Sunday, November 27, 2011

Okay, So This Is Pretty Cool

If you've never seen Manos: The Hands Of Fate, you're missing out on something. Exactly what is hard to say, but it's an experience. It is not a good movie - the writing, acting, effects, camerawork, sound, music, editing, and cinematography are all amateurish at best, and painfully awkward at worst. It has the sluggish, uneven pacing of a drunk, and the story's equally incoherent. It's not an entertainingly bad movie like, say, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

However, the home-made quality of it does give it a certain weirdness - it looks like it could be somebody's home movies from a family vacation in the summer of 1966 - you know, the one that ended with the entire family trapped by the servants of some primordial god and offered up as sacrifice. Yeah, that one. I've heard it described as outsider art, and that's probably not a bad comparison. It was written and directed by its starring actor, who for whatever reason said to himself that this was the story he wanted to tell, and wanted to tell so badly that he got this film made without any real experience in film. Somebody was moved to make this bizarre fever dream of a story, in which caretakers with gigantic knees hobble around with a walking stick, "brides" in diaphanous gowns wrestle in the dirt, and a priest in a gigantic caftan and impressive pornstache invokes the name of "Manos - God of Primal Darkness." And since "manos" means "hands" in Spanish, the movie is basically called Hands: The Hands of Fate. Good or bad, you will never see anything else like it. It will get under your skin and make you wonder what images and ideas are writhing around in the heads of your neighbors, your in-laws, your co-workers. Some otherwise average person really wanted this story told, and that's easily one of the creepiest things about this movie.

So why am I going on about this movie? Because some lucky fellow managed to secure a 16mm workprint of the film in an eBay sale, among boxes of other films. Raw footage, right from the camera. The print quality is miles better than any other extant print - most releases of it on DVD are taken from VHS copies of a 35mm print made from a blown-up negative of the original 16mm print made from Ektachrome reversal stock. So we're talking a copy of a copy of a copy at best. So what's this guy doing with this odd piece of film history?

He's working on an HD restoration from the workprint. 

He's had the print cleaned, and has been updating his website with scans of individual frames, and although Manos is never going to replace Lawrence of Arabia in the cinematography department, the difference between the version most people see and the original is significant. The workprint is miles sharper and clearer and more vibrant than the commercially available version, the original aspect ratio can be restored, and hell, for that matter, he could even re-edit it to maybe make it a little scary after all. It is a labor of love and care for a movie sorely lacking in love and care, and for that alone I am in awe.

If you have seen Manos: The Hands of Fate before, well...somebody is planning an HD restoration of Manos: The Hands of Fate, and your head just exploded. You're welcome.

IMDB entry
Manos In
Available for viewing at

Monday, November 21, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 3: The Man of the House

In my post about the first episode, I talked about this show as being an honest-to-goodness American horror story - a disintegrating marriage, a traumatic stillbirth, a rebellious daughter, and now a costly, unsellable home. That's the American nightmare right there. The third episode focuses the nightmare a little more, though, on American nightmares specific to men. Apart from everything else we learn, this is Ben's episode, Ben's nightmare.

It opens in 1983, and a vivacious young Moira is being pressured into sex by the man of the house. This is apparently based in precedent, a bad decision Moira chalks up to being lonely. The man's not hearing it, though, and things start turning to rape pretty quick. In comes the wife - oh shit! It's Constance! - and she shoots the fuck out of her husband and Moira. Yeah, they were living in the house at the time. This is a point in the show where one piece of the puzzle starts unwinding over the next few episodes. For as much batshit insane stuff as gets thrown at us in the pilot, much of it seems to be paying off as the tips of many ugly icebergs.

But this episode is, as far as I'm concerned, really about Ben. He's got a new client, who is distraught over her failing marriage (there that is again). Her husband is leaving her because she's, well, boring. The actress really sells it, too - she's pleasant enough, and she doesn't do a droning monotone or anything as obvious as that. She just makes everything she says seem inconsequential and stays just on the right side of not knowing when to stop talking. It's not overstated, but you don't miss the intent. Ben does the worst possible thing you can do in this instance - he drifts off in the middle of the session, and the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the backyard. The client is gone, nowhere to be found. I'm not a therapist, but I can't imagine anything worse than tuning out in the middle of a session, let alone to the point that you lose time.

So Ben can't do his job. He can't handle the role of provider.

On top of that, Hayden - the woman with whom Ben had an affair - has shown up on the Harmon's doorstep. She thinks Ben's wife should know everything. Like what? Like that Hayden didn't get an abortion. She's keeping the baby and insists that Ben help her raise it, starting by getting her an apartment in Los Angeles. Hayden's passed the point of jilted lover and is headed for crazy-eyed obsessive. Ben's mistake is metastasizing.

So Ben can't bring closure to his infidelity. He can't handle the responsibilities of a man atoning for a mistake.

And he wasn't there during the home invasion that threatened his wife and daughter. They took care of it on their own (well, more or less, but more on Tate over the next few episodes). Violet sees him as irretrievably weak, and her mother as strong and better than the man she married.

So Ben can't carry any authority at home. Nobody takes him seriously. He can't handle being a father.

Ben has failed as man of the house.

As the episode goes on, each of these crises winds tighter and tighter around Ben, and his anxiety and suffocation are tangible. He does not have his shit together at all. His shit is completely apart at this point, and it all ends in sudden, shocking violence, followed by a burial of sorts. Ben finally exerts agency, finally does something of his own will. He builds something in the backyard, a lovely brick gazebo, a fine addition to any home. In doing so, he entombs all of his misery and ensures that he will never be free of it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Role Of Intent Part Two: Any Movie Where…

The notion that there's a single "correct" interpretation of a film, as I talked about in my last post on the topic, is problematic. Sure, the movie has a story (so it's "about" the events), it has a directorial point of view (so it's "about" the director's intent), and both of these things are expressed using visual imagery and thematic language that's going to resonate with the target audience because of whatever makes that imagery and language emotionally effective (so it's "about" what makes the scary parts scary to a given audience). So, for example, The Shining is "about" a man who goes crazy while snowbound in an empty hotel. It's also "about" America's historical legacy of violence. Finally, it's "about" loneliness, isolation, the inability to provide for your family, and watching your marriage and family fall apart. Dissecting each of these is pretty much the basis of film scholarship. 

I think horror movies get into trouble when one of these narratives is used to draw conclusions about another. I also think horror movies are especially vulnerable to this compared to other types of film. Specifically, there's what I think of as the "Any Movie Where…" effect, in which the events of the story and/or how they're portrayed are used to draw conclusions about directorial intent. Right now, I can't think of a better case example than The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence.

Director Tom Six was already skating on thin ice when he premiered The Human Centipede: First Sequence. The premise of the movie is that a crazy doctor attempts to graft three people together, connecting their digestive systems in the process, to create a conjoined triplet in the form of a centipede. No reason is given why he wants to do this, but that's okay, because do you really think you can reason with a dude like that? It's not a movie with character development, it's a movie with an inexorable thesis. Even within those constraints, it wasn't what most people seemed to expect - it was pretty restrained with its blood and gore, and a premium was placed on black humor and a bright, almost-sterile setting. It's a clean, cold movie, and given the basic ickiness of its premise, that works to its advantage.

The sequel is pretty much the aesthetic opposite of the first movie. It's shot in black and white (but still shot beautifully), and the entire movie takes place in spaces as raw and ugly as the first's were sleek and bright. Our protagonist this time is Martin. Martin is a round, bug-eyed, sweaty, oily little man. Martin doesn't talk on camera, he just grunts, whimpers, squeals, wheezes and hacks out asthmatic coughs between shots of his inhaler. His life is as small and cramped and ugly as the doctor's was urbane. He lives with his mother, who resents him for driving away her (sexually abusive) husband. He works the third shift at a parking garage, where he passes the time by watching his favorite movie over and over and over again, assembling a scrapbook from the movie, dreaming of the day when he can make the movie come true.

His favorite movie? Naturally, it's The Human Centipede. 

Martin, as inept as the doctor was skilled, as hapless as the doctor was methodical, his tools as crude as the doctor's were surgical, wants to make his own human centipede. He is in no way equipped to do so, and he doesn't care. He gets his subjects by clocking them with a tire iron, he does the surgery with kitchen implements, attaches everyone with staples and duct tape. It is exactly as horrible as it sounds.  The climax of the movie is an orgy of blood, shit, death, and humiliation, signifying little outside of itself.  Which is not to say that it is a pointless movie. Like the first, it evokes a mood masterfully. Martin's world is cramped and squalid in all its features, soundtracked by industrial thumps and hisses, full of old brick, worn carpeting, dirty bedclothes, and shabby warehouse spaces. In many ways, it reminds me a lot of a less explicitly surreal Eraserhead. Both Martin and Henry have created something, and having done so, aren't sure what they should do with it. Martin chooses to play with his like a sadistic child, pulling the wings from flies on a horrifying scale. 

Basically, the sequel is chock-full of fucking horrible things, ranging from the relevant to the completely gratuitous, and it's this gleeful wallowing in gore and filth and the casual abuse of the human body that has so many people contracting the vapors over it. And to be honest, I don't have nearly as easy a time defending this movie as I do The Human Centipede. If you've never seen the first movie, this one isn't going to make much sense to you. And you're going to be too busy crying, retching, and crying over how much retching you're doing to really take it in. 

That said, as a companion to the first film, it works very well as another take on the same ideas - think of them as variations on a theme of Human Centipedes. Everything about the second is an aesthetic, narrative, and textual comment on the first. Martin's subhumanity and obsession with the first film signifies him as the stereotypical fan of the first film - who else would enjoy the first movie but a furtive, disgusting little deviant? Six can take jabs at both a section of horror film fandom and the critics who were so willing to dismiss the first film out of hand through Martin. The sordid violence of the second film pushes our worst expectations of the first in our faces, like saying "oh, you thought it was going to be a sick movie? This is a sick movie." It has the same undercurrent of black humor as the first film, but as relatively restrained (and no less chilling for it) as the first movie's denouement is, the second's is awful - not in quality, but in experience and implication. There's apparently a third movie planned, and I could see all three of them working together as sort of a triptych. The Human Centipede 2 is a very smart movie playing thuggish and dumb.

And that's where the relationship between intent and content gets tricky. Art uses extremes all the time - just look at the work of people like Chris Burden, Hermann Nitsch, Mark Pauline, and Matthew Barney for example. And sure, each one of these artists has had their detractors, but I think there's a lot less blanket dismissal based on specific content than in genre film.

If you, as a genre director, employ controversial, disturbing, graphic, or disgusting imagery, you run the risk of having your entire movie dismissed a priori merely based on the use of that imagery. "Any movie where you have (insert controversial thing here) is obviously just an attempt to shock people and attract controversy." Any attempt to talk about aesthetic or thematic choices is cut off before the conversation can even happen. "This is just pandering to gorehounds, because that's the only reason you'd ever show (insert controversial thing here) in a movie." It doesn't help when a subset of people respond to these movies with "I have to see this it sounds so fucked up and gross it'll be great LOL" when you're trying to make a serious argument for why a given movie should exist. If it's gross and it's in a genre film, it can't be art. 

Of course, established and respected "serious" directors are largely exempt from this - Pier Pasolini featured child abuse and shit-eating in Salo, John Waters had  weird chicken sex, singing anuses, forced impregnation and actual shit-eating in Pink Flamingos, Lars von Trier had hardcore sex and genital mutilation in Antichrist, and Harmony Korine had actual physical violence in Fight Harm (though that hasn't been released). And there are always people willing to apply the "Any Movie Where" heuristic to those movies, but there's at least enough leverage with each of these filmmakers to attempt a serious conversation. Try that with someone like Eli Roth, Tom Six, or Srdjan Spasojevic. Nope, when they do it, it's obviously just for cheap shocks. How could it possibly be anything else? It's just a horror film.

This is not to say that every horror film has artistic value. Good lord, some of them are complete shit. But at its best, horror is art, and sometimes that art goes very uncomfortable places, as art should be able to. It is possible to depict ugly, horrible things for something more substantial than cheap shocks. A movie is more than a collection of scenes, and genre is no reason to throw the consideration of context out the window.  And honestly, I'd like to see more horror directors taken seriously earlier into their careers than usually happens. That's not going to happen until people stop assuming that the content of a film dictates the intent of the people who made it.