Thursday, December 31, 2009

PANDEMIC (2009)

I have a buddy. He loves movies. He's not as picky as I, though, about what he chooses to love. As he has no close family here locally, I have, for some years, now, had him spend the various holi-days with me and mine. He did this year, as usual, and brought a pile of movies to watch, as usual. Generally, he is, to be honest, terrible at picking movies--goes by whatever box cover looks cool. This year was no different. He appeared on Christmas Eve with a large pile of space-wasting genre features, as usual, and, over two days, we nevertheless watched them all, as usual.

One, in particular, stood out as exceptionally awful, a shitty little ditty called PANDEMIC.

How to put it?

One can actually feel oneself getting dumber while watching PANDEMIC, a film seemingly created by complete idiots for an apparently like-minded audience. As it went along, I made little then no effort to resist the nagging temptation to point out its many idiocies. Talking during movies is usually a no-no, but this one was just too much--it was draining some part of my soul. Even my buddy, who, having chosen it, can sometimes become defensive over that sort of thing, laughed at it with me as it went along. It gives me a sharp pain to think someone gave perhaps as much as a few million dollars to the poor fools who made it (the holiday season being an appropriate time for undue mercy, the latter shall remain nameless).

PANDEMIC is a thrill-free thriller about a small town in New Mexico that becomes infected with a disease that kills both livestock and humans. After a horse, a cow, and a rancher become infected and die from it, the town vet gets together with the town coroner and, inspecting the rancher's corpse (with "sterile" gloves left laying openly on the same table as the bloddy, diseased corpse), decide to call the Centers for Disease Control, as officials always do when a disease is so dreadful it kills a cow, a horse, and a rancher.

Within half an hour of their call, a huge military contingent arrives and quarantines the entire town.

As always happens when one calls the CDC, right? Particularly after such a terrible death toll.

The military boys don't seem to be under the command of, say, the President of the United States. They are, instead, under the command of a general who, though not the president, has, we're told, the power to issue executive orders with the force of law to the civilian population! And he does so, we're told repeatedly, under the authority of some conduct code internal to the military. And this internal military conduct code gives him the power to seal off a U.S. town from the entire world. He doesn't just keep people from moving in and out--he cuts off the mail, phone communications with the outside world, including cell phones (quite a trick!), and--horror of horrors!--even turns off the town's cable! This is said to be a town of only a few hundred people, but our veterinarian heroine is seen driving through it, post-quarantine, in one of those awful music-video-inspired existential-crisis-as-montage sequences, and there are perhaps hundreds of cars driving the multi-lane streets. An idiot character included solely for the purpose tells the second-in-command among the military brass that he's been feeling sick, fears he has the disease, has heard rumors that there is a "vaccine," and requests that he be made a test subject for it. A vaccine, of course, is worthless to those who already have a disease, but the colonel in question says there is one, and even gives it to the fellow.

And so on. In the end, the whole thing turns out to be a bio-weapon test, and one is as unsurprised by this generic turn of events as one is wholly unconcerned by it or anything else in the movie by the time it is revealed. It's hard to understate how profoundly bad is PANDEMIC. It has a script that would insult the intelligence of a 12-year-old from the sorriest excuse for a school in the U.S., and those who made it had the money to get Ray Wise and a shitload of military equipment for it (and, I'll admit, the thought that this happens in a world in which I, in an effort to finance my own film project, have had to resort to rubbing quarters together in a vain effort to get them to mate probably didn't enhance my viewing experience, either).

The mind boggles.

But at least it had a cool cover. I suppose.

--j.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Critical Peek At What Some Critical People Wrote About SILIP

Sometime early last year, I got my first look at a 1985 film called SILIP: DAUGHTERS OF EVE. It was a movie I'd bought more-or-less blind when the good people at Mondo Macabro brought it to DVD. My initial impression of the film had been that it was something of a blood-and-thunder masterpiece. A few nights ago, I pulled it off the shelf for a rewatch, and found I enjoyed it even more than the first time around.

The obligatory exposition: SILIP is set in an isolated, seaside Filipino village, and tells the story of Tonya and Selda, two locals who look at the world very differently. Tonya, lost within an extremist version of Catholic dogma, is sexually repressed to the point of near madness. She's harsh, bitter, never smiles, and divides her time between trying to beat back her natural physical urges and trying to indoctrinate the village children in her joyless ways. As the film begins, her childhood friend Selda, who has been living in Manila for some years, returns, those Big City Ways having rubbed off on her. Selda is exactly the opposite of Tonya. She's sexually open, smiles, plays with children, enjoys having fun. The villagers don't much cotton to either of them though, and as Tonya and Selda make their way through a journey of self-discovery, a series of events lead passions to flare, jealousies to erupt, hypocrisies to rear their ugly heads, and our two protagonists meet a terrible, tragic end. The movie is of a genre that, in its native Philippines, came to be called "bold," and it earns the word in every particular. It tells its thoughtful, multi-layered story through a sheen of wall-to-wall nudity, sex and bloodletting that apparently led some to mark it as an exploitation film.

I was going to come here and write about it, but some impulse led me to do a little Googling first. I thought it was a great movie. I was curious as to whether anyone else had thought so. I found a like-minded assessment by Kurt Halfyard at Twitch:

"Speaking without irony or hyperbole, Silip is a bona fide masterpiece."

I can get behind that. The "m" word is overused by people who write about movies. It is, however, entirely appropriate in the case of SILIP. Halfyard has a lot of nice things to say about the film:

"It is not often that this type of essential cinematic discovery comes along..."

...

"Kudos to UK label Mondo Macabro for bringing this intense film out of obscurity and hopefully into a beloved place in cinema history. Surely it belongs beside Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo as one of the defining films that go after the extreme side of the human condition."

...

"Unlike many films labeled as extreme or exploitive cinema, Silip is a meticulously plotted, delicately structured and textured film that finds a sublime balance between thematic depth and shocking (occasionally even absurd) imagery. The two hour plus film wraps it all up in package that speaks volumes about human repression, how people individually and collectively deal with guilt, and the inevitable unleashing of the beast within if things remain bottled or suppressed for too long."

And so on. Halfyard said a lot of what I would have said about the movie if I'd just decided to write a full-scale review of it, and he probably said it better than I would have managed.

Kurt Dahlke wrote about it over at DVDTalk, and he, too, recognized it as something special. Noting that it was being sold as an exploitation film, Dahlke wrote, "I can assure you that Silip is not your usual empty-headed sleaze show," and spoke glowingly of the production. "Bold viewers are Recommended to check it out." Hear, hear.

But some of Dahlke's comments about the theme of the picture suggest some confusion on his part. He talks about its "potentially disagreeable message," and, toward the end, fleshes this out:

"While the 'women are the root of all evil' message is ultimately distasteful, the truths exposed, and the path we're lead down in getting there, consists of quite a sumptuous, sensuous journey."

I wouldn't take issue with Dahlke's agreeable estimation of the film's merits, but the notion that SILIP has as a theme the idea that "women are the root of all evil" suggests he wasn't paying very much attention. In the movie, the villagers do, indeed, come to lay all of their ills at the feet of Tonya and Selda, the two women at the center of the story, but the film makes it very clear they're completely wrong to do so, and Dahlke even makes note of this elsewhere in his review. Imputing a pretty ugly misogynist theme where there really isn't one unfairly tarnishes the movie, and I was left wondering how Dahlke had come to a conclusion he, himself, seemed to refute.

That's when I came to Gordon Sullivan's review, over at DVD Verdict, and immediately realized this is the thing about which I was going to have to write.

Some film critics who come to be seen as a little too smart for their own good often get a lot of ribbing for cooking up overly elaborate interpretations of a movie that have little or no real connection to the intent of those who made the movie, and sometimes that ribbing is, indeed, earned, but far more often it's the product of a basic misunderstanding of the art. Art is almost always subject to multiple interpretations. Producers of the new (awful) V television series, for example, confess surprise that their alien invaders are so widely seen as a metaphor for the ultra-right's insanely paranoid view of the Obama administration, but, watching the show, that interpretation is absolutely unavoidable. The real measure of a proffered interpretation isn't usually the stated intent of the filmmaker, it's whether or not that interpretation is supported by the film itself. V supports the Obama interpretation. Positively begs it, in fact. That's why people read it as they do.

Reading a lot of film criticism, as I do, one inevitably comes across the occasional instance where a reviewer completely misses the point of a film, but I submit that no possible reading of the events in SILIP allow for Gordon Sullivan's "interpretation" of it:

"The entire story lays the downfall of humanity at the feet of women, repeating the same ridiculous biblical tripe that has subjugated women for millennia. The 'daughters of Eve' referred to in the title are raped and then burned for desiring to control their own sexuality. It's not enough that the story is this ridiculously conservative, but it's reinforced with continual violent imagery, including beatings, hot sand to the crotch, and animal killing."

Sullivan calls the film "misogynist" and asserts that, in it, "the blame for everything wrong is ultimately placed on women."

The movie doesn't adopt that point of view, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The villagers who blame Tonya and Selda for their ills are clearly shown to be wrong, and the film is utterly unsympathetic to them, and sympathetic to the two women who fall prey to them. The movie offers one of the most shocking portraits ever committed to celluloid of small-town prejudices, hypocrisy, and mob mentality overwhelming all reason and leading to a dreadful end. Tonya and Selda are presented as particularly tragic because, by the time they're set upon by the mob, they'd reconciled their conflict, come to realize they'd each made a mess of their lives, and the possibility of a better life seemed to be before them. Sullivan concedes that the men in the movie "don't come off as anything other than violent brutes," but that undermines--and, in fact, destroys--his case for the film's misogyny, its "misguided message, reinforced by the horrific fate of the protagonists," as he puts it. The women are victimized in a ghastly, protracted fashion--no one could possibly identify with their persecutors, nor does the film, at any point, ask the viewer to do so. The film's final image, dismissed by Sullivan, refutes, in rather spectacular fashion, any notion of the film as a vessel of misogynist Christian doctrine.

SILIP is excellent, and, like most works of art, subject to multiple interpretations. The things Sullivan and I write are sort of like that, too. So what am I to make of Gordon Sullivan? Is he one of those too-clever critics who out-clevered himself this time around? A simple imbecile? Someone who chose to write about a movie to which he'd paid almost no attention? Or am I the dumb one missing the point? I suppose the best anyone can do is watch the movie, read what we've written about it, and come up with one's own interpretation of who got it right.

--j.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Much Ado About Roger Corman's Oscar

Roger Corman has been called a lot of things. Shrewd. Miserly. Maverick. He's been given titles like King of the Cult Film, King of the B-Movies, and the Pope of Pop Cinema. The last is probably the most appropriate and not just because it sounds cool and Corman says he likes it. Corman's particular breed of low-budget, action-oriented, socially conscious exploitation fare has, for over 50 years, graced the cinema, to the persistent delight of audiences and, in turn, to his significant profit. He's brought his talents to bear on every genre under the sun and has even invented a few of his own. He has a finely-tuned eye for talent--it's only a slight exaggeration to say it would be easier to list the big name Hollywood directors, writers, actors of recent decades who didn't get their start with Corman than those who did.

For a fellow from whom a lot of the present Hollywood Establishment sprang though, Corman has never been an Establishment kind of guy. Far from it. For all his money and all his concern about making more of it, he's always been anti-Establishment to the core. Critics higher of brow than of cinematic acumen look down upon Corman's little operation. It's the usual complaint from this quarter: budgets too small, goals insufficiently lofty, too much concern for commerce mixed with the art. A Corman film is far more often dismissed by such snoots as free of merit for what it is than for whatever merit it may actually possess. It was made to turn a profit--how could it be anything but terrible, right?

To put my cards on the table, it has always been my view that labeling as worthless such a perspective unfairly maligns the merely worthless by the association. I don't mind a little film snobbery. I've been accused of it myself. What I dislike is the sort of film snobbery born of this misplaced blend of ignorance and arrogance, wherein respectability can only be attained beyond a certain budget level and free from all but the mildest hint of commercial considerations and wherein things shot quickly, cheaply, and with a vigilant eye toward Mammon are reflexively looked upon with, at best, suspicion, and with, in general, contempt. Here are the facts of life: Film is an art; it's also commerce. Making movies involves both considerations to some extent. That's just the way it is. That's what movies are. If you don't like movies, you don't need to be watching movies.[1]

Not long ago, it was announced that Roger Corman would be receiving an honorary Academy Award for, in the words of the Academy, "his rich engendering of films and filmmakers." It was a token accolade for which a lot of his fans had been clamoring in recent years and it would be difficult for anyone with any knowledge of Corman's work and its impact on cinema to argue against the appropriateness of the award. That doesn't mean some didn't want to argue. When he picked up the trophy a few weeks ago, one of the snoots couldn't resist a snort at the very idea of bestowing such a vaunted prize upon such a lowly specimen:

"Corman, who has directed more than 50 films and produced nearly 400 (!), has never been nominated for an Oscar, probably because all of his movies are terrible. But apparently the Academy is rewarding quantity now, too. So don't give up, Uwe Boll! Just make another 300 movies!"

This snide remark by Eric D. Snider at Cinematical drew a mild retort from Scott Weinberg, a Cinematical colleague, who argued that Corman did indeed deserve that honorary Oscar. Snider couldn't leave bad enough alone and returned to the subject, his premise, stated flatly, that "Roger Corman doesn't deserve an Oscar."

Snider conceded Corman was "not the worst filmmaker of all time" and thus his initial Uwe Boll comparison "might have been an exaggeration" (wording that suggests allowances that Snider may have any insight into the subject might have been exaggerated). He admitted he didn't really have any basis for saying "all" of Corman's movies "are terrible"; he hadn't seen them "all," of course. How many of them has he seen? The reader is left to guess. And if Snider's generalizations about Corman's body of work more closely resemble the prejudices of the snoot than the observations of one with an intimate familiarity with any significant portion of that body of work, the reader can draw his own conclusion.

Snider's peripheral arguments are weak. He rejects the idea that Corman should get an Oscar because he nurtured the talents (and usually began the careers) of such a vast array of great filmmakers. "Giving Corman an Oscar for helping them learn the ropes is like giving a high school teacher an award because his students went on to graduate from the top of their college classes.... To me, that's a weak reason to give someone an Oscar." That is, of course, a judgment call but as Weinberg noted in his reply to Snider, the Academy has given out these sorts of honorary awards for decades and to recipients whose contribution to cinema was far less significant than Corman's. Snider offers a list of individuals he feels were more worthy of Academy Awards than Corman but that never received them. Even filtering through Snider's errors (some he lists actually did receive awards and some have been dead for decades) and his sometimes horrendous judgment[2], this argument, at best, amounts to past injustices being used to justify new ones.

Of course, Snider wouldn't see it that way, because he wouldn't see denying Corman an Oscar as an injustice. His central argument is his weakest one, hilariously outlined in sentences liberally laced with unintentional irony:

"If the Academy is giving out Oscars based on the production of quality work--which, last time I checked, was the basic idea behind the Oscars--then Roger Corman does not qualify. The vast majority of his output is mediocre at best. Some of it is downright awful. A few films are good enough on their own, but not to where any of them would deserve Oscars individually. Even as a body, those moderately good Corman movies don't outweigh the dozens--literally dozens and DOZENS--of cheap, forgettable clunkers. Producing a huge quantity of work whose overall entertainment or artistic value averages out to be somewhere between 'mediocre' and 'mediocre-plus' isn't worthy of Academy Award consideration.... Corman... never tried to make great films. He wanted to make cheap, profitable films, and to crank them out in a couple weeks. He's been extraordinarily successful at it, and there's definitely a place for that kind of product in moviedom. But again, that doesn't mesh with the philosophy of the Academy Awards, which is to reward artistic excellence."

To the snoot, it's a truism that "cheap, profitable films" could never be "great films," certainly never worthy of the notice of the Great And Powerful Academy, which prefers to honor such "artistic excellence" as was exhibited in the likes of GLADIATOR, BRAVEHEART, CRASH, FORREST GUMP and a mountain of other such worthless upbudget rubbish tall enough to blot out the sun. Snider asserts that none of Corman's films "would deserve Oscars individually." That just begs the question of what does win these awards, though. As I outlined in a piece last year (dealing with Best Picture awards), those in the Academy generally do a wretched job of picking winners. They tend to pass over the more deserving of their own nominees and the genuine best pictures from most years are never even nominated at all. A lot of the films honored by Oscar are so bad, they're almost entirely forgotten within a few short years (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, anyone? Anyone?).[3] Corman, on the other hand, could take the crew of his "quick-and-sloppy movie poop factory," as Snider calls it, put together some actors, a nothing budget and, in a few days time, create a movie that people are still watching and loving decades later and that even manages to acquire some degree of critical respectability. Are his films really so vastly outclassed by something like CRASH? The "artistic excellence" that allowed CRASH to win Best Picture consisted solely of a massively-financed lobbying campaign aimed at Academy voters. The movie itself was terrible, more closely resembling a bad made-for-television film (or After School Special) than anything that should ever be considered for any sort of award and the prize it did win was almost immediately recognized, widely and with little real dissent, as one of the all-time worst Best Picture decisions. Would anyone be willing to seriously argue that it was more deserving of being honored than, say, HOUSE OF USHER, Corman's first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation? Does the embarrassment that is GLADIATOR stand head-and-shoulders above DEATHRACE 2000? NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN tackled a theme Corman had handled decades earlier--and far better--in BLOODY MAMA. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar examples. In a head-to-head clash with a lot of the movies that have actually won Academy Awards, Corman's pictures would do just fine and all the harrumphing of all the Sniders of the world wouldn't make the former any better or the latter any worse by comparison.

Roger Corman has spent his long career crafting a wide array of entertainments of every conceivable variety and degree of quality. Admittedly, plenty of them were awful, some even as bad as a lot of Hollywood summer blockbusters, a few as bad as Eric D. Snider would have people believe. Plenty of them were great too, though, which is why they've endured. As a director, he was a proletarian gem. As a distributor, he brought to U.S. shores some of the best foreign films of the last few decades.[4] As a producer and mentor, he nurtured a lot of the best filmmakers we have. I have no position on the question of whether Roger Corman deserves an Academy Award. He is not of the Establishment. He doesn't need its praise. Told a few months ago he was under consideration, even he didn't think he'd get it. Given the Academy's history, I'm not convinced he won't be as tainted by it as honored. Still, if anyone in moviedom deserves some respectful recognition for their work, it's Corman. For anyone offering an award that symbolizes that, he's as good a recipient as they'll find.

Besides, he's always looking for ways to save a buck--the Oscar would probably make a great paper-weight.

--j.

---

[1] And my last card, if it isn't apparent, is the fact that I'm an unabashed Corman fan. I'm someone who, in high school, was waffling on the question of the feasibility of filmmaking as a career and finally committed to the notion after reading Corman's autobiography, which is still one of the best books about moviemaking ever written.

[2] Snider points out some legitimately glaring oversights by Oscar but cripples his case by heavily padding his list with numerous minor figures. And when you suggest it's a travesty that Corman has now been given an Oscar but that master thespian Marilyn Monroe hasn't, your case enters the realm of walking, talking, and sounding just like, well, what it is.

[3] With his snoot's view of Corman, Snider could say his award was par for the course but he's precluded by his snoot's view of the Oscars, that they "reward artistic excellence."

[4] He's been the American distributor for Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, and others.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Wolfman Passeth


The news apparently went out this morning. Jacinto Molina, better known, over the last several decades, by his screen name Paul Naschy, has died from cancer at the age of 75. I didn't turn on my computer until this evening, and I suppose I may be a little late to the wake. Hopefully not too late.

Over the years, Paul Naschy essayed his own unique variation on every sort of traditional horror character in the book--a rampaging mummy, a gleefully evil warlock (who spent half the movie in which he appeared as a severed head), a way-too-healthy Dracula, a hunchback (one who operated in not just any place, but a morgue, and not just any morgue, but the Rue Morgue). But, of course, it was Waldemar Daninsky, Naschy's Byronic wolfman, which became his signature part. It was the one that launched his career, the one he obviously loved the most, the one to which he always seemed to return, and the one that gave him a lot of his best movies, and a lot of his success. FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, Naschy's first turn as the wolfman, is what first brought Naschy to the U.S. at the dawn of the '70s. WEREWOLF SHADOW, his 3rd wolfman outing, became a massive international hit, raking in a fortune all over Europe and making him a star. Naschy returned to the character a dozen times over the years, with, at times, better results than others.

It's easy to understand the character's durability. Naschy, a former competitive weight-lifter, was a stubby fellow with a power-lifter's build perfectly suited for a classic wolfman, and Naschy brought to the part a ferocious physicality; he looked every inch the wild animal out for blood who, darting hither and yon through the night, would just as soon rip you to shreds as look at you, and he looked mean enough to carry out the threat implicit in how he carried himself. Naschy was better, as a wolfman, than anyone who ever donned hair and fangs and loped across a set. As the human Waldemar, he was always a sympathetic sort, a likable chap who suffered under an horrendous curse, and for whom love itself was usually a death sentence--as he went along, Naschy added, to the films, a piece of lore that said a werewolf could only die at the hands of someone who loved him.

Naschy's specialty was Gothic horror. He was first exposed to it as a lad when he encountered FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, and it clearly made a strong impression on him--his films were, for decades, littered with references to it. When Naschy entered the horror field in the late '60s, though, the Gothic tales near and dear to his heart were rapidly going out of fashion after more than a decade of genre dominance. The decline progressed rapidly until Gothics often seemed like museum pieces, but Naschy stayed in the ring, undeterred, still plugging away at it decades after much of the world had seemed to have moved on. Considering the state of horror over the years he was working, it's remarkable--and a real credit to his tenacity--that he was able to keep making these kinds of movies. He's gotten a lot of respect for it over the years. He deserves every bit of it.

Naschy's horrors were always awash in traditional Gothic trappings--moonlit nights, crumbling castles, dark, cobweb-bedecked corridors, and ancient curses--but, though steeped in this tradition, he was an inventive writer who never felt constrained by the conventions that accrued around it. His scripts are marked by a seeming willingness to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, which, at their best, makes them a delight, and, at their worst, can often also make them a delight, but, of course, for very different reasons. Usually, you never know what's going to happen next. Over the years, Waldemar the wolfman encountered (and often battled) vampires, aliens, an abominable snowman, even the formula of Dr. Jekyll. His Dracula could be vicious, but he, too, took on an utterly sympathetic edge--as it turned out, he did what he did not because he was evil incarnate, but because he was on a mission to resuscitate his dead daughter. He abandons this quest for love of a mortal, only to have his love reject him. Unable to bear it, he commits suicide by driving a stake through his own heart! Naschy keeps it in the Gothic, but his is definitely not your grand-daddy's Dracula movie, and though choppy and seemingly hastily assembled, COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is definitely a keeper. I thought this mad, audacious, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach reached a particularly cacaphonous crescendo in HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, a gleefully insane film that's one of my all-time favorite Naschy flicks.

After reading about Naschy's work for decades, I only got around to watching his films a few years ago. I've become rather fond of them. Before falling on some economic hard times, I consumed every one on which I could lay my hands--quite a few in this wonderful era of DVD--and in a few cases, I was sort of an unofficial evangelist in the cause of Naschy fandom. Only last night, I'd pulled out FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR and given it a re-watch. My mother, of all people, came by while Naschy was on the screen in the midst of his first werewolf rampage. She usually hates horror movies, and wouldn't know Paul Naschy from Paul Bunyan, but even she stopped for a moment to watch him work. "He's good at that," she said.

He was.

I'm going to miss him.

--j.