Thursday, July 23, 2009

THAS: The Art of the Exquisite Shot-Reverse Shot - Case #1


The Exquisite Shot-Reverse Shot

Case #1: Spontaneous Combustion (1990)

||||||||||||||||SHOT 1:
Thunder crashes, lightning sounds. Lisa catches to the looming presence of the nuclear power plant.

||||||||||||||||SHOT 2:
"Now back to a simpler time..." The Ink Spots' song "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" plays on the radio:
I don't want to set the world on fire. /
I just want to start /
A flame in your heart.
||||||||||||||||SHOT 3:
Hooper's currency in nebulous emotion: an unease, staring out into technological uncertainty.

||||||||||||||||SHOT 4:
Listen carefully behind the song at one moment:
In my heart I have but one desire, /
And that one is you...
||||||||||||||||SHOT 5:
/ ... No other will do.

Faintly, you can hear the high-pitched siren sound of the happy bomb's plummet to earth being used as a lilting musical counterpoint to the song's melody.

The sing-song menace of this aural detail - a menace also strongly inhabited in the insinuative lyrics of the Inks Spots song - resonates within the film. Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion attempts a look at Nuclear Age history's boisterous, almost whimsical, certainly vicarious fascination with the dread power and dread death capable of atomic energy.

||||||||||||||||SHOT 6:
||||||||||||||||SHOT 7:
I've lost all ambition for worldly acclaim, /
I just want to be the one you love. /
And with your admission that you feel the same, /
I'll have reached the goal I'm dreaming of.
||||||||||||||||SHOT 8:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pride, Horror, and Joshua (George Ratliff, 2007)

(This post includes spoilers for the films Joshua, Hostel, Hostel II, Martyrs, Sleepaway Camp, and High Tension; watching Joshua first is highly recommended, the others just be careful.)

"Her beauty hadn't at all originally seemed a part of the situation, and Mrs. Stringham had, even in the first flush of friendship, not named it, grossly, to any one; having seen early that, for stupid people - and who, she sometimes secretly asked herself, wasn't stupid? - it would take a great deal of explaining."

- Henry James, "The Wings of the Dove"

In context an innocent passage about an elder matron's caution towards regarding her young female charge's beauty in public, it clearly can blithely double as an early 20th century lamentation over the no-no that is homosexual attraction.

I always enjoy it when an artistic work takes it upon itself to straight up call the populace "stupid." Plus, I've always thought the word "stupid" was more a constructive tool for criticism than anything else. No, that doesn't mean I approved of that 2008 film Wanted and its having James McAvoy call me a pussy at the end. That promotes recklessness by exploiting emasculation fears and complexes. "Stupid" just implies ignorance, which anyone who isn't stupid should gladly take in as a timely notice, in genuine desire to rid oneself of likely ignorance, often nascent or residuum. Everyone should be able to admit that everyone, including one's self, is ignorant about something. This imperative to "call-out" is an inherent part of film documentaries, and what makes them such a commanding medium for expression. It's not surprising that George Ratliff's Joshua, a surprisingly commanding work of the "wake-up call" variety, was preceded by his breakout work, an inflamed documentary, 2001s Hell House. Both works are loaded with Ratliff's (or a documentary filmmaker's, or a Trey Parker/Matt Stone-ian, or, of course, Jamesian) in-built air for recrimination. Joshua, most impressively, doesn't feel at all far off from Hell House. It's another, if not great, at least commanding work, bracing and critical almost at the degree of a documentary's discourse.

More on Joshua further ahead. But first, some Pride Month and horror cinema musings. Pride Day for the LGBT community occurred Sunday last week, and on that day I had just reached page 142 of The Modern Library edition of James' The Wings of the Dove, on which the quote above fatefully lay. So, effused by James' intoxicatingly juicy and sparkling (albeit maddeningly convoluted) prose, I felt a good, preternaturally topical and evergreen James quote was more than enough substance to mark the day, and of course honor the many close friends and family whom are an invested part of it, out and out there spreading the word of tolerance, acceptance, and encouragement, with a humble blog post.

The cause grows steadily with each passing decade, both in public acceptance and in legislature. Impediments and obstacles range from the hurtfully small-scale (hate crime) to the annoyingly large (Obama and his administration's apparently Moderate agenda), but the gay community can rest assured that the arts and humanities remain stolidly at their side, as they have throughout history. So while one cannot say the role of the finer things in life is not exactly tide-changing, it is consistent and loyal and in the hands of the most fraternal, understanding, and therapeutic-minded.

In a genre typically catered to the most hetero of teenage boys, it is perhaps surprising that the horror film can so often, I find, evoke the anxiety of female and gay interiority with the most called-for capacity for empathy, achieved by creating scenarios, and recreating emotional experiences, at visceral, despairing extremes. Seen as this, this genre - that is essentially about provoking the fundamental existential fears of isolation, subordination, and victimization in its audience - being able to, at its purest, harness a great ability to comment on emotional vulnerabilities in the marginalized and outcast is, in fact, not surprising at all.

Homosexuality has a singular way of popping up in horror films, for better or for worse. Horror being fundamentally a genre based on exploitation as opposed to edification or uplift, at worst it appears as cheap provocation for titillation or misrepresentation, as in the confused 70s religio-horror film The Sentinel. At best, it appears as cheap provocation for empathy or progressive topicality (take any horror film working to institute the "token gay," such as Bride of Chucky). At a slightly better best, it's cheap provocation shoe-horned in to subvert taboos, although that can result in utter inanity (see the first A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel) as well as perhaps be onto something (see the very curious Sleepaway Camp). At it's best best, it need not be the cheapening of queerness serving as provocation-made-commercial, but instead actually be in service of a pointed statement to be made, whether that be the instituting of genuine empathy in viewers, or complicating and emphasizing the social boxes placed on the gay constituency. Cases for this most artistically sound option are fewer and farther in between, but it is to be most fully exhibited in George Ratliff's film Joshua, which I will get to later.

Examples in modern horror of "queering" the genre - often criticized for being so out-of-touch with the textures of the real world (often true, though, considering all the pre-packaged and high-gloss horror films coming out of Hollywood nowadays) - are Eli Roth's Hostel and Hostel II. As callow as they both are, both feature striking insinuations of homosexual feelings, which actually impart positive and meaningful motives - they naturalize possible homosexuality within the normalcy of typical human behavioral and emotional patterns - albeit often the darker ones. In Hostel we have a sexually-open middle-aged man come onto an insecure, sexually defensive young man in what can be seen as more a gesture of empathy than of lecherousness. Although initially reacting in his regimented macho disgust, the young man later makes reparations with the man, accepting the man's attempt to expand his own narrow viewpoints and intolerances. Later, though (and unfortunately for the young man), we find out his elder friend has a capacity for cruelty as well as kindness, and that it too is (and even more so) hardly encompassed by any mere sexual orientation. The film's case being, it can be read, that homosexuality is often the red herring of dysfunction, not one at all, as the only dysfunction is violence. In Hostel II, girl-to-girl tenderness blossoms into full-blown romantic vindictiveness when one half finds out she is being played with. In the sequel's case, the issue is not the girl's homosexuality, it is the all-too-common lengths she takes acting upon hurt feelings.

Other recent and notable queer-themed horror films include Chris Carter's The X-Files: I Want to Believe, Alexandre Aja's High Tension - a limited film that can be either regressive or progressive, depending on how you look at it (this is the problem with many of these films I mention, although debilitatingly so with Aja's film) - and Pascal Lugier's Martyrs, which touches on the perception of homosexuality equating to social worthlessness, only to have the film's gay character be ascended to a level of the divinely selfless in the end.

Of course there are many more examples. There is the classic, and certainly one of the earliest, most level-headed and explicit examples of queerness in horror ("level-headed," as opposed to, with all due respect, the overwrought psychoanalytic nudge-nudge-wink-wink insinuations of Lewis Allen's 1944 The Uninvited and the repressed "outcast tales" of James Whales' horror films): Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963). Although it is a bit of a horse of different rainbow colors, in its not revolving around our empathy with the gay character. In this film, homosexuality is represented by a strong and independent - if resultantly often also cruel - character, and not a person suffering feelings of alienation and desperation. The character is Theo, played by a sultry Claire Bloom, who is completely at ease with her sexual and social saliency and her right to functional, non-perverted prerogatives, as a lesbian. In a way similar to the contemporary films I list (particularly Hostel II), the film also works to normalize homosexuality in its allowing its lesbian character to exhibit complex (or, more accurately, complexly basic) romantic feelings that are usually mostly reserved for hetero- characters.

One of the more interesting films of recent offering sensitive to the issue of homosexuality is George Ratliff's 2007 "bad seed" horror film Joshua. It is also perhaps the bleakest, in that it suggests its themes concerning homosexual alienation not by focusing on gay characters who are adults and thus able to act against troubling social dictum, but by focusing on a child who one has very little reason to assume is even gay, and thus revealing how this tendency to alienate is permanently lodged in the inborn pathologies of humanity and the personalities developed thusly, which are nurtured in pernicious manner by how quickly people are expected and compelled to judge, condescend, and condemn.

Joshua is a strange beast, a film that manages to be both blackly comic and sincerely pitying in its morose look at the alienation caused by regimented social expectations. The film is about the pressures of the world, in effect from one's very childhood - that is, beginning from the very establishment of the parent-child dynamic. It's also about people's "natures" and the sad incompatibilities that are often insurmountable, fostered (and increasingly refined, ever since societies began) by the aforementioned rigid expectations so natural in all-too-human parents with all-too-human standards and delusions of grandeur, i.e. the folly of showbiz parents or the bar of masculinity set by a father.

The film gives consideration to both the story's parents (played by Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) as well as to the young, diabolical son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) in its look at people born into pathological "types," personality-wise, and suffering the anguishes of incompatibility with the people around them, whether drowned in the emotions of familial dynamics, fighting one's way through the pecking order of peers, or, surely the most crushing to some, between that most fundamental of relationships - a parent and child. It is common to see this latter anguish through the eyes of the parent, unhappy with the child. Joshua serves to effectively reverse the lens and focus on a child who realizes the sentiment can be returned, and, as the film posits, acted upon, especially if the child is particularly, preternaturally cunning, and so bright, the mercilessness of the world has rubbed off on him before even reaching the age of eight (as is the case in this film).

The film's consideration of both the typified parent and the unusual child allows the social world's "pressure" the film aims to present to manifest itself as both pressure to not be different (embodied in Joshua) as well as pressure to not be so typical (embodied especially in the mother character, Abby). Thus, the film can be generally regarded as being about the pressure of knowing your nature, whether that be the "typical"-ly validated (an instinctively cruel, haute bourgeoisie mother and wife) or the "different"-ly weaker (a boy who isn't into sports); of knowing that inescapable "type" of person you are, which usually a person is either unhappy with or unaware of.

The film is full of types, probably to the fault of one-dimensionality - or maybe depressing reality:

Sam Rockwell's Brad Cairn is a boyish hotshot; he tries valiantly to be a good father and almost succeeds, but he is not particularly sensitive or naturally caring; he is certainly not the creative type; he's of painfully average intelligence and failing at his business; he wants his son in sports, and he's not above internet porn and flirting with coworkers when times are tough at home. He is a good man, but lacks the transcendent quality. He can be categorized under "unaware." He is unaware of himself. As most comfortable people are, he doesn't suffer the burdens of the thinker - but hand-in-hand, the average schmoe forgoes the at-times-burdensome enlightenment and dread responsibility of the thinker. The father in Joshua is unaware of his flailing status inside his personal life quagmire: his attempt to salvage and surface himself in the morass of his family's instability. But it is above his scope to grasp the greater social ills that his story allegorizes. Thus we see it - whatever "it" is (that which makes a boy hate his father and his father understand him no better) - get the better of him at the end of the film.

But Rockwell proves to be the most sympathetic character in the film. Brad is left to take on Joshua in the film's battle royale, perhaps Ratliff's acknowledgement of the boy's callous dismissal of his father's numerous personal concessions made to accommodate the boy's "difference." Perhaps Brad's lack of a true loving sincerity - his downfall in the end, seen when he lets the boy's inhumanity convince him he should blame the boy and not understand the conditions that made him this way (even seeing Joshua as an out-and-out "bad seed" is effectively contextualized by Ratliff's revisionist supernaturalism, of a child's evil created through preternatural internalization of all the social conditions of the world at its very birth: a child not "born bad" but "born knowing") - is symptomatic of Brad's own lacking, modern upbringing: Rockwell's character's mother is a righteous evangelical Christian with shrill conservative values. She is highly unaware of herself.

Now Vera Farmiga's Abby Cairn is very aware, and very unhappy with herself. She wants to be the loving mother - but she "just isn't." Because she's volatile. Depressive. She suffers postpartum anxiety without fail. Early in the film she recoils from the other noveau riche New York parents attending their children's private school music recital, condescending to them, but also horrified and hiding beneath smart talk to avoid the inward acknowledgement of her place in this overly comfortable social and psychological strata.

Abby's brother Ned is creative, musically inclined, and writes Broadway musicals.

And finally there is Joshua, who is ever increasingly aware. He is not the son a normal father like his wants. He knows it, and, feeling that pressure, he tells his father, "You don't have to love me," in a moment of strange revelation and perhaps the film's most important moment. That line anchors the film's look at how the nature and personality of people work at odds against the idea of roles, like loving mother and attached child.

The film, although always dripping in caustic humor, is very sensitive to the true sadness of its story, especially the first half. Unfortunately, many critical reviews were right when they said the film falters as the film veers into The Omen territory. Joshua loses his dimensions, and instead of being a child realizing he and his parents aren't the perfect match, he just becomes an evil kid with an agenda. When exactly did he begin plotting against his parents? Surely not during his conflicted piano recital early in the movie, one of the film's best scenes, in which the vulnerability and burgeoning imbalance on display in Joshua takes on a complexity that seems very much at home in the real world. Then immediately after, the movie commits just the opposite, bringing in Joshua's obsession with ancient Egyption mythology and death rituals - very much in line with the overstated morbidity seen in cinema's idea of youthful perversity, but not at all integrated with the earlier emotional reality so well introduced.

The problem is that Joshua starts to go formulaically bad at a point when he's still little more than an enigma. Joshua's actions, motives, and attitudes are so ambiguous and so endlessly interpretable, and to lead all that up to cat-and-mouse game formula and not to further emotional illuminations results in a thoughtful work turning into an infuriatingly cold and vague thriller. It is somewhere at the halfway mark that the film frustratingly goes from constructively perceptive to deflatingly delineative. When Brad and Joshua gain their antagonism for each other in the 2nd half, the film turns into a sardonic battle of wits between Father and Son, which, while an amusingly depraved depiction of such a familial relationship, it cuts short the psychological insights the first half offered us in its portrait of a father trying to accept his son while the son insists such attempt at acceptance is fruitless. The very final scene, also, works too hard to make all the puzzle pieces fall into place, and all the revelations revealed only serve as thematic muffler.

My sympathies with the Rockwell character also served to undermine the effect of the film. I see no true reason for his deserving any of Joshua's resentment. Resultingly, Joshua comes off as simply an ungrateful brat. This fact aligned me against Joshua, which really is not too constructive. This movie should be about empathizing with the morally inchoate child and not about being impressed by a prodigy child's ability to dump the chumps. A clever premise, but it is a disappointing path taken after the very affecting first half of the film. I suppose making Brad a somewhat compassionate guy makes the film even bleaker, ultimately saying even if you try to cross some great divide, sometimes you can never come to fully accept someone and their particular "somethings" - a point which, extrapolated, speaks leagues about the common prejudices, intolerance, and squeamishness seen in society today.

Finally, one must mention the film's cleverest rhetorical ploy, found in its utilization of the character of Joshua's Uncle Ned, the Broadway musical composer, played by Dallas Roberts. His character, which the viewer can readily assume is gay, offers the film its superb punchline, aimed not at the character - on the contrary, the character is presented as perhaps the most well-adjusted and level-headed person in the film - but at the viewers and their possible latent, off-base, knee-jerk suspicions of gay conspiracy and moral degradation provoked by the ending. If you have seen the film, you will know what I am talking about when I speak of the ending and its confirmation of Joshua's artistic affinities with his uncle. The ending, though, is a sprung trap by Ratliff, made to provoke certain uneasy thoughts of pedophilia and some weird, unnatural sort of sexual predominancy in a "OMG, possible gay!" seven-year-old - both notions which are absurd, and entirely presumptuous and ignorant.

The film has a sister film, actually. No, not the upcoming 2009 horror film Orphan, which also is about a demon child under the sexy/neurotic maternal wing of Vera Farmiga (who has my everlasting respect now for doing both these films within a slim span of three years). There is a 2001 non-horror film by director Pawel Pawlikowski called My Summer of Love, another strange, ineluctably small and "indie-ish" little movie that seems primed for obscurity if it didn't have star power, in this case Paddy Considine and Emily Blunt in full lesbian nookie-mode, as the brother and the lesbian girlfriend, respectively, of the film's female teenage protagonist.

Both Joshua and My Summer of Love are caustic, nasty, and corrosive character studies that devolve into rather over-the-top and gratuitous displays of depravity in order to make their mean little point, which are practically the same: they both work very effectively to subvert and devalue normal societal values (i.e. bourgeoisie ones, religious ones), moral or otherwise, by subordinating the societal non-issue that is homosexuality beneath what are real issues of hazard, such as, generally, institutionalized upbringings (again, often socio-economic or religious).