The Films of 2018: Hereditary

These days the most interesting horror movies have been coming from independent filmmakers, many of them first-timers.  Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out were all debut features.  To that list we can now add Hereditary, an effectively creepy—if not entirely coherent—supernatural thriller by newcomer Ari Aster, which sports a bravura performance by Toni Collette.  She plays Annie, an artist struggling to come to terms with the death of her intensely “private” mother, whose quietly bizarre funeral service opens the film.  Unfamiliar mourners stand around the open casket flashing curious smiles at Annie and her family; one of them reaches in to matter-of-factly touch the lips of the corpse.  The nature of Annie’s mother’s secret past comes to exert a powerful influence over the remaining members of the family, including Annie’s two children, who find themselves compelled by ghostly flashes of light and beckoning figures.   


Poem for Ethan Edwards

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956).

John Wayne’s face is the side of a Monument Valley crag,
A slab of rock worn down by snow and sun;
A cut of leather run with creases, the blade of a knife
About to save you or kill you.

In the time it takes for a woman to blow out a lamp,
For a horse to tumble down the side of a hill,
It goes from haggard and mean,
The eyes glittering with fire,
To a cut of leather, warm and sun-bleached,
The eyes wrinkled at the corners like a dad’s.
They’re squinting with joy;
His mouth is no longer the blade of a knife.
It booms with the laughter of a man who has forgotten 
About tainted blood, ruined women,
Things seen in caves,
In a smokehouse,
In a war.

A hero is just a killer who,
In the time it takes to lift a girl off her feet,
Decides to cradle her like a white doll
(Let’s go home, Debbie)
Instead of blowing her away into red dust.


In a mellow tone: Robert Altman's "The Player"

"A documentary about a mirage"

“As a satire, The Player tickles.  It doesn’t draw blood.”  So wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times review of Altman’s 1992 Hollywood noir-comedy in which Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a reptilian studio executive who becomes embroiled in the murder of a screenwriter.  The film is typical of Altman’s sensibility as an ironist for whom laughter is the only response to our fallen world and its monsters.  It has the blissed-out, vaguely stoned quality that Altman brought to all of his best films; Terrence Rafferty, reviewing it for The New Yorker, described it as a “documentary about a mirage…sunlit and shimmering.”  It is also, perhaps crucially, the film of an aging man.  Though he would continue to make films for another dozen years Altman was pushing seventy when he made The Player, and it has something of the quality of late Buñuel, in which the bitterness and vitriol of an angry young man have mellowed into placid bemusement.  Those who have complained that The Player is smug or caustic are missing the beautiful looseness of its form, while those who have complained that it’s too lightweight are missing the delicate invisibility of Altman’s touch.  That it’s light is exactly the point.  He’s too mature to get seriously angry, and so the film avoids becoming sludgy and earnest; he skims along the sun-kissed surfaces of the people and the locations like a dragonfly skipping on the edge of water.  The mellow tone of the film matches the mellowness of its people and its locale.  The Player is set in the insular bubble of New Hollywood where the divisions between work, life, and the fantasy of the movies have completely blurred to the point that it’s all one long cocktail party/business lunch/vacation/black-tie gala; everyone’s always “on,” except that being “on” means smiling and trading witticisms while drinking champagne (or designer-brand water).

The promiscuity of Altman’s comedy is such that his jabs—or “tickles,” to borrow from Canby—extend to everyone in the film.  Not even the screenwriters, usually presented as the purest “artists” in the moviemaking business and therefore its most convenient martyrs, are safe from ribbing.  The doomed David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) is revealed to be a hack whose script is a piece of neo-realist miserablism (“interior: flophouse room…”).  Meanwhile, the writer Tim Oakley (Richard E. Grant), who insists that his script be produced with no stars and no happy ending, is all too eager to compromise his principles when the rough cut flops with a test audience.  It would have been easy for Altman to set up some sort of noble, earnest, dull figure representing Integrity as a foil to Griffin and his rapaciousness.  But where would be the fun in that?  Nabokov said that satire is a lesson and parody is a game, which explains why The Player tickles.  Altman is more interested in playing a game than teaching a lesson (and thank god for that).  That the movie never sobers up or gets serious—it keeps us laughing right through to the end credits—is a testament to Altman’s comic genius.

Screenwriters: Vincent D'Onofrio as David Kahane and Richard E. Grant as Tim Oakley.


All grown up

The final shot of The Brood (1979).

To watch The Brood is to see how early in his career David Cronenberg had consolidated his signature style as a maker of clinical, pitiless, intelligent, ballsy thrillers that “go through it, all the way to the end,” much in the way that this film’s characters are encouraged to do by their Svengali-like psychotherapist (Oliver Reed).  Unlike many of the so-called movie brats of his generation, Cronenberg never went through an “early, funny” period of his career before Getting Serious; he is already quite Serious in this, his third feature, made when he was thirty-five.  Where so many great horror movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Howling, The Evil Dead, The Shining, Theatre of Blood, Poltergeist, etc.) successfully draw on black comedy to create a sense of fun—screams mixed with laughter—there is little fun to be had watching The Brood, in which the violent set pieces alternate with dialogue scenes that speak to an endless cycle of family trauma.  It is a film of rigorous control and unsparing bleakness.

The early films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood) find Cronenberg already making a spectacle out of the “body horror” that would become his calling card.  They also show a surprisingly mature command of tone and an attitude toward family matters that is, in the tradition of Freudian psychoanalysis, both unsentimental and perverse.  Five-year-old Candy Carveth (Cindy Hinds) is hardly the type of adorable moppet that one finds in, say, Spielberg: aside from a brief moment where she giggles with her kindergarten teacher (who is later beaten to death by in her own classroom by “the brood”) she’s a preternaturally stoic child, so deeply traumatized that she appears numb.  Candy’s presence in the film is made all the more uncanny by her no-doubt-intentional resemblance to the broodlings, which are exactly her shape and size and which share her fine, platinum-colored hair.  (They are, after all, her siblings.)  Even after she’s safely reunited with her father, Cronenberg’s camera trains in on the ominous bumps breaking out on her arm—harbingers of embodied psychological scarification—and ends on a close-up of her eyes staring blankly into nothingness.  There is no happy ending for this child.  

Candy (Cindy Hinds) cowers on the floor.

The various parents in the film are no better adjusted—Cronenberg’s point being, of course, that every parent is just a damaged child who has grown up.  Candy’s mother Nola is given to violent rages, but then so is her father, who ends up strangling Nola to death.  Nola’s own parents have their own histories of child abuse and alcoholism.  The squirm-inducing psychotherapy scenes in the film find adult patients acting out role-play scenarios with Oliver Reed’s Dr. Raglan, regressing to states of childlike vulnerability and addressing him variously as “Mommy” and “Daddy.”  The intensity of these role-playing games, and their vaguely erotic charge, looks ahead to the kinky S/M of Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash and A History of Violence.  Cue Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad; / They may not mean to but they do…”  

Dr. Raglan "playing Daddy" with his patients.

Art Hindle’s performance in the film’s good-guy role is one of its weaknesses, along with a few derivative music cues in an otherwise good score by the young Howard Shore (ripping off Psycho, it goes reet! reet! reet! every time someone gets killed).  The last twenty minutes of The Brood, though, remain as gripping, as horrifying, and as upsetting as anything Cronenberg has gone on to do in the forty years since.  The earlier parts of the film are capably handled, but in the final sequence he reveals himself to be a horror filmmaker of the highest order.  A lesser artist might have backed away from this kind of ending, because after all a horror movie shouldn’t be this rough, should it?  Cronenberg goes through it, all the way to the end.           


Malle et jazz

It’s possible to divide the films of Louis Malle into two categories based on their use of music, classical (The Lovers, The Fire Within, My Dinner with Andre) versus jazz (Murmur of the Heart, Pretty Baby, Vanya on 42nd Street).  Murmur of the Heart (1971) opens with a blast of Charlie Parker (“Kim,” from 1955) as our hero, fourteen-year-old Laurent, enters a record shop with his school friend and pinches one of Parker’s LPs.  In the world of this film, set in Dijon in the spring and summer of 1954, bebop means cool/grown-up/modern, all of which the precocious Laurent desperately wants to be.  It also means sex: when Laurent retreats to his bedroom to read J'irai cracher sur vos tombes and masturbate he puts Parker’s “Cosmic Rays” on his bedside record player.  (The same track plays over a later scene in which he loses his virginity to a prostitute.)

Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Dizzy Gillespie also figure on the soundtrack of Murmur of the Heart, but it’s Parker who dominates the film musically and spiritually.  The bright, rippling scales of Parker’s tenor sax are the sonic equivalent of Malle’s filmmaking style here, which feels effortlessly light and tossed off, as carefree and indolent as the boys that his handheld camera stalks through the streets of Dijon.  Murmur of the Heart is a raucous, wicked comedy, a parody of the Oedipal relationship between mother and son, and there is something inherently comic about Parker’s bright, sharp, furious runs, which unspool fearlessly and ecstatically.  (It’s tempting to call Parker’s style onanistic.) 

Malle’s filmmaking never feels reliant on music in a way that’s lazy, but he does use music in ways that feel crucial in underscoring the tone of the films.  With some exceptions (Lacombe, Lucien, despite opening jauntily to the sound of Django Reinhardt, is ultimately a film of grave seriousness) Malle uses jazz to signify comedy, joy, and optimism.  At the end of Vanya, after Brooke Smith delivers her absolutely crushing final speech, Malle brings up Joshua Redman’s warm, sunny jazz score, we’re reminded that Chekhov is, at bottom, a comic rather than a tragic playwright, and so the film feels delicate and luminous rather than turgid.  And at the end of Murmur of the Heart, as Laurent and his mother wake up sheepishly the morning after a debauched Bastille Day celebration, Malle brings Parker’s “Kim” back onto the soundtrack, glittering and dry.  Mother sleeping with son—what are we supposed to think of this?, we wonder, only to find that Malle and Parker are telling us, in their own sly way, and so are the characters, as they exchange a series of awkward glances and then fall about laughing, and Parker plays on and on.



The more of horror

I rewatched John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) last weekend.  It’s a movie I think I had last seen twenty years ago or more on cable TV, in what I can only assume was a heavily edited cut; I certainly didn’t remember, or maybe had never seen, the shot in which Charles Hallahan’s head breaks free of his body, climbs off an operating table and crawls across the floor.  The Thing is a spectacularly horrifying film, a claustrophobic suspense-thriller in the Ten Little Indians/The Birds/Night of the Living Dead vein (a group of researchers at an outpost in Antarctica are preyed upon, one by one, by an alien virus) distinguished by set pieces of vivid, jaw-dropping goriness.  Made in 1982, it was released at the height of the golden age of practical-effects-driven horror and sci-fi cinema: Rob Bottin’s work on this film ranks with that of Rick Baker for An American Werewolf In London (1981) and of Carlo Rambaldi for E.T. (1982).  (Baker and Bottin both worked on The Howling, also made in 1981.)  And yet the special effects in The Thing are not just used to gross out the audience, though they indeed do that; they’re used to such elaborate and surprising effect that they become sublime, mind-bending, even surreally beautiful.   

In The Thing we see the extent to which Carpenter’s talent lay in taking basically stupid material and elevating it to the status of art through expertly deployed camerawork, sound design, music, and editing.  The movie has a nothing script and paper-thin characters—stock types, like those found in Carpenter’s earlier action thriller Assault on Precinct 13.  But it builds a mood of steady, insistent tension, helped immensely by Ennio Morricone’s brooding electronic score.  And then it explodes in the set pieces, as the bodies of the various crew members undergo violent mutation.  These sequences are stunningly imagined, so unlike any other depiction of cinematic monstrosity that it becomes impossible to look away from them even at their most disgusting. 

The malevolent entity at the center of The Thing operates according to a bio-logic that is alien in the purest sense of the word; its physical properties don’t resemble those of any recognizable life form; its mechanisms are polymorphous, asymmetrical, uncanny.  In the first of the film’s transformation sequences the virus sets upon a pack of Siberian huskies, absorbing and assimilating their forms until its head is that of a dog from hell, its mouth snarling, its skin torn away to reveal the glistening red viscera underneath, even as the rest of itself looks nothing like a dog at all.  Behind its lashing head two enormous clawed limbs like chicken bones spring up and stretch toward the ceiling.  Has it now sprouted the legs of an arachnid?  It seems to scuttle up the wall and rests, pulsing like an enormous bloody heart from which a single human eye stares blankly, until a cavity springs open to reveal a nest of ventricles and a purple-pink tentacle emerges from its void, blooming like a flower or an anemone made of fang-lined petals.  This scene, like so many of the other transformation scenes in The Thing, goes on longer than you think it will, seeming to unfurl with the same unpredictability as the body of the creature.  Just when you think it’s done, there is more of it.  In such sequences Carpenter proves himself to be a true visionary of his genre.  He pushes to the very limits of what he is able to imagine and then he keeps going.  This is the more of horror.



The Films of 2018: Let the Sun Shine In

It’s possible to describe Juliette Binoche’s latest as a romantic comedy-drama in which she plays a sexy and neurotic divorcee who cycles through a series of men in a quest to find love.  This would not be an inaccurate description except that this film has been directed by Claire Denis, a filmmaker of great and uncompromising difficulty—so don’t expect an English-language remake with Meg Ryan anytime soon, even if the rough outline of its plot resembles that of a Hollywood chick flick.