Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Slay bells ring, are you listenin'?

As the holiday season has come to be the winter of our discontent (yeah, Richard III--didn’t think I’d forgot Willie the Shake, did you?), I have decided to pay less attention to the press and its blandishments, and survey the mood from the loftier, if not imperial, heights of Art.

Ok—so I went to the movies.

This is an occasion as much because there is very little I or mi espousa find all that interesting in general release, and as for the indie world? Feh. Indifference comes with the fact that worn carbons make for indistinct clichés and that the trend towards same is a drawback on the casual plunk-down of $15 (minimum) for 2 hours of pre-digested formula with 20-30+ minutes of earsplitting commercials. (More on that later.) Not to beat around the bush any longer, it was the appearance of three flicks with end-of-the-known-world themes which piqued my interest.

The first was “Zombieland”, which under normal circumstance, no amount of discount would have otherwise induced me to attend. It was entirely due to the intervention of my nizzo, DMVP, who lent me a pirated DVD copy he’d purchased au naturel off a blanket in the underground. I have seen many before that were excellent, but this was exactly what all the ads were warning you about. Someone set up a camera in the back of a theater, pointed it at the screen and just taped and burned what it was, with no attempt to augment or enhance the ambient audio (which included the sound of the cameraman’s sleeve over the condenser mike only at the very beginning.)

Then there was the passion mi espousa has for anything with Vigo Mortgenstern in it. Alternately, Cormac McCarthy is one of those writers I admit I’d admired from afar; that is to say: I’d like to say I’d read him, hadn’t. However, after the amazing “No Country For Old Men”, it was pretty hard not to miss the reviews of his book “The Road”, described as his most harrowing work in a c.v. that already has enough blood and guts to compare with Peckinpaugh on a bad day. So, the film version wasn’t exactly my cup of holiday nog, if you know what I mean.

And neither would be the ultimate disaster flick of the moment, “2012”. The tv spots seemed to offer all the dramatic equivalent of a trip to Six Flags. (“More Destruction! More Fun!”—which may be too local a reference…) I had also seen a few clips of John Cusak defending his choice of leading man rather sheepishly, as if to say: Hey, being an Indie fave is all well and good, but you gotta pay the bills too. My mea culpa is: after items one and two...sheer curiosity.

So, codicils and drawbacks aside, there is something to be said for this serendipitous alignment of the dark matter, and here it is.

The appearance of Woody Harrelson in the first and the last is no coincidence. For some time now he has represented some figure on the fringe of the national consciousness. The wild-eyed stare of gonzo is his speciality; the kind of madness that brooks no compromise. (And, yes, I know he does subtle roles as well, but this is dealing with his almost type-casting as an over-the-top extremist.) In “Zombieland”, you have a world (“two months since patient zero took a bite out of a burger at a Gas 'N' Gulp") perfectly suited to someone for whom the rules have never applied, one which is now the equivalent of a free-fire zone for mayhem and slaughter. It then becomes significant that his character establishes himself before you even see his face, driving a Cadillac Escalade with a snowplow front, weaving amongst the abandoned vehicles on some interstate like the Grim Reaper in an SUV. But it is the tell-tale sign of the Number 3, crudely painted on the door (and repeated later on a HumVee) which signals, to the cogniscienti, that he is a follower of the cult of the king of the stock car racers, the late Dale Earnhart—“The Intimidator”. Even though the nerd-protagonist, Columbus, is the narrator (with his “rules” that float upon the screen whenever in a situation of possible danger arises), it is Tallahassee who gives the story its organizing principle. So then, firmly grounded in a kind of redneck defiance of conventions and a love of arbitrary violence (like choosing to off the flesh-eaters by banjo, bat, shears and even, unnecessarily, an open car door), what follows allows for the gallow’s humor to take over what has been a staple of sheer terror-mongering ever since “Night of The Living Dead” in 1966. Black comedy is usually limited to drawing room plays, like “The Truth About Harry” (Hitchcock’s only foray into the genre) or “Arsenic and Old Lace” or such, wherein death is treated more as a guest who has overstayed his welcome. Not to give anything away (as if it matters) but it is such that, on their cross country peregrination that they stop in Beverly Hills to pay homage to a great star by visiting his mansion. That star is Bill Murray playing himself. And playing himself playing a zombie—with stage make-up (“I like to blend in...just corn starch, a little berries, some licorice for the ladies…”) to make himself look like a zombie because, “it suits my lifestyle. I like to get out and do stuff...” With zombies. Right. And that he could also die a comic death only underscores the levity.

Nothing could be further from this than sitting in the theater for “The Road”. The apocalypse that this is post- is never specifically ID’ed. In an interview, McCarthy has speculated that it sounds like, to friends of his in a high-level think-tank study group he hangs out with, a possible result of meteor showers. This is what gives an unrelieved gray cast to everything: dun brown, ashen, an eternal twilight. The unnamed man and his boy are on a journey to “the coast” and “south” in hopes of finding someplace not completely dead. The Grim Reaper here is completely grim, and made worse by the few remaining member of our species who have, in order to survive, descended into cannibalism. This is the end we fear the most, and with good reason; to be thought of as nothing more than meat? And by beings that are capable of that thought? And who we may regard as the same as well? It not only boggles the mind, it destroys it. The terror then is amplified by the knowledge that every encounter with others is a competition for food and that other threat as well, but also that the focus of the story is a father trying to save a young son, one who has never known another world than this, and thus must always be viewed through the eyes of innocence. This amps it into another zone: no threat is greater; no stakes greater. Even the few moments of tenderness or humanity are then tinged with fear as well, never knowing when this basic economic necessity may crop up.

To round it out, thrill-rides are well known by now to sell popcorn in buckets and sodas in gallon-cups. There is little else we can expect, or even should. But there are a few which have, at least, some semblance of scientific reality about them, conforming physical laws, and offering more than cardboard cut-outs for CGI to play out around. This isn’t, exactly, the worst one I’ve ever seen. But its close. The first 40 minutes are the introduction of primary and secondary characters (most of the latter killed off for effect, as you guessed from the moment they entered the picture), then comes the carnage, as advertised. Cusak is the divorced father who has written a rather unsuccessful sci-fi novel (which sold 400 copies and sounds like that was a stretch) and becomes privy to the auguries on a camping trip with his adorable children in Yellowstone. This is where he meets Woody. Introduced as a wild-eyed, pickle-munching prophet of doom, this sets him up as a cross between Art Bell (the famed overnight UFO-ologist/conspiracy theory talk radio legend) and one of the Black Israelites who quote scripture over bullhorns in Times Square. Being off his rocker but only just, he is also privy to the secret information of “the End” AND the governmental conspiracy to save a few remnants of the species from it. You are not supposed to ask any more questions, ok? Not, why do the cell phones work when there are no more repeater towers? Not, oh—so the survival is going to begin in Africa after the plates stop shifting….and there’s going to be no dust cloud from all those volcanoes spewing earth and dust into the atmosphere? Not, why is CNN covering quakes in South America when California has just slid into the Pacific? Not, how much product placement can you feature in a catastrophe before people begin to associate your brand with a disaster? Any more examination would do a disservice to logic. Suffice it to say, the last 30 minutes…well, the black guy sitting across the aisle from me summed it up well, during one impassioned speech, muttering, under his breath “oh niggah, pleeze…”


But one more thing. The volume levels for the pre-show commercials--just way way to bury the needle in the red. And the selection? One for the National Guard to that Carl Orff "O Fortuna"-type over-the-top exhorted-chorus to jump cuts of uniforms in Power Ranger stances, all re-enforcing the holy warrior subliminal message (or maybe it was also those "Avatar" previews). The one for this Glenn Beck X-mas story so indescribable I really don't want to recall it. (But who would go to this thing? In Manhattan? I fail to see the market.) Gad. When did someone get the brilliant idea that you could sell things to a captive audience and it wouldn't actually alienate them from your product? It makes TCM feel like paradise.

(Move it along.)

Point is, this is IT, folks. Nada. Zip City. The Big Zero at the end of the Zeros. The Last Gas For...(nah, I can't stretch it that far.) Outside of "2012", none of them really reference The Rapture and the whole Book of Revelations just blends into backstory. There is no "On The Beach" civility or "going to meet your maker" jazz, nor bitter, rueful irony. The only values that anyone possesses, common in all three, are that we really do treasure our links to each other. "What a piece of work is man," said the Bard, and he's still got the goods on us. Sure, he was speaking from an ethnocentric viewpoint of Anglo-European domination of international commerce and geo-political territorial possessions, but it wasn't wrong then or now. This is what endures. And yeah, all three use family as a focus for this, which in one is an iron compact with Life, in another pretty cheap; and in the last another plot device. Still, what need for morals or faith or social behavior? Really? Yes, I would prefer the Man and his Boy of "The Road" because they are real...but in reality, I don't think I'd be around long in that story. And the Epicalypse? Hey, I've never won Lotto, what's the likelihood I'll get a plane in the nick of time? But why am I looking for myself in these final curtains? It actually goes all the way back to Tom Lehrer's "We Will All Go Together When We Go" and Bob Dylan's "Talkin' World War Three Blues". When I heard them, something about my youthful paranoia and gloom seemed to dissipate in these cheery threodenies. And what did Tom hook me with? "And we will all go together when we go/What a comforting fact that is to know/Universal bereavement, An inspiring achievement/Yes, we all will go together when we go." And Bob? "Nowadays it seems/everybody's havin' these dreams/...I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

See? I gotta let it go. If there's nothing more to live for, and I discount kinship systems of any kind, then you might as well laugh your head off. So, the only one of the three I'd consider watching a second time is "Zombieland". It may start on "The Road" but it ends up in an amusement park, and if I gotta go, it might as well be from a busted gut.


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