Saturday, June 21, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #22 "The Birds" (Alfred Hitchcock)

I think if you were to ask anyone who knows anything about film what they think Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece is, not a single one of them would tell you that it's his 1963 film "The Birds." Most would probably go with "Rear Window" or "North By Northwest" or possibly "Vertigo."

In fact, most people would say "The Birds" marked the beginning of Hitchcock's decline. He couldn't get Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, so he got a cheap knockoff with Rod Taylor. And Grace Kelly was too busy being a princess, so he settled for Tippi Hedren. The film's construction is nowhere near as elegant as his best work, the screwball comedy setup is — to be kind — challenged, and the gender politics are more than a bit problematic.

What's more, the story behind the making of "The Birds" — specifically Hitchcock's unhealthy obsession with and cruel treatment of Hedren — is well documented and has done much to tarnish the illustrious director's reputation.

I acknowledge all of this. And, yet, it's still my favorite.

So we're back to my endless fascination with pulp horror and "The Twilight Zone."

"The Birds" is based on a superlative short story by British author Daphne Du Maurier. It's probably in my top five pieces of weird fiction ever written.

Hitchcock's treatment of the story is flawed, but when he gets it right he really gets it. There's no single image in "Rear Window" or "Psycho" or that haunts me as much as this. I can't even tell you why. It hits me in my subconscious in a way that provokes all sorts of confused and terrified emotions. The sheer uncanny simplicity of it is, for me, the absolute stuff of nightmares.

The best horror story, for me, does not take place in a haunted castle or the foggy moors of England. It takes place in the supermarket. Or an elementary school. The introduction of the weird into the familiar is the classic recipe for the Uncanny Valley, and for me that's the ultimate sweet spot.  That's where the terror hits home.

I won't argue that this is anywhere near Hitchcock's best work. But...boy...does it ever hit me in the feels.

Friday, June 20, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #23 "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski)

Film noir is one of those genres — like the Western — that's just hard to approach earnestly. Since its heydey in the 1940s, the tendency has been to postmodernize it, to infuse it with irony and a healthy dose of wink-wink self reference. The stoic, even staid conventions of the genre are turned in on themselves and used to deconstruct rather than celebrate. Most modern noirs are comments on the whole notion of noir, rather than fully fleshed out noirs in their own right. Some of these are great films, but ultimately they rely on our knowledge of and, to a degree, skepticism about the genre . We have noirs that are told backwards ("Memento"), noirs played for comedy ("The Big Lebowski"), even noirs set in high schools ("Brick").

What we don't tend to have anymore are simple, classic noirs that are, at heart, good stories told well.

This is why Polanski's almost religiously classicist approach in 1974's "Chinatown" is such a breath of fresh air. Certainly, it's a product of its era and the New Hollywood in many ways, and one could argue that the casting of John Huston — director of such classic noirs as "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) — as central villain Noah Cross is a postmodern nod to the genre's past. But the fact is Huston is simply GREAT in the role — oily and evil and seductive in a way that is almost primally repellant — that whatever film-cineaste baggage we bring to the performance quickly falls away.

Everyone is great in this. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway have never been better, either before or since.

"Chinatown" was penned by Robert Towne ("The Last Detail," "Shampoo"), one of the all-time screenwriting greats, and this film still stands as his masterpiece. Famously, he clashed with Polanski over the film's vision, but somehow that tension managed to distill what has been acknowledged as Towne's unwieldy tome (rumored at one point to be nearly 300 pages long) into a lean, mean, frighteningly nasty piece of work.

I don't have a lot more to say about it, because we all know how great it is. So I'll just leave it with this quote from Roger Ebert's review:

"Godard once said that the only way to review a movie is to make another movie, and maybe that’s what Polanski has done here. He’s made a perceptive, loving comment on a kind of movie and a time in the nation’s history that are both long past. 'Chinatown' is almost a lesson on how to experience this kind of movie."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #24 "The Signal" (David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush)

I experienced an emotionally complicated breakup with horror movies somewhere around 2003. It was like being married to someone for twenty years and waking up one morning, looking at her snoring in the bed next to you, and realizing that you've simply grown apart. There's no infidelity there, no betrayal. You still care for this woman, in a way, but you realize that you just want different things.

You love her, but you're not in love with her, if you know what I mean.

It took me another couple years to really come to terms with this feeling, but by 2006 or so I felt like I had solidly moved on with my life. Horror films were a part of my past, but they no longer defined me. I had essentially stopped writing horror scripts and had moved on to gangster movies, dark dramas, and thrillers. I felt good. I felt comfortable with this new, hot young girlfriend.

Then came the "The Signal."

Suddenly, here was a movie that encompassed everything I felt an indie horror movie with its own unique vision could be — but too often isn't. It's creative, energetic, completely insane, and very very scary.

It was like running into said ex-wife in a grocery store two years after the divorce and realizing she's lost a bunch of weight and has been working out, and you find yourself wondering why you ever left her in the first place.

"The Signal" is the brainchild of three Atlanta-based filmmakers (Bruckner, Gentry and Bush) with about $50K in their pocket and no one looking over their shoulder and telling them what NOT to do. The story of what would happen if a sudden, mysterious signal coming through televisions and cell phones were to push everyone into a murderous frenzy (like Stephen King's "Cell," but a lot better), the movie is divided into three interlocking parts. Each filmmaker switches off writing, directing and cinematographical duties.

The result is a film that feels at once tightly disciplined and wildly out of control in the best way possible. Each section completely stands on its own as its own short film, with its own voice and vision, and yet together they create a whole that is unlike anything I've ever seen before or since.

This is NOT a zombie movie, by the way. It feels like a direct response to the zombie wave. There are no murderous automatons — Each person afflicted by the signal develops his or her own interior logic for why they begin doing the horrible things they find themselves doing. The filmmakers put you inside the experience of insanity and spin you in circles until you simply don't know which way is up anymore. This is is what makes the movie so disturbing (and, indeed, often quite funny).

"Let The Right One In" dropped into a theaters a few months later, and it felt like horror movies were experiencing a much needed resurgence. I was in love all over again. Unfortunately, these films turned out to be anomalies, and I can't say the genre has completely rehabilitated itself. There's still way too much garbage for me to really consider myself the fan I once was.

But if I can get a movie this fresh and alive once every two or three years, I'll count myself lucky.