Friday, August 8, 2014

Funny cannibalism, unfunny cannibalism, and somewhere in between

I didn't set out to see three movies about cannibalism within a space of ten days.

In fact, I didn't set out to see any movies about cannibalism in those ten days, but sometimes, life has a funny way of throwing cannibalism into your path.

I'll start with the two that are overtly about cannibalism, and include this big SPOILER WARNING before I discuss the third, even though that's the one I saw first. Unfortunately, telling you which movie is being spoiled, so you know whether you've seen it or not and should avoid reading about it, would be the spoiler itself in this case. However, it's not that big of a spoiler, so I'll just say ... if you aren't really caught up on the buzzworthy movies this summer, you may find out a little something you don't want to find out about one of those movies if you read this whole post. In any case, I'll include another spoiler warning before I actually start to discuss it, if you want to read to that point.

Funny cannibalism

No, I did not just watch Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical, though I have seen it, and the setting for it is actually pretty similar to what I did watch. Rather, Wednesday night on Netflix I watched what I would never have imagined could actually be any good: Antonia Bird's Ravenous. I remember that at the time this came out, I couldn't believe the way it was packaged, would have scoffed at the notion that it could provide anything to anybody other than guffaws.

I was right, but not in the way I thought.

It's clear from moment one of Ravenous that this movie is intended to be funny. It starts with two quotations on screen, the first a Nietzche quotation about fighting the beast without becoming the beast ... and the second the following: "Eat me." Attributed to Anonymous.

Yes, indeed.

The opening credits gave me two other causes for hope: The film is directed by Bird, an acclaimed director who helmed the movie Priest (the one starring Linus Roache, not the one starring Paul Bettany), and its score was the work of Blur's Damon Albarn and a composer named Michael Nyman. Reading up on the movie after the fact, I discover that Bird was actually the third director on the film after original director Milcho Manchevski was booted and the cast rejected replacement studio hack Raja Gosnell. So maybe her credit was something of a false friend, but it was a friend indeed during a moment of apprehension.

This may have been a troubled production, but it doesn't show in the final product. Oh no, this movie is not for everybody, but it is a surprisingly skillful and smartly executed movie that is exactly what it seems it means to be. It's a story of people who eat people to survive harsh wintry conditions in the American west ... initially out of desperation, but eventually out of the very specific type of hunger bequeathed upon them by their prior dietary transgressions.

Not only is the setting great -- the mid-19th century in an outpost where unwanted military types go to die -- but the movie's tone is great. It realizes there is something essentially outrageous about the idea of eating people, and relishes it. While many movies might play cannibalism as purely a case of human tragedy, Ravenous realizes that there's something unavoidably comical about it. Take the one scene where -- not to spoil anything -- two of our main characters are suddenly killed to feed the hunger of a particularly vampiric cannibal. Albarn's score -- truly one of the most memorable I have heard in years -- develops the jovial pace of bluegrass, when one might expect the moment to be mournful. It's not sad that these people have just died, in this particular movie -- it's funny. And really, it is. The key is that the movie is overtly taking itself seriously, unlike a parody like Cannibal! The Musical. That's what makes the humor work so well.

It may not be possible to describe the sublime humor of this movie beyond what I've already tried to do, so I will just leave you with the recommendation to give this movie a shot. It's fast-paced, it's sordid in all the right ways, and it's also just smart and structurally unusual. It's available for streaming on Netflix right now.

How I didn't intend to watch it: I pulled up to my computer on Wednesday with no idea what I was going to watch, and chose Ravenous randomly from my queue -- not because I'd seen a couple cannibal movies recently and wanted to compare it, but actually because I'd heard it mentioned recently on Filmspotting: SVU. The thematic connection to other recent viewings didn't occur to me until later.

Unfunny cannibalism

I can't give the same recommendation to Jonathan auf der Heide's Van Diemen's Land, a 2009 Australian film we watched last Friday night (which is not, however, my August entry for Australian Audient). This is a story that also takes place in a wilderness, but in an entirely different part of the world: the wilderness of 1822 uncharted Tasmania. It details the plight of eight Irish convicts who escape their shackles and flee into the Tasmanian unknown -- a place they soon realize is far less hospitable than life as prisoners.

In fact, as they tie up their guard to a tree, he incredulously asks them: "Where are you going to go? There's nothing out there."

Sure enough, Tasmania may be beautiful, but it's severely lacking in food sources. (Incidentally, where are the Tassie devils and the wallabys?) Cannibalism eventually ensues.

But it's not "fun cannibalism." It's "grim, murder-your-brother, watch-your-back, grimy, gristly cannibalism." Which is probably a lot more like what cannibalism is really like.

However, I didn't feel the human tragedy the film was intending me to feel, because it does such a poor job of establishing characters and differentiating them from one another. As all these guys are bearded fellows about the same age and build, they become indistinguishable, so each ensuing death has no narrative momentum or stakes. We don't hope one guy survives and another guy doesn't. Simply put, we don't care.

Van Diemen's Land, despite being a bore and a chore, is not a total failure because it actually models itself on the films of Terrence Malick. In other words, it's got lots of beautiful, lush shots of nature, and occasional poetic voiceover. Oddly and interestingly, even though the film's dialogue is mostly in English, the VO is in another language that I initially mistook for Dutch. And it may actually be Dutch because it sure doesn't sound like Gaelic, the only other foreign language I imagine Irish convicts might speak. (And the director's name sounds Dutch, right? And the former name of Tasmania, Van Diemen's Land, is Dutch, right?)

Even with a couple nice Malickian touches, though, the movie is exhausting to endure even at less than 90 minutes. The unfunny cannibalism doesn't help.

How I didn't intend to watch it: My wife came home with Van Diemen's Land as a (regrettably poor) substitute for I, Frankenstein. Her work has a library of movies they have worked on, from which employees can borrow. I, Frankenstein was not in, but this 2009 true story of convict Alexander Pearce was. Actually, since I haven't seen I, Frankenstein yet, I have no idea if it was a poor substitute or not.


Somewhere in between

One of my most bracing movie experiences of this year so far is Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho's (mostly) English-language debut, which had excited me so much that I covered my eyes and ears during two exposures to the trailer in the weeks leading up to seeing it. I'm glad to say that it lived up to the hype, and really deserves a longer discussion at another time. I was even mentally composing a piece about the brilliant Tilda Swinton when I got mentally sidetracked and never mentally returned to it. I guess I may still.

What's relevant to today's discussion is the big speech by Chris Evans near the end, when he reveals his involvement in shameful acts aboard the train that occurred long ago, but have left him scarred.

"I hate myself because I know what people taste like," says Evans' Curtis Everett, through tears. "I know that babies taste best."

Perhaps the biggest of the many surprises of Snowpiercer was what followed: laughter. A good dozen people in my audience laughed, some sardonically, at this line, a line that exposes the character as a desperate man who once snacked on infant children to survive.

I was a bit taken aback by the laughter in my screening, but I soon found out that it wasn't just that I was watching this with a particularly perverse subset of Melburnians. In fact, when I posted about having seen Snowpiercer on Facebook, a friend of mine commented "Babies taste best." I shared that I was surprised to hear laughter at that line, and he responded that there was howling in his theater following the line. He said it was such an over-the-top line that you had to laugh. I said that I didn't have to laugh, and a couple others backed me up in the comments section.

However, I do agree that laughter could have been Bong's intention, because absurd humor is prevalent in this movie. I guess that in this case, I didn't want to have a Ravenous moment where I just luxuriated in the Grand Guignol absurdity of it all. I wanted to experience it as a genuine confession of genuine grief, a climactic moment in this character's personal journey. To laugh would have been to undercut the work that Evans was doing, and to undercut the seriousness of a scene that I believed was meant to be serious.

How I didn't intend to watch it: I did actually -- I was looking forward to it for a couple months. I just didn't know there was a cannibalism element to it.

So what has my 10-day exposure to cannibalism at the movies taught me?

I suppose it's that the act of eating another person is so extreme that our only recourse can sometimes be to laugh, whether it's nervous laughter (as in Snowpiercer, I would argue) or hearty chuckling (as in Ravenous) or downright busting our gut (that would be Cannibal! The Musical, watched by me a decade ago).

Cannibalism that doesn't make us laugh?

Well, then you've got a snoozefest like Van Diemen's Land.

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