the devil made me do it: night of the living dead & the exorcist

Horror movies–particularly of the supernatural variety–are perpetual favorites around my household, but during the Halloween season we tend to watch even more of them.  As a child and teenager, I cut my teeth on the genre.  I loved fantasy, science fiction, and Westerns too, but it was horror that I connected with the strongest.  What that says about me psychologically, well… don’t tell me what you think.  It’ll just make me morbidly self-conscious.

The horror genre–more so than any other kind of movie, I think–tends to get judged by its worst examples.  You mention that you love horror and immediately most people think slasher killers, serial killers, and so-called torture porn.  You mention that you love supernatural fiction or movies, those same people are likely to nod their heads in solidarity when Repulsion, The Shining, and Black Sunday are named.  That’s not to say that I’m not up for a great knife-wielding maniac picture like Psycho, Blood and Black Lace, or Tenebrae, but my taste runs more toward the weird, surreal, and unnerving than say, The Human Colostomy Bag or whatever gag-inducing picture is driving the kids wild these days.

This season we’ve been revisiting horror classics, movies we saw too many times earlier in our lives but haven’t viewed in ten years or so.  Stuff like George A. Romero’s highly influential Night of the Living Dead and the equally trendsetting William Friedkin picture The Exorcist.

There’s no need to say much more about them.  They’re true classics that have weathered the years and passing trends well.  They’re scary, beautifully crafted in their own distinctive ways, and they linger in the imagination long after they end.  They may not be my personal favorites, but there’s no arguing their mythic stature as the luxury models of the field and I do love them.

Below are two videos I put together.  The Night of the Living Dead score is famously swiped from various music library sources.  The music suite from The Exorcist is Lalo Schifrin’s rejected score.  It’s great, but you can also hear why Friedkin went with using work from modern composers George Crumb and Krzystof Penderecki instead.  Make sure to watch them with the lights out and in HD for the best picture quality.

look upon the ruins: throne of blood (1957)

Released in 1957, just three years after Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is not like any Shakespeare adaptation you’ve ever seen.  Dislocated from its traditional Scottish setting, the play is reconfigured into a Japanese historical context that, oddly enough, feels like a perfect fit.  Ambition, murder, obsession, madness, human frailty, otherworldly terror, and tragedy do not abide by cultural or geographical borders.  Kurosawa’s artistic gamble is one of the director’s most brilliant creations and one of his most visually haunting as well.  As Stephen Prince points out in his essential book on the filmmaker, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Kurosawa didn’t simply adapt the play.  He reconfigured it into a proper Japanese and specifically Buddhist context, ridding the film of the play’s introspective moments and giving this more muscular adaptation a circular framework that imposes a supernatural nihilism drawing from the Noh theater traditions that a samurai warrior, such as Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), would have been familiar with.  Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, who worked together a number of times, also give the film a bold, haunting look that will linger in your memory for some time.  Images of gnarled tree branches and wild thickets clot the frame on several occasions, reminding us that Washizu’s fate is immovable, resistant to Western ideas of free will.  Washizu is doomed from the opening moments, locked within the circular Hell of his life, and the film is appropriately structured to reflect this idea of cosmic fatalism, a theme that Kurosawa explored in a number of his films.

The video below is an experiment and something that turned out better than I expected, so I uploaded it.  I’m sure I’ll improve over time (because I’m going to do more of ‘em) and perhaps even one day figure out how to make the pictures move.  But for now, think of this as my version of a Fotonovel.

sidney lumet 1924-2011

Film director Sidney Lumet died on Saturday of lymphoma.  He got his start as a child actor working on stage, co-starring in the 1939 movie One Third of a Nation, and later he studied acting at the famed Actors Studio in New York.  In the 1950s, Lumet made a name for himself working in television, directing such shows as The Best of Broadway and You Are There.  He also directed Boris Karloff and Grace Kelly in a 1952 production of Don Quixote.  Sadly, it was not taped for posterity.

But feature film work was where Lumet would shine.  He was no auteur in the manner that the next generation of filmmakers would become—Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, et al—but his handling of actors was equal if not better than any of them.  Lumet’s gifts as a director were not imprinted on every frame of film like many of the aggressive stylists that typified the later so-called New Hollywood directors, though his work always stressed consistent thematic concerns that were easily identifiable in his best movies—the belief in liberal democracy, the strength of the individual over the group, and the need for the individual to combat corruption embedded within a justice system set up to curb criminality but that paradoxically, frequently exacerbated it.  Crime and the way an individual takes a moral stand against it, or not, is a thematic corner stone for arguably his most important productions, the movies that have made the biggest impression on me, at least.

Lumet’s first movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and much of his work through the next decade—The Fugitive Kind (1959), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Appointment (1969)—all have their strong points.  But his movies throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s are the ones I connect with the most.  The Anderson Tapes (1971), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Running on Empty (1988), and Q & A (1990), all made huge impressions on me as a young moviegoer, helping me understand that special chemistry between an actor and a director.  Throughout his career, Lumet regularly extracted career-best performances from many of his leading performers, such as Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Treat Williams, Nick Nolte, and River Phoenix.  As a viewer, the result on screen was frequently brilliant to watch.  Pacino–who for me seemed to rely more and more on showboating technique as his career ground on—never appeared as real and vulnerable and human as he did in his work in the 1970s, particularly in his collaborations with Lumet.

It’s been gratifying to see so much appreciation for Lumet’s work over the last couple of days.  These are strange times for anyone who loves drama and naturalism in American movies.  What used to be a routine stylistic approach for Hollywood, especially since the late 1960s, has been relegated of late to independent movies or television shows like David Simon’s The Wire or Treme.  Todd Haynes’s recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, has been an extraordinary reminder of how rich naturalism can be when utilized by a director with an affinity for it and how working in that mode does not mean one is working sans artistry.

Lumet knew how to capture New York City on film, making it snap, feel lived-in and pulsing with life.  The city is not just a backdrop for the characters to move through or for the cinematographer to manipulate and exaggerate as needed.  Like other directors who have made New York City their location of choice–Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, and Spike Lee, to name a few of the more notable and recent ones—Lumet had no compunction about showing the city in all its unromantic, gritty reality.  But it’s not simply a negative portrait of the city either.

Edited by the great Dede Allen and utilizing the Elton John song “Amoreena” to great effect, Lumet’s montage takes a characteristically realistic approach, showing the city in all its multiplicity.  In just a few minutes, the city of New York is brilliantly and succinctly established as a character itself, a location crammed with people of all ethnicities, gender, age, and economic classes which exist beyond the narrowness of the plot that will quickly commandeer the movie.  But it won’t remain in the background for long.  As the plot progresses, with Al Pacino and John Cazale desperately trying to maintain control of a hostage situation that has turned into a media event, the city will once again re-establish itself within the narrative, and linger long in the memory once the credits role.  The movie was the first Lumet I’d seen, I think, and it nestled deep within me.  It’s still my favorite of his movies, as well as my favorite Al Pacino performance.

The acidic satire Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, is another great one and is resonant now as it was when first released.  Lumet maintains his humanistic approach to the material, grounding Chayefsky’s broad satire in the realistic rhythms he’s most comfortable in, but it’s an exaggerated naturalism that showcases Chayefsky’s aggressive stamp over that of Lumet’s.  Excellent stuff nevertheless.

Many of Lumet’s movies, particularly Prince of the City, Running on Empty, and Q & A, seem ripe for re-evaluation.  By the 1990s, in light of the attitude-heavy posturing of a post-modernist filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, Lumet’s straight dramatic take on crime and punishment seemed old fashioned and he fell off the radar for me.  I knew Family Business (1989), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Guilty as Sin (1993), and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) had been released, but they were also sadly easy to ignore.  Most critics thought the productions were far from Lumet’s prime, and audiences stayed away.  Lumet kept working sporadically though the next decade, though no one would have called you a fool if you’d declared him done artistically.  Kaput.

In 2007, though, Lumet came roaring back with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a movie that in every shot showed a director at the height of his craft and artistry, and who deftly turned what could have been a rudimentary heist picture into the most layered of tragedies.  Melodrama is a term that’s frequently used as a pejorative because so many filmmakers have contempt for the form and wield it as if it’s incapable of psychological or moral depth.  But the movie is one of the most incisive explorations of moral fragility and desperation that I’ve seen in many years, while still maintaining its generic function as a crime picture.  That ability to balance both content and form is not unique when talking about crime fiction—there are countless examples of novels that say something important while giving us the requisite page-turning excitement we crave—but in the post-Tarantino crime world, most filmmakers go for sensation, style, and garish hyper-realism only.  The movies feel alienated from everyday life and removed from any real, tangible human experience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead couldn’t feel more relevant or alive.  There’s an urgency to the movie, a kinetic energy that kicks in from the first shocking moments—no, I’m not talking about the scene of a naked, narcissistic Philip Seymour Hoffman watching himself in the mirror while he has sex with Marisa Tomei, but the scene of the jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry–and never lets up until the finale.  Constructed in a non-linear manner, the movie feels fresh in a way that Lumet’s movies hadn’t felt in decades.  Filmmaking is a young man’s game and many a great director has petered out artistically before his actual physical time.  For Lumet to deliver such a knockout experience that late in his career is remarkable and was a foreshadow of more great work to come.

But there won’t be any more movies from him.  It’s the lament of every cinephile the world over who has ever mourned a favorite director or a writer.  No more…. There is, though, a body of work to re-discover.  For anyone who cares about drama, actors, and stories that have resonance to our adult lives, that are rooted in timeless narratives but that speak to us as contemporaries, the death of Sidney Lumet is a passing that should not go by unacknowledged.  Hollywood in recent decades has become an industry solely catering to the teen male mind or that of children, with only an adult-focused movie here and there.  In recent years, that narrowness of experience has become increasingly the only dream for sale to audiences.  That’s tragic for artists like Lumet and for those of us who need something more than CGI and Power of Myth narratives to entertain.

random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

some of my favorite things #8: patricia arquette

I almost got fired for this woman.

It was sometime during the summer of 1993 and I was working at an independent video store in Northwest Portland.  It was a great job and I worked there for years.  Of course, one of the perks was that we’d get free passes to see movies every now and then.  I lucked out and was given one for two to see True Romance at the Lloyd Center Cinemas.  The catch, though, was that I couldn’t leave work early to see it.  I got off at 7:00.  The movie started at 7:30.  I had to race out, jump on a #15 bus and ride it downtown, then bolt onto the MAX and ride that across the river to the cinema, then try to get a seat.  No way was I going to get in that screening on time and I had to see this movie.

It was based on a Quentin Tarantino script, the first release after Reservoir Dogs, and a year or so before Pulp Fiction shook the film world.  It had a great cast and it co-starred the lovely Patricia Arquette, who I’d had a crush on since seeing her in that third Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  We’re roughly the same age (I think she’s a year older) and I was smitten.  I was going to get into that fucking movie.

I left about ten minutes early.  I got in.  I loved the movie.  And I almost got fired the next day when I slunk into the store and was given a serious reprimand by the co-owner who had checked up on me.  I apologized… sincerely… and was grateful to still have my cool job.

But it was all worth it.  She was worth it.

It’s Arquette’s birthday today and she is definitely one of my favorite things when it comes to modern actors.  I don’t like everything she does–she’s woefully miscast in John Boorman’s screechingly earnest Beyond Rangoon–and she doesn’t have a lot of dramatic range.  But so what?  She made for a perfect cinematic dream girl for this movie-mad American male during the 1990s.  And she’s still lovely.

David Lynch obviously thought she made for the perfect object of unobtainable desire in his superbly creepy and sexy 1997 neo-noir Lost Highway, my favorite of his movies.  Playing duel roles in it, duel symbols of a sometimes frightening female sexual power, Arquette entered that rarefied realm of ultimate noir siren.  A siren worth risking it all for.

And like all great cinematic sirens, particularly of the noir variety, she is forever out of reach.

But that’s what repeat viewing was intended for.

directory of world cinema: american independent and sinescope

It’s been pretty busy around these parts and as the summer crawls forward… it’s only going to get busier as the Terry Gilliam book gets finished and a new book project gets started.  I’m not going to say anything publicly about the latter thingy… but it’s exciting and in time I can be more open about it.

First off, I noticed this evening that my comrade from across the pond, UK film academic/editor/writer John Berra, has been interviewed by Jeremy Richey over at his fabulous site Moon in the Gutter.  I was fortunate to have been able to contribute a number of reviews (and an essay on Yakuza cinema) to both of the books that Berra edited (when not teaching film studies at Sheffield Hellam University), Directory of World Cinema: Japan and Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (both published by Intellect).

The book on Japanese films is now available in the UK and will soon be available in the US.  The American Independent book can now be pre-ordered here.

I also want to mention a project that I’m very happy about.  I’m now a contributing editor and resident film critic at the online arts journal Sinescope.  The site just went up Sunday evening and… well, it’s just getting started.  Plenty of wonderful essays already up over there–including my own piece on Quentin Tarantino’s war epic Inglourious Basterds–and I also have a film-oriented blog (He Watched by Night) there too which will include DVD/Blu-ray, theatrical, and movie biz items.  And if you head over there you can read my reviews of the recent superb Criterion Collection releases Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy and Steve McQueen’s remarkable feature-film debut Hunger.

Whew!  Sorry for the self-promotion, but I really wanted to mention those nifty things.  We now return to regular programming…

john shirley… smegma… what’s not to lurve?

john_shirley300dpi.jpg

Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.–from the film Adaptation.

For those of you who don’t know–and you really, really, should, considering he’s been writing provocative science fiction, horror, and whatever else for three decades–John Shirley is an adapter. In the 1970s, Shirley was a pivotal figure in the punk underground in Portland, Oregon, antagonizing, engaging, and spreading the virus of ideas and sounds in bands like SadoNation. In 1977, Shirley and another local musician, Mark Sten, opened up the city’s first punk club (albeit an illegal one), The Revenge. Shirley subsequently left Portland for New York City, where he continued to work as a novelist during the day and chart sonic waters at nights with the band Obsession. Later on he played with The Panther Moderns and wrote a number of songs for Blue Oyster Cult, most notably on the underrated album Heaven Forbid.

His novels are strident, erratic, sincere, violent, thought-provoking, rubbish, and brilliant. His short story collections–Heatseeker, Neo Noir, Black Butterflies, and Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories–are probably the best place to start if you’ve never read him. And then check out the novels City Come A-Walkin’ and the Eclipse (Song of Youth) trilogy. Oh yeah, he also wrote the first draft for The Crow movie before horror/noir writer David J. Schow (another fine scribbler in his own right) took over.

Anyway… read Shirley. Without him there would’ve been no William Gibson (certainly not in the shape that he took on), and arguably the “punk” in cyberpunk would have been muted if not terminated all together. The above video* is Shirley with Portland noise/experimental musical pranksters Smegma from, I would guess, late, late 1970s or very early 1980s.

Doesn’t matter what time it is. It’s timeless absurdity.

* The alien subgenius intelligence that posted this video to YouTube would not allow me to replicate it here on this site. But you can simply go there and view it for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHh95hICPiM

Enjoy….