Saturday, December 31, 2011

#123: Cutting Moments (Douglas Buck, 1997)

Note: Cutting Moments is available on DVD with two other Douglas Buck short films, Home and Prologue, under the title Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America.

A quick Internet search for Cutting Moments reveals several bootleg and foreign region DVD covers and posters that, aside from the official Family Portraits cover, do the film a disservice. Some feature grinning, maniacal goofballs (who aren't even in the film) holding drills, chainsaws, and bloody knives. In addition to having nothing to do with the film, these covers look more like straight-to-video schlock or advertisements for small town haunted houses staffed by Jaycees, Lions Club, or Moose Lodge members. Even more damaging, these covers have blurbs promising that Cutting Moments will be the most shocking/sickest/most disturbing film you will ever see. This promotional gimmick invites viewers to disagree and turns the film into a carnival sideshow. Cutting Moments is disturbing and contains some extreme, unflinching violence, but the film's tone is quiet, reserved, and distanced and is far from the freakout gorefest promised by many of the promotional materials.
I wish Rue Morgue had included the entire Family Portraits triptych in addition to Cutting Moments because it shows a filmmaker growing in complexity, confidence, ambition, and narrative and visual skill and toning down the immaturity and need to shock. The shorts also comment on and complement each other, turning three shorts made in different years into one cohesive piece. Plus, Larry Fessenden's in the last section, and I love that dude. I want to write about the whole shebang, but instead I'll just urge you to rent it. Despite its pompous subtitle (A Trilogy of America), it's a strong, unique, and subtle work (other than four or five minutes of pretty intense violence).

So, Cutting Moments. The most shocking film in the history of the world. The sickest movie since The Care Bears Movie. The most disgusting thing this side of a Long John Silver's menu. Etc. Ignoring all that shit and concentrating on what Douglas Buck is doing renders that kind of hyperbole irrelevant. Buck's film is carefully composed, structured, and arranged, and its gradual movement into violence is mostly earned and presented in the same detached, careful style as the rest of the short. Buck avoids needless exposition and lets his detailed images and their juxtapositions tell the story. Buck has a natural filmmaker's talent for shot composition, framing his actors and their possessions within both their domestic and landscape settings in ways that make the ordinary cinematic and special. Window blinds become ominous alien beings claustrophobically controlling physical space. A man on a couch watching baseball on a television becomes an embodiment of depression, alienation, and detachment. These compositions are not heavy-handed or exaggeratedly stylized past the point of ordinary human experience. Buck doesn't judge his characters. He watches them, subtly controlling their environment but allowing them freedom and space to live within it.

Cutting Moments tells a bare bones story about a small family in Long Island. Things aren't right. The wife and mother (Nicca Ray, daughter of director Nicholas Ray and dancer/choreographer Betty Utey, and credited here as Nica Ray) is like a mistreated family pet; nervous, hesitant, careful, and wounded, she is afraid of her husband and son while desperately anxious for love and affection from them. The husband and father (Gary Betsworth) is a hollowed-out husk, detached to the point of non-existence, monotone and empty. The young boy (Jared Barsky) also seems hollowed out, lost in himself, unable to connect with either parent. There are some hints of sexual abuse from the father to his son, and mention of a lawyer's phone call about the possible removal of the son from the home. The wife unsuccessfully attempts to reignite some affection and passion into the marriage, but has to resort to unconventional means when her traditional attempts are ignored. In this and his other shorts, Buck knows that the family fucks you up and tends to disintegrate over time, but he also knows how strong those familial connections are and how they determine who we are and what we do.

So, yeah, this movie is not a laff riot, and its four minutes of intense violence are pretty hard to watch. (My wife, usually up for any cinematic atrocity, had her head buried in her hands for most of this chunk of the film and I almost joined her.) The special effects for this scene were supervised by the legendary Tom Savini and created by two employees of his effects company. I think the scene does go on a bit too long, and I would have cut the final portion taking place in the bedroom, which seems like a sop to the lovers of torture and mutilation movies or the immaturity of a young filmmaker suddenly afraid of the emotional terrain he'd skillfully set up. (Though I may need to reconsider my judgments.)
My misgivings aside, this is an impressive work for such a then-new filmmaker. Buck is a guy with a fully formed visual style. If the extreme violence is not your bag, I urge you to check out the other two shorts, particularly Prologue. In all three, Buck comes across as a thoughtful, original writer/director, though he does share some affinities with other independent films and filmmakers. Tonally and compositionally, I was reminded of other films about family and the intersection of emotional and physical violence, like Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock, Jon Jost's Sure Fire, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (particularly for Prologue), Larry Fessenden's non-overtly politicized work (Habit, Wendigo), and David Cronenberg (in style, his early work - in subject matter, the more recent films). Like all these filmmakers and films, Buck finds a detached, clinical way to present intensely emotional material and in doing so treats this material with the non-histrionic, unsentimentalized approach it deserves. Buck has a new film tentatively scheduled for release this year. His only other feature is a 2007 remake of De Palma's Sisters, starring Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Rea. Has anyone seen it? I had no idea it existed until I did a bit of Internet research into Buck's career. Weird. Whatever that film's merits or lack thereof, his Family Portraits trio of films is something to see.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

#122: Cut-Throats Nine (Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent, 1972)

Here's an interesting oddity: a dark, violent western with horror and crime thriller elements and an atmosphere recalling Werner Herzog's madmen-surviving-the-elements classics. The film is bleak with no sympathetic characters, but it's also unpredictable, directed with invention and energy, strikingly shot on location by a talented cinematographer, and features character actors with great movie faces, each one getting a carefully placed closeup. The 1972 Spanish film was originally marketed and released as a western but flopped. Scenes of splatter and gore were shot and added to the film, and it was rereleased and marketed to drive-in, exploitation, and horror fans. It did a little better, not much, but acquired an enduring cult reputation that finally led to its DVD release. The gore reshoots are silly, with lots of Tempura paint red and bulging intestines, but the rest of the movie is solid, solid as a rock, to quote noted gore enthusiasts Ashford & Simpson.

Spain stands in for the American west as a wagonload of violent prisoners, chained together and sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor and accompanied by a cavalry on horseback, move through a snowy mountain pass on their way to a fort after working in a gold mine. A family of criminals, led by its vulture-faced father, attempts to rob the wagon of its gold but is unsuccessful at finding any. The ensuing struggle leaves the wagon in shambles, the cavalry misdirected or dead, and the prisoners left to wander the elements on foot, chained together, led by the sole remaining sergeant and his adult daughter on the surviving horses. The sergeant knows that one of the criminals murdered his wife, but he doesn't know which one, for reasons never satisfactorily explained. He leads his daughter and the seven chained violent rapists, robbers, and murderers on foot to the fort, battling the weather, lack of enough food, and the various hidden motives of everyone, including his daughter and himself. Things get more complicated when the hidden gold is accidentally discovered by one of the convicts. Twists pile on twists, which I'll leave for you to discover. I'm not spoiling anything by letting you know that no one gets what they want in the end. Happy endings are for suckers in this landscape.

My description of the film makes it sound more conventional than it is. Tonally, it occupies a place of its own. I think western fans will enjoy it a great deal, but it also calls to mind Herzog's Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Heart of Glass as well as the gore scenes from Herschell Gordon Lewis' films and Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve. It also occupies that fine tradition of crime films including Kubrick's The Killing and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in which a group of hardened criminals need to work together but don't trust each other and in which the audience is only given hints about their pasts. These are strange genres to mix, and the film finds a unique visual palette to fit the mood, combining quick B-movie energy and violence with an almost mystical art-film approach to the landscape. The flashbacks are handled well, giving us small pieces of the backstory without bogging down the narrative. Marchent freeze-frames the action when an event triggers a memory in one of the characters, then briefly switches to a flashback sequence with minimal or no dialogue before returning to the freeze frame and resuming the present action.

As a nice bonus, the English dubbing on the DVD is some of the best I've heard, with real performances instead of the usual jarring cheeseball idiocy. Once I grew accustomed to the voices not matching the lip movements, I soon forgot I was watching a dub. That almost never happens, though I wish the DVD had included the original subtitles. I don't know how involved Marchent or the cast was in the dubbing process, so it would have been nice to see the original dialogue subtitled, though the dubbing frees up the English-speaking viewer to take in every part of the frame.

This film is kind of a stretch to place on a horror movie list, but I'm glad Rue Morgue made the leap. If I had to narrow Cut-Throats Nine to a single genre, I wouldn't hesitate to call it a western. The video store I rented it from sensibly placed it in its western section. However, it's a bizarre western, sharing only horses and a wagon with a typical classic of the genre like Stagecoach, for example. I think horror fans will find much to enjoy in Cut-Throats Nine, not just the gore and a hallucination sequence involving a ghost. If you're like me and love horror films and westerns, you're going to have a great time with this one.

P.S. I haven't seen any of Marchent's other films, but he has some great titles, including Implacable Three, Seven Hours of Gunfire, One Hundred Thousand Dollars for Lassiter, and I Do Not Forgive ... I Kill!. He's still alive but hasn't made a film since 1994. Bizarrely, plans for a remake of Cut-Throats Nine are underway, with Harvey Keitel in the lead. Let's see if it actually happens.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

#121: Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

Jacques Tourneur was born in Paris nine years after the invention of cinema and brought to the United States by his father Maurice nine years after his birth. He and the movies grew up together. Maurice was a silent film director, notable for The Wishing Ring and The Last of the Mohicans, (though he made some sound films toward the end of his life) and when Jacques was old enough, he began working on his father's films as a script clerk and editor. Jacques eventually directed films of his own, mostly shorts and documentaries, until his debut feature in 1939, a noir film called They All Come Out.

Maurice Tourneur was a great director, and Jacques was even better. He was good at everything. Horror, noir, westerns, dramas, action/adventure. The younger Tourneur directed enduring classics in all these genres. Most famous for a trio of atmospheric horror classics for producer Val Lewton in the early 1940s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man) and the Robert Mitchum-starring noir classic Out of the Past (1947), Tourneur is a master of mood, light, shadow, and perspective. I haven't seen The Leopard Man yet, but the three other films I mentioned are among my favorites, and so is the little-seen small-town family drama Stars in My Crown (1950), starring Joel McCrea as a minister in a tight-knit town coming apart thanks to an outbreak of scarlet fever and the persecution of a sharecropper by a mining interest wanting his land. These are all great movies I strongly recommend to anyone who loves this era of film.

After a long break from horror, Tourneur came back to the genre in a big way with Curse of the Demon in 1957. An American/British coproduction based on an M.R. James short story, Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon) stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist attending an international conference in England, the purpose of which is to debunk claims of the paranormal and supernatural. Holden was working closely with a British colleague to expose the manipulations of a self-styled Satanic cult guru and expert in black magic named Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), but his colleague died in a mysterious accident the night before Andrews arrived. Or was it an accident? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Karswell places a curse on Holden by surreptitiously sneaking onto his person a parchment with ancient runic symbols on it. According to the curse, Holden will die two days later, at ten p.m., at the hands of a scary demon. Holden thinks the curse is nonsense, but the parchment seems to have a mind of its own and tries to fly away or into a fire, sealing the curse onto Holden before he can pass the parchment to someone else. The remainder of the film sees Holden struggling to reconcile his education and logic with his fear and superstition while he tries to find out more about the delightfully evil Karswell. (In a bit of inspired storytelling, the Satanic Karswell lives with his kindly old mother, who wishes the committed bachelor would quit black magic and settle down with a nice girl.) Holden is joined in his adventures by Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummin), the niece of his deceased colleague.

Though the central conceit of the film is a common horror trope (superstition and faith vs. science, logic, and education), Curse of the Demon is more complex than most of its counterparts. Though the film makes clear the curse and demon are real (against Tourneur's wishes), the film never discredits science and knowledge. Every character is complex, intelligent, and flawed. Curse of the Demon instead makes the argument that an open mind and a healthy curiosity are virtues and that there are things we may never understand. Andrews' unbending, rigid skepticism and Karswell's overwhelming belief in the supernatural are presented ambiguously, making the film more unsettling than more simplistic films handling similar themes.

Alongside the effective story and performances, Curse of the Demon is visually beautiful. Edward Scaife's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a masterpiece of light and shadow. Tourneur directs some amazing setpieces with gracefully gliding camera work (including a windstorm scene at a children's party) and uses a varied but narratively coherent selection of shots and perspectives, including medium shots, closeups, high and low angles, moving and still cameras, first-person and omniscient perspectives, and an effectively controlled use of space (open and claustrophobic) to eerie effect. This is such a great movie, made by people who are really good at what they do.

I hinted earlier that Tourneur didn't want to show the demon. As filming drew to a close, the producers decided the demon needed to be shown at the film's beginning and conclusion. A pissed-off Tourneur was forced to sacrifice some of his film's ambiguity for the sake of crass commercialism. To his credit, the demon looks great from a distance, an expressive, shadowy evil hovering in the sky, surrounded by smoke. The closeups of the demon do not look great. He looks like a child's stuffed animal. These closeups are one of only two flaws that mar an otherwise excellent movie. (The other is a small, domestic cat that turns into a large jungle cat. The effects are unconvincing and Andrews is clearly fighting with a floppy stuffed animal. It's a minor gripe, a nitpick, and doesn't hurt the film too much.)

The film played in most countries as Night of the Demon but was edited down from 95 to 82 minutes and retitled Curse of the Demon in the United States. The edit removes two scenes, a trip by Andrews to Stonehenge and a visit to a family of one of the cult members, in order for the film to play on a double bill at drive-ins and Saturday matinees. Both versions of the film are available on DVD.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#120: Curdled (Reb Braddock, 1996)

Despite the patronage of Quentin Tarantino, Reb Braddock's sole feature film, Curdled, didn't make much money and received mostly negative reviews. Braddock has been unable to get any other film projects made, though he's enjoying a second career as the head of the film program at his alma mater, Florida State. This bad luck is unfortunate, since Curdled is an energetic, entertaining, skillfully paced, darkly funny film with lots of good performances (especially Angela Jones') and not much filler. Why did the critics beat up on a film that, at least in my opinion, is very good? I'm going to do some armchair speculating and put forth the idea that many deserving films receive a critical drubbing (and many bad or mediocre films receive praise) every year for two major reasons that have very little to do with the film's content, form, and style.

First, if you're the kind of movie fan with fervently mainstream tastes who thinks the purpose of film criticism is to find a consensus opinion about films you've already been bombarded with advertisements about and confirm your own taste without challenging you or pointing you to anything new (the consumer report or test kitchen approach to film criticism), then you probably have no problem with most newspaper, television, and magazine film criticism and the Rotten Tomatoes tyranny of the majority philosophy. Here's the first problem with that approach. It's mostly dishonest, though many of its practitioners have convinced themselves otherwise or just never thought about their part in upholding a boring status quo. Here's why. Most newspaper, TV, and magazine film critics are journalists, with journalism degrees. They don't have any film or film studies backgrounds. They're reporters who happen to like movies, but they approach film like journalists, and it shows in their writing. These are people who mostly think in terms of stories and language, not in terms of image, sound, and structure. They are also instructed in journalism school to write every article, no matter which section it's in, in language a fifth-grade student can easily understand. I don't have a problem with this populist approach when it comes to important news stories the public needs to know about, but it's a horrible approach to arts criticism and complex news stories (particularly foreign policy stories that require more historical background than the mainstream media is ever going to give you). Film is primarily a visual and aural medium, but popular discourse about the medium almost always forces it into that limited plot and story box, with some perfunctory cliches about the acting. I love a good plot and story as much as anybody, but it's the least important part of a movie. How that story is told visually is the real deal. I'm starting to digress here. Here's the second problem with the mainstream approach. When a movie with a lot of promotional buzz opens, the New York and Los Angeles critics review it first since it opens in these cities first. These critics have their own biases, pressures, unholy alliances with advertisers, and hidden agendas, but they get the first crack at publishing their opinions. The mainstream critics in the rest of the country see these reviews and hear the buzz by the time the film gets to their metropolis, hamlet, or burg. Most of these critics don't want to appear unsophisticated or wrong, so they tend to follow these early reviews like lemmings or sheep or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use that's been beaten like a dead horse or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use. Sometimes, the New York and L.A. critics are divided on a film. The rest of the country soon follows, dividing into two camps. It's both funny and sad how predictably the mainstream critics follow each other. The same handful of films get reviewed, talked about, discussed in the same terms. The public discourse is shaped. Curdled is one of those films that received a first round of negative reviews that just kept following it across the country.

Whew. That was a bit long-winded. Here's the second major reason good films get bad reviews: cultural pressure. What I mean when I use that term is that a person or situation involved in the making of the film has done something (or nothing) to draw the ire or confusion of the mainstream press, so the press dumps on the film to avenge itself or the public, regardless of the film's worth. This happened twice in the 1980s to two very good films, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Elaine May's Ishtar, to such an extent that they are still considered two of the worst films ever made, though mostly by people who've never seen them. Both films went over schedule and over budget and lost money at the box office, which the press gleefully reported. Cimino, the director of Heaven's Gate, and Warren Beatty, producer and co-star of Ishtar, had alienated the press shortly before both films began production. Beatty in particular had made several publicly disparaging comments about film critics. Both films had their share of flaws, but both were ambitious, visually interesting, unique, and politically prescient (the former about widespread corporatization, the latter about Mideast foreign policy and showbiz) and were unfairly trashed by nearly every major mainstream critic. Former critics' darlings Cimino and Beatty were taken down a peg, a whole peg. This happens all the time.

In 1996, Quentin Tarantino was one of those guys who needed to be taken down a peg. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had been moneymakers and critical successes, but Tarantino was taking his sweet time making a followup. In the meantime, Hollywood seemed to have gone to his head. He kept popping up in goofy acting cameos, his segment of Four Rooms was a bad idea in a bad film, he produced or executive produced several movies that weren't that great, and he kept showing up on talk shows in a Kangol hat acting like a coked-up, obnoxious goon. Also, Tarantino imitators were saturating the crime film market. Nearly every weekend between 1995 and 1998, some shitty Tarantino knockoff opened. This had very little to do with his still-excellent directing chops, which he showed off in the following year's Jackie Brown, one of his best and most underrated films.

The reason Curdled existed was also the reason it was treated unfairly by the critics. Tarantino had seen director Reb Braddock's student film, also called Curdled, at a crime film festival in Italy when he was debuting Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino fell in love with the film and its star, Angela Jones, and helped co-writer/director Braddock get the funding to adapt the short into a feature film. He even cast Jones in a small but substantial role in Pulp Fiction as the taxi driver who helps Bruce Willis make his getaway. The character was based on Jones' character in Curdled. Tarantino executive produced the feature film, convinced Miramax to distribute it, and put it out on video on his own Rolling Thunder imprint. Curdled had the misfortune to hit theaters during the peak of the first major Tarantino backlash, and I strongly suspect that much of the negative response to Curdled can be traced, intentionally or otherwise, to the prevailing anti-Tarantino sentiment. All this massive preamble is my way of saying that Curdled is a very good black comedy/horror/crime thriller that has been the victim of a royal screwjob. It's not a great movie, and Braddock is not an unsung genius, but this movie is a damn good time, damn it.

Curdled is about a Colombian immigrant in Miami, Gabriela (Angela Jones), who works in a bakery. She's a childlike, naive innocent with a sexual charisma she doesn't realize she has and an intense fascination with violent crime and serial murder. She keeps a murder scrapbook and is closely following the current wave of killings and beheadings of socialite women in Miami. One night, she sees a TV ad about a crime scene cleanup company that's looking for new employees. She gets the job, quits the bakery, and enthusiastically takes on the new position. I like the scenes in the workplace featuring the all-female, mostly Latino and Cuban staff (including Daisy Fuentes) and boss Lodger (Barry Corbin from Northern Exposure and No Country for Old Men). Soon, Gabriela's job puts her in close contact with the serial killer, leading to a lengthy final scene that combines suspense, humor, horror, music, and dance and a very funny and satisfying conclusion. That's all I'll say about it.

Braddock is clearly dealing with a limited budget, and the film is not exactly a visual feast, but he wisely avoids flashy overstylization and gets a lot of mileage out of his actors' graceful movements through the frame and facial expressions and a great soundtrack of cumbia music that is skillfully integrated into the narrative. Jones has a wonderful movie face that can play sexy, naive, frightened, and sophisticated at the same time, and her performance is a highlight. The jokes are all understated and funny, except when they need to be broader (though they're still funny). William Baldwin's serial killer (not a spoiler, the movie reveals this at the very beginning) could have been a lot more ridiculous but is not overpsychologized or overblown. The film's 89-minute running time never drags, and the editing is sharp and natural. Even the smallest characters are individually drawn and personalized. Each character has his/her own voice and personality.
I like this movie a lot. The critics are wrong. Give it another shot. Braddock also needs another shot. I think this guy can make another good film.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

#119: Communion (Philippe Mora, 1989)

I'm a skeptic, but I'm also open to the possibility I could be wrong and this world could be much stranger than we know. I even had my own bizarre encounter with something I can't entirely explain when I was a senior in high school. I wasn't anally probed or abducted by small gray men or the skinny ones with the oval heads and the large eyes or anything like that. I didn't see any beings, and I didn't have any weird stuff done to me. I did see something, though, that I can't quite find a place for in the world of hard facts. I was driving down the highway at night on a Friday in my parents' brown station wagon, which my friends and I dubbed the "Meat Wagon of Doom." I was a few months away from graduating high school, and I was feeling isolated, alone, and melancholy. I grew up in a rural small town in western Nebraska, and I didn't fit in at all. I was feeling that sting of isolation after a particularly alienating week, so I decided a long drive by myself was the perfect complement to my dark mood. I started driving south of town with no particular destination in mind. I planned on driving for ten or fifteen miles, then turning around and heading back to town. When I got about seven miles out of town, a large, strange aircraft flew over my car and hovered there for a few minutes. I remember thinking it was an airplane, but when I looked up at it, I noticed it was much closer to my car than an airplane should or would have been. Its shape resembled a smaller version of the ship from Close Encounters and it was covered in lights, some of which pointed down at me. I remember feeling thoroughly creeped out. I kept driving and the ship eventually moved upwards and out of sight. I turned the car around and drove back home.

What happened? I still don't know, but most of me believes it was a military aircraft. Several closely guarded military institutions exist in the countryside near my hometown, thanks to its low population. Some of our nuclear weapons are housed there, and it's probably a great place to test experimental aircraft. I don't think I was buzzed by an alien ship, but a tiny part of me would like to believe I was. The weird thing about this encounter was how quickly I forgot all about it. A week later, and I was once again preoccupied with teen angst. I didn't remember my mothership sighting until the end of my college years, five years later. Why did I forget about it so suddenly and for so long? That's the part that creeps me out the most. What if I imagined the whole thing? Memory is unreliable, deceptive, and strange.

Philippe Mora's 1989 alien abduction movie, Communion, covers this uneasy feeling well. Is this really happening? If it is real, why is it happening? Based on Whitley Strieber's 1987 nonfiction ("nonfiction"?) account of his own encounters with beings from somewhere else, Communion features a great, gonzo Christopher Walken performance, some wonderfully creepy scenes, some hilariously ridiculous scenes, a frighteningly accurate portrayal of depression, and dancing aliens. Strieber's screenplay for the film admirably refuses to answer questions, presenting the possibilities that the "visitors" are aliens from another planet, beings from another dimension, religious visions, or psychotic hallucinations. My own skepticism puts me in the last camp. I think Strieber believes these beings visited him, but I don't believe these beings exist.

Whitley Strieber was a horror novelist whose first two novels were made into the films Wolfen and The Hunger. In the late 1980s, he announced that he'd been visited by possibly alien beings beginning in 1985, and he documented this supposedly true experience in 1987's bestselling Communion. He's since followed up with several sequels. In my opinion, his credibility has been damaged by his affiliation with Art Bell and penchant for believing in bizarre conspiracy theories about sudden climate change and some hokum about "the Master of the Key," information he claims to have gleaned from a mysterious elderly man who visited his hotel room one evening. (The disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow was based on one of his novels.)
I read Communion when I was in fifth grade, but I remember very little about it except that I expected much more terrifying descriptions of alien probing and experimenting than I received. The book was a bit dull for a 10-year-old who wanted action and thrills. Director Philippe Mora (The Beast Within, Howling II, Howling III, Mad Dog Morgan) and star Christopher Walken fortunately provide the action and thrills I wanted when I was a child.

The movie breaks down into roughly six sections, each with its own tone and feel. It begins with Walken delivering one of his hilarious, offbeat, amped-up-to-10 performances. Walken, like Nicolas Cage, is one of those rare actors who is at his best when he chews the scenery. The beginning scenes establish a warm, comedic rapport between Strieber (Walken), his wife Anne (Lindsay Crouse, David Mamet's ex-wife), and his son Andrew (Joel Carlson) in their New York City apartment. Walken plays Strieber as an eccentric goofball, with the odd Walken pauses, outbursts, and dances. The second part takes place in the family's rural upstate cabin and is the most unsettling. It is here where the alien visitation begins, and Mora does a great job of creating a feeling of creeping dread and unease. Though the film was obviously made on a limited budget, Mora does great things with lighting and editing. These are scary scenes. We also get some anal probing and needles into the back of the head. The third part of the film concerns Strieber's difficulty understanding what's happening to him as he descends into depression and anger. This domestic drama portion of the film is also highly effective. As someone who's suffered from depression off and on for the past two years, I watched these scenes with both difficulty and admiration because they were so accurate. The fourth part of the film is less effective as Strieber seeks out psychiatric help, undergoes hypnosis, and takes part in a group therapy session with other people who have seen the beings. The film loses momentum here and drags a bit, seemingly unsure of which direction to take the material. The fifth part gets into hypnosis-inspired memories, hallucinations, dream sequences, and more interactions with the beings. Some of this stuff is laughably hilarious, but it's all super fun. Walken meets an androgynous magician version of himself, talks to the aliens, dances with them, gives them high-fives, parties with them while shirtless, and puts an alien face over his own face. I detect some strong Cronenberg and Lynch influences in these sections of the movie. The film ends with more diffuse, scattered scenes in which Walken and his wife theorize about why he is the recipient of this visitation. There is no real conclusion, but how could there be?

Communion is a strange film. Its melding of tones never quite coheres into anything solid, but that's precisely what the movie's about. Strieber doesn't know what is happening to him, why it's happening, or who these visitors are. Maybe he's nuts. Maybe he's a liar, perpetrating a hoax for the sake of book sales. Director Mora says he was approached by a man at a film festival who told him his movie was inaccurate. "How do you know?" Mora asked the man. "Because the aliens told me," the man replied. It's a weird world.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

#118: Charlie's Family aka The Manson Family (Jim Van Bebber, 2003)

NOTE: I'm not sure why Rue Morgue calls this movie Charlie's Family on its list. Charlie's Family was the film's working title as it was being shot, but The Manson Family is the theatrical and DVD release title and the one you should look for if you want to see it.

Jim Van Bebber is a persistent man. What began as a friend's idea for a quick exploitation movie turned into a heavily researched obsession that took years to complete. Van Bebber started shooting his Manson film in 1988 and finished the bulk of that shoot several months later. Years of financial problems followed before more shooting in 1996 and a rough cut that played a few festivals the following year. Van Bebber endured even more financial trouble before finally securing enough backing to complete the film, which was finally released in 2003.

Was all that trouble worth it? The story of Charles Manson, his followers, and the murders they committed has been told repeatedly. Manson has become a meaningless counterculture T-shirt image and a passing fad for several immature rock stars and surly teens, a sort of mass murdering cult version of t-shirt Che Guevara or dorm poster Einstein. Books, movies, TV movies, TV specials, talk show discussions, CD and vinyl releases, posters, magazine articles, t-shirts. The Manson market is saturated. In 1988, when Van Bebber started work on his film, Manson was experiencing a resurgence of interest in his weird life story thanks to a sensationalistic Geraldo special. In 2003? Was anybody clamoring for another addition to the Manson media pile? My own ambivalence to yet another retelling of the story kept me out of the theater when the film played my city.

After seeing Van Bebber's take on Manson's family last night, I have to admit that Van Bebber's exhaustive efforts to get his film released were worth it. Van Bebber tells a familiar story, but he tells it in such a structurally inventive way with such energy and low-budget indie resourcefulness I couldn't help but be won over. This is the kind of low-budget exploitation/art/horror/sex/gore/underground/psychotronic filmmaking that hasn't really existed since the Internet became a thing we all have. Van Bebber also wisely chooses to make Manson himself a peripheral character. Instead, he focuses on the family members who carried out the murders. There's really no explaining the appeal of Manson or any other cult guru. The people who choose to follow these guys and their reasons why are the interesting part of the story, a part that is too often marginalized. Why would someone follow David Koresh? That's always fascinated me more than Koresh himself. Also, this movie has more boobs than a Russ Meyer film, so there's that. (A boobstravaganza, you might say, if you're a dork like me.) Wangs, too, straight ladies and gay men.

Van Bebber has done a lot with very little money. He has an accomplished visual sense, with a sharp eye for shot composition and editing. He skillfully creates his narrative from an offbeat structure that juxtaposes recreations of the family on their compound in the desert and the murders they commit in the city with faux-documentary footage of interviews with the members in prison years later, conversations between news producers putting together a special about the murders, and a group of crazy, drugged-out punks planning their own murder spree in the present (well, the then-present of 1996). On top of this roiling stew of formal structure, Van Bebber adds stylistic flourishes adopted from non-narrative avant-garde and underground exploitation filmmakers. Van Bebber interestingly uses a variety of film stocks and video to give each section a distinctive look. The 1960s-set scenes look like a late-'60s/early '70s film with scratches and grain, the faux-documentary stuff resembles 1980s videotape, and the 1990s-shot footage looks like a low-budget '90s movie. Everything clicks and the various parts add up to a unified whole.

Van Bebber primarily used non-professional actors, and some of the performances are pretty rough. This roughness, rather than detracting from the film, adds to its handmade charm. I'd rather see an awkward amateur give it a good try than a talented Hollywood star sleepwalk through another big-budget mediocrity any day. Besides, several performances, including Van Bebber's own as Bobby Beausoleil, are strong. The film continually walks a fine line between exploitation and a genuine portrayal of the cowardly, horrible crimes these people committed. The violence is intense, bloody, and copious. No attempt is made to sugarcoat or glorify the behavior of the family.
Though the film was inspired by Geraldo's ridiculous late-1980s TV special about murder that featured his Manson interview (I taped it off the TV as a kid and watched the VHS over and over again), in which Geraldo comes off even worse than Manson does, one never gets a sense of who Manson is and how he exuded the charisma that enticed people to follow him as a fucked-up Christ figure. Some critics consider this a weakness. Maybe it is, but if Van Bebber chose to move in that direction, the film's focus would have shifted away from the others. Van Bebber instead gets the multiple, contradictory perspectives of the family members, the way they each downplay their own involvement and implicate others, their differing accounts of certain events, their various entry points into the cult. This varied perspective nicely matches the varied structure.

Part of the pleasure I took from The Manson Family was in recognizing an aesthetic that's largely disappeared thanks to the Internet's ahistorical, context-free potpourri of everything except the stuff you can hold in your meaty fists and the samey corporate look of most media. Van Bebber, a Midwesterner who gave The Manson Family a convincing Southern California look even though it was filmed in Ohio, has assembled a film that doesn't just tell the story of the Manson family. The film's lengthy production has accidentally produced a historical curiosity, a museum piece that documents the ways Midwestern kids like me sought out and soaked up the counterculture from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. This film stirred up so many memories for me. The 1970s blaxploitation, slasher, vigilante, and hippie films I caught on late-night TV when I was in elementary and middle school; the Hustler magazines my friend smuggled into school and showed us in the boys' bathrooms; magazines about skateboarding, punk rock, heavy metal, horror movies, and pro wrestling (Thrasher, Rip, Reflex, Fangoria, Gorezone, Pro Wrestling Illustrated) I'd buy at the grocery stores or look through in friends' basements (I remember one cheap wrestling magazine I often bought that had B&W newsprint that came off all over my hand and featured advertisements for videos of women's bikini oil wrestling in the back); cheap cassette dubs of friends' older brothers' thrash metal and hardcore punk tapes; fanzines; drive-in movies; USA Up All Night movies with Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear; straight-to-video exploitation VHS rentals from convenience stores; true-crime books from the library; catching Geraldo's Manson interview or G.G. Allin's appearances on Geraldo and Jerry Springer and Morton Downey on afternoon TV; word-of-mouth stories about movies, bands, and news events not readily available. None of this stuff happened alone in front of a computer. This was a mixture of the randomness of chance, genuine curiosity, and the small community of like-minded weirdos who thought, "There's something else out there besides football, blockbusters, and sitcoms. I need to see some weird shit and I need to see it now." This movie just exudes that sense of Midwestern isolation leading to cultural investigation, and how one went about finding it through trial, error, and accident in a huge but semi-hidden pile of exploitation, art, and trash in the last pre-Internet era.

P.S. One of the extras on the 2-DVD set is a documentary about the making of the film. Van Bebber is interviewed while chain-smoking cigarettes and chain-drinking Foster's. He sounds pretty drunk and spends a lot of the interview veering between down-to-earth descriptions about the practicalities of low-budget filmmaking and insanely hubristic pronouncements about his own talent and vision. He also brags a lot about drinking and smoking weed. He's a pretty hilarious guy.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Flashback: The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

The next film on the list is one I've already written about: Peter Medak's The Changeling, an entertaining haunted house movie starring George C. Scott. Here's a link to the old review.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

#117: Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004)

What a pleasure it is to see a modern filmmaker who knows how to use visual space and how to blend content, form, and structure into a personal style. Two days ago, I watched Slumdog Millionaire, and my viewing of Calvaire last night acted as a coincidental rebuke to the former film in almost every way. I bet the Academy felt pretty hip when it awarded Slumdog Millionaire the Best Picture Oscar in early 2009, but that overrated trifle combines a moldy old underdog-triumphs-and-rescues-his-true-love story (the villains practically twirl their mustaches) with a nonsensical, spatially incoherent visual style that is divorced from the material. The film's rapid cutting (only a few shots last a full second), bizarre framing of shots so one never knows the spatial relationships between the characters and the geography (never mind all the sideways camera angles that exist for their own masturbatory sake), occasional lapses into extraneous 1990s music video-style camera and editing tricks, incoherent action sequences, and a color palette drained of most of the spectrum have the effect of clashing badly with the content and enjoyable performances. I'm not just beating up on Danny Boyle's Oscar winner. Most mainstream films of the past decade suffer from these flaws and look like they were the work of a single terrible director. Boyle knows how to make a movie (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions), but the pressure to conform to the terrible new industry standards must be strong. It worked out all right for Boyle. He can roll around in his pile of Oscars and money, while I have to make do with my carpet and a pillow or two.

Thank the movie gods for the filmmakers on the fringes. These are the craftsmen and women and innovators keeping the medium alive. Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz is one of these craftsmen. His debut feature-length film, Calvaire, besides being a very strange psychological horror story, is a fine example of lean, economical, thoughtful, and personal visual storytelling. Calvaire owes a lot to Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and any old story about a deserted inn and a lone, stranded traveler, but Du Welz brings plenty of his own weirdness to the party. In scattered moments, Du Welz sometimes pushes a calculated strangeness for its own sake, but, more often than not, he makes his weird corner of the world plausible and visceral.

Calvaire begins with Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) applying eyeliner in front of a mirror. Next, we see him appear on a small stage, wearing a cape, singing love songs oozing with black velvet and glitter to a crowd of elderly people on folding chairs. Backstage, an elderly woman makes an explicit sexual overture to him. He freezes, then pushes her hand away in disgust. While loading his van and preparing to leave, an employee of the nursing home, a pretty blonde woman, makes her sexual hunger for him readily apparent. He has no reaction. He's looking forward to his next performance, at a Christmas party. Record label executives will be there. He and the woman know the next time he returns, he'll be a star. Marc Stevens, pushing 40, playing an anachronistic set of standards to the elderly while dressed like a third-tier 1970s glam-rock star, fully expects to become a famous singer. It pleases me to tell you that he is the sanest person in the entire film.

Marc's van gives him some trouble on the way out of the nursing home, and it finally breaks down in the countryside in thick fog, close to an isolated inn. A bizarre man finds Marc while looking for his missing dog and takes the singer to the inn. He wakes up the owner, Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who offers him a room. The inn has no other guests but looks nice and homey. Bartel says the inn has been closed since his wife left him, but he's pleased to welcome a fellow artist. Bartel says he used to be a stand-up comic and his estranged wife was a singer. He tells Marc he can fix his van since the area's only mechanic is booked solid. I don't think I have to tell you that Bartel is less than honest, though he does tell a pretty good joke, and Marc is probably not going to make that Christmas party. I won't spoil much of the rest, because a lot of weird, weird stuff happens.

I will briefly introduce the other characters. Besides Bartel and the man looking for his dog, a farmer and his many sons live nearby. The farmer and Bartel don't get along, probably because Bartel's wife was also involved with the farmer. When she left Bartel, she left the farmer, too. The rural area's only official entertainment takes place at a depressing bar that could have come from Bela Tarr's Satantango. The farmer, his sons, and several other rough-looking men congregate at the long tables and drink their beer in silence. An old piano sits alongside the wall between the tables and the bar. A man plays a blackly comic dirge on it, leading to the most bizarre all-male dance party scene of 2004, or, most likely, any other year. The women (woman?) have abandoned this part of the country, and the men have gone insane in their absence. (Maybe they were already crazy and drove the women away?)

In the hands of a more exploitative filmmaker, Calvaire could have been one of those dreary torture and rape movies, but Du Welz has a lot more on his mind. There is some torture and rape, but Du Welz films this from a distance, showing us only enough to let us know what's happening. The bulk of the film is a darkly humorous, unsettling, and possibly even tragic look at abandonment, fantasy, insanity, wish fulfillment, and destroyed dreams. Every single character projects his or her preferred fantasy on Marc (who projects his own fantasy on himself), with disastrous results. What this all leads to in the film's abrupt, cryptic conclusion is something I need to think about some more.

Calvaire is not an easy watch, but it's also not a film that revels in its violence. It's not an endurance contest. Du Welz is an exciting, talented filmmaker with a nice eye, and so many shots are beautifully framed. When the film does engage in visual incoherence, it's not extraneous. Instead, these moments are inextricably tied to the characters' mental states and physical movements. I'm not quite sure the final third is as strong as the rest of Calvaire, but Du Welz certainly gives you plenty to chew over. If you're up for an unsettlingly strange point of view and an ending that may not give you what you expect, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Calvaire.