A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.

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Classic Review: Gojira

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

When I reviewed the 1998 remake (or is it reboot?) I mentioned that I was a fairly devout Godzilla fan as a kid.  Still, I admit that I was only really a fan of the sequels.  I loved to watch Godzilla fight other monsters and comically destroy cities.  I didn’t see the original film until much later on and I was initially put off by it.  It was slower paced, there were no other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, and the whole movie felt too grim.  I dismissed it for many years.  Having recently rewatched it, though, I see what a masterpiece it truly is.

It’s difficult now-a-days to treat giant monster movies seriously.  No one, it seems, not even those who make them, honestly wants to make great films for the genre.  They’re about action.  They’re about special effects.  They’re about how cool the monsters look. They don’t exist for story telling purposes*.  Most are glorified sporting matches, a football game with more monstrous contenders.

Not so with the 1954 Gojira (Godzilla was an American mistranslation that stuck.)  Here is a movie that is about ideas, not merely action.  The grimness that I found so off putting years earlier is quite intentional—this film is about war and nuclear annihilation, albeit through the imagery of a giant destructive dinosaur.

Japan, of course, had experienced the destruction of the atomic bomb less than a decade earlier, and so many scenes in the film allude to it.  A city on fire, countless buildings collapsing, hospitals overflowing with the injured and dying, the military fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable force, a secret weapon (the oxygen destroyer) that could end a war but might fall into the wrong hands.  The imagery is powerful, even overwhelming at times.  One scene shows school children singing a prayer, a desperate cry for salvation, the kind of thing that could very well have happened after Nagasaki or Hiroshima were bombed.  It may be one of the saddest moments ever filmed.

It’s easy to be caught up in moments like this in the film and forget that they were caused by a clumsy man in a rubber suit.  Admittedly, the special effects aren’t great.  At no point does Godzilla look real or believable; he looks like what he is: cheap foreign effects from fifty years ago, and still I find myself involved.  Maybe its because the film takes him so seriously.  A shot of Godzilla standing in the middle of a miniature city in flames should’ve seemed comical, and yet I found myself feeling disheartened over the destruction.  People aren’t supposed to die in vast quantities in a giant monster movie, cities aren’t supposed to be on fire.  This film dares you to care, plain and simple.
I had once said that giant monster movies could never rise above B-movie grade.  I think it’s time I retract that.  The reality in film is that any subject can be made into an A-film, if only it’s done with sincerity and strong ideas.  Too many films aim low and get low returns.  Gojira could’ve easily done that.  It could’ve just been another monster movie.  But instead it aimed higher; it wanted to symbolize something.  And that’s why, fifty-seven years after its release, people like me are still talking about it.

*Cloverfield may be an exception, but I never saw it.

Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.

Classic Review: Jurassic Park

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: A film with effects I can only describe as magical and which also changed the way movies are made.

Review: Well, since James quite literally stole my thunder by getting to ‘Thor’ before me, this week I’ll instead be reviewing the cinematic milestone of 1993, ‘Jurassic Park’.

Along with various Disney films, ‘Jurassic Park’ was my earliest movie experience, and it was by far cooler than anything Mickey Mouse could show me.  My parents had somehow glanced over the fact that it was, in fact, a PG-13 film, and so, at between the ages of, say, four and seven, I darn near wore out our VHS tape of it, engrossed in all its dinosaur-awesomeness.  Perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though…

‘Jurassic Park’ was based on the best-selling book of the same name by science fiction writer, Michael Crichton; it told the tale of a science project gone wrong as genetically engineered dinosaurs, bred for a theme park on a remote island, escaped and terrorized the visitors.  The book caught the interest of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who spent the early 1990’s developing it for the silver screen.  In the process, he, along with Stan Winston and ILM, pioneered some of the most advanced special effects (most notably CGI) for their time to bring the film’s dinosaurs to life, forever changing the way Hollywood made films.

And what magic they brought to the screen.  As a kid, I was convinced that the creatures I was viewing on my television screen were real, living dinosaurs.  Everything from the first shot of the Brachiosaurus to the final shot of the T-rex looked alive, and to this day, even as computers have vastly increased in power, they still hold up.  It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Spielberg himself, who worked painstakingly to ensure that these animals were as life-like as possible.  Everything from their movement, to the way they interacted with the physical world, to the way they sounded was undeniably polished, and the result was one of the most powerful experiences a child like myself could hope for.  And that’s really what makes this movie work so well: it’s the sense of child-like awe and wonder at these creatures.  There is a true sense of majesty, for instance, when the audience sees the Brachiosaurus for the first time, complete with one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, as it grazes on a hill.  It’s a beautiful sequence that has the main characters, and the audience as well, frozen in amazement at the animal before us.  It’s a powerful sequence and one of my favorite film moments of all time.  It is moments like this that make the film work.

Now, I would be lying if I said that the film was flawless.  Unfortunately, by paying so much attention to the film’s dinosaurs, Spielberg and Co. didn’t focus enough on the human characters or the actual story.  The original book had a strong plot that was centered on the inner workings of Chaos Theory and the moral dilemma of pushing scientific boundaries: whether something as earth shattering as genetically engineering dinosaurs could ever be controlled or should ever even be done.  The characters as well, notably Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and even the two children, were all nicely fleshed out.  In the film…eh…. not so much.  There is great potential for the characters, and if the script had been brushed up a bit, they’d have really nice arcs; but as is they seem a tad underdeveloped and over-simplified.  In particular, Ian Malcolm, a witty mathematician who delivers the story’s central theme during a climactic speech half-way through the book, is reduced to a sarcastic jerk who gives a watered-down version of the same speech early in the movie.  After words the very theme of scientific morality itself gets buried under a wave of dinosaurs and chase scenes, and the characters boil down to the victims in a horror movie.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re cool dinosaurs and great chase scenes, directed under the skilled hand of Spielberg; but it does turn the plot into more of an amusement park thrill ride than an actual story.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in a sense, not every movie has to be ‘Citizen Kane’; some movies can just be fun (and this movie certainly is) and look cool (and this movie certainly does) but it does set a bad example for other filmmakers who don’t share Spielberg’s sense of wonder and awe.

You see, we live in something of a post-‘Jurassic Park’ movie world.  The blockbuster success of the movie changed the way Hollywood looked at special effects and stories, much the way ‘Star Wars’ had done 16 years earlier.  ‘Jurassic Park’ unlocked the true potential of the computer and ushered in a new era where CGI has made anything possible, but it also ushered in an era when some filmmakers believe special effects can tell their stories for them.  Think about it: how many movies since ‘Jurassic Park’ have come out that employ its same level of CGI?  A great many.  And how many of those movies have, unfortunately, relied on those effects to bolster an otherwise lousy or unfinished script?  Too many.  As it turns out, this sort of dilemma is not too dissimilar to the scientific dilemma depicted (unsuccessfully) in ‘Jurassic Park’.  How should this new technology be used? CGI is a powerful tool for filmmaking and has made some extraordinary films, but without a respect for it and knowledge of its limits, it’s too easily abused, and some very awful films have been the result.

That all said though, perhaps I am, again, getting a little ahead of myself here.  Who am I to judge something as vast and varied as the way special effects are used in film or what films ought to focus on?  Especially since it has allowed for the creation of so many that I love, including ‘Jurassic Park’.  And that brings me back to my main point, which is that ‘Jurassic Park’ is ultimately a great film.  It’s great because Steven Spielberg maintains at its core, the marvel and imagination for dinosaurs that only children can experience.  These were truly the most amazing creatures to ever walk the earth, and Spielberg captures their mystery beautifully.  As a kid I loved this film, and today I still do.  Whatever the long-lasting impact of this film is or will be, better or worse, the film itself is a winner.

So, if by chance you, the movie-goer, haven’t seen this modern-day classic, rent it, Netflix it, borrow it, buy it, whatever.  Give it a watch, and you too will see a truly awesome piece of cinematic history, 65 million years in the making (drum and crash cymbal!)

Black Swan

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.

Review:  Imagination is the life of the soul.  It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries.  As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous.  Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.  Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more.  They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.

There are important divergences, however.  ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one.  Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real.  ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.

This brings me back to imagination.  Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’.  This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her.  The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage.  This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.

Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way.  For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it.  Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts.  ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one.  It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.

Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control.  Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real.  Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation.  I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.

The film also has a strong horror backbone.  It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real.  A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there.  And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors.  This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.

‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone.  I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either.  In some places it overplays its hand.  Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.

Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.