Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Descent

The Descent (2006) Neil Marshall

I remember this one getting some pretty good buzz around the time it was released, and people seem to mostly feel pretty positively about this one I think, so I decided to give it a shot, it being the right time for a scary movie and all.

It was fine, I liked it.  As my pal Tony would put it, on a binary scale, it's a 1.  The plot is a pretty standard monster movie kind of thing.  A bunch of friends go out to explore a cave because that's what's fun for them for some reason, and they find themselves in perilous and terrifying situations, not the least of which is being stalked by monstrous bat-people.

The all-female cast is notable for being an all-female cast because when does that ever happen in anything?  But as far as the plot of the movie goes, they don't really make a thing of it, which is fine, but they also seem to be fairly interchangeable, with the exception of our main girl Sarah and our counterpoint Juno, who are lucky enough to be imbued with archetypal personalities of reluctant tragic hero and hubris fueled villain, respectively.

The Descent is straightforward and lean, offering the bare minimum of character revelation/development, in service of pushing ahead to create a platform for Neil Marshall's keen eye for violence and a very specific kind of terror.  The movie does very interesting things with light and darkness and colors so the overall look of it is engaging, definitely a big achievement for something set almost entirely in a pitch-black cave, but the scares are more haunted house-esque, preferring a quick jolt to make you scream and push you forward to the next set piece.  Rarely ever do we get that pervasive sense of dread that my favorite horror movies bring to the table.

I think that part of the reason for that is in the nature of the setting.  Something like Halloween is scary largely because it could happen to you in your own neighborhood.  Halloween is the kind of movie that you watch and absorb because of your familiarity with the setting and with the people, and because of that, when the movie's finished, you're scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  You're scared about simply being exactly where you are.  The Descent has some genuine scares, but it is hampered by the fact that it is set in some remote, undiscovered cave.  None of this would have happened if they'd just stayed home.  I think that horror movies that end up being the scariest to me are the ones where the threat would have come to you no matter where you are.  The Descent's dependence on its exotic setting, while creating a very specific atmosphere of fear, also works against it in that the fear is limited to that setting.  Once the movie is over the terror is over for us because honestly, how many of you are going spelunking without a map?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Three Charles Burns Books

X'ed Out
The Hive
Sugar Skull
by Charles Burns

Charles Burns has finally wrapped up a trilogy of books that he began in 2010 with X'ed Out.  I'm not sure if anyone's settled on a name to call this story, so for now I'll just call it The Doug Trilogy.

The story follows Doug, a photographer/poet/performance artist, and his relationships with the women in his life, particularly Sarah, another photographer with a dark past.  So much of The Doug Trilogy is contingent on a past that is kept hidden.  Doug has his own secret that he keeps from us, the readers, and to a certain extent, himself.  X'ed Out introduces Doug as someone who is unable or unwilling to remember some kind of violent trauma, choosing instead to spiral down the hole of self-medicating on pain killers.  Similarly, Sarah has her own secrets, and Doug is happy to ignore them, at least at the beginning of their relationship.

A large component of these stories is the strange dream world that Doug finds himself in for a good portion of the series.  On the surface it's a strange, alien world with its own rules, dominated by a kind of surreal bureaucracy run by rude lizard men, but going a bit deeper, we begin to understand that it is further a continuing dream or some kind of sustained hallucination that gives us some clues about those secrets that Doug and Sarah keep from us and each other.

When I first read X'ed Out I remember wondering about that dream world and its connection to the main story, if it was a dream at all or if it was something else entirely.  One explanation points out that the cover to a Nitnit comic that Doug reads in The Hive is the exact last page from X'ed Out, suggesting that the dream world portions are actually scenes from the Nitnit comics.  After reading the whole thing, I'm of the opinion that it is a dream, a mysterious allegory to Doug's checkered past, but even if these were pages from a comic that Doug reads, I think the overall effect of explaining our characters' murky pasts through some sort of allegory or parallelism is the same.  If it seems like there are more concrete connections to the waking world of Burns's story, it's reflective of our dreams having the tendency to elicit a seemingly real connection to what we see and experience in our waking lives, like when you see something while walking home and you swear you'd seen it before, maybe in a dream.

The art style that Burns uses for the dream portions evoke HergĂ©'s Tintin books, and in some ways the dream world story takes on the spirit of a Tintin adventure.  The cover and book design of the three books certainly mimic that of a Tintin book, but aside from the art style and the loose theme of getting caught up in a strange new land, I'm not sure there's much else to connect it to Tintin.  However, Burns playing with HergĂ©'s style has less to do with the content of Tintin and more to do with the effect it has on the reader.  I think I remember a section of Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud is using Tintin as an example of simplifying linework as a way to maximize the readers' identification with a character, and juxtaposing that with more complicated or specific looking backgrounds as a way of creating a feeling of displacement/alienation (it's been years since I've read Understanding Comics, so forgive me if I'm conflating or misremembering), and I think that principle applies itself well to the Doug Trilogy.

The dream world and the waking world are key in understanding this.  The dream world is one of total alienation for Doug.  Strange creatures with even stranger customs dominate the otherworldly landscape, but through it all, Doug is able to retain some sense of self in as much as he realizes he is out of place, and that he would do well to comply with the strangeness around him in order to survive.  The Nitnit (this comic's Tintin analog) mask he wears for his performances serves as a visual tie, connecting the waking world to the dream world both for the readers and for Doug.  Perhaps we could take this to mean that Doug self-identifies as the comic book character Nitnit, and he thusly sees himself as Nitnit in his dreams.  It's feasible that Doug imagines his true self as the "Johnny 23" persona he's created for himself onstage, considering the fact that in The Hive, the dreamworld Doug is assigned the number 23 when he wears the lizard men's uniform at work.  There are other links too, like the Nitnit comics that Doug reads, and the romance comics he buys for Sarah.  Again, these may seem like fairly superficial connections, but they are important signifiers that are used to connect Doug's dream to Doug's life, demonstrating to the readers that these dreams have a connection to the details of the story that Doug has been concealing.

I appreciated the dream world sections for their strangeness and for the scope of vision that Burns applies to this fantastic and uncanny world, but after I put down Sugar Skull I felt that those scenes ended up undercutting the emotional resonance of certain powerful reveals, particularly the scene where Sarah's dream-world analog explains the plot of her romance comics (and by extension, Sarah's dark history) to dream-Doug.  That bit felt like exposition rather than a revealing hint about Sarah's character, and I suppose it is understandable since she is literally giving comic book exposition, but I have to think that revealing that information about Sarah in the real world would have had more impact.  Revealing these key character moments in the midst of the dream setting lends them an ambiguity that mitigates the emotional weight of a new insight about a character.

However, I think I can understand some of Burns's intent in revealing things in this way.  That ambiguity that results from some critical character backstory being revealed in a dream allows Burns to place a sense of doubt or distrust in a reader because what we see in dreams is innately untrustworthy.  Then when we see what we saw in the dream world confirmed in the real world, the effect works in two ways: 1) We get confirmation that the dreams are relating something rooted in reality, thereby making them important to us as readers 2) We develop a sense of dread when we see how things in the dream world unfold for Doug.  In that regard Burns very effectively shows us the unsettling power of a prophetic dream.  I still feel they'd have more impact if these moments were revealed in the waking world, but perhaps that speaks more to  my own inclination toward Doug and Sarah's mysterious romance than it does to a mistake in Burns's method.  The dream world adds a layer of obfuscation to character and story development which seems to be in line with Burns's storytelling preferences (as far as I can gather from my memory of his previous work).

For all its exciting dream logic and allegory, the Doug Trilogy is still a story about a relationship falling apart because of Doug's selfishness and inability to mature emotionally.  Doug's relationship with Sarah is a kind of "the one that got away" story, but throughout the course of the trilogy it becomes clear that Sarah "got away" because she had to.  Doug is a nice guy but he is unable to give Sarah the emotional support she needs because he himself is unwilling to mature.  We are able to see this in the relationships he has before and after Sarah.  Doug immediately runs out on Colleen, the first girl we see him with, in order to take in the art scene at a warehouse party and perform for an audience that couldn't care less about him.  Colleen only goes to the party to be supportive of Doug, and Doug repays this kindness by ignoring her for most of the party except when he wants her input about how he looks before he gets on stage to perform.  When Doug is with Sarah, it's fun and perfect until Doug finds out about Sarah's past and when Sarah actually needs Doug to be with her during a pregnancy scare.  Doug loves the idea of the perfect girl in Sarah, but is unable to handle a reality with a real woman with a troubling past.  He is unable to deal with the consequences that would result from being unselfish and emotionally available to her.  Tina, the woman he is involved with after he and Sarah break up, is a rebound relationship, but when we see her interacting with Doug, it is again in the role of unreciprocated support.  Tina takes care of Doug when he drinks too much, and to her credit, she stands up for herself and tells Doug she's sick of hearing about his relationship with Sarah and his father's death (more on his father in a bit).  Finally, Sally, the woman that Doug seems to end up with, is again not so much an equal as she is someone who Doug is with because he's become accustomed to her doting on him.  By the time he ends up with Sally, Doug still hasn't made any meaningful changes, and he is still hung up on seeing Sarah again.  The way that Doug treats the women in his life show that what Doug wants is not really a partner, but rather an emotional receptacle to dump on when he's feeling low or needy.

The women aren't the only indication of Doug's stagnation.  Take Doug's photography.  He takes the same polaroid self portraits, making the same dumb face in most of them.  When he finally does something different (taking a picture of Sarah posing with an animal heart) it's out of spite for Sarah's past with her abusive ex-boyfriend Larry.  He never progresses with his art.  He eventually ends up working at a record store and dabbling in photography when he has time, but he never really made a commitment to making any serious progress.  For Doug, his photos are not a way to relate his view of the world so much as they are a way to remember himself at a certain time.  Perhaps that's why he revels in his onstage Johnny 23 persona: The masking is ageless and unchanging, his t-shirt is iconic.  When he finally tries to reconnect with Sarah at the end of Sugar Skull, Doug wears his Johnny 23 shirt in the hopes of sparking a visual reminder of what they once had, but it's doomed to fail because it's not a reminder of their relationship, but rather it's a demonstration that Doug is still the same person he was all those years ago.

Doug's father is also reflective of an inability to change as well as being a warning about getting hung up on the past.  We see Doug's father in the real world, and more unsettlingly, in the dream world.  When we first see him, Doug's father is not introduced as such.  We know nothing of him except that he is dressed in the same robe and pajamas that the dream version of Doug wears, visually connecting him to Doug. This visual connection without any concrete knowledge about his identity suggests initially that this person we see is perhaps some kind of future version of Doug.  It is understandably uncanny and unsettling for the dream Doug to see this, but the reality of it is fairly close.  Even Sarah, when looking at old pictures of Doug's father when he was Doug's age, remarks that Doug and his father look very similar.  This goes further than a mere visual connection, however.  After Doug's father's death, Doug and Sarah find in his robe an old picture of a young woman who is not Doug's mother (whom we only hear about, but never see).  We don't know who this woman is, but in a flashback we do see Doug catching his father staring wistfully at his secret photograph, so we could infer that this woman meant something to him, so perhaps an old girlfriend.  Like Doug, Doug's father is also hung up on a woman from his past.  We also get a sense that Doug's father is a sign of Doug's future to come when we hear Doug talk about how he remembers his father's life and how a once vibrant man that can be seen in old photographs eventually became uninterested in anything else besides TV and cigarettes.  The visual connection between the two, given the significance of visual connections between the dream world and the real world, would suggest that Doug's father is a warning of what's to come for Doug, and it becomes even more foreboding when we get to the final revelation in Sugar Skull of Sarah's son looking just like Doug.

The Doug Trilogy is a story about relationships and the dangers of never learning to move on.  The surrealistic connections between dreams and reality allow for a lot of further unpacking and varying interpretations, but I think at its heart all the nauseating and mysterious dream imagery relates to exactly what we see in the real world.  Burns is an immensely talented artist, using these three books as an opportunity to play with varying styles and to experiment with color effects.  His strong technique delivers a story that is an experience equal parts repulsive and rewarding.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Philip Kaufman

WARNING: the clip below is from the end of the movie, so don't watch it if you care about spoilers or whatever.  Also, this movie is almost forty years old and a remake of a sci-fi cultural touchstone so if you're worried about spoilers... come on, dude.

I'd never seen the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I never really felt like I needed to.  I got the gist.  Aliens, pod people, paranoia, etc.  This one had just recently popped up on Netflix and with a cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy, I figured I'd be into it.  And I was.  For parts of it, at least.

I think my main problem was in the pacing.  It starts out pretty brisk and tense.  Strange flowers appear all over San Francisco.  We meet Elizabeth and her basketball-obsessed dope of a husband.  We meet uptight health inspector Matthew.  We get the status quo and then we wake up the next morning and something about Elizabeth's husband is different.  He wears a suit, he's cleaning up after himself, he skips out on the basketball game to go to some kind of late night meeting.  And he's not the only one.  Other people in the city seem a bit off as well.  There's a pervasive air of discomfort that we feel in the first half hour or so of the movie, but that creepy momentum doesn't really carry into the rest of the movie.  
Instead what we get is a bumbling investigation by a group of non experts who keep deferring to Leonard Nimoy's character, an asshole self-help book writing psychiatrist who is never in any real position of authority.  Seriously, they keep coming to him with what they find, and he keeps listening to them and telling them they're hallucinating or whatever.  Even if he did believe them, what could he possibly do about any of this??

It's not all tedious stumbling around, though.  There are some very unsettling and strange moments that are scattered throughout the second act of the movie, and by the time we make it to the third act, the movie seems to have finally hit its stride, offering up the paranoid horror it had been building towards.

That's the thing about this movie, I think.  There are individual moments that are shocking and scary, but the true horror of this movie comes from the big picture concept.  There's this great bit where Matthew and Elizabeth are captured, and one of the pod people starts to explain about how they are refugees from a dead planet.  He is about to go deeper in his exposition, but he gets interrupted when the two decide to take this soliloquy as an opportunity to get the jump on their captors, strangling one of them and locking the other in a freezer before they rush off to their escape.  It's a great moment that works as a comment on the futility of ever speculating on where these creatures came from, what they want from us, etc.  At this point in the invasion the reasons are no longer important.  The only thing that matters is survival.

That idea of futility is the truly terrifying thing about this movie.  The risk and paranoia that comes from the fact that any of these people you see could be one of "them" is understandably scary and exciting, but I think the crux of the horror here comes from the fact that you can't change any of it; there's no winning this one.  None of our protagonists knows anything about these body snatching alien plants, they're just picking it up as they go, and each minute that goes by another human comes under their control.  They are massively outnumbered and all they can do is run, but to where?  They don't know how widespread this invasion is.  They don't know how long it's been going on.
There's this great scene near the end where Matthew and Elizabeth, both fighting off the effects of a sedative, have narrowly avoided being discovered and find themselves in a shipyard.  Matthew plans to stow them away on a boat so they can at least get out of San Francisco, maybe warn the human race.  He leaves Elizabeth to hide herself as he runs to some massive cargo ship to see if there's a way on, but he has to stop and turn back when he sees that the ship's cargo is just giant pallets full up with more of the alien plants responsible.  It's at that moment where we feel the weight of defeat along with Matthew.  Any attempt to survive truly is futile, and humanity is unquestionably doomed.  I like that kind of stuff.  I just wish they'd gotten to that bit sooner.