“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.
Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, 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. 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 Bay territory. All that we were going to see was remakes of Sean Cunningham projects, reworked with Paris Hilton 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 BBC 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 be) 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.