Category Archives: Features

Recurring Nightmares #3 | The Awful Tooth

Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories. 

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By Jonathan Bygraves

In a rare passage of levity some two-thirds into George A. Romero’s otherwise downbeat social-realist vampire tale Martin (1978), the eponymous young protagonist finally ‘reveals’ his secret to his suspicious granduncle Tateh. Martin emerges from the shadows of night in full bloodsucker garb – the cloak, the pallid face – and at last bares those gleaming fangs, immediately sending Tateh reaching for his rosary. But the old man is being made a fool of: Martin dismissively spits to the ground what turns out to be a novelty oral prop, derisively quipping, “it’s just a costume”.

Such a play on familiar iconography illustrates Romero’s revisionist intent to re-purpose the vampiric for the everyday. It also serves to highlight how teeth are such a familiar signifier of malignant forces in fiction. These are defining attributes not just for vampires but werewolves, cannibals and sundry other extra-human or animal-like monsters. Teeth are so inextricably linked to fearsomeness that monstrous antagonists often take their names from their dental characteristics: Chatterer in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), Saw Tooth in Wrong Turn (2003) and providing the title, at least, of a certain killer shark movie franchise. Teeth also feature prominently as a symbol of the Other in fairy tales: consider that Little Red Riding Hood’s final – and most telling – observation of the Big Bad Wolf before she is ingested is an oral one.

Teeth have proved a handy signifier in terms of human characters too: think of Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed henchman Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), whose steeled dentition reflects his apparent physical invulnerability, or Austin Powers’ overbite, as much a visual pun on perceived poor orthodontic standards east of the Atlantic as a goofy character quirk. Brad Pitt went as far as having his Hollywood smile surgically altered for Fight Club (1999), insistent that chipped incisors were a key indicator of Tyler Durden’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the very term ‘Hollywood smile’ implies that perfect pearly-whites as a physical ideal is a notion fostered by the cinema itself.

It has not always been thus: deliberate tooth blackening was a fashionable practice among high-ranking aristocrats in Japan up until the Meiji period, and in Victorian England decaying teeth were a sign of affluence, representing the ability to purchase sugar and confectioneries. Today, however, dental decay is more likely an indicator of slovenliness or poverty. In cinematic terms, so too does it become a signifier of ‘otherness’: as Carol Clover notes in Men Women and Chainsaws, bad teeth play a prominent role in the rape-revenge cycle of films of the 1970s initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film whose antagonists’ famously malformed mouths are such abiding pop culture icons that fancy dress shops are likely still to carry copycat hillbilly teeth as part of their stock range. Indeed, within the film itself, bad teeth (or indeed the absence of) are such a defining characteristic that Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is unable to identify his assailant after discovering he may have popped his dentures in.

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Deliverance uses dental deficiency as a signifier of the divide between the men from the city and those from the country. This a motif rooted as much in class division as much as  geographical or moral, and is used similarly in Wes Craven’s own backwoods horror The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In its economical opening minutes, the film sets up a similar dynamic, introducing the viewer to the wholesome Carter clan and the ragged, near-feral Ruby (Janus Blythe), thickly laying on the contrasts between the all-American family and their cannibalistic counterparts. Once again, this is emphasised by dental disparity: the Carters’ gleaming, perfectly-aligned gnashers against Ruby’s decay-ridden mouth and, later on, her brother Mars’ (Lance Gordon) fang-like front teeth.

While Craven’s film is using the same signifier, there is a further sub-dynamic within: while Mars is more straightforwardly villainous, Ruby is presented as an abused victim of her patriarchal family, and ultimately afforded a redemptive arc. In this case bad teeth are more purely an expression of economic difference than moral squalor. Craven’s previous film The Last House on the Left (1974) had also featured a character with bad teeth who emerges as more wronged than wrong-doer: Junior (Marc Sheffler), son of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), is also victim of his domineering patriarch – who has hooked him on heroin as a means of control – and though still an accessory to the crimes of his cohorts, is presented as a considerably more sympathetic character.

Whereas The Hills Have Eyes uses animal imagery as a means to align its cannibal family with untamed wilderness, The Last House on the Left uses it to illustrate the power dynamic between father and son: when Junior playfully imitates the sound of a frog, it metaphorically underlines his status relative to Krug as an unthreatening pet: domesticated, servile, less than human. When Krug later imagines his teeth being knocked out by one of his victim’s vengeful parents, the dental symbolism implies not just excruciating pain but a fear of the loss of power and identity. As such, teeth falling out is not just a common anxiety dream, but a body horror trope in the likes of  The Fly (1986), District 9 (2009) and even Moon (2009), representing a transformation into something ‘Other’.

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As a re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) (in which, like The Hills Have Eyes, there is direct class parallel between the antagonists and a wild, near-feral sister figure) there is a traceable link from The Last House on the Left back to pastoral folklore, and further. Bergman’s film was itself based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad, and also prompts a Biblical resonance. The Virgin Spring‘s dialectic is not merely class-based but religious too, in the form of a conflict between the Nordic and the Christian. In addressing the question of the morality of vengeance, the revenge film’s dental imagery covertly calls to mind Leviticus‘ doctrine of “a tooth for a tooth”.

Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine offers another deeper psychological underpinning of odontophobia, namely the myth of the vagina dentata and male castration anxiety. Creed cites the famous poster for Jaws (1975) as a metaphorical illustration of this (woman on the water’s surface, giant teeth hidden below), and it is presented very literally in The Last House on the Left when Krug’s penis is bitten off during the act of fellatio. In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2009), the myth is ultimately repurposed as a possible symbol of female empowerment.

Teeth, then, continue to be a potent symbol of unconscious anxieties as well as a shorthand for manifold attributes: fearsomeness, animal-like qualities, the culturally alien, the morally suspect. One might note the perfectly aligned orthodontistry of the eponymous protagonists in Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which, for all of its hillbilly horror revisionism, can’t quite bring itself to give its would-be romantic leads this one physical attribute that the cultural stereotype calls for. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then – on film at least – bad teeth might still be considered to be said soul’s hazardously-splintered front door frame.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

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Dispatch from NYC – 2001: A Space Odyssey & the NY Philharmonic

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By Cathy Landicho

The New York Film Festival is currently on, but the week before it opened, the New York Philharmonic opened its season with its first ever Film Week: The Art of the Score, featuring the sights and sounds of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. As an avid fan of both film and classical music, this seemed too unique an opportunity to miss. The Hitchcock program was a montage of selections, while the Kubrick option was a full-length screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a live score. I opted for the latter.

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The Lincoln Center complex was abuzz with activity before the 8pm curtain. The crowd was younger than usual for this event, as you’d imagine. There were far more young couples, students and families, many likely visiting the venue for the first time. The Saturday night screening of 2001 was filled to capacity in Avery Fisher Hall (at right), the largest of the concert halls which seats about 2700 in four tiers. I’ve been to packed classical concerts in huge venues before – a sold-out Prom at Royal Albert Hall would seat 5000+ people – but I’d never seen a film with this many people before. The closest by comparison would be a packed screening in Screen 1 of the Leicester Square Empire, which seats about half of Avery Fisher Hall’s capacity.

As you took your seat, you couldn’t help but notice the 10+digit counter next to the conductor’s stand and imagine the recording of a score, and how the orchestra had to transplant the experience from the studio to the concert hall. Taking it all in, I thought of how bands like Radiohead have to practice and adapt their complex studio recordings for live stadium shows. Another noticeable difference from your average classical concert were the choir members visible in the front two balcony boxes with individual lights and hanging mics, rather than standing behind the orchestra. This enterprise involved more stagecraft than I had anticipated.

Before the screening began, Alan Gilbert, the Music Director of the NY Philharmonic for the past four years, led the orchestra in the film’s overture, Ligeti’s Atmospheres for Large Orchestra (1961). The ambient, spooky piece with no discernible time signature or melody established an anxious tone to frame the film, with its swelling discordant pulses overlaid with screeching strings. After a tense ten minutes, the lights came down and we all held our breaths awaiting the sun’s appearance. The wall of sound that hit me from the orchestra performing ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Strauss at full volume combined with Kubrick’s simple, dramatic images, plus the sight of the orchestra’s exertions was goosebump-inducing, a visceral high; the audience spontaneously burst into applause afterward.

Viewing the film with such a huge crowd together with the live score patently heightened the experience, making it both more immediate and more communal. I first saw 2001 in NFT1 at the BFI, and I don’t recall hearing audible laughter at HAL’s snarkiness or collective gasps when HAL reads Bowman’s and Poole’s lips while they are conspiring in the pod at the end of the first half. Moreover, the venue inspires reverence – this is a place where there are free cough drops in the restrooms to encourage absolute silence. The majesty of Kubrick’s images were well-suited for this high-art venue.

The late Roger Ebert observed: “When classical music is associated with popular entertainment, the result is usually to trivialize it (who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger?). Kubrick’s film is almost unique in enhancing the music by its association with his images.” Some may prefer to imagine a late 19th century Viennese ballroom while listening to Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz rather than Kubrick’s space ballet. But Ebert’s observation is easily accepted in the case of Ligeti’s music. In addition to the aforementioned overture, his Requiem and Lux Aeterna were used as the theme of the monolith. (Kubrick had actually commissioned a score from Alex North that he later substituted for Ligeti’s contemporary pieces, without the knowledge or permission of either composer.) The Musica Sacra choir performed Ligeti’s pieces admirably under vulnerable circumstances – the vocal parts are cluster chords, which are extremely difficult to pitch. There was an extra level of surreal-ness, seeing forty-odd people coordinating to give voice to Kubrick’s monolith.

I was initially a bit worried that the orchestra would not play enough during the film for me to justify buying the ticket. But I needn’t have worried – several of the classical pieces did repeat throughout the film, and even the silence was heightened in Avery Fisher Hall, particularly during the scenes when all you can hear is the astronauts’ laboured breathing while HAL conspires against them. There was definitely added value beyond the live music; seeing 2001 with so many people in a beautiful venue with amazing acoustics was well-worth the price.

However, watching the end credits while listening to a live orchestra was truly odd. The audience understandably applauded the end of the film while the orchestra continued playing the Blue Danube Waltz on a loop. But since the house lights stayed off, there was a palpable awkwardness in the audience about having to sit quietly and wait for the orchestra to finish when so many of us are accustomed to leaving during the end credits; Strauss’ waltz did not feel worthy of our attention without Kubrick’s visuals. To Alan Gilbert’s credit, he attempted to fill the vacuum by conducting with added vigour; but he had to compete for the attention of the film buffs in the audience, who applauded when particular names appeared in the credits, hooting while our focus was meant to shift to the orchestra.

Despite this rather anti-climactic ending to the screening, it was certainly a worthwhile experience. Personally, I hope that Film Week at the NY Philharmonic becomes a traditional part of the season – I’m imagining screenings of Taxi Driver or Do The Right Thing with live scores…

If you have any suggestions of other films that would benefit from live scoring, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Economic Measures #6 | Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1974)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

In the run-up to the climactic duel of The Street Fighter (1974), the film’s protagonist Tsiguri (Sonny Chiba) boards an oil tanker, on which its owner, oil heiress Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), is being held hostage by the mafia cohorts who want to steal her fortune. Awaiting Tsiguri are gun-toting thugs, casual hired hands and two siblings who had earlier refused to pay our protagonist after the latter had completed a dangerous job for them. This finale is a masterpiece of meaningful action, in which multiple story threads meet in one final showdown. Driving it, as he has done the film, is Chiba, a pulsating, intense figure whose anger seeps through at every turn.

A major part of what makes The Street Fighter a more sophisticated film than its contemporaries is its high production values. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Japan by cinematographer Kenji Tsukagoshi, it boasts a dazzling display of colours and compositional vivacity – in the ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 format – that its otherwise ordinary plot would customarily preclude.

Another key contributor to The Street Fighter‘s success is of course Chiba himself. In contrast to Bruce Lee, the man is vicious from the outset, and though he is revealed to have a code, it is largely governed by financial need. Lee’s appeal lay in the arrogance with which he began a conversation knowing he had his fists of fury to fall back on when the other guy inevitably turned nasty. For Chiba’s character, fighting is the only viable means of communication.

Tsiguri’s father, we learn via flashback, was killed for being a spy, and the resulting legacy is one of distrust, resentment and a self-made tough-guy status: nothing upsets Tsiguri more than an unfulfilled promise, which is why he bears the burden physically as well as emotionally when he makes one to someone else. Indeed, physical force is an emotional outlet in itself for Chiba. To watch him in just about any scene in The Street Fighter is to witness someone channelling a deep, conflicted spiritualism into a lethal weapon. If the reason we continue to like Bruce Lee is his speedy chic – aided by the mysticism that follows a premature death (he’s a kind of Bob Marley of martial arts) – then Chiba’s charms are rooted in a thuggish morality, whereby the pursuit of monetary sustenance fuels his capacity to fight, and thus survive. Never underestimate a guy whose reason to fight is economic.

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These qualities are encapsulated in the scene aboard the oil tanker at the end of the film, as Tsiguri makes his way from the deck to the deeper corridors and engine room below, downing any man (or woman) who dares to stop him. Tsiguri’s ferocity alone seems to compel him onward, like a motor whose sound drowns out all other human attributes. To think of an equivalent performance recently – in which the gruelling element of a fistfight becomes a kind of the structuring principle – we might look to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s exhilarating one-man attack on the compound in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009). Matching the kind of formal audacity that has included an x-ray image of a skull being smashed earlier in the film, Chiba here personifies someone who really is going to go all the way. While knuckles and feet are his preferred weapons of choice, he doesn’t think twice about throwing a knife into the arm of a woman who points a gun at him, and he is unforgiving enough to throw a man to his death even after he has incapacitated him.

Beginning this 4½-minute sequence of fights by stealthily offing a guard and carrying him overboard, Chiba becomes increasingly maniacal in look and angular in movement. Indeed, so heavy is the body count to come, and so confined are the spaces in which he must run this gauntlet, that somewhere along the way, Chiba’s more balletic manoeuvres become less elegant. And that deep, cacophonous hiss-cum-growl that he summons in his throat between each attack becomes harsher, more audible. In a word, more alien: here, fisticuffs are a thing of consequence, something by and through which man is both spiritually and physically transformed. Resembling a possessed demon by the time he plunges his fatal fist into a female foe (tactfully obscured by an upturned settee), Chiba’s quest to save Sarai has changed him: even if he does down everyone in his path, we get the sense from his eyes that he’ll never quite recover from it, and that a relationship with Sarai would be out of the question.

Irredeemably intense, this odds-against, self-destructive plummet into violence prefigures that other antiheroic climax of the 1970s – that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Likewise, when his fight is over, Chiba’s fate is open to ambiguity.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #5 | Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty (2013)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, in cinemas now, is a mysterious beast of thematic ambition, formal precision and tonal complexity. Seeing it twice recently, I wondered if it might be the first film since There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012) to feel of a different period altogether. Whether that period’s in the past or in the future is difficult to say. To be sure, the Italian maverick’s latest – a flawed masterpiece that boasts the conviction of its own capacity to fail – seems to be unfathomably old-fashioned at the same time as being unfashionably ahead of its time.

Even as it drifts off in its third act, its energy zapped by a curious dream sequence (or is it?) involving big-titted dames paying exorbitant amounts for their latest botox injections, the film reeks of purpose and energy and old-school arthouse class. In discussing its multitude of problems, I’ve fallen in love with it: it satisfies my present need for excitement, for a youthful spirit, for a more lyrical and instinctive appreciation of things, for doing something when everything else about a situation (notably budget and common sense) seem to deny it. To quote a member of a message board I used to moderate, “I’d rather see an interesting failure than a dull success.”

Similar to that curious and temporary inability as an adolescent to recall a crush’s face, I was aware going into my second viewing of The Great Beauty that it has a prologue, and yet had forgotten exactly how it felt, what it looked like and what happened in it. As became immediately clear again, it’s a dizzying yet logical succession of wonderfully choreographed pans and tracks, their movement and sweep lending intrigue to a three-fold incident in which a female choir, a group of tourists and an amateur photographer are drawn together when the latter falls down dead.

I still don’t know its significance (“the tourists are the best thing about Rome”?), but the Hitchcock-like scream that concludes this sequence, ushering in a rooftop party scene to the tune of ‘Far L’Amore’ by Bob Sinclar and Raffaela Carrà, brought an immediate and sustained bout of shivers. The subsequent sequence, a superlatively edited and infectiously energetic passage in which Felliniesque grotesques drink and dance the night away, provides us with the most hedonistically pleasurable few moments in film this year.

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Down to it, then. Toni Servillo, already one of my favourite working actors, anchors this film with airs that are as elusive as his face is memorable. The man is 54, and without looking older than his years, he exudes an experience and even weariness that transcend them. Such experience comes to haunt the narrative just as much as it brings that opening party to life. In a key scene in which he berates a female writer for pretensions of superiority, Servillo’s protagonist betrays his own weaknesses: lazy, fond of one too many drinks, perhaps even beyond repair, and – tragically – aware of such vices. At several points, this host with the most has his otherwise assured façade shattered by the presence of an aloof neighbour to whom he aspires like a pathetic protégé.

Is there anyone who nails silencio e sentimento with such effortless charm, gravitas and vulnerability as Servillo? Who else can command the screen by doing so little as lying inert in a hammock? During both viewings of his latest collaboration with Sorrentino, I have longed for those scenes in which he gave Gomorrah (2008) much-needed purpose, and have also lamented the lack of theatrical distribution for It Was the Son (2012), in which he complemented the film’s caricature qualities by channelling the higher melodrama of a Pietro Germi film.

Like all the best film entrances (Welles’ in Kane, Kinski’s in Aguirre, the Marx Brothers’ in Duck Soup), Servillo’s in The Great Beauty is delayed. The party scene announces itself and introduces several characters in delirious succession, as if the camera is circling the vicinity looking to recruit a protagonist who can command it. Exhilaratingly – mirroring the structure of the Sinclar and Carrà dance mix that churns beneath – the scene seems to end at several points, or at least ventures into a quieter part of the shindig to eavesdrop on more private moments. Just when you think the scene has ended, it goes back to the heart of the party. Like some hideous homage to Kathy Selden, a woman shoots up from a giant cake and shouts “Happy Birthday, Jep!”

Cut to Servillo, for the first time, who shimmies 180 degrees to break the fourth wall, cigarette in mouth and a smile etched upon his wondrously craggy face. He is Jep Gamdardella. The gesture is aided by everything else that Sorrentino throws at us, of course, but Servillo, in this simple, declarative introduction, shows us that the film is his from here on out. That it’ll be his even when other characters threaten to steal it from him, when its tone shifts from exuberant to melancholic and back again, even when its director intrudes upon proceedings by viewing them from an upside-down angle. When the scene concludes with a collective dance-off between the genders, note Servillo’s ability to be in sync with a crowd and stand out from it in the same moment. And the involuntary movement merely of his fingers while dancing says more than Mastroianni ever did.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

BFI London Film Festival 2013 | PPH Picks

By Ashley Clark

The 57th annual BFI London Film Festival takes place in a host of venues across London from 9-20 October. Tickets are on sale for the public on Friday 20 September. Since a fair few people have asked me individually for recommendations, I thought I’d put together a somewhat doc-heavy Top 10 of Tips! from stuff that I’ve already seen, and would strongly vouch for. I’ve left out the Galas and bigger films (many of which have already sold out; though don’t forget the standby queues) and focused on the smaller, less star-studded films. If I’ve written about the film somewhere already, I’ve included a link. The full programme, by the way, is here. Here we go, then.

At Berkeley (Dir. Frederick Wiseman)

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A mammoth documentary about the inner workings of the California university. Essential viewing if you have any interest in the educational system or public policy. Further reading: Venice 2013: truth, lies and admin – American documentaries on the Lido – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Computer Chess (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)

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A fresh and original drama-comedy about a bunch of nerdy computer programmers in the 1980s which begins as an hilarious docudrama but morphs into a haunting philosophical study. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Cutie and the Boxer (Dir. Zachary Heinzerling)

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A funny, moving and beautifully constructed documentary about the eponymous ageing Japanese artist couple, living in a cramped Brooklyn flat. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Let The Fire Burn (Dir. Jason Osder)

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The best (and most shattering) documentary I’ve seen all year. A staggering found-footage collage detailing the awful incident in 1985 when the Mayor of Philadelphia sanctioned the bombing of the HQ of radical black activist group MOVE. Further reading: The digital deluge: Tribeca 2013 – Sight & Sound

*    *    *

Locke (Dir. Steven Knight)

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Tom Hardy goes full-on Welsh in a gripping and surprisingly moving high-concept thriller of the quotidian life, set entirely inside the eponymous builder’s car. Locke only has a hands-free kit to sort his problems out. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: The Police Officer’s WifeLocke, & The Sacrament – Slant

*    *    *

Mother of George (Dir. Andrew Dosunmu)

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Dosunmu’s beautiful follow-up to Restless City is a moving story of the desperate lengths one woman goes to conceive. A great portrait of New York’s Nigerian community.

*    *    *

The Rooftops (Es-Stouh) (Dir. Merzak Allouache)

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A cleverly structured day-in-the-life drama set in a number of working class Algiers districts. It’s tough, funny and moving, and thankfully avoids the lame Paul Haggis-style impulse to tie all the strands together in a superficial way. Further reading: Venice 2013 Critic’s Notebook: A Means of Escape — African Cinema on the Lido – Filmmaker Magazine

*    *    *

Portrait of Jason (Dir. Shirley Clarke)

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Jaw-dropping 1967 performance piece/documentary focused on the eponymous Jason: male prostitute/raconteur/hustler/crooner. Showing in its newly restored version. Further reading: Review for Permanent Plastic Helmet

*    *    *

Teenage (dir. Matt Wolf)

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Breezy, fascinating and beautifully structured collage doc (from the director of Arthur Russell doc Wild Combination) about the beginnings of the ‘teenager’ as first an idea, then a reality. Great soundtrack by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox. Further reading: Review for Grolsch Film Works

*    *    *

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (Dir. Sion Sono)

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A berserk and hugely enjoyable love letter to the movies delivered in cult Japanese director Sono’s inimitable overcranked, Grand Guignol style. Insanely violent, with lots of shouting. Bring earplugs. Further reading: Venice Film Festival 2013: GerontophiliaTracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – Slant

Recurring Nightmares #2 – You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

“It’s just a room”, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) sarcastically reports into his dictaphone upon first inspecting the eponymous hotel suite in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007), before dryly adding, “I’ve been here before”. The sense of weary familiarity in that latter line of dialogue, not contained in Stephen King’s original short story, might on its surface appear to be merely a gag on the decorative sameness of the typical hotel room, but it also comes as a sly intertextual reminder to the viewer that they too, in a sense, have been here before.

The precedent which the line most readily recalls is naturally 1408‘s illustrious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation The Shining (1980), but it nods to a longer lineage of cinematic horror hotels which stretches as far back in time as the medium itself. Indeed, strip away 1408‘s CGI pyrotechnics and Bad Dad backstory and its basic function is near-identical to that of Georges Méliès’ trick film L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), arguably the earliest example of the sub-genre made over a century earlier: simply place a man in an apparently ordinary – if quietly sinister – lodging room, and let the spooky goings-on ratchet up in intensity.

That such a set-up has survived the century of cinema intact speaks not only of its abiding utility as a genre device but also of a fundamentally unsettling quality that hotel rooms can possess. Though in many respects rooted in the age-old Old Dark House exoticism of Gothic literature, the horror hotel differs in that it serves to situate the viewer in a hinterland between the quotidian and the Other. Hotel rooms, in seeking to replicate the comforts of home for a myriad of different occupants, very often represent an impersonal, inexact facsimile of domesticity, which is used in the horror film to create a feeling of dissonance – halfway between the familiar and the strange – tapping directly into what Freud termed Das Unheimliche (the uncanny).

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The possibilities for mise en scene, however, vary considerably within the sub-genre, perhaps best delineated into two distinct sub-classifications: the ornate and the abject. In the former, best exemplified by the baroque grandeur of the ‘Timokan’ hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963) or the luxuriance of the lobby of Ostend’s Thermae Palace in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (1971), the uncanny is rendered as a function of opulence: soaring archways, sweeping staircases and, in particular, the maze-like corridors in both Bergman’s film and The Shining. These labyrinthine passageways implicitly hark back to cinema’s greatest exploration of the uncanny, Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) (itself reciprocally related to genre cinema via its Hitchcock ‘cameo’), which Kümel’s film more explicitly pays homage to in the presence of Delphine Seyrig as its wanton countess.

By contrast, the sons of Psycho (1960) render Otherness through their locations’ symbolic abjection from society. Remember that Hitchcock’s film begins in a hotel, but one ensconced in the urban familiarity of Phoenix, before journeying with Marion to the remote isolation of the Bates Motel, symbolically representing a move from the civilised to a more primeval wilderness. In this respect it prefigures the Backwoods Horror cycle initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and was already enough of a cliché to be effectively satirised by the time of Hooper’s own horror hotel entry Eaten Alive (1977) and Kevin Connor’s cartoonish Motel Hell (1980), before subsequently resurfacing in recent years in Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy (2007) and the franchise spawned by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).

This latter strain plays into another key signifier of the hotel: that of transience. In Stephen King’s introduction to his 1408 story, he asks rhetorically, “How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick?”. If Old Dark Houses are haunted by ghosts of centuries past, a prior guest in a hotel room may have euphemistically ‘checked out’ as recently as the time it takes housekeeping to have cleared up the mess. Longer stays, on the other hand, seem to imply a character’s psychological descent: see Agnes White’s prolonged stay in her dilapidated motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), Barton’s escalating sense of unreality in the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink (1991), or even Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), whose indeterminately long one-day stay in his Punxsutawney B&B hints towards the same sense of claustrophobic unreality resulting from an over-extended hotel sojourn.

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The characters for whom hotels are seldom places of transience are the staff, who from John Llewellyn Moxley’s The City of the Dead (1960) to Vacancy typically wear a thin mask of obsequiousness to veil their sinister hidden motives, a trope overturned for comedic effect in Miike Takashi’s Katakuri-ke no kōfuku (2001) in which its cheerful inn owners are helpless to prevent their guests dying via as series of increasingly bizarre incidents. By contrast, the about-turn in spectatorial identification in Psycho, signalled by the protracted sequence of Norman Bates dutifully cleaning the Bates’ cabin after Marion Crane’s famously interrupted ablutions, allowed for a more sympathetic eye for its initially two-dimensionally creepy owner-manager. The implication here is that the impersonal domesticity of the hotel affects its workforce as much as its guests, a theme explored more fully in Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which banality inspires its own form of Lynchian nightmare.

If the viewer, then, is sympathetic with Norman Bates, then Psycho disturbs precisely because it makes the us complicit in his extra-curricular voyeurism. His lecherous peering through his crudely-fashioned peephole at his undressing guest mirrors that first shot of the film, which cranes in through the Phoenix hotel window to witness to Marion and Sam’s initial illicit tryst, emphasising the prurient allure of the hotel room and its connotation with adultery and secretiveness. So too, more fancifully, is there a certain mimesis with the experience of cinema-going itself: travelling to a place of comfort and refuge, homely but not-home, alone but in the close proximity of strangers. As the semi-success of Mike Enslin’s pulp paperback exposés in 1408 and the evident demand for the underground snuff movies in Vacancy serve to illustrate, the horror hotel is unlikely to lose its hold on the popular imagination any time soon.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

Economic Measures #4 | Emer McCourt and Robert Carlyle in Riff-Raff (1991)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

An hour into Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff (1990), itinerant worker Stevie (Robert Carlyle) returns from his day’s graft to find girlfriend Susie (Emer McCourt) has prepared for him a small birthday celebration. Entering the living room of the flat in which they squat, Stevie sees Susie standing in wait, party hat on, with a small candle-lit cake in one hand and a bottle of rosé in the other. Immediately overcome with emotion, he turns away and walks out of the room. Susie follows him: “I’m sorry, I never meant to upset you. What is it?” Stevie replies, without looking at her: “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

Stevie doesn’t look at her because he’s too embarrassed by joy – even by the small things in life that offer it. Stevie cowers from such emotion, unsure of how to communicate it, let alone respond to it. His slight frame remains in the hallway, and he looks down at his feet. Though he can neither muster the courage to return his girlfriend’s searching gaze nor find the words to match the moment, he yearns for Susie’s physical presence, and pulls her to him for a hug. For him, this is a new experience, and its inherent warmth simultaneously unsettles and reassures him.

Not much has been given to us in terms of Stevie’s backstory. We know that he has recently been released from prison and that he has travelled to London from his native Glasgow in search of work, and that he is presently employed as a casual labourer on a construction site. Like all of the film’s performances, Carlyle’s isn’t expressionistic or actorly. Filmed by Loach and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd in medium and long shots, he is framed within surroundings by which he is forever conditioned and in which he may interact with others to form an instinctive solidarity against the ugly implications of said surroundings. Here, with heartbreaking economy, Carlyle demonstrates what it means to be the object of someone’s unconditional love at a time when you’re financially broke.

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Here is a person whose brave face amidst daily toil is one that has been hardened by betrayal and mistrust. Abandoned, imprisoned, unemployed and unloved, Stevie seems humbled and humiliated by Susie’s generosity. Indeed, in a world where success and happiness are both measured in abstract terms—and in which the prevalent presumption is that men provide and women receive—the alienation experienced by someone like Stevie is both social and domestic. It takes great courage not to fold under such multifarious pressures. Stevie knows in this very same instant that an act of kindness from someone who loves him is a beautiful thing to be cherished. A similar scene occurs in Loach’s Raining Stones (1993), when the jobseeking Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) reluctantly accepts some cash handed to him from his shop-assistant daughter, only to break down after she leaves the room.

Susie, excellently played by McCourt, is also a human in need. In the shot that follows the one in the hallway, note the way she crouches beside Carlyle to allow him enough space to regain his composure, and the tact she demonstrates in looking away from him so that he can wipe the tears from his eyes without feeling too intruded upon. An artistic woman who wishes to be a singer, Susie is creative enough to challenge the poverty in which she and her boyfriend live. Stevie’s birthday card is handmade, and the present Susie has him unwrap is a single pair of flashy polka dot boxer shorts. It’s both a personal and light-hearted gesture.

As Carlyle opens his gift, his hands tremble with adrenaline – is it going to be something so thoughtfully sincere that he’ll break down once more? Anticipating the joke, McCourt’s eyes barely leave him, and her own nerves – how will he react? – cause her to laugh half a second before he does. To witness the pleasure she has brought to his world is itself a pleasure for Susie. To us, such modest attempts at happiness, in the face of an ongoing marginalisation, are small but revolutionary acts. Implying both togetherness and compassion at a time when neither is particularly valued by the official political order, such acts need indeed to be cherished.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.