Monday, November 07, 2011

Design for Dying

It's never a good thing when you veer off into a conversation about some aesthetic point about a movie while you're in the middle of watching it. After the film? Fine. That's part and parcel of processing what you've seen. But if you start discussing the niceties of design or cinematography while you're in the middle of it? That means that the movie has probably let some element intrude on the experience and has shocked you out of the flow. This happened to my companion and I as we watched Fear(s) of the Dark (2007, various directors). At some point, we began talking about design and about how portions of the movie featured animation without the cartoon outline around its shapes and whatnot. In other words, the movie had lost us.

On paper--and I mean that literally, given that Fear(s) in the Dark has its roots in graphic novels--this seems like it would be right in my wheelhouse. I love comics. I love horror movies. I love Charles Burns (who provides the film's most distinctive and disturbing segment). I love black and white design. This should have worked. But, alas, it didn't. I'm not even sure if it's the stark, black and white cartooniness of the thing that shocked me out of the movie. I mean, Marjane Satrapi made the same kind of movie in Persepolis, based on her own graphic novel, and that movie was awesome. This one? Well, I suppose I should cut it some slack. It's an anthology, and anthologies are uneven by their very natures. This one at least has the wit to place its best segment in the pole position. It was after this segment that the movie lost us, though I had my suspicions from the get-go based on that pretentious parenthetical "S" in the title.

In any event, this starts off strong. I wouldn't have thought that Charles Burns would translate well to animation given the stark, woodcut quality of his drawings, but his design-y pen strokes actually give the thing a weird kind of 3-D effect. Burns specializes in Cronenbergian stories of disease and transformation, and this one is one of his nastier stories, in which insectile creatures take over the main character's girlfriend. It's all a metaphor for the disintegration of relationships and bed death, but it's a host of icky images, too, and it has a twist of the tale at the end that's worthy of the old E.C. comics. The remaining segments don't have anything like the same kind of charge. The movie ends on its second most effective segment, a wordless haunted house story by Richard McGuire that's even starker in its design elements. The other high point is Marie Caillou's vaguely Japanese segment, a samurai ghost story that bleeds into the psychiatric mind-fuck. Taken on their own terms, these are pretty good. It's the interstices where things come apart. This has two recurring elements: The first is a framing sequence where a nobleman is out hunting with his dogs searching for no game in particular. Children will do as well as animals. The release of each dog representing a new story. The second is a series of monologues in which a woman relates her sociopolitical fears to a visual score of abstract shapes in stark black and white. These frankly don't work. The first one seems pointlessly sadistic and the second one verges parody. One misses the light hand of, say, the Hubelys or Norman McClaren when it comes to making something delightful out of abstraction.

The use of outright abstraction tips the filmmakers' hands, in so far as it's not about fears, per se, so much as it's about design as an end unto itself. Mind you, I don't mind that if that's the aim of the movie. The trouble I have with this is that you have two impulses working at cross purposes. The movie is attempting to disturb the viewer. First and foremost, it's a horror movie. But when it veers away from that--and it does, often--it winds up undermining its ability to scare the audience or, for that matter, even keep them engaged with what's happening on screen.

Current tally: 34 films

First time viewings: 31

1 comment:

J Luis Rivera said...

Is the parenthesis thing a French thing? Like "Frontier(s)"