Space Dicks and Dead Teenagers: Prometheus and Cabin In The Woods

So here I am about to talk about two movies that I actually liked, Prometheus and Cabin in the Woods, and the question I have to ask myself is why? After all, this site is Movies I Hate So Much, not Movies That Are Pretty Good But Have Some Flaws. But here I am again, returning to bag on films I don’t dislike. Thing is, though, Prometheus and Cabin in the Woods share a flaw, a flaw common to a lot of otherwise quality modern films, and I want to discuss and attack the flaw. So that is what I am going to do.

First, though, I would like to talk about what these films did well. Both of them are well-shot, atmospheric pieces with a few standout performances (Prometheus being the champion in regards to actor quality, though only just). Both are intelligent genre pieces with a lot to say about how we consume media (Cabin in the Woods is the victor here). Both are a good time, and I recommend that anyone who enjoys genre films see both.

Unfortunately, that recommendation is qualified. Both of these films have one big problem, a problem that holds me back from declaring them the twin masterpieces that so much of the internet seems ready to see them as. Both films are obvious. By this I do not mean that they are predictable, although they are. Predictability is not, in and of itself, a fault. A well-crafted film should let you know where it is going and what it is doing; there is no shame in that. The problem with Prometheus and Cabin in the Woods is that they wear their metaphors on their sleeves. They are very obviously about deeper subjects: the futility implied by the very act of the search for meaning (Prometheus), and the the morality of viewing the horror tale as a communal purging connected with our primal selves (Cabin in the Woods).

These themes are fine. But they are dealt with too obviously. Cabin is the big offender here; it confuses metaphor with plot. This is puzzling when we consider that Drew Goddard is a product of Joss Whedon’s production team. Mr. Whedon, of course, is an expert in understanding how to use genre tropes to engage with theme; look at two of the best-known episodes of Buffy for proof of that (“Hush” and “Once More With Feeling”). Cabin, though, is very literally about the theme I described above. We know this is the case, because there is a scene at the end where the dude from Dollhouse and the chick from nothing that I really care about talk with Sigourney Weaver about it at length. There is next to no effort needed to connect the plot to the theme.

Prometheus is a bit more cryptic in delivering the overarching theme, but is way too obvious in a related element. The Alien franchise (which Prometheus is a part of, regardless of whether there are facehuggers and queens about or not) evoke the monstrous sexual, the fear of our own sexuality that is instilled by modern society (this fear likely roots in the uncontrollable, primal nature of sexual urge – by which I do not mean that sexual urges always result in sexual action, but rather that we cannot stop ourselves from having the urges, however much we discipline ourselves). The aliens penetrate people, turning them into walking wombs; it is telling that many of the most prominent victims in the first two films (aka the good ones) are dudes, inverting our understanding of sexuality by turning the man into the incubator. I am thinking here of Kane from the first film and the various, predominantly male space marines from the second. In the first two Alien films, the sexual metaphor is quiet, the product of our understanding of what the various actions of the film mean. A child who watched the films without knowing what sexuality is would be unlikely to pick up on it (and would likely be too busy shitting his or her pants to think about thematics, anyway).

Then we get Prometheus, a film in which a penis worm with a vagina face shoves itself down someone’s throat. Then a dude infected with an alien disease has sex with his infertile ladyfriend, impregnating here with a squid baby that grows up in record time and fucks the face of an Engineer with its huge vagina-mouth. Subtlety be damned, I guess. Prometheus is one demon short of a tentacle porn hentai cartoon.

When I think of the great genre works, the ones that I really love, I think of films that allow us make the effort to draw conclusions.  Halloween doesn’t outright inform you that it is a film about the breakdown of the rational and the return of the repressed; it leaves you to draw that from the actions of Michael Meyers (no, not Austin Powers, the funny one) and Dr. Loomis. Men In Black (hardly a pretentious art film) doesn’t insist on making you see the connections between the alien migrants that the characters police and the American ideal of immigration and assimilation. Prometheus and Cabin in the Woods are good films, there is no doubt about that. But great films contain depths to be plumbed, and one can reach the bottom of Prometheus and Cabin in the Woods in a single viewing.

We Hate Alain Resnais Part Two: Hiroshima Mon Amour

I am about to out myself in a way that will make me profoundly uncool in my discipline, but here goes: I am a scholar of twentieth-century French literature, and I am not sure whether or not I actually like Marguerite Duras. I think I can say that I admire her ambition and efforts to create a highly challenging (and recondite, alienating, and sometimes downright confusing and infuriating) body of writing. Her terse, minimalist writing style, which she developed after writing a few rather straightforward narratives in her first novels, leaves the reader to sleuth through the details of the text to unlock the subtext. This is necessary to appreciate the deeper significance of her work, which deals with themes of human sexuality, memory and confronting the past, relationships between the genders and different nationalities. This writing style is often pleasurable in its subtlety — after all, who wants to be hit over the head with didactic screeds about power relations and the impermanence of perception? Unfortunately, the reader often must do a lot of reading between the lines to figure out more basic information about the narrative. You might have to re-read certain bits before you can figure out what the hell is going on and who these people are and where ARE we, anyway?

This technique can lead to some very mentally stimulating reading, and the minimalist style  pioneered by Duras and other great writers of the 20th century broke ground in the French and international literary scene, whetting the literary public’s appetite for other, later writers of few(er) words who did fancier, more experimental things with diegesis. I have enjoyed reading some of them, such as Annie Ernaux, who centers much of her experimentation with language, or Jean Echenoz, whose characters’ motivations and “personalities” are almost as impenetrable as those of Duras’ characters. Minimalism and messing around with a work’s diegetic structure can be great fun in a book, where you can flip back and look at something again, and then go, “Ohhhhhh, so that’s her BOYFRIEND” or “I get it, we’re in France now, not in Japan.” However… the reasons I think Marguerit Duras was a fascinating novelist are the exact same reasons that made Hiroshima Mon Amour a bullshit hellride to watch.

For those of you who think that challenging literary conventions is cute, you will be excited to know that the two main characters of the film do not even get first names. That’s right — you are expected to care about the deteriorating love affair of two people only known as He and She throughout the entire film. The beginning of the film may encourage you to just give up on watching the film entirely so you can watch something with an actual plot, as it is a montage lasting almost ten minutes of this back-and-forth:

He: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”

She: “I saw everything. Everything! … The hospital, for instance, I saw it. I’m sure I did. (etc.)”

He: “You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”

She goes on to claim to have seen various other landmarks and sights in Hiroshima (a museum, Peace Square, burned bodies, flowers, survivors, etc.) while He interrupts her each time to say that she has not actually seen any of these things, and was never there, and knows nothing. All the while, the viewer gets an eyeful of the things she claims to have seen, which he is telling her that she has not seen. So, like wow man, have WE even seen these things, man? Like, do we really KNOW what we’ve seen? Do we know ANYTHING, really, man? This whole discussion of whether or not we know things may hearken your own (flawed) memories of conversations with the dude in the Bob Marley T-shirt who lived on the same floor as you in your sophomore-year dorm, or perhaps of getting really drunk or high the first time you took a philosophy class and arguing about KNOWLEDGE and EXPERIENCE with your equally trashed buddies.

This goes on for roughly a million years, and should remind all of you of every argument you have ever had with someone who is being a total dick and contradicting you just for the hell of it because they’re annoyed or angry with you. The couple, who has been going steady for about a day and a half, has decided to end their relationship with an argument… but not one of those mundane, “I saw you checking out someone else at the bar” or “you don’t respect my friends” type arguments. No, sir! They have shaped up a real epistemological humdinger about whether it is possible to know anything, which then, like all good arguments, gets totally off track and become phenomenonological instead:

She: “Like you, I have a memory. I know what it is to forget.”

He: “No, you don’t have a memory.”

Although the two of them are discussing the visions of war casualties that She has seen in newsreels, and the importance of not forgetting the devastation of Hiroshima, of not forgetting the way one group of people dehumanized another in order to destroy their civilization, it is very hard to take that away. What it feels like is this:

She: “Yes I do.”

He: “No you don’t.”

FOR A MILLION YEARS.

However, this may the most straightforward part of the plot: a couple arguing. As we follow the characters through the story, we learn precious little about them and what they are doing in life. Apparently she is an actress and he is some sort of media-journalistic-newsy guy who met her while visiting the set of a film she is in. Oh yes, and he is from Hiroshima, she from Nevers, in France. This becomes clear as She, apparently seeking revenge for being told that she knows nothing about Hiroshima, stings him with the comeback that he also knows nothing about Nevers, and a stimulating redux of the initial argument about KNOWLEDGE and MEMORY ensues. You know, I guess that’s only fair. Eye for an eye and all of that. I looked up facts about Nevers, and here is what I know about it:

1. La Mère Poulard, who invented the namesake omelette, was actually born here.

2. The French alternative rock band Les Wampas wrote a song about the city.

3. My friend Julien’s parents live here.

It is through the recollections that She has while having another very drawn-out, philosophical bicker with Him that we learn that she had an affair with a German soldier during World War II when she lived in Nevers, and that when the bomb dropped in Hiroshima, she was in Nevers. Also, later on, her head was shaved, to shame her for her dalliance with the handsome young boche. (To learn more about this topic, I recommend listening to the song “Shaved Women” by the band Crass.)

This is ALL that we learn during the film. I have described the entire content of the plot to you. I hope this helps you, because if you are planning on watching the film, having read my synopsis beforehand will help you not to entirely lose your mind throughout the numerous flashbacks that interrupt the linear flow of the story. Just remember that there is basically ten minutes’ worth of story in the present, and that since the film is all about MEMORY, most of the screen time will be devoted to She and He 1) recounting their memories of their unfortunate pasts, and 2) informing each other that they have flawed recollections of the past (no duh). There will be lots of footage of wars, and lots of close-ups on a French woman and a Japanese man arguing in French. There will be nothing to motivate you to view these characters as people and not synecdoches of their respective cultures, positioned in conflict with one another to represent the two countries’ lamentable pasts and present refusals to examine their past errors. This is okay in a literary text, but I’d rather not watch it being played out ponderously on the screen. I like movies where stuff happens.

I really believe that aside from some ardent scholars of twentieth-century French literary movements, no one who isn’t trying really hard to be “cool” and like French cinema can really derive too much enjoyment from this film. I have tried twice now to enjoy it, and have failed both times, and I fucking love twentieth-century French literature and all of its wacky experimentation. I love surrealism! I can’t get enough of Oulipo! I actually enjoy many examples of the Nouveau Roman, and I actually enjoyed reading Duras’ L’Amant and Le Vice-Consul when I kept in mind that they were supposed to be disorienting and uncomfortable and not remotely straightforward! I also love all kinds of French New Wave cinema, and am one of those people who digs late-period Godard. However, sometimes experimentation works, and sometimes the experiment fails and creates a mutant raccoon with super-strength that breathes fire and ebola. You can’t win every time. As I suggested before, what works as a literary device can make a film annoying as all get-out to watch. I actually enjoyed reading the script of the film as a book of sorts, but when I recalled watching the movie, I felt a flare-up of potent annoyance and impatience akin to road rage, and my (flawed) memory of the film reminded me to warn those of you reading this blog to stay away from Hiroshima mon Amour.  If you do, be sure to keep your thumb poised above the rewind button of your remote, because you will need it there, believe me.

We Hate Alain Resnais Part One: Last Year At Marienbad

So for a fun change of pace, I have decided to invite in some other writers so as to mask my laziness in blog writing. As a part of that, I have asked my fiancee, the lovely and talented Thea, to do a two-part hatefest on the shitty films of art-film crapmaster Alain Resnais. For my half, I will be reviewing Last Year At Marienbad, one of the most satisfying films I ever fell asleep while watching.

LYAM, which, said aloud, sounds suspiciously like “lame,” is the hour-and-a-half-long tale of a woman and a man who may have met previously. That’s it. That’s pretty much all that happens in the film. Two schmucks arguing about whether they met a year earlier. Occasionally a guy who might be the woman’s husband shows up to humiliate the first guy. The film takes place at a resort in Czechoslovakia, although I’m not sure the film ever makes any real acknowledgement of where it is set. Actually, although Marienbad is a Czech town, I am not at all sure that the film is set there; rather, Marienbad is the place where the man claims to have met the woman the year before. The place that they are currently at is culturally indistinct; the movie was mostly filmed in Germany, around the Munich area.

I am well and truly perplexed at films like this one. Watching LYAM, I could not understand just what I was supposed to find appealing about it. The photography is stunning, with beautiful black-and-white shots of the old European-style resort, but none of the characters are well-established or meaningful. The film is obviously an extended meditation on the accuracy and meaning of memory (a characteristic it shares with the film Thea will be reviewing, Hiroshima Mon Amour), but the concept is thoroughly explored in the first fifteen minutes or so of screen time. The remainder of the film’s run time is just beating a dead horse, over and over again. If I really wanted to see French people lounging around indolently and bitching about their existential angst, I’d just go to France.

Perverts Love Anime Part Four: Highschool of the Dead

Anime nerds are gonna hate me for this one, but I have to say it: Highschool Of The Dead was one of the biggest let-downs in my media-watching lifetime. Now, HotD is not the worst thing ever made by any stretch of the imagination. It is even significantly better than the other entries in my Perverts Love Anime series. But it has two major flaws, and those two flaws ruin the series.

Flaw one is the series’ lack of inter-group tension. As fans of the zombie genre know, most of the great zombie films revolve around conflicts between the survivors on which the text focuses. I talk about this in a post on my other, neglected blog, but basically, zombies are surprisingly passive antagonists because they typically are not shown moving towards a goal more distant than “eat the dude or lady who is in front of me.” Thus zombies serve as a hazard similar to that of the catastrophic event in a disaster film. Since forces of nature and zombies are both impersonal, these films are driven by conflict between personalities. This is especially important in horror films. In a disaster movie, the survivors are often expected to, well, survive. The huddled victims of a zombie flick are typically not so lucky.

HotD flirts with inter-group conflict, most notably through the harem-esque lust that every single female character seems to acquire towards the male lead Takashi (more on that in a minute). But the tension never seems to fully erupt. Indeed, in the later episodes of the series (when the teenage cast is at the mansion of rich girl Saya’s parents), the group explicitly discards these tensions to present a united face to the larger community of survivors in which they find themselves. This makes the series feel too safe to me. Without conflict among the teenagers, the cast feels homogeneous and uninteresting.

The second problem with the series is the same one I have with the other Japanese animated series that I have reviewed here: boobs. HotD is a big fan of boobs. Now, there is nothing innately wrong with boobs; in fact, I am an admirer of boobs myself. But, like a subway flasher in a dirty trench coat, HotD expresses its love of the female form in inappropriate ways. For some reason, within the Japan of the HotD universe, high school girls are uniformly stacked like lingerie models. The worst is the school nurse, whose defining character trait is her monstrous jugs. And physics also seem to work a bit differently in HotD: at the slightest motion, the various young womens’ jiggly parts fly around like they are being seized with an epileptic fit. Either the bra was never invented in HotD, or the animators have never seen a woman in real life. I’m betting the latter.

HotD has some good atmospheric pieces, some excellent zombie design work, and a clear love of its genre. All of this is undermined by its failure to understand what drives the zombie film thematically, as well as the over-the-top perversion of its makers. As I said above, this series is actually, objectively better than the other series I have reviewed on this blog; however, I think I like it less, simply because it fails so completely to be the series it could have been. Fuck you, HotD.

The Summer of Eh – Summer 2012 Movie Previews

So here we are, a month or so into the summer movie season, and all I can say is that it is a sad state of affairs when the movie I am most looking forward to is the one featuring a naked Channing Tatum.

The early releases have contributed to this. In our post-Iron Man world, the studios have decided that summer should begin in May, and thus the summer blockbuster season now blows its load way too early, leading the season with some of its best films. I am referring, of course, to John Carter. Joke. The Avengers, the latest product of Joss Whedon’s fevered mind, has already set a gold standard for financial gains that films like Battleship and Men In Black 3: Ten Years Too Late will be hard-pressed to match. I understand the plot of MIB3 involves time travel; maybe they’ll stop off in the 90s, when someone might have cared about another MIB movie. Anyway, The Avengers was a good flick, but in an entirely predictable way. I enjoyed it exactly as much as I expected to. My favorite crazy summer movies are always the ones that surprise me.

The upcoming slate of films leaves much to be desired, like originality. G.I. Joe competes with MIB3 for most unnecessary sequel. I know I saw the first one, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what happened in it, other than that it featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a hot chick as the Baroness. Oh, and Dr. Who. This time, the toy franchise trots out Bruce Willis and wrestling superstar The Rock (who I will never call by his real name, however much movie posters may want me to). Oh, and the aforementioned Channing Tatum returns, looking vaguely uncomfortable to be stuck doing another one of these turds.

Ridley Scott looks to reclaim past glories with  Prometheus. The preview makes me all nerd-hard, but Scott’s track record since the mediocre Oscar-winning Gladiator has been a study in forgettable. I also noticed, on his IMDB, that Ridley is working on an as-yet-untitled Blade Runner project. Maybe he figured out that his last good films were made before the internet.

Art film fraud Christopher Nolan checks in with the contractually-obligatory The Dark Night Rises. I remember the first two Nolan Batman films as surprisingly subtle and realistic things, showing the world once and for all that Burton’s Bat-films were greatly overrated. Then I saw the preview for this one, featuring a collapsing stadium, a flying Bat-car, and S&M-mask Bane and Catwoman. So there’s the corpses of subtlety and realism, bleeding quietly in a corner. Apparently Nolan has written a Superman film that is in post, and is attached to a Batman reboot. I guess he’s DC’s gothier version of Joss Whedon.

Spider-Man is the next super hero to be brutalized by the Hollywood machine this summer, with The Amazing Spider-Man. I understand that this film is mostly being made to preserve Sony’s grip on the Spider-Man IP. If this universe had any justice to it, this film would be directed by Roger Corman. The preview features a sequence of Parker Parkour that was apparently left over from a PS1 game.

As for movies that might be good, well, the pickings are slim there as well. Moonrise Kingdom would have excited me more if I had not seen Darjeeling LimitedSeeking A Friend For The End Of The World looks moderately amusing, although I’m not sure about the chemistry between its leads. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by the crazy Russian behind the Watch films, will either be great or suck monster balls, leading me to give it this year’s Sucker Punch award for tentative hope.

All of which leads us to Magic Mike. Soderbergh’s first post-retirement film features a story based on Channing Tatum’s real-life stint as a male stripper. The preview is already the best film of the summer; the feature can only improve matters. Bring on the naked Tatum!

Crybaby 2: The Strange Case of Heckler

I’m going to break with my half-assed tradition here and actually review a movie that I liked. But my review will mostly touch on stuff about it that I don’t like. I’m doing this because I have a serious issue with the film, and feel that it needs examination.

The film is the 2007 documentary Heckler, starring and produced by Jamie Kennedy. The documentary initially studies the phenomenon of heckling, but quickly broadens its focus to include pretty much all forms of criticism, including professional reviews and internet criticism (you know, like this, here, the thing you’re reading right now). The film shows the effect that such criticism can have on its targets, as well as showcasing some truly awesome footage of stand-ups being heckled and responding.

All that is well and good, but there is a dangerous vein of thought throughout the film. Kennedy makes clear, through the interviews and his responses to his critics, that he thinks a lot of their criticism is out of bounds. He also criticizes his critics harshly, especially internet critics and audience hecklers. Kennedy’s interviews with web writers and schmucky teenagers that shouted dumb shit during his act are pretty nasty; he says some really shitty stuff. Which is also fine. Kennedy has had a very adversarial relationship with the internet and nerd culture in general, as witnessed by his infamous 2007 E3 appearance (I guess 2007 was a busy year for Kennedy), and he is perfectly entitled to fire back at the people who make ridiculous criticisms of Kennedy’s admittedly mediocre body of work.

The problem is that Kennedy seems to think that his amateur critics have no right to express their opinions. Many of the comics and performers featured in the film, along with Kennedy himself, talk about how critics and hecklers are often not successful writers of performers themselves, and therefore should shut up. This is plainly false; the analysis of any artwork (or stand-up comedy, for that matter, which I would contend is also an art form) is not dependent on the ability to create said artworks, nor on success in artistic endeavors. Read interviews with actors and directors for a bit, and it will quickly become apparent that many creators have absolutely no talent for understanding film. Sometimes they even seem to lack the ability to understand their own work. Which is understandable. Artworks are cultural products, and thus reflect greater cultural concerns as well as the unique viewpoint of their authors. No human being is capable of absolute self-awareness, and thus no human being is capable of absolute awareness of what has shaped their artwork.

Of course, the greater problem with the attitudes of Kennedy et all is that they are a continuation of the idea of the cult of the expert. This concept suggests that the only works of any value are those created by an appointed class of social elites, and everybody else has no meaningful things to add to the discussion. In the movie, professional film critics are derided slightly as failed artists (with special attention paid to Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), but the greatest amount of vitriol is saved for website proprietors and bloggers. The overall impression is that Kennedy mostly is upset about criticism from people who have not been anointed as professional. This is horseshit, and hypocritical to boot. If Kennedy has the right to run around making fun of people in his television show, stand-up routine, and documentary film, than his critics certainly have the same right, regardless of whether they are inside the entertainment industry or not. The film contains a heaping helping of elitism at its core, and I find that repugnant. As a critic, I seek to entertain, the same as Kennedy, and I deserve the same considerations and protections that he receives.

Maybe Mr. Kennedy would disagree. Maybe he would say that his documentary is not about silencing those who dislike his work but about making people aware of the coarsening of public discourse through satire. Maybe he will discover this blog and write a nasty tweet about it, as I understand he is prone to doing (I certainly hope so, as that would drive my viewership up). All of that would be fine, as it would be Kennedy’s opinion, which he has a right to express. Opinions are like assholes: everyone needs one to survive in the modern world.

Remake Madness: A Nightmare on Elm Street

By request of a friend of mine, I’ve decided to try and review the never-ending tide of Hollywood remakes. To start with, I would like to focus on the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nightmare is only one of the recent cycle of horror reboots. Nightmare, along with other films such as Friday the 13th (2009) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), is the fault of explosion fetishist Michael Bay. Bay, also the head cheese of the Transformers series and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, has a particular interest in profiting by exploiting your childhood. None of the Bay horror remakes have been any good, and Nightmare is no different.

To start with the positive aspects of the film, Jackie Haley, the man cast to take over the Freddy Krueger role vacated by Robert England, is actually far superior to the man he replaces. Yeah, I said it. Go on and leave a hateful comment. England’s Krueger lacked strong characterization; he was wacky and sleazy at the same time, which made him confusing and interfered with the films (to be fair, I suspect that more of this problem came from the direction and writing than England’s performance). Haley is consistently creepy; his Krueger seems like a man that would terrify children, unlike his predecessor. This ties into the main theme of the series, the repressed memories of a community of the horrible abuse perpetuated on its children and the inadequacy of official response to these crimes.

This, however, is also the main problem with Nightmare. The original series, probably due to different community standards in its era of production, could not address the idea that Krueger was a child molester. Therefore, the films could only imply Krueger’s true offense, hiding behind accusations that Krueger murdered children. The tension between the crimes Krueger is accused of and the audience’s instinctive awareness of the threat he really represents drove the series through several films. The remake, on the other hand, makes explicit that Krueger’s crimes involved the cornholes of young children. This diffuses the tension of the film; by overtly acknowledging what Krueger has done, the film ignores the repression that is so important to the original series. The original Krueger is what Freud would call the return of the repressed, the unacknowledged crime that cannot be conceived of and yet persists. The new Krueger is just a bad man who won’t die. And that is just sad.

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