In which I review this surprisingly serious stop-motion animation from Laika (who also made Coraline)
In which I review this surprisingly serious stop-motion animation from Laika (who also made Coraline)
In which I suggest that The Godfather’s poor showing in the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll, may have something to do with a lack of cultural demand
In which I justify the emotional distance employed by Anderson in his wonderful film
To like weird fiction, is to seek out and share new experiences. That’s not a matter of choice. The weird is ironically good at keeping to the shadows, lingering in a thousand secret R’ylehs while the limelight is hogged by more accessible fare. But, then again, that’s all part of the fun. With the pleasure of the experience itself, magnified by how easily you could have missed it, there is no greater pleasure than an experience newly discovered. Unless of course, it’s the pleasure of sharing your weird treasure with everyone you possibly can. In that vein: guys, I have something good for you today. Check this out:
Watch it? You ought to: after all, it’s only 3 ½ minutes long, and now I’m about to spoil the crap out of it.
Ok done? Right, I imagine you’re feeling pretty freaked right about now. Don’t panic. This is normal. Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared is a masterclass in messing with peoples’ heads and a ringing slap in the face of expectation. The bright colours, the puppets, the teaching of creativity, this is all Cbeebies stuff. It prods our brains into expecting childlike innocence, and like fools we believe it. It’s hard not to, when the expectation is backed by a happy, catchy tune, delightful animations, and silly voices. The short perfectly captures the feeling of children’s programming. And then the insane nightmare happens.
In cine-lingo, I’d call what happens a gradual tonal shift. It’s not a sudden change. There is an undercurrent of darkness running throughout the film, beginning with the lingering of the camera on the fake knives at the beginning. It is also present in the lack of the enthusiasm those at the table have for the Notepad’s ideas, and in the Notepad’s attempts to restrain creativity that doesn’t follow its specific guidelines. The descent into madness is nicely foreshadowed. However the fact that the descent happens so quickly, makes sure the tonal shift remains both dramatic and profoundly unsettling.
The most noticeable aspect of the shift is the descent of the happy, bouncy tune into screeching discord. More insidious however are the visual cues. The animated segment at the beginning of the shift, as a complete change of visual style, would be discomfiting on its own. However the fact that the segment also breaks the 4th wall literally shatters this imaginary world. What was at first an enclosed space is now potentially infinite. What was at first fantasy is now implied to bleed into reality.
Our discomfort is cemented by the switch from puppets to costumes, a change that takes us from something that comfortably imitates humanity, straight into the uncanny valley. The weird spasm-like dancing is just icing on the weird cake. Then, to seal the deal, we have the red, intestinal squishiness of the hearts and meat, a vile intrusion of disgusting reality into a space we believed to be so innocent. All of this and more flashes by, too fast for our brains to try to find sense in. We in the audience are thoroughly and comprehensively freaked and alienated.
And then suddenly, we are whipped back into the innocent, happy world we occupied before. Our expectations are shattered by the tonal whiplash. What we just saw fits no real narrative pattern. The closest we could come to defining it would be as a comedy, but Don’t Hug Me is too nightmarish to rest easy in that box. All we can be sure of, is that the short was really, really weird.
And it’s also something I might never have come across. Sure, the video has over 1.5 million views on Youtube. I saw it first featured one of the most prominent short film blogs on the web, and then at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not exactly an unknown experience. But still, even that level of knowledge is not enough for this film. In the space of 3 minutes, this film displays intense visual creativity, provides at least a couple of laughs, and hints at some interesting Ayn Rand-style subtext (an implicit criticism of teaching creativity, because doing so restrains natural creativity). But most of all, Don’t Hug Me is all that weird fiction should be: a perfectly constructed rejection of expectation. It is therefore a film that has to be seen by as many goddamn people as possible. Share and Enjoy!
This is my second feature article on the all-media movement known as The Weird. For over a century, artists of all stripes have left the beaten paths of genre convention and audience expectation to create fiction of a strange and wonderful kind. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years, my love for this fiction has grown out of all proportion. Rather than let it get too unmanageable, I have decided to put some of the love into a series of irregular features. Hopefully, thus trapped, it will prove less bothersome.
There is a strong possibility, that my decision to write these weird features stems solely from my desire to talk about Bubba Ho-Tep. Well, even if that’s the case, fuck it. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that needs to be talked about. This is a movie of exciting action, fairly creepy horror, and meditative, intelligent social commentary, all wrapped up in the most ridiculous packaging imaginable. It is a combination that should not work, that should be torn apart by competing frivolous and serious tones. And yet, this is not the case, and the brilliance of Bubba Ho-Tep lies in its weird synthesis of humour and gravitas.
Humour is not common in weird fiction, and frankly the scene can get terribly serious at times. This is not particularly surprising: the roots of weird fiction lie in grim earth. In part this is down to the legacy of the weird patriarchs, writers like Lovecraft, Poe and Blackwood. Their influence is visible in the tendency of weird fictioneers to couch their grotesque and uncanny content in the language of horror. But this is not the only cause. Gravity’s dominance also has a sense of self-consciousness about it, the feeling of artists worried that “If we don’t take it seriously, they’ll laugh at it”. The weird always runs the risk of breaching peoples’ tolerances which often prompts dismissal. Everyone prefers being dismissed on the grounds of being mysterious and inscrutable, than being labelled as silly. But in following tradition and caution, the weird fails to retain a certain sense of perspective.
To put it in an antagonistic fashion, the weird bears the imprint of academics insisting big tentacley monsters can only be treated seriously. Mostly seriously: yes. Such monsters were created to terrify after all. But it’s good to occasionally admit what is weird is also faintly ludicrous. This is what Bubba Ho-Tep does. This is a film in which an old man, who believes he is Elvis Presley, and another old and decidedly black man, who believes he is JFK, fight a mummy in a cowboy outfit intent on devouring the souls of pensioners. Now that is weird and also ridiculous. Bubba Ho-Tep is not shy about that.
In fact, Bubba Ho-Tep encourages its audience to laugh. Elvis and JFK are constantly quoting and paraphrasing their famous selves, and the film is full of silly one-liners and pictographic insults. The humour here is of the cheesy and knowing variety, making Bubba Ho-Tep the kind of movie that smiles along with mockery. Hell, the movie willingly pokes fun at itself: Elvis consistently refers to himself and his friend as ‘nuts’, and we are introduced to the character by his nurse teasing him about his identity.
But this acknowledgement of ridiculousness never undercuts the movie’s intelligence. Bubba Ho-Tep dishes out some fairly brutal criticism of modern society. In the black comic asides of two hearse drivers, Bubba Ho-Tep presents a society too preoccupied with day-to-day labour to care about more metaphysical issues. Philosophy here is the preserve of the oaf and the nut. The opening of the film too has something to say, following the death of Elvis’ roommate, a terminally ill veteran. When the veteran’s daughter comes to claim his things, she treats her father’s purple heart and old photos like rubbish, absent-mindedly dropping them in the bin. All she has to say about the man was that he was ‘alright’. When Elvis asks her why she never visited her father, all she can say is that she was ‘busy’. And yet she says it like it is the ultimate reason, that seeing her dying father could not be a priority in a world with so much to do. Through these scenes, Bubba Ho-Tep casts an unflattering light on a world of individuals living purely in the now, with no thought for past or future, or indeed other beings beyond their everyday sphere.
But the movie does find good men in this Gomorrah. The decision to fight the mummy leads to the ultimate redemption of Elvis and JFK. These two characters lived wholly in the moment during their youth. Now the moment has passed, and they are left with nothing but regrets. Their battle against the mummy is a sign of their personal growth, their acknowledgement of the worth in fighting for the sake of others. And the subtext doesn’t stop there.
Bubba Ho-Tep is also an effective critique of society’s treatment of the elderly, most commonly through Elvis’ bitter internal monologues. The old man is surrounded by younger people who treat him like a child. They scold him, tell him how long he can play outside, put him down for naps, and see him as sexually non-existent. It is a situation he abhors. Admittedly, and somewhat satirically, Elvis and JFK occasionally live up to the condescension: Elvis uses the toilet as a matter of pride, and the pair’s highest pleasure is found in secretly-stashed candy. But in the end, you are left in no doubt that there are serious problems with the way we instinctively treat senior invalids. Through this, Bubba Ho-Tep becomes a film about humanising the elderly. Just because they may be physically infirm, does not mean mind and will are weak. As the film’s ending shows, a hero in a wheelchair is just as badass as one walking.
And that in the end is what Elvis and JFK are: heroes. This is what makes the ridiculousness and the seriousness co-operate rather than conflict. Subtext aside, the story of Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of two men who, despite their physical frailty, take on a genuinely dangerous opponent. This is a film with real soul, something that can be felt in every strum of guitar in Brian Tyler’s score. It is this soul that gives the intellectual subtext emotional weight. It is this soul that makes the self-aware ridiculousness celebratory rather than snarky. This soul makes a darkly intelligent film, about Elvis and black JFK fighting a mummy, work. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that creates a whole out of all kinds of parts. It is a film chimaera. A Frankenstein’s story. And pure, weird, genius.
In action filmmaking, less is more. Not in the usual sense, which is used to imply that being subtle is more effective than having a film scream “LOOK AT THIS!” into the collective face of its audience. Rather, I mean it in a more literal sense: not so much ‘less is more’ as ‘less is equal to more’. The aim of any action film is get the gut reaction, hitting the audience square in the viscerals. And ‘less is equal to more’, because toning down or ramping up the stylisation of action are equally viable choices in achieving this. The proof? Two films I ended up seeing back to back one Tuesday night: Haywire and Underworld: Awakening.
These films make for an excellent comparison. They are both helmed by women. They both feature thin plots and underdeveloped characters (played by ironically well-developed actresses). In fact, plot and character are only present in these films to legitimise what would otherwise be a non-stop orgy of violence. As might be expected then, neither film is that interested in engaging the mind with themes, or the soul with moments of poignant beauty. Their aim is to present battles that grab the audience by the balls. Both films achieve this, only through completely opposite methods.
Underworld: Awakening elects to take the route that winds up and over the top. Everything about the film is over-stylised, with Seline’s (Kate Beckinsale) costume being a prime example. The rubber, corset & big strappy boots combo, all tinted the slinkiest of blacks, creates an image that truly deserves the title ‘hypersexual’. But there’s more to this outfit than simple sex appeal.
Seline after all is a vampire, marked in this series by her eyes on occasion turning bright, ice-blue. This note of colour stands out massively on a character which is so monochrome. In addition to the all-black outfit, Beckinsale’s face is made up very pallid, and her hair is as dark as her squeaky outfit. The eye change then is very noticeable, hammering home to the audience that what we are seeing here isn’t quite human. The same happens when Seline feeds. The contrasting redness of her blood-drenched chin similarly reinforces the monstrous nature of her character.
And it is important that this is reinforced. In Underworld, the insanity of the fight scenes only makes sense because the characters are so clearly inhuman. And this isn’t the only way the style displayed in character design feeds into the action. Seline as a character is not so much eyecatching, as she overwhelms the eye in stimuli. All that hypersexuality combines with the vampire affections, to make a character that throws out a confusing mix of allure and alienation.
This reflects the action because it also grabs attention by being visually overwhelming. In Underworld, characters are not punched. They are twatted, sent flying across a room, or burst from the inside, or both. Bones are broken through the skin, necks are snapped and faces are torn off. Through this, Underworld aims to make you wince. It seeks immediate sensory overload and it is highly successful. And as such, the Underworld action sequences are pure visceral fun.
And so are those of Haywire, despite the fact that where Underworld over-exaggerates, Haywire under-exaggerates. It’s actually kind of crazy just how stripped down Haywire is. The film is a parade through multiple, featureless environments. Unlike in Underworld, situated in a city that looks like it was designed by Edgar Allen Poe, Haywire’s surroundings have no dominating style. In fact, only the globetrotting extent of the film stops it looking like a student production.
And it doesn’t stop there. Gina Carano (who plays the heroine Mallory Kane), Michael Fassbender (as fellow agent Paul), Channing Tatum (Aaron, another agent) and most of the rest of the cast play distinctively low-key roles: not much emotion, softly spoken, the whole works. It’s a nice way to bring across the alien levels of reserve that professional killers, in a literally cutthroat industry, would need to operate, but somewhat unexpected from an action film.
Even the person of Carano herself reflects this toned-down style. Though certainly beautiful, she is not so in the usual waifish Hollywood sense. In fact, by comparison to such people she looks positively normal. For the most part. See Carano does have some distinguishing features that, in my mind, mark her out as born physical actress. Namely, a grace to her movements and a hard intensity to her eyes that just states ‘fighter’ (which, as a Mixed Martial Arts champion, she is).
This visual presence is a lot different to the ‘LOOK AT ME’, hypersexual style of Beckinsale. That style screams to be noticed, is extreme and overwhelming. By comparison Carrano’s style is downplayed. She doesn’t call out to be noticed. And yet the merest glance at her informs that this woman can tear people to shreds. This is something Beckinsale’s character announces. Carrano says it, slowly, calmly and with papal-level infallibility.
So, as with Underworld, the action of Haywire reflects this domineering style. Visual shock has no place here. Haywire’s fight scenes feature two people simply rolling around and punching each other, and they do it in silence. Haywire’s score is only forgettable background music at the best of times, but even that extra facet is stripped away during the fights, with the only audio the sounds of impacts and the gasps of pain and exertion.
And yet, these scenes are just as visceral as the overblown werewolf-vampire dusts up of Underworld. In my opinion, it works because Haywire strips out everything that might distract from the fighting. This technique plays on the way humans are naturally captivated by fights. Haywire, in making sure there are no other demands on our attention during the fight scenes, blinkers its audience. Once our attention is caught, nothing is allowed to distract us from Carano beating the shit out of people. And with our focus so captured, it is impossible to not become viscerally invested in the onscreen goings-on.
So, there you have it. Haywire and Underworld Awakening, two films which take totally opposite approaches to the presentation of action, that both prove equally successful. So, what is the point of pointing this out? Well, it could be to let Hollywood know that there is a route to good action movies other than over-exaggerated stylisation: it would be nice if amongst all the blockbusters that look like Underworld, there were at least a few that styled themselves after Haywire. But hell, they aren’t reading this, so instead, the message is targeted at you, the consumer. If you’re out shopping, and you’re looking for good action, don’t automatically gravitate to the flashy stuff. Remember, there are multiple ways to grab someone by the balls.