Saturday, April 30, 2011

Session 9: Spirit Of Place

On a trip with my family to Lexington and Concord, my father and I stood on the field where American revolutionaries made a stand against the British. As we looked out, he said to me "can you imagine standing here at sunrise, scared out of your mind, knowing that British troops were marching toward you?" In that moment, we were there and felt something like what we imagine the volunteers who helped build the United States felt. It was something larger than the moment itself.

People use the word "haunted" all the time without an explicitly supernatural meaning - even if you don't believe in ghosts, it's not hard to see how the history of some places might hang over them, our understanding of what happened there superimposed on the place in front of us like an overlay. Why else would a musician like Trent Reznor rent the house on Cielo Drive where the Manson family committed one of their most gruesome murders? Why else would you keep bomb-pitted ruins standing around the memorial to the Murrah Building bombing? Why else leave Dachau standing? Even if you don't believe in ghosts, our understanding of a place gives it power, evokes memory and history and understanding.

In Session 9, this juxtaposition between past and present creates a place where ghosts - supernatural or otherwise - live, and uses that ambiguity to tremendous effect.

Gordon Fleming runs a small asbestos abatement company. He and his wife have a brand new baby girl, but money is tight. He keeps getting outbid on jobs - he's a man of integrity, wants to do the work right, but that means losing work to people who are willing to do it quicker and cheaper. This is his life's work - he learned from his father, and as one of his coworkers puts it, "fiber is his life." This is what Gordon knows how to do, and he's fiercely proud - he doesn't want to work for someone else, he wants to run his crew and make sure the work is done right. But something has to give because integrity and pride don't put food on the table or pay the doctor bills when his daughter is sick. So when he finds out about a job cleaning up an old mental hospital, he puts in a bid to do the work in a week - maybe half to a third of the time anyone else is offering. It's going to be punishing as hell, but Gordon has men to pay and mouths to feed.

The building has been more or less abandoned for decades, occasionally visited by junkies, vandals, or the homeless. It lies in ruin, much of the old equipment sitting, rusted, where it was left when the hospital was vacated. Time stopped here, but everything continued to rot. The place is full of asbestos - in the insulation, in the floor tile - and extensive safety measures will have to be taken. Clean suits, decontamination, negative air pressure. Gordon brings in four more guys for the job. They have mere days to do the work of weeks, everyone is feeling the pressure here. It doesn't help that most of the crew members have pasts together - buried grudges, hidden resentment. They haven't even started work and already everyone is stretched tight.

The hospital doesn't help - it's creepy as hell, piles of old, abandoned equipment, patient's personal effects, Inexplicable things like a room plastered in photographs and children's drawings. Hidden stashes of coins. And in the basement, a room full of files, and recordings of therapy sessions with patients. Work competes with the distractions the hospital has to offer, and one by one the men start to lose focus. And then one of them disappears. And then everything falls apart.

Session 9 is, as scary movies go, pretty understated. It might be more appropriate to call it an unsettling movie, rather than a scary one. Part of this is because, really, the location does a lot of heavy lifting. The movie was filmed at the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, and set redressing was minimal. This is how the place actually looked when they shot - frozen in time as the elements crept in.  Much of the movie is spent not only getting to know the men on the crew (as well as their flaws and tangled histories), but also watching them as they move deeper and deeper into the hospital, in the physical and metaphorical senses. All we need from the location is the occasional meaningful shot - a tree collapsed over a numbered gravestone, a shadow moving across a beam of light, a wheelchair sitting mutely in a hallway - to convey a sense of dread as pervasive and ultimately deadly as the asbestos the crew have come to remove. They dig through layers of construction when they work, and dig through layers of history when they don't - old records reveal the earliest commitments for the disorder of "mortified pride", then the period where the lobotomy held sway, then talk therapy. We learn the anguish of those committed for no good reason, of therapies gone wrong, of lives spent in small rooms behind wardroom doors. All we have to do is make the connections, to do the math, to experience the horror of understanding.

Over the course of the movie, story layers upon story, history layers upon history, the past layers upon the present, and voices become more and more important - remembered conversations, simple questions, the recorded accounts of a patient named Mary - they start off innocuous enough, but as events play out, and the strain of where these men are and what they are doing begins to claim lives, those conversations and simple questions become disturbing in their implications, the recordings of Mary's voice pitch closer and closer to anguish and hysteria, and in the end, this place where the past and present mingle, those voices are silenced. The people who most desperately want to be heard cannot be, and those who most want to go home can never do so again. The past makes the hospital a prison, and it's ultimately just a matter of which set of ghosts you think was responsible for the whole thing.

IMDB entry

Monday, April 25, 2011

Well, Shut My Mouth.

So it wasn't all that long ago that I said that Srpski Film was, oh, what were the words I used?

Oh yeah, "never going to see a commercial release in the United States."

It turns out that I was wrong.

Oh, sure, it's going to be the censored version England got (which trims about 4 minutes from the total run time, most of it - though not all of it - from where you'd think), but even so, it's going to be straight-up NC-17, at the very least. And the hell of it is that those cuts - thought totally understandable - are going to cut into one of the bigger themes of the movie, one of the larger points it makes. Bringing it that much closer to  the spectacle its detractors accuse it of being.

But hey, how about that fourth Scream film, huh? I wonder what the rules are now?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Somos Lo Que Hay: Death of a Watch Repairman

I am constantly surprised by how scary ostensibly respectable movies and moviemakers can be (The Sixth Sense messed my shit up), but lately I've also been more and more surprised by how ostensibly scary movies (or movies dealing with traditional horror subject matter) are not so much scary as exercises in how horror tropes can be applied to non-horror ideas. Monsters was a good case in point - I mean, you've got "Monsters" right there in the title, the setting is a post-alien infestation Mexico, and it's mostly about two people coming together despite their differences and surveying the radically changed landscape, both geographical and emotional. One of the biggest complaints about it was that it was barely a monster movie.

Likewise, Somos Lo Que Hay (We Are What We Are) is a pretty good cannibal movie, as movies about the limitations of modern masculinity go.

The movie opens with an older man walking/stumbling down the sidewalk somewhere in Mexico. He doesn't look well, he doesn't act well. He comes to the display window of a women's clothing shop and stares longingly at the mannequins. He presses his fingers against the glass, wanting something on the other side desperately. The look on his face is yearning and fear. He knows his time is coming. He begins vomiting blood and collapses in the middle of the sidewalk. People step around the body, blood is scrubbed away. This could be the opening to any movie about the tragedy of a family brought low by poverty and their struggle to survive.

And sure enough, what follows tells that story - a small watch repair business at an open-air market, unpaid debts, unfinished work, too much time with the whores. A mother, arguing sons, a daughter too smart for her station. All we're missing is the scene where they find out the family patriarch is dead. The daughter (Sabina) brings the news, the women wail, and the sons argue about how to continue in his absence. Underlying all of this, however, is a sense of anxiety and urgency, not grief or resignation. It's not that beloved Papa is gone, it's that he's left them all in the lurch somehow and they resent it. There is much talk about "getting something for tonight", which turns into talk of "getting someone for tonight."

This is a family of cannibals, and the man responsible for securing their food is now dead.

The rest of the film takes place over the course of a night, as the mother (Patricia), hotheaded, impulsive son Julian, levelheaded son Alfredo and Sabina all take their turns at trying to do what their father can no longer do.  The movie doesn't really focus on their intended victims too much - they're more there to illustrate things about the family themselves than to give us someone with whom to identify. The cannibalism itself also plays only a minor role - it could be anything urgent. Money to pay the rent, regular food, medicine for one of the children. Here, it just happens to be human flesh. What's important is what this need and how it gets filled tells us about the people tasked to provide for their families. This is a movie about the role of men, how they succeed, how they fail, and how they are constrained by cultural expectations.

Pretty much every man in this movie is a failure in one way or another - the father is supposed to be the family provider, but wastes all of the money he makes on prostitutes and dies leaving them in debt. Upon his death, one of the sons is called upon to become "the leader" - but who? Julian is too hotheaded and impulsive, solving everything with his fists, getting distracted by his dick. He's machismo incarnate. Alfredo is calmer, more methodical, but resents that his mother seems to love him less than the others, and possibly because he is gay. The detectives trying to track them down are inept and more worried about career advancement and image than actually making arrests. Sabina, probably the most clearheaded and competent member of the family, can't take the lead because she's not a man. Patricia rages at her dead husband and the mess he's left, and carries on doing what she must to keep the family safe. Men are the leaders, this movie says, but women are the ones doing the work, whether it's figuring out how to secure the family's next meal, or preparing the body when they do. Whatever men are supposed to be able to do, they are no longer capable of doing it, just of posturing in the appropriate ways.

We also get a clear sense throughout that it is this pressure, these expectations in the absence of any real preparation or qualification to fulfill them, that leaves men feeling hemmed in and trapped. The movie is filled with visual references to containment - the father presses his hand up against the glass of the display window, a motion echoed in Alfredo tracing a line through condensation on a window in their house. When the father dies, it is shot from above, neatly outlined by the frame of an overhead walkway. Even in death, he is boxed in.

Scenes are framed in doorways, in windows, in boxes, all clearly delineating the limits of their world - nobody can know what they do, they have to walk carefully, making sure not to cross any lines that might give them away. There are small boxes stacked up along the wall in their house, possibly filled with the ashes of previous victims - even in death, there are boxes. The furthest we get away from that is Alfredo's attempt to lure a man from a gay nightclub - the screen is filled with a crush of bodies, Alfredo is finally free of the square and straight lines, surrounded by a crush of other men. The world is viewed through windows - you can see what's out there, but you are separate from it. It is forever on the other side.

The movie ends as the sun rises and the events of the night before come to some resolution - who still lives, who does not. In the course of one night, one man's failure has changed his family irrevocably. Throughout the worst of the crisis, there is talk of completing "the ritual", every clock in the house is set for midnight, when the ritual must be completed. But, like what it takes to be a man, it is never made clear what the ritual is or why it is important. Just that it be done a certain way, because it's always been done that way.  Do not question, do not deviate. Just go through the motions, even as your world crumbles around your ears.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix