Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Apology

Hello everyone!

I'm sorry to say that I was only able to do two reviews this month. School has been absolutely insane. But I will try to get back to my regular quota of four reviews a month as soon as possible.

Thanks for reading!

Nathanael Hood

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Shallow Grave

Directed by Danny Boyle
The United Kingdom

Off a nondescript street in an equally nondescript neighborhood of Edinburgh stands an unassuming brownstone flat harboring three particularly nasty tenets. The first, David, is a mousy-looking chartered accountant sporting a Clark Kent combover and a pair of garish brown glasses. The second, Juliet, is a stern, no-nonsense doctor who seems to have stolen her hairdo and demeanor from a 1980s female news anchor. And finally, the third is Alex, a grating, immature, irresponsible reporter with a massive ego outsized only by his gargantuan mouth. The three would have probably hated each other if not for one common interest: causing misery in other human beings. When they aren’t working or keeping their split-pea soup green and Tweety Bird yellow furniture and decor immaculately clean, the three emotionally and psychologically abuse the unfortunate souls who answer their add for a fourth tenet.

Juliet, Alex, and David immediately after humiliating another potential flatmate.

But soon they run out of awkward Gingers, Goths, and Geeks to harass. So they finally accept a clean-cut, well dressed man named Hugo as their fourth tenet. Everything seems fine...at least until the next day when they discover him completely naked, sprawled out over his bed, and stone-cold dead from a drug overdose. And next to their freshly deceased flatmate they find a suitcase stuffed to the brim with more money than they had ever laid eyes on.

Such is the situation in which the main characters of Danny Boyle’s directorial debut Shallow Grave find themselves. Two years before he would stun the world with Trainspotting (1996), a true cinematic triumph that would later be named one of the Top Ten Greatest British Films of All Time by the British Film Institute, Boyle released this remarkable, yet little remembered, title. Part crime thriller, part black comedy, Shallow Grave is a magnificent synthesis of style, mood, and storytelling.

The idea of a group of friends accidentally discovering a suitcase full of somebody else’s money was already an overused stereotype before Boyle began this film. But Boyle introduces two distinct variations for this scenario which set it apart from other stories of its kind. First, usually when a group of people find a “suitcase full of money” they initially want to do the right thing but are dissuaded by a corrupt member of their party. In Shallow Grave, Boyle asks the question of what would happen if the people who found it were already out-right, unapologetic bastards. It doesn’t take long for the three to decide to keep the money and not inform the authorities about Hugo’s death. So they almost immediately set out on the obligatory spending sprees that accompany such tales.

The aftermath.

Well, to be more specific, Juliet and Alex start to throw money around like crazy. David, on the other hand, refrains from and even rebukes their frivolous behavior, wisely (and correctly) assuming that the money didn’t belong to Hugo. But there is a greater motivation for David’s cautious behavior. Quite simply, he begins to grow a conscience. Usually it’s the other way around in these stories: a harming individual or influence eventually corrupts the otherwise decent members of the group who find the money, eventually turning them against each other. The reason for David’s sudden development has to do with Boyle’s second variation on this story: the presence of an unwanted body.

I mean, it IS kinda hard to miss.

Naturally Hugo has to disappear in order for them to keep the money. But the question quickly becomes how will they do it. The disposal of bodies has long been one of the most difficult problems for the average movie character. Some hide them under floorboards, some in swamps, and some even feed them to pigs! But David, Juliet, and Alex fancy themselves smarter than the average criminal and decide that the best thing to do is to saw off his hands and feet, burn them, bash his face with a hammer beyond recognition, destroy his teeth, and bury what’s left in the woods. Unfortunately, after drawing straws, it is up for David to do the butchering. It is at this point that the film takes on a completely different tone.

David doing the dirty deed.

Up until then, the entire film had reveled in the techniques that would come to define Boyle’s direction in the coming decades: highly kinetic editing, a break-neck speed, and ecstatically energetic acting. But after David’s midnight meat run, the mood and atmosphere of the film shift. David slowly begins to lose his mind, locking himself in their attic to protect the money. A pair of gangsters hot on the trail of the money begin to interrogate and dispatch people connected with the money’s disappearance in increasingly shocking and brutal manners. Juliet begins to realize that they might be in trouble and starts to move about as if in a daze. And Alex, whereas before he was just an asshole, begins to sink into illusions of grandeur wherein he is a genius and completely untouchable by both the law and whoever might be wanting the money back.

Of course, Alex’s delusions are violently ended when the two gangsters somehow track the money to their flat and attack them. Miraculously, David manages to dispatch both of them when they try to access the attic. Afterwards, they have two more dead bodies to dispose of. But they have bigger problems. David’s paranoia has driven him insane, Juliet is so terrified that she buys plane tickets to Brazil, and Alex’s arrogant bravado has come crashing down, leaving him a frightened fraction of the man he once was. To their combined horror, things get even worse when the police manage to discover all three bodies and come to their flat asking suspicious questions. Perhaps inevitably it leads to an unfortunate incident in their flat involving a particularly large kitchen knife...

Though its central story may be too familiar for some, Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave is nonetheless an astonishingly powerful thriller. Most films are unable to survive a mood shift as severe and pronounced as the one central to Shallow Grave. But where other films choke, Shallow Grave succeeds with a ferocious intensity. Many fresh filmmakers make the mistake of sacrificing story for style. But with this film Boyle proved himself not only as a master stylist, but as a supreme storyteller as well. Truly, it was the dawn of one of Britain’s greatest and most talented modern filmmakers.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Last Chants for a Slow Dance

Directed by Jon Jost
The United States of America

Somewhere along a desolate highway in Western Montana where the scorched grass burns brown and cotton-ball clouds dissolve into an endless ocean of white, a decrepit old pick-up truck speeds along. The driver, a shifty, uneasy man named Tom Bates fidgets and cackles a rapid, kookaburra laugh. “I mean, what you ever get the feeling that everything was just, just going by you like WHOOSH -- just going by, it’s all, all too fast. You can’t, can’t see anything,” he philosophizes to a lanky hitch-hiking hippie sitting in the passenger seat. “I guess, well I guess what I got to do is sort through some of this shit, y’know, just get some of this shit outta my life,” he continues as his passenger sits in solemn silence. Indeed, Tom Bates is a man with a lot of shit in his life. He has no job, no money, a wife he keeps running away from, and two kids (soon to be three) he doesn’t want. And the worst part is that he is either incapable or unwilling to realize or admit that all of these problems are his fault. He is the nightmare of a living, breathing hamartia; an Aristotelian tragic hero devoid of anagnorisis. He is unapologetic in all he does: when he screams at his wife, when he wastes what little money he has on cheap drinks, and even when he cruelly throws the hippie out of his truck when he begins to suspect that he might be “a queer.” He feels cheated by life, yet has no idea that he stacked his own deck against him.

Such are the ways of Tom Bates, the character around which Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance revolves. One of the neglected treasures of the early American independent film scene, it is, to use Jonathan Rosenbaum’s words, a “chilling portrait of an embittered, misogynistic lumpen proletarian.” Made for about $2,000 and shot on dusty, faded 16mm film stock, the film looks like the remnants of overexposed home movies. It embodies the lulling sense of fatigue brought on by days of endless driving with no radio or air conditioning. And yet there was not a single moment of Last Chants for a Slow Dance that didn’t leave me completely enthralled.

Jost constructs his film through the use of two primary techniques. First, he routinely utilizes long takes where the characters are either partially or completely obscured. Consider the opening scene in the truck with the hippie hitch-hiker. The third shot of this sequence is a medium close-up of Tom Bates and the hippie framed by the front windshield. The camera first focuses on Tom.

Since up to this point the hippie hasn’t said a word, the audiences is shocked when the camera pans left to reveal his presence.

Then, the camera pans further left to profile the hippie. All the while, Tom continues to rattle on from off-camera.

Then, after a time, the camera pans right to frame both characters one last time.

This whole unbroken shot is roughly six minutes long. Not only is it aesthetically fascinating, but it is a technical marvel. Considering that Jost only had two grand to film with, it is very doubtful that he had an expensive camera that could be fixed on the top of the engine. So this raises two possibilities. One, that Jost managed to cobble together a system of pulleys and ropes which not only held the camera in place but panned it back and forth to perfectly profile the characters. Two, that somebody was literally tied to the front of the truck and worked the camera while on a busy freeway. I honestly can’t decide which would be more practical.

The second technique that Jost extensively utilizes is the montage. As Tom stumbles from confrontation to confrontation, the film dissolves into sequences of rapid, quick cuts set to country music written, played, and sung by Jost. When I say country music, I don’t mean the polished, glittery Nashville tripe that usually floods the radio-waves. This is authentic country music, the kind Townes Van Zandt crooned to empty bar rooms in Austin, the kind borne from picking on a guitar or banjo on a rocking chair on a front porch, the kind that paints pictures of misery, despondence, and exhaustion. The music evokes the tedium that rules Tom’s life.

The combination of the long take and montage skew the audience’s senses of temporality. On this subject, Noël Carroll wrote, “Jost’s strength in this film is his ability to portray the experience of time of the lumpenproietariat who is outside the regimented rhythm of work and sleep, who lives without directions, schedules, and goals.” And indeed, Tom seems drifts in and out of time. One minute, he is flirting with a woman at a bar. In the next, we see Tom sitting on the bed in her apartment in his underwear making a phone call to his wife, alternating between begging her to take him back and screaming obscenities at her. The woman from the bar, having heard the whole conversation, asks him who he was talking to. Without missing a beat or batting an eye, he responds in a terse monotone, “It’s something ‘bout a job.” The woman, obviously amazed that Tom would lie so blatantly to her face, continues, “You always yell at people who are about to employ you?” “Yeah.” Not buying it, she says, “You didn’t mention anything about a wife last night.” “I don’t remember being asked about a wife, last night.” It isn’t long before Tom begins to yell again.

If Jon Jost’s direction was the stuff of genius, then Tom Blair’s performance as Tom Bates was the stuff of legend. He encapsulated the kind of brutal, honest naturalism that John Cassavetes spent decades trying to coax out of actors like Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. Blair manages to change emotions from one extreme to another with a swiftness that would have seemed robotic or artificial from another, lesser actor. The fact that these violent mood swings are almost always captured in unbroken long takes gives him an almost sinister presence that spreads unease over the audience. We slowly become morbidly curious of just how far gone Tom Bates might really be.

Jon Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance is a fascinating film which seems to stylistically predict the works of Béla Tarr and Jim Jarmusch. Without relying on the over-abused metaphor of the Death of the American Dream, suffice it to say that Jost’s film is a scathing rebuke of traditional American machismo and individualism. Tom Bates is no John Wayne, no Clint Eastwood, no Marlboro Man. He inhabits two wastelands: the plains of Montana and the killing fields of his inner psyche. Is it any wonder that the film ends in violence? Jost wisely realized that Tom Bates’ story could not end any other way.