Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

Troll Hunter: comedy horror flick works in popular Norwegian stereotypes and fears of a police state

André Øvredal, “Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren” (2010)

Inspired perhaps by the example of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog” from the 1990s and “Cannibal Holocaust” from the 1970s, this Norwegian comedy horror flick takes the form of a documentary in process by a group of student film-makers Thomas, Johanna and Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Thomas Alf Larsen) who investigate a series of mysterious livestock and tourist killings by bears. They meet a man Hans (Otto Jespersen) who claims to be a troll hunter and that the deaths were caused by trolls. The youngsters spend the rest of the film following him as he hunts the killers. Before long, the three kids are up to their necks in more than troll stench and troll trouble: not only do they discover that trolls really do exist but that the Norwegian government has long denied their existence and has a vested interest in doing so, and will stop at nothing to ensure that the news media – and the students themselves – know their place and not publicise any information about the trolls.

The main glories of the film are in the subtle ways it works traditional Norwegian folk stories about trolls and contemporary Norwegian cultural stereotypes and hang-ups into its threadbare plot. The plot provides a framework to work various jokes and comedy sketches that enliven it. The sketch in which three sheep are placed on a bridge as bait for a giant troll is a reference to the children’s fairy story about the three billy goats. Another sketch in which Hans and the students encounter some Polish immigrants provides an opportunity to send up Norwegian fears and beliefs about immigrants generally and Polish immigrants in particular, the latter being a constant presence across western Europe after Poland joined the EU and its people got visa-free access so they could escape their country’s chronic unemployment problem. A running gag in the film is that every time Hans despatches a troll to troll Valhalla, the government sends in its agent Finn and his helpers to plant false bear tracks in the area and spread lies about mysterious killings of foreign tourists and others. While such issues might suggest the film will find a very limited audience outside Norway, I had no problem picking up some of the issues worked into the film and I daresay most non-Norwegian viewers will spot them as well and enjoy the film for what it is.

There are references also to the conflict between the Norwegian government and farmers whose livestock are attacked by bears and wolves, and the bureaucratic hoops that farmers must jump through to obtain licences to protect their animals without breaking wildlife regulations; and to the problems of setting up power-lines in wilderness areas.

Although the film plays its themes for laughs, one can detect something quite serious in the way the trolls are portrayed as the last, pitiful members of a dying species and how among other things the Norwegian government is using them to expand its power over people’s lives and the country in which they live. Thus we have the paranoid bureaucratic obsession with hiding the reality of trolls from the public, to the extent of arresting and incarcerating the student film-makers, with only a few titles closing off the film by saying that the students have disappeared. (The interesting twist of course is that the trolls are not responsible for the students’ disappearance.) The news media obediently follows the official government line of never admitting the existence of trolls in spite of a short clip featuring the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg averring that they could exist.

Otto Jespersen puts in a very convincing performance as the troll hunter fed up with the way he has been treated by the Norwegian government who needs his services to keep the troll population in check and away from the public yet refuses to acknowledge his existence and pay him properly. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows him in close-up as he explains the different kinds of troll that exist in Norway, the trolls’ inability to metabolise Vitamin D (which explains their aversion to sunlight and the fact that they explode when exposed to UV light) and their ability to sniff out and kill anyone who is Christian. The actual trolls themselves are obviously computer-generated and much of the film does look very amateurish, what with the swinging cameras, but its ability to hold viewers in suspense despite the comedy and the outlandish premise is in no doubt.

Funny Games (English language version): an ultimately empty and boring remake that misses the point of violence in American films

Michael Haneke, “Funny Games (English language version)” (2007)

Austrian director Michael Haneke originally had wanted to make “Funny Games” as an American film due to his belief that violence as entertainment was a peculiarly American phenomenon. Perhaps Haneke has not visited too many video arcades, DVD shops and multiplex movie cinemas in his native Austria or Germany next door, and the popularity of his original German-language “Funny Games” and its collection of various film awards would suggest he should reconsider his opinion. Anyway the director went ahead and remade his film about the upper middle class family on holiday being tormented, tortured and terminated by the two young psychopaths, one of whom makes an irritating habit of inviting the film’s audience to passively approve their activities. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the roles of the hapless bourgeois couple Ann and George completely at the mercy of the two young squeaky-clean Ivy-League-preppy punks Peter (Michael Pitt) and Paul (Brady Corbet) who are no less vicious than their Austrian cousins. In spite of attempts to escape and to call for help, Ann, George and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) are on a downward spiral from the moment they meet the polite young men, and the only thing the audience needs to worry about is how long the psycho pair take to dispose of their victims and how many Hollywood movie thriller conventions they break in doing so.

Now Haneke is a very good film-maker as can be seen from the way he generates and layers on the tension in a narrative that arises casually from an otherwise aimless holiday in the country. His style is sparing, quiet and low-key which emphasises the sheer horror of the casual and violent deaths that occur off-screen. The result is a film that seems too unreal, too formal and remote to resonate with its audience. In making Ann and George’s family upper-middle-class generic, Haneke errs in divesting them of the idiosyncrasies that could have made the three characters more human and the deaths they suffer more tragic. We do not know where Ann and George come from, we do not even know what they do for a living and why they are on holiday. Perhaps they have won the lottery and are celebrating, perhaps they have decided to make up after a long separation and getting away from the stresses of everyday life is their way of reconciling. There is no sense that before the film opens, they had a history; consequently the audience is primed not to feel any sympathy for their suffering. Likewise the young men who imprison and torture the family have no history other than torturing other middle class families and the film indicates that they will continue to do so; in spite of their stand-up comedy routine in which Peter teases Paul about his weight and Peter’s appeals to the audience, the duo are no more than robots programmed to play the same circuit of “funny games” each time they meet a new family.

Preoccupied with co-opting its audience as passive collaborators with its villains, and treating the victims as hopeless pampered bourgeois idiots reliant on technology that fails them and grasping at every straw that breaks, the film itself becomes as empty as its psychopathic pair who rampage across an unidentified rural community in an imagined middle class America. At least Lars von Trier in making his films about Americana had the excuse of fearing aeroplane flights. The film feels empty and hollow in making its message about pointless violence as it grinds relentlessly to its conclusion. The actors playing the villains have no chemistry between them and lack the necessary black humour that might have commented on people’s obsessions to cocoon themselves with technology and vacations away from the outside world. While Watts and Roth do all they can in their respective roles – it should be noted that Watts has been choosing roles of mothers in distress with unfailing predictability – the one-dimensional nature of their characters and the film reduce their emotional outpourings to banal gestures.

There is far more to remaking a film in a different language and in a foreign setting, even an avantgarde film like the original “Funny Games”. The cultural context of the film can have an impact that makes or breaks the new version. Violence in Hollywood movies is usually over-emphasised and over-stylised so as to make it seem hyper-real and it serves a purpose in building up and releasing emotion and tension in controlled ways that sensitise audiences to favour the films’ ulterior messages of obedience to authority as represented by police or the military, and the use of force and violence over negotiation and compromise to achieve objectives. Such morality as exists is whatever the wealthy and successful determine it to be and those who wish to strive for justice eventually have to adopt the same dog-eat-dog tactics merely to survive. Hence the need for film conventions such as allowing the victim a fair shot at getting even with his / her tormenters. Violence in Hollywood films does not serve as entertainment, it serves as a propaganda tool and this is what Haneke missed. Therefore what worked in the German film will not necessarily work in the American film and the remake of “Funny Games” ends up putting Haneke in much the same disturbing place as his villains: creepy and boringly repetitive.

 

The Plumber: quirky character study commenting on the gulf between social classes and the sexes

Peter Weir, “The Plumber” (1979)

Originally made for television, this low-budget film combines the psychological thriller with cheerful larrikin Aussie black comedy and light commentary on the gulf between social classes in a supposedly egalitarian society. Dr Cowper (Robert Coleby) and wife Jill (Judy Morris) are renting a flat in the university administration building where Cowper lectures and does research on health issues affecting a tribe in Papua New Guinea. Jill is in the process of finishing off her thesis for her Master of Anthropology studies on PNG tribal culture. One day a cheerful plumber, Max (Ivar Kants), turns up and claims he’s required to carry out maintenance work on the plumbing in the Cowpers’ unit. A job that initially was to take no longer than half an hour to a couple of hours becomes unending toil stretching over five days, to say nothing of the torment Jill endures from Max who plays his radio too loudly, sings and strums guitar on the job, spends too long on too many breaks for morning and afternoon teas and lunch, and turns the bathroom into a cross between a wreck and a war zone. Scaffolding left in the bathroom turns it into a veritable labyrinth and nearly ruins a dinner party given by the Cowpers when one of their guests is floored by a fallen bathroom sink. But the physical damage is nothing compared to the psychological harassment from Max towards Jill: he bullies her, manipulates his way into the apartment, lies about his past (is he or isn’t he a former convict?) and convinces everyone else, Dr Cowper and Jill’s best friend included, that he is a sweet and harmless eccentric.

The entire film is driven by the contrasts between Jill and Max: Jill is a passive middle-class good girl who, despite her experiences as an anthropology student, is socially awkward and doesn’t really understand people very much. An inkling of what we can expect from Jill comes almost immediately at the start of the film when she admits that a New Guinean shaman mesmerised her almost into a trance and she threw a rock at him: in short, she’s really at a loss at understanding people from a different social background and culture from hers. Max the larrikin plumber brings with him a lot of baggage that includes working-class resentment at the education and money of upper-class people and the opportunities these head starts give them. For all his insecurities, he reads the Cowpers’ naivety very well and knows how to annoy and harass Jill to breaking point. Hubby is obsessed with work and career ambitions and fails to realise that his wife is in danger from a man who could be a serial rapist. The actors playing the Cowpers and Max give these characters just enough to make them credible and substantial in spite of plot holes and the suspension of belief the plot requires: one would think that Jill ought to check Max’s credentials with the university administration before allowing him into the flat. Kants has to juggle a role requiring equal parts creepy and malevolent pest, would-be social critic / troubadour and lovable quirky eccentric; that he pulls off such a complex portrayal with energy and fun makes the film more nuanced than what it originally called for.

After over thirty years, the film does look outdated and some of the plot scenes look very hokey and laughable indeed. The climax in which Jill finds some backbone and descends to some very amoral and despicable behaviour is very awkwardly done. We do not see how such nastiness affects the Cowpers’ relationship or Jill herself as the film ends quite abruptly and this lack of denouement weakens the plot. At the very least the resolution suggests that there’s no point at which the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class can find common ground and the two classes will continue to clash: the upper class will use their advantages to keep ahead of the lower class and the lower class endeavours with street cunning to insinuate themselves into the upper class and weaken or dilute its power.

What gives the film longevity is its theme of the clash between what we consider normal and what we consider the Other as represented by Max and his bizarre ways. Max disrupts a couple’s comfortable complacency and his destructive actions change the two people’s lives forever. Jill may think she’s got rid of him but like the New Guinean shaman, Max  or someone else like him may be a permanent fixture in her future, resurfacing time and again until eventually she must get to grips with what’s lacking in her character.

Human sexuality and the differences between men and women and how these influence the sexes’ conduct towards one another are a significant theme in the film that helps to inform the social gulf between two classes in a society that claims everyone is equal and has equal opportunities to succeed in life.

Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.

 

 

The Cars that Ate Paris: oddball comedy horror satire on society and technological fetishism

Peter Weir, “The Cars that Ate Paris” (1974)

Acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir’s directorial full-length debut is an oddball comedy horror flick that riffs on a number of themes including isolation, the uncertainty of one’s identity, social conformity, small-town provincialism and struggling to survive in a foreign and hostile land: themes that have informed European settlement of Australia since 1788. Social criticism is a muted, matter-of-fact presentation of ideas and issues that viewers have to judge and decide for themselves. The film was made on a low budget with a small cast in Sofala, a rural town in New South Wales, which supplied the film’s extras.

The plot initially seems straightforward and minimal. Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George are travelling into a country town, grandly named Paris, when they have a serious car accident. Arthur later wakes up in the town’s hospital, shaken and nursing a new phobia of driving cars. The mayor of Paris (John Meillon) befriends Arthur and takes him into his home. Recuperating from his injuries and the shock from both the accident and from learning that George died in the accident, Arthur acquaints himself with the town-folk and gradually discovers Paris’s secret: the town survives on creating horrific road accidents with death traps set up on the roads, salvaging spare parts from damaged cars and the possessions of victims; the victims themselves are brought to the town hospital to be used as guinea pigs for bizarre medical experiments. The mayor puts Arthur to work in the hospital and then as parking-ticket inspector, the latter in which capacity the young outsider inadvertently causes a major stoush between the mayor and the town-folk on one hand and the local hoons who spend their days driving old car wrecks through the town. The quarrel between Paris and its gangs of car-cruising youth escalates into a major riot that threatens to rip the town apart.

The version of the film I saw has been cleaned up a great deal and it is much brighter and more attractive than the original version in which the lighting was very poor. The rural setting is very picturesque and the town used for the film looks idyllic and peaceful with a distinctive 19th-century pioneering look. The film’s entire style is low-key and unassuming in keeping with the character of Arthur who spends most of his time acting like a frightened little mouse, passive, hesitant and allowing himself to be used and manipulated by the genial mayor. Through Arthur’s passivity, viewers see the full horror of Paris, populated entirely by psychopaths beneath veneers of upright God-fearing and church-going conservative Anglican country-folk. The scheme of killing people by staging traffic accidents and robbing them of their cars and possessions to provide work for the locals and to keep Paris going is revealed to be the work of the mayor and the hospital doctor (Kevin Miles).

Acting is very minimal and the dialogue, especially John Meillon’s lines, drives the film’s plot. Meillon is the most outstanding actor in the movie, by turns kindly and sympathetic, tyrannical, sinister and ultimately crazed. His gradual control of the vulnerable Arthur is hilarious yet creepy to watch though ironically through his manipulation of the young man is to be found the cure for Arthur’s phobia which allows the outsider to escape. Second most outstanding actor or actors I should say are the eponymous cars that take over Paris after one of their number is set alight in an earlier scene; in particular, the hedgehog Volkswagen that (spoiler alert) impales one of the perpetrators in the town’s evil scheme is a visual stunner.

In spite of its apparently threadbare style, the film’s plot is quite complicated if not complete: the sub-plots of the teenagers in revolt against their elders and the medical experimentation upon the hospital invalids are not very well developed. The light-hearted mood of the film belies the darkness that exists in the town in which car worship is taken to its most extreme development.

The town of Paris can be seen as a metaphor for Western society generally, in which the fetishising of technology has led to people losing their moral compass, politicians assume power through collusion and flourish by turning their people into a war machine yet spurning those (the car hoons) who do the actual work of killing. This observation of a world in miniature, in which people and society become ever more deranged with more killing and who ultimately destroy themselves, is what gives this quirky little film continued cult status.

 

The Manchurian Candidate: a layered and intense film on the abuse of power

John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

At some point during the Korean War in 1952, a platoon of American soldiers is betrayed by their Korean interpreter who delivers them to their Communist enemy. The enemy sends the soldiers to Manchuria where the Yanks are subjected to various mind control experiments and treatments by unknown scientists. After several months, they are exhibited before an audience of sceptical Soviet and Chinese bureaucrats. One man, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is shown off by his doctor (Khigh Dhiegh) who demonstrates his victim’s absolute submission by forcing him to kill two of his comrades. The other men in the unit which includes one Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) are all heavily drugged and can only stare at Shaw as he calmly executes their companions.

This is the horrifying introduction – told in a series of fragmented flashbacks – to the plot of “The Manchurian Candidate”, a gripping and intelligent thriller exploring psychological and political manipulation, the misuse of power and the repression of individuals within institutions of society. Superficially an anti-Communist film, “The Manchurian Candidate” probes and questions the nature of loyalty and patriotism and of political power itself.

Some years after their training, Shaw returns to the US to a hero’s welcome and is delivered back to his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his step-father (James Gregory), an ambitious Presidential candidate. The other men in the platoon also return safely but two of them, Marco included, suffer recurring nightmares in which a garden party attended by elderly women is mixed in with that chilling demonstration. Marco overcomes the effects of his manipulation with the help of his commanding officer and a military psychologist and, through a series of peculiar incidents involving himself and Shaw, begins to suspect that Shaw is still under mind control and has been tasked with carrying out an important political assassination.

The intense and highly absorbing plot moves surely but not too quickly and depends heavily on the cast to carry off the story which at the time of the film’s release must have seemed fantastic to its audiences. Happily the cast rises to the occasion: Angela Lansbury is formidable as the bullying, stridently anti-Communist Eleanor who dominates both her son and her husband; Frank Sinatra performs capably as a nervy Marco, hesitant at times but determined to confront his fears and nightmares; and Laurence Harvey as Shaw cuts a complex and piteous figure at the mercy of competing forces in his mother and his controllers. Some complex relationships are revealed in the portrayals of Shaw and Eleanor and their interactions: incest is hinted at, Eleanor may be a frustrated puppet-master of sorts and her motivations in planning a false flag event (the assassination of a US Presidential candidate) so that her ineffectual husband may assume power and create a dictatorship in the US to fight the Soviets are deep and, while initially contradictory, actually make some sense of a crazed sort. The minor characters perform their roles capably though a sub-plot involving Marco and a new girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) dissipates quickly and Leigh’s talent goes begging. The sub-plot hinted that Rosie may also be Marco’s controller and might have a connection with the young woman Shaw marries and his father-in-law, a Senator who opposes Iselin and who is a deeply ethical and principled man. A parallel between Marco and Shaw in their relationships with women is hinted at but is not developed.

Cinematography is excellent with some unusual points of view used in a few scenes. The film’s major highlights are the scenes of the demonstration in which Shaw kills two of his men as dreamt by Marco and another man in the platoon who happens to be black: in Marco’s dream, the women attending the hydrangea party are all white and in his companion’s dream, the women are all black – this surely demonstrates how their controllers cleverly drew upon the men’s past memories of garden parties and moulded them to fit their plans!

Skilfully written so as to push both action and character development constantly, the script manages to layer its story with enough contemporary political and social issues of its time and Freudian psychology to boot that even over fifty years after its making, the film still appears fresh and relevant to modern audiences. Eleanor’s character may strike a chord with women who are still frustrated with the slow advance of women’s rights to the level where a woman may run for the highest political position in the land on her own merit alone. Political science students will marvel at how prescient the film is in suggesting that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates may become the puppets of unseen power-brokers and even foreign intelligence agencies. There is a suggestion in the film that Shaw’s controllers may be using Communist governments to advance their own interests and agendas in accumulating power for themselves. Philosophers and psychologists may see in Shaw a symbol of the individual’s never-ending struggle in achieving free will and becoming his/her own person, gaining insight into his/her mind and mental processes, and breaking free from the social conditioning that would otherwise keep him/her an automaton. There is also an insinuation that with Shaw’s killing of his wife and father-in-law, both of whom represent innocence and integrity respectively, the US is losing its own political innocence and soundness.

The film’s rather wobbly and watery conclusion contains some rich irony in that by taking charge of his destiny, Shaw becomes a hero and a real human.

 

 

Memoria: a tight closed narrative loop with no chance of forgiveness or redemption

Elísabet Ýr Atladóttir, “Memoria” (2013)

A creepy psychological character study, “Memoria” is very depressing to watch. The single protagonist, Vincent, is a young alcoholic and drug addict who is tormented by inner demons. He stumbles into an abandoned house and is quickly overwhelmed by a mysterious and invisible entity that forces him to revisit aspects of his past as he winds his way through the house’s labyrinthine corridors and secret rooms. He remembers his parents’ troubled marriage and the effects it has had on him. He remembers the rage he felt when his younger brother teased him and the punishment he brought down on the boy. Remorse washes over him and he reaches out for something that will end all his torment …

The 3D animation is well done though fairly conventional in its look and backgrounds. The abandoned house is no different from other haunted domiciles in its long dark and spooky passages, the cracks in the walls and the sense of dread present throughout. As you might expect in haunted-house scenarios, the weather outside is dark and stormy. The story is tight and insular with a limited number of characters and ends in a definite closed loop, thus cutting off the possibility of cosmic forgiveness and redemption. It seems no lesson has been learned and if the characters happen to reincarnate together, they’ll repeat their actions that lead to violence, mean-spiritedness and suicide. And so the cosmic vicious circle continues.

Ultimately the way in which the story is resolved, with no suggestion of hope or a chance to make amends, is something of a let-down for this short.

The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.