"As If Richard Matheson Had Written a Terrence Malick Film": Stake Land (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 1, 2011 11:55pm | Post a Comment
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Following last week's release of Kelly Reichardt's languorous westerner Meek's Cutoff, we get Jim Mickle's not quite as languorous (or, even, as) post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land. It has more visceral violence (and vampires, of course) than the former, but enough contemplative wide shots of trudging through dull colored landscapes to capture the imagination of the average boring-film cineaste -- the kind who uses terms like poetic realism and lyricism, and, when reaching for the sublime, suggests Terrence Malick (or, if really wanting to prove his or her bona fides, Tarr, Tarkovsky, or Bresson). Vampire films aren't exactly made for this type (excepting maybe Carl Dreyer's Vampyr), but Mickle tries by -- according to many reviews that dealt with his supposed literary precedents -- grafting the subgenre onto Cormac McCarthy's sci-fi bildungsroman The Road, an ideologically boring version of growing up after the apocalypse. To wit:
  • Now, it's perfectly true that the story of Stake Land is strikingly similar to that of The Road, the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel that reached the screen last year by way of Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (except with that film's portentous, minimalist allegory replaced with an actual story). -- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon  
  • Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find much to enjoy in this sombre and nerve-wracking post-apocalyptic horror film[.] -- Bruce Jones, The New Yorker
  • Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you have Stake Land[.] -- Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International
The odd man out here is O'Hehir, who takes a stand for good old genre plotting over "minimalist allegory," which is another way of saying aestheticized tedium. As it happens, his evaluation is correct, but not because of plot always trumping boredom. I love minimalism too much to not believe in the aesthetic value of monotony. David Foster Wallace was on to something in detailing the drudgery of IRS accountants in his last, incomplete and posthumous novel, The Pale King: that even their work can be interesting and meaningful if one looks long enough. But others might suggest that the author's suicide before the book was finished calls into question the value of studying ennui (as Jonathan Raban says in the link, "a brute denial of all that he intended" the book "to stand for"). Nevertheless, Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road lost a great deal by abbreviating McCarthy's longueurs. The hardship of a long travel through a barren wasteland feels more like walking a few miles, thereby betraying the meticulously constructed effect of McCarthy's desiccated habitus in which the post-apocalyptic bodies must endure. Much like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the film leaves its audience with a focus on plot and action when neither is what is particularly important to the story being adapted. Contrary to O'Hehir, the problem with Hillcoat's The Road wasn't too little plot, but too much. Because Stake Land has more of a plot to focus on, it's a more successful film.

Where Mickle's film fails is in its overreliance on the generic contrivances of plot, which I guess is what some of the critics are getting at with their use of the Malick meme:
  • The Terrence Malick approach may be novel, but it probably isn't right for this material -- or at least not in the hands of this director. -- Josh
  • An odd, ambitious and only partially successful fusion of Terrence Malick poetics and 28 Days Later viscera[.] -- Scott TobiasWNYC
  • It’s an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age[.] -- Karina LongworthThe Village Voice

Personally, with the exception of Badlands, I've not found Malick's works to be anything more than kitsch with some fetching tableaux. (He's begun two of his four extant feature lengths with twaddle about the beauty of savages living undisturbed by the sea, for example.) In place of Stake Land failing to live up to a vampire film directed by Malick (or McCarthy's novel), I'd suggest it fails to live up to its most obvious source material, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The story is set in Matheson's world with its zombie/vampire hybrids, only moved westward and in a time just prior to his novel when more humans were still alive. Matheson's book doesn't have any more of a plot than The Road, focusing instead on the daily routines of its protagonist, Robert Neville, trying to stay alive. There's an entire chapter (the best one, in fact) devoted to Neville's earning the trust of a dog, the only other non-vampire still alive in New York. Unfortunately, Matheson is filed in the horror section, McCarthy in literature, so mentioning the former doesn't carry as much cultural capital. Though both authors convey how routinization serves to constitute and retain a sense of humanity, no one asks what The Road loses by taking out the vampires (e.g., Matheson's dialectic between racial ideology and genetics in the allegorical struggle between the last remaining man against a new race). Likewise, I don't expect to see any critics wondering how much better Malick's films might be if scripted by Matheson. Stake Land was in the position to ask such questions, but reverts to another man against monster plot, which it manages to diminish further by giving it a personal revenge twist, saying not much about man, monster or the boy having to grow up in this milieu.

Masochistic Baby: Amer (2010)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 31, 2010 07:07pm | Post a Comment
amer preadolescence
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Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's homage to the giallo genre was filmed on Super 16, but what I saw was from a really crummy digital source. It  looked like a theatrically sized YouTube video. There were so many of those digital Lincoln logs that Inland Empire now compares favorably to Casablanca. At times, there was little more than some blur of color being eaten by a surrounding black blob. (For the record, the digital Carlos looked a lot better than this.) So see a 35 mm print if possible. 

Style is substance in Amer, just as it was for Seijin Suzuki, who would elide generic contrivances in his yakuza action films with radical cuts and by omitting psychological development, assuming the audience would fill in the details. Cattet and Forzani take a similar approach, but because they're working within a psychosexual genre, they omit sociological filler (friends, jobs, etc.) and drive the film inwards. Freeing the narrative from external, objective constraints and a rational narrative structure, the giallo is reduced to pure primal desire, which has always been its most appealing feature, anyway. However, they more or less replace the genre clichés with ones from psychoanalytic film theory. Ana, the protagonist, likes to watch, but really wants to be watched (she, of course, sees her parents in coitus -- the second primal scene of late, the other being in Enter the Void). She wants to be captured, bound and punished, as fetishized by the recurring presence of a black glove and shaving razor. And behind every masochist is the death drive, which begins to show up early on in Ana's fascination with her grandfather's corpse. (If it weren't for artists, would we still need Freud?)  All of which is sexualized and stylized in a surrealistic montage of saturated hues, body parts and objects, conjoined by the sounds of metal scraping, leather squeaking, heavy breathing and the directors' favorites tunes from Italian cinema (Morricone, Nicolai, Cipriani, etc.). Some scenes are indeed perversely beautiful (particularly where a face gets symmetrically sliced up), but there are far too many close-ups to create any real horror or suspense. It feels like a perfume commercial borrowing from Argento instead of Resnais, with the hypnagogia of Chanel or Gucci.

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What's Got Into That Cat!? Japanese Cult Classic Hausu Out Today on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray!!!

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, October 26, 2010 02:00am | Post a Comment
Everybody knows that old cats can open doors, but did you know that only ghost cats can close them?
Hausu DVD Criterion colletion japanese horror camp cult classic film movie cats ghost animation
Well, to quote the great Levar Burton, don't take my word for it, find out for yourself! Here's to the joy of lessons learned from Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 cinematic freak-out Hausu (or House if you speak American), a film that'll give you a trick-or-treating of horror-infused psychedelia like you've never ever experienced, not even in your wildest, most delightfully random-ass frightmares. Hausu dvd criterion japanese horror cult kitch film movie eye cat While it's difficult to know where to begin in reviewing this amazing monkeyshine, it should not go without saying that supposedly the story was dictated to the director by his 11-year-old daughter, which pretty much makes the movie itself just as crazy as, well, a story told by a demented little girl with cat fancy, Auntie issues, and campy ideas about "indecent" piano behavior. Add to that the fact that Hausu seems to be a visual exercise in testing the limits on how many times a movie can one-up itself, utilizing a lightning round of every stylistic technique known to film-making all the way, as if daring viewers to exclaim "this shit is bananas!" to which the movie quite literally delivers a shit-ton of bananas, no kidding. hausu house dvd japanese movie cirterion cult classic weird funny wacky campy

Horror, The Universal Language 4: Freedom vs. Conformity in Blind Beast (1969) & Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 17, 2010 11:52pm | Post a Comment
 blind beast poster french   invasion of the body snatchers poster

Halloween's coming, so why not continue with my horror double-feature suggestions? Although based on an early 1930s story by Edogawa RampoBlind Beast can be seen as Yasuzo Masumura's inverted take on John Fowles' abduction classic The Collector (made into a 1965 movie by William Wyler, which might've been recommended here if it were a better adaptation). Fowles' book is about class and the empty exercise of capital, in which an alienated office clerk moves up the economic ladder by winning the lottery, but remains on the outside looking in. His only passions are in the form of commodity fetishism: collecting butterflies and fantasizing about a beautiful young female artist whom he obsessively watches from afar. He uses his newfound wealth to kidnap and imprison her with the hopes that she'll discover who he truly is, you know, on the inside. But what he is is nothing more than a guy who collects things, with no more connection to those things than that they fulfill some mental checklist. His is a life reduced to reification where an emotional bond is seen as two stamps being placed together in a book.

In Blind Beast, the kidnapper, Aki, is a blind sculptor who poses as a masseur in order to get tactile inspiration for his art, surrealistic walls of female body parts. Being a sadist, Aki finds his perfect model, Michio, a woman who begins as his victim, but with the transgressive sexualization of pain (or, perhaps, the Stockholm Syndrome) is transformed into a willing masochist. As Luis Buñuel explained his attraction to surrealism:

For the first time in my life, I'd come into contact with a coherent moral system that, as far as I could tell, had no flaws. It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values. We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss. Inside this new territory, all our thoughts and actions seemed justifiable; there was simply no room for doubt. Everything made sense. Our morality may have been more demanding and more dangerous than the prevailing order, but it was also stronger, richer, more coherent. -- quoted here

Whereas The Collector's Frederick never sees his captive as more than an object, thereby reinforcing his own alienation, Michio's abduction is cause for an aesthetic release from objectifying social restrictions. In a spiraling dialectic of slicing and dicing, she and Aki achieve an intersubjective bond through sensuousness (more painful than I'd prefer, but you get the picture).

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Another Day, Another Woman: I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 10, 2010 02:39am | Post a Comment
i spit on your grave poster 2010

Why did I see this? One fact I wasn't aware of is that director Stephen Monroe formerly helmed It Waits, which I had mistakenly checked out on blu-ray thinking it was Larry Cohen's It's Alive. I made it through maybe 20 minutes, and now have blown 11 bucks on Monroe's remake of Meir Zarchi's Day of the Woman aka I Spit on Your Grave. Must check IMDb more often. Anyway, if you haven't heard, the plot is rape, then revenge (for a more thorough summary, see a professional critic -- Roger Ebert still hates the original and, now, equally hates the remake). The details remain pretty much the same, but scenarist Jeffrey Reddick adds the missing fifth male, who was promoted on the American poster for Zarchi's original. And although the redneck rapists are no less cretinous than before, they know their way around modern technology: they can use a Macbook, understand that a cellphone doesn't work when it's been dropped in the toilet, and, keeping with the most modern of horror clich├ęs, one of them carries a videocamera. (Sidenote: In order to critique the viewer's implicit scopophilia, the film has to implicate him or her in the voyeur's place through identification, as in Lost Highway, Peeping Tom or Vertigo. Here, you identify with the female victim, so when she fishhooks the hillbilly auteur's eyelids, saying, "you like to watch, hunh?," there's no critique of the gaze, masculine or otherwise. Instead, the viewer will likely feel satisfaction at the spectacle of revenge.) The sheriff (the added fifth rapist) is smart enough to know that the digital recording is evidence, so he attempts to destroy it. On the other hand, he wasn't smart enough to stop the recording while the rape was going on. Not that it matters, since the victim, Jennifer Hills, isn't interested in proving her case to others.

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