The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

First Films

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I look forward to summer as a time to catch up on films I’ve missed or otherwise have been meaning to watch.  This summer, I’ve been motivated to watch new stuff and explore in ways I usually wouldn’t courtesy of the 99¢ rentals on iTunes; they’ve come up with a some gems that I’ve enjoyed.  As I thought about them recently, I realized that a few have been the first films from reputable directors.  This started with Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972).  Subsequently, I watched John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13  (1976)and Richard Linklater’s Slacker.

I can’t say that I particularly liked Linklater’s attempt, though I’m definitely in the minority as far as devotees of the cult classic are concerned.  I grew tired of the disjointed, monologue-driven nature of the film.  Some of it was funny, some of it annoying, and some of it little more than a clever conceit on Linklater’s part.  It brought to mind something more along the lines of a Robert Altman film.  Research showed that the film claimed some reputable awards, including the Grand Jury prize (drama) at Sundance.  Besides which, the film is the cornerstone in the slacker movement.  Maybe my misgivings about it stem from my job, where I see all too many unmotivated lazybones filter through my classes and the hallways on a daily basis, many convinced convince of their own wisdom.  I’ve heard the monologues and processed the misinformation and shallow understandings that usually accompany them, so much of what the characters spewed in the film felt stale.  Despite that, it’s easy to see that the director is establishing his style and using a very naturalistic approach.  Most directors would try harder to leave an impression, but in this case less is more.  It’s fairest to say that I appreciated the craft here, but not the content.  It doesn’t matter who thought what about the film, though, because ultimately Linklater used it to establish his name.  He followed up with other films that were successful and acclaimed, if derivative (his best-known effort, Dazed and Confused, feels like a remake of American Grafitti shot with an overly shiny and gleaming film stock, making the take on the 70s high school experience little more than nostalgic).

It’s interesting that my other two selections came from directors who both went on to become masters of the horror genre.  Wes Craven scored big with the Nightmare on Elm Street films in the mid-1980s, shortly after John Carpenter had scored with the Halloween films.  The original films in each series are considered landmarks of horror, and justifiably so.  What I loved about their first attempts, though, was all they were able to do with small budgets, tight studio riens, and no-name actors, all while tailoring their own scripts, editing, producing, and doing various and sundry other production tasks (Carpenter frequently scored his own films; he came up with the eerie piano riffs from Halloween).

When he set off to make Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter originally had in mind a remake of the Howard Hawkes / John Wayne classic Rio Lobo mashed up with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  Both are pretty heady targets, but what’s the harm in aiming so high when you’re trying to establish your name?  Something must have gone right; not only has Assault gone on to claim a spot as a cult classic, but it was remade in 2005.  Whatever else went right was enough to establish Carpenter’s name and allow him enough latitude to follow up with the genre-busting Halloween.  That in turn ignited a hot streak in which he directed Escape From New York, The Fog, Halloween II, and The Thing within the next five years, each of which lives on as an exemplar in its genre or as a cult classic.

The real gem amongst these first films, though, has been Last House on the Left.  It’s not been far from my mind since I watched it.  Craven managed to not only score a classic horror film using the mere trappings of human psychology, but one that got banned in England because of its vile content.  In the end, he made some excellent commentary on the stratas of American society and the war in Viet Nam.  In the last sense, it’s not much different than John Boorman’s Deliverance, but that LHOTL was less conciliatory with its violence than Boorman’s vision of James Dickey’s book.  Both films were released in 1972; Deliverance went on to be acclaimed by the Nation Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  LHOTL went on to be heavily edited and fingered as an example of what is wrong with horror and why films in that genre are rarely taken seriously.  But I’ve said before in these pages that horror and science fiction work best when they get away from the philosophy of “look at these cool effects” and stick closer to making substantial social commentary.  Craven has commentary in spades in his film, but you have to look beyond the lesbian rape scene, disembowelment, recreational drug use, torture, suicide, fellatio, the lampooning of The Establishment (the police, and thus the military-industrial complex), and ultimately, the shoving of a chainsaw into the gut of the film’s antagonist (by comparison, this makes the infamous sodomy scene in Deliverance appear minor-league).  But LHOTL isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  Craven tips his hand toward satire, mostly through the hyperbolic violence and his use of counterpoint with some of the upbeat folksy music he uses throughout the film.  In short, Craven says that we need only look at ourselves and our respected upper classes to see horror and savagery; our social and intellectual elite are every bit as capable of horrors against humankind as the “savages” in the jungles of Viet Nam.

But I didn’t watch these films for the sake of watching any old movie.  I knew each film was reputable in some way, and that’s what captured my attention when they appeared in the iTunes bargain bin.  As I often do, I look at other artists in other mediums as a means by which to explore my own efforts with writing.  These three films reminded me how important it is to be ambitious and unafraid to imitate; besides which you’ve got to be innovative or outrageous (or both) to establish your name as an artist.  These films got me to thinking, too, about why we seem to be better as artists depending on how hungry we are.  Carpenter and Craven had their heydays, but their visions seemed to wane the further they got into the studio system and the more money they had at their disposal.  Is there a correlation between comfort and cash and the quality of your art?  A professor of mine once advised the class that as writers, you’re best bet is to keep your feet on the ground.  That’s where the best stories can be found, and that’s where you’ll do your best work.  I agree.

Written by seeker70

August 6, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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