THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Review
Ti West's The House of the Devil finds its sweet spot in the paranoid shadow of misdirection, so it's best not to reveal much of the plot beyond what you'll know from watching the trailer: it's the 80s, and a sleepy college town is obsessed with an impending eclipse, and a young, pretty co-ed in desperate need of some quick cash takes a mysterious babysitting job in a big, secluded manse, for a creepy couple who don't actually have a kid. What actually happens after that is less important than what West's tease of what could happen. Duality is the order of the day: there are two houses that could potentially be devilish, two girls - serious brunette Sam (Jocelin Donahue) and the more playful blonde Megan (Greta Gerwig) -- at the mercy of two men (Tom Noonan and AJ Bowen), each of them with two evident personalities. The final punchline even sets up a new twosome whose story could easily fuel a sequel.
It would be easy to peg Devil as a superficial exercise in vintage pastiche -- the film non-ironically borrows the look and feel of the horror produced in the era in which it's set - but West's more impressive nod at classic horror is his mastery of misdirection. I was recently asked to make a list of my favorite horror films of all time, and it shouldn't be a surprise to readers of this blog that all five films I chose were made before 1980, and three of them before 1950. If horror films weren't actually better before gore and graphic violence were standard practices available to makers of mainstream scary films, a lot of the Code-restricted frighteners that have survived to become classics (cult or otherwise) are richer in subtext, more evocative of base human fears, and more effective politically and/or philosophically provocative. In other words, in the classic horror and sci-fi films that I love, there tends to be more than one thing going on: there's what we see, there's what we don't see but imagine or infer is also happening, and, as a product of the clash between the actual visible evidence and what our psyches produce as an extension or embroidery on what we see, there's what we leave believing it all really means.
This kind of multi-faceted address requires an active viewer, and is very different from the wink-wink, self-important pseudo social commentary that's been recently injected into the Saw franchise, which itself seems like a retread of what Eli Roth claimed as the driving force behind both Hostel movies. Both recent torture porn franchises are ideal for a jaded, passive audience: they delight in showing everything in gruesome, fetishistic detail (hence the 'porn'), while telling us that all the sadism is really about our real, contemporary anxieties. They don't trust the viewer to actually access those anxieties on their own. The House of the Devil is nothing if not a monumental feat of director-on-viewer trust. When I interviewed Ti West in April of 2009, he was upset that the production company that owned the rights to the film, his fourth feature, was screening Devil at the Tribeca Film Festival with four minutes gutted from its midsection against the director's wishes. The producers thought the director's cut of the film took too long to get to its bloody climax. 'It's called The House of the fucking Devil,' West sighed. 'It's gonna get there.' Now Magnolia is releasing The House of the Devil (in theaters on Friday, on VOD and Amazon already) with the four minute chunk reinstated, and it's hard to imagine anything coming along in the next two months that disabuses me of the notion that this is the best horror film of the year.
Devil does, still, get there, but much of the film's genius lies in West's comittment to setting the viewer's brain spinning through nearly unbearable anticipation. The House of the Devil takes the old-fashioned, low-budget horror trick of presenting the ordinary with just enough aural enhancement to send imaginations into overdrive. We become increasingly certain that something horrible is going to happen, but beyond a brief, brutal early taste West withholds actual horror over and over again. Eventually the viewer's paranoia becomes so tangled in the protagonist's paranoia that we - on the other side of the screen and ostensibly safe from danger - cease to know better than the people on screen. This is scary in a way that unrelenting brutality could never be.
West's third feature was a sequel (from 123movies) to Roth's Cabin Fever; after a series of conflicts and budget issues, he walked off the project last year. That movie has just recently screened in Austin and LA, in a form which West has vocally disowned. I haven't seen Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, but it seems clear that somehow this less-than-ideal experience helming a (relatively) big budget franchise film functioned as the missing link between West's 2007 SXSW premiere Trigger Man, and the more accomplished Devil. The latter film offers an advanced iteration of stylistic building blocks that were evident in the former: bravely long stretches in which dread mounts but ultimately 'nothing' happens, tied together with a control over atmosphere that shares DNA with the slow cinema of a festivalist's dreams, and all of it very suddenly resolving in a violent climax that's just graphic enough to work as visceral payoff for the long investment. West was right to be frustrated at the unnecessary, if temporary, truncating of his cut. It is a horror film - it is going to get there. The excruciatingly tight windup makes the release that much of a relief.
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story Review
The existence of Yousry Nasrallah's Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story within the contemporary Egyptian film industry mirrors the uneasiness of storytelling in a less-than-open state that's at its story's core. Both visually and politically provocative, the film has managed to triumph over controversy and censorship to become a huge critical and commercial hit in its home country. A triptych-within-a-story revealing women as the invisible victims of the Muslim world's pains of growing into modernity, the epic drama sometimes wears its muckraking intentions a little too plainly on its sleeve, but its fusion of campy/soapy pleasures into serious social satire is unforgettable. Scheherazade sets up Hebba's tenuous home and work balance, and then temporarily leaves the host's personal dramas behind, shifting attention to dramatizations of the stories three women present on Hebba's show. In a mental clinic, Hebba finds a middle-aged beauty who, in rejecting a powerful man who wanted to take away her car and give her a veil, let her own Last Chance At Love pass her by. In the home of a sickly female prison guard, she finds a homely ex-con whose torrid love quadrangle between her two sisters and their young worker resolved in murder. It's the story of a lady dentist who takes to the streets to protest the cabinet appointment of a man who betrayed her that really gets Hebba in trouble.
When we first see Hebba, she's running towards herself. She's fled her marriage bed in the middle of the night to watch tape of her own show from her living room treadmill, combining contemplation of the self in a moment of self-improvement. Her resistance to her husband's wishes subsequently seems less a question of journalistic integrity and more to do with Hebba's inability to contemplate a world that doesn't revolve around herself. If the thesis of the film is that the personal is never more political than in a society that tries to legislate against desire, Scheherazade gets there by forcing its protagonist to understand that her narcissism can actually change the world - as long as she's willing to reveal an image of herself that's as naked as the 'truth' she so ferociously drags out of other women. As the film shifts format to accommodate its embedded stories, it becomes evident that on the set of Hebba's show, the guest sits in front of a giant video projection of the host, and vice versa. We realize along with Hebba that she and the 'the oppressed women' she profiles are the same, but she's got to keep quiet about that until a crisis makes it impossible to ignore. In Scheherazade's amazing final scene, Hebba reveals the scars of her own struggle for modernity, live on air, and concludes, 'I guess no one's better than anyone else.' When the show cuts to commercial, her producer asks Hebba how she feels. With black eye and puffy lips, she smiles. 'Great!' This is what she wanted all along: to be the only one who can truly embody the hypocrisy of her world. It's a megalomaniac victory, and an enjoyably sick one.
Scheherazade's Arabian Nights-inspired structure almost necessarily bloats in the middle, and director Nasrallah sometimes goes further than he needs to in his fuck-you to Egyptian standards of acceptable good taste (oppressed woman rock bottom is embodied in the second graphic abortion scene I've seen in an international art film this year; point me to a third and I'll namecheck you in my trend piece.) For all its flaws, Scheherazade spectacularly calls to mind Pedro Almodovar's early-to-mid career balls-out modern woman's films, and as both entertainment and statement, easily trumps anything the Spanish director has made in a decade. If nothing else, Scheherazade inspires a kind of 'I can't believe this is happening, but I think I love it' awe, revealing how desperately self-serving Pedro and Penelope's collaborations have become.
THE SHOCK DOCTRINE Review
Since first premiering at Berlinale in February, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's The Shock Doctrine has itself absorbed a couple of major shocks. In the intervening months, the film has been recut (or, as Whitecross put it when introducing Shock in Abu Dhabi this week, 'finished') for fine tuning and to add material about the global financial crisis. Shortly before this altered version of the film premiered on UK television in September, the author of the book that inspired the film, Naomi Klein, made headlines by disassociating herself from the project. Because there was not mutual agreement between staff she told The Independent, she chose not to narrate the film or accept credit as its writer. The paper spun this as a falling out between the writer and the filmmakers; Klein then published a statement on her website softening the impression of conflict, saying that the she and Winterbottom find an agreement! Whatever the production circumstances might have been, the adaptation lacks Klein's gift for untangling relatively complicated webs of social, political and economic history with graceful persuasion.
Klein's theory begin with the economic philosophy of University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman, which postulated that governments could take advantage of disasters to increase their power and decrease the freedoms of the governed, because 'only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.' The film meticulously (if too briskly) outlines how notions of Friedman and his disciples (called the Chicago School) were exported - with full knowledge and help of the US government, and the implicit support of the Nobel foundation -- to places like Chile, Russia and, um, England, resulting in disastrous dissolutions of governments, near-total hijacking of democratic freedoms, and economies fueled by fear. Moving quickly from one Chicago School application to the next, Shock really only slows down for long sequences of incredible archival footage of the urban warfare in which this socio-economic 'shock therapy' inevitably results.
After the MEIFF screening on Sunday, Whitecross elaborated on the split between the directors and the author. Acknowledging that Klein had wanted to produce a work of investigative journalism, covering new ground and shooting loads of fresh material while Whitecross and Winterbottom were more interested in 'translating' her analysis of recent world history by plumbing media archives, he insisted that Klein was 'involved all the way to the end,' up to and including the portion of the film about the financial crisis produced after Shock's premiere at Berlinale. The film doesn't feel disingenuous to Klein's ideas, but it does seem like it could make better use of her. She appears on screen in two modes: b-roll shows her scribbling notes 'on the ground' at disaster zones from Baghdad to New Orleans, while documentation of Klein's various panel appearances and lectures serve as the most concrete, precise delivery systems for her actual talking points. The entire argument really only comes into crystal clear focus fairly late in the film, via a lecture clip in which Klein appeals to the audience's 'feelings' about 9/11 and the ensuing expansion of government - something we can all understand, that swiftly and simply allies the viewer on an emotional level to the Chileans and Russians previously screwed over by the work of the Chicago School. This single moment renders most of Kieran O'Brien's barking narration superfluous.
Throwing out the show-don't-tell rule, Whitecross and Winterbottom show, tell, show again and then yell. While images of Thatcher supporting her 'friend' Pinochet as he's arrested for murder in Britain go miles further in suggesting her guilt than the long section of the film equating her crimes (union breaking, the sale of public-owned industries) with his (mass murder, torture, kidnapping, censorship...) The Shock Doctrine suffers from the same problem that weighed down Whitecross and Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (which remains the more elegant, focused, fascinating film): their material is so powerful that the filmmakers could essentially just thread it together and their polemical argument would state itself, but they weaken their case by beating us over the head with 'evidence' that their chosen villains - particularly Friedman, Thatcher and every American Republican politician of the past 40 years, but there is also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bashing of the Clinton administration for supporting Yeltsin - are not just politically questionable, but unquestionably evil. If much of the footage here could beautifully speak for itself, a few frames of Donald Rumsfeld apparently smirking in front of the still-burning 9/11 Pentagon crash site just pushes the argument into the realm of cartoon.
As a work of anti-fascist propaganda, The Shock Doctrine might have felt refreshing several years ago, when audiences starved for angry media were forced to make do with Michael Moore. But at this point, how many more airless, humorless indictments of British and American political wrongdoings do we need to see from members of the villains' own voting republics? The question that The Shock Doctrine and all similar films seem to revolve around is, 'How could this happen in our democracy?' The weak answer usually offered is 'Because the idiots who don't watch films like this voted for the wrong people.' The Shock Doctrine, almost accidentally, reveals this as the false solution that it is. There's a clip towards the end of the film of Obama's election night acceptance speech, which he began by looking directly into the camera and saying, 'Hello, Chicago.' By showing this as Barack Obama's first public words as the President elect, the implication is that this is the guy who will finally break from the pattern set up by the Chicago School, this is the guy who finally look at real bad guys dead in the face and destroy their dominance. If only he had shown such strength in real life!
Clowns to the left, jokers to the right. Flattening popularly elected leaders into smarmy supervillians while essentially picking a hero at random, The Shock Doctrine offers evidence that liberal polemics have devolved into a cycle of caricature that's indistinguishable in form from the media produced by the opposite side.