A Chairy Tale: fable about importance of communication, respect and equality

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, “A Chairy Tale” (1957)

A delightful little number that even young children will appreciate, this Canadian short is a fable about communication and the importance of respect and equality among people. The film is very simple and is set on an unadorned stage with a dark curtain in the background. Actor Claude Jutra wants to sit down on a wooden chair to read his book but the chair has a mind of its own and refuses to be sat upon. There follows an amusing sequence in which Jutra chases the chair around the stage Keystone-Kops style, fights with it, rejects it, tries to humour and placate it, dances a tango with it. and finally is made to understand that the chair just doesn’t want to be treated like, well, part of the furniture.

The method of animating the chair involved the use of strings attached to it as if the chair were a marionette puppet and then varying the speed of the camera throughout filming so that in the finished product, parts of the film whiz by fast and other parts are at normal speed. Pixilation, a form of stop motion animation used to bring together live and animated figures in the pre-CGI age, gives a slightly more stilted and less naturalistic quality to Jutra’s movements but otherwise he works very hard and moves freely and expressively.

Musical accompaniment by Ravi Shankar on sitar and Chatur Lal on tablas provides the only sounds viewers hear. The music provides an extra layer to the film’s story in that the sitar and tablas are continually conversing with each other in addition to fulfilling the usual counterpointing role of highlighting aspects of the film’s story. Perhaps the music could have been even more relevant to the film if the tabla player had been allowed to play solo in some parts of the film so that his drumming takes a lead rather than a support role. The sitar is lively, sinuous and resonant; the tablas are hard, dense and blunt and don’t’ resonate quite so well so perhaps the tablas need more “space” in the music and the sitars less for the instruments to sound equal.

The structure of the plot mirrors stages in a confrontation that leads to exhaustion, consideration of alternative strategies and finally negotiation and agreement. A lesson to be learnt here is that aggression and violence to get your own way will always fail and it’s better to listen to the other party’s grievances. Seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view is another lesson young viewers will take with them. When every strategy is exhausted and the film milks its conflict for all it’s worth, agreement and compromise are possible and the film ends. The film’s moral can be extended to other relationships including love and marriage, and to relationships between and among groups in society.

Crash (dir. David Cronenberg): dark comedy satire on Western obsession with technology and material culture

David Cronenberg, “Crash” (1996)

Based on the eponymous 1973 novel by J G Ballard, this film can be viewed as a companion to it rather than a close adaptation. The novel examines how technology and its products transform human psychology and culture, with one result being that people become obsessed by media products such as forms of celebrity worship; the film focusses more narrowly on the fusion of human psychology and technology as expressed in the characters’ sexual fetishisation of cars and car crashes to the extent that this philia becomes the motivator in their lives. Toronto-based TV producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an open marriage which is a cover for their unsatisfactory and cold relationship. One evening, driving home late, Ballard collides head on with Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) in her car, the accident killing her husband. In hospital with his leg in a metal brace, Ballard meets a researcher Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who keenly examines his injuries and metal braces. Ballard and Remington start an affair, making out in cars; to understand why they have become a pair through the car crash and why they are sexually aroused only in cars, they turn to Vaughan who invites them to see a simulated performance-art re-enactment of 1950’s Hollywood star James Dean’s fatal car crash and then to his hidey-hole where they meet Vaughan’s friends who include Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) whose legs are permanently embraced in steel braces.

Ballard quickly becomes Vaughan’s faithful groupie, driving his guru around in Vaughan’s Lincoln convertible to pick up prostitutes and later Catherine for sex every evening. On one such trip they come upon a pile-up of cars and Vaughan discovers one dead person in the wreckage is a follower of his in the middle of a Jayne Mansfield death re-enactment. Ballard also dallies with Gabrielle, using an old scar on her leg as a vagina substitute. Eventually Vaughan turns his attention to Ballard and the two engage in homosexual intercourse which sets them up for a climax in which at least one of them must die in order to consummate their relationship and fulfill Vaughan’s desire to live his philosophy of the car crash as a whole-body experience incorporating sexual intercourse, orgasm, fulfillment and death.

The film adopts a low-key, matter-of-fact approach to its subject and the actors do well in portraying cold, emotionless characters in thrall to their psychological urges. Koteas in particular steals the show as a manipulative messiah who knows what Ballard needs and uses him for as long as he needs. The only flaw in Koteas’s portrayal of Vaughan is that the character is more creepy than charming and his recruitment technique is more likely to repel than attract. Spader may not be leading-man charmer material but his colourless approach and boyish looks suit his character who is essentially passive and desires to obey Vaughan. In this, Cronenberg is following the novel fairly closely: in most of J G Ballard’s novels and short fiction, the hero usually is a passive man, often manipulated, through which Ballard expresses his ideas and beliefs about the effects of technology or cultural innovation on ordinary human thinking and feeling. Viewers need to watch Spader closely in the carwash scene to realise how subtle his acting can be; his face is blank, he says nothing but his hand movements express his arousal and reaction to Vaughan shagging Catherine in the backseat of the car. The female actors get through their parts efficiently if not outstandingly: Unger seems to spend most of her time with the fairies, Hunter is merely determined and Arquette is  hilarious in a scene that sends up car advertising strategies.

In a film like “Crash” which deals with obsession, the overall look and attention to details are important: Toronto is sleek and glossy in parts, grimy and industrial in others, yet always hollow and lacking in depth and warmth in some way. Much loving attention in the form of numerous close-ups is paid to cars, their style and surfaces, grilles, bumper bars, driver controls and, most importantly, any dints they get. This suggests that the characters are the products of a society that’s spiritually dead and which substitutes technology for warmth, human bonding and communication. It’s no accident that Cronenberg makes his main character a TV producer whose role is to make shows that influence people’s thoughts and feelings, promote certain social values and attitudes, and encourage folks to pay continual homage to their lares and penates with their remote controls. The role of the media in encouraging people to be obsessed with famous actors and other celebrities is downplayed: Cronenberg seems uninterested in investigating how psychology and the products and systems of technology interact to reconstruct and determine cultural values and definitions about the nature of fame and how it affects worshippers and the objects of their worship alike. Media attention on famous stars not only can encourage fan obsession, it can lead to fans stalking (and sometimes killing) the objects of their desires. In the novel Vaughan is obsessed with the actress Elizabeth Taylor; in the film only famous dead stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield have meaning for Vaughan and his followers for having died in car collisions, their lives before their crashes and whatever it was that propelled them to fame being of no concern. Perhaps the intention is to send an even more chilling message about the motivations of Vaughan’s group: they are completely self-obsessed to the point of drifting away from reality and relate only to others who share in their peculiar interests. But what is reality anyway? – it is other people who are just as equally obsessed with their particular gadgety toys or the products of technology.

There is a banal quality to the plot and characters due to their obsessive and repetitive behaviour: the thrill of car crashes and being close to death (because it makes them come alive) is short-lived so they must repeat the experience again and again. Only when they come close to losing each other – the film’s ending can be ambiguous – do Ballard and his wife finally find love but even here their obsession intrudes and it’s likely beyond the film that they’ll risk killing each other again just for that fleeting moment when they most feel alive. At this point viewers realise just how far gone the two are: their relationship has recovered its warmth but at what cost to their future together and individually? This part of “Crash” where a particular technology finally occupies central place in two characters’ lives and determines their future behaviour must be the film’s true horrific climax.

As might be expected of a film that marries cars, death and sex, there is plenty of sex and nudity but though tastefully done the sex scenes are cold and not at all erotic. One sex scene in which Ballard and Catherine are having sex and Catherine asks him about Vaughan’s body and sexual response is comic.

If there’s a lesson to learn from “Crash”, it’s more in the dynamics of human group behaviour, especially in the context of cult groups following a guru who uses his followers’ guilt or obsessions to control and mould their thoughts and behaviours. If ever people want to know the dangers of getting involved in little cliques that follow and worship their leaders uncritically, “Crash” is required watching. On the other hand it makes no moral comment on the fusion of technology with human psychology and physiology. The whole film can be viewed as a dark comedy and satire on Western society and its preoccupations with material culture at the expense of values centred on human relationships and spiritual life.

Splice: spliced-together movie unravelling at the joins

Vincenzo Natali, “Splice”, Dark Castle Entertainment (2010)
 
Fans of former Oscar Best Actor winner Adrien Brody must be wondering how their man came to be slumming it in this Canadian sci-fi horror flick about a Generation Y scientist couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (Brody and Sarah Polley) who work for a genetics corporation splicing DNA from various animals to create chimeras whose hormones and other products can be manufactured and patented by their employer by day; and at night work on their own experiment splicing animal and human DNA to create a Frankenstein who among other things will substitute for their inability – or rather, Elsa’s unwillingness – to have their own child. (And the corporation, feeling the cruel pinch of the Global Financial Crisis, will no longer countenance its star employees using company resources and equipment for pursuing personal projects.) At first the hybrid, named Dren, is very cute: she’s a mixture of human, bird, a bit of rodent here and a scorpion there, but she’s a fast grower as well as a fast learner and eventually the couple have to move her out of the company basement and storage areas and into a country farmhouse where Elsa spent her childhood. There Dren grows into a weirdly beautiful adult (Delphine Chaneac) in double-quick time and suffers the problems of adolescence in double-quick intensity: she’s not only intelligent and perceptive, she’s rebellious and wants freedom to move and explore, find her own identity and niche in life perhaps. Her complicated genetic inheritance kicks in, presenting all manner of weird and wacky parenting problems and Oedipal complexes for Clive and Elsa to cope with. The results are devastating if perhaps predictable – previous company-approved experiments with two slug chimaeras whimsically named Fred and Ginger prime the audience for what’s to come – with the tantalising possibility of a Z-grade sequel in the manner of the Species films where each succeeding chapter gets progressively sillier with a new batch of actors being punished by the mutating monster for sacrificing their artistic integrity for a few hundred extra measly bucks
 
In a way this isn’t a sci-fi film as the technology to splice DNA from different animal and plant species to create new kinds of genetic beings has existed for many years and corporations like Monsanto are already making billions out of this activity. The general idea though – know-it-all specialists wanting more secret knowledge in their specialty, conducting risky experiments to get that knowledge, reaping the early rewards but also suffering from the inevitable fall-out – qualifies “Splice” as a member of the Frankenstein category of science fiction / horror. “Splice” is also “splice” in the way it tosses in elements of romantic comedy – a scene where Clive and Elsa argue and the two stomp back and forth between a car and the barn illustrates this nicely – and of psychological thriller horror once the action moves into the farmhouse where Elsa grew up and was abused by her mother. A sly dig at companies that initially profess horror at unorthodox staff projects and punish the employees severely yet eagerly scramble for the money-stream such projects promise easily slots into the plot.
 
This is very much a character-driven film as the two scientists start out masters of their particular universe but end up being driven by it as one bad decision leads to another and the mess just gets bigger and bigger. Ethical issues about personal, parental and corporate responsibility are brought up without being hammered over and the lead actors do an excellent job portraying arrogant, fallible human beings whose weaknesses are exposed as they grapple with the consequences of their decisions and actions. It becomes obvious that Dren, for all her intelligence and perception, is an innocent victim of her particular cosmopolitan genetic make-up as it expresses itself and viewers will pity her pain, confusion and inevitable demise, and feel disgust and contempt for her fat-headed creators and their sponsors at the same time.
 
Unfortunately as the movie progresses, it starts to feel shaky as the action flips from glossy cutting-edge sci-fi to rustic isolationist farmhouse horror and the stitching of various genre elements becomes less than seamless. The action descends into a predictable rut as Fred and Ginger’s doom starts playing itself again, big-time this time with Dren, Elsa, Clive, his brother and their immediate work supervisor unwillingly drawn into its consequences. Maybe a little too much genre-splicing has gone on here and the movie threatens to turn into a monster itself. The original plot sketch must have fizzled out and the director, actors and film crew had to improvise the rest of the story as best they could, tie up all necessary loose ends and salvage a total schemozzle by tacking on what looks like a twist ending. Though the director probably had this ending in mind originally; the problem is how to get there. At once funny and disturbing, the conclusion recalls mediaeval horror stories about demons visiting male humans in their sleep, making a few quick adjustments and then visiting female humans in their sleep … I shan’t elaborate further but this was how the Anti-Christ was supposed to come about.
 
Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether “Splice” might become a cult film: the underlying theme and the issues it raises scream cult-film potential and ongoing cultural relevance, and there is an edgy unpredictability early on that piques the interest. Some extra thought to fleshing out the plot-line more and some back-story to Elsa, her uneasy relationship with her mother and how that impinges on her actions toward Dren might have strengthened the whole movie.