Wednesday, 28 July 2010

"The Road"... and the cracks in it

Haha, Philip Challinor - the excellent author and sharp-edged political commentator - takes a chunk out of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". He is right. I find myself being in the camp of being a fan of "The Road", and remaining a fan, even though the perceptive and enlightening criticisms of it that I have read seem totally correct also. Naturally, part of the issue is that Cormac McCarthy is a huge literary name and that he receives the kind of praise and worthiness that surely needs to be taken down a peg or two. [1] I dig McCarthy. But Challinor is very right on the issue of the moral challenges of the novel: namely, that if you are looking for that, "The Road" cops out. What follows, then, is my acknowledgement of Challinors correct deconstruction of "The Road", or at least its lofty status, and also my defence, rationalisation and allowances of the novel as a fan. I am hoping not to lapse into excuses.

I like that Challinor puts "The Road" in its proper context - science-fiction, if not horror - and grades it accordingly. Challinor's opening is a fine slice of iconoclasm:

"If you'll pardon the blasphemy, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is not a very good book. It is not an uncompromising vision of the Apocalypse; it is not a brutally realistic vision of the end of civilisation; it is not more frightening than the most frightening horror story; it is not more convincing than the best science fiction; and it is not a brilliant allegory of parenthood in the dangerous twenty-first century."

And here we shall differ, because I think it is and remains a good book, despite the flaws. Challinor's key argument seems to me to be that it does not go far enough; or rather, does not go far enough to warrant it's reputation of incomparable bleakness. Whenever a true moral dilema comes up, McCarthy throws in something new to divert the true test of the father's "goodness" and paternal love. He never really has to decide should I kill and eat another human being to keep myself and my child alive?

To me, "The Road" is a little by-way off of the true uncomprosing, brutally realistic vision of the Apocolypse and one of the most chilling horror stories and allegories ever: Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", which I consider to be one of the greatest slabs of horror and humanitarian writing in genre fiction. Yes, I am going to add ever to that too. I have a hard time imagining how McCarthy might have stumbled onto "The Road" without at least someone having mentioned "The Walking Dead" to him. But it is then not so much the plot and its convulutions that generate the truth of the grim reputation of the novel so much as the context, conceit and sparseness of prose that create the harshness. It is in the atmosphere and execution. The feel of the novel alludes to the worst happening to the father and son at any moment, even if the magic of storytelling intercepts at just the right moments to pull them back from the brink. This aftertaste of a crumbling natural world and civilisation holds up long after the convenience of discovering a bunker stuffed with food (which, of course, is a moment designed also to provide our protagonists with a moment of reprieve and civility: for the father, it is the memory of civility and for the son a fleeting introduction. It is meant as a contrast to the outside world, evidently, and the episode would perhaps be successful at this if the father was faced with scenes that truly test his humanity. Just how hungry are they? We don't see them at the stage of eating algae or dry leaves for sustenance, for example). The mood triumphs.

Challinor does not believe that the boy would be the herald of the virtue in a world overrun by cannibals. Challinor on the scene where the son chastises his father for the way he treats a thief that tries to steal from them: "A child in a highly dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape, with only its father to rely on, would join its father in humiliating and murdering the thief, and give the corpse a good kick in the face to show it just how good the good guys can be." But, indeed, not every scenario has to be that way, surely? Not every child needs to be barbarous to make a point, and surely the challenge McCarthy sets himself is not to have a barbaric child, and the quest his father undertakes to keeps him from that barbarism. But I would say that Challinor presents an unassailable argument as to why McCarthy fails this challenge: as he puts it, something always comes along to circumnatigate the father away from the truly messy choices.

Again, I see no need to turn every child into a stray from "Lord of the Flies" in such a scenario, and I can swing with the idea that, with only his father's evangelical stress on being "the good guys" and keeping him away from any other survivors, the son may well find himself the bearer of conscience and the desire for a better world that came before... especially when: something always comes along. I would also suggest that the paradox of children is that they are as innately sweet as they are barbaric, and that some fall more one way that the other due to character, environment, influences, etc. They are naturally as fascinated with being good as they are with bad behaviour.[2] Under the sole, stifling influence of the father, why should this not be so for the son?

My conclusion is doubtlessly not going to satisfy detractors, and probably not some fans either, but in light of Challinor's accurate squewering of its Achilles' Heel, I read "The Road" more as a fairy-tale. A fairy-tale in its rendering of the son as a "pure" character, as the father as a knight of sorts, both travelling in a world of monsters. A fairy-tale in that something always comes along, that convenience and coincidence always strike where most appropriate (like in those good old canonical classics!). Challinor feels it fails as an allegory, but I don't think it fails consistently or completely. For just a moment, I doubted someting would come along at the end. Of course it did and anything else would feel unbearable or take a longer novel to resolve. A more devastating ending would have the son falling into cannibalism - either as victim or feaster. As it is, he has to rely upon something always coming along which, for myself, I do not believe is such a cosy coda. But I believe it works as fairy tale, although detractors may see this as excuse-making and fans may see this as a challenge to its lauded verisimilitude.

As Challinor states, you have to go to, say, Harlan Ellison's seminal "A Boy and His Dog" to find the real moral dilemma of this scenario faced. This ground has been well covered before in science-fiction and horror, and by McCarthy himself. I propose that what was seemingly new and transcendant about "The Road" for many was that they had not read the key genre fiction that mattered, that had gone before... if they read genre fiction at all. "It's a horror novel!" I would tell people, because I read in "The Road" something that I have seen evident in mainstream cinema: the appropriation of horror motifs and excesses that had previously been found only in cult and b-rated cinema. I can see "The Road" as a crossover success, from the lowly sewers of the horror genre to the bookshelves of the literati. The literati, of course, ought to slum it a little if they liked this stuff. I recommend "The Walking Dead".

So Challinor is right, but I am a fan and, making allowances or not (as you must do with any work of fiction) I believe "The Road" still stands as an important work of post-Apocolyptic speculation, for its atmosphere, prose and crossover status if nothing else.


I recommend Phillip Challinor's anthology "Radical Therapies". The first story, "The Little Doctor" in particular is a fine example of how he deals with ethical challenges.


[1] I do not like Picador's new packaging of McCarthy's novels. The cover is a stack of words: the novel title stands out, surrounded by lines extolling the brilliance, importance, etc., of said novel. In the case of "The Road": "a work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away." I will? Really? Jesus, that's a tall order and deserving of a kicking. Challinor's review certainly cleans out the works to get some perspective back into viewing the book's weaknesses and strengths. Blurb has replaced art and design on the cover. It is as if you can simply congratulate yourself and take yourself out for a celebratory meal just for buying it.

[2] I recently watched "The Girl Next Door" and was struck how the film and Jack Ketchum's source novel credibly presents a throughly good character faced with the potential of his own ability and complicity in torture and inhumanity. His goodness is innate and wins through, but not in a way I consider to be trite: characters of Goodness can be wearisome, but they do not always have to be so, for they can represent natural moral awareness, empathy and rightness of action. I believe it is possible to see the son in "The Road" in this light also, and that such a character does not necessarily have to be the representation of natural childhood cruelty; one might also argue that that might have been the easy characterisation and certainly the novel would have fallen into into the exploitation/horror genres more visibly.

Monday, 26 July 2010

THX 1138

George Lucas, 1971, US

It does feel as if two quite different directors helmed “THX 1138” and “Star Wars”. Not so much that you can’t see where the Stormtroopers, comedy robots, gadgets, slightly detached and simplistic characterisations and the limited colour and hardware palette came from; but it is different enough that “THX 1138” feels like the work of a low-budget, b-movie arthouse auteur rather than inventor of the modern blockbuster franchise cinema. “THX 1138” looks made by a cult director who would go the other way and create further formally experimental genre pieces, rather than the great sweeps and crowd-pleasing pulp sentiment and action of Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vadar. There's even the hint of chill that defines David Cronenberg's earliest works. “THX 1138” also bears the kind of clinical, slightly visionary Dystopian qualities that can then be found in seminal science-fiction literature such as “We” and “Brave New World”, and films such as “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Forbin Project” through to “Code46” and “Eden Log”. With its eerie and disturbing future conceit, with brilliant design and a slightly abstract presentation, "THX 1138" has the appearance of mature, ‘hard’ sci-fi rather than pulp, although it is ultimately as much pulp as, say, “Logan’s Run” and “Planet of the Apes” and the like. Indeed, Lucas opens with a homage to early “Buck Rogers” films before introducing us to his Dystopia, as if to directly say: ‘we started with the passionate adventures of pulp, and we ended up with this.'

It takes a moment for us to even identify whom we shall be following. We are thrown into this world instantaneously by the means of distorted, overlapping dialogue tracks, mostly jargon relating to work; by surveillance and observation camera shots, as well as a gallery of shaven-headed monitors, workers and random civilians whom we can’t particularly distinguish. Walter Murch’s fantastic sound-design demands to be taken seriously as both a character in its own right and as the film’s true triumph: it is omnipresent, simultaneously disorientating and informative, verging on white noise. Lucas is bold in using an almost Brechtian use of disorientating sound track, clone-like appearance of actors, filtering events through other cameras. He is not an artful director - it's like plane prose telling a dense story - but he knows how to frame a shot and not get in the way.

One of the best early shots is that of the surveillance camera view of an accident at a plant in which explosions wipe out several running staff… the figures are distant, unclear, a little pixellated and distorted on screen, and this makes it all the more chilling and real somehow. Watch for the worker who shoves his colleague back into the danger area, shutting the door on him, only to be blown away himself: it is an action shot that achieves verisimilitude and extra horror, rather than thrills, by being viewed one step removed by the audience, via a screen within the screen they are watching.

Best of all, rather than a lot of exposition, or myth-making, Lucas conveys the details of this world through visuals and audio. It is a familiar Dystopian narrative - hapless THX 1138 is the rebel against an oppressed, desensitised society when his house mate LUH messes with his compulsory drug intake and they have forbidden sex - but it is made more abstract and fascinating by being interrupted by tiny interludes and to the incidental workings of the society around our bewildered protagonists. People watch a sports match. A police robot amuses a bunch of kids. People work, walk, step into booths where they make confessions to a Jesus-like picture… which are recorded and monitored, or simply stored away with millions of other confessions (a neat conflation of Catholicism and Big Brother). Even towards the end, Lucas pauses to introduce more details that flesh out the society: Donald Pleasance - as SEN - reminisces with some kids about how when he was a kid, education came in huge bottles rather than the mini-intravenous bottles the children have taped to their arms as they play. This is one of the film’s most successful visual achievements: we see the children as the appear at the top of an escalator, the “lessons” intravenously fed into their arms, conjuring up the image of hospital patients on a conveyer belt, churned out into society. The culmative effect of this visual and aural collage, as Chris Basanti says, is of 'a fractured tone poem".

Finally, we settle upon THX himself, and it is Robert Duvall. The film benefits immensely from a wise cast: Duvall and Pleasance especially know how to work this material. Duvall does much with a limited role, conveying a slow awakening of awareness and character. Pleasance does a neat line in borderline creepiness and befuddlement. Maggie OcOmie manages to squeeze in the film's real source of humanity in the brief time she is on screen as LUH. But performances are not the key to the film's success.

Elsewhere, Lucas creates a whole web of criticism: blundering bureaucracy, stolid police brutality (which has its own plot-free hologram-show for violence entertainment!); faux-passionate law and trial gibberish; the intelligentsia… it’s all here. As ever, police states and conformism are the umbrella targets. Although much of it feels timeless (in the era of the police taser, the police brutality sequences ring especially prescient), Dragan Antulov at Draxblog places “THX 1138” firmly as a result of the 1969s:

The futuristic underground world is natural progression of everything which was wrong with Western civilisation in 1960s – faceless and bureaucratic state is as oppressive as those behind 1960s Iron Curtain, while the consumerist culture is as tasteless and worthless as in 1960s West.”

Perhaps the best gag is the subversion of the drug culture scare: in this world, it is illegal not to take drugs. Government prescribed and prone to make you a virtual working zombie, of course. All this is a fine elaboration on Lucas' original student short film, "Electronic Labyrinth THX 4EB": this earlier THX has some slightly psychedelic allusions: a slightly hippyish theme song, some flashing lights. 4EB runs through a world of white, concrete and steel, and the powers that be struggle to contain him from afar electronically. The key ingredients, including the ultimately startling and ambiguous final shot, are all present and correct, but the full drollness of this Dystopia is not quite in full view.

"THX 1138" is a very white film: the walls, the uniforms, the shaven heads. When THX 1138 goes across the cell with Donald Pleasance in tow, they are very shocked to encounter a black person. The only black people they know of are the masturbatory holograms of people of colour dancing naked to jungle rhythms and cracking wise on holo-TV. For the moment, let’s sidestep the Lucas' future problematic use of racial stereotypes for alien characteristics (looking at you, Jar-Jar Binks, Yoda, et al). The black man THX meets is a hologram, who has just wandered out of the virtual world to see what the real one is like. It’s a nice enough gag, but what it says about the technology of the world is hard to pin down: that technology has achieved sentience of its own? That the film has suddenly forsaken the realism of its hardware and technology and stepped into fantasy, perhaps? But it also hints at a world where, say, white privilege and prejudice has successfully eradicated people of colour and minorities, reduced them to ghosts. Indeed, the casting seems to bear this out, for it is seemingly populated solely by a pale and bald population. People of colour are relegated to holograms, personifying the baser needs of white people (e.g, sex and humour). But the hologram is not exactly the black comedy relief, thankfully, and in fact brings a warmth to the last act absent from the sterile world. Some end result of white man’s Puritanism and perhaps Conservatism is, then, the Dystopia that THX 1138 lives in.

It is also quite pithy about heroism. THX 1138 isn’t particularly a hero, or a rebel. He comes to his rebellion by accident, but once LUH messes with his meds and he ends up in the shared cell-space, it is pure frustration that initially drives him on. Lucas subverts the idea of the prison by making it ostensibly wall-less and endless white, simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Pleasance’s SEN also has designs on THX 1138 and subverts the system to get them to share living space; THX turns him in and this is how they end up in the cell together. SEN talks of revolution and argues with other dissidents and criminals about rebellion, society and what they will do and what it all means. They philosophise and debate and yet do not do the simplest thing, which is what THX ultimately does by getting up and walking out on them. This leads to escape. Thereafter, he seems to run and carry on simply to see what happens. Meanwhile, lagging behind, SEN simply gets a taste of the world beyond and retreats back into what he knows, paralysed by the thought of real adventure and escape.

It is here that the most evident touching-up effect in Lucas’ 2004 Director’s Cut restoration of “THX 1138” appears: Pleasance stumbles upon a CGI bug - which chatters in one of those comedy-like alien noises that Lucas so loves. The CGI seems out of place, a rude anomaly in a retro-classic - but it is not gratuitous, for the bug does at least have purpose: encountering the bug makes SEN back away from the possibility of braving the unknown. Elsewhere, the updated special-effects fall mostly seamlessly into the film, fleshing it out, showing that when a director goes back to tinker and insert the next generation of special effects technology into an old work, it doesn’t necessary need to look like a jarring graft job. 

When I watched “THX 1138” the first few times as a teenager, much of the dark humour was lost on me; at first, for me it was all about a scary prospect of a future society. Now, it is the satire that truly satisfies, and it is this that makes this a film that rewards watching numerous times. ‘THX 1138’ is full of haunting stark visuals and clinically chilling demonstrations of a technologically fixated authority, one that is bureaucratically flawed, as befitting of the best Dystopian science-fiction. The design, aesthetic and agenda are consistent and compelling. For all its starkness, it is loaded with fascinating details and deadpan humour. Unintelligible trials, impenetrable technical jargon, creepy and blundering police robots, workers casually making errors and not taking responsibility for them... In the end, THX1138 escapes simply due to police force budgetary limitations. It is a wonder how the genuinely satirical eye that conceived “THX 1138” disappeared by the time the inane philosophies of “Star Wars” came around. 'It is also interesting that Lucas cannot maintain the grim "1984" tone throughout the movie," John Brosnan writes [1]. Indeed, it is as if Lucas wanted to get this serious stuff off his chest before returning to “Buck Rogers” and getting on with space opera. And, of course, we now know which led to the money.

[1] John Brosnan, "The Primal Screen: a history of science fiction film", (Orbit, Lonodn, 1991), pg. 156

Drag Me To Hell - rerun

Watching "Drag Me To Hell" again I am struck at how thoroughly it works as a portrait of a woman - Christine (Alison Lohman) - apparently traumatised by an eating disorder and self-esteem issues (first review here), . This, of course, is manifest in her delusion that she is being gypsy-cursed and hounded down by a Lamia demon; a delusion compounded by her unfortunate trust in a bunch of con-men mediums and experts in the occult. She wants to be free from mouth-fixated demons and they want her cash.

With a second viewing, it becomes apparent that the Raimi's know exactly what they are doing, because all the clues and cues are there - how the demon appears at stressful moments when reflecting on how she used to be overweight or confronting food; the many down-the-throat violations also tell us a story. Indeed, the banquet of continuity and logic issues make total sense, and only sense, when in the context of Christine's delusions.
And, which I missed the first time, the subtle clues that her boyfriend especially knows that she has mental health issues. "She needs help," he says when her mother says that Christine is sick. Upon a first watch, I thought the fact that boyfriend's mum comments that Christine is sick was just an indication of her bitchiness, but second viewing seems to hint that, well, she knows something, and so does her son and that's why she doesn't approve of their relationship and it's not all about class.
That the film situates the manifestations in Christine's latent and not-so-latent prejudices and class anxieties is also thorough and pretty bold. She's not exactly likeable, but she's in trouble; she is not particulary deep, but she feels real enough. Particular note has to be made of Lohman's performance too and, as ever, the effects work is exemplary.

My initial review shows how I started off a little lukewarm, but coming back to "Drag Me To Hell" reveals that this may be the cleverest Raimi film so far. It is like a Jacques Tournier/Val Lewton film made by Looney Tunes. I can take or leave the slapstick violence, as incidentally enjoyable as it may be, but as a comedy-horror about failing mental health, this has the weight of subtext that truly elevates horror, and shows what horror can do like no other genre. Here's the cliche: demons of the mind. It also means that "Drag Me To Hell" is bona fide tragedy, and for that I like it more than ever.

People call it a classic, but I am no longer about to quibble that so easily, although my reasons may differ.