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.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FROM CIFF 2013: BLUEBIRD (Edmands, 2013)

The opening moments of Bluebird let you know everything that’s coming. In the snowy Maine forests, we observe machines methodically cutting down trees, sawing them down to manageable sizes before grinding them down to pulp. The detached, observant camera will work the same way, slowly chiseling down the characters until we get to the guts of them.  But through it we’ll learn, just as they’ll learn, that they’re lonely isolated people, surrounding themselves with glass and metal to protect themselves from the harshness of the environment and, more tragically, each other.

The interconnection between man, nature and industry runs throughout the film. The title Bluebird  could refer to a couple of things. The inciting incident of the film that pushes all the characters awkwardly together happens because Lesley was distracted by a bluebird that flew on to her bus. The presence of the bird is unsettling - it’s the middle of winter in Maine and all the birds should be on vacation down south. Perhaps this bird was left behind by its family connecting it to Owen, who will be left on a bus by himself over night. Or the title could be referring to the Bluebird Corporation who manufacture and sell the buses that our school children ride on everyday. When asked about the title during a Q&A, writer/director Lance Edmands said he had the title before there was even a Bluebird, but didn’t expound on where exactly it came from in the first place. Perhaps he is imitating his own art, unaware of the connections he makes to his own film just as the characters in the film are oblivious to their commonality.

In some ways Bluebird is reminiscent to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films(who’s next film, coincidentally, is called Birdman), with characters playing out their own personal dramas, but in many cases not knowing how they relate to one another, or what part they play in a certain chain of events that ties them together. In Iñárritu’s Babel, you have a Japanese man who gifted a gun that shot the tourists, whose children are being watched by the Mexican nanny, who is also an illegal immigrant and gets deported - and maybe none of the events happen without the first man gifting the gun. An illustration of how much a small action can affect people you may never know. Bluebird’s connections are more trivial, but possibly more personal. For example Lesley’s daughter, Paula, winds up a dozen or so snow globes as she stocks them in the clearance aisle at her work. Later Marla would come and buy one of those same snow globes as a gift for her ailing son. In another moment Marla, high on drugs, falls asleep in her bathtub. She awakes in the freezing water to the news that her son was left in a bus last night and he now suffers from hypothermia. The principle thread that connects Lesley and Marla, forgetting Owen on the bus, is presented not so the film can spend its duration finding someone to blame - they both share responsibility - but in showing the difficulty human beings have dealing with these burdens.

This self-conflict feels like the film’s preoccupation. The dialogue is short and terse and feels like pulling teeth from a jaw wired shut for years. And the few emotional outbursts between characters, though usually out of anger, feel cathartic because they’re finally letting themselves be affected or to affect others. These are people who know something is wrong but don’t even know what it is, clumsily fumbling around obstacles, unable to help each other because they’re busy with their own personal conflict. Lesley’s refrain of “I’m fine” is just as ironic as Marla’s confession “I just want to be like a real human being.” Lesley isn’t fine and Marla is a real human being, it’s just that being a human sucks sometimes.

After the Q&A with Edmands, those of us who stuck around slowly shuffled out of the theater and I overheard a woman ahead of me:  “Well, I still don’t like the ending,” she said to her friend. Still. It sounded as though she were defending her sensibilities despite the director coming off as a nice guy. Before the movie had started Edmands told us we’d have questions and he’d try his best answer them. I think the film answered enough. Most questions people will have when the credits roll will be inconsequential. Does the boy survive? Does the marriage work out? Does Marla drop the lawsuit? Depending on your disposition you could answer these any way you want, there’s no wrong answer here. And while these questions may frustrate viewers, it seemed clear that this film was never about resolution. It’s about acknowledging that you have a problem, not how they get fixed. We’ve seen enough of those films, we know how they end. But by putting the focus on the internal conflict of recognizing your own faults and allowing others to see them too, Edmands is able to mine some interesting, beautiful, human moments that would possibly get lost in other movies trying to fit in all that tedious resolution. So what if they live happily ever after, just as long as they live.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lights and The Color Red in The Lords of Salem (2012)

In The Lords of Salem, Zombie uses practical lighting to create a supernatural feeling in simple shots. Through out the film there are multiple lamps in nearly every shot, and all of them have a blown out effect, contrasting their brightness with the dreariness of the scenery. The lights symbolize a the supernatural, surrounding all the characters through out the film. In this shot of the hallway the furthest light swings from side to side inexplicably, further illustrating the lights as a key component to the supernatural world.

In these two shots, Zombie uses the lights to connect the characters of Lacy Doyle(Judy Geeson) and Heidi(Sherri Moon-Zombie). Their relationship on the surface is that of landlady and tenant. When they go their separate ways, Lacy makes her way up the stairs surrounded by three lights.

Zombie cuts from this shot to the following of  Heidi walking outside, also surrounded by glowing lights. This visual queue shows that these characters will be more connected than their relationship would lead you to believe - which is bad news for Heidi.

Beyond the general practical lighting, Zombie also makes strong use of the color red to signify the fantastical. The first moment in which Heidi experiences something otherworldly is during her night with Whitey(Jeff Daniel Phillips). Here he's dancing to Venus in Furs by The Velvet Underground. Here we can see two practical lights that we perceive as giving off the primary light of the room. But we can see the ceiling lights in the background and a lamp on the far left that are shaded in red.

When they put on The Lords record, the white lights are seemingly overtaken by the red ones. Notice that the camera has now moved further down than in the previous shot and tilted upward - showing more of the red ceiling lights than before.

 The camera tracks from right to left, as Heidi moves further from Whitey. Eventually the red lamp eclipses the white bulb:

We then cut a close up of Heidi as she seemingly experiences a flashback involving the witches persecuted by Jonathan Hawthorne.
This use of red continues through out the film, like when Heidi first enters Apartment #5 the room is lit by a red cross.

After this Zombie becomes more somewhat more subversive with his use of red, as the superantual world bleeds into Heidi's normal life. For example, Megan(Patricia Quinn) , the most abrasive of witches has red hair.  In the scene where she dreams of being raped by the priest, the red returns as a part of the walls in the background and the drapes.

The red is also used when the Lacy, Megan and Sonny(Dee Wallace) reveal their true nature by killing Francis Matthias(Bruce Davison). When we were in Lacy's apartment previously, the color scheme was closer to green.

It's when Heidi eventually succumbs to her addiction she makes her way to her dealer, who has a bright red door. This moment is pivotal to the film because it's Heidi who is comes to the color, and it's after this moment, where she fully succumbs to the will of her tormentors.

The skulls on the door become her mask once she starts smoking heroin again and gives herself to Satan in Apartment #5.

This all leads to Heidi giving birth as the witches rub the blood from her womb all over her body. The color red has washed over her body and she realizes her destiny as the mother of Stan's child. Congratulations Heidi.