31 August 2009

TEN FOR MONDAY: MOMENTARY LAPSES OF REASON

Upon completing my Jane Campion retrospective, I declared her to be a rare example of a director with not a single bad film to her credit - running square against the conventional wisdom, but following my heart. As such things are wont to do, it got me thinking about all the other directors I love who weren't so rarefied in all their endeavors, and what their worst film was; enough to spur me into making a distinctly incomplete list of:

Ten Awful Films by Great Directors

Sanshiro Sugata II (Kurosawa Akira, 1945)
The first Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa's solo debut, was an incredibly mature piece of work, showcasing a young talent who seemed born to the cinema, telling the vaguely true story of a judo scholar's rise to self-knowledge. Two years and three films later, that popular success got a follow-up that has all the spark and flair of a drowned opossum. The explanation generally given is that the second film was commissioned as a flat-out propaganda piece, and Kurosawa found little delight in wasting his talents on such an exercise; but that doesn't save the film from itself. It's a slack, empty exercise in nothing much at all, not perhaps all that bad by the standards of every hack director who hacked out a hack sequel, but positively atrocious when stacked against virtually everything else in Kurosawa's uncommonly estimable canon.


Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968)
A film of such exquisite badness and immeasurable tackiness that some very smart people have argued - and not unpersuasively - that it's an early example of self-satirizing camp. That probably makes it more of a comfort - the idea that Groucho Marx's last appearance would be in something this wasteful is almost unbearable - but I remain wholly unconvinced. Even as satire, the image of 47-year-old Carol Channing stripping is the kind of thing that can't be defended on any aesthetic grounds. The simplest explanation is, I am afraid, the best: a bunch of talented old squares set out to make a wacky ensemble comedy about the counterculture, and with no idea what the fuck they were doing, turned out one of the most jaw-dropping misfires in history. Right down the the closing shots of Groucho, his trademark cigar transformed into a giant blunt.


Ryan's Daughter (David Lean, 1970)
It is alleged that Pauline Kael's attack on Lean's next epic romance after Doctor Zhivago was so fierce that it drove him into retirement; he'd pop back up only once more, to make A Passage to India in 1984. Which, honestly, if the intervening 14 years would have had more Ryan's Daughters for us, is probably the nicest thing he could possibly have done, and Kael's finest contribution to film art. It seems impossible that the man responsible for one of the cinema's greatest historical epics, Lawrence of Arabia, as well as one of the cinema's greatest romantic dramas, Brief Encounter, should be responsible for a historical epic romance of such monumentally stilted character; it takes the hints of stuffiness and preciousness that sometimes make Zhivago feel longer than it really is, and turns them into something all-out suffocating.


Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)
Something something hippies fighting corrupt railwaymen in the 1930s, and I assume it's symbolic of something, given that the final shot is of David Carradine posed in a reference to the crucifixion. Really, it's all just a muddle and frankly boring, and shows the filmmaker absolutely lost at sea in his ideas; and this from someone who liked New York, New York. You almost want to give him a pass, since it was his first professional feature; but he'd already made Who's That Knocking at My Door, proving that he wasn't just some dipshit kid. John Cassavetes had it right at the first screening: "You've just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit."


The Serpent's Egg (Ingmar Bergman 1977)
It's Weimar-era Berlin, and there are... proto-Nazis? I don't quite know what to call it. It's a warped attempt to do Cabaret with a quarter the snarky fun and ten times the hallucinogenic imagery. As Bergman's only film in English, the tortured dialogue can be explained away, if not forgiven; but the widespread, massive disconnect between the borderline-exploitative subject matter and Bergman's trademark, glacially stern aesthetic could not possibly be a more damaging mismatch of content and style. And the ordinarily luminous Liv Ullmann is wasted on an unfamiliar language and caked in hideous makeup throughout. When I first saw this, years ago, I wouldn't have assumed I could find a Bergman film so miserable, and I still don't understand how it was possible that this was produced.


1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)
Spielberg being Spielberg, even this wreck of a zany comedy has its defenders; and there's something of a consensus that bits and pieces work: Robert Stack's Dumbo scene, Slim Pickens, John William's over-the-top patriotic main theme. I'll spot the Williams tune - it's one of his all-time best - but everything else is so much sound and fury. It is a truism in bad movie fandom that nothing is more unpleasant than a bad comedy, since by definition you can't laugh at it; and 1941 is one hell of a bad comedy. The only upside is that young Steven learned an important lesson in respecting one's limitations, and hasn't made a straight-up comedy ever since.

Qunitet (Robert Altman, 1979)
I can make this one really short: the narrative structure of the screenplay is borrowed from a virtually unknown mutant version of backgammon that Altman invented during his more... chemically-augmented phase. The fact that it's an incoherent grab-bag of every single idea in every science-fiction film of the 1970s is just the icing. Now, I haven't seen H.E.A.L.T.H., but if this one isn't Altman's worst, then his worst would probably leave me catatonic.


Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
Okay, this one was kind of like shooting fish that had been stapled to the bottom of a very tiny barrel. Dune is one of the famous cock-ups of the last thirty years of cinema, an adaptation of the massive, effectively unadaptable Frank Herbert doorstop made by David Lynch, the kind of director who we now know should never be given the keys to an expensive studio tentpole; the story goes that he only accepted the Dune job because Dino De Laurentiis promised him a free hand to make Blue Velvet in return. Lynch didn't exactly treat the property with indifference and scorn - there's a mad visionary quality to it that few other directors would have ever braved - and it certainly can't be written off by the serious Lynch scholar as disposable. But just about every moment of the film is thick with the sense of that something went very wrong, and what we're watching is the scraped-up remains of a movie that was too impossible to live in the wild.


September (Woody Allen, 1987)
Allen has wobbled from good films to awful so many times in his career that it hardly seems sporting to point out his worst; and yet, for all the Celebritys and Anything Elses and Shadows and Fogs in his spacious, skeleton-wracked closet, I for one have never doubted that his absolute nadir as an artist came when he put six wholly unlikable and uninteresting people in a country house for the weekend, and assumed that a Bergman-style chamber drama would result inevitably. It didn't. The film we have came about because after he shot it, he found that he couldn't do anything he liked with the footage, and so he re-wrote most of it and re-cast nearly every character. Meaning that there theoretically exists a worse version of September, the sort of soberng thought that should be greeted with the same serious respect as hearing a rattlesnake in the desert scrub.


The Ladykillers (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004)
We can at least rationalise away Intolerable Cruelty: they took over a film already in development and tried to punch it up with their usual traits, and the graft just didn't hold. No such excuses for that film's follow-up, a stony "comedy" that pisses over the good memory of a sparklingly black Ealing Studios picture starring Alec Guinness, and suggesting in no uncertain terms that the Brothers Coen were eager to win themselves some mainstream success in the most shameless, indecent manner. Thank God they've shaken that impulse. A pity it is, though, that this remorselessly grim farce wastes an absolutely magnificent Tom Hanks in a performance that, surrounded by a stronger script and better-managed cast, could have been one of the pinnacles of his career.

1939: A WHIZ OF A WIZ

The Wizard of Oz is a film that everybody has watched, nearly everybody has loved, and perhaps as a direct consequence, it's a film that nobody, I think has really seen. Certainly I hadn't; it's surely one of the five movies I've watched the most times,* but I'd never given all that much thought to actually thinking about how it works as a movie. That's to be expected with an iconic treasure of childhood; there's some notion that doing formal analysis on a movie robs it of its mystique, and while I think this idea is simply rubbish, there's no denying that for most of us, watching the film transports us mentally to being around six years old, and six-year-olds are not identified primarily for the rigor of their film-watching habits.

But ultimately it's a film like any other film; if it is magical, then that magic is the result of what a team of craftsmen and technicians put together on a set, not because Glinda the Good Witch appeared to Mervyn LeRoy in a dream and gave him the intuition how to put it together. So here's my fool's errand: pretend like I haven't seen the film dozens of times in the last twenty years, and treat it like I was coming to it blind; just another collection of still frames projected at a rate of 24 per second, and ripe for the same frank assessment of its aesthetic as anything else. It's the least respect that I can pay to the film and the filmmakers.

No plot synopsis here; I don't have the gall to assume that anybody out there hasn't seen the movie before. But if through some incredible chance you haven't, all I can say is: do so immediately. Make this the very next movie you watch. Literally, unless you're reading this right before going out to the theater. Put it at the top of your Netflix queue, borrow it from a friend. It's not the best film ever made, but nobody's knowledge of film history is even plausibly complete without it.

There's a convoluted bit of history involved that many of us already know, but forgive me: Louis B. Mayer wanted a musical fantasy of his own to get back at that Walt Disney fella, and since MGM had the rights to all of L. Frank Baum's Oz stories, that made for an obvious choice. After a number of false starts on the screenplay, cast changes, and even a handful of directors, Victor Fleming was handed the reigns, and he shot all of the color footage before being called away to serve as yet another new director on the benighted Gone with the Wind. The remainder of the script - the opening and closing sequences in Kansas - was handled by King Vidor, once a great silent director whose career started stumbling artistically in the 1930s and went more or less to hell after The Wizard of Oz. That said, he was in his best form here, shooting the soundstage version of the Midwestern prairies with the same affection for the farming life that informed his last great work, 1934's Our Daily Bread.

All this is another way of saying that the sequence which opens The Wizard of Oz was filmed very near the end of its production, and Vidor took advantage of that by setting up in the first shot a visual motif that would be repeated throughout: a road stretching out into the distance, with a character walking away from us towards the horizon:

We'll see variations on this image over and over again throughout the movie, especially in its first hour:



And nearly every one of those shots is paired with its exact opposite: the characters facing the camera, walking towards it.

These shots tell the other half of the story: to go someplace new, you have to come from someplace old, and by always setting the two points of view in opposition, the film is cautioning us to always remember where we came from. Tellingly, the only exception to this rule of pairs is the very opening shot, in which Dorothy is traveling back home; even there, she turns briefly to watch for Toto, and thus faces the camera for a moment.

This is the visual representation of the duality that defines The Wizard of Oz: the desire to be someplace else, but the recognition that at the end of the day, there's no place like home. At first, mirroring Dorothy's journey, the desire to find someplace new is dominant: it's the same urge that underpins the justly-beautiful "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", the song that encapsulates the movie for so many viewers. Over the rainbow, beyond the horizon, anywhere else but here: the primacy of the shots of the road stress over and over again that whatever is coming up is something you really want to find, and the beauty of the song (often cited as the best ever written for the screen - debatable, but there's a lot of truth to it) only adds to that feeling.

Of course, the Kansas sequences - by far the most accomplished in the film from a directorial standpoint - do make that farm seem like quite a beautiful place to be. Vidor's camera - I'm sure that cinematographer Harold Rosson had something to do with it, but it really does just reek of Vidor - frames the quaintly run-down sets with the greatest of care, and that sepia-tone monochrome gives the whole thing a rich, inviting quality.

Besides that, there's the film's transition of colors: at the beginning, when Oz is a marvelous new place, everything is bright and beautiful. But the further along we go, the more color is leached out (the Emerald City may be lovely, but it's so oppressively green!), culminating in the dark, unpleasant forest and castle where the Wicked Witch of the West makes her home. By this point, everything visually appealing about Oz has been stripped away: the yellow brick road replaced by omnipresent greys. Over the course of the film, Dorothy realises that she wants to go back to her farm, and the gradual degradation of the color palette follows her arc.

Ah, color! the most important, influential, recognisable element of The Wizard of Oz. Three-strip Technicolor was a new technology in 1939, but not absolutely brand spanking new: it was first use in a feature in 1935's Becky Sharp, a film with very little else to recommend it. By 1939, there had already been at least two truly great films that made excellent use of the splashy excess of the process - Disney's animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released at the tail end of 1937, and Warner's The Adventures of Robin Hood, from the summer of 1938 - but I'd wager that it was with The Wizard of Oz that we had our first outright color masterpiece; that is, a film that doesn't just use color as a snazzy gimmick, but as a storytelling element in it's own right. Not that the gimmickry isn't there, and still damn snazzy 70 years on: the shot where Dorothy walks out of her sepia colored house into the rich, garish colors of Oz is a magnificent bit of sleight-of-hand involving an double in a miscolored dress, and the transition is still enough to amaze all but the crabbiest viewer.

But that's just razzle dazzle. I'm talking about actual, legitimate uses of color as a tool, and The Wizard of Oz does this in subtle, virtually unnoticeable ways. Take Dorothy's celebrated gingham dress, with its white and blue checks. Once we leave Munchkinland, her dress is virtually the only source of blue to be found. The sky is blue; the faces of the flying monkeys and certain details on the Winkie guards' uniforms are both turquoise, which is close enough that I'd feel like I was cheating if I didn't mention it. But that's it. And even amongst the Munchkins, Dorothy is unusual for having a gentle shade of blue whereas every color on display in the village is a bold, "look at my Technicolor!" shade. So in all of the film's color sequences, Dorothy is being marked out as a stand-out element; she is not part of the palette of Oz. Thus we are subtly reminded throughout that she is an alien here, and that she must return to Kansas because that is part of who she is; her identity (for in a visual medium, identity is based on visual signifiers) has no place in this other world. Also, just a fun little note, did you ever stop to think of the colors of her outfit? White blouse, blue and white dress, red ruby slippers. Red, white and blue. All-American, that's our Dorothy Gale.

And then, there's the witch.

In a medium based upon the projection of light, black is a powerful statement to make. It is, after all, the total absence of light, the total absence of color; it is a vacuum in the middle of the screen. It devours the imagery around it. Sure, there's the traditional equation that "black=bad", but there's more to it than that. Black overpowers everything that isn't black, and this is why it makes for such iconic, elemental villains. Quickly, name a Disney villain! Now, I can't prove you picked the Queen from Snow White, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, or Ursula from The Little Mermaid, but I think there's a much better than even chance that you did. Black is memorable, powerful, primal.

And so it is that the Wicked Witch of the West is a figure of the strongest, most incredible black, and her first appearance is a perfect example of why she has become perhaps the single most iconic villain in cinema history (the other possibility is Darth Vader, and what color is he again?):

There's something a bit trickier to it than just "black is good for villains". Take a good long look at the contrast between Dorothy and the witch. Both characters are defined by two colors: white and blue, black and green. Black and white are opposites, that part is obvious. But what about the relationship between green and blue? They're not "opposite" colors; they're both primary colors of light, in fact. Green, blue, and red. And of course, in this film, the witch and Dorothy are in contest over the ruby slippers, a definitively red MacGuffin. It's worth pointing out, I think, that the witch is often paired with red objects; the slippers, the plume of smoke that marks her exits and entrances, the hourglass counting out Dorothy's life. Basing the conflict around a scheme of primary colors is tremendously subtle (and likely unintentional), but deeply effective.

A last point - because this is getting much longer than I'd intended - the fakery of Oz. In several places, the fact that Oz is a movie set is quite impossible to ignore. Very frequently, the scenes are lit with obvious shadows from multiple light sources (especially in Munchkinland and in the Scarecrow's dance); at times there are almost unignorable shadows from the camera and film crew. None of this happens in the Kansas scenes. Now, the cynic might just say that's the difference between Victor Fleming, a decently talented MGM hack who lucked his way into two hugely iconic films, and King Vidor, one of the most talented American directors of the 1920s. And maybe that's the explanation. But at the same time, this transparently set-bound Oz, with its obvious backdrops, is a nice contrast to the reasonably naturalistic looking Kansas sets. They are what's real, Oz is not; and by stressing the falsity of Oz, the film is underscoring the extent to which "there's no place like home". The message is quite simple, and obviously stated; but the fact that so much of the film's visual aesthetic bears out the words that Glinda so blandly states at the finale goes some way to explaining why The Wizard of Oz still works on such a basic, timeless level. Of course every great film does the same thing, using the visuals to communicate the message; that's one of the requirements for being a great film. But sometimes it does to remember that a film we all grew up on is a great film, nostalgia and all.

30 August 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: MUSTY OLD CAMP

Making the inevitable sequel to Sleepaway Camp turned out to be a rather acrimonious and challenging affair, involving original writer-director Robert Hiltzik being cut out of his own creation, with his somewhat more expansive vision for the series being turned into a pair of direct-to-video cheapies filmed in one burst of production and released in 1988 and 1989. The first of these was Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, and while I can't imagine that after a five-year gap, the Sleepaway Camp brand name was all that valuable, the people responsible for continuing its legacy still managed to find a way to fuck it up. Where the original film boasted an unexpectedly sharp screenplay buoyed by legitimate (by slasher standards) characters, undone only by the amateurish craftsmanship of a team of untried filmmakers, Unhappy Campers is... bad. Really bad.

It's a throwback to an earlier age of slasher filmmaking, one that must have seemed tottering and decrepit back in 1988 (and perhaps suggests why it was doomed to an ignoble video premiere). Nothing paranormal happens: just a group of Expendable Meat getting picked off one by one in a series of outlandish murders. And already we see a primary point of difference between this film and the first Sleepaway Camp, in which each of the deaths was motivated by a particular happening in the plot, and most of the cast ended up alive in the end. Here, there's barely a single named character - and a couple of characters who never even got names, at least not until after their death - who makes it all the way to the credits.

It's not possible to describe the plot of Unhappy Campers in anything but the flimsiest manner without spoiling the hell out of Sleepaway Camp, so I'd recommend that anyone who has any thought at all to seeing the 1983 film should probably turn away right now. For the rest of you, let's push on: the sequel opens with one of the most venerable tropes of the "summer camp slasher" sub-sub-genre: a campfire retelling of the events of the first movie. In this case, we find that nearly everyone has heard some version of the horrible tale of Peter "Angela" Baker and his/her massacre at Camp Arawak some years ago. I say "some" because the film isn't completely clear on this point: not only does it flat-out contradict the continuity of the first movie (suggesting that the opening scene happened ten years prior to the rest, not eight), it's not even secure in its own continuity. At one point later in the film, a camper mentions that he almost went to Arawak that year, but couldn't afford to; yet Angela was already one of the younger campers in the first movie, while she's a counselor now. Which either means that she's too young to be a counselor, or the other guy is too old to be a camper. But since Unhappy Campers seems hellbent on giving us campers who are plainly much too old to be there (again, in distinct contrast to the first), it's probably the wisest course of action not to dwell on it very long.

Where was I? Oh, right, they're sharing the story of what happened to Angela after the movie. The only girl around the campfire, Phoebe (Heather Binion), and one of the two young boys whose names I never got straight - I think this one was Charlie (Justin Nowell) - seem to have the most knowledge: after being treated for her psychotic problems, Peter was given a sex-change operation, and released to the world, a well-adjusted member of society. There are plenty of rumors about where she is now - and dammit, but they can't recall her name as a woman - but nobody really knows anything. Speaking of the devil, along comes Angela herself, now going under the surname "Johnson", and played by Pamela Springsteen, the younger sister of some local New Jersey rocker, which I assume is the reason she was cast. Angela is none to pleased to find Phoebe consorting with the menfolk, and all but bodily drags her back to the cabin. Except that they never quite get that far: sick of the girl's backtalk and perceived lack of camp-positive enthusiasm, Angela beats her in the head with a log and cuts out her tongue. Cue credits.

I'm going to share a little scenario with you, and you can decide whether it appeals to you or not: a camper says or does something that violates Angela's strict, peppy excitement about what makes for a great camp experience (and since the campers are all in their 20s, they do quite a few things to piss her off); she yells at them and then pulls them into a secluded place; she then kills them; the next day, when the camp's director Uncle John (Walter Gotell) and head counselor TC (Brian Patrick Clarke) wonder where that camper disappeared to, Angela cheerfully says that she sent them home for poor conduct. John and TC shake their heads in a comical, "Oh, that Angela!" manner, and tell her not to do it again.

Now, I hope you found that mini-drama compelling and rife with potential, because that is the only goddamn thing that happens in the 79 minutes of Unhappy Campers, and it happens something like six times. There is absolutely no story to speak of: the plot consists of absolutely nothing but "camper X pisses off Angela and then dies". Not at their most barbarically straightforward did the Friday the 13th movies manage such a rarefied state: this is about presenting teenagers' violent deaths, pure and simple, without context, consequence, or anything even remotely approaching terror. I have to be honest, there's a certain lizard-like, unevolved part of my brain that is quite in awe of this kind of unabashedly honest treatment of the material. We all know that the only point of a slasher movie is the death scenes, so why bother putting anything else in the film?

Say what else one will about the movie - I will be doing so momentarily - but at least Unhappy Campers avoids one of the great traps of the slasher film, the draggy first act. Its plot all but guarantees that it whips along with a death nearly every ten minutes, so that no matter what else is true, you'll never be bored. My notes for these slasher reviews usually consist of the characters who die, the weapon used to kill them, and what minute of the running time they die (or their dead body is first seen). Here's what those notes looked like for this film, with the character names removed so as to leave some suspense:

1. Tongue cut out, 5 min
2. Burned, 19 min
3. Burned, 20 min
4. Drilled, 26 min
5. Gloved, 36 min (in this scene, two kids dress up as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees to scare Angela. It backfires.)
6. Chainsaw, 37 min
7. Stabbed, put in toilet, 48 min
8. Garrote, 53 min
9. Stabbed, 54 min
10. Acid in face, 64 min
11. Decapitated, 66 min
12. Found dead, 69 min
13. 73 min
14. 73 min
15. 73 min
16. 73 min
17. 73 min (it all happened so fast I couldn't take proper notes)
18. Stabbed, 75 min

The longest gap in between deaths is all of eleven minutes; and since the death that ends that relative drought takes a really long time (in my notes, I had to erase 46 and 47, because the victim just wouldn't die - she was the film's Designated Bitch, so it makes sense), that makes the film seem much more sedate than is actually the case.

That's quality of a sort, and if your main reason for seeing a movie is a big quantity of corpses, then Unhappy Campers is right up your alley. It at any rate explains why the film seems to possess a fairly reasonable cheering section, given the size of '80s slasher film fandom. On the other hand, those deaths are achieved through fairly shoddy effects - the decapitation in particular looks like something that high school students would have put together - which in my opinion goes a fairly long way to negating the effectiveness of the deaths. Certainly, nothing here is a patch on the marvelous "arrow through the neck" death in the first one.

For those of us whose justification for slasher films lies anywhere else (e.g. mine, which is to bask in the '80s signifiers and sometimes to play amateur sociologist), Unhappy Campers provides a long, rough haul, even with its fleet running time. The problems are all over the map, but I think the biggest one is Pamela Springsteen, who delivers a positively unwatchable performance as Angela, not nearly gaudy enough to be fun as camp, but clumsy and unconvincing and shrill and oh God, I have seen plenty of bad performances in cheap horror films, but none that were as hard to endure as this one. And she's in nearly every single scene. It's hell. Not that anyone in the cast does much better; it's just exactly what you'd expect from a horror DTV flick from 1988.

Then there is the issue of tone: while the first film nailed an extremely tricky switch from goofy, bloody fun to rancid nastiness at the end, Unhappy Campers stays goofy throughout; but it wants to be vicious. Hence the protracted death by drowning in an outhouse, or the shot of two kids with their eyes plucked out; moments that I suspect are supposed to be terrifying and disturbing, but just come off as stupid. Director and producer Michael A. Simpson isn't very good at either of his jobs, I think that's the problem; just like Sleepaway Camp, this film appears to have been put together by people who didn't know what the hell they were doing, but at least that film had a script and cast to compensate a little. This has neither, and so the fumbled execution of just about every scene is impossible to ignore. Anyone can film a slasher murder; it takes someone special to film a slasher murder and make it seem tossed-off, boring. And without a narrative, that's a whole lot of boring murders to contend with.

At the lowest level, as trash, there are a few meager offerings to be had. Two of the actresses, Valerie Hartman and Susan Marie Snyder, spend a fair amount of time showing off their breasts, and they are both quite pleasing in that capacity; and the sim-sex scenes are of unusually convincing quality. Jesus H. Christ, when the best thing you can say about a slasher film is that it's like a good porno, you've run out of nice things to say. Not one thing about this film wasn't done better elsewhere, anyway, and if it's not among the very worst of the slasher boom, that's only because it's too damn boring to be absolutely stupid.

Body Count: As outlined above, a whopping 18, which if I am not much mistaken is the largest body count I have personally seen in any slasher outside of the Friday the 13th series.

Reviews in this series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

JANE CAMPION: IN THE CUT (2003)

After the befuddlement and irritation that greeted The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke, 2003 saw Jane Campion receiving her worst reviews yet for In the Cut, a serial killer thriller adapted from the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, who co-wrote the screenplay with Campion. The plot was too contrived and confused, we were told; the characters completely inscrutable; Meg Ryan was terribly miscast, and obviously only took the lead role (featuring full frontal nudity!) to prove that she could do edgy and dark. This was the stern verdict of the folks who expected - not, it must be said, without reason - that they were going to see another Kiss the Girls. As for the people who just wanted to see another Campion flick; well, there's no end to viewers feeling aggrieved that everything she made isn't exactly like The Piano. Sometimes, you just can't win for losing; if she had followed up that film with several carbon copies, I have no doubt that she would have been criticised for that. Pity the director who gives us the film she wants to make, not the film we want to see.

In the Cut is not her best film, no. It might in fact be her worst; or can I rather say, her least good. But that's not the same thing as calling it flat-out bad, and there's quite a lot going on here that audiences that wrote it off as a failed thriller clearly had no intention of looking for. I guess this much is true: it is a failed thriller, if a thriller it was intended to be. But it is a great success as the film that Campion obviously set out to make: a study of female sexual psychology in a world of hypermasculine violence. Far from being yet another "woman and serial killer" genre flick, In the Cut is something much stranger, and unexpected; something that only Jane Campion out of all the contemporary directors I could name would ever dare to give us. Basically, this is Eyes Wide Shut from a female point of view, a similarly disjointed narrative connected only by the protagonist's emotional journey, set in a similarly surreal version of New York City. Not for nothing, I think, was Campion's film produced by Nicole Kidman, who was originally set to star in it prior to her very public divorce from Tom Cruise, her EWS co-star.

In the Cut centers on Frannie Avery (Ryan), a college English teacher currently assembling a book on urban slang. As the story begins, she is parting ways with her beloved half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to meet with one of her students, Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), at a local dive bar called the Red Turtle. The meeting is a pointless waste of time, but when Frannie goes downstairs to use the restroom, she spots something most unexpected: a young woman performing oral sex on a man hidden in the shadows, his only identifying mark a tattoo of the 3 of Spades on his wrist.

The next day, Frannie gets a call from NYPD Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the murder and dismemberment of a woman, in fact the very same woman who Frannie spotted in the Red Turtle; parts of her body were found in the garden outside Frannie's apartment. Frannie doesn't really do or say much to help the investigation; she's much too distracted by the 3 of Spades tattoo on Malloy's wrist. Not to tell the rest of the plot - which very quickly becomes very convoluted - Frannie accepts Malloy's offer to go have drinks sometime, and before hardly any time has passed (and as chopped-up women keep appearing in the area), Frannie and the detective start sleeping together.

Let me not mince words: this is a film About Sex, above and beyond all other considerations. I think this goes a long way towards explaining its critical and commercial failure: American filmgoers don't really like to watch sex in our movies. Only if it's discreet and tasteful and filled with gauzy touches, certainly not if it's lustful and fleshy like it is here. And genitals, oh Lord, not genitals! keep those naughty bits offscreen at all costs! Moreover, In the Cut is about a very specific kind of sex: the erotic charge of death and danger. The serial killer trappings that make the movie seem like something entirely else are only there to facilitate the development of a character who is quite unambiguously aroused by the constant threat of being butchered - she plainly assumes that Malloy is the killer, thanks to his tattoo, and when she asks him to describe the state of the murder victims, her tone is somewhere in between fascinated disgust and indirect horniness. More than anything else I can name, it's reminiscent of David Cronenberg's Crash (a masterpiece, but not the kind of film you take back home to mother): it plumbs depths of the sexual psyche that you were much happier not even thinking about, but once you've seen the film, there's no shaking what it's done to you. It helps that the sex scenes themselves are shot with a remarkably straightforward, adult eye; conspicuous nudity, but never exploitative (I haven't mentioned and should have, that Campion's films are unexpectedly rife with naked people; this is thus not an exception but merely an apotheosis), and erotic in a way that movie sex hardly ever is.

At the center of this sexual fantasia, Frannie is a maddeningly opaque heroine; the most unknowable of all Campion's protagonists, more even than Kay in Sweetie. At the film's end, we understand nothing about her other than her actions; there are sepia-toned flashbacks to the meeting of her mother and father that certainly suggest that she has a certain under-formed idea of sex, but nothing that could actually explain what drives her in life or leads her down the path she takes. Even her sister Pauline has a more well-defined character, and she's in but a handful of scenes. This fact about In the Cut makes it perhaps more challenging that might be strictly necessary: we like to have sturdy protagonists to sink out teeth into, and Frannie is a defiantly blank slate. At the same time, I can't imagine the film working the same way with a "stronger" lead. It is at heart the story of a non-existent personality being filled up with dark sexual energies (much the same plot as both Eyes Wide Shut and Crash, really), and in order to work, Frannie must be an empty vessel at the start.

It might be a backhanded compliment to say that Meg Ryan performs this character brilliantly, but I do think it's quite an unexpected and brave work. Much scorn has been heaped upon the actress for playing this character, and it's not exactly hard to see why: Frannie is a particularly bland and disaffected sort, for much of the running time. But far from finding Ryan in over her head, I saw a performance that proved that Nora Ephron's favorite kewpie doll actually has a great reservoir of shadow just waiting to be tapped into. In her hands, Frannie at the outset is anything but boring: she is desperate and hungry, aware that there is no substance in her life but unaware of how to find it. Even a truly regrettable wig can't lessen the force that Ryan brings to bear in creating this character; I honestly don't know that I can name an actress that I expect would have done it better. And maybe the intent was just a cheap "look how edgy I can be!" stunt, but like the fella said, you can't argue with results.

The world of In the Cut is an off-kilter wonderland, with lovely gardens right next to dreadful shitpile apartments, everything in New York seems to be about five minutes from everything else, and under the exceptionally articulate lens of Dion Beebe (in what is likely the best work of his career, and yes, I did just say that in regards to Holy Smoke; what can I say, I hadn't seen this film yet), everything looks off, with depth of field that makes no sense and action that's all cramped together in various parts of the frame. And insert shots: so many insert shots of tiny little details! It is a visually obsessed film to match its obsessed star: full of chaos, but driven, purposeful chaos, that makes us understand intuitively that we're looking at a world of madness - Frannie's madness, I expect. This film yokes us firmly to her perspective on things more securely than any of Campion's films since An Angel at My Table. And that perspective is quite disconcerting for much of the time. In the Cut may have fairly limited goals, but it achieves them perfectly, and the result is the kind of thing that's none to easy to forget later on.

A final personal note: at the start of this Campion retrospective, I never thought that the end result would be that I'd found a new director that I would love this much, and in fact Campion has joined a most elite group in my personal pantheon: a filmmaker for whom I've seen all of her features, and liked every single one. That's a hard claim to make: it's true of Terrence Malick (with his 4 films) and Julie Taymor (with 3); it might be true of Quentin Tarantino if I ever get around to revisiting and re-evaluating Death Proof; it's true of Orson Welles so far, but there's a lot I've yet to see of his work. It's certainly not true of Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Ford, or Bergman. So basically, hooray for Jane Campion, a director of the most exquisite talents. Bring on Bright Star already!

28 August 2009

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 18

One of the greatest pleasures of movie-watching is when a film that didn't look like it would turn out to be much of anything ends up as quite something. That was my experience with Dark Woods, a nervy psychological thriller that puts to shame dozens if not hundreds of films with similar aims and much larger budgets; director Michael Escobedo and writer John Muscanero (who also stars) have put together a pretty remarkable work of craftsmanship, dramatics, and emotional manipulation. It deserves much better than the direct-to-video purgatory that is the likeliest fate for such fare; I'd almost go so far as say that it's one of the best horror films of the year, and the reason I don't quite want to make that claim is that it's really not a horror film.

Henry (Muscanero) and Susan Branch (Tracy Coogan) are a young couple living in an isolated cabin deep in the Arkansas woods; this was Henry's idea, hoping to find a quiet spot for Susan to recover her strength and fight what has so far been a losing battle against a deadly disease (later on, we'll learn that she has cancer). Things aren't going terribly well, we get the feeling, and they get much worse one night, when Susan thinks she spots a man outside, peering in the windows. When Henry goes to look, the stalker (Mark Shady) - a filthy-looking sort with stringy hair and crazy eyes - creeps inside and attempts to rape Susan. Henry intervenes, but the next day the local sheriff (James Russo, the "name" actor - if you know him, you're one up on me) dismisses their story. A generally upsetting situation, and one that takes its toll on Susan; while Henry is out taking a walk, she collapses.

That's not the only event to shatter Henry's world: at about the same time as Susan's fit, he comes across the stalker attempting to rape a teenage girl, Alicia (Mary Kate Wiles). He brings her back to the cabin and discovers his wife's prone body, and just when it seems that things couldn't get any more horrid, the sheriff makes a most unorthodox request: can Henry please take care of Alicia for a few days, while he attends to more interesting things? Henry's first thought is to say no, but the sheriff (clearly trying to just ignore the situation and hope it goes away) presses hard, and so the Branch household finds itself with a most awkward dynamic: Susan in a coma, Alicia making herself quite comfortable, enough to start making advances to Henry. And Henry? Well, he's pretty much a broken man by now, and he's about to break himself even more by paying a fairly inappropriate amount of attention to Alicia, though his grief over Susan's state keeps him from taking advantage of the girl. And make no mistake, Susan does seem to be the only barrier in his mind.

The dark woods of the title aren't just the literally trees around the Branch home; they're also the depths of Henry's bent, tormented mind, and Dark Woods does yeoman's work in plumbing the outrageous degrees of his corroded mental state. Even without the temptation of a nubile, willing youngster, Henry clearly isn't doing too well; he speaks to Susan in her coma at night, and hears her speaking back - oh, and he's sleeping with a woman in a coma, though as far as we can tell, he never goes so far as to have sex with her. Indeed, his sexual frustration is primarily what defines his relationship with Alicia, letting her drink wine and responding to her increasingly intimate gestures by mumbling "that's inappropriate", and never actually doing anything about it.

Muscanero is quite excellent at communicating the extent of Henry's emotional damage, but the whole cast is great: Wiles, with her open face and wild mood swings, seems at once to be wise and mature yet also a snotty, entitled kid, and in the scattered scenes where she's not vegetative, Coogan absolutely nails a knotty trifecta: tired of her disease, upset that she has to put Henry through this all, and annoyed that Henry is so transparently tired of playing nurse. It's one of the better performances of a terminally ill patient that I've seen in recent cinema, and when Susan wakes up and starts to lose her grip on reality - the event that precipitates the "thrilling" part of this nominal thriller - I for one found it to be touching and sad.

Escobedo handles all of this with care and control (the scene with the stalker in the house is absolutely terrifying), and he and cinematographer Andrew J. Whittaker give the film a look that is exquisitely moody and bleak - dark as the title promises, all of the interiors are plunged in suffocating gloom, even in the day, and the film's palette is thick with drained out browns. The only real color to be found is in a bright red dress, and accordingly, this object is the focus for all three character's growing psychological breaks.

As it is dark, so it is heavy; Dark Woods is not at all pleasant or fun. But even so it has a swift pace that keeps it from being flat-out nihilistic, and its depiction of mental collapse is haunting and effective. It's a damn shame that this film won't get the broad audience it deserves; hopefully Escobedo and Muscanero will at least win themselves the chance to make more films on the strength of this one, and get their much-earned recognition as two wonderfully talented newbies.

27 August 2009

MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLOURY

Inglourious Basterds is a marvel, at least. Like it or hate it or worship it, I'm pretty sure that you've never seen anything like it. I know, because I have seen many films just like it, and I still haven't seen anything like it. But that's what makes Quentin Tarantino the man he is: there's not a single new idea in any of his films, but something about the way he puts them all together is bracing and original. He is a singular talent: the cinema's reigning lord of pop culture post-modernism. And he's just released the most challenging and intellectually engaging film of his deceptively intelligent career.

Since you don't live under a rock, you know that the film is about a team of Jewish American soldiers united under the command of a good ol' boy with some Apache blood in him, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and what these soldiers do is stalk through the forests and fields of World War II France and kill the shit out of Nazis. There's a good chance that you also know that the film really isn't about the Basterds much at all; nor is it about any one person or group. The original, Sergio Leone-dusted working title for the film was Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France, and that's pretty much the perfect description of the film's content; a whole lot of stuff happening in France in 1944 (and a little bit in 1941).

Honestly, there's simply way too much going on here for me to even pretend that I can grapple with all of it in one review based upon one viewing. It is for good or not a quintessential Tarantino movie: it looks so damn simple at first, but the more you sit and think, the more it becomes obvious that it's lousy with nested layers of meaning. Which doesn't alleviate the very strong suspicion that Tarantino himself might have had no idea what the hell was going on; he's either one of the most self-ignorant filmmakers in modern cinema, or he is freakishly good at misrepresenting himself as a bit of a yahoo in interviews. I have no damn idea. But just like Pulp Fiction is much more than just a fun, structurally audacious mobster flick and Kill Bill is more than a compendium of tropes from '70s genre flicks, so is Inglourious Basterds much more than a supremely gory revenge tale of Jews turning the tables on the the Nazis. Though it certainly is that.

What it really is, as most everybody who wasn't too disgusted to give the film a chance has already mentioned, is a movie about movies about WWII. Specifically, it is Tarantino's version of a 1970s Italian war film, a highly robust subset of Italian film; other than making films about cannibals and nude women (there are two ways to read that phrase, and they're both accurate), there's nothing '70s Italian B-directors enjoyed more than spinning yarns about the terrible things the Germans did in the war. One such film was Quel maladetto treno blindato, literally "The Cursed Armored Train", but the commonest English release title is The Inglorious Bastards. There are exactly no points of narrative similarity between Tarantino's film and the Italian original, but I'm guessing that wasn't a big concern; he's just trying to make it as easy as possible for us to take note of what he's doing.

One of the main things that's happening in Inglourious Basterds - if there is a grand unifying theory of everything in the film, I cannot come up with it - is a commentary on representation in war films. On a certain level of abstraction, everything we're looking at is a broad parody of the tropes of other movies. This is most obvious in the single scene set in the British command offices: General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, a Canadian) and Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, a German) play two of the most ridiculously plummy fake Brits you will ever see, yammering on about mixing drinks and I say old chap and Good Show, and the like. It's goofy as hell, and completely freaking hilarious if you've seen the old wartime films made in England where everybody actually does act that way. The Basterds themselves are a parody of the gung-ho, can't-fail American squad of awesomely competent G.I. Joes. And the mighty amounts of blood and torture are nothing so much as the natural extension of the ultra-violent Italian war movies, with the budget and technology to make the blood and prosthetics look even that much more realistic.

Of course, Inglourious Basterds is a relentlessly fictional film - the lies it tells are truly epic in scope. By extension, Tarantino is at least suggesting that all war movies are lies to the same degree; they might not tell such easily disprovable falsehoods, but that's a matter of degree. A direct riposte to the predictable howls of outrage from people wondering when the hell Tarantino is going to grow up and start addressing the real world, anyway, the film as much as argues, "what movie was ever about the real world? And with that in mind, why can't I just go balls-out crazy?" Besides, he already demonstrated in Pulp Fiction that movies and television have replaced the real world as our model for reality; to call something "real" actually means that it's reminiscent of "realist" films.

Forgive this abrupt jump, but I really can't think of a segue: the construction of Inglourious Basterds is where things get really interesting. Like Kill Bill, it's divided into chapters, although they are mostly chronologically straightforward; and each of these chapters is tonally different. For my tastes, the best are the first and fourth, with a special nod to the fifth. The first especially is the sequence that we're all going to remember twenty years from now: a real-time 15 or 20-minute conversation between S.S. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who gives a truly exemplary performance, one of the best Tarantino has ever directed) and a dairy farmer named Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). The talk starts out on the most banal pleasantries, turns to Nazi business, returns to banality, and then Landa suddenly asks LaPadite to give up the Jewish refugees hiding in his floorboards, because it will be much easier for everyone that way. This is an absolutely immaculate sequence: every cut and every shot works together like the instruments in an orchestra, building, building, building the tension, stretching out the pregnant terror of the moment until the audience is ready to burst.

The third chapter sees that and raises it with a mind-blowing scene set in a bar, where the Basterds are meant to be meeting a German double agent (Diane Kruger), only to find themselves stymied by an unexpected party and an even less-expected S.S. officer. This is the make-or-break point for the film, I suspect; an endless scene of people chattering, playing games, discussing the sociology of King Kong - it has to be a solid half-hour or longer, and it is either mesmerising or atrociously boring. Taste is a wicked hellcat like that.

Everything is filled with freewheeling, uncontrolled ambition like that: the fifth chapter opens on the strains of David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" that could not possibly be better; the film barely has an hour of plot even with two completely separate story arcs, one involving a young French Jew (Mélanie Laurent) who never meets the Basterds and has her own plan for vengeance, and yet it stretches to more than double that length. We could argue whether Tarantino has any right to do these things, but let's at least agree that he doesn't want for self-confidence. And that's what Inglourious Basterds is to me: a film made by a man who knows why he makes every single choice, even if it's desperately unintuitive. This is filmmaking at its bravest, and whether Tarantino is a genius or a fool, he does nothing by accident.

8/10, only because I have to put something down; I'd be happier waiting till I've seen it another two or four times.

26 August 2009

JANE CAMPION: HOLY SMOKE (1999)

When I dove headlong into the films of Jane Campion just a few weeks ago (a few weeks! surely it's been longer than that?), I knew very little about what was going to happen to me. One of the few things I did know was that her two most recent films were generally, perhaps even universally, regarded as significant weak points in her career. They're messy, they wander about pointlessly, demonstrating none of the immaculate artistry of The Piano, that sort of thing.

Well, I've now seen the first of those two, and here is my verdict: Holy Smoke is messy, wandering, and not remotely as immaculate as The Piano. Big fucking deal. If it were tidy, focused, and perfect, it would no longer be the same film, and the film that it is as things stand is a perfectly fascinating example of what a completely fearless director putting it all out there, making the movie she damn well wants to make without concern for making the movie that other people expect her to make. No, I don't suppose that Holy Smoke is strong enough to justify the sterling reputation that she earned for her incredible early run of features, but if you asked me - and since you are reading this, you're at least implicitly asking me - it's one of her most fun films to watch, even as it delves into thematic areas almost as murky and challenging as the swamp surrounding the greatly under-appreciated The Portrait of a Lady.

Unlike most of Campion's films, it is easier to describe Holy Smoke in terms of its scenario, rather than its plot. A young woman, Ruth (Kate Winslet), has been brought back home to Australia by her family under false pretenses from the ashram in India where she was living with a charismatic guru and a family of the enlightened. They are terrified that she's been brainwashed into a sex cult of some kind, and have hired at great expense an American "cult exiter", P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), to conduct a three-day intervention to try and save Ruth from whatever mind bug she's been implanted with. All that takes almost exactly the first thirty minutes of a 114 minute film; the rest of the running time amounts to a two-man show as Ruth and P.J. square off in an isolated hut deep in the Outback desert.

As straightforward as that seems to be, it's really not. One of the most difficult aspects of Holy Smoke is that it's really three movies: the first is roughly the first quarter, the second is the next hour, and the third is the last quarter. And when I call it "fun", I'm really just referring to the first quarter, which is one of those "all Australian families are deranged" comedies that crop up so frequently, although it's not for its somewhat hackneyed comic tropes that it's worthwhile, but the crazy style that Campion uses to breathe life into a form that had long since passed into cliché by 1999. On the one hand there are warped musical cues (two Neil Diamond songs!), on the other there are playful, left-field visual quirks such as the hyper-saturated flashback in which we see Ruth's first encounter with her guru, replete with a cartoony depiction of her third eye opening. It reads as equal parts parody and homage to the breed of kinetic indie films that were just coming into their own in the '90s and have since become ubiquitous. In particular, certain elements are redolent of Quentin Tarantino's brand of everything-flavor cinema: P.J.'s introduction especially, set to "I Am... I Said", and featuring unmistakably Tarantinoesque shots of him with his supercool shades, and a close-up of his feet in cowboy boots.

Insofar as Campion dabbles in this kind of highly glitzy, style-above-all aesthetic, it's only to cut the legs out from underneath it in the subsequent 90 minutes. Once P.J. and Ruth enter that hut, Holy Smoke abandons this particular tone for another, equally stylised, equally playful, and equally inventive; but where the first thirty minutes are effectively Campion's riff on the decidedly masculine idiom of Tarantino and (by extension) the New Wave, the rest of the film is unmistakably feminine - the most feminine of all Campion's films, and when I say "feminine" I do not wish to suggest some kind of value judgment. That simply is the manner of the film: a work about gender relationships that could only have been produced by a woman. Of course, all of Campion's films are unmistakably the work of a woman; but Holy Smoke manages to trump them all, I think, for while it's possible to imagine how The Piano might have turned out with a particularly perceptive male behind the camera, I really can't imagine a man attempting to make Holy Smoke in anything like its present form.

The conflict, reduced to its crudest terms, looks like this: Ruth has spent her life without an identity, and in India she formed on. P.J. has been called in to dismantle that identity and replace it with one more suitable. A strict feminist reading would identify P.J. as the representative of all male authority, attempting to restrict a woman's right to determine who she is. Ay, but Holy Smoke is not dogmatically feminist. Certainly, masculinity is given a rough go in the film, but Ruth is hardly given a free pass; her newfound spirituality turns out to be fairly shallow, when all is said and done. At one point, P.J. calls her out on using the patriarchal religion of India as a crutch to define herself, and her defense is that at least the Indians are honest about their misogyny, a lame excuse that she can't possibly believe any more than we do.

Still, there's plenty here to call traditional masculinity into serious doubt, and I can't imagine a male viewer not getting at least a little bit nervous at parts of the film. As the owner of a penis myself, I can't lie about that. P.J. isn't set up as the representative of all male authority, but it is his faith in his authority and his masculinity that cause him great trouble, when he very foolishly chooses to sleep with Ruth on the night of her great emotional breakthrough, after she cries about how scared and lonely she is. The next day, he rationalises this as a misplaced act of comfort; she claims that she faked the whole thing. We are not given any reason to believe or doubt either one of them, but the point is the same either way: Ruth has begun to exercise control over the situation, taking it away from P.J. - he resists, but less and less as time goes on, and by the end of the film he has allowed her to destroy his identity and his gender, putting lipstick on him and making him wear a dress. It's in this state that he reaches the ultimate depths of his pathos, hallucinating that he sees Ruth in the sun (a neat inversion of a shot early in the film, when he lights a candle and the flame completely obscures her face from the camera's POV), and asking her to take him to her guru.

It's for this third-act shift that I'm largely unwilling to call Holy Smoke a feminist film; rather, I'd call it humanist. The more power Ruth takes back for herself, the more she abuses it, and she can only grow in her own self-identity by depriving P.J. of his. The key scene of the film is one of the very few that has nothing to do with gender at all: P.J. writes the words "BE KIND" on Ruth's forehead, backward, so that she can read it in the mirror. When she sees this, it breaks her - the one thing she fears above all else is the thought that she is not a good person. And "BE KIND" is the ultimate message of the film, as shown by the very odd and at first blush very contrived final scene: it seems at first that Campion is letting P.J. get away with doing some very terrible things, and certainly there's no way to square the last moments with the notion that this is a political tract. But, of course, it's Campion practicing as she preaches: BE KIND. Forgive people for making mistakes, because everyone does it, pretty much constantly. That's the only religion any of us needs, and for Campion, the great crime of masculine-feminine warfare is that we're just not kind enough to each other. BE KIND - the rest will follow.

I went down that rabbit hole further than I meant to. Forgive me.

Holy Smoke represented a definitive split from the previous decade of Campion's career. For the first time in exactly ten years, she made a film in Australia, set in the present day, heavily concerned with family dynamics and the ways that families can misunderstand and destroy each other (there are so many ways that Holy Smoke feels like a Bizarro World companion piece to Sweetie; perhaps significantly, Holy Smoke was co-written by Campion's sister Anna, the dedicatee of Sweetie), and not shot by Stuart Dryburgh. This last point might seem to be the one of these things that doesn't belong, but it's actually quite significant: there's a visual unity to the three Dryburgh films that is shockingly violated by Holy Smoke. Shot by Dion Beebe in what I daresay is his best work ever, this is a boldly colorful film that returns us to the queasy depth-of-field experiments that Campion played with in most of her earliest shorts and features, and if we can loosely call the Dryburgh films "poetically realistic", well, there's not a damn thing real about Holy Smoke at all: the red, red desert with the blue, blue sky looks like something out a fever dream, and the way that this landscape dominates the film's mise en scène gives an Impressionistic cast to the whole thing. Like Sweetie, this film just doesn't look right - not natural, I mean - so it's hardly surprising that the characters end up destroying themselves a little bit in the face of it all.

It wouldn't do to avoid mentioning the two leads, who both give tremendously brave performances that are among their best. As one of the few Campion films with two distinct protagonists (and the only one with a male protagonist at all), it wouldn't do to try and decide that Winslet is better than Keitel, or vice versa; both of them push themselves to extreme, sometimes frightening places, and even when Winslet's accent drops, it's hardly distracting given what is happening to her character at the time. Since this is basically an extended dialogue with a handful of other characters every now and then, it needs them to both be extremely strong, persuasive, and invisible; and both actors treat their parts with the utmost honor and gravity.

I will not pretend ignorance as to why this film has such a low reputation: it does not ask you to like it, and if you are a man it's probably trying to make you uncomfortable. But I do find myself more than a little disappointed that so few people saw fit to follow Campion down this path; the film is not absolutely perfect but that's hardly a crime, and it is a profoundly generous treatise on how men and women misunderstand and torment one another. By this point, I've had to give up on some of the themes I was trying to track down in Campion's career, but I think I've come up with one that fits in every situation: she is full of love for her characters, and unwilling to punish anyone whose crime is mere humanity. That love informs every inch of Holy Smoke, even if she takes us to some very dark places before we can recognise it.

25 August 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: NOTES ON CAMP

The slasher boom is noted above all else for its abiding unoriginality; the vast number of films that copy the details of Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th, Part 2 is really quite incredible. A pre-title sequence that introduces a murderous threat; a thirty-minute first act that introduces a battalion of horny teenagers, ripe for the slaughter; another thirty minutes or so as they start to get picked off one at a time; then ten or fifteen minutes of a Final Girl sequence. Cut, print, that's a wrap.

Because slasher fans are as hungry for new ideas and creativity as anyone, it tends to be the case that most of the most-beloved examples of the style are the ones that push against this very limiting framework the hardest, and this brings us to Sleepaway Camp from 1983, the third year of the boom, and the one where the air started to leak out of the genre in earnest. On the most superficial level, Sleepaway Camplooks like it could be all but indistinguishable from Friday the 13th: someone goes crazy at a summer camp. At least most of the mock Jasons had the good taste to set their mayhem in some other place; a school, for example. But then, you start to really dig into Sleepaway Camp a bit more, and it turns out to be nothing at all like the slasher film template. Oh, a slasher film without a doubt; but in some ways one of the most creative and original to come out before A Nightmare on Elm Street. In particular, the film has a Big Damn Twist that colors everything else, and when the time comes we'll see what I have to say about it. Now, whether or not this makes it necessarily one of the best, that's a different matter, one I'll get to shortly. First, though, what makes it so unique?

The film opens with an unexpectedly subtle touch: as the credits play out, the camera pans across the boarded-up remains of Camp Arawak. What happened to shutter the camp will turn out to be our topic for the next 88 minutes, but first we flash back in time (though it's not immediately clear that we've done so). On a lake somewhere in what is presumably New Jersey, a man (Dan Tursi) is boating about with his two kids Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and Peter (Frank Sorrentino). At the same time, a few teens from the nearby camp are out water-skiing, and not to stretch things out too long, the driver of the speedboat dragging the skiers looks away for just long enough to not be able to turn away from the family's motionless sailboat, and lickety-split, the father is apparently decapitated, and Peter ends up face down in the water.

Eight years later! Angela (Felissa Rose) now lives with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tierston) and his mother (Desiree Gould). Right from the get-go, we know that something is weird, because aunt Martha is one strange lady. Or rather, Gould's performance is pretty freaking strange, and I genuinely can't tell how much of it is just bad talent. Either way, she's deeply uncomfortable to watch, and while the first run through the film this just angered me, in light of The Big Damn Twist, it kind of fits. But... ah, this is not the right place for this tangent.

Aunt Martha is extra-excited because this is Angela's first trip to Camp Arawak (which may, or may not, be the camp with the idiot water-skiers; my guess is "not"), and she hopes that Ricky and a whole bunch of new friends will help to pull her out of her shell. Fat chance, as anybody who's ever seen a summer camp movie - or, I suppose, ever gone to summer camp - can already tell. When Angela and Ricky get to Arawak, it quickly becomes clear that this is Hell on Earth, and here we arrive at the film's first point of distinction.

In virtually every other slasher film I've ever seen, the setting is a mostly ethereal, irrelevant thing. What matters is that a madman with an edged weapon is somewhere just out of sight, and it can be a school, a house, a summer camp, a shopping mall, a military base - doesn't matter. The plot would function essentially the same no matter what. Not so in Sleepaway Camp, which for a hefty portion of its running time is barely a horror film at all, except that it details the horror of everyday childhood; no, it is absolutely a boots-on-the-ground observation piece about summer camp. Now, I never went to camp - day camp, for three weeks, once, but never the kind where you live there for a whole month or however long it is. I don't actually even know if we had that kind of summer camp in the Midwest, since in movies it always seems to be an East Coast thing; that is how much I never went to camp. But after seeing Sleepaway Camp, more than any of the scads of other summer camp films, I think I understand exactly how awful camp must have been, for Sleepaway Camp depicts this miserable existence with a level of detail and coherence absolutely jaw-dropping for a slasher film.

The characters involved range from the bitch counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and her bitchy protégé Judy (Karen Fields), to Paul (Christopher Collet), who strikes up a tentative flirtation with Angela; from Mel (Mike Kellin), the neurotic camp owner who is petrified that he'll be sued, to Artie (Owen Hughes), the unapologetically pedophilic camp cook, who refers to the incoming girls as "baldies". And a whole mess of guys who are kind of hard to keep track of, except that some are jerks and some are not very much jerks. All of them are in some degree or another a tired cliché, but generally speaking, Robert Hiltzik - the film's writer and director - makes them seem like clichés that are honestly found in nature. And I've only just now realised how much of the cast is actually made up of campers, around 12 or 13 years old - in nearly every other film on this model I can name, the campers are marginal or completely absent, and it's the counselors in peril.

This is generally true of the film's story and screenplay, which are rational and observational in ways absolutely unknown in the great majority of horror films. Sometimes it's just a keen grace note that proves somebody was paying attention: I particularly loved the small details around the film's depiction of teenage sexuality, which is much more awkward and fumbling than suave and licentious, like it typically is in a slasher film (accordingly there's not a single bare breast anywhere in Sleepaway Camp). A particularly fine, subtle moment is when a skinny dipping party involves several boys and not a single female; a long cry from the water-borne orgy of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

Most impressive of all is what happens in the story once the killings start. I'll give away absolutely nothing by saying that what happens is that Angela, mute for the early chunk of the film, and mostly wordless for the back part, and clearly a bit messed-up throughout, starts to take her revenge on the many people at the camp who have done terrible things to her, starting when she knocks Pedo Artie into a large pot of boiling water. Okay, so the film makes a limp gesture at leaving us in the dark whether it's Ricky or Angela doing the killing, but I really can't imagine who'd be taken in by that ruse for very long. It's absolutely Angela, because there's never really a moment when we don't believe the shy girl with the intense eyes is capable of murder. Anyway, this isn't the kind of slasher film where bodies are found and nobody cares; nor the kind where people wander off into the woods after announcing, "I'm headed off alone into the woods". Once the deaths start, everyone goes pretty much bugshit, even before it's clear that any foul play is involved at all. Only The Burning of all the '80s slashers I can call to mind is so scrupulously honest about when the characters know what's going on, and how they react to the events around them. This is, no joke, one of the least insulting slasher movies I have ever seen, storywise: it asks us to believe nothing unbelievable, and tells no obvious lies.

Now, I was very careful to couch all of that honest praise for Sleepaway Camp in terms of its writing, because once the screenplay got to the set, everything went straight to Hell on a bullet train. Hiltzik may have been a good screenwriter, but he's an outrageously incompetent director, and everything about the film has the look of a local car salesman looking to break into movie producing by hiring that guy who went to film school that one time. Inexpensive movies generally must look inexpensive; but Sleepaway Camp looks goddamn cheap. An important distinction. Though the design of Camp Arawak itself is satisfying and believable (I assume they shot at a for-real summer camp), everything else about the film's visual appearance is chintzy and run-down; starting with the lighting, which has all the dramatic depth of a sheet of cardboard. Good lighting is easy to notice; bad lighting even more so. But plain-old boring lighting? It's not something you notice so much as something you notice from its absence. Sleepaway Camp is not ugly as such, but it might be among the flattest movies I can remember seeing in a long time.

Lighting aside, the direction is slipshod at best, with the scare moments generally falling under the weight of bad blocking (the bee scene is terrible; the scene where a corpse that has apparently been leaning against an unsecured shower curtain just happens to fall out at the exact second that a character walks by is much worse), although one moment in particular stands out as virtually perfect: the discovery of the first body, with a water snake slithering out of the victim's mouth. It's not that the filmmakers are incompetent, in the Ed Wood sense; but they are ridiculously untalented. I am certain that several Friday the 13th movies were put together much worse than this, but in not one of those did I have the sense of such slack work behind the camera; as though the creators had seen movies but didn't know how they were made, exactly.

Of course, the slasher genre being what it is, a strong screenplay would be enough to keep the film's reputation high throughout the years; the fumbled execution of something smart is preferable, anyway, to the fumbled execution of something idiotic. But that isn't what's kept Sleepaway Camp in the horror fandom's consciousness all these years. No, it's The Big Damn Twist. Even after more than two-and-a-half decades, this has remained largely unspoiled by osmosis, so I won't say what it is - if you really want to know, it's not very hard to find it in some review or another. More importantly, even after that time it's still incredibly shocking. It makes decent enough sense in the context of the story, and explains some of the bigger plot holes that have cropped up that point. But more importantly, it sets the tone of the movie on its ear. Up til the the last five minutes, Sleepaway Camp has been a breezy, unusually snarky and humorous slasher film; the final moments are the exact opposite, particularly thanks to a genuinely unsettling effect on the soundtrack. It must be said that like everything else about the smart bits in the film's screenplay, the execution is a complete hatchet job; but something about that makes the final image even more eerie, like something out of a giallo (hooray! Summer of Blood '09 has circled back around!).

I do not ordinarily, or ever, give films a great deal of credit for having a successful twist - twists typically infuriate me - but there are exceptions to prove every rule, and even though I do not believe that Sleepaway Camp is a particularly effective movie due to its sloppy production, there's no denying that because of The Big Damn Twist, it is an exceptionally memorable one - one that lingers in the brain, disturbing and discomfiting. And that, I suppose, is ultimately the most important goal for a horror film.

Body Count: 11 or 12. Not really sure what to do about the pederast cook, who is, when we last see him, alive; but then again he gets one of the film's most outré make-up jobs, and isn't that the true measure of a body count kill?

Reviews in this series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

24 August 2009

TEN FOR MONDAY: REWRITING HISTORY

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has sparked off a host of thought pieces all centered around historical inaccuracy in motion pictures, but so far none of them have been all that interesting, to me at least. This is for two reasons:

-Nobody seems to care about films from before the mid-1980s

-All the films in the discussion suck

So here was my thought: what about movies, riddled with historical flaws, that are good or great anyway? They're out there, ranging from films that are just perfectly fine, despite having bad history, to films that are good precisely because of their bad history. Anyway, without further ado:

Ten Good Films That Are Bad History Lessons

The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933)
A magnificent, career-making turn by Charles Laughton is just one of the many delights of this Renaissance potboiler about a deeply lustful man and his destruction of everyone in his wake. But even if we recognise Laughton as the storybook version of the English monarch, the film's treatment of his 38-year reign is un-rigorous, to say the least: there's no sense of time passing at all, and one of the king's six wives doesn't even put in a cameo appearance. To say nothing of the monstrous compression of events and people, enough to make Elizabeth look like an encyclopedia article.

Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935)
Man, that Laughton fella. You couldn't pay him enough to star in a movie with even a whisper of historical credibility, I guess. Now, the film is of course based on a novel that was always meant to be an adventure story first, a documentary account second - but it does not do, I think, to let a man's reputation suffer as darkly as William Bligh's has in the years since the book, and then doubly so after the movie's depiction (thanks to Laughton's best performance ever - and I say that as something of a Laughton fanboy). He was, according to the best scholarship, not a baby-eating tyrant; he may in fact have been an unusually lenient captain, who had the misfortune to command a crew of layabouts who enjoyed the easy life on Tahiti more than they enjoyed sailing a ship. And the film's ending is a complete fabrication.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
The director who years later made a timeless catchphrase out of "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" got a start on it early, with the first of his "meta-mythic" Westerns. The basic facts of the gunfight at the OK Corral are almost all in place, by which I mean the names are mostly accurate; but practically every detail is tweaked or massively shifted, often for no apparent gain (such as bumping the events back by one year). And often, it must be said, for a very good gain indeed: the bulk of the changes considerably streamline the drama, turning what was in reality a convoluted and morally grey dispute into a simpler, more powerful tale of heroes and villains (though being a Ford film, there's still some grey area). The legend is usually better, don't you think?

One Million Years B.C. (Don Chaffey, 1966)
Of the robust genre of "cavemen and dinosaurs", why single out this one? Easy: because in addition to having cavemen and dinosaurs, it also gave the world the fur bikini. It's also the best of them all, since those dinosaurs were given life by the incomparable Ray Harryhausen, and that fur bikini was filled by the very capable body of Raquel Welch.

Bonnie and Clyde
(Arthur Penn, 1967)
Talk about printing the legend. I suppose most people would never have imagined that this extraordinary, watershed crime drama was anything but the stone-cold truth, as filtered through a thick veil of poetry; I didn't, until I was researching this list. The fact is that the whole plot is basically a jumbled-up version of what happened, never as outlandishly false as, say, the last film on this list, but probably no more true to history than the far more fanciful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow did rob banks in the area and time-frame specified, but that's as far as you can take it on faith. The real question: does anyone actually care when the results are this great?

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Because you can't make a list about films that tell wildly ahistorical lies without mentioning Herzog somewhere, that's why.

Jack the Ripper (Jesus Franco, 1976)
Okay, so I'm not just cheating, I'm kind of ripping the rules apart and pissing all over the shredded remains. I said "good or great" movies, and nothing made by Jess Franco - particularly, nothing made by Jess Franco in the 1970s - can possibly deserve either of those adjectives. But I'm including it anyway, for including my single favorite historical fuck-up ever. So, Jack the Ripper, right? What is the one single absolutely undeniable fact about this individual? We don't know who he was (if he was a he at all!), because he was never caught. Would you care to guess how this film ends? Oh, Jess. You are such a shitty, shitty director.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
The tragic story of a mediocre composer overshadowed by a truly brilliant rival and driven to jealous rage was never presented more stirringly than in this adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Unfortunately, this tremendously effective costume drama - one of the better American films of the 1980s, and maybe the cinema's all-time greatest depiction of envy - has also perpetuated a host of myths obscuring the known facts of the matter: Salieri and Mozart were, at worst, friendly rivals who supported each other's work during their acquaintance in Vienna; Salieri was hardly a mediocre composer - no Mozart, of course, but there's plenty to like in his work (it would be like suggesting that Ben Jonson was murderously envious of Shakespeare); and Mozart wasn't a vulgar clown. Of course, we can rationalise this all as the ravings of a madman left to wither away in an asylum. Except that, oops, Salieri didn't die in an asylum.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
I'm just saying, when you make a Kennedy assassination conspiracy movie so far out there that the other Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists are all like, "Dude, that movie is crazy. Don't judge all of us by that movie", that is when you know that you have strayed into some very perilous waters. I like to pretend it's an extended episode of The X-Files, and that way it seems like the best political thriller of the last 25 years.

Braveheart
(Mel Gibson, 1995)
Oh yes, I went there. We can certainly debate whether or not this is a good movie at all - many very smart people think it's absolute shit - but this is my list, and I like it, flaws and all. But we can never debate its historical authenticity. Rather than check off its cavalcade of mistakes, it might be faster to list the things it gets right:
-There was a man named William Wallace, and
-He fought against the English.