Monday, August 16, 2010

The Conversations #19: Todd Haynes

Another installment of The Conversations has been posted at The House Next Door. For the first time in a while, Jason Bellamy and I have turned our attention to a comprehensive director overview, the first one we've done since our two-part discussion of Quentin Tarantino a year ago. I'm very excited about this new conversation on director Todd Haynes, which covers his film work starting with his hard-to-see underground short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, up until his latest feature, I'm Not There. It's a long and wide-ranging conversation, one I'm especially proud of and happy with. Check it out, and as always be sure to comment; Jason and I had a lot to say on this subject, and we hope you do too!

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead is the second of George Romero's "Dead" movies, made ten years after his powerful debut Night of the Living Dead, which established a world in which the dead were mysteriously and suddenly coming back to life as lumbering, flesh-eating monsters. Dawn picks up in the immediate aftermath of those events, as this horrible state of affairs continues to spread, terrorizing people everywhere. From the start, Romero signals that this is going to be a very different kind of movie from the slow-burning tension and suspense that characterized the dark, claustrophobic Night. The film opens abruptly, in mid-scene almost, as, while the credits slowly roll, a TV news broadcast degenerates into chaos and shouting. Two on-air announcers bicker over different interpretations of the zombie menace, while off-screen everyone's equally divided over what to do, what to think, where they can go next. Everything's falling apart, the usual institutions can offer little solace or help, and the familiar trappings of modern society, like TV itself, become absurd and even dangerous, leading viewers astray. This is the theme Romero is exploring here, in which the collapse of society reveals something of the absurdity of that society's conventions and ideas. It's an idea that will continue to resonate throughout this wild and frenetic film once the credits end and the real action kicks in.

The initial minutes of the film are a whirlwind of activity and fractured plotlines, as police storm a tenement — many of them spouting racist invective the whole time, since Romero's concept of satire is anything but subtle — and an employee at the news station, Francine (Gaylen Ross) plans to run away with her pilot boyfriend Stephen (David Emge). Eventually, after a tour of the chaotic countryside, where the army mingles with redneck posses to take potshots at hordes of zombies who look suspiciously like hippies, the film narrows its focus to a quartet of survivors fleeing in Stephen's helicopter; the couple is joined by SWAT team members Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). This quartet eventually takes refuge in a mall that's swarmed with zombies, gradually clearing the place of the infestation and settling into a life of isolation and relative safety.

Over the course of the film, the zombies begin to seem less and less important, except as a symbol of mass conformity and mindless consumerism: the setting of a mall is not accidental, and the dialogue continually repeats the idea that the zombies are congregating at the mall because some impulse left over from their human days is telling them that this is a special place. The zombies are American consumers, shambling through the mall's bland corridors, rambling from shop to shop, staring wildly into the windows with uncomprehending hunger for what's inside. There's something eerily familiar about all the long, distancing shots of figures lumbering aimlessly through this antiseptic space, staggering about with blank expressions, going through the motions of a shopping expedition by rote, repeating mindlessly some faint echo of their old lives. When Romero archly stages a balletic sequence of lines of zombies parading across a skating ring, the satirical intent of the setting is solidified: middle America envisioned as a place of such deadening conformity that all these unthinking consumers might as well be dead, or undead.

Romero contrasts this mindless repetition against the uneasy new community formed by the four survivors. These four suggest a microcosm of society, and the issues they face with each other are as important to the film as their actual confrontations with the zombies. Francine's character provides a feminist archetype, as she fights to be considered equal with the three men, included in their decisions and debates, allowed to contribute to the group's efforts. Early on, she listens in as the three men try to decide, not only what to do about the zombies, but whether they should abort her three-month pregnancy in these terrible circumstances. Francine is forced to fight against a situation where she's assumed to have no input on anything, even as related to her own body, where she's treated as a helpless damsel in distress even though she shows every sign of being capable of handling herself. In contrast, Peter, as a black man, does not face these same pressures; in fact, in this small community he's accepted and respected on the basis of his intelligence and strength, without any of the prejudice that he presumably encountered as a police officer. At one point, after the zombies have been cleared out of the mall, Peter serves a romantic dinner for Francine and Stephen, acting as a waiter in a way that suggests servitude. But the important distinction is that here he's acting as a friend, doing something nice for these people who have fought and worked side by side with him. These are relationships forged in mutual respect, where anyone can be accepted if they work hard enough — including Stephen, who's initially weak and somewhat cowardly, but who soon becomes a valuable contributor to the group, earning the respect of the more experienced and stronger Peter and Roger.

Romero is exploring the possibilities for a society of equals, suggesting that under tremendous pressure the best qualities of people might come out — and also the worst qualities, as evidenced by the group's later apathy and restlessness, as well as the caricatured avarice and nastiness of a biker gang who storm the mall late in the film. The film is in a constant state of tension between chaos and order, human kindness and baseness, destruction and rebuilding, society and anarchy, thought and mindlessness. Romero sees human nature in terms of the opposition of these conflicting values, with individuals vacillating between the two poles at various times. And the zombies are far from the only representatives in this film of the baser values. By the end, as everything falls apart, the film has degenerated into a free-for-all of slapstick violence and dark comedy. The bikers assault the zombies with pies and spray-bottles, hit them with giant hammers, drop-kick them with movie karate moves, all while generic mall muzak plays its bouncy themes in the background. There's a dark absurdity to it all, the violence becoming comic and silly, an effect exacerbated by the profoundly unconvincing makeup effects on most of the zombies. Indeed, an occasional zombie here and there is slightly scary and creepy-looking, but most of them just look like humans with blue paint on their faces, which might be written off as sloppy effects work if Romero wasn't constantly emphasizing the connection between the zombies and the average unthinking consumer. In this respect, the lame makeup effects even become a virtue, making the zombies seem anything but inhuman except for their weird lunging walk.

In fact, the dominant characteristic of Dawn of the Dead is its unsettling mish-mash of tones and themes. Romero's debut, Night of the Living Dead, was a crisp, economical horror film, unerringly creepy and minimalist, presenting its ideas about society and humanity in stark black and white while exploring the tense horror of the zombie attacks. Dawn, in comparison, is loose and even messy, meandering about from one moment to the next with all the aimlessness of a zombie shopper. Its bold, colorful aesthetic and cheesy gore effects drain much of the horror from the premise, replacing it with bloody comedy, broad social satire and, at times, a surprisingly nuanced exploration of the relationships that arise between four very different people in a situation of great stress. In forsaking the simplicity and grittiness of Night of the Living Dead, Romero found enough compensating virtues to make his second zombie flick a fascinating, wild, not always coherent but multi-layered satire.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Sweet Hereafter

Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter is a bleak, melancholy film focused on a small, wintry mountain community where a school bus accident takes the lives of many of the town's children. It is a harrowing subject, a nightmare scenario that tears apart the lives of this town's families, of those left behind in its aftermath. And yet Egoyan's film does not truly do justice to this grief, does not truly develop this tragedy into something as deep or as powerful as it deserves. It is a tasteful, quiet treatment of tragedy, a film with many moments of devastating beauty, a film with an eye for telling details and small but suggestive moments. But, ultimately, it stays too close to the surface, gliding along superficially above the tragedy and the people it touches rather than trying to delve into their lives, their emotions, their characters. It is tragedy abstracted, nakedly hitting all the right tear-jerking buttons but only occasionally getting beyond such manipulations to a deeper core of human feeling.

Egoyan weaves together multiple time periods, blending the accident, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath, cutting between the time periods to explore the differences opened up when a school bus loaded with children slid off an icy road into a frozen lake, killing nearly everyone on board. Of the children, only Nicole (Sarah Polley) survives, albeit in a wheelchair, with no real memory of what had happened. The only other survivor is the driver, Dolores (Gabrielle Rose), a woman who had loved her job, who loved these children, and who, heartbreakingly, continues to refer to them in the present tense, as though they were all still alive. After the accident, a lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), comes to town hoping to capitalize on these families' grief, insisting that what had seemed a simple and unavoidable accident was actually the result of someone's malfeasance: a flimsy guard rail, a badly maintained bus, cost-cutting measures at some school board or company. He convinces many of the families to join his suit, except for Billy (Bruce Greenwood), who's mourning his beloved twin children, and the wife he'd previously lost to cancer, but who refuses to take the easy way out and blame anyone for his grief.

The film introduces many characters as Stevens visits the town's grieving parents and recruits them into his lawsuit, but Egoyan hardly delves too deeply into anything. There are numerous subplots that percolate on the fringes of the film but never go anywhere. Bill was having an affair with Risa (Alberta Watson), whose husband is introduced in the opening scenes as a nasty redneck caricature, delivering painfully contrived dialogue meant to demonstrate, in bold-face and underlined type, that this formerly tight-knit town is going to be torn apart by the arrival of the exploitative lawyer. It's all so trite, so inorganic, as this jerk insults his neighbors and friends one by one, until Egoyan is sure that he's made his point. The script is filled with overwritten contrivances like this, moments when it becomes all too obvious that the film is going to be making its big point now; there's no subtlety, no attempt to develop such ideas organically through patient character development. There's hardly any character development at all, in fact, just a series of types. The incest subplot between Nicole and her father Sam (Tom McCamus) is similarly undeveloped and disconnected from everything else.

Although the film suffers from this lack of depth and subtlety, there's no doubt that Egoyan has an eye for compelling details and an ability to stage striking, even haunting images. There's something chilling about the scene of Nicole walking into a deserted barn with her father for what seems to be a romantic evening. Before she enters, she pauses outside, wrapped in a red shawl like Little Red Riding Hood — Egoyan continually connects her to fairy tales, both in her narration of the Pied Piper story as an allegory for the children's deaths and in her sad acknowledgment that, post-accident, she's no longer daddy's little princess. Moments like this linger in the imagination, and when Egoyan is able to touch upon such emotionally resonant moments, it's compelling, even if in the larger narrative the incest subplot is so undeveloped that it barely registers. (And even though the actual staging of the subsequent incest scene as a candlelit romantic moment is cringe-inducing.)

When Egoyan delves deeper into emotional territory, he comes away with stunning material, like Stevens' surprisingly touching account of how he'd once brought his daughter to the hospital for a life-threatening spider bite when she was a very young child. Egoyan hones in on a single moment, a single image: a closeup of the girl's expressionless face, cradled in her father's arms as he drives, with an open switchblade next to her face, her father's hand poised to perform a tracheotomy if her throat should close and her breathing choke off. It's a startling, emotionally fraught image, this juxtaposition of the child's innocent face and the hovering danger of the knife, a visual indication of this father's willingness to do anything to save his child.

Such moments are so emotionally rich, so suggestive of the depths of these characters, that one wishes Egoyan was able to cut so deeply all the time, that he was able to bring the same heft to the film as a whole. Unfortunately, too much of the film is shallow and mannered, and too many of the other characters seem to have no such depths to plumb. It's too often an approximation of grief rather than the real thing, a manipulative film that leans too hard on its central tragedy, relying on the horror of children dying to disguise the fact that Egoyan has little else to offer. Its supposed insights — small towns hide secrets, neighbors can easily turn on each other, lawyers are corrupt — are so shockingly obvious and time-worn that it's hard to believe Egoyan thinks he's revealing anything about the nature of grief or incest or parent/child relationships here. And at least one of its points, the idea that tragedy is often exploited, is merely ironic in light of the film's over-reliance on the tear-jerking aspects of its story. The Sweet Hereafter has moments of sad beauty, moments where some human spark shines through the contrivances of the script, but these moments are all too often overwhelmed by Egoyan's lite-tragic sensibility and the overstated simplicities that stand in for themes.