Thursday, December 12, 2013

I am the killer, and other Maniacal thoughts

The ultimate test of how much a movie disturbs you is whether you have nightmares about it.

It's not, however, the ultimate test of how good it is, as we shall see.

Maniac, a remake of a 1980 movie of the same name that I had never heard of, stars Elijah Wood as a man who restores mannequins for a living, and kills people as a hobby. Not just people, but women. Not just women, but women who remind him in some way of his slut of a mother, who came home with a different man and a different drug habit every night when he was a child. And not just kill them, but scalp them and leave their bleeding hair atop the heads of his mannequins, where it attracts more flies than he can ever shoo away with a can of aerosol spray.

Not just kill them, but kill them from the perspective of you, the viewer.

See, almost the whole movie is in POV. Director Franck Khalfoun does abandon the technique every once in awhile when necessary to give a clearer idea of something the character is doing, which wouldn't be obvious when looking through his own eyes, or (to be honest) so that Elijah Wood can make more appearances on screen than just his voice and his reflection in mirrors. But the extent to which Khalfoun et al stick to the gimmick is impressive, given how tricky it becomes at times.

What's more, the gimmick never takes on the worst connotations of that word, which is to become laughable. In fact, just the opposite. From the first disturbing kill -- filmed with his face just inches away from hers, a knife sunk into her head from the underside of the jaw upward, the light fading from her eyes as one of the eyes becomes bloodshot -- I felt like I was more in the world of a killer than I had ever felt before.

It was downright discomfiting, needless to say.

What struck me about the POV was not just the most obvious ways it put you in a killer's shoes, as in, seeing what it feels like to kill through his eyes. Some of the most effective uses of the POV made me understand lesser details of the life of a misfit, like the way people's expressions change when they realize you are someone creepy or otherwise distasteful. I've been lucky to live my life without many people looking at me in revulsion, so this perspective was interesting to have. I also felt I understood the failure of the moments when his facade slips away, effectively having the moment he had where a carefully constructed lie suddenly contradicts itself.

Yep, at times, I was the killer indeed.

And if I had any doubt, I needed only to retire for the night. I had a restless night's sleep, a fact my wife confirmed this morning when we awoke. I kept on believing I had brought something into the house that would harm my family if I turned my back (fell back to sleep) for too long.

In short, I was afraid of myself.

And I'm pretty sure Maniac is the first film that has ever caused that kind of reaction in me.

However, I'm not sure how that makes me feel.

You could argue that if a film sticks with you -- and Maniac may be clinging to me like gum on the bottom of my shoe for a good week now -- that alone is an objective argument for its quality. But the other thing in life that sticks with you is images you can't unsee, and many times wish you hadn't seen. Those can be argued as objectively bad.

So which is Maniac?

Until I've figured this out, I can't give Maniac a star rating on Letterboxd or rank it with my 2013 films. I know it's an exceedingly powerful use of the tools of cinema, but I don't know if it's a repugnant use of those tools that I should be shunning, or a value-neutral bit of invigorating brilliance.

To add a layer of complexity to this whole "you are the killer" aesthetic, a gruesome bit of coincidence can be found in the fact that the movie's awful protagonist and its director are both named Frank. Sure, they spell it differently -- the character is Frank Zito, the director is Franck Khalfoun -- but it's a bit chilling anyway. And it is only coincidence, since the character in the original 1980 film is also named Frank Zito. Unless you want to believe that Khalfoun was hired to do the job because of his first name, though I think you'd have to be crazier than Frank Zito to believe that.

Some other Maniac thoughts ...

The creepiest guy on the block

At first blush, Elijah Wood playing a serial killer seems a bit like stunt casting. "How could a guy who looks so innocent, who has such a baby face, be a cold-blooded murderer?"

Does Wood look so innocent, though?

It seems like casting directors have been seeing the inborn psycho in Elijah Wood for years now.

If you want examples, you can go all the way back to 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Wood plays a technician in the business of wiping people's memories, who steals information that has been wiped from Kate Winslet's mind in order to seduce her. Pretty creepy.

The following year, Wood plays one of the most bizarre and unsettling characters in Sin City. I remembered him as some kind of rapist, but Wikipedia tells me the character is a murderer and a cannibal. (Maybe one of those two titles presupposes the other.) I just remember him being gross and off-putting.

For the past couple years, Wood has been starring in the TV show Wilfred, in which he plays a suicidal young lawyer who imagines he has a relationship with a talking dog. He's the show's protagonist and is often portrayed in a flattering light, but you never really forget that this guy is probably crazy, and may be a danger to himself and others.

Considering this, Maniac is not such a surprise, is it?

Sure, Wood has a baby face, but he also has those bug eyes that can be twisted for nasty use. You might even say that his most iconic role, Frodo Baggins, makes use of the crazy Wood. Several times, and in particular at the end of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, he is gripped by the all-consuming power of the ring, and those bug eyes light up with demented fury.

The next time I find myself walking toward Elijah Wood, I may just cross to the other side of the street.

Same song, same vibe, different movie

Early on in Maniac, Wood's Frank Zito is on a blind internet date with a cute alt chick, and back at her apartment she turns on the song "Goodbye Horses" by Psyche. You know this date isn't going to end well.

Don't recognize that song by name? How about by context? It's also playing in Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill does his little dance in front of the mirror, hiding his manhood between his legs in order to appear to himself as a woman.

At first I thought it was a ripoff, an attempt to steal the power of a highly effective scene from a classic psycho killer movie, and use it to achieve the same sense of dread in this film. Eventually, though, I just decided it was a nice homage, and didn't worry about the apparent theft because it had an end positive result for this movie's mood. That song just gives off a sense of moral decay.

It got me thinking about some other songs that have been reused for similar purposes in multiple movies, and whether the second use works (feels like a homage) or doesn't work (feels like a theft). In this discussion I'll exclude some of the go-to drug songs ("Cocaine," "Sweet Jane"). They have been used so many times to illustrate drug use on screen, that to give that kind of lack of creativity any further ink is a disservice to all thinking filmmakers.

"Oh Yeah" - Yello. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and The Secret of My Success (1987)

You know -- "Bowmp bowmp, chick-a-chick-ahhh!" Both movies use it when someone is examining something gorgeous and impressive -- a Ferrari in Ferris Bueller's, a sexy rich woman in Success. It's certainly a theft by the lesser Success, but I didn't experience it that way when I first saw it, for the simple fact that I saw Secret of My Success before I saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Theme song. Badlands (1973) and True Romance (1993)

Sorry to not have the exact name of the song, because they are actually listed as different songs, but they are almost exactly the same and are clearly intended as an homage by Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino to Terrence Malick. (Actually, I don't know whose homage it is -- it seems too cool for Scott to come up with, but why would the screenwriter be involved in the music?) Anyway, this theme played on some kind of wood xylophone (that's how it sounds, anyway) was one of the primary reasons I didn't come around on True Romance as quickly as others did, though I'm there now. Homage, I guess.

Well, that was kind of a non-starter. I imagined myself having a number of examples here, but ran out after two. Lame. Well, I started this over 12 hours ago, and now I just want to publish it.

Still haven't chosen that star rating yet, though.

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