Ringo Lam’s “Wild City”

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Ringo Lam’s ultimate city symphony.

Although he has been absent for the past 12 years, there is only one fundamental aspect of Wild City that would indicate the long hiatus: it is an old man’s film, it is, once again, about the weight of time and changes in Hong Kong that essentially keep it the same, with faults that appear less and less circumstantial.

Nonetheless, Lam does not let the lost years transpire on the screen, neither does he attempt to justify his return, or ornate the project, with anything beyond the necessary. It is so confident of what it needs to be that Wild City could be taken as just another efficient exercise by an experienced director with nothing left to prove, though it brings valuable contributions to a career-long process of investigation of its nuclear issues.

It is a rare level of confidence (for any director) that allows him to interrupt a chase scene in the middle and give us short flashbacks with details lost in the more direct form it was initially presented. Three flashbacks, actually, different perspectives on a quite simple and linear action. It becomes chaotic. This kind of formal playfulness is constant throughout the film. Lam is quite fond of withholding small informations within a scene, often returning to the same flashback/flashforward device, purposely shambling expectations created by an impersonal take on its movement and character exchanges.

Wild City is first and foremost about perception. Louis Koo plays an ex-cop who lived through the same stuff that Lam’s other protagonists have, but is now retired. The film opens with Koo’s disillusioned monologue on the state of things, looking at that world from the same position of the director, from the outside, from the point-of-view of someone who once lost the capacity for understanding his means and surroundings and now tries to avoid it, but can’t, something greater will inevitably make him return to that state.

Wild City is not much different from Lam’s own Full Alert (which he calls the predecessor in a spiritual trilogy, alongside City on Fire), it is even more straightforward, storywise, but with a newfound identification with the character’s position, therefore, the constant deviations feel much more natural than before, approaching the exact same tropes – probably the reason to force a deceptive reading of specific scenes, to be cleared later on. There is always a desire to look from the outside when the situation does not concede that opportunity, but, unfortunately, that conscience does not make a difference.

The glimpses of the external, of the whole, of the incomprehensible mechanisms that have always led Lam’s characters to compulsive violence, are similar to the opening shot, establishing Hong Kong’s skyline by superimposing it on the lines of a 100 dollar bill. Again and again we will see free associations like this, revealing nothing of such mechanisms except those of the film, the little that can be understood by the experience of the characters, which appears more limited than ever before.

It is a fragile divide between the clarity of their actions and the chaotic schemes. The more we can see, more enigmatic the world becomes. The false stability given on the prologue starts oscillating between extreme artificiality and asperity. The sterility of the ambience and excessive digitality of the photography are suddenly broken by the blood of a stabbed man filling the frame (red was unseen before), or later, the crashes during a car chase are directed at the lens. Any sign of life (or death) in the image is disruptive, the scheme is imperative.

Even Lam’s conflictive and dynamic group shots seem absent most of the times, which captured signs of ever-shifting positions of power within them, for they are not shifting anymore, not even on a personal level. There is an overbearing power structure transpiring at every interaction, but instead of being synthesized or changed as we approach the ending, its means become increasingly mysterious. Even characters appearing to be in control of the situation are brought down and end up trapped in a larger, remote, inhumane system that no one comprehends. In Lam’s past films, politics was abstracted to the level of the characters, in Wild City it is beyond reach, the city’s workings are beyond understanding, but the hero acknowledges his condition, both he and the villain, whatever power their exercise lies in their capacity for observation.

Often an action is shown through fragmented perspectives, as mentioned before, cutting to surveillance footage, phone cameras, tracking devices, all kinds of digital mapping, “Hi-Def, crystal clear…” For whom? For themselves, for their illusion of control? In Looking for Mr. Perfect, Lam’s last Hong Kong production, the roles assumed in the caper imploded and, by the end, they didn’t know why they were still performing. The initial purpose of the set-ups and the surveillance devices were justified only in themselves, blurring the sight for the situation, for the developing relationships. Along with In Hell, pornographic in its images of abuse, the vicious pursuit of unattainable control was taken to an extreme. The next step is the aforementioned acknowledgment, obtained by a few in the past, even before the tragedy is announced.

Themis is blindfolded, the broken statue is not merely a symbol for absent justice, it is juxtaposed to the dying antagonist’s eyes wide open. The McGuffin here is nothing but gold, pure, changing hands. When the final confrontation comes, it has lost any of its persuasive power to those men, they refuse to let lives be reduced to their exchange value. They are able to perceive their position, but conscious they can’t change it. At some point, the hero utilizes such devices to stage the scene, to trick the enemy. The fleeting sensation of control culminates in the same violent confrontation that shatters Justice.

Being able to look means comprehending what has already past, because the real worth of things isn’t felt until they have been lost. Acting upon it inevitably leads to compulsion, therefore, compliance with the system, they can only look when they can’t act. There is also an arbitrary nature to the proof of value, like the ridiculously artificial composites for Tong Liya’s memories, achievements that stay in the image, with their shaping exposed. The real, small, miracles were details ignored to keep the plot going.

The consolation at the end is a “good citizen award”. The hero sees order being reestablished when it seemed impossible but, in the process, unknowingly, is again swallowed by the urban landscape. He does not succumb to the vile impulsiveness that characterized Lam’s past work and is granted a future, although, very much like Sam Peckinpah’s men, not being able to escape their surroundings, not consuming it all with death, being dissipated in the mysterious workings and all-encompassing corruption of the city is the actual consummation of the tragedy.

Christofer Pallú

Mark Neveldine’s “The Vatican Tapes”

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The ugly and often unpleasant counterpart to Blackhat. If Michael Mann might have attempted to glimpse God by submerging recognizable tropes of his cinema into a world on the verge of indifference towards human perception, action, existence, if his characters eventually escaped their usual trappings getting lost inside a system fully defined by fleeting and blurry information materialized in digital imagery, Mark Neveldine goes the opposite path, certain there is nothing redeemable to be taken from it.

All kinds of information thrown at us, barely composing a plot for The Vatican Tapes, like any projection on endless screens permeating our sight, are incapable of substantiating the events we (or the characters) witness, to compose a convincing through line, to ground it in reality. I am not saying the director is running away from the schematic nature of exorcism movies or found-footage horror with this, quite the contrary, the force of Neveldine/Brian Taylor’s previous films depended completely on the adherence to a certain tradition that needed to be contested on its own terms, and I can’t see a different direction here.

Its strength as a genre piece is in the very same incoherence, lack of narrative and tonal control it was dismissed for, in its inability to make sense of a tradition that is hinted at very scene and deprived of a satisfactory, unifying, cathartic resolution. Questioning is not achieved by avoiding clichés but by visualizing them without concession to the audience’s easy digestion of the grotesque and depraved nature of a sort of spectatle that has come to define the genre. Each one of its shots is built to maximum individual impact, to collide with the whole and not to be supressed as part of a logical chain that allows superficial rationalization of things which could never be rationalized, not if we are supposed to look at its core themes with any seriousness. That is the moral issue.

We should be convinced, the whole time, by connections or distances artificially created by the found-footage device. They are constantly dismantled. The possibility of evidence, of disclosure to the observed horror, of any spirit in its images is doubted. But they bring some truth, anyway. One might call Neveldine a cynic for his lack of commitment to an entire filmic tradition, to common sense, to stylistic niceties that go well with critics, for a brutal refusal to deviate from what surfaces directly imply, in all their ugliness, and, most of all, for his over-the-top/mock aesthetics. But I could not do it, I can’t take it as cynicism. The Vatican Tapes is an opposing statement, in its own form, in the way it deals with expectations enforced on the film, enforced on us, as a manner of relating to what we watch, like we did with The Exorcist‘s blatant belief in the power of matter, in its own cinematographic theology. At first, Neveldine’s purpose seems to be, quite simply, deformation, not revelation, taking individuals and institutions with it. This is the counterpart to Blackhat‘s miracle through digital imagery, nothing here is left untouched, its only revealing shot should be the possessed girl’s twisted eyes, and after so much, the camera is still allowed to investigate the perversion of rituals, exactly like its aesthetic rituals. Discontinuous editing is also a question of morality.

Just the attempt to make us conscious of the bullshit, forcing to look through it, beyond it, is a sign of someone desperatly looking for truth, for real faith in a world that appears to define it with forms that desecrate by the same means and with the same ease that they sacralize.

Christofer Pallú

Lucio Fulci’s “Le colt cantarono la morte e fu… Tempo di Massacro”

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Le colt cantarono la morte e fu… Tempo di Massacro (also known by the less spectacular English titles Massacre Time, Colt Concert or The Brute and the Beast) is the first western directed by Lucio Fulci, breaking a long series of comedies (some in the mold of other genres, such as the musical and the spy movie) he helmed between 1959-1966 and also the first film (among those I managed to watch) in which the material allowed him to handle elements that characterize a good portion of his subsequent work. It is surprising how developed and mature are the forms Fulci presents at this point and their enormous precision elevating a rather simple script written by Fernando di Leo, a veteran in the genre who at the time had already contributed to the films of Sergio Corbucci (Navajo Joe) and Sergio Leone (uncredited in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) and is mostly known today for directing classics of the poliziottescho like Milano Calibro 9 a few years later.

The vision of the old west in Tempo di Massacro is marked by the same ideas that will become constants for both and the initial minutes could not introduce them in a better way: First scene, Junior Scott (Nino Castelnuovo) commands the release of a prisoner to become the prey of his dogs, for a group of sadists to observe. The victim, who can barely run, is caught and devoured when reaches a river. After the attack, the blood merges with the running water and during the opening credits we follow its supposed course until the point where Tom Corbett (Franco Nero), the protagonist, is extracting gold, far from the area where the hunt took place. There, Tom is contacted by a friend from the city where he grew up and is handed a message requesting his return home, without any other information.

In addition to setting perfectly the atmosphere that dominates the whole picture and the narrative premise very concisely, recurring only to montage to give us the relation between its central characters without any action connecting them, these opening scenes reveal another aspect of interest, initially a trivial detail that indicates something basic for Fulci’s staging, which is elaborated further. That is in the way Tom and his friend meet; this scene begins with Tom in the foreground and centralized in a frame that values the empty space around him, without any visual contact with the friend that approaches from the background and, after a cut, the camera, on the same axis, continues to follow this movement in the background with a slight panoramic, when Tom notices the presence of another person, only then heading to the shot in which the protagonist assaults the man who walked towards him, they finally establish eye contact, recognise each other and the reason for the meeting is revealed.

Fulci maintains this logic of composition throughout the film, making always clear the actions both in the foreground and the background even if some may be completely irrelevant to the narrative. The spectacular fight scene at the bar is the moment when this idea is given more meaning, as we accompany Tom approaching the bar, several shots are stretched to capture only banal attitudes until they are suddenly broken by some violent camera movement that reveals henchmen of the Scott family besieging him (like in the first appearance of his friend, even before the scene commented on the previous paragraph). Upon entering the bar, conversations of extras with no importance whatsoever fill most of the frame and the soundtrack, leaving the scenic movement that interests us almost relegated to a detail (in focus, but minor in proportion) in that place the director is keen to define integrally, because just the presence of those characters in this limited space is enough to generate all the tension and consequent aggressive reaction. Up to this part of the story, Tom could not get any explanation regarding the message that made him return and does not understand where the inhabitants stand before the local problems. But the violence becomes inevitable, because every motion directs those men to confrontation, even if their positions are still undefined and, as we see later, some are fighting for the same objective, after all, it is one of the henchmen who defends him.

The above example is just one of the ways Fulci articulates the impetuous determinism of the world he depicts, for this is extended to the entire film and there are many others worth mentioning: A wide shot of the hero approaching the ranch of the enemy turns into a detail shot of a distant rifle through a simple displacement of the shooter, who is promptly killed by a third man left offscreen before he can pull the trigger; the brutal whip duel, refusing to give the same attention to detailed movements that are, until that point, the director’s preference, privileging the results of the combat, nearly freezing the frame when it shows a wound or dilating time while we see the man trying to recover; the short period of respite after the duel, inside the brothers’ house, where the old woman, treating the injuries, is murdered by horsemen who appear and disappear abruptly through the window; and the fight between brothers after the unexplained death of Mister Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati), that only ends when the one holding the gun, Jeff (played by the great George Hilton), who sought revenge for the death of the old woman and his father, slowly drops all the bullets on the floor.

A wise decision in Fernando di Leo’s script is in countering the typical appropriation of the Yojimbo sort of hero (among other things) that became very common in Italian westerns, even he had already done it in Sergio Leone’s film. Tom Corbett is the opposite of the outsider that appears to solve issues resulting from social corruption of a decaying town in the grip of criminals by annihilating them all by himself, like Django, whose protagonist is embodied by the same Franco Nero. Both films were released in 1966 and here the actor’s figure could not be better exploited. At a certain point of the narrative it is clear that both his character and Addobbati’s have become excessively passive within that power play. Mister Scott, in public, is the highest authority of his small empire, with the family’s symbol taking almost every property of the town, including Tom’s old ranch, and until then seen as the main responsible for the local disgrace, but in a great scene we see how he is completely dominated and complacent in relation to his son: after a discussion about the abuse of power for monstrous acts, ending up threatened by Junior, the father is called to help him perform his favorite piece of music, we see a detail shot of the father’s clenching fists, prolonged by a travelling while he walks to reach the instrument, relaxing the fingers and joining the son, consequently helping to play the piece. The other sequence is already halfway through the film, with Jeff, who was always drunk, crawling thorugh the scene, begging the possible Django to leave the city, and ultimately promising to assist him to reach the villain’s house, adding “with you, I’ll be safe”, after repeatedly rejecting any kind of help and demonstrating fear of confronting the numerous guards, but at the end of the sequence it is Jeff who ensures the passage through Scott’s property by killing all the henchmen in a single move, without missing a shot, provided that Tom would assume responsibility for their deaths.

The hero becomes just a catalyst in the explosion of internal conflicts of the town, leading to its self-destruction, after all we discover it was Mister Scott himself who sent that message, hoping that Tom could take control of his property. In the end all these conflicts culminate in the long scene of the ranch invasion, which resembles more action cinema from the eighties than anything originated from western traditions at that time, with two men who bring down an entire army laughing, drinking whiskey and shooting while performing impossible stunts. After justifying the title with the result of the invasion, Jeff, in a close-up, points the pistol at one of the white doves flying after being startled by Junior’s body and is hindered from shooting by his brother, who is framed only by a hand touching the gun, after a slight reframing both their faces are shown, they briefly exchange looks and turn forward, we have the countershot of the dove flying, freeze-frame, the end. A brilliant, obvious response to the submission scene mentioned before, a subversion of the order it represented.

Associating it with a future work of the director, this reminds me directly of the first scene right after the introduction of the villain played by Tomas Milián in Four of the Apocalypse, one of the late Fulci westerns, which starts with an image of this bird falling after being shot, as if the frame was not freezed and we could watch what happened next: we get the countershot of Chaco (Milián) and subsequently the death of every animal in its path. Chaco embodies the final stage of self-destruction of the society we see at the beginning of this film, living at the expense of the misery of those who still seek the future in that civilizational project. The possibility of a future ceases to be the indication of that society’s reconstruction (as it was in Tempo di Massacro) to become its abandonment. The four main characters are the last survivors of a massacre that occurs at the opening of the film, only because they were criminals and the jail that kept them safe, now attempting to cross the desert with no resources in pursuit of a shelter, encountering along the way a religious group similar to the Mormons from John Ford’s Wagon Master, in search of the “promised land”, which will also be slaughtered by Chaco’s gang. The hero’s voluntary abandonment comes after his vengeance against the gang, with the destruction of all the remnants of that decadent society (including himself). What is left, then, far beyond the final confrontation between Chaco and the hero, is a community the outcasts meet in their path, constituted only of men, without any hope, which paralyzes upon hearing the miraculous weep of a baby brought by the travelers, in what must be the most beautiful scene in the director’s entire filmography (where these are plentiful). It is one of the rare moments when a western presents an utopian yearning, not despite, but as a consequence of this universe steeped in cruelty in which Fulci inserts the audience, whether in films about the dead coming back to life or something like Zanna Bianca and its notorious fight scene between a dog and a bear, among multiple moments that seem completely displaced in an adventure directed at an infantile spectator, but perfectly appropriate in the context of his work, by continuing to give us a cinema that always sought to transcend its hideous surface. And despite winning recognition almost exclusively for his essential horror movies, Fulci’s westerns are among the richest and most beautiful examples of the genre.

Christofer Pallú

Abel Ferrara’s “Pasolini”

“It’s you from the dream, apparently idealized, but actually real.”

My response to Pasolini the first time around was very mixed, impressed by some scenes but somewhat perplexed by its dispersiveness, I was sure the slight disappointment came from my lack of preparation for what is offered here, and revisiting many of Abel Ferara’s films in the past few days certainly helped me seeing it from a different perspective. That surprise with loose ends and fragmentation was, predictably, unjustified, even if the “the last day in a man’s life” idea made it seem mannered. Some of my favorite films in the director’s career are his recent ones, which pretty much abandoned the attempts of the collaborations with Nicholas St. John to organically intertwine their complicated questions with conventional genre figures and narratives in favor of candidness and spontaneity, a welcome but often uneven effort to resolve the central themes of his cinema almost exclusively through the image. The increasing formalism is what attracts me to them, and for once in contemporary cinema the excesses of a filmmaker actually saturate his works with ideas instead of stripping them bare for superficial aesthetic pleasure. It is a forthright position: if form can be separated from a grounded worldview, the only thing it reveals is a lack of principles.

Like The Blackout, Mary, Napoli Napoli Napoli, Welcome to New York and others, the film is very open in its struggle to blur and get past the inherent divide between images, documents and dramatization in itself to the core concepts and personal, religious or political issues that inspired the endeavor in the first place. It is, as much as Mary, a desperate search for meaning amidst the ruins observed by the central (and nearly mythical) character, for any kind of direction in a tortuous assembly of the visions suggested by the subject matter, and finally, another study on “the relationship between the artist and the forms he creates.” And to Ferrara, it has become more difficult to find these intersections by a direct portrait, by performance alone, that relationship now comes from a montage with the exact same intensity and collisive force brought from the clash of bodies and discourses we usually associate with his films.

What now seems perplexing is how he achieves one of his most compassionate portraits within such a “pessimistic” treatise. We watch the routine, work, surroundings, dreams and nightmares of Pier Paolo Pasolini, it is, after all, another extremely subjective look at the last day on earth, though not based on familiar territory and situations from the life of the filmmakers, but in Rome and (mostly) in facts from the life of a famous and controversial man. But this simple observation of facts brings the director too close to home, the connections with the life and work of Pasolini are so strong that they reflect nearly everything Ferrara has shown us up until this point is his career. He goes back to understand the life and thoughts of a important public figure and the political environment of Italy in the 70s while, simultaneously, finding a troubling sight of modern society and its future, maybe the roots of his own point of view, possibly the most complex of all cinema at this point.

According to Pasolini, “the situation” is imminent tragedy and we are all responsible for it. After his death, the remaining monuments of a fascist utopia still endure against the sky, fulfilling a prophecy of the final stages of decay of the liberal system that was built upon it, with a war that ravaged the country and instituted a sense of morality that justified its own collapse. And nothing positive appears to come from this fall. About Petrolio, we hear: “analogies between his story and mine aside, he disgusts me”. In the excerpts from St. Paul, the movie Pasolini wanted to shoot as soon as possible and only now is dug up, the subversives of those days, were they not defeated, would still be longing for an abstract view of liberation and ending up in the same hell he had already lived. As a consequence of our repeated failures, yes, “hell is coming”, but as I recall from Body Snatchers, “the individual always matters”, and Ferara frames him standing with the very marginal possibility of a future, one where morality still exists. Rendering it just as pessimism would be incredibly reductive, there are still too many mysteries here, when both men cannot give us an answer, hopeful mysteries.

Christofer Pallú

Jesus Franco’s “Les Possédées du Diable”

Les Possédées du Diable (1974, Jesus Franco)[(013263)16-22-44]

It is incomprehensible how Jesus Franco could be seen as nothing more than a hack pornographer delivering shit movies specifically for the horny, braindead and decadent audience which consumed and sustained the lowest kind of sexploitation his producers were regularly dumping at that time, because all titles I’ve managed to watch from the hardcore side of his filmography are not far from this one, and it’s hard to imagine anyone expecting to be aroused ending up pleased with the experience the director provides them, not shocked with its thoroughly depressing tone and sex scenes way beyond an acceptable level of ugliness, of distastefulness, becoming downright grim at times. If Les Possédées du Diable is not Franco’s masterpiece, at the very least it’s his most troubling and disturbing work, and his crudest foray into horror.

The premise is basically another variation on the Faust myth trapped inside a cheap production of lesbian pornography, staged as a melodrama in a by-product from the distant worlds of Ken Russell’s The Devils and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. If there was some level of moral ambiguity to the obsessive images introduced and frequently reworked by the already prolific Franco (back in ’74), he finally resolves them from a decidedly pessimistic perspective.

Every ordinary activity, every yearning, every ideal is perverted. That is the unsettling slow-motion in the first and last encounters with Lorna; the desires and ensuing actions the characters believe could bring them some relief but always tie them closer to the invisible control of the stranger; parenthood and sexuality now symbols of inevitable insanity and death (the crabs, the incest, the sterility of all things, any relashionship or life resulting from a pact with the Devil); the life of the family mirroring the construction of a labyrinth ruled by Mephistopheles, where every value is corrupted and a simple walk through the modern city, or an attempted escape, leads to further entrapment in those very specific places and repetitive actions which protract the cycle.

The editing does not assemble spaces, but deliberately increases geographical alienation, with some shots that even appear recycled, relocating one action or expression to an entirely different context (another great example of the director taking advantage of poor resources), even if we recognize that the characters are nearby the main location, their steps seem perpetual, without any direction…

Typical of the the director’s work in that period, this is aesthetically pretty rough and unpolished (and the opposite would be a mistake, really), as if he could not shoot more than one take and had to reduce every scene to the bare minimum of camera set-ups (which most of the times leads to numerous jump cuts), but if this gives you the impression of lazy filmmaking, just watch the entire flashback explaining the pact  (the casino sequence, the deal in the bedroom), the masterful moment when all its loose ideas start to fall into flace. Kudos to Gerard Kikoïne for making sense of it and presenting a comprehensible work out of Franco’s usually messy material, without taking away any nuances his bizarre camera work tends to achieve.

Even resources that can appear completely gratuitous or irritating at first, as the constant zooming followed by racking focus on seemingly unimportant elements, they make sense here, with characters staring at empty space, searching for something and hoping it materializes, before that outside influence gains any actual power over them. The most untrammeled one comes right at the start: credits roll over a panning shot of fruits that go in and out of focus, maybe without purpose, then followed by the prohibited encounter, by snapshots of images that will grow more and more sinister as the story progresses. If I remember well, every character has one of these moments, the mother above all, with the strange and unflattering zooms in her genitalia, yes, a Franco trademark from that point on, but the shot here is deformed, far from fetishistic, it is a film about perverted parenthood and damned fates after all, and the vagina transforms into a symbol of death.

That approach also makes the subjective shots in the asylum weirder and build a distinctive relashionsip between Lorna and the unknown woman. Likewise, and it appears they were intended as fades, the jarring cuts of Lina Romay’s obsessive look to a wall and then to Stanford’s face bring a whole different meaning to their scenes, and there’s just something about that unreadable last scene, in Romay’s performance… Something Zulawski and Trier were aiming for and never quite achieved, talking about darker, disturbing looks at the modern world through the frustrations and madness of a female character, maybe that is the price you pay for distorted notions of artistry. Don’t take me wrong, I admire Possession and Antichrist, but the impact of such respectable movies are fairly attenuated in comparasion to Les Possédées du Diable‘s coarse, sordid, sheer insanity.

It’s incredible how much the director can extract from such a limited project, especially being as unpretentious as Franco is, getting developed ideas out of crass technique, managing to create more clear rhetorical pieces than anything the vulgar intellectualism of José Benázeraf (though a good filmmaker) and Jean-Claude Brisseau (not at all) coud ever dream of achieving (what stays in those works is only the ambition for something greater), with probably no intention to deliver better than efficient, moody genre fare. It’s the same case with Jean Rollin and his muddled ideas becoming something far more profound through his unquestionably sincere presentation. For many years I had doubts about Franco, but now I need to admit he was one the greatests.

Christofer Pallú

Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars”

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One of my favorite scenes in Don Siegel’s sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers happens when the characters are running away from the pods and hide in the protagonist’s office, for the second time in the movie they will take a look through the window and observe the center of the town, to know if they are safe, and it is the same shot we saw the first time, but it lasts a few seconds longer, and now, after their perception of the order has already been disturbed, they can finally see the workings of the aliens within the city.

I needed to mention this because what makes Hooper’s movie special among the Jack Finney adaptations and the original by William Cameron Menzies is its basis in a offbeat interpretation of the similar scenario given by the sight of a child. And I could not say this is derivative of the 1953 film, Menzies’ work was that of a set decorator, not a film director, all the estrangement was built from weird designs and the narration moved quickly from plot-point to plot-point with little regard to comprehend the kid’s reactions to what was happening around him. That pragmatism hurt the movie because I could never tell the difference of the proceedings (which should be enormous) in relation to Siegel’s superior treatment. The kid’s actions were not very distinct from the adults and the shocks were closer to the sequence I mentioned above.

Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, however, takes a peculiar route. Storywise, it feels a little predictable and stilted at times, resulting from its strict adherence to the boy’s nightmares, we know that every event will be shaped as part of his paranoia, as confirmation of the worst childhood fears, and the whole thing is beyond silly (“They’re huge, ugly, slimy, giant Mr. Potato Heads!”), but not sillier than being afraid of a clown toy and the odd shadows cast by lightning on a tree. This looks like an extension of the first part of Poltergeist (or what I liked the most about it), following the mundane interactions of the family before turning into a more conventional horror film.

It suffers from having less time spent with the adult characters, who act mostly as robots or other children, and the specific plot-oriented situations come since the very beginning, but that reduction of dialogues and small distractions from the horror grant the director more time to spend with each individual set-piece, and a big amount of it is given to the protagonist exploring his surroundings, observing the changes in behavior since they start and responding calmly to them, unlike the adults who only notice changes in routine and react almost hysterically. And the great thing about it is: Hooper’s camera loves the actors, it bends to the boy’s expressions like the story is bent to his obsessions, there is not a second of dishonesty capturing whatever absurdity occurs, and that results in the most gorgeous close-ups and two-shots, usually with an adult being contradicted by the boy, and inspired use of steadicam in more open spaces, where we are guided by him.

I should say that comparing film to other arts is dangerous because it can deny particular and fundamental elements of each of them, but it is hard to explain in another way Hooper’s nearly operatic sense of composition, with notions of rhythm and scenic development that seem to come directly from Richard Wagner (this may sound like random name-dropping, but I mean it), based so much on precise and very dramatic use of intervals, with unusual consideration for instant (and integrally represented) action that does not have immediate narrative objective, but is charged with extraneous elements, sensations and ideas that materialize the past and give indications of influences outside the frame, and everything carried as an harmonious device for storytelling, never as whimsical and unnecessary exhibitions of the helmer’s talent. Maybe that explains the lingering and repetitive structures and obsession with sound in most of Hooper’s filmography. The experiment here is not nearly as radical as we saw in some of his other films, but the nature of the project (a family-friendly sci-fi blockbuster) makes it more perceptible, because there is nothing bombastic, no easy attractions in it, only a curious, patient imagining of what could happen in the gaps left between Menzies’ faithfully recreated tableaux.

It is a perfect example of something I wish all the perpetrators of “slow cinema” would learn, those who mistake movies for pedantic literalism and capricious pictorialism without any knowledge of how space and time have worked or at least theorized in films for more than a century, rendering everything descriptive and ultimately empty, un-dramatic. They are having a good time with critics, Hooper never had, that is why I learned to ignore good taste and started paying attention only to the movies themselves. Invaders from Mars is as beautiful and richly textured as any of the director’s best works and one of my favorite movies about childhood.

Christofer Pallú

Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal”

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I like Ridley Scott, he is as uneven as everyone says, maybe the case of an artisan who thinks is an artist, a filmmaker whose stylistic affectations, often misguided, can be simultaneously terrible and fascinating, can destroy a movie but also generate interest where it wouldn’t exist with a more direct and modest craftsman. There are two modes in which he normally operates: (1) A heavy-handed director used to build his entire aesthetic around graphic design, who attempts to convey an interpretation of his themes in very stylized lighting, eccentric textures and scenography, with editing concerned more with rhythm and immediate effects than meaning, maintaining coherence in the presentation of such design but often subjugating the drama itself, sometimes at the cost of the necessary confidence in the interactions of people, it’s maybe the only case where I understand the ridiculous criticism of style over substance, both Alien and Gladiator are examples of this, to very distinct results. And (2) that kind of talented and modest craftsman dedicated to a text he believes in, that doesn’t need the common and excessive ornamentation to make the audience comprehend the ideas insinuated or explicitated in the script, one recent example of this side would be The Counselor. The problem is that Scott rarely finds a balance between both, and neither takes them to the extreme, in terms of pure imagistic experimentation and its conceptual results, like his brother Tony did, but when he achieves that equilibrium, we are rewarded with Blade Runner, the vastly underrated Black Rain, and this one, Hannibal.

In Hannibal, there are many points in which he nearly crosses the line to overindulgence, as in the sort of monotonous manner Giancarlo Giannini’s character is initially presented, it ends up serving a bigger purpose than simply alluding to a symbol, to a single significance of his actions, since his meeting with Hannibal after learning his true identity is a complete break from the behavior we have previously seen from the corrupt policeman, the subtle confrontation that occurs in the dialogue is not only enhanced, but given different meanings through the arrangement of the bodies, their positionings are delineated in an inquisitive way, accentuated by the distance between camera and actors when a more conventional coverage certainly would come closer while the conversation’s subdued tone fades away, it goes on the opposite direction, even the sudden light changes and contrasts are there to help substantiate the drama that is primarily observed in people and are not a superficial substitute for transformations we can not see. This is just one example but most of its scenes are constructed similarly, Scott’s approach ranges from lucid and perspicuous to almost completely cacophonous, like the pursuit in the shopping mall and the dinner scene, but these weirder moments are still controlled and always created in service of the characters, and not in spite of them.

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One aspect that makes Hannibal quite exceptional, and that should probably be credited to David Mamet’s initial involvement, is its structural concision and the acceptance of those figures as archetypical, preventing the subtextually charged material from becoming too literal on the screen, from overly psychologizing the procedures (as did Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs). Scott makes a clever choice in emphasizing the abundant references to the long Italian tradition in representations which blurry the line between horror, beauty and the grotesque, associating it with the narrative’s batshit grand guignol and occasional discussions of the philosophical or theological implications behind those prevailing images, in the entire city of Florence, as ignored as the people living in it (there is a moment in which a man is murdered in a crowded street, someone looks, but nobody stops, and the policeman can wash his bloody hands in public as if nothing happened, the subsequent killings, even of completely unimportant characters, are given the same unusual attention).

The lost interest in the underlying values of those works reflect a much larger problem, as all institutions are shown to be corrupt and lacking any ethical basis, maybe everyone, as the scenes mentioned above could suggest. Therefore, Giannini’s death scene is fundamental, not just cheap, gratuitous violence. A disemboweled body appears hanging from a balcony, a group of tourists immediately laugh at the incident, then screams are heard and a final shot of the square shows the bystanders perplexed with the view. Suddenly, the representations become a bewildering and horrendous spectacle in flesh and blood, and a forgotten, subconscious understanding of such problems clash into the surface.

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In America, the invasion of the modern world by these displaced and almost mythical expressions is even more overt. The same kind of acknowledgement is made in the neo-gothic figure of the villain and his surroundings, portrayed as a deformed monster living in a recluse castle, with faithful servants (the police included) to do the dirty work, in short, Dracula, while Hannibal fancies himself as some sort of savior (and yes, Christ imagery follows), an outlaw punisher who desires the incorruptible purity he sees in Clarice Starling. Their relationship is explicitly related to Beauty and the Beast, to Tristan and Isolde (Wagner’s overture is quoted on the soundtrack at the final encounter), thus, having a deranged love story between investigator and murderer told as a violent fairy tale at its center, it becomes easier to see the parallels with the gialli.

Hannibal‘s inheritance from Dante Alighieri is the same of Mario Bava, but it doesn’t mean Scott tries to simply emulate the Italian masters, which is impossible to anyone who takes the genre seriously, for they are essentially works of criticism. Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci were all film/art critics, none of their best work should be considered mere reproduction, and I think Scott does something very close here, besides the clear awareness of their common aesthetic principles, which is probably what motivates the departure from his vices in other more stylized efforts, oriented by static and saturated images, as opposed to Hannibal‘s more harmonious movements, elegant camera work and gorgeous use of chiaroscuro lighting. And even Hans Zimmer’s main theme sounds like a nod to Goblin’s Suspiria.

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Hannibal must be the director’s greatest accomplishment since Blade Runner, and I hope it gets the same critical revaluation after the general dismissal of the film upon release. And to think that something this risky, an outright insane black comedy, constantly refusing to play safe, was put out as a blockbuster by a major studio, with big stars, and done by a director who is far from willing to take big chances most of the times, only 14 years ago… A production like this is unimaginable today, and that is really sad.

Christofer Pallú