donderdag 29 mei 2014

21. How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010)

Some years ago I managed to see Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ in a dingy theater in Berlin, which would prove to be a life-defining experience. Waiting in a small hall-way before taking our seats, my eyes fell on a film-can just lying around in a corner, with the words Godard and ‘Atemlos’ scribbled on it. There was nobody else around, so with any nefarious intent I could have easily owned a (probably) German-dubbed version of ‘Breathless’. But the most memorable moment of it all was when I walked into the streets again after the film had ended, something that I can remember as if it were yesterday. It was as if the world of the film had leaped off the screen into my real life: even though it was more than 30 years later and on the other side of the world, very little had changed, as for days I had been living the same kind of seedy existence that ‘Taxi Driver’ captures so well in all its ambiguity. I had been frequenting some of the more dubious gay bars, having been fondled in toilets, engaging in a little too much in anonymous sex and basically living off drugs – something I’m not particularly proud of or anything, but which at that time did give me the profound feeling of being alive – even if it was in the gutter. And after seeing it so lovingly, if ambiguously, portrayed in the movie, I had hit me in places very few movies seemed able to do, making the usual distinction between film and reality increasingly blurred and obliterating the general objection that ‘it’s only a movie’. There are not that many films (or other works of art) that are able to, let’s say, merge with your immediate surroundings, but ‘How Do You Know’ certainly is one of them. Even though my life now is quite different from when I saw ‘Taxi Driver’, this latest James L. Brooks creation did evoke a similar feeling, something I noticed when, during the movie, I was seized by the sudden urge to open the curtains that had been drawn before. You see, because that way the city lights surrounding our eight-floor apartment could stream directly into view and start to mesh with the film we were watching, giving me yet again that indescribable feeling of being eternally grateful for just being alive.

But I’m getting ahead of myself really, because this would only be the fitting ending for what had turned out to be quite the remarkable day. It started out inconspicuously enough as a somewhat typical Monday morning; I had slept quite well, but Mondays always feel different, as the transition between weekend and work-week is usually not without some pain. Since I’m out of work right now, I didn’t particularly have to do anything, so after seeing my boyfriend off to his work, I looked outside and it was shaping up to be a beautiful early spring day; it was still cold, but the sun was shining and I felt the sudden need to go off on a long walk, which ended up taking over two hours. The walk itself was already pleasant enough, but somewhere along the way something magical happened. As I was listening to my ipod, the shuffle treated me to the second Litany from John Zorn’s ‘Six Litanies for Heliogabalus’, a piece of music that’s rather abrasive for such a quiet Monday morning. But I was deeply immersed in it: from Mike Patton’s screams and howls, to the angelic choir and the extensive organ solo – all of it was as hypnotic to me as the first time I heard it. But then IT happened, because the next song turned out to be a Dwight Yoakam tune. Those first gentle guitar sounds had me completely transfixed, as if they were the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. They’re not even that remarkable when taken by themselves, but with Yoakam’s sweet country pop coming right after Zorn’s extreme stuff, it was the collision that made it so memorable. Or maybe not even the collision, but the all-inclusiveness that was a personal watershed for me. Here’s the thing: I had listened to both Zorn’s music and Yoakam’s with the same intensity and pleasure over the years, but never on the very same moment, as they represented different periods in my life. So now it was as if these distinct periods suddenly merged.

Some explanation could be helpful here, I suppose. There are those who divide human personalities according to the four cardinal directions, with each of them defining some core aspects of one’s character. Seen this way, I could be defined as a West personality, since they are entirely comfortable with the dark aspects of their character. West people are those who are able to look deep inside their own souls, to descend into their own personal underworld and return from it with valuable knowledge about themselves. But as every direction has its own opposite, those opposite characteristics (animus or anima in Jungian terms) are usually the least developed within that person, and one of the chief ways of developing these opposite sides of oneself is spending a lot of time with someone from the opposite camp. And since the universe has been kind enough to hook me up with a boyfriend who is clearly East, our relationship automatically involves a deep two-way influence. East people are the daydreamers, connected not to the underworld of soul but to the upperworld of spirit. The knowledge West people can dredge up in the dark recesses of their psyche is invaluable, but without the light touch of East people like my boyfriend, we West persons tend to be much too heavy and serious. East people do possess the grace, sweetness and lightness that literally brighten up the world, but without the deep substance of the West, they often are often in danger of becoming too light-weighted. This basic difference in character trait between my boyfriend and me was perfectly illustrated by the kind of music we were listening to when we met each other: I had a very strong preference for heavy and demanding music, mostly experimental and usually without much melody, whereas my boyfriend definitely leaned towards sweet and ethereal sounds. Even if I wasn’t aware of these things when we first met, in hindsight it’s quite easy to see how his East personality started to change my West one and vice versa, which more or less meant that I started moving from the rather abstract and conceptual toward the concrete and personal. Up until that point, I had always consciously moved away from traditional song structures and had embraced every kind of music that was open and free (ranging from Free Improvisation to Modern classical and from noise to abstract techno), but now started to enjoy the simple songs of Country & Western, Rock ‘n Roll and German Schlager music – which was the definite East influence of my boyfriend. But as I was deeply immersing myself in this new and exciting musical area, I also noticed that my taste for the experimental and weird decreased accordingly, so you could say that John Zorn became Johnnie Ray. It’s not that I didn’t listen to the more demanding music anymore, because since it was still on my computer I would indeed hear it on a daily basis. I still liked it even, but the fiery passion that had always accompanied it seemed gone and moved over to Country music – until recently, that is. Because the very moment I started living in harmony with my own body by radically changing my eating habits, I started noticing a distinct change in my music appreciation. At first, I started hearing the more melodious jazz music in the old way again, something that caught me off guard since I hadn’t been able to recapture that feeling in years. My fears that this would somehow be a mere fluke soon proved groundless, as the feeling persisted over a period of a couple of months. And then something even more profound happened: after easing into the more demanding music again with a new-found passion for jazz, I was suddenly seized by the urge to embrace even the most a-tonal music again, the very music I had left behind me some seven years ago. And this is why my Monday morning encounter with John Zorn and Dwight Yoakam was such an epiphany: it marked the first clear sign of the synthesis between my West and East personalities, as it was the first time in my life I would be able to appreciate both demanding abstract music and sweet gentle sounds with the same kind of intensity at the very same time. Not in some abstract, conceptual idea that I can only understand intellectually, but through deeply felt experience. It may sound silly to some, but these two songs at that particular morning felt like a spiritual rebirth.

How fitting then, that a day that started out with such an amazing moment would also end on a similar note. Not only because ‘How Do You Know’ gave me that invaluable feeling of appreciation for being alive, but also because the whole movie was permeated with the same kind of East-West synthesis that I had felt so strongly that morning. Because Brooks displays an impressive combination of west and east, it’s deeply profound and swiftly sweet at the very same time. It’s combination of deep character study and breezy comedy makes it a hugely complex movie, all the while masquerading as a mainstream romcom. But for all the feelings of awe and inspiration the movie stirred in me, I found out afterwards this reaction wasn’t exactly common. I had zero knowledge about the film when I started watching it, except it was a James L. Brooks film, so I really had no idea its reception has been lukewarm at best. I was almost even more astonished by all the negative reactions to it, then I had been by the film itself, which made me realize once again how different I perceive the world to most people around me, and it was precisely this feeling that made me start this blog in the first place. What I had constantly experienced as a truly inspiring combination of Western profundity and Eastern lightness, most people apparently saw as a crucial flaw of mediocrity, with one reviewer even complaining it wasn’t dramatic enough to be a drama film and not funny enough to be a comedy. How different this kind of reaction was from my morning moment of pure experience, with all barriers between supposedly different kinds of music entirely vanishing! There I was, in a state of mind where I just treat everything around me for what it inherently is instead of into what category it can or should fit into, not realizing most people still cling to these unnecessary notions! Small wonder that my reaction would be so different from most.

Even though I’m obviously part of the society I’m living in, I’m at the same time quite a bit removed from it, which has the big advantage that it makes me naturally more perceptive to things most people take entirely for granted. For instance, I am often not entirely aware of how far technology has already advanced and what for most people has perhaps become natural, to me still often feels strange and alien even. Only yesterday for instance, I was innocently travelling on a train, when in the corner of my eye I noticed some strange flickering. I looked up and to my horror saw that somebody was actually watching a movie on some small screen in clear daylight in a crowded train. Deep down I knew this was already possible of course, as I even have had discussions with people about this phenomenon, but until now I had never really seen it and registering it with my own eyes send me into quite a shock – even though I was probably the only one on that train that this seemed strange to. The precise details as to why this filled me with terror are not so relevant now, but let it suffice to say that technology has pervaded the world even more than I am generally aware of, which is also clearly one of the themes running through ‘How Do You Know’. This is already announced in the very first scene when the baseball coach simply says the selected players of the new season will be posted ‘online’. No emphasis whatsoever is given to this, which makes it quite easy to miss probably, but it sent shivers of unease through my spine and alerted me to the fact this film would very probably be quite critical to the ways we are kept prisoners of technology and work. When this feeling was confirmed the moment the secretary has to bring her laptop in, I instantly knew we were dealing with a flat-out masterpiece here and this sequence also perfectly illustrates the brilliant synthesis of East and West I have been endowing the film with.

Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and the company lawyer are having some important conversation that will involve a crucial plot development, when the secretary is asked to come in ‘and to bring her laptop’. Yet again no real emphasis is given, but the highly pregnant woman is clearly seen struggling with her laptop in the background in a slightly slapstick sort of way that’s really funny to me. Because what could have been merely the stock moment of the secretary joining the meeting to take notes, has silently been transformed into something else entirely. The laptop is clearly the modern equivalent of the pencil and paper that secretaries have been using in films for decades and this is also the point, because even a highly pregnant woman like in this film, could easily have managed to hold a pencil and paper. But a laptop is quite a different matter: it may be a portable computer, but as the scene bears out, it is still not so portable for a pregnant woman as a simple pencil and paper would be. So by having her struggle with it, clasping it clumsily at her breast and at one point almost dropping it to the ground even, Brooks subtly but cleverly manages to turn such a simple moment into a comment on the impact technology has on our everyday lives, just as the ‘online’ comment in the first scene had already suggested. In other words, the moment definitely has deep social commentary, but does so in a way that’s not only funny but so subtle as to perhaps be invisible to modern audiences, who are used to having everything spelled out for them. There are several of these little pinpricks scattered throughout the movie, like when Owen Wilson claps his hands after sex and the lights go on, the bedside proposal scene that should be filmed but really isn’t and the expensive watch that Reese Witherspoon is given, that feels more like a chain, than a way to tell time.

All these little moments point to the way our lives are so drastically shaped by technology around us and that often only serves to confine us instead of the liberation it proposes. It’s not only technology that keeps us prisoners, but also work. Both Witherspoon and Rudd are thrown into an identity crisis because they have problems at work. Without work, no society could exist of course, but we have to ask ourselves why and how the work and the rules we have imposed on ourselves have started to close in on us so much, making us a slave instead of freeing us. The commercialization and dehumanization of too much work and businesses is clearly a target here for Brooks, as Witherspoon get’s axed from her team because she ‘is 3 seconds slower’, like she is some machine that can be judged solely on numbers. But the greatest comment on the absurdity of our self-imposed rules, is when the secretary goes to Rudd’s apartment with information that can be of help to him, but which she cannot convey to him because she had to sign an agreement swearing her to secrecy. It’s one of those poignant moments this film is littered with, speaking so forcefully with both sadness and humor as it demonstrates how stupid it is that the rules we ourselves have created only serve to separate instead of uniting us. We do progress on so many levels by finding cures for diseases and inventing all kinds of things, but are mostly blind to the fact most of these new technologies really cut us off, not only from the world but also from each other. How did we get to this point, where work and technology are so confining and stifling? Thankfully, there is sometimes light at the end of the tunnel, like when in my own personal life I met the mediator who would be facilitating the negotiations I would be having with the company that tried to fire me. When I first met the woman, I took an immediate liking to her (and I believe she to me) and when afterwards I got to talk to her, she said something that touched me deeply. Before she took up this job of mediation, she had been a lawyer she told me, but she had never been happy in that profession, because lawyers only look out for the interest of their clients and only exacerbate and solidify the conflicts instead of trying to resolve them. And as she had always been interested more in building bridges than winning cases, she had switched to mediation, where she would be able to focus on the common good. When I heard this, I felt a ray of light flashing through my soul.

This seems to be the solution Brooks proposes too in ‘How Do You Know’. Because if my previous description may have given the impression it’s one of those cynical pictures about the horrors of city life, please let me correct this now. It is certainly critical of everything I’ve just described, but doesn’t do so with ‘doom’ written all over it. On the contrary, it presents the city as quite an alluring place, full of wonder and amazement, with the cosmopolitan feel of neon lights and swank establishments lovingly captured by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It has that indefinable feeling of space, with the locations not merely there as backdrops, but coming to life as an almost breathing presence. There’s an achingly beautiful moment when Witherspoon is waiting by the bakery underneath Rudd’s apartment, because it  has such a marvelous feeling of space. You can almost feel the warm wind blowing through her hair, and in me it instantly evoked past feelings of warm summer nights, like you’ve stepped through the screen into another world. By conjuring up such a believable, almost textured, space, Brooks and Kaminski pay homage to the beauty of being alive itself. We may have managed ourselves into the most impossible situations with our idiotic rules and our blindness to the dehumanization of commerce and business and we even may be kept prisoners by our own technology, we are still surrounded by a certain magic that has so much allure in itself. We may make fools of ourselves on a daily basis, but these emotions are what keeps us human and vibrant. Brooks has always been a fine poet of human emotions, but here he seems to have outdone himself.

His writing is impeccable, capturing the variety of human beings and emotions within the space of two hours that really feels like only half its length. There’s a John Cassavetes-like unpredictability to the characters that makes them come truly alive, that surely moves beyond the traditional way film characters are presented. How he does it I don’t know, but Brooks always manages to coach the most heartfelt performances out of his actors and ‘How Do You Know’ is yet another milestone. I’ve always loved Reese Witherspoon, but here she’s nothing short than amazing, but so are all the other actors. Every moment feels like a redefinition of cinema, with powerful emotions coming through even the most seemingly innocuous scenes. Take the first moment when Witherspoon and Rudd have dinner together, for instance. Rudd is a total mess and Witherspoon also isn’t feeling too happy, and conversation is rather strained until she suggests they don’t speak during the entire meal. Even if nothing happens on a narrative level, that doesn’t make the scene empty. In fact, that nothing really ‘happens’ in this particular scene is just the point: it is a celebration of the very moment itself, of gratitude for being alive even when the two characters have reach a zenith in their lives. It’s a whole movie build on glances, looks, gestures and movements that don’t really ‘mean’ anything except conveying gratitude for our very existence. It is through these idiosyncratic little things that we find the courage to keep going, even in the face of so much adversity and our quirks are the essential corrective to so many of the dehumanizing aspects of society around us.

This feeling is perfectly captured in the before mentioned moment when the secretary just had her baby and the father proposes marriage at her bedside. He instructs Rudd to film the whole thing, thrusting a camera into his hand and proceeds to deliver one of the most moving speeches I’ve ever heard in any film. Make no mistake, this is no perfectly rehearsed soliloquy, but one fraught with errors, uncertainty and humanity. At length he talks about what a failure he is, how little financial prospects he has and always will have, and that this is the reason he never proposed to her before as he doesn’t want to weigh her down. Yet at the same time, he feels he is the only one who can truly appreciate her for who she is and he goes on to say he will treat her with the love and respect she deserves. It’s a gut-wrenching honest moment of two people who are both obviously far from beautiful or commercially successful, yet who in their imperfection are so beautifully human. But after the speech, Rudd discovers he didn’t catch any of it on tape. They proceed to do it all over again, but of course the magic and spontaneity of that first moment can never be captured again. Retracing steps is never possible, so the man now has to be coached from the sidelines instead of speaking from the heart, which takes all the real humanity out of it and it now feels ‘acted’ instead of ‘lived’. The scene as a whole then, feels like Brooks’ comment on the impossibility of recapturing the spontaneous magic of the first take when making a film, because actors tend to lose a little bit more with each subsequent take and his film is full of this kind of raw performances. It is also yet another comment on the way technology influences our lives and not always in the way we would want it to, as technology literally failed us here. But perhaps we should be much better off not trying to capture our entire lives with the aid of technology, as looking at a filmed recording of a moment can never truly replace the original feeling anyway, so just remembering such a defining moment is probably even better than trying to relive it by technology.

And as always, these extra layers of meaning are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film, they never call attention to themselves. It has emotions flying all over the place, it has humor and heartache, biting social commentary and a sweet gentle touch all at the same time. It also neatly camouflages the little fact Brooks uses the old screwball trick of having two secondary characters present as a reflection on his protagonists, so they (and we) can now see their own conflict in a different light. Because the film centers on the familiar love triangle, with Reese Witherspoon having to choose between either Paul Rudd or Owen Wilson. One reviewer of the movie went so far as to claim that the choice was not really a choice at all, as both alternatives were equally attractive, but I’m not sure what kind of universe he lives in. Because while it should be clear the Owen Wilson is sympathetic and even sweet in his own way, a good catch he really isn’t. Even though the film is too complex for broad generalizations, if you come down to it, what Wilson represents here is the exact kind of dehumanizing our society engages in too much. At the beginning he even explicitly talks about humans in purely economic terms, when he compares the dating process with an assembly line, something his entire apartment also testifies to. He may be able to give Witherspoon the world when it comes to luxury and possessions, he is also hopelessly immature and self-centered. The difference between the Wilson and Rudd characters is beautifully illustrated at the ending by the wrapping paper of their respective gifts. Because like Hitchcock working at the height of his powers when he made the hairstyle of Tippi Hedren the point of ‘Marnie’, so Brooks also makes the wrapping paper the point of his movie: that of Wilson is, like everything else, the best money can buy and it even has a ludicrously expensive watch inside of it. Rudd on the other hand gives her wrapping paper that may not be as classy and expensive, but which without a doubt is much more personal and idiosyncratic. 

But the difference here is not the usual one between one suitor who is rich and the other poor, as Brooks slyly made both of them rich. So, if money conveniently enough is of no real importance, what remains is the question of adventure: Rudd comes from a rich family, but he is also embroiled in a nasty lawsuit which made him lose everything and which forces him to choose between going to jail himself for a few years or send away his own father for life. Since this issue remains unresolved even at the end of the film, when Brooks has Witherspoon pick Rudd instead of Wilson, he has her explicitly choosing uncertainty instead of comfort. This is of course completely congruous with the rest of the film which so beautifully celebrates the little moments and the way too much certainty or comfort can also stifle us. Although making us aware of the problems of our society, Brooks doesn’t judge, but gently nudges us into being grateful for being alive. The resulting film is not at all the nondescript middle of the road comedy that quite a lot of people make it out to be, but an ultimate synthesis of Western darkness and Eastern light. Brooks shows the folly of the Human Condition without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. He is assured from start to finish without becoming rigid. The film doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere, nor is it supposed to, as it’s all about the process and not about the goal. It forces our goal-oriented society to focus on living inside the moment, savoring every instant – even, or especially, when you’ve hit rock-bottom. Like my moment with John Zorn and Dwight Yoakam when I could embrace both with the same intensity without caring for borders or differences, Brooks manages the same: to leave behind all those stupid categories of drama or comedy, to make a movie that’s pure human experience. 

Buy How Do You Know on Amazon

woensdag 14 mei 2014

20. The Mask (Julian Roffman, 1961)

Avant-garde musician John Zorn started out in the early eighties by advertising his concerts only after they had already taken place. In this way, he would make sure his name did get noticed without most people ever having to hear his actual music, which he realized was sure to put off a lot of people, because of its rather extreme nature. The history of art is of course filled with anecdotes like this and in the world before internet, where things weren’t available at the click of a mouse, films or music could be pretty well-known without hardly ever being seen. ‘The Mask’ is one of those, when a production still of it became the cover of a popular book called Incredibly Strange Films, which, as the title already indicates, contains reviews of films at the fringes of film culture. As with Zorn, quite a lot of people would probably get more fun out of it when just reading instead of actually seeing them, which would make it a little easier to accept a lot of these films are still quite hard to track down. But as with all things, there are always exceptions, like ‘The Mask’, which is a truly extraordinary little film that Warner Brothers really should release in a lavish blu-ray package – if there was to be any justice in this world. But as hell would probably sooner freeze over, we have to make do with the more than acceptable German DVD release. Which in any case easily blows the incredibly washed out Laserdisc or VHS sources, that for years were the only ways to see it, out of the water.

On the face of it, ‘The Mask’, with its use of 3-D, would be little more than a novelty at best, but when you look a little closer it reveals itself as the picture William Castle never made. Castle’s name will forever be synonymous as the man who brought a certain amount of showmanship to the genre, relying heavily on gimmicks and tricks instead of the usual emphasis on story and character. This is also his greatest weakness however; had he been more of a film maker and less of an entrepreneur, the quality of his films could have been much improved, as they are often quite lacking and usually border on boringness. In any case, despite Castle’s many efforts, Alfred Hitchcock probably did more to change the face of the horror genre in one fell swoop with his release of ‘Psycho’, the first picture in film history where patrons weren’t allowed into the theater once the picture had started. With this ploy, Hitchcock insured a more attentive audience that would have to sit through the entire picture, instead of walking in halfway and leaving early, as had been the custom all those years before. It’s of course no coincidence that this move toward a more immersive way of experiencing film was also already begun some years earlier with the introduction of the widescreen process. In a bid to compete with the free television that started to become a serious threat, the film industry realized they had to emphasize that which TV could never have, so they began playing up its immersive aspect: sitting in a darkened theater with huge screens and state of the art sound equipment could really suck you into a moving picture in a way that the tiny TV’s at home could never do, so it was only natural to emphasize that angle.

The main difference (I’m generalizing here, but you’ll get the point) between most older and contemporary pictures is the distance between the camera and the actors; Classical Hollywood mise-en-scene, with its unwritten rules of invisibility and restraint, favored a more contemplative distance that allowed the viewer a relaxed and critical attitude, something that began to change with the introduction of TV. As a result, some film directors, like Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller, began pioneering a more direct and dynamic visual style that relied much more on the physical aspect instead of just the emotional. With this, they brought the action closer to the viewer and encouraged a more immersive type of experience that has since then become even more demanding, with most pictures nowadays leaving hardly any room to breathe anymore. Although when done well this type of hyper-immersion film can yield incredible results, as ‘Transformers 3’ for instance has shown, the strong reliance on complete immersion all too often seems to be only there just to prevent viewers from being bored. This is why so many pictures from the fifties and sixties are so exciting, as they often combine the best of both worlds, as they manage to allow both contemplative distance and immersion at the same time. And a film that seems consciously designed to weave these two features into its very structure, must almost by default be a masterpiece.

Which brings us to ‘The Mask’, a film that makes you feel like you are witnessing the birth of modern horror. When talking about this, the focus usually lies on the gore aspect, so that a trailblazing film like ‘Blood Feast’ (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963) is often credited as the grandfather of the modern horror film. While this is undeniably true, it also ignores the visual aspect I just described which is just as important for the development of the genre, as since the eighties onwards the immersive facet of the experience has been an integral part of virtually every mainstream film, but horror especially. To get an idea of how truly exceptional ‘The Mask’ is, one could compare it to two flicks from the same period, Roger Vadim’s ‘Et mourir de plaisir’ and Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sunday’ – the latter’s original title of course translates as ‘The Mask of the Demon’ which ties it neatly to ‘The Mask’. Although both highly influential pictures with their own merits, their visual style is entirely classical, which means they both favor the contemplative distance instead of the immersion. This is not in any way a critique, as I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that this classical style is somehow inferior than the modern one, as they are only different. I merely want to point out how groundbreaking ‘The Mask’ is, as I would be hard pressed to come up with a title from the same period that feels as modern visually – perhaps ‘Touch of Evil’ comes to mind. While certainly not as flashy as Welles, Roffman manages to give his low-budget creation a kind of brooding intensity that almost never lets up. He immediately plunges us into the picture, with some nightmarish sequence where a woman is chased by a man. After this, we get the familiar scene where the man from the opening tries to make his psychiatrist believe the impossible, which he of course refuses. But even such a common, usually explanatory scene is done in a highly uncommon way, as the intensity of the chase sequence is carried over: the two actors happen to be dead ringers for Anthony Perkins and John Cassavetes, so imagine those two at their most neurotic and intense and you’ll have a pretty accurate idea of the acting here. But it’s not just that, as it’s also the visual style that feels suffocating and claustrophobic even: the lighting rivals John Alton in terms of darkness (one wonders if this is a print defect, which it could very well be, as it often seems a tad too dark, although this is unquestionably at least part of the intention); but what’s even more astonishing, especially for a picture of this period: there’s nary a long shot in the entire picture, as it’s all done in medium shot, close-ups or extreme close-ups. 

The resulting atmosphere of brooding intensity is like a coiled spring, which is very appropriate as it’s directly related to the pent-up emotions of our Perkins and Cassavetes lookalikes. The general feeling of uncomfortable intensity is only broken by the mask of the title, which serves as a release of those bottled emotions and functions as something of a direct link to the darkest recesses of their psyches. And this is where the gimmick kicks in, as these scenes are presented in 3-D, instead of the intensified 2-D of the rest of the picture. So it’s not just using the 3-D process as a gimmick, which William Castle would have done probably, as Roffman had the brilliant foresight to make the whole process an integral part of his picture. But since the 3-D sequences only venture further into even more horror and nightmares, what should have been a release now becomes even more suffocating. Which is to say, the 3-D effects actually work because by entering the mind of the protagonists and sharing his worst nightmares, the film clearly points the way to the future of total film immersion, in a way that can only be described as incredibly modern. It’s more than just a couple of things thrown at the camera (although thankfully there’s quite a lot of that too), as these three lengthy sequences feel as nothing so much as those amazing moments Ken Russell could conjure at the drop of a hat in the seventies (Russell of course didn’t even need 3-D for this, but that’s another story). 

The credit for the astonishing effectiveness of these 3-D moments should go to the legendary Slavko Vorkapich, one of those tragically unsung heroes of film history who pioneered the use of the montage sequence in Hollywood. His most famous work is probably ‘The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra’, an amazing short done in collaboration with the equally unsung Robert Florey and the brilliant cameraman Gregg Toland (‘Citizen Kane’). Although the culture of Hollywood is not always really friendly to such artistically-minded folk like Vorkapich, he did manage to stake out something of a career, while crafting elaborate montage sequences that often feel like little movies that could stand on their own. This is probably also their biggest problem however, as they often feel rather unconnected to the films they appear in. For instance, although his work for the Claude Rains vehicle ‘Crime Without Passion’ is achingly beautiful, it does appear somewhat tacked on, especially because the rest of the picture doesn’t really live up to the high standard set by Vorkapich. It’s somewhat ironic then, that after years of working with some of the biggest names in the Hollywood industry, it would take a low-budget enterprise like ‘The Mask’ to truly develop Vorkapich’ potential and integrate his sequences into the structure of the film. What his exact contributions were I’m not sure of, as he is only credited for the script of the 3-D sequences, although it is likely that would mean he has overseen everything in it. Whatever the case, they are a truly singular experience, with the set design, eerie electronic soundtrack, highly disturbing imagery and brilliant 3-D effects creating moments of utter immersion that for once do justice to the promise of the whole 3-D concept. But as they are a journey that delves even further into the nightmare world of the 2-D sequences, the release of pressure isn’t in any way liberating but only more oppressing, making the entirety of ‘The Mask’ one of nightmarish anguish without any room to breathe – which is highly unusual for a picture of this period.

The only moments where the oppressive atmosphere lets up, are those centered around the police investigator, which interestingly seem to have been cut out of the film originally. Virtually his entire character seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, even though those scenes have been restored for the DVD release, which are seemingly lost in English, as they are presented here in a German dub. But it’s much more than just a switch of language, as also the entire lighting scheme is different for these moments, with the darkened atmosphere suddenly making way for the kind of bland lighting that’s sometimes referred to as TV lighting. The result is quite similar to Bava’s ‘House of Exorcism’, where his original film ‘Lisa and the Devil’ is suddenly invaded by completely different looking scenes focusing on an exorcism, which were a later addition by its producer. What the history of ‘The Mask’ is and why those police sequences are only dubbed in German can at this point only be guessed at, but as it stands, it would make the film probably better without them, as they don’t really add anything to the story and only destroy the feeling of intensity of the other scenes. However, because they not only sound but even look much different, they almost start to function like the chorus in Greek tragedies, that reflect on the action presented and create the contemplative distance that brings some relief to the dark intensity of the rest of ‘The Mask’. Whether or not those moments add something or should be left out, is something that’s up to debate, but there can be no question ‘The Mask’ is a crucial missing link in the development of the horror genre and one that should be widely seen and enjoyed.   
Available on DVD from Filmclub Edition

woensdag 7 mei 2014

19. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Philosopher Roland Barthes once explained why Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ was such a shocking picture to watch when he wrote: “it’s bad to make De Sade real and wrong to make fascism unreal”. It’s still a concise description of that film’s uneasy power, due to its rather unsavory combination of elements. By translating the twisted fantasies of the Marquis De Sade from paper to celluloid, Pasolini made them more palpable and therefore real; yet, at the same time, by applying these grotesqueries to fascism, he also made the real horrors of that regime almost comic and with it committed one of the ultimate transgressions. The satirist point beyond all this should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, yet as Pasolini himself only too well experienced, the majority of the public simply wasn’t ready or able to look behind its surface. Quite a similar technique was employed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in most of his films, especially his American output. Where Pasolini went the explicit uneasy way by rubbing the feeling of queasiness into the viewer’s face and never offering any way out, Verhoeven did the opposite by ostensibly sugarcoating his similar uneasy message with the very escapist tools Hollywood cinema built its entertainment on: violence and sex. But by combining real, horrific violence with a burlesque comic book mentality, Verhoeven exposed the horrors of society and its media and proceeded to demolish the Hollywood system from within, until its tolerance reached the breaking point.

This point was arguably met when he made ‘Showgirls’, which is both probably Verhoeven’s masterpiece as well as his ultimate transgression and, like all bad boys who do wicked things, he was punished accordingly. Seen this way, ‘Showgirls’ is his ‘Salo’, but all that would still be some years into the future when he made his American debut with ‘RoboCop’. I may be one of the few perhaps, but I’ll have to admit here that even though I’ve always admired the film, I’ve also found it a difficult, almost nauseating films to watch – even as a little boy I remember feeling a bit depressed after seeing it. I can’t quite shake the feeling that despite its obvious qualities the balance of ‘RoboCop’ isn’t quite right, although watching an awful film like ‘Watchmen’ makes you realize how skilled Verhoeven’s balancing act even here already was. Still, I can’t seem to lose the idea that the film in the end lacks a real human core, which prevents the films from becoming a true masterpiece. It’s not the film doesn’t try, as it surely does, but with Nancy Allen seemingly categorically unable to project any feeling and also Peter Weller not quite an easy guy to like, these attempts are almost doomed from the start. Which leaves us only with all the hatred, nastiness and violence that even Verhoeven’s high-octane visual style can’t quite camouflage. 

All this begs the question of course, what exactly are the moral responsibilities of an artist? Does he have to imagine a way out of all this malaise, or is it enough to just show the problems itself? The answer to this would be highly dependent on one’s own moral make-up, and it is a conundrum that the profoundly humanistic critic Robin Wood has grappled with extensively. He has often admitted his outright hatred for the films of both David Cronenberg and David Lynch, for what he perceives as an utter disgust for humanity. Although deeply influenced by his writings, I’ve always parted ways with Wood on this point, as I deeply respect both directors and in some ways one is grateful Wood didn’t live long enough to see ‘Cosmopolis’, as I shudder to think how he would have perceived it. But even as I don’t agree, it’s interesting to look a little closer at his thinking; Wood once compared Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (1943), as both films share a similar tactic by exposing the dark underbelly lurking underneath the cheeriness of small-town America. Hitchcock has the seemingly benign uncle Joseph Cotton infiltrate his typical American family and by linking him closely to the eternally innocent Teresa Wright, Hitch rather shockingly suggests that she would also be capable of the same horrible actions as her uncle. And anyway, with her father and his friend Hume Cronyn only concerned with the most gruesome of murder plots, the horror beneath the facade is never far away. The famous opening of ‘Blue Velvet’ has Lynch setting up similar concerns of course, when the shot of the white picket fence and impossibly smiling town folk, is suddenly undercut when the camera dives underground to show the wriggling worms. Robin Wood’s argument is that Lynch, unlike Hitchcock, isn’t able to provide us with any alternative and is already satisfied by showing this combination of light and dark forces. Trapped between exaggerated sweetness and intolerable darkness, Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern have nowhere to go, which is what Woods sees as the crucial flaw of negativity in Lynch. Although his points are well-taken, it’s funny my own reaction to both ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ are almost the opposite to those of Wood: although I don’t dislike ‘Shadow’ and in fact quite like it, I still don’t really understand why Hitchcock himself would invariably cite this as his own favorite amongst his own films, as I am always put off somewhat by a certain coldness and almost callousness towards its characters. Lynch’s attitude has always seemed much warmer by contrast, as he does display the affection for his characters that Hitchcock seems to lack in ‘Shadow’. Lynch may not imagine any place to hide for MacLachlan and Dern, but to me that has always been the point, as they are hopelessly lost in the twilight zone between darkness and light, not fitting in either one of them as they are too pure for the darkness, yet too depraved for the light. And not fitting in either society’s upper- nor underworld they basically have to create a society for themselves, which is something that I personally can relate to very much and which seems more than Hitchcock is able to imagine for his protagonist Teresa Wright – whose only salvation is her loss of innocence.

Even though I disagree with Wood on both Lynch and Cronenberg, it would be all too easy to dismiss his entire position for this reason, as I recognize for instance that my own hatred for the films of Brian De Palma is rooted in objections that are very similar to Wood’s (who, ironically, seemed to like De Palma well enough). As this illustrates, it’s impossible (and of course quite unwelcome) to make some blanket statements about complicated matters like this, as every case has to be judged on its own terms. I’ve often wondered why my reaction to ‘RoboCop’ would be quite different as to some other Verhoeven films and the only answer I can come up with is the already mentioned idea of balance. Someone once described Verhoeven’s films as trying to survive in a world full of assholes, which is an accurate enough assessment, but it already points to the dangers this method involves. Even though he obviously doesn’t shy away from confrontational material, I do feel he usually tries to stress the positive, surviving aspects instead of all the nastiness surrounding them, which is I suppose where ‘RoboCop’ partially fails. Perhaps it misses the biting wit Gerard Soeteman provided for his Dutch films and the similar role Joe Eszterhas would play in his later American ones, as it was this ability to laugh that would not only lighten up the general mood of these pictures, but was indeed the very way these people could survive in the first place. These protagonists were decidedly human with all their foibles and mistakes, but it was also what made them warm and likeable and a similar core seems to be lacking in ‘RoboCop’, with only a cyborg and the robot-like Nancy Allen to root for. The net result is that instead of emphasizing the astonishing human ability to get through even the hardest of circumstances, Verhoeven ended up showing mostly only these deadening surroundings – with the humor relegated to the sidelines.

Verhoeven paints a picture of contemporary disguised as slightly futuristic America where there is nowhere to run and no place to hide. The extreme nastiness of city life should be obvious enough, but unfortunately the portrait of the supposedly happy family life in the suburbs that Weller was supposed to have had before he returned as robot, is also much too blasé to be believable. In a manner that surely recalls the late Douglas Sirk, Verhoeven uses the imagery of stereotypical small-town America to destroy its myth of homeliness by sheer exaggeration, to the point where even the name ‘Primrose Lane’ seems designed for maximum satiric impact. It’s of course his prerogative to do so, but by also undermining the safe haven where Weller should remember his human past, Verhoeven does exactly that what Robin Wood found so disgusting in ‘Blue Velvet’. On the surface it looks like the answer to the horrors of city life, as even the color schemes are clearly meant to convey this: Primrose Lane is the only moment in the entire film we see the soothing color green, in stark contrast to the rest of the film that’s all glass, steel, concrete and rust, with the depressing surroundings of its industrial ending being as far removed from the comfort of Primrose Lane as possible. But this comfort is clearly only an illusion, as it is already infiltrated by the violence and commerce of city life, as the whole housing accommodation is nothing but one giant commercial venture. Sirk used the idea of television to make one of his satiric points in ‘All That Heaven Allows’, where her estranged children force a TV on Jane Wyman and the director emphasized its alien presence by making a camera movement towards it, with Wyman’s face reflected ghostly in its screen to emphasize the divisive influence of TV on family life. Verhoeven similarly uses the TV as a destructive presence for family life, by having Weller’s kid watching violent TV shows that even have him trying to live up to the rather unrealistic expectations set up by media, as when he is seen twirling his gun like his son’s TV hero. 

This critique of how everyday media invades our homes and lives and grossly distorts our human reality is also reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of TV screens in the film. Of course, ‘RoboCop’ ain’t exactly the only film to make these points, as it is one of the chief philosophical arguments against modern society, one that was started by Marshall McLuhan back in the late fifties and is still going strong today. It was given provocative form by Jean Beaudrillard when he coined the term ‘hyper-realism’ by which he meant that the mediated world often feels more ‘real’ to us than the world outside and the distinction between reality and fantasy has become blurred. To give proof of his thesis, Beaudrillard could then claim the Gulf War had never taken place, by which he didn’t want to deny the horrors of it, but merely that the mediated image was inherently manipulated. The war did take place, but not in the one-sided and distorted way it was presented in the media, and since we can only know it through these media, our knowledge of it is necessarily false even though it doesn’t feel so. When Verhoeven moved to America, he seems to have taken these issues very much to heart, as it also markedly shifted his style: in Holland he used something that perhaps could be described as realistic exaggeration, as he would always lay it on thick while invariably staying within the boundaries of realism. But as the influence and control of media came to the forefront of his cinema, Verhoeven crossed over from exaggerated realism into Beaudrillard’s hyper-realism.

As always, the director himself is excruciatingly frank about all this, in the moment when RoboCop is surrounded by little children and the news cast says the children now meet something their parents only read about in comic books. In this way, RoboCop is explicitly presented as a comic book character come to (robotic) life, which presents a similar conflation of realism and fantasy as the hyper-realistic mediated environment. When he moved from sober Holland to wild America, Verhoeven continued the long tradition of European directors who started working in Hollywood and who were able to bring their outsider position to the American system. But in Verhoeven’s case it presented also the ultimate transgression, as he immediately started out to turn the Hollywood system against itself, as virtually all these films became critiques not only on American society but also its entertainment, which resulted in the ‘Salo’-like wedding of unholy elements. In ‘RoboCop’, right out of the gate, in his very first American scene, Verhoeven proved his point when the defense robot goes out of control and kills one of the staff members. But he is not only shot down, he is quite literally shot to pieces in what would become a trademark Verhoeven sequence. It would be easy to dismiss it as over the top, but that is obviously also its point: if people really want bloodshed and sex for their entertainment, Verhoeven is going to give it to them in spades. But by presenting violence in such an exaggeration fashion, it also becomes somewhat unreal, almost surrealistic. It’s one thing to see such violence as a drawing in a comic book, as it is quite easy to distance yourself from it as it doesn’t ‘look’ real. But presented so life-like in a film, it’s quite another thing as the distancing becomes highly problematic and it’s suddenly not so easy anymore. Verhoeven must have delighted in the quickly developing special effects departments that he had so much access to now, as they often almost become his protagonists. And it really doesn’t matter if they look ‘dated’ now, as the conflation of realism and fantasy would even be its point – it’s their status as mediated experience that gives them their power. 

Although this subtext of hyper-realism is clearly running through ‘RoboCop’, the filmmakers were even more concerned with the notion of control. Although control has always played a part in Verhoeven’s films, it became much more pronounced when he moved to America where it clearly became the structuring principle of all his movies. One could say that if his Dutch films are about “trying to survive in a world full of assholes”, in America it became “trying to survive in a world full of assholes being controlled by media”. Whether or not people control the media or they control us, has of course been the debate for decades now and can be summarized by its two poles: McLuhan’s technological determinism versus Raymond Williams’ social constructivism. Without going into that now, it should be clear that Verhoeven believes more in McLuhan’s notion, as he consistently paints a portrait of a society that’s strongly controlled by the same media it has created. In a way this would be quite logical, since our entire society has been built on control, something that ‘RoboCop’ pulls no punches in telling us, as it is an entire movie about control. There’s a small but significant moment when Miguel Ferrer is reaping the fruits of his new-found success of control, as he is now able to have sex with a couple of models. When he is busy with one of them, the other one immediately feels left out and is trying to capture his attention again by putting some cocaine between her tits for him to sniff. Even though her ploy works well enough, it also makes the other broad feel unwanted! So, what could have been a perhaps somewhat empty, but nevertheless fine physical experience is now entirely destroyed by egocentric control. How utterly disgusting and far-reaching this craving for control really is, is something I experienced firsthand not too long ago when I got fired from my job. Not because I didn’t do my work good enough, but because I had the nerve to think! It wasn’t enough for my boss that I did the things he asked, he also wanted to control how I thought about them, and when he noticed he couldn’t quite accomplish this, he became mad and fired me. That is to say, he wanted to, as there are laws in my country that prevent firing without good reason. But even when I entered into mediation conversations with the company, these representatives too were more or less annoyed they couldn’t quite control me and they even started using words like ‘respect’, even though nobody in the entire company had treated me with any respect in the first place. So the world of backstabbing, control and lack of respect in ‘RoboCop’ has really become commonplace.

If we were to try to discover when these notions of control and the resulting distorted relations between human beings began, we would have to go back millions of years. Because it already went wrong when our ancestors made the transition from hunter/gatherers to a sedimentary existence and the development of animal husbandry. The keeping of animals presented the first separation of humans from the natural world around them and started the ridiculous notion that earth’s resources are only there to be used by humans. But with it also came the concept of property and thus the notion of control: instead of a equal division between the hunting of the men and the gathering of the women, man began to dominate: first women and eventually other men as much as they could. And the frightening thing of course is that no one wants to acknowledge this; because when I looked at my boss who tried to abuse his authority in a desperate attempt to control my thoughts, I couldn’t really shake the image in my head that he was nothing but a caveman bent on petty control. Yet had I brought this up in the mediation, these people very probably would have looked at me as if I were stark raving mad (as it was they already came close). Most people have internalized these quite arbitrary power relations to such a degree they never really question them anymore and just assume that all this is somehow the natural way of life. But the idiocy of this can be gleaned from a story Chellis Glendinning recounts in her book ‘My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization’. In it, a Native American chief was taken to a large city for the first time and as they passed a bank with armed guards, the chief was kind of puzzled as to what it could possibly mean. Faced with the difficulty of explaining the concept of a bank to him, the guide simply said it was a place where the riches of the tribe’s leader are kept, an answer that made the chief laugh heartily. Because as he said, ‘he can’t be a very good leader when he needs so much protection”!

It’s one of those stories that has the ability to throw so much that we take for granted into serious question. We automatically assume that power and protection go together, like hand in glove,  because we are used to the idea that leadership is always based on control of others. But as so many indigenous have proven for millions of years and some of them still prove to this very day, if there is a hierarchy to be had, it needn’t necessarily be based on the wielding of power, but can be attained by the twin components of respect and responsibility. As I recently noticed, the bosses of my company really automatically assumed they should be treated with respect, just because they hold a superior position and get a bigger paycheck. It obviously never occurred to them that they confused respect with fear, because control by force of power can only result in fear and never in respect. Respect for a leader can only be earned when he can prove he is charismatic enough to be a leader who doesn’t desperately want to control others, but merely govern them – with their help and encouragement. It may sound almost grotesque to modern ears and is in sharp contrast to the picture of murdering savages that modern society likes to paint of so-called ‘primitive’ people, but criminality has virtually been non-existent within such cultures. It’s not there is no conflict, because obviously there will always be conflict as long as they are humans, but these conflicts are always resolved within the community itself and were based on mutual understanding and respect. Respect for others can only exist when first you have respect for yourself, which of course also means responsibility because having respect for yourself isn’t really as easy as it should be. People who deep down hate themselves will always take it out on others, even if they’re not conscious of their self-hatred.  

What ‘RoboCop’ excels in, is showing that all this control and lack of (self)respect will lead to extreme violence and cruelty. In a suffocating atmosphere that feels like a mesh-up of ‘Chopping Mall’ and ‘Head Office’, people are treated like product: RoboCop himself is categorized as such, and in the beginning a criminal is thrown out of the van when he’s outlived his usefulness. There is a lot of talk about a possible police strike, which some people suggest is impossible because “without police control this city is going to tear itself apart”. This may very well be quite realistic, but at the same time totally absurd, as the idea that a society needs to be protected against itself is really too frightening to truly contemplate. Again, everything is presented as a chain of control: citizens are controlled by police, police is controlled by the company, the members of the company are controlled by their superior until we come to the top executive who controls all, who, by having ulterior motives, corrupts the whole system (like it needed corrupting). In an attempt to make things easier (read: make more money), a machine is then introduced to replace human police agents, but as the opening makes so clear, these machines are not so easy to control. For reasons that are never fully explained, some combination of man and machine is then introduced, the RoboCop of the title, with probably the suggestion being that the easy controllability of humans can be combined with the effectiveness of the machine. This works like a charm of course, until, ironically, the machine starts remembering his human roots and the moment the man-machine goes out of control he is to be destroyed. 

Verhoeven himself has often pointed to the parallels between RoboCop and Jesus Christ, which shouldn’t be really surprising, as the director seems still obsessed with the making of a film about the real life of Jesus instead of the myths as handed down in the Bible. Besides this, the whole Jesus story is explicitly about control, as he’s usually described as a rebel, which is something that could explain Verhoeven’s fascination with the topic. Because although in his authorized biography he said he wanted to ‘go with the flow’ of Hollywood, this is the one thing he never seemed able to do (or want), as he’s always been something of a rebel who refused to compromise and who obviously delighted in exposing the flaws in American culture by sheer exaggeration. When I saw the restored version of ‘Spetters’ premiered, cast and crew were also present including Verhoeven himself, who recounted the familiar story of how he was considered by George Lucas to direct ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ from the ‘Star Wars’ saga. Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg had seen ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ and was much impressed by it, so suggested Verhoeven to Lucas but when they saw the rather abrasive ‘Spetters’ they apparently recoiled and as Verhoeven said with a big smile ‘I’m still waiting for that phone call”. It was a pattern that would repeat itself when he did go to Hollywood some time later, where he made few friends and many enemies, by virtue of his refusal to be controlled. What all this illustrates is how universal the notion of control really is and how it seeped into every aspect of our lives. Which is to say, that despite their extreme nature, all of Verhoeven’s American films are morality tales really, that expose the need to control that Western civilization is build upon and the havoc such structures wreaks upon others. So in this respect, I hope I may be forgiven to leave the last word to something completely different – but on the surface only. In the Shirley Temple film of ‘The Blue Bird’ (1940), which was the second film I saw after ‘RoboCop’, she asks why her father must go off to war, to which he answers:

“The same thing that makes trouble everywhere: greed, selfishness, those not content with what they have. You can’t be unhappy inside yourself, without making others unhappy too”.

Perhaps I should have shown it to my boss.

RoboCop (Unrated Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]


maandag 28 april 2014

18. Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)

I was one of those kids that always seemed to grow up a little too fast. As a result, I quickly outgrew the literature that was deemed acceptable for me and at a rather precocious age become totally fascinated with the books of Stephen King. So I used to make trips to our local library, until one of the employees there actually forbade me to take them out, as he was of the opinion I was too young to be reading such decidedly adult material. It was the first (it obviously wouldn't be the last) time I became aware of how, instead of fostering encouragement, most of our society instead wants to control everything and desperately tries to keep everyone in what they perceive to be their proper place. By clinging to such narrow and general notions instead of recognizing the unique place everyone takes in this world and treat people according to that, society also prohibits people from truly flowering – or at least does it try its damnedest to do so. Luckily my little tale had a happy ending, because after I ran home in tears to my mother, she came down to sort it out with the librarian, after which he never gave me any trouble anymore and I was free to develop myself in my own way and tempo. But you could say this whole episode marked the moment I came of age as I'll never forget the horror I felt at this petty attempt at control.

I don't think I ever read the Stephen King novella on which 'Stand By Me' was based, but I wouldn't have understood its deeper meanings anyway back then, probably feeling somewhat cheated as it didn't live up to my taste for horror and bloodshed. In fact, I very likely would have thought it a peculiar change of pace for a writer whose name, for me, was synonymous with the horror genre and I wouldn't really be surprised if this was still the general assumption held by most people. With the writer being a rather obvious substitute for King himself, the whole film does play with this idea even, as in the moment when young Gordie relates the story of Lardass to his pals. The fat kid complains he doesn't want to hear any of his horror stories, so the story told is one that is consciously announced as being something other than a horror story. Yet, as the tale develops, it becomes painfully clear it is one of the most horrific stories King has ever committed to paper (or to celluloid) and coming as it does at the very heart of the movie, it obviously serves as much more than just a story that's told. In a brilliant parody of the fifties it lays bare all the horror of society, and because it focuses on real horrors instead of merely fantastic creatures and such, one could argue it's far more terrifying than the stories King usually churns out. On the surface, the parable about the pie eating contest and the revenge of Lardass is all stereotypical fifties friendliness and cheer, all done in those pastel colors that are completely absent in the rest of the film. Yet, as soon becomes clear, all those smiling faces only hide all the pettiness, hypocrisy, oppressiveness and taste for revenge that society is really made of: the humiliation of Lardass (with even a woman who's just as obese screaming his awful nickname at the top of her lungs) is incredibly painful to watch, as is the revenge through excessive vomiting that ensues – with the whole scene being one of the most horrible moments in movie history. It's of course 'Carrie' all over again, only this time thinly veiled as low comedy.

The scene also illustrates the difference between myth and reality that runs through the entire movie as a structuring principle, with the mythical image of the fifties being ruthlessly punctured by its dysfunctional reality. This gap between myth and reality is specifically mentioned when the boys are chased by the supposedly dangerous dog Chopper, who turns out to be nothing more than just a regular watch dog and Gordie says it's the first time he became aware of the difference. But the theme also surfaces in the difference between surface appearance and what people really are underneath that surface and the ensuing difficulty of breaking loose from it. The kids are constantly referred to not by who they are, but in relation to their family or background. This gets its most poignant expression in the moment when Chris tells the story of his stealing the milk money from school for which he was blamed. The irony is of course, that he did steal the money, only later to regret it and try to give it back, but was more or less made a convenient scapegoat by the woman who accused him in the first place and who ended up with the money, while blaming Chris. So, when people accused him of being of thief (like Gordie's father who instantly brands Chris as one, without even knowing any of the facts), they were right and wrong at the same time and in essence Chris was being branded merely by his family background. As always people are only judging by appearance, probably because myths and surface are much easier to work with than reality, which has the rather annoying tendency to be much more complex.
Crucially, the episode of Lardass is also the only one in the entire movie that's concerned with the communal activities of adult Western society and as such it becomes highly significant. The trip of the four young boys through the wilderness obviously serves as something of a rite of passage, quite similar for instance to the tradition of the Walkabout of the Australian aboriginals, where a young adolescent is sent into the wilderness to mature on an emotional and spiritual level. There is one significant difference though: the Walkabout is always done alone, as it’s all about learning to fence for yourself without the help of others, so that later someone can be of more help to other people. The four boys of 'Stand By Me' are not alone of course, which would prohibit any form of true soul initiation, but that doesn't seem to be the purpose of the trip. What the journey of the boys on their own away from society is all about, then, is quite explicitly the bonding and building of the feeling of togetherness, and one that is not based on the competition and petty revenge of the adult society, but on mutual respect, love and friendship instead. Broadly speaking there are three generations presented in this picture: the young boys, their older brothers and the adults. As we have already seen, the adults openly participate in highly degrading activities like the pie eating contest in the Lardass story and the parents of the young boys who rule by oppression, which makes the entire generation built on violence and revenge. This holds also true of the older brothers, who are only seen engaging in criminal and violent acts, ranging from the trashing of mailboxes to even murder. The only one of the three generations that's exempt from true violence and oppression (there is some peer pressure, but that's still of the innocent and playful variety) is that of the young boys, with every older generation being progressively more violent and oppressive. This raises the rather subversive possibility that we are somehow doing quite alright, until the moment that society 'gets' us. In many ways this is impossible to deny, as every child is born from the Mysteries and therefore still has close ties to it, but that grow only weaker when we 'grow up'. One could compare it with a dream: when one awakens the dream is often still fresh and vivid, but this lasts only for a few moments as the dream imagery will quickly fade back where it came from. And what are dreams other than our direct contact with the spirit world, with those invisible forces that are all around us, whether we like it or not? Dreams are really only the memories of that mystical world that every child is born from and that modern Western society so emphatically tries to repress. They are our everyday reminder of the innocence that's still in every one of us, even though we are conditioned to neglect it.

The tagline of the film “For some, it's the last real taste of innocence, and the first real taste of life. But for everyone, it's the time that memories are made of”, clearly positions 'Stand By Me' as a coming of age drama, with the difference between myth and reality being reworked as the difference between the innocence of childhood and the responsibility of adults. This is in any case exactly how virtually all of Western civilization regards the process of growing up and seen through this lens, the entire movie might not be anything more than just a throwback to some idyllic childhood memories, right before the children have to ‘grow up’ and take their 'proper' place in society. But the film goes much deeper than that, as it strongly suggests that society is the biggest myth of them all. It's not so much the process of coming to age itself the movie so amazingly analyses, but what people are coming of age to. Growing up is a wonderful and wondrous thing, but only if there is something at the end of the rainbow to go to. And, as the parable of Lardass already made clear, the only thing that lies in store in the way our current society has been organized is taking part in degrading leisure activities like pie eating, with everybody cheering like idiots and concerned with getting even. Not a very enticing prospect to be sure.

According to Bill Plotkin, the main cause of the disarray modern society finds himself in, is that most people don't truly mature past the adolescent stage. Now since willful blindness is the modus operandi of our society, this idea tends to be vehemently denied by most, but it's hard to really argue against it, as the pie eating contest makes abundantly clear. As most people don't truly mature emotionally and spiritually (as described here in context of My Dinner With Andre), they are left with a certain psychological lack, and instead of trying to fill this hole themselves, they tend to use their children in a desperate attempt to make themselves more complete. The result of this is that the children are as much dependent on their parents (as is normal), as the parents in turn need their children to fill that gaping hole in themselves, as they never quite got around to fixing it. It's not that hard to see how this puts an unbearable strain on the development of these children, as parents don't give them the necessary freedom to flower according to the child's own configuration, but force them to behave and develop in certain ways that are first and foremost suited to fill the parents' psychological needs. With this, one has of course described the classical pattern of trauma, as trauma is always continued from one generation to the next. So, when a person has been emotionally neglected by his parents and has never fully addressed this problem, he or she will very likely perpetuate this pattern by also neglecting his or her children (or possibly doing the exact opposite and smother them with love, which can obviously lead to other but similar problems), who eventually will also do the same with their children. And this pattern will continue indefinitely, with each generation passing down the original trauma along the line.

This historical trauma that's unconsciously handed down from generation to generation is already mentioned at the very beginning of 'Stand By Me' when Gordie describes his friends: the already mentioned Chris has a father that's no good, so everyone, including himself, knows that Chris will end up the same way; Teddy's father turns out to be a World war II veteran who 'stormed the beach at Normandy' and has since become a 'loony'. The situation with Chris' father is never fully explained, although it very likely is 'just' a case of the kind of parental neglect I've just described. The war trauma Teddy's father suffers from has been instilled in his son too, as he is always seen wearing a dog tag and is obsessed with the army and war, even at the tender age of 12. So what we've got here are two different cases of trauma, one that could be considered personal (the bad father) and the other cultural (the war veteran) and society tends to distinguish between these two, treating them as if personal and cultural problems are somehow unrelated to each other. But to its enormous credit 'Stand By Me' strongly suggests they are, like everything else in this world, unconditionally connected. Whatever the cause the, trauma is trauma and it will inevitably affect both personal lives and society as whole, as even the more sensible upbringing of Gordie makes clear.

Because even though his family is not as evidently dysfunctional as those of Chris or Teddy, this is only true on the surface, as Gordie’s father illustrates. His allegiance seems to have been only with Gordie's older brother, the classic stereotype of the star quarterback whose qualities as a football player serve not so much for the son's own good, but more to fulfill the dreams of the father who more or less wants to live his own life through his son. Because the father clearly needs the son to fill in for his own psychological needs, he is also blinded by the little fact he also has another son, with his own needs and ambitions. So when the older brother tries to focus the attention of his parents to the writing of his little brother, this is rudely ignored by the father, who is only afraid it will ruin his concentration and therefore his chances in sports. Consequently, when the brother dies at a young age, the love for Gordie seemed to have died with it, as the father can't see him for who he really is, but only as someone who’s not his older brother. 'Stand By Me' ironically illustrates that modern Western society is structured in such a way it has inherited only the negative aspects of family or communal life, without any of its advantages: the young boys are constantly defined by other people only in relation to their background and are also dragged down by their dysfunctional families. Yet, there are none of the usual advantages that traditional earth-based indigenous cultures gain from living together, such as a true feeling of belonging, sharing and an encouragement towards true flowering based on one's particular strengths and weaknesses. This is of course why there's a crucial difference between the wilderness journey of the boys and similar indigenous traditions like the Australian Walkabout: the latter come from a true community and can also return to it, while their Western counterparts can only form a real sense of community by escaping society. It's a frightening situation where the process of growing up is not really growing up, but just growing older and where true adulthood is not measured in spiritual maturation but only by accepting more responsibility, doing one's 'duty' and taking the designated place in the system. 

With only highly dubious role models around them (the one difference is Gordie's older brother, the star quarterback, who is the only one outside their age bracket who is kind and supporting, which could either mean all is not lost in this world or could perhaps be seen as something like an idealization on the part of Gordie), it's up to the boys themselves to create their own viable alternative in close proximity to nature. There is the somewhat mysterious moment when Gordie has an encounter with a deer, something that's strongly emphasized without ever explaining its importance and which could be interpreted as flirting with the idea of strong feeling of interconnectedness with all living beings that close contact with nature usually encourages. Many believe the loneliness and disconnected way of life is a direct result of modern city life, and that by reconnecting with nature we can not only connect with ourselves again but also with our fellow human beings. Although this idea is never fully developed in any way, the fact that some importance to the encounter with the deer is given, is does suggest it subtly flirts with it. However we may want to chose to interpret this brief moment, what is made abundantly clear, is that the four boys, hovering on the brink of adulthood, posses much more compassion and even wisdom than any of the adults. Chris in particular, despite his troubled background, is presented as having all the wisdom of a sage, exactly because he has not yet fallen prey to society and can still cut through the surface. At one point, he has a deep conversation with Gordie and even expresses the wish he could have been his father. Gordie's friends are the only ones who seem to recognize his talent for writing and telling stories and Chris encourages him to truly develop this gift. Even though Gordie's talent in seeing things for what they are have been made clear by his Lardass story, he is already starting to internalize the doubts and lack of support he is getting from his parents and it is subtly suggested Gordie perhaps never would have pursued his ambitions, had it not been for Chris' encouragement at that pivotal moment in his life. It's a breathtaking scene that recognizes the need for a true community and support, in order for any sensible kind of upbringing. That not all kids that age are as wise and insightful is also made clear by the discussion Teddy and Vern are having about whether Mighty Mouse can kick Superman's ass. It's the beauty of that age in a nutshell, as it can combine innocence and playfulness with wisdom.

The moment the boys return from their adventure, the voice-over remarks how the town somehow never looked the same as before, how it seemed smaller – clearly indicating the growth and maturing they have accomplished. Yet, the moment they return to society, it's fragmented structure immediately takes over, as two of the four boys are never seen again. 'You know how it goes', Gordie says in his voice-over and their close bonding with each other vanishes almost at once. Of course, people do lose sight of each other and relationships will come and go, which is only natural. But the feeling of belonging and being together should stay in our lives always, not just in idyllic childhood. He will always treasure the memories of those times, adult Gordie writes at the ending of the film. But as the title 'Stand By Me' also forcefully points to, he mourns much more than just the loss of a friend,  a childhood period without too much responsibility or the passing of time in general, as he will always remember the sense of belonging and togetherness that adult life as we now know it could never have. Our society considers the togetherness and close bonding of childhood a myth, something that's unsustainable by the realities of adult life. But this is an illusion: the fragmented structure of adult society itself is the myth and the interconnectedness of youth should be the reality, as it has been for millions of years of human existence, when people were living in close contact with the earth and each other. Several so-called 'primitive' societies still live this way at the very edges of our Industrial societies and many believe we should look to their ways of life as models for a more sustaining society, one that does honor the earth and its people instead of habitually destroying it. And while there's undeniably much to be learned from looking back to those cultures, to its great credit, 'Stand By Me' suggests we needn't even look that far, as all that wisdom is still present in our own children before they are contaminated by society. Until the moment these children have internalized all the conditioning we force onto them, they are in fact able to form relationships that are based on caring and playfulness, seeing each other for what they really are instead of just where they come from or who their parent is. And here lies the ultimate paradox of the tagline: the moment we get our first taste of real life, we lose our innocence and become confused. In early adolescence, as we come to look at all the things that we have been taught through our own eyes, we suddenly become aware of the difference between myth and reality and suddenly realize how things can turn out quite different than we were taught. But this coming of age period, when we are poised on the threshold between innocence and conditioning is but a very brief moment and it's only at this time we are able to see life clearly. We move from the sheltered myth of childhood to the harsh reality of experience, but unfortunately we also immediately move back again from the reality of experience to the myth of modern Western society. How easy it is to start confusing myth and reality again can be gleaned at the ending of the film, when Gordie's two children storm in and they complain how he is always so distracted when writing. This could indicate of course Gordie has internalized his own fathers lack of interest so much, that he has become unaware of it, even though he has just so incisively told the story we have been watching. It's not just the memory of that age that should stand by us, as memories are nothing but nostalgia. It’s primarily also the feelings and insights that we should never forget. 

Stand by Me (25th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]