Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confronting what you once heard

I've been wanting to see Anton Corbijn's Control since 1991. Which is funny, because it didn't actually exist until 2007.

The fall of 1991, my freshman year in college, was when I first learned about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the British new wave (or is it post-punk?) band Joy Division. Control is his biopic.

I was DJing a radio show with a classmate named Todd. No sooner had he introduced Joy Division to me than I learned that Curtis had hanged himself, on the eve of the band's first North American tour in 1980. But it wasn't just that he'd hanged himself. This is what I remember Todd telling me:

"He glued his hands to the side of his head first. He also rigged up the noose so that it had a blade in it. Therefore, when they found him, he was decapitated with his head in his hands."

I guess I was too young and naive back then to consider the logistical flaws in this way of killing yourself. But that gruesome image definitely imprinted itself in my brain. Especially since Joy Division's music had such melancholy to it. Thinking that the guy who wrote, or at least sang, those songs was suicidal gave the music an extra layer of profundity.

So when I finally saw Control on Monday night, it was with the hope of some kind of resolution to this persistent image I had of the probably-apocryphal way that Ian Curtis died. True enough, it didn't happen that way, and Curtis' story was actually a lot more tragic than I'd thought. Any suicide is a tragedy, but part of me assumed Curtis had some kind of narcissistic idea of being made immortal by the very rock-n-roll act of killing yourself.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only was the man filled with self-loathing for the way he'd toyed with the emotions of two women (one of whom was his wife and the mother of their newborn), but he was also an epileptic whose fits were getting worse. After a failed attempt to get back together with his wife and a particularly violent fit that left him passed out on the floor all night, he got to his feet, eyeballed some kind of apparatus in his kitchen with rope and pulleys, and impulsively hanged himself. Even though it was an unpremeditated act, it was executed effectively enough to kill him. I've given away the ending of the movie, but it's historical record anyway.

The larger idea Control made me think of is how we all harbor ideas and images that came to us through hearsay or rumor, some of which undoubtedly happened the way they were described. Because this is a film blog, I've chosen to explore the larger issues of spooky things that I'd heard about from certain films. Films which I therefore was excited -- and a little scared -- to see, just as I was excited and a little scared to see Control.

The most obvious one that jumps to mind is The Exorcist. I learned about The Exorcist possibly as many as 15 years before I saw it. But it wasn't any kids in the schoolyard who told me about it; it was my mom. That's right, when I was way too young to be hearing these things, I learned about the projectile vomit, the head spinning around a full rotation, and the devil writing the words "HELP ME" in the stomach of poor young Regan MacNeil. In fact, I remember my mother telling a friend and me about it as we were about to go to sleep, me in the upper bunk, he in the lower. I know this makes my mother sound sadistic, but she isn't. Maybe it was just her ill-considered idea of a spooky bedtime story.

Then there was the time Mom told us (it was the same friend again) about Jaws. I imagine the circumstances -- a sleepover at my house -- being the same as well, but maybe I'm just blending the two incidents in my head. I don't remember the details of what she told us the way I remember the Exorcist details, though I'm pretty sure she mentioned a dead body floating in the water. What I do remember is that she told us that the older brother of one of our friends had to leave the theater. She probably just said "leave the theater," but the way I remember it, it was "leave the theater to throw up."

Finally, there was Dario Argento's Suspiria, a movie I became aware of much more recently. I remember the circumstances here as well. I was watching the short-lived game show Beat the Geeks on Comedy Central. One of the geeks on this week's panel was a self-proclaimed expert in horror films, and he was naturally asked what the scariest film of all time was. Without hesitation, he produced the title Suspiria. Either from what he said or sometime later, I learned that the first 15 minutes of Suspiria are supposed to be the scariest ever committed to film. My reverential fear of this film increased in leaps and bounds until I finally saw it in, I think, 2005. I won't tell you what happens. The fact that I knew those 15 minutes were supposed to be so scary, but not how it would happen, intensified my enjoyment manyfold. And if you haven't seen it, it'll do that for you too.

Ultimately, none of these films was quite as twisted as my mind imagined them to be, though all are terrific films. And so I think there is some value to allowing some things to never be confronted, and just to remain as fragmented scary notions in your brain.

And that's why I will try to preserve Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce as the scariest film I have never seen. From what I understand, it's something about space vampires -- I'm sure the synopsis could give me a more accurate description if I bothered to look it up. And this one no one told me anything about. I simply saw the trailer for it, back when I was about 12, and I don't ever remember being so scared of anything as I was by the potential these images carried with them.

I hear it's terrible anyway.

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