Friday, October 30, 2009

The Burning: NOT Your Run of the Mill Sister, Sister Slashhh(er film)

Coincidentally, The Burning was released one day short of what would be the one-year anniversary of Friday the 13th. At first, it seems like a nearly complete rip off the Jason franchise; a masked killer attacking a children’s camp. Yet while Friday the 13th’s story involves a mother avenging the death of her child who was neglected by the counselors’ sexual escapades, The Burning contains a story more along the lines of Scream/Urban Legend/I Know What You Did Last Summer. The custodian of the camp, who supposedly is an abusive alcoholic custodian, is accidentally set on fire during a prank gone wrong and after five years of recovery, returns to the camp for revenge.

First off, compared to the handful of notorious Slasher films – Halloween I and II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream - I think Friday the 13th is pretty terrible. The dialogue and acting is torture to the senses and the theme of irresponsible teenage hormonal overdrive is obnoxiously explicit.

In fact, in the behind the scenes documentary of The Burning, I learned that Tom Savinni considers all of the subsequent Friday the 13th’s after the 1981 version to not be “real” additions since Jason was legitimately killed within the first few minutes of the original film. I agree in some ways, but considering the grasp of the series and what it became - with a remake that ignores the drowning of young Jason altogether - I’d say the first movie of the series doesn’t belong to the rest. There are ELEVEN movies that contain Jason, ten of which contain the infamous mask. So while I’d like to agree with Tom Savinni, I feel he has it backwards. When a remake is better than the original – as the ’09 release was – it proves how comparably bad the original was.

And where Friday the 13th got it wrong, The Burning got it right. First off, the cast is superb, featuring the sickly scrawny Fisher Stevens and hilarious Jason Alexander. These two individuals are part of a five-person group with such a great and realistic dynamic that when the first one of them is murdered, it almost drew a tear. Likewise, the group of girls also have a phenomenal relationship. Unlike Friday the 13th, The Burning doesn’t revolve around the horniness of teenagers in the woods, but rather the friendships between the campers (and their complimentary horniness in the woods). Like most horror films, it has a great amount of exposition that hooks the viewer into empathizing with the characters rather than immediately killing them off.

I’d even say that other than Scream, The Burning best captures teenage personalities, romance and sex better than any other slasher movie. In fact, even if there was no vengeful killer looking in the woods, I think this would have made a great coming of age/summer of love story.

Also, contrary to most Slasher film conventions, approximately half of the group survives in the end. For instance, after the canoes have gone missing, both girls and boys board a homemade raft, and they equally get butchered for doing so. There is no reason some of the people board the raft and others don’t, it is not about who is tough or scared or courageous; it is meaningless. And just when the film seems directed toward establishing a message through revering Aflred (a nerdy kid who is constantly made fun of) as he is about to apparently destroy the killer, the lead counselor, Todd, steps in and lends assistance.

This is not a film about a virgin female who will be the sole survivor in the end. If anything, it is completely absurdist; there is no psychological subtext regarding feminist values or sexual repression, there is no formula as to why some survive and others do not.

The only message to be analyzed is the choice of using a summer camp; a location of vast popularity during early 80s horror. But, this is another blog that I’ll probably never write. Or at least until Scary Movie Month '10.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stupid and Pretentious

I’ve seen Joy Ride at least a dozen times since it first came out in 2001, however, I don’t recall this vacuous bit of trivia added to imdb last time I checked. Considering imdb trivia is usually added by members, I can't stop wondering kind of person would add this ridiculously subjective observation..

“During the course of the movie, watch the LED signal strength indicator lights on the brothers' CB radio. The first four indicator lights change colors in nearly every scene, including bright green, dark green, yellow, red, and crimson. This is obviously intentional and not a series of continuity errors.”

First off, this is completely untrue as the photos show...

1. First Contact with Rusty Nail (~11:00)

2. The Hotel (~17:00)

3. “You should really get that fixed…Your taillight.” (~32:00)

4. Apologize as Car is Crushed (~45:00)

5. Look…in…the…trunk…Lewis (~1:00:00)

6. Corn Scene (~1:15:00)

Yeah, um...I don't see the first four colors changing from anything but yellow.

Now, even if this were true, what is the point of submitting this bit of trivia? After all, even if this person was correct, is there ANY visual theme, image or motif that is NOT intentional? We can look at the close-up of the CB radio as being no different than a close-up of a face; emphasizing the importance in both detail and attention. Like the mask motif in slasher films, the CB Radio is acting as a mask but through taking on a different form. For instance, while we see the white mask of Michael Meyers who's the killer, we hear/see the CB radio of Rusty Nail who's also the killer.

And if a director is going to use one of the most significant and important aesthetic film techniques – the close up – would there EVER be a case where a noticeable visual change is not intentional? I’m not talking about obscure ultra low-budget movies where the amateur production values can lead to strong continuity errors. I’m discussing professionally directed and produced films. Whoever made this comment might as well go through the work of all great film auteurs, stating that their choice toward changing visuals is definitely "intentional.” But maybe not, because as the photos demonstrate he was completely wrong in the first place.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Philmosophical Revolution

Scary Movie Month 2009 has officially begun and is off to a great start. I just finished Midnight Movie, a film I wouldn't have watched if not for finding it for $1 at a garage sale while visiting my Aunt’s cottage in rural Indiana. It’s a low-budget winner of the 2008 Chicago Horror Film Festival, which starts out pretty great and then, come the third act, falls into shit.

The movie got me thinking about this Digital Revolution we’re in. George Lucas declared it would change the face cinema; the Blockbuster Bubble would break, and on account of easier and cheaper productions, viewers would begin to demand more independent, and therefore personal films.

Well, this day has come and passed, and it’s when I think of American Movie that I finally understand why. I cannot imagine having to deal with film and analog editing systems while making my first short film. Having to deal with high development costs, lighting, delayed dailies and analog editing systems seem like few of the many obstacles that would filter my passion and drive towards achieving my final product. In the end, after all of incredibly laborious work, I believe I’d always ask myself, “Was it worth it for this?” Thinking about my first short film, although I knew quite a bit on how to organize scenes and let the story flow, it was only when I was done with the project that I realized how terrible I was at writing, condensing story and visualizing the editing. I know that my next film will be better, but I also realize the inevitable consequence of hating it upon completion. After all, if a person isn’t hating their project when its done, I imagine they probably aren’t learning too much as a filmmaker.

However, its only through making more films that a person can get better, and the idea of having to go through such a horrendously laborious process back in the day of analog systems and film is enough to make me conclude that the end result would rarely be worth the labor, and that the high costs and large doubts of the next project would quickly force me into throwing in the towel. Mark Borchardt spends thousands of dollars on Coven and although I haven’t seen it, I’ve been told it's pretty bad. How could anyone continually spend extravagant amounts of money only to be disappointed in the end? It's when I think about this that I realize the pioneers of the independent FILM movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s are the true cinematic heroes; whether they made it or not, they gambled far more than any of us ever will.

This brings me to the conclusion that just because more people can make movies doesn’t mean that there will more great movies. Look at the Number One slots at the box office, easily reserved for the most high tech or visually pleasing texts (though Zombieland’s current position is impressive). All the digital revolution did was make it easier to enact highly stylized modes of storytelling. Remember the steady cam shot in Goodfellas being the be all, end of all of steady cam shots? Not anymore, since Children of Men took this method the very extreme of perfection. The same goes for special effects; nowadays, there are absolutely no limits to the imagination. Its as if we’ve reached a point of trying to replace substance with style.

Strange enough, this is in direct accordance with our present culture. In this age of instant gratification, when no one can save a dime and everyone wants everything immediately, the world of entertainment maintains the same principles. Think of youtube; commonly if a video is longer than two or three minutes people will avoid watching it. In terms of children’s books, there are now super-short stories less than ten pages long. Reality shows allow us to avoid the bore of day to day life and witness the interesting portions.

All the digital revolution achieved was catering to the arenas in which its quickness and durability would benefit audiences. Thus, reality shows, youtube, and porn have all adopted the technologies successfully while George Lucas’s prediction of a new generation of independent filmmakers has failed.

The problem is that while a thousand people might be able to get their project completed, there are still only a handful of people who can actually tell stories. Just as literature could not rely upon laptops and the Internet in order to discover new voices, we cannot foolishly believe that better technologies necessitate better stories.

Whether spending thousands of dollars and countless years on a project, or minimal money and days on a project, it all comes down to the story, and if it’s terrible from its inception, it will be terrible upon completion. While Mark Borchardt had enough determination and drive for thirty moviemakers, his movie simply could not deliver through its inadequate and contrived story. Midnight Movie and other low-budget movies should be an inspiration to us all. If this terrible horror film can get financed, then maybe, in order to achieve develop a voice, we should all forget HOW we’re going to shoot our stories and focus on WHAT we’re going to be shooting.

The film revolution will never come from technology, but from an era in which our studies expand beyond the walls of film school. In the last hundred years film has undergone an immense change, from suggestive sex to oral sex, from no blood to fetishized violence. I have full faith that if people watch enough films they will see and absorb the proper way to make a film; there is no need to teach the 180 rule, parallel editing or the three-act structure when these rules could be learned through an individuals passion for watching films. What is needed is a change to the story itself, a way in which to deepen what has thus far been told countless times before. STORIES have only changed due to the modern technologies which have allowed STYLE to change. It's through the meticulous visual austerity of Kubrick, Scrosese, Hitchcock, Cuaron and numerous other directors, along with watered down censorship, that stories are reaching the peak of HOW they can be told. What is needed now is a focus upon WHAT is being told; thorough examinations of philosophical, scientific and psychological ideas in order to provide expert commentary on new and revolutionary stories. Instead of film aficionados pretentiously calling out stolen shots, they will begin calling out stolen ideas, themes and characters. If scholars are going to seriously analyze film in terms of feminist, sociological, psychological and philosophical ideas, then filmmakers should approach and include these topics with an equal degree of seriousness.