RETRO REVIEW: Giallo Magnifique: Dario Argento’s DEEP RED in Rare Italian Cut Screens Saturday at Buried Alive Film Festival

Posted on: Nov 13th, 2015 By:

Profondo_Rosso_posterBuried Alive Film Festival and Splatter Cinema Presents the rare Italian original cut of DEEP RED (1975); Dir. Dario Argento; Starring David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi; Saturday, November 14 @ 10:00 p.m.; Synchronicity Theater; Tickets $10 (or included with a $50 festival pass) here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Buried Alive Film Festival, Splatter Cinema will be hosting a 40th anniversary screening at Synchronicity Theater of what is, quite simply, one of the greatest thrillers ever made: Dario Argento’s groundbreaking giallo DEEP RED. To miss this in its rare Italian original cut (22 minutes longer than the US version), would be to offend the very gods of cinema, so it would be best to play it safe and plan to attend.

From the late 1920s forward in Italy, a series of cheap paperback editions of murder mysteries featuring eye-catching artwork was issued by the publishing group Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. The success of these editions led to other publshers to also release mysteries under their own banners while imitating Mondadori’s cover designs. The common design element? The color yellow used as a background. As a result, over time all murder mysteries in Italy would come to be called “yellow.” Or, in Italian, giallo.

Mario Bava set in stone the tropes and archetypes of the cinematic giallo in the early 1960s with films such as THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. The wild success of these films—and their blending of brutal violence with stylish camerawork and set design, all set to equally stylish musical scores—led to a whole host of other filmmakers jumping on the giallo bandwagon and establishing themselves as forces to be reckoned with in the Italian film industry. Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Riccardo Freda…all dipped their toes into the waters of the giallo and built careers off their early successes. But none of them took the genre to new extremes like one particular filmmaker: Dario Argento.

schultz-figueroa-web2Beginning with his “Animal Trilogy” (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, CAT O’ NINE TAILS and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET), Argento took Bava’s sense of visual style to a whole other level. Deep focus, graceful camera movements, exquisitely detailed set design and carefully crafted compositions were the hallmarks of his aesthetic. His impossibly twisty plots and outstanding soundtracks worked hand-in-hand with his visual style and led him to be regarded as the Italian Hitchcock. But his work on the Animal Trilogy was merely a prelude to his masterpiece: DEEP RED (aka PROFONDO ROSSO).

Jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) witnesses a woman’s murder, and decides to investigate the case himself after realizing that a painting he saw in her apartment is now missing. Accompanied by reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), he tries to tie together the loose clues he has assembled and the one detail he cannot quite remember, while other women across the city are being murdered and he himself is targeted.

All of the elements are in play here. The black-gloved killer. The half-remembered detail. The outsider protagonist dismissed by the police as a troublemaker. The meddling reporter. The brutal violence. But Argento assembles these key tropes into something wholly new and original. Visually, Argento uses art in general, and painting in particular, as a recurring thematic element. Beyond a painting holding a key detail that is needed to solve the mystery, key plot points are revealed via artwork. Argento even gives us a life-size, live-action depiction of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks early on to establish the importance of the visual arts and their accompanying artifice in the film’s world. In a word, the visual style is audacious.

But not as audacious, perhaps, as the film’s musical score. After having worked with the celebrated Italian film composer Ennio Morricone on the Animal Trilogy, Argento wanted something contemporary. He initially turned to jazz musician Giorgio Gaslini for the film’s music, but was unhappy with the results. Instead, he decided to go in a progressive rock direction and eventually found kindred spirits in local band Goblin. Their remarkable score winds up being incredibly catchy, complex, sinister, subtle and bombastic—somehow all at the same time. Their music ended up being the perfect complement to Argento’s visuals, managing to capture the essence of one medium in another. The reception to their breakthrough work was so intense, and the pairing of group and filmmaker so perfect, that Goblin (or the band’s leader, Claudio Simonetti) would continue to work on-and-off with Argento through the decades up to his latest film, DRACULA 3D.

Argento would return to the giallo again several times over the course of his career, most notably in films like TENEBRE and OPERA, but none of his work within the genre comes close to this masterpiece. It’s nearly flawless. The only complaint that I have with it is that the humorous and romantic scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi tend to dissipate the building tension felt throughout the film. But that is such a slight complaint in comparison to the riches on offer in this brutal but beautiful movie. To see it at all is a rare treat. To see it in its original Italian cut on the big screen is a thing that should not be missed by anyone interested in seeing a director firing on all cylinders, at the top of his game, regardless of genre.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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Fatih Akin’s Haunting Trek around the World, THE CUT, Reminiscent of Malick and Kubrick and Shot Entirely on 35mm Film Stock, Screens at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Nov 4th, 2015 By:

By Aleck Bennettcut_ver3
Contributing Writer

THE CUT (2014); Dir. Fatih Akin; Starring Tahir Rahim; Opens Friday, November 6 (showtimes and tickets here); Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, in its mission to bring us thought-provoking works of moviemaking from around the world, delivers once again with Fatih Akin’s THE CUT. A polarizing film, it haunts us with images of violence and atrocity, while exploring a single person’s globe-spanning journey to find some sort of redemption and reconciliation.

Set largely in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, THE CUT follows Nazaret Manoogian (Tahir Rahim)—a lone mute blacksmith—as he returns from torture and imprisonment to search for his two long-lost daughters. This is a journey that not only takes him through the various tragedies associated with the genocide’s implications, but also from Turkey to Lebanon, from Cuba to Florida, and eventually to the barren plains of North Dakota.

Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim)

Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim)

Akin’s film is a breathtaking visual achievement. He captures each territory with its own personality, delivering masterful compositions accentuated with expert cinematography and production design (in the latter case, from veteran designer Allan Starski). It’s one of the best-photographed films you’ll see all year. Shot entirely on 35mm film stock in CinemaScope, the visuals are both striking and lush without being overly stylized. And to echo the narrative’s echoes of Hollywood epics and westerns, whenever possible Akin relies purely on “old school” filming techniques. The result is a film that is stylistically aware of its forebears without being derivative of them; working within the same framework of the classics while being wholly contemporary.

Narratively and directorially, however, the film has proven to be divisive, as the mixed reviews from professional critics attest. It’s not just due to the controversial nature of the Armenian genocide—a topic that continues to spark intense debate some 100 years after the fact. It’s also Fatih Akin’s presentation of the material. Akin, with co-screenwriter THE CUTMardik Martin (RAGING BULL, NEW YORK, NEW YORK), intentionally holds you at arm’s length from the action, making the viewer an objective witness to the events that unfold, rather than pulling the audience into the story emotionally. He takes a Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick approach to the material, which initially seems at odds with the intensely emotional aspects of the film’s narrative. His stated intention is—especially in scenes of violence—to allow the characters to maintain their own dignity and not rely on emotional exploitation to present them. But some viewers may find it overly cold and clinical when a more immersive experience might be preferable.

What cannot be denied, however is the excellence of the performances, in particular that of Tahir Rahim as the largely silent Nazaret Manoogian. His performance is overlaid with intelligence and richness of feeling that in lesser hands might come across as mere physical gesturing. As he appears in nearly every frame of the movie, the burden of THE CUTcarrying the film is on his shoulders and he manages to do so with grace and aplomb. It’s impossible to imagine THE CUT working as well as it does with anyone else in the lead.

Despite the polarizing storytelling stance that Akin takes, THE CUT is a film well worth checking out, particularly for those who appreciate a more cerebral approach to their movie going experiences. It’s a rare exploration of a controversial subject, it’s a beautifully crafted piece of cinema, and it features a standout performance as its central pillar. And even if it holds you at a distance, that distance gives you a unique perspective on images that will linger with you long after the film has unspooled from its reels.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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Splatter Cinema Brings Italian Cannibal Mania in the Amazonian Jungle to the Cinevision Screening Room With CANNIBAL FEROX!

Posted on: Jul 17th, 2015 By:

canferoxSplatter Cinema presents CANNIBAL FEROX (1981); Dir. Umberto Lenzi; Starring John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Lorraine De Selle and Robert Kerman; Cinevision Screening Room; Saturday, August 15 @ 8:30 p.m.; IndieGoGo campaign w/ advance ticket sales end July 24; Admission at door is cash only; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema wants to bring you a rare chance to see Umberto Lenzi’s notorious CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY on the big screen at Cinevision in all its 35mm glory. Incredibly they’ve scored a fully restored print from Grindhouse Releasing! But the catch is the rental and shipping is expensive, so they are dependent on an INDIEGOGO campaign with advance ticketing. If it doesn’t make its goal, this screening won’t happen. That would be a real shame because Splatter Cinema has really delved into the fetid jungle of grindhouse treasures to unearth this putrescent piece of gut-munching gore. 

As I’ve mentioned here before, the horror genre is, in the eyes of many, disreputable. It’s not hard to see why—its primary purpose is to elicit something negative: fear. Comedy doesn’t get that reaction, because who doesn’t like to laugh? Action films promise thrills and excitement, which generally equals fun. Drama deals with serious topics and explores a wide range of emotion. But horror films conjure up some of our darkest emotions, and thus fall victim to the stigma of being “bad for you.” And some of horror’s subgenres get criticized more harshly than others. The slasher film, for instance, constantly comes under fire for celebrating slaughter. But no subgenre inspires the kind of wholesale, visceral revulsion than does the Italian cannibal film.

600full-cannibal-ferox-posterThe whole craze started in 1972, when Umberto Lenzi helmed THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER. Almost a beat-for-beat remake of 1970’s A MAN CALLED HORSE, Lenzi shifted that movie’s setting from the old west to the Thai rainforest and added a fascination with ritualistic acts, cannibalism, violence and animal cruelty (largely inspired by the worldwide success of exploitative pseudo-documentary Mondo movies such as MONDO CANE and AFRICA ADDIO). Its huge success in Italy and on the US grindhouse circuit led to the subgenre remaining successful for nearly two decades.

Generally speaking, the Italian cannibal film follows a particular pattern: it opens in the “civilized” world—typically New York, though this isn’t written in stone—and some incident occurs that pulls our protagonists into the (again, typically) Asian or South American jungle. There, they encounter some previously unknown, long-lost or much feared native tribe; witness or experience graphic violence, torture and/or rape; and then a bunch of people get eaten and the lone survivors return, battered but wiser. This plot plays out in Lenzi’s CANNIBAL FEROX, which ups the ante on all its predecessors by claiming to be the “most violent movie ever made.” It goes to such extremes that Italian exploitation stalwart John Morghen (aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice) expresses regret that he agreed to act in the movie to this day.

CanFer-07Now, there are a wide variety of reasons why CANNIBAL FEROX and its kin are viewed so negatively. To start off with, there’s the insinuation that entering into some foreign jungle will pretty much guarantee that you’ll become the next meal of some “savage tribe.” It might stop short of actual racism (and my use of “might” is mighty shaky), but short isn’t where most people would prefer to stop. Then there’s the issue of sexual violence and rape. Sexual violence in these movies is almost always a threat, whether it’s perpetuated against indigenous women by the outsiders or against female outsiders entering hostile territory. Sympathetic critics have defended both elements on the grounds that many of the Italian cannibal films are explicitly anti-colonialist in tone and critical of Western capitalism. The conquering white heroes invade a remote locale, rape its women and kill its men, and are dealt retribution in kind. It’s not particularly subtle, but then, neither are these films when it comes to anything else. They’re blunt instruments, the argument goes, meant to shock a complacent audience into examining itself and the violence inherent in the system.

And then there’s the actual animal cruelty depicted in these movies. For some reason, this is a longstanding element of the subgenre, and is the main focus of most people’s revulsion. Defenders of the cannibal genre argue that the presence of actual animal cruelty works as a technique because it causes you to question the reality of what you’re witnessing—if that is real, what else is? Others argue that some of the depictions reflect actual practices of the people populating the film, so it’s an introduction of documentary realism into a fictional framework. Still others argue that these elements are present in any number of critically celebrated films—from Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW and Cimino’s HEAVEN’S GATE to Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV and Godard’s WEEK-END—and that singling out these films amounts to bigotry against the horror genre (“sure, I’ll let Coppola show a water buffalo being slaughtered because that’s art, but all horror is pretty much crap, so this cannibal movie is fair game”). All of which are salient points, to which I’ll add that the raison d’être of horror films—to evoke fear and revulsion—draws more attention to these acts than in other, more mainstream films. There’s no shift in tone to relieve the audience. Not that it makes the viewing any easier.

Cannibal-Ferox_bannerThe genre reached what many consider its apex in 1980-81. Ruggero Deodato’s landmark 1980 film CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST touched on all of these elements and not only set aim at the horrors of colonialism, but turned its sights on the fact that an audience even existed to relish in the horrors he was putting on screen. As with Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES, the viewer is made implicit in the crimes depicted as he or she watches. In making HOLOCAUST, Deodato seemed to be saying, “look upon the disgusting nature of this genre’s demands and know that they exist because you fools pay money to see them!”

Then came 1981’s CANNIBAL FEROX, released in the States as MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. So uncompromising that its marketing brags about having been banned in 31 countries, the movie sees Lenzi largely eschewing the postmodern moralizing of Deodato (while still picking up on the evils of colonialism and Western capitalism) and going straight for the jugular. It’s brutal, it’s ugly, and it represents one of the twin peaks of Italian cannibal cinema. Lenzi is an accomplished filmmaker and knows precisely how to push buttons and fills his movie with energy to spare. That it’s as well-made as it is only makes the bludgeoning savagery of the film that much more affecting. If it were truly a bad movie, then no amount of outrage would sustain the attention paid to the film over the years. I mean, nobody’s talking about Bruno Mattei’s MONDO CANNIBALE, which sports many of the same superficial elements (heck, it’s basically a remake of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) and it’s only 12 years old. No, CANNIBAL FEROX is a quantifiably good movie—well-paced, intelligently structured, and uniformly follows through on its line of reasoning to an inevitably downbeat conclusion (it’s always hard to judge the acting, because most Italian films were shot without sound and dubbed after the fact even in their home countries, but what is here is perfectly acceptable). It just may be completely reprehensible, depending on your point of view. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, say what you want about the merits of CANNIBAL FEROX, Dude, but at least it’s got an ethos.

But at any rate, it’s a film that demands to be seen, experienced and then talked about. See it with your friends and debate the various controversial aspects of the movie afterward. No matter where you stand on the appropriate nature of the vile events that are depicted in the movie and the philosophical reasoning behind how they’re depicted…well…

It’s definitely something to chew on.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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Splatter Cinema, Enjoy the Film and the Cinevision Screening Room Paint Wall Street Red With an AMERICAN PSYCHO!

Posted on: May 11th, 2015 By:

720
Splatter Cinema
and Enjoy the Film present AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000); Dir. Mary Harron; Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe and Jared Leto; Wednesday, May 13 @ 8:30 p.m.; Cinevision Screening Room; Tickets $10 (cash only); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema has returned—this time backed by a successful Kickstarter campaign to pre-fund this month’s screening. Once again teaming up with ATLRetro Kool Kat Ben Ruder’s Enjoy the Film and the Cinevision Screening Room, Splatter continues into its seventh year of savagery with its mission still intact—to deliver the buckets of blood and delightful scenes of slaughter that make life worth living. This time around, Christian Bale drenches the screen with gore in Mary Harron’s turn-of-the-millennium classic AMERICAN PSYCHO!

Sometimes the most annoying question a movie geek like me can face when talking about an adaptation of a novel is this: “How does it compare to the book?” My gut reaction is that it’s a pointless exercise to compare the two. One speaks in a written language, one visual. They use completely different modes of expression. The only thing the two media really have in common is that they tend to be storytelling ventures. But beyond that, it’s like comparing rhubarb to a Jackson Pollock painting. You can do it, and even say that one is better than the other, but it’s kind of a fool’s errand.

american-psycho-book-cover-01However, since I’m feeling foolish, let me just say for the record that the film AMERICAN PSYCHO is far better than the novel. How can I say that? Easy. I can’t stand the novel, yet I love the movie. I dunno. Maybe I don’t like rhubarb.

Requisite plot summary: Patrick Bateman is a young Wall Street banker in the late 1980s that kills people in his spare time. The casual ruthlessness needed for success in his job extends to his personal life, in which he sees people as nothing more than walking slabs of meat, their lives holding no more importance than their business cards.

Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel was something of a cause célèbre at the time of its publication, having been rejected by Simon & Schuster before being picked up for a trade paperback release by Vintage Books. Widespread outrage over the book’s content (specifically its gratuitous depictions of violence against women) generated acres of press coverage, vehement debate and calls for the novel to be pulled from distribution. Being curious about all the hubbub and brouhaha, I picked it up. And the chief impression that the book left was just how banal and glib it all was – shallow depictions of a shallow life punctuated by shallow descriptions of nauseatingly graphic violence. It seemed completely cut adrift from itself, accidentally being a prime example of what it ostensibly criticizes. Unlike, say, Chuck Palahniuk, Ellis never reveals anything beneath the surface of his cipher-esque characters. Whereas the nameless, catalog-shopping narrator of FIGHT CLUB becomes increasingly complex and interesting over the course of the story’s development; Patrick Bateman just simply is what he is. And for a character with more depth, that may be all you need. But for a character that doesn’t extend beyond the mask of humanity he wears, it’s not enough. And in a work in which nobody else lives beyond the surface, which doesn’t even seem to believe that anything beyond the surface even exists, it simply comes off as a lazy portrait (or even an embrace) of a lifestyle rather than a pointed critique of that lifestyle.

On top of that, its jokes fall flat and its vaunted scenes of violence seem shoehorned in for nothing more than attention-grabbing shock value. (In fact, Ellis held off on writing any of the violent passages until he finished the book, going back to research serial killers and write depictions of murder and AmericanPsycho_B2_Japan-1-500x698mayhem to insert into the narrative at a later date. And it feels like it.) And the novel never seems to know precisely what its target is. Is it about how desensitized we’ve become to violence? Is it about Patrick Bateman as the perfect distillation of capitalism, making mincemeat of others in order to advance in the world, as a kind of slasher film equivalent of WALL STREET’s (1987) Gordon Gekko? Is it about the glib surface-living culture of the 1980s? Is it simply a reflection of the life and mindset that Ellis admits to living at the time of the novel’s writing? Ellis never seems sure, and couches his indecision (which ends up feeling like he just doesn’t care what it’s about) in quasi-literary pretension and stylistic fakery.

I really hate this book, in case you haven’t caught on.

So when I heard back in the day that it was going to be made into a movie, I was less than excited. I mean, Hollywood had managed to turn Ellis’ similarly shallow morality tale, LESS THAN ZERO (1987) into a movie with even less depth than the novel. But then the news came down that the adaptation was both written and directed by women—not just women, but, gloriously, feminists!—something that I (correctly) hoped would bring a certain sense of smart irony to the film, given the absolutely rampant misogyny of the novel. To make matters even better, their screenplay was chosen over one written by Bret Easton Ellis himself. The check marks in the “plus” column were soon vastly outnumbering those under the “minus” heading.

And the movie succeeds on almost every level in which the novel fails. The screenplay by director Mary Harron and GO FISH (1994) screenwriter Guinevere Turner brings the latent humor lurking in Ellis’ novel to life, while amping up the sense of sickening horror surrounding Bateman’s crimes, which are so blandly and matter-of-factly depicted in the original source. Rather than embracing the attitudes of the novel, the film slyly and wittily american-psycho-2000transforms the book’s depictions of women into a comment on male vanity and competitiveness. Meanwhile, Christian Bale’s performance also manages to transcend the source material, giving us a Bateman with an intensity and (at times) frenzied energy that belies his character’s detachment and superficiality. And the end result is a film that is focused. All of the things that felt like directionless elements in the novel—the misogyny, the over-the-top ultraviolence, the preening narcissism, the steady divorcing of the protagonist from “reality”—now have an aim and a purpose: to show Bateman as the perfect embodiment of an American dream gone sour. Climbing atop and feeding upon the corpses of those beneath him, devaluing anyone that stands in his way, and growing further and further out of touch with the rest of the world and yet he succeeds. Not in spite of his particular brand of American psychosis, but because of it. This is what is expected of you, the film seems to say, and then openly mocks the society that calls for it. Maybe it’s because Mary Harron is a Canadian and can view America from a skeptical distance while still being close enough to grasp the details—the same quality that I think helps to make Jen & Sylvia Soska’s similarly themed and titled film AMERICAN MARY (2013) work so well. Or maybe it’s that the intervening decade has allowed Harron to take on the 1980s Yuppie culture with a more knowing eye than the still-too-close 1991 novel. But no matter the reason, Mary Harron’s film captures a particular type of mindset from a particular age perfectly and then skewers it with wit and perfect technique, leaving us to identify its lingering traces today.

So no matter how you may have felt about the novel, there’s no need to fear that this adaptation doesn’t do it justice. If you loved Ellis’ book, you’ll find a movie that easily snares the essence of what you find rewarding in it. If you loathed the novel, then you’ll find a movie that does exactly what Ellis was splattersticker (2)likely trying to do, and does it miles better. And you can’t ask for a better team of people to bring this film to you—Splatter Cinema always makes their screenings fun, and Ben Ruder knows how movies ought to look on the big screen. So get there early, get your picture taken with Patrick Bateman and maybe enjoy some Huey Lewis & the News while you’re waiting. It may not be hip to be square, but if you’re not there, that’s what you’ll be.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com.

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Retro Review: High-Wire Countdown: EIGHT Catches the Free Fall of a Young Woman’s Fight for Sanity

Posted on: Mar 31st, 2015 By:

Snowdance_eight-333x187EIGHT (2014); Dir. Peter Blackburn; Starring Libby Munro; Screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, IMDB.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The term “high-wire act” is sometimes deployed by critics to describe a film or a performance that’s particularly high-risk, implying disaster should the performer slip up or go too far. EIGHT, an Australian film that just had its North American premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, pivots on a performance that seems less like a high-wire act than a bungee-cord plunge. Star Libby Munro is in a perpetual state of free fall in the film, without a net to catch her, and the only question is just how hard she’s going to hit the pavement. Only when she doesn’t does the full weight of her accomplishment become clear.

Munro stars as Sarah, a woman crippled by agoraphobia and OCD that appears to have completely shut her in to her home. The entire film follows Sarah as she attempts to begin her day, and if that sounds like a premise that can’t support a feature, then be grateful for your perspective. Movie characters written into sweeping, plot-driven adventures rarely suffer as Sarah does just in the simple act of trying to get dressed. Her illness has trapped her in a paralyzing cycle of eights. She must tap her feet eight times to put on her slippers, make eight taps on the fridge door before opening it for water, and wash her hands violently eight times in a sink before she can convince herself they’re clean. Sarah’s body bears the scars and bruises from her daily struggle with tasks as simple as taking a shower, cleaning the sink, or making breakfast.

eightThe film doesn’t reveal much about Sarah. We see she has an absent family, but we never learn what triggered her condition or how long it’s been with her. What we know for certain is that she wants to get better. Her house is papered with encouraging notes, and an occasional caller checks in with her progress over an answering machine. With this knowledge every lapse, every small mistake that repeats a cycle becomes all the more tragic. Sarah is not insane, she’s ill. She’s fully aware of her condition, but trapped by it, and EIGHT honors the grip of her illness by refusing to cut away from it. Indeed, EIGHT is shot as a single, uninterrupted take that keeps Sarah in the frame for almost all of the film’s 82 minutes. Far from being a showy gimmick, EIGHT’s ambitious single-take style is essential to the understanding of what the film wants to convey. Sarah has no escape, and the film provides a small glimpse of what it means to actually live that kind of life. The film can be brutal, unflinching, and, quite frankly, difficult to watch, but it evokes sympathy for mental illness in a way a more traditional film could not. Unlike other famous one-shot films (ROPE, BIRDMAN), there is no editing trickery on display. It actually is one single, punishing take providing only rare moments of audience relief (words cannot express my gratitude when the camera decided not to stay on Sarah for a third painful, compulsive shower. The camera instead chooses that moment to glide past pictures of the family Sarah has lost to her illness, twisting the knife in another way.)

After the AFF screening, director Peter Blackburn talked about how mental illness—especially OCD—is too often used as a comedic character quirk in Australian film. (Americans who’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s hammy, Oscar-winning performance in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) can relate). Blackburn hoped that EIGHT would put the focus back on the reality of the disorder, and in that his film is a success. Munro’s performance is so raw and tortured that audiences will find themselves cheering for each tiny bit of progress Sarah makes. A stage actor in Australia, Munro masterfully depicts Sarah’s breakdown between the life she wants and the life her compulsions force her to live. Almost entirely without words—over 20 minutes passed before the first voice reminded me that the film is Australian—Munro is able to make Sarah a complete and pitiable human being. Her work here is remarkable, and despite that bungee-cord feeling that disaster could strike at any moment, she confidently sticks the landing.

I’m not entirely convinced that EIGHT does the same, saddled as it is with an ending that, although welcome, is a bit too tidy after the struggle that came before. But the film must still be considered an accomplishment, both in completing its incredibly difficult single shot and for depicting the real heartbreak of OCD through the power of the splendid, fearless performance that anchors the film.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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AFF Retro: STRAW DOGS Meets Survival Horror During the Civil War inTHE KEEPING ROOM

Posted on: Mar 30th, 2015 By:

keepingroom2THE KEEPING ROOM (2014); Dir. Daniel Barber; Starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington; Atlanta Film FestivalIMDB.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

THE KEEPING ROOM opens with an onscreen quote: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

The quote is from General William Sherman, and it served as justification for both the destruction of Atlanta and the march that cut a burning scar into the South. It’s not poetry, but a blunt statement of purpose, and it serves the same function in Daniel Barber’s new film. Having unveiled the quote, the film spends the next 95 minutes attempting to prove it. 

THE KEEPING ROOM unfolds near the end of the war, in a place where all the men seem to have been chewed up in the conflict, leaving behind only Augusta (Brit Marling) and her younger sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) who struggle to maintain the family’s small farm with the help of their single slave, Mad (Muna Otaru). Louise resents the hard work and sulks at having to do the same jobs as Mad, but the practical Augusta understands the situation they’re in. The men have gone to destroy one another, and they’ve destroyed the old ways, too. The women are already living at the end of their world, but Sherman has not yet arrived to make it official.

But then like heralds, two roaming Union soldiers (including AVATAR’s Sam Worthington) invade the women’s lives. The soldiers are bent on murder and mayhem for reasons unclear. Perhaps they’re on a mission; perhaps they’re simply marking time. But for Augusta the existential scramble for survival suddenly becomes very present and very real.

The Keeping Room Movie (2)THE KEEPING ROOM is a bleak, chilly movie punctuated by snaps of bloody violence. Based of the rural setting and the story’s slow burn, it could be a civil war cousin to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS (1971), or at least as close as possible in a film where an action sequence requires long pauses while all parties stop to load their guns. The story compensates for these logistics with tension and suspense, meaning that at times it resembles more of a home invasion horror story—THE STRANGERS (2008) with bushy beards in place of kewpie doll masks. The horror analogy seems especially apt since men play the monsters in this story. Men have already laid the land to ruin and now they’ve come for all that the women have left.

Unfortunately, THE KEEPING ROOM wants to be two different films. The first, a tense survival story, works fairly well. The second, a message movie about the ugliness of war, is shakier. The film suffers from a tendency to wear its symbolism on its sleeve. This is the kind of movie where the villains are accompanied by a rabid dog named Battle, and where the heroine must recite an eye-roller of a speech about all the men dying at war and leaving the planet to the women. One of the soldiers—in advance of a liberating army, mind you—calls himself Moses, which even scored a few chuckles from the audience around me. In THE KEEPING ROOM, of course his name is Moses.

It’s as a thriller where the film shines, with director Barber showing the same aptitude with tension, payoff, and gritty realism he first displayed in the entertaining, if also a bit self-serious, HARRY BROWN. It’s unfortunate that so much of the film’s threat of violence is sexual in nature, but that’s to be expected given both the story and the theme, and, ultimately, doesn’t feel gratuitous, paying off in a marvelous speech by Otaru that gives the film its title.  In a film full of strong performances, Otaru is a standout, utilizing a lilting, affected accent to mask a deep pit of hurt and heartbreak.

THE KEEPING ROOM has secured distribution with the trendsetters at Drafthouse Films, ensuring that it will eventually find its way to a wide audience. What they’ll find is a strong, entertaining thriller about the evils of war, but one that tries a bit too hard to say a lot of big things. With an even hand, the film could have said more with less, but that shouldn’t take away from the excellent performances and characters that anchor the story. THE KEEPING ROOM doesn’t quite work as a message movie, but as a bit of survival horror, it more than handles the job.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

Category: Retro Review | TAGS: None

AFF Retro Review: Forbidden Lens: FRAME BY FRAME Focuses a Camera on Afghanistan

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2015 By:

maxresdefaultFRAME BY FRAME (2015); Dirs. Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Farzana Wahidy sifts through the books in her apartment, searching for one particular image among many. At last she finds the right one and holds it up for the camera. The picture is black-and-white and depicts three young, pretty Afghan women wearing shorts and loose blouses, their heads uncovered, arms cradling books. They are on their way to class at the university in Kabul. The picture is captioned: “Afghanistan in the 1970s.” When compared to modern Afghanistan, the picture seems to come from an alternate reality, not the relatively recent past. After the photo was taken came war, revolution, and the Taliban. Soon, taking another photo like it would become illegal. A generation of Afghan culture vanished under a Taliban regime that considered photography a crime. Today, without the archive of their struggles, people like Farzana sift through old books and wonder how they got here, and how they left so much behind.

FRAME BY FRAME, a new documentary from Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, is a look at a nation awakening to find itself. When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, they came as redeemers and reformers under a banner of peace and with a mission to return the nation to the true Afghan people. As with too many such movements, it ended in suffering when the regime revealed its narrow, strict idea of who the true Afghans were. To retain control, the Taliban limited the media and made taking photographs a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture or even death. After the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban from power, a few took up cameras and began to take pictures once again and now, for the first time in decades, the visual history of Afghanistan is back in the hands of its people. Challenges remain. The Afghan media is still new, standing on shaky legs and trying to gain momentum. In the face of an uncertain future, FRAME BY FRAME attempts to mark the moment and legitim
ize it for the world.

frame_by_frame_stillThe documentary follows four Afghan photographers as they travel the country and encounter distrust, opposition, and bigotry. One man visits city slums to capture the face of opiate addiction. Another runs a photography school to develop the camera skills of the next generation. A journalist, Massoud Hossaini, runs into harm’s way to capture staggering images such as the photo of grief and violence that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Each faces cultural challenges as the lingering grip of the Taliban is still felt, but perhaps none more so than Farzana Wahidy, who seeks journalistic access and respect in a country where the rules work very differently for  women. Journalism is no longer a crime in Afghanistan, but even an act as simple as taking a woman’s photograph carries a deep social stigma, one that Wahidy bravely, and too often unsuccessfully, confronts.

Bombach and Scarpelli know what they have here. They’ve stated in interviews that the film began as a short subject, but refused to be contained, eventually swelling to feature length. There is something intoxicating about watching an oppressed people discover that the rights to their heritage are theirs. This is what the Taliban took away, the ability to define their country’s reality. Without photography, without media, there is no document of the now and no story of today except that which those in charge decide upon. This is the foundational idea behind a free press, that an informed populace can look past a false narrative and take action. By stealing away their right to document, the Taliban denied the Afghan people the ability to self-identify, made them conform to an identity of religious zealotry that still lingers at the edges of the frame. The film’s subjects point their lenses at poverty, addiction and bloody violence, but also at smiling children, marvels of Afghan architecture and an old man voting in his first election. There is both the destruction of the past and hope for the future—the country exactly as it is.

frame-by-frame-670x377But with hope comes anxiety. Afghans nervously discuss the upcoming exit of US troops, and with it the possibility of civil war. Warlords still rule and hold sway in the outskirts, and the new free press could disappear if the Taliban returns to power. In one of the film’s episodes, Farzana visits a hospital in a western Afghan town. Women are said to be self-immolating at an alarming rate. Although she’s arranged the proper permissions, she’s greeted at a hospital by a male doctor who speaks over her, talks down to her, and tells her that she will not be able to take the pictures she’s there to take. His concern is for his own life. If the local warlord hears that a woman has been taking sensitive pictures of other women—who, the film implies, are not self-immolating but are instead the victims of abuse—then the doctor could be killed or the hospital burned. Farzana tries to explain that the people have a right to hear the story, that it’s her job to report the news. He has no problem with her reporting the news, he says, just so long as the stories are about men. Even in freedom, progress is slow and precarious.

FRAME BY FRAME mirrors its subject by becoming a snapshot of an Afghan moment in time—informed by, but unmoored, from its past and anticipating an unknown future.

FRAME BY FRAME screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. Click here for a schedule of upcoming films. For more information on FRAME BY FRAME, visit the film’s website for more information.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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AFF Retro: GIALLO FANTASTIC: THE EDITOR Slashes Into the Notorious Italian Horror Genre With Blood and Humor

Posted on: Mar 26th, 2015 By:

EditorPosterTHE EDITOR (2014); Dirs. Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy; Starring Paz de la Huerta, Udo Kier, Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Giallo is a firecracker of a word. Sure, for most people, it doesn’t mean anything at all. If you speak Italian, you know giallo means “yellow,” but beyond that it’s just a word. It lies there on the page, dormant. But for the initiated—mostly cinephiles and lovers of pulp (including our ATLRetro editor)—giallo absolutely explodes with meaning. The word doesn’t just deliver a definition, but an entire state of mind. It’s music and color. It’s operatic and sleazy. Giallo is a complete reality, flung forward from a skuzzier past.

THE EDITOR, a new horror-comedy screened at the Atlanta Film Festival and presented by Buried Alive Film Festival, is drunk on giallo. The movie takes pains to replicate the peculiar charms of a 1970s Italian slasher film, hilariously sending up the genre’s goofier tendencies. It’s all here—the bad dubbing, the hilariously on-the-nose exposition, improbable moustaches. But multi-hyphenate creators Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy (who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film) aren’t satisfied with an easy genre spoof. Beneath the corny riffs on Italian machismo and candy-red blood lies a vein of deep strangeness in THE EDITOR. Any homemade fan film can walk and talk giallo, but THE EDITOR’s beating heart pumps pure yellow.

Editor-740x493Our moustachioed protagonist is Rey Ciso (Brooks), the titular editor who once had a promising career in prestige cinema before a freak accident cost him his fingers. Now Ciso, sporting a set of wooden replacement fingers, toils in the mucky world of low-budget slashers, searching for sublime truth in the jump cuts between a swinging axe and its doomed target. As fate would have it, life soon begins to imitate art, actors start dropping to a serial murderer, and Ciso finds himself living inside the type of film that he so thanklessly cuts. Even worse, missing fingers on the victims lead the presiding detective (Kennedy) to suspect that Ciso is cutting much more than film.

THE EDITOR is the latest genre exercise from ASTRON-6, a Winnipeg-based outfit who’ve staked claim on film festival midnight slots with romps like MANBORG (2011, which screened at Buried Alive) and FATHER’S DAY (2011). Over this cycle, Astron-6 perfected the art of taking a genre apart and reassembling it to suit their needs; with a bit more grain on their image, there would be little to distinguish THE EDITOR from the kinds of movies that it’s aping. Their style of meticulous homage jives with a larger trend in the indie scene that includes movies like BLACK DYNAMITE (2009) and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011), films use camera tricks and careful craftsmanship to copy the cheapo feel of yesterday’s trash cinema. The irony, of course, is that those old movies looked crappy on accident. Bargain filmmakers of the 70s and 80s would have flipped for today’s clean and easy digital technology, but guys like Brooks and Kennedy are working harder to look worse, rejecting the digital sameness often found in the independent scene in favor of styles that made even the worst films teem with an inner life.

the-editor-toronto-film-festivalNot everything lands perfectly with THE EDITOR. An actress’s hysterical blindness gets easy laughs; a running gag showing the male characters slapping their girlfriends does not. The movie also loses its narrative momentum somewhere in the middle, lingering perhaps a bit too long for audiences who get tired of the surface-level spoof. But a shorter run time would rob THE EDITOR of its best idea. Simply pointing at giallo’s singular tics would have made the film an empty execution of style—basically, an extended sketch. Where THE EDITOR earns its credentials is the sheer insanity it gets up to in its late stages as Ciso—who may very well be going insane—begins to question his own innocence, existence, and role in the murders. Haunted by the loss of a colleague, Ciso takes a bizarre inward journey through the cinema he loves, crawling into his editing machine, wandering through the landscapes of celluloid and peering out through the screen at those who would edit him. I

t turns out that there are real existential ideas at the heart of THE EDITOR, and the movie’s abject weirdness that elevates it to the surreal terrain that the best of the old giallo films sometimes played in. I’m not certain these sequences make sense, or that an already too-long movie absolutely needed them, but I do have the distinct feeling that I liked them, and that’s always the first rule of giallo—give the people what they want.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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RETRO AFF PREVIEW: Satanic Panic Strikes Back: 666 Questions (OK, Only 9) with Eddie Ray

Posted on: Mar 25th, 2015 By:


Satanic Panic 2 poster
SATANIC PANIC 2: BATTLE OF THE BANDS (2015); Dir. Eddie Ray; Writer Max Fisher; Starring Matthew Gallo, Marlinda Phillips, Kevin Vickery, Cherry Delrosario; Friday, March 27 @ 6:30pm; 7 Stages; Tickets $10; Trailer
here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

On Friday night, the Atlanta Film Festival is going to unleash a Satanic Panic.

I’m talking about the band, of course. The brainchild of local filmmaker and Kool Kat Eddie Ray, Satanic Panic is a world famous dance band who happens to throw their allegiance in with the Dark One himself, at least as long as the cameras are watching. After barely surviving a brush with real Satanists in their first short film, the band’s new adventure is taking the AFF stage.

We asked Eddie if he’d answer 666 questions, and well, he answered nine about the band, the movie, and that time he was mistaken for a Satanist.

ATLRetro: Where did Satanic Panic come from? Do you remember when you first got the idea?

Eddie Ray: The original concept came from me and a friend of mine named Matt Gallo. He plays B. Elza Bob in both films. We were watching JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, and I said what about a Satanic Dance Band? Then we both got really excited about the characters and the concept for the first one and I sat down and wrote it. We came up with characters and costumes pretty fast. The sequel was written and directed by me and Max Fisher.

This is the second Satanic Panic adventure. How would you sum it up for people who may not have seen the original?

The first one is about a band called Satanic Panic, and they are the number 1 band on the planet. Their dance songs are about Satan and all things unholy, but offstage they are just normal people who are not into that Satan shit at all. They are just about the money. Their producer, Dick Dano, is up to no good and adds a subliminal message to one of their songs “6-6-Sexy” that tells real Satan Worshippers that they need to sacrifice the band. Luckily the Government steps in and forces Satanic Panic to secretly work for them. Now the chase is on. Why does Dick Dano want them sacrificed? Will the Satan Worshippers get them? Will Satanic Panic still be the number 1 band on the planet and government spies?

Satanic Panic stomp on a Satanist in SATANIC PANIC 2: BATTLE OF THE BANDS (2015).

Satanic Panic stomp on a Satanist in SATANIC PANIC 2: BATTLE OF THE BANDS (2015).

A new band, When Tempers Flare, is challenging Satanic Panic. Are These The Misfits to Satanic Panic’s Jem and the Holograms? Where does the new band stand on the Satan issue?

Yes, When Tempers Flare is out to get Satanic Panic! They are The Misfits to Satanic Panic’s Jem for sure. When Tempers Flare is tough, and they don’t take no shit from nobody. Especially from no honkeys. They are not into Satan or Satanic Panic at all, and they want to be Number 1. Satanic Panic now has one more thing to worry about. An evil female rap group! The girls who play them are amazing, too.

These characters seem like spoofs on the 1980s, back when people saw Satanists everywhere, especially in the music industry. Were you trying to flip the script by putting the Satanists in the suburbs?

Totally, in the ’80s and early ’90s there was a “Satanic Panic” going on. Everyone was afraid they were going to be sacrificed or killed by Satan worshippers. I remember the principal in my school coming over the loud speaker saying there will be no talk of Satan in this school because the day before some cheerleader got a death threat from a “Satan Worshipper.” They literally brought people, who they thought might be Satan worshippers, up to the office to be interviewed. Even me! I was so offended. I wore a lot of black because it was fucking slimming. Let’s be real. The principal said this to me, “we know you worship Satan, son, tell us!” I just said, “Call my fucking mother!” I am serious. I was pissed. They called her, and she came up there and raised hell! She was like my son is not a goddamn Satanist! Haha. We found out days later it was a jock that sent the death threat to the cheerleader because she didn’t put out. I am serious. There were no Satan worshippers. I love that story though. Haha.

When Tempers Flare.

When Tempers Flare.

In a recent podcast, you talked about planning out the story beyond the current film. Is there a planned conclusion, or will Satanic Panic keep going for as long as you’re interested?

Yes, while we were writing and filming part 1, we were talking about part 2 and 3. Max Fisher and I know what happen in part 3. We knew the ending for 3 while doing part 1. Yes, there is an ending! The ending is amazing too. Well we think so. YOU WILL LAUGH AND SHIT YOUR PANTS!!!!!

Did you feel any pressure to try and top the first film’s humor and insanity?

I don’t know about pressure, but sequels should always be bigger and better than the first. They should change and take you in new directions and not be the same as the first films. Throw some surprises in there so you and the audience stay interested. Keep shit fun! When Tempers Flare keeps things fun for sure in part 2. There are a few more surprises, too. You will seeeeeeeee. The cast and crew do such an amazing job in the sequel they will blow your mind! Me and Max Fisher really gave you all the bells, whistles and cartwheels in this film.

Satanists conspire via seance to bring down Satanic Panic.

Satanists conspire via seance to bring down Satanic Panic.

The Satanic Panic music videos are key moments in the films. What’s the process for developing the music? Do the songs influence the script, or do the scripts determine the songs?

I think it’s both. In the first film we show their music video for “6-6-Sexy” and how crazy and violent it is. Then later right before they shoot their music for “I Put A Hex On My Ex,” their real lives turn crazy and violent. So now their real lives become their music videos. That continues in part 2. Life imitates art and vice versa. I love how music influences all our lives and our emotions in the real world. Dan Foley writes our music, and he is a genius. Without his music, we would be lost.

These films resemble live-action cartoons, with bright color and madcap, rapid-style humor. Would you say your work at Adult Swim influenced your style?

I think so, in some ways. I think I came to Adult Swim because of those reasons to begin with. I love cartoons and animation, and I view life through those eyes. I wish people walked around with big hair and bright costumes.  The world would be more fun for sure. My office at Adult Swim looks like a Tiki Hut. I like to pretend I work on the beach in a SCOOBY DOO episode.

satpan2-indulgeAre there any ideas you just deemed too out there for these films? Or just too difficult to shoot? If so, care to share one?  

I don’t know if we ever think anything is too much. I always say, “Too much? Umm not enough!” Fight scenes are always difficult to shoot. If we had the money or time, we would’ve had everyone on fuckin’ wires flying around kicking and punching like in THE MATRIX probably. That would’ve been amazing.  I also wish we had the band getting out of a helicopter.

SATANIC PANIC 2: BATTLE OF THE BANDS plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on Friday, March 27, @ 6:30 pm. Click here for more details.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

Category: Features, Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Retro Review: In ERASERHEAD, Everything Is Fine: A Lynch Classic Lurks into Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 26th, 2015 By:

MPW-30819ERASERHEAD (1977); Dir. David Lynch; Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts and Laurel Near; Tuesday, March 3 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Landmark Midtown Art Cinema continues its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with ERASERHEAD, the debut feature from one of this country’s most iconoclastic and distinctive filmmakers, David Lynch. Though made with an almost non-existent budget and shot over the course of five years, it quickly became one of the defining films of the “Midnight Movie” circuit and established Lynch as a singular artist with a visual strength and innovative storytelling style that must be reckoned with.

First, a summary: The Man in the Planet pushes a lever and things go into motion. Grey, desolate cityscapes. Harsh concrète pulses of industrial noise interspersed with the jaunty organ music of Fats Waller. Flickering lights in the hallway. Henry Spencer, a man with a questionable hairstyle. A family dinner with a bleeding, miniature roast chicken. “They’re new!” A revelation. “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” Something that looks like a goat fetus swaddled in bandages. The Lady in the Radiator. “In Heaven, everything is fine.” Crying. Oh, the crying. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. Visions. We have a title. Scissors. Confrontation. Explosions. An embrace. And despite the Man in the Planet’s attempts, those levers will not go back. No way to slow down.

There is no effective way to critically assess a movie like ERASERHEAD. It just exists, monolithic. Even discussing the making of the movie is a faulty way to approach the film. It’s too mundane. Too workaday. Is it interesting that Lynch filmed it while on an AFI scholarship and used their campus as filming locations? That it took over five years to complete and that he shot it around his schedule as a newspaper delivery boy? That star Jack Nance’s then-wife, assistant director Catherine “The Log Lady” Coulson helped fund it by donating her entire salary as a waitress? That nobody will speak of the nature or construction of the baby prop? Perhaps. But none of that is nearly as interesting as the movie itself.

eraserhead2You can try to analyze it and its symbols, but as David Lynch has always been such a closed book when it comes to discussing his own work, that approach depends entirely on what you bring to the table. Is it a horror movie about the terror a parent faces when an unwanted child is brought into the world? Sure! Why not? It’s an easy read of the text. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d say if you were to attempt to summarize the plot in a linear fashion. But try to tie that to a theory that this reflected Lynch’s mindset at the time, and that’s all on you. Lynch isn’t talking, and he’s never going to tell you that you’re right. For all you know, he thought the movie was high comedy. From on-set reports, that’s precisely what he thought about the Dennis Hopper/Isabella Rossellini scenes in BLUE VELVET, and those are freaking harrowing. No, the only way to approach the film on any interpretive level is to take the postmodern stance that the “meaning” of any work of art is dependent entirely on the viewer. And for what it’s worth, Lynch is completely on board with that. You come to it with the baggage you bring, and you walk away from it eyeing your baggage suspiciously.

Universally speaking, and without getting into personal interpretation, the only thing I can do is insist that you undertake this experience without hesitation, and try to relate to you the film’s ugly beauty. The production design is incredible, and Lynch establishes early on that he is expert at bringing on board cinematographers who can translate his inner visions to celluloid. ERASERHEAD is photographed beautifully. What it captures is often bleak, horrifying and miserable, but depicted with incredible detail and economy. Though the film presents incredibly unpleasant themes and sets its sights on incredibly unpleasant visuals, it does so with such a striking aesthetic impact that you cannot help but appreciate the care, passion and technical precision and accomplishment behind every frame. Lynch, trained as a painter, knows how to work effectively within a frame and does so with a remarkable style and uniform visual sense.

eraserhead-645-75What’s more striking, though, is how this single work has come to define David Lynch as a filmmaker. Even more than his many early short films, this is the lynchpin (and may the Man in the Planet strike me dead for making that pun) for all of his subsequent works. The unnerving sense of “is this supposed to be funny?” bubbling up from the depths of the darkest sequences. Trademark visual motifs (figures emerging from shadows, the unreliability of electric light sources), storytelling elements (the blurring of dream and reality, odd chanteuses appearing at crucial moments to perform for us), visual composition (alternating black-and-white set design, long establishing shots, seemingly random inserts) and sound design (ever-present ambient noise, strangely anachronistic musical score) all find their wellspring here. Even in casting, Lynch’s oeuvre is tied together by this film, in which he first cast his most frequently-used actor, the late Jack Nance as Henry Spencer. Nance’s distinctive presence and oddball style made him a perfect choice for many subsequent cult films, and Lynch continued to use him in nearly all of his subsequent features (save for THE ELEPHANT MAN) until Jack Nance’s death in 1996.

Frank Zappa coined the notions of “conceptual continuity” and the “Project/Object,” in which he posited that all of his work—every album, song, interview, etc.—was all part of the same Big Work of Art that he was eternally designing as he went along. In a way, this is true of Lynch’s work as well. You could spend days going back and forth about the concepts of identity in his films and how MULHOLLAND DR. is the feminine flip side to the male-dominated diabolism of LOST HIGHWAY, and how all of that relates to the shifting and blurring definition of “self” in INLAND EMPIRE. You could follow the threads of adultery and its repercussions that pop up with regularity throughout his work. You could focus on the almost religious reverence he consistently devotes to the physically aberrant. And you could easily use any of those examinations to tie all of his work together as one big Project/Object. But you’d be hard pressed to do so without coming to the conclusion that it all comes together perfectly in one spot and flows out from that source: ERASERHEAD.

Or maybe not. It’s kinda up to you.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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