Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Post

Halloween-themed viewing notes. Impressions mostly, concerning disliked films reconsidered, favorites revisited, remakes compared, and a few I ignored for no good reason:

(John Carpenter / 1978)

Carpenter's films are often concerned with disputed territory. Halloween is a variation on his themes of invasion from a hostile force. Unlike Assault on Precinct 13 or The Thing, which depict contagious external conquering forces, Halloween envisions an apex predator staking out feeding grounds within its own environment. Its more of a monster movie than The Thing, as Myers functions as a spider taking up residence and striking out at whoever chances across him. The territory in Halloween is always wide open and familiar spaces for dorky virgin Laurie Strode, who's sense of space and meaning is shattered by the intrusion of Myers. Horror visualizes the breakdown of order, both the faltering of social structures (ineffectual police, limits of language to verbalize) and the collapse of meaning, in a Lacanian sense, that is facilitated by a stain within the framework of one's unconscious construction of order and purpose (the intrusion of the Real, the unexplainable and chaotic). What is most effective here is that Carpenter crafts Myers as both typical and atypical: he is a traumatized little boy whose penetrating violence and obsession is released through an exposure to female sexuality. However, he is an enigma to everyone. It doesn't matter how or why such figures are made by our society, only that they exist. Academics fail in the face of this reality as the doctor does not use Freudian psychobabble, but the language of supernatural evil. Carpenter immediately associates his monster with the gaze, in an opening shot that identifies us with the killer, only to traumatically separate us from it in the manner of Psycho and Peeping Tom. At risk of making a grand overstatement, most post-Halloween slashers tend to celebrate the un-scrutinized misogyny of the killer, confusing them with the structure of the film itself. But Halloween is uninterested in punishing female sexual transgression. Instead it projects a horrific vision that brings the viewer into contact with this chaotic unknown. Social and academic theories may differ in explaining the factors that bring about such people, but that information is useless when confronted with the actual manifestation of these factors, quantifiable or not. Killing them becmes the only option. And symbolically, they can never be totally eradicated, at least while such attitudes are still prevalent in the culture.

(Rob Zombie / 2007)

However difficult, I try to give Zombie's remake as much consideration as I afford to Carpenter's The Thing or Cronenberg's The Fly as remakes. The reality is that all films are their own films. Something that Zombie's Halloween is doing is entertaining notions of fate and destiny. But in elongating sequences that were intentionally brief and vague in the original, Zombie is creating a totally different relationship to the material. Instead of making Myers a mysterious and upsetting product of suburban comfort, Zombie casts Myers as a poor working class victim within a matrix of vague class tensions (favoring class revenge in the manner of Insane Clown Posse). The scrutiny on Myer's childhood does two things: it exaggerates the violence and sexuality that is only implied in the source material, making it explicit and exploitative, and it allows us to identify with the character more, adding the possibility of empathy. Personally, I find the literalness and exposition to be tedious and uninteresting because Zombie's vision removes all notions of Myer's gaze and waters down Zombie's own brilliant acid grind-house aesthetic that makes unspeakable nihilism a carnival attraction. His Halloween is weighted down by the demands of conventional Hollywood storytelling and exists in the nether realm between Carpenter's visionary masterpiece and Zombie's own marvelous work. Zombie offers a clever twist on an element of the original, making detailed scientific observation of Myers as meaningless and unsatisfactory as the lack of explanation in the original. He calls Myers a "perfect storm of external and internal factors, which doesn't really explain much. Yet the inclusion of destiny and blood ties eviscerates the horror of the arbitrary that makes the original so upsetting (and Zombie's other work so good): people are murdered for no reason. Laurie Strode happened to be the first woman to wonder into Myer's frame, rather than the long lost baby sister of something or whatever.

(Wes Craven / 1972)

Some of the variations that exist between Carpenter's Halloween and Zombie's remake are apparent in comparing The Last House on the Left with The Virgin Spring although I feel both the Bergman and Craven films are outstanding for their own reasons. Craven, like Zombie, elongates sequences that are brief in their sources. The time spent with the young girl and the band of criminals is not just a sequence but a parallel plot line lasting most of Craven's film. The blunt rape and murder of The Virgin Spring is now an excruciatingly long torture and humiliation plot line that only ends with a rape and murder. The swift and accidental nature of the crime is exchanged for tedious exploitation. But like Zombie's obsession with Myers, in Craven's film we spend more time with the killers and their worlds. Craven explores the total breakdown of American civil society, its infrastructure, and its universal meaning. The suburban home is no longer a paragon of safety and privilege, but a frontier outpost at the mercy of roving bandits. The giddy music constantly reminds us that the normal functions of society are still operating somewhere, but not here. Craven isn't merely indulging in nihilistic pleasures of cruelty, but by juxtaposing the sounds that indicate a normal contemporary culture with his viscous reality he is emphasizing an alarming contradiction of the world we live in, quite simply, both these things are happening in this place and time. The film is so uncompromising (like The Virgin Spring) that it becomes the monster itself. Whereas Carpenter depicts an intruder within an ordered universe, Craven presents the work itself as an intrusion into cinematic [market] order. It is an awful experience, made even more troubling by the fact that some people might actually enjoy it and desire more. But it's possible to consider that Craven is perversely subscribing to the ordered universe that he is attempting to shatter, or rather whose shattering he visualizes. Unlike The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left makes subtle changes in order to more clearly identify positive and negative forces. While violence remains cruel regardless of who is perpetuating it, some of it becomes justified in Craven's work. Bergman has the father murder the child who accompanies the killers, which creates a parallel of the taking of innocence, places every one in a moral vacuum, and lingers to undermine the foundation of the church. Craven has the child kill himself from grief, emphasizing the evil of the killers. The bourgeois family works, but must be protected from the unfortunate criminal underclass.

(Tobe Hooper / 1974)

An interesting, if somewhat overused and abused, lens of reading horror films (any film, really) is as a cultural object that captures the social mood of its time and place. Although it does seem arguable that post-modern American horror films are often expressionistic representations of the horror inflicted upon and experienced by people in other parts of the world (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Vietnam what Hostel is to the War on Terror). However appropriate, that is only a single element, not a total theory. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hints at a culture that is breaking down, but one that has been in the process for generations. It envisions a structure that is literally eating itself alive, like a cancer. The cannibals of the films allude to a post-industrial byproduct of workers cast aside and left to scavenge the rusted out interiors of a world superpower at a time when America was transitioning from a manufacturing base to a consumer base. But these cancerous cells are hidden and most of society is still going on with its life, like so many cars on the highway passing the turnoff that leads to the dilapidated homestead. They have weathered the transition. Much like the formation of Michael Myers or the catch-all criminals of The Last House on the Left, the cannibal family is somehow the product of social failure, of the structured order's inability to accommodate everyone. The horror scenario is only frightening to the victims, mind you, who are rightfully uninterested in where these people came from, but concerned only with survival. Typical horror analysis tells us that sexually active women are punished for their transgressions by puritanical forces, and that can be said (somewhat) of Hooper's film, especially after witnessing the tantalizingly voyeuristic shots of women's bare backs (but this is also a clever set up for the meat hooks about to penetrate them off camera). However, most all of these horror films tend to annihilate everyone who is either complacent in the formation of 'monsters' or benefits from a system that privileges some and ignores others. If horror films strike a cord it is because they force us to confront the reality that notions of meaning and order are constructed and therefore arbitrary. It is also to remind (some of) us of our privileges and that what we have is maintained by marginalized people who may at anytime revolt. Hooper visualized this by transforming normal people into animals within an industrial system of slaughter. The most horrifying moment is the first appearance of Leatherface as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. His murders are not sensational or perverse, but as routine and exacted as the killing of cattle. Again, we are forced to confront the oppression and cruelty of elements of our social structure that are kept out of sight by placing ourselves in the position of the expendables.The systemic industrial slaughter that supports a consumer culture explodes out of its confines.

(Christophe Gans / 2006)

Silent Hill balances perceptions of space, time, and reality in a manner that manages to legitimate its hallucinations as expressionist realities while maintaining a distance from its supernatural elements without ever undermining itself. In this regard it masters what Inception and Shutter Island fail to do well. It destabilizes the distinctions between psychological trauma and haunting spirits of the dead. For Gans they are not incompatible; they are reconciled as variations on a theme. Its only weakness is its near-end expository montage, which in the context of the videogame is the perfect pay off, but here it's rather forced. As a good friend put it, it's the film's Bond villain moment. But it helps balance the film's horror as political allegory elements, which is another level of balance this film achieves. The film's explication of security and purity driving conservative elements to commit worse atrocities than those enemies they identify can easily be read as a reflection of the mentalities that supported or ignored invasion, occupation, and torture (much like the social reflections of Miller's The Crucible). But neither the semi-obviousness of the allegorical elements or the momentary exposition upsets the unsettling ambiguity that pervades the film. And the ending further expands the notions of the mindscape/ghost amalgamation. Not to mention the films excellent balance of stillness and rapid movement to create constant unease.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Taking of Pelham 123

(Tony Scott / 2009)

Here is where absolutes meet uncertainties. John Travolta (in perhaps my favorite performance of his) somehow embodies these contradictions. He has layers, but Scott refrains from revealing them all. We still don't who or what he is. We know he's a crook and he wants money, lots and lots of money, but Scott gets that out of the way up front. He isn't secretly fighting for anything we can pin down (a reverse Hans Gruber) and yet his rebellion against the world is strangely felt.

The term terrorist is comically thrown about to mean anything by whomever employs the word. I can't help but find this somewhat of a joke at the expense of American political discourse.

Scott depicts seemingly endless relative temporal realities within single shots, which add up to a film about time where multiple experiences exist as pockets within a somewhat cohesive forward momentum.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight aka Moment to Moment

I read once (I don't remember where) that early Godard is the equivalent of rifling through a stack of magazines: fashion / advertisements / blurbs / superheroes / film criticism / smut / headline news. The only thing that has any totality, any meaning at all, is the subjective vision of the filmmaker that frames this act of rifling. Everything under his gaze is in itself meaningless, connecting to threads that sprawl out endlessly. Robert Downey Sr.'s film is not unlike this, only magazines have been supplanted with a single television set and the roving eye of the filmmaker is connected to the remote control. The act of channel surfing creates meaning, while each individual snippet is denied the framework of completion and structure, that is, it is denied meaning. We cannot understand them because Downey returns to them arbitrarily, we miss huge chunks of what connects one moment to the next, and instead are treated (or subjected) to peepshows lacking climaxes. But this doesn't mean that the experience cannot yield purpose. The joys may be sensual and not intellectual (although I'm not sure if these are mutually exclusive). I read once (I don't remember where) that Godard liked to run in and out of movie theaters while movies were playing, catching only portions of each. We've been able to do that with television for some time now, and we can do the same with the internet. But we are not all Godards and Downey Sr.s. Not all of us frame what we rifle through. But that could be said about all films, really.