Twin Peaks + The Wire = The Killing

23 March 2013 at 10:25 (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Praise the Netflix gods, for they have bestowed upon us the second season of AMC’s The Killing, now available on InstantView. I live in a cableless household, so I eagerly await that moment when my favorite programs release their recently finished seasons. The Killing has been on my watch list for new episodes since I wrapped up the first season about six months ago. I’m now moving through season two at a brisk pace, much like the young couple in Portlandia that voraciously consumes Battlestar Galactica to the detriment of all other obligations. The Killing has been especially addictive for me since it combines the whodunit thriller with a procedural crime drama. In short, if Twin Peaks and The Wire got together and made a baby, The Killing would be the child.

Image from Welcome to Twin Peaks.com.

The series begins with the death of Rosie Larsen, a beautiful Seattle teenager from a seemingly typical middle-class family. Detective Sarah Linden (brilliantly performed by Mireille Enos) reluctantly takes on the case despite her best efforts to sever ties with Seattle PD so that she can relocate to California to be with her fiance. The taciturn detective reluctantly partners with Stephen Holder (perhaps the strongest performance, by Joel Kinnaman), a younger detective recovering from drug addiction and willing to bend the rules to get information. The two become quickly absorbed in their investigation, which leads them to investigate the Mayoral campaign of a young city councilman as well as Rosie’s own family. These investigations slowly reveal the moral failings of all associated and hint at the various influences that may have placed Rosie in a position of vulnerability. As a result, The Killing undermines the myth of the American dream by presenting it as facade.

Of course, I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the Scandinavian roots of the series. The American version derives from Forbrydelsen, a Danish series that by all accounts follows a very similar plot-line as the American version. One of the series cast members, Michelle Forbes, noted that this geneaology complicates the comparisons I’ve made, stating, “I don’t know how ‘Twin Peaks’ goes by way of Denmark 20 years later and comes back to AMC,” yet even Forbes says that “the similarities are fairly intense” (see the entire interview here). Promos for both shows highlight the similarities:

Notice that both shows investigate the death of an attractive, middle-class teenage girl. Both shows’ detectives investigate all aspects of the community in which that girl lived. In both cases, detectives find that their victims’ lives may not have been as wholesome as they thought. Laura Palmer and Rosie Larsen both associate with individuals who deal drugs, pimp prostitutes, and facilitate gambling. Even geographically, Twin Peaks and The Killing share the same setting in common, with both stories located in the Pacific Northwest, though granted, The Killing‘s urban focus differs drastically from Twin Peaks’ folksy rural town of the same name.

That’s where The Wire‘s DNA becomes a factor. Like that crime drama, The Killing explores the connections between city bureaucracies as does The Wire, which meticulously presents the investigation of Baltimore drug gangs by a special investigative unit. We also see corruption in government that rivals the criminal elements also presented in the show. Season 3 of The Wire in particular parallels The Killing by incorporating character Tommy Carcetti into the show’s narrative. Carcetti, like city councilman Darren Richmond in The Killing, is the quintessential charismatic young politician trying to climb the ladder in city politics. Both struggle to negotiate between their ideals and their desire for political success. At the same time that each shows’ investigations reveal the seedy underbelly of the American dream, the shows’ political subplots similarly suggest that the American political system has a dark side too.

Mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond, flanked by his two closest political aids in The Killing. Image from Fanpop.com.

City Councilman Tommy Carcetti in The Wire. Image from Soundpolitics.com.

Of course, The Killing has just as many differences as similarities with Twin Peaks and The Wire. Its serious tone and realist aesthetic dramatically contrast the humorously melodramatic Twin Peaks, while it’s plot-driven narrative full of twists and turns feels convoluted in comparison to the slow unfolding that happens in each season of The Wire. Furthermore, The Killing presents some of its characters as unredeemable villains, differing drastically from The Wire’s humanistic approach to morality. I was especially appalled with the way The Killing presents a group of powerful leaders at an Indian Casino as a veritable gang of thugs intent on manipulating officials by insisting on their sovereignty.

But these very differences reinforce my point: The Killing combines the elements of an urban crime drama with a family melodrama and a political thriller to produce a narrative all its own. Within the American context, the resulting narrative operates as a critique of American ideals, exposing the lies that undergird them through the death of one girl.

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Persona and Place in Searching for Sugar Man

17 March 2013 at 17:32 (Uncategorized) (, )

You may already have heard hype about Searching for Sugar Man, the winner of this year’s best feature-length documentary award.  The film follows several South African fans of the seventies American folk singer, Rodriguez, as they uncover the story of this largely unrecognized talent.  But the film doesn’t just explore the story of this amazing artist; it also demonstrates the ways in which an artist’s persona can align with a sense of place through its investigative format, formal elements, and the music of Rodriguez itself.

Promo for the film. Image taken from LondonFilmFanatiq.com.

As the film’s title suggests, Sugar Man portrays a search for the location of Rodriguez.  In the process, the film initially presents a sad story of a failed artist.  Rodriguez released just two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Neither album sold well in the United States, but Rodriguez’s work found an audience in apartheid-era South Africa.  The film portrays the ways in which the political economy of seventies South Africa enabled Rodriguez’s popularity there without the artist’s knowledge of his own success.  We see the repressive regimes of the conservative National Party, which censored Rodriquez’s work, making it all the more attractive to youth of that era.  The film suggests that young, white South Africans found inspiration in Rodriguez’s work, prompting some to even protest the abhorrent apartheid policies of the era.

In this section of the film, we see how Rodriguez’s work becomes connected with this era for this group of fans.  The filmmakers reinforce this connection with beautiful shots of South African scenery whilst playing tracks from the Rodriguez catalog.  We also hear the recollections of the fans, who describe their experiences of listening to this music and all of its associations with their experience growing up at that particular time and place.  We get nostalgic home videos, news reports of protests, and stills of that period.  In short, we see how fans connect the music they listen to with the time and place in which they listened to it.

The story doesn’t end there, though.  The filmmakers ultimately locate the artist, revealing that Rodriguez still resides in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, where he lives humbly and works as a manual laborer.  Here, as in the introductory sections of the film where we learn about Rodriguez, the artist becomes a proxy for the city of Detroit–working class, humble, and yet imbued with a rich artistic history.  The trailer below demonstrates these connections between time, place, and persona quite nicely:

But like Detroit, which news outlets and politicians frequently eulogize, Rodriguez persists, defying the myth of his gruesome public suicide.  Rather than the embittered, shell of a man that so many would-be rock stars become when they fail to find a mainstream audience, Rodriguez appears to be a fully-actualized person.  He seems comfortable with his position in life, taking pride in his work, both artistic and manual.  Along these lines, Rodriguez’s daughters poignantly describe their upbringing, depicting a man of dignity who advocated for what he believed despite failing to achieve socially-recognized success.  So while Sugar Man revels in the spectacle of Rodriguez’s first visit to South Africa with sold out stadium-sized crowds and classic acts of fan adoration (throwing bras on stage, seeking autographs, lighting up at the mere sight of the artist), Rodriguez’s zen-like calm and embrace of each moment’s pleasures sets him apart as a subject for a rock documentary.

In the process of viewing this amazing film, I too felt a connection with these beautiful songs and the artist who created them.  That weekend, I was coping with some disappointing news and feeling frustrated about life.  Rodriguez’s story put my situation into perspective and inspired me to focus on being true to myself rather than dwelling on the setback.  So now, Rodriguez’s music will forever be linked to this time and place in my life, especially this song, “Crucify Your Mind.”

It may be Rodriguez’s ability to connect with his audience in this way that enables him to so easily become the soundtrack for places as far flung as South Africa while at the same time representing the Motor City in both sound, lyrics, and personal history.  Searching for Sugar Man, then, ends up demonstrating how great art manages to be both quintessentially of its time and place while at the same time transcendent.

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Mothering, Psychopathy, and We Need to Talk About Kevin

10 March 2013 at 12:54 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

Of all the films I watched last year, We Need to Talk About Kevin proved to be my favorite in the horror genre. Some might challenge that label: the director, Lynne Ramsey, never helmed a slasher flick or monster movie, but instead displayed a unique aesthetic with her debut film, Ratcatcher, which portrays a young Scottish boy, striving to escape his gritty existence in 1970’s urban Glasgow (see my overview of the film here). Nevertheless, both Ratcatcher and Ramsey’s second feature-length, Morvern Callar, both deal in dark themes of death and existential crisis, despite their “art house” credentials, with both films’ primary protagonists’ coping with a violent death through most of (if not the entire) film.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, deals with death of a different sort. Whereas Morvern Callar starts with the aftermath of the title character’s boyfriend’s suicide, and Ratcatcher’s James struggles to process the accidental drowning of a young friend, Kevin focuses upon Eva Katchadourian (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton), a formerly vibrant travel writer reduced to a hollow shell of her former self. Through a series of situations in the present and flashbacks to the past, we learn that Eva’s son, Kevin of the title, committed a terrible act that continues to haunt her in the present.

We learn that Kevin challenged Eva as a mother from the very beginning. As a baby, Kevin seems to cry uncontrollably in her presence alone:

As he grows older, his hostility becomes more overt: he resists toilet training, glaring at Eva with great intensity while intentionally defecating just after being changed. In this particular incident, Eva loses it, handling Kevin roughly and accidentally breaking his arm. Kevin uses the incident to manipulate Eva, reminding her about the injury when she initially refuses to take him to a toy store. Eva relents, knowing Kevin could easily tell his father about the real cause of his broken arm (he lied to to his dad about the incident, presumably to gain leverage over his mother). We then see Kevin in his teens, continuing the same pattern of defiance.

Kevin could be a case study in violent psychopathy. Just prior to seeing Kevin, I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which humorously details the history of psychopathy as a diagnosis. Individuals suffering from psychopathy fail to feel any sense of empathy or genuine emotional connection, even with their closest relatives. Instead, a psychopath sees such relationships in opportunistic terms, manipulating those around him for his own gain. Nevertheless, psychopaths often exhibit a kind of magnetic charisma that can be mesmerizing to those who are unaware of the duplicitous nature of the act (see also Martha Stout‘s The Sociopath Next Door). Throughout Kevin, the title character illustrates these characteristics, simultaneous charming his father while at the same time playing games with his mother.

All the while, Ramsey and Director of Photography, Seamus McGarvey, shoot the film beautifully. From the very first shot of Eva at La Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain, red dominates the mise en scene. The Blog Fishmuffins of Doom nicely summarizes Kevin and illustrates the use of red in this nice series of screenshots:

Red in We Need to Talk About Kevin

As these stills show, the film uses red in a variety of contexts. Red literally covers Eva as she revels in the experience of a tomato fight in the film’s first shot. It’s also the color of the paint that Kevin splatters all over her map-papered office walls. In short, red represents Eva’s passions as much as Kevin’s resentment of those desires. It also casts a haunting glow over the film’s present, in which Eva copes with the aftermath of her son’s violence. Red, then, is the color of guilt.

This guilt makes Kevin so compelling as a portrayal of mothering a psychopath. The film shows Eva at every turn struggling with choices that many professional-class mothers must make: whether to continue a career or forego it, whether to live a metropolitan life or go suburban, whether to have an additional child or focus on the one you have. At each turn, Eva makes the conventional choice in spite of her own desires, but still faces her son’s ire. At every turn, Kevin plays upon Eva’s guilt to evade punishment for his own bad behavior. Eva alone recognizes her son’s true nature, but fails to take action because she feels responsible for it.

Kevin, then, is less about the horror of Kevin’s final violent act and more about the burdens placed on mothers in contemporary society. Kevin’s psychopathy merely brings these tensions to light more dramatically than a typical family drama, but in doing so defies the tendency to easily resolve such conflicts.

In this way, the filmmakers of Kevin use the generic elements of horror along with sophisticated cinematography and fine performances to portray the complexity of mother-child relationships in contemporary, middle-class households, to devastating effect.

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Neo-Revenge in Two Styles

25 June 2011 at 15:16 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Spoilers abound***

The revenge narrative structure remains a stalwart of the horror genre despite being one of cinema’s oldest formulas. Well before seventies exploitation films made the rape/revenge formula a sleazy regular of grindhouse cinema, vigilantes populated Westerns and even the great “art house” director, Ingmar Bergman, directed the gorgeously devastating The Virgin Spring that inspired more traditionally generic fare such as The Last House on the Left.

Nevertheless, filmmakers continue to rework the revenge formula for new audiences. Revenge remakes have enjoyed a revival of sorts (see my speculation on one such effort), but new stories have emerged as well. Two recent screenings I attended reminded me of how divergent the uses of revenge can be despite the simple formula. The films, Hobo with a Shotgun and Red White and Blue, both use the revenge formula for a contemporary audience but in drastically divergent ways.

Image take from Wired.com

The more conventional of the two, Hobo with a Shotgun casts the legendary (I don’t banty the term about lightly) Rutger Hauer in the titular role of a homeless man just trying to survive peacefully in a nightmarish urban Nova Scotia landscape. After witnessing the cartoonish cruelty of the city’s thugs, however, he takes up arms against criminal elements. Watch the red band trailer below:

The trailer highlights the stylistic flourishes of the film, harkening back to an eighties action film aesthetic of urban lawlessness (think Robocop or Cobra). The film, in other words, exemplifies pastiche much like related efforts Death Proof, Planet Terror, and Machete. Hobo began, after all, as a trailer for a contest associated with the release of Grindhouse before becoming a full-length feature as did Machete. The results are predictably gratuitous and campy, and while it may have fallen slightly short of my high expectations, it delivered on its promise gory action sequences and hilariously stilted dialog.

Red White and Blue differs dramatically from Hobo in both its aims and execution. The film follows a group of characters all residing in Austin, Texas, beginning with the detached and promiscuous Erica (Amanda Fuller). Despite her reckless sexual exploits, she attracts the attention of the pensive Nate, (Noah Taylor in an impressive turn), whose vague military career and stories of childhood hint at psychopathology. Despite their flaws, the two reluctantly form a bond, violently shattered by the entrance of Franki (Marc Senter), a musician whose tryst with Erica proves life-changing.

What differentiates Red White and Blue from so many other revenge narratives is the way in which complex grievances and motivations entangle the characters. The downward spiral begins when Franki discovers that he contracted HIV after engaging in unprotected sex with Erica. While the implications for his own life prove devastating enough, the impact multiplies since Franki donated blood to his mother who suffers from cancer. Franki and his friends then kidnap Erica. Upon confronting her, Erica admits to the knowledge of her own HIV positive status to Franki, both downplaying the significance of the disease and explaining her behavior in terms of her own sexual trauma. It could be Erica’s vulnerability in this scene that leads to a strange kind of violation: Franki, in a supposed effort to make amends, rapes Erica before proposing to her. (Note: Some viewers might not interpret this scene as rape since Erica hardly resists, but Fuller’s performance clearly conveys a lack of consent; it is a disturbing scene because the violence is as much emotional as it is physical.) After Erica attempts to escape, Franki fatally stabs her, dismembering and stowing away the body with the help of his friends. Soon thereafter, Nate tracks down and brutally attacks, interrogates, and tortures Franki and his accomplices. These scenes of calculated violence reveal the monstrous interior hiding beneath Nate’s tranquil exterior, making it difficult to root for Nate as avenger.

Image take from Impawards.com

Ultimately, then, Red White and Blue refuses to give its audience a character to root for but makes each of its principal players multifaceted and sympathetic (to varying degrees). Hobo with a Shotgun, by contrast, simplifies the intentions of its characters: the hobo along with his sidekick hooker with a heart of gold represent marginalized goodness while crime boss, The Drake, and his spoiled sadistic sons embody evil fueled by unchecked greed. While I found Hobo far more satisfying as a spectacle, Red White and Blue challenged me in its conception of revenge and, in the process, critiqued our culture’s simplistic notions of justice. Red White and Blue showed that the myth of the vigilante portrayed in Hobo may be comforting, but rarely does it translate to life beyond the screen.

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Carnivàle as a case of bad timing

21 May 2011 at 11:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

My husband’s been diligently watching the now defunct HBO series, Carnivàle, for several months now, and while initially a bit skeptical I’ve gradually grown fond of the show.

The series (which lasted a mere two seasons) traces two parallel stories: one about a traveling troupe of carnival workers (the most prominently featured include a tarot reader played by Clea Duvall, a worker with mystical healing powers played by Nick Stahl, and a cootch dancer played by Carla Gallo) and an evangelical minister named Brother Justin (Clancy Brown). Over the course of the series, these seemingly disparate story lines converge. We learn that Ben must confront the minister who, despite his popular image as a pious preacher, contains a deep-ceded evil (see promos for both seasons below).

I am late in coming to the Carnivàle bandwagon. I remember that while in grad school, I attended a panel at the first-ever Flow Conference featuring two organizers from the Save Carnivàle movement. These passionate fans petitioned against HBO’s decision in 2005 to cancel the show and continue to do so. Six years later, I’m beginning to understand their point.

But part of the reason I am enjoying the show has to do with its relevance to the current recessionary economy. The touring members of Carnivàle struggle to persist in an America hobbled by the Great Depression. Their impoverished audiences take in these amusements to distract themselves from the destitution of the everyday. Meanwhile, Brother Justin’s followers suffer from the same need for diversion, seeking a divine explanation for their troubles. In the series’ last episode, when the co-manager of Carnivàle, Samson (Michael J Anderson), and Brother Justin meet, Samson points out the similarities between what they do: both are performers stirring their despairing audience’s emotions, though to different ends and in different ways.

But while Carnivàle must move from city-to-city as a slow-moving caravan, the minister harnesses the power of radio to disseminate his populist message. Brother Justin’s fiery sermons combine theology and politics to tap into the fears of the era. Here’s a clip featuring one of these speeches:

The scene highlights the importance of mass media in summoning followers to Brother Justin’s ministry. In other words, Brother Justin’s power results from the technological innovations of modernity and, in effect, the series critiques modernity itself by imbuing these technologies with an evil power.

The famous historical figure, Catholic priest Father Coughlin, similarly utilized mass media to draw followers to his controversial message. This newsreel describes Coughlin’s impact on the national discourse:

Right now, we’re living in an age of so many Father Coughlins that I don’t even feel it’s necessary to name the television network and its particular personalities that emulate his approach. Needless to say, the conservative pundits of today paint Barack Obama with the same brush that Coughlin and Brother Justin use to tar FDR.

I cannot help but wonder, then, if Carnivàle would have resonated more had it been released about a half a decade later in the midst of the Great Recession. As with Brother Justin, today’s religious zealots assert that the Apocalypse is upon us (tonight at 6:00 PM, to be exact). In a recent New York Times article about this prediction, Courtney Campbell, an Oregon State University professor of religion and culture, remarks “Ultimately we’re looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural, upheaval.” Carnivàle presents a similar historic moment and a shaken populace looking for the same sorts of answers. Sadly, the show arrived too soon, but we can still appropriate it to reflect upon today’s uncertainties.

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Meek’s Cutoff, Jon Raymond, and “gentrification” olde West style

15 May 2011 at 20:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I saw Meek’s Cutoff a few weeks ago with my buddy, Tara, and the film far exceeded my expectations. While many critics praised the film, several reviews included caveats about slow pacing and failed potential given the brilliance of director Kelly Reichardt’s previous efforts, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Such undercutting comments calibrated my expectations sufficiently that I found the film neither dull nor deficient in comparison to the director’s previous works.

But another factor, I believe, enhanced my appreciation of the film. At the time of the screening, I had worked through most of Livability: Short Stories by the film’s screenwriter, Jon Raymond. In the past month or so, Jon Raymond’s name continually popped up in the arts section of The Oregonian. Raymond resides in Portland, Oregon, and locals love stories about the successes of their own. Those recent successes include Raymond’s collaboration with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt’s previous films resulted from adaptations of Raymond’s stories in Livability) as well as his work with another Portland filmmaker, Todd Haynes, on the teleplay for the Mildred Pierce miniseries that recently aired on HBO. The press on Raymond often mentioned the award-winning Livability, inspiring me to check out a copy from the Multnomah County Library.

Now, I’ll have to admit, reading the book was a classic act of Portlander narcissism: I wanted to see my city interpreted artistically. There’s always something thrilling about that moment of recognition–I know that place; I’ve been there. I was particularly pleased that “Train Choir” (the story upon which Wendy and Lucy is based) took place in North Portland where I went to school for four years. That sound of train whistles that haunts the story’s protagonist also resonated through my dorm room. The Walgreen’s in the story is blocks from the first house I rented, and the lampshade store on Lombard is an oddity I always noticed. This story, as with every piece in Livability, is as much about Portland’s landscape as the characters that occupy it.

The cover of "Livability" highlights the importance of setting in Raymond's work. Image from SFGate.com.

But Raymond’s descriptions of Portland always undercut the romanticism that many residents (myself included) feel about this place. In one of my favorite stories, “Benny,” Raymond addresses how gentrification has transformed many of the city’s neighborhoods. A fantastic series of recent articles in The Oregonian demonstrates that in the past ten years (since about the time I first moved here) Portland’s inner city has become dramatically whiter and more affluent even as the larger metro area grows more diverse. I was reminded of this trend while reading “Young Bodies,” a story about a teenage child of Russian immigrants who commutes from her family’s home at the outer edges of the city to work in the mall adjacent to my central neighborhood (yes, I’m certainly implicated in this trend). While conservatives might chalk such trends up to the invisible hand of the market, The Oregonian articles show that government policies benefit some to the detriment of others, and Portland failed to gear those policies toward the communities of color long established in these urban neighborhoods targeted for development.

With all of this in the back of my mind, I watched Meek’s Cutoff with great fascination. The film follows a group of pioneers trekking along the Oregon Trail in 1854. Led by guide Stephen Meek the party gets lost in the desert with a limited supply of water. In the midst of their distress, they come across an Indian (I use this problmeatic term here intentionally) and capture him. Meek argues that killing him would be the safest course of action while the rest of the men in the party debate the merits of this plan. They decide to keep the Indian alive in hopes that he might guide them toward a source of water. One of the pioneer women clearly at odds with Meek, Emily (played brilliantly by Michelle Williams), goes so far as to threaten the guide with a shotgun to prevent him from killing the Indian (see poster below). The Indian’s intentions, however, are difficult to decipher, and to describe exactly how these dynamics play out would be to undercut the power of the film’s conclusion.

Maybe my favorite film poster of the year. Image from Collider.com.

What struck me as I watched Meek’s Cutoff was the ways in which the themes of Livability recurred in the narrative. As with “Train Choir” and “Benny,” the setting plays as much of a role in the story as the characters. The dry, remote landscape, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, feels at once vast and enclosed, like it could go on forever and is hence inescapable. Tara pointed out that the camera angles often create a claustrophobic affect. The viewer, like the settlers, feels an anxiety about what might be over the next hill.

Also as in Raymond’s stories, the story vividly depicts the mundane activities of daily life. Scenes detail the labor involved in pioneer living, such as washing laundry, mending clothing, cooking, and knitting. These scenes show that pioneer women in particular played an important function in the labor of immigration, despite their subservient role in decision making processes. The camera places us in a similarly disempowered position, filming the conferences of the men from a distance and muffling their dialog accordingly. Critics point to such scenes as evidence of the film’s feminist intentions.

The women of "Meek's Cutoff" look on from a distance as the men decide the group's fate. Image from trailershut.com

But the film also operates as post-colonial allegory with the pioneers not so unlike the urban gentrifiers of Raymond’s more contemporary stories. Their presence signals the transformation of the landscape that decimated and displaced tribes across the West. It would be a false equivocation to say that this is the same is the current patterns of gentrification (it’s clearly not), but gentrification and colonization both involve a dominant group claiming a space as their own to the detriment of previous occupants. In this respect, Meek’s Cutoff aligns nicely with Livability and it’s depictions of the evolution of Portland. The current whitening of the city center may not be history repeating, but most definitely it’s rhyming.

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Psycho and the Symphony

31 October 2010 at 22:40 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. In that entry, I argued that Hermann’s scores dramatically impact the films they accompany to the extent that we should question the status of auteur imparted upon these films’ famous directors.

One of the films I discussed at length was Psycho, whose director I need not mention by name. Of all the films Herrmann scored, Psycho represents his most memorable contribution, if slightly less brilliant than his haunting composition for Taxi Driver. It was with great pleasure, then, that I attended a screening of Psycho tonight at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, with the Oregon Symphony performing the score live. The screening offered a rare opportunity for the audience by mixing of live performance with the moving image, and I am so glad that I took advantage.

For one, it made me think about what it must have been like for movie audiences over a hundred years ago when musicians regularly performed the music for otherwise silent films. The liveness of the music contrasts the fixity of the film, reminding us of that film must be produced–musicians must sit in a room for hours on end, rehearsing the sheet music before them, and then record it, hitting their cues and maintaining the tempo. The score, which so often seems invisible, becomes visible through live performance.

Seeing Psycho with the score performed live was a little like the penultimate shot from the film. Image taken from San Francisco Sentinel.

Beyond the novelty of seeing the score performed live, it was also a pleasure to see the film in a public setting. I’ve seen Psycho so many times, but never in a room full of strangers. It was fascinating to note how often we laughed at lines of dialog that seemed dated as well as those intended to be funny (“Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers!”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience members cried out and screamed not during the famed shower scene but over the second killing of the private investigator, Arbogast. My theory: that audience members are primed for the shower kill and, knowing less about it, get taken by surprise during that second kill. The final scenes, though, didn’t seem to terrify anyone–the big reveal of the corpse mother was met with laughter as was Norman in drag.

All of this is to say that experiences such as the one offered tonight by the Oregon Symphony remind us to continually look at film classics from a different angle. Just when you think you know a film front-to-back, you see it again and realize you missed something the first hundred times you saw it.

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Sympathy for the Devil

12 September 2010 at 23:42 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Sitting in the multiplex several weeks ago, I experienced a crowd reaction to a trailer that confirmed my long-held suspicion: M. Night Shmaylan is a public relations liability, and his involvement in any project would be best kept secret. Case in point, as we waited for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to start, a trailer for Devil played. Here it is:

The audience sat silent until the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” spread across the screen. Suddenly, the packed house erupted into a mixture of laughter, gaffaws, and boos. A nerdy middle-aged man in front of me uttered something to the effect of, “He needs to go away.” The attempt to use Shyamalan’s name to market the film clearly fell flat with this crowd.

Like the rest of the audience, I’m a Shyamalan skeptic. I loved The Sixth Sense and found Unbreakable, while less satisfying, thoughtful and stylish enough to get me on board. Despite it’s critical success, Signs became the turning point in my fandom for the writer/director. Like his previous projects, Signs attempted to replicate that Spielberg magic of science fiction nerdiness and wholesome sentimentality. The end-result was a heavy handed film that neither surprised me with it’s goofy twist (“Swing away”!) nor entertained me with it’s attempts at humor from the wooden lead, Mel Gibson:

I felt I’d been manipulated and cheated, and immediately decided that Shyamalan’s schtick had worn thin. I have since ignored his films, and from what I hear, I haven’t missed much: The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening received successively worse reviews from critics and viewers alike. Over-exposure and under-delivery have undermined the hype surrounding Shyamalan’s work, so it’s difficult to imagine what the marketing department was thinking when they plastered his name on the promos for the otherwise flawlessly promoted Devil.

Marketing materials for Devil repeatedly make reference to M. Night Shyamalan's involvement in the project. Image taken from FilmDrunk.

What’s surprised me is that in spite of my reservations about Shyamalan’s previous films, I’m actually very curious about Devil. The minimalist concept (five people trapped in an elevator, the devil among them) appeals to me, and while the whole thing could easily run afoul, the potential for a terrific thriller is there. It’s also worth noting that while the trailer plays up the Shyamalan association, his role in the production is vaguely defined with a “story by” credit. In other words, it’s hard to gauge Shyamalan’s level of involvement, given that the screenwriter (Brian Nelson) and directors (Drew and John Erick Dowdle) likely took liberties with whatever idea Shyamalan ostensibly conceived (not to mention the many other filmmakers participating in the project).

In short, I’m willing to give this thing a chance with the hope that Shyamalan’s fingerprints have been wiped clean from the finished product. Then again, maybe the last thing we need is a Shyamalan success to reboot the hype machine.

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Bedbug Bites

27 August 2010 at 17:56 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Bedbugs might be a bit of a strange topic for a blog of this sort, but the media craziness surrounding these annoying insects begs for some commentary from this horror fan. First, some context: if you happen to watch the news on TV or pick up a daily paper, you’re bound to come across one of the many stories about the massive infestation of bedbugs. I’ve seen these in everything from the big-gun local paper to the alternative weekly to the New York Times. The media frenzy has gotten so out of hand that Jon Stewart weighed in on the Daily Show:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The media deserves the mockery that Stewart dishes out here. Bedbugs, though annoying, do not spread disease or cause you any grave harm. Like a mosquito, they suck out a little blood, creating itchy little welts that will eventually disappear. Still, the idea of something crawling in your bed is psychologically powerful and catches the eye when evoked in a headline.

Of course, there are other ways to think of insects, and Stewart’s inclusion of clips from Green Porno, a short video series conceived of by actress Isabella Rossellini, reimagine the insects in slightly different terms. Each entry in the series highlights the reproductive process of a different insect, illustrated by Rossellini herself in outrageous costumes. I especially appreciate the ways in which Green Porno raises questions about gender, nature, and the relationship between violence and sexuality. While the subjects of the videos may be insects, Rossellini’s anthropomorphizing of the insects suggests some connection exists between these creatures and us. Here’s another of those hilarious videos:

Psychologist Kevin Ocshner spoke about Rossellini’s video about bedbugs in relation to the media buzz, stating that he felt the video commented on the overblown nature of our fears by exaggerating the size of bedbugs (Click here to listen to the piece from NPR’s Talk of the Nation). Ocshner also discussed how the brain works when we imagine these bugs. Specifically, he says that the same parts of the brain that respond to actual threats, like a real bug in your bed, also become activated by strong thoughts of them. He connects this neurological quirk to the sensations we might get reading a thriller or watching a scary movie.

The power of insects (and other creepy crawlers) to trigger these fears might be one of the reasons that the surrealists used insects so often in their work. Below, a narrator explains Luis Bunuel’s likes and dislikes, and bugs come up several times (relevant portion ends at 3:17):

The prominence of insects is a trademark of Buneul’s films. In Un Chien Andalou alone, bugs form the basis of some of the most powerful compositions in the film, particularly this still of ants streaming out of a wounded hand:

In Bunuel's famous collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou, insects appear frequently in unnerving images such as this one. Image taken from factoidz.com.

But while the surrealists engage the fear of bugs subtly, the contemporary horror film has exploited it for a more blunt effect. One obvious example would be Slither, a film I’ve yet to see but has always intrigued me with its campy critique of monogamy. Watch the trailer below and you’ll see what I mean:

Slither isn’t alone, of course: The Fly (both the original and remake), Arachnophobia, Mimic, all tap into the same fear of bugs currently being exploited by the news media. While the increasing numbers of bedbugs might be truer than the fictional representations just mentioned, the hysterical response seems based more on fiction than reality.

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Sucking It Up: Vampires Suck vs. My Sucky Teen Romance

15 August 2010 at 00:39 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

***Quick thanks to Kristen over at Act Your Age for cluing me in on Hagins’ latest project.***

After a wave of successful vampire books, films, and TV series, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see spoof versions of these texts coming down the pike. Most prominently, Vampires Suck has been heavily promoted with spots on TV. Here’s the trailer:

It’s also probably no shock that I’m not itching to see this one. As the Vampires Suck trailer demonstrates, the spoof genre has gone from a hilarious and even at times legitimately subversive form of social critique (a la Blazing Saddles) to a hodge podge of cultural references (Lady Gaga, Black-Eyed Peas, Jersey Shore), body humor, and over-the-top antics.

This already stale genre has become even more trite in the age of the internet. As Felix Vasquez of Cinema Crazed points out in his review of Vampires Suck, comedic parodies of the Twilight series already pervade blogs, YouTube, and comedy sites like Funny Or Die. Here are a few samples:

By all appearances, Vampires Suck fails to really say anything new or substantial about the vampire phenomenon, which is to be expected since the same crew brought us such slap-sticky schlock as the Scary Movie series, Epic Movie, Date Movie, and Meet the Spartans. Like those offerings, this film merely cashes in on viewer exasperation with current trends in the media. It also critiques fandom in a very gendered way: teenage girls wearing “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” shirts duke it out with shovels–didn’t see that one coming! Such scenes, of course, play upon problematic stereotypes about the veracity of girls’ fandom.

I am far more interested to see how young filmmaker Emily Hagins tackles the trend in her upcoming film, My Sucky Teen Romance. Austin native Hagins filmed Pathogen, a full-length feature zombie film, releasing it in 2006 at the age of fourteen. Her efforts making the film became the subject of the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie, raising Hagins’ profile in the Austin film scene and beyond. Below is the trailer for her film and for the documentary.

Hagins’ approach to the teen vampire craze differs dramatically from Vampires Suck. Instead of tweeking the Twilight premise, Hagins’ film takes place at a sci-fi convention. In that setting, actual vampires infiltrate the convention by hiding in plain sight amongst fans costumed as their favorite Twilight characters. As quoted by Slash Film, Hagins says:

“I want the characters to be real geeks– they know about Twilight and the teen vampire phenomenon. But these vampires are the real deal, and more than everyday teenagers can take on. The comedy comes from the awkwardness of regular kids dealing with monsters who have been over-romanticized in recent pop culture . . . This is a teen comedy written, directed, and acted by teenagers. It is a unique opportunity to capture the genuine teen experience.”

A still from My Sucky Teen Romance. Image taken from Slash Film.com.

Of course, it’s impossible to “capture the genuine teen experience,” but having an actual teenager writing and directing such a project gets you pretty darn close. What I’m more interested to see is how Hagins negotiates issues related to fandom. On the one hand, the description of the film seems to suggest a critique of “over-romanticized” vampires and their fans; on the other hand, Hagins uses these geeks as protagonists who fend off the monsters that they idolize in fictitious form. This seems like a more even-handed approach than Vampires Suck by allowing for a parody of fandom without dismissing it entirely. Such an inventive premise proves that Hagins is clever beyond her years, or at least beyond those who wrote Vampires Suck (admittedly, not a tall order).

To wrap things up, here’s the short promo for Hagins’ film:

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