Monday, March 29, 2010


Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu (from 1977) is unlike any film I've ever seen before. No one clip can encompass everything in this film, but the one below does a pretty good job.

It's a kinetic mess that similar to what you might see if you animated a kid's coloring book, spliced it together with some old television commercials and watched the whole thing on acid. I wish more movies had the testicular fortitude to let their effects be this cool.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The End of the World - Part 1: Crime and Punishment

On post-apocalyptic laws, reasons why we behave, and the necessity for shades of gray.

The struggle to re-establish order and a new set of laws after the collapse of society is one of the main issues examined in Robert Kirkman's zombie-apocalypse comic The Walking Dead. The first couple of volumes deal with the initial response to the end of the world, and the third and fourth books focus on the characters' search for a safe place to hide from the hordes of undead. The group eventually stumbles upon an abandoned prison, inhabited only by four ex-inmates of varying degrees of trustworthiness. After a few run-ins with the inmates, the group's leader, and main character, a former small-town police officer named Rick, is forced to impose a very simple rule on the small "society": you kill, you die.

Anyone taking the life of anyone else is sentenced to death immediately, no questions asked. The motive or circumstances of the murder aren't to be taken into account. Rick realizes that times have changed, and this new world has brought with it a new set of rules - namely, that human life, now scarce, is too valuable to be threatened by violence from other humans. (The innate hypocrisy of the new law doesn't escape the characters.)

This rule has its subtler points though - what if someone threatens another person with death? What if they plan to steal guns or food that are necessary for others to live? Is intent, or indirect harm enough to sentence someone to death? Just as the old testament's "Thou shalt not kill" covers a wide range of actual transgressions, Rick's new commandment proves to be more nuanced than he initially believes. Eventually, Rick is forced to abandon his rule altogether when it is simply too cut and dried, although no other explicit code takes its place. Dealing with crime on a case-by-case basis has varying results for the group, and while a black-and-white law led to chaos, some very profound tragedies also result from a lack of quick and definitive action.

If there is one overarching law that seems to emerge after the apocalypse, it's this: anything that hinders the survival of the human race is wrong. The problem is, how can you effectively enforce this law?

Pop quiz: someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You can hear them rummaging around downstairs while you lay in bed. What do you do? A common answer might be: quietly call the police, try to remain silent, and hope that nobody enters your room. Change it up a little though - there's no working phone, no police, and you happen to be armed with a handgun that you're pretty good at firing. Are you willing to take the chance that the burglar will leave without hurting you or your family?

Most of the time, we're able to leave the "dirty work" in our lives to those who volunteer to do it. We have a police force to deal with crime, a legal system to enact punishment, and myriad of other leaders to make sure that dangerous things get taken care of in an orderly, fair, and consistent manner. When society is gone though, the responsibility to uphold the "rules" falls onto everyone's shoulders.

To make the problem worse, it's a lot easier to break the rules when there aren't any official authority figures around to keep you in line. In addition to shifting the responsibility to uphold the law onto the victims, the end of society increases the chance that the law will need to be upheld. So, the question is, what changes: the rules themselves, or the people who enforce them? Things quickly get nebulous, and this lack of clarity leads to conflict.

If the world ended tomorrow, would its laws still hold? Probably in the short term, while some structure still remained, but what about as things continued to fall apart? Completely remove government and law enforcement from the picture and it's not so clear. Crime seems to thrive whenever it sees an opportunity to do so without consequence. Add to the mix the fact that what we define as crime could even be necessary to exist (say, stealing food in order to keep your family from going hungry), and it's likely that the number of traditionally defined "crimes" is only going to increase.

But there are different degrees of crime - taking food from an abandoned store is different from holding up a shop at gunpoint and forcing them to empty the register. Crimes that directly harm another person are among the most harshly punished, and rightfully so. More "impersonal" crimes such as vandalism, possession of illegal substances, etc. aren't punished nearly as severely. Remove society and it seems as if the severity of these two types of crime shifts in opposite directions. Harming another person when the survival of the human race is at stake is even more unforgivable than in times of safety. For the crimes that remain crimes, there's less room for deliberation about their punishment when so much is at stake. On the other hand, society necessitates the punishment of theft, trespassing, and the like, because these crimes work against the smooth functioning of society itself. Take modern society out of the picture, and these crimes may in fact become necessary to reestablish society.

The reversion to an older, clearer, moral code with fewer shades of gray is something that occurs frequently in post-apocalyptic fiction. It seems like survival dictates the necessity for clear and immediate action against crime, but to what extent can you enforce such a brutal code without becoming as ruthless as those who threaten you?

Imposing a moral code that's painted in black and white simply won't work in a world that has infinite shades of gray, but in a more ruthless society we can't simply maintain the rules that govern us today. Just as the unforgiving laws of the old testament evolved slowly into the more generous laws of the new testament, the laws governing a post-apocalyptic world would have to evolve along with the re-evolution of society. Without society to draw clear cut lines between "right" and "wrong", it's not so easy to tell the difference.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Film Thoughts - 2/10

Thoughts on things I watched in February. Not all of these provoked enough thought for me to squeeze out a longer review, but this doesn't necessarily reflect on how much I enjoyed them. These were also posted on Netflix.

Basket Case - This splatstick horror film is fun and surprisingly shocking at the end. It's quirky enough to keep you guessing despite lagging a little in the middle. The premise is clever and pretty twisted - a young man named Duane seeks out revenge on the doctors who severed his horribly deformed conjoined twin while carrying the (still alive and now bloodthirsty) twin in a basket. While the gore isn't as over the top as it could have been (a la Braindead), the focus here isn't really on sight gags. More unsettling than the bloody parts are the uncomfortable situations it puts the severed twin in. I don't really know if this film was exploiting the notion of physical deformity for laughs or trying to say something about how we oppress and ignore those with some sort of deformity. Either way, it's unsettling. Even more disturbing is one of the DVD extras: "Beverly Bonner's Laugh Track" which showcases the public access comedy show of one of the film's actresses. It's one of the most unintentionally frightening things I've ever seen.

Chalk - A mockumentary focusing on the lives of several beginning teachers and newly appointed school administrators. Speaking from experience, this movie captures what it truly feels like to be a new teacher more than any other film I've seen. The teachers portrayed here aren't heroes or saviors (or even necessarily good teachers), but just slightly burned out adults trying as best they can to figure out how to manage a classroom. This film is at its best when it's not trying to be funny, but unfortunately it tries a little too hard. There's one dream sequence that feels completely out of place. Still, the unglamorous classroom footage is extremely well done, and conveys the awkwardness and absurdity of trying to figure out how exactly to teach high schoolers.

Cut-throats Nine - An unusually nihilistic and gory Euro-Western (Spanish, not Italian, so not "spaghetti"). I was lucky enough to catch a theatrical screening of this at Cinema Overdrive in February. Nine criminals on a chain gang escape from their mountain prison and struggle for survival against the elements and each other. This film goes into some very dark places, and is even more downbeat than a lot of the spaghetti westerns. There's not a lot more to say other than jump at the chance to see this if you can find it somewhere.

Finding Forrester
- A predictable, but well done teacher/mentor story. Sean Connery plays a hermit who befriends and mentors an underprivileged youth. The main character is a little unbelievable, (how many teenagers do you know who have independently worked their way through the canon of English literature?) but if you can suspend disbelief, it's an entertaining enough movie. Thankfully, it tries to avoid unnecessary sentimentality, but eventually caves. Comparable to Freedom Writers, but not nearly as saccharine.

Freaks and Geeks - I remember this show being on when I was in high school, but I'm glad I waited until long after I graduated to watch it. I don't think I would have appreciated the way it captures the awkwardness and struggle for identity that everyone seems to go through in their teenage years. The show follows Lindsay Weir and her younger brother Sam as they both try to fit in while attending high school in the early 80s. Lindsay is torn between hanging out with her dysfunctional "freak" friends and the more straight-edged ones she grew up with. Sam, on the other hand, struggles to adjust to freshman year and leaving his childhood behind. It's nice to have a high school series that completely ignores the jocks and cheerleaders to focus on the unpopular crowd. This show flips the bird to the completely false modern myth of teenage life that most shows set in high school try to romanticize.

Moon - A good, but not quite outstanding story of a lone man working on a lunar refinery who discovers that he's not... unique. To discuss this film too much is to ruin the fun of it, but I will say that it kept me guessing often enough to remain interesting. I'm kind of baffled that this got the hype that it did. The story is based on several staples of sci-fi, and doesn't bring a lot of new ideas to the table. The visuals are all right, but are clearly meant to evoke memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in that sense, we've seen them all before. What is outstanding is Sam Rockwell's job as the only real actor in this film. He carries it when it starts to drag, and takes it to a level of poignancy that might have otherwise fallen flat.

Shutter Island - Scorsese's latest film is a polished horror story about a detective investigating the disappearance of a woman from an insane asylum. To add to the suspense, all of this takes place on a remote island as a storm of biblical proportions is brewing. Technically speaking, this film is a masterpiece. The visuals are beautiful, and it's clear that care was put into every shot. When special effects are present, they're not overused, and they fit seamlessly into the numerous dream sequences. If there's one thing that isn't spectacular, it's the plot. The story of the investigation is interesting enough to get things moving, and once it's going we're led along by tidbits of information that cause us to believe something sinister is going on behind the scenes in the asylum. But when the film reaches its denouement, it throws all its cards on the table and simply starts dictating to us as if we're too dumb to figure things out for ourselves. A little more editing in the final 30 minutes, and this would have been a truly great film. As it stands, it's still very good, and deserves your time.

Sunshine Cleaning - Several people recommended this movie to me knowing that I like dark comedies, but maybe I was expecting too much comedy. This little indie drama is more a meditation on death, albeit with humorous moments. Two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to start their own business cleaning up after crime scenes and end up learning a lot about themselves in the process. Nice enough, although a little more depressing than I initially expected.

Tom Goes to the Mayor - Initially this series has the same feel as many of the other deliberately bizarre Adult Swim cartoons: intentionally poor animation, musical numbers, awkward pauses and silences, "celebrity" cameos, etc. I got the feeling that the show's creators (Tim and Eric) were playing it relatively safe in the beginning. Eventually though, it starts to take on a life of its own and grows increasingly demented and dark. By the final season the show drops all pretense of logic and plot to the point where it simply had to end because it couldn't outdo itself. Perfectly lampoons the absurdity of life in a small town or suburb and pokes fun at everything from infomercials, bad powerpoint presentations, and local news to small-town celebrations and shopping malls.


Carriers - A great character-driven post-apocalyptic road movie. More thoughts forthcoming.

Testament - A post-apocalyptic film focusing on a small town's struggle for survival after a nuclear attack. More thoughts forthcoming.

Who Can Kill a Child? - A somewhat disappointing evil kid movie. More thoughts forthcoming.

Grace - A not-so-great evil baby movie. More thoughts forthcoming.