Monday, October 13, 2014



I’m walking down Chicago Avenue and I realize I keep fiddling with this press badge around my neck, making sure it’s facing out so people who might look will know that I’m some kind of press person and that I’m going to the Chicago International Film Festival. I do this even though I’m fully aware no one looks at each other much any more, but my excitement over getting a press badge for the first time in my life, with no understanding of what it even means has taken hold. On the press badge is a photo of me,  which is really my headshot for acting, which doesn’t look like me right now because I’ve been growing my hair and beard out for months for Macbeth, which starts rehearsals in February next year, so even if they did look they’d think I probably stole it off the clean-cut airbrushed guy. My recognition that wearing this badge and making sure its turned out is some kind of status play, while realizing it doesn’t really mean anything, makes me think of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. There is an idea of Jae Renfrow, press representing Sound on Sight, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me. Only an entity, something illusory. I am simply not there. Then I pass the Museum of Contemporary Art and realize there’s a massive image of David Bowie staring at me, with a sign that says “DAVID BOWIE IS WATCHING YOU” and I find it very comforting. I’m a big fan.

At the film festival I see the line is insanely long, but I get to skip to the front because of my fancy badge. I kind of didn’t want to use it to skip ahead of people because I’ve lost all my pretensions about having this thing and I’m feeling uncomfortable wearing this “press skin” anyway. I’m told that the first film I want to see, Words With Gods, is sold out but they’re forming a separate queue for rush tickets. The benefit of cutting in line was that I got to find this news out sooner rather than later. I’m told that I can use my little 10 Film Pass that I just purchased to cover the rush ticket, which makes sense to me because I’ve paid for it. When it looks like I’m going to get into the film, I’m told that it’s cash only and that even though I just paid to see ten movies in advance, this can’t count as one of them because it’s a rush ticket, you understand. I’m told this as though I’m an idiot who can’t comprehend the logistics of cinema commerce. I quickly find an ATM and pay more money to see a movie. I feel obligated to do so, since it was on my Top 5 list of most anticipated films and this is the only showing. I can’t just not watch it. A commitment was made from a writer to his readers and the 40 people who liked the post on Facebook, 38 of which I’ll never know who they were because I’m not on Facebook and two of which were my wife and her sister.

Once in the cinema I realize that this trip to the ATM was more costly than the 20 bucks plus $2.95 service fee for the box to translate the 1s and 0s into a little piece of paper with Andrew Jackson on it. All rush ticket holders were being placed in the first two rows and because of the money misunderstanding the second row was filled up which meant I was sitting up front. The last time I sat this close to a movie screen it was The Sixth Sense in my small podunk hometown in Kentucky and the screen was maybe a third as big, and I was still further away than the probably 7 I had here. Even by regular front row standards this felt just worse than normal.

This is the architecture of when business meets art, never mind comfort or experiencing the film proper, just stuff as many paying customers in as possible.

Guillermo Arriaga, the director of one of the short films and general overseer of the film, comes to the front and says a few words. He seemed warm and gentle, and said it’s time to talk about all those things they won’t let us talk about at the dinner table: sex, drugs, politics and religion. This film represents the first in hopefully a series that will cover all those topics, that are meant to spur respectful debate and hopefully understanding in a world of billions of very very different people. I want to stop him, since I’m so close sitting up front, and ask him if he would want to experience his movie this close to the screen. I feel like he’d understand. That he’s say, “No you’re right, movie theaters shouldn’t have seats this close and the only reason they do is so they can pack more people in for more money.” I want to say, “You wouldn’t view Seurat’s 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by sticking your nose up against the canvas.” And maybe we’d share a knowing laugh as he escorted me up to his seat in an act of kindness. But this isn’t what happened. He went on his way, and as the promo for the festival started to play I remained in my seat pressing my head as far back into the cushion as it could possibly go. As the film starts and things gets quiet I realize there’s a creaking sound coming above me. I look up and see one of the ceiling panels is broke and half missing and the sound is coming from a ventilation shaft, a metallic death rattle, that will play the whole length of the film.

For most of the movie I couldn't look directly at it. Unless the camera was still and the subject was still I watched it in my periphery or focused on the lower edges of the frame. An actor's stray finger would creep into the picture and then go away and I'd wonder if the other fingers were jealous that they didn't make it on screen or where even aware that they didn't. I felt bad for the other fingers. I also looked at my fellow movie goers in awe for their ability to watch unblinkingly and wondered if they're just used to it. Did they condition themselves by watching Transformers 4 like this? I also found I wasn’t alone; this one young lady next to me burrowed deeper and deeper into her seat trying to find the right position that would giver her maximum comfort given our situation. At one point she had found that sitting at an angle helped but it wasn’t until I shifted that she realized that her head was actually rested on my shoulder.

 I sat there challenging the film to make me forget how miserable it all was, and sometimes it succeeded, and I love it for that. You can read my review of it and the next movie I talk about here at Sound on Sight.

After the movie I retreated to the lobby and started reading a book, 'Little Star' by John Adjive Lindquist who wrote 'Let the Right One In', which played at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival in the After Dark series, a segment of the festival devoted to thrillers and horror films for the late night crowd. I happened to be waiting to see The Midnight After which was also in the After Dark Series. Just before we were let into the theater, I read about a page in which a character was obsessing over performing David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' for his class. Bowie strikes again.

For The Midnight After I chose a seat almost as far back as possible in an effort to decompress. The film was absurd and entertaining and I'm looking forward to watching more Fruit Chan. The strangest part, which I didn't reveal in my Sound on Sight review because I'd have to relay ALL of what you read here in order to get it, came when the characters were deciphering some Morse code from a mysterious and creepy phone call. The large text printed slowly on the screen:


I can't make this up. There was no chance in my stifling my guffaws at the madness of it Then a character explained to the others what the words meant and proceeded to let loose a rendition of Bowie's 'Space Oddity', a song that became the anthem of the film. Maybe I am going crazy.

After the film I went home, it was late, and thanks to the Blue Line California stop being out of commission I walked a lot. During the walk I thought about how I wanted to write about all of this. This whole experience, the David Bowie stuff, the feeling of sitting so close to the screen, and my growing discomfort with being an officially official press person and not really knowing what the hell that even means. But I remembered that in an email my very cool editor Ricky, also a Bowie fan, made a point of saying no one cares about the details of your evening. Stick to the review of the movie, which I get, it's a site(a pretty good one, but maybe I'm biased) where people go to read about movies whether it's worth waiting in a Rush Ticket Line so they can pay 10 dollars cash to sit in the front row and be devoured by a film. Not a site where you read about the human beings that review movies. 

Hey, I wasn't fiddling with my press badge any more.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thoughts on A Star is Born (Cukor, 1954)

Movies can both be enjoyable despite having a problematic message, A Star is Born being a great example. A tragic story of two lovers in Hollywood coping with success and failure carried by intensely personal performances by James Mason and Judy Garland. Judy Garland has a moment where she opens up to Charles Bickford's Oliver Niles about her relationship to alcoholic Norman Maine, and the mask of her character Esther Blodgett falls away, followed by the mask of Judy Garland the superstar, leaving us with a woman confronting her own faults and self-loathing. It becomes a difficult scene to watch as she tries to stifle her cries so people outside her dressing room can't hear her, but they bubble up in little choked whines - the door to that place down deep has been opened and we're witnessing her struggle to close it. Watching Garland and James Mason go back and forth in their symbiosis of self-pity and emotional support can get exhausting over the film's 3 hours, but you can't charge their relationship with being false. You see how they've become tangled up in each other's insecurities and selfishness - a toxic mix that can't end any other way than disastrous.

James Mason’s character seems unable to cope with not only being unemployed but that his wife is now the bread-winner for the family. His male pride is crushed when a postman refers to him as Mr. Vicki Lester, a moment that begins his push to even lower lows - like interrupting an Oscar telecast begging for a job. When he overhears Judy Garland tell Oliver Niles that she is willing to give up everything to save him, he neither accepts this selfless act nor does he become inspired to overcome his demons in order repay his wife for seemingly endless patience and caring. Instead he settles on a third option, rejecting her love by killing himself so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of getting clean - a scenario in which James Mason’s  Norman Maine can take center stage and overshadow his talented wife. Vicki Lester is told she must go on for Norman Maine, or else it’ll be like he never existed - that it is her duty to keep his immortal flame alight - a notion that sounds like the exact opposite of what he probably intended when he stepped into that ocean for the last time. In Vicki’s first public appearance since the funeral she introduces herself not as Vicki Lester but as Mrs. Norman Maine. Everyone applauds, dry eyes are nary to be seen, but the real tragedy is that she’ll never be free and that everything she is has been projected on to her by the men in her life. Her stage name given to her by the studio, her appearances dictated by what they believe is attractive, and now she serves the role they want her to - dutiful widow. Weep, but weep for Esther Blodgett - wherever she’s gone.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Gravity: Transhumanism, Rebirth, & Louis C.K.

There's some "spoilers" here. So if you haven't seen Gravity and you absolutely do not want to know if they make it or not, don't read. 

It's all empowering and humbling at once. Through Alfonso Cuarón's lens we see the human body both as a giant structure eclipsing planets and stars, and as a delicate speck lost in the infinite dark of space. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain(2006), Gravity has a similar reverence for human life and everything that entails - happiness, pain, loss, banality, fear, love, etc. In Aronofsky’s underappreciated masterpiece, he is all inclusive when it comes to faiths and ideologies, giving equal footing to science and religion, as he shows man’s struggle with accepting his ultimate fate: death. Cuarón takes this same approach in Gravity, though instead of uniting characters through death, he unites them through the vitality of their humanity. The characters of Matt Kowalski(George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock) are American, but they rely on both the technology of the Russians and Chinese to survive. Dr. Stone only barely struggles to operate the different control panels, despite linguistic barriers the guts are all essentially the same. This story could have just as easily been about a person of any nationality, and the struggles and successes would have had synonymous meaning. When it comes to human bodies the guts are also all the same, as is the will to survive and stand victorious.

Gravity poses as a creation myth that unites science and religion. However this myth is not about the birth of the original man, but of a new postmodern man. Stone and Kowalski fly in the heavens, angels who make sure our satellites give us internet and GPS coordinates and images of possible locations for suspected terrorists. In order for Dr. Stone to return to earth, she must go through a process of rebirth, a transformation in which she let's go of her suffering - specifically the mourning of her daughter, who tragically passed while playing tag. Stone’s journey of reincarnation through release of suffering and her own religious beliefs of an afterlife and heaven combine both western and eastern religions. Under the jovial eyes of a smiling Buddha, she makes her fiery return to earth and is symbolically reborn in the water, mimicking the steps of evolution by swimming, crawling and then triumphantly walking on the land. Stone’s ascension to Earth is where she transcends her character of the grieving mother and scared doctor, and now becomes a symbol - an icon of humanity. The camera frames her in these first steps, perhaps the first steps she’s made the entire film, as a titan - made powerful by the knowledge of her own mortality and her spiritual strength that allowed her to persist against all odds..

However, this messy and at times violent rebirth, is not a pure product of her will power alone - Stone is aided in her journey by the technology around her. Machines give her the power to breath in space and eventually reenter the planet's atmosphere, but all of these contraptions seem more delicate than the human bodies they’re meant to protect. While their importance is noted, they ultimately seem trivial compared to the power of the human spirit. Metal structures are shredded throughout the film and their debris will eventually burn up in the mesosphere, while Stone and Kowalski pingpong off of walls and obstacles mostly unscathed. There are deaths of course, to remind us that human beings are still more than capable of dying. Gravity tries to balance its reverence for the body by both acknowledging the power of humanity and its fragility. We have the ingenuity to explore the cosmos but can just as easily die in ways both spectacular (space debris to the face) and banal (falling down while playing tag).

On first look, Gravity’s philosophy looks like an alternative to transhumanism, which deals with the merging of human biology with technology to enhance our limited capabilities. Ray Kurzweil, who wrote a fascinating book called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explains that, with some key scientific breakthroughs, we could use our brain to access the cloud, a universal cache of knowledge and human experience, and download the information we need as we need it by only thinking about it. Google Glass, a smartphone in the form of eye-wear, feels like another step towards this integration of cloud data and our mind. The dream is that these enhancements could push the boundaries of human capabilities, limited only by imagination. However, this possible amalgamation of human and technology seems unnecessary, when the majority of us only use the gadgets we have now for the mundane task of searching IMDB for that actor we saw in that thing that one time.

This use of valuable technology for triviality is brought up when the satellites are being destroyed, with Kowalsky quipping that a portion of America “just lost their Facebook.” The social network site is treated here with irreverence, but its importance in people’s day to day lives is also acknowledged. One wonders how many people would be more worried about Facebook being restored than the handful of people floating in space making sure their lives are comfortable. These platforms of communication are indeed helpful, one can look at the social network’s role in the Arab Spring as a reference, yet one can’t say that Twitter or Facebook are truly hitting their full potential on a consistent basis. Our technology, meant to push the limits of human power, instead serve as a distraction from our own problems. When asked what she does to unwind back home, Dr. Stone tells Kowalsky that she drives and listens to the radio - a ritual of escapism to avoid the pain of losing her child. For her, like many people in the world, our gadgets are used to avoid the difficulties of reality - to cloud our mind and keep us from necessary introspection. If this is what we use technology for now, how excited should we be about integrating it into our biology? Comedian Louis C.K. actually did a bit on Conan O’Brien’s talk show about how we use technology to avoid our deeper feelings, thus keeping us from truly experiencing sorrow and potentially real joy. His story of sitting in a car weeping, and eventually being filled with bliss actually mirrors Dr. Stone’s growth in Gravity. You can watch it here:

Cuarón doesn’t merely want to do away with our technology and gadgets, instead he values the it as a tool for survival: the suits provide safety from space, the stations provide air, the radios provide communication and at one point comfort. But when Stone finally crashes back in the water surrounded by lush green environment, she sheds her mechanical placenta to show us that technology is ultimately disposable. Rather than pushing for the transhumanist fusion of man and machine, Cuarón’s Gravity wants the body to stand alone - an existential marvel to be celebrated for its design, both perfect and imperfect. Whether this body was created by divine hand or evolution, with the aid of technology or not, is irrelevant. All that matters is that it exists and that it endures.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on Gods of the Plague (Fassbinder, 1970)

In Gods of the Plague,  Fassbinder is aesthetically and structurally working from Godard's noir deconstructions(Band of Outsiders, Breathless) - a copy of a copy but still unique and personal, perhaps a mutation of a mutation would be more apt. The plot isn't particularly important and Fassbinder freely stops the the story dead in its tracks to wallow in melancholy. One break takes place when Franz listen's to a children's record, the rhymes are silly and meaningless, but there's a longing for the naivety of youth - when all you had to worry about was what sound the cows make. These deviations from plot and story accentuate a feeling of meaninglessness - that progression is useless and will only end in suffering or death, which in film noir is always the case.

Here the light draws attention to the door, in which someone will, of course, walk through momentarily.  By using the light in such an obvious way, Fassbinder is reminding you that this is a movie. It's a Brechtian technique to keep you engaged with the message of the story rather than using the film as an escapism.
Film noir lighting is generally high contrast to accentuate the inky black shadows, for Gods of the Plague the lighting is at times more extreme stark and overblown and with its own agenda. It encircles the characters, isolating them further within the frame and from each other. Like a prison spot light searching for escaped convicts, it leaves no place to hide, while also serving as an extension of the camera probing and violating the depths of the characters - what it reveals is the frustrated malaise of the oppressed. This theme of oppression is set up at the start - the first moment of the film is a close up of a sign to a penitentiary. We can hear a gate open and close before Franz walks into the frame, and the camera tracks him as he moves along the prison walls. We never saw Franz go into prison, and we never saw him actually come out. Moments later when asked what it was like on the inside, Franz responds "It's not much different than out here." This remark is the verbal punctuation to the visual statement made in the opening: if we didn't really see the inside of the prison or Franz's exit, then we're left with the feeling that Franz has really been set free and he confirms this feeling with his attitude and dialogue.

American noir from the 40's and 50's is seen as a existential conflict with post-war and post-Depression ideologies. Characters are trying to take a short cut to prosperity promised after sacrifices made abroad, knowing that the old fashioned way of working hard up the ladder is a pipe dream sold to suckers. However they know that their business is high risk and high reward, and this desperate drive in the face of mortality is the dark matter that holds the genre together. Taking this art form of American disenfranchisement and transplanting it in 1970 Germany means one has to take a moment to understand this new context from which the film is created. Based on the film alone, there is a clear ideological conflict in regards to capitalism and sexuality. Character's are open with their bodies and orientation. Franz has both female(Margarethe) and male(Gorilla) lovers, and they would rather do nothing else than just share each other all day, especially if the alternative is working. When Margarethe suggests she prostitute her body to support their lifestyle, Franz reacts violently. The motivation doesn't seem to come from misogyny but disgust at the idea that she would take her body, the only thing a person will always have direct power over, and pervert it with capitalist endeavors. This link between capitalism and sexuality is further defined by the smut peddler, who sells pornographic magazines. In the scene in which the following still is taken from, she sits at a table with Joanna and a corrupt cop, and tells them that her new black market merchandise has exciting "new positions" to stimulate. The shots of the magazine are graphic, depicting fellatio and vaginal intercourse, but the characters regard them with indifference. Selling sex strips it of its passion, making it a sterile transaction, while at the same time the ban on these materials perverts natural human act, not to be enjoyed. Intercourse rarely seems to bring any type of pleasure. Franz is undressed by his lover but his mind is elsewhere - the weight of the future is crushing him. 

For more context to aid in understanding this ideological conflict, one should read this highly informative thesis "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: A Comparative Study Between West Germany and the United States" by Patricia Sannie Lee. She explains that during the reconstruction the Allied forces utilized the Church to "...reestablish 'normality' and 'decency'". Under this mandate, Christian conservatism won out over Christian progressives, putting an emphasis, much like in the United States, on getting the woman back in the home to focus on being a mother, wife and cook, and restoring the familial unit. Sexual education disappeared or, at the very least, severely limited by parents for fear that instruction would be mistaken as promotion, and pre-marital sex and promiscuity were considered detrimental to the rebuilding process. By the 1960's the post-war generation was fed up. There was a sexual revolution, not only in Germany but across the globe, with women particularly taking more control over their bodies, and with a general acceptance of humanity's sexual nature. In addition to the war over the body, there was also the German student movement of 1968 which protested Western imperialism, and rallied behind socialist ideologies. This movement also called for a more introspective focus on Germany's fascist history, specifically during the Third Reich, which lead the country to be divided by the Allied powers. The recognition of the fascist "sins of the father" hadn't truly been dealt with up until that point - only ignored and repressed. Gods of the Plague is born of this national discontent and and is pessimistic about the struggle.

The commercialism of sex looms over the bedroom.

Who the "Gods of the Plague" are isn't exactly clear, at least not at first. The Greek god Apollo, who presided over truth, healing, poetry and music, among other thing, was also known as the god of the plague. Perhaps Fassbinder looks at the social revolution as a plague, not out of disagreement with the ideas, but because of the difficulty that comes with shouldering the responsibilities of healing a country and being more socially conscious. In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Apollo is the one who, via an Oracle, gives Orestes the order to avenge his father's murder by killing his mother and her lover. When Orestes is brought to trial by the Furies, Apollo defends him arguing that marriage is a sacred bond that needed to be preserved, and from this perspective the "gods" in question are perhaps the people who enforced the oppressive conservative values in the first place. Despite the sense of defeat and hopelessness in Fassbinder's characters, this doesn't mean that Gods of the Plague sees the fight against social oppression as a pointless struggle, it clearly recognizes this ideological battle as urgent and necessary - it just doesn't know what to do about it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


In this scene, Sanshiro Sugata, a feared judo-ka who earned his reputation after inadvertently killing his opponent, learns that the young woman he has been visiting, Sayo Murai, is the daughter of his next opponent. Their relationship began after Sanshiro admired her praying for her father.

The following two shots are Sanshiro realizing that Sayo's father is Hansuke Murai, his next opponent. Kurosawa shoots Sanshiro from below, but contrasts his literal higher status with his low feelings. This image itself is contrasted again with Sayo, who is shot at a position lower to Sanshiro, but her feelings are considerably more positive.

Kurosawa then re-frames the characters inside an archway. This creates a box that both characters are trapped in.

Sanshiro, uncomfortable and afraid, attempts to leave this "box" but despite moving further down the stairs is unable to escape it.

After a moment of contemplation, Sanshiro returns up the stairs and informs Sayo that he is the man her father will face at the judo match.

Their positions have not changed, but Kurosawa doesn't film them at as steep an angle as before. The camera seems more level to both. Sayo's joy turns to horror, and Sanshiro begins dealing with his responsibility as a fighter and as a human. They're complicated emotions that can't just be implied by obvious camera angles, Kurosawa lets the actors do the work instead.

We now cut back to a similar shot looking down the stairs, but this time the camera is placed in front of the door frame. Sanshiro is now "free" to move down the path. The camera is also placed in front of Sayo, perhaps it is her point of view, but this also keeps the two characters separated now that Sanshiro has revealed his identity.

This next shot shows Sayo caught in the middle of the stairs, unsure of to go up or down. Above her is the shrine where she prayed, and thus represents her father. Below, of course represents Sanshiro Sugata, the man she is attracted to but also the man who may seriously injure her father.

Kurosawa cuts again to a more distant shot, the stairs seem to extend even further from her on either side. This fully illustrates how lost and alone she feels at this moment. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Thoughts on Maniac(Khalfoun, 2012)

The main gimmick in Maniac (Khalfoun, 2012) is that, with the exception of some fantasies, it’s all filmed from the killer's point of view. Your perspective of the film is shaped purely by the antagonist vision of the events. In this respect, it's like the anti-found-footage movie. The tension in found-footage films like Atrocious (Luna, 2010) or [REC] (Balagueró; Plaza, 2007)  works because of what you don't know and can't see. You only get as much information as the person, usually the protagonist, holding the camera. By isolating your perspective in this way, these films effectively simulate the feeling of being stalked or terrorized, becoming a virtual reality for people who like being scared. With Maniac, Khalfoun switches perspectives to the villain, and the antagonist’s view in horror films is generally more omniscient. Think of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers, who seem to always know where you are and can be behind whatever corner you’re going to turn. Frank (Elijah Wood), the killer in Maniac, is just like them, able to hide in the shadows and see everything you're doing without you knowing it.  As an audience member, who surely doesn’t want to play the role of the bad guy,  this means you have to fight against the forced perspective and attempt to identify with the victim in the distance, but it’s too difficult - they’re too distant and for the most part you don’t know anything about them other than they’re not going to make it. There is a strange feeling of guilt, having to lurk around with Frank, and stand idly by while he hacks and scalps. It doesn't really make for good tension, but it does make for an interesting, albeit dirty, experience.
The film often displays characteristics of POV Porn, where a character gets to know a girl in a fantastical situation, like picking up a hitchhiker in your bus and she just so happens to be willing to have sex with them. Maniac has this in certain situation, like the dancer on the train station which just so happens to be completely devoid of anyone who can catch them in the act. But in Maniac, sex is rejected for violence, and because of our brain’s inclination to empathically take on the first person perspective as our own, this causes us to experience something we wouldn’t really want to experience. It’s reminiscent of video games, in which you control characters that are expected to kill or destroy in order to progress the story. If you want to see how the movie ends, you have to stick with Frank the whole way. However these games, in which you assume a virtual reality as your own, are generally considered to be enjoyable, while the experience in Maniac is unsettling and uncomfortable. This is most likely because of the very real human beings conveying suffering as opposed to pixelated avatars that no one feels bad for when they bleed out. Unless their name is Aeris.
Additionally there's an aspect of misogyny that can't be avoided, but because it's so intentional it becomes more interesting than your garden variety macho bullshit. Frank desires an idealized version of women, not wanting to take in any particular flaws that would actually make them human beings. Take the girl he meets over the internet for example. She is not virginal or angelic, but a rebel and very forward sexually. This give her power and independence that unsettles Frank, even though she hasn’t exhibited any truly negative behavior. Even though she questions his masculinity when he becomes uncomfortable about the idea of sleeping with her, she also subjugates herself to him by performing oral sex. Her character has a balance of independence and submissiveness, but Frank is upset by her nature and decides to kill her. Since this is the perspective of a villain it's okay, but the film takes it further by adding a cliche backstory involving his mother, who was a bad mom doing drugs and banging dudes in front of her son. The women Frank desires are meant to fill a void left by his mother. They need to be the opposite of her, taking on qualities that he feels best represents a good mother. This backstory attempts to create sympathy for the villain by saying he's a product of nurture and puts blame on the female character for not being a good mother. She created the beast, and he's now wreaking havoc on women everywhere. Thanks mom.
Another cliche is then added: The Shitty Boyfriend. Take The Wedding Singer (Coraci, 1998) as an example. Robbie (Adam Sandler) falls in love with Julia (Drew Barrymore) but Julia is engaged. The good news is that Julia's fiance is a complete dick bag. He's so awful that you can't fathom why someone perfect like Julia, who is funny, smart and cute, would be with a callous, materialistic, douche. The Shitty Boyfriend disposes of any ambiguity regarding the protagonist's quest to obtain his heart's desire, even when she's given herself to another - so we have no other choice than to root for Robbie, or whatever underdog in a similar situation, to succeed. She deserves better! This character somehow finds its way into Maniac. Anna (Nora Arnezeder) is not unlike Julia from The Wedding Singer. She's cute, smart, and appreciative of art. Frank isn't unlike Robbie, socially awkward with anger issues. Jason, Anna's boyfriend is the belligerent alpha male, assuming Frank is gay and marking his territory by wiping his hands on Frank's jacket after using the bathroom. Exposure to countless stories have given us a Pavlovian response to the Shitty Boyfriend, and Maniac uses that, much like The Shitty Mom, to garner more sympathy for someone whose actions should render him completely unsympathetic.
There’s a strange false catharsis at the end of Maniac. Frank seemingly has everything he think he wants, Anna is added as the crown jewel of his collection, but succumbs to the wounds sustained from their earlier confrontation. As he dies he imagines the women he’s killed tearing him apart and eating him alive. This moment, in which we can witness all the victims getting a gruesome revenge on their killer, while visually engaging, doesn’t feel like a denouement meant to purge all those icky feelings we’ve had to deal with the whole film. Maybe we’re supposed to get some solace in knowing that Frank still didn’t get what he wanted, but at what cost? Frank getting ripped apart was merely a fantasy, the victims didn’t really get any revenge - they died horrible and sad deaths. And because we’d developed some kind sympathetic relationship with the character, it comes off more like a release for Frank - who no longer has to suffer and create suffering.

In many films from the “extreme horror” niche, to which this film’s writer/producer Alexandre Aja helped pioneer with Haute Tension(Aja, 2003), there is almost always a lack of catharsis for the audience. It’s a classification of horror films characterized by nihilism, seeing the worst in human nature, while victims are reduced to carved meat.The characters will undoubtedly die in a cruel way, and usually the villains will walk away, leaving little hope to hang on to for the viewer. And what could be scarier than hopelessness? At their worst, these types of films are two dimensional gore fests in which the audience stands by waiting for the villains to just end the pain so we won’t feel bad anymore. The best of these, Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), leaves the audience with questions about the film’s purpose and what the big idea is with watching all this suffering.  Maniac isn’t as interesting as Martyrs but it feels closer to that direction, philosophically, than other films of this ilk. We’re left with conflicting feelings about compassion for horrible people, but because of the cliche and simplistic methods used to create these feelings, it doesn’t explore the themes as effectively as it could. However, the ideas are there and interesting enough to discuss, which is probably more important than any quality issues.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About The Blob (Yeaworth Jr., 1958)

It's kind of sad that Steve McQueen doesn't look nearly as engaged or interested in this film as I am. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe his attitude, in contrast to the fun and earnestness in which the other actor's play their parts, further defines the campy strengths. You can see in his eyes that he'd rather be anywhere else. When he overacts it's fueled by exasperation that these are the lines he's been given in his first starring role in film. You probably wouldn't blame him. Before all this he'd been a Marine, a motorcycle racer, and a student of the Sanford Meisner method of acting. And now at 28 years old the future "King of Cool" was playing a pretty tame teenager who doesn't care to race cars and doesn't make the moves on the girl. He's probably right. He's much too cool for this type of film. No matter. The Blob eats his condescension and only grows stronger.

The Blob feels like it took its cue from other teen exploitation movies of the era. Films like High School Confidential (Arnold, 1958) and Untamed Youth (Koch, 1957), that propagated fears that the nation's youth were out of control and needed the reinforcement of good ol' American Values to set them straight. At the same time these pictures were cashing in on those teens who showed up to the drive-ins to watch rambunctious rabble-rousers raise hell and race hot-rods. But Steve McQueen's character isn't much of a rebel and neither are the other teens, who'd really rather just hang out and watch spooky movies. The teens in The Blob do run into the same problems as the ones in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955), another film originally meant to exploit the fears of juvenile delinquency (though director Nicholas Ray decided he was firmly on the side of the kids, setting it apart from all the others). Just as James Dean fails to communicate with his elders about what's going on in his life as it spins out of control, Steve McQueen and company are unable to convince prejudiced adults that there's a monster on the loose about to ravage the whole town. An adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he feels lost - an adolescent experiencing the pain of being misunderstood because he's talking about a red mass that grows larger as it absorbs people and cannot be easily stopped. Same difference, you see.

The threat of the red menace is always present in the film. The color palette is mostly blue hues, with some earth tone exceptions inside a couple of homes. But in nearly every shot there's something or someone bright red to reminds us the creature could be anywhere.
In the following shot we see Mooch's red shirt and Nick's red car lurking behind the blues of Steve's car. When Steve races the car backwards it leads to him being reprimanded by Lieutenant Dave. It's this initial mistake by Steve that create seeds of doubt for the police officer of the film. They think he's just another delinquent trying to get a rise out of them for kicks.

Here we have Mrs. Porter, dressed in red. Her character enters the crime scene and explains with certainty that Dr. Hallern is off to a convention. No matter what Steve says, she has an alternate explanation as to where Hallern is and how he's getting there.

Here Nick and his date are trying to explain to a group of adults that there's a monster on the loose, but the party goers are too inebriated to pay him much attention. The red lantern, hanging over the heads of all the party goers, both signifies the threat of the Blob and represents the obstacle keeping the kids from being understood - the party itself.

It's hard not to look at the Blob as a metaphor for the threat of communism, especially given the time and place, and of course the big red creature that's threatening to absorb everyone you know and love. As the threat of the Blob becomes obvious to everyone in town, all characters young and old unite to fight against it. The cure for juvenile delinquency and the age gap is something to fight against, and what better enemy than the communist threat of Russia.

The final battle between the town and the Blob is reminiscent of Godzilla (Honda, 1954). When guns fail the small town police, they shoot down a power line in an attempt to electrocute the red mass, and, much like the electric fence failed to stop Godzilla in Japan, The Blob continued its reign of terror. Only through dumb luck does Steve realize that the only way to combat the extraterrestrial threat is freezing it, thus waging a "cold war" to stop the monster. But you can never kill it, you can only contain it. Before the military drops the creature off in the arctic, far outside our borders, Steve tells us that as long as it stays cold, we'll be safe - a line that Al Gore would surely shake his head at now. The insinuation is that this threat will always be out there and that our fight against it will be indefinite, a philosophy that has fueled our military industrial complex ever since. This is a stark contrast to Godzilla (Honda, 1954). In that film, a Japanese scientist invents the ultimate weapon - the Oxygen Destroyer - that only he knows how to create. When the weapon is detonated the scientist sacrifices himself so that the secrets of the weapon will be forever lost - a gesture meant to convey that wars and arms races will end in tragedy and must cease. It's inconsequential whether these messages were intended by the director or writer of The Blob. Viewing the film within the context of history makes it difficult to avoid such readings.

Despite my, admittedly indulgent, negative interpretation of The Blob's "message", I still enjoy the film. It still feels innocent and unaware of its influences - a film that's just wanting to have a good time, yet still a product of a nation's misguided fear of anything outside its borders. I blame nurture over nature. The joy in The Blob comes from its pride in just being a film. It displays reverence for the art form. When Steve asks his friends to walk out of a scary movie they look at him incredulously "Get up? In the middle of a movie?" And it's not until the Blob attacks the sanctity of the cinema that the townspeople realize how much trouble they're in. The theater is still regarded as a sacred safe zone today. It's within its walls that we can experience anything and everything with complete freedom. The pain of loss in Amour (Haneke, 2012), the thrill of adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), the fear of an unstoppable red mass that absorbs everything in its path. And we can do it, (and this is the sexy part) with a room full of other people doing it at the same time. When those sheltered boundaries are breached, as they were in Aurora, Colorado where a young man fired on an innocent film audience, it is most disturbing.

Maybe what I love the most about The Blob is that, despite the camp and kitsch, it still manages a reaction deeper than it probably intended. The best films are the ones that help us communicate with each other, and while The Blob may not be what many consider "high art", it certainly facilitates a conversation or two. And in the technology age, which sometimes feels like the age of isolation, in which we hide behind smart phones, earbuds, and a host of other borders, a little conversation sounds like a great idea.