Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Crank 2: High Voltage

Crank: High Voltage may not match the non-stop action of its predecessor, but what it lacks in adrenalin it makes up for with a sophisticated and hilarious perversity. If the first Crank was about negotiating the inner limits of the body into a sustained chemical high, Crank 2 is about inverting those limits, transforming the body into a hollowed-out machine in need of constant external stimuli. Instead of finding his heart poisoned with a deadly Chinese drug, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) wakes up to find his 'pump' replaced with a mechanical surrogate. When the artificial heart's generator is destroyed, Chelios must race to find alternative electrical outputs before his body permanently fails. The sequel's brilliant evolution of its founding concept actually fulfills its own video game origins: once literally a body of substance, Chelios has now become a body without substance.

In Crank's hyper hetero framework, this body without substance is also a confrontation with the body's own sexual limits. Indeed, the film's real focus of anxiety is not the lack of a heart in the body but the lack of fantasmatic coherency in the sexual act. The spectacle of bodies rubbing up against each other, made explicit in the film's extended race track sequence, is the literal realisation of sex without substance. Likewise, Amy Smart's character Eve dances in a strip club but with her nipples absurdly covered in black tape, suggesting something fundamentally absent within the heterosexual fantasy.* In a desperate bid to regain this substance (this fantasy framework), the film turns to increasingly extreme sexual behaviour, but in a way that confronts its own heterosexual limit. In one particular scene, the film intercuts between Chelios restarting his heart by using a taser on his body (including on his penis) with Eve being molested by a lesbian in the back seat of a police car. It's as if Chelios can no longer get the necessary rush from heteronormative sexuality anymore, and must desperately restructure his sexual fantasy in order to even function.

Suggesting such a perverse and violent fantasy reorientation, Crank 2 is replete with anal references, violence against women, a hallucinatory love of cock and a conflation of homosexuality with sado-masochism. Efren Ramirez, who played Kaylo in the first film, returns in the sequel as Kaylo's gay twin brother, Venus. But not only is Venus part of a leather wearing, S&M gang, he also has full body tourettes, which lands him in some pretty awkward gay sexual positions. After one such attack, a gangster even remarks to Chelios that "your friend has the gay condition". Homosexuality here is associated with a body without substance, a body needing/out of control, the implication being that this is the same condition Chelios is suffering from.

So it makes sense that one of the first things Chelios does in the film is stick a shotgun up a gangster's ass to retrieve crucial plot details (he leaves it in after he gets the information). And of course the very person Chelios seeks help and advice from is Doc Miles (played by Dwight Yoakam), a character who is constantly associated with anuses. From the scene where Miles rubs ice cubes over his girlfriend's ass, to his watching asses on television, to his answering the phone while taking a shit, the anal references build cumulatively to realise their own excremental substance. As essentially a walking plug/socket, what Chelios needs is a bodily violation extreme enough that it will remind him that he has a body. Or rather, one that will remind him that he has an inner substance that connects to the body (hence the excremental limit).

The opposition of anal violation and heteronormative sexuality achieves a perverse clarity in the scene with the psychiatrist and the paramedic from the first film. In Crank 1, Chelios held a gun to the paramedic's head while ordering him to use a defibrillator (a hint of what Chelios will need in the sequel). Now, with recurring nightmares of a gun pointed to his head, the paramedic visits a female psychiatrist, who tells him that his fears are perfectly normal, that even she would have "shit herself" if someone pointed a gun at her. The psychiatrist then proceeds to aggressively flirt with the paramedic, telling him that he should relieve his anxiety by going to a 'titty bar' and "get some snatch rubbed into his face". Heteronormativity is here framed as a pathetic response to the anxiety of anal violation - a way to deflect the disturbing fact that 'there is no sexual relationship' into a vicarious framework. Both sexual acts may invoke a body without substance, but what differentiates the sado-masochistic sexuality endorsed by the film is that it is open about this lack of substance, and is thus able to attain a more extreme pleasure by embracing violation. Heteronormativity on the other hand still needs the sexual fantasy to delude itself. The perverse pleasure of the film is in rupturing this heteronormative fantasy. At the height of the patient's and psychiatrist's vicarious sexual exchange, the scene is literally violated by a stray bullet which hits the patient in the head and to which the psychiatrist responds by vomiting (and we assume 'shitting herself').

But as much as Chelios is forced to embrace this 'hollowed out' sado-masochism, the film still longs for the sexual fantasmatic substance. This longing and anxiety finds expression in the film's hallucinatory love of cock. In one of the sequel's opening scenes, Chelios is sitting on an operating table while an Asian nurse remarks that he has 'big American cock', and indeed, an attempt to remove the precious organ actually provokes Chelios' escape. But the anxiety about losing his penis continues. Electrical outputs are placed on Chelios' penis even more than other body parts, and there's even one up, close and personal torture scene involving his testicles. When Chelios visits a brothel, we see a prostitute kick a gangster's dick into blood and when Chelios is shown sliding down a rail he slips and hits his nuts, yelling 'cut' in the process. The cock in its fantasmatic phallic form is the thing that ties the body together, the 'quilting point' of meaning. And as the latter scene suggests, the phallus isn't just essential for the image of the body, it's also essential in uniting the film's own rabid, fragmentary, digital form.

The hallucinatory coherency the phallus provides is nowhere more evident than in the film's central sex scene. Set on a racetrack in front of a cheering audience, Chelios and his girlfriend screw in every sexual position possible, less a coital union than a montage of increasingly fragmentary sexual positions. At the scene's climax a band of racing horses leap over them mid-coitus and the camera follows one of the horses' throbbing members in slow motion, the fantasy object par excellence. It's precisely this hallucinatory substance that ties together all the other fragementary positions and gives the sexual act its reality.

The film's ending brings all these elements to a 'head' with Chelios finding himself face to face with Verona from the first film. This time however Verona exists as a decapitated head kept alive and talking by water and electricity - a substance without a body in contrast to Chelios' body without substance. The distinction between the two however is soon rendered moot. Setting himself alight after grabbing hold of high voltage power lines, Chelios' body becomes a flaming hallucinatory object, no longer an object to be ignited but an object that ignites everything else. And with this extreme phallic embodiment Chelios is finally able to fulfill the heterosexual relationship, albeit within a perverse sado-masochistic register. In a fever dream-like state, as his body burns, Chelios hallucinates Eve (in place of Bai Ling's character) alongside the race horse that represented phallus. As he moves in for the kiss, an electronic guitar swells and the couple are framed by rays of sunshine (in reality he is setting Bai Ling's character on fire). Chelios finally fulfills the sexual relationship not just because it has become pure fantasy but because he himself has become the phallic source of the fantasy, the god like creator of it. This extends to the digital medium itself. As his whole body melts in flames and the music reaches a crescendo, Chelios not only ditches the girl but the very medium that gave him fantasmatic consistency. Raising his hands in triumph and then thrusting a one fingered 'fuck you' to the camera and screaming (in pain or pleasure?), his now almost completely computer generated character causes not just the music to distort but the actual film to end. Whereas before Chelios acted as a virtual surrogate for the viewer (if anything we were his substance), here, by addressing/rejecting the camera, he breaks the fantasmatic connection between the viewer and himself, transforming the nature of the film in the process. For just as Chelios approaches the extreme limits of the body, leading to an embodiment of the fantasmatic substance, Crank's digitial medium approaches its own limit - that of a purely autonomous digital video game.

Of course, it's not really the end and the closing credits give way to a bandaged and charred Chelios, his heart back in place but his body beyond all recognition. From body of substance, to body without substance, the film's final minutes suggest that the inevitable sequel will be of a substance without a body.

*The taped nipples have to do with Smart's no nudity clause but their absurd and obvious use can't help but have an aesthetic register. The nipple-as-substance also has its parallel within the film's sado-masochistic sexaulity when a gangster is told by his boss to cut off both his nipples as punishment.


Friday, September 25, 2009

sounds from a darkened theatre

Someone recorded the sounds of audience reactions to a Paranormal Activity screening. This alone is enough to scare anyone!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Public Enemies: Digital, Death and The Gaze

Michael Mann's Public Enemies has its share of problems - some awkward editing, poor sound, and early scenes that don't come together - but it's the film's unique use of high definition digital cinematography that really excites.

Like Miami Vice, Mann employs digital as a proto-3D aesthetic. At its best, it seeks to capture a 360 degree viewpoint that leaves you not quite sure where to look. The cinematography captures light so sharply that the background is as visible in detail as the foreground but in a way that is qualitatively different to the use of deep focus. In deep focus, there is often a much clearer sense of the passage through foreground to background. Space has a sense of continuity. The coordinates are fixed, your eye line guided. When a character walks through a space you're more aware of the distance they have to travel because the foreground usually remains stable and thus still acquires a degree of priority. The difference that digital brings into play is its mobility. The background may be as much in detail as the foreground but the camera's mobility constantly threatens any sense of stability we might invest in the two coordinates.

Perhaps as a result of this state of flux the cinematography has a certain glaring quality, one that finds a diegetic equivalent in the chiaroscuro effect of the hall lights outside Nelson's apartment, the sparks of the L train moving past Billie's window and the figures lit up staccato-like by the blaze of firing tommy guns. Background and foreground are simultaneously present but it is the invisible gaps between them that digital makes us aware of. In one of the film's more striking examples of this, we follow Billie through the glaring yellow lights of her apartment but against the darkness of the city and the lights of the L-train as it goes on through the window. The level of detail in the image combined with the handheld mobility gives a sense that we could be looking from outside the window into the house at any moment. Although the glaring interior lights seem to prioritise the foreground there is just as much glare and detail in the background. Depth is privileged in Mann's digital but also mysteriously elided.

The effect of these shots is less of immanence that it is of anamorphosis. Our shifting between the background and the foreground realises a particular sense of depth in the image that isn't always readily apparent. The effect is similar to the optical illusion of two faces forming the outline of a candlestick. The point of the image is not that the second image is concealed in the first but that the very shift in perspective realises a blind spot in our vision. In this shift, we don't where to look and are suddenly without a subjective reference point. The disturbing yet fascinating effect is a sense of the image looking back at us.

This candlestick image is actually used by Lacan when articulating his concept of the gaze. For Lacan, the gaze looking back at us is death - the ultimate unseen gaze that haunts and objectifies our own gaze. As Todd McGowan writes: "Even when a manifestation of the gaze does not make death evident nonetheless carries the association insofar as the gaze itself marks the point in the image at which the subject is completely subjected to it." Death and the experience of the gaze occur when the subject loses all mastery and subjective privilege and instead becomes wholly embodied in the object.

This 'aesthetic of death' fits perfectly with the thematic concerns of Public Enemies. Every death in the film is given its moment. In the opening scene, Dillinger stares into his mentor's eyes as he is dragged by the car, wounded and dying. There's a similar fascination and reverence when Dillinger's long time companion Homer dies in the car after a bloody shootout. Baby Face Nelson enjoys an extended death scene lit up by the glare of his tommy gun, while one of Dillinger's other companions faces death with a bullet lodged behind his eyeball. The thematic links accumulate when Dillinger strolls unnoticed into the FBI's Dillinger headquarters on the day of his death. The point of the scene is that Dillinger is not the only thing that is unseen. As he gazes over the photos of his associates, most deceased, others wanted, there is a sense that he has reached the apex of the film. He is finally seeing behind the shadows, realising his own public image, yet he is still completely blind to the truth. Because if he had only looked a little closer, he might have realised some note or map signalling that the FBI knew where he was going to be that night, some clue as to his death. In this moment when everything is open to him, his death is still the ultimate blind spot.

For Mann, death and a man's identity are linked. In his quest for absolute realism, Mann tries to discover his characters from the outside in. Depp wears Dillinger's actual clothes, listens to Dillinger's favourite song and acts scenes in the same places they occurred. Perhaps this approach explains why real life charismatic characters are rendered strangely enigmatic in Mann's films (I'm thinking not just of Depp's Dillinger but Will Smith's sombre portrayal of Mohammad Ali).* No matter how much reality you realise through sets, props, research and acting, there is always going to be one element that is missed. For Mann, this element is the real and the reason his films are both abstract and intensely realistic.

In Ali, this comes at the point when the boxer is jogging through the African village and comes across a portrait of himself towering over a defeated George Foreman in their upcoming bout. The scene is the point where the myth meets the man. Or rather, the difference between the man and the myth is realised as a point of difference internal to the character himself. In Lacanese, the mystery of the other is revealed as a mystery to the other itself. In Public Enemies, the encounter in the FBI headquarters also signals a blind spot but it's a blind spot that gives the myth of Dillinger its tragic resonance. As he watches Manhanttan Melodrama at the Biograph, we witness the elegaic interaction between the man and his public image as if it were a eulogy. Dillinger smiles thoughtfully while Clark Gable's gangster echoes Dillinger's own philosophy and tragic love story. When Dillinger finally does step out of the cinema, he is shot dead in a spectacular sequence played out in slow motion from multiple angles and from multiple characters - just in case we might miss a crucial moment of revelation.

*This distinction is most explored by Mann in Heat, which is as much a contrast of acting styles as it is of the myth and the men. Pacino and De Niro's acting reputations are almost mythic in themselves and their scenes together are anticipated as such. But ironically its through their contrasting acting styles - Pacino's charismatic fiery performance in contrast to De Niro's muted enigmatic take - that Mann interrogates the very idea of what makes them mythic.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Paranormal Activity and its Hollywood remake

Some here will remember that when Paranormal Activity was bought by Dreamworks back in 2007, the producers decided it would be more Hollywood of them to shaft the original on DVD and remake the $11,000 film with a bigger budget. Somewhere down the line they ditched that idiotic idea. Variety's interview with producer Steven Schneider I think is the first time we've heard why:

"DreamWorks, under Paramount, bought it with the intention of remaking it with the original director," Schneider says. "We had test screenings built into the deal, so we could discern what needed to be redone in the remake. But the movie tested so well, they decided that it would be the height of folly to remake a mock-doc-type film with unknown actors."

The article makes reference to Dreamworks' recent divorce from Paramount and mentions that after the split Paranormal Activity stayed with the latter studio. I think it's quite likely there was a legal dispute between the two companies over the film and that this was the reason why the trailer was taken off the interwebs (messages cited 'copyright' issues) and perhaps a big reason why the film has taken so long to be released.

I'm hoping more details about the idea for a remake, the extraordinarily delayed release AND the alternate endings will surface as the film's publicity machine gets underway. It should not be forgotten or overshadowed by the ever increasing hype.

I also think anyone who supports retaining the film's original ending instead of its lame Hollywood alternative should voice their objections to Paramount or even twitter at @ParamountPics and try to build some awareness and support. From the reviews I've read it sounds like the release version will keep the alternate ending, but at the moment it's still not too late for that to be changed. If the support they received from test screenings was enough to change their mind about a remake then a groundswell of internet support will surely affect their decision about the ending.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock is a strange movie, in both good ways and bad. One of the most surprising aspects is that it's more a coming out narrative than a piece on Woodstock per se. Yet even this turn fails to fully explain the film. Indeed, the real twist is in who is doing the coming out.

Although it's unclear for at least the film's first 40 minutes, Taking Woodstock's principal character Elliot (an excellent Demetri Martin) is in fact gay. Moving back to his hometown to help his parents with their fledgling motel business, Eliot has been forced to take on a decidedly more tacit position in regards to his sexuality. However, when he reads that the Woodstock concert has been rejected from its site at Walkill, he sees a way to pay off his parents' debts by offering the organisers a land permit in his hometown. The consequent onslaught of hippies, drugs and free love ends up creating the perfect environment for his burgeoning sexuality.

Ang Lee's restrained style is for the most part sensitive if not always suitable to the film's radical milieu. His use of close ups is particularly touching, bestowing a loving gaze on faces and inspiring an almost tactile quality (this is Taking Woodstock after all). But what's most interesting is in what Lee leaves out. Despite the film's apparent Woodstock narrative, there is barely any attention paid to the concert's actual live music. And despite the film's apparent (or not so apparent) coming out narrative, Elliot never actually has an official coming out scene. By the end of the film, he has supposedly slept with another gay guy from the festival, yet strangely there is next to no reference made before, during or after the event. And while he ultimately finds the strength to lead his own life and leave for California, he never ends up discussing his sexuality with his parents (or anyone else for that matter).

On the contrary, Taking Woodstock is set up so that its real coming out scene belongs to Elliot's eccentric and offensively stereotypical Jewish mother. What should have been the climax of Elliot's coming out narrative (Elliot waking up next to his gay lover) instead merely serves as the parallel to the coming out narrative of his miserly matriarch. As Elliot exits the bedroom he finds his mother in her own compromising position - asleep in the 'closet' clutching over $90,000 worth of cash. The 'booty' is her life savings which she has kept secret from her husband and her son; this despite failing mortgage payments, the bank's repeated attempts to take over the family motel and her son's selfless work to save the business. The mother is essentially outed as a money grubbing Jew, with all the offensiveness that image entails. The tactile quality evoked by Lee's adoring close ups becomes here merely a desire to grasp the substance of capital, money in its material and uncirculated form ie. shining stacks of new dollar bills.

Indeed, the film tracks multiple parallels between money and coming out. From Michael Lang's suggestive, loving gaze while discussing financial transactions and land payments, to Elliot's father's comments on how much money the organisers are making from Woodstock as hippies skinny dip in the background. The connection is made most explicit when Lee divides a central scene into two simultaneous shots: one half spying Elliot chatting up a construction worker he is interested in, and the other half showing the Woodstock organisers discussing the concert's budget and security issues* while pointing out Elliot as the one who told everyone the concert was for free. Lee seems to constantly remind us that Woodstock was primarily an investment opportunity and profit making venture. But perhaps in this scene he suggests the film's true coming out moment was when Woodstock itself was outed as a 'free concert', thus inspiring the collective spirit that ultimately defined it.

*The decision on taking down the security fences was a crucial decision in defining the concert as a 'free concert' and not just another money making venture. By taking down the barriers the night before opening, the organisers helped encourage the social harmony of the concert by preventing any violence between the ticket holders and non ticket holders. It also inspired many more to show up for the event.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Tarantino The Critic

A must view: Tarantino's praise for Danny Boyle's sci-fi masterpiece, Sunshine.

I gotta say I really dig Tarantino The Critic. His other accounts of There Will Be Blood, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Taxi Driver and Psycho (the Gus Van Sant version...) have all been infectious in their enthusiasm. There's this precocious and theatrical (almost camp?) quality to his reviews that I really love. The guy should have his own show.

This time though he takes on Sunshine and it's good to hear this incredibly underrated film championed so passionately. Although I disagree with his extremely negative stance on the film's 'disastrous third act', it's good that the scope and ambition of the film is given its due.

In the meantime, I promise to have my own take on the film soon-ish as part of the underrated films post I published a while back...

Labels: , ,