Raffi Asdourian/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Pepe courtesy Matt Furie/mattfurie.com | Remix by Jason Reed
Werner Herzog, that hypnotic German filmmaker who once tried to murder his leading man, who taunted death atop a soon-to-erupt volcano, and who looking upon the screeching Amazon mused that he saw only pain and misery in the jungle, was on a press tour. He sat beside his producer Jim McNiel, both bundled up in the Park City cold, and listened politely as the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Zeitchik asked about his new film.
Over the course of their three-decade career, Joel and Ethan Coen have buried a man alive, fed a body into a woodchipper, and shot a grinning Brad Pitt in the face at point-blank range. The most vicious act in their oeuvre, though, involves no physical violence whatsoever. It’s the blunt verdict issued by a famous French piano teacher, Jacques Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle), after hearing a teenage girl’s audition. “Did she make mistakes?” asks the girl’s patron, who considers her a prodigy.
There’s a concept in video game theory called “ludonarrative dissonance.” At its core, it’s about the interaction between a game’s themes (what it wants you to feel) and its mechanics (what it wants you to do), as well as any conflicts that might result when those two things intersect. An example of this would be a game that promotes themes of individuality and freedom while locking the player...
It’s a common stereotype that men are known to be the more aggressive and competitive of the sexes, and that women are far coyer and subtler at the game. Studies have shownthat women enjoy cooperation as much as competition, that they find symbiosis in their struggle for dominance. And it’s this complicated, nuanced relationship among women that has often been mined for great psychological cinema....
“There’s a body on the railing That I can’t identify And I’d like to reassure you But I’m not that kind of guy.” —Robyn Hitchcock, “Raymond Chandler Evening,” 1986.
At the conclusion of John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) turns the woman he has come to love (Mary Astor) over to the police for murdering his partner. She refuses to believe he’ll betray her, asking, “How can you do this to me, Sam?”...
Recently, while flipping through my cable guide, I came across Fatal Instinct, an Armand Assante/Sean Young/Sherilyn Fenn vehicle from 1993—perhaps the last year in which the phrase “an Armand Assante/Sean Young/Sherilyn Fenn vehicle” wouldn’t sound patently absurd. Unable to recall which of the many 1990s erotic thrillers Fatal Instinct actually was, I tuned in, and quickly realized that it’s a Carl Reiner-directed parody of those movies. There’s even a scene where Young’s character flashes her crotch at the hero—just like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct—and he reaches into a drawer in his desk to toss her one of the many pairs of panties that he keeps in a pop-up Kleenex box.
There are certain generally held expectations about the relationship between reality as we live it every day and films set in a dystopian future. No one who has watched even a few minutes of cable news in the last decade or so could doubt that contemporary American life, in some ineffable and undeniable way, currently exists within one or more Paul Verhoeven films. But while the broad strokes generally rhyme, some crucial details don’t quite match up. The hearty tonal psychosis, relentless soul-deadening violence, and amorphously horny militarism are very much in place, but contemporary life still lags behind the Verhoevenverse in terms of extremely ambitious lapels on men’s suits, routine space travel, and robotic cop technology. Natural as it is to envy the efficient transit system of Cohaagen’s Mars or even just wish for a little more Renee Soutendijk in the monitors, this is generally good news.
There is one notable exception to the usual reality-to-dystopia ratio, though, that is both humbler and infinitely more unsettling. On September 11, 2006, Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was the most ambitious and expansive of the independent horror auteur’s career, and a long time in the making. Fessenden started writing the film in November of 2001; producer Jeff Levy-Hinte began shopping the script, on which Fessenden collaborated with the writer Robert Leaver, in 2003. It was a horror movie, but more specifically it was a Larry Fessenden Horror Movie, which is to say a doomy character-driven mood piece, with the dominant mood being Choking Dread. Also, it was about climate change, and set at a remote oil company outpost in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve where debates about the ethics of natural resource exploitation give way to something darker. It was not going to be an easy sale, in other words, and it did not sell. Levy-Hinte struck out with the larger independent studios.
“Every one of them said the movie would be a ‘tweeny,’” Fessenden told Indiewire in 2007, “in between genres—not horror, not drama—and passed.” The film was eventually financed with a grab-bag of private funding; after scouting locations in Alaska and Canada, Fessenden wound up shooting most of the film in Iceland, with the Icelandic Film Commission coming on as a co-producer. The production started in March of 2005, and the conditions during the three-week shoot mirrored the chaos in the film—“in subzero temperatures, or in un-seasonal rain, or winds of 40 knots, or blizzards, or a blistering sun,” Fessenden wrote in August of 2006. “Iceland is experiencing acutely the radical temperature shifts from global warming even today, and many of the outlandish scenarios in the script were actually occurring.” Fessenden immediately re-cut the film after its TIFF premiere; months later, IFC beat out a few competitors for the rights to it. “There was no bidding war,” Fessenden told Indiewire.
The Last Winter opened in a limited theatrical/streaming release in late September of 2007 and grossed less than a hundred thousand dollars worldwide. It’s perhaps the fullest realization to date of That Larry Fessenden Feeling, which connects an astute and engaged social consciousness with a certain freewheeling reverence for horror’s foundational myths. But, more to the point, The Last Winter holds a bleak record for dystopian films given how quickly its central conceit went from disturbing speculative fiction—literally the stuff of a horror film, albeit a low-key and dread-intensive independent one—to an observable, scientifically quantified fact. The Last Winter posited the melting of the Alaskan permafrost as an opening onto the end of everything else when it opened in six theaters in September of 2007. It was a little less than a decade before reality caught all the way up—to the first part, at least.
It can be disappointing to read what great filmmakers have to say about their movies. But rarely has a director seemed to misunderstand his own work as completely as Elia Kazan, in a lengthy interview about his sole comedy, Baby Doll (1956), that appears in Jeff Young’s book Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films. “It has no meaning,” he claimed. “By the time I got to Baby Doll, I was determined to make a picture with no sympathy and no heroes.”
Kazan appears to be describing a very different film from the one he made. Set in a small Mississippi Delta town just months before Brown v. Board of Education made segregated public schools illegal, and scripted by Tennessee Williams (with lots of uncredited assistance from Kazan), Baby Doll is essentially a Southern Gothic three-hander. Carroll Baker, who also appeared in the George Stevens classic Giant in 1956, plays the title character, a beautiful 19-year-old who’s married to the hapless, middle-aged cotton gin owner Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden). Their union is the result of a tragedy and a lie: Baby Doll’s ailing father wanted to ensure her financial security before he died, and Archie Lee led the terminally ill man to believe he could give her a life of luxury. Now, the unhappy couple dwells in a squalid, crumbling mansion. Because Archie Lee promised Baby Doll’s father that he wouldn’t touch her before her 20th birthday, the marriage remains unconsummated—and everyone in town seems to know it.