Sunday, February 17, 2013

Antiviral: Long Live The (New) New Flesh

The term body horror refers to horror stemming from the one thing we can't escape - our own flesh. When our own bodies rebel against us, there really isn't anywhere to turn, and this is an idea that goes all the way back to things like zombies and werewolves. The flesh gets a mind of its own and starts walking around without a soul to guide it, or decides to contort itself into inhuman shapes, and that's terrifying. I think that at its heart, it's the terror of alienation - if we are somehow made separate from our bodies, if our flesh just becomes some sort of meat vehicle, then what's left of us? 

Antiviral explores the slow - and worse, willing - erosion of the flesh and the self.

It's the story of Syd March, one of many little people in a world consumed by celebrity. It's celebrity abstracted to the point of names and faces, devoid of context or function outside of being famous for whatever it is they're famous for.  Magazines, pictures, 24-hour news feeds about every trial and trouble and ache and pain, all a constant hum in the background of daily life.  Syd is a sales rep at a "celebrity services" clinic, which is a very polite way of saying he sells celebrity infections. People pay money, pick an illness (harvested from celebrities who willingly sell even their diseases to an adoring public), and Syd injects them with the disease. Why buy their clothes and wear their perfume when you can have their symptoms and house the viruses that once lived in their bodies inside yours?

Syd does a nice bit of work on the side cracking the copy protection on the diseases his clinic sells and passing them along to pirate clinics, and though it means suffering all kinds of weird shit (how else to smuggle them out but in his own body?), he does okay, until an attempt to scoop his competition lands him in much bigger trouble that he ever expected. To say much more than this would be doing the viewer a disservice, because so much of the movie is the gradual discovery of just how far people are willing to go to get close to their favorite celebrities. It's basically a noir about a man who knows too much, but it's the world in which it takes place that does most of the work here. What's not just acceptable but everyday trade is as much a source of horror and disgust as the central conceit of the film, and as events play out, the story spirals into a nightmarish blurring of the lines between biology, technology, life, death, desire, and identity. 

It's as much science fiction as body horror (the world in which it takes place owes a lot to William Gibson's ideas of celebrity as abstracted from the individual, and the idea of the ultra-wealthy as no longer human), and the film moves between the slick, stark, minimalist look of the clinics and March's apartment, the grungy, industrial behind-the-scenes world of the brutally practical factory technology needed to service the demands for celebrity "product," and the genteel old-world elegance of the very rich. Much of the movie is an exercise in visual contrasts, with sprays, smears, and fungal spreads of red (bricks, flowers, blood, lots and lots of blood) against stark white - the fantasy contrasted with the ugly necessities of maintaining it. The cool elegance of a needle and scalpel against the blood it draws and the flesh it cuts.

That David Cronenberg's son made this movie is even thematically appropriate - it's a neat synthesis of his father's early work, dealing just as much with the intersection of flesh, technology, desire, image, and identity as anything Cronenberg did, almost as if those ideas propagate genetically from father to son, or as vulnerability to the virus of those ideas might, as well as the desire to commit those ideas to image through the use of technology. It's a dispassionate, confidently made look at our bodies, our selves, and how far we'll go to give them up for unrequited adoration.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Why Couldn't They Have Made A Movie About That?

So I tried watching The Ring Two this afternoon, and although the movie didn't hold my attention (it seemed oddly inert), the opening scene - which manages to both feel incredibly rapey and end up being something somehow even worse - suggested a whole other possible movie it could have been.

It's probably not spoiling the movie to say that what we got was a movie about the protagonist of the first movie and her adorable precocious son and how the evil ghost isn't really gone after all and so there has to be even more mystery solving than there was in the first movie. This is boring, for a whole bunch of reasons I've already outlined here, and The Ring never needed a sequel.

But the opening scene is one in which an all-too-common act of violence and atrocity is warped into something even darker, and suggests a movie in which the protagonist from the first movie is beside the point, in which even Samara is sort of beside the point. It suggests a movie in which the tape has taken on a life of its own as another way for teenagers convinced of their own immortality to flirt with death, only to find out how not everything can be cheated. A movie in which the tape's curse propagates through a small town's teen population like a sexually transmitted disease, with people going to greater and greater lengths to avoid death from the curse, until the cruelty and disregard for life becomes even more frightening than the curse that spawned it. I would have watched that movie.

Excision: Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies

I went to high school with this guy named Mark. Mark was well over six feet tall, probably pushing 300 pounds, and as near as everyone could tell, he never bathed and was riddled with volcanic acne. He stank, his greasy hair was matted to his head by a bandana, and he carried a backpack full of Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks with him everywhere. He was the prototypical pariah. As insecure as I was, I could look at Mark and say "yeah, but at least I'm not him." Now, conventional wisdom says that as ugly and repulsive as he was on the outside, this had to be the vehicle for a soul of gentle kindness. Real beauty lies on the inside and all of that. Only Mark made a point of leaning over to the girls seated next to him in class and apparently whispering indescribably disgusting things he'd like to do to them in their ears until such time as the teachers would seat him in the far corner of the room, away from everyone else.

The point being that sometimes - just sometimes - people who look freakish and fucked-up on the outside are actually freakish and fucked-up on the inside, and maybe it's worth keeping an eye on them. This is, after a fashion, the moral of the warped, cracked fairytale that is Excision.

Pauline is unapologetically ugly by any conventional standards. Her hair falls in front of her face in lank curtains, her complexion is terrible, she has an almost defiant disregard for grooming, her clothes are shapeless and drab, and her posture almost simian. She speaks up in class to say totally inappropriate things, doesn't understand personal space, and seems really obsessed with disease. Needless to say, people don't like her - the other kids don't like her, the adults don't like her, even her own mom struggles with the idea that this is her daughter. In any other movie, Pauline would be the ugly duckling waiting to become a swan, the ungainly girl with morbid interests who grows up to be a stunningly beautiful doctor, the first glimpse of whom we get during a senior prom transformation montage. Beautiful on the inside, you know.

Fortunately, that's not what we get. Pauline looks like every other gross, awkward, ugly weirdo on the outside, but her inner life is something else entirely - a nightmare kingdom of flesh, blood, and viscera, in which she is a surgeon queen, performing rituals of cutting and scooping and extraction to the adoration of her attendants. She wakes flushed, toes curling. Boys don't really interest her that much, girls don't really interest her at all. The flesh interests her. She may be the class weirdo on the outside, but on the inside, she's the ruler of an endless kingdom of blue tile and stainless steel, sort of like Carl Starger's nightmare world in The Cell, if The Cell invested more in its characters and weren't so pleased with itself. She's not misunderstood - she's even more disturbed than people think.

Not that anyone outside of Pauline's head would notice - the world in which she lives is a riff on the sort of suburban fantasyland depicted with varying degrees of irony in movies like Donnie Darko and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Everything is pretty and perfect and people are happy and popular and everything is just so. Nobody here lacks commitment to Sparklemotion. Or, it would be if it weren't for the cracks showing. Not the usual sort of cracks - like "oh it all looks perfect but it's really all corrupt" because that all seems sort of facile and boring now. Oh, sure, the attractive popular kids do shitty things, but they're realistically shitty things instead of high-school Dangerous Liaisons type shit . No, the cracks here are cracks in the idea of this as a fantasy. The stylized exterior doesn't hold - it sputters and flickers, with real feelings and problems and issues poking through.

Pauline has a little sister named Grace, who is pretty and sweet - not just to other people, but to Pauline too. She's actually a nice kid with her head on straight, but not more straight than you'd expect at her age. She also has cystic fibrosis, where Pauline is physically healthy. Pauline gets neglected a lot in favor of Grace, but she doesn't blame Grace for this. Their mom is the standard uptight suburban mom who wants Pauline to be pretty so she can get a good husband and cares what the neighbors think and thinks that Cotillion is an important part of every girl's life, but the strain of having Pauline and Grace for daughters means there are moments when she stops being that person and her humanity comes through. She's tired, her nerves are frayed, and she's haunted by the idea that her own upbringing means she's making the same mistakes with her own children that her mother made with her.

The tension in Excision lies both in the difference between Pauline's fantasies and the real world, and the differences between what the real world wants to be and what it really is. The overall feeling of fracture is nicely disorienting, like reading a fairytale where fairies and princesses have to worry about divorce and unemployment. Just as everything starts to feel a little unreal, something happens to bring it crashing back to Earth, and ultimately, there ends up being a terrible cost for paying attention to some fantasies more than others.

Finally, the look - oh my god, the look of this movie. Muted, beige interiors interrupted with splashes of bright, unnaturally bright color. Pauline in everyday life is ugly, pimpled, greasy. Pauline in prayer (her conversations with God serving as interstitial moments of, well, not clarity, but something outside everyone else's madness) is simple, cleaner, but not prettified. Pauline in her dreams is sculpted into goth-sexy bondage medical-fetish material, hard and alluring, covered in blood. The dream sequences owe a lot visually to Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, and to a lesser extent the emphasis on flesh, movement through space, and transformation from those same works. And it's damn well not every day you get what is ostensibly a horror movie cribbing from Matthew Barney, so big ups on that.

Maybe horror is the wrong word here - it's nightmarish, disturbing in its particulars, but it's less a scary movie than a sad one that refuses to look away from terrible things. Pauline wants to do good, her parents want to do good, even the institutions of the town want to do good, but none of them are really equipped to do so in a way that will actually benefit anyone, and ultimately everyone is to blame. Pauline at her most horrific is Pauline at her most triumphant.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Not available from Netflix

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bedevilled: Girl Gone Wild

Once upon a time, "hysteria" was an actual medical diagnosis applied to women. Symptoms included moodiness, irritability, pervasive dissatisfaction with day-to-day life, and pretty much anything else you might expect from a group of people who had been systematically marginalized and disenfranchised by a culture they helped to build. That there were similar disorders attributed to slaves should come as no surprise. It's the product of a culture so blinkered to its own crimes that it assumes any dissatisfaction with the status quo is actual madness. And it's a self-fulfilling prophecy at that. Keep someone under your heel long enough and ignore all the warning signs, and you create a ticking time bomb.

Bedevilled is a loosely sketched tragedy about one such time bomb and all of its fallout.

It's the story of childhood friends Hae-won and Bok-nam. Hae-won works at a bank in Seoul, and Bok-nam lives on isolated, rural Moo-do Island with a handful of other people. Hae-won spent a summer visiting her grandparents on the island when she was young, and she and Bok-nam became friends. Something happened that summer, though, and though Bok-nam has spent years writing to Hae-won, Hae-won won't respond to her letters. In fact, Hae-won has grown up into a selfish, uncaring soul. We meet her as she's driving through the streets of Seoul, when a young woman fleeing two would-be assailants begs Hae-won for help, only to have a car window rolled up in her face. This same generosity of spirit lands her in trouble at work, and between that and a run-in with the two assailants at a police station, Hae-won decides to take some time off and visit Bok-nam.

Time on the island hasn't been kind to Bok-nam. She's married to a drunken brute who beats her and screws hookers brought from the mainland while she sits outside and listens. She works backbreaking hours in the fields and has a brother-in-law who rapes her while her husband and daughter are out on fishing trips. Nothing she does is ever good enough for anyone else on the island, the population of which consists pretty much of her husband's family. When Hae-won comes back to the island, it throws Bok-nam's sad situation into sharp relief, and what should have been a vacation turns into a reckoning as dissatisfaction with what she has and denial of what she wants curdles into increasingly uglier shapes. As the story marches to the inevitable moment when the ticking stops and the explosion starts, details about Bok-nam's life and her summer with Hae-won unfold, and pretty much everyone ends up getting a guilty verdict.

With the combination of increasingly dire circumstances grinding one woman to powder and a world inhabited almost entirely by men who are predators and women who are at best passive and at worse actively supportive of their abuses, the whole story sort of feels like a Lars von Trier film by way of South Korea - it's the bastard son of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville with less critical detachment and a lot more blood. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's missing a lot of the tension and narrative coherence that I think you need to tell this sort of story with the impact it deserves. There's definitely a feeling that everything has, is, and will continue to go wrong for Bok-nam, and that her largely unsympathetic world is closing in around her. But it does so at such a leisurely pace that a large part of the tension and urgency is lost, and Hae-won drifts in and out of the story enough that it's tough to really get a sense of why she is like she is - you get the sense that it's somehow tied to the events of their youth, but it's only alluded to in a way that makes it more confusing than anything else. Each woman gets enough attention that you expect there to be some revelation, some connection between them that shaped their lives in two very different ways, but if there is, it's as vague and desultory as everything else. If it's their story, we leave it knowing even less than when we went in. 

Moreover, the oppressiveness of Bok-nam's life is drawn sharply - the men of the island take what they want with little regard to what is right or proper, and the women turn a blind eye for the sake of tradition and their own self-preservation, happy for Bok-nam to be a scapegoat - but her breaking point feels less hysteric than resigned, not a break or snap or explosion as much as a crumbling. As she finally lashes out against a lifetime of abuse, Bok-nam seems less liberated than exhausted, the fuel that kept her alive for years being burned twice as fast, until all that is left is the bleeding wreck of a woman, crying in the arms of the closest thing she ever had to a friend. She almost seemed more alive under the yoke of the island, and that's more disturbing than anything else in the movie.