Grade: C | 1st viewing
Clark stares at the computer screen. There is nothing but white, and every second or so, a small, black, blinking cursor. In his adolescence, he came across this sentence from one of his favorite authors: ‘Writing is a matter of staring at a blank sheet of paper until your forehead bleeds.’ He can’t remember who wrote it, but Clark thinks you could stare at a blank computer screen just as easily. His forehead is not yet bleeding, but no words come. Every opening sentence he writes seems bland and clichéd. Nothing interesting wants to leave his head, although many interesting thoughts are swimming ’round in it. It all comes out wrong. He uses too many adjectives, for a start; why use one when you can use two, flanking a conjunction? It’s boring and uninspired. The white computer screen glows incessantly, sneering.
Clark has no idea how to start writing about Seven Psychopaths, the sophomore film from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Clark was a big fan of In Bruges, McDonagh’s first film—it was in his top 5 films for 2008—but Seven Psychopaths left him a bit cold. The plot involves a screenwriter named Marty who is writing a screenplay for a movie called Seven Psychopaths. He can’t think what it should be about, but loves the title. Marty’s friend Billy makes money by stealing dogs and returning them to their owners for a reward. Assisting Billy is Hans, a religious man whose past is a bit shady, but obviously involves high levels of violence. Marty decides that his screenplay should start with someone named Billy stealing the dog of a vicious gangster, whose life may intertwine with Billy and Hans in an interesting way. Billy’s screenwriter friend Marty gets involved… And on and on, through several reels of blood and talking.
Clark liked these recursions at first, but eventually McDonaugh’s film started thinking it was way cleverer than it was, and eventually he just wanted to leave to watch Adaptation again. Adaptation is the clear inspiration for films of this sort, but plainly worked so much better. Perhaps having a neurotic narrator drove the plot more believably than Colin Farrell’s fairly down-to-earth “Marty” in Seven Psychopaths. Sure, Marty’s supposed to be a drunk, but he never really acts in any of the ways a drunk would, except for being unshaven much of the time. Clark writes a sentence about how fascinating it is that Colin Farrell never shaves in movies, yet always has exactly the same length of facial hair—but then deletes it, since it really doesn’t have to do with the movie at hand. He thinks he uses em dashes too much. He has thought this ever since middle school when an English teacher told him he used em dashes too much—he has used them ever since just to piss her off, even though she probably hasn’t read anything of his in fifteen years. He is constantly settling one-sided vendettas in his head. Clark wonders if maybe Martin McDonagh wrote Seven Psychopaths to settle similar fictional feuds, then doubts the use of alliteration in this sentence—perhaps it’s too cutesy.
Frustrated, Clark growls and hurriedly types out a sentence: ‘What’s the point of spending so much time and energy making a movie about someone spending so much time and energy writing a screenplay about the same person spending so much time and… Ah, fuck it. You might as well just film yourself jerking off and put it on the internet. It would get the point across and be just as enjoyable—that is, likely worth a “C” grade.’
He stares at the screen. His forehead starts to bleed.
The Midnight Meat Train
Grade: C+ | 2nd Viewing
Oh, what a maligned genre the horror movie has become. Whatever became of the horror films that tried to scare people, frighten them for the thrill of feeling fear? Anymore, this is not the goal of the horror film director. These cinematic wannabes offer movies featuring Teenagers turning into Dead Teenagers, in ways that are not meant to frighten, but rather to titillate. The exploitation of violence has led some film critics to use the phrase “torture porn,” since pornography, of course, is created solely to get people off.
How refreshing, then, is The Midnight Meat Train, released by Lionsgate, inexplicably direct to video. Ryuhei Kitamura’s film comes from good pedigree; it is based on a short story by Clive Barker, made famous by his graphic and groundbreaking Books of Blood in the 1980s. The stories in Barker’s Books of Blood were revolting, disgusting… and at once fascinating and affecting. His stories pushed envelopes people didn’t even know were there to be pushed. But Barker has never been one to sacrifice poetry and character in service of a cheap thrill. His sensibility carries well into this film, adapted by newcomer Jeff Buhler. The leads, incredibly, have not been transformed into sex-crazed teenagers (the current norm) but remain the sensible adults of Barker’s story. It always pleases me to encounter intelligent characters in a film like this; I get so much more involved. It’s hard to care about a ditzy blond who runs up the stairs when any sane person would run out the front door, ’cause once you’re upstairs—well, you’re pretty much stuck there, aren’t you? And if the killer sees you run up the stairs, he’s gonna check the closets eventually… Dumbass.
This film concerns Leon (Bradley Cooper), a photographer who makes ends meet by taking photos of crime scenes and selling them to the New York Post. In a scene quite reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow-Up from 1966, Leon spots something in one of his photographs, something disturbing, something that starts him down an obsessive path around the city leading, eventually, to the Midnight Meat Train. The secrets of the train and how it affects Leon and his girlfriend I will leave you to discover, if you’re brave enough. I feel obliged to tell you, though, having revealed the more intellectual aspects of the film, that it is also bleakly, excruciatingly, graphically violent. Kitamura leaves nothing to the imagination when things get bloody, and when the meat hook and cleaver make an appearance–well, the laws of physics and biology are more or less obeyed. Kitamura and Lionsgate recut the film seven times in an attempt to get an ‘R’ rating, before finally giving up and releasing it unrated (in America, anyway; other countries released it unexpurgated with their harshest certificates).
A film like this I call a Night Movie. You know the kind. A film you discover alone, in the dark, with the sun safely shining 12,000 miles away. My first encounter with a Night Movie was when I was fifteen, I think. I couldn’t sleep one night and turned on the only premium channel we had at our house to find a distraction, and David Fincher’s Seven began. And, oh shit, was I freaked the hell out. I realized then that cinemas are swell, but sometimes the best way to see a film is alone, at home, at night, when everything is more dangerous. The Midnight Meat Train is a Night Movie through and through.
Heaping this praise upon the film, I run the risk of overrating it. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea; this is not great art. It is no Shining, no Exorcist. Not even close to Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’d put it on par with the US version of The Descent from 2006, I think. It has several flaws. Leon gets too obsessive far too quickly. Some of the violence is too-noticeably enhanced by CGI. The ending seems to come entirely out of left field (though, this second time around, I liked it much more than the first). It also falls victim to a few horror-film clichés (the Bad Guy Death Fake-Out? It’s here!) But I’ll be damned if this film didn’t get under my skin.
Maybe it’s nighttime. You’ve finished your work for the day, have crawled into bed, but aren’t quite ready to go to sleep. It’s time for a Night Movie. And this one will answer the call.
But then, of course, you won’t be able to sleep.
The Prince of Tides
Grade: D+ | 1st Viewing
Dreadful. I only watched this because it was the most recent Best Picture nominee I hadn’t seen (with one notable exception I’ll write about later). I can’t stand Barbra Streisand. I didn’t believe her as a psychiatrist, I didn’t believe Nick Nolte would leave Blythe Danner for her, I didn’t believe how ineptly the film was directed. When you’re watching an intense scene featuring child rape, your audience’s reaction should not be to laugh at how poorly it plays. Maybe you just should have implied the rape, Barbra. Christ, what did you tell the kids on the set they’d be doing that day? Their parents? What was the Academy thinking? Nolte’s humane, emotional performance and George Carlin as his flitty neighbor save this film from an F. Dreadful.
The White Bus/Red, White, and Zero
Grade: ☼ | 1st viewing
I want you to imagine something for me. Close your eyes, and imagine you’re a secretary. Oh, wait, don’t close your eyes! You’ll have to stop reading if you do! Then you won’t know what to do next and your eyes’ll just remain closed indefinitely. Okay. So, with your eyes open, imagine you’re a female secretary in the late 1960s. Already, it’s not a pretty picture, is it? You trudge off to work every day to flounder at an unremarkable desk surrounded by other women paddling in the secretarial pool while the Mad Men in the offices surrounding your little fishbowl make all the Important Decisions. What to do about it? Contemplate suicide? Quit? Sleep your way to the top?
Maybe you don’t want to do anything too permanent and just need to get away for the weekend. As it’s the late 1960s, remember, the best way to ‘get away’ could be just to drop a tab of mellow yellow and let the sunshine in. Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in. Here you can stop imagining and just watch The White Bus for the rest.
I have no way of knowing if Lindsay Anderson (If…., This Sporting Life) and his scenarist, the playwright Shelagh Delaney, meant The White Bus to be a wildly zonked magical mystery tour of urban England, but it’s hard not to think that their lead character, played by the inscrutable Patricia Healy, is flying loosely in the sky with diamonds. As the girl leaves her dreary, Kafkaesque office building, she seems to be wandering into a warmly benevolent Twilight Zone. Our day tripper rides through the urban landscape on the titular vehicle, and we see many bizarre visions of factories, public schools, museums, libraries, young Anthony Hopkins singing in German, etc… all of which are probably symbolic, if you want to go there. And it’s not hard to crack the code, especially if you’ve seen Hair: “We starve, look at one another, short of breath / Walking proudly in our winter coats / Wearing smells from laboratories / Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy / Listening for the new told lies / With supreme visions of lonely tunes…”
Are these psychedelic visions real, or are they all in the head of our protagonist blah blah blah. It doesn’t matter. Does nonlinear intellectual montage interest you? If so, see it; if not, don’t. At the very least, watching the forty or so minutes of The White Bus will lead you to harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation, and the mind’s true liberation: Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in. Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in…