Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reconsidered: Srpski Film

(What I'd like to do in my Reconsidered posts is take a more in-depth look at films that I think have something to offer beyond the text. A solidly composed horror film is a wonderful thing, but a solidly composed horror film that keeps me thinking about it for days afterward is an even more wonderful thing and a joy forever. I'll be writing with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the basic plot and characters, so needless to say, all kinds of spoilers ahoy.)

I am aware that I'm about to go to bat for one of the most divisive films in recent memory.

Very few who have seen Srpski Film (A Serbian Film) have come away from it without being convinced that it's either a powerful, uncompromising piece of allegory or a morally bankrupt exploitation film. There are also the people who claim they found it tedious, boring, or even funny, that it really wasn't that shocking. At best, I'd argue that they didn't attend to and invest in the narrative, or are presenting a front to keep people from knowing how upset they were. At worst, they're dead inside. Seriously, as dark as my sense of humor is capable of being, I don't want to meet the person who found this movie funny.

I am aware that I'm about to attempt to defend the indefensible.

This movie is never going to see a commercial release in the United States. It hasn't seen a wide DVD release yet - according to Amazon, the only copies available are Region 2 discs, and those have been censored. It's not available yet on Netflix, and I'll be surprised if it ever is. Horrible, horrible ideas and images are presented in this movie. This movie is the embodiment of "they're not actually going to show that, are they?" in film, and yes they do. Every time. This is the movie I cannot un-see. If enjoying horror movies is enough to have others think you a deviant, then just sitting through this (even absent enjoyment) would, by the same logic, be enough to get you arrested.

Nevertheless, I contend that Srpski Film is not exploitation. It is a powerful piece of art, made with a priori artistic intent.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kill Theory: Words Get Shouted, Things Get Broken

After my last post on My Little Eye, it occurred to me that there are quite a few "people forced to play a deadly game" movies floating around. Some of them are pretty good, some of them are pretty bad, and some of them are part of the Saw franchise. Accompanying the basic premise (people, isolated location, do a thing or you/somebody else/everyone dies) is usually some half-baked psychology - how badly do you want to keep living, what will you do when faced with your worst fear, how far will you go for money/survival, yadda yadda yadda. It's half-baked because you don't need to put people in some convoluted trap house to find that sort of thing out. Hell, just sit a couple of people in different rooms and have them play out the Prisoner's Dilemma if you want to see what people are capable of doing and for far lower stakes. Narratively, it gives the filmmakers a pretext upon which to hang the events of the movie, the framework for the icky stuff to follow. Contextually, it gives the evil mastermind types some justification for the atrocities they perpetrate. They can tell themselves they're investigating the depths of humanity, but they aren't. They're just sadists - no, wait - they're pretentious sadists.

If you're going to take this "the real monster is humanity" route in your movie, your best bet is to underplay it, to let believable characters with plausible motivations act naturalistically. If you're going to try and convince me that people are capable of monstrous deeds under sufficient pressure, then make the protagonists recognizably human. Show, don't tell. My Little Eye, for its faults, did a very good job of this. Kill Theory runs so far from this approach to storytelling that it can't find its way back.

The movie opens with one of the least plausible conversations between a psychiatrist and patient ever. The patient survived a mountaineering accident, cutting himself loose from his three best friends to keep himself alive while they plummeted to their deaths. In case that wasn't apparent from their conversation, we're treated to superimposed news clippings telling us pretty much the same thing.  The patient believes that anyone else would do the same thing he did in a similar situation (hence the title KILL THEORY and no awards for subtlety). The psychiatrist all but says "I think you're wrong about that, and the state says you're not a danger any longer but I'm writing another book and you're going to be good for a few chapters, so I'm not signing off on your release unless you agree to another year of treatment," cementing the patient as someone with unresolved issues and the psychiatrist as an unethical asshole.

The entire conversation was totally unnecessary except to tell us "hey, a crazy dude who is being irresponsibly released is probably going to make a bunch of people choose between themselves and their friends in some kind of weird survival game to prove some point to an asshole psychiatrist." In case we thought we were watching a tender coming-of-age story entitled KILL THEORY.

Cut to our van load of teen meat headed into the woods for a long weekend of pre-college graduation debauchery. There's seven of them - egotistical rich boy Brent and his vampish girlfriend Amber, nominal decent guy Michael and his equally decent girlfriend Jennifer, ethnic goofball Carlos and his Maryann-ish girlfriend Nicole, along with girlfriendless nice-guy fifth wheel Freddy. They are walking clichés, head to toe. All they talk about is drinking, sex, sex after drinking and drinking before having sex. Many, many uses of the word "bro." They're staying at one of Brent's fathers' many summer homes, well stocked with beer, liquor, and a trashy stepsister named Alex. Alex rides a Harley and lets Freddy know up front that she won't be giving him any pity fucks. So, you know, classy.

With that one exception, they're children of privilege, living it up because they can, enjoying the world like it's there all for them. There's lots of talk about how they're good friends and there for each other, but it's pretty obvious Brent is an asshole, there's some relationship issues, and Freddy is, from go, a ticking time bomb of frustration and insecurity. The characters are defined completely by a trait or two each, and they're all mostly unsympathetic. Ten minutes in, the first thought that popped into my head was "I cannot wait to see each one of these characters die", which doesn't bode well if you're going to try and evoke horror through identification with the characters in the midst of their plight. At this point, it's just a shooting gallery of jerks.

Moreover, it's a shooting gallery of jerks who seem more than capable of turning on each other without any outside assistance. They're in a house in the middle of rural nowhere, there's a lot of booze, a lot of buried resentment, and at least a couple of guns and other sharp, pointy shit floating around. This is the sort of thing that breeds the very scenario the filmmakers are looking to examine. The crazed mental patient is just as superfluous to the narrative as the opening scene introducing him.

But there he is, gravelly-voiced dude tormenting them and making them turn on each other - the specifics aren't especially important, because it's not what happens in movies like these, it's between whom it happens. Lock a bunch of people into a situation like this, and it's the relationships that are going to drive the tension, not any outside threat or inventively graphic methods of execution. So if the people aren't well-drawn and we don't care about them, and there's really not much to them beyond one or two character traits, what we get when things go bad is a lot of yelling (to indicate strong emotions like fear, anger, and grief) and stuff getting broken - windows, dishes, bottles, electronics, you name it - lots of loud noise and crashing to indicate that Bad Things Are Happening and we should Be Upset. But it's no substitute for empathy, and none of these people seem to really be all that loyal to each other to start, so what we're left with is a very noisy set of death scenes, punctuated by either whispering or yelling. We don't want the torture to end as a release, we just want it to end so everyone will just shut up.

At the end of it, we are left knowing nothing more about the human condition than the point that if you take a bunch of self-centered people with screwed-up priorities and you put them into a situation which encourages them to be self-centered and screwed up, they're going to do self-centered, screwed-up things. This is a revelation to exactly nobody. What should be tense and horrifying isn't because tension requires that we care and being horrified requires that we don't want bad things to happen to the protagonists. Behavior should be identifiably, plausibly human for us to recognize our own flaws and be frightened for the protagonists, and frightened of our own weaknesses. When it isn't, it's just a pantomime of human interaction, interrupted by flashing neon signs telling us "THIS IS BAD" or "PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS WHEN THEIR LIFE IS ON THE LINE," overplaying the situation at every turn. It's unpleasant caricatures of people and loud noises bookended by pretentious bullshit about the "primal core" and "closure." It isn't a horror film, it's an opera about the cast of Jersey Shore being starred in a snuff film, written by that one high school student who's weird and wears all black and shit. No, wait, I might watch that.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon.com
Available on Netflix

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Little Eye: The Camera Obscura

"The camera obscura (Latin; 'camera' is a 'vaulted chamber/room' + 'obscura' means 'dark'= 'darkened chamber/room') is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen." - Wikipedia

We have kind of a weird relationship with cameras. New inventions have a tendency to inspire discomfort or even outright panic when first introduced. The camera obscura, the "magic lantern" slide projector, moving pictures, talking moving pictures, television - all have been blamed for one kind of problem or another in their time. There's a sense of being watched or captured somehow, and anything that functions as a proxy for seeing can have this effect. Hell, one of the biggest villains in recent film history was nothing but a giant flaming eyeball. Make of that what you will. Being watched freaks us out. Watching someone else be watched, however, is entertainment.

These ideas pervade My Little Eye, and I think they help redeem the movie on the few occasions it drops the ball. There are some shortcomings - this is a movie about an Internet-based broadcast, and it's pretty much impossible to talk about the Internet in a movie without dating things right away or without revealing how little the writer actually knows about how the tubes actually work. There are some dubious story choices that are forgivable in the moment but leave kind of a doubt-flavored aftertaste. Still, these are small marks against a well-acted exercise in paranoia.

We learn pretty much everything we need to about the setup over the opening credits: Five people have applied to be on a reality show-style webcast, in which the challenge is to live in a house together in isolation for six months, at the end of which they will receive a million dollars (so 200k each), provided that nobody leaves during the six months. No phone, no internet, no visits from anyone, just the occasional package of supplies dropped off. The five contestants are even plucked straight from reality-show central casting. For guys, there's Matt (the modest All-American one), Rex (the sarcastic bad boy with a shady past), and Danny (the shy, awkward-but-means-well one). For girls, there's Charlie (the brazen hussy), and Emma (the bookish, thoughtful one).

This makes for a nice little riff on characterization -  the protagonists are clichéd, but they would be anyway, to get cast on a reality show. Or at the very least, the protagonists are good at living up to clichés in their audition tapes. We're watching actors and actresses portray fictional caricatures of people who are themselves knowingly participating in their own caricaturing for the sake of being watched - we're sort of both audiences, for the movie and the webcast within the movie, and this leads to some nice creepy viewer-implicating moments when everything starts going south.

When the movie proper opens, though, they've already been living in the house for awhile. We don't know exactly how long, but it's long enough for them to start getting bored and restless and to drop a lot of the pose. They've stopped being polite and started being real. Past events are alluded to without ever being explored further, the arguments feel well-worn, there's a routine. We're left to figure out the relationships for ourselves, stripped of artificial exposition. They've gotten to the point that the omnipresent cameras no longer bother them, either - Charlie even flashes the one in her bedroom from time to time. They've resigned themselves to the little indignities because there's a lot of money at stake and it hangs on all of them being able to stick out the stay in the house until the end of the 6 months. All of their little tensions and discomforts are laid bare for us, and it's obvious that it's getting harder and harder to stick it out. Even the most innocuous activities become tortuous if they're your only option. It doesn't help that they're headed into winter, and the house (of the old, creaky country variety, of course) isn't heated very well. And they're running low on food.

The thought that this is the production company trying to gin up some tension and drama for ratings does not escape them, and they're just cranky enough to thumb their noses at the production crew for this cheap manipulation. As a response, their next supply drop contains nothing but bricks and a letter telling one of them that there's been a death in the family. This is cheap, the contestants say - how hard are you going to tighten the screws?

The next one contains a gun.

From this point, we are treated to a series of turns and blind alleys, red herrings as to the nature of their confinement and the objects they receive (or the ones that mysteriously show up in the middle of the night, inside the house). All under the watchful eye of cameras that become increasingly harder to avoid. As the tension mounts, the conceit that we are watching live feed footage is abandoned for an increasingly omnipotent perspective - at one point, you realize that there would have to be a camera mounted inside a showerhead. At another, a camera appears to be attached to a pen, scratching out words in a journal. We move from a conventional audience to an all-seeing beast. The house is an inverted camera obscura in which interior events are projected out. The house is itself an eye turned inward. The movie begins as a crazy quilt of video sources - grainy video, nightvision, cleaner digital video - and the sound is equally collaged. Voices are sometimes clear, sometimes muffled, distorted and lossy. We are spies at the mercy of our equipment. The soundtrack is mostly whirs and clicks and hums, spikes of white noise and distortion, and all of this mechanical artifice falls away as the residents of the house get closer and closer to the truth.

By the end, we are watching as a conventional movie audience would, fully part of their situation. Secrets come to light, relationships fracture, and it's all too late, because by the time they figure out what's really going on, they're in it, just as we're no longer afforded the distance of security camera footage. We're in it too, which makes the end that much more brutal and unsparing when it comes. We think we know how bad it is, but we really don't. Not until we're watching someone squirm on a cold, hard floor like we might an insect. Seeing is powerful, being seen is not.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon.com
Available on Netflix

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Well, Howdy.

I'd like to take a minute to say hello to the folks who've come over and checked out this thing of mine via the Film Club feature over at Final Girl, (as well as anyone else who has clicked through to here from someone elses' blog). Here are a few other posts you might give a look to - these are either ones that seem to be popular or that I just think came out like I wanted them to. Thanks for coming by!




Srpski Film (A Serbian Film)

On Sequels, and the Narrative Problem of the Franchise (commentary)

On Torture Porn (commentary)

The Difference Between Horror Movies and Thrillers (commentary)

I also apologize for the relative quiet lately - right in the middle of writing my next post (and sketching out another long one) I got waylaid by a cold and spent most of my free time asleep. More coming soon.