Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Kickstarter Campaign

Kickstarter is a "crowdmoney" website that provides artists such as myself the means, nay, the obligation, to figuratively walk up to members of their public and say "I want to do something.  Do you have between five and eight thousand dollars?"  The answer, alarmingly, is usually "Yes," so with that in mind I have decided to get in on this.  It's my understanding that people who fund their projects through Kickstarter usually offer incentives, or rewards, to those who donate money, and the greatness of the reward is exactly equal to the amount donated by a particular person.  So my thing right now is, I can't figure out how Kickstarter's website works (I'm currently hung up on the "Learn More" button -- I'm like "Huh??"), but I'd really like to get the money soon, so I'm going to post here what you, my future donors, can expect to receive as a reward.

Project Name:  I Don't Know, Maybe a Book or Something? Details Pending

Donation/Reward Tier Chart:

$10 donation - When I get your money, you will be able to see that the amount of money donated has increased by $10.

$20 donation - Does Kickstarter have a comments section? I'm not that far into it yet so I don't know, but if it does all donors of $20 will get a personal message in the comments section that reads "thx [YOUR NAME]."

$50 donation - Should you and I ever pass each other on the street, I will acknowledge your presence with a single nod of my head.

$100 donation - A letter, written on notebook paper, dictated but not read by me, that will say something to the effect of "If you can afford to donate $100, surely you can afford to donate $150."

$150 donation - A letter, written on notebook paper, dictated but not read by me, that will say something to the effect of "That's more like it."

$300 donation - I will personally come to your home.  You can show me around your town if you want, but I think it would be more fun to just hang out at your place.  Watch some TV.  IMPORTANT:  If you have dogs, they must be locked up for the duration of my visit.  IMPORTANT:  If you have children, don't even bother donating $300.  Donate $500 and spare me the hassle.

$500 donation - I will buy you an Arby's sandwich of your choice, from either the "Roast Beef" or "Turkey Roasters" portion of their menu.  Before you even think of asking me about their Ultimate Angus or Market Fresh sandwiches, maybe first ask yourself if I could just buy any random schmo an Arby's Three Cheese and Bacon Ultimate Angus, why would I even need Kickstarter in the first place. (PLEASE NOTE:  You will need to eat your sandwich on the bus on the way home.  Alone, I might add.  I have a book to write or maybe a movie? The possibilities are endless with your generous donation!)

$1000 donation - You will get to sit next to me for one half hour on three consecutive days (that's a half hour each day!) and watch me create.  Let's say I'm writing a book.  Depending on when you get here, you might see me open up Microsoft Word and contemplate which combination of words I should use to begin my work.  Or if you're there during the middle of the day, I might have chosen to take a break from writing.  I could be watching a movie, I might not even be home.  Should the latter be the case, you will sit by my computer until the half hour is up, and then you will leave.  You are being monitored. (I WILL NOT PROVIDE SNACKS)

$2000 donation - You will be able to have a say on my book or movie's title!  I might ask you, "Well what about On the Eve of April's Dawning?"  And brother, you had better answer "That sounds great!" (SNACKS PROVIDED)

So there you go!  LOOK AT WHAT YOU COULD BE A PART OF!  Remember that rich broad who kept giving James Joyce money?  She won't be shit compared to you!  LET'S KICKSTART THIS MOTHER!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Those Who Are Lost in the World of the Tower Apartments

Well, this is more like it, or it's near enough to being more like it that I'm not about to complain all that strenuously.  I'm referring to the films of Jean Rollin, which, when last I checked in with thoughts, had found my enthusiasm for the man and his work dampened somewhat by the not-at-all-interesting-in-fact-pretty-bad Zombie Lake and Schoolgirl Hitchhikers, those two having just been released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.  Kino Lorber is at it again, though, with the releases tomorrow of Rollin's The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted, two films he made while in the middle of his run as a director of porn films.  I'd have said something like "while lost in the wilderness of porn," or something equally evocative, which is to say "not very evocative," except that at least one of those films, Phantasmes from 1975, is a film Rollin took as seriously as any of the many other brilliant horror films we all know and love him for (so I learned from the essay by Tim Lucas included with both Blu-rays).  That's also the only porn film Rollin put his own name on, so maybe otherwise he did consider porn to be a wilderness -- the softcore Schoolgirl Hitchhikers certainly didn't indicate much interest in that form.  But what do I know.  Maybe Kino Lorber will get around to Phantasmes some day, too.  In any case, and speaking of "what do I know?", here we have these two films, from 1978 and 1980 respectively, and if neither one struck me as quite worthy of Rollin at his best -- a statement that implies far more negativity than I'd like --  it could be to tread on very thin ice to try and make much of anything out of that particular thought, in terms of how Rollin was earning most of his money at the time, because sandwiched in between The Grapes of Death and Night of the Hunted is another "pure" Rollin film, the one called Fascination, which might well be his masterpiece. So subjectivity, and all that stuff.

Night of the Hunted - But, you know…sorry, I’m taking these in reverse chronological order, plus I’m going to get hung up on something slightly irrelevant, but, you know, how good, as a movie, can Phantasmes really be?  I’ve seen a few of the somewhat current almost-trend of arthouse films that contain scenes of unsimulated sex, and it’s difficult for me to take, for instance, 9 Songs seriously as a real, like, movie-type movie.  And that one wasn’t even filmed as porn, stylistically speaking, which I can only assume Phantasmes was.  This is all perhaps my own hang up, though I assure you whatever hang up it is, if it is one, is not Puritanical in nature.  I just think the concept of 9 Songs is stupid, and, further, I think the whole idea of unsimulated sex in regular movies with actors in them is usually backed by a juvenile impulse masquerading as “Well why can’t we just be honest?” art-douche posturing.  Then again there’s Antichrist, a film I like a great deal, which comes very close to justifying its own compliment of brief hardcore sex scenes.  That doesn’t mean they’re not backed by the same juvenile impulse – this is Lars von Trier we’re talking about, after all – but they do provide certain events towards that film’s end with with a certain explicit causality. If you get me.

Anyway, I bring all this up in relation to Rollin’s non-hardcore Night of the Hunted, partly because certain questions along these lines are, I think, unavoidable when talking about his films, and European horror of a certain era in general, and partly because I wonder how similar this film, and other Rollin films like The Demoniacs, might be in terms of style, structure, and the employment of their sexual component, to Phantasmes, a film I might as well confess to really wanting to see.  What I’m getting at here, as far as Night of the Hunted goes, is that all of the sex and much of the ancillary nudity in the film is entirely gratuitous, to the point of being goofy, and it feels almost entirely removed from the action of the film.  The film stars Brigitte Lahaie as Elisabeth, who we first see running in a hospital gown down a highway at night, where she is picked up by Robert (Vincent Gardere), a good man who genuinely only wants to help this woman who, it turns out, is suffering from a terrible form of amnesia that allows her to remember scraps of what she was running from, but not why, or anything before that, or, just a bit later, back in Robert’s home, how she came to meet him.  It will turn out that she escaped a scientific/medical facility known as The Black Tower, along with a young nude woman named Veronique (Dominique Journet), in which are housed dozens of men and women suffering from the same affliction as Elisabeth.  When Elisabeth is inevitably dragged back to The Black Tower, she and Veronique, who has also been re-captured, almost immediately embark on another escape attempt.

The strange environment of The Black Tower, the escape attempt, and the aftermath are the whole film, which is of course plenty, though that escape attempt takes up the bulk of it.  As a result, that strange environment becomes the show, a not unusual approach from Rollin – it includes, most affectingly, stories of despairing patients who practically beg anyone nearby to tell them who they are.  The best of these involves a woman asking if anyone knows the name of her daughter – the fact that she has one is the only memory she retains.  It’s a wonderful scene, and it reminded me very strongly but also very vaguely of another scene in another movie, which I have thus far been entirely unable to pinpoint.  So this is either a false memory, or I’ve just lost the thread.  Either way, pretty fitting.  Also included are scenes of sexual violence, or sex that becomes violent, which adds a hint, as Tim Lucas notes, of Cronenberg’s Shivers from 1975.  The big difference there, though, is that in Shivers those scenes relate directly to what that film is.  In Night of the Hunted, all Rollin offers is the information that the severe memory loss is merely a step towards total mental disintegration, which itself can reasonably be said to lead to the sexual violence.  But that doesn’t make those scenes of the film.  To some degree, that element of the film exists because Rollin knew he might be forced to market the film as a softcore sex movie.

Despite how it might sound, I mean none of this as a judgment against the film, or not in any condescending or moralizing way.  But it’s a reality of Rollin’s career that I find interesting -- and which I would find a good deal less interesting if I didn’t think he was so brilliant – that I see no reason not to acknowledge as an occasional barrier to hurdle.  Night of the Hunted at its best is nowhere near Rollin at his best – and, again, as noted by Tim Lucas, Rollin would agree with me about that – but it does have a quiet, dreamy menace to it.  There’s something reminiscent of J. G. Ballard to all this, too, with this giant modern office building containing within it obscure and abstract dangers presented as, and possibly even literally existing as, a cure for something even more obscure and abstract.  There’s a heavy dose of politics in here, which Lucas lays out in his essay much better than I could, any in any case isn’t the kind of political element that would reveal itself to a viewer who didn’t seek out facts about Rollin and his beliefs, as well as his specific thinking while putting Night of the Hunted together, but without that we’re still left with a reveal that all of this has something to do with a minor nuclear disaster.  None of this comes across very strongly as a statement about anything, but the film’s ending, which brings two characters to the same level and leaves them there, might remind you, as it did me, of the act of living your life every day as though the world was not collapsing all around you.

The Grapes of Death - Which leaves The Grapes of Death to say what about, exactly?  It’s more successful, from top to bottom, than Night of the Hunted, but is also perhaps has less going on in it.  By which I mean both good and bad stuff, though it does also contain a hint that nuclear power can lead to horror, though in this case it functions in about the same way as “this happened because of a comet” would in its place.  A sort of zombie film, The Grapes of Death is about a young woman, another Elisabeth played by Marie-Georges Pascal, on a train trip with her friend, played by Evelyne Thomas.  They’re apparently the only people on the train, save one conductor, a man with some terrible and fast-spreading skin disease, who attacks them, killing Elisabeth’s friend, before she’s able to escape.  Stranded far from either her destination, a town called Roubelais, where her fiance’ owns a vineyard, and from her starting point, she now has to try to work her way to Roubelais on foot.  But everything on that route is death and madness, as she encounters one person after another with the same vile condition as the conductor, and possessed by the same bloodlust.

One of the things I found so effective about this film is how merciless it is towards its supporting characters.  Don’t get attached, is what I’m saying, but it goes a bit beyond that.  The Grapes of Death does achieve a level of shrieking horror in this way, if that’s not overstating the matter.  But it is merciless, and, for example, there’s a decapitation scene that is shocking because of who is decapitated, when they’re decapitated, who decapitates this person, and, most importantly, the clumsy, messy fury of it all.  Being able to see the strings, as it were, does nothing to dent the chilling, spurting frenzy of the moment.

Like a lot of zombie movies – which, again, this sort of is – the power of The Grapes of Death is in similarly visceral moments, and in its relentless march towards a not very happy ending.  Not as bracingly surreal as many of Rollin’s best films, it’s close to being as grimly haunted, with a final minute that’s close to brilliant.  I don’t believe Rollin ever fell back on any kind of typical horror ending – even if the climax is a flurry of violence, he closes it all out with a moment of chilling grace.  Hell, if I remember correctly, even Zombie Lake took a shot in that direction.  In The Grapes of Death, it’s rather uncertain what will happen after we cut to black, but any number of things could and we’d remain secure in the knowledge that the damage has been done.  Grace like this is not something that is often sought in horror – it’s not even respected, not now, anyway.  But if you have it, it’s immensely powerful.  Rollin had grace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ordinary People

In the booklet that comes with Criterion release of Repo Man, which hits stores tomorrow, there is a quite enjoyable almost-but-not-quite-comic-strip retelling by writer-director Alex Cox of the path that led to this very unlikely 1984 film being made -- the turning point of it all was the very unlikely backing of former Monkee Mike Nesmith. Anyway, as I say, it's enjoyable -- sarcastic, self-deprecating, complimentary of at least some of his collaborators. He does take a shot at The Monkees, though, which strikes me as a bit ungrateful, given that their popularity essentially gave Cox his career, Repo Man being the film that kicked things off for him and everything. In the commentary track on the Criterion disc, Cox is as chatty and friendly and as excited to reminisce as anybody else in the room, which includes Nesmith, who, I'll grant you, even if he does know about the "they were terrible!" crack in the booklet, could probably not give less of a shit about it if he tried.

I bring up all this irrelevant stuff simply because I have in my mind a certain image of Alex Cox, exemplified by an anecdote he told somewhere or another about being approached by Steve Martin to direct Three Amigos. Martin pitched the idea, and Cox said something to the effect of "Obviously we'll have to put something in there about the American goverment's foul political history with South and Central America." This, Cox said, ended the interview, and his association with Three Amigos. From this I've taken two things, maybe more than that, and at least one of which I should maybe keep to myself, having to do with how much time I would want to spend around Alex Cox, should the opportunity to do so ever present itself, which it won't, and that's at least one of the reasons I feel like keeping it to myself. But from that anecdote I've mainly taken that Cox is far more happily married to the idea of film as a tool for social change than I, personally, am (I'm trying to be polite here), and Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, and so forth apparently got as much out of Repo Man as I did. (Anyway, Cox evidently funnelled his exasperation over not getting the gig into Walker.)

The point of all this being that, having recently rewatched Repo Man for the first time since I was a kid, it is my unhappy, kind of, duty to inform you that I think it's just fine. There are few films that so clearly illustrate what a "cult movie" even is, and Repo Man is perhaps the clearest of all. Not so strange as to potentially separate itself, at least not aggressively, from any of the viewers who might wander by, as we can probably assume films like Eraserhead and El Topo have done, but certainly strange enough to inspire the kind of reaction from those who do see it that is the lifeblood of this kind of thing, that is to say it causes people to exclaim, not altogether unhappily, "What the hell is this??", Repo Man almost feels calculated, almost cynically so, to stake its ground with a certain kind of paying audience. None of which (even the cynicism, if its there, which I don't really think it is) I begrudge the film or Cox or anybody. God knows I begrudge Harry Dean Stanton nothing on this Earth. It's the story of a young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who is sick not only of his whitebread suburban home life (of course) but also in the useless California punk subculture into which he's immersed himself, so sick of it all in fact that when he brushes shoulders with the world of automobile repossession, in the person of veteran repo man Bud (Stanton), he decides the money he needs to get out of town might as well come from there as anywhere else, particularly since it's highly improbably that it will come from anywhere else. So Repo Man is at first a comedy, almost a goofball comedy, about a kid growing up in this strange, dangerous, but real environment populated by the likes of Sy Richardson, Tracey Walter and others, with several snide potshots at the alternative "square" life delivered along the way.

Snide potshots aside, and more on those in a bit, this is Repo Man at its best, as far as I'm concerned. This is when the movie's funny, and even when it's not funny it's lively, and the performances -- especially by Stanton, but even by Estevez -- are all easy-going and lived in. The funniest line in the film comes from a scene where Tracey Walter, as a more-eccentric-than-usual member of the repo man circle, tells Otto everything about the true ways of the world, to do with space aliens and conspiracies and the like, and at one point he ends one particular line of nonsensical thinking with "...and UFOs are? You got it...time machines." I really love the way Walter's character is shown to believe that Otto is not only listening to what he's saying, but is buying into the logic. Along the way, though, Repo Man establishes its cult credentials as the plot takes over, said plot involving a mysterious Chevy Malibu that is pegged for repossession not just by Bud and his colleagues, but by the bumbling and villainous United States Government, too. It has something in the trunk that kills people when they open it -- the light and smoke and shriek that precedes the person being vaporized is a clear wink at Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, but here it's played for laughs, or rather for satire, which never guarantees laughs as far as I can tell. For satire to succeed, it is enough simply that you agree with it, so the reverence in which the form is held has always been easy for me to regard with some suspicion. This allows much, most, satire to be as thoughtless as an insult, and the satire of Repo Man is essentially no stronger than "The U. S. Government...what a bunch of squares. And squares? Don't even get me started!"

One of the most famous and most-quoted lines from the film is "Ordinary fuckin' I hate 'em," and Cox convinced me, for all Repo Man's relative light-heartedness, even in the face of the violence that takes over the final stretch, that he does indeed hate what- or whoever he considers "ordinary people" to be. They don't like punk music though, probably, because that's all over the soundtrack, and inside the film itself (Zander Schloss of The Circle Jerks acts in the film), and if Cox thought for a second that "ordinary people" liked punk he'd move on to some other genre in a blink. Or so I'm guessing. All I know for sure is, Repo Man, as a film about repo men, is pretty good. Repo Man, as a film about What the 1980s Mean to Me, is tiresome.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

We Walked Up the Steps

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder arrives -- arrived to me, anyhow -- with a built-in reputation as his most abstract and inaccessible film to date. It's quite possible that there is no arguing with this. His first four movies, Badlands and so on, may not be for everyone, but when you get right down to it, narratively they're not that wonky. Those who found themselves put off by Malick's work, and their numbers have grown with each subsequent film, tended to object to things like pacing, and his use of narration, and long stretches of the film in which these people would say nothing much happened. Malick's not trying to shake you off his tail at any point in those first four, though. It's worth noting, however, that narratively those films did start getting wonkier, especially if you view pacing as a narrative consideration (I don't myself, but never mind) -- if a traditionally tight focus on A to B to C storytelling is your thing, The Thin Red Line and The New World -- and don't even get me started on if you're one of those "narration in films is a crutch!" -- can seem like the quietest of assaults. All of which led to 2011's The Tree of Life, Malick's long-gestating meditation (a word I don't often like to use in this way, but in the case of The Tree of Life it's almost literally applicable) on childhood, the 1950s, Texas, moms, dads, death, God, Christianity, memory, acceptance, and the creation of the Universe and all life within it. As a piece about memory, Malick takes the way human memory works as his guiding cinematic style, and so The Tree of Life manages to somehow be both slow and fast, with quick scenes of, some would argue, Not Much Happening, but of course it's all cumulative, and also about forty minutes in the Earth is created. The Tree of Life was famously divisive, to the point that some theaters had to post signs saying they wouldn't grant refunds to patrons who'd bought their ticket with the expectation that this was a regular movie, not a fancy movie. Nevertheless, that film did appeal to a great many people, and there is an undeniable warmth to it all, even to the darker moments, due to Malick's grasp of the specifics of childhood, some fictional version of his childhood specifically, and the environment being so strong.

Pretty cleary, I should hope, none of the above is meant as a judgment of Malick's style, as I'm a fan, but he does have a unique gift for shedding supporters with each subsequent film. And To the Wonder is hacking away at those who remain like a madman. According to some, anyway. Me, I liked it. At under two hours, it's Malick's shortest film since Days of Heaven, but within that he's assembled a jumbled, intentionally so, and oblique, intentionally so, I guess romantic drama, would be the genre category you'd be looking for here, about Neil (Ben Affleck) who brings his French girlfriend Marina(Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter from a previous relationship (Tatiana Chiline) from France to Texas, but his inability to commit to marrying Marina, as well as his wandering eye, finally drive them away. Or not finally. The film drifts from Neil with Marina, to Neil with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a despairing, lonely farmer he'd known when they were children. Jane pretty evidently needs somebody, but with Neil she, like Marina before her, pretty clearly thought she was getting somebody else. Neil is one of those people who is basically a nice guy who's kind of an asshole, and one of the surprising things about To the Wonder is how unflinching -- without quite looking squarely at the thing, if you see my distinction -- it is about the damage one person acting upon their moods, who are guided by their selfish myopia, can wreak.

That all makes the film seem fairly straightforward, though, and it isn't. The warmth of The Tree of Life is not entirely absent from To the Wonder -- it's even occasionally heated -- but Malick achieves a chilly kind of warmth here. There's an occasional awkwardness, too. It's a film packed with perfectly observed scenes of idle playfulness and everyday existence, such as a brief moment of girls talking and skipping and bending outside of an elementary school, or a very young boy lying perfectly still on the ground as someone outlines him in chalk (sounds creepy, but it's charming), but it also has weird moments like Neil, Marina, and her daughter, in happier times, frolicking around with lampshades on their heads, shining bare light bulbs at each other, which seems like a thing that no one has ever done to entertain themselves. The idea we have of Malick, or have learned to have, is of a guy who shoots an immense amount of film with the plan of finding his movie in the editing room, at the expense of entire characters and subplots, and here even a Malick fan like myself must acknowledge that sometimes it seems like he should have kept looking. But this is a film that is more nakedly grasping at its own sense of these people and their situation than anything Malick has made. He may have been mystified by the killers in Badlands, but I believe in that case he understood that theirs was an existence you couldn't understand unless you were pulling the trigger, or tagging along for the ride. To the Wonder, like The Tree of Life before it, is Malick trying to be universal, but in doing so he has to acknowledge that universal, or at least not uncommon, experience can still carry with it a dose of inexplicability. The result of such grasping can include the occasional whiff, is my point, but the grasping is still the show.

And of course Malick goes about all this, and much more, in his own way. A question that is sometimes asked by screenwriter types, or students and enthusiasts of same, and here I should specify screenwriting of a very specific and traditional kind, is "Who is this about?" The character, they mean, the main character, our point of view, and so on. To the Wonder does not exactly seem to ask this question. For instance, for all the talk about Ben Affleck having very little to say in the film, he's in more scenes than he isn't, and it's his actions and inaction that fuels everything. When Neil is with Jane, Marina is gone. When Neil is with Marina, Jane is gone. At the same time, unlike Jane, Marina has much to do and think and suffer through when she's alone. And if Neil fuels the action, such as it is, it's Marina who fuels the style. Kurylenko is rather terrific in the film, and she'd better be, because if Malick's camera has to hitch itself to Neil on occasion, it would quite blatantly rather spend its every second with Marina. Malick regards her, and Kurylenko, to be as much a part of the natural beauty of the world as the birds and beaches turtles and leaves and sky and horizons and oceans that have over the years spread from the background of his films to the foreground. The camera quite literally follows Marina throughout the film -- never have I scene a film where a character is so relentlessly photographed from behind. I do not mean this in the lascivious way it might sound, but at the same time I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that a certain...Godly lasciviousness wasn't a part of it. Boy that doesn't sound right, but To the Wonder is the kind of film that connects a whole lot of things that most people would consider disparate, but which aren't, at least if you hold a certain philosophy. Anyhow, the camera follows her (Jane, always waiting to be shattered to bits once again, is seen head-on) -- she's always walking ahead of Neil, and us, spinning and playing at the best of times, looking back at Neil, and at us, and it's hard to think we're not, in some way, pursuing her. We are, but Neil may not be -- Neil's fickleness needn't be our own, and doesn't seem to be Malick's. This would seem to place Marina on an uncomfortably high pedestal, but she somehow still manages to register as a real human being. She is gorgeous and mysterious and life-affirming in her very presence, but if you follow her around with a camera long enough, you're going to see how profoundly frustrated she is, or has become, during almost every waking minute of her life.

To give you some idea of the way To the Wonder otherwise presents itself, when it's somewhat less concerned with Kurylenko, among the things I thought about while watching it are Werner Herzog's Stroszek (both films are strange, neither film approaches strangeness with the same philosophy, but both films do stand still and look at America all around them and are somewhat dumbstruck) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, due, admittedly, to one particular cut from one kind of naturally landscape to another, utterly different kind. But it's a film that invites a great tumble of connections that don't need to achieve a one-to-one comparison. For example, John Prine's "Unwed Fathers" ran through my head, even though Neil, the guy that would pertain to, isn't really the guy in that song. But he has a profound ability to make Marina unhappy, and even though his relationship with Jane is not presented as just some dude looking to change the old oil, there, even prior to her introduction Neil is shown to be a man who is weak in the face of his capacity to attract women. It's shown with a glance here and there, at a woman passing by, and through certain cryptic things Marina says, but it's unmistakably there. Add to that the fact that at the time of his affair Marina and Neil aren't married, and it becomes surprising that To the Wonder reveals itself to be, at its heart, about the sanctity of marriage. Very much marriage as a religious sacrament, I mean. If Malick's obsession with the natural world can be explained, as I believe it can, by the Tom Waits line "God's green hair is where I slept last," then it should surprise no one that his view of love, including sexual love, manifests as the pursuit of something holy (pursued as if by a cameraman, you might say). It's what Marina is pursuing, and not the in the Cathy "I need a man! Ack!" way, but in the "love is a celebration of God" way. This is evidently not Neil's stance on the whole issue, even though for his own peace of mind he appears to have chosen to deny everything about himself, or near enough, otherwise he'd live his life crushed by guilt, and who has time for that?

But God's everywhere in this film, and is at least as big an issue as in The Tree of Life. Javier Bardem is also in To the Wonder, playing a priest named Father Quintana, who goes through his life doing good for the needy and outcast, and delivering sermons at the church attended by Neil and Marina, but wondering where in the hell God is. His crisis of faith reaches a resolution of sorts, the word "everywhere" being the key there, and in a way Malick charts his progress -- his narrative arc, if you really insist on calling it that -- in the regular three-act way some people castigate Malick for abandoning. Not only that, but stylistically To the Wonder illustrates Quintana's story more directly than it does the Marina-Neil-Jane triangle. So God and Quintana form the buried engine of a film about the sanctity of marriage in which no marriage occurs until late in the film, and man, it doesn't seem very sacred really, by the time the credits roll. But it's the words that make it all make sense, Malick's much-derided narration that even many of his admirers say is something you have to just sort of deal with. And it's true, when you have Kurylenko (who does most of the narrating here) say in three different ways, one after the other in a row, that her love with Neil had made two people become one, it can become hard to take it seriously, and think it will be better for everybody to just focus on what works. But it's always been true, and here maybe more than ever, that Malick's narration provides the philosophical context that provide significance and weight to the images. They may be on the nose, even trite -- though by no means always, I'd argue -- they work almost as hypnotic, and spoken aloud, stage directions. It's part of the hum of Malick's films. If anyone agrees with me about the "stage directions" business, I can imagine them stating that they do NOT like it when movies tell them how to feel. But Malick isn't telling you how to feel. He's telling you how he feels. He made these movies, not us. That's their power.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

You're Gonna Die

So that's pretty scary, right?  With the eyes and the blood and the teeth?  It's an image from Evil Dead, the new remake of the Sam Raimi classic (or, really, classics), directed by Fede Alvarez and written by Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody, that just opened after a rather surprisingly large wave of goodwill among horror fans, who are not typically known for their ready embrace of quite possibly cynical rejiggerings of their beloved favorites, and, indeed, why should they be?  I've said before, and will say now again, that I'm not ideologically opposed to remakes as a concept, and I'm pretty sure I'm still not, but boy, theoreticals aside, I feel like I'm becoming, practically speaking, actually bone-numbingly sick of the whole deal.  "Enough already," is I think a phrase that is sometimes used. There have only been a small handful of really great ones, a slightly larger handful of good ones, and a big heaping pantful of acceptable-through-useless horror remakes that justify the bitching, while nodding distractedly and walking away from us as we cry "And another thing!", with a giant sack of the money we've handed them slung over their shoulders. 

But again, Evil Dead was somehow able to circumvent all that to simply become a horror film that people were really looking forward to.  Supposedly, it was going to be terrifying, which is always nice.  Still, this was a remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 film, which, in case you don't know, is adored by horror fans the world over.  It is also a remake of Raimi's Evil Dead 2 from 1987, which itself is essentially a remake of the original, but more wild and inventive and goofy and funny, and which is, if anything, even more adored by horror fans the world over.  This in turn would lead to Army of Darkness, the third film in the trilogy, from 1992, and in the spirit of full disclosure I will admit here that neither the 1981 film nor Army of Darkness are particularly strong in my memory, having seen each only once a long time ago, and my interest in any of it, when it perks up, tends to be satisfied by Evil Dead 2, and after watching that one I generally go about my business.  I say all this only by way of explaining that very little of what I'm about to say about Alvarez's remake has anything to do with Sam Raimi-related baggage I hauled into the theater with me.  The only thing about the Raimi films, or rather in this case the making, and existence, of the Raimi films, that I thought much about while watching this new version, outside of the obvious recreation of certain famous moments, was that what made those earlier movies special was that Raimi and his crew were not so much forced by their meager budgets to be especially inventive as much as they understood the potential for inventiveness within those limited means.  Alvarez and Co., meanwhile, were granted a considerably more expansive budget, a fact I'm not holding against them, but managed to not be quite so inventive.  While filming their remake.  I suspect there is a lesson here.

All of which I'll loop back around to.  The plot here is simplicity itself, though Alvarez and his cowriters admirably refused to flagrantly produce something quite like what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon so surgically deconstructed in last year's The Cabin in the Woods.  After a prologue involving a group of what at first appear to be hideous redneck marauders violently kidnapping a young woman found wondering in the woods, but are then revealed to be forces of good who are working to eradicate the vile demonic force within her, we are then transported some years -- how many is not made clear, or anyway I didn't catch it if it was -- into the present, where a group of young people are gathering not for a weekend of debauchery, but rather what might be considered the exact opposite.  Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict, and her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) are waiting with her at an old, secluded family cabin for her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to arrive, so that an intense period of getting Mia through her cold-turkey battle against her addiction can begin.  The relationship between David and Mia -- and with David and Eric and Olivia -- shows some potential once we learn that Mia was left to tend to their mother during what seems to have been the particularly horrible end of her life, while David's excuses for his absence paint him as quite possibly a coward at best, a selfish dick at worst.  Not so bad as that, but not unnoticed by Eric and Olivia, who have already stuck by Mia through an overdose and a previous failed attempt to kick her habit, is David's apparently casual turning of his back on everybody else in his life as well, as he left town to pursue work and whatever else in Chicago.

And then later on evil deads attack and blood goes everywhere.  Alvarez gets there pretty quickly, just as I was wondering if this was the kind of film that would take its time, and if the people with whom we would be spending that time before the horror is let off its leash could carry such a load.  We'll never find out, but Eric and Olivia's prior experience with Mia could have yielded something, and Lucas and Pucci appeared to be equal to the task, had it been given to them, and the film even makes a successful, though very brief, stab at making Mia's situation feel reasonably harrowing.  David's ignorance and fear makes him a rather weak-seeming hero, which I find interesting, and Levy plays Mia's hanging-by-her-nails sobriety in such a way that the line between that and the supernatural horror that's about to overwhelm her feel very fine.  This is of course the point, because this is a metaphor, you see, which will quite soon ennoble all the splatter.  But anyway, that's where we are when the characters follow a nasty odor down into the cellar of the by-no-means-suitable-for-a-freshly-recovering-heroin-addict cabin in the woods and discover mummified cats and skin-bound books of evil spells, which one way or another will unleash an ancient evil that infects (but doesn't actually addict, so that metaphor doesn't carry through all the way), and the whole reason for Evil Dead's existence gets rolling.

Which is?  Well, look.  Raimi's film took classic horror ideas, the kind that go back to the campfire, and brought to them his own particular and wild imagination and sense of humor (the latter of which, of almost any kind, is absent from the remake, but I don't mind that; I don't need my horror movies to function as undercover comedies).  Alvarez, Sayagues, and Cody approach Raimi's expansion of the oldest of horror ideas and add other horror movies they saw and liked to it.  It's a sporadically effective, occasionally bizarre, and ultimately tedious way to go about this.  While I doubt this was the goal, though with things as they are in horror these days who can say, this new Evil Dead is almost as postmodern, if not more so, in its take on the genre as The Cabin in the Woods was, and being postmodern about this exact stuff is the whole reason The Cabin in the Woods exists in the first place.  But Alvarez's film starts with Raimi, then adds The Exorcist, then dumps in a plate of that "New French Extremity" horror movie stuff, you got your The Descent in there (which itself had some The Shining and etc. in it), you got all the infection horror, you got your zombie horror, because when you're infected you're not unlike the fast zombies that they got now, and so on and so forth.  Once the horror begins, there isn't a moment that isn't meant to remind the horror fan of something else.  Evil Dead refuses to wink during any of it, but it would like you to notice it winking at you anyway.  Which, if you're into this sort of thing, the movies that have been cobbled together here, and I am, you will.  If you didn't notice, then this would all just be stealing.

So, but, how good is Evil Dead at doing any of this?  At first, reasonably good.  After Mia becomes demonic and is locked in the cellar, it is inevitable that another character must soon fall, rise, and attack, and this -- along with a scene involving a scalding shower -- is probably the single most effective sequence in the whole film, not least because at this point Alvarez hasn't yet had the opportunity to become boring.  But give him a minute.  The gore becomes relentless and ridiculously extreme, in precisely the style of French films like Inside and Frontier(s) and Martyrs and Sheitan, and just as impossible to feel anything about, because as stupid as it all is, it's somehow not a joke -- when stepped back from and looked at objectively, this is like being shown a Bugs Bunny cartoon and told you're supposed to be frightened by it.  (I exempt from all this, by the way, Martyrs, an extraordinarily violent film that nevertheless has some flesh and bone you can actually bruise and break, and I realize that I must further clarify that in no way do I find Bugs Bunny cartoons to be stupid.) Sam Raimi, of course, played his splatter for laughs, in a way that was, among other things, satirizing the horror violence that was in 1981 beginning to become popular in horror, and by 1987, when he made his first Evil Dead sequel, had more or less taken over.  And again, it's not that I prefer, or even usually want, horror films to contain some central joke to ease me through the nasty bits.  I just wonder when contemporary horror filmmakers will realize that there is, in fact, a difference between "ridiculous" and "not ridiculous."

Then of course they have to drag The Exorcist into it all.  When Mia becomes full-on possessed, the references and nods and all that shit to Friedkin and Blatty's 1973 masterpiece come pretty fast and furious, and, well, put it like this:  lines like "You're gonna die, you bitch!" and "I'll tear your soul out, you pathetic fuck!" don't carry with them quite the same chilling, transgressive, bizarre quality as "Do you know what she did?  Your cunting daughter?"  Just as a for instance.  Nor is a voice that sounds like the fancy new state of the art 2013 update of Dr. Sbaitso really able to match the ingenious vocal performance by Mercedes McCambridge as the demon in The Exorcist.  But of course all that matters is that you know they're doing The Exorcist stuff here!  That is all the fuck that matters! If something else is meant to be taken from the shot of Mia in the cellar crouched and giggling like Linda Blair's Regan after the death of Father Merrin, then please, enlighten me.  Yeah, I've seen The Exorcist.  It's a great film.  You're nowhere near as good as it.  Now what?

Monday, April 1, 2013

What in The!?

I had a conversation today with a dear friend and it went like this:

"Hello, Bill!"

"Hi dear friend. You look awesome today!"

"Thanks. I am a monster made up of stitched-together dead people."



"And here I thought I knew you pretty well."

"Nope. Have you been to that new restaurant with those sandwiches?"

"Cap'n Sandwich? Yes I have. So good. Soooo good."

"Do they do a barbecue thing?"

"They have a barbecue grilled cheese!"

"WHAT THE FUCK! Barbecued grilled cheese!?"

"Yes, what they do is...ah, I can't even do this! April Fool's, motherfucker!"

"Goddamn! I wanted to try that sandwich! You got me all lookin' forward to it, you asshole! GODDAMN IT!"

"Sandwiches can't make you happy, dude. I can't make you happy! One might go so far as to say, you're afraid of both happiness and success!"

"You're not my therapist! Nor are you a respected member of the clergy!"

"I'm just trying to help you! You're always moping around, that's why nobody wants to hang out with you anymore! You were once my dear friend, but now I see you coming, and I'm like 'No thanks!'"

"Then why didn't you run away when I just walked up to you, just now, you coward? Afraid to face your own soul? Dear friend, is it? Ha!"

"I hate this. I hate that we're like this now. Remember the old days, when we'd hang out at Arthur Treacher's until late, then go bowling, then go to the gym, then go to the movies, then go to the night club, then hook up with some ladies, then go to Taco Bell for late night food, then go shopping for hip new CDs, then hit up the comic book store and shoot the crap with Donnie who runs the comic book store? Whatever happened to us, man??"

"...People change. I changed. You changed. What the fuck man, it's just life, you know? Shit happens."

"'Shit happens.' So many years of dear friendship, and that's where we're at now? 'Shit happens?'"

"I don't make the rules. I'm not God."

"No...I thought you could be, though. Once."

Then we parted.