Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Father, The Son and The Family Apocalypse

A Schmoo Throwback Article.
We are all born with a clean slate. We are innocent, hopeful, and untainted. The world we see before sexuality is full of possibilities. We go on to spread the seed and heritage of our parents. It is children who keep the past, present and future alive. It was this pattern that kept the visage of the American family, with all of its values, intact. This all changed when Rosemary’s baby was born. In the realm of the horror genre, the family’s last possible escape was turned on its head. No longer was “the other” a member of the family who had grown into evil, but one who had been born so. There is no future in this, no recurring pattern to save the family norm, there is only a family apocalypse.

It is at this time that all aspects of horror are begun and exhibited within the confines of the family structure. The illusion of the family life that represses the fears and anxiety associated with child-bearing has manifested itself in the children themselves. However, these children don’t simply remain infants. Rosemary’s baby developed on screen within the horror film. He became Damien, then Regan, then Carrie and so on. Although, by the time it had grown into Carrie, the dynamic within the family had evolved. The apocalypse of the family is no longer wrought by the little children, instead the blame lies with the parents. Their ineptitude, absence and harshness forces their seed to further destruction, giving reason to the horror where there once was none.
Although there are some instances where the mother is at fault (CARRIE), the father is the primary culprit in this.

Even in CARRIE one could argue that the father’s absence is important. When the father is absent, he allows for his children to destroy and/or be destroyed (such is the case in slasher flicks). But there are more direct ways in which the father becomes the root villain. In hindsight, we can see that the cause of the apocalypse of which I speak is the father. Rosemary’s baby was born to change the face of horror and the family, but why was it born? John Cassavettes sold his wife to the Devil in exchange for an acting career and its monetary gains. Subsequently the Devil begat the demon spawn. This trend also follows directly into THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE SHINING in which the fathers go crazy while struggling to deal with financial or creative difficulties and attempt to eliminate their offspring. This idea also relates, although less directly, to Poltergeist, where the father’s shady real estate venture brings his family to a haunted house. John Cassavettes was able to stave off this more blatant insanity by nipping his problems in the bud. Sell your wife and potential child to the Devil and your worries are solved.

This one selfish act has seemed to doom the horror film family forever. His act in creating Rosemary’s baby spawned a horror child that transcended all horror, destroying the innocence of the American family in the process (or at least the appearance of it). Then the parents began to agitate and cultivate more terror from their children in an attempt to cope with this evil. This forced the hand of the father, who was too busy dealing with the rigors of capitalist society to act rationally. So, the cycle that was started by the father came to a halt with the father and began again.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

HOME ALONE and the Violent Tradition

When I watch characters on screen that I deem entertaining or likeable being tortured or persecuted, I cringe. I can’t help but root for the protagonist on most occasions, even when my better judgment begs the question, “who cares?”. Usually, I want them to live; I want them to get some sort of retribution against their aggressor. I wanted this at the resolution of HOSTEL, so much so that I disregarded all its ridiculous coincidences and poor storytelling. When I saw our hero slice off his friend’s torturer’s fingers with a scalpel, I beamed with satisfaction. I leaned back in my chair with a smug look on my face and thought mmm, good, all is well. Movies always seem to push their audience towards expecting and hoping for these types of situations to play out. To us, the protagonist can do no wrong. This isn’t simply the case in torture flicks and monster movies, it applies to most movie categories, even holiday family comedies.

That’s right, my attitude as it pertains to protagonist force in films was cultivated by the highest grossing holiday family comedy of all time, HOME ALONE. At the age of 3, in a Marcus Theatre close to home, I watched on approvingly as Kevin McCallister, ably played by McCauley Culkin, shot Daniel Stern point blank in the face with a BB-gun and blowtorched Joe Pesci’s skull, among many other potentially more lethal acts. The little boy smirked and carried out his punishment of the “Wet Bandits,” who, in hindsight, meant him no true harm and with the police and neighbors only a phone call away. Sure, when I think about it now, I know that John Hughes based his entire plot on the foiling of criminals by a little boy and that it is meant to be fun and cute, but when you boil it down, Kevin McCallister is my generation’s David Sumner.

In STRAW DOGS, David Sumner creates a situation in which a few men, who, at the time, mean him no true harm, would be turned into trespassers inside his home. In protecting his home, he devises several sadistic tactics to maim his oppressors. With a pleasant, albeit slightly insane, smirk, David displays the violent and cruel nature of man. The movie’s end isn’t as triumphant as HOME ALONE’s; it actually paints a pretty grim picture. However, it doesn’t matter what scholarly essays say about the matter, or what Sam Peckinpah intended, when my father walked out of the UWM Union Theatre in 1971, he thought Dustin Hoffman was the good guy. He was the down and out weakling throughout the entire film, outmatched by any single member of the gang he fought. We want him to get revenge on the men who have been emasculating him. We want him to prove that he is a man and to stop being such a cowardly and passive victim. He’s our hero, damnit, and we want more from him.

It is obvious where the movie is heading from the start. David’s avoidance of confrontation with the men who have asserted their dominance over his home builds to a point where there must be direct confrontation. His inability to take action with words or lawful intervention against the hooligans and possibly prevent their transgressions against his home allows for creation of his final situation.

The argument behind this movie is that David does not truly prove his manhood, because his ideas of what it takes to be a man are skewed and primitive. However, humans are primitive creatures at heart and dominance in the mastery of violence will always correlate to masculinity. At least a manly David Sumner is a character we can get behind. His outbursts of outrageous, cruel, and unnecessary violence in the final scenes of the film do not deflect the empathy of the audience. He is the kid who has to prove himself against the bullies, just as much as Kevin McCallister. Both have fairly infantile views on adult responsibility, but it’s their situation as an underdog and emphatic dominance displayed in the face of greater size and years that earns them our kudos.

Such an emergent fury in the face of adversity also comes into play at the climatic end of Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. William Munny is a sad and sorry character who does not fit in the world of a western genre film. His stance against violence and bible thumping does not make him an appropriate protagonist in for the audience of western films. It’s hard to understand and relate to the man. His final conflict is not nearly as contrived as that of the two previously mentioned heroes, but it echoes similar feelings. The centerpieces of STRAW DOGS and HOME ALONE do not take place when David is backing down and not when Kevin is crying for his mommy, they both take place during violent bids for dominance. The most important scene in UNFORGIVEN is the shootout between Munny and Little Bill’s men, at which time Eastwood reasserts himself as the cold-blooded killer of his youth. His masculinity is restored and he gains a measure of revenge and then some, but we do not fault him for it because he is our hero and we are behind him. He did not need to ride back into town and walk into that saloon, but he created that situation for himself so he could take lives. He is definitely not a good guy, but he is a lot more entertaining and fulfilling than the part of his character that was. Munny’s final reply Little Bill rings true as it relates to the film audience’s feelings too. Little Bill may not deserve to die, but “deserves got nothing to do with it.” It does not matter who truly deserves to be punished or in what fashion, all that matters is that we have been pushed in the corner of Clint Eastwood since the first bell, but now we are cheering because he is wielding a Spencer Rifle, killing people left and right – like a true badass.

Eastwood practically trademarked the master of violence character in the Leone trilogy and in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. He never misses his mark. He deals death and pain to those in his way, yet he is once again portraying the champion. In DRIFTER, he shoots down three men who are harassing him. His actions are not a question of self-defense and they rarely are. He takes everything these men are and everything they will ever be from them and he does not look back.

How can we cheer for a man like that? Well, it is because he has been established as our central character, his opponents are scummy, and he carries out his actions like an ace. Apply the same formula to the Culkin character in HOME ALONE, and you have a super fan favorite. Even forgetting the immense likeability of a child, he is our central character, his adversaries are slimey, and he’s just so damn good at inflicting pain. His shots with an air rifle land precisely where they mean to (mid-forehead and scrotum), the nail he carefully placed finds its way into Marv’s foot, and he swings paint cans with deadly accuracy at the faces of both intruders. He is a master of violence if I have ever seen one. Every careful scheme he devises works in his favor and it all results in the eventual capture of the antagonists. No matter what he did to two undeserving men, or what sick thoughts entered his mind while coming up with ways to torment the burglars he expected instead of calling on someone who could help, he is still a smiling, innocent child who weeps in the arms of his mother in the end. What an interesting dichotomy, the two sides of Kevin McCallister. Eastwood may have never wept in the arms of his mother before he shot her dead, just as the Culkin character never raped a woman for being impolite (that we know of), he is just such a badass that we have to love him. He does not have the universal popularity of a kid, but he has attitude. The protagonists of both respective movies rely on their attitude and deadly accuracy to maintain the favor of the audience.

Many of the films we watch make comments about how we watch violent media. FUNNY GAMES seems to say that what the audience wants is for the charismatic characters to prevail and for the prolongation of violent scenes. As illogical as the boy’s acts are in the end of HOME ALONE, we want him to continue his antics because we like the character and it is a satisfying and entertaining course of action. The likeability of Kevin is eerily reflected in FUNNY GAMES' primary antagonist, Paul. Both are boyishly charming, always smiling, mostly cool, and moderately aware of their part within a film. They both carry and decide the course of the film and we follow them along for the ride. Kevin McCallister makes more trouble for the Wet Bandits than is truly necessary because the audience derives entertainment in it, Paul continues to play with the feelings of his victims and deny them escape or retaliation because under the circumstances it just does not seem necessary, nor do we truly want to watch our movie guide and his partner get gunned down. Through Paul, we are allowed the ability to rewind and change the actions perpetrated in part of the film that we did not enjoy.

Soon after Kevin’s family abandons him for France, he is plopped in front of the television watching a VHS of a fictional gangster flick 'Angels with Filthy Souls'. After a scene of bloodshed, Kevin seemes scared and pauses the film. However, he could not have been that bothered by it for he utilizes it cleverly and effectively to scare off burglars and an unsuspecting pizza guy - rather unnecessarily. He used the gruff film dialogue to give the appearance of tough grown ups living in the house, which makes sense in terms of the Bandits because it momentarily makes them apprehensive about breaking in to the house. The pizza guy was an innocent victim, Kevin had no reason to not buy directly from him, and he paid him accordingly. The little boy simply gets his jollies tormenting people and because he enjoys it; we enjoy it, too. He uses the television as a weapon just as the creators of VIDEODROME do. They use the allure of violent media to hurt those that they deem to be weak members of society because they watch it. Watching the enticingly illicit images of VIDEODROME turn the film’s protagonist into an assassin.

The same is argued about violent media today. Many think that watching such things can cause us to commit the deeds carried about within them. As an American child, Kevin McCallister’s interests already lie within the realm of violence when left with no parental restrictions. He picks out a movie that was deemed too violent for him to watch by his parents and he watches it, he is then driven towards playing with his brother’s pellet gun. When using the violent film’s context to scare away visitors, Kevin is shown emulating its brutal villain. Later on, he continues to reflect the antagonist by gunning down and repeatedly berating his attackers. The violent film obviously had some effect on how the boy thinks it is appropriate to conduct one’s self, specifically while in potential danger. It does not quite turn him into an assassin, but it makes him dangerous and prone to violence at an alarmingly young age.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Official CDC Recommendation for the Zombie Apocalypse

Just wanted to share this awesome article from the government's Center for Disease Control, advising you on how to survive a hypothetical (or was that imminent?) zombie apocalypse.

Contents include: valuable supplies to stock up on, emergency planning and likely CDC protocol.

The CDC's Zombie Apocalypse 101

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Look at Bane

A few days ago, we were treated to the very first image of Tom Hardy as Bane in the highly-anticipated DARK KNIGHT RISES. It doesn't show a whole lot, just a bulky Hardy looking a bit frightening, but it's still a cool image and a good sign that the Bane design is translatable to Nolan's 'real-world' Batman. Frankly, I was curious about whether they'd put a mask on him at all. Even though we don't get to see the whole thing, I think what they have here is a pretty cool one.

This pic comes with the launch of an official website for the film (www.thedarkknightrises.com). If you happen to check it out, you'll hear what sounds like indiscernible chanting. Some handy nerds on the net were able to decipher it though, determining that the chant was "the fire rises". So begins THE DARK KNIGHT RISES' viral campaign. I didn't know if they'd go for it again, considering they don't have someone like The Joker to base it around, but Nolan and Co. are an ambitious bunch.

Mission accomplished: I'm excited. And over a full year in advance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Schmoo Throwback: MEMENTO and the Male Victim

The Schmoo Throwback will be a new feature in which I revive an article previously posted on the site just so it doesn't remain buried in my archives.
If you take a look at Spicer’s description of the “male victim”, you’ll see that he differentiates between two types of the character. The first victim is a middle-class drifter or professional; he is morally weak, attempting to escape the frustrations of his daily life and he uses his story to explain or excuse his actions. The second type is in the wrong place at the wrong time; he has to battle his way out of adversity displaying some heroic qualities; he often doubts his sanity; he is resilient and courageous, but he almost always needs outside help. We get the sense from Spicer that these are two distinct versions of the “male victim”, but Leonard Shelby in MEMENTO is a composite of both. Due to his unique psychological condition, Leonard is a character that can encompass all the qualities the noir figure, creating an ultimate “male victim”.

Leonard is both a professional and a drifter. The part of his life that he remembers is as an insurance salesman, but the life he’s been living since his wife’s murder is as a drifter. Director Christopher Nolan says of the character, “Shelby knows who he is, but not who he has become”. This fact allows for the juxtaposition of the victim types. He is attempting to escape his frustrating life through memory tricks, but he often finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Due to his memory loss, he can’t completely trust the reality he finds himself in. Leonard wants to be the good guy and he appears to be one throughout most of the film, but that’s only because he’s living in the past. He can’t live in the present and engage with the man he has become. At the film’s conclusion (stories beginning), we see that Leonard’s present character is morally weak. He sets himself up to be a killer just so his life will have purpose. He’s a Jekyll/Hyde character; his cognizant self plays off his confused self to create targets for execution.

We can’t blame Leonard entirely though. Robert Porfirio says that “noir’s ‘non-heroic’ hero is such because he operates in a world devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce a traditional hero”. The noir universe that is the setting of MEMENTO is so corrupt and twisted that Leonard cannot gain his moral bearings and thus becomes an anti-hero. Teddy, a cop, and one of his only friends, is an incredibly amoral character. Instead of stopping Leonard or helping him, all those around him encourage murder. In this type of environment, he doesn’t stand a chance.

The complex narrative structure of MEMENTO gives us a better experience of the anti-hero’s condition. All the uncertainty and ambiguity that arises out of the backward narrative confuses the audience, putting them in a better position to understand Leonard. This style, attached to noir’s existentialist questions creates a film that deeply ponders the nature of perception and humanity.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Fan of the Book Series Complains About "Game of Thrones"

I have a lot better things to be doing with my time, but I just can't help myself. Halfway through a series I was really excited about and I'm pretty much sick of it. Is it November 2010? It's like my experience with "The Walking Dead" all over again and once again I'm left completely dumbfounded by the fact that people are just lapping it up. I mean, c'mon! Did anybody even watch that episode with the street toughs who were really just protecting those old people!? God, that was terrible. "Game of Thrones" is very similar to "The Walking Dead" in that it persistently slaps its audience upside the face with its ineptitude, yet nobody seems to notice or care. Why am I so pissed? I'll tell you why.

1. Sitting around talking doesn't equal character development; it's the result of lazy, stagnant blocking and shameless utilization of exposition.

I don't know who has been helming these episodes, but seriously, where did they find these people? Pretty much anyone who complains about the series being slow and boring gets cut down by rabid fans who belittle them for not appreciating good plot and character development. What they don't realize is that they, in fact, cannot discern a difference be 'development' and exposition. Exposition happens when the people responsible for conveying the story of a movie or show don't respect the intelligence of anyone watching. Therefore, they decide to simply tell you everything that is happening, instead of show you lest you might become confused. What's makes it even more unbearable in 'GoT' is that, no only are they telling you everything that is going on, they're telling you everything that has ever happened. Characters sit still in some scenes, talking endlessly about their previous exploits, essentially regurgitating words that George R.R. Martin wrote. I understand that there's a lot of stuff going on in the books and people who haven't read the them might not pick up on everything right away, but that's okay. Don't try to force it so much. Having such elaborate backstories for everyone is a good thing. Nay, a great thing! People developing an original show would kill to have so much material at their disposal. Pace yourself, let things come through naturally. Show instead of tell. There's no reason viewers can't come to know these characters and this world over time. The show has even gone as far as to reveal plot points that don't come to light until the second or third book in the series. I also really can't believe that there hasn't been a single flashback. It has to be spoken about in the book, that doesn't have to follow to the television medium. Also, characters are allowed to sit and talk in a book because it can still be interesting. Seeing this is another thing. Simply having these chatty characters walk around while talking or doing anything besides just talking would be a significant improvement. And enough with all the family history lessons. If you don't understand who the Lannisters are by now, you're probably an idiot and should steer clear of narratives altogether.

2. I'm not a prude, but "GoT" goes too far sometimes.

There's being provocative and there's trying to be provocative. This show does the latter. I saw a like-minded viewer describe it as a kid waving his arms around trying to get attention and I agree with that. The only tactic they ever use to spice up the conversational scenes is have the actors nude and set it either pre or post coitus. I'm sorry, but I'm not blown away by how risque you are. I'm sickened by how cheap everything seems, by this lame 'sex sells' mindset and by the crass, slurping BJ noises. People have used arguments over this as a pulpit to preach about how the violence in the show is actually more explicit and how viewers are so desensitized to it these days and yet such prudes about sex. Perhaps I am desensitized to it, but I don't find the violence in the show to be overboard. Things are actually toned down a bit from the book, while the sex is shamelessly amped. There could be a drinking game played to how many times people are being railed from behind in this. Also, I knew Renly and Loras were lovers, but c'mon, a scene with them shaving each other's chests? I think that if I were a homosexual, I might find that insulting.

3. Miscellaneous spotty elements of the show.

I think it's annoying that people would assume that my distaste for this or "The Walking Dead" is because of how it deviates from the source material. The latter deviates a great deal from the comics, but I've never been that big of a fan of those, so that didn't bother me. What bothered me was that it was a bad show. "Game of Thrones" is very faithful to the books, but faithfulness does not a good television show make. My opinion of the show may improve by the end of the season, but it could also plummet like it did with "Walking Dead" and I have a sick feeling that it will. Some pretty great stuff happens in the second half of the book, so maybe that will save it for me. I'm going to continue watching, if to only see the occasional moments of greatness, such as almost everything with the direwolves, but my disappointment is palpable.

I would have given the pilot a "B", but the first half of the season is more in the realm of a "C". I really, truly hope that that doesn't fall any further. The show has some strong performers, namely Sean Bean, and an obviously talented production crew. It's also got some great, great, great material to draw from. The potential is there. However, a great deal of the actors are quite bad, the strength of Bean's acting sometimes works to expose this further. Some of the most interesting characters are being brushed over, including the increasingly absent direwolves. And quite a few scenes are falling short of the cinematic value that the books hinted at. The showdown between Ned and Jaime fell so flat, when the section in the book blew me away. Why have it in the streets in the light of day, when it originally took place at night in the rain?

I'm not going to get too worked up about the show anymore, now that I got my rant out. Nothing that's put on TV could diminish the quality of Martin's work. It's just a squandered opportunity, in my opinion, and a loss for appreciators of good television and great stories.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


For those who don't know, THE TROLL HUNTER is a found-footage style adventure film ala CLOVERFIELD, except it's Norwegian and features - you guessed it - trolls. Plainly put, this film is fun, imaginative and pretty darn cool.

The film follows some student filmmakers as they track down a supposed poacher, who turns out to be the  Troll Hunter. After some mild prodding, the man lets them follow him as he makes his rounds, tending to the various problematic trolls in the region. This plot development might seem silly, which it is in a way, but the Troll Hunter explains it logically - he hates the job and doesn't care if he gets fired anymore - which is an amusing framework on which to base the meat of the film.

The film builds to several different encounters with the elusive (though not quite so elusive) trolls. One happens in the woods, another under a bridge, one in a cave, and lastly in an open field. Each showdown has it's own charms and excitement, as do the different varieties of troll themselves. Never do they feel cheap or overexposed. They remain in the shadows and the hand-held camera technique allows us to see just enough of them to be satisfied. In the end, we are treated to a more conspicuous troll (seen in the poster above), but it's so well animated and designed that its level of exposure is actually to be appreciated.

The amount of troll lore infused in the film is another fun aspect. The film strikes a nice balance between superstition and science; remaining fun, yet tethered to reality, which is important with this style of  filmmaking. Trolls can't stand sunlight, yet this is explained scientifically (personally, I didn't find this entirely necessary). Trolls can smell the blood of Christians, but they don't engage with humans in an intelligent way. They're more like animals; big, monstrous, magical animals. There are even times when we think the plot might turn in a more outlandish way, only to remain grounded.

The amateur casts of such films could potentially serve as a drawback to the film, but everyone involved performed admirably, never causing a distraction from the fun at hand. The film also, through the benefit of being set in a beautiful place, offers up some striking locations in which to stage their encounters, which enhances the quality of the trolls themselves.

There are some story elements that really don't matter as much as the films makes them seem. There's this grand mystery concerning the trolls which ends up taking a backseat to the more apparent aesthetic pleasures of the film, especially near the end. There are also some moments near the middle of the film where things lag slightly. However, THE TROLL HUNTER is still a well-made and unique film and something I'd recommend to damn near anybody.


THE TROLL HUNTER is currently available on 'Movies on Demand' as a special early-release and will hit limited theaters later this summer.