Thursday, May 22, 2014

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: Review of Showtime's Penny Dreadful




pen·ny dread·ful
noun
a cheap, sensational comic or storybook.

Showtime's new vehicle, Penny Dreadful, premiered on May 11 with the episode "Night Work" and I decided to watch it on a whim. I was tired of marking ninth grade English essays and I needed something to take the edge off the multitude of missed vocabulary usage opportunities. I had fun playing "spot the literary reference," as the cast is rounded out by a plethora of public domain Victorian Gothic characters. The pilot episode does not disappoint -- by the end of the first hour we have met our Allan Quartermain type (from King Solomon's Mines, a Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray who most Dracula afficionados know as Mina Harker), Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Vanessa Ives, a spiritualist. Our "in," so to speak, is Ethan Chandler -- our brooding protagonist with a murky back story.

Perusing the show's website already gives away more than is needed: "Some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama."

We have already seen these characters on the small and silver screen -- collectively, probably the most recent manifestation would be the deliciously cheesy The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. We have also already seen the plot before - duo needs a third to make their trio complete. Cue the search for missing girl. Cue more questions than answers. I found myself feeling like I had seen this show before.

What was pleasantly surprising was the fact that my expectations were played up -- if I thought I was in for a "penny dreadful" I was going to get the Penny Dreadful. There was gore, dialogue that screamed exposition, and enough camera cue tip offs that I was constantly looking over character's shoulders.

As far as performances go, Eva Green is mesmerizing (as always) as Vanessa Ives. Timothy Dalton turns in a performance that could go either way -- he does a fine job of walking the line between campy and compelling. Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein is riveting in a scene wherein his monster is revealed. I could not take my eyes off him and the tension between Frankenstein and the "monster" was palpable. Josh Hartnett was my only caveat as his performance as the audience insert seemed a bit off kilter. However, this may be a quirk of the character himself, as by the end of episode two "Seance," more back story is revealed.

"Seance" included just that -- a nod to the Victorian fin de siècle fascination with the supernatural and the occult with Ives and Murray getting more than they bargained for. Green uses her striking features to full advantage and I admit even I was unsettled watching the seance scene. We learn more about the mysterious origins of the creature that has brought Ives, Murray, Frankenstein, and Chandler together. Just when we are thinking there's almost too many characters, they toss more in. Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray (yes, he of the failed Spiderman musical) puts in an appearance at the seance, held at the Egyptologist's manor. Whovians will recognize Companion Billie Piper as Brona Croft, a New Woman with a -- get ready for it -- mysterious past and consumption.  We also get to see the maturation of Frankenstein's monster and by the end of the episode I was agape. Completely flabbergasted. However, it was in the most positive way possible. Having some background knowledge of Gothic and Victorian fiction, I felt like there wasn't much more they could throw at me which would seem "new." By the end of "Seance," I had completely changed my opinion.

My Verdict:  In an exchange of banter, Chandler asks Ives if she has issued him a warning -- Ives replies, "It's an invitation." I also issue you an invitation to give Penny Dreadful a try. I give it a solid B+ with enormous potential.






Thursday, May 8, 2014

Compensating for Size: The "Inadequate Response" of Giant Monster films

A few years ago, shortly after my wife and I purchased an Apple TV as a solution to the death of video rental outlets like Blockbuster, I had the exceedingly rare pleasure, in a home shared with two small children, of having the TV to myself. For those who do not own an Apple TV, or have any idea what it does, understand that is like having a Blockbuster Video in your home, without the frustration of standing in a lineup waiting to check out, and the accompanying temptation to purchase special deals on junk-food while waiting in that same line. While this might sound like a recipe for indecision, it was relatively simple for me to make my choice, given a simple set of criteria:
  1. It would be a film I could not watch with my children, and 
  2. It would be a film my wife would have absolutely no interest in ever seeing. 
So on this rare occasion, I quickly reduced my viewing choices to two films: Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and Norwegian director André Øvredal’s dark fantasy mockumentary, Trollhunter. Over the past year, I’ve reflected on my privileging of giant trolls over zombies, wondering if giant monsters will soon crush the zombie hordes which have dominated cinematic horror for a decade beneath their enormous feet.

It might be ridiculous to suggest that movie audiences might trade the grit and gore of zombies for the absurdity of giant monsters, WWE in rubber-suits, since SF films depicting large scale, spectacular destruction are largely read as B-movie garbage, and in many cases, deservedly so. In 1965, Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” pronounced such films “inadequate responses” to the “most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation,” potentially normalizing the “psychologically unbearable” nightmares of natural disasters, nuclear holocaust, and we might add, carrying Sontag’s torch into the twenty-first century, pandemics, fuel shortages, and eco-disasters. Susan Napier built upon Sontag’s ideas in “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster,” declaring the somber ending of Gojira a moment of secure horror. Secure horror meaning that, despite hinting at the potential of another atomic monster rising from the ocean depths, the film ends on a positive note: the threat neutralized, the monster defeated, security restored. To better understand the difference between secure and insecure horror, consider Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introduction to Monster Theory, where he states that “Jurassic Park would have been a far superior piece of cinema if its computer-animated velociraptors had in fact ingested the kids they merely threaten,” suggesting that “these monsters arrive at a time when traditional nuclear families perhaps need to be troubled” (vii). That was in 1996, indicating that perhaps Sontag's message still held true.

Since then, giant monster movies such as Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (1999), J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008), Gareth Edwards’ independent film Monsters (2010), and the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Trollhunter all featured ambiguous endings. Gamera 3’s credits roll with its climactic, but ultimately doomed, battle yet to occur, while Cloverfield, Monsters, and Trollhunter kill off their main characters, leaving the monster(s) still at large. In addition to unresolved endings, these films all share a greater sophistication of special effects with the goal of a greater sense of verisimilitude. Abrams’ Cloverfield in particularly demonstrates what the Japanese have known since the release of Gojira/Godzilla in 1954: if you conflate your impossible beast with real-world images of modern day atrocity, a giant monster movie can be at the very least, if not necessarily horror, unsettling commentary on real-world atrocity.

Of all these examples, Gareth Edwards’ independent breakthrough Monsters best illustrates how the so-called "inadequate response" of the giant monster movie enables viewers to engage with Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world. The movie relates the journey of two Americans, photojournalist Andrew Calder (Calder) and his employer’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Sam), through the Infected Zone, an area where colossal squid-like aliens have been nesting and breeding since their arrival on earth six years earlier. 
That period of six years is crucial to the film's technique: Edwards relates how the producers of the film were worried about how the locals wouldn’t be reacting properly to the monsters, but simply going about their business. This was precisely Edwards’ hope: while we might initially react to a giant monster as the Japanese extras do in Godzilla films, evacuating in terrified hordes, sooner or later people would do what people always do when they live in the shadow of a volcano, along Tornado Alley, in war zones, or in the frozen north of Canada where exposure to the elements can kill you: they get on with their lives. They work around living in the Infected Zone. “Do you feel safe living here?” Sam asks her taxi driver. “Where would go?” he replies. “My work, my family is all here. This happens every year. We just take our chances.” The genesis of Monsters occurred when Edwards watched fishermen pulling a net out of the water, speculating how that scene would play out if it were a giant monster the workers were fishing from the water, all the while maintaining their dispassion. He realized such a reaction wouldn’t be terribly different from Western reactions to atrocity on television. When the War on Terror began, it was front page news. Within weeks or even months, we became bored with it. We regularly catch monsters in our metaphoric nets, or perhaps literal Internets, and think nothing of it.
 
We don’t think much about populations in the path of seasonal tempests until a hurricane rolls up onto shore and, like Godzilla, who often arrives shrouded in such storms, causes massive damage. Once the Awful Event has occurred, the people who live in the shadow of monsters become front page news, as with the War on Terror. Within days, we have forgotten them. Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters was to parallel how North America viewed the War on Terror. Calder and Sam have a conversation that underscores our propensity for Entertainment News: “Do you know how much money your Father’s company pays for a picture of a child killed by a Creature? $50,000. You know how much money I get paid for a picture of a happy child? Nothing. You know where that puts me? Photographing tragedy.” 
While this was Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters, critics identified another--perhaps more obvious--theme concerning the controversial relationship between the United States and Mexico in film about two Americans trying to return home through a Creature-infested “Infected Zone,” taking the same path many illegal immigrants do in hopes of crossing the border. A number of film critics read the movie in this manner: Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post called it “part immigration parable, part war allegory,” while Ted Fry of the Seattle Times derisively stated that “‘Illegal Aliens’ might be a more fitting title in disabusing anyone of the notion that this is a monster movie — and in revealing the central irony of a great wall's failure to prevent the northward contamination of undesirable invaders.” The late Roger Ebert stated that “There's an obvious parallel with our current border situation and the controversy over undocumented aliens. And another one with our recent wars, where expensive and advanced aircraft are used to fire missiles at enemies who are mostly invisible.” The 2013 Eaton Science Fiction conference opened with a panel on the apocalyptic, in which Simon Lee encouraged academic scrutiny of films like Monsters because of how the film was marginalized for this message of marginalization. In short, whether they panned or praised it, film critics saw both the Edwards’ intended message, as well as his ostensibly unintentional one. When Calder and Sam attempt to purchase Ferry Tickets from Mexico, “the Infected Zone,” to America, they must pay a high premium of $5,000. The next day, the price is escalated by a corrupt official to $10,000. When Sam’s ticket is stolen, they are forced to take an overland journey through the infected zone: “You have the money, you go by ferry. You don’t have the money, you take the risk.” When Calder protests, “But we’re Americans!” the critical viewer cannot help but assume the rest of their journey into and through the Creature-Infected-Zone is some allegory of illegal immigration.

Edwards has denied that there was any conscious effort on the film crew’s part to generate this reading of the film. Arguably, such a reading might be incidental, the latent byproduct of filming in Central America. Nevertheless, I find Edwards’ protests dubious in light of a scene where Calder and Sam gaze from atop Mayan ruins at a massive concrete containment wall separating the Infected Zone—Mexico—from the United States. When Sam first discovers the ruins, Calder asks, “What’d you find, Cortez?” Postcolonial readings loom as large as the containment wall or the Creatures it is built to keep out, a Containment Wall Edwards had to insert digitally, looked at from ruins that exist nowhere near the real Mexican American border. Monsters’ map is certainly not the territory. This reading is made all the stronger by the moment when Sam and Calder cross over from the Infected Zone into the United States: no one stops them. After all, they are Americans. They are not Creatures, illegal “aliens.” They are true residents.

Postcolonial and political readings aside, the film contains a third layer of meaning which I derived from Edwards’ guerilla-approach to filmmaking. This reading, unlike the obvious contrivance of the containment wall, may well be pure accident. By intentionally shooting the film in Central America, Edwards subtly weaves real-world atrocity with the giant Creatures: in Monsters, the real horror is not in the special effects, but the absence thereof. The aftermath of the Creatures, or engagement with the Creatures by the military, is not entirely a special effect. In the scene when Calder and Sam cross into the Infected Zone, the soldiers with guns are not actors, nor are their weapons plastic props. They were part of a small security force assigned to keep the film crew safe while they traveled on location. When Calder and Sam knock on the door of a ramshackle home in the middle of the night, the woman who greets them is not a professional actor: she is the owner of that home. The tortillas she cooks for Sam and Calder was a moment of very real hospitality, made all the more valuable for the contrast of her impoverished habitation. Admittedly, the gas-masks her children play with the next morning are props, but the barb-wire clothesline they swing upon is not. The images of children next to digital tanks, real guns, and other emblems of war are familiar to us, and the fantasy blurs into reality. We have seen them many times in pleas from aid societies. As with the night-vision television reports of the War on Terror, we became bored and changed our channel. 
 
Closer to home, the ruined town Calder and Sam walk through after crossing the Mexican/American border is not a set: it is Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Katrina devastated it. Whether the damage is explained by the Creatures or by the attacks upon them by the military, the idea of the giant monster as symbol for Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world becomes far more troubling when we understand that the damage we are seeing is real. In this case, the giant monsters, the Creatures, become a device whereby we face real world atrocity, not by gazing directly into the abyss, but by peering at it out of the corner of our eye. Through the device of giant monsters, real world horror can be held at a distance far enough for viewers to deal with, especially in instances where the direct gaze is too intense. As Keith Ferrell, editor of Omni said, “As thought experiment, SF gives readers an opportunity to step outside their own world, to see it reflected through a literary lens that is perhaps distorting but whose distortions are the deliberate work of serious artists and thinkers” (6). Furthermore, the distortions of reality Monsters deals with are the kind giant monsters are best equipped to represent: the real-world apocalyptic forces of so-called “Acts of God” such as flood or hurricane, Central American drug wars, and perhaps most poignantly, poverty. These problems are not solved with tank battalions, fighter jets, or fantastic technologies like the Maser of the Toho Godzilla films. They are perennial problems, ones that never go away, like Godzilla returning to Tokyo again and again. Sontag called the imagination of disaster an emblem of an inadequate response, but what would be an adequate artistic response to problems like these? Is any artistic response to the leviathan and behemoth sized problems our planet faces adequate?
 
One of the inadequacies Sontag identified about these spectacles of disaster was their focus on extensive views of destruction, not intensive. That is to say, the focus is on the building crumbling, not the people trapped inside. Edwards’ Monsters arguably used an intensive view and ended with a moment of insecure horror, forming an arguably adequate cinematic response to the issues it raises. I had higher hopes for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, last summer's daikaiju blockbuster, but had to enjoy it simply as a bombastic popcorn movie -- a grown up Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Consequently, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Godzilla reboot being released next week, given that Gareth Edwards is the man in the director’s chair and the trailers have seemed sufficiently connected to real-world concerns. While blockbuster films demand extensive pyrotechnics and secure horror’s happy ending, we can hope, based on Monsters, that we will be treated to a few intensive moments of insecure horror that cause us to see the real-world daikaiju, those psychologically unbearable nightmares, beyond the apocalyptic fantasy of skyscraper-tall robots and monsters.

CONTEST! Want to win 2 advance passes to see GODZILLA, Wednesday, May 14 at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook in CALGARY? Then just enter a comment below with the name of your favorite giant monster movie, why you love it, and I will announce the winner (drawn out of a hat!) on Sunday, May 11! Then you can email me for the passes at mikeperschon AT shaw DOT com. 
C