Monday, June 19, 2017

Four Films

As I have mentioned previously, I don't often go to the movies anymore. There is little in the theaters I care to see; most of it is the sub-literate, comic book inspired pablum which the studios believe is all the American public craves or deserves. Making my absence from the theaters even more likely is the fact that my son has installed Netflix on my phone -- imagine, on a phone! -- and so I tend to stay at home even more weekends these days.

Recently I have seen three films, two new, one not so new, that I would like to mention. At the urging of my step-daughter, I did go to the theater to see "Get Out." Now, for many years I have said that there was only one film which I wish I had not seen, and that was "Don't Look Now," a horror-thriller directed, as I recall, by Nicolas Roeg. I regretted it not because it was badly made (it was, in fact, well made), but because it was so disturbing. It took me months to get over the morbid nightmares I suffered after seeing it, and, in saying this, I am not recommending that you see it. "The Others" and, of course, "The Exorcist" gave me turbulent dreams, but I do recommend them if you like a good scare. But "Don't Look Now," involving as it did my least favorite theme, danger to a child, was just plain wrenching.

Well, now I can add a second film to my wish-I-hadn't-seen-it list: "Get Out." I won't say much about it. It was tolerably well done, though the acting, especially in the two leads, was pretty poor. The main character was just not a very good actor, and his girlfriend was simply annoying (her character and her performance). But it was the themes and questions that the film raised that so put me off: Don't date outside your own race; don't meet the parents after only a few months' dating; don't trust white people; and, most problematic of all, white people secretly want to be black people, or was it, black people secretly want to be white people.

One thing I did enjoy about the film was that it sent up the phony racial tolerance of wealthy, liberal whites. The garden party to which the young black man and his white girlfriend are invited was populated by the whitest, most transparently hypocritical "Obama-was-our-greatest-president-I'd-vote-for-him-again-if-I-could" white people I've seen outside of Hollywood. (Now that I think of it, those characters were the creations of Hollywood, so I suppose even they can't be considered outside it.) Suffice it to say, "Get Out" is the most crass kind of sensationalist exploitation of white guilt and black mistrust, aimed clearly at the high-school and college-age bracket. But when you consider that the real desire of these ultra-suburban white liberals is, in effect, to devour young blacks, it appears even more cynical. And to top it all off, the resolution, when finally it arrives, is cliched, silly and utterly improbable. I wish I hadn't seen it.

There is one saving grace to this despicable film, however: the performance of Betty Gabriel. Every so often we see a mediocre (or worse) film in which there is one performance which seems that it belongs in something much better. Such was her portrayal of the weirdly docile housekeeper. She is by far the creepiest character in the film, and two scenes of hers in particular are worth the price of admission. One, the hands-down scariest moment in the film, which made the entire audience jump, simply involves her walking across the background of a shot. The other is her "No, no,no, no, no, no, no" tear-streaked moment which, deservedly, has become a YouTube meme, and which ought to enter the popular jargon as a terribly conflicted denial of absolutely everything about reality.

The other theatrical release is a film quite similar to "Get Out" in some ways: "It Comes at Night." It may be clear from all this that I do enjoy a genuinely scary film, and this one was certainly that. Several things set it apart from, and far above, "Get Out." First, the execution. As I watched it I kept thinking: this is really wonderful film-making. Beautifully directed, superbly photographed -- it is all about darkness and shadows; indeed, they are characters as much as the people in the film. The way the shadows move, as if alive, the way the director uses darkness, which is perhaps humans' primal fear. I won't say too much about the film in case you intend to see it; however if it is a conventional monster-in-the-woods or ghost-in-the-house film that you are expecting, you will be disappointed. As my step-daughter was, after, in retaliation for "Get Out," I urged her to see it. At the risk of giving something away, however, I will say this: what comes at night is nothing visible, nothing tangible; rather, it is fear itself. And the questions the film raises, unlike those of "Get Out," are primal, profound and genuinely worth pondering.

The third film was a Netflix. A Korean film entitled simply "Tunnel," about an ordinary sort of man driving home from work at a Kia dealership who is trapped when a newly constructed tunnel collapses. (And thank God he was driving a Kia, since, if it had been, say a Ford Focus or a Fiat, the film would have been ten minutes long.) I cannot help but feel that "Tunnel" was inspired by, if not based on, a wonderful old Kirk Douglas movie, "Ace in the Hole," which I had the privilege of discussing with Mr. Douglas one night years ago over dinner. As with that film, "Tunnel" is about suffering, survival, and the the crude exploitation of them by an unfeeling media circus. What sets "Tunnel" apart is how very well it is made, and the performance of the lead actor, Jungwoo Ha, with whom we identify completely, and whose fate we genuinely care about. How the director, and especially the cinematographer, manage to keep us involved, aware of every nuance of change in the cramped space, and yet not feeling so claustrophobic that we have to stop watching, is a source of real wonder and admiration to me. I am aware of course that the film was not shot in such tomblike confines, yet it truly feels as if it were, and this fact is the source of its intensity and power.

Even though I watched it at home, and was a few steps from the kitchen and the bathroom, I could not allow myself the luxury of pausing it and walking away. There is also embedded in the script a scathing attack on the vapidity and operational inhumanity of the media, as well as a wry, soul-saving humor that makes it possible to endure the extreme-close-up nature of the story. I was so impressed with the film that I took the trouble to read some of its reviews (which were universally positive), and while I agree with the majority opinion that it was ten or fifteen minutes too long, I disagree about the main female character's performance. I thought Doona Bae did a very good job of portraying the wife of the trapped man given the limited screen time and emotional bandwidth with which she had to work. In some ways, as a character, she was as trapped as he. As a visceral thriller and a fine piece of film-making, I recommend "Tunnel," which is still available on Netflix. And do have a snack and a bathroom break before you turn it on.

I promised a fourth film, and this is it, in the form of a disclaimer. I have had several inquiries about the new Tupac Shakur film, "All Eyez on Me," and I want to make it clear that, although I was involved in the scripting process for this film for the best part of a year, I had nothing to do with the finished product. I was invited by the Writers Guild to participate in the credit arbitration based on the amount of time and the number of drafts I invested in it, but when I read the final shooting script, I declined even to apply for credit. I have not seen the film and probably will not, and given the amount of research and writing I put into the development of it, and the respect I acquired for its subject, I feel genuinely regretful about the outcome.