13 September 2010

Fulci #1: Mood means the most in City of the Living Dead

 1 of 3 posts looking at Lucio Fulci's early '80s death trilogy

"The air in Dunwich is getting awful thick," moans a doomed barfly in Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, aka The Gates of Hell), the first part in his loose death trilogy (followed by The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, both in 1981). He's not wrong: swathes of ungodly fog deliver more than just poor visibility for the town's locals. After a priest hangs himself the Gates of Hell open up, ushering in the arrival of the living dead who start ripping seven shades out of the small New England town. At the same time, psychic Mary Woodhouse (the always wonderful Catriona MacColl, who appears in all three films in Fulci's trilogy) seemingly dies during a seance; reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) digs her up to help him investigate just what in gory hell is going on in the town. Along with doctor Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and painter Sandra (Janet Agren), they have to put a stop to the mass zombie slaughter before All Saint's Day ushers in an almighty undead shitstorm of unfathomable proportions.

Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs around

One of the many evocative exterior establishing shots in City of the Living Dead

Fulci plots are never to be scrutinised thoroughly, or indeed at all: City is no exception. Narrative complexity was never top of his directorial in-tray and neither would I have wanted it to be. In City mood is paramount. How Fulci sustains atmosphere is the chief reason I keep coming back to him. It's the main draw, and - in my view - an integral part of his appeal to horror fans. He was a master of invoking unnerving, off-kilter moods. In particular the weird levels of urgency he instilled into his films through intercutting instances of interior and exterior tension. (Although, of course, some of the oddness may well have come about through a general budgetary raggedness: City was filmed in four weeks). The control he asserted throughout was as assured as many a director working with thrice his budget. The guy had style: many mood-driven moments in City stand as best testament to that.

The eyes have it: Catriona MacColl (as Mary) is afraid to blink in City of the Living Dead

Early on Fulci cuts between Mary alive in her coffin and Peter walking around the tombstones; he barely hears her screams. The sunny exterior is strikingly juxtaposed with the cold blue inside the coffin; the two spaces are edited together in such a way to create a weird unbalance. (The muffled screams audible outside the coffin create the feeling of dislocated suffocation.) It's a minor yet crucial sequence, impressive for its evocation of both immediate tension and eerie calm. In fact, the eldritch mood (pure unfettered unheimlich!) aroused within just about every one of Fulci's many external shots of houses or familiar buildings - of which there are plenty in City - is purveyed wondrously, and with great care. Those familiar buildings are made oh-so unfamiliar on account of Fulci's deft directorial decision making. (More on this in the next Fulci post, regarding The Beyond.)

The way Fulci's camera often foreground a light source entering into, or stationary within, the frame
  conjures a specific feeling of dread; he often evokes vast disquiet through simple technical means...

...and his exterior shots are always strangely memorably vivid

Fulci was also a whizz in conjuring up truly disquieting aural atmospheres to accompany his assured visuals, often to pre-empt his celebrated moments of gore. (Not just in City, or in the trilogy, but over his entire career.)  He often uses the elements to further mystify the feeling of mounting fear extremely well. He purposefully arouses exterior audio effects for establishing shots of buildings, then foregrounds them in subsequent interior scenes through expressive use of sound: wind, distant moans, or simply the weird white noise of night seeping into the relative safety of a domestic dwellings; the volume unnaturally heightened.

Luca Venantini (as John-John) wishes he was starring in Driller Killer

It's subtle, consistent filmmaking and maintains a curiously off-balance tempo from exterior to interior shots: the undead threat lurks everywhere, it suggests. Indeed, Fulci's City ghouls often appear without warning, literally embodying the dread built up through audio means (they teleport wherever and whenever they choose, it seems - as when one turns up in Sandra's house as she's painting a disembodied rhino's head hovering above an ocean!).

An impromptu storm of maggots in the drawing room 
- something that most films sadly neglect to provide.

Of course the prime ingredient in a Fulci film is the gore. Often slow motion, always prolonged - it's rigged to gush all over the screen at a moment's notice. Fulci's plots are almost superfluous conduits through which he channels his signature instances of bloodshed. The moments of gore are junctures of the most gruesome kind - standout set-pieces which pertain to the baggy narrative build-up, but jut out, and  launch off, seemingly embodying their own absurd reason for existing (i.e. Fulci knew his audience wanted it; he provided it). But maybe it's actually the loose narrative that's one long, frequently interrupted intervention - a frame on which to hang his ideas, to be wrapped around the gore more than to be logical storylines.

 Father Thomas eyes up his victims

The scene where a courting couple park up by the cemetery (the location of the entrance to one of the Seven Doors to Hell) sees some of Fulci's best moments of gore trauma. A girl and a guy make out, but that dead priest who insists on hanging around pops up so abruptly that just the sight of him alone makes the woman's eyes bleed and mouth foam; she promptly vomits up her innards (actually sheep entrails which Fulci apparently asked actress Antonella Interlenghi to swallow and regurgitate for realistic effect in the scene).

Tears run red: Daniela Doria (as Rosie) cries blood in City of the Living Dead

The guy, played by director Michele Soavi, watches on aghast before getting the back of his head ripped off. Par for the course with Fulci, yes, but what makes it memorable is the scene's duration (as always) and the way attention is paid to sense-specific horror - eyes slowly bleeding, intestines gradually oozing from the mouth - as well as the frequent imposing cuts back to the face of the priest. The focus on the drawn-out trauma, and its viscerally-detailed particulars, marks Fulci's gore out as a truly singularly sick vision, but always uniquely his own.

The undead are a pain in the neck for Christopher George (as Peter Bell)

There's something rigorously, indefinably reverberant about the way in which Fulci conjures up certain moods in his work, particularly in this death trilogy. His camera often returns again and again to empty sites of deceptively calm and mundane environments, pregnant with potential menace (more often than not wind-blown streets in City), as if he's forthrightly reiterating their importance within the overall effectiveness of the film, and, by extension, the crazed, slapdash - but no less intriguing for it - mythology surrounding the Seven Doors of Hell. Whether through maintaining a consistency of style and atmosphere, or through budgetary necessity, these are the moments which make a Fulci film really fly. Logic be damned.

Next: Fulci #2 The Beyond

RIP Claude Chabrol

RIP Claude Chabrol. The Cahiers du Cinéma critic, French New Wave innovator and influential French director died yesterday aged 80.

I've seen a fair few Chabrol films and still look forward to many more from his career. But out of the ones I've seen so far the very best was La cérémonie (1995), with Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire. As soon as I saw how he'd twisted a Ruth Rendell potboiler into a scorching comment on class and violence I knew it would be a film with a lasting impact, and one for the all-time best list. I've seen it a few times now, and it remains shocking, riveting and surprising with each watch; and contains excellent performances and, of course, smooth, wonderful direction. Its position among my very favourite French films from first viewing was, and still is, secured. Yesterday was a sad day for world cinema, but Chabrol leaves behind a body of impeccable work. Not least this engrossing masterpiece.

Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire in La cérémonie

7 September 2010

Buon compleanno! Argento

Today is Dario Argento's 70th birthday, so I send many happy hearty returns and a few killer kisses to one of my all-time favourite Italian filmmakers.

Giallo Maestro Argento

Each Argento film I've seen (and I still have several more left to go, including the latest Giallo) has given me something different; there hasn't been one single time whilst watching one of his films where I've ever been bored, uninvolved or not excited to see what turn a scene would take next. His films keep me on the tensest of tenterhooks.

I had a mini Dario-fest last year, where I caught up with several key key titles I'd previously missed, and revisited a few old favourites. It provided me with many evenings of gory giallo greatness; unmatchable horror cinema of a premiere order. Even if the temperature on his career has cooled off in recent years (and sadly it has in many folks' eyes), I still await each new project with the eagerness I have every one so far. I'm hoping the next few years provide more delicious Dario darkness.

Poster for Inferno (1980)

My Argento roll call of personal hits looks something like this, in no order (I've yet to compile a definite and/or definitive list of top Argentos): Deep Red/Profondo rosso (1975), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo(1970), Jenifer (2005), Phenomena (1985), The Stendhal Syndrome/La sindrome di Stendhal (1996), Tenebre (1982), Suspiria (1977), Trauma (1993) and - the latest, and one of the very best - Inferno (1980). It's a list of some of the most distinctive, individual and memorable horror films of the last 40 years. So far, Mr Argento, a mighty good haul.

I hope you're spending the day in the best way possible: happy birthday giallo maestro.

3 September 2010

At the Cinema: White Material

White Material (Claire Denis/2009) France, Cameroon/106mins *****

One of the many highlights of Claire Denis' latest, White Material, is studying the multiple variations of frazzled emotion which emanate from Isabelle Huppert's endlessly watchable face as she frets and contemplates her future. Huppert can always be relied upon to give good visage in a film, and her first collaboration with Denis allows her plenty of valuable face time. (Although she's as often frenetically shot in motion, from behind or in profile.) Her character, coffee plantation manager Maria, struggles to retain her grip on business and family relations as an unspecified civil war breaks out in her region; militia patrol and rebel soldiers advance on the plantation as things rapidly fall apart. Never one for a typically linear approach, Denis shows events from Maria's perspective as she later returns to the plantation via bus; her flashbacks are shown as fractured and piecemeal. Denis' intricately diced-up narrative - co-written with French playwright Marie NDiaye - makes restrained and allusive comment on the complex arrangement of white populations within African countries. Denis drops the occasional concrete hint as to the social and political observations she wants to arouse - through half-heard dialogue or background detail - but the overall tone is suggestive. As ever, her indistinct, high-fevered and rhythmic imagery leads us to consider what deeper resonances the story contains.

It's a heady, visually irrational and at times perplexing film; with Denis I wouldn't want it any other way. The abstractions of her film worlds somehow make apt sense by the time they reach their destinations. But just don't ask me why or how; I like to let her films remain wide open, stay as endlessly hazy memories. White Material wondrously falls in line with disjointed, less cohesive work such as The Intruder (2004) and Trouble Every Day (2002) more than it does with last year's equally excellent, though arguably more fluid and relaxed, 35 Shots of Rum. But it also has a torrid atmosphere, a thick with off-kilter dread, that even surpasses 1999's white-hot Beau travail. (And the setting of course recalls her 1988 debut, Chocolat.) Many of the plot strands waywardly veer from the main focus on Maria to bring forward periphery characters and events - such as Isaach de Bankolé's injured revolutionary 'The Boxer', or her son Manuel's (Nicolas Duvauchelle) disturbing, revelatory sea change in the desert - but wind their way back toward Maria and the plantation for closure. But Denis is never not in control of her haywire directorial compass. The day I see an easily fathomable Denis film will be a disappointing one for sure. This is not to say that she's merely serving up another dose of predictably "difficult" art-filmmaking, however. She mines a singular path, but is never slipshod with her material, and still find ways to mess with the limits of what she can make the film frame do for her. Every one of her films is markedly different from the next; each new one contains the zest and openness of a first-time director.

The acting is uniformly good: Huppert, obstinate, strong-willed as Maria, is superb (I've rarely seen her less than). Watching her buzz distressingly from scene to scene, like someone constantly trying to shut off a raw nerve, is one of White Material's innumerable pleasures. Excellent, too, are Duvauchelle (whose desert epiphany is all the more dark for the way Denis silently tracks it and the manner in which Duvauchelle underplays it) and Christopher Lambert as Maria's ex-husband. Regular Denis cinematographer Agnès Godard is missing in action, but Yves Cape replaces her, and makes the warmth of the African setting (White Material was filmed in Cameroon) unimaginably chilly. And the music, by another Denis mainstay, Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks, is as good and as haunting as ever. Good work, yet again, Denis.

2 September 2010

I Don't Get 'You Don't Get It'

Crash, bang, geddit

Just recently, when Scott Pilgrim vs the World was released and the largely positive reviews started coming in, a few irritated responses began filtering through whenever there was a less-than positive or shrugging verdict of the film. It's certainly not the first time I've read this kind of thing: I remember hearing (usually online) similar cries on perusing reviews of the likes of Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight, Irreversible and (500) Days of Summer (and, barely a month ago, Inception) but some reactions to Scott Pilgrim have proven to be the most visible recent examples of folk rebutting a less-favourable review with: 'You don't get it.'

The critics less impressed than most have seen their Pilgrim observations met with that much-loved, though increasingly shopworn, phrase - occasionally with 'if you're over thirty' tagged on the end of it. Why thirty? What has that age in particular got to do with it? Is the cut off point for Pilgrim enjoyment twenty-nine? Surely there are many folks both under and over thirty who the film will and won't appeal to. Whatever it is, I'm not sold on any of that 'You (just) don't get it' malarkey when someone is talking about someone else's (yours, mine, anybody's) reactions to a film.

I'm guessing that it's an off-the-cuff and defensively reactionary remark, but why do some folk feel the need to be defensive in the first place. If you liked it, be happy about that. Don't worry if the next guy or girl didn't like it. (Although maybe it's anger at the higher-profile critics getting to see films first, and delivering their tuppence-worth earlier than most, that doesn't keep in line with fans' high expectations.) But saying it is pretty useless, and actually suggests a juvenile superiority complex to go alongside that defensiveness on the behalf of those that do. What it really means is: 'I am better than you because I "get" this film.'

"Oh, the woe of not 'getting it' is no joke"

People - critics or audience members - 'not getting' a film doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. (This is another, more significant, implied denotation of this phrase). Maybe they just didn't like it. Some people perhaps just don't want what Scott Pilgrim has to offer - could that be what it is? But it's all just reaction and counter-reaction anyway. If someone does 'get' a film - and they truly feel they understand that it's speaking directly to them (and in some cases they may feel it's speaking to them alone) - all it says is that they've been cleverly aimed at, nicely ensnared in the filmmakers' cross hairs; they match the most likely target viewer squarely. It's worked for them; they 'got it'. That's great. But it doesn't mean that those not 'getting it' are way off the mark. It's not concrete proof that the film was genuinely any good because of a single-line rebuttal to a response.

The phrase also implies, 'it's not for you: it's mine/ours - not yours.' It's a derivation of that old redundantly groan-worthy 'I claimed it first' tack. Oh, how dare a thirty- or even forty-, fifty- or sixty-something - even consider watching a film clearly aimed below their age bracket. Keep to your age zones, people. And good lord! you'd better tell all those critics who are paid to review the latest Pixar and Disney releases that they're sadly unqualified to do so, too. How does one decide that a film generally, loosely aimed at a twenty-something should only be written about by someone of an equivalent age to its generally, loosely intended audience? And how does one work that out anyway?

The whole thing is baffling, needless and beside the point in the act of film watching. It's far from a good enough reaction to someone's observations on a film. I know many sixty-year-olds who may very likely adore what Scott Pilgrim has to offer. Maybe a couple of, oh no, seventy-year-olds, too. If the over-thirty lot won't 'get it' then the septuagenarians are royally buggered. Stick to watching Ladies in Lavender Gran, and don't let me catch you putting The Dark Knight into your DVD player either! Older audiences may not totally relate to the game-heavy nostalgia - I don't either, and I'm a year younger than Scott Pilgrim's director, Edgar Wright - but that doesn't prevent anyone enjoying sharp comedy, engaging performances and directorial flair.

"Do you "get" it, red-haired girl?"

I've never thought whether I 'get' a film or not. How does one 'get' a film anyway? There's been many films which have contained passages or sequences that I may have not fully understood, but whether I 'get' it or not doesn't enter into it. I've never really cared if someone else didn't think the same way I did about a film I liked. It's a pleasurable feeling if and/or when somebody does, but no big deal if not. It's, of course, all merely preference and taste anyway. Like. Dislike. Yes. No. (And occasionally Hmm and Maybe.) It's that, and all the tricky complexities of unravelling a film's particular resonances and mysteries contained within the liking or disliking of a film. There are a thousand undecided feelings hidden beneath those nos and yeses which a 'you don't get it' could never verbally illustrate. The proof's in the watching, anyhow; and if further proof is needed, well, that's in the glorious variety of responses on offer from critics and audiences alike.

The whole 'you don't get it' thing surrounding Scott Pilgrim certainly does lose all credibility and reason faced with the knowledge that Edgar Wright is 36 years old. Surely if someone 'got' Scott Pilgrim it's him. Other than that, I don't get it.