Saturday, September 30, 2017


Let’s talk memorable movie killers for a second. Since Mrs. Bates first slashed her way through the shower curtain in Room 1 of that roadside motel in Psycho (1960), franchise-minded murderers have had a hard time of it in the consistency department, regardless of how strong they may have lunged out of the gate. Established classics of the genre, like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street have all given birth to an array of sequels, remakes and reboots that may have extended their nasty protagonists’ shelf life, but none could approach their origins in terms of frights or filmmaking quality.

The exception to this rule of inconsistency and ever-diminishing returns in serial killer movie franchises seems to be the maniac who may have been the most unlikely to succeed, or certainly to endure, to begin with. He would be Charles Lee Ray (played with customary intensity by Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif), the madman who ends up reincarnated and reinvented, in a satiric nod to the Cabbage Patch mentality of ‘80s toy merchandising, into the body of an innocuous, mass-produced “Good Guys” doll, and thus set upon a whole new career of murderous mayhem as Chucky the Killer Doll in 1988’s Child’s Play. Directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and co-written by Holland, John Lafia and Don Mancini, from Mancini’s original story, the movie was a sizable hit and therefore, given the model of the other popular monsters of the day, a sequel was most certainly de rigueur.

Child’s Play 2 (1990), buoyed by Mancini’s inventive screenplay and John Lafia’s sprightly direction (which improves upon the efficient but occasionally inelegant work of the journeyman Holland), takes the concept of a rampaging killer doll seriously enough to render the scares while more deftly acknowledging the essential silliness of the whole concept, and the result is a sequel which not only honors its predecessor but even improves upon it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Child’s Play 3 (1991), which hit theaters only 10 months after the release of Child’s Play 2 and seemed born not only to capitalize on what was now clearly a potential cash cow (or dollar doll), but also to fulfill the widely held perception that the longer a movie serial killer sticks around, the more tepid the terror becomes. The movie did underwhelming business in the US, with grosses only slightly exceeding its modest budget, and it seemed that Chucky’s brief reign as America’s most purposely plastic psychopath might be at an end.

But, as Chucky himself might say, not so fast. After a seven-year hiatus, Mancini took a page from the James Whale playbook and made the move to rather boldly refashion his franchise. (And by this time, it really was Mancini’s franchise-- along with Brad Dourif’s voice and the influence of producer David Kirschner, credited with the Chucky doll’s original design, Mancini’s writing was and still is the most important creative element to remain consistent throughout the Chucky series, lending the whole enterprise a degree of personal investment that no other horror franchise can claim.) Mancini chose to more openly reference the humorous and satiric possibilities of his basic premise, its implicit connection to the very history of horror, and, like Whale before him, even began to hint at the gay sensibility that informed it. (Mancini himself is out and proud.) Bride of Chucky (1998), not only introduced those elements, very much making it to Child’s Play what The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was to its landmark predecessor, but it also brought Jennifer Tilly into the Chucky family as Tiffany Valentine, Charles Lee Ray’s still-human and equally antisocial girlfriend who, through an escalating and baroque set of circumstances, finds her own soul also trapped in the body of an appropriately voluptuous doll.

The resulting film, an engaging hybrid of horror thriller, road movie and satire of middle-class domesticity, was directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) and shot by Peter Pau, whose next project, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, would win him the Academy Award, and it’s a visual feast, especially compared to the previous three pictures. Bride was also a Chucky-universe game-changer, its embrace of the comic potential of the franchise premise (and its strong box-office numbers) setting the stage, after another relatively lengthy hiatus, for the series’ most controversial and divisive movie, 2004’s Seed of Chucky, a no-holds-barred, blood-soaked farce that confused and put off a good portion of the built-in Chucky audience who would have had little objection to continuing the march toward the formulaic that Child’s Play 3 seemed to promise.

Few, in fact, were ready for the relatively radical departure from formula that Mancini served up, a blistering lampoon of insular Hollywood culture featuring a spectacular turn by Tilly not only as Tiffany but also as “Jennifer Tilly,” a grandly entertaining act of diva character self-assassination which may have no equal in the history of any movie genre. And that’s not all, folks. Seed also casts Chucky and Tiffany as conflicted parents in a Hardly-Ordinary People scenario involving their gender-conflicted son Glen (or Glenda), voiced in impossibly touching, comically dexterous fashion by Billy Boyd (Pippin in The Lord of the Rings), right alongside the expected cornucopia of eviscerations, roasted corpses, death by acid bath and assorted voodoo-induced soul transferences.

Seed of Chucky was also Mancini’s directorial debut, the official handing over of the Chucky franchise to the one creative force who seemed best positioned to shepherd it forward, and it saw him at serious work developing the visual acuity that Yu seemed to inspire. More than anything, Seed found Mancini working out the influence of Brian De Palma’s insouciant pictorial wit, and it even features a rousing score by Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out). But audiences didn’t bite, and even some of the Chucky faithful felt betrayed by Mancini’s unapologetic dive into the deep end of viscera-smeared burlesque at the expense of more familiar, conventionally mounted thrills.

Nine years later, writer-director Mancini rebounded with Curse of Chucky (2013), which in part served as a response to those who complained that Chucky wasn’t scary anymore, a chance to prove that a more straightforward approach to the material could still deliver the jolts. The movie sidestepped the dread of a simple Child’s Play reboot, extending instead to a story that incorporates the history of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif appearing bodily for the first time) and a strong new character, the wheelchair-bound Nica Pierce (played by Dourif’s daughter, Fiona), set against the evil of Chucky amidst the confines of a shadow-rich, very old, dark house. Mancini didn’t entirely eschew humor in Curse, but it’s clear that the film represents a distinct move to reestablish Chucky’s dominance as a figure of fear, and the result is that while the tone is much less overtly comic, the laughs that do arrive are more integrated to the pitch-black tone of the entire piece. (Chucky was always on some level a quipster, so any attempt to avoid the laugh lines would be as much a betrayal of the Chucky legacy as some purported Seed to be; and of course, some did complain that the new movie wasn’t funny enough.) Curse was also the first film of the franchise to be released straight to Blu-ray and digital downloads, and the financial success which followed, combined with the strongest reviews of any Chucky film to date, did much to dispel the perceived stigma of direct-to-video releases as a wasteland bereft of quality or prestige, at around the same time that Netflix (and later Amazon) were doing the same thing.

But as Bride and Seed have proved, Mancini turned out to be a filmmaker not entirely comfortable with the notion of resting on the few laurels that might come his way while working in such a “disreputable” genre as horror. In the wake of the successful premiere of Curse, Mancini served as a producer and wrote two episodes of the critically acclaimed Hannibal during its third (and final?) 2015 season, and as a writer and supervising producer for the first two seasons of SyFy’s sensational horror anthology series Channel Zero, all while concocting and shooting the seventh film in the Chucky series, which drops, presumably from horror heaven, on Blu-ray and digital download this Tuesday, October 3.

The movie Chucky fans have waited four years to see is called Cult of Chucky (2017), and I’m guessing it’s going to be the one to unite, in this profoundly fractured age in which we live, those who pine for the straight-up gory days with the audiences who have always enthusiastically embraced the series’ envelope-bursting exploration of its own satiric potential, as most vividly expressed in Bride and especially Seed. The simple fact is, the through-line of Don Mancini's role as chief creative force in the Chucky series has ensured its standing, improbable as such a thing may have seemed in 1988, as the inarguable best and most consistently provocative series of its kind.

Mrs. Bates, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger all got groundbreaking classics, then a dribbling run of increasingly useless “sequels” and reboots and remakes for their trouble (though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was a hoot and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare proved a fascinating, franchise-capping experiment in meta-awareness); Michael Myers had one good Halloween night; Pinhead disappeared into the hellraising wilderness of Blockbuster Video shelf filler; and Jason’s adventures at Camp Crystal Lake were never any good to begin with, which I suppose would qualify the Friday the 13th series as the most consistent slasher franchise of all. But somehow the Chucky saga just keeps getting better, crazier, more inventive. Cult of Chucky is packed to the cackling rafters with surprises, jolts, laughs—none of which will be spoiled here— and serves as a smashing showcase for Mancini’s continuing growth as a director of considerable finesse and visual expressiveness.

When we last left Nica (Fiona Dourif), she had been handily framed by her battery-operated bête noire and convicted of the murders that, of course, Chucky committed. And speaking of commitment, Curse ended with one for Nica, into a maximum-security mental hospital where her future could only be deemed unpromising. But the movie was also tagged with a last-minute surprise appearance by Chucky’s original BFF, Andy Barclay (played by original Child’s Play child-actor-turned-grownup Alex Vincent), who has spent his journey toward adulthood perpetually tortured by the memory of his redheaded, two-foot-tall tormentor. In Curse’s final images, Andy takes violent steps to begin exacting a systematic torture-revenge on Chucky which is extended, in satisfyingly surreal fashion, into the opening action of Cult.

Nica, having been sedated by her attending psychiatrist (Michael Therriault) into accepting responsibility for the murders in the last film, is transferred to a minimum-security facility, where her attempts to salvage her sanity are undermined not only by some of the patients in her therapy group, but also by her doctor’s introduction into therapy of a vintage Chucky doll (“I got it at Hot Topic.”) to ostensibly help her erase her lingering belief in Chucky’s malevolent bent and face her own guilt. This development, which  for all the world looks, in the movie’s trailer, like just another (strained) attempt to get Chucky inside the locked doors of the facility, all the better for the lunatic to really take over the asylum, is slowly turned on its head—the doll is adopted instead by another patient, Madeleine (Elizabeth Rosen, channeling a young Lilli Taylor), whose own mental fragility may have something to do with a past history of infanticide.

But it turns out, Chucky having been a mass-produced toy, after all, that there are plenty of killer dolls to go around. When more than one Chucky shows up inside the walls of Harrogate Hospital, Mancini starts cranking up the guessing game. Just which one is the real murderous moppet? Or maybe, somehow, they all are. And what about that mutilated object of torture locked up in Andy’s den, the one who looks not like a Good Guys toy but instead like the evolved Bride/Seed/Curse-era Chucky and who cackles and cracks wise just like Brad Dourif? Maybe we’re all as crazy as Nica is supposed to be.

Not to worry. Mancini has concocted a clever and involving scenario that, if the crowd I saw it with last week is any indication, successfully thwarts just about every attempt at audience second-guessing and fulfills, with plenty of pleasurably assured filmmaking bravado, the giddy and genuinely shocking implications of the movie’s alliterative title.

What’s most exciting about this latest chapter, beside its confident extension of the Chucky saga well beyond the lazy, regurgitative storytelling that has earmarked so many other horror movie sequels, is the manner in which Mancini honorably delivers the goods, replacing cynicism with the desire to surprise and delight his audience with an imaginative jolt of a tale that by now has also taken on, for Chucky’s fans as well as his creator, a very personal resonance.

But the movie is memorable not just for the gory spectacle of Chucky’s kills which, back in the day, might have been enough. Director Mancini has considerably upped his game, and our experience, by capitalizing on the lessons learned from all those De Palma allusions—split diopter effects, split-screens, overhead tracking shots and the like—which have informed every Chucky film since Bride. With Cult of Chucky, in the way the movie extracts so much teasing visual and aural delight from its giddily nightmarish circumstances, Mancini moves beyond allusion and reveals himself to be a legitimate heir to De Palma in his prime. If Bride, Seed and Curse were movies that were clearly informed by De Palma’s expressive use of editing and the camera, then Cult of Chucky is the first movie in the series so drunk on its own premise that it feels as if it might have actually been directed by the artist who so pleasurably choreographed movies like Sisters, Raising Cain and The Fury, pictures which charge ahead in their conviction that they’ve got what it takes to rattle and excite an audience through pure movie love alone. The way Mancini adapts and improves on what was a perfectly satisfying murder-by-shattered-overhead-mirror sequence from Bride for a bravura sequence in Cult—a gorgeous diorama of death staged in a sky-lit hospital room in which shards of glass slow-motion mingle with falling snow before the execution of a shocking (and shockingly emotional) finish—is all the evidence you’d need to suspect that there might just be a Carrie or a Dressed to Kill in this director’s future. 

Also included in the Cult’s company, a return appearance by the series’ guardian/avenging angel Jennifer Tilly, which ends up feeling, perhaps improbably, less important than the presence of Fiona Dourif, who battles deliciously with her dad (in fine form here yet again) for the title of Heart of the Franchise. Mancini clearly loves what Dourif brings to the party so much that he manages to reward Nica with a fate that would feel inevitable if we’d only the imaginative capacity to anticipate it. (That audiences won’t is as much a tribute to Dourif’s conviction as to Mancini’s cleverness.)  

There are plenty of organically welcome twists and turns in this episode, and even a clunky expository moment or two which are quickly forgiven through the abundance of shivers and laughs. But the ultimate trajectory of this Cult will not be ruined by Yours Truly, and it’s my advice that you avoid any review which looks to be any more than 10% plot recitation before seeing for yourself this terrific new addition to the legacy of the movies’ shortest, most defiantly plasticine maniac. Cult of Chucky finds the sweet spot where humor and horror coexist better than any of the previous entries, and in the process happily, and with demonic relish, cements the status of the Chucky franchise as the most durable, elastic and creatively deranged horror series since the heyday of the Universal monster classics of the ’30s and ‘40s. Now, there’s a cult worth joining, and Mancini can rest easy in the knowledge, as his Cult is unleashed upon the public this coming Tuesday, that he’s honorably earned a lifetime charter membership among the scariest in the business.


On Curse of Chucky: "With Six You Get Screaming"

Shock Waves Podcast Episode #67: Don Mancini talks Cult of Chucky


Saturday, September 16, 2017


I would suggest that mother! is one of the silliest, most masochistic, self-aggrandizing allegories/fantasies ever committed to film (or pixels, or whatever)—the Artist as All-Demanding, Relentlessly Punishing Deity and Universe-Sized Megalomaniacal Creator Whose Supplicants Are Not Worthy of Him-- but unfortunately, beyond the general hysteria and cacophony and gooey vaginal floorboard gouges and piles of bloody-pulp-rendered sacrificial lambs, I can’t be entirely sure of what I even saw.

And I’m not even talking about Lord God Aronofsky’s choreographed assault, which has reportedly sent whatever audience bothered to come out to see it on opening weekend into a blizzard of intense buzzing over *what it’s all about.* No, I’m talking about the actual projected image in the theater where we saw, if that word is even applicable in this instance, this happy picture show.

I paid around $48 for the privilege of escaping the crowds at the central AMC Burbank multiplex hub, heading instead to the AMC in the adjacent mall where mother!  was playing at a schedule-friendly 6:45 p.m. This theater has never boasted the finest all-around experience to be had, but with their digital projectors always reliably bright, and with the addition of now-apparently-de-rigueur reserved (and reclining) seats, I figured it was a safe bet. After sitting through 20 minutes of barely visible trailers, thanks (I assumed) to the fact that the house lights were at full brightness throughout, some underpaid kid flipped a switch and the searing lamps embedded in the ceiling threw the tiny auditorium into a more acceptable level of darkness.

Unfortunately, the projected image was still dim-- Jennifer Lawrence’s dream house looked as if it was being viewed through a glass opaquely. Maybe someone (in the house? at the theater?) forgot to pay the electricity bill? The smudgy dimness extended to exterior shots in ostensible bright sunlight too, and the movie’s occasional transitional fades to bright white looked tobacco-stained and in need of a healthy shot of Wisk Detergent, with Bleach. The faces of every actor in the movie—Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer—were rendered unreadable by the level of murky shadow they were left to fight their way through, the daring work being unfurled before the audience sullied, bastardized, visually diluted to a literal shadow play.

After about 10 minutes of this, long enough to determine that the canaries-in-a-coalmine lighting scheme was not one imposed upon the drama by the Our Grand Puppeteer, I walked down to the snack bar to ask the manager, who I’d earlier overheard recommending the movie to a patron while I stood in line for my Diet Coke, if something could be done. I described to him what was happening, and he kindly accompanied me back to the #6 cracker box so I could show him myself. We walked in, stood at the back and watched for a few seconds. He admitted that, yeah, the image looked a little dark. “Maybe a bad bulb or something,” he offered.

Then I asked him to accompany me next door to the #7, where a screening of It was under way. That image also looked dark and murky, as it had when I saw the movie at yet another nearby AMC last weekend, and he agreed It did indeed look substandard. (What the hell here? Is this creeping visual sludge contagious or something?) Then I dragged him down to the #5, we opened the door and observed some Spanish-language comedy or other whose title I’d never heard before, and the image in that cinema was as bright as could be expected, crispy and clear and vivid as the sky overlooking a digital garden of Eden.

The manager apologized, assured me that he agreed something was wrong, and offered further assurances that he would get his projectionist right on the problem-- he even contacted the poor, hapless, underpaid bastard right there in front of me on the snappy, AMC-provided Bluetooth communication system dangling from his big-shot ear. Now satisfied that something might actually be done, I returned to my seat, ready to settle into the movie, if I still could.

Ten minutes later the audience for the 6:45 screening of mother! was still staring at Aronofsky’s meticulously composed shit-show as if Aronofsky had stretched an ash-colored stocking over their heads, all the better to observe in supplicant wonder, I suppose, the treasure before them. So, I got up, marched back out to the lobby and asked not once, not twice, but three times for the attention of the same manager, who was too busy focusing on the task of stocking a cooler with bottles of Powerade to notice the agitated customer hoping to momentarily jangle him onto a new plane of awareness.

Once I finally did, I asked sincerely but disbelievingly, “So, is there just no way for the problem with mother! to be fixed?” (I realize that’s a loaded question, but it’s one for another thread of discussion, and my answer would be “no” anyway, so what’s the point?) The manager knew what I was referring to, however, and gave me some terribly weird and lame excuse that involved the movie being mistakenly projected through a 3D lens that was, I guess, left on the machine from a previous screening of a similarly obnoxious movie, Animated Cartoon Division, and that because mother! was already mid-film there was nothing that could be done.

So, he offered to have the projectionist come down and load me up with some free passes to make up for the fact that I paid almost $50 to watch a lousy movie through a jar full of pond water. Of course, I took him up on his desperate-to-get-this-obviously-steamed-customer-off-my-ass offer. And just to make sure the evening did not escape without that perfect little cherry on top, while the projectionist was making with the passes at the main box-office desk, some guy came bursting out of the #1, located just off the lobby and up a small set of stairs, and began screaming about how pissed off he was because the movie he was watching had been without sound for the first 10 minutes and counting.

Just another Saturday night at the AMC Town Center 8, I suppose. Honestly, despite some encouragement by some very smart people I know who got on mother!’s wavelength and appreciated what Aronofsky was up to, I didn’t really think the chances of me appreciating the latest offering from the Great and Not-So-Benevolent Dictator who dealt up Black Swan, The Wrestler  and Requiem for a Dream--all films I found, to one degree or another, absurd, obnoxious, tedious or unwatchable—were all that elevated to begin with. But I would have liked to have at least had the chance for the movie to get under my skin purely on its own terms. Instead, the wretched presentation put me off from the very start, through no fault of Aronofsky’s, and it only amplified the irritation I experienced that was part and parcel of His Holiness’s creative vision by the time the whole ungodly mess was reduced to ashes, both by design and by the gray fog through which it was projected.

And yet the 50-or-so audience members pretty much just sat there and took it, unaware or uncaring that the visual quality of the movie they were watching had been so degraded that it surely would have been a more affecting experience had we all just decided to stay home and watch it on our phones. This is how people who have dragged themselves out of the cocoon of their home theaters are treated for their $16, and how they react—not at all-- when the product they consume, on a purely technical level, is obviously substandard? If the movies really are dead or dying, or if at least the experience of going to the movies is dead or dying, it might have something to do with the zombies running the theater, or the ones sitting in their chairs, content to listen to Jennifer Lawrence scream while imagining the contours and animated details of her face for themselves through a veil of inexplicable shadows placed between them and whatever meager glimpse of humanity a movie like mother! might have to offer.

It’s enough to make me wish that Our Lord God Aronofsky had gotten wind of what was happening, descended upon AMC’s desecrated temple, smote the whole building and started over fresh, with exhibitors and an audience eager to give him the tender love and attention he so hungrily demands yet so stubbornly refuses to return, with his films, in kind.


UPDATE 9/18/17: I wish I'd read this six years ago. Here's a 2011 article from Collider entitled "Movie Theaters Continue to Rip Off Patrons with Incompetent Projection of 2D Movies" which details precisely what the theater manager was trying to articulate to me re the "3D lens" that supposedly couldn't be removed. There's also been quite the discussion of all this, and much, much more which has unfolded on my Facebook page. Please feel free to stop by and add your two cents, if you have the steely nerves! (Many thanks to Brett Michel, Michael Giammarino, Loretta Miles and Ariel Schudson for jumping in there with loads of good information.) Also of interest, David Edelstein ranks Aronofsky from zero to hero over at Vulture-- guess which one's the caboose?!



WARNING: The following essay was written without regard to "spoilers."

We see the interior of a quiet apartment. It is lit with the waning diffuseness of a grey afternoon, and there is a woman moving about its hallways with a steadiness of purpose. The camera which affords us this look into her living space is fixated at an angle perpendicular to the front door, gazing at eye level down the main hallway toward a closed door. The woman greets the man who walks in the front door with indifferent familiarity, with silence. She takes his coat, hangs it on a hook somewhere beyond the purview of the frame, and they both continue quietly toward the far door, completing the introduction to an encounter they have engaged in many times before. The camera remains motionless as they close the door, and we never see what happens once it shuts. Instead, there is an abrupt but sublimely smooth cut to another shot, the camera positioned in precisely the same place, the hallways of the house now shrouded in the evening dark. The man and woman emerge from the room, and still without a word she guides him to the front door, where he puts on his coat. The camera shifts position slightly so we may see them regard each other for a brief moment before he makes his way out. 

The woman turns away from the door and moves toward the dining room. She turns on a light, deposits some money apparently given to her by the man into a tureen placed on the dining room table and then heads to the bathroom, where we see the bath she gives to herself taken in real time. She then moves to the kitchen to begin making dinner for two, the camera never emphasizing anything more than her presence in whatever room she happens to be in, and of course the details of decoration and evidence of humanity within each of those rooms. We will see the preparation of the evening’s meal, the arrival of the woman’s son, their near-silent dinner together, the woman’s post meal clean-up, the two of them leaving the apartment together for some unknown purpose, their return, the unfolding of a hideaway bed on which the boy sleeps, and the woman’s methodical preparation for her own sleep.

This is the second half of the first of three days presented to us as a glimpse into the ritualistic routine of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), whose strictly determined movements within the walls of 23 Quai du Commerce, in the city of Brussels, Belgium, represent a psychological pattern of self-defense that will slowly be compromised over the next day and a half. The order in the physical space of the apartment is Jeanne’s entire world-- each chore, each errand, each neighborly visit, each meal a detached attempt to maintain civil contact with the structure of society, each clockwork sexual encounter, necessary to supplement a modest lifestyle after the death of her husband, adding to her disassociation from the messiness and demands of human response. That apartment, as we shall see, is the real fortress of solitude, and Jeanne's soul, housed in the actress's placidly rendered shell, occupies yet another. (Seyrig is astonishing in a meticulously observed performance that requires the utmost attention-- each gesture, each reaction, each non-reaction becomes another essay in miniature which illuminates with genuine feeling what could have become a simple conceptual exercise in fleshing out Jeanne's exile into suspended animation.)

In its own way, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) is as stylized an examination of the emerging fissure’s in one woman’s icily-composed outer shell as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Polanski imposes the disintegrating perspective of his main character, Carole (Catherine Deneuve), upon the film itself, warping and shattering the frame into shards of the protagonist’s twisted reality as the demons of her mind close in on her, forcing us to see the world as she experiences it. Akerman, on the other hand, steers the visual language of psychological representation in precisely the opposite direction, using long takes, a determined, precisely controlled camera usually placed at a fixed height and distance, and a painterly sense of graphic continuity to suggest the stasis and emotional confinement of this singularly dampened woman, whose attachment to the rituals of her mundane existence are both her slim tether to reality and the means by which she slips away from it. The director, who was only 25 years old when she made this masterpiece, is preternaturally confident in her design, in which she employs influences as disparate as Warhol and Godard to allow the audience not just to imagine the fragile disassociation of the title character but to experience it temporally, not as real-time but in such a way that we understand profoundly the implications of Jeanne’s freeze-dried condition, of which we only see what amounts to two days in a cycle that has been moving inexorably toward implosion, smooth on the surface, gears grinding underneath, for years.

Jeanne Dielman… is a movie that has probably been quoted, consciously or subconsciously, by every filmmaker since 1976 who has pushed against the momentum toward faster pacing and voluminous exposition. Its absolute mastery of time and space has paved the way of influence for directors as diverse as David Lynch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Lee Chang-dong, Richard Linklater and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name just a few whose names and work crossed my mind while I was immersed in Akerman’s movie. The Warhol influence on Akerman is, of course, fundamental, but she shows a command of purpose and probing humanity that never much entered into Warhol’s experiments with temporal endurance. In fact, the movie’s length—it runs three hours and 20 minutes—is integral to its ultimate power. Surely a shorter movie (perhaps even an actual short) could have been made that would have conveyed the same information and made the same “point” about Jeanne’s crippling stasis, but it’s easy to imagine such a film coming off as more an intellectual exercise, empathy at arm’s length. But Jeanne Dielman… represents both an intellectual and an emotional commitment for audiences who choose to give themselves over to it, and even those willing to pay for a ticket (or buy the Criterion Blu-ray-- the multitude of reasons to justify such a purchase are detailed below) may find their patience amply tested-- there was plenty of uncomfortable giggling, sighing, rustling, and an indifference to cell phones ringing in the auditorium when I last saw the film theatrically.

The astonishing thing about Akerman’s film is the degree to which we’re made to feel the crushing weight of Jeanne’s mundane day-to-day existence because of the passage of time, and each ripple in the routine registers like a psychic earthquake. (Again, it’s worth mentioning that only certain segments or shots are presented in real time—this is not a Rope-style masking of a basically theatrical presentation through means of cinematic trickery.) Whereas much of the language of cinema is predicated on the breaking down of experience, and then the piecing of it back together through judicious editing of image and sound, Akerman takes the experience in the opposite direction, experimenting with what the stretching of the boundaries of endurance can mean for the material and the audience. Its form is crucial to finding a way for us to understand what Jeanne experiences in a way that can go beyond simple platitudes or false empathy. When the film circled back to the afternoon of the second day and I realized the previous day’s-worth of existence, which had taken about 90 minutes to unfold, was about to play out again, I felt a sense of stifling horror, as much for Jeanne and her entrapment in a repeating pattern of certain emotional erosion as for my own uncertainty about whether I could sit through it all again.

Jeanne Dielman… is rooted in the specific pain of a woman for whom life has calcified beyond vitality and the unpredictability of human response, yet the movie is not a feminist tract. Akerman doesn’t use Jeanne’s prostitution and the unfeeling routines of her johns, or even the closed-off countenance of her bookish son, as easy points scored against the hegemony and oppression of a male-dominated society. (The director knows she doesn't have to underline these elements for them to register.) Instead, Akerman’s long wind-up sets us up for a profound shock. Cracks in Jeanne’s routines have become increasingly apparent—the slipping of a shoe brush, her sudden inability to comfort or adequately deal with an infant left daily in her care, the table she occupies in a local café suddenly taken by another customer. But it is our first glimpse behind the bedroom door during an apparently routine trick that sets the stage for Akerman’s blow to our collective gut. Jeanne’s unexpected awakening to sexual response, her tumultuous and (as it turns out) life-shattering orgasm underneath a passionless customer turns out to be the impetus not for fulfillment or self-awareness, as it might be (and has been) in similar tales of feminist awakening, but instead for complete psychic breakdown.

The movie retains its mysteries too—where do Jeanne and her son go at night, every night? And what is Jeanne’s relationship with her sister, who writes to her from Canada with concern for Jeanne’s situation and her state of mind, but with whom Jeanne struggles to write back a simple letter of response? It is Akerman’s approach to these unexplained elements of the film’s story, and the glancing attention to Jeanne’s life as a child living through the piecemeal survival of World War II, an existence whose ascetic qualities she clearly adapted as an adult, that adds to the richness, the fully felt tragedy which elevates Jeanne Dielman… beyond the status of experimental stunt and into the realm of film art. Akerman’s techniques might be seen as distancing, but the absorption one experiences into the mindscape of this tortured, inarticulate woman Jeanne Dielman is something to be reckoned with. Part of that reckoning is wrestling with the emotional residue the movie leaves behind; another is dealing with the implications and the incontrovertible evidence of a repressed, muffled soul sitting peacefully in a kitchen, peeling potatoes, Jeanne's (and Seyrig's) face a rictus of affectless absence which suddenly gives way to the pleasure of mindless ritual, and soon to the siren call of madness.


For further reading, here’s Sam Adams’ excellent interview with Chantal Akerman.


Jeanne Dielman… is available in a beautiful Blu-ray edition from Criterion released earlier this year featuring, according to the disc’s notes, a new 2K digital restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique and supervised by director Chantal Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, as well as a 69-minute documentary on Akerman shot during the filming of Jeanne Dielman…; interviews with Akerman and Mangolte; an excerpt from the “Chantal Akerman on Chantal Akerman” episode of the French TV program Cinema de notre temps from 1997; an interview with Akerman’s mother,  Natalia; a TV interview with Akerman and Delphine Seyrig; and Akerman’s first film, Saute ma ville 91968), with an introduction from the director. I got the Blu-ray a couple months ago, and it’s a real treasure. But for those without Blu-ray capability, Criterion’s 2009 DVD does feature the same bonus features as the Blu-ray.


Saturday, September 09, 2017


Is it possible, in the grand age of visual and storytelling sophistication in which we live (the sarcasm is coming through, isn’t it?), to experience the exquisite delirium of an old Japanese kaiju movie, say, anything in the Godzilla-and-related-monsters series from roughly 1957 to 1975, without responding to it simply as inept camp, or as something to be immediately discounted or condescended to because of the “fakeyness” of its special effects? (In that time range I’ve deliberately left out the original Gojira, released in 1954, a movie that has always, and particularly since its original Japanese version was re-distributed in the US in 2004, enjoyed a measure of respect from demanding genre audiences because of its status as a painful and powerful response to the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.) Is it possible to enjoy these usually formulaic rubber-monster orgies of destruction precisely because of their artificiality?

Now more than ever, I think the answer is yes. There’s a certain state of bliss available to a viewer like me who comes to a movie like Godzilla vs. Mothra (known in the US as Godzilla vs. the Thing), or Destroy All Monsters, or Godzilla’s Revenge with access to the ability to see these movies as a child might. And that statement, by the way, is not intended as the garden-variety plea for a return to innocence (a.k.a. turning your brain off) that one usually hears as a main line of proactive defense before indulging in one sort of nostalgic pop culture orgy or another. The Godzilla movies released by Toho Studios, particularly the ones that came out in the ‘50s and ‘60s, were rife with absurdities, ridiculous situations, filmmaking that often aspired to the rudimentary, brick walls of bad acting, and other obvious “deficiencies.” But if the self-congratulatory impulses we seem to earn as adults can be turned off, there’s a level of atmosphere, of imagination, and even, in some cases, poetry to be enjoyed in what has come to be thought of by grown-ups who know better (and are desperate for you to know that they know better) as one of the movies’ basest and most cringe-inducing ongoing spectacles.

A few years ago, while rummaging around my DVD shelf for suitable treats to introduce to my young daughters (who are now teenagers), I had a chance to revisit one of my old favorites, the none-too-revered King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). This giant-monster smackdown was the first of the Toho series I was lucky enough to see on a big screen, and at the age of nine or so I was suitably thrilled. So, after I put my DVD in the machine, I began watching with a slight trepidation—of course there was no chance that I would be similarly captivated some 40 years later. But it soon became clear that the movie still commanded a certain strain of magic, for this adult anyway. And along with that magic came a slight wave of sadness, inspired, I suppose, by recognizing the gulf between what captivated many of us as children and how we, in our blinkered sophistication, now often reject some of these early spectacles as too silly or somehow less worthy of our attention because the tricks are easier to see through.

But despite their reputation for obvious (please don’t say the word “cheesy” to me) effects, it may be easier now than it’s ever been to see why the Japanese monster movies, often orchestrated by physical effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, have held such sway over kids, even spilling over into appreciation by manga and anime enthusiasts, and non-manga-anime types such as myself, as adults.

One of the reasons is because these orgies of destruction, these epic battles staged over the skylines of cities just waiting to be decimated, are almost literally the incarnation of a child’s most elaborate dream of toy sets come to life. There’s a sequence about halfway through King Kong vs. Godzilla in which the military digs a big hole in the ground to use as a sort of Burmese tiger pit in ensnaring one or both of the monsters, and I couldn’t help but be struck by all the shots of construction equipment digging around in the dirt, dump trucks moving loads of earth around, and noticing how the scene was exactly the sort of scenario boys play at all the time in their backyards, perhaps even staging battles between their favorite monsters in the same way. That perhaps all-too-obvious observation was, for me, the key to recapturing access to the guilt- and snark-free charm that has always been part and parcel of Toho’s best, as well as even some of their worst and laziest creations.

And Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), often considered one of Toho’s low-points (it certainly was held in low esteem by the informed and enlightened crowd I ran with as a monster-loving teenager), is actually a delightful garden paradise of comically-scaled destruction, a reverie on the power of a desperate child’s imagination to use his fantasies of giant monsters to protect himself from the very real dangers, in particular vicious bullying, of everyday life. After all, Godzilla himself had already, in the movie series and in the public sphere, made the transition from terrifying spawn of nuclear blight to defender of the downtrodden, so casting the giant radioactive reptile as a father-protector wasn’t such a stretch. Whether the downtrodden are defined as a city needing protection from another destructive creature, like King Ghidorah, or, as in the case of Godzilla’s Revenge, defending a boy from danger and teaching his own son, Minya, how to hold his ground against the terrifying denizens of Monster Island, Godzilla could stand tall as an honorable citizen in the life of a child’s mind.

But what about the poetry? A few years ago I wrote about The Green Slime, with an accompanying piece devoted to the visual pop art majesty of that 1969 space epic, both essays to one degree or another considerations of the movie’s beautiful toy-set sensibility as epitomized in its wonderful, not-at-all-“convincing”-in-the-way-special-effects-movies-are-supposed-to-be-in-the-21st-century, special effects. The two men primarily responsible for those effects, which achieved a sort of glorious nirvana of artificiality, were Akira Watanabe and Yukio Manoda, both veterans of the Toho special effects department from Gojira in 1954 up through the studio’s glory days in the early ‘70s. If The Green Slime was, arguably, their great achievement independent from the supervision and overriding sensibility of their mentor Tsuburaya-san, then they certainly had plenty of time to ramp up to it, and the work they did with the master on 1966’s Invasion of Astro-Monster (known in the US as Monster Zero) might just be their best, hinting of Slime-y glories to come, of course, but also on its own terms in creating some of the most strangely beautiful imagery in any Godzilla film.

Invasion of Astro-Monster is full of glorious touches, from the craggy, shadowy surface of Planet X—an ostensibly beautiful landscape, soon to be ravaged by Monster Zero himself, which manages to suggest the possibly sinister intentions of the underground denizens whom astronauts Akira Takarada and Nick Adams will soon meet—to the stark interior of the planetary underground itself, all metal menace yet with hardly a sharp surface in sight. (It’s all weirdly sinuous curves, including the rounded edges and circular tendencies of the de rigueur Planet X uniform.) But Watanabe and Minoda really hit their stride when the action moves back to Earth, where the audience is treated to detailed studio recreations of tranquil landscapes presided over by the ostensibly friendly forces of Planet X and their fleet of, again, perfectly rounded spaceships—those vehicles resemble nothing so much as gleaming, floating whitewall tires on which the whitewall has overtaken all traces of black rubber, or perhaps they’re the most gorgeous flying dental lamp attachments in all of outer space.

Watanabe and Minoda absolutely outdo just about anything in the Godzilla oeuvre, however, with the sight of Godzilla and Rodan, unearthed from their most recent resting places, and encased in transparent electrical bubbles for transport back to Planet X, where they will team up to rid the planet of the scourge of Monster Zero. (Spoiler alert: the monster is King Ghidorah, whose three heads, undulating in fearsome disregard of physics, result in an expressive, unforgettable symphony of motion all their own, more so than any other monster in the Toho arsenal.) The image of the fearsome Godzilla and Rodan suspended in air, frozen, almost as if in utero, far surpasses the very entertaining but far more typical battles and earthly carnage the rest of the movie has in store, though Godzilla’s victory dance on the surface of Planet X achieves an unexpected level of giddiness that the whole of Invasion of Astro-Monster wisely never attempts to top.

Finally, mere words are hardly up to the task of describing the singular poetry of Kumi Mizumo, veteran of several Toho productions (Frankenstein Conquers the World, War of the Gargantuas), here cast in femme fatale mode as Miss Namikawa, a villainess decked out in Planet X couture and exquisitely shellacked hair. Fully costumed, she offers an image fully capable of explaining without the use of a single English, Japanese or X-ian word just how a man like Nick Adams, or any of us, really, could fall head over heels, or rubber boots, under her nefarious influence. So, I shall attempt none.

When I was growing up, the Toho movies my friends and I enjoyed countless times on weekend afternoon TV were always considered second-rate because of their inability to achieve a level of acceptable “realism” in their special effects. There was probably even an element of cultural superiority involved in lack of appreciation for Japanese creations over similar monster epics coming out of America and the UK at the time. But really, genre fan, did the sight of a Cyclops or a swarm of living skeletons in a Ray Harryhausen epic ever achieve any more realism than a tag-team monster battle royal conducted in the shadow of Mt. Fuji? Of course not. Style and technique commands all in both universes, and it’s entirely possible to be moved, delighted, inspired by the reveries they both unleash. And if those Toho adventures perhaps require the greater leap of collective imagination, especially for more "sophisticated" grown-ups, then might not the reward be even greater than is generally believed, for those who choose to dream their way onto the landscapes where Godzilla and company unquestionably rule? After grooving on something like Invasion of Astro-Monster, how can the answer possibly be “no”?

(A portion of this post originally appeared in an essay entitled "Seeing and Believing.")