Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 7: God's Been a Real Sport to Me

Videodrome was a very heavy experience. If you're used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture. But if you're used to Videodrome, The Dead Zone is not.

- David Cronenberg as quoted in Cronenberg on Cronenberg by Chris Rodley

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Depends on how you define "heavy." I probably could have taken a pretty good stab at writing about The Dead Zone without watching it again since I'd guess it's the Cronenberg film I've watched most often, which is a side effect of it being the first Cronenberg film I liked. Along with A History of Violence and, despite its extremely Cronenbergian qualities and high level of disgustingness, The Fly, this 1983 adaptation of a Stephen King novel is easily his most accessible film -- its plot is of a somewhat, what I guess you'd call, populist bent, and Cronenberg doesn't pull a Dr. Moreau-esque transformative vivisection on King's novel, as he did with the George Langerlan short story that was the basis for The Fly (and all other The Fly movies). The film is reasonably faithful to King's original book, and King's imagination, like Steven Spielberg's, is, not from cynicism but by nature, a populist one. All of this is perhaps what Cronenberg is talking about in the above quote. Later in the Rodley book, he says that anyone who believes that with The Dead Zone he was not "follow[ing] [his] own instincts...are completely wrong," and that, anyway, you can't chase popularity and expect to succeed. He made the film, he says, because it did strike a personal chord: "Personally the film is just like me, but filmically I suppose not." All of which adds up to a film, in the skilled hands of Cronenberg, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, and a terrific cast, that is very easy to like.
The structure of The Dead Zone, which as I recall comes from King, is compelling. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a small-town high school English teacher who, when we first meet him, is reading Poe's "The Raven" to his students, and then, as class ends, assigning them to read Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," just the film's way of tipping its hand a little bit. Johnny's in love with fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams), and in the early goings of the film the two of them go on a date to a carnival, and after that Johnny takes her home. Sarah invites him to stay over for what we gather would be their first sexual encounter, but Johnny demurs, saying "Some things are worth waiting for." Which, okay, but Brooke Adams, and everything. But anyway he heads home, and on the way gets into a terrible car accident that launches him into a five-year coma. When he awakes, his life has changed in almost every conceivable way. His job, obviously, is gone, and Sarah has married someone else, with whom she has a son. On top of this, a latent psychic ability, a tiny hint of which we saw at the carnival, has come into full bloom -- in the hospital, when he touches the hand of his nurse, he sees that her house is on fire, and her daughter is inside. Johnny's warning to the nurse comes in time to save the little girl, and his fate is sealed. He is doomed now. So the structure, as I was saying, is almost that of an anthology film -- while The Dead Zone flows along as a straightforward narrative, Johnny is going from one scenario to another, a crisis that requires his psychic powers to avert danger, or solve a mystery, or even defeat evil. First he catches a serial killer that has been butchering young women in town for years, then when the notoriety of that event forces him into seclusion and a job as a private tutor, he bonds with one of his students, the son of a wealthy businessman (Anthony Zerbe). He sees that this boy is on the cusp of danger, has to deal with that whole deal, and drifts from there into the world of vile politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who is running for the Senate. When Johnny shakes Stillson's hand at a rally, he sees that Stillson's political future will bring about a nuclear apocalypse.
Along with being an appealing way to tell the story of Johnny Smith -- which is really what The Dead Zone is, and less a plot-heavy thriller, though it puts on a pretty good show of being the latter as well -- this helps bring some of Cronenberg's particular interests into play. One constant in Johnny's life (Sarah drops in and out through the course of the film, and Johnny's father, played by Sean Sullivan, disappears from the action once Johnny flees town after the serial killer incident) is his doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom). One of the saner men of science to appear in a David Cronenberg film, Weizak has seen Johnny's powers work first-hand, and he takes both a professional interest as well as, because he likes Johnny, a personal interest in the man's life. Through their various conversations, we eventually learn that Johnny's psychic abilities are actually taking a physical toll on him, and it appears that the more he uses them, the faster he is killing himself. So again, in a Cronenberg film (this, by the way, is a slight change from the novel, though it all adds up to the same thing in the end) the body finds new ways to collapse in on itself. This is presented in terms...well, actually, it's not presented at all, in visual terms -- we're straight up told this by Johnny and Weizak. So the kind of grotesque imagery that Cronenberg put to such great effect in his previous two films, and would ramp up again in his next one, is completely absent from this film. Oh, there's blood, but it's of the more typical squib-and-blood-pack variety; everything else, the breakdown that is so in keeping with Cronenberg's films up to now, is completely internal. He does not, in other words, make the internal horrifyingly external, as is normally his wont, except to the extent that Johnny is told that he doesn't look well as the film goes on (this was less apparent to me, and I don't know if any makeup was used to illustrate this or not), so that his illness would seem, in the world of the film, to manifest itself the way illnesses do in our world.
If there's one person involved in the making of The Dead Zone who can really bring home what Cronenberg is trying to get at here, it's Christopher Walken. And thank God he's Christopher Walken. First off, what Cronenberg is interested in is not merely the physical aspect of Johnny's condition, which is a more or less arbitrary invention anyway, but the psychological blowback that a person with Johnny's powers would experience. The Dead Zone is a tragedy about a man who is destroyed by an ability that most people, if they didn't think about it too long, would consider an endless good. But Johnny seems to sense the potential for ruin right out of the gate, and Walken's performance is a relentless highlighting of the character's depression (which stems also from still living in a moment five years ago when he and Sarah were in love but now no longer can be), loneliness, and inability to be as selfish as he would so desperately like to be. Or anyway, to be devoted to his own preservation over all else. Walken's performance here is, I'd say, his best -- it's my favorite, anyway. In the early stages of the film, things skew a little awkward, and I believe this is because in an attempt to make Christopher Walken, who is after all playing a character named Johnny Smith, appear as a small-town everyman, Cronenberg accidentally made him seem even stranger. Walken is a strange person, his appearance is unusual, his voice and speaking rhythms are unlike anyone else, so giving him a goofball haircut and making him whoop it up on a roller coaster doesn't fly -- except in Catch Me If You Can, and even in that there are some qualifiers, Walken does not project normalcy. So it's not until Johnny is a shell of his former self that Walken comes alive, the same way some strange-looking young person might some day grow into their looks. Johnny has always been strange and haunted, but it wasn't until he awoke from his coma that he had the opportunity to live that life to the hilt.
The film as a whole has the same issues. As I've pointed out in other posts in this series, and will point out again, Cronenberg has a refreshing habit of cutting right to the chase in his films. There is a minimum of backstory, or set-up, or the establishing of much of anything in his films that precede The Dead Zone, other than setting and premise. He likes to dive right in because when you get right down to it, there's no reason not to. The Dead Zone doesn't allow for that, and the early scenes of Johnny and Sarah together are weird and cold, and not much of a shit seems to have been given. This is not because Cronenberg is adverse to, or unable to depict, human warmth and emotion; what he's adverse to is narrative formality, the doing of something in a story not because it is interesting but because it's the kind of thing that story's have in them. He likes to cut out what he doesn't need, which are those formalities. What's worse for him, I'd wager, is when those formalities are actually necessary, as they are in The Dead Zone -- obviously this is worse because that means he has no choice but to do them. And he races right through it all with his typical efficiency, but that doesn't serve to establish the kind of romance you might want down the line in a film like this.

But it doesn't matter, because of Walken. Cronenberg himself says he, Walken, is what the film is about:

The loneliness and the melancholy and the impossibility of dealing with things. And yet the necessity to do it. That's what it was. It's Chris Walken's face. That's the subject of the movie; that's what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.
Walken plays Johnny, post-coma, as a man who is very nearly habitually rude. People will speak to him in a normal, polite kind of way, and he won't respond. He'll shake a hand but remain silent. His unhappiness over being outside his home, when he's visiting Zerbe's businessman, is apparent; he accepts a beer just to keep him from offering something else. When the deep-down truth of his situation as a man five years out of time really comes home to him, the shutting down begins. He quotes a line from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about Ichabod Crane, that story's hero, to Sarah: "As he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him." Sarah asks "Is that what you're afraid of?" and Johnny replies "That's what I want." And this is precisely what Walken plays. He earns a living because he has to, but otherwise you get the feeling that the shot about midway through the film of Johnny lying silently on his couch depicts how he'd choose to spend all his time. He doesn't like to speak, and he's no longer good at it. Every so often, his situation will lead him into an outburst (most famously one that includes the line "The ice is gonna break!"), but he backs off from these as if ashamed. After one, he immediately apologies; after another, he changes his mind completely on the topic that led to his anger in the first place. But this power, and the lust by others to have this power work for them, is putting him in a spotlight he'd rather blow out with a rifle.
It's never said that Smith is suicidal, and since he's dying anyway you'd think the point would be moot. But who knows how long that will take? Among other things, I'd say The Dead Zone is a film about a man who develops a death wish. I suppose this is not quite the same thing as being suicidal, and plus being cripplingly introverted is going to cut down on the opportunities to try and fulfill that wish, but then he meets Stillson and Johnny's destiny is set on its course. Noted Pulitzer Prize-winning chowderhead Stephen Hunter once said that he thought The Dead Zone was a morally repugnant film as it seemed to him to justify or excuse political assassins. On numerous levels, this is rank nonsense. Also somewhat nonsensical is Rodley's (and Cronenberg's, actually) casual insistence that The Dead Zone contains actual politics in its makeup -- Rodley and Cronenberg bother to say this at all because politics are typically never a part of his films, but The Dead Zone is no different. Greg Stillson, we are told, is a third-party candidate, and his political beliefs are never laid out, other than that he believes that, as Johnny believes his own destiny is to die soon, Stillson's is to start a nuclear war. These are twinned destinies, you might say. In any case, nuclear war crosses the political aisles, and is an all-encompassing shadow. It's kind of a MacGuffin, or can be used that way. Anyway, it's the easiest way, plot-wise, for Stillson to fulfill his destiny, and the easiest thing for Johnny to understand so that he can decide to stop him. So again, Stephen Hunter, there's no excusing of political assassins here. Just because Stillson is an American doesn't change the fundamental idea, one expressed in a conversation between Weizak and Johnny, which is that this element of The Dead Zone's plot is a basic "if you could, would you kill Hitler?" scenario. And Stephen Hunter, if you're telling me that even if you could you would NOT kill Hitler, then fuck you, buddy, I guess you love genocide.

What I'm getting at, but not really, but what I mean to get at, is that Johnny is driven to his climactic actions only partly by his belief that it's the right thing to do. The rest of his motivation, which has been communicated over the last 90 minutes by Walken's face, is made up of what might even to him be a vague understanding that because he clearly won't get out of this mess alive, this mess is, therefore, his big chance. His death wish will be fulfilled. If you need to die, as Johnny does, but you're not suicidal, the moral imperative and martyrdom that Stillson has forced upon him is kind of a Godsend. "God's been a real sport to me," Johnny spits, sarcastically, at Tom Skerritt's sheriff when the man has the nerve to call Johnny's psychic abilities a gift from God. So maybe He hasn't been, but when that bullet passes through Johnny's chest, it could be His way of making it up to him.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Kill the Pig

My standard and no doubt obnoxious line about William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies is that next to Richard Hughes's similarly themed A High Wind in Jamaica from 1929, it's kind of a pile of garbage. Apart from Golding's prose being lugubrious and Hughes's decidedly not being that, what it comes down to is using something that is observable as fuel for an allegory and fueling something that is observable with genuine understanding. Lord of the Flies does the former. I read both novels as an adult, and there's really no contest, although when it comes to film versions of both novels all a cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Flies needs to do to top Alexander Mackendrick's gutless take on A High Wind in Jamaica from 1965 is keep its head down and not make any trouble. Of course, the Hughes novel is a nearly forgotten obscurity, and therefore more vulnerable to the kind of vivisection that's meant to discover the secret of popularity, but vulnerable or not the film we're left with is a travesty. Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, is an established classic of the Western world, and consequently much harder to monkey with. After a bit of a false start immediately following its publication, it had reached this status by 1963 when Peter Brook first turned it into a film.

That film has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and I had the chance to watch it last night. Through this film, my dislike of Golding's novel has transcended into something close to ambivalence. I mean, the basic premise, that of plane carrying a group of English (this is important) schoolboys crashing on a deserted island and leaving the children, who are the only survivors, to descend into savagery, is pretty much a can't miss idea. But while A High Wind in Jamaica is about the natural, human, casual, and ignorant cruelty of children, Lord of the Flies is about "We British think we're so great, well think again, bub." This is decidedly less interesting, to me anyway. And being this, a story with a point, or message, shortcuts must be made to get there, so that what's compelling about the idea is given short shrift. Furthermore, Peter Brook and his crew seem to have approached the material with the thought that somebody was bound to make this movie, so it might as well be them. Much of the film lacks imagination, in my view, and this is surprising given Brook's reputation -- my only other experience of Brook's work is his film adaptation of the Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade, which is not the kind of film you make because you crave mainstream acceptance. Not that Lord of the Flies does feel like that kind of film, but it's also not going to allow you to miss its point. To begin with, composer Raymond Leppard's score has essentially two modes: lazily martial, in a "our trumpets are satirical" sort of way, and lazily tribal, in a "our drums are foreboding" sense. I can't remember, Golding's novel feeling hazy to me even as I read it, if Golding hammered on this particular nail so ruthlessly, but the withering simplicity of all this makes me wonder if it to some degree explains the somewhat curious fact that this rather horrifying story has been a required-reading perennial in schools for the past half century.

In any case, the premise being can't-miss and all, Brook's unwillingness to break away from That Which Needs to Be Said makes much of the movie feel like a formality. In the first third of the film, a group of schoolboys led by Jack (Tom Chapin), whose nasty charisma will lead most of the kids into savagery earlier than they might otherwise have, go off to kill a pig for food. The subsequent eating scene is simply ridiculous, with Brook piping in loud chomping and sucking sounds that never convince that they could possibly be coming from these images -- even if they did, it's too early going for me to accept that killing for food, and for survival, adequately tips off the horrors to come. At the same time, there is something about the loose style Brook employs that allows for glimpses of natural and naturally weird child behavior, and the loony ways a child off to the edges of the action will start twisting his body and making odd faces, just for something to do. Similarly, if their is a casting triumph here, it's Hugh Edwards as the notoriously ill-fated Piggy. As seemingly untrained as everybody else in the cast, Edwards is nevertheless able to naturally be himself, and his brief monologue about the facts behind the name of Camberly, his hometown, is both hilarious and so well-written that it feels like Brook just planted the camera down and told Edwards to tell his Camberly story. Which maybe he did.

Obviously, this film, and Golding's novel, wouldn't be so frustrating if I thought it was a complete wash. One strong memory I have from the novel is of a sequence involving one boy walking through the forest and coming upon the severed head of a pig stuck on a post and covered with flies -- I thought it was the most effective bit, and Brook vividly translates it here. A greater success is nighttime beach bonfire, with the Jack-led children running wild and throwing fire and losing their heads in frenzy that will culminate in the story's first death. In the film, it's pretty blood-curdling, and it seems clear to me that Brook, as a film director rather than a herder of children, is most at home when simulating chaos. For a brief stretch, his Lord of the Flies feels as Satanic as its title implies. But the allegory-above-all philosophy is too overwhelming, and is perhaps best illustrated by the choice (originally, I've been reminded, from Golding) to make some of the children -- the bad ones -- eventually wear tribal war paint. The belief seems to be that native tribes that do paint their faces or bodies do so only because, well, they're natives, and it seems like the thing to do. As if there was no cultural significance to the colors or patterns they choose. So that when a group of white English kids find themselves free of adult supervision, plus there's trees everywhere, in a matter of days they're painting their bodies, because of savagery. It's a meaningless nothing of a symbol that thinks it means everything in the world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 6: Love Comes in at the Eye

In 1982, the Canadian tax shelter producer-types with whom David Cronenberg then worked told him that, since the money was there, and since Scanners had been successful, they wanted him to get started on his next film, and so Cronenberg got to work. It seems strange that such a business-like pragmatism should have led to Videodrome, but here we are, and anyway this is how professional filmmaking works, more or less. But as the filmmaker says in both David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg and Chris Rodley's Cronenberg on Cronenberg, when he sat down to write the script he only had a general sense of what it would become, with various topics of interest, having to do with media and violence and video and so forth, colliding unexpectedly to shape one of the strangest, darkest, and wildest films of his career. Videodrome is often cited as Cronenberg's masterpiece, a stance I take issue with only on the grounds that by my count he's made more than one of those, and some of those I prefer to this, but nevertheless it must count as his boldest signature. It would also be, and I don't know if this means anything or not, the last purely original script he would write until eXistenZ, seventeen years later. In any case, he dumped a great deal of his imagination into this 88-minute film.

Which is maybe as good a place to start as any, and if not, too bad, because Videodrome is a tough one to get rolling on. But it's lean, is my point. Cronenberg has yet to make a film that anyone could reasonable argue was bloated, but dense and complex as Videodrome, only his first professional feature, Shivers, is shorter, and that only by a minute. Cronenberg talks often about how ruthless he is in the editing room, to the point that the version of Videodrome that was shown at its one and only, and nearly catastrophic, test screening was only 73 or 75 minutes long (accounts vary) -- in order for the picture to make any sense at all he had to puff it up to 88, which you kind of get the sense was as long as he could stomach. This is interesting for a couple of reasons I've already touched on, more than once each probably, such as Cronenberg proving yet again not only how much content, incident, and imagination you can pack into a relatively brief running time, and how even here, with his first film since Stereo that could be slotted into the "art film" category should one be so inclined to do so, though one wouldn't necessarily be so inclined, his early genre and exploitation...not roots, because those aren't Cronenberg's roots, but his only somewhat ironic inclinations bust through. I say "ironic" because Cronenberg's aesthetic education and interests didn't really build out that world -- in the Grunberg book, he talks about leaving science fiction behind in his childhood, as so many do, and only partly returned to it as an adult due to a new interest in writers like Philip K. Dick. But I say "somewhat" because in his horror and science fiction films, you never catch him winking or implying that we all know how ridiculous this stuff is. The closest he's ever come to that is when Shivers was originally called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, a title he bagged precisely because he realized that title turned his whole movie into a joke. During the years when he was making the horror and SF films that have defined him, despite the fact that these account for only about half of his career, Cronenberg made genre films in much the same way that novelist Richard Price has quietly been writing the best modern crime novels, certainly in the US, and quite possibly in the world, which is to say both men understand that these genres can be used -- and Price has said this -- to do pretty much any goddamn thing you feel like doing. So Videodrome is only 88 minutes long, is what I'm getting at.
And once again, like Scanners, Videodrome has a classic genre plot structure. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a small Canadian cable TV station that specializes in soft-core pornography and violence. He's opportunistic, smart, fast-talking, glib, all the kinds of things you might associate with a character played by James Woods, but also possibly more ambivalent about his job than he lets on, to others and to himself. He successfully tamps down on this ambivalence most times, and seems intent on obliterating it when one night he's checking in with Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the cable airwaves pirate who works for him, and Harlan shows him footage from a mysterious signal he picked up. The footage consists of a nude woman chained to a wall in a large red room, being savagely whipped by a man in a mask. Harlan tells Max that that's all this programming is -- a series of people being stripped and tortured. There's no plot or anything. The show, or the programming, is called Videodrome. Believing, or convincing himself that this stuff is fake, Max also thinks it's thoroughly compelling and the next big step in sleaze. So he goes about trying to track the signal to its source -- Harlan says it's somewhere in Pittsburgh. And in its barest terms, that's Videodrome, another in a long line of stories, typically horror stories, that feature a character stumbling on some kind of art object -- and it can be anything, a film, a painting, a photograph, a book -- that is mysterious and dark, unpleasant and genuinely dangerous, yet so hypnotic in its queasy way that the hero must trace its origin. Usually by finding the artist, which isn't really the case here, since Renn isn't interested in art, and never thinks of Videodrome that way, but regardless Videodrome the film uses a classic plot, one which, I might as well tell you, is absolute catnip to me. Nothing even vaguely interesting will come from that revelation, by the way, I just thought I'd tell you that I like this kind of thing a whole lot.

Before any of the detective work gets going, Renn appears as a guest on a talk show to defend his broadcasting philosophy against claims that his brand of sex and violence can have an adverse effect on viewers. Set up as a counterpoint to Renn is Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), the host of a radio show on which she helps her listeners through troubled times and whatnot. Very quickly, Renn and Brand become an item, and it's soon revealed that her taste for extreme violence and transgressive sex, which she doesn't exactly hide, so outpaces Renn's own that you have to wonder how her anti-Max Renn stance could have played out, had things gone that way. We don't even know enough about her to think of her as a hypocrite. But things don't go that way, and Renn shows Brand tapes of Videodrome, and tells her that the signal comes from Pittsburgh. She decides she was made for that show, and promptly skips off to Pennsylvania to see if she can get in. Meanwhile, Renn is beginning to hallucinate -- during sex with Brand, his apartment transforms into the Videodrome's torture room, a videotape seems to bulge and breathe in his hands, and he thinks he's beating his secretary when in fact he's doing no such thing.
Good gravy, is this thing hard to summarize. I haven't even gotten to the meat of it, though by way of doing that perhaps I'll note that in his interview about Videodrome with Cronenberg, Serge Grunberg asks this question:

Wouldn't it be your desire to, say, open a third dimension in cinema? I'm thinking of the hand penetrating the stomach of James Woods in Videodrome. I know image is not the ultimate thing for you, but this...

Whoa, whoa, hold it right there. Cronenberg immediately says that image is very important to him, but I hardly think he needed to bother. What do we remember most about Cronenberg's films if not the imagery? I could begin listing examples, but where would it end? Cronenberg's bizarre imagery, at least in the first half of his career, is how he illustrates pretty much every idea or emotion he's trying to get out there. If it's the ideas we take away from Cronenberg, they're inseperable from the imagery. Even if Grunberg is talking about composition -- and he doesn't seem to be -- "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," as Scorsese said, and so good film or bad film, what the viewer sees is always composition, so from that angle it's 95% of what a director actually does. In any case, in the Rodley book, Cronenberg ties Nicki Brand and that imagery and the film's very plot and counterintuitive philosophy together when he says:

If you're going to do art, you have to explore certain aspects of your life without regard to a political position or stance. With Videodrome I wanted to posit the possibility that a man exposed to violent imagery would begin to hallucinate. I wanted to see what it would be like, in fact, if what the censors were saying would happen, did happen. What would it feel like? What would it lead to?

That's only part of what Cronenberg, an artist who is fiercely anti-censorship, is doing here, as the unfolding plot lets us know, but it's still a very serious element. Eventually, the plot of Videodrome will include characters like Brian O'Blivion (Jeck Creley), a quasi stand-in for Marshall McLuhan, a prophet both for and against what would then have been new media, who helped develop Videodrome and acquired a tumor for his efforts, and Barry Convex (a terrific Les Carlson), an eyeglass manufacturer (no points for subtlety there) and developer of weapons for NATO. Of which Videodrome is one. This twist would seem to remove Videodrome from the curious situation it seems to hold as a graphically violent and sexual pro-censorship nightmare, but the fact remains that however deliberate the effects of Videodrome on its viewers, as plotted out by Convex, the gist is still that watching this shit will fuck up your head. The only difference is that Convex and his people know that already, and are just using it. I've spoiled a bit of the film already, so I might as well spoil more. Look what becomes of Renn once Videodrome really takes hold of his mind: he becomes, possibly, a sex killer (that one may not have happened, but the uncertainty of it doesn't weaken the point), a man who walks into his office and opens fire on his coworkers, and a political assassin. All of these monstrous acts, when they occur in real life, have been attributed at one time or another to extreme violence and sexuality in TV and movies. Renn is quite literally driven by voices in his head and images from television to carry out these horrors. It's quite possible to be anti-censorship and wonder where it will all end.
Then again, if O'Blivion resembles McLuhan in some ways, and if O'Blivion is Videodrome's mad, diseased, dead voice of, not reason, but anyway philosophical urgency, then what's happening on screen is less important than the screen itself. Or the video. Barry Convex doesn’t shove a violent movie into the gaping slit that has opened up in Renn’s stomach (a hallucination, one among many, that becomes real); he shoves in a videotape. Of course, Renn has already stuck a gun in there, so there’s a good mix of everything, I suppose. It’s quite possibly a fool’s errand to try to make sense of everything, every bit of grotesque insanity on display in Videodrome, or indeed in any of Cronenberg’s films, but while my knowledge of McLuhan is scant, to say the least, my understanding is that the very shallowest baseline point of the work that made him so famous in the 1960s and 70s, is that the danger of new media is less the thing itself than it is the way people roll along with it and offer up barely a single question. So that in Videodrome you have the slit in Renn’s stomach, which comes from Videodrome, the broadcast. And you have the gun, which Renn already owned for protection and in a fleeting bit of physical comedy shows us he’s not very adept with. And so you have the gun, and Renn sees the slit open up, and without even a though he sticks the gun in the slit. There’s no question in his mind that this is what is to be done.

Rick Baker’s special effects, by the way, are outstanding – they’re still outstanding, I mean. It’s not so much that you can’t see the latex seams, as you can see them but you still can’t quite figure out how those seams can lead to a given image, as a whole. And there’s lots of it, from the stomach slits to elastic TV screens to a man’s body completely ripping open because…why did that happen to that person (and did it happen, though my vote on that one is an enthusiastic and confident “Yes”)? I’d say because, and not to sound glib, his body was full of tiny little videodromes who no longer needed their host body. So it’s Cronenberg and parasites again, except this time the parasites are malignant tumors. Potato, potato. Carcinogen, instead of infection (or invasion, maybe). The point is, it will ruin you, and part of that ruination will involve you doing terrible things.
On the level of the medium itself – which is the message, I’m told – you have the freedom of video, or the “freedom of the image,” as Cronenberg puts it. He supports this, and the context of that phrase comes from a section in Rodley’s book where Cronenberg is talking about how censors, with the advent of video technology, had begun entering people’s homes. But it’s a videotape that Convex crams into Renn’s belly. Like Shivers, the beliefs and philosophies that Cronenberg holds as a human being appear to be at odds with what is actually on screen, though unlike with Shivers he has allowed for this, claiming it as a necessity when creating art. It takes some digging, but this could be the source of Videodrome’s fascination, and its reputation as the best of Cronenberg’s career. And it is a pretty terrific movie. The film had studio backing, and as such functions pretty much as an American film, which, Cronenberg notes, opened up the pool of actors available to him (the Canadian film industry has certain requirements that limit those options), and the presence of James Woods blows open the potential of Cronenberg’s career. While Deborah Harry is, you know, a singer, she’s not really in it much, and so Woods is free to take the considerable weight of Videodrome upon himself. There’s a certain kind of actor that is full of a restless energy that often, eventually, as they get older, transforms for whatever reason into flamboyance, but when they’re younger is invigorating and compelling. James Woods is this kind of actor, and Videodrome is pre-flamboyance. At this point, he could appear just as easily as a leading man as he could someone who was sleazy, dangerous, and possibly psychotic. Which is good, because he has to do all of that in Videodrome. Though Cronenberg had worked with many good, even great, actors before this – John Saxon, Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggert, Barbara Steele, Patrick MacGoohan, plus I’ll stand up for Art Hindle’s lead performance in The Brood, something I might have considered doing when I wrote about that film – with James Woods, he finally had the lead actor he deserved.

All of which, I’d say, helps Videodrome not just in the obvious ways, but also to transcend a vague feeling I have that buried in its heart, the one formed by McLuhan and man’s relationship with technology, the film contains at least a little bit of nonsense. It would be a bad idea to now attempt to argue against McLuhan, and Cronenberg’s take on him, so soon after I’ve accurately pointed out that I know very little about the man, but from what I’ve picked up over the years, McLuhan strikes me as having an academic’s view of the world, which is the kind of thing that tends to melt once the rain hits it. There’s some of that in Videodrome, too. But even so, a couple months back I remember seeing an internet headline, this for one of the internet’s inexhaustible supply of nothing stories, about a guy at a baseball game who had been caught on camera, from a distance, being mean, or something, to his girlfriend (or something?). On the scale of these sorts of things that we have nowadays, this story is absolutely not even a drop in the bucket, and, probably because I’m such a good person, I never clicked on the story, so I don’t know what he supposedly did, or if the footage came from a network camera or the phone of a regular joe, but I do remember thinking that this guy may have had a bad day, or done a stupid thing that was otherwise out of character, but whatever the case now it was on video, and now we can do whatever we want with him. Now, you may ask me in what sense does this directly apply to Cronenberg’s film, and it’s possible that you just may have me there. But all I can think about is something Brian O’Blivion says about the strange disease infecting him, and that might soon infect us all, which is that when they removed his tumor, it was called Videodrome.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Boy things sure have grinded? ground? grinded? to a halt around here at the ol' blog lately, haven't they?  Well, I apologize.  I recently moved, and, by the way, have you guys ever moved?  Oh brother, am I right?  So there's that, and on top of that is the related fact that I don't know which box my David Cronenberg books are, those books being rather important to me lately.  I was hoping to write up Videodrome this weekend, but, well, see the previous sentence.

In the not too distant future, it is my hope to rev things back up.  One post in three weeks is not a rate that sits well with me, but these things happen during what I think might be called by some asshole or another Major Life Events.  So I apologize again, and beg your understanding.  In the meantime, hey, remember this movie?

Ha ha ha.  Nice try, bozos!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Goblin Cat

It's a phenomenon that I suspect is more common among great films than those on any other level of the scale, but often when watching a movie I consider great I will notice a brief moment, maybe just a second long, that locks into place why the whole is so successful, or best illustrates the film's tone, or something else along those lines. If I may pull from the group of films I have watched or re-watched within the last couple of days, there's a bit in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail where Jack Nicholson's Buddusky is playing darts, and gambling with the per diem money provided by the US Navy for the five days it will, or should at most, take him and Otis Young's Mulhall to transport Randy Quaid's Meadows from the Naval base in Norfolk, VA to a military prison in Portsmouth, MA. Mulhall voices to Buddusky his concern that perhaps the man with whom Buddusky is playing darts for money might be hustling him, and Nicholson's expression, while difficult to describe, conveys amusement, arrogance, offense that Mulhall should so underestimage him, and a weariness that he should even have to field such concerns. If this hilarious moment doesn't sum up The Last Detail, it certainly sums up Buddusky, who, anyway, is key to the whole thing, after all.

A silent reaction to words spoken, not to her but about her, flits across the face of Oharu, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, late in Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu, which Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. I keep wanting to call this film The Fall of Oharu, probably because of Mizoguchi's series of "fallen women" pictures, and also because Oharu's life is the story of her fall. At the point in the film when the moment I'm revving up to describe occurs, Oharu has gone from a young upper-class woman whose love affair with a young man (Toshiru Mifune) who is beneath her standing, to a middle-aged prostitute, carried along the sluice of late 17th century Japanese propriety, the jaw-dropping penalties when that propriety is breached, and, occasionally, old fashioned bad luck and tragedy. But mostly it's just being a woman in Japan at that time which does her in, and Mizoguchi is elegantly ruthless about it all. Oharu can do nothing to extract herself. She fell in love outside of her class, so she and her family are banished. Her family's good name is ruined, so to earn money she must become a prostitute. She must become a rich man's concubine when his wife becomes barren, which might save her family, but her past ruins even that, at least somewhat remunerative, indignity. And so on, without ease.
Eventually, without options and into her middle years, Oharu falls back into prostitution. One night she is taken by a man she assumes is to be her client for the evening into building, perhaps his home, where they talk for a bit, before it's revealed that the room she finds herself in is full of men, and the man is not a client, but a Buddhist pilgrim who has chosen Oharu to display to his fellow pilgrims as an incentive to not stray from their vows of purity. Telling the other men to look at Oharu, the man asks them if they still want to sleep with women. Mizoguch has placed his camera so that Oharu, embarrassed, is turned away from the men, but to the camera. The men line the wall to our left. Oharu faces the pilgrims only once, when asked to, and after that faces us. The first man goes on speaking about her as though she was deaf, and at one point -- and this is the moment in question -- describes her as a "goblin cat." At these words, Oharu lifts her head up and turns it slightly, and an expression of not just hurt but intense weariness crosses over her face. As if everything else wasn't bad enough, now I have to listen to this? And somehow not react to it? I must stay here, kneeling, and let them talk about me like this? The inhumanity of the moment is enormous, and, strangely, made worse still by the fact that it is entirely without malice. "Cruelty" is not quite the word, as this implies a deliberateness. But the pilgrims are merely upholding propriety. Oharu is merely an object lesson on the pitfalls of doing otherwise. That's all in her face.

Also fascinating about this shot is the distance Mizoguchi's camera is from Kinuyo Tanaka. Now you must forgive me here, and The Life of Oharu is not even my first Mizoguchi film; it's my fourth, if you simply must keep score. To be specific, prior to this I'd seen Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and, something of a left-field relative obscurity here, his four-hour The 47 Ronin. But that was all some time ago, and it wasn't until I watched The Life of Oharu that I noticed his positive phobia of close-ups. I've since gathered that this is actually part of Mizoguchi's whole deal, or was for a while anyway, but it was gratifying to be struck by it cold. But enough about me. The Life of Oharu is, of course, rife with the absence of close-ups, but it rang a particular tone at the moment when Oharu reacts to be called a "goblin cat," because I can't imagine another director, from the great ones to the shit ones, who wouldn't have either cut to her face, or let his or her camera drift to the right, maybe push in a little, something to highlight her, even if only slightly. Her face, at this moment, is in a sense the entire film in a one-second shadow, however, should we prefer to do so, we could look at the pilgrims instead -- Buddusky in that scene from The Last Detail may not have been in a strict close-up, but his face is pretty much the only thing we have to look at. And it's not as though Mizoguchi frames this shot so that Oharu is the visual equal of the pilgrims, but the viewer does have options. As Mizoguchi films it, there is a world apart from Oharu. There is a world that is, in fact, doing this to her.
I'm tempted, or was tempted at one point while thinking all this over, to regard this aspect of Mizoguchi's style as generous, in that Oharu not only doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum, which is hard to miss, but the people around her have lives, too. After all, not everybody in this film apart from Oharu, is an appalling stooge of this society (although, Jesus, it's close) -- more than a couple of them are rather sweet, if helpless, or just as unlucky. But I don't think "generous" is the correct word. If you'll pardon me for this, I suspect a better word way to describe it is to say that it is simply honest. Why is Oharu in this position? Look around her. Given the placement of Mizoguchi's camera, you're free to. Then again, with that honesty comes a certain unavoidable generosity. Over the course of the film, more than once Oharu will return home in shame to her parents. Oharu's mother Tomo (Tsukie Matsuura) is hopelessly loving, but her father Shinzaemon (Ichiro Sugai) is close to hateful in these moments -- early on in the most extensive of these sequences, he actually shoves Oharu out of childish selfishness and frustration. But if the camera sticks close to anyone in this section, it's Shinzaemon. You may want to throttle the son of a bitch, but you also can't miss that his life has collapsed, too. So the equation regarding close-ups becomes clear: the fewer of them you have, the more of everything else you will see.

And once you've gotten your teeth into the concept that The Life of Oharu completely lacks one of the most basic shots in filmmaking, you can't quite let it go, and everything else in the film must be considered alongside it. Towards the end -- and I'll tread lightly here -- after the "goblin cat" scene, the film's climax occurs within a frankly magnificent tracking shot, during which Oharu's face must tell the story of her life even more starkly than in the shot described above, yet we see her much less clearly. (I would be remiss, by the way, if I didn't mention the score by Ichiro Saito, which is generally wonderful and here achieves an eerie brilliance.) The tracking shot is about ceremony, which the "goblin cat" was not, at least not officially. The tracking shot chronicles something official, though, and a futile attempt to make the ceremony recognize something other than itself. In a general way -- or maybe a very specific way, depends on your definition, I suppose -- Oharu is the victim of ceremony, and by putting her at this particular distance from the camera, it's rather striking how lightly she glances off what is proper in her society.