Tag Archives: gummo

Hesher (2010)

3 Oct

As Hollywood is generally chary of admitting the genuinely ugly into its ranks, the ability of its stars to ‘ugly up’ is a much cherished one. The paradox of fame is that the adulation brings with it a nagging urge to be viewed as a ‘serious artist’, a quest for authenticity and legitimacy that inevitably leads to a brief holiday from the glamorous trappings. And it often reaps dividends: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman all picked up Oscars for their ‘bravery’, resorting to unflattering prosthesis in Kidman’s case. Action alpha males Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel tried this tactic with less success in ‘Copland’ (1997) and ‘Find Me Guilty’ (2006); Sly developing an impressive gut and Diesel donning a conspicuous toupee for nought. Ironically, Natalie Portman goes the other way in ‘Hesher’, forsaking the high-camp paranoia that earned her the plaudits in ‘Black Swan’ (2010).

T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their mother and wife (Monica Staggs). Paul is crippled by his grief, living in a pharmaceutical fog, meaning that T.J. is being raised by his ailing Grandmother (Piper Laurie). On one of his many lonely bike rides through the neighbourhood, T.J. encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a pyromaniac misanthrope squatting in a derelict house. T.J. encounters Hesher on multiple occasions over the next few days as he tries to evade the attentions of the school bully, Dustin (Brandon Hill), and obsesses over Nicole (Natalie Portman), a decorous grocery store clerk who saves him from a beating at the hands of Dustin. Hesher slowly insinuates himself into T.J’s family life, providing some salutary life lessons in his brutally candid manner.

Spencer Susser’s debut feature channels the spirit of ‘Gummo’ (1997) and ‘Slacker’ (1991) in its blunt evocation of fringe culture, veering away from the whimsical explorations of suburban malaise that have deluged indie cinema – it hardly bears repeating that suburbia is not what it seems, and the awkward formality of the family meal is as trite now as it was in ‘American Beauty’ (1999). There is not a single moment when Susser’s wish to illustrate his abilities with a particular technique or stylistic flourish detracts from the naturalism; a trap so many young directors fall into. The screenplay – written by Susser and ‘Animal Kingdom’ creator David Michod – abandons the easy course in favour of a more nuanced, rewarding tack: Hesher could so easily have been a stoner caricature, but the character is imbued with such venom and menace as to negate any suggestion of that. Metallica’s music punctures the silence that holds sway over the violently banal backdrop; offering a portal into Hesher’s nihilistic mindset, the sudden bursts of ‘The Shortest Straw’ acting as his signature.

Levitt has developed from a fresh-faced sitcom star to one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, breaking away from his anodyne past and making difficult choices to amass a formidable body of work – we should relish him before he is lost to the franchise film for good. Levitt succeeds in delineating the character’s complexities, the rage and dislocation that fuels him, embodying the complexities of adolescence: the boorishness and hypersensitivity, the aggression and vulnerability. Brochu delivers the best breakthrough performance since Paul Dano in ‘L.I.E’ (2001), carrying the film with a poise that hints at a very bright future; while screen veteran Laurie is quietly devastating as the befuddled mater of her damaged clan. Wilson is mercifully lacking in affectation; while he can’t match Philip Seymour Hoffman when playing a wounded, ineffectual lump of a man, he exhibits laudable restraint. Portman proves to be the sole disappointment; she dons oversized glasses and frumpy clothes, but is never able to overcome her fame. She is never anything other than Natalie Portman, and as such her character’s battle between self-perception and reality carries little weight: a common problem for those striving to balance their public profile with creative contentment.

‘Hesher’ offers us a Generation X fable: Hesher is a harbinger of T.J’s impending adulthood; a spectre of chaos; a spirit of mischief. There is a strange sort of heroism to Hesher’s stance; he knows all the shortcuts within his circumscribed realm, exuding a Zen-like calm as he unleashes carnage upon a world he despises; grasping its harsh logic and taking it as his credo. But Hesher doesn’t heal the family’s wounds and enrich their lives, which would no doubt have been the case if this were a mainstream take on guardian angel lore. Refreshingly devoid of sentiment or irony, ‘Hesher’ plays it straight; which is not to say there isn’t humour, it just isn’t allowed to consume the film’s serious core and undermine its intent. ‘Hesher’ offers a vibrant, visceral alternative to the slew of identikit indie films being churned out by the Sundance factory system.

 

Portman: shy, retiring wallflower

 

Trash Humpers, Enter the Void and the Sensory Shocker

23 Nov

As the horror genre slides ever deeper into a formulaic torpor, two arthouse darlings may just have struck upon a whole new way of disquieting audiences – the sensory shocker. Genre purists aside, most would agree that the essence of horror is the ability to elicit fear, revulsion, panic, discomfort and uncertainty. Regardless of content, it is the emotional response that counts. In an attempt to rouse a jaded audience from its cine-literate ennui, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noé have resorted to technical extremism in their war on convention, hijacking the means of production to initiate the next leap forward. In doing so, they have upset their staunchest defenders and added grist to their detractors’ mill – Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’ (2009) was pilloried by critics at its Cannes premiere, and Netflix – the ultimate arbiter of taste and bastion of decency – refused to distribute Korine’s ‘Trash Humpers’ (2009) due to its objectionable content. But the rancour of tastemakers only serves to vindicate their stylistic radicalism and bolster their resolve to further push the envelope. Both ‘Trash Humpers’ and ‘Enter the Void’ are designed to repel a generation weaned on high-concept spectacle, sanitized remakes and sniggering plagiarism masquerading as deconstruction – the medium itself is a weapon against the middlebrow, revelling in discomfort, occupying a cinematic hinterland populated by the damaged and abandoned.

Like fellow agent provocateur Lars Von Trier, Korine and Noé take pleasure in goading, even berating, their audience; testing the limits of its tolerance and forcing them to confront some unpleasant truths. Indeed, the sensory shocker philosophically has its roots in the Dogme ‘95 movement, which was a reaction against cinema’s growing profligacy that propounded a ‘year zero’ akin to punk rock – but alas turned out to be more of an elaborate prank against credulous critics than a creative revolution. Though their methods differ wildly, Korine and Noé share Dogme’s aesthetic intransigence; presenting ideas with an implacable purity of purpose, untainted by concessions to popular taste and sentiment. In Korine’s sly primitivism and Noé’s baroque solemnity we see this unwillingness to adulterate their vision in the face of critical derision and public rejection. In an industry that seems content to churn out an endless stream of mediocrity, ‘Enter the Void’ and ‘Trash Humpers’ only serve to highlight the Hollywood machine’s paucity of ambition and dearth of innovation.

It is a horror truism that storytellers can conjure up all manner of beasts and apparitions, but the ultimate figures of terror are the marginal and powerless – the lonely motel owner, inbred redneck, angry teenager, etc. With ‘Trash Humpers’, indie cinema’s idiot savant could be said to have taken the genre back to its heyday – which ran approximately from ‘Psycho’ (1960) to ‘Halloween’ (1978) – in his belief that the real monsters are in our midst. A twisted amalgam of ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992) and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), ‘Trash Humpers’ has the feel of a grisly VHS artefact retrieved from a crime scene, or the home movies of a sociopathic family. Its utter lack of technical refinement immediately removes the viewer from any accepted norms of presentation; refusing to meet them half way with its worn, washed out ‘video nasty’ visuals, intermittent bursts of static, frame rolls, on-screen functions, murky sound, sudden cuts and blackouts. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a consciously ugly, wilfully amateurish, malformed cousin of ‘Gummo’ (1997) that exemplifies Korine’s abiding love for jetsam in all its forms.

We learn that the film’s eponymous gang derives pleasure from simulating sex with garbage receptacles – or ‘trash pussies’ – but their identity is never explained. The lack of exposition makes them all the more menacing. Whether they are young people masquerading as old people or vice versa, the gang’s appearance comes across as a parody of youth culture, satirizing our stultifying obsession with the latest fad or affectation. No doubt to avoid claims that these characters are nothing more than conduits for his iconoclastic agenda, Korine strives to lend them a dimension. One gang member avers that he can ‘smell the pain’ of suburban Nashville and another implores God to guide her, but Korine draws the line at taking a stance, neither portraying them in a sympathetic light or castigating their actions. The film’s erratic tone has a disorientating effect – the banal, ludicrous and horrific mingle to the point that the distinction becomes irrelevant, lulling us into accepting their excesses by largely excluding the world beyond. It is only in the fractured snippets of everyday life occurring around them that we begin to get a sense of the gang’s complete isolation from the mainstream of society.

The gang meets a variety of classic Korine eccentrics that serves to mitigate their abnormality and place them in a social context, bolstering Korine’s assertion that you don’t need to look very far to find the detritus of a society built on the principles of predacious consumption and heedless self-gratification. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a broadside against rampant consumerism, a treatise on the nature of obsolescence – the gang is openly hostile to any symbol of youth and vitality, destroying dolls and toys while idolizing the discarded and useless to the point of erotic frenzy. They have transferred their affections to the yielding contours of plastic and steel, wallowing in a world of kitsch certainties. ‘Trash Humpers’ mercilessly slaughters sacred cows and busts taboos, from the narcissistic attention seeking of ‘reality’ TV and YouTube, to our voyeuristic obsession with celebrity, to our retreat into cultural inertia and gleeful juvenilia. Korine has created a set of monsters that hold a mirror up to the folly of a society slowly drowning in its surfeit – a new kind of predator spawned by our greed, feeding on the by-product of our abundance.

Gaspar Noé’s excoriating oeuvre explores the overlap between sex and violence – lust and revenge are equated in films like ‘I Stand Alone’ (1998) and ‘Irreversible’ (2002) – and the visceral intractability of human impulse. Coming from the opposite end of the technical spectrum as ‘Trash Humpers’, ‘Enter the Void’ has been described as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and a ‘metaphysical thriller’. From its seizure-inducing titles, this is an attack on the senses. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his Sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), live in Tokyo, eking out a living as a small-time drug dealer and a lap dancer respectively. Seen from Oscar’s point of view, Oscar and his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead on their way to a club called The Void, where Oscar is to transact a drug deal with Victor (Olly Alexander), whose mother he has an ‘arrangement’ with. As Oscar enters the tenebrous environs of the club, police swarm into the building. Oscar flees to the bathroom and hides in a stall, where he is shot after refusing to give himself up. His breathing ebbs, his vision blurs, all sound recedes and his heartbeat slows to a halt. His spirit rises from his body and hovers above the scene – much in the manner of the post-shootout scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1974). Devoid of form, Oscar observes those he has left behind from his existential no man’s land.

Structurally, ‘Enter the Void’ echoes Film Noir in its non-linear narrative and use of multiple flashbacks – indeed, one of the film’s primary inspirations was said to have been Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Lady in the Lake’, which was shot entirely from the point of view of its protagonist. Noé recreates each stage of being with a keen eye for detail. The twittering subconscious and fractured perception of the scenes in which we occupy Oscar’s corporeal form perfectly captures his chemically impaired state; while the blurry, flickering photography and throttled sound of the ethereal scenes play like a cosmic Nickelodeon film, alternating frame rates for maximum unease. The scenes from Oscar’s past are shot from over his shoulder, as if, removed from his physical form, Oscar is watching them back in an attempt to make sense of his life. Jean-Andre Carriere and Kikuo Ohta’s production design is a work of staggering bravura, a feat not seen since ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), and the visual effects may well come to be regarded in the same light as Douglas Trumbull’s ground-breaking work on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Tokyo is transformed into a decadent theme park, a garish Day-Glo maelstrom where all earthly pleasure can be purchased, a repository of turpitude where everything is out of kilter. ‘Enter the Void’ is a film for which the use of the term stylized is not pejorative. The film dispenses with the condescending travelogue feel of ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), gawping in wonderment at the neon metropolis. This version of Tokyo is a simulacrum on which to dramatize man’s gluttonous death wish.

‘Enter the Void’ is a dizzying journey into the heart of corruption; a world where individual freedom is conflated with self-annihilation, whose citizens are engaged in a desperate quest for endless sensation, sheltering from its iniquities in a torrent of narcotics and meaningless sex. Like Korine, Noé doesn’t shy away from charting the bleakest recesses of the human psyche – Oscar is a composite of our failings; a greedy, self-serving Sybarite who leaves a trail of debris in his wake. There is a palpable sense of disgust for, and queasy fascination with, the mechanical act of copulation; Noé presents a series of deeply joyless sex scenes from which he defies the observer to derive any kind of erotic thrill. That Noé is able to maintain our interest in such a downcast setting over the course of the film’s lengthy meditation is a testament to his skill as a storyteller. Noé navigates the labyrinth and stares into the abyss, but ‘Enter the Void’ ultimately veers away from the brutal nihilism of ‘Irreversible’ – the film seems willing to envisage a renewal of humanity’s beleaguered spirit. ‘Enter the Void’ has astounding ambition and intellectual curiosity, dealing with concepts and ideas that most mainstream films would shrink from for fear of alienating or confusing its audience – after all, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public. Noé harnesses a myriad of techniques to realize his vision, creating an amazing yet horrific landscape that lingers long in the memory. It will be interesting to see how their peers respond to the gauntlet thrown down by the originators of the Sensory Shocker.

Gasp and Harm take a moment from offending your sensibilities to enjoy the sights of Skegness.