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.