Arriving right on your doorstep, here’s more news of the world, with yesteryear’s ink still wet on the page! See if you can match these headlines to the movies they appeared in.
*. One of the more depressing parts about running this blog is going back to movies that I first (and perhaps last) saw some twenty-five or thirty years ago and realizing they’re not as good as I remember them being. In some cases it’s just that the times have changed, in others I have. But still.
*. Pet Sematary is a bit different. I actually didn’t like it much at the time, mainly because I was really upset at the way they presented the victim of spinal meningitis as a monster. Today I have a more relaxed view on this. Stephen King has never shied away from grounding his horror in the things that scared us as kids and then making them real. So people with disabilities, or even the elderly, are presented as monsters in his work. Beloved family pets turn against you and there really is something hiding under the bed. Fair enough. I don’t think horror, any more than comedy, should hold anything sacred.
*. There are good things in Pet Sematary. The script (also by King) translates the novel well and serves up what should have been several wonderful sequences. I remember laughing with friends for years after over some of the lines. “The ground is sour.” “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” “Sometimes dead is better.” We laughed, but we remembered them because they’re great lines. Fred Gwynne is a delight as the old-timer Jud and Miko Hughes is outstanding as Gage, looking a bit like a real-life Chucky doll when he comes back from the dead (a resemblance noted by director Mary Lambert on her DVD commentary).
*. But while I still love the novel (a reimagining of the W. W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw” that was all the better for being one of King’s bleakest efforts), the movie now seems like a let down. It looks like most of the King movies from the 1980s, which is to say like a cheap movie-of-the-week put together by a director who didn’t really understand suspense or horror. That blue light that comes beaming out from the beyond. That soft focus used for the flashbacks. Ugh.
*. Apparently George Romero was originally slated to direct but he had to pull out. Lambert does keep things moving along with a story that is a really slow burn but I’m not sure she was the right choice to fill in. King’s core anxiety over the breakdown of the family isn’t developed much, jump scares courtesy of Church the cat are a lame and overused cliché, and the “good angel” character of Pascow (who seems modeled on Jack in An American Werewolf in London) lightens the mood too much. This should be a darker story.
*. The other big problem is Dale Midkiff, who just doesn’t seem to have the chops to pull off such a demanding role: the man falling to pieces before our eyes and becoming progressively insane. We really need to feel for Louis in this movie, to buy into his despair, and Midkiff plays him too much as a blank. His howls of anguish over the death of Gage — another cliché that is repeated — aren’t enough. In fact, given how silly they seem now, like Kirk screaming out for Khan, they are counterproductive.
*. So like I say, Pet Sematary is a mixed memory for me. The fact is, I do remember it. It’s a great story and is filled with passages that play better in my memory than they do seeing them again. For example, in the final section, which the movie is all a build-up to, we have Gage in his sinister old-tyme get-up, or grinning down at us from the attic. But such moments are all undercut. The next thing we know Gage has turned into a doll that’s been thrown at Louis, leading to another laughable moment.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake. With the success of the remake of It — another of King’s better books that was a respectable TV movie around the same time as Pet Sematary came out — it may happen. King may become one of those authors whose work endures by being constantly updated and reinterpreted for the tastes and concerns of following generations. That’s better than a long chain of sequels anyway.
*. One of the maddening things about the achievement of Orson Welles — and I think it’s much the same with any great artist — is that you have to compare everything that came after him with what he did. So when you watch this adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial the first thing you’re likely going to think of isn’t Kafka but Welles’s 1962 film.
*. Welles’s The Trial was a freewheeling interpretation, full of visual exuberance and taking some real liberties with the text. This didn’t bother Welles a bit. He felt that books and movies were totally different media and that every film adaptation was by necessity an original creation. A director wasn’t just permitted but obliged to do something different.
*. I think director David Jones felt differently. This is a very respectful and literal adaptation of Kafka, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Pinter’s drama is often informed by the Kafkaesque, and in writing the screenplay I don’t think he was interested in taking things in any new directions. In general I’d just observe that it’s even darker. There’s little sign of humour and the people we meet seem angrier and more dangerous. If Pinter’s theatre was one of comic menace the emphasis here is mostly on the menace.
*. As far as the look of the film goes, it’s far less stylized and experimental than in Welles. The setting is Prague, and the costumes and conveyances suggest that every attempt was made to get not just the location but the date right. Instead of a timeless setting we feel like we’re in a period drama. Does that confine Kafka? I want to say yes, but then wonder if I’d say the same about a modern-dress staging of Shakespeare.
*. Because it’s such a faithful adaptation, all of the problems with the novel remain. Primarily what I’m referring to here is the episodic nature of the story, which strings together a bunch of only slightly related incidents and encounters in a random order (in fact, we don’t even know what order Kafka intended the chapters to be put in). Welles was able to knit the different episodes together remarkably well, but little effort is made to do the same here. The separate scenes in Huld’s house (a sadly underutilized Jason Robards), the painter’s garret, and the church (where the parable of the law is recited by Anthony Hopkins) all seem unconnected and disposable.
*. I think Kyle MacLachlan might have been good if he’d been let loose, but here he seems too constrained. I never had the sense of his Joseph K. having a distinct personality, like Anthony Perkins’s climbing neurotic. And this K.’s relationships with women, so essential to the book and to Welles’s version, are left completely mystifying.
*. I could go on making comments like this but I think you get the picture. This is a well-handled production, faithful to a fault to the novel, but it’s not a work of genius. One might recommend it to students too lazy to read the book but I think film lovers will want to stick with Welles.
*. Franz Kafka is usually held, I think fairly, as being one of the great mythographers and prophets of the twentieth century. His work is also characterized most often as having the quality of a nightmare vision of bureaucratic hell. This too strikes me as fair.
*. I don’t mean to be perverse then when I say that I also find his novels strangely comforting. There’s something not modern but old-fashioned in his vision of a world dominated by creaky and opaque hierachies, with influence channeled through the mysterious influence of solicitous women. Of course no one would want to actually be Joseph K., but the lawyer Huld (named Hastler here) seems to lead quite the life, lying in bed all day while being tended to by Romy Schneider. It’s not necessarily a bad world, at least if you can find your place in it.
*. I think something of this ambiguity can be seen in the decor and setting of this version of The Trial. One expects to see the curtains rise on an envrionment not unlike the post-WW2 streets of Vienna in The Third Man but we instead find ourselves in a thoroughly modern apartment block, and then a giant open-concept office space filled with clacking typewriters that makes one think Terry Gilliam must have been taking notes for Brazil.
*. Later, however, we will step back into the past, with many of the interiors being shot in the vast and cluttered spaces of the Gare d’Orsay. These locations do have a bombed-out and antique feel to them and they help give the sense of a world so old it’s falling apart.
*. The Trial is a work that has always invited a wide variety of interpretations. Combined with Welles’s belief that film should never be an illustration of a book but an original creation, and that a director has not only the right but the obligation to turn a literary source into something different from what the author intended, we should expect something a bit different from a literal adaptation. And this is what we get.
*. What are the essential elements of Welles’s version? I’ll just mention a few of what I think are the most characteristic.
*. In the first place, it’s a comic Trial. Welles told Anthony Perkins that black comedy was what he was going for and I think that’s clearly what he achieved in several places. Just look at Welles’s own first appearance with a wet towel over his face. Nor is this a particularly revisionist reading of the text, since apparently Kafka himself thought The Trial to be very funny and would laugh out loud while reading the manuscript to friends (it was only published after his death).
*. Does the lightheartedness go too far? I think it does in one instance. What I’m referring to is the ending, which has a laughing and defiant K. blown up with a stick of dynamite instead of being ritually sacrificed with a knife.
*. Now Welles had a serious reason for doing this. He thought it a response to the Holocaust, in that he didn’t want to show K. as masochistically submitting to his death. He thought that that sort of thing “stank of the old Prague ghetto” and wanted instead to show K. making a final defiant gesture, even if it was fruitless. That’s fair enough, but the explosion at the end here — which some have seen as invoking the spectre of nuclear war, though this was not intended — strikes me as being light and cartoonish. One almost expects to see Perkins crawling out of the hole with his face blackened and clothes in tatters, still laughing away.
*. The second interpretive angle taken is to present K. as a social climber. Welles saw him a man on the rise, a pusher trying to make it in the bureaucracy rather than someone fighting against it. Explaining this point of view to some film students, he said K. was not in conflict with society but society was in conflict with him.
*. I like this point of view and think it’s successfully put forward. (I also think it’s something there in the text as well.) One of the interesting ways Welles shows it is by making elevation into a visual motif. Authority is always presented as being on high. K.’s “office” in the typewriter hall, for example, is just a raised platform at one end. The judge in the courtroom/hall is also on an elevated stage, and K. is shown having difficulty climbing onto it. The preacher’s pulpit forces K. to look up at him and even Hastler’s bed is on a kind of dais. These are the kinds of commanding heights that K. wants to climb. Instead, he descends into an open pit.
*. Finally, there is a sexual angle given to the proceedings. Some of this is in Kafka, like the way K. attempts to recruit women to help him in his cause. But there’s also the fact that Welles knew Perkins was homosexual and used that as a way of suggesting another layer of anxiety — the fear of exposure.
*. As a result, the film becomes what David Thomson calls “a homosexual horror story,” with a gay man afraid of being exposed finding himself at the mercy of a gang of “ravenous women.” Well, when you’re paranoid then the whole world is a threat, and I think all of this works really well. And I never really understood Joseph K.’s relation to women in the novel anyway.
*. A big scene (almost nine minutes) involving the computer was cut at the last minute. This would, according to Welles, have said something about man’s slavish relationship to something that was only a tool, a rather prophetic statement in 1962. This is another interpolation that was, of course, not in the book but which still would have fit well with it.
*. I have to say I’m not that happy with Welles’s own appearance as Hastler. Especially his strangely boyish haircut. The lawyer in the novel is an old man and unwell. Here he just seems odd. Welles had originally wanted Jackie Gleason (more comedy) but Gleason turned him down. I think with Welles in the part it’s definitely something different, but I still think it’s a case of miscasting.
*. All the usual comments one has to make about the bravura aspects of a Welles film — the use of space, the lighting, the editing, the long takes — apply here. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end. And the script is one of the most original things about it, full of well-timed diversions and clever bits of Pinteresque dark humour. I don’t think it adds up to one of Welles’s greatest films, but that’s a tough hill to climb. It’s still a truly great movie, and a landmark work of art in its own right.
This week’s quiz is a showcase for an older generation of keyboard warriors. Grab a seat on the bench and see how well you can accompany the following piano (and organ) players.
*. File Under Miscellaneous is a short film with a sharp political message. But I wonder if there’s something even more going on under its skin.
*. The moral of the story is hard to miss. A young Mi’gMaq man enters a seedy-looking plastic surgery chop-shop in an attempt to get a new appearance that will allow him to pass for white. He gets what seems to be a total-body skin transplant and, in the most gruesome scene, has his tongue pulled out and replaced.
*. The removal of his tongue symbolizes the loss of his language. At the beginning the narrator speaks in a Native language, but after the operation the voiceover is in English. In his new language the man will now tell racist jokes to his white friends, and is all set to join them in their mission to “burn the land with our whiteness.”
*. All of this is pretty basic, and is effectively realized. However, what I find curious is this matter of language or, as the politically-sensitive style it, the appropriation of voice.
*. In the first place, the film is said to be adapted from the Pablo Neruda poem “Walking Around.” I wasn’t sure what to make of this, since Neruda’s poem is more about setting a grotesque mood of weltschmerz than it is about advancing a specific political agenda. What did writer-director Jeff Barnaby see in it, aside from the image of intestines spilling out of buildings?
*. I think Barnaby’s bigger debt is to Ridley Scott. His vision of the future is that of the now traditional dark, dystopic city of Blade Runner, a place where the sun never shines. And the giant screen with the face of the Great Leader is also derived from Scott, blending Blade Runner‘s video billboards with his famous 1984 Apple commercial.
*. What does it mean that a film about the loss of one’s native language is told in borrowed words and a borrowed visual style? Does that reinforce the point, or undermine it?
*. To add another element to the mix, the narrator specifically references becoming Aryan, and the Great Leader speaks not in English but in German. This is an obvious cultural reference to Nazis and racial cleansing, but doesn’t it undercut the idea of a monolithic whiteness? Shouldn’t the narrator have gotten a German tongue put in?
*. Similarly, while being a member of the dominant group obviously has its perks, the blandness of a monoculture is underwritten by the bar codes tattooed on the heads of its citizens. But doesn’t that make the in-group slaves, or something even worse?
*. I don’t think these questions can be answered with an easy yes or no. File Under Miscellaneous is a film that makes a strong statement, but not a simple one.
*. The origins of the American slasher film can be traced back to the Italian giallo, a genre of psychological thriller usually featuring a mysterious murderer wearing black gloves whose identity was only revealed at the end. What happened when the giallo came to America is that it got a big injection of gore along with much simplified plots (meaning you rarely had to pick the killer out from a line-up of suspects).
*. Pieces is a giallo where the influence goes the other way, re-crossing the Atlantic with a chainsaw and buckets of blood. But while the American influence is unmistakeable, this is still a giallo. The familiar ingredients (some of which were picked up for the first wave of slasher flicks) include the POV killer shots (black gloves, heavy breathing), the giant knife that reflects blinding flashes of light from some indeterminate source, and the multiple suspects, each of whom seems guilty as hell.
*. But then there are the gratuitous boobs (not so much a giallo fixture) and of course the extreme gore. A chainsaw, for example, seems an unlikely weapon just because it’s so noisy and unwieldy. I had to laugh at how the killer keeps it hidden behind his back as he enters the elevator. But it does do a good job of splattering lots of blood around, and (at least in movies) it can carve people up in a hurry.
*. The hybrid nature of Pieces is underscored by the setting. It’s obviously a European production, what with the dubbing and nonsensical dialogue, and was indeed shot in Spain, but apparently we’re in the Boston area. But it’s a very peculiar New England college, where girls go skinny-dipping at noon in the campus pool and there’s a kung-fu professor on staff.
*. The script is silly, and apparently many of the lines were improvised to pad the running time. So we get one girl telling us that “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time,” and another telling her boyfriend that he can gag her to keep her quiet during sex (an unfortunate word choice given today’s porn habits). Perhaps the film’s highlight (out of many candidates), however, is Lynda Day George howling out “Bastard! Bastaaaaaaaaard!” She sure seems upset!
*. So Pieces is a funny film, and not always intentionally so. It does, however, show some signs of real cleverness. The murder on the waterbed, for example, is an inspired bit of work. And the gore effects, a specialty of exploitation director Juan Piquer Simón, are actually quite well done, considering the period and the budget.
*. Ultimately, however, the whole thing collapses into hilarious nonsense. I mentioned how the college is a bizarre place, but the film itself approaches the surreal. I don’t just mean the kung-fu professor (Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Le, in a baffling cameo), or the bonkers ending. But instead think of how strange it is that the first girl is killed out in the middle of a campus lawn by a man with a chainsaw, and no one notices. Or look at how long the one girl has to walk from the dance class to the women’s washroom. What’s up with that?
*. You’ll have guessed from all this that I really enjoyed Pieces. The mystery story could have been better done (the red herrings are too obvious and the final reveal is disappointingly handled), but the rest of it is adorably zany. It’s gone on to gain a cult status among horror fans, and deservedly so. This is trash you can love.
*. OK, every now and then we all have to confess to guilty pleasures. Standing back from it, I don’t think The Brothers Grimsby is a good movie. I don’t think I’d want to see it again. Director Louis Leterrier, known for action films, doesn’t have much of a feel for comedy. It bombed at the box office, after having its release pushed back several times. Heaven knows critics hated it. But I was really in the mood for its style of comedy when I saw it and I laughed so hard I cried a bit.
*. I don’t think it could be any cruder. Most of the humour revolves around sex and anal fixations. And I’m not sure where you can go from the elephant gag.
*. Sticking with the elephant business, it was just a few minutes before that got started that I made a note to myself about how similar this all seemed to one of the Ace Ventura movies. Then come the elephants, which are obviously a bit of one-upmanship on Ace’s time inside the rhino.
*. Is there anything else that needs to be said? Not much. I find it interesting how similar a movie it is to Kingsman: The Secret Service, with its very laddish lad impressed into farcical cloak-and-dagger stuff, culminating in an extravagant end-of-the-world fireworks show. British comedy has always had a thing for playing off class differences.
*. Is it a political film though? You’d think so, but I can’t get much of a message out of it. Blood is thicker than water. The scum of the earth, or “chavs,” really are the scum of the earth, but they aren’t totally without redeeming qualities, at least in some situations. One can’t help feeling, however, that the makers of this film really despise them.
*. Analysis is pointless. It’s a collection of stupid jokes clapped on to a ramshackle premise. Some of the stupid jokes are hilarious, if you’re in the mood for stupid jokes. Sometimes they’re just stupid. But, staying in full confessional mode, I have to say that overall I enjoyed it.
I remember a social psychology study from a few years back about how people who are in a phone booth tend to take longer if they know someone else is waiting for them to finish their call. For some reason that always made me think of the Terminator’s impatience to get to a phone book. I think if he’d been part of the experiment he might have skewed the results. In any event, here are some more movie phone booths for you to look at. See if you can make the connection.
See also: Quiz the third: Phone booth (Part one).
*. I recently found myself watching Becket at the same time as I was preparing notes on Cleopatra, a movie that had been released just the year before. Of course both movies are historical costume dramas made in the grand style, both won Academy Awards (Becket was nominated for twelve!), and both star Richard Burton, but I found another parallel more significant.
*. Despite being widely celebrated (Cleopatra was, among its other benchmarks, surely the most famous, or notorious, movie of its time), both films are almost entirely forgotten today.
*. Time was when even popular history books dealing with either figure would have to address their screen versions, pointing out signifcant inaccuracies or liberties taken with the historical record. Today that’s no longer necessary, as nobody comes to a book about Cleopatra or Thomas Beckett with preconceptions based on their memories of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton needing to be overcome. Indeed, the films aren’t even mentioned in some recent studies.
*. Well, this is one case where I can’t fault the fickle taste of the public. I found Becket to be nearly unwatchable this time out, which was the first time I’d seen it in twenty years. It’s so heavy-handed, so ponderous, so pious, that it makes you feel like you’re visiting a different planet. Did we really think this was great filmmaking sixty years ago?
*. The script gives us lines like “Where honour should be, in me there is only a void.” Such lines are then underscored by musical notations that put the words into bold relief. And they are delivered by Burton in a manner that suggests either (or both) extreme boredom and/or someone already turning to stone. How many movies did Richard Burton ever smile in anyway?
*. I’ve heard that Burton actually wanted to play King Henry. I think that would have worked. He has that air of humourless cruelty I think the real Henry, and the part here, call for. O’Toole as Becket, however, would have been a dicier proposition.
*. Peter O’Toole does try his best to liven things up, but he’s stuck in a ridiculous part that barely makes any sense. Did you not know that he loves Thomas? Then he’ll tell you. Again. And again. But in what sense does he love him? How can such a long, overwritten film dealing with only two characters fail to give us any real sense of who they are, or of their motivations? They’re just voices and costumes.
*. About the only amusing thing is all the homoerotic stuff. I can’t call this a subtext because there’s nothing secondary or hidden about it. It’s so pervasive and explicit it starts to be funny after a while. I think there are even three scenes where Burton and O’Toole are lying or sitting in bed together (a couple of times after throwing a woman out).
*. It’s hard to overstate how blatant this is. The two men are more than just boon companions. As noted, Henry is constantly crying about his love for Thomas. His mother upbraids him for his “unhealthy and unnatural” attachment and his wife complains of his neglecting her.
*. On the DVD commentary O’Toole addresses this by saying that “to put it in terms of homosexual and heterosexual is to miss the point. It was love.” What he means is nothing platonic, but more a laddish, locker-room kind of thing. But then O’Toole says how, in a locker-room, “blokes often give each other a rub, if you follow me.” Then he breaks into laughter. So yes, we get it. We can’t miss it.
*. I wonder where this comes from. I don’t think Jean Anouilh, who wrote the play the film was based on, or screenwriter Edward Anhalt were gay. Homosexuality was still a crime in England at the time, and yet it’s not like they were hiding anything here. Is there a political point being made? I’m not sure what it could be.
*. But, as I say, this is the only thing that I found interesting in the film. A few years later O’Toole would return as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) which at least had a bitchy, soap-opera charm to it I still enjoy. Come to think of it,even Cleopatra is more fun. Becket is only a turgid and fusty historical drama of the kind I’m relieved they don’t make any more.