Category Archives: Streaming on Netflix

TRAVEL HIPSTERS IN PERIL/ ‘THE LONELIEST PLANET’

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Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald

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A NARRATIVE ‘HOUSE OF CARDS’

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I’ve been waiting for a House of Cards remake since I saw the first of the three British miniseries back around 2000. It’s simply some of the most fun you can have watching evil work. It’s a grainy low-budget affair, but those are constraints the BBC has learned to thrive under since its birth, producing a body of work that shames that of the British film industry. While I was watching House of Cards on DVD people with better cable packages were watching The Sopranos and witnessing American subscriber TV begin its own amazing ascent in quality. It’s one that shows no sign of dropping off and which is trouncing Hollywood at everything from originality and artistry to social relevance and talent discovery. It’s doing it all with substantially lower budgets than Hollywood, and in the case of basic cable shows often with less money than the networks, which have yet to truly step up.

As Netflix attempts to leap fully formed into this new tradition of quality their first effort is a fascinating and often frustrating thing. It’s caught structurally, between the old weekly distribution model of the networks, and a new model more akin to modern video games, and also caught between its source material and its own strengths and desires. It’s fun, brilliantly acted and visually accomplished. But boy oh boy, that story…

(Your spoiler forecast is light, with a few scattered references to events throughout the whole of the season, and some implicit clues about the British series and its sequels. All in all it should be a pleasant trip for everyone regardless of what they’ve seen.)

The keystone of modern quality television is serialized storytelling and NetFlix’s Whole-Season-At-Once distribution model has the potential to be a uniquely elegant expression of the trust in serialization that’s been slowly and often excruciatingly developed between producers and viewers since the beginning of TV. With it we’re trusted not only to follow stories from episode to episode, but to pace our own premiere schedule and arrange our own re-reruns.

The best immediately obvious benefit of this is that we’re never asked to sit though a “Previously On” or squint suspiciously at a potentially spoiler laden preview of what’s coming next week. But aside from a couple of winks at the audience’s newfound power of instant gratification and the deliberately light touch it uses to develop its B-plots in the early hours, nothing in House of Cards gives a strong indication of having been tailored for this model. This is disappointing but probably inevitable since the show was originally pitched to the cable networks and not conceived as a season-length Netflix marathon. And so when the show’s writing fails it does so not through audacious attempts at a new sort of storytelling but from traditional weaknesses in the quality of its ideas and the skill with which it’s been adapted from its source.

I’m happy to give a pass to the one or two absolutely painful lines of dialog which seem to come with each episode, as well as the already old-fashioned “Blogs vs. Newspapers” sub-plot in the early going, and the fact that, when compared to the rest of the cast, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is speaking in not merely his own dialect or idiom, but in his own southern gothic novel. I’m not sure that the last is even a flaw. No; what’s immediately and persistently disappointing about the story is that it doesn’t pace itself well. It wastes time when it has it, short changes ideas it shouldn’t, and starts sprinting too late in the game to make up for its occasional losses of momentum.

The writers, lead by Beau Willimon, have taken as their basis a book adapted with acclaim into four hours of British TV and seemingly decided to expand its plot across this 13 hour season, and a second season already in production (although given that the plot of the second series of the British trilogy has no analogue in American politics they have to do their own plotting to set-up a third season).

For the most part, this expansion results in obvious seams and stretch marks. Some of it works beautifully however. In the British series the character of Francis Urquhart’s wife is largely a confidant, but here Claire Underwood is an individual who passionately assists her husband’s vicious style of politics while having the personal ambition and pride to occasionally be a dangerous competitor. It’s a bright move, and Robin Wright’s performance floats high above the writing’s occasional faults. (One of the show’s few unforgivable mistakes is to set up the impression that Claire and Frank are habitually plotting the details of his coup together off camera, then hinge a crucial plot turn on her feeling left out of his plans.)

Corey Stoll puts on an equally admirable show as Pete Russo, a congressmen whose vices quickly land him under Frank’s thumb. The role is analogous to the original series’ Roger O’Neill and here again the writers do a fine job of expanding the character’s scope. Some of what O’Neill is forced to do is much nastier and cruel than anything that falls to Russo, but Russo’s actions have higher stakes and they propel his story arc nicely as it helps to support the second half of the season. But neither of these much improved characters factor significantly in the final act of the original series and it’s there that its American cousin runs into its worst pacing problems while trying to deliver a meaningful climax modeled after the start of the original’s final act while still making time for characters it has expanded or invented.

Early on Frank tells us that ideology is for “armchair generals”. It’s something he says he has no use for it as someone trying to get things done in the halls of Congress. This is all spit out with Underwood’s usual grim verve during a rushing walk-and-talk soliloquy and so it’s easy to miss it for what it is: A statement of purpose that alternately guides and haunts the show. Because the biggest problem with the show’s story is that its politics are too simplistic to get away with being so toothless.

What does Frank want out of all his congressional knife fighting? He says that he wants power, as opposed to the money that comes from being a lobbyist, because power is what endures. The show doggedly references a metaphorical idea of power as a enduring building, without giving us any substantive idea of what Frank would do with the power he craves. One of the show’s best early hours has Frank going back to his home district. It’s an episode that screams PADDING!!! but it manages to be an effective and memorable episode largely because it provides one of the only examples of what Frank does in the world at large with his power. As the show’s favorite metaphor had already suggested: He’s built something.

Having once championed the construction of a water tower in the shape of a peach in his district in South Carolina he returns to stop the latest effort to tear it down (It’s a vividly feminine peach, shall we say, hence the objections). In the context of the episode it makes perfect sense that we don’t even fully understand why the peach was even built in the first place. It’s a marvelous emblem of pork barrel politics and as a part of the foundation of the political power Frank has built for himself it makes sense that he vehemently defends it. (Later we see Frank using this same foundational strategy by attacking the power plants a billionaire tycoon built his fortune with, even though the plants are merely a fraction of his current empire.) It’s a great character building moment but as there’s no strong ideological bent to the local politics of the peach we still don’t learn much about what Frank wants to do with the power he seeks.

This lack of ideology is pervasive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that past the second episode the Republican party functionally doesn’t exist in House of Cards. With a majority in the House and Senate it’s understandable that we see the Democratic leadership as confident and introverted but we should still expect some sense of their across the aisle wrangling in the Senate: Gathering Republican co-sponsors, guiding the education bill through committees, breaking filibuster attempts. As House Whip none of this would be strictly Frank’s concern, but having him ignore this side of the politics of legislation makes Frank’s reach, his challenges, and his ambitions, seem smaller. Worse it makes the show’s universe less real. And this is a show that wants to be seen as real.

It’s rare enough for a political show to explicitly identify its parties by name, and even rarer for a show to portray the Democratic Party not as ardent liberals, but as the center-right party of Clinton and Obama. These are decent stabs at reality. But the writers never challenge themselves to uncover the dramatic potential in their starkly centrist version of Washington. And with David Fincher establishing the visual tone of your series you better be interested in exploring heightened drama.

The original House of Card’s Francis Urquhart is one of the great screen villains. So far it’s hard to fear Frank Underwood. I wouldn’t vote for him, or let him pet my dog, but I wouldn’t start fortifying my house against FEMA Stormtroopers if he were sitting in the White House either. A Machiavellian approach to the political process doesn’t single-handedly make for a memorable villain and it hasn’t for at least 400 years. Perhaps as a liberal it might be impossible for me to loath a villain bent on creating some leftist mandatory utopia in exactly the same way I loathed the Tory authoritarian wet-dream that was Urquhart’s United Kingdom, but I’d have loved to see the writers try.

If the minds behind House of Cards are building something truly great it’s difficult to see its foundation here in this solidly entertaining but somewhat slight season. There are a few potential clues that Frank might be something of a foreign policy hawk, and so I’ll be happy if a future season ever has him dusting off Douglass McArthur’s plans to preemptively nuke the China seaboard, but anything as audaciously villainous as that would stand to work a lot better if it had been properly foreshadowed here. If we aren’t supposed to fear what Frank is going to do with the power he’s seeking then this show isn’t House of Cards, it’s something that’s already wasted a lot of talent trying to be House of Cards, when it’s more interested in being something else.

-Chris Dobbins

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RELIGULUST

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I have never been religious. Similar to Bill Maher, I grew up with one Jewish and one Christian parent, though neither of them practiced either faith outside of childhood. I’m often distressed by all the violence committed in the name of God, or anyone related to him. I have often found myself confused and baffled by the strength of what to me seem to be insane and, as Bill Maher puts it, somewhat fairytale like beliefs. This is what originally drew me to Bill Maher’s Religulous. I thought I would be walking into a discussion of belief, how it began, why we have it today, and why so many hold so tightly onto a god that for me has always seemed so obviously manmade.

However, this was not the movie I found myself watching. In Religulous Bill Maher flies himself around the world with a small crew and ‘interviews’ many different people (mostly men) in many different religions and locations. What he seems to find so hilarious is that all the people that he interviews are completely positive, at all times, that they are right. They refuse to listen to anyone else.

Interesting, because Bill Maher hardly let’s someone finish a sentence before he calls them out on their so called ‘bullshit,’ and walks off camera in a huff. At the end of the film he says what exasperates him so is the ‘arrogant certitude’ that these people have about their religion, and that we should remember that ‘doubt is humble’.

I agree, doubt is humble, which is why I find it absolutely maddening that Bill Maher can stand atop the stones in Meggido, Israel yelling about the stupidity of faith. And that he can look down upon all those who claim to be religious, when he has spent an hour and forty minutes not listening to anyone, and preaching the gospel of Bill Maher. The very last picture we have of him is at Meggido, atop a small cliff with the camera looking up at him; this puts Maher in a very god-like position. It would seem, after watching this movie, that the one with the most ‘arrogant certitude’ is Bill Maher himself.

This brings me to ask: What exactly is the point of this film? I mean, besides making everyone who has a faith look like a complete idiot, is there one? The end of the movie is very apocalyptic, as Maher suggests that the end of the world is being caused by religion, and that we (the atheists I presume) must band together to stop this. How is this different than any other religion feeling the need to go door to door converting every sinner? It’s not.

So, I have to wonder, who is this film really geared towards? Bill Maher’s not stupid. He knows the people he’s interviewing aren’t going to be the ones to pick up a DVD, so who is this really for? My guess: middle class, well educated, atheists. If there’s one thing people love, it’s feeling smart. If you aren’t religious, then you already agree with a lot of what Maher’s already saying and you probably already knew a lot of it too. But, when he says it and films the opposing side looking like a regular country-bumpkin nincompoop, well, then we can feel quite good about ourselves. Thank god, we’re not like them, right? But now we have a ‘we’ and ‘them’. Funny, because Maher seems to think this sort of divide only occurs inside religious boundaries.

But these days, with movies like Religulous and Borat, we can see a lust for creating a divide between ‘the well informed’ and ‘the ignorant’. If you are in the ‘well informed’ party you’re probably enjoying the film a lot because (as I said before) they make you look pretty good. In fact you look better, in an extreme way, than those other people, right? But what about those other people? The movie seems geared towards trying to educate them, but is it? Or is it just another good ol’ laugh for the educated middle class?

One of the scenes in Religulous that positively kills me is when Maher goes to a tiny church (and when I say tiny, I mean smaller than the bedroom of my in-law apartment) for truckers. If you are unaware, truckers are the people who sit in a massive truck for hours, usually alone, driving truckloads of merchandise, through all hours of the day and night. Bill Maher walks into this tiny place and starts asking questions. Great, that’s what an interviewer is supposed to do. But what bothers me is when he starts to laugh at them for their beliefs, which to him are completely ridiculous, so of course he does his darndest to make them feel and look ridiculous. ‘Aren’t these little people with their little beliefs so hysterical?’ type of thing. And at the end of his interview he says, “I think being without faith is a luxury for people who are fortunate enough to have a fortunate life…. You’re in a fox hole, you probably have a lot of faith, right? So I get that, but you guys aren’t dumb. You’re smart people. How can smart people, how can they believe in the talking snake and the 900 years old, the virgin birth and that’s my question.”

Yes, clearly these people in the rollaway church the size of a hallway are filled with luxury, Bill. And I’m sorry, did he just basically say: if you believe in God, how can you possibly be intelligent? Very judgmental for someone who later says: “That’s a pretty big judgment for a Christian…. That’s not a judgment that you are sitting here telling these people that you don’t even know that they are incomplete because they’re not like you.” Yes, the guy he is talking to is being absolutely ridiculous (it’s a ‘heterosexual’ man who used to be gay but now has seen the light of God, blah, blah, we know the rest. But basically now he believes homosexuality is a choice and those who have fallen astray are ‘incomplete’ as men or women. Which as most of us hopefully know, is insane.) However, I find it pretty hysterical that Bill Maher states (quite high on his horse) ‘that you are sitting here telling these people that you don’t even know that they are incomplete because they’re not like you.” Aren’t the people Bill Maher interviews portrayed as somewhat incomplete? They’re missing something, right? A few less brain cells, perhaps? I’m just in awe that someone could blindly make a film this hypocritical.

Maher has a lust for tearing people down without any interest in building something in their place. He is a documentary Godzilla destroying everything in his path with little respect or interest in discussion. If you want to see a film make fun of people who are at a disadvantage, and who get Maher’s joke tested on them like helpless lab rats, be my guest. Otherwise, I’d skip. I will, however, take Bill Maher’s advice on doubt, and doubt that I will ever watch this terrible film again.

-Madeline Mahrer

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‘LOURDES’/ “UNCERTAIN CRAP” IN THE QUASI ART HOUSE

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“Miracles happen why play with if or if not. Why not have a movie that does not beat around the bush. Anyone can get healing at any time God wants and He does not jerk people around like secular writers of religious things who write about uncertain crap. He heals who He wants when He wants and it never hurts to ask. if He heals you you are healed – period. Also the half-assed level of faith displayed by many in this movie is frankly the most unreal part about it. The movie is just not how it is, which too bad because it would have been nice to see a more positive display of things. Basically the script is written by a struggling agnostic and represents the typical crap that wanders through their feeble non-commital minds. It is one of the Jesus got people to share the loaves and fishes rather than multiply types – crap. Miracles happen – the pretending what if or if not is literary crap not some dynamic cinematic twisty who can tell it is in the eye of the beholder thing. I can even tell you how the screen writer votes.” (sic) – Netflix User Review. 2 stars.

Some critics have noticed an increasing polarization in the cinema after the year 2000, with the art house becomes more “artsy” and the megaplex becoming more commercial. This is evidenced by the vigorous film culture alive online and at certain festivals, as well as the increasing laughability of any given year’s top ten (at the box office.)

If we take a year like 2011, which I have a noted admiration for, and look at the top ten grossing films, we get this:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
  5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2
  7. Fast Five
  8. The Hangover Part II
  9. The Smurfs
  10. Cars 2

Well, fair enough with the top 5, I’d say. Hyper-visible, mega-budget franchise breadwinners. Crap, but tried and true and expected crap. Aside from the Tourette’s-like compulsion toward colons and sub-subtitles, nothing out of the ordinary. But what are we to make of the next 5 entries? Laughability turns to horror as we near Cars 2 and The Smurfs. (The latter enjoyed a 500% profit margin at the box office, virtually assuring a hundred years of Smurfs sequels and reboots.) What are we to make of this?

Business, as they say, is business.

And the deliverable product embedded in all of these movies is a kind of certainty. It’s a certainty that nothing will deviate from the sacred code of multiplex expectation. You can take your children and your grandma and no one will be in the least surprised by anything. The producers and directors and screenwriters are complicit, right down the line, and obediently oblige to undergo the transformation from artist to cog.

While the system that gives us The Smurfs 2 and eight Harry Potter films is practically predicated on its own eventual collapse (a blog post for another day) it remains muscular right now. The certainty it pedals seeps down into the farthest reaches of its mainstay audience’s subconscious (or barely conscious) expectations, creating a feedback loop in which the slave becomes the master becomes the slave. (Having formatively molded the wants of their audience, the studios are doing what they perceive their audience to demand of them, and experiencing (not-so) puzzling diminishing returns.)

But the proliferation of entries into the new canon of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema continues to demonstrate its potential for provocation.

When you look at a film by a contemplative director, there’s always a tendency to see their work at the art house as hanging in a naïve void. With art films becoming more durational, and requiring ever more intense commitment, patience, love, and attention, how frustrating it must be to mistakenly believe they exist as abstract or theoretical musings, off to the side of the arterial mainstream.

The truth is that the Cinema of Contemplation is a reaction against the certainty of the box office. Here, the currency is narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity seeds contemplation, because contemplation becomes the only way to derive meaning. The burden of creation is shared between artist and audience.

All that said, sometimes one who enjoys (apparently profoundly, even morally) the certainty sold by Hollywood stumbles across the Cinema of Contemplation. The wheels are greased for this accidental discovery, by online streaming. Netflix and Hulu Plus allowed the user above to stumble across Lourdes (2009.)

Now, Lourdes isn’t particularly demanding Contemplative Cinema. It’s got some of the tonal qualities, and has been clearly influenced by that tendency, but it’s hardly an exemplar. There’s a lot of great conventional drama, commentary, and some humor in Jessica Hausner’s film. The characters are expressive and a lot of the missing context is never called on, so you don’t really miss it. It’s quirkier than it is austere; sillier than it is theologically rigorous, or existentially morose… you get the point.

But often times we’re presented with visual truths that are difficult to explain, to understand, to reconcile. What kind of world is this movie happening in? It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but occasionally it presents bits of evidence that contradict one another. Sometimes characters appear to have souls, concerns, doubts, and sometimes they experience profound difficulty communicating with one another. Sometimes what we see on screen is not clearly explained to us by the characters. One could almost say that Lourdes resembles real life…

But it does not resemble the world photographed (not even) in The Smurfs, nor the one in Harry Potter. For all their magic, you usually know just what’s going on in films like these.

My point is that it doesn’t take much ambiguity to provoke. If you read over the commenter’s problems with Lourdes again, you’ll notice that the hostility is almost always focused at the locus of ambiguity, at certain doubts about the way that the universe works, presumed to be complicit between artist and character.

-Max Berwald

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AGING GAY COWBOY MOVIE

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Brokeback Mountain ages in opposite directions.

Maybe that’s overstating the case. It’s definitely benefited from having a few (seven) years to breathe. In that time, gay marriage has come and gone and come again to the center of social politics. In California, the high profile battle around Prop 8 and its subsequent passage into law in 2008 brought new attention to the lives and concerns of gay Californians, Americans, and people. The Supreme Court is now set to review the constitutionality of Prop 8 before June of 2013.

In 2005, Brokeback Mountain was an oddity. It was marketed as a love story, but how could straight people be expected to care about passion between gay folks? Insult to injury: the casting of extremely palatable, great-looking, and bankable Hollywood stars. I take it back, the real insult: these gay folks talk and look like god fearing conservative good old boys! To put it bluntly: the hyper-masculine, bootstrap-Americana mindset as narrative centrifuge. To put it more bluntly: those ack-sents! And Hollywood has long been one of America’s favorite ways to get itself all riled up.

Brokeback’s Wikipedia entry has 10 sub-sections devoted to “controversies.” (7.1-7.10.) Bill O’Reilly maintained, not alone and not quietly, that Hollywood was pushing an agenda with Brokeback Mountain, and the media pored over all incoming details regarding the film’s revenue (and presumed success or failure.) The group Concerned Women for America was, understandably, concerned. Residents of Wyoming (where the film was set, but not shot) were peeved, presumably because there are no gay people in Wyoming. A Utah theater owner refused to screen the film. On and on and on.

The conventional wisdom here is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Demonstratively, Brokeback Mountain made back over $175 million on its $14 million budget.

All of this is to say that, when it first emerged, the film was compellingly offbeat. It was attractive because it was weird. People couldn’t stop talking about it, and they couldn’t stop seeing it. But the way a film is sold always differs from the way it is made, and Brokeback Mountain was not made to be an oddity—it was just sold that way. Among other things— observant cinematography, incredible performances, and a crackling script– the film happened to be upsetting to some demographics. That made it a controversy, and controversy is, frequently, good brand posturing.

You can tell that the filmmakers aren’t hedging on the “weirdness” of their screenplay, because that screenplay has aged so well. There’s really not a lot of time to meditate on how controversial gay love is. Every scene has clear direction; no thoughtless lines or glances. It’s an extremely economical story, one that plays to Ang Lee’s strengths as an aggressively visual storyteller (witness The Ice Storm.)

Larry McMurtry, who worked on the script with Diana Ossana, is in similarly top form processing local color into a pleasurably complex geography of fears, desires, and introspection. (The author of the Lonesome Dove books understands well the relationship between the physical world and the internal landscape of men.) It seems to take for granted incredibly sophisticated performances that will make use of key silences, bits of business, and rich art direction/ abundant locations, and, less surprisingly, thoughtful direction (presumably McMurtry knew Lee was attached.)

When I say it’s aging in opposite directions, what I mean is: while removing the movie from the context of its own controversy makes it clearer just how good it is, as the years go by, the painful score and egregious dissolves don’t get any better. The movie has a lot of style: some of it awful. The dissolves are snappy and hope to be casual; instead they operate as a parody of the type of meditative pacing Lee, one hopes, was trying to authentically build. Yuck.

The score is even less mysterious, featuring precisely one memorable track. This track tearfully titters over the action with a frequency that can only be described as humiliating. It’s the canned equivalent of the old-woman-in-front-of-you-in-the-theater repeatedly emoting “awwww.”

But I’m glad that any bad-aging Brokeback Mountain can expect to weather will be related to aesthetic missteps, and not its having pandered. If you’re going to do a movie about gay cowboys in 2005, it’s brave to play it straight (so to speak.) On the other hand, maybe it’s a no brainer that forbidden love ages well. Our culture tries not to let anyone turn 16 without reading Romeo and Juliet.

-Max Berwald

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‘SANTA SANGRE’: THE LEAST FUN YOU CAN HAVE WITH AN ARGENTO

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Is it just me, or is there something deeply inauthentic about Santa Sangre? Like the blood-and-fun macabre of Claudio’s older brother, Dario, Santa Sangre isn’t about any of the things that it purports to be about. That’s part of the lineage. But it also runs short on fun in favor of something grander; the question is, do those grand pursuits yield anything weightier than pretension?

I guess I should explain what I mean, when I say that Italian horror is seldom “about what it’s about.” In Santa Sangre, we’re “dealing with” marginalized people clashing with fascist/religious authority, with the pseudo Freudian presence of the domineering mother in the son’s sexual drives, and with the violent legacy of jealousy in the trans-generational psyche.

But these elements are explored only visually. And the visuals are only working to aestheticize violence, to create a beautiful world for horror to occur in. There’s blood, symbolizing blood, and knives, symbolizing knives. The mother/son sexual baggage is not so much explored as summoned up, referenced as touchstone, conveniently dragged out of the cinematic closet rather than the historical or the psychological one. We learn nothing after the assumption.

Example: the mother domineers her son’s sexual drives. That’s it. No comment. Just the fact, and the way it can make for a delicious narrative sequence, rich with the stabbings. But you can get this quicker and dirtier somewhere else. In fact, I think even a little movie called Psycho would suffice, and that one’s hardly inelegant. I’m not convinced that Jodorowsky or Claudio Argento have grappled with their mothers demanding they commit violent acts, out of jealousy for their son’s “misdirected” sexual urges. Maybe I’m being insensitive. Maybe I’m just not psychologically complex. I just don’t believe that the movie is grappling with this on any other level than the “wouldn’t it be weird…” one. And I don’t think Santa Sangre stumbles across many observations on the way.

As for the marginalized people versus the established order, they get maybe two scenes in the first half of the film. Then that thematic lineage is sloughed off like so much molted chitin, so that something more fun can take its place. My take is, if you’re movie is about basic pleasures: own it.

There’s no precise giveaway that the movie is insincere, only a two-hour unfolding of evidence. Santa Sangre seems to be dreaming of transcending its own tradition, but winds up wallowing in it. The visuals are often beautiful, as when a puppet elephant hemorrhages blood from its trunk while surrounded by earnestly grieving circus performers, or a grotesquely obese exprostitute strokes a puppy while watching a team of lucha libre wrestlers fail to bring down a single transsexual strongman.

But the movie’s surrealism doesn’t go so far as to suggest anything in particular. Nor can we consider the film a (truly) surreally ideological affront to some established order. (What order would that be exactly?) The Giallo tradition is the only one shining through in an authentic way (although, you gotta hand it to Jodorowsky, he can evoke, less substantially but no-less uncannily, early Bunuel and late Fellini at the drop of a hat) and only after being stripped of much of its fun by dilution. The beautiful visual set-pieces are, yes, getting in the way of the bloody evisceration. The good taste is getting in the way of the bad.

-Max Berwald

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