Saturday, March 31, 2012

American Landscapes

It took me a while to come around to F. W. Murnau. I've never really liked Nosferatu, which certainly brands me as a heretic in both horror spaces and among film critic types. I didn't much like the second film I saw by the director, either. That was The Haunted Castle, made a few years prior to Nosferatu. I liked Faust quite a bit. It had that grandiosity that only silent mega productions seem to have had and it was chock full of special effects. The young horror punk I used to be really dug all of this, but it didn't illuminate Murnau for me, not in any substantial way. Sunrise, on the other hand, blew me away. I came to Sunrise as an adult. I'm glad that I came to it after I had grown enough as a film-watcher to really "get" it, but even so, watching Sunrise was a surreal experience for me. All the while I was watching it, I was trying to reconcile the fact that this deliriously romantic reinvention of cinema was the work of the same man who made Nosferatu. I think the barrier was the fact that Murnau was a horror director in my then-insufficient understanding of film. I hadn't seen the quantum leaps the director was taking in films like The Last Laugh, because they were outside my tidy little personal taxonomy. In other words: in this as in many other things, the younger me was an idiot.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

7x7, or You Like Me, You Really, Really Like Me

I'm kind of blocked right now (as if regular readers haven't noticed that my posting has fallen off the cliff this week). I've been working on reviews of Murnau's City Girl and the new horror movie, Kill List, and I'm not liking either of them. Frankly, I struggled with writing about A Separation, too, so it's not anything unique to either of these movies. So instead, I'll respond to a meme. Rachel over at The Girl with the White Parasol tagged me for a 7x7 Award. I've been slow to respond, which is ungracious. I hope she'll forgive me.

Anyway, here's the award:

And here's the rules:

  • Tell everyone something that no one else knows about

  • Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories: Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, and Most Pride-worthy Piece

  • Pass this award on to seven other bloggers

So. Something about me that no one else knows about?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: Pea Green Boat Edition

Sometime last year, I was contacted by Cathy Reed Webber, who publishes a web zine called "Pea Green Boat." She wanted to know if she could reprint, "The Eternal City," my review of Metropolis. The theme for the issue she was putting together was "Uncanny," and she thought that my post would fit the theme to a "T." I'm always flattered when people like my writing and I liked the first issue of her zine, so I agreed.

"Uncanny" turned out to be a long time in coming, but it's finally out on the interwebs for your enjoyment. It's a 120 pages of writing about robots, transhumanism*, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, computer animation, and gaming, to name just a few of the topics. There's fiction, essay, poetry, art, cartoons. It's a pretty awesome zine, to tell you the truth. I'm proud to be in it. Interestingly, though, "The Eternal City" doesn't appear. There's a quote from my review, but not the whole thing. Between Cathy's invitation to contribute and the publication of the zine, I wrote a review of Tron: Legacy that I thought better fit her theme. She concurred. Hence, that's what she published.

For what it's worth, I don't mind this. "The Eternal City" is my most popular blog post by a wide margin. It's had thousands of page hits, so it's finding an audience. "The Ghost in the Machine?" Not so much. Less than a hundred. So I'm happy to give it new life because I'm proud of everything I write, even the relatively unloved.

Anyway, download the PDF and enjoy. As I say, it's a pretty terrific zine.

*N.B.: Contrary to my usual concerns with transgenderism, "transhumanism" is no relation.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Irreconcilable Differences

On the surface, A Separation (2011, directed by Asghar Farhadi) is a modest character study with careful observations of a marriage in freefall. The surface is deceptive. This is a film about truth and mystery whose questions open an inquiry into broader political and philosophical dimensions. This, along with the fact that the film is Iranian, makes it a political hot potato. There's been significant backlash against the film in Iran and its director is in exile. Becoming the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film only pours gasoline on the fire. For a film whose field of inquiry is so narrow and so modest, this all seems to the eyes of this Westerner to be surreal, though perhaps no more surreal than spectating the current political climate in the USA, which inadvertently lends this film a meaning to Americans that might not have been there even three years ago. The personal is political, I guess.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Youth in Revolt

I've been struggling to write about Pariah (2011, directed by Dee Rees). I'm not sure I'm going to be able to communicate what I think of it to a straight and or cis audience because so much of my reaction to it stems from being a not straight, not cis viewer. There's a certain gulf of understanding involved. It's not that I don't think a straight, cis audience wouldn't like or appreciate the movie--far from it--so much as I think that that audience will have a totally different experience of it. I'm saddled with my own privilege when watching it, too, given that this is very much a movie about a black experience of being queer, and that's something to which I have no connection at all. That I'm very much of two minds about Pariah doesn't help matters. So, as I say, I'm struggling. This is the fourth or fifth first paragraph that I've written. I haven't counted the first sentences I've aborted. I like to think that the heroine of Pariah would sympathize with this. She's a poet, after all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

He's Just Not That Into You

I'm fond of quoting Howard Hawks, particularly his assertion that a good movie consists of at least three good scenes and no bad scenes. It's a good critical standard, more rule of thumb than hard and fast criterion. Like every rule, though, it has its limitations. There are movies that put it to the test. One such movie is Like Crazy (2011, directed by Drake Doremus), which was a big hit at Sundance last year, where it took a Grand Jury Prize and a prize for lead actress Felicity Jones. I won't grouse about Felicity Jones. She's terrific. She's going to be a star. So is Anton Yelchin, probably. If Jennifer Lawrence isn't already a star, she'll be a superstar after next week. Like Crazy is likely to be one of those movies that film snobs hoard as a talisman of their coolness, given its collection of good actors in early-career roles. Not me, though. I didn't like it much, in spite of the fact that it has more than three good scenes and no really bad ones and the fact that it has superior performances. I think it's more a flaw in the overall design of the film than any individual fault in how it's filmed or how it's performed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

No Frothing at the Mouth

The conversation at the video store went something like this:

Video Store lady: "What about Martha Marcy May Marlene?"

Me: "Already saw it."

Her: "Hmmm...My Week with Marilyn?"

Me: "Saw that, too. I didn't like it, though Michelle Williams was awesome."

Her: "Melancholia?"

Me: "I don't do Lars von Trier movies."

Her: "You're into horror movies, right?"

Me (unsure of where this is going): "Um...yeesss..."

Her: "What about Rabies? That's that Israeli horror movie."

Me: "Israeli horror movie? Sold, American!"

It's hard to recommend films to me. I'm sure other hardcore movie freaks are the same way. Most of the time, when asked if I'm looking for anything in particular, I'll usually say "Just looking, thanks." This time, though, I actually appreciated the heads up. Rabies (2010, directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) is indeed an Israeli horror movie, though it's one that could use a better international title. Rabid animals and rabid humans do not appear in this film, much less rabid zombies or even rabid grannies. There's no frothing at the mouth whatsoever. So much for truth in advertising. In any case, when recommending movies for me to watch, novelty matters. I've never seen an Israeli horror movie before. I didn't even know they made them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Martian Odyssey

"I can remember as a child reading with breathless fascination the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I journeyed with John Carter, gentleman adventurer from Virginia, to "Barsoom," as Mars was known to its inhabitants. I followed herds of eight legged beasts of burden, the thoats. I won the hand of the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. I befriended a four-metre-high green fighting man named Tars Tarkas. I wandered within the spired cities and domed pumping stations of Barsoom, and along the verdant banks of the Nilosyrtis and Nepenthes canals. Might it really be possible - in fact and not in fancy - to venture with John Carter to the Kingdom of Helium on the planet Mars? Could we venture out on a summer evening, our way illuminated by the two hurtling moons of Barsoom, for a journey of high scientific adventure? ... I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood, arms resolutely outstretched in an empty field, imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there."

--Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. I preferred the John Carter books to the Tarzan books, mainly because of the fantasy elements (though Tarzan was certainly no stranger to fantasy). It always irked me that there were Tarzan films without number, but no movies set on Barsoom. If I squint, I can see Barsoom in Star Wars, thinly disguised as Tatooine. It's got some of the fauna and it has the two great lights in its sky, though Tatooine's lights are suns rather than moons. But Princess Leia was not Dejah Thoris. Not even once they put her in the slave girl get-up in Return of the Jedi. The first Barsoom book, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912. The first movie set on Barsoom arrives a hundred years later. This must surely be the longest case of development hell ever. I wish the resulting film, John Carter (2012, directed by Andrew Stanton) was worth that wait, but it's not. Not really. Though parts of it are magnificent.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Womanthology Exists!

I have photographic proof!

Now go pester your local comic book shop for it! Or order it from Amazon if you must.

(Oh, and my story is on page 139. I'm not showing it because I only got the one page and that would be giving away the store).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Put On Your Red Shoes and Dance With Me

"How can we know the dancer from the dance?" --William Butler Yeats

"It appears to be monumental only because it's art." -- Christo

Choreographer Pina Bausch is unknown to me. This isn't surprising. Of all the arts, dance is the one about which I know the least. So for me walking into Wim Wenders's new film about her was walking into terra incognito. I like seeing unfamiliar things in movies, actually. Show me something new and I am content. Or as another choreographer, Serge Diaghilev, once implored Jean Cocteau: "Astonish me."

Wenders's film, Pina (2011), acts as a eulogy and as a celebration of the choreographer. Pina died in 2009, shortly before the film commenced filming. Wenders assembles Pina's dance company and re-stages key performances and mostly gets out of the way, though not entirely. He interrupts an opening movement of The Rite of Spring with jarring cutaways to footage of the choreographer herself when it might have been wiser to let the dance itself play on. It mostly smooths itself out thereafter. This isn't a complete document of her various productions, after all, so all of the productions in the film are necessarily truncated in some way.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Empty Houses

At about the halfway point of Silent House (2012, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau), I turned to my companion and said something to the effect of, "What the hell are they going back in there for?" As a general rule of thumb, if I say anything at all while a film is unspooling before me, that's usually a bad sign. I sit through most movies, even bad ones, as silent as the grave. In this case, I wasn't having a bad time at all, so when this happened here, it was kind of a surprise. I mean, they were doing so well up to that point. I was digging it. And then the wheels really flew off. It's hard enough to stay in the moment with a horror movie. Don't give the audience an excuse to check out, guys, because they may not check back in even if, as in Silent House, the movie manages to cover its tracks in the end.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

My 2011 Muriels Ballot

The Muriel Awards posted their final standings over the weekend while I was out gallivanting around the film festival. They (predictably) named The Tree of Life as the best film of 2011. And that's fine. I don't mind being at odds with my friends in the movie-o-sphere. Nature loves diversity, after all. I promised to post my ballot after everything was posted, so here it is:

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

True/False 2012, Day Four: Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

The movies I saw on the last day of True/False continued to intersect with the other movies I've seen this weekend. The festival taken as a whole functions as a kind of mosaic, in which the individual pieces add up to a larger whole. This is the first year I've really noticed this, even though I'm sure that past festivals have been similarly constructed. I just never saw enough movies in past years to get the full effect. I saw thirteen movies this year, counting Secret Screenings. My second favorite film of the festival was secret. So was the lone film I didn't really like. It's probably just as well that I don't get to write about that one.

The three films I saw on Sunday were Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 1/2 Revolution, and The Imposter. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry circles around the same issues of art one finds in Maria Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, the same activism as 1/2 Revolution and How to Survive a Plague, and the same daredevil tweaking of corrupt power structures as The Ambassador. 1/2 Revolution has the same humanizing impulse toward Islam as Building Babel, the same sense of the subject as the creators of the film as How to Survive a Plague, and the same opposition to corrupt power as Ai Weiwei and The Ambassador. The Imposter has the same fuzzy relationship with "truth" as any number of films in the festival. It's appropriate, then, that The Imposter was the last film I saw before they started gathering up the chairs and rolling up the carpets.

Ai Weiwei is arguably the most influential living artist anywhere in the world. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (directed by Alison Klayman) is a catalog of why this is so. Ai is the artist who designed the "birds nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics then disavowed it when he saw the average people of Beijing driven from their homes to make room for the games. Following the Sichuan Earthquake, Ai made a project of finding the names of all of the schoolchildren who had died in the disaster. The authorities, he suspected, were under-reporting the numbers. At a show in Munich, he arranged hundreds of backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst to spell out "She lived happily for seven years in this world." These kinds of challenges to the state have not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. Since 2008, Ai has been under constant threat as a dissident. It's a miracle, really, that he's gotten away with as much as he has, but there's a reason for that. Through the viral spread of social media--and Ai is a master at using social media--he's become the highest profile artist in China. To simply get rid of him would be sticky for the government, not that they wouldn't do it.

The first narrative of the film is art. This narrative culminates in the sunflowers installation at the Tate Modern consisting of a hundred million mass produced porcelain sunflowers each individually painted by Chinese workers. It says something about China's role in the global economy at the same time that it celebrates the individuals who work in the system. There's a shot late in the film that would be an ideal end to any other film, in which Ai and his son stand facing each other on the bed of sunflower seeds at opposite sides of the screen. Unfortunately, the film's second narrative supercedes this. It would be a deceitful film if it had ended there.

The second narrative chronicles Ai's relationship with The State, and this is unhappy. He's under constant surveillance, he's cut off from most means of communication outside of China (except, significantly, for Twitter), and he was subjected to a beating by the Chengdu police. This last resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage while he was in Munich. Ai's attempts to redress this form a core part of his activism. It seems incredible to an American eye that Ai would have no redress for wrongs done by the state, but that very invulnerability is something that his work seeks to undo. When the film's screen goes black and a title card appears describing the artist's disappearance, there's a real sense of dread. Ai's arrest lasted 81 days, perhaps prompted by the Arab Spring.

There's a third narrative here, too, one beginning at least as far back as Ai's Black, Gray, and White Cover books. These were the precursors to viral information. You couldn't shop for them. You had to know someone to get them. Ai's online activities are at least as significant as his art and his activism, because it's what has spread his fame. There's a kernel of what political action against entrenched power is going to increasingly look like here, assuming that those forces don't succeed in cutting it all off at the ankles with things like SOPA. If the future isn't going to be a boot to the throat forever, as Orwell once speculated, then social media will be why.

Speaking of the Arab Spring, 1/2 Revolution (directed by Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi) throws the viewer into the middle of it. This is a film made by the participants, which means that their film is a ground level view of the events in Cairo in early February, 2011. This film watches the stages unfold, from zeal to optimism to fear to despair. The Egyptians managed to force Hosni Mubarak from office, but they didn't shrug off the structures that kept him in place. Once the military seized absolute power, it became clear that they may have gotten rid of the dictator, but the dictatorship remained. It's a pessimistic film.

The film's directors, Karim and Omar are part of a circle of friends who live in downtown Cairo, and in addition to participating in the marches and demonstrations, they also provide a glimpse of their family lives. This is something that puts a human face on the broader social movement, and they're canny in the way they translate their own personal concerns into a broader context. Their circle isn't a lot different than a boho circle of friends in New York or San Francisco. They're smart, likeable people, and the movie ratchets up the dread because we like them. They're engaging in something profoundly dangerous. The film communicates this with the street level footage of marches that turn into riots. These scenes have a visceral impact. For pure, white-knuckle suspense, this is better than most action films.

Of course, the film is incomplete. The "1/2" in the title should tell you that. The filmmakers ultimately fled for their own safety, and I can't blame them for that. The events in Egypt are still roiling. For that matter, there's precious little context provided for the events on screen, but that's okay. That's the job of another kind of documentary, one with talking heads. But that's not this movie. Extrapolating where this film leads is murky at best, and the future is unwritten anyway, so what the hell, eh?

This was my favorite film of this year's True/False.

The Imposter (directed by Bart Layton) is so utterly absurd that if someone ever decides to adapt it into a fictional feature, no one will believe it. The Imposter tells the unlikely story of a 23 year old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin who successfully impersonated a missing teen from San Antonio, Texas. The teen, Nicolas Barclay, disappeared three years prior. Bourdin, it turns out, is a pathological liar whose personal quirks lead him to impersonate minors as a way of putting himself in touch with a childhood he never had. That he got away with it for any length of time, though, well, that's where this story lies. This is a film that indulges in the Rashomon effect.

The film is up front with Bourdin's deception. Narrating the film's flashback reconstructions of the events, Bourdin himself tells the audience exactly what happened. There's no rug-pulling involved along those lines. What isn't so clear is why Nicolas Barclay's family accepted the deception. Bourdin obviously wasn't Nicolas. The boy had blue eyes, while Bourdin's eyes were brown. Bourdin was dark-haired. Nicolas had blonde. Bourdin spoke with a French accent. Did the Barclays so desperately need to be reunited with Nicolas that they could deceive themselves to that extent? Maybe. Two other characters muddy things. Charlie Parker, a private investigator for Hard Copy, sees through Bourdin at once, and suspects him of being some kind of a spy, then begins to wonder at the Barclays motives for not realizing who he is. He decides that something untoward happened to the real Nicolas. FBI Agent Nancy Fisher gets caught up in this idea, too. Nothing concerning Nicolas's disappearance has been resolved. The homicide case opened on the word of Bourdin and Parker remains open a decade later. We're left with a multiplicity of viewpoints, and no firm grasp on what really happened. It's a disturbing movie.

This is a hybrid documentary, in which great whacks of the movie are filmed recreations with actors playing the parts of the principles involved. The real people give their own testimony in separate vignettes. The filmmakers have deliberately stylized the recreations, as if they want to sully the veracity of everything they put on screen. The film is remarkably forthcoming with its facts, too. It scrupulously avoids passing Bourdin off as anything other than a charlatan. It doesn't prejudice the audience toward one point of view or another. That's smart, because the audience might become attached to one or the other characters otherwise and it's important to the film's thesis that this not happen. It manages this well enough, though Charlie Parker is a character right out of the movies, the kind of character that Charles Durning would play in a Hollywood version.

The end of The Imposter is confrontational. Carey Gibson, Nicolas's sister, tells the audience directly what she thinks of Frédéric Bourdin, while Bourdin tells the audience what he thinks of everyone. This last, is a pure portrait of sociopathy. Parker, for his part, ends the film standing on the edge of an open hole where the body of Nicolas Barclay has conspicuously not been found.

And on that note, the True/False Festival came to a close.

Monday, March 05, 2012

True/False 2012, Day Three: The Upside Down World

This is crossposted from Indiewire

There's a strange sense of connectedness between the films I'm seeing at this year's True/False festival. Whether that's accidental or because of the way True/False is curated, I can't say, but some of the movies I'm seeing seem to be rhymes of other movies. Sometimes it's visual. Sometimes it's thematic. Often, it's both. This year's films seem to be grouped around intersections of race, healthcare, art, queerness, and activism. Having said this, I can't actually support this observation as well as I'd like, because the keystone film that ties all of this together in my own mind is one of those secret screenings I can't talk about. Listening to the buzz around the fest, I get the feeling that more than one of those secret films would supply the glue for this feeling of intersectionality.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

True/False 2012, Day Two: The Influence Machine

This is crossposted from Indiewire.

"The thing is, directors and studios don't really like each other." Graphic designer Erik Buckham ought to know. He has a ringside seat. He designs movie posters. The nature of the business means that he deals with both studio marketing departments and control freak directors, but not always in equal measure. This comment explains a lot about why American movies look the way they do and a lot about why Buckham prefers to work on small films rather than big.

If you don't know Buckham's name, you probably know his work. His most famous poster is probably the "You don't get to 500 million friends..." poster for The Social Network. True/False asked him to design their poster and graphics this year and brought him to the festival to speak about what he does. He brought a slideshow of his past work, including multiple variations that never made the cut, as well as pieces that show the evolution of the concepts that make up his final work.

The process of making the True/False graphics was the centerpiece of the talk, and it showcased the evolution of image from concept to final product. The theme of this year's True/False festival, both in its visual presentation and in the various artworks scattered around the venues, is film as an "Influence Machine," and the final result progressed from fairly abstract, illustration-y images to a steampunk Van de Graaf generator, cobbled together in the poster art as a photo collage, and in real life as a huge sculpture in the lobby of the Missouri Theater. It also features in the arresting bumper reels that play at the beginning of each film.

Friday is when True/False transforms into a kind of arts carnival. Most of the shows have opening acts of busking musicians who pass a hat around the audience. I wish there were a greater diversity of musicians and musical styles beyond the kind of 1990s-ish indie folk rock that dominates the fest, but not enough to grouse overly much. The Friday parade up at the Boone County courthouse seems like a combination of open-air rave and homecoming celebration, complete with marching band. And, as I mentioned, there's art scattered across the various venues. All of this gives True/False its flavor.

The opening scenes of Building Babel (directed by David Osit) are a study in contrasts. First, we see the huge twin spotlights that mark the site of the World Trade Center. On the soundtrack are the phone messages directed at Sharif el-Gamal, the man behind the Park 51 Islamic Community Center--popularly misidentified as the "Ground Zero Mosque". The messages are a mixture of invective and nativist bigotry. To the callers, el-Gamal is an Islamic invader. The scene then switches to el-Gamal's home life as he gets his daughters ready for school. The man we meet in this scene is an American, born and bred in Brooklyn to a Catholic mother and a Muslim father. In his demeanor and his speech, he's a New Yorker, not different in any significant way from a devout New York Jew or New York Catholic. Therein lies the thesis of the movie. It wants to paint a broader picture of what it means to be an American, a picture that includes people like el-Gamal and his family. It wants to be a rebuke to nativism.

The movie's ostensible narrative finds el-Gamal and his team fending off an attempt to get the old Burlington Coat Factory where he's set up shop as a landmark building. There's nothing particularly notable about the building except its proximity to the World Trade Center. A piece of airplane wreckage fell on it on 9/11. Making it a landmark would prevent el-Gamal from remodeling the property. At the time, the building was in a state of dereliction, so it would unintentionally freeze it as a derelict, which seems antithetical to the idea of a landmark. Al-Gamal's team (rightly) argue that being in the path of a disaster isn't enough to make it a landmark. Does the guard rail that James Dean drove through on his way to his death qualify as a landmark? Most sensible people would say no, and the landmark commission turns out to be unanimously sensible.

In some respects, the community center and the uproar around it is beside the point. The film gives it lip service--it can't avoid it--but it expends more energy painting Sharif and his family as an all-American family, just like any other American family, and it's largely successful at this. But it doesn't deal with a fundamental problem in its thesis: why does it matter? If he is otherwise law-abiding, if he is otherwise a good citizen, what does it matter if he is totally assimilated or not? This is always the problems of a minority living within a majority, and the absence of a discussion of this is an elephant standing in the room. The movie works better as a character study of el-Gamal himself. It shows him warts and all. He's obviously an affable guy. He loves his kids and his wife, Rebecca (who is almost an equal partner in the film's attentions). He's a businessman who has bitten off a project for which he's totally unprepared. Still, he's perpetually optimistic, and that makes him archetypically American.

Building Babel was preceded by "Paraiso" (directed by Nadav Kurtz), a short film about skyscraper window washers in Chicago. I liked it better than the feature. Apart from the vertiginous locations over the sides of some very tall buildings (Mission: Impossible has nothing on this), it also touches on a bittersweet sense of mortality as its workers all contemplate their own deaths should they fall from their workplace. A beautiful film.

True/False isn't strictly a documentary festival. Its mission from the outset has been to showcase films in the fuzzy shadowland between truth and fiction, so it's not out of character at all for them to screen fiction. Last year, they showed Troll Hunter, based on its mockumentary styling. This year, they have V/H/S, a new wrinkle on the "found footage" subgenre. New wrinkles are sometimes wrapped around old forms, and in spite of its lo-res, found footage conceit, this is a familiar kind of film. This is our old friend, the anthology horror movie returned to life. V/H/S is a film that Milton Subotsky would have greenlit at Amicus in a heartbeat back in 1971. It's a close cousin to films like Tales from the Crypt, The House that Dripped Blood, and Torture Garden. There are five stories and a framing sequence. Like all anthologies, it's highly variable.

The premise finds a group of sociopathic friends hired to retrieve a mysterious VHS tape from a sinister house. Our "heroes" like to film their stunts, so they take their cameras with them. In the house, they find a dead body and a plethora of videotapes containing disturbing footage. The tapes they find provide the individual stories. In one, a couple of partying dudebros pick up the wrong woman in a bar, in another, a woman brings some of her friends into the woods to act as bait for a mad slasher. My favorite finds a couple on a second honeymoon terrorized by a mysterious woman who films them while they sleep. My least favorite finds another pack of partying dude bros lured to a haunted house. Mostly, they're all of a piece.

As far as horror movie tropes go, this doesn't reinvent the wheel. We get vampires and long-haired ghost girls and a haunted house. The slasher film segment provides a droll take on the penchant of mad slashers to move around the movie via off-screen teleportation. None of this is exactly new. What IS new is the form. Mostly filmed handheld and occasionally nausea inducing, this has a veneer of raw, undoctored footage (which, of course, it isn't--there are plenty of special effects). It's not unwatchable, but it takes some getting used to. I'm less sanguine about the depiction of gender in this film. Men in this movie are all douchebag dudebros. Women are generally there to be abused. The opening of the film has some disturbing rape imagery, while date rape figures into the first story and killer lesbians figure into another. I know that character development isn't necessarily the genre's strong point, especially in short form, but this film suffers from the lack more than most.

Watching V/H/S provided a nice callback to the Erik Buckham seminar earlier in the day because Buckham claimed the covers of old horror VHS tapes as one of his prime inspirations. He designed the art for The House of the Devil, too, and one of V/H/S's directors is Ti West. The experience of watching it is like sampling a bunch of old VHS horror movies after they've degraded a bit. Visually, the lo-fi grottiness of V/H/S is in the tradition of crappy 16mm blown up to 35 or the filmed through a glaze of dirt aesthetic of, say, Basket Case or I Spit on Your Grave. It's generally better than those movies, though it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Friday, March 02, 2012

True/False 2012, Day One: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Note: This is cross-posted from Indiewire.

The first movie I ever saw at Columbia, Missouri's True/False Film Festival was Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void nine years ago. The thing I remember best about that showing was the look of utter shell shock on MacDonald's face when he took the stage after the movie. True/False's audiences are large. That first audience had over a thousand people in it and the festival never looked back. Over the years, I've seen that look of shell shock on the faces of other directors as True/False has grown larger and larger. I kind of missed seeing it again this year, but I didn't go to the opening night jubilee for a change. The opening night film this year was Undefeated, fresh off winning the Best Documentary Academy Award, and I doubt we were going to out-dazzle Oscar when it comes to impressing the filmmakers. I reckon I'll have the chance to see Undefeated when Columbia's local Ragtag Cinema gets it, as it almost surely will. Or I'll see it on video. I'll have my chances, which is more than I can say about some of the other films playing this weekend. Sure, I missed the communal aspect of sitting in a big damn audience, but that's okay. The films I DID see provided the same experience in miniature without the premium price of the gala soirée that the opening night film has become. Besides, if I really want to see it with a big audience, it's the closing night film, too, and that showing is more geared to the hoi polloi who don't fancy getting dolled up. True/False schedules their opening night film in the stately Missouri Theater. The Missouri was a shipwrecked cathedral of a movie palace when the festival first began. It's been renovated over the years, and it's a swell place to watch a movie these days. Undefeated isn't the only film scheduled there, so it's all the same, I guess.

The first film to unspool at this year's festival was The Waiting Room, directed by Peter Nicks. The showing was packed into a converted ballroom at the old Tiger Hotel (which is not currently a hotel in spite of the big red sign on the roof). I didn't reserve a ticket for The Waiting Room, so I had the dubious pleasure of waiting in line. No trip to True/False is complete without the anxiety of queuing up for a movie with no guarantee of getting in. The organizers try to minimize the pain with their "Q" system, but that only means that you can go get a sandwich or an ice cream cone while you wait. Downtown Columbia is compact enough that most things are in easy walking distance during the 45 minutes you're likely to be waiting. For myself, I thought the title of the film was mocking me during the uneasy countdown of people waiting to get in. Fortunately, the movie itself was pretty good.

The Waiting Room is a chronicle of the day in the life of the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. It's set almost entirely in the eponymous waiting room, and in the small medical rooms where urgent care treats patients. During the Q&A after the movie, director Nicks claimed that his intention wasn't political and that he tried to keep the film as apolitical as possible. I'll give the film this much: it's not exactly a polemic. I don't know how successful he thought he would be at non-partisanship, because this film is a portrait of the wreckage of late capitalism. It can't help but have a point of view, given that the people who populate this film are disadvantaged and uninsured. Public hospitals are a provider of last resort, and there's an air of desperation in both the patients and the hospital staff. One patient, sent to Highland for dialysis, is tired of the runaround he receives whenever he shows up for his treatment. He demands that they pull his catheter. Another, a drug casualty, poses the ethical question of how to treat self-destructive patients who have no place to go after they're stabilized and how to prioritize the space to treat such patients in the face of a perpetually full waiting room (one member of the audience asked how the hospital could possibly give this person a bed when there were other, apparently more worthwhile patients, which just goes to show that the urge moralize when it comes to public policy is strong). Taken as a whole, The Waiting Room takes the measure of a systemic failure, where science, faith, and simple logistics--it goes into some detail about the logistics of ER triage--are all completely insufficient.

This is a pretty slick production. It indulges in stylistic flourishes, though not without purpose. The film's tendency to isolate its characters in shallow depth of field shots has the practical virtue of obscuring people who may not want to be in the shot, even as that very isolation focuses the audience on the faces and problems these people wear. There are a couple of time-lapse shots of the waiting room as a whole in which it rapidly fills, then empties, then fills again that are visual flourishes, sure, but they also suggest that the staff of Highland Hospital are basically shoveling sand against the tide. Two shots in particular followed me away from the movie: in one, a fifteen year old gunshot victim is wheeled to the freezer in the morgue. When the door to the freezer is closed, the filmmakers hold the shot a moment longer than pure reporting would dictate. In the other, a woman who is clearly unable to take care of herself is wheeled out to the bus stop after she is released. I wonder what happened to that woman. This is a character piece that follows several individuals, but it resists the urge to include various "where are they now" vignettes at the end. It doesn't have any tidy endings.

I probably made a mistake with my second movie of the night. True/False schedules several "Secret Screenings" every year. These are usually movies that are slated to premiere elsewhere. The secret film I saw was a good deal less polished than The Waiting Room, which occasionally resembles a television medical drama if I'm being honest about it. The secret film doesn't have the same kind of savoir faire of The Waiting Room, but it has a more focused rage underlying the story it tells and it has a chilling depiction of the appalling banality of evil. But I can't tell anyone about it and I want to scream. Maybe it's a good thing that True/False fancies itself a carnival of sorts, because I CAN tell you that the busking musicians who played before the show, a duo called Busman's Holiday, were pretty good. Of the movie itself, I can say no more.