Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Die Vikaren (THE SUBSTITUTE) und die Nordic Land sind sehr schon!

Summer in Manhattan I like to turn up the AC, weep for the environment, and escape into Nordic horror cinema, which is currently undergoing a major burst of (dark, what else?) energy thanks probably to the surprise art house success of Sweden's GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008, below).

Strangely enough, no one in the overpaid brain trusts of Hollywood marketing seemed smart enough to sink their talons into the whole Nordic cold/blonde/snow/stillness rubric as a romantic selling point for these films. What are they, racist? Anyone with a crayon can connect the dots between RIGHT ONE and the TWILIGHT series, and stuff like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and THE SUBSTITUTE miss big dollars by not stressing the Nordic / Scandinavian connection to TWILIGHT and RIGHT ONE (Yes, RIGHT ONE came out technically after the SUBSTITUTE, but that's what re-releasing is for).

Consider 30 DAYS OF NIGHT's graphic novel ink splatter poster (left): it looks like drug-deal-gone-bad with Ice T, rap soundtrack, and probably a gaggle of bad CGI vampires and bright red digital blood splatter. In reality it's balls-to-the-wall awesome, with enough dark, moody, grim stillness to earn it a spot right in between Carpenter's THE THING remake, Kathryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK, and any 80s-90s film where the sheriff of a small northern town is a young buck all alone save for his wizened but still hot ex-girlfriend deputy... This time, it's Alaska, and the literal 30 Days of Night have sent most of the population to other areas for the month, leaving the place wide open for invasion by Swedish Goth vampires.


Like the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the countries just outside the Arctic Circle--Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Tibet--are all way up North, where it's cooool! In this way TWILIGHT has more in common with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THE SUBSTITUTE than it does with other American movies. Consider these factors:

1. Cold, dark, underpopulated - good place to film in stark contrast, since the light is constant and diffused - gives everything a doomed, foreboding quality.
2. Polar Bears adrift on ice cap islands = suicidal ideation on a global scale
3. Sarah Palin, the Younger, Hotter Mrs. Iselin
4. All the girls (and guys) in Scandinavia are hot, blonde, single, and wowed by an American accent. (according to America)
5. Beautiful children with stunningly above average intelligence and quiet speaking voices.
6. Long nights of depression but for once you have a legit reason
7. Turtlenecks, wood-burning stoves, promiscuity
8. A lulu of an excuse to drink continually (it's never the morning after)
9. The idea of endless nights freeing you from the day/night duality, the tedium of the endless cycle of night and day.
10. Connection to real alien grays, eugenics, Nazis, genocide and Aryan reptillian insanity (See: Uma Thurman is from Venus) 
11. Lots of blonde hair... and the evil that implies
12. Black Metal
13. Vancouver, City where it's cheaper and easier to shoot 'on location' in NYC
14. Pale skin - vampires in the land of the midnight sun wont die of skin cancer like everyone else, lack of sun damage preserves eternal youth.
15. Bibi Andersson - she looks just like my mom (when I was the age of the kid in the morgue in PERSONA) yet is terribly, terribly sexy, forcing me at least, into a delirious Hitchcockian fugue state every time I see her.
16. In short, cinema.

In shorter still, a disruption of the fantasmatic, or a break between the real and the vividly painted. The Nordic fantasia short circuits our normal sense of light and dark - the ever-grayness of these regions makes them like a timeless dream. We can't even admit to ourselves how sick we are of night and day, day and night and day, over and over, here in the non-Pacific Northwest states, but we are, let's face it, or we wouldn't be hiding out in the eternal cold darkness of the movies.

The Scandinavians rock because the guys are all asleep or mysoginists and their chicks are way hot, educated, cool and see Americans as sexy the way we see, say, the Italians (again, according to our simulacratic mental fantasias). We're practically a Mediterranean country compared to them!  It seems in these films there's nothing in all of Scandinavia to do except drink, kill your tormentors , watch TV, have sex, and wander around in the dark in a drunken fog like Max Von Sydow in PASSION OF ANNA (1963, below).  Even if you don't get a beautiful blonde, or you do and she leaves, you can still drink and pass out in the snow or get bit by a vampire or animal mutilator. Oh slow death by alcoholic and hematological causes, where is thy sting?

Even if little to none of the items on that list turn out to be true, who cares? This is a Nordic land of our collective imagination, born of our need to escape from the hamster wheel of 9-5 living into the cold, calming comfort of the eternal night.

So that's the fantasia, mine anyway; I listen a lot to Lee Hazlewood's Cowboy in Sweden, savoring the "empty whiskey bottles / and records scattered on the floor" and dream my way up to Sweden or Denmark for a soul-searching vacation, falling in love with a sweet wondrous blonde-haired beauty I meet at the coffee bar; it turns out he or she lives in a cool pad and asks me to move in; everyone speaks English and they all appreciate my tortured depth; I fall into a hip alt-rock crowd; my art's not "too dark" for them, nothing is too dark for them!  I just quietly disappear into the fields of white, gray, and black, like that kid in INTO THE WILD, which "coincidentally" also co-starred Kristen Stewart (below, left).

Am I the only one who's got this Nordiclust? Not if the TWILIGHT sales figures are a judge, because I'd say the Pacific Northwest-teen horror tradition counts, too, and Alaska. It's the last American frontier, the last world frontier, a place where the rats of humanity can still escape and live like... kangaroos, or kings, or at the very least colorful truckers and waitresses that get killed before the opening credits.

 When you rent the teen-friendly and highly recommended Danish horror/sci fi film, SUBSTITUTE (2007), on DVD you also get endless trailers that all look pretty good, from an obviously Nordic-looking series called the Ghost House Underground. If you're wondering which films are actually in English or just dubbed/subtitled, keep your eyes peeled on the lips. In the foreign language trailers you will never see anyone actually speak. Everyone talks offscreen, except maybe to say "hey, man" (the way we say "gesundheit"). When you go to actually watch these films, make sure to see them in their real language with subtitles rather than the English language dubs, which kind of defeat the purpose, especially when there's great acting like that of Paprika Steen, who also starred in Dogme 95 hits like THE IDIOTS and THE CELEBRATION, here as a crazy kind of Aryan Nordic alien uberfrau who tries to turn her 6th grade class into a mini master-race (below).

The typically doltish releasing companies behind THE SUBSTITUTE also failed to pick up on how this is a LET THE RIGHT ONE IN waiting to happen. Even better, a LET THE RIGHT ONE VS. THE TWILIGHT GENERATION  (our lead lad broods Edwardianly, as if to announce the future American benchmark teen look--one of privileged grief and numb disinterest) + some of the sensible-ages-and-up ready fun of THE FACULTY, a 1999 Rodriguez film that's still my favorite of his oeuvre, and maybe a little PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE and THE FORGOTTEN (below) thrown in for good measure.

I mean, seriously, look at all these SUBSTITUTES already out there! Can you even guess which one I'm reviewing in this post?

Love that Mark Wahlberg vs. Amanda Donohoe frowning contest! So, yeah, it's the last one, but how would you know it's cool, cold and full of fine stuff based on that cliche-ridden poster?

Since Alaska is a northern cousin of the Nordics, there's a strong whiff of Sarah Palin teaching THE CLASS here in THE SUBSTITUTE, and if the marketers were smart, they would have played up that angle. Like Palin, Paprika's alien-monster teacher plays heartstrings like a lute and drives whole nations to cataclysm, but there's also some of Colonel Krebs (Lotte Lenya) in that she's not as hot as you'd expect given the Skinemax-ish title, but kind of ravaged around the gills, especially compared to Sonia Richter (all the way atop and below) who plays the single cop mom to the cute new girl student in class. There she is at left, reminding me of a girl I loved in college. Man, she was flaky.

It's too bad THE SUBSTITUTE doesn't focus solely on the classroom scenes with Paprika, which are magnificent to watch as she switches from deep emotional manipulation to heartless, laughing cold-hearted Nazism on a dime (imagine She-Wolf Ilsa crossed with the Bibi Anderson from WILD STRAWBERRIES doing THE CHILDREN'S STORY). She's still good in lots of those "o why won't our parents believe us?"-style angst moments, but it's the classroom scenes that are golden: Ulla isn't afraid to run a gym class like a Treblinka death run, and she spouts brutal philosophies that would win the applause of James Mason in BIGGER THAN LIFE! Those Danes don't miss a trick and it's nice to see all the old dogme faces (the single dad looking to love again is played by Ulrich Thomsen, also from THE CELEBRATION).

Ah the war. How sweet that we need no longer miss the sound of howitzers, or the threat of angelic blonde faces in Hitler Youth neckerchiefs, running their SS daggers down our backs like warm September rain. It's all still here, or rather up there, along the shining Blu-ray way... they're all blondly waiting to gobble us up, and seldom before has death seemed so coldly inviting, at least for an hour or two out of the stifling humidity of summer and into the cold, windy climes of the cinema, where death is life and love is two cold fangs in your warm, hot neck, like blood stream air conditioning.

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