Friday, October 30, 2009

The three poles of TERROR: Have a structural Halloween

I was thinking a lot about horror and scary stories tonight, and it occurred to me that fear-inducing entities in storytelling typically have three essential sources. These are very abstract, of course, and they probably leave some outliers that I'm not thinking about, but still, it was an interesting little exercise to look at how they relate, and plot all the major studio monsters I could think of onto a field of horror concept.

I broke it down to three categories:

1) NATURAL: this includes anything with an explanation in plausible, real-world terms. Head-cases and psychological abominations... anything that represents an abberration of nature or humanity... that goes in this category. This category is driven by fear of disorder and lack of control.

2) SUPERNATURAL: supernatural is anything that completely refuses to be explained or justified in terms of physical or psychological laws. Supernatural forces come from other worlds, and the reason these worlds are "other" is that we don't have any way of understanding them. This is driven by fear of otherness and the unknown.

3) THE DEAD: A necessary third category, because it represents so much fiction. Apparently we're in constant fear of having to face an incarnation of mortality, which is where the unknown looms in all our lives. This is driven by fear of death (duh).

All objects of anxiety in horror and "tales of the strange" represent some combination of these essential anxieties. I put them all into a cool little graph, so we can discuss their various roles. Here it is... click for a huge version:

By the way, congratulations to Freddy Krueger, who gets the central spot. He's an insane child molester, murdered by an angry mob, who now inhabits the "other world" of dreams, a common focal point for myths of the supernatural. He's pretty much the best of all three horror worlds, which is why I'll never watch a Nightmare On Elm Street (revision LOL) movie by myself, or after dark, or without being physically forced to do so.

Also, it's worth noting some other little insights here. Dracula is clearly down on the line between "dead" and "supernatural," because he traded his humanity for his immortality, and died a symbolic death in the process. However, other vampires may inhabit other locations on this little graph. Some are the products of science, or a blood disease, like the crazy beasties in I Am Legend. Some don't really die in order to become Vampires, like the gothy teenagers in Vampire: The Masquerade.

It's worth contrasting Dracula with the Zombie myth... zombies are embodiments of death, much like vampires, but unlike vampires, they're usually explained scientifically, rather than supernaturally.

I've placed all "demonic" presences down by "supernatural," with a little nudge toward "dead," because even though they themselves were never human, and therefore never died human deaths, they still preside over the land of the dead, and death is their explicit domain. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones are the only creatures I can think of that are absolutely, completely otherworldly, in a non-scientific way, and aren't somehow related to human mortality.

So that's today's structuralist musing on horror, and a new addition to my list of cute little graphical gestures in this bloggy-blog. I wonder if you'd get more out of it by adding another variable, like original release/appearance date for each villain? You could code that into colors for the dots, and maybe you'd discover that horror has been moving from more supernatural to more natural over time.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Revisionist Western and the loss of the father: Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, among others

I’ve been swimming in manly media lately – I’ve read two Cormac McCarthy novels almost consecutively, and I’ve watched an old Sam Peckinpah operetta called Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Peckinpah also directed one of my favorite Westerns, The Wild Bunch. I also read Native Son, the Richard Wright novel about being a black youth in America. It’s been a streak of manhood-themed narratives, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad time to write something on the topic.

Reading McCarthy’s novels (in my case, No Country for Old Men and The Road) is an experience to be had. I was severely skeptical going in… I read a little critique of his writing some time ago called A Readers’ Manifesto, and it primed me to expect his writing to be rather gimmicky and contrived. This would almost be a valid criticism, as he writes with a conspicuously “muscular” prose that comes across as trying very hard sometimes. However, the pace and rhythm of his narratives carry the reader along with them, so you don’t have to think too hard about individual passages… as it turns out, you hardly have time to linger over them. Finally, what gives his novels the compelling personality that has made him famous is the combination of brutality and sentimentality woven into his writing. I think he’s perfected a certain style of sensitivity-by-counterpoint, writing stories where themes of love and nostalgia are made more poignant by the hostility of the foreground events.

McCarthy and Sam Packinpah share a lot in this regard. Both work with themes of the loss of the old world (the old world of the American West, in particular) and seem to mourn the mechanization and specialization of death. Anton Chigurh and the dope-runners (No Country) are analogues to the gattling gun, the motor car, and the Mexican army (The Wild Bunch). There’s a haunting resonance between Pike Bishop and Tom Bell, both of whom are old-world patriarchs taking up the task of fatherhood for somebody who’s destined to get themselves into trouble. Angel and Llewellyn are strikingly similar, as well… violent, young, sharply instinctive but reckless and doomed young heroes who love too hard to keep themselves safe.

And so, we see the old west becoming a metaphor for the father figure, majestic but ineffective, shuffling into its twilight. The old west is changing into a hostile new war zone driven by crime and accelerating ruthlessness, no place for honor or dignity (or Old Men), and with this death of an old world comes the death of the idealistic father, serving his principles until his last breath. In this new world, the son is on his own to bear the stings of cruelty and hopelessness.

If No Country for Old Men and The Wild Bunch overlap so precisely, The Road and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia are thematically adjacent, offset in either direction. In The Road, a novel which embodies Sheriff Bell’s final dream of his father, we see the final struggles of the true father figure in a hopeless world, and we come to respect him, even in defeat (this is actually notably similar to 3:10 to Yuma, another revisionist Western). Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia sits on the opposite side of death: Alfredo Garcia himself was the father figure, albeit a young, dashing example, the first and truest object of the female’s affection; unfortunately, the movie finds him already dead. In the wake of his demise, which is essentially meaningless, Bennie takes on the role of the upstart son. He hijacks the mother’s love, as a son is wont to do (both in the Oedipal and the basic familial sense). He confronts the world that destroyed his father, and in so doing, he takes up the father’s cause. And as in all the other works referenced above, he is facing a ruthless, nihilistic world where raw power and violence trump those fallen ideals of virtue and heroism. So, finally, his only choice is to rage against this world, and essentially self-destruct in its face. This resonated even more with me because I read Native Son, which is about a similar effect... the self-destruction of black youth upon being deprived of a father figure, both literal and sociocultural.

If you want a study of the loss of the father figure, I’d recommend adding one more to the list: Michael Douglass’s Falling Down, which is a sad, hopeless, and fantastic movie, one of the most compelling depictions of claustrophobic modern rage that you’ll ever see. If it’s comparable to any of the films discussed above, it’s most analogous to The Road – these are both stories of the father’s journey and his struggle with hope in a hopeless world, and with the need to take on the role of the father in a world where the father is an outdated mode. They’re very different takes on the theme… for instance, where The Road is very introspective, Falling Down is explosively hostile. However, it’s a worthy final edition to the realm of study hinted at above.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scorcese: prospects for horror from the director of Goodfellas

I've been seeing trailers and buzz for a new Martin Scorcese pic called Shutter Island. Odd, since it's not coming out til February 19, 2010, but whatever -- it's never too early to start publicity. For my own part, I finally saw Goodfellas this past week. This is in addition to the other fare I've seen from the director: Taxi Driver, The Departed, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and (back before I was much of a movie-watcher) Casino.

There's something fundamentally unfair about making a list like that, because when you see all those titles side-by-side, they just become a list of "essentials." However, when you have to think about any particular Scorcese film, or study one, or choose a favorite, you may notice that each of those films is a monolithic masterpiece, an iconic moment in contemporary cinema. This is how a great director like Scorcese should be defined... not by his near-misses, as cynics are likely to claim, but by the scale of his combined masterpieces.

I mentioned in a previous post that Quentin Tarantino's filmography seems to be packed with "career-defining" movies, little opuses that fans like to cite as his greatest masterwork. In Tarantino's case, he feeds into this public perception, often talking about how his next movie is "a love letter to cinema" or the film he's been "waiting his whole life to make." Scorcese exhibits a similar effect, but unlike Tarantino, he doesn't have to push it... it's a function of his filmmaking style that so many of his movies seem like epic, career-defining cinema masterpieces. From Last Temptation, whose subject matter distinguishes it as a genuinely brave literary achievement, to Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, both of which are psychological portraits unsurpassed in intimacy, Scorcese keeps making movies that push the limits of storytelling as far as they'll go.

Goodfellas was an opus, as much as any of the other movies mentioned above. It was a highly subjective film, told almost entirely through Henry's eyes, but from this vantage point, it told a sweeping story of organized crime as it went through a key turning point in the 1970's. If I saw Scorcese as a mob-movie director, I'd see this as the pinnacle of his career. If I saw him as an essentially Italian-American director, I'd see Last Temptation as his high point... if I saw him as a directorial vehicle for his iconic actors, I'd see Raging Bull as his greatest achievement... and if I saw him as a representative director of the city of New York, I might see Taxi Driver as his greatest film. It's hard to see him as all of these at once, but I think it's the only way to do him justice.

Shutter Island looks like a departure for Scorcese, perhaps a surprising turn, if you haven't realized how versatile he's been. From the trailer, it looks like a horror film (or a "supernatural thriller," if you want to distinguish it from Hostel). It has jump-out scares, deranged faces and whispery voices, cryptic messages, and frantic breathing and movement through dark environments. In this aspect, Shutter Island looks like much more of a genre entry than Scorcese's previous films, and this may be a concern. Is it going to ruin the sense of universality and scale that's been such an asset to Scorcese's films? Is it going to slide too easily into a niche, and end up squandering the director's talents for complexity and ambiguity?

I hope it doesn't. There are certain skills Scorcese has in his filmmaking -- the ability to make us sympathize with a lost and desperate soul, the ability to make us feel threatened and alarmed without using cheap scare tactics -- that could work beautifully for portraying madness and claustrophobia. These skills have been at work in scenes like Henry's drug-induced paranoia and arrest, or inside Travis Bickle's head as he's become fixated on violence. However, Scorcese's never really turned these skills into the kind of rabid fear that horror movies tend to go for. If anything, he's turned them into suspense, discomfort, and intimidation. Whether those work for him in the kind of film that Shutter Island seems to be identifying as... or whether Shutter Island decides to be something totally unexpected and misrepresented by the trailer... those will be the key determining factors in whether Scorcese's next film is successful.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Wes Anderson and Peter Greenaway: Discovering a strong influence

Wes Anderson has a unique vision. His aesthetic is one of banality, and yet it's severely aesthetic, emphasizing composition and symmetry. His characters are markedly underdramatic, but his films still have a strong undercurrent of sentimentality. He emanates a sense of detachedness and sterility, but his films are about messy, confused family and romantic relationships. His aesthetic seems such an island unto itself that it can be hard to form a sensible reaction to him. However, this past week, I've discovered that Mr. Anderson DOES have precursors in cinema... I found one of them, and I sensed an overwhelming kinship. This kindred movie was Drowning By Numbers, a twisted little opus by celluloid artiste Peter Greenaway.

You should really see Drowning By Numbers. I can't pretend it isn't weird, and it's bleakly pessimistic, but it's also such a fascinating mental puzzle of a film, full of interlocking curiousities and remarkable characters. It has the stamp of British humor upon it -- the witticisms that simply slip past, the exchanges of understated mockery and absurdity -- but its real appeal is thoroughly universal.

The film revolves around three women, all named Sissy, who undertake the murders of their respective husbands. They have an unsettling sense of solidarity, and though they seem motivated by sexual frustration at first, it eventually starts to seem like they commit murder simply because they were tired of not committing murder. During this cynical and subversive process, they manipulate the local coroner into covering up their evidence. The story is the coroner's, as much as the womens'... he is a goofy and susceptible man who spends most of the film explaining the rules of strange, folkish games he has invented, and taking care of his son Smut, who has a similar fascination with games, but whose preoccupation is noticably more morbid. The film is a cracked unity, a fragmented braid of woven themes.

Does this sound like Wes Anderson? Not really. Murder and morbidity aren't themes central to his work, and his plots don't have the complex opacity of Drowning By Numbers. However, if you go and watch Drowning By Numbers right now, you'll sense the influence it's had on Anderson. I'll go ahead and try to articulate this influence, real quick like.

The camerawork and composition of shots in Greenaway's film are a direct precursor to Anderson's unconventional style. Greenaway likes long takes and a stable camera; any motion is usually slow pans, following a character's movement through a landscape. His frames are decidedly distant and minimally expressive, with a range of medium and occasional long shots, but few close-ups. The effect of his compositions is often to flatten the background and present the action in another flat plane in front of it, and he'll remain in this position and let a series of events or a conversation unfold in front of the lens. Like Anderson, Greenaway favors symmetry in his frames, and strong foreground/background gestalt. There's another shot of Greenaway's that Anderson shares: the unadorned, straight-on shot of a face showing understated signs of emotion (a single tear, a twitch of the cheek).

I've included a bunch of frames to compare the two styles. They're a pretty good illustration of the similarities I'm talking about... you can find them at the bottom of the post.

Add to this a penchant for quirky characters whose quirks are represented simply as the texture of everyday life... and a portrayal of family relationships that suggest underlying affection, even though they're caught up in a world of awkwardness and disconnection... and you start to see why these two filmmakers are so similar.

Interestingly enough, although Greenaway is less recognized than Wes Indie-darling Anderson, Drowning By Numbers could actually be seen as more marketable than something like Life Aquatic. It's certainly a strange movie, but it doesn't have Anderson's ironic tendencies (intentionally bad special effects on the fish, high-intensity spy music during a comically awkward rescue scene). Drowning By Numbers may have been a weird aesthetic and experimental exercise, but it felt dramatized, and the characters and plot were certainly engaging.

Greenaway's work is both more symbolically complex (the counting, the stars, things happening in three's, etc) and more dramatically conventional (it's an honest crime drama, at least) than Anderson's. As postmodern cinephiles looking back at Greenaway, we can see how he developed his experiment, and how Wes Anderson took that detached aesthetic and made it evolve. In a sense, Anderson's movies are a purification of Greenaway's aesthetic banal -- it's the same tone, but Anderson's movies don't have all the opacity and symbolism to get in the way. His stories are purely about the characters, and the plots and dialogue all fit into the quirky, banal, humanistic aesthetic, which he brings into a unity.

So in that sense, seeing Greenaway's work has given me a new appreciation for Wes Anderson's. I hope some of you Anderson fans out there will try to rent Drowning By Numbers. See if you see the influence as clearly as I did.

Frame comparisons, with Drowning By Numbers on top and The Royal Tenenbaums on the bottom:

Faces at despairing moments

Hapless patriarchs

Preoccupation with symmetry

Horizontal movement on a flattened background

Slow pan, following characters in conversation

Fixation on a significant gesture