Wednesday, March 13, 2013

House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films

(Kier-La Janisse, 2012)
This book's fantastically ambitious agenda is all there in the title: Janisse aims to situate trash-horror and art-horror representations of crazy women within the narrative of her own crazy life as a means of explaining their worth and import, and does so 'topographically' - by surveying the entire terrain rather than privileging any one route to enlightenment. The approach is valid and overdue, the personal narrative is compellingly told, and the volume of information and insight into the individual films discussed is invaluable in and of itself. One does wish, however, that it had the benefit of one more rigorous re-drafting, because much of the time the pieces don't quite hang together. Janisse is to be commended for rejecting the 'academic' approach as such in her intro, but given this - and considering the compelling first-person storytelling of the confessional content - it's curious and disorienting that her diction keeps shifting to passive voice in the discussion of the films themselves. This schism reinforces the feeling of the book being two separate things, especially since the anchoring of individual films in her life narrative is tenuous at best; one wants more impassioned celebration and less plot summary, especially since the latter is given a generous 150 pages of appendix. Only in the discussion of cinematic self-harm does one feel the passion that imbues her tales from the trenches. Still, this is a solid (and gorgeously-appointed) step toward a non-alienated approach to genre film criticism, and it follows a compellingly independent moral compass that one is pleased to engage and, on occasion, argue with.

Termini Station

(Allan King, 1989)
This attempt at Tennessee Williams North flunks hard first of all because after a decade of dramatic filmmaking King still can't direct comedy to save his life. Sour and bellicose, his actors trample all over a significance-sodden script that begs for salvation by finesse, and when they do attempt a lighter touch, the moody vagueness of the cinematography renders their efforts near-invisible. This tale of everyday cruelty and shades of failure in semi-urban northern Ontario aims to render daily life poetically, marrying social satire and psychological melodrama while pulling the curtain back on an array of big issues - repression, sexism, racism, suicide, psychological abuse, elder neglect. But King has no feel for this milieu, and the dirty words and unenlightened banter sound like they're being recited out of a textbook. Play-acting the angry young woman archetype, Megan Follows does well on the occasions when she's not instructed to bellow, and Colleen Dewhurst's 'symbolic' grandma is mainly an occasion for frustrated pity. But the key to the movie's failure is Hanna Lee's sad, stupid sex worker - all her info is nonverbal, and King can't get anywhere near her to let us in on her truths. Because of this nagging lack of intimacy, the critiques of rednecks and airheads feel like alienated cheap shots. Overwhelmingly banal themes shouted with a scowl, decorated by flashback digressions that don't work and yet another atrocious musical score.


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
More than anything else, this film is a document of a master filmmaker in crisis. At the peak of his powers, none of his perfectly realized entertainment devices seem to mean anything anymore. So the typically expert, breezily vernacular performances are awash in a sea of forlorn, solitary meandering; the 'mystery' of the narrative is constantly discredited as a meaningless diversion; and, in the world-historic masterstroke, the surrogate protagonist's pursuit of obsessive love is suddenly and permanently interrupted by the perspective of the distressed, used, abandoned love object, who just wants to be accepted for who she is. In Kim Novak's eyes, James Stewart's lonely quest for feminine perfection is as inhuman as the unattainable apparition she had presented as in the earlier scenes - the gap is never bridged, and the self-doubt is overwhelming as Hitchcock parallels Stewart's unspeakably solitary cruelty to his own life work of managing presentations and manipulating the vulnerabilities of needy, beautiful people. But while he's wracked with doubt, he's still the greatest filmmaker alive with ready access to the greatest film craftspeople alive, so that his soul-searching takes on an almost unbelievable wholeness of form and texture. Before our eyes, he's turning his demons into the template of high-art cinema that would sustain the medium for the rest of the century, but impressive as that is, it's not why this deserves to be called the greatest movie ever made. It deserves it because it calls into question the adequacy of its own greatness, because it knows that Kim Novak's soul is greater still.

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Once again, Tarantino sets out to prove the redemptive power of trash cinema by brazenly applying his glibly aestheticized carnage to a real-life historical atrocity - a provocation by design, and one that positively counts on pissed-off guardians of truth to react against it to complete the effect. Christoph Waltz's brilliantly fleshy performance as a mercenary Jewish abolitionist at once exemplifies the film's deeply eccentric tribute to the spaghetti western and serves as a kind of surrogate for Tarantino's own complex relationship to the subject matter. DiCaprio is also fine as an unexpectedly dimensional slave master - although his phrenological musings seem like a gratuitous demonstration that Quentin did some research. Jamie Foxx's love-torn fugitive slave, on the other hand, is neither dimensional nor complex - he's a force of nature, a symbol of righteous vengeance. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it puts him at a dramatic disadvantage - he's just not as interesting as the characters who are actually allowed to be characters. He's not stereotyped, he's archetyped, and the effect is almost as damaging. And that goes double for Kerry Washington's utterly useless, piece-of-meat love interest - a disastrous choice that inadvertently lays bare the moral limits of fealty to trash formula and upsets the balance of the whole movie. Entertaining scene for scene, but the episodic structure tilts away from Inglourious Basterds' visionary impact toward mere capriciousness, and for such a maestro of violence he seems to have serious difficulty striking a consistent tone for his bloodbaths - cathartic one minute, ironic the next.