Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #3: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

What's the story? That with his Poe films Corman went from a one- to two-week shooting schedule and suddenly felt like an auteur? How true does that have to be for The Masque of the Red Death to hold our attention? Poe certainly inspired Corman to ease up a bit on his mad huckster's pace, to give Vincent Price the opportunity to re-invent himself as the first straight-faced camp actor, to drench the screen in color with House of Usher four years before Mario Bava saw the palette possibilities of Blood and Black Lace.

And mentioning Bava and The Masque of the Red Death in the same breath is fitting: Both Blood and Black Lace and Corman's picture were released in the same year, 1964, at the the cusp of a shift in American movies, a lurid path leading to Bonnie and Clyde and George Romero and the MPAA ratings. And both find enclosed worlds--couture for Bava, Prospero's multi-colored palace for Corman--to indulge their unsavory cravings in relative privacy. Most of all, the two films play at Ten Little Indians-style elimination rounds, relishing each new demise, snickering at the losers--maybe Masque more than Blood and Black Lace, thanks to Price's Prospero, who takes stage center, no mystery here as to whodunit, the culprit bowing and smug.

By the time the Red Death shows up, each bright and ugly room taking its turn, the last of the guests swept out of the way, Masque can moralize all it likes: It's already had its fun, and given us permission to giggle and grimace our way through the most flamboyant Halloween ball this side of Castro Street. Maybe it's that mustache, but Price certainly seems ready to play for whatever team will have him--until it's too late for games as the morality of melodrama catches up with him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #2: Pulse/Kairo (2001)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo/Pulse (2001) sustains the dim glories and subterranean uncertainties of the expressionist/noir vision. The movie is offhand in its exposition, incidentally plotted, like Caligari or Cat People, and demands that the viewer constantly strain to see exactly what is that in the frame's periphery, and why is it so scary? Like so many of its late '70s-early '80s American progenitors, Pulse features young friends in peril, and holds out thwarted hopes of rescue and safety, until the world itself grows indistinct and silent, while everyone recedes into a whispering gloom.

In his indispensable book, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (at least indispensable to me, reading it when I was twelve years old, ready to marry a monster from outer space, if only she'd have me), Carlos Clarens points out that narrative gestures may be perfunctory in the horror film, but one must forgive such lapses with a barely apologetic shrug. After all, as Clarens writes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's approach, "for the night creatures themselves, these films substituted our dread for them." So the last special effect is produced by the viewers, consuming indistinct objects but never completely understanding them, even as they are held in the hands and brought up to the face, as close as one's shadow, and in the deepening gloom indistinguishable from the self. Pulse eventually sees the whole world this way, a place without stories, just the open sea and the fog rolling in.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #1: I Bury the Living (1958)

There is a big man at the center of I Bury the Living: Richard Boone, with his beefy frame and heavy features reminding me of Victor Mature, but without a trace of vanity. Here, he's a small-city department store executive--part of a group that takes turns managing the local cemetery--but this civic quirkiness is nothing: the whole picture's odd, from Boone squeezed into a business suit to the giant map of the cemetery itself, dotted with little pins (white if the owner is alive, black when they die), most of the picture set in the dingy little shed with the map and a dying gray light. No wonder, reluctantly drawn to this duty, that Boone starts to believe that, if he puts a black pin on the plot of someone still alive, they die--and he believes this because they do.

It's a story as contrived as any Twilight Zone contraption; but the director (Albert Band, director, writer, producer of many B movies) forces it to work, laying down thick expressionistic bricks, a solid job that keeps us in that dingy room at the cemetery where the map hangs, large and pulsing, almost alive, the pins gigantic in closeup, spread out on a Salvador Dali plain--while the room itself shrinks, fills with fog and smoke and shadow, as though the 1920s had never left the screen.

And Boone handles himself well, wrestling some real panic out of his bulk, a big man undone by, as he puts it, a strange feeling he has carried with him all his life, that he is reliving things--or making them happen. The resolution is at first more Hardy Boys than Jung, but the sense of a ghost-world lingers, as Boone, his overcoat lost, wanders off, speaking softly: "I think I can find it myself."

I've adapted this from an entry in another of my blogs, The Constant Viewer.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Gleaners and I (2000)

My Sicilian grandmother spent all her adult life as a city-dweller, but she never forgot how to glean. She'd visit us in the New Jersey suburbs, staying at my aunt's house next door. We had an apple tree we never tended, so it produced fruit sporadically--and the apples themselves were puny, eventually dropping to make a sweet-sour mash under the tree by late autumn. But in September she'd wander into the yard, bending over and finding some fruit worthwhile enough--cut off the bad parts, scold away a worm or two. We could shake our heads at her all we'd like, but eventually we'd get little folded-over cookies with sweet apples in the middle--and she could never bake enough of them for her grown grandchildren.

The Gleaners and I is a documentary/personal essay by the New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose impish face is half-glimpsed a few times along the way, a field gnome watching Millet's after-harvest gleaners make their way toward us, past us, and into town, where dumpsters and markets wait. While the film sheds some light on the time-honored practice of picking through the leftovers, it becomes something else: a reflection on the cast-off and the junked, the physical pleasure of finding something good in the muck, the satisfaction of a free meal, and the pride in leaving nothing to waste.

And so gleaning becomes a metaphor, of course--for work, for the generous heart of true justice, for friendship and naturally for art/film itself, presented as collage/montage, the accidentally-on-purpose patterns formed by found objects, the sudden glimpse of oneself filming, at one point Varda's dangling lens cap another performer, a free-jazz dancer--and even her camera is an apt gleaning tool: a small camcorder, easy enough for anyone to use, easy as bending over and finding an apple worth eating and a heart-shaped potato.

Varda narrates with an assured combination of philosophical coolness and open-hearted glee, each profile punctuated by sly humor and genuine delight, her curiosity about the variations on gleaning insatiable--her little bowl haircut sliding across the frame as she watches us gleaning her gleaning the gleaners. Like much of the New Wave, this late entry is as much about movie-making as it is a movie--but Varda is an old pro rejuvenated by the little camera in her hand, and she plays like a talented child: Just watch/listen to her ruminations on her wrinkled hands, and those same hands playing a forced-perspective game with freeway trucks, grabbing them and squeezing as she passes each. The Gleaners and I takes the eco-idea of "sustainability" and makes it an everyday possibility--but one infused with French introspection and solid rural/urban know-how. We can all sustain, she tells us, as long as we learn to bend a little.