Friday, July 21, 2017

Don't Kill it

Don’t Kill It (2016; Mark Mendez) opens with scenes of the Mississippi swamp where a man is hunting with his dog. Ominous music and thunderclaps provide the backdrop as the dog wanders off the trail and finds a strange looking object. That object, as we come to know, contains an ancient demon which escapes to terrorize the small Mississippi town where this film is set. The film makes use of the backwoods landscape and the comical, dimwitted citizens of the small Southern town as it shows us how the demon possesses one person after another, compelling them to kill anyone who comes in sight. The violence in this movie is considerable though not realistic -- in realism it reminded me of the original version of 200 Maniacs. We have several scenes of carnage, of families being killed, of teenagers being obliterated. A number of children are killed too, mostly off-screen. A demon killer named Jebediah Woodley finds his way to town. He's played by Dolph Lundgren. Jebediah teams up with FBI agent Evelyn Pierce to track down the demon. She has returned to the town after a long absence. The difficulty about the demon is the fact that it moves from one person's body to the next. When someone shoots the person whom the demon has possessed, the demon immediately transitions to the killer’s body. Hence the title of the film. If you kill the demon, he possesses you. Instead of being killed, he needs to be contained. No one can tell who the demon is, except for the way his or her eyes turn completely black and for the shotgun or the pistol or the machete that he or she is carrying and the roaring sound he or she makes as he or she runs towards the next victim – in other words, the demon is fairly obvious. The plot is slightly more intricate than I've made it out to be. We learn that the FBI agent Pierce is descended from an angelic lineage, a fact that plays conveniently into the plot, though it's not explained very well. Oddly, there's comedy in this film, which makes fun of the limitations of the people of the small town, many of whom are dead by the end of the film. This was a film so unlikely and so ludicrous that I found myself longing before the midpoint for it to end yet at the same time not willing to give up on it.

Dont Kill It employs a number of southern conventions:  Gothicism, religious extremism, small-town hokum, the supernatural, swamps. A fundamentalist minister in town is convinced that the demon hunter Jebediah is himself the demon. He musters the paranoid support of parishioners to try to stop the demon hunter and the FBI agent. I've already mentioned the small town and its dimwitted citizens. A bumbling Barney Fife-like policeman provides minor comic relief. Dolph Lundgren's character is eccentric and mysterious and crazy. Lundgren does a good job with his character. He's the only strong point of the film, in a relative way. But the major relief this film provides comes when the closing credits roll.
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Why a demon in a small Mississippi town? Is there anything particularly southern about the demon in this film? I suppose demons, if you believe in them, can appear anywhere. One could argue that the demon in Don't Shoot It incorporates all the stereotypical worst traits of a small town southern resident: love of weapons, love of violence, pleasure in shooting or assaulting anything, whether animal or human, religious mania. This demon’s appearance in a Mississippi swamp is totally arbitrary, which is not to say that arbitrariness somehow invalidates its existence there. The appearance of the demon, which we can understand as a source of bad luck, terrible events, misfortune, random chaos, that is, as a supernatural explanation for anything evil that can happen in the world, is explanation enough. We’re always looking for explanations: for what caused the Deep Water Horizon disaster, what led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what led to any number of terrible earthquakes or tsunami or volcanic eruptions or hurricanes or tornadoes, for plagues. We’re always grasping for explanations, and we’re always fearful of them. The demon in this film is one explanation and it certainly  stimulates enough fear. But I prefer to spend my time considering more plausible, rational, human, physical explanations.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return, episode 8

At the beginning of the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, the evil twin of Agent Cooper is driving down the freeway in the dark along with a young accomplice named Ray whom he has just broken out of prison. As is true of many parts of Twin Peaks, especially the revived version, certain scenes take an inordinately long time. In the dark, with the roadside barely illuminated by the headlights of the car, Agent Cooper drives and drives and drives. After a while he exits the expressway on to what appears to be a state highway. Then he leaves the state highway and turns onto a single-lane road that soon turns into a dirt road. Agent Cooper tells Ray that he needs certain information from him. Ray tells Cooper that he will have to pay for it. Agent Cooper pulls the car to a stop and gets out to relieve himself. Ray gets out of the car, comes towards Cooper with a pistol, and begins shooting. Cooper falls over dead. Bizarre wraith-like phantoms appear out of the darkness and begin touching and waving their hands back and forth over the body. The terrified Ray gets into the car and drives away. Agent Cooper comes back to life.

We then move to July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert and the occasion of the first atomic bomb test. The bomb detonates, and the camera moves closer and closer to the blast, approaching the mushroom cloud and finally entering it. We see turmoil and turbulence and, apparently, molecules racing back and forth. Occasionally a form seems about to take shape but it never does. This goes on for quite a while. Next, we move to a scene outside a convenience store in 1956. A teenage boy and a 14- or 15-year-old girl are standing together outside a convenience store where they have enjoyed each other's company. He walks her to her house, and this again takes quite a while. He asks if he can kiss her good night. She's hesitant at first, but finally agrees, and they briefly kiss. It’s a sappily innocent scene. Next, we shift to the middle of the desert where what appears to be a pebble turns out to be an egg that hatches into a creature that appears to be half-cockroach and half-lizard. The creature crawls across the desert floor. A strange man who has descended out of the clouds invades a radio station and, after killing the receptionist and before killing the DJ, broadcasts a bizarre message. Everyone who hears it loses consciousness. Finally, the creature arrives at the house of the girl, who is lying on her bed listening to music. She loses consciousness as she hears the radio message. While she sleeps, the creature crawls through her window, across the floor and onto her bed, and into her mouth. She swallows.

These events take up about half the episode. I've left a lot out, especially a scene in a strange antique room with an old, overly made-up woman and her Lurch-like servant.  He walks into another room and begins to levitate and emits glowing material from his mouth. And, oh yes, Laura Palmer's face, along with the face of the demon Bob (so important to the original series), also plays into this sequence.

I think the whole point of these scenes is to illustrate Bob’s origins.

I am a fan of Twin Peaks. I intend to watch every remaining episode. I greatly admired David Lynch's film Blue Velvet. Wild at Heart was good. I did care for Eraser Head, or Inland Empire, or Mulholland Drive, which mostly seemed to me to substitute for creative vision or sense. I think what we see in Episode 8 is what happens when one has insufficient content to fill 17 episodes. In the end, Twin Peaks: The Return may all make sense, and I'll have to eat my words. (Just as the girl had to eat that creature). Some may believe that what we're given in Episode 8 is the vision of a true genius. I think it’s a failure of imagination.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck, 2016) is uncomfortable to watch.  No white viewer can escape its condemnations. Even progressive, liberal, racially enlightened and/or sensitive viewers cannot escape.  The documentary is about the brilliant writer James Baldwin and his provocative analyses of America’s racial history.   Using clips from films, newsreels, and interviews with Baldwin,  it  investigates the responsibility of white Americans for creating the historical, social, and cultural matrix of causes and effects that led to the nation’s fraught racial history and situation.  The film centers on interviews and public statements made by Baldwin from the 1950s through the late 1970s.  It’s loosely structured around a book Baldwin proposed to write (but never finished) on the lives of three assassinated icons of the Civil Rights movement: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X, all of whom Baldwin knew.  His plan was to discuss the racial environment of the United States by focusing on these three figures.

Baldwin was a brilliant talker and thinker.  Especially impressive are sequences from his appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, where comments offered by a professor of sociology at Yale provoke him into an incredible series of incisive statements about the situation of black Americans in the 1960s.  The film deliberately ties the problems targeted by the Civil Rights movements to the racial situation in contemporary America by using images and film clips of black Americans killed by policemen and other law enforcement officials in the last several years. Baldwin finds apologies and other gestures offered by white Americans concerning the treatment of African Americans to be unsatisfactory.  He wants white Americans to take action, real action, to correct the injustices that people of color suffered in the 1960s, and that they continue to suffer today.  Baldwin indicts not so much white Americans individually (though he describes them as culturally dead) as he does the institutions, cultural conventions, laws, economic divides that they helped to create.

The film takes a pessimistic view of race relations and the likelihood of their improvement—Baldwin saw little hope for improvement in his own lifetime, even though he held hopes for American democracy, and the filmmaker sees little hope in 2016. 

As bad as the racial situation was in the 1950s and 1960s, I disagree that it has not improved in the intervening years.  There have been clear progress and improvement.  By so saying, I don’t dismiss the serious problems—economically, judicially, legally, culturally, and otherwise—that African Americans and other minorities continue to face.

This film is instructive, compelling, disturbing, infuriating, and uncompromised in its presentation of its subject.  It’s a wonderful presentation of Baldwin and proof that the writer, dead now for over thirty years, remains pertinent.  It’s also a panoramic view of racism and race in America—the nature of racism, its manifestations in violence, murder, subjugation, and denial—over its four hundred-year history.