Beyond Film #5 – Living the Double Life

10 August 2010 at 01:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything, and while this is mostly due to my preoccupation with finding a job, it’s also because I’ve spent most of the last few weeks watching a lot of television. When you’re unemployed and have a lot of time on your hands, there’s nothing better than filling the time with some TV, especially with so many terrific options. But rather than seeking an escape, I’ve noticed that I am gravitating toward series that explore difficult subject matter. In particular, the theme of living a double life seems prominent in the shows I’ve been watching.

The series I’ve found most entertaining: Nurse Jackie. Starring Edie Falco as the title character, the series follows a nurse living and working in New York. While Jackie proves herself to be a competent and dedicated nurse practically every episode, she compromises her job performance and home life with her addiction to pain killers and other pharmaceuticals. Fiercely private, she takes off her wedding ring upon arriving to work, never mentioning her husband or two daughters to all but one coworker. This secrecy conveniently allows her to maintain an affair with the hospital pharmacist, Eddie (another Sopranos regular, Paul Schulze). The duplicity fueled by her addiction drives the plot forward with the question of how long Jackie can maintain her double-life hanging in the air. She drives you crazy with her dishonesty, yet you can’t help but sympathize with her.

This second season promotional poster effectively depicts Jackie as both saint and addict. Image from DaemonsTV.com.

Another Showtime series, Dexter, follows similar patterns in its exploration of the title character played by Michael C. Hall. Dexter’s vice, however, is far more grisly than Jackie’s. As a sociopath with violent impulses, Dexter channels his tendencies into ritualistic murders of individuals with the same inclinations all the while working as a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Dexter developed a code of ethics based on the advice of his late adoptive father, Harry (James Remar), who recognized Dexter’s sociopathic disposition during childhood.

The series, then, not only explores the conflict created by this moral paradox, but also examines the source of Dexter’s desires and his efforts to appear normal despite his inability to emotionally relate to people. To this end, the series uses effective voice over narration to contrast the charming Dexter we see with the hollow, compulsive killer we hear. The Dexter’s duplicitous nature, then, is not only reflected in the contrast between his professional life and his recreational activities, but also in his self-presentation and his inner thoughts.

Still, the most compelling series I’ve been watching that explores these themes would have to be Breaking Bad. This show, like the others previously described, centers on a primary character with a moral dilemma. The character, Walter White (played perfectly by Bryan Cranston), discovers he has lung cancer and must decide how to proceed with treatment. As a high school chemistry teacher supporting a family, he makes such a small salary that he also works at a car wash. The fact that his wife is unexpectedly pregnant raises the stakes. While Walter initially decides to forgo treatment due to the unlikelihood of success and the high expense, he ultimately caves in to family pressure. Still unwilling to burden his family with debt, he decides to cook meth in order to finance his treatment and save some money to support his wife and children in the event of his demise. Ironically, Walters’ attempts to take care of his family financially only seem to create more problems at home. Walter, like Jackie and Dexter, struggles to maintain a harmonious domestic life as a result of his participation in criminal activities.

Walter's criminal and domestic lives collide in this still from Breaking Bad. Image from poptheology.com.

But while both Nurse Jackie and Dexter certainly have social implications (doesn’t every piece of art?), Breaking Bad seems the most pointed in its critique of the current socioeconomic climate. Unlike Jackie and Dexter, Walter is motivated out of financial self-interest. With the astronomical cost of health care in this country and the paltry salaries we pay public school teachers, Walter’s plight reflects the sense of economic unease pervasive in this recessionary economy.

This social commentary is the reason that I’ve found Breaking Bad oddly comforting during my period of unemployment. While I’m lucky enough to have family support during this transition, I still feel concerned about my prospects in the job market and worry about my savings running out before I earn my first paycheck. The schadenfreude of seeing characters like Jackie, Dexter, and Walter, dealing with much bigger problems than mine cannot be underestimated.

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My Pick for Lisbeth Salander

24 July 2010 at 00:37 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

The late Stieg Larsson‘s ridiculously popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novel received the movie treatment in his native Sweden last year with its American release this past March. The film only further popularized the novel with its excellent performances by Noomi Rapace (as title character Lisbeth Salander) and Michael Nyqvist as investigative reporter Mikael Blomqvist. Having recently finished the book, I finally got out to see the adaptation at the Academy Theater in Portland this past week. While some have critiqued the film for its lengthy duration and graphic depictions of violence, I appreciated the ways in which the film condensed the novel. I also found the depictions of sexual assault appropriately disturbing without being exploitative. It may not be the twenty-first century equivalent to The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s not far off.

I hope and expect that David Fincher (director of Seven, Fightclub, and Zodiac) took copious notes while watching the Swedish version, which rides heavily upon Rapace’s brilliant performance. Currently, well-known names like Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart, and Ellen Page have been thrown around for the role, along with some more obscure actresses such as Rooney Mara, Emily Browning, and Sarah Snook. Not surprisingly, everyone wants this guaranteed star-making role.

One of the few names mentioned that struck me immediately as a fascinating possibility: Mia Wasikowska. Most filmgoers will immediately associate her with her big-screen role as title character in the Tim Burton directed CGI overdo Alice in Wonderland, but I urge you to please set aside that association and hear me out on this.

Wasikowska has several qualities that make me want to see her in this role. First, she fits the Salander body-type: lithe and petite, she has that boyish quality so essential to the character. What’s more, her smiles seem labored when I see her press-photos–she’s the kind of actress that looks more comfortable wearing a scowl than a grin.

Mia Wasikowska, exuding her trademark intensity. Image taken from http://www.abc.net.au.

One reason for this impression might be her excellent performance in the first season of HBO’s In Treatment, a series following a psychiatrist (Gabriel Byrne) and four of his patients’ sessions as well as his own experience in therapy. Wasikowska played Sophie (a talented gymnast suspected of suicidal impulse) beautifully, showing her to be highly independent but deeply conflicted. A scene below demonstrates Wasikowska’s nuanced performance:

While this particular scene shows Sophie as vulnerable and expressive, others portray her as cold and reserved. Even in those moments of seeming indifference, Wasikowska hints at a deep reservoir of pain lying beneath her steely surface. These are the moments that suggest Wasikowska has the potential to play a kick ass Lisbeth Salander (I’ve yet to see her in The Kids Are All Right but imagine she brings something extra to her role in that indie comedy).

Wasikowska also filmed Restless with one of my favorite filmmakers, Gus Van Sant, slated for release in early 2011. According to Movie Line, the film depicts the story of a funeral crasher and a terminally ill 16-year old who fall in love–yes, a bit Harold and Maude, but Van Sant’s direction and Wasikowska’s involvement give me hope. Wasikowska cropped her locks for the role, giving us a preview of what her Lisbeth Salandar might look like:

With black hair and a few piercings, Mia Wasikowska would make a terrific Lisbeth Salander. Image taken from Celebrifi.com.

While Wasikowska may prove to be a bit high-profile for Fincher (he’s expressed a desire for an unknown actress), I hope he gives her another look. If Noomi Rapace has taught us nothing else, the role of Salander must be cast with great care to an actress with the skills and the looks to make this incredible role believable.

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How Inception Bests The Matrix

20 July 2010 at 17:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Is it really necessary to post a spoiler alert here? I guess if you’ve never read my blog you ought to be made aware that I discuss plots in full. Be warned.***

Much has been made of the recently released Inception‘s similarity to The Matrix. Both portray worlds that exist solely in the mind and both use this concept to depict gravity defying action sequences. Despite these similarities, the two films differ dramatically in terms of the ways in which they resolve issues of intellectual uncertainty. While The Matrix may offer a more satisfying end (sequels not withstanding), Inception‘s ending, like the conclusion of the director’s and final cuts of Blade Runner, provokes more questions without frustrating the viewer.

Inception's promotional poster. Image taken from latinoreview.com.

In my Adventures in Auditing series, I discussed the ways in which The Matrix manifested the idea of a text-based reality through formal elements such as color and vertical motion. I concluded that the ways in which the film distinguished between the false, textual reality of the matrix and the “real reality” of the world beyond the matrix actually reinforce the idea that a reality exists behind what Jean Baudrillard and others calls “simulacra.” As a result, the film fails to capture the essence of postmodernism even as it references these theories overtly.

By contrast, Inception lacks obvious references to postmodernism instead exploring these themes in a more cerebral way through depictions of dreaming. Still, the platonic themes of intellectual uncertainty remain pertinent to the film. The movie follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert in extraction, which is the process of obtaining information by invading a person’s subconscious through his dreams. This task proves dangerous in part because dreams appear so real that distinguishing between dreamed and lived reality requires certain tricks, such as totems. Totems are weighted objects, such as the metallic top carried by Cobb, that feel or behave one way in the dream and another way in reality. If Cobb spins the top in a dream, it never falls; if he spins it in reality, it topples as it should. This allows Cobb to enter and exit dreams for the purposes of extraction without fear of disorientation.

Cobb assembles a team of dream experts to perform a process called inception for a powerful client. Inception involves the planting of an idea into the subconscious through shared dreaming. While inception initially appears to be a theoretical possibility never before tried, Cobb claims to have successfully performed this task. One of his curious assistants, Ariadne (Ellen Page), discovers that Cobb implanted the idea that reality was actually a dream in the subconscious of his wife Mal (the superb Marion Cotillard) in order to encourage her to exit a lengthy shared dream. Once out of the dream, Mal believes that she continues to dream, mistakenly committing suicide as a means of returning to reality.

Marion Cotillard turns a stunning performance as Mal in Inception. Image taken from celebrity-mania.com.

Or so we are to believe throughout the bulk of the film. The end of Inception, however, seems to suggest that Mal may have been correct. After successfully completing the task of inception, Cobb returns to his family, whom he had been unable to visit as a result of previous crimes. In the final moments of the film, Cobb spins his top, which wobbles slightly but continues to spin before the film ends by cutting to black.

This ending fails to resolve the question of whether or not Cobb actually exited the dream state. The timing of the cut prevents the viewer from knowing for sure if the top will continue to spin or if the top will fall as physics proscribe it should. This beautifully ambiguous open ending elevates Inception to classic status.

Still, Inception cannot be described as flawless by any means. While Dicaprio, Cotillard, and much of the supporting cast deliver strong performances, Ellen Page’s efforts at a more serious role falter. Her character’s presence feels necessary to the narrative (with Ariadne as the dreamer-in-training, we the audience learn the rules of shared dreaming through her tutorials) but awkward and at times unnecessary in the moment of the scene. As a whole, the plot can feel a bit convoluted and the reasons for inception (to encourage a young executive to break up his father’s company) seem trite.

Nevertheless, the film hits its stride about midway through, and these little problems fall by the wayside. The film’s visuals, it’s plotting, its editing, remind you the ways in which cinema defy the spatial, temporal, and physical constraints that limit everyday life. It’s a lovely tribute to the power of film and its ability to mystify the senses and challenge the mind.

A still from Inception featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Image taken from The Atlantic.

While The Matrix most certainly dazzles like Inception with its incredible action sequences and futuristic style, it falters in its attempt at sustaining intellectual uncertainty. Once we know the differences between the matrix and the desert of the real, viewers can feel secure in understanding the distinction. Inception denies us this certainty, instead opting for the discomfort of leaving questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved.

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Buried, The Vanishing, and the latest casualties of war

14 July 2010 at 14:22 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Spoiler alert: I reveal the end of The Vanishing in this post. If you haven’t seen that film and want to experience the sucker-punch that is the film’s penultimate scene, I suggest you watch it before reading this post.***

By now, any self-respecting horror fan should have seen a trailer for Buried, the Lionsgate distributed film starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Spaniard Rodrigo Cortes. In case you haven’t, here it is:

Reynolds plays the film’s only onscreen character: Paul Conroy, a truck-driver contracted to work in Iraq circa 2006 and buried alive with only a Zippo and a fully-charged cell-phone. Unable to remember how he arrived in this predicament, the film uses the cell phone device to allow Conroy to come into contact with his captors, family, emergency dispatch, US officials, and his employers, gradually revealing the course of events that led up to the burial through these conversations. It’s a brilliant, minimalist concept, and by early accounts from its premier at Sundance, a successful exercise in suspense.

As Variety reviewer Rob Nelson points out, Buried also clearly draws from the excellent 1988 Dutch film Spoorloos (trans. as The Vanishing). That film involves the disappearance of a Dutch woman named Saskia and the efforts of her boyfriend, Rex, to discover what happened to her. After tracking down the killer–the seemingly normal family man Raymond–Rex agrees to succumb to the same fate as Saskia. We the viewers find out what that is in the penultimate scene. Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments offers a good summation:

The film proved so affective that Hollywood came a-calling for a remake. Despite both films sharing the same director, George Sluizer, the Hollywood version essentially neutralized the original, tacking on a rosy ending in which the protagonist’s girlfriend comes to the rescue. Roger Ebert articulates my feelings pretty well below (though I hate that he uses “slasher” as some kind of insult):

Still, surviving burial doesn’t necessarily make for a cliched plot point. Kill Bill, Volume 2 makes good use of the “buried alive” narrative conflict when the Bride lands herself in a coffin. Rather than limit the action of the scene to the coffin, writer/director Quentin Tarantino uses the Bride’s predicament as a jumping off point for a flashback depicting the Bride’s kung fu training by the legendary Pai Mei. Here’s what happens once the film flashes back to the buried Bride:

Because the Bride’s escape follows a flashback to training in which she gains the skills that enable her to escape, Kill Bill cleverly gives the unbelievable moment credibility within the narrative.

Several signals suggest that Buried will similarly develop its concept, avoiding the pitfalls of a film like The Vanishing remake in favor of a more nuanced approach. For one, the film’s credits suggest that it strictly adheres to the concept; other than Reynolds, cast members are listed as “voices,” suggesting that the film keeps all (or at least most) of the action to the interior of the coffin. The sparse trailer also hints at a confined space for the film’s action. If the filmmakers can pull it off (as reviewers like Jackson and others say they do) it will be an impressive feet worthy of Sluizer’s admiration.

The poster for Buried. Image taken from screenrant.com.

The film’s geopolitical context also suggests a myriad of possibilities. Because the protagonist works for Iraq War contractors, I expect there to be some fascinating commentary on the new civilian role in nation-building as well as the problematic corporatization of war. One might read the concept itself as a critique of the exploitation of the working-class by both sides of the war on terror: in the end, either side will bury you in a box to further their cause.

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Adios Texas – A Tribute

8 July 2010 at 18:36 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

Regular readers may have noticed the recent lack of posts. The reason: I’ve spent the last several weeks moving cross-country with spouse and puppy in tow. After several days of ten hours behind the wheel, we finally arrived in Oregon early this week and have been recuperating ever since.

Now that I have landed in the cool, lush Pacific Northwest, I am reflecting upon four years as a Texas resident with mixed emotions. While I certainly detested the dominant conservative views of the state’s populace, I appreciated the brash Texas culture that combined so many influences. I come away from the state with a greater appreciation for western cloths, country music of the Townes Van Zandt variety, spicy foods, and the greatest contraction ever, “y’all.” The place rubbed off on me, and I know that I’ll think back fondly on the many friends I made, SXSW dayshows I attended, bars I frequented (Hole in the Wall!), and daytrips to float the Comal taken over the past four years.

I feel especially blessed to have been in Austin at a time in which horror fandom flourished. I doubt that this blog would exist had I not cultivated my interest in the genre through coursework in media studies, conversations with like-minded friends, and late night b-movies at the Alamo Drafthouse. Because of the Terror Thursday (now Terror Tuesday) series, I saw such gems as The Stepfather, The Hidden, and Silent Night, Deadly Night along with some duds that shall remain nameless. I even saw a few of the genre’s famous faces at special screenings, including Eli Roth, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Joe Bob Briggs.

The Alamo Drafthouse sign. Image taken from toplessrobot.com.

Most exciting to me was seeing the production of such movies right before my eyes. The fall that I arrived in Texas, Quentin Tarantino and crew were filming Death Proof in a neighborhood adjacent to my own. I actually spotted Tarantino at Jo’s Coffee Stand while looking for apartments in Austin. I reacted by quickly walking past, calling my brother so I could tell someone, and then walking back to the coffee shop to get a closer look. Later, I saw the trailer park of stars and crew assembled on South Congress and witnessed some of the shooting of the film in Guero’s Taco Bar, an early favorite of mine as I became acquainted with the area. Jungle Julia billboards dotted major streets in South Austin, and my bus trips home from UT would often include a drive past shooting locations. The next Spring, I scored tickets to see the regional premiere of Grindhouse with some friends, and we all met up at one of the film’s prominent shooting locations, the Texas Chili Parlor, before the screening. There, we ran into a group of roller girls (The Putas del Fuego), decked out in evening wear with beauty pageant sashes. We learned at the screening that the ladies of the league were honored guests. Better company for such an event I cannot imagine.

A scene from Deathproof shot at the Texas Chili Parlor in Austin. Image taken from lifeofandres.files.wordpress.com

What I discovered the longer I lived in Texas was the way in which Grindhouse merely elaborated upon an established connection between the state of Texas and the horror genre. Only after moving to Texas did I discover one of the greatest modern horror films of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That film’s director and co-writer, Tobe Hooper, taught at the University of Texas’s Radio-TV-Film Department, where I worked on my master’s. He shot the film outside of Austin, capitalizing upon the dry, central Texas terrain to give the film a desolate feel. Horror films continue to use this kind of setting to illicit the same feelings of isolation in viewers.

A still from the stirring final shot of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Image taken from dragonsheadinn.com.

So, while I may be thrilled to be back home in the Northwest, I will always reflect back upon my time in Texas as particularly formative. It may not have been New York in the fifties or San Franscisco in the sixties, but for me, Austin was the right cultural scene at the right time, and it made me into the horror fan that I am today.

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10 Hilarious Things About Jason X

20 June 2010 at 22:18 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I visited my buddies in Austin for the last time this week before moving my shit out to the Pacific Northwest next week. We had some good meals, listened to some terrific music from Austin’s freshest bands, and best of all, had a lot of good conversation. Still, one of the most fun activities of the weekend was watching Jason X while we stayed at my friend Curran’s place. Curran and his partner Masashi own a ridiculously large collection of horror videos and dvds–they best me in terms of horror fandom hands down.

When faced with the wide array of choices, we decided to watch a Friday the Thirteenth installment I’d never seen: Jason X. I’d caught some of the film on television (back when I had cable) but had not viewed it in its entirety. I found the film to be just as schlocky as expected, and hence, a pleasurable viewing experience.

Jason X (2002), by the way, stars that irrepressible, hockey-masked villain, Jason Voorhees, in the tenth installment of the series. In this version, a company attempts to transport Jason to a research facility to better understand his ability to survive any form of execution. Of course, everything goes wrong, and Jason and incredulous scientist, Rowan, both succumb to freezing after a cryogenic tank breaks. Nearly five hundred years later, a group of researchers discovers the two frozen beings and takes them aboard a funky looking space ship (more on that later) where they thaw out and all hell breaks loose. It’s like Alien meets Terminator meets…well, Friday the Thirteenth.

It may shock you to know that Jason X does not presume to be a serious entry into the horror genre, but revels in poor acting, lame dialog, and the worst CGI since Jaws 3-D. Here’s the trailer:

Here are ten things about Jason X that will keep you laughing from beginning to end:

1 Writing – Much of the film’s attempts at comic relief rely upon the lowest form of humor: the pun. After one unfortunate victim becomes impaled upon a large drill, one of his comrades says, “he’s screwed.” One character cries out, “this sucks on so many levels” when (surprise, surprise) being sucked out of a ship after Jason punches a hole into the outer wall. Some of the kills seem built entirely around the punny line that follows.

2 Animation – The film uses CGI to create the world of outer-space, but apparently the $11,000,000 budget couldn’t buy much in the way of quality. The ships portrayed look completely ridiculous, like someone tried way too hard to come-up with something unusual.

3 Costuming – Along the same lines, the characters wear the most ridiculous, lurid clothing throughout the film. The odd textures, colors, and layering fail to evoke a consistent style of the future, except in that the ladies tend to bare midriff and/or cleavage. This still gets at what I’m talking about it:

Some of the pretty young things working the ship in Jason X. From the-adventurers-club.typepad.com.

4 Kink – The film also uses kink as a source of humor. Android Kay-Em 14 dresses like a dominatrix when facing off against Jason, but my favorite thing: a sex scene between a female student and male professor featuring a pair of tongs used to twist the teacher’s nipple. As a orgasms, he cries out: “you passed!”

5 Weird Science – The film portrays a future in which limbs can be reattached in a jiff and bodies frozen for four-hundred years merely need be covered in ants to reanimate. Yes, ants. This technology also benefits Jason, who despite being shot up into a chunky paste by Kay-Em 14 inexplicably reemerges as a cyborg. The script makes few attempts to explain how this technology works, which actually seems more honest to me even if it makes for perplexing entertainment.

6 Characters – Besides the final girl, Rowan, everyone else in this movie is pretty unsympathetic. Both annoying and idiotic, you will not mourn the loss. The Professor Brandon Lowe, who learns that Jason will likely snag him a lot of money, exudes the same kind of sleaziness that Paul Reiser did in Aliens but without the subtlety. One death after another feels like it belongs in the Darwin awards.

7 Kills – The kills are ridiculous: getting sucked into space through a grate; dipping a girl’s face into liquid nitrogen and shattering it; the famous sleeping bag kill with two simultaneous victims. Ugh.

8 Plot – The twists and turns prove to be both imaginative and nonsensical. Why, for example, do Jason and Rowan’s bodies lie untouched for nearly five hundred years?

9 Action Sequences – The face-off against Kay-Em 14 proves more hilarious than heart-stopping due to the silly stunts:

This clip highlights the final hilarious thing about Jason X

10 Acting – Sure, the writing stinks, but the delivery is worse. The actors frequently overact, miss their beats, and provoke unintended laughs.

I could easily come up with more hilarious things about the movie (the score, the ending, etc…) but that would ruin my whole X/10 parallel. Besides, the many surprises along the way may be the most entertaining thing about Jason X, and what kind of fan would I be to give all of that away?

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See Splice Now!

13 June 2010 at 22:10 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

****SPOILER ALERT****

Previously, I posted about how highly I anticipated Splice, a sci-fi/horror film written and directed by Vincenzo Natali and starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody. A friend tempered my high expectations by telling me that some reviewers panned the film, but I went to see it last night anyway with hopes that the film would prove strong. I am happy to report that Splice may be this summer’s Drag Me to Hell, in terms of high quality, provocative, mainstream horror. You simply must see it.

For those who missed my previous post, Splice follows a couple of scientists, Clive and Elsa (Brody and Polley, respectively) tasked with creating animal hybrids in order to extract proteins for gene therapy. They succeed in developing strange, penile like creatures for this purpose, calling the pair Fred and Ginger. Riding the high of their success, Clive and Elsa propose an even more radical experiment involving the incorporation of human DNA, much to the dismay of the executives of their company. Despite orders to refrain from using human DNA, Elsa and Clive move forward with the project in secret with plans to abort the egg once it proves viable. The egg, however, grows more rapidly than expected. In an intense scene, Clive and Elsa extract the creature from it’s fetal tank. The animal ages rapidly starting out looking like a fleshy tube with a bulbous appendage at one end and becoming more human-like as time passes.

Dren and Elsa in Splice. Image taken from dcairns.wordpress.com.

With wide set eyes, chicken-like legs, and a tail with a stinger, the creature (which Elsa names “Dren”) looks uncannily human, yet behaves with the unpredictability of an animal. As Dren grows, she becomes more difficult to hide from other workers in the lab and Clive and Elsa decide to move her to a secluded farm house where they keep her locked in a barn. Meanwhile, the “Fred and Ginger” project takes a disastrous turn when Ginger changes sex and the two kill each other in front of the company’s shareholders. The couple must develop the proteins demanded by the company using DNA samples. Elsa extracts DNA from Dren, successfully reproducing the protein demanded by the company.

But work seems the least of their worries. Rather, the film’s final third revolves around tensions amongst Dren, Clive, and Elsa. Dren rebels against the mother figure Elsa while Clive and Dren become closer. The emotions between Clive and Dren quickly become sexual, and Dren successfully seduces him. Elsa walks in on a freaky intra-species sex scene, one of the film’s more shocking moments. Soon thereafter, Dren appears to grow sick and die; however, Dren rises from her fresh grave, transformed into a male. After killing Clive’s brother and one of the executives sent to investigate, Dren attacks Elsa and rapes her. Clive impales Dren, but Dren kills Clive with his regrown stinger. Elsa, however, finishes the job by smashing Dren’s head with a rock.

Months later, Elsa makes a deal with the company to enter phase 2 of the Dren project. The now clearly pregnant Elsa agrees to carry her baby to term despite the personal risks and ethical implications. The film ends without reassurances, fading to black with the image of a female executive embracing Elsa.

This last image of an older woman holding a younger woman draws attention to the mother/daughter dynamics central to the film. From the time of Dren’s birth, Elsa relates to her like a mother to a child, protecting Dren from danger and, as she grows, teaching her new skills and praising her for her accomplishments. Along with skills, Elsa passes along lessons of femininity, giving Dren a Barbie-like doll, adorning her in dresses, and as she matures, teaching her how to use make-up. These lessons in femininity contrast Elsa’s own accounts of her relationship with her deceased mother. Elsa tells Dren that she hid her doll from sight because her mother would not allow her to play with dolls; Elsa also explains that make-up was forbidden because, her mother said, it “debased women.” Elsa’s mothering of Dren, then, contrasts her mother’s approach.

Dren from Splice. Image taken from twitchfilm.net

I interpreted these generational differences in terms of second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. In other words, Elsa seems to be lashing back at her mother’s strict definitions of female empowerment by embracing a more traditional notion of femininity. This clash reminded me of a terrific article by Kathleen Karlyn about the ways in which the Scream series grapples with mother/daughter relationships in very similar terms. Elsa uses Dren to rework issues unresolved between herself and her mother, which becomes particularly interesting as Dren matures into a sexual being. In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, Dren nearly kills Elsa after being scolded for killing a cat; Elsa then proceeds to knock Dren out and restrain her, removing her clothing before cutting off her stinger. Clive later states that he believes that Elsa channeled her motherly impulses into Dren because as a scientist, she believed she could have greater control in an experimental setting–the scene confirms this suspicion, with Elsa referring to Dren as a subject and specimen, reinforcing an illusion of scientific objectivity. In short, Elsa struggles with memories of her own controlling, abusive mother, channeling similar impulses into her relationship with Dren with disturbing effects.

Dren’s relationship with Clive proves just as interesting. Clive struggles with the moral and ethical implications of the project from the very beginning, regularly insisting on terminating Dren but ultimately relenting at Elsa’s behest. Yet, Clive ultimately reciprocates Dren’s advances, in part because she physically resembles Elsa (a fact that leads Clive to conclude that Elsa contributed her own DNA for the project). Thus, Clive (like Elsa) conflates his desires for Elsa toward Dren. Splice, then, portrays parent/child relationships as complicated by transference.

Ultimately, Splice depicts a heterosexual couple producing a monstrous (but sympathetic) being, resulting in the kind of dysfunctional family unit described by Freud a century ago–we even get a primal scene in the film. I expect that such an outcome would please the late Robin Wood despite Dren’s queerness (see my review of Orphan for more about Wood).

Of course, Splice does exhibit flaws, particularly in terms of dialog and mise-en-scene. Elsa’s repeating of the phrase “What’s the worst that could happen?” failed to illicit the laughs intended. The whole self-proclaimed nerdiness of the characters seems contrived, especially since Elsa and Clive initially dress like hackers in a late-nineties computer thriller. I expect that some folks (the true nerds) will scoff at the liberties taken with science, but in a fantasy film, I tend to let this slide.

The fact of the matter: Splice held my attention from start to finish, unnerving me and leaving me with much to ponder. I can’t make that claim about most of the films I have seen this past year. Can you?

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Check out Salon.Com’s Post on Torture Porn

8 June 2010 at 10:17 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Apologies for the dirth of posts–my spouse and I traveled to Oregon to visit his family for a week and their dial-up connection made it impossible to post. It actually was a nice vacation from the internet, but I did feel a bit neglectful.

I’m working on some longer pieces, so at the moment, I would encourage you to take a look at an interesting article on Salon.Com. It’s called “The Meaning of Torture Porn” and it discusses the Saw films, The Human Centipede, and the I Spit on Your Grave remake, among others. In the process, writer Thomas Rodgers interviews Thomas Fahy, editor of a new anthology called The Philosophy of Horror. Exciting, fascinating stuff–even if it’s the hundredth article on the topic, it never seems to get old.

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I Spit on Your Grave Remake

27 May 2010 at 13:43 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Many spoilers follow, so if you’ve not yet seen the original ISOYG, skip this review

Of all the horror films to remake, 1979’s I Spit on Your Grave (also known as Day of the Woman) seems a somewhat unlikely choice. That brutal, rape-revenge film made waves upon its first release with the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who critiqued its prolonged scenes of sexual assault. It also featured problematic portrayals of the working class and mentally disabled. Though the linkage between lower-classness and sadistic violence remains acceptable mainstream fare, negative representations of disability seem more touchy these days. In short, an I Spit on Your Grave remake seems like a huge risk. Check out the original trailer and see for yourself:

Then again, I Spit on Your Grave does fit in nicely with two concurrent cycles in American horror: torture porn and remakes. As you can see in the trailer, the film involves the gang-rape of Jennifer, a big city writer renting a cabin in a rural area. After surviving her ordeal, Jennifer hunts down each of her attackers, dispatching them with gruesome precision. Based on the IMDB synopsis, it appears that the remake retains much of the original’s basic structure with a few adjustments that I will discuss below. But first, the trailer:

A few observations:

1) Night and Day Aesthetics – Hand-held camera work seems to have replaced the more detached cinematography of the original. The overall color-scheme feels darker than the original, with lots of night scenes and a heightening of blues and greens (probably through filters). This change interests me, given that one of the more shocking elements of the original was the way that the gang-rape occurred in broad daylight. From all appearances, the new film presents Jennifer’s rape as occurring at night and following a break in into her home. My guess would be that filmmakers felt these changes would be a) more realistic to today’s audiences and b) more creepy and atmospheric.

2) Context? – The original ISOYG contextualizes the violence against Jennifer in terms of tensions based on class and gender; the male perpetrators regularly make sexist remarks and criticize Jennifer’s urban sophistication. Surprisingly, the trailer for the latest ISOYG provides very little information about what motivates the rapists, instead focusing on Jennifer. I wonder if the remake will make these connections between misogyny and rape clear or merely assume them to be implied.

3) Targeting – Siskel and Ebert claimed that the audiences that attended screenings of the original consisted primarily of men who cheered on the perpetrators during the rape scenes. While I have some skepticism about Siskel and Ebert’s accounts, I imagine that it’s highly likely that men attended these screenings more than women due to the cultural presumptions about the appropriateness of violent films for women. The remake’s trailer, though, seems targeted primarily toward lady viewers by encouraging viewer identification with Jennifer (generally, Hollywood marketers assume that women identify with women characters and men with men). This doesn’t surprise me, given the recent marketing research that suggests women comprise the majority of horror audiences.

In the end, I am pretty lukewarm on this project, primarily because of my mixed feelings about the original. Given the involvement of the original film’s producers and director, I expect that the motivation for revisiting this material has more to do with cashing in than fleshing out the implications of the original. I hope the new film proves me wrong, but with the tagline “It’s date night,” I shudder to think.

Promotional poster for the I Spit on Your Grave remake. Image taken from dreadcntral.com

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Adventures in Auditing #6 – Queer for Fear

22 May 2010 at 11:15 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

This may be my laziest post ever, but I hope you’ll cut me a break–I’m trying to finish drafting a paper for my “Gender and the Horror Film” class partially based on my previous post about the French horror film Inside. So pardon my blatant lifting of material here!

Below, I have provided 9 of the 11 parts of Queer for Fear (parts 5 and 9 are strangely absent from YouTube), a documentary presented at the 2004 Los Angeles Outfest gay and lesbian film festival. The documentary explores queer moments throughout the history of the horror genre and features a discussion with scholar Harry Benshoff who visited my class last month to discuss his book Monsters in the Closet. Benshoff astutely connects the rhetoric around homosexuality with the tropes of horror films, a topic also discussed in the clips below.

Without further ado, here they are:

Cheers!

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