Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Fury

Cain rose up

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John Lithgow in Raising Cain

I first saw Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain when I was fourteen years old. In a weird way, it amounted to a peak moment of my early adolescence: I was on a school trip to our nation’s capital, sharing a hotel room with my friends from middle school, and we were just tickled to get away with watching an R-rated movie on cable. The fact that we ended up with Raising Cain doesn’t quite compare with the kids on The Simpsons cheering at the chance to see Barton Fink, but it isn’t too far off. I think that we liked it, and while I won’t claim that we understood it, that doesn’t mean much of anything—it’s hard for me to imagine anybody, of any age, entirely understanding this movie, which includes both me and De Palma himself. A few years later, I caught it again on television, and while I can’t say I’ve thought about it much since, I never forgot it. Gradually, I began to catch up on my De Palma, going mostly by whatever movies made Pauline Kael the most ecstatic at the time, which in itself was an education in the gap between a great critic’s pet enthusiasms and what exists on the screen. (In her review of The Fury, Kael wrote: “No Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many ‘classic’ sequences.” I love Kael, but there are at least three things wrong with that sentence.) And ultimately De Palma came to mean a lot to me, as he does to just about anyone who responds to the movies in a certain way.

When I heard about the recut version of Raising Cain—in an interview with John Lithgow on The A.V. Club, no less, in which he was promoting his somewhat different role on The Crown—I was intrigued. And its backstory is particularly interesting. Shortly before the movie was first released, De Palma moved a crucial sequence from the beginning to the middle, eliminating an extended flashback and allowing the film to play more or less chronologically. He came to regret the change, but it was too late to do anything about it. Years later, a freelance director and editor named Peet Gelderblom read about the original cut and decided to restore it, performing a judicious edit on a digital copy. He put it online, where, unbelievably, it was seen by De Palma himself, who not only loved it but asked that it be included as a special feature on the new Blu-ray release. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the true possibilities of fan edits, which have served mostly for competing visions of the ideal version of Star Wars. With modern software, a fan can do for a movie what Walter Murch did for Touch of Evil, restoring it to the director’s original version based on a script or a verbal description. In the case of Raising Cain, this mostly just involved rearranging the pieces in the theatrical cut, but other fans have tackled such challenges as restoring all the deleted scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and there are countless other candidates.

Raising Cain

Yet Raising Cain might be the most instructive case study of all, because simply restoring the original opening to its intended place results in a radical transformation. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s necessary to grant De Palma his usual passes for clunky dialogue and characterization, but if you’re ready to meet it halfway, you’re rewarded with a thriller that twists back on itself like a Möbius strip. De Palma plunders his earlier movies so blatantly that it isn’t clear if he’s somehow paying loving homage to himself—bypassing Hitchcock entirely—or recycling good ideas that he feels like using again. The recut opens with a long mislead that recalls Dressed to Kill, which means that Lithgow barely even appears for the first twenty minutes. You can almost see why De Palma chickened out for the theatrical version: Lithgow’s performance as the meek Carter and his psychotic imaginary brother Cain feels too juicy to withhold. But the logic of the script was destroyed. For a film that tests an audience’s suspension of disbelief in so many other ways, it’s unclear why De Palma thought that a flashback would be too much for the viewer to handle. The theatrical release preserves all the great shock effects that are the movie’s primary reason for existing, but they don’t build to anything, and you’re left with a film that plays like a series of sketches. With the original order restored, it becomes what it was meant to be all along: a great shaggy dog story with a killer punchline.

Raising Cain is gleefully about nothing but itself, and I wouldn’t force anybody to watch it who wasn’t already interested. But the recut also serves as an excellent introduction to its director, just as the older version did for me: when I first encountered it, I doubt I’d seen anything by De Palma, except maybe The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible was still a year away. It’s safe to say that if you like Raising Cain, you’ll like De Palma in general, and if you can’t get past its archness, campiness, and indifference to basic plausibility—well, I can hardly blame you. Watching it again, I was reminded of Blue Velvet, a far greater movie that presents the viewer with a similar test. It has the same mixture of naïveté and incredible technical virtuosity, with scenes that barely seem to have been written alternating with ones that push against the boundaries of the medium itself. You’re never quite sure if the director is in on the gag, and maybe it doesn’t matter. There isn’t much beauty in Raising Cain, and De Palma is a hackier and more mechanical director than Lynch, but both are so strongly visual that the nonsensory aspects of their films, like the obligatory scenes with the cops, seem to wither before our eyes. (It’s an approach that requires a kind of raw, intuitive trust from the cast, and as much as I enjoy what Lithgow does here, he may be too clever and resourceful an actor to really disappear into the role.) Both are rooted, crucially, in Hitchcock, who was equally obsessive, but was careful to never work from his own script. Hitchcock kept his secret self hidden, while De Palma puts it in plain sight. And if it turns out to be nothing at all, that’s probably part of the joke.

Stranger in the same land

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Stranger Things

Note: Spoilers follow for Stranger Things.

One of the first images we see on the television show Stranger Things is a poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (In fact, it’s only as I type this now that it occurs to me that the title of the series, which premiered earlier this summer on Netflix, might be an homage as well.) It’s hanging in the basement of one of the main characters, a twelve year old named Mike, who is serving as the Dungeon Master of a roleplaying campaign with three of his best friends. You can see the poster in the background for most of the scene, and in a later episode, two adults watch the movie at home, oblivious to the fact that a monster from another dimension is stalking the inhabitants of their town in Indiana. Not surprisingly, I was tickled to see my favorite story by John W. Campbell featured so prominently here: Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” back in 1937, and the fact that it’s still a reference point for a series like this, almost eighty years later, is astounding. Yet apart from these two glimpses, The Thing doesn’t have much in common with Stranger Things. The former is set in a remote Antarctic wasteland in which no one is what he seems; the latter draws from a different tradition in science fiction, with gruesome events emerging from ordinary, even idyllic, surroundings, and once we’ve identified all the players, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be. It flirts with paranoia, but it’s altogether cozy, even reassuring, in how cleverly it gives us just what we expect.

That said, Stranger Things is very good at achieving what it sets out to do. The date of the opening scene is November 6, 1983, and once Mike’s best friend Will is pulled by a hideous creature into a parallel universe, the show seems determined to reference every science fiction or fantasy movie of the previous five years. Its most obvious touchstones are E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are touches of The Fury as well, and even shades of Stephen King. (Will’s older brother, played by Charlie Heaton, looks eerily like a young King, and the narrative sometimes feels like an attempt to split the difference between Firestarter and It.) Visually, it goes past even Super 8 in its meticulous reconstruction of the look and feel of early Steven Spielberg, and the lighting and cinematography are exquisitely evocative of its source. The characters and situations are designed to trigger our memories, too, and the series gets a lot of mileage out of recombining the pieces: we’re invited to imagine the kids from The Goonies going after whatever was haunting the house in Poltergeist, with a young girl with psychokinetic powers taking the place of E.T. As Will’s mother, Winona Ryder initially comes off as a combination of the Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss characters from Close Encounters—she’s frantic at Will’s disappearance, but she also develops an intriguing streak of obsession, hanging up holiday lights in her house and watching them flicker in hopes of receiving a message from her missing son. And it can be fun to see these components slide into place.

Winona Ryder on Stranger Things

It’s only when the characters are asked to stand for something more than their precursors that the series starts to falter. Ryder’s character doesn’t develop after the first couple of episodes, and she keeps hitting the same handful of notes. Once the players have been established, they don’t act in ways that surprise us or push against the roles that they’ve been asked to embody, and most of the payoffs are telegraphed well in advance. The only adult character who really sticks in the mind is the police chief played by David Harbour, and that’s due less to the writing than to Harbour’s excellent work as a rock-solid archetype. Worst of all, the show seems oddly uncertain about what to do with its kids, who should be the main attraction. They all look great with their bikes and walkie-talkies, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is undeniably endearing—he’s the show’s only entirely successful character. But they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, when a story like this really demands that they present a unified front against the adult world. For the most part, the interpersonal subplots do nothing but mark time: we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their conflicts or romances, and far too many scenes play like a postponement of the real business at hand. Any story about the paranormal is going to have one character trying to get the others to believe, but it’s all in service of the moment when they put their differences aside. When everyone teams up on Stranger Things, it’s satisfying, but it occurs just one episode before the finale, and before we have a chance to absorb or enjoy it, it’s over.

And part of the problem, I think, is that Stranger Things tells the kind of story that might have been better covered in two hours, rather than eight. When I go back and watch the Spielberg films that the series is trying to evoke, what strikes me first is an unusual absence of human conflict. In both Close Encounters and E.T., the shadowy government operatives turn out to be unexpectedly benevolent, and the worst villains we see are monsters of venality, like the councilmen who keep the beaches open in Jaws or the developers who build on a graveyard in Poltergeist. For the most part, the characters are too busy dealing with the wonders or terrors on display to fight among themselves. In The Goonies, the kids are arguing all the time, like the crew in Jaws, but it never slows down the plot: they keep stumbling into new set pieces. It’s a strategy that works fine for a movie, in which the glow of the images and situations is enough to carry us to the climax, but a season of television can’t run on that battery alone. As a result, Stranger Things feels obliged to bring in conflicts that will keep the wheels turning, even if it lessens the appeal of the whole. The men in black are anonymous bad guys, full stop, and the show isn’t above using them to pad an episode’s body count, with the psychokinetic girl Eleven snapping their necks with her mind. (I kept expecting her to simply blow up the main antagonist, as Amy Irving—Spielberg’s future wife—did to John Cassavetes in The Fury, and I was half right.) Sustaining a sense of awe or dread over multiple episodes would have been a much harder trick than getting the lighting just right. And the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it makes us think it might have been possible.

The second time around

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Lolita

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What’s something you wish could be remade or redone but is maybe too iconic or otherwise singular for anyone to actually take on the risk?”

When you look at a chronological list of any artist’s works, the first item can be both less and more than meets the eye. A first novel or movie—to take just two art forms—is always biographically interesting, but it’s also subject to particular pressures that can limit how well it expresses the creator’s personality. It’s the product of comparative youth, so it often suffers from rawness and inexperience, and it enters the world under unfavorable circumstances. For an unproven quantity from an unknown name, the tension between personal expression and the realities of the marketplace can seem especially stark. An aspiring novelist may write a book he hopes he can sell; a filmmaker usually starts with a small project that has a chance at being financed; and both may be drawn to genres that have traditionally been open to new talent. Hence the many directors who got their start in horror, exploitation, and even borderline porn. Francis Ford Coppola’s apprenticeship is a case in point. Before Dementia 13, which he made under the auspices of Roger Corman, he’d directed skin flicks like Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and it took years of kicking around before he landed on The Godfather, which I’m sure he, and the rest of us, would prefer to see as his real debut.

Any early work, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (This doesn’t even account for the fact that what looks like a debut may turn out that way almost by accident. The Icon Thief wasn’t the first novel I attempted or even finished, but it was the first one published, and it set a pattern for my career that I didn’t entirely anticipate.) But there’s also a real sense that an artist’s freshman efforts may be the most characteristic works he or she will ever produce. When you’re writing a novel or making a movie for the first time, you aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of a filmography that will stretch over fifty years: it seems like enough of a miracle to get this one story out into the world. As a result, if you’re at all rational, you’ll invest that effort into something that matters to you. This could be your only shot, so you may as well spend it on an idea that counts. Later, as you grow older, you often move past those early interests and obsessions, but they’ll always carry an emotional charge that isn’t there in the works you tackled in your maturity, or after you had all the resources you needed. And when you look back, you may find yourself haunted by the divide between your ambitions and the means—internal and otherwise—available to you at the time.

The Fury

That’s why I’m always a little surprised that more artists don’t go back to revisit their own early work with an eye to doing a better job. Sometimes, of course, the last thing you want is to return to an old project: doing it even once can be enough to drain you of all enthusiasm. But it happens. In fiction, the revised versions of novels like The Magus, The Sot-Weed Factor, and The Stand represent a writer’s attempt to get it right the second time. You could see the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Joss Whedon’s remake of his own original screenplay in the form that it deserved. In film, directors as different as Ozu, DeMille, Hitchcock, and Haneke have gone back to redo their earlier work with bigger stars, larger budgets, or simply a more sophisticated sense of what the story could be. (My own favorite example is probably Evil Dead 2, which is less a sequel than a remake in a style closer to Sam Raimi’s intentions.) And of course, the director’s cut, which has turned into a gimmick to sell movies on video or to restore deleted scenes that should have remained unseen, began as a way for filmmakers to make another pass on the same material. Close Encounters, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and Ashes of Time have all been revised, and even if you prefer the older versions, it’s always fascinating to see a director rethink the choices he initially made.

That said, this impulse has its dark side: George Lucas has every right to tinker with the Star Wars movies, but not to withdraw the originals from circulation. But it’s an idea that deserves to happen more often. Hollywood loves remakes, but they’d be infinitely more interesting if they represented the original director’s renewed engagement with his own material. I’d love to have seen Kubrick—rather than Adrian Lyne—revisit Lolita in a more permissive decade, for instance, and to take a modern example almost at random, I’d much rather see Brian DePalma go back to one of his earlier flawed movies, like The Fury or even Dressed to Kill, rather than try to recapture the same magic with diminishing returns. And the prospect of David Fincher doing an Alien movie now would be considerably more enticing than what he actually managed to do with it twenty years ago. (On a somewhat different level, I’ve always thought that The X-Files, which strained repeatedly to find new stories in its later years, should have gone back to remake some of its more forgettable episodes from the first season with better visual effects and a fresh approach.) Most artists, obviously, prefer to strike out in new directions, and such projects would carry the implication that they were only repeating themselves. But if the movies are going to repeat old ideas anyway, they might as well let their creators take another shot.

Looper and the secret of good science fiction

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There are a lot of things to recommend about Looper, the excellent new science-fiction thriller from writer and director Rian Johnson, but one of my favorite elements is the movie’s time machine. It looks something like an industrial washer-dryer, and we only see it for a few seconds, housed in a dingy warehouse somewhere in China. To use it, you just shove someone inside, and he comes out the other end at a specific location thirty years in the past. None of the characters seem especially interested in knowing how it works, any more than we’d be curious about, say, the mechanics of our local subway—and this is exactly how it should be. Like Inception, which never really explains its dream invasion technology, Looper takes its biggest imaginative leap for granted, which accounts for a lot of its brainy but grounded appeal. (Actually, to be perfectly accurate, time travel is only the second-biggest imaginative leap in the movie…but I can’t say anything more without giving the plot away.)

This is how science fiction ought to be: less science, more fiction. I don’t know what the writing process behind Looper was like, but I imagine that Johnson received a fair amount of pressure from outside readers to spell out this information in greater detail—studio executives love exposition—and managed to resist it. (Evidently, Johnson shot, or at least conceived, a special-effects sequence depicting the process of time travel, with the help of Primer director Shane Carruth, but none of this seems to have survived in the final cut.) Instead, he takes time travel as a given and uses it to tell a complicated but always lucid story that cleverly teases out the potential of its premise. I’m a sucker for time travel movies with even a modicum of ambition—I even liked Déjà Vu—and Looper deserves a lot of credit for presenting its paradoxes without holding the audience’s hand. It’s hard to overstate how difficult this is, and one of the movie’s great virtues is that it makes it look so easy.

This is, in short, a very smart screenplay, and it’s one that I expect to cite approvingly at various points on this blog. Among other things, it provides one of the best recent examples of the anthropic principle of fiction, by casually introducing telekinesis as a minor plot point—certain characters can move small objects with their minds, but only at the level of a parlor trick—in order for it to pay off down the line in a major way. It doesn’t indulge in stylistic flourishes for their own sake, but it’s more than capable of big formal conceptions when necessary, as in one dazzling montage that follows one possible timeline over the course of three decades. It quietly develops two persuasive futures without making a point of it, and gives us an unusually interesting supporting cast. (I especially liked Jeff Daniels in the role of a man from the future, whose knowledge of coming events is rivaled only by that of Will McAvoy.) And it’s also ready to make its leads unsympathetic, as when the character played by Bruce Willis makes an agonizing choice that few other movies would be willing to follow to its logical conclusion.

If there’s one small disappointment that prevents Looper from becoming a stone classic out of the gate, it’s that its action isn’t quite as inventive as the story surrounding it. There’s nothing that says an innovative science-fiction thriller is required to deliver sensational action, but when you look at the short list of recent movies that have pushed the envelope in the genre—The Matrix, Minority Report, Children of Men, and Inception—you often find writers and directors who are just as eager to show us something new on a visceral level as to tell us a mind-bending story. Looper doesn’t seem as committed to redefining its boundaries in all directions, and its chases and gunfights are all fairly routine. (Its most memorable action beat is a direct lift from The Fury, but not remotely as effective.) Still, that shouldn’t minimize what Johnson has accomplished: he’s set a lot of challenges for himself, met nearly all of them, and come up with one of the two or three best movies I’ve seen all year.

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2012 at 9:59 am

The Perils of Pauline

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The recent release of Brian Kellow’s biography A Life in the Dark and the Library of America anthology The Age of Movies has led to a resurgence of interest in the career of Pauline Kael. Yet Kael never really went away, at least not for those of us who spend most of our waking hours—and you know who you are—reading about pop culture online. Maud Newton of the New York Times once credited, or blamed, David Foster Wallace for creating the ironic, slangy tone of modern blogs, but three decades earlier, Kael had forever shaped the way we talk about the movies, and, by extension, everything else we care about. Peel back the prose of any top critic on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll find Kael peeking out from underneath, as writers mimic her snap judgments and rapid turns of phrase while often missing the depths that these surface flourishes concealed.

And while Kael is deservedly remembered for championing the cinema of the sixties and seventies, her lasting legacy is likely to be that of a stylist. I don’t think she’s the best or most insightful film critic of all time; for that honor, I’d nominate David Thomson, although I know he’s the man many movie lovers love to hate. As far as my own personal love of the movies is concerned, I owe the most to Roger Ebert. But Kael’s voice was the most distinctive of all the great film critics, and it’s been jangling in my head for decades. Phrases from her reviews nestle themselves into the corners of your brain, forever changing the way you think of the films under discussion, like her take on Altman’s visual flourishes in The Long Goodbye: “They’re like ribbons tying up the whole history of movies.” Even today, I can recite her enraptured description of the ending of The Fury, which Bret Easton Ellis cheerfully ripped off for his blurb for House of Leaves, almost by heart:

This finale—a parody of Antonioni’s apocalyptic vision at the close of Zabriskie Point—is the greatest finish for any villain ever. One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.

But the trouble with Kael as a role model is that her breathless style, in the absence of a larger philosophy of film, can sometimes cover up the lack of deeper understanding, and, at its worst, turn into something alarmingly like trolling. Kael’s reviews as a whole can be nuanced, but her individual sentences (“The greatest finish for any villain ever”) rarely occupy any middle ground. Imitating Kael on the sentence level only feeds our current tendency, as a culture of online commenters, to believe that everything deserves either five stars or none. This all or nothing approach has been discussed before, notably in an excellent Crosstalk at The A.V. Club, but it’s worth noting that Kael is its unlikely godmother. And if that’s the case, then her influence is vaster than even her greatest admirers acknowledge: her style touches everything we write about the arts, both online and in traditional media, down to this very blog post.

Which makes it all the more important to remember that Kael’s style was the expression of a genuine love of movies. Kael could be cruel to movies she disliked, as in her famously savage (and not entirely inaccurate) dismissal of Raging Bull: “What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?” But underpinning it all was a fanatical belief in what movies could do, and a determination that they live up to the standards set by other works of art, which is a quality that many of her imitators lack. Kael was a lot of things, but she wasn’t ironic, and her style was less about showing off than a way of getting her readers to feel the same intense emotions that she did—and, of course, to watch the movies themselves. I’ve sought out countless films just so I could read Kael’s reviews of them, and I know I’m not alone in this. And while I’m not sure if Kael would approve, I suspect that she’d at least be glad I was watching the movies she loved so much.

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