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

Monday, March 12, 2012

Are You Lonesome, Automaton: Terminator and Halloween vs. Hugo / or Woman is the Father of Horror

I am a mechanical man
And I do the best I can
Because I have my Family
   -- Charles Manson ("Mechanical Man")

Was it chance I saw Hugo (2011) and The Terminator (1984) in the same day and Halloween (1978) the next? Three tales of automatons... one amok and one clockwork and one clockwork amok, all about going into the past, as it were, to either repair or destroy icons, be they girls or auteurs.

First the first two: with amazing actors glassening up their eyes and amazing photographers capturing the play of light therein, you don't have much of a chance to stay unmoved on an emotional Sunday afternoon watching Hugo, but the clockwork momentum and awe and everything coming synchroniciously true was much more machine-like than the pre-CGI Terminator; in other words the science fiction film seems ancient and primitive while the nostalgic look back to the silent film era is futuristic slick --the true 'tech noir'.

Like Scorsese, I know there's no getting past the space-time conundrum of my own memories, and like any film critic / theorist I love to dredge long lost celluloid from beneath the skittering heels of post-industrial society. The resurfaced and belatedly lauded (within Hugo) Méliès is just perhaps the latest/first example of a reflexive Cine-Lazarus resurrection in cinematic memory (his films were melted down to make shoe heels during ze war). Alas such resurrections are subject to an unspoken bourgeois law that says ahead-of-their-time 'underground' artists must lie buried for not less than one and ideally not more than seven decades before being exhumed and wept over by the wonderful wizard of film curation, who gives them something better than life: a retrospective! But Hugo's tin man's heart-shaped key can't compete with its own clockwork orange-hued enshrinement in the perma-pantheon as far as shiny tokens. Though the artist's work has not changed its essential form, the world has tick-tocked so many times around the orb that old is new, quaint is revolutionary; whimsical antiquation is post-modern; cheap drive-in fodder and newsprint comic books are hundred million dollar box office business; and night table films about film preservation are filled with enough clocks you'll never have to reach very far to smash the snooze button on the industrial age for another two hours of hand color-tinted dreams...

The problems in Hugo lie with the heart-shaped key (as Sarah's answering machine puts it, "machines need love too"), indication someone convinced old Marty that we need a catchy symbol to recognize a film, and the Méliès 'brand' of that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye must be recognized as iconic (ever try to watch Trip to the Moon in one sitting? Sure it's imaginative but it's also boring - all static long shots), and the douche-chilled bouts of bouncily orchestrated whimsy in the cutaways to the budding romance between old dude and the old lady who sits at the cafe, --oui, monsieur, but she has, 'ow you say, the bitey dog?-- So he gets a dog of opposite gender for to woo said old lady. This contrasts in cakey layers with the plucky orphan film lover's Dickensian bouts with the evil stationmaster (Borat); and in the station works a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who lost a brother the way the stationmaster lost his leg, and Méliès lost his negatives... in zee Great War! Ze Jews made shoes mit dem. It all must be recognized and underlined and sugar-flecked for easy patenting. Sure, I cried. But I felt cheap for doing so. I felt like someone was trying to be Ron Howard, and that's a bad thing when that someone is already Martin Scorsese.

Then there's The Terminator, a film that makes me want to rescue from obscurity that old James Cameron, not the Titanic control freak, the Pirhana 2 protege.  I remember seeing the trailer for The Terminator at the Montgomeryville Drive-In (the main feature was C.H.U.D!) Shuffled in with about six other similar-looking indie sci fi-ish titles, The Terminator looked cheap, sleazy and we in the car, all Conan fans, loudly mourned how far Arnold had fallen since 1982. Focusing on the sad-eyed New Wave disco Tech Noir, with its tacky neon and Arnold dressed like  the kind of guy who usually has Rutger Hauer or a naked screaming woman reflecting in his Gucci sunglasses.

Of course that's not the way it panned out; the reviews glowed and the box office soared, and my jaw dropped in pleased amazement. I remember seeing Terminator by myself up in Woodbridge to get away from my family Thanksgiving day in 1984 and lord knows I felt pretty wowed. The trouble was that it became too popular. Overnight Cameron became an auteur, the most recognized newly minted wunderkind to emerge from the exploitation genre since John Carpenter in 1978 with Halloween. And if you meshed Hugo and Halloween together, wouldn't you have The Terminator? Look at the resemblance of the 'shape' and the mechanical man in the below shots, so many similarities to with the Sarah's roommate and her boyfriend and PJ Soles and hers, right down to the getting killed going for a post-sex snack, the annoying rock headphone-wearing, the presumption--as with so many modern cell phone users--that being myopically absorbed makes you invulnerable, etc.


1. Automaton!: The idea of the automaton goes back to the 1890s (see below right) and was forgotten by the 1920s, but the automaton killer thing began again with Halloween (or maybe the 1940s Mummy sequels). Of course I'm talking about the slow moving but unstoppable variety, the shambling shapes who can't be killed yet are not alive, and are already slowed yet won't be stopped. And like The Terminator, Halloween was a scrappy independent low budget ($6 million; Halloween was $320K) thriller that wound up being iconic and inspiring many much bigger-budgeted imitations, all of which corresponds to the figure of the forgotten auteur and his lost gem 'automaton.' The filmmaker's own alienation from the actual machinations of projection, of the mechanism of screening and seeing the film with an audience (aside from the premiere), anxiety about the cross-country marketing and promotion, and the obsessive need to tinker, to keep taking things in and out of the final cut until the last possible moment. What does it all deconstruct to?

"Draughtsman-Writer" by Henri Maillardet c. 1800

The surrealist concept of 'automatic writing' is probably at the farthest extreme of big budget Hollywood moviemaking: the first is unadulterated raw unconscious, the second has been tooled by a team to wring maximum suspense and greatness, with dozens of unionized voices pitching in and every creative decision having to eventually boil down to entries in a budget ledger. The whole mission becomes capturing the blazing brilliance of the automatic writing session inside the carefully constructed and staggeringly complicated mechanism of filmmaking. It's what occurred to me watching the mechanical man in Hugo start to draw... we don't know what the metal hand will write or create, but neither do we know what our own hand will write during automatic writing... it becomes the opposite end of the Hugo spectrum, the mechanical voice, SKYNET's distant cousin, reaching from beyond the well-guarded door to hopefully scribble something accessible and profound: "I'm sorry, Dave. I can't let you do that." or "we think of the key, each in his prison / thinking of the key, each confirms a prison."

2. Women are the fathers of Horror - And now, gender controversy comes into the mix, because creating mechanical people and automaton killers is a man thing, his approximation of the birth giving experience. The mad scientist is the classic Apollonian archetype, attempting to replace the chthonic madness of woman's birth canal with living tissue over titanium endoskeleton... or big fat cogs. The man rejects reality and creates his own, either a shape, a tower, an automaton, a poem, a science fiction or horror film...

So wouldn't it follow that women, then, are perhaps the 'fathers' of these creations, the automatons, and therefore of all the best science fiction and horror films? Look over the roster and you see women right behind the scenes, letting the man take the director credit, and instead working as producer and writer, script supervisor, and sometimes star

Consider yet another Halloween-Terminator similarity: in both films the target of the monster is a normal, good-hearted girl who locates her true heroic self in the course of events, and both films transcend cheap boy's club sexuality and feel more assured about gender than a genre picture had seemed capable of prior to. And a look at the credits reveals why: women were actively involved, as writers and/or producers, in both productions: Debra Hill in Halloween and Gale Ann Hurd in Terminator, and though their contributions tend to go unrecognized in the rush to canonize directors like Carpenter and Cameron, looking at the later works of each lady you see a lot of the same wit and charm that made both these early films so successful, a wit and charm lacking in the director's work without them. For example Hill also worked with Carpenter on The Fog and Escape from New York and Hurd worked on Cameron's Terminator 2, Aliens, and The Abyss. These films all have a spark and wit and self-effacing deadpan soul that is lacking in later work by the men (unfertilized eggs, if you will). The trick of course is to find and then honor the woman creative voice who understands the masculine psyche without being contemptuous of it (the genius of this being Katheryn Bigelow, below w/ Oscars).

Debra Hill, left
Within the context of Hugo we have the female character played by Chloe Grace-Moritz who, in the end, finds her own groove by deciding to write the book whose adaptation you have just seen. So in a way she's also a female 'producer' helping a male's automated vision make it to the screen, filtering the material through feminine perspective, watching from on high as a man expresses through art his own weird gender-fucked procreation. Like Hurd and Hill, Moritz is participating in the rearing of a film--through support and input the way a husband would in the rearing of the child. Just as a dad helped conceive the actual child, and may help raise it, he will never get the auteur credit for the child's existence, that credit belongs to the woman, no matter what part dad had in it. So it is that great sci-fi and horror films seem to depends on women like Hurd and Hill, who become, in a way, the fathers (Scorsese of course has genius editor Thelma Schoonmaker; Hitchcock had Alma, Argento has Nicolodi, etc).

Blue Meanies: (from top) Terminator, Halloween, Hugo
3. The Gears: In the end, our 'submission' to the process of entering a film 'dream state' is an interface with a machine, becoming clockwork. The turning reels of film, the gears and wattage of the projector --this is the end-form of the experience. The actual movie may have cost millions to make; it may have been made by talented craftsman tinkering for months, years, or just a few hundred thousand, shot and edited in a few months, but the final result is always just a machine spitting encoded light and shadow out onto a white screen in some suburban multiplex, noise and voices electronically captured find human ears eager to surrender to the machine. We enter collective hypnosis willingly - leaving our backs exposed to the man behind us who just might stick a knife through the base of our skull. Sex and sleep may leave you vulnerable to killers, but film watching is to actually invite them in But it's okay, they're not human - just electromagnetic waves.  We've invited in the machine.

Man Ray - Rayograph
We repress or ignore this cinematic mechanism element when surrendering to a movie (unless it's out of focus, or too quiet, or the sound is out of sync, or the theater is too hot or cold) as easily as we forget that we--personally and finally-- could become raw meat in the blink of an eye on the highway, or that 80% of the voices we hear tend to be electronically reproduced, that we barely speak anymore except to order food... on the phone. The automaton then comes as an eruption of the mechanism even further into consciousness, a black hole opening up in the center of the film, fixing to turn us all into mecha-aberrations, like Chaplin threading through the machine in Modern Times, or Sarah Connor in the crushing metal compactor in the Terminator climax.

To avoid this we like to keep a respectful distance from the mechanism itself, to hide the wires behind the walls, but as we prepare for 2012 it becomes pretty terrifying to realize how hopelessly addicted we are to electricity. If it goes out, we will be totally lost. The Terminator and the mechanical man in Hugo are both examples of machines that don't use electricity - one just needs to be wound up, the other is nuclear-powered. Neither needs an outlet. They, alone, are truly independent.

blood and gears (from top: Hugo, Modern Times, Terminator)
4. False Nostalgia Syndrome - Like a suspicious number of films nominated for a 2011 Oscar, Hugo bathes in nostalgia for pre-WWI silent film whimsy, recalling Modern Times if it was remembered by the film scholar who managed to find its lost reel in a mislabeled can and won a prize, and Scorsese is certainly a major savior of film preservation, but is his nostalgia enough to warrant the 'greatness' label for Méliès? Is the subject even a worthy entry in the oeuvre of the man who made Raging Bull and Goodfellas? When dealing with the working class Italian neighborhood of Little Italy or Brooklyn, Scorsese gives us 'real' nostalgia, as in he 'really' witnessed it. For an escapist like myself Hugo seems as suspiciously bourgeois as its fellow 2011 nominee, Midnight in Paris. These are the fantasias of pampered rich kids who have been able to spend their lives tinkering with sound and image and now wonder if maybe, if they could travel back in time, then even Earnest Hemingway would call them geniuses. They'd be able to recognize themselves in work by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and get to drink 'real' absinthe. It works as their fantasy, but it can't work as ours because they've inhaled the fun out of it, and left us nothing but a shrine to their own desire, nothing but the act of showing us something that meant something to them when they were young and dumb like they think we are now.

The Terminator on the other hand is my experienced moment of childhood whimsy (well, teenagerdom - right at the time I was changing from comic book nerd to punk rocker)--and revisiting the film today it seems, at least on the surface, refreshingly trashy. With its pouffy hair, pastel clothing, Italian rock synthesizers, rear screen-projected stop motion animation, copious neon, pet iguana, and casual sex roommate getting killed off first, slasher-style, this pre-digital futuristic film is the 'real' wake-up to nostalgia that Hugo can only catch from a fleeting Parisian postcard, that is, unless Scorsese actually remembers going to films at the turn of the century, pinning that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye image on his bedroom door to piss off his a-mama. (Mama, why-a you cry? It's just a the moon-a?)

Because without that genuine connection, only an egoist would think he could deliver any real meaning... unless he admitted Méliès films lacked narrative thrust, and that--depending on how long it's been since we saw our favorite childhood films--our expectations are seldom met. But it's in not meeting expectations the actual magic occurs. It's the very gritty low budget tangibility, the tactile vividness, of the 1984 Terminator that somehow makes it seem more alive today than a CGI-sandblasted 2011 film like Hugo. No one knew at the time of Terminator's making that "I'll be back" would become such a catch phrase, to the point there was no way avoid its embarrassing repetition in the sequels.

The original Terminator is a movie free of that kind of presumption, it presumes it won't be loved any more than most sci-fi down-and-dirty action pics, which is why it's so indelible. Hugo all but tells us we have to let its magic symbols -- the rocket-in-the-moon's-eye, the heart key--into our hall of future golden memories, to make this an Xmas staple to get gooey with grandma over. But for me, even though I well-knew of Méliès beforehand, and I had his Trip to the Moon on super 8mm and we'd project it in our band's light show in 1986-9, what that moon makes me think of all these decades later is "Tonight" by Smashing Pumpkins, another recreation that doesn't even bother with the rocket in the moon's eye shot... to its credit. Instead, the Pumpkins take the look and feel of Méliès' pre-modernist world's fair whimsicality and then update it to rock, speeding up the imagery and adding deep emotional hooks.

Scorsese instead tries to slow us all down into Méliès' worship, to put the film in a shrine or museum and destroy its last link to the real world. If Hugo were truly to be worthy of the Scorsese canon it might end, for example, with the audience slowly realizing that the static long shots and endless flurries of spastic activity make Méliès' films kind of boring. The films only capture attention when used in a new context, a collage like the Pumpkins, or as an element of a multimedia fantastic plastic acid test with my own Mexican Mud Band, c. 1987. Scorsese instead captures the chaotic making of the films and does way better hand-tinting and covers up the dullness through just showing a long Academy-style montage of highlights from the found Méliès oeuvre.

Hugo's unthinking reverence for the great Méliès reminds me of the ending of Teacher's Pet: Clark Gable plays a scrappy self-taught city reporter going up against Doris Day as a journalism teacher whose father won a Pulitzer for his smalltown paper editorials. Love happens against their will, with Gable preferring to pick fights with Day's platonic pal Gig Young than make love. It's not until Gable finally reads Day's dad's old editorial clipping that he can proclaim "they stink" and come into his own as the confident uneducated lover of an educated gal. Call it reverence prior to investigation, or just bourgeois idolatry, but it takes him awhile to value his own opinion enough to make this claim, and until he does he's stranded behind this slab of journalistic integrity that he's expected to measure up to even though he's long since surpassed it. I wouldn't even bring it up if it wasn't Marty.... Marty, come back to the 'hood!

I'm not knocking Hugo; I cried and thought Asa Butterfield was eerily perfect, but while I normally love Moretz she seemed ungainly and confused... Super 8, which was released the same year as Hugo but not nominated for an Oscar, is nostalgic for the era that I too was a a young super 8mm filmmaker in (the Terminator era), but also proactive about actually making movies instead of revering the makers or cleaning the projector. There's no real salute to the creative energy of the moment in Hugo; it's all about preservation and repairmanship; it has to run all the way around the massive sets five times just to make us think the right hand doesn't know the left from a hole in the wall, through which it hopes to add some Amelie Rear-Window-Psycho insightwithout drawing attention to its own absurdly over-qualified self-awareness.

Eyes of Laura Mars... or Supergirl?
 Super 8 on the other hand is just as top heavy but it fights from its gut; it kicks and scratches and its orphans are only half-orphans and the pain and the bonding between Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney devastated me a lot more in a lot less time, and seems a more logical film to champion for a ballsy academy. But they weren't awake enough to realize Super 8 isn't about the alien or the evil government but about kids carving their own sacred space out of the lumpen absence of parents too dumb to know either their own beastliness or their kids' frail genius. The alien in Super 8 suggest what might have happened to ET if he'd not been able to phone home, or if we abducted the greys at the end of Close Encounters. In other words, he's pissed! He's the perfect reflection of the suburban teen forever denied any form of dangerous self-expression ala Over the Edge or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. No wonder, then, the old timer Academy dismissed Super 8, probably with the glint of fear in their eyes.

Super 8
Final anecdote: I had my own Hugo moment in 1997 whilst out of my mind on acid up at a friend's big weekend party at her Swiss chalet in the Catskills. It was gorgeous night under the stars and everyone spread out under a massive blanket on the ground, facing the blank white side of the house. Behind them I set up my old super 8 projector on a picnic table bench and projected on the wall an old clip reel from 1931's Dracula, unintentionally at the wrong (slower) speed setting, and since I was tripping I had no way of knowing. An already deadly slow movie became dripping with poetry as that slowness was doubled into a total dream state. Is there a more indelible image of death at 12 frames a second than black-and-white Helen Chandler as Mina, her voice now almost manlike in its druggy depths, slowly explaining her dream of the room becoming filled with mist? As I crouched hallucinating into the weird gears and mechanisms of the projector, threading the machine like some old Rumpelstilskin out of time, shut out by choice and inclination from the orgy of physical warmth going on in front of me with my friends, who lay in a row under a huge zipped together sleeping bag, watching the films of course, but all addled as I was, and so beyond space and time they would be the last people to notice how... sloow David Manners was talking. He finally didn't sound like a ninny.

So I was alone, in front, threading my machine to dazzle them with slow motion vampires from 1931, and while most nights my feeling of disconnectedness would shatter me more than any constant drip of bourbon could repair, that night, under the stars, I accepted my role as 'projectionist' and gave up my hunger for the golden hair and sleeping bag sense of belonging. It all came into focus for me in that moment, and though my friends were all making more money than I was via advertising and computer network maintenance, and were basking in their ability to create human warmth and self-confidence, I had Bela Lugosi... here in this Alpine heaven I had proven that I was all right.

If that doesn't make a Hugo, I don't know what does, or a Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator, who is also in his way, an archivist, going back in time to preserve some imperiled damsel in mid-bloom. Don't we all hope some Hugo is going to dig up our little forgotten super 8mm films up when our time is ready?? Or some collector of my old hand-drawn comic books look me up in hushed awe?

"A mistake is made."
I feel bad for those who truly died before they were re-discovered--given their second career as icons of the horror movie local TV station package--like Bela Lugosi and like Ed Wood Jr.--and I hope someone will come for me and make me a cult icon like that one day. This is what non-family man artists do instead of having real human children of our own and wondering if they'll ever call us once they move out: we make them out of clay and wire and words and weird alchemical machinations, hoping some version of ourselves in a future generation will come along and figure out what we were trying to say. The Mechanical Man's reproductive organ is a camera but women don't need to have one since they can have real babies... Like Manson in the top quote, they have 'a family.'

When will intelligent women stop writing about man's obsession with giving life to the dead, as if it's she who should be jealous?!

Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley (Bride of Frankenstein)


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  3. A fascinating subject for a post, alternately insightful, lyrical and personal; I can think of no higher praise than to quote some of my favorite lines: "there's an unspoken bourgeois law that says ahead-of-their-time 'underground' artists must lie buried for not less than one and ideally not more than seven decades" and “This is what non-family man artists do instead of having real human children of our own: we make them out of clay and wire and words and weird machinations of mechanical whimsy, hoping some version of ourselves in a future generation will come along and figure out what we were trying to say to our unborn grandson” (this last is especially poignant as I had never considered the parallel between the two “sparks of creation”). I would point out that Brian Selznick's original book has more in common with a graphic novel, and none of the romantic interests of the film. Perhaps we have exhausted our well of creativity regarding film and story and hence the look to the past for inspiration, but in the case of "Hugo" isn't this a bit like sending a bunny out amongst two Rottweilers (deus ex machine wise)?

  4. Another interesting piece! Way to go.


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