Following the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic. Continue reading
Is it me, or has there been an unusually large number of films about people who kill other people for a living. We’ve seen romantic comedies about the ineffable awesomeness of being a super-trained assassin like Killers or Knight and Day, in which the suave charm of the male lead (Ashton Kutcher and Tom Cruise respectively) is inseparable from his ability to perform choreographed acts of sanitised slaughter, and in which the only defining characteristic of the females (Katherine Heigl and Cameron Diaz) is their utter interchangeability. Mostly we’ve seen ensemble mercenary pieces like The Losers, The Expendables and The A Team, tiresome examples of cinematic spread-betting – put all your quite-big stars in one basket and hopefully they’ll congeal into one big bankable name, and don’t forget to make blowing stuff up and shooting guns look fun. All of these are knocked into a cocked safety helmet by Salt, which trumps this sorry pack simply by winding up Angelina Jolie and letting her go about her business of making this kind of nonsense look serious and feel important.
I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was an undergraduate, and it was loaned to me on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy, so it was fuzzy as hell and fitted with one of those wobbly soundtracks that you only get on movies that have been duped on home machines and passed from grubby hand to grubby hand. Younger readers might be surprised to hear of “the old days”, when plenty of films were not available for download or freely available on shiny DVDs, which lose none of their detail from one copy to the next. The Evil Dead was still fairly notorious, since it featured prominently on the BBFC‘s list of “video nasties”, films targeted by moral commentators in the UK media, resulting in the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which attempted to regulate the content of VHS tapes. It led to the withdrawal of many titles from the shelves of rental stores, and Sam Raimi’s directorial debut survived only on illicit copies salvaged from the purge. In those days (typing those words makes me feel so old), you couldn’t just go online and order a copy from abroad. In restrospect, I’m quite nostalgic for my old taped copy – I made my own (5th generation?), and I still have it somewhere in my office, complete with homemade sleeve. But today I’m working from a DVD version, which was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001.
It’s a horror film. It’s a battle-of-the-sexes drama. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods supernatural thriller. It’s shocking, controversial, provocative, explicit etc. Lars von Trier is just messing with you. Don’t get so worked up. He likes to poke (figurative) wild animals with (metaphorical) sticks to see what bites. Of course, the sense that he’s provoking his audiences shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss his movies out of hand – they clearly get a lot of attention, and so he must be pushing just the right combination of buttons to incite so much reaction. Since the film so deftly elicits a set of stock reactions, I thought I’d withhold my own thoughts on the film and instead invite you to build your own review to the film based on the multiple choices below. Save yourself some time, and your knees some jerking, and select your responses in each of the categories most commonly used to talk about Antichrist:
[This article, and the slideshow itself, contains spoilers about both versions of Funny Games.]
When Michael Haneke said he was going to remake Funny Games in English shot by shot, you knew he was going to keep his promise, but you might have been surprised at exactly how closely he stuck to his original storyboards. This week I watched them both together, i.e. one on the TV, one on the laptop, and some of the matches between shots in each are quite remarkable. On the one hand, this is a diverting little exercise that proves (as if such proof were necessary) the strict control that Haneke maintains over his mise-en-scene and editing, almost to the point of constricting his actors within rigid frameworks.
That element of control may be part of the point, racking up considerable tension by emphasising not the random terrors of violent assault, but its careful and manipulative deployment by a non-interventionist film-maker. Haneke’s portrayal of the escalation of a murderous home invasion is as calm and indefatigable as the young men who carry it out, and this is clearly demonstrated by his ability to stick to the script and produce the same effects in both films. When asked why he decided to repeat every single shot of his 1997 Funny Games for an American remake, Haneke replied:
Because I have nothing to add. I already did the first film for an American audience, for an audience consuming violence. And it only didn’t reach that audience because it was in German. And so when I got the offer of the remake I said sure. After all, the subject became only more up to date. I mean, the world is only more violent. I wanted to give myself a certain challenge, I wanted to make it a little bit more demanding for myself. And so, I decided to do it shot-by-shot again.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the didactic nature of the film, but I admire its commitment to unsettling its viewer. It’s still possible, if so inclined, to enjoy it as another extreme thrill ride (I’m often amazed by the ability of horror fans to shrug off even the most gruelling of movies or to compartmentalise them as compendia of bodily destruction in all its variations), though you can see Haneke trying to thwart such attempts at complacency. Funny Games doesn’t play fair – the divisive moment where one of the killers uses a remote control to rewind the film to make it replay in his favour breaks a contract with the spectator that their involvement in the fiction can have an influence on it. We like to believe that because we’re on the side of the innocents, the filmmaker will at least reward us with some relief, some catharsis or vengeance, but there is no comfort here: in this place of carefully applied violence, dogs and children die first. Why? Because they’re not supposed to, and thus is highlighted the artifice of the conventions that usually govern film violence.
This slideshow makes pairs of shots from the 1997 and 2007 versions. Feel free to scroll through and fastforward, because the full version might take a long time to view. Alternatively, you can see the whole set here:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
In putting together a slide show of comparisons of shots from both versions of Funny Games, I was struck by how, in combination, the pair of films show how reliant the film is, in either version, on repeated shots of its own. The recurrence of a golf ball as an object of menace, close-ups of knives, eggs, golf clubs, and the remote control itself – the family use a remote to open and close the gates to their property, and one of the killers uses a remote to resurrect his friend. The gates are shown closing all the way behind the family (the gates in the 2007 version move much more slowly, but the shot carries on nevertheless), completing the symbolic image of the security system that is both a protection and a threat: the family effectively incarcerate themselves as they seek isolation and separation from other people inside their holiday retreat. All of those implements of their leisure and domesticity (sports equipment, kitchen knives, the boat, television) are used against them. Even the codes of polite society are turned into an aggravating weapon – the attackers initially pass off their assault as a failure of manners on the part of a family who refuse to share their space or pay them proper respect.
There are differences between the two versions. Anne’s dress and make-up in 1997 mark her out as a little more tight and prim than Naomi Watts’ warmer, smilier version, and the colour palette in 2007 is darker, more muted. But when Haneke even goes to the trouble of ensuring that the same subjects are playing on the bloodstained TV (and one of the thugs is seen channel-hopping through footage of hurricane destruction to alight on racing cars in both versions, too), you know that he’s serious about each and every component of his work, and that you’ve already lost this particular game: you have no say in how things are going to turn out. Unless, of course, you switch it off.
39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.
The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.
Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:
Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.
Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.
At the core of the film is a twenty-five minute section in which Mina’s husband is viciously slaughtered by a criminal gang, followed by an excruciating birthday party for his mother, throughout which Mina tries desperately to put on a brave face and keep his mother from finding out the true reason for his absence. Next comes the funeral, which the gang attacks by placing a bomb in the coffin, leaving Mina requiring surgery, which she has to endure without anaesthetic because, as she learns for the first time, she is pregnant with her late husband’s child. Finally, her insensitive boss arrives to crack jokes and shrug off the tragedy. This cavalcade of torment clearly serves to set up the final section of righteous vengeance, as Mina hunts down and crushes the gang. But if the husband’s death is just a narrative device to provide a motivation for some combat scenes, does it have to be laid on so thick, with screaming and crying and wallowing, synthesised music?
The final showdown is between Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio. Just prior to their confrontation, Mina’s bereaved mother-in-law is callously wounded, refuelling the drive for vengeance, but putting the emphasis on conflicts between women for the protection of the family (Mina is pregnant, remember). Each fighter is out for revenge for the other’s killing of a loved one. They kick at each others breasts, legs, bellies and groins, singling out each other’s womanly attributes for especially violent attention, perpetuating the fetishistic aspects of the female-focused martial arts film, but re-articulating the central themes – by protecting her unborn child, Mina will honour the wishes of her mother-in-law and the memory of her husband (who wanted a child far more urgently than she ever had: we saw him earlier making holes in a condom!). But this is not an unproblematic restoration of order. Everyone ends bereaved. The film ends abruptly when Mina beats Agnes into unconsciousness and tosses her onto the back of a motorcycle. The end credits roll over a montage of the happy couple, the husband’s death and funeral. If you’re accustomed to Hollywood action movies, you’ll find this unnerving. Where is the nod-and-wink, gift-wrapped happy ending of vanquished foes and nursed bruises, shrugging off the preceding mayhem and getting back to normality? How did this silliest of genres come to be taking things so seriously? It’s all part of the intensity, the heightened emotions that filled the films from this period, produced at a breakneck pace that fostered this kind of immediate headrush of bodily and emotional display.
What am I to make of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003)? It consists mostly of a couple (David and Katia) based in a motel but exploring the surrounding desert in their Hummer. They argue, buy an ice-cream, swim in the pool, have rough sex, fight in the street, kiss and make up, before being attacked in the desert. David is beaten and raped and, clearly more than a little unsettled by the experience, stabs Katia to death in the motel. The last shot is of David’s corpse sprawled in the desert while a traffic cop radios for help, trying in vain to convince headquarters to give a damn.
Dumont claims that the film is an experiment in building tension through a lack of dramatic action, and that the film’s sense of escalating menace is constructed in the spectator’s mind in response to the films longeurs. This is an interesting proposition, implying that we are so conditioned to expect violence to be encountered in the barren landscapes of America(n cinema) that its absence arouses suspicion, but it is rather disingenuous. If the film aims to document the quotidian minutiae of a couple, with all of their bickering, musing and sexual grappling before smashing it all sideways with random acts of unforeseen violence, then that mission is undermined by a series of portents and correspondences that pepper the film. While it is not obviously signposted that David will end up stabbing Katia to death, in retrospect the structured build-up to this conclusion is certainly in evidence.
Katia eventually charges out of the bathroom and leaves the motel room, at which point David grabs her arm to create the illusion that it is he who is throwing her out. When the scene is mirrored at the end of the film, David emerges with murderous purpose, issuing the scream that we have heard him give throughout the film – during sex, while being rammed from behind by an SUV, and finally while slaughtering his girlfriend.
The violent denouement is also foreshadowed by David’s aggression towards Katia throughout the film. Wild, grunting sex is one thing, but we see him hit her several times, and a shot of him creeping up on Katia in the pool is clearly designed to suggest the claim he wants to stake on her body. So, I don’t think I’m being a naive prude when I feel that this is not a picture of an everyday couple going about the typical couply routines, but a deliberate sequence of narrational cues building up a suggestive picture of a man waiting for an external influence to tip him over the edge into bloody madness.
I find his films engrossing and beautifully composed (yes, that’s a cop-out piece of mitigation, thanks), but I find myself instinctively reacting against Dumont’s sensationalism, and his suggestion that I need to see a violent movie in order to demythologise the artifice of the usual movie violence. But he shares with Michael Haneke an interest in everybody’s voyeuristic fascination in depictions of graphic violence. Everybody’s, that is, except for his own. His apparent nihilism is not ours, and his attempts to force spectators to construct their own terror and then torment themselves with it ignores his own role in engineering and administering it. Compare (OK, it maybe an unfair comparison, but indulge me here) this to Christian Mungiu’s masterful generation of terrifying suspense out of bureaucratic procedures in 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (2007), where the threat of discovery looms large but is never fully realised. Which deployment of spectatorial engagement is more productive and revealing: Mungiu’s depiction of how a repressive environment causes people to internalise systems of surveillance and police themselves, or Dumont’s cynical exercise in sex-n’-death button-pushing (with the added implication that you devised and pushed those buttons yourself)?