Sunday, October 08, 2006

Movies: Three ring circus.

In his super-sized tome Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace describes a video that kills anybody who watches it. When the terrorist who made the tape is asked why he created such an odd weapon, his reply is that it was designed to kill only Americans. He claims that only Americans would, knowing that the tape will kill them, watch it anyway. He thinks a uniquely American combination of jaded thrill-hunger and media addiction makes the citizens of the United States particularly vulnerable to such a weapon. In this review, we'll be watching Wallace's theory in action by looking at three movies that feature movies that kill: Cigarette Burns, Ring Two, and a short film called Rings, which is featured in the extras of the Ring II DVD.

Let's start with Cigarette Burns. This short flick (clocking in at under an hour in length) was John Carpenter's contribution to Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series. I don't get Showtime, so I'm just now catchin' up to the rest of y'all.

The title refers to the circular marks that appear in the upper corner of films to communicate to the projectionist that it is time to change the reels. The era of digitized filmmaking, distribution, and projection is slowly, but unavoidably, sending the cigarette burn on its way to becoming a historical film studies artifact on par with live piano accompaniment. Which brings us to an interesting thread that tends to run through almost all of these "media products that kill" films. The media products in question are almost always quaintly outdated. Despite the 21st century setting, the Ring flicks all revolve around a video cassette, not a DVD. The madness inducing flick in Cigarette Burns appears on these giant, old-school film spools. Even the imagery in both the Ring video and the film within a film in Cigarette is notably retro: they are both bad imitations of the silent era surrealist landmark work Un chien andalou. I don't know if this is a product of the slow trip from concept to finished film versus the rapid manner in which media platforms evolve. Technology moves faster than culture these days. Maybe it has to do with nostalgia on the part of filmmakers for the mediums they fell in love with versus the mediums they now work in. There needs to be a sort of magically dangerous black-box quality to a medium for people to feel something spiritual is happening within it. Filmmakers, having seen the guts and innards of modern filmmaking might need to look back towards their own first encounters with the medium in order to evoke that awe-filled ignorance. Perhaps the ever-improving quality of formats is to blame. As playback improves, the artifacts of transmission that were once ignored are eliminated in the quest for an illusion of a truly un-mediated experience. This makes it difficult to visually represent the medium itself. That is to say, DVDs lack the lines, the static, the hissing, the stuttering flicker, the things that made you aware you were watching a video or film. Think of something like the Ring and you realize the ghost is identified with the medium's limitations. The ghost is static and jagged cuts and artifacts left by tape damage. Perfect fidelity doesn't leave you any room for hauntings.

But I digress, Cigarette Burns involves an art house theater owner who is hired by a creepy rich dude (played with typical slimy grace by Udo Kier) to find the only remaining print of the film La Fin Absolue Du Monde. This film was shown once in a Paris film festival and it drove the audience into a violent, insane frenzy. The French government seized the film and destroyed it. Or so they thought. Turns out Udo's hip to the fact that a copy of the film still exists. How? See if you can follow this: Udo knows a copy of the film still exists because he keeps an angel chained in a room off of his study. This angel was captured and mutilated to make the infamous movie. As such, it is bound to the print of the film and, if all the prints had been destroyed, the angel would no longer be bound to this plain of existence, or something like that. In desperate need of the money, the theater owner takes the gig.

Cigarette Burns suffers from the 50-minute format of the television series. There is a substantial subplot involving our hero's dead wife and his vengeful father-in-law that is compressed to the point of becoming a plot detail instead of genuine character development. The smaller scale of the project as requires that characters relentlessly push towards the conclusion of the story, often at the expense of suspension of disbelief. For example, seeing a captive angel with his wings chopped off doesn't a) give our hero pause about working for Udo or b) convince him of the reality of the film he's looking for. He takes it as he'd take a gig to find one of the several pairs of ruby slippers used to make the Wizard of Oz.

The film also suffers from somewhat clumsy borrowings. At one point in his search, our hero stumbles across a cult of Fin worshiping snuff-film makers. The scene belongs in Hostel II and is such a bad fit here that the film doesn't even bother to explain how our hero gets out of it. The plot also reminds me of the film-studies-monograph-meets-horror-novel Flicker, though, if it was a source, it is not listed as an inspiration. The use of the circular cigarette burns as a visual motif obviously echoes The Ring. Finally, the film within the film reminds me, as I mentioned earlier, of the Ring video and Un Chein. Why do all killer movies look like bad NIN videos? Wouldn't it have been more interesting if, as in Flicker, the movie itself is not scary. The method to the madness could be in editing techniques, a secret series of cuts that creates a pattern the human mind can't handle or something. Just once, let the killer flick be a musical or a love story.

Overall, however, Cigarette Burns works. The mystery element keeps the viewer's attention. The acting is serviceable (with the exception of Kier's slimy collector, who is a pleasure). The gore is well handled. There's an especially nice bit when Udo threads his own intestines through a projector. The scene is not particularly bloody, but the concept is so wonderful that it transcends its execution. The ending is definitive and satisfying. A minor and effective work, but no masterpiece. Using my well-loved "Legends of Turkish Volleyball" rating system, this gets three out of five Sinan Erdems.

Unlike Cigarette Burns, the sequel to The Ring falls flat on its face. Directed by the Japanese filmmaker who created the original Ring, the second outing is a dull, pointless, and illogical waste of time that makes so little sense that it actually undermines the premise of original.

Ring Two finds the reporter, Rachael, and her son, Creepy Kid, living in the small Oregon town of Astoria. She is working for the local rag when a local teen dies under mysterious circumstances. Rachael figures out immediately that the boy was the victim of Samara, proto-long-haired Japanese evil ghost child. Rachael finds the tape responsible for the youth's death and destroys it. This, apparently, breaks the well-established rules of Samara's game and allows her to begin doing pretty much whatever the hell she wants to anybody at any time, regardless of tape watching or television proximity or any of the other things that marked the previous film. The result is that Samara appears and attacks seemingly at random. Instead of feeling that you're watching a plot unfold, you realize you're watching thematically-link but essentially random images pile up. Eventually, somebody tells Rachael how to get rid of Samara, but that doesn't work and some other, completely unrelated thing dispatches the little ghost girl (maybe – leave everything open for a trilogy, natch). This may rank as one of the sharpest declines in horror franchise history – right up there with Jaws II for worst follow-up up to a genuinely good film. In the "Traffic Circles of Washington DC" rating system, this lemon doesn't even rank a full Pinehurst Circle.

Just about the only reason to rent Ring Two is a short film you can check out in the special features section that I believe, if memory serves, is called Rings. Though only about 15 minutes long, shot on a virtually nil budget, and having a cast of nobodies, Rings approaches genuine moments of horror film brilliance. Shot as a sort of "link" between the first and second film, Rings tells the story of a young man who finds an underground subculture dedicated to exploring the mysteries of Samara and the killer video. These groups expose their members to the video tape and then record what happens during the 7-day countdown. When the experiences of being a video victim get too intense, the tape is passed along to another member in the group. Our new recruit, hungry for new thrills, is determined to take the Samara video death trip further than any other videonaut has gone before.

During the course of the short film, we get to see how the subculture links with other groups over the Internet and even has developed their own slang. This, more than the random plot of the genuine sequel, speaks to the draw of the killer video/film concept, which is, really, the draw of horror films. How much can you take? It also harkens back to the concept I brought up at the beginning of this entry: how far can your own courage and wit hold out in the face of the unknown? Americans aren't especially thrill-hungry and media-addicted. After all, the Ring concept is as old as Wallace's book and has its origins in Japan. Instead, what Wallace failed to get as is a uniquely American faith that with a little planning, a bit of smarts, and some guts, you beat anything. Can you outsmart and contain the danger or are somethings not meant to be explored? Americans clearly believe the former. Does anybody doubt that, in the real world, if hipped to the existence of something like Jason, that American teens would be buying up Jason as Che t-shirts and going to Camp Crystal Lake in droves to get photos of the deathless mass murderer? Wouldn't somebody have tried to contain and exploit Jason in a sort of mass murderer Jurassic Park?

This is classic stuff. Unlike the protagonists of Ring Two who are essentially victims who get battered around until they accidentally stumble on a solution, the kids in Rings are genuine actors in their own story, trying to beat Samara at her own game, and this sets up real dramatic tension. With the concept behind Rings, the people in charge of the franchise had the real sequel that needed to be told. Instead, they wasted the chance. In the unlikely event of a third Ring flick, they should revisit this wonderful short. Using the "Bands of Gary Moore" rating system, this short film gets a full Thin Lizzy.

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