WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
At some point midway through Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, the sixth and notably longest-running of the delectably dangerous franchise, one of the villains (there are several) encounters field agent Ethan Hunt in a face-to-face moment (there are several) and asks him, equally as amazed as he is taunting, “Don’t you know when you’re beaten?” The answer, which Hunt doesn’t give, is no, apparently not. After twelve years, five daring films and roughly eleven screen hours of being chased, tricked, and shot at by the world’s most dangerous and sadistic, whether by air, sea, underground, or at the Arc de Triomphe, the answer is no. Ethan Hunt, or perhaps we should just say Tom Cruise, never knows when he’s beaten, something actually believable due to the fact that through all deception, betrayal, and targeting, Ethan Hunt has never truly been trapped. But damn it, if he doesn’t come close every single minute.
It’s a point of admiration for each of the M:I filmmakers, from De Palma in 1996 to the current holder, Christopher McQuarrie, that Ethan Hunt is as indestructible and precious as the plutonium he sets for in Fallout, and yet we still find ourselves devoured in sequences where he can’t possibly, he can’t actually… the filmmaking is grandeur enough to warrant several key set pieces (in the last installment, a live opera performance, and before that, an acrophobic scaling of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), each of which seem to layer a dizzying amount of double-agentry and second guessing as to keep the blood pulsating for the whole of the sequence. In Fallout, it’s a helicopter pursuit in the jagged mountains of northern India, where you see ten minutes of pure, visceral rotorcrafts flying into small crevasses and leaping into the clouds, cross-cut with the IMF team performing tedious but no less harrowing wire-cutting.
Perhaps this is what Fallout does best, in keeping its audiences engaged and entertained for a near hundred-and-fifty minutes, and through no shortage of spectacle; one minute, McQuarrie stages a bare-knuckle, stripped-down fistfight in a club bathroom that, when viewed in IMAX, makes you want to ice your whole body; the next, seamlessly, as if by prophesied clockwork, Hunt is back on the streets of Paris, throwing himself between angled rooftops and dodging every single honking car in the streets (at some point, after a few films, you’d think the Parisians would just accept it). Sure, some moviegoers may shamelessly note that a similar plotpoint is employed in Rogue Nation, and they’d be correct, but they should not wail themselves into thinking there’s little to no ingenuity here. In point of fact, McQuarrie seems to pique his own interest (and his lens) in details rarely seen in the multiplex. Take, for example, the early HALO jump into Paris by Cruise and co-star Henry Cavill, in which aerial videographer Craig O’Brien captured the two falling through the clouds at a speed moving above 230 miles per hour, resulting in the first time non-stunt actors attempted such a feat. Let the sequel-barraging continue.
Yet, there is some humility to this installment, more so than you’ll find elsewhere in the series. Ethan Hunt’s morality and keen sense of self-awareness are tested all throughout, as is his confidence; after all, Fallout begins not with a death-defying stunt or a popcorn-bearing brawl, but a lakeside wedding, featuring Hunt and lover Julia (Michelle Monaghan), wherein the minister twists the traditional vows with words like “steal”, “lie”, “loss”, etc. before the clouds roll in and the two disintegrate into nothing. And then Hunt wakes up, our first glimpse in the film of the awake agent, but in his eyes he still wishes he were sound asleep. The film’s inciting incident deals with this complexity of self, too, as Hunt sacrifices a mission staple to save a member of his team (obviously trained to see that situation the other way around), and facing far more dire obstacles as a result. The “one-life” Hunt, as he’s then called, is not as weak as he is just human, to the point where the bullets have built up, and here he stands, knee-deep in a cinematic sextet, lost on where to go next (besides what he hears in his comms).
Everything comes in fresh and at light-speed, which is, at the least, half-expected with Cruise at the helm, delivering yet again on a summer success despite the resounding knowledge of tropes and plot nuances. “‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it’”, as villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) mimics, “I wonder: did you ever choose not to?” Why would he? In each film, Cruise proves more unbreakable, even when literally broken on set (an ankle fracture led to the production’s delay for seven weeks; in the spirit of Ethan Hunt, two weeks early of the diagnosis), and the franchise is sporadically improving, dumbfounding Hollywood, the audiences, and the world beyond. The action is silky, the cast is suave, and the locales are always worth several looks. Six films in, and no signs of slowing down.
Here’s to the next one.
Design in sprawl. Complexity en masse. Landscapes that stretch high and across, peaking to the sky. This is industry, this is the future. This is modernity, and this is how director Michelangelo Antonioni opens his film La Notte (1961): scaffolding and steam and the vast sea of steel and concrete. Layers beneath layers, preceding those within the characters we have yet to meet. Lofts, bungalows, expressways; in their movement and interconnectedness there is an emptiness, a hollow cave without any climbers or explorers. Though these walls and ceilings of the high-risers seem impenetrable, there need be only one single window to acknowledge its beauty, and the mental notation it creates. Antonioni chooses a window of only about twenty-four hours -- not enough to fully scan the two married people we will follow for the runtime, but enough to create a mental notation -- a notion of lost love in a city finding itself for the first time.
But you can’t just lose love -- it disintegrates. There’s a decline, a deconstruction of value and sheer pull towards one another. Antonioni paints this with high regard, choosing to deliberately decelerate the pace of the film rather than have a typical climax-denouement structure; the entire film almost plays as one drawn-out denouement, where the drama accentuates itself like the pang of a sustained chord. We have here a man and a woman, married, until death do they part -- but through life do they struggle. Simple enough, really; we’ve certainly grown accustomed at this point of an Italian cinema with character gradients, and even in a glorified Fellini picture, we’re given complexity. Characters are not merely two-dimensional canvases; rather, they are pieces of construction. Of scaffolding. Of rare oversight. What we allow in this way, then, is to portray in art a gradient of story structure, too; our stories are only as compact as our characters, even in their defining disillusionment, and in this way we allow for a different kind of storytelling; that of blank space, that of gaps, not necessarily meant to coerce puzzle pieces to be filled, but rather for observation. The understated truths in gaps illuminate themselves in La Notte. There are gaps in two people who lose each other’s lives, and they need only be recognized.
There is an urgency to Antonioni’s craft here; clockwork, perhaps. Or perhaps it is another allusion to the speed at which we operate which proves unsustainable in modern society. Or perhaps it is just the nature of these characters, portrayed stunningly by actors who fit the mold. It is only right that Marcello Mastroianni, one of Italy’s grandiose film stars, plays the man, who seems always at internal war over his loyalty to a fading shadow and the lust of a newer light. And equally so for Jeanne Moreau, a woman whose career has been defined by a certain quality of independence. Women all over Rome want Mastroianni, and she does too, but she doesn’t need him as others believe they might. Over a certain period of time, her realization of this in her performance is what brings viewers back a half-century later. She is, for innumerable reasons, the central heart of La Notte.
There are moments here, too, that speak volumes to the craft of screenwriters Antonioni and Tonino Guerra. To understand between two people the essential fracture of desire is only created by their own language, to themselves and in their performance. Where the screenwriters succeed here is not in their flaunting or exposing of habitual wrongs, but instead assembling the individual languages of these characters; of course, Mastroianni and Moreau both are never reduced to body language for mutual expression, and for this the film remains intact, but there is still a distinctive tone of distracted speaking here, where sometimes the sliver of a shadow can illustrate the impulse that the small talk couldn't. There is sheer bleakness in this deafening silence, where one can piece words to each other to stitch a meaning, but to a point, there is an overall intent, and here, we know a conversation's endpoint as we start it. Feeling above or ahead of two characters who cannot keep up with themselves is a frightening thought, but it is an essential one, a needed base.
Antonioni gained one of the great records and filmographies of all filmmakers throughout the mid-20th century, and the scholarly notation of most is that he was a minimalist, as you may see with a director like Kiarostami or Satyajit Ray in their respective times. Of course, minimalism often springs into mind the closed-off, one location, physically-stuck low-budgeters, but there’s an equivalent claustrophobia in characters who are trapped beneath themselves, and their own structures. The confines placed on them by family, by friends, by the modern world. The film offers windows inaccessible to the characters’ peers, windows that reveal much more than any of the skyscrapers that headline the film. Through these windows that Antonioni builds, one can see the reflection of themselves and how far they’ve come -- or how far they’ve staggered. Whether we are progressing is not of concern; because, in time, all that we once knew will be lost, and the only thing we will have left to build with is the scaffolding and the layers of the modern world. ❖
It’s the routine that gets you. One by one, days start to accumulate onto each other as if they were simply repeated; the clothes bear an unmissable wrinkling from their overuse, the breakfast table is scattered with the same cereal brand, the commute that drones on and on the same radio station every time, so much so that you mimic the hosts and begin to feel artificial, recycled. And then you revel in it -- who else gets to live their life like this, recycled? There they are, the masses, rolling and pushing through the instability, the mud, the famine -- and here you are, way up here, living the same life, living not to survive, but to live. To feel yourself in that bus or car on the commute to work, well-knowing that you get to do the same thing tomorrow.
It’s an image that sears into our brains. We find the security in cyclical life and accept it -- until the circle dissolves. It’s here that director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008) is unprecedentedly real. Far from its cinematic ancestry of the Italian neorealists of the 1940s, who dug through the trench of the post-war impoverished, as if they were mining for gold, and leagues from a Max Ophuls or Visconti-an observation of upper-class theatrics, Kurosawa deals not with the trenches or theatrics; rather, the boredom. The true dull ringing of the industrialized, the silent cries of the advanced. It’s appropriate here to label them as “middle-class”, but this is not simply where Kurosawa wishes to draw the line. He prefers a view more along domesticity, or familiarity -- that same notion of driving to work and being so unbelievably bored but being so relieved that you are even in the position to be bored in the first place, while the rest of the world drowns below you. You aren’t supposed to be in the waters with them.
Until the head breadwinner of the Sasaki family, Ryuhei, loses the longevity of his senior corporate position to a new outsourcing effort within his firm. He is offered a position of lower status, but keeps with him his dignity and decides to leave. He is, in this moment, strong, understanding that if he can maintain a top-of-food-chain position there, he can release himself to the open market and have others flock to him. And then comes the drive home. The moments, hands on the wheel but mind completely lost in space, that he realizes this is no longer a certain. Now he must attempt to revamp an image of what was once a solidly-employed executive. On the way out, his bosses at his ex-firm ask him of his skills; and after a blunt eye roll, Ryuhei struggles to find one. He has become so intertwined in the ways of domestic living, desk pads and telephone extensions, that he has lost his individual skill set thoroughly. Asked this later in a desperate job interview, he complies and admits he still has none, leading to his utter embarrassment on the behalf of his entire industry.
Not having the job, Ryuhei decides, isn’t the worst part. The real sting comes from the imbalance of the routine now, and how haywire it could become. He doesn’t reveal to his family the firing, instead posing as a continued employee at home while he secretly attends almost every employment office in the city. The dominoes begin to fall. The young son, Kenji, isn’t allowed to play piano -- their financial inability is masked by Ryuhei’s claim of instrument as a “distraction”. The eldest son, Takashi, decides to enlist for war, and realizing he has less help in the familial income this way, Ryuhei nearly attacks Takashi. Ryuhei’s wife Megumi, begins to realize her husband’s unemployment; later, she is kidnapped in her home at gunpoint for possible ransom, but doesn’t resist, telling the kidnapper she has no life to come home to.
But of course she does. It’s just not one that she is familiar with, and thus, for her, is not much of a life at all. Her life, anyway. Their domesticity is never a mainstay, as they’ve believed throughout their upbringings and adult livelihoods. It is temporary, swinging on an extended pendulum which has finally begun its descent into the other direction. The cyclical nature of life for most is famine and survival -- for them, it is indeed a circle of rituals, dinners, sit-downs, television screens, late bedtimes, early wakings. They have never before been exposed to living as to keep at all composed, but to keep order within a laid structure. To crumble here is to regain a conscious affectation towards forward progress, only to understand the efforts to maintain the similar habitual status counteracts the desire to at all.
This is where we can notice something peculiar: that of the director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s filmography. He rose to fame in Japan, followed by international prominence, for his early-00s horror film work. The family drama seems not suited for him, until you begin to unravel that there may be nothing scarier, or at least more culturally striking, than an absolute crumbling of lives around not one man’s actions, or a group of people’s words, but by their own mental construction of what should be. For the Sasaki family, for so much of the domesticated, modern and industrialized, life isn’t really about progressing or advancing beyond what has come before. For them, progression comes in the form of static immobility, a suspended notion of running foot after foot but never moving an inch ahead -- the pain of normality, the burden of security, the devil of domesticity. ❖
Try this the next time you are in an apartment, or a house, or a complex of any kind in which you can see into the neighboring homes and lives that have been built around you. Stand perched atop the back porch, the windowsill, the patio, the fire escape -- awaiting you, perhaps an autumn eve with lurking leaves. Or a brisk white rainfall with the living room embers gradually rising the heat. Whatever the place, whichever the case -- the assignment is rather simple. You do it every day, to an extent that you may not consciously realize. When you have a view of the complex of buildings and people and cars and street asphalt en masse -- just look. When you are comfortable inside your own home, you like the lights on and the windows to be open to catch the sun splashing through the glass. As does everyone else. As do your neighbors. So look. Observe, catch, spot; see the mother and daughter talking over the kitchen table in the loft down the avenue. About what? About money? About the financial security they have been gradually advancing towards as a family that now seems in dire straits? Or maybe somebody’s hurt? Maybe a relative -- not too close (maybe a yearly visit) but a relative nonetheless -- has taken a spill down a flight of stairs? Or got caught in the wrong side of a traffic intersection? As you watch from your patio you see the mother wipe sweat from her forehead. This conversation worries her, exasperates her usually calm self -- or, that’s what you’ve gathered from the way you’ve seen her, over the years, as you’ve made your way back from a long walk or caught a glimpse of her family while driving in. What are they talking about?
Your interest is piqued. You lean closer. You’re trying to see the linings and the shapes of the mouths as they move, chik chak, in real time, to string or collect whatever you may -- of course, you’re across the street, high up -- they cannot see you, but then, you cannot really see them. You aren’t sure what they are talking about. Perhaps you’ve taken too negative an approach. Maybe the daughter just got accepted into university. Maybe the family is uprooting to the sunny Hawaii they’ve always dreamed for themselves -- a nice, two-story on the beach, reserved for the mother, calm as she is (or that’s what you’ve gathered by looking at her all these years). Or maybe the stairs. Or the traffic intersection. This is the perception. This is the thought, the act of looking. This is observing. This is odd, you think, as you look away; but this is merely what you do, day in and day out, as you wander through this confusing, question-prone and confusion-borne series of looks and gazes that is your existence. This is you. This is your life. And in Rear Window (1954), one of the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest achievements, this is merely routine.
Sure, our protagonist, our budding interest, our pair of eyes, L.B. Jefferies is a photographer, and we get a round of his lens in the opening shots of his own apartment, which is never the film’s interest (who is fascinated by what they know, what’s lived-in?), but his lenses are only accessories to the human eye, the greatest observer and shaper of life that no camera can place against. He is trained as a looker, but as Hitchcock told director Francois Truffaut in their famed 1962 interview, “aren’t we all?” How else does one live, after all? Try going an hour blindfolded, active in your daily routine, in the middle of it all. You cannot. You must observe. You must look. And so it goes. Cursed on-assignment with a broken leg, Jefferies finds himself confined to the window of his apartment, apace with each scanning view of the surrounding apartments, their residents, from young musicians and dancers to older couples, among them salesman Lars Thorwald and his wife, directly across the courtyard. It is here we begin to take note of Hitchcock’s staging of the apartments which will surround us for the film’s duration.
And surround is appropriate. These places and spaces engulf us, not just by the means of their inhabitants who we are forced to look at, perhaps with some unease, through our “hero” Jefferies. Hitchcock had the unmistakable and indomitable mark of control on each of his films, and each decision was met with the utmost deliberation. Nowhere else is it as clear as the primary technicalities of Rear Window’s placement, or rather, our placement, in the grand scheme of it all. We are placed in the middle, right in the center. In the context of the apartment complex, we may just be the second of three floors, equidistant from the rivers Hudson and East; we might as well be in the exact coordinate-verified center of Manhattan. It is this honing of centralization that can give us essential articulations of our scenario: first, in our own view, we may inherently begin to note ourselves as accomplices as we glide through this telescopic tour of Jefferies’ neighbors, but there may be some hope of redemption for the audience if they vindicate any assumptions or suspicions of those they are watching, which is, of course, futile anyway. We watch and we collect, and what we collect stems from what we have experienced before. But Hitchcock clears all doubt of the accomplice viewing once he centralizes this apartment, and drops us here with a resounding thud. Now, under Jefferies’ eyes, we no longer have any inciting instinct to abandon; essentially, we are being told to stay.
We are becoming, all the while, numb to the fact that we are not any longer accomplices of Jefferies -- we are Jefferies, simply. After all, he is our pair of eyes. Several sequences of his scanning binoculars, where the frame accepts nothing but this closed, double-circled view, confirms this notion. And it is true, yes? Reflect for a moment. Every single thing you’ve ever experienced, ever seen, ever heard, you have been the center of it. If you saw it, it came from your eyes. If you heard it, it was told or delivered to you. No longer can we be accomplices when movies and experiences cater directly to us, and life caters directly to us -- movies do so as well, and the prospect of Rear Window begins its consequential conversation with that thought: is it us, or is it Hitchcock? Sure, he has an indomitable control, but is it of us, or is it of our perspective, being in the center of it all? They aren’t one in the same. Habit and space define character, and in this way, Hitchcock has formed us, no, doomed us to a voyeuristic perspective. We will never leave L.B. Jefferies’ apartment, because we will never leave his perspective. He is chair-ridden, and hardly moves -- and thus we are motionless, too.
And the idea of becoming motionless will not suit us forever. Because, after all, there is a story here, and in the most traditional Hitchcockian way (an epigraph purely implying intense and unforgiving “kill-your-darlings” mentality. You can see why a man born in 1899 to a fresh new medium is so tall and towering today). Our parade of apartment interiors commences only with principles and ethics for awhile. For instance, about sixteen minutes in, two newlyweds across the complex begin to make love, and for the first time, we are noticed. The couple shrugs and smiles, letting us off easy, and shuts the blinds. Couldn’t you picture audiences upon release, in 1954, turning their heads in the theater when realizing their snooping has not gone unnoticed? Or only a few moments later, when Jefferies’ nurse arrives and jokingly says, “the The New York State sentence for a peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse!” These comments and gestures come with humor and jest, but almost immediately we can see their consequence, their backhandedness. We dismiss them, of course, as Jefferies does. Because one particular apartment interests us. Mr. and Mrs. Lars Thorwald seem to have a tumultuous relationship through our window, what with Mr. Thorwald’s irascible expressions that stretch long across the courtyard, and the missus’ inclination to stay in bed, probably stricken with some household colds of the bustling, urban ilk. Not to mention their constantly and continuously closed blinds, curtains, shut doors -- something struck as odd when we get several shots of sweat, rising thermostats, a painted Paramount-lot July sky, and even a couple above the Thorwalds that sleep on the fire escape to avoid the heat -- air conditioning be damned. As Jefferies will engross himself into these minutiae, so will we. And before we can trace it, Mrs. Thorwald is gone, Jefferies’ mind is racing, and a full bevy of suspicion ensues in our heads.
Interpersonal relationships begin to decline as Jefferies continues his observations, which could at this point adamantly be called investigating -- after all, if we’re committing these surreptitious acts, why not apply some heroics to it? We know something odd is happening in that apartment -- there has to be, or we wouldn’t have spent so much time on it. Or maybe? We begin to feel doubt on our own truisms when each person in Jefferies’ life dismisses the couple’s difficult behavior, but then, we side with our pair of eyes, our investigative hero, even if it isn’t sound to do so. His nurse, who repeatedly refutes his claims of witnessing possible “evidence”, grows distant and bitter when Jefferies acts similarly towards her. His muse, played by the effortlessly beautiful Grace Kelly, couldn’t give more effort to be noticed by Jefferies if she tried, and it’s not for her lack of looks; in point of fact, Jefferies finally notices her when she risks her safety by searching Thorwald’s apartment while he is away, in a ruse set up by the two. Significance overrides spectacle, and for our hero, nothing is more significant than what has been captured by the two lenses on either side of his face. Even a friend, a detective himself (surely he must agree with us!), can’t seem to budge with no substantial evidence, and not only do we immediately jump to the side of our vulnerable hero, whose knowledge of circumstance and procedure is of course nothing to an actual detective, but we actually could see the detective with distaste. Hitchcock frames him respectfully, as he should, but we are at odds with our emotions -- we must be right, but are we?
Suspicion ensues. As does risk, as does careful plotting, as does getting into enough trouble that Mr. Thorwald is indeed aware someone is watching him, that gut-twist feeling you have when you acted and you are conscious of a reaction -- like Jefferies tells his nurse, “why else would he look around like that?” It’s a great line, underlining his attention, but also his own unawareness, as if he is saying: who would look out of their apartment to their neighbors suspiciously? Who would -- oh, wait… Then, before we know it, His Window-Murderness himself arrives, tensity tightens, faces erupt, and by the end of the film, by god, we were right. Thorwald did it. What? Well, in short, everything we threw on him for approximately ninety minutes. Our other safeties (maybe she just left in a fit…) are tossed. Hitchcock is assuring us, no, no, you were right. He is, though without an outright affirmation, endorsing us to peep, telling us it is okay to stalk like this, because, well, we were right after all. And every day, when we look out the window, we continue to believe we’re right. And what if we are?
Rear Window is a thrill. A shock. A pulsing delight. A charming startler. It’s about paranoia in distress, clumsiness in intensity, and curiosity in loneliness. It’s about watching movies -- Jefferies looks through his box, a window, and from his eyes he gathers pieces and pieces and tries to put them in place. We look through our box, the movie screen, and act similarly. Movies can be escape, too, and surely Jeffries uses the ruse and pretense of suspicion to escape the marriage to his girlfriend that he doesn’t want, and the treatment by his nurse that he doesn’t appreciate. Simple game of connect-the-dots. Only it’s not too cynical, it’s just living. What Hitchcock has done is exemplified the central experience approach, by revolving this world of Greenwich Village around Jefferies and the audience. We need not seek to look, as we did with the mother and daughter in our imaginary neighborhood at the start, but the implication of looking is still there, and Jefferies feels no guilt for it. We don’t, either. He is, after all, a photographer. And we are, after all, human. It is our job to observe, to look. This is merely routine. This is gaining new insight and trying to extrapolate. This is wondering, inside, aloud, above. This is thinking, investigating, acting. This is looking. This is you. This is your life.
So look. ❖
As of January 2018, this website is looking into a slightly different direction. In the context of watching and discussing movies, it remains untempered. Rather, the format will adjust. The focal point will now be on films of all eras, genres, periods, etc. and will have the appearance of a formal, analytical essay, the alternative being the short review of films currently playing in theaters. In this way, I find my writing to be more interesting, captivating, and above all, I hope, engaging the reader to movies and scenarios they may not have otherwise attempted. I do not know how many readers will be at this point and indeed watch Rear Window if they haven’t already, but I can say here that they should, and that the simplest of treasures and pleasures can be those experiences had with films and their makers of times before our own, made in places beyond our travels. I hope you are willing to explore the vast river of cinema with me; the river’s current is indeed strong, and the canoe is free. ----- Nolan
He is the embodiment of evil. We know this as soon as he places the mask on his face, our camera peeping through two eyeholes, as we linger up the stairs of a dark house before witnessing a murder, prying the mask off, and realizing it has been covering the face of a knifed psychopath -- pure evil -- in the form of six-year-old Michael Myers, dazed, confused, but not nearly sympathetic or regretful. This is Haddonfield, Illinois. Jumprope chants of schoolgirls open the film, and a sequence of shots of the central neighborhood close it, envelop it in a terrorizing view. This is the height of neighborly horror, the apex of paranoia in the cul-de-sac. This is the suburban nightmare.
We know of the suburban nightmare. It often holds no value but of whispers and tales, of urban legends and autumn spirit. It lies in the boogeyman and the haunted houses and the dark -- and director John Carpenter goes to lengths to maximize these truths, as they are inherent in the context of the story. But where Halloween strikes dead-on is its self-aware subversion -- the notion that, yes, these silly childhood fascinations with ghosts and goblins are just that: playful, disassociated, tangential. But beneath them lies a true root of evil, a true uninhabited spirit of all terror and no mercy.
Enter Michael Myers. Surely one of the stand-alone names in horror infamy, though not nearly exclusively on the basis of its timeliness preceding the “slasher” boom of the 1980s (which Carpenter, intention notwithstanding, really provides the commencement for). What is it that makes Myers so individual, so singular? It must be his complete and utter disconnect to anything human. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) was a man with a dark past who became the byproduct of those who were cruel to him. Similarly for Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), whose teenage-idiot-sex-crazed-unabashedly cliché peers drove him to death, and from the grave into madness. But what for Michael? There is no past. There is no tragic event. The tragedy of Michael’s past was that he was ever born into the Earth, a pure and mechanic personification of the evil that blankets the suburban nightmare.
And he is blanketed over Haddonfield. From the moment of his escape, he is roaming his former childhood grounds, stalking children from school, feeding from paranoid teens who heard a rustle in the bushes, but look to no avail. One of these teens is Laurie Strode, whose father wants to sell Michael’s old murder-house. Bad idea. Early in the film, she enters the house and sets a key there. Worse idea. Not because of the haunted-house scares, which she is reminded of by the children she babysits during the film’s runtime, but because Michael is inside watching-- and he has found his halloween night.
This neighborhood threat is tightened into the film’s dual central locations -- homes which lay across the street from each other. In this way, by diluting the view, Carpenter elongates the insight into primordial suburban fears which will follow for the story’s remains; again, not just the fables and ghoulish stories that kids tell around the campfire, but the darker, more invisible threats of the campfire: the darkness, the unknown. The vulnerability. The allowance of evil. Myers holds his gazes on his prey, a purely mechanical and entirely unsympathetic viewpoint. This is not your ordinary teen-slasher: this is a robotic amalgamation of all we see as utterly impossible and monstrous, the true figure under the bed that makes the kids keep the lights on, keep the campfire burning.
One of the film’s most honest moments comes through Michael’s tyranny on two teenagers in yet another dark house (at some point, the mere invention of a lightbulb must have been forgotten). One teenager is massacred, and Myers takes a ghoulish white-cloth and places the teen’s glasses on them, approaching the other character. With no knowledge of the murder just having taken place, she laughs at what she believes is her friend, playing a trick. This is Carpenter in full effect, playing with the mindset of the audience. He laughs at the picket fences and the swift sidewalks he presented earlier in the film, and knows they create a sense of false security, a comforting cover to an endearingly terrifying cause.
The tagline tells all. The night he came home. It introduces a darkness in night and an evil in he, but the true smirk for Carpenter is that last one: home. Michael Myers terrorizes this town, preys on the innocent, tricks them, deceives them, laughs at them. And this is his home. He is not necessarily horrific due to the adolescent environment, but even so, he is a product of it. The marketplaces we share and the churches we attend and the courtyards we pass by are his, too. And at the film’s tail, when the two-hour search for Michael by police and psychologist Sam Loomis proves futile, it isn’t the thought of where he could go now that haunts them. He escapes, seemingly into thin air, because that’s where his spirit lies: here, in the heart of this cul-de-sac, home-by-nine wonder. He escapes, and so too, does the camera, resting in its final moments on glimpses of the town: this town, these houses, these hum-drum people who wake and work and repeat. This is his town, too, and he came home. It’s not just the evil; it’s the evil right next to them, that always seems to escape into thin air. That’s the suburban nightmare.
Deep in the recesses of film history, we can find a bevy of individual voices and singular artists whose works tower over others with a certain familiarity; although we may not consciously reaffirm to ourselves that these artists hold superiority to others, and to even say one work is definitively better than another sacrifices the point of all art, we may still find ourselves knowing, somewhere in our deepest of thoughts, that these artists lead visions and facets of cinema which others dare not cross. There is a ‘zone’ in film, one which we do not speak about, but it is there -- and those who cross it, few of them as they are, will become wholly intertwined with the greatest of all artists, if only because they had the curiosity, the bravery, the deep connection to their work, to themselves, to cross over to the other side -- to ponder over a looking glass and then gloriously shattering it.
One of these voices is Andrei Tarkovsky, whose own films were, for better or worse, few and far between -- those which can still be found today (without scrambling through some Ural-mountainside lair) span from the treacherously true Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which looks back in disgust, through to the morose The Sacrifice (1986), which looks forward in fear. Each of them accompany their regular irregularities which are only outlets of Tarkovsky himself, but they mark themselves through the years for their sudden and abrupt differences, meandering through the different tensions and plaguing thoughts of the era, but of the artist, too: Tarkovsky was a man frightened by time, taken aback by the ticking and rushing of days that we all experience -- this is why his films, which are patient, which attempt to examine and decelerate (if not stop) time, are those which join the bevy of the unconscious giants.
In Stalker, which would prove to be (through the processes of political instability and refugee camps) the director’s final film made in the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky bestows to the audience three characters: a writer, a professor, and a “stalker”, a man who is hired is to efficiently and deceptively bring the other two into a realm known as the “Zone”. The Zone is a scientific anomaly which has appeared under no explanation and is deemed illegal -- supposedly, though, it acts as a fountain of youth for those who enter, giving them their greatest desires. Supposedly. The families of all three detest the illegal entry in, and beg the three to reconsider, but it is a lost cause; the world, for them, is a tired one, a minefield where lies and trickery and misfortune await with each step. The film’s sepia tint continues from the opening frame until our characters reach the Zone -- not bright or lavishly splashy, but colored nonetheless, a sort of Oz, colored by the truth and purity which the outside world does not permit.
The three characters, throughout their journey, only relate to and call each other by their professions. After all, this is why they are there, they say. Inspiration, energy, drive to push forward. They seem to seek light in their professions, almost seeing it as their own existence. And yet, the Zone is one of truth. You can’t hide, and almost immediately, characters break down their real motives of wanting youth or fame or discovery, instead of internal motivation or self-gratitude. Tarkovsky peers, uncomfortably, vulnerably, into these vehement desires; not once throughout Stalker’s bulky runtime do we feel as if we were invited, an omniscient point-of-view in this world, with these characters. Instead, we look to them in shame and almost shake our heads at the screen. And yet, we cannot. Tarkovsky only permits traits on characters which we can see in ourselves. And that’s what the Zone represents: painful honesty. Just because we are not alongside these characters, that doesn’t mandate that we are above them.
We float through time once we enter the zone, moreso, likely, than any other sequence in movies. Our characters will start to break into dialogue, and rather than offer the traditional track alongside them as they move, the camera almost creeps -- as if looking over an edge. Methodical, practical -- slow, yes, as the complaints arose from the regional film board, to which Tarkovsky responded that it “required” to be slow. If a film can encompass days to years to millennia over a two-hour period, what power can be given to a piece which seemingly offers a real-time perspective, and yet, in the ways of ghosts the film attempts to inhabit, is never tied to a reality? What can one offer for themselves by immersing themselves into this world?
The answer, for Tarkovsky, is simple, and would habitually become simpler the more films he made: it’s about you, about us. There’s no point in creating a film this gradual, this patient, unless each moment would provide a further step to connection between the film’s “zone” and our consciousness. After all, that’s where the great director always said the film should go -- not through the eyes that scan it or the ears that recognize it, but through the soul that embeds it, passes it within oneself. And of course, our characters never end up entering the zone. The zone is within them. It’s their own creation. As soon as we enter the zone, one character remarks, “It’s the quietest place on Earth.” The quiet, as it seems, is what allows our characters to grow, to allow them the silence and personal space to understand themselves, and where they are going. The stalker, when confronted, cries in the film’s most painful moments -- the hope, the leading to where they might go, is all he has. “They took everything from me behind the barbed wire,” he says, “but don’t deprive me of what’s mine.” It is his, just like it’s yours or mine or anyone else’s. It’s what we believe it to be that gives it its structure and forms its shape.
We exist in our own time, in our own worlds. Sometimes, when we are at our most enlightened, we cross the zone. It’s there, waiting, somewhere beyond the wire and forestry and structures that corrupt and entangle our characters. It’s waiting for you to cross over. If Tarkovsky makes you contemplate, makes you fix your eyes on details so miniscule -- it can only be because he encourages you to move past blockades, to go through the tree limbs, and enter the zone. It’s right there, and Stalker is your invitation.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.