The Lost Continent (1968)

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The Lost Continent (a 1968 Seven Arts-Hammer Film production, based loosely upon Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas) opens with a wheezy, breezy organ-laden lounge track by The Peddlers—vaguely reminiscent of the club music in Melville’s Le Samouraï—murmuring over the introductory credits. The song (which I found quite catchy) is, in its languid, slightly seedy tone, at odds with the ghostly, forlorn scenery, but, as one will discover, not with the lurid characters of the drama, for whom it is a fitting anthem.

Cut to a child’s burial at sea upon a tramp steamer moving under an auspicious sky. The steamer is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, seaweed-strewn and ominous. The murky color-saturation lends to a tangible otherworldliness which digital is as-yet unable to capture in its chromatic projection. The vessel’s captain (Eric Porter), who provides the departed’s last rites, ruminates on how he and the scant, peculiar crew—some dressed in 60s fashion, others in colonial-era armor—arrived at such a grotesque wending. From there the film jumps back in time, where, again, we see the stone-faced Captain Lansen being hailed by two customs officials, who he promptly ignores, much to the chagrin of his nervous first officer, Mr. Hemmings (Neil McCallum).

The film then introduces the colorful main-cast of passengers, the alternatively charming and boorish drunkard-pianist Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley), the eastern-european fugitive and aging-beauty Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), the bumbling, self-important Dr. Webster (Nigel Stock, who is seen reading Uncharted Seas in his introductory scene in a respectful nod to the source material), his wayward daughter Unity (Suzanna Leigh playing the only main character who retains a name from the novel), the jovial bartender Pat (Jimmy Hanley) and the scheming mustachioed Ricaldi (Ben Carruthers).

When the captain instructs Hemmings to avoid “the usual shipping lane” on-route to Caracas, the latter’s curiosity and concern grows. It is then unveiled that the captain is transporting a large quantity of chemicals in the cargo-hold which react violently with water. A hurricane encroaches, yet the captain expresses little interest in turning around and tells the first mate that if he wishes, he can put the matter before the passengers. Hemmings does so and is astonished when none vote to turn the ship around. Lansen declares they will “keep going.” Thereafter, a drunken Tyler sardonically quips, “One man. One vote. Aren’t you glad you live in a democracy?” Hemmings, confounded, pronounces the passengers “bloody mad” and rushes back to the captain whereupon he is greeted by the crew who informs Hemmings that the cargo is filled with explosives. Shortly thereafter, Lansen confesses the truth of the matter to Hemmings: The cargo is indeed filled with combustible material as the crew feared, which was why the captain ignored the customs officials. Lansen then tells his first mate the reason he’s transporting the material is because its his last haul and one he plans to retire on (hence his challenging-forth into the storm).

As this is occurring, Eva returns to her quarters to find Ricaldi rifling through her belongings, in which lies 2 million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. He explains that his interest in her is “nothing personal” and that he’s working for the man from whom she stole, who, unsurprisingly, wants his properties returned. Eva attempts to bribe him, first (vainly) with money, then (successfully) with sex (unlike Unity, Eva’s sexual liaisons have a deeply moral impetus, as she needs the money to save her son from her ex-dictator-husband who holds the boy hostage).

As Eva barters with Ricaldi, Unity quarrels with her controlling (and possibly incestuous) father (Mr. Webster), who accuses her of being a whore (which she is), though he has little moral high-ground upon which to stand, as Unity swiftly recounts his numerous affairs with his nurses, secretaries and even his patients. Through this exchange it is revealed that, just like Peters, Ricaldi and the captain, the Websters, too, have a secret reason for being on the ship, for Mr. Webster was formerly practicing in Africa, where he carried out illegal operations on his patients when he wasn’t busy diddling them. The unprofessional doctor’s behavior caused such a stir that the police opened up a investigation, forcing the Websters to flee.

On deck, the crew attempt to take the slack out of the ship’s anchor-chain, which they botch, causing a rupture in the hull that floods the cargo-hold. This in turns threatens to ignite the chemicals. The emergency pumps prove useless and the crew, thoroughly distressed, convince Hemmings to lead a mutiny. The crew-leader, however cautions against mob-tactics, and states that Hemmings will be in charge and that everything will be done in a legal “above board” manner. The crew agrees. It is here that the film displays its knack for deft and three-dimensional characterization; even amidst such dire situations, the crew-leader is cool-headed enough to understand the latent dangers of hysteria and frenzy, never letting his own caution get the better of him. Unfortunately, the crew-leader’s reserve is all for naught as the captain, when confronted, refuses to abandon ship and states that he’ll kill anyone who tries. Unity’s lover, the radio-operator, tells the passengers that the crew is abandoning the vessel and asks them to join. Pat asks if the captain ordered the desertion. The radio operator tells them he did not and the bartender is aghast. “That’s mutiny!” the loyal soul cries. “Call it what you like.” Declares the radio-operator, before vainly attempting one last time to convince them to leave. All decline save Unity, who is swiftly ordered back into place by her father. Failing to move the passengers, the radio-operator curses them hysterically and dashes for the lifeboats as Tyler declares to his companions, “This is the moment when all the rats leave the sinking ship.” Emphasis on rats.

Back on deck the crew moves to escape but the captain arrives and opens fire, hitting the radio operator, whose head is then smashed by a winch much to Unity’s horror. The surviving crew members, lead by Hemmings paddle away to an uncertain fate as the captain mulls over his next plan of action.

One of the wounded crew members is brought into the piano parlour where Tyler, still swilling booze, incessantly strikes up a funeral march, which, unsurprisingly disturbs the other passengers. When Webster attempts to wrest Tyler’s bottle from him to use on the patient to sterilize his wounds, Tyler becomes incensed and flys at the bartender. Before Tyler can beat Pat senseless the captain intervenes, breaks up the fight and enlists the passengers aid in moving the explosive barrels from the hold before it completely fills with water. This they successfully accomplish but it is only a matter of time before the water leaks into the new room housing the barrels; in light of this, Lansen decides there is nothing further to be done but abandon the ship, as Hemmings previously suggested, which lends a sense of grave futility to the previous scene; for the captain killed his own men for doing precisely what he would later go on to do. Yet, it was mutiny. Betrayal. What currency is more precious than loyalty? Had they stuck with him, no one would have died and they’d have escaped the ship all the same.

After the passengers and the remnants of the crew escape the ship, tensions run high. Tyler, shorn of his booze, attempts to thieve rum from the captain, which greatly annoys Webster. Tyler later successfully steals the rum and cackles about it and is again confronted by Webster. Irked, Tyler trounces the man, accidentally knocking him into the ocean. Distressed by his drunken impulsivity, Tyler leaps after Webster as a shark approaches. The sea-beast kills Webster, leaving Tyler utterly devastated. Two of the remaining crew members find this a opportune time to stage yet another coup to ensure they have access to the supplies. This fails, as Eva shoots the chief mutineer in the gut with a flare, killing him. Tyler makes his way back to the boat as Eva breaks down in tears. From that moment on, Tyler decides to give up drink.

Sometime later, the lifeboat is seen drifting through fog. Nearly 47 minutes into the film, we are finally introduced to the ‘lost continent’ itself, which, though certainly lost to the world, isn’t really a continent by any classical definition, but rather, a great, floating, matted tangle of carnivorous seaweed, which wastes no time in wounding the captain and devouring the cook. This is quite a departure from Wheatley’s novel, wherein the seaweed is likewise thick and strange but yet, not malevolently sentient, nor carnivorous. Shortly after encountering the weeds the survivors find a ship floating in the fog and hail the crew, only to be greeted by Pat, the bartender, who had been left behind during the evacuation whereupon they realize its none other than Lansen’s ship.

After a change of clothes, Tyler and Unity engage in a discussion in the bar, where Tyler (conspicuously drinking coffee) begins to apologize for accidentally causing the death of her father. Rather surprisingly, she thanks him for “freeing” her. Naturally, Tyler is perplexed but when she proposes a toast to the future, he hesitantly raises his cup (of coffee).

The captain and the rest of the crew discover that the ship is now completely in the grip of the hungry aquatic vegetation, which has jammed the propeller. Lansen remarks upon the situation in one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines in the film, “Now we go where the weed takes us” (I’m surprised it hasn’t been meme’d).

The weeds drag the ship into the Sargasso sea, as they do so, Unity attempts to put the moves on a increasingly morose and withdrawn Tyler, who will have none of it. In an attempt to loosen the pianist up, she brings him a drink as Pat looks on with worry. Tyler, however, promptly declines. He does, however, begin to dance with her as she whispers sweet nothings to him. That is, until, she offers him a drink again and suggest they go back to her cabin. Infuriated, Tyler reprimands her and casts the glass across the room, shattering it against the wall. He declares he’s “given up the booze” whereupon Unity (who at this point in the film had become my least favorite character) informs him that “it won’t do you any harm.” To which he replies, “The first one never does.” Unity then becomes irate and demands he have drink, stating that it “might just make a man out of” him. He calmly replies “I’m beginning to feel like a man for the first time in years.” He turns her down once more and she storms off to find another man (as I previously mentioned, she’s a whore). She finds her “man” in Ricaldi, who is smoking on deck. Before they can consummate there extremely premature relationship, however, a giant octopus-like creature attacks, grabs Unity, covers her in slime, then kills (and presumably eats) Ricaldi.

Some time after this harrowing experience, the crew hears cries of help coming from the water and discover a young woman striding towards them across the seaweed through a pall of fog via the aid of a balloon backpack and paddle shoes. Tyler aids her whereupon she explains she’s being followed, and right on cue the camera cuts to a legion of shadowy figures, balloon-and-armour garbed and paddle shoed, striding over the carnivorous flotsam. Whilst such a description might sound comical, its not played for laughs. I certainly never cracked a smile as I was watching. Rather than coming off as goofy, its evocative of a grotesque dreamscape. The balloon-harnesses, are taken directly from the book (Uncharted Seas), whereas the paddle-shoes are a original invention. In the book, the inhabitants of the lost continent used balloons and stilts to evade the ravenous octopi that camouflaged themselves within the weeds, in the film, the inhabitants trudge over the vegetation like water-bugs. Wheatley’s inspiration (and hence, the film’s) for the balloons came from balloon-jumping, a popular fad of his time.

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The crew engages in a battle with the lost continentals, which the crew wins and captures one of the striders alive.

It is here that the film, for the first time, cuts away from the crew and passengers to another, much older ship, hidden in the roiling mists of the lost continent. It is revealed that the piratical water striders are the descendants of Spanish conquistadors and have been living on the lost continent for hundreds of years. They are ostensibly ruled by the boy-emperor, El Supremo (alternatively, El Diablo), however, the real power behind the throne is the insidious, masked man referred to only as The Inquisitor (Eddie Powell—the prolific stuntman behind the action in films such as Alien, Aliens, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).

The cut makes excellent narrative sense, as the crew and passengers learn all of this information at the same time as it is being shown to the audience by interrogating one of the Spaniards they’d capture. Here again, is another departure from the book, where the hostile inhabitants of the lost continent were not forgotten conquistadors, but negro savages (presumably, a bloody race war was a little too recherche for even the notoriously transgressive Hammer Films). The young woman they brought aboard, whose name is Sarah (Dana Gillespie), explains her people had moved to the lost continent to escape religious persecution, however, they found precisely the opposite under The Inquisitor’s bloodthirsty proxy reign.

That night Sarah abruptly departs without a word, water-striding into the fog. However, Tyler spies her leaving and heads out after her along with Pat and another member of the crew. They catch up with her and plan to spend the night in a cave when Pat is attacked by a giant crab, which kills the poor man. Before the hideous crustacean can turn its rapacious maw upon the rest of the wayfarers, however, its waylaid by a giant scorpion(thingy). The two beasts then engage in a duel to the death, which is interrupted by the crewman who shoots the oversized crustacean in the eye, killing it. It’s worth remembering the shark earlier in the film, as the patchwork monsters featured in the scene were the creation of the late Robert Mattey, who also designed the model sharks used in Jaws. The monster fight is the low point of the film. Ambitious and interesting as Mattey’s creations are, they’re simply not convincing. It’s all too obvious that they’re running on wheels! The interlude into monster mayhem, however, is quite brief, so it (much like the giant octopus scene) detracts little from the overall serious tonality.

The Inquisitor then shows up with a band of guardsmen who incapacitate Sarah, Tyler and the crewman and take them back to their decaying galleon-turned-death-cathedral. In a film with more winks and nudges, this might all be quite ridiculous, however, The Lost Continent never loses its sincerity and plays every scene for emotional believability (which is one of its greatest strengths, beyond its solid acting and fantastical setting and atmosphere). Before The Inquisitor can have El Supremo execute them, Lansen and the rest of the crew burst onto the scene and hold the Spaniards at gunpoint. The Inquisitor, unperturbed, then addresses Lansen in one of the best exchanges in the film. The Inquisitor tells Lansen that he and his people can’t escape. That escape is impossible because it is God’s will that they stay. Lansen, of course, disagrees.

The film concludes in a cataclysmic battle pitting Lansen and Tyler’s men against The Inquisitor’s forces. In the fight, El Supremo is slain and it is his body which rests in the coffin that is dumped into the water at the beginning of the film.

The beginning, it turns out, is the end. A peculiarly inconclusive one for an adventure film. For we know not whether they are able to defy The Inquisitor’s expectations, or whether he was right that escape was impossible. Though we don’t know if they escape, we know that they would try until the last. As Lansen said, “The day we stop trying, we stop living.”


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Sources

  1. Dick. (2019) The Oak Drive-In: The Lost Continent (1968).
  2. Matthew Coniam. (2016) Wheatley On Film: The Lost Continent (1968). The Dennis Wheatley Project
  3. Michael Carreras. (1968) The Lost Continent. Seven Arts-Hammer Films.

Roger Corman’s The Phantom Eye (1999)

| Horror | TV series—feature film (1999)

Directed by Gwenyth Gibby | Edited by Lorne Morris | Written by Benjamin Carr

Starring: David Sean Robinson, Sarah Aldrich and Roger Corman, with Michael J. Anderson & Frank Gorshin.

Originally aired in 35-chapters for AMC’s Monsterfest 99.


The film begins with AMC Horror Department head Dr. Gorman (Corman, wearing a Frankensteinian labcoat) instructing archival interns, Joey (David S. Robinson) and Catherine (Sarah Aldrich) to find a film called ‘The Phantom Eye’ and return with it by midnight. The duo, in their search, moves into ‘dead storage,’ where they split up and find themselves within the vaults’ old films. From the speaker system, Gorman instructs them that they will face death and must utilize their knowledge of cinema to survive and escape.

The meta-satirical idea is a clever one and is executed in highly amusing fashion with the principal leads constantly rushing about the interiors of old films, complete with out-of-sync dubbing, grainy film and acting and tropes to match the period.

In one of my favorite segments in the film, Joey winds up in a old, melodramatic Hammer vampire film and resists the monster’s mesmeric charms by recalling that the bloodsucker speaks with a English, rather than Transylvanian, accent.

Senior vice president of original programming for AMC (the actual AMC, not the fictive one in the movie), Marc Juris said of the idea for the film, “We thought the best way to do this would be to go to one of the people who created these movies, and actually create an entirely new movie that pays tribute to him. It would [also] help educate and recontextualize these movies for a new generation of monster-movie lovers.” That it certainly does, as The Atomic Submarine (1959) and Corman’s own House of Usher (1960) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) all feature prominently in the picture.

My biggest criticism of the film is the bleak, twist-ending, which, though fascinating, is tonally at odds with the charming, tongue-in-cheek character of the rest of the piece. Whatever choice the interns made, they were fated to be actors in a play beyond their control—but then, what else is history; our own ‘phantom eye.’

Venom (2018) | Review

Plot Summary

Venom opens with a spaceship owned, by the biotech firm Life Foundation, blazing up in the atmosphere and crashing to Earth. Shortly after the crash it is revealed that the vessel contained several alien lifeforms called ‘symbiotes.’ All but one of the aliens are retrieved and the events of the crash are covered up by the Life Foundation whose philosophizing CEO, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), seeks to utilize the creatures for space colonization (if they can live here, he muses, we can live there). Before he can accomplish this, however, he needs to find suitable oxygen-breathing hosts for the extraterrestrial beings, as they cannot live in Earth’s atmosphere long without one.

Enter Eddie Brock, investigative reporter and man of the people. Brock suspects that Drake is more than he appears and attempts to gather information on the tech magnate through his fiancee, Ann Weying, who works for the Life Foundation as a attorney. Through a covert search of Weying’s computer, Brock discovers a confidential brief which contains information on three individuals who had recently expired during Life Foundation clinical trials.

Brock lands an interview with Carlton Drake and is cautioned, by the news company he works for, to only ask safe questions. Brock agrees but backtracks during the interview, accusing Drake of building a empire on “dead bodies” and that the CEO recruits “the most vulnerable among us” for tests which end up killing them. Drake responds by declaring “There is a lot of fake news out there these days.” Brock then begins naming the individuals who had died in Life Foundations clinical trials (confidential information he had obtained from Ann) at which point Drake cuts the interview short. Brock tells the CEO “We’re not finished,” whereupon Drake coldly remarks, “Yes, you are, Mr. Brock.”

Drake’s words prove prophetic as Brock’s life swiftly falls to pieces in the wake of the interview. Brock’s boss fires him. Ann leaves him. He loses his apartment. He sees a acquaintance get robbed at gun-point by a thug at a convenience store and is powerless to stop it. He sees a happy couple in front of his new abode and becomes depressed. He tries to meditate and is interrupted by thrashing guitar music emanating from his neighbor’s apartment.

After his fall from grace, Brock is approached by Dr. Skirth, the Life Foundation’s top scientist (and gaudy scarf afficianado), who witnessed one of Carlton Drake’s experiments that caused the death of a homeless test subject who had volunteered without understanding the nature of the project. Brock initially wants no part of her scheme and declares he is done “saving his fellow man” but swiftly changes his mind and is smuggled into the Life Foundation by Skirth where he sneaks into Drake’s lab and discovers numerous humans in glass cages, one of whom is a acquaintance (a homeless woman who he used to purchase newspapers from). He tries to bust the woman out and succeeds, setting off the alarms. The woman leaps at him and pins him to the ground whereupon a strange substance seeps from her body into his own. The woman then falls over, dead. Brock, horrified, flees the foundation, kicking down steel doors and leaping off walls with superhuman speed and strength and manages to escape but quickly comes to realize a entity has taken up residence in his body. He begins hearing a voice in his head. This voice, he comes to learn, belongs to the symbiote Venom, who has found Brock to be a rare, suitable host. Despite the alien’s considerable powers, Brock has his own life as leverage, for if Brock dies, so does the alien.

Thus, Brock must negotiate an acceptable moral framework with the alien to keep it from killing innocent civilians out of hunger, whilst simultaneously attempting to stop Drake’s cruel, human-symbiote experimentations.


Considerations

Venom is a strange film, not because of the gooey, sentient alien lifeforms in it, but rather because of the character of Eddie Brock and the bizarre tone he and the alien ‘Venom’ set after bonding. For example, there is a scene where Venom declares to his host that he is hungry as Eddie rushes into a upscale restaurant where Ann and her new boyfriend (a doctor) are eating. Wild-eyed, anemic and sweating profusely, Brock declares that he broke into the Life Foundation and then proceeds to grab food off a nearby dish, proclaim it is “dead” with great agitation and then put it back on the dish to the perplexity of the waiter. He then rushes to another table where he spies a patron’s sandwich and growls like a lunatic before lunging at it, smacking around several diners in the process. Ann and the doctor attempt to intervene as the patrons gasp and mutter amongst themselves amidst the grotesque spectacle, but Eddie, heedless, shouts that he’s hot, removes his coat, and jumps into the lobster tank, sighs and grabs a lobster from the bottom and begins gnawing on it like a feral racoon.

The back and forth between the lead, the love interest, and her new love interest (the doctor) is also amusing and far more believable than I expected it to be. I had expected the usual trope of the couple breaking up and then meeting later after the protagonist receives more development, leading to a confrontation between the protagonist and the new love interest (who is usually an insufferable boor). However, this is a trope the film skillfully evades as when Eddie meets Ann again, the doctor tells Brock he’s a big fan of his work, Brock then thanks him. Later in the film the doctor covers for Brock after he losses his mind during the restaurant scene by claiming that Brock is his “patient” (even though he is not).

It is in these strange comedy-of-manners vignettes where the film proved most effective, which was surprising to me, since the film was marketed as a dark, gritty, brooding thriller, which it isn’t (it is light, frenetic and often quite whimsical).

The action scenes are another matter.

Some of the action scenes are interesting, particularly the very first manifestation of Venom within Brock in his apartment, the swat team face off and the bike chase scene, but generally, they’re a little difficult to follow and are lit rather dimly which is exasperated by the design of Venom itself (himself?) is completely black save for its eyes, teeth and mouth, and thus when it is placed against the backdrop of a dark city it is difficult to make out where the shadows end and the alien begins. However, this was a relatively minor issue.

My harshest points of criticism pertaining to the film, however, lies not in the action scenarios themselves, but rather, in the treatment of their effect upon those involved. At one point in the film, Brock is confronted by a squad of heavily armed men who open fire on him, Venom engulfs the mans body and together the errant reporter and the alien entity tear the goons to piece (literally), however, because they are presented as mere faceless goons and the aftermath of the fight is not displayed, there is little gravity to the situation. Near the end of the film, Venom gnaws the head off of a robber in front of a cashier. Eddies response is to shrug and walk away as she gasps in paroxysms of fear. The scene is not funny, nor is it horrifying, its is just odd and tone-deaf. The tone-deafness, it should be said, has nothing to do with the oft complain about PG-13 rating but rather a fixation on things being momentarily ‘cool’ than believable. The scene also establishes the old cashier now knows (just like the guitar rocking flatmate) that Brock is no longer a normal human and yet Brock (a intelligent, if obsessive guy) is wholly unconcerned. Why he is unconcerned is never explained. It would have been very easy to have Venom say something about disposing of the old woman so that he wouldn’t be found out and then have Brock declare that such a course of action would be, not just morally unacceptable, but practically superfluous, as no one is going to believe her anyways, just as no one believes country farmers who claim to have been abducted by aliens.

That being said, the film offered considerably more to mull over than I had presumed, due in no small part to the complexity of all of the central characters, particularly Drake, Brock, Ann and her newfound love interest and was well-paced and genuinely humorous.

Its more Sam Raimi than Joss Whedon; a energetic romantic comedy of manners disguised as a dark action film (though it does have some genuinely tense scenes as previously mentioned, accentuated through the film’s fantastic soundtrack, particularly the protagonist’s memorable, thrumming theme). I quite liked it, and in that I appear to be with the majority, as, though the film was panned by professional critics, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews from its general audience.


End Credits Scene and Sequel

The end credits scene features Eddie Brock returning to journalism and scoring a interview with a notorious serial killer named Cletus Kasady (a well known villain from the Spider Man comic series). Kasady tells Brock that when he gets out there will be carnage (a reference to the name of his symbiote in the comics).

The actor portraying Kasady, True Detective alum Woody Harrelson, has publicly confirmed he’ll be starring in the yet-unnamed sequel to Venom (likely in the capacity of central antagonist), which is slated for release sometime in 2020.

There is also another end credits scene of 0 narrative consequence, rendered in cartoonish CGI, which was nothing more than was franchise marketing. It was entirely superfluous, confusing and aesthetically jarring (since Venom is live action and the second end credits scene is not). Any cut of the film which excludes the goofy, Sony add on (and the annoying Eminem rap song played before it) would markedly elevate the aesthetic cohesion of the film.

Mandy (2018): Excess & Acceptance

“For me, film performance is like music.” —Nicolas Cage, 2018 Sundance Film Festival Cheddar Interview

Panos Cosmatos‘ 2018 phantasmagoric horror film Mandy (script by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn) takes place in 1983 with Red Miller (Nicolas Cage), a stoic, seemingly unhappy and aloof lumberjack who lives in a cabin in the wilderness with his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an avid fiction reader and fantasy artist. The couple’s life, though quiet and detached from the rest of civilization (save for a single television), is a contented one (though not altogether happy, as it is early punctuated by past trauma). The couple’s idyll is shattered when Mandy crosses paths with The Children Of The New Dawn, an erotic, Christian cult. The cult’s leader, Jeremiah Sand, finds himself fascinated with Mandy and remarking that he feels naked without her, entrusts his second-in-command with a strange artifact that summons a seemingly demonic biker gang who bind Red with barbed wire as Mandy is kidnapped by the cult. Mandy rejects Jeremiah’s advances and, for her impudence, he torches her alive in front of her horrified and bleeding lover. Red is left to bleed to death but he survives, escapes his bindings, forges a battle ax and sets off to kill the cultists and their psychotic emissaries.

At first glance the film may appear all style and no-substance (See Rotten Tomatoes), with its straightforward story, ominous humming soundtrack (by Johann Johannsson) and operatic violence. This is not the case. The film is filled with themes, some half-worked, others more prominent and well developed. The most prominent of which is ego and acceptance and the differences between the masculine and the feminine as pertains thereto. It is in this sense, a highly sexed film, by which I do not mean that it is concerned with intercourse (it is not), but rather, that it relies, at the conceptual level, upon the dualities of the sexes; the soft coaxing (Mandy) and vindictive venom (the cult women and the woman biker) of the female, the desire for dominion (Sand) and vengeful violence (Red) of the male.

Jeremiah Sand is, in the beginning of the film, the principal vector for the film’s foray into masculine excess (by “excess” I mean those qualities, good and bad, which exceed the masculine behavioral norms of contemporary society), not in terms of strength, speed or violence (he personifies the upward limits of these attributes not at all), but desire. The cult leader is the embodiment of the dangers of the unfettered male ego; vain, cruel, ruthless, vindictive and lustful, yet fickle. He wishes to bring everything under his control and ownership and claims a right to do so through God’s sanctification of his person. Even still his personal failures as a passionate yet overlooked and derided musician, make the character’s motivations understandable; his vile acts a revenge upon a society that callously rejected him. If the mother in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is the anti-ideal of feminine erothanatropic mania, Jeremiah is her anti-ideal male counterpart.

Throughout the latter half of the film, Sand finds his valorous antithesis in Red, who is, until the loss of the love of his life half-way through the film, the picture of admirable (if unexceptional) male stoicism. Red’s virtues, however, may be overlooked upon first viewing given how subtly they are presented (both through deft acting and direction). At the opening of the film, a ruminating Red, a lumberjack, is seen ending his shift and boarding a helicopter to return him home, whereupon one of his co-workers kindly offers him a beer, he politely declines. Later, he has a vodka-swilling breakdown after witnessing Mandy’s death, which suggests he declined the offer of a drink at the beginning of the film due to a past history of substance abuse. Red is also highly attentive; upon his first scene with Mandy he finds her diligently plying pencil to paper in the construction of a fantastical piece of artwork. He is astounded by her skill and expresses deep interest and later talks at great length with her of their favorite planets. It is only when he turns to revenge that he dispenses with his reserve and even then, one would be hard-pressed to argue that his bloody workings, however extreme, were unjust.

Whilst the protagonist is positioned in stark contrast to the cult leader, this contrast is established through personality attribution, rather than through more fascicle tropes (such as the hero wearing white, the villain black, or the hero being brightly lit, whilst the villain lurks in shadow). Where Red is reserved (generally, even in revenge, with a few, momentary exceptions), Jeremiah is erratic and prone to fits of emotion. Where Red is attentive and romantic to his lover, Jeremiah has no lovers, but only concubines (who themselves are merely seeking acceptance, not through societal channels, but through him alone). Where Red is martially capable and technically apt, Jeremiah is not, relying instead upon psychedelic concoctions made by The Chemist, and esoteric religious fervor.

Where the protagonist is willing to sacrifice himself to achieve justice, the antagonist is, despite all his bluster, a coward who begs pathetically for his life when the reaper’s scythe hangs ominously over his head. The film, thematically, resembles The Midnight Meat Train. Both films follow two men who exceed the boundaries of civilization in a attempt to destroy the other and, as a consequence, descend into a primal abyss which does not strip, but rather reveals, their true humanity.

Alienation, Elitism & Lived-Art in The Midnight Meat Train | Part 1

“I was like a kid in a candy store any time we filmed the scary bits. The one thing that did make me cringe was the pierced Achilles tendons, having severed my own five years ago playing basketball…” – Bradley Cooper.

INTRODUCTION

Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train1, released in 2008 and first shot in New York City, and then Los Angeles, stands apart from the glut of contemporary mainstream horror films through both the caliber of its acting, the peculiarity of its story, the deft craftsmanship of its design and, most singularly, its symbolic elements, its metaphors. Ryuhei said of his film, “The film will speak for itself when it comes out no matter where you see it. It is my best film to date and I am proud of myself, my crew, my cast and my producers.” (The Cannibal Express, James Grainger, Rue Morgue, No 81, August 2008). Speak for itself it does, but only to one possessed of a keen ear, for what Ryuhei and Barker have created is nothing like the b-movie the title would suggest. Lucid-dreams, cthonic calls, subterreanean beings, a century-old cold-case, corporate repression, masculinity, art and the inability to produce it, all act as pieces to a puzzle that becomes more and more starkly evident with every subsequent viewing. However, before we delve into the contents of the film itself it would be useful to turn to the bar-to-entry from any serious consideration of such a work, principally, the name itself and the Hollywood snobery that turns up its nose at it. Snobbery is distinct from elitism as-such, in that elitism is the assertion that certain individuals and groups are more apt at certain things than others and that those more capaple persons will or should be positioned in a beneficial placement where their attributions may shine. Snobbery, in constrast, is the belief that those things which occur outside of one’s cultural (typically class-related) purview of approval, for whatever reason (it is generally a matter of unconsidered tradition), are not to be taken seriously and further, are to be derided. To be elitist in the arts is merely to say some works are better than others and why; to be a snob is to say, such and such works can never be good, can never be taken seriously.

Given that the name of the film instantly conjures up visions of schlocky retro-exploitation horror such as big-breasted women soused in blood, screaming and running through the woods in highheels only to trip on a bizarrely elevated root, unbelievable smatterings of blood, copious quantities of drug use, inexplicable cat jump-scares and masked killers with chainsaws, some trepidation is warranted (even though the film is more mystery/thriller, than action-romp, at least until its final act). That the film plays out in a serious fashion and at no point ever firmly plants its tongue in its cheek is another strike against it in the eyes of the would-be arbiters of cinema. How dare it take itself seriously! How dare a horror movie have its principal characters behave like real human beings! Such is the sentiment that is hinted at, if not outright expressed, in many stodgy reviews of the film from glossy and sundry publications. One of the film’s most dour reviews which I was able to find came from the site Deep Focus Review and was penned by a one Brian Eggert who gave the film 1 stars out of 5. Eggert remarked that:

Some ideas [in the film] make sense, others remain vague allusions, and others still are altogether nonsensical—all of it is awash by Barker’s penchant for humorless characters sopping with melodramatic relationships (not to mention gallons of blood). When moviegoers in my screening should have been cringing, they were laughing.2 How could they not, when Barker insists that we take his concept as gravely as he does, despite the inherent silliness of the plot? Kudos to you if you can take a movie called The Midnight Meat Train seriously. I can’t.”

The idea that a film cannot be “serious” if it has a peculiar name or if its plot is not hyper-real or based solely in the real-world, or if it contains “vague allusions” (which Eggert doesn’t even attempt to excavate) is one that Barker himself has remarked upon. During a interview with Cinema Is Dope on the state of horror-cinema at the 42nd Sitges Film Festival, Mr. Barker said, “I think we went through a very bad period, didn’t we? When it seemed like horror had become Michael Bay3 territory. All that we were going to see was remakes of Sean Cunningham4 projects, reworked with Paris Hilton5 and some new special effects. And I think audiences are more sophisticated than that. I think the appitie for fresh horror, for fresh images, for fresh ideas, for fresh metaphysics, is strong. I’m fed up with us – and when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘audience’; I’m counting myself as a audience member – being condescending to it. I feel as though the producers are condescending to us [the audience]; they’re saying, ‘eh, they’ll be satisfied with Friday The 13th , Part 310.’ Bullshit. Give me something new. Give me something fresh. If that’s an anime, if that’s some hybrid between live-action and anime or some form of cinema that we haven’t even yet seen, why not? The Cinema Fantastique has always been at the cutting-edge of style and of content.”

When the interview noted that horror movies cannot simply be 90 minutes of jump-scares, Mr. Barker replied, “Completely right and… how boring is that! This is a full circle. I mean, we’ve seen this stuff played out; this is back to the 80s again. Right? I mean, this is the 80s playing out again. We need to – we as enthusiasts, passionate purveyors or creators of horror and fantastic cinema – have to stand up and be counted and say, ‘We are not just going to be doing the same old, same old.’”

One wonders if Eggert would have found the film less heavygoing if there were some 4th wall breaks (qua Deadpool) or perhaps some hammy slapstick scenes dropped squat in the middle of real tension (qua Jason X). Eggert’s disdain for The Midnight Meat Train and Barker’s statement about being “fed up” both stem from a similar source: The branding of a particular medium, genre or sub-genre to be unworthy of consideration from the would-be cultural arbiters; formulaically it is: If you make X then X cannot concern itself with Y. A portion of this problem is to be found in the fact that the more people there are (population growth) and the less homogenous a society is (global multiculture) the harder it is to maintain and hand on the symbolic language which affixes particular artistic forms to higher and lower pedestals in the collective conscious of a given polis. Hence phrases like, “It was good, for what it was.” Or, “It wasn’t trying to be more than what it was.” This, at base, is nothing more than a admission that one’s expectations upon cinema have been lowered to such a point that the dullardry of the half-baked rehash and the mindless, incoherent spectecle are the norm, that symbolic or metaphorical content of any impact or magnitude is completely out of the question. From this the annoying penchant for the word “pretentious” to be bandied errantly about like the ball of a petulant child. This mental trajectory is amply demonstrated in a BBC6 article entitled, Film Review: Ocean’s 8 isn’t good, but is it fun? Such a question is symptomatic of what we shall henceforth call Popcorn Mentality, an extension of the pleasure principal as the first and foremost aspiration of a piece of media; pleasure, that is, “fun,” at any cost, above all, above even the apperception thereof. As long as a work of art (if indeed that is what it happens to be7) is “fun” then it was time well spent, even if that “fun” is often merely a by-line for “gaudy distraction.” Any themes contained in such works, dreams crystallized, desires reified, values elevated, are shunted aside, prospective ways of being buried beneath a howling circus of self-gratification, blinding colors and ear-rending sound. Interestingly enough, this popcorn mentality, or gray herdery, is something which is prominently, albiet subtly, featured in The Midnight Meat Train.

ART AS DARK PORTAL

The film begins with a man who awakes on a subway train. He slips and falls, only to discover that what caused imbalance was an enormous pool of blood. Gasping, he rises and spies a man hacking someone to death with what appears to be an oversized industrial meat tenderizer. Cut to Leon Kaufman, the protagonist of the film, a bright-eyed vegan photographer with a beautiful girlfriend and a nice apartment. However, despite his seemingly charming life, Leon has a problem, his photos aren’t getting any attention. Try and try as he might he simply cannot get a gallery showing; that is until his girlfriend Maya tells her well-connected friend Jurgis to set up a meeting between a well known art-dealer named Susan Hoff and the ertswile photographer. Leon is overjoyed. Leon meets Jurgis who tells him not to mention Maya because “Susan likes her artists young, male and single.” Jurgis shortly thereafter clarifies that “the male part really isn’t that important.” When Leon finally meets Susan he apologiezes for his tardiness but she responds, “Punctuality means nothing to me. Its a virtue for the mediocre.” Thus we understand that Hoff is more than just a snob, rather, she intensely cares about the works of art; this is elaborated upon shortly thereafter when Hoff asks Leon to describe his work and explains what interests him. Leon says that the city is his principal interest because “no one has ever captured it, not the way it really is. The heart of it. That’s my goal, that’s my dream.” Hoff responds by telling him that he is failing to achieve his dream. She points out one of Leon’s photographs, a still of a slovenly bum asleep and sliding off his seat towards a crisp and dignified businessman and says that it is melodrama, “arresting but empty” and tells him that he needs to show what happens next, when “the filth touches him (the businessman).” Finally, Hoff instructs Leon, “That next time you find yourself at the heart of the city, stay put, be brave, keeping shooting. Then come see me.” Leon is crestfallen but Jurgis comforts him saying that though she might not have cared for his art work, she didn’t hate it either and saw potential in him. Later that night Leon lies in bed with Maya, contemplating the days encounter and determines that Hoff was right, that he was only skimming the surface of the city, failing to capture enough of its essence, its beauty and horror alike in starkly vivid detail. Maya tells him, in the manner of a well-meaning yet uncomprehending lover, that Hoff was wrong, that his art really was good regardless of what she said. However, Leon disregards Maya’s opinion (as is reasonable given that she isn’t a artist or art critic) and determines to take Hoff’s advice and plung into the depths of the city to capture it in all its majesty and terror. It is notable that the whole impetus for the plot of the film is derived from artistic elitism, to high standards of creation and the willful fullfilment of one’s dreams given that to affirm any artistic standards is somehow verboten (as is aptly demonstrated in most reviews of the film which touch upon Hoff wherein the character is generally described as a “snob” or in otherwise negative terms). That same night Leon has a dream that he is abord a bloodsoaked train, emblematic of the “heart of the city” which he desires to capture. He awakes in the dead of night and traverses the city, wandering through filthy slums where the tatterdemalion denizens of the metropolis wander aimlessly. He spies a young group of thugs smashing a bottle to the ground and decides to follow them into a subway station, snapping pictures along the way. Everything cold. Everything blue. As if Leon is descending into an icy lair. The hoodlums then attempt to rape a young and beautiful asian woman in the train-station; instead of leaping to her aid or raising alarm, Leon, shocked as he is, continues to take pictures in his quest to capture the city as it really is. When the woman finally sees Leon his fugue is broken and he challenges the thugs. The leader ascends the stair for a faceoff but Leon points out the security cameras which the criminals had missed. Understanding that Leon now has the upper hand, they begrudingly leave. The girl thanks Leon and gifts him with a kiss as thanks and then runs off to the train just as the doors are closing. The doors are held open by a tall man with a old suit and a silver ring with a peculiar ensign. Once inside the train, the man with the silver ring removes a stainless steel meat tenderizer from his bag and crushes the woman’s skull.

Leon later discovers through reading the newspaper that the name of the woman whom he had saved is Erika Sakaki, a model. After boarding the train she was never seen again and had been reported missing. Leon runs to the police but they don’t believe him, suspecting that he was stalking Sakaki. He protests and says that he only followed the thugs because he thought they “looked suspicious.” The female officer notes that even if that were so it was curious that he continued to photographer Sakaki even after the brigands had pulled a knife on her; she asks him why he did this and Leon falls silent, unable or unwilling to formulate an answer. Art, intensly felt, is often difficult to externalize, even to one’s self and certianly to others, specifically if they are not well-versed in the symbolic and metaphorical lexicon which one is apt to deploy, thus Leon’s silence, though incriminating, is highly understandable. Leon’s dour fortunes turn swiftly around when he brings his photographs of the attempted gang-rape to Hoff who is enchanted. She declares that they are so good that if he can capture two more images of a similar caliber she will admit him and his work to her group art show which she is holding in three weeks. Delighted Leon heads back into the grimy underbelly of the city only to chance across a man with an old suit and curious silver ring. Later, he puts the pieces of the puzzle together and compares the ring from his most recent photos to the man on the train with Sakaki. A perfect match. The man with the silver ring is the model’s killer. But why? From this point on Leon becomes increasingly obsessed with the man with the silver ring; eventually, Maya confronts him as he tells her that he traced subway disappearences back to over a century ago (which would mean that if the man with the silver ring is responsible for all of them, he’s possessed of a strange longevity) and shakes her violently, telling her that he knows she think he is the killer. Maya, believing him to have lost his mind to his art, determines to get to the bottom of the issue herself and to that end enlists the aid of Jurgis.

It is at this point that Leon is no longer merely attempting to make art; he is living it, and eventually he will become a integral part of the “heart of the city” he so desperately wished to capture.

1The Midnight Meat Train was Ryuhei Kitamura’s first english language film.

2It bares remarking that one film screening is a very small sample size.

3Michael Bay is a American director and producer best known for The Transformers franchise who is oft derided for his exploitative, brassy, shallow and incessantly over-the-top style. His works have also been criticized for excessive product placement.

4Sean S. Cunningham is a American filmmaker who is best known for such horror films as Last House on the Left (1972), which he produced, and Friday The 13th (1980) which he co-created with Victor Miller.

5Paris Hilton, the great granddaughter of Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels, is an American socialite, singer and actress. Though she has been involved in a wide variety of projects, she is often criticized as being “famous for being famous,” or, well known simply due to the wealth she inherited from her family. Her acting has also been criticized, earning her numerous Golden Rasberry Awards throughout the years, a spoof award given out to the worst films of the year by UCLA. During the 30th Golden Rasberry Awards “ceremony” Hilton was selected as “Worst Actress of the Decade,” a category which she “won,” beating out Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. It should be noted that members of the Golden Rasberry Foundation are not actually required to watch the films they critique and lampoon, thus their input, in any serious artistic evaluation of cinema, is next-to worthless.

6BBC stands for The British Broadcasting Corporation.

7Art is the crystallization of a dream in corporeality through creation so as to achieve some end within a broader social context; generally the communication of some fractal portion of the dream which inspired the creation itself. If it is not, at the least, this, then it is assuredly not art at all. This is to say that art is a act of creation which is inherently communal and purposeful but which finds its genesis in the personal, in the dreamworld or mindspace.

Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Prt.4

 

Art as a directional model for human action.

All human endeavors bespeak of ourselves; such is the case with fiction, which gives form and function to the nebulous, scattered and fevered energy of the brain’s wild imaginings which roil up from from the instinctual chasm. 

-Brief Primer on Fiction Writing, Part. 3

In the 1996 book Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, a socially satirical, psychological thriller, a socially alienated, weak and emasculated corporate drone meets a bedazzling political radical. The two men strike up a bizarre friendship and eventually create a underground fight club where they are able to release their pent-up frustrations about the decline of masculinity and the vacuous wage-slavery that is their lives, by viciously beating each other until one contestant concedes defeat. The book was highly popular, so much so that three years after its publication, a film of the same name was created by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Jim Uhls; it is this iteration of the tale that most people are familiar with.

Fight Club was and still is extremely popular, as much for the acting and aesthetics as well as for the pointed and clever social commentary – it is especially popular amongst socialist radicals (which is rather ironic given that one of the principal points of the film is that radical insurrection is all very well and good until lives start being ruined and people start dying) which can be seen by the creation of the self-styled “Leftist Fight Club” for the express purpose of “Bashing the fash.” The “fash” that they are referring to are the illusory fascists that such Antifaesque organizations seem to see everywhere. The club’s only condition for entry: Don’t be a republican – for as everyone knows, all republicans are fascists.

You might here be wondering why I’m bothering to mention this seemingly trivial, though curious, affair. I mention the Palahniuk inspired Leftist Fight Club because it is the perfect modernistic example of life imitating art which is the single most powerful thing any piece of art can conceivably do. It is, I think crucial to highlight such cases when looking through the analytical lens of political outside-dissent. For those that wish to shift any power structure will need to pervade not just in the military, the media and the legislation-complex but also in the arts. That being said we will dive into a manifold sampling of those past and present instances where some work(s) have powerfully influenced the directionality of human action – Leftist Fight Club was just the tip of the iceberg.

[continued part 5]

 

Riddick, Patriarchy & Modern Masculinity

[Contains spoilers]

From his very first scene in Pitch Black one understands Riddick as a feral, disturbed individual. Animalistic in his lust for both sex and blood. Ruthless in his dispatchment of anyone who would seek to impede him from whatever it is he pleases to do. In the beginning narration of Pitch Black‘s sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, we are explicitly told that Riddick isn’t just bad, but evil; what the character tells us himself through his own inner monologue seems to fall in line with the presupposition that he isn’t exactly fond of humanity.

[upon being forced to return to civilization]

“So now it’s back to the brightness… and everything I hate.” 

Implying of course that he hates civilization. In the third installment of the film series, simply titled, Riddick, our titular protagonist/antagonist says,

Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all… I got civilized.

A murderer, a (suggested, though never stated) rapist, a misanthropist and stalwart enemy of all that is orderly and lawful. Clearly, Riddick is not a particularly amiable individual. But even despite these flaws the character is widely beloved, particularly by men – how can this be?

To answer the question we must turn our attention to the way that men are treated in modern day civilization (here we will confine our attention to the primary audience of the films – the Western industrialized nations). With the rise of numerous factors, including feminism and critical theory, a general idea has pervaded the western nations, chiefly that since men are the primary drivers of political conflict (which is true), they should be denatured, that is, stripped of any and all masculine attributes. Not only that, but additionally, men – those damnable patriarchs – must, wholesale, give up their place at the head of the table of civilization and cede all hitherto obtained status and characteristics to women. In this way, the beast that resides within the souls of Man is caged and glorious and caring Woman takes the helm to right the sinking ship. This is bad for two primary reasons (though many more as well), namely: 1. women and men willfully weakening the character and even the very spiritual nature of their male kith and kin will, if successful, leave them horribly vulnerable to those other nations and countries who have maintained their warrior ethos and their, dare I say, patriarch structures. 2. Perhaps even more fundamentally, it is psychologically – and thus, physically – damaging for young men to be, at every turn, denied both accept and outlet for their masculine natures.

Naturally, it should not be assumed that this is problem which all men face – one should not allow one’s self to descend into hysterical hyperbole on these matters like many segments of the MGTOW movement – and doubtless, many young men get along just fine, able to resist the increasingly shrill daggering of the matriarchal pulpit-pounders and genderqueer crusaders. That being said, for those whom it does effect, it imparts a soul-crushing malaise.

The Riddick series, and the character himself, it is my contention, achieved their popularity because they maintain and uphold the tradition of the warrior ethos, that is, the man who, rather than fleeing from his selfsame masculinity embraces it in a attempt to harness its effervescent energy. He is a man who will go to any length to protect both himself and all those whom he holds dear. He is also a conqueror and leader of men who agrees with the ethic of the Necromongers, the theocratic, galaxy conquering, principal antagonists of Chronicles, “You keep what you kill.” At the end of Chronicles Riddick himself ascends to the throne of the Necromongers and becomes their equivalent of Caesar, The Grand Marshal.

Just like other popular characters, such as James Bond, Riddick is also quite popular with the ladies (whether or not they, themselves, admit it – they usually don’t). In the films, his effectiveness with the opposite sex comes – in both friendship and sex – comes from both his domineering, take-charge attitude (which most women find, to some degree extremely appealing; especially given such behaviors increasing rarity) as well as his extremely protective nature (when one of his female compatriots is imprisoned, in the second film in the series, he travels across the galaxy to break her out of a massive underground prison-complex on a planet that is so hot that, even should a prisoner escape the complex, he or she would be evaporated upon reaching the surface – now that’s dedication!). In the third film in the series, Riddick, such a show is made of Riddick’s sexual prowess that he even manages to woo a gruff-yet-beautiful no-nonsense lesbian whose personal creedo is, “I don’t fuck men. I fuck them up occasionally if they need it.” It is a rather silly convention but the lack of heavy-handed sexual politics within the franchise was imminently refreshing, especially since nearly every major film features some kind of Mary Sue.

Riddick’s antisocial nature and odd, glowing eyes (which allow him to see perfectly in the dark) offers wide appeal to those men who feel socially isolated and unable to actuate their own potential. Riddick is a survivalist who is so self-sufficient that he (generally) does not even require the slightest modicum of help to achieve his ends. He braves a frozen world so far-flung that it receives only a numerical designation (you can always tell in sci-fi films whether or not a planet is important to the plot by whether or not it is named – if it just has a bunch of numbers in place of name one knows instantly it isn’t very important), with nothing but a pair of knives, the clothes on his back and his googles, he survives a desert planet teeming with ferocious, venomous monsters; he escapes from every cell into which he is thrown and pays back his captors, two-fold. It would seem that there is no corner of the universe and no threat, he will not fling himself unto with steely abandon. Indeed, such are his virtues that, were Riddick a more sociable and less wrathful and petulant individual, he might well have become a great leader of men (if he were a man – he is member of an ancient, alien species called Furyans).

Such a archetype (similar to, say, the Punisher or, The Man With No Name) allows a outlet for pent-up male frustration – what virile young man, after all, would not wish to be able to sally forth around the galaxy, would not wish to be able to effortlessly live off the land of even the most dead and hostile of plants, would not wish to be able to be so alluring in their patriarchal splendor that even the most ardent of lesbians want to share their bed? Very few. Hence the popularity among men. The characters popularity among women can be found in simply revisiting what I previously wrote; for most women, whatever they might say, are looking for a man who will take charge, take control and who will expend every last ounce of energy and power to look after and protect her (as was the case with the character of Kyra from the first and second films in the franchise).

Despite what the characters in the film series say, Riddick is not evil as he does not seek to cause needless suffering. He is merely a man, ruthless and powerful, who has absolutely no respect for weakness, a man who understands, to perfection, the natural and inescapable laws of human order – that women need men like men need women; that violence is inevitable and best prepared for; that the strong may rule the weak, but that the clever rule the strong.

FILM REVIEW – LE SAMORUAI

Spoiler warning.

[Editor’s note: This article was previously published to my personal blog, thus if you have already read it there and recall it’s contents you might wish to skip it. Thank you for reading.]

If formalism was gold Jean-Pierre Melville might have just been the richest filmmaker to ever live and none of his works more aptly demonstrates this than the cold, calculated crime classic Le Samourai. Though the film is now hailed as a masterpiece (so much so that it has been adopted into the Criterion Collection – which you should check out) this wasn’t always so; indeed when the film was first released there was a great divide between critics, one praising, the other side decrying. It is easy to see why; minimalist to the extreme, there isn’t any dialogue until about ten minutes into the film.

The plot is generic and straightforward, Jef Costello (portrayed with immaculate, eerie reserve by a young Alain Delon), a mysterious hit-man, is contracted to kill the owner of a popular, ritzy Parisian nightclub. He does so but is caught in the act by the establishment’s pianist, she says nothing when questioned but the police aren’t convinced. His alibi is air-tight, too air-tight. When the criminal organization whom contracted him realizes that he might be ousted they turn against him; putting out a hit on the hit-man. The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between the police, the crime syndicate and Jef.

This sounds rather uninspired and somewhat bland but when you see the film you will realize it isn’t so much the plot itself as it’s execution, that really stands out. Details are the overlords of this film, from Jef’s seeming pathological perfectionism (ever straightening the brim of his hat just so and always ritualistically putting on white gloves before a kill) to the tight, glacially paced camera work and immaculate and strangely barren landscapes. The fact that I was never once confused within the film, even when near fifteen minutes go by without a single piece of dialogue, is a testament to the director’s mastery of the medium. We have it easy these days, what with Michael Caine ever popping up and banging on and on about the plot, page after page of heavy handed exposition (I swear Caine is in everything these days and always as nothing more than a exposition vessel). It is as if Hollywood believes that their public is so stupid that they can’t go ten minutes without the writer holding their hand through the events there unfolding.

More than being a mere highly stylized aesthetic exercise or ruminations on crime character study (both of which it certainly is) the film posits a view of life from the point of view of a dreamscape that is, in my opinion, exceedingly admirable. Here I’m talking about Jef the not quite human, the dream’s fell harvester. He has no fear of death, indeed he seems as inexplicably drawn to it as to the pianist who spared him. In one scene a man sticks a gun in the samurai’s face and Jef not only doesn’t flinch but then promptly bitch slaps his foe to the ground (with such banal ease that it always makes me chuckle). He also is emotionally aloof; in one of the character’s early establishing shots he is driving down a abandoned street (it seems all the streets of Le Samourai are ever abandoned which adds a unearthly, surreal vibe as if to say “This isn’t real, would you want it to be?”) and stops at a sign. A beautiful woman pulls up beside him and smiles flirtatiously, he looks at her as if she were just another signpost along the way and then icily returns to his work. Another scene has him caressed by a woman who is so madly in love with him that she’s willing to take the fall for complicity in his crimes if it came to that; he merely looks away, disinterested in her romantic overtures. He also kills without compunction – His first assassination scene has always been one of the comic highlights of the film to me:

Club Owner: Who are you?

Jef: Doesn’t matter.

Club Owner: What do you want?

Jef: To kill you.

Delon says this last line with such drab flatness that the subsequent gunshots which blast the club owner into oblivion are both jarringly horrifying and completely hilarious. But that could just be me. Either way the scene is indicative of Jef’s amorality – but is he a sociopath? My answer is no – he kills because he is paid (he says as much himself) and, more simply, because he’s good at it. He’s almost elemental in that regard (much like his arch-nemesis, the enigmatic art collector-gangster, Oliver Rey {played by Jean-Pierre Posier}). He’s not so much evil as he is beyond humanity, similar to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (without all the effusiveness). He also isn’t without principals – indeed there seems to be nothing more important to him than his principals (which he describes as his “habits”). This shows that so dedicated is he to these principals that they have become second nature, instinctive but not dogmatic. He also isn’t without compassion, for though it would have been easy for him to let his accomplice take the fall he sacrifices himself instead (though this is also likely due in part to his seeming obsession with the nature of death and a understanding of it’s inevitability). This non-moralizing, distanced self overcoming is, when taken in gestalt, a cohesive philosophy and one which holds, for me at least, as much amusement as wisdom.

le-samoura-56605c73b4213.jpg
Jef, fatalistically fearless in the face of a confederate assassin.

The film doesn’t preach, it doesn’t paint it’s characters as good or bad, the characters do that. It doesn’t posit fate or tell you that everything is going to be fine or that everything is terrible and that it always will be. It is as pragmatic and logical as it’s protagonist’s tactics and, to me, immensely inspiring.

A final word of parting: I highly recommend the Criterion Collection version of this film, expensive as it is – well worth the money for the pristine restoration.

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