“Beware of the Cyclops”: An Analysis of Race in Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (video essay)

In this video essay, I look at Damon Lindelof’s 2019 HBO series Watchmen, particularly episodes 1 and 6 and the way that the series remixes the original graphic novel to talk about race in America. I discuss the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and the character Hooded Justice. I also provide a close reading of episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being.”

Disclaimer: This video is for educational purposes only.

Beware of the Cyclops” Video Essay

[Note: If you are viewing the video on a computer, ensure you set the video to 1080p in the Quality Settings to view the video as intended]

113 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2020)

This post is an update from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013).

In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 8-10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her … although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, they are purgative and cathartic to watch. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.

I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representation have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.

All humans experience fear and nightmare. The horror genre was born out of a cultural need to confront and vicariously conquer something frightening that we do not fully comprehend. We will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Here’s a list of some of my favourite horror films—although the list is hardly exhaustive and it is always evolving—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I use Psycho as a turning point for modern horror as it set a new level (especially in American cinema) for the acceptability of violence, sex, and deviance. 60 years later and we’ve nearly seen it all. A pre-1960s horror list is a task for another day. And, of course, this list is just my opinion; ultimately, I focus on the horror films that have stayed with me the most. Enjoy these cinematic nightmares! 

Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list? 


113 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2020)

113. Dr. Sleep (2019): I was surprised by how good this film was. Sure, it has its flaws, but it is a near impossible task to follow The Shining. 

Film Review - Doctor Sleep

112. Mandy (2018): Gonzo and blood-soaked madness featuring an inspired performance from the one and only, Nic Cage. 

738a35606d5b5b8181d8e3ef11853b04af-26-mandy-nick-cage.rsocial.w1200

111. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.

we_are_still_here_still

110. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.

screen-shot-2015-10-19-at-23-22-31

109. Army of Darkness (1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.

Army-of-Darkness

108. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.

cropped-the-dead-zone-christopher-walken

107. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): Not quite as good, but certainly as much fun, as the first installation!

Evil-Dead-II-2

106. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.

fright-night-featured-pic

105. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.

MV5BMDZhYTJiMTctODdhMC00NjllLWFjNzMtMmI3MjViMmQ4OWE4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_

104. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.

large-screenshot2

103. Scanners (1981): An older sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals

Scanners-Head-Explosion-Chair

102.10 Cloverfield Lane (2016):Of the Cloverfield franchise films, this is the one I enjoyed the most. It utilizes its confined setting to great effect and the acting is quite outstanding.

76K55J4ADNBUHGPLZ56LPPJGGQ

101. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.

iZ4wHMpxZiKf0k41JeYwDJcrcVr

100. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.

image-1

99. The Devil’s Backbone (2001): A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.

image

98. High Tension/ Haute tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.

High-Tension-e1563297615257

97. Host (2020): The first quarantine horror film that takes place entirely over Zoom, Host is scarier than you’d think. Given I teach on Zoom these days, this film gave me real anxiety.

host 

96. A Quiet Place (2018): If you would have told me back in 2013 when I first started this list that I would include a post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film directed and starting John Krasinski I would have laughed at you, but here we are. 

5ac4d6b37a74af1c008b4604

95. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.

we-are-what-we-are

94. Don’t Breathe (2016): This intense film from Fede Álvarez is well written, acted, and it maintains its tense atmosphere throughout. 

Dont-Breathe-2016

93. Pontypool (2009): A fantastic Canadian psychological thriller in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town. Pontypool is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.

v1.bjs5MTY2MztqOzE4NTg2OzEyMDA7MjAwMDsxNTAw

92. Shaun of the Dead (2004):Who says the zombie apocalypse can’t be funny? Shaun of the Dead has earned its status as a bonafide cult classic. 

MCDSHOF_EC025

91. Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.

maxresdefault

90. The Invitation (2015): This tension-rich and slow-building thriller from Karyn Kusama is confident and adds something new to the “dinner party from hell” subgenre. 

the-invitation-dinner

89. Requiem for a Dream (2000): If one of the main components of the horror genre is to elicit fear in the audience, then Requiem for a Dream is truly a horror film. Rather than talking to my kids about drug addiction when they’re teenagers, I plan to have them watch this. And then we can have the talk … about how crazy this film is.

Requiem-for-a-Dream-Banner

88. The Lighthouse (2019): Between this and The VVitch, Robert Eggers is on a role. This visually stunning black-and-white film takes place in a lighthouse (filmed in Nova Scotia) and loosely adapts a Poe story to great effect. The performances from the leads as lighthouse keepers—Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson-—is also a masterclass in acting. 

lighthouse-2

87. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror

the-conjuring-vera-farmiga1

86. Hush (2016): Michael Flanagan proved he is a formidable talent in the horror genre with his followup to Oculus. Hush provides an original take on the slasher and home invasion thriller. 

3a95a4b736a3055105277ad88f3a34a7ba039e7d-e1486503596607-750x375

85. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.

Henry1

84. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.

The Little Girl that Lives Down the Lane 1

83. Calibre (2018): A twisted film that takes an unexpected turn. I caught this one on Netflix and was surprised by how good it was. 

Calibre-McCann-and-Lowden

82. The Host (2006): This excellent monster feature from Bong Joon-ho (Okja and Parasite) is full of scares, humour, and astute political commentary.  

THE-HOST-2

81. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

Misery_1990-Paul-Anne-1200x628

80. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film (1997) with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? Is Haneke successful in turning the camera back at us? You decide. 

FunnyGames

79. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?

red-white-and-blue-film-b6239a1d-6a9a-4a0d-9bbc-033b6be11db-resize-750

78. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.

unnamed-3

77. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.

The-Descent-e1576856885477

76. Inside/ À l’Intérieur (2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.

Inside-Beatrice-Dalle

75. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WWII. You probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.

Salo2

74. Suspiria (2018): While Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria was certainly polarizing, I appreciated how daring and original it felt. The soundtrack from Thom Yorke is also excellent.

Suspiria

73. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.

intro-1574115283

72. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.

unnamed-4

71. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.

D6BZOB5DRZB4FOHNQLTYNVBGRY

70. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night(1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.

black-christmas-olivia-hussey

69. Under the Skin (2013): With feet firmly in both the sci-fi and horror genre, Under the Skin offers a fresh take on both genres while taking the audience to strange new places. Also recommended in a similar vein: Annihilation (2018). 

under_the_skin_grab03

68. Carnival of Souls (1962): The surreal and dreamlike imagery in this film was a major influence on David Lynch and it is easy to see why. An example of effective storytelling that proves once again that less can often be more.  

carnival_of_souls_main

67. Jaws (1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day. Da-Dum:It’s incredible that two simple notes can inspire so much terror. Check out the impressive new 4K restoration of the film. 

jaws-poster

66. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.

28days_01-feature

65. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Oldboy (2003); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.

oldboy

64. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

MV5BYjhmODNiZjYtYWUyMy00Nzc1LWFmOGYtMjgyNTlkNTZiYWY1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQ3MjAzNTM@._V1_

63. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.

Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.

Carrie-Featured

62. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.

gettyimages-2411955

61. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.

american-werewolf-in-london-an-1981-004-wolf-groan

60. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.

1*rL2bo_nGDwJeB6khL27HtQ

59. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.

image-2

58. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.

Eden-Lake-Steve-e1561470561256

57. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films in the last five years, and this one by duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.

original-2

56. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.

wickerman

55. Videodrome (1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.

Videodrome-1024x5771

54. Ringu (1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.

Ring-Pic-1

53. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.

cabin_in_the_woods

52. Re-Animator (1985): Stuart Gordon’s take on a H.P Lovecraft story is full of blood and gore and is a perfect mix of humour and horror.

oi39dd5OxWkFADMpklXzKeTo1WA

51. Pulse (2001): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.

pulse-kairo

50. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

TheInnocents-750x400

49. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.

itfollowsjay.0.0

48. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.

Drag_Me_To_Hell-879756263-large

47. The Babadook (2014): Jennifer Kent’s film relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion. Her latest film, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people.

resizer.php

46. The Brood (1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.

the-brood-1979

45. Revenge (2017): With a feminist edge, Coralie Fargeat infuses new life into the exploitation revenge flick.

_aeafa5f4-67c9-11e8-8b70-a9b23b84985b.PNG

44. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.

what-we-do-in-the-shadows-2014

43. Train to Busan (2016): Entertaining South Korean Zombie apocalypse film that takes place mostly on a train. This one is lots of fun!

train-to-busan-2

42. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.

18halloween1978-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600-v2

41. You’re Next (2013): This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.

yourenext

40. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.

80167547aef561791ecd714ee8606382_700x259

39. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): While host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?

0*7oBp-6n_eY2mtbEK

38. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.

rosemarys-baby-0618-ss08

37. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): This South Korean psychological horror drama film written and directed by Kim Jee-woo is intricately structured and full of enough twists to reward multiple viewings. 

tale-of-two-sisters-century-main

36. Let the Right One In (2008): This film reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.

EB20081111REVIEWS811129995AR

35. Eyes Without a Face (1960): This 1960 French film is both beautifully poetic and deeply disturbing, often within the same frame. While there’s not much in terms of character development, this film provides an interesting take on the mad-doctor saga and the heterografting scene still disturbs. 

eyes-without-a-face

34. Us (2019): Jordan Peele has opened up the horror genre to show how America’s racism continues to haunt the present. Us expands on some of the themes in Peele’s debut film, Get Out, and critiques the interconnected territories of race and class. Moreover, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is a thing of wonder. It’s also a genuinely creepy film and while some critics had a hard time classifying Get Out, this is a full-on horror film.

b5dc2fd31a225d2944b83f39053fcc2820-11-us-trailer-jordan-peele.rhorizontal.w700

33. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.

mulhollandblurry_0

32. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish.

Antichrist2

31. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.

repulsion

30. American Psycho (2000): This violent and sharp satire from co-writer and director Mary Harron exposes the shallow nature of American culture. It is also nearly impossible to imagine any actor playing Patrick Bateman other than Christian Bale. 

ea9f633a2d5df9423f348678f010a110d7-american-psycho.2x.rsocial.w600

29Martyrs (2008): If you want to watch something utterly horrifying and violent (it is part of the French extremity movement), but also smart and daring, Martyrs might be the film for you. Even though I’ve only seen this film once close to when it was released, many of the images continue to haunt me.

185759_10150205860944012_3123445_n

28. [REC] (2007): One of my favourite zombie films and perhaps the best uses of POV found footage.

0_8aDLnf5iCnUi94d3

27. Kill List (2011): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.

MV5BZWYwNWIzZTAtMjBkZC00NjNmLWE4NjEtY2NjYWJkNDJlN2IzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjE1OTU4OTc@._V1_

26. Raw (2016): Another crazy French horror film (big surprise!). This one, directed and written by Julia Ducournau, provides something new to the cannibal horror genre, and it is very atmospheric and full of symbols that stay with you.  

filmgrade_grave-filmgrade-reel04-c011_0005139-e1568126667440

25. Blood Quantum (2019): An Indigenous zombie film from writer and director Jeff Barnaby. Barnaby’s “bare knuckle” approach to cinema is an important cinematic intervention (see his excellent Rhymes for Young Ghouls), and this zombie horror film feels all the more pertinent during COVID-19. 

90

24. The VVitch (2015): This directorial debut from Robert Eggers is visually compelling and unsettling as it shows that so much of the horror genre is about atmosphere.  

the-witch-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

23. Hausu (1977): This surreal Japanese horror flick is the stuff of legend. The script was influenced by the ideas of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter. He asked her what she found to be truly scary, which is why it is likely the only film where a piano eats someone!

v1.bjsxNjM5NTkxO2o7MTg2MDM7MTIwMDsxODIwOzEwMjQ

22. Come and See (1985): With a title that references the Book of Revelations, Elem Klimov’s Come and See is a harrowing and graphic anti-war film (about the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia). It is also surreal and poetic. I realize choosing an anti-war film opens up the discussion of horror, but the last 45 minutes of this film really do feel like you’ve descended into Hell.

5ef09ad285600a6a844f5361

21. Alien (1979): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. I watch this film every few years and it never gets old.

maxresdefault-2

20. I Saw the Devil (2010): You’ve likely noticed that I am a big fan of South Korean cinema and horror. If you are looking for something intense and full of action, I highly recommend this Korean film. The chilling performance from Choi Min-sik as a psychopathic serial killer is a sight to behold. 

3_t800

19. Hereditary (2018): Speaking of great performances, it is a blunder than Toni Collette was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hereditary. Most people reading through a horror list have likely seen Ari Aster’s debut film at this point, but if you haven’t you should get on that. Aside from Collette’s great performance, it is full of shocking twists and scares. 

original-3

18. Audition (1999): kiri, kiri. This Japanese psychological drama will stay with you, and nothing can prepare you for the shocking ending.  

Audition-Banner

17. Blue Velvet (1986): A surreal blend of psychological horror with film noir, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet still disturbs and perhaps tells us even more today about the horrors of small-town American life. 

Blue_Velvet

16. The Evil Dead (1981): Its careful mix of black comedy with supernatural horror made The Evil Dead an instant milestone in graphic horror.  

evil-dead

15. The Loved Ones (2009): This Australian film mixes horror and teen drama well and the ending is one of the best of any horror film. It gives new meaning to the challenges of going to prom. 

08a7e27c0f097cd6ccc0884b221fd615

14. Eraserhead (1977): Shockingly, or not, David Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. A surreal and experimental body horror about a man’s fear of being a father, the film is engrossing and disturbing. The creepy sound design for the film is also really incredible. 

Eraserhead-1108x0-c-default

13. The Exorcist (1973): Considered by many to be the scariest film of all time, Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a horror classic with some of the most blood-curdling scenes (the spider walk scene!) on celluloid.

THE-EXORCIST-1973 

12. The Wailing (2016): This lengthy South Korean horror gem has it all: Asian mythology, exorcisms, shamans, zombies, and the devil. It starts off as a comedy, but quickly turns quite dark.  

the-wailing-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000 

11. Midsommar (2019): While it is only his second film (after Hereditary), Ari Aster proved he is a true horror auteur with this one. I enjoyed this even more than Hereditary and although it is more unsettling than it is scary, the images are disturbing and the hallucinatory tone of the film lingers long after it’s over. 

90-2

10. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Some might disagree with having this rank so high, but I think it is David Lynch’s most pure horror film. It is also his most misunderstood and denigrated work. The film’s subject matter is not only difficult, but its narrative complexity can feel impenetrable at times. According to David Foster Wallace: “[Fire Walk with Me] sought to transform Laura Palmer from dramatic object to dramatic subject … Laura was no longer ‘an enigma’ or ‘the password to an inner sanctum of horror.’ She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.”

headerphoto1604211

9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western let alone one with a lonely chador-wearing feminist-vampire-vigilante on a skateboard who fights against the oppression of women. It’s also beautifully filmed and scored. 

a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-watching-videoSixteenByNineJumbo1600

8. Silence of the Lambs (1991): Both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster give incredible performances (in which they both won Oscars) in a film that legitimized horror in the eyes of the general public. As a psychological study and horror film, it has it all. However, I tend to agree with some of the criticisms of the film by the LGBTQ+ community around the portrayal of Buffalo Bill. 

SIlence-Lambs-image

7. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. The fear and paranoia of a mutant disease spreading while in isolation takes on new meaning in 2020. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.

thing

6. Deep Red/ Italian: Profondo Rosso (1975): Of all the Argento and giallo films I’ve seen, this one is the best. Even though I enjoy Suspiria slightly more for its abstraction and incredible cinematography, Deep Red is more compelling and complex and you can see its influence on later horror films and murder mysteries. The soundtrack by Goblin is also great. 

Deep-Red

5. Get Out (2017): Rarely does a film come out that changes the landscape of the conversation happening within a given genre, but Get Out manages to do that and more. American comedian and writer Jordan Peele recognized lacunas in the genre and crafted a film that uses the metaphor of the sunken place to address the pain of commodified black bodies in cinema/horror. It’s also a lot of fun to catch all the references to The Shining in the film. 

699e2c65f9c92ff77154a1b2909b3eaf6b-17-get-out-review.2x.h473.w710

4. Dead Ringers (1988): A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. One of Cronenberg’s most controlled and creepy films, Dead Ringers centres on twin-brother gynaecologists who share everything, including a patient, and despite their best efforts, cannot be severed from one another. The “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” are a haunting metaphor for male desire to control reproduction. I had a chance to see this at TIFF as part of David Cronenberg: Evolution, and before the screening Cronenberg discussed how Dead Ringers was a critical turning point in his career; after the screening, the first words Jeremy Irons spoke were, “That’s a pretty strange film.” Indeed. 

7b76e215ec553326c73bc63cede6d76b

3. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory horror is full of phantasmagoric style.  The soundtrack is incredible. While most horror stories take place in settings with isolated victims, Argento takes things one step further by placing his young protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), in a particularly creepy ballet academy located in rural Italy. The movie is violent, jarring, and also full of breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and vibrant colours. Goblin’s score is one of the best in all of horror. Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople.”

503550-anchor_bay_ent

2. Psycho (1960)There’s before Psycho and after Psycho. While it seems hard to believe, Psycho was the first film to show someone flushing a toilet. With that said, we can see why the famous shower sequence (consisting of 78 set ups and 52 cuts in 45 seconds) sent some people running out of the theatre. No longer were our private domestic spaces safe. Hitchcock imagined the shower scene without sound, but fortunately Bernard Herrmann convinced him otherwise as it is one of the most recognizable sonic moments in all of cinema.

Psycho-517331430

1. The Shining (1980): 

blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!

There was a time when Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was not considered to be the great horror film many people and critics see it as today. The film opened to derisive laughter. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens?” Over time The Shining’s stature as a classic has grown and it introduced nearly all the elements that are part of horror’s popular lexicon: jump-cuts, modernist music (Kubrick uses six pieces from Polish composer, Krzystof Penderecki), subliminal inserts (Danny’s visions), and all kinds of visual metaphors. The film itself is structured like a piece of music with various movements and recurring rhythms. It is a film you can get lost in and think through every time you watch it. It was innovative, especially in its use of Steadicam (see Danny’s pedal car). 

The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. For me, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

h4DcDCOkQBENWBJZjNlPv3adQfM

Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.

3 Must-See Films Directed by Women

Spending more time indoors (due to COVID-19) means that I have more opportunity to catch up on films from my massive watch list. From those recent viewings, I am recommending three phenomenal films directed and written by women, all of which shared themes of psychological isolation and featured women finding their worth outside of the definitions and limitations imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.

The first film is Anna Rose Holmer’s debut, The Fits (2015). The film tells the story of Toni (played by Royalty Hightower): an 11-year old who trains with her brother at the boxing gym and then decides to join and fit into a girl’s dance troupe in the same community centre. The troupe begins to inexplicably suffer from a wave of violent fits. Holmer did a lot of research into real-life stories of seizure-like attacks affecting young women, going all the way back to cases like the dancing plague of 1518. On the surface, the film is a typical bildungsroman, but it is a much deeper film about what it feels like to be psychologically isolated while trying to navigate a fledging sense of self. The film does an excellent job of establishing mood and the final sequence is pure cinema. In fact, much of the film defies traditional dramatic convention in order to take us directly inside the head of Toni who is often framed looking at herself (through mirrors), her peers (through windows), and directly at the audience. 

The next film is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018). Of the three films, I recommend this one with some reserve and a warning that this is an extremely graphic and potentially very triggering movie. Where Kent’s The Babadook (2014) relied on implied psychical terror, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people. The story’s backdrop is colonization in Australia in 1825, and the film brings the violence through which the colony was established to the forefront: rape and violence inflicted upon children are prevalent throughout. I definitely got vibes of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), except where Indigenous people are mostly silent in Campion’s film, we do get a somewhat larger perspective of the effects of colonialism and racism through an excellent performance from Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy”: an Indigenous tracker who accompanies our central character as she seeks revenge on her oppressors. Roughly, the film is about an Irish women convict named Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi) seeking retribution for the atrocities committed against her and her family. The film deals directly with her psychological isolation and her lack of support, although she finds shared grief and solace with Billy who has also lost much to colonial violence.  Kent’s film provides an unflinching look at the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania), and while it is hardly a film many would want to endure, its palpable anger and themes of redemption are ultimately rewarding: “I belong to me and no one else!”

The final film is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French (2019). Portrait is a historical drama set in France during the late 18th century. It tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter. The painter—Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant—has been summoned to a remote seaside estate to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send to the family of her suitor (because Héloïse resists arranged marriage, Marianne is charged with painting in secret). The film is full of tension as the two women come to know each other through sustained gaze, expression, and eventually through physical intimacy. Spectacularly, this romance unfolds outside the world of men (and without men on screen) as these two women (and the house servant Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) learn to see themselves outside the confines of patriarchy. This film said so much about the nature of the gaze and the frames (boxes) in which the women felt confined. I was captivated by every second of this film and found Claire Mathon’s cinematography a revelation (her stellar work can also be seen in Atlantics, another film I highly recommend). Lastly, the extended use of music for the final shot— Presto from “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—reminded me of the great French director Claire Denis, and is a moment that lingers long after the film. If you enjoyed this film, make sure you check out other excellent work by Sciamma including Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). 

A few other recent films by women with similar themes to the above that I would recommend include Dee ReesPariah (2011), Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girls Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019), and Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019; Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes).

What did you think of the films if you’ve seen any of them? Feel free to drop a comment below, and happy watching. 

Also, remember to wear masks and social distance (as excellently demonstrated in Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

Social Distancing in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Fight the Power: On Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Social Unrest in Ferguson

“You’ve got to do the right thing.”
-Malcolm X

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are still grappling with what, in 1903, W. E. B Du Bois defined as the most divisive issue in America: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” What Du Bois was getting at when he was talking about “the problem of the colour line” was to show that race is ultimately about how racism and power are correlated and socially constructed. Despite this construction, cultural theorist George Lipsitz argues, “Race is a cultural construct, but one with deadly social causes and consequences.” We like to think in 2014 (especially for those of us living under the banner of multicultural Canada) that racism is a problem of the past. In many ways we are still living with the vestiges of a slavery system, what Saidiya Hartmen refers to as “the afterlife of slavery” once practiced in America and Canada.

Last night it was announced that the police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown (at least 6 times) was not indicted by a grand jury. Even though Brown’s family called for non-violent change (stating, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change”), soon after the grand jury announcement riots in Ferguson spiraled out of control. In many ways Brown’s death—like the death of other unarmed black men, such as Oscar Grant III and Trayvon Martin—became symbolic and systematic of a broken justice system. How are oppressed people supposed to do the right thing, irrespective of whether the approach taken is Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. in strategy? The problems are so deeply rooted that the entire system requires a complete overturn. It’s like terrorism, which too cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the causes that bread violence: poverty, inequality, and other violence. The same goes for a riot: we are quick to condemn a riot rather than ask, what is at the root of such public outrage?

It is fitting that I had Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Thing—a powerful work of cinematic verve—scheduled to watch in one of my English classes this morning. Although released 25 years ago in 1989, Do the Right Thing remains as pertinent as ever, particularly against the recent backdrop of race riots and social unrest in Ferguson. Lee was instrumental in launching a new wave of Black cinema in 1986 with his renowned protofeminist film, She’s Gotta Have It (although bell hooks takes Lee’s work to task as antifeminist). In the way that She’s Gotta Have It draws its energy from Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing too uses Brooklyn as the backdrop for a slowly brewing race riot. As the thermometer goes up, the film intensifies. The last act of the film is so powerful that some in the media contended that white people should not see the movie in theatres because there might be riots. This is racist because it assumes that only white people can tell the difference between reality and representation.

For many film critics, much of the focus was on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem in a brutal chokehold didn’t register. One of the critiques of the film is that Spike Lee does not provide an answer to racism or prejudice at the end of the film. In my opinion this is the real strength of the picture. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “He’d [Lee] made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants. He didn’t draw lines or take sides but simply looked with sadness at one racial flashpoint that stood for many others.” Ferguson stands for so many ongoing racial malaises in the West that we could spend entire books unpacking them. In this short post, I hardly have the space to delve into them, but I make the comparison between the film (representation) and the current reality (Ferguson) to draw attention to how racism (and the fiction of race) continues to dehumanize those who are non-white as lesser and inferior. Racism like colonialism is a matter of power: it is about who gets to decide who is more pure, more capable, more right—essentially, more white. The protestors in Ferguson are fighting for a voice because historically they have been silenced.

There are no simple answers to deal with the tensions and injustices that beget civil disobedience. In Do the Right Thing, as the long hot summer day wanes, you can gradually anticipate the moment where the trash can smashes through the pizzeria and sparks a riot. Racism is a sickness so imbedded in America (and Canada) that it is only a matter of time before tensions boil over. I am for peaceful protest but—especially for those who face unspeakable horror and injustice— sometimes the only response that feels appropriate is a version of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., who is often remembered for his approaches to civil liberty through nonviolence, once said: “Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change.” Of course, how we define civil disobedience is a matter of interpretation. I don’t think riots necessarily solve anything; more likely, they bring out the worst in all parties involved, but I do understand that people riot when they feel desperate. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes contemporary North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”

The Shining: Does Kubrick’s film Redrum King’s novel?

Over the last week I’ve read—or rather engulfed myself within—Stephen King’s The Shining. It is one of my favourite films, and so I thought I should give the novel a chance. In fact, despite the thousands of books I’ve read, studied, and written about, I’ve never actually read a Stephen King novel, and so I wanted to correct this overlook on my part. Fortunately, the hardcover edition I have also contains Carrie and Misery, and so I will likely read those soon, as well as perhaps The Stand, which I’ve heard might be King’s finest work.

Most of the book was read in our cozy 700sq foot apartment as Toronto was hit with one of its biggest snowstorms of the year. While I haven’t quite suffered writer’s block, I have had ten to twelve-hour days cooped up inside the house (I continue to work diligently on my PhD thesis, which is a little over a month away from a full first draft) where I feel like I am going a little crazy. Not that I admire or identify with Jack Torrance as he struggles with his own writing and budding insanity, but I certainly felt a detached and sinister sense of camaraderie with him: all work and no play make Paul a dull boy. The main difference between King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation is that King’s novel is more human. King is concerned with familial relationships and the internal psyche of his characters; by comparison, Kubrick focuses his lens on larger metaphors, structure, and allegory.

To say one is better than the other is to do both works a disservice. They are vastly different. Personally, I prefer the film. It helps that Jack Nicholson gives one of his most inspired performances and that I am an immense fan of Kubrick’s work. I think the film’s visual images are more potent than in the book, and its finale is more operatic and horrifying. And yet, I appreciate the imaginative prowess and humanity of King’s novel. The love and strong relationship between Jack and Danny was hardly emphasized in the film. Jack’s alcoholism and gradual descent into madness, related to King’s own struggles with alcohol, is also much more developed in the book. Further, in the novel, Wendy is a multifarious and resistive character whose internal struggles are largely reduced to shrieks on the screen. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking character change—although this one feels like an assassination—is that Dick Hallorann’s role is greatly reduced in the film. He is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and in Kubrick’s film he is abridged to just another black man dying on the screen. He is not even mourned by Wendy or Danny. Like all the characters, Danny is much more complex in the book, but it is his lack of complexity on the screen that makes him so damn creepy. We are not meant to identify with Kubrick’s characters; we are victims of Jack and the Overlook Hotel’s history of violence, which makes for a more unsettling film than the book.

Once again, if the medium is the message then Kubrick’s stylistic choices are suitable to the cinematic force of his adaptation. Kubrick’s visual choices have been written about in great detail and even inspired the satisfying, although a little too drenched in conspiracy theory, documentary Room 237. The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaption is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. In fact, I found that, at times, King’s haunted house clichés and ghosts were just not that frightening, although the build-ups in the novel are very captivating. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying, for me, largely because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Wendy and Danny do escape Jack (the Minotaur) in Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather than the burning (I will not spoil the ending) and warm ending of King’s book, Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

Before filming, Kubrick told King on the phone he didn’t believe in hell, and that he “thought stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic.” No wonder King was so disturbed by Kubrick’s film, since King’s book is both supernatural and optimistic, and Kubrick’s film is not. Love conquers evil in King’s novel, and Danny receives some practical advice at the end of his trials: “But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on.” It’s hard to think how Danny and Wendy will go on at the end of Kubrick’s film, but somehow they must. Both films are powerful allegories for the darkness of the human spirit. King’s novel is just much more optimistic since love, not perseverance and survival, overcomes evil.

Personally, I enjoyed Kubrick’s film more than the novel, but the source text was a pleasure to read, especially since the novel switches between so many different viewpoints. Most great film adaptations, I also enjoyed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange more than Burgess’s novel, are successful because they ignore their source text. King was so angered by Kubrick’s adaption that he eventually remade the movie himself, in what many have described as a painfully boring and uninspired adaption, although wholly faithful to the original. Perhaps King’s version is closer to translation than it is to adaptation. Comparing the book to the film is like comparing apples and oranges. And yet, I’ve been doing that somewhat here, but largely to emphasize they are very different works, and should be thought of as separate entities. Kubrick uses the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. Maybe the film version should open with the preface: inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining. And while the film has certainly outshined the book (inspiring many other riffings such as in The Simpsons), perhaps another reason King was so frustrated by it, both deserve a place on your bookshelf. In some ways, both the film and novel  complement one another, presenting a fuller picture of how, as King puts it in the book, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.
-Francis Ford Coppola

Film is a language of ideas: each shot a director’s thought, every film a magical world of its own. Recently, on Netflix, I watched Mark Cousins’s monumental The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which consists of 15 one-hour chapters and some 900 minutes covering the history of film. The experience was like taking a semester-long film studies survey course spanning the birth of cinema to the movies of today and the future. Except, rather than travel to campus, take notes, or write an examination, I leisurely embarked on this odyssey from the comfort of my home, often in 30-minute increments over my lunch. Cousins’s thesis is a relatively straightforward one: the story of film is the history of innovation. From the opening chapter it is apparent that The Story of Film is hardly the tale of Hollywood, as Cousins’s radical, at times revisionist history covers not only studio pictures, but also film mavericks on the fringes of the studio system in America, Japan, India, Africa, Mexico, Italy, Britain, China, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

The Story of Film is global in scale, affording the viewer numerous opportunities to engage with the history of cinema from a non-and-decentering American perspective. By the mid-point of the series Cousins’s diatribes against Hollywood start to feel a little predicable and exaggerated, perhaps harder for some to digest given his metric vocal delivery and lilting Irish accent, but it was a pleasant reminder that film hardly belongs to America or Europe, as many of cinema’s greatest innovators/innovations were/happened in India, South America, Africa, Japan, China, or even, Canada. Through dozens of interviews with some of film’s most important progenitors and nonconformists, and hundreds of selected film clips with nuanced analysis from Cousins, the documentary is certainly an epic quest. The documentary played at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and I could only imagine what the experience might have felt like for those audience members who watched all 15+ hours over a few days. Watching The Story of Film reminded me that film is much more than a fascination of mine. Like my dedication to reading and music, film viewing is an Odyssean expedition where the discoveries are ongoing and illimitable, often far outside the American moviemaking machine. I also appreciated that The Story of Film introduced me to many great films I’ve never heard of, or had forgotten I had at one point or another intended to watch, or in the case of a few, rewatch. I’ve seen thousands of American films, including most of the AFI Top 100, and so the majority of films on my list were made outside America. I might have to visit an actual video store to find many of these titles, but here are some of the films featured in The Story of Film I hope to watch this year, ideally in chronological order:

Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

How manye maladyes ffolwen of excesse and of glotonyes.
Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale 514

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. While not quite the magnum opus some call it, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is an inspired parable and cinematic opera about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream.

Perhaps there was a time, as Percy Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” when “poets [were] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I say this with some unease, since my primary field of study is poetry, but today it seems that filmmakers are the cultural legislators of the Western World. Hollywood, like the stock market, is big business, netting profits in the billions every year. In many ways, Hollywood is emblematic of the American dream; certainly the cinema is a place where we exchange money to watch our dreams, fantasies, and even nightmares unfold on a big screen in a dimly lit room. Scorsese, who often challenges Hollywood sensibility, continues to be one of American cinema’s great dream makers and storytellers, gifting the world films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006).

The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s fixation with crime, identity, and machismo, as well as his Roman Catholic concerns around guilt and redemption. However, unlike Scorsese’s other gangster films there is hardly any graphic violence in Wolf, although there remains, perhaps more than any of his films, his liberal usage of profanity. It could be argued, and probably should, that Belfort’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, as well as his betrayal of his victim’s trust, is violence. The narrative techniques and do-it-yourself rise to power in Wolf parallels Goodfellas, but instead of mob bloodshed and revenge, Scorsese focuses his lens on robber baron, capitalistic sociopath, and real life penny stock criminal/self-made multi-millionaire, Jordan Belfort.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic, hurly-burly, dizzying cornucopia of sex, drugs, and total debauchery. It is Scorsese’s most excessive film, with a three-hour running time (even after he left an hour on the cutting floor), and so many scenes of Belfort (manically acted by DiCaprio) and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) popping Qualuudes (a very powerful pill based drug) and having sex with prostitutes that you feel, perhaps, an additional hour of the film could have been cut. However, the excessive use of excess in the film highlights the vulgarity of Belfort’s lack of morality, as he travels far beyond the prescribed limit of acceptable capitalist criminality (in the eyes of regulators) and gets lost in the rapturous trance of the game he is playing.

Does the film glorify Belfort’s despicable swindling his clients out of millions, failing to show the effects of his actions, as one victim, Chistina McDowell, insists in an Open Letter? Or, does it sicken the viewer and take Belfort down through its use of raucous and unrelenting satire? For starters, I don’t think the film glorifies white-collar crime, just like I don’t think 12 Years a Slave glorifies slavery. Humour and satire are effective in making the audience realize just how absurd and excessive Belfort’s greed was. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was extremely risky in 1939 as it used satire to effectively depict and make fun of Hitler and dictatorships, and it was banned in many countries. Film is representation; otherwise there would not be films about the Holocaust. Great art is often confrontational, and if art is to challenge it needs to be provocative enough to start some important conversations, which Scorsese is thankful that this film did (Screen Rant). DiCaprio has called Wolf a punk rock film about the darker nature of humans. While McDowell’s point is well taken, I don’t think the film would be as punchy, effecting, or vicious if it showed the effect Belfort’s actions had on his victims. It would be Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. 

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films whose protagonists or antiheroes often burst into flames at the end of the film, Belfort hardly suffers for his incendiary crimes. Rather, we are reminded that Belfort is a real person: a cog in a larger system of oppression that makes his actions possible in the first place. People like Belfort often get away with, or face minimal retribution for the crimes they commit. In the end Belford informs on his own associates in order to save his own ass. Henry Hill does the same in Goodfellas, deciding to enroll in a Witness Protection Program, with real-life Hill serving four years and six months of his 10-year sentence in prison. The Wolf shows Belfort entering prison with a look of fear in his eyes, which quickly dissipates when he realizes that prison for him, with tennis courts and other luxuries, would not be that bad: “For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.” It should sit uncomfortably with viewers that Belfort never really gets the justice he deserves. In one of the final scenes, FBI agent Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler) apprehends that his pursuit of Belfort and his organization has changed very little about how America operates.

Watching the film I was reminded of the CEOs of the big three automakers who flew in luxurious private jets to Washington to plead for a $35 billion bailout in taxpayer money, or AIG, whose executives, after receiving some 85 billion bailout dollars, headed for a week-long retreat to a luxury resort and spa. Belfort is the bastard child of a much larger malaise of greed in corporate capitalism. Some reviewers have commented that Wolf is essentially propaganda for Belfort’s motivational speaking career, but I can only assume that the individuals who would hire a man like him are already deeply lost in the sea of excess. Or, like millions of Americans, they are chasing a dream. There are those who will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and identify with Belfort. Steven Perlberg of Business Insider described watching the film near the Goldman Sachs building and reported cheers by the audience of financial workers at inappropriate moments, such as “When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.” I’m sure there were also those who watched Christian Bale in American Psycho and wanted to be Patrick Bateman, although they hopefully didn’t cheer openly in the theatre. There will be those who admire DiCaprio’s sinister portrayal of Belfort, similar to how Michael Douglas has had hundreds of people come up to him and say, “I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko” (Greed is Not Good). Many, mostly young men full of bravado, will want to be like Belfort. Can you blame them, especially since our society often promotes men (and sometimes women) who are willing to do anything to get rich? This is hardly Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s fault—it is simply poor viewer analysis. Think of how many different interpretations there are of Shakespeare, or the Bible? Just because some misguided and bullied kids listened to Marilyn Manson before they shot up their school, hardly means that Manson was the root cause. Such would be an evasion of the larger issues, often ignored by mainstream media.

For me, the film was a little like travelling through Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (greed/avarice) for three hours, although I do admit that I laughed a fair bit, which is sort of the point of the grotesque parody. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Some might feel the film glorifies greed. Jordan Belfort glorifies greed. America glorifies greed. The film does not. In some disturbing ways, Belfort was simply being American. As Belfort belts out in one of his many excessive speeches in the film:

This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!

Long Live the New Flesh: David Cronenberg’s Evolution

A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. Citing literary influences as diverse and incendiary as Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs (Cronenberg adapted Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), Cronenberg’s films continually blur the line between corporeality and psychological disorder, reality and hallucinatory nightmare. Currently, TIFF features a major exhibit to celebrate the director’s work, David Cronenberg: Evolution, and has been playing Cronenberg’s entire cinematic oeuvre, with special introductions to screenings and talks with those who have worked most closely with him.

To read more, see my full review at Toronto Review of Books.

Totoro

In my opinion, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), wondrously envisioned through the eyes of two young Japanese girls, is the most imaginative and ecologically conscious “children’s” film ever conceived. I’ve placed “children” in quotation marks, because I really do feel that Totoro is a film for all people. Unlike the chaotic pacing and bad manners of so much of what passes as children’s entertainment, Totoro offers a warm, often funny, and subtler approach to the imagination. Simply put, the plot involves the Kusakabe family and their move to a new home beside a mysterious forest. It is there that they (Satsuki and Mei) encounter Totoro and his friends (including the very cool Cat Bus).

Last week I had the chance to watch a beautiful print of the film at TIFF, which not only looked fantastic, but also did justice to the great soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. The same wide-eyed wonderment that I felt watching the film when I was a kid was hardly diminished; if anything, it was enhanced by a greater appreciation of the simple beauty illumining every frame. In a world—and not to judge, I live in downtown Toronto by choice—where technology rules supreme, where music, video, and pornography are available on our phones, and where you can microwave your dinner in a minute and a half, Totoro is a folk tale about a return to a time when, as Tatsuo (the girls’ father) says, “Trees and people used to be good friends. I saw that tree and decided to buy the house. Hope mom likes it too.” Of course, there is a somber element to the film, as the father and two girls move to the country in the first place to be near their ailing mother. We never find out why she is sick; rather, the film focuses on the love, wonder, and bond the family share during this difficult time.

Without a major conflict, or an antagonist (unheard of in 99.9% of films), the film teaches us that wonderment is often enough to sustain hope. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film (and inclusion as a Great Movie) in 2001:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy […] “My Neighbor Totoro” is based on experience, situation and exploration — not on conflict and threat […] It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

It’s a shame that more children’s films lack the wonderful, cooperative, and imaginative spirit that charges through Totoro. Most animated films require a suspension of disbelief, but something about Totoro feels particularly natural, which makes the leap into enchantment easier. The film is beautifully handcrafted, long before CGI and Pixar, and the scenes feel very naturalistic, as do the interactions between the girls and their loving father, another positive portrayal in the film. The film is drawn the classic way, frame by frame, with Hayao Miyazaki contributing thousands and thousands of frames himself.

Notice the detail and wonderment in this scene where Totoro shows up to wait with the girls for their father who is late to arrive from work.
Notice the detail and wonderment in this scene where Totoro shows up to wait with the girls for their father who is late to arrive from work. Check out the scene, here.

Set in a period that is both modern and nostalgic, Totoro is a fable that captivates with little tension or plot twists, working against the mythology of the evil troll. Rather, forest spirits or trolls represent the bond that used to (and still could) exist between humans and spirits in a traditional village. In this way, Totoro is not just about conservation of the forest, but also of a certain way of living that is slowly disappearing due to urbanization. Few animated films have had the impact on me that Totoro has, other than Miyazaki’s phantasmagorical Spirited Away, and the haunting anti-war film, Grave of the Fireflies (a Studio Ghibli production that played with Totoro as a double feature). Set in Japan during World War II, Grave of the Fireflies, like Totoro, but for entirely different reasons, will challenge you to reconsider the possibilities of animation to convey a deep message.

Globally, the impact of Totoro has been enormous. For Japanese children Totoro is as famous as Winnie-the-Pooh is for children in North America. Like Winnie-the-Pooh, and a few select animated characters, Totoro reminds us of the human capacity to imagine a world that is more creative and loving. Sadly, Miyazaki announced on September 1, 2013 that The Wind Rises will be his final feature-length film. Totoro, along with his large catalogue of films, will continue to live on in the collective imagination.

Totoro, along with other Studio Ghibli films in various versions (dubbed, subtitled), is playing at TIFF until January 3rd.

My wife and Totoro-fan-to-be posing with Totoro cutout.
My wife and Totoro-fan-to-be posing with Totoro cutout.

Tsotsi: The Transformative Power of Hope

The following is a throwback (slightly amended) review I wrote in 2006. This is nearly four years before I published anything in any format. I found it on my hard drive and felt it worth sharing, even if the language is simpler (perhaps more straightforward) than I often write reviews in these days. I have a couple more of these old reviews I might share at some point. Anyways, Tsotsi is a fantastic film, and one I need to certainly watch again soon.

1560Tsotsi_Cover

Life is a game of chance: we do not know whether we will be born into poverty or riches. At the same time, the decisions we make invariably influence the path we walk. The theme of chance is emphasized in the opening shots of Tsotsi as we watch Tsotsi’s gang roll dice, set in the monochromatic shades of a dark, dingy shack. Tsotsi, which literally means “thug,” is an effective and poignant film directed by Gavin Hood (adapted from an Athol Fugard novel) about a young man named Tsotsi who embarks on a transformative journey, set in motion by the helplessness of a baby. Tsotsi had no intention of kidnapping the baby, discovering it in the backseat of a car he stole after shooting its mother while she got out to ring the buzzer at her gate. The early contrast between the rich and poor communities depicts the austere differences between life in the broken-down shanty township of Soweto to which Tsotsi belongs, and the baby’s parents’ gated, luxurious home in the wealthy community of Joburg, illustrated with masterful cuts of cinematography. Fanon’s article “On Violence” provides an accurate description of what the shantytowns look like in the film: “It’s a world of no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together” (4). Tsotsi is a killer, a fact brutally fleshed out earlier in the film by his senseless murder of man on a crowded train in order to steal his wallet. With this knowledge, it would seem that Tsotsi is unfit to take care of a baby, but for some intrinsic reason he takes on this task.

The acting from the almost all African cast is superb, and the young actor (Presley Chweneyagae) who plays Tsotsi has a magnificent amount of control over his emotions, ensuring his portrayal never crosses into melodramatic hamming. There is no sentimentalized view of poverty in this film, and we are not made to feel sympathetic towards Tsotsi. Rather, we journey alongside his transformative awakening on a thin line of hope: a hope that in the end he will do the right thing and give the baby back to its rightful guardians. Because the film is shot within close fields of vision, we are able to see what goes on inside Tsotsi’s head. Metaphorically, Tsotsi undergoes a medieval psychomachia of sorts—a battle for his soul, which the director carefully depicts vis-à-vis subtle shots of Tsotsi walking centre screen down a railway track. Tsotsi has become so dependant on wearing the mask of his public persona that intense feelings of his own innocence bleed into his private sphere where he has become protector of a baby he loves as if it was his own. The tragic comedy results from Tsotsi’s lack of knowing how to take care of a baby: he uses newspapers as diapers, and carries him around with him in a shopping bag. Fortunately Miriam, a nursing mother, provides a counterpoint to Tsotsi’s frustration and helps to gradually ignite a spark of love within Tsotsi’s psyche, deeply buried since his childhood.

Truly, the film is about hope and overcoming one’s odds against the shit cards life can sometimes deal. Tsotsi does not romanticize poverty, glamorize violence, or make us sympathetic towards a violent young man like Tsotsi; rather, it allows us to see the effects and suddenness of violence. Violence committed by the oppressor is passed onto the oppressed in a vicious cycle: the oppressed are left in poverty, while the rich get richer. Tsotsi represents the possibility that maybe the cycle can be broken: a hope for a post-apartheid South African black teenager, and a hope that Tsotsi can become a better person and ultimately do the right thing. In the context of the film, that’s giving the baby back and allowing reconciliation to take place within himself for his own troubled past—allegorical of the reconciliation process in South African. The film follows this progressive journey right up to its heavy ending, which we watch in a perpetual state of anticipation. The film does not try and prescriptively solve the enormous condition of poverty in South Africa; instead, the film traverses beyond the realm of violence, using the theme of forgiveness as a way to move forward and rebuild. The process of moving forward is an utterly frightening concept for Tsotsi, but there is a hopefulness that things can and should be better than they are, at least within his own world.

Check out the trailer:

 

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2006. Print.