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WHY DEADWOOD DIED, MELANCHOLIA AIN’T FOR ME, AND ICHI WHUPPED THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
johnskipp

Dear gang –

Jeez, it’s been a while. SORRY! I’m a bad, bad blogger.

And here to prove it… I’M BACK, with a lightweight installment featuring no business whatsoever, but some thoughts I’m kinda itchy to share.

Last weekend, I let a cold deck my ass out in bed for four days straight, on a chicken soup and orange juice diet. And when that happens (maybe once or twice a year), it's catch-up time for all the motion pictures I've been missing.

The result was roughly 37 hours of relaxed and studious viewing, muddied only slightly by being sick and such. And what I saw was the following, in the following order:

ICHI THE KILLER (Takashi Miike)
THE INKEEPERS (Ti West)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (David Fincher)
DEADWOOD SEASON 2 (multiple directors)
DEADWOOD SEASON 3 (ditto)
THE DESCENDENTS (Alexander Payne)
DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (Harry Kumel)
A DANGEROUS METHOD (David Cronenberg)
MELANCHOLIA (Lars van Trier)

As with all such marathons, I feel like a lot was learned.

Let’s start with DEADWOOD, since it plays most directly into the long-vs-short discussion already in progress, and has the most revelations. (At roughly 24 hours of viewing time, it most certainly fucking should!)

I’d already watched Season One, which was to me an inarguable masterpiece of epic storytelling, warranting every second it commanded onscreen. The stunning ensemble cast, towered over by magnificent human monster Al Swearengen, yanked my allegiance at every turn. And the writing!, the writing! – grand Shakespearian gutter talk of Biblical proportions – took my breath away with its savage sweep of hard lessons learned, weaving myth out of history.

So yeah, I was dying to see where it went, and frightened to see how it died.

And though I direly hate to say it, I gotta admit that by the time I hit the home stretch on that third season, had I been an HBO executive, I would have pulled the plug, too.

“WHY?” you may ask, in both enraged and beseeching tones.

1) Because the historical narrative had worked its way to the last exciting climax it actually had to offer.

2) Because it fumbled the ball so hard at the end that there was no reason to believe it was going to get better.

When David Milch – the certified genius who created and spearheaded the series – turned his attention elsewhere (namely, JOHN OF CINCINNATI), he left all those incredible ingredients (great cast, great crew, great setup, great incredibly expensive set) in the hands of people who either weren’t sure what to do with what they had, or were just not up to the task.

Much like Season Two of TWIN PEAKS, when David Lynch went off to make WILD AT HEART, the result was much heartbreaking floundering. (James Hurley’s road trip, anyone?)

But unlike TWIN PEAKS – which utterly rallied at the end, and delivered a climax so astounding that those of us who hung in were rewarded with one of the most terrifying hours ever broadcast on television – DEADWOOD frittered away its last hours as if it had all the time in the world, killing its legitimate tension at every turn by half-assedly checking in with all its subplots before getting around to a punchline that never really came.

My point is, the show had run its course. It had nowhere else to go that would match the grandeur of its inception. Even the guy who cared most about it was on to something else.

Tragically too long by more than half is my final heartbroken verdict. Not because the material wasn’t there. But because it choked in the final clinch, and pissed away all its steam.

Which brings me to MELANCHOLIA, a meditation on depression’s practical application to the end of the world or something, brought to you by both one of our finest and most infuriating filmmakers.

Ever since he terrorized otherworldly imp goddess Bjork so completely on the set of DANCER IN THE DARK that she tried to eat her own costume, and climb the fence of the compound, in order to escape his sadistic machinations (or so the story goes), my stance on Lars van Trier has been, “I’ll watch your movie if I get to punch you in the face first. Just so we’re even. You emotionally abusive bullying prick.”

Which is to say, I admire his brilliance, but am utterly tired of being beaten up by his films. He’s one of those guys that make me think he doesn’t give two shits about us: he just pushes our buttons because he can. And, as such, was fully prepared to never watch anything he ever made, ever again.

But too many smart people I respect were telling me that I needed to see this thing. That it was beautiful, and important, and profoundly different, and maybe the best film of the year.

So I capped off my marathon with it. Watched an hour and ten minutes of barely-sufferable glacial slowness, which tried my patience to the snapping point. Until – when our main character couldn’t even summon the will to lift her leg into the bathtub – I said, “ENOUGH! You have wasted all the time you’re gonna get.” And turned the fucker off.

But I was haunted by the notion that people thought it was surpassing brilliance. So I did something I never, ever do. I fast-forwarded to the closing credits, then bumped one chapter back. And watched the end.

And though the buildup to the end struck me as insufferable, I stayed for the last shot.

Which was so deeply profound and astonishing that I had to take a break, and reconfigure.

Over the following hour, I went to Rotten Tomatoes, and read every review both pro and con. In the process, I heard about some of the key points I’d missed (a suicide, a kid’s device for gauging the proximity of doom, and Kirsten Dunst nekkid in the moonlike light of a new world).

At which point I went back, watched the stuff that I missed, and was forced to admit that the film is in fact some sort of haunting masterpiece. One with which I philosophically disagree with like crazy. But which, for the first time in a long time – since BREAKING THE WAVES – made me want to hug rather than punch Lars van Trier.

This is a movie that’s not for me, in that it somewhat self-righteously endorses a depressive worldview I do not share, wherein you’d have to be an idiot to harbor the slightest shred of optimism. Kind of a statement of principle, like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON for depressives who wish we would all just die.

Slicing away hypocrisy is one thing – I’m a huge fan – but patently dismissing enthusiastic engagement with life always rubs me the wrong way, much as such dispositional cheerfulness (like mine) clearly annoys the shit out of many smart, honestly unhappy people (like van Trier).

Which brings me to ICHI THE KILLER: a staggeringly sadistic yet shockingly innocent film that I’d put off watching for years and years: largely because word was it was just one stylistic ugliness on top of another -- an exercise in ferocious gross-out one-upmanship – and the older I get, the more I feel like maybe I’ve suffered enough.

But honestly, I’d always been itchy for ICHI, for precisely that reason. I’m a hardcore completist. I need to see the best of the worst, and the worst of the best. And I absolutely love Takashi Miike, from SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO to AUDITION to the astonishing VISITOR Q (the Japanese equivalent of John Waters circa DESPERATE LIVING or PINK FLAMINGOS, in both shamelessly vile transgression and unseemly adorableness).

Miike is important like van Trier is important. Love him or not, he’s the real deal: an unflinching filmmaker in utter command of his tools, with crazed technique that breaks ground every time it turns around.  And utter devotion to fucking you up, every single chance he gets.

David Fincher is another of our directorial greats, whose adaptation of FIGHT CLUB ranks as one of the most subversive big-budget virtuoso masterworks ever to emerge from the Hollywood system. So I was more than a little curious to see what he’d do with this DRAGON TATTOO business that seems to be all the rage.

Having not read the book, I found Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO to be a solid and exquisitely mounted thriller, the only truly standout sections involving the rape and payback scenes. But I gotta be honest: I carved the word “Rapist” on a rapist 25 years ago, in my novel THE CLEANUP, so this wasn’t revelatory news to me.

On the other hand, ICHI THE KILLER never ceased to stun and amaze me with its angles of attack, its oddball character insights, its daring directorial flourishes and palpable excitation. The movie is utterly insane, but so alive it’s almost ecstatic, even as it delivers scene after scene of the most horrifyingly unexpected mayhem imaginable.

Compared to ICHI, Fincher’s film felt positively stodgy, like a creepy college professor with human leather patches on his elbows. And maybe that’s not a fair comparison. But when it comes to movies about guys who get boners every time they hurt someone, as far as I’m concerned, the choice is clear.

ICHI THE KILLER was the first thing I watched. And as far as I’m concerned, it was far and away the best. The only one I watched twice. And actually can’t wait to watch again.

As for the rest…

THE INKEEPERS was a slight-yet-likable piece of spookeria by up-and-coming indie horror phenomenon Ti West. I can’t wait to see his HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, which made his mark, and which I hear is great. But this was a slim 20 minutes of story at most, very loosely packed into an hour-anna-half, cruising mostly on the charm of lead actress Sara Paxton and moody Steadicam moves through the haunted hotel, like a no-budget THE SHINING made by Kubrick’s stoned teenage nephew.

THE DESCENDENTS is a very nice film about kind-hearted people making the best of a tragically fucked-up family situation. I enjoyed it, found its Hawaiian soundtrack a treat (though woefully short of slide guitar, the yodeling was great), and cannot for the life of me justify its Oscar nominations.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is another of those films I’ve been needing to see for years. Now I have. I’ve got a weakness for cult faux-hippie horror from the 60s and 70s, and was pleased by its atmospheric blend of Euro-eroticism and fang-free vampirism. Didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot, and appreciate its place in the canon.

Same goes for David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD, a fascinating yet intensely restrained look at the moment of fracture between Sigmund “It’s All About the Sexual Drive” Freud and Carl “This Is Waaaay Bigger Than That” Jung. As always, at such historic junctures, there’s a woman at the heart of it whose immeasurable impact has been completely ignored. God bless playwright Christopher Hampton, non-fiction chronicler John Kerr, and matured maverick genius Cronenberg for attempting to rectify this typically dumb injustice.

So, in summation, what did I learn (aside from everything I already said)?

I REALLY, REALLY LOVE MOTION PICTURES. Am completely smitten by how many ways this most elastic and expensive of art forms can be played. Even the least of them represent such hard work, by so many people, most of them unsung.

I am honored to be joining their ranks. And hope to be at least half as good as the best of them, some day soon.

P.S. – THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is fucking genius, and one of those rare films I hit in the theater twice. My official blurb: “I couldn’t have been happier if someone blew me in the theater, and danced all the way home.” SCREAM, SHMEAM: horror film has never been so spectacularly deconstructed. And AVENGERS, SHMAVENGERS: I have never loved Joss Whedon more. (I could write a whole essay on this one, and probably should.)

While we’re at it, I just caught the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT. And as the guy who co-wrote the novelization of the original, I gotta say, “That was fun!” One of the best remakes ever of a disposable pop classic. I grinned, throughout, from ear to ear. Just like a vampirized Imogen Poots.


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