Sunday, January 24, 2010

Housing Crisis

At the end of Ti West's House of the Devil (2009), I had two thoughts. First, that it was the kind of movie Lucio Fulci spent the early eighties making (including Fulci's eyeball violence!). My companion for this film corrected me by noting that Fulci never directed anything as coherent as this film. She has a point. Second, this was a far better genre reconstruction than either half of the Grindhouse double feature. Those films were far too knowing. This film is deadly serious. Its jokes are almost entirely found in the formal elements rather than in the text or the subtext. For that matter, it makes far better use of familiar genre actors like Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace by virtue of giving them actual parts rather than giving them walk-on cameos as post-modern winks at the audience.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. This movie is a loving reconstruction of the sort of horror movies that were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In terms of tone, pacing, story construction, and payoff, this is a film that would be comfortable on a double bill at a declining drive-in or on HBO at about 2:30 a.m., back when HBO was still desperate for content and showed all kinds of movies. It has a wintery existential look that suggests a film made in Canada as a tax break, if you know what I mean (it was, in fact, made in Connecticut).

The plot isolates a college student (Jocelin Donahue) looking to make money for a new apartment by accepting an unusual and unusually lucrative babysitting offer on the night of a full lunar eclipse. Her employers (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are the kind of creepy senior citizens that befriended Rosemary Woodhouse back in 1967, which should tell you all you need to know about the plot. Tom Noonan needs to be in more movies, by the way. So does Mary Woronov.

For the most part, Jocelin Donahue does a fine job as Samantha, our heroine. It doesn't hurt that her character is wholly believable. She doesn't do anything obviously stupid, and her motivations for what might arguably be her stupidest act--when she ultimately takes the job offer--are completely justified. You can see her longing to be out on her own in the first shot to show her face (a characteristically long take comes up on her from behind as landlady Dee Wallace extols the apartment she's trying to sell her). This is set up really well. The cruel fate of Samantha's friend, Meghan (Greta Gerwig) also defies horror movie conventions, in so far as the movie doesn't seem to hold any kind of moral judgment towards her (nor should it). But then, this film has a different genealogy than that. It's not descended from the slasher movie, in spite of its "babysitter on her own" set-up.

As a formal exercise, this is a pretty tightly controlled movie. Director West, who also wrote and edited the film, shows a talent for squeezing every ounce of dread out of his long takes, and sets things up so that when the first real shock of the film happens, it's as abrupt and brutal as a bullet into your temple. More than that, though, the film has a weirdly depopulated feeling that is as isolating to the audience as it is to its central character. For the most part, the suspense the movie builds makes a promise to the audience that the payoff can't possibly keep, but it tries gamely enough with what it has. You could even argue that the end of the movie is a feminist rebuff to the normal ending of devil movies, in which the heroine takes the responsibility for her body into her own hands, though that might be stretching things a bit. In any event, if you're a long-time fan of the horror movie, the journey is pleasurable enough as it is, and, hell, those films from the eighties did the same things with their endings most of the time. And this one has a better soundtrack.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kinda Blue

At this point, I wonder if there's even a point to writing about Avatar (2009, directed by James Cameron). I mean, I'm late to the party anyway (even though I saw it a couple of weeks ago), and what I have to say about the film has already been said. It's a technological wonder, no doubt. It's the Birth of a Nation for the new century. The 2001, even. Yada yada yada.

My own knee jerk reaction is this: there's a disconnect between the ideas expressed in the visuals and the ideas expressed in the plot. If one approaches the film only as a sensory experience--as, apparently, a majority of film-goers do--then Avatar is a wonder, and not just as a panoply of pretty colors and awesome special effects. The visuals represent world-building SF, which is a kind of SF that really hasn't appeared on movie screens before (in part because of the technological limits that Avatar makes a point of expanding). In building his world, Cameron has obviously put a lot of thought behind the science involved. Take this film's Maguffin: Unobtainium. Cameron didn't invent this name, he merely used it for his fictional stable, naturally occurring superconductor. Cameron places the properties of this in the background. The piece that Giovanni Riblisi is using as a desk ornament floats on a magnetic field. Now, I doubt seriously that Cameron started with an explanation of his floating mountains--he surely borrowed the concept from other sources, most probably Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky--but he has worked out how such a thing might actually exist, and he's really subtle about the visual explanation. The center of the mountains is a Na'vi holy place where the tree of souls resides (more on this in a moment). Here's what it looks like:

Notice a pattern? The rocks are aligned along the lines of magnetic force. The floating mountains are obviously laced with unobtanium, and they're floating on the planet's magnetic field. Similar explanations for, say, the bioluminescence of Pandora's ecology can also be seen in the background (Pandora orbits a gas giant in a double star system, so there will be periods of long night). There are countless other details that have obviously been worked out in detail. The most important of these to the movie's plot is the "connectedness" of Pandora's ecology. This might seem like a deus ex machina or a bunch of hippy-dippy bullshit, but the movie is careful about setting things up. It's established fairly early on that the life on Pandora functions as a global neural network. It's not too far to stretch this concept to assigning the ecology an intelligence, or at the very least a self-awareness, that will almost certainly defend itself. The tree of souls seems as if it functions as a kind of brain stem or, possibly, a corpus colossum for that intelligence, or, at the very least, an interface.

On a completely meta-level, the film's conceit of placing its characters in Avatars to explore this world functions nicely as a metaphor for the method of the film's own making. The Na'vi, after all, are performance capture avatars of the actors who perform them. You can extend this to the battle mechs at the end of the movie, which are also avatars of a kind. I find this neat.

In any event, this is all characteristic of world-building SF, and it has echoes of all kinds of sources. It reminds me most of Ursula Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," but you can see Dune here, too. And for cinematic sources, it strikes me as a kind of conflation of Terrence Malick's last two movies, The New World (which should be obvious) and The Thin Red Line (in which the filmmaker postulates that war is an affront to nature).

Unfortunately, Avatar also shares the common flaw of world-building SF: it's not really about people. The characters in Avatar are generally types, not people. It compounds this flaw by providing them with a fairly repugnant narrative. I was complaining about the "White Savior" archetype in District 9 a few weeks ago, and here it is again. What you have here is a narrative that wants to expiate the sins of colonialism after the fact. In this regard, the narrative is kind of reprehensible, and it certainly sours the experience of watching it once the thrill of the visuals and the adrenalin rush from the action wear off, which is unfortunate.

The exception to this is Sigourney Weaver's character, who manages a certain amount of humanity due to the actress's force of will, more than anything. Her Grace Augustine (a name loaded with Significance with a capital S, methinks) is a rare thing in movies: a scientist who actually behaves like a scientist! Weaver plays her as a more stable version of Diane Fossey, and gives her a credible world-weariness, even in the face of wonders undreamed of. Weaver provides me with my favorite moment in the movie, even amid the big special effects and blood and thunder. As she's dying and being brought to the tree of souls, she looks up at it and says "I should take some samples." It's a small moment, but it says everything about who she is. No one else in the movie manages that.

A word about 3-D. Cameron deploys his 3-D in an intelligent manner--no poking things at the eye of the audience--and at times, the effect does add to the vertiginous effect the movie is going for. Cameron even blocks his actors to take advantage (he has obviously studied the way Jack Arnold blocked his actors in 3-D for The Creature from the Black Lagoon). He also gives the audience time to get used to the effect in the early going before pulling out all the stops in the last seventy minutes or so. But on the whole, I'm not sold on 3-D. The glasses are still an annoyance. I'm more impressed with the way Cameron and Weta Digital manage to create photoreal CGI characters without straying into the valley of the uncanny. Good for them.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Decade: Gangs of New York

"Some of it I half remember. And the rest? The rest I took from dreams."

At one point, Martin Scorsese called Gangs of New York (2002) "a spaghetti western set on Mars." It's a deliriously strange movie, that shouldn't be seen as a descendant of any of Scorsese's other "gangster" pictures. This has virtually nothing in common with Mean Streets, Goodfellas, or Casino, except, of course, that the streets are mean. Of the films Scorsese made in the first decade of the 21st century, it's the one I like the best. It's the one where the experience of watching it in the theater for the first time on opening night remains indelibly etched in my brain.

I've had a lot of conversations about this movie over the years, mostly with people who don't care for it. One of my movie correspondents told me once that this was the first of a string of movies (culminating in The Departed) in which Scorsese was shamelessly playing to Academy voters. Certainly, Daniel Day Lewis's performance is so out-sized that even the meanest Academy voter can appreciate it, the argument sometimes goes. It's a pity that Leonardo Di Caprio vanishes in Lewis's shadow in this movie, leaving a hole at its center. For the most part, these conversations have convinced me, over time, that many of my movie friends don't have the barest inkling of what they are talking about with this movie. Oscar bait? Really? This movie has a character in it named Hellcat Maggie, who has filed her teeth to points, takes the ears of her enemies as trophies, and keeps them pickled in a jar at the end of a bar. If this is "Oscar bait," then give me more.

I think the key to Gangs of New York is found in that opening line of narration. This is a dream of New York, a half-remembered legend from a period and place that most people know nothing about. The mythological nature of the movie is important, just as Di Caprio's subordination to that legend is important. This is not a modern or post-modern narrative. It sprawls. It is a picaresque. Amsterdam Vallon, Di Caprio's character, is Ishmael to Lewis's Ahab, or Cormac McCarthy's nameless kid in Blood Meridian to Lewis's Judge Holden. Vallon is a viewpoint, not a character, and is intended as such. Also like those two narratives, this is about violence as a historical imperative in the formation of the American identity, and I think that this is something that the movie does brilliantly. It puts its finger on the central fissure in the American identity: the conflict between nativists and know-nothings, and the immigrants and ethnic "others," and it presses down hard. I don't agree with the critics who claim that the film is unfocused. I think it builds deliberately to a climax in which the main antagonists, nativist and immigrant, wind up indistinguishable from one another in the ruins of a New York leveled by the draft riots of the Civil War.

Apart from all of that, though, Gangs of New York is a film into which Scorsese poured every ounce of his considerable knowledge about filmmaking. This film contains what is probably my favorite single shot of the decade, in which the camera follows Irish immigrants off the boat to where they're being processed into citizenship and into the Union Army, then over to where the coffins are being loaded back onto the boats. This is all in one unbroken take. This is the cinematic equivalent to those murals that tell every part of a story in one image. It's a tour de force. And at the very end of the movie is a cut that shows Scorsese not as a Catholic filmmaker, but as a Buddhist (the director who made Kundun rather than the one who made The Last Temptation of Christ), when everything is swept away by the passage of time. That the final image of this cut is the World Trade towers is an accidental exclamation point.

Some of Scorsese's signature gifts are present in this film in singularly weird incarnations. His use of "needle drop" soundtracks, for instance, winds up mutated into a percussive mixture of fife and drum music interspersed with folk songs from the period. Present, too, is the director's obsessive attention to details, which in this film results in a riot of colorful, unfamiliar, and outre historical items, from the role of fire brigades in antebellum New York to the varieties of prostitutes and thieves to the various entertainments people used to escape their lives. This isn't a dry, period piece. At times it seems like a post-apocalyptic movie--especially at the beginning--and at others it seems like a collection of tall tales or cartoons. This last is appropriate, given that what remains in the popular imagination about this period is informed by the great cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who brought down Boss Tweed. This film provides a vivid interpretation of Tweed by Jim Broadbent. In some ways, Gangs of New York is the antithesis of Scorsese's other historical New York film, The Age of Innocence: Where that film was all tightly controlled gentility, this one is savage and sprawling; they're two sides of the same coin, one Apollonian order, the other Dionysian chaos.

In any event, the experience of watching it for the first time, as I say, is branded on my memory. It was thrilling, compulsive, and, in some ways overwhelming. There came a time near the end of the film when I realized that I was holding my breath for short periods, almost suffocated by what I was watching. It was an experience the likes of which I've never had at the movies, before or since.