The Cabin in the Woods
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Before he was asking audiences what their favorite scary movie was, Wes Craven made a scream with the infamous and terrifying A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETin 1984. As profitable as that series would end up being, spawning six sequels, one cross over film, and a much maligned 2010 remake, Wes Craven stepped away after the first film. However, in 1994, he saw an opportunity to test out some of the self-referential and meta commentary that would pretty much define his work when SCREAM would be released two years later in 1996. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is the best of the NIGHTMARE sequels, and one of the best and most underrated horror films ever made. Not only did it set up the themes of SCREAM and its subsequent franchise, but it provided commentary on the process of filmmaking and what happens to that when a little nightmare called franchising happens.
Opening in on what looks like another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film, the camera pulls back from a dilapidated dungeon to reveal a film crew and… the making of another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film. So, it seems, from the first frame, Craven knows what audiences, regardless of their loyalty to the franchise, have come to expect from the series. There’s something different with the tone though. The sense of foreboding and classic Gothicism mixed the postmodernity people have come to be familiar with, but more than that, a sense of revisionism.
But, perhaps, we should explain what’s going on before jumping head first into the film. Heather Lagenkamp is married, has a son, and the NIGHTMARE franchise is pretty much behind her, since it’s been ten years since the original. She has, however, been receiving anonymous calls, having strange nightmares, and is getting the feeling that her past is coming to haunt her in reality. Her son, Dylan, is sleepwalking and experiencing similar nightmarish occurrences. He’ll be standing in the kitchen watching the original film on the television, transfixed by the man with the knives for fingers beckoning the audience towards the screen. Wes Craven, meanwhile, is working on a “top secret” film project, which turns out to be the product of new nightmares he’s been having. Parts of this sound familiar, don’t they?
Wes Craven’s reentry into the NIGHTMARE series is unique for a number of reasons, but probably first and foremost for its ability to uniquely blend fiction and reality, and address that approach head on. Heather Lagenkamp, who played Nancy in the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, plays herself. Robert Englund, Freddy himself, Robert Shaye, the franchise producer, Wes Craven, the creator and mastermind, and other cast and crew from the series all make appearances, setting up the film as if there really is going to be another NIGHTMARE film. This is instead of the audience knowing they’re watching another nightmare film. Even some of the camerawork set in reality, with its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite-ish handheld style, suggests that we’re watching something akin to a making-of instead of an actual film. This, however, only lasts part of the time. As much as Craven may like to tease his audience, he doesn’t like robbing them of the experience completely.
The nightmares Heather has been having bring the evil of Freddy Krueger, that notorious slasher icon who may or may not need a manicure, to reality. The nightmares her son has been having bring the horror home. Which may be one of the points Craven is making. Although the influence of horror on children or audiences has been touched upon once or twice before (Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES or Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE), it really has not been done with the nuance (yes, you read correctly) that Craven was able to achieve with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Several times, minor characters ask Lagenkamp if she has allowed her son to watch the films she’s done and vehemently declare that they have a negative effect on children. And several times we see Dylan standing in the kitchen, staring at the screen or chanting that devilishly catchy rhyme: One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Freddy looks different in this film. Wildly different. As if forged in the ninth circle of Hell, the revisionist approach to the design of the character is almost a reinvention, something that is, again, addressed directly in the film. Wes Craven, when speaking to Heather about the script, discusses the evil that has manifested itself as Freddy. In this conversation, he skewers the insatiable producers who feel the need to make sequel after sequel, saying, “But the problem comes when the story dies. It can get too familiar… or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell…” You see, folks, even Craven knows his limits! A good part of the film is spent illustrating the difficulties of coming to terms with reinventing or remaking something that is incredibly familiar and the hurdles that must be made in order to make that seem like a fresh sell the fans will enjoy. (The fans are a very demanding people.)
He is, of course, commenting on revisionism in general. As a director who has had his fair share of films remade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc.), it’s interesting for him to approach the topic at all. But his reinvention of an iconic character would, in some ways, pave the way for Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman and his further critiques on remakes, reboots, and rehashes in SCREAM 4. Not to mention that the script itself makes several appearances in the film, further accentuating the meta-ness. Not only does it appear in the film, but scenes that directly correlate with scenes on the page are almost read from the page. Spooky, huh?
Oh, did I mention the film is actually scary? Apart from being a very smart horror film (with some flaws and pacing issues), Craven brings some Hitchcock worthy suspense. Although it is, at heart, a slasher film (if an intelligent one), the film is so rooted in how meta it is that the simplicity of the Boogeyman walking around and killing people in their dreams is not enough. Like Craven says, it gets too familiar. So, the fear and the scares come from the paranoia and worry from Heather and the maternal fear of what is happening with her son. Watching a child basically having an epilepsy episode just after growling “Never sleep again” is scarier than just having Freddy slash his way through Los Angeles. But when he does appear, the new look – more monstrous than a man just burnt alive – is terrifying.
It’s that fear of what will happen to a child if he or she does watch horror films which Craven is commenting upon. The end of the film takes place in the same dream world dungeon, straight out of Hell, as the set that we see in the beginning of the film. After the deed is done and Heather and her son fall out of bed back into reality, we are left with a thought: the dichotomy between reality and fiction has clearly been made. Therefore, why is it so hard for other people to discern that? The harsh contrast of the jagged edges of the fiction and the innocuous realism of reality are distinctly made, and yet there are people who confuse the two. Craven makes the point in saying that Freddy is “making his way from film and into reality”. That inability to distinguish the two might be the most fearsome thing of all.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is an underrated gem that shows that the writer-director could play the self-referential commentary game before SCREAM. With some nice performances and true terror, the film shines with its insightful look at the influence of horror films on the public and its very self-aware style. Perhaps the point of the film, besides making you think, is that you can and should sleep again. Because it’s all a dream, or rather, a nightmare…
Film is dead. Or is dying. Or is an old folk’s home hooked up to a machine. Or something. (Was I supposed to wear black to the funeral?) The tangibility of film, undoubtedly, is disappearing. As a medium, the transition to digital is terrifying to some and embraced by others. Even as a culture, things are being called into question, and nails are (prematurely) being hammered into the coffin. With that, the film world, dying or being resurrected (You decide!), is producing some fascinating, vexing, and perplexing responses. In one corner, you have pop-auteur Quentin Tarantino saying he’s essentially quitting filmmaking, saying digital [projection?] is “television in public”. In another corner, you have Leos Carax’s gorgeous, complex, surreal masterpiece Holy Motors, which seems to document cinematic and performance history from the beginning, but also perform a wistful eulogy for celluloid. And then you have a little film called V/H/S, an anthology horror film which shouldn’t work, shouldn’t be good, and damn well shouldn’t be nearly as compelling as it is.
Consisting of five vignettes and one “framework”, V/H/S is not my cup of tea. It’s a found footage film. I have no affinity for the style, as I find it generally lacking in substance and too reliant on teenage misogyny and sloppy improvisation and editing. That it is a horror film is not inherently bad; I like a good horror film. But putting found footage and horror together has, lately, been kind of disastrous. I never cared for Paranormal Activity, and when I woke up from my nap during the film, I found out there was a fifth one in the works. The Devil Inside might be the most infamous mainstream, wide released internet commercial ever. Apollo 18, Paranormal Entity, etc. all basically play to the same elements, with no style or panache, never mind insight. What shocked me about V/H/S, more than its lurid short stories, was its subversion of… so many different aspects of the style, the medium, the genre, and the times we live in.
Magnetic Tape as Memory and Nostalgia
The film is built around a very loose framework, which is, in a way, a segment on its own. Called “Tape 56”, a group of male delinquents (shocking) break into a house in search for a specific tape. When they retrieve the tape, they will be compensated with money. While in the dark house, they come across a bounty of other tapes, and, as curiosity killed the cat, they begin watching them. And on each, there is a segment of the film.
Most of the segments have no specific time or setting, but the information can be inferred by the technology that is used to film each story. “Tape 56” is filmed with a shoulder mount camcorder, probably one reminiscent of the 1980s (where the style recalls some of the ‘80s grunge of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers). “Amateur Night” is filmed with a tiny spy camera in the nose of a pair of Woody Allen-ish looking glasses. “Second Honeymoon” and “Tuesday the 17th” are filmed with your typical DV camera. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is told via a Skype webcam session. And “10/31/98” is told through a tape camcorder from, you guessed it, the late ‘90s, but as a “nanny cam”.
What does all this mean? There’s a certain, deliberate nostalgia, for all of its anachronisms, instead of lessening the film’s quality, enhance it. Yeah, the quality is poor, but it’s supposed to be. You have to wonder, how do some of these formats, from the glasses camera to the Skype conversation, even get on a VHS tape? It all seems to the concept of the tangibility of film. For all of film’s (as an artistic medium) evolution, from celluloid to digital, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, it’s still the artistic medium that matters. But there’s a wistfulness about the production of the film. The democratization of film isn’t the issue; it’s the permanency of it. Even though these anachronistic set pieces and devices shouldn’t work, the desire to keep them existing is so powerful that they appear on rocking, old school VHS tapes. It isn’t only the concept of how these shorts were filmed that matters; it is also how they are addressed in each segment. The glasses are more voyeuristic than most found footage films dare to be, especially in the middle of subverting a trope; the DV recorders hold secrets, and in “Tuesday the 17th” they address the technical fallacies of the device (tracking issues and pixelization); the Skype conversation works to show the evolution of emotional intimacy over the web; and the nanny cam again works as voyeurism, but as a way to “protect your loved ones” on tape. The female lead in “Second Honeymoon” even says that her purpose is to keep the memories of the road trip.
That such devices and mediums are either evolving into more complex, “better” things or disappearing altogether, is something that V/H/S wants to address. Maybe it’s simultaneously yearning for the simplicity, even the corniness of the past while embracing the future of how films are made digitally. Maybe it does not want to let go of the memories stored on magnetic tape. Maybe V/H/S is nostalgia manifested.
Realism as Artifice
One of the big selling points of found footage films is that the film is told from specific perspectives and that it provides a sense of realism. It’s the bastard child of cinema verite filmmaking and narrative filmmaking. Instead of actors breaking that imaginary fourth wall, the “found footage” serves as more of an openly transparent fourth wall, and one that has no qualms with letting its audience in on the action. Found footage is like “American neo-realism”: generally portraying middle class people (sometimes lower class) doing very naturalistic actions in maybe somewhat unnatural situations. (My analogy would work better if the peasants had the cameras, no?) So, most of the found footage horror, for all of its implausibility, is supposed to seem real. It is supposed to walk that fine line of realism and fantastical horror, from the banal conversations in Paranormal Activity to the natural lack of direction in The Blair Witch Project: it’s supposed to be “real”. On some levels, it may succeed: When my sister went to see Blair Witch upon its original release, she came back from the theater, petrified and asking my mother desperately if the “historical background” of the film was real.
V/H/S does not exactly have no regard for the realism in found footage, but it intentionally subverts that idea. In comparison to most found footage horror films, what you see in this one is entirely implausible. A demon woman killing your friends as she has sex with them, a headless zombie, a supernatural serial killer that destroys the line between seeing and believing (all those tracking errors!), a woman being used as an alien incubator, an exorcism. The only segment of the bunch that seems a remote possibility is Ti West’s emotionally and suspenseful bounded “Second Honeymoon”, where a man is murdered by his wife’s lesbian lover while on a road trip.
What is more, each segment begins normally enough (as with all horror films), but allowing its anachronistic prop to be part of that normality. Sex cam voyeurism is commonplace to the douche bags in “Amateur Night”, whether the actual use of the glasses is an experiment or not. Being hoodlums and recording the adventures is commonplace. Recording your friends on a road trip (and leading them to their death!) is routine. Skyping with your significant other. Going to a Halloween party/watching over your kid with a monitor. All of these are presented as something we would expect from the characters.
The normalcy of it all shows in the film’s execution, or rather the execution of each segment by the respective characters. Needless to say, it is very poor. It’s grainy, sporadically filmed, shaky, a nightmare… But purposefully. Common for the style, this transcends “bad cinematography”. But it is, in my belief, completely supposed to. These are your everyday schlubs, horn dogs, lovers, etc. and they have no desire to adhere to the aesthetic principals that many filmmakers hold themselves to. They are normal people having a good time. And it shows. The deliriousness of some segments (“Tape 56”, “Amateur Night”) contrasted against the comparatively sereneness of others (“Second Honeymoon”, “Tuesday the 17th”, “That Sick Thing…”) makes it look like the mash up, compilation video it’s supposed to be. Or, rather, the random selection of videos that just happen to be there. That complete lack of awareness for consistency works in the film’s favor in subverting its supposed realism.
With the “Second Honeymoon” segment aside, the blatant disregard for realism is fascinating. Here you have a style of filmmaking that is intentionally created to form a certain kind of intimacy with the viewer, and in that you have completely ridiculous situations. It isn’t merely the supernatural aspect of it, but the way the artifice affects the medium and affects the storytelling. The found footage is immediately used to gain a sense of trust, but the trust is bent in half when it is present with wild characters and actions. What V/H/S is able to accomplish is revealing the fraudulence of “found footage” itself. It shatters the illusory nature. It works to tear away the curtain and show the fakery behind something that is used to be “real”. If found footage is the Wizard of Oz of filmmaking, V/H/S is the rather sadistic Dorothy.
Medium as Narrative Device
It is inherent that the camera in a found footage film plays a direct part in the film. As opposed to the camera being a spectator that records the actions, situations, and images in any given film, found footage puts you right there, not only a medium through which the story is told, but as a character as well. Found footage gives you a specific perspective, generally from one character, but the difference being is that that perspective, despite the fact that it is essentially linked to the carrier and works as the eyes of that character, is actually an objective look at what is occurring. It happens to be a rather paradoxical thing in found footage cinema: it’s supposed to be a character, and yet it works objectively (unlike the camera in Antonioni’s Blowup).
Despite the paradoxical quality of found footage, walking the line between the objective and the subjective, in V/H/S it takes on another duty: the narrative device. This is fairly prevalent in found footage films, but again, many do not address it with the same or with as much self-awareness as this does. Not only is a VHS tape a MacGuffin for the first segment, the moment a tape is popped in, the tape itself, the medium on which the story has been recorded, it suddenly becomes self-reflexive and works as the narrative device that pushes the characters. Much like the idea of the magnetic tape working as nostalgia, the tape works as the thing through which the actions are found. The stories are not merely just stories, but documentation of what has once occurred and what affects the hoodlums in “Tape 56”.
“Tape 56” is interesting all by itself (although it is my least favorite of the segments). It is the framework through which the film is told, which means that as opposed to being one straight segment, it bounces back and forth between the tapes found and the characters in the segment. Thus, the VHS tapes that hold the rest of the segments of the film all have their own influences on a character or characters in “Tape 56”. Generally speaking, though, the effect is superficially minimal. It isn’t necessarily the reactions which are proof that the medium works as the narrative device; in fact, it’s just the opposite.
That there is a blue screen and a constant jumping around between previous stupid things the guys have done serves as your device. The VHS tapes, all of them, work as a record of the past and of the present. The guy trying to secretly make a sex tape (all the while using that lame “The red light means it’s off!” excuse), the garage assault, and the breaking and entering are parts of a whole that serve both as the format through which the film is told as well as the driving force.
Magnetic tape has a finite length in a cassette, which means that the jumping back and forth to what may be the present and what may be the past inherently forces the film and the story to drive forward. The film must continue running through until the end. That is what I mean by medium as narrative device.
But with the other segments implementing anachronistic technology, what does that mean for them? It means the same thing. The story is help on tapes, making the tangible medium the device by pushing it forward mechanically. Not to mention that the rest of the devices all have a specific limit through which they can record and by what means. And while each character holds the camera, it becomes character driven, thus connecting the links between medium as character and not just innocuous spectator. The camera as character is then active in the decisions made, shaping the film.
Even its fly on the wall nature works to push the story forward. If every experience for the characters then has a certain kind of immediacy in an environment where it tends to be the boring routine, recording it then places meaning upon each action.
Like the tape in each VHS cassette, the story won’t stop and can’t stop. It must go on.
V/H/S is not an inherently “good” movie, but it is compelling enough that much of its disregard is unwarranted. The fear factor is negligible (though I am not really the best to ask), and some segments are significantly better than others. But the anthological nature of the film, for all of its inconsistency and frantic randomness does everything to make the film more interesting and worthy of a watch. The film seems to represent not only a bizarre experiment done by Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, and Radio Silence, but as discernible and physical evidence that film, however you want to define it, is changing. While it does everything to subvert the found footage style, it works to make the medium represent wistful nostalgia, to further blur the lines between realism and artifice, and to make the medium itself drive the story and not just tell it. While perhaps not as essentially entertaining as, say, The Cabin in the Woods, V/H/S is another horror film from 2012 that does far more than most expect it to. To some extent, it does more: it takes full advantage of its own style and medium. It looks at its own LCD monitor and history. It looks the audience right in the eye, thereby allowing the audience to look at itself.
Creating a “definitive” list of your favorite 101 films is a task unto itself, and one that I spent many hours compiling and weeping about. Only those who have also made similar lists know what it feels like to take off one of your favorites in order to fit the constraint of 101. I do have a larger, more random list, but, like most people, I was prompted to do this with the recent release of Sight and Sound’s 50 Greatest. The films that follow may not be the greatest, but they are most definitely my favorites. From the hilarious to the somber, to the “I want to go kill myself”; I think every film on the list has something to recommend it. Every film has a special place in my heart and I have unforgettable memories sparked by these films. I suppose the best way I can describe this list is the best of my favorite written like an objective list. Sort of. I hope this list sparks a little debate and some conversation! (The films are listed in alphabetical order, but the ones in bold would be in my top 10.)
- 12 Angry Men/Anatomy of a Murder (1957/1959) | Directed by Sidney Lumet/Otto Preminger
It probably goes without saying that 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder are the essential courtroom films. Lumet’s film deal exclusively in real time, studying the dozen men of the title and their motivations. Their personal ethics are on trial for the audience as they themselves must decide the fate of a young man on trial for murder. Lumet’s masterful direction and the tight, often claustrophobic cinematography center in less on the case itself than who these men are as people. Meanwhile, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is like the best episode of Law & Order times one hundred, with more focus on the latter. Taking you through nearly the entire process of a trial, and its noir0ish tendencies forcing the audience to question the legitimacy of, once again, the ethics of the cast of characters, Preminger sets the stage for a slow burning but hot mystery. Both are on a similar subject, yet handle the matters differently; with the former concentrating on the ethics of the men who will play god and the latter on the ethics of those on trial.
- The 400 Blows (1959) | Directed by François Truffaut
When one of his mentors challenged him to make a film since he had such a bad reputation as being an incredibly harsh critic, Truffaut’s first feature, and one of the first of the nouvelle vague, made him the John Hughes of the era. Adolescent angst tends to look really foolish and preposterous on screen, but Truffaut tackles the melodramatic woes and misfortunes of his protagonist, Antoine Doinel, with sympathy and nostalgia. This may partly because that Doinel, played excellently by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the events in the film are heavily based on events and experiences that occurred in the auteur’s early life. And like John Hughes, Truffaut is able to present normally ridiculous and unsympathetic actions on the screen so that, without making Doinel seem like a martyr, the audience can gain insight into how the angsty adolescent feels. Certain lines resonate with any kid who has told a lie or tried to make their parents proud and failed. The adults around Doinel are not, surprisingly, made out to be monsters, but simply strict adults who, like in reality, may sometimes lose touch with who they once were. Truffaut’s touching film is the perfect coming-of-age story.
- A Christmas Story (1983) | Directed by Bob Clark
Based on memoir-esque essays by the film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is one of the most perfect slices of nostalgia to ever grace the screen. Taking place sometime in the 1930s in the Midwest, the only thing little Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the fancy accessories. One kid’s quest because our delight. Its quaint, fun period setting and detail, and the nature of narrative structure make the film incredibly fun to watch. Told in vignette-style episodes, each segment really seems to be a slice from Ralphie’s life. It seems that, rather than assume the duty of creating a very long arc and narrative to what would, undeniably, be a far less interesting film, the episodic style makes the actions more quick paced, reminiscent of old sitcoms and radio shows. Were they to ever adapt David Sedaris’ work to the screen, they should look no farther than A Christmas Story.
- Alien/Aliens (1979/1986) | Directed by Ridley Scott/James Cameron
Alien and its sequel Aliens are very different films, but both are equally entertaining. While simultaneously nearly inventing the modern sci-fi film and subverting it in the same breath, Alien is, at its core, a haunted house movie with a crew aboard a ship that also contains a large monster. It combines the older clichés of that subgenre, recalling some stylings of Vincent Price, yet its characters aren’t always stupid. This is a nice change. Some very memorable thrills occur in Alien. Its sequel is different in tone and style, with James Cameron at the helm and his “no holds barred” style coming with him. More overtly an action movie, Aliens is more “exciting” than its predecessor, but that is merely because of the style change. All the while, the two films present curious ideas regarding pregnancy, birth, and feminism under the first layer of skin. As they say, though, in space, no one can hear you scream.
- Annie Hall (1977) | Directed by Woody Allen
Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most obvious change in style, as he had slowly transitioned from “joke after joke” in Love and Death. This film, though, presents Allen not only as the comic, but as the artist. Using humor to illustrate the nuances in a relationship, Allen surprisingly allows us to get to know Alvy Singer and Annie Hall intimately. Despite the film being told mainly from his perspective, we become connected to Singer’s amour as well. The non-linear style aids this and accentuates those nuances. Eternal Sunshine would copy this method of retracing a relationship through memories, but in a way, Annie Hall does it, if not exactly better or more effectively, then just differently. The lack of straightforward linearity is the reproduction of memory, jumping to the moments that stand out to you the most in no particular order. The breaking of the fourth wall seems to prove it: Annie Hall is a walk down memory lane.
- Army of Shadows (1969) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
While better known for his gangster films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII neo-noir is an intricately plotted escape plan, drawn up to thrill like any of his other films. The difference between this and, say, Le Cercle Rouge, is that a real emotional connection is made. The dark palette and tenseness of the film drives the viewer to the edge of their seat, rooting for every character in the Resistance to get away. It’s a shattering film about the dangers of political resistance, as well a triumph of personal beliefs and heroism.
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) | Directed by Frank Capra
Amongst the first films I ever watched, Arsenic and Old Lace holds a very special place in my heart. Theater critic Mortimer Brooster’s two old aunts invite old, lonely men into their home and poison them, burying them in the basement. These goodhearted, decidedly Christian women are kind of like Dr. Kevorkian, but for the old and lonely. Mortimer’s older brother, who would have made both Boris Karloff and Jeffrey Dahmer proud, comes home one night and, as one would guess, antics ensue. Playing with primarily one set and the conventions of comedies and mysteries, Capra’s screwball comedy is listless and fun. The journalistic roots of Cary Grant’s character (who is, unshockingly, perfect) present an opportunity for the film to subvert certain filmic elements in a self-aware way. It isn’t meta-humor exactly, but it understands what it’s parodying. The wonderful John Alexander’s perfect portrayal as Teddy (Mortimer’s other brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt) is so pitch perfect, it would end up impacting my personal political views.
- La Belle et la Bête (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
If I tell people that one of my favorite films is Beauty and the Beast, I always have to annotate my statement with “I mean the Jean Cocteau one”. For this majestic adaptation makes singing teapots and dancing clocks seem quaint and even, gasp, dated. Cocteau was one of cinema’s greatest magicians, and his camera tricks are gorgeous to see on the screen. Far more reliant on the older German version of the tale than the Disney film was, Cocteau’s splendid adaptation makes the Beast seem more human than ever. This is a tale of unrequited love and reflections of the human spirit. I think it was Greta Garbo who exclaimed, upon the Beast turning into the handsome prince, “Give me back my Beast!” It’s that kind of beauty that fills the screen and fills our hearts.
- Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
I often credit Jonze and screenwriter extraordinaire’s head trip for helping me grasp the concept of “existentialism”. For what else is this film other than trying to understand one’s self by experiencing it through another’s body? The film is genius visually, conceptually, every way. With unrecognizable John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, the lines are fast and smart and the concepts tricky yet entertaining. Spike Jonze’s music video sensibility does not, contrary to assumption (and a little thing called Chaos Editing), hinder the film’s artistry but enhance it. It is not cut to music but the beats of action, mood, and dialogue. It’s visually inventive (“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich…”), complex, and thoroughly entertaining.
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) | Directed by Vittorio De Sica
De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece rolled in that wave of films that look at the harsh realities of the common people. The simple storyline of a man who is finally able to get a job, but has the bike he needs for it stolen is more heartbreaking than you could ever imagine. Is it the fact that, as most neorealist films would do, the film used nonprofessional actors, making the tragedy more real? Is it the cinematography, with the frame always tight with the social problems of Italy, that makes the film compelling? Or the angelic face of young Bruno, who must grow up in the conditions, allowing all the motion in the film to pour out of his cherubic eyes? Bicycle Thieves is a tearjerker without the melodrama, something that feels real and painful and undoubtedly one of the most incredible films ever made.
- The Big Lebowski (1996) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
There are few things as memorable as Jeff Bridges as The Dude. And there are few films as quotable as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (“Vagina.”). The Coens’ ear for dialogue, eye for scene construction, and sensibility for story dominate the film. This wildly unique neo-noir takes its plot loosely from the classic noir The Big Sleep, but its endlessly colorful cast of characters is the best thing on display. The dialogue in particular is the most interesting thing about the film. Combining surfer/stoner/slacker vernacular with articulately constructed lingo, it’s commonplace to hear phrases throughout the film like “Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian–American, please”. The Coens bowl a perfect set with this one.
- Black Swan (2010) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Part intimate character study, part psychological thriller, and part art house horror film, Darren Aronofsky’s enigmatic Black Swan is all enthralling. With the strains of obsession and quest of perfection found in The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue, Aronofsky’s ode to those who would willingly go insane for their art is chilling and intriguing. Natalie Portman’s childish and virginal Nina is contrasted by her understudy Lily, darker and more elusive. Revolving around a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Portman and Mila Kunis represent the respective swans in the ballet, Portman’s quest to be able to emulate and portray both with Kunis out of her way. Aronofsky’s presentation, with mirrors all around and various tipoffs to Nina’s character, is exemplary. The handheld cinematography forces the viewer to see the events from Nina’s point of view, making Nina’s descent into insanity more thrilling and chilling. It’s a grand film, with a gorgeous score from Clint Mansell. For Nina, her experiences can be summed up in an exchange from the classic The Red Shoes: “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?”
- Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance
There are few films as heart wrenching as Derek Cianfrance’s portrait of a romance, from its beginning to its end. Realism takes a front seat here, to an extent that much of the dialogue was improvised and the film’s stars even lived together for a month. Every frame of every scene seems genuine, which makes the experience of watching the film even more romantic and subsequently crushing. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely incredible. Their chemistry, making love or arguing violently, is palpable. With its story overlapping with memories, the past and the present have distinctly different looks. Blue Valentine doesn’t feel like film at all; merely the portrait of two people who fall in love and fall out of love.
- Brick (2005) | Directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir is unlike any high school movie you’ll ever see. Everything is pulled straight from the classic film noirs of the Pre-Code Era and even the dialogue is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammet. Johnson, though, is no fool. Though his plot is complex and his intention is to reinvent both the neo-noir and the high school movie together, he knows that just making it like a labyrinth and having funky lines won’t be enough. Brick is just as inspired visually as it is in literary terms. And while this is Johnson’s first film, he handles the material like a pro, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt perfectly fit as a high school hooky playing amateur gumshoe. Brick turns out to be a fascinating appropriation of those classic noir techniques set in high school, without the gimmick and with all of the thrill.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935) | Directed by James Whale
Yes, Whale’s Frankenstein brought German Expressionism to American horror, and yes, it was good, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of Bride of Frankenstein (which may or may not be a tad ironic). Although mob mentality and the psyche of a mad scientist are explored in Frankenstein, no attempt is given to understand the Monster. Here, not only does the Monster demand a mate, he demands to be understood. James Whale offers up a perfect examination of the kindness that can lie within the Monster’s heart. (There were bits shown in Frankenstein, though not to this extent.) Elsa Lanchaster’s iconic scream and Karloff’s reaction shot with the words, “She hates me” is one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Bride of Frankenstein works incredibly as the study of the monster and his broken heart.
- Bringing Up Baby* (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
I’m fortune enough that arguably the first film I ever saw just so happens to be an incredibly funny work of genius. Yep, the insane work of comedy was one of the very first films I ever watched. Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece will always unfailingly take the cake for my favorite film of all time. Sexual innuendo permeates the dialogue, and there’s always a sense of the battle between the sexes underneath all of the shenanigans. Once again, we have an incredible director subverting clichés, and in this case, romantic comedies. Though, this is the definitive romantic comedy, starring Cary Grant as a wonderfully naïve paleontologist and Katherine Hepburn as the waify socialite who falls madly in love with him and follows him around. This film was ravaged when it was first released, but has reestablished itself as a gem. Although the situations are familiar, their familiarity to the audience is deliberate, Hawks playing with what we know about romance. With some of the best line deliveries of all time (“I just turned GAY all of a sudden!”), and nary a dull moment, Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest films ever made and my favorite film of all time.
- Burn After Reading (2008) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
While the plot is knowably a little complex, the sadly underrated Burn After Reading is in a way Fargo Lite. It received mix to positive reviews upon its release, perhaps because it was so drastically different in tone to the previous Brothers Coen film, Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Nay, do not let that detract from seeing it! The familiar air of dark comedy is mixed with noir-ish espionage. And once again, it’s the cast and the script that shines. John Malkovich as a crazy ex-CIA agent and Brad Pitt as a dimwitted personal trainer are the highlights. As buffoonish as nearly everyone is in the film, it sheds an interesting light on the nature of surveillance and that, in this world, secrets never stay that way forever.
- Cabaret (1972) | Directed by Bob Fosse
Based loosely on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals ever made. It seems to be post-modern in its approach, almost shocking for a musical. While songs generally express the feelings of characters on stage, the song and dance numbers at the Kit Kat Club are utilized specifically to reflect the events of the play and the mirroring social and political atmosphere. The looming threat of Nazis is always in the air, and no musical sequence dares to detract from that aspect. In fact, those sequences are there expressly for that purpose: to remind you of that threat and fear. The Kit Kat Club is a fantasy in which all the players’ lives, the players representing the countries in World War II, are mocked on stage. Joel Grey gives an electric performance as the sinister Emcee at the club, his sweetly romantic “If You Could See Her” ending with the lines, “…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” But, come to the Cabaret, old chum!
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012) | Directed by Drew Goddard
It’s nice when people who like the same kind of movies, in this case horror, you like come to the same conclusion as you have: they’re getting dull and predictable. In one of the most original horror movies in recent memory, Drew Goddard and Joss “King of All the Fanboys” Whedon came together to pen a script which subverted the horror genre and its clichés even further than Wes Craven’s Scream did in 1996. Spoilerific though it may be, the film explores why we love carnage, and not in that obnoxiously pretentious way that Funny Games did. Clearly, the filmmakers like horror just as much as the audience does, and enough to want to serve up something new. Featuring a stellar cast, great comedy, and shocking moments, The Cabin in the Woods is the perfect horror film for the meta-humor age.
- Casablanca* (1942) | Directed by Michael Curtiz
How can anyone not love Casablanca? The best representative of the collaborative process of filmmaking, especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Casablanca is one of the greatest love stories ever set in celluloid. Political allegories notwithstanding, it’s the love story that captures everyone’s hearts across generations. Bogart’s outward bitterness and internal romanticism, Bergman’s effervescent beauty, and the doomed love between them are captivating for every second. The darkly lit cinematography, the atmospheric music, and the performances are splendid. It may be the greatest love story ever in film. There’s no need to tell us, “You must remember this”, because everyone who loves a good romance will without asking.
My mother almost constantly, incessantly voices her dissatisfaction with the state of security in the world. In a world where everyone has a cell phone to track them, there are security cameras on nearly every corner, we are all being watched. Being the young Millennial I am, I shrug it off with apathy, ignoring what I perceive to be over paranoia. But, it’s safe (or unsafe) to say that Big Brother is watching. And what if Big Brother decided to, for one reason or another, send you what he’s seen, as mundane or as revealing as it might be? What if Big Brother were standing just across the street, preying on your life and then taunting you and mocking you in the same breath? Michael Haneke’s slow burning Caché does just that.
Subversion is the best when you do not notice it. Whether it’s Lars von Trier’s criticisms of the United States in Dogville or Steve McQueen putting up who is now the poster boy for fictional sexual addiction on display, subversion is best when the audience is wrapped up in the story and only after realizes that they’ve been undermined as an audience and forced to face the proverbial light of day. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke likes to subvert. Even if you are only distantly familiar with his films, you can tell that he enjoys the socio-political aspect to subverting contemporary audiences expectations from the films they watch. Lars von Trier does it with glee, but Haneke seems far more serious about his agenda. His film Funny Games, which he remade shot for shot for an American audience in 2007, was an exercise in sadism. Shoving the carnage horror audiences love to watch with a terrifying realism in front of our faces was not exactly the most pleasant experience, and nor should it have been. However, the film was so blatant about its agenda, leaving nothing to the imagination and little to read into, it came off as rather pretentious. It seemed less of an examination of why we like these things than just torturing for the fact that we do (Sorry, The Cabin in the Woods did it better). However, later in his career, Haneke, who enjoys experimentation with narrative techniques, decides that sadism doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation. Sometimes, sadism might be a good thing.
A fairly wealthy family is being watched. Videos are being sent to them, and on the tapes is surveillance footage filmed from across the street. They’re coming with violent pictures, almost as if drawn by a child. They don’t know who or why these tapes are being sent to them, never mind why they’re being sent in the first place. But the notion of being watched causes the family’s sense of security to disintegrate. Their lives turn to quiet bedlam.
The film is graced by stellar performances from Daniel Auteuil, as Georges the patriarch and co-host of a popular literary television show, and Juliette Binoche, as Anne a publisher. The two have an interesting dynamic as the film begins. They seem to have a pleasant, trusting relationship when the film begins, or at least what counts for a normal relationship. But even as they receive the first tape, their relationship is tested. Georges begins to think from the logical aspect, and you can almost see his mind buzzing with various theories as to who the mysterious filmmaker could be, where the tape could have been filmed, etc. Anne is less caught up in the very specific details of logistics, and looks at it emotionally, worrying about the state of her family. As the film continues, their relationship continues to strain and be tested, almost as if the two mindsets and ways of thinking must go against one another head to head, both as a way of maintaining an intimate relationship and as a way of problem solving. Binoche does not do “quiet desperation” is a stupid, trite way, nor has she ever. Her desperation has always been evident in her eyes and in her face, and she never second guesses her performance or the audience by pushing it over the edge into a state of fantasy, rather than reality. I am not familiar with Auteuil or his work, but his various acts of honesty, duplicity, and paranoia resonate as true within the film. He is the typical male who has seemingly lost control of his normal life with this new “thing”. The man who has lost control rebounds against bad decisions and pays the price, slowly losing the dignity he is so desperate to keep.
The film’s cinematography is its most important element. Largely composed of static shots, Haneke has fun presenting both the reality of the Laurents family and the surveillance footage, often within the same scene, even in the same shot. Discerning between surveillance and reality is part of the most intriguing elements of the film, if not the most fascinating part. When the camera is not making more obvious pans and movements, one can safely assume it’s surveillance footage… or is it? The point, it seems, between the inability to really tell from shot to shot of what kind of footage is being shown is to accentuate one of the main theses of the films: we are always being watched. I do not think that Haneke is intentionally being overly paranoid about the subject, but instead being realistic about the world that we live in. It has stunning relevance viewing it almost a decade after its initial release, with the changes in technology. Regardless of whether it’s Big Brother watching or your neighbor, the fact that we live in society where some feel the need to be cautious about everything versus those who live by “YOLO” and carry themselves anywhere and anyway they like. It seems to be more about facing the reality of the world we live in than some sort of propaganda scaring the audience into paranoia. My theory, though, is that the entire film is surveillance. Though there are one or two tracking shot, the stillness of the frames, and the lack of pans could lead one to assume that Haneke’s Caché is an Orwellian masterpiece whose dystopian horror of constant surveillance takes place within reality. (At moments, it seems that even characters that wouldn’t seem to “matter” may be in on it; there’s a blah white man in one scene in a restaurant who looks into the camera.)
Maybe an important aspect of the film is that because the narrative force is looking through the eyes of a voyeur, the audience in turn becomes that violator just as much as whoever is responsible for the threats and the tapes. Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we become the perpetrators by staring closely at each frame and yet convincing ourselves that we haven’t looked into these peoples’ lives close enough. Is this Haneke once again showing us the state of what entertainment has become?
Michael Haneke’s subversion of the deliberate pace and the eye of the camera does not fully wash over you until well after the film is over. It becomes a haunting vision that lives with you and makes you consider every step you take. It should be no surprise that, after September 11 and the subsequent Patriot Act, there would be a certain amount of “precaution” taken, but the Austrian director shows us what can really happen and how one thing can then disrupt the entire life of a family. Caché is a film that is realized meticulously, where you pay vigilant attention to every scene, looking around the frame and studying the mise-en-scene for every moment of the film, only trying to understand more. Made, somewhat ironically, twenty years after George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 is supposed to take place, Haneke presents it as Big Brother realized, threatening and fearful. And when the film is over, and the shock of violence, even violation of the senses has been slowly washed out of your mind, you will ask yourself, “Was I watching closely?”