Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Manny Pacquiao Presents: Ghost Cars!: A Filipino Religio-Domestic Police Horror Tragedy in Three Acts: Yam Laranas’s The Road

I want to start by saying that the title of this piece isn’t composed (entirely) of smartassery.  Manny Pacquiao really did promote this movie in the United States, according to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir.  This convoluted horror movie was supposed to be the Philippines’s first big international blockbuster (and as O’Hehir wryly notes, Pacquiao probably wouldn’t have been out there promoting the queer indie films of his compatriot Brillante Mendoza, whose Serbis (2008) is the only other Filipino movie I’ve seen).

So, having gotten the Pacquiao business out of the way, what is The Road? The Road is a big-budget horror movie with generous helpings of cop drama (one of the first lines spoken in the film comes from a police chief reprimanding the hero for not following protocol), crazed slasher movie, and cautionary tale about the perils of religious fanaticism.  The film is broadly divided into three sections, taking place in 2008, 1998, and 1988 respectively.  In 2008, three teenagers (a girl, Ella, her cousin, Janine, and the cousin’s boyfriend, Brian, idiots all of them) sneak out in the middle of the night to drive around in Janine’s mother’s car.  I have no idea why Janine and Brian bring Ella along, because they clearly want to fool around and Ella’s judgmental, cock-blocking presence doesn’t help.  Also, Ella clearly hates Brian, so why would she go with them?  Also, what’s the appeal? “Come on, Ella, we’re gonna go drive a car!” Is this an aspect of adolescence that I just missed? But it’s a horror movie, and if the teenagers weren’t stupid, we wouldn’t have a film.

So they go out driving, and it becomes rapidly apparent that they’re all shitty drivers, and they end up passing through a gate onto some deserted side road (the road of the title) where, to their horror, they find that (a) they can’t get out, (b) no matter how far they drive, they keep passing the same trees on the side of the road, indicating that they’re caught in a time space-time fuck-up of some sort and, (c) they’re being stalked by driverless ghost cars!

Well, not surprisingly, this ends in disaster, and the police show up to investigate, including Luis, the cop from the beginning of the film (played by Filipino television star TJ Trinidad).  And as the film proceeds along with Luis’s investigation, we see how the events of 2008 connect back to events in 1998, which in turn can be traced back to 1988 (I’d quote that Faulkner line about the past, but apparently his estate is currently suing Sony for Owen Wilson’s use of it in Midnight in Paris, so I’d like to see how that resolves itself before I expose myself to such a terrible legal risk).

In general, this movie looks really good (although I don’t know why 1998 has a sepia-tint to it.  Such coloration is usually reserved for the 1920’s, not the 1990’s).  Everyone gave decent performances, even the teenagers, and teenagers in horror movies tend to be terrible actors.  I think my problem with this movie is that it was just content to do everything competently without breaking any new ground.  For the most part, there are only a few basic plots floating around for most horror movies and if a director is going to rely on one of those plots (or several of them, as Laranas does in The Road), then he or she needs to do something special with them.  Now, perhaps Laranas’s use of several different horror plots in the same film is unique, and I think he is to be commended especially for his handling of the numerous flashbacks and flashforwards that we find in this movie.  But again, the bulk of The Road is nothing we haven’t seen before, and many times at that.

But for the Philippines, this didn’t have to be a ground-breaking film in terms of style or content.  I think its impact lies in the fact that it got made and internationally distributed.  It is hopefully a sign of the growing strength of the Filipino film industry on the international stage, and more creatively daring films will come (Yam Laranas certainly knows what he’s doing from a technical perspective; he just needs better material to work with).  Looking back from a historical perspective, The Road may come to occupy a position in the Filipino cinematic cannon comparable to that held by Shiri (1998) in the body of Korean cinema: there’s nothing particularly new or aesthetically remarkable about Shiri, but it was South Korea’s first blockbuster (and, at that time, the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of eight million dollars; compare that to the 120 million dollars that were pissed away on James L. Brooks’ unseen romantic “comedy,” How Do You Know [sic, there should be a question mark, there isn’t].)  And if Shiri wasn’t terribly impressive in the grand scheme of things, Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film JSA: Joint Security Area certainly was, as were so many of the Korean films that followed.  Shiri helped to kick-start a new golden age for Korean cinema, and hopefully Yam Laranas’s The Road will do the same thing for the Philippines.

I just saw a Romanian movie called Elevator (2008).  The film depicts two teenagers stuck in an elevator at an abandoned factory.  It takes place almost entirely within the confines of the titular elevator.  The movie had a budget of 200 euros.  Not 200 million, not 200 hundred thousand, just 200.  Think of how many movies could have been made with the money James L. Brooks squandered on the actors’ paychecks for his stupid movie.  Hell, the budget for Reese Witherspoon’s hair could have given us half a dozen Romanian movies that were significantly better than How Do You Know (which, again, apparently is just a weird statement, because where’s the fucking question mark?)  Just something to keep in mind the next time Hollywood bitches about how no one’s seeing their shitty movies.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Language is a Virus from Outer Space: William S. Burroughs and Pontypool

I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I love William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).  I think he is without a doubt the greatest American writer of the post-war period, maybe even of the twentieth century (which perhaps indicates that I don’t have a terribly high opinion of a lot of American writers, but that’s neither here nor there.)  For those not in the know, Burroughs became a heroin addict, shot his wife, moved to Tangier in Morocco and there wrote Naked Lunch and after that he wrote a bunch of other delightful books, but the books that concern us here are the so-called “Cut-up trilogy.” You see, Burroughs was convinced that—and I’m quoting him verbatim here—“language is a virus from outer space.” Language alienates us from reality.  We are trapped in language.  It is impossible to express things outside the confines of language (Wittgenstein had already reached this conclusion, but he left out the outer space component).  Furthermore, language insists upon itself.  As he says at some point in The Ticket that Exploded. “Try halting your subvocal speech.” And you, my reader, try it.  Try sitting there and enjoying a minute of silence in your own head. 

Eh? How’d it go?

It was Burroughs' contention that language was a virus of a type not yet isolated by science.  He asserted that the language virus had lain dormant in man for millennia before something flipped the switch and this dormant, benign viral infection suddenly became hostile and inflicted language on us (his solution was to “cut up” and randomly rearrange language so as to rob it of its ability to dictate meanings to us).
The name's Burroughs.
Now, as a Burroughs fan, you can imagine my delight to find this same notion of “language as virus” front and center in Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s 2009 horror film, Pontypool.  Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, because the plotting of this movie is delightful and the explication of its central premise brilliant and very Burroughsian.  The premise is this: A pissed off radio host—Grant Mazzy, played with relish by Stephen McHattie—whose career has entered a downward trajectory is working a new-ish job at a small-scale radio station in the Ontario town of Pontypool.  He has with him a producer and technical assistant and the three of them are isolated together in this radio station.  A blizzard rages outside.  Virtually the entire film takes place within the radio station.  (This could easily be a stage play.)

Well, wouldn’t you know it, but something of a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the small town of Pontypool.  The townsfolk are infected with a strange “virus” that turns them psychotic and violent and causes them to babble and repeat whatever spoken language they come into contact with (this tendency to imitate is reminiscent of the Malaysian “culturally-specific syndrome” known as latah, in which a person struck with terror begins to mindlessly imitate someone else’s movements; it was a concept in which William S. Burroughs was deeply interested).  They also, being zombies, have a hankering for human flesh.  And I’ll leave it at that, in terms of my plot synopsis, but suffice it to say that the narrative plays out expertly and that the linguistic implications of the film will delight Burroughsians and non-Burroughsians alike (most people, I suspect, are non-Burroughsians).

I also noticed an interesting parallel between the role of language in this film and its role in Scientology.  In Pontypool, it is posited that specific words have been contaminated and are the carriers of the language virus.  A similar concept obtains in Scientology, in which certain words in a person’s history (and this history spans many incarnations) have come to carry with them traumatic associations.  These words are called “engrams,” and one of the purposes of what the Scientologists call “processing” is to identify these words and then repeat them until they become drained of all meaning, not unlike the concept of “exposure and response suppression” that plays such a large role in cognitive behavioral therapy.

And as for the merit of Pontypool, don’t just take my word for it.  A movie with the tagline, “Shut up or die,” pretty much markets itself.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

In Memoriam, Koji Wakamatsu (1936-2012)

Well, they’ve killed Koji Wakamatsu.  Who are they?  The inscrutable hands of providence, I suppose?  I don’t know.  Wakamatsu, the director of proto-Maoist pink films (I can’t think of a better description of them) like The Embryo Hunts at Night and Ecstasy of the Angels and, more recently, austere explorations of Japanese history like United Red Army and 11/25: The Day Mishima Chose his own Fate, was struck by a taxi last week while attempting to cross a street in Tokyo.  He lingered for a few days and then died on the seventeenth at the age of 76.

Koji Wakamatsu.
Now, it’s generally a damn shame when anyone dies for whatever reason, but it’s especially vexing when an elderly person dies a violent death.  I expect the elderly to die of heart attacks or strokes, and that’s what I initially assumed had happened when I saw the news that Wakamatsu had died.  But nope, hit by a car.

Perhaps 76 is for filmmakers what 27 is for rock stars, because Wakamatsu’s death eerily parallels that of Greek master Theo Angelopoulos back in January of this year.  Angelopoulos, also 76, was midway through shooting on a film about the Greek financial crisis when he made the risky decision to cross the street in Athens, and he was promptly struck by a motorcyclist and killed.  Angelopoulos’s death—which again, is a damn shame in its own right, and I don’t want to trivialize it—but it seems emblematic of the collapse of Greek society.  Just as Pablo Neruda’s death took on symbolic resonance when it occurred a few days after the 9/11/73 coup in Chile, so the death of Angelopoulos becomes invested with symbolic weight, as Angelopoulos was in many ways an exemplar of modern Greek art and culture, just as Neruda had been for Chile.

Wakamatsu’s death doesn’t have quite the same resonance, but it can still tell us certain things when placed in context.  At a time when Japan finds its relations with its neighbors troubled (Senkaku, Dokdo, the pathological inability of Japanese politicians to stay the fuck away from the Yasukuni Shrine), Wakamatsu had just returned from the Busan International Film Festival in Korea, where he was named the Asian Filmmaker of the Year, the first Japanese filmmaker to be so honored (the NHK seems to have somehow won the prize in 2005, sort of like the EU winning the Nobel Prize for Peace, but that hardly counts).  And Wakamatsu, throughout his career, was a vigorous enemy of the kind of nationalism and chauvinism by which the Japanese right has alienated Japan’s neighbors and maintained an unhealthy and thoroughly dubious relationship with Japan’s militaristic past.

Now, as I’ve said of Koji Wakamatsu in previous posts, few of his movies are currently available and in print on Region 1 DVD, so some of this is based on the testimony of others, but here are a few highlights from Wakamatsu’s career.  In the mid-to-late ‘60’s, he made a serious of violent and subversive “pink films” (Japanese softcore-ish pornographic-ish films that invest far too much in extra-sexual matters to be mere pornography, but which definitely have the focus on sex-for-the-sake-of-sex that one associates with pornographic films).  These films—with their frank sexuality and their focus on marginalized people in Japan—seemed to have followed in the tradition of the more “mainstream” (only in the sense of not being pink) movies of Shohei Imamura, who was once quoted as saying that he was interested in “the lower orders and their lower parts.”

In 1969, he “pulled a Godard” and became a Maoist, except with greater ballsiness (sp?) than the Franco-Swiss subversive.  Godard may have paid lip service to Maoism and revolution, but in 1969 Wakamatsu collaborated on a film with Masao Adachi, one of the founding members of the Japanese Red Army who would go on to spend twenty eight years on the lam in Lebanon; this film, which is something of a manifesto for the terrorist group, has the glorious title of The Red Army/PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] Declaration of World War.  Now, I don’t approve of Maoism or terrorism or any of that, but so few filmmakers have the opportunity to declare World War.  Can you picture an American filmmaker today doing anything like that?  Fuck, if asked to name a “radical” filmmaker, most Americans would probably name Michael fucking Moore (or they would misunderstand what was meant by radical and say “Quentin Tarantino.”)

In terms of films he actually directed, I don’t really know what Wakamatsu did between circa 1970 and 2008 (Criterion people, there’s an Eclipse Collection here, wink wink), although I do know that in 1976 he served as one of the producers on Nagisa Oshima’s seminal In the Realm of the Senses, which explores in graphic detail the themes of sex, violence, and rebellion that were so central to Wakamatsu’s oeuvre.

One of the things that’s so tragic about Wakamatsu’s death is that, in his seventies, he had suddenly established (or re-established) himself at the forefront of contemporary Japanese cinema with a series of films about the recent Japanese historical experience.  2008’s epic United Red Army was a heartbreaking excoriation of the far left-wing militants that Wakamatsu once supported, and it remains for me the most moving and effective of recent films about leftist militants (including Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex, both of which were exceptionally strong films).  In 2010, he released Caterpillar, an adaptation of an Edogawa Rampo story about a Japanese soldier who returns from 1930’s China with his limbs blown off, his face disfigured, and his ability to speak completely gone.  The film is fucking brutal to watch, as it provides an unblinkered depiction of Japanese military crimes in China as well as the degradations that Japanese militarism inflicted on Japanese civilians back home.  He released several films in 2012, including the aforementioned 11/25: The Day Mishima Chose his own Fate, which I have not yet seen but which will hopefully get released in the US at some point (I have a long-standing interested in Yukio Mishima), as well as a film called The Millennial Rapture, which depicts the burakumin, Japanese descended from people who engaged in “unclean” labor (corpse handling, leather-working, waste-disposal) and who still face entrenched discrimination as a result.  Now, again, I haven’t seen this movie, but I should imagine it would have much to recommend it if it was made with the same sensitivity and intelligence as Wakamatsu’s recent films.

So now, just as he was starting a veritable second career—which could have lasted for decades! After all, his countryman and fellow filmmaker, Kaneto Shindo, died this year at the age of 101, and he’d only been retired for a few years—Wakamatsu’s life has been snuffed out in a meaningless accident (I suppose all accidents are meaningless by definition).  He has left behind him an enduring and diverse body of work and we can only hope that the hole he has left in the world of Japanese cinema will be filled by a new crop of filmmakers who will have absorbed the lessons of his craft and his moral and historical intelligence.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Horrible People Meeting Horrible Fates: Some Comments on the V/H/S Omnibus Film

Most young American men don’t know how to talk.  I’ve seen them, I’ve befriended them, I’ve watched movies starring them, and they just don’t know how to talk.  Or they don’t know how to not sound like douchebags.  They have this strange affectless grunting way of talking, like they’re consciously afraid of putting too much emotion or inflection into their voice because they think it would sound effeminate.  Every other word is some variant of “fuck” (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of “fuck,” but I use it creatively).  We are a nation of homophobes who don’t know how to talk.

This is just one of the take-aways from V/H/S, a horror omnibus directed by Adam Wingard, Ti West (The House of the Devil), Joe Swanberg (LOL, Bagheads, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and like ten other movies with Greta Gerwig), and some other people I’d never heard of before.  Actually, I’d never heard of Wingard either, but he gets top billing and it looks like the whole projected was his idea.

I rarely watch American movies, much less review them, because I’m pretentious and I think I’m better than you.  But I have a certain weakness for the “found footage” horror genre (the first two Rec movies—I haven’t seen the third one, I hear that it’s a travesty—and Koji Shiraishi’s The Curse being personal favorites), and all six of the films in this collection were made in that format.

And it’s excellent.  This is the first horror movie I’ve seen in a long time that left me feeling uneasy afterwards (the first one since Valhalla Rising, actually, which is definitely a horror movie, even if it’s not usually classified that way).

Oh, what’s V/H/S about? The frame story is this: four horrible young white men (I call attention to this because there were zero people of color in this movie) who go around assaulting women and smashing houses and filming themselves doing it, because they’re awful, are offered a large sum of money to break into a house and steal a certain VHS tape.  Obviously, they decide to film themselves doing this for some reason, because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a movie.  And when they get into the house they discover (a) the owner of the house dead in his chair in front of a bunch of flickering television monitors and (b) there are a bunch of tapes, and they don’t know which one they’re looking for, and so they end up watching several of them, and these are the other films in the omnibus.

I don’t want to discuss too much about these films, as they offer pleasures best experienced without knowing what to expect, but here are some premises: douchebags at a bar who pick up the wrong demonic entity; Joe Swanberg as an idiot husband with his wife on a road trip so banal that it has to end catastrophically; a final girl returning to the scene of a previous massacre; an excellent Swanberg-directed film about a girl in a seemingly haunted apartment who tries to document the paranormal phenomenon via webcam chats with her boyfriend; and four male idiots (a trend emerges) who show up at a haunted house on Halloween only to discover—shock of shocks—it really is haunted (and that’s not a spoiler, that’s just glaringly obvious).

One could argue that these films are often misogynistic, but the men perpetrating the misogyny tend to get theirs, and in spades.  Like, if you want to see a sexually predatory bro get some of his organs ripped out, then you really need to see this.  They’re misogynistic only if you think depicting misogyny is inherently an endorsement of it.

Finally, there’s the pleasure of watching how each director makes use of the film medium itself (ostensibly the old-school VHS tape) to tell his story.  And, to their credit, I think they all use it; none of these movies are made in such a way where it looks like a normal movie except one of the characters is carrying a camera around for no fucking reason.  And it has the look and sound of VHS; this is the only horror movie I’ve ever seen that could conceivably be confused for a lost episode from Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du CinĂ©ma.

V/H/S is found footage horror at its best and should serve as a model for how to do it right (because God knows there are so many ways to fuck it up).  I hope to see more horror movies like this in the future.