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Pazar, Kasım 25, 2007

She Who Must Be Obeyed

She (U.S., 1935) * * *
D: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel

At certain points during She--the 1935 Merian C. Cooper adaptation of the novel by H. Rider Haggard--I wanted to shout at the TV, "Where have you been all my life?" At other times, I cringed in embarrassment. This is pure pulp extravagance, with a big budget bringing Depression-era audiences savage savages, femme fatales, spectacular sets, a square-jawed hero and improbable fantasy. In the mountains of the frozen Arctic, adventurer Leo (Randolph Scott), his girl Tanya (Helen Mack), and scientific researcher Horace (Nigel Bruce, best known as the most famous screen incarnation of Dr. Watson) search for a legendary flame which can bestow eternal life upon those who bathe in its fires. Instead, they encounter the aforementioned savages, as well as a secret kingdom ruled by an immortal queen (Helen Gahagan). "She" believes that Leo is the reincarnation of her lover from 500 years before--whom she murdered out of jealousy, mind you, though she wants to make it up to him. Horace urges Leo to find out the secret of the magical flame, and the queen tries to convince Leo that he's her one and only--while privately attempting to put Tanya to death. This appealing boy's adventure goes down easy, and with a budget flush from King Kong profits (Cooper's 1933 success), you get some really stunning visuals, including a battle at the edge of a cliff, a wall of smoke through which the queen commands her minions, the shimmering lights of the immortal flame in a narrow, hidden cave, and the Art Deco sets themselves, immense, set against detailed and realistic matte paintings, but permeated with touches of Caligari-esque Expressionism. The vast gates that lead into the palace are meant to recall King Kong, but make no logical sense within the story, except to suggest that all which follows is the product of a Kong-sized imagination. Alas that more illogic pops up here and there (if this is the Arctic, why are all the natives half-naked?), and the characters are often given stupid dialogue, particularly the doltish hero, who understands things about ten minutes after the audience has. It's still a must-see for anyone with a weakness for these cliches. It's also fun to spot the moments which influenced later films: "She" dons a crown and garb which makes her strongly resemble the evil Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); the high priest, conducting a human sacrifice, dons a shaggy horned helmet like Mola Ram's in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in the same scene where an extra swings from the center of the temple to an outcropping, and back, a la Indiana Jones in that film. Of course it all resembles the entertainments of Ray Harryhausen, too, even though there aren't any monsters; Harryhausen, a big fan, provides a commentary track on the new DVD from Kino and Legend Films. Harryhausen struck a deal with Legend to colorize his film 20 Million Miles to Earth, and She is colorized also, although you can watch it in black and white if you're some kind of, you know, purist or something. While one can theoretically defend Harryhausen's decision to colorize 20 Million Miles to Earth--it's really his film, and he claims it would have been in color if the budget had allowed for that--there's no point in colorizing She except to make it more garish and absurd.


And really, why would you want to? The original's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and appears to be drawn in broad charcoal-pencilstrokes. It actually resembles the preproduction drawings of Harryhausen himself, if you've seen his recent art books. Now that we live in an age where films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are made--deliberately meant to invoke this kind of retro-pulp world, and shot with the colors drained out by computer--you have to wonder why Legend Films thinks there's an audience for a colorized film. Let's face it, thanks to DVD, film buffs are a dime a dozen (same goes for blogs like this one). There's a big enough audience for the untouched She.

The Apple (U.S., 1980) *
D: Menahem Golan

Speaking of spectacles, I can't recommend The Apple too strongly. Is it terrible? Oh yes. Oh God yes. But it is a time capsule--not of 1994, the year in which it takes place, but of 1980, just before the 70's had completely expired, but certainly when disco was on its way out. Nobody told director Menahem Golan (later to produce, with partner Yoram Globus, many of the cheesiest films of that decade), whose film imagines that disco will live on and on, to eventually topple the government until all of our lives are controlled by a music producer named Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), who is most certainly the Devil Incarnate. Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour) are country bumpkins (although apparently he's Scottish and she's not) and a singing folk duo, innocent and pure, and when Alphie refuses to sign Mr. Boogalow's contract, he helplessly watches as Bibi does--and becomes an international, soulless superstar. Alphie tries to win her back. He does. They live in a hippie commune for a year, before Mr. Boogalow and his stormtroopers find them, and there's a deus ex machina which actually involves God. The spectacularly crappy songs are by one Coby Recht, who has done--uh, let me look at at IMDB--nothing else. His lyrics are so consistently obvious and stupid as to make one wonder if it's not some brilliant bit of subversive parody; alas, the film's satire is much too obvious for that. But the film is undeniably entertaining and consistently hysterical. If you're having a group of friends over on a Saturday night, show them The Apple. But serve drinks. You'll need them.

Cumartesi, Kasım 17, 2007

Beowulf

Beowulf (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Robert Zemeckis

Remember when Robert Zemeckis was the gifted director of breezy fantasy comedies, such as Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He has morphed, CG-style, into the strangely clinical director of motion-capture computer-animated films, beginning with The Polar Express (2004), and now extending to Beowulf, an adaptation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. I miss the old Zemeckis. I think a lot of us do. Just prior to the release of The Polar Express, Newsweek published a massive story on the film, apparently convinced that it would not only be the hit of the season (it wasn't), but also the harbinger of a new era of digital animation. Zemeckis enthused about the possibilities provided by motion-capture. By sticking ping-pong balls on his actors, he could direct their performances in a studio and their body movements could be mapped onto a computer. Really, it's just a fancy form of rotoscoping, the old technique in which actors are painted over by animators; it was used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and most prominently--and to great criticism--by Ralph Bakshi in his later films. Rotoscoping was used to great artistic effect in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), proving that the form could still be a form of creative expression, rather than laziness--the most common criticism. No one seemed to think motion-capture was lazy when Zemeckis used it, or when Peter Jackson used it to map Andy Serkis' physical acting as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and as the title character of King Kong (2005). That's because the goal of most Hollywood digital animation has become realism and versimilitude, not artistic expression. So, these days, on occasion you have the computer being used to create visually imaginative films such as A Scanner Darkly (2006) and The Incredibles (2004), but too much of the time studios are pushing their animated films to recreate the dimensionality, contours, and texture of reality. Mickey Mouse could flex his body like a rubber band, and when he whistled in "Steamboat Willie," his mouth virtually popped out of his head. Great expressiveness, but he didn't look much like a mouse, did he? In Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007), Remy the rat can stand up and talk, and when he gets on all fours and scurries, he looks just like a real rat. Critics gave rave reviews to Ratatouille, and the film deserved them, but they also took care to note how realistic the rat fur looked. As though that had much to do with the excellent storytelling.

I went into Beowulf with a bleeding heart for 2-D and a deep cynicism toward Zemeckis' grand project to make a CG animated film as convincing as live action. If I was going to experience all that Beowulf had to offer, I figured I'd better see it in Dolby Digital 3-D, in our local Sundance Cinema, with the polarized 3-D glasses. So this was literal 3-D animation, with the spears and severed limbs popping right out of the screen. The 3-D was spectacular, but the animation itself maddeningly uneven. Let me be more clear: this is a far better film than The Polar Express in every respect, and especially on the level of technical craftsmanship, but the technology has come so close to recreating the illusion of realism that the final gap to be bridged--making a CG human character completely convincing--seems all the wider. We ain't there yet. Some of the characters--all of whose faces are modeled directly upon their actors'--are astonishingly realistic, in particular King Hrothgar, played by Anthony Hopkins, and, in her sexed-up grand entrance, Grendel's mother, played by Angelina Jolie. Others, such as Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn) and Unferth (John Malkovich), look plasticine and just plain creepy, which was the effect I got from all the passengers of The Polar Express. Although characters show a little more emotional expression than before, their faces remain stiff. These mannequins lack soul. But I'll give Zemeckis credit, because while watching Beowulf I found myself wondering, for the first time, about where this is headed. All this time I've been patiently waiting for cel animation to make its inevitable comeback (you can't replace the specific charm and expressions made available by line drawing and paint), but Beowulf has finally made me realize that the day is coming when a computer-generated simulacrum is indistinguishable from a human being. Sure, it might not have a soul, but a finer form of motion capture could conceivably pick up on all the actor's nuances. Zemeckis may be on a fool's errand, but the technology is beginning to catch up with his ambition, and ultimately it will improve to the point where animation can be invisible--already occurring for special-effects shots in live action films, but something of a technological holy grail if a CG creation can convincingly replicate a live actor for 90 minutes. Imagine the money you'd save on catering.

Zemeckis is aiming for the fences with Beowulf. The Polar Express, for all its realism, sought the look of the illustrations of Chris van Allsburg (realistic, but "storybook" nonetheless). Beowulf, by contrast, is improbably steeped in earthiness and overt eroticism. This isn't just a fantasy action film. It requires that the sweat-dampened skin seem tactile, that you can see the dirt under the fingernails and the slight blemishes on the cheek. Fur garments are dropped. Golden water streams across Angelina Jolie's voluptuous body. Tendons and flesh are lovingly slashed, with red viscera splattering across the screen (and at you, if you've got the glasses). You get the feeling Zemeckis wanted to graduate early, so he skipped a few classes and went straight to his thesis. When Beowulf strides through a dark cave lit only by the dim light of a magically-illuminated horn, the shadows hide the CG's limitations, and he is strikingly human. But when the feast/orgy is held in the film's opening sequence, you can pick out characters in the background who look like rubber dolls. You wouldn't be this picky if Zemeckis weren't asking you to be. Give him credit for making his thesis an R-rated film that, ironically, gets a PG-13 from the MPAA for the likely reason that it's animated--you know, just like Toy Story, except that Beowulf strips naked to fight Grendel. (But thank God that's not really Anthony Hopkins' naked behind sagging into the frame.)

Not only is the film gory and erotic, by turns, but the entire theme is aimed at adults. It's a story about disappointment, about not living up to the image that you present. It's a story about aging, and about taking responsibility for the children we've neglected. Credit the maturity of the screenplay to author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction's co-writer, Roger Avary, who have collaborated on a script that faithfully recreates the context of the story's historical origins (this takes place in 10th-century Denmark) as well as its broad outline. But it also deepens and subverts the plot. Beowulf, the text, is the legend; Gaiman and Avary purport to be telling the real story. Yes, Beowulf severs Grendel's arm, but did he really slay him by cutting off his head? In this version, it's actually Grendel's mother who decapitates her already-dead son--now reduced, pathetically, to a disfigured, dried-up fetus--while hastily seducing Beowulf. Beowulf succumbs to her charms as well as her promises of wealth and power, a mistake already made by the king (who fathered Grendel). The king eventually commits suicide, but first declares Beowulf the heir, because he knows the warrior will be the new slave of Grendel's mother, and that the crown will be heavy indeed. But what has Beowulf now fathered? This is a very fine screenplay, and Gaiman and Avary can acquit themselves. It cleverly subverts the heroic myth, and risks losing the audience by portraying a Beowulf who's a braggart, a narcissist, and a bit of an oaf. Naturally, Grendel has siphoned some sympathetic qualities; while he does chew up the heads of his enemies, he's also reacting only because of his very sensitive ear, which pains him whenever the noise of the castle reaches his mountain cave. He's dispatched early, which is kind of a shame, because as the Frankenstein monster of the narrative, he's also potentially the story's heart. (The second son, Beowulf's--revealed later on--is not granted as much humanity, in the haste to deliver an exciting climax.) I find it fascinating that Grendel literally shrinks in size when he's wounded by Beowulf, as though these blows force a monstrous legend to be reduced to reality--and a humanity. The notion reinforces Gaiman and Avary's chief concern, which is uncovering the flawed being that lurks behind a legend. The exploration of this theme gives this adaptation an intelligently postmodern spin.

But how perverse that their screenplay requires so much sensuality. This should have been a live-action film, obviously. It probably would've been much cheaper to produce if it were--after all, there's only two sets to build, a castle and a cave. And this is probably not the film to resuscitate Bakshi-style adult animation, dripping with sex and violence, even if that were the intention of the collaborators. Beowulf is a film made in the awkward years of an evolving medium. Like a lot of CG animation, it will not age well. (The early Pixars already look very primitive by comparison to the newer ones.) Ultimately, this will be a footnote in the history of cinema, cited alongside The Polar Express as an example of animation's first steps to mimic reality, whether or not that direction proves misguided. That's a shame, because there's a decent movie buried somewhere underneath all these photorealistic ones and zeros.

Perşembe, Kasım 15, 2007

Tale of a Test Screening

It seems to me that there have been more advance screenings of late in Madison, or maybe I'm just hearing about them more, but last night was the first time that I'd been aware of a test screening in my city. The difference between a sneak preview and a test screening is that the latter is done by a studio or a filmmaker to get feedback from an audience which might affect the final cut of the film. All right, I'm still not absolutely positive that last night's free showing of Stop Loss, the latest film by Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce, was a "test screening," but since it is not scheduled for release until March 28, 2008, I think it's safe to assume Paramount Studios--reps from whom, with Pierce, were in attendance--were looking to gauge the audience's reaction. Passes were distributed via a mailing list for the Wisconsin Film Festival; you were asked to RSVP, although my wife and I did not (actually, we were waiting until the last minute to see if we could get into a sneak preview of Beowulf, which didn't happen)--we were still able to get in with no difficulty. It was held at the small but cozy theater at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and as you stepped through the gallery you were confronted by security guards ensuring that you had no cameras or video equipment. This frequently happens at sneak previews, too, although the security looked a little more professional, and there was also a table at which you could sign up for a Stop Loss mailing list and pick up stickers and posters for the movie. I strongly suspect the mailing list was actually another method to get feedback from the audience and to follow up with them. I did grab a sticker, which contains a link for a website containing a streaming video interviewing real soldiers grappling with the army's "stop-loss policy." (The page is owned by Paramount and linked to the official movie's promo site.) The stop-loss policy, of course, is the method by which U.S. soldiers have their service in Iraq extended beyond their initial contract and against their will, and is also the main concern of Pierce's (narrative fiction) film. The screening began fifteen minutes late, and for approximately an hour before it began, a looping slideshow played on the screen, set to loud music and depicting photographs taken by soldiers in Iraq. After a brief introduction by a UW film professor, Pierce took the stage, explaining that the film was inspired by her younger brother's service in Iraq. Up to this point, my wife and I were convinced that the film was going to be a documentary (she seemed to introduce it as such), but in fact it's a very conventional story of a soldier (Ryan Philippe) going AWOL when he learns that he'll be sent back to Iraq through the stop-loss policy, and he travels from Texas to New York in hopes of meeting with a senator who will help his case. I won't comment too much on the film, since it may not be the final cut, but we disliked it to the point of not even staying for the Q&A with Pierce (most of the audience also left). The Q&A was going to videotaped, either to be included on the film's website or on a future DVD, I'd guess. On the way back to the parking garage, we discussed our disappointment with the film--maybe a little loudly, I'm not sure. I said that it addressed my criticisms of In the Valley of Elah by presenting the soldiers as humans instead of machines, but that it felt like an afterschool special, and the script was didactic and obvious. Actually, I believe I said, "Why did it have to SUCK?!" In the stairwell of the garage I noticed that we were being closely followed by a man with a notepad whom I recognized from the screening. I stopped talking. Midway between the third and fourth floor, this man, without looking up to see where he was, suddenly turned around and headed back down. Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but now I'm wondering if Why did it have to SUCK?! was scribbled down on that pad, and is now making its way back to the execs in Hollywood. Oopsie.

Pazar, Kasım 11, 2007

Making Fun: Mystery Science Theater 3000

In 1990, I was unreasonably (and inexplicably) excited about a new cable channel that was finally coming to our Waukesha county cable provider: The Comedy Channel, alongside its rival the Ha! Network, had been heavily hyped--at least in my issues of TV Guide--and I actually remember turning to the channel where this "comedy" was supposed to be appearing, checking in on that placeholder screen and waiting for the network to be switched on. At last The Comedy Channel materialized, and I was initiated into the scrappy beginnings of what would later become the hugely successful Comedy Central. Mostly it was clips of stand-up comedy--Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Larry Miller, Paula Poundstone, Dana Gould--packaged with Monty Python and Kids in the Hall clips in a program called Short Attention Span Theater, hosted by a nobody called John Stewart. There was a lot of original programming, but all of it exceptionally low-budget: Rich Hall's Onion World, The Higgins Boys and Gruber, and Late Night with Allan Havey. I actually become devoted to these shows long before finally catching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I'd seen advertised; I believe I was babysitting the neighbor kid when I caught episode 203, Jungle Goddess, a 1948 programmer with plenty of stock footage, cheap sets, and the racist chestnut of a white woman being revered as a goddess by African savages. At the bottom of the screen, in silhouette, series creator Joel Hodgson, with two handmade puppets named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, mercilessly skewered the film.

I would have watched the show even if the jokes weren't funny. As a macabre kid whose parents never let him watch R-rated horror movies, I became well-versed in old Universal horror and fantasy pictures, as well as B-movies of the 1950's: the MST3K specialty. It was a two-hour program, and the main feature, sometimes preceded by a short, played from shortly after the opening credits to the end. It was just the sort of entertainment I usually sought out on Saturday nights; and in fact I had already seen, on my local TV station late at night, many of the movies which the show chose or would choose to "riff," such as The Mole People, City Limits, and Laserblast. But the jokes were funny, even if many of the references went right over my head, and I quickly came to love Joel and the 'Bots, who interrupted the movie for short, low-rent comedy sketches, as well as the mad scientists who forced them to watch these bad movies--Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, also the voice of Crow) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff).


The show became The Comedy Channel's first success, and when Onion World and the Higgins Boys dropped from sight, MST3K received a cushy contract to produce expanded seasons. Each Thanksgiving was "Turkey Day," and the network would show a full day's worth of MST3K episodes. The cult following became large, they won a Peabody Award, and the show was met with generous critical acclaim, most vocally from TIME's film critic Richard Corliss. Although Joel left the series midway through the fifth season, he was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson; despite some allegedly intense Joel vs. Mike fights on the "internet" (an entity of which I was barely aware at the time), the show's success continued to build with barely a hiccup. Conventions were spawned, and the cast and crew began to riff on movies live to an enthusiastic response. A feature-length film was financed, to be distributed by Universal, and featuring a slightly shortened version of their film This Island Earth. In the Bantam tie-in book published around this period, there's only the slightest hint that things were about to go sour--a few ominous paragraphs by writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl: "Since January of this year, Jim Mallon, producer, has said at least three times a week, 'The channel deal for Season Seven should be coming through in a couple of weeks.' It has yet to happen. Frankly, I'm losing hope and I have to face the fact that I don't even have a cat." Comedy Central (which it was now called, having since merged with the Ha! Network and having been sued by Canadian television for their brief use of the moniker "CTV") had grown sour on the show, whose ratings were good, solid--but also reached a plateau. The show also ate 120 minutes of air time, a good thing in the early days of the Comedy Channel, but now, not so much. The show was canned, only to be revived the next year, following a fierce campaign from the fans, by a different fledgling network: The Sci-Fi Channel. Sci-Fi had already gone through its growing pains, and had cut much of its original programming in favor of cheaper reruns like The Six Million Dollar Man, Dark Shadows, and The Incredible Hulk. It was looking to invest in a few select, cheap-to-produce nuggets of original programming, and MST3K, with its built-in audience, seemed like an attractive bargain.

As it happened, the show ran for three more seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel. I watched it as periodically as ever, a fan who didn't have much time to watch two-hour episodes of a TV show, and usually just caught it in bits and pieces. By the time Sci-Fi cancelled the show, when I was already in grad school, I tuned in to watch the last episode (#1013, Diabolik) and got a little nostalgic in the end, as Mike and the Bots finally returned to Earth. I hadn't watched the show in a year or two, but it was still bittersweet: the show had run for ten years, and I'd grown up with it. Yet, in many ways, the show hasn't really died. Rhino Home Video had begun releasing episodes on VHS a few years before the end, and has persistently cultivated the MST3K fan community by continuing to release DVD box sets of the show, at least two a year. Although there are only four episodes in a set, this is no small gesture, as Rhino negotiates the rights to each individual "experiment" (feature film) in that episode, barring the public domain ones of course. Sometimes the rights lapse, and episodes go out of print. Sometimes a mistake is made, most notably with Godzilla vs. Megalon (#212), which Rhino released without securing Toho Studio's permission--and that whole box set is now an eBay collector's item (a shame, as it was the best set released, and a good "starter package" for new fans). Because of the labyrinthine rights entanglements for so many episodes, it looks like MST3K full-season sets will never be released; but the show was designed with little continuity anyway, so not much is lost by the random order these sets contain. Most volumes now are split evenly between the Joel and Mike years, and Comedy Channel/Central and Sci-Fi. It's easy to get into, and an addictive show to collect.

Still, while MST3K is easily one of my favorite shows and "comfort foods," I always feel a strange ambivalence toward its cultural impact, as well as its philosophy as a whole. The reason I entitled this blog "Kill the Snark" was because I was tired of the kind of cynicism which pervades so much online critiquing--the mentality in which (1) the critic steps on one film in order to elevate another, but crudely, without properly appraising the merits/demerits of the former film; (2) the critic dismisses a film entirely without providing real criticism; (3) the critic makes the piece more about his/her own writing style, hangups, or whims rather than the actual qualities of the film, in a kind of minor form of gonzo journalism in which the writer is the star of the piece; (4) the critic succumbs to snarkiness, in particular with films that require a greater patience or openness to originality. I sometimes wonder just how influential MST3K has been upon this lower level of critical discourse. Naturally "snarkiness" and dismissive criticism has been around since the dawn of the newspaper, but MST3K makes it an art, just as it gives a bit of respectability to the risible act of talking loudly in the theater. Naturally the writing, directing, and editing of an "experiment" are ruthlessly torn to pieces, but there can be a mean-spirited angle: actors are often bashed for their appearance, and certainly for their talents (and lack thereof). With hundreds, if not thousands, of jokes crammed into a tightly-written 92-minute episode, the skilled writers and former stand-ups of MST3K have produced an astonishing comic machine, but also a behemoth of take-no-prisoners criticism that essentially leaves nothing in its wake intact. When directed toward a completely incompetent piece like The Creeping Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, it's exhilarating to behold. So exhilarating that it's difficult, if not impossible, to then immediately watch a respectable film without the urge to tear it to pieces. For a little while, Everything Sucks. And indeed, there's hardly a film that can't get a severe hole or two punched in it somewhere, when watched with that slant. It should also be noted that I've heard many complaints, in online forums and elsewhere, from movie buffs dismayed at inappropriate laughter from members of the audience during revival screenings of classic films. I've witnessed this many times, most depressingly during a should-have-been-great screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some now avoid revival screenings--and the theatrical experience in general--preferring to watch their serious films at home, where they don't need to worry about wannabe Tom Servos.

Some of the creators of the original films handle the MST3K treatment better than others. Sandy Frank, who redubbed and distributed many of the Japanese films from the show's third season, was so angered by the personal ridicule he received on the show that he refused to renew the show's license to air his films. Subsequently, the Gamera movies, among the series' best episodes, remain unreleased on DVD. With Time Chasers (#821), a 1980's low-budget sci-fi film, the creators of the film were actually fans of MST3K and excited to find out that their obscure little movie was going to be featured on the show. Writer Paul Chaplin, in his "Reflections" on this episode written for the Sci-Fi Channel's MST3K website, recalled positive feelings for the film: "We...got a definite sense that the whole project was undertaken by a group of well-adjusted people. That is certainly not true of most of our movies, and they're to be commended. And truth be told--and remember, I'm only saying this in order to be polite--this really isn't a horrible film." Mike Nelson has a more painfully honest account, in his DVD introduction to the episode: "When the show premiered, [the makers of Time Chasers] had a party, and we talked to all the people beforehand, especially one of the characters--the little guy with the mustache, I don't remember his name...and they showed the movie, and we talked to the guy after that and things weren't so good anymore. Apparently they didn't think we would actually savage the film. Maybe they thought we would say, 'Wow, this is a great film.' It didn't happen that way, and apparently the party was kind of a downer, so to all of those people involved in Time Chasers: I'm sorry." On the other hand, Don Sullivan, one of the stars of The Rebel Set (#419), has found a somewhat strange, if philosphical appreciation for the treatment his film received by the show. On an interview included in the recently-released Volume 12 box set, he says, "I've always liked [MST3K] for reasons that most people don't understand... The first time I saw it was The Giant Gila Monster [#402], and the little robots added humor to it. It was a nice film...however, the Science Fiction 3000 [sic] robots added luster to that. And the same thing with The Rebel Set. Here's a good movie, with a lot of interesting interplay of three losers, which, if you really look into it, has a lot of psychological interplay. They added humor to it in a beautiful way, the robots, that takes it...from a 'B' movie to an 'A' movie and that makes it very nice for the actors that are in it. So I love it." Now, perhaps Sullivan, like Chaplin, is just being polite, but his argument seems to be that MST3K improves its films in its efforts to tear them apart. Many fans would agree. On the other hand, he defends the qualities which he believes inherently exist in the original version of The Rebel Set. I admit I can't see much of any "psychological interplay" among the characters of the film--certainly nothing of any depth--but Sullivan clearly invested himself in the picture and continues to feel a natural protectiveness toward it. It's just that he's also managed to reconcile it with the MST3K version in what is either reflexive doublethink or an appreciative serenity which comes with time and distance.

At fan conventions and other MST3K-related events, it's not unusual to see cast and crew from the original films showing up to express their love for the show. Although I've never attended an MST3K convention, on two occasions in Madison I was able to see, up-close, how these subjects of so much "riffing" have reconciled their feelings toward it. The first was very positive, the second very weird. At the 2003 Wisconsin Film Festival, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) introduced a screening of Giant Spider Invasion [#810] with one of its stars, Paul Bentzen, who was very appreciative of the crowd and enthusiastic right alongside them, despite the fact that the film, though presented "un-riffed," was greeted to a roar of laughter that barely abated for its entire length. That's what you call a good sport. The director, Wisconsin-based auteur Bill Rebane, was scheduled to appear, but didn't because he was "snowed in," as Murphy told me skeptically before the show began. A couple years later, Rebane did show, this time for a festival celebrating his films hosted by Murphy and Mike Nelson. My wife and I planned to stay for as long as we could, but after the excruciatingly awful, two-hour-long documentary on Rebane's life as a director, edited incompetently by his wife, we bailed. The real reason we left is that it was just too awkward to be watching a recap of this director's life while every clip is mocked mercilessly by the audience. It was like an episode of "This is Your Life" hosted by Satan. The clips from his films--the "highlights," supposedly--were so awful that at a certain point, despite all my efforts to resist, I couldn't help but join in the laughter. We both did, and I think we felt a little dirty after that.


So I'm not saying that the films chosen for MST3K are not worthy of mockery. It's particularly cathartic when applied to the backward and even sexist values imposed by the older films, like the short subjects, many of them meant to be screened in classrooms, instructing young women to take home economics classes while the boys take Shop. (In one short, women are given a very limited array of careers from which to choose, should they--gasp!--actually want one; the most ambitious is being a stewardess.) Hey, snark has its place, and can provide a useful satirical function in undermining the status quo. On the other hand, some of the show's episodes have received vehement objections when the films being savaged are fondly remembered. Kevin Murphy recounts, in the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, of encountering a hostile Dennis Miller when the crew was invited to his show: "Dennis mumbled something about us slipping because we had done Marooned on our show and it was a pretty good movie and maybe we'd lost our touch. In a word, he slammed us. Then he just sat there, sweating, staring at us blankly, and we smiled and stared back, then it was time to go." Marooned starred Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck and won an Oscar, so it was an odd choice for MST3K, but it was also the premiere of the fourth season, with the show at a creative peak, and it served as kind of an announcement by the show that they were hitting the big time, getting bigger films, and yes, some of those big-budget blockbusters were pretty bad, too. The objections were much stronger when they chose This Island Earth for use in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. I remember being surprised at the choice because my recollection was that the movie was kind of good. Certainly it was a cult classic, thanks to its bright primary-color cinematography, elaborate sets and plotting, and a memorable monster as iconic, in some circles, as Robby the Robot and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (they'd riff a Black Lagoon sequel later). What I--and a lot of other people--had forgotten was just how silly This Island Earth was. It's not a bad movie, it's a silly one, profoundly so: the aliens disguised as humans have suspiciously elongated foreheads, the captain's chair of their spacecraft looks like a toilet, and, well, it's got the Professor from Gilligan's Island in it. If you're in the right mood, you can laugh at the movie while still enjoying it. And while this was the most controversial experiment choice the crew of MST3K ever made, for me, conversely, it is the very justification for why I love this show. In the best episodes, the movies are a lot of fun to watch. They remind me of when I was a kid, watching beaten-up prints of B-movies on tape and on TV, waiting anxiously for the next monster they put up on the screen, just to see if it's going to look good or if it's going to be another lizard in a dinosaur costume. I love how goofy many of these movies are, and I love the movies. That's not doublethink.

In a recent interview with Joel Hodgson on Starwars.com, he explains: "As time went on I began to have affection for all these weird movies we were working with. I don't have the attitude like, 'bad movies suck and I'm going to put my eyes out with a pen because I curse you, bad movie!' I like all movies, good and bad. The good ones I call great, and the bad ones I call horribly great." In the end I think that's the best way to view MST3K. It isn't a savaging, but a salvaging: a way to recycle these ephemeral B-pictures into something entertaining again. Approached in the right spirit, MST3K is a justification for loving movies. After all, the sketches and the framing segments are just a small portion of each episode; the bulk is taken up by the actual film itself, and you're right there, with Mike, Joel, and the Bots, watching them. You wouldn't do that if you didn't have some kind of affection for the genres and the trappings of the drive-in or direct-to-video picture. These are still fun movies. So when you settle down with the latest box set, a bag of microwave popcorn and a beer, go ahead and laugh guiltlessly, but also remember why you're laughing: because deep down you love movies.

[Although the show has been cancelled since 1999, the creators of MST3K have eventually gravitated back toward movie-riffing. Mike Nelson produces a steady stream of podcast movie commentary on his Rifftrax site. (He does the commentary, but you have to go and rent the film.) Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett (the voice of Crow during the Sci-Fi years) have also formed The Film Crew, and started a line of DVDs in which they riff on various bad films from yesteryear. Finally, Joel Hodgson has just reunited with J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Tom Servo), Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl for Cinematic Titanic, another movie-riffing project which promises to release DVDs in the near future.]

The Best of the Rhino Releases
Although a few of the episodes have slipped out of print over the years, Rhino has released enough "experiments" to make for a healthy MST3K schooling. Here are the first you should seek out on Netflix or at your local video store.

1. 424 Manos - the Hands of Fate
Appallingly slow-paced horror film from the imagination of a manure salesman, though Joel and the Bots make it hysterically entertaining. Generally considered one of the worst films ever made.
2. 303 Pod People
The ideal combination of Alien and E.T., this is the story of a boy who befriends a "cute," snout-faced, furry little alien, who proceeds to slaughter all of his friends. The best bits involve a band led by a guy who looks like Greg Brady, and sings incomprehensible songs (which Joel expertly parodies).
3. 1003 Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders
Less a film than a tax write-off, this ill-advised "children's film" patches together two grisly horror movies, noticeably produced in different decades, and both coincidentally featuring a household pet being set ablaze. Also, a man dressed in a wizard's costume walks through a park asking people, "Have you seen my monkey?"
4. 506 Eegah!
Richard Kiel (Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me) plays a caveman discovered living in the hills of a California desert. Listen sharply for the weird, looped line "Watch out for snakes!" which has become something of a catchphrase. Arch Hall, Jr., sings.
5. 212 Godzilla Vs. Megalon
This episode went out of print quickly, but it's signature MST3K, with lots of rubber-suited monsters and one of the best host sketches ever: "Rex Dart, Eskimo Spy."
5. 321 Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
A very special Christmas episode with this notorious children's film in which Santa Claus is abducted by Martians, and, in one disturbing sequence, almost blown out of an airlock by the murderous yet wacky aliens.
6. 820 Space Mutiny
Eighties direct-to-video SF movie features the moving story of a bodybuilder romancing a middle-aged tramp and battling a mutiny with gun-battles on golf carts. A minor character is killed in one scene, and then reappears in the background of the very next scene.
7. 404 Teenagers from Outer Space
The title says it all, except that there's also, inexplicably, a giant lobster on the loose. Edited so incompetently that it approaches avant-garde art.
8. 207 Wild Rebels
Rhino has released about all of the 60's biker and Hell's Angels movies featured on MST3K, and this is the best of them, with a priceless "Wild Rebels Cereal" sketch.
9. 908 The Touch of Satan
This low-key 70's horror film is far from the worst film MST3K ever did, but at one point, while a beautiful young witch shows a hunky drifter a small lake in a field, she points to it and says: "This is where the fish lives." I have spent years ruminating on that line, trying to decipher what exactly the screenwriter meant and how in God's name it ever made it into a motion picture. I don't recommend you do the same: that way lies great agony.
10. 518 The Atomic Brain
Women with poorly-realized foreign accents are abducted by a mad scientist, who is practicing body-switching experiments in the basement of his Gothic manor. These foreign accents are a beautiful thing, fluidly changing in the middle of single syllables. The plot is straight out of a Gilligan's Island episode: another reason I love it.

Do not start here:

1009 Hamlet
: The MST3K writers wanted to prove that even Shakespeare could write a horrible film, but the result is excruciatingly boring.
515 The Wild World of Batwoman: This film is so incompetent that it's hilarious for the first few minutes, but then the "deep hurting" sets in. I find myself physically unable to sit through this movie.

Cumartesi, Kasım 10, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (U.S., 2007)
* * * 1/2
D: Andrew Dominik

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is nearing the end. He stages one last train robbery, then his older brother (Sam Shepard) splits, and it's up to Jesse to put the gang on their separate ways. In these last days, with the law hot on their trail and the pressure bearing down hard, Jesse's men start to get anxious and more than a little paranoid. Each thinks James is gunning for him, and he just might decide that's a good idea, when he sees the guilty look in their eyes. This includes the brothers Ford, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and his kid brother Bob (Casey Affleck), both of whom have a severe loyalty to their leader, although Bob's is a fealty born of youthful idolization. He keeps Jesse James novellas and portraits stored in a box under his bed, and he's bitterly ashamed and defensive when Charley and the other bandits tease him about it--although he's just as willing to heap praise upon James to his face, with earnest eyes and a stupid smile that creeps up his face despite his best attempts to bat it down.

Chopper director Andrew Dominik's sophomore film, in its quiet, frontier lyricism, bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Terrence Malick (Badlands in particular); but he contributes a unique flavor with a modern, moody score, courtesy rock musician Nick Cave (who also wrote and scored The Proposition), and interludes shot as if through smoked glass, narrated by Hugh Ross, who provides historical footnotes as well as beautiful snapshots of the characters' well-hidden emotional lives. These passages are presumably taken from the novel by Ron Hansen, and they certainly lend a literary texture to the film, which unfolds at a gradual pace, with each moment of suspense or action drawn out and dissected before being folded back into its package. Most notably this can be seen in the train robbery, which begins as an almost spiritual ritual, as the train's spotlight floods the woods like the coming of Titania, casting eerie white light upon each of the shoddily-hooded faces of the James gang, who gaze at it, enraptured; Jesse merely waits with his lantern in the middle of the tracks, waiting for the train to stop. Never mind that it shouldn't be able to so quickly--the sequence is in slow-motion, and by film logic, the train has an eternity to come to rest. This gorgeous scene soon transitions into the nature of the heist itself, with thundering guns, startled passengers, and one fellow guarding the safe, visibly summoning all the courage he can to stand up to Jesse James. He'd be a minor character in any other film, but by Dominik's method, every face has a story worth telling. That extends to the curious assignation between Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and the young wife (Kailin See) of the father of his friend Wood Hite; the two make preposterous passes, hers a bit more clever than his, until they finally meet in an outhouse. The sequence does bear some import upon the plot, but it plays as its own isolated sketch, and it's just about as perfect as anything you'll see in a modern Western.

But the focus, of course, is on the story of Bob Ford's fascination with Jesse James. At the start of the film he's just a tagalong desperate to be a sidekick in the gang. Soon James begins to treat him like a little brother, to the relief of Charley Ford, and the resentment of everyone else, including Jesse's wife. What makes their relationship interesting is that it isn't static: Bob picks fights with Jesse where others wouldn't have the courage, in his confused efforts to deal with his own devotion to this sometimes undeserving bully, sadist, and killer. Jesse, in turn, threatens Bob's life, then apologizes to him the next day by presenting him with a nickel-plated pistol. Since you know the outcome of the story, the telling depends upon building interest in this relationship and its import; it almost succeeds. I found Casey Affleck's Bob Ford to be a bit too slow, a bit too sweaty-palmed and simpering, to sustain my interest for every moment he's on the screen, although I can't say the same for Pitt. It's telling, if predictable, that reviews of this film bypass Pitt in their recognition and praise for Affleck. That's because this is Affleck's first major performance; quite the opposite of his role in Gus van Sant's understated Gerry, here the camera focuses on his face and studies every tic and twitch and bead of sweat. It's a good performance, but a tiring one in this 160-minute film. Pitt, on the other hand, is the best that he has ever been. When he catches the camera's stare, it's a pure pleasure to see him studying Bob and the other members of his gang, judging their loyalty, finding it lacking, and then, with an almost sublimated despair, forging ahead regardless. He does shoot a man in the back, beat an adolescent boy senseless, and implicitly threaten everyone else, all while nursing a paranoia that grows wider by the day--but you still have a magnetic attraction to the man. All that works beautifully, thanks to a moving performance by Pitt. Sam Rockwell is good, too, although a bit overplayed; this is the kind of Western where there are no stalwarts, only nervous wrecks, and Rockwell is here the most toady of sidekicks, eager to please James lest it cost him his life.

There's one drunken barroom scene, with Nick Cave making a (strangely anachronistic) cameo, that is so unnecessary and familiar that it seems to belong to any other Western--or every other Western. And the film does, finally, drag on just a little bit too much. But it is so absorbing, so perfectly paced, that these slightest missteps seem glaring. This is a patient, observant, and valuable film, and there should be more like it.

Perşembe, Kasım 08, 2007

Day Watch

Day Watch (Russia, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Timur Bekmambetov

This two-and-a-half-hour sequel to the Russian fantasy blockbuster Night Watch boasts an impressive budget, almost nonstop action, and a script so packed with characters, digressions, and subplots that it's visibly burst at the seams. It is, in many ways, the Russian version of The Matrix Reloaded. The first film was of almost historical importance in its home country; Russia (and the Soviet Union) has had a heritage of films that are either high art propaganda (Battleship Potemkin, Aelita Queen of Mars, Man with a Movie Camera) or simply high art (The Mirror, The Return, Russian Ark), but Night Watch was escapist fun for the masses. Granted, it was extremely ambitious escapist fun, with a plot that many critics found impossible to follow, but others likened it to The Lord of the Rings (whether or not they could follow that plot). The film, based on the international bestseller by Sergei Lukyanenko, explained quickly that two supernatural forces are holding an uneasy truce in the modern-day world: one side, the good guys, have formed the "Night Watch" to keep an eye on the bad guys, and vice versa for the "Day Watch." It's basically a cops versus gangsters story, but populated with witches, wizards, shapeshifters, and vampires. When one side transgresses against the other, the other side muses on how to react. (This chess game is really no different than what goes on in The Sopranos.) In Night Watch, we were introduced to Anton, a low-level wizard who learns that his son can become a powerful agent of darkness; despite his attempts to keep him, the boy is recruited, at the end of that film, to the other side. As Day Watch opens, Anton has initiated his friend Svetlana as an agent of the Night Watch, and while on duty they both encounter Anton's boy, and get a sense of how powerful and evil the adolescent has become. Anton grows obsessed with being reunited with his boy, and spends his spare time tracking down the Chalk of Fate, an ancient, magical piece of chalk which can alter the past, and a plot device better suited for a Harry Potter novel. That pesky chalk also provides one of the most absurd deux ex machinas in all of modern cinema. But that's not until you've reached the end of this epic, which features so many fistfights, car chases, and mystical twists that I certainly don't have the time to recount them all here. The most notable and entertaining of these involves Anton going undercover by switching bodies with a female Night Watch agent, which leads to gender-bending complications when he and Svetlana confess their love for each other. It's a great idea in a movie that has a lot of them--I also liked Alisa the witch's golden ring, which allows her lover to feel her emotions and immediately identify if she's cheating on him--but this breathless film has a strange tendency to show off its budget while pursuing blind alleys. Like when Sventlana first mentions that she loves Anton (his car dives off the road and he makes a spectacular crash in a snowbank); or when Alisa drives up the side of a hotel, shattering through windows and driving down hallways, just because she's anxious to see her boss; or when Anton goes to great effort to board a plane to Samarcand, only to turn around when he realizes that's not where he really wants to go. Day Watch is worrisomely obsessed with providing one spectacle after another, each bigger than the last, until you arrive at an absurd, apocalyptic climax replete with tango dancing, a weapon of mass destruction disguised as a yo-yo, a little spider with a baby-doll's head, multiple drunken speeches into a microphone, another car chase--this one with a car crashing straight through a truck lengthwise and surviving intact--a completely irrelevant whodunit unmasking of a murderer, and a ferris wheel crashing down a city street. They might as well have called upon the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It's a shame, because the exhausting and pointless finale undoes a lot of goodwill the film had built before then. Bekmambetov, although he relies too heavily on fast-cutting and heavy metal music, shares with Jean-Pierre Jeunet an intensely visual storytelling style which requires the audience to pay attention to the smallest details, which inevitably become important later on. This provides for some delightful little gags as well as bigger payoffs. Kudos also to the costume design and makeup, which outfits Alisa with red leather, a spiked dog-collar, and a haircut that points upward into little devil horns. The look of this film is richly detailed in its decadence. The decaying slums in which the Night Watch lives and works is in dramatic contrast to the elegance of the forces of darkness, who drink their blood out of fine wineglasses while wearing the sexiest gowns. But, like The Matrix Reloaded, it's much ado about nothing much. Anton is torn--in one scene, almost literally--between his love for his son and his love for Svetlana, but it's never convincing that either one should love him. He's a chain-smoking, drunken, usually bloody wreck. Yet upon these relationships turn the plot--and apparently the fate of the world. I appreciate that all the large-scale action and mayhem pivot on a personal story about love and devotion, but it just doesn't work. All that's left is to lean back and watch the eye candy, and marvel without being charmed.

Salı, Kasım 06, 2007

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Wristcutters: A Love Story (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Goran Dukic

The irresistible idea behind Wristcutters: A Love Story--derived from the short story "Kneller's Happy Campers," by Etgar Keret--is that if you commit suicide, you're delivered into a world exactly like the one you just left, except slightly worse. It's a gray-skied, rubbish heap of a world, where no colors are too bright, most things are broken, and no one can smile. I mean, literally: no one has the ability to smile. In the film's prologue--one of the sharpest sequences--Zia (Patrick Fugit) cleans up his apartment rigorously in preparation to slitting his wrists but, as he lies on the floor in a pool of blood, losing consciousness, he notices one giant dust bunny in the corner. Then he dies. Now stranded in this afterlife, he works in a dismal pizzeria serving fellow suicides while Joy Division plays on the radio, and he continues to pine after his girlfriend, Desiree (Leslie Bibb). He finally meets a couple of pretty girls, but another customer, with a 70's-style mustache and cap, plus a guttural Eastern European accent, frightens them away; nevertheless, Eugene (an excellent Shea Wigham) quickly becomes Zia's friend-in-misery, and the two plot a road trip across the desert in Eugene's car, which has a black hole at the foot of the passenger seat. A real black hole: a tear in the cosmos. But that's less important to Eugene than the fact that the headlights won't work. Shortly they pick up a hitchhiker, Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who thinks she's here by mistake, and wants to find a way to contact the authorities. Only no one knows who the authorities are, or who runs the place. That's one of the mysteries--there are white-suited cops who write tickets and arrest people for misdemeanors. Another is why, at a little camp run by a man named Kneller (Tom Waits), minor miracles happen, such as levitating matches and fish-color-changing. Another is what would happen if you tried to commit suicide again.

But none of these mysteries carry very much weight: when you occupy this purgatory, it seems your natural curiosity is blunted along with your enthusiasm for anything else. Our droll, unsmiling heroes make observations, look for Zia's girl, stumble into strange characters, and sing along to the tapes made by Eugene's old band. This is a road movie in the vein of early Wim Wenders, although the straight-faced bursts of whimsy seem more inspired by his later work. It is intermittently a very funny film, but for the most part it settles for being pleasant, comfortable--like a neglected, moth-eaten sweater retrieved from the back of the closet. It does get bogged down in "plot" when Will Arnett (of "Arrested Development") turns up late in the game as a cult leader, and I'm not exactly sure just what John Hawkes (You and Me and Everyone We Know) is doing in this film--nor does he, apparently--but these flaws are not serious. I like the bit about Eugene's family, all of whom have committed suicide, in a bizarre chain of events. Patrick Fugit is an appealing lead, as he was in Almost Famous, although it's perverse to cast him in a film where he can't rely upon his broad, innocent smile. I like the rhythm, and the simple, low-key gags. And since this is not a "quirky new fantasy-comedy-drama from ABC/HBO/Showtime," no formula is settled upon, and it's allowed a neat, nice ending. The film is completely improbable, with astounding coincidences and miraculous twists, but the story embraces them, and follows its own flickering match, last seen spinning weightless into the night sky.

Pazar, Kasım 04, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (U.S., 1982/2007) * * * *
D: Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's seminal sci-fi noir Blade Runner is back in theaters, albeit as a limited engagement in only a certain number of cities; it's in anticipation of the long-in-the-works deluxe special edition DVD (and HD, and BluRay) box set due out next month from Warner Bros. It's a film that's been released in a number of different formats, and I've been lucky enough to see almost all of them on the big screen (the theatrical version, the 1992 director's cut, the "workprint"); Blade Runner does work best in theaters, particularly an ornate, Gothic theater such as the Music Box's main auditorium in Chicago, where I caught the latest version, "The Final Cut," yesterday afternoon.

The reason Scott would want to revisit Blade Runner yet again may not seem obvious if you're not familiar with the film's history. When the film was in test screenings, he felt pressured to add a "happy ending" epilogue to the picture, as well as intrusive and redundant narration by Harrison Ford. Scott also removed a brief, potentially confusing sequence featuring a unicorn, streamlining the film's themes but also making it a less complex, nuanced work. More on that unicorn later. The film, as it was released in 1982, was a disappointment among critics and audiences, perhaps because they were expecting their science fiction served up like an escapist fantasia (Star Wars) or a kid's adventure (E.T.)--not as a profound exploration of memory and what it means to be human (i.e., the sorts of themes science fiction is best suited to handle). Blade Runner did, however, develop a cult following on home video, and as the film approached its tenth anniversary, Warner Bros. released in select theaters an early rough-cut, "workprint" version of the film (with a temporary soundtrack, an alternate opening credits sequence, no narration, and some brief alternate footage); encouraged by the enthusiastic response this revival received, they planned on releasing it wide. Ridley Scott objected, offering a better suggestion: that they give him a little bit of time to assemble his own director's cut of the film. He's stated that his primary goals for this 1992 cut were to remove the narration and restore the unicorn sequence. Without the time to pore over archives, a new unicorn scene was shot, and the film went out in a form much closer to his original intentions. This time the critical reappraisal was generous, and soon the theatrical cut became the rarity, and the 1992 director's cut became the rental-store fixture; as one of the first releases in the fledgling DVD format, it was also one of the primary reasons many people bought a DVD player. For years fans clamored for a special edition treatment of the film on DVD, and Scott promised that one was in the works; only in recent years, when a rights dispute was finally settled, has Scott been able to begin work on a real director's cut. He took his time on this one, so that he could properly call it the "Final Cut." In short, it is not radically different from the '92 cut. The narration is again removed, as is the "happy ending." The original unicorn scene has been restored, and is integrated differently into the film: rather than being depicted as a dream, as it was in '92, it's now clear that it's an inexplicable memory which Rick Deckard does not understand. "Flubs" in the special FX have now been digitally and seamlessly corrected: cables lifting the flying "spinner" cars have been erased, actress Joanna Cassidy's face has been grafted onto the stunt double who hurtles through the plate glass windows in slow-motion, and when Roy Batty's dove flies from the rooftop, the sky is not clear and daylit but overcast and rainy, as it should be. There are no major special effects revisions or additions, as George Lucas might have had done. There are no major additional scenes, either, apart from a brief shot of the masked go-go dancers outside the Snake Pit (previously only seen in the workprint) and a few seconds of intense violence borrowed from the '82 international cut of the film. Fans who embraced the '92 cut will have no reason to love this version any less.

But as I continue to revisit this film in its different iterations (all of which will be included in the upcoming box set), I'm struck at how it gains greater emotional resonance with each viewing. The film was virtually called a cold fish when it first was released; when watching the Final Cut, I was almost moved to tears here and there. The theme which resonates the most with me now is the loss of innocence which its characters are facing: Rachel learns she is a replicant, and that her memories belong to Tyrell's niece--she knows how to play the piano, but can't even be certain that she's ever had lessons. This, now, is the most moving storyline for me. But it is also echoed in Batty's quest for revelation and deliverance when he meets his maker--the genetic engineer Tyrell, who can't give him what he wants the most: "more life." It's in the minor journey taken by J.F. Sebastian, who takes in a wayward prostitute--actually a killer replicant, Pris--and suddenly, joyfully finds that he has two new friends, one whom will finally end his life. And the subtextual plot, which will not emerge until a second viewing (spoilers ahead, folks), is that Rick Deckard must soon face his own loss of innocence, because he, too, is a replicant like Rachel. "How can it not know what it is?" he asks Tyrell after running his Voigt-Kampff test on Rachel; but when your memories are false, how can you know that everything leading up the last couple of minutes isn't someone else's life story? This is the level at which Philip K. Dick's best novels operate, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired Blade Runner. In the book, Deckard is not a replicant, but the idea of his self-deception is found in almost all of Dick's novels, and most memorably in his classic short story "The Electric Ant." In that story, the protagonist learns that he's a robot when he finds a panel in his chest and a tape spooling beneath it. What would happen, he wonders, if he punches holes in the tape--or cuts it altogether? The answer: reality itself changes, because what is the difference between subjective and objective reality? Sometimes there is no useful difference. When Deckard leaves with Rachel at the end of Blade Runner, after scrutinizing the origami unicorn left by officer Gaff, he has quickly accepted that there's no useful difference between human and replicant, and it's best to make the most of what time you have.

There are details you notice when you see the film on the big screen. You can see that one of the spinners uses its turn signal when it passes Deckard's car, even though they have the entire sky as their road. You can make out every company logo which mars this hellish urban landscape (outside Deckard's apartment is a sign for RCA, for example). I don't recall seeing the unicorn toy in J.F. Sebastian's apartment; this raises the possibility that it was Sebastian who implanted the unicorn memory in Deckard, as his own personal signature. ("There's a little of me in you," he proudly tells Roy.) The unicorn is just one of the film's through-line motifs. The major one is the human eye: it appears in extreme close-up, the Los Angeles skyline reflected in its pupil, as one of the first opening shots. It's what the Blade Runners gaze at through their Voigt-Kampff machine, looking for "involuntary dilation" which might prove whether or not their subject possesses empathy (i.e., is human). It's what Hannibal Chu makes in his frigid little genetics shop--the evil Leon balances one on his shoulder; and Roy hides behind a pair of them when toying with Sebastian. Leon tries to gouge out Deckard's eyes before Rachel saves him, but Roy succeeds in gouging Tyrell's after crushing his skull. It's almost as though the replicants are resentful that humans possess these "real" eyes, these eyes which won't betray them before the Voigt-Kampff. And it's impossible not to remember that the eyes are the window to the soul. A less heavily emphasized theme, though just as important, is the stack of photographs carried to remember one's past. Rachel carries them, conspicuously, because they've been handed to her to reinforce her false memories. It's no coincidence that Deckard's piano is littered with photographs, going back to his ancestors. As my wife said, "He's overcompensating."

Some fans take exception to the idea that Deckard is a replicant, and resent the two director's cuts because of this. Let's set aside the obvious fact that this was the way the story was meant to unfold, and that the '82 version, which they prefer, swayed from the creator's intentions. The point of contention seems to be that Deckard can't be a replicant, because he's an ex-Blade Runner with a long, distinguished history, and therefore apparently doesn't have the limited lifespan of the Nexus 6. And how do they know he's had a long, distinguished career? Maybe they've been shown photographs? Nothing in the film, so far as I can see, contradicts the idea that Deckard could be a replicant. In fact, wouldn't it make the most sense if the police force contracted Tyrell to produce replicants that could hunt down other replicants? Naturally these Blade Runners couldn't be told what they really were. When Roy tells Deckard, "Now you know what it's like to be a slave," it's actually as though Roy is educating Deckard as to his true nature. Does Roy ever intend to kill Deckard, or does he want, instead, to liberate his consciousness?

Catch this one in theaters while you can. The DVD of the Final Cut--as well as all other versions--streets on December 18.

Cuma, Kasım 02, 2007

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II * * * 1/2
Containing:
Scorpio Rising (1964)
Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)
Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)
Rabbit's Moon (1979 version)
Lucifer Rising (1981)
The Man We Want to Hang (2002)


Would it please Pat Robertson to know that Hollywood's real prodigal son is a gay Satanist? Kenneth Anger has been making striking underground shorts since the 1940's, and is commonly cited as a major influence on Martin Scorsese, Andy Warhol, and Guy Maddin, among others. His films over the years have been periodically screened in museums or clandestine gatherings, but haven't been officially compiled in a non-bootleg format until Fantoma, after spending years clearing rights and engaging in a bit of wrestling with Anger himself, finally released two volumes of the director's best known material. The first, which covered his work of the 40's and 50's, was released at the beginning of the year; my review of that set is here. The second volume picks up in the 1960's with his highest-regarded (and most notorious) work, "Scorpio Rising," and follows through to 1981's epic "Lucifer Rising," with his recent documentary "The Man We Want to Hang" thrown in as a nice extra.

"Scorpio Rising" is perhaps Anger's most transgressive work (I say "perhaps" because I haven't seen his intriguingly-titled "Senators in Bondage" [1976]). Like so many of his early films, it foreshadows the music video format by overlaying contemporary popular music to his quickly-edited, dialogue-free images. Here his music of choice is that of 60's girl groups, surf music, and Elvis songs: "He's a Rebel," "Wipeout," "Fools Rush In," and so on. First he depicts bikers getting suited up for a ride, with lots of shots of bare torsos and leather-and-zipper crotches, the hunky guys grooming themselves, brushing their hair, reading comics (with choice panels given a queer double-entendre meaning), watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One in a room covered in James Dean pin-ups, and carefully polishing their bikes. Finally they stride forth into the streets, intercut with scenes of Jesus and his disciples, borrowed from some Biblical epic, doing the same. They wander into a gay club and prankishly fool around, with more explicit sexual material almost subliminally cut into the scenes--was William Friedkin taking note, for his film Cruising? Then the Nazi imagery takes over, and the film flirts with fascist propaganda. Swastika flags, pin-ups of Hitler, and a biker delivering what must be some Triumph of the Will-style sermon becomes a frenetic montage while the bikers hit the streets, headed toward death. It's the editing which is the star of "Scorpio Rising." Anger elevates his personal festishes to the level of high art, and envigorates his various objects--be they a skeleton prop sitting on a bike, or the bikers themselves--so that the entire world seems to be animate, existing in a state of extreme arousal and eminent danger. It's not just that the images are occasionally taboo; the world becomes a theater of contraband ideas, and is all the more exciting for it.

In his New York Times column, Dave Kehr singles out "Scorpio Rising" for praise, citing it as a prominent and influential film in American cinema, but only passingly mentions the rest of the work included here. That might be because they express the even more notorious side of Anger: his occult obsessions. After "Kustom Kar Kommandos," a brief extension of "Scorpio Rising" which links a car and its mechanic as equal sex objects, this DVD volume begins its spiraling dive into the Underworld. "Invocation of My Demon Brother" features an electronic score by Mick Jagger, a squealing drone that seems to be Jagger's attempt to match the trance-level of Anger's tableaus. There are brief images of Jagger in concert with the Rolling Stones, but these seem to be included only as some perfunctory nod to Jagger's presence; they are too well-lit and lucid to really fit the rest of the material in this short. We see a Satanic ceremony attended by some acid dropouts who seem to be headed next for Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. They all take tokes from a smoking skull. We see the leader of the ceremony, waving a dagger and invoking the Devil. We see a spider tattoo, a goldfish in a bowl, a grinning man hiding behind a potted plant, Egyptian iconography, soldiers jumping out of a helicopter in Vietnam, and much kaleidoscopic imagery: two naked torsos joined, many circling eyes, and Anger's trademark technique of overlapping multiple images at once, like a living palimpsest. It's all very spooky, but it ends with a bizarre joke: "ZAP/YOU'RE PREGNANT/THAT'S WITCHCRAFT." Remember that the Anger production company is "Puck Film Productions," with the slogan "What Fools These Mortals Be!"

Still, "Invocation of My Demon Brother" does, like his earlier "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," operate on an almost psychic level, which I gather was always one of Anger's goals. His are subliminal films. They mean to speak to your subconscious, with only passing, winking regard to your conscious mind. This is best demonstrated in his magnum opus, "Lucifer Rising," a decade-in-the-making costume drama which is his own version of Ben-Hur, or, rather, Cleopatra. There's no dialogue. It begins with the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris (the later played by filmmaker Donald Cammell) greeting each other, and the fact that Anger actually shot on location in Egypt, with his bare-chested actress raising her arms to the air to greet the sun (and Osiris raising his ankh in the air to make lightning strike!), immediately lends the film an impressive air. As it progresses, we see the two beginning a ritual, echoed by a modern-day girl who marches past Stonehenge to a secret altar in intercutting accompaniment to the march of her torch-wielding, druid forebears. All come to summon Lucifer, who makes his entrance like a rock star; he's played by Anger himself, naturally. You know he's Lucifer because the name is embroidered on the back of his leather jacket. At his appearance, earthquakes strike, volcanoes erupt. Ultimately, glowing flying saucers sail through the air. The film is rich with coded occult symbolism, but you don't have to understand every esoteric flourish to be caught up in the film. The film communicates psychically, beaming into your consciousness like Philip K. Dick's divine pink light in his novel VALIS. This would make a fine late-night double-feature with Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain. Just make sure you have some illicit substance available and a rock band in your presence. Note that the excellent music score is by Bobby Beausoleil, an incarcerated member of the Manson Family!

Fantoma has included a bonus film in the collection, Anger's wordless documentary "The Man We Want to Hang." It's a survey of the artwork of Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist. Turns out his artwork isn't that interesting, although Anger, as always, is.

Perşembe, Kasım 01, 2007

Capsule Reviews

Across the Universe (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida), with Across the Universe, has made a musical that is both epic and intensely personal. Epic, in the sense that it tells the (very familiar) story of the 60's through the sounds of the band that dominated the decade, The Beatles. Personal, in that it is Taymor's own Beatles reverie, the sort of story she might have dreamed up while sitting on her sofa with the headphones on; she picks the songs and the images that accompany them, and if she's found a spin to the classic lyrics with which you disagree--that's just your mixtape, man. Jim Sturgess has a star-making turn as Jude, a lad from Liverpool who leaves his homely girl for an odyssey to America. Here he meets fellow student Max (Joe Anderson), and eventually Max's sister, the beautiful Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whose boyfriend has recently been shipped to Vietnam. Jude and Lucy fall in love, Max gets drafted, Lucy becomes an anti-war activist and flirts with becoming a revolutionary, and as tumultuous 1968 draws near, the friends are torn apart. But there's more: Prudence (T.V. Carpio) harbors a secret crush for Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a Janis Joplin-style rock and roll singer and the gang's landlord, but Sadie is seeing JoJo (Martin Luther), her Jimi Hendrix-styled guitarist. These characters get short shrift, and a longer cut (which reportedly exists) might help. There's a song every couple of minutes, each taken from the Beatles' deep catalog, although the majority are from the '67-'69 period. The characters don't lip-synch the Beatles tunes, but reinterpret them; "I Want to Hold Your Hand" now aches with same-sex longing as Prudence gazes across a football field at a fellow cheerleader; "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" becomes Satanic pro-war sloganeering as Max is processed by a U.S. Army soldier-making factory; "Strawberry Fields Forever" becomes a psychedelic vision of Vietnam with strawberries replacing bombs and blood; most strikingly, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" becomes the tale of vets getting addicted to hospital morphine. These are among the best numbers; I also enjoyed the use of "I've Just Seen a Face," which transforms a bowling alley date into ecstatic grease-slides down the lanes, and particularly loved the sky gazing and skinny dipping set to "Because," which is one of the purest and warmest visualizations of hippie idealism I've ever seen. But for every dazzling setpiece is a moment of awkwardness or head-slapping obviousness. Across the Universe's story deserves a certain wide-eyed naivete, but the literalness of Prudence being sung out of a closet, or the Magical Mystery Tour bus becoming a Ken Kesey one (to "I am the Walrus"), or even the plot itself, which seems not to have been scripted but carbon-copied, all ultimately demonstrate a basic kind of laziness. I also eagerly await the day when the directors of film musicals realize that stage choreography does not necessarily translate to the screen; elaborate choreography is necessary in (static) theater, but on film, the movement of the camera and the energy of the editing can do much of the work (there's a staleness to some of the more "artsy" choreography here, while the more cinematic music scenes, such as "I've Just Seen a Face," are bursting with life). So Taymor's mixtape of a film is spotty, but the high points outweigh the lows, and the film ultimately packs an emotional punch. John, Paul, George, and Ringo deserve some of the credit for that.

American Gangster (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Ridley Scott

It's Superfly versus Serpico in Ridley Scott's classy gangster saga, the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who builds an underworld empire by bribing soldiers of the U.S. Army--then mired in the Vietnam War--to act as a shipping channel to transport 100%-pure grade heroin into the States. Selling a better product (which he cleverly brand-names) cheaper than any of the other dealers in Harlem, Lucas quickly rises to power, and chafes against the Mafia, who wants a piece of the operation, and corrupt cops, who expect a payoff. Part of the fun of American Gangster is watching Washington's mounting management frustration as he sees his perfect business fall slowly to pieces, for reasons mostly beyond his control. Helping everything topple to the ground is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop studying to be a lawyer, and seemingly the only guy in the police force who isn't taking bribes. Roberts is granted a small unit of operatives--a kind of Untouchables--to go undercover and trace the heroin ring to the source. He's reluctant to suspect Lucas, and, like many others, suspects Lucas is working for someone else; because how can he get access to so much heroin? This is actually a very standard genre film of the cops-and-gangsters variety, and if it has aspirations to be The Godfather, it's undone by Steve Zaillian's uninspired plotting, which works like a paint-by-numbers for Oscar crime films, providing all the expected scenes without ever being terribly original. Zaillian also has the annoyingly workmanlike method recognizable in all Oscar-winning screenwriters and "script doctors" (he's both)--the urge to fill out every space in the screenplay with unnecessary, often overwrought or cliched character detail. Did we really need the endless scenes of Crowe arguing with his ex-wife in court for custody of his son? Or delivering a speech on the subject when he has a very lame epiphany? Or Washington being confronted by his mother, another irrelevant character? Or even, yes, the scenes of junkies shooting up in squalor, so calculatingly inserted just when we might be glorifying Frank Lucas' profession a bit too much. There must be some rule taught in screenwriting school that not a corner of your film should be free of heavy padding. I long for lean and original filmmaking, and I get excited when I see it; or, as my wife said while we left the theater, "It's not as good as Eastern Promises." What is good about American Gangster, apart from the more pleasurable genre cliches, is the cast, particularly Washington, who relishes being cast against type. One minute he radiates charm, the next he's bashing a guy's head in with a piano. Washington is a real star, and has such magnetism that Crowe is dwarfed in his presence. It's a relief that he's finally getting worthy projects again. Praise also to Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Washington's brother and closest confidante; both played partners on the other side of the law in Spike Lee's Inside Man, and now I harbor a hope that they'll make a string of films together, like contract players might for a big studio in the 40's. These two are a lot of fun to watch.

The Darjeeling Limited (U.S., 2007) * * * *
D: Wes Anderson

The best film of the year I've seen so far, Wes Anderson's fifth film, The Darjeeling Limited, has predictably received the usual gamut of mixed reviews; it should be recognized by now that his films, for some, require multiple viewings to be appreciated (his older films are now widely loved, while his last, The Life Aquatic, has been quickly building a cult following). I often thought that this phenomenon--that his films need to be seen more than once--is caused by his extremely economical storytelling style. Characters are introduced, and their personal histories and traumas are hinted at, suggested with a line or two of dialogue, then given great resonance at the end of the film if you were alert to the nuance. I expected The Darjeeling Limited to circumvent that problem since it delves more deeply--although still subtly--into the emotional lives of its characters, and also has a more leisurely running time. But digging into the reviews after viewing the film, I was surprised to see so many critics reacting negatively to the idea of three white brothers travelling to India for a spiritual quest, then bumbling through the landscape amidst all those brown-skinned people that either serve them or baffle them--but that is the whole point. This is a satire, and you're attuned to it if you get that you're not supposed to entirely empathize with the characters from the start. (They are, after all, on a long journey, and will become something different from what they were at the beginning.) India, in this film, is given great weight by the characters--particularly Owen Wilson's wide-eyed and overly-enthusiastic sibling, who sees it as part of their journey to enlightenment--and yet while they remain secluded in their cabins on their train, The Darjeeling Limited, they obsess over self-medicating, sex, and material goods, in particular that endless pile of their dead father's luggage, which they carry in a funny visual gag, the perfect representation of their own hang-ups and deadweight. The Indians who figure most prominently in the plot--the train conductor, who carries a book on management skills, and his girlfriend, whom one of the siblings is set on seducing--are the foils. The straight men. The subsequent culture clash is worthy of Preston Sturges. But the story slowly reveals the deep wounds that mark each of the three brothers: Wilson tells them belatedly that they're actually going to see their mother, who's secluded herself as a nun, and did not attend their father's funeral the year before. In one of the most surprising scenes, a flashback which occurs without warning or framing, Wes Anderson finally reveals his intentions by staging a sequence with the mechanics of a comedy but the weight of a tragedy. In this scene--the brothers attempting to retrieve their father's car from the shop in time for his funeral--everything happens at a frenetic clip, with farcical complications that frustrate their efforts; yet the end result is not funny, but strangely bitter and heartbreaking. This is the wound that's kept them reeling. It's also a scene that exists structurally and organically apiece with the rest of this Sturges-style comedy, while providing an emotional springboard for the cathartic payoffs of the final scenes. It's poetic storytelling, and extraordinary filmmaking.

Day 31: 31 Days of Halloween

Well, Halloween and the month of October are both over, and I now lie on my back on the carpet in my monster mask with candy wrappers and Netflix DVDs scattered around me like so much detritus of the season. One thing is for certain: I am really sick of horror movies. (I expect this condition to wear off in a day or two.) Another thing is for certain: I did not quite maintain my promise to do one Halloween-related activity every day, though I tried. I had intended to visit a corn maze and a haunted house, but did not. Long hours at work and some non-horror-movie-related activities kept me from devoting every day to the Dark Lord. I did get the satisfaction, however, of watching little children bursting into tears at the sight of my horrific porch mannequin and running back down the driveway without candy; that warmed my heart. If I've permanently traumatized at least one toddler this year, I can call the holiday a success. I did manage to squeeze in a few final horror viewings, and here they are:

Invader ZIM: Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom: This Nick cartoon aired for only a season-and-a-half before it was canceled--an act by the channel's suits that was hardly unexpected, if you watched this horrifically demented and subversive show. Created by Jhonen Vasquez, the sardonic creator of the indie comics Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Squee, I Feel Sick, and Everything Must Be Beaten, Invader ZIM was greenlit and plugged into the Nick Toons schedule almost by blackmail; the low-budget pilot, which the network was not fully behind, scored well when shown to kids, thus prompting a much higher-budgeted, and handsomely designed, series. In the series, ZIM is an alien soldier who intends to impress his superiors by conquering Earth single-handed. He disguises himself as a schoolboy and his malfunctioning robot, GIR, as a dog, implanting his headquarters in the center of suburbia. The only one who discovers his true identity is Dib, a classmate and conspiracy theorist. Their subsequent battles reach absurdly epic proportions, such as in "The Wettening," when a water balloon fight leads to ZIM's launching of a planet-sized balloon that floods the Earth. The episodes alternate between horror tales from ZIM and Dib's nightmarish "Skool," and more overtly science fiction-themed satires taking place in outer space or other planets. All are infused with a visual style somewhere between H.R. Giger and Tim Burton, and Vasquez's Pythonesque humor. Typical exchange:

"Miss Bitters? I think Dib is even crazier than normal today. Can we use one of our crazy cards to send him to the Crazy House for Boys?"

"Each class only gets three crazy cards a month. Are you sure you want to use one?"

This comes from the Halloween special, which rather surprisingly (for a kid's show, anyway) makes visual and thematic references to Hellraiser and Aliens in its dark story of Dib getting sucked into a parallel universe where everyone has a demonic doppelganger; it's discovered that the portal lies within his head, and battling for its possession are both ZIM and a monstrous version of schoolteacher Miss Bitters, replete with insectoid legs, snapping jaws, and spear-pointed tentacles. In the climax, ZIM leaps through the portal in Dib's head to escape the nightmare world; Dib, helplessly, has to turn himself inside out in order to travel through the hole--he emerges as a pile of drippy, slimy intestines (though he hastily unfolds himself).

The Halloween special is considered by fans to be the apex of the series; it's Vasquez getting away with his darkest material right under the noses of the Nickelodeon executives. And it may have ultimately led to the show's cancellation. The unaired "second season" episodes, or those that were finished before production was halted, indicate that Invader ZIM would have become increasingly unhinged and bizarre. They're also, for the most part, not quite as inspired as those from the first season, perhaps because there's a movement away from the subversive, school-based satires into more outlandish tales of other dimensions and planets. Still, the series managed a near-perfect finale: when Vasquez received word that his production was shutting down, he fast-tracked one last "holiday special" from script to animation. "The Most Horrible Christmas Ever" is not as graphic, slimy, or gruesome as his Halloween episode, but it's somehow even more bleak. This was great television, but it also thrived because of its constraints; Vasquez set out to warp young, impressionable minds in the guise of an innocuous children's cartoon. His comic books, in which he's given free reign, are somehow not quite as effective. They lack the impish glee of a school delinquent getting away with a cruel and hilarious prank. The entire series, including the unaired episodes, is available from Media Blasters in three volumes or as a box set. To animation buffs, I give it my highest recommendation.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary. This is Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin turning his vaseline-smeared lens toward a ballet adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. I wrote about this in my Guy Maddin essay. Worth watching for the scene when Maddin suddenly recaps the entire first quarter of the novel as an action-packed, delirious fever dream, with tabloid title cards ("A Manly Love!" "Fleshpots!").

Carnival of Souls. This might be turning into my Halloween perennial. I first saw this a couple years ago, and was startled to discover that it was shot in and around the decaying Saltair resort in Salt Lake City, Utah. When I lived in SLC, this was always a fun place to take visitors, since it's a decrepit, castle-like building with Turkish minarets, empty except for a gift shop that sells salt water taffy, and sitting at the edge of the putrescent Great Salt Lake. It seems to be a haunted place (in its heyday, it was a lavish spa and amusement park), and in Carnival of Souls it is literally haunted--by pale-faced ghouls who dance in the vast ballroom to a stuttering organ music. Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), recovering from a car accident which killed her fellow passengers, takes up a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, despite the fact that she's an atheist. She has recurring visions of a creepy phantom--first as a face outside her car window while she drives past Saltair, then as a full-bodied specter who doggedly follows her through the city and up to her apartment door. She becomes fascinated by Saltair (or "the pavilion," as they call it here) and drawn to it despite, or because of, the ghosts that live there. Released in the public domain, the film is available in a variety of cheap sources, but I'd advise springing for the 2-disc deluxe version from the Criterion Collection. This is a fascinating, bizarre film, imperfectly acted, but mesmerizing and one-of-a-kind. Like the best haunted-house films, the film itself is haunted.