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Fantasia 2009 Report 2

~ Urban Squalor Meets the ‘Im/Purity’ of Whiteness ~

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Published: May 31st 2010

Word count: 10260 words

Print: W images, W/o images

Fantasia always come serving a full plate of succulent morsels for the new and faithful fans of this ever growing (in size and importance) international genre festival. In this year’s servings I noted an unusual somewhat dialectical aesthetic pattern of films dealing with urban squalor, and films relying on an aesthetic of ‘purity’ through a mise-en-scène of all-white walls, white clothing, saturated lighting and overexposed, blinding light. An ‘auteur’ of the former was one of the many invited guests of 2009, the New York based filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo, who is interviewed in this issue. Giovinazzo is best known to horror fans for his low budget cult favorite Combat Shock (aka American Nightmare), a searing, gritty urban study of an ex-Vietnam’s psychic meltdown. Accurately described by Giovinazzo as a “cross between Erasherhead [the domestic setting, the surreal baby, the sense of urban alienation/isolation] and Taxi Driver [the New York/Staten Island setting, the depiction of urban low-life, through poverty, drugs, prostitution, violence]” Combat Shock is a 1986 film that attempts to capture the social horror ambience of American films of the 1970s, lauded, referenced, and invoked by contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja. As a rare treat, director Giovinazzo brought his personal uncut 16mm print of Combat Shock to screen at Fantasia. Also playing at Fantasia was his most recent American film, Life is Hot in Cracktown (2009), based on his own same titled 1993 collection of short stories.

Combat Shock Squalor

Urban Squalor

Life is Hot in Cracktown revisits the urban squalor of Combat Shock and concentrates on the interconnected lives of four sets of characters touched in varying ways by the cycle of drugs, poverty and violence (an example of what scholar David Bordwell has christened ‘network narratives’). Cracktown eschews the bouts of surreal and graphic violence of Combat Shock in favor of a more realistic style, with a stronger script and an impressive ensemble cast. The interconnecting sets of characters include 1) Manny (Victor Rasuk), a hard working Latino who works two jobs, a late shift in a dangerous all night convenience store and a security guard in a rundown, drug-infested Welfare hotel, where he lives with his wife, Concetta (Shannyn Sassomon), and their sick infant; 2) Willy (Ridge Canipe), a ten year old boy, who lives in the Welfare hotel with his younger sister and their drug-addicted mother (Illeana Douglas) and her violent boyfriend (Edoardo Ballerini); 3) an oddball couple that brings touches of humor to the occasion, Marybeth (Kerry Washington), a pre-op transsexual working as a prostitute and her live-in lover/pimp, and somewhat dim-witted Benny (Desmond Harrington), and their ‘rich’ post-op transexual friend Ridge/Gabrielle; 4) and a young, angry African-American street gang member Romeo (Evan Ross), living with his older sister and ill mother. One of the strengths of Cracktown is the writing, which makes heroes out of villains. Giovinazzo does not demonize his characters, or paint them as simplistic victims of their social environment. Their weaknesses humanize them and in the end we are touched by the ability of tarnished characters to rise above the squalor around them and produce genuine acts of compassion, sacrifice and love.

Manny facing the reality of urban crime

Life is Hot in Cracktown is an example of what David Bordwell has christened network narratives, films which have several sets of main characters and interconnected stories, rather than two or three characters and one main plot (“…those films highlighting several protagonists inhabiting distinct, but intermingling, story lines”). (Requiem for a Dream, Crash, Traffic, Magnolia, Short Cuts, 21 Grams). In a network narrative the different sets of characters usually live in the same city or contiguous space (one tenement building for example or the same neighborhood) but do not necessarily interact with each other (though they sometimes pass each other fleetingly). Rather than interacting directly they are indirectly related by theme or circumstance. Either by chance or design, many of the contemporary incarnations of network narratives deal with the subject of drugs (City of Hope, Requiem for a Dream, Traffic, 21 Grams, Life is Hot in Cracktown). Taking a page from the great network narrative Requiem for a Dream, the film climaxes with a rapid montage of the four sets of characters dealing with their own particular crisis. Will Benny leave the hospital alive or die in Marybeth’s arms? Will Romeo survive the vengeful assault of a rival drug lord? Will Manny die needlessly at the hands of a gun-wielding strung out junkie trying to rob the convenience store where he is employed? Will Willy leave his defenseless sister behind in an attempt to escape the cycle of poverty? In a sense there is more at stake in these mini-narratives than the death of a central character, but the failure of humanity.

Marybeth

There were two films with completely different tone and style that received their world premieres at the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival (July 9-27, 2009): Must Love Death (2009, Andreas Schaap, Germany) and Neighbor (2009, Robert A. Masciantonio). Both feature one of the most recurring, identifiable and indeed iconic images in contemporary horror: a victim strapped to a chair (and tortured); both films also have moments of black humor, but in Neighbor the humor comes with much more of a cutting edge, while the doubling narrative structure of Must Love Death, from burgeoning romance to psychopathic character study, keeps it from becoming wholly morose.

Must Love Death is a film that gleefully embraces an identity crisis of grand proportions, fusing two of the most incompatible genres imaginable, the venerable romantic comedy and the currently popular torture porn. While the mix seems improbable, it actually works because of a playful, contagious energy that forces through some awkward opening moments to forge an original, quirky blend of reflexive banter and sincere (if seriously offbeat) characterisation. The film’s identity crisis goes beyond genre to production history, as the film is ostensibly a German film disguised as an American film, with mainly German actors who underwent voice training to soften their German accents. And it works for the most part, with the odd German inflection slipping in every now and then. The film forces its ‘Americanness’ on the viewer with wall to wall American and Anglo-Saxon popular culture references (Star Trek, reality TV, rap music, country music, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead¸The Shining, The Evil Dead), and an infectious (and surprisingly good) original music score in the tradition of American pop/country/rap idioms. The latter is organically weaved into the story, as the main actor, Norman (Sami Louis, a young Art Garfunkel look-a-like), is a musician, which leads to many recording studio scenes and the integration of his compositions as source music.

The film begins with the eponymous, “inspired by true events,” recalling one of its obvious influences, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It opens with a sex scene in a car between nymph Heather (Katjana Gerz) and Thorsten (“from somewhere in Europe”) (Tobias Schenke), two characters come back into the narrative later as victim fodder. The story is simple. Norman, depressed because his girlfriend has left him, decides to commit suicide. Lacking the stomach to do it alone he discovers like-minded people on the internet and joins them for a planned collective suicide. When he arrives at the designated cabin in the woods he meets three other apparently suicide bound people, an attractive young woman Liza (Lucie Pohl), and rural bumpkins Sean (Jeff Burrell) and Gary (Peter Farkas), the owner of the cabin. Before long Norman discovers that the suicide club is a ruse and that Sean and Gary are a couple of harebrained psychotics who lure people to their cabin to ‘star’ in their fantasized reality television show, “To Torture…or no Torture”. Before the torturing begins the film flashbacks to the moments leading up to the cabin trip, which establishes the romantic entanglement between the twenty-something Norman (Sami Loris) and attractive waitress Jennifer (Manon Kahle), who is in a pointless relationship with an egotistical, obnoxious, Lothario television actor named Foxx C. Bigelow (Philipp Rafferty). Structurally the film intercuts between two worlds, the colorful, light, romantic Woody Allenesque New York city, and its harsh, on the outskirts of New Jersey torture cabin setting. While Norman is the one character who moves fluidly between the two worlds –in the cabin in the present, in New York in the recent past– Jennifer resides primarily in New York, until the ending where she is encouraged by her waitress friend and grizzled diner regular to follow her heart and go after Norman, which takes her to the cabin.

The contrasting nature of the two environments leads to one of the film’s best scenes, a deftly crosscut sequence between Jennifer in the Metro Diner listening to Norman’s ballad on the diner radio, and a violent torture scene in the New Jersey cabin where the psychos force Heather to fire a nail gun at a blindfolded, tied down Thorsten. The crosscutting begins with Sean introducing his ‘reality TV’ camera to the next torture weapon, “the nail gun,” which is followed by a cut to a New York city street, with a red rose garden in the extreme foreground of the shot establishing the red motif that will bind the two locations (Jennifer wears a red hat in the diner, the diner seats are red, red is the color of love and blood). As Jennifer listens to the song, we can sense her love for Norman growing and being nurtured by her two companions, a fellow waitress and an older man. Norman’s romantic ballad plays over both locations, serving an ironic counterpoint to the powerful yet divergent emotions being expressed across the two locations, smoothing over harsh straight edits from characters in great physical pain, to characters smiling and laughing. The crosscutting ends with a brilliant edit from blood dripping off Thorsten’s finger, to a close-up of red sauce being poured over a plate of food (though brilliant the edit is not entirely original, since an identical cut occurs in the New Zealand film Jack by Nimble, 1993).

In the flashback scenes, Jennifer and Norman meet in a figurative big bang, with a distracted Jennifer accidentally hitting Norman as he crosses the street, the impact sending Norman skyward, with repeated slow motion shots of the airborne Norman spinning majestically like a gymnast. The impact was so hard that Norman should have logically died, but he somehow comes out of the accident with, literally, a scratch on his finger (which we see him being treated for in a hospital). This sets up one of the film’s many running gags, as Norman escapes one near death experience after another (hangings, shootings, endless torture, etc.). The usually symbolic overhead angle used to frame Norman’s inert body after the car crash and again at the end after being mistakenly shot point blank by a sheriff (which echoes Ben being needlessly shot at the end of Night of the Living Dead), perhaps suggests that Norman has already died and is simply reliving the death experience over and over.

While some horror fans may feel restless during the romantic New York scenes (or sheepish that they are enjoying them), they will feel in familiar territory during the very dark, very black comic New Jersey/cabin scenes, where Norman spends most of the time tied to a chair being tortured or watching others (Liza, Heather, Thorsten) being tortured by two of the silliest, most domestic (closeted gay?) psychos you will ever come across. The two killers interact like a married couple, with the slightly retarded Gary feminized through his obsession with cleanliness, his apron and yellow latex gloves, and effeminate mannerisms. The sheer amount of physical pain and discomfort that poor Norman endures during the course of the film –left to hang by his neck, getting hit by a car, having his fingers snapped, nails pounded into his forearm, a spike through his feet, getting shot at– brings back memories of cinema’s greatest masochist, Ash Williams!

If the plot of Must Love Death is simple, it is complex in comparison to the plot of Neighbor: a twenty-something, svelte, athletic dark-haired woman referred to as ‘the Girl’ (played with great gusto and energy by America Olivo) terrorizes a middle class suburban neighborhood by entering homes and torturing and killing its inhabitants. That is it as far as plot goes. And the viewer, along with the victims, is left in a perpetual fog as to why this young woman is enacting these heinous crimes. There does not seem to be any reason for why she chooses one home over another, or character revelation (who is she? where does she come from?).

Interspersed throughout her murders we hear television newscasts announcing that someone has escaped from an institute ‘three days’ ago. We logically assume the news item is referring to the ‘girl,’ to give us some hope of an explanation or rationalisation for her actions; but this is only a ruse when we later learn that the person has been caught. When one of the somewhat developed characters, Christian (Don Campbell), becomes victimized by the ‘girl’ he expresses what any rational person in such a situation would want to know. Why me? Unfortunately, the world we live in is often not a rational place, and films like this follow suit. The first time he asks her she responds by asking him how it is that he can live in such a nice home, suggesting some anarchistic, political (attacking the rich) reason for her criminal actions. This is lightly underscored by another scene where she angrily destroys a random selection of material goods in one of the homes she has invaded. The second time she is asked by the victim, the girl seems poised to render an explanation, almost seems to be empathising with his need to know, and then teases us/him by uttering, in a quivering voice, “Why. Because…because….well, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Hence by the end of the film, after we have seen her torture and kill whole families and narrowly escape capture (deceptively played out in some wonderfully effective ‘mind fuck’ twists), we know as little about her at the end of the film as we did at the beginning. What we do learn from the film is that this ‘girl’ reacts to and treats her violent behaviour with the same range of emotions a ‘normal’ person would experience across a lifetime: boredom, rage, indifference, anger, excitement, passion.

Another recent female psycho, Béatrice Dalle the ‘woman’ in À l’intérieur, also abruptly breaks into a home to terrorize a woman, but by the end we get a reason for her actions. What makes the behavior in Neighbor especially disarming is that we are never even shown how the woman ‘breaks’ into these homes. Or the details of how some of her victims get from point A (innocent) to point B (victim tied in a chair). She also does not seem to care much about covering up her crimes and leaves each home as if nothing has been touched. In the finale scene when we see her walking away freely dressed in black from head to foot, with nary a moral stance offered by the text, the idea flashes our head: is she a modern incarnation of the devil? Death itself? Or evil personified?

The opening scene sets the stage for the intense nature of her self-delusion. It opens with our introduction of the ‘girl’ character, comfortable in a housecoat, seemingly at ease in familiar surroundings of her kitchen. She pours herself a bowl of cereal, takes a few spoonfuls, and switches the counter television set off. She places the bowl down, moves into the living room, turns on the stereo and begins to dance to the music. The camera follows her closely but from a safe distance. She prances back to the kitchen, takes the cereal bowl and dances her way up the stairs to the second floor. A steadicam follows her every move up the stairs and around the landing. When she opens a bedroom door the scene cuts to a close-up of her face, emoting with genuine fear, shock and sorrow, whatever she is seeing off-screen. The scene now cuts for the first time to a subjective point of view, with hand-held close-ups (perhaps to suggest her unstable mind) of bloodied and cut up bodies. We cut to a farther vantage and see a man and a woman tied and gagged to opposing chairs. She bends over toward them, holding back a vomit, and crying in front of what we assume to be her dead parents, before breaking into a laughter that reveals her show of tearful horror has only been play acting. The question is, who is she play acting for? Clearly not for them, since they already know she is nuts. You can say she is doing it to amuse herself, but from a purely narrative standpoint, the act is intended to fool the audience, which sets up a subtle theme of manipulation and reflexivity which the film develops in several ways (the playful narrative twists between reality and fantasy, the pointed references to other hostage/torture films). For example, the man is still alive, barely. She takes a faucet spout and rams it into his chest, then turns the faucet ‘on’ and fills up her glass with his chest blood gushing out of the faucet. In what can only be described as a reflexive gesture, she turns to an unfinished canvas on an easel behind him, dips a paint brush into the wine glass and uses his blood as paint. The gesture assures us that the film we are about to see is all an artistic construction, “murder as art.”

One of the ways in which director Masciantonio undercuts the intensity is by interjecting does of intertextuality, such as the recurring references the Girl makes to previous hostage/torture films, such as quoting Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man (“Is it safe?”), Misery, and A Clockwork Orange, and references to many other horror films (An American Werewolf in London, The Man Who Laughs). And as dark and disturbing as the film is, there are also moments of near slapstick humor. For example, after a particularly nasty torture scene, in which she drills holes into a victim’s thighs and then places a large worm into one of the open wounds, the Girl goes to the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. That she has an appetite after her violent action is funny enough, but when she nicks her finger with a kitchen knife and begins screaming in horror over a tiny cut in her finger it places her violent behaviour in a bizarre, almost child-like psychological context. After one of her violent incursions –slitting open a woman’s forearms– produces a river of blood that shocks even her, she replies with comic candor, “Now that got a little crazy!”

What sets Neighbor apart from the slew of recent horror films featuring torture is that the perpetrator is female. It may seem that director Masciantonio has made his villain a woman for no other reason than the novelty and shock of having a female killer, but it also serves the story. As a woman, potential victims let their guard down or put themselves in a more vulnerable position because they don’t harbor (consciously or unconsciously) any fears toward a woman and hence do not see her as a potential risk or threat. Director Masciantonio plays his audience like a violin, performing a perfect slip from the killer’s relentless sadism, to the psychological effects of her kidnapping and torture on the traumatised victim, and then back to the killer’s gut wrenching violence. Masciantonio even gives us a scene of the Girl taking a shower to wash off the blood, which plays on the typical scene of the victim who takes a shower to cleanse or purify herself (usually from a rape, attack, or a murder). But there is no such purification here.

Every year Fantasia has a film which seems to up the ante for visceral violence and contains one moment of violence which becomes hard to shake. Over ten years ago it was the wire brush to the lips scene in Doug Buck’s short Cutting Moments. Self-mutilation and paraphilia sent audiences scampering for their barf bags in 2006 with the Neighborhood Watch. Last year the bar was raised by the self-mutilation in two shorts Snip (a man stands in front of a mirror and takes a straight razor to his whole body) and Electric Fence (a man possessed by the mind of a pedophile uses a pair of dull scissors to castrate himself). In the 2009 edition that special moment occurs in Neighbor, and again in a film filled with squeamish violence (attacks on fingers, thighs, toes, kneecap, cheek), it is a surreal assault on the male sex organ that will have audiences shaking their collective heads (although what she does to a mouth with a hacksaw is a close second). Think Miike’s Audition meets Oshima’s Realm of the Senses. Neighbor revels in its character’s sadistic nihilism, without ever taking a moral stance (is that even necessary?) or explaining who the killer is or why she is committing these horrible acts of torture and murder. The official website has a series of videos including clips and interviews promoting the film.

Urban squalor was in evidence in many of the films featured in the Japanese Pink Cinema and Roman Porno retrospective that was one of the highlights of Fantasia 2009. Each film was treated to an excellent introduction and question and answer period by Jasper Sharp, author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, published by FAB in 2008. Confidential Report: Sex Market (1974, Noboru Tanaka) opens with a wide angle long take on 19 year old prostitute Tomie (Meika Seri.) telling the camera, “I will do anything I please.” And what seems to ‘please’ her is competing with her prostitute mother for the few clients that come their way. In fact the mother/daughter economic competition recalls Onibaba, where the mother and daughter compete for the armour of dead samurai that fall into their ditch trap. The film begins in a hard edged realist style, with its black and white image, hand held camera, and sweaty close-ups, but slowly becomes much more impressionist and ambient. Tomie lives with her mother and mentally challenged brother, an unwanted product (we assume at the end, when the mother is once again pregnant) of ‘work.’ Tomie feels sorry for her brother so masturbates him (with some kind of rubbery animal product, perhaps whale blubber) and even has sex with him. Like most pink films, the sex on offer does not provide easy titillation. It is sullied and de-eroticized through the lack of human warmth between the people having sex, or sense of pleasure, especially on the part of the women. Most of the ‘johns’ are men from the Osaka neighborhood. Tomie flaunts her youth in front of her mother, like the scene where she is sent (by a pimp) to rescue a client from an ‘old woman’: her mother. There are some really wonderful shots in this film, which is especially striking considering the film was shot very quickly. The most outstanding is the single long take shot of Tomie having sex with her brother, toward the end, where the lighting subtly changes during the shot, as if time itself were advancing, or the outside light source was changing dramatically. The long take begins with the characters bathed in blackness but (after the camera dollies in) it ends with her face lit by a bright sunlight coming in from the window. The film is really a series of vignettes of Tomie with her varied clients, the pimps, the locals (a man who recycles condoms by washing them, placing them out to dry, putting talc powder in them), her mother, her brother, an attractive man who appears twice as her knight in shining armour, her savior, but who she rejects at the end, preferring to stay with her kind.

There is one odd diversion of a sequence, which follows a young, timid, long-haired man who propositions a friend of Tomie’s, but is too shy to convince her pimp that he is up to the sexual task. Instead the pimp buys the man a sex doll, and the timid man follows the prostitute and the pimp around town dragging along the doll. They end up inside a silo, which explodes and kills all three of them.

After the sex scene with her brother –a seemingly positive moment– Tomie discovers that her mother is pregnant. She comes to realize that she and her brother were born in similar circumstances, a vicious circle of poverty and prostitution. The film switches to color (a temporary escape from reality?). Her brother places a rooster on a leash and goes on a meandering walk that has him end up on the top of a tower. He throws the rooster off the tower, but it hangs caught on the railing. He walks back down the stairs to the road and hangs himself. Tomie finds the body, refuses the man who is her potential saviour, who has appeared out of nowhere, a suggestion that perhaps he is a manifestation of Tomie’s imagination, and returns to her miserable life. In a morose ending, she now sees herself as nothing more than a sex doll, and wants her client to treat her like one by placing a cigarette in her vagina. The film has many other near sublime visual touches: the early sex scene with the camera framing Tomie and her lover taking her from behind both pressed up against a window; the scene where Tomie, again taken from behind, with her face toward the camera, literally replicates a swinging camera by moving her face toward/away from the camera. The extreme anguished and angered expression on her face recalls the final CU at the end of Mizoguchi’s Sisters of Gion. Confidential Report: Sex Market was one of the better Roman Porno films in the retrospective.

Urban squalor comes home to Canada (for Fantasia any way) with the Toronto-set Sweet Karma (2008, Andrew Hunt), which marks a rare Canadian exploitation, female rape revenge film which plays by the rules on one hand, but adds a Canadian style sucker punch by having the whole motive for the revenge evaporate in thin air, deflating the sense of catharsis that normally comes with the territory. The only other Canadian film with a similar dynamic is Fruet’s Death Weekend, where Brenda Vaccaro plays a woman raped by an invader who turns on her aggressors. An attractive, mute Russian woman named Karma (Shera Bechard) travels to Toronto to track down the operators of a Russian-run sex trade organization which her sister fell prey to. The film does a great job in setting up the sex trade milieu, with some of the best strip bar scenes I’ve ever seen. The largely Russian people running the show are well cast, especially the man in charge of running the nut and bolts of the operation. Shera Bechard plays the avenging mute sister Karma Balint, seeking her sister through the grimy Toronto underground. Balint is a clever, resourceful character, but not one without faults and is prone to miscalculation driven by her emotions. The film cuts back to Russia, and shows Balint’s close relationship with her sister. We learn that Karma was present the moment where she agreed terms with the Russian contact, a middle-aged woman, who tells the women that they are going abroad to work as domestics. Once there they are forcibly taken (essentially kidnapped) and ‘trained’ to be prostitutes. If they don’t comply, they are beat, raped, or have their family back home threatened. One of the new recruits is too weak to stomach the initiation and commits suicide. In one of the flashbacks we see Balint killing the middle woman in Russia. This one shows the influence of other revenge films too, especially The Limey, where we also have a character searching for the killers of her daughter (rather than sister), and arriving to a foreign city (England to Los Angeles, rather than Russia to Canada). Scenes of Balint contemplating her next move in her hotel room, the use of newspaper clippings, and the non-linearity (though not to the same extent) all demonstrate the influence of The Limey. Director Hunt also inverts elements of The Limey; for example, whereas the Stamp character in The Limey is loquacious, Balint is mute. And, like in The Limey, in the end the central character does not complete the revenge plan to its end. When Balint discovers that her sister is actually alive and living with a wealthy man who ‘paid’ for her release, she has a change of heart and does not kill the man (won over by her sister’s pleas of mercy that she loves the man). Likewise at the end of The Limey, the Stamp character does not kill the man partly responsible for his daughter’s death (since he comes to acknowledge, like Karma does, his own complicity). What makes this interesting is the way it refrains from the usual cathartic release of the vengeance film (i.e. like in this year’s other revenge drama, The Horseman, which loses itself in the final third and becomes a straight forward good vs. bad guy morality tale). By the end of this one, Balint comes to realize that her murderous rampage had no justification. When she and a police insider track down the man responsible for funding the whole industry Balint is shocked to see her sister alive and well; and that she has in fact willingly taken up with this rich man, who paid to have her released from her ‘contract.’ She claims to love him and pleads with her sister not to kill him. The film cuts outside, we hear gunshots, but the shift back inside reveals the shots were fired into air to fool the cop outside into thinking that she killed the man. The film ends with her at the airport on her way back home to Russia. She drops her gold cross chain to the floor. The final image is an ironic CU of the chain. We feel as empty as she does, knowing that she risked her life and took lives under a false pretence. Whereas most vengeance films have a clear outline of the moral playing field –an Old Testament eye for an eye– Sweet Karma leaves the viewer in a pensive mood after having viewed a flawed heroine’s single driving motivation cruelly taken from her.

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