Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

I don’t hate Christmas. I really don’t, even though I am a bit of a godless heathen and dislike being stalked by a leering fat man for one entire month of the year. But I definitely loathe Christmas movies, and haven’t subjected myself to one since watching the execrable Christmas with the Kranks over two years ago.

That particular lowlight of holiday cinema exemplifies the worst impulses of the Christmas movie, masking its inherent nastiness in a syrupy ending. A couple decide to opt out of Christmas and spend the holiday on a cruise, rather than face the melancholy prospect of their first Christmas apart from their only daughter, who is off in South America. The film turns this couple into objects of scorn, but my initial reaction was sympathetic: what’s so wrong with them skipping a depressing, lonely holiday? It’s not like they shot Santa Claus. They just want to take a goddamn cruise, for pity’s sake.

Ah, but this is Christmas, most holy of days, and a celebration of peace and love, you jerk. Get with it or suffer the consequences.

Naturally, some obnoxious comedy of the feuding neighbour variety breaks out. A mean-spirited, smugly conformist tone overwrites the proceedings, and the bullshit saccharine message conflicts with cartoony slapstick excess—spasms of unfunny violence that are the film’s contempt for its characters bursting to the surface. It’s a thoroughly ugly film, and one that makes the very concept of community odious and inhuman.

By comparison, the naïve universalism of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is positively refreshing. These days, the war on Christmas is well on its way to replacing eggnog around the fire with sodomite orgies in the street, but back in 1964, apparently all baby Jesus had to fear was Martian invasion.

In order to bring some Christmas cheer to their listless children, the Martians kidnap Santa, who remains hilariously unflappable throughout his ordeal, chuckling idiotically at every menace and defending his kidnappers to a plucky pair of Earth children abducted alongside him. Not to spoil the ending for viewers who might not have noticed the film’s title, but the old man’s implacable jolliness wins out over Martian dourness. The climactic fight scene, involving children bombarding a villainous Martian with toys, is such a chaotic flurry of bubbles and flailing limbs and ecstatic faces that it feels like an elementary school production of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.

Along the way, the Martians recant the error of their kidnapping ways and everyone learns the true meaning of Christmas: kids like loot (a cosmic truth, apparently). It’s a bit dopey, and no less conservative than a movie like Christmas with the Kranks, but certainly nowhere near as vicious. That film essentially bludgeons its characters into a false conformist utopia, but Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has this rather innocent view that the sheer wonderfulness of the holiday will always win over any doubters. It doesn’t matter if you’re human or Martian, Catholic or Muslim, or whatever—everyone loves getting free stuff and eating lots of chocolate, right?

Okay, so perhaps if I were a Muslim or a Martian I would find that notion a tad condescending (it’s always easy to say your own values are good for everyone else), but the culture has certainly shifted in the years between these two films. You can see the disillusionment in the later film, as we move from an earlier era where it was just assumed that Western Christian traditions were good for everyone to the present-day conservative resentment at the people who would dare reject these values. The two films trace a line between naivete and bitterness.

If they remade Santa Claus Conquers the Martians today, what would it look like? I imagine Santa would pack a gun, shooting smart missiles from his sled as he dismantles the oppressive old regime and promises the Martian children a new era of peace and plenty. Unthinkingly, he would give them little blond dollies and baseball bats for Christmas, angering the children who would try to explain to the oblivious fat man that they’re not little blond children and baseball isn't a very fun sport to play in space (every hit would be out of the park). Things would deteriorate from there. Claus would ignore criticism that he was out of touch with the Martian children. Elves would suppress dissidents. Finally, one night, the children would creep into his workshop, knives aloft, and they would reach into that fluffy white mane, slowly, a snowy hill, little red rivers…

I’m sorry, but it’s that old heathen instinct flaring up again. Something about these Christmas movies sets off my grumpy side. What can I say? These movies always bring out a mixture of our worst inclinations and best intentions and combine the two into something completely indigestible. Whether naïve or nasty, they break down into a celebration of community at the expense of any outsiders, all glossed over with a generic message of universal peace and harmony. Never mind the war on Christmas—what about Christmas’ war on us?

(Note: Oh, glories of the public domain! You can find Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on archive.org in a decent, if slightly abridged, copy. However, a better way of experiencing the film would be Cinematic Titanic’s mockery of it, which you can read more about here.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

I’ve always thought Zac Efron looks more like a doll than a human being (I envision some giant 10-year-old girl combing his hair incessantly and setting him up on dates with her other toys). Fortunately, his dewy blankness is ideal for his role in Me and Orson Welles as Richard, an eager young actor coming to grips with the dispiriting realities of art and idolatry. He's an empty vessel craving substance, and the charismatic, commanding Welles (here played by Christian McKay, superbly mimicking the master) offers a template any uncertain adolescent could adore. When Richard lucks his way into a bit part as Lucius in Welles’ 1937 black-shirt version of Julius Caesar, he finds himself with a front-row seat for the full pyrotechnics show of a young genius about to burst onto the scene.

What follows is a fairly familiar coming-of-age tale rendered with some buoyant backstage hustle and nicely observed period detail (although the fascist allusions of the play suggest a different version of 1937 than the apolitical one we see here). I was utterly charmed by the film, imperfections aside—like so many other Richard Linklater projects, the whole is so smart and welcoming that it’s easy to forgive a few flawed parts. Even just as an illumination of Welles’ theatre work, the film is quite rewarding: the condensed re-enactment of his Julius Caesar that we see here is so thrilling and enticing I wish some brave director would take on the thankless task of bringing it to the stage for real.

Me and Orson Welles could easily get by on its abundant surface charms, but beneath the inside jokes and rich atmosphere the film does have some ideas about Welles and genius in general. In the span of his one week at the Mercury Theatre, Richard begins to realize the dark side of these artists he idolizes as he learns of the volatility—indeed, the immense, gaping vulnerability—that often accompanies the most brilliant creators. He witnesses the sobbing terror of George Coulouris before the man goes on stage (ultimately reduced to something cringing and baby-like as Welles coddles and comforts him), and even Welles hints that his own insecurity and self-loathing are at the root of his acting.

In death—as in life too, come to think of it—Welles is valued more as a myth than a man. He’s become this symbol for the pitfalls of precocious genius, the battle of ego and fame versus art and inspiration. This is a trap many have fallen into while attempting to capture Welles in fiction. One of the biggest weaknesses of Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock—another period piece about Welles’ theatre work—is the oversimplified treatment of Welles and the readiness with which Robbins accepts the received notions of the director’s persona. By contrast, Linklater’s treatment is a little more affectionate, while still exploring the sharp edges of Welles’ character. Even if he’s still more symbol than flesh, at least the film has something to say about it.

The film is ambivalent about the nebulous quality that is genius—admiring its fruits, yet wary of the cost. After Welles tosses aside Richard, the boy seems at first hurt, but eventually acquiesces to his fate with what seems like relief. It’s a terrible burden, this being a tool of greatness, forced to submit to its every whim (again, I imagine poor doll-like Efron in the hands of that infant ogress, finally stuck in a toy car next to Hannah Montana).

Fittingly for such an enchanting yet minor work, there’s a fable-like quality to all of this, as if the whole week with the Mercury Theatre were somehow a dream that Richard has woken from by the end. Unwisely, the film tries to cling to that same wistful, daydream atmosphere in its final scene and tempts mawkishness as a result. What's so wrong with just waking up?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Having neglected the much-lauded director Ramin Bahrani for far too long, I finally caught up with his recently released third feature, Goodbye Solo. There are certainly some nice points to this low-key drama about the relationship between a gregarious taxi driver from Senegal and a dour, possibly suicidal old man—for one thing, it’s not as trite as that description might sound. But are we really so starved for sincere, intelligent independent movies that we’re ready to roll out the carpet for this bit of soft-sell sentimental pap? True, the film at least avoids descending into an obnoxious homily about the beauty of life and all that junk, but its misty final scenes—set in a lush, multi-coloured forest in autumn—project a gauzy, hopeful-sad aura that’s almost worse. The moral and emotional complexities of the suicide question are buried beneath a mound of cotton-fuzz feeling, and Bahrani wrings unearned impact out of the climax with some lazy contrivances—the worst being when the cab driver discovers the old man’s diary and reads it out loud for our benefit, helpfully explaining away all the loose ends while turning the gruff man into a more sympathetic figure. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit on the attempts to canonize this often facile, strained film as part of the vanguard of a new wave in realist cinema—this is nothing more than old-fashioned treacle dressed in self-seriousness. A three-act structure is a three-act structure, and if this is reality then I guess that means I don’t exist.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

After years of toiling away on blockbusters, Sam Raimi returns to his B-movie roots with this snappy little horror-comedy. I was a little cool to Drag Me to Hell at first, mostly because of Alison Lohman’s performance as Christine Brown, a loan agent who forecloses on a gypsy and as a result is cursed to eternal damnation (Justin Long, who is rarely interesting enough to sustain my interest for 30 seconds, let alone a whole film, hardly helps as her boyfriend). Compared to the walking cartoon that is Bruce Campbell, Lohman feels like a rather colourless protagonist—too passive, too doe-eyed, too generically pretty. Her good-girl looks tell us to like her, which somehow only makes her more unlikable, especially considering her generally dishonest, entitled behaviour throughout the film.

But that’s actually the point here, and one of the main pleasures of this film lies in how Raimi constantly tweaks our expectations of how we’re supposed to react. Shifts in tone leave us off balance, whether it be the dopey loud-music-sudden-crash shocks setting up more elegantly crafted jolts, or humourous scenes turning serious (and vice versa). A well-played, violent encounter between Christine and her shadowy demon tormentor gives way to an outrageous ritual sacrifice of her cat, complete with Norman Bates-style stabbing and buckets of blood splattering all over the place (I think the amount of fake blood used probably weighed more than the cat). The unstable mood builds to a bracingly acerbic conclusion that is at once unexpected and completely reasonable. After all, for all his love of slapstick silliness, Raimi is actually a very plain spoken and sensible director—qualities that shine through in this sardonic comment on status seeking and moral dishonesty.

Okay, so only a few scenes—such as a lively fight between Christine and a demon in a moving car, as well as the mud-soaked, grave-desecrating finale—reach the freewheeling heights of Raimi’s best work. And truthfully, you’ll probably laugh more just watching Army of Darkness for the umpteenth time. But where else can you go these days if you want to see a geriatric gypsy-demon gumming her victim because her dentures fell out? Raimi sees a need, and he fills it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Love Exposure

At its core, Love Exposure is just a simple, modest story about young love straining against the bonds of repression. And were this nothing more than a simple, modest film, who would care? Fortunately, Love Exposure is thoroughly convoluted and immodest—a delirious four-hour epic that blows up its emotions to billboard size and demands attention with every outrageous plot twist and shocking image.

There’s always a risk of Stockholm syndrome with something this size—who wants to admit they just wasted four hours, after all—but I can only express shameless admiration for what writer/director Sion Sono has done here. Never would I have thought that I would find myself touched by the story of a teen photographing the panties of unsuspecting women, but there you go.

The son of a sexually frustrated priest, Yu has turned to tosatsu—peak-a-panty photography, turned into something of a martial art by the film—in order to find a sin worth confessing to his father. It seems his usual confessions, typically consisting of minor transgressions like forgetting to offer up his seat on the bus to a mother with child, aren’t enough to satisfy the old man’s hunger for sin. With the eagerness of a puppy, Yu sets out to bring home some fine sins, but his enthusiasm goes to far—disgusted by his son’s perversity, Yu’s father banishes him from the church.

There is no sexual charge in Yu’s hobby, however. These random women bring him no pleasure. All he wants is to find his true love, a woman like the Virgin Mary. He finds her in the form of Koko, a surly punker who suffers an abusive father and has a part-time job knocking down houses (she delights in imagining the deterioration of the families that once lived there). She burns with contempt for men, getting into knock-down chopsocky brawls with random guys on the street, although she likes to begin with a brief prayer: “Jesus, forgive these morons.”

Unfortunately for Yu, he first meets the love of his life while dressed in drag as Miss Scorpion (it’s more fun if I don’t explain, so don’t even ask), and Koko falls madly in love with this mysterious “woman.” At this point, the film takes a distinctly Shakespearean detour into gender-bending romantic triangles with the entrance of Koike, a coke-dealing agent of a cult called the Zero Church, who obsesses over Yu, bugging his house and filming his every move. Oh, the delicate blossoming of young love.

In her mad, all-consuming plot to finally win Yu—who of course only has eyes for Koko, who of course can’t tolerate the creepy, panty-photographing twerp—Koike convinces Koko that she was Miss Scorpion all along. The two develop a bubbly little lesbian romance, much to the anger of the increasingly frustrated Yu. And all the while, Koike deepens her control over every figure in Yu’s life, finally turning everyone against him and moving Koko and Yu’s father into the Zero Church, where they all learn to hate and fear sex (you know, like any normal religion).

I could go on. This doesn’t even touch on Yu’s adventures as a pornographer, his coterie of loser friends/dedicated disciples, his experience as a priest of perverts, a kidnapping attempt, a sojourn in an insane asylum, and various other mad sights you’ll discover on this strange trip of a film. To think this was apparently cut down from a six-hour version.

Now, I doubt the six-hour version of Love Exposure will gain the same mythic stature as, say, the lost nine-hour version of Greed, but I can’t deny the sheer bravura, even grandeur, of the epic four hours that remain. Reeling between the extremes of high and low culture, this film is unique in that it can contain both a scene of a woman reciting Corinthians 13 to the lilting strings of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and also of a woman using a pair of scissors to snip off the erect penis of her comatose father, luxuriating in the geyser-gush of blood that erupts. (This film single-handedly does more to resurrect the art of the comedy erection than the entire last century of pop culture.)

A film that hits the four-hour mark is making a claim to its own importance, no matter its contents. Even a four-hour film of a man reading a phonebook would demand to be viewed as art—perhaps just some sort of conceptual, anti-art-but-actually-secretly-art prank, but still—and Love Exposure tests the limits in its own way. Out of what could have been nothing more than a wacky rom-com, Sono creates a sprawl of religion, sex, and guilt, a vortex of shame that sucks in the helpless characters and drags them to the depths.

The lead actors all do an exceptional job with what surely must have been challenging roles, although I have to single out the remarkable Sakura Ando as Koike. As Yu’s nemesis, she is the motor behind most of the key sequences, and she provides the frenzied charge of the film’s strongest moments. She's a commanding figure, this angry girl who mixes leering power with flights of youthful playfulness, which only remind us of her own fragility, her doomed need for Yu, the man who despises her. The Yu and Koko story may form the heart of the film, but the more fraught and violent relationship between Yu and Koike is its soul, where all of this sexual need and fear plays out to its full tragic end.

Shot on digital, Love Exposure is hardly eye-candy (and some scenes, like Yu’s visions of Koko as the Virgin Mary, are even played for gaudiness), but it burns with inventiveness and energy. Sono possesses a stylistic range that can include a comedic montage sequence, such as Yu training under the tutelage of a sleazy old tosatsu master, or an emotionally devastating monologue delivered in a single take, or even a hand-held sequence of domestic turmoil that feels as raw as something out of Cassavetes.

Regardless of where you stand on Sono’s combination of bawdy and absurd plotting with aspirations to profundity, I think it would be hard to deny that he has made a film here that is beautifully alive and honest, devoid of calculation or false notes. Even at its most ridiculous, the film stays true to itself. Everything is invested with such savage passion that it becomes moving, the story told with such aching sincerity that to call it camp would feel somehow callous. It’s a remarkable film that can celebrate perversion with such gusto and still remain fundamentally innocent.