Sunday, December 03, 2006

Movie Watching Weekend

Ventured back into my favorite territory this weekend -- back into heavy movie-watching. Rented a really cool documentary about an all-American weirdo-Brian-Wilson-type-genius titled The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is a singer/songwriter-visual-artist from Virginia -- now living in Ohio, I believe -- who is a man of many quirks, even more demons, and an ocean of talent. As a youth, he was into making short films filled with his psychotic drawings -- he made a name for himself in high school drawing eyes with all of the accompanying veins and gory attachments everywhere he could find space -- which he scored with his orginal songs.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was that ole Daniel sure knows his way around gorgeous melodies. Tom Waits, Beck, Pearl Jam, and a host of other famous bands have recorded Daniel Johnston songs. Kurt Cobain was often seen (and photographed) wearing Daniel Johnston T-shirts.

Johnston is a brilliant madman who terrified and confused his devout-Christian family. I was immensely impressed seeing the short films he made as a youth. In one, he played himself as well as his mother, doing a brutal parody of a shrew in curlers berating her slow-waking, slow-moving son. Daniel was also mad about tape recording conversations. After a couple of present-day interviews with his sweet, white-haired mother, the audience hears some of the surrepetitious recordings he made of her berating him when he was in his teens. This provides an interesting, quease-making contrast to the June Cleaver reminiscing in her backyard. As one of Daniel's friends rightly points out, these tirades were not unwarranted. Daniel was lazy, he was contrary to everything his family valued. He was an artist among rough-handed tradesmen. He was a thinker and a dreamer among doers.

During one tirade against Daniel, his mother declared him "an unprofitable servant" of God. One of Daniel's friends tells of how Daniel turned this phrase around into declaring himself an "unserviceable prophet," which I thought was really cool.

As Daniel grew out of his teens, he displayed definite signs of mental illness. Even those friends who loved and revered him -- who would defend his most bizarre actions -- agreed that he could be pretty scary and remote at times. There is the story of Daniel running off for months with a carnival; the time he completely lost his marble in New York while his hosts, Sonic Youth, drove all over Gotham in search of him (finally locating him in New Jersey);Daniel beating a friend over the head with a lead pipe; among numerous, numerous hospitalizations.

Through the tumult came an astounding body of work. Daniel now tours internationally playing his music as his artwork tours the world, as well. He does not appear to be in great mental shape these days -- and is in ever worse physical shape; sporting a globe of gut that would set the most proficient beer drinker in awe. But he continues making music, making people nervous, and thrilling audiences. Until this weekend, I'd never heard of Daniel Johnston. Now, I want to hear a whole lot more about him.

Then I checked out the much-talked-about The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The NPR review I heard weeks ago about the film made it sound like a surreal journey into the moments enveloping a human being after death. In fact, I distinctly recall how the reviewer cautioned the audience not to be put off by the fact that the main characters dies minutes into the film. Well, I must have crossed that review with the wrong film. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a slow-moving, dull, dreary story about an old man with a sore stomach and a sore head and how he encouners unpleasant doctors when he goes to the hospital. There is no surreal, philosophical look at death and dying. This is merely a dull travelogue of Romanian hospitals as Mr. Lazarescu is shuttled from healing house to healing house. An hour and twenty minutes into this drag, I shut the film off.

The film-watching weekend, though, was completely salvaged when I viewed the entire four-film Ju On saga: Ju On: The Grudge, Ju On: The Grudge 2, Ju On: The Curse, Ju On: The Curse 2. The opening of each film informs the viewer: "Ju-on: The curse of one who dies in the grip of powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born."

This is the film series (the first two of which, at least) that were remade in America as The Grudge and The Grudge 2. I'm sick of Hollywood drek, so I watched the originals in subtitled Japanese. And goddamn, the Japanese sure know what is scary.

The four film saga is episodic, following a number of characters and their interaction with the house where the Grudge resides. Anyone who doubts that horror can exist in modern life beyond insane, stalking murderers should see these films. One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese horror is how it infiltrates technology. There are cellphone calls from the dead. TV programs are highjacked by spirits. Lights are subject to otherworldly currents. And the Japanese versions of these films do not shy away from showing us the monsters.

There is one nerve-twisting scene (in Ju On, the first of the series) when a woman is in an office building rest room. Slow moving, scraping footsteps pass by her stall, and her cellphone malevolently malfunctions. She hurries out of her stall and is confronted by a humanoid monster; a woman in a white gown who stands with her head severely downcast, her long black hair obscuring her face. The main character escapes to the building's security office. There, a male security guard tells her to sit tight while he goes down to investigate. The woman watches on a closed-circuit TV screen as the security guard walks to the door of the rest room, and stops. The monster, now taking the form of black smoke, moves out the door and envelopes and kills him. Then the black smoke floats up with excrutiating slowness to the security camera, filling its lense with blackness -- from which a pair of eyes suddenly emerge. The effect is absolutely horrifying.

Ju On: The Grudge 2 has a very slow start, but once the film hits its stride -- about thirty or forty minutes in -- the story and tension are unrelenting. The story centers on the dreaded house where the original Grudge manifested, looking at its unhappy history with characters reliving various terrifying moments. This is carried through quite effectively in Ju On: The Curse and Ju On: The Curse 2. It must be said that Ju On: The Curse 2 has a fantastic, understated, yet thoroughly creepy ending. None of these films are sequels like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. The Ju On sequels genuinely further a story that is definitely worth telling.

The recurring images in the films -- the ghostly, gray-bodied boy who screeches like a cat; the broken-bodied woman who crawls down stairs and through halls like a serpent; the innocents whose faces contort in wild renditions of terror -- continue to haunt well after the credit have rolled and the music has silenced.

I've never been much of a fan of horror films, but I cannot deny relishing Japanese horror movies, like Shikoku, The Eye. The Eye 2, The Ring, Premonition, and others. These are the perfect antidotes for the formulaic drivel Hollywood spews year after year.


Ascendantlive said...

I will have to check out Ju On, sounds interesting. A friend introduced me to a Japanese flick called Suicide Club. I'm not sure if you could call it horror exactly, it's one of those films that you should watch with other people. Sometimes people watching this film aren't sure if they should laugh, cry, or cover their eyes so it usually ends up as some kind of nervous horriffic cackle. Horror or not it certainly is disturbing.

tgov said...

My boyfriend took me to see the Daniel Johnston film, whom I'd heard of from my college days in Texas. Watching the filmography was really touching - I'd known the stories, but seeing them as they unfolded was actually heart-wrenching.

As for Japanese horror: Audition left me scarred.