Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Long live the new flesh” – The cinema of David Cronenberg, part one

In my mind, Cronenberg’s cinema is divided into three distinct phases, and each of them seem to deal with three different facets of human nature – the first, the early horror of films (1975-1986), deal with the body, the second phase (1988-2002), perhaps more subtle in their approach, deal with the mind, and the third phase (2005-present), feel more like traditional character studies, dealing with, if anything in particular, the soul, and the way it is corrupted.

Here, I’ll present some of the themes that tie together the early films, considering what it is they’re trying to present, and what it is that ties them all together.

Metamorphosis

Perhaps the most notable, physically and thematically, in the early Cronenberg films, is the idea of a metamorphosis, one thing (a typical human, in the case of the Cronenberg films), transforming into something that is many things, although human is never one of them.

There’s a less physical example in Shivers (1975), wherein a parasite causes people to become hypersexual, and contagious, essentially they become walking venereal diseases. This is simply the tip of the iceberg for Cronenberg and metamorphosis, with much more visceral and horrific examples cropping up in his 80’s movies, particularly Videodrome (1983) and  The Fly (1986), wherein the leads of the films transform into creatures that become less and less human as the film goes on, particularly with Jeff Goldblum in the latter of the two films.


Jeff Goldblum in The Fly – before and after his metamorphosis.

In the fantastic documentary, An American Nightmare (2000), Cronenberg says that his characters are trying to “derail biology, and biology is of course destiny.” That’s what these characters are trying to do, they’re trying to break free from the constraints of a traditional life by breaking free from, I suppose a prison of normal human biology.

Now, while this isn’t a successful metamorphosis by any means (both Videodrome and The Fly end with the deaths of the lead characters), this theme of transcending, or at least attempting to transcend, basic humanity, is a running theme in early Cronenberg, and perhaps the one that is most explicitly linked to Cronenberg’s continued study of the human body, pushing it to, and indeed beyond, it’s limits.

Sexuality

Sexuality is a running theme throughout all of Cronenberg’s work, although in the early films it seems to be at its most explicit, and perhaps deviant. In Videodrome for instance, there’s a bizarre sequence that involves James Woods whipping a television.

Sexuality in early Cronenberg is almost always linked to the aforementioned metamorphosis of Cronenberg’s characters. Of course the obvious example is in Shivers, wherein the sexuality of the characters is directly linked to their metamorphosis.

But of course, there are elements where, instead of linking to the metamorphosis, it’s linked to the changes in the characters brought on by the metamorphosis – such as the strange sadomasochism that comes out of Max Renn (James Woods) in Videodrome.

These acts of deviant sexuality are often, much like the metamorphoses also present in the films, is focused on the explicit idea of transcending normality (while it doesn’t fit into the timeline of his early films, perhaps Cronenberg’s 19960 J. G. Ballard adaptation Crash fits into the early category for how it uses sexuality to examine characters). Perhaps not trying to derail destiny or biology or anything as extreme as that, Cronenberg’s early sexuality is instead an examination of the consequence of these changes.

Body horror

When you’re given a nickname like ‘The Baron of Blood,’ there’s got to be good reason for it, and in the case of David Cronenberg, there certainly is. His earliest films are remembered most vividly for their scenes of unconventional and visceral violence, from the iconic head-explosion scene in Scanners (1981) to the outcome of Max Renn’s hand transforming into a gun in Videodrome, unconventional bloodshed is perhaps the most oft-recognised of all of the tropes in Cronenberg’s early films.

Again, since this is body horror we’re talking about, it is of course, explicitly linked to the body, which is of course Cronenberg’s playground for his early films. And his body-related violence does, is exactly what all of his other tinkering with the human form and sexuality does – it is transgressive, it attacks convention with reckless abandon, transcending even the norms of horror film violence, with Cronenberg’s earliest films pre-dating both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The mind

Now, while Cronenberg doesn’t explicitly begin to focus on the working and bending of the mind until a later period in his filmmaking, the mind, scientific curiosity and intellectualism are a cornerstone of his early films, and these theme ties back to perhaps the main purpose of early Cronenberg films – transcending normality and reality.

The most explicit example of this is Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) in The Dead Zone (1983), who literally transcends typical constraints of the mind by seeing into the future. And of course, while The Dead Zone is the first, and only, of Cronenberg’s early films to explicitly focus on the mind, his other early films still use it as a building block of its other, more visceral and physical themes. In The Fly for instance, it is the scientific curiosity of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) that leads to his metamorphosis, and the unconventional psychotherapy in The Brood (1979) leads again to a physical and visceral explosion.

 

All in all, the early Cronenberg films are clearly the most visceral, and those that are most explicitly horror films. In using explicit violence and deviant sexuality, Cronenberg is attempting to, as he says “derail biology”, and, by extension, destiny. These films focus on the body, but not in the traditional sense, instead, he focuses on pushing the body to, and beyond it’s natural limits. Cronenberg places human biology under a microscope and pulls it to pieces, giving birth to, in the words of Videodrome’s Max Renn – the “new flesh.”

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Casting the Classics – ‘The Great Gatsby’

Since Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of The Great Gatsby premièred a little while ago at the Cannes Film Festival, now seems like a good time to post a dream cast for a film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of empty dreams, and lost love.

So, while this doesn’t cover the entire group of characters in the novel, it is a cast list for the ones who are perhaps at the core of the story.

Michael Fassbender as Tom Buchanan

Tom Buchanan is something of a base and vitriolic man, perhaps best known for his hard edge, both in terms of his physicality, and philosophy. After all, one of the first things he says in the book is “the whole world’s gone to Hell.” As the novel’s story progresses, Tom becomes more on edge and angry, and from the performances of Fassbender’s I’ve seen, they have a tendency to be a bit more reserved (his leading turns in both of Steve McQueen’s films – Hunger and Shame), so it would be very interesting to see some more outward and explosive acting from him. He definitely has it in him as an actor, and it’d be nice to see him doing some work that’s perhaps outside of his usual repertoire.

 

Jessica Chastain as Daisy Buchanan

Daisy might be my favourite character in the novel, and since I thought perhaps the best decision that was made in developing Luhrmann’s movie was casting Carey Mulligan as Daisy, which I consider to be pretty much perfect casting. However, I decided against picking actors from past adaptations, so I’ve had to cast someone else, and Jessica Chastain seemed like a great choice.

On the surface, Daisy always struck me as being very fragile, and I think Chastain can convey that well in terms of both her physicality and performance (there are a few scenes in Lawless that show this side of her acting really well), although what’s most interesting about her is how she changes around Gatsby, she seems to become full of life and hope (there is of course some irony to that considering the vapid hopelessness of their doomed romance). Perhaps selfish at heart, to me, Daisy seemed almost as enigmatic as the eponymous Gatsby, and Jessica Chastain seems like an actress who could bring an interesting a layered interpretation to the character.

 

Matt Damon as Nick Carraway 

I was racking my brain for quite a while in trying to find a Nick for this post, since given Nick is of course unseen in the novel, it can be difficult to cast someone to play him, there’s no real physical reference point to go from. And based on the character in the novel, Nick needs to have an intangible ‘everyman’ quality about himself, and for some reason, when trying to cast this role, I couldn’t quite shake Damon from the back of my mind.

Perhaps it’s more difficult to write about Nick than the other characters, since he feels more reactionary than the rest of them, but I feel like, since Damon has that ‘everman’ quality, and is of course an accomplished actor, he’s more than capable of dealing with the material that the novel gives him, and watching Nick reach his final disillusionment would be powerful when handled by Damon.

Jon Hamm as Jay Gatsby

Perhaps it’s odd to leave the casting of Gatsby until the end of the piece, especially given that he’s not the lead of the novel, but given his revelation is saved for the first couple of chapters of the novel, it seems fitting to wait until last to show who could play Gatsby.

Of course, we’ve all seen Jon Hamm play the enigma as Don Draper on Mad Men, and while his performance there is mostly quiet and understated (largely in fitting with the material in The Great Gatsby), there are some elements that stretch beyond that, and so seeing Jon Hamm out of what I suppose is his comfort zone in terms of acting, would certainly be interesting.

Of course in terms of intangible qualities, Hamm has all of those necessary for portraying Gatsby; he’s got charisma and screen presence in abundance. It’s just a matter of him dealing with the material, and he could do definitely do it.

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Five movies to salvage a bad day

I’ve just come back from a rehearsal for my first year production for one of my uni modules. It overran by about half an hour, and it’s safe to say that it was unproductive, and a bit of a disaster. So between that and needing to cram some final revision in for my exam (which is on Wednesday), it’s safe to say that today hasn’t been the best.

Fortunately, as I’m capable of doing with basically anything, there’s an answer for these woes in cinema, and there are many films that I watch that can put a slightly brighter slant onto bad moods, and bad days. So, if like me, you’re currently feeling a tad glum, take a couple of hours out to watch one of these movies, and hopefully you’ll be smiling broadly by the time the credits roll.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I was introduced to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by my mother, and the first time I watched it, I just adored it. The energy, the optimism, Matthew Broderick’s performance, of such charisma, and exuberance that you basically fall in love with him throughout the film.

Perhaps the best thing about Ferris… is that it shows, however ridiculously, between ‘save Ferris’ and the fantastic scene of Broderick singing on the float, that on a good day, a few people can accomplish an awful lot. It’s a film that never stops making me laugh and smile, and, no matter how many times I watch it, those final lines will always stick with me:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

Manhattan Murder Mystery

I could have picked a lot of Woody Allen films for this list. Something like Bananas or Midnight in Paris really wouldn’t go amiss here. But the thing that Manhattan Murder Mystery has that really appeals, is that it seems that, throughout the film, the cast are having the time of their lives.

It’s the first time Allen and Keaton have collaborated together since Manhatan almost fifteen years earlier. And this is one of their few on-screen romances that doesn’t end with them splitting up. Once the movie ends, they’re both full of energy and it seems, even happier to be together than they were at the beginning.

From it’s almost constantly moving camera to its downright genius set pieces, like using an audition for a fake play and a tape recorder to ensnare a killer, Manhattan Murder Mystery knows exactly what it’s doing, and as a result is a parody of, deconstruction of, and love letter to the crime and noir movies of yesteryear.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit. Now there’s an odd couple if ever I saw one. A bit like Manhattan Murder MysteryWho Framed Roger Rabbit? toys with, parodies and de-constructs noir and crime conventions, and it does so with reckless abandon and glee.

A fantastic blend of animation and live-action, the humour is madcap to say the least, with frantic verbal gags, and ludicrous physical comedy thanks to the animated elements, it’s humour that manages to keep a viewer on their toes, no matter how many times you see it. And besides, how can a movie that has the only collaboration between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in it fail to put a smile on your face?

Some Like It Hot

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon are a cross-dressing bromance for the ages here, and Marilyn Monroe gives a criminally underrated performance of charm, sexuality and depth.

Any film that’s about two musicians running from the mob in an all female band is likely to merit a smile from the viewer, but Some Like It Hot doesn’t stoop to exploiting that aspect for cheap or degrading laughs. What it manages to do is, in spite of its slightly wacky premise, is inject some genuine warmth into it. After all, who doesn’t recall those ending lines, “nobody’s perfect,” and not find themselves filled with joy?

Singin’ in the Rain

Every time I hear the title song of this classic musical, I will smile from ear to ear until it ends.

All of the films on this list have energy in abundance, but perhaps the one that does more than any other is Singin’ in the Rain. With it’s high-octane, downright brilliant choreography, it manages to inject some life into me even after days that make me want to rip my hair out. Gene Kelly is cool and charismatic with such ease you’re immediately drawn in. And across from him is Donald O’Connor as the.. Eccentric. shall we say, Cosmo. Between the uproariously funny ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, and taking the instruction “Cosmo, call me a cab,” a little too literally, it’s impossible not to be uplifted by Cosmo, or by the film as a whole.

Also, it has ‘The Broadway Melody,’ one of the best pieces of choreography I’ve ever seen, either on stage or celluloid, and on its own is tempting to me to get a BluRay copy. If I’m not uplifted by Singin’ in the Rain, then something is seriously wrong.

 

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Casting the Classics – ‘Miss Julie’

August Strindberg’s naturalistic cornerstone, Miss Julie, is a play with which I’m rather intimately familiar at this point. I’ve studied it for an exam (which, incidentally, I have on Wednesday), and I went to see a production of it over the summer with my brother.

And so, I think I can cast it rather well really, and without further ado, here’s my cast for a cinematic adaptation of Miss Julie:

Allison Janney as Christine.

Christine is an interesting character. Maternal and selfless, but only up to a point, and when John plans to do something that she is convinced is nothing short of foolish and doomed to fail, she’s more than willing to speak out against it.

Janney’s shown the maternal, and perhaps more vicious side in The Help, and The West Wing proved that she’s a damn fine actress. Her performances show that she can carry through the various facets of the character.

Between that and the presence she brings to the screen in whatever role she’s given, it’s easy to see her coming across as slightly domineering, especially when playing across from John, who becomes gradually more emasculated as the play goes on.

Michael C. Hall as John

When discussing the idea of Janney as Christine, I touched on the idea of presence, and the natural gravitas Janney would bring to the role. Stage presence (or screen presence in this case) is important in Miss Julie, and is most important for the character of John.

The thing with John, is that since he’s constantly warring with Julie, his presence fluctuates, certainly more than hers does. There are times when he practically devours the stage with his presence, and others where, emasculated and afraid, he sinks into the background. Hall can do those things. His gravitas and presence alone in Dexter is enough to make him frightening and powerful, and in Six Feet Under, his presence and self-worth move together, as he ebbs and flows to and from the centre of the screen, to a cowering shadow of a man.

John is a character of dualities. He has power over Julie because he is male (Strindberg being historically misogynistic), but is less than her because of his lower social class. He is at once arrogant and emasculated, angry and cowardly. Michael C. Hall has shown in both his screen and stage work (in Cabaret, the Emcee is gradually chipped away at, until he is essentially a ghost of the extroverted, confident and charismatic enigma that he is at the beginning of the show), that he can not only play these two sides of a character, but that he can switch between them, practically on a whim.

Marion Cotillard as Miss Julie

Julie is a tough role to cast, certainly a little tougher than the other two. She’s more difficult to interpret, less of solid entity to grasp, especially given that she’s outgrown the “man hating half woman” that Strindberg describes her as.

Julie is less of a dual character than John, but is more a character of contradictions. Upper class father and lower class mother, repressed and sexual at once (in some productions, she is a virgin before sleeping with John, in spite of her sexualised manner). Cotillard can do these things, she can play an seemingly unaware ingénue, a woman who’s reality slowly dawns on her, who is almost forced to come to terms with the reality of her situation.

With a somewhat fragile appearance, but a commanding gravitas in front of the camera, Cotillard can effectively embody the contradiction that is Julie, and watching her perform the role would no doubt lead to a fierce and fascinating interpretation of the iconic theatrical aristocrat who falls, almost tragically, from grace.

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Five movies that get better with each viewing

There are some movies that you can’t watch just once. Movies that are like  Sometimes, a second viewing of a movie, or of anything, can completely change your perspective or reaction to it (to use a cinematic example, I liked The Squid and the Whale much more on second viewing, and for a TV example, I loved Dexter once I’d watched the first season a second time), or perhaps, the more you watch a film, you notice more things about, little subtleties and nuances, other interpretations. And sometimes there are films that you fall head over heels in love with and never tire of watching again and again and again. Here are five of those movies for me, that, with each new watch, something new emerges.

5 – Pulp Fiction (1994)

Number of viewings: 4.

Yes, I’ve only seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction four times (to my recollection), and there’s really nothing I can add to the discussion of it that hasn’t already been said countless times over. I do adore it, it’s one of my all time favourite movies, even though I’ve seen it a fairly minimal numbers of times.

But the thing with Pulp Fiction, is I tend to watch it with rather large gaps between each viewing. The last time I saw it was this February (it was showing on the big screen, so I felt compelled to go). And because there are gaps between my viewings of Pulp Fiction, every time I watch it, I get to fall in love with it all over again. Every time I see it, I get to smile at those one liners, howl with laughter at the fate of poor old Marvin, and be utterly gripped by the trials, tribulations and lives of the kaleidoscopic cast of characters that make up it’s multi-threaded narrative. That’s the true joy of coming back to great things after long gaps, you get to rediscover their wonders anew, and if anything, it can make you love these things even more.

4 – American Psycho (2000)

Number of viewings: 6.

First off, American Psycho is perhaps my favourite book that I’ve ever read, so of course, I am enamoured of the film, of the slick wit of the screenplay, the way the film interprets Patrick Bateman, and Christian Bale’s faultless performance as the psychotic wall-street man who will hopefully be placed in cinematic history as one of the great villains.

And American Psycho, being adapted from a divisive book (by the divisive Bret Easton Ellis), has lots of people loving or hating it based on how it adapts the source. There are those that loathe it for being lighter and more comic, and those that love it for giving it the substance the book (which many have called ‘pornographic’ and ‘misogynistic’) lacked.

For me though, it’s none of those things. I just think it’s a damn fine adaptation, and of course there are sections you’ll have to cut, but the essence of the source is there. And every time I watch it, that essence, the core of Ellis’ source material seems to come more to forefront. Ellis’ themes of detachment and apathy and self loathing take a step closer to the spotlight (I even wrote an essay about it). And that’s what makes American Psycho joyous upon rewatches, by seemingly allowing both the cornerstones of Ellis’ material, and the unique, nuanced version of Patrick projected onto the screen, seem more pronounced, it manages the downright paradoxical, and becomes better as both an adaptation, and a piece of cinema in it’s own right.

3 – Persona (1966)

Number of viewings: 10.

There was a week during the summer of 2012, where every day, at about one in the afternoon, I’d eat lunch, and watch Bergman’s Persona. As the math dictates, I’d seen it 3 times before then. The second viewing won me over to it, the third placed it in the back of my mind, and those seven, across that one week in summer, convinced me that Persona was a masterpiece.

It’s now one of my ten favourite films. And that’s because it’s cerebral, unique, and the performances are absolutely stellar. Each time I watched it, I came away with some new thoughts about it; I looked at the opening montage in a different way, considered the fever dream final act from different contexts and points of view. Each time I watched Persona, I also gained a little more admiration for Liv Ullman’s almost wordless performance as Elisabeth Volger.

Now, I hadn’t seen much silent cinema at the time of watching Persona those seven times (I’ve seen a fair share now – studying it for a part of my intro to film module), but what those rewatches of Persona managed to do, was convince me of not only the validity of silent acting in the 21st century, but also just how good silent acting can be. Ullman’s performance is magnetic and layered and enigmatic, and each gesture is important.

Some things take time, and my appreciation, and now outright adoration of Persona, was one of those things.

2 – Eraserhead (1977)

Number of viewings: 12.

I. LoveEraserheadBut you all knew that already.

There’s not a great deal I can say about Eraserhead that I haven’t said already. Every time I watch it I am given a creative boost, and am always a little overwhelmed by it. It deals with a scattershot of themes and potential interpretations, but each of them is given several weight.

And every time I watch it, I think of another way to interpret it, another theme that plays a role in the bizarre, nightmarish world of Henry Spencer. Eraserhead is a recurring dream, every time it’s experienced, it is considered in a totally new light.

1 – Manhattan (1979)

Number of viewings: 20+.

“Chapter one: he adored New York City.”

And so begins Woody Allen’s masterpiece, a film it appears I’ve spent over a day watching. This spree of rewatchings began when I was looking for things to watch while I was tired so that I could fall asleep. And it dawned on me, whenever I put Manhattan on, I didn’t fall asleep.

Of course, Manhattan is exactly gripping in the way something like The Silence of the Lambs or Drive is, but it simply held my attention, and led me through New York, showing me people who were flawed, engaging, and relate-able. It’s a fairly minimalist film, all things considered; by no means a laugh out loud comedy like Allen’s early work, or a movie that is full-on dramatic like Husbands & Wives, it expertly treads a line between humour and pathos, gradually etching out the humanity of its cast.

I don’t quite know what to say about Manhattan; it makes me laugh, it moves me, it stirs me in a way that is almost intangible (from Ike asking “what makes life worth living?” to the crescendo of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ while he runs through the streets, something stirs in me, and I get chills). Yeah, I might have spent a day or so of my life watching a Woody Allen movie, but damn it, it’s a day well spent.

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