the one you might have saved: frank

A couple of years ago over at the mighty Arbogast on Film site, a gauntlet of sorts was thrown down.  In writing about Joe D’Amato’s sicko horror film Buio Omega (1979), Arbogast lamented the gruesome death of a “minor” character in the film.  The question of “Who would you save?” is a bold and revealing one to ask horror fans since expressing empathy for a character is not always the primary emotion when watching these films.  Can you imagine how raw and hollowed out you would be if every time you finished watching [insert horror film of choice here] you curled into the fetal position and sobbed yourself to sleep?  I’d seriously advise retiring that DVD copy of Maniac (1980) and switch to Sonja Henie films instead… which is their own sort of nightmare.  A couple of days ago, Arbogast tossed out the challenge again and I’m heeding the call.

Horror fans are a hardened sort.  And the longer you’ve been at it, the thicker the emotional armor.  After years of watching hundreds (thousands?) of nameless extras, minor characters with only a few lines of dialogue to mark their territory, and major players with name recognition fall to the death lust of rippers, sadists, creatures from the deep dark woods, cannibals, zombies, evil twins, and all the black-hearted rest of them… you can’t blame us for being a little discriminatory about who we mourn for.

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) features a particularly painful death scene for me… a character that undoubtedly qualifies as the one I would save.

He cuts a fearsome, intimidating presence at first.  A fascist-minded goon entrapped in his tower block, feeding off his own brand of rage.

In a normal world, no one would think less of you if you fled.  Took your chances back on the street to find safe haven somewhere else.

But the definitions of normality have changed quite a bit since the end became extremely fucking nigh.

You have to take chances… accept hospitality from scary strangers…

And hope that they’re not as bad as you originally feared.

I’m not exactly sure why this character gets to me.  Perhaps I’m just fond of Brendan Gleeson.

This character reminds me of plenty of blokes I’ve known over the years.  He enjoys downing hearty pints of Guinness, eating a good plate of stewed eels and mash, and watching West Ham United struggle through another match on the telly.

He’s just a guy.

We’ve seen so many of these types go down in a hail of bullets, get chomped to bits by satanic beasties, and excised from films like dinner scraps from the table.

They’re expendable.

And maybe that’s why this one hurt so badly.

I got the feeling that this character just wanted a little more than that.

He’d certainly earned it… surviving with his daughter as he had in that fortified tower block.

He had a good thing going… relatively.

Until the main characters showed up and ruined everything.

Then again… the appearance of the raven gives the death an almost mythic resonance.

As if it were fate not chance at play here…

It’s like a part of him knows it was always going to end like this.

Something nestled in the deepest recess of his mind…

Calling him forth…

To stand alone…

Stare death…

Right in the eye.

There’s nothing romantic about it.

Nothing heroic.

Death is simply the inevitable last chapter in all our lives.

It snatches us all.

Even our loved ones.

It’s not a comforting thought.

We spend our lives trying to protect our loved ones from that inevitability.

We certainly don’t attempt to speed things up…

Become the agents of their misfortune…

In a normal world… that would never cross our mind.

Sadly, those days are gone.

Today… things are much more difficult…

Everything’s in flux…

And no matter how hard you fight it…

How hard you struggle…

It’s so easy to give in to…

Rage.

Unless someone…

Stops you.

And blesses you with everlasting peace.

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last to perish: ossos (1997)

Like many people, even among those who avidly watch international movies, I had no idea who director Pedro Costa was until a few years ago.  Access to the Portuguese filmmaker’s films was difficult to come by, at least where I was located.  None of his work was available in the States on region 1 DVD and as far as I can recall none of his films played at the Portland International Film Festival when I was still living there.  If you aren’t lucky enough to live in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, or any other major city where access to less commercial cinema is easier to come by… you’re fucked.

So I was anxiously awaiting the release from the Criterion Collection of Costa’s so-called Letters from Fontainhas trilogy on DVD, films consisting of Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), all set in the now razed Lisbon slum of Fontainhas and starring mostly non-actors who lived there.  Having watched only Ossos so far (last evening), I’ll reserve saying anything about Costa and his films until I’ve watched at least the rest of the trilogy.  But just from viewing Ossos I can say that I was quite surprised by what awaited me.  Pleasantly surprised.  The film is elliptical, hypnotic, politically aware, evasive in regards to narrative, and oddly formal in its compositions.  It’s a strange and entrancing mix of gritty, neorealist “authenticity” and rigorous staging, quietly stunning and profoundly moving despite a melodramatic scenario.  It feels lived in… yet Costa is always aware that he is an intruder in the lives of these people, a tourist ultimately unable to embed himself within the reality of Fontainhas until he relinquishes his aesthetic armor.

In an interview with filmmaker/film professor Jean-Pierre Gorin, Costas speaks about Ossos as the first of the trilogy but the end of a more cinematically traditional mode of filmmaking.  Ossos, which was shot on 33mm and made with a relatively large professional crew–featuring the cinematography of Emmanuel Machuel (who worked with Bresson on L’argent, 1983)–would eventually give way to a more stripped down approach in the subsequent films.  Costa would abandon the intrusiveness of working with the larger crew and opt for digital video instead, keeping things trim, and closer to the ground.

I’m curious to see how I react to the others in the trilogy since it was Costa’s formalism in Ossos that was so satisfying for me.  The mix of almost documentary actuality with the more painterly compositions and hollowed-out acting by the cast… unreality within the reality of Fontainhas… seems more honest to me than admitting no intrusion.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about that, though, once I’ve seen the other films.

It’s been a long time since a film has seeped into me like this.  Watching it late at night, its images trickled into my brain like tendrils of someone else’s dreams… nestling into my own… still resonating with me when I awoke.  It’s a strange feeling.  Especially when you realize that the experience isn’t reciprocal.  You’ll always be a tourist no matter how long you stare back.

in the walls: bad ronald (1974)

Based on a thriller novel by Jack Vance, who is better known for his science fiction and fantasy tales, Bad Ronald found its way to the screen via the glass teat on the ABC network’s Movie of the Week program.  Yes, the major networks once made movies.  Hard to believe, I realize, in this day of “reality” programming and the like, but it’s true.  Most of the movies produced for ABC–as well as for NBC and CBS–were garbage, fondly remembered now for their camp value and little else.

Every once in awhile, though, something strange and memorable for the right reasons would air–Brian’s Song (1971), Duel (1971), The Point! (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Trilogy of Terror (1975).  And this little curiosity… Bad Ronald (1974).

It’s not a “great” movie by any means, though it sure did make an impact on me when I first saw it as a wee lad.  I have no idea if I saw it when it originally aired in 1974 (I would’ve been five) or when it was possibly rerun not long after.  Whenever it was, I was young and impressionable.

It marked me.

Bad Ronald‘s twisted set-up–a misunderstood teenage boy in the Norman Bates mold kills a neighborhood girl after she taunts him and his domineering mother hides him from the cops within a secret room within the house–gripped me and haunted me for years.  I told friends about this movie whenever I could, but I never met anyone who had ever seen it.  And I suspect many thought I was making it up.

It had been issued on VHS at some point… but I only caught up with it again when it was shown on cable in the late-1980s.  I was disappointed.  Its power had faded.  Like many of the films that make the biggest impact on you when you’re a child, they fail to live up to the significance you’ve given them when you view them as an adult.  You hyped it too much over the years… falling in love with how your skull cinema screened it nightly rather than the less impressive reality.

Nevertheless, after the disappointment of watching it again, I still talked about it to anyone who’d listen.  The premise was just too warped to shelve away.  And the actors involved–Scott Jacoby, the excellent Kim Hunter, a brief straight turn by future comedic bumbler Dabney Coleman, and a young Lisa Eilbacher–all made it impossible for me to dismiss.  It was schlock to be sure.

But it was my schlock.

While the flame of fond memories had dimmed, I looked forward to the day when one of the genre specialist video companies like Anchor Bay or Synapse Films issued a proper DVD of it.  In 2009, Warner Brothers released the movie as part of their worthy Archive Collection.  Like the majority of the discs in this series, the quality isn’t great… we’re talking burned-on-demand discs here… but it’s hard to complain since a movie like this is probably never going to see a remastered release.

Earlier this week I finally showed Bad Ronald to my partner in crime.  It was the first time I’d seen it since the late-1980s.  Surprisingly, I liked it much better this time around.  Sure, on a technical level the movie is unimaginative and symptomatic of the drab, no fuss camera set-ups and lighting schemes so popular at the time in television movies and sitcoms.

But Bad Ronald gets under my skin.  While watching it this week, I was shocked by how vivid many of the scenes, especially the one below with the girl on the bicycle, were to me.

It was like no time had passed….

Not so bad.  Just misunderstood.

Mother sees him with different eyes.

Hopefully, his date will view him differently too.

See the talented young man beneath the awkwardness.

But the “date” goes wrong and Ronald is humiliated.

Best to just take a short cut and get back home…

Unfortunately that short cut intersects with her lifeline…

Triggering a chain of events…

changing the both of them forever.

In time he’ll reflect that it should have ended at that moment.

On the bricks…

His head splattered, his life ended.

Less trouble that way.

But at this moment, not knowing what awaits them in the coming seconds…

Both are grateful to be alive.

Maybe not.

One doesn’t seem thankful at all.

One… only grows angrier…

While one grows tired of the role he’s being forced to play.

How come she doesn’t see his uniqueness?

But she’s not buying it.

He’s just a creep.

What he’ll always be.

The sooner he drops dead… the better.

“Take it back!”

She can’t.

It’s escalated too far for that.

He knows it.

She certainly does.

Now.

Maybe she should have been grateful after all.

Left it at that.

Learned to say “thank you” and bowed out…

Without hurting any feelings.

No one likes to have their feelings hurt.

It hurts more than you can imagine…

It feels like the pain will never end…

Even though it’s been only seconds.

It feels like you’re free-falling…

It feels like you’re being smashed into a million little pieces…

It feels like you’ll never get out of this misery…

It feels so final.

Like your life has just ended.

On the bricks.

But maybe mother can help.

She’s always seen you with different eyes.

Love won’t make it all go away though.

Love doesn’t make problems disappear.

Especially since murder has a way of complicating things.

“We’ll have to hide you.”

Prison will offer no mercy for such a talented young man.

At least all is forgiven.

Maybe in time… others will forget all about it.

They’ll learn to forgive too.

You’ll be able to live in decency and cleanliness!”

There will be plenty of room.

No one will find you.

“It’s the perfect illusion!”

“You must learn to be quiet.”

It’s the only way to survive.

After awhile… couple of months…

People will forget.

Everything will be fine…

“I must be the only one who knows you’re here.”

“Two knocks for danger… four for safety…”

It’s a matter of survival.

There’s nothing to be afraid of…

You’ll leave one day…

One day.

Until then…

It’s best to keep up appearances.

Pretend that this has never happened.

Ronald just never came home.

He could be anywhere.