Monday, December 23, 2013

THAS: Night Terrors 2, or "Images of Genie"

Night Terrors reveals a shrewd function in its loose and episodic narrative.  In substitution of the connective tissue of involvement provided by a clearly defined plot and literalistic exposition (barely does Night Terrors deem it necessary to demarcate its villain, the nebulous threats to our heroine, or deploy much of any tightening or slow revealing of narrative stakes), Night Terrors is - if not quite made up of poetic vignettes - a sly series of teasing demonstrations: scientific (a trait profoundly indebted to Hooper's minutely precise scene constructions), reticent, scrutinizing samplings and snippets of the morally yet-to-be-asserted life of a young, sexually mature girl.  Night Terrors, then, proves remarkable in this fact: it is concerned mainly with this assertion.  Its reticence is the utmost dignifying of the figurative grandiosity and consequence (philosophical) it so largely and instinctively assumes about this enterprise, of depicting the moral validation of a girl, the type typically underestimated.

Its scrutiny is the utmost aboveboard treatment to the idealistic enterprise that you could probably find from a movie: poker-faced, matter-of-fact, more than accepting (without aim to  distort, embellish, or concoct for the sake of dramatic or lurid interest added to its delicate portrait), tacitly esteeming a depiction of a girl's more-than-predestined moral victory.  Hooper's investment and intelligence with subtextual undercurrents bleeding into his filmic constructions is as precise and subtly pervading as ever.  The poker face, or the lack of soppy agenda-making - positive or negative - is the utmost respect to the topic of the young female protagonist: there need not be any cinematic hoops of contrivance or manufacture in order to depict or justify depicting a young girl triumphing for an interested or disinterested audience, nor does there need to be any cinematic concocting or narrative parlor tricks to make such a story engaging or worth witnessing.  Within Night Terrors and its deep compunction, it is undoubtedly worth witnessing, internalizing the idea that such a character is so often met by patronizing or condescending attitudes.


Night Terrors's shrewd functioning, initially mentioned, reveals itself in the constant back-and-forth pull regarding how we are left to feel towards Genie, the young protagonist: the film moves subtly in alternation between scenes where we are provoked to, quite traditionally, question the girl and the decisions she makes (victim to the dictatorship of narrative) with scenes where we are to be caught in admiration of her, confronted with displays of wisdom, sensibleness, and stolidness of character we are sadly not conditioned to expect (moments ambivalent to narrative's hegemony).

Indeed, Night Terrors exhibits its best instincts as almost a sister film to The Funhouse: a "big sister" film, to be precise, Genie a clear variation (and maturation) of The Funhouse's protagonist Amy, another seemingly quintessential stereotype of a girl who nevertheless acts as a universal audience surrogate, expected to hold a gamut of human observations on their shoulders even while (but not in spite of) concerning themselves with their blossoming sexuality as females.  The matter of their sexual awakening is not a young girl's shame - it is presented as part and parcel to the universality (as what is a young girl's sexuality but sexuality in general?) of the challenges put to them: to show their reserves of character in the face of perceptions and patterns of self (which quite unavoidably involves matters of sex), and a surrounding world of many ills.

Even if Amy mostly fails to rise above her role of pampered middle class daughter, the wringer she is put through impinges on her some level of higher understanding by the final curtain... which is of course to ignore the acute awareness of certain things she exhibits a number of times early on in the film, whether of youth and its superficiality ("How could you say that?" she asks, quite factually, clarifying her puzzlement with the nugget of immortal logic, "You don't even know my father"), or her slier subversions of her family's emotional rut, such as her complete detachment from her callous mother and the moral standard she actually reveals to hold with her brother ("Tell Joey the movie was great").

All the while Genie in Night Terrors is a character completely filled in via "displays of acute awareness," effectively coming off as an evolution of Amy by being a girl as aware of the philosophical fight - the very important fight of ideas and ideologies - as she is of the pure survivalist one that Amy is mainly forced to take up in The Funhouse.  Genie perhaps harks back more to Eaten Alive's Libby, whose provided-for innocence presents no bourgeois shortcomings (despite being a rich Southern daughter), only the ability to use her genderless goodness as a weapon of offense (her guilelessness an unknowing preliminary strike, via disassociation, against the hardness around her).  Night Terrors cements its largeness of character in its ability to present a weapon of genderless goodness in a character who is concertedly not genderless, a character of an upfront sexuality who does not refute, nor is made to pay for, her sexuality, and who wields the weapon of her personal character, or "goodness," in the film as not just action but a philosophical, vocally expressed stand.  It is her era-spanning morality that she is, in fact, targeted for in the film, acting as both the offhandedly wise college-age girl in 1993 and a dead ringer for the ideologically-opposing noblewoman who sent the Marquis de Sade to jail in the 1800s (whose portrait figuring in the film you can see above).

Just as Libby presented in Eaten Alive a refutation of any sexual condescension from the audience in her final act of undressing for the camera, Genie and the film deny her easy objectification (which is directly associated with easy moral underestimation) via displays of substance on her part.  The camera's part, also - meaning Hooper's supreme reticence and scientific camera purposefulness, previously touched upon, underlying any innate sexuality of the gaze.  The usurping gaze here is one of neutrality that slyly supports, even as it films her in supposedly compromising manners of situation and dress.

(From a previous post on Eaten Alive) "Libby is our great human chameleon of goodly nature.  Before sexual object, she is a man-like woman.  Before a man-like woman, she is an innocent.  Before an innocent, she is a testy daughter and sexually-imprintable naif.  Before neurotic and daughter, she is a kind soul.  She cannot be judged for anything, much less along gendered lines.

Funny how Hooper goes from blameless Libby, to undecidable Susan in Salem's Lot, to cunning tragedian Amy in The Funhouse, (to any of the sexually blameless men's men and effete men in Lifeforce, to the sexually inchoate David in Invaders from Mars), to wise sensualist Genie in Night Terrors.  His stockpile of universal blank slates created for the explicit act of non-judgment seems unchallengeable."
Hooper's interest in non-embellished, decidedly real-feeling human beings is a strange testament to the "horror filmmaker."  It is an uncommon respect to humanity as well as cinema, as it is truly a moral appreciation for both those things when neither need be heightened in order for him to honor and represent them via his work.  For him to then make films that make explicit rhetorical work out of teasing viewers' responses to drab but notable humanity is an even more stunning testament to his serious humanist intelligence.

Libby was a true naif character, a lonely and rootless, uncontrolled ball of innocent energy (see how many ways I can describe her above).  Amy was Hooper's Buñuelian, flawed-by-societal-association ingenue.  Genie and Night Terrors may represent Hooper's strongest opportunity for a display of his maturity, channeled through the on-screen maturity of his most evolved and proactively enlightened protagonist, as well as the maturity of Night Terrors's cerebral and unorthodox structuralism, a script that is in fact more of a study than it is an action plot.

The "demonstrations" of the film approach scientific due to their neutrality, largely in thanks to Hooper's concise and crystallizing scenic concepts that make each little scene suggest, in their concision, a sample [of time] under the objective microscope, a controlled experiment, all variables cleanly notated, or a research study under close surveillance by Hooper's quasi-neutral documenting eye.  The film again emphasizes its mirror relationship with The Funhouse, which is also separated into small episodes of Hooper's distanced regard, teasing apart the philosophical shades of the character of Amy.  The Funhouse's strikingly expressionist sideshow attractions give way to Night Terrors's droll, worldly festivities and saturnalia.

These scenes soon reveal themselves to be leading to Genie's ensnarement by a twisted modern aristocrat (who shares a blood line with the Marquis de Sade, part of an "ever-degenerate aristrocracy," in the character's own self-deprecating words) and two of his followers, who have insinuated themselves into her new life in Egypt with her father.  But, as played out in the film, the importance of its scenes are not found in their foreshadowing but in their demonstrations: demonstrations of the girl, Genie.

They scrutinize, but they do not lead - so, they are quite truly demonstrations: snippets that don't suggest one way or the other but are scientific in their purpose.  The rhetorically-performing back-and-forth with the audience - the "shrewd functioning" previously discussed - is not leading, for it only points to her existence as a blank slate character, one with which to reflect the viewer back on themselves through challenging of their perceptions and previously held beliefs: Genie as, partly, a theoretical character that is meant to encompass us, to present imperfection and banality as well as our grandeur, performing as one of Hooper's ever non-judgeable protagonists given all the benefits of the doubt provided by Hooper's beneficently mature artistic purview.

Night Terrors proves its thematic aptitude through its dryly assured structure.  Made up of wry snippets, it is a careful series of scenes that involve Genie's developing exploits with the rich Sadeians, with selective scenes mixed in that do not revolve around Genie.  Two sets of them, mainly: first, scenes taking place at the dig site Genie's archeologist father is away at, and secondly, scenes at a Gnostic temple Genie's housekeeper Fatima secrets away to.  The Sadeians, the excavators, the Gnostic worshipers: all these join together to create a picture of the strange web of influences around Genie, a triad of beliefs that essentially boil down to her father's narrow-minded and condescending Christianity (and somewhat-disjunctive professional, historical interest), the cruel and amoral Sadeian aristocrats, and the cryptic but deemed supreme moral code of the ancient Gnostics, ancient beliefs wielded by the film's martyr, Fatima.  Also present is the handsome Egyptian that Genie starts up a romance with, who proves to be in cahoots with the Sadeians, although not necessarily of their beliefs - only a young Bedouin who wishes to climb up from his marginalized roots to the powerful ranks.

These separate strands weigh in on the moral determination of Genie in their peripheral but philosophically pointed ways.  Most effective is the dig scenes with Genie's father (played gleefully by the late William Finley), which are brilliantly discombobulating in their tonal disruption: vaguely Indiana Jones-ish interludes existing mainly to buoyantly expel to the audience the film's mythology on Gnosticism, Spielbergian exhibitionism being used upon, not the usual Judeo-Christian-Abrahamic Arthurian nonsense, but strange-sounding, esoteric alterna-history gobbledygook.  This would be fascinating enough, but these scenes are most interesting for how they characterize their Christian Indiana Jones: Finlay presents his character roaming around the excavated Gnostic chamber like a kid in a candy store (Hooper's cinematography presenting it in a droll, mock-adventure-film way), and the contradiction between the condescending theist and the objectivist scientist enthusing at the site of a Gnostic temple is pervasively clear.  His exuberant cries of "Hallelujah" upon finding a mysterious, sacred Gnostic artifact is the tip of the iceberg of irony: the archeologist Mattison's "fanatical objectivism," bitingly suggested as one with his presumptuous Christianity.  If he can be so scientifically objective about his giddy, fanatical interest in a heretic religion he otherwise totally disrespects, then it's quite telling how incapable he is of the same sort of scientific objectivity about the naivety of his own religious leanings and condescension.

Of course, on the other side of the coin are the Sadists, represented by the sexual ambassador Sabina and the degenerate aristrocrat Chevalier.  Genie takes in with them out of a combination of pure curiosity and a weird sort of moral tolerance (some would call it guilelessness), deciding that her interest in expanding her sexual horizons - even taking in, with raised, intrigued eyebrow, the profligate sexual surmises of the Marquis de Sade - need not take away from her reserves of personal principle and moral character (her conclusion is ultimately proven right).  Scenes where the Marquis de Sade seems to be speaking to her from across two centuries, espousing his odd and corruptible theories, are followed by scenes of her disapproving of the excessive and meaningless lifestyle of the rich, powerful, abusive, and unbearably "productive" (in Chavelier's words - productive mainly in cruelty).

The bisexual Sabina's role in things, though, is conflicted.  Appearing to be romantically involved with Chevalier, she acts as his toady, keeling to him and his intimidation tactics in every possible way.  Flighty and proving somewhat weak-willed, her biggest downfall seems to be the infatuation or deep attraction she develops for Genie.  She is the major figure in Genie's expanding lifestyle, being the first to meet her in Egypt, introducing her to all the new sights, and developing a bond and trust before the sinister plans for Genie begin to unveil themselves.

As portrayed through the film and its nuanced and suggestive scenes, Sabina is a true character of dramatic intrigue.  The moment she "falls for" Genie is a delicate point of interest.  Her first scene at the airport with Genie's father (whom she is suggested to be seeing in the extent of an escort) has her first glimpse the enchanting Genie from afar, while her next scene, pictured above, has her scoping out voyeuristically the wandering Genie in a crowded marketplace, in an elegantly Hitchcockian scene of watching, perceiving, and conveying subdued undercurrents of markedly adult feelings.  Sabina's feelings toward Genie develop in a real way, her grinning regard of Genie in this scene hinting at attraction that gains only from being at a placement of superiority (and duplicity, as she enacts her and Chevalier's terrible plans for Genie even as she befriends the girl).

I have forgotten to mention Genie's girlfriend Beth, daughter of a diplomat and the film's one and only sexy teen victim.  But she is yet another direction of influence on Genie, representing girlish freedom and frivolity (also, a bit of entitlement and cultural contempt - her comment upon seeing Mahmoud, the Bedouin rider who later becomes Genie's love interest: "He probably has three wives by now").  She storms out of Chevalier's party, her pedestrian "school girl" ideas of pleasure probably shook by those of the wealthy and powerful perverts, calling them a "cult" before leaving the film forever.  Her death, though, provides the film with its most astute moment of attention to real-world consequence, when Chevalier is reprimanded for killing her by a follower of his - a diplomat who is bearing the fallout of him having killed the daughter of one.

The major third prong, though, in Genie's web of influences, is Gnosticism, embodied by Fatima (it is the rounded-out middle prong, flanked by the sharpened points of dogmatic Christianity and amoral sadism Genie is caught between).  Fatima is a potent figure in the film, a largely speechless, protective presence who embodies watchfulness and the wisdom of the suppressed fringes.  The discovery of her gruesome murder is quickly mitigated by the witnessing of her dignified burial and sanctification, which eventually summons the divine reckoning that befalls Chevalier and saves Genie's life in the end.

Mahmoud, the betraying love interest, is given his big moment in the final quarter of the film, being allowed to spout off at the captured Genie about the impotence of love and compassion in the face of the gaining of power and importance.  A brutal slap across Genie's face depicts the exact moment at which he makes his own moral decision, forgoing any feelings of love and embracing his desire for power.  It is an odd, illogical moment, but powerful as a moral comment, as Hooper makes it very clear Mahmoud's intent to put it upon himself to test love.  Hooper has him walk in on the shackled Genie with tenderness and concern on his face, going to the mechanism with which he can loose her, only to pause there and quickly turn as another conspirator.

Genie's journey of moral determination is often made to occur in a courtyard area just to the left and in front of her Christian household's front door.  It is a powerfully apropos bit of utilized symbolic space, given great attention by Hooper's angular camera.  Not only is its leftward placement the perfect, subtlest suggestion of the wayward or slightly off-the-beaten-track, but its proximity to the pristine white household - tied with its farness, its leftness, its existence as a chintzy oasis - is the perfect mirror of Genie's being surrounding by her influences, neither of which are fully good or fully bad, all of which are somewhat chintzy and contrived.  She must inhabit both, live freely between them, and then transcend them when they prove to fall short of her self-determined moral bars.

When Genie has dived fully into, and inured herself to, the libertine scene of her new friend Sabina, she is finally brought to the home of Paul Chevalier for a party.  "It's weird," she says.  "Poor is weird when you're rich.  They're eccentric," Sabina replies.  The scene provides the moment in which Genie must show she can accept things but turn critical when need be.  Her first face-off with Chevalier has her expressing the disagreeableness of his idea of "fun."  Oddly enough, it is a sympathy she shows for the poor rich people who frequent his party, telling Chevalier, regarding his patrons who cavort around him: "You enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves."  And what is the rich, really, than humanity who have given up all principles and agree to be fools?

A single flashback sequence to the Marquis de Sade in jail shows him facing off with the 19th century incarnation of Genie who is responsible for sending him to jail.  It is a playful and quite interesting scene for Hooper, who films the confrontation in an adopted style, with an overripe, period melodrama pulp romanticism.  A quite uncharacteristic and exceedingly melodramatic handheld camera is utilized, spinning and wresting itself around its wrestling subjects, seemingly aiming to capture the fervor of their ideological clash through the channeling of the bodice-ripping interest of typical Romantic Era-set entertainments.  An oneiric romance between opposing poles is enacted between the Marquis de Sade and this (probably mostly fictional) noblewoman, the complicated diametric between sex and morality being the main subject being confronted here ("Cruelty is natural" is his argument of seduction, to which she strongly protests, only for him to seal their opposition with a kiss and the claim, "We are one").

Genie's imprisonment and subjection to abasement and abjection in Chevalier's torture chamber is Night Terrors's version of the Texas Chainsaw dinner scenes.  It is more meaningful, though, Genie showing off a powerful will and sense of moral reprehension even in her fear and desire to escape, often inhabiting the steeliness or crazed, end-of-the-rope boldness of any politically imprisoned man or woman being indefinitely detained.

Night Terrors's tale of assertion ends with Genie's deliverance by the moral force of the film's Gnostic believers.  Despite shortcomings in execution, it is something of a tour de force of moral mysticism reigning triumphant in film, the weapon in play being a mystical set of scales brandished before the aristocrat, his eyes and ears bleeding from the physicality and tangibility of sheer moral retribution.

Night Terrors is an inquiry on morals, a moral-inquiry-as-film (and how many films not made by Bresson can make the assured claim of that?), and a rally in support of young girls like Genie everywhere, as capable of being just as everyone else.

Genie's story ends with her triumphantly tossing Chevalier's body into a rivulet of runoff water, a small, sad, but rather zen little stream in the alley behind his house, ironically the place of his illicit killings (it is where Chevalier killed and dismembered Beth).  She finally glimpses the invisible Gnostic worshipers who just dispatched Chevalier and delivered her, offering final validation to an entire film made up of her small acts of assertion.

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