Monthly Archives: May 2020

M. Stern’s Short Ends: End of the World Movies, Part 2 (Tarkovsky, Romero)

Hey friends, here I am with some more reviews of the bleakest stuff I could force into my eyeballs given the present state of affairs. And what a bleak end to a bleak week! First up is The Sacrifice, the final slow, brooding philosophical long-runner from slow cinema pioneer Andrei Tarkovsky (if you dug that Bela Tarr writeup I did last time, you’ll love this one). Then I’ve got my favorite George Romero flick, The Crazies. Yes, my favorite Romero. I think that might be an unpopular opinion but I stand by it — and if you read the review, you’ll find out why!

The Sacrifice (1986) Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Nuclear war might not be the catastrophe most top of mind at the moment, but there is no question that it is, as Sun Ra tells us, a motherfucker. There are a few art house films I’ve seen that give this fact its full existential due; two from Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light and Shame) — and Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. It seems no coincidence that this one is regarded as Tarkovsky’s most Bergman-esque film, it was shot by perennial Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is in Swedish rather than Russian, and stars Bergman repertory regular Erland Josephson (and there may be some other Bergman crew crossovers in the credits).

Josephson plays Alexander, a rural-living 60-something verging on a birthday and parent of a strange young child referred to only as Little Man who has a bandage around his throat. A neighborly new mailman, Otto rides up on his bike outside and Alexander strikes up a conversation about Nietzsche (“Do you know Nietzsche?” he asks. “No, not personally,” Otto replies) and Otto recounts having grappled with the theory of eternal recurrence (Nietzsche’s thought experiment, positing that everything we do in life down to the smallest detail might be something that we repeat infinitely). Alexander opines that you’d need a demiurge to facilitate such a set of metaphysical circumstances. Otto leaves, and Alexander muses about the fragility of a spiritually bankrupt society technologically sophisticated enough to destroy itself.

The nuclear blast in The Sacrifice is way more stylized and affecting than this public domain image of a real-life nuclear bomb test.

Inside the house, we meet Alexander’s family who are there to celebrate his birthday. They discuss his having played Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on stage. Otto shows up and things skew spooky. He explains that he’s a collector of strange, impossible stories. He is revealed as a probable epileptic as he flops, suddenly and dramatically, into some kind of dead faint when the conversation skews mystical (epilepsy being a condition he shares with the most existentially hefty of Dostoevsky’s characters Myshkin, Kirilov, and I think Raskolnikov — it’s been a while). He gets back up, and we’re set up for one of the film’s more poignant observations. Nuclear war breaks out, but it’s not nuclear war we’re used to, seen from the desk of a frantic NORAD official at his desk. Rather, the destruction interjects itself abruptly into the banal, quiet lives of the characters, distant from any global conflict. Un-foreshadowed except by the jingle of a tray of glasses, then a carafe of milk crashing  to the floor from a shelf*, one second it’s silent and the next it’s the earsplitting, overwhelming sound of rockets. Then we’re outside again. Alexander staring out onto a nightmarishly gray landscape – the world at large has presumably been reduced to rubble; locally, the aftermath of the catastrophe is represented by the color having been sucked out of the world (Tarkovsky and Nykvist actually stripped the color out of the film to get the weird effect.)

Alexander returns inside after a cryptic encounter with Otto. The family is watching television. Look looks of disbelief and anxiety mirror the broadcast’s dull, defeated run-through of the implementation of martial law. The broadcast ends. There’s an empty, contemplative silence.Alexander’s daughter breaks suddenly into as unconstrained sobbing and hyperventilating as I have ever seen in a film, asserting that disaster is somehow personal. They’re stuck. They don’t know what to do. They want to leave but there’s nowhere to go. Society’s infrastructure and the stability it assured a moment earlier has been wiped away.The sense of dislocation is palpable.

And they want it to be over. Perhaps most of all Alexander, who has spent his life preoccupied with the end of the world and is now living his worst case scenario. Wringing his hands and on his knees, he begins with the Lord’s Prayer then moves into extemporaneous petitioning. He begs that his children and friends be protected from dying. He begs for the sake of everyone. Tears filling his eyes, he desperately parses out the types of suffering experienced throughout the world into smaller and smaller subcategories, as as if more granular taxonomy will strengthen his case in God’s eyes. He offers to give up everything he has, even his family, even his home, even Little Man, to live a life of asceticism – if only the world would be set back the way it was before. This scene perfectly, haunting depicts a quite ethereal sensation. Alexander wants to hit the brakes. He wants to turn around and swim back through time to get to something normal, while the familiar ways of being in the world are sloughing away and hurtling backwards into memory. It’s probably a familiar sensation to anyone who has suffered a tragedy; one can imagine it becomes more comprehensive the closer the tragedy gets to being a world-ending one. Before slipping into an even more gray, more muddy nightmare, he gives one last plea to be rid of his “deadly, sickening, animal fear.”

Then he’s awake again and speaking with Otto, who seems now to be the demiurge discussed at the start. and Otto offers Alexander the chance to return to the world to normal if he sleeps with a servant – who is actually a witch – and make a wish. He does, and the sound of ringing glasses and bombs dropping indicates that the world has somehow returned to the verge of its terminal moment. A second later he’s on the couch, and it seems that things have returned to normal.

We’re left with questions, as is Alexander. What, if anything, was sacrificed to save the world? Was it a Judeo-Christian willingness to give up everything worldly, son included, that did the trick, a pagan sex-magic ritual or none of the above? At first we assume it’s Little Man, who seems to have disappeared – and so does Alexander, who gets to work burning down his own house to complete the renunciation of everything he owns. But as Alexander is driven off to the mental hospital, Little Man reappears and for the first time speaks, stating “In the beginning was the Word.” If the entire thing wasn’t a delusion, which it may have been, it seems that Alexander sacrificed not his son, but his sanity, to allow the world to continue on as it had.

I guess there’s a way that this movie seems like a meditation on creativity; Alexander, an artistic type, is burdened with insight. Where everyone else sees life clusterfucking inevitably along, he’s plagued with scenes of the bombs dropping. He feels like he should be able to do something about it. Ultimately powerless, he loses touch with reality and descends into a fantasy of metaphysical control. When we get out of his head and see him from the true third person, as others do, we realize he has driven himself insane.

On the other hand, I see a lot of Tarkovsky in David Lynch – maybe more than is actually there, sometimes. So just as I tend to wonder when watching Twin Peaks if the Black Lodge and White Lodge are fictionalized versions of metaphysical constructs that Lynch in some sense believes in, I wonder if this isn’t also the case regarding the relationship between characters and reality Tarkovsky renders in The Sacrifice. I read somewhere years ago that Tarkovsky was a theosophist, and so it doesn’t seem out of the question that the way he believed reality to work in some way mirrored this film. Maybe in the sense of the world being repeated, destroyed and un-destroyed on a semi-regular schedule. Or maybe in the sense that movie seems to indicate, solipsistic as it may be, that through some kind of ritual and some kind of sacrifice we might be able to impact the world around us, it’s just a matter of figuring out which one. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?

*I had erroneously believed that Lucio Fulci was paying homage to this in a hospital scene in The Beyond where a carafe of acid falls off of a shelf, but The Beyond was released five years before The Sacrifice.

The Crazies (1973) Dir. George Romero

I’ve been hesitant to re-watch The Crazies because I find it upsetting even when there isn’t a real-world pandemic rattling the foundations of civil society. Given what the last few months have looked like, I was concerned that watching this one would freak me out to the extent that I would spend the rest of my life convinced I was a glass of orange juice. I gave a watch nevertheless, hoping to maybe figure out what it is about this plague flick that sticks with me so much, despite critics appearing to be lukewarm on it. I think the reason I find The Crazies to be so horrifying is that it’s a movie about things breaking down – society, institutions, and individuals – spiraling downward in short order, which also makes it a movie about how fragile those things are.

Things crumble right from the outset. Two kids in small, rural Evans City around the age of eight or nine are playing around, a brother trying to scare his sister, when they walk in on their father raging full force with a crowbar. The girl goes for her mother and finds her beaten to death. The father burns down the house with the kids in it. While I can imagine this being the kind of scene deemed excessive upon the film’s original release (under the name Code Name: Trixie), I think it’s important in setting the stage and speaks to the seriousness of the project. There’s an uncomfortable reality that underlies the revulsion of seeing a couple of innocent kids having to experience death and violence: if you’re 10 years old when the world falls apart, that’s the age at which you deal with it.

Dave, a firefighter, and his pregnant fiancee Judy, a nurse at the local hospital, both receive calls to deal with their respective sides of the anomalous small-town tragedy. Dave, meets up with his army buddy, fellow firefighter Clank, and already news has spread around the fire station about some military involvement. At the hospital it’s even more apparent that martial law is on the way. It’s crawling with hazmat suit and gas mask-clad military. Physician Dr. Brookmyre attempts to get answers from Major Ryder, who is having the entire town locked down in the high school gym as a quarantine measure, explaining that they’ll be expecting the proverbial “few cases” of the virus by morning.

Dr. Brookmyre secretly sends Judy packing and two parallel storylines emerge. Judy ends up in a van with David, Clank, local teenager Kathy Fulton with her father Artie and a potentially ill fifth person, and one half of the movie tracks their attempt to outflank the iron-fisted quarantine measures and get somewhere safe. The other storyline follows the just-deployed Colonel Peckern, who attempts to control a rapidly degenerating military situation while virus researcher Dr. Watts, re-assigned to Evans City despite believing he could be more of a help from home his lab, races to find a vaccine.

It is from Dr. Watts we learn that Trixie, the substance in the vials being carried by a plane that crashed in the mountains, called an attenuated vaccine up to this point, was in fact a bio-weapon – one which induces an encephalitis that causes waves of unpredictable, murderous behavior in those infected. Create with in-curability in mind, Trixie is assumed to have escaped into the water supply and spreads via human to human contact. Luckily it can’t be spread by cats or dogs, only primates. “If you don’t have any pet monkeys around the only things infected will be human beings,” Watts says.

They talk through their attempts to outmaneuver the virus with so many unknowns at play and the chances don’t sound good. Martial law is invasive but beats the alternative, with the army secretly poised to nuke the town to stop the spread of the virus if things get too bad. Moreover, it’s unclear if any of the containment measures at all will be effective. Watts points out that an asymptomatic carrier passing through town could have unknowingly smuggled the virus out days earlier, rendering the entire quarantine useless. The steps they’re taking now would have been effective days ago. Currently it’s possible, if not probable, that they’re already too far behind to make a difference.

Things get worse. In the hospital, a single gunshot rings out and a local cop is killed in a struggle with the military as the small-town mayor pleads for more information. This scene struck me as being quite incredibly acted out. There’s sort of a Neo-realist quality to the cast of mostly-unknowns to begin with. They feel like locals. When the gun goes off, the ancillary characters look like they’ve just watched something unreal. They press themselves into the furniture like they’re trying to disappear. You see in their eyes that they’re processing that things which don’t happen in civil society are starting to happen. (While I haven’t seen the film’s 2010 remake, I can’t imagine it preserves this authentic grit).

Watching a futile attempt to contain a virus is hardly the only horrifying thing about the movie though. What the virus does taps into a whole other panorama of human fears. The loss of control of your own faculties is a terrifying prospect. Especially doing so violently. The unreliability of our senses is a perennial concern of philosophy, and comes up from time to time in fiction — often but not always in genre fiction. The work of Philip K. Dick, deals with the disparity between perception and reality in all sorts of ways – in his case sometimes its the universe that’s moving around on us, sometimes it’s us that, and often it’s some bottomless spiral of both. More recently and with a strictly supernatural hook, this foundational anxiety showed up 2013’s Oculus, in which a brother-sister duo who find themselves, when in the presence of a cursed mirror, doing all sorts of murderous things that appear on a recording, but that they don’t recall having done. Of course you don’t have to delve into the supernatural or the speculative to understand what’s so frightening about this. There’s certainly no shortage of real-life stories of people doing uncharacteristic, violent, etc., things while in a state of cognitive decline, all terribly upsetting in their own way.

This anxiety is at the crux of some of the most powerful (and controversial) scenes in The Crazies. When Judy, Dave and their crew have occupied a house to squat in as it becomes clear that they haven’t managed to duck the virus. Kathy is becoming childlike and incoherent due to viral infection. Arti, originally introduced as an overprotective father, becomes viscerally disturbing in how he’s acting towards her. In a haze of viral incoherence, he has sex with his own daughter and – after being thrown off of her by a disgusted Clank – presumably recognizes what he has done and hangs himself. This is another scene that I’m sure scans to some as pure Grindhouse excess, but it strikes me as one of the most devastating illustrations of one of the movie’s central points. The foundations of our morality rest on the idea that we have control of our actions. Losing that control completely enough to do something unspeakably vile, then returning to sanity a moment later, reveals a special kind of hell. This sexual transgression is mirrored in Clank’s descent into murderous violence – one moment he’s stabbing military men to death rather than reasoning with them, the next he’s tearing up, begging Dave like a little kid for confirmation that he’d done nothing wrong.

The more quietly horrifying side of this anxiety happens on the science side. As Dr. Watts works with another scientist in the high school chemistry lab to try to find a Trixie vaccine, there are a series of awkward interactions. He banters with his co-researcher. She seems unsure if he’s joking. It seems equally likely that either he just has a strange, affable sense of humor, or he’s been infected with the virus and is going insane. We look for signs in each interaction. It’s impossible to tell. He has a eureka moment, discovering a “smaller configuration” through the microscope that he can’t explain to his co-worker, and it’s unclear if he’s onto something too important to express clearly, or if he’s hallucinating.

Dr. Watts runs out of the lab with two vials of blood, certain he has the answer. He’s caught up in the mob scene, pushed down the stairs and accidentally killed by two hazmat-suited military men. Whether this represented humanity’s final chance or not, we don’t know. A morass of bureaucratic failure, panic, and insanity feed each other to prevent anyone from arriving at a clear answer. Like our personal morality, our infrastructure and institutions rely on most people behaving sanely most of the time. By the end of The Crazies, most everyone could be infected and most everyone could be insane; citizens and the military are engaging in firefights and it’s unclear who’s following orders and who’s lost their minds. Oh, and the virus already escaped containment anyway. The movie ends with the military getting ready to repeat the same mistakes in the next big city over.

So why is this one my favorite of Romero’s classic work? First off it’s hardly a knock against the pioneering imagery or social commentary of Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. In fact I think some of the staying power of those movies relies on similar themes explored in The Crazies (the breakdown of infrastructure, the fragility of human relationships, the mortal fear of having to kill or being killed by a loved one with either party acting outside of their own control). The Crazies, however, as it moves those things out of the realm of the fantastic and into the realm of the scientific, opens up for me a different can of worms. It speaks more directly a couple of fears harbored by hypochondriacs, and I’ve always been a hypochondriac. I guess you can’t really call NOTLD’s agonizingly slow scenes of human organ eating “escapist,” but along some line of measure I find The Crazies to be less escapist than that.

While NOTLD continues on as an oft re-shown and re-adapted cultural touchstone, even past the latest wave of zombie-mania, I wonder if the current state of things might give The Crazies a renaissance, as fear of contagion is – hopefully only for a brief historical moment – necessarily at the forefront of the public conversation. Given that, it’s worth noting that by far the strangest element of watching this movie now, I found, is that it’s uncomfortable to watch the potentially/presumably infected characters getting close to one another talking and touching each other. And taking their gas masks on and off willy-nilly. Even though it’s fiction, you find yourself looking for the moment the bug jumps. Keep some distance, folks.

Coming next …
I’ve kinda-sorta decided to take a break from watching disturbing stuff for a minute, but who knows. I’m thinking it might be best to watch a couple of Eric Rohmer movies to cleanse my mind of unpleasant thoughts. From the four or five of them I’ve seen, his movies consist of nothing but French people taking vacations and talking at length about their fairly innocuous relationship problems. I might change my mind and get a couple more catastrophe movies written up, though, or maybe some other weird horror deep cuts. Stay safe out there.