Monday, October 31, 2011

If the Zombies don't Kill Ya . . . .

. . . the bandoliered sheriff just might.

Our in-house horror movie master just happens to live with me, so we watched Night of the Living Dead Saturday with our tiny all-black cat (the other cat was not interested) after a half-day packed with Halloween preparations. Halloween is serious business around here. And this movie, like it's progeny 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, takes zombies seriously; nothing is played for laughs.

The basic premise works: zombies trying to eat people and a group of people who more figuratively (and sometimes literally) eat each other trying to avoid that fate. But, the grandfather of zombie lore had a few kinks to work out:

1. Zombies can use tools. Graveyard Zombie Dude smashing Barbara's car window with a rock was a bit of a surprise to me as were the zombies surrounding the house grabbing the extinguished make-shift torch and whatnot. These zombies seem to have a bit of brains left in their undead heads. In this lore, zombies are also afraid of fire instead of attracted to the brightness.

2. Zombies don't so much have the now-trademarked rotting flesh that results from the partial-devouring that makes one a zombie in current lore. The film is purposefully dark (as in without light, not subject matter here) but we don't see flesh hanging anywhere (except the zombie barbeque/picnic featuring Tom and Judy as the main course), we don't see bites, and we don't see flesh rotting from bone. But, these zombies are perhaps created by some sort of mutant radiation from outerspace that brings the dead to life. This film doesn't specify that a bite will turn one into a zombie, just plan 'ol death seems to do that so the lack of flesh rotting doesn't break the rules, it's just not what we're used to.

3. Everyone (but the bandoliered sheriff) forgets about the shooting-in-the-head requirement. Come on people! Shooting at center mass works for the living but when one of the only pieces of information you have about the creatures is that you have to shoot them in the head, aim for the damned head! And, when you decide to freak out and shoot Harry for being an ass, shoot him in the head. There are simple rules: all of the dead come back to life and to kill the undead you have to destroy the head. So, why not just skip that whole coming back to life part and shoot Harry in the head? To bring up The Walking Dead again, we have a pretty direct nod to that scene in "Tell it to the Frogs."

4. You have a kid who has been bitten by a zombie in the basement. Shoot the kid. She's just going to eat you later. Or hack at you with a spade. And neither of those options turn out well for you.

5. Shoot first. Ask no questions. So, the bandoliered sheriff is just traipsing the country shooting everything that moves with no consideration that some of movement might be living people? How many living people has he killed?! Yes, it's a bleak damned-if-you-do ending and I don't particularly care whether Ben lived but there are a lot of logistical questions (and questions about fair war play) in just shooting everything in the head without thought.

All of that said, this was basically the first zombie movie and it turned horror movies into what they are today. And, like the book explains,
Night of the Living Dead, with its matter-of-fact, almost documentary-style approach, touches upon the issues that preoccupied America in the late 1960s: civil unrest, racism, the breakdown of the nuclear family, fear of the mob, and Armageddon itself. Nothing can be taken for granted. Good does not always triumpf. And for the first time, a horror movie reflected the sense of unease that permeated contemporary society with no offer of comfort or reassurance.
When I think of the movie in those contexts, it works much better. This film actually manages to be a cheesy fluff of a horror movie not as well as it manages to be a pretty damning commentary on social injustices. It's not by accident that we only have one Black guy and that he gets shot unceremoniously after surviving an actual hell. In that way, the film is a more specifically direct ancestor of The Walking Dead when we think of the evolving relationship between Darryl and T-Dog. So, this one is more of a glad I watched it after I thought about it for a bit than an immediate gratification film, which is odd for a horror movie but good.

Meanwhile, Stuart Fischoff just published an article, "Why Are Some People More Attracted to Scary Movies than Others Are?" that's timely given the season.

I wasn't scared though. Tracy, were you under a blanket?

Let them eat Barbara

GOD, she was irritating--start to finish. I much prefer Johnny, her bratty brother. Even zombie-fied, he was a more sympathetic character. Their opening conversation was also by far the sharpest bit of writing. "I hardly remember what Dad looks like." Want a reminder?

So, now we've seen Night of the Living Dead. I get why it's influential and important--the tight focus on a small community of people dealing with a worldwide supernatural epidemic, the breakdown of interpersonal relationships, etc. It's clear M. Night Shamalama is a big fan. Some of the shots were truly creepy--the profusion of hands breaking into the house was particularly effective, and I liked the B&W though I'm pretty sure it was a choice driven by budget rather than aesthetics.

But, this being a horror movie, everyone pretty much acts like a moron. You might want to shut all the windows before you board them up, maybe wait until daybreak for your run to get gas plan, and if you're going to waste a bullet executing d-bag Mr. Cooper, for God's sake aim for the head.

These zombies were not fully fleshed out, if you'll forgive the pun. So they can use tools? Why aren't more of the reanimated corpses at least partially devoured? My favorite bits BY FAR were the news clips of government officials trying to deal with the outbreak, and definitely the bandoliered sheriff. He cracked me up.

I get the bitter irony of the ending, but again, dude, maybe shout out "I'm not a ghoul!" once you ascertain the rescue party isn't either? As you yourself pointed out, these walkers don't talk.

So, what sayeth the book? And Nat, did you also find the closing stills with red-necky cops standing over a black man's body a tad bit lynchy?

Friday, October 28, 2011

We interrupt our regularly scheduled viewing for . . .

BRAINS . . . B R A I N S! In honor of Halloween, we here at Docs on Films decided to take matters into our own hands and pick one of the scary movies anointed by The List. With some help from an in-house horror movie master, we decided on Night of the Living Dead from 1968. This little cult zombie flick that could was made on a micro-budget by George Romero and criticized upon release for its gruesome content. However, now it's considered a classic of the genre and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Not too shabby for a film about a group of survivors trying to make it through the night in a rural farmhouse whilst being surrounded by zombies. I'm excited to see to what degree more contemporary undead stories (28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead) borrow from this foundational text. Let the reanimated corpses rise!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

And Your Little Dog, too!

The strange thing about this project is that we see so many movies that are definite "thumbs down" that when we get one that is just ok, I want to praise it to high heaven. The problem is, on a list like this, I think High Sierra should probably be the lowest and the rest should be amazing. But, I didn't write the list (clearly) so this one is firmly in "eh" territory which is dead center for this list. Which, I guess, is its own commentary: we should watch films we both love and hate.

But, anyway, Bogey gets out of jail (again) and no hijinks ensue but there is a lot of angst, botched criminal activity, too-easily broken hearts, general melodrama, and a little dog who seems to be the Grim Reaper in canine form. What's strange to me is that this film was released the same year as The Maltese Falcon (also on the list) which is arguably an excellent film. Having both films on the list really only highlights High Sierra's mediocrity (as does the fact that we've already seen a really effective and engaging wise-guy noir with White Heat). But, I'm guessing High Sierra is on the list because it's Bogey's first leading man role (despite Ida Lupino getting first billing), it was co-written by genius John Huston and Oscar-nominated (not for this film) W.R. Burnett, and was directed by Raoul Walsh who has three other films on the list (The Thief of Bagdad, Me and My Gal, and the aforementioned White Heat).

And the book says: "High Sierra is a landmark of the gangster genre, a career turning point for Humphrey Bogart, and a model of action-film existentialism by Raoul Walsh." The book explains the first and last point by offering that this film was unusual in the era of film Code in that Bogart's character is sympathetic. But then the book argues that Bogart's character "the nobly named hero, towers above the punks and hypocrites he encounters, foolishly pursues a respectable girl . . . , and briefly finds more suitable companionship with a fellow outcast." Here's where I start to have problems with the book's interpretations; again the book seems to be taking more from the film than is there. Who are the "punks and hypocrites" exactly? We have a nervous hotel worker who talks too much but that doesn't make him a punk (just not a good criminal which is expected as this is his first encounter) and he never claims to be a good criminal or quiet so he's not a hypocrite. It seems Roy Earle would be the punk in that situation for relying on a straight guy that talks so much. The "foolishly pursues a respectable girl" part is not explored enough in the film. Yes, Velma seems like a horrid person but Earle sees her a whopping 4 times before he proposes, each time only minutes long, and only once did he talk directly to her. So I don't agree with the book skewering her with "High Sierra's view of straight-and-narrow society is remarkably scathing, reaching a peak in the scene in which Roy is humiliatingly rejected by his vapid middle-class princess in favor of her smug conformist boyfriend." First, she's not middle-class; it's emphasized that she's poor. Second, why the hell shouldn't she reject Earle in favor of a man she was already in love with?! She'd be more vapid to accept Earle and ditch the man she with whom was madly in love--except that would make her like Marie who readily hops gangster beds and who the book likes. And, finally, I really do not see a consistent or arguable "scathing" view of "straight-and-narrow society"; I see Earle really liking Pa and "falling in love" with and helping Velma despite Pa telling him exactly where Velma's heart is. That seems a more scathing view of men who expect love when there was a little hand-holding and a promise of money. Otherwise, the criminals consistently fuck themselves: Earle trusts a copper despite saying repeatedly that coppers are always coppers; Earle signs on to a job with two nimrods he's never met; said nimrods are nimrods and act like nimrods a lot so Earle has enough warning and could bail; Earle takes a dame and a dog on a job; Earle trusts a straight guy with loose lips; Earle does a job for a clearly almost dead man; Earle expects too much from a straight girl; Earle expects too much from a moll; Earle races up a mountain faster than any horror movie dimwit rushes up stairs away from a killer; Marie rushes to the stand-off; Marie lets loose Grim Reaper dog at the stand-off; Earle exposes himself to yell "Marie" a lot. So, yeah, to me that condemns dumbass criminals.

All of that, of course, is arguing with the book rather than the film. I don't hate the film but I didn't need to see it.

14-karat Sap

Calling High Sierra a "noir" is like calling Casablanca a war movie. And even mentioning those two films in the same breath is an insult to Casablanca. And I don't even really like Casablanca all that much. I was hoping for at least some Ocean's 11 cleverness in the scheme for Humphrey Bogart's  "one last job" to knock over a hotel. No. It was the most uneventful heist ever. The waiter didn't even put down his tray of water.

The movie's real interest is in the love life of "Mad Dog" Earle. Did I mention that Mad Dog basically just sort of strolls around during the heist? It's the most inappropriate nickname ever. Anyway, he falls for this farmer's (grand)daughter named Velma who's a "cripple." Once he comes up with the dough to fix her foot, using a crooked snake oil salesman as a contact, she very nicely turns down his marriage proposal, offering the sound reasoning that she doesn't love him. Makes sense--they've known each other for like fifteen minutes. But you see, Mad Dog likes the dependent women, so he moves on to Marie, an emotional cripple.

Marie is a walking, talking, sniveling avatar for co-dependency. The parallels the film draws between her and Pard the dog would be funny if they weren't so blatant and insulting. Example? They both whine and basically lick Mad Dog's hands after he dies. She follows him around, begs for his affection, caters to his every need like, well, like Pard, except Pard has an excuse because he's, you know, a DOG. And this makes Mad Dog fall in love with her, naturally, but only after he finds out Velma has reconnected with her boyfriend from back home.

And I get that it's troubling that Velma's dude only shows up after her foot gets fixed, but is it really such a disaster that she's in love with a guy who likes to drink and dance versus the THIEF AND DOUBLE MURDERER?

Oh, and there's lots of racism, too.
Anyway, I liked the dog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

High Sierra (1941)

From "filth" to film noir. This film is noted for vaulting its star, Humphrey Bogart, from supporting player to lead man status. The story, an old gangster employs the help of a younger one (Bogart) to pull off a heist at a California casino, has some big names attached. John Huston, Bogart buddy, co-wrote the screenplay and its based on a novel by Scarface scribe William R. Burnett. I love a good gangster heist picture, and I'm relatively certain no one will be ingesting dog feces during the course of the film!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Perverted is not a synonym for filthy.

And neither is bitchy. Or boring. In a pre-post chat, my partner-in-crime gave me a heads up that there is a serious failure in imagination re: the filthiness of Divine and her nemeses. And boy was she right. What the two parties do to each other and themselves didn't strike me as filthy so much as what an adolescent boy might think was gross and/or titillating. And you just buy yourself trouble when you have the "filthiest person in the world" in your movie, and then try to illustrate said filthiness. It's always going to fail. It's like making Ryan Gosling the best pick-up artist in the world, and then showing him pick people up. It's better to just let people's imaginations fill in the blanks.

Of course, if John Waters had done that, he wouldn't have had a story to tell. The characters were all cartoons, and there was this semi-disturbing misogynistic undertone which is odd for a movie celebrating drag. As I noted in the blurb, I was really dreading this one, and maybe it's because I looked away during all the parts I thought would trigger my gag reflex, but it wasn't nearly as hard to watch as I thought. Well, it was "hard" to watch something so amateurish and unpolished. It's clear that Divine is a brilliant entertainer, and my favorite parts were her clearly just riffing. But it's so unlike the shiny Waters movies I've seen previously.

I'm guessing that maybe, for its time, Pink Flamingos was shocking or boundary testing? I know it has this cult following, and for that reason I'm glad I watched it, but I rolled my eyes more often than I dropped my jaw.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bet I Can Find Worse

This is one of those films that I was most definitely not looking forward to. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of some of the things that happen in the film--probably one of the three actually disgusting acts. The problems are MANY, of course. In no particular order:

1. A general lack of acting that results in every actor yelling ALL of the lines in a weird monotone. There is no nuance. That seems like it would be important in a film about breaking taboos; otherwise you're just acting like an ape slinging poo just because the poo is there and fling-able.

2. John Waters being high when he wrote the film which resulted in a repetition of just about all of the lines. This comes in two forms: a literal repeat ("Call the police! Call the police!") and a rephrasing ("He's been castrated! His penis is gone!").

3 The strange definition of "filth." So, yeah, a contortionist defecating, Divine eating dog feces, Crackers involving chickens in sex, and Raymond's penchant for indecent exposure seems to fit an idea of "filthy." But, arson? Imprisoning women in order to impregnate them and sell the babies to lesbians? Murder? Those things are illegal and seriously warped but I'd argue they're not "filthy" just by definition.

4. What the "filthiest people in the world" can't take, what crosses the line. Catching the butler in drag? Seriously? It seems the filthiest people in the world would take that as an opportunity for some other fetish. Being sent feces in the mail? You can't stand that but you'll have a guy perform the act at your birthday party? And you can eat dog feces? Having a pre-op transgender woman flash you as you stand in a park with a piece of meat tied to your penis is one step too far?

5. Licking furniture causes it to become possessed?

6. While I appreciated the loooooooooong lead ins to all of the disgusting parts so I could avert my eyes if needed, they kind of kill the impact. I figured out that the blow job was going to happen three or four rooms before they even started talking about it; in fact if the bj didn't happen, THAT would have been more disturbing after all of that build-up. (Meanwhile, to mention the bj--that didn't phase me one bit because it never seemed like those two were actually related and, well, Devine is a big 'ol drag queen so not his mama at all).

7. We have to watch this film but not one of the Jackass films? At least they don't try to act.

Overall, the film feels very amateur. It's obviously low budget but you can do wonderful things with little to no money in film. However, when you add bad acting, a terrible script, and a string of gross (and supposed to be gross but just don't meet the mark) acts to a low budget, not to mention poor editing and poor sets (you can see the Egg Man's breath when he proposes) and you get a disaster. Add in the fact that it's not quite forty years since the film's release and I don't think we need to see this before we die. It doesn't hold up and, save the two feces scenes, I wasn't incredibly shocked by any of it. It was just sad. It felt like a bunch of high school boys got a hold of a video camera. Or, speaking to the age of the film, now that they all have cameras in their phones, they probably already have more disturbing things backlogged. I'd go do a quick Youtube search for something more "filthy" ("Two girls, one cup" comes to mind immediately) but I'd rather retain my pizza, thanks.

Meanwhile, I hope I've met the quota for the use of the word "feces" for this whole project.

And the books says this is "quite possibly the best worst movie ever made--certainly one of the most notorious and beloved pieces of trash cinema to come out of the American underground." At least we're starting off by acknowledging that the movie sucks. But why do we need to watch a bad movie? Apparently just because a LOT of other people have watched it.

So, my question for you Tracy, should we watch a movie just because a lot of other people have watched it? At what point to we consign this to the "not worth it" and "of too little merit to perpetuate" category and move on as a society?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pink Flamingos (1972)

When Nat and I started this little project, I vowed to watch only 1000 films. Why? Pink Flamingos. I had heard about a scene involving a dog, a drag queen, and doo-doo, and I didn't think I could get through it without gagging. Well, maybe it was Performance that did it, but three dozen movies in, I'm willing to try just about anything. Plus, a little co-blogger told me that I'll have plenty of time to look away. This black comedy by sleazy-and-proud cult director John Waters is hailed as one of the most transgressive of its time and type. Time to see if the taboo gross-outs for which its notorious seem as out-of-bounds as they did in the early 70s!

Links to Review Posts for this Film:
Tracy's "Perverted is not a synonym for filthy"
Natalie's "Bet I Can Find Worse"

Friday, October 7, 2011

Annie Hall was a saint.

It took me three days to get through The Sorrow and the Pity. I cannot conceive of seeing it in the theatre like Annie did.

From the title, I thought it would be a lot more sorrowful and pitiful than it was. There were definitely horrendous things described, but I was expecting more Holocaust or POW footage, not the interview heavy style that the director used. I did learn quite a bit, though. I didn't know the degree to which the Vichy government not only enabled, but also actively aided and abetted the German war machine, including the Holocaust. Collaboration is different than straight-up occupation, and I feel I have a better understanding of that part of the war. I thought that the time spent with the Frenchman who joined the SS as a kid was pretty chilling. His warning to passionate young people to avoid being seduced by ideology is particularly important, I would imagine, in France in the late 60s. I was also, of course, monumentally impressed with the Resistance fighters themselves. I doubt I could have been that brave, and like most really brave people, they don't think themselves brave at all. But, that's something I could learn from a book or History Channel doc. What about this movie makes it important as a movie?

I thought the direction/interviewing POV was pretty subtle. Clearly, the film had an aggressive pro-Resistance stance, but that wasn't shoved down the viewer's throat, Michael Moore-style. Usually, the interviewer let the subjects hang themselves by the way they described their failure to oppose the Vichy government, or their failure to have any remorse about their position at all. This was true with the French subjects, but especially so with the fat cigar-chomping, war-medal wearing, "former" Nazi who seems to have been interviewed at his daughter's wedding. The footage of German propaganda was shocking in its overt racism, and I thought the archival footage was well integrated into the larger movie. But that's sort of film school stuff.

I wish the timeline had been clearer--the movie jumps around a lot during the war years, making it hard for me to get a sense of whether it got easier or harder to resist the occupiers, and/or whether more or less people participated as the war dragged on. I also suspect (from what I could overhear of the English-speaking subjects) that the translation was a bit spotty. So, I'm guessing the book includes this because of its subject matter, not its technique?

Read a Book Instead

I have to confess: I stopped paying attention to this film after 18 minutes and some odd seconds.

I left it running and went in search of what I wrote about Irene Nemirovsky's book Suite Francaise (here if you're interested). And then I went in physical search of my copy of a collection of her other novels (David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, and The Courilof Affair). And then I started reading David Golder instead of paying attention to the film at all. I looked up at one point to see a skin being shaken/pulled off a dead rabbit, felt justified in my decision, and started to write this. Once the first disc was over, I thought about "watching" the second but it contained just as much footage for me to ignore so I popped the discs back into the Netflix envelope and into the mail slot immediately.

My problem with this film is mainly that it's boring. But, it is boring for a couple of reasons:
1. I couldn't immediately detect an overwhelming narrative. I need an order to all of these things being strung together and I should be able to find that within the first 18 minutes. Part of any effective argument of any sort is to interest and draw in the audience. If I'm not drawn in, I don't see your argument and, worse, I don't care about your argument.
2. I already knew France wasn't the model of resistance to the Nazi occupation so none of this is exactly new information. And, to present information I was already basically aware of in a non-narrative boring manner doesn't lead to great results in terms of my attention span. I'm 100% sure that the film contains something, even if it's tiny, that I don't know already and that I would be interested to know.
3. The length. Yes, I basically gave up after 18 minutes (thank God we made a "have to post something" rule rather than a "have to pay full attention to the whole movie" rule). With a narrative and a less imposing length breathing down my neck, I might have tried to stick it out. But when two discs worth of boring documentary show up from Netflix, I'm daunted.
4. It's French. *Sigh* I know I must have seen a French movie at some point that I liked but so far in this project they're all big snooze-fests in incredibly disappointing ways.

Le livre dit (yeah, I looked that up at the 52 minute mark of the film running in the background) basically we should watch this film because it helped bring to light the inconsistencies of narrative about French occupation: "For over two decades, French society seemed unwilling to examine the moral questions raised by the German Occupation." And, a favorite reason of the book, the film was banned from French national television and had to open in art houses instead.

My thought: read a book instead.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

When this French documentary's number came up, I laughed out loud. Not because I find either the Vichy government's collaboration with the Nazi occupiers or the French Resistance funny, but because of Annie Hall. Alvy Singer always makes his girlfriend Annie go see The Sorrow and the Pity when they arrive to a film too late, and it freaking cracks me up--the title so perfectly encapsulates a movie a Woody Allen character would be obsessed with. As far as the movie itself goes, I only want to see it so I can laugh more authentically at AH. I'm sure that in the late 60s, barely twenty years after the war, the idea that the situation in France during the war was pretty intense was interesting and unexplored. Now, not so much. We'll get through it, Nat, and when Annie's number comes up, it will all be worth it!

Links to Review Posts for this Film:
Tracy's "Annie Hall was a saint"
Natalie's "Read a Book Instead"