Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movies: Without a paddle.

So Joel Schumacher.

Yeah, I know. Right?

So, this cat starts his directorial career with a Lily Tomlin comedy based on a not-comedic Richard Matheson novel.

He delivers two '80s classics in a row - St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys - and INXS's "Devil Inside Video" (not to mention the stylistically sharp Flatliners).

But before all that, he turns his hand to a stateside attempt at a Euro style sex farce featuring swinger semi-incest.

Then, of course, there's the weird Falling Down, a the sheep in wolf's clothing film that, despite its clear plotting that D-Fens was nuts from the jump, became a political rally point for the sort of genre-guzzling white male middle class jackass who takes a factory-standard antinomianism from every creative work they see as an excuse to play the victim and point out that they're smart enough to read something into a film.

Flashforward to the his bizarro world kamikaze takes on the Batman mythos. Like Burton, Schumacher was smart enough to realize Batman was a pop icon evolved from thousands of influences, serving the needs of millions of fans, rather than, say, a "realistic" figure. Unfortunately, Schumacher seems to have been open to every crappy influence, every shitty idea. The day-glo disasters he delivered are rightly reviled and I can only hope that when the inevitable "rediscovery" happens, by bloggers of future desperate to score hit numbers off the "scandal" of their original take on the films, I am dead and buried.

(Aw heck, somebody should just kick it off. Tired of the lame "Black Swan is teh horrez!!" meme snagging traffic digits, start penning your "Batman and Robin: the Definitive Take on a Legend?" post now.)

What comes after the plastic nipple Batman? Why, a flick about snuff films, of course. And then - what the hey! - a Dogme 95 remake of the first half of Full Metal Jacket!

I bring all this up to point out that Joel Schumacher, director of today's flick - the solid, if unremarkable Blood Creek (2009) - has actually had a hell of a career. And, yet, there are few directors less interesting.

He's an anti-autuer, the last of the workman directors: a weird holdover from the days when you got your assignment, you shot it, and you moved on. Watching a Schumacher movie is to be transported back to a time before French film theory elevated the status of director to make it the equivalent of Artist with a Capital A. He's a technically-proficient skilled laborer working with other skilled specialists to get a product to market. This is director as factory foreman.

And, ultimately, that's what Blood Creek feels like: a competently made product as devoid of the stamp of individual artistry as a lug bolt. That doesn't mean that its devoid of interest, or even beauty. If you've got a set of lug bolts, look at them with open eyes and you'll see a certain futurist glamour there. Still, that's a product of the inevitable gaps that occur whenever a mind considers the work of any human hand, not matter how standardized. It can't be said to reflect the artistic intentions of the guys and gals down at the RAD GmbH factory.

Blood Creek takes its inspiration from a classic American hoax. Inspired by then theories, now since proven, that vikings explored America nearly a century before Columbus's much celebrated "discovery," hoaxers in Oklahoma and Minnesota created rune stones: slabs of stone a few few long and about a foot wide, covered in "ancient viking runes." The first stones were discovered in the 1890s by farmers and sent to the University of Minnesota and Chicago (it's unclear if the farmers were in on it, or if they were the first victims of the hoax). Since the initial "discovery," stones popped up every few years, as late as 1967. The stones caught the public imagination in the 1910s and '20s. Stories of viking raiders doing savage battle with Native American warriors showed up in newspapers and pulp fictions (such a plot inspired a cycle of "Conan" stories, for example). However, nearly every reputable linguist and historian has declared the stones fakes. This doesn't stop hobbyist and local boosters from touting their authenticity; but as much as I think it would be awesome, the stones are utter bullshit.

That said, here's the link - part of the original defense of the hoax was that scholars couldn't translate the stones because the farmers who found it, not knowing the value of what they'd discovered, used the stones to build their farms. In the case of the most famous stone, it was said to have been used as the stepping stone to the discoverer's granary. This alleged abuse left the stones illegible to experts, thus negating the experts' testimony.

Here's the narrative hook of Blood Creek: During the Depression, Nazi scholars were sent all over the US to use the rune stones that rube farmers have built into their farms to conduct an ancient ritual that would put the ultimate occult power into the hands of the rising Nazi party. One such mission goes pear shaped, and the Nazi occultist is trapped on the farm he was sent to. Decades later, two brothers on a mission of revenge assault the farm and unknowingly unleash the seemingly undying occultist.

Zombie horses show up too.

I'll be the first to admit that the log line sounds promising in a trashy b-movie sort of way. And, honestly, it's hard to imagine that anybody picking this film up won't find enough to keep themselves interested. The visuals are strong; imported talent Darko Suvak (who, oddly enough, did cinmo duties on 8MM 2) washes the screen in inky blacks, deep blood reds, and muted yellows. Go-to-Nazi Michael Fassbinder does as good a job as one can do buried under make-up: the Nazi magi needs to carve runes into himself to keep going, so his body is a nasty patchwork of decay and black metal scar-graffiti. Like so many plots involving magic, the whole moves forward on a series of periodically introduced "oh, I forgot about this rule, but . . ." moments that will either count as world building or a cop out depending on your personal preferences.

What's the take away? I've had Blood Creek in the to-be-reviewed queue for something like a month now. It's been sitting there so long because I simply couldn't find enough to say about it one way or another. It's a film that exists beyond criticism by virtue of the fact that it has this dumb, mute, rock-like factuality. It's there to fill a segment of time. There's nothing else to be said about it.

Well, one more thing. On the directors commentary, Schumacher discusses the effort required by the actors to perform some of the more physical scenes. As he talks, he drops this fabulous line about his feelings regarding asking the actors to do demanding things: "That's great filmmaking, unfortunately." Three of those words totally apply to Blood Creek.

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