Friday

Friday (1995)

Dir. F Gary Gray

Written by: Ice Cube and DJ Pooh

Starring: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, Tiny Lister, John Witherspoon

 

Friday is one of those seminal comedies for me that I grew up watching, first on television in my parents’ home, then at sleepovers at friends’ houses, and finally into adulthood anytime I wanted to just throw on a funny movie and pay sparing attention to it while I have other tasks to accomplish. I’ve got every line of the movie memorized, and I’ve seen it enough times that I could probably replay its images perfectly on the back of my eyelids in my sleep. Somehow, though I know when my favorite lines and scenes will arrive, the movie never fails to disappoint me and it never gets old. It has the familiarity and comfort of an old sweater, enveloping and warming me with its humor, and making me feel like I’ve arrived in a place of serenity. Friday is one of my favorite chill-out movies, and I can’t be the only person who feels that way, because the movie has been an enduring success, helping to legitimize Ice Cube’s nascent film career, and preceding a pair of sequels. It’s another movie that I like to watch because it’s just fun and familiar and it takes me back to a place where I was just discovering a love of movies and humor, and I enjoy the nostalgic aspect of it.

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The titular Friday refers to a day that Craig (Ice Cube) wakes up with no job and nothing to do except hang out on the front porch with his best friend Smokey (Tucker) and preside over the comings and goings of their block in Watts. Craig and Smokey spend the day getting high and cutting up on their neighbors while trying to avoid run-ins with neighborhood bully, Deebo (Lister), and Big Worm (Faizon Love), a drug dealer whom Smokey owes $200. The friends try to devise schemes to get Big Worm’s money, but when Craig’s family is unwilling to lend him any money, and Smokey continues to smoke all of his weed rather than sell it, they have to take desperate measures to try to get the money, with Smokey attempting to steal it from a sleeping Deebo. When Smokey is unsuccessful, he and Craig are forced to face the music, and Big Worm tries to shoot them in a drive by. While they successfully evade the gunfire, Craig finds himself walking right into a showdown with Deebo when he tries to defend his crush, Debbie (Nia Long), from Deebo’s attacks. The two fight in the street and though Deebo gets the better of Craig initially, Craig takes his beating and comes back at Deebo with a brick, knocking him the fuck out. In the end, Craig becomes a neighborhood hero for standing up to Deebo, manages to get the girl, and starts off his first weekend of unemployment on a high note.

One of the best, and most appealing, aspects of Friday to me is that the movie not only has great performances from Ice Cube and Chris Tucker in the lead roles, it also features a who’s who of prominent comedians in supporting roles. Craig and Smokey’s neighborhood is full of colorful characters and even the smallest roles are memorable thanks to the excellent and diverse comedic styles of the movie’s cast. Friday isn’t really an ensemble comedy, but Craig and Smokey almost fulfill the role of a Greek chorus, sitting on Craig’s porch and observing, and commenting on, their weird neighbors and family. John Witherspoon is a standout as Craig’s cantankerous father, a dog catcher who hates dogs and who disparages Craig for his joblessness and lackadaisical attitude. The veteran character actor is adept at physical comedy and provides many of the film’s memorable zingers and catch phrases, with his comedic energy contrasting with straight man Ice Cube’s laconic line delivery. Anna Maria Horsford matches Witherspoon’s performance, playing Craig’s mother as a strong, no-nonsense woman who also doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to crack jokes at her son’s expense. Bernie Mac and Ronn Riser are both funny in small appearances, as a preacher and as Craig’s fastidious, wealthy neighbor, Stanley, respectively. Cube’s co-writer, DJ Pooh, is memorable as Red, the sad-sack loser who Deebo repeatedly victimizes, and Lister is a proper villain, monstrous and physical. This depth and breadth in the cast lends Friday a broad, and unique, comedic sensibility, one that would come to be emulated by the film’s own sequels, and by mainstream stoner comedies throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The brief, scene-stealing appearances by now-famous comedians also gives Friday a high degree of rewatchability, because there are so many absurdly funny moments to relish in.

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Of course, though, a buddy comedy like Friday is only as successful as its primary pairing, and Ice Cube and Chris Tucker make for a classic comedic duo. Cube lends the movie serious street cred with his cool, laid back line delivery, and thousand yard stare, while Tucker keeps the comedic energy sky high. The two actors are perfect foils for one another, and the movie wouldn’t work well without their performances at the core. Although Friday is supposed to be Craig’s story, Smokey is the breakout character, and Tucker’s manic energy gives the movie its life force. Tucker propels the story forward, with the movie often taking divergences from the narrative prompted by Smokey’s stories, or following Smokey into situations that Craig is absent from. Friday was an important movie for pushing both Cube and Tucker into mainstream movie stardom, and there’s little arguing that Cube has had the more successful career to date, but Tucker steals Friday in a way that makes one think the movie was written and conceived of as a vehicle to launch his career, specifically. He chews the scenery, mouth running a mile a minute, and steals every scene that he’s featured in, supplying the film’s most memorable moments and lines. I think that Tucker’s Smokey does need Cube’s Craig as a foil, but not nearly as much as Friday the movie depends on Tucker to provide the laughs that Cube isn’t fully able to. Ice Cube is a pretty fine actor, but he’s always playing some version of his own star persona, whereas Tucker’s star persona has largely become informed by his signature performance as Smokey. As the sequels would come to prove, without Tucker’s energy, the Friday formula doesn’t work nearly as well.

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In a lot of ways, Friday and its comedy contemporaries laid out the blueprint for a specifically 1990s style of comedy. As hip hop was emerging as a dominant force in mainstream music and pop culture, Hollywood responded by greenlighting dramas and comedies that reflected a changing demographic and cultural landscape. In this film, Ice Cube found himself at the intersection of gangsta rap and mainstream film comedy, a move that would foretell his eventual status as a media mogul, headlining multiple huge film comedy franchises. Though Cube has sometimes become a punchline for appearing in Disney films and other family-oriented entertainment later in his career, there’s no denying the credibility and originality of Friday. It opened the doors for a new type of entertainment, and for other rappers to try their hands at acting and headlining movie franchises. The film’s run-away success dovetailed with a sea change in popular entertainment, and its sense of humor helped develop a new trope in comedy. I still love returning to this classic just as much as I did when I was a young person, and I probably will be watching Friday when I want a laugh and a pick-me-up for years to come.

Freddy Got Fingered

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

Dir. Tom Green

Written by: Tom Green & Derek Harvie

Starring: Tom Green, Rip Torn, Marisa Coughlin

 

When I think back to the late 1990s, one of the strangest pop-cultural phenomena to me is the brief stint of massive popularity that Canadian shock comedian Tom Green enjoyed at that time. Green rose from obscurity in America in 1999 when MTV began airing The Tom Green Show, a continuation of a sketch/alternative comedy show that he had been hosting on Canadian public access television for five years. The show only continued production in America for about a year, ending its brief run due to Green’s diagnosis with testicular cancer, and culminating with a one-hour special in which Green and his family, who were the frequent targets of his anarchic pranks on the show, detail their reactions to, and attempts to cope with, the diagnosis. Despite its brief run, the show continued airing in syndication and Green continued to enjoy a modicum of celebrity into the early 2000s, including a short marriage to Drew Barrymore, a handful of post-cancer specials on MTV, and the release of Freddy Got Fingered, Green’s attempt at turning the madcap energy of his sketch show into a narrative feature film. Though he’s continued producing an internet show and making other small media appearances, Freddy Got Fingered, which garnered a cult following on DVD despite its box office failure and critical lambasting, remains Green’s most enduring work.

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The movie, which echoes Green’s own relationship with his parents and struggle to break into the TV business, casts him as Gord, a 28-year-old slacker who still lives at home with his parents, Jim (Torn) and Julie (Julie Hagerty). The movie opens with Gord determined to leave their home in Oregon to chase his dream of being a successful cartoonist in Los Angeles. Gord arrives in L.A. and tracks down the head of an animation studio, Dave Davidson (Anthony Michael Hall), who rejects Gord’s drawings for their ridiculous premise, but tells him that he has skills as an illustrator. Gord returns home after being rejected, where his father belittles his attempts to chase his dreams and constantly harangues him to get a job. By chance, Gord meets a nurse, Betty (Coughlin), who is in a wheel chair, and who hopes to one day create a rocket-powered chair to help her overcome her limitations and achieve her dream of going fast, but their relationship starts to fall apart as the tensions between Gord and his father start to wear on all aspects of his life. After tearing his family apart by falsely accusing his father of molesting his little brother, Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Gord gives up on his dreams of becoming a cartoonist. He takes a job at a sandwich shop where he eventually sees a news report on Betty’s success building her rocket chair, and he is inspired to take up his pencil again and he returns to Hollywood to pitch a new idea to Davidson, a cartoon based on his relationship with his father. Davidson immediately picks up the cartoon and pays Gord a $1,000,000 advance, most of which he uses to relocate his family’s home to Pakistan, where he and his father are abducted and held as hostages, causing an international affair. The film ends with Gord and Jim’s safe return to the United States, where Gord’s cartoon has become a hit.

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I summarized the entirety of Freddy Got Fingered’s plot as succinctly as I could, while leaving out some of the more bizarre and ancillary diversions, just to highlight the utter inanity of this movie. Freddy Got Fingered only follows the rules of narrative continuity in the most minimally applicable ways, basically functioning as one long, free-flowing non-sequitur. It’s a hallucinatory, challenging experience to watch, and I, personally, find it basically impossible to appreciate for any real “comedic” merit. Though I was a pretty big fan of The Tom Green Show on MTV, by the time Freddy Got Fingered came out, I had already moved on from Green’s style of provocative, gross out, anti-comedy. I know I saw the movie in the theater with my friends, but even at 16, I wasn’t a fan of Freddy Got Fingered. I found it to be excessive, gross, and unnecessary, and my feelings really haven’t changed very much after a decade and a half. I know that there has been a critical reevaluation of the film in the last few years, with several prominent critics categorizing the film as an interesting work of experimental cinema and performance art, and I think that there are likely grounds to examine the film in such a light, but I still have difficulty engaging with the movie in any way that doesn’t lead to frustration and slight disgust. Green insists on pushing the envelope throughout the film, daring his audience to laugh along with him as he lampoons all societal conventions, but anytime I watch Freddy Got Fingered, I just can’t find anything humorous about it. I’m not a prude, but Green’s attempts to shock throughout the movie, particularly his repeated insistence on showing graphic beastiality, whether real or simulated, are beyond the pale for me as a viewer. Rather than finding it funny, much of the film’s attempts at humor just strike me as gratuitous and sadly sophomoric. Of course, this is Green’s established brand, but having to endure his hijinks for a full 90-minute runtime is asking a lot of any viewers who aren’t fully on board with the act. I suppose that I can applaud Green for taking $15,000,000 from a huge movie studio and turning it into an aggressively unmarketable experimental “comedy,” perhaps even a satire on the tired formula of the gross-out studio comedy, but I can’t really forgive him for making a movie that isn’t even a touch funny or artful.

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The DVD copy of Freddy Got Fingered that I have isn’t even mine, really. It got mixed in with my things when a roommate of mine moved out of our shared house about seven or eight years ago, and though I really don’t enjoy the movie, I’ve actually watched it a few times in the past several years in light of the aforementioned pieces written about it. I can absolutely see how the film can be seen as an influential piece of the puzzle for a neo-surrealist branch of comedy that has flourished, particularly on television, in the 21st century. Freddy Got Fingered shares a challenging approach to comedy that is mirrored in several notable and beloved comedy shows such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Squidbillies, and other shows from the Adult Swim lineup. Its plot, its resistance to classical rules of storytelling, and insistence on incorporating non-narrative diversions into its structure for questionably comic value are all mirrored in one of my favorite recent(ish) comedies, Hot Rod. This movie, starring Andy Samberg as a wannabe stuntman who tries to raise money to save the life of his dying stepfather so that he can best him in a fight, was absolutely influenced by Green’s brand of outrageous comedy. The biggest difference between the two, I think, is that Samberg is able to craft a likable and genuinely relatable character in his lovable loser, while Green’s Gord is simply too weird and too off-putting to engage any real sympathy or audience identification. I will allow that that may be exactly the point, but I just find Green’s performance in Freddy Got Fingered to be too grating, and I can’t enjoy the movie as a result.

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I really don’t like writing about movies that I dislike. I think that it’s much more difficult to find something of worth to say about a piece of art that I actively don’t like than it is to find adequate praise for something I find exceptional, but I still try to find silver linings in the movies that I’ve outgrown, or that I never liked in the first place that somehow ended up sticking around my collection. I try to take advantage of the opportunity of watching these movies freshly, and critically, to find some new appreciation for or understanding of them, but I really can’t say that I’m going to be looking at Freddy Got Fingered in a new light, or at all, in the future. I can understand what people might see in it, and I can even grant that it has some notoriety or import in its genre that should be respected, but I just don’t find it funny or satisfying in any way. It’s not the worst movie in history, as some might have speculated at its release, but I really don’t think that it has aged well, particularly in comparison to more modern surrealist comedies. Green’s act seems more stale and antiquated to me than provocative or darkly funny. If the movie works as fodder for a think piece, it doesn’t work for me as an actual viewing experience, and if it doesn’t make me laugh, I don’t really care that it represents an admirable dedication to a particular brand of meta-comedy.

 

Following

Following (1998)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell

 

I’m always a fan of going back to a director’s debut film, or at least their very early work, to see how many of their directorial traits and tics are on display from the inception of their film career. Even if I’m not a huge fan of a filmmaker’s body of work, I think that it’s a neat exercise to go back and explore some of their early films just to get a sense of how they’ve developed as an artist, and maybe why I never developed an affinity for their work in the first place. Christopher Nolan is one such filmmaker, for whom the bloom came off the rose with me relatively quickly. Although I do really enjoy a handful of his films, overall I’ve never really understood what all the hype was about. I feel that Nolan’s early work is still his best, with Memento certainly standing out as my favorite film of his, and that his output has suffered greatly from the popularity and public intrigue he gained after filming the massively popular Dark Knight trilogy. As such, I enjoyed going back to Following to remember the qualities that I really enjoyed in Nolan’s work before his films became maximalist puzzles. I appreciate the miniscule scope that he works on in his debut, and the way that this cloistered aesthetic helps to build a sense of tension and anticipation. Though it doesn’t always deliver in the way that Nolan’s next couple of films do, Following is, nonetheless, a well-crafted and original neo-noir thriller, and an obvious indication that Nolan would go on to perfect some of the techniques he tries out in this small film.

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Following tells the story of a young aspiring writer (Theobald) who decides that he will begin following strangers throughout London in order to gain insight into their daily lives and to gain inspiration for his stories. He establishes rules for himself to minimize his risk of being caught, and, likely, to assuage his own fears of his latent voyeurism, but he quickly starts to break these important rules. The first rule that he breaks is that he begins to follow a particular man, Cobb (Haw), for several days in a row, which leads to Cobb cornering him and demanding to know why he is being followed. After a brief discussion, Cobb reveals to the young man, who tells him his name is “Bill,” that he is a burglar, and he invites Bill to join him in breaking into a home. Cobb rarely takes anything of value, instead preferring to use his burglary as a way to insert himself into his victims’ lives, shaking up their sense of normalcy and security. This approach to breaking and entering speaks to Bill’s desire to peep into other people’s lives, and he quickly takes to the job, forming a sort of partnership with Cobb. Bill quickly gets in over his head, becoming involved with a woman (Russell) whose apartment he and Cobb have burgled, and offering to steal some photos that a gangster is using to blackmail her. However, in this duplicitous world, no one is who they seem to be, and Bill begins to realize that he’s a pawn being used in a larger scheme.

Narratively, Nolan does a great deal with a fairly straightforward premise. He shows an innate understanding of how to create tension and suspense by harnessing a particular visual aesthetic, filming his subjects in a near documentary style, utilizing a lot of handheld shots and close up framings. Following is proof that necessity is the mother of invention, as Nolan shows great creativity and resourcefulness in achieving a coherent vision despite his film’s paltry $6,000 budget. He uses the grainy look of 16mm film stock to his advantage, evoking a sort of realism and heightening the film’s sense of place by giving it the look of a newsreel. Shooting on location also serves to increase this verisimilitude, with the apartments that Cobb burgles feeling like real, lived-in spaces, increasing the queasy feeling of violation that the film induces. It’s truly impressive how affective Following is, with its ripped-from-the-headlines style inducing major paranoia, while the pleasures that Cobb gets from rifling through his victims’ possessions is truly perverse and unsettling. Nolan achieves all of this while exhibiting an extreme and necessary minimalism in his shooting style, choosing to capture these sick acts simply, allowing the mundane to become foreign and alarming before the audience’s eyes.

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The sense of disorientation and unease is furthered by Nolan’s now familiar trope of telling his story out of order. The narrative jumps around, beginning at the end as Bill is recounting his story to a police officer, hoping to absolve himself of a murder. Like Memento after it, Nolan uses a nonlinear structure in Following to represent the main character’s state of mental unrest, but unlike that later film, which unfolds in reverse, Following presents its story in a jumbled mix of cut scenes, with past, present, and future colliding haphazardly. This structure is representative of Bill’s own inability to process and make sense of the double cross that has been played on him by Cobb and the woman whose apartment they burgle; the audience is witnessing his attempt to shuffle through the events of the previous few days, trying to find the reason that he was chosen as a patsy. Nolan’s use of nonlinear narrative structure would become more nuanced and layered as his career would continue, but it is nonetheless incredibly effective in its nascent form in Following. The randomness of the story’s unfolding keeps the audience lurching and confused, requiring close attention to detail until all of the film’s principals have been introduced, and the broader strokes of the timeline have been established. Though the film does settle into a bit of rhythm by its midpoint, its twist ending is still a sharp left turn that makes perfect sense in retrospect, but is nearly impossible to really see coming. I normally hate films that incorporate a hard twist in their final act, because it is so rarely achieved gracefully in the context of the narrative, but rather than depending on its shocking ending, Following incorporates the ending into the larger disorienting context of the narrative, providing one last, satisfying, gut punch to the audience’s sense of narrative surety.

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What I think I appreciate about watching Following after having seen Nolan’s career unfold in the ensuing 20 years, is the surehandedness with which he wields his nonlinear structure to bolster the effects of his simple narrative. As his career continues and his films become more complex and maximalist, I’ve started to feel that his narrative twists and turns have become more gimmicky and less in service to constructing a compelling narrative. In his earlier pictures, up to and including The Prestige, it felt to me that Nolan’s use of novel storytelling techniques was in service to constructing a larger structure. It was a great suture of form and content, with the storytelling devices informing the overall narrative and vice versa. Unfortunately, over the last decade, I feel like Nolan has been falling into a trap that seems to befall many artists who become overly associated with a particular style. His films have become less formally innovative while relying on convenient “twists” or storytelling peculiarities, such as concurrent narrative threads, or the nesting doll structure of Inception, to increasingly disappointing results. I feel that Nolan has started making films with a “gotcha” premise or a superficially confusing structure, which lend his newer films being thought of as “smarter” than his earlier output. I don’t think that movies like Inception or Interstellar are bad, but I think that their cinematic importance has been overrated, while his taut, more narratively interesting earlier films like Following aren’t nearly as celebrated.

I imagine if I had seen Following when it was released in the late 1990s, I wouldn’t have at all predicted that Christopher Nolan would become one of the most successful and critically acclaimed filmmakers of his time. The debut certainly points to his ability to craft a compelling story and capture memorable visuals, but it really doesn’t indicate the rapid and tremendous rise to fame that Nolan would soon embark on. Even after seeing Memento, which I loved at the time and, disappointingly, won’t be writing about for this project, I would have assumed that Nolan would go on to become a respected indie auteur rather than the creative mind behind some of the 21st century’s biggest blockbusters. However, that’s exactly what Nolan has become, for better or for worse, so going back to watch a tiny movie like Following feels highly anachronistic. There are definitely seeds of Nolan’s style at work in the movie, but it feels divorced from nearly everything that he has made since taking on the Batman license. Nolan’s career path has pushed him to making bigger and more ambitious films than Following or Memento, but I’d be very interested in seeing him return to his gritty roots and strip away some of the high production gloss that he’s enjoyed for his most recent projects. Clearly, he has an affinity for pulp, so a return to the noir genre would be an unsurprising and welcome turn for his career, in my opinion. I maintain a respect for and an understanding of the craft that Nolan brings to his films, but they’ve rarely connected with me in meaningful ways, and I think another hardboiled narrative that drips grit and realism like Following might be the thing that I need to bring me back into the fold.

 

Five Deadly Venoms

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Dir. Chang Cheh

Written by: Chang Cheh, Kuang Ni

Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Pai Wei, Feng Lu

 

Five Deadly Venoms is a classic of grindhouse cinema, one of the most memorable and celebrated martial arts films of the late 1970s, and one of the most seen classic kung fu films in the West. The movie comes relatively late into the body of work of the prolific and respected Hong Kong filmmaker, Chang Cheh, who had cut his teeth in the 1960s making popular Wuxia films before transitioning to the kung fu genre. Five Deadly Venoms shows the influence of the swords and spectacle aesthetic of the Wuxia tradition, and is an unusual blend of the two styles, featuring the period setting and unattainable physical feats of the Wuxia, as well as some gritty hand-to-hand combat set pieces. It features several great martial artists showcasing different styles of kung fu, as the five venoms all specialize in a different variant based on the attacking style of an animal. Plus it has an unusual mystery structure, making its plot a bit more engaging than the typical derivative kung fu films of the time. Taking these elements into consideration, it isn’t surprising that Five Deadly Venoms has risen above the pack of martial arts films of its time to become a midnight movie staple.

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The film opens with aging Master Yuan (Feng Ku) explaining to his final pupil, Yang Tieh (Sheng), that he fears that the other pupils he taught in the past may have begun using the skills he taught them for evil rather than good. Yuan took on five pupils in his younger days and he taught each of them a specific, and devastating, style of kung fu. Yuan asks Tieh, who he was taught a hybrid of all five styles, to seek out the five masked pupils – Centipede (Feng), Snake (Chi), Scorpion (Chien), Lizard (Kwok), and Toad (Pai) – and to kill any who are using his teachings for the purposes of evil. Yuan gives Tieh a tip that the poison clan, as his former pupils are referred to, may be plotting a robbery and Tieh tracks them to the town where their target lives. Tieh has a difficult time identifying the venoms, as their identities are a closely guarded secret, but eventually they all come to the surface during a murder investigation. Tieh teams up with Lizard, who is now a police officer, and Toad, to try to take down Centipede and Snake, who have murdered an entire family in their search for a rumored treasure, but the identity of Scorpion remains a mystery until the very end.

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That rudimentary plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the fun mystery that’s at the core of Five Deadly Venoms. At least in my experience, its plot structure is fairly unique among the kung fu films of its time period. I can remember my first time watching the movie, thinking that it was actually a bit confusing, with a decent-at-best English language dub and a subpar image transfer making it difficult to pick up on some characters’ identities and some of the more nuanced plot points. Mistaken and double identities abound, with one character not revealing his true nature until immediately before the film’s climactic battle. The venoms are all intriguing characters, and their variated kung fu styles keep the action fresh and exciting throughout the film. In many kung fu films of the time, the plot was a thin construct only used to propel the action from one set piece to another, but in Five Deadly Venoms, action often takes a backseat to intrigue, as there is genuine mystery about the identity of several of the venoms, and as to the motivations that each character has regarding the hidden treasure that Centipede and Snake have killed to find. This deeper plot structure also helps to heighten character identification, and the scenes that feature the once-invulnerable Toad broken and tortured are genuinely emotionally moving, something that more run of the mill kung fu films can rarely claim. The richness of the plot and the characters makes Five Deadly Venoms a satisfying rewatch, and it’s likely the reason that I’ve returned to this film much more frequently than the other martial arts classics in my collection.

The other reason that I might return to Five Deadly Venoms more readily than the Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies in my collection is that it provides the perfect combination of action, campiness, and tradition that I learned to embrace when I was a teenager starting to discover Hong Kong martial arts films. I’ve written before about my experience raiding my friend’s father’s VHS collection and watching 1970s and 1980s kung fu and action movies that he had taped off of HBO when I would stay at their house. The movies that I discovered there were often the stereotypically campy kung fu classics, complete with incomplete or inaccurate English dubbing, bad editing, and grainy image quality. As such, I came to love these qualities about this subgenre of action films. I sought out movies that would check off these boxes, further coming to love the B-movie quality of the genre when I saw the way that Quentin Tarantino lovingly spun those seeming shortcomings into a perfect homage in Kill Bill. I started to see the cinematic interconnections in kung fu movies, Westerns, pulp detective movies and novels, and, to a lesser extent, comics. I started becoming aware of a “high culture”/”low culture” dichotomy and realizing that I had little interest in separating types of art from one another, as I realized that works of art, by nature, form a mesh that informs one another, as well as informing the tastes and viewing patterns of fans. I enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its aspirational “artfulness” (and it is a beautiful, moving, and artful film) didn’t speak to me in the same way that the rawness of movies like Five Deadly Venoms did.

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After the first couple of years of college, Five Deadly Venoms, along with the rest of the kung fu films in my collection, found itself seemingly permanently anchored to its place on the shelf. My last couple of years of college were dominated by Westerns and arthouse cinema, and my free time to watch movies for fun was greatly diminished. After dropping out of graduate school, I felt a need to disengage with movies almost entirely, experiencing an overload and a burn out that was overwhelming. After a year or two of really not enjoying watching movies, and going out of my way to find excuses not to see the newest releases or rewatch old favorites, I started allowing myself some indulgences. Five Deadly Venoms was one of the first of these forays back into really watching movies for pleasure that I can distinctly remember. One morning in early 2010, some 18 months after I had left graduate school and probably nearly a year after a DUI car crash that derailed my sense of self for several years, I found myself alone in my house, listening to one of my favorite albums, the undeniable debut album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang. I listened to the album a lot back then, and I still do, but for some reason on that morning, upon hearing the opening sample to “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” which is partially culled from Five Deadly Venoms, I felt compelled to stop the music and dig up my old DVD copy of the movie and pop it in. I sat down on the floor of my room and watched it from beginning to end, remembering just how fun it could be to get lost in a great story for a couple of hours. It was a great experience and I can remember feeling a bit lighter after having watched a movie that I really enjoyed.

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I’ve since watched Five Deadly Venoms a few times, and it doesn’t disappoint. Martial arts movies are a frequent pick-me-up for me, when I want to elevate my mood before heading to work for the evening, or when I want to totally push any thoughts of responsibility out of my head for a while. I stream a lot of stuff, but Five Deadly Venoms is the DVD most likely to come off of my shelf for a rewatch. Unlike the rest of the low quality bootlegs that comprise a large portion of my kung fu collection, I don’t mind the grainy textures and variant sound quality, which only seem to be exacerbated by modern televisions. There’s something about that quality and this movie that seems fitting and even charming. It probably isn’t my favorite kung fu movie, but it is emblematic of a certain type of kung fu movie, and reminiscent of a time in my life when I needed to be reminded that the opportunity to watch a good movie is something of value, to be enjoyed and savored. I think that more and more it’s become difficult for people to really unplug, and that being too busy to enjoy a decent quality of life has become the norm for so many people I know, and that isn’t a healthy way of life. One of the things that I’ve most valued about working on this project is that it has forced me to find the time to sit down and really watch and enjoy at least one movie each week. Even though I look at keeping my posts updated regularly as important work, I find it rewarding, and that satisfaction, along with an honest desire to approach all of these movies with an air of critical curiosity, has kept me working through. Five Deadly Venoms is, objectively, not the best movie that I’ve written about for this project, but it is one of the most fun, and often movies that are just plain fun are the ones most worth watching.  

Fists of Fury (The Big Boss)

Fists of Fury AKA The Big Boss (1971)

Dir. Lo Wei

Written by: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee

Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien

 

Bruce Lee’s first major film, The Big Boss (mistakenly released in America as Fists of Fury), is far from the best showcase of Lee’s star power and his physical prowess, but it does hint at some of the exciting things to come. The film was initially written as a vehicle for James Tien, but when a change in director was made, Lee was given the role of the main character, Cheng, and the film went on to become a massive success, turning Lee into the most famous martial artist in Asia. The Big Boss was the first step in relaunching Lee’s career in Hong Kong, as he had left America following the cancellation of the cult TV show Green Hornet, on which he played the sidekick, Cato. It was the first in a pair of films Lee would star in, and serve as the driving creative force behind, for upstart film studio Golden Harvest. Lee’s presence helped to give the new production studio credibility, while Golden Harvest offered Lee the creative control that he was unable to achieve while working in Hollywood. The Big Boss would be the worse of the two films that Lee would complete for Golden Harvest, but the partnership helped to break him into the Hong Kong cinema world in a big way. However, Lee’s earliest Hong Kong films only scratch the surface of the potential that he would later fulfill as an action star when given a proper budget and the opportunity to work with a more competent film crew.

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In the film, Lee plays Cheng Chao-an, who leaves mainland China to live with his cousin, Hsu Chien (Tien) in Thailand. Hsu Chien has secured Cheng a job working with the rest of his family at an ice factory, but when Cheng starts working at the factory, he realizes that the boss is using the ice blocks to smuggle drugs. Shortly after this discovery, Cheng’s cousins begin disappearing one by one, which leads Cheng and the rest of the workers at the factory to go on strike, demanding to know the whereabouts of Hsu Chien and the rest of their coworkers. When the boss’s thugs try to break up the strike, Cheng jumps into the fray to defend his friends, breaking a vow made to his mother before leaving China that he would not get into any fights or trouble in Thailand. In an effort to reconcile with his workers, the big boss makes Cheng the factory foreman, but this only leads to him getting closer to discovering the true nature of the factory’s business and putting him into direct conflict with the big boss and his cronies.

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The Big Boss isn’t a bad movie, but, as I alluded to, it definitely suffers from low production values and a lack of focus. It is obvious that the film had a somewhat fraught production. On-set injuries, poor shooting conditions, a revolving door of crew members, including the director, and, at times, disagreements between Lee and Wei on the vision of the film all added up to make the end result a bit of a mess. The film’s first half gets started much too slowly, with the focus primarily on Hsu Chien rather than Cheng, perhaps a holdover from the original intention for the film to be a vehicle to escalate Tien’s existing popularity in Hong Kong. Using the narrative excuse that Cheng promised his mother that he would avoid violence, Lee’s character is largely brushed to the side while Tien gets all of the fighting scenes. While Tien grabs the spotlight, Lee plays out a mildly incestuous and totally unnecessary romantic hero side plot with his only female cousin, Chiao Mei (Yi). When Cheng finally breaks his vow to his mother and Lee gets to showcase some of his fighting skills, it’s very obvious that he is a much better martial artist than Tien, and it’s hard for me to accept not having enjoyed the clinic that Lee puts on in the film’s second half for the full runtime.

Unfortunately, even when Lee is allowed to fully showcase his kung fu, his skills are undercut by the film’s persistently bad editing. During fight scenes, Lee is rarely shot in full shot, instead his movements are implied by a series of quick cuts from insert shots and close-ups. The shooting angles are often disorienting, and the camera movements lack any fluidity making many of the fights featuring Lee difficult to really follow and enjoy. I’m sure that most of the jarring cuts in the film’s fight scenes were efforts to hide the fact that during production Lee was shooting through both illness and injury, but that doesn’t make the lack of any coherent flow or rhythm to the fight scenes any less obtrusive. Add to this the fact that the beginning of the film hardly features Lee in an action role, and The Big Boss is rather disappointing as a martial arts film, on the whole. Lee and Wei would correct some of these mistakes and turn out a much more enjoyable and consistent effort with their next film, but The Big Boss still has the marks of a partnership that is being felt out, and a star persona that is just beginning to emerge.

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One of the factors contributing to my disappointment in rewatching The Big Boss might be the absolute terrible quality of the transfer on the DVD that I have in my collection. I can remember purchasing this DVD, which is essentially a decently-packaged bootleg from a foreign distributor, when I was about 19. Around that time, I started finding and purchasing very inexpensive copies of kung fu movies online, but the quality of the image and the presentation, in general, was highly variable. This movie is packaged as Fists of Fury, which was the incorrect title that The Big Boss was released under in America, hence its position here in the alphabetical list of my collection, and the disc contains no special features or booklet, just a poor quality copy of the official theatrical release cut of the film. It’s only audio track is the poorly dubbed English-language version, which I actually prefer for these types of old school kung fu movies, but it would be interesting to watch the film in its native language. I understand that by now there have been several remastered official home video releases of The Big Boss and Lee’s other Hong Kong films, so I would be interested to check out a better looking copy of the movie and see if it changes my opinion of it at all.

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I don’t mean to paint The Big Boss in too negative a light, because it is still a pretty fun kung fu movie in its own right. Despite its shortcomings, fans of the genre will absolutely find plenty to enjoy about the movie. It checks off all of the correct campy boxes, features a few fun fights, and, obviously, it’s still a Bruce Lee movie. Lee’s relatively small body of major work remains the gold standard in martial arts films for many people, and it would be hard to argue with that sentiment. Lee was the perfect combination of skill, athleticism, and charisma to break martial arts into the mainstream in the West, and the building blocks of his style are on display here. One thing that I did think about when I was watching The Big Boss was how remarkable Lee’s progression as an actor and star was from this first feature to his later films, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. There are less than two years separating the Hong Kong release of The Big Boss and Lee’s untimely death, and to think that his career had progressed so quickly and positively in that time is incredible to me, especially having recently watched Enter the Dragon for this project. It’s hard to predict where Lee’s career would have gone after the success of that film, but his rise to fame started with The Big Boss, and even if it doesn’t feature Lee at the height of his powers, it’s worth at least a watch.

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Written by: Victor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volantè, José Calvo

 

Often credited with being the first Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone’s seminal “Dollars Trilogy,” is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of that mode of Western, and one of the best of the early period of these Italian-made takes on the Western. Leone’s film isn’t without precedent, but his partnership with Clint Eastwood became the blueprint for European Westerns, and was the first to make a splash in the American market, solidifying the viability of these cultural imports and sparking a torrent of imitators of varying quality. Adapted as it was from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars also points to the cultural universality of these tales, and the malleability of the Western genre to fit into various settings and cultural motifs. Leone’s and Eastwood’s epic final collaboration, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, was my first experience with the Spaghetti Western, and I quickly sought out the first two chapters in the trilogy. A Fistful of Dollars lacks the budget and flair that Leone’s later films would come to embody, but plenty of the director’s trademarks are on display here, and the film obviously points to further great work to come. Maybe A Fistful of Dollars falls short of the masterpiece designation that I have readily given to Leone’s later work, but it’s a great film in its own right, and likely more cinematically important than any other Western of the 1960s.

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In A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone filters the influence of the great American Western auteurs John Ford and Howard Hawks, throws in a dash of world cinema influence, bakes it all under the Spanish sun and adds a transgressive, violent flair, resulting in a Western movie that would set the paradigm for a new form of the genre. The film opens with a lone rider, Joe (Eastwood), arriving in the town of San Miguel. Upon his arrival, Joe meets Silvanito (Calvo), the town saloonkeeper who tells him that San Miguel is controlled by two feuding gangs, the Rojos, a family of outlaws, and the Baxters, headed by Sherriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Though Silvanito warns the stranger that he should leave town, Joe sees an opportunity to fortuitously position himself by playing both sides of the fence in the feud between the Rojos and the Baxters, and begins to clandestinely sell information to both sides. Though his motives seem to be purely financial, Joe meets a woman, Marisol (Koch), who is being held prisoner by Ramon Rojo (Volantè), and he tries to help her. He frees Marisol and gives her and her family the money that he has gotten from the Baxters and Rojos, and tries to make it appear that it is the Baxters who have freed her. When Ramon realizes that it was Joe who freed Marisol, he captures and tortures him, and in the meantime, the Rojos murder the entire Baxter family, who they believe are protecting Joe. Joe escapes the Rojo compound and is smuggled out of town in a coffin by the undertaker, Piripero (Joseph Egger). With the Rojos searching high and low for Joe, the stranger takes time to convalesce and plan in a cave on the outskirts of San Miguel, but when he finds out that Silvanito has been captured by the Rojos, he must return to town to face off against the gang and save his friend.

I don’t know that I could narrow my list of favorite filmmakers down to something like a personal Mt. Rushmore, where I chose even half a dozen of my favorites to be immortalized, but I do know that Sergio Leone would have a place on that monument, almost regardless of its size limitations. Besides David Lynch, Leone has been one of the most constant presences in my life as a cinephile. Despite his relatively scant feature output, Leone’s work has had a seismic impact on my taste in and appreciation of film. From the first time I was introduced to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was 17 until earlier this year when I finally got around to watching and writing about Leone’s final Western, Duck You Sucker, I have been enamored with his parched, fly-bitten, primal vision of the American West. I discovered Leone, at least partially, through my teenaged obsession with Quentin Tarantino. The former video store clerk famously wore his cinematic influences on his sleeve, liberally “borrowing” from his favorite filmmakers, and championing B-movies, pulp cinema, and foreign films along the way. I discovered a lot of movies and filmmakers this way, but Leone was the one who stuck with me. I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly independently, but after having seen the second half of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and the way that that film aped the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, I started seeking out the rest of Leone’s movies.

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A Fistful of Dollars was the next Spaghetti Western that I encountered, and I have to admit that the first time I watched the movie I was a little bit disappointed. When compared to Leone’s epic later work, his debut seems slight. In hindsight, of course, I can recognize the importance of the film, both in terms of propelling the Western genre forward in a different direction, and in launching the career of an immensely important and visionary filmmaker. All of Leone’s soon-to-be familiar directorial tropes are on display in A Fistful of Dollars. This fully formed vision is likely a result of a career working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry that stretched back to the 1940s, providing Leone with the technical chops and industry know-how to deliver unique, artful feature films from the outset. A Fistful of Dollars, with its minimalist dialogue, heavy reliance on extreme close-ups, whiplash editing, and heretofore unseen violence, became the blueprint not just for Leone’s continued work, but for a new vision of the Western, in general. Shortly after the film’s release, European filmmakers across the continent, but particularly in Italy, were attempting to recreate the film’s aesthetic and mood, in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle, to varying success.

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While some of these copy-cat Westerns are interesting in their own right, most are forgettable, at best, and unwatchable, at worst. Most of the studio directors working in the genre in Italy lacked Leone’s singular vision and visual flair, but what they all lacked was the undeniable star power and screen presence of a young Clint Eastwood. Eastwood wasn’t Leone’s first choice to play Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, but it’s impossible to imagine the film and its sequels without Eastwood as the lead. Though he is explicitly named (differently) in each of these films, Eastwood’s character(s) in Leone’s Westerns has frequently come to be referred to as “The Man With No Name,” perhaps because of Eastwood’s tight-lipped, minimalist performances in the films. His iconic performances in these films set the standard for a new type of cowboy, emerging from the shadow of straight-laced, moralistic defenders of virtue embodied by Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and, of course, John Wayne. Eastwood’s Joe is a quiet, cold, and efficient instrument of violence. His line delivery in the film is clipped, and the dialogue is terse, giving the impression that Joe has little regard for other people, or for human life, barely deigning to open his mouth when he communicates, even with those he seems to like. Eastwood’s Joe isn’t a nihilist, however, as he obviously shows care for Marisol, even hinting that he has a past when he remarks that he is helping her because he “knew someone like [her] once and there was no one there to help.” These brief glimpses of emotionality give the character an unexpected depth, as does the natural humor that Eastwood imbues Joe with. Throughout the film, he makes wry, offhanded retorts and observations, but the humor never feels shoehorned, despite its existence in the brutal universe of Leone’s West. This multifaceted performance as a complex anti-hero turned Eastwood into a bona fide star, and helped to raise A Fistful of Dollars head and shoulders above its imitators.

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Another major factor in the success of A Fistful of Dollars is its source material, with the film being an adaptation of Yojimbo. Though Leone denied that Yojimbo is the sole inspiration for his film, and quite obviously it is not, there is no denying that that film is at least the primary influence at work here. The two films share a symbiotic kind of bond, with Yojimbo retroactively being thought of as a Western, due to its influence on A Fistful of Dollars, and examination of Kurosawa’s samurai films reveals the obvious influence of the American Western. One of the things that I like so much about A Fistful of Dollars is that it is a great example of the cultural cross pollination that cinema can provide. The movie is a Western directed by an Italian, shot in Spain with a cast of Spanish and German actors, starring a barely-known American television actor, adapted from a traditional Japanese samurai film, which was, in turn, influenced by American pulp novels and Westerns. The 1950s and, particularly, 1960s became a boom period for international cinema as film industries in Europe began to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, and the arthouse movement in America began to open up American eyes to movies from around the world that differed significantly from the stories being produced by the recently-abandoned Hollywood studio system. Though it was dismissed as campy and schlocky, nihilistic and excessively violent, by critics upon its American release, A Fistful of Dollars was a major hit with audiences, and it has come to be seen as an important film, aesthetically and culturally, in the broader conversation of the history of world cinema. The cinematic interconnections made here, and throughout Leone’s body of work, indicate the kind of cultural universality that makes great cinematic texts so valuable and so relatable across cultures. A great movie is a great movie, regardless of its language or its visual and cultural aesthetic, and the kinds of pleasures that people take in the visual telling of a great tale are universal.

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As I’ve alluded to, Leone would go on to make bigger, better Westerns and movies that I enjoy more than this one, but without A Fistful of Dollars none of those films would likely exist. A Fistful of Dollars changed the landscape of the Western genre, with the once-quintessential American film being reimagined by an outsider. Leone embraced many of the traditions of the classic American Western, but rejected those parts of the genre that he saw as fallacies, replacing them with a more real, more raw, more savage West, peopled by men of dubious character and duplicitous motivation and painted with buckets of bright red blood. This gritty realism would come to inform the revisionist Westerns of the later 20th century, as well as the hardcore action films of the 1970s. There’s no understating the importance of this movie on the Western genre, helping as it did to revitalize a form that had probably gotten too mired in its own tropes and pretenses by the end of the 1950s. Without this movie we might not get The Wild Bunch, and certainly wouldn’t get Unforgiven, but we also might never get movies like Pulp Fiction or Taxi Driver whose creators were sparked by the unique vision of Sergio Leone. I’ll always prefer The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for its maximalist impact, and because it was my first foray into the world of a filmmaker whose entire body of work I celebrate, but when I don’t have three hours to truly immerse myself in that epic, A Fistful of Dollars is a perfectly fine substitute. While the later film expands upon all of the best tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Leone’s debut establishes them, concentrating them down into their most essential qualities, and providing a blueprint for the rest of the genre to come.

 

 

Fight Club

Fight Club (1999)

Dir. David Fincher

Written by: Jim Uhls (from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter

 

Over the years, media collections have always served as markers of an individual’s personal tastes. An album collection, a bookshelf, or a list of favorite movies can be a representation of one’s personality and interests that they can cultivate and put on display for the world to see, a Rosetta stone to unlock the mystery of someone’s cultural affinities. The media that we choose to collect and value can make an important statement about our personal identities. While much of my collection is probably a testament to my overall movie snobbery, there are certain movies in it that are so culturally universal and so definitive of a time and a place in American cinematic cultural history that they fail to reveal much about my actual personal tastes. Just like “Rubber Soul” or “Four Way Street” in my mother’s album collection, there are simply certain movies that it seems like everyone who was alive and consuming mass culture during a certain time can agree upon, and seems to have a copy of floating around in their collection somewhere. Fight Club is one of these universal movies for people, such as myself, who came of age in the late 1990s.

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Despite being only a modest box office success, Fight Club is the movie that helped put both David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk on the cultural map in a big way. Fincher already had a few features under his belt, including his helming of a major misstep in the Alien franchise, and his redemptive efforts in directing the cult hits The Game and Se7en. Palahniuk became a household name after the film adaptation of his first novel became a cult hit and a cultural touchstone. Fight Club’s story of disaffected, displaced masculinity, embodied by the Narrator (Norton), came to resonate with a generation of young men who identified with the film’s anti-corporate message and with its ultraviolent content. The film sees the Narrator leave a comfortable white collar job after a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Pitt), a misanthrope and social provocateur who comes up with the idea for a secret club that can help men struggling with a perceived loss of agency in the face of societal change. Tyler and the narrator found Fight Club, a secret underground fighting league in which men can vent the frustrations of existing in a post-Industrialist, post-Feminist world through brutal fist fights. The fights help these aimless men feel alive and vital, giving them a sense of belonging and purpose, and Fight Club begins to spread across the country, with its adherents praising Tyler like a cult leader. Eventually, Fight Club begins to change into a more organized and militant force, Project Mayhem, as Tyler’s devotees begin to engage in more bombastic, socially motivated acts of vandalism and anti-corporate mischief. The Narrator starts to worry that Project Mayhem has gotten out of control, but there doesn’t seem to be much he can do to stop the momentum that Tyler has built in creating an army.

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I can remember watching Fight Club for the first time with one of my best friends when we were sophomores in high school, a year or two after it had been out in theaters. We watched the movie on VHS and I was taken in by its highly stylized visuals and its hip, sardonic take on modern workplace culture. I clung to Tyler Durden’s sloganeering in the film, taking phrases like “How can you know anything about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight,” and “You are not your fucking khakis,” to heart and starting to turn them into the building blocks of my nascent teenaged personality. I found Fight Club’s anti-corporate, anarchic sensibilities to be mature and enlightened viewpoints, and the film’s overall theme of rejecting societal expectations in favor of a return to a primal sort of self-exploration truly resonated with my developing worldview. Eventually, I bought the movie on DVD, and I became totally obsessed with it. I watched it over and over again, listening to various commentary tracks, watching deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes vignettes. Even though I already knew the outcome of Fight Club’s famous twist ending, I didn’t care, and I reaped just as much enjoyment from my tenth viewing of the film as I had from that first time watching it. Fight Club was exactly the sort of smart, stylish, edgy movie that boosted my credentials as a fan of ”important” movies, and when I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I chose to display my tastes for the world to see by purchasing a Fight Club poster and tacking it to the wall of my first dorm room.

It’s easy to see why Fight Club became such a hit with a generation of movie watchers. The movie is perfect for the DVD era, with its dense and twisting narrative rewarding repeat views. Its cutting edge visuals, for the time, were eye-popping in the relative high fidelity that DVD offered, and lent themselves well to the types of supplemental material that were popular on the prestige DVD releases of the early 21st century. These qualities, and the increasing affordability of collecting DVDs, led to Fight Club’s ubiquity in millennials’ movie collections and helped turn a box office disappointment into a run-away cult success that has garnered praise as one of the best films of its period. Though it tells the story of disaffected members of Generation X, who came of age in a rapidly changing world where the workplace success and stable domestic life that seemed to be enjoyed by their predecessors was rapidly eroding, Fight Club’s sloganeering and paint-by-numbers approach to societal discord and extreme civil disobedience made it a perfect movie to be adopted by the next generation of young people who were actually coming of age upon the film’s release. These teens and preteens took the movie’s simplistic politics to heart and many started to form an identity based around the primal, uber-macho points of view that are embraced in Fight Club. Just like the members of Project Mayhem who mindlessly parrot Tyler’s screeds and credos back to him and to each other, Fight Club’s fans were having the film’s messages drilled into their heads through repetitious viewing at home.

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Of course, Fight Club is a work of satire and its politics and social commentary should be taken with a grain of salt. I recognized the film as such, and while I never espoused the macho posturing in the film, I was taken in by many of its more pointed social critiques, particularly its examination of the inability of the modern American worker to exist as anything other than an undifferentiated cog in a heartless, brutal corporate machine. I took to heart Tyler Durden’s warning that “the things we own end up owning us,” and tried to eschew materialist or corporatist urges, but I didn’t need a movie to tell me that big businesses and corporations were bad for individuals, and that working people are endlessly exploited by a profit-hungry system of Capitalism that values them only for their productive capacity and not for their creative or humanistic qualities. Watching a movie like Fight Club helped to crystallize some of my beliefs, but as I got older, I started to see the fallacy in living your life by movie quotes or by letting a piece of pop culture become a guiding or defining part of your life and personality. I still enjoyed Fight Club as a movie, but eventually the poster came off of my wall, and my viewings of the film became fewer and more far between. Changing tastes and a broadening world view shifted my interests towards more intellectually rigorous and nuanced films, but Fight Club still existed in the background of my cinematic excursions, an old favorite waiting to be rediscovered in a new light, or simply to be returned to as a form of filmic comfort food.

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While I have watched Fight Club a handful of times since it ceased to be a very important movie to me in my late teens and early twenties, I think that watching it for this project must have been my first time really sitting down and engaging with the movie in a deep and relevant way in close to a decade. The experience didn’t disappoint, and, if anything, I found Fight Club to perhaps be more relevant today than it was when I first saw it almost twenty years ago. Watching a movie that attempts to explore the fragility of modern, white-collar, White American masculinity in the age of the Me Too movement and the resultant backlash from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was difficult for me to watch Fight Club without coming to the realization that perhaps this ubiquitous movie could be, at least partially, to blame for a subset of the male population in my age group who seem bent on creating grievances and blaming the world, and particularly women, for their own shortcomings or disappointments in life. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these Men’s Rights types held Fight Club in high esteem, while certainly missing the movie’s satirical critique of the macho culture that it depicts. Tyler Durden, and the club that he creates, are responses to the perceived marginalization of the White American male, in the face of increased visibilities and opportunities for women, people of color, and other traditionally marginalized groups. In the film, the formation of a heterosocial group, in which physical assault is the only outlet for these men to feel alive or to come into contact with their own conflicted, and conflicting, emotional centers, is celebrated as a return to some sort of male primacy. However, as the film shows, embracing that vicious, violent form of machismo has deadly consequences for many of the characters, and leads to a series of counterproductive and empty revolutionary gestures. Fight Club should be read as a cautionary tale for men against letting too much of the Id control our behaviors, but instead I think that there is a large portion of the movie’s fandom that sees it as a primer and a call to arms against societal strictures that are “emasculating” a generation of men.

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I guess the question that I was left with after rewatching Fight Club and thinking about the movie in the context of its potential role in creating, or at the very least reaffirming the beliefs of, a group of vile, hateful men, was whether or not the film’s positive qualities outweigh the connection that I’ve now made between the movie and a real world ethos that I find incompatible with my own point of view. In the end, I think that I still enjoy Fight Club. Although I’ve found Palahniuk to be something of a provocateur in his own right, I find it hard to believe that either he or Fincher would support the reading of this text that I’m imagining some fans clinging to. Perhaps because the film isn’t ostensibly branded as a comedy, its satirical point of view is easier to lose, but I think that most viewers will very easily realize that Tyler is the film’s antagonist, rather than an idol to be worshipped. As a movie, Fight Club still holds up visually in spite of two decades of technical progression since its release. The film’s gritty, grimy visual aesthetic is perfect, and finds Fincher expanding on the visual aesthetic of his earlier films to incorporate limited CGI, and employing some flashier camera work and editing than he had previously in his feature films. Its twisting, non-linear narrative is still a joy to unpack, and the film’s pacing is spot on, with its lengthy runtime seeming to fly by. Fight Club is a movie that is indelibly of its time, both in terms of its larger context and its role in my own personal development as a film viewer, but like other great movies it remains culturally and cinematically relevant. Great art should be a mirror for the society that produces it, and Fight Club uses its violent, satirical narrative to great critical effect, but there’s often no accounting for the ways that an audience will warp and distort that reflection based on their own prejudices and predilections.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana (1971)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

 

I think that Fata Morgana has to be one of the most unique films that I’ve screened thus far for this project. I don’t have a great deal of experience in writing about documentary or non-narrative experimental films, both in this project, and in general, so it should be an interesting process trying to find the verbiage to record my thoughts on what was a truly different film viewing experience. Fata Morgana has its predecessors, particularly in experimental science-fiction films like La Jetee, and I can certainly see the influence that this film has had on a generation of experimental filmmakers, but I don’t know that I have ever seen a movie that was quite like Fata Morgana. Leave it to an outsider and a visionary like Werner Herzog to have created a film that is unlike any other, and to have done it so early in his career. Fata Morgana is at once weird, beautiful, esoteric, and hypnotic.

Herzog and a small crew shot Fata Morgana in the Sahara Desert in the late 1960s without any real plan for how to edit the footage together or how it would be assembled into a coherent narrative. “Fata morgana” refers to the unusual instances of faint mirages that pop up above the horizon line in deserts and on the ocean, and in the film, Herzog captures several of these in slow tracking shots that take in the barren desert landscape. The film also includes some brief interludes with human subjects, but the bulk of its visuals are landscapes. Early in the film, Herzog sets these stunningly beautiful images to a voiceover narration by German critic Lotte Eisner reading a version of a Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, which Herzog has adapted. Later he introduces the music of Leonard Cohen, giving the images a more grounded feeling, while the creation myth used in the film’s first half elevates the images to a more ethereal significance.

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On its surface, Fata Morgana is a very simple film, consisting simply of placid images and sporadic bits of voiceover. However, as you watch the film, the images start to add up to a more complex narrative, giving each other context and significance. Herzog had initially envisioned the film as a science-fiction film about a dying planet, and it’s easy to see how that could have been accomplished. The depopulated landscapes of the Sahara that Herzog and his camera operator, Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, film certainly feel cold and alien. The way the mirages that they capture flicker at the horizon line, it’s easy to get the sense that there is some great secret, or a hidden civilization, existing just outside the frame. Herzog shows us rotting animal corpses and the rusting wreckage of aircraft, furthering the impression that we are observing the death of a once-great civilization. Eisner’s narration, however, provides counterpoint to the barrenness of the images, giving the impression that if these are the ruins of a long-dead civilization, they are destined to be the site of a blossoming of the next society. Her recitation of the Popul Vuh gives the mirages a hopeful, if somewhat portentious, feeling.

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As the film progresses, a more explicit narrative starts to emerge as the nature of Herzog’s images changes and he abandons the creation myth in favor of the soft music of Leonard Cohen. My mind couldn’t help but drift to thoughts of colonization and the exploitation of the African continent for centuries when the images began to shift away from an exploration of the natural world of the Sahara and towards a more industrial, urban landscape. Midway through the film, Schmidt-Reitwein’s camera begins to focus more intently on construction sites and the frames of buildings, the skeletons of heavy industry. Flickering mirages give way eventually to the ghosts of Europe’s colonial influence on the continent. Herzog interviews a German scientist holding a monitor lizard, who talks about the unique ecosystem of the desert, and its importance for his studies of the lizards. I felt like his attitude towards Africa as a strange, exotic place, useful only for his scholarly pursuits was quite pejorative, and it indicates a new, less obvious form of paternalism and colonialism. Though anti-colonialist sentiments aren’t made explicit in any way in the film, I have to think that revolution and colonialism were on Herzog’s mind as he made Fata Morgana, as it was partially shot in Cameroon during that country’s war for independence.

Of course, by their very nature, movies like Fata Morgana are wide open for various interpretations. The film was one of the first popular psychedelic experimental films, and I have to think that experiencing it on psychedelics would only enhance the film’s multitude of possible interpretations. The images in the film are hallucinatory and mesmerizing, with the same framings or locations often being repeated with slight variations, furthering their dreamlike nature. Divorced from explicit context or explanation, the images invite the audience to provide their own narratives, spinning them out into collective dreams. While Herzog undoubtedly had an idea in his head about the meaning of the film that he had carefully constructed, he left so much room for interpretation that, like the mirages it depicts, Fata Morgana can appear to be many different things to many different people. It’s a movie that I would be very interested in seeing in a crowded theater, because I think that the reactions to it would be varied and passionate. I think that most people would either dismiss the movie as weird and esoteric, or they would strongly identify with it, having pasted their own experiences and viewpoints onto its beautiful landscapes, imbuing it with a highly personal meaning.

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Though Herzog continues to work prolifically in documentary and his filmography is peppered with instances of formal and narrative experimentation, Fata Morgana is certainly the most explicitly experimental Herzog film that I have ever seen. The film is a product of its montage, with the images being stripped of their context, and therefore being opened up to interpretation and the influence of the viewer’s mind and experience. The fata morgana depicted in the film also become tabula rasa. The film invites intent and engaged viewership, but also offers a sort of hypnotic, sedative quality, as the images and the narration and, eventually, music, wash over the viewer. This is a thinking person’s stoner film, and one that will definitely stick around in your consciousness for a little while after a screening. This is one of my shorter posts about a movie in a while, but not because Fata Morgana isn’t worthy of deep discussion and consideration, both as a formative feature-length experimental film, and within Herzog’s filmography, but because I don’t feel that I really have an adequate vocabulary to really describe the film’s uniqueness. It’s a movie that deserves to be more watched, particularly by people who are fans of midnight movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Body Song. It’s a cinematic trip well worth taking, and one that will likely open up your mind to new ways of engaging with cinema as art.

Fargo

Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

 

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a Coen Brothers movie for this project, and getting to another one feels a bit like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Certainly not because the quality of the films that I’ve been watching and writing about since I wrote about The Big Lebowski has been lacking, but because there is something comforting to me about immersing myself in the offbeat world in which these sibling auteurs choose to set their films. From an early age, I can remember the movies of the Coen Brothers being a background figure in my upbringing. Both of my parents had loved Raising Arizona and would regularly reference and quote the movie when I was young, though I don’t remember actually watching that movie until I was a little older. Instead, like many, Fargo was my introduction to the Coen Brothers. My parents rented the video when I was about 11, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the movie with them on a weekend night. I thought the Midwestern accents in the movie were hysterical, and even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I sensed a darkness and a weirdness that existed on the fringes. Over the years, the movie would become an absolute favorite, and I would return to it time and time again. Fargo is still a favorite, and I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the film’s tale of small-time grift and murder born out of desperation, and its black sense of humor.

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Fargo begins with Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership who has gotten in over his head in a bad financing scheme, meeting with Gaer Grimsrud (Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry has hatched a plan to hire Gaer and Carl to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and then extort a ransom out of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell). He plans to tell Wade that the ransom is $1,000,000, of which he will pay Carl and Gaer $80,000 and keep the rest to cover his debts and give him seed money for a new investment. Though Jerry begins to have second thoughts, the kidnapping takes place, and while the kidnappers are transporting Jean to their hideout to await the ransom, they are stopped by a state trooper. Gaer kills the state trooper, and later kills two witnesses who see him and Carl trying to hide the trooper’s body. The sloppy triple homicide obviously alerts the attention of the local police department, and Chief Margie Gunderson (McDormand) of Brainerd, Minnesota, takes the case. Margie’s initial investigation leads her to the discovery that the murdered trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates, which eventually leads her investigation all the way to Jerry’s dealership in Minneapolis. What was supposed to be a simple staged kidnapping has spawned multiple homicides, and Jerry and Carl struggle to keep the lid on their scheme while Margie comes closer and closer to uncovering the truth and the connection between Jean’s kidnapping and the subsequent murders.

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As I mentioned, Fargo is a movie that I grew up with, and in many ways, grew into. I think that it’s a perfect movie to introduce someone to the Coen Brothers, especially if they’re young. There are a couple of brief sex scenes, and a few instances of pretty graphic violence, but depending on a kid’s maturity level, there shouldn’t be anything too objectionable in Fargo, and even though it’s a darkly themed film, its sinister core is coated in a quirky, quaint veneer. When I was young, the overstated Midwestern accents and mannerisms of the characters were all I really picked up on in the film, but they stuck with me, making me want to rewatch the movie where they talked about the Golden Gophers and said, “Oh, you betcha!” There was something about the specificity of the movie that spoke to me, and, as I’ve written previously, the Coens are masters at nailing the specific feeling of a time or a place. Each of their films, though often set in wildly disparate universes, feels genuinely rooted in this sense of time and place, and Fargo is no exception. From the film’s outset, with its opening shots of Jerry Lundegaard driving across the snow-swept tundra of North Dakota in a stolen car to meet up with the men he will hire to kidnap his wife, there is no mistaking the setting for anywhere but the upper Midwest. When I was young, I latched onto this aesthetic. I know I didn’t see it more than once or twice on television in the intervening years between first seeing it when it was new and purchasing the movie on DVD several years later as a teenager, but I can distinctly remember being enamored with the hermetically sealed, snow globe world of Fargo.

When I got older, I went back to Fargo and I was surprised at the depth of the movie that I mostly remembered for its cartoonish depictions of Minnesota niceties and the coldness of its mise-en-scene. I found that the coldness of its setting was reflective of the cold brutality with which the characters treat one another in the movie. I had understood the movie’s plot when I was younger, of course, but I don’t think that I had quite picked up on the callousness behind much of it. When I initially watched the film, I think I viewed Jean’s kidnapping as a farcical flawed caper, rather than the horrifying act of desperation that it really is. Being young, I didn’t really understand the deep, adult nature of Jerry’s selfish desperation, or his willingness to sacrifice everything in a misguided effort to rectify his earlier financial blunders. William H. Macy would make his name playing these types of characters, down on their luck losers who emit a palpable air of sadness and shame, but Jerry Lundegaard still stands out as one of his best performances. Macy’s hangdog expression and “aw shucks,” line delivery are perfect here, as is the nervous energy that he plays Jerry with. It’s a backhanded compliment to say that Macy might be the best actor in Hollywood at playing a weasel, but he nails that quality of Jerry perfectly. Until he made the fateful decision to hire men to kidnap his wife, Jerry was simply a parasitic, small man, desperate for a little success and recognition, who got in a little over his head and made poor decisions. Unfortunately, as a result of those decisions, bodies start piling up like snow in January.

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Another major thing that I never picked up on in Fargo is the film’s moments of immense strangeness. When I returned to the movie in my late teens, I noticed a distinct, almost Lynchian, undertone of surreality throughout the film. This plays out most regularly in the odd, clipped manner of conversation that the Coens employ often. Several times characters engage in brief conversations that seem to begin or end abruptly, or interject phrases that seem oddly out of place. When Margie is interviewing the two call girls who slept with Carl and Gaer, one of the women blurts out her high school and gives a small cheer when Margie asks her where she’s from. It’s a funny line that could easily be chalked up to the film’s specificity and the cultural pride of the Midwest, but it’s also a moment of dark absurdity. The interjection has no place in a murder investigation, and it marks a moment of darkness bubbling up from underneath the tranquil surface of small town Middle American normalcy.

Another moment in the film that has come to strike me as incredibly odd is Margie’s dinner with her former classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). They meet for lunch in Minneapolis while Margie is in town working her case, and before they’ve even had a chance to eat their meal, Mike breaks down, confessing that he’s always loved Margie and that his wife has recently died of leukemia. Only later does she find out that Mike’s wife was not dead, and in fact was never his wife, instead Mike had stalked their former classmate. Margie reflects on this information, as she had clearly pitied Mike during his breakdown, and the audience is also forced to view Mike’s previous pathetic desperation as a sinister attempt at manipulation. The interactions have always struck me as affected, and the nature of the revelation of Mike’s stalking and lying has always felt a bit out of place in the film. The scene is largely tangential to the rest of the plot, but it serves to reinforce the premise that there is a sinister sort of perversity underlying some of the character’s seemingly upstanding nature. I suppose that I connect these moments of ancillary strangeness with Lynch because I think that he explores very similar themes in Blue Velvet. Just like he explores the darkness underlying small town America in that film, in Fargo, the Coens explore the neuroses and sinister urges that can propel even the most normal seeming people.

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Of course, there is one character in the film who seems to be truly guided by noble principles, and that is Chief Margie Gusterson. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her performance as the pregnant police chief, and I think that this role still stands out as her signature role among a deep body of work. I’ve written before that McDormand is one of my favorite working actors, and my affinity for her work began with seeing Fargo for the first time. McDormand is the source of much of the film’s humor, playing Margie with a natural sense of bemusement that helps the audience identify with her as a character. However she also gets to be strong and tough, giving Margie an innate knack for police work and investigation, while the other cops in the movie are shown to be bumbling and inadequate. More than anything, though, McDormand imbues Margie with a sense of goodness that shines through in spite of the ugly circumstances that the character finds herself in. This basic decency and goodness makes Margie a great foil for the sleazy and selfish characters, such as Carl and Jerry, who people Fargo. Her performance is the light at the end of a tunnel, a reassurance of the basic decency that drives most people.

The rest of the film’s performances are top notch, as well. The film’s characters are often paired against one another, and the casting is spot on. Harve Presnell is an apt foil for Macy’s Jerry. Where Jerry is timid and soft-spoken, Wade is bold and bellicose, and successful, to boot. Presnell is a perfect angry old man, and he delivers some great, memorable lines when he’s criticizing Jean and Jerry’s parenting. Buscemi and Stormare form a perfect pair, with Buscemi’s garrulous, frenzied acting style providing a complement for Stormare’s laconic, stoic delivery. The Coens also perfectly pit these characters against one another, utilizing Stormare’s physicality to turn Gaer into a classicly hulking villain, while Carl’s impatience and irritability come out in Buscemi’s characteristic verbal patter and his jittery screen presence. Both actors get their moments of comedy as well, with Stormare employing expert timing and a wry sense of humor to deliver blasé punch lines, while Buscemi adopts a more physical, frenzied comedy that plays like a very dark slapstick. John Lynch turns in an understated supporting performance as Norm, Margie’s devoted, loving husband. He and McDormand share several moments of genuine tenderness, and their relationship, and glowing anticipation of their unborn child, give the film its emotional heart. The two actors share an easy chemistry, helping to ground the otherwise chaotic, spiraling narrative of the film. It’s fitting that the film ends on a bedroom conversation between Norm and Margie, as it feels like their love is the good thing that is worth saving from the avaricious ambitions of Jerry, Carl, and Gaer.

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I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of Fargo. It’s been one of the most consistent movies in my life, and I still return to it every couple of years, or so. One of the things that I’ve learned from working on this project is that any attempt to rank or order favorite movies, particularly within the body of work of my favorite filmmakers, isn’t really an exercise that I’m interested in. I’ve hung onto these movies, for the most part, because on any given day they could find themselves mentioned among my favorites of all time. Some, like Fargo, would find themselves in that discussion with more credence and more regularity than others. It’s accepted as a masterpiece, and I think many people would rank it as the Coen Brothers’ best film, which I wouldn’t have much quibble with. The movie’s reputation as a classic is well-earned, given the strength of its performances, its perfect balance of humor and suspenseful intrigue, and its iconic and memorable visual imagery. I know that many of the movies that I champion on this site are often somewhat esoteric, but Fargo is honestly a movie with something for everyone. It can be appreciated on many different levels, and it satisfies so many different things that I would want out of a go-to comfort movie. I can put it on in the background when I’m doing chores around the house, or I can sit down and watch it intently, appreciating its perfectly crafted script, and Roger Deakins’s coldly beautiful cinematography. It’s a movie that even though I’ve seen it over a dozen times, I never tire of going back for a repeat viewing. Chances are if you can’t find something to love about Fargo, you don’t really like movies at all.

 

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker

 

From the age of 15 until I was about 20, I was totally obsessed with horror movies. I collected all of the modern classics, from Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dawn of the Dead, I loved all kinds of different varieties of horror from the 1970s and 1980s. I started to get out of the genre during the early 2000s when theaters started filling up with half-boiled remakes of classic horror films and ham-fisted adaptations of Japanese ghost stories. Eventually, I even parted ways with many of the horror discs in my collection, losing them or allowing them to get mixed in with the collections of various different roommates in college. I just wasn’t watching scary movies much anymore, and even though I still liked to see the occasional horror movie, there were very few that I felt were worth regular revisits. Of course, there are a handful of horror movies that I haven’t ever been able to let go of, and The Evil Dead ranks highly on that list. It’s an influential classic in the genre and it played an important role in my youthful desire to be a filmmaker, with its low budget, DIY aesthetic encouraging me to try my hand at making my own movies.

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The Evil Dead finds Ash (Campbell), and his group of college friends setting off for a camping weekend at a secluded cabin in rural Tennessee. Their journey to the cabin is beset by portentous omens of the danger that they are walking into, but the real terror occurs when they arrive at the cabin and discover a curious book and a recording left by the cabin’s previous occupant, an archaeologist. The book, which is bound in human flesh, is revealed to be the Sumerian Book of the Dead, containing incantations and funeral rites, some of which have been recorded to the tape. When Ash and his friends play the tape, the recited incantations awaken an ancient evil in the forest. Though they are all disturbed by the tapes, the group tries to settle down for the night, but their restfulness is interrupted when Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Sandweiss), is possessed by a demonic entity from the woods, forcing the rest of the group to lock her up in the cellar. One by one, the rest of Ash’s friends begin to turn, and he is forced to fight them off, dismembering and disemboweling them in an increasingly gruesome fashion. Ash is finally able to destroy the Book of the Dead, which causes Cheryl and his friend Scott (Hal Delrich), both under the influence of the demons, to spontaneously decompose into piles of gore and viscera, but as Ash finds out when he limps out of the cabin to greet the rising Sun, the supernatural danger is far from over.

It would be tough to overestimate the impact seeing a movie like The Evil Dead had on me as a young teen. It was more raw, grittier than most of the horror movies I was used to seeing, even the slasher movies that I really liked. The low budget style and the tiny cast started gears turning in my head in the same way that they did when I first saw Clerks. It dawned on me that this was a popular movie, a classic even, and it had been made by a group of amateurs. I knew Bruce Campbell already, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already been introduced to Sam Raimi, as he had since graduated to bigger, more mainstream projects, including Spiderman, but seeing their origins as filmmakers was really inspiring to me. While Clerks taught me that movies don’t have to be big and flashy to make an impact, watching The Evil Dead taught me that you can make a truly effective horror movie on a shoestring budget with just a dedicated crew, a little ingenuity, and a lot of Karo syrup and food coloring to make fake blood. The effects in the movie certainly look dated now, but for a young person whose mind was already open to the possibilities of independent cinema, they were ingenious. Though I rarely ever put any of the knowledge into practice, I started reading up on DIY practical effects while I was in high school, hoping to have the opportunity to use them on my own feature film debut one day. Obviously, that day never came, but just because I didn’t follow through on my dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker doesn’t lessen the influence that several of the touchstones of independent cinema of the 1980s and 1990s have had on my taste in art, and on my outlook on life, as a whole.

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One of the things that I found most refreshing about The Evil Dead when compared to studio slasher films like Friday the 13th is that the fact that the filming process was not only a labor of love, but a grueling endurance test, is palpable in every frame of the movie. It’s clear that the cast members, who often doubled as erstwhile crew members, care about getting this film made despite the arduous circumstances they often found themselves in. I’ve since read about the difficult shoot that found the cast and crew subjected to freezing temperatures, physical injury, and a grueling shooting schedule, and I think that knowing the difficulty that went into creating this piece of art makes it even more special to me. Even though its premise is obviously absurd, as are most horror movies’, The Evil Dead feels more real than a lot of the slicker, more highly polished gore fests of the period. It shares this grittiness with one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film in which the scares are made all the more effective by the clear duress that the actors had to endure.

Even today, in spite of all of the technological advances that have been made since its release, The Evil Dead retains its power to shock and horrify. I almost never find supernatural horror of this type to be truly scary, but The Evil Dead is a brutal and effective movie. The ramshackle cabin and its remote setting are scary enough without the threat of demonic possession, but Raimi further sets the mood with long, snaking, point-of-view tracking shots that alert the audience to an otherworldly presence living in the woods. He takes his time in the early parts of the film, creating tension in the audience. He allows for a few cheap scares to lighten the mood early on, but continues to use the location and his arsenal of cinematic tricks to set an ominous and eerie mood before the film erupts into full on horror. When it does take its sharp turn, after the demons in the woods have been released by Scott and Ash playing the archeologist’s recording, Raimi doesn’t relent until the film’s end, presenting the audience with classic scene after classic scene of terror, violence, and extreme gore. The Evil Dead doesn’t pull any punches, featuring graphic scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and torture which result in buckets and buckets of fake blood that coats the actors, the sets, and even the camera lens. This extreme violence not only serves to escalate the film’s horror quotient, it also helped the film gain a great deal of notoriety as it was famously given an NC-17 rating upon its initial release, and was banned in several countries for its graphic, disturbing content.

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Though it likely seems tame by the standards of today’s brutal horror franchises like Hostel and Saw, there’s no denying the impact that The Evil Dead must have had upon its arrival on screens in 1981. The found footage aesthetic that the film brushes up against was used by other notorious films of the period such as Cannibal Holocaust, and likely influenced the new swath of found footage horror films that has been popular recently, although I haven’t seen many of them to verify that influence. The film was popular and influential enough to spark Raimi’s ascent as a filmmaker, and to lead to a media franchise revolving around Ash and his battles against the forces of evil. It’s also a testament to the impact that a dedicated, visionary filmmaker and crew can make with their art in spite of technical or financial limitations. Some people prefer the slightly more polished sequel, which is something of a rehash of the original film with a bit more humor, but I have to stick with my preference for the original. The Evil Dead sets the blueprint for the campy, low budget, ultraviolent, schlocky horror film of the 1980s. It’s a genre classic and a must-see for any fans of horror movies.