Friday, July 15, 2011

Like a Rat to the Bone: GIRLY and Creepy British Sexual Psycho-Drama Horror Cinema


Hi all you readers of Dan’s blog! Shenan here. I am normally but a humble reader like yourselves, consuming Dan’s thought-provoking and insightful movie commentary from my bat-cave (er…office), usually while putting off some sort of analysis to be performed or report to write, adding my own thoughts in the form of comments not usually comprised of anything longer than a few sentences.

But three factors have brought me here today, writing to you in this format: a) I’m really bored at work. Really bored. Without going into too much detail, some changes at my workplace have left me with very little actual work to be done lately, and I need to keep my brain from atrophying; b) Dan’s been in a little bit of a blog-rut lately, finding himself unmotivated to churn out posts. And good fiancees write guest-posts for each other, right?? Right!; and c) we just watched GIRLY. I was very, very taken with this movie. And I begged Dan to write a blog post about it. His response? “You write a blog post about it.” While I think he originally meant it in the sense of “Oh, hon, can you find out your grandma’s mailing address?” “You find out my grandma’s mailing address! Why don’t you marry it if you love it so much!”, I took the suggestion to heart, and decided to write a guest post about it.

So. Here I go. I’m not sure if I really have anything to say about it that’s intelligent or insightful on the scale of Dan, but I’ll try! I admittedly owe much of my (comparatively small) movie-savvy to hanging around with Dan, but I did shell out thousands of dollars for a Johns Hopkins graduate education in writing, so maybe I’ll at least find a way to use some big words (maybe). If nothing else, maybe I’ll intrigue you enough to go see this flick yourself.

GIRLY, titled MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY, & GIRLY in its original UK release, is a 1970 British….horror? Horror-comedy? Creepy sexual psycho-drama horror flick? It’s hard to categorize. It was originally based on a stage-play, though apparently deviating significantly from it, and really, I’m surprised this shit flew back in late-60s/early-70s Britain. But then, I wasn’t alive back then, so maybe I’m underestimating how edgy British theater/cinema was back then.

The essentials of GIRLY are such: a “family” (how or if any of them are actually related is never explicit) exists, consisting of Mumsy, the matriarch; Nanny, the (surprise!) nanny; and two children, Sonny and Girly. They live in a sprawling English estate near enough to the town/city (I assumed London? But then, that’s probably the only English city this ugly American knows) for the “children” to walk to.

I say “children” because Sonny and Girly are clearly in their late teens, if not 20s. All the members of this family live their days in an elaborate role-playing existence, assuming never-aging parts in an upper-class English family, and go by no other name than the monikers that summarize their familial roles. Meaning that Sonny and Girly, while obviously adults biologically, dress in school-child outfits, build sandcastles and play cowboys and Indians, sleep in giant cribs in rooms full of toys, and talk and behave with childish mannerisms. Nanny helps govern the children, always remaining subservient to the head-of-household, Mumsy (a father figure is never present, or mentioned).

But it gets weirder.

“The Game,” which is what they refer to this elaborate role-played life as, is governed by rules (because all children need rules, of course! All families operate on rules. That’s what keeps things running smoothly). Most of those rules are set and enforced by Mumsy. And one of those rules, of course, is that no happy childhood is complete without friends. So Sonny and Girly lure London’s lonely—those without family or friends to miss them, mostly tramps and bums—back with them under the promise of a bath, a hot meal, and a good deed being offered up by two well-meaning children. They then trap these men (always men) there, force them to take part in The Game as another child being looked after by Mumsy, and “send them to the heavens” (i.e., kill them) if they violate any of the rules. The rules which include not fleeing the family.

Writing this down, Charlie Manson? Good.

Without giving too much away, the crux of action begins when Mumsy decides that Sonny and Girly targeting the usual crowd of urban bums and tramps over and over is garnering them some suspicion. Thusly, the kids decide to stake out a high-class party in the suburbs. They “befriend” a highly intoxicated pair exiting the party: a woman and the male companion (possibly a prostitute?) she hired to accompany her to the party. Sonny and Girly engage them in an all-night play session at a local park, during which they push the woman off the top of a slide, killing her and convincing the still very drunk man that he killed his female companion. They take both the living and the dead of the pair back to their house, and you can see where the rest of this is going. The man (only referred to in the movie as “New Friend”) is subjected to a ridiculous, humiliating existence as one of Mumsy’s children, following her rules and ultimately fearing for his life at every turn, should he violate the rules or even just displease one of the family members. Until, that is, he realizes that there are real people underneath these characters—ones with sexual appetites, even though sex has no place amongst children or in a Nice Family—and decides to exploit these appetites to pit them against one another.

So there’s the basic plot. Now here’s my take on it. GIRLY, to me, works so well as a horror movie because it really gets under your skin, and it does so not by showing you disturbing, horrific, or graphic images. You won’t see any eyes gouged out or limbs slowly gnawed off by rats. It gets under your skin by metaphorically gnawing, for an hour and twenty minutes, on all your sensibilities.

Your sensibilities about the family. About age, hierarchy, and authority. Your sensibilities about the fact that things that appear to be loving and innocent on the surface should actually being loving and innocent at their core—not evil. Your sensibilities about reality, about existing in a reality that you know to be false and distorted, but being powerless to the bounds of that reality. I mean, the whole thing plays like a nightmare: one where you’re trapped with an evil family not your own, forced to do things that may not seem evil or scary on the surface, but become nightmarish because they’re just not right. They’re not what the “you” you know yourself to be would do. And you’re doing them against your will. Who hasn’t had a dream that follows along those lines, and couldn’t shake the icky feeling afterwards? It’s the same fear we have about the authority of governments, or religions, or any structure of power that sets the rules and the bounds of reality, tells us what is right, what is wrong, who we are, and how we are to operate. If we have no verifiable source of objective truth, who is to keep those with this power in check?

Perhaps most importantly, though, it plays on your sensibilities about sexuality, about sexual control, sexual power, and sexual domination. Now don’t get me wrong: this is the America of the 21st century where, thanks to Dan Savage and Alfred Kinsey, I (and scores of others) have an open, honest, accepting, and healthy relationship with sex in all its intricacies and possibilities. A relationship free of shame, with the knowledge that everyone does it, and that all the stuff you do that you think no one else does? They probably do. So I tell you in all honesty that I’m not easily creeped out, sexually. In fact, this whole movie sounds like a romping good time for the right group of consensual adults. But the key word there is “consensual.” There is something very creepy, even verging on horrifying, about being controlled, humiliated, and put into a regressive role or state of sexual maturity against your will. And lest you have any doubts…I think it’s all but spelled out in title cards that this is all very sexual for Mumsy.

“Adults” is another key word, actually. The fact that, when confronted by New Friend about how long she can really stand to play a child, Girly seems to not accept that there is a reality beyond this family, makes me wonder if perhaps she was impressed and indoctrinated into the family at a young age—perhaps when she actually was still a girl. But a girl she is not, though she plays one. And you can tell that Girly is aware of her budding, or maybe long-repressed, nature as a sexual being, especially around New Friend. Is he committing some sort of sexual sin himself by eventually having sex with someone who is so clearly a child, emotionally? It is legally considered statutory rape, after all, to have sex with a mentally ill or mentally incompetent person. You wonder this, while feeling slightly dirty the whole time yourself for noticing, inexorably (there’s my Hopkins-worthy word!), that Girly pulls off those short little schoolgirl dresses smolderingly; that her long lashes, faux-innocent expressions, and teasing laughter could heat up a frozen dinner in an igloo (and there go those Hopkins-grade metaphors!)

Like I said. It gets under your skin and stays there. Gnawing.

Sorry for the novel, Dan! But I get the feeling that your readers have pretty elastic attention spans….when they’re eating up your delicious words, that is. Hopefully they’ll indulge mine.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Rubber: Celebrating Cinema for No Reason

Right away I realized things weren't quite going to be what I expected. Rubber had been marketed as something of an off-the-wall horror/comedy about a sentient car tire that can blow up people's heads with its thoughts. And though it does feature said tire, the tire is only one part of a much more bizarre whole, and horror never really enters the equation. This becomes clear during the opening scene, where a cop climbs out of the trunk of a patrol car and proceeds to explain directly to the audience that every great movie has an element of "no reason." This is something of a mission statement for Rubber. Of course, the cop's examples don't really make a lot of sense (for instance, he explains that Adrian Brody's character in The Pianist has to go into hiding for "no reason"), but maybe that just proves Rubber's point.

Then it turns out that the cop is not just telling this information to you and I, but that the audience of the film are actually, uh, characters in the film. They are a group of people, gathered in the desert for reasons never explained, who peer across the land with their binoculars and watch (and I guess somehow hear) the story of the sentient car tire.

This introduction is followed by a strange, delightful sequence of pure visual storytelling, as the tire comes to life and enters the world. We see it learn to roll (it stumbles and falls a few times before getting the hang of it). We see it discover and learn about other objects, other living things. And discover that it likes to break them. And when it learns it can't break a bottle, we learn that it has the ability to make things explode with its telekinetic powers. The sequence is very sensuous and immediate, almost has the feeling of a nature documentary, except of course for how absurd it is. Because of the film making, but also because of our need to anthropomorphize, you actually begin to empathize with the tire. So, naturally, at that very moment, the film cuts back to one of the audience members saying "This is the first time I've ever empathized with a tire!"

It's about here that I should stop describing the "plot" of Rubber, since most of the fun is that you have no idea where it is heading from minute to minute, and any story it does is establish is continually, gleefully, ruthlessly deconstructed and devoured. The story of the tire, which seems like it broadly fits the outline of a bad horror movie, is cut off at the knees as the film takes bizarre tangent after bizarre tangent. The "audience" and film interact in ways that seem to have a subterranean logic, only we're never let in on what exactly that logic might be. Layers of reality are stripped away, only to be reapplied. In between all of that is a lot of absurdity, and a good number of laughs.
This is not a film for all (or most) filmgoers, but I kinda loved it. It seems to me that, philosophically, it shares some of my ideas about the possibilities of cinema. It all boils down to the "no reason." While I'm sure I could do intellectual backflips trying to justify Rubber as a comment on filmgoing, on narrative, a seminal work in the theater of the absurd, etc., a lot of its appeal comes from just luxuriating in its profound oddness. I'm all for over-analyzing movies, but sometimes as filmgoers I think we have a problem with over-intellectualizing them. We're always looking for subtext (political, social, emotional, whatever), or a literal explanation, or a grand thesis that explains a film, or a scene, or a shot, or even just a small detail. That's all well and good, but sometimes a film's power or worth is more aesthetic, or abstract, or at the very least comes from something less logical, less easy to put in words. Sometimes a film exists for "no reason" other than to be itself.

Which is to say, Rubber is kind of a celebration of itself, of the way it is shot, of the cleverness and subversiveness of its (lack of) story. I wouldn't want most films to be like this, but I'm glad director Quentin Dupieaux made this one. He supposedly has another film in the works, which I'm officially excited for, although in some ways Rubber feels like a great magic trick that can only be pulled off once.