Monday, October 27, 2014

Contagion: Going Viral

The whole idea behind me spending October looking at the horror of non-horror movies is, on some level, about tapping into broader things that we find scary and observing the universality of horror. As outlined in One Hour Photo and The Conversation, surveillance is scary - the idea that we’re being watched, that we don’t have any secrets. Now, I’d like to turn to the idea of disease and infirmity. If it’s frightening to learn that our lives are not our own, it’s even more frightening to learn that our bodies are not our own either, that biology can rebel against us. We are not even safe inside ourselves, the call is coming from inside the house. As killers go, disease is, I think, even worse than the biggest, scariest masked man with a sharp object. It’s invisible, it’s silent, and it’s everywhere all at once. It does its work quietly, and often by the time you figure out what’s going on, it’s too late.

Contagion is ostensibly concerned with one specific disease, but I’d argue that it’s really about two, and how they work together with lethal efficiency in ways that are actually pretty similar to how a slasher movie might work.

The film opens with a black screen, and a cough. Innocuous enough, we meet Beth Emhoff, a marketing bigwig for some large company. She’s in the airport, on the phone with somebody during a layover. The subtitle reads “Day 2”, and this lends it a sense of urgency right out of the gate. Something is happening, and it's already begun. It tells us that whatever we’re about to watch, we’re too late to stop it. The camera follows Beth’s hands as they handle a glass of water, her phone, it catches her coughing. She’s coming back home from a business trip overseas. She’s got a bit of a fever and a cough, probably picked up a bug on the airplane.

A fever and a cough turn into a higher fever, and seizures, and in a couple of days, Beth Emhoff is dead.

This is the point at which the other shoe drops. An autopsy reveals something very disturbing (“Should I call someone?” “Call everyone.”) even though we don’t know exactly what it is. The killer lies in shadow, the monster is hidden. The film takes on the point of view of a predator. There’s a focus on hands, handled objects, the movement of visibly sick people from place to place, the things and people with which they come into contact. We're watching a killer stalk its victims. We don't know what it wants or where it came from, just that it's lying in wait, and then the bodies start to drop. A cough, a fever, seizures, death. As sure and certain as a falling axe or machete or butcher’s knife.

The rest of the film follows multiple strands of action - the people from the CDC, overwhelmed by the enormity of their task and hindered by political concerns, an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization who ends up in over her head, the family of Beth Emhoff, who appears to be Patient Zero, and Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracy-minded blogger warning of the dangers of Big Pharma, touting homeopathic remedies with an eye on profit. All set against the backdrop of a country coming slowly to grips with this new, terrible thing.

What transpires over the course of the movie, then, is two different forms of viral transmission. The first is the disease, a biological virus, which moves from host to host, infecting, mutating, and killing. The second (as in The Conversation) is information, which is a memetic virus. Alan Krumwiede is Patient Zero for the memetic virus, introducing the idea into the public consciousness that homeopathic tinctures of forsythia cure the disease but the government (and Big Pharma) are keeping it a secret for reasons. This misinformation leads people to spend money on a useless remedy, ramping up demand to the point of riots and the looting of pharmacies that carry it. Krumwiede is an interesting character. It’s tough to pin down how much of his own bullshit he believes - he certainly seems sincere in his belief that the economics of disease treatment are driven by profit, manipulated by massive pharmaceutical companies for their own benefit, but he also seems perfectly aware that forsythia does nothing. He leverages the audience for his website as a tool to make money for people who manufacture homeopathic remedies as cynically as any pharmaceutical company. He wears a full-body protective suit to pass out flyers that say the government lies and that a cure exists. He plays all the angles, a craven opportunist blithely sowing discord and justifying it as the way of the world. I find him even more disturbing than the disease and the existence of people like him much, much scarier than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.

The two viral transmissions are the real killers here, but as in slasher movies, much also can be chalked up to human frailty. One man’s desire to protect his loved ones triggers a panic, ignorance of apparent danger infects others, bad decisions are made for good reasons, venality and pettiness hinder treatment, greed foments civil unrest. Just as human failings open people up to danger from masked men wielding sharp objects (it’s always the teens doing drugs and having sex who die first), so here do they give the disease a vector, a path to kill thousands upon thousands of people. Whether it’s how fragile our bodies are or how easily we are duped, how easily we panic, and how selfishness warps our thinking, we betray ourselves. The killer was inside the house the whole time.

It's not horror because death here isn't especially gory, just sad, and the dead don't rise up to walk again, but that's really all that separates this from a zombie-apocalypse movie. It's basically World War Z without the zombies. The deaths and the scale of the deaths are still there, people act selflessly to save others, selfishly to save themselves, they do the right thing and the wrong thing as they would in any horror film, and with the same result. It’s especially timely as the United States grapples with the presence of highly lethal ebola virus and a movement of people across the country decries the process of vaccination based on spurious logic and outright fallacy, leading to outbreaks of disease nationwide. The twin viruses of disease and misinformation do their deadly work, and isn't that horrifying enough?

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix (Available on DVD)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

This Week In Dumb Criticism

So, director Eduardo Sanchez has just released a new film - a found-footage Bigfoot film called Exists. This isn't really on my radar because I'm not big on Bigfoot films and I find myself getting pickier and pickier about found-footage films in general. So it's the sort of thing I'd give a miss anyway.

But that's not really the point. The point was that I found out about this film from a review on the Onion's A.V. Club site. The writer opens by pointing out that Sanchez was one of the directors who made The Blair Witch Project, a fine piece of filmmaking. Okay, fine. The writer doesn't like Exists, and though I find the criticism a little condescending ("the human meat isn't very interesting", "A number of movies use monsters as metaphors for larger ills, but Exists works best when it’s just offering up cheap thrills to match its intentionally (if still shoddily) cheap look."), what bugs me the most is the way the writer winds up their review by basically saying that Sanchez has ended up, and I quote, "a pretender to his own throne."

Which would make sense if Exists were Sanchez's return to directing after The Blair Witch Project, but it fucking isn't. In between his directing debut and his most recent film, he's made three other feature films and contributed a short to V/H/S/2. I've written about three of these four efforts here myself - Seventh Moon was interesting and atmospheric, if a little inert in some ways, his short from V/H/S/2 was kind of goofy and artificial, and Lovely Molly was fucking great, one of my favorite horror films from this decade. Sure, only the short uses the found-footage conceit, but that doesn't stop this writer from completely eliding this guy's interim creative output to put a smug little flourish on the end of his review. It's just amateur-hour shit, and as much as I like the A.V. Club for entertainment news in general, their treatment of horror has often been as predictable and patronizing as so many other mainstream outlets - unless, of course, it's a name director involved, in which case there's every chance it'll get a good review, because everyone loves a high-profile director slumming it. I don't know what I expected, but I at least think a cursory glance at Sanchez's IMDB page would have been in order before hanging the whole hook on the first thing the guy ever did.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Conversation: Signal And Noise

As I continue looking at horror in non-horror movies, I’m still thinking about the idea of surveillance that started with writing about One Hour Photo. Like that film, The Conversation is also about surveillance, but appearance is the least important thing going on here, either cinematically or thematically - it's not about what we see, but what we hear and consequently what we know. Information, not image, is the weapon of choice here.

The film opens on the titular conversation - a man and a woman walking through a park in downtown San Francisco during lunchtime. They're surrounded by other people, performers, musicians, the everyday noise and clatter of life in the city. We can't quite hear what they're saying, though - instead of naturalistic dialogue, what we hear is the output from a number of devices recording this conversation, with varying degrees of comprehensibility. Much of it, at least initially, is lost in garble, a noisy, lossy recording. There are men perched in high places with scoped directional microphones, looking like nothing so much as snipers. There are two other men on the ground - innocuous, middle-management types, wandering through the crowd, sitting on benches, carrying packages. As the couple talking weaves in and out of the crowd, their conversation weaves in and out of focus.

Somebody really, really wants to know what they're saying.

One of the innocuous men on the park benches is Harry Caul, surveillance and security expert. He's in business for himself, taking work from the government, law enforcement, and, in this case, private clients. He's careful, quiet, and intensely private, possibly because someone in his line of work knows just how fragile privacy is. Deeply serious, as religious about his work as he is about his Catholic faith, he's not somebody who lets anyone in as a matter of course. Harry’s been hired by the director of a large corporation to record what these specific people are saying during this conversation they’ve so painstakingly decided to have in a noisy public place. It has to be their voices, not a transcription, and the tapes must be delivered to the director and the director alone. And this is where Harry runs into trouble, when the director’s assistant insists on picking up the tapes instead. When Caul refuses, the assistant makes some vague threats, suggesting that Caul is in over his head - after all, he knows what’s on those tapes. And so Harry retreats to his workshop, where he takes the source recordings and goes back to work on them, peeling away layer after layer of noise and interference to try and reveal the horrible truths embedded in this apparently innocuous conversation.

As you might expect, there's an insistent strand of paranoia running through this film. Harry lives his life as if someone is trying to force their way in, whether it's getting into his apartment (his doors have multiple locks and alarms) or asking personal questions about his life. Even a harmless birthday gift moves him to cancel home delivery of his mail, and he lies about things like his age, simply so that no one person has the truth about him. Whatever motivated the job he's taken as the film begins, he's dealing with equally secretive people at a very large corporation, where a lot of money is at stake. His basic distrust opens up cracks, whether it's pushing people away from him, or attracting attention from forces within the corporation who want for themselves the tapes he's made of the conversation. As Harry continues working on the recordings, the film keeps returning to the conversation, with new layers of meaning revealed with every pass. Noise gives way to signal, obscurity gives way to meaning, and as Harry's comprehension grows, so does ours in a slow, but steady terror of discovery.

Much like visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting in One Hour Photo, sound does a lot of the heavy lifting here. Conversations are clear or obscured, and there's a lot of interplay between action and representation of action - life versus recording. And again, secrets are the point - in One Hour Photo, they provided a counterpoint to appearance, and here they act as currency, a medium for power and influence. This is neatly illustrated by an extended sequence of Harry interacting with a jealous rival, in which no physical violence occurs, and voices aren't even really raised, but knowledge, secrets, and recorded information serve as punches and counterpunches in a contest of dominance. This extends into visuals as well - people move in and out of obscured sightlines, talk to each other from behind the wire of a cage or the blurriness of plastic sheeting. Even Harry's name - Caul - is a word for a translucent veil of skin that covers the faces of some newborn children. Concealment and obscurity is everything.

It's not really a horror movie, no, but it uses the same tools of tension and release to achieve the same effect. The film is an extended slow burn, with everything playing out in small, gradually revealed details until the climax, which takes all of the tightly compressed anxiety and paranoia of what came before and explodes it outward in a single moment of sudden, shocking violence that carries the cathartic release of a scream and much more of a punch than any of the rote stabbings, impalements, or beheadings of your typical slasher film. Harry is right, there is something terrible happening here, and the revelation of what exactly that is forces its way into his life (and our attention) with exactly the same amount of violence as you'd attribute to a home invasion, and so living in Harry's world exacts a terrible price. It's deeply frightening, not just in specific events, but implication as well. Nothing and nowhere are safe.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Hour Photo: Image Capture

When I first started thinking about the idea of spending an October writing about non-horror horror films, I didn’t really think of it too much in terms of specific themes. It was more just thinking “hey, this is a film that is in its own way scary even though it’s not really considered horror.” But as I’m thinking through the films I want to write about, I’m starting to see some themes emerge. The first is the idea of surveillance.

Horror uses the idea of surveillance as a tool to build tension all the time - shots from the point of view of the antagonist are a time-honored way to signal that something bad is going to happen, and this idea is taken to its queasily logical extreme in the recent remake of Maniac, where it implicates us in the antagonist’s violence while at the same time making us feel helpless - we are seeing what the killer sees, but we cannot intervene. Omnipresent surveillance situations create a sense that your life and fate are not your own, that if every move is tracked, any attempt to escape would be futile. Whether it’s a supernatural creature or a killer or technology is irrelevant. It’s always a monster, ready to rob us of our lives, if only metaphorically.

One Hour Photo is putatively a thriller, so I’m maybe fudging my own non-horror thing here, but it’s by no means an obvious one. It’s a measured, smart take on the idea that appearances are deceiving - which is an easy thing to bungle by being too on-the-nose - and more importantly, the ways in which our apprehension of those appearances are in and of themselves a potential form of violence.

It opens with a shot of a camera, its lens staring back at us unblinking. The shot is held just long enough to make us uncomfortable. Nothing happens, just a single lens looking back at the audience. Even though it's a representation (an image of a camera taken by yet another camera) and not the real thing, that sense of being watched is palpable. It resolves with a video rendering of the actual image it’s seeing. It’s a man, having his mugshot taken. Something bad has happened, though we're not quite clear on the specifics yet.

The man is Seymour “Sy” Parrish, and he’s as quiet and mild-mannered as can be, which makes the detective’s statement that the photographs they took from Sy “aren’t very nice” even more puzzling. What could this man have done, that he’s being held by police pending the arrival of his attorney from Legal Aid? This sets the stage, and the clock is turned back to many days before this moment.

Before this moment, Sy works at Sav-Mart, a large WalMart-type megastore in the suburbs. He works in the photo department, where people drop off rolls of film and he develops them for quick pickup. Sy loves his job and take pride in it. He has all sorts of regular customers, and he pays attention to them. Among his customers is Nina Yorkin, by all appearances a reasonably well-off housewife. Nina is married to Will Yorkin, who runs a design firm, and they have a sweet, sensitive young son named Jake. Sy’s been printing their photos ever since they got married - their wedding, Jake’s birth, anniversaries, vacations, birthdays - all in vivid color. Nina drops off some film, and asks Sy for two sets of prints of each.

Sy prints three sets.

As it transpires, we discover that Sy is a very lonely man. He’s one of the last to leave at the end of the day, and after he stops for a late dinner alone at a diner where the waitress knows him by name, he takes the bus home to his nearly-empty apartment. Just him, a hamster, and the Yorkins’ photographic memories. There’s almost no there there, he’s a desaturated nonentity, and he lives his life through the Yorkins. As time goes on, Sy imagines himself more and more a part of their life, as if he were a close family friend, or perhaps a relative. He’s not a bug-eyed madman, he’s just lonely and doesn’t have much going for him, and the Yorkins’ life makes for a warmer, more colorful alternative. Of course, nobody’s life is as wonderful as it looks - even Sy himself points out that nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget - and as his obsession with the Yorkin family grows, so does the disillusionment as the cracks in their own fa├žade are revealed. Sy becomes angry with them, and starts to come unraveled.

So right off, we know this is a film about appearances, about form. Will works in design - his job is to attend to both form and function. He creates images. Conversely, Sy is a servant to images - it's his job to bring images of other people's lives into the world, and other peoples' lives are what he has instead of a life of his own. His own home is empty, devoid of any identity, save what Sy borrows from others. He hangs on to image the way a drowning man hangs on to a life raft, and over time begins to mistake the life raft for the life it’s supposed to save. When the life he’s imagined for himself fails to match up neatly with the reality of what it means to be Will, Nina, and Jake Yorkin, Sy can’t handle it. It’s all he has.

But that’s the most obvious aspect. Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth considering - Sy and the Yorkin family are largely painted with a great deal of sympathy and humanity, which isn’t typical for a film about someone’s obsession - it’s just not the most interesting bit. It’s not just about image, but also about the act of recording that image. Photographs are documentation, memorialization, but, the film argues, there's a predatory aspect to them too. Even discounting the largely apocryphal stories of indigenous tribes who believe that taking someone's picture steals their soul, think about the language - "image capture", "taking a picture", "shooting.” As Sy observes at one point, "snapshot" is a term taken from hunting. It's this idea that further helps to elevate the story above what could in lesser hands have been a painfully trite story about how not everyone is as happy as they look, ending with an important lesson learned. No, it's this idea of photography as an act of taking that gives One Hour Photo its low, humming undercurrent of tension and dread. We know something bad has happened when the film opens, and the more the film plays on the idea of being watched and of life moments ending up in the hands of someone to whom they don’t belong, the more afraid we are to see exactly where it goes

It's further supported by a strong attention to visual style - it's a film about image and appearance, and what we see communicates who these people are. The Yorkins are shot in warm, soft light most of the time, their ultra-modern house all rich browns and polished metal and tasteful sprays of color from flowers and Jake's art on the refrigerator. Sav-Mart is all sterile, gleaming whites and cold fluorescents, devoid of humanity, and both Sy's apartment and Sy himself are beige and washed-out to the point of near-colorlessness. The only color in Sy's life comes from the photos he has of the Yorkin family. The film is interspersed with photographic montage, recalled moments lit like photographs, replayed in slow-motion as if the moments themselves are slowing down to their final stasis, captured on film. Sometimes the photographs become scenes of their own as the line between life and its documentation, between your life and the life of others, begins to blur.

Even with all of this, though, it could have still been easy to fall into the trap of pat answers - the flip side to "they seem like this" is "but they're really like this" which risks reducing these characters to type, and the film neatly dodges this at several points. We're lead to expect events to go one way, and then they don't - it's not so much a twist as a sidestep. The Yorkins are a troubled couple, but it's never really clear exactly where fault lies - both Will and Nina make bad decisions, each has legitimate grievances, and when Sy's obsession finally overwhelms him and he acts out, the rage you expect from someone in his position is there, but it's shot through with raw pain that comes from a place much older than his fixation on the Yorkins. We expect someone who is obsessed to become angry when his obsession lets him down, but it's unexpectedly human, and the film's final moments unspool for us exactly how Sy became the kind of person who would take solace in the life of another, and feel so in thrall to photography as a way to capture, or take something. After all of the tension and fear and violence that has come before, it’s this awful confession that, in a few sentences, lays the idea that images are a form of violence out for the audience, not just naked, but flayed in its directness.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix (Available on DVD)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

It's That Time Of Year Again

Sorry about the relative slowdown in posting activity - technical hiccups and being busy at work have made it difficult to keep up the pace that I'd like. I think that will be changing soon.

Also, now that it's October, everyone's dragging out all the horror-related lists and theme posts and TV channels are running various and sundry horror movie marathons and yes oooh spooky and all that.

As someone who is somewhat willfully perverse about all of this (and who stopped going trick-or-treating when he was 8 because the idea of begging strangers for candy seemed sort of embarrassing), I'm going to spend the rest of October looking at films that are not typically thought of as being horror at all, even by my own relatively loose definition of the term. I mean it when I say I think that horror is a much broader category than most people let on, so I'm going to try and stretch the envelope even further as everyone else is making a beeline for orthodoxy. So, next up: One Hour Photo.