Showing posts with label film history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film history. Show all posts

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flicker by Theodore Roszak

Repost from 2009.

Theodore Roszak's 1991 novel Flicker concerns a young academic named Jonathan Gates and his spiraling obsession with an obscure German horror filmmaker named Max Castle. Castle was one of many Germans who came to Hollywood after World War I. Due to his obscure religion and the handlers from the religion that came along with him to Hollywood, Castle was eventually reduced to directing trashy, incoherent horror films after being dismissed as "difficult to work with." Castle was rumored to have died in a plane crash over the ocean at the age of 42. The novel follows Gates for roughly 20 years in his hunt for information about Castle, Castle's religion, and the lost or uncut versions of his films. Roszak does show off his history degrees by having Castle's religion tied to the Knights Templar, as well as being knowledgeable about film history. It is only when Gates begins to ironically preach about the films that are now considered cult classics, but were midnight movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how they are bringing about the downfall of the world does the novel start to lose hold. It is that Gates never resolves his opinion of the cult movies of the 1960s and 1970s, nor is self-aware enough to know that he is obsessed with them and that his work on Castle may have partially brought these films about (at least in this fictional world, Roszak almost fully ignores the real-world events of the 1960s and 1970s in the novel), as well as his obsession with a young director also in Castle's religion who is making nihilistic "cult"-type films. Roszak seems to be implying that these types of films will bring about the downfall of the world, either overtly or subtly, but if that is the message, then it is extremely muddled.



Roszak barely covers how the Vietnam War, the impeachment of Nixon, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and how these events effected the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is only treated in tertiary and occasionally humorous terms on why Gates was not drafted into the Vietnam War. But overall, these historic events are not given any coverage in Flicker. Considering that academic writing correlating the tragic events of the 1960s and 1970s with the edgier films of this time period did not emerge until the early-mid 1980s, Roszak may have cleverly averted the historical issues and their relation to films with good reason, considering the state Gates is narrating from by the end of the novel. Roszak makes a few clever set-ups throughout Flicker, things that are likely meant to annoy some readers for much of the novel, but eventually have some sort of pay-off. This includes Gates’ habit of sleeping with every woman that is introduced into the book. This aspect quickly became annoying to me, but Roszak has this as a part of the book for a reason, even if it is for purely contrasting reasons, as to eventually show how far Gates has become obsessed with Max Castle and his religion, the Orphans of the Storm.






Towards the end of the novel, he correctly equates himself to Joseph Cotten’s naïve character in The Third Man. Gates is perhaps not the most compelling or smartest character in the world, which is at a detriment to the story, whether it is an homage to The Third Man or not (side note: Orson Welles does make an appearance in the novel, as does John Huston via letter). While Flicker is in part a detective story (that takes about half of the book to get to), Gates spends the first half of the novel relying on one woman to teach him what he should think of film and film history. His obsession with Castle creates a break in this relationship, but he still trusts and relies on others too much, which is another factor in his downfall.


The character of Jonathan Gates may be a more modern take of Doctor Faustus. Gates does everything short of selling his soul to the Devil to acquire more knowledge on a single film director. It takes him around the world, and in the end, he loses what little he had to begin with. Like Faustus, Gates does not use his knowledge to benefit himself in any way. Although he is able to sleep with every woman he encounters, whereas Faustus is only given that option (such as it was in the sixteenth century), his friends encourage him to use his knowledge and his stature as an expert on this one director to gain tenure at UCLA, yet he continues this obsession because he thinks he can write a book once he figures everything out. His friends know that this obsession is going to lead to Gates’ end, and that according to the majority of the characters in this novel, searching for Castle’s films may not be the noblest cause to begin with. The main question Flicker seems to ask is if film has the ability to mask evil images and ideas either layered under the film’s main image in the print or within a film’s flicker, and if these “evil” images and ideas hidden within films can cause evil in people or in the world. Of course, this question is never resolved.


A stereotypical Robinson Crusoe device is used for the ending. It is a somewhat pampered Crusoe device, but a device nonetheless. Although I guess there are only so many ways to end a novel that heavily concerns conspiracy theories attached to a secret religion, but placing the narrator on an island is not the most compelling ending.













Flicker seems to have had an influence on a few films that have come out in the past few years. Cigarette Burns, one of the episodes in the first season of the television series Masters of Horror, concerned a young and troubled repertory film theater owner and his commissioned search for a film only screened once because it caused an entire audience to go insane and burn down the theater it was being screened in at a film festival. The search for the film of course leads the man on a dangerous path. Directed by John Carpenter, Cigarette Burns is both the most worthwhile episode in the Masters of Horror series and possibly the only worthwhile film Carpenter has made in the past 10-15 years. As a side note, Cigarette Burns was one of the first episodes of the 2-3 season series (at least if you count its major network-spinoff show Fear Itself), however, Masters of Horror got progressively worse from the end of its first season and into its second season. Carpenter’s second season episode, Pro-Life, is completely awful and preposterous. The recent DVD release The Hills Run Red follows a documentary film student and his friends as they try to hunt down the director and a print of a horror film called The Hills Run Red. The film was only screened once, immediately banned, and all prints were thought to be destroyed. While the first 45 minutes or so of The Hills Run Red are interesting in that it tries to subvert the typical horror film tropes, it fails in that the last 30-45 minutes return to other horror film tropes. It’s a shame really because the film, the film-within-the-film, and the film-within-within-the-film feature the creepy slasher Babyface. But The Hills Run Red and the documentary film inside of it do not focus on Babyface, and instead try to make the first two films a character drama, and a somewhat weak one at that. None of the characters are written or developed well enough to affect the audience when bad things start happening to them. This means that the filmmakers stuck to the biggest horror trope of them all. Not that sticking with Babyface would have likely been much better, but he was perhaps the only pitiable character in the films. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglorious Basterds shares a theory that Flicker puts forth. Lt. Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), the British soldier and film critic espouses the theory that while German Expressionist films of the 1920s reflected German’s damaged psyche post-WWI, it also weakened them and allowed the rise of Hitler. Of course, Flicker adds to it that secret images and messages may have been added to these films to allow that.


What Jonathan Gates and the protagonist of The Hills Run Red have in common in that both seem to pursue their obsessions with their one “lost” film director as a hope that in the end, they will also find themselves. While this idea is directly expressed by the protagonist in The Hills Run Red, we’re not given enough background on him for it to be compelling or valid. The same idea is not directly expressed in Flicker, but it would make sense for a person like Gates, who basically spends half of the book in the shadow of a smarter and eventually more successful woman, to attach himself to a cause so he can find himself and achieve his own success. Gates really does not have much of a personality, is not very bright, and it is frankly hard to accept him as a character to follow for 600 pages.


When Jonathan Gates compares himself to Holly Valens, Joseph Cotten’s character in The Third Man, it is not a totally correct assessment. Holly’s quest in The Third Man is yes, naïve, but almost completely unselfish. He wants to clear his old friend’s name. Even when his old friend turns out not to be an upstanding citizen, Holly does what is considered the moral thing. Valens has his own career, and has not seen his friend Harry Lime for several years when The Third Man opens. Throughout the story, it is his intention to be the good old moralistic American hero in the film, not to find himself. Holly has the elements of being a lost man-child, although on the surface he is too old and too well-dressed for it by modern standards. He comes to Vienna for a job with Harry, although what sort of job is not revealed until much later. His only reason for seeking work is probably because he is bored with writing cheap pulp western novels, and because he misses his old friend. This displays a sharp contrast of the men and young men in Flicker and The Hills Run Red. The Third Man takes place after the end of World War II. Flicker opens in the late 1950s while Gates is in college, and American culture is changing just as much as film culture, with each affecting the other and vice versa (although Roszak does not acknowledge this). Film criticism, especially post-war European criticism is beginning to be taken seriously, and film studies programs are opening up at universities. Within a decade, it is okay for people to say things like “I’m trying to find myself.” Cut to almost a decade into the new millennium, and a young person’s search for the self becomes intertwined with the mega nerdy fanboy era and the need to discover and revive the most obscure film objects for glory and a place in obscure film history books, or at least Wikipedia. Reviving lost art, literature, and film is nothing new and often results into the formerly lost works becoming canon, especially if the works were by a member of a marginalized group of people (i.e., not white heterosexual males). Flicker, first published in 1991, predates the meteoric rise of director Quentin Tarantino, a man who has almost single-handedly revived obscure genre films and brought them to the public, albeit usually indirectly. Besides his former Quentin Tarantino presents video series, just his endorsement of an ultra obscure film will cause a cheapo DVD boxed set to be produced by a company willing to cash in without providing quality DVD transfers, but wanting to cram as many supposed-Tarantino-endorsed films as possible onto 3-4 discs and sell them all in a boxed set for $15-20 at Best Buy. Finding and reviving these films are for a niche market. How would one find themselves in such a project? It shows how much the world has changed since the 1940s that one has the ridiculous combination of privilege, egotism, and naïveté to believe that they can discover who they are by trying to uncover a “lost” film or director.


What Flicker merely touches on, and Cigarette Burns and Hills Run Red do not, is that it is normally works of art by marginalized peoples that become part of the canon after they have been rediscovered. Max Castle is somewhat marginalized because of his ancient, obscure, and secretive religion, and his religion’s dark influence over his films. But part of the conspiracy Jonathan Gates is trying to uncover in the novel is the Orphans of the Storm’s attempts to use film as a way to make their views become mainstream, and Gates’ work on Castle, conspiracy aside, does allow Castle’s work to become somewhat canon, even if on a cult level. Since all of the protagonists in these three stories succeed in their individual goals at a terrible price, these stories imply that searching for “lost” films for purely selfish or egotistical reasons is a path to destruction on its own, nevermind the films.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Repost from 2011.

Dir. Amy Holden-Jones || 1982 || USA

For the next month, I'm going to be writing about the Slumber Party Massacre series of films, along with Sorority House Massacre. The Slumber Party Massacre series, along with the first Sorority House Massacre film, were all written and directed by women. The films were also distributed by two Roger Corman companies, New World, then Concorde (or New Concorde). Corman also produced all but the first Slumber Party Massacre film.


Slumber Party Massacre is considered the godmother of feminist horror films. Some credit it as being the inspiration for Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, although the film is mentioned only a few times throughout the course of the book (Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and I Spit on Your Grave are given more consideration). The film is notable as being  the first slasher film written and directed by women. Feminist author Rita Mae Brown co-wrote the script with Amy Holden Jones, who also directed. The film focuses on a group of high school girls that are on the basketball team together who have a slumber party for "old times sake" while the lead girl, Trish Devereaux's parents are out of town. Of course, that very weekend, a serial killer has escaped from prison. Brown and Jones intended it as a parody of slasher films, which in 1982, was still doing well as a genre, although there were already at least two parodies out, Student Bodies and Wacko. At some point, Jones decided to shoot the film as straight-forward, although there are a few amusing moments throughout the film. Brown later disowned the film claiming that the film added more to the problem rather than turning slasher films on its head, while Jones claims in the documentary Going to Pieces: the Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film that she remains proud of the film.

I think the feminism, as well as the horror and the humor in Slumber Party Massacre is more in the little details rather than the big picture. Upon second viewing, I forgot how T&A filled this film is, and between watching the second film and reading a little about the third film so far, it is my understanding that the T&A becomes less gratuitious and copious as the series wears on. Since the first SPM comes roughly 14 years after the height of the Second Wave feminist movement, it's a bit bizarre having to wonder if the braless-ness is due to feminism or due to wanting to appeal to guys. In retrospect, it seems like one of the rare times feminism and sex appeal intersect, but in the odd realm of the time before Third Wave feminism where people were sometimes more comfortably combining the two (of course this makes me wonder why bra burning is still not considered a tenet of feminism, whereas not shaving and constantly talking about not shaving is considered a rite of passage for most baby feminists). Watching the basketball scene early on in the film, I noticed both the braless-ness (logically, wouldn't that chafe while playing sports?) and that the actresses were perhaps not that great at pretending to play basketball, although most of the actresses are tall. Even with all the bouncing and nudity, the film still occasionally carries the air of an old Summer's Eve commercial.

Then there are the other little details. Besides the fact the film is about a girls basketball team, which is rare not just in horror films, but in other types of films; the film also features a telephone repairwoman and a general handywoman. All the girls seem obsessed with sports statistics, a point driven home quite often throughout the film. The most petite member of the team flips her much larger boyfriend after he sneaks up on her. The ostracized new girl, Valerie, and her younger sister Courtney, read Playgirl while occasionally keeping an eye on Trish's house (signaling that Brown and/or Jones are not anti-porn feminists). Trish did invite Valerie over, but Valerie overheard the snobby petite girl saying mean things about her and declined the invitation. These scenes sort of play as the anti-Carrie, displaying that some teenage girls can be nice and appreciative towards classmates who are talented and pretty and not make everything a competition.

The thing that has stood out for me with both viewings is that once they understand that a killer has been hanging around the house, characters both inside of the house and outside of the house make a valiant attempt to work together so as many people as possible are saved. The two goofy male classmates of the girls who came to the house to spy on the party seem to understand that in their attempt to go find help outside of the house, that they may not make it back alive. They're normal dorky teenage boys, they do not pretend to have machismo. Valerie has an intuition that something is not right and calls their coach as well as checks out the house herself, both from afar and eventually, up close. The film has this communal feel to it in these scenes as well as earlier ones where the girls do not fall trap to the usual horror trope of "I'll be right back, I'm gonna go check out the fusebox in the garage" by having everyone go check the fusebox together. Yeah, the kids do fall victim anyway due to things like not locking the garage door and not keeping all the window and doors in the house closed and locked, but there are interesting attempts to buck the tropes a little.

The humor in the film is somewhat amusing. Throughout the film, there are sort of faux-jump scares. They do not work, but I'm not sure that they were intended to most of the time. This mostly consists of assorted male (and sometimes female) characters coming up behind one of the girls and inadvertently scaring them. The weirdest attempts at humor come towards the end of the film, as one of the girls decides that fear makes her hungry and that eating will make her feel better, and she starts eating a slice of pizza atop the dead pizza delivery guy, much to the disgust of the other girls. There's also the scene where a girl searches for a suitable deadly and threatening tool in the basement, and charges up the stairs with a plugged-in circular saw.

I was flipping through my copy of Clover's book, and she mentions in the afterword that a lot of horror filmmakers do read Freud, and that some other directors had changed their films a bit after reading the first and early-released chapter of her book, including the director of Slumber Party Massacre III. So yes, everyone knows that the drill that the killer uses is one absurdly huge phallic symbol. As is the machete that one of the girls uses to dispatch the killer. While I haven't read Clover's book in years, I have the vague remembrance that she discusses the sort of fluid sexualities of most slasher film killers. I think the killer in SPM is perhaps no exception. Yes, he kills a couple of women at first, but for a good stretch of the film, he mostly kills males. However, there is the feeling that he is killing the males just to be able to get to the girls easier. The killer is psychotic to the point where he kills a person in a front yard, so he is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of the girls. I don't think he is telling the males that they are pretty and that he loves them and that is why he has to kill them, but then again, Brown and Jones do not have him utter a word until the final scene of the film.

Slumber Party Massacre is not the greatest slasher film, but it is an interesting one and deserves its place in horror history. The characters are likeable. The way the film is shot is gritty and more technically adventurous than most female directors' first films. While perhaps not a straight parody, it has a lot of different details to it and it was attempting to buck the tropes a decade or two before the most recent horror trend of neo-slashers playing with the tropes and usually with middling success.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

(Film) books, check 'em ouuuuuuuuut!

Repost from 2011, pre-grad school days. I re-read the two middle books at least twice during the course of my graduate education. The nitpicking may still stand, but I can discuss the theoretical issues with the two books pretty well when I want to.
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Here are some of the film books I was reading a month or so ago. Other than the Jonathan Lethem book, I felt the need to start out with some classics and basics

Feminist Film Theorists (Routeledge Critical Thinkers Series) - Shohini Chaudhuri
I think the number one thing I learned from this book is of the divide in early feminist film criticism that was American (sociological) versus British (psychological). And for the most part, this book puts forth the more psychological theorists. It's a minor fact, but it sort of explains why I do not absorb the psychological aspects too well. I was very close to minoring in sociology during various points in college as well. This book is mostly good as a starting point, but not much else.




Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle - Vera Dika
This was released roughly a year before Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover's book is more in-depth. Dika has some fleeting good ideas and it's not too bogged down with psychological theories; but it's a basic book that monotonously outlines the monotony of slasher/stalker films by discussing the plots of about a dozen films; in particular the Jamie Lee Curtis ouevre. Dika's jumping off point is Psycho, but from there she goes straight to Halloween, while only giving passing and brief references to Peeping Tom and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My problem with this book and Clover's book is that it skips over Black Christmas. I do not know the history of Black Christmas past what Wikipedia tells us, and it wasn't a film I remember seeing around often in video stores when I was a kid and teenager. Was Black Christmas that obscure? Did Dika ignore it because it was Canadian or because it had an experienced cast in John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea; a post-Sisters, pre-Superman Margot Kidder, and a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin? Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas do not completely fit in the checklist of plot occurrences that Dika outlines for the films she discusses in this book, but neither does Psycho. By and large, The Burning seems to be more obscure than Black Christmas, yet that film receives a section in this book.

Other issues I had with this book: the frequent misspellings and typos. She misspells Steven Spielberg's name quite often. It was also hard to tell whether or not Dika was approaching these films from a feminist POV (and then a feminist POV as to whether or not slasher films can be feminist). And the way she used a Freudian binary system to declare characters as valued or devalued did not sit well with me. It's not a terrible book, but it has some issues that made me twitch.


Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film - Carol J. Clover
I have read this book twice now and in regards to the first book I reviewed in this post, I am perhaps still finding trouble absorbing most of the psychological criticism in this book. The only thing I feel as if I better absorbed this time around was the chapter on possession films and the chapter on the sort of meta horror films that concern viewing horror films (Peeping Tom, Demons). I did check out a lot of the films mentioned since having first read this book in 2006, like the oft-mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, I checked out so many of these films that I could parse out some of Clover's mistakes (wrong dates, the implication that Motel Hell was inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 when Motel Hell was released six years before that sequel - also TCM2 is a terrible movie and I don't understand why anyone would want to write at length about it). I can't get too mad at Clover about them though, because for one thing, she's an expert in something like Nordic history. Film is not her primary academic interest, although the dates thing bugs me a bit because most VHS boxes back in the day did have dates on them, and it's not that hard to figure out dates from the roman numerals on copyrights at the end of films. And again, nary a word on Black Christmas, although at least Clover does cover Peeping Tom extensively. Also, for better or for worse, I can't shake off the fact that it is acknowledged by Clover herself in the Afterword that the writer of Slumber Party Massacre 3 changed the story significantly after reading the first chapter of her book, which was released in an academic journal in 1987; making for that film's ugly and brutal third act three years later.


Proof of my marginalia in Men, Women, and Chainsaws.




Deep Focus #1: A Novel Approach to Cinema: They Live - Jonathan Lethem

They Live is the first book in a new series of books published by Soft Skull press that allows fiction writers to discuss their favorite films. I haven't read any other books in the series yet, so I don't know if all the other writers take the same approach as Lethem. Lethem writes about John Carpenter's They Live on a almost shot-by-shot or scene-by-scene basis, each with a timecode reference. Some scenes receive only a paragraph of discussion, others receive up to four pages. It took me awhile to get used to this approach as I was sort of expecting something akin to the short books the British Film Institute publishes on films (although it is mostly film critics and academics who write those) that are long essays or treatises on a certain film. But after getting used to Lethem's approach, I found that he does have some interesting things to say about They Live, especially in connection to the art of Jenny Holzer and Shepard Fairey.