“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.

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

Really good movie ruined by its promotional campaign. Don’t search for the poster (if you can) as it spoils the fun. Who allows such a thing? Why? Even the title gives a big hint which is not known from the start. The very sentence appears exactly in the middle of the movie… Very bad marketing.

But even if you saw the poster or photos while looking for this film, still watch it. It’s a surprisingly good, though literally unknown, gem with great acting, costumes and atmosphere of the 1930s. There is something in this decade that attracts the grotesque! (“The Day of the Locust”).

Helen (Shelley Winters) and Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) are two women whose sons commited a gruesome murder. The case is widely known, their faces appear in the media. After two young men’s conviction, the women move to Hollywood, change their names and open a dance school for girls. Pretty standard for anyone who wants to start anew: move to Hollywood or Las Vegas. At least that’s what American movies taught us.

Both women share similar names, but they personalities and appearances differ. Helen is calm, religious, anxious, and superstitious while Adelle is energetic, free-spirited and practical. One looks like an average, overweight middle-aged woman while the other is a slim and sexy dancer who is still in her prime. The two become friends because of their dark secret. While Adelle decides to move on, Helen is stuck in the past. Moreover, there seem to be a stalker nearby who wants the women to pay for their sons’ crime.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds___
Debbie Reynolds looks fabulous as a platinum blonde. Notice the costumes (nominated for an Oscar).

What’s the matter with the grotesque here, you may ask.

Firstly, 1930s child stars. “Toddlers and Tiaras” is nothing new. The appeal for child stars actually started with the growing popularity of cinema. With megastars like Jackie Coogan or Shirley Temple (and their small fortunes), the need for child actors increased. And so did the ambitions of many children’s parents. As shown in many satires of the time (again, “The Day of the Locust”), the past show business did not really differ much from the present one. Most of the children taught by Adelle are as untalented and oversexualized as contestants of today’s reality TV shows.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Mother and daughter
“Remember, the Warner Brothers are in the front row.”

A girl (pictured above on the right) is stylized as Mae West and sings “Oh, you nasty man!” and “Shame”! while wearing full makeup and a padded adult dress. All the time her moves are mimicked by her mother behind the scenes.

Secondly, the violence is shown in a grotesque way. Helen gets more and more disturbed. Every sharp object reminds her of the way her husband died.

“We were going to have a ride on the plow. And we started out. And then the harness seemed to come loose. And he got off to fix it. And something frightened the horses. And I couldn’t hold them. And the blades of the plow, they’re big and much sharper than they look. He fell. He fell. And Lenny saw it. He saw all of it and blamed me ever afterwards for not being able to save his father.”

The scene actually shows the bloody body and Winters’ delivery is memorable.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_Shelley Winters
Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters).

If you remember my review of a Christmas movie “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo” (link here), you know how great Shelley Winters is when it comes to horror. “What’s the Matter…” came in the double DVD box together with “Whoever…” and they are an amazing double feature for any Winters fan. She plays two totally different, though undoubtedly troubled, characters. It’s worth noting that both movies had the same director, Curtis Harrington, who seemed to work exceptionally well with Winters.

This is a very female-centered movie: you’ve got two female protagonists and a bunch of mother and daughters are constantly at the background. What is more, two boys murdered a woman and were sentenced for this crime.

Women are always portrayed as victims. Victims of circumstances and of their (failed) roles as mothers. Victims of early sexualization. Victims of seductive men, stalkers and murderers. Finally, victims of madness and unfulfilled desires.

There appears a very strange scene when the handsome father of one of the girls, Linc Palmer (played with ease by Dennis Weaver), takes Adelle on a date. They are sitting in the club and the orchestra starts playing tango. She obviously wants to dance, but he says that he cannot. He spots a gigolo nearby and gestures him to come over. Then he pretends to agree upon the man asking her out to dance. They dance very passionately (it’s tango, after all), all the other guests stop and watch them. Linc observes it with a big smile as Adelle ends the dance in the contrived, semi-violent pose. I smell a connection with the pose of her son’s victim, who also has arms stretched out and actually looks like she is dancing. Given the fact that Adelle’s son blamed her for focusing on her dancing career rather than fulfilling her duties as a mother, these associations may not be accidental.

Whats the Matter with Helen_murder_victim
The murder victim.

 

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_tango
The creepy tango scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I would not say that this movie is biased against either men or women. It just presents a coherent vision of reality that is psychologically, socially and historically justified. It also loves to throw a bunch of red herrings here and there. Not bad for a horror movie not many heard about.

Third grotesque aspect is religion represented by Sister Alma. She appears in flesh, but more often as a voice from the radio that Helen constantly listens to. She is judgmental and condemning while running a strictly commercial organization. An almost identical character appears in Day of the Locust. I found out both characters were actually based on a real person, Aimee Semple McPherson (also known as Sister Aimee), an evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s who was active in Los Angeles at that time. For those interested in this topic more, here is a good website dedicated to her (controversies included): http://www.aimeemcpherson.com/.

The last grotesque aspect is the twisted ending. I won’t spoil it as I’m not a member of the marketing team of the movie and it seems it was their job to do. Let’s just say the ending remains as creepy as it was over 40 years ago.

***

P.S. I hate to start anything with apology, so let me apologize you for my absence at the end of this post. I was gone for three months partly because a lot happened in my life recently (PhD studies, here I come!), but also partly because blogging turned out to be more demanding than I expected.

There is also this feeling of writing “into the wild”, that no one is reading this (even though I see that the stats are improving). Well, I chose to write about the topic that is not very popular, but I feel strongly about it. So I have to do my best. I won’t be blogging about lifestyle, cooking or fashion. So I cannot expect a huge readership.

At the same time, I feel responsible for what I write since literally no one blogs exclusively about the grotesque. It paralyzes me so much that I have a few posts that I never finished because I felt I had not done those movies or books the justice they deserve.

Still, I hope you can stay with me and come here from time to time to see what movies and books I recommend and what’s the matter with the grotesque. :) I thank you for reading, subscribing and commenting, it means a lot to me. I respect several real followers more than a thousand fake ones, especially since I write about such a narrow subject. Thank you for staying!

“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?”

“Hollywood” by Charles Bukowski

“Hollywood” book cover

If you were to read only one documentary book about making movies,  I would suggest Hollywood by Charles Bukowski. It tells the story of his real Hollywood experience as a screen-writer of the movie Barfly. The screenplay was based on his actual life. (Do you get it? Life -> Screenplay -> Movie -> This book. So meta! )  The book is absolutely hilarious. I do not advise you to read it if you think that Hollywood is all about talented people in glamorous settings. And that movie industry is a rational area of business with only balanced individuals involved. Here you will meet all kinds of freaky, obsessed, and shaky human beings who at the same time are able to produce brilliant art. For any movie-goer it is an absolutely fascinating novel.

What spices the fun is the fact that it is Roman à clef (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_%C3%A0_clef) which means that you become involved in the quest for the actual actors, directors and moviemakers behind their false names. After all, what else could you expect from the writer who hid behind the person of “Henry Chinaski” (here again a narrator). This adds surrealism to the book: real people become characters in the novel, in this sense prolonging their existence through Bukowski’s mind. As I write these words, many of the characters in the book are dead, but in Hollywood they stays strong. However, I doubt if most of the people described here wanted to be remembered like that. As the author stresses all the time: Hollywood is all about falseness. People pretend to the media, hide behind their public image. For example, you cannot look at Mickey Rourke (the lead role in Barfly) in the same way. Bukowski portrays him as someone who only plays a tough guy, but often feels insecure.

Faye Dunaway, Charles Bukowski and Mickey Rourke on the set of “Barfly”

What is grotesque about this book? The contrast between prestige usually associated with movies and the reality that destroys this illusion. Chinaski is an outsider in Hollywood. He does not know this world, and he does not particularly care if the movie will get finished or not. The book does not disappoint in puzzling the readers. The characters are grotesque: needy, physically deformed, or mad.

Here is an excerpt, featuring Jean-Paul Sanrah (most probably Jean-Paul Sartre!) who is to find funds for the movie:

There was a fellow there who had the ability to raise money, to back films. This fellow, Jean-Paul Sanrah, had no money himself but it didn’t matter: they said he could jack off a statue in the park and money would emanate from the genitals. Great.  (. . .)

The door, as they say, was ajar. And Henri-Leon was trying to rouse a large body resting on this large bed. The body would not rouse.

I saw Henri-Leon reach into a bowl and grab a handful of icecubes. Two hands full. He pressed the icecubes against both sides of the face and on the forehead. He opened the shirt and rubbed the ice on the chest.

The body still didn’t rouse.

Then all at once it sat up, screamed: “YOU SON OF A BITCH, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? I’M GOING TO HAVE TO DEFROST MYSELF!”

“Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul…you have…visitors…”

“VISITORS? VISITORS? I NEED VISITORS LIKE A DOG NEEDS FLEAS! GO OUT THERE AND STUFF FROGS IN THEIR MOUTHS! PISS ON THEM! BURN THEM!”

“Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul. . . you had an appointment. . . with Jon Pinchot and his screenwriter…”

“All right…shit…I’ll be right out…I’m going to jack-off first. . . No, no, I’ll wait…something to look forward to…” (. . .)

Then Jean-Paul came trundling out. He was dressed in white pants with wide yellow stripes. Pink stockings. No shoes. His hair was all in brown curls, didn’t need combing. But the brown hair looked bad. Like it was dying and couldn’t make up its mind what color to be. He was undershirted and scratching. He kept scratching. (. . .)

Then, he stopped, seemed to see Pinchot.

“You want money, right?”

Pinchot smiled.

“Fucker, I will get you your god damned money,” said Jean-Paul.

“Thank you. I just told Chinaski, here, that you were a genius.” “Shut up!”

Then Jean-Paul looked at me.

“The best thing about your writing is that it excites the Institutionalized. Also those that should be excited. And that figure goes into the many millions. If you can only remain pure in your stupidity, someday you may get a phone call from hell.”

“Jean-Paul, I’ve already gotten those.”

“Yeah? Huh? Who?”

“X-girl friends.”

“YOU DULL ME!” he screamed and began circling the table again, scratching himself as he did so.

Then, after one last big circle, he ran to the bedroom, slammed the door and was gone.

“My brother,” said Henri-Leon, “is not feeling well today. He is upset.”

I reached around and refilled the glasses.

Charles Bukowski

How did you like it? Makes one want to read Sartre’s books, doesn’t it? :)

I also recommend watching Barfly. It is a very good movie. But after reading this book I was surprised it was ever made. Probably every movie has a similarly crazy background, but not every movie has a writer walking on set.