Wednesday, November 19, 2014

QHMOAT Double-Feature! (Exam/Only Lovers Left Alive)

When October was drawing to a close, I rearranged my Netflix queue a bit so that the movies coming to the top were dual-purpose, ones which could be slotted into the last gasps of the Halloween Countdown if needed or wanted, but weren’t so blatantly seasonally apt that they would feel a day late if I didn’t get to them until November. And of course I did not get to them until this week, for all the usual petty little reasons (a sick day here, a forgot-to-charge-the-portable-DVD-player-overnight there, &c.) but that turns out to have been just as well. Quasi-Halloween Movies On A Train they may be, but only with a very generous definition of “quasi”.

First up, Exam, a little indie suspense movie from 2009. I forget if a friend of mine recommended it or if I just read a review somewhere, but it sounded like a premise that was up my alley: eight strangers locked in a room to take a final exam as part of a mysterious job interview process, and things get … intense. It’s a meta puzzlebox of a story, with the characters themselves trying to figure out what the solution the exam really is and the audience also trying to do so ahead of the characters. And bottom line, as meta puzzleboxes go, it was … OK. It’s set in a near future just far enough ahead of ours that there can be some unreal science fiction thrown in, some of which is used merely to justify the premise and some of which factors into the solution, but it’s the film equivalent of a bottle episode, so mostly people just talk about these bits of worldbuilding outside the examination room, and a lot of it ends up feeling like little cheats to get out of tight narrative squeezes.

I looked back through the blog archives here to see if I ever explained why I disdained the Ghost Rider movie from 2007 so much, and I can’t find anything, so here it is in a nutshell: there is a scene early on in that movie where a young Johnny Blaze hears his father talking about performing a hypothetical stunt in which he would jump his motorcycle over helicopters. His father dies before he can ever make that a reality. A little later, the adult Johnny Blaze is planning the helicopter stunt for himself. Someone asks him “Why helicopters?” and Blaze answers “My dad would have thought it was cool.” That exchange should work just fine on its own, and yet the director felt it necessary to include a sepia-toned flashback in between the question and the answer, replaying the exact same footage we just saw fifteen minutes ago (but with an Instagram filter) in case anyone forgot. I don’t mind dumb movies, but I do mind dumb movies that aggressively insult my intelligence.

Is Exam as bad as Ghost Rider? No, although it’s not as smart as it thinks it is, either. But it does commit the same sin. Early in the movie the Invigilator makes a speech laying out the rules of the exam. Then, throughout the run time as the characters are trying to figure out how to pass the test, they’ll remind each other of the parameters and technicalities and the movie will flash back to the Invigilator’s speech. Not only does that seem like overkill, but also highly ironic because at one point in the very serious introductory speech the Invigilator says “Listen carefully, there will be NO REPETITION.” And then his dialogue proceeds to get repeated and repeated and repeated within the movie. Still, by the end this makes a little more sense as a conscious stylistic choice, if only because the ultimate answer to the exam requires such a convoluted logic pretzel that it takes an extended aural montage of the exam instructions to set up the climactic reveal.

I went in expecting something like a hyper-rational haunted house story, with characters actually dying if they failed the exam and ultimately turning on and killing each other in a Lord of the Flies style bloodbath, but the film is really nothing like that. It has its tense moments but it also makes use of a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo to really cop out on some of the violent shocks that unfold along the way. Not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but not really all that satisfying by the time it ends, either.

Only Lovers Left Alive would have made a slightly better quasi-Halloween flick, if only because it purports to be about vampires - fanged creatures of the night who drink blood and live forever and all that - and is in fact about vampires, unambiguously. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as undead husband and wife, Adam and Eve, who have lived for centuries, and they are both amazing, managing the slightly inhuman looks and mannerisms of immortal monsters trying to pass as humans.

But it’s not a horror film, nor even trying to be particularly scary. It’s a moody, dreamy meditation on choosing to live life as it comes or giving up on the world altogether. Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed, very wisely sidesteps the issue of vampire morality (almost) entirely, by positing that his main characters only drink type O negative blood they obtain from medical facilities, not because they are squeamish about hurting live human beings but because they fear the effects on themselves if they feed on someone who has tainted blood, whether that means disease or the poison of drugs or anything else; hospital blood, presumably, screens all that out. Thus the vampires don’t see men and women as cattle, or playthings, or natural enemies in the predator/prey sense. They refer to people as “zombies” because, compared to the eternal (and prone to brooding) vampires, they might as well be mindlessly devoid of self-awareness altogether, and the vampires minimize their contact with them as a result.

There’s also a motif running through the film about art and artists and creative immortality, which is arguably the weakest part of the story. It provides some amusing material: one of the secondary characters is a vampire named Kit Marlowe (John Hurt, also awesome), who is presented as the Kit Marlowe and also the true playwright of all the works of Shakespeare, with the fraud of Avon having stolen and taken credit for the good stuff. I like a good bit of sly literary conspiracy theory humor as much as the next nerd, believe me. But much Adam is a musician who agonizes about what to do with his own songs. He lives as a recluse, and if he were to try to get his creative output into the world, it might draw unwanted attention to his agelessness and other peculiarities. So he composes alone, for himself, for nobody. I’m always skeptical of the whole train of thought running along the lines of “woe is me, I am a True Artist and it is so hard to be me, so hard to be misunderstood, so hard to think that if I showed anyone my true brilliance I would become unbearably famous, which just isn’t fair, blah blah blah.” I am of course susceptible to this exact line of thinking about myself, at times, but that is precisely why I mistrust it so much.

At any rate, the self-indulgent navel-gazing about the artist’s burden isn’t enough to drag down the film altogether. It’s worth seeing to watch Hiddleston and Swinton navigating through Jarmusch’s world, as defined by his fixations on elements like urban decay (Detroit, in this case) and old obscure blues records and so forth. Again, not terribly Halloween-ish, but I suppose it can’t be Halloween all year round.

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