Nightmare on Elm Street 2

•October 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

As part of this year’s October screenings, I decided to focus on “2s” in the horror film genre. For many reasons, sequels carry the weight of inferiority, a sense of unworthiness. Even if I’m seen some of these “2s” before, I decided to revisit them and approach them from the ABC method introduced by film studies scholar, Robert Ray, that is rooted in the philosophical work of Wittgenstein, amongst others, that challenges us to consider the “particular”– or that odd detail that might reveal a new way of seeing the film.

In any case, I’m sure I’ll get better at this the more I do it. “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” suffered the franchise disease as New Line producer Robert Shaye hoped to develop Freddy into a tentpole endeavor. It worked. Elm Street 2, while not received as well as others in the anthology, established Freddy as a commercial icon.

Craven apparently did not like many aspects of the script. Despite making some suggestions, Shaye and others involved in Elm Street 2 did not adhere to them. The film has an odd feel to it overall, as if you can overtly tell Craven is missing and his style elusive from the film’s engine. Freddy spends more time in our reality, which likewise makes the film odd. In addition, our protagonist is male this time which generates a different dynamic between Freddy and primary victim. The gender issues here render the film less effective in building any sense of tension, unless you read it through a queer lens, which is a solid interpretation.

P: Parrot- the strangest sequence in the film to me is the parrot attack scene. It comes out of nowhere. It plays as utterly humorous. The family parrots escape their cage whilst the family sits in the living room one evening. They fly around and swoop down for pecking attacks. The father attempts to swing a broom at them to no avail. Eventually, the parrots simply explode and way too many feathers fall to the ground. The moment plays out like a group of middle schoolers trying to pay homage to Hitchcock’s “The Birds”- only with no budget, the kids could only afford to buy one parrot to establish the terror. What purpose does this scene serve? Was a piece of Freddy’s soul inhabiting the green parrot in order to attack? This parrot moment to me is precisely what Ray wants us to reveal in the ABC method– trying to remove the “veil” without removing the “magic”– for some reason, the parrot sequence dominates my image and idea of Elm Street 2– the bird as the sequel idea itself, caged, and once unleashed, becomes laughable and explodes, unable to contain its own ridiculousness- but we watch regardless- it’s magic.

B: Bus- the overarching image- it both opens and closes the film. Freddy is driving the bus at the start and close. The bus becomes representative of the Freddy franchise itself, on a route and mission, stopping to let people off and on along the way- but with Freddy driving- it is a visual exertion of producer Shaye’s desire for how to end Elm Street 1, with Freddy driving that car, only Craven refused to do it. This time, however, the message is clear- this Freddy franchise trip has begun, he is in the driver’s seat- and he alone can make it go or stop. We’re all along for the ride or we can get off at any stop. It certainly seems to be what Craven himself played upon with New Nightmare- Freddy becoming so powerful he crosses over into our reality– the bus leads me to consider if New Nightmare would’ve or should’ve been Elm Street 2 all along. At least then we might’ve been spared Roseanne Barr from Elm St 6.

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Above: the bus from Elm Street 2– headed off the beaten path- into the desert

Philosophy and Film-2

•November 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In George Lucas’ dystopian science-fiction film “THX-1138,” the main character, THX (Robert Duvall) eventually finds his way out of the sterile and sedated underground to discover the light/sun of what resides “above.”

 

I first came across Plato’s allegory of the cave when I was an undergraduate student. It was assigned reading in those days. I’m not sure if introductory philosophy students still have to read Plato’s “The Republic” or not but I have hope it remains assigned reading. That being said, its impact upon me at age 19 was, well, minimal. I didn’t get it. I’m proud to say in my elder years, ahem, I’ve come to appreciate it’s meaning a bit more.

Plato’s allegory comes embedded within a larger discussion of truth and knowledge as he pleas for his ideal philosopher king.

Imagine: you are shackled in chains all your life. You are inside a dark cave. The only light comes from a fire. Your head is fixed within these restraints and forced to look forward. There are others in the cave that move amongst it carrying objects and things. The shadows of their movements are all that is broadcast upon the wall for you. It is all you have ever known. These shadows, reflections are all you and your fellow shackled brethren have discussed.

Now, once you are released from these chains, you are allowed to wander around the cave. The fire blinds you at first, but gradually you begin to identify the shadows for what they are: an illusion. Eventually, you make your way into the fullness of light, the Sun, for the true nature of being and understanding– reality in its unshackled grandeur.

The chained people, for Plato, represent ordinary people, who are unaware of living in a shadowy world of conjecture and illusions. The cave is the realm of becoming; the freed prisoner enters the world of being, where knowledge resides. it is stable and unchanging.

Plato is playing with the notion of form: everything inside the cave is the empirical world– something that is not reliable. An apple is sometimes red, but also green; a tall person looks short next to a tree– nothing in this world consists of pure knowledge.

For Plato, there must be another realm, one of perfection. There exists, for him, a hierarchy of forms with the Sun representing the Form of the Good. Metaphysical for sure, but the nutshell for Plato: Earthly knowledge is but a shadow.

The problem of universals is a true root weed in philosophy. Does redness exist outside of things red and tall? Or are they mere names to associate similar characteristics between things? The Realists cause lots of debates in this arena.

So there is, for the realist, knowledge that is “out there” in the world and it exists independently of our knowing it. Opposed to this would be an anti-realist that claims there is a necessary link between what is known and our knowledge/understanding of it.

Plato’s influence on culture and art, and ultimately, cinema remains vast and impossible to cover in one simple blog post. But it’s an idea worth documenting and exploring.

THX-1138 comes to mind instinctively because of its connection to a world in which its inhabitants live muted. They cannot feel emotion or see color. Their world is one of illusion and sedation; it is not until THX insists there is something else out there and escapes to find it– does he find truth. The final shot of that film is what I feel the most representative of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Other examples are rampant: the work of CS Lewis or even the more recent film, “Pleasantville” (1998, Ross), in which the characters of a television, sitcom town discover color and realize their previous world of knowledge and understanding– its values, beliefs, and behaviors were but illusions to a larger world of color and truth…and ultimately, possibilities.

 

 

Philosophy and Film 1

•November 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

So, imagine that your brain has been secretly removed from your body. Someone crept into your room late at night, disconnected it, but was able to attach its nerve endings to a gigantic computer networked system that kept it functional. Everything around you is operating normally when you “awake”: you see people, experience events, even have sensory capabilities. The only problem is all of these things are happening merely through electrical impulses generated by the computer. Is this science-fiction or something else?

Is this possible? Sound ridiculous? Well, let’s assume momentarily that it is possible– how would you know for certain it were false? How do you discount such a possibility when someone could argue: “well, you wouldn’t know for sure because the computer is manipulating your electrical impulses, hence, your thoughts.”

The origin of this story stems from philosophy. In his 1641, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” Descartes conjured up a horror story about an evil demon, a “malin genie:”

“I shall suppose…that some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, air, earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.”

This passage illustrates Descartes push for a method of doubt, particularly when relying on our sensory perceptions. Dreams, in particular, were troubling for him, as they only created more confusion regarding the certainty of any kind of human knowledge.

In 1981, Henry Putnam elaborated further on this doubt or skepticism by suggesting the “brain in the vat” concept (akin to the sci-fi story suggested above) in his book “Reason, Truth, and History:”

“The computer is so clever that it can even seem to the victim that he is sitting and reading these very words about the amusing but quite absurd supposition that there is an evil scientist who removes people’s brains from their bodies and places them in a vat of nutrients.”

The general point: the root basis for skepticism in human knowledge and understanding. The skeptic in philosophy questions our right to make any claims about anything. Now this is to to suggest that the philosophical skeptic claims we know nothing, for at the very least, this would be self-defeating: one thing we could not know is that we know nothing. The skeptic says, we think we have  right to make claims but how can we back those up? Our understanding of the world is mediated through our senses and those are unreliable– a bag full of trickery. This leads to extreme positions of skepticism, such as evil genies or brains in vats. Determining what we know and how we know it is the realm of epistemology and a response against levels of skepticism.

How do we see this played out in film? Most notably in science-fiction: particularly and likely the most popular example of late would be “The Matrix” films. But, of course, this skeptical fear also wreaks of massive levels of potential paranoia which of course, led to concepts like communism and the Red Scare, amongst others. The idea of “not knowing” anything stable: from identity to perceiving one’s immediate surroundings is an oft repeated narrative conceit in film. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is perhaps the most seminal film to explore these themes to their paranoid extreme.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that, the cinema, as both an apparatus and social practice, operates as a manipulated and simulated dream state of being that we choose to enter. The very essence of moving pictures, the phi phenomenon effect, is predicated on our eye’s ability to simulate movement in frames when there really is none there. So, it is an artifice as well, that “heightens or suspends our level of disbelief” in order to play upon on sensory and emotional reactions. I guess the only difference is, we know we’ve entered a theatre…or do we?

For more info, you can click on this video which explains in more detail what I’ve hinted at here.

High and low: the answer may be as clear as Knight and Day

•June 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

As the summer movie season is in full swing, I find myself bummed that I’m so broke. There are lots of movies that are roaming around towns and screens, not to mention the wider release blockbusters, that ignite my passionate movie soul. The summer movie season is always that controversial period between commerce and art, as critics and audiences clash over what has value– it’s one of the finest displays of the on-going battle between high and low culture.
I’ll start with the commercial end. I came across Mark Harris’ article noting the current decline in revenue this summer. And yes, of course, I’m sure that certain executives might be sweating it out. It is interesting to note, however, that Harris’ main argument is comparing this summer to last summer, when there were multiple Best Picture nominees playing. This summer, however, is one in which not a single film has exceeded expectations or surprised anyone with its charm such as last year’s The Hangover. Of this summer’s big releases: Ironman 2, Sex and the City 2, Shrek 4, The Prince of Persia, and Robin Hood, Harris makes a scathing and accurate commentary: “The kindest thing you can say about these movies is that they were creatively unnecessary; not one of them exists because the people behind them believed that they had a great story to tell.” So, on one side of the issue there is the aged argument of substance versus fluff, or high and low culture, crashing again. I am inclined to side with Harris on certain subpoints: mostly that, I need a story. It can be any genre, really, but I do need one. I’m still trying to figure out what the plot was during last year’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which I got dragged into seeing thanks to my sprite 8-yr old son. But– that being said, I return again to my question: during the summer season, what should I really expect– both fluff and substance? Can the two co-exist? Can I have a good story and Jake Gyllenhal’s abs? I think there’s room for both too. I look forward to seeing Christopher Nolan’s Inception— it’s been targeted on my summer watch list for some time now. And I have yet to see Toy Story 3 which is being heralded as the creative and narrative savior in the mix of summer fluff. And I passed on the re-boots of The Karate Kid and The A-Team; and maybe I shouldn’t have, but as a zealot for the purity of 80s culture, I felt like I had to draw a line in the sand. It’s becoming increasingly dizzying to see my youth culture re-mixed before me. And yet, I applaud the mash-up culture, so it’s a tension I’m working through and it’s certainly one that will not stop anytime soon. So, it’s too soon to tell whether this summer is a total bust: sure, the first act was lame, but there are two more to go.

Perhaps a more fascinating aspect of something going on in the cinema right now is the struggle to establish a “bankable” star again. Of particular interest was this past weekend, with the opening of Grown Ups and Knight and Day. Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise are two former “bankable” stars that have respectable records of performing the feat; however, they both crashed and burned. Forget Sandler for a moment and let me comment on something else: I’m not ready to give up on Knight and Day yet. Although it received harsh critical response, exit audiences are lapping it up claiming it’s better than they expected. Writing in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott’s article on the action genre alludes to an interesting point:

“…what do you make of such spectacles? Action — as a genre, and also as a source of sensation — has, at best, a mixed critical reputation. It is often dismissed as mindless, stupid or empty, which is not always wrong but often beside the point. Action fans may crave the rush of noise, speed and hectic incident, but their appreciation is not necessarily indiscriminate. And from a director’s perspective the conception and execution of a good action sequence is among the most painstaking and complicated parts of the job. It isn’t that story, character and emotion take care of themselves, exactly. But coordinating vehicles, bodies, weapons and whatever else happens to be handy (monsters, buildings, livestock, shipping containers, kitchen utensils) into a controlled and coherent episode of chaos is a notably demanding kind of work. How do you do something that hasn’t quite been done before, and how do you make it work, so that the audience is thrilled, surprised and entertained? These are, to some degree, technical questions having to do with camera placement, editing rhythm and timing. They are also financial matters, since nothing ever crashes or blows up free. And, perhaps more than anything else, it is the pursuit of more, bigger and better action effects that has driven Hollywood’s frenetic, headlong, exhausting history of innovation.”

But later, Scott dismisses the “demanding work” when addressing the influx of CGI into Hollywood. Now, to me, this is a complete oversight on his part: is he claiming that the work done by special and visual effects artists aren’t as demanding? Has he ever worked with compositing shots or anything else in After Effects? To claim, as he does, that they “just don’t make them like they used to” misses a key point: of course they don’t because they don’t have to. And this allows for greater imagination from a director or writer: if story remains central. So I come back to Knight and Day. I’m intrigued by this movie for two reasons: one, we are witnessing the first sincere attempt to re-invent Tom Cruise within public culture. He has embraced his past scars by openly talking about the Oprah couch moment, Katie, and his process of choosing a script. Yes, we are witnessing the remobilization of Tom Cruise. And I’m fascinated by how this process will play out. Yes, I think Cruise is a douche in certain ways. Yes, I think he’s done some flops and duds. Yes, there is something a little strange about him (hello, scientology). That being said, hey, the guy’s done some great films (hello, Born on the Fourth of July, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, The Firm, A Few Good Men). So, I’m rooting for him. I’d like to see Cruise back and having fun, embracing a little of his shaky, off-kilter image and this looks like what he is doing in Knight and Day. And second: I think A.O. Scott and other critics may be missing the point and I’ll elaborate on this more when I see the film, but it looks to me like Knight and Day is really a screwball comedy which could be lampooning the entire invasion of CGI effects as well.

Still listening.