Shane (George Stevens, 1953) contains some magnificently off-kilter action scenes, fast-cut punch-up montages such as the sequence where Alan Ladd and Van Helflin brawl in a farmyard of panicking animals, and the mountains of Wyoming look incredible, but day by day, it gets harder for me to watch the long, slow build-up towards heroic, retributive and cathartic gun violence.
When I watched American movies in my UK-based youth, I barely noticed that they were foreign. There was something slightly exotic about paper boys throwing newspapers over sprinklers and onto lawns from their bikes, about screen doors, pies with pumpkin in them, Halloween, and the fact of Corey Feldman’s existence, but I had little sense of the USA as a place on a distant continent, populated by another people. I’d seen so much of America on TV and film that t barely felt like a foreign land. It’s only later in life (i.e. about now) that I really feel the distinct separateness of America, the knowledge that it is not the country I grew up. This should be surprising, since many of the films I was watching (usually because they were the films most forcefully marketed into my face) deliberately set out to make the of middle-American or suburban everyday seem strange and malevolent. I’m thinking specifically of the films of Joe Dante (Gremlins, Explorers, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Innerspace, Matinee, Small Soldiers, The Hole…), for whom this has been something of a defining trait.
Though it is intermittently very funny, and has a retroactively all-star comic cast, the tone of Wet Hot American Summer lurches widely between excessive spoof and affectionate pastiche, but it can’t even manage to skewer the soft-target satirical punching bag of 1980s teen movies, so ultimately, this is the kind of movie you make when you’re not talented or interested enough to make Dazed and Confused.
Remember the Scream movies? What was billed at the time as a series of knowing, witty take-downs of the slasher film genre, full of self-referential jokes and a spiralling plotline of ludicrously solemn fatalism, now looks like an arrogant attempt to speak on behalf of a genre and a generation, a nauseating spectacle that managed to pander to and sneer at its target audience in equal measure. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows similarly tackles genre tropes, but without snarky citations. Instead, it sets out an intriguing premise (a slow-moving demon-thing, in multiple human forms, ceaselessly pursues any individual carrying its sexually transmitted curse, which can only be passed on to another person through sexual intercourse), and sticks to it. The film builds a distinctive atmosphere, bathes it in a throbbing, nagging electronic score, and never punctures the mood with the leavening hijinks that are routinely wedged into anything aimed at a teenaged audience. And since movies so rarely frighten me, I’m always happy to admit when it happens: It Follows is really scary. It has a plot like a ghost story told at an unusually mean-spirited sleepover, the sombre tone of a classmate’s funeral, and it lingers in the mind like a malicious rumour.
So, while the Scream films had their cake and stabbed it in the neck by both mocking the silliness of teenagers in horror films and marshalling a cast of very silly teenagers, It Follows has a real feeling for its protagonists’ anxieties. While Scream (you can probably tell I hate those movies, and this is, I promise the last time I’ll use them as a strawman, or even mention them at all…) wrote out the “final girl” trope in big crayons, because it just seemed, like, totally stoopid that horror films should enshrine psychosexual terrors in popular culture, It Follows takes the trope seriously: if slasher movies have traditionally punished the promiscuous and heroised the virginal, this is one film that wants not to mock but to find out why. It takes the stigma and anxiety of teen sexuality and blows it up to a full-on horror trope in its own right. Of course, plenty of horror movies are about teen sex and the punishments that come to its practitioners from primitively moral killers. But It Follows reifies that sexuality into a deathly contagion: victims are confronted with a lethal double standard, sex is what gives them the curse, but also what staves it off.
A lesser horror film would have made easy mistakes: creating some ancient mystical motivation for the curse; featuring parents or other authority figures; wisecracking sidekicks; pop soundtrack. It Follows creates an atmosphere and then maintains it, without undercutting or subverting the tension. There’s a close-quarters sensuality to many shots that puts us right next to our central subject, Jay Height (Maika Monroe).
Note, for instance, the early scene where she observes the critters from her backyard swimming pool, and makes the easy decision to drown an ant on her arm: hands are prominent in many shots, too, a poignant rendering of a world both perceived through, and jeopardised by, the necessity of touch. This is not an unusual neorealist technique to create a sense of immediacy, but it is absolutely the right choice for this film: aligning us with Kelly makes it all the more frightening, since whatever is coming for her must also be coming for us, and we don’t get to observe her from a safe distance. We scan the environment for approaching death just as she does, and the often shallow focus frustrates that task; rarely has often screen space been so actively weighted with dread.
One strange aspect of the film is its placement in time. Musically and thematically, it’s in conversation with the 1980s. The TV screens seems to show only 1950s science fiction B-movies. This is probably a deliberate strategy to avoid pinning the film down to a specific temporal location, but it also shows us how genres cyclically (50s, 80s, now) latch onto the things they find unnerving (commies/conformity, sex/knives, sex/intimacy). It does mean that a film that clearly wants to talk about young people now, is devoid of the iconography of social media. And yet, it is fundamentally a film about sharing.
Probably more profound than the film’s metaphor of sexual stigma as a killer curse is the way characters react to the threat, by having sex in order to share their fear. For some in this film, without giving too much away, knowing a potential partner is scared is an opportunity, while others they have an altruistic wish to take on the curse. But it’s a complicated picture, and ends with a couple unsure of what they’ve done or how scared they should be, anxious that everybody be as cursed as they are, and knowing that they can never be free, just threatened together. It’s a film not about why we hide our shame, but about why we find security in sharing it with someone, anyone else.
[Note: I wrote this quick review of Jurassic World a couple of hours after seeing it on opening day while on holiday in the Philippines. Then, things got busy, and I never got around to finishing it off and publishing it. So, here it is, limping along behind the zeitgeist, but hopefully of interest to some people. In the meantime, the film has munched on box office records left, right and centre, but I had little sense at the time that this was a truly blockbusting event unfolding in that nearly-empty auditorium on a scorching hot afternoon. Maybe the big audiences were shelling out to see it in 3D (in the Philippines, 3D tickets are double the 2D asking price), but since Jurassic World was a post-conversion job, and I’ve never seen a post-conversion 3D movie that wasn’t pointless, I opted for old school flat screens, thanks very much. The real story about this film’s money might be how it has grossed almost a fifth of its box office in China, an extraordinary and unprecedented amount: could it have implications for the sequel? Perhaps a full-blown subplot for Chinese-American geneticist Henry Wu, the only returning character, now taking on a somewhat villainous air? But seriously, let’s get this thing reviewed…]
The short version of this review goes something like this: it’s OK. It’s not quite a sequel, not quite a reboot: it’s too reverent a tribute to the original film to be considered a restart to the JP franchise, and closer to the wave of slightly embarrassing 90s nostalgia that’s going around at the moment. As such, it plays disappointingly safe, but it’s at least sticking with a winningly watchable formula of building up a magnificent system that will gradually deteriorate into chaos and carnage as the film progresses. That’s always as alluring as building a beautiful, intricate sandcastle while tingling in anticipation for the moment the tide will come in and fuck with it. I’m sure most of us love to watch other people’s nice things get safely, fictionally annihilated. The first half of the film builds a nice sandcastle of plot threads, character arcs and spinning plates (hey, you’ll accept the premise of genetically engineered dinosaurs, but you can’t handle a couple of mixed metaphors?), with the insistent promise that the water will soon be trickling into the moat and knocking down some turrets.
At the centre of Jurassic World is a great idea: we’ve passed the point where dinosaurs are a marvel and a novelty. We’re now at the stage where audiences are getting a little bored, and certainly have settled for the commoditisation and confinement of the dinosaurs. This is a neat pre-emptive strike against the charge no doubt coming from snarky moviegoers that we have seen all of these spectacular attractions before. The franchise has no new tricks to compare to that first flush of digital dinos from 1993, so its plotting turns that fatigue of spectacle back on its audience. But enough about the plot. Let’s cut straight to the dinosaurs. We don’t have to do an hour of world-building around here.The Jurassic Park films are not really part of an ongoing narrative, so much as variations on a trope, a history their various protagonists are condemned to repeat. They might also be seen as developments in what Bob Rehak calls a micro-genre of special effects, where particular modes of spectacle might circulate in popular culture independently of their framing narratives: each new Jurassic Park movie speaks to other depictions of CGI dinosaurs, most notably the franchise’s own “canonical” representations of the big lizards. Kristen Whissel has referred to visual effects emblems, the recurring motifs embodied by particular kinds of visual effect (the digital crowd, for instance) that carry a lot of the meaningful weight of a film’s thematic import. For Whissel, CGI creatures are always too alive, too much in constant motion, and “overcoded” to “compensate for their ontological differences”, i.e they have an excess of vitality to make up for their lack of human or organic qualities, using algorithmic gesticulation to cover up their lack of actual lifeforce. The vfx dinosaur is one of Whissel’s emblems, signifying the imminent threat of a monstrous (scientific), apocalyptic overload, but its meaning has changed over time. Since at least the release of Jurassic Park, digital dinosaurs have come to stand in for notions of scientific hubris and the Frankensteinian terrors of creatures created by man in defiance of God and his deific ilk. Dinosaurs did not serve these symbolic functions at the hands of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth and others in the many variations on the “Lost World” theme (adventurers discover a plateau, island or other isolated space where a zone of prehistory has been preserved against millions of years of evolution), which were more like the fantastical return to a prehistoric repressed than a prediction of a corrupt technoscientific complex overturning the natural order. The “bad science” version of filmic dinosaurs is undoubtedly inspired by the Jurassic Park movies’ use of genetic engineering as a McGuffin, but I like to think it is also an outgrowth of the proliferation of CGI; somehow the increasing facility for conjuring creatures on a computer stirs up issues of simulation and representation that parallel the concept of cloning. In that sense, we might conceivably read Jurassic World as a film about the problem of creating a spectacle that won’t run away from its creators and mess up all their hard work. But in case you were curious about how much the digital technologies had progressed since Jurassic Park III in 2001, I’d say they’ve been refined a lot, but little has fundamentally changed except for the almost total replacement of animatronics with CG, and using motion capture to allow actors to perform the roles of some the dinosaurs. Some the CG is also pretty coarse in places, especially in all of the shots involving the giant aquatic mosasaur, a big misjudgement of scale and perspective.
Jurassic Park (1993) is a difficult nostalgia object for me. I saw it in the first week of its release in 1993 and was bowled over. I can distinctly remember the prickly heat, the palpable tension in the cinema as the T-Rex sniffed out Alan Grant and the kids as they backed up against their overturned Jeep. Coincidentally, I was working at a Chrysler/Jeep showroom at the time, and remember trying to apply the Jurassic Park promotional stickers to couple of Cherokees: harder than it looks. I can recall the way the velociraptors were built up as a chilling offscreen threat, and that their eventual attack was seat-clenchingly frightening. But the film has diminished for me with every subsequent viewing. I can still admire its technical properties, and I still use it as an example in my teaching to illustrate how a visual effects set-piece can be structured. Compared to today’s summer blockbusters it is impressively patient, not just in the build-up to the collapse of the park’s systems and the ushering in of dinosauric mayhem, but in the construction of individual set-pieces (that T-Rex attack is long, and most of it involves calmly waiting for the pitter-patter … sorry, PITTER-PATTER of enormous feet. But I find Jurassic Park‘s technological discourse far too schematic and obvious: scenes where characters sit around tables and argue about the merits of cloning are infinitely less eloquent than the visual interventions in that debate by the dinosaurs themselves. In a world of climate change, economic meltdown and Tweeted beheadings, the idea of genetically engineering dinosaurs as an ethical tipping point for humankind now seems rather quaint.
I also became distracted by the nature/nurture question that the film never addresses: if the first generation of cloned dinosaurs had no parents, how did they learn all their behaviours? Why are these beasts not utterly delinquent? Were they reared with puppets, like condor chicks in captivity, and if so, when can we have an entire movie about that, please? In Jurassic World, Chris Pratt’s theories on how to raise and train velociraptors dips a toe into the idea of humans’ parenting responsibilities towards their surrogate monsters. But still the creatures show few signs of having been raised in captivity, despite the films’ half-hearted subtext that zoos may be creating unreal impressions of the natural world: as one character says, “you don’t want reality, you want a simulation you can control.” The dinosaurs we are shown in these films are always perfect specimens. I wanted Jurassic World to have more of a feel for the mundane realities of zoos. The smells, the cramped enclosures, bored animals, sick animals, mentally ruined by lifetimes of confinement. There’s a little energy behind that idea but not enough: the tech and the facilities at Jurassic World are all state of the art and implausibly advanced. In turn, Jurassic World feels very tightly honed, and near-phobically avoids innovation or surprise. This is a movie about chaos which has no chaos about it. This is why Colin Trevorrow was a good choice – his calling card, Safety Not Guaranteed is a faux-indie movie about shambolic, unsettled characters that is very tightly formulaic despite its quirkily fantastical ending.
I get mixed messages from Jurassic World, especially by the time we get into the pteranodon attack on a mass of soda-guzzling, tourists, which has such a maniacal glee to it that could have been guest-directed by Joe Dante. Are the crowds in the park some super rich elite? Are we supposed to delight in their hubris being punished? The film assures us that corporate and military types inevitably conspire to fuck things up for everyone else, and that they deserve their toothy deaths, but what about the visitors? Are we meant to applaud their destruction along with their bratty offspring? One particular character, whose only crime seems to have been not thinking children are awesome, suffers a ridiculously protracted and baroque death, fought over by a series of beasts. It’s either evidence that a subplot in which she did something monstrous was cut out, or the film really wants us to see what happens to women in heels and skirts who lack a maternal streak: a cautionary example for our heroine, who at the same moment is finding her protective heroine persona.
I also wanted to see the filmmakers explore, for instance, how our understanding of dinosaurs, and their cultural reception was changed by their de-extinction. But here I go again, complaining that a film does what it wants to do and not what I want it to do. OK, fair point: the film’s response might simply be that humankind would quickly accept as mundane reality their new co-existence with dinosaurs. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that by the fourth film in a series we should be expanding the ideas and developing the themes instead of repeating the same cyclical narrative of the park’s attractions being fought over by the same corrupt and vested interests. Another thing nagged me, especially given the global audience to which the film must surely be addressed, and from whom it will draw most of its revenue: how did the JW owners get away with hiring so few local workers? There’s little sense of this park being an actually situated location on South America. Oh, and Chris Pratt riding through the woods with raptors is the new Shia Labeouf swinging through trees with monkeys. Finally, it’s worth noting that for all their emphasis on digital spectacle, when you really need a dinosaurs to die, affectingly, in close up, you call the animatronics dept. The end. I’m done complaining about blockbusters that are adequate to the task but unable to cut loose and thrill.
If you find Roland Emmerich’s movies too slow and subtle, then San Andreas might be for you, a b-for-bloated B-movie in which no sequence of dialogue is allowed to go uninterrupted by the shaking of the Earth, as if the cast were being warned to keep all conversations brief and cut to the spectacle. With none of the calculated, faux-shitty incompetence of a Sharknado, and none of the self-deprecating humour or satirical mischief of a 2012, this is a genre film stripped down to the basics.
When an earthquake divorces San Francisco from the mainland and pummels it with an escalating series of aftershocks, tsunamis and plummeting house prices, San Andreas compiles a bunch of Fisher-Price symbolism and fortune-cookie plotting: from the start, you know that the estranged couple will be reunited, her smarmy executive new boyfriend will die a deserving, cowardly death, and The Rock will get to save his one surviving daughter and heal past wounds, because the biggest myth of the Hollywood disaster movie is that natural disasters, rather than randomly annihilating them, bring families together.
This pro-family message is just a pose. For the most part, San Andreas couldn’t give a fuck about any families other than the pretty one in its plot synopsis. We’re expected to cheer when Ioan Gruffudd gets his comeuppance, swatted by a container ship, ignoring the thousands of innocents standing alongside him on the Golden Gate Bridge as it takes the full force of the same preposterously large wave that The Rock surfs across in a commandeered boat, the latest in a string of vehicles he uses to fly over or zoom past the masses he might have been duty-bound to protect, seeking out instead his needle daughter in the Frisco haystack. This family of survivalists keeps all the best information to themselves and repeatedly ignore the plight of others around them. The resilience of the heroes is in inverse proportion to the frangibility of the background extras. The message to the earthquake dead in this film is that they didn’t try, fight, or drive hard enough. [That’s not entirely fair, because the signature image of this film is of men with injured girls in their arms, because some types of saving will always be more OK than others.]
I had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.
What’s with the current trend for movie posters where the hero (and sometimes the villain) gazes moodily away from the viewer? It’s as if Robocop can’t meet our gaze, or Brad Pitt is ashamed to look us in the eye, or Dwayne Johnson doesn’t want us to see him in his Hercules outfit. It could represent something of the of the recent cliche of the tormented hero, the agonising responsibilities of being responsible for other people’s lives, or just a general lazy me-too-ism of graphic design. But like the trope of turning one’s back from a couple of years ago, this trend looks like it will run for a while. I look forward to this little motif hitting peak shoegaze around about the time of the pre-release publicity posters for Superman vs Batman. They’ll both be shiftily averting their eyes from us. I plan to return the favour.
This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading
I don’t sleep well on planes. But I don’t like watching films on those tiny dim screens they give you on long flights. So, I only watch films that I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see: anything else, I wait for an opportunity to watch it under better conditions. That’s why, on a recent return journey from the Philippines, I ended up, bleary-eyed between timezones, watching Diana. I had twelve hours to kill, and this movie barely maimed two of them. Regular readers of this blog will know that I really like Naomi Watts, but following her acting career is like supporting your local, lower-league football team: the loyalty is taken for granted, and you know from past glories that there is greatness there, but you have to watch a number of crushing, humiliating defeats every once in a while. Continue reading