Cat Got Your Tongue?: Dehumanization in KURONEKO

•28/10/2012 • 1 Comment

28 October 2012

Kuroneko (translated as Black Cat) is a stunning and disturbing 1968 Japanese horror film by Kaneto Shindo.  The film begins with one of the most enthralling openings in cinematic history.  The establishing is a long shot of a small cottage in the country; the cottage is in a clearing which is surrounded by woods.  In silence, nearly 20 mud-covered soldiers emerge from the woods and descend upon this small dwelling.  Inside the home the soldiers see two women, a mother, Yone (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi).  They attack the women, stealing their food and possessions, raping them, murdering them, and finally setting the cottage on fire.  The soldiers disappear back into the woods as silently and subtly as they originally emerged.  Mysteriously, a black cat arrives at the charred wreckage of the cottage where the two burned bodies lay.  The cat, crying, lies atop the bodies, licking the women’s fatal wounds, as if trying to awaken their grave sleep.  Next, the film cuts to a woman, dressed in white against the darkness of night, approaching a samurai on horseback.  This is the younger of the two women, Shige, murdered in the cottage.  Under the guise that she is afraid to walk home alone in the dark, she lures the samurai back to her home, a mystifying, floating fortress standing on the same ground the cottage once had.  The samurai’s chivalry serves as signature on his death certificate because when they arrive at the woman’s mysterious home the older woman, Yone, is waiting.  The ghostly mother and daughter-in-law duo ply the samurai with sake and conversation, and Shige eventually makes sexual advances toward him.  When the samurai is amply intoxicated, Shige attacks and kills him, biting at his throat the way a cat attacks prey.  And this is only the first twenty minutes of the film.

As the film continues, the women lure samurai after samurai, until one samurai, Gintoki (Nakamura Kichiemon II), turns out to be Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, who both women thought was lost in war.  The women, seemingly possessed by the animal spirit which brought them back from the grave to seek their revenge, must decide whether to return to hell or continue their nightly revenge on samurais, which would include Gintoki.

Obviously one of the themes in Kuroneko is dehumanization, specifically through the representation of humans as animals.  This theme is most noticed in Kuroneko through the characters of Yone and Shige, the two women who are somehow brought back to life by a black cat, and henceforth take on animal qualities, including hunting and killing their samurai prey.  Direct examples of dehumanization of the women are when Yone’s ponytail sways left to right on its own, behind her head, just as a cat’s tail swings.  Also, Shige drinks from a large barrel of water by putting her head to it and licking it up.  Of course the violent manner Shige murders her prey, repeatedly biting and ripping of the neck, is cat-like.  Lastly, the film’s climax, the confrontation between Gintoki and Yone after he cuts her arm off, highlights Yone’s dehumanization; her arm, although once like any other human arm, now appears black and hairy, like the arm of a cat.

While Shindo’s dehumanization of Yone and Shige is obvious, his dehumanization of other characters, primarily soldiers and samurais, is much more subtle.  In fact, Shindo’s direct dehumanization of the female juxtaposes nicely with his dehumanization of the men in the film.  Brief visual cues and dialogue reveal the true horror of Kuroneko is not the cat-like female ghosts, but the animal-like living soldiers and samurais who repeatedly fail to show any humanity in the film.

For example, the opening sequence, when the soldiers emerge from the woods and pillage, rape, and murder Yone and Shige.  As the soldiers walk toward the cottage, they stop off at a small stream running right in front of Yone and Shige’s home.  The men all drop to their knees, instinctually, and put their faces in the water, lapping up all they can.   They actions resemble that of animals drinking from a water source, and this likening dehumanizes the soldiers, identifying them physically as the beasts they prove to be when they enter the cottage.  Moreover, unlike the samurais the women lure from Rashomon Gate later in the film, the soldiers that attack the women in their cottage are not dressed; they are barely covered in small pieces of fabric and plastered in filth.  Their appearance, particularly when juxtaposed to Yone and Shige, and retrospectively compared to the samurais, is untamed and more animalistic than human.

Additionally, before returning from Ezo, a remote region of Japan, Gintoki battled in war, and the film captures the conclusion of his battle.  Gintoki, muddy and barely clothed, much like the aforementioned soldiers, runs through the swampy land, chased by an equally brutal enemy, one covered in thick, black hair.  Without speaking a word, the two men fight violently.  Eventually, when the enemy’s mallet unexpectedly gets stuck, Gintoki slays his ferocious opponent and beheads him.  The primal nature of the fight and sheer brutality of war and its carnage dehumanizes the aggressors, Gintoki and his enemy.

Even after Gintoki humanizes his appearance and reenters a relationship with his ghostly wife, there are still undeniable echoes of the animal within him.  For example, he tells his wife, “I want to devour you.  I want to chew you up and consume you.”  Thus, even after his exterior humanizes, from blood covered soldier to refined samurai, his inner animal still remains.  Although Shindo primarily focuses on exteriors in Kuroneko when exploring dehumanization, he does not miss the opportunity to highlight that these samurais’ inner selves can be just as inhuman and Yone and Shige.

In a less dramatic manner as the previous two examples, yet equally significant, Shindo draws attention to the animal-like quality of Raiko (Kei Sato), the governor.  As beautiful Japanese women surround and pamper Raiko, the camera zooms in on the thick, black hair of his legs and chest.  With the black cat never far away, this visual cue to an animal suggests Raiko, too, is animalistic, dehumanizing him.

Because of the limited amount of characters in the film, it is impossible to know definitively if Shindo intended to liken all humans to animals, or if he specifically targeted soldiers and samurais.  Since there are a few passing characters who are not made animalistic at all, such as the elderly farmer who tells Gintoki that his wife and mother may have fled their home, it is more likely that Shindo is purposefully equating inhumanity with soldiers and samurai.  While his two leading ladies quite literally take on the attributes of cats to seek their revenge of samurai, they are dead; they are already inhuman.  However, the living soldiers and samurai themselves, right from the start of the film, are beasts.  Considering how savagely the samurai treated Yone and Shige, as well as the graphic violence between Gintoki and his opponent in war, not to mention the carnage of the battle landscape when Gintoki emerged victorious, is it fair to suggest Kuroneko’s horror rests primarily (or primal-ly) in humans lacking humanity.



Time is On Your Side: Time and Transitions in CARNIVAL OF SOULS

•21/10/2012 • 1 Comment

21 October 2012

Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls is known as “the film that wouldn’t die.” In 1962, when the film was originally released, Carnival of Souls was cut down to 72 minutes (from 84) and partnered with another horror film, shown as a double feature at drive-ins.  This type of release should have sealed Carnival of Souls’ fate, however in the 1980s Harvey’s film was revived from the celluloid underworld.  This time Carnival of Souls found its way into theatres, art houses primarily.  The once slighted, B-rate horror flick suddenly became an achievement in independent filmmaking and garnered a huge cult following.  Although restricted by a minuscule budget, Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, written by John Clifford, is a haunting, cerebral exploration into the human psyche, and Harvey’s filmmaking, while experimental and unrefined (or perhaps experimentally unrefined) deepens the degree of horror in Carnival of Souls, particularly when dealing with time and its elusivity.

Carnival of Souls follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), the sole survivor of an automobile accident.  Mary, disoriented and confused from the crash, leaves her small town in Kansas and takes a job as a church organist in Utah.  While on the road to Utah, Mary begins seeing haunting apparitions of The Man (Herk Harvey), a white-faced, suit-clad figure.  His appearance coincides with an old seaside pavilion Mary notices on her travels.  This structure, which fascinates Mary, is visible from the room she rents in Utah, and she inquires about it, finding out it was once a carnival, but is now an abandoned and restricted area.  The Man continues to haunt Mary, and she begins experiencing other strange occurrences: hallucinating, being inaudible to others, and sporadic deafness.  Mary visits the carnival several times, but as the film’s climax approaches, she finds herself back there, with zombie-like beings draped in black, and, of course, The Man narrowing in on her.

Time is vague in Carnival of Souls, and right from the film’s opening time’s elusive nature is made clear.  For example, after the fatal car accident, as police drag the Kansas River for the wreckage, one officer mentions three hours time elapsed since the accident.  Just then Mary Henry emerges on a sandbank; she is wet and covered with mud.  Where has Mary been for three hours?  She couldn’t have been underwater all that time.  She could not have treaded water for three straight hours, especially directly after such a traumatic experience.  Not to mention, how did she manage to get out of the car? When confronted with some of these very questions, all Mary can say is, “I can’t remember.”  By casually mentioning the three elapsed hours, Clifford’s dialogue introduces a problem regarding time, but Harvey’s direction keeps the audience from pondering this detail too long by focusing viewer’s attention in a clearly disheveled, stumbling Mary and the crowd forming around her.

Moreover, there are breaks in continuity throughout the film, perhaps most notably in the first half of Carnival of Souls.  Just before Mary leaves Kansas, she visits the bridge where the accident took place on.  Feeling the need to move on, physically and emotionally, Mary gets in her car and motions to turn the ignition.  In a close-up on her hand, Mary’s wrist twists to start the vehicle and Harvey cuts to another close-up of Mary’s hand, this time adjusting an organ knob.  Transitioning through similar hand movements, Harvey cuts from one moment in time to another, sometime in the not-so-distant future.  Exactly how much time was lost is unknown, and what happened in that lost time is also unknown, beginning a series of transitions between scenes, and through time, highlighting the elusive nature of time in Carnival of Souls.

Another such transition occurs shortly after, when Mary leaves the Kansas organ factory for Utah.  As Mary leaves the factory’s supervisor, there is a quick cut to the inner workshop of the factory where a man is cutting large pieces of wood with an electronic saw.  The shot is curious because Mary is not in it and this is one of the few shots, post her emergence on the sandbank, that she is not in.  Nevertheless, the shot helps Harvey transition.  The factory worker’s use of machinery is the catalyst Harvey uses to cut to Mary operating machinery, her car, which is finally on the road to Utah.  Once again, time has elapsed between the factory worker cutting wood and Mary driving, but it is unclear just how much.

In the following scene, when Mary stops for gasoline, the gas station attendant offers her directions to the house she rented a room in.  He tells her it is “..right over that way,” pointing in the direction she should follow.  The camera pans rapidly to the left, following his point, and the scene immediately cuts to Mary’s landlady opening the door to her room; Mary enters from behind.  The gap of time between Mary leaving the gas station and entering her new living quarters is all lost.  The continuity of time continues to be broken, which, ultimately, reinforces the confused, uncomfortable tone of the film.  By distorting time in this seeming subtle way, Carnival of Souls maintains an air of perplexity, as though viewers are looking at a puzzle, trying to assemble it, but there are pieces missing, symbolized by those gaps of time missing in Harvey’s transitions.

While all the aforementioned transitions twist time, there is one transition that takes the distortion ever further.  In the beginning of the film, when Mary emerges on the sandbank, it is unclear where she came from or how she got there.  In the film’s climax, when The Man and the zombies chase Mary along the sand at the abandoned carnival, Mary mysteriously disappears in the sand.  Several men from the town come to the beach along the carnival and investigate Mary’s disappearance.  They see her footprints—only hers—and an area that looks like she fell and struggled on the sand, but Mary is gone; there are no footprints, or any other tracks indicating where she may have gone.  Therefore, Mary both appears and disappears in sand in Carnival of Souls.  When read on a slat, this is another manipulation of time in the film.  It is almost as though the film circles back to the beginning in its conclusion.  Mary disappears into the sand to reappear on the sandbank at the scene of her accident.

Of course, the audience learns Mary actually died in the car accident, so the entire film does not reflect reality, instead, perhaps, the inner working of mind as it is dying, or the limbo souls find themselves in when they are unwilling to accept their own death.  However, because the film begins where it ends (or ends where it begins), there is the strong suggestion that, although this film is over for the audience, it is not over for Mary. Perhaps Mary is now in some bizarre limbo, trapped in a cycle in which she emerges from her accident, makes her way to the carnival, only to reemerge at the scene of her accident.

Considering what a vital role time plays in the film, it is ironic how important time’s role has been for Carnival of Souls.  When exploring such depth in the film it seems evident why 1960s drive-in audiences did not take to the film.  It is a movie that makes audiences’ think, and cutting down the running time and pairing it with another feature impedes audiences’ ability to discover Carnival of Souls.  When the film found its way into art houses during the late 1980s, and eventually made its way into the Criterion Collection, Carnival of Souls founds its true audience and its rightful place in film history.  Apparently it really is all in the timing.

Face Value: Identity and Appearance in EYES WITHOUT A FACE

•14/10/2012 • Leave a Comment

14 October 2012

14 October 2012

One thing Eyes Without a Face makes clear is how intrinsically linked one’s identity is with one’s appearance, specifically the face.  Although we may think of identity as our uniqueness, inner-self, character, all things which lie deep underneath the surface of our skin, Georges Franju’s film suggests otherwise.  The film highlights the value of appearance, particularly in women, during the late 1950s/early 1960s.  Set in Paris, Eyes Without a Face suggests without appearance there is no identity, and therefore, or inevitably, no existence.

The film begins late one night with a mysterious, yet attractive woman dumping a dead body in the Seine.  From there, cut to a lecture where renowned Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) shares what he believes is the future of skin grafting.  At the end of this lecture, this doctor receives word a body was recently retrieved from the Seine and it may, in fact, be his missing daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob).  Doctor Génessier positively identifies Christiane’s body at the morgue and returns home to his isolated mansion.  There, the mysterious woman from the opening sequence awaits Doctor Génessier’s arrival.  The woman, Louise (Alida Valli), is Doctor Génessier “secretary” (emphasis on the root of the word, ‘secret’) and former patient; Louise received a successful facial transplant from Doctor Génessier.  Upstairs is the real Christiane, who is very much alive, but severely disfigured from an automobile accident; Christiane’s face is almost entirely gone and she wears a mask to cover what is left.  Doctor Génessier—whose experimental medical practice is the result of a severe God-complex—and Louise work together to bring young girls to the mansion, specifically to a hidden operating room off the garage.  Once there, the girls are drugged and their faces removed, all in an effort to transplant a face onto Christiane, restoring the beauty she possessed prior to the car accident.  However, having suffered through several failed attempts, Christiane’s hopes for restored beauty fade, and she begins to wish she was dead, just as the world believes her to be.  When confronted with yet another surgery, and another young look-alike who will lose her life in this twisted ritual, Christiane rebels, ending her father and Louise’s monstrous medical game for good.

Before addressing Christiane, the character through which Franju conducts his boldest exploration between identity and appearance, there are secondary characters, all women, designed to explore the relationship between the two.  First is Louise, who the audience knows received a successful face transplant by Doctor Génessier.  At Christiane’s “funeral,” people wonder who Louise is; they know very little about her, only deducing she is Doctor Génessier’s secretary, she entered his life sometime in the past four years (after the death of his wife), and she is assumed a foreigner.  Considering this information about Louise is discussed at a funeral for a girl the audience knows is alive, meaning depict is ripe in the air, the question becomes, how credible is the information we know about Louise?  Not very.  Might she be Doctor Génessier’s wife who supposedly died four years ago?  Likely, Louise is the same woman these people have known for years, the wife to Doctor Génessier and mother to Christiane, who allowed the doctor to experiment on her.  People at the funeral don’t know Louise because her appearance is different, and with it comes a new identity.

Moreover, once Edna (Juliette Mayniel) loses her face, when Doctor Génessier’s attempts to transplant it onto his daughter, she loses her identity.  While trying to escape her capture at the mansion, and all bandaged up, concealing what was formerly her face, Edna jumps from a high window and kills herself.  She has been stripped of her appearance, but not given a new one, like Louise.  Thus, without an appearance, she has no identity, and ultimately does not exist.  Doctor Génessier and Louise bury Edna’s body in the mausoleum people believe Christiane’s body is buried in.  Edna is erased.

Even the girl in the beginning, the one Louise disposes of in the Seine, who Doctor Génessier falsely claims as his “missing” Christiane, loses her identity because she is faceless.  The audience knows this girl is Simone, a missing Parisian, but because Doctor Génessier removes her appearance and re-identifies her as Christiane, her true identity is lost, and she, too, ceases to exist.

Finally, Christiane clearly loses her identity when she loses her face.  Doctor Génessier and Louise hide Christiane away from the world, embarrassed by her appearance and determined to restore her physical beauty before lettering her out of the mansion.  A funeral is held and death notices printed; Christiane is dead, she no longer exists, and that is all because she loses her coveted appearance.

Yet, Christiane is not actually deceased; she lingers in a limbo between her former self and the self her father and Louise want her to become.  She is wounded physically and emotionally, and imprisoned in the mansion.  All Christiane can do is wander from room to room, grappling with this limbo, secretively searching for a mirror to see what’s left of her face.  Of course, she cannot find one.  First, all the mirrors have been removed.  But, perhaps more importantly, what Christiane is looking for, herself reflected, she would never be able to find.  Her identity as Christiane is gone, along with her face, and therefore what she wants to see no longer exists.   The only thing Christiane finds is a painting of herself, one, presumably, done prior to her accident.  In this painting Christiane sees herself, with a beautiful face, surrounded by doves, looking radiant.

This painting is all Christiane has to reflect her existence.  Beyond the physical torture of living with a father and, presumed, mother, who force their daughter to undergo extensive and painful medical procedures, Christiane’s parents are also causing her an identity crisis; she is Christiane, but, because of Doctor Génessier and Louise’s actions, Christiane no longer exists.  When she reaches her breaking point, Christiane thinks back to this painting and becomes the appearance she saw reflected back at her.  Through that painting, Christiane finds the identity she lost and reclaims it.  Having released Paulette (Beatrice Altariba), the latest victim Louise lured to the mansion, stabbing Louise to death in the neck with a scalpel, and releasing all her father’s dogs, Christiane opens the doves’ cage and sets them free.  A few doves fly to her hands and arms and she walks outside with them.  Once outside, the painting has come to life and Christiane floats, radiantly, into the woods, with the doves still surrounding her, just as she saw reflected to her on the canvas.

Eyes Without a Face is a complex film, expressing several themes and ideas, and one that it is primarily concerned with is the link between appearance and identity.  Appearance reflects identity, and Eyes Without a Face takes that further, suggesting without an appearance to reflect it, identity does not exists; appearance is essential to identity.

Coming out of the Trance: Lost Pace in Archie Mayo’s SVENGALI

•07/10/2012 • 1 Comment

7 October 2012

Adapted from Trilby, George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, Svengali is a 1931 horror film starring John Barrymore and Marian Marsh, directed by Archie Mayo.  The film begins with Svengali (John Barrymore), draped in shadows, masterfully playing a piano in his apartment/studio in a small town in France, when a woman, Madame Honori (Carmel Myers), enters for her music lessons.  Clearly, Madame Honori is infatuated with Svengali, but it becomes clear Svengali’s interest in Madame Honori have nothing to do with her or her vocal abilities (or lack thereof); Svengali is interested in Madame Honori’s money because he is broke.  He desperately offers music lessons to women to pay his bills.  When Madame Honori reveals she has left her husband to be with Svengali his kind, yet creepy demeanor toward her changes. The camera stays behind Svengali, only showing the back of his head, while capturing a petrified Madame Honori who repeatedly pleads, “Svengali, don’t look at me that way,” before fleeing the apartment.  The next day Svengali’s assistant reports the Madame Honori’s body was retrieved from the lake; she committed suicide.

Shortly after, Svengali gets bullied by tenants in the apartment building for his poor hygiene.  While stranded in a tenant’s apartment without his clothes, Svengali meets blonde haired, bright-eyed Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh), a model looking for artists in hopes of work.  Their meeting is brief, however they begin seeing each other frequently as Trilby visits the building to pose for artists who reside there.  Trilby falls in love with Billie (Bramwell Fletcher), an artist she often sits for, but Svengali falls for Trilby and notices she has the potential of becoming an outstanding operatic singer.

Svengali has a secret; he is a self-serving hypnotist, alluded to by Madame Honori’s comment, “Svengali, don’t look at me like that.”  He hypnotizes Trilby, convincing her Billie will never love her because she has been with other men, and that Svengali is the only one who cares for her.  Confused and entranced, Trilby agrees; she and Svengali fake Trilby’s suicide, and the two flee their small town and head to Paris.

Five years pass and Billie travels to Paris to see Svengali and his new wife in concert: Svengali the maestro and his wife the operatic singer with accompanying orchestra.  After the show, Billie catches a glimpse at Svengali’s new wife up close, and realizes it is his lost love, Trilby; however, Trilby barely recognizes Billie, and it becomes clear to him Svengali hypnotized her.  Billie vows to follow Svengali and Trilby to each of their concert stops until the day he can break Trilby of the spell Svengali cast on her.  By this time Svengali’s heart has weakened, which weakens his power over Trilby.  Eventually, Svengali suffers a heart attack, which immediately causes Trilby to collapse.  Svengali, dying, pleads that God grant him the happiness in death he could not have in life: true love.  Svengali dies, and so does Trilby.

Interestingly, Svengali’s plot is a mirror for the film overall.  Svengali is a powerful, self-serving hypnotist, but halfway through the film he weakens and the rest of the movie is his slow, inevitable demise.  The film starts off very powerfully, but halfway through it weakens, loses paces, and begins its descent toward inevitable demise.

The first half of Svengali is full of groundbreaking camerawork, dramatic lighting, and dynamic set design. In the beginning, the camera sweeps around Svengali’s apartment.  The camera, it seems, is Svengali’s most trusted companion; it captures all the protagonist’s underhanded and, at times, humorous moves when with Madame Honori, but slides behind Svengali to hide his face from the audience when he hypnotizes her into committing suicide. The camera’s allegiance to Svengali reveals his character as both devious and charismatic, but also conceals his secret.  Moreover, the dramatic lighting creates large shadows around Svengali, giving Svengali an eerie, ominous presence.  This lighting creates the mystery and exaggerates fear for viewers.

The curious prop pieces placed around the sets, as well as the minimalist furniture and obscure shapes of doors, hallways, and rooms—which is greatly reminiscent of German Expressionist films—, also enhance the first half of the film.  Inside the artist’s apartment molded faces hang on the walls.  The hanging heads, with whited out eyes, foreshadow the appearance of Svengali as hypnotist, as well as remind the audience of the masks we all wear, the mask Svengali is wearing by pretending to look out for Trilby’s best interest, but instead seeking his own desires, which ultimately destroy her life.  Also, Svengali’s room has a low ceiling, and even though it is not cluttered with furniture, the room has an enclosed feeling, while the hallways connecting the apartments are incredibly spacious and barren, the opposite of Svengali’s lair.  The doors, in every apartment, are oversized, seemingly out-of-place, reinforcing the fantasy, or supernatural element to the film.  In all, these details of the set design create unease, strongly support the film’s horror genre.

Yet, even though the film starts off so well, midway through Svengali weakens, in both narrative and cinematics.  From a plot perspective, once Svengali takes Trilby to Paris, and five years instantly elapse, the narrative loses steam.  Viewers were watching a menacing hypnotist with musical brilliance wreaking havoc on those around with his supernatural powers.  After midway, viewers watch, at a slower pace, a washed-up hypnotist and musician stammering around Europe, and eventually down to Egypt, with Trilby and a heart condition, desperately running from Billie.  Gone is the camera’s clever dance around Svengali, the dramatic lighting, and the Expressionist-influenced set designs.  The filmmaking loses its flare simultaneously with the narrative.

Moreover, because of a slower, lack-luster second half, obvious problems with Svengali come into the forefront.  The first and most obvious is the film’s anti-Semitic statements, which are present throughout, but unmissable as the film lingers on.  Svengali’s exaggerated facial features and dark hair identify the character as a stereotypical Jewish man, which keeps true to the character’s ethnicity in de Maurier’s novel.  His poor hygiene and desperation for money are additional negative stereotypes the film promotes.  Also, Svengali is demonic, evident by his supernatural powers, not to mention is pointed, serpent-like beard.  The film is undoubtedly anti-Semitic.

Also, a feminist reading reveals the film’s negative statements against women, evident through the treatment of Madame Honori and Trilby.  Madame Honori, who commits adultery with Svengali, dies early on in the film.  The audiences watches her in a flashy dress, the bust-line of which she keeps pulling down, foolishly embarrassing herself by singing wretchedly in front of Svengali.  Why must viewers watch all this but not her death?  Her suicide is a passing comment made by a secondary character.  Madame Honori is erased without much care because she was a loose woman who chooses not to play by the rules.  Moreover, Trilby first appears in the film in a man’s coat and little else; she is also a non-conformer.  She is a model who frequently poses nude, and she offers to strip down for Svengali before she knows anything about him; her sexual promiscuity is made clear early on.  Like Madame Honori, Trilby dies.  Curiously, the audience never learns what kills her; she is a young, seemingly healthy woman.  It is clear her death is linked to Svengali’s heart attack, but the film does not explain what causes her to die.  Apparently it does not matter what her cause of death is, she just has to die.

In all, Svengali leads off as one of the best supernatural horror films of the 1930s, a particularly rich time for the horror genre.  But, this film ultimately fizzles out.  More than that, there are major problems in the film’s messages about Jews and women, which a modern day audience is likely to be more sensitive to than 1930s viewers.  Although Svengali was a sensation in its day, with unsettling statements about Jews and women and inconsistent cinematics, Svengali does not carry off the same popularity today.

(No Longer) Blinded By the Light: The Supernatural in DOLORES CLAIBORNE

•30/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

30 September 2012

When a film is released that was adapted from a Stephen King short story, novella, or novel, moviegoers’ first thought might be they are in for a thriller, likely of the supernatural persuasion.  King, as storyteller, often explores the bizarre and unexplainable when seeking his scares.  However, Stephen King does not only write in the horror genre, and many of these fear-free and deeply poignant works have been adapted for the silver screen; Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) are two leading examples.

King’s novel Dolores Claiborne was adapted for cinema in 1995, three years after King released the novel of the same title.  Critical reviews of Dolores Claiborne place this film in the same category as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, meaning Dolores Claiborne lacks the supernatural element King is known for.  This is inaccurate.  Without questions, Dolores Claiborne is a supernatural thriller.

To summarize, Dolores Claiborne, directed by Taylor Hackford, begins with the death of Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt).  Vera, an elderly, handicapped woman, plummets down a flight of stairs at her home, and Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), a trusted employee of Vera’s for over twenty years, stands at the top of the stairs looking down at Vera’s body.  The police arrest Dolores for what they presume to be Vera’s murder, which brings Dolores’ estranged, thirty-something daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), back to the small, coastal Maine town of her childhood, where Dolores is being detained.  Pending an inquest, Dolores is released, and she and her daughter return to their family home, which is full of painful memories and unresolved conflicts.  One of the most painful memories is of Joe (David Strathairn), Dolores’ husband and Selena’s alcoholic father.  Joe physically abused Dolores and sexually abused Selena.  One summer afternoon when Selena was a teenager—and also the day of a solar eclipse—Dolores lured Joe to his death by enraging his drunken temper and leading him outside through some brush to a carefully covered well’s hole which he fell through.  Joe’s death was ruled and accident, but one of the detectives, a friend of Joe’s, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), always felt Dolores was involved.  His suspicion lingered through the years, and when Vera Donovan was found dead in front of Dolores, Detective Mackey became determined to finally arrest her for murder.  As difficult memories plague Dolores’ mind, and Selena struggles with her own traumatic recollections and complicated emotions toward her mother, this impromptu mother-daughter reunion boils over as the inquest into Vera’s death arrives.

Today, a solar eclipse in known as a natural phenomenon, but, historically speaking, that is not always how people understood eclipses.  Long before astrological advancements in science, little was known about eclipses, be they lunar or solar.  Thousands of years ago people from all over the world created myths, legends, folklore, and rituals surrounding eclipses.  For example, in China a legend began that an eclipse was actually a dragon consuming the Sun or the Moon (depending on whether the eclipse was solar or lunar), and people of China would bang drums, yell, and generate loud noise to scare the dragon off.  Moving through history, religious groups began experiencing eclipses as dark moments, during which negative energy fell upon the Earth and its people; eclipses become an omen.  Until the last few hundred years, eclipses were not understood to be a natural phenomenon; eclipses were a supernatural event.

This supernatural history of eclipses seems to be why King pulls a solar eclipse into Dolores Claiborne, and why screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who adapted King’s novel, also highlighted this solar eclipse as the crux of the Dolores Claiborne film.

The film’s solar eclipse happens when Dolores carries out the plan for Joe’s death.  After giving him enough liquor to drink himself into barely standing belligerence, Dolores confronts Joe on their front porch.  By this time, the solar eclipse has begun; the light is changing as the Moon slowly moves in front of the Sun for a total eclipse.  The bright fusion of pinks, yellows, blues, and oranges makes the sky look artificial—intentionally artificial, not just cinematically artificial because the scene was shot against a green-screen.  This curious lighting is beautiful, but unnerving because it is not normal, and therefore unknown.  The vibrant colors appear to be the bright before the dark, and, as Dolores reveals she has taken back the money Joe stole out of Selena’s bank account, and also reveals she knows he has molested Selena, Joe chases Dolores through the brush.  Simultaneously, this beautiful, mysterious light fades, and the total solar eclipse quietly befalls this picturesque coastal community.  Dolores leads Joe to the hidden well, which she jumps over, but he falls through.  Hanging on for life, Joe pleads with Dolores for help, but, although upset, she does not rescue him from falling.  Dolores stands firmly underneath the darkness of the solar eclipse as Joe loses his struggle and plummets to death.

The pairing of this solar eclipse with Dolores’ ability to carry out such a life-changing, traumatic event is no coincidence.  These two events are connected because Dolores’ plan would not have worked if not for the solar eclipse.  This is evident by the film’s other death.

By this time in the film, the audience already knows Dolores did not kill Vera; Vera committed suicide.  Yet, when her initial fall down the stairs did not kill her, Vera begged Dolores to finish the job.  Dolores ran to the kitchen and retrieved a marble rolling-pin, returned to Vera, and raised it up, as though she would strike Vera with a fatal, merciful blow.  However, Dolores could not do it; she was unable to kill Vera, and Vera died of injuries sustained for her fall.  The fact that Dolores could not commit an act that would end Vera’s life, but could commit an act that would end Joe’s life, suggests the supernatural power of the eclipse.

Arguably, Dolores had already taken part in death, with Joe, so why was she not able help Vera with death?  Yes, the two situations are entirely different, and that is a consideration.  But, the circumstantial differences, much like the circumstantial evidence that does not hold up in Detective Mackey’s case against Dolores, should not berate the effects a global event that causes a complete, uncontrollable physical change in an environment has on a person.  The eclipse had an effect on Joe’s death, and the lack of eclipse an equaled effected Vera’s.

Stemming from legend, and evident by how differently Dolores handled the two deaths she witnessed, the supernatural effect of an eclipse is a significant part in Dolores Claiborne.  Literal and figurative darkness fell upon Dolores under that solar eclipse, and she was able to commit an act she would not commit under any other circumstance.  Perhaps it was strength the eclipse gave Dolores, or perhaps it was clarity, but the eclipse undoubtedly affected Dolores, in the same sort of bizarre and unexplainable ways people have made legend of, in regards to eclipses as a supernatural event, from the beginning of time.

But Why Do We Love It?: Allegories, Justice, and Cinematic Refinement in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

•23/09/2012 • Leave a Comment

23 September 2012

Although its 1994 theatrical release was a disappointment, barely earning back what the film cost to make, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption gained popularity when released on home video, and eventually DVD.  In fact, today The Shawshank Redemption is considered one of the most beloved American films of all times, ranking #72 in 10th Anniversary Edition (2007) of the AFI’s 100 Best Films list.

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, entitled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s film tells of the twenty years Andrew Dufresne (Tim Robbins) served in Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Although the film centers on Andy’s imprisonment, the narrative is told from the perspective of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), Andy’s fellow inmate, and burgeoning best friend.  Shortly after Andy’s arrival at Shawshank he falls victim to continuous abuse, from other inmates, as well as guards and Warden Norton (Bob Gunton); however Andy’s unbreakable spirit and banking background make him as asset to Shawshank’s warden and guards.  Andy moves up the inner ranks of the prison’s hierarchy, but, along the way, stumbles, unable to avoid the inescapable dangers of life in prison.  In the film’s conclusion, Warden Norton, the guards, and the inmates at Shawshank realize just how strong Andy’s spirit has been all along, and just how strong of a person he actually is, despite how hard Shawshank tried to break him.

It is interesting that this film was not an immediate success.  But what is even more interesting is how this box-office disappointment overcame its initial reputation, becoming a staple in American cinema.  While it may never be fully understood how a film could make such strides in terms of popularity, there are many things about the film’s quality that, likely, lend to its eventual success.

Film critics, namely Roger Ebert, film historian, analyst, and critic, suggests The Shawshank Redemption has a strong allegorical quality to it, and that this may explain audiences’ eventual embracement of the film.  The film, not so discreetly, communicates the messages that inner strength is necessary to surviving life’s challenges, and that success and achievement are still possible for perseverant people, even when one is held down in the world.  Without question these uplifting messages are a part of the reason the film found home in audience members’ hearts, yet not all cinematic allegories win an audience over, so this cannot be all there is to it.

Another part to Shawshank’s success is the retribution in the film’s resolution.  Andy, a strong and innocent character, endures years of inhumane treatment in prison, and the audience needs to see justice in the end for his sufferings if the masses are to accept watching a person abused to this extreme.  In the fictional world of the film, it satisfies the audience to see Warden Norton’s life end in cowardice and learn that the most vicious of all guards, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), was arrested, while sobbing like a child, for his irreprehensible wrongdoing.  It is not that the audience wants more carnage or trauma; conversely, the audience has, by the film’s conclusion, become moderately desensitized to brutality, and accepts the Warden Norton’s death and guard’s arrest as reassurance that, through these final violent and degrading acts, integrity is somehow restored in the end.  In no small way, the justice in the film’s conclusion allows for the redemption alluded to in the film’s title, and this is a satisfying experience for viewers.

And yet, beyond the allegorical lessons and resolution’s deliverance of justice in the film’s imperfect world, the cinematics of the film are another unmistakable reason for audience’s eventual embrace of The Shawshank Redemption.  Darabont is a gifted filmmaker, and his directorial style in this film (a film he also adapted the screenplay for) is uncomplicated and precise, not to mention refined.  Put another way, Darabont simply keeps the audience’s attention on the story (the content), not how the story is being shown to them (the construct), a wise move when attempting to capture a character’s emotional journey and, simultaneously, attempting to take audiences on their own emotional journeys along the way.  It is sometimes the most seemingly uncomplicated filmmaking that requires the most attention to detail, and The Shawshank Redemption is no exception to this.  In the darkest moments of the film—the sodomy, brutal beatings, suicide, murder—Darabont keeps the audience at an arm’s length visually from the action.  Clearly a decision was made not to show any graphic content, and it is fairly obvious why, but the subtle way Darabont includes, and even emphasizes, the film’s difficult content, through cuts, angles, and pacing, alerts the audience to what is happening, but keeps them from having to bear witness to graphic images.

For example, on the first night Andy spends at Shawshank one of the other new inmates has a breakdown just after lights out.  This new inmate cries hysterically that there has been a mistake, clearly panicking upon realizing that he is trapped in a cell, likely for life.  The guards warn this man to quiet down, but he is unable to control himself.  Eventually Hadley pulls the man out of the cell and beats him brutally on the prison’s cement floor.  Darabont shows Hadley take several swings at the man, but the camera is positioned feet away from the actors, capturing the action in a long shot.  Moreover, Darabont cuts to close-ups on Red and other inmates looking on at the beating.  These cuts take the viewers away from violent beating, offering a break from witnessing this brutality.  In all, the sound effects are what make this scene difficult, as Darabont intentionally limits the beating’s visual presence for audience members.

Similar examples are found as the film continues.  Bogs (Mark Rolston) and “the Sisters” often beat Andy, but more quick cutting limits what the audience sees of these violent exchanges.  Also, Darabont often uses crane shots or clever angels to restrict viewers’ line of vision.  The audience is told through voiceover narration that Bogs sodomizes Andy, but that action, unsurprisingly, is never captured.  Even with Brooks’ death, the audience is not allowed to see the moment he actually hangs himself; instead, the audience watches his feet as they push-off the table he stand on top of.  Then, after he’s dead, which means the audience is spared watching Brooks struggling through suffocation, the audience sees him hanging, but the camera is positioned behind him, therefore viewers never look at the noosed, dead face of the beloved character.

Darabont recognized that showing the audience too much, allowing them unrestricted access to the morbid, violent, and cruel events in and surrounding Shawshank, would, likely, turn them off from the film.  If the film were too difficult to watch audiences simply would not watch it.  Therefore, the film’s ability to cover such difficult content in the narrative without explicitly capturing graphic images helps explain how audiences embraced The Shawshank Redemption.

Clearly there is not one reason The Shawshank Redemption went from box office disappointment to American film classic, and, in fairness, the entirely of this reason may never be fully explained.  However, astute critics are certainly on point is associating the film’s allegorical nature with audience interest.  And, the film’s fearless quest for justice in the conclusion, allowing all to recuperate, is also an undeniable aspect to the film’s ability to satisfy audience needs.  Moreover, Darabont direction, knowing when and how far of a distance to keep the audience when handling the film’s most atrocious and inhumane content, is surely part of the film’s success.

I’m Not Your Number One Fan: A Small Cinematic Grievance with MISERY

•16/09/2012 • 1 Comment

16 September 2012

Because misery loves company, this Sunday Reel Club offers companionship to Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990).  Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, of the same title, Misery captures several weeks during which time a severely disturbed woman, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), imprisons renowned writer, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), in her isolated Colorado home.  The film begins with Paul emerging from a quiet Colorado lodge, a retreat where he always secludes himself to write.  Unbeknownst to Paul, a massive blizzard sweeps over Colorado and Paul crashes his car in the whiteout.  As luck would have it, Annie, a former nurse, and Paul’s self-proclaimed “number one fan,” rescues the badly injured author from the wrecked vehicle and takes him back to her home.  Once there Paul regains consciousness and begins to realize Annie is far from the Florence Nightingale type.  While healing, Paul’s latest Misery book, the last in a wildly popular series following protagonist Misery Chastain, is released and Annie purchases a copy in town.  Annie becomes overcome with rage when she discovers Paul kills Misery in the end of the novel.  Refusing to let the badly injured Paul call his friends and family or leave, Annie forces Paul write yet another Misery novel, one in which Misery comes back from the dead.  Paul agrees to pacify Annie’s violent temper.  In the weeks he spends trapped in his wheelchair writing, Paul devises plans to escape.  While many of his plans fizzle out, his final, impromptu attempt ends up being a fight to the death between Paul and Annie.

In all, Misery is simply a cinematic home run.  First, deriving from King’s novel, the film’s narrative concentrates on Annie’s complicated yet captivating decent into madness, and, of course, how Annie’s madness wrecks havoc on unsuspecting, handicapped Paul Sheldon.  Content wise, the film is fascinating.  Second, experienced screenplay writer William Goldman adapted this piece from King’s novel.  Translating King’s literary pace and exploration into the human psyche into a visual spectacle is not easy, evident by the numerous King adaptations that failed to satisfy cinematic audiences.  Nevertheless, Goldman’s familiarity with screen language proves fluent in Misery.  Lastly, Rob Reiner cleverly approached Misery with “less is more” direction.  That is—and this is not intended to berate or insult Reiner—the cinematics in Misery are rather formulaic.  Falling into the psychological thriller/horror genre, Reiner communicates the film with a few standard Dutch angles and relies heavily upon high and low angled shots.  For example, the high angles almost always look down upon the broken and beaten Paul, who rests helplessly in bed, while the low angles most frequently look up at robust Annie who towers menacingly over Paul.  Moreover, the film employs frequent close-ups, most notably on Bates’ face.  With a close up shot Reiner can fill the screen with Annie, super-sizing her presence, allowing the audience to feel what Paul feels, that her torture is inescapable.  Nothing about these angles or shots is original or revolutionary, but Reiner knew he did not need to reinvent the wheel to make Misery a success.  Simply following the cinematic formula for a film of this genre would be more than enough to communicate this mind-bending narrative.  Reiner did just that and the film was a hit, and is still considered and achievement.

Yet, even a cinematic home run has its imperfections, and in Misery one of the most noticeable imperfections comes directly after the film’s opening sequence.  Just after Paul crashes his car in the blizzard, and the film’s title boldly appears in a blood-red color across the screen, the film flashes back to a meeting between Paul and his publisher, Marcia (Lauren Bacall).  This meeting occurred in New York a few weeks before Paul’s crash.  During the meeting Paul grips tightly his brown leather satchel and tells Marcia of the case’s great sentimental value.  He also reveals he is ready to write something new, something not in the Misery series.  Marcia tells Paul to be more grateful for all the financial success Misery brought him, but it is clear from Paul’s reaction that his gratitude is minuet compared to his agitation to leave Misery behind. The brief flashback ends and the film resumes in the present with Annie prying Paul out of the crashed car.

Although this flashback in only a minor part of the film, it disorients viewers unnecessarily.  To begin, this flashback breaks the film’s linear narrative; no other moment of the film breaks continuity.  Why then would the film include a break so early on if this pattern would not be continued?  Furthermore, a flashback typically reveals crucial information to the audience.  That is, if a film bothers to flashback it is most likely for plot purposes.  This is not the case in Misery.  Yes, it is interesting to know Paul’s feelings about the Misery series; however, that information comes up time and again throughout the film, particularly in conversations and confrontations with Annie during his capture.  Also, the flashback introduces the audience to Marcia, but she reintroduces herself mere minutes afterward, when she calls Buster, the small Colorado town’s sheriff, to report Paul missing. Since the flashback’s content becomes redundant, this sequence has no significance to the film.

Taken another way, there is enough evidence to support this flashback is actually dream, as it begins just after Paul’s car accident and immediately returns to a barely conscious Paul trapped in the car.  But, even if it is an unconscious dream (as opposed to a conscious flashback), this sequence still breaks continuity and offers nothing to the plot.  Had this been the first in a series of dreams Paul would have throughout the film then the dreams might evolve into collective significance.  Too bad that is not the case.

In a film that plays by all the rules, not venturing away from the established cinematic formula, why would Reiner include one empty flashback?  The obvious answer is the flashback provides Lauren Bacall more screen time, and that could legitimately be the reason the scene was included.  In the opening credits Bacall is attributed with, “and special appearance by Lauren Bacall.”  Perhaps her appearance was so special that an entire irrelevant scene was written for the film just to highlight her.

While more Bacall screen time is a welcomed treat for any film, this flashback remains a small blemish on the nearly perfect Misery. Fortunately for Reiner, the flashback occurs before Annie and her decent into madness are even introduced in the film, and therefore before the narrative’s true focus begins.


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