ATTACK THE BLOCK

ATTACK THE BLOCK is a brilliantly timed, brilliantly witty, brilliantly written horror comedy a la SHAUN OF THE DEAD which also raises – in slightly pamphlet-like fashion – important social issues about the decimation of state-funded education, racism and class segregation in London.

And yet, I feel like I just drank a can of Cola Light. I feel a lot like I just saw TIN TIN, in fact, which the director of this film co-scripted for Spielberg. It’s not just that I don’t trust his honesty about delivering social statements at the same moment he’s working for Spielberg. It’s also that the otherwise brilliant scipt remains, at heart, a feelgood story. And curiously infantile, too, given that the movie depicts the child heroes as more mature than their adult colleagues.

I was reminded of an incident earlier this week. Some students from the HKU, my old media academy, graduated with MAC & CHEESE, a short animation which is about a chase. You can see it here:

In Dutch press I read that (my old) professors at the Academy hated the concept, and advised the students against producing this animation. As the students report, the Academy prefers productions that are only shown at festivals and that have a message. (Indeed, I remember them having this attitude in the time I was studying) However the students were dead convinced that their chase concept, stripped of all meaning & purpose*, would have commercial success; and they were proven right when Mac’n’Cheese received countless hits on Youtube, approaching a million this week.

(* including the post-modern sarcasm of the Road Runner, which they quote as their inspiration; there’s no distancing in this animation, it’s earnestly stupid)

The students explained that they were only interested in commercial effects. In fact, they hoped that the professors would give more space to productions solely focused on moneymaking, instead of fostering all these festival movies with a message.

But they still raise an interesting question: in what form do young people today express discontent? Is the fact that none of it makes any sense a kind of meta-satire?

Here I was reminded of what I read in WHY IT’S KICKING OFF EVERYWHERE, a recent London best-seller dealing with new media revolutions such as the one in Egypt.

Although he doesn’t elaborate well enough for my taste, Mason finds a lot of meaning in the fact that things like mobile phones enable you to simultaneously be an individual, and be connected.

In other words, the instantaneous nature of mobile communication allows for a heightened concentration on the Now, which despite appearing completely flat, is in fact layered: a form of mobile Buddhism.

SURVEILLANCE


SURVEILLANCE
(directed by Jennifer Lynch, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond)


Two FBI agents, Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman), arrive at a local police station in the Santa Fe desert to investigate a series of murders. They interrogate three Witness|eyewitnesses: Police officer Jack Bennet, the meth-addict Bobby, and Stephanie, an eight-year-old girl, whose family was murdered by two figures dressed in jumpsuits and latex masks.

The ‘’surveillance’’ of the title does not exclusively address the functioning of the government. Although she does criticize the American police with a wry sense of humour, Jennifer is primarily interested in character psychology. This is where the director’s unique aesthetics departs from that of her father.

As the surveillance commences at the police office, we come to realize that the witnesses are lying because they want to outperform their partners. Unlike Frank Booth/Dennis Hopper of ‘’Blue Velvet’’, the killers are not driven by abstract evil. Instead, they seek confirmation in the gaze of the other, whose acceptance guarantees their survival.

In this way Jennifer makes the disturbing statement that  functioning of desire enables surveillance. In our desperate craving for love, we betray our vision to accommodate the invisible gaze – what we perceive as the expectations of others.

The visual style of the film supports this. For example, the placing of the camera on both sides of the two-way mirror in the interrogation room, which suggests that the FBI agents conducting the surveillance are being watched themselves. The way certain lines in the dialog unexpectedly point to the events that unfold later in the film. This creates an omnipresent gaze, beyond linear space and time. Or Jennifer’s trademark slow motion hallucinations: an especially brilliant one shows the murderous couple experiencing agony as they try to make love, seeing past each other, unable to communicate.

 

DIARY OF THE DEAD


The mainstream had vanished, now there was only us: bloggers, packers, kids. The more voices there are, the more spin there is. The truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end, it’s all just…noise.

DIARY OF THE DEAD joins the landmark films of the 00s, e.g. David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, John Carpenter’s CIGARETTE BURNS and Michael Hanneke’s CACHE, in which film (and hence, reality) runs on automatic pilot, because the film-maker as well as the audience are being controlled by a third entity. As one character in the movie puts it, ”I don’t want to make this movie, but I can’t stop the script”.

To see what a great director George A. Romero still is, compare DIARY OF THE DEAD with last year’s dud CLOVERFIELD. CLOVERFIELD was shot without a cut, stretching credibility to an absurd point. All throughout the movie, one couldn’t figure out how the protagonists managed to run their video camera while being chased by Godzilla. You ended up not caring about the characters, or the film as a whole.

The noise in this typographic design reveals the film’s key theme: there’s no reality outside of the recording.

Conversely, Romero builds suspense on the unexpected cuts, interruptions or noises that occur because the cameras run out of power. In a crucial scene, the main character is recording zombies in a hospital. The camera’s battery runs out in the middle of a scary attack. The viewer is instantaneously made aware of his addiction to the video signal, his desire to continue watching. On the other hand, the cut confronts us with the fear that if the video signal was interrupted, we would perish as well – even though the signal would eventually continue.



Another example: in this shot a character is looking into the mirror, which reflects numerous surveillance monitors; he is being recorded by another character in the movie; the camera tilts to the left, and he’s recorded by a third character… the point of view shot constantly shifts in DIARY OF THE DEAD. This creates the frightening impression that our already-fragmented identity can only be held together by cameras.

Steven Shaviro put it succinctly in his ultimate take on the film:

Though the female protagonist sarcastically suggests that, if her boyfriend does not videotape an incident, then it hasn’t happened, in fact everything that happens belongs to the realm of images on screens — regardless of whether or not his videocamera is around to capture it. It is not that the world has become unreal to us because we always view it mediated through cameras and screens; but rather that, since everything in the world has proliferated imagistically and virally, by contagion, in the way zombies proliferate and communicate their own condition to others — that therefore cameras and screens and computers are in fact the only tools we have left to cope with the world and its realities. This goes along with the shift from a situation where everyone watches images on television, to one where everyone owns a camera and actively captures/produces images.

EASTERN PROMISES


The creepiest moment of David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES is probably this: we see a group of young English hooligans walking through a cemetery. Instantly I am reminded of the violent football matches that announced the Yugoslav breakup in the late 80s. We can sense nationalist passions that have been repressed by technological mediation. For someone who lived through the breakup of Yugoslavia, this is merely déjà vu. Seems like Cronenberg put two and two together when he realized technology didn’t really solve the world conflicts of the 1940s.

So the EASTERN PROMISES we get from Cronenberg’s film are the promises of a new Cold War: America and Russia in civilization clinch.

The film plays out like a perverted version of the Moses narrative, with Russian mafia standing in for the Egyptian empire. There’s a baby, born out of rape and pillage, found in his mother’s bleeding stomach. At some point the Russian mafia captures it. But just as Moses is about to be thrown into the river, a kindly Westerner  (Viggo Mortenssen) and his soulmate (Naomi Watts) will save him, thereby preventing the blood feud from leading to yet another Resurrection. The film ends with the soothing image of the American finding the ”Russian soul” in vodka while the strong independent woman mothers Moses on her own. It could be an alternative to the familial-fundamentalist nightmare looming behind the façade of ”advanced Western civilization”. Or so it seems on first glance.

As represented by the androgynous Mortenssen, the West is only seemingly the carrier of Light. Nearing the end we find out that Mortenssen is actually a cop who infiltrated the mafia to act out the traditional Russian narrative as the family’s most talented hitman. However, through his trademark clinical horror, Cronenberg never hesitates to show that Mortenssen identifies himself with the role to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish between Viggo and his Russian simulation. Note his clinical precision when cutting off the fingers of the frozen corpse! In this way, it seems that the hyper-technological Western society not only reproduces, but also, amplifies the gender and power structures of the Russian mafia.

Many reviewers remarked that the film is pronouncedly low-tech. To the contrary! The reason we don’t see any technological gadgets is that the men’s bodies are literally hi-tech machines. Compared to the men, the motorcycle that Naomi Watts drives represents the most old-fashioned piece of technology in the film. It’s no incident that the movie plays out so smoothly, almost without sound, like a well-oiled robot. The human beings in it are actually cyborgs. Cronenberg wanted to invoke the feeling that society produces biotechnological entities. And this is just the right conclusion to make in our post-Videodrome era: we are already robots. 

THE HOST

THE HOST is remarkable for all the ways it is NOT your typical American monster film. The movie is a cross between Godzilla, Jurassic Park and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Extrapolating from the Troma pictures school of B horror, it infuses these old formulas with a healthy dose of humor.

While in a Spielberg flick we would see the American Father reuniting the family after it was torn apart by the monster’s appearance, here the Father dies in the process of establishing his paternal function. Thanks to the director’s dry sense of humor, his death is not only pointless, but also, quite stupid. He dies because like the rest of us, he was brought up on images of American militaristic athletes jumping into the monster’s jaws to save the world. Further contrasting the dominant US pattern, dad’s family is a bunch of dysfunctional nerds, persistently unable to perform as heroes. If in the end they do manage to kill the Monster, it’s more of an accident than any success. The Monster itself is a rather inefficient creature, moving too slowly, slipping, falling and missing; it takes forever before he realizes that a victim may be hiding in his den. Of course, nobody will arrest the American scientist or call the Korean government to responsibility for creating the thing. And there’s no Happily Everafter either! The schoolgirl dies not once, but TWICE, wrapping up the movie on a mercilessly pessimistic note.

Apart from being topnotch B-horror entertainment, THE HOST is also a biting satire of globalisation’s effects on South Korean society. The family unit is thwarted every step of the way by the Korean-American governmental apparatus. The authorities devised a SARS-type conspiracy theory to cover up the fact that an American scientist dumped formaldehyde in the Han river, giving birth to the Monster. Mobile phone technology, instead of assisting network communication, causes many deaths in the film. There is a looming sense that the entire governmental system exists only to intimidate the common folk.

PAN’S LABYRINTH

British reviewers have tried to compare PAN’S LABYRINTH to A COMPANY OF WOLVES, yet there is a crucial difference. Angela Carter’s adult fairy-tale was psychoanalytic in a classic sense; it dealt with repression. In LABYRINTH, the Conscious and Unconscious are a Moebius strip, rather than the Freudian hydraulic machine.
There are two parallel stories: one taking place in ”reality”, about the last days of Spanish fascism, the other unfolding in the mythical world of the Labyrinth. The heroine is derived from Hamlet’s Ophelia, torn between to the father’s demand and Hamlet’s deceptive lure, both of which belong to the same fascist mouse trap. When she enters the labyrinth, Ophelia learns that the state of Mexico is doubly rotten. In a turn reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s LUNACY, we realize that Spanish Fascism and Communism shared allegiances. They were each other’s mirror images. As always, it is psychoanalysis that provides this crucial (subversive) insight: the fantasy world of the Labyrinth – a riff on Lynch’s ERASERHEAD – appears as the Unconscious of the ”real” world, yet the membrane between them is porous. When you pass through the porthole to enter the other side of the mirror, you meet fascist plans disguised as good intentions. Contrasting the Chestertonian Christianity of THE NARNYA CHRONICLES, Del Torro’s Pan is the type that grins at you while keeping his fingers crossed behind his back.When he punishes Ophelia for breaking the fascist rule of the fairy-tale, i.e. that you may only partake of forbidden pleasures proscribed by the Party, he is just like the fascist Father, who punishes Ophelia for failing to sacrifice her child to Fascism.
The two worlds are connected by body horror. Despite the geographic distance between Canada and Mexico, Del Torro and David Cronenberg share a similar aesthetic. The violence deployed by Fascists against Communist rebels is paralleled in the Labyrinth’s dark Gothic universe. This is no sanitized Cinderella, but the original Grimm fairy-tale, full of hybrid monsters, sexual fears and blood. At certain strategic points, such as the Captain’s unusual interest in the plant baby being grown underneath Ophelia’s bed, it’s impossible to distinguish between ”reality” and ”fantasy”. In this way, PAN’S LABYRINTH brings horror back to its rightful owner, the Spanish-speaking culture. The film is by turns creepy, suspenseful and sublime, without for a single moment hitting bathos. Del Torro took me on a trip straight down the Sagrada familia, with its perplexing Escheresque spirals between Heaven and Earth. The labyrinth is the terrifying zone in between, that road to Hell, paved with only the best intentions.

 

LIKE AN IMAGE/LOOK AT ME (COMME UN IMAGE)

The characters looking away from each other, you can sense that the titular demand (´´Look at me!´´’) isn’t being met

COMME UN IMAGE made me think about culture´s problem with fat bodies. Societies practice a systematic exclusion of anything that doesn’t fit the dominant (Victorian or Stalinist) standard, that is to say, the vampire-like detachment of the body from earthly pleasures. Only a body capable of meeting the Greek standard is an acceptable one. Everything else must be made to feel like the Ugly Duckling.

COMME UN IMAGE chronicles the life of a chubby singer, humorously portrayed as the opposite of Nabakov’s original: a girl whose innocence doesn’t attract anyone. Lolita’s father is such a cold bastard that he often doesn’t look at her – hence the film’s title, translated from psychoanalytic French (”narcissistic identification with an idealized self-image”) to the more pragmatic English (referring to the girl’s demand to be accepted ”for who she really is”). The father’s quiet abuse is doubly frightening when you consider that the entire family finds the chubby unacceptable because of her weight. Apparently, the pathological narcissist is a role model for the French upper echelons, and all throughout the sordid proceedings, he maintains a high level of success (echoing Bret Easton Ellis’s AMERICAN PSYCHO).

Director Agnes Jaoui paints a portrait of French bourgeoisie that is so preoccupied with appearances, they don’t communicate with each other at all. Despite mobile phones ringing, nobody is picking up the calls; instead, desires end up in the ether. The chub’s painful coming-of-age story is interspersed with the story of two family clans, each run by narcissistic writers. They engagein male power games, which makes the family relationships even more strained. From the perspective of the men´s wives, it seems that women are only images in a private male theater. It’s a very lonely and scary place; after seeing this film, I don’t think I would like to live in upscale Paris.

I was impressed by Jaoui’s decision to deliver melodramatic content in naturalistic form. Her sensibility is close to Eric Romehr, and the film’s deadpan wit recalls the best days of Claude Chabrol (especially his masterpiece ”The Ceremony”). The chubby girl is the only character who displays human emotion, yet this doesn’t lead up to any catharsis. Emotions are banned from the society of privilege.

Sadly, art doesn’t seem able to redeem the emotions. LOOK AT ME is full of beautiful church music, expressing all the hurt and anger of the chubby girl, but the music doesn’t move anyone. Instead, it seems to play into their self-absorption. When the desperate Lolita screams at her father, ”It’s not about the image, it’s about the music!”, her words drown in the applause.