I recently rewatched my favorite film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, the 1986 picture Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann. One of my favorite aspects of the film is Mann’s superb visuals. Every scene is carefully laid out and shot masterfully, perfectly capturing the eerie atmosphere. Mann’s eighties stylization is at its peak in this film, color coded lighting abounds, especially in the cobalt blue night scenes and obligatory beachside shots (this is a Michael Mann movie, after all). However, one visual element in this film is most important, tying directly into the structure of the plot, and that is symmetry.
The opening shot of profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen) and his former colleague Jack Crawford (played by the late great Dennis Farina) shows the two men sat atop a dead tree, the ocean behind them. They are framed symmetrically, like a mirror image. There are shots exactly like this throughout the film, like the lobby of the Atlanta Mariott Marquis passing by outside Graham’s elevator, or the shadowy square where the FBI attempts a sting operation to catch the film’s killer, “The Tooth Fairy.” It’s not just symmetry in framing, however, since the film is structurally symmetrical, with the first half focusing upon Graham and the FBI and the second half centered on Francis Dollarhyde (The Tooth Fairy, played by Tom Noonan).
Effectively, Dollarhyde and Graham mirror one another. Which is fitting, since Dollarhyde’s modus operandi revolves entirely around perceiving, with chunks of broken mirrors being used to disfigure his victims and the victims themselves being arranged as audiences to his macabre displays. Dollarhyde’s ultimate goal is to be perceived as a god, and his killings fuel that dream. Graham’s talent is his ability to enter the headspace of the killers he pursues, and as he uncovers more and more of Dollarhyde’s twisted personality, Graham finds himself dangerously involved in the case. As the film progresses, Graham speaks to his own reflection as if it were the killer, and it is more and more clear he will personally pursue Dollarhyde, despite promising his family he would stay as detached as possible from the killer. The film follows Dollarhyde in its second half, and he too is eagerly watching Graham’s progress in the investigation (through front page articles in a tabloid). Like Graham, Dollarhyde experiences a crisis in self-perception as he begins a breakneck pace romance with a blind coworker, Reba (played by Joan Allen). It is fitting that the woman who throws a wrench in Dollarhyde’s plans is incapable of the type of perception he so desires.
In the climax of the film, Graham and Crawford are rapidly closing in on Dollarhyde’s home, while he prepares to murder Reba. Ironically, Dollarhyde turns on Reba because of his misperception of her interaction with another coworker as infidelity. Graham sees this happening from outside, and immediately leaps through Dollarhyde’s kitchen window, effectively shattering the mirror that has separated their stories over the course of the film. After a brief scuffle and shootout, Dollarhyde lies dead, with the pool of blood beneath him making him resemble the Francis Bacon painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which he has tattooed across his chest. Graham, Dollarhyde’s mirror image, is the one who finally sees him as he wanted to be perceived all along. Manhunter is an elevation of the psychological thriller genre, with its rich stylistic elements playing into the psychologies of its characters. The film examines the toll of Graham’s reflective profiling on his person as he perceives a clearer and clearer image of the man he is hunting. Fantastic stuff! It is one of Michael Mann’s greatest (and easiest to watch) films, in my opinion, and a great choice for late night enjoyment as we all approach Halloween.
David Cronenberg’s filmography has given us some of the most horrific and nauseating body horror ever depicted from The Fly to Videodrome (long live the new flesh!), his work taps into this undeniable, visceral fear of the deconstruction of self as a tactile physical form but also as the site of conflict. It’s a dissociation of the human as a body and a deep dive as an exploration into the facets that make us who we are as entities coexisting but largely shaping each other with each interaction. Then it should come as no surprise that his first feature film, Shivers (1975), earnestly explores these concepts as an extended chamber piece within a consumer-friendly high rise apartment as parasites invade the occupants, turning them into sex-crazed fiends. Just imagine if the Tinder Google Doc for The Standard at Athens hadn’t been deleted and instead of everyone getting COVID, they gave each other massive horny worm parasites.
These laboratory-created parasites spread like wildfire throughout this island resort condominium, infecting everyone with a literal ‘love bug’ with not-so romantic implications. What kicks this whole outbreak into action occurs in one of the opening scenes. After the advertisement slideshow that lured a wholesome young couple in to tour, the audience is berated with a horrifically brutal escape and avoidance scene between a young school girl and an older gentleman that ends with her death and dismemberment. This flagrant and excessive violence against a woman shocks the viewer into the darker underbelly of this middle class paradise facade. Nicolas’s discovery of the girl’s body sets the story into motion as the tacit incrimination of harm enacted on a female and the spread of her parasites into others shifts the film outside the normal paradigm of a low-budget schlock body horror piece and into a critical representation of weaponized female sexuality and brutality in a pre #MeToo-era cautionary tale.
It doesn’t feel like an accident that the ground-zero for this island epidemic starts with a young woman who’s revealed to have been a sexual preoccupation of one of the scientists. Her body was mutilated and mangled from the inside out by her former lover who had injected her with trial parasites for a medical experiment that he was experimenting on. A story of mistrust and abuse of power, this is really the only scene we see these characters throughout the film, but they’re integral in creating this backdrop based on a secret no one is willing to confess to publicly. When her body is discovered, the investigation of the circumstances leads nowhere as the woman’s involvement in the experiment had already been known by his colleagues, and the focus then shifts towards containment. Containment as a means to insulate the knowledge of the crime and the re-narrativization of the scientist as a martyr to public help really captures this story of concealment as a means to guard against an unpleasant truth about the reality of the situation. His involvement with her death faces no scrutiny nor does his serial preoccupation with younger women ever get highlighted in any real critical light.
Regardless, the initial spread from the young woman to Nicolas redirects anxieties to containment as the characters are unaware of what exactly has been happening under their noses the whole time. There’s a slow pickup of scenes as the contamination lurks in every interaction thereafter, staining the walls and floors with its hidden blood trails as infection sets in. The parasites act as a symbol with dualist meanings in the extended metaphor of the film as both a side effect of the original act but also a perpetuation of it forward unto the guests spreading it to one another. As a side effect of negligence on the behalf of those in the know about the parasite, its rapid progression through the floors and levels squirms and writhes just below the carpet silently lurks in each interaction without knowing it had even taken place at all until the insatiable sexual appetite had consumer everyone in its wake and by then it’s too late and the irreparable harm has been done.
On the other hand, the parasites could just be a physical manifestation of the perpetuation of the crime as it moves from person to person. In other analyses, the parasitic worms have been considered a predictive depiction of HIV. Along that same line, sexual misconduct in all its external and internalized effects do have a way of trickling down from the initial point of contact. Every decision and act after the initial murder of the girl can be traced and her presence is felt through each of the infestations as it progresses further until everyone ends up naked in the indoor pool–as horny worm contagions tend to go. Thinking of this in terms of the current Hollywood climate, it’s easy to see the way that certain executives’ interactions with stars and actors alter the layout and design for not only the final film but everything that succeeds it.
Women as perpetrators and the main driving force of sexual pervasiveness and the spread of the parasite definitely complicates this narrative in a lot of ways, but Cronenberg has a fairly consistent preoccupation throughout his films with women as vessels not just for plot but also for deeper sentiments of primitiveness as humans more intensely linked to their id. As Nicolas deals in restraint of his urges while the worms eat him from the inside, the veil of traditionalism of chastity and modesty is yanked away as the impropriety of lust takes hold. The female body becomes the site of danger and excess as actual incubation chambers that are absolutely bursting with eroticism–perhaps as a compensation for scarcity of satisfaction that normally characterizes these women’s intimacy.
Having a phallic shaped worm be the monster of the film coheres well with this idea as it’s grotesquely misshapen and persistently invasive that tends to speak to a larger issue of consent. The look of the worm as the means of creating body horror for the plot of the film is so genuinely impractical as a prop for a practical effect which makes its design so feel intentionally useless but still assuming in its probing movements. Using something like this to facilitate a mass orgy of lust defies the logic of reason but champions its practicality as a mutant penis meant to terrorize an unassuming prudish middle class into sexual awakening solidifies this as a Cronenberg film in its execution of not only being a body horror piece but also an exploration into the language of deceit and suppression to the underground world that has altered the visual world of film forever.
To understand the pure direction that went into something that looks so conceptually simple that guides the story in a remarkably pointed and mindful way is exactly what you’ll find with Cronenberg’s work. This as a first feature film for him really sets the tone for his body of work as a whole but moreover the personality that makes this movie a cult classic.
Robert Rodriguiez may be one of the first auteurs that many people my age were exposed to. With many kids learning about his distinctive style from the first three Spy Kids films (2001-2003) and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005). However, I (and many others) soon realized that Rodriguez’s other projects were much different from his child-friendly features. Hyper-violent and over-the-top films. Such as the Spy Kids spin-off films about Danny Trejo’s character, Uncle Machete or the vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). However, the best way to track the evolution of Rodriguez as a director would have to be analyzing how his series of films in his Mexico Trilogy changed and evolved all marking as important indicators of where Rodriguiez was at creatively during the production of each of these films.
El Mariachi (1992)
The film that started not only the trilogy but also Rodriguez’s career is also the most different of the three. The most famous part of El Mariachi would have to be the lengths that Rodriguez went to to cut costs on this production, costing only about seven thousand to make (not counting post-production costs). It does have an endearing low-budget charm to it, in the same way that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) does. It is also the only film in the franchise that is all in Spanish as well and has a completely different cast with Carlos Gallardo playing the titular character. Unfortunately, when compared to the other two in the franchise, it definitely lacks the needed polish in the action department that Rodriguez was later known for. But still, as a first-time director to break over a million at the box-office and get picked up by a large production company for a first feature project is wildly impressive. The shots are framed incredibly well, but the lighting is strange. Although Rodriguez using a wheelchair for dolly shots is genius and I would have never noticed if I didn’t read about him utilizing that strategy. If you are at all interested in El Mariachi I would also implore you to read Rodriguiez’s 1995 book about the production of the film, Rebel Without a Crew. Rodriguez’s latest film, Red 11 (2019) was shot on a $7,000 budget as well proving that the director still wishes to take on the challenge of low budget filmmaking.
Ideologically, Desperado may represent Rodriguez best out of all the films he has made, action cinema with a Mexican and Western underpinnings. This is Rodriguiez’s Evil Dead 2 (1987). A hybrid between a sequel and a remake of El Mariachi with a production budget of seven million instead of seven thousand dollars. Antonio Banderas replaces Carlos Gallardo as guitarist-turned-killer El Mariachi and fits into the role fantastically, bringing the charisma that the role desperately needed, including an iconic scorpion jacket. It is a rehash of the revenge-style plot of the first film but instead with a new foe, a cartel named Bucho (Joaquin de Almeida). The much more polished practical-effects heavy action turning into a main-stay of this era of Rodriguez’s films. Some of El Mariachi’s arsenal in Desperado reminds me of the weapons that Rodriguiez would create later in From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror (2007)such as a guitar-rocket launcher. Many of the mainstays of the cast of Rodriguez’s subsequent projects such as: Steve Buschemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and of course, Danny Trejo.
The utilization of Catholic imagery in Desperado and Machete (2010) draw a lot of parallels as well. Not necessarily the utilization of themes of Catholicism but more so the aesthetics of Catholicism because it “looks cool”. In Desperado, El Mariachi goes to confession at a church after going on a killing spree. However, upon learning about Bucho’s other goons tracking him down he tells the priest before storming out that he will have to go to confession later “because where I’m going I’d just have to come right back”. Just one example of the great hyperbolic dialogue from this Mexsploitation film.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
The final film in the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) adds a political layer to the film, with a corrupt CIA agent (Johnny Depp) and a plot to assassinate and overthrow the President of Mexico. Musician Enrique Iglesias plays a character too, in a very odd casting choice. The political themes are not as much as part of a large-scale message that Rodriguiez is attempting to speak on Mexican politics but more-so just an “upping of the stakes” in the final film of the franchise. Once Upon a Time in Mexico to me is seen as a prototype of Machete (2010). A grindhouse-esque juggling act with an ensemble cast of characters in it. Although the latter does it much better for the reason that it goes all in on the absurd. Once Upon a Time still carries the burden of tying up loose ends with other characters while simultaneously giving Banderas’ character a backseat to the handful of new characters. The film is also significant in that it was the first film to be shot in digital high definition, an interesting development for Rodriguez as a creator that was later utilized heavily in Sin City (2005). Unfortunately unlike Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a messy and in many ways dated film, forgoing the practical effects of Desperado and El Mariachi for the more fashionable CGI at the time but executing it quite poorly. It may be a forgettable entry compared to the superior Desperado but in the greater purview of Rodriguiez’s filmography; it is seen as a stepping stone, a transitional period to greater things for him as a director.
I want to disclaim this piece by saying that there is probably no one in this hemisphere who loves Robert Pattinson more than I do. I am a recent convert to the cult of RP, but what I lack in seniority, I more than make up for in my zeal. Now, with that said let us begin.
The Devil All the Time is Netflix’s most recent attempt to hop on the A24 slow, psychotic horror/thriller/suspense movie bandwagon by adapting Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. Our setting du jour: “Southern” gothic horror, or at least what directors think is Southern (read: poor). Netflix’s biggest selling point? The cast. Antonio Campos has brought out a constellation of big-name stars to give our fun little horror hoedown a little more oomf. Biggest names include Tom Holland (imprisoned in hot, befuddled teen boy typecast), Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough Mia Waskikowska, and of course… Robert Pattinson.
We open with Bill Skarsgard’s Willard Russell’s not so subtle encounter with Christianity in World War II, when he finds a crucified soldier left by the Japanese whom he then mercy kills. Willard’s return to Knockemstiff, Ohio is marred by disillusionment with Christianity and being haunted by images of the cross. He then lives his version of the American Dream, marrying the diner waitress Haley Bennett, and then he has a sudden religious rebirth, setting up a backyard cross that he takes his new son Arvin to. Cue the American Dream is a lie motif when Bennett dies of cancer and God is stoically absent. No spoilers here, but needless to say, PETA is certainly not going to be raving about the movie on Twitter.
We now meet our intrepid protagonist, 16-year-old Arvin Russell, played by America’s favorite 24-year-old, Tom Holland. Arvin now lives with his adopted sister Lenora, a Jesus girl who makes Joan of Arc look like Mae West. Arvin struggles to do the right thing in a world that treats both him and his sister badly. Enter the Reverend Preston Teagardin, played by one Robert Pattinson, a new, slick-talking, sly-eyed preacher who turns their lives upside down. Add dirty cops, Dixie mafia, itinerant serial killers, the Vietnam War, and some good ole-fashioned Polaroids, all wrapped up in the ever-nostalgic aesthetic of the 60s, and you’ve got yourself a movie
The name of the game for this film is trauma. How we experience it, how we live through it, and (most importantly) how it gets repeated. Everyone receives some form of trauma in this Gothic gorefest. We begin in the first 10 minutes with a crucifixion. From there, it’s off to the races; you name it, the movie’s got it. Animal sacrifice, corruption, drugs, religious hypocrisy, murder, serial killers, and spiders. Not a film for the faint of heart. But once we scrub out the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, what are we really left with? Gothic? Absolutely. If by Gothic you mean middle school goth girl, eyebrow + lip piercing, all black clothes, dyed hair streaks aesthetic: just busy, busy, busy.
What do you get when you combine 6+ characters all with different, integral backstories played by big name stars with pushy agents into 138 minutes of film? Answer: one great big Hollywood traffic jam. Campos gives each star their requisite screen time (cheerfully killing off a few in the process), but what the movie has in starpower, it lacks in narrative quality. The movie simply doesn’t have enough time to give each person the characterizations necessary for us to feel fully invested in them or to understand their motivations. The best exemplification for this is Donald Ray Pollock himself giving us almost insulting narrations of what the characters are doing and feeling in a vain attempt to smooth over the canyon-sized gaps the movie leaves.
Not that Pollock exactly has his work cut out for him. Most of the characters, despite having plotlines integral to the story, are perfectly content to be perfectly static. Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin in particular was touted in Netflix’s promos as a great evil, the primary antagonist of the movie, the “devil” of the movie’s title. To be fair, we immediately get bad vibes the minute Pattinson struts into the ramshackle church wearing his powder blue suit and frilly shirt, straight out of an 80s prom scene (a costume he never changes). Pattinson is quickly unmasked as a religious hypocrite after he manipulates Eliza Scanlen’s Lenora into having sex with him and then spurns her when she becomes pregnant. And… that’s it. That’s all we get from Teagardin.
Pattinson’s character (despite a powerful performance as a hissable religious charlatan by RP himself) never moves beyond this. The same holds true for the other characters who, despite their narrative importance, seem placed in the film simply to die. Scanlen’s Lenora is never more for us than “Jesus girl,” despite the trauma inflicted on her by Teagardin. Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff Bodecker is never more for us than a dirty cop. In a movie about trauma in everyone’s lives colored by violence, death, and evil, we’re left wanting more from a movie that simply does not deliver. This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. The actors in particular live up to their starpower and make a valiant attempt to breathe life into the moribund script, but there’s only so much eyelash batting Robert Pattinson can do before we start to ask ourselves “Why are we even watching this?”
Overall, one leaves the movie with neither bloodlust sated, nor their sense of justice gratified, things horror movies need at least one of satisfied to be considered worth spending 2 hours watching. The film’s script falls flat (we’re physically explained the title of the movie by the narrator in the first 20 minutes), and we never get anything from the characters beyond our first impressions. The narrations by Pollock feel like a final insult, as if Campos doesn’t think the audience were smart enough to understand the character choices for themselves. But that’s what you get when you try to make a movie with 7 main characters, just a great big busy mess. I give the movie a C+. Oh hell, we’ll give it a B-, but only because of Robert Pattinson.
I’m not very good at writing about things that are terrifying. My writing style and general outlook on life tend to naturally carry me away from that, into more flowery and romantic things. I only know that I’m bad at it because as I was beginning to write this piece, I tried to establish some bleak and dreary tone about the state of society as it relates to Halloween and Horror cinema, and I found myself just dumping vaguely creepy platitudes about the way people see the holiday, and it was all goofy and shitty and dumb.
I think this kinda happens to encapsulate the exact phenomenon I find so puzzling about the way Halloween works. I must disclaim that October is absolutely my favorite month of the year. It feels like life is happening, the weather is perfect, everybody is together celebrating the season. October in Athens is particularly special, although it’s pretty hard to pin down why. Everybody just kinda is in on whatever we all get to share this month, and it’s wonderful. That being said, every year without fail people hype October to oblivion. “Spooky season is coming! Spoopy!” Everybody chants this stuff almost ritualistically in September, posting that same gif of that person in those black tights dancing with that Jack O’ Lantern on their head. As the month continues, everyone does the costume parties, goes to the pumpkin patches, eats the pumpkin stuff, yada yada.
People watch the same horror movies, too. People watch the schlock, the classics, and the contemporary stuff. This is not a bad thing, and I’m not downplaying horror films in the slightest. There are lots of truly wonderful horror films, and some of them are quite scary, but nevertheless I have always found it a bit puzzling. You settle in, pop your popcorn, surround yourself with the people you care about (or at the very least the people that you’re interested in) and then you watch the scary stuff.
This glib approach to it all comes with several clarifications, naturally. I am not saying here that Halloween is stupid, and horror films are stupid, and it’s all dumb and not even real! And I’m better than you because I know that! I’m not saying that, although I kinda felt like I had to start off the essay by making it seem like I was saying that because it’s kinda fun to be inflammatory sometimes. However, I am by no means placing myself above the holiday celebrations that come with Halloween; that’s haughty and elitist. I love all the October stuff and Halloween stuff as much as the next person. The fact remains, though that when people enter the Halloween season, they do the same things. They perform the same rituals, revel in the same activities, watch the same films, and share the same togetherness. And they always will. This is a good thing, and a happy, wonderful thing. October is a lovely time of year, and it’s probably my favorite.
But, the fact of the matter is that all this, all these activities and especially all these films…it’s kinda all…..the same.
Horror film, and the spectatorship henceforth, exists with this same flavor of…sameness. Horror is arguably the foremost example of true genre, and thus it arguably is the foremost example of a cinema that just chugs through the same things. Any horrifying film, with variation, prances dramatically along the same formulaic illusion: that it’s all genuinely horrifying, and these real terrors should haunt us all the time forever. This guides me to the central question that I want to posit, all of these things being kept in mind:
How is all of this sameness considered scary at all?
When I think about things that are truly horrifying, shocking, and terrifying, I almost always find myself naturally tracking to the unknown. The fear of losing all this life, the fear of some safety or peace being corrupted by some human, specter or force that is far more formidable than anything I’ll ever have at my disposal….the terror of whatever that thing is that no human has ever or can ever understand…….THAT’S the truly horrifying stuff. Many horror films tap into this. General horror tropes give audiences glimpses and emulations. There’s the glance toward the shadowy black forest, a void expanse that seems to stretch into the furthest reaches of our subconscious while sitting directly in front of us, the ambient hum of a room or location that the audience clearly knows contains whatever darkest fears exist that we have yet to imagine. The genre tropes give us glimpses into that feeling. They provide insight. However (and this is the most crucial difference between what we as audience members have experienced as horror cinema and what actually constitutes a genuinely horrifying cinema) insight is only emulation when placed at the foot of genuine experience. Settling into a seat with popcorn and loved ones to watch a scary thing is not immersion into something fearful. It is immersion into one’s own safety. We watch horror films to recognize how safe we are. What about these sitting around and watching a movie that you know is going to end, that you know was filmed in a studio, is ever going to generate true terror? (Aside: Blair Witch is arguably the only mainstream exception that truly challenges this; a film that convinces millions of its authenticity succeeds in approaching true horror. The Exorcist gets kinda close, but that’s just because of all that Christian rabblerousing.)
If true horror only comes with being confronted by things that truly threaten our sense of safety, whether that be emotional or physical, than I will argue that the only truly horrifying cinema is cinema that is unconcerned with convincing the audience that they are scared. Cinema that transcends the necessity to provide the audience with the expected shocks and scares, opting instead to reach into abstraction to extract some deeply seeded and ravenous part of the unsettled soul….that is where only the most authentic horror lies.
Black Ice, one of the most popular films in Stan Brakhage’s 1990s silent series created entirely with paint on film stock, is inspired by a nasty fall on ice that Brakhage experienced in the late 80s. The fall resulted in injuries that required intensive eye surgery for the director, and he almost lost his vision as a result. The film is much like the rest of Brakhage’s films in this series: it consists of brief flickering images, all created by Brakhage’s brushstroke. The frames move so quickly that, in silence, the visual sensation of motion fades into one’s subconscious, and the flowing tones and shapes meld together and guide the viewer into a serene and subliminal state of dissociative reflection. Black Ice is different from the rest of his filmography however, because the image performs in a dynamic language that is not present in any of his other films. The blobs and hues seem to shove themselves toward the audience, and the motion begins to convince the viewer that the colors and images on the screen are seeking to reach out and suck you in, so that you can be trapped with them inside their refractory vortex of frozen shade. I don’t want to suggest that horror film must be directly related to some tangible, provable trauma in order to become convincing and/or authentic, but Black Ice’s elegant sense of unease communicates a lack of safety that is hard to find in any studio-made horror film. Gone is the sense of time or closure, gone are all concerns with character, resolution, outcome. There is only movement and darkness. Complete uncertainty, total alienation. Will I be trapped in this when it’s all over? THAT is a horror movie.
Toshio Matsumoto’s Atman functions within a similar structuralist belief system. A singular figure wearing a terrifying mask is positioned in the center of a field somewhere, and the camera appears to move in a circle around them. At the beginning of the film, the camera erupts into an overwhelming pattern, the camera rushing closer to the figure and backwards, around and around, flashing strobe patterns across the screen to the grating, disquieting sounds of shrill electronics. The motion is entirely unlike any that we find in our regular lives, and entirely unlike any that we find in horror cinema. It is aggressively uncomfortable, especially when the image in question is trained upon an imposing and terrifying figure. It confronts the audience with the most primal sense that an audience member can have: when will this be over? When will I finally get relief from this torment?
Halloween is all about the spooky things and the scary things, and everyone loves to watch a horror movie around this time of year. Halloween is about the togetherness that we share, and I would venture to say that most horror cinema, on social function alone, operates within this optimistic and unified framework. A horror film can hardly ever be horrifying, because inherent to the social framework of the genre is a sense of being with those that you love, in a time of year that you love. The only truly terrifying cinema is the cinema that forces us into things that we don’t understand, into an incongruent and incomprehensible place of association, uncertainty, and darkness. These movies are examples of that, and honestly, films like these are the only things that I personally think constitute genuinely horrifying cinema.
You can find these films on YouTube. Watch them with your friends and laugh and have a good time to completely prove me wrong and render this entire essay meaningless.
Charlie Kaufman, if nothing else, is someone who consistently attacks universal themes in his films. We all want much of the same stuff; we are all driven by the same base fears. We want to be remembered, admired, romantically loved; we want to win. Likewise, we fear dying, we fear getting older, and we fear being forgotten. Kaufman knows this well. His most popular work, the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was fixated on the memory of love and the search for emotional stability, and his first work as a director (Synecdoche, New York) strove to answer big questions about human frailty and the way we perform our daily lives.
Kaufman’s newest film, the Netflix-backed adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, again looks at massive issues of our interior lives- failed relationships, broken families, aging and death, the quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t know how to deliver on these ideas in an interesting way. Kaufman is surely an architect, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is yet another arthouse Tower of Babel, boring into the sky and boring me out of my mind.
From the beginning, there is something amiss in this world. Jessie Buckley’s unnamed character wants to break up with her boyfriend Jake, and the grueling car ride to his parents’ house makes a pretty compelling case that their loveless relationship needs to end. Her thoughts serve as the narration, which Jake (portrayed by Jesse Plemons trying his best) constantly interrupts with asinine questions. We finally arrive at the country home, and Jake’s reticence and discomfort around his parents and his childhood home is obvious. Plemons conveys this unspoken unease well, and here’s where Kaufman makes his first mistake- a well of character dynamic, rich with backstory and intrigue, and yet he keeps it elusive and out of reach.
Suffice to say, the dinner does not go well, and things spin out of control; Jake’s parents, portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are shifting in and out of some liminal space between awkward doting parents and non-sequitur approximations of real people. Collette especially is going for something unhinged, shifting into Hereditary mode for about five minutes in order to sell the dream logic of this semi-haunted house and her own ghostliness. When the young woman eventually wanders around the house, she begins to slip in and out of moments in time, seeing Jake’s parents at both earlier and later moments of their lives. We see them as both lively young parents and dementia-riddled seniors as the young woman travels through their lives. Here Kaufman makes another wrong turn, creating an interesting dreamy comment on the way we imagine and inject ourselves into the timelines of other people, and yet he depicts it in a way that is simultaneously overlong and laughably half-baked.
After this is where the real pain begins, and I’ll be brief- there is another 30 minutes spent trapped in the car with the unhappy couple, they stop to get some repulsive looking ice cream, and when they stop at Jake’s old high school to find a trash can, they enter in to find yet another mysterious physical manifestation of his past. I won’t give away the ending, but it illuminates basically nothing, a trait many people see as a good thing or a brilliant trick.
Unsatisfying endings, elusive themes, and vague truths are not a bad thing; they often find their way into good films in one way or another. But having these things is not a marker of quality, and the extent to which I’m Thinking of Ending Things uses its ambiguity as a driving force attempts to cloak the fact that it has nothing to say. There is no insight to offer, and there is very little to be wrung from this that isn’t completely obvious. Getting old is scary; breaking up is hard. We know this- why doesn’t Kaufman trust us enough to go any deeper than that?
Kaufman goes out of his way to call out, by name, two different directors from two very different fields of cinema. We see the mysterious janitor figure watching some schlocky feelgood picture on TV that we find out was directed by Robert Zemeckis. In the second car ride, the young woman puts on a transatlantic accent to recite Pauline Kael’s infamous pan of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, inspired by her own frustration with Jake and her finding his book of Kael’s reviews in his childhood bedroom.
In both scenarios, Kaufman wants us to think he’s funny, but he only seems jealous. Taking a shot at a Hollywood blockbuster builder like Zemeckis seems like punching down for an esteemed and arty man like Kaufman, but he only reveals his shallowness. He decries overly sincere and maudlin mainstream films in favor of flaunting this film’s lack of either sentiment or plot like some sort of achievement. He steps further out of his element when he quotes Kael. If he’s using these old reviews to mock Cassavetes, then he’s a coward who should use his own words; if he’s bringing them up to create a layer of intellectual distance between the characters and the audience, then he’s an overbearing tryhard, showing up to a party with a head full of memorized facts but unable to hold a conversation.
Kaufman strains against these two polar opposites because he can’t achieve what either has done. He’s convinced himself he’s too smart to engage in the broad pop culture joy of well-made popcorn movies, and he’s too focused on some sense of magical realism and distancing to scratch the surface of emotion and realism that Cassavetes offers, leaving him in the self-involved paint-huffing purgatory of this convoluted and disastrous film. Perhaps he’ll eventually make his way out of his Sisyphean quest to conquer his own mind, but for now we’re left with the collateral of this big dumb boulder, more of a cautionary tale than anything resembling a good movie.
Popular media has spent the last four years searching for the answer to quite a basic question concerning the Trump era: “How did we arrive here?” To the urbane liberal consumer, the last eight years seemed relatively harmless, a mark of competent technocrats able to stem the tide of unease among the materially comfortable. Boys State, the hipster prestige effort from an Apple/A24 partnership that would seem self-parodic if algorithmically generated, throws its hat in the ring to answer the very same question. A nationwide program dating back a century (founded as a reactionary counterpart to the socialist youth movement of Young Pioneer camps, a fact woefully omitted in its opening exposition) where young men simulate the American civic system, with exceptional participants graduating to the honor of Boy’s Nation, with a track record of taking in great men in their adolescence, with alumni ranging from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss zone in on the Texas state competition, hoping to extract the greater truth of our times straight from the mouth of babes. Unfortunately, Boys State, striving to ascribe universal truth as solutions to socially-constructed problems, treating an open system as a vacuum, and a wholly uncritical presentation in the miscalculated pursuit of vérité objectivity.
McBaine and Moss’s premise is that these children are all innate politicians, driven by some libidinal urge for power present since birth. Principal players are introduced watching Reagan speeches in dark rooms, spouting epigrams of personal responsibility seemingly sourced from the primordial ooze of the pubescent brain rather than an imitation of the shadowy parental figures. Opting for an approach of direct cinema, Boys State fails where its greater apostles (the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker) succeeded. Drew or Wiseman used the power of editing to stitch together a thesis, contrasting a fascist teacher’s enforcement of dress code along with the male gaze as atelier for school-issued gym clothes (Wiseman’s High School), while McBaine and Moss use this set of aesthetics to elide the tough questions, cutting away material that doesn’t fit with their thesis, refusing to evolve along with the reality.
Once actually within the thick of it, this intellectual laziness begins to make itself even more apparent. The documentary’s central dialectic is basic new-left v. new-right, trying to probe how a lifetime of being terminally online has poisoned the youth, broadband connections the new fluoride in the water supply. There are invocations of Ben Shapiro and online conservatism, and even the hushed uttering of “memes,” but it goes no further. The complete democratization of political theory, a new home to polemic media, the death of the classic public intellectual, all phenomena uniquely suffered by zoomers — and left completely unexamined by the lazy, entitled, assumptions of Gen Xers. While it is much easier to build a taxonomy of the New Right within the film, obsessed with libidnal drives and socialized responses of homophobia and misogyny, its left-wing contingent is exponentially thornier. Its central figure, Steven Garza, has all the bona fides: son of immigrants, energized by Bernie Sanders, the soul of a poster, the left insurgence personified. However, he reveals himself to be far closer to the center than the film works so hard to convince its audience. His true political heroes are Beto O’Rourke and Napoleon Bonaparte, revealing a soft spot for spineless centrism and a pathological draw toward central power, the non-aristocrat making up for falling short in station of birth (as well as height) by a rise to autocracy. The fact in the wake of the film’s release drooling droves of spineless liberals proclaiming a countdown to his presidential eligibility speaks both to the type of audience this drivel is made for as well as McBaine and Moss’s worldview.
The film also commits an even greater sin than dishonest presentation — naive conclusions. While its axis of good may come up short institutionally (much like real life? Get it? Isn’t this so fucking smart?), its final moments are meant to inspire hope. Garza takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention, extolling the utopian vision of a post-partisan America, that there is greatness within this country, a great revelation met with rapturous applause. This moment calls to mind none other than William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (another fraud perpetrated by dishonest framing). In 2004, a PoC, son of immigrants, a self-labelled “progressive”, a new face on the political scene, took the stage and told us a red America and blue America were relics of the past, a post-partisan nation had arrived. And what was given to us from this great promise? Eight years of corporate bailouts, endless war, kids in cages, the machinery of state-sponsored violence running even smoother than before with technocratic lubricant. Like Basinksi’s loops, the repeated sound degrades, its resonance now even more agony-inducing knowing its emptiness, that in its unraveling the battle is now over. The day may pass, but the song remains the same. And it is repugnant works like Boys State that will ride into town and promise this snake oil is a new flavor, and as we turn away it will be poured upon the taxpayer-funded Harrow, giving it the juice to carve a commandment of “BE JUST,” Kafka’s penal colony now indistinguishable from our democracy.
Bazin said that the photograph embalms time. Drawing a parallel between a mummified corpse and the image feels wrong, because one is preservation of physical flesh, a sacred rite founded from reverence and a fear of the unknown, and the other is light exposed onto stock. A crucial pillar of photography exists in this observation because photography is memory, arguably above all else. It is difficult to determine for certain whether the photograph is more so a manifestation of appreciation of the moment or the fear of losing it to oblivion, but point remains. Photography is preservation, the casting of a careful glaze over of the past and its placement into the kiln.
The general population takes advantage of the image’s tendency toward preservation. Everyone brings along their camera so they can document the moments they’ve all decided as a culture are significant. Everyone brings their camera along when they go on vacation. Everyone’s camera rolls have a bulge in photo count surrounding moments with their friends, nights doing cool and unusual activities, et cetera. People preserve the memory of the things they deem important. Maybe it’s because those things are genuinely important to them, or maybe it’s because they’ve been told those things are important. Maybe they film those things because they fear losing them. Regardless, important moments deserve documentation, and people know this. Whether they recognize which moments are the important ones…that is a topic for a different essay.
Once the photograph begins to move, suddenly the embalmment reorients itself along a new axis, and a decision must be made. The moment is moving now, it is charting a voyage along the passage of time…is this mummification? Is this preservation or extension? Is this the avoidance of glaze and kiln altogether, substituted for the malleability of the original clay? Has the frozen image morphed into emulation and recreation? Is that even more of a bastardization of the original experience?
One of the many dilemmas concerning the moving image is its consideration as a fountain of providence. As soon as the image starts to move, its spectators start to demand more of it. Film functions for many as the provider of answers, the provider of closure, of escape, of distraction. The anticipation of the next event is not something any of us deserve.
There’s an indelible image immortalized on the Criterion release of Husbands that struck me when I saw it in context:we see our three men fighting and clowning in the street from a distance, and the camera makes them look like aliens, shimmering in focus while the world around them looks like it’s melting. And as alien and strange as these guys are, they also seem like the only real thing in this film.
The film sits us with a group of men who hold everything in contempt. The central trio of writer/director John Cassavetes, Peter Faulk, and Ben Gazzara are standoffish and aloof to the point of being surreal; it’s tough to imagine someone going out of their way to be this cruel, and yet we’ve all met people who are willing to go there. Husbands is a film where the limit of what’s funny is stretched to the breaking point, and anyone who’s been on the wrong end of someone committing to the bit will feel the residual sting.
What’s the worst way to experience this cruelty? Is it in the aloof, above-it-all attitude the three actors brought to their late night press tour? Is it the sarcastic doting that notorious Husbands detractor Pauline Kael experienced from Cassavetes, who she described as lifting her in the air sardonically declaring his love for her while she “felt that he wanted to crush every bone in my body”? Or perhaps it’s in the direct, searing attention that the three onscreen friends pay to the women they encounter. When the trio fix their attention on a woman they’ve implored to sing at their table, they turn unsettlingly petulant and demeaning. When Gazarra’s Harry returns home to abandon his wife, it’s violent and unsettling. And when the men all try to find someone to sleep with on their London getaway, they’re pathetic- their lack of connection, both to other people and reality, is on full display while these men debase themselves in shaky close-ups, clawing madly for the smallest victory they can find.
Cassavetes gets at some very uncomfortable truths about male friendship and the bonds between people who are better off without each other. The schoolboy dynamic has all the things we see but don’t know how to articulate in masculine friendships- a boorish leader who can’t offer the sensitivity they crave; a defensive screw-up constantly bickering with the leader; the affable middleman trying to keep peace. The two more submissive men form a pair that’s ready to talk behind the leader’s back; there’s the cycles of alternating abuse and encouragement that are needed to maintain these sickly bonds. There’s also something you don’t see often, which is the distinct closeness that comes from men mocking other people. It’s not an accident that Cassavetes and Gazzara start to snuggle while torturing a woman with their laughter.
And my goodness the laughter is torture. Cassavetes has a distinct lift in his voice that I love, but it translates into a grating, painful sharpness in his smoker’s cackle. This laughter bookends the constant confusion and seemingly improvised dialogue, and it’s the laughter that also serves as the film’s Greek chorus. Three pitiful men in a house of mirrors, laughing only at themselves, without another soul to rest on. They begin as they end- sad and confused, at first by the loss of their pivotal fourth member, and now by the seeming loss of their security in anything. It’s haunting in an old tragic sense to see their line of credit run out and for the bottom to fall out. The joke isn’t funny anymore, and the laughs have all dried up.
Could Husbands have been a riotous comedy? The film was originally cut without Cassavetes present, and it was modeled after the shooting script; when the original studio comedy version of the film played for test audiences, they loved it. While the film as it exists bears basically no resemblance to what it once was, it’s not hard to picture in a modern context. K. Austin Collins addresses the link between Cassavetes and Judd Apatow in his essay about the film, and there’s so many modern comedies with moral tales at their center that you could loosely adapt the premise of Husbands and it wouldn’t feel out of place. It’s easy to picture someone in the Ed Helms or Kevin James realm waxing poetic over gooey piano chords about a deceased friend in between fart jokes and ironic needledrops; the film’s themes of strained relationships and dashed masculine dreams is not far off from Dennis Dugan’s modern classic Grown Ups.
But what this film actually became is so much more jarring, so much scarier, and so much closer to our own lives. We often leave important things unsaid, and we hurt our friends as much as we help them. Husbands is extremely haphazard in the ways it chooses to speak these tough truths, but the ending is calibrated perfectly. We don’t see Gus make up with his wife, but we also don’t see him get torn apart for his absence. Cassavetes ends on a wary humanist note, giving us Schroedinger’s character arc where the future of a relationship hinges on the things it always hinges on- real people’s emotions and decisions, without the ability to ignore or deny the real hurt and strain we cause each other. There’s a hope that these men can choose to be better, and the people in their lives can choose to forgive them. There’s a hope that any of us fellas can do this when we return from our benders, whether real or not; that we can make amends and move on. As stilted and awkward as the film’s presentation often is, I’m thankful Cassavetes trusts enough to leave us with something that feels like the truth.
I see cinema as a historical archive more than anything. Film exists in a vacuum of the time period it was made whether it is truthful or not of that era. However, there are also pictures that are more indicative of the era that they were created in than others. For example, you could really make something like Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) in any time period as I don’t believe it to be culturally synonymous with the 90s, other than the sense that it was released in that decade. However, something like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1984) could not be made today. I hear that phrase tossed around quite liberally these days. Along the lines of, “you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)today.” Which yes, surly comedy and culture are malleable and changes with time but you most definitely could still make Blazing Saddles for the most part intact. Fast Times, however, exists in its own world. A world where a kid who has “been stoned since third grade, where “DISCO SUCKS” is written on the wall of a baseball dugout, and where three girls at the same school have “cultivated the Pat Benatar look”. The pop-culture references, while contemporary at the time have aged like fine wine, and it makes for excellent insight into the growing up in middle-class America in the early 1980s.
Now I, a person born at the turn of the millennium am for one not an authority on the topic of an era that was fifteen times my senior. However, I can say that anecdotally talking to people about Fast Times, whether it be parents or former teachers they usually go, “I knew a Mike Damone growing up” or “I was more of a Brett Ratner”. The music especially is a big part of why this is an important time capsule of the era. Opening with “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos setting the scene at the mall, the social epicenter for the students of Ridgemont High. The Cars, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers span across the multiple vignettes of growing up at this time. The effectiveness of Fast Times also functions so well because director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe know exactly what type of movie it is. At the time, it was just a film about being in high school, not much else. When John Hughes made The Breakfast Club a year later, it came with a type of self-importance about what it wanted to say. Making a voice-over about the five archetypal characters the focal point of the message of the film. Fast Times has aspects of those five characters of course, but it makes it known that these are real people and not just caricatures. I think a lot of that authenticity comes from the source material as well. Based on Cameron Crowe’s novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (1981) (where he went undercover at Claremont High School in San Diego for a year) gives it that fidelity.
Another great example of what “Time Capsule Cinema” is would be the films of Hal Needham, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and more specifically The Cannonball Run (1981). When watching The Cannonball Run in 2020 the film teleports you back to the era of the racing-obsessed subculture with a cast of stars to boot. The Ray Stevens’ song “Cannonball” played in the opening credits is a lovely country and synth-infused ballad that is only emboldened in its significance as Farrah Fawcett gets out of a sports car and spray paints a red X over the speed limit sign. The cast, packed with large stars such as: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jackie Chan definitely feel almost as if we are focusing on too many characters making for a bloated and uneven product. However, in hindsight, this makes the film a more excellent piece of Time Capsule Cinema. As the huge cast of characters are all drawn on Drew Struzan’s hand-drawn poster where the characters all surround a speed limit sign. The Cannonball Run poses an important question, however: does Time Capsule Cinema have to be good? Well of course it doesn’t. Something like Cameron Crowe’s gen-x/Seattle grunge-era film Singles (1992) would not be something I would consider “good” (or for that matter entertaining) cinema. But nonetheless, it can provide a catharsis for people who either experienced that subculture first-hand or wanted to experience it first-hand.
It may be suggested by some that documentaries would be a better way to experience an event through a historical lens and while that may be true with cultural “watershed” moments like The Monterey Pop Festival, the 1960 Democratic primary between John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or Agnès Varda interviewing The Black Panthers in 1960s Oakland. As shown in my examples, I believe that D.A. Pennebaker is probably the best documentary filmmaker at least when it comes to somewhat-recent cultural events. However, why I tend to disagree with the notion that documentaries are “better” examples of Time Capsule Cinema because in many ways, cultural relevance can be measured by the popular commercial films of the time than what a handful of people were doing at a specific time. Many more people are able to go see movies than say, go to Woodstock and narrative features are much more popular (the only documentary that has made over $100 million is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)). The box office receipts surrounding a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles, 2006). Borat made about $262 million at the box office (on a $18 million budget) and its popularity provides utility to the shared sentiments of people during post- 9/11 Bush-era America. Reflective on how the various catchphrases of the titular Sacha-Baron Cohen character permeated through the popular zeitgeist (“my wife” and ”very nice!” specifically). And while the humor in Borat has not aged specifically well, Time Capsule Cinema allows the viewer to appreciate it as a historical document. Which is what I would recommend people to view something with that perspective more often.
In conclusion, there may be some variance of quality in the films discussed in this piece and there can even be a debate over what qualifies as Time Capsule Cinema to different people. The only criteria for Time Capsule Cinema are that the film must take place in the era it was produced. A film can take us to a certain period with the contemporary design choices of the time and that is what makes it so magical (a recent example for me was my viewing of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966)). Using this information will help develop an extra critical lense when viewing a film can aid in a higher understanding of not just the film but also history and time itself. So now, go forth and experience the past!