Godzilla, King of the Monsters: Against interpretation

Having grown up in the early 1990s, I can recall seeing ads for Godzilla movie marathons as part of TNT’s “Monster-Vision” series.  While the Godzilla films seemed always to be playing in the background of my childhood summer vacations, I have no memory of actually watching any of them—which is one of the reasons why I decided to sit down with the original Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954; later re-edited for American audiences and released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, co-dir. Terry Morse, 1956).  It also helps to have a definitive edition of both versions of the film newly available on DVD and Blu-Ray, courtesy of Criterion.


Horror and The Girl

I’ve never been very keen on horror films from the classical Hollywood era, which have always struck me as too quaint and creaky to be really effective.  (My favorite horror film to come out of this period, Freaks [1932], is so anomalously twisted and weird that it seems to have arrived from another planet altogether.)  It’s my contention that, with a few exceptions, the horror film really gets good in the 1960s, the ground having been broken by Psycho—the first modern horror film.  One of the reasons why many earlier horror films may be so ineffective is that they’re often male driven; while there’s usually a female love interest who briefly falls into the clutches of the villain, these films tend to pit male villain against male hero—a fatal misinterpretation of the dramatic appeal of the genre. 

The Films of 2012: Amour

There may be no more emotionally devastating film this year than Amour, an intimate and gripping chamber drama in the Ingmar Bergman style.  That it’s every bit as good as Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light suggests that its writer and director, the renowned Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (his two most recent films have both taken home the Palme d’Or from Cannes) is currently doing the best work of his career.  Because he has frequently approached excruciating subject matter—sadism, murder, terrorism—with an air of cool reserve, and because he often enjoys playing mind games with his audiences, he has developed a reputation as a cruel, post-modern prankster, when in fact his films have always been grounded in a humanism that, at bottom, could be described as downright old-fashioned.  That humanity comes through clearly here; gone are the gimmicks and the finger-wagging of his early work.  What we’re presented with instead is a remarkably straight-forward series of scenes from a marriage, or, more specifically, scenes from the end of a marriage, as the elderly Georges is forced to bear witness to his wife Anne’s slow, painful descent into paralysis and dementia following a stroke.  In the first shot of the film, police break down the door of Georges and Anne’s apartment to find Anne’s body laid out on the bed, decked with flowers.  The remainder of the film is spent recounting, in excruciating detail, the months leading up to her death.


Spectacular monstrosity

Who are the monsters in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Earle C. Kenton’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau?  Its central villain would appear to be Dr. Moreau himself, played here with devilish brio by the great Charles Laughton, though the humanoid beasts that prowl outside his jungle compound are its chief source of horror: they lurch at the camera, startle the confused Parker (Richard Arlen), and leer at his girlfriend (Leila Hyams).  Perhaps more tellingly, the leader of the beast-men is played by an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi, who only one year earlier had turned in his performance as one of the most iconic of movie monsters, Count Dracula.  But, as grotesque and frightening as the beast-men may appear, it soon becomes clear that they are the film’s victims, not its villains, and Island of Lost Souls ends happily enough with a scene of uprising in which Moreau is tortured to death by his own test subjects.


Poe in 1928

1928 was a good year for film adaptations of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe: it saw the completion of Charles F. Klein’s wonderfully creepy The Tell-Tale Heart, as well as not one but two masterful versions of The Fall of the House of Usher.  The version directed by the American avant-garde filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Weber has a somewhat German-Expressionist feel, with its oddly angled sets and disorienting use of space.  The version directed by Jean Epstein (assisted by Luis Buñuel!) is in more of a French Surrealist vein; it also folds Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” into its narrative in much the same way that Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) also references Poe’s “Hop-Frog.”  The fog-drenched castle and dreamlike haze of Epstein’s film may have influenced Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932); Dreyer even appears to have copied Epstein’s shot taken from the POV of a corpse looking up from inside its coffin (see below). 

An undead Madeleine Usher looks up at one of her pallbearers as he nails her coffin shut.
Looking up through the lid of the coffin in Dreyer's Vampyr (1932).

French artists and philosophers have long been drawn to Poe’s lyrical, sexually charged horror stories, which appealed to the Symbolists, the Decadents, and the Surrealists.  Baudelaire published original translations of Poe’s tales, which profoundly influenced his own writings (in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, Peter Kassovitz reads Baudelaire’s translation of “The Oval Portrait” to Anna Karina).  My boyfriend helpfully informed me that Claude Debussy, who had already turned Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande into a sublimely Gothic chamber opera, was at work on an opera based on “Usher” when he died.  Poe has appealed to French filmmakers as well.  Forty years after Epstein, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim adapted “William Wilson” and “Metzengerstein” for the omnibus film Histoires Extraordinaires (1968), though with considerably less successful results.  Epstein’s Usher may be the best interpretation of Poe ever made for the screen; it captures exactly the atmosphere of dread that pervades Poe’s stories, especially in its ethereal lighting and its slightly queasy-making camera movements which, combined with a slight slow-motion effect, give the whole thing a suitably off-kilter feel.  Though it affects a much different visual style, it invokes the same sense of ominousness that I get from Arthur Rackham’s rendering of the story’s opening scene.

The House as rendered by Arthur Rackham...

...and by Epstein.

As the countless number of film versions of Poe attest, his tales are rich in striking imagery and lend themselves easily to interpretation by visual artists, particularly those who gravitate naturally toward anti-realism.  Perhaps this is why, as a child, I so enjoyed listening to my father read Poe’s stories to me.  As I noted in my previous post, I grew up on such a steady diet of horror stories and fairy tales that I’ve always understood them to be two sides of the same coin (which explains the excitement I felt when I discovered the work of Angela Carter).  Epstein’s film helps reinforce this link for me: his house of Usher is a haunted castle in which Sleeping Beauty is a vampiress.  Like fairy tales, Poe’s stories deal in images that are arresting in their purity: a crumbling mansion bathed in moonlight, a demonic specter presiding over a masked ball, live bodies trapped in coffins and bricked up behind walls.  Like the best horror films, Poe’s stories structure themselves around particular moments of sublime terror in which a single image arrests the reader.  Could this be why some of the best Poe films are silent? 


Screening bloody murder

I’ve been in love with horror stories longer than with any other genre.  The only cultural texts that made an impression on me at an earlier age were fairy tales, which themselves appealed to me as horror stories—it was always their darkest and scariest scenes that I seized on (Gretel pushing the wicked witch into the oven, Snow White biting into the poisoned apple, etc.).  I began watching horror movies regularly around the age of six, often in the company of my father, with whom I would rent videos from one of our local supermarkets.  I found them entrancing.  Their imagery obsessed me.  Some years later, as I neared adolescence, I set out to work my way alphabetically through our every film in the video store’s “Horror” section.  While I only made it up to F before I abandoned the project—it was around this time that my cinematic tastes began to broaden—I’ve filled in most of the gaps over the years since.  But gaps still remain, or have only recently closed: although Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has been an object of fascination for me for almost as long as I’ve been watching horror movies (I can recall first trying, and failing, to read it around age eight), it was only two years ago that I finally got around to watching Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation The Innocents, for instance (see above).  I have no doubt that had I seen the film as a child it would have made just as deep an impression on me.  Other classics like The Night of the Hunter, Suspiria, and Alien have also been relatively late discoveries. 


The Films of 2012: Zero Dark Thirty

The recent release of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the U.S. military’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, has left a firestorm of criticism in its wake: it’s been called inaccurate, fascistic, racist; liberals have accused it of re-invoking the bloodlust and jingoism of the Bush administration, while conservatives were dismissing it as left-wing propaganda designed to help re-elect Obama before it had even been seen.  I can’t speak to the film’s accuracy, but its politics strike me as not only non-partisan but downright obscure.  In this, Zero Dark Thirty is a maddening but also somehow noble film, one that doesn’t resort to the regurgitation of any party’s lines on torture, military policy, or the Iraq and Afghan wars.  It leaves you queasily uncertain about how to feel and even what to think about everything it has shown you.  It’s the only really acceptable account of these events imaginable, because it doesn’t pander or sentimentalize for a moment. 


The Films of 2012: Three short takes

A romantic drama about the unlikely bond that forms between a down-on-his-luck single dad (Matthias Schoenaerts) and an animal trainer (Marion Cotillard) who suffers a debilitating accident, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (pictured above) is haphazardly plotted and often contrived, but involving.  Its theme is the fragility—and the resilience—of the human body, as Cotillard’s character Stephanie struggles to cope with the loss of her legs and the brutish Ali (Schoenaerts), who once trained as a boxer, moonlights as a bum-fighter.  The film takes more than its fair share of leaps in narrative logic, especially in its final third, and the ending is pure Hollywood.  The love scenes surpass those between Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions, though: they’re honest in the way that they deal with sex and disability while still maintaining a raw erotic power that the other film lacks.  Praise must also go to Cotillard for a wrenching and graceful performance, one of the year’s best, as the wounded Stephanie.


The homosexuals in the text: Chris New as Glen and Tom Cullen as Russell in "Weekend" (2011)

“For a homosexual, the best moment of love is likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi.  It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice.  It is the recollection rather than the anticipation of the act that assumes a primary importance in homosexual relations.  […] The homosexual imagination is for the most part concerned with reminiscing about the act rather than anticipating it.” – Michel Foucault

I begin this post with a well-known quote by Foucault because I was reminded of it while watching Andrew Haigh’s achingly felt Weekend (2011), in which a one-night stand between two young gay Englishmen becomes a weekend-long romance.  As in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), the love affair is stamped with an expiration date from the outset: Glen (Chris New, pictured left) is scheduled to depart for the U.S. on Sunday afternoon. 

Does—or should—gay romance exist only in the present, unhampered by past traumas, unconcerned with the burden of futurity?  It’s a question that queer theorists from Lee Edelman to José Esteban Muñoz have taken up in recent years and that Weekend eloquently dramatizes.  The film is a paean to the meaningfulness and power of a bond that both of the lovers know to be ephemeral: the memory of their weekend will be more perfect than a lifetime spent together.  As Foucault proposes, memory holds a particular power within homosexual subjectivity and is perhaps even more powerful than experience itself. 

Even before they meet, Glen and Russell are already involved in separate projects of memorialization.  Glen carries around a tape recorder to collect the testimonies of his sexual partners, which he intends to make into an art piece; Russell keeps track of his own sexual partners in a kind of logbook that doubles as an outlet for fantasies, fears, and daydreams related to his own homosexuality.  The film suggests, then, that sex and romance—particularly as they are practiced within the world of gay men—always entail a certain amount of backward-glancing.  It’s within the context of this idea that Glen’s final gesture to Russell becomes so emotionally powerful.  In giving Russell back the tape recorder that contains his own morning-after “confession,” Glen has not only sanctified their relationship by removing it from public circulation; he has effectively given away to Russell his own souvenir of their time together.  It’s a more intimate act even than sex.  If, as Foucault claims, the remembrance of things past is even more satisfying than the anticipation of those to come, then in giving away the recording Glen has sacrificed a piece of his own satisfaction in order that Russell’s might increase.  A beautiful ending, and the perfect note on which to end this hugely enjoyable blog project.    


The homosexuals in the text: The women of "History Lessons" (2000)

In History Lessons (2000), Eleanor Roosevelt presides over a convention of lesbians, lingerie models flirt with a blushing bride-to-be, and 1950s schoolgirls titter over postcards of naked women.  The fabulously cheeky faux-documentary, directed by experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, is a free-associative crazy quilt of lesbian images culled (and in some cases created) from some sixty years of archival material—old newsreels, stock footage, advertisements, trashy paperbacks, tabloids, newspaper clippings, B-movies.  In many cases, Hammer wittily makes straight-authored or straight-identified signifiers (like Roosevelt) into sites of lesbian meaning, even if she literally has to put words into their mouths to do so: she dubs salacious come-ons over old film footage, inserts suggestive cutaways, and even stages scenes of her own, such as a vengeful attack on a prurient male doctor by two female patients.  It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, made out of scraps and odds-and-ends, and its rough-hewn quality suggests the extent to which gay and lesbian experience is itself often stitched together out of the leavings of mainstream culture.  In The Celluloid Closet, Susie Bright explains the process by which gay and lesbian audiences learn to salvage “crumbs”—the queer residue that often lurks around the fringes of the cultural mainstream.  History Lessons is a film made entirely out of those crumbs.  It plays like the queerest educational film-strip you never saw in school.


The homosexual in the text: Lisa Marie Bronson as Fae Richards in “The Watermelon Woman” (1997)

We see in the New Queer films of the 1980s and ’90s an increasing awareness of the racial politics of gay and lesbian life.  To a greater extent than Looking for Langston and Go Fish, the latter of which it explicitly references (in part by casting its leading lady, Guinevere Turner, as the main character’s love interest), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1997) is sharply attuned to the ways in which issues of racial identity cut through queer communities and present particular challenges to interracial relationships.  In this, The Watermelon Woman thankfully disabuses audiences of the notion that lesbian subculture is a multi-culti utopia in which women of all colors sit around holding hands and celebrating their solidarity.  The film is structured around two interracial lesbian relationships, one unfolding in the present between Dunye (playing a character modeled on herself) and Turner, the other a long-forgotten romance between a 1930s Hollywood filmmaker named Martha Paige and a black actress named Fae Richards, better known as “The Watermelon Woman.”  Dunye’s film centers on her attempt to make a documentary film about Richards’ life and career; Richards is an imaginary figure, but she’s modeled after such real-life actresses as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who spent the majority of their careers in Hollywood playing maids and servants. (Dunye mocks up an astonishing array of fake movie clips, publicity stills, and "period" photographs from Richards' career; see above.)


The Films of 2012: Django Unchained

I’m still in a bit of a daze after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, Django Unchained, yesterday evening: like nearly all of Tarantino’s films, it’s a jolting, at times overwhelming experience, by turns funny, clever, frustrating, audacious, excessive, and unsettling.  (A typical image: a spray of blood raining down on white cotton blossoms.)  It also gives you more to think about than just about any other movie of the year.  Consequently, it seems to me only fair to overlook the film’s occasional tendency to go somewhat deliriously off the rails.  Tarantino, who continues to reign as one of our most gifted, and incorrigible, living filmmakers, has served up yet another jaw-dropper.