Tuesday, December 25, 2007

away notice

Please note that even though Film Club is on hiatus until 2008, I'm still viewing things personally and doing little capsule write-ups on them: they're all archived on the "20 Most Recent" page, here. (They're also viewable through my Facebook or Flixster profile, for those of you who use those services.)

Happy holidays to those of you who are celebrating them this week.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

aswang, by wrye martin

I'm a little bit behind on my Film Club writeups, and in the interest of catching up, I'm going to skip No. 16 (Herzog's Nosferatu) and jump straight to No. 17, a low-budget oddity entitled Aswang (1994).

We're still in our run of vampire films, although this film represents something a little more cross-cultural: the vampire-type creatures that the film centers around (the eponymous "Aswang") are drawn from a Filipina folkoric tradition rather than the familiar Euro-centric tradition. We first see one of these creatures in a painting, thusly:

That stuff coming out of its mouth isn't blood, but rather a kind of feeding tube, which the Aswang uses to—there's really no delicate way to put this—consume fetuses out of hapless pregnant women. Needless to say, we need a hapless pregnant woman to come along... oh wait, here's one now!

That's our protagonist Katherine and her boyfriend, engaged in that cinematic standby, the in-the-car, you-could-go-get-an-abortion-right-now conversation. But Katherine doesn't get an abortion, instead she signs her baby over to these two:

...who, surprise surprise, are up to no good. They eventually take her out to meet Mother...

...who actually turns out to be one of those Aswang things. Let the baby-eating hijinxs ensue!

This actually isn't half bad as a first act, but it presents something of a screenwriter's dilemma—you've written a situation where you have one defenseless, pregnant teenage protagonist, without resources, versus a clan of supernatural beasts (with a diabolical Filipina maid / witch thrown in to boot). She's hopelessly outgunned, but in order to survive to the end of the movie she has to escape not one but several attacks on her person, which she manages to do through luck, intervention, or some other (increasingly silly) deus ex machina-type contrivance. And then once she's escaped she needs to get back into peril, usually by some staggering lapse in logic (running back to the house once she's escaped into the comparative safety of the woods, for instance). (The failure of the script during this portion of the film gives me an all-new appreciation of the utility of the one-killer / many-victims formula as a screenwriting device.)

But anyway. It's a maxim of Film Club that the films we watch don't necessarily need to be good, as long as they're interesting. The emphasis on the unborn as the nexus of desire and anxiety certainly has some promise (insert your own Juno joke here). Even more intriguing is the way that the villains are adamant that they have a legal authority to do what they're doing—after all, Katherine has signed over the rights to the infant, way back in the first act. "This is America!" bellows the male Aswang, after Katherine has once again escaped into the woods. "We have laws!"

There's the germ of something interesting there—some kind of anxiety about surrogate motherhood? It was, after all, the mid-Nineties—but ultimately Aswang lacks faith in the interesting elements of its own premise. Instead of exploring that stuff in any kind of sustained way, Aswang is all-too-willing to fall back on the most shopworn stuff from the horror-movie playbook:

And I'll leave you with Aswang take on the "cop who gets a little too curious." Not exactly breaking the mold:

Go ahead and guess what happens to him. (Hint: nothing good.)

This is the last Film Club post for 2007; we will re-convene in early 2008. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

a query

So I've been giving some thought, over the last week or so, to next semester's syllabus. It will be a reprise of last spring's "Researching and Writing About Film" course, although I'm giving thought to integrating more group readings into the course. As a result, I started thinking about the BFI Modern Classics series of "succinct and beautifully illustrated paperbacks," in which "distinguished film critics, scholars, and novelists explore the production and reception of their chosen films in the context of an argument about the film's importance." I've read two of the books in this series (Ryan Gilbey's Groundhog Day and S. S. Prawer's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht) and enjoyed both of them: they each were smart and substantial, and (more importantly for classroom use) they each seemed accessible to a audience of (relatively bright) general readers. They might need to work a little bit, but they wouldn't need to learn a whole body of esoteric film theory (or any other critical theory) in order to get the main points.

With that in mind, I've decided to choose two films for next semester that have BFI volumes written about them: it's a good way for me to narrow down the otherwise bewilderingly-large field of potential movies. I put a few other restrictions in place: nothing too violent or disturbing (so Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom is out, although I'm sure Gary Indiana's book on it is worth a read), nothing too sexually explicit (ruling out Eyes Wide Shut), and nothing that's just plain weird or esoteric (bye-bye WR - Mysteries of the Organism).

That still leaves a good list of films. Here are the ones I'm leaning towards most heavily...

Unforgiven, by Clint Eastwood (a finalist held over from last time)
Do the Right Thing, by Spike Lee
Amores Perros, by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Pulp Fiction, by Quentin Tarantino
and The Terminator, by James Cameron

What would you pick? I should make a decision by week's end so as to order the books and start doing the secondary research.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

gumbasia, by art clokey

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper, but is rather an entry for Short Film Week, organized by Ed Howard (Only the Cinema) and Jeff Ignatius (Culture Snob).]

Gumbasia (1955) is a short animated film by Art Clokey, the man who would achieve lasting fame as the creator of Gumby. Gumbasia predates the character of Gumby by about a year, and is more far more striking than the Gumby cartoons which accompany it on the DVD on which I found it ("Cartoon Craze Vol. 20").

As the title implies, Gumbasia is a response piece to Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940): like Fantasia, it consists of animation set to music. Like the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" sequence that opens Fantasia, Gumbasia is abstract: concerned with form, motion, and syncopation instead of narrative or representation.

That's about where the similarities end, and it's perhaps the differences that are more illuminating. Instead of classical music, Clokey chooses to set his piece to a rather angular piece of jazz. And, of course, instead of choosing to use cel animation, Clokey uses stop-motion clay animation. The film's muscularity and energy make it easy to read as a forceful manifesto for clay as a medium, a sort of shot across Disney's bow: a way for Clokey to say "anything you can do with drawings (and a huge studio), I can do just as effectively with clay (on my own here as a USC student)."

Certainly the use of clay is more effective at making visual statements about form: Gumbasia is perhaps more interested in the tactility and mass of primal, Froebel-derived forms as any other abstract film I can think of, as these stills should attest:

These stills, of course, don't quite do it justice: part of the delight of the film is watching the speed with which the forms mutate and change. YouTube to the rescue:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

on the act of seeing with one's own eyes, by stan brakhage

[This entry is not part of Film Club proper, but is rather an entry for Short Film Week, organized by Ed Howard (Only the Cinema) and Jeff Ignatius (Culture Snob).]

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) is perhaps best remembered for his abstract, hand-painted films, but he also did a number of films that, for lack of a better word, we might call "documentaries"—although Brakhage's films are radically more personal than most documentaries. Think of them, perhaps, more like records of things seen, documentary in the same way a diary is documentary.

In 1971, Brakhage completes a set of three of these "documentaries," known collectively as "The Pittsburgh Documents." They include: "eyes," covering three days of activity witnessed while riding around the city with a pair of policemen; "Deus Ex," shot in the surgery wing of a hospital, including footage of open-heart surgery; and "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," also shot in a hospital, but this time in the coroner's area.

"Act" is widely available (it is included on the By Brakhage 2-disc set available via Criterion), and before viewing it the good people at Criterion gently warn you to "please be advised," for "this film consists entirely of footage of actual autopsies." And so it does.

They are perhaps right to warn you, for many of the images in this film are difficult to look at, and once seen, they are difficult to un-see. (As is my fashion, I've included some stills with this write-up, but I've hidden them behind a cut to protect the squeamish.) Brakhage himself, in an interview with Richard Grossinger (collected in the Brakhage Scrapbook (scavenged here)), writes about the experience of filming in these terms:

"I just began photographing desperately. I really overshot because I was so desperate to always keep the camera going; every moment I stopped photographing I really felt like I might faint, or burst into tears, or come apart, or something like that."

And yet I don't think it is Brakhage's intent to terrify us with this film. Over and over in his writings he has said that his intent is only to be faithful to certain types of experience, to use film to aid us in seeing things that he has seen: certain qualities of light, etc. (Prior to screenings of "Act," Brakhage reportedly said to audiences "that it was nothing to be afraid of, it was only about light hitting objects and bouncing back and seeing it with your eyes.") If Brakhage wants us to see what the inside of a body looks like, it is likely that he thinks there is a virtue to the experience of seeing (with one's own eyes) what the inside of a body looks like. (A similar motive likely influenced his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving, a film which depicts his wife in childbirth.)

It is difficult, for me, to look at these things—a body cut apart on a table, a scalpel moving through flesh, a hand removing organs from a cavity—and not think that I am watching "violence." But is that apt? More likely this is a result of my own imaginings, my horror-film-induced ability to think of these things being done in malice to a person still living. We can perhaps critique the whole idea of an autopsy as a Western-logic act of violence in the name of dispassionate observation (possible), but unless we are willing to take that step then we must concede that there is, in fact, no violence in this film; we don't even see evidence of a callous joke at the dead's expense. No one engages in mischief like propping a Santa hat up on a corpse. What we see is carnality, as close to the reality of it as a film can get us, and when we are done watching the film we have added something to the catalogue of things we have observed. This is one way to become incrementally more complete as a human being.

Stills here, but please exercise your best judgment when considering whether or not to click.