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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007

Crack seems like it’s in serious need of rebranding. As sociologist Craig Reinarman points out in this Washington Post op-ed, crack is just a pejorative term for freebase cocaine, which could have been glamorous as the snortable version of the drug if only so many celebrities didn’t set themselves on fire trying it. In the 1980s crack became a byword for ghetto blight, and the crack “epidemic” was a convenient way of depicting miserable inner city conditions as somehow the fault of those drug fiends who lived there. Now, crack is so firmly associated with poverty that getting caught using or dealing it is punished more harshly: “At the peak of the panic over crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, Congress passed a rash of laws requiring longer prison sentences. One such law created a 100-to-1 disparity between crack and cocaine offenses. You have to get caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine—but only five grams of crack cocaine—to get a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.” So the same substance brings upon people different punishments depending on what the police decide to call it.


Smoking crack has faded from the news (though as Reinarman notes, the practice is as prevalent as ever), so you’d expect it would take on a kind of nostalgic kitsch value; that self-consciously cool people would spot an opportunity to freebase coke ironically and be all retro. Ordinarily, I would argue that this kind of hipster appropriation runs the danger of deauthenticating crack smoking for everyone, making it impossible to smoke crack sincerely like a true devotee and enjoy the high for its own sake. Freebasing should be its own reward, damn it, not a posture! But in this case, I suspect that for aficionados, nothing can tarnish the pristine allure of the crack pipe.


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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007

A couple of vectors brought into quick confluence:


1. The San Diego wildfires rage.


While . . .


2. Perusing a back-issue of The New York Review, I come across this quote from Don DeLillo, on the occasion of publication of his 1991 novel, Mao II:


In a repressive society a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that’s filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act…. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.


 


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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007
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Monday, Oct 22, 2007


Movies made outside the mainstream still suffer from the same cinematic stumbling blocks that regularly bring down their Tinsel Town counterparts. Independence doesn’t always mean imaginative, and working within a set of basic budgetary restrictions doesn’t guarantee innovation or novelty. No, a homemade auteur, drunk on his own perceived importance, will rage against uninspired Hollywood ‘lacklusters’ while themselves falling into the same hack habits. They’ll repeat subjects, celebrate clichés, and add their own level of abject amateurity to the mix. The results are routine, dull, and lamentably lo-fi. Eric Stanze, however, is different. Over the course of a decade, he has lifted his personal production company, Wicked Pixel, from unknown quantity to top of the line indie equal. With such tantalizing titles as Ice from the Sun, China White Serpentine, and Savage Harvest, he has systematically shown that greatness can come from even the most fiscally restrained production process. His latest, the exceptional ghost story Deadwood Park, is no different.


When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in – and the family home he long abandoned – it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer, and like many others in the community, the boy’s body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into the aging house and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability to successfully solve the crimes, warns Jake against such actions. But the lawman’s curious daughter, a well-informed store clerk named Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park (new to DVD from Cinema Epoch) is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. Previous efforts have actually relied on the optical to overcome some sloppy scriptwriting and narrative designs. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking. There are moments so vivid in Deadwood Park that they stand separate from the story they are illustrating. When Jake visits a desolate drive-in, design straight out of the ‘I Like Ike’ era, the sense of Americana lost is legitimate. The decaying domicile used as our hero’s home also oozes misty memories and the inherent horror of a youth violated.


But the most astounding found location remains the title vista, a collection of creaky wooden coaster tracks (almost all of it rotten and in horrid disrepair), empty pavilions, rusted out attractions and precarious train trestles. Even better, very little spook showboating occurs here. Instead of laying on the supernatural, Stanze creates mood, tone, and expositional importance – all keys to successful dread. Not since Herk Harvey stumbled across the desolate Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and utilized it as the backdrop for his classic Carnival of Souls has a former fun palace been used so efficiently. It illustrates Stanze’s commitment as an artist, as well as his eye for scope and his desire to go beyond the fright film basics.


He also does wonders with his semi-professional cast. While he usually works with a company of long time associates – Emily Haack, DJ Vivona, Jason Christ – the director employs some fresh new faces, and the infusion of talent really affects his narrative. It’s clear that Stanze trusts these actors - he gives them reams of important dialogue to sell, most of it mandatory to set up the horror properly. If we don’t believe the legends, comprehend the connection between Jake and his family, or recognize the out of control nature of the entire town, Deadwood Park won’t work. It’s just pretty pictures surrounded by amateur theatrics. But the one thing Stanze strives for in every film he makes is a high level of quality – in cinematography, in editing, in writing and in performing. In the commentary accompanying this DVD release, the director outlines what he expects from a project, and with minor qualms here and there, this movie more than fulfills them.


And it shows. Deadwood Park is remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. One of the main problems novice moviemakers face is delivering believable horror set-ups. Without copying directly from the masters of the genre, untried writers and wannabe directors simply dredge up the precedent and hope that it plays. Stanze can stray into that territory now and then (his Savage Harvest was nothing more than Evil Dead with Native Americans) but for Deadwood Park, he plays everything very close to the vest. The references are not as obvious, the homages kept personal and perfectly realized. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade.


Not only that, but Deadwood Park returns to the days when ideas made audiences anxious, not free flowing grue and video violence. Beyond all the evocative backdrops and interpersonal turmoil, this is a filmmaker who can really tell a story. Even as he avoids the norm and spends inordinate amounts of time establishing setting and physical locale, we are inexplicably drawn to the narrative elements. We want to see Jake succeed, Olivia help him, and the entire town vindicated after decades of trials and terror. It’s indeed rare when a homemade movie, crafted with care but still carved out of one person’s financially restricted vision, can be as compelling as this one. It means that the voice behind the scenes is powerful, original, and continuously challenging itself. Eric Stanze is such an outsider auteur, and his latest opus cements such a status.


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Monday, Oct 22, 2007


When it comes to mixing genres, it’s usually recommended to be obvious. An action comedy or a horror romance typically works best when audiences can sense the split between the two. Viewers like their cinematic categories decipherable, if only because it allows them to draw on an internal list of expectations and prepared responses. Dread should be scary, witticisms humorous, etc. But mix the combination too subtlety, shade a drama with just the slightest hint of science fiction or fantasy, and you threaten to leave the observer dumbfounded. David Lynch does this all the time, simply because he will use any and all filmmaking standards and subcategories to fulfill his artistic means. This leaves a tantalizing title like Dog Bite Dog in a similar cinematic quandary. What we supposedly have here is a typical cops vs. criminal adrenaline rush. But thanks to some unusual thematic and stylistic choices, the movie mutates between firefights and frights, standard stunt set-pieces and moments of moody macabre.


When the wife of a prominent judge is murdered in cold blood, Hong Kong police are baffled. Obviously a professional hit, they hope to locate the killer before he finds a way to escape their grasp. On a hunch, disgraced policeman Wai follows a suspicious man. Their eventual confrontation leaves no question of the stranger’s culpability. Looking for a place to lie low, murderer Pang procures the help of a young girl living in a landfill. She’s more than happy to help, the daily abuse by her incestuous father having successfully destroyed her spirit. As Internal Affairs investigates Wai (as a way of getting to his comatose cop father) and the crew assigned to the crime grows agitated, Pang plans his escape. He will take the girl, hijack a boat, and return to his Cambodian home. Of course, his pursuer has other plans, and it’s not long before the two are battling among the side streets and warehouses of the business/harbor district. It’s a war that will continue across borders and into countries where such inhuman confrontations are a matter of course. 


Dog Bite Dog (new to DVD as part of the Dragon Dynasty series from Genius Products) is the horror movie of Hong Kong action films. It’s Halloween with an abused Cambodian orphan as Michael Myers and a tripwire maverick cop as his equally volatile Dr. Loomis. They battle along a landscape inspired by the green/gray dreck drone of Saw and the gritty, grim atmosphere of Se7en. There are shades of Frankenstein (murdering monster befriending harmed human outcast) and any number of metropolitan zombie epics (a big city has never looked so desolate or disturbing). As helmed by Pou-Soi Cheang with a real flare for the dramatic and the distressing, this is an incredibly brutal and aggressive experience, a descent into the kind of mindless terror and blood-spattered nihilism that makes the MPAA weep. Yet thanks to the typical Asian story conventions – elder/young gun conflict, parental shame and family face, lawless law enforcement – and the remarkable performances by a completely devoted cast, we end up with something that utilizes the formulas to create a wholly original, and quite upsetting, experience.


We know we’re in for something different from the opening shots. While the title sequence suggests Nine Inch Nails gone even more industrial, the first glimpses of assassin Pang come as a big surprise. Hiding in the hold of a massive cargo ship, he is fed like an animal, a broken bowl of rice cherished like a convicted felon’s final meal. Before we know it, our antihero is pumping five bullets – several at point blank range – right into the head of an elegant older lady. While it’s vile and viscous, the crime is not really the issue here. Director Cheang is actually more interested in how animalistic individuals interact (thus the title). Of course, it takes a while before policeman Wai lowers himself to Pang’s level, but we get hints along the way. Though its somewhat skimmed over, we see the officer dealing in dope, beating suspects, torturing informants and generally acting like an unhinged madman. We expect fireworks when these two interact. What we get, instead, are confrontations so cruel they literally make one wince.


These aren’t gory, gratuitous exchanges. Instead, Cheang stages them to maximize the mindless hostility involved. Pang has been raised to be this violent. Wai has worked all his dangling Daddy issues into a tight little nuclear ball, and he can’t help but explode. Backstory is limited, so Dog Bite Dog is never really interested in getting into the psychological or symbolic manner of our good guy/bad guy’s past. Instead, these powder keg personalities simply go off (and often), leaving dozens of corpses and confounded witnesses in their wake. Even more impressive, Cheang is not afraid to kill off his characters. Though Hong Kong action films have their standard disposable victim fodder (usually a fat, oafish officer or a buffoonish bureaucrat), this movie more or less leaves everyone up for the Grim Reaper’s grasp. It truly heightens the suspense when, as Roger Ebert and Gene Sickel loved to argue, anyone can die at anytime – and typically does.


Even better, the whole landfill subplot gives the movie a uniquely maudlin edge. In the commentary track that accompanies this new DVD release, actor Edison Chen (who plays Pang) discusses the whole garbage village culture, from the massive mound itself – several football fields in size – to the unconscionable way people use the rotting refuse. Such authenticity really makes the relationship between Pang and the slightly slow girl he rescues into something bordering on old fashioned tragedy. It feels like John Woo worked through a 1930s Hollywood tearjerker. On the polar opposite of visual intrigue is actor Sam “Wai” Lee’s transformation from cop to caged beast toward the end. On the second disc of extras provided with the title (including interviews with Chen, director Cheang, and a thorough Making-Of), the star discusses his approach to character, and points out that Wai and Pang are really two sides of the same corrupt coin. Law is of no import to their purpose – unless it’s the natural order of kill or be killed.


Fans used to high flying martial artistry, slo-mo bullet ballets, and overly stylized sequences of outrageous and dangerous stuntwork will probably see Dog Bite Dog as something of a letdown. It’s more mano-y-mano than badass swagger and cool jazz heroism. It’s a dark, dense tale of terror told with sharp implements and callousness vs. the supernatural and the creepy. With an ending as bleak as they come, and a sense that everything we’ve seen has perhaps been all for naught (though the alternate narrative track suggests final shots that would have stated otherwise), it’s a tough, uncompromising entertainment. While most Hong Kong action aficionados think they’ve seen it all, Dog Bite Dog suggests otherwise. It stands as an understated film fusion that succeeds in staying true to all the references it relies on.


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