Currents: The Inexorable Pull of Carnival of Souls (1962)

We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mutability

It’s a natural enough impulse. You’re riding along a mostly open freeway, the kind of road across our Great American Matrix that’s not quite desolate but not yet enveloped by exurban sprawl either. Maybe you’re by yourself or your roadmate is dozing off or you’re in the passenger seat, but whatever the case, your attention drifts to the roadside and you see an abandoned structure. A burnt out farmhouse or collapsed silo, a derelict old factory, a sun-faded sign beside an empty lot, any number of skeletons bleaching in a veritable desert of human contact, long forgotten monuments to development, progress, growth. And your mind wanders. What happened there? Then the more insidious, intrusive thought: what’s happening there now?

This impulse, as John Clifford tells it, is precisely what gave director Herk Harvey the idea for a movie that features a ghoulish danse macabre in the bones of the Saltair pavilion, a sort of grand old boardwalk-style music hall and amusement park rotting away on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Harvey himself explains that the Saltair’s siren song was too much to resist when he saw it on a drive back from California to Kansas, as he pulled off the highway and up to the building to stare and wonder and plot. The dance became the central set piece of a singular, ethereal story about a girl drawn to the building in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Clifford’s script would fill in the rest of that story for the now vaunted cult classic Carnival of Souls (1962). This production tale is, to me, critical to understanding the incredibly haunting power of the movie. As if in a trance, Harvey and Clifford assembled their film more or less in a matter of six weeks (three weeks writing, three weeks filming) at a cost of $30,000. The proceeding output from both writer and director really adds to the legend of Souls as a product of shared, sustained hypnosis, in that neither would make another feature. Coworkers at the Centron Corporation, a firm that pumped out educational and technical films from 1947 to about 1990, the two would go right back to documentary short production in Lawrence, KS for the rest of their careers (a few subsequent stops and starts on other projects aside). Their brilliant one-off effort positions them as something like the Harper Lees of horror, making one thing and making it count, and represents another of those magical moments in cinema history when everything comes together in just the right way.

Fittingly the film’s ephemeral, allusive brilliance is shored up by its obsessions with fluidity, transience, liminality. It is at once a film with a “sense of place” and one that exists no place at all; a film made to be watched at midnight, when all the world is in transit. The story begins with two groups of rowdy, drag-racing teens (one all boys, the other all girls), raising small-town heck from downtown intersection to country road to narrow wooden bridge. Fates are sealed on this bridge, as the girls’ car cracks through the guard rail and tumbles into the silty river below, its inhabitants presumed dead. As local authorities and lookers-on dredge for the car, a lone survivor emerges, clawing her way out of the muck and onto the riverbed. Through some miracle or other, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is alive. For whatever reason I was particularly enchanted by a low angle pan on a group marching wordlessly in single file across the bridge and pointing down at the camera filming from Mary’s point of view. Maybe it’s the expressionistic clarity of angles and layers coming through in DP Maurice Prather’s crisp black-and-white cinematography, or the absurdity of these gawkers bearing down on us from on high, but the composition stuck with me.

The other striking thing about the opening few minutes of the film is its memorable title sequence, designed by Dan Fitzgerald (another one and done craftsman, with no other film credits to his name). The title itself undulates and curves with the flow of the river over which it appears. Then, the remaining credits are all sharp weird angles, jutting out and following the patterns of tree branches and sandbanks that disrupt the flow of the water. The result is something more than just a clever use of the visual material at hand, as this sequence helps to foreground the fact that Mary is being pushed along through circumstances over which she does not have much control. Call it the River Styx or the endless flow of time or another instance of nature triumphing over the folly of man, but whatever the case this body of water is a border whose crossing sets off a harrowing journey into a spirit realm that lingers just in the periphery throughout the film.

We jump to watching Mary practice on an enormous organ in a repair warehouse and learn that some time has passed since the accident. She will be leaving town at once for a job as a church organist, a trip that sets her on her fated rendezvous with the Saltair carnival. Organ music is a character unto itself throughout the film, with a score from composer Gene Moore that dominates its aural landscape. It is one of many things that won’t leave my brain as I write this post, another of course being The Man himself (a chilling turn by director Harvey), a pale ghoul who first appears during Mary’s drive out to Utah then stalks her for the duration of the film. A precursor to Romero’s zombies and Lynch’s Mystery Man, the terror of his presence lies (aside from its pervasive ubiquity) in the way he serves as a constant, silent memento mori. Mary just barely escaped with her life after all, and we’re not even really sure how she pulled it off. Harvey cites the art films of Bergman and Cocteau as inspiration for the film’s tone, and it’s easy to see the former’s Death from The Seventh Seal (1957) as an analog to The Man in both function and form. Visually there is also a touch of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and the German Expressionists have been identified as another clear influence on Souls (sometimes to its detriment). A poster for a British release of the film deems it “a story so unusual – it will burn itself into your mind!” The truth in this advertising is owed to many components, but The Man’s persistent lurking just about steals the show. The quick zoom on Harvey standing in the middle of the highway surrounded by inkblack night as Mary illuminates him with her headlights is a good example of the instantly memorable images sprinkled throughout this film. Many such whip zooms appear elsewhere, heightening the disoriented frenzy as Mary’s grip on reality falls aways and her crisis worsens. Nearly every set piece feels like a half-remembered night terror.

After settling into her new life, Mary comes apart. Her home is constantly invaded by slimy neighboring tenant Mr. Linden (Sidney Berger), who is honestly a less welcome presence than the actual ghouls (Ebert expertly describes him as “a definitive study of a nerd in lust,” as only Ebert can). Linden’s advances are at times tolerated by Mary, at others spurned, establishing an awkward coldness that heightens the surreal, unnatural tension. In one of her cheerier moods, Mary establishes the boundaries of her uneven existence. “It’s funny,” she says to Mr. Linden, “the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” Hilligoss plays Mary with such expert stiltedness, recalling another Lynchian parallel in Naomi Watts’s Betty in Mulholland Dr. (2001). Both blonde, both linked to some dimensional aberration via car crashes, both going through something weird as hell. For it’s around this time that Mary begins to slip out of existence, as far as she can tell. One minute she’s trying on dresses, the next she’s caught in a limbo where she continues to see the world and its inhabitants but they can’t see her. The only indication we get of any shift in reality is a quick ripple effect as Mary changes clothes. Her transition coming just as she’s in a state of undress should not go unremarked, be it for some subtle gesture towards vulnerable human frailty or just good old fashioned 60s licentiousness (reiterating however that this film is cold and anything but sexy, decidedly so).

Though not explicitly, Mary is somewhat caught between the spiritual guidance of her minister boss (Art Ellison) and the kindly Dr. Samuels (Sam Levitt) who helps to calm her after her first brush with nonexistence. She is frequently adamant in her lack of religious motivation in taking the church job, and if the two fatherly characters set up a conflict of science vs. faith, it is clear that Mary chooses the former (inasmuch as she chooses much of anything). For one, she doesn’t turn to the minister for any guidance about her near-death experience, the specter following her, or her forays into another dimension. Then, the relationship is officially severed after she enters a kind of fugue state and begins playing discordant, chaotic music during organ practice. The minister overhears, declares her music “profane,” and fires her on the spot. His attempt to then help and engage her on religious grounds is not heeded, and Mary drifts out of the church without a word. If this sounds like the setup for a Hays era morality play, know that it doesn’t quite veer into the realm of pontification. In this way, it hits the mark on the Bergmanesque existentialism to which it aspires, setting up this spiritual tension as just a fact of life instead of inviting us to pass judgment on a girl who had it coming. The wry ending, pervading mystery, and somewhat sociological theming does lend it to feeling like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone (another thing noted by Ebert, among others), but its dreamier avant-garde qualities and lack of ethical logic make it something else entirely.

Flux, transition, ebb and flow: these are the preoccupations of Carnival of Souls. Water is everywhere in the film, from the fatal river crash to the Great Salt Lake from which the ghouls ascend to the wavy camera effects. Even Mary’s landlady, Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist) insists that Mary can run as many baths as she likes, as she doesn’t care about that sort of thing. Working in concert with this aquatic motif, reflections are also everywhere. This combination of fluidity and reflexivity, conveyance and introspection, recalls Mark Fisher’s writing on the erasure of self and stability due to the post-Fordist emphasis on “flexibility” in the neoliberal economy. He writes,

Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when
you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken
down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution
are restructured, so are nervous systems. Fisher 38

This movie precedes the post-Fordist shift towards Flexible Specialization by about a decade, but the anxiety of transience and mutability comes through clearly. As a related point of fact, Mary’s automatic organ-playing breakdown happens at 9 PM, an off-hours practice session during which her “fantasies get out of hand.” Harvey was himself an itinerant filmmaker, traveling the globe to capture footage for his Centron work. Perhaps he was haunted by specters of his own from time to time, out there drifting through spiritual causeways in the American labor diaspora. And maybe that’s why it’s still here with me, following me in my waking hours and bearing down on my unconscious. To some extent I wrote this post in an attempt to exorcise the movie, to pluck it out of my brain, to step off the midway and get back in the car. Something tells me the ghosts will remain though, and the carnival isn’t closing anytime soon.

79 min.; Carnival of Souls saw a Criterion Collection release in 2016, and is available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, and Shudder, among other platforms

Better Run Through the Jungle: The Prey

the prey

Photo: IMDb

A sadistic warden hosts a most dangerous game for his ultra-rich guests, who compete to see which of them can kill the most prisoners out in the jungles of Cambodia. What he didn’t count on was that this time, he rounded up the wrong undercover Chinese Interpol agent. You’d do well not to get arrested in Phnom Penh, lest you become…THE PREY.

At least that’s the vaguely menacing atmosphere sought after in this film that’s not quite a horror commentary like The Purge movies or The Hunt [2020], and not quite a virtuoso martial arts showcase like The Raid series. It certainly veers in both of these directions, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Bacurau [2019] in its use of similar bloodsport, genre bombast, and themes of resiliency (both individual and collective). However, where the Brazilian film maintains its deeply personal sense of community to contrast the internationalist scope of its very specific commentary on the global charnel house that colonialism built, The Prey‘s internationalism is mostly just that it’s an Italian expat (the inexplicably named Jimmy Henderson) putting together kickass set-pieces with a multilingual cast out in the jungle somewheres without any real intention of making a studious argument (which is fine in its own right, of course).

This isn’t to say Henderson is not aware of the history of where he is filming, and by all accounts he has fallen in love with his newfound home and is likely sensitive to its violent history. The warden (Vithaya Pansingarm, who Western audiences may recognize from Only God Forgives [2013]) is unmistakably Pol Pot, dudded up in fatigues and sunglasses, sneering and torturing and pontificating. And the opening of the hunt features a literal Killing Field where prisoners run for cover as their pursuers open fire. Scenes like the Chinese hero Xin (Gu Shang Wei) defeating a Cambodian baddie in hand-to-hand combat at the mouth of a purifying waterfall, or humble villagers taking up arms to help keep the warden’s backup at bay, represent some sort of expurgation of Khmer Rouge depravity, but I’m not smart enough to suss out all of the geopolitical implications of such a thing. However, it’s generally pretty clear that our fairer-skinned noble warrior is supposed to stand in direct civilized contrast to these corrupt psychopaths, save one noble savage (Rous Mony) who accompanies him as the only other surviving inmate. In fact, Xin’s descent into atavism as he spends more and more time fighting for his life in the jungle becomes the closest thing this movie has to a point, and it sets up a refreshingly cold lack of closure in the closing minute that is rarely seen in Western action movies. In short, there are layers of international racism, intentional or malevolent or not, from which this movie builds. This underscores the ultimate difference and space for muddled thematics between intentionality in globalized genre-play like Bacurau and doing a boilerplate mass-market version like this film. But hey, it’s working for Gareth Evans right?

I won’t be surprised if we see Henderson break out sooner or later, but to his credit I will say that he seems a little more dug into the Cambodian market than his Welsh counterpart was in Indonesia. He’s worked to bring genre “firsts” to the country’s nascent industry, like first zombie movie (2013’s Run!, on a technicality; if you don’t want to count Revolt of the Zombies [1936], I won’t stop you), and with The Prey, first million-dollar action flick, and I respect his dedication to amplifying this market. While the film doesn’t dazzle with any particularly memorable bits of choreography, nor any of the especially brutal special effects you might expect of the genre even (points off for occasional use of digital blood), I’m willing to be patient as the country continues to develop a schlock identity all its own. Perhaps Henderson’s involvement will help to midwife this process along.

The Prey is now streaming through the Philadelphia Film Society’s virtual theater program.

John Carpenter’s cinema of claustrophobia: Prince of Darkness 

John Carpenter has a penchant for bringing well-oiled technical chops and studious thematics to schlocky, genre-driven films with mass appeal. What’s always struck me about his films is the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that persists throughout each one. This is just as apparent in Prince of Darkness (1987) as any of the other bigger ticket films in his repertoire like Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), and They Live! (1988). In Carpenter’s world, we are trapped, by whatever metaphysical forces pull a serial killer back home, by systems of oppression maintained by a clandestine alien race, and in the case of Prince of Darkness, by the Devil himself. Whatever the cause, the camerawork in Carpenter’s films bears out this pervading stuckness.

In service of this sense of confinement, Carpenter’s mise is defined by an economy of space. His settings are mostly (with some exceptions) limited to cities and suburbs, the camera winding down alleyways, between houses, down hallways. This presents a paradox, of pinned in blocking met with often fluid camera movements, which in turn outlines a professional mantra: make the most with what you’ve got. The famous example here is the opening tracking shot in Halloween, a slam-bang bit of auteurism in a lower budget slasher that helped define a new technical innovation (as well as a few careers). But Carpenter’s films are marked by “no exit” compositions across films under his two most frequent collaborating cinematographers, Dean Cundey and Gary B. Kibbe, implying that it’s a preoccupation of the director that is borne out by the stories that he shows and tells.

Hardly a marquee title in the Carpenter pantheon, Prince of Darkness still provides evidence for the claim that the director’s films are defined in part by their claustrophobia and overall use of space. The story defies quick categorization, but the gist is that a mysterious canister in the basement of an abandoned LA church draws the attention of the archdiocese and an interdisciplinary team of professors and graduate students, analysis reveals that it contains the liquid essence of Satan, and signs point to a still more powerful and ancient evil reaching out to awaken this force so that it can subsequently join our world and bring about Armageddon. Elements of techno-horror, possession, and zombie apocalypse are all in the mix, a swirl of haunted computers, murderous shuffling hordes of homeless paeans, and demonic prophecies. Containment (or lack thereof) is key to the plot, as the action is propelled by the liquid’s leeching out from its confines, and the “father of Satan” über-demon inches ever closer to escaping the mirror world that serves as its prison. Spatial limitations dominate the film, as the church and its immediate surroundings serves as the sole setting for 2/3 of the story. It’s no wonder that this church has become a destination for Carpenter pilgrims, and even hosted a screening of the film back in 2015. These characters are locked into their spiritual battle with no hope for escape, and Kibbe drives this point home with a wealth of shots that increase the claustrophobic tension in their composition well before the team digs into their spiritual battleground.

In the opening minutes of the film, Donald Pleasence’s unnamed priest is introduced to us as a man hemmed in by his duties, as he deliberates with his fellow clergy in part of a dialogue-free montage.

Prince of Darkness Pleasence with clergy

For a passing moment, he stands framed by bars and columns, shadows stretching towards the near-pitch black void that the holy men keep behind them. A bit later, as he approaches the church for the first time, the spiritual prison grows around Pleasence as bars fill the frame entirely.

Prince of Darkness Pleasence church bars

This technique recalls the framing traps set by film noir cinematographers, achieved mostly through chiaroscuro lighting, that were meant to imply or presage the doomed outcomes of their criminal subjects. The priest’s imprisonment is brought on by a crisis of faith, as he faces an ontological dilemma that can only be addressed by synthesizing his biblical study with theoretical physics and computer engineering. But again, this shot and the one above present a paradox of kinetic stasis, as the camera moves in a continuous pan across the trapped Pleasence. It is the same paradox of constricted, perpetual motion seen in a swarm of ants in the beginning of the film (a flourish reminiscent of the opening minute of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch [1969]). This fluid sense of encroachment and restriction is not limited to the priest, as others get caught in Kibbe’s cross-hairs.

As our de facto main character Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) heads out of class one night, he catches sight of love interest Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount) cutting her way across campus. Even here, an ostensibly gentle moment in an idyllic setting, the camera packs in some voyeurism and paranoia, tracking Catherine on her walk and briefly trapping her in the gap of a tree.

Prince of Darkness Blount campus

This quotidian dread recalls the clash of comfort and violent confrontation at play throughout Halloween. It also brings a bit of menace to Brian and Catherine’s romance, a strange and stilted relationship that is left at an eerie impasse at the end of the film. Catherine is visibly suffocating under the patriarchy, as most of her interactions with Brian end with him guffawing his way through sexist presumptions and her getting morose and aloof. Again, this is claustrophobia in motion, a moment of ephemeral containment that is over just as soon as it begins. If the panning underscores the fluidity of these characters’ constraints, the camera’s tilts show their divine (or cursed) provenance.

The camera drifts up and down at several key points throughout the film, but my favorite example is the shot that serves as the starting gun for the second act. After the crew is assembled for their unholy research project (and directly after Brian and Catherine consummate their awkward affair), the film cuts to the top of an alley outside of the church. A slow tilt makes its way down the seam of the alley, and the score picks back up as special guest ghoul Alice Cooper steps out from behind a dumpster.

Prince of Darkness Cooper alley

The beauty of this scene is really in its motion (I tried to make a GIF but it didn’t pan out, no pun intended), but you can still get a sense for the symmetry of the blocking in this frame. In a film about the battle between evil and those that wish to keep evil contained, the metaphoric weight of consistent camera tilts is hard to ignore. And this being a Carpenter film, there’s probably some sociopolitical messaging to be taken from the fact that the neighborhood’s homeless population is the first group affected by the satanic awakening.

These are just a few examples from the first (into the second) act of the film. There are yet more examples of drifting claustrophobia throughout Prince of Darkness, like the surreal mirror world and the disorienting use of camera tilts in indoor settings. I am interested in Carpenter’s ability to find space in the city throughout his career, especially in politically charged urban action films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981), and They Live!, and may take a crack at digging deeper into this claustrophobia motif in a more sustained effort some day.

 

Blunt force allegory in Aronofsky’s Mother! 

Image result for mother filmPhoto credit: Variety

By now it’s no secret that Darren Aronofksy has a thing. Mind-bending, epistemological thrillers are his bread and butter, and the intensity with which his latest pursues this motif pretty much seals that deal. Like Farhadi’s beleaguered families or Herzog’s dreamers, Aronofsky airs his inspirations and fascinations in very clear and consistent terms across his artistic output. What makes Mother! stand out, though, is the way in which it turns this act of sharing in on itself, bringing the director’s usual symbol-heavy and dreamy filmmaking to a deeply personal place. The result is an adversarial and harrowing reflection on the act of creation, one that feels archetypal in ways that make me wonder how this exact film had not been made sooner. The film centers its attention on Jennifer Lawrence’s character (unnamed, like the rest), the short-suffering wife of Javier Bardem’s successful but temporarily frustrated poet. She’s been renovating their cavernous, stately old farmhouse, her husband’s childhood home, while he ruminates and waits for inspiration to strike. When a lost and road-weary traveller (Ed Harris, wonderfully off-putting as ever) mistakes their home for a bed and breakfast, Bardem’s poet sets him up with room and board in short order. From there, more guests begin trickling into the house (including Harris’s wife, played by a deliciously rude and foreboding Michelle Pfeiffer), social contracts and prized possessions are broken, the trickle of visitors becomes a flood, and the poet’s wife reels through a series of panic attacks as reality slips ever further from her control and plummets into a fantastical frenzy. This synopsis alone should imply a fairly obvious thematic upshot, one that sees Aronofsky working through some painful self-evaluation.

This blend of the allegorical and autobiographical lends itself to the sort of psychoanalysis that I don’t have much interest in unpacking, especially since the film does a lot of that legwork for the viewer. What I will say is that the darker side of this coin is the way the film’s deeply rooted misogyny reflects back on the writer/director. Lawrence floats through the house in sheer lounge-wear for the majority of the film, and caters to the needs of her husband and his guests with infinite doe-eyed patience. She weathers lascivious glances and catcalls from strangers, and her trials take on a violent redoubling as the film barrels through an explosive third act. With later nods to a larger system of prejudice towards women, it’s clear that the film wants to say something about the current, global state of womanhood. But it never quite sticks the landing, and the conceit falls to the same illogic that would otherwise make for a rewarding discomfort in the film’s nightmare world. It’s easy to keep a piece like Mother! on a long leash. After all, a film committed to sounding the ugly depths of both a personal and national unconscious is going to replicate some uncomfortable and downright distasteful realities. But the exploitation feels unearned, and narrative laziness that rests too much artistic weight on the backs of the oppressed should be snuffed out. Leave the warping of culture and ideology for the fascists, I say, and save us from the sort of authoritative, ruminative, too-prevalent woman-hating commonplace to contemporary caricatures like the Recently Divorced Man.

The really unfortunate thing is that up until a finale that firmly puts Mother! on this ethically shaky ground, the film has some fun with the macho “manic writer” trope by focusing on what happens to Jennifer Lawrence (instead of making the writer a man of action, like Jack Torrance). This empathy is coupled with claustrophobic blocking and framing, making aesthetic hay from the increasingly unjust invasions of privacy to which the poet’s wife is subjected. And the world that she has built for them is given due respect in the set design, with fixtures taking on narrative importance, flooring damage that feels emotionally wrought, and a meditative wall-painting sequence that is threaded through the film as an island of calm. The use of domestic space here, an attention to detail that is perverted to chilling effect, is captivating (and shows the continued impact that James Wan & co. have had with The Conjuring; they should be proud). It is matched with a soundscape that deserves recognition, as the house’s creaks and echoes lend a rhythmic quality to the film in place of a musical score. And the lighting scheme disarms as well as it disturbs, providing a soft naturalism by day and queasy high contrasts by night (Harris’s craggy face looks downright skeletal here). Lawrence channels her usual vacillations between bleak vulnerability and willful agency, a high-wire act that few can navigate as well as she. As much as the tight quarters and waves of invasion might lend themselves to a litany of jump scares, I echo Michael Koresky in thinking that the scarier moments are those that eschew horror convention and instead pick at a much subtler sense of social unease.

Ultimately, Mother! is well-crafted and deeply unsettling; a thing that stretches the limits of genre and makes one appreciate the raw, ethereal power of film. A modern day, surreal Bluebeard à la (Stephen) King that’s fun to parse as the mystery unravels. All that said, the most I can muster by way of an endorsement is that I’m glad it exists. I’m left with too bad a taste in my mouth over the mythopoetic misfires to feel any sort of elation at the dark wonder of it all. And I continue to find Aronofsky’s brand of puzzle-piecing a somewhat overbearing and ungenerous affair. He said of Mother!, “if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” He doesn’t benefit from being in the wake of David Lynch, the Granddaddy of the Dream Enigma whose recently-concluded Twin Peaks: The Return is a gift that I’m still not quite sure we deserved. Perhaps this film was just something that Aronofsky needed to get out of his system (as the popular account goes, he wrote it in a 5 day frenetic burst), and he can now settle in to something a bit more measured and memorable.

Enigma and anathema: Eraserhead’s wretched puzzles

EraserheadPhoto credit: Blumhouse

Is it an allegory for nuclear proliferation? A fever dream born from parental anxiety? A tale of nature reclaiming a post-industrial, near post-human world? Some combination of the three? One thing is certain: after 40 years, Eraserhead remains a film that leaves audiences saying, “I’m not sure what I just watched but I don’t feel good and I know I will never be the same again.” It’s a work in aesthetic counterpoint, as the ugliness of the narrative and its accompanying visuals is met with beautifully textured photography, exceptionally rendered make-up and props, and captivating set design. Lynch’s attention to detail, as displayed in each of these elements, helps elevate his film beyond art student avant-garde surrealist frippery and bring it into some emotionally affecting territory. As do the performances. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a pathetic figure, insofar as he is a linchpin for any pathos found in such a disorienting and revolting film. Nance is helped along in this effort by playing off wonderfully erratic and upsetting turns from Charlotte Stewart, Jeanne Bates, Allen Joseph, and Judith Roberts. He’s also helped by his characteristic meekness, playing Henry with a quiet, subdued goofiness that suggests an alternate title for the film could be Charlie Chaplin Goes to Hell. After all, Hell, or at least some existential reflection on agency and the afterlife, is one of the film’s preoccupations. As is masculinity. And labor. And the aforementioned anxieties over destruction, nature, and procreation. For a run-time of 89 minutes and a surprisingly linear overall story arc, the film packs in a dizzying array of ideas and memorable visuals. And just when it seems it won’t be much more than a drifting, episodic curiosity, it explodes into a truly harrowing crescendo of gore that will likely haunt me for the rest of my days. In short, Eraserhead makes for one hell of a feature debut.

Despite its overall surreal pacing and imagery, the film has an authentic-feeling, hyper-real design. This is due in part to Lynch’s use of texture. A pock-marked tapestry of craters and chasms on a mysterious planet. A tangled mass of peat moss piled on a bedroom floor. A sickly man , shirking and twitching in the dark, covered in boils and scars (and played by all-star production designer Jack Fisk, though you wouldn’t know it even if you knew what Jack Fisk looks like).  Even innocuous images like a puddle or a radiator. Every frame of Eraserhead is rendered in unsettling detail, drawing the eye despite presenting the viewer with some repulsive material. This is achieved mostly through lighting, set design, and some wickedly gross prop and makeup work. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes takes full advantage of the decision to shoot in black and white, filling the screen with a chiaroscuro so heavy it’d pull its subjects right out of the frame if it weren’t so precisely balanced. Lynch’s stagecraft skills are on full display, with sets that are just odd enough without distracting entirely, but he also does well to take his camera outside and highlight his ability to find some richly bleak industrial spaces. And one of the awful highlights of the film is the “baby,” a grotesquerie finely wrought in such stunning detail one wonders if there’s some truth to Lynch’s joke that it wasn’t made, but discovered by the crew one day while shooting. The notion of blurring the line between attraction and repulsion, of using a wide-ranging aesthetic toolkit to manipulate cognitive processes and force some reconsideration of what makes a thing “beautiful”, seems to be a preoccupation of Lynch’s. As he explains in a 1979 interview centered on the film, “I think that a lot of things that other people think are ugly, are beautiful. And if you look at them right, or if they’re sort of isolated, and put in a different context, they can be seen as shapes and textures and they’re beautiful.”

The overall effect is one of Lynch letting us in, or pushing us down, to a complex maze of hidden worlds. The camera drifts often, and leads the viewer into the shadows that dominate every frame, bringing them to see what’s on the other side. We are taken through a jagged hole in an ominous metal box to get a glimpse of the Man in the Planet, an agent of change who seems to control portions of Henry’s life by just pushing and pulling a few levers. We enter Henry’s radiator, where a deformed woman (Laurel Near) performs a stage routine in an eerie club (reminiscent of both the Red Room and roadhouse in Lynch’s Twin Peaks), enticing him with promises of Heaven but pretty much leading him to Hell. We sink into puddles, time and again, that raise questions of creation in the way they so often suggest the Primordial Soup. We are brought into these marginal worlds, and no good comes from it. It’s as though the viewer is being punished for participating in cinema’s campaign of voyeurism, turning the act of seeing into a practice of being complicit with violent absurdity. This creates a kind of trial on the nature of film, and especially on what’s accepted as tradition in the form. With its tight use of space, sparse dialogue, black-and-white photography, and old-timey Fats Waller organ music, the film seems conscious of Old Hollywood’s domineering influence. So it might be that the warping of voyeuristic engagement is a sort of reckoning with the sins of the motion picture industry. Or that Lynch is marking himself in his feature debut as a cinematic enfant terrible, tilting at anyone who thinks that film has always been and should remain a passive artform. I wonder if his training as a painter lends him an extra curiosity for and judgment of filmmaking, giving him a unique critical perspective and allowing him to “break the rules,” as it were. He fills his title sequence with a superimposed, translucent image of the title character. He uses strobe lights to throw figures around the frame, and sometimes jump cuts haphazardly to make them disappear altogether. Eraserhead pulls back curtain after curtain, and we’re left to wonder whether or not we ever should have taken a peek.

Watching Eraserhead has long been a sort of vocation for me. As someone who grew up and lives in the suburbs just outside of Philadelphia, I was always intrigued by this film that I’d heard was influenced by Lynch’s time in that city in its grimier days. As if the film and the city coexisted on this alien plane where I knew I needed to spend more time. Add to this the fact that Lynch and one of my brothers share an alma mater (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and some aesthetic sensibilities, and the result is a film that’s always felt personal to me even though I’d never seen it.  How perfect, then, to pursue this vocational beacon and find such a delightfully horrific skewering of notions like finding meaning and holding things sacrosanct. I think this may prove to be a transformative experience for me in terms of my film comfort zone. It’s going to get ugly, and that’s just fine.

Hail Caesar! : A cinema studies crash course, Coen style

hail caesar!Photo credit: Vulture

Frankfurt School dialectics. The “genius of the system.” The specter of McCarthyism. The struggle for the legitimacy of a medium (and its attendant journalism). In both form and function, Hail Caesar!  seems to be the Coens’ attempt to condense a large chunk of introductory film scholarship into one film. As a result, it’s a big film, opting for the sweeping scale of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as opposed to the tight, quirky character studies of other Coen comedies. Given the glitz and grandeur of its Classical Hollywood setting, the breadth of the film’s concerns makes a certain kind of sense. It can also be disorienting, as B plot vignettes are given plenty of room to breathe and the main narrative is kept at bay. These vignettes feel like the result of a late-night pitch session between the brothers, each trying to top the other’s ideas for skits set across one back lot in the early 50s. There’s a rousing cowboy picture featuring the flamboyant stunts and comically earnest glowers of a young frontier heartthrob (Alden Ehrenreich). There’s a pitch-perfect Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming number punctuated by its surly lead (Scarlett Johansson) voicing her frustrations over the “fish ass” of her mermaid costume, and an equally faithful Gene Kelly homage anchored by preternatural multi-talent Channing Tatum that’s just sort of impressive on its own with no ironic strings attached. There’s a theological consultation session set up as a focus group on the eponymous Biblical epic in production, a meeting which quickly devolves into a “priest, preacher, cleric, and rabbi walk into a boardroom…” joke.

And did I mention that this is a movie about Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) frenzied search for superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped and indoctrinated by a syndicate of Communist screenwriters called “The Future”? An angrier reviewer would call Hail Caesar! a disingenuous cash grab dependent on the cobbling together of parts that have worked for the Coen brand before (kidnapping, satirizing philosophical theories, Clooney). Three things trouble this reading: one, the film was actually a long time in the making, and only came to fruition after some arm twisting from Clooney; two, it didn’t make a ton of cash for very long; and three, for all its disjointedness it delivers an intricately detailed, well-acted comedy (come for the aforementioned leads, stay for brilliant character turns from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, David Krumholtz, Frances McDormand, and Heather Goldenhersh) that scratches the surface of some big ideas about the culture industry and its crises of conscience. One of the film’s most impressive feats is that it does not feel bogged down by Hollywood navel-gazing, despite being an industry satire set in an oft-romanticized era. While it’s not a piece of Hollywood hate mail, it’s not exactly a love letter either. This is just as well, as it does stumble a bit in getting its point across on finding agency in a field that lends itself to scripting a person’s life on all fronts. Though they are played for laughs, scenes of Mannix’s assertion of power over his stars can be a bit tone deaf. Given that the studio system’s campaign of control lead to many a tragic end, becoming especially volatile once the Red Scare (which the film keeps just outside the frame) was dropped into the mix, I felt a twinge of guilt poking through the madcap fun of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. And perhaps the glib treatment is meant to ironize these conditions, as certain characters are “saved” from the government’s version of Eddie’s coercive tactics. Of course, this consuming, love/hate relationship that Eddie has with controlling Hollywood becomes especially blackly comic when one considers the role that the real-life Mr. (and Mrs.) Mannix played in the tawdry death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. The film’s theological ambivalence plays into this ethical gray area. Time and again it coyly introduces, then dodges, inclinations that Eddie’s messes are somehow divinely ordained. Appropriately, the film ends on an odd note that drives this point home: a rising crane shot of the Capitol lot abruptly whip pans across the sky and into the sun, filling the frame with a divine, blinding light.

And so, as with any other Coen film, we are left with as many questions as answers. Another Coen staple, for me at least, is a line of dialogue that sticks around long after the movie, both as some kind of entryway to understanding the film and as objectively good, memorable writing. In the case of Hail Caesar!, this line comes in the form of what’s essentially a throwaway aside. As Eddie balances catching up with his secretary and watching unpolished dailies, a voice booms stage directions in the background: “Squint! Squint against the grandeur!” This is a film of reverence rendered absurd by its mandatory nature. If you squint just hard enough, you’ll at least be able to blur the film’s disparate ideas and parts into a cohesive whole that’s fun to ponder for a day or two after the credits roll. One hopes that the Coens will know to hang it up when the reverence for their work starts to feel forced, lest they end up the butt of their own joke.

 

A rewarding genre experiment in Another Evil

another-evilPhoto credit: Seattle International Film Festival

The recent surge in horror films scoring accolades and critical praise seems to have enabled a renewed energy around experimentation with the genre, yielding a provocative crop of films that have broadened the potential for horror’s tone, scope, and audience base. For instance, not many films can claim the descriptor “mumblecore comedy-horror,” save last summer’s Creep (2015). Taken at face value, this blend seems a counter-intuitive exercise: how could the understated naturalism of the former capitalize on the visceral thrills of the latter? Enter Another Evil (2016), the feature debut from Eastbound & Down and Silicon Valley scribe Carson D. Mell. Like Creep, the film follows the antics of two men in a mountain home faced with unnatural circumstances and a conflict of interests that gives way to terror. Both serve as a sort of uncanny comedian/straight-man act that undercuts the laughs with a sense of dread. While the earlier film may have suffered from a sense that the spooky trappings were tacked-on, Mell has dug deep into the emotional cores of the tonally varying genres and found an odd and thrilling common ground. And despite an occasionally plodding pace in the film’s set pieces, it goes to great lengths to establish a strong sense of architecture and aesthetic. Perhaps a somewhat detrimental preference for world-building over narrative is the lot of the debut filmmaker (see Robert Eggers’ uneven but affecting The Witch from earlier this year), but Mell’s stylistic voice is just clear enough (and his comedic voice just outrageous enough) to carry Another Evil away from the overwrought boredom that could have easily developed in this sort of experiment.

One of the key strengths in the film’s structure is the expertly crafted awkward chemistry between its leading duo. Steve Zissis plays Dan, a visual artist with a bit of a ghost problem at his mountain retreat/studio. After feeling dissatisfied with the non-confrontational advice of a schlubby New Age shaman (Dan Bakkedahl), Dan seeks a second opinion from the affable if slightly aggressive Os (Mark Proksch). Os’s invasive approach to exorcism has him staying in the mountains with Dan for a week and conducting a series of ghost-catching exercises. As in most haunted house films, the unnerving atmosphere gets thicker as the week wears on. But while the supernatural hangs over Another Evil, the film’s chills are drawn primarily from more terrestrial concerns like navigating another person’s desperate vulnerability. Proksch puts on a seriously good study in earnest absurdity (think Max von Sydow meets Dwight Schrute) and helps the film find its balance between cringe comedy and wincing in fear. And Zissis builds audience sympathy, even if his character isn’t exactly likable, from a solid deadpan foundation. So it’s understandable that Mell would want to give this pair lots of room to breathe, given the captivating potency of their uncomfortable interactions. But the laugh lines only surface from a substantial chunk of ambling dialogue that occasionally borders on the wrong side of hypnotic. Despite the tipping of scales towards scenery chewing, the film does have a command of aesthetic that pushes it into some intriguing territory. The team wisely leans on a variety of genre touchstones: the fleeting ghouls of Japanese horror, angular set designs that recall Caligari, rooms awash in “Giallo Red” neon, establishing shots that wind through domestic space à la The Conjuring. This sense of identity, coupled with excellent sound design and a budding sense for what builds tension, points to a filmmaker well on his way to carving out a space for cinema that rewards just as much as it befuddles.

Like the best examples from its more sinister parent genre, Another Evil is driven by epistemological mysteries concerning the source of its frights and asks the viewer to revel in its own uncertainty. In an emotionally wrought indie dramedy, the kind to which this film feels somewhat spiritually beholden, existential musings over careers and relationships can get tired and trite very quickly.  Thankfully, Mell finds fear in that ambivalence and imbues his story with some real narrative heft. These thrills, coupled with laugh-out-loud comedy of both cerebral and slapstick varietals, keep the viewer company through the lulls and produce a wickedly fun film to the end.

The damaging, diasporic nostalgia of The Thin Red Line

the-thin-red-linePhoto: Slant Magazine

Terrence Malick continues the search for a perfect cinema of memory with his take on the war film in The Thin Red Line (1998). Of course, the guiding principle in this pursuit is imperfection, and the film draws power from its refusal to tidy up an oft-valorized piece of American history: World War II. That’s not to say that it takes an overtly cynical or finger-pointing political bent in the manner of an Oliver Stone. Instead, it accesses a piece of the American collective subconscious that expresses an ambivalence towards the responsibilities of wartime. An aging commanding officer tries to stave off humiliation by forcing a little glory into his life, and dolefully admits to his superficial motives. A soulful, serial deserter gets pulled back into the fray but doesn’t shy away from the tough going of the action. A seasoned 1st Sgt swings between direct, confident command and drunken ennui. There is a sort of “doing what needs to be done” fatalism in every character that eats away at them in clear terms. The usual Malick musings on man’s relationship with nature are here, this time applied to the callous persistence of war. But the stakes are much higher than anything the director has approached in previous films, as acknowledged by the Homeric allusions and the immense scale of the cast and locations. Ironically, what results is a film that is perhaps Malick’s most intimate offering yet. Epistolary narration, an unabashed sentimentality, violent moments that offer more than just empty spectacle, and an almost wonky look at military bureaucracy combine to create a frustrated, emotionally affecting meditation on American nostalgia.

The film meets its reflection on the fractured nature of a collective memory with an aesthetic that can best be described as hazy. A thick fog crawls through the Guadalcanal jungle, creating real narrative stakes for the soldiers that must fight through it in addition to giving the environment an ancient and magical quality. Man-made smoke also fills frames in abundance (Jack Fisk, Malick’s go-to production designer, had to have worked double-time on this film), pitting destructive human intervention in direct conflict with the rhythms of nature. At times the screen seems clouded with an amalgam of both fog and smoke, teasing out the existential crisis of whether or not it matters if anyone is overseeing the charnel house. The camera is aimless, seeming mostly unmoored in the wake of this question. It glides through the grass with the breeze, lingering on objects, animals, and the occasional moment of abject wartime gore. Explosions erupt in the foreground as the camera wanders through these violent tableaux, underscoring the unsustainable tension between natural and cultural history. And while it may seem that Malick is treading familiar thematic ground, he freshens up his own mold by bringing an unprecedented heft to the subject matter.

Though the horrors of war are anything but romanticized in this film, it does not ignore the tendency to mythologize these stories and adorn them with the glorifying cadence of the epic. Specifically, Homer’s Odyssey clings to the screen before Lt Col Tall (Nick Nolte) even makes his overt reference to “rosy-fingered dawn.” The film opens on an Ogygia in the Solomon Islands to which Witt (Jim Caviziel) has defected, but eventually sets him back on a course that cuts across the ocean towards more carnage. It also gives us glimpses of a life back home for several characters in the form of flashback arcs, one of which undermines a staple of the Odysseus mythos and becomes the source for a masterclass in breaking an audience’s heart. Explicit atavism also works in service of the primeval atmosphere that the film strives for, with characters crying and twitching and writhing and howling as the weight of their participation in a canonization of murder bears down on them. One set piece involving the storming of a camp is particularly dizzying as a distillation of this sort of barking madness throughout the film. John Toll’s confining chiaroscuro in other moments serves to amplify this frenzy, but it also memorializes by providing statuesque casts of faces that leave a lasting impression.

Despite the humanizing characterizations behind these faces, the film spreads itself across so many voices that it renders absurd any notion that a depth of feeling can be drawn from the patina of history. One of the great joys of the war film is the ensemble casting, but this film uses that construct to a disorienting effect. Malick’s script deploys his usual voiceover narration, except this time the introspection is given over to a whole host of characters musing over childhood, spirituality, life back home, the ins and outs of a military career, and more. The result is what feels like a series of epistles and the skeleton of an intimacy that defies the otherwise cold disconnect towards human life required of a war story. However, this intimacy is eventually subverted by a number of instances in which it’s unclear who is doing the narrating, and the connections forged throughout the film begin to dissipate. Compounding this slippage is the sheer number of characters that the viewer must keep track of. And Malick takes the opportunity provided by this white noise of characterization to deflate Hollywood star power, tossing in roles for John Travolta and George Clooney that hardly even last long enough to register. Nolte’s performance, however, is unforgettable. He brings such a gung-ho bravado to Gordon Tall that fits right in with the John Waynes of the era in which the film is set. That he was largely snubbed for Supporting Actor accolades stands as one of the historically great awards season injustices.

It’s worth noting in a discussion of this film that nostalgia originated in the 17th Century as a medical term used to describe a range of behaviors in Swiss soldiers pining for home. The Thin Red Line digs into this etymology and raises questions about how we should approach loss and longing. Is an awareness of historical significance a destructive practice in its own right? What is our responsibility in maintaining a vision of a bygone America? Does nature play a role in how we treat each other and ourselves? The film and its characters remain enigmatically engaged with these questions throughout, and train an unblinking gaze on our participation in revisiting historical trauma. Despite the fact that Witt claims “people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it,” I don’t believe I’ll be forgetting him anytime soon.

 

The art of the slow burn in Days of Heaven 

Days of Heaven OPSdbPhoto: One Perfect Shot

Patience meets passion in the wheat fields of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), to anarchic effect. In his follow-up to Badlands (1973), Malick shows a much steadier hand in his willingness to linger on rural vignettes rife with the frustrations of a manufactured love triangle. If his previous effort was to be a manifesto of aimless release, then this follow-up betrays that in its constraint, deliberation, and labor. The film centers on a trio of impoverished, hard-scrabble Chicagoans who flee south from their squalor to greener (albeit, still rough) pastures. They take on some migrant work on a farm in the Texas Panhandle belonging to a wealthy bachelor (Sam Shepard, captivating in his first feature film role), brooding and gentled by a mystery ailment with a diagnosis that gives him little time left to live. Bill (Richard Gere), beat down by the urban hell that he left behind, leads his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) into plotting a sort of con that would see her marrying the farmer and getting his money once he passes. The film mutes the nefariousness of this scheme by setting up the pieces and letting them play out in awkward starts and stops. As the plan goes awry and time wears on, the quiet sorrow of love under false pretenses gives way and the film’s machinations come crashing down in a violent, spectacular heap. Mutability wins the day, and the only source of clarity is our child narrator (Linda Manz) who bears the banner of the film’s frank poetics.

The elegiac tone of the film is supported by a measured pace, as careful and stable as the train that bears our protagonists and an overwhelming load of compatriot laborers down to the farm. For a long stretch of winter after the harvest, it’s a dreamy three-hander that chugs along with an undercurrent of conflict while confining its main characters to their ranch on the open plains. The simple question of whether or not the jig will ever be up (before even arriving in Texas, Bill and Abby have billed themselves as brother and sister, but can’t seem to keep their hands off each other and sell this act) proves daunting enough that the center cannot hold and the characters begin to lose their grip on their emotions and, eventually, their environment. A visit from a Fellini-esque flying circus provides a brief respite from the weight of this question, but they mostly only serve to foretell the carnival of biblical, frenzied comeuppance in the third act. The subject of the elegy, the loss that seems to have thrown the world of Days of Heaven out of order, is the infringing of an industrialized future upon a hazy, halcyon past. And the past is very much of interest to the film, identified at the outset by a montage of archival images depicting a Chicago long gone. But this past is best described as half-remembered. Scenes are softened by natural, magic-hour lighting. Dialogue fades in and out. Characters don’t quite seem to know what they’re going to do next. And the initially cooperative farmhouse trappings, the pastoral iconography fetishized in a Cather-like nostalgia (an adaptation of My Ántonia never really needs to be made, since Malick has pretty much handled that here), only obfuscate the ultimately destructive role that nature plays in the form of fire and locusts. Even the house’s weather-vane, normally a folksy adornment to a homestead, cuts through the air with sharp, metallic efficiency and menace.

In her Hester Prynne sort of way, Linda is able to remain a child of nature amidst the calamity. Her narration brings focus to a film that may otherwise be irreconcilably slow. Not only is hers an aesthetically amusing and naturalistic voice, taking on the quality of a grizzled street tough that’s seen it all, but she brings a captivating magical realism in envisioning herself as a “mud doctor” that heals the earth and talks to wheat patches. That’s not to say that her presence wards off any evil. In fact, she wonders if the devil may be out there with them on the farm, and talks the audience through a vision of hell while watching a Charlie Chaplin film brought in by the circus (perhaps an admission of guilt that the cinema is itself a harbinger of industrialization). Even Linda is powerless to protect their plot of paradise from the ravages of modernity. The only other trains we see are one in passing that bears President Woodrow Wilson, and another that carries soldiers off to the Great War. The melancholy felt over the inability to run history off the tracks gives way to a lashing out, and Malick drives home his frustration with a cynical world.

There are few that could be said to capture a literary mode of filmmaking better than Terrence Malick. A clear proclivity for symbolism. Artful transitions between scenes and ideas. Narrators that give the films structure and meaning. These all create a writerly syntax that I think speaks to Malick’s critical popularity: it’s possible that his work is tracked so closely by critics in part because he is one of the last bastions of pure, simple auteurism. Perhaps he provides the film crit class with their own version of a heavenly idyll somewhere out in the Panhandle of analytical thinking. Of course, the films are not just the result of Malick’s singular vision (though stories of his clashes with production teams may convince otherwise). Frequent collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber deserve credit for bringing Malick’s vision to life. And there’s more to his body of work than just a literary sensibility. Patience and the specters of violence are other Malick mainstays, for instance. Appropriately, he wouldn’t return to filmmaking for another twenty years after Days of Heaven, and when he did it was a film about the second World  War. But before taking a leap into a gaping hellmouth of history that he tried so hard to keep at arm’s length in his first two films, he showed that hell can be, as Sartre puts it, other people.