Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Through the past, very, very darkly

I have rarely experienced a film at once so very good and so despairing. Each sequence of The Act of Killing struck me as vital, incisive, edited so as to contribute to the film’s immense cumulative power. And in the case of nearly every sequence, I couldn’t wait for it to end. That’s not a backhanded compliment. Texas-born, UK-based Joshua Oppenheimer’s wildly idiosyncratic documentary about the massacre of as many as 2.5 million supposed Indonesian communists in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of President Sukarno is innovative, challenging and perversely brilliant. It yields a flood of insights into the proliferation of evil in a permissive environment—among its executive producers are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. It is often very funny in a horrendous sort of way. It’s one of the best films you’ll see this year, easily. It’s simply hard to take if you try to maintain any faith in human goodness. It is a sustained gaze into the abyss.

The operating premise is a stroke of genius. Oppenheimer located some men, self-described gangsters, who were key players in the mass murders. Learning of how they remain proud of their actions, how they have remained revered public figures in Indonesia and even held public office, and—this is essential—how they love the movies, Oppenheimer offered to facilitate their writing, directing and acting in reenactments of their ostensible glory days. The Act of Killing, thankfully, is not the mere fruit of their amateur labours; rather, it’s best summed up as Oppenheimer’s “making of.” It surveys the process of casting and re-staging atrocities, and the very gradual effect that this process has on one man in particular: Anwar Congo, who can seem like a gentle paternal figure one moment—he invites his grandsons to come watch him play one of his own victims, despite the fact that his role in the scene has clearly, perhaps irreversibly, traumatized him—and the next brag about how he was so much more sadistic than the Nazis. He’s not exaggerating.

There are in The Act of Killing clips from a TV talk show in which the cheerful host interviews Congo and others about their movie project, and, while perfectly real, it is astoundingly close to Oliver Stone levels of satire. There’s a scene in which a man recruited to play a torture victim relays a personal memory of his stepfather’s abduction and slaughter; he smiles all the while and is careful to iterate that he’s no communist. When they shoot his scene his performance feels unbearably real. There’s a scene in which members of the still powerful Pancasila Youth paramilitary group help to reenact the total destruction of a village, and one of the Pancasila members flatly declares how content he is to rape anything that moves—especially if it’s under 14. But the most important sequence is saved for the close of The Act of Killing, when Congo, having reached the end of his cinematic stroll down memory lane, returns to a balcony where he murdered countless victims. His hair has turned white, and as he shuffles around the space he is twice overcome with the overwhelming need to vomit. He doubles over and makes the most horrific noises, but he just can’t seem to let the vomit come. Probably because he’s afraid that, if he does, it might never stop.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Parental guidance advised

“We’re not savages. We’re English!” This line, spoken early in Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963), when the boys left stranded on a tropical island are still keen to institute some version of democracy, gets at something about this film I really like. Devoid of sound, image and behaviour, William Golding’s source novel can be read as an allegory, about how any social order carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, about how warlike instincts persist in us, waiting for opportunity, or permission. But once Golding’s story is rendered as cinema its inherent Englishness seems essential. The uniforms, the classism, the faux-politesse, the naïve patriotism, the bragging over whose father does what for a living: these elements endow the universality of Lord of the Flies with vivid specificity. That balance is so often crucial to movies, which tend to become flat striving blindly to speak for all. Lord of the Flies is an exceptional film in numerous ways, and if you haven’t seen it, Criterion has released it in an excellent new package on DVD and Blu-ray.

It opens with some extremely economical exposition: images of boys at private school, in choir, at their dinner appear in a series of grainy stills made grainier still when the camera zooms in. Then come images of rockets, an evacuation notice, and planes. We’ve quickly been told all we need to know and the real drama can begin, with Ralph (James Aubrey) and Piggy (Hugh Edwards) traipsing through the jungles of the island on which they’ve been left to fend for themselves. They soon find other boys, including a choir, who memorably enter singing their way down the beach in their capes. Organization is deemed key, and Ralph instantly wins the confidence of the others, becoming their foreman, much to the chagrin of Jack (Tom Chapin), the choir leader, who with time will wrestle control from Ralph and lead the others into precisely the sort of savagery he disparaged in that remark quoted at the top of this column. Jack’s a malevolent force in Lord of the Flies, which builds to scenes of frenzied murder, but there is surely some other, subversive version of this story in which we could imagine Jack as the antihero, embracing the ancient call for ecstasy, blood-letting, dance and the annihilation of every last vestige of soul-deadening civilization.

Brook was introduced to producer Lewis Allen as “a con artist—but a con artist for art.” He managed to convince an entire crew, none of who had made a feature, to come to an actual island with a bunch of children, none of who were professional actors, and make a movie with minimal resources. Despite such a hubristic approach, the result exudes craft, precision and style: the incorporation of music that varies from a flute-driven theme to primal drumming to children singing ‘Kyrie eleison’; the omnipresent landscape swaying and looming over and gradually transforming the characters; the rays of light that break up on the water’s surface and the transfixing close-ups of boys’ faces, which so often go on longer than you expect, because Brook was always waiting for something real and unexpected to transpire. If the film still gives us the chills it’s partly because of this attention to the real, not improvisation per se—that’s too actorly a term—but rather flickers of genuine thinking, sweating, stumbling, singing, worrying. These characters never seem less than real kids, living it up while the adults are away—and ready to resume niceties the moment an adult shows up. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Haunted housework

Ed Warren was the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Vatican. His wife Lorraine claims to be clairvoyant. The couple founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952 and made a career out of conducting investigations into—and, when required, interventions with—the paranormal. If their names ring a bell, however faintly, it’s probably on account of their most famous case, one involving a house in Amityville, Long Island, the subject of a movie I used to sneak behind my parents’ couch to watch late at night when I was a child and it seemed to be on TV all the time.

The Conjuring, on which Lorraine Warren served as consultant, renders another of their remarkable cases into a “based on real events” horror film. To what degree those real events have been exaggerated or wholly invented, either by the Warrens or by screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, is hard to say. There were times in the second half of The Conjuring where I felt that more restraint would have gone a long way toward helping me suspend my disbelief. Still, the film, directed by James Wan, is easily one of the most effective entries into the haunted house subgenre in years.

The Conjuring takes place on Rhode Island in 1971. The Warrens are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, costumed to resemble Puritans making some lame attempt to look semi-hip. Their performances exude respect for the Warrens and their claims, though Wilson’s willingness to let Ed come off as something of a well-meaning square imbues the role with some pleasing texture. The Warrens’ services are solicited by Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), a working-class couple who recently moved into an enormous bargain-priced farmhouse with their four rambunctious daughters. The house needs many repairs, but such tactile concerns are quickly dwarfed by inexplicable rancid odours, pictures that keep falling off the walls, and clocks that keep stopping at 3.07 a.m. Carolyn starts developing enormous bruises she can’t account for and one of the girls sees a figure standing behind her bedroom door declaring that it wants her family dead. For a while, at least some of these unnerving developments could be regarded as manifestations of the sorts of anxieties any family might feel when relocating to a secluded place and starting a new life without much financial security. Like so many ghost stories, The Conjuring plays as a cautionary tale about dubious real estate investments.

Of course, the creepy incidents accumulate well past the point of ambiguity, and things get bad enough for the Warrens to call in an exorcist. But even as The Conjuring starts to exhibit full-on supernatural phenomena, Wan wisely measures the atmospherics. In keeping with the period, the film derives a certain flavor from horror films of the ’70s, in its use of devices such as ostentatious push-ins, for example—though an incredibly elaborate follow-shot feels very much of this century. There’s a clever POV shot taken from under a bed, and a sequence in the Perrons’ basement that shrewdly limits the soundtrack to only what is picked up by Ed’s microphone. Wan’s mature style (as opposed to the style employed in films like Saw) is put to much better use here than it was in the overrated, undercooked and fussily designed Insidious, and thanks to Taylor especially—who really gets put through the ringer—the film’s engagement is sustained to a substantial degree on account of the cast, which is not a claim most contemporary horror films, so often dependent on tired tropes and boo moments, can make.     


Monday, July 15, 2013

A Room with an infinite number of views

There is a moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in which novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gazes into a scale model of a labyrinth that lies just outside the walls of the Overlook Hotel, the remote ski resort where he and his family are spending the winter. In that model he sees the real thing, and in that real thing he will eventually become lost and perish. The labyrinth is a trap. The movie is a labyrinth. The trap is the movie.

Based on the novel by Stephen King, The Shining was Kubrick’s one stab at horror. It’s a story of familial collapse, writer’s block and cabin fever. (It may also be a ghost story, though that’s up for debate.) But after you see Rodney Ascher’s remarkable essay film Room 237, named after an especially troublesome room at the Overlook, you might start to believe that The Shining is also about the Holocaust, the colonization of the Americas, and how NASA faked the moon landing. The film is structured around interviews with five subjects who each have exceedingly elaborate theories about the film’s real meanings, theories based on architectural inconsistencies, typewriters, canned foods, posters, carpeting and the number of vehicles in a parking lot. Ascher weaves these interviews into a symphony of fringe scholarship and film clips, a beguiling, immersive homage to obsessive interpretation and the looming power of a work of art in which no seemingly inexplicable detail can possibly be the result of mere accident.

Producer Tim Kirk and director Rodney Ascher

I spoke with Ascher and producer Tim Kirk during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Room 237 screened to the delight of the city’s most ardent cinephiles. We met at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, which, though located in the heart of Canada’s biggest city, retains just enough aging luxury to evoke the appropriate creepiness.

JB: In the press notes for Room 237 you mention how you guys would take walks with your children to discuss The Shining. There’s something creepy about that. I guess because, amongst the apparently infinite number of readings one can apply to the film, it is also parable about families falling apart.

Rodney Ascher: Absolutely. One of the interesting things about re-watching The Shining over the course of 30 years is noting how your relationship to it changes. As a kid, Danny is your surrogate. Yet as we enter other stages of our lives, Jack becomes this cautionary figure. Perhaps in another 30 years I’ll be identifying with the ghosts.

Tim Kirk: What makes that idea of us walking with our children even creepier is that when you’re with your kids the goal is to be present, yet Rodney and I would be there, several layers of theory in—that Aztec reading, how does that align with the reading involving Native Americans?

JB: Your roles in this project seem primarily curatorial. But as you began compiling these different readings, were there any that you were especially persuaded by?

TK: We had moments with almost everyone where suddenly the hairs would go up on the back of the neck and you’d think, “Oh my god, are they right? And if so, what does that mean with regards to this film and the universe and how I understand life?”

RA: As you watch Room 237 you’re spending five or six minutes with each of these people at a time. Making the film, I listened to these interviews for hours. I didn’t always understand what the subjects were talking about when we were conducting the interviews. But then I would bring it into the computer and start lining it up with the footage, and suddenly think, “Right on the money.” I should add that I was making this movie after my kids’ bedtime, so it’s three in the morning when I’m putting scenes together. I would almost always believe everything while I was working on it.

JB: You spend enough time immersed in something and you start to demand to a consistent logic. You want the mirror world to make sense in the way the real world is supposed to make sense. So by the time Juli Kearns is addressing the geography of the Overlook Hotel and these windows that shouldn’t be there, I’m thinking, “I know this is fiction, but still, if those windows aren’t logical then there must be a reason!”

RA: That’s because other movies don’t have as concrete a sense of space as The Shining. Perhaps they’re shot with long lenses and the background is often just a blur.  But here you have this film shot with wide-angle lenses and long takes that are snaking through hallways, so you get such a strong sense of this being a real space.

TK: I’m really drawn to your thought there, that as a viewer entering a cinema, especially with someone like Kubrick, who has a reputation of being in control of every frame, you feel like there’s this unwritten contract that this world is going to make sense in the way that you understand the real world. So that Kubrick messes with that contract is one of the things that’s so compelling about The Shining.

JB: Someone in Room 237 makes a point of saying that intentionality is not an essential component of any reading of a work of art. But Kubrick being the kind of artist that he was makes it impossible not to see intention everywhere—there surely can’t be such a thing as a continuity error. And someone else points out that The Shining is, for the most part, a barely supernatural story, so we can’t simply chalk things up to sheer inexplicability.

RA: There are many supernatural events in the novel, but in the movie, the only time when something clearly supernatural occurs is when the door gets unlocked. And even there, John Fell Ryan came up with a logical explanation as to how that happened. So while there are a lot of bizarre tableaus, what’s physically happening is not so strange. Many have suggested that Jack is simply talking to himself. One theory we weren’t able to use points out that whenever Jack is talking to the ghosts there’s always a mirror opposite him.

JB: Because Kubrick seemed to have no special interest in horror or the supernatural, I wonder if part of the reason why The Shining is especially magnetic has to do with that tension between the material and the director’s MO. As I watched Room 237 I kept asking myself if your movie could be about another movie, if you could apply a similar tack to any number of works.

RA: Our research didn’t yield too many films that generated a body of exegesis to rival that of The Shining’s.   

TK: Though I’m surprised that there’s not as much about 2001. Eyes Wide Shut is a growth industry right now. There’s a lot of writing going on about that one.

JB: Interesting that you mention Eyes Wide Shut, because that and The Shining are both Kubrick films that have never really gained critical consensus.

RA: Several of our commentators talk about not loving The Shinning when they first saw it, yet they felt some strange moth-to-flame attraction that prompted them to go back to it.

TK: That impossible geography had a lot to do with me wanting to go back to The Shining. It felt like a dream. I knew there was something wrong. Juli’s theory was part of the honey that I got stuck in.

RA: She’s taken that theory to a level or two deeper than we get to in Room 237, where she even tracks the paths that characters take through certain rooms in different scenes, and then she superimposes those maps… Every time I mention something that didn’t get in the movie I feel this sting. Some might think that an hour and 40 minutes is a lot of time to talk about metaphors and secret messages in The Shining, but it could have been three hours long and still we would have only grazed the tip of the iceberg.

JB: It could have been longer for me. I think about Zodiac, another movie that deals with obsession and the unanswerable, and is on the long side. I’ve heard people complain about Zodiac’s length, but my response is always “How can you expect to get a strong feeling for the accumulation of suspicion and paranoia and obsessive investment without that duration?”

RA: Such a great sense of time passing in Zodiac.

JB: I felt similar with 237. A prudent 75-minute version would never have the punch of something that, in the best possible sense, is overstaying its welcome just a little. It needs to have that feeling that maybe it could go on forever.

RA: Which is why we tried to end it like a circuit, going back to the beginning. It was clear early in our research that we weren’t going to exhaust every major theory. We wanted to suggest that there’s so much more—and it’s still happening. I was looking at a YouTube video that a friend of Jay Weidner’s had made. There was this moment in The Shining where he’d heard an off-screen voice speaking the word “Shown.” Like “Shinning” in past-tense. This happens two or three times.

TK: And he found that it occurred at key transitional moments for Jack.

RA: Then I revisited Juli Kearns’ website and found that she also heard that “Shown.” I became really intrigued by the notion that if someone watched this movie in a supremely concentrated way, this anomaly would suddenly manifest so that everyone could hear it. [Laughs] It didn’t exist before, but was introduced into the film by sheer force of will.

JB: I think Philip K. Dick would have loved that theory.

[Everyone laughs]

JB: Going back to the way The Shining changes over time, when I first saw the film I was a small child and it scared the hell out of me. Coming back to it as an adult the effect is very different. It’s a common enough complaint, but it started to bother me that Nicholson already seems bonkers at the beginning of the film, and thus there’s no real suspense. Yet after seeing 237 I came to the conclusion that maybe that’s why The Shining is one of those films that you obsessively re-watch, because you’re not watching to experience a dynamic narrative arc—you’re watching it as an ambient experience. The backwards-forwards screening you included in 237 supports this idea. There is no arc, no change. Because Jack’s always been there.

RA: The forwards-backwards thing is so interesting. People think of Kubrick as a symmetrical filmmaker, but they’re usually thinking this with regards to composition. His work is symmetrical in time as well. Full Metal Jacket is a film made of two halves designed to echo each other. But regarding your feeling about the film’s lack of character development, I know people say that Jack seems crazy at the beginning, but every time I watch the film I’m always rooting for him, hoping he’s going to get his act together. [Laughs] This time we’re going to work through things!

JB: Critics have really responded to your film, and I think one reason for this is that, not to be disrespectful to your subjects, but it feels like a parody of film criticism, of how certain critics can get to a point where we’re so determined to stake a claim that we start analyzing minutia as though it’s the essence of the text.

RA: That makes a lot of sense, though it’s not something we talked about.

TK: We wanted to let our subjects present their ideas as best we could.

RA: We tried to get the audience to see the movie through their eyes.

JB: And the choice to not have your subjects appear on camera, was that because you didn’t want to have viewers be distracted by judgments about how these people look or what kind of space they inhabit.

TK: That was one consideration. We also didn’t want real-world credentials. We don’t introduce Bill Blakemore as a journalist; we just use his name.

RA: There’s also something about the essay film style that exists better in the world of imagination than on a couch in somebody’s office. It gets more under your skin.

JB: This approach reminds us of the power of just having a voice in people’s heads. The imagery in 237 is already familiar to its viewers, so what moves the film forward mainly has to do with these ideas, with these voices in the ether—they could even be voices in Jack’s head.

RA: Someone described them as ghosts. I love that idea.

TK: And you can’t always tell who’s talking. That’s pleasingly disorienting as well.

RA: I’ve read some critics who say that idea A is baloney, while idea B is really meaningful. And it seemed that they weren’t aware that both ideas came from the same person.

JB: I suppose the fake moon landing is probably the one that feels closest to conspiracy theory thinking.

RA: And yet its logic is consistent. That one really turned into a rabbit hole for me when I started to watch the special features on the 2001 DVD. I did my own research and it started to become more plausible for me. John Fell Ryan says that this is the great trap: once you start looking for clues, you just keep finding them. And they never stop appearing.