Sunday, April 24, 2022

House Taken Over (1946).

It's kind of amazing to realize just how many things we use without a proper understanding of them.  Take the case of Magical Realism, for example.  What on earth am I even talking about when I use that phrase in a sentence?  The plain fact is I'm not sure how many of us have even so much as a first clue.  It's got to be a genre of some kind, that much is clear.  If it weren't, then odds are even no one would even bother to use the term at all.  Some of the more adventurous sorts might venture as how they heard it came from somewhere in Latin America, wherever that is.  Whether or not such a statement is at all "fair", what can't be denied is the sentiment is bound to come from someone being no more than as honest as they know how.  Come to think of it, though, isn't it supposed to be like just some form of fantasy writing?  And didn't Disney try their hand at it with movies like Encanto?  The best reply I can think of for all of the hypothetical questions given above is that they each represent a given amount the truth, while still not ever managing to get as clear an outline of a vaster, more expansive countryside.

If you can bear to hang on for an annoying, abbreviated history lesson, the whole thing started as an out growth of several influences converging into something old that was new again (accent on the "was").  Magical Realism is best described as what happens when works of European Surrealism in general, and German Romanticism in particular is able make its way into the environs of Mexico and South America.  Where it was able to leave a considerable impact on a goodish number of impressionable, young, Latino minds.  Fellows like Jorge Luis Borges were able to find a moment to pick up translations of writers like Edgar Alan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffman in their spare time, and as they made their way through pages of the accumulated phantasmagoria of Europe and America, the gears of their imaginations just began to turn is all.  It's the same kind of phenomenon that happens in musical genres, such as Metal and Grunge, except this time there's no music to speak of, just words.  That and maybe a bit of painting here and there.  It's no lie to claim that Surrealism helped play a part in jump-starting the Latin American fantasist craze.  Painters like Dali and Magritte, in particular, were able to find a very receptive audience waiting for them in the hills of Columbia and the city streets of Brazil.  

What happened next is a process that has continued to play itself out across all cultures and nationalities.  It's more or less the exact same process that appears to happen every time an accumulative number of readers out there are to able pick up any quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, and find themselves converted into book nerds for life.  The specific details of how this plays out in real life is pretty simple.  You open the text in front of you, and then start to read.  If you're lucky, the text you've chosen to parse through is one of those genuine winners.  Something from the likes of Bradbury, Conan-Doyle, or Richard Matheson.  Any story that is told so well, in other words, that it is able to "set up shop" in your mind, and then you're hooked on storytelling for life.  It's one of those cases of a perfectly normal enough phenomena that is still nonetheless looked at somewhat askance.  It also never really stops such fandoms from gathering together over time, and that's what happened in city, suburban, and even country households all across South America.  The net result was a young population that grew up influenced by the best that European Romanticism had to offer.  Some of these fans, in turn, would grow up to be writers themselves one day, their imaginations have been kindled and nurtured by the collective legacy of popular Fantastic fiction and painting.

It's what allowed these later writers to give birth to what is now known as the Latin American Boom.  There seem to be at least five big names associated with this movement in Latino Letters.  We've already brought up Borges in this regard.  Others who followed in his wake include Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and then of course, there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Put them all together and we've got an assembled list of all the guys who used to scare the crap out of you during English 101 from high school to college.  All of which is to say that, yeah, maybe the Magical Realists are the type of author best encountered outside of the classroom.  That way there's no intimidation factor involved.  There's no greater kiss of death for a school of writing than having your class teacher spout off and on about how important Magical Realism is.  Instead, experience has taught me that the best way to get acquainted with all of this stuff is to have heard next to little of anything about it, and then just stumble across a good specimen of the genre while going about your normal routine.

The best sort of way to get acquainted with the work of the Magic Realists that I'm aware of is to be working your way through any half-way decent anthology of Fantastic fiction, and then stumble upon a story with curious, enticing titles, such "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings".  If just the marquee description is enough to get you interested, then trust me when I say the story that follows will be enough to set off a bomb in your mind, in the best way possible, of course.  Part of what makes this approach such a good icebreaker for the sub-genre is that it goes a lot farther towards helping the reader get a sense of just what type of story they're dealing with here.  A lot of the assistance comes down to the good instincts of helpful editors who somehow manage to have a knack for giving these stories their proper context.  It makes sense that you would place a story such as "The Library of Babel" somewhere within in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because such an editorial choice just seems to show a proper awareness of what type of writing Magical Realism amounts to.

Another reason for championing such an approach is because that's kind of the way it happened for me.  It's been a while now, however.  So that means I can't recall with entire clarity just where I learned how to appreciate the work of Julio Cortazar.  I want to say it was a chance encounter on a website somewhere.  I think what happened is I was reading through a review of Antonioni's Blow-Up and the reviewer happened to mention that it was based off of an actual written short story.  So that was what got my interest, and how I found out about Cortazar.  If I had to detail what that was like, then the all I can say for the moment is that it was akin to stumbling upon a rich, yet overlooked country.  Like a cul-de-sac of vibrant wilderness hidden away by an otherwise blank mass of rock and mountainous terrain.  In other words, as some of you are no doubt thinking, it means I must have stumbled upon the literary equivalent of the Madrigal Stronghold.  To which I say, close, yet no dice.  Try going someplace weirder and far out there.  Let me put it you this way.  It was an interesting discovery, yet also no real surprise to find out Stephen King included Cortazar's Blow-Up: And Other Stories (the volume which incidentally contains the story we're about to examine here today) on his list of influential novels or anthology collections that have made a substantial contribution to the field of the Horror genre.  

It's a rather strong claim to make, and from a pretty heady source, when you stop and think about it.  King's endorsement almost manages to cast Cortazar in a whole, other, Latin American Gothic light.  The more you explore the work of this writer in particular, the easier it becomes to understand why King would find himself making such a judgement call.  At the same time, there is enough diversity in his output to make me think he's best described as a Magical Realist proper.  One who is capable of making a side contribution here and there to the Horror genre, in an occasional, off-handed, not really trying but succeeding anyhow sort of way.  It might be that there's this kind of borderland status to his work that makes it accessible to both kinds of writing at once.  In order to explain what I'm talking about, however, perhaps its best if we stop wasting time, and get to the main attraction.  The way to do that is to take a sample from Cortazar's work.  A short story known simply as, "House Taken Over".

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Operation Avalanche (2016).

The first thing I did after the credits was to head for one of my bookshelves.  I was looking for a poem.  I knew I had to look it up, because that's what the movie planted in my mind.  The idea was that if I found and re-read it, it would help put the finishing touch on everything I'd just watched.  It provides the last piece of context that completes the puzzle.  Before we get to all that, however, it's best to start at the right place.  In the beginning, there was a filmmaker, and a genre.  It all started with a break-in at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  The whole thing was sort of a joke, really.  If only it were something interesting, like international spies trying to steal valuable secrets for nefarious purposes.  It might be just the stuff of pulp fiction, however at least its more interesting than the truth.  The actual facts of the case is that it was just this group of random punks off the street.  They weren't even affiliated with any dark organization at all.  These were just a bunch of indie filmmakers, who somehow managed to talk their way past the front gates, and enter NASA under false pretenses.

The leader of this band of erstwhile merry pranksters is a fellow by the name of Matthew Johnson.  From the looks of him, and the way he lists himself in the film credits, he seems like the kind of guy who tells you to just call him Matt right on first acquaintance.  He's a Toronto native who seems to have grown up with an early interest in the art of film.  He enrolled at York University, and from there began to establish himself on the Independent Cinema circuit.  Johnson is still a relatively new kid in town as of this writing.  So it poses the question of how much there is to discuss at such an early juncture.  One of the key bits of information I was able to pick up about him was that Johnson cited films like Zelig, and Forrest Gump as two major influences on his current style of filmmaking (web).  It's an admission that does the critic a favor in at least figuring out why Johnson would find himself drawn to the particular format he seems comfortable using for the moment.  Let's put it this way.  I'm surprised that Matt didn't think to add the likes of The Blair Witch Project to his list of influences.  All of which is to say that it's time to to talk once more about everyone's "favorite" form of black sheep filmmaking.

I'm talking of course about the Found Footage Genre.  Whether you love or hate it, the inescapable fact is that it seems like the format that's here to stay, even if its just the new type of poverty row cinema.  My own approach to the whole thing remains pragmatic, whether you think it's a fault, or not.  What's important to note is the two films that got Johnson interested in using this particular style.  One of the things that I think  lot of audiences and critics are slow to understand is just how old the Found Footage trope really is.  Something like Forrest Gump can be cited as an example of a straight-forward narrative film.  However, a movie like Zelig is one of, if not the earliest examples of what's now come to be known as a Mockumentary feature.  Just as Robert Zemeckis would go on to do a few years later, Woody Allen was one of the the first to beat the idea to the finish line by a good chunk of a decade.  Another example would have to be Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.  Allen's technique was much the same as in the Tom Hanks film, except that the decade and subject matter were different.

He would shoot modern day footage of himself using old film stock and cameras dating from, at. or around the 1920s or 30s.  This gave the overall appearance of his movie the look of an antique from another time.  He then used roughly the same effects compositions as Zemeckis to help splice him into footage from the late dawn of the 20th century.  As a result, we're able to see moving images of Allen lounging around the New York Yankees baseball field circa the Jazz Age, or mingling with the likes of Eugene O'Neil, or Ada "Bricktop" Smith.  Allen's little experiment amounts to an example of movie magic at its finest, yet most understated.  It was this, combined with Zemeckis' achievement a few years later than appears to have acted as just the right spark on Johnson's imagination.  The director was born in 1985, so if we take that as our starting point, do a bit of math, and extrapolate from that.  Then it sounds as if Johnson's later exposure to the growing Found Footage format, combined with what he learned earlier from Allen and Zemeckis is what led him to choose the sub-genre as his own format.

One of the first uses that resulted from Johnson's enthusiasm turned about to be 2013's The Dirties.  An effective, troubling slow burn meditation on the phenomenon of occurrences like Columbine, or Sandy Hook, and all told from the perspective of a pair of high school students who decide to bring a camera to class one day, and film themselves in their slow descent into insanity.  In real life, Johnson and his frequent collaborators Owen Williams and Evan Morgan are much more of the affable slacker types.  Think Clerks except with none of the whiny angst and emotional baggage.  These guys know where they're supposed to be today, and they all seem perfectly happy with it.  Part of the appeal for these guys might stem from the fact that they take the concept of guerilla filmmaking seriously.  

In order to ensure a sense of "authenticity" for their first feature, Johnson and Williams went the extra mile of actually enrolling in a local public high school in order to not let themselves stick out like a sore thumb.  The filmmakers and their efforts received a generous amount of help and support from none other that the administration of the very school they were filming in, and they spent their time pretending to be individuals that they never were in real life.  The fact that they were never hassled, or that no one ever seems to have bothered to call them out must be some kind of testament to the skill involved in the filmmaker's efforts.  It may also be say something of the director's abilities for making this kind of movie.  He was so good at it that Johnson and his friends tried the same trick again with NASA.

The director explained the whole situation over the course of an interview with The Take.  The initial idea for his next film came together "when we were flying home from Slamdance in 2013, when we’d just premiered our first feature The Dirties (2013). We were trying to figure out how we could make a movie in the same style except about something slightly bigger, and we were looking at historical moments that we could make a fake documentary about. And the moon landing just seemed so catchy and interesting that as soon as we started talking about it we had, like, 200 ideas, basically, on how to make the movie that you saw".  Miller explains: "It was of those ideas that we were shocked nobody had done it like this before".

Johnson continues: "All those things we’d developed in our first movie, so those are holdovers from [The Dirties]. So it was a given that I was going to play myself, and there were going to be lots of tricks and lots of lies and things like that, and because we were already comfortable working in that style, we applied all those things instantly. In fact we never even really talked about them from a creative point of view. It was more like, Oh, it’ll be so cool that those things are going to come up. But it’s not like we were making those discoveries because we had already discovered those things".  Miller adds, "But we didn’t quite know, for instance, that the movie was going to be about Matt pretending to be a filmmaker sneaking into NASA as his cover and us basically doing the same thing in order to pull it off from a production standpoint. Those are some things that, as we were figuring out how we were going to make the movie, we stumbled onto that were very cool".  

When it comes to the major feat of sneaking into the the center of the central hub of the nation's actual freakin' Space Program(!), Johnson proved incredibly casual and off-the-cuff about it.  "It’s mostly what you see in the movie. In both cases, in fact, what we show the audience is more or less what we did. With NASA, we went in posing as a documentary film crew saying that we were from a film school in Toronto, which we both were at the time. And we said we were making a documentary about the Apollo program, in the exact same way the characters say they’re making a documentary about the Apollo program.  And then at Shepperton we did more or less what the characters do there as well, which is we just showed up. That was different because it was a private studio, but nobody kicked us out right away, and so we just went in and shot as much as we could before they did throw us out. They were filming The Avengers 2 [Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)] at that studio at the time. And when they did finally catch us they thought we were paparazzi trying to film Chris Evans or something (web)".

Based on just a simple reading of the director's comments, it's hard not to get the sense that there's a lot more bluster to his words than he lets on.  I don't doubt that he managed to sneak into NASA, believe it or not.  The film itself is his own backup on that score.  The finished product bears out everything Johnson says, and its a testament to his tenacity as an artist.  I just can't help thinking his words are a textbook example in studied nonchalance.  Something tells me that while he's learned how to put up a brave face on the aftermath of things, at the time it was all happening, he could have supplied an entire brick making factory.  I don't see how you can just waltz into a place like NASA and act like you have the right to be there without authorization.  Say sorry, yet it just can't be done.  It may be possible to bluff your way through there.  Johnson's exploits are proof enough of that.  Yet its sheer hubris to claim you don't have a care in the world while your trying to pull the bullshit off.  If he'd been caught, that was the kind of thing that could have landed him jail time, and maybe even the ruination of his career. 

You'd be better off trying that same stunt in a place like Disneyland, rather than an actual government facility.  What Johnson was able to pull off will have to go down as a textbook example of sheerest dumb luck.  The only thing weirder than the stunt Johnson got away with, are the results that wound up making the final cut.  Believe it or not, here's where the hole in reality begins to grow and widen.