29 October, 2010

Don't Look Now (1973)

What makes Don't Look Now such an effective horror film is its coyness about letting the viewer realize he's watching a horror film.  I don't know how the movie was marketed in 1973, but I went into watching this film about a married couple coping with the recent drowning death of their daughter expecting a depressing family drama in the vein of Ordinary People only with some fantastical elements.  That it would be one of the most haunting films I've ever seen is something I couldn't have predicted until the final minutes, when Nicholas Roeg unveils the final details that rack the entire picture into intense focus.

Don't Look Now conveys the story of John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), an educated, loving couple who live in Britain with a young son and daughter.  John is an artist and architect who meticulously restores deteriorating medieval churches, and though his job puts him in close contact with religious imagery and people, he is a firm atheist.  His wife likewise is a woman of few religious or spiritual convictions.  When their daughter drowns in a pond behind their home, they cope with the grief as well as could be hoped.  The death of a child is a strong precondition for divorce, but John and Laura maintain their love and sanity despite their underlying pangs of sorrow.  To help move on with their lives, they send their son to boarding school and take an extended working vacation to crumbling Venice, where John has been contracted to restore a cathedral.

Venice, however, is an old and musty city some sixteen hundred years old.  Its ancient mode of life and imposing stone buildings tower over the present, blending the centuries together.  War, plague, political intrigues, assassinations, and greed have given the city its share of ghosts, which stroll the dark, labyrinthine alleys and haunt the mildewy, stone-cobbled corridors.  Venice has steadily been sinking into the muddy foundations on which it is built for several centuries.  The city's doom is fated, and any life there is fleeting and unstable.  A thriving tourist business insures its economic survival, but when the tourist season ends, the city begins to resemble a ghost town in the truest sense.

So it isn't long before John and Laura encounter a haunting reminder of what they are trying to escape.  In a restaurant guest room, Laura encounters a blind woman (Hilary Mason) and her sister (Clelia Matania), two batty spinsters who arrest Laura with an impossible message from beyond the grave.  The blind woman cannot see the world, but she has been gifted with a second sight that enables her to see what no one else can, and what she sees is their dead daughter, happy, giggling, accompanying them on their vacation.  Don't be so depressed, the blind woman tells Laura.  Your daughter is very happy, and you should be too.  The details are impossibly accurate, and Laura is convinced by the woman's message.  She experiences an exuberant release knowing that life can be eternal.

But John is a skeptic, and he dismisses Laura's happy turn as a dangerous placebo effect and accuses the two women of being hustling charlatans.  His daughter is dead, he declares, and the only way to move on with life is to accept this fact in all its cold truth.  The disagreement leads to the harshest division between the couple as events in the film begin to spiral into dark directions.  John begins to doubt his wife's sanity as she delves deeper into supernatural and religious beliefs.  Has she lost her mind to grief?  Laura, meanwhile, mistrusts her husband for cynically denying what to her is so obvious.  And as this conflict escalates, a number of inexplicable dark premonitions--undeniably felt by John and supported by the predictions of the blind woman--manifest in unfortunate moments.  Are the two sisters up to no good?  Is John, Laura, or their son destined for death?

Don't Look Now is a tour-de-force of editing, which was done by Graeme Clifford, likely with strong direction by Nicolas Roeg.  Every scene elicits precisely the intended emotions.  A rather audacious sex scene early in the film, fluidly intercut with shots of the couple dressing for dinner, is simultaneously erotic, loving, and mournful.  A brief glimpse of the two sisters laughing confirms all of John's (and our) suspicions that they are up to devilish mischief.  The opening scene in which the daughter hits her head and drowns while the couple hang out in the living room and the son fixes his bike tire in the backyard is edited with such synchronicity as to make the death seem preordained.  Though the three separate fields of action seem suitably distinct at first, actions begin to overlap with a sinister momentum.  Motion in one direction by the wife, for example, mirrors motion by the daughter.  A tossed remote control becomes a falling baseball.  Eventually the three scenes become part of one inseparable action--the turning of the universe around its center--so that when John spills red ink on a slide he is studying, we know with certainty that the daughter has died.

This exquisite control is exercised not only within individual scenes but within the film as a whole.  The theme of the film is predestination and psychic premonition, and Roeg gives us a taste of these, working minor images into our subconscious so that when they reoccur later they seem to arise from the deepest stirrings of our collective unconscious.  When John watches from afar as police pull the half-naked body of a drowned woman from the canal, the unidentified corpse in its wet, white underwear bears an unsettling resemblance to something we once saw--Laura in her underwear in the bathroom prior to the sex scene.  The deja vu is palpable, as it must be for John, who immediately enters a whirlwind of anxiety wondering where his wife is at that particular moment.  Window panes, trickling water, the color red--as these motifs repeat with dizzying intensity, we surrender to the conviction that disaster is imminent and unavoidable.

Don't Look Now, based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca), is an unsettling masterpiece. 

Don't Look Now (1973)
d: Nicolas Roeg w: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
(Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie)
TSPDT?: #143

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Paranormal Activity is the pseudo-documentary account of a series of demonic hauntings visited upon a young couple in the fall of 2006.  In the style of The Blair Witch Project, all footage is captured by a consumer-brand hand-held camera operated by the two main characters, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, who play (versions of) themselves improvising dialogue according to an outline provided by Oren Peli, who made the bare bones horror film in his own home for just over ten thousand dollars.  A couple other characters--a psychic and a best friend--appear briefly, but the bulk of the short film revolves around the cohabitating duo's daytime arguments and nocturnal frights, all captured by the constantly running camera.

The back story in Paranormal Activity is delightfully brief and ambiguous:  in short, Katie has been visited periodically by a malevolent demon since she was eight years old.  The demon may have been responsible for burning down her childhood home, but what the demon is or wants is never fully clarified.  Now that Katie has moved in with her boyfriend, the being has reappeared with a resurgence of horrifying activity.  A friendly, matter-of-fact psychic (Mark Fredrichs) explains that the entity likely feeds off of negative energy, but this dangerous news only sets off an intense cycle for the couple, who conflict over how to approach the situation.  Katie, who has lived with the presence for over fifteen years and is not at all amused by it, would rather just ignore it, try to forget about it, and hope that it's influence eventually diminishes, which, according to the psychic, would likely be one of the safest paths to take.  Micah, however, who has just recently found out about the entity, is intrigued by its supernatural novelty and believes that he can proactively negotiate the situation with the inhuman being.  He brings paranormal technology and a Ouija board into the home trying to draw the presence out so that he can better understand it and be better prepared to deal with it.  Interacting with it, however, just makes it stronger, and there is no normal means of negotiating with a satanic ghost.  As the demon becomes stronger, much to Micah's fascination and Katie's dismay, their arguments intensify, the negative energy escalates, in turn making the demon scarier, which in turn makes them more afraid, hence increasing the negative energy further.  The ending cannot possibly be happy.

The key scenes in the film are the time-progressed, night vision episodes of their sleeping, episodes which feature some basic special effects and some eerie sounds but which deliver the most effective terror through simple yet abnormal imagery.  One night after a particularly ugly argument Katie sleepily rises from bed and stares at Micah.  The time counter advances and we watch her as she stares, unmoving, in the darkness for almost two hours at her sleeping lover before finally disappearing down the dark stairs.  The horror in Paranormal Activity is effective because it never distances itself from the viewer's own situation--there is no specific slasher who attacks in a particular neighborhood, no monster that haunts a particular locale, no far-fetched mythology to justify impossible occurrences.  Paranormal Activity instead focuses on unfamiliar sounds, small but unnatural happenings (like a door closing when it shouldn't be), a couple fighting, and a girlfriend standing and staring for hours in the middle of the night when she should be in bed asleep.  Everyone in the audience lives somewhere and everyone sleeps eventually, so it's easy to superimpose the frightening scenarios onto our own situations.  It's easy to take the horror to bed with us, wondering exactly what we would do if our lovers should suddenly decide to sleep in the backyard at 3:30 on a cold morning.

This short, unnerving film is chillingly effective because it doesn't work too hard to be scary, instead trusting the viewer to use his own imagination and worst instincts to fill in the scariest details.

Paranormal Activity (2009)
d/w: Oren Peli
(Katie Featherston, Micah Sloane)

28 October, 2010

Vingança (2008)

I have no objection to twists or surprises in movies.  Some of the most exhilarating moments in my movie watching history have accompanied the perfectly timed revelations of withheld secrets.  I won't spoil any endings (other than the one in the title of this blog), but there are moments when characters played by Chazz Palminteri and Bruce Willis discover previously unknown information that are consistently chilling with every viewing.  There is a moment in The Dark Knight when Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) learns a redemptive detail about her boyfriend Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that utterly transforms her (and our) opinion about his character.

The key to all of these spine-tingling discoveries is perfectly tuned perspective.  For the most part, we experience the events of a good film through the eyes of one (or perhaps a few) character(s).  Ensemble films--where we become intimate with the points-of-view of multiple characters--must try exponentially harder to engage us.  That's why so many ensemble films fail; it's not sufficient for a screenwriter to simply direct us into some minor character's mind.  The screenwriter (and director and actors) must be extremely skilled at creating each of these characters with such sincerity and believability that we are able to link our minds and hearts with each of them.  It's difficult enough to achieve this with one main protagonist.  Only a cinematic genius like Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, or Orson Welles should ever attempt it with several.

Yet too many sloppy and lazy writers and directors succumb to the shortcuts of multiple perspectives, using the difficult technique weakly and ineffectively.  Is your main character too underdeveloped and uninteresting to support a full-length screenplay?  Well, then why not flesh out the remaining fifty minutes with half a dozen other underdeveloped characters and call it "a nonlinear thrill ride in the vein of Pulp Fiction"!  Having trouble getting the viewers to know a piece of information that the main character can't yet know about?  Well, then slip into the point-of-view of a bit actor who hasn't even been on screen yet!  Is your story not interesting enough to sustain the audience's attention?  Well, then purposely withhold information so that you can keep them befuddled while they anxiously wait for a cheap surprise!

That last cheap tactic is the path that poor filmmakers take when all they want to accomplish is a twist.  It's the difference between an effective revelation and an enervating one, and its what Paulo Pons was banking on when he wrote and directed the 2008 Brazilian revenge thriller Vingança (Retribution or Revenge).  Opening shots of films are essential, and Vingança opens with a close-up of a nameless young boy who disappears a minute into the movie and is never mentioned again.  We move from his point-of-view into the perspective of a rape victim (Bárbara Borges) upon whom he has stumbled while fishing by a river on the Uruguayan border.  But this rape victim also mostly disappears from the film after a few minutes, for she is also not the main character.  We are then treated to a disorienting, rapid-fire succession of enigmatic scenes featuring three characters who are also not the main character--first a bit player talking on a cell phone who plays the brother-in-law to the protagonist and who is mostly an antagonist, then another bit character who is a friend to a supporting character and who basically has no purpose for even being in the film, and then the supporting actress (Branca Messina) who will be one of the main characters yet is still not our main, point-of-view character.  Finally, finally, after five misdirected attempts the only purpose of which is to "intrigue" (read: frustrate) the viewer, the film settles into the point-of-view of the main character, with whom the focus fairly reliably stays for the remainder of the movie.
Yet even though this is the person we are sharing our mind, eyesight, and experiences with, Paulo Pons is coy about letting us know who this bearded, troubled-looking young man is.  Is he the rapist?  Is he out to rape again?  That's what Pons wants us to think, and it's obvious that he wants us to think that, which makes it quite clear to the discerning viewer with half a brain cell that he must certainly not be the rapist.  By the time Pons finally deigns to inform us of what is exactly going on, we've already figured it out--Miguel (Erom Cordeiro) is the fiancee of the rape victim who has traveled to Rio de Janiero in order to ingratiate himself with the rapist's sister (Messina) and eventually get to the rapist (Márcio Kieling), whom he intends to castrate and murder.  Miguel looks brooding and troubled not because he is a rapist but because he is on a disturbing mission with which he has many qualms.  Our point-of-view character and several of the minor characters (the brother-in-law, for one) know all of the details of Miguel's identity, the identity of the rapist, and the plan for revenge.  The minor characters who don't know (like the rapist's sister, who quickly becomes something of a girlfriend to the sensitive Miguel) also more importantly do not know that they do not know something.  They have no idea that there's a mystery to be solved, so they're not trying to solve it.  So if half the characters have the mystery solved and the other half don't even know that there is a mystery, then why are we, the audience, the only people scratching our heads and trying to fit together all the pieces?

Because the mystery has been superficially thrust upon us by Paolo Pons.  This is the kind of cinematic chicanery that I hate most, lacking all narrative integrity and filmmaking talent.  Vingança barely supports itself while the mystery is still under wraps; by the time the truth is revealed, it has lost all its steam, which is why the sudden, providential ending (which doesn't bother to explain how certain characters got into unlocked apartments and how certain other characters even knew where these unlocked apartments were located) is constructed of such slapshod turns of off-camera events.

If there's anything positive to be said about this film it's the small performance by José de Abreu as the raging father of the raped girl.  The rest of the film, with its manipulative screenplay and its sensational cinematography (despair is conveyed through all the typical cliches--sped up camera, hectic score, blurry focus--ugh) is an utter disaster.

Vingança (2008)
d/w: Paulo Pons
(Erom Cordeiro, Branca Messina)

27 October, 2010

I Travel Because I Need To, I Come Back Because I Love You (2009)

I wonder in what order filmmakers Karim Ainouz and Marcelo Gomez compiled the art film Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (I Travel Because I Need To, I Come Back Because I Love You).  Did they film the images--grainy, lingering scenes filmed with a lonely handheld Super 8 and vibrant, colorful still photographs--first and then realize that few people would sit through their seventy-five minutes of interesting pictures unless there were the pretense of some story, some characters, and a bit of dialogue?  Or did they actually write the screenplay--the commonplace tale of a man trying to run away from a bad relationship, drowning his despair in work, alcohol, and meaningless sexual relationships--and then set out to film it?

For a number of reasons I'm inclined to believe the former.  First, because the images on screen often have little to do with the words being muttered by the monotonous, unseen narrator.  Second, because the arresting visuals have a serendipitous and documentary-like feel that don't seem as though they've been strained through the narrow holes of the movie's plot.  And third, because the filmmakers are far superior cinematographers than they are writers, and it seems unlikely that the visuals were filmed only to suit their writing vision and not vice versa.

The narrator (voiced by Irandhir Santos) is a dull and lifeless geologist who has recently been divorced by his botanist wife.  He leaves on a work assignment, ascending the mountains in northeastern Brazil in order to survey a route for a planned canal that will displace hundreds of rural inhabitants.  In the isolation of the mountain peaks, he longs for his wife, he sleeps with a dozen young prostitutes, he gets drunk and nearly crashes his car, and just in time for the ending he has some epiphany that sets him free and allows him to move forward with his life.  What is this sudden, transcendental epiphany?  The filmmakers don't bother explaining.  The whole plot is by-the-numbers, and in the end there is happiness, it seems, simply because the writers wanted a happy ending.  The internal monologue that forms the narration is delivered as though it is poetry, but it is composed entirely of platitudes and dull complaints.  Very rarely do the words evoke any genuine stirrings of life.  For the most part the narrator is a flat, gray canvas painted with a few broad strokes.

The images are often enticing--an aged woman trimming a bouquet of foam roses, a pig crossing a desolate road, a sunworn couple staring awkwardly at the camera before a wall covered in devotional pictures of Christ--but they hardly make up for the gut-wrenching mediocrity of the narration.  Throughout the film--particularly when he muses on how a young peasant girl's eyes look exactly like the honey eyes of his ex-wife--I found myself wishing I were rewatching Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983).  There was a film with a hodgepodge of captivating, alien imagery and a voice over narration to match.  The monologues in Sans Soleil begged to be memorized, recited, and studied.  The narration in Viajo porque preciso calls only for an exaggerated rolling of the eyes.

Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (2009)
d/w: Karim Ainouz, Marcelo Gomes
(Irandhir Santos)

Estômago: A Gastronomic Story (2008)

I was able to see some recent Brazilian movies at the fourth annual Brazilian Film Week sponsored by the Embassy of Brazil here in DC. Of the movies I was able to see, Estômago (A Gastronomic Story) was certainly the most skillful and provocative.

Estômago, the second film by director Marcos Jorge, is less a film about food than about power struggles, with food more often serving a tactical role and indeed sometimes taking on the strength and position of powerful weaponry. Nonato, the weak and fawning cook at the center of the story, has a natural and overwhelming talent for combining ingredients and a genuine fascination for how food can be used and modified, but his appreciation for the culinary arts never acquires the transcendent zeal depicted in, say, Ratatouille. Though there are two other, more experienced chefs in the film who guide Nonato on his path, neither of them display any virtuoso feats of kitchen wizardry nor any reverent belief in the transformative power of culinary art for culinary art's sake. Mr. Zulmira (Zeca Cenovicz), the owner of the greasy spoon where Nonato first learns to cook, sticks to the same tried and true recipes--unhealthy deep fried classics that will guarantee a steady stream of clients ready to offer up their grubby dollars. Zulmira, who has no skill of his own in the kitchen, uses his restaurant merely as a lifeboat on which to sail through the murky waters of reality. A cynical and controlling man, he teaches Nonato the rule of sink or swim.

He also doesn't pay the poor, young man any wages other than room and board, so when Nonato is offered a chance to work in the kitchen of Mr. Giovanni (Carlo Briani) and receive an actual paycheck, Nonato eagerly moves up. Mr. Giovanni runs Boccaccio, a fancy and expensive restaurant that serves "international cuisine" in a "friendly atmosphere." Giovanni is vastly more talented than Zulmira, but he is hardly a maestro. The most poetry he uses when teaching his art to Nonato is a smattering of trite metaphors comparing meat to women's behinds, but he most often compares food to money. Explaining that a simple switch to sophisticated gorgonzola cheese allows him to charge eight dollars for a traditional dessert that would usually be worth less than one, Giovanni exclaims, "That's art!" An artist spends a few dollars on paints and canvas and sells a painting for a million dollars. To Giovanni, much like Zulmira, this moneymaking motive is the central force behind all creation. We live to survive, and a true artist is able to survive more well off than others.

This conceit reaches its most literal level when Nonato lands in an overcrowded prison cell, where a violent and rigid hierarchy determines everything from when and how much one eats to where one sleeps. When Bujiú (Babu Santana), the psychopathic autocrat who occupies the top bunk and calls all the shots, learns that Nonato can transform their worm-infested prison rations into something not only edible but delicious, Nonato shrewdly uses his modest abilities to climb up the ranks of respect and power. Estômago wisely makes Nonato's ascent teetering and unsteady rather than straightforward, for not all tastes are equal and our stomachs often fall prey to prejudice. When Nonato tries too hard to impress the simpleminded Bujiú--by, say, bringing stinky, moldy, but delicious gorgonzola into the cell--his sophisticated pretentious results in fiery backlash. Food can be as political and controversial as religion.

The story of Nonato's prison sentence is overlapped with the story of his restaurant career, and editing by Luca Alverdi makes the two flow seamlessly, building upon each other and drawing out comparisons between the filthy rat race of life and the pecking order of prison. Whether locked in Zulmira's back room with the boss screaming through the ceiling, working in Giovanni's exquisite basement kitchen as Giovanni slaps the ass of Nonato's prostitute girlfriend, or sleeping on the floor of an ant-infested prison cell, Nonato's surroundings and his delicate position within them are always remarkably similar. Nonato finds solace in the company of Íria (Fabiula Nascimento), the headstrong and likable call girl with an eating obsession who becomes Nonato's girlfriend, but even their relationship is mired in power struggle. Nonato feeds Íria's insatiable belly--the quickest way to her heart-- with his sumptuous cooking, and she in turn feeds his unquenchable jealousy with her scandalous career.

The two stories come to an intriguing head at the same time, simultaneously revealing how Nonato landed in prison and how he eventually gained and asserted his power, but perhaps the film's four writers (Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, and Lusa Silvestre) are to blame for the ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Nonato acts and gains power moments before the end credits role, so we never actually see him in a position of power. How would he rule? Would the people beneath him suffer just as much as he has always suffered beneath others? Our general impression of Nonato throughout the film is a positive one, yet his final acts in the climax are shocking and demented and his attitude toward them is sinister. The plot of Estômago is structured well, and yet the denouement leaves too many important questions unanswered, as though the two hour film should continue for another hour. It is disappointing and unappetizing to leave the theater feeling as though two hours have been spent getting to know the mere revenge tale of a shrewd and calculating sociopath.

Nevertheless, the acting of the entire cast is top notch, particularly that of João Miguel as the pathetic but endearing Nonato and Nascimento as his rotund femme fatale, who frequently verges on becoming a stereotype yet always saves herself with just the right flash of her eyes. Jorge's direction hits all the right beats at just the right moments, and the cinematography by Toca Seabra--with its to-be-expected closeups of cutting boards and skillets--is surprisingly fresh and scintillating. His approach manages to make even a concoction of fried ants look delightful.

Though ultimately Estômago suffers from a slight dearth of meaning and heart, its execution is engaging and masterful. Marcos Jorge is a new director to pay attention to.

Estômago (2008)
d: Marcos Jorge w: Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, Lusa Silvestre
(João Miguel, Fabiula Nascimiento)

19 October, 2010

Catfish (2010)

My first major foray into the world wide web was on my fourteenth birthday in 1999 when my mom bought me a WebTV, a VCR-like device that used the home landline to stream a crude version of the Internet through the television. I was in eighth grade, fat, bespectacled, queer but confused, poor, unstylish, too smart for my own good, and utterly friendless. I sat at the loser table in the cafeteria. I imagine one of those tables could seat about thirty students, and all of the tables in the room were full except for ours, which sat only five other people besides myself--Roberto, also fat; Richard, also queer; Josh, also poor; Kenny, also unstylish; and Angelo, who by all means should have been cool yet sat at the table, I suppose, for reasons of self-hatred. I hated them all, and I hated myself for sitting with them. If I had been a little less fat, a little less poor, a little less gay, I figured, then I could have been cool and popular like I had been in elementary school. I could be living it up with friends, who would appreciate my humor and intelligence, rather than wallowing in our pool of bickering and self-loathing.

On the Internet, though, I didn't have to wear oversized polo shirts from Dollar General. I didn't have to be chubby and wear dorky glasses. I could be gay without anyone lashing out at me or avoiding me like the plague. I could even have a boyfriend if I wanted to, who would judge me for my wit, my humor, and my grammar rather than my bad haircut and embarrassing laugh. Anything I wanted to change, I could change. Anything I desired to be--say, a British film critic--I could be. Anything I wished to forget was nonexistent.

Even my age became malleable. In chatrooms few people would take me seriously as a fourteen-year-old, so to avoid the bullying I simply added a decade. I became Stephen the twenty-four-year-old, and to accommodate the increase I invented an occupation, a partner, a whole ten-year history of working and schooling and lovemaking and adventuring, all so that people wouldn't dismiss me for being a teenager. It was still the same old me making the jokes, imparting the wisdom, and chatting it up; only the vehicle was slightly modified.

By 2000 I had met a woman named Margaret in a chatroom about movies. She lived in Queens, New York, and she ran a catering business. She was twenty-five. Her sense of humor and her personality meshed perfectly with mine, and soon I migrated from chatrooms to instant messaging. We would talk for hours on end about everything going on in our minds and our lives. Sometimes we would chat until the sun was rising. In tenth grade she was my best friend and one of my only friends, and she thought I was the same age as her. I hated lying to her, but more than that I feared the repercussions that would come from telling the truth. Would she despise me? Knowing that our friendship had been, to an extent, a charade, would that make her sad or angry? I needed a friend desperately, someone I could talk to about being gay, someone I could talk to period, and I didn't want to jeopardize that.

But in the end my conscience won out. I get major qualms from being dishonest, and I could no longer stomach inventing details about my days at work at the furniture store when I had never had a job in my life. I disappeared completely. I stopped using the messenger. I ceased going to chatrooms. I stopped responding to her emails. And in the long run I made friends who were my own age, real people in the real world who actually knew who I was, some of them completely. I found a boyfriend, I found a real life best friend, I got an actual job and went on actual adventures. A couple years later, happy in my new life, I contacted her by email, confessing the truth, attaching photographs, and apologizing for my disappearance. Her response was short and thankful, and it was the last I ever heard from her.

When Friendster became big, and then Myspace, and finally Facebook, I always searched for her in hope of rekindling some more honest, more fulfilling friendship. We had chatted for some untold hundreds of hours--on the Internet and over the phone--and had shared an infinite number of jokes, hopes, and fears. I thought about her often, and I thought we should still be friends. But, surprisingly, she had no profiles on any of those sites--not even blank ones.

And in all that time, in nearly a decade, it never once occurred to me to ask some rather blaring questions about my friend and to stand back and think about what I had done to her. Margaret was a twenty-five year old woman who had a job and an adult life; how was she able to spend twelve hours a day goofing off with me on the Internet, chatting from seven p.m. to seven a.m. with little interruption? I didn't have any responsibilities on a July morning when school was out, but didn't she have a life to run, work to do, errands to perform, real friends to see?

Early this year I googled her name and found an article that a friend of hers had written for a British health website. The article detailed the psychological problems that Margaret had had since her mother died when Margaret was a teenager, problems she had hinted at to me only rarely. It detailed an obsession with comfort eating that had caused Margaret to grow to over seven hundred pounds, leaving her disabled and housebound. She didn't have a job, and she didn't run errands. And of all the "real friends" that I figured adults were supposed to have, it turns out I was one of the only ones. The article detailed long hours spent on the Internet: "'It's too hard for me to get out,' she admitted. 'It's the only way I can talk to friends.'" And then, on September 25, 2003, she died at age 27 after spending an entire night hunched over her keyboard. I could never find her on Facebook because she had died before it was invented.

I had lied to Margaret about my age and my insecurities, and she had concealed from me her disability and her own insecurities. We loved each other and needed each other, but our hatred of ourselves had kept us forever divided. It had never occurred to me, selfish as I was, that by removing myself from her life, I was removing a large part of her social life, taking away from her one of her only confidants. If I had trusted her and had faith that our friendship could have overcome my failings, then perhaps she could have trusted me. It's ridiculous for me to think that I killed her, and yet I wonder what small benefits could have come from a little honesty, compassion, and heart-to-heart.

The Internet doesn't allow for much of that. The Internet offers wish fulfillment and easy fantasies, comfort and isolation. You can find what you want to find--even if you're a cannibalism fetishist or a Jewish antisemite--and you can be what you want to be. If you see something you don't like or that doesn't interest you, you can click away from it in an instant--or sound off endlessly with no fear of repercussion, no need for fact-checking or self-disclosure, and without having to listen to any rebuttals. The Internet, the cold screen we stare at for hours each day, the treatment for our ailments--be they stress, depression, insomnia, or anxiety--the answers to all our questions, the solutions to all our problems, the source of all our financial, occupational, and social hopes and dreams, our entertainer, our great distractor, our confidant, our guru--the Internet has promised us something that heretofore has never been possible in the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution: that we can survive and prosper without the outside world and without each other.

This is ostensibly a review of Catfish, the controversial documentary by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and yet I've written ten paragraphs without apparently saying anything about the film. Nevertheless, I feel I've already said almost everything I need to say about this heart-wrenching, insightful, and poignant movie. Catfish is best experienced, I think, without too much prior information about its subject. Documenting the burgeoning relationship on Facebook between the filmmaker's brother Yaniv "Niv" Schulman in New York City and Megan Faccio, a beautiful young woman in rural Michigan, Catfish slyly deconstructs our relationship with the Internet and its world of empty possibilities. Using imagery from Google Maps and web pages, closeups of cell phones and digital cameras and GPS devices, and sound from voice mails, the film unravels the conceits of the Information Age. The screens we stare at don't always offer us a glimpse of reality. The quagmire of data at our fingertips can both elucidate and obfuscate.

By its tearful conclusion, Catfish is nothing short of a heartbreaking examination of the American Dream as it exists at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our hopes and fantasies no longer lie at the end of the seven seas, out in the wild west, or in the outer reaches of the cosmos. We have drowned our futures in the murky chaos of the digital world, where satisfaction is never tangible and rarely yields anything we can truly embrace.

Catfish is one of the best films, if not the very best film, of 2010.

Catfish (2010)
d: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
(Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Angela Pierce)

The Cremaster Cycle and De Lama Lamina

It's very difficult for me to make a conscious decision to not finish something I've started. A book, a plate of food, a movie. I like to see things through, otherwise how can I make an honest assessment of what I've experienced? And if I'm not planning to make an honest assessment of my experiences, then why did I bother in the first place? To give up on a book or movie halfway through is to willingly label all the time I did invest as wasted time. There's nothing I can do with what I gained from that time other than to say, "Well, I tried to read that book, but I just wasn't enjoying it and couldn't get through it." I can't say, "Yes, I read that book, but it was absolutely horrible" because how can I be certain that it was absolutely horrible? Sometimes endings surprise. Sometimes seemingly mediocre films have powerful endings (Lost in Translation, for example); same with books (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court comes to mind). If I had given up on Connecticut Yankee just two chapters before its final page, my opinion of it would be vastly different.

In short, I value completion. I almost compulsively need it. I've watched godawful films and then quickly, triumphantly, angrily walked away the instant the end credits began to roll.

Which is exactly what can be said of my experience with Matthew Barney's De Lama Lamina, a short, quasi-documentary film which is appended to one of the installments of his famed and praised Cremaster Cycle, which is currently touring select theaters throughout the country in a rare event.

The publicity information for Landmark Theaters describes De Lama Lamina as a documentary chronicle of artist Matthew Barney's experience at a Brazilian carnival. Barney gathered three musicians, including Arto Lindsay, who toured the streets of Salvador, Brazil, one night with a hundred-member marching drum band, entertaining the festive, costumed onlookers. The drum band invited Barney for the collaboration, perhaps expecting a lively depiction of the sensual, musical event which is so central to Brazilian culture and community.

That's what the publicity material described. What De Lama Lamina is, however, is a nude, beaked man with a coconut in his asshole humping his erect penis against a clay-covered parade float drive shaft while a dead monkey shits on him. What De Lama Lamina is, in other words, is Matthew Barney's offensive, pretentious attempt to crash a party. Yes, there is a live band and there are festive onlookers and hundreds of marching drummers, but poorly shot images of the actual carnival are intercut with closeups of Barney's float making its way like an unwelcome guest through the carnival. The massive float depicts a giant, ancient-looking but artificial tree, and through its limbs crawls a frizzy-haired, bare footed "artist," a woman mimicking concentration who moves with too much deliberation, performing actions within the tree that not only have no purpose but also lack any symbolic reason. One envisions this woman's painfully slow, meaningless actions as Matthew Barney's "gift" to the primitive Brazilians--"You're content with your sweaty dancing and your drum banging, but reflect upon THIS for a moment. This is real art. This is real culture. I give this to you!"

I searched footage of the spectators to see if I could find anyone who was engaged in watching and trying to understand this woman's performance, but I saw not one person who had any interest in watching Barney's paltry offering. They watched the drummers, they watched the band, and they watched each other, but the performance art had no meaning for them, and justly so. How wrong of Barney to assume that we, a North American audience, would have any interest in seeing what the South Americans rejected. Yet instead of focusing on the drummers or the partygoers, the most interesting part of this pitiful spectacle, we get long, tedious shots of the woman stretching her arms, splaying her fingers, removing white rods and hanging them from ropes to carabiners.

He further isolates himself from the proceedings by matching footage of the festivities with footage of the creature hidden in the undercarriage of his float, a beautiful, nude, muscular black man with a beaklike prosthetic on his face who cradles a filthy, dead monkey in his arms. Meanwhile, the black people around the float gather. The beakman rubs vaseline and clay on the spinning, pumping motor drive shaft of the float as his flaccid, uncircumcised penis grows tumescent. The musicians play their instruments. The beakman eagerly humps his now erect penis against the wet clay. The drummers carry a beat. The dead monkey ejaculates shit all over the nude man, who erotically rubs the wet feces into his abdomen and genitalia. Close-up of a happy, dancing Brazilian. What is Barney trying to say?

The editing yields an overwhelmingly racist result. Imagine crosscutting footage of suffragettes at a rally with video of a coop full of squawking hens, Jewish people at a temple with cockroaches on a trash heap, or black people in college with apes in a laboratory. Barney forces viewers to think of the Brazilian carnival and the participants in it as filthy and animalistic. Yes, Carnival is sexual, and sure, sex is primitive, but Barney's presentation assumes that he can distance himself from these vulgarities and that he and his viewers are somehow superior to it.

When the show was over, I found myself racing to the exit. De Lama Lamina was the final installment of three films. Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 5 offered very little to enjoy, and I swore to myself that I would not bother to see the other three films of the cycle. Ten dollars and two and a half hours was enough to waste on Barney's offensive pretensions.

But then I read a review promising that the installment I had seen was the worst of the three showings, and that the other two showings (Cremaster 1 and 2 were one showing, and Cremaster 3, at three hours long, was another) were markedly better. I abandoned my vow. The next day I saw Cremaster 1 and 2. Twenty dollars and four and a half hours in, I found my compulsion to finish things barking at me. I had to see Cremaster 3, the last of the five films completed and supposedly the best in the series, the quintessence of Matthew Barney's style. Would I, after gambling so much of my money and my life and receiving absolutely nothing in return, throw down another ten dollars and another three hours on the possibility that Cremaster 3 might blow me away?

No. I'm a completist, but I'm not a masochist.

Matthew Barney is a sculptor, photographer, performance artist, and "filmmaker." He is one of the most praised artists in America right now. New York Times Magazine called him "the most important American artist of his generation" in 1999. The Guggenheim Museum gave him the first Hugo Boss Prize, worth $100,000, in 1996. From 1994 to 2002 he created the Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films that The Guardian called "one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema." Made out of sequence (4, 1, 5, 2, 3), these films were released on only twenty five-disc DVD sets, which were in themselves works of art. In 2007, one disc containing only the hour-long Cremaster 2 sold for over half a million dollars. Only a half-hour installment of Cremaster 3 was ever released commercially (retitled The Order), and the rest of the films will never be released for widespread public consumption. Short of visiting museum installations and catching the occasional national tour, seeing this "masterpiece" is a rare event.

The cremaster is the muscle responsible for contracting the scrotum and testicles in response to cold, fear, or arousal. The Cremaster Cycle is allegedly about the period of sexual division in the early stages of embryonic development, the period when the developing human becomes either a male or a female (or something else along the spectrum, though this possibility, as far as I can tell, is ignored by Barney). Images of ascension and descension, of testicles and gonadal globules, of geometric shapes with vaguely biological connotations, of sexuality both androgynous and nonerotic abound, always elusive and obscure but never enigmatic. I think that's a key point. In surrealism and avant garde and even in mainstream art, there should be a certain enigma attached to the imagery. The viewer should feel a tension in wanting to understand what certain symbols are about, what certain actions mean. The viewer, rather than being a mere spectator, should become a participant with a suspense-driven motivation to figure out the full ramifications of what is going on. This never happened to me while watching the four and a half hours that I saw of the Cremaster Cycle. Strange characters do a lot of unusual things against bizarre backdrops, yet rather than titillating the proceedings are tedious. One can go on Wikipedia or any number of reviews and websites and read in-depth explications of the symbolism Barney employs, but these explanations are exhausting rather than illuminating. Barney's obscure meanings are impossible to intuit, and there's never any clear reason why these complicated, scientific details hold any importance for the artist. Gametes, zygotes, sexual differentiation--why should we care, really? One could argue that these biological events are essential to humanity, that even if we don't remember the period of androgyny prior to sexual differentiation it's still contained within the essential, unconscious memories of our very being. Yet Barney never argues this. He never makes any attempt to connect to the viewer, to create human-like characters, to convey any sort of recognizable emotion. Instead we get bees crawling out of erect penises, grotesque fairies in fleshy fat suits, and women dancing in elliptical formations on a blue football field. The sets (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Budapest Opera House, a frozen lake in Utah) are amazing--though Barney didn't build the sets--and some of the visuals are interesting, but the acting (if it can indeed be called acting) is dreadful (former Bond girl Ursula Andress as a lovelorn queen is a notable exception in Cremaster 5), the soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler is largely unstirring, and the overall effect is one of mental inoculation. There is never any clear plot and rarely any dialogue, forcing the viewer to instead focus on the extremely repetitive nature of the visual display, which is rife with continuity errors and poor editing. Barney offers very little to stir the mind and engage the viewer.

Once I was a sperm and an egg, two gametes, male and female, who fused into one single-celled zygote, which through mitosis grew into a multi-celled embryo--a tiny version of me that for eight weeks was neither a man or a woman but simply a tiny human. This is a spectacular phenomenon deserving of artistic representation and rife with profound symbolic implications, yet reading an article about human development in a science magazine would prove much more fascinating, beautiful, and thought-provoking than trudging through Matthew Barney's seven and a half hour epic of pretentious self indulgence and irritating obscurity.

The Cremaster Cycle
d/w: Matthew Barney
(Matthew Barney, Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer)
Cremaster 1 (1995): 2/10
Cremaster 2 (1999): 4/10
Cremaster 4 (1994): 3/10
Cremaster 5 (1997): 5/10

De Lama Lamina (2002)
d: Matthew Barney

16 August, 2010

Movie Review: I Stand Alone (1998)

Seul contre tous (I Stand Alone) is a little too big for its britches, a baroque, explosive film heavier on style than substance, though purporting to contain much substance. The style likewise never cast a spell on the viewers, due to the continual jarring of the audience by over-the-top film techniques. Gaspar Noé's first feature film prides itself on its truthfulness and extremity, but it fails to impress much of either on its helpless spectators, leaving instead a distasteful aroma of cynicism.

The film is told almost entirely through voice overs by Philippe Nahon, an unsmiling, hardened older man who plays the film's unnamed main character, the Butcher. His entire life history is rattled off in an opening monologue accompanied by vintage photographs, a life history replete with abandonment, concentration camps, orphanages, fondlings by priests, adulterous lover, retarded children, nagging incestuous thoughts, wrongful indictment, prison time, bankruptcy, manipulation, and unemployment. The Butcher has lived one hell of a horrible life, but on January 3, 1980, he resolves to begin anew. Having moved with his pregnant wife from Paris to northern France, he looks forward to opening his own butcher shop and starting from scratch.

Within moments, however, this dream dissolves. The Butcher's vindictive wife (Frankie Pain), who controls the family finances, lies about putting down the money to buy a shop for him. Unable to afford the shop himself and unable to find suitable employment within his field, he takes on mind-numbing employment as a nursing home's night watchman. The job teaches him the ugliness of old age, the pointlessness of working, and the utter meaninglessness of life and death. He hates his job, he hates his wife, he hates his child in her womb, he hates his mother-in-law whom he lives with (Martine Audrain)--soon his hatred encompasses everything, and we learn about all of it through the vitriol that his internal monologue spouts.

I Stand Alone is a film about bitterness and how it spreads through the body and mind like an all-consuming poison. Bitterness has a way of taking hold of the thoughts and preventing any positive change in direction. How can the Butcher's luck improve when he constantly thinks about the horrible things he has witnessed and the horrible things that he wants to do in response? Unjust things have certainly happened to the Butcher throughout his life--he was thrust into poverty, the Nazis killed his father, a priest molested him, his wife cheated on him--but his inability to forgive or to forget ensures that he will never overcome the bad luck that dogs him. Negativity breeds negativity.

Rather than trudge forward hopefully--a path that seems idiotic and blind at first but that would yield infinite results in the end--the Butcher seeks to blame others for the failures of his life. And since in many cases he cannot directly retaliate against the real perpetrators (the Nazis are gone after all, and his wife is dead, and who can really be blamed for societal poverty or for children being born handicapped?), he instead directs his rage against easier targets: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, people with jobs, Germans, his unborn child, himself. He attacks his wife, beating her pregnant belly. He lashes out at strangers, calling them fags. He concocts elaborate, violent revenge fantasies. With nothing to hold onto and the conviction that life is nothing more than a cruel, selfish joke that goes on too long, he decides to end his life in a blaze of destruction.

He does have one small source of love that he still clings to, however. His daughter, a frowning, mute teenager with a mental handicap, is the only goodness he can still see in the world, and not wanting to leave her to fend for herself amongst the wild animals in the ferocious jungle, he decides that he will kill her out of mercy before slaughtering a sacrificial victim to represent all of his frustrations and then taking his own life. His love for her is not without its impurities, though. Obsessed with corruption and sin, he cannot shake the idea that he wants to have sex with his daughter. Would that matter in a meaningless world? Would it even be worth it, or would it ultimately be as joyless as everything else? Why would he really want to destroy the one pure love he possesses on earth by corrupting it in such a way?

The Butcher imagines the horror of shooting his beloved daughter. He imagines the difficulty of embracing his own violent death. And then, after an hour and a half of hateful sneering, accusations, violence, and drinking, he dissolves into tears, embracing his daughter and confessing that he loves her while "Pachelbel's Canon" plays. This moment of loving selflessness and complete surrender within a film mired down by ugliness and cruelty is deeply affecting, but even this final moment is evanescent, as the Butcher's thoughts return once more to rape and revenge.

I Stand Alone is a disquieting film, not just because it depicts murder and the beating of a pregnant woman but more so because it exists entirely within the mind of a pathologically angry man. The Butcher's diatribes are constant, and for the most part they are not nearly as insightful or interesting as the Butcher thinks they are. I know that's probably intentional on Gaspar Noé's part, but that doesn't keep the excessive cynicism from being obnoxious. Even more jarring about the film are the constant directorial intrusions--abrupt, deafening gunshots that accompany almost every rapid camera movement, title cards that emphasize abstract concepts like "morality" and "justice," extreme close-ups, and even a countdown warning that the viewers should leave the theater prior to the violent climax. These "anything goes" stylistic flairs might be fun in a more entertaining, upbeat film, but the bleak nature of I Stand Alone demands more serious handling. I Stand Alone has its moments and is certainly not a stupid film, but it falls far short of its successor, Irreversible.

I Stand Alone (1998)
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir)

Movie Review: The Blues Brothers (1980)

There are only four reasons to see the original The Blues Brothers movie from 1980, and they are as follows:

1. Scatmaster Cab Calloway delivers a snazzy, smile-inducing performance of "Minnie the Moocher" on a glitzy stage.

2. A hilarious cameo by European supermodel waif Twiggy has the wealthy, beautiful woman ordering Dan Aykroyd to fill up her tank with gas--because in her eyes everyone exists to follow her commands so that she needn't lift a finger. When Aykroyd smoothly informs her that her bill is ninety-nine dollars, her only concern is that she doesn't have exact change. She instead offers him a hundred dollar bill and tells him to keep the rest as a tip, which he graciously accepts. She is the perfect embodiment of the upper crust's complete obliviousness to the workings of reality.

3. James Brown as a singing preacher delivers the full stereotype of what white people imagine black churches are like, complete with a full gospel band, holy spirited dancing, and divine revelations.

4. At an uptight five star restaurant, Jim Belushi, taking on a ludicrous Russian accent, makes an offer to buy "the women" of the appalled gentleman at the table next to him.

Do these four moments justify watching a movie that's almost two and a half hours long? I hardly think so, yet the film somehow landed on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the thousand greatest movies of all time at position #795. The Blues Brothers was the first of nearly a dozen movies based on "Saturday Night Live" sketches, and while it may be the best of them, that's hardly saying much considering the pedigree includes A Night at the Roxbury. I don't want to waste too much time detailing what I didn't like about this movie because it is what it is and it doesn't try to be much more. It's a series of set pieces and musical numbers. It's entertainment. I personally don't think it succeeds as entertainment a lot of the time, but I'm sure millions of people disagree with me.

For what it's worth, I'll list the basic problems I had with the film.

The Acting. Okay, sure, sure. Nobody really expected that Ray Charles would be able to act. That's not why he's in the film. He's there to play the keyboards and sing, not to win an Oscar. I can accept that. But why is Dan Aykroyd so terrible? He tries to pull off some kind of unshakable coolness, but it comes across as complete nerdiness or autism. John Belushi bears much of the comedic weight, but even he pulls a lot of the punches. I could understand if they were going for a straight man/crazy guy set-up, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Dan Aykroyd is just weird.

The Directing. The film is a comedic fantasy. Nothing in the film is treated with much seriousness--not religion, not love, not crime, not even Nazis. Nothing, that is, except for the opening credits, which feature a slow tracking shot over the factories, streets, industrial areas, and prison of Chicago while a down tempo, somber blues song plays. What way is that to open a comedy? What does that add to the film? What kind of tone is John Landis supposed to be setting? By the time the absurd fantasy stuff kicks in--and kicks in in full force, with cars jumping bridges, women touting uzis, and angry nuns flying through the air--the viewer is completely unprepared for such a turn. On top of that, the pacing is awkward and the film is much too long.

The Writing. Screenwriters John Landis and Dan Aykroyd put some thought into setting up clever set pieces, but the plot as a whole lacks any thread of cohesion. The plot is about two impoverished losers getting their band back together in order to put on a fundraiser to save the orphanage they were raised in from foreclosure. It's never quite clear what the band accomplished in the past, prior to Joliet's (Belushi) imprisonment. Were they huge and popular, or were they always complete nothings? They manage, unconvincingly, to fill a huge arena for their comeback show--were these all former fans, or are they just really excited to see a band they've never heard of before, composed of line cooks, restaurant hosts, and ex-cons? The Blues Brothers is a fantasy that demands that not too many questions be asked about the thrills involved, and that's okay, but the fact that not one tiny string holds the film's scenes to any semblance of reality or consistency just seems lazy. Who pays for the extremely expensive dinner that the duo have while crashing the five star restaurant? Surely their friend the maitre'd can't have the most expensive bottle of champagne comped for two nonpaying troublemakers? How exactly do the stage design and the costumes transform during Cab Calloway's performance? And so on and so on.

The Band itself. The film features a lot of awesome musical numbers by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and others, as well as a consistently entertaining soundtrack, but all of this music builds to the final performance by the actual Blues Brothers--which completely sucks. Despite the thousands of overzealous fans, the brief show is quite horrible. Belushi has an awful voice, and the tall, skinny, awkward Aykroyd made me extremely uncomfortable with his shucking and jiving. The movie made me embarrassed for him. I know that the numerous musicians within the band are all talented, renowned musicians, and I suppose they do a good job, but for the most part a band is nothing without its singer(s), and it helps for the singer(s) to actually know how to sing. The climactic number is an overwhelmingly corny rendition of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," made even more unbearable by the mismatched reaction of the ecstatic crowd. The structure of the film dismisses Ray Charles as a pawn shop owner and Aretha as a fryer of chicken, purportedly saving the best for last, and yet the last musical number is by far the worst.

But what can I say? It's a beloved classic that's made millions of dollars. Maybe I just need to stop taking things so seriously.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
d: John Landis w: Dan Aykroyd, John Landis
(John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd)
TSPDT?: #795

Movie Review: Irreversible (2002)

Where can lines safely and firmly be drawn between pleasures, perversions, and outright transgressions? Are such lines possible, or have the boundaries between sexual acceptability and indecency become too dangerously blurred?

Gaspar Noé's beautiful yet nerve-shatteringly disturbing tragedy Irreversible examines this theme among many other insightful inquiries.

Throughout history, various periods have been marked by more or less accepting attitudes toward deviant sexual practices. In our present time, a long list of sexual fetishes have entered the common lexicon: sadism, masochism, bondage, coprophagia, water sports, fisting, electrostimulation, furrydom, and so forth into more obscure territories. These perversions in essence are harmless. Consensual, safe, democratic participation is sought on the parts of all parties, even when the playacting involves dangerous rape. Many people today (though certainly not all) will respect another person's desire to privately engage in consensual and legal though unusual sexual practices in private with their partners, even if they don't find those particular practices appealing. Kinks and fetishes, embarrassing and private as they are, are more widespread and thus less abnormal than the average person will admit, so a tolerant attitude is in part a reaction against hypocrisy.

Sexual pleasure is a peculiar thing. Who can say where and how it's hardwired in the brain? While some people--guided by religion or tradition or their own personal preferences--will maintain set, narrow guidelines for the circumstances under which any normal person should be able to derive suitable sexual pleasure, others will admit that what works for one person might not work for all. Conflicts over what makes good sex arise even within close, loving relationships.

In a late scene in Irreversible--which, chronologically, is an early scene since the film is told in reverse--Alex (Monica Bellucci) discusses with her current (Vincent Cassel) and her ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) the conditions that allow her to orgasm. Ex-boyfriend Pierre was very loving but a failed lover, whereas present boyfriend Marcus is a selfish pig who achieves excellent results in bed. They have this loud and explicit conversation in public on a crowded Metro car, which seems oddly indiscreet to me being a southern American but which perhaps is more commonplace in Paris, where nobody even turns a head, pointing to a very sexually tolerant and permissible environment. Pierre talks to his dedication to lovemaking--his orgasmic self-sacrifice, his physical diversity, his poetic whispers, all of which were unsuccessful. At which point Alex admits that what is most important to her is the satisfaction of the man she's with. She doesn't want a man sacrificing his orgasms for her continued pleasure; she wants a man who is having a great time. If the man comes, then she will come.

This admission is eerily ironic given that later in the night (and earlier in the film) Alex is raped by someone entirely interested in his own pleasure. Needless to say, she does not enjoy this. The rapist, a bisexual pimp known as Le Tenia, "the Tapeworm" (Jo Prestia), is a sneering, ugly parasite who extorts money from transgendered prostitutes and spends his free time at The Rectum, a red-lit, underground labyrinth of extreme sexual deviancy. Accustomed to an environment where men willingly beg to be raped, tortured, tied up, and fisted and where exploited sex workers are more or less willing to submit to fantasies of domination and adultery, Le Tenia's perceptions of acceptable interpersonal behavior are, to say the least, warped. He compliments Alex as he rapes her, and as he holds a knife to her face he asks her if she is turned on by the sadism. His words hover somewhere between mocking derision and a genuine belief that this passing woman might actually enjoy the brutal sex act, like so many in the past who have enjoyed simulated rape with him while pretending to resist.

There is no forgiving Le Tenia, however, for his actions are rooted not in an attempt to share good sex with Alex but in a hateful, destructive derision. Le Tenia comes across Alex in a red-lit, filthy, concrete highway underpass while threatening one of his hookers. Alex cowers in response to the violence, a fearful reaction that titillates Le Tenia. Though he is not normally interested in women, he is motivated to rape Alex by a desire to punish her--first and foremost for having witnessed his indiscretion, but mostly out of jealous rage against her beauty, wealth, and normality. His gruesome crime is in part an act of class warfare, a violent revolt against the bourgeois morality that he imagines she represents. By raping her, by accusing her of enjoying it, and by ultimately destroying her physically with his fists and feet, Le Tenia attempts to taint the pure, white-clad Alex with his subterranean evil.

On a certain level, Irreversible is a bellicose depiction of a clash between classes, an upper and a lower class divided not by economic status but by values, a division made trivial by being wrought with hypocrisy. In the opening scene, a fat, naked man confesses to his accepting friend that he went to prison for having sex with his daughter. Despite his own severe depravity, he allows himself the superiority of deriding the gay men who flock to the Rectum club in his neighborhood. He is an incestuous, pedophile rapist, but at least he's not a queer! Alex's boyfriend Marcus is an adulterous, immature drug addict, but when he launches on a reckless course to avenge his battered girlfriend, he allows himself to launch insults against everyone he passes, including those who help him. He beats a man at the sex club who is the only person who can identify the rapist for him. He chastises gay men in a restaurant, even though they can help him find the Rectum club where the rapist cavorts. He hurls racist insults at and steals the cab of a Chinese taxi driver who is driving him to his destination. Most tellingly, he assaults and threatens the transsexual prostitute who can tell him exactly who raped his girlfriend. His unnecessary violence is no different or better than the beating that Le Tenia gave to the very same hooker earlier in the night (later in the film), the beating that involved Alex in Le Tenia's life.

Marcus considers himself better than the trash he comes across during his vengeful journey into hell, but not only does he need this trash in order to continue his journey, he is also no different or better than the trash.

Even Pierre, easily the noblest man in the film, is not without sin. A professor and philosopher, he is reserved, mature, and calm, and he expresses a genuine concern for Alex's safety and feelings, but even he is preoccupied with sex, crossing boundaries to engage Alex in the explicit discussion on the Metro, which she tolerates even though she is obviously unhappy with it. Alex allows room for an indiscretion, and Pierre unashamedly takes it. A complex film about rape must also say something about personal space and consent, and Irreversible chillingly hints at these specifics. In the final scene of the film, a bedroom scene between Marcus and Alex, the nude and horny Marcus prods at various taboos, aggressively seeking new territory from Alex that she hesitantly relents to. There is talk of sexual punishment and of anal sex. The talk is gentle and consensual, but in what ways does it erase the boundaries between what Alex truly wants, what she's willing to give, and what she might be forced to give? Structured as the climax of the film--following the revenge, the rape, and the argument--these scene is charged with a power it otherwise wouldn't have if the film were told linearly. Given our knowledge of what will happen later in the night, we see the rape from within this scene as an explicit, external culmination of Alex's internal fears about her relationship--that she is losing control. She has just learned she is pregnant (the final revelation of the film, which adds a horrifying twist to the rape and beating), and she is unable to control her lover--the baby's father--in bed in ways that she should be able to control him. This powerless escalates at the Metro, where she is forced into an uncomfortable, indecent conversation by the one man she does seem to trust and where she feels subjugated to her man, who wraps his arm around her and cups her breast in a very possessive way. (It's easy not to notice her face during this scene, since Pierre and Marcus do all the talking at this moment, but the expression that covers her as Marcus wraps his arm around her torso is one of surreal horror and helplessness.) At the party, she loses complete control of how her life should be ordered. Her boyfriend, a future father who should be acting responsible and committed to her, abandons himself in drugs and attempts to seduce numerous other women. When she leaves the party and--unable to hail a cab--crosses through the underpass on the advice of a stranger ("It's safer!"), her life descends into complete hopeless chaos. She is anally raped and beaten into a coma. Her universe dissolves.

Gaspar Noé offers predestination as a consideration in the film. The title, the backwards structure, the spiraling omniscient camera, and the epitaph "Time Destroys Everything" encourage this thought process, as do a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alex's references to a philosophical book about time that she is reading. Premonitory dreams alert us to the future according to the book, and Alex indeed dreams about entering the red tunnel before it happens. (Marcus also dreams about being unable to feel his arm, which inversely foretells the fact that later in the night he will have that same arm broken.) Everything is written beforehand, the author claims, and fate cannot be changed. We experience this firsthand by watching the film, since we have already seen what is coming. Knowing that the future is miserable, we likewise feel the same helplessness that Alex feels, though we witness it in reverse. Gaspar Noé has made a truly discomforting and terrifying film, the most disturbing one I have ever seen, and this is fitting given that his two major themes are two of the ugliest elements of human nature: sexual and physical violence--or, more specifically, rape and revenge.

The early scenes of the film detail Marcus's revenge tragedy. When we first see him in the film, he is being hospitalized and Pierre is being arrested, so we know--as in any revenge tragedy--that things will end poorly. To explain things chronologically, after discovering Alex's comatose body, Marcus and Pierre are interrogated by the police. The police know nothing, and the best lead they are able to come up with is that Pierre did it. In the depths of their dismay, the duo is approached by two soft-spoken thugs who promise inside information and revenge. The police are for pussies, they claim. Revenge is for men. The two thugs exploit the tragedy, seeking payment, of course, but they deliver on their promise. Navigating the criminal underworld, Alex and Pierre are led underground to the cavernous corridors of the Rectum.

At this point Pierre insists that revenge is for animals. Men should derive their actions from the higher faculties. Rather than pursue a path that can only lead to ultimate destruction, they should go to the hospital to sit with Alex. Marcus refuses to listen. Though he could care less about Alex when they were at the party, now he must overcompensate to avenge his woman. Finding the man he believes to be Le Tenia, he starts a fight before a live audience of sex fiends. He is quickly overpowered, however, and the man snaps his arm in half.

At this point Pierre, who has maintained his cool throughout the hunt despite being profoundly upset by Alex's fate, knocks down the assailant with a fire extinguisher and then proceeds to repeatedly bash in the man's skull with the heavy, thudding instrument. The man's jaw quivers as his blood splattered face caves in. Though one or two hits would surely suffice, calm and passionless Pierre is overpowered by rage and revenge. He demolishes the man beyond repair. By showing this extremely brutal murder in one of the opening sequences of the film rather than at the end, we are forced to examine the outcome of revenge without regard to its incitement. The revenge is horrible, animalistic, primal, demonic. It unlocks something in Pierre that can never be covered up, and it kills an innocence in him that can never be regained. By seeing the revenge before knowing why it's happening, we have no desire to cheer for it or support it. We must examine it on its own terms and decide that there can be no justification for its brutality.

Even more unsettling--though this is not readily apparent on first viewing--is that they attack the wrong man. Le Tenia is one of the passive spectators of the fight, who smiles and snorts drugs while devouring the murder with his eyes. Though the thug informants promised results--that the rapist would be punished instead of, at worst, spending a peaceful life being cared for in prison--the consequences of reckless revenge are disastrous. The wrong man is destroyed, the guilty man will now probably never be caught, and the avengers will be punished instead. Not to mention that nothing can change that Alex was raped and beaten.

The men at the sex club watch the beating but in no way involve themselves in trying to stop it. Some of them even encourage grislier violence, like spectators at the Roman circus. Given the nature of film, we are spectators, too, though different in that we could not help or change things even if we wanted to. One of the most horrifying images in this thoroughly horrifying film is the silhouette of a man who passes in the background of the underpass while Alex is being raped. He takes a few steps forward, pauses, and then hurriedly leaves. Did he realize it was rape, or did he think it was consensual, perverse sex that he should just tolerate and ignore? If he realized it was rape, why didn't he interfere? Would we interfere--or, more importantly, would we interfere after having seen this film and this shadow of a passerby? By showing us this nightmare, Gaspar Noé prepares us to react heroically in the (hopefully never-will-happen) event that we find ourselves in the same position as the faceless passerby. Hopefully, we will not remain faceless, retreating in the shadows. Hopefully, we will know to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In a rare bit of heroism in the film, the prostitutes rise up with curses and sticks to defend their troubled sister when Marcus attacks one of the prostitutes. Courage like this is in short supply in Irreversible.

There is an infinite variety of sexual practices. Many of them are fine. Some of them aren't. The nude man's friend in the opening scene laughingly dismisses the man's incestuous rape as merely "the Western syndrome," par for the course. When Alex's mutilated body is discovered, some of the spectators on the sidewalk seem satisfied and entertained. "Some whore got raped!" one of them cheers, as though the fact that the woman may have worked in the sex industry makes it okay that she was nearly killed. Rape is never okay, but how can you tell when rape is actually rape in a world where some people genuinely want to be raped in a way that looks, feels, and sounds like rape yet isn't actually rape?

Irreversible is a clever and complicated film that operates on many levels. Though unsettling to the core, the film is a beautiful work of craftsmanship. Gaspar Noé's fluid, ghostlike camera (with cinematographer Benoît Debie) weaves in and out of cars and buildings, hovering and spinning, inducing vertigo and nausea in the viewer. Cuts are seamless, giving the impression of one endless (though nonlinear!) take, a feeling which increases the dramatic inertia and hopelessness of the film's story. The acting, largely improvisational, is flawless, with desperation pervading in the lives of normal people. Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk did the score, a pounding, hellish, nerve-shocking techno soundscape that regulates the heartbeat in stressful ways. Visual effects by Rodolphe Chabrier are more extensive than they appear (a good mark of any special effects artist) since the impressive camerawork, cutting, and detailing received a thorough (though unnoticeable) digital makeover. The bashed in skull of the man in the revenge scene, one of the most unforgettable and macabre moments of cinematic history, was impressively fabricated using a combination of matte painting, latex models, 3D imaging, and acting. The attention to detail--a jaw that gasps for air even after the rest of the face has been rendered unrecognizable--turns just another murder into one of the most gruesome murders ever filmed, and Chabrier should have received more recognition for that.

Irreversible is an unpleasant film, and many will avoid trying to think about it too hard, if indeed they're even able to watch the whole thing. Though they may dismiss the film as sensational, the film has much to say, and the sensation is intended to moralize rather than glamorize (this boundary is never crossed). Irreversible treats horrifying, unsettling, and difficult themes with horrifying, unsettling, and difficult filmmaking techniques, and in this regard Gaspar Noé is an artist of the highest caliber. Though I can't recommend it to the faint of heart, Irreversible is one of the most important and life-changing films of recent years.

Irreversible (2002)
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel)

15 August, 2010

Movie Review: Cache (2005)

Our lives project from the stories we tell about ourselves and our worlds, not just to others but to ourselves, as well. We form routines and make assumptions to make our lives flow more efficiently and to give ourselves some inkling of understanding and intuition about our universe, and the foundation for these assumptions and routines are myths about what our world is like and who we are within it. Some of these myths are more dependable than others: something thrown into the air will fall down, a dark and cloudy sky brings rain. Some are less reliable: if I walk under a ladder then bad things will happen, or if I am nice to someone that person will be nice in return. And some are downright dangerous: I drive better when I'm drunk, or Japanese people should never be trusted. The assumptions, prejudices, and routines remove the thought process from our lives, freeing us up so that we can live lives of action rather than constant decision-making.

That's neither an entirely bad nor an entirely good thing. Certainly, it's good for our survival to be able to assume that a barking dog might be dangerous without having to experiment first. Many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities have been missed, I'm sure, by people who pondered first rather than leaping ahead. Too much thought can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, depression, laziness, fear, and second guessing. Too little can lead to tunnel vision, stereotypes, mistakes, and a lack of imagination.

Among other things, Michael Haneke's voyeuristic mystery film Caché (sometimes translated Hidden) is about the power of establishing a fact and moving on. Whether these facts are truthful is irrelevant in a complicated world where truth is a graduated scale rather than an all-or-nothing quality. What is instead important is our ability to accept the truthfulness of a fact and all that it entails--its consequences and correlatives--and continue on with life. An inability to move on is a plague on the mind that prevents further progress by calling into question the truthfulness of everything else we think we know. Truth is a frangible house of cards. When the strength that supports one piece of it dissolves, we realize that the entire structure is built on collapsible prayers.

At the center of Caché is Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), a late middle aged, successful family man and television personality who may or may not have told a couple lies when he was a six-year-old boy. Faced with the possibility that his parents might adopt the orphaned son of two Algerian farmhands, the only child of this wealthy French provincial farm family fabricates two lies about the older usurper. First, he tells his mother than the boy coughs up blood, a rather strange lie suggestive of tuberculosis which, in my opinion, encourages sympathy for the orphan rather than repulsion. When that lie--which perhaps wasn't even a lie, since Georges's adult flashbacks of the incident seem rather realistic--fails, Georges convinces the boy that his parents want him to behead the grumpy family rooster. When the boy obliges, young Georges tells his mother that he maliciously slaughtered the cock in order to terrorize him. The mother takes the bait, and the boy is unwillingly hauled off to an orphanage.

Georges confesses these sins to his wife (Juliette Binoche) late in the film, after much denial and evasion, many nightmares and threats. What, however, is the nature of these sins? Are they really that unforgivable? Georges is six years old, a spoiled only child who quite naturally resists having to share his family and his life with another kid. His behavior is selfish, but it's understandable. It's also something that a little good parenting, communication, and discipline could easily solve. His first lie, like I said, is bizarre--not the sort of lie a child seeking to vilify someone would invent. Was it a lie? Was it something he saw in a bad dream that he somehow thought was the truth at one point? Did he really see the Algerian boy coughing up blood, and did this frighten him? Was his opposition to the Algerian not based in selfishness but in fear? A flashback of the rooster beheading scene--presented as one of Georges's nightmares--presents the possibility that maybe the boy was trying to scare him, yet Georges later confesses that these were his lies. The rooster slaying couldn't have caused too much damage, considering that an old rooster can't be that valuable, that the Algerian would be capable of explaining his side of the story, and that Georges would have to do an impressive bit of acting afraid in order to convince his mother that he was traumatized.

All this, plus consider that Majid, the Algerian, was the truly traumatized boy. At age eight, his parents are murdered by the French police in the 1961 Paris massacre. This is the event that causes the boy to be orphaned. Killing an old rooster, having tuberculosis--are these really crimes unpardonable enough to cause potential adoptive parents to heartlessly abandon a pitiful child to a flawed welfare system? Who is the greater sinner: Georges for accusing the boy, or Georges's parents for condemning him on shallow evidence?

Or is it more likely that when Georges confesses to his frustrated wife, he leaves out crucial information about his indictment of Majid? When he first mentions the childhood event after a long duration of feigned ignorance, he claims to have forgotten all the details. These details emerge only much later, after all threats have been removed and confessing is merely a choice rather than a necessity. Does he confess only to what he is capable of admitting? Are these two lies merely the tip of a vast, hulking iceberg of guilt? Or are these formative lies, which eventually destroyed a man's life, all that is necessary to plague a man's conscience?

Two lives emerge from the slaying of the rooster. Georges continues to be the spoiled only child of a wealthy, white family. He is cared for, well fed, looked after, and educated. He becomes an intellectual. He lands a high profile job as a book critic on public television, a successful, beautiful wife who is a publisher, and a luxuriant apartment in Paris. He barrels through life forming opinions, entertaining friends, and making decisions without doing much thinking. He darts out into the street without looking and is almost hit by a black bicyclist, who he then violently accuses of being an idiot. He passes through life telling unnecessary white lies to his friends and his wife. And when he walks by a man who is standing in plain sight videotaping him--the Algerian he knew decades ago, most likely--he doesn't even notice. He is all action, no thought. He needn't think because he already knows everything.

Majid's life follows a much different course. Hauled off to the orphanage, he must fend for himself, receiving bad food and shoddy living conditions. His education is poor. He has a son, but perhaps his wife leaves him or dies. He lives in a small, cluttered, subsidized apartment in an ugly hall. And regrets about what he could have had, pains about the education and life he almost received, unquenchable anger and nausea at the thought of Georges's misdeeds haunt him for the rest of his life, until the exhausted depression drives him to a bloody suicide.

On a certain broad level, Caché is a film about racism in France and its effects on a certain generation of whites and Algerians who are promised equal lives but receive quite different fates. Featuring the children of Georges and Majid, who cross paths in the film's unusual end scene, the film points to the legacy that the next generation will inherit. On a very specific level, Caché presents itself as a mystery about voyeurism. Though Georges lives in the public spotlight, his life becomes unsettled when he begins receiving extensive videotapes of his front door. The tapes point to the fact that he is being examined, and for the first time they force him to examine himself. This examination unleashes his memory of his long buried sins; a thoughtful pause highlights the crooked card on which his shaking house of cards is built--the fact that his life of privilege that he takes for granted is undeserved. The producer of the videotapes is never revealed, but the most likely culprit is Majid (Maurice Bénichou), who nevertheless denies guilt.

This crux is the thematic center of the film. More important than racism or voyeurism is the question of guilt, an obstacle which prevents us from plowing forward on our sure-headed paths of assumption and routine. Guilt forces us to admit that something in the way we perceive or once perceived the world is wrong. Guilt tells us that we do not always act according to truth. A mysterious childhood event creates one child who cannot stop pondering the numerous possible universes of truth and another who pigheadedly insists upon his way or the highway. When the child who thinks finally acts, the man who acts must finally stop to think.

Michael Haneke's style is a cinema of "insistent questions" and uneasy answers, and perhaps in no other film is this style more fluidly perfected--nor, perhaps, as frustrating. Caché is presented as a mystery, yet it lacks the evidence to firmly support any possible solution. The film achieves the provocation of thought that it sets out to accomplish, but it does so in the most purposely unentertaining of fashions. The acting is solid but unspectacular (Annie Girardot is most interesting in a very brief role as Georges's remorseful-looking old mother, who betrays no word of guilt despite the tears her eyes cannot hold back), and the cinematography is bright and antiseptic. There is no score or soundtrack. Caché is a thoughtful and intriguing film, but not a particularly stirring or enjoyable one.

Caché (2005)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou)

14 August, 2010

Movie Review: Eraserhead (1976)

When in an early scene of Eraserhead Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is informed by his alluring neighbor that his girlfriend requests his presence at her parents' house for dinner that night, Henry's reaction is shock. Neither producing unhappiness nor fear (and certainly not pleasant expectation), the stimulus is so mortifying to awkward Henry with his polygonal hair and highwater slacks that his nervous system shuts down. Like a deer in headlights, he lacks the fortitude to process the danger that's coming his way. Having spent the first ten minutes of screen time silently wandering the apocalyptic city streets alone, he responds to the invitation by immediately sitting on the corner of his bed, drying his socks, and staring at the radiator, waiting for darkness to fill his room so that he can make his nighttime appointment. From inside the radiator comes a promising glow, a suggestion of something orderly, peaceful, and longed for, but the glow fades away with the promise unfulfilled. Tonight is not a night of pleasant routines. Tonight he will be yanked from his comfort zone into uncharted, perilous territory: girlfriends, parents, dinner etiquette.

Long past dusk, at the industrialized home of girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), Henry is chastised for being late. Mary has stood by the window, nervously awaiting his arrival with a frown furrowing her face; in her opinion, there was no guarantee that he would come. Perhaps she's used to him blowing off plans with his friends, either from forgetfulness, fear, confusion, or something else. Henry supports her assumption when he tells her, in a panicked outburst like much of his speech throughout the film, "I wasn't even sure you wanted me to come!" Despite the straightforward terms of the invitation and Mary's obvious desire that he show, Henry has almost unconsciously convinced himself of what he wants to believe, that his presence at the uncomfortable dinner is neither necessary nor wanted. Nevertheless, he hesitantly comes, and the dinner that follows is more uncomfortable than he could possibly imagine.

In the corner of the room, a newborn litter suckles at a mother pup's teats. The sound, which fills the room constantly, is like feasting, scurrying rats. With this grating, inhuman noise combines a steady whir of lonely wind, a sound like chaos howling before the dawn of time, and the combined effect is to set the viewer--and Henry--constantly on edge. The sound could be his own overworked nerves on the verge of snapping; whether the film depicts an objective reality or a manifestation of Henry's subjective perspective (I lean toward the latter) is never quite clear. Mary's mother, Mrs. X, is at once abrasive, insistent, and dismissive. When Mary assures her that Henry is a very clever printer, she responds with what could easily be either agreement or sarcasm: "Yeah, I'll bet he's clever."

When Mr. X, an excitable plumber, enters, introducing a string of new conversation topics from chickens and pipes to progress and knees, Henry's panic level rises. Henry has trouble keeping up with one thread of conversation; following half a dozen is impossible. When Mr. X later asks him, "Well, Henry, what do you know?", the openendedness paralyzes him. "Oh, I don't know much of anything," he humbly replies, but the future father-in-law continues to stare at him with an expectant smile. The question is a banal piece of conversational fluff, a statement devoid of depth, intended more as grease for the wheels of social interaction than as any prying insight into human understanding. Henry could easily respond with any number of trivialities--the weather, sports, work, politics, a humorous anecdote--anything to keep the chatter flowing, but Henry, completely lacking in social consciousness, interprets the question literally as an interrogation demanding a complete accounting of the vast corpus of knowledge he possesses. "What do you know?" Where to begin? Better not to begin at all--and so the conversation stalls.

When Henry is asked to carve the chickens--a task made more difficult by the fact that these are unknown, alien chickens, miniature mechanical creations--Henry is forced to perform as the center of attention. If he had any fears about making a fool of himself, now would be the time when that would happen. The tiny, squirming chicken, moving in a rather sexual motion, vomits blood as he slices it, sending Mrs. X into a violent, screaming convulsion that causes her to run from the room. Pandemonium erupts. Mrs. X aggressively questions Henry about his "sexual intercourse" with her daughter, combining guilt, anger, and threats with sexual awkwardness when she suddenly begins licking and kissing his neck. Responsibilities, expectations, restitution, and threats are piled on: Henry has a baby, he must marry his girlfriend, he'll be "in very bad trouble" if he doesn't "cooperate." The whole spectrum of difficult, confusing social interactions and expectations combines in one disturbing climax as the ratlike puppies continues suckling and as Mr. X worries about the chickens growing colder and as Mary's catatonic grandmother puffs at a cigarette.

If I had to guess what Eraserhead was about, I'd say social anxiety disorder or perhaps even something severer like autism. How else can I explain the peaceful satisfaction that Henry derives from his lonely wanderings and his isolated quarters? His window looks onto nothing but bricks, yet this doesn't seem to bother him. Instead of pets or photographs of people, his apartment is furnished with plants and dirt. His favorite passtime (or should I call it a ritual or an escape or a safety net?) is the solace of staring into his humming radiator, where he imagines a shy, affectionate, inhuman woman dancing and promising him better things to come. The repeated lyrics of the only song she sings are, "In heaven, everything is fine. You've got your good things, and I've got mine." You have yours and I have mine--no "ours." They are both separate, and everyone is happy. Henry is prone to misinterpreting and misreading the statements and actions of others. When his beautiful neighbor tells him that she has locked herself out of her apartment by accident, we see her move close into his face in a sexual aggressive maneuver. Is this real, or is Henry's confusion--his eagerness to see the most awkward in any social interaction--forcing him to imagine a conversation that is much more complicated and loaded than it really is? Does every conversation Henry has really end in disaster, or does his hypersensitive mind merely convince him that they all do? Is Henry "on vacation" from the printing factory because of psychological reasons? Why does Henry's baby--which cries and moves like a real baby--look like a monster? Perhaps because Henry has enough trouble seeing fully grown adults as humans; a tiny, babbling creature is as alien to him as an embalmed calf fetus. Henry's problems and reactions, his fears and perceptions (if we are to view Eraserhead as existing entirely within Henry's perceptions) all resemble the innerworkings of a mind riddled with social anxiety, right down to the climax in which Henry, at the height of his stress, imagines his head becoming disembodied and used by caricatures as a cog in a factory machine. The portrait of severe social anxiety is disturbing, stressful, and accurate. David Lynch has fascinatingly depicted what it looks and feels like to feel utterly disconnected from the people around you.

Of course, when I first saw Eraserhead about five years ago, before I was dealing with the social anxiety I presently deal with, I didn't interpret the film in any such manner. I thought it was about the fear of growing up and facing responsibility. The worries of parenthood. Maybe even abortion. The baby's fetal appearance, the odd sperm-like creatures that the woman in the radiator stomps on, the infidelity that Henry commits with his neighbor while trying to conceal his crying baby, the bizarre infanticide: everything pointed to this conclusion, and I think that's a conclusion that many viewers reach.

But trying to analyze what Eraserhead is about is an exercise in futility, stupidity, or arrogance. No explanation is all-encompassing; any analysis will still be rife with holes and questions. If the film is about social anxiety, then what are the worms that the woman in the radiator battles with her feet? If the film is about anxiety or about fatherhood, then what does the horrifying man who lives inside the moon and pulls the levers that begin all the action in the film represent? David Lynch is a surrealist, and in his filmography he has proven himself a master of cumulative effects. Scenes, visuals, dialogues, songs, sounds, and other aspects of Lynch's films don't necessarily fit together like jigsaw pieces. More often the varied parts of a Lynch film harmonize together kaleidoscopically, achieving an effect of plenitude. In a symphonic composition, a flute plays a part, a tuba plays a part, and every few moments a tympani drum plays a loud part. In isolation, these parts are scattered, unstructured noise; together, they are music. The unsettling soundscape, the dystopian landscape, the bizarre dialogue, the overemotional overacting, the lush black and white photography, the immersive cinematography, the horrifying imagery, and the haunting music of Eraserhead combine to create the overall effect of a nightmare.

David Lynch's first film, assembled in Philadelphia over five years for a modest budget, is a fascinating, terrifying dream that pries its way into the mind, demanding to be understood despite refusing all attempts at explanation. In over thirty years, Lynch has never abandoned this aesthetic, instead perfecting his mind-boggling vision into works of art like Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. Eraserhead may perhaps suffer from being too long and too baffling, but like certain disquieting dreams, it will never be forgotten by those who have seen it.

Eraserhead (1976)
d/w: David Lynch
(Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart)
TSPDT?: #318