Saturday, January 26, 2013

#149: Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

Martin arrived smack in the middle of George A. Romero's creatively fertile first two decades as a filmmaker and remains the director's favorite of his own films. Though low-budget, Martin is a vibrantly personal work, free of some of the compromises Romero has been forced to make on other projects. Romero wrote, directed, edited, and acted in Martin, and cast and crew included close friends and frequent collaborators, including his then-wife Christine Forrest and the always reliable and awesome Tom Savini. I've seen Martin four times, and each time I find more to love. Both structurally innovative and emotionally moving, Martin is a refreshingly honest portrayal of loneliness that avoids sentiment, self-pity, and cliché.
Though Martin can be classified as a vampire movie, its atmosphere, style, and tone push it closer toward the company of Romero's little-seen, underrated character-based dramas There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch rather than the more overt horror of the zombie films, The Crazies, and Creepshow. (This is no put-down of any of those films. I admire them all, and Dawn of the Dead is my favorite horror film ever.) For a guy most famous for a series of films about undead flesh eaters (to be unfairly reductive), his work on Vanilla, Witch, and Martin reveals a surprising kinship with early '70s American and Canadian independent dramas like Barbara Loden's Wanda and Donald Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, as well as a less manic, more melancholic cousin of the New York independents John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, and the Scorsese of Who's That Knocking at My Door. As a lover of both horror films and the genre-free early North American independents, this delights me. Martin, then, is a bridge connecting all phases of Romero's career, a defining work that deserves to be as well known as Night of the Living Dead and its sequels.
Martin begins with a frightening scene on a train. Martin (John Amplas) sneaks into the sleeper car of an attractive fellow passenger he's spotted earlier in the day. She fights back valiantly, but Martin drugs her with a hypodermic needle, and removes her clothes and his. He embraces and kisses her, but instead of rape, he slits her wrist and drinks her blood. (Even this woman, who plays a victim, is given more dimension, personality, and strength than most women in horror films of that era, or any other. Romero's women are always just as interesting as his male characters and never defined by gender stereotypes, even in a film as concerned with sex as this one.) This opening scene is a daring gamble, since Martin is a tragic, sympathetic character. Romero clearly loves this man and wants the audience to feel, if not that same intensity of feeling, then at least some human commonality, so beginning with this moment is a risky but ultimately successful move.
Martin soon arrives in an economically struggling Pittsburgh neighborhood, where he is received by his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, who died in 2009 at the age of 106). Cuda, from "the old country," has agreed to receive Martin in his home so he can save his soul and then destroy his earthly body. Cuda and Martin both believe Martin is a vampire, one of eight in their family bloodline and one of three still roaming the earth. Interestingly, Cuda believes in the traditional stereotypes of vampire myth, using garlic and crosses in an attempt to contain Martin, while Martin finds the old man's belief in these myths ridiculous even as he himself thinks he's an 85-year-old bloodsucker. Cuda's granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest) also lives in the home and sees all this for what it is: mental illness, family myth, and harmful superstition. Martin is cripplingly shy and lonely, yearning for female companionship and human connection while convinced he's a vampire who must drink blood to survive.
Martin slowly begins to connect with others: becoming a regular caller to a night-time talk radio show where he is unwittingly used by the DJ for comic relief and ratings but where he is able to open up anonymously about who he thinks he is, developing a friendship with Christina, beginning a tender but tragic sexual relationship with a depressed, neglected housewife, Mrs. Santini (Elyane Nadeau). That last relationship becomes the film's most important one. These two damaged lonely people connect without judgment but are unable to help each other in the end.
Martin is a sad film, its subject being loneliness, manifested by alienation, suicide, murder, family disintegration, economic collapse, and the difficulty of human connection and communication. It's never dreary, though. Moments of humor, particularly Romero himself playing a self-deprecating priest with an appetite for cigars and wine, are expertly and naturally placed to lighten the mood and reveal hidden truths about the characters. The pace is brisk when it needs to be and deliberate and considered when required. The acting is occasionally sweetly awkward, but more often honest and natural, with even the awkward line readings more affecting than some slick piece of Hollywood professionalism that never makes us uncomfortable but never tells us anything about ourselves either. And, no, I'm not forgetting this is a horror blog. The film's horror elements are frightening and suspenseful, but also contain that emotional core that makes this movie something special. To put it in a more recent context, if Martin was on Maury Povich, the paternity test would reveal that Martin is the father of Larry Fessenden's Habit and not the father of Blade or 30 Days of Night or The Lost Boys.
I am a huge fan of George A. Romero and can find things to love in even his most flawed films, like Bruiser. However, I'm not being a mere partisan when I say George A. Romero's Martin is a beautiful, complex, and wonderful film with a vital central performance by John Amplas, an emotionally honest supporting cast, a subtly powerful score by composer Donald Rubinstein, and a strong sense of place. This is a real, personal film with a beating heart that willed itself into existence by humans, not committees, corporations, or celebrity vanity.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Flashback: Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

William Lustig has directed at least three great horror films with the word "maniac" in the title. Here's a link to my older review.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

#148: Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, & Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)

In my recent post about the similarly premised film The Last Horror Movie, I had this to say about Man Bites Dog: "On paper, a synopsis of this 2003 British meta-horror makes it sound like a total knockoff of the 1992 Belgian cult film Man Bites Dog. Though the premises are almost identical, the films really are very different in their tone, look, execution, and style. The latter film is a black-and-white, guerrilla-punk, pseudo-verite ball of energy, with a manic, bullying subject, and is a lot more violent, if my memory of a film seen about 15 years ago is correct." Turns out, my memory wasn't entirely correct. After a fresh viewing last night, I agree that Man Bites Dog is black-and-white, pseudo-vérité, and energetic. I partially agree that the subject is manic and bullying, although there are many other facets to his character that clash with these traits. I don't agree with my characterization of the film's style as guerrilla-punk. It's much more thoughtfully composed and edited than I had remembered. And though there are more instances of violence here than in The Last Horror Movie, this film lingers far less on those instances of violence and poses more intriguing, thoughtful questions about them. The Last Horror Movie was primarily about audiences' relationships with violent films and an elegy to VHS culture and '70s, '80s, and '90s slasher films. Man Bites Dog is a prescient dark satire about reality TV, celebrity, and actual violence. I like both films, but Man Bites Dog is the stronger, sharper work.
I don't know much about Belgian television in the early 1990s, but I do know that MTV's The Real World was just about the only "reality TV" program on the air in the United States at the time. Its success coincided with the decrease in popularity of sitcoms (except for a popular handful), the rise of proliferating specialist cable channels, 24-hour news networks, and the Internet, and economic decline and writers' strikes. This has led to a decade-plus of reality-TV dominance as the premier TV genre of our current era, and a pop culture audience even more obsessed with immediacy, narcissism, and the increasingly quick life cycle of consumption and disposal of celebrities and their brands than any of its forebears. While Man Bites Dog isn't especially prophetic when it comes to most of these issues, it's eerily on the money about the format of reality television and its effect on the behaviors of the people who appear on these programs, the people who make them, and the audience who watches them.
Quentin Tarantino has thrown several arrogant, privileged hissy fits in recent press junket interviews when questioned about his depiction of violence and its effects and influence on society. I sympathize with his frustration with this question even as I wince at his childish reaction. (And I admire and enjoy his films while disliking his arrogance and entitlement as a public figure.) He's far from the only director who uses violence as part of his aesthetic even though he's one of the only directors who's ever directly challenged by the media about it, and he's answered this question repeatedly for the entire 20 years of his career. It's an interesting question, but I think media are looking in the wrong place. In my opinion, pop culture's depiction of verbal and body language and its manifestation as behavior and image/brand creation is a far greater influence on the subsequent behaviors of its audience than stylized movie violence. Anecdotally, I've seen far more people incorporate reality TV behaviors and movie catchphrases into their daily routines than shootings, stabbings, karate beatdowns, and fistfighting. I worked as a substitute teacher for two years, and the high school students I encountered daily modeled several aspects of their behavior and language after the manufactured drama of reality television. Teenagers, already experts in narcissism and manufactured drama (a byproduct of lack of experience, insecurity, and the biological disadvantage of having adult sex organs and still-developing childish brains), adopted the reality TV template when their genuine personalities hit the wall of their articulation. One class devolved into such a carbon copy of a Springer/Maury Povich show that I had to pretend it was to get them to do their work. (I pretended to have a microphone and announced commercial breaks to work on the assignment, which actually worked. Whenever a student came back from the bathroom, the students booed him/her as if he/she was one of the deadbeat dads on the paternity episodes of Povich's show. It was both charming and frightening.)
To make a long-winded post a little shorter, Man Bites Dog understands that the murders are the initial reason why the camera crew is filming our antihero protagonist, but that his posturing language and body movements and the half-real/half-manufactured confrontations and camaraderie with the film crew (surrogate fellow cast members?) are the real story and the template for the next 15 years of TV. Most people I know haven't engaged in violent behavior, but for some reason, half of them have adopted the irritating habit of saying "I know, right?" whenever they agree with something the other speaker says. Language is the currency of influence, not violence.
I suppose I should actually write something about the film. (I know, right?) Film school buddies Belvaux, Bonzel, and Poelvoorde directed, wrote (with Vincent Tavier), and starred in this low-budget but accomplished feature shortly before graduating. This is the only full-length film the trio directed. Bonzel currently works as a cinematographer and Poelvoorde is a successful actor. Belvaux committed suicide in 2006. The film takes the form of documentary footage a filmmaker (Belvaux) is making about a serial killer (Poelvoorde). The film crew is small, consisting of Belvaux, a cameraman (Bonzel), and a soundman. They film Poelvoorde as he murders people and steals their money, disposes of bodies in lakes and quarries, gets drunk at his favorite bar, plays music with a musician friend, hangs out with his mother and grandparents at their small grocery and home, boxes at a nearby gym, and soliloquizes on art, music, poetry, philosophy, relationships, and murder in the streets, taverns, and restaurants he frequents. Until the exceedingly dark final third, the film is just as much a satirical comedy as it is a horror film and political polemic. I'd forgotten just how funny Man Bites Dog is. Poelvoorde, playing a character that shares his name, has a great part. Benoît is a charismatic monster with recognizably human traits who often plays to the cameras but just as often lets his guard down with honest emotional outbursts.
The film crew isn't quite as fleshed out, understandably, but Belvaux has some fine moments of his own, particularly when addressing the camera in two scenes to memorialize two crew members who became collateral damage after two of Poelvoorde's victims had guns of their own. In the absence of other subjects, the crew takes the place of a reality show cast, and Poelvoorde treats them as peers, friends, employees, slaves, and figures of admiration depending on his wants and needs. Unlike The Last Horror Movie, Man Bites Dog never tells us what the filmmakers plan to do with the finished product, though we learn that Poelvoorde helps finance the shoot whenever the filmmakers run out of money.
It's unusual for a film with three directors to have such a cohesive feel, but Man Bites Dog always feels focused, both aesthetically and functionally. The black-and-white is a nice touch. Color would have created a garish, exaggerated tone that would have undermined the film's impact. There are some beautifully framed, inventive shots, but the film is never overstylized or self-consciously arty. There's a nice moment when the film crew is scattered looking for one of Poelvoorde's victims. Poelvoorde speaks to the camera but there is no sound because the soundman is on the other side of the building. When he returns, the sound picks up, mid-sentence. In this scene, aesthetics meets logic meets realism meets stylized form meets the pragmatics of low-budget filmmaking. I think I enjoyed Man Bites Dog even more on a second viewing. It feels even more contemporary now.