Friday, October 30, 2009

If I were John Carpenter and you were a Satan: revisiting Prince of Darkness

In some dilapidated, out-of-use Los Angeles church sits the ultimate cocktail. It swirls in a cylinder, demon-green, smoky, and capable of inducing a hell of a mean drunk. Donald Pleasence is a priest who enlists Victor Wong’s cockeyed, waddling old professor and his finest PhD physics students to come and investigate the weirdness. According to the promptly decoded accompanying literature the cocktail is actually the Anti-Christ, waiting to materialize and enter the world all decked out in Nosferatu garb. The local homeless population, overdressed and uniformly grotesque, stand around like catatonics apparently waiting to do the evil one’s bidding, whereas the Anti-Christ has to hork loogies into the mouths of the smart middleclass academics to get them playing on his team. One of them turns into a pillar of bugs before collapsing in the parking lot. Another has her skin turned inside out and hangs before a mirror to take Satan by the hand and pull him out. Tachyon transmissions from the future override the dreams of all involved. “Our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows,” says Wong. It also collapses at the movies, which can invade our subconscious even while our conscious mind knows perfectly well that what we’re watching is very, very silly.

Prince of Darkness screened last night at my neighbourhood second-run/rep cinema. I was eager to revisit the film after having last seen it at least a decade and a half ago—the length of my adult life, basically. I was prompted not only by a voracious appetite for horror, not only by a longing to remember what it was about the film that scared me so intensely as a kid. (For the record, it was the grainy television broadcast dreams from the future, as well as that startlingly despairing image of a woman suddenly finding herself trapped forever on the other side of a mirror with Satan. Plus, well, anything apocalyptic freaked me out as a kid.) What drew me to watch Prince of Darkness again was also my recent reading of Kent Jones’ eloquent 1998 essay on Carpenter, ‘American Movie Classic.’ Jones is one of the very few critics whose work has not only enlightened but actually moved me, and his heartfelt defense of Carpenter’s oeuvre struck a chord, especially since it reminded me of one of the most arrogant things I think I ever wrote in my shambling, accidental career as a critic. It was something to the effect of Carpenter seeming like “kind of a dumb guy.” I won’t try to justify this now rather embarrassing statement other than to say I was reviewing Ghosts of Mars—sorry, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars—I was very young, and I was trying on what I thought might be the critic’s cloak. (Rest assured, a reader did write in to take me to task for this.) The one piece of advice that Paul Matwychuk, my first editor, always stressed when asked was that I should be more opinionated. He was absolutely right to do suggest this to me, but it’s an inherent risk of the trade that sometimes being opinionated winds up making you sound like a nincompoop.

“Carpenter stands completely and utterly alone as the last genre filmmaker in America,” writes Jones. My first response to reading this was, what about Carl Franklin? But my second was a sense of the genuine nobility of this role in the film industry, a role once filled with such dynamicism by the likes of, to use Jones’ examples, Edgar G. Ulmer or Robert Siodmack. Cinema history has taught us repeatedly that working—seemingly—within the dictates of the establishment, within the literal
generic, offers filmmakers unique opportunities for subversion, subtlety, sophistication, and signature. But with the exception of Assault of Precinct 13, I confess that all my recent Carpenter viewings—which by means have been complete—have left me questioning again and again the distinction and richness of the filmmaker’s contributions to the various genres he’s dealt in.

Prince of Darkness is an interesting case study, written by Carpenter under a pseudonym, featuring no stars to overshadow the general buzz of collaboration under the guidance of a by then highly respected auteur—or to cloud the frequently awkward, faux-banal dialogue, hokey exposition, shrugged-off love story, or somewhat muddled treatise on the limits of science and religion and the ostensible urgency of their marriage. Of course, those TV news footage dreams and that through-the-looking-glass death shot endure, still freaking me out between my spells of hypnosis induced by yet another of Carpenter’s thin, monotonously portentous synth scores, and fits of spontaneous laughter, from myself and my fellow audience members, over Pleasence’s hammy monologues, Alice Cooper’s rather improbable impaling of a guy with a bicycle, Satan’s overwrought messages warning of his wrath, his acrobatic zombie minions, and that guy from Simon & Simon, who actually gives a fairly solid performance but whose moustache dances every time he smiles. (I should add however that Wong is terrific in the film, and the ending is quite nicely timed.) Jones champions Carpenter’s willingness to tell stories where protagonists are confronted with some pure, external evil, but I still question the depth of Carpenter’s investment in evil in Prince of Darkness as much as in Christine, where the car from hell is so inane it demands to take a backseat to the much more stimulating relationships, the nicely rendered air of teen alienation, and the filmmakers’ obsession with the vestiges of the 1950s. If only those elements, all of them worthwhile, could take control of the film rather than finally submit to the cornball, humdrum horror movie plot mechanics.

I’ll keep at this task of watching Carpenter’s films, probably every last one of them, partly out of my attempt to understand Jones’ fascination and respect, and partly because the truth is I have yet to see a single Carpenter film that’s all bad. Each seems to have its charms, the craftsmanship brought to the simplest details especially. The details are as consistently winning as the premises tend to feel negligible, leaving you wondering what does Carpenter really care about? What does he really want to share with us? What in these stories really speaks to him? I remember watching him interviewed on television and hearing him say that movies don’t scare him. So maybe that’s my fantasy John Carpenter movie, the one where we might actually get some glimpse at what really scares, beguiles, or moves John Carpenter.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wolf in chic clothing: Coco Avant Chanel

By focusing on the years between our heroine’s early gigs as seamstress and showgirl in a provincial musical hall—where she sings a song about a little pooch named Coco and inadvertently christens both herself and a global empire—and her ascension to wildly famous fashion icon,
Coco Avant Chanel manages to stave off a number of the pitfalls that commonly plague bio-pics. The film steers clear of lazy psychology, mercifully failing to conform to motivational speaker oversimplifications about how successful and influential people are supposedly made. It also avoids simply telling us what we would likely already know going in by offering a sort of biographical greatest hits collection.

The Coco—née Gabrielle—Chanel depicted here is a woman frustrated but undaunted by compromise. She will make concessions, but she measures them by the millimeter rather than the yard, and never lets her benefactors forget that she resents having to surrender something of herself. Call it part of her charm. Raised in an orphanage and coming to adulthood with few advantages, she escapes drudgery by becoming a sort of kept woman—kept, but not contained. The difference between the two is perhaps the real subject of the film. It is in any case the most interesting one.
Coco Avant Chanel is less a chronicle of upward mobility, or the designer/ businesswoman as a young cross-dressing social climber, than it is a surprisingly intriguing, sometimes sexy essay on the vagaries of self-realization and the oft-hidden moral untidiness of asserting a feminine or even feminist presence and sensibility upon an unsuspecting public.

Based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book
L’Irrégulière ou Mon Itinéraire Chanel and scripted by director Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille Fontaine, the overall style of the film is rather more conventional and classy than the subversive nuggets of its themes suggest. The music from Benjamin Button composer Alexandre Desplat has a sprinkling of the twee-fantastic to it and gets in the way of a few of the thornier scenes. Christophe Beaucarne’s photography is likewise a bit too sleek and cute on occasion, favouring shots that isolate Coco, her back to the camera, in the centre of the frame, as if to say, Look, there’s a famous person, and the whole world’s just happening around her. But signals of the precociousness or uniqueness of Coco are thankfully limited to playable actions, her listening to the nuns and whispering girls at the orphanage rather than actively participating in their social life, her radical adjustments to hats and dresses and men’s clothes, driven by compulsion. Gorgeous pastoral scenery—Coco comes to live with a wealthy industrialist in his country mansion—is savoured without becoming too overbearing. The film is obviously designed as Oscar candy, but at least it doesn’t make too slobbery a show of it.

The tangled emotional lives of its characters fare well as conjured by the brilliant supporting cast, Benoît Poelvoorde especially. He plays the industrialist/sugar daddy, sliding gracefully between snotty, privileged presumptuousness and understated heartbreak over the deepening adoration he feels for this poor girl he ostensibly rescued. Emmanuelle Devos gives a marvelous turn as an attractive actress slipping into middle-age who Coco seduces by simply removing all the extraneous hubbub from her headgear. The relationships between Coco and these two characters form the film’s most fascinating threads. And Coco herself is embodied by Audrey Tautou with appealing reserve. She holds nearly everything back, as though fearing it’ll all slip through her fingers if she were to allow herself much vulnerability. It’s a good strategy for a leading player in a bio-pic, particularly one in which the heroine is distinguished by her enigmatic persona and her championing of sensible, form-enhancing—rather than overpowering—style. There’s a delightful moment where she orders a fussy tailor to “Do as I say” before finishing him off with a strangely sincere little smile. Tautou is at times characterized as lacking substance, but it’s the lightness of her touch that rules the day in her best work.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

2000s: the decade in horror

What is horror? Something that invokes unease? Repulsion? What does it require? Surely not the supernatural, since so many horror films are grounded in realism and concern real-life horrors, and so many of the best ones are drenched in ambiguity. Is it something to do with how the past clings to us as we try to move forward in life? Something to do with death perhaps—though there are things worse than death. Let’s agree that horror films trade in some form of violence, though psychological or spiritual violence frequently trumps physical violence, which has the potential to just leave us numb or queasy, like a roller coaster ride.

Session 9

The genre seems to shift with every generation. What do the 2000s say about the way we fear and tremble today? Do we need graphic torture to keep us awake through the night? I confess that I can’t get too worked up over novel approaches to bodily desecration for its own sake. Torture cinema is certainly horrifying, but it’s also fundamentally boring. Like a dose of dysentery. The more I look over this list of my favourite horror films of our dwindling decade, the more I see how many endure for pretty much the same reasons the great horror films of the 30s and 40s or of the 60s and 70s endure. They strike a balance between unnerving mystery and a guttural, creeping certainty about something repellant. Something waits for us in the shadows. Something irrational, yet possibly real. Some shard of nightmare that lingers with us when we wake. Something common sense urges us to avoid. Yet we go to the movie anyway.

The Others

The Others (2001) leaned heavily on a hundred-year-old template, yet where the film finally lands is a brilliant twist on The Turn of the Screw. It was also the film that convinced me of Nicole Kidman’s talents. I’d found her too icy to be the sensual leading lady previous roles pitched her as, but playing this stern mother charged with protecting her two weirdly-diseased children in an enormous, apparently haunted house, she was both convincing and transfixing. The film found a strong companion piece in The Orphanage (07), also from a Spanish director, also featuring a woman, a house, and a past demanding to be acknowledged. And Belén Rueda carried that film just as boldly as Kidman did hers. It was a little cornier as I recall, yet there are things in it I haven’t stopped thinking about.


Speaking of Kidman, I’d propose that one of the most haunting horror films of the 2000s may have suffered critically, and maybe commercially, for not being regarded as horror at all. It’s only in the final moments of Birth (04), when Kidman’s heroine, shattered by her uncertainty over the case of the little boy who claimed to be her dead husband, that its generic status is confirmed. I missed it when it first appeared and only caught up with it later on DVD—and only after I’d devoured Warner’s Val Lewton box set, which greatly informed my reading of the film, which deserves to be considered among the finest works of Luis Buñuel’s old collaborator, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Descent

Speaking of birth, the birthing/cavern imagery in The Descent (05) made for some of the most potent meta-body horror of the decade. As it became more fantastical, aspects of the film were perhaps a little too conventional, and too silly, to maintain suspension of disbelief, but this story about an all-girl spelunking trip was at the same time too effective an exploitation of claustrophobia, both external and internal, to be written off.

The Ring

I’m tempted to include the deeply creepy, if, again, sometimes very silly The Ring (02) on this list. I only hesitate because I can’t quite call Gore Verbinski’s US remake any sort of significant revision of the Japanese original (1998)—except perhaps for whatever fresh resonance it generates from Naomi Watts’ central performance, which offers some vivid emotional variation we just don’t get from Nakano Matsushima. But I’d rather champion something else from Japan altogether. Séance (00), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s fresh, inventive adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, is perhaps the finest example of the director’s unique, hushed horror aesthetic, drizzled with guilt.

The Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (01) or Pan’s Labyrinth (06)? Both films involve children, both concern the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and both were made by the immensely talented Guillermo Del Toro, who hails from Mexico but makes most of his best films, these two included, in Spain. I’ll choose the former, a ghost story, if only because it’s a purer example of the genre, and because the conceit of the unexploded bomb in the courtyard is one of the most inspired pregnant objects in recent film.


Session 9 (01), featuring a riveting central performance from Scottish actor Peter Mullan, gets my vote for best haunted house of the decade. Okay, it’s actually an asylum, not a house, but this is the movie’s bravura premise, which finds a small group of labourers pulling the asbestos out of the Danvers State Mental Hospital, a decrepit old shell of a building, and combines two of the best foundations for horror: the phantasmagoric and the looming threat of mental illness. The film is nearly as good as David Cronenberg’s Spider (02), adapted from Patrick McGrath. It’s also about the vaporous frontiers between lucidity and madness, between victim and predator, and also a bloody good showcase for a tremendous British acting talent, in this case Ralph Fiennes.

Let the Right One In

Equating the discomforts of lycanthropy with those of puberty, Canada’s own
Ginger Snaps (00) was undoubtedly a superb, inventive application of a familiar monster mythology into an adolescent context. But I have to say I was even more impressed by Let the Right One In (08), which took a similar tack with vampires but accentuated its tale with greater specificity of location, period, mood and art direction. It’s just a weirder movie in all the right ways, less generic yet still hugely entertaining, going even deeper into questions about gender, development, and the vertiginous sexual confusion of childhood.


Can I make it up to Canada by declaring Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (08) as easily the smartest, most deliriously bizarre spin on the zombie movie of the decade? It takes William Burroughs’ notion of the word as virus and runs with it like a screaming, foaming at the mouth maniac. Admittedly, it finally struggles hard to make complete sense, but it generates so many interesting questions along the way that coherence seems of secondary importance. It also the confines of a small town radio station and the deep, dark Ontario winter into a cocktail of serious chills.

Drag Me to Hell

I had a lot of fun with Drag Me to Hell (09), Sam Raimi’s return to horror after a long season of super hero hi-jinx—though like Raimi’s Spiderman movies this feels very much the product of comic books, specifically of the EC variety. A pretty, somewhat conceited girl just wants to manage a bank, but she gets stuck with a witch’s curse she can’t shake off, while Raimi sticks us with a surprise finale that left everyone in the theatre where I saw it reeling. Nothing, however, freaked the shit out of any big crowd I sat among like Paranormal Activity (07/09). Orin Peli’s demonic home movie horror is crude as all hell—it’s supposed to be—but its this very sense of the real, which it firmly held onto until its very stupid final moment, that imbued it with a feeling of campfire tale terror that’s so difficult to work over modern audiences with. Utterly reliant on contemporary technology, the movie is arguably designed for our age, yet more than anything else I’ve written about here it utilizes the most old-fashioned, if not primordial tricks in the book. It also hit number one at the box office last weekend. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unwanted body hair, unwanted parents, unwanted metal massacre: three from the 1980s

The 1980s were strange years for horror—strange and deliriously productive. The production code was a distant memory, boundaries of taste had already been pushed past their breaking point, the home video market exploded. The inevitable result was the transformation of carnage into camp. Horror always lent itself to humour, its premises so often silly in the cold light of day. Hysterical fear collapses easily into hysterical laughter. The dismal side of this was that audiences were frequently encouraged to take distance from rather than become absorbed by the stories, to stay on the surface. Don’t shudder to consider the terror onscreen when you can smugly look down on the terrorized—the victims are so dumb!—and admire the nifty special effects. But with the remake industry now gobbling up rights to ’80s titles, reconsideration is facilitated through fresh releases of the originals on DVD.

The new comedy-horror equation was apparently still in its infancy when
An American Werewolf in London (1981) debuted. Critics felt the film couldn’t make up its mind. This seems more of a slight to writer/director John Landis than a genuine assessment—following Animal House (78) and The Blues Brothers (80) doubts about Landis’ earnestness with regards to the genre may have been in doubt. Yet the film feels lovingly invested in werewolf mythology and the gravity of its protagonist’s dilemma. The humour emerges naturally out of the situation, even if the use of every popular song with “moon” in the title feels awkward and ham-fisted in its irony.

It’s a story about friendship. Two horny, likable, ordinary young guys in puffy coats backpacking through Northern England stray too far from the road and onto the foggy moors. They fall victim to the local lycanthrope. One dies, one lives. The survivor is taken to London, is taken home by a hot nurse, and encounters some unnerving side effects once the full moon rises. The dead friend, lacerated flesh now growing putrid, pays regular visits. He’s stuck wandering the earth until the final trace of his werewolf-killer has been extinguished, so he asks his best pal to suicide, and get it over with. There are captivating dream sequences. Griffin Dunne is terrific as the dead friend with deadpan humour. “Ever talked to a corpse?” he asks. “It’s boring!” And the legendary transformation scene is hideous and completely fixating, you can't take your eyes off of it, a testament to the allure of well-made (by Rick Baker), tactile rubbery effects over blandly smooth CGI.

He always says grace, makes birdhouses in the basement, and gets choked-up while giving a speech at a neighbourhood barbecue. He’s also prepared to butcher his whole family if they can’t realize his demented Republican fantasy of the perfectly wholesome household. But we know that from the beginning, when we see Jerry Blake alter his appearance and close shop at one such failed residence. Inspired by the real case of murderer John List and scripted by crime fiction maestro Donald Westlake—whose own father, like List, once lost his job and didn’t tell his family—The Stepfather (87), directed by Joseph Ruben, is a model of taut low-budget crispness, marred only by the laughably illustrative score from Yes synth-man Patrick Moraz.

There’s no fatuous attempts to explain Blake’s psychosis, while the best subtextual elements—the parallels between Blake and his teenage stepdaughter, the vaguely unseemly romantic vibes emanating from the stepdaughter’s fatherly psychiatrist—remain always just present enough to read without being too winky. There are references, especially to Hitchcock—the newspaper scene, Norman Rockwell setting, and central relationship recall
Shadow of a Doubt (42), while the clean-up scene, the shower and the big knife echo Psycho (60)—but these enrich rather than detract from the film’s distinctive mood. The film made a cult star of Terry O’Quinn, whose performance is so committed, so nuanced, so inside the character of Jerry Blake it’s positively chilling.

Trick or Treat (86), by contrast, probably wouldn’t frighten a small child, unless that child is terrified by big hair. But it uses the genre to generate something so sensitive to teenage experience, so merrily immersed in a subculture, it hardly matters. A much-bullied high school head banger who calls himself Ragman—played by Marc Price, aka Skippy from Family Ties, a masterstroke of casting—starts to dabble in the occult after his favoured metal god dies in a house fire. To the first of many pitch-perfect tracks from Fastway, the opening montage is a tour of Ragman’s tormented adolescent mind, the bedroom lined with handcuffs, action figures, studded collars, a Priest calendar, candles, and a poster of his beloved Sammi Curr—who most closely resembles Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns—gazing down at him from high above. “I can’t believe they cancelled your Halloween concert,” Ragman writes in his fan letter to Sammi, choking back tears. “It’s like you say: Rock’s chosen warriors will rule the apocalypse… I’ve got thoughts in my head that only you would understand…” Identification is total.

“Do you even care who’s running for student council?” a big-haired teen inquires, assuring us that the gulf that separates Ragman from his schoolmates is unbreachable. The question is posed just before the menacing Aryan jocks throw Ragman into a public pool, yet another scene of humiliation from which our hero stamps away, his sneakers squishing loudly with water, as he sputters “Bunch of fucking assholes!” in front of the one popular girl who’s on his side. This attention to detail is characteristic of
Trick or Treat. Its narrative’s beyond ridiculous, and the last act, devoted mostly to killing the ultra-queer, ballet-trained metal beast unleashed from Pandora’s box—actually a slab of vinyl which offers advice on revenge plots and conjures the dead if played backwards—gets a little tiring, but the writers and director Charles Martin Smith (the guy from Never Cry Wolf) never let a moment go by without some sharp shard of wit intervening, while There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit surveys the suburban scenery in dusky tones.

Unlike the aforementioned films there is no new, or even good DVD of Trick or Treat. I first saw it as a kid on Super Channel. I taped it and watched it until it suffered from video-rot. The crappy pan-and-scan version I bought for ten bucks off the internet sports no special features, and the cover makes it seem like Ozzy Osbourne—who plays a televangelist—and Gene Simmonswho plays Ragman's DJ/father figure, modeled after Simmons' childhood hero Wolfman Jackare the stars of the movie when the two of them together make up about three—brilliant!—minutes of screen time total. I write this in the hope that this sorry state of affairs will one day change. I'll do the audio commentary track for a case of beer!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Secret doors, captive beasts, pulsating heads: Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive

Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive collects five of the studio’s genre pieces spanning the years 1941-43. It’s an interesting transitional period if you consider that Universal’s golden years of monster movies climaxed a decade earlier—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein all debuted between 1931 and 1935—while what would arguably be the most distinctive horror films of the new decade were emerging from a B-unit at RKO helmed by producer Val Lewton, whose approach to the genre—subtle, neurotic, contemporary, rife with ambiguity, akin to noir—was essentially a complete reversal of the Universal model. The title of this box set is as misleading as it is awkward. There are no classics here, but most are at least pretty fun, while some are genuinely interesting, inventive and pleasingly strange.

The Black Cat (1941) and Horror Island (41) are both pretty slight whodunits in which characters assemble in a single location housing an unidentified killer motivated by some looming treasure. Both are big on broad comedy, the former enlisting an aging Lou Costello type, the latter a lusty sailor with a wooden leg who resembles a rather discreet drag queen. Concerning a family eagerly awaiting the death of its ancient, very wealthy matriarch, The Black Cat claims to be “suggested by” Edgar Allen Poe, though I can only imagine he would have suggested aborting production. However, the film’s atmosphere, with its smoky moonlight outlining a dense garden of trees, benefits tremendously from the work of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who would go on to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons (42), The Night of the Hunter (55) and The Naked Kiss (64).

Man Made Monster (41), directed by George Waggner, who would also direct The Wolf Man that same year, is more interesting. Like The Wolf Man, it features Lon Chaney Jr. as a protagonist who’s at once victim and monster. You could say the film is secretly about the curse of survival, and traces of its premise can be found in Unbreakable (2000). A bus is hurled into a high power line. Everyone dies—save Chaney’s Dan McCormick, a sideshow performer who does tricks with electricity. Rather than feel wracked with guilt, Dan walks away from the accident cheerful as ever. A sadistic genius electro-biologist lures Dan into his laboratory, intrigued by Dan’s apparent immunity to electricity. He starts pumping Dan with larger and larger doses of electricity until Dan develops a dependency—there’s a pretty chilling addiction subtext here—and finally transforms into an automaton whose flesh pulsates with white heat. Supporting characters tend toward the bland, but there are beguiling montages involving note-taking and lab work, a curious current of mistrust toward psychiatry, and above all a tragic, soulful yet totally weird performance from Chaney. We feel bad for him, but do we ever really know what’s going on inside this guy?

On the surface
Night Monster (42) seems of the same lineage as The Black Cat and Horror Island, replete with an old dark house, abundant secret passages and Bela Lugosi as a servant. Yet this is a creepier, more sinister, more absorbing, set in some swampy Southern town where the nights are draped in fog and local authorities don’t sweat much over the series of strangulation killings occurring near the mansion of a reclusive, quadriplegic millionaire who surrounds himself with his mentally ill sister, Lugosi’s butler, some mystic in a turban, and a chauffer who doubles as a salivating rapist. A trio of doctors converge at the millionaire’s house with their hands out for donations but instead find they’re treated to demonstrations of how matter can be altered by telekinetically adjusting its vibrations. They’re also here to pay penance for their collective failure to save the millionaire from his present condition. I loved the expressionistic fog excess, there’s a really good-looking lady shrink, a haunting night walk sequence where a spunky young woman is sadly killed, and Lugosi is forced to act normal in certain scenes, reminding you what an interesting actor he could be when not always hamming it up.

A sort of girly cousin to Fox’s
Dr. Renault’s Secret (42), the puzzlingly titled Captive Wild Woman (43) was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who’d soon be helming some essential noirs, such as Murder My Sweet (44) and Crossfire (47). It features two prominent male figures, one ostensibly heroic, the other the obvious villain, aligned by their compulsion to throw wild animals into unnatural situations and tame these animals until they do their bidding. The first man is a circus performer, the second a mad scientist obsessed with “racial improvement” who inserts human glands into a gorilla, the result being the beautiful and bizarre Acquanetta, “the Venezuelan Volcano.” (The actress was actually from Wyoming.) Sounds like a successful experiment in forcing the evolution of beasts into hot babes, but of course confusion and disaster await. The wildly improbably story is quite fascinating, the mise en scène an elegant mélange of slow-motion, creeping traveling shots and sudden close-ups, and the scenes in which the circus guy tangles with real tigers and lions are more genuinely nerve-wracking than anything else in the entire box set. See it. And be nice to animals.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In the flesh: Cronenberg on Videodrome

The story goes that when Roberto Benigni met David Cronenberg he got down on all fours and kissed the director’s shoes. This was Toronto, many years ago, and it seems Benigni was in a state of euphoric relief. Cronenberg’s films, he explained, made him afraid to visit the city. It came as a surprise to discover that Canadians really were as polite as they say, that head-combusting telekinetic killers weren’t terrorizing Bay Street, that our televisions behaved. Cronenberg told the story when he dropped in on a screening of
Videodrome at Jackman Hall last night. He reminisced about his stars, fondly recalling James Woods as the only actor he’s ever yelled at, and explaining how his work with Deborah Harry was essentially a matter of shrinking her performance down from rock-theatrics exaggeration to the eerily sexy hush it became. The film was presented as part of the Cinematheque Ontario’s Toronto on Film series, so Cronenberg was also there to talk about the city. There was something strangely warm and fuzzy about sitting in a capacity crowd to immerse ourselves in Max Renn’s descent into the sadomasochistic, surreal and cancerous world of Videodrome while taking note of the many glimpses of Toronto circa 1982. So much has changed since then, but it was oddly comforting to note that local legend Reg Hartt’s black and white photocopied posters for his “Cineforum” home screenings of classic films, which can still be found on lamp posts all over Toronto, looked exactly the same.

A filmmaker who truly aims for the guts

I have no idea how many times I've watched Videodrome in the last 27 years, but I can honestly say that even after multiple viewings as a child, a teenager and an adult, the movie remains absolutely fucking bananas. In his introduction to Cronenberg’s introduction Adam Nayman recalled the extra layers of taboo the film accumulated by having to be smuggled into his family home on VHS. Indeed, the film’s resonance as a home video product is a central element in its legacy, yet seeing it on the big screen with an audience reminds you how enduringly discomforting—and kind of hilarious—an experience the film offers. “It has a philosophy,” one character warns another about the titular underground torture porn, “and that’s what makes it dangerous.” That’s also what makes it deliciously goofy. The walls are electrified wet clay, the wizard is nothing but a library of videocassettes, and Renn feeds a gun to his stomach vagina cavity. The film wasn’t prescient on purpose, Cronenberg emphasized. In fact it looked backwards to some degree, to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who haunted the University of Toronto when Cronenberg was a student there. And it responded to what was in the air in the moment, like the presence of soft-core porn on Canadian television, and fears of the medium’s potentially corrupting powers that had been circulating for decades. “All you have an artist that makes you original is your antenna,” asserted Cronenberg, whose own antennae have been picking up often brilliantly perverse broadcasts from the collective Id for nearly four decades.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Return of the robotical son: Astro Boy

Based on Tezuka Osamu’s beloved manga and anime franchise,
Astro Boy is set partly in the clean and luxurious floating Metro City, and partly in the vast trash heap that constitutes the planet below, a dystopian vision in which the segregation of the wealthy elite from the underprivileged majority has been pushed to extremes—as have issues of waste disposal. Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) experiments with “pure positive” and “pure negative” energies, which gets war-giddy President Stone (Donald Sutherland) jazzed on inventing excuses for some ultra-high tech ass-kicking to help boost his chances at re-election.

During one such experiment, single parent Tenma’s precocious only-son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is killed. Tenma plummets into grief and determines to bring Toby back to life by fusing some of the kid’s DNA into the body of a powerful robot look-alike, complete with all of Toby’s memories. But Tenma quickly becomes horrified by his creation, this cheerful little golem with his dead son’s smile and voice and demands for love. The robot Toby, our Astro Boy, is finally stranded on Earth, where other robots are onto his artificial nature while humans assume he’s one of them. He hooks up with a band of orphans led by one Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a futuristic Fagan who hosts monster robot rallies. So Astro Boy has to keep a low profile, pose as a normal boy, conceal from the world his jet-propelled feet, superhuman strength, and machine guns ready to pop out of his synthetic flesh. Something that proves difficult once he knows that President Stone is on his tail and calling for his super-charged heart.

I’m not sufficiently versed in existing Astro lore to be certain how much of Flushed Away director David Bowers’ feature version extrapolates, bastardizes or re-invigorates the source material, but there’s no denying how engaged I was in Astro Boy’s recasting of Pinocchio, not to mention Oliver Twist, the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, and Freaks, its merging of familiar myths with modern concerns of class, isolationism, technological ownership, the environment, and the residual effects of rampant consumerism. Of course the implications are all pretty explicit, which seems perfectly legitimate given that this movie, with its moral parables, its colorful, fluid imagery and its exciting, explosive set pieces, is clearly geared toward a family audience.

Despite some notable histrionics from Cage, the vocal performances go a long way toward making Astro Boy feel buoyant amidst several detours into tragedy and eerie questions about what it means to be human. Sutherland actually underplays President Stone’s obvious roots in Bush Jr., Kristen Bell gives surprising texture to Cora, Astro Boy’s teenage love interest—speaking of eerie questions—and Samuel L. Jackson has a lot of fun within the very limited range of vocal possibilities of Zog, the giant robot pal revived by Astro Boy. Fantastic and somewhat simplistic as Astro Boy is, there’s a pleasing degree of investment here in what the consequences of our continued exploration of virtual culture and the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence. Sure beats the hell out of Surrogates, in any case.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sleep, shadows, secret lives: Murakami, Hoffmann, Stevenson

Sleeping Beauty Edward Burne-Jones 1870

The days close early, and soon they’ll change the time on us and darkness will fall before we even leave work. October brings with it a surplus of night, but not, for some of us, any extra sleep. Me, I wake up in the wee hours, and most often pass the time reading. Come autumn I get hooked on spooky stories, and I got to thinking on stories about sleep itself. A favourite from Haruki Murakami—you can find it in
The Elephant Vanishes—is actually called ‘Sleep.’ A seemingly normal middleclass woman stops sleeping. She reads Anna Karinina. The problem is that she never catches up—I’m told by experts that no one ever actually “catches up” on sleep, but it’s a handy expression—and she kinda likes it, the freedom, the hours no longer spent idly—think of all the gigantic Russian novels to read. She feels energized, renewed, as though undergoing some transformation. But into what?

E.T.A. Hoffmann

I don’t know if E.T.A. Hoffmann had trouble sleeping, though it’s easy to imagine how the writing of ‘The Sandman,’ first published in 1818 in a collection entitled, aptly enough, The Night Pieces, might have troubled his rest of the author. “Something terrible has entered my life,” writes Nathaniel to his dear friend Lothario—the first part of the story is delivered through a series of letters. He recounts a childhood marked by his mother’s nightly demands that he be off to bed lest the sandman come and find him, and indeed, he hears him mounting the stairs as he lay awake in the dark. This sandman is eventually discovered to be a lawyer—like Hoffmann—and colleague of Nathaniel’s father, a man with hairy hands who scares children away with the mere threat of his touch, “a repellant, spectral monster bringing misery, distress and earthly and eternal ruination wherever he went.” Nathaniel believes him to be the murderer of his father. Now Nathaniel is an adult student, living in another city, but he claims the sandman has reappeared in his life, posing as a seller of barometers.

Hoffmann, with friends

Clara is Lothario’s sister and Nathaniel’s fiancée. She reads the letter intended for her brother and writes back to Nathaniel, assuring him in so many words that he’s basically just a little crazy. She suggests that he simply endeavour to “be cheerful.” But Nathaniel’s caught up in something clearly beyond Clara’s understanding. He’s convinced his will is subject to some power mysterious and vast. He’s confronted again by the barometer seller, who covers a table in glasses, and later telescopes, one of which is purchased by Nathaniel, who begins to feel foolish about his suspicions and becomes fascinated by the object. And it strikes me as interesting that this fascination with seeing, specifically with seeing through the aid of a mechanical object, is what seems to lead Nathaniel to his downfall. He falls in love with another woman, one not so cheerful as Clara, but whose strange stillness is transfixing. She’s more like a coveted object than a person. Something inside of Nathaniel begins to split apart. The ending of ‘The Sandman’ is rather ambiguous, and brilliantly chilling. It’s referenced at length in Freud’s ‘The Uncanny.’

Grave of Hoffmann

Hoffmann himself has been characterized as a guy with two distinct faces, and the theme of man’s dual nature is given further expression in ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry,’ his most famous story, one often considered the prototype for detective fiction—it predates Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by 20 years. It certainly must be the first example of this odd convention of having mysteries solved by old ladies—its title character petitions numerous local authorities to reconsider their assumptions about the murder of a celebrated maker of jewelry named Cardillac in 1680 Paris. Cardillac is actually the story’s most memorable character, with Hoffmann’s portrait compelling us to draw parallels between virtuosity and villainy, art and evil. Cardillac claims to have been followed all his life by an “evil star,” and we start to see how the jewels he so admires twinkle just like that heavenly eye. Of course ‘Mademoiselle de Scudéry’ isn’t terribly macabre, which is what I’ve been in the mood for and, with Halloween approaching, what I aim to steer you toward. But it led me to finally read a horror classic I’d previously neglected, one regarded as the definitive narrative investigation into the multiplicities of self, and the beast within.

Portraits of Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

Imagine you have an old friend so beloved to yourself, held in such high esteem by others, that were he to change radically, to alter his behaviour in a wildly grotesque fashion, you wouldn’t even recognize him standing before you. That’s one of the questions that lingers with you after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson was inspired by the true story of Deacon Brody, respected businessman by day, burglar and thief by night. But the story of Dr Jekyll and his slow surrender to his shadow self also lends itself to being read as a parable of drug addiction, and it’s notable that after having his manuscript destroyed Stevenson rewrote the whole thing during a six-day cocaine binge. The work lends itself to so many interpretations, and nearly all of them work because Stevenson’s storytelling is so geared toward realistic detail and the rich evocations of its relationships. His is a world of bachelors, of intense male friendships, allegiances that defy law or even logic in the actions that inspire. (There’s surely a queer reading out there, too.)

“I have lost confidence in myself,” Jekyll tells his friend Utterson—another lawyer. Indeed his self is not what he thought it to be. The cruel and murderous Mr Hyde is the result of some fantastic experiment, but he was surely waiting within Jekyll’s psyche all along. It takes a drug to shake “the fortress of identity,” but the more important ingredient in Hyde’s birth was surely Jekyll’s urge to let loose his demons and to do so without punishment, to have his evil other hide in plain sight. Stevenson closes the novella with Jekyll’s own words, which elevates its horror by leaving us not with Utterson’s “I thought I knew the man…” but with something rather more frightening: the man never really knew himself.