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Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Ecstasy - La jetée.......The Agony - Psycho (1998)

Firstly the ecstasy: La jetée (1962)

When I received an email from Matt at the marvellous
first suggesting the Agony and the Ecstasy season, in which each writer talks about their movie love or hate, I thought that this would be easy peasy. If nothing else, writing a blog goes some way to satisfying my own particular self-indulgent and narcissistic need to bleat on about just how much I love/dislike this movie or that book (or how I dislike most bloody remakes). The fact that some people seem to quite like my blathering is something of a bonus, and not an unwelcome one at that. And do you know what? The task of coming up with my own love and hate was indeed easy peasy.

My own example of an absolute love of film is not meant to be overly high-browed or pretentious in any way, shape or form. But what cannot be denied is that my choice is certainly different in terms of it's style and structure. In addition, the influence that the film has had on filmmakers in both science fiction and horror is also not open to question, though that influence is unknown to many people in the wider public, due in no small measure to the movie's very different construction from the norm. The terms 'great' and 'genius' when describing certain works are often thrown about (by us all) in such abandonment that the descriptions have become passe and irrelevant when addressing the qualities of any production. There are many many good films, there are indeed a large number of excellent films. But there are few great ones.

However, my choice of Ecstasy I would argue IS the personification of pure unadulterated cinematic genius. It is a movie that changed everything for me in regard to me personal appreciation of science fiction, fantasy and horror. I cannot give it more praise than that.

La jetée is the 1962  French short movie that inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. Chris Marker's original telling of the story that mixes science-fiction, fantasy and horror within a narrative strand of post-Apocalypse disaster and time travel is far less commercial and accessible than Gilliam's (still wonderful) version. It is simply a genuine watershed of science-fiction film making, a 28-minute masterpiece told almost entirely in black and white still-frames. 

Set in the near future, the Earth has barely survived an all-consuming nuclear holocaust, which has driven the remnants of humanity underground. In this new underworld existence the division between victor and vanquished would, one would think, be meaningless under the circumstances that humanity now finds itself in and that in the event of such a catastrophe we would all pull together to ensure our survival. Nope, not a chance.

However, it seems that there are those who are more than prepared to subjugate others to their will and intentions, whatever the cost to personal rights and freedom. With few human and technological resources left after the planets near-destruction, scientists entombed beneath the ruins of Paris are searching to save the last vestiges of humanity through the one single road of opportunity left - time travel.

La jetée tells the story of an unnamed man who is obsessed with his vivid childhood recollections of witnessing an unknown man die on an airport jetty and then finding himself gazing into the entrancing face of a young woman. These memories seem to make him the perfect guinea pig for the authorities to use him in an experiment involving time travel. In due course the man travels though a loophole in time to the past and meets with the mythical woman from his childhood images and soon a relationship is kindled (or is it re-kindled?). Soon the powers that be attempt send him to their future to procure humanity's own future, however, the man wants to simply return to his past where the woman now waits for him and a plan for him to escape is put in place........

The first time I saw this movie it was hidden away on some obscure cable channel showcasing equally obscure foreign movie fare. This short piece of film made an unforgettable impression on me which has only ever been near equalled on a couple of occasions - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien to be precise. In fact it would be safe to say that La jetée has become something of an obsession, a piece of film making that I find myself returning to an a regular basis. It never fails to move me in its powerful depiction of the end of the world, human love and our autobiographical memory - all of which are conveyed in a number of genuinely effective and chilling 'scenes', particularly in the treatment of the people seen as mere disposable means to an end.

In the original, the French narration adds to the poetic subtlety and drama. The English narrative version is still equally powerful and the more easily found online. Hopefully, the original French version with English subtitles will be made online, as it seems to add a little more to the overall ambiance and feel of the movie. Though it certainly doesn't mean that the English translation for this version spoils the experience in any way.

I have heard it mentioned more than once that this film would be best described as avant-garde in nature. To me that description is overly pretentious and disingenuous towards fans of sci-fi and horror- it almost implies most fans of the genre are unable to grasp such complexities as an innovative plot structure which we may actually have to think about. Absolute nonsense, I love mindless SFX and violence as much as the next person, but occasionally it is nice to ponder and muse over what one is watching too. La Jetée is an example of how science fiction, fantasy and elements of horror can be constructed with style and fine distinctions, instead of a reliance on special effects.

This then, is La Jetée, a masterpiece of simple yet immeasurably effective and emotive visual art. If you've never seen this movie, I implore you to watch it.

And now for the agony - Psycho (Remake, 1998)

Hate is a strong word and one that I don’t use very often. I like to think that I’m a reasonably easy-going guy with a healthy dose of a live-and-let-live attitude to people and life in general. In fact I would go as far as saying that there are very few things, and even fewer people, that I would categorise as ‘hating’. I will, just between you and me, freely admit though to hating a few things that make ones blood boil; bullying, aggression, homophobia, intolerance and carrots – boy do I hate those orange coloured vegetable bastards.

As for people, well again there are few that I would define as hating, though I certainly dislike a whole shed load of people who well and truly test my personal policy of non-violence. I pretty much hated a guy at school when I was 10, David Clark (and for many years afterwards as it happened) after he stole my prized possession of my favourite Dobbie marble and then gave it as a present to the girl in our class that both of us fancied. Bastard. I worryingly held onto that hate for many years until I found out that he was married with 5 kids, had turned into an overweight and balding no-hoper who had been in and out of prison for a range of petty crimes. Hows that for Karma, matey Davie boy?

When it comes to Science Fiction, fantasy and horror, there is much I love, much I dislike and only a very little I would say that I hate. In all honesty, it would take a lot for me to hate a movie and in truth the particular film would need to have a number of important elements to fully justify a full hate value. The film would have to be a remake of a classic for a start which no doubt would have to completely and catastrophically miss the point of the original. In addition it would have to be a lazily directed piece of derivative excrement, containing a cast full of performances so abysmally wooden that it would never fail to make me want to be physically sick whenever I merely think of the films title. Oh hello Psycho (1998).

It is virtually impossible to gauge the colossal impact that Hitchcock's original masterpiece made upon it's release way back in 1960. It broke in no small way countless cinematic and social rules of the time; A couple sharing a lunchtime of illicit pleasure on screen & overtly violent murderous acts, to name but two. Psycho (1960) should also be given credit for introducing, or at least re-inventing, a new type of horror film. Here the traditional b-movie plots of Gothic horror in medieval England or distant Eastern Europe were substituted by the possibility of everyday horrors that were real and known to us.

Psycho (1960) isn’t regarded by some as a slasher movie, but it should be. There are many in my fellow slasher-loving fraternity that point out the lack of blood and gore in the film, but does a true slasher film have to be so? Not only does is have a demented murderer slicing up perfect strangers in the middle of nowhere, it is also a lesson in intelligent and thoughtful storytelling and audience manipulation. In addition, the movie's direct descendants in the 1970's of the seminal slasher movies such as Halloween owe everything to the first in their line.

The plot I'm sure is familiar to most - but just in case you have no taste and have never seen it.....

The film begins with an office worker Marion Crane who is clearly unhappy during one of her lunchtime assignations when she realises she and her boyfriend cannot afford to get married. This problem seems to be potentially rectified when, on returning to the office she is entrusted with a huge amount of a client's money to put into the bank. After a few moments of deliberation as to whether she should take the money, steal it she does and absconds from the town immediately.

Looks legit....
As she drives onwards through a torrential rainy night she realises that she needs to rest and so pulls into the remote Bates Motel. Here we are immediately introduced to a shy yet polite young owner, Norman Bates, who offers Marion one of the many spare rooms in the Motel. As they chat Norman tells her that since the recent diversion of the main highway they don't really see much business anymore. He seems nice.............

At first Marion feels in control of the conversation with this pleasant but very nervous young man, even after he also starts telling her about his mother, who Norman reveals suffers from some sort of mental illness. However,  Marion soon starts to regret her immoral actions and after setting on returning in the morning to give back the stolen money she decides to take a shower……… 

And we all know what happens there.....

Soon after, a detective who has been charged with the task of tracking Marion and the stolen money, has been talking to her boyfriend and sister (Sam & Lila)  and eventually locates the Motel. Here he is murdered on the stairs of the Bates house by a shadowy female figure, who has emerged from an upstairs room.

Sam and Lila, after losing contact with the detective decide to take matters into their own hands and make their  own way to the town near the motel. Here they start asking questions about Norman's mother…..

It doesn't go well.

Spot the difference. Oh wait, don't bother......
You may be asking whether this is the original plot or the one for the remake? Well it really doesn't matter because in his infinite wisdom, the director, Gus Van Zandt decided to not just remake a classic, oh no, no no.......He was going to duplicate the hell out of it.

When Gus Van Sant decided not only to remake this, the most revered of all of Hitchcock's films, but also to shoot a great deal of it frame-for-frame, there were many who shook their heads in disbelief. After seeing the finished product on it's release in 1998 there were even more people simply wanting to shake the director by the throat.

There are so many aspects of this version to despise that this particular article could never hope to do it justice. But as I said to myself many years ago when given the chance to spend the evening with Gemma and her twin sister, Rebecca-  "I'll certainly give it my best shot".

One myth that should be dispensed with straight away is the belief that this was a complete shot for shot remake- it wasn't, but it was bloody close. The vast majority of shots, including the way they were angled and lit in the original, were copied exactly, as was much of the dialogue. For the life of me I've never been able to figure out if this was some of misguided homage to Hitchcock or whether Van Sant actually believed that he was adding something new and fresh to the story. I've got news for you Gus, sonny Jim, you were doing neither.

"Hi, I'm a mad bastard, you know".
Then there was the misguided belief which old Gus obviously felt that the late 1990's audience wouldn't be satisfied with the lack of blood that accompanied the original. One of Hitchcock's many master strokes was to make the violence implicit and suggested, so much so that even today when people are asked to describe the much lauded shower scene their descriptions invariably include far more recollections of blood and violence than there actually was. This wasn't just the genius of Hitchcock because there are a plethora of examples of so called blood soaked movies that in reality contain comparatively little; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, to name but two.

However when old Gus went bumbling into the the directors chair he seemingly thought that the audience of 1998 were a bit too thick to understand such complexities as the power of suggestion and the genuine feeling of terror that it can bring. He instead decided to uses oodles of blood in the showers scenes et al in an attempt to placate the appetites of a new contemporary audience.  Fool.

"No, I'm the real mad bastard......"
Then there was the performances of the cast. Oh deary me. The catastrophic mis-casting of the all-important lead actor meant that the film was doomed from the start. Now, one could probably forgive the leading role of Norman Bates, as played by Vince Vaughn, because Vince is, well, crap in everything that he does. It's really not his fault, he's just a bit rubbish. So it's probably fair to say that he was always going to be on a hiding to nothing when being compared to what was to become in the original, one of horror's seminal performances.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho was almost note-perfect in his portrayal of a tortured psychopathic killer that gave us glimpses of textured acting that Vince Vaughn could only dream of. The genius of his performance was to hide the fact that beneath his shy and pleasant exterior lay a monster. You looked at this frail innocent looking boy and failed to comprehend the horror that he could be capable of. Unfortunately, it was also a role that defined Perkins' career and for many fans it defined the actor himself - despite a string of awards and noteworthy performances that succeeded Hitchcock's seminal masterpiece. No fear of that happening to you, Vincy boy I'm afraid.

If we can at least excuse old Vince then the rest of the cast don't get off quite so lightly.  Forget Anne Heche, because she's also pretty rubbish in most things, but for crying out loud; Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H.Macey, Robert Forster and Phillip Baker Hall - these people are bloody good actors! Whether it was the fact that they felt constrained by the directors need to mirror as much of the original's dialogue and scenes is impossible to know. 
"Bugger, I'd rather be in Mordor right now."

They all have the look about them that seems to constantly have the "I thought that this would look good on my CV, but now I think i'm buggered'. Viggo Mortensen in particular seems that he would rather be anywhere else but in that bloody stupid cowboy hat.

There have been a number of catastrophic misguided failures when it comes to remakes - this one for me is quite clearly at the top of that list. It's terrible and I hate it.

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