Sunday, June 21, 2009

THAS Special Father's Day Post


A Moment from The Funhouse (1981)

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||What time is it, Daddy?

||||||||||||||||||||It's after nine. Listen, I don't where
||||||||||||||||||||you're going tonight...

||||||||||||||||||||But I don't want you going to
||||||||||||||||||||that damned carnival.

||||||||||||||||||||Did you hear what I said
||||||||||||||||||||about that carnival?

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||I heard you, Daddy.

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||Listen, how would you like to
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||go the movies tonight instead
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||of the carnival?

||||||||||||||||||||The movies? What
||||||||||||||||||||for? Come on, you're
||||||||||||||||||||not afraid to go, are ya?

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||No, I'm not afraid to go...
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||I just don't feel like it.
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||Besides, I sort of
|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||promised my father...

||||||||||||||||||||Aw, forget about your
||||||||||||||||||||old man. He's just
||||||||||||||||||||trying to bum your

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||How can you say that?

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||You don't even know my father.

A non-teenage girl here, wishing you all a

Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

THAS: The Funhouse (1981) & Finally Some Thoughts on Tobe Hooper

A hushed compositional delicacy is exhibited in Tobe Hooper's fourth film, 1981's The Funhouse, and it is something we really don't get to see again from Hooper, at least to such a curiously remarkable extent as it seems is in practice here. The Funhouse is perhaps his most subdued, unaffected film, and, after the heavily contested Poltergeist, he would only find the room in the 1980s for such outlandish affairs as Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II before entering the grim world of low-budget 90s filmmaking. No surprise, then, that The Funhouse seems such a peak moment in his career, a work of pure sobriety, dramatic assurance, and Panavision elegance. It has since received some modest regard as a playful riff taking on the modern, New Hollywood and exploitation-era standards (read: the low moral ones) being set by (and for) the teenaged consumer in regards to horror entertainment, but in spite of Bruce Kawin's fine and academic praise of the film at the very time of its release, the film has otherwise remained part of the unfortunate annals of the Cult Horror film, and the slasher film that only slasher viewers bother to watch.

Made at a time when studios had just realized the commercial viability of exploiting teenagers' innate appetite for titillation through transgression, irony, and easy-button, market-tested vulgarization, and released in theaters a year after the seminal hit Friday the 13th certified the long life of the formula slasher flick, The Funhouse aims to work antithetically to the gerrymandered thrills of modern horror which so efficiently stroke the jadedness of its immature target audience. In this way, it almost becomes a soft-spoken predecessor to the similarly meta-textual Scream: both ruminate on the seeming bankrupt logic that is the teenager's impulse towards defecting from the notions of innocence to the dark side (or dark theater) of sex and violence (and, so, knowledge of the world). Scream years later takes it to more extreme, cutting-edge, and preachy levels, of course, attributing full-blown moral desensitization to this defection, which youth cultivates and which permeates into their moral responses and actions in the real world. Scream's permeable barrier is represented with movies and blasé sociopathy, while The Funhouse uses the carnival and the much more prosaic, much more ordinary condition of blasé adolescence (and adulthood). This reading of The Funhouse certainly bolsters the reasons and ulterior thematic purposes behind the film's "wet blanket" attenuation of the poison opportunism usually found in the tried-and-true teen stalk-and-kill formula.

The film effectively serves to mute the nasty, affected menace, mystery, and - lest we forget - prurience so typical of the debased horror genre. It does this through four main points: 1) generally, its forgoing of "pleasurable" slasher film conventions, e.g. no story about party-going pin-ups, no powerful mystery to its killer, no "slashing" at all in the typical sense, no milking of stalk sequences, etc. 2) a thorough, appropriative survey of horror movie imagery and conventions. The film begins with a Psycho and Halloween parody, both films the populist progenitors of nasty modern horror. Later, Hollywood's Frankenstein monster is utilized as a symbol for horror gentrified by yesteryear, and now being used to disguise the uglier realities of monstrosity; 3) the meta-artifice of the carnival setting - the cheap dolls, tin can sound effects, and sprung shock props acting as both undue distraction to the real-world danger as well as mocking jesters of the incongruity they present in the characters' very real life-and-death situation; and 4) by revealing the chains and cogs (literally, in the finale) of the beast's belly: those of the cheapjack funhouse (driven by repressed children and lorded over by childish adults), or that of the mechanized locus behind many the fallen teenager - the self-imposed blinders of youthful thrill-seeking and jolly-chasing, or perhaps something as great and terrible and truly beastly (and often inevitable) as the irreparable divide wrought from a child's bid for independence, and from the low, uninspiring bar parents too often set for themselves, as parents (or as plain functioning adults; just think of all the bums, creepers, and burn-outs the teens get exposed to as they romp about blithely). Even as nature has designated them guardians of the child from the dysfunctions of the world outside, they - like the ones in this movie - are often blind to dysfunction they themselves, and the home, all-too-typically engender and embody, as illustrated in the unhealthy match we may be witnessing in the main heroine Amy's placement within an unimpassioned middle-class family, with all their middle-class comforts and middle-class atrophy, as contrasted to the disfigured monster and his own placement, being brought up in an environment that exploits, vilifies, and serves as constant reminder of the status of the freak.

In support of the film being about the clinical patterns of both parent and child behavioral grooves, which so often serve the coldness, sterility, and inattention that occurs between the respective parties in disciplinarian-underling (parent-child) regimes, the movie's opening scenes are devoted to depicting a family household with a jockeying, detached wit - from the full-on self-reflexive and parodist opening, during which a stupid little brother snaps a photo of big sister in full-on ugly-disciplinarian mode (very much a catalyst to his eventual, ultimately trauma-bringing decision to sneak out), to the first scene between the full Father-Mother-Sister-Brother configuration that utilizes the most elegantly subtle and expressive framing and shot mechanics. For another case, the film's pivotal midpoint occurs with the sequence in which Amy's parents arrive at the carnival grounds to reclaim the runaway little brother, Joey. In a surprisingly touching moment, the carnival manager (played by Z-movie regular and director of the apparent cult abomination The Worm Eaters, Herb Robins) tenderly regards the boy with a mixture of understanding, nostalgia, and fatherliness in a strikingly hushed shot-reverse shot - a tenderness in sharp, ironic juxtaposition to the detachment of the parents: Joey's mother's face registers only impatience and annoyance, while his father's only concern seems his being in this rathole in the first place, as he eyes the strange carny and his trailer home with barely concealed distaste and the squeamishness of class superiority. The scene then immediately continues on with a powerfully stark situational manifestation of the great divide that often lies - or is slowly, imperceptibly created - between parents and children, as we see Amy amazingly catch onto the presence of her parents through a spinning funhouse fan. Maybe a mere fifty yards away, she is yet inexorably out of range for her parents to hear her desperate screams for help. The futile sight of the parents in the distance behind the spinning blades is a powerful image, and the scene also plays out in an eloquent shot-reverse shot that beautifully communicates the emotional scenario at play.

The Funhouse is ultimately an uneven work that, similarly to many of Hooper's most thematically evocative films, falls punishingly short of being a clear, focused discursive proffer. The suggested parallel between Amy and the monster as children in inverted, mismatched upbringings is certainly not as strong or as actively embellished as it should be, and emerges only in proactive analysis instead of striking one's cerebrum during the proxy of the film-viewing. The screenplay falters at points, such as scenes between the funhouse barker and his offspring, in which pointless macabre throwaways about "half-pint" victims, as well as creaky carny tropes like "You can't kill one of the family!" (Madame Zena the psychic?) and "We'll blame it on the locals!", are thrown about in sacrifice of logic or meaning. John Beal's score is effectively atmospheric, but also often overwrought and obtrusive. The film's best moments are consistently the quietest ones, where Beal's playful carnivalesque strings do not distract from the invisible harmonies Hooper has a knack of capturing in his actors' faces.

Hooper's craft lies in his profound inklings instead of his cogent assertions, his artistry in his sensitivity and circumlocutory abstractions instead of his (or his screenplay's) clarity and intellect. Unlike the highly calculated pop-sensibility of his two horror maestro contemporaries Wes Craven and John Carpenter, it is perhaps most damaging a factor that Hooper never seems to push his unmatched knack for emotional acuity past just that and into the realm of intellectual acumen. Carpenter is horror's foremost sociologist, Craven its pop purveyor, Romero the aesthete, and Hooper the aesthete who lacks the wit for pretension. With the possible exception of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it seems he is incapable of concocting works of pure stealth. Perhaps too involved is he in the creation of his own type of expressionistic form that his breadth does not encompass utilizing the accoutrements of pop-mechanic strategies to "fashion" his stories in any explicitly discernible, explicitly perceptible way; to forgo intimate unquestioning of his stories in favor of the benefits of true calculations of style; to engage viewers' desire to see the horror film as the sum of its audience-manipulating pieces, or, now as a detriment, ever really intellectualize his work to a fully satisfying extent.

Hooper's auteurist pedestal remains unassembled due to this certain unwillingness to "stylize" for the creation of simple entertainment, or unceasing affect and manipulation of audience synapses, or for even a commanding, prestige-attracting "intellectualist" cinema. Instead, his only insistence is creating humbly and within his means, yet for the high-aspiring reason of reaching true aesthetic sensitivity, subtlety, and the loftily artful construct, which often targets more the soul than the brain - his inability to cater to the smarts of the populace versus his great wish to unveil the depths of their (and his own) subconscious, which he elevates no higher than the audience (something those great intellectual auteurs like Haneke and Godard are wont to do... to often wonderful results, of course). But Hooper, his films never feel as if they want to impress, or impress on, the audience. He only deems to manifest aesthetic and emotional moods, in ways not showy or attention-grabbing, diverting or frivolous - only highly soulful and empathic, often subliminal, and highly refined. Lacking the high-thrill genius of the Carpenter touch and the hip novelty-baiting of Craven, his ultimate failure to command his audience - that is, mainstream genre audiences, often not looking for artistry at all - foretells his sink to the lowest rung of the one-hit wonders, with his most respected work remaining his most clearly fashioned and neatly, ingeniously one-note: that is, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which Hooper himself admits was conceived of a novelty factor executed mostly with the goal to get him noticed in the market. The Funhouse, then, might very well be the first project that is representative of Hooper's complete agency - his two previous projects in between this and Texas Chain Saw were Eaten Alive, which tries to capture TCSM's lightning in a bottle (with some great results, in my opinion) and Salem's Lot, which shows Hooper giving his best to hot - and so essentially ready-made - property, just in need of faithful crafting. The Funhouse was his first film as an established Hollywood director, one with the clout to choose a project and manage a Universal Pictures production on his own. As immaculate as TCSM is and as short as The Funhouse falls at times, the latter may well trump his touted career masterwork with its richer thematic and emotional concerns, as well as a scope larger than TCSM, yet as filled to the brim with Hooper's small-scale, finely-spun visual soulfulness and sense of the nebulous in internal emotional being.

The Funhouse - 8/10

Spot-On Reviews:
Bruce Kawin on The Funhouse (1) (2)
Analysis that goes into the film's strong deconstruction of phallic power, which I sadly overlook!
Kindertrauma's review of The Funhouse "Rather than spooking us with images of murder and mayhem, we have been treated to body mutation, both human and animal, and mounds of aging twisted flesh, the real horror of mortality and age."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

Irréversible is pretty wretched for about half its running time, but it's amazing how much it can turn itself around in the second half with some good ol' non-sensationalism.

It wasn't the surely motion sickness-inspired, whirly-gig camera - used to survey the lurid and seedy environment of the film's beginning (then returning later for a chaotic set piece taking place inside a gay S&M club; Salon's Andrew O'Hehir probably described this novel camerawork best with the thoroughly underused term "vomitous") - that pushes this film into the territory of excessiveness. Nor is it the film's gliding omniscient camera that flies over rooftops, uniting action and transitions, and in the end spins wildly above a representation of the irretrievably lost. It is not the visual ostentation itself that makes me accuse the film of sensationalism, although it is a contribution.

I actually appreciated the visual innovation and experimentalism of its gyrating eye and surely very technically-sophisticated, roboticized camerawork. It's bold, daring, and it works. It very nicely serves the film's suggestion that, perhaps, so mechanical are the forces that, without our heeding, gravitate us to the locations and events we find ourselves gravitated towards, this gravitation in turn dictated by the actions we find ourselves performing, which points straight back to that most fundamental force, or "mechanism," of all: our very biology, and the basic human urges that control us. This film's objective is to conflate and synchronize these forces that so fatefully find us going to a sexy coking dance party, walking home alone in a disreputable part of town, chasing down prostitutes, in a gay leather club, and, so often, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are the forces of time and biology.

Introducing the film's inverted order, the film opens with the entire end credits floating in and out of the frame, as if afloat in a slow current, its use of white and red text and the curve of its trajectory suggesting flowing blood cells, or chemical flotsam suspended in plasmatic fluid, riding the curve of the vein. The lull of the soundtrack's as-of-yet quietness, meanwhile, enhances our sense of the slow passage of time - the film already enmeshing its two motifs of inexorable time and exorable biology. Following this, the leading credits are then also presented: the pulsating, adrenaline rush score finally pounds in as the actors, producers, primary crew, and director Gaspar Noé's last names are flashed across the screen in all capitals, like "NUDE" on a neon sign. With this sensationalistic opening credits sequence, Noé is signaling the fact that he knows full well - and means to expose with this film - that all it takes to get a rise out of someone can be as simple and terribly effective as capitalized SEX flashing across your eyes and firing your synapses.

The film begins with atmospheric use of the vomit camera to visually abstract the film's opening environment of neon and lamp lit alleyways. We then go to a short prologue scene between two anonymous men exchanging words in an apartment room above the already-mentioned gay leather club, very generously called The Rectum. Noé shoots this scene in voyeuristic close-up, which, along with the natural lighting and the zoomed-in motion camera, introduce the film's desire to achieve a sense of verité aesthetics and gritty realism. This scene transitions with an aerial shot moving away from this room to the direct exterior, where we see the film's two main characters being escorted out of the club below.

After such a striking opening sequence, though, it is disappointing that the film proceeds to spend a brinkless first act playing out like an over-the-top episode of Cops, taking on entirely lax verité stylings as we follow Vincent Cassel roaming the seedier side of Paris like a mad dog. There is very little to truly note in this whole first third of the film, except that it only enhances the film's one-note sensationalism. The film's bid for naturalism clashes oddly with the Jerry Springer antics and shouting matches that make up much of the opening quarter's inappropriately high-octane and over-the-top vendetta-driven prowl through Red Light districts.

Life as it is, caught on film, is one of the film's foremost goals. But naturalism and novelty do not mix very well, and I cannot help but get an unmistakable whiff of novelty and literal "show-stopping" from this film's two oft-talked about instances of graphic violence. The film's two infamous scenes consist of the sudden placing of the camera in a completely static position, in order to film with unflinching steadiness graphic murder and rape. But when I was sitting watching these scenes, trying to decide whether to turn away or not, I did not feel as if they were showing to me an unflinching look at reality, but almost the opposite: I felt as if I was being fed a scene of contrived, exploitative theatricality.

Forcing the viewer to psychically inhabit such abuse and horror is certainly audacious. I do understand this point in enunciation he is trying to make, and I give him all the credit of compassion and empathy in the rape scene, not to mention critique. [This (and Breillat's Fat Girl for a second example) is the type of film that should be shown to the unsuspecting sex ed class (for the simple moral kick).] Further, the scene offers the utmost clinical presentation of the indignity of rape, considering it is daring us to note every violent thrust and dry flap of this unwanted act of anal violation.

But even then, the scene is really more suited for the philistine than the artist: it is a brute way to express the cruelty and ugliness of rape. It's a point
expressed that would be more useful shown as courtroom evidence, or in a corrective facility, than in an arthouse. I do not want to say the scene is meaningless. I would personally feel out of line telling Noé, whose film is made with such vision, that the artistic decision he made here disqualifies a work of such vision. I take less discretion labeling it misguidedly ostentatious and flat-footed, mired in disregard as much as it is in moral discourse.

And so, thank god the 2nd half has Noé stumbling upon how I feel verisimilitude in cinema is really meant to work: as the displaced eye of the viewer - a viewer presumably not an unflinching robot, nor, hopefully anyway, an unflinching sadist who wants to take in graphic violence and rape the same way a surveillance camera takes in a convenience store robbery.

The displaced eye - that is, the verité camera - is much more naturally predisposed to take in and fascinate itself with human interaction and the movement of humans in space, not sitting put for whatever reason, which most definitely includes watching Noé take body horror to a blockheaded, barbarous extreme. Thus, the verité camera as applied to the casual events of the 2nd half is much more thematically justified and of much more proper affectation. The 2nd half - consisting of an integral, discursively pointed subway scene, a carefully choreographed party scene that portrays wanton sexual gratification very strikingly without resorting to exhibitionist crudity (albeit taking place before the rape scene in the chronology of the movie), and the poignant and truly naturalistic nude bedroom scene between Cassel and Bellucci (then real-life husband and wife) - infuses into the film the meaningfulness it was previously sorely lacking, and retroactively comments and enriches what we are forced to sit through in the first half.

This newly wrought meaningfulness thankfully doesn't fortress homophobia allegations lobbied at the film (largely in reaction to the sensationalistic first half and its depiction of a gay subculture), and it offers much more than merely emphasizing its narrative lynch pin of purity-turned-perversity at the turn of a screw, or even the film's most prominent and focused-on subtext involving the movie's mindbending, anti-chronological meditation on temporal vortex and tragically lost catharsis.

The film clicks during the train scene, where we finally figure out the dynamic between the three friends: Cassel is the simple primitive man, not at all a bad guy, but dictated by basic masculine drives instead of any higher thought; Albert Dupontel is the evolved and vaguely inadequate modern intellectual man; and Bellucci, as the woman.

The film is about sex - or at least sex as a primitive urge that is naturally inseparable from violence. "There are no bad deeds," the anonymous man says in the beginning (to the beguiling presence of notorious French actor Philippe Nahon), because everyone is guilty of pursuing those urges towards biological self-gratification, without exception, and in so, so many different ways.

Through its allusions to or depictions of sodomy, incest, racial dominance, intellectual superiority, and the thin lines between sex and rape, its spectrum of sexual gratification and the violence borne from it presents gratification as something that crosses boundaries from sexual to physical to purely psychological, as when Cassel's character takes his anger out on a Chinese taxi driver he intimidates and slings racial epithets at. The designated "person gratified," and the respective "gratifier," is made to criss-cross as often as the designated "victims" and "victimizers," the most prominent example being the intellectual Dupontel's succumbing to the urges of brutal physical domination in the story's wrap.

To address the charges of anti-homosexuality,
the film really cannot be said to be making any generalizations about homosexuality, for it only purports to show us a narrow and enclosed presentation of a particular spectrum of hedonistic and primal lifestyles (both homosexual and heterosexual). The film's portrayal of homosexual sodomy as the debase epicenter of victimization fetishization is what has mainly garnered the film its accusations of homophobia, but it exists only as another of many segments of sexual society, a proliferation that Noe is generally surmising he has little place to persecute due to the philosophy his anonymous character in the opening scene espouses. Also, the film's peripheral utilization of a transgender person as narrative device, whom we see Cassel bully and demean, comfortingly exists only as a representation of a victim.

In conclusion, as a film about the unpredictability of hormonal compulsions (whether manifested in sexual acts or violent acts), one can say that, in retrospect, the film's most resonant and haunting moment is not the cinematically bludgeoning (pun most certainly not intended) horror of its rape scene or murder scene. It is when Monica Bellucci says something to this effect in response to Dupontel's insistence on excavating particular truths about her sexual behavior: You can't learn about sex from asking around, gathering data, and analyzing it. A person just has got to get out there - presumably "feel" something, in their blood, their biology, their loins - and experience it.

Little does she foretell her fate and grasp that this includes the most appalling and horrible of "feelings" and "somethings," ones that encourage the cruelty of dominance, rape, and non-mutual gratification.

Irréversible - 6/10