Archive for David Cronenberg

All Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2020 by dcairns

Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE (2016) and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017) could be lumped together as part of a stillborn European cinema movement — the all-action movie. Critics have often — inaccurately — complained that Hollywood action movies are just continuous violence uninterrupted by plot. They do strive to give that impression, but are more likely to be following the 80s Joel Silver/Simpson & Bruckheimer format of an action sequence every ten minutes, and the cause-and-effect narrative motivation is usually very strong. Part of the reason they often feel so simplistic in story terms is that they have a this-follows-that structure, like a treasure hunt, or a guys-on-a-mission thing, and use the three-act structure religiously.

So the idea of taking literally what critics complain about is kind of an interesting one. What would it feel like if everything was an action set-piece. In theory, very intense, but in theory also, you could still tells a complex story and have interesting characters — because as writer David Gerrold once attested, you CAN and SHOULD use action as a CONTINUATION of plot and character, not as a SUBSTITUTE.

Movies usually managed the PLOT part — I remember being struck by an elaborate chase/battle in the piece of crap AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which left the characters and situation back where they started, so that the whole thing could have been removed without affecting the story one jot. The feeling was unfamiliar, because even the lamest action movies don’t usually make this elementary blunder. Even if the action sequence consists of Character A trying some stunt to resolve their difficulties, and the stunt doesn’t work, and they end up stuck with the same difficulties, some form of story progress will have been made, even if it’s only the discover of “Well, THAT stunt didn’t work.”

David Cronenberg, asked whether his CRASH was not just a series of sex scenes with no story or character, said he didn’t see why story and character couldn’t be developed by a series of sex scenes. The same should certainly be true of violent scenes.

Where most action movies do go wrong is in character development. Everybody becomes an unstoppable killing machine once the conflict kicks off. There is no plausible reason why Benny, the barroom piano player in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, should turn out to be such a skilled gunman (“able to kill four men with three bullets,” as Alex Cox may have put it — I don’t recall the exact figures) other than that Peckinpah is indulging in self-parody. Making different characters differently effective at violence is an obvious tool that’s underused — generally the leading lady is the only one allowed to be frightened or weak, leading Schwartzenegger to proclaim that women are kind of a drag in action cinema. But check out how ALIENS manages to characterize, at least in comic-book terms, a whole bunch of different characters in what is effectively a single protracted dramatic/action situation. And most of them are military folks, and they’re STILL varied.

So, LET THE CORPSES TAN is the one we watched, part of my exploration of Jean-Patrick Manchette. So far I’ve read one of his novels (Fatale), one set of comic-book adaptations (by Jacques Tardi) and seen two movies, the other being Yves Boisset’s FOLLE A TUER. He’s a writer whose work can best be described as “propulsive” and he seems like a good match for this approach.

The film isn’t actually all shooty-gun stuff, but it manages to feel like a single runaway panic attack of mayhem, hallucinations and virtuoso set-pieces. It would be fair to say it never lets up. Fiona, feeling a bit sleepy, disengaged from the “plot” entirely and just let it flow over her — maybe enjoying it more as a result. I was impressed by the style, then let down by the ending. It might seem axiomatic that if your movie is all climax, when it finally stops it will feel anticlimactic, inconclusive, but I could imagine all sorts of solutions that would have made it more satisfactory, chief among them the classic Hollywood trick of setting up a puzzle piece, letting the audience get distracted into forgetting it, and then paying it off at the end when they’re not expecting it. That doesn’t happen here.

The filmmakers have colossal panache and there are techniques here which border on the unique (every filmmaker should see it), and the whole thing looks terrific. But it seems that even with a book to base it on, they’re not great at story. It’s hard to care about anything in this psychedelic charnel-house. It’s good to see Elina Lowensohn again, and her character’s indifference to the chaos around her is intriguing, but we wait in vain for her attitude to change — since change of attitude is a defining trait of characterisation in stories. (Hollywood, with its redemption narratives, insists of wholesale character reform, but I think the minimum of development we’re entitled to is a change of APPROACH by each character.)

The danger of a movie that’s continuous movement is that it could all become paradoxically static. LET THE CORPSES TAN slams into that obstacle at 100mph, and the fact that the impact doesn’t slow it down is part of the problem.

Autumnal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2019 by dcairns

These two title sequences are how you get into Autumn. Listen and watch and you will be resigned to it.

I have melancholic mixed feelings about James Horner’s music for SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES — it was imposed by DisneyCorp against director Jack Clayton’s wishes, after Georges Delerue’s original, beautiful score was rejected. I really like Horner’s derivative, evocative, hammy theme tune, though. But I’d love a restored director’s cut. They say Disney never throws anything away…

Michael Kamen’s opening theme for THE DEAD ZONE may be the best thing he did in his two-short career. I guess it’s the first of Cronenberg’s snazzy title sequences — he’s had them ever since, and then his films settle down to being visually quite flat, which works because usually there will be some startling imagery, and if the camera is just resting its chin in its hand in an apathetic way, that can be quite effective.

OK, you can have this one too:

From a clear blue sky

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2017 by dcairns

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Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.

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Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.

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Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”

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As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.

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Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).

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I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.

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I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.

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As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?