The pains of being The Caretaker: a video essay

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Precious few horses remain as pleasurable to flog thirty-years-dead and bloated as they were when alive. One of these is The Shining, a film whose concurrent simplicity and opaqueness renders it eminently watchable, re-watchable and mysterious to the point of inspiring an insidious type of obsession. Having been subjected to decades of analytical dismemberment and identity-reassigning theories of the kind documented in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, Kubrick’s self-proclaimed ‘masterpiece of modern horror’ will once again find itself at the mercy of a personal ‘reading.’

Like a surfer who has just missed an elusive wave, this little piece may have benefited a touch from some Halloween momentum. Then again, that may have been an unnecessary pairing seeing as they – the video and the associated ‘personal reading’, that is – aren’t necessarily concerned with The Shining’s pedigree as a fear-mongering scare fest. Which is not to say that the aim is to reclaim The Shining from the horror genre and rebrand it as social commentary first and foremost. That being said…

…revisiting this picture on the back of a recent Blu-ray upgrade brought into sharper definition (pun intended) several elements that had hitherto gone relatively unnoticed: the significance of the term ‘caretaker’ in relation to Jack Torrance and his predecessor O’Grady, being white American males; the demographic statuses of the film’s three main protagonists, Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann (if Jack is the chief antagonist); the sly associating of American history,  violence and privilege. Jack’s insecurity and seething resentment seemed – on this particular viewing – to stem from a place far beyond his failings as an aspiring writer. His was, is and will always be the rage of a failed son, a disappointing heir; a man all too aware of his being unable to live up to his birthright of supposed superiority.

Like most fanciful takes on the film The Shining, there may have been zero conscious intent on the part of the creators to comment on any of the above, but one can never be sure. Certainly not when a film seems to contain evidence for and against any theory or reading that one chooses to throw at it.


When bad guys die: a video essay

August 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

In early August, I was lucky enough to take part in Critics Campus, a recently minted initiative of Melbourne International Film Festival aimed at fostering the development of emerging  film critics. Being in the presence of a host of formidably talented people (my fellow participants and our brilliant mentors very much included), I found myself continually drowning in golden info, insights and ideas pertaining to cinema, criticism and culture at large.But of all the revelatory things that I learned/relearned/unlearned during that week, ‘the video essay’ for some reason stuck, and continues to stick.

This exciting mix of criticism and film-making  was broken down and expounded upon by Kevin B. Lee, a video essay pioneer and one of our mentors. And while I was already familiar – if not intimately so – with this somewhat fledgling form, the very idea of critiquing, appreciating and engaging with a film by playing with the fabric of the film itself (that is to say the images and sound, not the physical medium) quietly blew my mind.

Perhaps my attraction to the form is borne of the realisation that I am not at all – and do not particularly care to be – a prodigious writer, in addition to my  fondness for tinkering around on Adobe Premiere Pro. Having now tried my hand at less than a handful of short video essays, I can say with near certainty that I will not fully forsake the keyboard and pen just yet. Videos essays are their own kind of painstaking.


The horror…: “キュア” aka “Kyua” or “Cure”

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crime procedural, released in 1997, would make for the perfect subject in a debate that seeks to determine how exactly a thriller differs from a horror film and which of these two genres “Cure” fits into. Any adjudicator with a lick of sense would be biased in favour of it being a horror film for whatever the label is worth, but humour both sides for a moment:

Those in favour of “Cure” being a thriller might argue that ‘the horror genre is exactly as it states, a genre; and what is a genre but a compendium of conventions and tropes which one can chose to adhere to or which one can choose to subvert? The point being that these conventions form the core of a genre and must be observed, whichever fork one ultimately decides to go down creatively. Many films contain moments that chill, that frighten, that disgust, that haunt, but does this make them all horror films? Could every film that contains a humorous scene or two be reasonably labelled as a comedy? For this reason, any film that hopes to be considered a genuine entry in the horror genre must adhere to this genre’s chief criteria, one of these being that the primary aim of the film should be to evoke the fear response (which in itself can be tricky to prove), and another being that the premise must involve a classic element of horror. Murder is not a classic element of horror, nor is crime in general, or blood, or fear. Actions and themes are not elements of the horror genre, entities are. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, demons, witches, goblins, gremlins, assorted monsters…all the traditional expressions of humanity’s desire to comes to terms with a malevolent universe. Then there is the modern era of horror where humanity itself can be a representation and extension of said universe, being inexplicably wicked in ways that make it – make us – seem supernatural or abnormal: serial killers, tyrants and sadists, and remnants of the occult. Now, this is not to say that a film like “Schindler’s List” does not depict unspeakable horrors, but the central entity is far too diffuse and pervasive, systemic, despite stemming from one misguided, mustachioed mind belonging to perhaps the one human being closest to attaining the status of supernatural monstrosity. Which is why a film like Dreyer’s “Vampyr” at which and during which many contemporary audiences would probably find themselves yawning and falling asleep is technically a horror picture whereas a film like “Blue Velvet”, while it can cause the heart to race and the mouth to go dry, is probably more of a thriller. Frank Booth may be crazier and more violent than the original on-screen Nosferatu, but he’s ultimately just a scary gangster who’s into rough stuff and kinky shit.

In response to the above, those in favour of “Cure” being a horror film would argue that ‘the aim of a horror film should not be to simply scare but to evoke horror, and that scares can be and often are momentary while horror can and often does linger far longer. Where fear will trigger the sympathetic response of a galloping heart, a peaking blood pressure, dilated pupils and cold sweating, horror works on a more intellectual level, affecting and informing one’s worldview and emotional landscape long after the instance of acute terror has been and gone. There probably was a time when people lived in dread of supernatural entities, but for modern society, horror art only truly came into being when that which presented itself in the pages of books and on screen dragged itself out of the theatre and into people’s homes; when the focus of fear was not on that which most people believed to be hocus pocus but on that which everyone was aware could be very well living around, with, or within them. Is “The Shining” horrific because of the elevator gushing with blood or the vision of the two dead twins in the hallway, or is it a touchstone of modern horror cinema because it hammers home the idea that you could be married to ‘evil’ or fathered by it? In the same way, “Cure”, ostensibly a police procedural that follows Tokyo Detective Takabe and his psychiatrist colleague Sakuma as they endeavour to solve a spate of seemingly ritualistic murders committed by a disparate array of perpetrators, none of whom can remember let alone explain their terrible actions, finds its horror in domesticity, in the drab, the daily and the usual. The investigation eventually leads to an enigmatic and apparently amnesic young man who may or may not be inciting these murders by hypnotic suggestion. Silly as the premise might sound, the approach taken by Kurosawa ensures that any skepticism regarding the plot’s plausability are kept at bay during the film’s runtime, and by the time the end credits roll and one begins picking apart whatever improbabilities and inconsistencies might exist, the creeping horror that the film creates would have already seeped into the subconscious and began working at it. So while it might take the shape of a thriller structurally and visually and adopt the pace of a psychological drama, “Cure” is probably more worthy of being labelled a horror film than the 101 so-calleds that seem to premiere every month, trashy pictures featuring cheap scares and gratuitous gore that will barely trouble the soul once the popcorn tub hits the bottom of the bin at the theatre exit.’

As previously stated, a sensible adjudicator would give the victory to the latter. But why? What is the horror that “Cure” evokes and why is it so potent? The fact is this: while Kurosawa’s movie contains images that may very well belong in a horror film – faces being peeled of skin and a disturbing mummified monkey – most of it is generously paced and photographed in a stately manner and with an autumnal palette. But it is this very gentleness that gives the film its pervasive sense of dread, the sense that violence is not always cognizant of its existence, like a wolf in sheepskin that thinks it’s actually a sheep. If these murders are being incited by a process of hypnotism, and if they are always carried out against individuals that bear some significance to the perpetrator, what deep, untapped reserves of rage exist within even the most benign-seeming individuals? An elementary schoolteacher, a general practitioner, a low level cop…folks who would be generally considered average, by-the-by people are shown here to harbour feelings so deep and so malevolent that even they may not be aware of these until they manifest in the act of killing. But the horror is not so much that any old person could, out of the blue, pick up a knife and carve a giant ‘X’ into their partner’s throat, but that subterranean deposits of resentment exist at all; that they are there regardless of whether or not they ever show themselves. An early moment in the film touches on this: while picking up his dry cleaning, Detective Takabe finds himself standing next to a man who is muttering angrily, violently to himself – totally unaware of Takabe beside him – only to switch on a dime, almost unaware, and politely receive his dry-cleaning with a smile and genuine-seeming word of gratitude. How aware is this man of this rage within him, and if so, how much does he know about it? Does he have the slightest inkling what he may or may not be capable of?

The young man, Mamiya, who is likely at the centre of this strange homicidal ‘movement’ keeps asking people who they are. At first it seems that his amnesia is the cause of this until it becomes clear that the question is partly rhetorical and wholly existential. Most people appear to be thrown by the question, as though it is something they have never ventured to consider. Perhaps herein lies the true horror: the idea that one can live with someone by virtue of being that very person while not knowing even the tiniest bit about them, being completely unaware of that which informs their behaviour and their thoughts and that which slowly eats away at their souls. The way in which “Cure” paints this picture is subtly terrifying. It could be said that the film’s final stretch leans a little too heavily on elliptical storytelling as a way to utterly disconcert viewers emotionally, leaving them to wonder whether or not Mamiya has somehow found a way to plant murder in the minds of Takabe and/or Sakuma. Kurosawa should perhaps have trusted more in the robustness of his film’s psychological pull, but even if “Cure” makes a misstep or two in the last ten or so minutes, the very final shot finds the heart trampolining briefly up into the throat. Where a person could easily watch a zombie movie, yelp a handful of times and walk out into the night completely relaxed and not in the least bit jumpy, it would be kind of surprising for someone to walk away from “Cure” without feeling even vaguely unwell.

The horror…: “Session 9”

October 31, 2014 § 1 Comment

How interesting it would be to conduct a study in which audience responses to 2001 low-budget horror film “Session 9” are grouped according to whether or not a viewer has previously seen “The Shining” and then compared. It’s always nice to approach a picture respectfully, appraising it on its own terms knowing full well, of course, that no movie is an island, or at least that very few are. Artworks are born these days into a complex post-modern referential lattice wherein a creation can draw upon scores of influences some of which the creator(s) may not even be aware. But this film, “Session 9”, directed by Brad Anderson and featuring not one but two alumni of the “CSI” TV series – David ‘Sunglasses and Canted Neck’ Caruso and Paul Guilfoyle – has too much in common with the 1980 Kubrick classic for the similarities to be a mere coincidence. For a start, both films run on the premise of a large, ostensibly haunted building with a tragic history having some strange parapsychological effect on one or two or all of the core characters and by turns everyone that comes in contact with them or the building. If the commonalities stopped here there may be very little need to even bring up “The Shining” at all. But in addition to the ‘haunted house as psychological battleground’ theme, there are strong whiffs of domestic violence, uxoricide and filicide in “Session 9”; the wife of the film’s iteration of Jack Torrance is called Wendy; there are elements of paranoia, psychosis and multiple personalities (think Tony) which makes sense considering the central building once housed a psychiatric unit; the line between voices of actual ghosts and voices of the subconscious is distinctly blurred; both films pay particular attention to the passage of time and use title cards and looming establishing shots accordingly; disorienting and claustrophobic depictions of a physical space are used to brew fear by way of unfamiliarity; the very last word of “Session 9” is ‘Doc.’ While some of these examples might seem a tad nit-picky, combined with each other their significance simply has to be a little more than purely happenstancial.

“Session 9” depicts several days in the professional lives of five men who comprise an asbestos elimination crew that has been handed the possibly impossible task of stripping a sprawling, long abandoned Victorian-era hospital – Danvers State Hospital, namely – of the noxious fibre in a mere week. Headed by Gordon, played by Brit actor Peter Mullan – Mullan who was so watchable in Jane Campion’s 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake” –  and managed by Caruso’s Phil, the outfit is a tense one from the get-go, partly on account of Hank (Josh Lucas) having pinched Phil’s girlfriend and partly because Gordon just seems off, and this tension plays a considerable part in creating the ominous sense that violence will almost certainly occur, if not at the hands of spectral forces then at the hands of one of these humans ruffians. Early on, as is the case with “The Shining,” the building’s unsettling history is briefly outlined – with special focus on the case of Mary Hobbs and the tragedy that befalls her – by Mike (co-scripter Stephen Gevedon), who then conveniently stumbles across material pertaining to Mary Hobbs and spends the remainder of the film diligently listening his way through nine sessions of recorded audio when he should actually be peeling asbestos from ceilings, hence the film’s title. In reality, this kind of confidential material would have been incinerated or at least gotten rid of once the hospital was shut down, but this is no realist tale and accordingly the film needn’t be judged by this. There is clearly meant to be some parallel drawn between what happened to Mary Hobbs (as per what Mike hears on the tapes) and what is slowly happening to the asbestos crew. How directly these two interact, however, is a bit of a mystery.

Now, it’s one thing for a film to reference another, either as a gesture of reverence on the parts of the filmmakers or from a more academic/canonical standpoint. Is it possible, though, for a movie to outsource its horror beats to an older, superior colleague, which is to say: for those who have seen and been affected by Kubrick’s “The Shining”, if “Session 9” turns out to be acutely scary or just chronically unsettling is it because it recalls/invokes the earlier film in a weirdly Pavlovian way? When ‘Tuesday’ appears starkly in the middle of the screen, backed by a relic of a building somehow reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, is a unit of terror being uploaded from some store of cinematic memories and played back in a new context? How much of “Session 9” is actually scary on its own merit? Which is a silly question, silly because it is unquestionably silly to assume that someone who has never seen a horror film in their life would not be frightened watching this. Every film should be judged on its own terms, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, there is a creeping sense of mediocrity about “Session 9” which does not help dispel the idea that it is deeply indebted to another movie. This mediocrity is most evident in the last fifteen minutes during which director Anderson and his editing team show how lacking in faith they are is in the film’s powers of suggestion and inception that they feel compelled to confirm – by way of the fractured ‘brain spasm’ expository technique so common to low-budget indie thrillers – that the character who is most clearly losing his marbles throughout the film is in fact the character that ultimately loses his marbles and submits to murderous urges. What a disappointing thud it is, realising that the mystery was never really that mysterious and that the tapes that Mike so religiously listens to are narratively deceiving though thematically consistent; McGuffins really. This depends, of course, on if you consider the building to be haunted or whether you think there is simply something about the physical space that trips a switch in the susceptible character’s brain.

Perhaps, the one thing that renders “Session 9” distinct from the baroque symmetry of “The Shining” is its flat, digital look, as though it were shot partly on one of those pro-sumer cameras which it very well may have been. In some ways this only works to enhance the clanking claustrophobia of the dilapidated setting – which is a positive –, and also injects into the film the kind of verisimilitude that forces the atmosphere of dread to traverse the screen and cross over into our world, for the duration of the movie at least…also a positive. But rather than embracing the stark, stripped feel of the visuals so as to construct a certain mood – as is the case with “Primer”, “Pi” or “Following” – Anderson aims for some sort of psychological grandeur to which the film’s form simply cannot do justice, like a man stepping into a baby onesie or a baby adorning a labourer’s overalls. The low-fi look makes the film’s foray into psychotic expressionism seem like an amateurish stretch, as though it were made by students who desperately wished to prove their ambition, perhaps too soon. Alternatively, the unfulfilled narrative ambition on display might give the impression that the filmmakers either lack resources or lack the technical skill to realise their vision. The latter is much less likely seeing as the number of filmmakers capable of technical virtuosity seems to greatly outnumber those with the gifts required to elevate mere virtuosity to the level of notable art.

“Session 9” is considered by a considerable few to be one of the better if not one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Watching it, it is easy to glimpse the makings of a great film seeing as it bears elements of a certain Kubrick film that has been mentioned here ad nauseam, as well as hints of Carpenter’s “The Thing.” But it seems as though the things which could have made this film truly great are too closely tied to the reasons for its various failings. “Session 9” is like an isomeric mixture: the best parts are the worst parts and vice versa.


PS: Happy Halloween!

The horror…: “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”

October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It may not be as widely and religiously paraphrased as those two straitjacketing maxims ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’, but consume enough film criticism (both amateur and otherwise) and the act of cheating one’s audience will surely be decried and advised against in due time if not frequently. Of course, the idea of a filmmaker wilfully betraying the implicit trust of a film’s audience might initially appear mean and in poor faith, but if this is an absolute sin, how many passable, good or even great pictures could be considered successful simply on the back of unfair narrative practices? To use an obvious, almost blah example, could the untimely, almost cynical killing-off of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be called cheating? Much has been said about the general expectation – at that time in the history of cinema viewership – that Janet Leigh, being a recognisable name, a star, and the clear narrative and emotional focus of the first half hour of the film, would be expected to remain a significant narrative and emotional focus, or at least visually present, for the remainder of the film. Had she been portrayed by a no-name performer, Marion’s death would almost certainly not have been one quarter as scandalous as it turned out to be. And even with the knowledge that Janet Leigh was not quite the drawcard that an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor would have been in that role, she was a big enough screen presence such that it would have been perfectly reasonable for an audience member to expect, even subconsciously, that she should not suddenly cease to exist, or that if she did, that she do so with a little more dignity and glamour. It’s undeniable that Hitchcock predicted the impact that the sudden screeching death of a Hollywood star would have on an audience’s psychology, an audience who – by decades of perhaps inadvertent, perhaps calculated conditioning – had come to place their entire sense of security in that of their leading ladies and leading men. Hitchcock knew this, and he exploited it, and boy did it cause a stir. And while the seismic cultural shockwaves were not always received with positivity, “Psycho” was an overall sensation, not to mention it’s being an enduringly effective thriller; it was the Master of Suspense taking his habit of audience manipulation to its logical extreme.

Running wholeheartedly with the idea that narrative deceit, that is to say, manipulation which is not a result of a viewer simply failing to heed or notice ‘hints’ and ‘clues’ present in a film, is not an absolute no-no and can in fact be a desirable theatrical experience, giallo maestro Lucio Fulci crafted, with 1971’s “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, a film whose cinematic form seems to flirt fitfully with the psyche of its central character Carol Hammond, played by Audrey Tatou lookalike Florinda Bolkan. The result is a pleasantly giddy murder mystery with an ending whose expository clunk might annoy whilst, at the same time, a small area in the navel flutters from the knowledge that the film has been one devious, mendacious ride. Like most of the best giallos, this film, about a young woman from money and influence whose homicidal dream about a neighbour/debauched party girl manifests itself stab-for-stab in a real killing for which she categorically denies any responsibility, feels more like a thriller than a horror picture because of its at times consummate craftsmanship to the point of sleekness and its weirdly elegant mode of genre filmmaking. From the very first image, it is clear that this picture will not adopt the apparent observational neutrality of something directed by Rohmer, opting instead to drift in and out of fantasy, misperception and blatant falsehood. In fact, it’s possible that Fulci decides to not simply drift but to wholeheartedly fashion his cinematic language in such a way that it is entirely in service of one particular character’s selective memory, scheming, hopes and dreams, and very possibly their self-delusion and even psychosis. It’s a bold move; one which, as implied earlier, could, probably did and probably still does leave many viewers feeling violated and unsatisfied.

So is “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” a horror picture and if so, from what exactly is the horror derived? In some ways it doesn’t quite adhere to modern concepts of horror cinema which feature either the traditional supernatural entities or humans that seem to be supernaturally malicious. By its end, this particular Lucio film deviates from most giallos by way of its very tight body count and sets itself apart from most horror films by the nature of its central crime, by the very fact that it has a central, inciting act as opposed to running on the palpable threat of an unpredictable series of acts. What may very well be presented as the fairly straightforward whodunit that it very well happens to be is dragged into the realm of horror by revelling in the mindscape of someone deeply fearful, deeply anxious and prone to terrible violence as a result of it, however momentary the violence. Not to compare it unduly to what many consider the quintessential modern horror film, but “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” in a way prefigures the manner in which filmic language is used to suggest character psychology as being the predominant narrative perspective in “The Shining.” As is the case with that movie, one can only wonder how often – if ever – Lucio Fulci presents ‘objective’ reality in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, that is to say, the kind of omniscient reality that audiences are privileged with when, for example, dramatic irony is being utilised. It seems that the horror in Fulci’s picture is not really the murder with which the film commences but Carol’s experience of it, her memories, her nightmare, her realisation, her self-deception. This being said, the film has a very shaggy quality about it as do most giallos what with its seedy, pulpy tone and the use of sometimes poorly synchronised dubbing of the kind common to Italian films from that period. In addition, some of the performances feel like one-take compromises and there is a distinctly tits-and-ass feel about it, which is probably not coincidental seeing as it was distributed by American International Pictures with its unabashed dedication to motion pictures with exploitative elements. This shagginess is perhaps the one element of the film which might allow a viewer to grudgingly accept, in hindsight – or realise in the moment – that the images and the sounds that Lucio presents are questionable in their trustworthiness. By the same token, it’s probably also the reason that the formal consideration applied by Fulci to “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” might go unnoticed by the casual viewer or disregarded by the cinephile. Not that either Fulci or the film itself seem to two shits about it.

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