Monday, November 17, 2008

Stuart Gordon's recent horrors ("Stuck" and "Edmond")

Stuart Gordon's recent horrors

Stuart Gordon's been a favorite of mine, and not just for directing the memorably over-the-top Re-Animator (1985). He's done immensely interesting work since, often for little money and even less public attention, flying below the radar to do the material he wants to do--another far more ambitious Lovecraft adaptation (Dagon, 2001) for one, and more domestic, or at least more recognizably realistic (but Gordon's always been realistic; he pretty much captured the tone and texture of pre-med campus life in Re-Animator, of clannishly unfriendly small coastal towns in Dagon) fare like the low-key King of the Ants (2003). Even his contribution to Mick Garris' Masters of Horror series, Dreams in the Witch House, is memorable, not the least because it features a yearning college student living next door to a beautiful single mother (one thing Gordon doesn't get near enough credit for is the eroticism in his films--beautiful, casually sensuous women, so approachable you imagine you can smell the scent of their hair); you can't help but like the two, they seem to have wonderful chemistry together, and you're all the more appalled at what ultimately happens between them.

Gordon's still active; surprised the hell out of me when I learned that he had made something just last year (it opened to limited release just May this year): Stuck, about a woman high on Ecstasy and alcohol who hits a homeless man with her car and drives home with the man sticking out of her windshield. She parks the car in her garage then leaves the man there, still half out of her windshield, for several days.

It's the kind of scenario so outlandish it can't possibly be true, only it is. Gordon's trick is to use his trademark handheld tracking shot (which serves superbly for this purpose) to follow both Brandi the driver (Mena Suvari) and Thomas the victim (Stephen Rea), peering over their shoulders, earning for them our familiarity and sympathy, as they cope with their respective days. Gordon provides plenty of wince-inducing moments (among others, the sickening snap as Thomas' leg shatters against Brandi's front bumper--though my personal favorite is the little dog that manages to wiggle into the garage and find Thomas lying inside). What sharpens that horror, what makes us catch our collective breaths and want to scream or yell at them not to do this or that (or to please do this, please do that) is the fact that we're totally taken by these two characters, we believe in them as human beings. Thomas is a bit more complex (and tragic) than the martyred saint he could easily have ossified into, and Brandi isn't just some pill-popping, booze-swilling monster we can simply boo at. We hope for one to survive, for the other to get away with it, and we're constantly spinning on our heels, trying to decide just who to root for.

Throw in the film's not inconsiderable sense of humor, which veers wildly from goofy to grotesque and at its best is both at the same time (at one point Brandi looks at Thomas' apparently lifeless body hanging from the windshield and, seeing him move, bitterly demands "why are you doing this to me?!") and what you have is--well, I haven't quite seen the like of it before, but I hope to see it from Gordon again, or better.

If I think Gordon's doing good work at the moment that's nothing, I submit (or at least not all that much), to what he did some three years back. Edmond is an adaptation of a David Mamet play, and most critics take it as an early manifestation of Mamet's ideas--the subversive machismo/misogyny/racism that turns out to be critique (or celebration--the ambiguity is why Mamet's so fascinating) of itself, the lone male protagonist who faces a hostile world of pimps and hustlers and women (who if they don't want money up front don't want to hear any more of Edmond's intensely felt philosophy).

But Gordon in one sense made Mamet--he (being an established figure in the Chicago theater scene) encouraged the writer in his early days, and staged Mamet's award-winning Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Gordon was familiar with Mamet before almost everyone else was, and I submit that his adaptation of Edmond is less an adaptation and more a collaboration of two brilliant minds. Have not seen this staged (according to Gordon aside from a few early scenes very little was added or changed), but Edmond's journey through the streets and alleyways of Chicago suggests a kind of personal odyssey, one perfectly visualized by Gordon's aforementioned trademark over-the-shoulder tracking shot, made even more vivid by his insistence in holding the lens tight on Edmond (played with feral fatalism--leastways that's the best way I can describe it--by William Macy).

Gordon keeps the buildings crowding around Macy, and confines him to dark corners and dingy apartments (one's memory of where Macy comes from--a luxurious, antiseptically clean high-rise--helps heighten the contrast between his former and present life). In effect the whole city becomes a kind of shadowy tunnel, a birth canal if you will, leading him by reverse labor contractions inexorably to the cramped little womb numbered 115 that the fortuneteller at film's beginning prophesized was his destiny.

"You are not where you belong," the seer tells him point-blank; Edmond blinks and taking her cue, begins his long descent downwards. Forget the outdated references or milieu (Edmond today might have carried a cellphone, which would have helped him out of various scrapes)--more than Re-Animator (a comedy about dead people stubbornly refusing to stay dead), or Stuck (another comedy, about a live person stubbornly refusing to die), Edmond is Gordon's definitive horror film, a relentlessly deadpan comedy about a man who, dissatisfied with his present status, stubbornly insists on looking for his proper place in life, and--most awful fate of all--finds it. A great film, I think, and Gordon's masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

I'm really fond of Stuart Gordan and like yourself, I've liked his recent work a lot and I'm surprised by how little attention it's gotten.

I haven't had the chance to see Edmond yet but you've got me really excited to give it a look soon. It's just been added to my "must see soon" list.

Noel Vera said...

Oy, what you said, exactly. And let me know what you think of Edmond.