Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shameless self-promotion

“So do we get to watch Steel Magnolias?” That was my long-suffering girlfriend’s response when I told her about this particular writing gig. This is an ongoing joke between us. Every so often, she’ll ask if I suddenly like Steel Magnolias and I’ll tell her that I still don’t like it and she’ll mutter something like “the estrogen isn’t working.” My take on that film is similar to Manhola Dargis’s take on Nora Ephron in an interview she gave to Jezebel earlier this year:

“Sometimes I think women should do what various black and gay audiences have done, which is support women making movies for women. So does that mean I have to go support Nora Ephron? Fuck no. That’s just like, blech.“

One of the things that most annoyed me about Steel Magnolias was the Julia Roberts character, who contracts one of those diseases whose main symptom seems to be a tendency for the character to get more beautiful. In film circles, it’s known as Ali McGraw’s Syndrome and dying beautifully is a hallmark of weepies. Women are never asked to go all Robert De Niro when it comes to looking bad on screen, and it’s particularly egregious here. The only time I can remember actually seeing a major actress get anywhere near what dying from an incurable disease might really be like was in Mike Nichols’s Wit, in which Emma Thompson’s prickly English professor is confronted by the unpleasant facts of the end of her life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a legitimately great movie and you SHOULD see it, but I’ll never, ever watch it again myself. It looks too much like my mom’s slow death from breast cancer, and I imagine it looks like what my own death might be like at some nebulous time in the future.

Which brings me in a roundabout circle to what’s on my mind today...

So begins my inaugural post over at The Second Awakening, in which I talk about boobs, estrogen, Sex and the City, and Please Give. Read the rest of it there. It's a good blog, though not a movie blog by any means.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Big Knife

I started this project last year, then promptly let it lay fallow after a couple of entries. I always intended to get back to it, but I didn't expect to take so long. I'm skipping around a little here. Ideally, I should write about Kiss Me Deadly in this slot. I'll come back to Kiss Me Deadly at some point in the future. For now, though, we have The Big Knife from 1955, Robert Aldrich's sixth film.

The Big Knife was made with the same crew that Aldrich used for Kiss Me Deadly, more or less, and it has something of the same look to it. It's a harsh film, and unbeautiful. Aldrich is telling an ugly story about ugly people, so he lets the way he films things speak to this. The 'big knife' of the title is pointed directly at the back of the studio system. Every so often, Hollywood produces a film like this one in a fit of self-loathing; you can shelve this with Sunset Boulevard, Sweet Smell of Success, and The Player. This one isn't quite in the front rank of these kinds of movies, but it does play in the same league. It turned out to be a problematic film for Aldrich, given that Harry Cohn, the notoriously cheap head of Columbia Pictures, saw a little too much of himself in Rod Steiger's monstrous studio head. The character itself is a bit of an amalgam, but at one point, he says "hail Columbia" in another context and that iced it for Cohn. He had Aldrich removed from The Garment Jungle and unofficially blacklisted. Aldrich, for his part, never played games with the studios and never sold out his associates. He gave the studios the finger and then went to Europe to make movies for a while. When he came back, films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and The Dirty Dozen were all money-making machines and Hollywood loves money more than it loves its dignity, so all was ultimately forgiven.

It seems odd to say that The Big Knife is one of the first fruits of Aldrich's mature style given that it's completely dominated by its screenplay and actors, but there it is. This is a case of the director finding material that is totally personal to him, but also totally personal to everyone else involved. I wonder how an auteurist would shoe-horn this into the theory. The hallmark's of Aldrich's films are here in spades: the flawed individualist lead character, the oppressive system that destroys him, the overcooked hothouse atmosphere. This is all marked indelibly on the film. But even so, it doesn't exactly feel like an Aldrich movie. I think this disconnect stems from the fact that Aldrich has chosen not to "open" up Clifford Odets's play for the cinema. He confines the action to a limited number of sets and he gives the actors their heads when it comes to chewing the scenery. This isn't movie acting, really. It's some strange hybrid of stage acting and movie acting. As with most of Aldrich's films, the combination of elements steers the whole thing toward the Gothic: you get in this movie a microcosm where the forces of the id do battle.

The story here follows actor Charlie Castle, who is being pressured into signing a long-term contract with Hoff International Pictures, headed by the soft-spoken sociopath, Stanley Hoff. Hoff has leverage over Charlie resulting from a DUI incident that resulted in a fatality at some time in the past and he isn't above using it. Charlie's estranged wife, Marion, doesn't want Charlie to sign and threatens to leave him if he does. Charlie, for his part, doesn't want to sign, either. He's sick of the kinds of artless crowd-pleasers to which another seven years with Hoff will consign him, but his tough-guy image on screen isn't matched in real life by the actor. Charlie is fundamentally weak. Thrown into this mix are the icy Smiley Coy, Hoff's major domo, who insinuates ways of "getting rid" of problems; Connie Bliss, the wife of the fall guy for Charlie's DUI, who is an amoral sexual predator; and Dixie Evans, a dipsomaniac contract starlet who knows too much for her own good and has a habit of blabbing. It's a fine cast of monsters. Odets includes a writer character, Horatio, who remains apart from everything, presumably in the role of Greek chorus, but he's a stand in for the playwright himself. For the time, the behind the scenes shenanigans portrayed in this film were a scandal, from the casual sexual infidelities to the hints of an orgy going on next door to Charlie's house. I imagine that this is probably accurate, in so far as Aldrich and company depict as much as they can get away with under the production code. The real thing was probably very much like this, only more so.

Aldrich made a couple of pictures with Jack Palance, who plays Charlie. This is the sort of role that Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster spent the 1950s perfecting and it's surprising that Aldrich didn't make this with Lancaster, who would ultimately make four pictures with the director. Aldrich never liked to restrain his actors and Palance takes everything he can get from the movie and more so. All of the performances here are overcooked, from Steiger's method actor rage--his Stanley Hoff is essentially Godzilla, laying waste to everything in his path--to Jean Hagen's burlesque version of a ruthless slut. The screenplay is an accomplice in this, with ripe lines like "I don't care if I do see a snake. I'm sure I'd much rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer." and, "How dare you come in here and throw this mess of naked pigeons in my face!" This isn't exactly naturalistic filmmaking. A couple of actors actually do dial it back, though, and are conspicuous for it: Ida Lupino's Marion is a steadying influence as the film's niggling conscience, and Wendell Corey is a block of ice as Coy.

As I say, this is a writer's and actor's picture, but there are some interesting stylistic flourishes here and there. This is certainly more tightly controlled than Aldrich's earlier Westerns. Take for instance this shot:

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it throws out the Wellesian film grammar that indicates powerful characters based on the camera angle. The camera usually looks up at powerful characters, but here the audience is looking up at Charlie, a weak character. For another, it uses a far older visual shorthand to indicate status. Charlie is lower in the frame than his agent, with the positions of the characters acting as a kind of hierarchy. Aldrich repeats this kind of hierarchical blocking here:

And here:

In all of these shots, you're looking at a whipped dog. It's interesting that Charlie has the same cowed attitude to virtue--embodied in Ida Lupino's Marion--as he does with corruption (Hoff).

Later, in the film, Aldrich uses sight lines to indicate power relationships. In the first confrontation between Charlie and Hoff, Charlie looks everywhere but at Hoff, and, pointedly, everywhere but at the camera. His sight lines are twitchy and scattershot:

Charlie Castle is an interesting variation on Aldrich's usual protagonists. His stock anti-heroes are generally tested by their inflexible individualism running afoul of an uncaring system that has no use for individuals. They usually suffer for refusing to compromise their morals. In this case, Charlie suffers because he's all too willing to compromise his morals. There's no moral victory here, as there sometimes is for Aldrich's other anti-heroes. Charlie's moral turpitude is annihilating. In some ways, this is just as nihilistic a movie as Kiss Me Deadly, only without the hugger mugger of a glowing suitcase and an atomic explosion at the end. There's something to be said for that. This can be considered to be film noir, after all, and film noir tends towards the existential. In the words of Sartre: Hell is other people.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Second Chances

Some friends of mine have been housecleaning. They live in a small space in Seattle, and having beaten the curse of being a packrat, they're not averse to clearing out the stuff they've accumulated. This time around, they asked if I was interested in some DVDs they were getting rid of. I picked the ones that interested me from the list they sent me and I got a couple of packages in the mail. I have awesome friends.

One of the items on the list was the director's cut box set of Ridley Scott's Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film I liked, but didn't love, when it was in theaters and one that I grew to love when I saw the director's original intentions afterwards. It's easy to be suspicious of "directors' cuts" of movies, particularly in the case of Ridley Scott (who continues to monkey around with Blade Runner decades after it was released), but in the case of this film, you're talking about a movie that was seriously harmed by the studio. An equivalent example might be the studio and director's cuts of The Abyss (from another director fond of his cutting-room leavings), though maybe not, perhaps, Once Upon a Time in America or The Magnificent Ambersons. Kingdom of Heaven was merely harmed, not murdered.

This is what I originally wrote about the movie back in 2005:

"Given the current political climate, the geo-political subtexts of Kingdom of Heaven are surprising. Not only does the film balance the motives of the Muslim and Christian characters, alike, but it asks very specific questions about conflict in the Middle East that resonate to this very day. "What is Jerusalem worth?" Balian asks Saladin. "Nothing," Saladin replies, "Everything." The curious thing about this film is that it is a film that could not have been released in the United States even two years ago. The way it frames its questions seems a specific confrontation with current American foreign policy. The Kingdom of Heaven postulated by this film is not built on war, but on tolerance, respect, and diplomacy. I had a hard time reconciling this film with its maker, Ridley Scott, with Scott's last epic, Black Hawk Down, being to my eyes an exercise in jingoistic porn for a nation of hawks. Is Scott a bellwether for the political mood of the times? Maybe. If so, then this movie bodes ill for the current junta, based as it is on a re-evaluation of the motives for war. This is a movie built on second thoughts. Were I to schedule this movie as part of a double feature, I would pair it not with Scott's Gladiator (which this film superficially resembles), but with Erroll Morris's The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara suggests that we must "be prepared to re-examine our reasoning." As McNamara suggests in that film, it is imperative to get into the skin of the other guy if one is to avoid wars. Kingdom of Heaven has absorbed this lesson. The film's refusal to demonize its Islamic antagonists raises eyebrows. And Kingdom of Heaven is certainly confrontational when it comes to religious fanatics, all of whom are shown to be butchers, cowards, and fools by turns.

In any event, the film is Scott's best film in well over a decade, in spite of Orlando Bloom's sullen lead performance. In Bloom's defence, the filmmakers haven't asked him to do anything more than scowl through the whole movie, so I'll not fault him. Boy, howdy, does Ghassan Massoud as Saladin make the viewer wish that the filmmakers had approached the material from the OTHER side of the cultural divide, because whenever he's on screen, you can't take your eyes off of him. Scott is still in love with that annoying bleach transfer process that muddies up the cinematography, but at least he hasn't drenched the film in that gawdawful golden light he used for Gladiator--there are long passages that appear to have been filmed in (*gasp*) natural light. The supporting performances are all pleasurable, particularly Jeremy Irons, who seems to have recovered his muse here, and David Thewlis, who plays kindness even better than he plays rat bastards. Edward Norton's character, King Baldwin the leper, is particularly fascinating, even from behind a silver mask. Saladin steals every scene he's in. Of course, the film is being sold to the public on the strength of the spectacle, and while there is spectacle aplenty, one actually wishes there were less of it and more scenes between characters. When was the last time anyone made an action movie where the characters were the point of interest?"

All in all, I don't have any qualms with letting that review stand. It's a pretty good summary of my experience of the movie at the time, though it's factually erroneous about the process used to give the film its look (it was edited and struck on a digital intermediary). Of course, the world has changed some five years further on, but not enough to moot the political allegories of the movie. But there are a number of things about Kingdom of Heaven that I neglected. There are a number of things about both the director's cut of the movie and the DVD package in which that cut of the movie is sold that I want to address now that I've seen it again. This particular sentence from my old review gnaws at me: "Of course, the film is being sold to the public on the strength of the spectacle, and while there is spectacle aplenty, one actually wishes there were less of it and more scenes between characters." The director's cut, which adds in 50 minutes of footage and an important subplot concerning Eva Green's Queen of Jerusalem, among other things, solves most of this. It decompresses the movie and lets it breathe. It's a dramatic improvement. Hell, this version of the movie might just be my favorite of Scott's films. Some of the things it clears up:

  • The motivations behind Sybella's inexplicably descent into madness are brought into focus and Eva Green's performance late in the movie becomes far more of a piece with the rest of the movie.
  • The motivations of Guy of de Lusignan's political maneuvers regarding the assumption of power--and Sybella's complicity in it--are far more credible, given the preferences of King Baldwin prior to his death.
  • The relationship between the priest and Balian at the beginning of the movie is changed in a way that makes Balian's murder of the priest seem less out of character.
  • David Thewlis's Hospitaler becomes slightly more mysterious, though one wishes that Scott had chosen to further deepen this mystery by omitting the shot of Thewlis's head after Saladin slaughters the army of Jerusalem. Not everything is better, I guess
  • Balian's aptitude for siege warfare, seemingly beyond the reach of a mere "blacksmith" in the original cut, is given some background, making his actions in the defense of Jerusalem seem less like they were pulled out of a screenwriter's ass.
  • The film's action sequences seem to have been edited slightly slower in this cut, though this might be an illusion caused by the decompression of the narrative. Or possibly not, given that the film was cut down from an even longer version in order to get close to a two hour running time. Whatever the reason, the action sequences seem to be a bit clearer in this version. Maybe it's the quality of the DVD transfer, which is unusually fine.

On the whole, it plays much better. I can understand the studio's reticence in sending this out at over three hours, but I think they would have reaped better box office with the better version of the movie.

One of the things I forgot about this movie is the fact that it's an epic for atheists. It's possibly the only epic for atheists. I mean, sure, it certainly bends over backwards to pay lip service to its conception of ideal Christianity and ideal Islam and it tries to mediate between them--the scene where Saladin rights a fallen cross after taking Jerusalem apparently got standing ovations in the Muslim world, which is nice--but the central figure of the movie is pointedly a man who has no use for god or religion by the end of the movie, one whose success comes from a well-prepared mind rather than the favor of some fickle deity. The contrast between the Knights Templar and Balian is drawn in stark terms when their faith in God is rewarded with defeat and slaughter. God may hold sway in heaven, but this is NOT that place, so look to your own self. This functions, too, as a critique of the sanctified tone of most historical epics. It makes a fine analgesic to dull the pain of, say, Cecil B. DeMille's pious rendition of the period in The Crusades. This particular atheist finds this pleasurable.

A short word about the DVDs themselves. This package comes loaded. I'd liken it to the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies, but those DVDs don't give the same kinds of insights into the art of filmmaking that this package does. You get an idea of what a director actually does in these extras and watching him interact with his actors and crew during the whole process certainly gives me a new appreciation of Ridley Scott. From my perspective, the most interesting material here is provided by film editor Dody Dorn, who says point blank that the theatrical cut was an unsatisfactory compromise. She also provides several instances of how completely the film editor influences the final shape of the film (she even has a solo commentary track over the film itself, but I haven't listened to all of that yet). In any event, this might be the most comprehensive document of how a movie is actually made that I think I've ever seen.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book of Secrets

"I began with drawing. I have never stopped drawing."--Auguste Rodin

My weekend was pretty much devoted to movies with "Secret" in their titles. The day after I took in The Secret In Their Eyes, I caught the last local showing of The Secret of Kells (2009, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey), an animated Irish movie that spins a fairy tale out of the creation of the Book of Kells. Like The Secret In Their Eyes, The Secret of Kells was a suprise at the Oscars--in this case, by just being nominated; it lost to Pixar's Up. No shame in that, I guess.

As one might expect of a movie about the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world, it's a feat of pure design. The animation--done largely in Flash, if I read the credits right--is interestingly limited, in so far as it designs its characters with simple but telling shapes while indulging in flights of fancy with every other element. It's an approach that Jay Ward or Faith and John Hubley might have pursued had they the resources, or maybe later animators like Gennedy Tartakovsky or Craig McKracken. Computers have made it easier, I guess. Surprisingly, this isn't all done for show. There is a deep thematic preocupation with drawing in this movie. More on that in a bit.

This is a marvelously syncretic movie, which has an ostensibly Christian narrative--the real Book of Kells relates the Gospells, after all--but which is drunk on Irish myth in spite of that. The story is set in the monastery of Kells, around which, Abbot Abbot Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson) is building a wall against the rage of the northmen. The vikings are depicted in this film as demonic black shapes with horns and glowing eyes, which I'm sure wasn't far off the popular image of the time. Meanwhile, work in the scriptorium has been enlivened by the arrival of Brother Aidan of Iona, bearing the unfinished Book of Iona, which fires the imagination of young Brendan, the abbot's young nephew. In defiance of his uncle's wishes, he covertly learns the art of illumination himself, an apprenticeship that takes him outside the walls of the monastery for the first time and into the pre-Christian world of fairies and monster. In the woods, he encounters, Aisling, a sprightly girl who claims ownership of the woods, and he strays into the cave of the terrible Crom Crúaich, one of the old gods of Ireland. All the while, the threat of the vikings hovers overhead.

As an archetypal landscape, this movie is pretty traditional. Brendan is tutored by a wise mystic, must quest into the underworld, and emerges victorious. Typical hero's journey stuff. In its representation, it's pretty fanciful. The woods in this movie are vividly rendered in curliqueues and intense greens, while Crom Crúaich himself is depicted as a kind of designed snake. This itself is an interesting choice, because Crom Crúaich is the god whose cult was destroyed by St. Patrick; the movie is conflating this story with St. Patrick's banishing of the snakes from Ireland. How Brendan ultimately defeats Crom Crúaich is key to the movie: he draws a boundary around him and traps him. The Secret of Kells isn't only obsessed with drawing as it relates to the creation of the book, as you can see in relation to this sequence. It venerates drawings high and low, from Brendan's chalk drawings on a piece of slate, to the architectural drawings that cover the walls of the abbot's chamber. Drawing, the movie insinuates, is a holy pursuit. It's appropriate that this is conveyed in animation, an art that is still inextricably bound up with drawing, even in this era of computer generated wonders.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Thousand Pasts and No Future

Many Oscar observers were surprised when Michael Haneke's last film, The White Ribbon, lost the Best Foreign Language Feature award earlier this year. At the time, no one but Oscar voters had seen the winner, The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, 2009, directed by Juan José Campanella) from Argentina. It's not hard to see why it won. It's the sort of movie Hollywood used to make. Never underestimate the Academy's preferences for things they know. I don't mean to suggest that The Secret in Their Eyes is bad. Far from it. Just that on its surface, it's familiar. For the record, I haven't seen The White Ribbon, so I don't have a basis for comparison.

Like several of my favorite recent films, this is a crime film. The protagonist is a retired prosecutor who is writing a novel about a case from 25 years in his past. This particular past is nebulous at first, but the specific history is important because once the details of the case have been sewn up and once the exegesis has been made, there's still quite a bit of movie left. It's subtle in the way it turns the course of the narrative away from the crime procedural into the political thriller and, surprisingly, a romance. Our hero, one Benjamin Esposito, is played by Ricardo Darin, who I last saw playing the father in XXY. He's excellent here as both the crusading prosecutor and the frustrated lover. The object of his long unrequited love is his former boss, Irene, played by Soledad Villamil. Both actors have to play their parts young and old, and it's a measure of the film's accomplishment, that you never doubt the performers at their given ages. Villamil, in particular, dominates the screen whenever the camera lingers on her. As you might guess from a film with eyes in the title, the camera is particularly interested in eyes, and I suspect Villamil was cast specifically for this purpose.

The case that serves as a Maguffin is a brutal rape/murder, to which the audience is privy through Esposito's attempt to envision it for his novel. The movie provides a couple of false starts that it reworks as the things unfold. What is indelible is the staging of the murder scene; the audience feels what Esposito feels when he sees it--at least I think they do, because I certainly did. It's an image that is brutal and haunting. The procedural that follows reminds me a bit of Memories of Murder, in so far as it's a portrait of a system beset by corruption and incompetence (and incompetent corruption). There's a key difference, though. Memories of Murder is a portrait of a society shaking off authoritarianism. The Secret in Their Eyes is a portrait of a society being plunged into a fascist nightmare. That it's mostly set in 1974 puts it at a turning point in Argentine history when the Pinochet regime came to power. Once the movie resolves the murder case, it's still left with the problem of fascism. This film might have tickled Hannah Arendt, because it depicts evil as essentially banal. This thread of narrative turns on bureaucratic infighting rather than ideology.

I've already mentioned the opening murder scene. There are a couple of other scenes in the movie that are staged with aplomb: a break-in scene that turns comical by turns and an intense chase scene at a football match that stands as one of the bravura sequences of the decade. It's really amazing. In addition to this, there are numerous comic leitmotifs involving open and closed doors, as well as an agreeable slow burn romantic banter. It takes its time with its characters, too, with none of them seeming like plot devices even though some of them are. It's all shot with a confident compositional sense that doesn't intrude overly much except where the filmmakers want it to intrude. The audience is asked to suspend their disbelief for two particular plot points, and some audiences might feel the strain, but I won't spoil the movie to examine them. Suffice it to say that the payoff is worth the effort.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me

I had to turn off Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994) about 20 minutes in. I wound up bitching about it on my Facebook account shortly thereafter. "Was it always this laughably bad?" I asked. Mind you, I haven't seen it since it was in theaters, so my memory of it is admittedly hazy. My memory of the novel is even hazier. I read the book long before Anne Rice turned it into a franchise, and I remember liking it a lot. I'm afraid to go back and re-read the book, truth to tell. I've since soured on Rice. The vampire books curdled on me about halfway through The Vampire Lestat, and of her other writings, I eventually gave up completely when I found myself throwing The Witching Hour across the room, never to be finished. Rice has a lot to answer for, not least of which is the current vogue for neurasthenic vampires that seems like it's spreading like a cancer throughout pop culture. It's hard to say if they're more ubiquitous than zombies; it's neck and punctured neck.

Anyway, I went back to it eventually, and it got better by and by. I didn't make it quite far enough in during my first attempt to get to the film's most arresting elements, which, coincidentally, begin to appear at about the 25 minute mark. But those first twenty minutes were a hard slog. Part of it was getting used to the actors in their roles. I mean, we're talking serious movie stars here, who are overlaying their own personae over the characters from the book. Part of it is that the dialogue doesn't sound right. If ever there was a movie that cried out to be made in French, this is it.

I remember reading an interview with David Cronenberg around the time that M. Butterfly came out in which he was asked about Interview with the Vampire. Cronenberg was linked to the movie in two ways: first, he was offered the director's chair at one point. Second: at the time, there was a lot of chatter about the alleged similarities between M. Butterfly and The Crying Game, which was the film Neil Jordan made immediately before Interview with the Vampire. At one point, Cronenberg was asked about the casting of Tom Cruise as Lestat, to which he replied: "I probably think the same thing you think about it, and I don't even know you." At the time, Anne Rice herself was sounding off on the casting of Cruise. She eventually recanted after watching him on set. Cruise seems an odd fit for the role, but Cruise has always been adventurous about choosing his roles and he's certainly up to the task of playing Lestat. Cruise has often had a trace of anger in his performances, and he gives it full reign here. He's fey, creepy, and all but unrecognizable with long blonde tresses and contact lenses. And yet, he fails to dominate the movie. The same goes for Brad Pitt as Louis. Pitt fares much worse than Cruise, in part because his character is mostly one note, and, as Lestat notes, he whines ("I've been listening to that for two hundred years," he says at one point), but also because Pitt himself, though an absolutely beautiful man, is just plain wrong for the part.

The story, narrated by the vampire, Louis, to a journalist, tells of his conversion to vampirism in colonial New Orleans. Once a plantation owner, he wallowed in despair following the death of his family, until the seductive, blond vampire, Lestat, offered him eternal life. Louis, for his part, accepts, and finds the world much changed afterward. Vampirism might be seductive, with it's promise of eternal youth, but the reality of actually drinking blood and killing people is one of nearly unending sadness for Louis. Lestat is less sensitive, though his perverse desire to create a family unit that will keep him company through the ages hints at a similar sadness. He still comes off as a monster. Also monstrous is the vampire child, Claudia, that Louis and Lestat make. As she is in the book, Claudia is the film's most audacious creation, an eternal child with the wants of a grown woman and the longing for a life she never had the opportunity to have. Everything else that follows Claudia's appearance in the film, from the Theatres des Vampire to Antonio Banderas's curiously ambivalent vampire regent, has been upstaged. Credit is due to Kirsten Dunst, who was eleven when the film was made, for managing a performance that goes from innocence to experience with nary a false note to break the spell. She has never been as good since. The movie itself isn't so lucky. Once the movie winds down, Jordan and Rice (who wrote the screenplay herself) make a change to the ending, and it's a change that wrecks the mood.

In addition to all of their other attendant allegorical possibilities, vampire stories are ideal vehicles for examining homoeroticism. Interview might be the first major vampire novel to frame that homoeroticism with male vampires. It's an element that is in the forefront of the movie. Between the publication of the novel and the making of the movie is the AIDS epidemic, and I think you can see some of the outlines of that in the desperation you see in its characters. It's hard for me to NOT see it in the movie's version of Lestat and Louis's last meeting, in which Lestat is a frail shell of himself. And yet, in one of the movie's more timid moments, it refrains from showing Brad Pitt kissing Antonio Banderas even when their lips are only millimeters apart, which is a pity for audiences (like yours truly) who like watching boys kiss. The movie retains a great deal of relevance in contemporary terms, as it allegorizes the kinds of families gay people struggle to form on their own in spite of the disapproval of the dominant culture at large, even as it hedges its bets with an ambivalence towards them. All of this becomes even more troubling when one accounts for the perverse relationship between Louis and Claudia, which has an inherent pedophiliac undercurrent. Given the possible interpretations of this imagery, you wind up with a very troubling movie. And that's not all.

Anne Rice's forays into BDSM erotica are spectacularly realized during the Theatres des Vampires sequence, in which audiences (both real and fictional--the movie turns meta here) watch the vampires gang-feed on a victim who has been stripped naked. This is totally outside the "safe, sane, and consensual" strictures of BDSM sex practices, but it's ridiculously common in BDSM literature. Vampire stories are replete with rape imagery, too, so it's an ideal mating. And that's how this scene plays: As gang rape. It horrifies Louis, and it ought to horrify the audience, but Rice knows full well that the kinkier members of her audience have entertained the same kind of fantasies and will surely groove on this scene.

The movie tries to have it both ways, horror and titilation, which is a flaw in the book, too. All of this begs the question of why the hell vampires have become anti-heroes in the popular imagination? I mean, I "get" that vampires are in the Byronic/Gothic tradition, but why has that archetype taken such firm hold in the myth pool? I can't say I like some of the answers.

As a side note: I've accepted a gig blogging about movies, trans issues, and feminism at The Second Awakening. My first introductory post is here. I probably should have posted this there, too, but I have something else in mind for my next entry. Have no fear, my legion of faithful readers, I should still keep up a blistering pace right here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Imp of the Perverse

Here's the thing about Lucio Fulci. He's THE patron director for anyone who follows lowbrow cinema as a vocation. Fulci's films sum up the perils and rewards of trash movies. A dedicated student will sift through the trash hoping for one or two moments of transcendence. You'll hear them wax rhapsodic over some outre grace note in an otherwise dreadful film. I'm talking about things like Amy Steele's face-off with Jason in the second Friday the 13th movie or the prolonged, Rube Goldberg-esque death of Henry Silva's hit man in Ozploitation vampire movie, Thirst. Man, we live for that shit. Perhaps no other movie summarizes this masochistic relationship better than Fulci's Zombi 2, which brings you not one, but TWO indelible sequences that are memorable out of all proportion to the actual quality of the movie: The zombie versus the shark scene and the splinter in the eye scene. Hell, the zombie vs. the shark has showed up in a recent Microsoft ad campaign. It's THAT iconic. But, of course, Zombi 2 kinda sucks. Seriously. It does. But here's one further thing about Fulci: not only are his movies avatars of the risk/reward nature of crap cinema, so is his whole career! In this respect, he is a true auteur. His filmography mimics his movies. Its mostly crap, but punctuated by high notes.

One of those high notes is Una sull'altra (aka: Perversion Story in the USA, or more accurately, One on Top of the Other), a mostly fascinating film noir from 1969. This is Fulci's first thriller, made somewhat before the director's appetites turned more visceral. It makes an interesting triptych with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Don't Torture a Duckling, though I would argue that it's better than either of those films. What's most surprising about it is its coherence as a narrative, something Fulci had no real interest in during his most renowned period. This particular story follows shady doctor Jean Morel as he tries to piece together the death of his wife, the suspicious insurance policy she took out before her death, the relationship between her and her doppelganger, stripper Marisa Mell, and his relationship with his mistress (Elsa Martinelli). If the connection to Hitchcock's Vertigo isn't obvious enough, the movie is mostly set (and filmed) in San Francisco to boot.

Perhaps more surprising than the relative coherence of the narrative--relative, I say, because it's still not a particularly linear film--is the fact that the movie doesn't really depend on it. To my untrained eye, this is very much the most attractive of Fulci's movies, one that takes full advantage of its setting and its actors. San Francisco is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and the movie gives a striking tour of the city at a particular place in time. Jean Sorel's lead is a fairly handsome Alain Delon knock-off and is an impressive male fashion plate, but it's Marisa Mell who dominates the movie in her dual role. Her entrance as stripper Monica Weston, peeling while draped over a motorcycle, is as iconic in its way as her romp on the bed in a pile of money in Danger: Diabolik.

Is it wrong of me that I totally want this outfit?

Unlike most erotic thrillers, this one actually manages to BE erotic, thanks in part to the sheer beauty of its leads. And Marisa Mell's willingness to get naked. That's important, too. Also unusual for movies like this one, the filmmakers actually make something of the sexual content. In Sorel and Mell's first coupling--which is WAY sexy--Fulci crosscuts with images of Sorel's brunette wife stretched out on her deathbed. The implication of necrophilia is obvious, but striking none the less. The movie makes a great deal of the profession of Sorel's mistress, too--she's a fashion photographer--which gives the filmmakers ample excuse to put more naked women on screen, to say nothing of late sixties haute coture. In a lot of ways, this is the best Jess Franco movie ever made. Certainly, Fulci shows a superb eye for framing the scene in this movie; this is replete with interesting deep-focus compositions, a couple of arresting split screen arrangements, and odd dutch tilts and eccentric camera moves. Even shots cribbed from Hitchcock--one in particular involves filming from beneath a glass floor, while another seems to be shot from within a waterbed--are transformed into something uniquely the director's own. Finally, Riz Ortolanti contributes an arresting jazz score to the movie. On the whole, it all works.

All of which begs the question: why did Fulci subsequently abandon this mode of filmmaking? He was good at it, and one would assume that it would have provided the director with a more substantial measure of success (I mean, Brian De Palma once made a career of this sort of thing). Instead, Fulci pursued his own imp of the perverse over the cliff, and while it may have provided him with an enduring cult, it also engendered a body of work that can be charitably described as inconsistent. But, hell, I don't know. Maybe Fulci is a low-rent cinematic version of Picasso who, having proved that he could draw like Raphael if he so chose, demolished the conventions of art.

Fulci just can't stay away from rotting corpses.

As an epilogue: The otherwise ultra-highbrow Senses of Cinema places Fulci among their "Great Directors". Go figure.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

In Deep

I reviewed Joe Dante's Piranha a couple of weeks ago and this post is kind of a companion piece. My friends and I were supposed to watch Humanoids from the Deep first as part of a double feature, but the videotape met with misfortune upon insertion into the machine. We were disappointed--particularly because the DVD of Piranha had a trailer for Humanoids that got us riled up--but them's the breaks when you're dealing with obsolete technology, I guess. In any event, it wasn't hard to repair the tape, and the only footage I lost from the incident was a short piece of the FBI warning. Some Scotch tape and a pair of scissors later and the tape is just fine. Otherwise, I would have had to wait for the film to come back into print (at this writing, in another two months).

The old New Horizons VHS had an interview with Roger Corman at the beginning, in which he explained his theory of monster movies, which is the classic "tease the audience with glimpses for the first two acts before the big reveal" technique. "The audience can fill in the monster better than we could," he said, "especially on our budgets." In the case of Humanoids from the Deep, he needn't have worried. Rob Bottin provided some swell-looking fish men. I like to think that if anyone ever wanted to put Lovecraft's Deep Ones on screen, they might look a bit like Bottin's monsters here. I seriously doubt that Lovecraft would have approved of this film, even if the subtext of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (among others) implies the kinds of inter-species rape that Humanoids from the Deep makes explicit. In any case, if Humanoids from the Deep has a fatal flaw--and it certainly does--it's that it never strays outside the comfort zone of New World's eco horror formula. Worse, since this movie came out two years after Piranha, that formula had already started to get deconstructed by smarter filmmakers.

The plot here involves a fishing village being terrorized by biologically engineered fish men who are driven to land to spawn...with HUMAN women! Yeah. I'm sure that's EXACTLY how it was pitched to Corman. You get the stock characters of the New World eco horror movies: the brash young native American standing up to the ravages of corporate America, the evil racist who views the new cannery as progress no matter how much polution is spews, the comely scientist who explains everything. It's easy to point out the stereotypes. This film also borrows a serious mean streak from Piranha when it comes to throwing dogs and kids into the maw of the beast. Oh, and it has Doug McClure, who made a lot of these kinds of movies. Also like Piranah, this has a few future Oscar nominees in the crew: James Horner (still a slave to the style of Jerry Goldsmith), Bottin, editor Mark Goldblatt. Corman's fabled eye for talent is all over this film, and it has its rewards. It's an extremely attractive movie. It looks a LOT more expensive than it probably was.

Corman's interview at the beginning of the tape notes that he only looked at ability when he hired Barbara Peeters to direct this movie and I'll give Corman props: He has a long history of giving female filmmakers a chance. You can occasionally see what having a female director brings to the movie, too. Ann Turkel's scientist fulfills a familiar role here as the bringer of exposition, but she's significant for what she doesn't do, namely: she nobody's love interest. You can even see a wry commentary on what a capable woman has to deal with in the dance scene when she is stuck dancing with her weaselly co-worker, who is literally and figuratively less than she is. Peeters also gets some mileage out of stranding Doug McClure's wife, played by Cindy Weintraub, alone at the end of the movie. While McClure makes it back, he arrives after she's already dispatched the besieging humanoids on her own, no men required. This is all well and good, but what gets left out of Corman's interview, though, is the fact that he also fired Peeters for refusing to do reshoots to include more nudity and raping fish men. Viewers who don't know this background might be surprised that a woman directed a film as completely drenched in misogynist imagery as this one, and it goes well beyond the slimy-rapey way it literalizes the unspoken horrors of all those movie posters and pulp covers with bug-eyed monsters carrying off scantily clad women. Horror movies have been riffing on the supposed horror of childbirth for decades, but the final scene of Humanoids from the Deep trumps everything before or since. True, it's a rip-off of Alien, but it's so preposterous and so spectacular that it sears itself into your memory. Once you've seen it, you don't forget it. On the whole, this movie is supremely unpleasant, but this scene really takes the cake.

So, essentially, you have a movie in which there's a disconnect between production values and story values. On the one hand, you have polish and artistry and, yes, the pulp vitality of a really good exploitation movie. On the other, you have complete and utter schlock. It's shameless about the schlock, which is essential in this sector of filmmaking. You also have a disconnect between what the director intends and what the producers demand. This tension is irreconcilable, and more than one critic marks this film as the point where Corman's productions shed their inventiveness and their wit and started to devour themselves. That all said, I have to admit that I have more than a fair amount of affection for this movie, even though it appalls me to admit it. I remember watching it every time it came on HBO when I was a kid, and I realize that my obsession with this movie then was totally about the boobs and blood and the outrageous climax. Corman knew his audience. I think most horror fans have a little of the adolescent sadist in them--I know I sure did--and this movie caters to adolescent sadism like few others. It's kind of perfect that way.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Holier than Thou

Director Lucrecia Martel filming La Ciénaga

I need to pay more attention to South American cinema. On the evidence of the last several South American movies I've seen, there's an astonishing and vital cinema down there that I know next to nothing about.

Take, for instance, La Ciénaga (2004), which announces its director, Lucrecia Martel, as a major filmmaker. A portrait of the bourgoisie in decline, it follows two families summering (wintering?--how do they measure this in Argentina?) at a crumbling vacation home. Martel has no use for exposition, so the viewer is thrown into the midst of thing and left to figure out the the relationships on his or her own. At the head of one family, is Tali, riding herd over four kids who are getting into the kinds of things kids get into during the summer. At the head of the other is her cousin, Mecha, who along with her husband, are a the ugly middle class personified: drunken, disagreeable louts who abuse the help. The town where the vacation home is located is named "La Ciénaga," "The Swamp." The strongest visual manifestation of this name is the brackish swimming pool where we first see our characters lounging.

Martel and her cinematographer, Hugo Carace, completely ignore the traditional Hollywood dance of eyes and faces. She films this as a succession of fragmented body parts. The eccentric framing of her scenes generates a palpable feeling of hot house gothic even though, on its surface, this is mainly a slice of life kind of movie, focused in the main on quotidian details. It's an impressive balancing act, but she was just getting warmed up.

Martel's second film, The Holy Girl (2004), is a deliriously overheated melodrama, and a creepy one at that. The director's eccentric mise en scene is back, this time focusing on faces, and moved in much, much closer. Martel packs the frame with humanity in a literal sense. It sometimes feels crowded with bodies, a feeling exaggerated by the intimate closeness of the camera to faces. The movie itself follows Amalia, a religious teen age girl, who is molested by Dr. Jano, a doctor visiting her family's hotel for a medical conference. She vows to save his soul, with disastrous results. This is complicated by her mother's friendly, almost romantic relationship with Dr. Jano. In some of its details, this plays like a pubescent version of Fatal Attraction. But the movie itself is better than that.

For one thing, it's frame after frame of arresting images. For another, it detonates one's preconceptions with those images. The molestation of Amalia takes place in public, as Dr. Jano pushes his crotch against Amalia from behind while the both of them are in a crowd listening to a theramin demonstration. This happens twice. In the second one, Martel's camera watches their hands, and Amalia's hand twitches backward, as if she wants to take Dr. Jano's hand in hers.

It should be noted, I suppose, that this is not exclusively a movie about obsessive sexuality, it's also about sexual awakening, which significantly muddies the moral universe of the movie. A key scene finds Amalia masturbating in bed. The shot is characteristically intimate and characteristically eccentric:

Sometimes, this level intimacy is uncomfortable to watch. Sometimes, Martel's tendency to pack the screen with human beings obscures the space and geography of the scene. Both of these qualities are deliberate effects on the part of the filmmakers. Martel wants the audience to be uncomfortable. In both cases, they mark the film as distinctively belonging to a singular artistic sensibility.

Turning a Blind Eye

In Greek myths, Tiresias was the blind prophet/oracle who was changed into a woman for a period of seven years after witnessing the mating of snakes in a ritual holy to the goddess Hera. When Tiresias stumbled upon the ritual again, he was changed back into a man. According to one set of myths, Zeus and Hera were arguing over who got the best part of sex, the man or the woman, and they summoned Tiresias to settle the matter. Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera claimed it was men. Tiresias sided with Zeus, which angered Hera. She struck him blind. By way of making amends, Zeus gave Tiresias the gift of second sight. The myths vary to a great degree, and don't agree with one another. I kind of like the snake ritual myth, myself, because it suggests that the myth of Tiresias is an extremely old myth by conflating Hera (whose symbol in the classical tradition is the peacock) with the snake goddess of the Minoans. According to some myths, the female version of Tiresias was either a priestess or a prostitute of great renown. As a woman, she was mother to several children.

Tiresias appears in a lot of mythology. He/she was the oracle of choice in Greek tragedies, including Oedipus Rex and Antigone. For the most part, the prophesies of Tiresias are never wrong. Over the entirety of Greek myth, Tiresias straddles multiple realms, notably male and female, but also life and death. Odysseus encounters the prophet in the underworld where the gift of prophesy still burns.

All in all, a fascinating character, so it's no surprise that someone might want to make a movie that retells some version of the myths, and that's what we get in Tiresia (2003, directed by Bertrand Bonello). In this modern retelling, Tiresia is a Brazilian transsexual working as a prostitute in Paris. She's kidnapped by the inscrutable Terranova, who imprisons her a la John Fowles's The Collector, and watches her transform back into a male when deprived of hormone treatment. In a fit of rage, Terranova blinds Tiresia and dumps her in the woods, where she's rescued by the kind-hearted Anna. As she recovers from her ordeal, she discovers that she has gained the gift of second sight.

This sound like an exploitation movie, and, to an extent, it is, but this is an art house movie, so it couches the story in a fair amount of long-take tedium, in which an inordinate amount of time is spent on quotidian minutiae. Further, it conflates the myth of Tiresias with a vague Christian impulse. Is Tiresia intended as a Christ figure? The movie makes that suggestion. It also plays games with its own basic epistemology. Tiresia is played by Clara Choveaux, a cisgender female actor, in the first half of the film (and again in flashback) and by Thiago Telès, a cisgender male actor, in the second half. Additionally, Terranova (Laurent Lucas) might as well be two different characters in the two halves of the movie. But, again, this is all dressing. The movie itself is an exploitation film, in which the audience watches a man kidnap, maim, and ultimately kill another human being, and unlike any self-respecting exploitation film, there doesn't really seem to be a point to it all.

Also, I find it almost impossible to divorce my own experiences as a transsexual from my reaction to this movie.

What we have here is a movie that's too literary for its own good. Oh, it knows how to signify the history of transgenderism in art. In one of its opening scenes, we watch Terranova discover the famous "Sleeping Hermaphrodite" in the Louvre. Later, a poster on the wall of his home is of the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. But knowing transgenderism from art and myth doesn't make the film any less odious when it comes to depicting the lives of transsexuals. In a way, it exacerbates it. It trades in transgender imagery as it is found in the dominant culture's archetypes: you have the transsexual as prostitute (justified by an interpretation of the myths, I guess, but I doubt the filmmakers gave it that much thought, given how all-pervasive this image is in European film), You have the transsexual as victim. You have the transsexual as medical construct. You have a film that denies that variant gender identities are authentic at all. Not only does Terranova view transsexuals as imitations, but you have Tiresia herself declaring herself to be unnatural as she stands before him naked.

This last bit requires a bit more attention. You can argue that the dominant image of transsexuals in media come from pornography, and the film is explicitly mining that image in the full-frontal shots of Tiresia. In this one where she's standing before Terranova as she bathes:

And this one, in a sexual fantasy sequence:

Purely from a socio-political standpoint, I find the exploitation of trans-imagery in this movie to be completely abhorrent, especially because it's not adding anything new to the pool of images at all. Instead, it not only reinforces tired stereotypes and enforces a binary gender essentialism, but also consigns transsexuals to a very specific lot in life. Listening to Tiresia claim that "all little boys who become women become whores" is one of the more infuriating pronouncements in trans-themed movies. I'm also increasingly uncomfortable--well, "uncomfortable" isn't the right word; appalled is more like it--with movies that portray trans people as inherently disposable, as this one does with the body dump scene in the middle, and again at the end. Given that trans women have a ridiculously high chance of being murdered, this strikes me as irresponsible. There are enough images like this one in real life:

I've pretty much given up on finding positive or realistic transgender imagery in movies, but that doesn't make watching yet another movie get it so spectacularly wrong any easier.