Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Movie: "Have noted 52 distinct uses of WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

That Piranha (Aja, 2010) features both a cameo by Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss and a close-up CGI monster-fish regurgitating a half-eaten penis says something about modern horror, but what it says, exactly, I don't know.

In fact, I'm at something of a loss when it comes to saying anything about Piranha as the film is basically discussion proof. This isn't because there's nothing to say about the film, but rather because the film is so self-aware in its embrace of every strength and flaw and so meticulously explicit and thorough in its construction that the movie is immune to any significant attempt at analysis. The cinematic equivalent of a cigarette, it's exhausted in the act of experiencing it. Which is, perhaps, the wittiest joke in a film that otherwise favors sub-frat grade chuckles: Aja made a 3D movie that is all flat surfaces.

The fun-horror crowd is fond of defending the endemic stupidity of so many horror flicks with the argument that the viewer fails to "get" these films because they can't shut off their brains and just enjoy them. It isn't that the films are crap; it's that you haven't performed the necessary infantilizing auto-lobotomy required to find their level. For what it's worth, that's not what's going on in Piranha. The flick isn't mindless. It's weirder than stupid: Aja approached the task of recreating a slice of retro schlock horror as if he'd been tasked with restoring Michelangelo's David, and the result is a relentless excavation of guilty pleasure cinema that seems more like an autopsy than a celebration. What the viewer feels isn't so much fun as an excess-induced abobamiento.

Typical of the surreal approach of the film is the joyless, anthropological approach it takes towards the Spring Breakers who will eventually become the titular beasties' main course. On the DVD making-of clips, there's a telling moment when Aja discusses his fascination with Spring Break. Growing up in France, he never experienced anything like Spring Break and confronted with this distinctly American bacchanalia, he says that he spent a lot of time researching it. One imagines him freezing framing episodes of MTV Spring Break and writing down things like "inverse relationship between height and number of breast flashes" and "have noted 52 distinct uses of WHOOOOOOOOOOOO!" The result curiously stagey for what's meant to be an orgy of young ids unleashed. For example, for all his study of Spring Break, Aja decided that the Breakers would be grouped into themed boats. You can tell the members of every krewe apart and reckon your position on the lake by costume-signal. (He didn't just adopt any anthropological eye, he specifically channeled Levi-Strauss.) It's Spring Break as as a structuralist study.

Another great example of Aja's curious stagey-ness is the famous "two girls underwater" scene. In what must honestly be ranked as 3D only genuinely interesting deployment, Aja films what is meant to be a underwater lesbo scene intended for inclusion in a Girls Gone Wild style porno. What ensues is a languorous synchronized swimming scene that simultaneously evokes the beauty and the beast pas de deux in Creature from the Black Lagoon and the elaborate bathing beauty scenes that used to appear in Busby Berkeley joints. What it doesn't look anything like is porn, especially porn that is essentially improvised on location by an intoxicated cast and crew.

Again and again, Aja pushes the flick into these weirdly inert abstractions, unable to hide the fact that his capabilities as a filmmaker can't really be contained in such a crappy project. In Piranha we get to witness the curious spectacle of a filmmaker trying to make a completely dumb film, in homage to other dumb films, and not being able to dumb himself down enough to do it convincingly.


Anonymous said...

Much the same can also be said about the original Piranha (which Dante clearly intended to be a Jaws spoof first and foremost), so I think in a way this might actually be one of the more faithful and well thought out remakes in recent history.

Not sure if I'd call Piranha "modern" or even "fun horror" or this reason, comedy with some horrific/gross out elements (in the Jackass vein) might be more appropriate.

CRwM said...


I think we're in agreement on most points. Piranha is a lot of things, but slapdash and phoned-in it ain't.

I also contrast it with "fun horror," though terms like "guilty pleasure" and "when horror was fun" are thrown around by the director and screenwriters. There's a relentlessness to the flick that such a tag misses, I think.

Though I'm not sure what objection you have to the term "modern." I meant it in the literal sense of "of recent vintage." What's your sense of it?

Anonymous said...

I meant "modern horror", not "modern" horror, guess it didn't come across that way.

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