Thursday, April 13, 2017


What at first glance may seem like nothing but a series of loud and brash car-racing action flicks, the Fast and the Furious series is in truth a little unparalleled in modern film history. Over the course of seven different movies the franchise has successfully reinvented itself- starting out as a fairly small-scale street racing franchise and slowly transforming into a series of action blockbusters played out on a gigantic scale, continually daring themselves to get bigger and bigger. This reinvention was a process, one led by the combination of the star power of Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, but what really makes the franchise stand out is its treatment of its central characters as an ethnically diverse “family” unit, a team made up of people serving different narrative purposes and functions, a group who love and care for each other like siblings. While Fast Five was the film which set the standard for the action franchise it has become, the third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, acts as the pinnacle of what a modern street-racing movie can be. Serving as a formal, stylistic, and thematic reinvigoration of the overall series, while also paying homage to the themes set up by the previous two pictures,Tokyo Drift pointed the series in the direction it eventually went down.

For the film, the producers chose Asian-American director Justin Lin, who had previously only directed one film, 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, about a group of Asian-American high school seniors who begin dipping into criminal activities. Where the first Fast entry was a Point Break-esque narrative with street racing and the second was a Miami-set buddy cop movie, Tokyo Drift is centered upon high school student Sean, played by Lucas Black. From the opening credits, Lin drops the viewer into a highly-stylized world full of color and movement, one in which street racing isn’t just a pastime, but a way of life. Colliding with a group of football players, their vibrant purple and yellow letterman jackets popping off the screen, Sean challenges Clay, a jock, to a street race. This is where Lin’s aesthetic shines through- taking place at a housing development, the bright colors of the cars zoom across the screen as the camera moves both adjacent to and against the movement, all the while Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” functions as the soundtrack. Eventually, after much destruction, both cars end up crashing, and Sean is sent to Tokyo to avoid facing criminal charges.

With Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin merges the high school criminal world setting of Better Luck Tomorrow with the street racing of the previous two Fast and the Furious entries. Entering into a high school in Tokyo, Sean is introduced by military brat Twinkie to Tokyo car racing, an underground world populated by young drivers. His first night, Sean races D.K., the “drift king”, in an act of arrogance, totaling driver Han Lue’s car and landing himself in even bigger trouble. Owing him money, Sean is taken under Han’s wing, and Han teaches him the art of “drifting”, a specific way of driving popular on twisting mountain ranges and in parking garages. Here, drifting is portrayed not just as a form of street racing but as an art unto itself. It’s something which must be studied carefully, practiced, and mastered. Lin heavily stylizes the act, the swift movement of the car romanticized through color and light. In one scene, one of the more gorgeous moments of the franchise, Sean’s romantic interest Neela takes him out drifting in the rural Japanese mountains. Throughout the whole scene, the color is deep blue, and the soundtrack is ethereal as the couple soar and twist their way through the winding roads. Tokyo Drift is the Fast entry with the single most car racing, as its sequels moved more towards action-oriented storytelling; good, then, that it works so well here, as the racing is constantly and consistently formally inventive and stylized.

Narratively, Lin’s decision to set the film within a high school allows for him to subvert certain previously-established narrative roles. The characters aren’t fully-grown adults but rather kids playing around within an adult world. D.K.’s uncle may be Yakuza, but D.K. is just a volatile and insecure young driver. Neela, the romantic interest, a girl without a family, is caught-up within the criminal world, but at the same time she’s a high school student in the center of a love triangle. Sean is positioned as the hero but is still just a kid escaping legal trouble by living with his father, whom he has a strained relationship with. The franchise’s addition of Han Leu, too, is one of its smartest- Han is effortlessly cool, philosophical, and in control. He doesn’t drift unless he has a specific reason to, and no petty rivalry is enough to convince him. Han is a character with a history, he’s come to Tokyo to escape his past, and to Han Tokyo represents the quasi-Wild West of the modern world; a place of lawless freedom, and unlimited profit.

Lin’s playing around with character and heightening of the intimacy and style of drifting is matched by his technical, formal proficiency. During the day, Tokyo is stripped of bright colors, save for the bright, flashy yellow, green, and orange paint of the sports cars. At night, however, Tokyo is turned into a living, breathing, romantic car-racing utopia, an urban underworld of neon-lit signs and fluorescent light bulbs. The film has a distinctly 2000’s feel throughout, with its camera movements and soundtrack featuring Kid Rock and the Teriyaki Boyz. Unlike any of the other films, the action is limited- where the other films would feature gunfights or action setpieces this film has street races and montages. Tokyo Drift’s most stunning sequence involves a car race through downtown Tokyo at night; D.K. chasing down Han as Sean attempts to catch up to them. Lin strips away the soundtrack for a single shot of the car widely drifting through a dense crowd in a brightly-lit square. It's peak action filmmaking, the camera staying stationary for the shot and then immediately cutting, moving with the action, bringing the viewer deeper into the scene. In this way, <I>Tokyo Drift</I> is the franchise’s answer to the auteur theory- strip away the well-known characters, heighten the accent of the main character, incorporate a diverse, interesting cast, and stylize the racing scenes- all the while placing the narrative within a setting the director is known for and comfortable with. Justin Lin’s ability to take what was a fairly lackluster franchise and reinvigorate it, making it all his own, is a stunning accomplishment.

"I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo."

Monday, April 3, 2017

GHOST IN THE SHELL: "A Puppet Without A Ghost"

“Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.”

My adoration for the first installment of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell knows few bounds. From my initial watch I was mesmerized at its ability to tell a narrative so efficiently in 80 minutes while pulling us into its digital world with such ease and charisma. Its CGI-laden sequel Innocence, while similarly commanding if as profoundly confounding doesn’t quite reach the heights set forth by the original. However with each viewing of these films they continue to perplex and astound in the amount of layers discovered within their labyrinth visual panoramas and the philosophical ramblings of artificial existentialism and the instinctive power of memory. They increasingly grow in their socio-political relevance and personal emotional value with each passing year.

What I find to be modern masterpieces in science fiction storytelling has now been adapted, reworked, and remixed into a Western amalgamation of an Asian property. Suited and contained to appeal to American audiences, much of what makes the original films significant and massively important works of art has either been downgraded or simplified to be easily consumable. This does not have to be a bad thing, though. Sometimes the hollowness of the visuals is what makes the craft function and in turn connects us to our protagonists better through the interactions of their environment. Sanders plays with the artificiality of imagery throughout the film, speaking through broken glass and reflections to convey a haunting grief, holograms the size of skyscrapers to communicate the dependency on product to enhance our bodies and minds, and human bodies built of ones and zeroes relaying information about the plot.

Scarlett Johansson, the subject of much controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell, is one of the more fascinating aspects about the film. Mechanically designed and executed, her performance continues to surprise me in ways I did not imagine walking out. With time the intricacies in her mannerisms are what really stick. What at first feels trite is now profound. The boorish way she struts out of a room may seem childish and forced in one point but now is the character’s way of assimilating herself in a human society that progressively finds itself not necessarily human, but consistently seeking to become that. Or at least regain what it once was to be human in a body that is artificial and sterilized from stimuli. Every gesture is rendered calculated and forced by nature. Johansson may seem out of place in a role like this, but by film’s end I couldn’t see anybody but her nailing it. Granted, while some of the catharsis of its final moments could have been enhanced and redefined with an Asian actress, it nonetheless remains striking under the hand of Johansson.

While the original films handled more weighty political themes, this adaptation zeroes in on the more psychological and emotional aspects of the story with the anti-capitalist ideas remaining in the background, acting as visual motifs and presences to be wary of. What we do have is a mystery thriller that tackles the insecurity of losing your identity in a multi-cultural landscape neglecting the singularity of heritage for the sake of achieving total commercialist exposure. The film plays out like a heart-rendering tug and pull about a rugged android equipped with a human brain understanding its own place in a universe on the brink of complete anatomical anonymity. Surrounding this is external corruption as Major uncovers a conspiracy revealing that her creators are certainly not who they seem or say they are. Her relationships to her surrogate mother Dr. Ouelet played beautifully by Juliette Binoche, close friend Batou, and the chief officer played by legend Takeshi Kitano are all tested as these revelations come to light. Some developments are heartbreaking, others violent; but it all reaches a shattering climax of self-discovery. An announcing of legacy and a passing of a former flesh. The oppressed become internally liberated and immortalized as martyrs in a society where nobody is who is they once were in one way or another.

The flawed beauty in Ghost in the Shell is that it truly is a gorgeously realized vision. Certainly one that was conceptualized heavily before production with an eye for the controversy that would befall it. Some of it may be warranted but I'm not judging over what could have been but rather what I have in front of me. What I see is a future misunderstood gem that will gain fans with time. Mesmerizing in some portions and confounding in others but always interesting to pick apart. Sanders' painstaking visuals and cues here contain some of most vivid depictions of artificiality in dystopic settings I have seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. If that doesn't do the trick then Clint Mansell's soundtrack does a solid job of bringing us in with Major and her plight. What is lacking in its slower, suitably methodical pacing and action sequences is found in the quietly sincere moments where I feel fully fastened into the abrasive atmosphere and tone Sanders goes for. It's as if the film wants you to take a deep breath in when Major jumps from the neon-lit skyscraper in the opening act and exhale when the film's closing embrace overtakes the screen in cathartic ecstasy.

Friday, March 17, 2017

5 Great Directors Who Could Totally Pull Off a Matrix Reboot

Ah yes, the 1999 classic film so obviously about queer identity and culture that eventually was co-opted by edgy libertarians and soon after the misogynistic alt-right. You're quite familiar with The Matrix and so are we. The tale of liberating oneself from the constraints of the artifice laid in front of us. It was considered the current generation's They Live in many respects, but it seems that as 1999 creeps away into the recesses of our memory, the twentieth anniversary of this cinematic masterpiece upcoming, it is perhaps time to find another sci-punk blockbuster to encapsulate our contemporary fears. We could, of course, pour money into a new franchise or even just one-off to become the next genre classic, but how can we count on that in the age of pre-existing characters and plotlines topping the box office in unwatchable schlock? What we need is an MCU imported director to really do the nuanced and unbelievably intricate world of The Matrix justice. There's a lot of canon to consider, carefully curated and written by two fantastic artists so we must be cautious in transposing it to our current times.

The question then arises: who could possibly take on this Herculean task? Who could create our generations punk masterpiece with the same level of crazy formalism and pop philosophy? We at BLACK CIRCLE have found five such masters of form who we believe could take on the task.

1. The Wachowski Sisters

Two of Warner Bros. craziest long-stayers, the Wachowski Sisters have spent the last twenty years making some of the finest science-fiction and action films we've seen. From the candy-colored, furiously fast Speed Racer to the tense-as-fuck neo-noir Bound to the revisionist YA saga-starter Jupiter Ascending, no one can say something like The Matrix is out of their range. There's been speculation on whether or not the Wachowskis can handle a property like The Matrix and it seems that perhaps the studio feels the same way. Is there any evidence that they could pull it off? Are there, perhaps, three currently existing films with their name on them in the Matrix saga? Would these films happen to be some of the most lasting trilogies in cinematic history? Would what they brought to this property still hold up and be heavily quoted, referenced, and even parodied today? No one can say for sure. 

2. Lilly Wachowski

A long-time director for Warner Brothers, Lilly Wachowski helped bring-to-life the newly emerged cult classic Speed Racer, whose following is as dedicated as one can get for a revisionist anime adaptation. If that's enough, another film she worked on, Jupiter Ascending has started to see a cult growing as well, with fans being attracted to its radical gender politics, pop economic theory, and revolutionary take on capitalism and commodification of body, all themes that would work perfectly in the world of The Matrix. The only downside of working with such a creative director would be her possible insistence on adding her own creative stamp to The Matrix trilogy, and we wouldn't want someone messing with another creator's work beyond recognition, would we? 

3. Lana Wachowski

If Lilly is unavailable, thankfully she has a sister! Lana Wachowski ended up working on some Matrix related content like helping to write vignettes for The Animatrix and overseeing the canon content of the Matrix comic-book collection. She also helped direct all those fine films that Lilly was doing for Warner Bros. during the 2000s. What would make Lana the perfect fit? Probably her familiarity with the canon. It's not like she and her sister conceived, wrote, directed, and produced the original trilogy or anything, but her work on the immense amount of extracinematic but still canonical material perhaps gives her the perfect insight on bringing The Matrix to life once again.

4. Lilly & Lana Wachowski

Here's a crazy idea (stick with me on this one), what if we combined 2 and 3 and had both Lilly and Lana work together? It's not unprecedented! They did work together on their debut film Bound along with their first script for the Richard Donner directed Assassins. Although this was back in the 90s, they also collaborated together on films like Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas right here in the 21st century. Perhaps the key to their success actually lies in the fact that both of them work so well together, but that's just a thought.

5. M. Night Shyamalan

It's a BLACK CIRCLE list. We're basically required to put him here. 

Warner Brothers, and any studios who read this, if M. Night takes your project thinking he's going to direct the next King Hu/Akira Kurosawa epic, of mysticist action and humanist philosophy, please don't fight with him. He knows what he's doing. He also probably watched whatever shitty anime you're asking him to adapt for the screen. 

Also, don't force him to put white people in it. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

LA LA LAND or: The Unexpected Virtues of Cynicism

I have a confession… Since ‘La La Land’ screened at the ‘Toronto International Film Festival’ and Damien Chazelle was declared by New York City film critic David Elrich as ‘Jacques Demy for the digital age’, I have been reacting with a tirade of unjustifiable resentment. I have defrocked the film to my contemporaries, referring it solely as ‘Blah Blah Bland’ and renounced Chazelle as a lackey who plainly viewed the musicals of Demy, Donen and Minelli on ‘Turner Classic Movies’ one lazy Sunday afternoon and determined that he too could direct a musical of fervency and melancholy. These misguided preconceptions formed on one hyperbolic acclamation from a critic with whom I have dissenting opinions and the overexposure of the soundtrack by objectionable youths who cavort while ‘Somewhere in the Crowd’ plays over their Uber drivers speaker on the way to the nightclub. After viewing the film however, I’d like to apologize for my erroneous conjecture as there is more to the film than meets the eye.

The opening sequences of ‘La La Land’ overtly establishes an atmosphere of nostalgia as Chazelle memorializes his cinematic guardian angel Jacques Demy specifically his 1964 operatic musical ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’. He applies Demy’s archetypal kaleidoscopic interiors and seasonal title cards and employs them as stepping stones to compose his own singular symphonic fantasy of cynicism. Each musical cue from the ‘Young Girls of Rochefort’-esque ‘Another Day of Sun’ to the ‘American in Paris’ influenced ‘Epilogue’ define the subjective and objective reality in which Mia [Stone] and Sebastian [Gosling] wander dispiritedly.

The audience are introduced to Chazelle’s Walter Mitty’s during a confrontation of impatience on the highway after the first musical number. They perform a brief skit that resembles how ‘The Philadelphia Story[ies]’ Dexter Haven [Cary Grant] would react if Tracy Lord [Katherine Hepburn] cut him off on the freeway.  Chazelle commences an intersecting narrative, revealing the humdrum routine of his characters in their futile pursuits to become revered artists. Initially Mia and Sebastian loathe each other, however in the tradition of Old Hollywood they descend into wistful romance during the evocative ‘A Lovely Night’ sequence. The couple commit to far-flung faux romanticisms and grandiose gestures isolated from the objective reality – Mia obscures the view of the projector during ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and confesses her adoration to Sebastian through silence and a yearning gaze.  The apex of this fabrication, is their slow dance at the Observatory, eclipsing tangibility as they displace gravity and waltz amongst the cosmos, entering their idealized Los Angeles. A utopian location of grandeur and quixotic elegance that recognizes the unweary creators. The gambol amid the macrocosm, entices the audience to consider that Mia and Sebastian will accomplish their vocational and relationship desires.

The hyper-rhapsodized reality and joyous rapture of the first act arrives at an impetuous standstill as the musical elements lay dormant and the character’s behaviours begin to penetrate realism. Sebastian becomes entangled in the distressing objective reality, postponing his dreams of singlehandedly reviving jazz to secure material abundance. Mia also experiences a spiritual crisis, reconsidering her own self-worth as an actress, after she encounters ruthless criticism on her one woman show. The pair separate and are reunited again in the ‘5 Years Later – Epilogue’.

Despite a personal hostility towards postscripts in cinema, the epilogue to ‘La La Land’ subverts cliché’s of the genre. Mia and Sebastian’s dream become realized and their narratives intersect again. Mia, now a married starlet encounters Sebastian at his club and beholds him with a desirous gaze as he performs a medley of the films soundtrack. Chazelle allows the audience a brief glimpse of what could have been between the estranged lovers had they not separated.  They once again enter the realm of subjective reality and faux romanticism, whirling in the macrocosms, and viewing Super 8 reels of their professionally and romantically fulfilled existence. Mia and Sebastian don’t get the conventional conclusion as Chazelle opts for realism, apprising the audience that while the couple shaped each other’s creative gifts, they were simply not meant to spent their lives together. This sorrowful finale serves as a misanthropic reminder to the target millennial generation that they often have to compromise between their artistic and romantic pursuits. 
Afterword: While I consider La La Land a slightly above average film, I continue to maintain that it could have been a masterwork if it had been directed by Whit Stillman and centred on Mia’s Yuppie roommates or her high society boyfriend Greg.

Friday, March 10, 2017


Released to Blu-Ray February 28, 2017

"They don't make them like they used to" seems to have been the rallying cry of 2016, what with the nostalgia-porn tidal wave of films like La La Land and Café Society, both of which are ostensibly cynical takes on the idea of fawning over a bygone era. Perhaps it's the dire state of new blockbuster releases being homogenized, steady sludge being pumped into the cineplex or the seeming fading legacy of film to the rise of the next Golden Age of television that has forced creators to re-examine their beloved craft. Unfortunately for us, and anyone who managed to sit through La La Land can surely testify to this, the films that tend to examine film itself, especially in 2016, have the chance of somehow being bigger slogs than standard MCU fair, some even going as far as to implicitly praise the cultural gentrification of the past. 

Despite the intense wave of subverted takes on the pangs of memory, only two films from 2016 truly understood the nature of cinephilia intersecting with memory. On one hand, Robert Zemeckis's uncharacteristically great Allied, and Warren Beatty's silent comeback Rules Don't Apply. For someone who hasn't felt the need to make a film in eighteen years while having enough names in the address book to make any film he wanted, what's most striking about Rules Don't Apply is its seeming down-to-earthness. Perhaps the key to its brilliance in its critique of the then developing "New Hollywood" is the authorship, someone who was key in that development placing himself in the role of someone who would soon be lost to it. A startling development considering Beatty is himself about to be lost to the next generation of Hollywood, developing during this period of creative arrest. And while someone of the status and consequentially the ego of Beatty should realistically have posited this as another "They don't make them like they used to" rant, he instead opts for a sort of self-critique. The most flattering comparison I can muster is to Chaplin's A King in New York, where Beatty is perhaps suggesting, by embodying the fading Howard Hughes, that perhaps if his legacy is lost it's because the filmmakers of today don't need him anymore. 

It's during Beatty's introspective scenes that the film is most interesting, but absolutely during the Colins/Ehrenreich exchanges that the film becomes most entertaining. The introspection is surely the deepest part of the film, but it is appropriately regulated to the side. What really carries the film, aside from Deschanel's typically stellar photography, is Beatty's direction of these two incredible performances (Ehrenreich on his own is better than any actor nominated this year at the Oscars). There's an explicit critique of the treatment of young actresses during this period, the nefarious "Rules" mentioned in the title that relegate the value of young women in the industry based on age on physical appearance but its rendered mostly as a comic farce. Indeed, this clusterfuck of character arcs and stories and critiques all intersect each other in the oddest of places. We might be looking at a masterpiece had the runtime been allowed to soar as it should have, and perhaps in another cut it did. But all things considered, we're left with a truly beautiful film from one of Hollywood's most celebrated icons.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin

Friday, March 3, 2017

LOGAN Delivers a Merely Competent Send-Off to One of the Greats

At its best, the stark deserts, silent road trips, and hints at death and suicide of Logan recall something like Taste of Cherry or Sunchaser. At its worst, on the other hand, it plays like a typical 2004 superhero outing without the promised aesthetic tendencies of the trailer. Unfortunately for us, the truly great scenes like the roadside nap or the final battle don’t redeem its conventionalist tendencies that seem to dominate the film. Trapped between academicism and its own faux-importance, whenever Logan isn’t in motion, it’s mostly unremarkable. 

Logan is the story of the titular Wolverine of the X-Men, now driving a limo along the US-Mexican border picking up clients and living with Caliban and the Professor in abandoned warehouse. He is tasked with carrying a young, artificial mutant created in a lab named Laura to a place called Eden somewhere in Canada and he does so in spite of all obstacles. The film’s strongest quality is its scale, not at how large it is but rather how small. Mangold brings down these monolithic figures of Xavier and Logan not just in size but decimates their total importance. It’s worth noting that in Jackman’s final X-Men outing, the Wolverine’s last act of redemption is to save one child from immediate danger. Out of the nine movies on the official timeline, Logan has endured over a century of world-saving and hardship only to have his final plan to settle down and live out eternally in solitude is ruined by the virtue of being a main character. But now there’s no one else to battle, no one else to call in as an assist. It’s just him, Charles, and Laura, playing out some sort of demented quasi-family dynamic, which is more of less confirmed in an unintentionally hilarious scene where Laura calls Logan “daddy”. In regards to its character structure, it’s probably one of the better send-offs the Wolverine could’ve gotten. 

But what is actually signified by Logan’s redemption? What is expressed? I’ve made effort to understand what it is everyone sees in the gritty, brutal violence of Logan. To understand what possibly lies beneath its admittedly entertaining slaughter and have come up empty. Nothing about Logan’s final strides to save Laura matter because they’re all unearned. The film is never about Laura, and ironically enough, the film seems to both condemn her captors for treating her like an object yet at the same time never fully realizes her pain. It’s always Logan’s pain. The relationship between Logan and Laura as surrogate father and daughter figures ultimately fails because it is never truly earned. Granted, the stakes in Logan matter far more than the brotherly circle jerk of Captain America: Civil War or anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released to date (for those that don’t know, the X-Men movies are on a different line of cinematic continuity). But at the same time, it has the same basic failure of the MCU in that the importance is assumed rather than expressed. There are some great exchanges in Logan, especially one that takes place during a roadside nap, but they are not enough to make anything about it matter. It finds contentment in its own existence. 

For someone who really loves X-Men, who needs that cathartic send-off for their favorite character, Logan is competent enough to deliver that satisfaction, but it is not the "just a great movie period" its been championed, nor is the neo-western classic we've been waiting for. Logan is not Ethan Edwards. As a matter of face, despite its many merits, Logan doesn't feel like much of anything.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin

The Certified Copies of BEFORE I FALL

Before I Fall is the story of an affluent white girl in high school inexplicably forced to relive the same day over and over again, every time eventually ending in Juliet, the young lesbian she and her friends regularly harass, confronting her at a party. If it sounds obvious, it's because the film is about as subtle as a brick to the face, or in other words, as subtle as it needs to be. Much like last year’s NerveBefore I Fall is essentially a Lifetime Original film wrapped up in aesthetic tumblr gifsets, passionate direction, and genuine thought and care about its themes, resulting in a charming bit of conceptual teenage drama. The concept, of course, being a young-adult riff on the classic Groundhog Day but opting to instead show each relived day with a total straight-face and to its completion. The film makes heavy reliance on its use of these reproductions and copies, showing us only four or five riffs on the same day, each one revealing more about the situations and anxieties Samantha finds herself consistently trapped in.

A photograph of a mirror where a person happens to be visible in the reflection is, by virtue, not truly a photograph of the person, but rather incidentally has captured their likeness. It is no more a photograph of the person than the light reflecting off the mirror is the person. As the film image is merely a representation of its subject, and the mirror is a reflection of its subject, the filmed mirror is a double-layer of abstraction of truth. And so it goes, for the first half-hour director Ry Russo-Young shows us her subject Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) reflected from mirrors, obscured through shower glass, and pressed against window-frames.  In a sense, it is Samantha’s true nature that is symbolically obscured by these abstractions. She is rendered metaphysically faceless, a blank slate. The metallic, blue palette only adds to the imagery of Samantha as a cold, reanimated corpse with lifeless eyes. Her existence is gauging her friends’ responses to conflict and reacting in an identical way. But now, after waking up and reliving the very same day every day she’s forced to react genuinely. She’s quickly able to discern that her actions will shape whether or not she can escape the loop, so she can no longer act in accordance with the status quo. Her environment has inexplicably turned against her, and only through her own action can she change her course.

As the runtime builds, she slowly starts to lose her depiction through mirrors & car windows, reflections & obstructions and instead falls into the direct. Watching her evolution as each day passes is fascinating. After realizing her predicament, her first impulse is to remove herself from the final confrontation with Juliet in hopes that this evasion might end her sentence. When she wakes up the next day, she reacts with anger and confusion and starts to show express her true feelings towards her friends and family, subsequently having a chance meeting with Juliet in the bathroom. It is only after these two progressions she finally “learns” what its about, and is depicted clearly in bright, white light, eventually completely fading into white. Martyred. Each copy she lives through reveals something more about the world she lives in. That her friends are shallow and carefree, that her boyfriend is coy but manipulative, that she’s lost something with her family in all of this. Only by seeing the same situation, again and again, deconstructing and analyzing it, she truly understands what happens each time. Recalling Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. Without the existence of copies, the original is never truly understood.

There are issues, of course. Still the carried YA insistence that the current football jock boyfriend is somehow inferior to the obsessive, creepy, stalkerish nerd (a trend that Nerve at least managed to subvert). For something more coded and subtle, watch the way Samantha’s friend Lindsay, who regularly bullies Juliet for being queer, gazes at Samantha throughout the film. Whenever they lock eyes, Samantha is the first to break, and Lindsay maintains her gaze for seconds at a time before breaking back to whatever the subject of the conversation is. At the end of the film, when Lindsay, Samantha, and their two other friends all sit on a bench together, the two lock eyes once again for what feels like an eternity. Once again Samantha is the first to break and Lindsay looks her up and down and stares for another five seconds before breaking. Given that the film also suggests that Lindsay had a previous relationship with Juliet, the undertones have practically turned into overtones. 

It is a message film, point blank period, but like Nerve from last year, it’s a good message film, and possibly an important one. And if one were so inclined to look beneath the obscured views and reflections of Before I Fall, to see past all of the certified copies, there are non-obvious tendencies lurking beneath the obvious.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

NO MAN'S ZONE: An Interview with Jon Jost

Jon Jost is a self-taught, no-budget filmmaker, who rose to prominence with the release of his terminal road movie ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ in 1977 which was hailed as ‘powerful’ and ‘provocative’ by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and is featured in the bestselling omnibus ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’. Jost has since continued to direct films for more than four decades, exploring a wide range of American issues. His films have been presented at retrospectives around the world from New York City to Jerusalem and can be purchased through Vimeo or by contacting Jon directly at


Frankie: While you also work in painting and photography, what attracted you to film as your primary outlet of self-expression?

  • Jon: I have no idea. As a young kid/child had no particular interest in film, nor did I on going to college (IIT, Chicago, 1960). I studied architecture and realized in short order that it was "a business" and I would never fit in. One year. Then I studied design/art, saw a few experimental films, and at the end of the Cuban missile crisis, during which with my friends I smoked lousy weed and drank equally lousy red wine and waited to be incinerated, I suddenly decided to buy a Bolex, go to Europe and make films. I spent a month looking at European and Japanese and old Hollywood classic films, some experimental, and went to Milano where in January-February 1963 made my first film. I have no idea why, and these days I sort of regret it, though I still make them.

Frankie: Have any specific filmmakers influenced your work? I personally see comparisons to the atmosphere of Wender’s road trilogy in ‘Last Chants…’, Godard’s editing in ‘Frame Up’ and Rohmer’s dialogue in ‘All the Vermeers…:
  • Jon: Wenders I do not like at all, and can't see any relationship of his work to Last Chants; Godard in early work - Speaking Directly and Angel City particularly. I guess in Frameup though I think the relationship is more about how to make films quickly and inexpensively, which has a limited range of aesthetic options. Rohmer, yes though only some of his films. In my own view, I'd include Robert Rossen with The Hustler, Bresson, Antonioni, Italian neo-realists, and if my memory worked perhaps a few others. I also like Tarkovsky, Bergman (Winter Light, Persona - in B&W, not color; ditto for Antonioni). And others I suppose. My biggest influence is the experience of making my own films and learning from that.

Frankie: I’ve often heard your films being discussed in relation to the pre-independent cinema movement ‘The New Talkies’ alongside other filmmakers such as Mark Rappaport and Yvonne Rainer. The films during this movement focused on ‘ideas, provocations and new ways of combining images, sounds, performance and fragments of fiction’ while dabbling in ‘oppositional, Marxist, feminist and queer politics of the 1960s and 70s, but also by the intellectual rise of semiotic and psychoanalytic theories’. Are you familiar with the movement and would you consider yourself a part of it?
  • Jon: I long ago lost track of the words used to categorize people such as myself: experimental, underground, independent, American Independent, etc. Way back when - 60's - 80's more or less - making films was technically a pain in the ass, and relatively speaking, costly. These two-things windowed out most people and back then those who made longer film were quite limited. And being of the same time, under the influence of the same things, there were commonalities intellectually, aesthetically, etc. I never thought myself part of a movement, and those who imagined one were outside, critics, academics, etc. They saw a movement. Filmmakers just did what they did in the time and circumstances they existed in. Rainer is in my view a rather bad filmmaker, but she had the leverage of being NYC based, and catching the "feminist" wave. Maybe she was a better dancer, I don't know (doubt it though). Mark Rappaport is a friend (now - way back then we just "knew" each other from festival passings-in-the-night). The period of the 60's to late 70's, and maybe into the early 80's was culturally explorative, experimental - in the arts, all of them, in social relations, etc. Those of us in the middle of that made work expressive of that reality. Then things turned conservative across the board, and only a stupid handful of us carried on with our interests, while culture swooned to $$$$ and making $$$$$, and has remained that way since.

Frankie: This question is for personal reference since she is a personal favorite and also considered part of ‘The New Talkies'. Are you a fan of Chantal Akerman?

  • Jon: I have seen a handful of her films, but not Rue whatever Bruxelles. I liked some of those I saw, don't recall titles, except for the D'Est, which I liked but not as much as others (Rosenbaum) did - it had no pace or sense of orchestration and could have cut off, as it did, just anywhere. The others I saw were minor things. I saw one of her last ones, shot in Israel and thought it was rather bad. The concept of "fan" is not something I concur with nor do I consider myself a "fan" of anyone or thing...

Frankie: That’s fascinating that you don’t consider you a fan of anything or anyone, could you please expand on that statement?

  • Jon: Hmmm... I am interested in many things. I like, admire, even love, some things. But being a "fan" seems to be something else, something which seems to dispense with mindfulness, with thinking. Being a fan is it seems a purely emotional thing, appealing to a very primal element inside of us, and it is something I am very sceptical about. I dislike being in mass groups (rock concerts, sports events, political rallies, etc.) in which this kind of appeal is dominant. Being a fan seems to delete being capable of being critical, of seeing the flaws, downsides, etc. of something. Not for me.

Frankie: In preparation for this interview, I read your ‘Electoral Post Mortems’ and was pondering the question. Do you think that independent cinema will revolt against the policies of the Trump presidency as the New Queer Cinema movement did against the Reagan presidency or will they be more pacified?
  • Jon: Is there a meaningful "independent cinema" in the USA today? I have my doubts. Most so-called "indie" work I know of is conventional in its aesthetics, even if it thinks its content is out there/weird/gay/trans etc. Most of it is sit-com of Euro minimalism, tired and old and for me boring as shit. I do imagine those of the liberal/left will indeed make counter-Trump things, but it will reflect their essentially narrow and conservative senses. And in turn probably will only have the effect of making them feel better about themselves without altering the social/political reality they imagine to effect.

Frankie: To conclude on a cliché note, what advice would you give to young independent filmmakers who are interested in self-releasing their own no-budget films?

  • Jon: I have no real advice to offer young filmmakers about releasing their work. The net provides an outlet, yes, but at the same time it does so for 5 million others, and those that succeed there operate on TV sitcom cat video levels, where, yes, you can make a million, but it has nothing at all to do with art, or with what I am interested in. It is simply feeding our ravenous consumption machine more shit to eat and spit out in 2 seconds.


Afterword from Jon:
Sorry to seem so cynical, but after 73 years, facing the world today, it seems the only honest response. Making films is a very modest, almost meaningless activity in the face of the species problems. It is, in fact, one of those problems.

A Few Words on CRUISING

“Who’s here… I’m here… you’re here.”

Commitment is such a limiting push and pull of a system. Imagine restricting your naked intimacy to the one you love and care for and how slowly damaging that can ultimately end up being by the time you go the way of all flesh. Speaking from the brutal experience of parents undergoing multiple divorces, the idea of commitment never really stuck with me in a variety of ways. It is an overwrought statement but I’m certainly not sitting here and bashing the act of falling in love, though. Having these deep, sensual thoughts for a sole person is different than exposing your body and erotic sensibilities with the world around you. Love, in a basic sense, exists inherently and instinctively inside us as human beings. Commitment, though? Somewhat of a manufactured idea. Something that exists in a realm between the shared reality and the internal mind frame. A fantasy structured by Hollywood fairy tales and birthed by blatant traditionalism in religion and social culture. There is a beauty to the devoted monogamy but for me, the most impactful of confidential encounters came not with those I divided my life with but the ones I met fleetingly and shed my former self in. It is a menacing game but one I feel is as essential as it is liberating. 

Personally speaking, I have bunked with a man for over three years (half of it long-distance, mind you) and while I don’t regret a second of being with him and dispersing my time and energy to his wants and needs and desires, I carry on through my life sensing my own central insecurity of losing him for seeking my own carnal pleasure as well as not being able to soak in these external pleasures for myself. It is a selfish tightrope of emotional density and privilege that along with a crippling depression and mutilating bipolar disorder generates a rift between actuality and I. My fear of losing a drawn-out romance for the sake of being inexperienced. Pure and proper in the eyes of others, but unpracticed in my mentality nonetheless. All for the will of a normal social construct. It is undeniably simpler to let these sexual thoughts wither but it is also dangerous not to have them exist in the first place. While these impressions have come to define who I am as a person and has produced damage to the relationship I hold dear, it has also instigated awareness and tolerance for those who share similar wishes and at times, woes as I do. Most I know underplay the importance of sex in a relationship, but in truth, it is the tarnished foil that holds that affection together. Still, it could be not only what breaks people apart but also what can drive a person to go mad.

To reach something of a point, lying on this bed seeing the morbid liberated community in William Friedkin’s Cruising struck a massive cord with me. I’m aware, to go from waxing surface level expressions of sexual freedom and anti-matrimony propaganda to a Friedkin joint is a bit much, but bear with me. I almost passed away writing this personalized essay to you today. Not actively or even physically. Sure, I am being somewhat dramatic but most of my childhood was spent in a mental shelter. Discovering solace within the fabricated worlds and vibrant societies found in cinema and the games on my Super Nintendo. Much of my general awkwardness stemmed from not being able to connect with the neighborhood kids, but with the digital voices and waves of light on my television. The only thing truly connected was the controller to its port. Your own Carol Anne, if you will. It does not end there, though. Now comes the unpredictable circumstance of advancing from one country to another, adapting and progressing through a language and culture unknown to me. It’s similar to a video game, I thought. A society I must comprehend and a world I must explore and trek through to reach the “objective”. However, the reality is never that simple and I positively didn’t account for the boss at the end of the level. To go from one mindset in Kindergarten to another in grade school was almost traumatizing. The American children acted more content than I did. Their bringing up more peaceful, discipline less manic. I regretted every second I decided to hit the “PLAY” button. Being huddled under a hollow desk wiping tears with my Scooby Doo tee and begging for mother to rescue me while mumbling Spanish and the little English I knew is how I remember the first day of school. Probably the most notable detail I recall is the way my classmates stared at me; waiting for the cries to stop while internally cackling at my weakness. It only set in stone how the rest of my grade school years would transpire and it disturbs me to this day.

Now for the connective tissue to these personal memories. I mentioned watching the film Cruising above for a reason. Probably why you even clicked on this article; and I promised an answer. From its sinister opening moments, Friedkin understands that sex and pain are as universal as everything else around us. Both tangible properties maybe not just physically, but mentally as well. Shit, I would agree that discomfort and pleasure are closely linked. Somehow sharing likeness depending on the relationship between the aggressor and the receiver. Under the guise of a basic crime thriller, Friedkin builds that idea from scratch at a time when homosexuality and BDSM were misunderstood and stigmatized. However, if there is one thing he at least grasps, is how both straight masculinity and masculinity defined by LGBT attributes work into those taboo subjects and how beautifully they intertwine and dance together in a storyline like this. It is provocative for that period, personal, and downright chilling. The atmosphere he instills is comparable to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in that it’s dominated by gritty smoke, darkened alleys and corridors, and shadowed nihilism. It is a film where sound and image work in tandem in expressing a liberated sexuality whether it be from the repressed standpoint of the club patrons forced to relinquish their desire till nightfall or the steady machismo of Al Pacino’s “protagonist” investigating and absorbing these behaviors and cravings. 

Following a cold opening depicting a brutal murder and subsequently, an assaultive encounter involving two transgender women, Steve Burns, a slightly problematic and rather deadpan NYPD officer is assigned to go undercover as a gay man to shadow a hidden society defined by punk music and leather to expose a murderer preying on its patrons. Due to Burns’ appearance matching those of the victims, he is thrown off the force, into the front lines, and is desperately seeking to be chosen by the killer to return to a life of heteronormativity. “Cruising”, both slang for the act of acquiring a hookup and also the probing presence of police forces in urban neighborhoods are utilized to fascinating degrees in the film through its use of punctuated sounds and bold imagery. The stretching of leather, moans of indulgence and the clang of keys and whips colliding are as emphasized as every stab wound and disemboweled gasp. For every act of violence pulling apart the sexual freedoms that gays inherit there is a mechanical beauty to the way they are brought together in secret. Bridging the violent nature of an aggressor towards the kind that willfully submits and vice versa. Both ends of this social spectrum fall on either or. Friedkin attempts to connect the forced sense of masculinity of the NYPD with the sensitive, reclusive, but unabashedly accepting LGBT community as displayed within the film. 

In its final moments, Cruising reveals its true hand and play at the audience. In a film that subverts expectations in ways that many LGBT narratives do not, we reach a point where we lose track of how and why this seemingly prejudiced violence has been begetting. Over the course of the runtime, we follow Pacino’s investigation as he slyly observes the community around him, absorbing common traits and behaviors in order to truly fuse himself into the crowd. The otherworldly nature of the BDSM nightclub makes him stick out like a sore thumb. Only in instances such as the freewheeling dance sequence in the middle of the film does he feel as independent and unconstricted as those surrounding him. Is he discovering a newfound tolerance of a group eradicated of their reputation? The line between his preferred sexuality and the one he adopts in his probing quickly fades. The intimacy linking he and his girlfriend becomes strained and the stress and tension soon grows unbearable. A sort of “give + take” connection is generated in the moments between Paul Sorvino’s Captain Edelson and the valiant underdog where the exchange of information turns into carnal devotion, and escape is rendered not just unfeasible, but unjustifiable. It comes to be obvious that such a drastic shift in both environment and spirit is too excessive for Steve, and that it only feeds into a proto-masculine mindset and a deep-seated insecurity of eviscerating the attributes that made him a genuine man in the eyes of his co-workers, boss, and girlfriend. Steve Burns fears for his life but also in a manner is afraid of losing his own sense of pride.

Eventually, viewers accept a hasty if convenient conclusion in that we find a damaged homosexual with fleetingly haunted hallucinations of his demanding deceased father and move forward with that. The “killer” seems to be motivated by his own fear of disappointment to the point of being driven by his late father to butcher those like him. It is a simple copy paste solution for a murder mystery that it almost feels too neat. Friedkin, obviously, has more up his sleeve. This tragic red herring of an answer to the multiple murders doesn’t even sit right with the film itself. The final confrontation between Burns’ and the “murderer” is rapt with deceptive shadows and sorrowful silence that it almost begs for an alternative. Not surprising considering that the film had been tampered with by United Artists and had been reworked not only in the editing room but also in the script-writing process. Around forty minutes of the film had been cut, removing extended sequences of graphic sexual content and “mysterious twists and turns which the film no longer takes" as Friedkin stated in an interview with Venice magazine. The rebuttal for this meddling is something even more perverse and malevolent and Friedkin’s way of receiving one last laugh in the closing minutes. It bears the suggestion that the film now works on a different level than how the rest of it played out. A cyclical one. A possessed one. Can an insecurity manifest itself into something more demonic? Will a stilted view on masculinity birth something evil? Something hungering for blood rather than the usual obligation towards sex? Friedkin proposes the concept that to adopt the personality of a murderer you must have lived through the trauma yourself. Through the symbolic layering of clothes and materialistic accessory, we embrace the mind and body of a killer. What we were once is not what can become again unless triggered by memory and self-doubt. It is a damn shame we won’t see the complete cut and version of Cruising as Friedkin originally intended but the finished product contains enough evidence to advocate for this petrifying revelation. All through the perspective of the tinted shades of a clueless woman. Naive to the bodily and psychological changes her boyfriend undergoes to appropriate a deadly persona. Sometimes the truth is born out of a lie and understanding such is viewing it through the eyes they once called their own.

The ambiguity and openness of Cruising offers a multitude of ideas to ponder on in ways that surprised and baffled me. So much so I would hate to spoil or put a specific highlight on some of the more distinct details as I did in the last few paragraphs. Speaking in general terms, I wish for others to see what I saw both aesthetically and thematically and even chime in on the aspects they agree with or vehemently detest. I wrote this as a way to bring personal connection to an otherwise gaunt and spiritually hollow film. Not to take away its many surface-level pleasures, but a story like this required as much emotional input as I could. And for that, it certainly functioned as a claustrophobic and unsettling work. I am certainly not the one to go to when it comes to dissecting Friedkin’s oeuvre as a whole but films like this inspire me to explore more of the voice outside of his canonized classics. In a vibrant career where most of the late triumphs were muted and the immediate successes rare, it’s refreshing to see his more under-appreciated works bask in the spotlight now.

You could say that the immediate reaction to Cruising was less than stellar in that at the time a film like this that posed challenging themes on sexual identity in the LGBT spectrum was only set up to fail. The summer before its release, the production was hit with multiple protests by members of the New York gay community who believed the film to have a homophobic political message and that it reinforced stereotypes. Subsequently, local LGBT community banded together to disrupt filming and gay-owned businesses barred the filmmakers from their premises. Some even attempted to interfere with shooting by pointing mirrors from rooftops to ruin the lighting for scenes, blasting whistles and air horns nearby, and playing loud music to distort the sound. It reached a point where over one thousand protesters marched the streets of East Village demanding the city to withdraw the support towards the film. As a result of these interruptions, the movie's audio was massively overdubbed in order to remove the disturbances occurring off-camera. In part, these protests led to the critical and box-office failure of Cruising with an intake of only about $19.7 million. 

Even in the months following the release, the film was pervaded with controversy. However, now the trouble had crossed over into bloodshed. Two hate crimes, in particular, had found a connection to Cruising. One in influence and the other in mere “coincidence”. The former was an eyewitness account by Ron Nyswaner, an Academy Award winning screenwriter, who claims that he and boyfriend had evaded being attacked by a group of college men on the justification of the content in Cruising. The latter was a multiple casualty shooting located in a bar displayed prominently in the film. A man wandered in with a submachine gun and murdered two patrons and wounded a dozen others. Friedkin had declined to comment on both incidents.

Regardless of how it was received or the consequences that came with the release, Cruising to this day remains a provocative entry in Friedkin’s overall career on a sheer thematic level alone. Does it posit as an instigating pot-boiler towards the LGBT community or as Friedkin insists is there more to the narrative than that? What’s fascinating about this film is the complete lack of a true answer. Due to its mangled edits and reconstructions throughout the production, it is simple to take the film as either one or other without any real stake in director’s intent. You could ignore the symbolic value and examine it face value, eliminating any real context from Friedkin’s oeuvre. However, in that current social climate, could you blame such a harsh reaction in a time when the surreal threat of AIDS was only ascending? If I’m to look at Cruising in an objective manner, there are certainly several aspects I’d have liked to seen elaborated on such as the erotic relationship between Steve and Nancy along with how these interactions develop over the course of the investigation. This would truly drive home how soaking in an alien environment would manipulate a toxic mindset. For better? For worse? It’d have provided a simmering blend of empathy and caution towards Pacino’s character that the film doesn’t “quite” have. I cannot say it’s completely bankrupt of it but it’s nonetheless a minor qualm that set the film back for me. An extended cut in all likelihood would have truly fleshed out the inconsistencies and irregularities in this character and the plot progression as a whole. 

Ultimately, Cruising can be seen as Friedkin’s half-baked Psycho. Both corrupted tales of sexual repression and loss of identity in enclosed spaces. Whereas Norman’s ghosts haunt him at the Bates Motel, this murderer’s vice can be found at the local gay bar stalking its patrons. These specters could be next to you or they could even be you; however, they exist and do not want to be ignored. The most disconcerting facet of this film are the concealed dangers that rest beneath the surface. Sexual liberation chained by the unseen. An underground community forced to dig further down to achieve safety. The hidden become fearful of the hidden. Who is the actual murderer and can they ever be stopped? Indeed, Friedkin did direct The Exorcist, but Cruising may, in fact, be the ideal possession film.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.: Symbolic Suicide and Law Versus Order

The greatest juxtaposition of all happens in the last half hour. When Richard Chance (William Petersen) and his partner are engaged in a car chase, a large Los Angeles highway is engulfed in chaos. Big Rigs with cargo sliding off the axis, cars side-braking only to be hit by other cars, while our heroes dive out of the way in time to drive on the wrong side of the road away to safety. As they ride away we hear the radio declare: "There's a minor tie-up on the north Long Beach right near Henry Ford. A couple cars tangled there. Shouldn't take too long to get this to the shoulder. It's a very simple affair, no injuries involved. It shouldn't cost more than a few minutes". Immediately after the Air Traffic Control lady Stacey Binn signs off, we're given an image of chaotically misaligned cars and people jumping out looking ready to fight each other including one gentleman who took to stand on top of his car with a shotgun. 

To Live and Die in L.A. is a film full of little juxtapositions like this, some major and others minor, and they're even woven into not just the title of the film itself (life vs. death) but into it's contrasted color presentation, with red representing the danger lying within the placid criminal Erik Masters and green, as used in Hitchcock's Vertigo, for Richard Chance's outward and at times seemingly homoerotic desire for Masters. All of these juxtapositions aim to reveal something about the rift between Detective Chance and his object of desire Erik Masters (Willem Dafoe), a counterfeiter who killed Chance's snooping partner. William Friedkin, as Michael Mann would later do in 1995's Heat, posits two characters on opposite sides of the law whose juxtaposition reveals the corrupting nature of the city. While Heat plays up to Mann's quieter tendencies, To Live and Die in L.A. is undoubtedly a film for the cocaine '80s, placing one irony (anarchy of law) against another (solemnness of brutality).

Friedkin frames his characters through their interactions with their environments, and through their actions against the landscape. Consider Erik Masters, he is first introduced after the title sequence where he takes a somewhat abstract self-portrait and nails it to a wall outside, proceeding to light the portrait on fire and watch it burn in front of him. This is immediately followed with Richard Chance looking reflective and solemn while preparing to jump from a bridge in what at first looks like a suicide attempt. Friedkin shows him jump from the bridge but now a rope is visible and when he reaches the end of it, he swings back and forth screaming excitedly and in joy. This is later revealed to have been a dare by his fellow colleagues. These two scenes reveal something about the nature of these characters on a very base level, that one is brooding and another is reckless, but there's something beyond the surface going on with these interactions. It has to be read as a proverbial suicide, one by self-immolation, and another by a large and sudden fall. It's these interactions, not the murder of Hart, that serve as the inciting incident for the plot. For Erik Masters, he is surrendering his own image in order for him to eventually read himself in the image of others, as part of an interconnected network of criminals and counterfeiters as well as with his social interactions, to live for others. For Richard Chance, he is surrendering physical and emotional control and allowing his base emotions to dominate his path throughout the rest of the feature. All of his motivations are essentially controlled by an overwhelming desire to catch and perhaps even kill Erik Masters for killing his partner.

Erik Masters watches the art go up in flames.

The double suicide is necessary. It has to take place for the film to work like it does. These individuals have to surrender their moral agency in order to show how the landscape has molded them to become what they are in the present. Erik Masters, Friedkin states, was a character he wanted to capture as being a sort of lion in a cage. Only suggesting the nature of his violence in subtle facial cues and strained vocal patterns from Dafoe, and never actually revealing it until he's ready. Masters is shown as a professional navigator of the surly underworld spaces, constantly adapting and shaping between lumbering machismo and ambassadorial tact. From his grunt Carl Cody to his lawyer Max Waxman trying to bust him out. Masters mirrors the people he interacts with as a consistent tool to gain the upper hand in any conversation, and its no wonder that Friedkin constantly shows us Masters behind glass and reflected through mirrors, where his true nature can't actually be known except as an image constructed to resemble what he wants people to see. And watching him try to read and react to Richard Chance when they finally meet is a site to behold. Masters is overlooking a railing on the roof when Chance calls out to him, and he looks behind his back wistfully to see Chance and his partner. He goes over to meet him, laughs at his jokes, and then takes him to the gym as they interrogate each other, constantly eyeing each other as they work out, and engaging in a minor confrontation of will.

But this isn't the only molding that takes place because while Masters voluntarily molds himself to match to his environment, Chance's violent hurricane of masculine, aggressive energy manages to shape those around him. A secondary arc before the climax that has a center-stage conclusion in the films final shot, Vukovich's transformation from an orderly young cop to Chance's heir to the anarchic throne, taking over the position as the one to squeeze information out of the abused Bianca Torres. Masters and Chance represent the end-result of urban corruption and how they operate in their everyday lives, but Vukovich is key to the film's thesis because his arc is actually traced from beginning to end. As Chance coerces him to break the law more and more to enforce the law, he begins to abandon his hard-coded system of ethics about how law enforcement can and should operate. If we look at Chance as someone who has, by the act of symbolic suicide, surrendered his agency and became part of the Los Angeles landscape, then his act of corrupting Vukovich is really an extension of the nature of the city. And by doing so, Vukovich is absorbed into not only Chance's character but into the city itself as another one of its constructs. When Vukovich takes over as the new Richard Chance, he really completes his own form of suicide by surrendering both his principles and his identity to the hellish landscape.

And in a way, Los Angeles is Hell. It's not merely the consistent use of fire as a symbol and motif but the very real separation from God, the most basic definition of hell. If the most divine and heavenly aspect of a person is the right to self-determination, then God is conspicuously missing in To Live and Die in L.A. Even the title suggests the immovable certainty of the characters fate, as one event destined to follow another. If the arcs and movements of Friedkin's 1985 masterpiece demonstrate anything, it's the director's sheer contempt and cynicism.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Gospel of Marcus Nispel, Apostle of the Hollywood Horror Remake.

"It‘s not that we make these movies because we can‘t make something originally up on our own but because we appreciate that there‘s sort of a culture and an expectation that we can sort of screw with".

Undoubtedly, among defining phenomena of early 21st century horror has been Hollywood‘s taste for repackaging and rebooting former horror hits and classics. Majority of critics have branded them cynical and unoriginal while audiences than paid to see their icons repurposed and reimagined to suit the ever changing tide in hope of experiencing nostalgic terrors. And in the selective "pantheon" of those remakes I find the films of the German director Marcus Nispel the most embodying of all. Making an industry name for himself  directing commercials for big brands such as Coca-Cola and MTV, and music videos for #1 hits by Spice Girls, Cher and Elton John, Nispel‘s directorial sensibilities can easily be traced back to these works (my personal favorite perhaps being his videos for Elton John‘s Recover Your Soul and Puff Daddy‘s Victory). Dead leaves, the strong reliance on established larger-than-life characters pulling the center of the frame and occasionally religious iconography, specific use of shadows and hues... all elements that can be found scattered prominently among the films of his would-be film career. It‘s not surprising given Nispel‘s artistic tendencies that he received mentorship from the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper‘s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Daniel Pearl. Incidentally it was Pearl that would encourage protegé Nispel to take his first crack at the movie business in collaboration with himself when the offer came to remake what was Pearl‘s first work as a DP, the original Texas Chainsaw film.

Nispel‘s Texas Chainsaw is in among my ideal remakes, embracing that the original is not to be recreated, but repurposed for a new generation of horror audience.  Mostly an exercise in grotesque violence and hopelessness, Nispel‘s nihilism is more stated than in Hooper‘s kinetically ferocious but ritualistic original with the 2003 release date giving the recurrent abuse of authority a new layer. The family patriarch may dress himself as a man of the law but it is a shameless facade in front of the absolute moral corruption at the top of the authorial food chain. The unforgiving bursts of gnarly violence would draft an uncomfortable viewing experience for most on their own but for any viewer willing to engage with its ideologies, it‘s likely to add an oppressing dread to go with.

The 2003 remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would end up a part of the final fashionable spirit of traditional slasher horror because in 2009, Rob Zombie's Halloween II left the nihilistic slasher horror of the 2000s in by removing the shackles off of the crowd-pleasing formalities of final girls and diving headfirst into one of the most devastating depictions of trauma in the subgenre and perhaps most importantly, injecting murder and unflinching violence with a degree of empathy seldom experienced in the genre on whole for the past decade. While i dare not claim 00s slasher horror was derived of freshness as there is evidence against that in films such as Glen Morgan‘s Black Christmas (2006) and Jaume Collet-Serra‘s House of Wax (2005), the impending doom of the traditional slasher as a fashionable enterprise could be felt as the decade came to a close.

And with his remake of 80s horror phenomena Friday the 13th, Nispel would craft an unintentional circumstantial swan-song for the slasher mere months before Zombie said its preliminary last rites. Cleverly opening with a summation of the narrative of the original and a short film-within-a-film, Nispel sets the stage for the franchise‘s now iconic poster-boy Jason Voorhees to lay on a new kind of pain on the new breed of self-righteous and insufferable teenagers that have plagued him since the early 1980s, as Nispel and returning collaborator/mentor Daniel Pearl take Crystal Lake to the next level. As I am not as well-versed in the previous near dozen entries in the franchise as I probably should be I'll assume Friday the 13th works better as a reconfiguration not merely of the original Parts 1-4 but as the whole lot of them (thankfully with the setting of Jason X strategically ignored). My image of Crystal Lake is a space of escapism for horny teens, wherein the sole inhabitant happens to be a towering hermit with a subtle Oedipus-complex and a taste for slashing, incidentally, said horny teens (escapism is an illusion etc. etc.). And Marcus Nispel‘s Friday the 13h holds up to that image perfectly well, while adding a couple of fresh layers of frosting on top. For the first time, Jason has to deal with the smartphone and GPS equipped teens of the generation Z, so Nispel and writer team Damian Shannon and  Mark Swift give Jason bear traps, a hidden underground lair that exorcises cellphone signals (exceptionally decorated and designed by Randy Huke and production designer Jeremy Conway) and a more formidable physique giving Jason the formidable ability of the power-walk  in addition to being able to lift a ton in weight without much difficulty.
Before and after he displays the raw leverage of his physical power (which pulls the frame like its own center of gravity) on the unsuspecting teens Pearl‘s digital cinematography allows Jason to blend in and dematerialize to „become one“ with Crystal Lake itself which has devolved into a desolate, decaying landmark and small barns with even more sexually frustrated loners seem to be the only surrounding residences in close proximity. For the amount of time Jason spends stalking and slaying, Friday the 13th briefly transfigures from an effective summation of a commercial franchise into a digital nu-giallo version of Mario Bava‘s A Bay of Blood, and it‘s in these sequences that Nispel unequivocally finds the true heart of his film. It resolves as a hymn for the slasher‘s of old while also paving new and exciting ground for mainstream horror cinema, which is why I remain unsurprised that slasher movies haven‘t been tinkered with too much for the past 7 years except in the low-budget obscurities that screen at film festivals and best-case scenario make it into theaters exclusively for limited runs.

Which leads us to Nispel‘s most recent foray into the horror genre, Exeter (alt. titled Backmask). After wowing to finally move into original territory and away from tinkering with fanboy expectations and nostalgia, Nispel was approached  by the writer of Paranormal Activity to make a million dollar horror flick with the and the prospect of almost total creative control on condition that it could not by any chance or circumstance be a remake or a found-footage joint, which the German director happily agreed to. 

The result is perhaps my favorite of Nispel‘s works, and the one where, with all the glitz and gloss of the Hollywood  machine removed Nispel has the freedom to let teens party to nu-metal in an abandoned asylum, take subtle a piss at the know-it-all culture of the internet and break down violence into an act of reversed empathy. How‘s that for a proper low-budget slasher movie in the 2010s?

“At the center of it, I want to see the young people who see these kinds of movies. In most exorcism movies, it’s usually very special people that it happens to; families and movie stars like Ellen Burstyn. I wanted it to happen to amateurs.”

Poising internet-equipped adolescents against a demonic summoning that leads to possession and eventually senseless brutality, the writer-director team interrogate and eventually debunk the supposed notion that current youth is corrupted to the point of absolute complacency. Instead the self-aware team of doomed protagonists all emit human qualities in a way only b-movies (on both the high- or low-budget end of the spectrum) will allow in today‘s horror landscape. The first act‘s Project X-lite party and its aftermath is a steady build to all hell breaking loose, the second flirts with parody but descends into a madness reminiscent of Sam Raimi‘s classic The Evil Dead allowing further introspection for the surviving leads, their internal trappings are at once eternal and modern, making Exeter a very fitting avatar for the current wave of slasher horror.

By the third act there is a natural progression to externalising the introspection into form and opposites as a twist reveals the antagonist of the piece not to be a force of true evil, but the broken humanity that inspires such myths. Nispel retrofits Laurie Strode‘s descent-into-madness arc in Zombie‘s Halloween II into flashbacks revealing a shortened but effective lesson in perception and more so a cry for empathy finally condensed in the conclusive lines.

"Bitch deserved it"

"No, she didn‘t"

Suck on that Cabin in the Woods.