Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movies: Sweet little thirteen.

Being neither a fan of the original series nor having any real interest in the relaunch, I'm somewhat surprised at how interesting I've founding the critical reactions to the new film.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon spawned by the Friday the 13th remilkshake is, unlike the treatment of the original, this flick has entered the pop culture sphere with a resounding shrug from the non-horror world. To the world outside of the horror blog pro-am circuit, Friday is just another flick breezing through the multiplex. Compared to the moral outrage, protests, and (mostly in Europe) occasional censorship that slashers met on their first outing, this relaunch might as well be a movie featuring a lovable cast of computer generated puppies and kitties for all anybody seems to give a crap. Citizens groups used the opening date as a chance to time-shift their Valentine's plans to a night when more tables would be available; mainstream reviewers saw the whole thing as little more than a laughable excuse to business expense a box of Milk Duds; and nary a peep was heard from the pre-Millennial horror set, as they were to busy trying to figure out them new fangled ticket kiosk machines to register their normal apocalyptic note about how nothing worthy has happened in the genre since Mountaintop Motel Massacre.

The result of the widespread "sure, whatever" feeling is that, long after the hoi polloi have gone back to less embarrassing pursuits and the Plat Dunes professionals have returned to their meeting rooms to spec out the Roman numeral bearing offspring (Friday the 13th Part II: Jason is Our 401K), the only ones left to energetically debate the alleged merits of this flick are the long-time fanboys and -girls. For outsiders, it all gets a bit esoteric. If you weren't born between 1965 and 1975, then the debates about the relative merits of the new F13 have something of the flavor of theoretical schismatic communist politics: While the various folks involved seem to be able to get wound up about the distinction between Mao-leaning neo-Council Communism verses a retro-flavor militarist post-Hoxhaist Trotskyism, it all sounds the same to un-indoctrinated. Still, if you're willing to grant that the various folks involved are, in fact, seeing distinctions that, to your eye – untrained as it is by the fact that you've seen and enjoyed movies made after the Reagan/Bush years – are imperceptible, then there's still a strange fascination is watching the family fight.

Not unlike the Shiite/Sunni split in Iraq, one side's got the numbers while the other has years of practical experience. The vast majority of the slasher fancy has decided that, somehow, the new F13 doesn't measure up. While this seems to be the majority viewpoint, such critics are in a pretty tenuous place. After all, it isn't like we're evaluating a remake of Citizen Kane here. A lo-fi giallo rip-off, the F13 franchise has been corny for longer than its been worthy. To suddenly evoke considerations of quality seems like you're moving the goal posts.

In opposition to these nay-sayers, we've got a hardy minority who, even though they are outnumbered, have the great advantage of historical continuity. They're in the position of defending the indefensible, which has been the default position of the F13 fancy for nearly 20 years now. While apostates struggle to suddenly apply some sort of critical criteria to their once thought-proof pet franchise, the defenders can rely on years of experience dismissing the notion that films should aspire to quality. The F13 Tories can comfortably announce, "What were you expecting? It's a Friday flick – we don't do plot, or characterization, or drama, or sequence of events, or cause and effect, or main idea and supporting detail. It's this utter lack of concern for anything resembling filmmaking that equals fun." And then, if they're feeling their critical edge-on, they might add, "What happened to you guys? You used to be cool."

Even stranger, nobody seems to be really defending the quality of the film. What's at stake seems to be whether or not your allowed to demand quality in the first place.

This debate actually touches on a problem central to modern aesthetic theory. John Ruskin identified it as the "Chuck Berry Eats Poop Problem."

A little history. In Prisoner of X, a hilariously foul memoir of working two decades for Hustler, Allan MacDonell identifies one of his less savory tasks: watching, validating, and then negotiating the price for stolen celebrity sex tapes. This was back in the day before the miracle of the Interwebs basically automated the gig. Sometimes, on good days, there was a Rabelaisian carnivalesque aspect to the gig. There's something irresistibly funny about the idea of Ted Turner, Hanoi Jane, and an unidentified third party making the beast with three backs – especially when Jane is wearing some prodigious hardware and gets a bit Operation Barrel Roll on the Teddy Boy's rough road. Mostly, however, the content of these tapes and amateur loops was simply sad: the sordid kinks of legends already pickled in the formaldehyde of pop's collective conscious, old gods nearly gone who were still getting their dirty kicks while the world measured them out for a memorial plaque at the appropriate Hall of Fame. Such is the case with Chuck Berry.

MacDonell had the displeasure of negotiating for a tape that showed the man who wrote "Sweet Little Sixteen" eating fecal matter fresh from the backdoor of several anonymous partners. I know it's hard to believe the man who was caught video taping the WC-using patrons of his unfortunately named Southern Air restaurant could be a bit pervy when came to subject of bodily waste, but there it is.

But here's were Chuck Berry's predilections enter the realm of aesthetic philosophy. According to the source of the tape, Berry wasn't just some opportunistic poop-eater. Berry was a connoisseur de merde. Like all discerning aficionados of disreputable pleasures, regardless of the genre of kick, he developed an otaku-like passion for crap. He established a private ranking of his favorite providers, a sort of excremental Tête de Cuvée list. He would have his grand cru producers pinch off a loaf in white Styrofoam containers, neatly organized and labeled, for later consumption. In short, he became the Robert Parker of shit.

The "Chuck Berry Eats Poop Problem" is, thus, a two part dealie. Part Dealie the One: It is possible to apply the methods, mentality, and obsessive passion of the connoisseur to anything. And, Part Dealie the Two: Doing so doesn't mean your not still just talking about shit.

I have yet to see the new film. After dragging my horror wingman Dave through I can't think how many torture porn, man-eating plant, and similarly dubious horror experiences, I think I owe him this one; we're probably going to catch it this weekend. That said, I'm going to have to say that logic pretty much demands you side with the Tories on this one. The Friday flicks have, for that vast majority of the series, been Berry-chow. The first flick, with its effective use of a crisp and minimal visual style and its clever narrative structure (the girl who gets all the "clues" is essentially in a subplot that never fully links to the main story), is about as fine a piece of genre hackwork as you could ask for. The second film, which takes a welcome turn towards the grotesque, wasn't bad either. But, after that, the Friday franchise becomes, for non-devotees, a monotonous blur – excepting game efforts to go-wacky and set Jason's shenanigans in Manhattan (a sad bait and switch, unfortunately) and space. Too much a product of their time, the F13's cynical morality – in the 1980s, if you said that one's amoral sexual choices justly lead to a horrible death, you were either a teenager discussing slasher flicks or, sadly, the President of the United States talking about something else – their sub-music-video grade depth, and their lack of any sort of passion for quality hasn't allowed them to age well.

Given this, the loyalists are right to ask, "You had a lamprey-like lip lock on P. Doonie's dump door – what the hell did you think was on the menu?"

Not that the splitters don't have reasons. Among the most common are the film makes no sense (a opposed to the rigorous logic that was the hallmark of the series prior – e.g., Jason being alive in the first place), that the new Jason acts out of character (there's apparently something about Jason, some aspect of his nature invisible to the average viewer, that would prevent him from, say, using a bow and arrow to kill somebody), and that there aren't enough nods to the fans (despite the whole movie being fan service since Scream's Ghostface Killer is the slasher anybody under 30 grew up with).

That said, isn't it a bit of a pyrrhic victory? When "Your problem is that you've forgotten how to enjoy eating shit" is the strongest defense that can be mustered for a flick, it's hard to get excited.

But, since 2009 marks the semi-official "Return of Fun Horror" – meaning we've got remakes, relauches, and formula fodder coming out the wazoo, metaphorically – there's not much to do but kneel down and put on a bib.

11 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

"What were you expecting?"

I remember actually hearing the local movie guy on Channel 4 growing up in DC say that about Rambo 3... HE more or less states, you know what you're getting into when you go to the flick, and then he goes on to say if it delivers.. No camera angle, cinematography, character development crap, just pure action.

And F13 won the box office last week.. Will it be a one-week winner with a huge drop off this week ?

Also, the carny book I referred to earlier: It's "Freezer Burn" by Joe R. Lansdale

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Now that's a coincidence, I just finished off a couple of Lansdale books. I'll look about for this here "Freezer Burn." Thanks for the tip.

As for box office performance – I can't imagine F13 sticking around at #1 for more than one or two weekends, but that would be true of almost any genre flick, no matter what. I'd be surprised if the appeal of the flick was such that it developed a broad enough appeal to let it linger at the top spot for a whole month. But never say never, right?

spacejack said...

Ha, I'm going to see this. What I don't understand is that MBV got 60% on rottentomatoes, while F13 got around 25% or so. Is F13 really that bad or do reviewers have an anti-Friday the 13th agenda?

I don't quite fit my demographic... I never did see any of the F13 series until a couple of years ago, I watched 1 & 2. They were sort of okay, but for me more interesting as historical film study.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Despite my generally dim view of the slasher subgenre, I actually have some hope for this flick. And the reason is connected to the differing treatment of MBV and Friday.

I think the reason that MBV got all the love and F13 is getting the shaft has to do with the fact that the number of people who actually gave a crap about the original Valentine could have been counted on a single hand. Prior to the ramp up to the remake, MBV was hovering around 20% on Tomatoes and had less than 3 stars on IMDB. People weren't freighting the film with weapons-grade nostalgia.

But with Friday, people basically needed that flick to bring back their misspent youths. If it couldn't erase more than 20 years and transport people back to their original exposure experience, then it was going to disappoint. Fans feel a profound ownership of Jason and that sort of investment so rarely pays off for studios or fans.

Personally, I don't really have any deep attachment to the series. Failing to play up Jason's mom's sweater (an omission that's been singled out for scorn by numerous reviewers at this point) is simply not a big deal to me. What I've actually heard about the film makes it sound like a more angular, meaner, slightly Hosteled-up Friday, which sounds kinda promising to me.

spacejack said...

Oh I was also going to say that somehow, some way, like an internet surfer blissfully unaware of goatse, I never did hear that Chuck Berry story until now. Thanks a lot.

Sasquatchan said...

Spacey,

So to tie some other threads together, like CRwM never turning a "would you do it", would CRwM try the chocolate brownie a'la Berry ? (Someone should update Chuck's wiki entry for this information, be sure to cite sources..)

houseinrlyeh said...

My personal favorite of the Friday reception was a quite excited person being shocked by the fact that the film was made with the teenage viewer in mind. Golly, what a surprise.

OCKerouac said...

I grew up watching VHS copies of Fridays 1-5 on a regular basis (mostly because pre-internet it was the best way for a growing boy to catch a glimpse of female skin without getting in trouble with the parents).

Upon hearing of the remake, and hearing of the Jason envolvement, my first reaction was WTF? However, upon stepping back and recalling my ultimate reason for watching the originals (tits and gore) I've got to say that as long as the new one doesn't end with Jason going soft and 'hugging it out' with the inevitable final girl thare's really very little to 'ruin' here, even for a long time fan...

I *might* catch it in the theater if I can convince my wife it'll be worth the couple of bucks (she did enjoy the MBV remake), but I'm not going to feel I missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if I'm forced to wait for Netflix. After all, I didn't see any of the 'original' 13's in the theater until part six anyhow...

Maxim de Winter said...

"Berry-chow" - possibly the greatest extended metaphor in the history of the English language. Thanks!

CRwM said...

Maxim,

Aw, shucks. You're gonna make me blush.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

jenn said...

Hey duuuuuudes.Collectors' Quest is holding contest for the upcoming remake of Friday the 13th!
In the first contest we will be giving away a 3.75 inch Jason that is a limited edition of 1000 produced for New York Toy Fair 2009 and a Cinema Of Fear Friday the 13th 2009 remake 7 inch figure. We will be randomly giving away these guys.
In the second contest we will be giving away an autographed Living Dead Jason doll signed by Damien Glonek. This one is a little more creative. We're looking for the most creative concept of what Jason would collect.
You can view more details and how to enter the contests here: http://www.collectorsquest.com/general/friday13.html