Monday, June 18, 2007

Hostel 2 (Eli Roth, 2007); The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

Eli Roth's Hostel 2, I'll have to admit, is an immense improvement over his first. Gone (for the most part) is the incomprehensibly handheld camerawork, gone (for the most part) is the Cuisinart editing; this is 120 Days of Sodom not quite as Pasolini had done it (with subtlety and vision), but maybe as a fairly competent director (uh--J. Lee Thompson? Not the director of Cape Fear! Sean S. Cunningham? Maybe) might do it, with the horror plunked frankly in medium shot on the big screen for our delectation.

Flipping the sexes so that we have women victims is an obvious try for variety; more interesting is the attempt to look into the stories of the kind of people who might want to pay money for the service--one a hardcore corporate predator, the other a more ambivalent family man. Roth's one clever plot twist is predicated on one man's attitude towards (or problems with) his wife; the rest--the faux escape that leads to a luxurious chateau, for example--is obvious and dull.

Some fuss has been made on the treatment of Heather Matarazzo like so much hung meat; actually, the scene involving her demise is a perverse variation of Countess Erzebet Bathory's practice of bathing in a virgin's blood (for younger skin), and as presented, with the magnificent Edwige Fenech writhing in sexual ecstacy, the sequence is difficult to resist--it's almost beautifully sensual (and I'm a sucker for horror with a strong sense of beauty (Bava, Argento, Cronenberg)), and easily the finest single image in the picture.

More problematic is the presentation of Matarazzo as a clueless geek virgin, hopelessly in love with the Europe in her mind and failing to see the Europe Roth has in mind--Welcome to the Dollhouse with oversized blades and fully developed breasts. Matarazzo I'm sure was kept from being uncomfortable--or at least was as uncomfortable as she was willing to undergo--but allowing herself to be so contemptuously treated, one wants to ask: does she hate herself that much? Equally mysterious is Matarazzo's refusal to participate in Solondz's Dollhouse sequel, Palindromes; both Solondz and Roth treat her like shit onscreen--what does Roth have (or do) that Solondz doesn't? *

*("Heather, I've got this real cool death scene for you; you'll be nude, people'll talk about you, and you'll look hot.**")

**If you take a good look at the scene, not really--if anyone's eroticized, it's Fenech, not Matarazzo; the poor girl just looks like a sad side of beef, ready to be carved.

Arguably the creepiest moment in the film is when the heroine finds herself alone in the spa (nice use of mist and silence there); arguably the worst is the child killing--not so much the idea of a child being killed (Sergio Leone did something similar to better effect in Once Upon a Time in the West) as the fact that Roth stretches the moment to the point of tedium. It's about this point that you realize: he doesn't seem to have much to work with in the first place, is why he works over what little he's got so thoroughly.

Maybe that's the biggest problem I have with Hostel 2, the paucity of ideas. Roth talks a great game, about how the two pictures evoke Guantanamo, how there's a political subtext to all this. There is, but not the one he's talking about--seems to me his movies are a symptom of the mindset that created Guantanamo (let's party, dude!), not a critique, and that the final impression is of an implacable world that hates Americans not because they do anything to deserve the hate, but because they're such soft, easy targets (even when we follow the torturers' story, the impression is that these are self-absorbed amateurs; by comparison Fenech and the Italian gourmand are seasoned pros).

The finally brings to mind the adage about money buying everything. Is Roth so completely cynical that he'd admit there's no real possibility of escape for his guests (an implausibility he failed to address in the previous picture) save through the pocketbook? What does this say about his political subtext--that the rich escape and live longer, the poor are power-tool fodder? And why does he feel he has to steal a plot twist from the Saw sequels?

Instructive comparing this to Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley (which I saw right after and yes, the difference is dizzying). Loach includes a torture sequence early in the picture--nothing elaborate or particularly original, just rusty pliers tearing out fingernails. But Loach's gift for gritty realism serves him in good stead: we know who the people involved are (Irish Republican Army soldiers, held prisoner by the Black and Tan), we know what's at stake, and we know this isn't some fantastic scenario cooked up by a geek with too much time on his hands.

Loach doesn't linger (much), just gives us the bent-over man, the scrape of plier teeth against nail, the victim's scream. It takes as much time as one would imagine it would take, with no more buildup than a busy interrogator might actually spend before working on his subject. Roth's torture sequences are mildly amusing and competently shot, but they're weightless, because the characters involved don't really matter, just the details and manner of their passing; with Loach, we have the additonal horror of seeing people who we know existed suffering, people who could very well be friends and neighbors--are our friends, since Loach allowed us to spend time with them, get to know them.

And unlike with Roth, the torture has consequences--Teddy, the man being interrogated (Padraic Delaney), becomes the more practical of two IRA brothers; the other, Damien (the fragile, unsettlingly blue-eyed Cillian Murphy) is the idealist, the purist--his notions of freedom and independence, untainted by a strong dose of physical reality, allows no compromise. Brother versus brother is a hoary concept in literature, but Loach manages to tell it simply, give it fresh power.

Roth as mentioned talks about how his movies evoke the Iraq war; Loach is able to make the connection by the far simpler expedient of telling his story straight, without once forcing the similarities. We get the arbitrary arrests, the forced entries into houses, the beatings; we get the word "occupation" thrown about ("sticks and stones may break one's bones but words cause permanent damage"), the demand not to look at the oppressor's face (looking implies you stand on identical grounds with him, that you're an equal, that you're trying to establish a human connection, a connection he in turn is trying to destroy; to him you must be some kind of animal to be restrained). Just by being faithful to the details of his milieu (one wonders what milieu Roth's trying to evoke--Pan-European Softcore?) Loach makes the film speak to us about any occupation, at any point in history--about how distressingly similar they are, no matter what door is being kicked in, or which boot is doing the kicking.

And it's not leftist propaganda; at least, I think Loach intends leftist propaganda and in some films (unfortunately) gets it, but here the tone achieved is one of a general, genuine tragedy, inescapable no matter what you do, what you had originally intended, or whose side you belong. Roth's Hostel 2 is disposable entertainment, to be used then tossed in the nearest trash bin; Loach's Wind stays with you, and reshapes the way you think and feel about the world.


Damian Arlyn said...

"...seems to me his movies are a symptom of the mindset that created Guantanamo (let's party, dude!), not a critique..."

That is an excellent observation, Noel!

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, man.

TWIGS said...

Interesting ideas. Ever thought about the comparisons between "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" (and Irish nationalism) with the Philippines in the late 19th century. There's the imperialist element with a native population of racialized subjects, a revolution that expands from the backwaters to, and, most importantly, the co-opting of the revolution by a corroborative elite. Perhaps this is the story of all post-colonial societies, but with all the talk of the Philippines as under the umbrella of current U.S. imperialism, wouldn't "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (which I saw in Manila) have more of an impact in a society like the Philippines?

As for "Hostel", it might be interesting to look at the European reactions to the film. As Eli Roth has been insisting, European critics tend to "get" the film more than American ones, and I admit that the Europeans do have a lot to say. La Monde declared "Hostel" the best American film made that year (even ahead of "The Departed"), and ArtForum's David Rimanelli and Hanna Liden wrote a really interesting article about the film and the context of American imperialism. As one friend of mine aptly put it, "Hostel" seemed to capture the pulse of expanding American global presence, by pinpointing the intersecting "panics": "the panic about american chauvinism plus the panic about the rest of the world's potential retribution for it".

Just some thoughts.


Hi, Noel:

Sorry if this is unrelated to your post. But knowing you're a big fan of Lav Diaz's works, may I ask if you have any info about "Reclusion Perpetua," which I've heard is his next film after "Heremias," with the great Nora Aunor in the lead. It's supposed to be an entry to this year's Metro Manila Filmfest. If that's true, wow!

Anonymous said... when will Hostel 2 ever get shown here locally - or will Hostel 2 ever get shown here locally???

Noel, since when have you been an advocate of film piracy????

Noel Vera said...

twigs: I agree, Wind's themes can apply to Philippine history--is why it has such broad appeal, I think. It speaks to the oppressed everywhere.

As for Roth, I don't know what La Monde is talking about; in terms of filmmaking I think even a relatively commercial and shallow work like Departed walks over the best of Roth anytime, even with one arm broken and pinned behind the back. As for recording 'panics,' that's an easy thing to do--24 records the same as well. The challenge is to recast that panic in an interesting, creative, perhaps even constructive way. I don't think Hostel 2 does this at all.

Mike, I've heard of a Lav-Nora project, but what I know is an omnibus film with three directors including Lav. I don't know about this one.

And annonymous (Annonymous who? I like to know who's talking) don't know and don't really care if Hostel 2 ever opens in the Philippines. As for piracy, I'm against pirating Filipino talent; as for Hollywood--hell, they got a lot of money. I couldn't care less.