Gee, Ain't It Funny? Horror and Bertolt Brecht Don't Mix: Funny Games (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 23, 2008 10:43pm | Post a Comment

Depicting beauty gets a free pass compared to depicting violence.  Mankind's history of brutality indicates that violence is as much -- if not more -- a determining factor in the creation of what now constitutes civilized self than our love for beautiful things.  Why, then, no "that portrait of the beautiful Contessa is pure exploitation?"  Accusations of exploitation only enter when there's a gaping wound involved (or prurient nudity, which is objected to on the grounds that it does violence to its subject -- an objection that is, in practice, limited to pornography for heterosexual men).  It's assumed that there's something wrong with you for taking any sort of pleasure in the the depiction of the violent side of our cultural constitution.  Despite that, I had a real enjoyable time the other day at the moving picture show thanks to Michael HanekeFunny Games is a good, psychological thriller that's no more gruesome than Psycho, largely due to Haneke's mastery of Hitchockian prestidigitation.  Just like Morrison in Florida, the meat of the matter is more suggested than shown.  Many critics were distraught over Haneke's hooks-on-the-eyelids sadism anyway, referring to his film as another instance of "torture porn" and/or that it's nothing but a misery to sit through (at least for right-thinking folk):

  • The “Hostel” pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.  -- A. O. Scott
  • To a healthy human mind, however, it’s one of the most repugnant, unpleasant, sadistic movies ever made. No matter what virtues of craft one can find within, no matter what themes lie beneath, Funny Games is aesthetically indefensible. -- Andy Klein
  • Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should. -- J. Hoberman
  • The joke is on arthouse audiences who show up for Funny Games, which is basically torture porn every bit as manipulative and reprehensible as Hostel, even if it's tricked out with intellectual pretension. -- Lou Lumenick
  • [T]he film itself inched close to the sort of exploitational detail that it was supposed to abhor—a proximity that only gets worse in this later version, which adds a definite carnal kick to the sight of the heroine being forced to strip to her underwear. -- Anthony Lane

In truth, Haneke brings much of that kind of moralizing on himself.  In an interview with Scott Foundas, he gives his reason for remaking his German-language film in English, namely to better address its target audience: "For the consumers of violence — in other words, Americans."  Evidently, Germans and other Europeans aren't the ones who come first to his mind when it comes to enjoying the representational infliction of pain on others.  Maybe he believes his countrymen don't consume specular violence when they have a recent history with the real thing ... but I doubt it.  Rather, it's due to a moralizing European arthouse pretension, as can be read in an interview he did with Jim Wray: "Funny Games['s] subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence. And nothing has changed about that attitude since the first version of my film was released — just the opposite, in fact."  He'd probably suggest turd-munching served a real aesthetic purpose when Pasolini used it, but not so much when John Waters did -- if Haneke ever contemplated the aesthetics of coprophagia, that is.  Not to be outdone by the Europeans -- and as a function of their culture-envy -- the middlebrow American critics attempt to prove their highbrow bona fides by turning the table on Haneke, dismissing his film as another instance of the (sub-)genre he was himself purportedly condemning (cf. the video above).  Haneke isn't above the Americans, say they, he's just as bad.

For my money, no one does abjection like the Europeans (well, maybe the Japanese); they have a rich tradition in specular depravity that has not only pushed art to the edges of humanity, but sexualized and intellectualized the cruelty along the way (for starters, look at  the writings of Foucault and Kristeva).  The words 'sadism' and 'masochism' weren't derived from Americans, after all.  Nothing in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the oeuvre of Herschell Gordon Lewis  makes my toes curls like Dali and Bunuel's razor across the eyeball or induces a dry heave like Bataille's orgy in a puddle of urine, blood and feces.  Of more recent vintage, one barely dips the toes in the toilet by watching the so-called torture porn of Saw or Hostel compared to the baptism by sewage in the films of Breillat and Noé.  Really, Pink Flamingos is one of the few American films that holds a candle to the European tradition -- with Waters' challenging commitment to cinéma-vérité -- and he and his "actors" did it for laughs.

Violent depravity in art tends to be called ''transgressive" when the Europeans do it, but "pornography" or "exploitation" when the Americans do it.  However, this isn't due so much to intercultural biases as it is to a class bias.  The American suburban teens like Ricky Kasso aren't staving off ennui with angst-ridden readings of Les Chants Des Maldorer and 120 Days Of Sodom.  It takes a just-right combination of naiveté, boredom, and border-line personality disorder to treat the pseudo-rebellion of Ozzy lyrics and Anton LeVay's charlatanism as a prescription for a way of life.  The same remains true of the moralistic middlebrow's current bête noires -- videogames, rap music and "torture porn."  It's not that suburban moralists wouldn't call for a banning of Lautreamont's writing if it registered on the pop cultural map, only no one but intellectuals read his stuff.  And intellectuals are secure in their own cool-headed ability to handle such transgression; it's the other, more red-blooded types, which are cause for worrying.  Thus, when the moral concerns of a leading European filmmaker happen to line up with those coming from commentators on the mainstream news channels, elitist condescension and stirring up mass fears for ratings overlap: the masses are too ignorant to distinguish between fiction and reality.  As movie and videogame ratings, book burnings, obscenity trials, et al. demonstrate, the masses will often come around to believing it about themselves.

Such classism can be heard in the video interview when Haneke discusses the impetus for making the original Funny Games.  He was distraught over reports at the time of teens from good, bourgeois homes committing acts of seemingly random, inexcusable violence.  In a prime example of rarefied cluelessness, his solution was to make a violent arthouse film as a homeopathic injection into the popular cross-cultural bloodstream.  Well, in the words of Gomer Pyle, "surprise, surprise," his attempt failed.  Films are just as just as bloody as they were and their audiences just as bloodthirsty.  Reasoning that his failure must've been due to a language barrier and the lack of big, global stars (as opposed to his films being of interest to a relatively small arthouse audience, who probably already share many of his views), Haneke remade his film in English and set it in New York.

Haneke's own class-based critique is most explicit in the scene where the lumpish Peter is left alone with the traumatized couple while Paul -- the alpha male of the two preppy perps -- has gone off to capture Georgie, the couple's son.  Peter is passively watching NASCAR racing at full volume with Ann (the mom), bound with duct tape in her skivvies, and George (the dad) incapacitated after having been beaten with a golf club, among other things.  Putting aside the innate horror that NASCAR racing must hold for the haute-bourgeoisie -- that it could infect even their children -- Haneke's intuitions and skill as a filmmaker tend to override his snobbish worldview.

spoiler alert!

My favorite scene from the film is where George and Ann are left alone with the remains of their dead child's prostrate body poking out from behind the tv set.  George is unconscious and off-camera and Ann, with her arms bound behind her back, is bruised and kneeling before the tv.  In a long, static shot, Ann struggles to her feet in order to turn off the noxious sound of the racing cars.  It's a morbidly beautiful scene, and I don't feel the least bit guilty for seeing it as such.  Haneke uses a similar technique to David Lynch: a wide angled shot of a room where commonplace objects have become signs of terror.  Real dread occurs when the safest of places (e.g., a home) become thoroughly estranged (by the eruption of violence).  If Lynch can make beautiful films out of horrific circumstances, why not Haneke?

The film only falters in its misuse of Brecht's distanciation, or alienation effect (counter-narrative strategies which push the audience out of the diegesis in order to make them reflect on its ideological underpinnings, e.g. having Paul turn to the camera and ask us who we're siding with).  The most controversial of which is where Ann manages to shoot Peter with a shotgun, only to have Paul use the reverse button on the tv's remote control to change the course of events.  Unlike a transgressive tale where the reader or viewer is implicated by the depraved protagonist -- being pulled along with his or her abject desires, and thereby having to face oneself in the abyss -- the audience of Funny Games wants the couple to survive, feeling cheated when the scene is rewound for an outcome more advantageous to Paul. 

This desire on the audience's part isn't the same as what can found when cheering on Arnold Schwartzenegger as he mows down a bunch of villainous Arabs.  All that Haneke's distanciation points out here is that the audience is siding with the innocent couple, not some ideological bias.  Compare that to the critique of identification implicit in our anxiety as we wait with Norman Bates for the car to sink in Psycho, so as to erase evidence of his murderous crime.  Identification per se isn't the problem, but the purpose to which it's used (xenophobia, among others things, in the case of Arnold).  If anything, Haneke uses the Brechtian technique against Brechtianism by strengthening, or justifying, identification, rather than alienating us from its object (the family).  We want order restored and nothing about the movie makes for a good critique of that wish.  Ironically, Haneke's modernist gimmick creates the same effect as Classic Hollywood's demands for a happy ending -- both lessen the emotional impact that the narrative has had up to that point.  Fear not, clueless viewer, you're only watching a fiction.  Haneke's intellectual condescension and Hollywood's crass commercial concerns turn out to be not all that different-- both sell the audience short.

If Haneke didn't feel shame for his gift as a horror director and hadn't attempted to make his audience share in his guilt, Funny Games could've been a great film, rather than a good one with some serious flaws.  Compare his rewind effect to the one used by Lynch in Lost Highway (or Mulholland Drive).  In that film, a new narrative direction is taken at a crucial point where the strains on the protagonist's psyche have become too great, causing a shift in narrative reality.  What Lynch doesn't do is let his audience off the hook by excusing us from the events that have occurred in the prior portion of the film.   The impotent, wife-murdering Fred's alternate life as a the Noirish stud, Peter, only lasts so long before reality starts to leak through the cracks in the dream.  The diegetic reality and the diegetic dream (the "rewind") reflect each other, holding the audience within the film's moral view.  Haneke, on the other hand, makes it so Paul and Peter could've done far worse to the family without the audience ultimately feeling any worse for wear, since his rewind effect falsifies the story within the diegesis itself.  Whereas the events in Lost Highway only become more tragic with each viewing (fantasy and reality becoming more inextricable), any moral impact of the horror felt from Funny Games will happen only once, since you know it's all bullshit going in a second time.

Still Life: Telling Time in La Jetee with Henri Bergson, The Human Torch and EC's Weird Science

Posted by Charles Reece, March 16, 2008 01:52am | Post a Comment

The prisoners were subjected to experiments, apparently of great concern to those who conducted them.  The outcome was a disappointment for some - death for others - and for others yet, madness.  One day they came to select a new guinea pig from among the prisoners.  He was the man whose story we are telling.  He was frightened. He had heard about the Head Experimenter. He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy.  This was the aim of the experiments: to send emissaries into Time, to summon the Past and Future to the aid of the Present.  But the human mind balked at the idea. To wake up in another age meant to be born again as an adult. The shock would be too great.  Having only sent lifeless or insentient bodies through different zones of Time, the inventors where now concentrating on men given to very strong mental images. If they were able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.  The camp police spied even on dreams.  This man was selected from among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past. -- Narrator, La Jetée

I hate temporal mechanics! -- Miles O'Brien, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Thanks to YouTube, I finally got around to watching La Jetée by Chris Marker. Perhaps most surprising after all the ink that's been spilled analyzing this experimental work is how much it resembles the old science fiction stories of EC's Weird Science.  These stories -- like the majority of those from EC -- featured some twist ending that followed along like fate from whatever course of action the protagonist chose in the beginning. 

Continue reading...

This Plot Synopsis Is Empty: Doomsday (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 14, 2008 06:12pm | Post a Comment

While everyone else was yucking it up at Haneke's remake of his own Funny Games, I went to see Neil Marshall's Doomsday.  I was really wanting to see the former, but I might be seeing that with a friend tomorrow (at least, assuming she finds Funny Games more chick-friendly than Doomsday).   Imdb's current plot synopsis is pretty accurate as it stands, presumably waiting for some user to come along and fill it in.  That's pretty much what Marshall's film is, a cobbled together group of signifiers waiting for the viewer to connect them to some signifieds.  The series of posters above says all you need to know about the film, but what the hell, I'll say a little more:

[Spoiler Warning: if you want to be surprised by the derivative content, finding enjoyment in noticing it yourself, read no further.]

It has a contaminating virus just like 28 Days Later, which was itself just like The Crazies.

It has a region quarantined off from the rest of civilization (this time, Scotland), with the remaining people left to rot, just like 28 Weeks Later, which itself borrowed the bit from Escape From New York.

It has a little girl who loses her family during the initial infestation and develops into a Wonder Woman, just like Resident Evil.

The little girl loses her eye, and when not wearing a synthetic eye as an adult, dons an eye patch, just like in Kill Bill, which took its one-eyed gal from Thriller: A Cruel Picture.

It has a team of specialists sent on a task that's not exactly what the bureaucrats claimed it to be, just like Aliens.

The heroine, along with her team, has to go into the quarantined zone to find a scientist, just like Escape From New York.

Speaking of Tarantino films and Wonder Woman, Doomsday has a bondage sequence, where the heroine, Eden, is chained up and beaten while a guy in black latex is hunched over and getting off in the background, just like Pulp Fiction.

The decaying city remains are ruled by a group of tattooed cannibals sporting colored mohawks from 80s Hollywood teen films.  Maybe Marshall hasn't spent much time in Hollywood, but a good rule of thumb for him or any filmmaker is that mohawks and tattoos suggest bourgeois privilege more than dangerous anarchy these days.  In other words, Mad Max meets Valley Girl for a party up in the Beverly Hills Have Eyes.

It has really terrible, inappropriate music, just like John Carpenter's films.  During the big punkster gathering scene lifted from Beyond Thunderdome, we get to hear a bunch of 80s pop songs by the likes of Siouxie & the Banshees, suggesting John Hughes rather than dystopia.  There's even a ruling diva who's the inverse of Tina Turner in the previous film -- same hair, but it's dark and she's white.

One man enters, one man gets eaten: Marshall uses cannibalism to make some vague, dipshitted social point, just like Cannibal Holocaust.

There's a big car chase scene through the "wasteland" between the heroine and the would-be mall punks (if there were any malls left).  You know, just like Road Warrior, only the wasteland in question is actually quite beautiful and pastoral and not likely to be some place that the ruling class would let go to the troglodytes when the cities are so over-populated in the future.   Marshall's one innovation here is having his heroine drive the same product placement as appeared in the latest version of Casino Royale.

Knights in full armor are still around, just like in Knightriders.

According to the Revengers Tragedy, the Jacobean aesthetic returns somewhere around 2011, and it continues in Doomsday when the heroine meets up with the other surviving group, ruled by Malcolm McDowell.  Where the pristine 400 year old clothes came from, I don't know.  McDowell also provides a voiceover that sounds pretty close to Richard O'Brien's in Jubilee.  (That makes two voiceovers from McDowell I've heard in just one week, the other being Justice League: A New Frontier.)

While in McDowell's kingdom (yes, there's a castle), there's another "2 men enter" scene, but this time with a woman, a knight who looks like that big baby creature from Beyond Thunderdome, and no cannibalism.

Slap a bunch of Biblical names onto the characters for potential Web-exegeses, a la The Matrix, and you get the picture.

Finally, the film sucks just like Chloë Sevigny in The Brown Bunny.

Paranoia, They Destroy Ya: Death Sentence vs. The Brave One, or Jodie Foster's Continuing Relevance to the Presidency

Posted by Charles Reece, February 8, 2008 12:50pm | Post a Comment
Given Hillary Clinton’s history of backing neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as an imperialist context could actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda has been a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy.  -- Stephen Zunes, Sexism, the Women’s Vote and Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy
These promises of morality, protection, and recognition of harm are false promises. The criminal justice apparatus is about order and its reproduction, and about maintaining the existing hierarchy of status and privilege, and only incidentally about crime or morality or the safety of individual citizens and their communities. It operates most effectively at
the level of the symbolic, by naming individual offenders as morally defective, and using them as scapegoats, and only incidentally as a useful tool for community security, although at times it is the only and the most appropriate social institution available. -- Diane L. Martin, Retributivism Revisited: A Reconsideration of Feminist Criminal Law Reform Strategies

At a time when Spider-Man still had some aesthetic worth, being drawn by the great Steve Ditko, New York was on its way to becoming a dangerous city, giving the super-powered vigilante something to do, presumedly on a daily basis.  However, looking at the crime stats for NYC in 1965, one finds that only 3% of its inhabitants experienced any sort of crime for that year.  With a population of 18 million, it's no wonder that there was rarely a cop around as the Vulture was flying off with his ill-gotten loot.  Now, if you're one lone webslinger, even with the aid of your trusty spider-sense, it ain't very likely that you'll be fortunate enough to come across a crime as it's occurring even on a monthly basis, much less a daily one.  Thus, we have one of the central absurd conceits of the vigilante sub-genre (with radiated powers or merely a stock of ammo): always being in the right place at the right time.

It's just that sort of absurdity Daniel Clowes satirizes in his parodic take on Spidey, The Death-Ray.  Upon discovering his superpowers after smoking his first cigarette, Andy is coaxed into fighting crime by his pal Louie.  The only problem is that there's no superpowered villains with whom to have one of those Kirby-inspired splash pages.  With the aid of his evaporating deathray gun, Andy does the only thing left to him, erasing the schoolyard bully, the older sister's obnoxious boyfriend, and the everyday litterer.  With great power comes the blasé acceptance of its use.

Using the same basic plot as Lee and Ditko's origin for Spidey, director Michael Winner and writer Wendell Mayes's DEATH WISH replaces spider powers with the hand gun and the death of Uncle Ben with the murder of the hero's wife and the rape of his daughter for a more versimilitudinous milieu.  As his daughter lies in a vegetative state, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) asks his pansy aka typically liberal son-in-law if all there is to do when faced with violent crime is hide in fear.  Sure, the son-in-law replies, it's called being civilized.  Well, just like Peter Parker, Kersey will have none of that.  With his newly acquired gun (which inexplicably uses bullets that can't be traced), he patrols all the most obvious places where crime takes place: convenience stores, subways and Central Park.  And, being the sine qua non of the vengeance morality play, there are ne'er do wells at every corner.  "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," as Travis Bickle will say a couple years later.  Of course, it wasn't until the appearance of Frank Castle, the Punisher, in a 1974 issue of SPIDER-MAN (same year as DEATH WISH), that the superhero vigilante was made to face his grittier, more "realistic," counterpart.  Spidey wouldn't kill, but following the likes of Paul Kersey, the Punisher certainly would.  The conflict appears to be a way of setting up a contrast between good vigilantism and the bad kind, thereby keeping the morality of superheroes acceptable to a readership growing up, say, some time after the Renaissance.

In order to keep Kersey a hero and this right-wing fantasy more palatable to a liberal -- or, really, any morally modern audience, his actions are always reactions, brought on, like in a Western, by the villain drawing first.  Kersey starts off as a conscientious objector in the Korean War, but keeping with the old adage that a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged, he begins to see the value in Deuteronomy's "an eye for an eye."  Thus we have the narrative template for the vigilante sub-genre established, with its complementary theory of justice, retributivism (an equivalent amount of punishment for the crime), firmly in place.  There are many problems with retributivism, chief among them being it's a moral code without a real concern for any practical benefits to society.  It's simply a matter of doing what's right in abstracto, regardless of whether the punishment itself might have more long-lasting deleterious effects than the individual crimes themselves.  Little wonder, then, why the vigilante film or the superhero comic is rooted in machismo; societal concern sounds too much like feminine caring.

Trying to further liberalize antediluvian morality by feminizing it, we get Neil Jordan's THE BRAVE ONE, which proves to be little more than DEATH WISH with Jodie Foster's Erica Bain replacing Bronson's Paul Kersey.   Certainly Foster's face maps a wider emotive geography that Bronson's, who  looks like some sculpted artifact from a simpler, more decisive time.  Getting art (power) house Jordan to direct the film was an attempt to bestow gravitas to what would have otherwise been dismissed by most critics as little more than a generic reiteration of a well-worn cliché.  And one doesn't have to guess at the motives of the producers, Susan Downey says as much in the documentary that comes with the film on dvd.  Both director and star are there to help deepen the emotional understanding of vengeance.  As Downey tells us, the original script by father-son writing duo, Roderick and Bruce Taylor, was too much a straightforward genre piece, only with a woman protagonist.  Brought on, in part, by Foster's insistence, Cynthia Mort revised the script, making the hero an NPR talkshow host, often speaking in a voiceover (for those who couldn't quite appreciate the message behind .Bronson's granite gaze).  The intended difference in vigilantes here supposedly being that Foster’s is one who takes on the full emotional and moral weight of her decisions (as NPR reporters sound like they're doing when reporting a story), where Bronson’s was just a force to be reckoned with.  Just look at the posters: Bronson is a man of determination and action, Foster a woman of regret and doubt.  I don't remember Bronson touching his hair once in any of the five DEATH WISHes.  Nor does he cry, which Foster does in abundance.

But these are superficial differences, taken as meritorious by a reductio ad absurdist identity politics.  By merely replacing the speaker of an argument with another speaker belonging to a neglected group, the argument is assumed to take on a different meaning, as if there's something intrinsic to that group which will just naturally affect the argument's outcome.  Having a woman willing to strap on a bomb doesn't say much about women's rights, only how little the ideology cares about gender equality.  One has but to think of Ira Hayes in this regard.  He was "equal" only so long as he served the purpose of perpetuating the American ideal within the context of WWII.  Once he returned home, and his "Indian-ness" began to re-surface, the ideology had little use for him.  Otherness is of value to an ideology only if it can be used to perpetuate that ideology.  With better cinematography and acting, THE BRAVE ONE uses the feminine body to make exactly the same points as DEATH WISH.  Like Kersey, Bain has a perfect life in Manhattan, is a devout liberal, loses a loved one in a violent act, acquires a gun,  proceeds to haunt the same locales waiting for Them to draw first, and then gets help from a cop in order to get away with it.  The substitution of Foster and the effeminate connotation of an arthouse take on the vengeance sub-genre are nothing more than rhetorical affectations to help reassert the continuing appeal of retributivism.  If THE BRAVE ONE suggests anything not already in its predecessor, it's only that technology qua gun is the great equalizer.

The feminist intent of THE BRAVE ONE wasn't lost on some critics.  Writing in Film Comment (Vol. 43, No. 5), Amy Taubin contrasts it to the "male fantasy" of MS. 45 and DEATH WISH, along with the latter's "righteous vigilantism."  Contrary to the film's being a near point for point remake of DEATH WISH, she chooses to compare it more favorably with the more critically respectable TAXI DRIVER.  Odd, since Travis Bickle is pretty much off from the beginning of his story, whereas Paul Kersey is, despite Bronson's lack of nuance, shown to go through the same transformation brought on by the power of the gun Foster evinces: from passive liberal to angel of vengeance.  If the superficially feminist tricks -- artiness and emotional NPR-employed woman protagonist -- can get a feminist critic to buy into the morality of DEATH WISH's plot (Taubin even challenges critics of THELMA & LOUISE to not be more outraged by THE BRAVE ONE), it's doubtful that she'd find James Wan's testosterone-fueled sequel, DEATH SENTENCE, any more feminist than the Bronson flick.  But, in its focus on the familial and social effects of vengeance, violence begetting violence, it is less masculinist than THE BRAVE ONE, despite its hyper-stylized violence and muscular tit for tat.

As Brian Garfield says, he wrote DEATH SENTENCE "as a sort of penance for the movie version of DEATH WISH."  The film (which was written by Garfield and Ian Jeffers) stays fairly true to his intent, even though it plays to the stylistic demands of the contemporary action spectacle, with tribally tattooed bald bad guys who look more like villains from THE CROW than any street gang in the real world.  Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a happy insurance salesman with a great family until son number 1 is macheted down as part of a gang ritual.  Unlike with the two previous films, the killer is caught, but due to the nature of legal bureaucracy, he clearly isn't going to get his just deserts.  Thus, Nick refuses to testify against him, deciding instead to follow him home to exact what he feels is a more justified retribution.  Unlike Paul and Erica, he's made to pay for his revenge.  The gang discovers his identity and -- in what's surely the worst use of a pop song in cinema's history -- takes out his entire family including Nick himself -- concluding with a spiraling overhead shot of their lifeless bodies to the tune of some 90s WB-warbler about lost love.  Nick survives, says a few words of regret to his other son, now in a vegetative state (along with skulls, tomatoes prove a good excuse for monologues), shaves his head (hardly a nuanced sign of parity between him and the villain), acquires an arsenal from the gang leader's dad (eccentrically played by John Goodman and alluding to the violent upbringing at the base of the villain's worldview), and goes on to exact more retribution.

The most intriguing contrast between the three films is the moral conscience supplied by the cop role.  Each film has a cop who takes a special interest in the case of the vigilante hero:  DEATH WISH has Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), a detective who is told by the Commissioner to let Paul go free due to the political ramifications of trying a guy who's had the effect of reducing crime in New York.  THE BRAVE ONE has Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who lets Erica go after killing the final bad guy involved in her rape and the murder of her fiancé, not because of bureaucracy, but because he sympathizes with her position.  He even goes so far as to let her shoot him in the arm and arrange the murder to look like it was a defense killing in the line of duty!  And, finally, DEATH SENTENCE has Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler), who knows why the gang is after Nick and tries to get him to stop the violent cycle by opening up to her.  Tyler has a thankless role, functioning more as a "don't do that"/"see I told you so" version of the chorus in a Greek tragedy.  Yet, hers is the only role that really focuses this type of story on the familial and social damage that results from a retributivist world view -- hardly surprising that a woman was cast for it.  The character points to the realworld problem of implementing retributivism, rather than merely arguing its abstracted points in a fantasy setting.  Her outlook is confirmed as Nick sits mano a mano with the gang leader at the end of the film, both bleeding to death; whether or not the villain deserved to die becomes irrelevant, when the cost to Nick was so high in making his point. 

Substituting a woman who displays stereotypically feminine cues (e.g., crying and general emoting) into what's a particularly masculine subgenre of Action is insufficient by that fact alone for a feminist critique.  Despite Jodie Foster's claim (in the aforementioned making-of documentary) that her character is in the wrong, the BRAVE ONE demonstrates such a substitution might actually serve as an insidious attempt to broaden the appeal of a socially destructive moral philosophy, selling Old World moralism to today's wouldbe feminists.  Only Erica Bain gets away with her killing because the cop comes to feel her actions are justified.  At least, Paul Kersey's guardian detective is forced by bureaucracy to let him go, in spite of the detective's protestations.  Stylistically, both of these films are more realistic than Spider-Man, but ironically neither is as concerned with the real world as the near superheroic DEATH SENTENCE (with its implausible action sequences and Wolverine-healing abilities of its protagonist).  It manages to be both more honest about the fantastic nature of the subgenre and what vigilantism means in a realworld context.  Even more ironic that such a critique -- which I suggest is connotative of, or at least more consistent with feminism -- should come from a director most notable as the successful popularizer of what many call "torture porn."  The delicate physiognomy of Jodie Foster proves less feminist than beefy men duking it out.

Regarding the potential attractiveness of retributivism to women when it comes to the personalized violence directed at family members, it’s worth quoting at length feminist legal theorist, Diane Martin, on how that philosophy can actually demean the battered wife even further: 

The essential destructiveness of retribution-based acknowledgement of harm is particularly clear when one considers the situation of the battered wife who wants the violence to stop but who does not wish, or cannot afford (or both), to end the relationship. The criminalization approach that has become the official norm of responses to battering pits her against her spouse in a contest that individualizes and depoliticizes spousal violence, and threatens her family in fundamental ways. An immediate threat is posed by her partner’s inevitable loss of employment if the substantial prison terms called for are imposed.  A feminist response should not be to say to this woman, “You are mistaken in your opinion of the harms that may be done to you by the criminal process. You are mistaken in choosing family integrity over the integrity of the justice system. You are mistaken in relying upon your own opinion about how to deal with your situation and not that of the police or the prosecutor or the counsellor or the expert.”  These are patronizing and presumptuous attitudes that also alienate women who might benefit from discussing them further and that drive women away from the resources and help they might need. -- p. 184-5
Following Foster's lachrymose attempt at rebranding the vigilante film by a few months, we got Hillary Clinton's attempt to repackage her Thatcherite masculinity to bourgeois women voters in the New Hampshire primary.  And judging by the exit polls, the ploy worked, Clinton took back the support of women she'd lost to Obama in the Iowa primary.  The detrimental effects on Iraqi women entailed by her support for the imperialist doctrine behind the current war seems to hold considerably less cachet for middle-class women voters than her looking like them and showing that she can act just like they feel they would under the grueling demands of a presidential campaign.  Were her tears genuine?  Who cares?  Her use of BET's Ben Johnson and her husband in playing crass identity politics against Obama makes their spontaneity dubious.  Even if they were real, they function as little more than a mask for what she actually represents.  Feminist support for the one true feminist in the race, Dennis Kucinich, unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, and he dropped out.   Should Hillary Clinton’s lead hold and she goes on to make the final bid for the presidency, we’ll be left with a choice between two candidates who supported a foreign policy agenda of vengeance that now makes Kissinger’s realpolitik look as feminist as DEATH SENTENCE.

When Critics Attack! Cloverfield as the Battleground for the Horror Genre

Posted by Charles Reece, January 26, 2008 01:51pm | Post a Comment
As to those in the World Trade Center . . .
Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it. 
--  Ward Churchill, Some People Push Back

Cloverfield is fantasy. The movie is meant to be entertainment — to give people the sort of thrill I had as a kid watching monster movies. I hadn't seen anything that felt that way for many years. I felt like there had to be a way to do a monster movie that's updated and fresh. So we came up with the YouTube-ification of things, the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones with cameras. The age of self-documentation felt like a wonderful prism through which to look at the monster movie. Our take is what if the absolutely preposterous would happen? How terrifying would that be? The video camera, we all have access to; there's a certain odd and eerie intimacy that goes along with those videos. Our take is a classic B monster movie done in a way that makes it feel very real and relevant, allowing it to be simultaneously spectacular and incredibly intimate.
  -- J. J. Abrams

Just like the recently departed Karlheinz Stockhausen, I can appreciate a good explosion.  I love to see things get blown up, particularly buildings.  If I hear of an old building about to be imploded, I'll go out of my way to watch; and judging by the crowds and media coverage, I'm not alone.  All the time and manual labor it takes to make such a structure being erased within a few minutes surely says something significant about our lot in the order of things.  I don't know if that's a testimony for Freud's thanatos, but destruction within a controlled environment simulates a god's eye view over the course of existence.  All that groping around in the dirt, discovering that hard objects can be used to hammer other hard objects for hundreds of thousands of years will eventually amount to naught, a fuzzy memory of brief entertainment for any deity who happened to watch on the sideline.  Destruction is as awe-inspiring as creation and being able to safely witness it gives us a  sense of control.  Unlike with a god, however, that worrisome feeling of needing to duck our heads never quite leaves us.

Making an aesthetically successful monster movie is largely the result of finding the correct ratio between the destruction within a controlled environment (the god's eye perspective) and effecting the thoughts and feelings one would have in the middle of a real apocalyptic event (the human perspective).  The effect of finding this golden ratio is the difference between the experience of Lynchian dread and playing RAMPAGE in an arcade, where the former is the result of our being reminded of just how tenuous a grasp we have on our humanity and the latter a way of temporarily reinforcing our repression of such doubts via diversionary entertainment.  It's not important if you agree with me that Lynch is the best contemporary cinema has at analyzing the human-all-too-human strictures of our existence.  My point is that for horror fiction to work as horror it has to tap into something very real about us.  The more distance it puts between us and the fantastic diegesis it creates (e.g., making the humans nothing more than food to score points with), the less horrorific it will be.  Too much a sense of control dehumanizes the diegesis, and vice versa, thereby resulting in a failure to deliver the goods of the horror genre, making the work more like a video game.

In his classic analysis of the horror film genre, Robin Wood suggests its basic formula:  "normality is threatened by the Monster."[1]  That sounds pretty damn good to me, where normality is understood to be an effect of our collective cultural repressions (all those sexual, violent, Id-driven desires we tend to direct into more "respectable" behaviors and/or beliefs) and the Monster is the otherness which tends to dredge up all those things being repressed thereby threatening our social order.  It was his application of this formula to Romero's DEAD films that helped them to be seen by much of the critical establishment as something more than cheap thrills.  Although now taken as an obvious allegory for the inhumanity of the Vietnam (or, really, any) war, the realworld import of his first zombie feature wasn't so obvious at the time of its release, even to the filmmakers.  As Romero says, "[w]e weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door."  Even if the filmmaker and his audience don't explicitly, or consciously, know what the horror film is tapping into, their collective body does.

Some thirty years on and the genre still gets little respect.  The majority of professional critics [2] might begrudgingly acknowledge Wood's analysis as commonsensical (as opposed to an argument against what was accepted wisdom at the time), but feel little need to apply it to just about any other horror film they have to see, unless the film itself makes its allegorical potential more literal and actual.  The current failure in such criticism, one might say, is a matter of following the letter of Wood's law and not its spirit.  Thus, in the collective set of reviews for CLOVERFIELD, one can see how the tendency to dismiss its genre still predominates, but pace the arguments of serious minded genre critics, the dismissive tactics have changed.  Where once a monster movie like CLOVERFIELD would've been dismissed as juvenilia, as fantastic entertainment with no importance to reality, it's now dismissed as not living up to allegorical/realworld content of Romero's films or, for a more current example, THE HOST.

Horror's albatross (as well as any fantastic genre's) has always been realism, particularly the conflation of realistic style with the Real.  A critique in the latest issue of Cineaction of Italian Neo-Realist critic and theorist, Cesare Zavattini, gives as good example as any of the lure of realism.  The essay quotes Zavattini paraphrasing an American producer: "In America, the scene of a plane passing over is shown in this sequence: a plane passes, machine-gun fire opens, the plane falls.  In Italy: a plane passes, it passes again, and then again."[3]  For Zavattini, the ethical failing of the American film is that it makes a realistic  phenomenon subservient to the highly constructed dictates of, say, the action genre, whereas Italian Neo-Realism celebrates the quotidian recording of real life, presumedly unencumbered by the ideological baggage of genre or spectacle.  As the essay's author, Nicholas Balaisis, suggests, Zavattini's view fails to acknowledge that something like the constructed narrative of a genre can make an ethical point in the very way its constructed, which might often be lost in the ambiguity of just letting the film roll.  That is, even though UMBERTO D might be more realistic with its narratively questionable extended scenes of quotidian life, those don't in and of themselves make that film a more relevant commentary on the Real than something like CLOVERFIELD.

Therein lies the importance of Wood's approach.  He bases the success of horror not in escapism, but in its ability to return us to the Real, the "return of the Repressed," as he puts it.   The relevance of horror is not all that different from the relevance of Neo-Realism: if either is to have resonance, the artist has to find a good balance between control (or construct, narrative points to make) and the ambiguity of the images themselves (touching upon that surfeit of reality, which can't be summarized by the plot, but which pulls the audience into the diegesis).  To the extent that Wood's view has become critical parlance while a bias for realism is still primary, horror films aren't dismissed for being merely fantastic, but for not having subtextual themes that are direct enough.  Realism has been replaced by its offspring, directness, but the bias against horror remains.  Such themes are direct if, as with GOJIRA and THE HOST, the film spells them out for the audience, or as with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and PSYCHO, the analyses of certain critics have become influential.  As if it were a judicial system with realism the judge, current monster movies, if rejected, are done so on precedence, for not easily fitting into the established criteria.

If a monster movie doesn't fit into those well-worn criterial grooves, then it's back to talking about gimmicks and cheap entertainment.  Realism's ethics of viewing has at its core, as should be obvious from the example of Zavattini, a resistance to the commercialism of art.   I'm certainly not going to argue against that tendency itself, but it does lead many with a predilection towards equating realism with ethics to reject out-of-hand art which requires a good deal of capital to get off the ground.  By requiring a lot of special effects, many horror films, particularly of the apocalyptic variety, need to have the potential of commerce by promising an appeal to the widest audience possible.  And it's a lot easier to  widen a hole without deepening it.   I remember Godard contrasting the economic possibilities of his filmmaking to that of Spielberg's, saying something like he could make 50 movies for every 1 of the latter's.  A quick look through Entertainment Weekly will tell you that the American film industry and its biggest target audience tend to prefer the splash of large puddles over gazing at a lot of small, but really deep holes.  I'm with the radical Neo-Realists that commercial demands aren't likely to ever help deepen the impact of a film, but I do think there are filmmakers who can make a spectacle existentially resonant while still playing to generic expectations of the highly prized demographic.

By cutting out stars from CLOVERFIELD, producer and creative prime mover Abrams was able to make his genre spectacle for a modest sum of 25 million (that's about 25 Godard films if you're keeping tabs).  While serving the bottom line, this decision also served the film's conceit of being found footage documenting the last hours in the life of Manhattan and a particular group of its high-rise dwelling inhabitants at the hands and tail of a super-sized amphibian.  By using unrecognizable actors, the audience is more likely to be pulled in by the simulated verité.  Sure, the film uses young, beautiful people in portraying not particularly likable examples of the haute-bourgeoisie.  I wouldn't want to hang out with these assholes, but, so what, I don't spend any time with real world analogues to the characters in a De Sica film, either.  It is in its fidelity to its conceit that the film begins to resonate on a level deeper than the majority of big horror spectacles, making it more likely to eventually be placed alongside Carpenter's THE THING than the American GODZILLA.  By letting the subjective camera record a good 20 minutes of yuppie minutiae, director Matt Reeves -- in a monster movie, of all things -- practices a bit of Bazinian filmmaking, reminding us, like the Italians used to, "the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned."[3] 

As a few friends and some of the critics I link to below have objected, this beginning segment is boring and serves no real purpose.  Purpose being here, I take it, a synonym for plot or narrative.  While these friends probably wouldn't find Tarkovsky's shooting some plant being swayed by water any more purposive or interesting, I'm betting the typical critic who fancies him or herself high-minded wouldn't be as quick to dismiss the phenomenological excesses of the celebrated auteur of boredom -- likewise, with classic Italian Neo-Realism.  Thus, plants and the drudgery of the working class suggest the ineffable, but we get nothing from the daily rituals of yuppie scum (just die already!).  But that's letting ideology cloud one's experience of the film.  While the beginning segment probably doesn't make many of us like these sorts of characters any better, it does link us to them as people by capturing that surfeit of reality not easily summarized in an analysis of plot motivations.  It's enough to make us feel them as people, by providing a humane link.  Without the segment, the ensuing mayhem would become little more than a first-person video game, which is what the pithy marketing slogan "Godzilla meets Blair-Witch Project" would have it reduced to.

So, what about the ethics of seeing this spectacle?   As can be read above, Abrams cites as his inspiration for the film the increasing documentation of our lives through personal video-recorders.  There’s something worrisome about this tendency, as it shows an increasing comfort in having ourselves recorded.  Along with that comfort level comes the lack of concern most people seem to have with the videocameras in the majority of businesses and the ones popping up on every street corner; any civil libertarian should be alarmed.  On the other hand, there’s an ethical dimension to something like YouTube despite all of its questionable content, namely that it serves as something of a collective autobiography of its users.  At least, the potential is there, provided its users feel the moral impetus to use it as such.  Which is what I see in CLOVERFIELD’s chief cameraman, Hud (played by Timothy Miller).  He takes on the job somewhat reluctantly at the party, but as the behemoth begins its rampage, he begins to feel a duty to record the carnage, even when his life becomes increasingly endangered for doing so.  With the power of video recording comes great responsibility, Stan the Man might say.

Without Hud’s dedication, there would be no movie, of course, and thusly no entertainment.  But its practical function of delivering entertainment doesn’t mean CLOVERFIELD has nothing to say.  By combining the phenomological aesthetics of realist cinema with the entertainment concerns of the American spectacle, the filmmakers have fashioned a monster movie that could serve as a correction to the blithely dismissive attitude Ward Churchill displays in his summary of 9-11.  If the emotional charge of an entertaining monster movie can be increased by fictionally recording the mundane, average human behaviors of characters we don’t like, wouldn’t the same effect obtain, but even more so, for the real victims of the Twin Towers destruction?  Churchill created a narrative, where the victims merely served as plot points in his objection to an imperialist capitalist system.  Who knows if being privy to their status as humans through documentation would’ve changed Churchill’s attitude towards those upperclass victims who held jobs which he condemns?  It would certainly change the story he tells.  As Abrams’ would-be popcorn blockbuster reminds us, ideology and concepts aren't all there is to morality; horror won’t be understood or felt without recognizing another’s subjectivity first.   And that’s surely worthy of Bazin. 

[1] Robin Wood, "The American Nightmare" in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan ... And Beyond, 2nd Edition, p. 71.
[2] I emphasize professional critics here, meaning ones who make their living writing for newspapers and other periodicals like the New Yorker.  The critics who inspired the current topic are: Scott Foundas, Peter Travers, Dana Stevens, Manohla Dargis, John Anderson, Richard Corliss, and Anthony Lane.  As can be seen by CLOVERFIELD's tomatometer rating, the majority of reviews have been positive, but that's due to a lot of fanboy internet reviews, which tend to uncritically enjoy anything with a lot of big explosions and pretty girls.  That might be the will of the people, but it's hardly an argument for the merits of the horror genre.
[3] Nicholas Balaisis, "The Risk of Ambiguity: Reconsidering Zavattini's Film Ethics," Cineaction 72, 2007, p. 42-5.
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