Tag Archives: haunted beauty

National Cinemas: Gojira (1954)

Update late 2018:

With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future.  In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.

Original review:

Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is.  Continue reading

American New Wave: Badlands

Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one.
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Double Screamings: Stake Land and We Are What We Are

With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.

Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Don’t Look Now

Edited  – March 2016

A phantom haunts Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 phantasmagoria Don’t Look Now, but the ghost is not so much situationally incorporeal as intrinsically incomplete, a lingering devastation wrought by the remnants of the past latching onto the psyche of the present. The psyche tellingly belongs not only to main characters John and Laura Baxter, who lose a child to a lagoon in the opening scene and trip to Venice to let off some steam, but to the film itself. This is because theme is sublimated into the higher realm of form in Roeg’s post-Bava sensory saboteur, a work that lithely reorients our conception of cinematic editing as it construes a complete and utter subjectivity out of discordant, hostile cutting mechanics. Horror is found not in the presence of a wraith from beyond the grave, but in the lasting haunt of the past’s icy grip on the canvas of the human mind. Ghouls and zombies do not need to rise from the Earth when they persist in the heart. Ultimately, Don’t Look Now is a master-class in “psychic entropy”, dismantling the very ligatures of cinema and blinkered assumptions of a rational, fully-knowable world order. Its vision of new knowledge is radically self-splintering, suggesting that a path to truth compromises our very foundational assumptions about time, space, and rational order. Don’t Look Now offers a form of sensory and mental awakening that is ultimately emotionally and physically catastrophic.

Don’t Look Now is a truly unnerving, dissociative film, not only taking its time waiting and watching while the horror latches on but disassembling raw notions of cinematic time altogether. It’s a masterpiece, an indelible marriage of content and form: a shattered, disordered formalist work of abject horror matched to an empathetic study of two humans wracked with nervous discomposure. The extraordinary friction of the editing, sound, and visuals radiates a toxic gloom that tethers the throes of the characters’ mental disarray to a filmic style that tears and frays itself into a shambles. In other words, it’s an internally divided film that explores two characters who exist as fragmented parts of an impossible-to-reconstitute whole. Continue reading

National Cinemas: The Third Man

Edited mid-2015

You’ ve probably heard the soul-sick story before. A no-nonsense hero distanced from society and searching for a job finds, instead, the diabolical underside of a grim society rendered like nightmare. Here, he’s played by Joseph Cotton and his name is Holly Martins, a pulp writer who’s been offered a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in war-torn Vienna. When he gets there he finds that Lime is dead and he takes more interest in Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who may or may not know more about Lime’s supposed death than she is letting on. Martins, almost on cue, begins to question anything and everything, only to wonder whether his questioning was best for anyone. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Vampyr and Viridiana

Update 2018: Uhhh these early reviews from my youth burn my eyes so. Vampyr is too sublime a film for the quality of review below to do it any kind of justice, yet there is never enough time to revisit even such a foundational film in writing. (I mean, it is only the banner image of my website!) Of course, part of the reason that I don’t have time to fully explain the film is that a work like Vampyr so capably resists any definition or sedimentation. All these years later, my favorite thing about it remains that, despite its heavily imagistic texture, Dreyer’s conjuration seems to resist imaging, to thrive primarily below the perceptual barrier, like a shadowy outline or impression discarded on an abandoned wall.

Dreyer’s work is quite pragmatic in this sense; its images burn into our brain not with the tendentious force of a grand theory but with a worrisome in-definition, a sense in which the images aren’t solidified enough to “represent” anything. They dislocate us with their refusal to additively mount-up as most films do. Instead, they seem to unfurl outwards without emanating from any perceived essence or center, not even a portal to hell. Thoroughly estranging in its refusal to declare, the only thing Vampyr mounts are moments of severe uncertainty, curiosity, active deconfiguration, ultimately effusing a bewildering refusal to illustrate certainty to us, a prophetic inclination to decline revelation.  Instead of subterranean tunneling toward essence, Dreyer’s films hover over unstable, constantly fluctuating foundations, in this particular case witnessing space as a diaphanous flutter while remaining thoroughly removed from it.

In this sense, the film’s modality is truly singular, resistant to any definitive statements. Despite frequent comparisons to German Expressionism, the film’s contours actually incline quite a ways away from that estimable Weimar tradition. Absent in Dreyer’s phantasm are any of expressionism’s aspirations to manifest the latent, to tear apart the exterior surfaces of the world and extract the psychological interior beneath. Vampyr holds no psychological pretensions, no suggestion of access to the furthest reaches of the human mind. Perhaps because psychology can so easily tilt from modernistic advance guard of the mind to rote regurgitation of heavily prescribed, obviously underlined meaning emboldened in cinematic boldface, carefully keyed to “tell us” what the characters are thinking and feeling, Vampyr’s resistance to the sublime actualization of crystalline imagery is all the more intoxicating today. Its meaning seems not locked in a time and a place, to have been actualized on the screen in the film’s present, but to come from some far gone past, or some alternate plane, and whisper into our future.

To the extent that this is frightening, it is quite a different psychic turmoil than Weimar Expressionism usually offers. If Expressionism tortures us with the realization that our psychological selves will never be as complacent and composed, as whole, as they seem on the surface, Vampyr terrorizes us with a more spectral appreciation of a more fundamental indefinite(ness), one which cannot be reconciled by “telling” us what psychologically dwells beneath that surface. Dreyer’s later films advance this question further, but already in Vampyr, his films seem not sculpted for accessible meaning, but rather divined, even necromanced, from another system of meaning entirely. A system, in this case, where characters are not so much inlaid with psychological architecture – the work of the film being to unpack this architecture as the “core” of the person – but iconographic. They are figures in the wider montage of an artist.

So if Vampyr’s images rhyme with the rest of the world, they are nonetheless all their own, allowed to freely resonate and reverberate on their own terms and at their own frequencies as a portrait of a specific imaginative location. Without any fashionable post-modern opacity, Vampyr lurches about alarmingly at a sinister, slothlike tempo, struggling to represent the seemingly unrepresentable, to visualize a seemingly occult knowledge that seems to be obscuring itself as it comes into being. Not because the film is trying to confuse us, but because it seems to have tapped into a genuinely uncomfortable, unsupportable base, to encrypt a truly ephemeral sense of ontological decomposition, to truly and unabashedly ponder cinema’s fundamental aspirations toward knowledge and truth.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: Ugetsu

Edited

A film of quiet, haunting beauty, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a ghost story of the most chilling variety. It isn’t about the terror ghosts can cause passingly to you, what they can make you feel, and how they can even cause you bodily harm; it’s about what they can make you do, how they can control you, and how you can be made agency-less by your own desires manifested in the world around you. It’s the story of two brothers: Genjuro, who quests after money, and Tobei, who wants fame and honor. When Genjuro goes to the city to sell the pots he makes, he finds himself awash in the glories of monetary success, and when Tobei tags along, he eventually gets lost in the armor of a samurai he kills. It’s a grand tragedy of two men driven by ambition and obsession, a drama of Shakespearean proportions given quiet, breathing life, above all, by pure visual and aural craftsmanship. We look in and it looks back with quiet rage and somber mournfulness. We look in and it makes us wish we hadn’t.  Continue reading