Saturday, October 24, 2009

Van Diemen's Land: hunger is a strange silence

First time director Jonathan auf der Heide delivers one of the most impressive Australian film debuts in recent memory with Van Diemen's Land. The true story of eight convicts who escaped from their guard in 1820s Tasmania is realised as an eerie descent into hell as they kill each other one-by-one, turning to cannibalism to survive the lifeless wilderness. Demonstrating a cinematic eye to rival Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog, auf der Heide has crafted a visceral and poetic tale that, despite its nature, never lapses into banality or bleakness.

Indeed, Van Diemen's Land can be placed in the proud tradition of Australian Gothic (ala Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout) in that it seeks to both immerse and alienate Australians in their own landscape. The primeval Tasmanian bush is painted in harsh, washed out tones, and the characters’ authentic Gaelic dialogue only adds to the otherness of the setting. The script by auf der Heide and Oscar Redding (who also plays the film's principle character Alexander Pearce) brilliantly fuses a sense of camaraderie with an archaic, alienating use of language. Initially the convicts sing, joke and tell tales, rejoicing in their new found freedom, but as their escape becomes more desperate and paranoid, their language grows increasingly indirect and opaque (“if you have no scars, the crow will eat your eyes”). In these moments of heightened lyricism it’s as if the dialogue itself achieves the quality of the image, that of an impenetrable stillness encroaching the limits of our own subjectivity.

The real violence of the film lies in this haunting and primal stillness. Characters enter the frame rather than guide the camera, while a recurring tracking shot floats endlessly down a river, a voiceover decrying God’s absence. We are completely immersed in this world but without an endpoint. The cannibalism is less the result of hunger than a violent response to the impenetrable landscape and pervasive silence (hunger itself is referred to as a “strange silence”). For the convicts, the silence/stillness becomes a self-consuming void (“it grows fat on itself”), encouraging a psychotic identification. Pearce (whose confession tells the tale) repeatedly describes himself as a ‘quiet man’, yet he emerges the most violent of all the convicts.

And as the silence attains an obstinate quality, sounds are strangely disembodied. Pearce is haunted by a lone “Cooeey” yelled out by a dead comrade, while his own voiceover emerges less from his thoughts than from a disembodied consciousness (“Wasn’t the devil in you when you brought me here?”). Meanwhile, the sounds of nature become increasingly humanised. Bird-calls evoke babies screaming, the roar of the river becomes a sign of its “anger” and leaking tree sap is hallucinated as human blood. Even the recurring sound of crackling fire eerily recalls the sounds of eating, heard so viscerally in the opening scene and realised so horrifically in the cannibalist acts. Humans may have become objectified, “burning alive, like logs for the fire”, but nature/God has found itself personified, “dancing with an axe in his hand”.

In the film’s closing scene, Pearce sits alone, his final victim lying dead as a shaft of light drops from the canopy. Pearce remarks on the beauty of the scene, questioning God as to why it could be so beautiful. When the film’s end notes tell us that Pearce went on to kill and eat another convict after his capture, the troubling ambiguity of this scene is realised: it’s as if in this final act Pearce has attained a new (though horrific) kind of subjectivity, a shedding of what he once was and an opening into another being. While the film leads us to believe Pearce's cannibalism was done out of necessity, the end notes suggest it may also have become a willing act, seeming necessary only because it has become part of his nature.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Paranormal Activity's Original Ending Online

Paranormal Activity's original police ending has finally been uploaded online. If you haven't yet seen the wide release version I recommend not downloading the ending until after you've seen the full cut. Context is everything for this film.

Watching the ending for the first time, I would say my response closely matches my initial impressions upon reading a user's description of the ending. Basically I think the original makes better use of the dread than the current ending (although I would have preferred fast forwarding through Katie's 'rocking' rather than a plain dissolve), but it does feel a little anti-climactic by not fully confronting our own position as spectators (which seems like the key to a good ending for the film).

Notice at 5:22 of the video the bathroom light mysteriously turns on in the background and then turns off just before the police reach Katie. The police later note that the bathroom door is shut despite it previously being ajar when the light was on. Presumably the light indicates the demon leaving Katie just before she is killed by the cops.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Adventureland and the Carnivalesque of Capitalism

Greg Motolla's Adventureland is only ostensibly a coming of age tale. The real story, the true awakening, occurs in the background. Set in the summer of 1987, the film follows nerdy college grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) as he is forced to work at a rundown amusement park surrounded by geeks and attractive workers. As the story goes, he has his romantic illusions challenged, his pretensions ruptured, but discovers love and life lessons in the process. Yet the spectre of class and economy haunts the narrative in such a way that it's never simply a coming of age tale. Indeed, Adventureland reveals its genuine 80s insight through a class consciousness that emerges only in the background, gaining an acuity through its very obliqueness.

For just as John Hughes used his teen angst films to preach 80s class consciousness, Adventureland's coming of age tale acts as a framework to explore the intersections of class and capital. In doing so, it recognises the 80s as a decade defined by its wild shifts in status: downward mobility was just as common as upward mobility, while movement both ways across the blue collar/white collar divide was rising. In the film, James’s middle class dad is demoted, while Lisa P's father has fallen into the depression of unemployment. Em (Kristen Stewart) is working at the park despite her wealthy father, while intellectual Joel (an excellent Martin Starr) is embarrassed about his lower class status ('I'm poor. Girls aren't going to go after me when there are all these yuppies around'). Meanwhile, James's college friend (and future yuppie) returns from a trip around ‘the old world’ (Europe), only to realise he wants to be part of the ‘new world’ (Harvard Business School). Late 80s capitalism is here a carnivalesque state - one where social hierarchies are flipped (the old overtaken by the young, upper class forced to work as lower class), the sacred mingles with the profane (religion and pot seem to be constant refrains) and 'truths' are subverted or exposed. Towards the end of the film, James champions Herman Melville for writing Moby Dick - a "700 page allegorical novel about the whaling industry". For Mottola, Adventureland is his 107 minute allegorical film about the carnival industry.

The central underlying tension of the film is between the idea of carnivalesque as a liberating and revolutionary force (as argued by Russian anarchist Mikhael Bakhtin) and carnivalesque as an assimilated and contained transgression. For Bakhtin the carnival was a period when rules were reversed and the social order turned upside down: thus the king becomes the fool; the fool becomes the king; heaven and hell twist ('Satin lives') and fact and fantasy mingle. He argued this allowed people to see the world anew, outside of its dominant traditions and power structures. The concept found support in the counter-culture protests of the 60s and still has its advocates among the radical left (eg. Michael Hardt), who defend it as a theatrical means to subvert capitalism and restructure our bourgeois desires and pleasures.

But what supporters of carnivalesque overlooked was that the carnival itself was an exception that ultimately proved the rule. While it ostensibly endorsed transgression and symbolic usurpation, carnival's real function was to get the masses to blow off steam and, in doing so, allow them to continue with their everyday lives. In the passage from the 60s through to the 70s and 80s, the carnivalesque became merely another means for capital to reorganise its production: the commodity was seen as less a functional necessity than a fulfillment of our own individual sense of self, while consumer culture transformed teenagers into the locus around which capital circulated. By the 80s, the radical yippies of the 60s and 70s were becoming middle aged yuppies, while the conservative PJ O'Rourke's of the world were as much about sex, drugs and rock and roll as they were guns, taxes and defense of country. Rather than a means for resistance, transgression became mainstream behaviour; ‘carnivalesque' became a far more appropriate description of the movements of late capitalism than the means for its subversion.

In Adventureland, the amusement park is the primary symbol of this commodification of the carnivalesque. Its bright signs, cheesy pop music, banal rides and rigged games are about the safest kind of transgression you could imagine. Indeed, one of the recurring images in the park is of bright coloured lights in the background. The lights are shown up close and out of focus in the opening credits, but they gradually become clarified (and commodified) as the coloured globes of the amusement park: the utopian promise of the 60s clarified as a desperate spectacle. Class position too has become a joke, with workers arbitrarily separated into ‘rides’ and the less popular ‘games’. Utopian possibilities exist here only as a thin fantasy lure - the actual games are in fact all rigged.

This utopian failure perhaps accounts for the sense of death and melancholy that pervades the film. When Joel quits the park he is said to have "passed on". Lisa P ponders the existence of God after seeing her unemployed father in extreme pain. Em's own father, whose wife died from cancer, chooses to go out with Francy, a woman he met in temple who has also lost her hair (but from the stress of divorce). Em points out the weirdness of it - her father is trying to relive his relationship with her mother but through its dying form, enjoying the fantasy as ghost. Indeed, Francy's bourgeois manner and Em's description of her as a 'status obsessed witch' gets closest to revealing the class origins of this unnamed spectre.

Class and ghosts are further linked in the film's multiple literary references. James talks of being a journalist ala Charles Dickens, exposing poverty and social stratification. But Dickens of course paid reference to ghosts as much as he did class (‘A Christmas Carol’). In a similar reference, Joel gives Sue a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s 'The Overcoat’ - a book about an impoverished clerk seeking to rise above his class with a fancy coat but who is later accosted by thieves and his coat stolen. As a result, the clerk catches fever and dies, only to reappear in the epilogue as a ghost who steals people's coats. The ending has provoked varying interpretations but it seems clear that the ghosts aren't merely spectral forms of the afterlife (the living thieves are also suggested to be ghosts), but indicative of a more haunting class consciousness that pervades the novel.

A central scene in Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ also elucidates a key revelation in Adventureland. Just before the clerk - named Akaky - falls ill and dies, he is scolded by a 'prominent personage' for his improper remarks about secretaries (improper because of his lower class). Yet the remarks themselves were provoked by Akaky’s traumatic awareness of the contingency behind class authority and status. The awareness is so haunting for Akaky it causes him to almost faint and it’s after this scene that he catches the fever that kills him. On his deathbed, Akaky hallucinates the prominent personage, initially asking his forgiveness but then finally cursing him. For Gogol, as with Mottola, class consciousness is linked to a crisis of authority, a traumatic revelation of the contingency involved in symbolic status. The blind spot that defines and haunts both Gogol’s and Mottola’s characters is their inherent (Jew vs Catholic) yet arbitrary (‘you’re definitely a games person’) class position.

In Adventureland, various narrative strands are connected through this crisis of authority. For James it is his father’s demotion and subsequent drinking problem that incite his journey to class consciousness. For Em, the film suggests, it is her father’s collapse of authority (he is going out with a dying version of her mother) that provokes her rebellion against his class expectations. Yet the lie of this authority is perhaps most apparent in Ryan Reynold’s maintenance man. Mike Connell is a figure who encapsulates the essential fantasy of class – the fantasy of superiority.* In the park, he is seen as a ‘legend’ and a person to look up to, precisely because he presents himself as ‘above’ his lowly position (he brags he once jammed with Lou Reed**). Yet this fantasy of superiority is actually what allows the class structure to function. By conceiving reality through the prism of a superior class, Connell disavows its status as fantasy and avoids acknowledging the cultural/economic conditions that frame it. For class consciousness to emerge, James must move beyond these class fantasies. As Mark Fisher writes: “the working class becomes the proletariat when it recognises this - when, that is to say, it begins to dis-identify with the 'class fantasy' which has kept it in its place.”

At first, James tacitly supports the illusory stance of Connell (as well as his father), even after it's been ruptured. But he later turns from this complicity to advocate the liberating potential of symbolic rupture. Herman Melville may have died unappreciated, with his obituary incorrectly written as 'Henry Melville', but as James protests - "He was an impassioned man when he was alive! I hope when I die, I'm fortunate enough to be called Henry". James argues the usurpation of fantasy doesn't have to be disillusioning but can in fact be liberating. The unmasking may lead to uncertainty but it also reveals the limits we thought constrained us were actually illusory in themselves. For Mottola, passion is what counts - regardless of consequence, certainties or limits - a passion that sees something outside and beyond symbolic 'truths' and class aspirations. When James goes to New York, it’s less out of a sense of graduate school entitlement and more out of a desire to escape social hierarchies (“I’m going to look for a shitty job and...I don’t know!”).

Despite the realisation that the carnivalesque of the 60s merely made way for the capitalist carnival of the 80s, Adventureland ultimately seeks to redeem the liberating potential of 60s counter culture. Throughout the film, James aligns himself with the values of the 60s. While Lisa P might believe in God, James believes in the 'transformative' power of love. While his mother reads Tom Wolfe's tale of carnivalesque capitalism, James is engrossed in bohemian author Henry Miller. The utopian lights that appear at the beginning reappear in James' loving gazes at Em and in his breakout journey to New York. Indeed, the lights manifest themselves in other forms, such as the July 4 fireworks (which inspire a collective wonder despite James' preference for Bastille Day) and the flares Frigo fires at an imaginary 'Viet Cong' (an image that explicitly evokes the turbulence of the 60s).

When James finally leaves the lights of the carnival for the similar coloured lights of New York, the utopian possibilities are still there but without the contained and empty carthasis of the carnival. The future may still be 'rigged' but this time he is confronting it with all the uncertainty, irresolution and possibility of the unknown.

* Class fantasy can also refer to a fantasy of inferiority, made particularly apparent in the film by the figure of Joel.

** Lou Reed is played and referenced repeatedly throughout the film in the songs of Pale Blue Eyes and Satellite of Love (both songs about affairs). In one particular scene, James remarks to Connell that Reed is a hero of his as he listens to Satellite of Love on the radio, but Connell fails to recognise the song despite boasting he once jammed with the musician. Ironically, Reed has said the song tells the story of a man who watches the launch of a satellite on television while having feelings 'of the worst kind of jealousy' over his unfaithful girlfriend. Apart from having literal relevance to James' situation, the song also alludes to the pure belief in fantasy (the satellite of love) as well as its inherent ambiguity. While the fantasy may inspire love, it also covers up opposite feelings of envy and distrust, becoming a far more comforting image than confronting the uncertainty of whether your girlfriend is faithful or not. This is of course, the symbolic quandary that James finds himself at the end - how to maintain the fantasy that inspired him without also succumbing to its deception; how to embrace the possibilities opened up by fantasy but without symbolic reassurances. The song Pale Blue Eyes on the other hand ties up money, affairs, carnivalesque and death, all in three lyrics: “She said, Money is like us in time/It lies, but can't stand up/Down for you is up.”

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Peter Greenaway's Future Projects...

I've just learnt the extraordinary news that among director Peter Greenaway's future projects are a Brazilian porno and a film about Eisenstein losing his virginity!

Greenaway via Moving Image Source:

I’m about to do a pornography in Brazil; I’m about to make a big film about Eisenstein; I’m about to make a Japanese horror movie. So there are all sorts of things going on.

You’re about to make a film about Eisenstein?

Yes, I discovered recently that Eisenstein lost his virginity, aged 33, in Guadalajara. And I’ve been spending a lot of time there, so I’m now making a film called Ten Days That Shook Eisenstein.

Think Battleship Potemkin meets The 40 Year Old Virgin!?!


Saturday, October 10, 2009

PA: Original Cut vs Current Release

[spoilers ahoy]

Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli explains that there were actually many different endings shot, even more than the three already mentioned. However, he says most were not screened publicly. He also states that the police ending was in fact the original ending while the suicide ending was a rare alternate ending shown publicly only once. This may be completely subjective but my impression from the interview is that Peli is quite fond of the latter ending and that we may see some sort of special alternate version on the DVD:

Your first draft of the movie was done in 2007. As far as your involvement since then has there been much refinement or has the film been mainly just sitting?

There has been some editing after a few test screening results in order to make the film a bit quicker and shorter, as we had some issues with pacing. So we tried to fix them, hopefully we did. That was the main part of it. Also, we shot the ending. That was the only real significant change.

I've heard varying numbers as to how many alternate endings there are. How many did you actually film?

Well I filmed a whole bunch, but most of them no one has ever seen, they were just for my own options. There was one ending that was shown at some festivals, and then another ending that was shown publicly only the one time. And then the current ending, which we've had for more than a year now.

Can you explain what those other two endings were or is that something we'll see find out later? [Possible Spoiler Alert]

The original ending... I'll just say very briefly, the movie ends with cops entering the house to find the scene of the crime. The other one...there's been some talks about it on the internet, but I'd like to keep quiet on it for now. Maybe one day we'll see them all on the special edition DVD.

Once it was picked up for distribution, were there any other reshoots other than the ending?

There were a couple of little things that came up on their own that weren't suggested by DreamWorks and some were a little suggested as areas of improvement, so we shot them and they turned out great and now they're in the movie. The ending was the one thing we had a lot of criticism about from the original version, so we knew we wanted to come up with something a little bit better.

To find out more about what was changed (aside from the ending) from the rare alternate version to the current release version, I spoke to someone who had seen both cuts:

They cut about 10 minutes of early night scenes and one day time conversation that gave you a little more insight into the characters and their relationship so you cared about them more. They were scenes of conversation between Micah and Katie in their bathroom area.

They also cut out some of Micah's viewing of the nighttime audio and video footage and in the version I saw, he hears more sounds and strange languages.

Most of the changes are technical: They CGI'd the scene where Katie is pulled out of bed, they put in a noise before the demon would do something in the nighttime scenes, and they made the demon's shadows on the door much more pronounced. In the version I saw, it was dead silent during the night scenes so you didn't get a warning before something scary would happen like you get in the released version and some of the shadows and things were subtle so you aren't sure what you really saw, which made it much scarier.

Also, they toned down the scene where Katie's hair is blown around while she's at the staircase. In the version I saw, it was more pronounced and her hair is smacked around (almost like she is being slapped by the demon) whereas now you almost don't even notice her hair moves if you aren't looking for it.

The person I spoke to also really liked the new ending of Micah thrown against the camera but hated the bit that followed where Katie smiles and morphs her face and we are then told her whereabouts are unknown.

The blog The Horror Effect has an even more detailed look at the changes made to the original cut. Among some of the scenes removed is a particularly terrifying exorcism scene:

The exorcism video. When Micah finds the website about the exorcism that went wrong, he watches a video that was leaked out by a priest to inform people that exorcisms don’t always go well. In the video, the possessed woman actually bites off her own arm. It was very disturbing and I was sad to see the scene go. I understand why it was removed. They probably didn’t want to overshadow the later events, making them seem less severe.

For more about what was added and removed click here.


Friday, October 09, 2009

A Physiological Reading of Paranormal Activity

I'm sure there will be a wealth of theories to explain why Paranormal Activity scares the way it does, but I thought I'd raise two interesting physiological explanations (suggested in discussion forums and reviews of the film).


One reading suggests a parallel between the use of the static camera in the film and the condition of sleep paralysis. According to wikipedia:

Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain awakes from a REM state, but the body paralysis persists. This leaves the person fully conscious, but unable to move. The paralysis can last from several seconds to several minutes "after which the individual may experience panic symptoms and the realization that the distorted perceptions were false".

The paralytic state may also be accompanied by a sense of dread as well as terrifying hallucinations, the result of being both in a dream and waking state. It's also used as an explanation for encounters with the paranormal (particularly in the case of hauntings from satanic beings), with some cultures referring to it as "the devil on your back". There have even been reports of unexplained deaths attributed to sleep paralysis.

I myself have experienced sleep paralysis (although I never knew it as that until recently) and the sense of being held down is quite accurate. It's also a similar feeling to watching Paranormal Activity, with the film's use of the static camera suggesting a position of paralysis. On the one hand we can't do anything but react, but on the other hand, the camera (and often the characters) don't take into account our reactions. The unbearable sense of dread and even the invisible/hallucinatory nature of the demon I would argue stem from this state of paralysis. Unable to 'move', our imagination goes into overdrive. In addition, the feeling of possession in the night scenes - the way we gradually feel as if someone else is watching through us - correlates with the sense of 'the devil on your back' during sleep paralysis ie. a demon who occupies your blind spot.


A user on imdb also suggests the intriguing possibility that the film makes use of binaural beats. The low humming or drone sound accompanying the night scenes corresponds to an increase of anxiety that could be explained by the low frequency sounds. As the user writes:

It is proven that your brain runs on certain wave lengths during different points of consciousness, but if you have an interfering tone pattern that over-powers your brains wave length, your body will be affected physiologically. Some people use it for hypnosis, but I'm not sure how effective it is.

If binaural tones were used, it might explain why this movie was so frightening. One could possibly self-hypnotize himself into believe he was more scared than he actually was. Or the tones could produce a increase of heart rate, making a scene scarier than it was.

I have no way of knowing whether the film uses binaural beats or not but it's interesting to speculate. Indeed, the first experiments with binaural beats were to investigate out-of-body experiences. Could it be that the film gradually raises the sound frequency in the night scenes to induce such an out-of-body response?

Wikipedia has a table listing the effects of increased brain wave frequencies:

> 40 Hz [Gamma waves] Higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness
13–40 Hz [Beta waves] Active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration, arousal, cognition
7–13 Hz [Alpha waves] Relaxation (while awake), pre-sleep and pre-wake drowsiness
4–7 Hz [Theta waves] Dreams, deep meditation, REM sleep
< 4 Hz [Delta waves] Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness

If the binaural beats gradually increase the frequency of brain waves, the effect could be similar to the experience of waking while dreaming - the mix of consciousness correlating closely with the idea of sleep paralysis.

For an example of a binaural beat which sounds somewhat similar to the one in the film (Beta/anxiety/active concentration and Delta/deep sleep/loss of body awareness) listen to the first 30 seconds of the clip below (works only with headphones):


Friday, October 02, 2009

On The Jewish Question

A must view. Four speakers (film critics and Jewish scholars) debate Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the controversy over its portrayal of Jews.

Mark Baker, director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, gives one of the most insightful readings of the film I've heard yet. One of his key points is that the Nazi audience which enjoys Zoller killing Allies in Nation's Pride is akin to us enjoying the basterds killing Nazis in Tarantino's flick. Even Shosanna occupies her own bell tower (the projection booth) from where she launches her attack. But I disagree with Baker that this is a point of criticism (Baker argues it leads to an 'anything goes' morality merely dependent on which viewpoint we take). I would argue the parallels are a mark of the film's fundamentalist and violent honesty. They make the revenge fantasy (a complex mix of ethics and enjoyment) even more problematic, but without ever lapsing into a cheap moral relativism.

Jewish studies lecturer Nathan Wolski also delivers a fascinating contextualisation, placing Basterds within the history of Jewish absurdism, revenge and the rewriting of history.

The two film critics though are hugely disappointing. Adrian Martin, who is usually an eloquent and insightful critic, lapses into a quite repulsive and condescending dismissal of Tarantino as an 'adolescent moraliser'. He gleefully discards the director's invocation of enjoyment, catharsis/ritual and ethics as somehow contradictory and hypocritical, while refusing to engage in any of the complexities this raises. To Tarantino's claim that revenge doesn't always end up the way you want, Martin counters that it must do because Tarantino made the film (which not only ignores all the ways Tarantino problematises the revenge fantasy but also the way he lets the characters guide the film rather than crowd pleasing plot points). At the end of the speech, Martin engages in his own bit of adolescent moralising: "The topic of this seminar asks can Hollywood rewrite history...But I think the question should be how does Hollywood rewrite history and why." Huh.

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