A Note on Criterion’s edition of “Scanners”

David Cronenberg’s Scanners, more accessible than Videodrome, less refined than The Fly, remains along with The Brood one of the Canadian director’s most accessible of his bodily mortification films. What a pity that it had long languished in a subpar DVD edition in North America, what joy when Criterion announced it as one of its July titles, and what disappointment when early reviews from otherwise reputable review sites such as DVDBeaver and Bluray.com noted and provided screen captures of a director approved video transfer that appeared something on the cooler side. The transfer reported by these sites was a wash of blue, distinctly different than any previous incarnation of the film’s transfer, without any presence of accurate white balance. And yet it was director approved. Hesitant to purchase what I assumed would be an aberrant transfer from what remains an otherwise impeccable roster from Criterion, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the transfer lacking any of the aberrant blue. The colour palette of the film was instead accurately balanced. I must surmise, in the absence of corroborative evidence, that the screener copies sent to these reviewers were defective, and that Criterion has since addressed the issue. In short, ignore any concerns of a blue wash to this picture and feel confident that this film is indeed presented in a lush and brilliant transfer.

I don’t have access to my BD-ROM drive presently, but when I do I’ll be sure to post screen captures for comparison and evidence.

Fincher’s Necrophilia

When it comes to the work of David Fincher, many seem content to just tow the party line that he is a great artist because his films look great. I don’t intend to dispute that; I do intend to add, however, that Fincher’s work remains fixed in our cultural consciousness for more than just his unique visual sensibility. While there are any number of points from which one could map out a worthwhile case for Fincher’s artistic merit, I want to focus on what I consider a theme that runs throughout Fincher’s work.

The reaction of many Internet commentators to Fincher being announced as the director of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be called a subconscious recognition of what I’m getting at. Most trumpeted the material as a natural fit to Fincher’s directorial style. The majority of the claims, however, rested solely on the fact that he had already made films about serial killers before, as if that was a natural prerequisite for making any other film about a serial killer (one has to wonder if the same logic would have been applied by commentators had the director of Saw had been announced as the director of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). But Fincher’s work encompasses far more than movies about serial killers, and his style extends beyond his uncanny ability to make the ugly seem beautiful. Nonetheless, there seems an implicit consensus that Seven, as with any other Fincher film, is more than its synopsis. But what animates a Fincher film beyond these elements? Part of it seems his effortless ability to elevate the macabre to pop – culture accessibility. Fincher’s films seem to function as autopsies of our darkest impulses, while his entire body of work might be considered as a post mortem of contemporary society.

The Curious Case of Benjamin lavishes its attention on the deterioration of the human body; indeed, the curious nature of Benjamin allows the film to almost constantly have one of its two main leads in senility despite covering a nearly 70 year span of their lives. Even in Benjamin’s birth, we are reminded of death. Even in his adolescence, the eventual obsolescence of our bodies is observed. Even as Benjamin grows young, the other characters in the film grow old. Fincher spent millions of dollars commissioning entirely new technology not simply to turn one of the most beautiful men in the world into Yoda, but to explore issues that seem deeply rooted in the director’s psyche.

To wit, Benjamin Button was not the first time Fincher had made use of the destruction of the flesh as a theme in his work. It appears in the allusive destruction of Jared Leto’s unabashedly “pretty” face by the narrator in a quasi-homoerotic fit of rage that is also tinged with the suggestion of jealousy.

(As a sidenote: Fincher seems to have a disdain for “pretty”, that or a paradoxical wish to destroy it by containing it. Indeed, it’s Tracy’s “pretty head” that John Doe is compelled to take and keep in a box. Is it envy or loathing that motivates Fincher? Or perhaps something more complicated?)

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jared Leto again serves as another site of this theme in Fincher’s next film, Panic Room. The theme achieves a sustained presence in the escalating damage doled out on the bodies of the film’s criminals. By the end it is Raoul, missing fingers, teeth and the use of his legs, who becomes a metonym for this idea. In an interesting parallel to another of Fincher’s films, Raoul is motivated to murder by apoplectic rage, the same which animates David Mills in the conclusion of Seven.

Fincher does not use these visions of bodily mortification for shock or horror, however. Contrary to what some critics have claimed, Fincher is not a sadist who delights in showing the torture of his cinematic victims under the pretense of artistic license. Fight Club shows little of the impact of “Jack’s” fists striking and offers only a glimpse of the aftermath of his bloody rampage. Seven similarly shows little of the gruesome aftermath, and nothing of the acts themselves. Instead, the destruction of the body is implied, allowing the carnage to serve as sites of reflection. The grisly murder scenes function as memento mori, as invocations of the fragility of flesh.

One shrine in particular bears further mention, that of John Doe’s victim one year in the making: the child pederast in his dilapidated apartment.

The accoutrements of this temple, a canopy of air fresheners, suggests the cheap commercialization and industrialization of daily life. Here is the stink of death, the natural corollary of life, masked by mass produced, artificial scents. The centrepiece on the altar, that desiccated husk, is, I think, the director’s statement on humanity. Frightening, ugly, bounded by ideology and bound by its zealots. Unable to die, yet unable to live.

The capstone of the scene is the message scrawled in feces over the head of the victim’s bed: sloth.  The placement and its biblical context recalls the inscription above the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (a work mentioned throughout this film): abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

The irony of the sin is that our bodies are naturally inclined to indolence–a disinclination to exertion is their ultimate fate. Fincher reminds us of this eventuality in Benjamin Button by bookending the film with the Cate Blanchett’s otherwise spirited character bed-ridden and gasping for breath. By loading Blanchett’s typical stunning features under a heavy layer of prosthetics and old-age makeup, it is as if Fincher was indirectly commenting on his other site of bed-ridden death in Seven (indeed, it’s the only other time a scene of a bed-ridden character occurs in Fincher’s entire filmography).

This image of a zombie-like wraith who refuses to die recurs throughout Fincher’s works, from Edward Norton’s insomniac in Fight Club, the heavily bludgeoned father in Panic Room, to the broken-jawed psychopath of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Even Alien 3 is sustained by this image in the doomed figure of Ellen Ripley, her body a temple to a very different vision of necrosis–though perhaps it’s unwise to include it since Fincher is loath to even admit this film’s existence.

The image of the living dead even serves as the final shot of Zodiac, a film already filled with characters trapped in this paradoxical state of dead life (a similar finale is used with Mark Zuckerberg nearly catatonic at his computer). Consumed with the search for a man who makes death his living (another echo to Seven), these characters are precluded from living normal lives. Moreover, the ostensible main character, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), prevents himself from living. His obsession with the Zodiac becomes something of a prolonged suicide, professional as well as personal. Or perhaps the film suggests it is in our nature to destroy, if not others then at least ourselves.

Both of these impulses are found in David Mills’ final act in Seven. When David shoots John Doe in the head, it’s as if the bullet had blown away his brain too; afterward he’s a catatonic wretch, unable to speak or even blink. One almost wonders if Somerset’s statement early on in the film to David might have served as a cryptic warning: “You actually asked to be assigned here.”

The echelon of justice is reduced to impotency by man’s inhumanity to man. The necrotic nightmare of John Doe’s third victim (technically his first) recurs in the image of David sitting placidly in the back of the police car by the film’s conclusion. And the doctor’s grim pronouncement of the pederast’s fate is recalled: “He’s endured about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take, and he still has hell to look forward to.” It is here that Fincher’s directorial sensibilities achieves its most terrifying realization in what must be his parable of humanity: if this is not hell, what horrors still remain?

There’s more to be said on this topic, but I think I’ve said enough. Feel free to add to the discussion in the comments below.

If you like where these words are going keep up to date with them on Twitter @binarybastard

Paramount issuing new Star Trek Into Darkness BD

Bill Hunt is reporting over at the Digital Bits that Paramount is finally releasing the Star Trek Into Darkness bluray that they should have released from the start. Hunt’s enthusiasm, however, and especially his gratitude, offer troubling signs of the sado-masochistic relationship many of us share with these companies. Warner Brothers has gotten into the habit of rerealeasing old BDs that were exemplary to begin with (their latest wave includes, alongside a repackaged reissue of Ben-HurThe Green Mile, but this time with bonus extended documentary!), MGM won’t even bother to allow a restoration of The Alamo (which is liquefying in their vaults as you read this), and Paramount is gouging its customers with what was once supposed to be a premium format.

If there’s a lesser evil here I’m sure I don’t see it.

Although I’ve already bitched about this capitalist edifice before, Hunt’s innocuous remarks suggest there’s more to be said on the matter. It’s one thing for a studio to simply not produce any content for a film in the first place (indeed, Paramount were under no obligation to do so with Star Trek), but it’s insulting when it smashes the features into pieces and scatters them to the four big retailers of the world in a corporate fit of sadistic glee, and it’s offensive to our collective intelligence when people express gratitude to their kidnapper for offering them a choice that could be considered fair only after prolonged abuse. Hunt may be happy to report that Paramount is offering people the choice to fork over more money for a product that should’ve been released alongside the first edition, I’ll simply report that the option is available to you. Still, just to twist the knife, Paramount is said to be preparing a rebate for those who bought the first edition.

Here’s the link to the original post:

http://www.digitalbits.com/columns/my-two-cents/062314_0600

The Narrative Genius of Jaws: Celebrating 39 years of Aquaphobia

 

“It’s a pretty good story, a pretty perfect structure.”

–Steven Spielberg on Jaws, 2012

Steven Spielberg mugs for the camera “on the set” of “Jaws”

Although when asked these days Spielberg seems to attribute a fair deal of the success of Jaws more to luck than anything else, there are several other reasons why Jaws was able to become the first modern blockbuster, the film that ushered in summer movies, and, more importantly, continues to resonate with audiences to this day. Spielberg himself offers a productive means of exploring its success with his self-effacing remarks about the film’s story. I want to examine Spielberg’s claim about the perfection of this film’s structure and offer some evidence to validate his claim.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZrJP1zyoJY Continue reading

On Giving Credit Where it’s Due

After some derisory remarks I made in my review of Godzilla regarding its script, I had a thoughtful and useful question put to me. I was initially going to reply in the comment section of that post, but as my response developed into a more elaborate exploration of acceptable protocols for determining who to credit with a film’s successes and who to blame for its failures, I decided to feature it as a post.

A rough precis of the question is as follows: does my review of Godzilla essentially establish a baseless dichotomy that credits director Gareth Edwards for all the good bits and blames the screenwriters for all the bad?

To begin with the very suggestion of the question before I get into its specifics: while it is true that I let Edwards off rather easy in my review and ensuing comments, I deny that I make this the case in my reviews rather than the exception. I do not subscribe to the fallacy of assuming the name on the credits tells the whole story of that person’s involvement in the finished script. To use one telling example: David Koepp might have written the inept and pedestrian script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it was Spielberg who takes a sort of masochistic pride in claiming the idea to “nuke the fridge” (one can only wonder what was in the script before that nail in the integrity of the series landed).  However, in the absence of direct testimony, we’ve only the credits to go by. It becomes necessary then to approach each credited individual of a film as guilty of his or her contributions until proven innocent. Regardless of this, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to be certain where to give credit or to lay blame. Indeed, I can imagine in some circles one of Godzilla‘s many producers bragging that it was he who came up with the finale, just as easily as I can imagine an uncredited writer doing the same–there’s no accounting for taste. Continue reading

Godzilla the Messiah Monster, and other atomic-age aberrations

(This review is spoiler-free.)

On the sixtieth anniversary of the original Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards reboot succeeds more by the strength of the director’s undeniable talent than it does its tired and pedestrian script. Infused with Edwards’ obvious passion for the material and the genre, the film is unfortunately perched on the rickety skeleton of action and disaster movie clichés. For all the passing similarities to real world analogues, little in the film is novel or particularly exciting, and the assortment of recycled ideas keeps Godzilla from ever reaching its full potential. However, considering that it’s Edwards’ first time directing a major tentpole film the results are more than competent. Continue reading

Werner Herzog 16 film boxset on sale at Amazon.ca

Imposing cover art for the limited edition set

Werner Herzog, the director I respect and admire more than any other, has been collected in a massive 16 film box set by Shout Factory that includes many of his most renowned films, and just today Amazon.ca has dropped the price on this blu-ray set by a third. Limited to only 5,000 copies, if you have even the slightest interest in this director there may never be a better time to indulge. Certain to cause ontological shock and epidemiological dilemmas of the most absurd degree, and at only $7 a film, this set is the greatest bargain on Amazon presently.

Note, however, that there is also a Region B set with 18 of the director’s films being offered by BFI. Having compared the titles (though not the transfers) between the two, I assure you that the main titles in Herzog’s oeuvre are found in both sets. Whichever set you purchase you’ll be getting an astounding overview of Herzog’s work. Though it’s unfortunate that the BFI has 8 exclusive titles and Shout has 6, and that the only real way to settle the difference is to buy both sets, there is some comfort in knowing that both sets offer a terrific sample.

When the set finally arrives I may just have to go about writing a career length retrospective of this unique and impossibly brilliant man.

I’ll close with a quote I believe succinctly embodies Herzog in all his mystery and startling contradictions, offered in Les Blank’s painful Burden of Dreams (sadly offered only on the BFI set, though available also in a fantastic deluxe DVD edition from Criterion):

“Kinski says [the jungle] is full of erotic elements. It’s not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it’s the same misery that’s all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

Here’s the link to that Shout deal:
Herzog: The Collection [Blu-ray]

NOTE: This link is for the Canadian version of the Amazon site. I can’t be certain what the final price might be after import duties, but consider in your calculations that the price for the set on Amazon.com is $40 USD more.

Recommended Reading: Nehme’s “Spirits by Starlight”

 

Still from Lewis Allen’s 1944 haunted house story “The Uninvited”

If you’re looking for something inspiring to read, check out Farran Smith Nehme’s essay about Lewis Allen’s most successful and popular film, the 1944 ghost story The Uninvited starring Ray Milland, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

The alacrity by which such troves of insight are revealed should serve as an examplar for any piece of film analysis, be it a review or essay. Amateurs and professionals alike should study its form and nuances to glean what insights they may from it. Everyone else, may I recommend a double-feature of Allen’s The Uninvited with Hitchcock’s most ostensibly gothic masterpiece Rebecca?

Nehme also runs her own blog, Self-Styled Siren, which is similarly filled with brilliant monographs about cinema.

Conjuring a lost classic: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer resurrected

For many moviegoers in 1977, it was the most anticipated movie of the summer. Coming as it did from an up-and-coming and internationally renowned wunderkind director whose penchant for verisimilitude marked a radical break with typical Hollywood studio filmmaking, it was undoubtedly destined for greatness. Loaded with action and exceptional special effects, a cast of relative unknowns, and based on the director’s previous hit, the response was expected to be phenomenal. It was not Star Wars, and when it was released only a week after Lucas’ little science-fiction space adventure, William Friedkin’s critically maligned Sorcerer, a remake of Henri Clouzot’s classic French film The Wages of Fear (1955), was out of the zeitgeist faster than the prints were out of the theatres.

The original poster for Sorcerer (1977)

Continue reading