Tag Archives: nihilism

Hate and Anger

You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive!

Lionel Stander growls these words in the opening minutes of Blast of Silence (1961) as a train barrels through a tunnel. He isn’t onscreen. He isn’t even playing one of the film’s characters. He’s just the voiceover. It’s such a wild formal gambit: wall-to-wall voiceover, directed at “you,” that narrates the film as a sustained, misanthropic rant. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Stander’s snarl is like a scar on the film’s face, its uniquely identifying feature. You may forget a lot of crime movies you see. You don’t forget Blast of Silence.

Even without the voiceover, it’d still be noteworthy. Shot on a shoestring in wintry New York, it’s a minor indie landmark in the fashion of Little Fugitive or Shadows. The no-star cast is led by writer/director Allen Baron, brusquely playing a contract killer cut off from humanity. He’s the kind of taciturn sociopath familiar to noir devotees—forcing a smile when he has to, but more comfortable speaking through a silenced pistol.

In keeping with that minimal performance, Baron and his friend Merrill Brody shoot the city streets with a nasty crispness. The film’s so visually subdued, so scummy yet honest, as if every shot were a crime scene photo. The hit man, Frankie Bono, always looks like a stranger caught unawares, camera-shy and sneering, peeved half to death by Manhattan at Christmastime. And sliding over these visual textures are a tense jazz score and Stander’s choleric croak.

That voiceover has such pungent rage to it. No sooner does Frankie glance at a photo of his mark than Stander declares it “the kind of face you hate.” A character actor in his fifties, Stander chomps into these angry, evil words and spits them into the audience’s face. His performance has a secret history to it: in 1961, Stander was long out of work, having been blacklisted after his disastrous HUAC testimony a decade earlier. His feature-length monologue was written by Waldo Salt, a similarly blacklisted screenwriter (and future Oscar winner).

So this isn’t just an angry voiceover. It’s fueled by the life experiences of two men who’d been witch-hunted and fucked over by the film industry. It’s the howl of the outsider, a voice from hell. Not to mention really well-written—it digs into Frankie’s back story, but doesn’t grow too expository or reductive; it’s always pissed off, but never histrionic. It hypothesizes about pasts and futures, hurls out nihilistic epigrams, and badgers Bono when his mind starts wandering.

Stander’s voice slinks throughout the film, but takes some breaks to let dialogue or ambient noise sink in. It’s the interior counterpart to Baron’s totally exterior performance, cluing us in to how calculated Frankie’s most casual gestures are. How hard it is for him to naturally act like a human being. Thanks to Salt and Stander’s uncredited contribution, Blast of Silence is a psychological study and an infernal travelogue. It raises the movie’s temperature from red hot to white.

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Sexy Nihilism in Onibaba

[I wrote the following as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like samurai skeletons at the bottom of a pit.]

Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.

Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.

But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.

I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.

And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.

But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)

All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.

Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.

And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.

With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.

P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!

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Memento remembered

A couple nights ago, I watched the movie Memento (2000) for the second time, as part of my “Personal Identity” class, and it dawned on me that I didn’t fully appreciate its merits the first time around. So even though the film’s been talked about to death, I’m going to add my own two cents. I first saw Memento my freshman year and mentally lumped it in with The Usual Suspects as structurally clever but superficial, and therefore overrated. My opinion of The Usual Suspects hasn’t changed (really, aside from some Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, where’s the appeal?), but I want to reconsider Memento. At the time, I felt that the narrative acrobatics may have occupied the mind while viewing and trying to put together the pieces, but once you had them together, the final product was hardly profound. I sided with Roger Ebert’s ambivalent review:

Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that–a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.

I still haven’t decided for myself quite what I think of the reverse chronology; it’s clear that it puts us in a state of awareness similar to that of clueless anti-hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). But does the movie necessarily have to be backward? For now, I’ll just say that I can’t think of a more effective way to cinematically convey the tabula rasa state in which Leonard enters each new scene. (Damn: it occurs to me that if I were really clever, I’d be writing this post backward.) But setting aside the question of whether the film’s structure is necessary, I’ll move on to what I really wanted to talk about…

Now, where was I?

I really love several elements of Memento. I believe a great film should be more than a puzzle – and it is more than that – but at the same time, it must be one of the great “puzzle movies” of all time. Having devoured countless Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I appreciate the appeal of a good whodunit, or a whodunwhat, or whatever word you’d use to describe the investigation at the heart of Memento. (Maybe a whatidun?) A basic reason for its consistent popularity has to be the pure giddiness of trying to solve the mystery along with Leonard, trying to use your own short-term memory to make up for his shortcomings. And writer-director Christopher Nolan is so careful about which clues he dispenses, and when – a note here, a tattoo or polaroid there, visible in the margins of the screen.

But it’s really not just a puzzle; it’s a revenge saga, akin to Oldboy (2003) – compare Oh Dae-su’s plight with Leonard’s cry of “I want my fucking life back!” It’s also a brilliant example of neo-noir, quietly invoking numerous recognizable noir tropes. “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” insists Leonard every time Teddy (smarmy bastard Joe Pantoliano) casts doubts about his identity. The line almost feels plucked from the screenplay of, say, DOA (1950). And Leonard’s a former insurance investigator, too, like the protagonists of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Killers (1946). Like any good noir, it’s got a convoluted narrative and a murder to solve. Only this time, it’s uncertain when the murder was committed, whether it’s been avenged, or who’s trying to obstruct the investigation.

This is one of the beauties of Memento: you never know who or what to trust. While the pervasive dishonesty of The Usual Suspects led me to wonder, “OK, then, what’s the point?”, Memento goes places with its confusion. The whole film, after all, is about the fallibility of a basic human resource – memory. “Memories can be distorted,” says Leonard to femme fatale Natalie (the beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss, in the best role she’ll ever have). “They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Everyone’s been forced to face the imperfection of memory sometime or other (consider the deliberations of 12 Angry Men); Leonard just deals with it to a greater degree.

But this uncertainty doesn’t just operate on the level of Leonard’s memory, or the viewer’s perception of the plot. It informs the very world the characters are living in. Memento‘s world is one without absolute authorities and without objective truth. Never in the film is the viewer exposed to a media outlet – no TV or radio, let alone Internet. No news, nobody who can clear up the hydra-headed mysteries. The city in which the film takes place is as insular and claustrophobic as Leonard’s motel room during the black and white sequences. And what’s the city called, anyway? Teddy repeatedly suggests that Leonard leave town, but where would he go?

I’m reminded of two 1998 films, both of which involve confused men investigating the constructed worlds they live in: The Truman Show and Dark City. (Though the storyline is older than both films, having been used occasionally in The Twilight Zone.) The generic, probably Californian city of Memento is never shown to be artificial, and I don’t think it is, but I think Leonard’s condition is exacerbated by lack of contact with the outside world, and this leaves him especially susceptible to Teddy and Natalie’s games.

Even within all the film’s structures and modes, it’s essentially a three-person drama. Each of them wants something from the other two. Leonard is the most transparent, or so it seems, as he’s just using them to get to the truth. (Or is he – ? Look at the poster again: an infinite amount of past Leonards, with all their lies and ulterior motives, are hidden around corners in the film’s temporal reality.) Natalie “has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity,” according to Leonard’s polaroid. “I think I’m gonna use you,” says Natalie to his face. This is what’s great about the film. Leonard’s facts aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on, and his notes are about as ephemeral and useless as his memories. Nihilistic? Probably, yes. But so well-stated, as if the film were a giant thematic Möbius strip.

And Teddy. What motivates him? I think he’s probably manipulating Leonard to get money out of local drug dealers. “Don’t trust his lies,” says the polaroid. Teddy is a hell of a liar, and even as he sounds off at the end/beginning, telling Leonard all the unpleasant “truths” he’d rather not here, you can’t possibly be sure. I don’t think his words are completely true – I mean, really, he had Leonard kill Jimmy just so he could see a look of happiness on Leonard’s face? Yet there’s probably a grain of truth concealed in them somewhere. In this way, Memento is like a less beautiful but more elaborate variation on Rashomon. You can never really establish the entire truth, but you try, you can get close enough to realize how futile it is.

Memento‘s certainly not without its flaws. After all, when most of a film’s reputation stems from its zigzag structure, it’s especially prone to plot holes. I’m still confused as to why Natalie, after seeing Leonard in Jimmy’s car and wearing his clothes, only did a brief double-take. Did she realize that Jimmy was dead, and decide to sink her claws into Leonard then and there? Apparently she’d already heard about his memory condition, as the dialogue in the bar reveals. This is just a minor quibble, but similar logical gaps are easy to find if you look for them. I don’t they ruin the experience, but they can distract you from the film’s real accomplishments.

I also think it’s not worth dwelling too much on the reverse chronology. I still think Ebert makes a good point, as when he compares Memento to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play about the unraveling of a relationship told backward, where the structure has a profound emotional impact. In Memento, the tragedy isn’t built up so much by experiencing the events backward, but by Leonard’s inability to put everything together, and the reverse chronology works, at least, to keep us similarly off-balance. The irony is that while Leonard forgets his own lies, we’re forced to remember it all, even as the satisfaction he receives from one act of vengeance invalidates another.

At present, the only other film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan has been his massive 2008 hit, and perhaps masterpiece, The Dark Knight. The same renovations to neo-noir imagery and character types that made Memento so fresh and different were applied to the most noirish, anti-heroic member of the superhero pantheon, and with terrific results. As both films show, Nolan knows how to make entertaining pop cinema, but he’s not afraid to work in darker, more complex ideas. (For extra auteur fun, compare Teddy and the Joker as chaotic, eternally smiling trickster gods.) His next film, Inception, is due out this summer, and it looks like he’s up to more of his old (which is to say, new) tricks. You can bet I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can. (Besides, it’s got supporting parts for Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy – i.e., an attractiveness overload.)

So ultimately, I grant that Memento does deserve repeated viewings. Not, as so many Internet commenters have said, because it’s impossible to understand after just one. I understood the plot just fine the first time. (With Primer, though, it’s a different story…) Instead, the second viewing paid off because in seeing the finer details of the performances and mise-en-scène, I was engaged by the doubts and dilemmas that underlie the entire film, and connect them with the moral ambiguities of film noir, whose codes Nolan uses as touchstones. Memento isn’t the deepest or most thoughtful cinematic inquiry into memory (for that, see the work of Alain Resnais, please), but it’s an unusual, fun film with unusually dark undercurrents.

[The following discussion of Memento contains many spoilers. Be warned. Yes, that’s my stab at a reverse chronology joke.]

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We’re not hitchhiking anymore! We’re riding!

So I’m feeling really good tonight, and only slightly tired, and “hosted” a “party” in my living space, making this the first weekend I’d intentionally done anything social in a long, long time. I’m not sure what to write a blog about. I don’t really believe in using a blog as a diary – “Dear blog, today was the best day ever…” – no, fuck that. If some random person is going to search for “pussy fuckers” on Google and find me, I want to give them something worth reading. Maybe subtly alter their worldview in some way. Maybe turn them on to something new and awesome. I feel like I’ve been overusing the word “awesome” lately. But fuck it. I can overuse whichever adjectives I want.

Earlier, Ashley and I were discussing how “stealing” factors into the creative process and the whole history of fiction. It factors in heavily. Everyone steals from someone else at one point or another – that’s where artistic influence comes in. And, as we concluded, the line between influence and thievery is a thin one, but it’s there. And after all, the whole history of progress in the arts has been a matter of one person stealing from another who stole that from someone else in the first place. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t talent involved. It just means that, well, the idea or storyline or what have you was good. Beside that, consider the disconnect between content and form: you can take the same story, but one writer might make it suck, and a writer a century later might turn it into a classic.

Also in film: The Maltese Falcon was the 3rd adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, and the best. Dracula has been filmed innumerable times – did Murnau, Browning, Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, Guy Maddin, and more just not have better ideas and have to steal from Bram Stoker in order to make a good movie? Of course not. But the story is a damn good one. Similarly, everyone loves to make their own version of Hamlet. Is it because there aren’t any other ideas? No, but this idea works really, really well. I’d elaborate on this but I’m getting slightly sleepy and the deeper thoughts are just not coming.

Watch this first, or the following analysis will make little sense:

"Space Madness"

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, this is the “Space Madness” episode of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy, first broadcast in 1991. Recently, for whatever reason, it popped into my head that I consider “Space Madness” to be a genuinely important, meaningful, and well-made piece of cartoon art, and I want to talk about it for a little while. This is what I was thinking: certainly, everyone acknowledges that paintings, music, books, and even film can be great art. So why not a 10-minute episode of an animated television series? In his interesting book Planet Simpson, cultural critic Chris Turner describes how he considers The Simpsons at its peak to be the equal of just about any comedy produced in the 20th century. So, I figured, why not Ren & Stimpy? I feel like I could watch this episode again and again without any decline in enjoyment. It does so much in a medium that is expected (by idiots) to do nothing more than keep kids distracted, one half-hour and fuzzy animal at a time. Ren & Stimpy has the fuzzy animals, but everything after that obliterates expectations: the chihuahua Ren is, as I was saying to Ashley, as neurotic as Porky Pig and as sociopathic as Daffy Duck.

(Chuck Jones cartoons are, in fact, one of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi‘s great influences; others include Tex Avery, the Three Stooges, and Kirk Douglas – this makes more sense when you consider Ren’s breakdowns in light of Douglas’s acting style. It’s a peculiar quirk of pop culture that should lead this great but often scenery-chewing actor to have such a hold on Kricfalusi, who probably grew up seeing his movies in the ’50s and ’60s.)

Ren Höek, the asthma-hound chihuahua

Ren is a compellingly irrational, violent character, usually on the brink of madness, as likely to give Stimpy a kiss as a smack across the face. Ren has some deep emotional problems, especially for a dog in a “children’s cartoon.” He’s also hilarious. I just love the writing for this show; it’s always so right on. The non sequiturs don’t seem forced or unoriginal, but often have a strange power of their own. Consider: “I’ve had this ice cream bar since I was a child!” This bizarre dialogue inserts vague hints of pseudo-Freudian trauma into Ren’s disturbing madness. This episode really is the blackest of comedy – it’s funny, yeah, but it jokes about a horrifyingly rendered descent into insanity, as well as the erasure of all existence. It’s simultaneously very scary and very funny.

Stimpson J. Cat

Then we’ve got Stimpy – innocent, trusting, and voiced by Billy West who I’m sure you know as Fry in Futurama. Stimpy is the Curly to Ren’s Moe, the Elmer Fudd to his Bugs (if Bugs were more deranged and less self-aware). While Ren upsets every single fucking paradigm in the cartoon – both the fuzzy animal imagery and the space opera setting – Stimpy buys in completely. He’s the unsuspecting dupe (although he often casually reveals that he suspects everything). I just love how this cartoon undermines everything. Looking for animals bonking each other on the head? Yeah, you’ve got it. Except that the violence is the product of an often sad, even abusive relationship. The interpersonal dynamic here is completely unexpected – maybe I’d compare it to Laurel & Hardy, but with a darker, meaner edge. On the other hand, “Space Madness” also subverts its sci-fi setting: we get superficial suggestions of exploring the cosmos, but during the course of the episode, the cosmos only form a surreal backdrop to Ren’s declining mental state, a space to get lost in. Instead of finding a menagerie of extraterrestrial life, they find themselves crushed by the depressing emptiness of it all. It’s like Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space. The depths of the universe turn out to be just as boring and ennui-ridden as anything Ren and Stimpy encounter here on earth.

And if you want existential crises, we’ve got the scarcely believable final segment, in which Ren puts Stimpy (to distract him) in charge of the “History Eraser Button,” whose only purpose is to compel Stimpy to press it (with some prodding from a not-exactly-objective narrator, of course). It’s Pandora’s Box all over again, but instead of releasing evils into the world, it erases all of history. And Stimpy presses it. There’s no happy ending or rational resolution. No positive outcome of any kind. In 90 seconds the cartoon goes from Sisyphean futility to hopeless annihilation. The last words are “Tune in next week as…” and then, well, everyone disappears. Including the pictures of Ren and Stimpy in the show’s logo. It’s a total reversal of the typical serial (space opera or otherwise), since now there is no next week, and never will be. Everything has been undone with the press of a single button. It’s startlingly grim, and I think it’s probably a major reason why I think this cartoon is so great. I think the ending’s absurd bleakness is comparable maybe to Dr. Strangelove, but few “funny” works of fiction dare to go down the path of ultimate destruction. Maybe there’s comedy in the ending’s sheer audacity and in its upsetting of the standard “last minute rescue” we’ve come to expect, but mainly I think it just leaves a funny feeling, an emotional void. What happened? Why did it happen? Is all of history even erased? Hell, this may just be a fictional universe (with pretty anarchic sensibilities to begin with), but nonetheless, the prospect of history being erased – and in a universe into which we’ve invested part of ourselves by enjoying the show – is pretty daunting.

"We'll meet again"?

I could probably go on like this for quite some time, but it is half past 4 am on a Saturday morning (which, in my opinion, is a great time to watch “Space Madness”). I could discuss the cartoon’s unique visual style, with regard to the grotesque close-ups, the spaceship (which seems to be a Rube Goldbergian hodgepodge of gizmos and thingamajigs), and space itself. The more I think about and watch “Space Madness,” the more I love it. It reveals new artistry and ideas with every viewing.

“The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” – Salvador Dalí

“It is not I who am crazy! It is I who am mad!” – Ren Höek

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