Thursday, May 31, 2007

Luna Violet Bemis

At about 7PM on Monday night, Jess started feeling funny; around 10, we started timing contractions. At 11:30 we checked into the hospital, and at 12:35 on Tuesday morning, Luna was born. I'll be back talking about movies soon, and I hardly feel qualified after three days of fatherhood to get all philosophical. But I had to share. Isn't she beautiful? Isn't life strange and wonderful?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Trim Bin #58

- Courtesy of ohnotheydidn't (via Nathaniel at The Film Experience): David Lynch's headshots of eight actresses for French Elle. I'd rob a bank for Beatrice Dalle any day.

- I'm not much of a TV fan, and I don't buy the popular notion that television is surpassing film in quality at all. I saw five great movies last year and many more very good ones, but I can't think of more than a handful of shows I'd gladly watch. That said, I must admit that in recent weeks I've been totally immersed in two shows: Lost, which just finished its third season on a tremendous high note, and The Sopranos, about to end its final and richest season. Both shows are expanding the possibilities of television as a narrative medium in a way that only a few (The Prisoner and Twin Peaks come to mind) have.

In the case of Lost, the writers have begun to reveal the secrets of the mysterious island where the survivors of Flight 815 are stranded, seemingly for some as-yet-unknown purpose. Wednesday's finale included a twist that not only deepens the show's tantalizing sci-fi premise, it also expands the narrative possibilities of the show exponentially - it's an ongoing story that is also, brilliantly, about the shifting nature of storytelling itself. In the same way, despite much gloomy foreshadowing, I have absolutely no idea how The Sopranos will end. The story of a boss who is "basically a good person" even if he sometimes kills people (James Gandolfini as Tony is as good as any screen performance this decade), the show gives equal measure to the mechanics of genre and the arbitrariness of real life - a mafioso is as likely to die in a sudden car accident as with a hail of bullets. It's as philosophical as it is visceral, and ranks with the best mob movies.

Both shows also break from television convention in exciting ways, allowing for flawed, complex characters and deliberatly avoiding obvious payoffs. Best of all, they're well-shot - witness one Lost character's genuinely poignant aquatic send-off, or the glimmer of sunlight on the horizon echoing season five's surreal "alternate universe" subplot as Tony exclaims "I get it!" In a medium designed to placate its viewers (witness Heroes' triumph over Lost in the ratings), it's bracing to discover real ambiguity. In this and many ways, both shows are truly (dare I say it?) cinematic.

- RIP, Charles Nelson Reilly. I'll always remember him as Lort in A Troll in Central Park.

- Jack's survey of music cues in the films of Martin Scorsese.

- Finally, just in time for the holiday, here's the first look at the most important release of 2008:

Friday, May 25, 2007

Yub nub.

This post is my contribution to the Star Wars Blog-a-Thon
Star Wars was released seven years before I was born, and I'm sorry that, on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary, I have no fond memories of seeing it (or any of the original trilogy) on the big screen. I saw the special editions, but while that experience was a blast, I'm sure it can't possibly compare to the collective sense of discovery moviegoers felt at a time when blockbusters were cultural events rather than preordained marketing triumphs. My own introduction to the Star Wars universe happened on video - when I was very young, my parents would make VHS copies of movies they thought would interest me, creating double features that I would replay over and over. And accompanying The Neverending Story on one tape was not Star Wars but Return of the Jedi; my parents had unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally?) given me a wild, almost Pinteresque introduction to Star Wars.

After the opening title crawl informed me of a man named Luke Skywalker trying to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, I was quickly plunged into a completely unfamiliar world. The experience was like Buckaroo Banzai, as I struggled to decipher images and terms that I had no frame of reference for (when Luke offers Jabba "these two droids," I thought he was referring to his cufflinks for some reason). The relationships between characters were baffling to me - I knew that Han loved Leia, Luke was the good guy, his dad the bad guy, and Yoda was awesome, but I couldn't tell you why any of these things were true. I also thought Obi Wan was Luke's grandfather. I didn't know what to make of Admiral Akbar or Bib Fortuna. And yet, despite all this confusion, I fell in love with Return of the Jedi. While I was deprived the shock of suddenly discovering Darth Vader's true identity, I responded strongly to the complicated father-son relationship, riveted as Luke was finally provoked to attack his father to protect his sister. Even in my latency period, Leia's gold bikini raised some interesting questions. And I must admit that I loved the Ewoks and cheered their victory over the Empire - it may have been my introduction to the still-potent concept of rooting for the underdog.

On a more basic level, I was captivated by Return of the Jedi's sheer audiovisual assault. While there's no substitute for the big screen, it's impressive to me that, even on a grainy 13-inch screen with tinny sound, I was transported to another world. I rented Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back soon after, and they had the same dramatic effect on my developing imagination. It's a shame that today's summer movie season offers children so few opportunities to be truly enchanted - these days, sarcasm is substituted for genuine wit. I can't wait to show the movies to my daughter and see if they've become dated relics or, I hope, enduring stories like The Wizard of Oz that transcend the technology of their time (if only George Lucas could have the same faith in his work).

Now, as a grown man, I've learned that Star Wars stands for many more things, culturally and commercially, than I once realized. It's almost impossible to discuss Star Wars today without talking about corporate synergy, the ethics of CG revisionism, and Lucas' transformation into a tragic, Charles Foster Kane-like figure. But these are topics for another day - I feel like being winsome, dammit. So today is for Star Wars for Star Wars' sake, for the memory of being a wide-eyed little geek sprawled out on the living room floor with the shades drawn, taken to a galaxy that is a considerable distance from our own.

Friday Title Card #15

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's nice having a word that describes you.

The protagonists of Mike White's screenplays are outsiders, people who feel too deeply and in socially awkward ways. They may be awkward, even creepy, but White excels at making us care for and even relate to characters we would try to avoid in real life. Peggy (Molly Shannon), the heroine of White's directorial debut Year of the Dog, is no exception. From the opening shots of Peggy smiling adoringly at her beloved beagle, Pencil, it's clear that Peggy really, really loves dogs. But while White mines his protagonist's earnestness for many laughs, it soon becomes clear that we're not meant to laugh at Peggy; rather, her strange journey of grief and self-discovery inspires genuine empathy.

A mousy office worker living a routine life, Peggy's solitary peace is shattered one morning when Pencil suddenly dies from an apparent poisoning. Her only friend Layla (Regina King) and sister-in-law (Laura Dern) try to comfort her, but it's clear that Peggy's sorrow is unusually deep. After an uncomfortable date with her neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) - who may be responsible for Pencil's death - Peggy is given hope by boyish ASPCA volunteer Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who inspires her to animal activism and offers the possibility of lasting companionship. But rather than having the story progress towards an easy ending, White acknowledges the complicated nature of Peggy's empathy for animals, which inspires her even as it alienates everyone around her. An animal lover himself, White celebrates Peggy's newfound calling without sidestepping her genuinely off-putting moments; more broadly, Year of the Dog is about the sublime moment of discovering one's purpose, regardless of what others think.

By the end of the film, Peggy has reached a genuine epiphany, or perhaps flipped her lid, or both - White leaves this for us to decide. And it is quite possible to read Peggy's actions as pure self-delusion; at the same time, all of the characters in Year of the Dog are driven by a specific fixation, whether it's marriage or parenthood or hunting (Sarsgaard's fellow animal lover is the sanest character we meet). The difference is that Peggy's concerns fall outside of the realm of what is considered "normal," and no matter how strange her actions become, their unease at her transformation is just as baffling. I knew a guy who hated PETA and "bleeding heart" activism in general, and while I find PETA's actions often silly as well, I could never understand how just talking about the fact that some people oppose eating meat would make him completely, irrationally furious.* I thought of him when Peggy exclaimed, quite rightly, "What is the big deal about ham sandwiches?" White doesn't ask us to share Peggy's convictions, just to acknowledge her humanity; like many great writers, White's sensitivity is his strongest asset.

Unfortunately, the director does let the screenwriter down - his sense of visual composition is serviceable but uninspired, forcing the quirkier aspects of the story in a manner that nearly suffocates the story. There are moments when White hints at taking the story into even darker places, then backs away; hopefully, this does not signal a loss of nerve. The film is also too short at 97 minutes, as we never really get to know the supporting characters. Luckily, the talented cast fills in many of the narrative gaps - Dern's overprotective mom describing Babe as "intense," and Sarsgaard's uneasy response to Shannon's advances tells us everything we need to know about their characters. And Shannon is wonderful as Peggy, taking the character through some difficult transitions, from despair to confusion to mania to peace. By the film's end, we can't say for sure whether Peggy is crazy or enlightened; either way, Shannon has created a character so complex and painfully identifiable that you can't help but cheer for her.

*Then again, this same guy also responded to the news of our pregnancy with "Abort it." It wasn't a joke. Warmth isn't his strong suit.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday Title Card #14

The Director Report Card (The Truth of Accountants)

WARNING: The following ongoing project is very dry, statistic-heavy, and generally boring and pointless.

Anyone left? Alright. This post will be a continuing project logging my personal "rankings" of directors assigned based on their overall mean averages. While consistency is not always synonymous with excellence (Robert Altman is an example of this), I hope this will give a broad picture of where my loyalties lie. The criteria for inclusion is as follows: directors who have made at least three features, of which I have seen a substantial amount (50%, or at least 5 with directors who have made more than ten features). The rankings will be constantly changing as I add more directors and see more films, so check back often. Not that I'd blame you if you didn't. As I said, this is really, really dry stuff. But I find it fun, and maybe you will too. Or not, in which case, feel free to ignore this completely, as I promise more nudity will be forthcoming (welcome to our new friends who came here from Google, incidentally).

Luis Bunuel
Federico Fellini
Terrence Malick

Paul Thomas Anderson
Hal Ashby
Ingmar Bergman

Brad Bird
Charles Chaplin
Sofia Coppola
Vittorio De Sica
John Ford
Bob Fosse

Jean-Luc Godard
Todd Haynes
Werner Herzog
Jim Jarmusch
Alejandro Jodorowsky

Buster Keaton
Krzysztof Kieslowski
Stanley Kubrick

David Lean
Sergio Leone
David Lynch
Roman Polanski
Martin Scorsese
Todd Solondz
Quentin Tarantino
Francois Truffaut
Wim Wenders
Billy Wilder

Pedro Almodovar
Robert Altman

Wes Anderson (A)
Michaelangelo Antonioni
Dario Argento
Darren Aronofsky

Warren Beatty
Bernardo Bertolucci
Tim Burton
James Cameron

Jane Campion
Joel & Ethan Coen
David Cronenberg
Cameron Crowe
Alfonso Cuaron (A)
Michael Curtiz
Brian De Palma
Guillermo Del Toro

David Fincher (A)
Terry Gilliam
Michel Gondry

David Gordon Green
Paul Greengrass
Mary Harron
Howard Hawks
Jim Henson
Alfred Hitchcock

John Huston (B+)
Peter Jackson
Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Akira Kurosawa
Philip Kaufman
Ang Lee
George Lucas
George Miller

Hayao Miyazaki
Errol Morris
Greg Mottola
Christopher Nolan
Sam Peckinpah
Godfrey Reggio
Nicolas Roeg
George A. Romero

David O. Russell
Steven Soderbergh (B+)
Steven Spielberg
Robert Wise
Terry Zwigoff

Woody Allen

Peter Bogdanovich
John Boorman
James L. Brooks
Mel Brooks

Frank Capra
John Carpenter
Francis Ford Coppola

George Cukor
Jonathan Demme

Clint Eastwood
Milos Forman

Stephen Frears
Savage Steve Holland
Neil Jordan
Wong Kar-Wai (A-)
Spike Lee
Richard Linklater
Michael Mann

Anthony Minghella
Michael Moore

Jack Nicholson
Alan J. Pakula
Trey Parker

Alexander Payne (A-)
Sam Raimi
Rob Reiner

Bruce Robinson
Robert Rodriguez
Ken Russell
Paul Schrader
Bryan Singer
Oliver Stone
Gus Van Sant (A-)

David Wain
Peter Weir

Michael Winterbottom
Robert Zemeckis (A-)


Dorothy Arzner
Richard Attenborough

Danny Boyle (B+)
Michael Cimino
Don Coscarelli
Joe Dante

Frank Darabont
Blake Edwards
Peter & Bobby Farrelly
William Friedkin
Mel Gibson
Christopher Guest

Lasse Hallstrom
Curtis Hanson

George Roy Hill
Tobe Hooper
John Hughes
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

James Ivory
Mike Judge
Lloyd Kaufman

Stanley Kramer
Richard Lester
Baz Luhrmann (A-)
Sidney Lumet

John McTiernan
Adam McKay
Takashi Miike
Mike Nichols
Frank Oz
Alan Parker
Wolfgang Petersen

Leni Riefenstahl
John Schlesinger
Ridley Scott

Don Siegel
Kevin Smith

Ben Stiller
Julie Taymor
Gore Verbinski
Paul Verhoeven
Larry & Andy Wachowski
John Waters

John Woo
Fred Zinnemann
Rob Zombie

Alejandro Amenabar
John Badham

Jay Chandrasekhar (B)
Wes Craven
Danny DeVito
Richard Donner

John Frankenheimer
Lewis Gilbert
Stuart Gordon
Norman Jewison
Terry Jones
Lawrence Kasdan
John Landis
Barry Levinson

Herbert Ross
Eli Roth
Alan Rudolph
Tony Scott

Zack Snyder
Barry Sonnenfeld

Peter Yates
David Zucker
Jerry Zucker

John G. Avildsen
Martin Brest

Roger Corman
Jan De Bont
Renny Harlin
Ron Howard
Randal Kleiser

Neil LaBute
Michael Lehmann
Adrian Lyne
Penny Marshall
Harold Ramis
Carl Reiner
Ivan Reitman
Michael Ritchie
Brad Silberling
J. Lee Thompson
Ron Underwood


Gurinder Chada
Larry Cohen
Chris Columbus

Richard Fleischer
Marc Forster
Amy Heckerling

Walter Hill
Joe Johnston
Jonathan Lynn
Steve Miner

Donald Petrie
Joel Schumacher

Tom Shadyac
M. Night Shyamalan (C+)
Sylvester Stallone


Paul W.S. Anderson
Dennis Dugan
Roland Emmerich
Stephen Herek

Peter Hyams
Gary Marshall
Michael Winner

Michael Bay

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gratuitous Nudity #2

Gisele Lindley, Forbidden Zone (1980)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

London's mine!

28 Weeks Later is the most pleasant surprise so far this year. What could have easily been a cheap rush job with a vague resemblance to its predecessor is instead a zombie (movie that both honors and expands upon the first film. It's the rare horror sequel that can stand on its own, returning to the undead-ravaged London of 28 Days Later to tell a story that, while not flawless, is remarkably ambitious and literate. It's also incredibly dark, particularly for a studio sequel - while the first film ends on an optimistic note, 28 Weeks Later is concerned with the collapse of civilization on a microcosmic level (the breakdown of the family), and from its stunning opening sequence through the last shot, it's as uncompromisingly cynical as George A. Romero's landmark Dead movies.

The film opens on a seemingly familiar note, with married couple Alice (Catherine McCormack) and Don (Robert Carlyle) hiding out in the English countryside with a group of fellow survivors. But as soon as we start to settle into the story, it takes a violent left turn. The screenplay (co-written by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) is remarkable for the surprises it contains; the twists in 28 Weeks Later are character-driven, as the protagonists are capable of fear, weakness and deception while still invoking our sympathies. The tension in the film comes not just from the threat of the rage-infected masses, but from our shifting loyalties with the characters. After a series of title cards covering the passage of time, the film cuts ahead - well, you know - as an England occupied by the US Army begins the process of rebuilding and refugees, including Don and Alice's kids, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (the awesomely-named Mackintosh Muggleton). As things inevitably turn to shit, the film becomes a disturbingly effective argument against occupation as a means of fighting terrorism because, moral and political considerations aside, it just doesn't work. A Film Freak Central reader asked critic Walter Chaw if everything has to be about Iraq; the answer is no, but nearly everything is. And 28 Weeks Later is a condemnation of America's post-9/11 hysterical idiocy that is as sharp and potent as only a genre film can be.

The film admittedly loses a bit of steam when its focus shifts to two Americans, a sniper named Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and Major Scarlet (Rose Byrne), a medical officer determined to get the kids to safety for reasons that echo Children of Men. Both actors are fine, but their characters are vehicles of the plot and lack the same depth that the other characters share (Aliens, which this film has been frequently compared to, is superior because it creates real relationships between its Marines that amplify our emotional investment). That said, the second half of 28 Weeks Later is as tense and unrelenting as any film in recent memory. While the first film was shot digitally, Fresnadillo chooses to shift ably between 35mm, super 16 and DV - even the very texture of the film is unreliable. He also proves to be one of the handful of filmmakers who knows how to employ rapid cuts and shaky, fragmented images in order to evoke a sense of disorientation rather than simply being disorienting. The empty streets of London, which are briefly employed for their adventurous quality early on, become dark and oppressive, culminating in an underground sequence that is as effectively claustrophobic as the scene in The Silence of the Lambs that it references. There's a recurring image in the film of a rifle's telescope serving as a means of voyeurism; the same unstable relationship between seeing and destroying motivates the film's scares.

A friend from work complained that the film's near-nihilism is a betrayal of 28 Days Later's final note of hope. Usually, I'd be inclined to agree - Children of Men, for instance, wouldn't be nearly as powerful without its final images. But horror movies are another story; the best horror filmmakers are the ones who are willing to unflinchingly follow through with an enactment of our worst fears, and Fresnadillo puts himself near the head of the class on that count. There are problems with 28 Weeks Later - a line about the virus not crossing species blithely overlooks the start of the first film, and there's a recurring role for a rage-infected character that makes as little sense as the shark's trip to the Bahamas in Jaws: The Revenge. But as a longtime horror fan who has to wade through so much disposable, middle-of-the-road fodder destined to collect dust on Blockbuster shelves, it's a delight to see the makers of 28 Weeks Later try to actually say something with their zombie sequel. And it's good to have a reminder that there are filmmakers with genuine vision, even in the places one least expects to find them.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

I loved your father, as I love you.

I wish I could have seen Spider-Man 3 when I was eight. The packed audience I saw the movie with was filled with wide-eyed little boys and girls oohing and aahing at the webslinger's exploits. Spider-Man 3 is easily the youngest-skewing entry in the series, and I'm certain that, if I'd seen it in the third grade, it would have been on my all-time top ten. But the best popcorn movies (Spider-Man 2 among them) unlock that guileless sense of wonder that we thought we'd lost. And while Spider-Man 3 - the most baffling summer tentpole in recent memory - is the loudest, busiest and hardest-working Spider-Man movie, it's only intermittently fun, and by its end, it's more tiresome than wondrous. Spider-Man 3 is to Spider-Man 2 as The Godfather Part III is to The Godfather Part II, okay on its own terms but terribly disappointing by comparison.

The unwiedly plot pits webslinging grad student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) against four villains - Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) an escaped convict mutated by a nasty case of plot contrivance; Venom (Topher Grace) whose alter ego Eddie Brock is Peter's Salieri; his childhood friend Harry (James Franco), now clad in his dad's Green Goblin costume; and his girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who has morphed into a petty, narcissistic shrew. The film is as much about their relationship and the emergence of Peter's id - manifested in a gooey, alien deus ex machina called symbiote - as it is about Spidey fighting the bad guys. Spider-Man 3 becomes one of those dreaded comic book closet dramas that are kryptonite for action-hungry fanboys. But while I've passionately argued in favor of derided examples of superhero mumblecore like Hulk and Superman Returns, large stretches of Spider-Man 3 are just tedious. In the first two Spider-Man movies, the computer-generated spectacle was at the service of character and story - when Spider-Man battled Dr. Octopus, our emotional investment in the characters raised the stakes action-wise. I realize this sounds obvious, but it's something that director Sam Raimi appears to have forgotten (or perhaps he just doesn't care). So while Spider-Man 3 contains strong moments - Flint Marko's rebirth as Sandman, for instance - the story remains earthbound, the characters rendered inert by the lumbering, incoherent script. It's fun, sort of, but also impossible to care about.

Because the movie is so completely plot-driven, it's impossible to avoid the glaring plot holes and cheap shortcuts throughout the narrative. I won't make a list, because I don't want to sound like Comic Book Guy, so I'll just say that even though Raimi tries to play the sudden revelations delivered in the third act by a character we've only seen peripherally for most of three films - information that this character could have passed along at any time and only decides to share exactly when the plot requires it - as tongue-in-cheek, it's still lazy, shoddy storytelling. Spider-Man 3 is filled with moments that demonstrate it is a film that doesn't know what it is about. By its climax, it tries to pretend that it was always about Harry Osborne's internal conflict; this is unfortunate, because James Franco is a terrible actor and he looks ridiculous in the Goblin costume. Almost as poor is Kirsten Dunst, who has done terrific work elsewhere but is saddled with a Mary Jane that has been reduced to a simpering, pathetic victim who finds a reason to whine and complain about her relationship with freaking SPIDER-MAN. Dunst doesn't even try, and while I can't really blame her, it didn't make me hate every moment of her screen time any less. I was praying that Peter would kick this sad sack to the curb and shack up with Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard makes a charming character out of a glorified cameo). Or Betty Brandt. Even the landlord's daughter would be fine. Mary Jane is a beast.

The rest of the cast does well under the circumstances. The entire movie hinges on the underdeveloped notion that Peter is getting too cocky, but Tobey Maguire's performance elevates the material; he smartly plays Peter as well-intentioned as he's always been, but blindsided by his sudden popularity. And Church succeeds in creating a brooding, inarticulate yet sympathetic heavy in the Boris Karloff mold. But all of the actors are failed by the script - Church gets a hackneyed backstory involving a daughter who has apparently been on her deathbed for five years, and Topher Grace stumbles into the Venom role literally by accident (also, Venom looks completely stupid). Great actors like Dylan Baker, Theresa Russell and James Cromwell (as Captain Stacy) are given little to do except stand around and occasionally deliver some exposition. Rarely has such a strong cast been assembled to do so little.

From a technical standpoint, Spider-Man 3 is the best-made entry in the series. A scene involving a runaway crane inspires genuine vertigo. The action throughout is admittedly entertaining. The effects are state-of-the-art. Bruce Campbell is a pleasure as always. And when Peter, spurned by Mary Jane and tripped up on symbiate, enjoys a brief "jerk" phase that builds to an out-of-nowhere dance number, the movie at least breathes a little, evoking the sheer fun of making movies that has made so many of Raimi's earlier films so special. But that feeling is missing from the rest of Spider-Man 3; frankly, it feels like it could have been directed by anyone. You can feel the effort that went into the film, but it lacks any sort of personal touch - it's slick but cold. Spider-Man 3 ends with a funeral in the rain, which is fitting, because it's a bummer of a way to end a trilogy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I do not know what price I will have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium.

I often go to the movies in my dreams. There are a few different cinemas that exist only in my imagination which I return to from time to time, often to attend repertory screenings of films I've seen in reality. But when I watch a film in my dreams, details such as plot, dialogue, casting and even the film's images may be drastically different. This is not a failure of my memory - I've seen The Shining too many times to count, and yet in my head, the rotting corpse lives in the bedroom of Room 237 rather than the bathroom (analyze this however you like). Rather, it seems as though my mind rearranges the details of a film to communicate its own meaning; the result is sort of a "dream director's cut." I thought about this during a scene early in Inferno, Dario Argento's thematic sequel to Suspiria, during a scene set in a cab that almost replicates a scene in the earlier film - the lighting and composition are almost identical, and the same actor plays the cab driver in both films. But Argento also plays with our memory of Suspiria, altering the visual and narrative perspective enough so that this allusion becomes disorienting rather than reassuring. Inferno is a Through the Looking Glass to the earlier film's Alice in Wonderland, both deepening and contorting our understanding of Argento's cinematic universe. It's also a masterpiece in its own right, serving as a Rosetta Stone for Argento's work and, more broadly, the power of scary stories.

The second chapter in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (the third, starring his daughter Asia, will be released later this year), Inferno opens with an excerpt from the book The Three Mothers (Argento's fabricated reworking of Thomas de Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis), by the architect and alchemist E. Varelli. The three mothers are the source of all pain and sorrow in the world; the first, Mater Suspiriorum (the mother of sighs), resided at the dance academy from Suspiria, while the second, Mother Lacrimarum (the mother of tears) resides in Rome (and makes an almost sublimal appearance here). Mater Tenebrarum, "the youngest and cruelest," is said to reside in New York; when Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet living in New York, reads Varelli's book, she becomes convinced that she lives in the building occupied by Mater Tenebrarum. As she begins to investigate the building and becomes afraid for her life, she writes her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student in Rome, to come home. This begins a chain of events that draws an assortment of characters to the house, where they invariably meet with terrible fates. The characters are intentionally blank, used as symbols; Argento's aim is to tell a story not through a linear progression of events, but rather to depict evil as something that spreads like ripples atop his ever-present bodies of water. While those who demand interior logic and meaningful characterization are likely to hate Inferno (and the late-70's haircuts and 'staches don't help), the meaning of the film can be found in what Argento denies us; these characters are pawns manipulated by forces beyond their control, unable to protest the nastiness waiting for them around the corner.

In the absence of a dense plot, Argento directs our attention towards specific symbols - keys, doors, mirrors - that are loaded with connotative significance. But Argento also denies us a logical (or at least linear) narrative progression, severing the connection between the signified and the signifier. Like the film's characters, we become adrift, disoriented, out of control, as though we were dreaming. But where lesser directors employ dream logic to gloss over narrative shortcomings, Argento is very deliberately acting in a diaboloical manner not unlike the alchemists, giving us a sort of cinematic cryptogram that confounds our methods of deduction. Inferno is a self-contained work of art, filled with allusions to other works but, like Varelli's book, possessed by its own singular vision. One does not watch Inferno so much as dream it.

Inferno is largely faithful to Suspiria's surreal color pallette in its lighting and design - both films look like 1950s MGM musicals as directed by Francis Bacon. But the effect is drastically different; the scares in Suspiria revolve around shock, the mysterious machnations of the witches ultimately manifested in Argento's trademark gloved slasher. The horror in Inferno is disembodied - its roots can be found in those remarkable moments in Suspiria (Jessica Harper passing through a set of sliding doors, for instance) where nothing overtly scary is happening and yet we're fild with an overwhelming sense of dread. Argento sustains this unease throughout Inferno - an early scene where Sarah descends into a hidden pool beneath her building (Mario Bava contributed to this and several sequences in the film) creates a mounting sense of anticipatory anxiety, so that the scene is not about the inevitable "boo!" moment so much as our own expectation of that moment. The entire film unfolds with the same precise understanding of the uncanny, aided in large part by Keith Emerson's often melancholy score. When we meet Mater Tenebrarum, Argento finds in a single image a definitive statement about horror - why we are at once repelled by and drawn to that which frightens us, and what is at the center of this obsession.

In the opening narration, Varelli writes that "the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them." Argento's film, too, infects its audience by exposing them to the roots of their fears and desires. In this, Inferno becomes a work where cinema and dreams intersect; there's a purity to this film, as though Argento is projecting his unconscious directly onto the movie screen. As a meditation on the horror genre, Inferno is perfect, a work of pure film; as an example of the genre, it's scary as fuck.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Trim Bin #57

- Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the most underrated filmmakers, largely because his films are so little-seen. So the arrival of the new Jodorowsky box set, distributed by the good people at Anchor Bay, felt unreal after decades of grainy tenth-generation dubs. But then, it's unreal that these films even exist at all - the three features contained in this set, Fando y Lis, El Topo (one of my all-time favorite movies) and The Holy Mountain, feel as if they were not filmed but conjured out of thin air. I'll review the films once I've adequately processed them, but I can easily say that this set is a must-own. The transfers are stunning, the extras are copious, and the set includes Jodorowsky's haunting scores for El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Anchor Bay has even discovered a long-lost short, La Cravate, filmed in 1957. I can't wait to revisit Jodorowsky's films, and I'm especially happy that they have a chance to receive the sort of widespread appreciation they deserve. Now we just need a good R1 release of Santa Sangre.

- Alex Jackson's epic, provocative review of Grindhouse, which argues that "If you prefer Planet Terror you don’t understand movies and if you prefer Death Proof you don’t really like them. And either way, you aren’t fully experiencing them."

- Jackson also pointed me in the direction of Criticker, a website that allows you to rate movies on a scale of 0-100 and compare your tastes with other users and critics. It's very addictive, yet it also touches upon an insecurity I've long had, namely that I'm too positive. Take that C+ for Vampires, for instance; it's probably much worse than that would suggest, but I always have a big grin on my face when I'm watching it. I've given about twenty percent of the films I've rated 100s, and while I can partly attribute this imbalance to the absence of many Troll IIs, I must ask my readers - am I too easy?

- Greg at Dreamscape has some interesting thoughts on the connections between The Kinks, Hot Fuzz and Kant (contains some spoilers).

- I received the sad news today that Images Cinemas' Focus Arts Monthly is no more. Published by the cinema where I work as a projectionist, Focus provided not only a schedule of upcoming films but also film reviews, opinion pieces and articles on local arts happenings by a diverse slate of writers. The back issues here will give you an idea of how special Focus was; I know that I was given an extraordinary amount of freedom to write about whatever I wanted. While my editors must have often regretted this fact, as I often abused such power to dwell on dork minutia; nevertheless, Focus was a fine little newsletter, and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

- Finally, the extremely mixed reviews for Spider-Man 3 have me very excited to see the film - I love it when the reviews for a movie I've been anticipating are all over the place, as it makes it easier to clear my head and make up my own mind. Part threes are always tricky - for every Return of the King or Alien 3, there are ten Batman Forevers. So it's interesting that both the positive and negative reviews have frequently referenced another second superhero sequel, Superman III. If the comparison is meant to refer to the excellent scene where Superman fights himself, this is a good thing. If it is a comparison to the rest of the film, things look grim. Check out the desparate-feeling and arguably racist (Look! Richard Pryor wants to sell you booze! Ha ha ha!) trailer for Superman III to get an idea of how quickly things can go downhill with any successful series' third chapter. Let's hope Spidey manages to sidestep the proverbial shark.