Every good holiday deserves a good movie marathon here at RFC HQ. The last one, the President's Day Marathon/Twitter experiment, wasn't really a smashing success in any way, shape or form besides providing a bit of a headache despite (or due to?) the efforts of Herzog and Fassbinder. So we'll try to do things a little difefrently today.
So we're starting with an RFC favorite, rather than an unknown quantity, and it's a film I haven't seen in many years: David Cronenberg's Videodrome. I love how the first sound of the movie is the sound of doom, it gets you excited. I think it might be time for electric organs, a la Cronenberg and Carpenter, to make a comeback. And I love how every name in the film is pure gold: Max Renn, Barry Convex, Prof. Brian O'Blivion, Spectacular Optical, Cathode Ray Mission, TeleRANGER (if they still made TVs like the TeleRANGER I probably never would have upgraded to HDTV here at HQ). But what I find interesting is how, despite numerous attempts, no one has been able to replicate Videodrome's effectiveness in the digital age. The idea that what we as a society create might lead to a quick, unplanned and horrific step in the evolution of man, or a mutation of some kind, is an attractive story. In the realm of science fiction it's frighteningly plausable. One reason why is made perfectly clear when your watching Videodrome -- shitty, badly lit, grainy analog video and organic, oozing, practical special effects are always scarier than the 0's and 1's of the digital age. But there might be a contender, which I'll get to next.
Hrm. Not quite what I was expecting after having seen the far less ambiguous remake of this film a few months ago. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, if there's anything an American remake of a foreign film will do its strip away ambiguity, but aside from a few details there's very little connecting this 2001 Japanese film with its 2006 retarded American cousin.
In Kairo people all over Tokyo are disappearing and it all seems to connect back to them internet. I can't say for sure whether it's one website or the whole internet that has been taken over, but people are seeing what appears to be static shots of ghosts and/or despondent people who will eventually kill themselves. The movie is very fuzzy with the details, which the American version is more than happy to try and clarify in absurd ways, but this fuzziness adds to the creepiness and mystery. We're trying to figure out this mystery along with a handful of people and no one will end up cracking it. The similarity to Videodrome is less on the nose than I thought it might be, but it is there nonetheless in the way that simply watching something can be like contracting a contagious disease. In Kairo no one is grwoing a brain tumor that will cause hallucinations and eventually "new flesh", but instead they become suicidal with depression and a realization that there is no escaping lonliness.
I'm particularly fond of the film's idea that the internet would be the host to this lonliness disease. Over time I've become a firm believer that the internet is a less than ideal means to clearly communicate or meaningfully connect with anyone despite the ever growing amount of emotocons at our disposal. So the idea that someone can look into the soul of the internet and basically see a black hole of disparaging lonliness is pretty great.
At it's heart though, Kairo is a ghost story -- only instead of a house being haunted it's the entire world. The only thing coming close to an explaination of what's going on comes half-way through the movie when a theory about the ghost world being filled to capacity and overflowing into our world is given. And when these spirits cross over they're ghosts in the machines just as they are in the library or apartment. It's another parallel to Videodrome that human's will experience another life after death within the new thechnology that we've created.
Kairo's effectiveness is due in large part to the crappy, grainy video it's shot on. That's not to say that the cinematography is bad, quite the opposite actually -- Kyoshi Kurosawa's framing and minimalism is expert stuff. It's effective in the same way David Lynch's use of low-tech video cameras in Inland Empire made that movie all the more eerie. While the digitally rendered ghosts in the film aren't quite as disturbing as the mutations in Videodrome, they are well done and the films use of shadows and blackness is simply great but it's the fixed camera that really gets under the skin. There's nothing quite as effective in a scary movie as wanting to blink or turn away but knowing the camera is going to stay right where it is until the inevitable ghost appears.
But my favorite element of Kairo is its Lovecraftian element. H. P. Lovecraft's stories often focused on the psychological snap that occurs when you see the incomprehensible. Kairo does a great job at conveying this idea and I can't even come up with another movie that attempts it. The ultimate fragility of the human mind when it comes across the paranormal is usually not even taken into consideration in a horror movie, so it's nice to see it front and center here.
Ok, let's move on, shall we? My first thought this morning was to string together a line-up of related films and from here I would maybe move on to another ghost story or Japanese film, but now I think I'll make this marathon two double headers instead. It looks like the Sam Fuller movies I have on the Roku are going to expire at the end of the month so it would be a shame if I didn't get to at least a couple of them...
The Steel Helmet
While the epic The Big Red One will always be writer/director Sam Fuller's perfect war movie, The Steel Helmet may be his ballsiest movie. To its credit you don't even have to know its history or have been around when it came out to realize how many chances the film takes. The film follows a hard-ass Sargent as he helps some wayward soldiers hold down an abandoned temple during the Korean war. The most obviously controversial scene happens when a captured North Korean tries to provoke a black soldier and a Japanese-American soldier. He asks the black soldier why he would fight along-side people that don't even allow him to eat in the same restaurants or sit with them on a bus. Then he asks the Japanese-American why he's fighting for a country that was calling him a dirt Jap and had his family locked up in camps during the last war. Both questions are given intelligent, patriotic answers but there's no doubt that a Warner Bros movie would never have dreamed of asking such a question in the first place. This is what makes Sam Fuller so great. Then you come to find out that The Steel Helmet was made in 10 days for $100,000 and only six months into the Korean war and ended up getting him the attention of the FBI. Pretty amazing.
The small budget takes some minor tolls on the movie. Some of the acting isn't the best and there's a couple out of focus shots that I'm sure would've been fixed if time and money weren't so much of an issue. But the movie still feels like a powder keg over 50 years later. At his best Fuller could write like David Mamet and even give his scenes the same kind of charged electricity. So without further ado let's move on to another one of his 50's classics that's been lovingly tended to by the folks behind the Criterion Collection...
Pickup on South Street
Wow. Fuller's Pickup on South Street is just about as perfect as these movies get. A tidy little con-artist thriller. Richard Widmark stars as a subway pickpocket who accidentally steals a few frames of film from a lady who was on her way to do a drop-off. The film is, of course, the classic Macguffin -- something to do with a patent and the commies. So now the cops and the commies are doing what they can to get the film back from Widmark's sly con-man.
If nothing else, Pickup features Thema Ritter giving one of the all time great supporting performaces in Moe Williams, an informant who's dream is to save enough money to afford a nice spot in a respectable graveyard. Ritter is a revelation -- funny with whipcrack timing and (spoiler!) gives one of the most suprisingly moving death scenes I've seen in a long while. Picture this line being perfectly delivered: "Mister, I'm so tired, you'd be doing me a favor by blowing my head off." Camera pans to the record playing on her bed stand -- bang.
My only problem with the film is how quickly the female lead, Candy, falls for Richard Widmark. Widmark is naturally his charming, suave self but Candy falls for the guy minutes after he wakes her up by pouring beer on her face? I take it that she isn't exactly a prude and that she may have fallen for him when he first picked her purse on the subway, but their romance always seemed a little forced in the movie despite their on-screen chemistry.
Well, that's all folks. Time to sign off here and call it a day. This was certainly one of the best line-up of films I've watched over the course of a single day. I hope the Patriot's Day Marathon can keep the streak alive. Until then...