Sunday, October 03, 2010
Are you serious? The terror of ambiguity
If March starts with a lion and ends with a lamb, October starts with a sinister wind and a touch of orange in the leaves and ends with blood in the streets and monsters in the hall. But hey, people! Are our horror filmmakers ever going to get back to being actually scary instead of just gory/intense? And that brings me to the topic of today's sermon, BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), and its justifiably famous pool scene, which I don't want to spoil, but will say it may have been lifted from LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), and/or, for my book the single freakiest scenes of violent and death ever, in Sam Peckinpah's BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970).
The thing is, often in real life scenes of (potential or actual) violence, there is a bizarre "is this really happening or isn't it?" feeling, and if one is being threatened, an "are they just kidding or not?" aspect. A bully's first defense is often, "I'm just fuckin' with ya." This strategy plays like a drunken drummer upon our deeply rooted insecurities from childhood about "reading the situation" correctly. We watch the way anger, lust, humor and resentment all swirl around the banal conversations of our parent's bridge game. What the hell do they mean when they say stuff? Who knows if the dad driving you home from soccer is actually kidnapping you?
The opening scene in HOGUE is about such a misreading, as Hogue is fighting over the last of the water with his two prospector buddies, and Hogue gets the drop on them only to lose it when one ingeniously makes Hogue think they're all just joking around. Peckinpah excels at creating these vibrant, terrifyingly enigmatic situations where sudden outbursts of violence seem ready to erupt at any moment, but none of the characters really want it to happen, or know quite when it will. Peckinpah was the master who reminded us that in areas where lawmen have to ride days to find a suspect, everyone needs to keep a gun handy and be ready for the unfamiliar face to suddenly make his move, smile of innocent friendliness still firm on his face.
For example, lets remember the scene LETHAL WEAPON 2 when Mel Gibson charges onto a film set to foil an assault because he didn't realize it was "all pretend." Now reverse that idea, and have Mel charge onto a real crime scene and convince the perp he's making a movie. One certainly doesn't want to retaliate with brute force if there is a way the assailant can be made to re-imagine their assault as merely "playfulness." This is also a key to dealing with drunk aggressors, as they may be able to be convinced that they themselves are only kidding when they weren't (to begin with). Living in Brooklyn, you learn these tricks early, since any false move or betrayal of fear or panic can get your head smashed in during what might otherwise be a relatively harmless mugging. It's the first punch that is the hardest to throw, once the melee is on, even the scarediest little punk in the gang can find the nerve to run up and give you a kick in the ribs when you're lying there bleeding and unconscious.
I bring all this up so idiot horror film makers will stop just marching in each others' boot prints and realize they need to branch out and look deeper in the woods for scares because at this point, hockey masks and chainsaws aren't even worthy of a nostalgic shudder. HALLOWEEN used to be the scariest thing there was a kid could imagine, and now it plays on the Disney channel (1). This weird nebulous realm of violent ambiguity is one of the last barely explored frontiers of moviemaking. The fantasy of pure good vs. pure evil is gettin' old, we got art now, we got to unearth ambiguity where we left it in the graveyard of the 1970s, put a sledge hammer in its hand and bring it back to the head of the table.
Action movies like AEON FLUX, RESIDENT EVIL and assorted comic book and video game adaptations usually suck when they forget this ambiguity, making movies that instead create distance so the bloodletting is no more exciting than watching someone else play a video game. In reality, violence is like fire, it's hard to start it, and once it starts it spreads indiscriminately, almost a relief, covering the terrifying inability to know your neighbor's heart and allowing your inner killer to finally come out and eat your mind. That I can only think of these three films where this ingeniously terrifying ploy is used (2) shows the filmmakers are either afraid themselves or just don't think enough of their audience that they'll 'get' it. Maybe we should kill them! You know I'm kidding, right?
1) Not really, just fuckin' with ya!
2) Though I can't remember particular scenes, certain actors like Richard Widmark and directors like Howard Hawks and Quentin Tarantino are master of it.