27 October 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 24-30 Oct

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

Deep Red (1975, Dario Argento): 53

I'm clearly never gonna get the hang of savoring this genre's stunning setpieces and just ignoring, forgiving or at least tolerating everything else (which is why I love the nonstop abstraction of Amer). Once Hemmings finds the house and starts wandering through its rooms accompanied by Goblin, it's goosebump time; the final 45 minutes are undeniably masterful, an elegant tour de force of sustained apprehension. (They also feature one of the most freaky-disturbing shocks I've ever experienced, when that...thing suddenly prances into the room, not so much without warning as without even the tiniest hint of preparation or foreshadowing. And indeed it doesn't make a whole lot of retroactive sense once the killer's identity is revealed, but somehow I don't think my next several decades of cardiac-arrest nightmares are gonna split those hairs.) But the preceding hour-plus, with the exception of two brief gory interludes, is deadly in entirely the wrong way. Argento simply cannot shoot a non-stuporous scene of two people having an ordinary conversation; his logy notion of sexual tension is especially laughable, which is a bit sad considering that he was banging Nicolodi himself. (Was Asia conceived during this shoot? The timing is right, born September '75.) Consequently, long stretches of the ultra-expository first half are completely flavorless, reminiscent of the filler scenes in any number of made-for-TV mysteries from the era. If you disagree, and actually find the film enthralling from start to finish, that's one thing—baffling to me, but defensible. But I found several reviews that more or less admit that it's 70% tedium, yet still give it the highest possible rating and deem it a classic or a masterpiece or both, entirely on the basis of the 30% that (literally) kills. That way lies the impending canonization of Red Eye.

/Shit Year/ (2010, Cam Archer): 77

Not sure a movie could get much more fragmentary and diffuse and still hold together. Obviously it helps to have an actor like Ellen Barkin at the center—her performance is all the more extraordinary when you consider that she has no conventional "arc" to play, just a series of disconnected moments ranging all over the map in tone and intensity. But Archer (whose Wild Tigers I Have Known I didn't just W/O of but actively fled; seems he just needed a less callow vehicle for his anxieties) provides a stunning free-associative context for her mercurial wandering, constructing a state of mind via jagged shards of pure emotion juxtaposed with shaggy digressions, all of it edited in a clipped, brusque way that catches you continually off guard. I can see how the sci-fi element strikes many as pretentious, but those scenes work for me precisely because they're given no more emphasis than anything else, just as the ending seems absolutely right in its offhanded playfulness. And I'd think even dissenters (who are actually in the majority, but I'm sick of the word "haters") would have to concede that this is one of the most gorgeous black-and-white films in recent memory, if largely by virtue of not trying to be ostentatiously gorgeous. In all honesty, I'd expected to be less impressed on second viewing, figuring my low expectations had influenced my judgment, but its amalgam of formal bravado, sardonic humor, refractory inconclusiveness and unapologetic solipsism (which, again, seems way more palatable when transferred to an actress in her mid 50s) knocked me out all over again. Nobody else seems to agree, but that's okay—given all the wildly acclaimed movies I find disappointing, it's refreshing to have a beat-up orphan to defend for a change.

Obsession (1976, Brian De Palma): 54

Wow, he even gets Herrmann to rip off his own score! Given the relative inaccessibility of Vertigo at the time, I'm not particularly hostile to the notion of a feature-length homage—especially one that veers as far afield from its source as this ultimately does. And I was unprepared for De Palma's magnificently classical approach to this material: lush, studied (imagine how alien Robertson's performance must have seemed in the midst of the '70s post-Method heyday), unironically italicized. But apparently there's a law requiring every De Palma movie to go full retard at some point, and the big twist here, when it finally arrives, is so completely preposterous that you can only gape in disbelief—that's the longest fucking con on record, I believe, by the world's most patient rapscallion. And I can't even blame Schrader, as all reports indicate he was livid about how his script had been trashed. De Palma very nearly pulls it all out in the finale, with fevered slow-motion cross-cutting—on second thought, fuck classicalism!—building to a ending so operatically tragic that I was prepared to forgive every contrivance necessary to arrive at it...and then he (or somebody) totally chickens out, just as he (or somebody) previously did by turning the marriage into a corny rippling-effect dream in order to duck the whole [SPOILER!] angle. Basically, yet another De Palma film I would love were it not so fucking dumb. But I guess that's my problem.

Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh): 66

Two men stand on a train platform, sharing an emotional farewell kiss; as their lips part, with the intensity of the moment still very much lingering, we hear indistinct catcalls from off in the distance. One of the men glares furiously in the dickwads' direction. "Just ignore them," the other says, but he can't quite yet, keeps glaring, looks as if he might walk over and start a confrontation, then finally turns his attention back to his lover. I've made that exchange sound longer than it plays—it's maybe ten seconds of screen time, a quick blip. But it represents everything I wanted this movie to be, and briefly thought that it actually might be. Whereas the earlier scene in which the same two men animatedly argue about how the straight world conspires to make them hide their sexuality represents everything I feared this movie might be, based on queer cinema's mediocre track record. Perhaps what I'm asking for is simply impossible—maybe there's no way to be truthful about the gay experience without having the characters talk nonstop about being gay. Certainly I have no right to demand that marginalized voices edit themselves for my sake. And I recognize that if society found some significant aspect of my identity repugnant, that would probably be a frequent topic of conversation when among peers. But still. These two actors are so fantastic (especially Chris New, who gives Glen exactly the right quotient of relaxed arrogance), and the first lengthy scene between them, involving the tape-recorded interview recounting the previous night, hits so many gorgeously inquisitive and frankly erotic notes, that my heart just sank when the coming-out anecdotes and gay-marriage debates kicked in. What had begun as an offbeat romance in which gender/orientation seem incidental (without their particulars being elided—quite the contrary) turned into a very well-acted and refreshingly low-key tract. Which is still far superior to most of what I've seen come out of NewFest and Outfest and etc., but I hope I live to see the day when a gay filmmaker can truly make something like Before Sunrise, taking the characters' attraction to each other for granted.

/Dead Alive/ (1992, Peter Jackson): 70

Funny to recall how apprehensive I was about seeing this the first time, based on its reputation as the goriest movie ever made—one might as well live in fear of "Rabbit Seasoning" after learning that Daffy gets his beak shot off again and again. Jackson leans too hard on the gross-out for my (uh) taste, but his slapstick violence owes so much more to Mack Sennett than to George Romero that you can't help but giggle, even as "people" (read: living mannequins) are repeatedly stripped of all flesh like Thanksgiving turkeys. Perhaps perversely, I prefer the first two acts, when Lionel is valiantly attempting to pretend this zombie apocalypse isn't happening, to the extended bloodsoaked finale; Paquita's wide-eyed, broken-English optimism bounces off bits of casual ghastliness, creating a winning comic tension that gets a bit lost once the party gets underway and heads start to roll (or rather to slide). And the film loses me completely at the rooftop climax, with Mum for some reason re-emerging as a lucid behemoth that resembles the ugly puppets in Genesis' "Land of Confusion" video. For the most part, though, there's no other word for it than "delightful," as sick as that adjective may seem in this context. Certainly I'd rather see Jackson return to making this kind of cheerful throwaway nonsense than continue to bid for sustained respectability via grotesquely ill-conceived prestige-lit adaptations. If Raimi could make it home again, surely so can he.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981, Frank De Felitta): 49

Easy to see how this could have been terrifying to an impressionable youngster who saw it when it first aired (I was 13 at the time, perfect age, just didn't happen to tune in), but it seems pretty tame now—not just in the explicit-gore sense mandated by network TV, but in the bizarre way that it marginalizes its bogeyman, who has less screen time than that sorrowful-looking dude who pops up in most of the Decalogue films. Indeed, I was convinced for most of the second half that there was no killer, and was becoming more and more impressed with what appeared to be a multi-character slasher variant on "The Telltale Heart," even if Charles Durning is the only one of the four principals with the capacity to pull that off. Ending pretty much squashes my interpretation, alas, though there are still elements I don't understand, e.g. when they dig up the grave and confirm that the body 's actually in the casket, why don't we see it? I'd assumed the inconclusive camera angle was Significant, but in retrospect I wonder whether it was just a budgetary issue, or if Larry Drake wasn't available that day. Once revealed as straightforwardly vengeful, it's a fairly tepid affair, notable primarily for how loathsome it makes all of its victims; De Felitta has little feel for generating tension or anxiety, and while the film is handsomely shot, its rhythms are unmistakably televisual (in a plodding '80s way). Also, scarecrows are not creepy. Being up on a post makes you look vulnerable, not menacing.


Steve C. said...

Certainly I'd rather see Jackson return to making this kind of cheerful throwaway nonsense than continue to bid for sustained respectability via grotesquely ill-conceived prestige-lit adaptations.

Holy shit yes. Maybe I'm biased (DEAD ALIVE is hands down my favorite film), but I miss the delirious energy of his earlier works now. Some guys just weren't meant to go respectable.

Also, your preference of the first two acts isn't as weird as it sounds - as celebrated as the epically splattery finale is, it's likely significant that the bits people remember/quote ("I kick ass for the Lord!", "Your mother ate my dog!" and the like) come from the more controlled, less unhinged part of the film. I do love Mum's reappearance though, if only for one of the sickest, greatest "rebirth" jokes in history.

md'a said...

DEAD ALIVE is hands down my favorite film

Of Jackson's? Or ever?

Steve C. said...

Ever. For better and/or worse, it was incredibly formative in shaping my tastes in my high school years (got into horror later than a good majority of my peers). I wouldn't call it the greatest film I've ever seen, but it makes me happier than any other.

Vadim said...

I'm reasonably sure (though I can't be bothered to look it up) that those stupid dream-ripple-edges were added after the fact to avoid an R rating. Can't remember where I read that though.

md'a said...

[Confidential to Anonymous: There's a reason for that, but not one I want to address in public. It's a stupid pride thing, basically. Also why you don't see links on my site.]

Steve C. said...

Given your aversion to Argento's table-setting dialogue scenes, you might find INFERNO in your wheelhouse. I find it his least "rational" and most direct dive into pure nightmare. Feels like it was piped straight from his subconscious at times.