Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creature Feature: In Brief

Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza - REC 2 (2009)

The first REC, while by no means a masterpiece, was a solid and original piece of horror film-making, doing something a bit different with the zombie genre and making unwontedly welcome use of the hand-held camera – and indeed, managing to extend on the technology and hence the mise en scène. The second, to my lights, is even better – though straying outside the confines of the sealed-off apartment block in a way which breaks the claustrophobia which worked so well in the first instalment, the inclusion of further back story and character diversity makes for a more complex film without losing the simple momentum of the first (and now, with a twist…)

George A. Romero - Diary of the Dead (2008)

A disappointing Romero vehicle in which, unlike the aforementioned, the use of digital hand-held disappoints and irritates, encompassing all the typical flaws of these genres (i.e., severe frustration with the camera holder who however remains untouchable due to their status as such; unrealistic failure to put it down in life-threatening situations). Meanwhile, the internet themes fail to cohere into meaningful social commentary a la Dawn of the Dead. Watch Zombieland instead.

John McTiernan - Predator (1987)

Another in the ‘I can’t believe I’ve never seen this’ canon, this was a surprisingly atmospheric film, with the shadowy South American jungle as the main character – striated shadows dappling the blazing sun and the sweat and blood of the action film. The USA redeems its sanguinaceous Cold War interference in its ‘backyard’ through the trope of the pursuit of Latin terrorists (managing to allay the inhumanity of this killing and also feminize the victims even as we fear their violence by leaving alive the lone female terrorist as a prisoner who ultimately becomes an ally), while nodding to 80s political correctness, such as it was, in the black characters and, naturally the native American who has an intimate connection with the ways of the jungle (all of these sacrificeable, naturally). The ‘reveal’ comes surprisingly late in the piece, and the strangely honourable predator, before he (?) is revealed as an overgrown dreadlocked insect, segues in with the natural world as a ripple in the trees (with effects which haven’t dated too badly, unlike the technology he uses). Apocalypse Now, filtered through the lens of an unironic Schwarzeneggerian (gubernatorial?) all-Americanism.

Jon Harris - The Descent 2 (2009)

Another film in which the environment is the protagonist – in this case, the same cave system in which the protagonists of the first Descent (Neil Marshall, director of the original, returns only as executive producer) found themselves trapped – again, we spend somewhat more time outside the closed environment, here becoming a flaw, and there is also the somewhat unrealistic, but effective, choice to send the sole survivor of the first film back into the tunnels. Essentially we are re-exploring old ground in a less effective rehash of the first film, which was an entertaining diversion with some early moments of fear and claustrophobia before ‘descending’ into a fairly typical monster gore hunt (colour-coded, a nice touch) – here, without the benefit of that unfamiliarity, while the caves remain an original and atmospheric setting, despite a final twist there is nothing here which adds meaningfully to the film’s predecessor.

Wes Craven et al – A Nightmare On Elm Street 1-4 (1984-88)

I wasn’t actually sure if I’d seen the first, but I’d certainly never seen the sequels. And what pleasant – or should that be unpleasant? – surprises were in store! Unlike other the other classic protagonists of the genre – Jason Voorhees & Michael Myers – these films did not have the stigma of having given birth to the rather unnecessary slasher genre, but instead of playing an important role in the development of the blockbuster horror comedy (not to mention the ongoing horror-queering of the all-american dream suburbs) – and we love ‘em for it (and I’m not just saying that because we’re inhabiting here my favourite decade of the twentieth century – the 80s)! Camp as all get-out, with absurdist, ‘body horror’ pre-CGI special effects (reminiscent of other films of the era such as the unjustly neglected Society, or even Videodrome) which invoke a great deal of nostalgia – and a twisted, Burtonesque atmosphere to boot – not only the initial NOES, but also, unusually, the sequels, are extremely worthwhile. Part 2 is noteworthy really only for the extremely overt (and apparently intentional) homoerotic elements (with just a touch of B&D in the shower room), but 3 kicks into high and rather dark gear – featuring Freddy’s intended teenage victims in a mental institution as a result of their belief in the reality of their dreams, and the unexpected appearance of Patricia Arquette (not to mention Laurence Fishburne) - a punk edge, and rather nasty addiction and sexual violence themes (these latter in the development of Freddy’s backstory), also creep in. Part 4 can’t quite live up to the claustrophobic institutionalization and traumatic edge of the third film, but nonetheless it remains a romp, featuring particularly memorable scenes in which Freddy inhabits a roach motel and a pizza (!), as well as an extension of the theme, used to brilliant effect throughout the series, of the indistinguishability of the line dividing reality and fantasy, in a time-loop sequence. Oh, and I was forgetting, we also have a soundtrack showcasing Sinead O’Connor with MC Lyte performing the ultra-catchy I Want Your Hands (On Me) – not to mention the Are You Ready For Freddy rap by the Fat Boys featuring Robert Englund. Dark comedy of the absurd, accompanied by nostalgia for the tainted eighties.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gus Van Sant - Elephant (2003)

In the heady days of my youth, I was a big true crime aficionado. But although I remained fascinated by perpetrator mentality, as my early twenties passed, I began to feel just a little too much empathy with the victims, and just a little too much of the uncomfortable voyeurism of the position of the true crime fan (in keeping with the pulpiness and sub-pop psychology of most of the writing, though not all), to keep pursuing this vein (having said which, interest in these things, I would argue, is an inherent part of human nature which a modern culture of sanitized medicinal miracles has – ironically – unhealthily shunted to one side).

So what was I to make of Elephant? This is the central film in Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy,’ (beginning with Gerry and closing with Last Days), each based on actual events and dealing with the eponymous event – though death is, of course, a major feature of virtually all of Van Sant’s films. In this case, the event in question is the infamous Columbine massacre, still perhaps the cultural paradigm for all the other mass shootings (including many in schools) to which the USA seems so tragically prone. While I’m not sure how I’d feel about such a work – released four years after the events – if I was personally connected to the tragedy, this work comes across as a thoughtful reflection rather than an exploitation, though there is always a certain question about purposefully creating a work of aesthetic beauty – which Elephant undoubtedly is – from such a subject.

In regard to Columbine, as was widely noted at the time of the film’s release, Van Sant offers no explanations (indeed, the killers as depicted here do not seem to fit any recognisable profile, for what such profiles are worth), and this is a strength of the film in that we are offered no pat explanations (nor resolutions), nor too-easy indictments of particular aspects of a society which produces such events. In any case, if we are to take Dave Cullen’s non-fiction work Columbine (2009) – which also uses fiction-style conventions (it’s been called a modern-day In Cold Blood) and has become the definitive work on the massacre – as a guide, most of what we think we know about these events is in fact mythical. So rather than watch analysis (and for that, after all, we have Bowling For Columbine), we drift in a leisurely way through the lives of various students in the period preceding the massacre, tension slowly building as we realize what is afoot. The film plays with time and perspective in Rashomon-esque fashion – scenes are presented numerous times as we follow different characters, and new aspects of each moment become apparent – although there are no secrets, no slowly unfolding narrative of truth or of revelation for the viewer – only a gradually mounting sense of unease which combines with an easy langurousness – slow, but never tedious – as we watch in extended tracking shots over the shoulders of the characters as their lives and social circumstances unfold.

The title itself comes from the (oft-misunderstood) Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant – Van Sant named the film thus in tribute to Alan Clarke’s BBC film of the same name (dealing with violence in Northern Ireland), as a reference to the way in which Clarke's and his own work explored one event as seen from different viewpoints – although he would later realize that Clarke’s title was in fact a reference to the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ (and we may think here of the unexpected synchronicity of this denial with the incomprehensible US refusal to recognise the deadly consequences of the easy availability of guns).

Like many of Van Sant’s films – with the possible exception of Mala NocheElephant is somewhat imperfect – almost as if, as an artwork, it is realizing itself just a touch clumsily as it unfurls. This adds to the charms of Van Sant’s oeuvre, but keeps any one film from being a central masterpiece. Here, as well as occasionally unrealistic behavior in service of moments of drama, the addition of a homoerotic episode between the killers, despite making a stunning set-piece, seems a little too much like a rather queasy wish-fulfillment (the erotic object as embodiment of masculine violence), and sits uncomfortably with the real-life events on which the film is based, in which (as far as I’m aware) there was no suggestion of such a relationship between Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, the actual killers – indeed, they seem rather to have been homophobic. In a similar vein, the scene in which they watch a television show on Nazism is unconvincing and indeed cliched and psychologically problematic - if watching material about 'evil' killers makes one a killer, then criticisms of Elephant itself would be grounded - though the connection with their actions is not laboured. The depiction of high school life is, if anything, somewhat idyllic (despite occasional moments of bullying), a too-vivid memory of a past full of promise in a way that is reflected in the gorgeous colours and languid cinematography – despite the troubled families and social ostracism, the pain of (some) teenagehood is elided in presenting a processual collage of the ‘ordinary’ which is contrasted to the murderous violence by which it will be shattered.

What this flaw reveals, though, is the way in which Van Sant’s work carves out a deliriously original territory which on the one hand is immersed in realism – the fragmentation, muttered dialogue, improvisation, lack of traditional narrative arcs, untutored actors, the naming of characters after the actors who portray them – and, on the other, a kind of hyper-real idealism expressed in the visual techniques he employs, the dramatic events he turns to and the stunning features of his male actors (in contrast to the everyday looks of female characters) – we might also think of his overt rejections of realism, as in the Shakespearian dialogue in My Own Private Idaho. In the character of John McFarland, indeed, we can see the germ of the way in which Paranoid Park – also dealing with death and teenagers – became virtually a paean to the features of Gabe Nevins. In refusing to reconcile these disparate tendencies – in its slipperiness, refusal to bow to emotional kitsch, low-key intensity and deeply memorable set-pieces – Van Sant’s work, of which Elephant is a stunning example, has a haunting quality of insinuating itself into the viewer’s consciousness.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

James Pants - Seven Seals (2009)

Biblical occultism – via Kabbalah – may be the new age fad du jour (although isn’t it getting just a little, well, so noughties?), running the culture fiend through a gauntlet beginning with Dan Brown and ending with Madonna, but that’s not to say that the resurge of interest in Judeo-Christian mystical traditions doesn’t have anything to offer. Before Brown there was Umberto Eco’s labyrinthine Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco argues that Dan Brown himself is, in fact, Eco’s own creation) and after it comes James Pants’ magisterial Seven Seals.

In an unexpected leap from his first album, Welcome, which was much more of a workout in downtempo electro lounge, funk & r’n’b (not to mention the intriguing and inaptly named library music exercise All The Hits), Seven Seals is a concept album exploring Revelations, mysticism and the oc/cult in general. It is to Pants’ credit that he manages to do so while maintaining a light touch, rather than straying into the leaden, satire-ready seriousness of most music dealing with the darker side of the occult. In putting the album together Pants holed up in a cabin for two weeks, and if his cultural reference points are anything like mine then the mood that that created – from Evil Dead to Antichrist – has been shaping here. In other words, the ‘70s synth sleaze which garnished Welcome – reminiscent of Pants’ idol, legendary outsider Gary Wilson – is here transmuted into scuzz, the darkness of exploitation deepening into that of psychological-religious alienation (with gratuitous angst thankfully absent). The forceful fuzzy beats of tracks like I Live Inside An Egg give this album an emotional contrast lacking from Welcome – which, in comparison, seemed altogether a work more promising than fully realized – while the synthesizers which permeate tracks like Thin Moon (the first single, and perhaps the highlight) add touches of gorgeousness tinted with melancholy (here and elsewhere we find distant echoes of the abandoned sensuality and electrofunk touches of Welcome).

In evoking these moods, one might think of the noughties post-punk revival (guitars are indeed in evidence here, and Joy Division has been frequently mentioned in reviews), and the recent flowering of the rediscovery of minimal wave. Both of those tendencies are definitely present, but both the vehicle of the concept album (always a risk, but one which pays off here), and the music itself, mean that this is a work of reinterpretation rather than imitation. In terms of a synthesizer synthesis, the other major point of reference here, both musically and thematically, is Bruce Haack’s seminal Electric Lucifer – although here we are dealing not so much with powerlove as a Totentanz. On the topic of genre, while I hesitate to use the phrase ‘witch house,’ fst becoming as reviled a term as ‘chillwave,’ in the combination of lo-fi synthesizers and DIY occultist imagery (in the album art no less than the lyrics) this album definitely picks up on that trend, but again, without the pretension or purposeful obscurantism which can be dangers of ‘witch house’ in particular and the ‘instant genres’ of the blog house age in general.

Ultimately these seven seals, as a counterpart to a half hour silence in heaven, are a heavenly forty minutes on earth.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Susan Hill - The Woman In Black (1983)

I don’t know how I’ve managed to miss Susan Hill, given the strong feelings I have for the classical English supernatural tale as manifest from the Victorian era through to the first few decades of the Twentieth century. Perhaps it’s because I have a general dislike for pastiche in literature (if not in other genres) and, in the postmodern age in particular, I tend to find it an excuse for failing to make up an original plot and/or use an original style (while the often anachronistic attempt at adoption often merely puts the skill of the writer being pastiched into an even more flattering light). None of these faults, however, are to be found in Hill’s ghostly novella.

The Woman In Black – set in the early part of the twentieth century, where cars still vie with pony traps – is told with the classic framing device of the elderly reflection on a terrifying and traumatic event of youth; the occurrence in question is the visit of Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, to lonely Eel Marsh House. The house, with attendant crumbling cemetery, lies on a piece of land far out in the windswept salt marshes, accessible only by a causeway which is periodically covered by the rising tide. Kipps is in the process of going through the papers of Mrs Drablow, the late unlamented inhabitant of Eel Marsh House; but when he sees an emaciated woman in unfashionable black clothes at the funeral (getting only surly hostility from the locals on questioning), and starts to hear strange noises from across the marshes and from the locked room at the end of the passageway, things take a turn for the sanity-destroying.

As that précis indicates, all of the ingredients of the supernatural tale of terror are present here, as are James’ five key features of the English ghost story. Hill herself has indicated that her earlier novels are ‘serious,’ while her latter works, including TWIB and her Serailler detective series, do not fall into this category. Certainly it could not be said that TWIB is an original piece (though we might also say that of many of the ‘classical’ works of supernatural fiction), but it stands as a consummate example of an art which might have been considered lost in the age of torture porn and gritty realism. Indeed, we might ask whether originality is an important demand in genre work. Hill’s writing is fine (in the best sense of that word, and in contrast to the lonely setting), despite the frequent comma splices (but please ignore my soapboxing a pet peeve), rising to more poetic heights in some beautiful descriptions of landscape and atmosphere:

Away to the west, on my right hand, the sun was already beginning to slip down in a great, wintry, golden-red ball which shot arrows of fire and blood-red streaks across the water. To the east, sea and sky had darkened slightly to a uniform, leaden grey. The wind that came suddenly snaking off the estuary was cold.

Am I wrong in thinking that, mood-wise, the echoing spaces and sudden emotional stabs of The Cure circa Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography (that is, in the same period as TWIB was written) would be an appropriate soundtrack? Rosemary Jackson, bringing a feminist analysis to Hill’s work (more on this anon), has suggested ‘coldness’ as its imaginative centre, and the tension between detachment from and desire for life as fundamental. The themes here are the ‘sensational’ passions – possessive love, revenge, fear, memory – refracted in sharp shards through the mirror of the past, a liminal demarcation (reminiscent of James’ own story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad') which takes form literally in the flat sea surrounding the house, stressing the inaccessibility of the recollected, and the dangers both of the alluring yet treacherous waters of forgetfulness, and those of painful recollection – a double Charybdis which in either case leaves the overcurious subject isolated and, ultimately, suffocated.

In this sense, there is an aspect of the ‘psychological ghost story’ to TWIB, manifest in a not-so-pathetic fallacy, which is heir to works like de Maupassant’s The Horla or even Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (though without that work’s prescient questioning of perception itself) – and we might associate this existential alienation, resolved but never quite forgotten or overcome, with the dislocated temporal position of the narrator, trapped between old certainties and modernist innovations, with the house both as a space of security from the external world (the classic Victorian model), and as manifestation of anxiety - in being, on the one hand, the place par excellence for the determination of (cultural) capital, and, in this case, empty, that is, both void of any audience for such a display, and signifying the growing bourgeois realisation of the ultimate emptiness of the endeavour of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption.

On this note, class issues – fluidity and the lack thereof – are central to the landscape here. Class transformation is evident in the narrator’s own trajectory (given in the framing story), and a symbolic moment occurs when he transforms, in the eyes of a friendly but unsophisticated, new-moneyed landowner local, from suave young solicitor to dishevelled and fearful victim of the irrational. Beyond this, the fact that class mores were a determining factor in the events which led to the haunting is made explicit in the text – figuring, in other words, the (equally oceanic) arriviste on a lonesome road (one whose lonesomeness is only exaggerated by the many who tread it yet dare not recognise each other), desiring yet dreading to turn his head to see the ‘frightful fiend’ of class ignominy (a common theme in the sensation novel).

This anxiety – the prevailing mood of both the psychological ghost story, and of modernism itself and those who literarily anticipated its concerns – is also manifest in gender relationships. The narrator here moves in a masculine world of solidity (and reassuring, if undesirable, stolidity) while the appearance of the feminine in the text foreshadows catastrophe and unknowability – whether the unseen Mrs Drablow, the ‘woman in black' herself, or Kipps’ fiancé, Stella, who remains offstage and undescribed virtually throughout. One of M. R. James’ rules for the ghost story is the absence of gratuitous bloodshed and sex, and while this is certainly the case here (and while not wanting to emphasise overmuch the repressive hypothesis), nonetheless the events in question are put in motion by the sexual act (not to mention the absent father) - and the attraction-repulsion between the narrator and the ‘woman in black,’ who is a fallen woman both in the sexual and soteriological sense, who is both punished and who punishes, who is caught textually somewhere between the figure of the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural mother’ – certainly holds a strong sexual charge, the most obvious manifestation of which occurs in his discernment of the traces of beauty in her wasted features. One might ask, is there a scent here of the unnamed ‘wasting disease’ – the highly sexualised consumption, perhaps – as a punishment for sexual and maternal misconduct? It might be drawing too long a bow to recognise here the advent of HIV/AIDS, but it certainly resonates with the historical moment in which the novel was published.

Meanwhile, the counter-balancing feminine forces, equally without character – the remembrance of the maternal care of Kipps’ mother and his nurse, the warm asexual figure of his latter-day wife – certainly play into a narrative of the saviour Madonna in contrast to the unnatural whore or the barren hag. But I wouldn’t by any means say that this is a novel in which there lies concealed a misogynist narrative – rather, that these tropes of the supernatural genre, in the hands of a female writer (not that that necessarily counts for mitigation), are played upon and indeed complexified in their emotional import. Indeed, we might read the presence of these ‘silent women,’ and the reasons for their silence, as a statement in itself.

In order to appreciate TWIB, however, it’s not necessary (though it’s certainly enjoyable) to analyse the ways in which this work is a reflection on the sensibilities which shaped the classic ghost story, as filtered through the lens of the early 1980s (a period in which the gothic was once again beginning to take hold of popular culture). In short, what we have here is a worthy heir to James, Le Fanu, Mrs. Gaskell and the other luminaries of the luna-nary canon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pedro Almodóvar - Tacones Lejanos ('High Heels') (1991)

As the film beginning a run of mid-period Almodóvar vehicles which, while interesting, were more problematic than the dark intensity of his earlier works but hadn’t yet developed the majesty and emotional kick of his finest later films (the trilogy comprising Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella & La mala educación), I wasn’t expecting particularly much from TL (particularly given the cold critical reception it initially received). Mistake!

The Almodóvar trademarks are there – the gorgeous design and vivid colour (in Almodóvar’s universe, the perfect interiors provide the ideal contrast to the messiness of human relationships, emotions and the body), as well as stunning lead performances by two notable Almodóvariennes, Victoria Abril & Marisa Paredes. Like his other films, TL quotes the classic female melodramas so adored by Almodóvar (in particular, here, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata), and echoes the narrative of such works, inflected through a sensibility which turns the transgression, sexuality and queer knobs up past ten.

The plot concerns the troubled relationship between Rebeca (Abril), a newscaster, and her mother Becky (Paredes) who is returning to Spain after fifteen years in Mexico (the Spanish title, Tacones Lejanos, translates as ‘distant heels,’ capturing the melancholy of this relationship in referencing Rebeca’s childhood memory of her mother’s presence, rather than the more comedy-oriented nature of the English title). In the meantime, Rebeca has married Manuel (Féodor Atkine), once a lover of her mother’s, and become close friends with a drag queen, Letal (Miguel Bosé), who pastiches Becky’s 60s persona. And when Manuel is murdered, things take a turn for the even-more-complicated, leading to the unraveling of facades within facades, an exploration of history and identity in terms of surface and reality (not to mention celebrity), delivered with the hysterical emotional lability which is also an Almodóvarian hallmark.

Unlike some of his other works, this narrative is compelling and never drags – a particularly impressive feature is the Rashomonesque untangling of Miguel’s murder – a theme which ties in to the central question of appearance and reality in world as hyper-real as its décor, where characters are ‘larger than life’ in the sense that their identity is lived out through stage or screen personas, and where events gain emotional reality and even truth status (only) by their enactment in such venues. Oh, and just in case there weren’t enough exploitative elements here, there are a number of set pieces (including a bizarre but strangely fitting choregraphed dance piece) set in a women’s prison. But here we can contrast Kika, Almodóvar’s next work – where Kika takes the (prescient) exploration of ‘reality’ and truth on the screen, as well as acts of cruelty and transgression, to absurd extremes in ways which, while intriguing, fail inasmuch as they betray a callous insensitivity to human emotions, TL walks this tightrope much more successfully. The soundtrack, which features various divas of the Spanish musical world and at times becomes powerfully diegetic, is also particularly strong, comparable only to Todo sobre mi madre, while the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, works well within this context (despite Almodóvar’s expression of dislike for it).

If there is a weak point, it is the performance of Bosé as the male lead – his casting was apparently a cause célèbre given his status as a famous Spanish-language singer, but his acting and indeed his ‘look’ seem stilted and banal, out of place in the lush and vivid environment of the film, while his transformation into various personas as the film progresses is obvious in a way which takes the omniscience of melodrama a tad too far. Despite this, however, this is a work which is beautiful and thought-provoking, one which fits beautifully into an evolving, yet circling, Almodóvarian project, yet at the same time holds its own in terms of the visceral and intellectual pleasure of the viewing experience, and in terms of originality.