Friday, March 31, 2006

Camera Obscura - Tarantino to Cronenberg

Today's topic tackles two of my favorite filmmakers - both accused of visceral excesses and both capable of crafting stories that will not leave your thoughts, long after the movie is over. And not the way, say the Larry the Cable Guy movie might haunt you - trailing you like an oafish, unwashed, relative who won't leave and forever turns your couch into an anti-life Aroma Zone. No, this post is about filmmakers with Talent.

Unless I missed some small mention, the Knoxville community seemed to ignore the birthday this week of one of their native sons - one who has been a prolific writer, director and likely one of the most notable and some might say controversial filmmakers of the last decade. While living only a short time in East TN, he captures much of the voices of other ET writers, like Agee or Cormac McCarthy. The dialog is raw, plain and realistic and crimes and passions are often motivated by quests, however illusory, for a better life. Good and Bad are relative terms.

On Monday, Quentin Tranantino turned 43, and the only mention I caught was on the "Writer's Almanac." I'd heard various biographical details before about him - his work as a videostore clerk, his manic personality - but some items I had not heard before, as the Almanac noted:

" ...
he hated school so much that he dropped out after ninth grade. He got a job as an usher at a pornographic movie theater and started taking acting classes. He taught himself screenwriting by writing from memory screenplays of movies he'd already seen. Whatever he couldn't remember he just made up. These screenplays eventually turned into his own original work, and he realized that he'd rather be a filmmaker than an actor."
"Tarantino said, "I steal from every movie ever made."

After much-too-long a wait, I finally got to see a movie this week by another prolific and challenging filmmaker, David Cronenberg, the Academy Award nominated "History of Violence." This Canadian writer and director earned his chops with a host of horror movies that remain as chilling and disturbing as they day they were released. From "Shivers" to "Rabid", "Scanners," "The Brood," "Videodrome," "The Fly, "The Dead Zone," and others, he consistently followed themes of nightmarish quality about intimacy, relationships, celebrity, and technology.

However, more of his recent efforts have been focused on characters and not nasty nightmares. In "Crash" and "Spider" his stories were made for maximum effect by exploring humanity or the lack of it, of the Outsiders who search for some kind of tentative cooperation with normalcy.

"A History of Violence" may be his masterwork. And as a true bonus, the commentary and behind-the-scene features on the DVD are worthy of great educational value to would-be filmmakers and those just curious as to how a movie is made and how artistic vision is brought to life. It's by far the most intelligent director commentary I've ever experienced via DVDs.

The story comes straight from the old John Wayne/Glenn Ford school of Heroics - the right to defend the Home and the Family. Expertly cast with Viggo Mortensen as a small-town owner of a diner and Maria Bello as his loving wife, their world is shattered when brutal criminals attempt to rob his diner and endanger his customers. In pure street brawl fashion, Viggo, as Tom Stall, kills the criminals. The town and the media hail him as a hero. Even his somewhat bullied son, Jack, gains admiration and inspiration from Tom's defense. And then a trio of ugly thugs arrive at Stall's Diner led by actor Ed Harris and casually accuse him of being just another mobster on the lam, that "Tom" is an impostor.

Cronenberg deftly restrains his style to create characters that seem both believable and doubtful at once. The violence escalates, and it always seems to be justified ... unless, perhaps, Tom isn't really Tom at all. And that doubt begins to rattle the All-American home of Tom and his wife to their foundations.

I won't reveal more, but in addition to the Academy Award nomination for supporting actor William Hurt, Viggo should have gotten a nomination as well. It also earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and many critics place the movie as one of the best of the 2005.

Worth mentioning too is the utterly wordless finale as Tom and his family sit down to dinner. It's one of the most powerful and emotional scenes I've seen in years.

Cronenberg's comments from the movie's web site (as well as the many unspoken themes in the movie itself) offer some insight into how carefully he crafted this work, how deeply involved the actors and tech crews were in collaborating to make this unique and impressive work. You'll want to watch it twice, perhaps more, especially after you hear Cronenberg's comments.

Violence can be justified - but can it be endured?

Oh and one more quickie here before I end - along with the fine folks at Atomic Tumor, the movie I most want to see in coming months is what appears to be a brilliant adaption of Phillip Dick's classic "A Scanner Darkly," filmed with a new style of real film and animation - check out the latest preview here.


  1. carpenterjd2:22 PM

    Great post! Tarantino and Cronenberg are two of my favorites. Give me the visceral. I just can't believe that an industry that has produced those two filmmakers has also cursed us with Schumacher.

  2. I'm a nut for Tarantino. Could watch his films over and over.
    Even the films that don't usually come up in a quick mention of his body of work are worth catching, for example - Jackie Brown. I didn't see that one until last summer and immediately regretted not catching it sooner.
    Amazing body of work.
    I love that sometimes he gets flashy with angles and tricks.
    My ear craves the dialogue he writes. His ability to twist a phrase and still make it sound like something your friend might say keeps me listening in.
    His characters are one of a kind.
    I also like that he tries to introduce his cult favorites to the rest of the world.

  3. I agree with the fabulous Rodent Queen. I love how he takes the people he adored from his moving watching days and reintroduces them to a new audience. Cronenberg is amazing. I watched one of his films at a drive in as a kid called Shivers and for some reason, it wigged me out more than Rabid did (monster from Marilyn Chambers armpit was a bit out there)but Shivers was almost like a prelude to Aids in retrospect.
    Cronenberg's freaky prophecy.
    I guess it always comes down to sex being bad scenario in so many horror films and me being a little old Presbyterian girl who is always terrifed of it.
    I blame the movie Shivers for everything.
    God I sound creepy in this post.

  4. Actually, when I saw the movie it was called "They Came From Within." Forgot to add that.

  5. Go to the head of the class, Newscoma - it was released under both titles!

    And yeah, Cronenberg specializes in making you feel distinct similarities between horror and sex, especially in his early films. That says as much about him as it does about American ideas of sexuality.

    One of my faves, "The Brood", was made as he was going thru a divorce and it is devoid of any humor and his terrifying vision of "family" life has seldom been equaled.

    The first of his I saw in a theatre was
    "Scanners" and the exploding head nearly cleared the auditorium.

    The only scenes he added to "History of Violence" were in fact two sex scenes, both of which arrive with competing emotional responses in the characters and the audience.

    And I'm telling ya, the commentary on "History" reveals how much a master of cinema thinks, acts and works.

    Can you tell how much a fanboy I am fer some Cronenberg??

  6. I am all about me some Cronenberg as well.
    I am remiss to say I have not seen "History of Violence" yet, but it is on my must see list and I have it on order at ye ole, terrible, rural video store in Dresden, Tenn.
    Our only claim to fame is Ned Ray McWherter but he doesn't rent movies I guess, but he does have a fancy beer distributorship.
    The Brood was just freaky, but I really like it (I've seen it a couple of times.)
    And Scanners. Now that's a movie. I loved the head blowing up scene. I just kept eating the corn hoping it would happen again.

  7. Joe wrote:

    "A History of Violence" may be his masterwork

    Well, I'm pretty sure it wasn't "Naked Lunch".

    He never even got to the "County Clerk". I hope he don't take a shot at the "Wild Fruits". (Y'know, in the current "Brokeback" climate pert nar anythin's possble.)