Billy Gray

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page


In Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Hunger is about the body, its waste and torments. Excrement smears the IRA inmates’ walls in director Steve McQueen’s debut film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Piss is funneled under cellblock doors to flood the hall. Nightsticks rain down on naked flesh. Food is refused to the point of fatal emaciation.

But McQueen bristled when an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q& A called it violent. “Show me a summer blockbuster whose death toll and wasted bullets don’t outnumber 

Hunger‘s,” he reasoned. But Hunger‘s unflinching portrayal of corporal punishment, self-inflicted or not, sears the retinas more than any comic book adaptation’s could. It’s a testament to McQueen that his debut film will likely force you to avert your eyes.

Such an aversion might make viewers complicit with the British government that McQueen renders through a grave, dismissive Margaret Thatcher voiceover. It’s a fitting decision for the director who said the movie is “about the power of the mouth more than anything else. When nothing was going in, volumes were coming out,” he explained. Thatcher’s interjections are the only times Hunger refers to the ethnic and religious struggles behind the IRA impriso

nments and hunger strike.

Shying away from the political, conflict initially revolves around guards and prisoners in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, and brutally so. Inmates are pushed, dragged and clubbed down the block’s narrow halls, dunked in ice-cold water and anally probed during contraband searches. It’s in one of these sequences that we first meet Sands. Beaten to a pulp, lying naked and supine with his glazed eyes staring at the camera, the audience wonders what further debasement could possibly await him.

Physical abuse gives way to intellectual and spiritual debate in the film’s crackling centerpiece. Sands summons a priest to announce his plans for the strike. Over twenty minutes (interrupted by only two cuts) the pair veers between the mundane (“Better than smoking the Bible, ay,” the priest asks while Sands enjoys a rare tobacco cigarette instead of his usual substitute, a shredded page from the Book of Lamentations) and the profound. Father Moran points out the futility of the plan and the damage, including Sands’ son, it will leave in its wake, but stubborn Irish resolve prevails. “I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again, Bobby,” he concedes.

McQueen saves his most devastating work for the film’s final third, which witnesses Bobby’s prolonged disintegration. The director said he envisioned Hunger as a silent movie; this act is largely free of dialogue. Instead the viewer observes Bobby’s oozing sores, protruding ribs and bloody bowel movements in blue-toned, almost clinical close-up. The intimate, sustained portrayal of Bobby’s decline (he died after 66 days; ten fellow strikers followed) avoids fetishism only because of the profound context of dehumanization the films has established—witness a split screen shot of a lone guard sobbing as his peers partake in savage beatings for proof that degradation extends beyond the prisoners.

Hunger‘s bleak themes and solemn imagery, coupled with the director’s video-artist background, distinguish it from standard cinematic fare. But McQueen corrected an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q&A who called it “a work of art.” “I want everyone to look at this as a feature film,” he said. Veering between lyrical beauty (flashbacks of a young Bobby running through a meadow punctuate his deathbed scenes) and stark decay, Hunger qualifies as both.

Redux Reflux

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 at 3:29 am

“To avoid fainting, keep repeating to yourself, ‘It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie.'” Such was The Last House on the Left‘s marketing slogan upon its 1972 release. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. The British Board of Film Classification deemed the movie so disturbing that it did not allow its release until March of 2008. Critics were torn. The movie was borderline exploitation: two teenage girls head into the city for a rock concert and are abducted, raped and murdered by a Manson-like gang whose members coincidentally spend the night at the home of one victim’s parents. Murders revealed, mom and dad enact a revenge so violent (famously including a castration at the hands, or rather mouth, of the mother) it would be comical were it not for the film’s low-budget grit and potent exploration of loss.

A remake of Last House on the Left was released last weekend. It is the latest in a long line of slasher remakes including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Prom Night and last month’s Friday the 13th. All of these movies retain the basic plots of their sources. But gone is the endearing rawness—sometimes edgy (Texas Chainsaw…_), sometimes campy (Friday the 13th)—that made them cult classics. In its place is a numbing big studio gloss even miniscule budgets can afford these days. These facsimiles also shy away from the nihilism that made the originals shocking. Leatherhead’s killing sprees in the updated TCM stem from being called a retard. One of the teen victims in Last House redux springs miraculously back to life at the end.

No matter how watered down these remakes are, Hollywood churns them out because for all the red onscreen, they bring out the green. With the family friendly exception of Pixar movies, horror might be Hollywood’s most consistently bankable genre. Budgets are razor-thin; the intended audiences indifferent to the critical lashings most slasher movies (deservedly) receive. The foolproof equation breeds laziness. Not all horror movies scrape the bottom of the barrel and continue to burrow through the floor beneath it. But the worthwhile entries are poorly and tirelessly imitated to within an inch of the genre’s life.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween ushered in the teen slasher genre in the ’70s. Both are classics, the former for its bleached, cinema-verite photography, gallows humor and Vietnam allegories and the latter for its elegantly composed shots, restrained pacing and chillingly effective score. (Neither shows much blood.) But the bargain basement knockoffs (Prom Night, The Hills have Eyes, Friday the 13th, the so-bad-it’s-almost-good Sleepaway Camp) and infernal sequels that followed made horror movies a laughing stock for all but the schlock-happiest Fangoria subscriber.

With the exception of 1984’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street (featuring Freddy Krueger before he became a disfigured, utensil-handed Borscht Belt comic) mainstream horror did not regain respectability until Scream in 1996. That Wes Craven smash deftly mixed comedy and horror with a winking self-awareness of genre conventions. A slasher revival followed, but the post-modern irony shtick got old fast. Scream exposed, though hardly subverted, all the rules. By mimicking Scream, its sequels and too-clever-by-half imitators (the largely forgotten I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend series) became just as formulaic as the hackwork their predecessor mocked.

Torture porn, critically maligned as it is, at least introduced a fresh slasher milieu. The rusty, industrial ascetic of the Saw and Hostel movies compliment their anonymous brutality. The victims are harshly unsympathetic, their sad fates even more transparent than in previous horror films. Sex always equals death in a slasher movie, but torture porn’s methodical killings are more tactilely retributive than usual. Hostel‘s louts pay for hedonistic romps through depressed Eastern European backwaters with exacting amputations, their limbs and organs to be sold on the black market. The junkies whose halfway house becomes a deathtrap obstacle course in Saw II choose between instant death and a dip in a tub of hypodermic needles. And therein lies the problem with joyless, self-important torture porn: in punishing its victims for having fun, it doesn’t let the audience have any.

Horror is in a rut. Queasy, embarassed nostalgia aside, there is little worthwhile about the recent rush of slasher remakes. The best horror movies are the unheralded ones. They introduce new villains and mythologies, fresh techniques (The Blair Witch Project’s Dramamine-requiring handheld camera) and surprises (the zombies of 28 Days Later who run rather than hobble). Slasher fans are genuflecting at the altar of genre icons for now. But like Michael Meyers lurking in the shadows, there’s got to be a new face of horror waiting to deliver audiences from the current spate of lazy retreads and into a fresh form of evil.

Every Upcoming Movie Will Now Be About the Recession

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 at 3:57 am

Hollywood never needs excuses to revel in an imagined apocalypse. From The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Night of the Living Dead to Escape from New York to 28 Days Later to I Am Legend, few scenarios are mined more frequently than impending human eradication. And critics and audiences alike frequently impose deeper meanings on movies dealing with Earthly destruction, whether such allegories are intended by the filmmakers or not. The alien invasion flicks of the Cold War ’50s represent pinko infiltration/insurrection and nuclear dread. George Romero’s zombie movies comment on the civil rights struggles of the ’60s (the original Night of the Living Dead) and the mad consumerism that blossomed post-Vietnam (in the mall-set Dawn of the Dead). Other entries in the genre are viewed as time capsule parables about subsequent zeitgeist panics: the crack epidemic and urban decay (Escape…), HIV/AIDS (28 Days Later) and 9/11 (28 Days Later, again).

With America in the midst of another mass anxiety attack, prepare for a slew of reviews and Sunday Arts & Leisure feature pieces devoted to what will now be the theme of every successful movie released in the next nine months: The Great Recession of 2008- God Knows When.

This year has already seen the release of three suddenly prescient movies. Confessions of a Shopaholic, initially sold as a tween Sex and the City (with Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren getting plum exposure in the trailer), rebranded itself as a movie about a shallow material girl who realizes the folly of her spendthrift ways (by working at a finance firm, no less). The International, a Clive Owen dud, is about a nefarious bank wiping out investor portfolios and dallying in political assassinations. And Watchmen recreates the grimy New York of 1985 at the precise moment New Yorkers (or at least the city’s journalists) are alternately dreading and exulting in the possible return of squeegee men and Times Square porn palaces.

Public Enemies is the upcoming release best custom-fitted for the economic meltdown. Set in the Depression, it tells the story of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent (Christian Bale) hot on his trail. Just as 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde is a Great Depression period piece that nonetheless became emblematic of the ’60s counterculture, expect Public Enemies to acquire topical resonance, with many rooting for the assumed villain as he fights the good fight. Amelia, an Amelia Earhart biopic starring Hilary Swank, is another Depression-era movie coming out this year. The taglines (“Just as the markets crashed, Amelia took flight”) and Captain Sully parallels will nauseate. (On the bright side, Hilary Swank, after a few disastrous turns as a sexpot, is back on fertile Oscar ground as a woman fighting her way into a man’s world.)

Two annihilation epics tread on more familiar, bombed out blockbuster territory this summer: Michael Bay’s 2012 and McG’s Terminator Salvation. The Mayans and Nostradamus marked December 2012 as the date of end times–sure to be rendered deafeningly by Bay’s CGI and sound editing. Inverting the not-too-distant future destruction scenario are Ice Age 3: The Age of the Dinosaurs and Year One. Both movies are set in prehistoric olden times and offer a glimpse into the sort of hunter-gatherer lifestyle that the more pessimistic (and press hungry) economic doomsayers see as a logical endpoint to our societal regression.

The flaw in declaring many of these imminent releases timely, or at least purposefully so, is the source material they grew out of. The Road follows a father and son on a despairing, perilous journey through a landscape made barren by an unnamed cataclysm. Their experience might mirror that of people currently reviewing their 401K statements, but the movie is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel from the frothy days of 2006. And of course, Terminator Salvation emerges from an enduring blockbuster franchise that has spanned nearly four decades.

Topicality is usually achieved by accident. It is possible to make a movie for the times in which it’s released, but more likely that the times will make the movie. Maybe there’s no collective psychic pull among moviegoers to flock to certain films at certain times after all. When Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings did gangbusters in the months following 9/11, some critics said audiences facing murky real world conflicts had responded to those neatly delineated cinematic battles between good and evil. Certain journalists viewed The Dark Knight, with its themes of moral ambiguity, tough justice and invasive surveillance techniques, as a cathartic response to, if not defense of, the senescent Bush administration.

But maybe in these cases viewers were simply responding to engaging movies sown from already iconic entertainment sagas.

It’s tempting to declare a zeitgeist when one might not exist. Entertainment grows more fragmented by the day. When 10% of Americans see The Dark Knight on the big screen in the film’s opening seventy-two hours, there is reason to cheer. Maybe Johnny Depp beats out mortgage woes and latent bank heist fantasies as the biggest draw of Public Enemies. Maybe not. What’s certain is that at a time when a $10 movie ticket is the costliest entertainment many people can afford, these movies will be packed, regardless of audience motive.

2 or 3 Things I Know About her

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2009 at 2:02 am

Freud argues that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Jean-Luc Godard would disagree when it comes to a lit cigarette. How else to explain the prolonged close-up of a burning smoke in the director’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her? Like the movie’s other famed close shot—a cup of coffee reminiscent of the cosmos—the sequence turns the mundane into the profound.

Godard’s nominal plot follows a day in the life of Juliette (Marina Vlady), a Parisian housewife who moonlights as a prostitute. But by 1967 when this movie was released, the director was not concerned with narrative. This movie is about the dynamic between style and substance. “One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip,” says the narrator (voiced by Godard). While the film’s lush Technicolor photography recalls a comic book, the weighty, occasionally soporific interior monologues (covering the Vietnam war, laundry detergent advertisements and everything in between) it frames will not be serialized by Marvel anytime soon.

Despite its title declaration of familiarity, 2 or 3 Things... asks questions. What is language? “Language is the house man lives in,” says Juliette. That is not a decent definition of language in a film that practically drowns in it. Then again, the many words in this wordy film are circuitous; they pose rhetorical questions and offer vague declarations (“I was the world; the world was me,” Maria recalls feeling during a recent trick) but seldom resolution. What of modernity? 2 or 3 Things… does not tackle that subject in its dialogue, but it’s a postmodern work that serves as a commentary on modernity’s destabilizing influence.

Dubious progress is why the characters question language and art. It’s why traditional family structures have collapsed to the point where a comfortable housewife drops her children off at a brothel’s daycare center as she looks for johns. And it’s why Godard’s characters, despite retaining their own chic glamour, live far away from the quaint Rues of postcard Paris in monolithic apartment towers abutting construction cranes and freeways.

2 or 3 Things… is a distillation of Godard’s favorite themes: nationality, self, advertising, color. A travel agency fronts as a whorehouse, its walls lined with splashy posters peddling a whole different sort of exotic product. Bangkok, India and Spain are sold through the sort of reductive imagery (a Buddhist temple, the Taj Mahal, a bullfighter) that promotes travel to this day. This is no less crude than the packaging of sex and flesh. A buffoonish American client wears a white t-shirt with the American flag emblazoned across it. He has his two hookers wear TWA and Pan Am luggage over their heads to avoid eye contact. Maria was mistaken in her earlier sexual reverie: people are products; products are people.

With art, Godard says, “the style is the man; therefore art is the humanizing of forms.” It’s the human touches in this movie—the brief swelling of classical music, Juliette reading a bedtime story to her son—that make 2 or 3 Things... more than a philosophy essay or advertisement itself. It’s in these moments that the viewer remembers what Godard is defending.