Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Phonemaster 9000 Call Returning Machine (1992)

If you were at Sundance in 1993, then perhaps you had the opportunity to attend a screening of Michael Addis's short film The Phonemaster 9000 Call Returning Machine, a technological nightmare which pits Julie Larson's unsuspecting caller against the increasingly diabolical labyrinth of questions posed by the titular device (Addis himself), a Frankenstein creation which looks suspiciously like an amalgamation of a fax machine, TV antenna and a computer joystick. If not, then not to worry, as Addis has been a good enough sport to upload the short in its entirety to YouTube.

Addis's vision of clunky answerphone technology from the futuristic plains of hell is clearly of a different age, as is the film's rather disappointing punchline (in which Lesley finally pulls the plug on a prospective relationship with Bill not because he's a predatory creep but because of the implication that he's a bisexual predatory creep). The film never really makes good on the menace suggested by the ominous tones of its opening moments, yet it does succeed in maintaining an eerily uncomfortable vibe throughout, as Lesley's entirely banal efforts to initiate a relationship come back to bite her in the most coldly demeaning manner imaginable. Meanwhile, Addis brings just the right levels of frostiness to the impersonal tones of the automated device, as it whittles human relations down to a system of prompts apparently designed to move Lesley as quickly as possible into Bill's bed (after which, we suspect, she'd be pushed to a distance just as rapidly). As a concept it feels somewhat rough and underdeveloped (it was a student film, after all), but there's a certain degree of perverse pleasure to be had in its creation of a troublesome void where real human interaction should be. Besides, the Phonemaster itself is such a curious and quaint-looking device that it takes on an undeniable charm. I can only hope that the prop has since been stashed away safely in Addis's basement or somewhere; it would be a shame to think of a concoction this droll being wiped from all existence.

Monday, 26 June 2017

VHS Verve: The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze (2002)

(That Asda Price sticker stays.  You don't want to see what's behind it, trust me.)

Last month, when I reviewed the original theatrical The Land Before Time, I concluded that the film isn't anywhere near as good as you probably remember it being and then slipped in some reference to my failure, up until now, to make it through more than eight minutes of its first direct-to-video sequel.  Immediately after typing that, I felt something remarkable happening - that is, my prior indifference toward those LBT sequels suddenly started giving way to morbid curiosity.  I'd heard so many damning things about the sequels from Bluth devotees over the years - how much of an insult to the original they were, how insanely dragged out the series was, etc - that I began wondering exactly what I'd been missing out on all this time.   It occurred to me that, since I have very little lingering nostalgic attachment to the original and essentially no reverence for Bluth as an artist, I could, in theory, make the effort to check out some of those sequels in full without fear of desecrating something dear and sacred to my heart (which is more than I could do for a lot of those DTV Disney sequels they churned out for that icky period between 1994 and 2007, whose mere existence in many cases is enough to give me an aneurysm).  At the very least, I was curious to see exactly how they'd attempted to expand on what struck me as a paper-thin and fairly closed-ended story for multiple instalments.  So I grabbed hold of the first random LBT sequel I could get my hands on, and here we are.

The first thing I have to say is that upon reading the title, The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze, I was mildly shocked to note that this was movie number eight in the series.  As stated, I was aware that the LBT franchise was dragged out for insanely long, but I took that to mean that it got five or six instalments at most, which would have put it on a par with Blue Sky's inexplicably long-lived Ice Age franchise.  A quick google search revealed that there are actually fourteen of the damned things in total, the most recent of which was released in 2016, meaning that there could still be a whole more of these to come.  Also important to note is that, no matter what issues I might encounter the LBT sequels, I cannot, this time round, pin any of them on Bluth, who had zilch involvement with any of the LBT sequels - in fact, Bluth had no involvement with any sequels made to any of his films (and they are surprisingly plentiful, even when you take out the entire LBT franchise), with the single exception of Bartok The Magnificent (1999), a DTV spin-off to 1998's Anastasia.

Anyway, some context - in 1994, Disney debuted a spin-off TV series based on its then-recent box office smash Aladdin (1992) and made the tactical decision to release the feature-length pilot on video and market it as a sequel under the title The Return of Jafar.  Fans who expected something on a par with the original were bitterly disappointed when they got the damned thing home and were greeted with cut-price animation, tuneless musical numbers and a distinct lack of Robin Williams, but by then it was too late.  Eisner had their money and was already wise to what a little goldmine he'd just unearthed.  Disney's previous attempt at creating a sequel to one of its classics, The Rescuers Down Under (1990), had been a full-scale theatrical release and lavishly animated, but also a box office bomb (to the extent that, when people talk about the Disney Renaissance era, they tend to forget that The Rescuers Down Under was technically a part of it).  Why go to all that trouble and risk failure when this considerably cheaper strategy had gotten results?  It took a few years before we who bought The Return of Jafar (confession time: I was part of the problem, but it was the only DTV Disney sequel I ever bought, I swear) truly realised what horrors our greediness for more Aladdin had brought upon Disney's legacy.  The fall-out was so powerful and so toxic that it took until 2007 for someone (Lasseter) to put their foot down and say "Jesus Christ, people, enough!"  If there's a silver living to Disney's sequel plague, it's the infinite amount of petty amusement I get from contemplating that all of the films from the Renaissance era received sequels/midquels except Hercules (save The Rescuers Down Under, which was itself a sequel), which might say something about how well-regarded that film is behind the scenes at Disney.  The Fox and The Hound was deemed worthy of one of these things but not Hercules.  Come on, that's pretty hilarious.
I would have assumed that the success of The Return of Jafar was what inspired Universal Cartoon Studios to get aboard the DTV gravy train and start churning out sequels to The Land Before Time - however, another google search revealed that the first sequel, The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure, entered production in 1993 and was released in late 1994, suggesting that it was all just a great coincidence that we happened to get two separate bouts of sequelitis from two studios at once.  Over the years, Universal Cartoon Studios would attempt to branch out a little, giving us the odd DTV sequel to An American Tail, Balto and, in one particularly barrel-scraping example, Hanna Barbera's 1973 adaptation of Charlotte's Web (the title character is already dead, for eff's sake), but The Land Before Time is where the bulk of their bread and butter was sourced, and they stuck with it for as long as the DTV gravy train was running.  When DTV sequels fell out fashion with Disney in 2007, Universal Cartoon Studios also looked to be calling it quits, but they kept LBT going as a TV series for a further year, and recently released a new LBT sequel in 2016 (as Universal Animation Studios).  These dinosaurs just refuse to go extinct.

Here's the Universal Cartoon Studios logo:

I'm no fan of the sugar-cereal coloured lettering used on "Cartoon Studios" (way too kiddish), but the cartoon plane is innocuous enough, I suppose.

The copy I've gotten hold of is the UK VHS of The Land Before Time VIII: The Big Freeze distributed by Universal Pictures (UK) Ltd.  The only trailer attached to this release is for the 20th anniversary "update" of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that came out in 2002.  Basically, this was Spielberg's attempt to give his iconic sci-fi the treatment that Lucas did with the 20th anniversary Special Edition of Star Wars, with added scenes and digitally enhanced effects, only he struggled to kick up even a fraction of the interest.  The only thing that anyone seemed to notice or comment on was that the bike sequence had been modified to replace the cops' guns with walkie-talkies, which earned Spielberg enough derision for a lampooning on South Park, but nothing near the amount of heated fervor as having Greedo shoot first.  My understanding is that Spielberg has denounced this version and now tells people to stick with the original.  Good to know that he's not as fanatical as Lucas.

The Big Freeze opens with a narrator (John Ingle) explaining that dinosaurs walked the Earth long before humans and were a pretty diverse bunch.  Ingle's narration isn't anywhere near as annoying and intrusive as Pat Hingle's in the original film (for one, we don't hear another peep out of him until the very end), but given that we're already so far into the series, I find it a bit ominous that they apparently still feel the need to open by explaining to us what a dinosaur was.  It doesn't strike me as a good indication of how highly they estimate their viewers' intelligence.

Ducky (now voiced by Aria Curzon) is in a funk with her adopted stegosaurus brother Spike (Rob Paulsen) because his snoring is keeping her awake at night, and Cera (Anndi McAfee) advises her (in song form!) to keep nursing that grudge until things go her way.  Meanwhile, a herd of nomadic spike tails has taken up residence in the Great Valley and Spike, feeling unwanted and excluded by Ducky, grows close to a young male named Tippy (Jeremy Suarez) and his mother (Susan Krebs).  When the Valley is hit by heavy snowfall for the first time in anybody's living memory, the spike tail herd decide to move on in search of better grazing grounds and Spike is torn between whether to follow his own kind or to stay with his adopted saurolophus family.  Ducky, bitterly jealous and hurt that Spike could even consider leaving them, advises him to go, but later realises how much she misses Spike and decides to go after him and convince him to return.  When Cera, Littlefoot (Thomas Dekker) and Petrie (Jeff Bennett) get wise to what Ducky is up to, they decide to follow to ensure that no harm comes to either of their wayward friends.  Hence, we get endless footage of the gang trekking through raging blizzards which the sensible part of my brain insists would kill a cold-blooded animal in seconds.  Then I remind myself that Petrie miraculously survived a 50ft plunge whilst sandwiched between a T-Rex and a boulder in the original film, and suddenly I'm less inclined to be picky with the sequel over "realism".

From the outset, you'd be forgiven for assuming that this was going to be a story focusing on the relationship between Ducky and Spike, and on Spike wanting to understand more about his identity and heritage as a "spike tail".  As a premise I'd say that that actually has potential.  Spike was easily the most one dimensional of the group in the original - a mute, ravenous doofus and nothing more - yet his backstory is so poignant when you think about it.  He was on his own before he even hatched and he's the only one who in the end was not reunited with any of his family at the Great Valley.  Since he was taken in and raised by a family of another species (one leading a completely different lifestyle to the one he's naturally built for), there's an interesting scenario to be gleaned from Spike twigging that he's different to his siblings and feeling curious but also conflicted when he finally gets the opportunity to connect with his own kind.  The eventual outcome might be totally predictable - obviously, Spike is going to learn that his "real" family is with Ducky and the other saurolophus because what makes a "family" is determined by so much more than just genetics and physical resemblance, and you won't be terribly gobsmacked to learn that this is indeed where The Big Freeze ends up taking things - but it is one viable way I could see them expanding on the set-up from the original film.

Unfortunately, surprisingly little of The Big Freeze is actually devoted to Spike and his curiosity about other spike tails, and once he makes the decision to leave the Valley his story thread trails off and he all but disappears from the movie altogether - it is, in effect, a smokescreen to the real story, which is about Littlefoot and his relationship with Mr Thicknose (Robert Guillaume), an elderly pachyrhinosaurus who functions as a kind of schoolteacher to the children of the Valley.  Thicknose is universally respected by the adult dinosaurs due to his extensive knowledge about the world outside the Valley and is very defensive of that reputation - as such, he doesn't take kindly to anything which might be perceived as undermining his authority, and Littlefoot's inquisitive nature immediately rubs him the wrong way.  Later, Thicknose falls out of favour with the adults when he fails to warn them about the possibility of snowfall and its potentially devastating effects on their food sources, and Cera's father (Ingle again) proposes stripping him of his position as local educator.  A dejected Thicknose catches Littlefoot, Cera and Petrie attempting to sneak out of the Valley and insists on accompanying them, giving Littlefoot the opportunity to bond with his old adversary and gain some understanding of his insecurities.  It's a well-intentioned story with a sweet, thoughtful moral about the basic human (or dinosaur, as it were) need to be respected and how easy it is to get hung up on wanting others to admire you.  Problem is that it's just so arbitrarily connected to the plot about Spike; one gets the impression that the writers conceived the two narrative threads as independent stories and then pasted them together when neither proved meaty enough to sustain a full-length feature on their own.  Even then, getting it to the 75 minute mark is an uphill struggle - I'd say that each narrative has just about enough material to sustain a 22 minute TV episode without getting too dull (on the basis of this film, I actually wonder if The Land Before Time might have lent itself better to a spin-off TV series right from the start - these are, by and large, TV plots which have been stretched to their absolute limit).  Unsurprisingly, we get a lot of pointless fluff, notably a tedious, overly long sequence in which the dinosaurs bombard one another with snowballs.  Ultimately, it's a testament to just how poorly-integrated the two threads are that they don't even mesh into a common resolution.  Spike's storyline is treated as a mere afterthought, with him just wandering back to rejoin the others at the end of the film, and Ducky's mother (Tress MacNeille) proving her maternal mettle by saving his life when he randomly gets knocked into water, thus reaffirming his place among the saurolophus clan.  Essentially nothing comes of his friendship with Tippy and his mother, whom we barely get to know as characters; they were simply a plot device to motivate the gang to leave the Valley and wander around in the snow for a while.  Also, I'm not totally convinced that Spike actually did choose to be with the saurolophus so much as the decision was made for him; he happened to bump into the others while searching for food, then Ducky's mother is declared his "real family" because she was the best equipped to save him and wasn't heartless enough to let him drown.  Then again, I found the ending to be a bit glib in general - Ingle's narrator assures us that eventually the snow problem went away by itself and we never do learn how things worked out for Mr Thicknose.

Also of note is that Ducky is here a lot more tolerable than she was in the original film, whereas Petrie seems to have gotten a heck of a lot more inane.  Seriously, if any character has been royally screwed over in the transition from the original theatrical feature to the DTV sequels, it's Petrie, who's clearly been whacked pretty hard by an idiot stick since arriving at the Great Valley.  Petrie wasn't a dumb character in the original.  He was nervous, uptight and a little hung up on the fact that he wasn't able to fly, but certainly not stupid.  Here, he's so unembarrassed by his decreased IQ that he flat-out states, at one point, "Me believe you...but then me believe anything!"  Which leads me onto my second contention with DTV sequel-Petrie - in the original, Petrie had a quirky, grammatically incorrect manner of speaking (almost as if English wasn't his first language) which here has been boiled down to a very basic tendency to substitute "I" with "Me", presumably to make him sound more dense (it also gives his character more of a Jar Jar Binks vibe, as if you needed anything else about him to set your teeth on edge).  Ducky, on the other hand, retains some of her infantile speech mannerisms but is here played with a notch more restraint than when she was voiced by Judith Barsi (once again, I wish to emphasise that my dislike of Barsi's Ducky does not translate into dislike or insensitivity toward Barsi herself - what happened to her was appalling).  She's less in your face with her cutesiness, and I like her the better for it.

On the whole, The Big Freeze has no pretensions about being aimed anyone but the very smallest of children, and that will certainly be an issue for anyone who reveres the original for being a particularly dark, intense and gritty slice of 1980s animation.  Personally, I've always found Bluth's so-called edginess as a film-maker to be severely overrated (see my comments in my previous LBT review about expired milk and frosted cereal), but there's no denying that the peril in the original film felt leagues more genuine than it does here.  A T-Rex makes an appearance in this film too, but it's hard to imagine this one successfully killing one of the protagonist's parents as happened with Sharptooth in the original (he gets beaten by a giant snowball, for eff's sake). The sequels also deviate from the original by adding in a musical element (prompted, presumably, by the Disney Renaissance putting animated musicals in vogue again), and I'm aware that this tends to be a real sticking point for Bluth devotees.  The Big Freeze has three - an ode to the virtues of being angry, performed by Cera, a melancholic song about family performed by Ducky's mother and the main cast and a song by Mr Thicknose which sums up the moral of his arc.  I'd describe them all as harmless fluff - they're decidedly kid-orientated and utterly disposable, but at the very least I find them more tolerable than the musical numbers from any of Bluth's 1990s output that isn't Anastasia (try Youtubing some of the songs from The Pebble and The Penguin.  Just kidding - don't).  Incidentally, I've read at least one review of The Big Freeze suggesting that Cera's song might give children the wrong message, since it's all about savouring your anger, throwing tantrums and bearing grudges until you get what you what want, ie: a message discounted by the movie's overall moral, but then very young children are less likely to pay attention to such things and more likely to just rewind and watch the songs over and over.  In fairness, though, it's probably no worse than The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata" in that regard.
In the end I walk away more or less indifferent to The Big Freeze.  It doesn't inspire anything close to the searing contempt that I have for DTV Disney sequels like The Lion King II: Simba's Pride and The Little Mermaid II: Return To The Sea, presumably because I don't regard the original as being anything too magnificent in the first place, but I was pretty hard-pressed to keep my eyes open throughout.  If you're an admirer of Bluth and consider him to be one the great misunderstood geniuses of American animation, then it's a safe bet that you'll loathe and resent this film with every fibre of your being, and I do not recommend you even giving it a second thought.  Myself, it neither pleasantly surprised me nor satisfied my immense gluttony for punishment.  The Big Freeze is quite content in being undemanding fluff for the under-5s and all in all it won't do much harm to them.  On the other hand, it's such a lacklustre and slow-moving film that I'm not convinced that even the tots are going to have an infinite amount of patience for it.  My morbid curiosity in checking out a few more entries in the LBT series hasn't waned, although I sincerely hope that, for better or for worse, The Big Freeze doesn't represent it at the peak of its liveliness.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

A Day or a Lifetime: Mulholland Drive's Mysterious Blue Box

Last time, I likened our journey through the squalid plumbing of the Hotel Earle to the opening sequence of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, in which we pan down beneath the grasses of suburban Lumberton to reveal the bug infestation that runs rife throughout those seemingly immaculate lawns.  In both cases, we become attuned to the forces of darkness which are operating right beneath the characters' noses, although in Barton Fink's case these are concealed more by the tedium and decrepitude of a hotel that's so overwhelmingly mundane that this in itself becomes unsettling.  Our glimpse into the hidden abyss of the Earle essentially confirms our uneasy suspicions that there are screwier forces at work in this hotel, the real shock being reserved for what happens immediately after when Barton swats the mosquito on Audrey's body.  If there's a moment from Lynch's filmography that this truly begs comparison to, it's the scene from Mulholland Drive (2001) in which we get to peak inside the mysterious blue box which appears out of nowhere at the Club Silencio.  In both we see a fascination with a beckoning oblivion; these are films gazing directly into darkness and coming out very different, decidedly more warped creatures as a result.

Mulholland Drive has a number of parallels with Barton Fink, not least a mutual interest in the tensions between Hollywood's glamorous image and the dark underbelly of cruelty, failure and corruption that lurks not far beneath.  Both films follow a hopeful young newcomer to Hollywood (Naomi Watts' aspiring actress Betty/Diane and our good friend Barton the screenwriter) whom we sense right from the start is doomed to have their spirit crushed by an unsparing system.  We see echoes in Betty/Diane's troubled relationship with amnesic femme fatale Rita/Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) of the same jealousy and betrayal that ultimately sours relations between Barton and Charlie.  Finally, the two films each contain a pivotal scene in which we, the viewer, find ourselves drawn into a mysterious abyss which seems to dramatically rewrite everything we thought we knew about the characters' situation.  Betty and Rita uncover a small blue box which they realise can be opened by a key they had squirreled away earlier in the film, and which may yield answers to the question of Rita's true identity.  As Rita prepares to unlock the box, Betty mysteriously vanishes into thin air.  Unnerved, Rita calls to her and gets no response, but is not dissuaded from the task at hand.  The box is unlocked and opened, and Rita finds...nothing.  This is Lynch's great punchline. The box contains nothing and yet that nothingness has a destructive potency all of its own, pulling in and obliterating all who gaze upon it.  We emerge, but Rita is gone.  More hauntingly, we find ourselves back in the presence of Betty's Aunt Ruth (Maya Bond), who left the apartment at the beginning of the narrative and now returns to find it vacant.  She scans the room, attempting to locate the source of the disturbance, but seeing nothing she turns away.  Rita and Betty now cease to exist; they have become part of the nothingness unleashed from the small blue box and, in a particularly cruel twist, it seems that their long and intricate narrative, too, has been completely undone.  Ruth appears exactly as she did at the start of the film, raising questions as to whether she ever left at all.  This is a Lynchian joke that's very much on the viewer, and it seems only fitting that an event so chillingly apocalyptic, in the context of the film, should be played as little more than a minor interruption from the perspective of a character who barely notices anything at all.  In effect, Ruth's mildly bemused reaction is the real punchline, not just to the box opening scene, but to the Betty/Rita arc of Mulholland Drive as a whole.

There's an obvious allusion here to Pandora's box, with Rita's lethal curiosity dooming both herself and Betty, much as Barton's sexual curiosity toward Audrey awakens the beasts lurking deep within the Earle.  The opening of the blue box is truly an apocalyptic event, for it results in a dramatic rearranging of the universe, setting its characters on a catastrophic course where the only possible outcome is to violently crash and burn.  Betty and Rita reappear, but have been recast in vastly different roles.  Betty is now the self-loathing failed actress Diane, while Rita is the seductive and manipulative Camilla, who's had more luck than Diane on the acting front, thanks in part to her ability to sleep her way into a few choice roles.  The blue box reappears toward the end of the film, only on this particular go-around we learn that it actually houses two ungodly demons (in the form of a couple of elderly sadists) who crawl out and beleaguer Diane to the absolute breaking point.  By comparison, the rearranging of the universe in Barton Fink is more subdued; when Barton awakens, he retains his identity as Barton the screenwriter, but finds himself trapped in a nightmare scenario where his reality is rapidly unraveling and his own role as the hero, villain or waif of his story is called into question.  In both cases, our descent into cataclysm is characterised by the cold, hypnotic embrace of the abyss, be it the ominous vacuum of the mystery box or the slimy, infected guts of the Hotel Earle - not only are character and viewer alike sucked in and consumed by it (perhaps literally, in Rita's case), but there is a definite sense of the film itself disappearing down a dark hole as a result of its characters' actions, of a wrong and dangerous turn having been taken from which there can be no redemption or return.  The camera never does find its way out of the meandering pipes of the Earle; instead, it dissolves into Barton's fresh waking nightmare.  It is a place, we suspect, where one goes to get permanently lost.  The feverish intensity that rages deep in the bowels of the Earle comes to dominate the remainder of Barton's story, much as the petrifying blackness of the vacant box infuses Diane's story and sees it through to its sorry conclusion.

Like Barton Fink, Mulholland Drive will forever be subject to the speculation that at least part of it is a mere dream/wish fulfillment fantasy on the part of its young Hollywood hopeful (ie: Diane is "real" and Betty is merely the person she wishes she could be), although personally I've never gotten along with that theory (read: I despise it with the intensity of the heat of a thousand suns) and would be disappointed should Lynch ever come out and confirm it (thankfully, I know he never will).  For me, few things could spoil the effect of that wry, eerily muted apocalypse that takes place on an unsuspecting Aunt Ruth's carpet than the revelation that it was all cortisol-induced.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

A Day or a Lifetime: The Audrey Whodunnit

One of the greatest sleights of hand in Barton Fink is how, sixty-five minutes into the film, it takes a startling turn and goes from being a subdued, claustrophobic comedy-drama about an aspiring screenwriter's grappling with writer's block to a full-blown and particularly gruesome whodunnit. Having invited Audrey into the Earle and allowed her to seduce him, Barton awakes the following morning to find her still at his side and, in an ostensible double victory, finally does away with the pesky mosquito who's been depriving him of sleep ever since he arrived in Hollywood. Then he notices that Audrey is dripping with blood and turns her over to discover that she has been messily butchered during the night. Oh shit indeed.

One of the film's more subtle tricks is that it doesn't actually give a clear answer to the whodunnit by the time the end-credits start rolling, although it does deceive us into thinking that it has. Likely, we'll take it as a given that Charlie somehow managed to off Audrey while Barton was sleeping, because we're told that Charlie leads a double life as serial killer Karl Mundt. He is implied to be responsible for a number of off-screen atrocities, including the death of Mayhew and, more hazily, Barton's own family, and if nothing else the audience gets a first-hand glimpse of his homicidal fury during the final showdown with Mastronatti and Deutsch. The bathroom sink shot, in which the camera plunges down into the grungy, sordid depths of the Hotel Earle piping while Barton and Audrey are making love in the adjacent room, would appear to link Charlie to the outcome, for his tortured cries become all the more audible the deeper we descend; it is as if he is reacting in anger and revulsion and Barton awakens to find the consequences the following morning. We even have a plausible motive - jealousy - when we take into account just how eagerly Charlie seems to vie for Barton's attention. I noted in my previous entry that the Earle and its many facets - Charlie, the wallpaper, the mosquito - seem to be locked in an eternal battle with the manifestations of feminine beauty - Audrey, the picture of the beach beauty - which offer Barton release from the barren confinement of the Earle. Charlie has his sights set on becoming Barton's muse, but not only does Barton turn to Audrey instead in his hour of need, he commits the ultimate taboo of inviting Audrey into the Earle so that they can have sexual relations right on Charlie's territory. It's hardly surprising that this should bring out the very worst in Charlie.

All the same, one of the recurring themes of Barton Fink has to do with the deceptive nature of outer appearance and the repeated intimation that we should not trust the superficial guises that the world at large would greatly like for us to swallow. The vast majority of the film's supporting cast are ultimately revealed to be fakers in some way. Charlie presents himself as a jovial, down-to-earth insurance salesman, but is revealed to have to an immensely sinister side. Mayhew is a literary heavyweight who's actually a drunken fraud, propped up by his long-suffering "secretary" Audrey. Lipnick insists that he likes Barton and wants that "Barton Fink feeling" for Capitol Pictures, but his use of the phrase loses all meaning as the film goes on. Truth in Barton Fink is a far more ugly, messy and sordid thing than most prefer to contemplate, so on that note should we necessarily trust our own assumption that Charlie killed Audrey based on what we subsequently learn about his character? Is it too facile a solution to the mystery, what with the lack of any really conclusive evidence to link him to Audrey's death beyond the reveal that he apparently has a habit of butchering people? At most, this accounts for why he's so proficient when it comes to disposing of Audrey's body, but it does not itself provide proof that Audrey died at Charlie's hands, nor address the improbable manner in which Charlie would have had to have pulled off the crime (how probable is it that Charlie could have entered Barton's room and killed Audrey without Barton noticing?  Did he literally send his vengeful wrath up through the pipes?).

In the end, we cannot be certain that Charlie actually did kill Audrey, although it's a safe bet that he's not as innocent to what's gone on as he infers - earlier, he stated that he "hears everything that goes on in this dump" and the retching noises that accompany our journey down the bathroom pipes would suggest that he means this all-too literally. There are times when Charlie and the Earle appear to be one and the same and his character is given a kind of omnipresence which lingers long after Charlie has left Room 621, all of which indicates that his shock and revulsion upon being greeted with the murder scene are feigned. We know that Charlie is not to be trusted, but then who in this film truly is?

Supposing that Charlie is not Audrey's killer, are there any other plausible suspects? Hotel employees Chet and Pete seem too incidental as characters to be taken seriously as culprits, and we are not given evidence that there is anyone else in the hotel other than a couple making love in the room next to Barton's. The only other viable candidate would appear to be Barton himself (his lack of knowledge of the incident notwithstanding), which is a far more disturbing proposition than the suggestion that Audrey died at the hands of an accomplished killer like Charlie. Of all the figures in the film, the viewer is prompted to believe that they can at least trust Barton - while not blinded to the fact that he is a fool and a hypocrite, the viewer experiences Hollywood and the Earle through his eyes, remaining at all times as uncomfortably in the dark as he is. Barton is the viewer's ally in their mutual discombobulation; the notion that he could have done something so shocking and unpalatable behind the viewer's back is a troubling one. We're inclined to go along with Barton when he professes his innocence to Charlie, but should we?

In my previous entry, I dismissed a theory proposing that everything that happens from Barton's first night in the Earle onward is a dream on the grounds that "that's when weird things start to happen". The entire film, I argued, could be described as "weird", and no such distinction exists between the nature of the of weirdness that Barton initially experiences upon arrival at the Earle and what happens immediately after. I did, however, suggest that this theory might have a bit more weight if applied to the point where Barton wakes up to find Audrey murdered, because it's here that the film kicks into a completely different gear. Strangeness pervades every corner of Barton Fink, but it's from this point onward that the film starts to become strange in more extraordinary ways - whereas its sense of menace previously came from an eerie emphasis upon the mundane (mosquitos, noisy neighbours, peeling wallpaper), it now comes increasingly from far-out twists like waking up to find that your lover has been murdered or the revelation that your neighbour is a serial killer. Reality, of course, can be every bit as twisted and far-out, but here it definitely feels as if the film is taking a self-conscious wander into the territory of more sensationalist fiction. If we view the Earle as a representation of Barton's own inner mind then we might see Audrey's death as something that happens entirely for the purposes of changing the rules of the game. Audrey is sacrificed in order to give Barton - and Barton Fink - a release from the stifling monotony of his writer's block, one that grants him the forward momentum he needs to knuckle down and finish his screenplay. We get no clear answer to the whodunnit because one does not actually exist - Barton simply wakes up to find Audrey dead. The exact cause of her death is irrelevant.  Having finally achieved sexual intimacy with the woman whose quiet, unassuming charm has been tantalising Barton eve since he first locked eyes on her, he drags her down into the darkest, most perverse depths of his psyche, whereupon she is ripped to shreds. The viewer is left to ponder not merely the horror of Barton's situation, but also the casual cruelty with which Audrey, by far the most compassionate figure encountered by Barton throughout his adventures in Hollywood, is reduced from character to prop in the blink of an eye.

We may recall that earlier on, during his second meeting with Charlie, Barton had summarised the duties of a writer as having to "plumb the depths" in order to "dredge up something from inside." This is Barton at his most hopelessly naive, oblivious not only to how well-acquainted his companion truly is with dredging up the gruesome inner details of the human condition, but also to the darker forces he unconsciously implies are lurking deep within his own soul. It's tempting to dismiss Barton's words as the empty pretensions of a would-be artist anxious to conceal the fact that he has no hidden depths to speak of, but the bleaker reality is that Barton is an unfledged dolt who knows little of the world, not least the chaotic impulses that lie in wait at the back of his skull, and his journey from Audrey's death onward is one of frightening self-discovery (albeit one which ultimately leaves Barton stranded in yet another limbo). The shot linking the love-making scene with the gruesome morning after discovery - our excursion through the dank, dark waterworks of the Earle - seems to deliberately evoke Barton's comments on plumbing the depths of the life of the mind and exploring the unpleasantness that lies within. We find ourselves swallowed deep by a hidden underworld of sickness and squalor, where the sounds of Barton and Audrey are slowly drowned out by the sounds of Charlie in a vomiting rage; this is the ugly, feverish anguish that runs all through the innards Earle and manifests on the surface as an abnormal stickiness leaking from the walls. Like the black bugs infesting the suburban grasses of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), this alerts us to the darker undercurrents at work in the Earle, which up until now have largely stayed hidden out of view; it also serves as a passageway from one part of Barton's brain to the next, slipping away from an awakening erotic fantasy and resurfacing in a nightmare scenario where Barton comes face to face with Audrey's desecrated corpse. Barton cannot account for what has happened; he has been caught off-guard by the cruelty and depravity of his own creative mind, which has moved to sacrifice Audrey on artistic whim and now proceeds to mock him with the consequences.

The most accurate answer to the film's whodunnit would be to say that Audrey was murdered by the Earle; that is to say, the same malevolent forces that caused the wallpaper to peel and brought a distinctly out-of-place mosquito into being. The question this immediately raises, of course, is who ultimately pulls the strings at the Earle - Barton, whose inner mind the Earle embodies, or Charlie, who appears to actually be a part of the Earle? If we view the Earle as a representation of Barton's inner head, then what are we to make of Charlie's accusation, toward the end of the film, that Barton is but a tourist with a typewriter and not naturally at home inside what is supposedly his own psyche? Is the cruelest twist of all that Barton should be rejected by his own inner mind, which dismisses him as merely a front, a constructed self belied by the chaotic demons that rage underneath? If Charlie resides in the murky depths of Barton's brain, then the implication would follow that he too is another facet of Barton's psyche, yet he appears to have a mind and will all of his own, and to be toying with Barton in a manner that seems by turns adoring and merciless.

Charlie too gets what he wants out of Audrey's death. He gets to be Barton's confidant and rescuer in his new hour of need, disposing of incriminating evidence and experiencing the satisfaction of having Barton weep feebly that Charlie is the only friend in Hollywood upon whom he can truly rely. Above all, he gets to impart words of inspiration that once again come back to the idea that Charlie wishes to be embraced and remolded by Barton - the suggestion that Barton "think about me...make me your wrestler." Charlie may be a raging inner demon, but above all what he yearns for is a companion with whom he can drink whiskey and swap anecdotes about the capriciousness of life, and to whom he can be extremely useful. He is, in effect, a terrible fiend who aspires to be the ultimate friend.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

A Day or a Lifetime: Awake for the first time in years?

Back when I first started blogging about Barton Fink (only the second string of entries I started writing on The Spirochaete Trail, after rating the gruesome deaths of cute cartoon forest creatures), I stated that the very first analysis I ever read of the film came from the "Pocket Essentials" guide to the Coens by Ellen Cheshire and John Ashbrook.  I also indicated that I don't think so much of the book or their analysis now, which definitely falls on the facile side.  By that, I mean that they identify several the key themes and motifs without delving particularly deeply into what these might mean (eg: there are a number of obvious Hell allusions during the scenes at the Hotel Earle, so Cheshire and Ashbrook are happy to accept that Barton literally goes into Hell every time he sets foot in the Earle, and that Charlie is literally either The Devil or a fallen angel).  Truthfully though, it seems a bit churlish to go after a slim, easy read like a Pocket Essentials book (one which devotes a meagre eleven pages to the film in question) for not being in-depth enough.  No, by far my biggest issue with the book would be their shoddy researching (or lack of) on the death of Takako Konishi, a Japanese office worker who in 2001 was falsely reported by several media outlets to have traveled to Minnesota in search of the money buried by Steve Buscemi's character in the Coens' 1996 film Fargo, apparently unaware that the film was a fiction, only to die of exposure in the effort.  This was subsequently debunked and Konishi's death was determined to have been a suicide, but Cheshire and Ashbrook do not appear to have looked this up, and these days I practice a personal rule about immediately throwing out books on the Coens that lazily perpetuate the old Konishi myth.  Their extremely lightweight reading of Barton Fink will not satisfy the hardcore obsessive who delights in picking over every last detail of the film, but it's fine enough as a starting point or for somebody who just wants to get to grips with some of the basic symbolism.

At the end of their analysis, Cheshire and Ashbrook propose that there are three possible interpretations of Barton Fink, which they term The Brazil Theory, The Videodrome Theory, and Apocalypse Now/The Buffy The Vampire Slayer Theory (they act as if these are all familiar and well-established theories among the Coen brothers fandom, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they pulled them all, names included, out of their arses on the spot).  Respectively, these mean that a) Barton is crazy, b) Barton is dreaming and c) Barton's world is really just that weird.  All frustratingly generic theories that basically hand-wave rather than tackle the film's feverish madness, but what interests me about the second theory is their rationale that we cannot trust anything that happens from very early on in the film because of a simple visual cheat on the part of the Coens - in Cheshire and Ashbrook's words "you see Barton drop off to sleep when he arrives at Hotel Earle, but you don't see him wake up, and from then on weird things start to happen."  Straight off the bat, it's a theory that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, because it would indicate that Barton's initial encounter with Chet and his early glimpses of life in the Earle are part of the non-dream portion of the film, yet they definitely qualify as every bit as "weird" as much of what we see thereafter.  Secondly, it's not actually the case that we see Barton drop off to sleep during his first night at the Earle - rather, we see him attempting to sleep only to be kept awake by the intrusive whines of the mosquito.

Nevertheless, I got to thinking about the various points in Barton Fink where we see Barton either settling down to sleep or awakening from sleep and what we might take from this.  After all, there can be little doubt that dreaming is an important theme in Barton Fink, as hinted right from the opening sequence when we hear the hero of Barton's play proclaim that he is awake for the first time in years, having been accused by his companions of living in a perpetual fantasy.  The film repeatedly prompts us to question where we are to draw the line between the objective and subjective.

The list of scenes is as follows:
  • When Barton arrives at the Earle, he attempts to retire to sleep for the night but is disturbed by the mosquito.
  • After the disastrous picnic with Audrey and Mayhew, Barton is seen sleeping at the Earle but is once again snapped back into alertness by the mosquito.  Unlike the aforementioned scene, Barton is lying on top of the bed in his regular clothing and the light in his room is on, hinting that he took a brief nap while working on his screenplay.
  • Barton is lying with his face buried under his pillow before Audrey arrives.
  • Barton awakens after his night with Audrey.
  • Barton passes out while watching Charlie do his little clean-up.
  • Barton is restored to consciousness by Charlie physically slapping him.

Early on, there appears to be a pattern with Barton attempting to fall or remain asleep but not succeeding.  Barton's problem is not that he's a dreamer, but rather that he cannot dream and is forced to wander through life with his eyes wide open (which is not to say that he actually sees a great deal).  He cannot physically settle himself, nor can he latch onto any fleeting traces of escapism that come his way.  His lack of focus and inability to step out from the barren walls of his own socially-stunted mind are what make getting his screenplay written such a formidable task.  Up until the dramatic twist that occurs midway, the film is characterised by an absence of dreaming, a sort of frenzied insomnia that pervades every moment of his time inside the Earle and outside in diurnal Hollywood.  There is a strong sense of unease throughout, but for the first half this never tips into the overtly nightmarish, this menace being rooted in mundane, everyday disturbances whose intrusions seem magnified by the great empty spaces they have to fill.  Barton's life is horrifyingly dull, and that dullness, much like his mosquito nemesis, is threatening to drain him of all vitality.

Where Barton does find glimpses of potential liberation are in his brushes with femininity - the magnetism of the mysterious and compassionate Audrey and his fascination with the kitschy image of the beach-dwelling beauty that hangs above his desk.  Both provide Barton with momentary solace, yet both are also at odds with the machinations of the Earle, which repeatedly strikes out and pulls Barton back into his stifling situation should he happen to glance their way for too long.  The picture, chintzy as it is, moves Barton and offers to lift him up and carry him beyond the walls of the Earle, into an escapist fantasy accompanied by sounds of crashing waves and shrieking gulls.  Barton can only get so far into this diversion, however, before the Earle hits back and once again commands his attention, with its peeling wallpapers and bloodsucking fauna.  This foreshadows the unspoken rivalry which later develops between Barton's two confidants.  Charlie, who is for all intents and purposes the human manifestation of the Earle's dark and imposing nature, professes a desire to be Barton's muse, and it seems that Barton is even considering taking him up on his offer when he ponders the question (originally posed by Lipnick) of "Orphan" or "Dame" right before inviting Audrey into the Earle.  Earlier, Charlie had mentioned that his parents have both passed on, making him the orphan that Barton considers turning to but ultimately passes over in favour of the dame Audrey.  Ironically, Audrey too arouses Barton from his bed when she shows up at the Earle, although lying there with his head buried under the pillow Barton does not appear to be attempting to sleep so much as hiding from an all-consuming void which is dangerously close to getting the best of him.

Through his successful seduction of Audrey (or vice versa), Barton ostensibly appears to have beaten the Earle, for he not only gets to satisfy his long-frustrated sexual and escapist urges, but he also gets to sleep and, although the mosquito once again proves a disruption, Barton finally appears to defeat the mosquito by swatting it as it perches itself upon Audrey's body.  It becomes apparent, however, that the mosquito, in offering itself up for sacrifice, has played a final trick on Barton, beckoning him to strike Audrey and uncover the most horrific disturbance imaginable.  The Earle is very much on top of the situation.

It's at this dramatic midway twist that the film finally steps into the territory of a full-blown nightmare, raising the question as to whether Barton really is now asleep and dreaming.  This is a fairly improbable turn of events, a sledgehammer shock which goes far beyond the subdued peculiarities of the initial half.  I'd say that Cheshire/Ashbrook's "Videodrome" theory might have more credibility here than at the start of the film as they propose, as the film itself seems to radically change direction at this point.  At the same time, the screaming, hysterical Barton has never appeared more animated and alive.  When Barton does attempt to remove himself, by passing out, it is one of the facets of the Earle, Charlie, that aggressively restores him to the present.  Barton has not escaped the Earle, which continues to have a tight hold on him, but it now seems to be playing a very different game to the one before, in which the muted discomfort of Barton's earlier predicament are replaced by far more sensational twists and revelations, and from which Barton actually rediscovers his ability to write.  It is as if the Earle has allowed Barton to escape down one hole in its dark and squalid piping, only to surface and wake up in a different reality altogether.  This is what has happened, more or less, and from here on in Barton Fink becomes less a film about the turmoils of writer's block than the monstrosities of the mind untethered.