Nothing Bad Can Happen (2013)

Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013_ Tore tanzt_Benno_ Tore

Nothing bad can happen to him who carries the shield of faith.

Tore tanzt_Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013 poster
Interesting poster

I have a soft spot for titles that form complete sentences. A strong title very often provides a memorable plot and powerful characters. Such is the case with the German movie “Nothing Bad Can Happen” (original title “Tore tanzt”) from 2013.

The plot bears similarities to many recent torture movies that told stories of domestic abuse and horrible deeds done behind closed doors. Yet it is strikingly different because of its protagonist, Tore, who is a Jesus freak, a punk, and a modern saint. Or is he?

To quote IMDb plot summary (written by the movie first-time director Katrin Gebbe herself!):

The young Tore seeks in Hamburg a new life among the religious group called The Jesus Freaks. When he by accident meets a family and helps them to repair their car, he believes that a heavenly wonder has helped him. He starts a friendship with the father of the family, Benno. Soon he moves in with them at their garden plot, not knowing what cruelty is there to come.

I admit I watched the movie just because of its title, so I didn’t know even that. And I would add EXTREME cruelty in this description.

I like movies that break stereotypes. Here seeing two young men in punk clothes, smiling and talking about their faith in Jesus, calling themselves Jesus freaks, I immediately assumed them to be the bad ones. “Yep, we know such young believers. Soon they will kill someone with these fanatic smiles on their faces,” I thought.

Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013_ Tore_Benno devil horns_Tore tanzt
Ultimate good and ultimate evil. I detect a parable here.

No, the most crystal clear character in the whole movie is Tore, one of the youngsters. Angelic, blue-eyed, blonde-haired and slim, he has a pure soul and honest intentions.

It’s rare to see such strong, pure faith depicted in modern cinema. The movie proves why. As the punk preacher (Jesus Freaks commune consists only of such individuals) reminds the audience in the beginning, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, but it is very difficult to do so. The problem is that Tore is really capable of doing so. He strongly believes that because of this and his faith “nothing bad can happen” to him. This sounds fascinating to me. What if one person was truly capable of always turning the other cheek? Would we call it masochism or martyrdom? In today’s culture which perceives one’s well-being as an important value, Tore appears to be an imbecile. Who, in the age of “healthy egoism” and assertiveness, would willingly suffer if one can avoid it?

Here we have an extremely passive young male who consciously chooses this strategy because of his religious belief. This movie can be challenging because being so passive is usually connected to female characters. And even young female characters nowadays are meant to be assertive and able to fight for their own.

Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013_ Tore tanzt_Benno_ Tore
Tore (Julius Feldmeier) and Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak)

Without my faith I would have nothing.

Benno, the force of total nihilism and evil in the movie, at once recognizes Tore’s good nature. We are surprised that he allows him so readily into his life, providing him food and place to sleep. But soon we realize that Benno is like the proverbial devil, he cannot exist without his opposition.

The movie features extreme humiliation, violence, and harm, both physical and psychological. Tore’s goodness brings to life the worst human instincts possible – extreme sadism and perversion. He provokes the seemingly good citizens to become beasts. Step by step, they treat him like a slave, an animal, and then an object that can be destroyed.

I’m abused and yet not killed. I’m dying, and yet I live on. I own nothing, and yet possess everything.

At the same time, the movie is not a horror, all events are shown in a realistic, down-to-earth way. Even the religious vision of the protagonist gets a logical explanation, being only a sickly hallucination.

An interesting character is Benno’s wife who at first appears to be a victim who allows abuse of others because she is terrorized herself. While her passiveness wouldn’t make her less guilty, but would be partly justified, later we find out that at times she enjoys sadistic tortures just as much as Benno. She is fully aware of what’s happening and decides to either ignore or take part in it when she pleases. She is as evil as Benno, but even more hypocritical. The actress playing her, Annika Kuhl, portrays her nature in a very subtle way.

Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013_ Benno_ Astrid
Benno and Astrid, the monstrous couple

Yet the power of this movie lies in the fact that I never felt even for one moment that Tore deserves any of it, that he somehow provoked his abusers with his passive behavior. It would be very easy to shrug the movie with a simple “if you are weak, the strong will use you” Darwinist statement. But the movie makes me believe that Tore has good intentions and pure heart. He decides to turn the other cheek not because he enjoys suffering or is afraid, but because his faith is the only thing that keeps him alive. He prays desperately “I understand that Benno is the test for me, ” but he does not enjoy his victim status. The only time he stands up against Benno it is not for himself but for Sanny, Benno’s daughter and the only person Tore has romantic feelings for.

othing Bad Can Happen 2013_rain_ Tore and Sanny

The bond between Sanny and Tore is a truly beautiful concept in this extremely dark world. At first hostile towards “a religious freak,” the girl learns to trust him and rely on him. Their time spent together shows child-like, joyful possibilities. Sanny always tries to protect Tore, even though he realizes that he should be the one to defend her. Their inability to ultimately help each other constitutes a tragedy. Rarely a relationship of unhappy lovers (here Platonic) moved me so much.

For me it’s a Southern Gothic movie that was made in Germany – this shows that some genres exceed the boundaries that literary theory and history invented. The whole plot could be Flannery O’Connor’s story. In fact, I’m almost certain that the creators of this film had to know some of her works. Or at least William Faulkner.

I think that this movie can be very easily misunderstood if one is not familiar with Southern Gothic aesthetic. Certain ideological bias, delusional and strong-minded characters are the core of this genre. Therefore even if the plot seems realistic and the characters’ behavior doesn’t, it all fits perfectly well into the convention.

I enjoyed the movie very much (even though it’s a heartbreaking stuff!), but as someone who ate her teeth on Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, I can be a bit biased.

Parker's Back Flannery O'Connor
Parker’s tatoo from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back”
Nothing Bad Can Happen 2013_ Tore_tattoo_ Teach Me Lord_Tore tanzt
Tore’s tattoo: “Teach Me Lord”

The film ends with an optimistic note that not everything is lost and there is still hope. Just like the three parts of the movie: “Faith”, “Love” and “Faith” state. The order is not accidental. There is always hope even in the darkest place, however cliché it sounds. But why do the good ones have to suffer?

The very end is extremely powerful, no matter how we interpret it. Every viewer interprets himself who won the battle.

I think that this movie can be interesting to both believers and non-believers, not because it presents a standard view at faith, but because it challenges it.

But the very last image destroyed me completely. A simple caption: “Based on true events.”

So much for unrealistic characters.

The movie was criticized by many when it first appeared at Cannes. I’m not surprised, but I’m not following the crowd in this instance. At the same time it won a few awards for its young director, Katrin Gebbe. It’s a brave work, better than most Southern Gothic movies (even if Gebbe didn’t try to make one). As a lover of grotesque, I was delighted. But this time the grotesque is not funny. This is the very dark side of grotesque, similarly important, but harder to swallow.

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I’m back with new theme design. How do you like it? I have some fresh ideas. More posts soon!

Borgman (2013)

There are obviously symbolic movies. There are realistic movies. And there is Borgman.

borgman-poster 2013
Included on Indiewire best 2014 posters list. You can also find out about the artist behind the deisgn here.

This is a weird and complex film. Shot with a stunning precision, it puzzles and asks for explanations. I wholeheartedly recommend it but only if you dare to see something new. I can safely say that I’ve watched a lot of movies in my lifetime, but I can think of few movies to compare Borgman with. I realize it can be a daring experience.

The storyline presented on IMDb already signalizes problems with describing what the movie is about.

„A vagrant enters the lives of an arrogant upper-class family, turning their lives into a psychological nightmare in the process.”

On the one hand it is true, that’s what happens in the movie. On the other hand, it’s like saying Moby Dick is about hunting one white whale. It’s true, right? And every American literature scholar would tear you to pieces for saying so.

"Outside Satan" protagonist.
“Outside Satan” protagonist.

The only similar movie that comes to my mind is a French movie Hors Satan (Outside Satan) from 2011 which is the movie that I watched with awe, not comprehending fully what was going on. I was like “meh” when it ended, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Yet while the protagonist of Hors Satan can be interpreted as the force of good, the title character of Borgman is definitely the force of evil.

The movie that I cannot compare Borgman with and which should immediately come to one’s mind after reading that IMDb synopsis is Funny Games (I watched both versions). Funny Games also tells a story of a privileged white family who is terrorized by unexpected, at first gentle, guests. And their house is also surrounded by the woods. But while Haneke’s movie(s) are naturalistic visions (with grotesque overtones), Borgman is all about grotesque.

Who is Borgman? His name is Camiel, but firstly he presents himself as Anton to the rich couple. The husband, Richard, becomes aggressive on the spot and the wife becomes attached to a strange man. The wife hides him in the gardener’s house. The children accept “the magician” without any protest. The woman, Marina, gradually lets him come nearer and nearer herself and the children.

It is apparent from the first scenes that Borgman is neither a common bum, nor an illusion. I will try to explain why by describing a very European first few minutes (I use European as a compliment here). A man is dressing up, gun included, eating a herring straight from a jar, and fetching his dog; a priest is saying mass; another man is sharpening a long metal stick. The three man meet, the priest also has a gun. Then we see a wild-looking man sleeping in the dark. This is Borgman. He hears something. He gets up and uses the periscope to see the three men walking through the forest with the dog. Now we know he sleeps in the hole in the woods. He uses his cellphone (I’m already laughing at this moment) but no one picks up. He starts packing his things quickly. But the man with the stick already starts to ruin Borgman’s hideout. The priest takes an axe and starts chopping the ground. But Borgman already escaped, because he obviously knows the forest best. He runs to warn two other vagrants, also sleeping in single beds hidden underground, that they are in danger. He is angry at one of them, Ludwig, that he didn’t pick up the phone. He walks out of the forest.

Priest forest Borgman 2013
The priest pursuing Borgman. Notice the colors and brilliant composition.

Seeing Borgman walking to the gas station, trying to pretend he is a perfectly normal citizen, I already knew I will love this movie.

Borgman operates smoothly with a band of similarly odd individuals. They are all masters of disguise and deceit. But we don’t know much about them, except the fact that they like to watch TV silently in each house they have taken over. They form a group that could be a successful gang, having in mind its potential members’ inclination to murder and corpse hiding.

Ludwig_Alex van Warmerdam_Borgman 2013_Why don't you answer the phone
The director Alex van Warmerdam plays the role of Ludwig

The movie is very funny at times, but it’s a laugh at the absurdity of things happening, not because we enjoy the suffering of the couple (or maybe we do?).

It’s also a satire on xenophobia, middle-class hypocrisy, hidden sexism.

– I feel so guilty. We have it so good. We are fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished.

– Marina darling, that is nonsense. We were born in the West and the West happens to be affluent. We can’t help it.

The wilderness takes over the house. The father reads fairy tales to his children from the book. The magician tells them a scary fairy tale which he knows by heart. Their father tells them a fantasy, Borgman tells them about his world.

The movie plays with tribal and Biblical motifs. Borgman is a Christian demon (or angel – Samiel could mean Samael, the Angel of Death), a beast from his story or a pagan shaman.

I won’t tell you how this spectacle of ridiculous violence and terror ends, you have to see it for yourself. My only complaint is that the story drags in the middle, but I can forgive that, given the movie’s slow nature.

Jan Bijvoet as Borgman is totally fascinating to watch. He shows his power in almost every scene he appears. I also liked Jeroen Perceval whose task of playing the sordid Richard was more difficult. He managed to add depth to his character.

Some people say Borgman is a horror movie. According to Noël Carroll, a horror is a movie with the monster, the Other which is a) scary b) disgusting and c) fascinating.

  • I’ve read Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror for my studies recently, and it certainly influenced my thinking about the horror genre for a moment.

If Borgman, with his superhuman abilities, is not human, I think that even Carroll would agree he is a monster.

Is the couple guilty? The wife feels guilty, the husband doesn’t, the children are innocent. And Borgman does what he does best and probably did before the existence of nice comfortable houses and TV. He brings chaos, anarchy and destruction.

Borgman 2013 houseNature vs. man is the main conflict in the movie in my opinion. Notice how the couple tries to tame the wilderness with their tidy garden while the forest is just a few steps away.

Naivety of men is another. It’s often hard to tell whether this is stupidity or goodness, but the problem is that Borgman and his companions gain trust easily when they should never be trusted. All it takes is a smooth lie, a clean shave and a set of decent clothes to be taken for “one of us”.

I liked the movie very much, as you can tell. It was Dutch candidate for the Oscars, it didn’t get nominated. I cannot tell I’m surprised. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or instead. It didn’t get it. Again, I’m not surprised. The awards rarely go to movies that dare to be different, to have an unspecified genre, to feature protagonists whose motifs are not understandable. I don’t give awards, I just run this humble blog about grotesque. I’ve got a feeling Borgman will be on my 2015 best-watched list.

***

This review was inspired by Texas’s Frisco Kid’s post. He gives really interesting insights about the movie. You can read his post here: http://friscokidtx.com/2015/01/02/borgman-2013/

I also found out a great interpretation by Nafees Speaks if you want to learn more about the film’s possible symbolism: http://www.nafeesspeaks.com/borgman-dissectedstory-explained-and-analyzed/

2014 summary (with lots of pictures)

Grotesque Ground summary 2014

Calm down, it’s not another summary of what happened in 2014. I want to share with you a few lists of movies and books that I found important in the previous year. I don’t care about keeping up-to-date with new releases, so it’s going to be the summary of what I actually saw and read in 2014. I think it’s not so much about creating such a post, but about revealing your interests and taste in the process.

I never used so many pictures on this blog. And there are two embedded videos. Let the visual craziness begin!

I also decided to keep things chronologically unless you see numbers. The numbers matter then.

Honorable mentions

Movie that surprised me the most

  • Gösta Berlings saga (1924)
Greta Garbo Saga of Gosta Berling 1924
Stunning Greta Garbo in “Gösta Berlings saga”

I expected a boring but necessary for my movie education experience. I watched a gripping and extremely entertaining historical romance that does not stop its pace for 185 minutes. I cannot recommend it enough for every silent movie fan.

Movie that every blogger seems to rave over and I couldn’t stand

  • Frank (2014)

It totally did not appeal to my taste. It’s not grotesque, but quirky. Nothing bad with quirky, just don’t expect me to like it. Let’s leave it at that because I have only bad things to say about “Frank”.

Three masterpieces that prove Japanese movies are simply fearless

  • "Ichi the Killer' poster. Don't google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).
    “Ichi the Killer’ poster. Don’t google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).

    Hana-Bi (1997)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)
  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  Movies I have to see again to fully appreciate

  • Pafekuto buru (Perfect Blue) (1997)
  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

If you want to know why, just listen to this great song from Paprika soundtrack and try not to go crazy in the process.

Sometimes too much awesomeness is too much to handle. By the way, Inception is said to be an imperfect copy of Paprika.

Movies I recommend

  • Teorema (1968)
  • Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment) (1970)
  • The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
  • Dreams (1990)
  • Nothing Is Private (2007)
  • Geoul sok euro (Into the Mirror) (2008)
  • Prisoners (2013)
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in"The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane" 1976
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” (1976)

 Movies that evoked mixed feelings

  • Shame (2011)
  • Interstellar (2014)

The best documentaryDune_The Emperor's Palace_ Chris Foss

  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) – read my review here

 

 The best movie I watched in cinema

  • Nightcrawler (2014) – read my review here

Nightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal

The worst movie I watched in cinema

  • Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Movies you may be surprised I really enjoyed

john-carter-city 2012
“John Carter”. I regret nothing.
  •     Charlotte’s Web (2006)
  •     John Carter (2012)
  •     We’re the Millers (2013)

The fan favorite I agree with

  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Like I wrote on my twitter in August, as a lover of grotesque I always support talking raccoons as badass characters.

The Grand Ones

The best movies I watched in 2014

1. Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)

2. The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain Alejandro Jodorowsky hat two women
“The world seems crazy to Jodorowsky and I think that he deliberately shocks to make us notice it.” (my review)

3. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom 1960 Karlheinz Böhm kisses camera
The British masterpiece which shows ambiguous portrait of the serial killer. Karlheinz Böhm, here shown kissing the camera, gives an extremely strong performance.

4. Ichi the Killer (2001)

Ichi the Killer 2001 - Tadanobu Asano Kakihara smoke
Tadanobu Asano as Kakihara is the best psychotic antagonist in recent cinema history.

5. Stoker (2013)

Stoker 2013 Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker
Every shot in this movie is perfect . All performances are superb. Here Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker.

6. Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu) (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari 1953
Beautiful fantasy about old Japan when ghosts walked among people.

7. Gösta Berlings saga (1924)

Gosta Berlings Saga 1924 Lars Hanson Greta Garbo
Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo expressing great emotions. Today’s romances and adventure movies could learn a lot from The Saga of Gosta Berling.

8. Accattone (1961)

Accattone 1961  Franco Citti
Can a movie about a pimp be beautiful and fascinating? Of course, if Pier Paolo Pasolini is directing.

9. La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

La grande bellezza The Great Beauty 2013 Toni Servillo
Accused of being Fellini’s copycat, I see this movie as a distinct and very interesting voice.

10. Tetsuo (1989)

Tetsuo 1989 lovers faces
This movie is insane! David Cronenberg’s fans will love it. But I don’t recommend it to unprepared viewers. A movie that deserves R rating.

Grotesque involved

Grotesque masterpieces

  • The Holy Mountain (1973) – my review here
  • The Day of the Locust (1975) – my review here

Grotesque movies I should also review

  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)

  • Ubu król (King Ubu) (2003)

  • Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man) (2006)

  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

  • La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

 

2014 Reading list

Grotesque favorites

  • Saki – The Best of Saki – read my review hereMiss Lonelyhearts The Day of the Locust Nathanael West cover
  • Nathanael West – Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
  • Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust (1939)
  • Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
  • Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Bestsellers I recommend

  • Kathryn Stockett – The Help (2009)
  • Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (2012)

The most entertaining book

  • Boris Akunin – The Winter Queen (1998)The Winter Queen Azazel Boris Akunin cover

A skillfully crafted mystery novel that successfully imitates 19th-century style of writing. Very funny at times. And full of surprises. I think I will read more of Erast Fandorin’s adventures soon.

The best fantasy series

  • Michael J. Sullivan – The Riyria Revelations (2008-2012)

I just ended “The Emerald Storm” (which is book #4 out of 6). I hope for even more action and drama in two last books. And if I won’t have enough of the adventures of two rogues who always end up in troubles (and political intrigues), the author also wrote two prequels.

Riyria Revelations covers Michael J. Sullivan
Six books of sheer fun in three volumes.

The best gritty books

  • Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men (1946)
  • Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  • James Dickey – Deliverance (1970)

The best academic read

  • Noël Carroll – The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990)

I think it deserves a post on its own.

 Ultimate choice

The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon cover
So much going on in such a short book. I had read it before and will read it again in the future.

The best books I read in 2014

  1. Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
  2. Saul Bellow – Herzog (1964)
  3. E. L. Doctorow – Ragtime (1975)
  4. Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  5. Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)

These five books are so good, no short descriptions could give them justice. They all happen to be classics now, so I think you will find them in your local library. All are worth your time. I own three copies out of five at this point.

Herzog_Ragtime_Last Exit to Brooklyn_The Violent Bear It Away_covers

You may notice the discrepancy between movies and books in this post. What can I say? I read 60 books in 2014, but many of these are simply OK, neither so good I can recommend them, nor so bad I should warn you against them.

 ***

I drew a few conclusions after writing this post.

  1. I seem to cherish great movies with serial killers/murderers/troubled people as main characters.
  2. I breathe the 1960s air. At least in terms of books.
  3. I respect Japanese cinema immensely.
  4. Only TWO movies on my best list are in English. And Peeping Tom is British while Stoker is UK/US coproduction. American cinema, although I watch it most frequently, failed to impress me in 2014. Even Nightcrawler couldn’t be included on the list, as I regard each film on the list a better one than Jake-Gyllenhaal-fest.
  5. All the grotesque movies I could review are not in English. *sigh* As I get the most readers from the United States, it seems I try to sabotage my own efforts. :D On the other hand, I cannot hide the fact that I consider cinema as international art and I watch movies from all around the world. And to be honest, the blog stats are unpredictable. Most popular post on my blog is The Holy Mountain one (this one).
  6. This year Pier Paolo Pasolini became one of my favorite directors (in this post you could spot Accattone and Teorema).
  7. I read way too many fantasy books that I didn’t include here.
  8. Weirdness and great script/plot are not incompatible.

eyes_without_a_face_franju

 I hope you liked this lengthy sum-up of my very subjective pursues. I certainly enjoyed creating all these categories. If you have similar posts or want to share your favorites/least favorites picks of 2014, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. I would love to hear about them!

“Nightcrawler” (2014)

ightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal cafe scene

Finally I get to write about the movie that is so recent it may still be playing next to you. And it uses grotesque successfully! Yay!

I don’t know if “Nightcrawler” is a perfect movie. But it’s the best movie I saw in cinema this year. This doesn’t actually say much as I watched few movies in theater and most of them were disappointments. So let me put it differently. I compared it in my mind to great American movies of the 1970s (which is my favorite decade of cinema in general). It belongs to a different era and I love it.

Both Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom and Riz Ahmed as Rick give very believable performances.
Both Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom and Riz Ahmed as Rick give very believable performances.

In one sentence: Lou Bloom is a scumbag. He steals, robs and deceives. He proves throughout the movie that he respects no moral boundaries. Nothing can stop him from getting what he wants. He lives in L.A., so it seems he is in the right place. His lack of empathy is greatly appreciated as he becomes a self-employed freelance filmmaker who films accidents, shootings and fires that break out at nighttime. Nina (Rene Russo), a TV-news veteran, pays him for each material that he brings to her TV station. His shots usually get broadcasted in the morning. The anchormen always warn the audience that viewer discretion is advised. Lou Bloom watches it happily while ironing his cheap shirts. He is persistent.

Now I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe is that good things come to those who work their asses off. And that, good people, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there.

Imagine this told by a person with piercing puppy eyes on a starving but smiling face.

Nightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal
“My motto is if you want to win the lottery you’ve got to make money to get a ticket.”

Honestly, Lou Bloom’s English is so polished that it is terrifying in itself. Even the first sentence he utters is meaningful: “I’m under the opinion that this is a detour.”

Obviously the movie is a satire on newsroom/capitalism/today’s job market crisis/ideology of success (which Lou Bloom knows by heart). Choose what you like, you will find all of that.

It is also grotesque. This movie made the audience in my theater quiet at one moment and laughing at another. There are lots of funny scenes in this gripping film! Lou Bloom’s pep talks are highlights of the movie. When we contrast their pomposity and naïve optimism with the harsh reality the only reaction can be laughter. Especially when these “pursuit of happiness” words are spoken by the most despicable person in the movie. Pure grotesque.

Lou Bloom gets compared by reviewers to Norman Bates, but I’m getting Alex DeLarge vibe here. To be more specific, Malcolm McDowell as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”. These piercing blue eyes! Another, less-known, actor who sports this look is Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” (extremely underrated actor in an underrated movie adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel). What all these three characters have in common is their alienation from those that surround them and, partly, from the audience. We do not sympathize with them, but we watch them performing all these weird and drastic actions with constant fascination. All the time having in mind these innocent-looking blue eyes.

Malcolm McDowell A Clockwork Orange Alex eyes
Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange”
Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in "Wise Blood"
Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood”

Jake Gyllenhaal really did a great job transforming for this movie. It’s not all about the weight loss. His face totally changed. We no longer see this adorable lost depressed boyish man from “Donnie Darko”. Here we observe a total creep who we would likely avoid in real life but on the cinematic screen he captivates our attention more than the aforementioned pretty boy.

ightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal cafe scene
I’m not exaggerating the eyes motif.

During his developing career Lou realizes that cinematography matters. That’s why I described him as a filmmaker, not a news videographer. He discovers the relation between the right shots and the desirable emotional reaction from future TV viewers. He starts to direct the scene, does not just roll with it. Therefore I would suggest that “Nightcrawler” is all about making movies. Filmmakers know tricks that will sell their product to the audience. Rene Russo’s character symbolizes a producer who is both in power and powerless. My theory can be perhaps more easily applied to horror genre (the more blood, the better; the same goes for accidents), but I would say that the whole cinema works this way. Maybe even the whole art? Lou Bloom is creepy? What about artists who know how to appeal to the audience? He is creepy? What about us, the viewers, who enjoy being entertained that way?

Source of the grotesque?
Source of the grotesque?

I just realized it’s the fifth time that I blog about the movie/novel which takes place in Los Angeles or nearby. Either this city (or, more often, Hollywood) attracts grotesque or artists working there are more prone to noticing it. I suppose both options can be correct.

Returning to the 1970s feel I just searched for interviews with the director Dan Gilroy and I found out one where he comments on it. His comment is worth reading:

One of the things about the ’70s films I love—the films Nightcrawler is being compared to, like Taxi Driver—is that they never put their flawed characters into any one box. To call someone a sociopath or a psychopath is misrepresentative. On one level, yes, their behavior makes them diagnostically and accurately sociopathic, but a sociopath is not just black-and-white. You can’t see them from far away; they’re not rare creatures. All of us have a bit of a sociopath inside of us, and it’s wrong to think that somebody is just clearly sociopathic, because they’re not. It’s interesting to explore the shadings and nuances within a person. Those feelings exist within more human beings than people may want to acknowledge.

You can read the whole interview here (it contains some spoilers though).

As you may have noticed, I tried not to spoil much in this review, so my analysis is rather general. However, the point I am trying to prove is that such a thought-provoking movie  doesn’t happen often. Go see it. It’s not just a movie about a sociopath/psychopath. Or about L.A. Or about television. It’s about all that and more.

“The Day of the Locust” (1975)

“The Day of the Locust” is an edgy take on lust, greed, fame and Hollywood. It takes place in the 1930s, but remains relevant today. It is also a successful adaptation of an accomplished novel of the same name by Nathanel West (named one of TIME’s “the 100 best English-language novels 1923-2005”).

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Day_of_the_LocustI cannot say I remember many “grand” novels who were turned into amazing movies. It is an even rarer case when I like a movie more than the famous original (and I read the book first). This is such an exception.

Because of the overabundance of masterpieces in 1970s American cinema, some great movies are a bit forgotten nowadays. Let’s look at the movies of 1975. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jaws. Dog Day Afternoon. Three Days of the Condor. Nashville. 1975. Just one year. Can you wonder why “The Day of the Locust” could feel a bit outdated compared to those movies, taking place in 1930s?

Why West’s novel should matter today?

“By paying homage to the Hollywood machine and its invisible workers, West was able to illuminate the film business from the bottom up. There is not much beauty to be found in what he called the ‘Dream Dump,’ or in his chronicle of American life in the Thirties. It’s all violence all the time, with sickening scenes that still retain the power to shock. W.H. Auden would call West’s people ‘cripples.’ They weren’t cripples to West, who lovingly described his excitable characters as ‘screwballs and screwboxes.’ His original title for the book, The Cheated, accurately reflected their frustration”

(read the whole review by Marion Meade here).

The novel’s protagonist is a young man named Tod Hackett. I think many young people could identify with him: a true artist compromising himself for money. A Yale graduate could starve as a painter or earn some money as a designer in Hollywood. He chooses the second option, but remains aware of vanities and emotional void that surrounds him. Todd is an outsider and an artist which gives him a unique perspective to see what’s going on. He becomes infatuated with Faye Greener, an attractive starlet without talent but with high aspirations.

rathaus in munich gargoyle
I just felt like contrasting these two images. Here we see the gargoyle in Munich.
scream mirror day of the locust 1975
And here the desperation recreated by Tod when observing himself. Art and commerce meet in this shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many grotesque figures appear in the book, the most important ones are: Homer Simpson, a lonely and inhibited businessman exploited by Faye; Faye’s father, an ex-vaudeville clown who sells homemade silver polish door-to-door; and Adore Loomis, a cruel young boy whose mother has been stylizing as a child star.

Jackie Earle Haley as Adore day of the locust
Jackie Earle Haley plays Adore. He will be known much later for his roles as Rorschach and Freddy Krueger. This is what dressing as Shirley Temple does to a young actor.

The movie was directed by John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy,” “Marathon Man,” “Billy Liar”) and follows the book closely. It is actually extremely faithful towards the book. Paradoxically, it is to its disadvantage at times. Although the novel is very short, it drags for its first one third. As the movie does not skip anything, it repeats this mistake. I feel that at least a few episodes could be cut for the sake of brevity (total 144 minutes is too long in this case).

But the acting is without a miss. Karen Black and Donald Sutherland are perfect in their roles. Jackie Earle Haley is amazingly creepy in his early role as Adore. But it is William Atherton’s acting that impressed me most, as you can just read Tod’s thoughts on his face (instead of hearing voice-over). You see that he realizes how phony Faye is but he falls for her anyway. And it’s acted with just a slight change in his facial expression. It’s a shame I never paid any attention to William Atherton before.

Tod Hackett  coffin mirror day of the locust 1975
Tod Hackett (William Atherton) getting ready. There is no such coffin-like mirror in the book, but it suits Tod’s obsession with self-destruction.

1970s. You have no CGI, but stunts, make-up, fake blood, real fire. And real crowd, not multiplied individuals which were created at movie studios. Very risky movie to fund as it looks very expensive. It is a shame no such risk would probably be taken today.

The movie depicts people pursuing dreams and fantasies. They fool themselves and ignore reality. Everything in Hollywood is attractive for the crowd. A place of somebody’s suicide is a tourist attraction. A funeral house is a great hideout when waiting for Clark Gable to arrive at the cemetery.
It’s far more interesting to see members of this crowd than attractions they are waiting for. In any other job they could be happy if they could pay their rent, etc. But everybody desires something more. Their need of power, success, money and sex is killing them.

It is not a film about some wannabe actress/actual prostitute and all the fools that want to sleep with her. Nor it is a movie about failed actors, performers and filmmakers. It rips the covers of human beings and shows what hides underneath: human desires, animalistic forces, the utter need to either copulate or destroy. It is not only a movie about Hollywood but about the mob mentality and the repressed individuality.

The last moments will reward you for your patience with some unforgettable images.

Just to give you the glimpse of what a ride the ending is I give you two pictures.

people at bus stop day of the locust 1975
People at a bus stop during the day, in the middle of the movie.
mob people at bus stop day of the locust 1975
People at a bus stop during the night riot at the end of the movie.

I cannot remember reading so many comments/reviews/etc. such as “this movie was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen” about a non-horror movie before. Consider yourself warned. And invited to see this movie.

“Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those peepers?

Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?”

“The Best of Saki” by Saki

best-of-saki coverImagine a younger version of Oscar Wilde’s spokesman, Lord Henry Wotton from “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” standing in the crowd of wealthy upper-class people who do not see their pomposity and silliness. Your witty narrator notices the cruelty and dark desires hidden just underneath the fancy surface. Starting the narrative in medias res he describes what he sees without showing great attachment to characters. And each short story manages to engage you and amuse you. You will not laugh hysterically, but you will chuckle a lot if you read Saki’s short stories.

I got my edition from the library. It belongs to Penguin Popular Classics series (my favorite) and is entitled simply “The Best of Saki” (link). As this is my first encounter with this writer (real name Hector Hugh Munro. Maybe he should have kept it, it attracts the Nobel Prize in Literature), I cannot judge if the selection of 38 stories from his five collections is adequate. As for now, “The Chronicles of Clovis” (1911) collection appears to be the best, though “Beasts and Super-Beasts” (1914) falls close.

The Edwardian period in literature is not a familiar one to me. That’s what I thought when I read the term on the cover. Quick checking proved me wrong! The Edwardian era in England produced many excellent writers, among them Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P. G. Wodehouse. But while most of these writers are widely read to this day (one of the reasons may lie in many film adaptations of their works), Saki is not one of them.

Saki 's photo
Young Saki’s photo portrait

He does not deserve to be forgotten. His short stories, or sketches as I prefer to call them, are funny, sophisticated, satirical and thought-provoking. To quote the cover of my edition, they are “wickedly amusing and as sharp and sparkling as cut glass.”

All stories are extremely short, 4-5 pages seems to be the norm. All people interested in writing short fiction should read Saki. The limits of length do not influence the style. Saki’s style is very elaborate in terms of vocabulary and grammar. The dialogues are especially cleverly crafted. The carefully composed sentences indeed sparkle with irony. Even if they may seem old-fashioned at times, they suggest a skillful writer who wrote with ease. Saki worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for many years before writing these stories.

Yet the subject of these sketches is rarely political. They focus on English aristocracy and its mixture of self-importance, ignorance and affluence. The events are often absurd and frequently switch from apparently normal to full-blown grotesque.

Consider the beginning of the short story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:

Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality.  The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forgo hostilities.  Her pose in the arm-chair by the tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially help him to discern the expression of her face.

Egbert then engages in the often mocked scenario of trying to apologize for non-existent faults. The wife ignores him. Only the Persian cat, Don Tarquinio, watches him from the rug. Even Egbert’s statement: “I dare say (. . .) I may have been to blame.  I am willing, if I can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to undertake to lead a better life” does not improve the situation. He finally leaves the room to change for dinner, asking “Aren’t we being very silly?” as he walks off. Lady Anne is not impressed. The cat answers him “mentally”, thinking “A fool” as he proceeds to attack the cage with a bullfinch inside it.

It was the first time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the precision of mature deliberation.  The bullfinch, who had fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he fell to a helpless wing-beating and shrill cheeping.  He had cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering.  She had been dead for two hours.

The end of the story. We do not know what Egbert and Lady Anne do (probably not much) and learn only some details about their artistic preferences. Their life together appears to be both safe and dull. Yet we get the whole absurdity of the picture when two married persons are so distant to one another that the husband does not touch his wife to check if she is all right. The pettiness of their concern over some minor details, like an unfortunate remark during lunch, is contrasted with the grave and inevitable mystery of death. And, of course, the result of the story could be predicted from the fact that a truly English Lady did not taste her tea at all. Only death could stop her from doing that!

paul-iribe-1905-elegant-parisienne-art-nouveau-style
This is how I imagine Saki’s characters to look like. (image by Paul Iribe)

The satirical and darkly comic anecdotes about high society are intermingled with stories containing fantastic elements. In “Gabriel-Ernest” the protagonist, Van Cheele, learns that there is a wild beast in his woods. He later meets a wild-looking naked sixteen-year-old boy. The boy, named by Van Cheele’s aunt Gabriel Ernest, is a werewolf whose favorite meal is children’s flesh.

The macabre accompanies the fanciness. Saki’s characters may joke a lot, but they are disillusioned and their feelings often drive them to the edge.

After the laugh comes the reflection that the world described in the stories ceased to exist after World War I. Many movies and books described this crucial change not only in life conditions and economy, but mainly in the people’s minds. There was no going back to the state before the war.

The Edwardian period writers dealt with the world that was coming to an end quickly. People tried to act honorably even if their deeds turned out silly or useless. This juxtaposition of high ideals and prosaic reality persists in Saki’s writing. It comes to me as no surprise that Saki, despite his apparent mocking tone and the age of 44, enlisted as a Private in 1914. He refused to take the commission he was offered. He was shot in the head while in the shallow trench by a German sniper in 1916.

My favorite recurring character in Saki’s stories is Clovis: extremely eloquent, cynical, wealthy young man who seems to be interested only in excellent food and tricking others.

You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.

(Clovis in “The Match-Maker”)

Lizzy’s Literary Life blog describes Clovis in the following way: “Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts.  Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.” He goes away with that thanks to his position, intelligence and the wit that none of his interlocutors can successfully match. He reduces each problem to absurdity. Clovis can also easily adapt to changing circumstances.

In “Tobermory” the title cat is taught how to speak English. It proves disastrous as the upper-class ladies and gentlemen realize he knows everything about them, as he has been spying on them when hunting pigeons behind their windows.

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don’t necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the EXCHANGE AND MART as a species of hush-money.

tobermory--kocomour-od-sakiho by Markéta Vydrová
“Tobermory” by Markéta Vydrová (link)

This attitude of cynical indifference and successful activity in both realistic and fantastic circumstances make Clovis a perfect guide in the grotesque world of Saki’s fiction. Clovis also fits the Trickster archetype when he tricks people into wild schemes just for his (and the readers’) amusement (“The She-Wolf” or “The Unrest-Cure”).

High-brow English humor may seem dated at times, but the true cruelty and macabre that lie beneath it are still striking today, one hundred years later.

You can read all of Saki’s short stories online as they are in the public domain and see for yourself if you like them. I recommend Project Gutenberg site http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/152 which provides simple html text, epub and Kindle format. For PDF format try Feedbooks http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3399/beasts-and-super-beasts.

To encourage you even more, I will quote Roxploration: “Many of the stories in this collection feature vicious beasts – a hyaena, a werewolf, a ferret, and a boar among others – and a powerful recurring theme is the perceived battle between the refinements of gentrified society and the raw power of nature – although, at times, it is the duchesses, dowagers and débutantes who can seem the more beastly in their behaviour.” The whole great review of “The Best of Saki” by Roxploration can be found here.

downton_abbey_poster season 1
The best show on TV.

And if you want to experience more Edwardian era feelings and learn more about the transition that WWI brought, I recommend “Downton Abbey” which is one of the best TV series that I ever watched. (I am finishing second season now, so no spoilers, please.) It concerns the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who both live in the title country estate.

Please comment and do not hesitate to share your favorite Edwardian writers.

“The Holy Mountain” (1973)

the-holy-mountain-1973 poster Japanese styleThe movie that became a cult classic among certain people and was called a blasphemous shocker by others. If you never saw any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, it is likely that you never experienced something like this before.

The only director whose style comes close is the great Luis Buñuel, especially in his late movies, like “The Phantom of Liberty.” Jodorowsky tries to blend mysticism, esotericism, influences of shamanism and Buddhism together with cinema. Buñuel was famous for his connection with surrealism and his movies are full of surrealistic ideas. Both directors came from predominantly Catholic countries (Buñuel from Spain, Jodorowsky from Chile) and the criticism of this religion haunts their movies.

But even with these similarities in mind, Jodorowsky has an exceptional style which is impossible to mistake for anyone else’s.

“The Holy Mountain” has a plot, but this plot consists of so many bizarre episodes that many viewers may feel lost. But just watch it if you dare, and I promise you, there is a plot.

The first shot presents two blonde women and Jodorowsky himself (playing The Alchemist – a wise man, or a deceiver, depending on your interpretation). In a strange ceremonial manner  he washes off the women’s make-up, strips them naked, shaves their heads, and finally inclines his head, covering the women’s bald heads with the brim of his black hat. At this point we do not know what is going on. The shot is presented in an almost voyeuristic way, as if we were witnessing some sort of forbidden ritual. This feeling of being a voyeuristic spectator will disappear as the movie progresses, because we follow the protagonist who “permits us” to join the events.

The Holy Mountain_Alejandro Jodorowsky_hat_two womenThis protagonist is called The Thief in the movie, but he resembles a Jesus Christ more than anyone else. We meet him in the next scene after the opening one. The scenes do not appear to be logically connected. In the times when movie editing was still pretty traditional, “The Holy Mountain” is characterized by frequent cuts which the viewers are unprepared for. The Thief lies on the ground, unconscious, covered in dirt and his own urine. The flies cover his face like excrement. Naked children come and laugh at him. He is befriended by a footless, handless dwarf.* They go into the city and then…

(* Grotesque frequently welcomes people who would work as living exhibits in freak shows of the past. Yet this does not mean that a disabled or deformed character automatically makes a work of art grotesque. I feel this differentiation deserves the separate post in the future.)

The episodes that follow could be of picaresque nature if not for their extremity. Some are nauseating. Some violent. Many erotic. The movie breaks every taboo possible. We see full nudity, both male and female. Deviations. Violence. Castration. Animal cruelty. Mockery of religion. And lastly, outlandish grossness.

But also beauty. Composition. Order. Grandeur. Baroque style. The cinematography here is phenomenal.

The Holy Mountain - Great Toad and Chameleon Circus - chameleon AztecsThe question remains: can the movie which seems to aim for making its viewers uncomfortable or even enraged still be a work of art? For me, yes. And yes, there are some scenes that I disagree with. Still I believe in the thought-provoking art. If it wants to state something, shocking is justified.

What does this movie want to state? That’s another problem with approaching “The Holy Mountain” today. It is deemed as a cult hippie movie and was compared to the visions after taking hallucinogenic drugs. The film was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein, because both John Lennon and George Harrison appreciated Jodorowsky’s previous film “El Topo”. (you can find more information about that here).

A movie with such exceptional background, such following, and the director who, as I already mentioned, does not hide his fascination with occultism and spirituality, can quickly be regarded as rich in imagery but poor in thought. But not “The Holy Mountain.”

Excellent website 366 Weird Movies (whole text here) has a great analysis of the movie and I will quote a fragment:

If you tore out pages from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, and a dozen other esoteric works from the Kabbalah to Gurdijeff—throwing in a couple of sleazy pulp novels for good measure—and put them together in a giant cauldron, stirred them up and pulled out sheaves at random and asked a troupe of performance artists, carnival freaks, and hippies tripping on peyote to act them out, you might come up with a narrative something like The Holy Mountain.

Another fragment about shock value in the movie: “The director goes all-out grotesque here: the visions include animal sex, hermaphrodism, castration, ejaculation, and lactation.”

Exactly, all-out grotesque is why I’m writing about this movie.

The Holy Mountain - face covered with tarantulas
This is one of the mildest of the gross and macabre scenes.

The images contrast with each other in a seemingly mad way, yet the viewers can try to grasp the meaning behind them. And this quest for meaning will not be in vain.

The movie is full of symbols and they are not esoteric props to make the setting more attractive. In fact, I feel that without basic knowledge about The New Testament and ancient Roman gods your movie experience will be incomplete. I am familiar with Catholic imagery but had to brush up the facts about Roman mythology (Uranus? Saturn?). But when it comes to Buddhism or the history of South America, I am no expert. I could probably notice even more metaphors, had I known more about these subjects.

That being said, I think that no genre could describe this movie properly. Grotesque? Surrealism? Fantasy? Religious movie (paradoxically)? Horror? Parable? Postmodern art?

The Holy Mountain - Fon, Venus - faces on line shaftWhatever you call it, it is not the movie for everyone, as you probably have guessed already. Those who decide to watch it, will experience powerful images that are impossible to forget. And you don’t have to join (or even agree with) The Alchemist’s cult to enjoy the world that Jodorowsky creates. He at the same time embraces the hippie ideology and deliberately mocks it. He introduces both anti-religious and pro-religious messages.

There is ugliness in a primitive sculpture of crucified Christ and beauty in the eyes of the prostitute who believes in her personal savior. This modern Mary Magdalene is accompanied by a chimpanzee everywhere she walks. Beauty and the beast.

The world seems crazy to Jodorowsky and I think that he deliberately shocks to make us notice it. Some things he presents have already happened, for example the fetishization of violence and guns or extreme tourism (by that I mean tourism based on exploitation of the natives’ suffering).

Whether Jodorowsky warns us, shows us new ways or simply plays with ideas in a postmodern manner, I am sure that “The Holy Mountain” will continue to baffle next generations.

It is exceptional, a work of a highly talented individual who got a big budget to make his vision come true. I think all movie visionaries envy him this opportunity.

NEWS FLASH: Check out Alejandro Jodorowsky’s kickstarter page: http://kck.st/1yG9EWs You can help to make his new movie “Endless Poetry”! And how often can you help the legend? The kickstarter project ends on 22 March 2015.