Tag Archives: spectacle

Lost in The Funhouse

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like deformed psychos at an evil carnival.]

Ashley

Oh, Final Girl Film Club I have missed you. Oh, blogging, I have missed you! I promise, people, things are gonna change. I’m gonna be a better blogger. I’m gonna make up for not posting a single goddamn horror-related thing during October. And it all starts now. Welcome to The Funhouse, motherfuckers. Directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and released in 1981, this movie is way better than I thought it would be. Opening with awesome homages to Psycho and Halloween, we follow Amy (who looks about fifteen, which makes her nudity in the opening of the movie very uncomfortable; I’ve been told that she was of age when this movie was made. Doesn’t make her any less fifteen-year-old-looking or the nudity any less I-shouldn’t-be-looking-at-this-I’m-pretty-sure-this-is-illegal), her boyfriend Buzz (who looks about thirty which makes his relationship with aforementioned fifteen-year-old-looking Amy creepy) and their two intensely obnoxious friends Richie and Liz to a sleazy carnival.

Our main characters are pretty bland and often extremely annoying (especially Richie, who is the most first victim who was ever first in a fucking horror movie EVER; more on that later), especially compared to the much more interesting interpersonal dramas going on between the carny folk. Buzz, Richie and Liz (and occasionally Amy; she’s the ‘nice one’ which translates out to ‘she lives’) spend most of the time laughing at and making fun of the carnies. There’s a definite class element at play, which is represented visually by the difference in appearance/clothing between the kids and the carnies and is made especially evident during a scene where Amy is having her palm read by Madame Zena, the carnival clairvoyant. As Madame Zena is trying to keep her composure and take her job/act as a fortune teller seriously, the kids spend the entire session laughing rudely at her until she kicks them out, telling them not to return or she’ll “break every bone in your fucking body.” Their smarmy, middle-class snark kind of make you want to see them die.

And see you will. Even though this is a pretty atypical slasher type, it does still follow a structure and that structure is: these kids will die one by one until only the final girl is left. Since there’s only four of them, it takes us a little while to get to the killing but we already know long before then who’s going first: Richie. This kid is so fucking first. It’s ridiculous how first he his. There was a certain point in the movie, there there was a lingering shot on Richie and Andreas and I both said, “He’s first.” I’ve never seen a character be more first in a horror movie before. And he goes on to do things that ensure his status as the most first motherfucker who ever firsted in a horror movie, HE’S SO FUCKING FIRST. And when he dies, it’s some pretty fantastic overkill: not only does he get hung by a conveniently placed rope, but later he gets an axe to the head when Buzz thinks he’s someone else. And now, since I’ve run out of things to say, I turn it over to Andreas.

Andreas

In its own humble, thrilling way, The Funhouse is a pretty sophisticated slasher movie. It has a lot to say about horror, spectacle, sexuality, and what happens when we cross the line between spectator and participant. It’s not the best-written horror movie out there; as Ashley pointed out, its characters – including final girl Amy – are mostly built on grating teenage stereotypes, and they make nothing but bad decisions (like, say, spending the night in a carnival funhouse). But it’s still a fun, fascinating movie because of its unrelenting infatuation with the imagery and environment of the carnival. Beginning with its unsettling opening credits, the movie professes a deep love for the uncanny, macabre artistry that fills the funhouse interior. As one teenager after another was dispatched by the monstrous killer, that love kept me watching.

It’s well over an hour into the film before Richie dies, which might suggest to you that this movie isn’t just about a string of brutal killings. It’s more about the relationship between the local kids, the carnival, and the carnies who run it. The four teenagers wander around the carnival, engaging with its many tableaux: the Dracula-esque magician, the achingly sincere fortune teller, the adults-only striptease, the sideshow with its two-headed cow, and of course the titular funhouse. Each one offers novel, transgressive visual experiences – glimpses into an alternate world where the laws of parents, teachers, and God do not apply. Speaking of the striptease, Buzz pulls out a knife to cut a little viewing hole into the side of its tent, and it becomes about the most vaginal slit I’ve seen outside of, uh, actual vaginas:

The real crux of the movie is Amy’s gradual exposure to just how horrifying the funhouse can be. As she navigates its garish interiors, and as the killer plucks her friends from her side one by one, she’s constantly entranced and frightened by all the creakling, glowing, giggling decorations – like clowns, skeletons, and a giant eye. The film really delves into the gulf between artifice and reality: in light of the danger that stalks them, the funhouse’s smoke and mirrors take on a new, very real meaning. The film goes even further during her final showdown with the killer, which takes place in the deepest bowels of the funhouse. Here, the mechanisms are all laid bare, and we get to see the gears and engines that make its spectacle work. This is where Amy, ragged and nearly catatonic, must truly face her fears.

As you can probably tell from this description, The Funhouse is full of subtle meta-cinematic discourse – i.e., it’s all about how we, as the audience, relate to horror movies. The opening Halloween/Psycho homage starts out in the bedroom of Amy’s brother Joey, which has posters from Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, etc. – all the “old-fashioned” monster movies. Appropriately, the voiceless killer is also first seen wearing a Frankenstein mask as if it were his own face. So the film’s characters are steeped in the history of horror cinema, even as they struggle to survive its present by outmaneuvering a new, Rick Baker-designed monster.

My point is that The Funhouse is very savvy about how horror works, and metaphorically presents the funhouse (and, by extension, the entire carnival) as a locus of real danger and power that should be taken seriously. They’re run by real people, even if those people are different, and don’t exist solely for the amusement of some shallow, horny locals. In this way, the film links up well with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as both films feature families who don’t take nicely to meddling outsiders, and in both films, Hooper’s sympathies are divided. No, the kids don’t deserve to die. But an unsettling sliver of the film wants you to feel bad for the abused, ripped-off, sexually dysfunctional killer. The Funhouse has many shots akin to the end of TCM, where Leatherface waves his frustrated penis chainsaw around in the air, his prey having escaped him.

So ultimately, I see The Funhouse as an admittedly fun, fairly sharp movie. It has some missed opportunities – like where did the subplot with the little brother go? It just kind of cut off halfway through – but made the most of its already creepy setting. And as the ending proves, nothing – not even a fanged, drooling psychopathic carnie – is scarier than that fat, white-faced clown statue in the polka dot dress. Dear lord, deliver us from laughing clown statues. (Fun final fact: you may recognize Elizabeth Berridge, who plays Amy, as Mozart’s wife from Forman’s Amadeus [1984]. At least, I did. Man, she had to put up with a lot of obnoxious guys in the ’80s.)

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Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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