A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #40: Michael Bay’s Armageddon.
Despite the laughable fact that this movie is included in the Criterion Collection; and the almost certain financial & business-tactical reasons for its inclusion, I’m going to try to review this film in good faith. This Michael Bay blockbuster came out in 1998, and that’s important, because I can’t imagine a film like this being made at all post-9/11. Yeah, I went there. The film is a self-congratulatory projection of America at the height of its pride, but before it had gottenth to the fall; an America that fancied itself so invincible that it could kick a Texas-sized asteroid’s ass in 18 days. An America with no problems. This is a movie made in an America that had forgotten what it is like to be humbled. (And if you think it’s just coincidence that the asteroid is “Texas-sized”, you’re an idiot).
Despite the not-so-laughable fact that the entire world is threatened by the asteroid, the only ones who can save the day are Americans. Americans who are arrogant dicks. (Redundant, I know.) America is the theme of this movie, not cosmic annihilation. Most noticeably, there are flags draped everywhere, they are like sacred tapestries, and nearly every scene is constructed to honor or promote American-ness in some way. Plus, Bruce Willis; probably the most stereotypically “American” action hero. There’s nothing original here, the film is basically a HGH version of the played-out “can we disarm the bomb in time?” trope.
Armageddon might be the most quintessentially American movie of the post-WWII era. Its genius is that of an idiot savant, but because this movie lacks anything approaching self-awareness, the glory of its bravado & obvious tackiness capture what it means to be American in the purest of terms. Michael Bay set out to make a blockbuster about America’s big balls and succeeded, but in his quest to present us with two hours of subconscious masturbatory zeitgeist-stroking (thereby turning us into lab rats who don’t even have to hit the crack button) he managed to remove anything vaguely approaching a compelling narrative. The movie is pablum; there is no there there, and that is the only reason it is possible to make the grandiose claims I’m making about this film. If you are a thoughtful person, letting the tits, explosions, & smart-mouthed dialogue flow through you is like sitting zazen and penetrating through the impenetrable mu of the American psyche through the force of sheer bafflement. You will grasp for any sort of meaning and come up empty, and at the uttermost depth of your despair, when you surrender to the idiocy; enlightenment. This film is the archetype.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #38: Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill.
Watching a Japanese B-movie was a great way to get back into the swing of Criterion reviews. This is the first Seijun Suzuki film I’ve seen, but it reminded me very much of Samuel Fuller, and it is even a bit like Shock Corridor in its portrayal of psychological trauma. The protagonist is Hanada, the third best yakuza assassin, and the film sticks with his ironic disintegration into madness throughout. At first the film is quite hard to follow, mainly because it is often difficult to determine whether we’re in his subjective frame of mind or whether actual plot-oriented action is occurring. The irony kicks in because the assassin is convinced that he’s going to win and become Number 1, though he obviously becomes less and less stable and capable as the film progresses. In retrospect, the washed-up assassin we meet in the beginning of the film is a foreshadowing of Hanada’s fate.
Suzuki’s dramatic cinematographic stylings offer profound and sometimes startling character insights; often serving as a reflection or counterpoint to Hanada’s self-absorbed obliviousness. All of the other characters have no existential qualms, they know exactly where they stand in relation to the world they inhabit; so Hanada’s ambition is almost aberrant in this environment. The tepid screenplay dialogue becomes polysemous and intriguing in this context, as no one seems to know what the other is truly saying. There is no trust and little understanding between the characters, so every attempt at communication is fraught. There is also a darkly comedic tone to the plot that alternates between being noticed by the characters and completely ignored by them. Number 1 is the only character who truly knows exactly what is going, even unto meta-cognizance, as if he knows that he’s in a film and what the director is trying to do with it and him.
It seems that the film has little to say as an ultimate moral; there are no sympathetic characters, so their deaths don’t mean much to the viewer, except in the aforementioned darkly comedic manner. The environment in which they lived was too violent and chaotic for any sort of sustainability or continuity, they’re all living on borrowed time. The frequent salacious and violent power-struggle sex acts provide another data point to strengthen this claim. It is certainly a much more accurate Japanese film culturally, instead of offering stylized, cliché or stereotypical portrayals more in line with Hollywood’s MO, Branded to Kill is vulgar in the word’s most literal and complimentary sense.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #43: Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies.
It is tough getting children to act well; just ask anyone who’s ever had to get children to act well. A vast majority of the cast in Lord of the Flies couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag, but thanks to Peter Brook’s careful planning and choreographing of key scenes, and relaxed improvisational allowance in others, the awkward acting ability morphs into an appropriate skittishness for adolescent maroons. This adaptation is well on the mark of the book, with an added intensity of visceral imagery and psychological warfare that only film can provide so effectively. The main strength of the film is that it was shot entirely on location, apart from the opening montage, and the reality of the island setting feeds into the reality of the characters’ development. Without the imposing hand of civilization, regressing to a wild and savage state becomes easy.
Lord of the Flies is not only a tract about the importance of civilization, but also an interesting thought-experiment on the emergence of new cultural forms. In the film, this is noticeable fairly soon, as the political rifts between the two leading boys, Jack and Ralph, are a microcosm of international political strife. Similarly, the creation of ritual chants and activities to ward off the beastie, and Jack’s clever manipulation of their fear to maintain control have contemporary parallels in our own country. This is no new trick, but its efficacy ensures its continued use. The cognitive dissonance and linguistic lacunae in their vocabulary after the first murder takes place is also telling in terms of their fear. Similarly, the development of face-paint and little to no clothing are marked changes from their initial school-boy attire.
Still, there are similarities between before and after. The choirboys become the hunters and their discipline, organization, and loyalty as the latter is due directly to their training in the former. They are also the ones who create and enforce the cultural progression of the tribe of boys, while Ralph and Piggy, who’ve maintained their reason to some extent, are increasingly ostracized. All of this terror comes through strongly through the use of liberal cutting and realignments in the editing room, and the sheer amount of footage Brook had on hand to pick and choose from. The final scene is so abhorrent , as Ralph flees the other youths on all fours, much like the pig they are convincing themselves he is, that the appearance of white socks and matching deck shoes of adult proportions, and the adult that is wearing them is a great relief. The monster we’ve only caught glimpses of, the monster that was about to appear in full and terrible force, especially because of its familiarity, is slain just like that.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #21: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers is based on a true story about identical twin gynecologist drug addicts; both played by Jeremy Irons. The film is a psychological thriller deeply concerned with obsession, sexuality and co-dependence. Cronenberg doesn’t overdo the shots that contain both Mantle brothers, but the most effective aspect of the film is also the subtlest, there are virtually no exterior shots apart from the beginning and end. So the entire film occupies a claustrophobic internal space both physically and psychologically, and these spaces tend to reflect each other as the plot develops. The twins are Elliot and Beverly, both male, Elliot the oldest and extroverted, the businessman and marketer of the two; Beverly younger and reserved, the medical genius. They share everything, including patients, including banging patients. In particular, an actress with a trifurcated uterus named Claire Niveau. Jesus Christ, you’ve gotta love Cronenberg.
Beverly becomes attached to Claire and vice versa, until she learns that she banged Elliot initially. They break up but get back together. Beverly’s love of Claire begins to separate him from Elliot and their relationship changes in small ways at first, but when Bev starts pill-popping his personality begins to degrade rapidly. His nadir results in his attempts to operate on a using “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women”. Elliot has his own psychological eccentricities associated with his twinship [at one point he gets twin escorts and has one of them call him Elliot and the other Beverly]. He also attempts to score a threesome with his brother and his girlfriend. When detoxing Beverly fails, Elliot decides that he needs to start taking drugs as well to get back on the same wavelength, so they can get off the drugs together. They deserve a Darwin Award for that idea.
There is no easy resolution to the myriad questions about gender, abnormal physiology and psychology, sexual deviance and relationships that are raised in this film. The resolution instead comes in the form of an abhorred pity for the Mantle brothers and a feeling of relief that such troubled souls find their rest. Meanwhile, the casual viewer is left with the need to examine his or her own predispositions about the nature of human relationship and cultural conformation. In this sense, this film owes a debt to Tod Browning’s Freaks. The references to the first set of conjoined twins is also relevant in this context, and the moral of the film, if there is one, is that deviance from the norm has disastrous consequences, even if the deviant parties are innocent in and of themselves. Or perhaps, that the heavy pressure to conform has disastrous consequences to offer another side of the same coin.
A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #13: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.
“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door…”
Stephen King in Danse Macabre and before that Val Lewton
The Silence of the Lambs is all kinds of great. For a horror movie it offers relatively little gore, instead relying on what is not seen to grow the fear. The film pretty much uses one cinematic trick over and over throughout, but it never gets old. Demme’s choice to use a shallow depth of field and straight-on framing of the characters do much to strengthen the relationships between character dialogue and relationship, the constant scopophilic gaze directed by almost every man to Agent Starlng creates a deliberate and constant sense of unease to her subjectivity, and the myriad references to change and metamorphosis ensure that no one thing we know can be seen as certain.
But time and time again what gives the movie its pep is the closed door, the reveal, the passage through. The next time you see this film, count them. Doorways are liminal symbols, inherently unpredictable and the constant action of opening, passage and closing taken by Clarice reflects her own growth as an FBI agent. The viewer grows along with her and gratification is delayed in almost every scene; when we think we are about to make a discovery, only another door is revealed.
The climactic sequence of the film [if only I could find it online!] has well over twenty doors that must be passed through or at least identified as a possible source of terror for Clarice. Coupled with the unpredictability of Hannibal Lector’s mind and the ease with which he manipulates an entire investigation it should be no surprise that the viewer is just as easily manipulated by the editing in the lead-up to the Starling’s confrontation with Buffalo Bill. This is a film that has got our number, can fool us over and over with the same cinematic parlor tricks and leave us wanting more. Hitchcock, who I had initially thought of as the man who made the closed door quote, would have been proud.
The other main strength of the film is the acting. Just about everyone is superbly creepy. This might be due to the fact that just as nearly everyone is a man and we are often encased within Agent Starling’s worldview as the object of desire, but even the bit-part actors are awash in uncanniness that is all the more effective because it is so natural. We all know people who are that sort of weird. The relationship between Lector and Starling is often that of a snake hypnotizing a bird. Certainly Anthony Hopkins acting is makes the film extra extraordinary and the quality of everyone else buoys his performance up even higher. I really have no criticisms of this film, it is so cruftless, polished and so effective at what it does that I can’t think of much else to say.