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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Post-Halloween Scary Movie Roundup Report

[I do realize that, by now, it's a lot closer to being post-Thanksgiving than post-Halloween. The thing is, I keep seeing scary movies, whereas I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that had a pilgrim in it. And if I did see one, it probably also had a zombie in it.]

One of the best reasons I know for staying alive another day is that you never know when they're going to find another few feet of METROPOLIS. The two-and-a-half-hour "complete" version that Kino has just released on disc, after the usual post-restoration victory lap (festival circuit, Film Forum, TCM), doesn't make Fritz Lang's masterpiece any less silly; maybe nothing could, except an intertitle in which the juvenile hero apologizes for his appearance, explaining that he'd been letting the laundry pile up and had to roll a drunken rodeo clown for his clothes. The twenty-five minutes' worth of rediscovered material doesn't substantially alter the film's narrative shape, but it's funny to see how much smoother and polished the epic feels with the proper reaction shots and establishing footage re-pasted back in. With the full measure of Lang's directorial confidence restored to the movie, it's easier than ever to see what parts of the movie retain their charm as a record of what theater artists were doing almost ninety years ago to suggest a possible future and what still works like gangbusters on its own terms. In his classic Illustrated History of the Horror Film--now in print, with an unfortunate still from The Invisible Man that looks like a burn victim enthusiastically sniffing someone's nylons, as a Da Capo paperback with the "corrected" title An Illustrated History Of Horror And Science-fiction Films, to mollify geeks unhappy about any blurring of the genres--Carlos Clarens made the case that what holds up best about it falls solidly on Dracula's side of the street: "That science fiction ages fast and horror remains timeless is demonstrated by the most effective sequence... in which Rotwang chases Maria with a flashlight through the underground tunnel until the terrified girl is ensnared like a moth by the beam of light." Overall, the film remains a dazzling experience. Metropolis always was and always will be a lumpy epic, but trying to be more dismissive about its faults than exultant about its glories is like telling King Kong that it's just not going to work out between him and the little blonde. Sometimes the true mediator between the head and the heart is the eyes.

I have always known people who tried to laugh off Lang in general and Metropolis in particular, citing the movie as pure style without substance. I imagine this has something to do with our all having made it through the 1980s, when Metropolis was so in sync with the retro-futurist vibe that was going down then (and that was captured for future generations in such movies as Blade Runner and Brazil) that Lang's eye-popping spectacle was the silent classic of choice for many a pinhead. I have no idea how many of them actually saw the movie, but there were pieces of it all over MTV, and in one horrifying move that helped set the summer of 1984 in stone as the low point of Western civilization, Giorgio Moroder supervised an 80-minute color-tinted version, set to a score featuring contributions from the likes of Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, and Loverboy, essentially turning the movie itself into MTV. All that seems like a distant nightmare now. It's true that Lang himself was later very dismissive of the movie, telling Peter Bogdanovich that "The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's [i.e., his screenwriter, A.K.A. Mrs. Fritz Lang at the time], but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart...It's very hard to talk about pictures— should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?" But if you make a movie that's intended to have a serious cautionary political message and ends with a pitch for universal brotherhood and it gets you invited to become head of propaganda filmmaking for the Nazis, and busts up your marriage to boot because your wife thinks it's a pretty sweet offer, you probably have good reason to feel a little frustrated.

Darren Aronofsky is probably my favorite current moviemaker who nobody else likes. Clearly, enough other people like his work that he keeps getting to make more of it, but most people I know thought that Pi, The Wrestler, and especially Requiem for a Dream to be not just overwrought but sadistic, where I was caught up in and moved by the characters' suffering. His latest, BLACK SWAN, is a ballet horror fantasy about a repressed, unhinged dancer (Natalie Portman) who is cast in the lead of company director Vincent Cassel's super-edgy new production of Swan Lake and learns to access her kinky-dangerous side, with results that prove better for her art than for her life. The movie has a big, arty concept--the action, which basically consists of Portman "losing" herself on her way to opening night, is meant to mirror the story of Swan Lake, and the closing credits helpfully rank the actors according both the characters they play in the movie and those characters' doppelgangers in the dance, to provide a leg up to the slow-witted in the audience--but it's really just a replay of Repulsion set in The Red Shoes territory, with nothing much to do besides watch as Portman gets more and more batshit.

This time, I do think there is an element of sadism present, though it's tough to say if it's there by design or because Portman doesn't inspire much viewer empathy. You don't really feel for her, and you don't want to see her snap out of it and get her head on straight, because if that happened, there wouldn't be a movie. (Others have detected a streak of sadism in some of the casting, especially in Aronofsky's use of Wynona Ryder as the washed-up, self-destructive, high-strung dancer who Portman displaces. I wish I could think there was a non-sadistic reason for Ryder to be in the movie; most of the other people in it can act, so it's not as if she blends in.) Black Swan does confirm Aronofsky's talent, but in a funny way: it's so confidently directed that you're held by it, and don't fall off your seat laughing, even when Portman's dancer is so into her role that her toes become webbed and she sprouts feathered wings onstage. I've seen movies were there was enough of a gap between the directors' talent and his brains that I didn't see how dopey they were until they were over; with Black Swan, I did see it, and gave up hope that it would get any smarter, but kept watching anyway. I don't really mean that as a recommendation, but if you want to take it that way, feel free.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching old monster movies on TV, movies in which you had to put up with a lot of dull footage of boring people wandering around talking about nothing much in exchange for a few minutes of stop-motion monsters, whose brief appearances would be carefully rationed out over the course of a feature film's running time. Growing up means seeing all the things you used to roll your eyes and yawn at brought back and heralded as daring new creative breakthroughs, and that seems to be the case with Gareth Edwards's MONSTERS, which is set in an area of Mexico that has become infested with big CGI monsters, the aftereffect of an alien invasion six years earlier. A cynical journalist (Scoot McNairy) meets up with a wandering young heiress (Whitney Able) and makes a deal with her rich daddy, who in one of those older movies would have been played by Walter Connolly or Eugene Pallette, to bring her home safely. The idea is that, after half a dozen years, the monsters are just one more irritation of daily life to be groused about; the leads drift along, bickering with each other in the time-honored manner of characters who are going to realize that they're in love just before the final fade, and every so once in a very great while, a monster rears up at the back of the screen, roars a bit, and takes his leave. The stuff in between the monster stuff isn't just supposed to be dull, it's supposed to be influenced by "mumblecore"--, except in a low-key, "mumblecore" way--Edwards has acknowledged the influence of In Search of a Midnight Kiss--but it still feels like filler, even if boringness is now a recognized cinematic movement.

The most scarily disorienting movie I've seen lately is THE "TEDDY" BEARS, a thirteen-minute silent film from 1907 that Turner Classic Movies showed as part of a collection of early shorts from Thomas Edison's studio. It starts out as a full-dress version of the Goldiocks story, with three actors in furry costumes trundling about onscreen as Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear. Given the antique feel of the movie itself, it has a certain amount of charm. Hey, says I to the Missus, who does like herself some cute every so often, check this out. She puts down her knitting and checks it out, as Goldilocks, who looks a bit like Joe Besser in a wig and a dress, wakes up to find the bear family staring at her. They chase her outside, where she encounters a hunter, who, to our horror, blasts Papa and Mama Bear, then steps over their corpses, slips a leash on the trauma-stunned Baby Bear, and leads him off, presumably to sell him as slave labor to Montgomery Burns.

"Why", says the Missus in her best you-ain't-gettin'-none-tonight-boy voice, "did you want me to see that!?" The reason, of course, is that I didn't see that one coming; I figured that it would end with the Bears chasing Joe Besser off, and maybe tearing him limb from limb or roasting him on a spit over a slow fire, which would have been fine, but not with this Clive Barker nightmare of a human hunter giving the adorable humanoid bears both barrels and selling their grieving offspring into slavery. Seeing this thing magically transports you to a time before Disney, before filmmakers dealing in anthropomorphic animals understood what they were working with and how audiences would respond to these strange creatures. Nothing else I've ever seen, no blackface comedy or colonial imperialist propaganda film or sexist daydream, had given me as full and unsettling a taste of a sensibility untouched by the cultural effects that have been shaping us for the past century or so. It reminded me of Robert Klein's monologue about the old Raid commercials featuring kitchens full of adorably anthropomorphized vermin. They're partying, having a ball. "I love them!" said Klein. "And then walks this big fascist bottle..."


Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Wow. I was moved to locate the Goldilocks movie on these here internets. Not half disturbing. I like how there's a placard in the bears' house proclaiming "God bless our home." WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!?

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