The problem with this past year’s indie horror sensations, impatient mainstream audiences tell us, is that they’re not scary. Evidently we all have different mileage for what we term as frightening. While there’s a silent-era streak of Melies-esq. camp to The Babadook‘s scares and aesthetic, it taps into a specific kind of psychological terror, not simply fear as a broad umbrella term for death, doom and misery. Likewise, It Follows is focused on a very particular type of suspense; one which doesn’t stand to benefit remotely from jump scares. Director David Robert Mitchell understands that any feeling evoked by a film is only significant if it lasts outside the theatrical construct. It Follows is built to last in the most unnerving way, only occasionally showing us the monster, only to reveal it as a threatening perversion of the everyday and the domestic.
The first shot of It Follows shows seemingly nothing, yet its hyper-sensitive depiction of space turns everyday suburbia into a obvious hunting ground. Less driven by character than atmosphere, It Follows is mostly populated by traditional teen archetypes, yet ones that feel assuringly naturalistic and perceptive in their musings. The two least ensemble players are Maika Monroe’s aptly terrified protagonist, Jay, and the sensitive boy clearly crushing on her to no avail, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and their gradual pairing is refreshingly free of flowery romantic padding. Meanwhile the normal markers of the teen horror genre, namely high school and its scrutinizing politics, become eerily absent. A withering old lady marching after Jay in the school’s halls ends our glimpse into that world, until a notable, slowly revolving one-take that’s less interested in what Jay is there to accomplish than it is in the anxiously open spaces of its perimeter.
Where most horror films create their effects through claustrophobia, It Follows does it by expanding the frame wide open, infecting not simply an object with threat, but an entire atmosphere. Another unconventional tactic It Follows absorbs is how many shots fade into one another, ensuring that the aforementioned sense of threat remains constantly present, not separated from the characters through hard cuts. Even when the climax comes, Mitchell holds the tension lingering until the last suffocating second, though even then nothing feels like it’s dissipated. The presence cloaked over the film is so easily mirrored by own paranoid senses that the premise no longer feels too fantastical to touch us.
The lack of moral accountability present in Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s Little Boy is only just more revolting than the lack of moral awareness present in the audience for it at Monadnock International Film Festival in Keene, NH. As I overheard various festival attendees talk about how their heart was melted by the film, I expressed a slight reaction of horror. The film I had seen handed down the titular name of the atomic bomb to a cloyingly sentimental white American boy whose power of very Christian belief is capable of ending the war. That entails the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and worst of all, it works. His father comes home and they’re reunited, but at what cost? Monteverde doesn’t care. He puts more stock in the lurid fantasy worlds the father and son inhabit than in the real one. Little Boy would just be a cheap joke if I didn’t recognize how wrongly it was beloved by a white New Hampshire audience.
The 3rd Annual Monadnock International Film Festival occurred in late April, and it was the last I would attend before graduating college and leaving the town of Keene, NH. I was not particularly drawn to any of the feature films, particularly after Little Boy was such a baldly offensive kick-off to the weekend. I did have greater hopes for the shorts program, but if anything it only further established the slacking standards of this year’s edition. There were two films directed or co-directed by Alex Mallis, who last year delivered the appealingly textured LRA escape drama They Came at Night. One of the films, the self-explanatory After Trayvon (B-), ran very brief and only offered a brief glimpse at the kinds of conflicted conversations that occurred after what happened to Trayvon Martin. Mallis had greater success on more personal territory with La Noche Buena (B-), a lovely, yet conflicted, story of Mallis struggling to connect in respectful ways with his less privileged relatives in Cuba. It’s compassionately lensed, but with a questionable sense of outsider’s sympathy.
La Noche Buena was probably the most successful short in a stream of those aimed at benefiting off liberal, middle class white guilt. The least successful one was stop-and-frisk short Stop (D+), which is already a fairly typical and obvious depiction of the everyday lives of black people living in the cities, except it goes into rather grossly moralistic territory by the end when it essentially proposes that stop-and-frisk works. Also barely scratching the surface of the experiences of systematically oppressed individuals is Rabbit (C), a faintly pathetic film about a black woman inmate who has to beg on her knees for a cuddly rabbit to come back so she can get a decreased prison sentence. Also in the animal-titled film division is Skunk (B-), following a lower-class teen girl who’s marks her sexual and independent territory after a dirtbag boy kidnaps her dog to breed him as a fighter. It’s confident enough and thankfully avoids patronizing the lead character for her desires.
There were plenty of painful dips into saccharine storytelling, the most horrendous being Anybody Out There (F), about a boy who’s trying to get in touch with alien life, but who is really just sad about the death of his mom. And then she comes back as a ghost, because that’s not vomit-worthy at all. On a similar dynamic of parent-child relations is The Morning of Everything (C), a maudlin story of a toddler boy going on his own spiritual journey, though really only conveying the father’s confused feelings about his adolescence. It’s basically a Spike Jonze wannabe, and where Jonze approaches his odd-ball concepts with intelligence, Morning of Everything is simply bumbling around with wide-eyed wonder. The anachronistic sound of balkan music is its singular pleasure.
Among the asinine narratives of the festival were Strange Past and Oh Lucy (both D), the former a convoluted story of false identity, blundered human connection, and a dozen other things I can barely cogently recall. Oh Lucy is easier understand, but only because of how dumb it is, as a lonely Asian aunt is conned into giving a ton of money to her niece and taking an offensive, dead-end English language course… and that’s how she finally connects to another human being. It’s a film that prefers her being a childishly embarassed loner than an awesomely individualist person.
The last two I’ll talk about are easily the most ambitious and satisfying of the festival. Two Films About Loneliness (B-) gets by largely on its own peculiarity, as a man discovers he lives right next to a giant Austrian hamster. Its title explains itself, as it’s a split-frame stop-motion that keeps these odd stories of lives lived in isolation separate until an amusing end. Beach Flags (B+), though, becomes the most progressive film of the shorts program because it doesn’t presuppose that the Iranian women it focuses on are victims who can’t fend for themselves. We get a sense of the everyday oppression that women lifeguards, unable to swim without being fully clothed, face there, but it allows them to transcend those circumstances not through the aide of men or white individuals, but through solidarity with their fellow women.
No significant part of me wants to add to the volume of talk circulating Marvel movies, certainly not since I’ve become so mentally divorced from them. Avengers: Age of Ultron plays a significant role in that, the film itself being a clear beacon for the capitalistic intentions that Marvel Studios has become fueled by. The entries in their film world – everytime I say cinematic universe I want to vomit – have come to fulfill the same function as serialized television. They exist to deliver plot, not to convey streamlined excitement. As weighty as the ideas seemingly driving Joss Whedon’s second Avengers film are, they are ultimately bungled and trivialized by plot mechanics that feel compulsory, tiresome and genuinely repugnant.
Take the whole farm stretch, a horror show of patriarchal messages from the physical marginalization of Linda Cardellini’s body to the indulgence of Jeremy Renner’s entitled father role. Here we see Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov kindle their romance as Scarlett Johansson explains her sterilization, saying “I guess you’re not the only monster on the team.” Get it! She’s a monster because she’s sterile! Obviously the film fares no better in the more action fueled sections, Whedon’s ludicrous enthusiasm being irrevocably dulled by a disgusting color palette consisting solely of greys and browns. Every splash of personality feels dopey, particularly a shot where characters faces are floating ridiculously across in an incoherent jumble of action. The most condemning thing to say about Avengers: Age of Ultron, though, is that when it ends with two black men and two women on the superhero roster, you still feel like no true progress has been made.
The essay film is an intriguing form to study, particularly since it’s currently such a small group. Beyond Clueless didn’t even get the dignity of theatrical distribution in the U.S., in spite its adoring, yet woozily critical focus on the all too American genre of high school films. Charlie Lyne’s clearly most interested in high school films from 1995 to 2005, perhaps the height of its particular generation of adolescent depictions. Today films like Easy A, 21 Jump Street and The Duff are doing a lot to upend the genial standards of the genre, cleverly subverting the types of protagonists and the daily social trials they deal with. There is scarcely anything self-aware about the films Beyond Clueless centers its focus on, yet the film itself uses their fractured pieces not simply for argument, but also mood.
As dreamily narrated by former star of such films, Fairuza Balk (The Craft), Beyond Clueless is more of an organic, hypnotic journey through the collective experiences of high school films than a clinical study of them. Punch-drunk original music by the band Summer Camp matches these films’ unruly spirits, yet also matches their often dark subject matter. More than a few sections dip into teen horror, with Idle Hands and Jeepers Creepers queasily used to represent the dark side of male sexuality. What’s more, all the films pulled from have something in common that would today be unusual. They’re all shot on 35mm film. You can feel it in the texture of the images, and the way Beyond Clueless focuses on this particular era makes them all feel like peculiar and historically specific cinematic artifacts. Their uniform, heteronormative values seem so unusual in retrospect, and yet also so alluring. Revisiting these films is like visiting a dream world, an effect Beyond Clueless deliciously and deliriously heightens. (Beyond Clueless is now streaming on Netflix)
Blockbuster cinema is the cinema of exhaustion, or rather that’s what it often feels like it’s become. Films plow vigorously through compulsive action set-pieces and plot devices meant to string them together in the narrative. The sharp sounds of concrete, metal and glass clashing, shattering and crumbling impart the feeling of an inescapable war zone, pummeling the viewer with brutal and visually bleak sensory detail. Like these films’ uncommonly resilient protagonists, never breaking or tiring, the viewer perseveres dutifully through this barrage without a moment of relaxation or expressed exhaustion.
In much the same manner, Mad Max: Fury Road is four action set-pieces packed so fluidly against one another that the desert heat makes us believe it’s one extensive sequence, going on forever into the salt horizon. What’s exceptional about it is how it assimilates exhaustion and weariness into its aesthetic body. Frequently we’ll fade to black after an extended period of movement and violence. The heat is getting to us. The sheer exhaustion of intense periods of physical trauma is catching up. This is a film about human bodies, vessels unlike the machines that seemingly make the world function, not meant to perform furiously without maintenance until their engines blow. The title character is literally commoditized for his feral ‘universal donor’ life power, but he only takes sides with the group that gives him back the movie star’s most precious asset: his face. Once Tom Hardy’s mug is free, Fury Road can truly come alive.
None of this is to lose sight of the film’s vigorous feminist power, otherwise absent in the high octane action genre. It’s through skill and untainted willpower that Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the five wives earn Max’s loyalty, as though the film’s making an appeal to men for the existence and thriving of women in this genre. The characters emerge from such scorched brutality that, even at the film’s most righteously entertaining, they feel consistently threatened to return to. Neither hope or redemption is certain, and it’s only through matching rabid craziness with progressive craziness that either get a chance at fruition. The decor varies from idealistic (Max and Furiosa) or forced (the wives) utilitarian garb to the ludicrous excess of villainous overlord Immortan Joe and his clan. Our heroes are raging against the momentum of the volatile blockbuster genre they inhabit, and George Miller never loses sight of this.
Theron gives steely resolves and subtle undertones of tragedy to Furiosa, whose own tortures at the hands of Joe are left tormentingly ambiguous. It’s Hardy, though, who most holds the moral compass’ sway, as the concept of morality in this untethered world is lent ample malleability. The war of instinctual and emotional decisions is visible in Hardy’s face, an object of pure identification that looks past his comrades’ physical and emotional frailty to find a reason follow them through George Miller’s luridly saturated wasteland. Miller and D.P. John Seale depict the desert less as a deprived environment than as one of untapped and dangerous potential. His dips into blue nighttime filters, though, seize the genre stylization of 90s action films that this film becomes quite surprisingly equal to. Charlize Theron’s character feels cut from the same masculine presenting cloth as Linda Hamilton’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day character. The hope for a future saved from humanity’s own destructive, amoral urges, is as bright here as the hope for a blockbuster environment that takes this film’s formal and emotional lessons to heart.