Review: Casting JonBenet (2017)

Similar in structure and purpose to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet presents the audience a pile of speculation regarding a mystery (in this case the murder of the titular child-pageant queen) to explore the nature of curiosity and psychological projection. Ascher’s approach abstracted his participants into conceptual objects, making them somewhat beyond judgement. Green, on the other hand, chooses to show her interview subjects, often speaking directly to the camera, and that lack of distance makes the condescension inherent in both projects unfortunately visible. It’s tough to watch Casting JonBenet and not feel like Green is begging us to laugh at these actors and their wild theories regarding the murder. In the early going, she edits the film for maximum comic impact and irony, which gives the eery impression that Green is exploiting her well-intentioned participants, rather than the murder itself, for our entertainment.

Fortunately, Green’s film gradually finds empathy for these people, ditching the sense of mockery for one of community. As the theories and personal projections pile up, the emotion takes centre stage. Perhaps this is part of Green’s point; that the human need for understanding is greater than any one foolish attempt. The last 10 minutes almost make up for the missteps, a startlingly powerful culmination of the film’s process, heartbreaking and intellectually satisfying in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s a bumpy road to get to that rather humanistic finale, and one I don’t feel entirely comfortable condoning.

Review: Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971)

Shot behind the scenes in high-contrast black and white film stock on the set of Jesus Franco’s Dracula film, Cuadecuc edits the filmmaking process – the funny faces, the tired Franco, the lights and the crew – into its own loose adaptation of the Stoker tale to haunting, provoking results. Director Pere Portabella mimics the look of a lost German silent film, making what could be an entirely humorous exercise – check out the crew spraying cobwebs onto Christopher Lee’s reclining body – into a disconcerting blurring of fiction and reality. Portabella reminds us of the power of storytelling by turning the process into the product, the performance into the truth.

When we are finally allowed sound for a brief moment at the end, it’s not someone calling “cut”, it’s Lee talking about what it means to become Dracula, his striking visage suddenly frightening in the low light – it’s almost as if he’s lying to us, a real vampire trying to convince us he’s an actor, not the other way around.

Review: Awakening of the Beast (1970)

I realised pretty early on that this wasn’t a Coffin Joe film of the nature I presumed, and that watching it prior to my viewings of the others was probably a bad idea. But I only had the DVD for another day, so I did some quick research and powered through. This may have been a mistake.

What I assumed would be a B-grade horror film actually turned out to be a masturbatory meta-commentary on the nature of transgression and also the power of Jose Mojica Marins’ artistry? Awakening of the Beast is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some strange shit.

The first 2/3 of the film present themselves as a bizarre TV program about an experiment involving four individuals who are injected with LSD and then enact a series of sexual perversions, with the film occasionally cutting to a board of people (including the scientist in charge of the experiments) commenting on the validity of the findings. Marins in there as well, and everyone, including himself, are confused as to why he’s present.

This section is mildly compelling and hypnotic, a gently surreal dive into sexual mores and desire, Bunuelian but more intent on shocking the audience. There’s no narrative as such, but there is a collective force blooming, even if its point seems nebulous. Gradually, however, we cut more and more to the panel, where Marins begins defending himself, and his Coffin Joe character, as an artistic statement, using mockumentary footage of an obscenity trial to justify his art. A strange thorough-line regarding Marins (and by extension, Coffin Joe’s) place in the public consciousness becomes visible.

That thread culminates in the final sections of the film, a breath-taking, full colour nightmare sequence that occurs when the test subjects are shown a Coffin Joe film. There’s no continuity or arcs here, just 30 minutes of hellish, hallucinogenic imagery. It’s wild and disturbing stuff, and, without spoiling anything, reveals the film as essentially a big jerking off by Marins, who claims to be exploring the necessity of transgression in a politically closed minded country, but is really just saying that he’s pretty fucking cool.

Having seen the first true Coffin Joe film by the time of this writing, I can agree that Marins is a talented, probably pretty cool motherfucker, but Awakening of the Beast is still ridiculously self-indulgent.

Review: Gerry (2002)

“Why don’t you make me a dirt mattress?”

A deadpan descent into emotional abstraction, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is about two dudes getting lost in a world in which they were probably already floating.

Though heavily inspired by the films of Bela Tarr, the closest cinematic cousin to this I can think of is Monte Hellman’s 1966 Western The Shooting, another film set in an en un-ending desert with dialogue that goes in absurdist circles. But where The Shooting is interested in the relationship between journeys and destinations, Gerry seems more concerned about what happens when you have neither. Though ostensibly beginning with a goal, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s titular protagonists are always doomed to wander a wasteland of psychological abstraction. Driving their beat up city slicker Mercedes out into the wild, they talk of finding “the thing” at the end of “the wilderness trail”. Five minutes in, and already someone has said “fuck the thing” and they’ve lost whatever vague guiding principles they had to start. Gerry ultimately becomes (if it can truly be said to be about anything) about the acceptance of fate, of time and circumstance long since towering above you. You have always been Gerry, ever since you Gerry’d the Gerry, Gerry.

Despite how heavy all of that sounds, and is, Gerry is fucking hilarious, a true successor to Becket’s knack for pulling a joke out of nothing but circles.

Review: A Dedicated Life (1994)

Kazuo Hara trades the confrontational style and provocation of his previous works for a gentler, more intimate approach to his subject, but his ability to give painful truths a remarkable palpability remains intact.

In his final (as of the last 20 or so years) documentary, Kazuo follows novelist Mitsuharu Inoue as Mitsuharu fights cancer and desperately attempts to hold onto and perpetuate his creative myth and power.

Kazuo is obsessed with obsession, and his portrait of Mitsuharu continues this trend. Faced with his mortality, Mitsuharu writes as much as he can, he teaches more, he talks more, he tries to regain some hold of what once was his literary power. We may be watching a dying man, one who we know probably will not live to the end of this film, but Mitsuharu refuses to let the audience see any semblance of exhaustion. Every time he is on camera, he is loud, witty, furious, charming – and always working.

As the film goes on (and it does go on, at 157 minutes my only criticism is that it could have been tightened up), Kazuo highlights this last aspect of Mitsuharu, the idea that he is always working, and has always been working for his entire life. Mitsuharu does not just live to work, his life is his work. Kazuo shows clips of Mitsuharu telling stories of his life, then immediatley cuts to an interview with a friend directly contradicting Mitsuharu’s story. Eventually, Kazuo films reenactments of Mitsuharu’s stories, Kazuo now telling stories of told stories.

Much like fellow author Yukio Mishima, Mitsuharu Inoue seemed to find purpose in becoming a man worthy of the myth he created. And, unlike Yukio, who eventually collapsed under the weight of his ambition, Kazuo’s film shows Mitsuharu as a man who’s obsession with crafting the story of his life ultimately made in him a man worthy of the tales he told. He was a womaniser, a scoundrel, a narcissist at times – but he was always kind, forgiving, funny, and generous, willing to become the change he wanted in the world, even if that meant lying a little bit.

It’s hard to watch a man die over the course of a film, but, much like Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, A Dedicated Life finds hope and beauty in these last rites.

Review: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

“Why are you applying rational thought to mythology?”

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is basically The Ring meets Close-Up. I’m not joking.

Joe Berlinger’s sequel acknowledges the unnecessary nature of its existence from the outset, and instead of doing another found-footage story of a witch in the woods, it becomes a meta-textual study of fandom, simulation, and what it means to find identity in art.

Book of Shadows begins with a group of caricatures going on a trip into the Blair Witch woods for various reasons. Each of these people represents a (surprisingly mean) aspect of the Blair Witch fandom – the academics, the goth, the offended Wiccan, and the consumerist merchandiser. They camp out at some ruins, then get fucked up on drugs, waking up to their camp destroyed and the expectant mother of the group having had a miscarriage. They re-group at their guide’s industrial home and start going through the tapes to try to understand what happened. As thus mystery unfolds, bodies start to pile up, and these characters begin to wonder if their obsession has driven them crazy, or a real malevolent force has possessed them.

So this is all about getting too invested into art, this hysteria that comes over these people as they get caught up in finding themselves in someone else’s work. Fiction and reality blur (the movie even opens with a statement saying – and I paraphrase – ‘this is a recreation of true events that happened after the release of the original movie’, which immediately brings up concepts of simulation and the nature of truth) and, eventually the movie becomes about itself. It’s a really interesting concept handled intelligently.

Now, having said all of that, this doesn’t really work well in the moment. It’s pretty goofy, features terrible performances, and is mostly devoid of tension. It also constantly mocks fans of the original, so I can understand how alienating it must have been when it came out.

But as an exploration of art and audience, Book of Shadows is an ambitious, weird little bastard, and I respect the hell out of Berlinger for trying to stuff all that into a cheapo horror sequel.

Review: Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

“Ohhhh, look honey, our boy’s a genius! He’s rigged a pulley system so he can eat sausage and work on his stupid drawings.”

or,

“Make your daddy proud.”

A studio paid to make this movie.

I decided to watch this after I saw that Nathan Rabin called it a “borderline Dadaist provocation,” but I had been putting it off because that analysis didn’t really seem possible, based on its reputation.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but he was right.

This film resolutely refuses to engage with the very foundations of jokes, plot, or character – except to deconstruct them and be as gross as possible. If this had come out now, in the age of ‘Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,’ part of me feels like it could welcomed into the cinematic landscape. The other part of me thinks that having such a godawful reputation is actually rather fitting for a giant “Fuck You” to common decency and storytelling.

This is a film in which a small child beating brutally injured is a running gag. This is a film in which Tom Green sprays his father with an ungodly amount of elephant semen. This is a film in which the love interest’s fetish is having her legs whacked with a bamboo rod. This is a film about all those things, and this is a film about believing in your dreams, no matter how objectively stupid they are.

This is a film about itself.