Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Crazies (2010): Conservative horror?

I was entertained by Breck Eisner's remake of George Romero's 1973 The Crazies, but I ultimately didn't care much for it.

Less consequentially, I think it suffers from being a good idea lacking in follow-through. I occasionally accuse sci-fi plots of starting with a good concept that gets dropped along the way. For example, I felt that Tony Scott's Déjà Vu had a pretty interesting time travel thesis going on, until it got dropped for explosions and an obligatory romance plot. The Crazies keeps Romero's concept of a virus that induces a murderous frenzy. In the original film, this creates rabidly violent victims, not unlike the experimental combat drug in Jacob's Ladder (1990). Eisner departs from this mold by allowing the infected to retain their composure, so that the virus compromises something else. Perhaps it creates paranoid delusions? For whatever reason, the film departs from its pseudo-zombie movie predecessor, giving us calculating killers instead of mindless hordes.
And that'd be fine, except that it is later shown that the infected are capable of setting traps and working as teams. Now, zombies don't kill one another, because they only hunt the living, and their compatriots are dead by definition. But why wouldn't the infected in this film attack one another? And go as far as to establish camaraderie?

Anyway, we're pretty well familiar with hippie horror as a liberal institution, if you elect to read Romero's original film as part of post-Vietnam disillusionment and a critique of government and military. So now it kind of makes sense that the new American radicals, conservatives and Tea Partiers, take up the same protest imagery to convey their impressions of "big government."
Liberal horror, when it addresses government and military, tends to criticize how America treats the outsider, calling upon injustices of foreign wars and general xenophobia. Romero's The Crazies comments on the American war practices against the Vietnamese, as well as the treatment of American soldiers as expendable. That film shows the tables turned, as the military is deployed against its own citizens, and even features a self-immolation, referencing the powerful imagery of Vietnam-era protest.
Liberal antiwar protest always seems to target an individual character, calling out the president on "war crimes" or what have you, and staking a hope for reform on the ousting of this specific character. The 1973 film gives faces to the politicians and military leaders responsible for the catastrophe, which demonstrates a belief in personal responsibility and accountability. This isn't particularly noteworthy until we consider the remake.

The 2010 version of The Crazies portrays the government in the absolutely most negative possible light. As an entity, the leadership remains entirely faceless, but we are able to see through its eyes by way of "big brother" spy satellites, which zoom in to the action on the ground periodically. This imagery is very similar to the telescope view used by the mutants in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, which shows the stranded family as always being watched by their stalkers and murderers.
This is where I see a libertarian bent to this film: The government is portrayed as a malevolent entity, not as something human, accountable, and reparable. You can't vote those spying eyes out of office.
Counter to the faceless government and its faceless gasmasked drones are the regular, ordinary folks, led by the small-town sheriff, who would be capable of seeing after themselves if it wasn't for big brother's interference.
The selection of school and hospital as key battlegrounds comments on the political struggle for the control of these institutions. In the remake, the school is repurposed as detention center/hospital. The public school system has always been a contentious topic, but the hospital is relatively new, perhaps serving as a commentary on "Obamacare." We see that in this hospital, everyone is treated the same. The infected are strapped down alongside the healthy, because the authorities aren't interested in sorting through the patients. It is later revealed that those who were quarantined and the others who were shipped out met the same fate either way. Sound like "death panels" to anyone?
Finally, I think the "crazies" themselves have a political role to play. The characters are not portrayed particularly sympathetically. I think it would be fair to interpret the crazies as the political opposition to the central "conservative" characters. After all, it is technically the fault of the infected that the big bad government invaded the town to deal with the situation created by rampant psychosis, which of course, was created by the government when it leaked a toxin into the water supply. Compare this to an image of American social programs where the government has to clean up, for example, the homelessness problem, at the expense of the taxpayers, to solve a problem that the government helped to create in the first place.
At one point in the film, the infected become the arm of government agenda. In scene where the restrained patients in the hospital are systematically skewered by a crazy with a pitchfork, let's remember that it's essentially the fault of the government, first for not posting any security in this wing of the building, and secondly, because this maniac is achieving the same goal the military personel were going to carry out anyway. As in, when socialized medicine takes away your doctor and forces you to see someone else, the pitchfork man is the new doctor you can't trust, who kills you in your bed along with everyone else because you can no longer get the treatment you need.

Did anyone else get this vibe?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Flower of Flesh and Blood, ethics, and the ontology of the body

Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)- if you're not trying to do something academic with it, there's absolutely no reason to watch this movie, beyond satisfying a curiosity.
My friend Kara posted a comment on an older post, asking how exploitation fits into a definition of the horror film, and citing the Guinea Pig series as a possible example of pure exploitation.
I had never heard of this film. Perhaps you haven't either.

The film begins with a man chasing and choloroforming a young woman. When she awakens, she is bound to a bed in a bloodied basement. He beheads a live chicken and says something to the effect of "This will be you!" He then drugs her, and explains to the camera that she now feels no pain, and perhaps even feels pleasure. Then, using various implements, and in great detail, he dismembers her. In between amputations, he describes the body poetically, building on the theme of a "flower of flesh and blood."
When he is finished, he explains that he is adding her to his collection, and pulls back a curtain to reveal an area where he embalms some body parts and composts others.
Famously, actor Charlie Sheen, believing the movie to be a snuff film, contacted the MPAA, who contacted the FBI.
The entire runtime is about 40 minutes.

This film is very unusual, and defies a lot of expectations. With it's reputation in mind, I fully anticipated the possibility of having to turn it off for being revolting or offensive. Instead, I noticed that my heart rate did not accelerate at any point during the film, not because of some desensitization, but because of the very unusual presentation of violence.
The early scene where the captor threatens his victim by beheading the chicken is kind of an anomaly, for he does not otherwise seem to wish her any ill will. By drugging her, he ensures that she will feel no pain. The film therefore is extremely light on sadism and suffering. Compared to The Last House on the Left and Irréversible, two films that will always stand out to me for provoking strong reactions, Flower of Flesh and Blood is in some ways much easier to watch. It reminds one of surgical television programs, with a lot of gore narrated in serious tones. Because there is a lack of suffering or sadism, there is no suspense. For the majority of the film, the stakes are very low. Sure, she gets murdered. But painlessly? Not a bad way to go.

Perspective on the body
Occasionally, I happen into a weird perspective of what the body is. It cropped up a while back in another blog in a debate about teleportation, where I argued a perspective that comes from trying to describe the body in as "realistic" a way possible, removing the identity and considering the constituent elements. Sometimes a film can put you in touch with this distanced perspective. A scene from Tony Kaye's documentary Lake of Fire shows a doctor concluding an abortion by taking stock of the excised tissues. The footage is unsettling, but I found that it affirmed my belief in the right to choose. Abortion highlights the ontological problem of staring into the doctor's dish and describing what you see. It is somehow both a person and a conglomeration of tissues. The two impressions compete, and inform our ethics. In that tiny, disarrayed body, we can see something vile and wrong, but we can also see the wonders and curiosities of the chaos of biology.
Despite the fact that you are your mother's child, you may find yourself awakened to the fact that the raw materials of your body have always been the raw materials of something else, perhaps as one-time parts of innumerable other living things, and before that, they hurtled through space as stardust. At a distance, your body is composed of the same heterogeneous clay that forms everything else.
If we let this perspective compete with our ethics, we can explore Flower of Flesh and Blood. Surely it is wrong to murder, but beyond that, is it wrong to marvel at the body as one would appreciate a flower? Is it immoral to admire the way that blood blooms from a wound, to sniff the heavy bouquet of decay, or taste human blood, simply for the sake of experience?
In the murderer, Flower of Flesh and Blood presents an interesting study in motivation. By my interpretation, the murderer kills not because he wishes to murder, but because murder is an incidental prerequisite to his actual goal, which is to commune with the living body freely. Somehow, he blurs the boundaries of psychopath, naturalist, pervert, and transcendentalist poet.
This mirrors Patrick Süskind's novel from the same year (1985) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which was adapted to film in 2006 by director Tom Tykwer. The lead character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born with a superhuman sense of smell, and no scent of his own. He learns the perfuming trade, and endeavors to craft the perfect scent from the essence of virginal women. His experience of these women is sensual and exploratory, and totally divorced from the ethics of committing murder.
Flower of Flesh and Blood bears another interesting relevance to real events. Jeffrey Dahmer once gave an interview where he detailed the drives and desires that pushed him to commit his crimes. He expressed great regret and discussed hating having to murder on the way to satisfying those drives. The complexity of the pathology evokes some sympathy, as we see a man who killed not out of greed or a disregard for human life, but because he was coerced by some curious sickness, perhaps indeed a sickness of curiosity.

In response to Kara's question, I believe that this film is not an example of "pure exploitation." The exploitation film draws its audience by exploiting a specific interest the audience holds. This works like a form of advertising. For example, the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s were produced specifically for black audiences. Exploitation is a method to get people into the theater. Pornography is another exploitation genre that exploits a certain (obvious) interest. The Guinea Pig series is exploitation aimed at the facet of horror fandom compelled by graphic depictions of gore. But is there such a thing as "pure exploitation?" I think that a film's content is separate from its exploitation techniques, which I would describe as "meta-content." That its content is particularly relevant to x audience population is irrelevant to the film's ability to stand on its own, and to be judged for better or for worse by its merits. Therefore, the film that is "pure exploitation" would necessarily be one that doesn't exist, but is nonetheless advertised! It could be well-argued that the "Royal Nonesuch" show from Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could qualify, a near non-event that continues solely because of the patrons' desire to see their friends and neighbors similarly conned!

Not to give too much credit...
For 40-odd minutes of monotonous carnage, Flower of Flesh and Blood somehow yielded a lot to discuss. But it is not my intention to find merits where they shouldn't be found. Learning about biology from studying roadkill isn't a reason to laud the careless driver that ran it over. The film has some interesting sub-text, but it always borders on the faux-philosophical edge of bad filmmaking. Just because the film has something to do with the aesthetics of murder doesn't make it Se7en. The film reveals the intent behind it by bending to some of the more distasteful genre conventions, to the detriment of anything worthwhile therein. Already mentioned is the chicken scene, a preposterous attempt to create suspense. Furthermore, and quite egregiously, the eventual beheading scene is undertaken in slow-motion, and the head adopts a laughable and wholly unrealistic trajectory, splatting against the wall dramatically. This is very poor filmmaking with a marginal element of luck.

Gore can be fun. Consider any of makeup artist Tom Savini's work: there's always an element of good-natured joviality in each instance of "Wow!/Gross!" His hard work pays off, and it's clear that the crew had a good time putting that moment together, compared to the film in question, which reeks of unpleasantness.
You could watch this movie on a dare, but don't expect to be entertained.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Soraya M. and a new definition of horror

On a professor's recommendation, I sought out The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008), a dramatization of Freidoune Sahebjam's 1990 novel La Femme Lapidée, based on a true story.

This film presented me with a problem. As I have mentioned previously, I maintain a list of horror films I have seen. Keeping this list raises questions of what films qualify for genre classification. A previous post discusses my mode of definition. In that discussion, I decided that the central requirement of the horror film is that it horrifies the viewer.

When Soraya M. was finished, I faced a conflict of whether to include it as a horror film on my list. On the one hand, the film was certainly horrifying. It tells the true story of a woman vicitimized by a conspiracy to abuse Islamic law in 1986 Iran. Part of me felt that categorizing the film as horror cheapened the real-life tragedy behind it. This aroused a concern that I may be harboring a prejudice that horror is inherently cheap, which compromises the integrity of this blog.

It appears that the classification of this film will be the ground upon which I must again discover and defend my disposition towards this genre.

The Story
The Stoning of Soraya M. has a lot in common with The Stepford Wives (1975). Stepford centers on two women banded together to modernize their position in their male-dominated community. These women uncover a plot by the men in the community to murder their wives and replace them with animatronic slaves.
Soraya and her aunt are a similar pairing working towards a similar goal. The aunt uses her good standing with the men of the community to protect Soraya, finding her a job looking after the home of a widower. The aunt uncovers a similar murder/replacement plot, here with the men spreading a rumor of adultery, so that Soraya can be executed under Sharia law, leaving her husband free to marry a young girl.

It is somewhat uncomfortable to say that The Stoning of Soraya M. and The Stepford Wives have similar "plots." It seems offensive to the memory of the real Soraya and other victims of oppression. Still, in a vacuum, both films tell similar stories.

Why Now?
One standard question that pops up when reviewing films is "Why now?" When the source material is not contemporary, it helps to ask what is so relevant about the story to warrant attention today. What anxiety or sense of injustice does this film appeal to?
Just to deal with cynicism quickly, it should be noted that Sahebjam, the novel's author, died in March 2008. This film of his most famous work was produced in 2008 and released in March of 2009. Barring a great coincidence, the filmmakers could have used Sahebjam's temporary resurgence into the public consciousness as free publicity, with his passing as an impetus to produce this film quickly. Less cynically, one could view the film as a tribute to the life of the author, though I'm not convinced the industry often works that way.

Considering the actual stoning as a civil rights issue, the film is not necessarily a call to outrage over the death of this individual. When the film was realeased, Soraya Manutchehri had been dead for 23 years, and Sahebjam's novel had broken the story 19 years prior. Rather, the film seems to be part of the West's attack on Islamic culture.

It is not my place to weigh in on the civil rights of women under Islam, but the foremost criticism in recent years has been against the burqa, as a symbol of the oppression of women. But to me, it seems that outrage over the burqa is just another path to attack Islam itself.
The film concerns religious law, and how it can be abused to horrible effect. But the film doesn't just criticize the law and the men who twist it. It targets Islam as the culprit, and portrays the faithful in a very negative light, not unlike cultists of the horror canon (compare the mob's cries of "God is great!" to the "Hail Satan!" of Rosemary's Baby). In fact, by the end of the film, the women are almost secular characters. Soraya never invokes God in the scenes leading to her death. Instead, she appeals to her aunt to keep her memory alive, which is the closest thing to a secular afterlife. Soraya's apparent lack of faith seems purposeful. Having her invoke God before her execution would have been the classic opportunity to differentiate moderate Islam from fundamentalism, but instead, the film has nothing good to say about the faith at all.
Furthermore, I am made suspicious by the cover of the film, which proclaims "From the producers of The Passion of the Christ. I suspect that the audience targeted by this credential is an audience that is looking to have their fears of Islam reinforced.

Figures of Myth
To counter my worry that it is disrespectful to address a factual story like a fiction, I look to other films that should raise the same quandry. There are many dramatic films that rely upon factual misfortunes, but in those films, the characters are mythologized. It could be argued that the way a historical person is mythologized into a character is essential to human culture. They become the malleable elements of oral history. In the same way that George Washington was remade into a paragon of honesty, or how Ed Gein has been repurposed into many a glorified campfire story, Soraya Manutchehri has been transformed from a victim to a martyr, and, if my analysis is credible, perhaps into a weapon against her own faith.
I conclude then that the burden of classification in these films falls to the filmmaker, and where I may recognize an intent to horrify, I am justified.

A New Tripartite Definition of Horror
There are three senses of horrified. The most common form is the experience form, like riding a rollercoster, or a jump-scene in a scary movie that tricks you for a moment into believing that your are in actual danger. The second form is experience-emotional, which uses the experience of the film to draw you in, where that emotional investment brings you in touch with some greater anxiety (for example, the audience's committment to Alex is essential to the realization of the dystopic horror of A Clockwork Orange. The third sense of horrified, simple emotional horror, does not apply to the horror film. This is witnessing the horrific without the distance of the movie screen. News footage or a snuff film could never qualify for the genre.
The Stoning of Soraya M., because it is a dramatization, cannot be the authentic, third sense of horror. Regardless of how accurate it may be, it will always be a movie, an image crafted to evoke an effect. Because I was horrified, I recognize it as a horror film. When I sat down to compose this, I intended to explain why the film was not horror. But I've convinced myself otherwise, and have added it to the list at #289.

1. The execution sequence is truly horrific, more on par with The Passion of the Christ than with the typical execution scene in other dramas, which always seem to keep their distance and minimize the graphic depictions of suffering. In contrast, Soraya M. horrifies by drawing out the sequence, embellishing the throwing of each stone, and even employing a first-person perspective. This film is about the horror of this scene, unlike the memorable and affecting hangings of Capote which are nonetheless incidental to the greater story.

2. The titling of this film follows a trend noted in John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1970s. Many '70s horror titles were formulated as "The (some happening) of (proper noun), with a distinct rhythm to the phrase. This began with the like of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and The Possession of Joel Delaney, and can be found more recently in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, and The Possession of David O'Reilly.
Not that it was necessarily intentional, but The Stoning of Soraya M. follows the pattern.