Saturday 30 January 2010

Revolver (1993), Jonas Odell

(Part of Animation Month)

They look like robots. They look like us or maybe we look like them. We see them doing their domestic chores, hard at work, at funerals and at weddings, deep in the process of dying and living.

Odell, famous too for his music videos and the mixing of live action with animation, loops these scenes of a few seconds long for around one minute each. In so doing his film marches unsteadily forward as if with the whirring clanking steps of its subjects. Maddening fairground music is punctuated with exaggerated sound - the flapping of a fish in a puddle, groans and abrupt exclamations. It's a spinning carousel you want to get off of. Trapped in a system, trapped within your roles, trapped within yourself. It's disturbing.

Whether this was Odell's aim or not the motifs and sensations of man as machine, of struggles inner and outer and of teeth-grinding inertia bring to mind East European anti-Communist art. Take Jiri Trnka's incisive Hand (1965) as just one example.

The structure of the film lends a slow, painful movement and the manic smiles (as well as the grimaces) seem to say: "If it's this bad, all you can do is smile". Yes, what's really painful to the touch are the shards of black humour piercing through the painted masks.

Dystopic in tone and drowsily delirious, Revolver gets under your skin and develops into an itch you can't scratch. In eight short minutes, that's not bad.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

(Part of Animation Month)

Recent works by Pixar and Dreamworks are credited with revitalising family entertainment. The consensus is that they provide something for Mum and Dad and something for the kids. In my experience, though, parents and children are watching parallel films. Gentle innuendo and hip cinemat
ic in-jokes fly over the children's heads and pander only to the childish, and not the childlike, in adults.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the first film by Sony Pictures Animation, welcomes all on the same terms, pitched perfectly to challenge children to rise to its wit and tempt their parents to wallow in old-fashioned 'what do you want in your sandwiches', 'pack your pyjamas' adventure. This is Fantastic Voyage, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Hansel and Gretel rolled into one. Most importantly we feel like we've been somewhere. We've been on a journey. It is clever, funny and fun and a shared family experience in more than just name.

It has its drawbacks, however. The film tends to follow the path of least dramatic resistance in its story threads of approval, acceptance and love. Things are followed through right to the limits of the logical, conventional conclusion. All are redeemed and reunited and a charming friendship can only turn to love. It is not only that we know what will happen but that it is ladeled on too thick; albeit if you're surrounded by hills of ice cream it's hard to begrudge a little sugary sweetness.

These are issues that I have long had, and more entrenched, with Pixar. Part of it comes down to a patronising anti-intellectual attitude to an audience that needs to be beaten over the head with mawkishly sound-tracked lessons. Part of it comes down to the computer animation itself. The characters' hard plastic faces necessitate broad emotional strokes with subtlety an inevitable casualty.

Nevertheless these qualms can be no more than nitpicks in the case of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, to be soon buried under a mound of spaghetti bolognese.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a mouthful of gob-stoppers, a boxful of custard doughnuts, a big bright bananas shower of jelly babies.

This isn't A Grand Day Out where Wallace and Gromit want just a sliver cheese for their tea. This is out and out chaos and mighty appetising it is too despite the hints (and thankfully these hints never develop into anything more) at the dangers of greed. It is a vividly imagined foodscape, full of the details that betray a work conceived with love.* From time to time it may have been better served exercising a little moderation but when you're surrounded with all you can eat it's hard not to stuff your face.

*To be sure this is a film full of ideas big and small but I would like to have seen something about the world-changing nature of this water-into-food invention. Maybe, given Flint's heroes on his bedroom wall, it would have been apt to have a little less me me me crazy inventor and a little more of that idealistic man of science.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

The Animated World and Books

(Part of Animation Month)

Through the ages an animated image or creation has been equated to the illustrations in a book. To complete the passage from the flat representation of the other world to complete immersion within it is normally achieved through the camera melting into the world of the page or through the page transforming itself to make its presence felt in our world.

I have talked too about the vast number of animations that show the creator or the moment of creation. Is there an added artificiality and inherent alienness in animation that needs to be acknowledged and mitigated against by these 'before the curtain parts' interjections? Is it mere playfulness?

There are also many instances of the audience being beckoned further into the animation once we have already arrived such as the welcome afforded us by the oiseau of Paul Grimault's 1980 film Le Roi et L'Oiseau.

Below are a few examples taking us from the (relatively) early days right up to the here and now of books giving birth to animation. They are all three fine films:

Le Roman du Renard (1930), Ladislas Starewitch

A professorial monkey (with glasses of course) gives a roll-call of the characters of the story, revealed between the turning pages of the book.

Starewitch is best known for his insect animation The Cameraman's Revenge (1912). That film is more of a gimmick when compared to his greatest film The Mascot from 1933, a precursor in some respects to Pixar's Toy Story.

The Snow Queen (1957), Lev Atamanov

A little old man introduces us to the Hans Christian Andersen book.

Hayao Miyazaki cites The Snow Queen as one of his favourite animated films and a significant influence on his career. It has a naive beauty and a serenity of spirit also exhibited in Atamanov's lovely 1969 short Ballerina on a Boat.

Enchanted (2007), Kevin Lima

We are led into the animated section of the film through the pop-up design of a book. This is in part homage to the opening of Beauty and the Beast.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Whisper of the Heart (1995), Yoshifumi Kondo

(Part of Animation Month)

Whisper of the Heart is a story of love between two teenage schoolchildren, a girl who dreams of being a writer and a boy who longs to be a professional violin maker. Based on a manga series, it is Yoshifumi Kondo's only film. Before he died Kondo was seen as Studio Ghibli's heir apparent to the Miyazaki-Takahata crown.

When it comes to the depiction of young love in film, or indeed in reality,
we know the form. There are concerned parents who see the relationship as an obstacle to self-improvement and a distraction from exams. The teenagers are more often than not patronised - even, subtly, by the film-makers themselves - with the perception that their love is a phase, a hollow rite of passage, an emotional development they are neither ready for nor have true understanding of : 'You don't know what love is'. The couple are forced to build a cocoon around themselves to shut the world out. They are forced to display the signs of 'immaturity', i.e. headstrongness and selfishness, to hold on to what they have.

Whisper of the Heart is one of the most refreshing films you are ever likely to see because it rejects all convention to treat this love with the unswerving respect that it deserves.

Kondo and scriptwriter Hayao Miyazaki put no external
pressure on Shizuku and Seiji. Their parents don't even know. Far from acting as an obstacle the relationship flourishes as an inspiration and a spur to self-improvement. Shizuku is pushed to follow her dream when she sees the determination of her boyfriend to do the same. What is marvellous about the film is how it defines love as a strengthening of the heart and mind rather than the dissolving of individuality and clear thinking.

Because Seiji is so fearless in his pursuit of his future she too can overcome the fear and self-doubt of adolescence and discover that she can play an important role in life. She takes the old song 'Country Roads' and writes new lyrics for it, (renaming it 'Concrete Roads'!) seeing that the world can be as much hers as anyone's.

Their time together charmingly demonstrates how for them, even at a young age, love is as natural and true as hunger or thirst. If this is an impressionable age, the film implies, then love could be the perfect influence to mould their lives. The old man in the antique shop shows her a rock with a hidden crystal vein. He tells her that she is like the rock and that she can be polished into something that shines. Is this not what Ghibli routinely does, mine the everyday for hidden magic?

The hidden and the inner is key. Shizuku is led to Seiji when she discovers that he has been reading the same books that she has. In Jane Campion's Bright Star Fanny and John express their love through surrogates. In other words they honour what is close to the person they love when they cannot be physically close. John strokes Fanny's cat and sleeps in her old bed while Fanny kisses his letters and looks after his ailing brother. So it is in Whisper of the Heart that Shizuku falls for Seiji through these books - his love for what she loves.

The film is not carried away with their feelings. It is calm and relaxed. One could almost say detached. Note how often the protagonists stand atop a school roof or a hill to overlook the city to consider their lives and their place in the wider community. Pillow shots of traffic or running water or the sustained shot of her skirt rippling against the wind speak of contentment, tranquility and contemplation. Thus the oft-criticised marriage proposal that concludes the film makes perfect sense. The commitment has been there all along and we could not be more certain that this isn't a starry-eyed, 'you're so pretty!' crush.

Nothing is out of place. Not one edit, not one angle or choice of music jars. It is not a perfect film, no, but it leaves you with a feeling of wholeness that is close to perfection. We are living in an era where animation is being used to bring to life wondrous and rapturous stories of how things are as well as how they might be. This is not animation that shows itself or its maker off. It is not self-regarding. In my opinion Whisper of the Heart is yet more evidence that the grand storytellers of Studio Ghibli are the greatest exponents of the animated media that we have ever seen.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Destino (2003) and Computer Animation

(Part of Animation Month)

Conceived by Walt Disney and surrealist Salvador Dali in 1945 as part of proposed portmanteau film Fantasia 2006, this short was at long last completed only three years shy of that space-age date.
Whatever the input of Disney artists and director Dominique Monfery, Destino is typically and uniquely Dali. In the desert a young woman walks towards what could be a statue or a mausoleum. This is where Chronos, the personification of time, lives. Quickly she falls for him and he falls for her.

The contrast between them is magnetic. She is sinuous and warm, a sultry Spanish lady, and he is angular and hewn from cold stone. He is durable while she is flighty and metamorphosises into new forms, melting into shadows or sprouting a seed-like head. However, the union is impossible. Oddly, we feel that what keeps them apart is one thing that links them, which is time. Time is both fleeting, like her, and steadfastly eternal like him. This heady cocktail of distant romance, of coldness and warmth and irretrievable time took me back to the train journey in Wong Kar Wai's 2046 (which was made afterwards of course), took me back to Faye Wong's android and that elusive...

They dance around each other unable to touch. The balletic ritual is equal parts wistful and blissful. Achingly he grasps a white heart-shaped sheet to his chest (see photo, bottom) and it briefly takes her form. Destino is dripping with sexual imagery of entrances and cavernous holes (and telephones too, objects Dali believed had strong sexual connotations) but its eroticism is well tempered with the innocence of a pur
e and simple infatuation - the fresh breeze on a baking hot day.

Destino was inspired by a Mexican song of the same name. The music is perhaps too melancholic and too melodramatic while the images, which are strong and idiosyncratic, don't quite cohere. Like in love, though, the two go better together. They make sense of each other, of the baseballs and the eyeballs, and the film is lavishly hypnotic and rather seductive because of it.

What doesn't go is Destino's mixture of hand-drawn and computer animation. The layers don't match. Computer animation has a different weight, a different texture and fluidity. The two elements are oil and water. In hand-drawn animation the artist's hand may add, subconsciously, little details and meanings that we can pick up on subconsciously. In computer animation the image is divorced from the hand by a mouse or by the screen and the result feels baseless and soulless. It repels visually and emotionally like Teflon.

I confess that I am not sure why computer animation is being increasingly introduced into hand-drawn films. The artist may consider it a worthwhile aid or a complement but I suspect that, in most cases, it is used as a shortcut or for its novelty or ready availability. Good recent animations, like Korean film Sky Blue or Howl's Moving Castle, scupper sequences with computer-aided inserts that would have been rendered more appropriately and more successfully in the traditional way. Think of the introductory underwater jaunt in Ponyo and it is hard to think of what can't be done hand-drawn. I'm not writing off the marriage as doomed but I would be tempted to shout "Don't cross the streams!".

Destino earns its place in the story of animation if only because it's a one-time chance to see Dali's paintings move.
It's not a great film but it makes you come back to it and once you begin it is hard to resist its advances.

Monday 18 January 2010

Alice (1988), Jan Svankmajer

(Part of Animation Month)

I've never really liked Alice in Wonderland. I think I thought it all a bit silly and not at all wonderful. We're meant to be seduced by its creepy otherness but, even as a child, Lewis Carroll's fantasy world never seemed more than just a bit odd. Now Jan Svankmajer's Alice, now that's odd.

The caterpillar is a sock with false teeth and big bulbous glass eyes and the white rabbit snacks on sawdust (after all, you are what you eat). This world is different and populated with creatures and spaces and possessed implements dirty and strange. There's a hint of menace in the filthy walls, the crawling slabs of meat, the general carnival grotesquerie.

The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that Alice doesn't seem menaced. She doesn't look sufficiently gob-smacked or scared by what she sees. She always has a measure of control. She herself frames her adventures within a story. "Now you will see a film," she begins. She voices each of the characters herself. Time and again we see her lips in close up mouthing "said the white rabbit" or some such. Her struggles are a narration first and a true participation second. What is Wonderland without her?

She goes down the rabbit hole (here it's a particularly capacious drawer) more willingly still than in the book, even magicking herself into a pre-rabbit hole waiting room where the stuffed rabbit makes his appearance smashing his way out of a display case.

The King and Queen of hearts are flat cards, the Mad Hatter a puppet (a puppet of a puppet, of course) and the March Hare a wind-up toy. They lack agency of their own. Whatever the sly metaphorical and philosophical points one could make about Svankmajer's artistic choices the simple fact remains that the tea party has the stilted energy of a museum piece.

Alice has too much life for this Wonderland. This realm is not a crucible for the growth of a pubertal girl into full maturity in the way the bath-house was in Spirited Away. Sometimes she is too big or too small physically (to show that she is in-between, neither girl nor woman) but do we ever see her as too big or too small emotionally? There are intimations of a subterranean fear - the horrible plaster chrysalis she breaks out of, or the skeletons that speak of death or the death of something - but, all in all, she takes things in her stride. She is creator, storyteller and, more than need be, heroine as bystander.

The figures of menace and wonder quickly become ludicrous. They are neither terrifying nor magical. Svankmajer pulls a multitude of jerky and unconvincing mechanical tricks out of the box. It is a tantrum of manic inventiveness that only sporadically amounts to a story that you can get your (false) teeth into.

I'm afraid I still don't like Alice in Wonderland

Saturday 16 January 2010

Cutout Classics

(Part of Animation Month)

(1922), Lotte Reiniger

Battle of Kerzhenets (1971), Ivan Ivanov Vano, Yuri Norstein

Yuri Norstein was once asked why he shuns computers or technological aids in the creation of his animated work. He responded only by placing the tip of a finger on his forehead and drawing a line down his arm to his hand. A direct link, unmediated. If ever one is asked about the effect of these two short films it might be best to draw a line with a finger from the eyes to the heart. This is art of the highest order and, in the employment of animation, only Hayao Miyazaki can rival their mastery.

It is not about how difficult something is to do or how painstaking the process. There is limited praise one can bestow on endeavour per se or on the integrity of someone's unwavering dedication to their vision. These cutout animations instantly dispel thoughts of how they came to be because they transcend their origins - their medium, their historical and cultural roots.

In terms of the text Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella is a version like any other. In all other respects it is unique. The opening title refers to it as "a fairy film in shadow show". This is a delightful welcome to a fabulous film, the swooning product perhaps of her "extraordinarily happy" childhood during which she became obsessed with Chinese puppet theatre.

To tell her story she uses silhouetted figures with
varying shades of grey and white paper for depth. The characters move both daintily and deliberately as though underwater or subject to a whole different gravity. Their poses communicate deep wells of feeling coiled within - yearning, fear and barely contained passion. Finally the effect is one of a dream of the story, aggregated from all the echoes of the past lives Cinderella has led ever since she was born on the page. This Cinderella reminds us that animation is a type of impressionism, touching more sensitively upon emotional realities than physical ones.

Cinderella begins rather unsettlingly with the silhouetted hand of the creator cutting Cinderella herself out of a piece of paper. This instant of creation, with the open acknowledgement of artifice and the presence of the puppeteer, is a mark of much animation. In Winsor McCay's Little Nemo (1911) the artist draws the characters on a board to prove to mocking onlookers that he can make them move while Karel Zeman's superb Inspirace has the artist peering into a drop of water to gain inspiration.

Furthermore, Cinderella functions like a set of Russian dolls. One of the ugly sisters grabs a pair of scissors to cut her foot down to size to fit the glass slipper. Drawings can draw drawings and cutouts can cut themselves out. This self-referential frivolity finds a hilarious conclusion when the other ugly sister is torn in two with rage at Cinderella's happy ending.

Battle of Kerzhenets is no less striking. Using Russian Othordox frescoes and icons from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Ivanov-Vano and Norstein magic up a brilliantly vibrant re-enactment of an historical battle to the epic strains of Rimsky-Korsakoff. The screen is set ablaze.

The icons are glowing and golden, sombre and rejoicing. They perfectly complement this wordless tale of hope, of death and rebirth, their bowed demeanours speaking volumes of obedience and muscular faith.
The two co-directors use sheets of glass and move painted or cutout figures across and between the planes. To see such fine traditional art articulated and transposed into a new dimension is a revelation.

For me this short is better than the more celebrated Hedgehog in the Fog or Tale of Tales. Maybe it is because of its panoramic 'Russian-ness'. Maybe it is in the grandeur of its attire, both angelic in azure and white and stained red with blood. Or perhaps it is in the shocking and quasi-sacrilegious implications of the flattest and most untouchable of art - the icon - stepping out into life.

The swinging of a cot, the planing of wood, the flick of a heel out of a shoe - these simple things come to provoke not only awe but the simplest of pleasures that everyone should be able to enjoy. These films are not merely to be hidden away in art-house theatres, or allowed to gather cobwebs in the dingy corners of obscure cinema history. They are for young and old and for all time.

Friday 15 January 2010

La Joie de Vivre (1934), Hector Hoppin and Anthony Gross

(Part of Animation Month)

They, every inch the good time gals, bounce and sway with fresh white smiles. He, top to toe the dapper chap, pursues them. Oh no, it's not like that at all. He just wants to give them back one of their shoes. La Joie de Vivre is a frolic, a race to the next adventure, a bike chase, a chaste romancing of life itself.

Over these nine minutes (that seem to take up the space of only a couple) you get the impression that the girls don't want to be caught if only because that would mean the end of the fun. When he does catch up with them it is on
their terms. Eventually they just flow and fall into each other's company.

Until then, they hide behind bushes, in bushes or become bushes, their skirts morphing into voluminous voluptuous petals. It is as if the girls are at one with the world. They are able to manipulate it at will and Hoppin and Gross more than once have them play with the illusion of 3D in 2D space. They even float about a power station, zapped by lightning and captured in a flash.

La Joie de Vivre has an alluring Deco style with crisp and smart blacks, greys and whites. Despite the flamboyant imagination of this marvellous short film it is never too much. That is to say, it's controlled. Too much animation (hand-drawn shorts especially) is drunk on the possibilities of this malleable form, and indulges in the empty transformation of colours and shapes*. These can be incontinent show-reels of uninhibited experimentation. They abuse the medium because they have nothing to say, only to show - show what can be done.

La Joie de Vivre is a flight of fancy and a well-dressed confection but it also makes us feel it and perhaps makes us want to dance, like them, for joy.

*Exceptions include the transformation of a city by sunrise in pinscreen animation Le Nez by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker or the story of evolution in A Short History by Ion Popescu-Gopo.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Story of a Street Corner (1962), Osamu Tezuka

(Part of animation month)

Given that animation is the creation of the illusion of movement or life from 'inanimate' material, is it any wonder that so many animated films are about objects coming to life? Sometimes it is sculptures, sometimes paintings or toys. In Story of a Street Corner it is posters on a wall.

Tezuka has a ball breathing his spirit into their simple yet timelessly stylish designs. In one advert a man splashes water onto his face only to wash it clean off and in another a classic Toulouse Lautrec scene turns raucous. It is all ever so charming, not least the budding romance between a violinist and a pretty pianist that passes ghostlike through the prisons of their paper frames.

Above street level another story is unfolding. A young girl has dropped her blue toy bear out of her bedroom window and it lays out of reach in the gutter. Every night she looks down mournfully and throws down a piece of cheese for it to eat, a piece of cheese which is surreptitiously spirited away by a mouse that lives nearby.

In this tale the bear is the only thing that is not alive. Even the tree on the street corner strains its boughs to scatter its seeds. Then suddenly, the mood changes. The naive delicacy that tiptoed across the cobbles turns sour. A soldier appears (we see only his boots) and row upon row of propaganda posters are pasted over the wall. Soon the bombs will fall. Soon a place that was filled with life overflowing is reduced to rubble, to dust. The violinist and the pianist peel and float free, dancing together on the wind, finally catching fire together amidst the smoke.

The end of this forty minute film sees the girl reunited with her bear. Her house has fallen down and her town is a ruin. This sombre coda recalls Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, in which a young boy struggles to survive in bombed out Berlin. So much of Japanese animation, even now, addresses the war or, more specifically, the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has left an indelible scar on the national psyche.

Tezuka manages to illustrate the sense of everything turning to nothing. He doesn't dwell on the destructive visceral impact of the war as Barefoot Gen (a manga adapted into films) did nor wallow in the sentimentality of suffering that occasionally afflicted Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies.

Osamu Tezuka is considered the father of modern anime. His work is still being adapted and referenced now, over twenty years after his death (in 2001 his manga Metropolis was made into an impressive film by Rintaro). It is easy to see why he is so revered. Playful and intelligent, he matches style to substance.

Tuesday 12 January 2010


Looking around the film blogs that I have come to frequent to quench my thirst for films I haven't heard of or points of view I haven't considered, I have noticed how little discussion there is of animated films. The usual suspects are there, for sure - the new generation of computer animation in America, the continued flourishing of anime in Japan - and a sprinkling of headline acts from beyond like Persepolis or Belleville Rendezvous. I wanted to dig a little deeper.

There is a wide variety of media that fall under the umbrella of animation and many ways life or the illusion of life is given to paint, puppets, paper and so on. Over the last couple of months I have used various lists compiled by experts as a jumping off point and then let my curiosity get the better of me, pulling my strings, making my eyes flash this way and that. I will not attempt a final definition of animation. This is something that animators themselves cannot agree on. I went with the general subconscious consensus and my gut feeling.

By no means do I think I have seen enough to know all there is out there worth knowing (for me) but that goes for any film and for any list. Nevertheless, I do not feel comfortable compiling a straightforward countdown when I am still in the early stages of exploration - on the first 30 pages of a Jules Verne novel. If there are no numbers I won't feel bad if I discover I've left something out. The films that will make up this month's reviews and essays - from shorts to feature length - are the ones that made the biggest impact on me and I hope I can communicate those feelings to the people who have steered me towards so many wonderful films through their lucid and entertaining writing.


Wednesday 6 January 2010

Lady in the Water (2006), M Night Shyamalan

A self-flagellating eco fable, a patronising puddle, a grey soppy mush about how everybody is special and all the rainbow colours of the world can come together and save mankind from its violent and cruel ways.

Lady in the Water
could have been awful. All the ingredients are there (the quirkiness, the didacticism, the new age philosophies) but the film's brilliance is in its glorious triumph over cynicism. Throughout I had my hands clasped together and my eyes hungrily fixed on the screen.

A water nymph (called a narf) appears in the swimming pool of an apartment complex one night. The nymphs are said to be sent to help man change his selfish behaviour. Supervisor and handyman Cleveland and the other residents of The Cove discover that they have to keep her safe from the wolf-like Scrunts and help her get back home.

The nymph is called Story. The people of The Cove guard their (life) stories jealously. Cleveland and the hermitic and taciturn Mr. Leeds hide tragic loss from those around them. On multiple occasions characters whisper "Don't tell..." after having let slip some secret. They are insular and insecure about themselves. They are keen to create, adapt and strengthen their stories as suits of armour.

What is uplifting about Lady in the Water is how, by helping Story gain her happy ending, the residents gain contented acceptance of their own stories - their foibles, their troubles, everything that makes them them. Before they were hiding and separate and now they have opened up.

The character of the critic is instrumental. He sees stories, and indeed the world, as crudely logical, predictable and governed by strict rules. He is a cynic. Lady in the Water, on the other hand, feeds on magic and the idea that everyone is unique. The future is not rigid and we can make our own destiny. These may sound like trite truisms but Lady in the Water revitalises ostensibly naive sentiments with its vigour and candour.

Lady in the Water feels as if it is made up as it goes along.
That is how it is meant to feel. It comes from a bedtime story. Bedtime stories jump into the long grass and scuttle off in unexpected directions. They are full of little 'buts':

"Oh no Daddy, they're going to eat her!"

"Ah...but you see...there were three strange creatures called the Tartutic..."

The mood of the piece is pleasant and transporting. It flowers.

Yes, I found it funny and moving and exciting. Lady in the Water is a story for children that makes you think and feel like a child - freer and less neurotic about what lessons we are being taught. And if it is a bedtime story, what better way to drift off to sleep than on the back of a giant soaring bird?

Impressionistic image from inside the swimming pool as the Great Eatlon arrives

Monday 4 January 2010

The Exorcist (1973) and horror before the Horror

When I think of The Exorcist I don't think of levitation, blasphemous profanity or of projectile vomit. I think of the horror before the horror: the turmoil of two priests, the anguish of a mother and the quiet vanishing of a young girl.

Regan and her mother
What scares the most is the not knowing. As Regan starts to act strangely a sickly worry and terror settles over the whole film. It is imbibed in its fabric.
As Regan begins to become distant from herself, she undergoes horrendous procedures that are painful for her to suffer and for us to watch.

There is no escape because we do not know what we are running from.* This is horror of the everyday.

However, when it becomes clear what we are dealing with (demonic possession), what may be required to save her (an exorcism) and to where the evil is confined, the horror looses its all-encompassing hold over us. Once the film gains a clear focus physically and geographically, spaces of calm and safety are created without. In other words, we can step outside the door.

The tremulous and desperate search for answers transforms into an overwrought and overlong battle between God and the Devil and the tension dissipates amidst a cacophony of effects.

Of course Regan is possessed, a scarred shell, but still we do not see enough of the girl we knew beneath all the make-up. During the exorcism itself the umbilical cord between her and us is severed. Muffled by all the shouting and the magnetic fury of a war of the soul is the humanity, the crises of family and faith that gave uncommon tenderness to this tale of salvation.

In fact the two most remarkable moments of the film bookend the exorcism. Before the ritual Father Merrin asks Regan's mother Chris what Regan's middle name is to which she responds "Theresa". To this he says "what a lovely name" with a heartbreaking solemnity and care, like a warm hand outstretched in the cold dark. The second, in the wake of the storm, is the instinctive kiss of thanks Regan gives to a priest when she sees his dog collar.

Finally we return to the people and the feelings that drew us in, after the ghost of tawdry spectacle had been laid to rest.


*This reminds me of The Descent, a film I did not know involved monsters, a film that was a masterpiece of the unfocused horror of claustrophobia and entrapment (spiced by the petty power struggles of the women involved) until the more overt and conventional horror genre elements took over.