Monthly Archives: January 2022

Midnight Screenings: Shocker

With the new Scream out in theaters, I decided to double-up Midnight Screenings this week and pair my exploration of the meta-critical Gremlins 2 (anticipating the new Matrix) with Wes Craven’s Shocker, his most unheralded exploration of media logic, and in many ways a more interesting and fearless work than his original, genre-redefining Scream.

Shocker is, to be clear, quite a bad movie by any reasonable standard. But it feels so perfectly and obviously like the film that writer-director Wes Craven, a philosopher who became a porn director who became a horror film director despite not watching movies growing up, wanted and maybe needed to make to show those bastards cannibalizing his beloved Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in the late ‘80s, that I can’t help but find it a worthwhile experience. If Nightmare explored main-street U.S.A.’s dark underbelly as evocatively in the mid-’80s as any director not named David Lynch did, Shocker clearly wants to interrupt its strange candy-coated offspring, the paranormal slashers of the late ‘80s, less through critique than entropic explosion. Shocker is no more narratively or thematically coherent than any of those films, but it goes far out of its way to make a virtue of its chaotic and inexplicable narrative logic, equal parts dream theater and surrealist televisual channel-flipping, that it’s perversely difficult to turn away from. Recreating the addled meta-logic of changing the TV channel, half asleep at two in the morning, this is supernatural slasher cinema run amok all over your eyeballs, fluid cinema’s revenge on liquid television.

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Midnight Screenings: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

A month late here, but with the fourth Matrix film exploring its own existence as product made by Warner Bros., it seemed appropriate to do a midnight screening of the last sequel that attempted to kill the same master.

A key moment always sticks out to me in director Joe Dante’s maddened Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Working in the laboratory of their mega-corporation the Clamp Center, a trio of scientists headed by Christopher Lee (who else?) encounter the titular creatures drinking experimental liquids, products of gene splicing and other incalculable exercises in heterogeneity and cross-fertilization. Watching the creatures transform into unholy concoctions as a result of ingesting improbable fluids (a wonderful opportunity for special effects genius Rick Baker to run wild), Lee’s character laments their efforts to tamper in God’s domain by “splicing” various species together. In the middle of this speech, the film starts to burn. Not the set, not the characters in the film world, but the celluloid itself. In one of the most unexpected Bergman rips ever, the Gremlins take over the projectionist’s booth of the film we are watching, causing the linear progression of celluloid to stutter and stammer, to go a little mad. Reorienting popular cinema’s grammar, the Gremlins tinker and test, prod and provoke, splicing themselves into the film and sending it spiraling outward, running amok, going haywire. The natural rules of filmmaking no longer apply, Dante suggests. For this cinematic mad scientist, cinema is an experimental, liquid fusion of strange currents, impossible tensions held just barely together with comic, frictive energy.

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Film Favorites: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Exploring the inexpressible, ineffable qualities of desire pressed tenuously and incompletely but immediately onto the surface of screens that cannot quite accommodate those desires but nonetheless must try to relate to them, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film remains one of cinema’s great meditations on human communication in all its valences: both achieved and failed, asked and given, demanded and foiled. For the same reasons, it remains one of the great films about the possibilities of the medium, exploring cinema at both its barest essentials and its furthest reaches. What, the film ponders, does it mean for its titular character, nominally the historical figure Joan of Arc, French hero of the Hundred Years’ War during the 15th century, to doubt and feel and desire, to commit against the flow of the world, to sense other flows unacknowledged by the powers that deny her? What does it mean for actress Renée Falconetti to essay a soul-rending performance of a woman she never knew outside of her work to recreate (and thus create) her? And what does it mean for us as viewers to confront the senses essayed in this film, largely unknown but somehow known to us, to wrestle with the very capacity of imagery to explore the possibilities and limits of representation, to represent connection across space and time? What, simply, does it mean to visualize Joan’s desire, which, the film makes clear, is unmaterial, is beyond visual comprehension? What does it mean to know a human from their face? What even is it to be interested in the material on screen?

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Film Favorites: The Parallax View

From the nearly decontextualized prologue to the astonishing opening credits, an Altman-esque zoom in to a court finding (echoing the Warren Commission) that freezes in a tableau of American deceitfulness, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View imbues quotidian happenings with malicious intent. At first it seems merely peerlessly menacing, in the same way concurrent works like All the President’s Men or Chinatown diagnose paranoic ‘70s personalities, but Pakula’s most sinister coup is to render even menace banal, to turn anxiety about specific occurrences into a thoroughly incomplete response to an unfathomable and all-consuming social fabric that seems completely beyond sense-perception and comprehension. Drawing audiences in with the promise of final revelation, the film emerges with something much more discombobulating than a simple bait-and-switch: slowly (and then quickly) fragmenting and shivering apart into abject chaos, rendering the grammar of celluloid both one of society’s greatest witnesses and hopelessly incapable of truly grasping the depths it plunges into.

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Midnight Screenings: Christine

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

By 1983, tackling a Stephen King adaptation had already become a fertile testing ground for horror auteurs to flex their cinematic muscles and interrogate their idiosyncrasies within ostensible crowd-pleasers and corporate products, to infest cinematic hallowed ground with exploratory personal devils and fixations. A King adaptation was sort of like the old Cahier du Cinema proof about auteur theory, which suggested that a director’s personality, their difference, could be gleamed best when they were most mediated by various corporate interests rather than left to their own devices to construct a film from the ground up.

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Midnight Screenings: Ghosts of Mars

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

Although it didn’t officially put John Carpenter in director jail, one suspects that everyone involved would just as soon forget 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. It doesn’t even get the respect that similar-era catastrophes like Battlefield Earth and The Room receive, resigning itself to the historical dustbin of “just another bad film.” Perhaps the blame truly lays at Carpenter’s feet: just as his major achievements work in fascinatingly minor keys, so too do his ostensible failures refuse to grant us easy access to their odds and ends, their opaque mysteries and strange digressions. They refuse to go bad in a big, obvious way, preferring workmanlike craftsmanship and subtle twists of the knife. On the surface, Ghosts of Mars is a by-the-numbers failure, an indifferently bad film, rather than an exceptionally bad one.  A self-consciously minorized work, an exploratory termite in an elephant’s world, it is absolutely Carpenter-esque: spare, spartan, economical, but also subtly exploratory and strange, eating away at itself by exploring its nooks and crannies, taking the form of a carpenter building a chair and the termites that are simultaneously devouring it.

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Christmas Classics: The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s been a long time, pretty much since the beginning of Covid, that I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m making it my New Year’s Resolution to return to it in 2022 with regularity. There’s more to come soon, but I wanted to share this review of one of my most beloved holiday films before the year ends.

Nominally, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fairly faithful retelling of Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of self-recognition and potential self-betterment when confronted one night by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come. A bleak paean to the necessity of self-transformation and dedication to humanistic collectivism, the Muppet version follows closely to the moral imperative of Dickens’s original. Which may not work for some. Like the 1843 novella, the Muppets’ 150-year-later version is frankly manipulative and sentimental. While other authors of his era, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels most obviously, reacted to the soul-devouring inequalities of capitalism and the dark factory towns of nineteenth-century Europe with a call to overturn capitalism systematically, Dickens was essentially appealing to sentiments of shame and guilt. That doesn’t mean his portrait wasn’t grim, sentimentality aside (or, rather, the grimness is part of the sentimentality), and it certainly doesn’t mean that his pen’s charismatic pull is any less forceful.

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