Monday, June 30, 2014

Picnic At Hanging Rock: One Does Not Speak Of Such Things

It’s easy to think of horror in terms of submerging yourself into insanity and fear and nightmare - I mean, I think it’s a good approach, like if you’re going to plumb something dark, really plumb it, you know? I’ve been looking for a lot of that lately, movies that just sort of jump off the precipice and plunge headlong to the bottom of whatever they’re dealing with. But there’s also something to be said for quiet, for subtlety, for something slower than the slowest burn, something closer akin to a smolder with the occasional spark. Something that works in tension expressed in the slightest gestures and resolutely refuses to provide closure. It’s a much more rarefied form of horror, perhaps, and one seen less in modern times, but I think it’s worth appreciating.

Picnic At Hanging Rock is barely a horror movie, but I think it belongs to the tradition (loosely construed) because it shares a lot of DNA with Stoker's Dracula, in that you're basically telling a story of repression and constraint with a component of the unknown at its center. What's shocking comes not just from the mystery itself, but also the way in which the mystery causes others to break with social norms in sudden, shocking ways

It’s Australia, the year is 1900, and we’re looking in on the students and staff at Mrs. Appleyard’s school for girls. First we meet Miranda, delicate and angelic and perhaps a little removed from the cares so many of us take for granted. She’s singing a song and brushing her hair and talking to Sarah. Sarah adores her quietly. There’s something there, between the two of them, but like so much in this world, it goes unspoken beneath layers and layers of what is proper and correct. Ladies learn certain things, speak a certain way, act a certain way, and no other. This is what they have come to school to learn. How to be ladies. There are others, but there are so many, and they’re getting ready for the annual ceremony in honor of St. Valentine and then some of the girls will be taken on an outing to nearby Hanging Rock. Ranks and rows of proper young ladies in white, neatly turned out, prim and composed, suppressing girlish giggles.

By the time the picnic is over, three students and one teacher will be missing, and nobody will be able to explain why.

This isn’t a scary movie, per se. The disappearance occurs without violence, there’s no sense of threat. It’s almost languid - one moment they’re here, the next they are not. The teacher is never actually seen to disappear, it’s something we discover after the fact. What gives this film the tension it has is the utter mystery surrounding the disappearance, and the way the disappearance affects the lives of those touched by it. We get all sorts of tantalizing hints as to what might have happened, some more plausible than others, but nothing is ever really resolved. Long stretches of polite, careful, mannered living, just containing repression, sometimes bursting into sudden, ugly reminders of what price this world exacts upon those who live in it. It is very much a movie about tension and control and isolation and the way the unexplainable disrupts all of that.

The girls are ethereal - living in this world of lace and flowers and petticoats and corsets and whispered gossip and dreams of an endless bliss. They are hothouse flowers, creatures of refinement and taste and manners and breeding, almost otherworldly in the ways they don't inhabit the same lives as the staff, the servants, the people tasked with holding up the scenery around their life at the school. It's a vision of Australia as yet another land to be tamed by English civilization (there’s exactly one indigenous person in the whole movie) and this is even made explicit when one of the girls says as they approach Hanging Rock, “(it has been) waiting here a million years...just for us”. The world is there for them and their amusement, why wouldn’t it be? Everything is there just for them. It's a white person's paradise, and they haven't yet realized that nature plays by its own set of rules. In fact, it’s that nature which ostensibly takes the girls. Nature is an impenetrable mystery here - sky, rocks, sun, caves, animals and insects, all claim what is theirs. The picnicking girls doze, the remnants of their Valentine's Day cake a sugary ruin overtaken by ants. Lizards crawl, birds soar and look on with an unfazed eye as people scream in anguish and frustration. The rock formations turn a blind eye to the people who sleep in their shade, and to the ones who scramble in their crevices looking for answers. These are people who are used to living with rules and rational explanations for the comfortable, privileged world they inhabit, and something mysterious, almost pagan seems to come over some of the girls, and off they go to explore the hidden mysteries of Hanging Rock. And nobody can account for that, and it tears some of them apart inside.

This is because at its heart, this story runs on repression. Lots and lots of repression. There is strict, tight control embodied in appearance and manner and custom, all of which unravels as the movie progresses. Miranda and Sarah possess the love that dare not speak its name, but manages to shout from the rooftops with every action, and it hardly matters because in this world, all love is the love that dare not speak its name. This is not a world of passion. This is a world of carefully considered word and deed and desires kept firmly in check. Discipline, rules, class differences, gender differences, the corsets the characters wear are figurative as well as literal, and it's important when it's discovered that one character returned without her corset, and when next seen out of bed is clothed almost entirely in red. It’s a miniature world observed in fine detail and glances and what goes unspoken, so when things do break loose, even though little of it is especially shocking by modern standards, it’s shocking within the confines of this world, the way a Henry James story or Bram Stoker story might be shocking. It's never resolved what happened on the rock - one moment there were four girls and a governess hiking up the rock, the next, two of the girls and the governess were gone forever. They wandered into mystery, as if they had been mere myth or dreams of another age the entire time.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Antichrist: Nature Red In Tooth And Claw

One of the side effects I’ve noticed of writing this thing of mine is that occasionally friends will ask me for movie recommendations, and I’ve learned to preface any recommendations by feeling them out as to their basic comfort level for different types of stories and imagery. Because, see, there are horror films, and then there are horror films. There are the entertaining horror films, the ones that provide a thrill ride, some vicarious scares, a shiver and a startle, and it’s all in good fun. There’s something liberating about being scared in a safe environment, at opening the pressure valve on our everyday anxieties with a shriek, and lots of people like those sort of movies. But then there are the - for lack of a better term - serious horror films. The ones that are intent on plumbing our nightmares, digging deep into our collective unconscious and emerging with something unspeakable in their hands. These are the ones that face the worst we have to offer and speak to it in imagery that communicates directly in the ugliest way. These aren’t thrill rides, these are serious plunges into the worst corners of human experience, and they are not here to spook you. They are here to make you very uncomfortable.

I have been working up the courage to watch Antichrist pretty much since I started writing this thing. It is a painting of sadness, dread, grief, and rage both implosive and explosive. It will not entertain you, but it is a monolithic testament to the idea of horror.

The movie is about two people: He and She. That is all we get. They are stripped to their gender identifiers, and this is important. The movie opens in lush black and white, an aria plays, everything is in slow motion. He and She are having vigorous sex in their shower. Water falls slowly enough to be captured as single drops. In the other room, their son - Nick, the only person in the movie with a name - climbs out of his crib and wanders into another room. He sees snow falling outside at the same languid rate as the water falls upon He and She in the throes of their passion. Nick bypasses the baby gate, climbs up onto a desk, reaching for the snow, and as He and She reach their climax, Nick falls out an open window, slowly, almost luxuriantly. several stories to the concrete below.

People say that the death of a child is incomprehensible, that it is the worst thing that can possibly happen and is impossible to imagine. This, the worst of all things, is the linchpin event. She is still hospitalized a month later, her doctor keeping her on a steady regimen of tranquilizers. He is not happy about this. He is a psychotherapist, and he thinks the doctors do not know what they are doing. He is sure that he knows what is best for She. He acknowledges that treating your own family is normally one of the worst mistakes you can make as a therapist, but in THIS instance, he knows he’s right to do so. His arrogance does not lose a step.

So He checks She out of the hospital, has her flush all of her medication down the toilet, and begins his role as her therapist, when what She needs is her husband. Surprisingly, it does not go well, and He decides that more drastic measures are necessary. He resolves to take them to Eden, their cabin deep in the forest, where She worked on her dissertation, and there He will cure She.

He knows best.

What follows is a portrait of a couple in total and absolute nihilistic free-fall, as issues of control, consent, and the prisons of gender intersect with a wilderness not just indifferent, but actively malevolent. Eden is a bad place, and it takes their private strife and stretches it across a bloody canvas.

The violence in this film is total - it is physical, psychological, and emotional in scope. She is a raw, open wound, less paralyzed by her loss than contorted and deformed by it. It is a wild, primal grief and He attempts to impose logic on it, to define and constrain her experience in terms of reason and logic and rules and science, in utter negation of what she is experiencing. His arrogance in his own expertise is the arrogance of every man (especially but not restricted to every medical or therapeutic professional) who is utterly sure that they understand a woman's experience better than they do. She is suffering - she blames herself for Nick’s death and she wants desperately to die. He won’t let her. He is sure he can fix her, cure her, and in doing so he doesn’t much cross the line between husband and therapist as burn it down and piss on the ashes. He is professional when she needs someone loving, and he wants love when she is in crisis. He makes her do fear exposure exercises, patronizes and infantilizes her. She is close to feral in her self-destructiveness, and He blithely dismisses it as another puzzle to solve, another case to work. Anywhere else this would be a problem, but in Eden, everything is reduced to its most primal state. This is the forest, this is nature red in tooth and claw, evinced in shocking imagery and a relentless sense that the forest is closing in. The forest does not want them there, and the longer they are there, the worse things will get.

So, then, this isn’t just a psychological horror film or just a supernatural horror film, but both. The horror is absolute. It is the horror of losing a child, and it isthe horror of watching someone make absolutely the wrong decision at every turn (don't treat your spouse like a client, don't go into the woods), it is the horror of a relationship descending into madness, and it is the horror of a vision of nature that is utterly malevolent without once feeling unnatural. There are horror movie beats - mysterious noises, nightmares, going places at night by lamplight, unnatural visions - but they're used in service of a story that transcends typical horror cliche. This movie doesn't use monsters as stand-ins for human problems, the human problems evoke the monsters, call the dead, raise the spirits of the forest, of nature itself. If women are of nature and men propose to stand outside nature, here is where nature rises up and smites man for his arrogance.

And this is the final piece of the puzzle - He and She are in a sense all Hes and all Shes. Throughout this film, the idea that women are irrational objects to study and "correct" is interrogated - She is an example of how this is utterly corrosive to a woman's spirit and identity, when it is completely internalized. Her dissertation was on the history of misogyny, and too late, He realizes what so much time immersed in those ideas has done. And He is an example of the folly of this rational approach, so common among men who are used to having agency and influence, who are used to a world where making the rules means that the rules apply. But here, in the forest, in the realm of nature, of the woman, no matter how much you want to stamp your foot and make the world obey the rules you formulated, Mother Nature is not trying to hear your shit. The mistakes of poorly done therapy resulting from a man’s belief that he knows the mind of a woman, imagery evoking the witch hunts, medieval ideas about anatomy and witchcraft, even the practice of suttee - it's all here, displayed in its horror for righteous condemnation. It is an excoriation, a Boschian howl of rage uttered by a wounded animal.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

This Week In This Is Helping

So a couple of nifty little news items have crossed my field of vision recently - apparently, both Lars von Trier and Nicholas Winding Refn are making murmuring noises about directing horror films. Not "thrillers", not "dramas", horror films. Von Trier wants to do something set in Detroit, which is certainly a bleak enough setting, and Winding Refn is thinking about doing something based on the mysterious death of a young woman in a Los Angeles hotel that has a really checkered history.

Now on the one hand, I fully recognize that until the actual films are made and hitting the festival circuit, this is all up in the air. These are just things they are writing, and there's no guarantee they'll get made. But if they do...if they do...this is good news. Politically, it's two critically respected directors working directly within the genre without any sort of attempt to mediate its legitimacy, and I'm all about that. Mostly because there's less chance that the studio will try to spin their films into franchises, and maybe we can point to films like this and say "what the fuck difference does it make? Is it art? Is it entertainment? You tell me, fucker."

But that's kind of high-minded and me thinking about What Horror Means and that's a really short road to being pompous and precocious. The other reason I think this is a good thing is because these are two really interesting directors. Winding Refn's Drive was beautiful to look at in its use of color and lighting - not exactly hallucinatory or dreamlike, but capturing those moments where the world in which we live is imbued with something beyond just life. This on top of his use of space, and silence, interspersed with shocking moments of violence, makes me think that if anyone could make Los Angeles, as sunny as it is, into some haunted, damned place, it's him. And von Trier is the man who made Dancer In The Dark, which sort of strikes me as what a snuff film made by a capricious God might look like, and the utterly excoriating Antichrist, about which I should have more to say later this week. He is a man unafraid of going to some deeply uncomfortable places in his dramas, and his first foray into formal horror does not at all disappoint. I more than expect that whatever he does with the landscape of Detroit, it will push what we think of as both horror and art, and I really, really hope these projects both come to fruition. This would be helping.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Daybreakers: Down With The Capitalist Parasites

Vampire movies are boring. There, I said it. Not all of them, by any means, but I would argue that the overwhelming majority of vampire movies are boring because they present vampires as the romantic heroes with whom we’re supposed to sympathize or as evil geniuses, jaded by centuries of unlife and tormented by the exquisiteness of their predicament. Those aren’t monsters, those are Harlequin novel characters in monster drag or action-movie antiheroes and villains interchangeable with any other. The best vampire movies show them as monsters - as being damn close to animals or alternatively treat the whole thing as such a lurid fairytale that it's all kind of batshit (ha) insane, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Ken-Russell-on-slightly-less-bad-acid take on Dracula.

Daybreakers starts off as an interesting riff on the vampire - they’re not just civilized, but it is vampire civilization that is itself problematic - but despite its best efforts, it never really escapes the narrative convention it so desperately needs to shed.

The movie is more or less the story of a hematologist named Edward Dalton. Edward lives a pretty normal life - he goes to the office to work on a big project for a major pharmaceutical company, drinks his coffee, comes home. Only, Edward - like everyone else in the city - goes to work at night, sleeps during the day in a highly secured apartment without windows, and when he stirs his coffee, rich swirls of dark red break the surface.

Edward, like everyone else in the city, is a vampire.

Daybreakers posits a world where the bad guys won, and what happened was life went on more or less as normal, for good and ill. People still go to the office, buy their coffee, do their jobs, live their lives. Some of the details are a little different - the city comes alive at night, not during the day, people put blood in their coffee instead of milk, there are skyways and tunnels connecting all the buildings so people can move around during the day, and oh yeah - humans are farmed like cattle for their blood, and what’s worse, the supply is dwindling. They’re running out of people, and like all cattle do, the ones they have are dying off. Demand outstrips supply. There are still pockets of humans living outside of the cities, and the military’s primary job seems to be hunting these people and corralling them for a lifetime of slow slaughter, death by drops.

But what impact does this have on immortal creatures? Well, blood starvation means degeneration and mutation into a feral bat-thing. Desperate, starving vampires sometimes feed from themselves, a process which poisons them and hastens their transformation. So even the monsters have their own monsters. And this is the problem occupying polite vampire society as the movie opens. Edward is working on an artificial blood substitute that will keep vampires “alive,” because there’s not enough blood to last more than a month at the rate they’re going and the alternative means a city full of things even less human and more predatory than they themselves are. The wealthy and powerful are getting nervous. Edward wants the blood substitute to succeed because he doesn’t want to see society collapse and because he himself makes a point of not drinking human blood. He didn’t choose to be turned and hates it. Edward’s boss wants to see the blood substitute succeed because it diversifies their markets - market the substitute for the masses and still hunt and collect humans for the vampires willing to pay a premium for the real stuff. Even when so much else is different, some of the monsters never change. And then Edward gets into a car accident that changes his unlife and completely flips the game on its head, with a bunch of people in hot pursuit as the world teeters around them.

The movie does really well in the details, taking the time to outline a lot of the little ways that life has changed but still goes on, balancing the bizarre inversions of a world of nocturnal blood-drinkers with the mundanity of a life we all understand, and manages to do a decent job of making even the silliest vampire tropes work in the setting. No, they can’t see their reflections in mirrors, so they have camera monitors instead of mirrors for grooming. Cars are equipped with day and night driving modes. The feral “subsiders” (an interesting worst since “subside” means to “barely exist”) are treated like an especially vicious form of vermin. So the first half is a relatively thoughtful, understated look at the implications of these different types of monstrosity - there's class, the squandering of resources (no blood for oil) - they've pretty much reached Peak Blood and society is breaking down as a result. But the second half - although still having its moments - plays much more like the generic action thriller the first half would seem to subvert. The requisite evil CEO starts monologuing, ranting on and on about how he likes blood that tastes like fear, how he thinks Edward has “always been weak”, and it’s at odds with how the character starts off the film, as a venal CEO with understandable reasons for becoming a vampire. He’s first, but at the halfway point collapses into cliché. Other characters switch allegiances on a plot-determined dime for no reason other than “I’m sorry, but it has to be this way” and it’s sort of bullshit when all of the interesting ideas raised in the beginning get tossed aside for stock action-movie contrivances. It’s like halfway through someone came along and said “wait, you’re making a vampire movie? This isn’t like Underworld at all! Put some more shooty bits in and have some romance in there!” And down it all came.

I might be exaggerating a little bit - it's not as bad as it could be (still looking at you, Underworld), and slick art direction pits that basic style against a world with much more soul, as briefly sketched as it is, but the places where it fails to live up to its promise really rankle in relation to the rest of the film. To make matters worse, the whole thing concludes on sort of an open-ended note, but without any meaningful ambiguity. It feels more like "yes, and…?", like it could or should have gone in a particular direction, and it doesn't NOT go in that direction, it just doesn't go in any direction at all, leaving us hanging in sort of a dumb way. Once it’s largely torn up the beginning’s promise, it ends with some more empty clichés and an honest-to-goodness ride into the sunset as if it somehow makes a Deep Comment when the simplicity of its opening, the fanged bloodsucker stirring his coffee, says so much more.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Se7en: The Way That Leads Up To The Light

It's rare that I remember the first time I watch a film, no matter how good it is. It’s just not the sort of experience that typically makes an impression on me. I remember the first time I watched The Shining, because I remember being utterly terrified by the ads for it as a child, and when as a teenager I finally gathered the courage to watch it, it was on network television, constantly interrupted by commercials and weather alerts, and even with the constant disruption it still reached right back to the deep nightmare part of my brain.

I also remember the first time I ever watched Se7en. I’d been waiting for it to come out on video because I missed it in theaters and all of the ads made it look really interesting as far as theatrical serial killer movies went. So for a couple of weeks I made a habit of swinging by my neighborhood video place to see if they’d gotten a copy in yet. One night I was coming back from a double feature at a small arthouse theater and stopped at the video store on the way home. It must have been 10:30 or 11 at night, but they finally had a copy. Despite the fact that I’d been watching movies for the better part of the night, I took it home and put it on. I don’t think I was able to fall asleep until about 3 or 4am after watching it, so afraid I was of closing my eyes. It made an impression on me as a film that on first viewing felt palpably evil - it shook and disturbed me in a way that few films had before or have since.

It opens in quiet and stillness, with a detective at home gathering the tools of his trade for another day at work. His beat is the city - it’s never specified where, it’s always just “the city” - and he surveys a crime scene with a practiced, weary eye. He’s William Somerset, and he’s seven days away from retirement. Other cops don’t seem too broken up about his leaving - they think he thinks too much, asks pointless questions. Somerset thinks down into the situation, looks at the world beyond its surface details, and it seems like a career of doing this has made him tired and sad, and he just wants to be over.

But it isn’t over yet, and he has to meet his new partner, David Mills. Mills chose to be transferred to a job in the city from somewhere out in the suburbs, and he’s pretty much the spot-on cocky new cop, all wisecracks and assertions that he’s not just some rookie and Somerset is not trying to hear it at all. He has no patience for this guy, he just wants him to stay out of the way until his seven days tick down. But they’ve caught another case, and it’s, well, it’s a weird one. In a squalid basement apartment, a man sits dead at a table, his hands and feet bound. He’s a very large man, and by all accounts, he was force-fed at gunpoint until his throat swelled from the effort of swallowing and his stomach began to tear. Behind his refrigerator, written in grease, the word “gluttony.”

There are seven deadly sins, and this is the first.

What sticks with me most about Se7en is its palpable cruelty - not just in the murders themselves, which are awful - gruesome in their literal instantiation of the sins they illustrate, but also in the way that the antagonist deliberately extends suffering to people beyond his victims. The wife of one victim is forced to look through the crime scene photos, her husband’s mutilated body barely obscured by sticky notes, and her fresh grief and pain in the face of the necessary task is awful. Another man is made complicit in the death of another - what choice do you have when a gun is in your mouth? - and it’s clear from his anguished testimony that he’s broken by this experience. It's one of the few serial killer films (a genre of which I am not fond) that bothers to acknowledge the pain and damage that the murders cause to the living as well, and the murders, though theatrical, seem grounded in a particular purpose, which is another element I think so many lesser films miss, mistaking elaborate staging as the end, rather than a means. We barely ever see the antagonist on screen, but the damage he does runs throughout the film, making him monstrous through his deeds rather than any elaborate costume or gimmick.

And the city is…well, not a character of its own, but certainly an insistent note underneath the proceedings. The city is what gives birth to these atrocities and lesser atrocities every day. Somerset takes a cab ride and the view out the window is vague shapes, bodies moving in the rain and it seems like something out of a Francis Bacon painting. It is a dehumanizing place, almost always raining, shabby gray buildings blotting out the sky. Nobody in this movie is happy, courtesy and warmth are in scarce supply. It’s a bleak place where vicious things happen and the best you can hope for is that you don’t have to step on too many bodies in the course of a single day. It’s almost tiring to exist in this place for the course of the movie. It’s a dark place, and that’s how I remembered it from my previous viewings, but my memory of the film is faulty - I always remember it as being shot as a very dark, gloomy film until the denouement, when everything brightens up, but that's not how it is at all. Light plays a huge role in this film throughout - friendly interiors are warm and golden, whether it's a new home or an old library, crime scenes are sometimes pitch-dark and illuminated only by flashlight, sometimes they're lit by the sun pouring in through the windows, sometimes they're fitfully lit by neon. People die in the most squalid of basement apartments and porn shops, and people die in office high-rises and penthouses, and the light shining upon their deaths is as different as they and their ends are. Characters are framed in light - soft light, hard light, they are backlit. I mean yes, light is an integral part of filmmaking and film viewing, but this is a movie about terrible, terrible things told in sunshowers and sunrises and sunsets and early evening dusk and the harsh light of high noon. It’s amazing how fallible memory is, or maybe how powerfully this film communicates its idea that my memories of it are that it is darker visually than it actually is.

This visual subversion extends to the characters as well. Mills and Somerset seem like a riff on the standard odd-couple cop duo - the mismatch of the weary vet with the wisecracking hotshot who come together and understand each other in the end - but they really are prickly and assholish with each other, it's not cliche. Somerset is thoughtful, cerebral, and entirely too old for this shit. We know this not because he keeps saying it, but we know it in his weariness, his resignation, his desire to be shut of this case so he can just serve out his last seven days and retire to someplace far away. He's seen too much and he can't bear to see any more. He’s not especially nice or sympathetic, but that’s what years of facing the worst of humanity does to someone who thinks and feels deeply. It curdles them. Mills is every cop cliche - he's mouthy, raring to go, sees the cases in black and white terms, but it's not heroic, it's frustrating. You want to reach out and shake him when he reduces the killer to a "nutball" because Somerset is right - this is someone with purpose and method and dismissing things that could get you closer to him is seriously irresponsible. Somerset tackles the case by reviewing Milton, Dante, Chaucer, the ideas of sin and repentance. Mills stares blankly at the crime scene photos. For Somerset, it’s important to know the killer, and for Mills the whole story is the crime. As the movie wears on, there's movement - Somerset's energy is renewed and he takes an active interest, and Mills shows some humanity through the cop façade. Much of this occurs in a nice dinner scene between Somerset, Mills, and Mills’ wife Tracy. She humanizes them, connects them, and helps to provide an oasis from the horror. They take the first steps toward becoming actual partners without everything being resolved neatly. They still disagree with each other, they still rub each other the wrong way, but they’re united in their desire to put a stop to the person committing these horrible crimes.

And the killer is a nice subversion of the typical movie serial killer as well - in the end, he is revealed to be essentially a nonentity, a total mystery in everything but his motives. For as profoundly disturbed as his surroundings reveal him to be (yet another crime scene of sorts, lit mostly in reds), he is remarkably composed and understated. We are denied the history or back story endemic to the most clichéd film depictions of serial killers - everything about him is made manifest in the acts we have witnessed, the carnage - physical and psychological - he has caused. He gives it all to his single-minded act of devotion and leaves nothing for himself, or for us. And in the end, when everything opens up in light and space and bright blue sky, one final atrocity finishes the story - the long struggle up to the light, through squalor and glamor, from the basement apartment at the beginning to the rural purity at the end, all of it was exactly as was planned, as it all had been all along, as if it had been foreordained, as surely as Scripture.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

After.Life: A Dead Body In Fancy Clothes



1. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved.
2. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.
3. full of pretense or pretension.

If you want to take cheap shots at a movie, one of the best ways you can do it is by calling the movie “pretentious.” You don’t even have to know what it means, all you need to know is that it’s a way to dismiss anything going on in a film other than the obvious, and seems to be typically employed against films that defy easy interpretation (or, shit, even just require paying attention). It’s a low form of criticism in my opinion because it’s often used as a way to end discussion. If a film is pretentious, it’s not worth further consideration because nothing that happens in it can be taken seriously, you see. It was all just an attempt by the filmmakers to make something that was better than it had a right to be. And that’s the other icky thing about accusing film of pretension - it carries with it this idea that the film is trying to rise above its station, to be “better” than it really is, and that’s a really weird idea to have. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't go hand-in-hand with a style of criticism that emphasizes the primacy of the author and literal interpretation, which is to me, like, the least interesting way to think about film there is. It’s right up there with “quit seeing stuff in the movie that isn't really there” as just utter tedious bullshit. Calling a film pretentious is often the critical equivalent of calling someone a nerd. It’s what you do when you don’t like them but don’t understand why you don’t like them.

Having said that, you’re probably wondering why I started this post with the definition of the word. Well, see, it’s like this: After.Life is - and there’s no getting around it - a pretentious movie. It wants desperately to elevate its story and fails so utterly.

It begins with schoolteacher Anna Taylor, in bed with her boyfriend. He’s trying to make passionate love to her, but she’s distant, unresponsive. It is a cool, well-lit room and something goes unspoken between them. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, and she won’t tell him. She gets headaches and nosebleeds, she takes pills.

Eliot Deacon is a mortician at a small funeral home. He is preparing someone for their funeral, talking to them as he washes them, dresses them, applies makeup to hide their pallor. He’s a quiet man doing an important job. He’s solicitous with the family, knows which flowers to select. Lots of quiet moments in still rooms going on here.

It goes on like this for a bit, until Anna ends up at Eliot’s funeral home to attend a service for her late piano teacher. She’s all fucked-up inside - problems with her boyfriend, a weird relationship with her mother, and then there’s the mysterious pills she keeps taking. She gets into a fight with her boyfriend after a really awkward dinner (one that suggests they should have stopped being a couple a long time ago), driving off in tears, and it’s raining, and it’s dark, and she’s not watching where she’s going. There’s a car accident.

And the next thing she knows, she’s on the table in Eliot’s mortuary. He’s telling her she’s dead now. But then why can she hear? And why can she speak?

Thus, the title of the movie. Anna is still conscious, but Eliot insists that she is dead, and in a transitional state between life and death. He is gifted, he says, with the ability to communicate with people in this transitional state, but is that really the case? That’s the mystery ostensibly put to us for the majority of the movie, but there’s no real mystery - a story like this has to hinge on ambiguity, it needs to be equally plausible at any given moment that this guy is telling the truth and he’s got some Sixth Sense-type shit going on, or he is not telling the truth, and he’s trying to gaslight Anna in the most ambitious way possible. But that ambiguity never really comes to pass - there’s a pretty clear indication from the very beginning that only one of these two interpretations is correct, and the narrative only makes half-hearted attempts to pay attention to the other interpretation at occasional intervals. The result feels artificial and clumsy, and calls attention to its own failures. It’s only in the attempt to tell both sides that we realize just how half-assed one interpretation of the situation really is.

What makes it worse is the story is told in a language of high style that ends up obscuring and enervating the narrative instead of conveying a mood. All of the dialogue is elliptical and portentous, people declaiming on Life and Death and Love, standing around with tears in their eyes, or looking off into space. (Well, except for a subplot involving the boyfriend’s attempts to figure out what’s going on, where all of the cops seem to be played for comedy. It’s probably supposed to be surreal or Lynchian, but it’s ugly and jarring instead.) Everything takes place in artfully lit rooms, tastefully appointed, in some nameless small town somewhere. Small enough that everyone knows each other, but well-off enough that every interior looks like it came out of a Pottery Barn catalog. It all takes place in a temporal, geographical, and emotional vacuum, and you get the sense that the big themes were maybe supposed to carry the story, but they don’t.

And that’s the problem, and it’s why no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from the idea that this movie is, at its worst, pretentious. It seems to want to be about something other than what it is about, but it can’t even deliver on what it’s supposed to be about (in the basic narrative sense, at least), so any other reading is difficult to sustain. For all of the portentously-delivered dialogue about the nature of life and death and love, for all of the nightmare imagery that wants to suggest an alternative interpretation, for all of the is-she-or-isn't-she moments, the story never rises about the level of "psycho takes woman captive because he has weird ideas about life." Eliot is played with slightly more subtlety than Jigsaw in the Saw movies, but that's such a low bar to clear that it doesn't count for much, and the two characters are far more alike than not. There's no room left over for any real surprises or left turns into something more interesting when most of the run time is devoted to a particular interpretation of events, with just enough fakeouts thrown in to distract you. There are the moments involving cops that are totally out of left field and don't jibe with the largely somber mood of the film as well, and a subplot with a bullied little kid that doesn't really go anywhere until it goes someplace creepy, so even on a basic mood level it can’t sustain itself. To top it all off, the end as a whole it feels sort of tasteless and gratuitous, pointlessly nihilistic as if that somehow will lend the movie weight, which it doesn't. It wants to be about big ideas, but doesn't take the time to construct a story that can carry the weight of those big ideas, and it wants to keep us guessing, but it hands us the answers almost right out of the gate (and proposes that there is an answer to begin with) and only interrupts to halfheartedly say “or maybe not”, only to reaffirm the original interpretation minutes later. It wants to badly to be something more than it is, and in doing so, falls so short of even the basics.

IMDB entry
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Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)