Important: can you explain it to me?

diewand glasI ought to feel bewitched by this beautiful and haunting film — the debut by Julian Roman Pölsler — but I also feel annoyed, as if it circles around a metaphor or a broader statement about something that I can’t figure out. Please help.

The Wall is basically a one-woman show (streaming on Netflix right now) about a woman (Martina Gedeck) whose friends invite her to stay in their hunting cabin one summer next to a breathtaking Austrian lake, surrounded by spectacular peaks. But when she wakes up the next day, she finds that an invisible wall surrounds her, separating her from every other human being, including them.

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Her story of survival goes beyond being remarkable — what would you do if you found yourself without any access to human contact? The film reminds you of the skills you probably don’t have: the ability to milk a cow, gut a deer, mow a field of hay using only a scythe, help the cow give birth. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this film without getting a little survivalist yourself: must watch YouTube for advice on how to help cows in labor, just in case.

All of this combines a great atmosphere of dread/horror with science fiction (where did the wall come from?) and her heavily narrated tale of psychological transformation. But what does it mean, in the end?

07I’m also sorry to say that huge narrative gaps. I understand the impulse to survive, but why isn’t she more interested in the metaphysical questions? Is this woman’s tale of survival intended to have a feminist edge — and if so, why can’t I find it, what with my nerve endings constantly attuned to such things? Why doesn’t she just keep the sweet little white kitty inside the house? Why do I just not buy the sudden arrival of a [identifying information withheld] later in the film?

Please tell me you’ve seen it and have ideas about What It All Means. Surely there’s something I’ve missed. I want to like this film but find myself oddly annoyed at the cloaked significance and narrative leaps.

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What doesn’t this movie have? Cockney housemaids, creepy English country homes with secret passageways, a black cat, a mysterious back story … and all packed into a tidy 65 minutes of Hollywood movie time. Some people call this film noir, but it’s weirder than that — it’s horror, it’s gothic, it’s melodrama.

And did I mention it’s streaming on YouTube? The perfect thing for a late-night movie:

And when you watch it, pay careful attention to the first ten minutes and tell me what you think. I can’t believe this got past the censors at the time.

Julia Ross has just come in after looking for a job all day, and has a conversation with the maid who cleans her dreary boarding house. If things aren’t already bad enough, she finds a wedding invitation in the mail from a man who clearly used to be sweet on her — why, the housemaid thought for sure Julia would make him forget about that other girl. Oh well.

Cockney housemaid: If you ain’t aiming too high, I know plenty of places where you can get a job like mine. [Julia looks distressed at the notion of being a maid.] But I suppose a fine lady like you was trained for something better.

Julia Ross, looking stricken: The doctor says I’ve got to be careful for a few months.

Maid: Oh. My sister had her “appendix” out, too. She were scrubbing and cleaning the very next week.

Julia: Does it bother her now?

Maid: Nothing bothers her now. She’s dead. But it wasn’t good, honest work that killed her.

Now, tell me: is this a coded conversation about an abortion? Sure sounds that way to me.

I’ve done a piss-poor job of getting into the Halloween mood this year. Being so busy meant I was left to feel dejected by (and envious of) wonderful blog events like Dark Iris’s 31 Days of Horror, in which she writes about an absolutely terrific set of cheesy/scary films in her erudite and always good-humored voice.

Last night was the first time I had the chance to sit down and watch a scary film — TCM’s showing of the beautiful, weird, and scarily effective The Unknown, a silent starring Lon Chaney and a lovely, round-faced (almost unrecognizable) Joan Crawford. It’s directed by the cult director Tod Browning (most famous for Freaks [1932]).

I’ve said it before: silent films have a capacity to rub up against something primal in our psyches, rendering the best of them truly transfixing. Just take Sunrise (1927) or Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). If you let yourself fall into them — don’t let yourself multi-task or watch ironically — they touch something truly terrifying in us. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but I’m willing to wager that the best directors of the 1920s had smarts about the use of light and cameras that got lost in the shuffle toward sound later on.

The Unknown is a good example. Chaney stars as Alonzo, an armless circus performer whose dexterity with his feet made him a star; when he’s not lighting up cigarettes or holding a teacup with his toes, he uses his feet to throw knives at the luscious Crawford to an appreciative public. Secretly, however, this is all a ruse: an accomplished thief with a record, he binds up his arms in a corset when in public because his hands, which have a distinct deformity, would land him in prison.

At the same time, he loves the gamine Nanon (Crawford), and she displays a distinct affection for him, too. Especially because, as she explains, she’s so tired of having men try to paw her that she has developed a powerful antipathy to men’s hands. The circus’s strongman, Malabar, appears particularly clueless in that regard; his flirtation with her always seems to be going well until he reaches forward and Nanon backs away, horrified and traumatized by all those memories of men trying to get something from her.

No wonder she’s willing to pull herself toward Alonzo. He’s perfect: he has no hands. Which is why his secret is so devastating: he can never be with her and let her know the truth.

Watch the whole thing and tell me if this isn’t fascinating — and oh, that contrast of Chaney’s and Crawford’s faces. This is what the movies are all about.

It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?

As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.


To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.

The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.

 In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?

More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?

Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.

NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.

*****

JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?

Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.

So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?


JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.

Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?

JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.

Director Ridley Scott with star Noomi Rapace

Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.

Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.


JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?

Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.

Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?


JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.

Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.

I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.


JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?

Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.

I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.

JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.

Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.


Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.

JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.

Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.

Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.


Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.

Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.

Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?

JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.

So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.

*** Spoilers to follow! ***

*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***

Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?

JMM: Thought you’d never ask!

I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?


Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.

But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:

  1. The film is too short to do justice to the plot
  2. The film becomes an action film too abruptly
  3. The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film

I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!

JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.

We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.

Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:

This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.

I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!


Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.

Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?

JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.

These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.

Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?

Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.


Didion: It’s crazy! it can take the story nowhere if humans and their Engineer creators are at war with one another!

Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.

Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.

JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?

Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.

Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?

So we have a conception, an abortion, a birth, and a rape all in one film. Scott is one complicated dude, isn’t he?

Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!

The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.

I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?

This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!


JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.

Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.

But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.


Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)

I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.

JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?

Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.

How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?


JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.

But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.

But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?

Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.

That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.

I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!

Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent

Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent

Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent

Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent

Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent

Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!

But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!

JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.

But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.

Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?

Sound of My Voice is riveting and well-acted but has such a thin, vague plot that by the end you walk out feeling ripped off. I can honestly say I watched every single scene with rapt attention; the three main characters are consistently watchable and believable; the dialogue is weird and feels true. But if the director got the trees right — almost every scene feels properly creepy and emotionally fraught — the forest turns out to be a disaster.

Unlike last fall’s brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene, which told a twisting tale about how a young woman became absorbed into a cult (and ultimately left it, and remained terrified by it), Sound of My Voice isn’t primarily interested in the scary psychological appeal of cults, the insidious means by which leaders draw their adherents in, or the fantastical raisons d’être offered by their charismatic leaders for the group’s existence and future. Rather, this film devolves to an “is she or isn’t she?” question. Whereas many small films opt for so much plot that you want to teach them that less is more, this film made me realize that sometimes, less is less.

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are would-be documentary filmmakers who have made their way into a secretive cult oriented around a mysterious woman, Maggie (Brit Marling). Indeed, the film opens with an eminently creepy sequence of shots, wherein they are bound and blindfolded, stuffed into a van, and driven out to the cult’s secret location — where they are stripped of their street clothes, asked to shower and scrub themselves thoroughly, and dressed in hospital gowns before meeting Maggie. All of this is filmed so economically, and with such a fascinating combination of moodiness and dreariness to the sets, that you find yourself holding your breath, anticipating … what? A terrifying leader? That Peter and Lorna will be uncovered as frauds?

Peter has hooked up a spy-cam to his glasses to film the proceedings — like when Maggie tells the new recruits her story about being a time traveler from the future. But as the film moves along, it focuses ever more intently on the question of whether Maggie really believes her own story or has ulterior motives. Those questions just aren’t good enough, nor are the plot twists unusual enough to keep us guessing.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the script with actor Marling, this film sustains your attention even through scenes that seem either odd (like when the germaphobic shut-in Maggie, who eats only foods grown in her own hydroponic growhouse, nevertheless opens a window and lights up a cigarette) or stereotyped (when one of the cult’s henchwomen whisks Lorna off to a woodsy area to teach her how to fire a gun — a scene we’ve seen in what, three or four recent films?).

Not to mention my biggest disappointment: the filmmakers only used the “sound of my voice” theme sloppily, dropped in absent-mindedly, rather than plumbed for more. What is it about the voices of these cult leaders, their ability to put concepts together for their adherents, to insinuate themselves like earworms into the brains of eager followers? That’s interesting. This film doesn’t touch the topic, nor does it convince me that Maggie’s voice or sentences will haunt me later. If they could create a movie poster as vivid and enticing as this one, I argue, surely they could have spent more time on the script.

As you can see, I walked out feeling frustrated — partly because the overall vision for this quasi-sci-fi film was ultimately so muddled by its emphasis on style and creepy anticipation; and partly because the final big plot twist makes the entire film look more like a 45-minute long X-Files episode rather than a smart, well-plotted full-length feature. So as much as I’d like to see writer/actor Marling as part of a new wave of women filmmakers, I’m going to table my enthusiasm for now … and at the risk of sounding bossy, suggest that she throw herself more completely into articulating a vision for a film before racing into production.

Scariest female monster ever? Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed

When I started this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies featuring Female Monsters, I was pretty sure I’d be seeing a lot of cheesy films as I explored the dirty underworld of how filmmakers associated women with monstrousness. But the subject matter has taken over — the more I explore, the more seriously I view these films’ underlying themes. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy Dance of Death to lure men to their doom. But then I uncovered this rich vein of My Mother Made Me a Monster films.

Curiously, these are undeniably better films than the aforementioned cheese. (Why? Please send answers!) Rather than imagine Sex In Space or answer questions about what would happen if you injected women with wasp venom, Mother/Monster films raise questions about whether nature is destiny — whether an evil mother inevitably produces demonic qualities in her child, and whether even a good mother is to blame for producing a monster. From Cat People (1942) to The Bad Seed (1956) and eventually Carrie (1976), a whole genre of cult horror films swirl around mother-hating or mother’s guilt to produce an exceptionally riveting set of questions.

*****

The most claustrophobic of all cult films is surely The Bad Seed, 95% of which takes place in that awful middle-class 1950s apartment inhabited by the Penmarks and their super-perfect 8-yr-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda’s pigtails are always neat, her shoes never scuffed, and her dresses always as girly as possible.

Let this be a lesson to all of you who complain that your daughters are slobs: thank your lucky stars, for it doubtless means your daughters are normal.

Is Rhoda just a nasty little piece of work? Oh no, friends. She is a bad seed (or, in the parlance of our day, a psychopath). She acts all sweet and treacly, but then get her on the topic of why she didn’t win the school medal for penmanship, and you see a little monster come through. So much of a monster, in fact, that she murders the prizewinner, takes his medal for herself, and expresses no remorse.

Told through the eyes of Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), we find ourselves trapped in that insidious, nightmare-inducing space of that apartment (yes, this was originally a stage play) — sympathizing with and yet infuriated by Christine’s passivity and mother love for a monster of epic proportions.

Christine’s suspicions about her daughter lead her to delve into her own past. She has always suspected she was adopted — and after pressing hard on her father, she learns the truth: her own mother was a psychotic murderer, and only by fluke did the 2-yr-old Christine end up with loving adoptive parents. But this means, of course, that unwittingly she has given birth to a Bad Seed (and that it’s genetic). Now that she knows she’s responsible for passing this gene along to her daughter, what will Christine do about it? If someone is to be punished, is it the mother or the psychotic, manipulative child?

Needless to say, The Bad Seed could be paired with We Need to Talk About Kevin for one of the most disturbing double features ever. (Who would come to such a double feature?) These films also seem to confirm the notion that even very young children can be psychopaths (that recent NY Times article even discusses the fact that the public inevitably blames mothers for having psychotic children).

*****

A similar set of questions undergirds Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Cat People, which might be the best horror qua noir film ever. It all starts out so innocently, with guileless Oliver flirting with that fetching girl at the zoo. She turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer who harbors an eccentric fascination for the big cats in their cages — even more eccentric than most, considering that we find out that her drawings show the panthers speared through the heart with a sword.

Fast forward to love and marriage (and I mean fast), and suddenly we have a problem: Irena fears she has inherited the evil taint of her Serbian village’s devil-worshiping past, and that she is a Cat Person. Is it possible? or is it all in her pretty little head? Naturally, Oliver is inclined to believe the latter, and signs her up for visits to psychiatrist Dr. Judd.

But Irena doubts the answer is so simple. She’s haunted by fears and dreams. What about the fact that her father died so young, so mysteriously — and that they accused her mother of being a Cat Person, responsible for his death?

She’s always kept people at a distance, but breaks down her defenses because she loves Oliver so much. Still, on their wedding night, as she sits in the restaurant with a wedding party, a strange, ominous-looking woman (with the best 1940s up-do) stares at her from across the room. “Look at that woman,” says one of her guests. “She looks like a cat,” another guest responds. The woman approaches and speaks to Irena, repeatedly, in Serbian. Irena crosses herself and looks terrified.

“What did that woman say to you, darling?” Oliver asks after the woman leaves. “She greeted me,” Irena replies. “She called me sister.”

One of the many things Irena learned growing up was that she must avoid growing angry or jealous, for those heightened emotions will bring out the evil inside her. Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in: if she gets jealous or angry, she becomes a murderous, vengeful panther who stalks and kills those responsible. This makes Bitchez From Space look mild in comparison.

So Irena determines the best response is to keep Oliver at a distance: they sleep separately. Which places such pressure on the marriage that Irena begins to suspect — correctly — that Oliver and his work pal Alice have fallen in love with each other. When Irena sees the two of them together in a restaurant late one night, she knows the truth — and thus begins some terrific horror/noir sequences in which Alice is hunted by a big cat through lonely city streets, and Irena is haunted by (animated) dreams of cats staring at her, surrounding her. It’s all so distressing that we see her, crying by herself at her alienation in the bath.

There’s so much to say about this film — about the confusion over the protagonist (Oliver is decidedly not sympathetic; both Irena and Alice are, yet they wind up in a cat-and-mouse game against one another), the beautiful filming, that terrific animated sequence of cats:

But let’s stay focused on the My Mother Made Me a Monster theme, which obtains throughout this film and becomes even more prominent in the (weak) sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is all about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. No wonder Irena fears sex and love with Oliver: it makes a woman unpredictable, dangerous, even one as sweet as Irena. No wonder that in the sequel, mothers and daughters are far more at war.

*****

And finally there’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, a film that encapsulates so much of the horror of pubescence and high school that I’m tempted to term King a genius. The opening sequence alone is a brilliant piece of horror/ porn all packaged up in a wrapper of female trouble. A pointedly anodyne musak tune plays while the opening credits move us through a high school girls’ locker room as the girls dress and horse around. As we gradually move toward more full-frontal nudity and the steam of the showers, we find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) luxuriating alone in the hot water, all soft-focus and slow motion — eyes closed, hand running a bar of soap all over herself slowly, pleasurably.

Then she starts to bleed — she’s started her period — but not knowing anything about menstruation, she starts to scream and beg the other girls for help. Being typically unsympathetic high school girls, they taunt her, smack at her, and throw tampons at her until she cowers, naked, bloody, and dripping, in a corner of the shower.

When she gets home, she tries explain to her domineering, religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), “Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma?” Her mother hits her over the head with a biblical tract and has only one thing to say:

Mamma, reading aloud: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it: the raven was called sin! 
Carrie: Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma? 
Mamma: Say it. [hits Carrie in the face with her tract] The raven was called sin. [hit her again]
Carrie: No, Mamma. [gets hit yet again, finally relents] And the raven was called sin! 
Mamma: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma. 
Mamma: Say it. [hits her again
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma! 
Mamma: The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: And the first sin was intercourse! Mamma, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mamma. 
Mamma hits her again: And Eve was weak! say it! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! Say it, woman! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Say it! 
Carrie: Eve was weak, Eve was weak. 
Mamma: And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! 
Carrie: You should have told me, Mamma! You should have told me! 
Mamma kneels down and takes Carrie’s hand: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her! 

Then, of course, her mother locks her in a closet with the most terrifying Jesus-on-the-cross figure ever. I mean, come on — is this not the creepiest horror scene you can imagine? And this is long before the pig’s blood starts flying!

The film never tells us whether having to deal with such an insane mother was the trigger that initiated Carrie’s gift of telekinesis. But it’s clear that Carrie’s extreme social withdrawal is the result of such mothering. She’s so withdrawn that the other kids at school find her an easy joke, a target. Her mother keeps her so naive that she doesn’t know about menstruation, after all.

And her mother displays a fear of men and an antipathy to sex that colors everything her daughter does. When Carrie decides to go to the prom with hunky Tommy (William Katt), her mother prays desperately, ecstatically, in that awful attic room while Carrie makes her own dress.

“I should have killed myself when he put it in me,” Carrie’s mother says late in the film, as she explains that Carrie is the product of her own sin. Does it matter that this comes from the fevered imagination of a crazy woman? What we do know is that Carrie and her mother ultimately go down together, locked in a strange reverse-maternal embrace, as the creepy eyes of the Jesus figurine look on.

*****

My mother made me a monster. It’s a theme that has been the source of much cheesier filmic material than in these three films (see for example She-Wolf of London [1946] and Cobra Woman [1944]) but isn’t this theme more interesting when done well?

I think it’s appropriate that I end this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters on this note — after watching three films that problematize femininity via that scary mother-daughter bond, via questions about nature, nurture, Jesus and the Devil. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when Hollywood created female monsters, its writers and directors tried to work out their own crazy, stereotyped and contradictory ideas about women along the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling awfully grateful for the mother I have — a woman I’m going to see tomorrow, and who’s promised yet another couple of days of relaxation in her beautiful garden. And I’m going to remind her how lucky she is to have a daughter who had a messy room for all those years.

About a week before Ocean’s Eleven (2001) came out, I saw the original with Frank Sinatra et als (1960). It was terrible. All the more reason to love the Steven Soderbergh version. He took the bare bones of the original but did some pretty serious rewriting and major character development to give us style, humor, better actors, and a better ending.

Just think what you could do with a film like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which is already pretty good. It’s just too long and has some other issues as I’ll detail below. As I occasionally like to offer up my own brilliant plot ideas for an eager reading audience, here’s my advice to Hollywood: tweak this story and you’ve got box office gold!

The original story centers on Ku (Shih Jun), a mild-mannered, unambitious scholar in a small village who refuses to follow his mother’s advice and apply for a better-paid job in the magistrate’s office. One day he encounters two strangers: first, he’s commissioned to paint a portrait of a sinister-looking man named Ouyang (Tien Peng); and second, that night he hears strange noises coming from the abandoned and reputedly haunted house across the way. When he investigates, he’s spooked by a strange and ghostly figure who later proves to be Miss Yang (Hsu Feng, above), a laconic, unsmiling, beautiful woman on the run from a corrupt official who wants to execute her and has hired Ouyang to do it. Ku teams up with her to help (as much as a clumsy scholar can), and the remainder of the film traces their attempts to escape. It culminates with a terrific battle scene in a bamboo forest with some kickass Buddhist monks, which shows this film’s influences on later wuxia greats like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

The dvd copy I got, a simple VHS-to-DVD transfer, shows the film’s abundant wear & tear — all those night scenes are almost too muddy to see, and you often see scratches or grit on the film itself. At just over 3 hours it’s long and seems to end 3 different times. Still, this tale has great characters, terrific fight scenes (including one in a bamboo forest that has huge potential for re-imagining, and not just in a Crouching Tiger imitation way), and — best of all — a ghost-story subtheme.

Nor does it need to be set during the typical wuxia never-never land of an unspecified past of swordsmen and secretive martial arts sects. In fact, I can imagine a great modern version taking place amongst Chinese Americans of a 1940s San Francisco or perhaps one of its agricultural regions nearby, like Watsonville or Gilroy, during the same era that saw the internment of Japanese Americans. Can’t you just imagine the final fight scene taking place in a redwood forest or a eucalyptus grove, or perhaps on the oceanside cliffs south of Monterey? (Hollywood: call me and we’ll talk. My screenwriting and/or consulting rates are shockingly affordable.)

No matter the setting, the first order of business is to switch up the protagonist. In the original, our hero(?) is Ku, the bumbling scholar — but although we need to start with him, once we meet Miss Yang she needs to supplant him as protagonist. (I mean, even us bumbling scholars don’t really like to see ourselves as protagonists.) Ku pales in comparison. He reminds me of that creepy dude in my college dorm, the one who always seemed to leer at you from his doorway. Miss Yang could also use more of a back story, as well as clearer motivations to explain, for one, why in the world she has sex with Ku, with his creepy toothiness and weird makeup. (The Feminéma rewrite might have to find a more Chow Yun Fat-style sexual partner for Yang. Mmmmm.)

Second: don’t drop the creepy haunted-house subtheme midway through the film. The film’s first half takes place on the best set ever: a lonely, run-down village, at the center of which is a hauntingly memorable abandoned home and compound that used to belong to a military general. What a set it makes. The white plumes of the tall, ghostlike pampas grass constantly block your view of what’s going on. Spiderwebs everywhere — fabulous! It provides the setting for one of the film’s best big fight scenes, during which our heroes scare the bad guys by making them think real ghosts are attacking them on all sides. Afterward, however, we leave the haunted house and don’t return.

I say you can bring it back in with the Super-Dooper mystical Buddhist monks, who make a couple of handy appearances in the film’s second half. No matter how this story gets rewritten, the monks stay in.

Best of all, just imagine the possibilities if our sword-carrying heroine and her monk friends are not just battling corruption (Californians trying to grab Chinese-American land and business as well as those belonging to Japanese Americans, possibly?) but also World War II, nativism, and 1940s sexism. It could be a cross between blaxploitation and wuxia — with just enough historical and place-specific context to make it interesting.

Hollywood, remember how much money Crouching Tiger made? It ranked as the 19th most profitable film worldwide of 2000 and raked 44 film prizes from 14 different awards-granting institutions.

Now, finally: a title. A Touch of Zen might sound a bit too tame for the action I foresee.

  • Zen and the Art of Surviving a War?
  • Zenifornia
  • Mod Zen Explosion?