It's only a movie

There's an interesting dialogue about a horror film posted by Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert on his Web site. He recently reviewed a low budget NC-17-rated horror film called Chaos (2005), a brutal murder/rape film in the vein of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) that thrives on unapologetic nihilism and violence without moral context or other connecting tissue that would raise it above the level of bold, unadulterated exploitation. (The film's intentional link to Last House is clear; Chaos's working title, according to the IMDb, was The House in the Middle of Nowhere, and its poster recycles Last House's marketing tagline of "It's only a movie ... it's only a movie ...")

Ebert gave Chaos a rare zero-star review, calling it:
"... ugly, nihilistic, and cruel -- a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's 'only' a horror film, or a slasher film. It is an exercise in heartless cruelty and it ends with careless brutality. The movie denies not only the value of life, but the possibility of hope."
Chaos's producer and director responded to Ebert's review in a full page Sun-Times letter that reportedly cost $14,000 to place -- not an insignificant amount of cash for a film with such sparse distribution -- to pat themselves on the back for not sanitizing and moralizing the film's violence like the media and PG-13-rated horror films:
"Natalie Holloway. Kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq shown on the Internet. Wives blasting jail guards with shotguns to free their husbands. The confessions of the BTK killer. These are events of the last few months. How else should filmmakers address this 'ugly, nihilistic and cruel' reality -- other than with scenes that are 'ugly, nihilistic and cruel,' to use the words you used to describe Chaos."
Ebert published a full page response himself, which is duplicated on his Web site along with the original letter from the Chaos filmmakers. It's an interesting response that looks at his personal expectations for horror films and implies a certain (artistic?) responsibility for filmmakers to provide viewers with more context than strictly just an "evil reigns and will triumph" message. (Ebert notes that he gave Last House on the Left a four-star review because it was "a way of dealing with tragedy, human loss, and human nature.") Most interesting is Ebert's final paragraph:
"Animals do not know they are going to die, and require no way to deal with that implacable fact. Humans, who know we will die, have been given the consolations of art, myth, hope, science, religion, philosophy, and even denial, even movies, to help us reconcile with that final fact. What I object to most of all in Chaos is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever.

Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender."
Those are heavy words, and heavy responsibilities, for filmmakers that I'm not sure I entirely agree with but find thought-provoking in that they make me consider my own relationship with, and love for, horror films. Yes, I love them and always have, but my relationship with them has definitely become more complicated over the years.

Whereas I rabidly soaked up every gory '80s slasher film I could as a teenager, I've grown to despise horror that's pure exploitation or an exercise in violence fetishism, a fine (and extremely subjective) line in many horror films. Unlike Roger Ebert, I hated Last House on the Left for its absurd extremism and exploitive violence. I also hated French filmmaker Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), a cynical rape/revenge film that caustically (and falsely) comments on love and human nature while showcasing an exploitive real-time rape sequence that betrays its artistic pretext with a stylized camera zoom into the victim's face after the camera remained distant and mostly immobile for the entire sequence.

But I adore French filmmaker Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001), a bloody, graphic film with unclear motives on the surface that personally resonated with me as an emotional representation of the pain of infidelity and loss. And the brutally violent and shockingly realistic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is one of my all-time favorite films for its skilled implication of the viewer's bloodlust and a twisted moral universe that's righteously turned on its head by the end of the film.

By Ebert's logic, all four films should have at least a base level of redeeming value, but I reject two for similar reasons that he rejects Chaos. Which goes to show you that one man's Chaos is another man's Last House on the Left.


Kenny Glanaan & other Brit directors

Totally agree with you there Tim - Yasmin is moving, powerful and impeccably made. Funnily enough I had the chance to meet up with Kenny Glanaan, the film's director, at last year's Cornwall Film Festival, where Yasmin was shown. He was a warm and tremendously engaging young director, full of passion for his medium and totally committed to experimenting with film. His way of working is very loose, unstructured and free-flowing - like many of Britain's best directors, he's entirely happy to go into rehearsals with only the barest bones of an idea and let the story take its course. Mike Leigh was one of the other keynote speakers at last year's Cornwall Film Fest - and to hear his stories of what it takes to get a film made is enough to make a grown man weep.

Apparently his ideal project would be to go into an inner-city housing estate and just shoot what happens...tough to get the funders excited on that one, maybe, but still tremendously refreshing to hear. There's an undercurrent of exciting directors and writers in Britain right now - but how is it they never seem to get the credit or the support they deserve? How can a filmmaker as brilliant as Shane Meadows still be struggling to get his stuff made? Why don't the British public go an see his films? They're funny, smart, moving, and brilliantly directed - Dead Man's Shoes has more ideas and a higher standard of performance than ANYTHING that came out of Hollywood in the last 12 months - and yet hardly anyone went out to see it. In France or Germany, he'd be hailed as a genius. In Britain, somehow, people are still saying "Shane who?"


One of the simplest pleasures in life has to be, after a hard days work, collapsing into an armchair (or bean bag in my case) with a bottle of red wine and happening across a late night film on telly. More often than not these films appear on Channel 4, as was the case last night. I was actually hoping that the cricket highlights might be on, but instead there was an English film called Yasmin. And throughout the film I couldn’t help but be bemused that I hadn’t heard of it before, it wasn’t heralded as award-winning and, with the intensely relevant subject matter, it simply appeared somewhat modestly and covertly in the TV listings.

Focusing on a young Muslim woman in a small town in the north of England living in an arranged marriage, attempting to enjoy a westernised lifestyle with her workmates while keeping her disillusioned brother away from the reaches of extremists… it could well have been heavy-handed, preachy, overtly political, but it was refreshingly subtle. Not that it was without it’s problems. Her immediate alienation from her workmates after 9/11 (a central turning point in the film and, it’s fair to say, in the race relations of modern Britain) and overt bullying, didn’t quite ring true to me. I lived in Sheffield at the time in multi-cultural areas, and never felt or witnessed such overt changes. But what do I know.

It was moving and educational – perhaps all of the best films are – but a depressing watch. At turns I felt anger at the British police, government, tolerance of racism, and also at the Muslim community depicted. Blame isn’t really laid at anyone’s door, rather everyone’s and no ones. When her brother leaves to fight in Afghanistan, it made me feel intensely angry – not at him but at the situation that brought it about. His actions, as they were portrayed, were entirely understandable. The elderly father’s devastation at his son’s leaving, and his inability to understand the new world around him, brought me close to tears. But most of my wine had mysteriously gone at this point. And as the credits rolled a chirpy presenter came on and told me it was time for Big Brother. Oh boy, I thought, back to reality.


Twentynine Palms

As Bruno Dumont's latest opened in London recently, I was just wondering what people reckon to it? I've had the French DVD for quite a while, and think it's a really worthwhile film. I can't say it's anyway near as good as either of Dumont's previous movies (L'humanité & La vie de Jesus), but it still kept me hooked for its duration. The last reel was pretty hard to take (even on the small screen), and this stretch (where, let us be honest, the only real action takes place) stayed with me for a long time after viewing.
Any other thoughts on this movie? It's a pity it has been given such a limited UK release (no doubt just a platform for the DVD), but it's worth seeing just to decide for yourself...



Sally Potter's new film, Yes, comes out this Friday (5 Aug.). Set in London, the film is about the romance between an American scientist (called 'she') and a Lebanese doctor working as a cook in London (called 'he') who after a while of afternoon casual sex, starts to resent the power relationship between She and He. I thought the film was a missed opportunity to discuss the contemporary rift between the West and the MiddleEast: it's all very cliched and superficial, if very nicely packaged. I was wondering if anyone had a different opinion on this one.... (Antonio)


Summer Movies and Guilty Pleasures

Growing up in Holland in the Seventies, I kept hearing the Lovin' Spoonful's Summer in the City, but now I'm fortunate enough to experience New York's humid asphalt first-hand.

Air conditioning helps, but I can also recommend this year's summer movies - some of which have infantile plotlines, but also slyly intelligent actors beefing up the films. I have thoroughly enjoyed Wedding Crashers, already out in the UK, and 40 Year-Old Virgin, which is released in the UK later this month.

It's a delight to see Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson riff off each other; apparently they rewrote the whole script together. They get the wedding crashing concept out of the way pretty quickly so they can get in really big trouble: real love. 40 Year-Old Virgin is also about older American guys trying to get laid, and like Wedding Crashers, the mission in question is a belly-laughing pleasure to watch. The film is funny and bubbly, thanks to the smart script and actors Paul Rudd and 'newcomer' Steve Carrell, (a deadringer for Owen's brother Luke).

In both cases, the theatres were completely full with people munching popcorn and laughing their heads off. In short they are the ideal summer movies, true mental palate cleansers. Oh yeah. Watch out for Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo, . It'll be slightly more crass than the other ones, but any film shot in my native Amsterdam that has a midget flying out of a window into a canal has my vote.

Does anyone else have any guilty summer pleasures? Please comment below.