Friday, December 18, 2009

Little Apartment of Horrors: Little Otik and Freud’s theory of the Uncanny

This is a quick copy-and-paste of my extra credit essay from the final. Read Freud's theory here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html

The uncanny is the vague mysterious or supernatural entity that inspires fear. Sigmund Freud, that pre-eminent psychoanalyst and cocaine addict, had trouble defining the uncanny. “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.” The uncanny could include ghosts, demons, monsters, or even angels and gods. In the comic book world, the X-Men are commonly called uncanny. Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s 2000 film Little Otik combines live-action characters that we can easily identify with in normal life, with bizarre stop-motion animated creatures. The juxtaposition of mundane-ness and horror sets us off guard.

The film tells the story of a married couple in middle class Czech Republic who are unable to conceive a child. Bozena Horakova, the housewife, suffers from idiopathic sterility (low number of eggs in the ovaries). Her husband Karel Horak, an office worker, suffers from azospermy (or azoospermia, i.e. no measurable sperm in the semen). In a possible homage, their OBGYN looks just like Freud, complete with beard and round glasses, although fatter. In the Horak’s baby fever, many strange things occur, at least in their imagination. Karel looks out his office window and imagines he is in line to buy a baby out of a tank on the street like a fish. At home, Bozena cries into a pile of baby clothes while Karel cuts open a watermelon to find a baby inside.

During Karel’s drive home, many women with children and babies in carriages pass by his car, but a lone old hunchback woman crosses next, a reminder of his wife’s possible fate. At their apartment building, Bozena touches Alzbetka’s (the neighbor girl) hair longingly. She is the only child in the building. Bozena and Alzbetka are both blonde; they could be related. Alzbetka is aware of the wife’s trouble conceiving and puts a ball under her shirt to imitate pregnancy. Karel and Bozena decide to buy a country house away from their apartment. While cleaning up the yard, Karel digs up a strange stump and its roots, roughly in the shape of a baby. He takes it into his shed, trims it and polishes it in a facsimile of a baby, and presents it to Bozena, half joking.

Bozena takes to the wood figure immediately, caring for it like a real child, changing its clothes, bathing it, and caressing it. She has had all the accoutrements of parenthood already prepared despite her sterility: baby powder, clothing, diapers, and pacifier. She becomes obsessed and perhaps a little psychotic over it. Bozena tells the neighbor she is pregnant and prepares nine pillows of different sizes to wear under her clothing to simulate the months. She even simulates the odd diet of a pregnant woman by pigging out on pickles with whipped cream, which she then vomits up. Bozena even denies Karel sex, for fear of having a miscarriage. Karel quickly realizes he has made a mistake.

The film, based on an Eastern European fairy tale called Otesanek, becomes more bizarre as the movie progresses. The couple name their new “baby boy” Otik, and he inexplicably comes alive. Otik, now animated in stop-motion, moves around and makes noise. He has one orifice in his head, which alternates as mouth, nose, and eye socket. Otik is also insatiably hungry, eating Bozena’s hair and anything else not nailed down. Otik grows to immense proportions because of his diet, becoming a danger to anything in his path. In the fairy tale, Otesanek eats a pot of porridge, a pail of milk, a loaf of bread, his parents, a peasant girl with her clover cart, a farmer and his hay and horse, a swineherd and his pigs, a shepherd and his flock, and Orisek the dog. Eventually an old lady with some cabbages throws a hoe into Otesanek’s stomach and it bursts. All the people tumble out, apparently no worse for wear. All of this is explained in a cartoon sequence, animated by Jan Svankmajer’s wife Eva, who unfortunately died in 2005 after 45 years of marriage.

Freud, always delving into the unconscious, was more curious about how and why the uncanny inspires fear, not what inspires it. Freud decided that the presentation of the uncanny was important, moreso than the apparition itself. “The souls in Dante's Inferno, or the supernatural apparitions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth or Julius Caesar, may be gloomy and terrible enough, but they are no more really uncanny than Homer’s jovial world of gods.” The animated sequences in Little Otik are presented in many different ways. The audience is always off-guard as to what they will do next. They are alternately scary, gory, and funny. At times the viewer feels uneasy about laughing during gory scenes, or dreading the upcoming horror during a funny scene.

The live action part of the film is not as forgiving as the cartoon. The uncanny scenes ramp up with each moment, and violence is included. A hand reaches out from Mr. Zlabek’s (a dirty old man) pants to grab Alzbetka. She claims the man has tried to touch her in the past. Mr. Stadler, the Horak’s neighbor and father of Alzbetka, hallucinates that there are nails in his soup. Hilariously, the Stadler’s seem to eat nothing but soup anyway. Soon, just like the fairy tale, Otik’s hunger gets out of control. The Horak’s have to cook giant pots of milk and meat stew all day, using all four burners of the stove at once. They buy huge bags of pork from the local butcher every day. Left to his own devices, Otik eats the Horak’s cat, MikeŇ°. Eventually he also eats Mr. Mladek the postman and a female social worker. The social worker is dispatched in fully filmed gore, with her bones and bloody tissue flying about the bedroom. We feel bad for laughing at this, because all the while Otik is making cute baby noises. Karel attempts many times to destroy Otik, but Bozena always intervenes. She has become a hysterical weakling protecting her “child” despite the carnage. She rationalizes that many people die in car accidents every year. Alzbetka, who has read the fairy tale, is the only outsider who recognizes the danger. “Here we go,” she says. “And this is only the beginning.”

The Horak’s lock up Otik in their building’s basement coal shed to starve (where his rumbling stomach bothers the tenants), but Alzbetka befriends him and feeds him table scraps. At this point Otik is a huge wooden monster with root arms and a giant mouth, towering over everyone. Eventually, Karel attempts to cut up Otik with Mr. Stadler’s chainsaw, but when Otik murmurs “da-da,” Karel is overcome with affection and drops his guard. He is eaten too. Apparently Bozena accepts her fate and allows herself to be eaten soon after. All of this reminds one of Little Shop of Horrors, where the protagonist Seymour adopts a carnivorous plant and brings it people to eat. The ending of Little Otik is ambiguous, but we’re left to assume the old woman in the apartment building takes her hoe to the basement and ends the madness.

Freud recognized that fiction is best for the uncanny, because real life does not feature uncanny events as easily or often. “In the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life,” he said. This is the brilliance of Little Otik, because it updates a fairy tale that seems silly and harmless by putting it into real, recognizable circumstances to show us the horror that the fairy tale actually describes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Videodrome + Naked Lunch = eXistenZ

David Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ follows some very familiar themes from his career: technology run amok, the nature of reality, mad scientists, unreliable government, and oppressive corporations. These features can be found in Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), and of course eXistenZ. Two more film could be lumped in, as far as the reality aspect goes: The Dead Zone (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988). Naked Lunch even has two actors in common with eXistenZ, Ian Holm and Robert Silverman. Clearly Cronenberg has a fascination with these themes and a need to explore them.

eXistenZ recycles the most from two of Cronenberg's earlier films, Videodrome and Naked Lunch. The movie(s) could be best described as organic or techno horror. The very basic designs of characters and objects are intended to disturb the audience through their disgusting biological appearance. It also touches on paranoia, alienation, and mistrust of the "reality" that surrounds us.

eXistenZ joins the genre of virtual reality films released the same year, with The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix, all 1999. They deal with the concept of reality and the computer-generated equivalents. Something was in the air in Hollywood at this time, although they were a bit late to the virtual reality craze of the mid 90s. It is interesting how all three handle the VR premise very differently.

In the plot of eXistenZ, the newest edition of a game system is introduced by Antenna Research to a panel of testers. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the star game designer Allegra Geller, who designs the new virtual reality game eXistenZ.

Jude Law plays Ted Pikul, a marketing trainee put in charge of security at the front door for the event. (What is Jude Law going to do, flirt you to death?) As the demonstration begins, an assassin from the crowd produces a bizarre, organic gun and attempts to assassinate Allegra. The man shouts "Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!" He is apparently a member of a Realist movement that is against the encroaching mass-produced, fake realities on the market. When the shooting starts, Ted gets startled and barely lifts a finger. It takes two undercover armed security people to kill the assassin. Another employee of Antenna is killed, and his last words to Ted are "we have enemies in our own house. Trust no one." This could be a reference to Matthew 10:36: A man's enemies will be the members of his own household.

The game systems, called "metaflesh gamepods," are actually organic creatures (rather than electronic consoles) that resemble indistinct lumps of tissue, produced at Antenna by injecting synthetic DNA into amphibian eggs. The gamepods squirm and make noise when touched. Allegra even refers to a gamepod as "her." The player-user has to insert an umbilical cord from the console into a bio-port in the small of their back, which provides direct access to the person's spine. Once in the game, the people fall into a trance-like state.

The Realist Underground has put a hit out on Allegra, so she and Ted must evade the assassins and their acquaintances who may have been paid off to sabotage her. The organic technology used for the gamepods and guns is evidently widespread, because Ted owns something called a "pink phone," which resembles of a lump of lard.

In this near-future, the virtual reality games have apparently overtaken real life activities. A character comments that "it seems like everything is used for something else now." The sweatshop slaughterhouse where the mutated amphibians are harvested was previously a trout farm. Allegra and Ted hide out in an old ski lodge, because as Allegra says, "no one physically skis anymore." The building where the eXistenZ demonstration takes place is a disused church. Has even religion gone by the wayside in this world?

Allegra is described as being shy but is more of the man in the relationship. She tells Ted she will handle things, and orders him to remove the "bullet" (actually a human tooth) from her shoulder with a pocket knife. Ted is reluctant to have a bio-port installed. "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated... surgically. You know what I mean." Allegra replies "no I'm not sure that I do." Note the hint of gender distinction. Ted rashly tries to fend off having a bio-port put in by wielding a giant wrench. Allegra says of Ted's fear, "This is it, you see. This is the cage of your own making, which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever." Later, Allegra (lustfully perhaps) licks her finger and inserts into Ted's bio-port, saying that it "wants some action," and Ted gets angry and swats her away.

The film environment may be a semi-fascist state. Bio-ports have to be licensed and ones installed unofficially are illegal. Rural areas are a haven for black markets and trading secret information. This is where game development people hide out. Allegra is a "big star" in this world. When Ted and Allegra stop at a country gas station to get a bio-port, the character Gas (Willem Dafoe) figures out who Allegra is and falls on his knees and kisses her feet. He explains that her games have been a liberating force for him, allowing him to escape his mundane life as a gas station owner and explore his other abilities. And yet, Allegra spends all her time alone in her room designing games. For example, eXistenZ the game took five years and cost $38 million to develop, "not including pre-release marketing costs."

Using the eXistenZ game inspires the characters to a better appreciation for actual reality. Allegra curiously touches the cement on the gas station building, smells the gas pump, and kicks the dirt. She throws a rock at the pump and smiles at the tin noise.

Then again, is it "actual reality"? The nature of reality is toyed with, manipulated, twisted, and hinted at throughout the movie. It is one of those movies that makes more sense when viewed a second time. As Ted and Allegra (her name means "happy" in Italian) are on the run, everything is a little too scenic and contrived.

In the real world of the film, the characters have technology that we (in our world) do not, nor could we conceive of ever making. The organic gun shoots human teeth as bullets, and the cell phone is made of... I don't want to know. Allegra also encounters a strange creature at the gas station: a two-headed lizard that walks like a scorpion. She explains that it is a "sign of the times." So, how real is the "real" world of the film?

The relationship between movies and video games is explored. Both films and games try to recreate reality on their own terms, in a more interesting version, a hyper reality. In games, we marvel at their graphics and sound effects and physics, but what will happen when technology gets so good that it can recreate the real world so well that it's indistinguishable? Will we be impressed by the achievement of the recreation, or be bored with it because that world already exists right outside our doors anyway? If the simulation is too real, how can we tell it apart from reality? Or, once we achieve that state, will it matter?

The similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome and Naked Lunch abound. Andy Warhol called Videodrome the "Clockwork Orange of the 80s." That film mainly focuses on the nature of media and entertainment warping our perceptions. It adds to alienation and paranoia over what is real. It also involves a corrupt corporation. A pirated TV signal called Videodrome (supposedly from Asia but actually Pittsburgh) is broadcast depicting snuff films. The real producer of Videodrome is Spectacular Optical Corporation, a front for a weapons company. The broadcasts are designed to kill depraved viewers by giving them brain tumors. Max Renn (James Woods) develops reality-warping mental abilities, and one of his hands is transformed into an organic gun. It's quite literally a hand-gun. Throughout the film he yells "Death to Videodrome, long live the New Flesh!" similar to the assassin's exclamation in eXistenZ.

In Naked Lunch, reality is warped by a powerful drug that is manufactured as bug powder. The main character, William Lee (Peter Weller), uncovers a bizarre conspiracy through his drug use. His typewriter transforms into a sentient, speaking insect of some sort. The insect orders Lee, now a secret agent, to assassinate people who work for Interzone Incorporated (again, notice the evil corporation). In the film, the insects make animal noises and squirm around, just like the metaflesh gamepods.

The gamepods seem to be completely organic, and the data is stored on "neural webbing," but when a gamepod is fried it lights up and shoots sparks. Ian Holm dissects a gamepod much like he dissected the facehugger in Alien exactly 20 years earlier.

The eXistenZ game world is not revealed until 40 minutes into the film. Allegra describes the transition to the game world in movie editing terms, such as "jagged brutal cuts" and "slow fades." During the game experience, Ted gets worried. "Where are our real bodies? Are they alright? What if they're hungry? What if they're in danger?" This presciently describes real internet and video game addiction. The phenomenon of MMORPGs causing real psychosis and even death from exhaustion and dehydration has occurred in South Korea and Japan.

"What is the goal?" Ted asks Allegra. "You have to play the game, to find out why you're playing the game," she replies. It sounds like life. You don't always know where you're going until you get there. At the very end of the film, when a character gets a gun turned on him, he asks "tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" The characters don't know and neither do we.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Thing, addendum

Just some bits of trivia from rewatching the Collector's Edition of the film with the commentary track featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

The Thing
was the first of John Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy, which includes Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness.

The Thing was released two weeks after another alien flick, ET, and was crushed at the box office by it.

When the cast arrived at the Universal Studios lot, the banner greeting visitors featured the two big Universal stars at the time: Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

The opening title, when "The Thing" appears on the screen, was simply created by burning a black plastic garbage back in the shape of the letters and placing a bright light and smoke behind it.

The opening shot with the spacecraft flying quickly by the camera into Earth's atmosphere was copied for the movie Predator five years later.

The early shot with the dog running across the snow field was filmed outside Juneau, Alaska, which had the record at the time for the most snowfall anywhere in North America. As Carpenter put it, "the only problem with this location is we couldn't get any beer."

Working on The Thing with all of its helicopter work persuaded John Carpenter to get his own helicopter pilot's license.

The intended background of MacReady, Kurt Russell's character, is of a Vietnam veteran pilot who became an alcoholic after the war and sought isolation, hence his J&B drinking and service in Antarctica.

Originally the cast was going to be a true ensemble, with no main character or hero. MacReady would have only become the center at the very end once everyone else except the monster was dead. This sounds pretty similar to Ripley in Alien. Once Kurt Russell, a fairly well-known star was brought in, the script was adapted.

MacReady's big silly hat was forced on Russell because the second-unit footage had already been shot with another actor (or pilot) wearing the hat, shot from behind. In order for the footage to match Russell had to wear it too.

Russell was upset when they got to British Columbia because he realized it would be great skiing and no one thought to bring their skis.

Stewart, British Columbia is near Hyder, Alaska. In the area they have a tradition called Hyderizing or Hyderization. You have to drink Everclear, and if you can keep it down they take your glass and set it on fire.

Carpenter described the white-out conditions in Stewart as "being inside a ping pong ball and trying to find a way out."

The bush pilots in Alaska were apparently a bit nuts. One of them approached Carpenter and offered to crash his own helicopter for the movie if they would pay him.

The "base" that was built in Stewart was always kept at 31 degrees and the cast and crew really lived in it. It was specially designed to be destroyable across the shooting schedule.

The charred set of the Norwegian outpost was actually the American outpost once it was blown up for the end of the movie, rather than building two sets.

The interiors of the destroyed Norwegian compound were actually filmed on a sound stage at Universal in Los Angeles. It was almost 100 degrees outside at the time and the cast had to wear their full winter outfits around the lot. On the set it was refrigerated down to 28 degrees. In order to create the full visible breath the crew ran misters to put humidity into the air. When that didn't work the actors had to put special baskets in their mouths containing dry ice.

When Rob Bottin, the makeup and creature effects artist, made something Carpenter thought didn't pass muster, Bottin would just slather more gel on it until it looked good on camera. The slime was made of carbopol, the same ingredient used in Twinkies to hold them together.

Besides an all-male cast, the crew was all-male as well. The one woman who worked on the shoot was Candy Marcellino, but she was pregnant at the time and had to leave. Kurt Russell observed that, because there were no females around, the men did not engage in posturing.

The "steam" rising off the half-changed corpse of the Thing was something called A&B Smoke. All the coughing and wincing from the actors is real due to the pungent smoke.

John Carpenter was worried about how to shoot 12 actors all in a scene together exchanging dialogue and ensure it made sense to the audience. However, when he watched the original 1951 film, he saw that at one point director Christian Nyby shot a scene with 36 people.

Wilford Brimley had no trouble with the scene where he dissects the dead Thing and pulls out its organs. Brimley had been a real cowboy and rodeo rider prior to his acting career. He also was an extra on an episode of "Gunsmoke" which starred James Arness, the monster from The Thing from Another World.

Carpenter considered The Thing to be partially a metaphor for AIDS and the early hysteria surrounding it, because the disease was so deadly and you couldn't tell who had it.

When the dog creature extends a flower-like appendage, it's actually a collection of dog tongues with rows of teeth.

One day at lunch on the set, after a day of filming with the flame throwers, Kurt Russell played a practical joke on John Carpenter. He went up to Carpenter with bandages covering his face and said he couldn't work anymore because he had been burned. It took Carpenter minute to look at the expressions of the other cast members and figure out it was a joke.

If you ever visit Antarctica and want to dig up your own UFO, here is the map.

When shooting the scene with the UFO in the ice, the cast had to be very careful where they stepped along the glacier at all times. Because the entire area was solid white, one step could be solid and a misstep could send you 400 feet straight down.

The scene where the three actors are walking toward the spot where the frozen alien was found was actually shot by having the actors walk across a white sheet laid on the ground at the Universal back lot in Los Angeles. Everything in the scene surrounding them is a matte painting.

Carpenter and Russell joked that the crude computer animation of the cells being assimilated looked like the Atari game Asteroids.

For the scene where Wilford Brimley has a nervous breakdown and destroys the room with an axe, two cameras were running and Brimley was told to just go to town.

At one point Keith David has to hide his hand from the camera because he had broken it in a car accident. The hand was bandaged and a painted glove was then placed over that. The only car he had driven prior to that incident was one he had stolen in New York City.

The fake ice put in the actor's hair and beards was made from sugar.

Each flare only lasted 90 seconds, so shots had to be done quickly before it burned out. One scene would take multiple flares. The actors had to hold the flare close enough to his face to light himself for the camera but not too close to burn himself.

In the scene where Charlie Hallahan's chest opens up and severs Richard Dysart's arms, Hallahan had to lay on the table motionless for 8 hours of makeup.

One of the negative reviews when the film came out called John Carpenter a "pornographer of violence."

Notice that once Blair (Wilford Brimley) becomes the Thing, he no longer needs his glasses.
John Carpenter really admired Brimley as an actor and was impressed by his performance. When Carpenter asked Brimley what he thought about during a certain scene, Brimley replied "picking up my laundry."

The end scene with the floorboards being tossed in the air sequentially was accomplished by putting a big metal ball under the floor and dragging it with a winch.

The final monster sequence required 50 people to operate the giant puppet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Horror Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

The Thing (1982), or 12 Angry Men in the Antarctic.

The Plot: Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.

The Tagline: Man is The Warmest Place to Hide.

The film is currently rated #163 on IMDb's Top 250 list.

The best horror films are those that play just as much on our psychological fears as on monsters or blood. The Thing achieves this in many ways. First, its plot unfolds such that isolation and danger create alienation among the characters which then leads to paranoia. You can never be sure who is who. Secondly, it disturbs the audience visually and aurally with grotesque creations that are deformed, ooze slime and bleed mucous, and attack everything in sight, usually with horrible dismemberment.

Some background: The Thing is one of five collaborations so far by director John Carpenter (shown here with his voluminous cranium) and actor Kurt Russell. The other four are Elvis, Escape From New York, Escape From LA, and perhaps the masterpiece of them all, Big Trouble in Little China.

Samurai films have the legendary collaboration of Akira Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune. Gangster films have Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Horror and Sci-Fi have John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

Yes, I consider Elvis to be horror.

The Thing is the second film version of John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?" It was written in the late 1930s and kicked off the trend of shapeshifting in science fiction.

Campbell Jr.'s story was so popular it influenced four earlier films: The Thing from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978), and Alien in 1979. The 1950s films had communist subtexts; commies looked like everyone else, and could hide anywhere and undermine us all. The later films put more science (and horror) into the science fiction. Only the 1951 film was a direct adaptation of "Who Goes There?" until Carpenter's 1982 film. However, the 1951 film did away with the shapeshifting element and instead was more of a Frankenstein type monster. James Arness, later famous as Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke," was chosen to play the monster, mostly because he was 6' 6" tall. John Carpenter's version takes Campbell Jr.'s material and turns it up to 11. Therefore it is not a remake of the 1951 film but a new(er) adaptation of the same source.

Dan O'Bannon, lead writer of Alien, rather obviously based his own screenplay on The Thing from Another World rather than the original story. Interestingly, Christian Nyby is credited as director of The Thing from Another World and Howard Hawks as producer, but anyone familiar with Hawks will tell you that the dialogue and camera style is very much Hawks. The rumor is that Hawks directed quite a bit of the film but since Nyby did the majority of the technical day-t0-day shooting Nyby got the credit. Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg had a similar relationship on Poltergeist (1982). Spielberg co-wrote and produced Poltergeist for Universal Studios but was directing ET (also 1982) at the time for MGM. Due to contractual issues, Spielberg was not allowed to shoot any other film while ET was in production. Spielberg directed most of Poltergeist (based on interviews with the cast and Spielberg's recognizable style) but Tobe Hooper was given credit to avoid a lawsuit with MGM.

So, what is the significance of the isolation and alienation in The Thing? The cast consists of twelve men, variously scientists, doctors, pilots, cooks, and other laborers, at a US research station in the Antarctic (it was an Air Force base in the Arctic in the 1951 film). Early in the film, the character Windows (evidently a technician of some sort) has trouble reaching anyone else on their radio equipment. They are thousands of miles from civilization in a hostile environment. Geography is an adversary. The exteriors of the film were shot near a glacier in Stewart, British Columbia, a real-life no man's land. The characters' egos and personalities begin to work against them under the strain of the job too, like cabin fever. When the Norwegian research team nearby arrives at their camp trying to kill a sled dog, the US team decides they must have gone nuts from too much time in the snow and cold.

All the characters in the film are male (despite the 1951 film featuring two women). The only "female" is the Chess Wizard computer, which Kurt Russell fries by pouring his J&B Scotch Whisky into the circuits when "she" checkmates him, effectively killing "her." This also reinforces that the characters are not in normal co-ed society. Their only other companions are sled dogs, which quickly become a source of conflict as well.

The music by famed film composer Ennio Morricone repeatedly uses an ominous heartbeat-style rhythm, suggesting not only a foreboding feeling but also a vaguely organic tone. As the story progresses, the characters must confront this bizarre alien force that works by consuming, assimilating, and finally imitating any other life-form it touches. Thus the paranoia sets in. Even among your friends, how could you tell a perfect replica? Especially one that is intelligent enough to build an interplanetary spacecraft. It is even smart enough to fake a heart attack. This is in contrast to the usual invasion story such as Alien, where the characters are able to band together to fight the menace. In this case, the menace could be your friend standing with you face to face and you wouldn't know for sure. The characters have no true friends to trust. The men turn on each other, not knowing friend from foe (or alien), and one legitimate human is killed by a gunshot wound to the head. A film depicting just these aspects, without the science fiction, would be effective enough.

So what is the significance of the ooze, the pus, the disgusting blood, guts, and mangled body parts of The Thing? Julia Kristeva, in her article "The Powers of Horror" explains the psychological aspect (p 65). Throughout civilization, unclean things and unclean people have been ostracized for being polluting forces. It became such a strong aspect of society that it turned into religious law. Filth was "promoted to the ritual level of defilement." Blood and other body fluids had to be excluded from regular society, for hygiene and other reasons. Women who had just given birth or were menstruating were denied access to temples or religious ceremonies in Ancient Greece and Rome. Other films like the Alien series take this to new levels: the xenomorphs are precisely as dangerous as they are, besides the tail and claws and double-mouths, because they bleed acid. As Parker says in the first film, "It has a wonderful defense mechanism. You don't dare kill it." Humankind has a strong aversion to seeing what makes us tick physically.

The creature in The Thing is so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. It not only drips bodily fluids but changes shape, combining dogs with people with god knows what else. John Carpenter disturbs us by showing graphic autopsy scenes of elaborate half-changed organisms. As Roger Ebert put it in his review back in 1982, "There are times when we seem to be sticking our heads right down into the bloody, stinking maw of the unknown, as the Thing transforms itself into creatures with the body parts of dogs, men, lobsters, and spiders, all wrapped up in gooey intestines."

As for the gender issue raised earlier, the alien monster itself has no discernible gender, or discernible anything really. And that's the horror of it: we can't make sense of it. The characters only know that it is eager to assimilate them too and thus must be destroyed. It has a deliberately amorphous, very otherworldly shape. As John Carpenter said in the documentary Terror Takes Shape, "I didn't want to end up with a guy in a suit." He points out that, as brilliant as Alien was, at the end of the film you still see an actor in a big rubber suit. A man's chest spontaneously opening up in a huge pincer to rip another man's arms off, then its head pulling away and growing spider legs to escape, is definitely not the average man in a suit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

My Life in Pink, Blue, Frilly Dresses and Fantasy Scenes

Alain Berliner's 1997 film Ma Vie En Rose tells the story of Ludovic Fabre, a little boy who identifies as a girl. Ludo wears his sister's old dresses, uses makeup and jewelry, plays with dolls, and watches Pam and Ben (Barbie and Ken type characters) on television. He is not homosexual per se, because he dreams of growing up to become a girl, and comes up with a word to describe his present state: he is a "boygirl." Michael R. Schiavi, in his article "A Girlboy's Own Story: Non-Masculine Narrativity in Ma Vie En Rose" describes Ludo as "an aggressively narrative resisting protagonist. Effeminate, cross-dressing, boy-loving, girl-identified, pre-pubescent male."



Ludo is supposed to be seven, but actor Georges Du Fresne was 12 when the movie was shot.






With his bobbed hair and frilly dresses, Georges is distinctly Natalie Portman-esque.








Throughout the film, there are subtle hints in the color of the wardrobe and sets as to how the characters in the scene relate to Ludo. Are they accepting or hostile? What is the significance of the color scheme in Ma Vie En Rose?

Ludo's father Pierre wears a blue shirt at the party at the beginning of the film. He is quite flabbergasted and embarrassed by his son/daughter. Ludo's mother Hanna, on the other hand, is more composed and helps Ludo clean up. She wears a pink dress. A bit later in the film, when the children at school are doing show and tell, Ludo produces Pam and Ben dolls. The children all laugh, but the teacher, wearing a pinkish sweatshirt, is more understanding. On the playground, Jerome and Ludo have an encounter that can be best described as a flirtation. Jerome ignores a girl from the class who asks him to play with her. Jerome is wearing a pinkish jacket at the time. At dinner, after Jerome and Ludo are caught performing a mock wedding ceremony, Ludo's father is again embarrassed, and moreover, furious. Again Pierre is wearing blue. As the film progresses and Hanna's patience wears thin, she wears more blue dresses and sweaters. The list goes on.


As an aside, in Ancient Greek mythology, art, and culture, boys who appeared girlish were considered beautiful. Then again, in most city-states of Ancient Greece, pederasty was considered normal...





Later in Michael Schiavi's article, he quotes Judith Butler, the American post-structuralist philosopher who has written on feminism and so-called queer theory. Butler assert that gender identity can be "reconceived as a personal/cultural history of received meanings subject to a set of imitative practices which refer laterally to other imitations and which, jointly, construct the illusion of a primary and interior gendered self." For all her erudite language, Butler is essentially saying that people imitate what their culture tells them is the normal behavior for their gender, to the point that they too consider it normal and identify themselves as society has instructed. Gender identity comes from without, yet is imitated so ardently that it finally appears, even to the imitator, as coming from within. What is the significance of this in the film? In regards to Ludo in Ma Vie En Rose, I think this can cut both ways.

First, it is true that Ludo is pushed to act like a boy by his parents and fellow children. His parents even take him to see a child psychiatrist. Culture has dictated to its members what being a boy means, and Ludo's family tries to conform to that for fear of being ostracized by their neighbors and coworkers. Ludo idolizes Pam, an external source in the local media, who is the ultra-feminine fantasy figure on television, and he internalizes her world.

However, Ludo also watches his father, his brothers (who play with guns and exclaim that they have killed one another) and the other boys at school, yet does not identify with them. He attempts to emulate them with crude gestures and activities but fails. It is not in his nature. He is not pushed into a box by stereotypical gender roles as Butler would claim. Also, if people are simply imitating what society tells them, who started these concepts? Surely not everyone can imitate each other back to the beginning of time. Butler's theory ignores instinct as well. Who was the originator? The logic breaks down at this point.