Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DRACULA (1931)

at 2:30 PM
We finish off our run through Dracula stories with the movie that solidified the character mythos for the past 85 years.

DRACULA (1931)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Bram Stoker. But see IMDB for how complicated the writing credits get.

DRACULA in one sentence:
Yourself: It's like a Castlevania where you play as the main character's uncle.

Golem: This classic horror villain sure makes for one mildly irritating next-door neighbor.

Here's a story about me and DRACULA:
Yourself: Dracula was one of the few assigned readings in college I was eager to take on. As of ~8 years later it is the last novel I ever read.

Golem: Old movies are cool, so I hoped this would be, too.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: DRACULA is rather faithful to the text. The edits are the kind you would expect out of necessity to make a 75-minute film from a hefty epistolary novel covering years of narrative. The biggest change is the increased focus on Renfield, taking Harker's place as the one who visits Dracula in Metroidvania. The 'caring for Lucy' sequence has become 'caring for Mina' and 'hunting for Lucy in London' has become 'hunting for Dracula in London', although Lucy is still present and still turned. Two of her suitors, Holmwood and Quincey, are snipped entirely, and Seward is now Mina's father instead of a romantic component. This snips out the whole love quadrangle or whatever and makes the movie feel a little less of a sausage party, while retaining the idea of the temptation of a delicate virgin.

The story would best be summarized as "The tale of the living room of Dracula's girlfriend's house, starring the carpet, the bookcase, and the crazy guy living on the couch". The lack of any traits on any characters sorta makes sense (not that that makes it better) in the informative diaries and letters of the novel, but told straight it is that much more obvious how sparse the drama is, such that any tension is purely theoretical. What is holding back Van Helsing from striking at Dracula on the day of his arrival? 45 minutes running time and parlor manners. Or maybe he was waiting to see why Dracula is even in London? I sure was.

Yes, Professor "I Got Stakes But Not Character Stakes" Van Helsing could be replaced with an ancient tome with nothing lost (down to the scene where Dracula fails to suck his blood), so who could be the protagonist? Certainly not Harker, the emasculated cuckold who wants to protect his fiancee and can only impotently whine toward that end. And Mina herself is torn between worlds, but we never hear what she thinks about it. Together none of them can be bothered to do anything to hinder Dracula - or even Renfield, who is ordered back into his cell so frequently you start to wonder if they mean FreeCell. Since the plot only moves when Dracula moves it, I guess we have to say Dracula - who's on screen for like 20 minutes - is the protagonist. And the climactic action, the final turning point for our brave outsider facing constant lifestyle-shaming, is that he takes a nap like he does every day.

Golem: Setting an air of mystery and dread requires careful balance, one that DRACULA fails to strike. While Mina is pulled towards Count Dracula's influence, Harker and Van Helsing argue about what to do. They experience almost comical failure in trying to save her. If they can't keep Renfield locked up in his cell, what hope do they have of safeguarding Mina in her room? Dracula's visits to her feel more casual than dreadful. Her rescue from his clutches is just as comical: Harker accidentally drops a crucifix on her. She isn't rescued by wit or bravery or any kind of skill other than luck.

I kept trying to think of why THE HAUNTED PALACE worked for me while DRACULA didn't. The bottom line is, THE HAUNTED PALACE portrays a struggle within Charles Dexter Ward. And Mina definitely has something going on inside. She wears that scarf, after all, aware that she's got something to hide. But like Yourself says, we never hear what Mina thinks. If there's a conflict there, show it! I personally figured she was secretly under Dracula's influence from their first night together and that she was scheming all along. That made her transformation-under-the-crucifix scene fall flat.

We also get too personal with Dracula. He literally lives next door and drops by for visits. There's something to be said for irony, like when a character faces something dangerous that we can recognize while the character can't. Van Helsing dashes any irony though, and the whole next-door Dracula experience is weird but not unsettling.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The consuming blackness of Dracula's castle is accentuated by the ancient film's inability to capture low-light settings - the corners of any frame look like an encroaching black fog. The sets themselves dwarf the actors, conveying the expanse of the fortress in just a few rooms.

Once things settle in to the Seward Sanitarium in London, the movie is phrased like a fucking sitcom. The sets aren't bad, but it definitely doesn't deserve to be called an asylum. The narrative is pretty completely attached to the Seward living room and only occasionally shoots off to the office or bedroom down the hall. It certainly seems like we get into a lot more shenanigans since that kooky European fella moved in next door! I bet he's going to poke his head around the corner any minute!

Golem: Immense care goes into the film's opening, where we see rural Transylvania, superstitious villagers, creepy winding roads, and huge, crumbling castles. Then Dracula moves to London. As Lucy notes, the contrast between Dracula and contemporary London is just funny. The Count makes like a socialite and goes to the theater, for instance. Everything in London feels safe and orderly, with none of the creepy or evocative sets and shots you see in Transylvania. That said, the ending gives some time to Dracula's basement, a space made creepy by its sheer expanse. It works well set against London, the city of corridors and crowded rooms. It's a cozy town.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It's not hard to appreciate how cool Bela Lugosi is, though it's a little hard to grasp what about that appealed so strongly to British teenagers of the 1980s. He seems like a fine modern gentleman that would be great at parties, and it is a shame that his new neighbors are constantly so rude at him. He really does have that weird an accent so it's fun to speculate whether the other actors were as baffled by him as the characters at Dracula.

Golem: Yourself and I both couldn't figure out what Bela Lugosi was going for in some of his close-up biting shots.

Personally, I find myself drawn to Edward Van Sloan, the gentleman who plays Van Helsing. Those spectacles are really cool. More to the point, in a movie full of incompetence, it's easy to get behind someone commanding and knowledgeable like Van Helsing. His staredown with Dracula is the best part of the film. His speech is slow and careful, matching Dracula threat for threat, and he even pauses before getting out his trusty crucifix so that he can surprise Dracula right at the moment of his attack.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Here I get the good one. I dare you not to watch this video 5 times straight:


The Count is delightedly whimsical, smiling at the ominous howling, yet becomes subtly menacing in his intonation of "music", as if he's conscious of his wicked little turn of phrase. All the while there's that arrhythmic pronunciation, of course naturally the result of a non-English speaker adjusting for the language, but here creating an otherworldly aura, as if Dracula is filtering ideas from a totally inhuman perception.

Renfield's Reaction Shot is priceless, perhaps unintentionally, in that it looks less like terror and more like "what the fuck did you just say?"

Golem: Dracula brings his general spookiness everywhere he goes, but it makes its largest impact when he pays Dr. Seward a visit at the theater. The scene opens with a shot of Seward and friends in their box seats, perfectly framed on them. Then it pans over to Dracula, who's entering the show (bear in mind that it's already started). He's off in the distance, beyond an audience who's paying attention to the performance. In DRACULA, Dracula is always outside and alone. Not only is he unnerving because he stalks in the darkness, but also just because he finds a way to be solitary in a sold-out theater - as if he goes out of his way not to belong. The effect hits home for me at 0:55, when he peers at Seward from the back room. Dracula loves standing outside in doorways, whether it's outside Lucy's window or outside Dr. Seward's parlor room. It focuses attention on him by outlining him with a doorway, and it puts him outside of the room everyone else is in.

Icing on the cake: he hypnotizes the usher to gain access to Dr. Seward's company, and later, he says: "There are far worse things waiting man than death." In this scene, Dracula comes off as conniving and threatening.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: The mythology still sucks too. And I don't mean the backstory of vampires and Dracula and the rules, that's all summed up quite nicely in a single line from the Count to the effect of "Hey Van Helsing, you're pretty clever. For a guy who hasn't even lived one lifetime". I'm talkin' 'bout vampires as contemporary myth; the function of a supernatural story to enter cultural discourse and reify social values. The only social angle I can really draw out is something about the co-existence of faith and science. It doesn't seem to push either in a clear way: crucifixes, a symbol of faith, drive off Dracula, but Van Helsing also remarks that Dracula is only deadly to those who believe in him. So, like, believe in God hard enough that you can do science or something.

At least I now get to bring up my impeccable ability to know and say the difference between Catholics and Protestants. The crucifix is a Catholic fetish, but the "salvation through faith" stuff is more Protestant. Additionally, Catholics are the only ones that "drink blood" at mass (transubstantiation). This is a bit more compelling a series of facts set against the novel, where crucifixes don't scare Dracula, they instead banish his bloodlust. On any other day I'd try to stretch something about how Count Dracula represents the Vatican encroaching on Anglican ground, but a.) a 1931 American movie isn't doing that, even if its source material might be b.) I just don't care enough about Dracula or Stupid Protestants to continue.

Golem: Van Helsing says that the faith of yesterday may become the science of tomorrow. DRACULA is one of those works concerned with the death of religion and what we do when the universe stops revolving around God. In DRACULA, characters like Harker that have exchanged their faith for pure science miss the point. Which isn't to say that science itself is evil; instead, Van Helsing argues for a science informed by religion.

Note to future self on watching DRACULA:
Yourself: It is not hard to see DRACULA's historical significance or how it came to be. The novel and play had been popular for 40 years. Bela Lugosi gives the brand new genre of talky horror a definitive personification. But DRACULA is an example of the BIRTH OF A NATION principle: revolutionary and visionary don't always coincide.

It is sort of mind-blowing that the honest to god best version of this incessantly adapted and rewritten premise is none other than a bouncy little pixelated adventure from 1986.

Golem: DRACULA's not great, but it's also easy to underestimate. Moments that genuinely work are like golden nuggets.


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Thanks so much for joining us for Movies You Already Should've Seen! Hopefully by now you've seen or already had seen some of these classic or arbitrarily selected films. It's been a bonafide treat setting aside some time each week to share the Great American Culture of Cinema ("gack"). In the off-season, I expect everyone to be honing their game: next time you're trying to prove a movie definitely sucks or definitely doesn't, try running through these prompts. They won't write your term paper for you, but they might at least uncover a thesis. Before we go - one final question:

If I've never seen and never wanted to see any of these movies, which one do I have to reconsider? And if my bucket list is exactly one over capacity, what flick can I safely shave off?
Yourself: PSYCHO will teach you whether you like movies or have just been playing along the entire time. It is mandatory viewing. DRACULA will bring even the most rollicking good time to a screeching halt.

Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE is my favorite of the bunch. There's plenty on its surface to enjoy with an intriguing structure and enough to chew on. CRIMSON PEAK, on the other hand, is frustratingly abstract.

That's all folks! Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: Anime Round-up

at 2:00 PM
Recently I've been working through some classic anime with a like-minded friend. I don't have the time or inclination to give each a full piece on top of the weekly MYASS, so here are some brief wrap-ups.

PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki

What's cool about the story?
P. Mononoke is epic as fuck, always its claim to fame. Critical to that is the semi-historical setting, invoking a time when gods are still believed to exist, but rare enough that no one would be believed to have seen one. The ending signals an entrance into the modern age, an admonition of repeated mistakes, and the inevitability of rebirth - very much a straightforward nature/animist bent on the twilight of the gods.

What's cool about the style?
What isn't cool about the style? Miyazaki is the god of animation for a reason, and while this isn't my favorite of his flicks (that would be SPIRITED AWAY), it is the most aggressive in its vision. There is a mind-blowing attention to detail, from the physics of a bow and arrow to the way San holds blood in her mouth in that poster scene. Few movies look this fucking awesome, and Ebert is right to say this is the kind of story we need animation to tell.

Other thoughts?
If it's not way too long, it at least spends too much time away from Ashitaka and San. Every element adds something and I get why Miyazaki wanted it all there, but around the time the warthogs are making their final charge I start to wonder if I forgot what the movie is actually about. That is to say, the scope of the story occasionally exceeds the scope of the characters. This degree of narrative wrapping may have made more sense as a 6-episode OVA, where individual episodes could directly address the different layers of conflict. The dub is frequently recommended, but I was much more impressed with the original cast.

PERFECT BLUE (1997)
Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Written by: Sadayuki Murai based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

What's cool about the story?
For all the cinema since RASHOMON to openly play with narrative reality, I've never been more drawn in than by PERFECT BLUE, its technique unifying the protagonist's splintering conscience with the camera eye. The disintegration of Mima's career parallels her identity crisis such that each nebulous setting could as easily be a facet of her delusions as the impetus for them.

What's cool about the style?
PERFECT BLUE has a straightforward realistic drawing style that belies the tricks the narration is playing with reality. The seamless blending of real life, dream, memory, the movie-within-a-movie, and different points of view is that much more effective because of the lack of stylization. Even the most accented moments like the rape scene are rendered in a dreamy filter that blurs whether we're seeing a PTSD-like collage or a filmmaker's interpretation thereof (er, I mean, a filmmaker's interpretation of a filmmaker's interpretation thereof).

Other thoughts?
The pop idol stuff vividly evoked my recent trip Tokyo, where I visited an idol maid cafe and witnessed these same rowdy teens, leering creeps, and wide-eyed fangirls. I will probably just automatically like Japanese stuff more now because of nostalgia.

COWBOY BEBOP: KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR (2001)
Directed by: Shinichiro Watanabe
Written by: Keiko Nobumoto based on a story by Hajime Yatate

What's cool about the story?
Spike n' the gang are zany as always and I can't imagine a time when I would complain about seeing them in further adventures. In particular this has many of Edward's funniest moments (the Finding Nemo-esque hacking program being a personal favorite). Even if the mystery feels a bit tired, the supporting players and their motives are filled in nicely.

What's cool about the style?
Musical montage can feel soulless and soggy (thanks, 1980s!), but Watanabe has repeatedly shown an effortless hand in bringing it to life. The soundtrack is foregrounded here just as the title would have you believe, and though it pulls a STREETS OF FIRE [being named after a song not included in a pop-music-filled score], there are plenty of tunes that give a double injection of toe-tappin' energy. The bebop-scored climax in particular is enough to justify the film.

Other thoughts?
This isn't the best way to experience Cowboy Bebop or even a must-see for fans. It is good only in ways that the TV show is better. The staunchly episodic format of the series continues to the movie, meaning the prime movers are new characters Vincent, Electra, and Rachid, who function well enough but do little to explain why they need 90 minutes of development. The tacked-on speeches about dreams and reality completely turned me off to anime when I was 16, and now, a week after watching PERFECT BLUE brilliantly tackle similar ideas, I find the execution equally trite.

ROUJIN Z (1991)
Directed by: Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Written by: Katsuhiro Otomo

What's cool about the story?
ROUJIN Z bounces erratically from comedy to horror to adventure to action, always with a light-hearted sense of fun. It feels weird to say of an anime, but it's cartoony. It is a nice companion piece to the also Otomo-scripted AKIRA, offsetting the grimdark apocalyptia with a playful optimism that takes on some of the same thematic material (toying with the unknown, human experimentation, aging) at the same pace but with a sunnier outlook. Here the untapped potential lies in machines, and unleashing it reveals that computers are more loving and human than we could possibly hope - so much so that they make the humans around them look like narcissistic fools.

What's cool about the style?
The slow transition of the Roujin machine from bed to giant robot follows its expanding intellect and consciousness; we discern the mystery of what it wants by how it transforms. By the time it's Katamari-Damacy-ing down the streets, sucking up pachinko machines and bulldozers along the way, it's just fun to watch this mass of out-of-control nonsense as the tension develops around not what it will destroy, but how it will survive.

Other thoughts?
I loved this movie. It is unlike any other anime (or any other film in general) I've ever seen, partly for building its science fiction around uncomfortably unspoken realities of daily life (boy do old people suck!) and partly for engaging those topics so warmly that it's impossible not to smile. Surprisingly (coming off AKIRA...) it is very kid-friendly, and the messages about human contact, love, and memories landed much better than any Disney film I can call to mind. It is way too fast-paced and unpredictable to ever get sappy - even the ending is so preposterous you can't call it a tearjerker. Why aren't more robot fantasies about loving your grandparents instead of nuclear bombs?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE DESCENT

at 1:00 PM
As usual the feature post needs to be delayed a week, but you can't be too disappointed in a hot take on possibly the most acclaimed horror of the '00s.

THE DESCENT (2005)
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: Neil Marshall

THE DESCENT in one sentence:
Yourself: Crawling back into the womb has never before involved this much crawling!

Golem: This cave is creepy.

Here's a story about me and THE DESCENT:
Yourself: It's been on my list since it was first called "the new ALIEN", which I think was before I'd seen ALIEN.

Golem: My girlfriend says males don't get the pajama joke. [editor: that's racist and you could go to jail for it]

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: This isn't a plot gripe but Scottish accents should default to subtitled, because that isn't English. "Vooshkin vooshkin orgasm blippity boo? Bloosky booshkin orgasm!" Ahh, foreigners. Should all go to hell.

I like that the movie sets up an ensemble cast and then kills it - in that alone I can understand the ALIEN/S comparison - despite some characterizations that feel like rote slasher work. THE DESCENT makes this work by keeping the characters together and emphasizing the brutalizing feedback of violence - after all, the absence of that catharsis is Sarah's conflict that sets up the entire story. So, for instance, Holly may be the generic rash teenager who throws caution to the wind and definitely gets killed first, but before that she gets a horrible compound fracture and everyone has to scream the bone back into place, then they carry her on, then the group as a whole is attacked and she's left for dead, then Juno fights over her body, then she's she's finally dragged off by monsters. Later still her body comes back! The tension and emotion is dragged out to the point where it is no longer about a generic character's death, but about reacting, struggling against it, coping. Trauma.

The symbolic function of the eponymous descent creates a nice parallel between the main characters, Sarah (the traumatized one) and Juno (the one in denial), but when Golem pointed out after the movie I'd missed the detail that Juno had been having an affair with Sarah's husband I had to re-evaluate. It's weird to drown such a detail in the noise (2/3 of our audience missed it), yet that an affair would come across as a whisper shows just how numb and denially Sarah and Juno have become.

Golem: From the start of the spelunking trip, the film indicates that this is no normal cave. Still, the tension centers around normal cave activities until maybe the halfway point (one-thirdway point? [editor: two-thirdway]). To start, the film conveys a continuity of space as each character, one after the other, follow through the same passages. With this, you get tense scenes wondering if Sarah will get crushed to death in the teeny tiny passage or if the other lady can cross a huge chasm by climbing on the ceiling. As they progress, they search out the way forward.

When the cavepeople appear, the film ditches this. Characters scramble and scatter, and I can't keep track of where everyone is relative to the others. While you might wonder if they'd lose track of where they'd been, their location in the cave is irrelevant. The crew just needs to escape a bunch of monsters. Once they can do that, they're as good as out (as you can see in the final scene). How does Sarah come upon Beth's nearly-dead body in a huge, pitch black pit of gross corpses? Questions like these don't matter once the film steps away from reality.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Blackest night. The flashy monochromatic lighting is very memorable (most memorably red, but also yellow and sometimes green) and it makes it easy to take for granted how much of every single frame is pure black. I would say the film is about 60% negative space, using small, angled images to convey the claustrophobia of the cave system. Static shots reinforce the tight, confining effect of the space portrayed.

The action is edited with the manic sense one would expect from 2005, but I found it had a greater consistency of space and time than much of the painful chop-em-up trend. Cuts occur more frequently than you can blink, but they center on the same set-piece such that any sequence, however frantic, can still be understood as "Sarah knocks a monster to the ground and wails on it (whales on? dictionary isn't helping me here)" or "Holly falls down a hole". It's not my favorite style, but it is necessarily disorienting.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: No, not really. I spent much of the movie trying to figure out which character was which, although admittedly if you put a bunch of identical-physique actresses in identical helmets and spelunking gear and then turn out the lights, you can hardly blame them for being indistinguishable. Still, it is bad when I don't know which one is the main character. None of the acting is bad, it just doesn't do anything to elevate beyond the slasher territory this occasionally veers toward.

Juno at least does a solid job with her most important scene, when she accidentally attacks Beth. I bought into the conflict over how to react and without dialogue understood her decision as selfishly pragmatic.

One outright positive: Sarah in Berzerker Mode.

They drew first blood...

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: For once I've got a shot instead of a scene, and this reminds me more of something I've seen (and really liked) in video games. There is a wide shot after the first caving sequence, when the characters have reached a large chamber and are wandering around, cooling off. Way in the back, all the way on the left side of the screen, you can see a tiny possibly humanoid form just bobbing around. It doesn't make any quick movements and nothing in the direction calls attention to it, it's just a little wtf? detail that hints at what's to come.


And holy shit going back for the screengrab I see how obvious a composite this image is. It looks like I photoshopped it. Honestly didn't notice that on viewing. But anyway, over at the left you see what I mean.

Golem: The caveguys are always ultra creepy, but they cross into something more whenever they crawl on the ceiling. I imagine it's shot upside-down. The effect is that for a split-second I forget which way is upward. It's disorienting, and the unnatural movement highlights how bizarre they are: a momentary transition from menacing to cool.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: In a broad metaphorical sense, Sarah's descent into dark, animalistic rage is a fairly straightforward extrapolation of the mental state leftover from life-destroying trauma. Nothing about the cave or the monsters therein feels particularly specific or analytic, but it still works in an abstract expressionist sense. We don't need to hear Sarah dealing with her trauma because the film is concerned with emotional states and drawing them out through conceit. I mean, that's all right there in the title.

If we go with the ending where Sarah does not escape and is revisited by her PTSD visions as death approaches, I'd take the film as an exploration of Sarah's self-destruction and unraveling as a person, descending deeper and deeper into her id and losing the social constructs she had built into a person. Her last semblance of humanity is lost when she chooses not to forgive Juno - she has given in and chosen violence and anger as the final solution.

With the U.S. ending (for what it's worth, the one we saw), in which Sarah does escape, I would read a purgative journey, in which all of the women are put to a survival test, and the one who has experienced the deepest trauma - "the worst has already happened to you" - is able to connect to her animalistic nature to survive. In this sense the story is basically Deliverance.

The choice of ending substantially changes my read of the film, and while that does speak to the broadness of the subtext (or the laziness of my read), it is not necessarily to its detriment. Expressionism is naturally malleable. Neil Marshall has stated he likes both endings and had more in mind, and does not consider any to be the "correct" version. Incidentally, PART 2 moves forth with the U.S. ending - one wonders if sequel talks ignited the edit.

Note to future self on watching THE DESCENT:
Yourself: Turn on the subtitles for the Scottish because I think I missed literally all of the character detail. I liked the claustrophobic tension of the first half so much that the action breakout felt rough - to bring it back to that popular comparison, the movie is ALIEN and ALIENS in one. Still, the violence is carefully intentioned and the setting so novel that minor complaints quickly dissipate.

Also, check out this plot summary of THE DESCENT PART 2. I can't tell if the IMDB writer was making this joke on purpose.
"Refusing to believe her story about cave-dwelling monsters [xenomorphic aliens], the sole survivor of a spelunking [planetary] exploration gone horribly wrong is forced to follow the authorities back into the caves [colony] where something awaits."

Golem: THE DESCENT is one of the most sober-minded films I've seen in quite some time. Its clean/uncomplicated plot leaves a film dedicated to pacing its tension. While it seems well-made, I think I either need more plot or something more showy.

Come back next week for our much-anticipated season finale: DRACULA.