Friday, December 30, 2005

Intermission! "Let's All Go to the Lobby, Let's All Go to the Lobby..."

Before I wrap up my lengthy King Kong rant this afternoon, a quick morning jog about the keyboard:

* Walter Ungerer and I are now in Day Three of our two-week University of Vermont online film class, "Ways Of Seeing: Film as Art." I intended to promote the class here, in case some of you were at all interested in taking the class, but I received no prior notice or info from UVM. Still, all is going well, and I hope -- if we're tapped to do this again (this is our second year offering the class) -- I can rectify the situation enough to post ample alert here in hopes some of you do climb aboard.

One of the reasons I'm working with James Sturm and Michelle Ollie at The Center for Cartoon Studies is simple: they followed through. Everything James and I discussed, everything that was bounced about, culminated in the CCS opening its doors, and James made participation possible and easy. One of the reasons my papers and collections are with Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas instead of anywhere else is because Randy Duncan and Lea Ann Alexander followed through when others had not (I had previous approached, and been approached by, other universities and libraries). Now, I'm no king of follow-through, mind you, but it makes a world of difference when working with an institution or college when the minimal contact and support is indeed provided.

In the end, UVM came through, but it was a curious vacuum to be in: knowing (thanks to my conversations with Walter) that we were giving the class again, but hearing nothing from UVM. One day the contract showed up, and next day we're giving the class! Whew -- I was, if anything, over-prepared, so it's all good now. But sorry I didn't give advance notice here.

* Speaking of the Center for Cartoon Studies, I am indeed teaching there this coming semester -- teaching drawing, in fact. This has inevitably led me back to my own drawing board as I prepare. So if more Bissette art surfaces in 2006, you all have James Sturm and the CCS -- students and faculty -- to thank. Just a heads up on that.

* I saw Wolf Creek last night on the big screen, despite my son Dan and daughter Maia's dire warnings. It's a curious deadend of a film, quite beautifully crafted and put together, but as bleak an experience as Open Water was, in its way, with the key caveat that it isn't misfortune, a heartless universe and ill luck alone that dooms its waylaid protagonists: it's base human malice. Like its initially beguiling antagonist ("you'll never know where I might -- POP UP!"), this is a nasty piece of work, not recommended for tender dispositions or the squeamish, but it's not a particularly grueling or worthwhile film, either.

As such, Wolf Creek is:

(a) the latest nihilistic variation on the venerable and justifiably classic Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game. Relevent to the ongoing discussion of King Kong on this blog, it bears repeating that the 1932 Ernest B. Schoedsack/Irving Pichel version starring Fay Wray, Joel McCrea, and Leslie Banks (as the screen's greatest Count Zaroff) -- along with ol' Denham himself, Robert Armstrong, as a sloshed victim -- is still the one to see;

(b) the latest offering from Lion's Gate, which remains the one studio dedicated to releasing a steady flow of always (at least) interesting horror films into theaters, and hence near and dear to my horror-lovin' heart;

(c) pleasurable in its way as a throwback to seminal 1970s Outback horrors like Outback, aka Wake in Fright (still the best of its breed, though rarely screened and hard to see, and practically a primer for this film), The Cars That Ate Paris (again, a clear precursor to Wolf Creek) and Celia aka Celia: Child of Terror. Wolf Creek is closest in look, temper and tone to the Australian genre and borderline-horror films of the 1980s which I quite loved and love: think Razorback, Shame, Long Weekend, Fortress (a real gem starring Rachel Ward with an EC Comics-worthy final shot), etc. Visually, as in all these films, the unique landscape of the Outback defines the film in a way that sets it apart while lending gravity and a terrible reality to its horrors. This is a reference point few viewers will have, though, so I don't expect much resonance for others on this count;

(d) the latest in the contemporary string of torture movies, which has become -- synchronistic with our national shame of Abu Ghraib et al -- a mortifying mirror of our life & times.

There have always been torture movies, mind you, going back to the silent era, but it's no coincidence this new strain is so insidious and malicious. I've written at length about the 'lost memory' variation of this contemporary subgenre in a review of The Jacket I'll be publishing in Green Mountain Cinema II in February, which is arguably where the current virulent strain began. It was also anticipated by a sleeper I quite enjoyed, Wrong Turn, though this new vein was launched into boxoffice vitality with the one-two-three punch of Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever, and the odd breakthrough success in 2004 of Saw (which shaded a semi-remake of The Abominable Dr. Phibes by way of Se7en into the most schematic of all the current torture films, effectively placing audience empathy in both the tortured and torturer's shoes via its final absurd twist).

I must add, however, that the most intense of all these films -- and by far the most successful -- remains Mel Gibson's The Passion (of the Christ), a statement and context that may infuriate some, but there it is. The Passion not only distilled the essence of torture-as-spectacle into the most abusive two+ hours of film I've ever endured, it did so as a pro-Christian vehicle that had busloads of devout parents dragging their impressionable little ones into the theaters, too: no wonder we're mired in Abu Ghraib as a nation. It is no coincidence: this is how these things work, don't you see? The pop culture reflects our unconsciousness, our cultural and national zeitgeist, in ways we are usually blind to until we've a bit of hindsight. In other ways, Mel also pushed the envelope that has fueled the savagery of this latest strain of Sadean films: with The Passion passing with an 'R' rating, the cat is well out of the bag.

High Tension (in many ways still the best of the current lot), The Devil's Rejects (a better-made film than Rob Zombie's first, but an empty exercise in the end that risibly romanticizes its killer brood), Saw II, and Eli Roth's eagerly-awaited-in-some-camps Hostel (nice phonetic pun, that) have upped the ante, and this vicious streak of Sadean cinema is only getting more agonizing, more of an audience endurance test, and strangely more urgent than ever. It's the nature of the beast, a dual-edged sword that deserves far more scrutiny than I'm able to give this morning in this venue -- and, of course, the backlash is inevitable.

Just remember, at all times, the context of our shared reality that is fueling this new subgenre -- and that it was our willful entry into "pre-emptive war" and all that has followed that provided the stock for the bloody soup.

Oh, and that Mel was the one who really upped the ante in the first place. It's going to be mighty tough for the Christian right to claim any high ground when the shit hits the fan, as it must.