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.
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.
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.
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.
From a music mailing list:
the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation needs help preserving Moog’s warehouse of mildew damaged papers, instruments and tapes and is begging for donations to help move the materials to a safer storage location and to start restoring them.
Moog was the brilliant gent who remodeled the synthesizer so that it could be more easily used and become more accessible to musicians around the world. He was also one of the world’s greatest theremin crafters and a helluva nice guy. I had the pleasure to interview him at PSF here.
Lately, perhaps out of some atavistic urge to feel like I’m still in graduate school, I’ve been reading Trollope’s Palliser novels, which explore happenings in the marriage market for various peers, heiresses, and parliamentarians in the late Victorian age. Trollope is no prose stylist, and he doesn’t seem to trust his readers to get anything; he has a clumsy habit of explaining with a thud what’s between the lines of his dialogue, which lulls you into a laziness about thinking too hard about the action. (This does make the books considerably easier to read, it must be confessed.) Forgive this overstatement as a kind droll irony, though, and the books become much funnier, and they are pretty humorous to begin with—not in a laugh-out-loud way by any stretch of the imagination, but Trollope is so consistently cynical that a curmudgeon like me can take pleasure in them. The characters are almost always keeping their minds on the money and struggling to find various ways to politely pass that off. The only exceptions are the female heroines, who are made dramatically compelling mainly by serving as an alternative reward to money for the muddled, dithering heroes, who invariably must choose between financial pragmatism and romance. But these heroines usually have a counterpart who struggles with the way women are shut out from the public sphere; the recurring Glencora Palliser character serves as a series-long touchstone for this theme, but each novel has its own iteration of the smart, ambitious woman who must marry to have a vicarious career. Trollope doesn’t explicitly condemn this arrangement, though he usually makes these women suffer without ever seeming convinced they don’t deserve it.
But this vicarious behavior is complemented by other strategies for power, or at least self-gratification, which are set against the backdrop of the real political power exercised by the politicos who are always just offstage. Lizzie Eustace, of The Eustace Diamonds, has her shrewdnesss warped by the lack of an outlet and her ambition redirected toward the only sphere she is allowed to exercise her wits, finding a lover. She seeks one with no respect for social mores, her “Corsair” whose contempt for society might allow her to feel free of it by proxy. Trollope tells us, “She had a grand idea—this selfish, hard-fisted little woman, who could not bring herself to abandon the plunder on which she had laid her hand—a grand idea of surrendering herself and all her possessions to a great passion.” This is her way of transforming her wealth into a purchasable narrative through which she can experience the oversize emotions she has been accustomed to believing come with her rank. The marriage market, so reimagined, becomes her way of making her life into a novel, of allowing for the best kind of consumerism of all, self-consumption. And then we see the society scandal-mongers relishing in her tale, eagerly consuming the story that we readers are consuming too while sustaining the plausibility of the fictional world we are trying to lose ourselves in—what could better symbolize realism than gossip, the nuts and bolts of how we articulate social values in everyday life?
This figuring of how the novel should be consumed within the novel itself, through the eager consumption of scandal, typifies the way novels model for us how to enjoy vicariousness. Lizzie, in playing at sincerity to win lovers who she then can’t property respect as she hopes to (who is not a “Corsair” capable of duping her), gets herself tripped up by the classic consumer conundrum: the inauthenticity that comes from trying to purchase authenticity. “Could she not be simple? Could she not act simplicity so well that the thing acted should be as powerful as the thing itself;—perhaps even more powerful? Poor Lizzie Eustace! In thinking over all this, she saw a great deal.” Called upon to respond naturally, simply, in order to perfect herself as an attractive object, Lizzie instead takes artifice to the next degree of complication, simulating objecthood and playing out a pretense to supply herself with a sense of her subjectivity—of her pursuing her own desires. “To be always acting a part rather than living her own life was to be everything.” Consumerism, vicariousness, identity-construction through narratives, they all prove to be different iterations of the ever-disappointing process of willing states (pleasure, spontaneity, love, etc.) that can be experienced only as by-products. But our failed attempts, thanks to outside ideological prodding from the advertising world (which tells us the right objects can vindicate a phony self—the fantasy prompted by consumption making an identity “as powerful as the thing itself” if not moreso) lead us only to redouble our efforts rather than conceive new goals. Lizzie thinks money can buy her the right to a “poetical temperament,” but that temperament itself is clearly a calculated sham; it may as well have been derived from an advertisement. The only power she is left with is the power to conceal her own crimes, to hide the fact that thee is nothing true inside her beyond the schemes, that she has, as Trollope tells us bluntly, “no heart.” Whether her angelic antithesis, Lucy, does, is another question—she is rather lifeless, moved around like a piece of furniture and waiting eagerly to be commanded by her fiancé/boss.