Monday, November 26, 2012

an unintentional(?) remake

werckmeister harmonies, whale, bela tarr, whaling, requiem 2019
requiem 2019, werckmeister harmonies, rutger hauer, whaling,
Top: Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 2000); Bottom: Requiem 2019 (Rutger Hauer & Sil Van Der Woerd, 2012)

The short film Requiem 2019 is based on an experience Rutger Hauer once had in a canoe:

I literally looked straight into the eye of a whale. It is something that every man on Earth should experience. We must not be allowed to destroy these beautiful creatures. The consequences would be enormous. This is how we got around to the theme for Requiem 2019. Sil and I simply had to make something to stop people hunting down these wonderful creatures. I can’t go along with Sea Shepherd during their campaign. It’s better for me to do what I do best, and here it is!

With such good intentions, it's a shame the result is so terrible! That aside, what I find most interesting is that a much better version of Requiem 2019 already exists, though it's hidden within a much longer film. Aided by loud, melancholy music, two men come face to face with a fake whale (man-made in one film, computer generated in the other). And in a similar contrast of styles, the (human) viewer is left to do the thinking in Tarr's film while in Requiem 2019 the CGI whale "does the thinking" for us (it displays images on its body, alerting us to what it is we're supposed to be contemplating).

How fitting that the image from Requiem 2019 that most evokes Werckmeister Harmonies is a mirrored one.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

25 Horror Films: #1


Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003)

Dumont possesses the uncanny ability to film humans as though he were a National Geographic photographer on safari. And like the wildlife photographer, he's particularly interested in predatory relationships, whether they be physical or emotional (see above). The sex in his films has the detached feel of the ethologist's lens, and it's often—just as it is in the animal kingdom—linked closely with domination, violence, and rape.

I've never seen a film that so readily embraces the view that human beings are motivated by their basest desires (men especially), and that we're nothing but animals in the worst sense of the word (Dumont would likely counter that his view is a neutral one). Considering that the course of human history probably more easily and readily supports Dumont's view than it does various other more inspiring and optimistic alternatives, and considering that I'm constantly struggling in my own life to avoid falling into contempt and misanthropy by trying to focus on what's best and most beautiful in us as a species instead of dwelling on what's worst, the fact that Dumont so openly and forcefully reminds us of our animal origin—and then proceeds to rub our faces in its eternal inescapability—makes Twentynine Palms, for me, the most disturbing and terrifying film ever made.

Friday, November 16, 2012

25 Horror Films: #2


Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1990)

If the moving images in any of the films on my list speak for themselves, it's the images in Begotten.

I won't try to describe the film to anyone who hasn't already seen it. Wikipedia offers a plot summary, though, like most descriptions, it gives no sense of the feel or form of the film. With that in mind I've decided to offer a "summary" constructed from a few extracts from Pierre Guyotat's 1971 novel Eden, Eden, Eden. (If Guyotat's "unthinkable" book were ever to be adapted to film, it seems to me that the only way it'd have a chance at success would be if it were to be done in the language of Merhige's Begotten.)

"...blood haunting bedroom, dry powdered blood running in butcher's inner ear throbbing with nightmares... jissom, milk, squirting... woman's hand palpating...  woman rising from bed, walking, barefoot, through garden... kneeling, huddling, pressed back down into corner... worker, with foot, laying youth flat out on tile: crouching down, pressing two fists together onto torso, elbow digging into sexual cluster between thighs— separating, slow, cool, revealing grimy sweat in folds of groin; fists delving under torso, forcing spleen, kidney, intestines: contracted head of youth groaning, crystalline, with each compression; hand of blond worker digging down... head, mute, vibrating; whereupon, same hand, clenched, moving up over torso, forcing serrated muscle, other hand jerking, gropingfingers spread, half-closed, spread, joined, towards source of cry, reaching aortic arch, blocking cry... nomad, hands pressed around middle of pole, pushing ... [his] inert body away from outcrop of rock: blood pearling over spear-head between curls; nomad pulling youth back onto rock, spearing body... nomad, kneeling... walking towards fire... squatting beside woman; her feverish fingers, pink over embers, diffusing blood into cinders; woman, wrinkles fixed on forehead, hand drawn out of embers covering half-open vulva, crammed with oily wet seed; ... darkness alternating with bursts of light..."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

25 Horror Films: #3


Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

The scariest movie of 1995 according to Wes Craven and one I consider to be among the best of the 90s, Safe is a complex film that proves much too elusive for summary. If pressed I'd say it's partly about a person, Carol (Julianne Moore), who's playing a role: mother, wife, "woman." She's someone who has no real identity, no core, and therefore floats through life trying to hit all the established marks, doing what's expected and aiming to please. During a scene in which Carol is having her hair dried at a beauty salon there's a dissolve that illustrates this automoton-like aspect of her "personality" perfectly (robot-evoking headgear aside):  

A manicured hand appears as if projected from Carol's head, suggesting that, for her, manicures are the stuff dreams are made of. Her imagination, her individuality, her aspirations, have evaporatedreplaced long ago by a kind of formulaic programming. Outside of this, she no longer exists.

"With her pink clothes and porcelain skin, Carol blends into her surroundings like a suburbanite chameleon, an expensive, mid-eighties accessory among many, or an Ibsenesque doll made to be seen and, as she stutters and stumbles through most of her dialogue, determinedly not heard."

Contrary to the impression Wes Craven's remark might give, Safe isn't scary in a traditional "horror film" sense. It's discomforting, unsettling, cold, even subversive. Whoever called it "a horror film of the soul" came up with a very apt description. 

* * *

INTERVIEWER: Many films don’t allow much room for the viewer to enter into them.

HAYNES: They don't want that narrative process interrupted. It's a perfect system, let's not mess with it. But it's exactly at that place where we unfortunately find ourselves identifying in stories and messages that re-affirm the world exactly as it is, in its worst aspects. And that's where I find narrative film to be the most frightening, because it's so powerful. It's hard to find an equivalent in other art mediums, for me at least, that has such a symbolic impact on the way we think about the world and about ourselves. Films reflect and instruct us at the same time, and that's strong stuff. So I do delight in the idea that by playing around, tinkering or upsetting that process of identification a little bit, people have to think more about what they're seeing, who's telling them what and why. A viewer has to ask the question: where's this idea coming from? Without losing all the pleasure that's part of that process. [X]

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Haynes' own description of Carol from the DVD liner notes gets at what's most complex and interesting about the film:

"Carol White is established as a character whose entire sense of self is provided by the external world. She moves through the patterns, the routines, the immediate material goals which define her existence. She is, in effect, presupposed by her environment. But it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong, both with Carol's body and the pervasive world around her
but how to change either one is too overwhelming a task. Instead the task at hand becomes controlling each one's exposure to the other; in other words, disengaging the body from its environment. This is not easily achieved and is experienced in Carol as a crisis in identity."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

25 Horror Films: #4


Angst (Gerald Kargl, 1983)

I re-watched Angst yesterday to make sure I still wanted to include it on my list, and I wasn't quite as taken with it as I was when I first saw it a few years ago... Still, it's a striking film with an unsettling and off-kilter feel due not only to its central performanceErwin Leder fully embraces the role of a murderous, narrating protagonistbut also (and especially) due to its floating camerawork.

As a slasher film, Angst might be the best I've seen; it certainly deserves a place alongside the much better known and appreciated Black Christmas (1974) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Here's what Gaspar Noé wrote about the film in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll:

"A great lesson in visual imagination but also in psychopathology. This film, still poorly known film in Anglo-Saxon countries, was my perpetual point of reference while shooting Seul Contre Tous. It’s the most emotional film about a murderer that I’ve ever seen. I had a VHS dubbed into French that I showed my friends about 50 times."

(Don't be discouraged from seeing Angst if you loathe I Stand Alone / Seul Contre Tous ; I do as well.)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

25 Horror Films: #5


Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

One of the most subversive horror films, Innocence uses convention and expectation in a way that dupes the viewer into being the film's true antagonist.

While watching I thought to myself that Hadzihalilovic is probably the only director capable of bringing Henry Darger's Realms of the Unreal to life.

For those who haven't seen the film, what follows are two very helpful Netflix reviews.

1.) "I love Cotillard and foreign films, do not watch this for those reasons. The French love escargot and this moved at a snails pace and they even showed some snails at one point to prove that point. I kept waiting for a plot but I never got one. It's okay if you want to listen to French spoken because at least they did that well."

(A complaint of "no plot" is a gold standard indicator of interesting cinema.)

2.) "The movie is simply sick. In additional materials, I was able to see, that Lucile Hadzihalilovic has huge teeth as the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, with which she shamelessly ate up 2 hours of our precious lives. She was able to create a movie which was simultaniously sick, scary, boring, pretensious and stupid. One star - thank you very much. I think that those who gave it more stars (and awards) deserve whatching this movie on regular basis as a punishment for suffering of the others. I am really happy, that this is the only movie of hers, hopefully the last one."

(Anyone who complains about the appearance of a film's director
especially when combined with various spelling errorsprovides the best gift of all: a full-proof barometer. If they liked the film, never watch it. If it was the worst movie they've ever seen, blind buy it. Because their vapidity is  flagrant to the point of being boastful, you know to do the opposite of whatever it is they say.)

Once you become an expert at reading such things, you'll learn how to determine what type of negative reviews are more reliable than any praise.

NOTE: The region 1 DVD of this film is awful. Opt for region 2 if you can.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

25 Horror Films: #6


Wisconsin Death Trip (James Marsh, 1999)

Ken Burns' staid formula is somehow transformed into macabre poetry.

Based on Michael Lesy's book of the same name, James Marsh's quasi-documentary uses photographs, recreations, and old news reports from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to bring to life the various strange and morbid events that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin at the turn of the century. From time to time the short, select snippets of narrated newsprint are reminiscent of Felix Feneon's piquant Novels in Three Lines, especially when Marsh plays up his own wry sense of humor.

One of the most under-appreciated films of the past twenty years.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

25 Horror Films: #8 and #7 (a double feature)


Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju, 1949)

The image of a muscular, white horse instantly falling to the ground, its legs folding under it after it's been shot by a bolt pistol, will never leave me.

Many of the images in Blood of the Beasts are similarly striking and bizarre
, such as the legless and headless bodies of calves flailing around in some kind of post-mortem dance.

Here's what Amos Vogel wrote about the film in his essential Film as a Subversive Art (1974/2005):

"This documentary on the slaughterhouses of Paris is one of the great masterpieces of the subversive cinema; here, for once, we are face to face with death, and are neither protected nor cheated. Unlike Hollywood films, when the butcher raises the hammer to stun the horse there is no 'cutting away'; the camera, objectively and cruelly, stays with the event, making us its shocked accomplices. As these 'killers without hate', knee-deep in blood and surrounded by steaming excreta and vomit, murder animals in cold indifference before the camerathe number of animals dying but a fraction of a day's output of slaughterhouses everywherewe learn to see, and then perhaps to feel what we have not felt before. Violence here is neither fictional nor titillating; it is massive and real. [...] Forcing us to view another being's painful and sordid death in all its detailed enormity, [The Blood of the Beasts] subverts out habitual state of consciousness and opens us to greater insight. Franju, committed artist, resistance fighter, moralist, wants us to consider all slaughter anywhere committed on our behalf by those we hire to do our dirty work, so that we can sit down at clean tablecloths and deny complicity."

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971)

From Wikipedia: "The key image of The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is quite likely the bluntest statement on the human condition ever filmed. In the course of an autopsy, the skin around the scalp is slit with a scalpel, and in preparation for exposing and examining the brain, the face of each cadaver is literally peeled off, like a mask, revealing the raw meat beneath. That image, once seen, will never leave you."

For me that is not the key image, though it is certainly one that will never leave me. The key image of The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes is that of a detached, faceless and hollowed head of a man being scraped out as though it were a pumpkin. 

Why a double feature?

Because man becomes meat, and meat becomes man.

* * *

Once again, Amos Vogel:

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes] is an appalling, haunting work of great purity and truth. It dispassionately records whatever transpires in front of the lens: bodies sliced length-wise, organs removed, skulls and scalp cut open with electric tools, blood drawn; a fly that walks on the sole of a foot, undisturbed. [...] Life and death are inextricable here, as doctors and orderlies (never clearly seen) mingle with and manipulate the inert flesh, dead and live hands often touching in strong close-ups. [...] A great desire 'to see clearly' informs the workthe film's title derives from the Greek meaning of the term autopsya refusal to sentimentalize or to avert one's glance; yet the 'objective' filmmaker continuously breaks through to compassion and horrified wonder in his selection of shots, angles, and filmic continuity.

"With almost the entire film photographed in close-up or medium shot and utter silence, form and content are for once perfectly blended to create a subversive work that changes our consciousness.

"This final demystification of manan unforgettable reminder of our physicality, fragility, mortalityrobs us of metaphysics only to reintroduce it on another level; for the more physical we are seen to be, the more marvellous becomes the mystery."

Thursday, November 01, 2012

25 Horror Films: #9


Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

"But him the maids of Paradise
Impatient to their halls invite,               
And the dark Heaven of Houris' eyes
On him shall glance for ever bright;
They come
their kerchiefs green they wave,
And welcome with a kiss the brave!"

"...But thou, false Infidel! shall writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir's scythe;
And from its torments 'scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis' throne;
And fire unquench'd, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;          
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem."

"But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, most beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father's name

That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!      
Yet must thou end thy task, and mark
Her cheek's last tinge, her eye's last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o'er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallow'd hand shalt tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which in life a lock when shorn
Affection's fondest pledge was worn,
But now is borne away by thee,
Memorial of thine agony!                  
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From Spectre more accursed than they!"

 —From "The Giaour" (Lord Byron, 1813)

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Bottom: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)