Ever see a trailer or a scene or an entire film that’s so damn good that it pisses you off? Sends you to the walls of the local multiplex punching and kicking in some massive, encapsulating, all-around cinematic rage? Like a great rock song, all Manson or NIN, metal guitar pounding mercilessly against the base – one that you love so much, and embrace so deeply, simply because it makes you want to go and beat the hell out of something? Pound a post, crush a flower. Whatever. And all because, for a moment, or a minute or an hour, you’re damaged by some particular piece of film, or struck by a notion of great possibility, suddenly vulnerable and aware, asking, all the while, the one important question of our cinematic generation:
WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOD-DAMN BALLS GONE?
I was fourteen when I first saw the film Se7en, and to this day I still credit it as the one film that truly made me fall in love with movies. Up until then, it had all been lust. After Se7en, it was love. Sounds funny, I know, to credit this incredibly dark and richly violent film with sparking such a lasting passion for cinema, but it’s true enough, I assure you. I remember sitting there, in the darkness of the theatre, on the side of some desert road, wondering, as Detective Mills wondered, and Sommerset soon found out, what, exactly, was in that mysterious box, never thinking, as film had never trained me to think, that it might be such a costly prize. Or that, in the following moments, the moral center of the film would ultimately falter and collapse (or balance, rather) into such a beautiful ambiguity, underlining the complexity of human truth rather than the fiction of a happy resolution.
I left the film feeling abused, drained, visually assaulted and conceptually beaten. And whatever masochistic element within me found that stimulating has pushed me, in all the time since, to search out films of a similar character. I even remember, shortly after that screening, pulling out a copy of Silence of the Lambs, which I had thusfar ignored, and falling in love all over again. Realizing that a film can be suspenseful and artful and dark and violent and truthful in a way that is both overwhelmingly honest and unrepentant of its nature.
I’ve always been a fan of a character’s darkest places. It’s a basic element of drama really – that shadows and light are seldom separate – and I’m always offended – which, honestly, is often – when Hollywood continually rips the guts out of its potentially powerful thrillers, running motivations, taming down violence and generally diluting the impact that visual and emotional darkness can have upon an audience.
And I feel this way on two very different levels:
1) Because I care about the art of storytelling. And I believe, as I always have, that the darkest, most challenging of films can say as much, if not more, about human nature than any particular feel-good movie. That while a happy ending might tell us volumes about what happens to the characters after the credits role, it tells us precious little about them. We know more about what kind of person Detective Mills is at the conclusion of Se7en– tortured, confused, angry, and deeply, irrevocably, in love – than we ever know about the lovers at the end of When Harry Met Sally. And also...
2) Because I’m a sick individual who likes to see crazy people do horrible shit.
In films that prove, through whatever device, that the world of the story is random and of consequence – or, rather, that bad things happen to good people – there exists a palpable sense of danger, of genuine urgency, with little assurance that the perceived hero will necessarily survive the two hours to come. And with truthful, honest character development, oftentimes, whether through justice, karma, or some machinery of morality, the happiest of endings is not always the most appropriate.
Seventies horror films used to do this incredibly well. Psychological thrillers in the eighties and early nineties. What some call mind-fucks and what I call brutal honesty. Not everyone is likeable. Not everybody lives. Not everybody cares.
Sometimes we watch to see people die and hope that the dying is of some visual entertainment value (if that’s your thing). Sometimes we watch to see people make real, honest decisions. Imagine at the end of Sophie’s Choice, Hitler coming out and saying, “I shall grant you this one pardon...”
There are simply no choices in modern Hollywood films – or, at least, none of any real weight or value. And if there seems to be then it follows that any good look at the film’s structure and tone will reveal the end at least an hour early. What seems to be serious storytelling seldom is still that way by the end of Act Three.
Today, I saw the trailer for a film called Saw – a Lion’s Gate thriller to be released in September – and was reminded of real, genuine, dark, brutal, balls-to-the-wall fright films. It made me recall Rob Zombie’s recent House of 1,000 Corpses, which, had it possessed any kind of plot, whatsoever, would have been a fantastic piece of horror filmmaking, where anything can happen at any time. And when it does, it doesn’t pull punches. I watched a dude get sliced up with a straight razor and turned into modern art. After that, I wasn’t sure of anything.
Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. Write in with some of your favorite brutally honest films. And someone better say Fight Club...Ah, fuck it, I’ll nominate it right now...
Alright, ladies and gents. Your turn at the mic...