When I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road last summer, its post-apocalyptic story seemed like pure fantasy. In the cool confines of my air-conditioned apartment or lounging next to my apartment complex swimming pool, the story seemed worlds away from reality. Since then, the global economic recession hit like a sack of bricks, and government collapse and environmental disaster seems more imminent than ever.
For the above-mentioned reasons, the film adaptation of The Road could hardly be more timely with its October 16th release. The trailer now screens with the latest cinematic features, giving us a little something to taste. Click on the picture below and it will link you to the trailer:
I have been eagerly anticipating this film since I learned about it last winter. I’m especially excited about the casting of Viggo Mortenson as “the man,” and Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall in smaller roles. I have mixed feelings about Charlize Theron in the roll of “Wife,” given her glamourous star persona with the odd exception of Monster. Oddly, the trailer suggests the wife to be a significant character in spite of the book’s marginalization of the Wife to just a few short passages. Of course, the promotional materials could be playing up Theron’s role in order to capitalize on her name-recognition, but if it is the case that the Wife plays a more prominent role, I am interested to see whether this will be to the film’s advantage or not.
The opening moments of the trailer annoy me more: in Day After Tomorrow fashion, the trailer shows fires, floods, tornadoes, and avalanches with intertitles stating “one event will change the face of the planet.” This seems to contradict the spirit of the novel, which leaves the full nature of the apocolyptic event a mystery. Again, these could be shots that don’t actually exist in the film, but if The Road explicates the disaster, it will betray McCarthy’s vision of a truly post-apocolyptic road movie.
Of course, the film still has much potential, and I will definitely do my best to resist my biases (which will be difficult, considering the subtle product placement in the trailer–REALLY?). No matter what, The Road has to be better than the other apocalypse-themed film screening a trailer right now, Legion (click the poster below):
Screen Gems continues to be the white elephant gift that keeps on giving (see my previous post on their sacrilegious slasher remakes). Then again, the demon grandma at thirty seconds has to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a trailer this summer, so Legion could be the surprise comedy smash of 2010. Bring on the arm- and jaw-extending demons!
Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) begins with its end: the discovery of a female transient’s dead body triggers the film’s quest to understand the young woman and the events in the weeks leading up to her untimely demise. Through flashbacks, we the audience learn about how a girl named Mona (played by the fantastic Sandrine Bonnaire) lived her life on the road and what feelings this non-traditional lifestyle stirred in those who encountered her.
The vagabond as a character in literature and film has existed for well over a century. The term “vagabond” originated from British law and took on political significance during the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th century Europe when, as a figure of suspicion, constables could “collar vagabonds and force them to show their means of support.” While the original French title of Vagabond does not utilize the term (the literal translation is “without roof or law”), it’s use of vagabond as the English version’s title is significant in it’s political connotations. As the title of this entry indicates, Mona represents a puzzling figure to those around her as one who rejects the social norms expected of her gender and class. This early scene demonstrates the ways in which Mona’s status as a young female drifter sometimes results in confrontations:
But while some characters see Mona as a vulnerable target for their advances, others–particularly women–admire her for her strength. Mona’s refusal to remain fixed in one location, to be tied to any particular relationship, defies norms of femininity. By contrast, we learn of Yolande, a maid to an elderly woman and girlfriend of a verbally abusive boyfriend. Interestingly, Yolande confesses to the audience that she admired Mona for her passion and freedom. As foils, Yolande clearly falls on the feminine end of the gender spectrum, taking care of those around her, while Mona worries solely about her own desires and needs, as demonstrated by her breaking up with various men throughout her journey. In this way, Mona reveals Yolande’s desire to break out of the constraints of femininity.
For other characters, Mona also challenges notions of class. While sharing a bottle of champagne, a female professor questions Mona about how she came to be a transient. Mona divulges that she previously studied to be a typist. “Why did you drop out?” the professor asks. “Champagne on the road’s better!” Mona responds. In other words, Mona chooses the pleasures of life on the road over the stability of a regular paycheck. This lack of concern over class also manifests itself in her appearance–her tattered cloths and dirty hair reveal her status to all who encounter her, repelling some and attracting others as demonstrated by the trailer below:
Through its convention of character confessionals, Vagabond reveals the conflicts that Mona stirs in each individual she encounters, and in the process, forces audience members to do the same. That Mona dies at the film’s introduction and conclusion does not resolve these tensions but produces more, for in her early death, Mona’s aspirations remain uncompromised. It’s this inability to compromise that makes Mona a truly radical figure.
This past weekend, District 9 opened to rave reviews and the highest box office earnings of the weekend. While in many ways the film exhibits the classic markings of a big-budget science fiction adventure, reviewers contrasted it explicitly and implicitly with the mind-numbingly silly Transformers 2 and G. I. Joes with comments like, “It’s nice to see a movie where some serious thought has been put into reviving a stale genre” (from Peter Howell of The Toronto Star), and “If you’re looking for the late-summer special-effects action fantasy with big franchise potential, forget about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. . . . . Instead, proceed directly to District 9” (from Richard Corliss of TIME Magazine). Clearly, if you review movies for a living, District 9 stands out from the pack.
Unfortunately, the movie may not be as smart as it thinks it is. While I felt the film was well-made and entertaining, the plot’s twists and turns felt contrived at times. Various details challenged my willing suspension of disbelief, and I left the screening with so many questions, I couldn’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied. With that in mind, I list my questions below:
1) Why did the prawns land on earth in the first place?
2) Why are the Nigerians permitted to openly exploit the prawns?
3) Why does the jet fuel for Christopher’s ship cause Wikus to become a prawn?
4) With such heavy artillery and great physical strength, why don’t the prawns rise up against the humans?
5) Why is the alien character named “Christopher Thompson,” rather than some kind of alien name?
A bigger concern about the film: why are the injustices against the prawns told primarily through the view of humans? I understand the effect: the pseudo-documentary style frames the events from the human perspective so that when later scenes render certain prawns sympathetic, they jarringly undermine the audience’s prejudices. But ultimately, I felt the film never fully overturned the initial assumptions of the human characters. The prawns remain hapless and mysterious, and while I sympathized with them, I never felt fully engaged with their plight.
Of course, a sequel could answer these questions, and I would encourage writer/director Neill Blomkamp to focus the next chapter of this story around Christopher rather than Wikus. While Wikus may be easier to identify with on a cosmetic level, Christopher proves to be the more compelling character. A view into his story would also bring the apartheid themes (pushed oddly to the background, as Daniel Engbar points out in his Slate.com piece) to the forefront. Hopefully in a few summers, we’ll be getting the progressive allegory that the film’s trailers advertised but didn’t quite deliver.
Coming attractions have taken on a greater importance now that I have a blog to maintain. With a limited number of new movies to comment upon, trailers provide a source for speculation about what’s next in cinema. Saturday, I attended the very entertaining film The Hurt Locker, and the following trailer screened much to my delight:
Shutter Island is a horror buff’s dream-come-true: Martin Scorcese directing a thriller with a kick-ass cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, and Emily Mortimer! Casting and directing aside, the concept looks intriguing with questions of psychosis providing opportunities for surrealist hallucination sequences.
Reading further into the production, I also discovered that the film contains flashbacks of World War II concentration camps. Of course, drawing upon the holocaust is nothing new to film generally and the horror genre specifically, and often times, such references are problematic. We need only watch the national news to see how easily Nazism can be thrown around as a political scare-tactic. Something similar can happen in horror films whereby the Holocaust becomes short-hand for pure evil, rather than something to be reflected upon or questioned. This seems to be the case with The Unborn:
The Unborn features flashbacks of Nazi experiments performed by Dr. Mengele on twins in a story about a girl haunted by her twin who died in utero. While I’ve yet to see the film, I find it difficult to grasp how a contemporary story of posession can be aligned with Nazi experimentation. This additional information feels superfluous to the plot and thus cheap and exploitive.
Another recent film brought to my attention by my friend Kristen refers more specifically to World War II with its premise of Nazi soldier zombies:
Dead Snow, a Norwegian production, clearly grapples with issues surrounding national identity and generation. The middle-aged local man critiques the excesses of the vacationing youth by explaining the region’s history in relation to World War II. This narrative could go both ways for me. On the one hand, the representation of the World War II generation as self-sacrificing and the current one as ungrateful seems overly simplistic and a bit conservative; on the other hand, I like the capitalist critique at work. Either way, Dead Snow should provide great fodder for critique!
It remains to be seen exactly how Shutter Island will utilize the war in its narrative, and the trailer gives very few hints. The setting of the mental hospital does suggest, though, that trauma will play an important role in character and plot development. I am hopeful that Shutter Island will utilize memories of war to comment upon the oppressiveness of other institutions.
Monday’s Fresh Air featured a compelling interview with filmmaker John Waters about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, a woman whom Waters describes as “a really good friend.” In both the Fresh Air interview and a chapter of his new book (available online at Huffington Post), Waters describes how he and the former follower of hippy cult leader Charles Manson became friends through years of written correspondence and prison visits. Almost twenty-five years after his first letter to Van Houten, Waters writes now as an advocate for her parole, and I must say he makes a very compelling case for her release.
Without dismissing the horrific and disturbing nature of Van Houten’s participation in the LaBianca murders, Waters points out that Van Houten has been a model prisoner by continuing her education, volunteering, and working in the prison system. Furthermore, she’s received drug and alcohol treatment along with psychological therapy. More than a dozen psychiatric reports claim that she poses no threat to society, and she has expressed remorse for her crimes at parole hearing after parole hearing, but remains behind bars despite her demonstrated efforts at rehabilitation and contrition. I agree with Waters: Van Houten’s continued imprisonment defies any legal rationale, and the public has nothing to fear should she be released.
What interests me most about Van Houten’s situation is the way that pop culture has played such a strong role in stoking public anger against her and other Manson family members. Waters himself admits to sensationalizing the Manson Family in his low-budget film Mulitple Maniacs, in which Divine makes reference to the murder of Sharon Tate. Here’s the clip featuring that quote:
(THIS CLIP IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE DO TO ITS REMOVAL FROM YOUTUBE)
Other references to the Manson Family abound in music, films, and television. Coincidentally enough, a graphic for Monday night’s Daily Show about the town hall health care meetings referenced the family with the title “Healther Skelter!” And while, of course, it’s not only natural but I would argue necessary for cultural texts to contemplate the impact that the Manson Family had upon the culture at large, such representations of the murders dehumanize followers like Van Houten. The mediation of her testimony during the initial trial and subsequent portrayals of Van Houten signify a particular kind of madness inextricably linked to Manson. Below, for example, is a clip from the 1976 TV film Helter Skelter based on the book of the same name.
Van Houten’s inability to be paroled has more to do with what she signifies as a cultural text than anything else. It’s as if what she signifies transcends her actual being. For me, this resonated with my recent re-viewing of Videodrome, a film written and directed by David Cronenberg that follows a sleazy local TV programmer played by James Woods. Here’s the trailer:
What fascinates me most about Videodrome is the way it blurs mediated experience with reality, particularly through the figure of Dr. Oblivion. The character, speculated to be modeled off of media scholar Marshall McLuhan, insists upon conducting interviews on TV on a TV, thus his is an image twice mediated. It is later revealed that Dr. Oblivion technically died months prior to the action in the story but continues to conduct interviews through a backlog of recorded videos. He lives on as mediated text in spite of lacking corporeality.
As the film progresses, James Woods’ character becomes obsessed with becoming “the new flesh.” I interpret this to be the mediated version of the self–the self that lives through mediated texts. I think of the explosion of Michael Jackson videos and products following his death, and the fact that for many in the public, his death is of no real consequence given that his records, music videos, posters, etc… remain as an extension of Michael Jackson as signifier–in other words, being mediated is the closest thing we have to eternal.
But even as someone lives, her mediated image–what that individual signifies in the public discourse–can compete with who she is today, and that’s where Leslie Van Houten comes in, given her overwhelming notoriety as a particular kind of cultural icon. Luckily for her, she’s still alive to shape her public image, but how much control she and advocates like John Waters have over that process remains to be seen.
Inspired by Alyx, queen bee blogger at Feminist Music Geek, I am posting links to two fun horror movie inspired music videos. You will notice that the granddaddy of the genre, “Thriller,” is not included in this list. I’ve done this because 1) I’ve already discussed “Thriller” in a previous post (see “Beyond Film – So You Think You Can Dance“) and 2) We’ve all seen plenty of “Thriller” since Michael Jackson’s passing, that it doesn’t seem to warrant further discussion. Instead, I’d like to look at some lesser-known examples.
First up, Stabbing Westward’s “Shame,” which I am unable to embed because the jerkoffs at BMG will not let me. Ironically, the fact that I’m not embedding the video is really their loss… but anyway, click on the picture below and it will link you to the video.
I remember this video from one of my brother’s recorded-from-TV copies of 120 Minutes–oh, the “Alternative” years, the nineties! I miss em. Anyway, I appreciate the way the video begins as this typical narrative music video with cuts between the story of the girl stalked by the psychopath and then the band playing the accompanying music. The tone is serious and the lunatic boyfriend frightening; but as the band sneaks away to watch the more interesting events of the story unfold, the mood becomes lightened with humor. The video, in essence, becomes about horror spectatorship, with the band members rooting for the female hero. It also breaks down the expectation that performance and narrative will run parallel and never the two shall meet. Stabbing Westward may not have amounted to much, but this video at least proves they had some interesting contributions to their period of popular music.
Next up: Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” which also cannot be embedded into my post because some douchie record exec wants complete control over distribution. This is really cramping my style, but again, click the picture below:
“Everlong” may be one of my favorite videos ever. It combines a terrific song with competing dream sequences. Graphic match editing transitions the narrative from waking life to nightmare. Director Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame establishes his sensibility better in this four-minute video than in the 106 minutes that comprise The Science of Sleep. And once again, as with Stabbing Westward, the video ends with a breakdown between narrative and performance; for me, the key moment is when drummer Taylor Hawkins casts off his wig. And speaking of, the video does an excellent job of satirizing gender rolls through its use of drag, hyper masculine and feminine performances, and Freudian imagery (big hand=big phallus).
If you can think of any others I’ve neglected (excluding those promotional music videos for horror soundtracks) please post a link the in comments.
Apologies for the recent lack of posts. My hubby and I vacated rural Texas for a brief visit to our old stomping grounds in Oregon. Posts will resume their normal frequency!
Because I not only took a vacation from home but also from my regular movie-viewing regimen, I’m a bit at a loss for discussion material. For this reason, I revisit Orphan, which I discussed in a previous post before its release.
Before I proceed, I have a disclaimer: I SPOIL THE MOVIE IN THIS REVIEW! I disclose a big twist, so please see the movie before you read the review if you want to be surprised. To my shock, I did not predict this turn, which is one of the reasons I would recommend this movie to fans of the genre. I would also suggest seeing Orphan because of its solid acting and directing. It manages to entertain not in spite of but because of its silliness, and I think many fans will appreciate that it takes quality seriously, the plot cheekily goes into uncharted territory.
The film stars Vera Farmiga as Kate Coleman, mother of two and wife to John (played by the attractive Peter Sarsgaard). After experiencing a traumatic stillbirth, Kate and John decide to adopt a third child. This desire takes them to an all-girls’ orphanage where they meet Esther (portrayed by Isabelle Fuhrman), a young girl from Russia with a tragic past and a talent for art. Immediately charmed, Kate and John choose Esther and initially, she fits in with the family. Gradually, troubling incidents occur that involve Esther. A snotty schoolmate, for example, falls from a playground slide and accuses Esther of pushing her. Kate becomes suspicious while her husband and therapist remain skeptical. Meanwhile, the violence escalates, and while the audience learns that Esther perpetrates it, the cast of characters continue to blame Kate, pointing to previous instances of negligence as a result of her alcoholism. Eventually, Kate gets committed, and with Mom out of the way, Esther attempts to seduce John.
At this point of the film, I am giddy. Everything seems to be playing out along the lines of the Electra complex, with Esther even altering one of Kate’s dresses for her purposes. How taboo! Then, the movie takes an even stranger turn: Kate learns that Esther is, in fact, an adult with pituitary problems and a history of psychotic mental illness. The wake of her journey from Eastern Europe to the United States is littered with the corpses of other would-be-lover-dads and the ashes of their literal and figurative homes. It’s one of those twists clever enough that you don’t see it coming and brash enough that it seems obvious in hindsight. Some will consider it too ridiculous to buy, but I found something so hilariously original about it that I didn’t feel cheated.
Still, Orphan no doubt proves problematic in a variety of ways. The character Esther draws upon some of the worst stereotypes about Eastern Europe, adopted children, and precocious girls. Most regressively, the film’s victimized family exemplifies white, middle-class privilege in spite of its dysfunction. Robin Wood‘s thesis about the politics of the American horror film apply perfectly to Orphan. Utilizing Freudian and Marxist theories, Wood suggests that the monster figure in horror films represents those figures American society oppresses: queers, women, the working class, and minorities. Hence, the progressive horror film elicits sympathy for the monster or uses the monster to critique the status quo. By contrast, a reactionary horror film, according to Wood, portrays the monster as entirely unsympathetic (i.e., non-human, evil). Esther is such a monster, and her desire for a sexual relationship conforms to Wood’s observation that the most regressive horror movies often utilize sexuality in their portrayals of monstrosity. (Read Wood’s essay here–it’s a good one)
Orphan does repress Esther since Kate successfully kills her. It also quickly alleviates any discomfort with childhood sexuality through its plot twist. The audience can leave the theater feeling safe that some order has been restored. Of course, I still enjoyed the movie and felt it struck a nice balance between camp and seriousness. It comes nowhere close to the much stronger, more ideologically complex Drag Me to Hell from earlier this summer, but it’s definitely worth your time and ticket dollars if you’re a fan of the genre.