Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Vertigo/De Palma - Part VI

* * * Part VI (The Scream/End Credits)***

Femme Fatale was the first real-feeling DePalma film I'd seen in the cinema. I had actually seen Carlito's Way and Snake Eyes in the cinema as well, but Femme Fatale was the first DePalma theatrical experience where I felt I was watching a film that could've been made during the time of his master trilogy of the early 80s. Femme Fatale was the extension of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double that it seemed Raising Cain had hoped to be in the 90s. Perhaps Raising Cain would have been more secured in that creative extension had DePalma been able to figure our how to edit the film in the manner that he'd originally envisioned. But with Femme Fatale, it was apparent that he had fully creative reign when it came to his experimental non-linear storytelling. Femme Fatale would be another revisiting of Vertigo themes while Raising Cain had served as a remake of DePalma's own Dressed to Kill, which of course, was a remake of Hitchcock's Psycho. Perhaps Raising Cain, then, would serve as a first offering of a post-1980s trilogy in and of itself, featuring Raising Cain, Femme Fatale, and finally Passion, which would also deal with the nightmarishly-presented ideas of Rachel McAdams having her own “double” that was haunting the thoughts and actions of Noomi Rapace. Indeed, the list of these six films undoubtedly make up the “key” and an importantly defining portion of DePalma's catalogue – Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Raising Cain, Femme Fatale, and Passion, which ironically (even if this was unintended) loops the modern idea of how society receives its modern media with the studio-television monitors, 16mm projected film, and newspapers of 1973's Sisters.
* * *

With all of its similarities, it was the final shot of Vertigo that really grabbed my attention and shook me out of my seat. It was the scream.

But twenty-four years before this, it was a television trailer for Carlito's Way (1993) that had grabbed my attention in a completely different fashion; it would be the first Brian DePalma movie I'd have the opportunity to see in the cinema ever and since discovering his films on VHS thanks to a handful of video rental stores in North Vancouver. My brother and I went to see Carlito's Way after it opened at what at the time was North Vancouver's only multi-screen cinema in an outdoor retail complex called Park & Tilford. Before the movie theatre opened there, Park & Tilford was a destination for families during the Christmas season because of the elaborate Christmas display of lights and decorations that were weaved through a monumental garden tunnel-path. And really, this was the only thing housed at the Park & Tilford location for years until the movie theatre went up, followed by a huge Canadian grocery store (Save-On-Foods) and soon afterwards, Blockbuster Video. I even rented Carlito's Way for a second and third viewing from this Blockbuster Video on latter occasions. Carlito's Way was really the epitome of flashback-sequence storytelling as the entire film was essentially one long flashback sequence.

The movie opens up with a shot of Al Pacino (“Carlito” in the film) being carried away, dying, on a paramedics' stretcher out of the tunnels of New York's Grand Central Station. The location immediately recalls the backdrop of important Blow Out scenes, including scenes leading up to the climax of that film. Even the reason that the two sets of leading characters from each of those two films are the same: they're catching a train out of town to hopefully outrun the bad guys. In the opening shots of Carlito's Way, we have DePalma telling us that it's the climax of Carlito's Way that is going to play out in the same locations. We also have him telling us, directly, the ultimate fate of his own leading character, and then invites us to find out if he was lying to us or not; taking us through two and a half hours of Carlito's flashback story. After the opening credits play out, with Carlito lifted from the train platform and transported away on an ambulance gurney, we see him a few months previous to this in a courtroom as his prison sentence has just been revoked due to illegal wire-tapping by the District Attorney, and so right away, we get another Blow Out reference, or at the very least another gentle reminder of that film. Again, hidden wires, microphones, and audio recordings play a minor but significant role in this film as well. The circling camera shot around Pacino and his love interest Penelope Ann Miller midway through the film reminds us of the same shot midway through Body Double (nineteen years earlier). Much of DePalma's filmography holds up years and decades after-the-fact, Carlito's Way in particular seems to get better with age, crawling up on Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas as best gangster movie. In fact, I believe one of the best scenes DePalma has ever film is the fight between Pacino and Miller, which takes place in her apartment – the two characters, arguing their own moral logic, remain separated by space, walls, and doorways until the argument reaches its heated moments – Pacino pushing his way into her bathroom, where Miller is standing, yet the two of them continue to argue without looking at each other, their heads are backside-to-backside. Finally breaking this disconnection that is coming between them, instead of looking directly at each other, they face each other in the bathroom mirror, where they are forced to face each other and themselves as slightly warped, opposite-reflections of themselves, until he finally breaks the mirror with his fist – cutting his hand. She follows him out of the apartment, like she would follow him later in her life, and she lets him go without her, as he would let her go without him at the end of the film, from the platform of Grand Central Station. Miller yells after him as Pacino disappears from her apartment: “I'm through cleaning up your blood!” – And she is through, she won't have to clean up his blood again, next time, the paramedics are going to do it for her. Unlike Nancy Allen's prostitute-with-brains-and-a-heart-of-gold character form Blow Out, Miller will get away from all the blood and crime that she'd been trapped in inside the city. Carlito's Way ends with her dancing in paradise.

Blow Out ends on a far more cynical note, made palatable only by the multi-layered irony that DePalma has brilliantly twisted it all into at the end of the story. Hitchcock himself had set-up a beautifully ironic twist at the end of his masterpiece Vertigo. At Vertigo's halfway point, as James Stewart has had to give up his ascent to the top of the bell tower, the last thing he hears is Novak's scream before the body falls, seemingly to its death, from the top of that tower. As the clues build up to a tense and wholly uncomfortable climax at the end of Vertigo, Stewart realizes that he had heard Novak's scream before seeing the body fall – only it wasn't her body. It was all a set-up to place Stewart as the only “witness” to another woman's “suicide” – all this an elaborate cover-up for the other woman's murder. As Stewart literally drags Novak back to the scene of the crime, he overcomes his crippling vertigo and manages to get them both up to the top of the bell tower, where the murder victim had been thrown. As they teeter on the edge of the tower, Novak, riddled with angst and anxiety, gets spooked by something in the shadows and accidentally falls to her death from the tower, her scream echoing once again for Stewart, but this time the scream isn't staged.

When DePalma's Blow Out opens up, we see John Travolta in a private screening room with the slasher b-movie producer, mixing the sound effects track for their horror movie. They are in need of a “good scream”. DePalma uses this detail of Travolta's background for some humourous scenes throughout the movie – as Travolta runs about the city trying to solve the apparent murder he's captured on his tape recorder, he's suddenly brought back into his everyday-world reality of having to test voice-over actresses in order to record the perfect scream for his producer. Still, they can't find the right one. The fact that the creepy villain-hitman of Blow Out (Lithgow) has ransacked Travolta's sound studio and erased every single recorded and meticulously catalogued sound-effect tape Travolta has ever created just puts him further back from ever being able to finish the work that his dayjob (and only source of money) requires. Throughout the entire film the circumstances surrounding Travolta's character only serve to push him further and further into a corner, until the climax of the film, where Travolta and Allen devise a plan to entrap the killer by wiring Allen with a hidden microphone – a plan that backfires fatally for Allen, and Travolta is left stranded and helpless, unable to help Allen as she screams harshly to her death through the headphones in Travolta's ears.

DePalma leaves us watching Travolta, in his own personal hell inside the private screening room with his b-movie producer, having to listen to Allen's death-screams over and over and over again; the only scream that he, the sound recordist, would have on tape in order that he could finally finish his job on the low-budget slasher film in front of him. That final scream would be the only thing John Travolta would walk away with by the end of that film, just like Novak's scream would be the only thing Stewart would walk away with, in spite of all his obsessions, at the end of his.

VERTIGO/DE PALMA by Vince D'Amato.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Vince D'Amato, All Rights Reserved. First published as an E-book, non-fiction, 2018. All photos are stock/promotional photos from their respective studios: Universal Studios (Vertigo), Warner Bros. (Femme Fatale), Warner Bros., MGM (Blow Out).

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Issue #70 - The Absolute Underground Papers

(Original text from Absolute Underground Issue #70 - originally published June, 2016)

The Cinema Fantastique (Sex & Horror)”
by Vince D'Amato

I was recently in Netherworld Collectibles in Burnaby, BC, when I overheard a customer chatting with the proprietor and telling him, rather loudly so that most of the store could accidentally overhear him, that he “doesn't watch new horror movies at all because most of them seem really cool but they just disappoint”. Well, to be perfectly honest, this was a sentiment I shared for along time, until about a year and a half ago... One of the problems with new horror cinema was the perception that the genre itself was precipitating over its intended audience – new filmmakers were either pushing forth pretentious projection of their work that they considered high-brow, or to use the term some if these filmmakers were using five years ago, an “upper echelon” of horror cinema. Which basically meant cool-looking horror flick with no sex or nudity, which throughout the eighties and nineties had been required tropes for the genre, along with the blood, guts and scares. These “upper echelon” films, like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, Mulberry Street, and to half this degree Your're Next, also barely delivered on the guts and gore aspect, usually saving such frivolities to the very end of their respective films (as I said, You're Next was somewhat of an exception, and as added bonus points it had Barbara Crampton in it!). On the flipside, if a horror fan did want a little nudity or eroticism included within his genre fare (artistically, of course), one would be forced to turn to the ridiculous – indie films like Call Girl of Cthulhu or the exploitive (and yet vapid) Hollywood remakes of the aforementioned 80s horror films. There was nowhere for us to turn to the seriously good side horror cinema that wasn't afraid to be sexy as hell as well...

In December last year I wrote my first Absolute Horror article; and the inspiration for that article had been the recent releases of independent horror films that had finally started to change the face of indie horror into something more sophisticated, more energetic, more suspenseful for audiences (such as myself) who have learned (i.e taught ourselves) not to rely on the studio PG-13 output for their morbid frights. We have been ushered into an era, by these new indie horror filmmakers, of films that may have originally been inspired by the likes of Friday the 13th or the films of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Sam Raimi, but films that nonetheless do not care to wear these influences outright on their sleeves – instead, these filmmakers are now often twisting and flipping the influences to such a degree as to design some very intense, visceral, and even darkly comedic low-budget scares. And they're pretty clever about it, too. And thanks to the critically and commercially successful Scarlett Johansson sci-fi horror/thriller Under the Skin and the hugely popular indie horror hit It Follows, we're starting to see a little sexiness reappearing in our horror fare – following these two commercial releases it seems to all be suddenly okay once again for a horror movie to be sexually aware, instead of pretending that people don't have it. (Meanwhile, Brain DePalma remained cemented in the gorgeously sexy slasher/thriller genre with his latest outing Passion, most criminally under-screened on this side of the world). But before we fully get back into sexy, allow me to talk about a very clever realization of the horror film that I came across about two days before writing this piece – a little film called The Last Shift which is an hallucinogenic mindfuck regarding a lone young female police rookie hired to guard a defunct police station the before it's permanently closed. It gets off to an edgy start and just gets totally intense from there, as our protagonist becomes trapped in the tomb-maze of the old station while running into some quite literal ghosts of the past who are hellbent on driving her insane. This small-scale horror flick calls up the intensity of the modern horror classic It Follows, as does new director Benjamin Moody's Last Girl Standing, which had its inspirational roots in the aforementioned Friday the 13th, but takes the idea of “the final girl” into dizzyingly outrageous and wholly intense territory. Last Girl Standing has been a festival hit in 2015 and 2016, and will be screening at this summer's Cinemafantastique Fest in Vancouver (July 8-10) along with some other amazing contemporary horror films that are far more steeped in the sexy, hallucinogenic, and the psychedelic: from the Burlesque-noir Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man and L.A. artist Anna Biller's erotic 60s throwback The Love Witch, to the erotic Lovecraft homage Harvest Lake (which incidentally is a far cry from Call Girl of Cthulhu). But the funnier side of genre cinema is also celebrated in b-movie maverick Ron Bonk's She Kills, and Canadian Ryan LaPlante's Holy Hell; and Hell Town – which is an astoundingly witty homage to Lynch's Twin Peaks. Alongside these films is the more intense Last Girl Standing and the neo-giallo The Red Man, but sexy does tend to reign supreme in this lineup, as it does with the collection of short films selected for the film fest also range from the off-the-wall bloodfest El Gigante (from Luchagore productions) to the very sexy First Love and Mistress C. The sexy and the funny (the bloody funny) collide in the French short Bitch, Popcorn & Blood. Indeed, the international collection of very sexy nightmares that populate this year's Cinemafantastique Fest are the films you're not apt to see at other film festivals on the west coast. With any luck, most of the films here will find some sort of distribution, but we're living in a funny time now when it comes to cinema culture. Hard media really is dying and has been niche for some time now. It opens up the opportunity for theatrical exhibition for films like these, but cinema has been crawling along towards a slow death, too, despite there being more film festivals in the world than any other time in history. Our venues are disappearing, and film festivals have dared to go digital, like the media itself. Despite this, there are die-hard cinema fans (like myself) who actively participate in the lumbering medium, who love to discover obscure on under-distributed gems. With horror filmmakers no longer settling for the easy low-budget go-tos of the zombie or vampire sub-genres, it is inspiring to see that so many independent genre films released over the last fifteen months have supplied us with some real, visceral thrills. So here's to filmmakers keeping the sexy, the erotic, the nudie-cutie, the fun, and the intense, in our serious – and darkly funny – horror cinema. Cheers!
(Cinemafantastique runs July 8-10, 2016 at the Norm Theatre at UBC)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

3 Books a Month – July (Summer Reading)

Happily continuing the three-books-a-month challenge, and getting halfway through some fantastic summer reading, I actually tried to be a little more ambitious than the three book-minimum and hit the four-book mark (proud as I was to have been able to do this last month) – alas, this was not meant to be – apparently, I was a hell of a lot busier in July than I was in June. Thinking back on this, I'm going to say this was true – at one point I found myself in over my head with a graphic design project while on a plane heading to a horror film festival – the very plane I was supposed to have been reading that elusive fourth book of the month. I decided at that point it would be alright to save the book for the flight back, the same flight in which the novel (Ian Banks' “The Wasp Factory”, if you're interested) wound up in the elastic-strapped back pouch of the seat in front of me while I watched Daddy's Home 2 all the way back to Vancouver; and despite even having a couple of hours to kill at LAX, most of that time was eaten up chatting with a couple from Philadelphia who had a ten-hour layover coming back back from a cruise. It was a nice chat, though. So, the three books I had managed to finish before that last week in July were my requisite three for the three-book challenge. The first book, “Cosmopolis” by Don DeLillo, was a fanatical and sexualized ride through the poetry of finances, global economic breakdown, and revenge. It was also a novel I had thoroughly wished that I had read a few years ago, before filming Odissea della Morte. The next one, a recommendation from last month's challenge, was Shirley Jackson's “We Have Always Lived in this Castle”, which turned out to be laced with unyielding philosophical insights into the good and the bad of human nature, and what, sardonically, might really be the actions behind what makes us “good”. This novel ended up being one of the best pieces of literature that I've read in a very long time. I had to return that one to the local library, but I'll be on the lookout for it now to purchase. The last of these three books was a Roberto Bolano book I'd found totally by fluke at the same library (and at the same time) I was returning the Shirley Jackson novel to – my eye caught it on the way out, and I picked it up before leaving the library; it was a Bolano book I'd never heard of before, “Una novelita Lumpen” – but reading it reminded me of how much I loved Bolano's “The Skating Rink” and “The Woes of the True Policeman”. “Una Novelita Lumpen” is a very quick read, and almost as good as “The Skating Rink”. It's bright and engaging and mysterious as it delves into the slightly enigmatic psyche of a young woman who, as a novice to sex and crime, ends up wildly involved in both.