Friday, January 23, 2015

Public Domain Hell: One Got Fat

There’s No Real Way to Review One Got Fat (1963)

I’m breaking with my tradition from reviewing standard feature films for this particular entry.  The only other time I have reviewed a short was when I took a look at another anomaly of filmmaking: Heavy Metal Parking Lot. 

I can summarize for you what exactly you will be looking at if you even choose to seek One Got Fat out.  This is (ostensibly) a bicycle safety film from the early sixties featuring a cast of actors dressed in grotesque “monkey customs.”  The terrifying expressionless quality of the masks alone is enough to give any rational person nightmares. 

There is also a (perhaps unintentional) cynical nature to the entire proceeding.  Why?  Because the aforementioned monkeys start making crucial “bicycle safety” mistakes and parish like teenagers in a slasher film.  They are hit by cars, fall down manholes, and have their arches collapse on them.  (That last thing happens when you don’t inflate your bike tires properly.  You have to run on your own two feet…and bam!)   

We are not dealing with something that is quite “good” or “bad,” but inexplicably odd.  My movie reviewer capacities are momentarily switched off and I have the only human response that is reasonable: “What the fuck is this?” 

There are, of course, subsets of that particular question: “Why the fuck does this exist?”  Or the more accusatory: “What the fuck were they thinking?” 

There is also the personal question: “Why the fuck do I even know this exists?” 

The answer to that is relatively innocuous; one of my oldest friends called me to tell he and his wife were expecting a child.  I wholeheartedly congratulated him, and then implored not to gross everyone out by posting the ultrasound photos on Facebook.  (This is something my friend and his wife respectfully did refrain from.  To the expectant parents out in the world; baby pictures are at least moderately tolerable.  But do we really need to see the horror movie like spectacle of an unborn child via your ultrasound?  Consider the people who eat and look at Facebook.) 

Why did our conversation turn to obscure bicycle safety videos?  I don’t know. 

The experience of watching One Got Fat is almost impossible to describe.  That won’t stop me from asking a bit of a loaded question. 

What Exactly Is “Educational Content?” 

This is a bit of a personal digression, but please follow me down the rabbit hole. 

There was a time in my distant past when I had to suffer through Driver’s Ed.  I assume that most of my readers have had to go through this humiliating experience; a full week of your life given away to constant drilling about traffic safety rules.  I had come prepared, however, for the “highlight” of the class. 

That’s right, I was dying with anticipation to watch gory videos.  I couldn’t wait to be “scared straight” by having my eye sockets bludgeoned with the “worst” auto safety had to offer. 

The instructor (in his best version of a “big pal” act) spent some time “lovingly” warning us about what we were about to watch.

After that, we began to sit through “the most traumatic experience of our young lives.”  There was a disconnect; outside of the blood and gore, the videos were largely like watching a lost ‘50s sitcom episode.  A badly dressed businessman would have a drink in his “vintage” living room, and then stumble out to his car.  There would be an abrupt cut to a real, horrific automobile accident.  The mayhem was rendered almost inoffensive because anything following a subpar episode of Ozzie and Harriet can’t be taken seriously.  

Our instructor also completely switched his manner from “big pal” to “wannabe Freddy Kruger.”  This meant that he had to point out every gruesome bit of mayhem to us after he continually pushed the pause button. 

“Do you see that blob on the ground?” he screamed “That’s his lung.

Was this educational?  No.  Was it properly scary?  Absolutely not.  No, this was one of the most hilarious experiences of my entire life. 

I had chosen to sit all the way in the back of the classroom (possibly to limit my interaction with the other teenagers).  I just sat there snickering and making mental commentary.  All of this while my instructor continued to scream: “Do you see that red blotch on the highway?  That was from his head flying through the windshield and bouncing…” 

To bring this full circle to One Got Fat; there was absolutely no way I was ever going to learn from these videos.  They might have been chalk full of “educational content,” but they had very little “educational value.” 

Does One Got Fat have any “educational value?’  

What Was The Original Reception for One Got Fat?

There are different ways that I can imagine ‘60s kids reacting to One Got Fat.

  • ·      The Monkey masks traumatized the first groups of kids.  They went home crying to their Mommies about how the Monkeys were coming for them at midnight. 
  • ·      The second group of kids were so befuddled by the over all oddness that they didn’t pay attention to the “educational content.”  They were my spiritual ancestors; and they watched things ironically. 

The one thing I can hand the film is that it does teach you something about proper educational etiquette.  Use hand signals!  Don’t ride on the sidewalks!  Don’t ride against the flow of traffic!  These are all valid pointers, aren’t they?  

But; Why grotesque monkey suits?  Why the death of innocents?  Why the cheerful canned music? 

I haven’t even mentioned…

The Greatest Twist Ending in the History of Educational Film

I haven’t mentioned that this film has a through line; there is one bicycle passenger that we never see.  This is the kid who has his bicycle basket filled with his companions’ lunches.  His face is never revealed, until after all of his friends have perished. 

The “last man standing” is a human being, and not a grotesque monkey.  The point is that he is too “evolved” to make such hazardous mistakes.  He “gets fat” (hence the Zen like title) as he eats all his friends’ lunches alone.  Monkeys make mistakes, but little human beings never do.  Isn’t that a wonderful moral, kids? 

I tell you, dear reader, that I just didn’t see this ending coming.  This puts Jacob’s Ladder and The Sixth Sense to absolute shame. 

The Original Question I Will Never Be Able to Answer

Why the fuck does this exist? 

I feel slightly bad poking fun at One Got Fat because it reeks of “sincerity.”  The people behind this little film worked hard, and had great intentions.  They spent a ton of time making sure those Monkey masks looked just right. 

Someone willed this little film into existence, and I congratulate them on that. 

Now why not sit back and laugh at it? 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Why Remember Anything: Sonny Boy (1989)

The Cat Has Gotten My Proverbial Tongue 

I find myself in front of the arduous task of reviewing the 1989 (true) oddity Sonny Boy with very little to say.  Why? 

This is the one film I have seen in my life that renders my finely honed armchair critic skills obsolete.  I have no idea if Sonny Boy is a “good movie” or “bad movie.”  (Right off the bat, my two favorite categories become boxes that don’t fit the subject.)  Even more truthfully, I find the mere existence of this flick almost completely inexplicable.  I am moving past the: “How did this get green lit?” into a realm of “Am I seeing this correctly?”  (The whole affair has an aura of a dream that the dreamer would most likely prefer to forget entirely…more to come on that later.) 

This is beyond the realm of “weird movie,” into the arena of flat out “wow, that is really fucked up.”  (Kids: I can totally use “fucked up” in an academic way, as long as I put the quotes around it.  Remember that for your upcoming English assignments; your teacher will “fucking” love it!) 

Additionally: I find the fact that Sonny Boy occasionally manages to stick its head above obscurity from time to time an amazement.  

What am I getting at with all of this?  I am in the wake of my second viewing of Sonny Boy and I find myself in line with the title character.  That would be Sonny Boy (who is very well played by Michael Boston); his father cuts out his tongue as a “present” for his sixth birthday.  This gives him the “gift of silence,” and only a reluctant willingness to take an honest look at his situation. 

A missing tongue and writer’s block?  That sounds like a metaphorical match made in Heaven.  

And perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…What’s the obvious question? 

What the Holy Hell Is Sonny Boy (1989)?  

Oh, that…

Here’s the best job I can do for a standard “plot synopsis.”  (There might be some spoilers…and if there isn’t, those will come later).    

Slue (a repulsive, unnerving Paul L. Smith) and Pearl (David Carradine in a dress and wig) are outlaws living in the backwoods town of Harmony, New Mexico.  (This movie is made in my own backyard, as I am a native New Mexican.  We’ll get to that later, too.)  They essentially “own” the town, making a living off of hocking a wide variety of stolen goods.  Their “home” is a relative wasteland, littered with TV, guns, car parts, and a tower with a bell in it.  (I still can’t figure out the tower, and I am guessing it was just there when the location scout found it.) 

Slue has most of his dirty work done by an unhinged punk named Weasel.  Weasel, it most be noted, is played by Brad Dourif in what should be considered a signature role.  He gives every bit of disturbed energy into making Weasel a truly nasty, and yet curiously pathetic creation.  This goes right down to his clothing; he is dressed like a wannabe punk who raided the Salvation Army store.  As great as Dourif is, I can’t help but wonder if he was thinking: “How did I got from working with John Houston to this?” 

The “real” story begins after Weasel robs a clean-cut couple checking into a cheap motel.  He steals their red convertible, totally unaware that they have left their newborn baby in the back.  The baby is unearthed by Pearl, who makes the strong assertion that the baby is now “hers.”  (Okay, here’s my theory about David Carradine’s character of Pearl.  I believe that we are looking at someone who is transgendered from male to female.  The fact that “she” is so insistent on keeping “Sonny Boy” has to do with not being able to have a child biologically.) 

Are you still with me?  Because, believe it or not, this is where the movie “gets weird.”  Slue begins to train “Sonny Boy” with games of “strength and love.”  They include such wonderful childhood activities as being dragged behind a car, tied to a rod in the middle of a circle of fire, and (yes) having your tongue cut out as a sixth birthday present.  Doesn’t this bring back warm memories of all the times you spent with your Dad, dear reader? 

That all leads to the real “point” of Sonny Boy’s “training.”  Slue enlists him to murder the people who try to overthrow his criminal hold on the small town of Harmony.  This is a story about an unwilling, deeply programmed killer.  I can’t help but think of that a much more “thriller” oriented film could have come out of this material. 

This is most certainly not a thriller.  So, as I originally asked, what the holy hell is it? 

The More Standard “Review” Section of This Entry

 I said at the beginning of this entry that I can’t say if Sonny Boy is “good” or “bad.” 

I even struggled with how to properly summarize the film.

There are quite a few things I didn’t mention above, such as:
  • ·      For a movie with a high amount of “disturbing” material, Sonny Boy is surprisingly leisurely about how it unravels itself.  There is pleasant music on the soundtrack, which would sound right at home as the background for a Willie Nelson album.  (Think of the Willie classic Red Headed Stranger.)  This almost lessens the impact of the “shock” scenes, as they become part of the tapestry. 
  • ·      Speaking of music: David Carradine contributes the terrific folk rock number “Maybe It Ain’t” which moseys over the opening credits.  He plays it again (on an old piano) at Sonny Boy’s sixth birthday party, or tongue cutting off ceremony.  The song speaks wistfully of wanting to find that magical place where all your dreams will come true.  At the same time, it acknowledges that sort of thinking is usually fraught with illusions.  Am I looking too deeply into this?  Or is this a statement on the “trapped” nature of the character’s existence?  Are they aware of their own unique tragedy?  I am asking this because I wonder if we are supposed to assume that Pearl wrote the song.  (“She” is seen performing it at the party, after all.) 
  • ·      “Sonny Boy” might be speechless, but we hear his thoughts via voice over.  (I can hear Robert McKee screaming: “God help you if you use voice over.”)  His tone is oddly childlike, passive, and extremely nonthreatening.  He is the one who tells us that Slue’s “games” are about “strength and love.”  His voice over becomes more heartbreaking as he gains self-awareness.  He is eventually enlisted in the killing of a priest, and informs us he is not used to tasting the “blood of a good man.”
  • ·      Michael Boston truly does give a great performance, considering his silence guarantees him the hardest role.  A moment of great acting?  Boston looks in the mirror after his first killing, and sees himself shirtless and covered in blood.  His expression is totally believable, and quietly devastating.  
  • ·      There are allusions to both Jesus and the Frankenstein monster in this story.  The “Frankenstein” story is invoked in the mob that gathers at the end to find “Sonny Boy.”  (This is consistent with the character being an unwilling monster.)  Jesus is thrown in the mix as Sonny Boy is instructed to steal a crucifix.  (The “why” behind this is still a complete puzzle to me).   I’m not sure which is stranger; having Jesus and Frankenstein sandwiched into a story like this or my needing to understand “why” they are there. 
  • ·      Did I mention that the adult Sonny Boy is kept in a hollowed out Ice Cream Truck?  Have you ever seen another movie that featured an Ice Cream Truck as a jail cell?  Would you like me to dig deeper again?  I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of a statement on the perversion of innocence.  (I will leave it at that…)
  • ·      I forgot to mention that Sonny Boy almost finds love in the form of Rose (Alexandra Powers).  This adds a note of tenderness is a nice break in between murder and mayhem. 
  • ·      The story has a “savior” in the form of Doc (Conrad Janis).  He is the only person (outside of Rose) that treats Sonny Boy with a shred of decency.  He is also involved the magic realism of the ending that allows Sonny Boy to regain his speech.  (That’s a minor spoiler, but not completely).     
  • ·      Here’s one thing that I can tell no one has ever written about Sonny Boy before.  The story is (almost) plausible, and could potentially happen.  The movie was shot on location in both Demming and Columbus, New Mexico.  I have driven through that part of the start, and seen the hovels people settle into there.  Could one of them be housing a “Sonny Boy?”  This reminds me of how Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs is also oddly credible.  A serial killer with his own personal dungeon would totally be able to hide out in suburbia.  (“It puts the lotion in the tin…”) 

 Is that sufficient enough for a review?  No, not quite. 

There is at least one thing that no one (outside of yours truly) will ever say about Sonny Boy. 

Ask the Counseling Student: This Is A Fairly Intelligent Examination of the Dynamics of Childhood Trauma

I look at the headline above and wonder if this might become a reoccurring feature on the Playground. 

What does this movie have to say about psychological damage?  

The script (by Graeme Whilfler and Peter Desberg) offers a fairly concise explanation for the distorted thinking that leads to “Sonny Boy’s” abuse.  The family dynamics, in the context of the story, have their own nightmarish logic.  (This includes the ways that Pearl and Slue decide to play their “Mother” and “Father” roles.  Slue is the aggressor, while Pearl is the silent enabler.) 

They also make a (perhaps unintentional) statement about the long lasting effects of trauma.  Sonny Boy, as previously mentioned, does get to talk again.  What’s the problem?  He still has no idea how to communicate due his trauma, and the quality of his life is totally screwed. 

That is, from a therapeutic standpoint, the “unfinished business” that will hang him up if he doesn’t properly deal with it.  (The bad news that I have learned in school is that nothing is ever truly “over” for us.  The challenge comes in how we deal with our past.)  

There is another wonderfully insightful thought that I have.  (One more, I promise.) 

What is the “quality” of watching Sonny Boy?

Here is one of my great-unrealized dreams as a makeshift movie critic.  I would love to be able to describe (in a literal way) the total experience of watching a film.  My initial thoughts would be recorded almost in “real time” as I gave my audience an inside commentary on what the movie is “really like.”  I haven’t figured out a way to master that yet. 

That said, I could tell you that I have been the victim of many disturbing dreams.  The sort of ones where I wake up and say: “I wish I could forget that.”  There is a certain mysterious element that Sonny Boy has that reminds me of those dreams.  The intersection of: “Is this real?” and “Am I actually seeing this?” is where the movie hangs out in my psyche.  

This is a “quality” that even the great David Lynch has only occasionally achieved. 

The Final Ringing Endorsement for Sonny Boy

There are going to be two reactions to this review, or should I say warring factions?  The people who have been deeply intrigued by what they have read, and the ones who have no interest in anything this “weird.” 

Should you see Sonny Boy?  The movie’s inherent perversity is going to turn off a vast majority of the audience.  I would still say that my answer to that question is: “Yeah, probably so.” 

Yeah, you should probably see Sonny Boy. 

That, my friends, is the highest of praise from me. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Playground Gets Ponderous: Why I Don't Just Love Donnie Darko

(Editor’s Note:  This is a longer, very specific piece about Donnie Darko.  If you haven’t seen the movie, this is probably not the best thing for you to read.  Many spoilers abound.)

This Is Not Meant To “Bait” Anyone

I want to make this important point at the very top of this piece. 

For anyone who feels I am playing “devil’s advocate” or acting as a contrarian; I am not saying that Donnie Darko is “bad.”  Nor will I ever say that I personally dislike the film. 

What do I admire about it?  All right, since I am jumping on a landmine, let’s get the positive stuff out of the way first.  Fourteen years (wow) after its initial release, Donnie Darko still remains a distinctive and entirely unique entity.  This is the only film I have ever seen that uses an imaginary psychotic rabbit, time travel, and a savage satire of the self-help movement to sensitively explore teen angst.  The film is still visually striking, and impeccable from a technical standpoint.  The performances from just about every cast member feel very genuine; there’s absolutely no “showboating” here. 

I also find Donnie Darko to be the one movie that really nails what is it like to live in the suburbs.  That would be the sense of vague dread that is well buried underneath the manicured lawns.  You know what I am talking about if you have ever done a stint there.  I even find it to be more accurate than the two acknowledged “classics” about the dark side of suburbia, Blue Velvet and American Beauty. 

I totally understand why this movie is beloved by an ever-growing number of fans.  I am going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of the fans are among “the young.”  (I am in my mid-thirties, so I get to say that.)  I wonder if would have a stronger connection with the movie if I had seen at a different time in my life.  (This is something I that I will explore in much greater detail later).  

And yet…

And yet…

We’ll get to the “and yet,” but would you permit a small but relevant digression? 

My Lapsed Affection for Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Let me paint you an autobiographical picture of a time when I was fourteen.  (I promise that there is a tie here to the movie I’ve chosen to write about.  That said, feel free to go clambering for the virtual exit if you don’t want to read Pink Floyd.)   

I was in the process of flunking out of a militaristic, highly elitist private school.  What was it like?  Remember the school that Holden Caulfield flunks out of at the start of Catcher in the Rye?   Sort of like that…the one ostensible difference was that I was allowed to leave at the end of the day and go home. 

At the time, I had deluded myself into thinking that my failure was a highly developed act of rebellion.  Looking back, I can now see it had much more with a fair amount of unhappiness and boredom.  The adolescent brain lacks that sort of logical connection and thrives on any source of outside justification.  What was that source of “outside justification?’ 

That would be the mystical, magical, and infinitely downtrodden world of Pink Floyd’s seminal concept album The Wall.  Kids, there used to be these incredible things called Compact Discs…or as we said “CDs.”  Even more unbelievable, there used to be a device called a “Walkman.”  The Wall was part of a two CD set that went everywhere with me at the time.   Why?  Because I thought that I really had to absorb every single hidden nuance that Pink Floyd was trying to communicate with me. 

Has it been a while since you listened to the album in its sprawling entirety?  I mean outside of the “We Don’t Need No Education” refrain in daily rotation on the classic rock station.  The thing is genuinely spooky, angst ridden, and dark; something an overly imaginative teenage kid can have a field day with.  Roger Waters thought school smashed your soul, so why shouldn’t I follow his lead? 

Here’s another crucial adolescent misstep; I identified with Roger Waters’ bloodletting so much that I assumed it had more substance than it does.  

I eventually outgrew the album, and moved on to other things.  I didn’t pay much attention to it until I became a bored office employee years later.  (We had moved on to those new fangled “Ipods” that all the kids have these days.  The more time I spent with my headset, the less time I had to invest in office squabbles.) 

Then I really listened to The Wall again.  Unfortunately, a new perspective was born…

Wait a minute.  How can you sandwich race and homophobia into an indictment of the music industry?  What is all this stuff about childhood disappointments have to do with non-conformity?  (This is a link there, but it’s not exactly solid because it vanishes once you try to trace it).  “The Wall” itself is still a powerful metaphor for isolation, but the “construction” seems to be horribly overwrought. 

I thought the album was “about” something; but my aged prospective had discovered something of a Frankenstein monster.  Roger Waters’ “vision” ends up collapsing underneath the weight of its ambitions and lack of follow through.  (David Gilmour’s guitar solo in the middle of “Comfortably Numb” still kicks a fair amount of ass.) 

Wait, weren’t we talking about Donnie Darko?

Yes, We Are Absolutely Still Talking about Donnie Darko

I am elaborately circling around what I see as the central issue with Donnie Darko. 

Before that, I would like to assemble what I see as a fairly concise “nit pick” list:

·      Donnie Darko Is a Completely Passive Character: I have a few formative writing teachers in my life that haunt me like ObiWan’s ghost.  They would have had both of my nuts if I had handed in the script for Donnie Darko as a class assignment.  Why?  Because Donnie is not in the “driver’s seat” as a central character.  That is because he makes all of his crucial decisions through the guise of Frank.  That is an interesting conceit, but it renders everything Donnie does as not that important.  Yes, I understand that he is a slave to fate, but I wish I could invest in the fact that he has some kind of conflict.  He doesn’t even make much of an attempt to fight with Frank, but instead of numbly accepts his direction.  How do you care about a character who is that emotionally castrated?  The only decision that he makes comes at the end, and it renders everything he does as null and void.  (This is foreshadowing for another issue that I have with the ending).

·      This is Real Tragedy Here, But Its Not Dealt With:  I would now turn your attention to the Jenna Malone character.  She has a horribly tragic back-story about her father stabbing her mother.  Richard Kelly drops this bomb on the audience, but what does he really feel about it?  Is it just there for a bit of character shading?  How does it help the character to develop or grow?  It is just shock value?  I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, because I can’t call Richard up and ask him.  I would also point to the fact that what is happening to Donnie and his family is terrible and terrifying.  That central story gets lost among time travel, Sparkle Motion, and discussions about Smurfette’s fuckability.  This is all window dressing; I wish Kelly would have allowed at least one of his characters to stand up and say: “I’m scared shitless.  Reality is crumbling around me in an incomprehensible way, and I don’t know what to do about it.”  The closest we come to this is Drew Barrymore’s English Teacher character.  She is at least can call out Suburban Hypocrisy when she sees it. 

·      The “Therapist” Character: Donnie does have a therapist, played by the ever-youthful looking Katherine Ross.  There are nagging questions that I have about the Ross character.  The first and most urgent one is: What the hell is she really trying to do?  What is her therapeutic path for Donnie to follow as a patient?  I have only a vague notion that she is attempting to get Donnie to recognize his delusions.  But by using hypnosis as a way of doing it?  That seems potentially dangerous to me if you are dealing with someone who is schizophrenic (which I believe the diagnosis for Donnie would be).  There are other movies that deal pretty expertly with therapy (the two that come to mind are Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People.)  In those cases, the therapist is a fully fleshed out character who behaves appropriately in context.  The Ross character is every stereotype you’ve ever had of a shrink sandwiched into a clichéd Fruit Roll Up.   How does that make you feel? 

·      The “Why Is That There?” Syndrome:  Donnie makes direct reference to using time travel as a way to find God.  Is that what he is really trying to do?  The “Cunning Visions” Fear and Love axis is a fascinating piece of satire (especially when Cunningham is revealed as a monster).  I just don’t know what it really adds to the world of the movie.  Are the characters wrestling with love and fear, or is it just another form of denial?   The Barrymore character scrawls out “Cellar Door” on the chalkboard as a final “fuck you” before she leaves the school.  This time I googled it, and she was right about this being declared a linguistically perfect phrase.  What does perfection have to do with the rest of the story?  What is any of this stuff here?  I’m still scratching my head about how it all adds up.

·      The Ending:  Remember what I said about Donnie being a passive character?  The one thing that completely negates that is his decision to go through the wormhole at the end.  That completely cancels out everything that has gone before it.  That, my friends, has always pissed me off to no end.  This is a highfalutin version of the “It Was All A Dream” ending that has become a dreaded cliché.  What about the troubled kid that you just made me care about for two hours?  Did he not even matter?  I remember feeling waylaid by the ending the first time I saw the movie.  There was still the “shock of the new” about the whole proceeding.  This time I knew what was coming, and (to quote Johnny Rotten) I still felt cheated. 

What is all of this building up to? 

Richard Kelly Has a Case of the Roger Waters Disease

My central regret with Donnie Darko is that I didn’t see it when I was about sixteen.  I would have had ample time (and sufficient angst) to explain away every detail in the same way I did with Pink Floyd lyrics. 

I imagine that there are quite a few Darko cultists who have done just that.  You are more than welcome to refute anything I say point by point.  If this movie speaks directly to your wounded and broken heart, it is not my place to take it away from you.  (I even feel slightly bad about the patronizing tone of that last sentence.) 

The problem is that I was in my mid-20s when I finally saw this movie.  Every attempt I make to analyze it causes the whole affair to tumble like a house of cards.  I don’t think that it is a case of not having strong ideas.  The problem is that there are too many of them, and they don’t just don’t gel in the end.  This is similar to my experience with listening to The Wall as a grown up.  This is what is known as “kitchen sink,” everything crammed into the same small space. 

That’s not to say (as I did at the start) that the whole mess isn’t still as fascinating as it has always been. 

I’ve seen Donnie Darko three times now and I’m still trying to figure out why it isn’t one of my favorite movies. 

That has to count for something, doesn’t it? 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Movies I Actually Enjoy: An American Werewolf in London

(Editor’s Note:  There are inherent spoilers in here of American Werewolf In London.   I suppose that I am “preaching to the converted.”  If you are not one of the faithful, you should probably go see the movie first.  If you don’t like the movie, may I persuade you?  Should I even mention that I was on hiatus for a year?  Nah.) 

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…” –Samuel Beckett, Endgame

So What the Hell Am I Really Talking About? 

I would like to boldly state my objectives for this piece at the very beginning.  I am going to take a movie that some people might write off as inconsequential (An American Werewolf in London) and put it on a pedestal.  (Yes, I know it has been deemed a “cult classic.”  Why exactly am I in the cult?)  I will also work to incorporate the film into my never-ending search for the Ultimate Dark Laugh. 

There’s a few things I won’t do:

·        I will not comment extensively on the famous “transformation scene.”  (That is not to say that I won’t mention it at all; I just won’t write about in the usual way that film buffs cite the sequence.  See my next bullet.)

·        I am not going to worship at the Altar of Rick Baker.  Yes, here is a brief history run down; Baker won the first Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Make Up.  (The award was virtually created for him as a result of the work in the movie.  Just think; it opened the door for him to work with Eddie Murphy on Norbert.) The proof is in the pudding; just watch the flick and you can see that Baker’s work is ageless.  I’m more interested how it works into the cumulative effect of the story.  Would you like me to use a fancy college boy word?  How does it become part of the central “Gestalt” of American Werewolf?  (I just used Gestalt in a sentence.  That’s at least got to be at least a triple word score in there somewhere.) 

·        What will be the big finish?  I will be asking a central question all through this piece: How do we as human beings handle tragedy?  What happens when a situation becomes so overwhelmingly awful that all you can do is laugh?  I started off by quoting Samuel Beckett; maybe I’ll suggest to my readers to go listen to Sam Cooke’s take on “Blue Moon” after they read this. 

The Circadian Rhythm of American Werewolf

I don’t just have all of these wonderful turns of phrases stored up in me.  Before I wrote the above headline, I had to do some nerd research and see if I was using “Circadian Rhythm” correctly.  The phrase is usually used in a biological sense; as your body and consciousness go in and out of full awareness.  The purpose it serves in most of our lives is to give us the notion to go to bed and get some rest.  (I say “most of us,” but it seems to exclude hopeless insomniacs like yours truly.) 

How does American Werewolf begin?  You are immediately introduced to Jack (the great character actor Griffin Dunne) and David (the “star who never was” David Naughton). 

There are two important issues of note in the first ten minutes:
·      Jack and David are not in any danger…as of yet.  I say that with the knowledge that the first thing the driver who drops them off in the middle of nowhere is: “Beware the Moon.”  Does that matter right away?  I find it easier to forget that bit of foreshadowing as a member of an audience.  Landis’ dialogue between the two boys sets up the foundation for the rest of the film.  These two guys are old, old friends with a clear history of mutual respect.  Combine that with the fact that Dunne and Naughton are about as charismatic as film actors can be.  (Older readers will no doubt remember Naughton as the “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper” pitch guy.)  You just don’t want anything tragic to happen to them.  This time around, I could almost visualize what an entirely different movie might have looked like sans Werewolf.  (Picture a more intelligent version of Eurotrip.)  The tragedy does indeed strike, but we’ll get to that. 
·      This is the first of Werewolf’s comic interludes.  You have a few good natured laughs with the boys and then out of nowhere you arrive at “The Slaughtered Lamb Pub.”  What happens there?  The Werewolf motif is now writ large, and we realize that we are in the universe of the horror film.  Creepy locals?  Pentagrams etched in what looks suspiciously like blood on the wall?   What about our lovable tramps?  How do we feel when they leave the bar and we get to eavesdrop on the conversation? 

I am not going to break down the entire movie scene by scene.  I will instead just give a few examples of this bizarre “slap and kiss” pattern.  (This is a bit of a “mash up” for those of you who know the chronological order of the movie.  My memory of sequential events is hazy and I am often robbed of logical thought.) 

Landis follows the brutal (and beautifully orchestrated) slaughter of an innocent man in the subway with David waking up naked in the park.  (Who can forget the infinitely quotable line: “Mommy, a naked American man just stole my balloons?”) 

I said I wasn’t going to get too close to the “transformation” sequence.  What about the events that precede it?  Landis gets much mileage out of a bored David wandering around the nurse’s apartment.  Cue Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” with its apocalyptic lyrics and jaunty beat.  The shock of the full body mutation is coming; we’re being prepped again.  There is a moment to relax and watch as David searches the fridge and watches bad daytime TV. 

As you can see, the circadian rhythm is giggle/horror/giggle again. 

Remember David’s tragic last phone call home?  This happens in a classic phone booth (remember those?) as David tells his sister he loves her.  This has happened after David’s final surrender to his “Werewolf” identity.  He then attempts to off himself after the conversation with the most incompetent of weapons: the Swiss Army Knife.  (The formula here again is Poignancy followed by a Nervous Giggle.) 

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention American Werewolf’s de facto “Greek Chorus.” 

That would be Griffin Dunne’s performance as Jack; the undead best friend.  Jack continually pops up just to remind David (and us) that fate is an inescapable bitch.  Yes, Baker’s make up does come into play, as Jack grows more hideous.  (“I didn’t mean to call you a meat loaf, Jack,” David howls as he transforms for the first time.) 

Ardent fans of the movie will know the rules of the world.  David’s victims become grotesque “undeads” that will never be free until he kills himself.  Jack pops up to remind us that however much we enjoy ourselves, we are still watching a tragedy. 

The relationship with Jack and David is very consistent.  Once David adjusts to the horror of Jack’s appearance, they might as well be back in their dorm room.

(Another Landis zinger: “Have you ever talked to a corpse?  It’s boring!”)

This has all been a precursor to an excuse to write about one of my favorite scenes in any film.  No it’s still not the transformation scene. 

The Porno Theater in Piccadilly Circus

When I was in high school, American Werewolf started receiving regular screening on (of all things) Comedy Central.  The one absolutely “can’t miss” scene for me was staged unforgettably in a seedy porno theater.  Jack (in his final stages of decomposition) summons David into the circus of moaning and groaning mixed with utter darkness. 

David comes face to face with each of the people he has killed in werewolf form.  A quick rundown; a few homeless men, the guy in the subway, and the cheerful couple are among the body count.  They are all stuck in rotting purgatory until David is either killed or can make the decision to commit suicide.   

Jack and David have one last bonding moment as they sit through a bit of the absurd porn parody See You Next Wednesday.  “Good movie,” David sarcastically says. 

The site in the porno theater is truly terrifying (as a collection of walking corpses should indeed be).  The nervous laughter comes in when they start listing off methodology of suicide. 

This is the scene that every screenwriting professor tells you to aim for as newbies.  The emotional apex in which the lead character makes a crucial decision is here.  That is all well and good, but what do I tune the most into? 

Laughing in the Dark: The Real Resonance of An American Werewolf in London

I will give a gold star to the readers who have no doubt noticed two things. 

I haven’t made a single mention of Jenny Agutter as the nurse Alex. 

More importantly, I begin my essay with a quote by Samuel Beckett from his play Endgame. 

Tragedy becomes comic when we (as human beings) don’t know how else to digest it.  The urgency falls away, and the absurdity of the situation snaps into very sharp focus.  (“This would be funny if I wasn’t busy crying” is the usual logic we employ).  This film sits somewhere on the razor’s edge between the tragic and the comic. 

This is what I believe Landis is getting at and why I feel like the movie works on the “Parable” level.  Critics (including Roger Ebert in a two star review) have lambasted Werewolf as “uneven” because they don’t understand this point.  Great horror ultimately should work on some other level with (prepare to gag) a lesson to teach.  This one teaches us how to have a cathartic belly laugh at David’s expense. 

The laughs are there to lighten up the tragedy.  Alex is the lynch pen as she summons David the wolf to his death.  Comedies end in marriage; and tragedies end in death.  Alex is the last person who can’t save David, and there you go.  She lures him into death instead of marrying him.

Our hero has been killed, and our hearts are broken.  What plays on the soundtrack after the final fade out?  The Marcels’ suspiciously upbeat take on “Blue Moon,” that comes complete with an exaggerated “Ding-a-Ding-Dang-a-Dang” doo-wop chorus. 

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” indeed. 

And talking to a corpse is boring.