Monday, September 24, 2012


Lawless (2012)
Dir. John Hillcoat
Written: Nick Motherfucking Cave
Starring Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman.

I don’t usually write about movies which are still in the theaters, since I feel like the hundreds of thousands of trained monkeys who already write about them around that internet I keep hearing about have that subject pretty well covered. But every once in awhile a film comes along that changes you in a profound way. That teaches you to look at the world differently, to experience more deeply, to love more richly. OK this isn’t that film, but it’s a damn fine one which is about 10 times better than it’s rap and what the hell, they haven’t made a new PUMPKINHEAD sequel in awhile so I figured I’d use my valuable time to tell you that you’ve really got to see this one. It’s awesome.

And of course, you have every reason to think it would be. John Hillcoat already has made two films which are available to you, those being THE PROPOSITION (2005) and THE ROAD (2010) and those both being one of the best films of their respective years. And screenwriter and composer Nick Cave has done many things cinematic and otherwise, all of those being the best ever regardless of year. This is the guy who wrote that famous rejected script for GLADIATOR 2 where Maximus is reincarnated by Roman gods to defend people throughout history. This is a guy who has played with Shane MacGowan, fucked PJ Harvey, covered Leonard Cohen, inspired praise by Wim Wenders, starred alongside Brad Pitt, written two novels, and authored an introduction to the fucking bible. How could anything he touches not turn to badass gold? Plus you got Tom Hardy, who has been doing amazingly ballsy work on everything from BRONSON to his shirtless Sean-Connery-plays-Darth-Vader turn in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Plus Guy Pearce, who would have top-tier badass credentials from THE PROPOSITION alone, even if you didn’t know about MEMENTO and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and so on. And Gary Oldman, who has notably played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Pontius Pilate and Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg.  That all totals up to a pretty good badass pedigree, from a purely scientific standpoint.

So I’m thinking maybe it’s that pedigree that causes it problems. Because that’s the only possible explanation I can think of for reviews like, “The center of narrative gravity is hard to locate; for whom are we rooting, and does anything really ripple outward from this nasty local fight?*” or “An inescapable sense of "so what?" sets in early with "Lawless,"** or most patronizingly, “Mr. Hardy mostly grunts, growls and ribbits, occasionally interrupting his angry bullfrog impersonation to deliver down-home bromides that make him sound like Toby Keith choking on a Cheeto.”***

It’s hard to fathom how otherwise generally sane critics could react to a film this good with that level of vitriol. In fact, only that nutball Richard Roeper seems to have gotten what the movie was going for. His review: “Bad-ass from start to finish.”

Seriously, this is one fucking badass movie. And really, that’s all there is to it. It’s a bad-ass movie made by a bunch of badasses at or near the top of their game, committing most of their formidable badass resources to making something really God Damn kick-you-in-the-gut-burn-down-your-village-defile-your-women badass. 

Still doesn't forgive TRANSFORMERS.

But for some reason, everyone wanted something different from this movie, so many critics turned to my least favorite trend in film criticism, which is criticizing a movie that doesn’t exist. They all list different specific deficiencies, but this movie that exists isn’t the one they wanted. What exactly is should have been no one can agree on, but definitely it should have been something different. They want more drama, or more scenes in the city, or more from the women, more real history, or most infuriating, more point to all the bloodshed. Everyone seems to be of the impression that because it’s an extremely violent film, it must have some noble objective to enlighten us and teach us a valuable lesson about humanity. No you jackasses, it’s just damn entertaining. Does DOG DAY AFTERNOON really have a big philosophical point to it? Does THE WILD BUNCH reach some big epiphany about our place in the world? Shit, does THE GODFATHER really have so much to teach us about the nature of evil in man? No god damn it, they’re just phenomenally made badass stories which are told by great storytellers. Now, this isn’t quite that caliber of filmmaking, but it’s in the ballpark. It’s an enormously gripping, meticulously constructed period gangster film, and that’s all it ever needed to be. It’s like when X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE came out and everyone said it was horrible because there were no aliens in it. How bout actually giving the film that does exist a chance, rather than whining that it’s not the film you personally imagined?

So, having gotten that out of the way, how about the actual film, bud? Is it any good?

Sure it’s good. Let me count the ways.

What we got here is a pretty simple period gangster story based on real history and then augmented in ways which make it more enjoyable. Hardy, LeBeouf and Clarke play three brothers in prohibition-era Appalachian Franklin County, Virginia. They, like seemingly everyone else in the county (dubbed “the wettest county in the world,” also the title of the book it was based on) are ignoring prohibition completely and making a tidy profit through their expertise in moonshining. As the money piles up, a corrupt D.A. and his sadistic enforcer Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce) move in to try and take the business for themselves, only to find that the three brothers in question don’t take kindly to being pushed around. Most of the movie consists of the ever-escalating battle between these two groups, and the ways in which the illegal alcohol trade pushes the brothers to grow (in particular youngest brother Jack, played by LeBeouf).

What are we supposed to learn from all this? Well, there might be some feasible parallels to the war on drugs, as we watch organized crime wrack bitter years of violence on this once-peaceful community. There might also be a hint of the Afghan war, with the US represented by smug, condescending outsider Rakes thinking that he can use force to change the culture of this isolated and proud region in his favor. There may even be something to take from it about the seductive nature of violence, and the way our own mythologizing about it can lead us places we can’t back away from. 

moonshine has many uses around the home.

But really, it’s just a tense, terrifically acted story of attack and reprisal, with a little period color thrown in for texture (which may well be one of those mixed metaphors you always hear about). And as such, it’s a pretty wild success. All three brothers are spectacularly good, but special praise should be reserved for Hardy as the monsyllablistic, supposedly indestructible eldest brother Forrest. He can express so much with a mere grunt that we may seriously have to take Billy Bob Thornton’s SLING BLADE crown and award it to Hardy for best non-language performance in American history (although Chewbacca still probably remains king of this category). Hardy draws Forrest as a truly unique creation -- more man of action than thinker, but perhaps not as simple as he might first appear. He’s the leader of the brothers, with an aura of quiet authority and an understated sense of both purpose and unassailable power. But he’s also a long way from infallible, as a series of miscalculations and surprises makes clear. It’s an understated performance of an oversized character, and it makes for one of the most memorable screen badasses in recent years.

But that’s Tom Hardy, you expect him to be great. But were you expecting a great performance from Shia LeBeouf as well? Well happy Rosh Hashanah kid, you got one. LeBeouf’s Jack is the heart of the movie, and his transformation from sensitive kid to merciless killer is the chief narrative thread that links the concatenation of bloodshed. It’s a really great performance because of how subtle the character shift is -- there’s not a single moment of transition, but rather a gradual slide which is never explicitly address but always mutedly apparent. Less subtle but equally successful is Guy Pearce, fearlessly taking his loathsome antagonist to heights of hateability rarely explored by less adventurous actors.

There’s a long and storied cinematic history to hateable villains intended to stoke our bloodlust, but you gotta respect someone playing a classic song with this level of perfection. Creating a truly detestable villain and transferring audience hatred into genuine cinematic catharsis is not as easy a thing to do as it might seem -- it takes careful, well-executed filmmaking of a story which is all broad strokes. Hillcoat pulls it off with such verve that it seems almost hilariously simple -- just like any well-orchestrated magic trick. In fact, I think part of the reason this film was so easy to write off is that it’s such a well-oiled machine that it never seems to be working very hard. It’s easy to miss the stunning dexterity Hillcoat shows in navigating between humor, moments of awkward humanity, hauntingly poetic visuals, and shocking bloody violence because it all feels so natural. In a lot of ways, I think LAWLESS got punished for not showing off enough. It has fantastic performances but no high-drama Oscar Clip scenes. Visual poetry to spare but only in service of the story. Sharp, well-staged action sequences but no over-the-top showstopper setpieces. A top-notch soundtrack but few scenes that overtly call attention to it. It’s interested in working as a whole, rather than showcasing how good its parts are -- which makes for a really great movie but not one which seems ostentatiously impressive.

Scars and stripes forever

Thinking about that also kind of explains everything about the lukewarm reception this thing got. Like poor EUREKA, it’s a movie they started to make as kind of a weird arty historical hybrid film, but then someone got the idea that the cast and the premise might actually make them some money. So suddenly, the name gets changed from the admittedly terrible “The Wettest County” to the completely generic “Lawless.” Horrible posters get struck up to emphasize the stars and play down everything unique and interesting about it. They do a series of character posters as if we’re going to fall in love with each character separately and demand a lucrative LAWLESS franchise with its related marketing tie-ins, product monetization, and cheapie spinoffs. They demand a running time of under two hours, add some narration to make sure no one gets lost, make sure everything has a nicely wrapped-up happy ending. None of this ruins the movie, but it’s all designed to try and lure an audience of normal people who will just find it off-putting and weird. Meanwhile, the highbrow film snobs look at the chintzy poster, the needless narration, the slightly shallower shorter cut, write withering reviews, and prevent a more adventurous audience from checking it out in the first place. And hence a perfectly excellent film with a great cast manages to alienate it’s entire audience and disappear from theaters without anyone who would actually like it ever having taken a look at it.*****

That having been said, there are a few problems here. For one, this cut does have a whiff of being trimmed down beyond what was good for it. A number of elements it introduces seem oddly truncated, most notably story threads relating to the strict German Baptist community that lives alongside our more sinful heroes and most story threads having to do with the city mobsters lead by Gary Oldman (who end up with a total of maybe four minor scenes). Neither feels exactly extraneous, but they both scream of themes which were intended to be further developed and subsequently feel noticeably unfished. Both female characters are simultaneously well-acted and underdeveloped, but you’re used to that. More troublingly, there’s a very occasional narration by LeBeouf which painfully over-explains things that are already obvious from watching. Both Hillcoat and Cave are smart enough to show us rather than tell us -- they know that this kind of storytelling shortcut is both alienating and unnecessary, and so I’m assuming it was a concession to the studio and a way to shave minutes off the runtime. But they should have put their foot down against it, because it’s about as necessary and seamless as Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. I suspect there’s a longer cut out there somewhere which manages to achieve the classic status that this cut is slightly too flawed to reach, which makes it a bit frustrating.

Who thought this would make people want to go see it? It looks like a Seagal DTV flick with a festival win.

Beyond that, there’s that [LIGHT SPOILER] troublesome and unnecessary happy ending which probably sums things up a little too neatly. The happy ending, amazingly, is true to history - maybe they felt like they had to include it, but it’s the only part of the film which comes across as labored and awkward. It feels like the end of AMERICAN GRAFFITI or HARRY POTTER PART 7 PART 2 where they unnecessarily lay out a bunch of stuff that happened to the characters after the story reaches its logical conclusion, undermining the finality of that closure and presenting nothing of particular relevance anyway. What, we need to know that everyone got married? If so, all we need is a final establishing shot of the clan all together to gather all the information we need. Having LeBeouf explain who married who, what jobs they got, what tax bracket they ended up with, where they’re insured, where they buy their gingham and so on belabors what should have been a simple, quiet grace note of an ending. [END LIGHT SPOILER]

Still, none of these things is enough to really hurt the LAWLESS experience. Even if its flaws keep it from the greatness that could have been, its still pretty damn great on its own terms. There’s a rootsy cover of the Velvet Underground’ “White Light/White Heat.” A series of tooth-shattering brass-knuckle beatdowns. Guy Pearce with hair so greasy it looks like it was painted onto his head. Why get bogged down in what might have been when what we got here is a genuinely fine little gangster movie, completely unique and filled with great touches? If it’s not quite CASINO, it’s at least THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. You can complain about it if you want, or you follow the example that Tom Hardy sets here: man up, drink some moonshine, and know when to shut up and have a good time. 

*Anthony Lane, New Yorker

**Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post

***A.O. Scott, New York Times****

**** What, you thought I didn’t know how to use actual footnotes? 

*****By the way, what kind of world do we live in where Roger Ebert gives LAWLESS and THE MASTER two-and-a-half-stars while POSSESSION and END OF WATCH get 3-and-a-half?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss (2011) aka Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog
Starring Werner Herzog “and Jason Burkett” according to the Netflix description. Claiming a multiple-murderer (and not even a very famous one) as a “star” seems kind of iffy in my opinion, and even weirder because he’s one of two murderers who get about equal screen time but his partner isn’t credited as a star. WTF Netflix, did Burkett have a better agent or something?

As we know from our past experiences with the wily German weirdo Werner Herzog, the only thing you can ever trust him to do is surprise you. I was prepared to be surprised upon seeing his second documentary of 2011 (following the fantastic CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS), because I knew it was supposed to be a movie about the death penalty, but then I heard that it was (as the name implies) Herzog’d away into a movie about the relationship humans have with death, particularly from the perspective of condemned death row inmates who know they’re about to die. But of course, the crafty German outwitted me again and double-faked me out by making a movie which actually isn’t about either of those things. I think it may actually be about life. I was gonna say that his next film will be a fluff piece about pregnant women which will actually be about death, but honestly that seems too obvious now. It’ll probably be a documentary about civil war reenactors which is actually about the tax code or something.

Anyway. INTO THE ABYSS revolves around the story of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas which resulted in the conviction of two teenagers - Jason Burkett and Michael Perry. Perry was given the death sentence, while Burkett got life in prison. Herzog interviews both, along with an assortment of family members, police, and various colorful tangentially related characters.

The weird thing about all of this, really, is how sort of normal it all is. In most ways, it’s a fairly straightforward telling of this particular pathetic story of pointless violence and ruined lives. Herzog never appears on-screen, narrates infrequently, and generally interviews the cast of characters you’d expect to be involved in any made-for-TV doc about this week’s headline-grabbing murder. The movies it most reminded me of was Joe Berlinger (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS)’s excellent series of docs about the West Memphis 3, PARADISE LOST. Those short documentaries are gripping, insightful, and I suppose its worth mentioning that they played a large role in exonerating 3 innocent kids who had been railroaded by Satanic Panic paranoia into being convicted for a crime it seems impossible for them to have committed. ABYSS actually very closely mirrors the construction of those films, which are known for utilizing real police video, crime scene footage, interviews the the families, the accused, and the locals in conjunction with poetic images and evocative music* to create a document which informs, moves, and challenges the viewer to try and discern the truth. The PARADISE LOST trilogy is pretty great, and Herzog copies their moves expertly. He lays out the story with the simplicity and elegance you’d expect, and probes the fact with what at times seems like almost journalistic keenness. Except, he’s not a journalist. He’s Werner Herzog. So you know he’s not just going to make a documentary telling the story of a crime from ten years ago in some one-cow redneck purgatory in Texas. What the fuck is he up to?

Herzog attempts to connect to normal human beings by talking about Baywatch.

Herzog himself, in a way, is what makes this unusual. He’s so obviously out of place in this world of trailer parks, ubiquitous gun ownership, and “thank you Jesus”es that he brings out weird things in his interview victims. I’m not saying I think they’re being disingenuous, I just think the off-putting nature of suddenly being psychologically probed by this deadpan German nutball shakes them out of their scripted roles on the subject. They’ve all seen this drama unfold on TV countless times, they know how it plays out. But I’m betting most of these folks wouldn’t have suddenly waxed poetic about, say, the heartbreaking natural beauty of a bird in flight had they not been prompted by the romantic tenor of Herzog’s questions.

It would be easy to see this as a bad thing: Herzog is such an outsider here that getting people to perceive him as a kindred spirit with whom to share their mundane daily reality is a virtual impossibility. For better or worse, these people are acutely aware that they’re talking to someone way outside their usual experience, and that he’s making some kind of artsy Euro-documentary on them. It’s probably not the best way to infiltrate this community looking for the hidden truth which has eluded other researchers. Is either of these boys actually innocent? Everyone interviewed knows they’re gonna end up in a movie theater, so they’re not especially inclined to turn over rocks for him and reveal the squirming rot underneath this otherwise merely pathetic community.

But if it means Herzog is unlikely to trick someone into revealing their hidden crimes to him, it compensates by shaking them out of their stupor and putting them in a position where they may be asking themselves things they haven’t ever had to before. It opens them up to talk about their lives as they imagine them, as they perceive them, and in some cases almost certainly the way they wish them. Herzog doesn’t really care about the literal truth, nor does he make any effort to pursue it. But he’s very interested in the emotional truth, something which I suspect most of these people had never really been given the chance to ponder in this manner. The result is that interviewees are caught oddly off-guard by their own emotion, seeming frequently not to suspect how deeply sad they are until it suddenly, unexpectedly, bubbles up from below to answer some seemingly benign question. I’m not sure they could reveal this side of themselves to a fellow Texan, armed with the same cultural norms and expectations. But with an incomprehensible German maniac asking seemingly unrelated questions about their tattoos and favorite sports teams, all bets are off, their guard comes down, and suddenly it can all spill out.    

And over here is where they found the dessicated corpse of your last shred of hope for humanity

    To get to this, though, Herzog first has to carefully lay out all the pieces of this drama for us so we have some context. And sweet Zeus, they are some fucking depressing pieces. This movie is a bigger heartbreaker than double fried twinkie with sugar lard filling. It begins by hinting at the horror we’re about to explore through what we’re told is the actual police footage of the crime scene, which may genuinely be among the most chilling film images I’ve ever watched. The hand-held camera ominously pans around a fancy suburban home, but something is wrong. The TV is burning but no one is around. A half - rolled pan of cookies --cookies!!-- is sitting on the counter, but no one seems to have come back to finish it. Then the camera notices the blood. Splattered up to the ceiling by the front door. Then a long bloody trail through the house out into the garage. Where there’s a god damn bloody teddy bear sitting forlornly on the red-spattered concrete. That’s right. A mother fucking teddy bear, in defiance of all logic, reason and decently.

Then we move on to the police footage of the body dump. I admit that I’m not a trained law-enforcement professional, but is is normal police procedure to film these crime scenes in the dead of the night and then to zoom in and focus on hauntingly poetic details like kid’s tennis shoe just barely visible through the trees or a woman’s manicured hand --complete with wedding ring-- floating near the surface of the murky water? Because fuck that. If you put those shots in one of those tedious found footage horror movies they have now, I would laugh at how ridiculously overwrought and unbelievable it was. Come on guys, don’t you think the forlorn tennis shoe and the bloody teddy bear is laying it on a little thick? But here it’s real.

And that’s all before we talk to the killers, the hopeless illiterate redneck alcoholic townies, the also-imprisoned father of one of the boys, the cops who shot roughly six or seven hundred thousand rounds at the escaping suspects’ car, bodies, and surrounding buildings, and the brother of one victim and sister and daughter of the other two. That’s sister and daughter. Both. That’s right, this poor girl lost her mom and her brother in one day. But wait, it gets worse. It wouldn’t be so bad, she says, if she hadn’t just lost her father 6 months earlier. And even that wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been a priest who was going to officiate her wedding. But even that wouldn’t have been so depressing if he hadn’t died horribly in a train accident. Which also killed her other brother. And the family dog. And the family DOG. The. family. dog.

That’s pretty fucking depressing, you might be thinking. Well fuck you, you don’t know what depressing is, jack. For a true pro at being depressing like this chick, that shit barely registers. It’s the equivalent for you and me of discovering that the leftover Chinese food we were planning on eating has spoiled, or at worst a particularly underwhelming sequel to a decent movie, maybe JURASSIC PARK 3 level. No, to really get nice and depressing she’s also got to point out that this was all after her one uncle had OD’d on fucking heroin, another had hung himself, a third shot himself because he was dying of cancer, and I think she mentioned that a fourth went on to direct ATLAS SHRUGGED PART 1, might be wrong about that one its hard to remember things with all this crippling, stupefying depression and whatnot. It was right at this point that I suddenly started to wonder if this was actually some kind of weird German misery porn joke, kind of a companion piece to that (mock?)umentary where Werner Herzog and the dumpy bald guy who wrote X-MEN 2 get menaced by the Loch Ness monster.** Or maybe something along the lines of Lars Von Triers’ Bjork-torturing misery-porn comedy masterpiece DANCER IN THE DARK, but one-upped by presenting it as a real story. 

These three movies came out the same weekend, which in a complete coincidence also coincided with the highest annual rate of people weeping uncontrollably until they gouged their own eyes out.

I don’t think it is, but it’s definitely possible to reach a breaking point on the misery here, after which you’re either going to turn if off and go kick a puppy, or just end up burning out and becoming a bit distanced from things. Of course, it’s right around this point that Herzog switches gears again, moving away from telling the story and instead trying to probe all of those involved as to what it all means. And one of the most admirable things the film seems to suggest is that it’s unreasonable and foolhardy to really draw *any* kind of specific meaning or lesson from any of this. It’s all a confusing tangle of stupidity, randomness, pain, and confusion that resolutely refuses to draw itself into any kind of patronizing moral. Even the facts of the case beg some incredulity. There are clearly major parts of this story missing, but then again the more you learn the less sense any of it seems to makes. Not in a West Memphis Three “this railroading justice system made a case which everyone bought even though it makes no sense!” kind of way, more in a way which suggests how incomprehensibly complicated and nebulous the world is, and how strongly it resists our attempts to pin it down into a clear, coherent narrative. That’s why Herzog seems so disinterested in probing the facts of the case the way, say, Erroll Morris might do. Life itself is way too unfathomable to make it possible to try and distill an honest narrative from it. To try and make it into a reassuring morality fable with clear action and consequences would be dishonest -- all that we can really do is ask how it affects us, personally.. And that’s what Herzog does.

So the rest of the movie is Herzog probing those involved for meaning -- asking them not what happened, but how it changed them, what it means to them. There’s a horror story here as well, of course, but one with a little more nuance than the pathetic, dismal facts of the case. Most movingly, Herzog speaks to Jason Burkett’s father, a stunningly articulate guy, himself incarcerated, whose haunted eyes reveal even more than his impassioned words how deeply guilty he feels for the role his own fucked up fathering played in turning his son into a killer. There’s also an amazing interview with a former death row captain named Fred Allen who snapped and walked off the job for reasons even he can’t quite put into words. Herzog begins the film by mentioning that he doesn’t believe in the death penalty, but this is the only section which really directly addresses that topic. Perry and Burkett killed three people, but this bearded middle-aged workman sitting in a spacious Texas living room helped to kill 127. They were all legal, government-sanctioned deaths, he was just doing his job and even tried to do it as humanely as possible. But the horrible psychological scars all that killing left on him are obvious. We’re rightly repulsed by Perry and Burkett’s senseless and remorseless murders, but of course as a society we’re equally willing to decide who does and does not deserve to live, and equally dispassionate about killing people we decide we want dead. We can also be equally capricious. There’s no reason to believe Burkett and Perry were anything other than equally guilty, but Burkett’s deadbeat dad tearfully talked a jury out of the death penalty for his son. Perry didn’t have anyone as eloquent making a plea on his behalf, and so he died. Herzog makes no explicit commentary on any of this, but he doesn’t need to.  

The face of a killer.

Sometimes Herzog’s interviewees open up with remarkable and unexpected humanity and passion. Not always, though. Most horrifyingly, Herzog talks to a cheerful, somewhat pretty young lady in a spacious suburban home who turns out to be Jason Burkett’s wife. Oh, that’s funny, they didn’t mention he was married when he got arrested, and I don’t see how he could have met someone and gotten married in pris.... oh. “I never thought I’d be someone who would marry a guy in prison!” giggles this horrifying woman who was just writing letters to incarcerated multiple-murderers for no reason, definitely not because she’s a kinky psycho.*** There’s a deeply uncomfortable part where she describes holding Burkett’s hand, gushing that he ‘completely covers me, taking complete control and never letting me go!’ Isn’t that sweet? You can almost hear the boom operators grinding their teeth. She chipperly brushes off any question of Burkett’s guilt, all she’s interested in is getting as many babies as possible out of him. That’s right, babies. “I want fifty children,” the incarcerated multiple murderer quips. Thank God they’re separated by glass and men with guns and there’s no possible way for that to happen, right?

This leads most horrific camera zoom-out in cinematic history, and the viewer leaping to his or her feet and shouting, “Don’t you dare fucking tell me what I think you’re going to tell me, you devious sadistic kraut bastard!”

So yeah, it’s a horror story, but in Herzog’s hands it also becomes much more. It’s about, I believe, how we react to death, and how bringing more death into the world --regardless of the reason-- changes us and changes the world itself. In the prologue to the film, Herzog talks to a prison chaplain about how he deals with administering religious rites to men who are about to be killed. The guy tearfully explains that he focuses on life, and especially his appreciation of nature, instead -- leading Herzog to hilariously deadpan “tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” It’s a funny line, but he means it sincerely and really, is it any more ludicrous than all the death and pain brought about because two teenage rednecks wanted to drive a red sports car? Life itself is absurd, but we have to celebrate it anyway, because the alternative... well, the alternative is documented all too well herein. In a world too arbitrary and strange to make much sense of, all you can really do is get out there, watch some Werner Herzog movies, try to be nice to people, and make sure to encounter a squirrel or two.

*In Herzog’s case, that music is by ROMAN POLANKSI: WANTED AND DESIRED composer Mark Degli Antoni. In Berlinger’s, it’s Metallica. But you got to remember, that was the 90s so I swear to you that it seemed emotionally powerful at the time. And hey, turns out Antoni was the keyboard player for Soul Coughing, so they got the 90’s alt rock thing going here, too.


***Think about that the next time you’re not getting laid.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cartoon Noir

Catroon Noir (1999)
Dir. Piotr Dumala, Jiri Barta, Paul Vester, Pedro Serrazina, Suzanne Pitt, Julie Zammarchi
Starring drawings

In preparing for my Annual October Horror-movie marathon (now tentatively titled “Chainsawnukah: Festival of Frights”) I was suddenly struck by the desire to include some animated titles. I had been watching a couple of Ralph Bakshi fantasy films, including WIZARDS and FIRE AND ICE, which along with his creepy LORD OF THE RINGS PART I BUT THERE WILL NEVER BE A PART 2 SORRY go a long way towards demonstrating how the slight exaggerations inherent in a skilled animation can hew towards the nightmarish even in service of a more normal story. Horror is about distortion, right? About taking our regular world and turning it perverse and threatening and alien. There must, then, be some horror titles out there which have made use of this curious fact to produce some epically disturbing little animations. I mean, there must be. Right?

Nope. Turns out there are virtually none. It took until 2007 for the damn French to make one (a pretty good little anthology called FEAR(S) OF THE DARK). Seems like that should have happened way earlier. A concentrated search for animated horror films turned up mostly films from the last 10 years -- the DTV DEAD SPACE film, that animated BLACK FREIGHTER thing from WATCHMEN, a barely-animated indie comedy called CITY OF ROTT from 2006, CORALINE from 2009. In fact, if you search for “animated horror films” you’ll get lists that include such questionable items as MONSTER HOUSE, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (!?), THE CORPSE BRIDE, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and so on, apparently just to fill out a list which is otherwise a little bare. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that these are mostly kids’ movies -- America still seems to view animation exclusively the province of two major demographics, those being kids and Japanese weirdos who want to see women being raped by giant cephalopods. Of course, they view art as being something of a pinnacle of high-minded adult fare, but I guess that only applies to still images, not a series of still images which when viewed in rapid succession... well, you get the idea. So on the rare occasions where animation gets the opportunity to delve into darker subjects, it’s mostly just to produce cutesy monster parodies stylistically similar enough to Pokemon that they can hope parents will be fooled into buying the wrong movie by mistake. Wikipedia lists only 7 films under its “animated horror films” page, and two of those are parodies and two are god damn ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS movies. Of the rest, one is a MONSTER HOUSE, one is that French one I mentioned already, and one is an out-of-print anime called SHOJO TSUBAKI: CHIKA GENTO GEKIGA which admittedly does sound pretty fucked up* but is apparently mostly comprised of still images and is only 56 minutes long.

You’d think anime at least would be able to fill the horror gap which obviously exists in American animation, but of course the Japanese are way too weird to make straight-up horror movies anyway. I mean, is AKIRA a horror movie? It’s pretty fucked up, but I don’t know if it’s intended to be scary. Or actually, what exactly it’s intended to be, period. There are a bunch of animes titles tossed around on these lists, including SPIRITED AWAY, GHOST IN THE SHELL, VAMPIRE HUNTER D, DEATH NOTE, and the admittedly awesome-sounding BIOHUNTER. Nothing against those films, but their descriptions are usually something like drama/romance/horror/action/sci-fi, which seems to be pretty typical of the animes I’ve watched but leaves a little something to be desired in the horror department. The only one I could find that I remain hopeful about is something called PERFECT BLUE, which judging from the available information is a pretty committed serial killer flick (“If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they’d make a picture like this!,” according to Roger Corman, who seems like he’d know).

But, the quest did lead me to one item of interest, 1999’s anthology of dark animations appropriately titled CARTOON NOIR. It’s not horror, but it’s a compendium of top-notch artists using varied mediums to evoke anxiety, despair, shock, fear, sadness and whimsy in ways which could never be accomplished with live action. There’s no framing story or anything, so it’s basically a collection of unrelated short films -- but it manages to tie together the way a good mix tape does, finding the right progression of styles and managing to be both emotionally affecting and a simple giddy playground for filmmakers experimenting with maybe the most versatile and underexplored medium in existence. Let’s break it down and talk about each one individually (and by the way, if you can’t find a copy of the movie, most of these shorts are available online and linked in the text).

Er, it doesn't match my furniture.

Piotr Dumala “Gentle Spirit”: This series of mostly still paintings (on what looks like some kind of textured cloth?) is a symbolic look back on a man’s troubled relationship with his dead wife (I think. Or maybe she’s a ghost?). Grim in a way that only that only a Polish film about death, love, pain, and hopelessness really could be. The limited motion gives an almost stop-motion feel which combines with fluidly animated morphing and flowing drawings for an extremely disconcerting effect. Quiet and extremely dark (both literally and thematically ), there’s a level of despair here which makes you feel like you’ve just barely escaped when it’s over. 

Jiri Barta “Club of the Discarded”: Czech stop-motion film about abandoned mannequins who have their own bizarre parallel life in a dilapidated warehouse. The mannequins eerily mime human activities all day, every day, in the exact same way. We know this because we watch them do it two or three times, all the way through their whole day. It’s kinda creepy, kinda fascinating, and kinda boring. Their routine is interrupted by the arrival of some fancy chic new Eurosleaze fashion mannequins, and a madcap fight for control ensues. But silently and awkwardly because they’re stop-motion mannequins. Has some funny moments, but overall a bit hard to sit through (particularly since it’s the longest segment). I suspect it’s some kind of metaphor, but I don’t care.

Paul Vester “Abductees”: England’s Paul Vester takes on perhaps the most interesting gimmick in the film -- he films actual (alien) abductees describing their abduction experiences, and then animates the stories they describe in a variety of styles. It sounds like a great opportunity to really do something creepy (not entirely dissimilar to the way the flawed but interesting THE FOURTH KIND mixed real interviews with reenactments) but Vester doesn’t go that route. The drawing tends toward the childlike and whimsical, even when the people describing them are obviously terrified (one, under hypnosis, gives a genuinely chilling account which is uneasily wedded to images of cutesy smiling aliens against bright, primary colored backgrounds). I think these may be attempts to render the animation in the same style as the person who is speaking depicted it (at the start, we see drawings made by the abductees). While this is a thoughtful approach to using animation to retain the “voice” of the person telling the story, I feel that this is the wrong way to go-- you’re the animator, Paul. They’re depicting what they’ve seen and experienced as well as they can, but you don’t do their story much good by mimicking their limited ability to express themselves in this medium. Sometimes it feel convincingly dreamlike (which is how many the experiences seem to be described) but other times it feels somewhat cutesy and even a little condescending to these folks who we have every reason to believe at least think they are telling a truthful story. Animation, more than any other visual medium, has the power to be enormously expressive and subjective while still maintaining a consistent internal reality. Vester would have wiser to use animation to explore the character of these experiences (which are especially perfectly suited for animation, since they’re so surreal and intense to the people describing them) rather than using the animation as an extension of the abductees telling their own story.

Finally, concrete proof that will silence the skeptics forever.

Pedro Serrazina “The Story of the Cat and the Moon”: Gorgeous high contrast black-and-white animation accompanies this perhaps overly-precious Portuguese tale of a Cat who falls in love with the moon. Yes, we get it, it’s a metaphor for a love that can never be. It’s a simplistic, romantic vision which gets a huge boost from animator Yann Thual’s fluid, effervescent animated world which continually reshapes itself into bold black and white abstractions and kinetic flurries of movement (Manuel Tentugal’s moody, yearning string score also helps bolster the mood). It’s probably the best, most evocative animation in the whole film, but in some ways the least ambitious. For cat lovers, lunarphiles and born romantics, it’s gauranteed catnip, but for people looking for something a little more challenging, it may seem a little slight. Still, at a lean 5 minutes runtime, there’s plenty to love here -- particularly the unexpectedly affecting ending.

This can't end well.

Julie Zammarchi “Ape”: After the relative normalcy of “Cat and the Moon,” imagine my surprise at seeing a unexpected visualization of one of my favorite poet’s weirdest, creepiest poem. Russell Edson’s collection “The Tunnel” was hugely influential to me as a youngster in its unique blend of dreamy gentility and unexpected venom expressed in a simple, almost minimalistic rush of blank verse. “Ape”  is one of his most visceral, enigmatic works, and Zammarchi’s frenzied, twitchy take on it brings out the savagrey which is often lurking under the surface in Edon’s work (and here, barely concealed). Zammarchi delights in bringing forth the lusty, weirdly sexualized side of the poem, using both sounds and pictures to bring forth something which is almost uncomfortable in its fetishistic depiction of sensation and texture. What the fuck does it mean? I’ve never really been sure, but the poem’s language along with Zammarchi’s bold illustrations truly give it a nightmarish ferocity, like a bad dream boiling under the surface of a placid mind. Like the Abductees’ dreamlike recounting of their experiences in Paul Vester’s short, Edson’s poetry invites a depiction which blends the literal and the surreal in a way that only animation really allows, making this, in my estimation, one of the more effective shorts in the film.

This story makes no sense and I'll tell you why. That thing in her arms is clearly a monkey. Not an ape. Look at the god damn TAIL for crissakes. Do apes have tales? Can you think of one mother fucking ape that has a tail? No you damn well can't because only monkeys have tails. Read a biology book you Philistine.

Susan Pitt “Joy Street”: CARTOON NOIR ends with this longer, lushly illustrated tale of despair directed by American animator and painter Susan Pitt**. It involves a deeply depressed woman who mopes around smoking cigarettes in her impressionistic apartment, finding comfort only in a cheery cartoon mouse statue which sits atop her ashtray. As her despair deepens, she decides to take her own life and her apartment becomes increasingly unglued to reality, writhing and squirming in tune to her inner agony. As she collapses onto her bed, something unepxected happens: the cartoon mouse statue on her desk suddenly springs to life, bouncing around with the chipper energy of an early Mickey Mouse short (an association I suspect is not lost on Pitt). He dances around to a frantic, energetically animated version of “What a Wonderful World” until he discovers the bloody-wristed corpse in the bedroom. And then things get really depressing. OK, so the irony is cheap, but the animation is stunning. Pitt’s impressionistic paintings come seamlessly to life as disturbing visions of bloody animals and floating corpses bubble up from the apartment’s gray squalor. The sharp, imaginative drawings give the dancing mouse incredible life and expressiveness, so even though it’s kinda a cheap shot to juxtapose his manic, cartoony joyfullness with the morose fatalism of a suicide victim it’s still pretty painful to watch. Pitt’s use of color is bolder and her animated characters more energetic than most of the other shorts, so there’s a genuine pleasure in the visual flights of fancy that cut through the grim subject matter. In some ways its not a particularly deep short, but the expert animation’s ability to effortlessly bring the viewer to despair, horror, amusement, and -yes- joy, in just a brief 20 minutes is testament to animation’s ability to evoke intense feelings using pure cinema. 

For sale: Joy Street Apartment. Motivated seller.

Overall, there’s nothing exactly revolutionary or boundary-pushing in CARTOON NOIR. I don’t think any of these shorts is as cruel and bleak as Martin Rosen’s THE PLAGUE DOGS from back in 1982, and particularly now that cartoonish nihilism and ultraviolence are played for laughs in things like “Metalocalypse,” I’m not sure I really see the point in going in that direction anyway. But I do think CARTOON NOIR continues to make an excellent case for animation’s ability to reach past the confines of literal depiction, bypassing our rational mind and going deeper into the subconscious than all but the most gifted live-action directors can manage. These six filmmakers do their medium proud, creating memorable and unique works, but come on, this should be only the beginning. It’s so obviously effective that even watching the film it feels deeply frustrating that more artists aren’t taking advantage of the medium.

These artists demonstrate strong visual imagination, but I what I really want is this kind of visual innovation applied by an artist who has an equally strong narrative imagination to pair it with. Can you imagine letting someone like Dario Argento-- who already has an apathy bordering on contempt for reality-- play in a world which could truly reflect his ever-shifting, outlandishly perverse inner nightmare? Or, god help us all, Alejandro Jodorowsky? The ever-restless Richard Linklater has dabbled in the medium a few times (with WAKING LIFE [2001] and A SCANNER DARKLY[2006]), but while he’s an amazingly ambitious narrative filmmaker he’s never shown much interest in equally pioneering visuals and hence his animations tend to be mundane and flat, mostly missing the dynamic illustrative possibilities they offer.  

Ironically, it’s so far been the special-effects monkeys (Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron) who have been most aggressively taking advantage of the freedom a truly animated world has to offer in terms of shot composition -- but they’ve all been bogged down by trying to make it look “realistic,” missing the obvious opportunities a world which can be exaggerated and transmogrified at will can bring. Spielberg et al use their new digital toybox to create some truly impressive setpieces, but they leave almost completely unexplored the possibility of exaggerating not just the scale of the action, but the subjective intensity of the experience. Not that I’m criticizing them -- they’re just using this tool (now tarted up with computers, but fundamentally the same) to do what they’ve always done without the limits they once had. But I think it’s time for some folks with a more evocative goal to realize that this is a gift that has been given to them as well. It’s more than just a means to depict things which would be difficult to film, its a means of literally infusing every aspect of an image with the restless evolution of the human soul. And some horror director out there needs to hole up with a bunch of gifted artists like the ones showcased in CARTOON NOIR and really pour out the phantasmagoric depravity of their particular human soul into an animated feature which lets that soul fly its freak flag high. Not so fast, Japan.  

*”a young girl called Midori who ends up in a circus...she is doing all the hard work for everyone else, and gets raped and molested by freaks.” Way to defy the stereotype, Japan. One IMBD reviewer raves, “It will hurt you emotionally and upset you but it will stick in your mind for days on end!”

**Whose 35 minute film ASPARAGUS was apparently screened with David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD for years. That alone makes her a true American hero, and when combined with the knowledge that the film’s title is spelled out by a series of hefty asparagus trunks shit into a toilet bowl, you can pretty much assume this is an artist for the ages.