Sunday, October 31, 2010

Arang (Ahn Sang-hoon); The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun)

Korean horror

Seeing some of these recent Korean horror films, one can come to an unpleasant conclusion: the long shadow of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) reaches across countries even into Korea, and haunts us even unto today, some twelve years later, like an unending videotape curse. Nakata himself has struggled to distinguish himself and does so most successfully when he takes a tangential tack: either by creating a clever variation (Dark Water, 2002, which took the water motif to an urban-apartment extreme--you'll never look at tap water the same way again--and was piercingly poignant to boot), or by doing an effective sequel-remake (The Ring Two, 2005--where Nakata took state-of-the-art digital effects and a somewhat logical, somewhat linearly-told script, and showed us what a real filmmaker could do) .

Other than that it's been long-haired ghosts dripping their black, wet locks on us all the time, and perhaps the only way to keep us interested, or at least awake and watching, is to point out where the pictures aspire to do more. Ahn Sang-hoon's Arang (2006) promises to deliver on the overfamiliar, with a plot turning on a ratty-haired ghost of a girl (don't they have conditioner in the afterlife?) who has been raped by three, maybe four men (the number becomes important at one point). Think Ringu meets The Bride Wore Black, only with supernatural payback, that ubiquitous long black hair, and some startlingly bloodshot eyes (don't they have Eye-Mo in the afterlife?).

What makes the picture somewhat if not completely different is the bit from The Silence of the Lambs thrown in. Detective So-yung (Song Yoon-ah) becomes obsessed with solving this string of murders, and it turns out she herself is carrying a bit of psychic baggage, having more than the usual reason to identify with the grudging spirit. The picture's best scenes involve the detective and her partner Hyun ki (Lee Dong-wook), formerly from Forensics, debating on the subject of corpses, poisons, and the ability of various chemicals to induce heart attacks. So-yung is herself engaging; being a victim of assault herself, she's driven by more than just professional pride in seeing justice done.

The picture's distinguished by all the opportunities missed. I'd like to have seen more of this conflict between the cop's personal psyche and her ethics--what does it feel like, trying to save a bunch of rapists when you have more in common with the psycho-killer victim? Was So-yung abusing her police powers when she kept an eye out for any and all male suspects who fitted the description of her assailant? And I'd love to have seen more of a discussion on the peculiar properties of salt--the way it draws moisture out of a body; the way it kills bacteria, lay waste to a landscape, rendering it utterly incapable of growing even a blade of grass--the ultimate antiseptic.

Kim Yong-gyun's The Red Shoes (2006) for at least the first half looks poised to successfully break away from the Ringu pack. It has a superbly creepy opening--a subway station, with a young girl tentatively approaching a pair of shoes (actually they're pink, and if what I've read is right the original title calls them pink, but who cares, really?). The poor girl asks herself: who left them? Why leave them? Can she just take them?

Yong-gyun possess real visual flair, one distinct enough to deftly sidestep all the J-horror cliches. He knows when to use silence, and when to cut away to a long shot, revealing wide open spaces that mange somehow to increase one's sense of vulnerability--make one feel like a bug on glass, being closely (if quietly) observed. More, the film's shaping up to become a terrific psychological thriller--is the mother Sun-jae (Kim Hye-su) really being cursed by a pair of pink shoes, or is she and her eight-year-old daughter suffering the effects of a traumatic divorce? All the horrific images that follow--the cracking apartment ceiling, the sudden appearances (and disappearances), the blood gushing out from between the legs--could all be ascribed to maternal anxieties about a daughter's budding sexuality, and to a possible mother-daughter rivalry. It's all very unsettling, not just because it seems freshly wrought and inventive, but also because it seems so startlingly familiar; anyone who has gone through marital troubles and moved out of the house--temporarily or permanently, it doesn't really matter--know what she and her child are going through.

All the more frustrating, then, when the plot tries to heap one surprise twist too many. The movie begins to unravel, and like roaches laying siege to a crumbling home the cliches start scampering through the cracks--pale girls with long black hair, hallways with sputtering fluorescent bulbs, the by-now tiresome shadowy figure standing in a dark corner (Kurosawa Kiyoshi took this same creature and in Pulse (2001) turned it into an image of vague existential dread--you knew the figure was frightening, but you couldn't quite say why). Yong-gyun keeps pushing, pushing, pushing; for moments at a time you think he's about to pull a de Palma and somehow land on his feet, and in fact there are images here that are uniquely disturbing (Sun-jae at times looking as frightening as the wraiths pursuing her; the ballet re-telling of the Red Shoes legend and its at times scary intensity; the way Sun-jae keeps running and running and running, and ends up on the very subway station that opens the picture). It's enough to make one conscious of a new kind of suspense happening in these recent films--the suspense of a filmmaker of promise walking the tightrope between confusing novelty and overfamiliarity, and doing his best to keep his balance. Does Yong-gyun make it, or doesn't he? One waits, with bated breath, to find out.

First published on Businessworld 10.28.10

Babies (Thomas Balmes)

Little rascals

Thomas Balmes' Babies (2010) is charming entertainment, of that there's no doubt. Four charismatic little tykes, from their birth to their first year of existence howl and crawl and pee their way through a large and often bewildering world, and you follow them with little introduction or explanation, other than titles at film's start that give us their names (Ponijao, who lives in Opuwo, Namibia; Bayar, who lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Mari, who lives in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, who lives in San Francisco, the United States). There's an admirable simplicity to the concept, a purity that you can't at one level help but admire: no commentary, no politics, no social observation, just babies, trying to live one day at a time.

The film begins with stark differences: Ponijao's mother rubs a red powder she ground herself on her belly, and that's pretty much all she does by way of preparation; Bayar's mother takes their child home for the first time, and she has to struggle to sling her leg across her husband's bike; Mari and Hattie, on the other hand, enjoy the last word in modern medical technology when being delivered, and you can't help but feel that if a fly dared to show its bacteria-infested face in their presence some laser defense protocol would fry it to cinders.

Each family pays a price for their choice of lifestyle (though you wonder if Bayar and Ponijao and their parents had much choice about their lifestyles). Bayar and Ponijao were born and live under the most primitive conditions (Bayar less so--you see a satellite dish standing beside Bayar's family yurt), and are entirely comfortable with sharing living space with roosters and goats and cows; Hattie and Mari do meet (and mash, and maul) the occasional cat, but brought near larger animals--a gorilla, say, or a tiger in a zoo--they scream their heads off. Possibly they're bored, or for some reason uncomfortable, but I'm guessing the presence of huge creatures you've never seen before glaring at you as if you were their next meal probably didn't help their dispositions. Likewise, you can shudder with dismay at the level of hygiene practiced--Ponijao, having no diaper, simply squirts fecal matter on her mother's knee who, just as nonchalantly, scrapes it off with a corn cob. But Ponijao also gets to sit in a river stream and dip her face in its water; she gets to kiss a dog full in the mouth, lolling tongue and all. I don't know if it's me or a bias in Balmes' choices in assembling his footage, but on the whole Ponijao seems to be enjoying the lion's share of fun and adventure. Bayar isn't close behind--he gets to step on a goat's face, and when a herd of cows approaches, has a moment of panic where he can't decide if he wants to stay atop the tub he's sitting on, climb down and crawl away, or teeter precariously in between (no that doesn't sound like fun, but it's definitely not boring).

One can imagine all the parents watching this on DVD and exclaiming "Yuck!" or "Watch out!" Part of the appeal of the film is in observing these youths learn how to handle their environments as best they can, however they can (it helps to remember that exposure to bacteria and dirt and grime are part of growing up, and that a too-sanitary environment leaves a child relatively helpless and unprepared). Again it might be me, or the filmmaker's bias, but Ponijao comes out all right--she's had a rough-and-tumble physical education, and her sense of balance (as you see towards the end) develops just fine, perhaps even sooner than the others. Bayar--don't cry for him; he's gotten a roll of toilet paper and is having a ball with it, all over the yurt's floor. I think it's telling that the film's funniest moment is at the expense of Mari--she tries to fit a pole in the hole of a toy and when this doesn't work, throws a fit worthy of James Cameron ("I want my quarter of a billion dollars and I want it NOW! NOW! NOW!"). Balmes has his biases, and while I'm sympathetic (what's wrong with scraping off crap with a corncob?), it does throw the nobility of his enterprise into questionable light.

The best one can say of the film is that it looks gorgeous: the differing tints and hues and most of all texture of baby skin--their smoothness, moistness, oiliness, the rolls of fat, the dewy fur--are vividly captured. Of the locations, the most memorable has to be Mongolia--seeing Bayar stand against that magnificent brilliant blue sky, that's a moment worth taking with you out the theater. The worst one can say of the picture is that it has a certain callowness, a playing for laughs, a safeness and benignity that frankly, undermines its verite ambitions. Why go through all this effort to film four babies from four corners of the Earth when the only message you come away with is "babies are happy, babies have fun, babies round the world are basically one?" There's nothing here that we don't already know, though there is much that is fresh to the eye and ear; the premise and execution could have been so much better, perhaps even great (include the parents' point of view, perhaps?), that you feel as frustrated as Mari, trying to jam her poor plastic pole into that poor plastic disc.

First published in Businessworld, 10.21.10

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2009)

I say 'whip it!'--Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me

Bad to the bone

Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me (2010) is a mess. It largely misses the import of noir writer Jim Thompson's gleefully evil 1952 novel the same time it visualizes the book's most violent setpieces with unflinching courage. It's strong in many ways, yet seems completely clueless about the inimitable Thompson flavor--the sulfurous taint you taste with every helping of his bleakly funny fiction.

It's a perilous task, adapting Thompson; he seems so deceptively easy, so surprisingly difficult to bring to the big screen (Sam Fuller once said of Thompson's 1959 The Getaway that the book could serve as the movie's own shooting script--it's full of intricate plot, memorable dialogue, and little fat). But Burt Kennedy's 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me turned out to be a mostly toothless affair (despite featuring Stacy Keach as a massive Lou Ford), and Sam Peckinpah--"Bloody Sam" he's sometimes called, whose balletic slow-motion despair might have beautifully realized Thompson's terminal nihilism--ended his 1972 The Getaway at the point when it should have gotten really interesting. Critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien called Thompson a "Dimestore Dostoevsky" and while Thompson's writing doesn't have the magnitude and complexity of Dostoevsky's moral vision, he does seem to share Dostoevsky's uncanny understanding of abnormal and criminal minds.

Stephen Frears did a good job adapting The Grifters (1990) from Thompson's 1963 novel--the whirling, fast-talking world of malignant gamblers, crooked businessmen, and money-grubbing con artists served as a seductive, glittering facade against which moved a figure of pure evil. Bernard Tavernier managed an even more difficult feat, transposing Thompson's 1964 work Pop. 1280 from a racist town in what is possibly Texas to the equally racist French West Africa (where the first slaves were shipped to the Americas) in Coup de Torchon (Blow to the head, 1981), and shooting what is said to be Thompson's darkest novel in the relentless African sunshine. Tavernier captures much of the dark humor, throwing in a few jokes of his own--the film's opening states that it was adapted from Pop. 1280; the end credits say it's from Pop. 1275, and it takes us a few moments to remember five whites died during the course of the picture.

The Killer Inside Me is not quite on the level of Pop. 1280, but builds up considerable irony on its own--the narrator Lou Ford, the town's deputy sheriff, presents himself as an affable bumpkin; the book's essential action strips away that facade to reveal an opportunistic schemer not above committing murder to exact revenge or protect himself, then peels away that layer to reveal a psychopath, pure and simple. Winterbottom sets himself a difficult task, attempting to replicate this action mostly without the use of Thompson's first-person voiceover; besides a few lines of narration taken from the book, Affleck's Ford keeps his thoughts to himself.

The task proves too difficult; without that constant voiceover we feel little empathy for the character, fail to follow close his descent down Thompson's noir hell. Possibly Robert Bresson, a master of the voiced narrative, could have done something about evoking the vast distance between what Ford says and what he does (or what he eventually says in an attempt to explain what he does)--Bresson's 1959 Pickpocket (basically Crime and Punishment set in the streets of Paris) could be seen as spiritually connected to Thompson's book, the eponymous criminal a distant cousin of Lou Ford. Winterbottom is no slouch at adaptation, but where I think he's brilliant at bringing a writer like Thomas Hardy to vivid cinematic life (as witness his 1996 and 2000 adaptations of Jude the Obscure" and The Mayor of Casterbridge), Thompson seems to keep a step or two ahead of him, playing existential games in a way Winterbottom can't quite understand, much less capture on film.

That said, the film isn't a total botch--in many cruder ways, it's a powerful experience. Casey Affleck's Lou Ford is a hoarse-voiced softshoe seducer whose tired-looking eyes bring to mind someone who just woke up and hasn't caught up with what's really going on--perfect guise for a killer. When he goes into action, the disconnect between his tired eyes and his efficient, economical moves helps evoke some of the disconnect Thompson was striving for in his novel.

Where I think Winterbottom really comes into his own is in the casting and directing of Jessica Alba as Joyce Lakeland: Thompson pictured a hardened pro, Winterbottom casts a waiflike angel with a stripper's bod (her sex scenes with Affleck have real sexual heat to them, and Affleck bends and clutches and mauls her body in ways that seem both playful and painful). Winterbottom exploits Alba's eagerness to please her director and win critical respect the way Lou exploits Joyce's eagerness to please him, and the parallels are doubly unsettling. When Lou pulls back and delivers a blow to Joyce's face, her response of hurt bewilderment is every bit as horrific as the beating that follows--it's like looking at a bright child prodigy, model student and teacher's pet who doesn't understand why she's being punished. She waits patiently, uselessly for an explanation that will never come. 

Alba's Joyce helps put some kind of alternate complexion to Thompson's nihilism, bring it closer to what Dostoevsky had in mind. It wasn't just human depravity that was the Russian novelist's unique province; he insisted on writing about human grace and redemption, on the light as well as the shadow, arguing that in many ways one cannot exist without the other. Winterbottom seems to want to suggest that kind of dichotomy, risking huge plot imponderables along the way. A brave attempt--not quite successful, but worth seeing, even acknowledging as such.

First published in Businessworld, 10.07.10

Monday, October 11, 2010

Z-Man on Senses of Cinema!

My more or less comprehensive article on Rico Ilarde (I hadn't been able to catch Villa Estrella (2009) at the time of this writing, unfortunately) is on Senses of Cinema:

Z Man, or: how do you solve a problem like Rico Ilarde (A horror filmmaker? An indie artist? Pinoy?)?


Rico Ilarde is that strange, strange creature, the filmmaker that flits in and out of both independent and mainstream studio system with apparent ease. He is not your classic idea of the “indie” or “art-house” filmmakerwhen critics or journalists write about him, he’s usually characterized as a “horror / fantasy” director, with elements borrowed from the martial arts / action genre.
He has worked as an independent filmmaker in one sensehe has directed at least three features (his first, and his two latest) without the resources of a mainstream Filipino film studio behind him. One is tempted to ask, is Ilarde a true Filipino independent filmmakermeaning, I suppose, do his films embody the spirit of Filipino independent filmmaking? Are his films Filipino in the first place? Art, perhaps? What is an independent film, a Filipino film, an art film, and how do we distinguish from the various categories involved?


Sunday, October 10, 2010


NPR's audience picks 100 top 'thriller killers'  
Some thoughts (partly revised, with second to the last paragraph newly added, at 10.10.10, at 11 pm):

That number one choice, it's not bad. Thomas Harris writes well enough, knows his crime and law enforcement, even knows his weapons--guns, knives, killing techniques, so on. Have a problem with his writing such a monstrous hit that the 'genius serial killer' has become a tired, creaking-old cliche; have an even bigger problem with the subsequent books that turn his genius killer into tragic hero (it's not that Hannibal Lecter's appetites are so abnormal, Harris seems to say, but that we are so narrow-minded). 

To his credit, Jonathan Demme's movie adaptation added two elements that I think improve on the original: a grounded portrait of middle-class America (the landscape across which the killer operates, middle America being a Demme specialty), and a realization of Harris' thriller setpieces so cleanly staged that it pretty much renders the original novel redundant (I'm not even going to try touch on the charges of homophobia leveled at the picture--that's a whole other can of worms).

I wouldn't call it great; lacks heft and substance, I think. But can a thriller be great? By definition a thriller should cause one to turn the pages quickly; can it acquire enough mass (thematic, social, political) to be substantial as well? Some tangential questions: can a thriller book provide more or better thrills than, say, a film? Perhaps offer something a film might not be able to offer, and hence be unadaptable?

A lot of the list you can pretty much throw by the wayside. Michael Crichton, John Grisham and Tom Clancy can't write for beans but they at least do decent research, and are good for a provocative after-dinner conversation or two (Crichton I think has the edge over Clancy has an edge over Grisham because--see if this makes sense--science rules a far grander dominion than the military, which in turn blows things up, a far cooler ability than anything lawyers can do in a court of law). Dan Brown I won't even bring up in polite conversation because his research is crap (Priory of Scion my ass). I'll give Crichton and especially Grisham this much--their books can make terrific movie adaptations (including the only Joel Schumacher movie I'll ever probably like).

Scott Turow is a little different--he knows how to build a miasma of guilt around his hero so thick you couldn't sip it through a straw. He can write, I guess; I remember how I felt reading Presumed Innocent better than I can any specific passages. Throw in Scott Smith, who wields a suitcase filled with money (A Simple Plan) the way Turow does his femme fatale (Presumed)--turning a man's previously peaceful life upside-down.

Stephen King can write too. He's good at dipping into the stream-of-consciousness of American adolescents, and on occasion can produce an entire good novel (I'd say Firestarter, not included on that list, was his best--a refinement and expansion of the girl-who-is-monster theme that is the basis of his first novel Carrie). Beyond that he doesn't inspire much more response from me than the occasional: "oh, man that is gross!" I'd say he's another writer whose work improves with translation--Kubrick, De Palma, Carpenter, Cronenberg and Romero have all taken a crack at him, with excellent to great results.

Robert Ludlum--eh. The word 'disposable' comes to mind. At least Sam Peckinpah revealed The Ostermann Weekend for what it is--nasty, trashy fun. with what style and wit there is in it largely provided by Peckinpah.

William Goldman can't write--not like King--but he can plot, and he comes up with clever ideas (though my favorite of his isn't on the list, isn't a thriller and isn't even in book form: Rob Reiner's terminally clumsy, mysteriously appealing The Princess Bride); ditto with Frederick Forsythe, whose Day of the Jackal is as brutally efficient as its eponymous killer (I got to say, though, that my favorite Forsythe again isn't on the list, and isn't a book: John Irvin's much underrated The Dogs of War). 

Arthur Conan Doyle--I admit, I just don't get the love. Or, I think I do get it--clean prose, vivid characters, an unerring sense of what can hook a reader or not--but just don't see these in sufficient quantity or quality to love him. Or I read him at the wrong age. Or the chemistry was just wrong.  

Agatha Christie had a more potent hold--the story plotter sans rival, with a deft way of introducing the lively detail that makes a character memorable (Hercule Poirot with his thick mustache, his bon mots, his flair for the theatrical). And in at least four of her novels--The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Curtain--a finale  strong enough to lift you off your chair and a few inches into the air, slapping your forehead in sheer astonishment.

Ira Levin and Richard Condon can write and can plot, and along with Thomas Harris form a sort of middle-guard of solid craftsmen whose work end up as great thriller films (Prizzi's Honor, The Manchurian Candidate, Rosemary's Baby). Throw in Arturo Perez-Reverte with his wayward seeming, deceptively leisurely narrative (in his case however I can't say Roman Polanski's transformation of The Club Dumas into The Ninth Gate resulted in a great thriller).

Ian Fleming I judge by a simple criterion: he can make a game of baccarat--which I haven't the slightest idea how to play--riveting (Casino Royale); he can spin out a game of golf (which I find unutterably boring) over four chapters and impel you to devour every page to learn who wins (Goldfinger). And he can plot: the narrative of Goldfinger unfolds like a telescope revealing action on an ever grander scale, with stakes that much more momentous (a card game--a golf game--an international gold smuggling intrigue--world economic chaos!). Guy Hamilton's movie adaptation was grand fun, with wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, but I still find myself drawn back to the book (despite the misogyny, despite the racism) because of Fleming's compulsively readable vodka-and-cigarettes prose.
Robert Bloch is, in my opinion, sui generis. Can he write? He's okay. Can he plot? Yes, and the plots have their share of twists. But it's his sensibility that is most memorable, a sensibility that Hitchcock captured well in one film (Psycho), but not in all its variations (he's a deft fantasy writer too, as his short story "The Hell-Bound Train" demonstrates). He's a writer of old-fashioned techniques, but what he writes about, what you feel coming off of his writing, like the exhalation from a block of ice, is pure malevolence, a malevolence at home in both the nineteenth and twenty-first century.  

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler--for a number of reasons I find movie versions of their novels more fascinating than the novels themselves, partly because of what filmmakers bring or at least try to bring to the table. Is it that their leanness has to my tastes become too stringy, requiring the fatty drippings of  film adaptation? Not necessarily to improve, but to allow the meat to slide easier down the modern-day throat? Is what Robert Altman and Howard Hawk bring to, say, The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep respectively, or what Huston's direction of Humphrey Bogart and the excellent cast (Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet) adds to The Maltese Falcon juicer than the--blasphemy, blasphemy--to my mind dessicated originals? I don't know; I can only ask.

Daphne du Maurier--loved Rebecca back when I read it in high school, loved the rich prose, the Gothic sensibility. Could even retell the story from memory and once kept a small audience riveted for about thirty minutes (if I remember right), dying to find out what happened to the nameless heroine by book's end. A little of that admiration died when I finally read its prime influence, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre--but is Jane a thriller? I don't know--there are moments, passages where the atmosphere was especially dark, and the dread quickened the pulse...but I keep thinking you need a more updated or at least leaner, more agile prose to keep the modern heart rate elevated. I read Bronte's great novel as the adventure of a memorably willful woman, a heroine of her day and age, of any day and age--but a thriller? Maurier's variation at least had the feel of one.

Cormac McCarthy is a good writer who produces lean, minimalist books. No Country for Old Men is a good thriller and good fit for the Coen brothers, who respond to its understated humor. If I seem grudging in my praise, that may be because there's something too studied and deliberate about McCarthy's prose that doesn't sit well with me. He knows how to push my buttons; I don't think he quite knows yet how to inspire me. 

And then we come to the Nobel Prize-winning writer who arguably gave us the modern-day version of the thriller. Ernest Hemingway's lust for plainness, for the "true and good," so to speak, pretty much influenced everyone from Chandler to Hammett to McCarthy; his short story "The Killer" is a perfect noir gem (and in fact was made into a feature at least twice, by two excellent filmmakers). Arguably one of his best-known books For Whom the Bell Tolls falls into the genre category--it's about a secret mission into Fascist Spain where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, with moments of breathless suspense (the bombing raid on a hill for one, and the last ten or so pages). Hemingway is so caught up in his definition of the perfect man it can be laughable if you want to laugh, but the prose is near-perfect, each word as precisely weighed and judged and mounted into the page as a semiprecious stone.

John le Carre I'd call one of the finest writers of espionage alive; The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the Karla trilogy far as I'm concerned represent the peak of his writing. No, they're not that exciting on the surface: too dense, too concerned with a wealth of realist detail, too in love with a fatalist outlook on life (thanks to spymaster and eternal cuckold George Smiley). But the depth of description is deceptive; le Carre's prose doesn't so much plod as pace, like a stalking cat, and its density allows richer setting and characterization--to the point that the novel starts reaching for a pinnacle of artistic achievement most thrillers don't even aspire to achieve (nevertheless you can sense the casting of covetous glances in that general direction).

What does le Carre have that Bronte doesn't? I don't know...a more contemporary prose, maybe? More attention paid to the occasional violent setpiece? An audience with shortened attention span, appreciative of the relatively leaner text?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold at one point notes that "there had never been a death more foretold". That said, the real thrill of the short novel isn't what happens in the end but how the victim arrives at that end, despite all warnings. Can he escape the inescapable? Part of the suspense is in watching him try; part is in watching Marquez transform the known ending from liability into asset--making us witness in horror a creature's struggle against forces larger and more powerful than he is, like a bug on a pin.

Beyond Marquez and le Carre (and I think it's a crime he's not at all represented here) there's Graham Greene, patron saint of humid, Third-World Roman Catholicism, with a prose style at times too beautiful, too lyrical for the pulpy material he's presenting. Greene was famously denied a Nobel Prize, possibly because it was felt that he was not qualified (looking around, seems to me he's not in much critical favor nowadays), possibly because it was felt that his religious obsessions dominated his fiction too much (I personally find his lurid Catholicism to be the strangest, most fascinating aspect of his work). Deserving of awards or not, I do think his works are at least worth remembering: Brighton Rock; The Quiet American, The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear, Our Man in Havana (the rare espionage novel with a sense of humor), The Human Factor, the short novel The Tenth Man and even The End of the Affair (which offers thrills of an altogether different kind, more metaphysical and spiritual than merely political), and that's just off the top of my head.With Greene a spy isn't just some citizen who betrays his organization or country for another, he's a sort of Judas Iscariot who genuinely loves the man (or group, or country) he kisses on the cheek, prior to handing over to the proper authorities..

If Alexander Dumas managed to make the list, then so I think should his descendants, those inspired by his inescapable influence. I'm thinking of Jose Rizal's El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster), a Gothic novel very much in the vein of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo

It's a fascinating book, one that really acts as sequel to Rizal's more sprawling Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), where the hapless Crisostomo Ibarra, well-meaning reformist and liberal, struggles against the established forces that rule Philippine society (the Spanish colonial government, the malevolent and all-powerful Catholic Church, the Filipinos' near-invincible ignorance)--forces in many ways still in power in the country today. Noli is a caustic epic, an at times hilarious satire with bitter undertones, where Ibarra who has everything is doomed to lose everything. El Fili is a continuation of Ibarra's adventures, and at the same time an entirely different creature--darker, more pessimistic, a novel where the words "vengeance" and "revolution" and "spilled blood" are wielded with cold deliberation, where the action has honed itself from its predecessor's many subplots into a single deadly point: Ibarra's definitive response to those who have destroyed his life.

Not perhaps as finely written as the Dumas original and definitely not as well-known--but how many novels have helped inspire a revolution, changed the course of a country's history? Gerardo de Leon's breathtaking adaptation, incidentally, is to my mind the legendary filmmaker's masterpiece, and one of the greatest Filipino films ever made.

The best thriller ever written? In my opine, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

You ask: "A great book no doubt, but a thriller?" I think so. It's long, it has its slow passages, but like many of the finest thrillers it's immersed in an overpowering sense of dread, a fear of retribution, as thoroughly marinated in those distinct flavors as a corpse in seawater. 

Like most thrillers it has an elegance of construction, a shapeliness and economy (despite hundreds of dense pages) that can be summed up thusly: a man searching for meaning in life commits a double murder, and is hunted by the police.

I'm not sure if Dostoevsky's a technically good writer; I don't know Russian, and have to depend on his many translators. From what I've read his is an extremely plain prose style, with whatever complexity in the book coming from the various debates, the symbols and symbolic actions that hang from, deflect, and at times drive the narrative. At his worst he tends to be repetitious, obvious, inconsistent, bathetic--none of which ultimately matters. Like Bloch on a larger scale his sensibility shines through, and manages to be of its time (an age of realist fiction, when the novel engaged with current philosophical, political and social issues) yet universal (Raskolnikov's desperate quest for meaning being a quest we all undertake at one time or another--and some, unsatisfied or unsatisfiable, still do).

The novel has its moments. Dostoevsky took details of his murder from the case of Pierre Francois Lacenaire, was at least partly inspired in tone and atmosphere by Nancy's lurid death scene in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (another popular thriller writer, if you stretch definitions, or at least a writer who knows how to thrill readers with specific passages in his books). The cat-and-mouse games between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, laced with menace and an uneasy camaraderie  (which Josef von Sternberg so superbly realized in his film adaptation) come out of Gothic tradition (that atmosphere of dread and approaching menace) sharpened by Dostoevsky's psychological acuity.

But there's more; it wouldn't be great if there wasn't more. Dostoevsky presents a philosophical proposition in dramatic form. Raskolnikov symbolizes man's appetite, his hunger for meaning in life--can he find this meaning? It's the most important question in the world, practically, but Raskolnikov doesn't have the leisure of time: always hanging over him is the possibility of arrest and incarceration, a deadline of sorts that Porfiry doesn't ever allow him to forget; always hanging above that is the greater deadline of a mortal life, ever ready to be cut short by accident, or murder, or one's own perverse hand (Ivanovna and her half-sister, Marmeladov and Svidrigailov's respective fates all help remind us of this). And as if this wasn't enough, Raskolnikov finds in himself the near-irresistible urge to confess--an urge that constantly threatens to cut his quest short at any moment. Dostoevsky in this novel doesn't just present a philosophical idea in dramatic form, but a philosophical idea in thriller form--a thriller of ideas, of propositions, of philosophies. A philosophical thriller, in effect.

A great book, yes--but a thriller? I think the definition shouldn't be limited to a range of subject matters (crime, espionage, violence, the threat of violence) or styles (Gothic richness, Hemingwayesque austerity). I return to our working definition: if you've managed to keep a reader turning pages for hours, perhaps even entire chapters at a time, if your structure has an elegance or simplicity about it, if you deal with extremes of human behavior (cruelty, blackmail, mental torture, murder) then you've written a thriller. Anyway, that's how I see it. 


Survival of the Dead (George Romero, 2009)

Patriarch confronts zombie children in Survival of the Dead

Family feud

For decades George Romero's Dead films have been cracked funhouse mirrors held up to present to us our ever-changing visage. Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced us to Romero's zombies, and his basic apocalyptic scenario: a group of survivors trapped in a farmhouse whose relations with each other--as fellow humans, as family members, as men and women--warp under the pressure of relentless siege. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the same scenario set in a shopping mall, a deadpan (literally and figuratively) satire on consumer culture where the zombies mimicked our urge to aimlessly wander the mall floors.

The much underrated Day of the Dead (1985) was to be Romero's epic Dead film, drastically reduced in scope due to budget cuts (basically the producers refused to give him additional cash unless he brought in an 'R'-rated picture). Straitened circumstance gave rise to a radically different concept: an underground complex where officers and scientists struggle to investigate the zombie plague, their uneasy alliance rapidly disintegrating in the pressure-cooker mix of paranoia, frustration, and rising tide of undead. It's a merciless parody of the scientific and military mind both, easily Romero's most caustic work, but it wouldn't have half as much power without Bub, the scientists' most brilliant undead test subject, whose re-emerging humanity make him one of Romero's most memorable and eerily poignant characters. With Day Romero's undead series comes to a full circle: the ostensible humans fight viciously over dwindling food and resources while Bub listens to recorded music, pointedly refuses to attack his scientist master, and snaps off a quietly proud salute before going off his own independent way. At one point Bub picks up a copy of Stephen King's The Stand, as if dimly remembering having read it--not a moment involving high literature, but it's Romero's pop tribute to apocalyptic literature, to that branch of fiction on print or the big screen that deals with the truism that all things must eventually come to an end.

Day in its final form probably wasn't meant to be a final statement, but it was difficult to imagine Romero adding anything more.Land of the Dead was his attempt to do just that, and while it was vigorously directed and contained cunningly worked-in references to the war in Iraq it was basically a recycling of themes he had already tackled in Day, down to the impassive semi-sentient zombie gazing at the fleeing human survivors. With Diary of the Dead, his re-imagining of Night of the Living Dead in a meta-documentary format (a filmmaking crew abandons their horror film project to record the fall of civilization about them), Romero learned not to try top himself, but instead go small and digital--miniaturized nightmares that fill in the details in what is essentially a panoramic alternate history of America.

Survival of the Dead (2009) is Romero's latest small-scale effort--about a band of National Guard soldiers that go rogue and make for Plum Island, an advertised refuge from all creatures undead. As it turns out, the island is home to two warring families, one family believing that the undead should be finished off as quickly as possible with a shot in the head, the other believing a cure is possible and the undead should be kept (largely) unharmed.

Again Romero makes the case that the undead are basically unthinking animals rooting about for something to eat, and it's Man with his intelligence and imagination that has the capacity for true evil; at one point the soldiers encounter a band of hunters, who have just made 'sport' of their undead prey--exactly how the soldiers find out, to their horror. Later we learn that the faction ostensibly dedicated to mercy--the faction that wants to keep the undead whole and 'alive'--are just as capable of cruelty and violence as the opposing faction; doesn't matter which side they're on, it's the extremism that provokes atrocities (Middle East parable, anyone?). At one point the undead are efficiently dispatched--is this cruel? Or is it better to chain them to a mailbox, to which the undead delivers and picks up imaginary mail several times a day?

Romero's style is lean, clean, muscular; he doesn't see the need for half a dozen shaky-cam images cut together in quick succession when one lengthy tracking shot will do; he doesn't feel the need for an assaultive rock score or loud shriek effects when unnatural quiet and a shot held for an unnerving length of time is more effective. That said, there are times when Romero is capable of the offhand touch of horrific lyricism, like a beautiful undead woman riding her horse endlessly through forest and verdant landscape--Romero often feels as if he draws inspiration from current news with a generous dose of TV footage from the Vietnam War thrown in, but once in a while you do catch a glimpse of Edgar Allan Poe's restless spirit, wandering the margins of Romero's films.

First published in Businessworld, 9.30.10

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Antichrist (2009) Lars von Trier

She shred, he bled

LARS VON TRIER strikes again! As a response to a bout of depression and reportedly two months’ stay in a mental hospital, he comes up with this, basically a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a menacingly huge forest, a little hut, and a lot of home improvement tools just waiting to be misused.

The couple had just lost their son Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom -- in an attempt I suppose of some kind of self-erasure the two main characters have no names while the boy, who appears for all of five minutes, is granted an actual moniker), who fell from an apartment window while the two were having sex in the bedroom (consider the primal scene: the boy looking at his parents coupling -- only the child seems unaffected, while the ultimate impact falls upon the couple, not the youth).

The tragedy hits her particularly hard -- she collapses at the burial, and suffers a breakdown soon after. He, being a therapist, thinks she’s being over-medicated and that he can help her better with exposure therapy (simply put, presenting her with a series of steps or challenges that help her confront her fear and break patterns of escape). He takes her to Eden, an isolated cottage in the middle of the Pacific Northwest (actually the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany) where the year before she had written a thesis on gynocide.

And so it goes. Actually, the plot barely registers -- after the fateful decision to take over her therapy himself (a decision so full of confidence bordering on arrogance you’re sure von Trier won’t let it go unpunished), the two embark on an escalating series of confrontations that make little psychological sense and even less narrative (Why does she go completely over the edge? Why take it out on him? And why, if later developments and a brief flashback are to be believed, take it out on the child, a male child?). More than any act of violence in the picture the lack of logic is infuriating, if you wish to take the whole seriously, if you insist on logic -- best just let the red herring go, sit back, relax, enjoy the ride.

It’s quite a ride, too. Once you’ve given up on the requirement that von Trier make sense (he's stopped doing so at least as far back as Breaking the Waves [1996] -- where von Trier was in such a hurry to make his heroine suffer he short-circuits the storytelling process) there’s little to get in the way of experiencing the audiovisual feast he lays on you. Oh, I admit at times some of his artistic decisions still get to me (Why, if you’re dealing with musical fantasies in Dancer in the Dark [2000], should the dance numbers be so wretchedly choreographed and shot? And why if you’ve spent the money and effort to build an elaborate theatrical set in Dogville [2003], should the shots be chopped up, destroying all that carefully built space?), but here von Trier seems to be working almost unconsciously, just taking a script and putting anything and everything he can think of in it (reportedly he did this picture to prove to himself he can still make films), and the results seem -- this time, anyway -- to justify the methods. The majestic German forests have a real Brothers Grimm presence; you can believe that at any moment you will come across a gingerbread house standing in a clearing, a witch at the door, or a little hut with a wolf dressed in grandmother’s clothes, lying in bed waiting for you.

The picture doesn’t have a wolf; what it does have is a fox chewing on its own innards and declaring "Chaos reigns!" (reportedly audiences laughed at this moment, but I loved the talking lion in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ). The whole takes on the feel and texture of a fairy-tale nightmare, richly visualized and captured on hard drive by British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he did von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay [2005], then slummed a bit helping Danny Boyle tart up his Slumdog Millionaire). When she finally flips out and assaults him, all sense flies out the window and it’s a matter of who does what to whom first, harder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing -- frankly, the tragedy setup felt overdone (shooting the prologue with its sex and death presented in glamorous, langorous black and white and slow motion didn’t help), and I wanted the picture to go straight to the gore. Was rooting for her, too -- she was more inventive, more vicious in her tactics.

Arguably the one element I don’t approve of is the ending (please skip this paragraph if you plan to watch the film). When he stands up and righteous resolve fills his eyes, it’s as if the Wrath of God had risen to smite fallen Eve even if she clearly doesn’t deserve it (she’s been doing an excellent job of keeping a step ahead of him). It’s as if von Trier had had enough and decided to make him win by fiat -- the best argument yet that von Trier deserves the charge of misogyny (he could at least have given her a fighting chance).

Is it a great film? Come on -- Wes Craven does this sort of thing with a hopped-up charge that’s pure exploitation, burning away any trace of pretentiousness; David Cronenberg does this with the deliberate, clinical eye of a veteran pornographer (he realizes our feelings about women’s genitals in meat form, helping give his films a solid, sculptural feel). Of the art filmmakers Takashi Miike does this with wit and speed -- no silly slow motion necessary (haven’t even started on Italian giallo, or early George Romero, or Herschell Gordon Lewis to name a few). People who feel this is the most shocking and disturbing movie they have ever seen need to watch more movies -- it’s pretty good, but not exactly hardcore.

First published on Businessworld, 9.23.10