60s and 70s, all bets are off. Or can be off. But it really feels like sometimes an animal could be killed at any time in any given French or German or so on film. Rabbits and chickens and the like drop like flies in the morally rigorous films of Robert Bresson (exceptions to this include, oddly enough, Bresson’s famously bloody Lancelot of the Lake and the quietly apocalyptic L’Argent), with the nadir being reached in stock footage of a seal clubbing featured in The Devil, Probably, an image I haven’t been able to shake years after seeing it, and since in order to see that film I had to buy it I retain a vague and ridiculous fear that one day when I’m not around my wife, who likes this stuff even less than I do, will randomly decide to see what this The Devil, Probably deal is all about. And then, boom. I’m not really sure what the aftermath of that would be, so I’ll just say “boom.” More recently, Michael Haneke has shown no reticence about shooting pigs in the face, for example. I admire Haneke as a filmmaker (as I also admire Bresson, baffling though I sometimes find him), but the pig in Benny’s Video, just to take an example, makes the insufferable finger-wagging of Funny Games, which is plenty bad enough, even harder to take. I’m reminded of the pig in Godard’s Weekend, about which Pauline Kael said (paraphrasing here) that whatever moral judgments Godard wished to throw out to his audience, the pig was all his. This being the closest I’ve ever come to giving Kael the thumbs up. The upshot of all this being that while I’ve never seen any of Francis Veber’s light comedies, it wouldn’t shock me to learn that at some point in, say, The Dinner Game, there’s a shot of somebody scooping out the eyes of a live goat.

Which brings me, sort of, to my earlier point about avoiding such films when I can, and deciding sometimes to just bite the bullet. There are two films that I have specifically not seen for years because of this: Bela Tarr’s Satantango (which features no actual animal deaths I’m aware of, but instead apparent cat abuse, though Tarr himself has offered an explanation that I’m inclined to believe, but not yet to the point of watching the maybe-not-actual-cat-abuse unfold), and, on the less, I don’t know, aesthetically precise end of things, Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust. Perversely, this is the one for which I decided to end my embargo recently. And it’s a terrible movie with lots of animal killing in it. As I say, Cannibal Holocaust is notorious for its various animal butcheries, as well as the fake (convincingly faked, but faked, which should maybe go without saying, I guess, maybe) torture and rape and evisceration of most of its characters.
Cannibal Holocaust’s turtle scene is the one that’s always talked about, but I can attest that none of these scenes are much fun to watch. Nor is any part of the rest of the movie. Deodato’s film is notable for being the first (among the first?) found footage horror movies, though it only becomes that towards the final third. The plot is, a group of American documentary filmmakers – supposedly extremely famous documentary filmmakers – led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his girlfriend Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), are preparing to journey to the Amazon basin in order to film lives of the cannibal tribes to be found therein. When they don’t return, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, a porn actor who interestingly gives the one decent performance in the whole movie) begins an expedition to go find them. Along the way, he sees all manner of atrocity, including the hideous rape and murder of a native girl, and is forced by the leader of the tribe in whose possession Monroe and his guides have found the remains, including cameras, of the missing filmmakers, to eat human flesh. Also a coatimundi, a kind of small mammal, has its throat slit and its stomach eaten. But he got the footage, so back to New York he goes, where the, I don’t know, TV network(?) is thrilled that the last film of these amazing filmmakers can be presented to the world. The fact that it’s known that all of these people were killed and eaten doesn’t seem to bug them too very much, and in fact they’re willing to slap that film, sight unseen, right up there on TV. But Monroe says “Well, let’s maybe watch it first?” so he and a network editor do so, and the found footage portion of Cannibal Holocaust begins.

And a lot of this is actually kind of hilarious. The point of this whole ridiculous thing is that, you know, sure these people are cannibals, but aren’t we, members of the civilized Western world, kind of really the savages? Yes indeed we are, because Alan and his crew are terrible people. The footage they shot shows them as initially callous and glib, and just kind of jerks when you consider how often they flip off the camera (they do it a lot, and Faye sometimes makes rude faces, too), and finally as rapists and murderers. Well, finally as ripped apart corpses, but as rapists and murderers immediately prior to that. It’s already been revealed to us, and to Monroe, that Alan Yates and his crew made a habit of staging events for their documentaries (though in the example shown to us, a section of a film called The Last Road to Hell, it’s not clear to me if the tribal murders depicted were urged on by Alan, or if the murders themselves were faked), and here we see them torching a village belonging to a cannibal tribe known as “the tree people” so that it can be blamed, in their film if not in reality, on a rival tribe. And Alan and Faye and the other Americans are whooping it up and laughing as they torch the place and shoot pigs and yell about how much money they’re going to make. The economic theory being consulted here must be an obscure one, but anyway we’ll never find out if it pans out for them. Pretty soon after that, Alan and company capture a native girl and gang rape her (here, for once, Faye displays some moral uncertainty) and then look in awe and amusement at the girl’s ultimate fate, a famous image from Cannibal Holocaust involving impalement, and I’ll leave it at that.

I must admit there’s a grotesquely funny moment here involving Alan’s reaction to this, but since moral indictment of some kind seems to be at the forefront of Deodato’s mind here, or at least he’d like us to think so, I’m left wondering who or what is being indicted. The American involvement in Vietnam, about which Yates once made a film, and which, in a lazy, sleepy kind of way seems to be the goal? Or filmmakers who would make documentaries about such a thing, which appears more explicitly to be the target, but can’t actually be? Either way, characters in the film, more than once, actually say things like “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” and “Maybe we’re the savages.” If the question is really “Who are the real savages,” can’t the answer be both? I mean, just going by what’s in the film, the Amazon cannibal tribes do a lot of raping and murdering and cannibaling themselves. It’s not like it’s revealed that all the eating of human flesh that we as a culture once arrogantly ascribed to these Amazon tribes was actually being done in secret by Alan Yates and his girlfriend. Maybe Deodato wanted us to leave Cannibal Holocaust thinking it was a tie.
But that’s all bullshit anyway. I have a hard time believing Deodato thought too hard about the politics of any of this. He cared only about showing the savagery. Because of its reputation, I watched Cannibal Holocaust in constant fear that the animals shown scampering or crawling through the jungle would suddenly be massacred, though most of it doesn’t occur until the found footage section, at which point it all comes in a rush. The animal deaths occur at such a rapid pace by this time that I started wondering why they were letting some animals off the hook. There was an alligator at one point, and I couldn’t figure out why nobody was in a tree throwing big rocks at its head. I entered this state of mind after the turtle scene, which is lovingly filmed, I must say, and is by far the most gruesome animal scene in the film. In truth, I watched each of these scenes with one hand ready to block out what I would very probably decide I’d rather not see, which still left me seeing almost all of it, including the turtle scene. The one I did not watch a second of was the monkey killing, and in all honesty I have to admit that this is because I love monkeys, I think they’re cute, and monkeys scream. Turtles don’t. I like turtles too, mind you, but what I’m getting at, and this will shock nobody, is that some animals, by virtue of their behavior and appearance, have a greater hold of our sympathies than others. It is another hypocrisy which I have to deal with that the killing of a monkey, which is cute, makes me angrier than the killing of a turtle, which is, from a distance, kind of like a rock. This isn’t a hypocrisy that lets Deodato off the hook, however, and in any case I’d like to be clear that none of the animal killings in Cannibal Holocaust strike me as any less bad than the others (there is, in fact, a particular aspect of the turtle scene that bothers me enormously and I wish I’d looked away sooner).

Except that perhaps the shooting of the pig, which I basically saw, feels worse than the others, because in the case of the others, the meat becomes food (actually becomes food, as far as I know) (and okay, not the snake) – this makes the deaths seem, almost, like what I call “farm killings,” a genre of on-screen animal deaths that is often what we’re seeing in Bresson, or, to take another example, Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien. The context of the pig killing, though, is basically “Hey everybody, watch me shoot this pig.” Gabriel Yorke, the actor who plays Yates, was supposed to shoot the pig, but he refused, and another actor took the job. There are a lot of stories about the making of Cannibal Holocaust that involve the actors balking at what Deodato was asking of them, and even clashing angrily with the director (among the stories is one about Francesca Ciardi, whose ideas about how to ease tensions, which having nothing to do with any kind of cruelty to any living thing, are nevertheless kind of alarming; Yorke, meanwhile, comes off as a normal, decent guy who probably spent a lot of time regretting the day he’d ever agreed to work with Deodato), all of which eventually pile up to make the filming of Cannibal Holocaust sound almost as ugly and shitty and morally ruinous as the film Deodato pretended he was making. At least I know who the savage is.

Monday, August 6, 2012

My New Yorker Caption Contest Submissions

"Thank you, Susan, that will be all."

"Pardon me, do you know where I might find the nearest drugstore?" [To Be Continued]

[The Conclusion] "Down two blocks, across from the movie theater."

"When I get home I'm gonna fuck this."

"This sculpture of a man dying in the desert almost fooled me into thinking there was breathable air on the moon!!!"

"If you don't take me to water soon, I will die.  Please help me."