Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Window to Our Fears.

"Fear is stronger than love...remember that, fear is stronger than love"

-Tupac Shakur

A bleak outlook and obviously not a popular one, but we can't ignore it. Fortunately for the most of us our paths in life don't let us deal with that scenario. That's what the movies are for, more specifically that is what horror movies are for. Stephen King once said that horror movies are like rehearsals for our own death. We watch these frightening images in order to help us conquer our deepest fears, horror films act as a substitute for our reality. This is why we submit ourselves to the blood, guts, knives, stalkers, monsters, werewolves, zombies and creepy little girls in white that go "la, la, la, la, la".

The history of the horror genre is as old as cinema itself and could be argued that the process of cinema spectatorship is a horror film within itself. Audiences sit in the dark and in theory are witnessing ghosts-images on the screen that are immortalized, a moment in time captured forever, characters replaying the same scenario years after they have passed in reality. 

Horror movies have acted as a mirror, allowing us to take a look at ourselves and society as a whole. They contain countless underlying themes and subjects, sometimes subconscious. Hitchcock's Psycho killed off the protagonist thirty minutes into the story, which then forces the audience into the shoes of the antagonist, Norman Bates. We the spectators enter Norman's and try to figure out ways of covering our tracks. The shot where Norman tries to sink Marion's car is a perfect example of the audience thinking like the killer-when the car ceases to sink for a second, we are as relieved as Norman is when it finally disappears into the swamp. 

Hundreds of slasher flicks, commencing with John Carpenter's Halloween, place the killer in POV mode, hence we see the world through their eyes as if we were taking part in the murder. Horror movies,  specifically the sub-genre of the slasher, have been criticized for having misogynistic overtones. The beautiful, dumb blonde being violently slaughtered at the very beginning. Two points I would like to add here:

i) Violence is aesthetic in cinema
ii) Carol Clover's book Men, Women and Chain Saws counters this criticism with an in depth look at the slasher genre.

Clover flipped the argument of the slasher film being anti-women by claiming that they can be recognized as feminist statement. The rules are laid out for viewers, most notably female spectators: do not drink or take drugs and do not partake in sexual activity. Halloween is the bible in this aspect. The girls who drink or have sex are violently killed and don't put up much of a fight. The protagonist Laurie is the innocent, quiet girl next door, who abstains from the promiscuous lifestyle. Therefore, she is strong and survives the attack, defeating Michael Myers. Remain a virgin and you will survive in the slasher flick. Being a strong female character pays off is what Clover is trying to argue, and this character has become to be known as the "final girl". So although Hitchcock's films may not appear to be as controversial as the later slashers, they actually keep women oppressed, looking pretty and utilized as a break from the narrative. The ultra-violent excess of the slasher on the other hand actually develops the female character into a heroine and focus point of the movie.

The "final girl" has been enhanced over the years with heroines such as Nancy in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, who ends up creating booby traps around her house in order to capture and defeat Freddy Kruger. There are exceptions to Clover's theory though, such as Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill. There is a "final girl", but she isn't so fact she's a whore, actually come to think about it nearly all of De Palma's heroines are prostitutes, porn stars or promiscuous in some form or fashion. However, De Palma homages Hitchcock more than the slasher genre, and his films fall more in the thriller genre than the slasher in the strictest sense. He deals with adults and not horny adolescents, except for Carrie, but that falls into the supernatural category. 

Another sub-genre of the horror movie that expresses social issues is the zombie movie originated by George A. Romero with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The underlying theme in Night of the Living Dead is that of racism and the state of humanity within America in the 1960s. The images of the southern hicks hunting and shooting zombies resembles the Civil Rights struggle. The fact that the lead character Ben, who is black and the main protagonist was revolutionary in its own right. The ending is a devastating one, but is a true depiction of those times.

Romero's sequel Dawn of the Dead in 1978 deals with consumerism and commodity fetish, the zombies are driven towards the mall because it is all they are familiar with. The surviving protagonists are trapped in the mall and succumb to a life of luxury via material goods, they become relaxed, comfortable, but it doesn't last long as they become bitter and pathetic controlled by products. The zombies are a reflection of ourselves and our monotonous consumer lifestyle, just like shopping-they come in crowds and devour all they can.

John Carpenter has said that there are two types of fear: a) the fear of what lies beyond our house, the external fear and b) the fear of what is inside of us. He used the comparison of his two films Halloween and The Thing. We are fascinated by our bodies and the limitations of them, horror films are all about the body whether one is being stabbed by a sharp object or transforming into a werewolf. In John Landis' An American Werewolf in London special effects artist Rick Baker helped create the most graphic and dynamic body transformation ever by shooting the change without any cuts and in light. 

We are somewhat attracted to disfigurement or body modification, and if not attracted then certainly intrigued. Freddy Krueger's face, classic Hollywood monsters such as Frankenstein or Dracula and even more so today with "torture porn" movies such as Hostel and the Saw series. Jackass became a worldwide phenomenon simply because people just enjoy watching others harm their bodies. People love to watch wrestling, UFC and boxing to see other put their bodies on the line.

The picture above brings me back to the original premise of this article and how in real life fear does not necessarily exceed love. In Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the first of his meta-narrative spree, we are shown the original cast and crew of the original Nightmare on Elm Street. We are dealing with Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon and of course Wes Craven, who are all playing themselves ten years after the movie. The Freddy franchise has sky rocketed and he is a household name, and the series has ended, which now means he is free to enter our reality. What starts off as a scenario for a story that deals with how horror films have a bad affect on their star's lives soon becomes an argument as to why horror films are so essential in everybody's lives. 

The fear/Freddy Krueger is liberated from the movies and crosses over to our reality, and what Wes Craven is basically trying to explain is that horror movies are needed to trap the fear within a fictional story so we the audience can view it in a cathartic process. We are been scared in a safe environment within a movie theatre where we can vent our fears in peace. We go to the movies to laugh, cry, think and be scared shitless - the latter being the most physical emotion throughout film history.

Here's a good old fashioned youtube tribute-Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Great Cinematic Stand-Offs

There's nothing like a good stand-off, the anticipation and build up of two people about to square off and settle a score. Pacquiao VS Mayweather is what everyone wants to see and the high hopes for that continue. However, pondering about the magnitude of this bout I began to reminisce about great stand-off scenes within cinema, a predicament where two or more characters go head to head via fists, weapons or even words. I decided that I will list off a few scenes that contain some of cinema's greatest stand-offs. So here are a few just off the top of the noggin in no particular order:

1) They Live (Carpenter. 1988)

Roddy Piper and Keith David square off in Carpenter's cult classic in a long-blown brawl. Pro wrestler Piper wanted it to play out like real fights, which are clumsy and slow. Nothing fancy, just two friends going at it in a back alley. Even when Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided to parody it in their "cripple fight" they couldn't deny its greatness and literally did it shot for shot.

2) Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)

This is one of my favourite scenes of all time and there is nothing spectacular about it, these two guys don't even come to blows, but the tension between Butch (Willis) and Vega (Travolta) is mouth-watering. We are introduced to a conversation between Mr. Wallace (Ving Rhames) and Butch accompanied by Al Green's Let's Stay Together, which creates such a relaxing and mellow atmosphere within the red-lit bar. Soon after Butch walks over to the bar where Vega is. Vega confronts Butch by staring at him, when Butch inquires he is given some calm and collected attitude from Vega, which seems to come out of nowhere. 

Butch's look of confusion when Vega leaves the bar is priceless and we are unsure as to why Vega defies him, but what we do know is that we want to see these two guys go at it. Later on we witness Butch shoot Vega because of a pop-tart jumping out of the toaster. The tension between the two creates such anticipation for a fight and the fact that it never comes is delightfully frustrating.

3) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, 1966)

This is a high leap from the previous two. Not only is the stand-off in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly arguably the most epic of all time, but it is possibly one of the most epic sequences ever printed on celluloid. Sergio Leone's last installment of the Dollars Trilogy is the definitive spaghetti western and it bigger than life in scope. The movie is almost three hours long in which after the Civil War battles, imprisonment and betrayal we are left with three men face to face in a Mexican Stand-Off. 

For two and a half hours before we reach this point we witness the endurance of the three main character's on such a large scale-Eastwood's persecution by Tuco (Eli Wallach) in the desert, Tuco's viscous beating from the order of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and Angel Eyes' ruthlessness in order to garner the buried treasure. Not to mention the landscape of the American Civil War-thousands of families torn apart, friends fighting friends. Basically up until the Mexican Stand-Off, the film is already bigger than life. Leone set himself a difficult challenge in topping what went before, a challenge that only him and Ennio Morricone could take on. The collaboration of these two is one of the most essential in film history, maybe even more important that Hitchcock and Herrmann or Scorsese and De Niro. Without Morricone's overwhelming score Leone would have never been able to achieve the absolute epic stand-off. The marriage of music and images in this scene portrays the definitive stand-off in the most ultimate way.

4) Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978)

The final scene in Romero's Dawn of the Dead seemed like it was going to take the same route it did in his predecessor Night of the Living Dead ten years earlier. However, the despair and bleak conclusion was countered in the last moment as Peter (Ken Foree) chose to fight for his life rather than suicide. He swarmed through a sea of zombies with army music in the background. This time round our hero survives and does it in the most ridiculous way possible. A John Wayne homage if there ever was one.

5) The Killer (Woo, 1989)

Before John Woo brought his style of extravagant cinematic action to Hollywood, and before Wu Tang's Raekwon sampled the dubbed voiceover's of The Killer for his 1995 Only Built for Cuban Linx, Hong Kong was the home of these ferociously action packed films. I guess there is no real suspense or tension to build up the shoot outs, but the actual gun fights themselves are just so fucking entertaining. Its like kung fu with bullets, you forget to breathe during these sequences and John Woo does it best here.

6) The Deerhunter (Cimino, 1978)

Probably the most intense scene in the history of cinema, one of those moments when you are watching a movie, get completely caught up in it and try to comprehend how you would act in such a situation. You are on the edge of your seat for this one and if not then you have the attention span of a fucking hyena on ketamine. True the movie is long and slow, but its a film about little personal moments rather than a big statement on the Vietnam War. All these little moment add up to this huge occasion: captured by Vietnamese and forced to play Russian Roulette against the people you care for the most. 

The way Michael Cimino captures the realism and emotion of this predicament, along with the excellent performances of De Niro, Walken, Savage, not to mention the Cambodian he used that actually despised Americans is something of a miracle. No music either, the only soundtrack to this is a repetition of slaps and maos! You don't blink throughout that roulette sequence until they escape and you couldn't be more ecstatic and proud that they actually made it out. You will never forget the word MAO!!!