Friday, 26 November 2010

The Exorcist, Let the Right One In and the horror film genre

I‘ve just read the film critic, Mark Kermode’s, autobiography, It’s Only a Movie. This is a wry summary of a life spent in darkened rooms and his futile assaults on artistically impoverished summer blockbusters. In the film world, the critic’s pen is not mightier than the Hollywood studio publicity machine. Kermode is not only famous for his quiff but also for his knowledge of the horror film genre."I am now a very happy horror-film fan," he writes, "who has derived hours of harmless pleasure from watching people pretend to disembowl each other with chainsaws."

Kermode's favourite film of all time is William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist, which he has “seen about two hundred times (I stopped counting after the first hundred)”. He has written definitive and peer group acclaimed academic studies of this film. Here is Kermode firing on all evangelical cylinders but, along the way, making interesting points about the positive aspects of the horror genre:

The first viewing (of The Exorcist) passed in an almost orgasmic whirl of fear, and remains one of the most genuinely transcendent experiences of my life. Rarely have I been more aware of being alive and in the moment than in the two hours that it took the movie to run through the projector that night. People talk endlessly about the damaging effects of horror movies but too little is heard about the life-affirming power of being sacred out of your mind – and, in those very rare cases, out of your body. You ask me if I think there is more to this world than the grim “realities” of ageing, disease and death, of mourning and loss, and I will refer you to that first viewing of The Exorcist during which my imagination took flight, my soul did somersaults, and the physical world melted away into nothingness around me. I don’t think that there is a spiritual element to human life, I know it because I have experienced it first-hand, and I have horror movies to thank for that blessing.

The Exorcist is clearly an accomplished film on all sorts of levels (I’m, not surprisingly, particularly interested in its perspective on the Catholic priest) but I’m not sure it would make it into my top ten films. I also admit to knowing next to nothing about the horror genre which exists at the periphery of my cinematic vision and knowledge. The Exorcist, along with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick’s The Shining are all films of exceptional artistic quality and yet the horror genre as a whole is too camp and predictable for my tastes.

In 2008, I began to read the rave reviews of an indie Swedish vampire movie called Let the Right One In. Curiousity got the better of me and one afternoon, I took myself off to a matinee performance. Let the Right One In became one of my favourite film of that year.

The film circles around the relationship of two outsiders. Twelve year old, Oskar, is bullied at school and without proper parental support, he must fend for himself emotionally and practically at home. New neighbours move in next door and Oskar meets the mysterious Eli. An adolescent romance begins to develop between them which is handled by the director, Tomas Alfredson, with real tenderness and humour. They are “a pair of star cross’d lovers” and in Eli’s case she can only appear when there are stars because she is a teenage vampire.

Let the Right One In directs the horror genre to a new territory where the fragility of all our loves and relationships are examined. The sense of being misunderstood that is so common in adolescence (and such a staple ingredient in films about adolescence) acquires an added depth when the individual that is misunderstood is a vampire. Let the Right One In is no gore fest but a more melancholy meditation on those insurmountable barriers that make love impossible. This is Catcher in the Rye with fangs.

Let the Right One In has just experienced an American makeover as Let Me In. This new version (which stays reasonably faithful in terms of narrative structure to the original), directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), is worth seeing in its own right. The action has been transposed to the United States of the 1980’s, but the essential elements remain the same. The most significant change is that this feels much more like a conventional horror film. There are more shocks, more breaking of necks with attendant Dolby sound effects and more CGI. Given this directorial slant it is inevitable that the horror displaces the ambiguous romance and makes it a less disturbing film than the Swedish original.

These films may not have convinced me of the importance of the horror genre. They have, however, made me question my prejudices and that can never be a bad thing.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Another Year

At the heart of Mike Leigh’s Another Year is the happy marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife, Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He is an industrial geologist and she an NHS therapist, both approaching retirement in an unremarkable suburbia. Leigh captures the gentleness, unspoken tenderness and friendship of a long marriage without ever allowing this picture to slip into sentimental sludge. With an acute eye and ear, all the minutiae of a contented marriage are examined: the bedtime hug, the shared mug of tea on the allotment as the seasons pass by, the humour and eloquent silences that weave through kitchen table conversations. Their years together have given an emotional earthiness to their marriage that finds expression in their kindness and hospitality to others.

All the characters in the film are linked in some proximate or remote way to this marriage. Tom and Gerri’s way of living becomes a kind of measure of happiness or illuminates the corrosive effects of solitude, the failure that some people have in finding a sustaining love in their lives.

The film opens with a menacing prologue that alerts the viewer to the themes that will be examined in the film. Janet is sent to Gerri for help with her insomnia and depression. In a tense cameo performace from Imelda Staunton, Janet's pinched features seem to be in a vice-like grip of self-loathing and terror. “On a scale of one to ten, how happy would you say you are?” probes Gerri. “One”, snaps Staunton as she bullies Gerri for medication to sedate her from the grim reality of an unhappy homelife. Even for those who are married, Leigh suggests, the consolations that Tom and Gerri experience are for others cruelly unattainable.

This is particularly true for Mary who works as a secretary in the same hospital as Gerri. Mary (an intelligent, brittle performance by Lesley Manville) has a manic, chatterbox personality that covers the “quiet desperation” of her private life. A failed marriage and a car-crash relationship with a married man has led her to invent an illusory love life, where almost every man she meets is encouraged to “take her out for a drink” and none ever do. Mary is a fantasist, trying to escape the ageing process and the prospect of a future spent alone. Her loneliness has turned into a bitter pool of remorse and resentment and only glass after glass of white wine dilutes the pain. When Gerri says, “Life’s not always kind, is it?” In Mary, we see the answer.

Tom and Gerri invite Mary to share in their life, to come in from the cold and find some warmth in their relationship. But, as the seasons that mark the course of the film turn, so Mary tests the patience of her hosts. Her behaviour chills the atmosphere in their home and their response to her becomes less accepting, more distanced. In this, Leigh explores the limits of kindness. Is there not some tough kernel of self-interest, desire for recognition in all our acts of kindness? Is a truly selfless kindness ever possible? Must there be limits and boundaries to our kindness? If so, how do we determine what those are?

Tom’s old university friend, Ken (Peter Wright) is also weighed down by loneliness. He is not the happy-go-lucky Northern bachelor boy but an overweight, chain-smoking, beer-swilling image of sadness. At a barbecue in Tom and Gerri’s back garden, Ken wears a t-shirt with the slogan “Less thinking, more drinking”. The irony, of course, is that the more he drinks, the more he thinks about his situation.

Another Year is a subtle meditation on the necessity of love in human lives and how "without it we remain incomprehensible to ourselves". But it is also a meditation that is full of Mike Leigh’s observational humour and generosity of spirit. Our human lives are complex, fragile, ridiculous, Leigh observes, but if our lives – even in their disillusionment, loneliness and mortality – are to be embraced then there must be something that we can hope for. Tom and Gerri symbolise that hope.

There are so many reasons to see this compassionate film but the main reason is Lesley Manville’s performance as Mary. It is heart-breaking without ever becoming mawkish, immediately recognisable without any lazy traces of caricature.

On Oscar night, when Sandra Bullock (or some other Hollywood starlet) stands up in her Armani Privée frock and says And the winner of the Best Female Performance goes to...the answer has got to be Lesley Manville.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

some favourite film quotations

My new curate suggested we watch David Fincher's Se7en the other night over a pizza. By the end of the film, he was being violently sick. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with me (I think?) and everything to do with gastric flu.

I'm a fan of Fincher. He is one of those few directors who bridge the gap between popular cinema and more thoughtful subject matter. Last week I saw the first ten minutes of his latest film, The Social Network, before there was a power cut and the cinema was emptied. So that is still to be seen at some point.

I saw Se7en when it first came out in 1995 and wondered if it would stand a second viewing(it does on many levels even though Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow's acting are flat affairs). However, the thing I remember most about Se7en is a speech given by Kevin Spacey near the end of the film. Watching it again, the speech does not disappoint - a memorable piece of the kind of economical, flick-knife sharp writing that is especially suited to the cinema.

So, I thought I'd offer some of my favourite quotations from popular films. I was going to track down the relevant film clips, but I think I'll let the words do the talking and let you conjure in your mind's eye and ear the scene from each particular film.

1. Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man who, if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal...After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must be thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated himself to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets. A ugly on the inside she couldn't bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually. And let's not forget the disease-spreading whore. Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say that these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon and night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example. What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed...forever.
Kevin Spacey, Se7en

2. I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house. And that he's rather I shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit 'em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's garden, don't nest in their corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.
Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird

3. You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. Who do you think you are talkin' to? Oh yeah? Huh? Okay.
Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver

4. This an absolute good. This list is life.
Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List

5. I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!
John Hurt, The Elephant Man

6. I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we're so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection. I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.
Stockard Channing, Six Degrees of Separation

7. Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if, by chance, an honest man like yourself should make enemies...then they would be my enemies. And then they would fear you.
Marlon Brando, The Godfather

8. You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your mommy, your daddy. You love your pyjamas. You love everything, don't you? Yeah. But you know what, buddy? As you get older, some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-the-box. Maybe you'll just realise it's just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And then you forget the few things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe its only one or two things. With me, I think it's one.
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

9. Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly, high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.
F.Murray Abraham, Amadeus

10. The final passage is the famous Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction. Too long to write out so I have tracked down the clip. I should warn people that it does contain some rather colourful language, but not, I think, gratuitously so. It is Quentin Tarantino at his best and Samuel L. Jackson at his coolest. Enjoy

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Indifference and its consequences

In the morning, the Campo dei Fiori in Rome is blush with the colour and smells of fruit and vegetable stalls. In the afternoon, emptied of the stalls and washed cleaned, locals and tourists sit outside the restaurants people watching. And in the evening, young people congregate around the bars, flirting and laughing with each other. Overlooking this daily cycle of work and play is a monumental statue to the Dominican cosmologist and philosopher, Giordano Bruno. Found guilty of heresy, Bruno was handed over to the civil authorities. On February 17, 1600 he was burned at the stake. In his poem, Campo dei Fiori, the Polish poet, Czelow Milosz, meditates on the indifference of the bystanders who blithely watched as Bruno was consumed by flames:

Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.

In The Other Schindlers, Agnes Grunwald-Spier recounts the stories of those men and women who helped their Jewish neighbours during the Holocaust. Sometimes this was inspired by religious belief as in the case of the nun, Soeur St Cybard (1885-1968), who saved a young five year old girl, Josie Martin, by taking her into a Catholic school and concealing her identity. Later Josie would write:

I can only surmise that Soeur St Cybard was a pious and sincere human being who practised her religious beliefs well beyond the dictates of her immediate superiors...I also wonder if I could have been a rescuer. When I think of that, I’m always struck by how heroic that nun was – not just for the obvious reason of risking her life by taking in the enemy or the perceived enemy. I also think of the upheaval it must have caused for this woman to take in a child!

Other rescuers had humanitarian motives such as Jaap van Proosdij (1921 -) who was only twenty one when he rescued 250 Dutch Jews. Reflecting on his actions, he said:

Why did I do it? Because it was the only normal thing to do. One can’t sit and watch when people are in mortal danger even when you do not know them...It is an important thing in my life to feel that I was useful somewhere...that I did not live just to enjoy myself. Nothing else I ever did was as important. A friend of mine said to me that the war was the time he really lived. For me, it was the time I lived the most intensely.

These histories of bravery and selfless concern for others are deeply moving. But, as Agnes Grunwald-Spier reminds us, these were largely isolated events before the general sea of indifference to the sufferings of the Jewish people.

What moves one person to compassion and action when others remain largely indifferent to the suffering around them? What makes one person a bystander and another a Good Samaritan? Has it something to do with categorising people as “them” and not “us”? Does the primitive tendency to stereotype the “other” feed into this indifference? Do some people possess a religious or moral integrity that goes beyond doctrinal formulations and deepens them? Are there some people who have an acute awareness of their interconnectedness with humanity, that, in the words of John Donne, “no man is an island, Intire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent. A part of the Maine…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. (Devotions XVII) Where within us does the darkness of indifference give way, if at all, to the breaking dawn of active compassion?

In 2001, Professor Richard D. Heffner interviewed the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel. Heffner asked: “You’ve spoken about those who put people in the death camps and brought about their deaths directly. You also speak about others who stood around indifferently. Do you feel that this is increasingly a theme in our times?” Elie Wiesel responded:

Oh, more and more. I have the feeling that everything I do is a variation on the same theme. I’m simply trying to pull the alarm and say, “Don’t be indifferent”. Simply because I feel that indifference now is equal to evil. Evil, we know more or less what it is. But indifference to disease, indifference to famine, indifference to dictators, somehow it is here and we accept it. And I have always felt that the opposite of culture is not ignorance; it is indifference. And the opposite of faith is not atheism; again, it is indifference. And the opposite of morality is not immorality; it’s again indifference. And we don’t realise how indifferent we are simply because we cannot not be a little bit indifferent
J.D.Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. He would later observe that “anyone could turn out to be a Nazi –your neighbour, your babysitter, the man at the post office – anyone. And anyone could be a hero; you never knew until it happened who would be a hero and who would be a coward or traitor.”

And that is the rub. We remain largely hidden from ourselves. Only our actions or acts of omission reveal us in any concrete sense. None of us can predict the existential maturity of our moral natures until we act or fail to act. Above all, it is in the moment of tragedy or trauma that either our moral grandeur or failure is revealed to us. We see ourselves as we really are. Until we are faced with the suffering and fragility of another human being, those who are hunted and crucified outside the city walls, we do not know whether we will reach out to them or whether covering our own backs, protecting our reputations, parroting given ideological positions will be our main preoccupation.

Would I have been another Schindler, Soeur St Cybard, Jaap van Proosdij or just another indifferent bystander, rationalising my cowardice and ignoring those who were “other”?

The Other Schindlers: why some people chose to save Jews in the Holocaust, Agnes Grunwald-Spier, The History Press, 2010