A little while ago I wrote about Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and why it was one of the few films I’ve ever seen to have genuinely scared me. Having now seen E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten, I can add another entry to that short list. It’s no secret why: Begotten was a clear influence on the terrifying tape from The Ring, with its scratched-up, blown-out, desaturated-to-the-point-of-abstraction imagery. Begotten is alternately engrossing and hard to stomach, a film that pulled me in as much as it pushed me away.
Merhige initially planned for Begotten to be a work of theatrical performance art, performed on stage. While the gothic costumes and nervy physicality of the actors certainly could translate to that medium, it’s hard to imagine this work being presented any other way. Watching this on stage, minus the way Merhige’s camera abstracts his subjects to the point of inscrutability, not to mention the disgusting squelches of the soundtrack, just wouldn’t be nearly as powerful an experience. Begotten is a film that even resists restoration. It seems to require a blurry SD file or a damaged print. These imperfections give the film character. It creates the impression (much like The Ring’s cursed videotape) that the film arose fully-formed out of some vile primordial soup, a paranormal consequence of psychic violence more than a relatable human creation, a true cosmic horror.
So what is Begotten? It’s nominally a Genesis fable; the film opens with the character called God Killing Himself, well, you know. God here is a figure in a haunting mask sitting in the corner of a room and disemboweling himself. After he’s dead and the goopy mess of gore has dripped onto his feet, Mother Earth seems to be born from within him. She masturbates his corpse and inseminates herself. In written form, I think this comes across as a little try-hard in its sacrilegious obsession with bodily fluids. It doesn’t play this way in the film, mostly because of how the blown-out black-and-white cinematography makes the central figures seem more like vague shapes than people. His abstraction of them makes them genuinely archetypal — descended creatures of myth and song, not humans in costumes. The overexposed sky in the later sections makes them seem to exist in a great bright void. There is a disturbing absence of setting in Begotten. Merhige creates such terrifying distance from his subjects; we cannot hope to reach them or understand them. All we can do is bear witness.
Up top I wrote that Begotten scared me. That was true, for a while. By the end, though, I was more sad than anything else. The film is a tragedy that makes no room for empathy; it actively pushes you away from the victims at its center. I appreciated Merhige’s commitment to pushing the viewer away at every turn, refusing to let them see any humanity in his subjects. They are beyond our help. And we have no choice but to watch.
Having found most of his TV work rather uninspiring, I was surprised by how impressed I was with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. While I don’t think it’s a great film, there’s more of interest here than in his episodes of Game of Thrones or even the more directly comparable Hannibal.
The setup is familiar: A grieving young woman recovering from a tragic accident goes out on a trip with her friends and encounters a violent horror. Like most horror films with such a premise, The Descent uses its labyrinthine caves and vicious monsters as metaphors for overcoming trauma. I wrote about this trope recently, specifically about how horror films present a pessimistic vision of the healing process by virtue of the realities of studio filmmaking. The Descent has its cake and eats it too in this regard. It was released with two endings, the original one for the U.K. and an edited version for the U.S. In the latter, main character Sarah escapes the caves, but is haunted by a vision of the friend she left behind to save herself. In the former, the scene goes on to reveal that her escape was itself a hallucination, and she’s still trapped in the caves as the credits roll. The original ending was deemed too dark for American audiences (post-9/11 Hollywood was wild) but I actually prefer the edited version. It suggests something more profound about the immortality of trauma — you may feel like you’ve escaped, but the past never really leaves you.
While the first 15 minutes or so are clumsily edited, this awkwardness becomes a strength once the film enters the caves. The choppiness of the cuts turns dark shots of small flashlight beams into abstract light shows, where the lack of coherent composition is itself the image. The idea of “oh the editing is so rapid, it’s meant to be disorienting just like the characters are disoriented” is a little banal but it’s applicable here. It’s as hard to find your way visually through The Descent as it is for the characters to find their way through the caves.
This is accompanied by some arresting use of lighting. Besides the flashlights, which tend to be pointed towards the camera and thus rarely illuminate the surroundings, red flares give striking shape to the craggy caverns and green light tubes create a more unsettling and alien glow. These single-color scenes help make the caves feel less like a real place on Earth and more like a supernatural space-between. This really enhances the film’s attempts at horror, and it can use all the help it can get in that department.
If there’s a main problem with The Descent, it’s that it isn’t scary. It starts out well enough, seeding tiny hints at its monsters throughout unrelated tense setpieces. An early glimpse of one engulfed in blackness before it skitters away is properly frightening. It falls apart in the film’s second half, though. After a certain point, The Descent stops withholding its creatures and starts shoving them in your face. I’m normally skeptical of the old bromide that a film monster is scarier the less you see of it, but it’s true here. The pale-skinned creatures are less scary the more you see of them, and Marshall shows us every inch. He makes no effort to conceal them with his camera or in editing. And the more you see them, the more their humanity becomes apparent, the less they represent the terror of the unknown lurking in the dark. They don’t lurk enough.
The Descent really is a tale of two halves. All the cave scenes before the first creature attack are phenomenally creepy. Very little of what follows is worthwhile. I wish the film had stuck to its guns and kept the creatures at a distance, kept them in the shadows, kept them away from the camera (if at least not the characters). If I was let down by The Descent, it’s only because it seemed so promising at the outset.
This piece was based on a film suggestion by one of my subscribers on Patreon. For $3 a month you can submit a film for me to write about. Check out the link if you’re interested!
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is really two films, or it might be more accurate to say that it consists of the same film twice over. It splits neatly down the middle, seeming to end and then begin again. It tells fundamentally the same story a second time, only with a new plot for round two. This bifurcated structure could signify a number of things. Is it the distinction between the desired truth and actual reality? Does it represent a psychological break in the main character? Does it reinforce the film’s binary fixations: man and woman, introvert and extrovert, popular and ostracized? I was fascinated by how cleanly the film snaps in two, and how each half calls backward and forward to comment on the other. Burning is a film in constant conversation with itself, a screen dialectic.
The first half adopts the perspective of main character Jong-su, a frustrated depressive whose troubled childhood gave way to a dead-end adulthood. A chance encounter with childhood friend Hae-mi does little to liven his spirits, though they strike up a sexual relationship. Jong-su likes Hae-mi, though he has as little respect for her as anyone else. When Hae-mi leaves on a trip for Africa, she returns with a new friend, Ben, with whom she bonded during a traumatic experience. Jong-su is immediately distrustful of the confident Ben. His outgoing and personable nature shine a light on Jong-su’s own personality defects. One night, the two share a smoke and Ben reveals that he has a special hobby: Every few months, he finds an abandoned greenhouse and burns it to the ground. He leaves telling Jong-su that he’s chosen his next target, one very close to Jong-su’s home. The next morning, Hae-mi disappears.
It’s after that nighttime conversation that the split happens. The film builds up Ben through Jong-su’s eyes, as someone eminently untrustworthy and surely hiding something. Steven Yeun wonderfully plays up Ben’s likable affectations as sinister, but so subtly that only Jong-su (and the audience) seem to notice. When he reveals his penchant for arson, it comes not as surprise but confirmation. Jong-su seems terrified of Ben in the moment, but there’s a glimmer of vindication behind the fear.
The triumph doesn’t last, though, as Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su receives a bizarre phone call from her where he hears only a series of ominous noises, ending with the disturbingly suggestive sound of a zipper. When he goes to her apartment, the code she gave him no longer works. When he manages to get inside, it looks completely different. The cat she asked him to feed doesn’t seem to exist. Jong-su’s first instinct? Hunting down Ben.
It’s in the second half that Burning calls into question the reliability of Jong-su’s perspective in the first half. How much of his relationship with Hae-mi was imagined? How much of his view of Ben is wishful thinking, borne of a desire to have the moral high ground on a guy whose popularity he resents? As the film unravels and Jong-su finds clues to Hae-mi’s disappearance, we can’t help but wonder if the pieces he’s putting together are pieces at all, or if he’s merely trying to force disparate details together to avoid having to confront his own relationship failures and personality defects.
Here, Burning reframes the dynamics of film noir (the vanishing lady, the dogged detective, the scummy high-class villain) in a way that could have so easily been corny or eye-roll-inducing. Lee doesn’t comment on the genre so much as he iterates on it, paying respect to his predecessors while using the space they created to tell his own story. It’s not entirely new, plenty of noir was self-reflexive in similar ways. Still, it’s quite well-executed. Hae-mi (the vanishing lady) is self-consciously an object for Jong-su’s (the dogged detective) motivated action. She is no less a fully-fledged character than anyone else, which makes her transformation into plot device deliberately uncomfortable. Jong-su is motivated less by a desire to rescue her for her own sake than by a vague obsession with her as a stand-in for his undefined emotional traumas.
And Ben (the scummy high-class villain) is only framed as such through the unreliable eyes of Jong-su. When he tells Jong-su of his hobby, it comes after Jong-su admits to being forced by his father to burn his mother’s possessions after she left them. It’s clear that the shame and guilt of this event has haunted him for his whole adult life. Did Ben really admit to an even worse crime of arson, or did Jong-su want to hear him say that he had done something worse? As the “evidence” piled up in the run-up to the film’s horrific climax, I continued to find it hard to have faith anything Jong-su was thinking.
In leaving Jong-su’s perspective for the second half, Burning recontextualizes its first part, slowly eroding whatever trust and sympathy you had for its central character. I had little to begin with (Jong-su isn’t a likable character by any means) but I was nevertheless intrigued by how Lee unravels his point of view at such a deliberate pace. By the end, it’s still unclear whether Jong-su is motivated by reality or by an imagined threat. Burning lives in that ambiguity, but it also asks a question: If you can’t trust Jong-su, are there really two sides to this story?
The film The End of Evangelion doesn’t open with the normal logo of production house Studio Gainax. Their typically unremarkable, austere card is replaced by the studio’s name briefly appearing in a lower corner of the screen, scratchy and erratically vibrating. Most people won’t think anything of this change (especially not considering the film that follows it) but it immediately put me in mind of a filmmaker whose influence is felt throughout the rest of the runtime. Studio Gainax and directors Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki make conscious reference to an icon of American experimental film. I’d like to break down how The End of Evangelion pays homage to the work of Stan Brakhage.
Brakhage’s artistic output (somewhere in the realm of hundreds of films created over the course of a half-century) covered a wide variety of formal and aesthetic ideas. Many of his best-known works share little obvious common ground beyond an impulse towards what, were the term not in use for a completely different purpose, I would call a direct cinema. Brakhage used the film strip not as a mere tool, but as a canvas unto itself. One of his most recognizable films, Mothlight, was famously created without using a camera. He collected elements of nature like moth wings and blades of grass, stuck them to a strip of film, and ran it through a projector. The celluloid became itself a physical element of the film’s creation and presentation, rather than merely a conduit for the images it conveyed. Brakhage was fascinated by the way film itself could be manipulated to create visual art. He stuck objects to it, he painted on it, and perhaps most famously, he scratched it.
Most of Brakhage’s films begin or end with the familiar signature “By Brakhage,” but in his mid-late period the title tends to appear scrawled by hand directly onto the film strip. The text is always wildly shaky, a product of the technique’s imprecision, and a fitting companion to Brakhage’s typical quick cutting and zippy movement. It’s this signature that The End of Evangelion calls back to with its production company logo. It’s a tribute to a man who was a clear forerunner not just for this film, but for experimental animation at large.
The film itself uses Brakhage’s scratching technique at key moments, to accentuate the characters’ emotional turmoil and suggest a frenetic, suffering mind. Brakhage was never quite so literal in connecting the tone conveyed by his aesthetic to the conveyance of any narrative feeling. That’s the nature of making a narrative film like The End of Evangelion, though.
I don’t know if Brakhage ever called himself an animator, or if he would have considered his film strip experiments animation. The case can be made, though, that he fits neatly into that category. His painted works in particular are the most obvious candidates, and all his non-camera films may technically qualify. Surely if stop-motion animation exists, the manipulation of real-life elements to create the illusion of motivated physical action, then Mothlight or its companion The Garden of Earthly Delights can be called a kind of animation. Was Brakhage a pioneer in a medium he never considered himself a part of? If you ask Hideaki Anno, I’m sure he’d say yes.
The End of Evangelion was produced using largely traditional animation techniques, a far cry from the level of experimentation on which Brakhage operated. Still, one can see more than a shadow of his work throughout the film. The use of quick cuts in the film’s scenes of heightened drama and action, while nothing new for fight-oriented mecha anime, in this context recall Brakhage’s editing style. Brakhage made frequent use of in-camera editing — that is to say, a lack of post-production editing, wherein shots are laid in sequence exactly as they were shot.
While this is absolutely not how The End of Evangelion was produced, its editing still recalls the rapid cuts of, for example, Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. It’s to the same effect, as well. Brakhage cut so quickly to blend his images together, an aggressive counterpoint to classic Soviet montage. His films are a miasma of light and color without many distinct “shots” in the way we typically think of them. Everything in a Brakhage film is meant to be part of one whole. The End of Evangelion similarly concocts a coherent “whole” image out of relative incoherence.
The other way it achieves this is through another familiar Brakhage technique: superimposition. It’s used in a majority of his films to some degree; one might call it his signature move. It’s all over Dog Star Man and most of what are considered his major works, like The Wonder Ring and Window Water Baby Moving. Brakhage used it to a similar purpose as his editing, that being the melding of discrete images to create something new. Superimposition allowed this more directly. Images could be combined through transparency to communicate something that they could not on their own, or even in edited sequence. Brakhage often used superimposition to suggest the resurgence of memory, which is exactly how The End of Evangelion uses it towards the end of the film. An extended montage of clips from episodes of the television show as well as other evocative imagery are laid on top of each other and rapidly cycled through, creating a visual experience akin wherein no one component is visible or even comprehensible. They all contribute to the whole. As far as the film’s narrative goes, what is Instrumentality if not the superimposition of billions of souls, all seen through one another as a single being of warm orange goo?
The End of Evangelion actually goes further than Brakhage and extends this technique to audio. Almost all of Brakhage’s work was silent, so concerned was he with the visual element that he rarely gave a moment’s thought to the audible. The End of Evangelion uses his visual principles in audio, overlaying multiple tracks of dialogue and sound effects so that they comprise a barely distinguishable whole, that whole being protagonist Shinji’s tattered mind. The voices of various characters swirl through his subconscious, mocking him and pleading with him and rejecting him and hating him. It’s at once a thousand thoughts and a single thought, as the images are numerous and singular, as the people of Evangelion’s Earth are individuals and one being.
Even The End of Evangelion’s brief break towards live-action makes one think of Brakhage’s The Wold-Shadow, a three-minute short wherein a still shot of a forest gives way to abstract paintings which recall the treeline imagery, as well as the found footage elements of Murder Psalm. It’s Brakhage in reverse, the “real” and “unreal” colliding. These live-action shots otherwise feel very Brakhage in their intimate sweep, their gentle movement, their vague sense of unease. The small montage of crayon drawings is also reminiscent of Brakhage’s scratching as well as his paint work. Brakhage is all over this film. You may as well call him co-director for the influence he exerts over it. In paying homage to Stan Brakhage, Evangelion shows its skill at iterating on the past rather than reinventing. Brakhage would have been proud, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little jealous too.
Tarsem fascinates me. He’s a contradiction in terms — Schrodinger’s Filmmaker. At once quite talented and obscenely hacky, his films are as full of breathtaking imagery as they are insipid storytelling. His second feature, The Fall, is about storytelling, and he still can’t come up with a story worth telling. The Fall is a film built for Youtube videos called like “Best Examples Of Cinematography Ever (Part 3)” or “LEGENDARY Editing Tricks (No CGI!!)” more than it’s built for, you know, watching all the way through.
I think the problem here stems not from the film’s narrative failings but from the narrative attempt itself. I would love to see The Fall recut into something more abstract, a surreal and dreamlike journey where fantastical images abound. It’s got all the pieces, but the way it assembles them is so thuddingly literal as to drown what is genuinely compelling about Tarsem’s visual work. Why should I care about such evocative compositions if all they are meant to evoke are the dishwater-dull designs of the director’s ode to the act of storytelling? Tarsem has such an innate talent for constructing these epic, sweeping visions, where the characters are dwarfed by the oppressive negative spaces surrounding them. That turns out to be a a decent metaphor for the film as a whole: Characters swallowed up by setting.
But oh, what setting! There are so many images of impossible beauty and visual complexity that Tarsem barely knows what to do with them all. A stunning set based on real Indian stepwells would have been the subject of an entire setpiece from another director. Tarsem spends barely two minutes there before moving on. It gives off this sense of desperation, like Tarsem thinks this will be his final film and is rushing to get every idea out of his head at once. I can appreciate such a frantic desire to be seen and heard, especially when the results are so often breathtaking.
No, the problems with The Fall are entirely down to how half-baked its story is. I will say that the film’s depiction of suicidal depression struck a chord with me, mostly due to Lee Pace’s performance. Pace does well at selling his character’s hopelessness and resentment at a world that brought him to this point. But mostly it’s just boring. The crossovers between the film’s real world and its fictional one are both too obvious and not meaningful enough. There are some nice touches here and there (Alexandria imagines a man from India when Roy says “Indian,” though it’s clear to us that Roy is referring to a Native American) but the film takes too long to find any significance in these overlapping narratives. I would have preferred it to not go looking for significance at all than make such a half-assed attempt.
The better version of this film sees Tarsem stepping back and letting the audience find what they will in his work. I don’t think he’s an egotistical artist, but I do think he’s too absorbed by his own vision to let the viewer in. There’s nothing to dig into in The Fall, because its creator has already done all the digging for you. He has the ability to conjure such striking images, the sort of stunning visuals you expect to lose yourself in. And then he hands you a map.
Kenneth Anger was so far ahead of his time. He was the original “feeling sad n horny 2day :/” poster. But since he was born in the 1920s, he had to resort to making massively influential experimental films instead. It’s such a shame. Think of the tweets we missed out on.
In all seriousness, Scorpio Rising strikes me as much for its singular vision as it does for the filmmakers it would obviously go on to influence. Anger made a film about how much he wanted to fuck James Dean in 1963. The whole thing is as suffused with tragedy as it is with sexual desire. The leather fashion and particular rebellious attitude represented by Dean had gone out of style by then, and Dean himself was eight years dead. Anger posits the queer leather daddy style as a picking up of Dean’s torch, or perhaps picking up the pieces of a shattered movement.
The men featured in the film sweatily work on their motorcycles just as they work on themselves, on their clothes and appearances. They are consciously constructing their unique selves, and yet they’re still part of a like-minded (and like-dressed) collective. Anger’s conception of cis gay men in the early 60s is of a group of people desperately claiming the imagery of the past and charging headlong into the future. Queerness here is a subculture more than it’s an individual identity. It’s something to which you belong.
This makes Scorpio Rising a far cry from the widespread assimilationist politics of the 21st century. Mainstream queer culture for the past few decades has been all about wanting to be seen as “just like the rest of you.” The focus has been on equating queerness with being cishet for the sake of agitating for equal rights. This rankles for several reasons, chief among them the implication that queer people are socially acceptable because they’re the same as “normal” people, as if people who are different don’t deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. You shouldn’t need to convince the privileged that you’re the same as them to be afforded their rights and protections.
Anger shoots Scorpio Rising’s gay men with wild abandon, rapid cuts and shadows concealing and revealing their supposed debauchery. They are depicted as a true subculture, something apart from the mainstream cishet world. Anger doesn’t do this to otherize them; there is no negative connotation to his depiction at all. It seemed to me more celebratory, an affirmation of collective difference and in fact dissidence. The juxtaposition of religious imagery with the film’s men (men mounting their motorcycles against Christ astride a mule) is obviously a deliberate provocation, but it also seems a statement of purpose. Anger declares that we have always been here, and we will always be here, as much a part of human society as Christianity or any other religion. There’s a ritualistic quality, too, to the shots of the men fixing up their bikes and slowly getting dressed. Is queerness here its own religion? I won’t ascribe anything so didactic to Anger. Still, Scorpio Rising remains a fascinating work to dig into.
Us is Jordan Peele’s second feature film as a director, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You just need to watch it. It bears all the hallmarks of Sophomore Entry-itis. This is a film from a man who so desperately wants to do something different from his breakout debut that he ends up not quite sure what he wants to do at all. What struck me as interesting about Us, though, is that it doesn’t lose itself in the shuffle of a million disparate ideas as so many second features do. If anything, you could call it under-ambitious. Peele follows the layered social metaphors of Get Out with a thriller that doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind.
That’s not to say that Us has nothing to say, of course. Its most intriguing notion is that of the collective American unconscious, the dark truths about our violent past that we so easily bury and selectively forget. In the first scene, a young Adelaide (played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) has a terrifying encounter in a boardwalk attraction called “Shaman’s Vision Quest,” complete with the head of a stereotypical Native American looming above the door. When she revisits the boardwalk with her family as an adult, the attraction has been revised to “Merlin’s Vision Quest,” and the Native American head is now an inoffensive wizard. The imagery that recalled violence and genocide is gone, but the structure remains. The film opens with text describing the miles upon miles of abandoned tunnels crisscrossing underneath the country. We don’t learn the plot significance of them for a while, but that text haunts the film’s first two acts, never letting us forget that something horrific may be just underneath our feet, and that we may have put it there.
I was disappointed by how it fails to tie this into its characters’ personal dramas, though. A far cry from recent horror breakouts like The Babadook and Hereditary (neither of which I like more than Us, to be clear) which were entirely focused on the inner lives of their characters, Us is much more concerned with its grand narrative design. Us has a world. It has lore. Lore to spare. By the film’s final act, we’re getting more exposition than storytelling, and absolutely nothing about its characters. For a film about people encountering twisted reflections of themselves, Us has little to nothing to say about who they are. It has the most to offer about Adelaide, but that comes in a silly final twist that muddles its themes considerably. Who are Gabe, Zora, Jason? Who are Kitty and Josh? What are their insecurities? What are their strengths? What do they love, what do they fear? They have personality in spades, but we’re starved for personage. How does a film with this premise drop the ball so hard on characterization?
The performances, at least, are outstanding all around. All the principal actors have to play their doubles as well, and they all do marvelous work finding both the familiar and the uncanny in their second performances. Nyong’o is the obvious MVP, as Adelaide and doppelganger Red. Adelaide is all nerves, righteous fury, and eventually pity for the twins she and her family are pitted against. Red is the real standout work, though. Her voice is chillingly strained, struggling to get each syllable out, as though she’s a creature not meant to speak at all. Her physicality is just as strange and scary and wrong, twitchy yet deliberate, like she’s never seen another human being before.
Intriguingly, Peele chose not to have the actors share traits across the doppelganger performances. None of the clones we see seem to have anything in common with their originals. They’re less fractured reflections of the main characters than distinct individuals forced to share someone else’s appearance. They don’t have many commonalities with each other, either. Aside from the strained shouting they communicate with and their identical outfits, the clones’ movements and behaviors are entirely different from one to the next. Even their names are all unique, bearing no relation to the names of the people they resemble. It’s an intriguing direction in which to take this premise.
And that’s about as playful as the film gets. It’s a pretty straightforward slasher for most of its runtime. That’s not a bad thing, though, when the setpieces are this well-executed. The film’s second act is a thrilling ride from face-off to face-off, each one distinct to its particular pair. Young Jason and his doppelganger Pluto have a silent, tense staring match in a closet. Gabe and his double Abraham take swings at each other in a small boat on a dark lake. Zora is chased through the streets by the relentless Umbrae. Things culminate bloodily at Josh and Kitty’s house, and while I won’t spoil what goes down, it’s a gleefully violent spectacle.
There’s a lot to like about Us. It acquits itself handsomely for a while as a straight-up one-night-in-hell home invasion terror. Peele has great talent for spatial dynamics, and the flair for comic/horror timing that served him so well in Get Out is on full display here. But in other areas, Us is oddly shoddy and disappointingly shaggy. Although it’s well-paced, the editing never quite finds the right rhythm, especially whenever the family splits up. Peele has a handful of strong, evocative images in his head, but only a handful. It’s an okay movie, but never quite a genuinely good one. It’s too compromised in too many places. Just when you think it’s about to cohere, it flits off in a new direction. Always searching, never finding. Us is a Second Feature through and through. The most disappointing thing about it is how predictable its failures are.
F for Fake is a lot of things: A sort-of documentary, a complete and total fiction, a passion-fueled ramble, a legendary prank, a formal experiment, a tribute to liars and fakers, an ode to Oja Kodar’s ass, and most of all, the sort of one-sided conversation you don’t mind being on the receiving end of. It’s a contradictory and yet coherent work, a film less motivated by ideas and more a loose string of them, a train of thought given form (and oh, what form!) It’s been one of my all-time favorite films from the moment I first saw it, though back then I wasn’t sure I knew why.
When I first saw F for Fake a few years ago, I couldn’t articulate why I was so instantly enamored with it. I didn’t have the right language, the proper understanding of form, the context of Welles’ career. I didn’t quite know what I had just seen, but I knew I was in love with it. There was a little bit of shame that came along with that, a sense that I needed to deserve to have a particular reaction to a film. Watching it again some years later, I realized how silly that was. F for Fake is a rich and sprawling experiment, quite unlike anything that came before or since. But for all its formal depth, it’s a breezily entertaining affair, as intelligent as it is cheeky. Orson Welles was one of the most clever people to ever make a movie, but his work never flaunts that cleverness. In F for Fake perhaps more than any of his films, he brings the audience in on his fascinations and fixations. He makes F for Fake at once an easy film for anyone to like and a profoundly intriguing subject for more knowledgeable cinephiles.
What makes the film truly special, though, is how those two things work hand in hand. The experimental editing that was a staple of Welles’ late-period work (and which was replicated in The Other Side of the Wind) is a huge part of what makes F for Fake so electrifying. The film moves with a jazzy freneticism never otherwise seen in….can we call this film non-fiction? Whatever. The film abandons typical cinematic grammar for something more freeform. Cinema language approximates the way we see and understand the world. The language of F for Fake more closely resembles the way we think about the world. It’s full of visual and verbal free association, using cuts to tie together disparate thoughts and create a coherent idea.
But it’s the incoherence where the film really lives, the sense that Welles himself is as along for the ride as you are. The film follows what we recognize as a train of thought, a non-linear conscious path with plenty of diversions and asides along the way. The film is decades old and it still feels like you’re watching it live as it happens. It’s like Welles is putting down the tracks just ahead of the train. It’s only at the end when you realize he’s been one step ahead the whole time, and you can’t help but be utterly charmed by how taken in you were. Welles is one of the only figures in cinema who could get away with such a bamboozle. Despite his towering intellectual stature, it never feels like he’s talking down to you. He makes it easy to follow along with his ponderings, even if you don’t have all the historical and cultural context that birthed them. Welles is as unpretentious an auteur as there ever was. He references Citizen Kane in F for Fake to say that he “started at the top, and I’ve been working my way down ever since.” That’s still a mightily high bar.
The thing no one will say about Miller’s Crossing is that that hat really does not work on Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan. It doesn’t sit quite right on his head. This hat, a visual and at times narrative focal point of the film, lays awkwardly askew. It’s always on the verge of being blown right off his head, as easily by a gunshot as by a gust of wind. There’s no stability in the world of this film, nothing solid to lean on. Everything is chaos. “Nobody knows anybody.”
I first wrote about Miller’s Crossing four years ago at Audiences Everywhere, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Rereading that piece now, I found I came away with much the same impressions in 2019. Miller’s Crossing is interesting mostly as a precursor to the higher highs of the rest of the Coens’ career. It foreshadows films like A Serious Man and Fargo with its focus on ethics (or eh-tics, as Jon Polito’s Johnny Caspar so memorably puts it) and the perils of living in a universe without defined rules. They would go on to find more intriguing avenues to explore this idea than a familiar noir tale. Still, there’s an undeniable base thrill in watching scumbag criminals lie and cheat and outwit one another. And like the noir films that inspired it, it takes place in a chaotic, amoral world. I’m more interested in how the Coens would go on to explore worlds with distinct rules, inexplicable as they could be. But there’s still something straightforwardly compelling about this story of double-triple-quadruple-crossing gangsters.
Just as unrefined is the Coens’ camera. There’s little consistency of style in Miller’s Crossing. For every striking wide shot of small figures swallowed up by the forest, there’s a bizarre 180 whip-pan or comically quick zoom. It’s as “early film” as early films get, a work by directors still unsure if they’d get to make all the films they wanted to make, and thus were inclined to shove into one every idea they could come up with. The Coens of last year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are so much more self-assured. That film has a dependable, coherent aesthetic. The Coens of Miller’s Crossing seem far less confident. They have enough innate talent to carry them through, but it’s an understandably messy thing.
What still amuses me most about the film is its depiction of a world in which, free of universal law, people have made their own. What is acceptable and unacceptable is as incomprehensible as can be. My favorite scene comes early on, when Tom is left in a room to be intimidated and beaten by one of Caspar’s beefy enforcers. Tom asks him to stop so he can take off his jacket, and uses this as an opportunity to surprise the man and hit him with a chair. The man gingerly touches his broken nose and whines, “Jesus, Tom.” Tom’s refusal to fight fair isn’t the act of a roguish hero, but a slimy prick. He doesn’t play by the rules, and everyone around him pays the price.
Miller’s Crossing isn’t my favorite Coens film by a long shot. I don’t think it’s a misfire, though. There’s nothing wrong with making an average gangster movie. They execute on their influences well, and there’s some typically crackling dialogue along the way. It’s not a film I’ll ever be keen to revisit, but that’s okay. Not everything has to be a masterpiece.
I’ve tried several ways of saying it and they all sounded mealy-mouthed, so I’ll just be blunt: Horror movies almost never scare me. Time and again I’m been promised something truly terrifying, from Hereditary to The Witch to The Babadook, and time and again I walk away feeling distinctly unmoved. Even if I like the movie, horror rarely manages to, y’know, horrify me. I want a movie to stick in the back of my brain and keep me up at night, to make me jump at shadows in my room, to (borrowing a line from one of the few films to have this effect on me) make me too scared to close my eyes and too scared to open them.
Gore Verbinski’s The Ring does this to me. Even on my most recent rewatch, it kept me up late at night, its images looping around and around in my brain. I want to break down why this film scares me so much, in a way few other films can come close to achieving.
The first button of mine that The Ring pushes is the strangely unnerving qualities of TV static. When I was a kid, that visual snow freaked me out, and as an adult I think I know why. Blaring and bright, yet shifty and formless; it’s unavoidable and abstract. It demands your attention and offers nothing in return. It is the absence of meaning, imagery void of psychology or intent. It’s hypnotic in its abstract banality. Every frame suggests a hidden depth, a signal in the noise, a truth you’ll never find. Imagine being screamed at by a creature whose language and tone bears no resemblance to anything you recognize as communication, and it doesn’t even seem to be alive. It’s a bottomless pit, waiting to swallow you up. In the visual language of The Ring, it’s a deep dark well.
So to me, TV static is a great component of a horror setpiece. Stick it in a dark room on a rainy night, as the film does in its opening scene, and I’ll be clutching the arms of my chair. Verbinski elaborates on this with a static-y visual motif. The constant Seattle rain floods the image with a similar visual noise, and the way Verbinski shoots the city’s buildings also suggest a busy and meaningless pattern. It’s like the whole film is watched through bad reception, a dark transmission from Somewhere Else.
The Ring takes this idea even further, and it’s able to do so because it understands fundamentally why the static is so unsettling. It’s something about the inability to find significance in those images, the lack of any connection to comprehensible emotion or thought. We see this as well in the content of the tape, which is for my money the scariest thing ever put to film.
Some of these images have obvious narrative significance. In fact, much of the film’s plot is given over to deciphering what they mean. Some of them have direct answers, and the main characters even see where they took place with their own eyes. Some of them, however, do not. What is so scary about the tape, I think, is how even the more literal images erupt fully formed from some ghostly unconscious. They are not filmed as much as they are vaguely remembered, the stitched-together mental compositions of an abused child trying to make sense of her circumstances. We feel the camera’s absence in these shots even before we know about the tape’s supernatural origins. These images were not created intentionally, they simply began to exist out of non-existence.
Samara’s inevitable murder of the viewer feels less to me like a deliberate action and more like an obligation. We hear her talk about wanting to hurt people and not knowing why. She is subject to the whims of some grand unknowable force, except such a thing can’t even be said to have identifiable whims. It just is, and Samara just is, and the tape just is. This is why I find the tape so haunting, why its imagery hounds me as I try to go to sleep. It is plainly horrific but terrifyingly meaningless. Even the shots which have literal origins don’t seem to be included with the intent of sending a message. It’s all just noise. It’s all just static.
The film’s most iconic scare is, of course, Samara crawling out of the TV at the end. I think even this is related to what we’ve been talking about. The scare is so compelling because the TV in question is an analog one. Modern technology has become so microscopic that we are completely alienated from the actual physical inner workings of it. Not so with a tube TV, or disposable cameras, or VHS tapes. Their inner workings are big enough to see with the human eye, to hear with our human ears. They click and whir and buzz without our direct input, and you can’t help but feel there’s something strangely alive about them.
Samara crawling out of the TV is so scary because something about it rings true. Doesn’t it feel like something is alive in there already? Something manifested in static, incomprehensible, something that can stop your heart just to perceive it, but you need to see, you need to look. This is a film about that self-destructive urge to bear witness to something you’re not supposed to see, about staring down into a fathomless well and waiting for it to reach out and pull you under. It doesn’t end with the finality of a fade to black, but with a cut to static. It leaves you on a screen of impenetrable terror. It’s the scariest film I have ever seen.