SIMON SAYS: An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

SIMON SAYS: An Interview with Bobcat Goldthwait

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When you talk to Bobcat Goldthwait, the American stand-up comic turned Police Academy sideshow attraction and now filmmaker, you see that his demeanor is very similar to the even-handed tone of his films. During our talk, Goldthwait casually referenced Preston Sturges and Falling Down as he addressed the tone of his controversial comedies. And he did it all while talking very matter-of-factly about the logic behind making movies centered around outlandish behavior.

Goldthwait’s recent breakthrough as a director was Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006), a romcom about a woman who admits to her fiancé that she once drunkenly gave a blowjob to her dog. He then followed that up with World’s Greatest Dad (2009), a black comedy about a father/teacher (Robin Williams) who admits that he didn’t always love his son (a perversely inspired performance by Daryl Sabara). Now, Goldthwait has directed a film called God Bless America (2011), a characteristically thoughtful black comedy about an unlikely pair of vigilante killers (one of whom is played by Mad Men’s Joel “Freddy Rumsen” Murray) who murder people whose bad behavior they can’t stand.

God Bless America is, like Goldthwait’s last two movies, a comedy about characters who eventually give in to their morally weaker impulses. But the film has been weirdly mischaracterized by many detractors as a goofy revamp of Natural Born Killers. I talked to Goldthwait on the phone about his audience’s expectations, directing a superhero movie, and his idea for a remake of Billy Jack.

I saw God Bless America at Toronto and am still taken aback by how wildly misinterpreted it’s been. How would you describe the reception it’s gotten?

Bobcat Goldthwait (BG): It’s had its fair share of positive reviews and . . . well, you know, my other movies had the same thing. People will say, “It’s a one-joke movie.” Well, yeah, if you don’t empathize with any of those characters. Then it’s a no-joke movie. I’m not into comedies that are joke-driven. I’m not trying to make Two and a Half Men: The Movie.

One of the thing’s that’s striking about your films is that you do try to get us to empathize with your characters. One of the things I found most bizarre about the negative pans was the way people compared God Bless America to Natural Born Killers. Natural Born Killers is about the psychosis of its characters, whereas this film seems to be about how your characters allow themselves to be seduced by psychosis. That’s not really the subject of the film, right?

BG: Yes, right. And Natural Born Killers, at the end of the day, was trying to implicate the media. And with this movie, I’m not trying to blame the media. I’m trying to make a movie that questions our own appetite for distraction, and that raises the question of where are we going. If you’re disappointed that I didn’t have a scene where I keep cutting back to Harvey Keitel in front of a big map saying, “I gotta get inside the brains of these people! Where are they gonna strike next?! Oh, I got it: this reality TV show,” I have no interest in doing that kind of movie.

The movies I make don’t take place in reality. I have a problem with vigilante movies. Usually, they start with a very gratuitous rape. And at the end, the hero kills all the bad people. So people can get their rocks off watching this gratuitous rape and then they can get their rocks off watching people get blown away.

In this movie, at first you’re rooting for the characters, and in the end, the wheels fall off. You should be questioning their behavior all along. Frank eventually realizes that he’s a flawed human being, and that this whole thing that he put into motion doesn’t really work. [laughs] I mean, for instance, if people were to treat Sleeping Dogs Lie as a serious examination of bestiality, they’d be out of their minds! This isn’t a movie about serial killers, it’s a movie about our own appetite for distraction.

That comparison to Sleeping Dogs Lie is striking as it doesn’t look like it’s being made by God Bless America’s critics. I think people get confused about the characters’ speeches—or more accurately, the rants—and they assume they’re speaking for an authorial voice. Which is ridiculous, considering what the consequences of those rants are.

BG: Yeah, I think it’s funny that people mistake those rants for my opinions. I wouldn’t make those speeches in everyday life. People think, “Oh, this movie is preaching,” but obviously those are people that don’t agree with what’s being said or think that they should agree with everything. I like to go to the movies and watch characters who make me question how I see the world. I don’t want to watch a movie where everyone does things I agree with. I think people see this movie on a superficial level sometimes and think that’s what it is. Those are the people that are more likely to go see The Avengers.

I was actually going to ask you later—beg you—to please, please try to make a superhero movie. I think you’d make a great Dr. Strange.

BG: [laughs] They usually use their own people, or they’ll sniff around and say, “Are you interested?” I briefly tried to look at the Marvel catalogue, and everything is gone. The only thing I could find was, during the CB craze of the ‘70s, a trucker called Razorback.

Yes!

BG: My friend who helped me find this character says, “You gotta make the Razorback movie!” [both laugh] I say to him, “You’re out of your mind!” Somebody told me about World’s Greatest Dad, “Wow, you really created a whole world there. I half expected Batman to show up at any moment!”

[laughs] That’s the thing about your movies: I almost want to describe them as Bobcat Goldthwait’s Moral Tales. Without shaming the audience, they’re about a sense of perspective people get when they realize they can be pushed beyond their comfort zones. World’s Greatest Dad, Sleeping Dogs Lie and God Bless America all have these characters that think, “Oh, I don’t even understand myself beyond a point.” That almost goes hand-in-hand with the superhero genre!

BG: That’s what interests me about making movies. I don’t think I’m smarter than the audience and I’m not trying to manipulate them. I’m making movies about people as flawed as myself and the viewers. So if you just have a reptilian brain and live your life simply by reacting to things, my movies aren’t going to work for you. They’re not going to make any sense, you know? I’m not trying to manipulate you with clever zingers. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still trying to figure it out.

That reminds me of something [comic book writer and artist] Howard Chaykin said. He’s said he that he creates characters who were flawed because he felt it would be dishonest to create paragons of virtue when he himself isn’t totally virtuous.

BG: Right. Right! And that’s the thing: there are plenty of things that Frank complains about that I’m guilty of. I’m not this angry guy that wishes the world would operate the way I see it. Another movie people bring up is Falling Down. But that movie—I don’t think people understand. He really wants to go to his daughter’s birthday party. It’s a racist movie! [laughs] When they finally get around to killing people, the Michael Douglas character winds up being a closeted Nazi. But we’re supposed to go, “Well, I still don’t hate this guy, but he’s still a Nazi.” In the movie I made, you should be going, “Well, none of this is right. This is all a little screwy.”

When I’m ego-surfing on the web, and I look at people’s comments to the movie’s trailer, and they go, [slow voice] “So, what, I’m not supposed to text during a movie anymore?!” [both laugh] I make these tiny, independent movies with my friends on a very, very small budget. I don’t make them for everybody. I expect to continue to pay rent for the rest of my life. [laughs]

World’s Great Dad and God Bless America have gotten some pretty good exposure. One of the things that’s striking about you is that, while you see plenty of actors and comedians try their hands at directing movies, you’ve kept at it. How difficult is it for you to keep on making these films?

BG: I actually write a lot of screenplays. I don’t really have an objective. I don’t sit down and go, “Well, this is one I can get made this year. Movies with penguins are really popular.” I just write whatever comes out of me. And then I try to get money and get all of them going. The key is I don’t make them if I have to compromise. I would rather not make a movie than compromise or to change something in the story so it’s more sensible or less offensive. So for good or for bad, these movies have my voice.

Even given the increasingly positive response you’ve gotten to your movies, are there some ideas that you thought were so extreme that only you could write and direct them?

BG: I don’t make compromises. One of the movies I wrote—I said to my wife, jokingly, “I’m tired of not making money. I’m going to write a genre picture.” I love Billy Jack, so I wanted to make something like Billy Jack

Oh, wow.

BG: I'm, like, 45 pages in, and she comes over and asks, “Well, how’s it goin’?” And I go, “Well, he’s gay now.” And she goes, “We really are just going to keep renting, aren’t we?” [both laugh] Well, anyway, he goes into a redneck town and kicks ass.

And again, it’s meant to question all this craziness about equal rights for the gay community. I did it in a funny way, but the joke’s not that this guy dresses funny. He’s an ass-kicking Marine that gets kicked out during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I want to make that movie, but when I do make it, I want to make it the right way, with the right cast. I can’t get money for that. I’m surprised, but not a lot of action stars want to make out with a dude on camera! [both laugh]

But that’s an example of how I work. I just write it and say, “This is the world I want to see.” And then I wait until I get the right people to pull the trigger on the money. I wrote five screenplays, and God Bless America is one of them.

One of the things I find striking about your movies—and also Spike Lee’s movies—is that you assume that these prejudices come from somewhere. And the places where they come from, like family and religion—those institutions have the potential to be good things. They’re not always bad. They have the potential to bring people together. That even-handedness is striking. When you write characters who aren’t necessarily totally sympathetic but also aren’t black-hat-wearing bad guys, how do you make them somewhat sympathetic?

BG: Well, as I said, none of these movies take place in the real world but I try to make the lead characters in these movies very real people. I’m a big Preston Sturges fan and the leads in his films are often quite flawed. They have a lot of dimension to ‘em, even the sillier ones. But then there are always these one-dimensional characters that are circling around these people. And that’s how I see these movies, where the main people are hopefully well-rounded characters and that’s why you empathize with ‘em.

That’s why I think Joel did a terrific job in this movie. I didn’t want people to pity Frank. I didn’t want him to be someone they felt bad for, I wanted him to be somebody they empathized with.

Yeah, there’s usually a level of latent patronization or condescension in comedies when audiences are asked to sympathize with a character. Your movies place your characters on a pretty even level with the audience.

BG: That’s the goal, thanks. I hope folks see that. Sometimes I’ll pop out jokes and get rid of things that are a little too funny or too silly if they compromise the world that this guy comes from. It’s funny that, for a guy that was a night-club comedian for so long, jokes are the last thing I think about when I’m writing a screenplay.

Really? Do you work it in afterwards?

BG: Yeah, or they just come up organically, like an actor will pitch a funny line or on the day I’ll come up with a funny line. But like I said, I don’t like comedies that are joke-driven. And I don’t like comedies where the theme is an afterthought. Like, at the end of the day, it feels like they just made it up. Like, “Friends are the most important friends,” or, “If you don’t give up, you’ll wind up believing in yourself.” For me, it’s the themes and the world first and then I figure out who those people are from there.

That conjured up an image of Judd Apatow’s comedies. They often have an improvisatory feel to them. They just go on forever and there never seems to be anyone calling cut. There’s just a lot of riffing and that’s sort of become a style unto itself.

BG: Yeah, that’s a form and people enjoy it the same way… I don’t have that luxury when I go to make a movie. There are scenes that are ad-libbed, and I do ask people to contribute. That’s usually because the people I collaborate with, we collaborate from day one. [laughs] I don’t have the budget to deliver a four-hour cut of a movie.

At what point do you start talking to your collaborators about what the characters’ voices are?

BG: Well, when somebody’s hired, because of the small world that I make my movies in, you’re dealing with people that are the right people for the job first. So they usually already have that character dialed in. They audition, or I already know that they can do it. But, you know, Joel had a lot of questions about the character, and I reflected it in the screenplay. He said, “Well, he wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” So I would rewrite it.

I think I’ve got what I need. So I just want to urge you: please, please make an Antman movie or a Razorback movie. [Goldthwait laughs] You don’t even need to think of it as selling out, you’d just be doing a Bobcat Goldthwait movie on a different level.

BG: It’s so hard! All the good ones are taken. All of them are in development, that’s the problem.

Yeah, I can’t imagine them doing anything with a lot of these properties but I’m sure all of them are in development hell on some stage or another.

BG: Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll make a movie about my alter ego when I was a little boy, which was Super Rabbit.

Super Rabbit. What’s the story behind that?

BG: When I was a little boy, my sister would make pills out of dough. When I took the pills, I would have all the powers and strength of a rabbit. [laughs]

Uh…oh, wow.

BG: What happened was, when me and [Sponge Bob voice actor] Tom Kenny were kids—he had actually written it out, he had a character named Captain Caribou.

Oh my gosh.

BG: Which was about a guy that was bitten by a radioactive caribou in Alaska. And he had these antlers that he had to live with . . .

I think you’ve got your next movie right there.

BG: [laughs] Captain Caribou and Super Rabbit!

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: On THE AVENGERS, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

SIMON SAYS: On The Avengers, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

nullIn the beginning of The Avengers, when Hawkeye says, “Oh, I see better from a distance,” I feared the worst and I thought of Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce (1985) and X-Men (2000). I thought, “Oh god, that poor toad in the X-Men movie got hit by lightning and a bad line of dialogue all over again.” And I groaned mightily, albeit somewhat prematurely, because I thought that Joss Whedon was about to prove yet again that he, like most mortals, is fallible. Bear with me a moment—this will take some unpacking.

The Avengers, which for the record is mostly serviceable even if it is laughably contrived and underdone, was directed and scripted by Joss Whedon. Whedon is the grand geek poobah creator behind such cult projects as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He’s a singular voice in contemporary science fiction and fantasy who is famous for his complex characters and snappy dialogue, and he’s a major geek celebrity. But with Whedon’s storied reputation as a sharp pop artist also comes a series of incidents that have turned Whedon into a de facto martyr. Any time something goes wrong with a Whedon-related project, it’s assumed that it can’t be Whedon’s fault. That stigma of being misunderstood by people in power has only been enhanced by Whedon’s rocky history with 20th Century Fox. Let’s unpack that confusing relationship a little, as well.

First there was the script that Whedon wrote for Alien: Resurrection, a fairly unremarkable script in itself that was then turned into something different from Whedon’s original ideas. Which is basically, you know, what happens to most scripts when they get made into movies. Since Alien: Resurrection (1997), the fourth film in the 20th Century Fox’s Alien film franchise, had plenty of on-set production difficulties (for example: director Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t speak English), Whedon publically blamed the film’s director for the film’s numerous shortcomings. In a 2001 interview with the AV Club, Whedon complains:

I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I’m like, “That’s idiotic,” because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, “That was a stupid script,” which is the worst pain in the world[…]In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what’s going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, “Can you just explain to me why he’s doing this? Why is he going for the gun?” And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face[…]”Because eet’s een the screept.” And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it’s the classic, ‘What something goes wrong, you assume the writer’s a dork.’ And that’s painful.

Whedon has since publicly admitted that there were some shortcomings inherent in his script. Still, he’s only sharing blame here, though I wouldn’t really expect any screenwriter to fall on their creative sword and assume responsibility for everything that went wrong with Alien: Resurrection (it really is a mess, albeit an interesting one).

Then there was the cancellation of Firefly, a very strong science fiction TV show that Whedon created and directed. Firefly aired originally on Fox, but it was soon canceled after it failed to attract high ratings. After the show’s rabid fans banded together, Whedon got to write and direct Serenity, a feature-length theatrical release. The show has also been released on DVD, thanks to its vocal fans.

Then there was Dollhouse, a conceptually interesting but rarely well-executed science fiction/spy program about a high tech brothel where prostitutes who are secretly intelligence agents have their identities reprogrammed cybernetically to suit their clients’ desires. The show was teetering on the edge of cancellation after the first season. After heavy rewrites, the show was renewed for a second season, receiving relatively sturdier ratings, but the show was not renewed for a third season.

In between these three major events, there is a fairly minor but nonetheless relevant anecdote about Whedon’s work as a script doctor on X-Men, the first and mostly forgettable live-action film of Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero team. Whedon has taken credit for writing the line where Storm (Halle Berry), a mutant with powers to control the weather, taunts a villain named Toad by saying, “Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else." Whedon says that the line was not the problem but rather the line-reading, insisting that Berry read the line “like she was [The Addams Family’s] Desdemona.” I fear that, in this case, it’s the writer’s fault. No matter what sarcastic register Berry might have affected, that toad-frying line is dopey.

Whedon’s creative woes makes me think of Lifeforce and Dan O’Bannon, the acclaimed screenwriter of Dark Star and Alien, who complained of having his work significantly altered by director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Funhouse). Like O’Bannon before him, Whedon is a recognized talent with a respectable track record that infrequently climbs onto a cross for very silly reasons. Once again, a troubled production history and outlandish reports of Hooper’s unprofessional and unfocused behavior seem to have been confirmed by the tonally inconsistent and utterly bizarre film that was theatrically released. O’Bannon still took a check for the movie, but he grumbled intensely about it. He was misrepresented, and of course that had nothing to do how cheesy and flat-out bad an idea it is to have a naked energy vampire (Mathilda May, hubba hubba) virtually seduce everyone she meets on planet Earth.

Make no mistake, O’Bannon and Whedon have both made exemplary work. O’Bannon’s scripted a number of great projects, like Alien and Dark Star, and he’s even directed one of the very best horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead (1985). Whedon’s TV work has similarly been consistently strong, and the handful of stories he wrote in the Astonishing X-Men comic book series was also pretty engaging.  But sometimes, it’s enough to just not say anything about work that’s not very good. This probably won’t happen with The Avengers. Whedon’s script is marred by garden-variety contrivance, but some of its ideas are rather underdone, especially the ones in the film’s first half-hour. Hawkeye’s line about “see[ing] better from a distance” is especially dismal when you consider that he’s being asked why he hasn’t involved himself in a group project. Renner delivers the line with a straight face. He could not have been misreading it, since Whedon also directed the film. That line is just a tediously literal-minded joke.

There aren’t many painfully awkward moments like this one in the rest of The Avengers, but there are a couple. For instance, Loki (Thomas Hiddleston) is first identified to viewers in the film by a character who unceremoniously blurts out, “Loki! The brother of Thor!” Or how about when Loki brainwashes Hawkeye in the film’s first twenty minutes, (not a spoiler, true believer!) after tapping his magic spear on Hawkeye’s chest and lamely declaiming, “Freedom is life’s great lie.” Just before tapping on Hawkeye’s breast and hypnotizing him into becoming one of his minions, Loki adds, “Once you accept that in your heart . . . you will know peace.” (Sort of a spoiler!) Simply put, these are bad lines. In the future, if Whedon complains about creative interference again without doing actively disowning the work, he’ll be leaving himself wide open to some really bad cardiac-arrest-related puns.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Vulgarian Frontier: On The Three Stooges’ Patently Inconsistent Comedic Genius

SIMON SAYS: The Vulgarian Frontier: On The Three Stooges’ Patently Inconsistent Comedic Genius

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                  “The Vulgarian Frontier: Subject to Change Without Notice.” –Signpost in Dutiful but Dumb (1941)

Now that The Three Stooges, the new Farrelly brothers mediocrity, is just a day away from nationwide release, it’s very easy to misremember what made Larry Fine and Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp Howard’s routine so memorable. Like many Vaudevillians' acts, the Stooges’ brand of violent slapstick humor comes from a flagrantly low-brow kind of self-loathing. The fates seemed to regularly conspire against the Stooges but it somehow seemed justified because their personae were so very ugly. In fact, many of their best gags are about how unattractive they are, like when Shemp tiptoes around an old dark house in Spooks! (1953) and recoils in horror when he sees a bat with his face on it. “What a hideous, monstrous face,” Shemp says, before the bat descends on fishing wire while burbling, “Bib-bib-bib-bib.” The Stooges were never high artists but they were very good at taking themselves down a peg or six.

At the same time, one of the more dated and, yes, problematic aspects of the Stooges’ act is that they make fun of themselves by proxy, mocking many of the women that they try to woo. Being initiated in the Women Haters' Club in Women Haters (1934) is not much different than the Stooges’ scheme to get Larry married so that he inherits a fortune in Brideless Groom (1947), in that both scenarios assume that women can only be equal to men if they’re just as loutish, conniving, or fugly. Women often beat up the Stooges, but not because these guys were feminists, and wanted to joke about how ineffectual and chauvinistic their Stooge personas were. Actually, the Stooges just had really low self-esteem. So when Moe, Larry and Curly get wrangled into a car by a trio of women in False Alarms (1936), it’s telling that the most vocal gal is a thuggish-looking dullard who sees the Stooges as a meal ticket: “Come on, girls, let’s go places and eat things.”

Women were, however, not consistently used as direct reflections of the Stooges’ own insecurity. Women are more generically used as trophies, in shorts like Gents Without Cents (1944) and Pardon My Backfire (1953). This shows to go you that while the repetition of certain routines is a staple of the Stooges’ brand of humor, Fine and the Howards don't have a consistent philosophy on life or comedy. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since that lack of focus is also a central part of the group’s charms–more on this in a moment.)

Besides, the Stooges never really needed anyone else to prove just how grossly incompetent they were, since their bumbling behavior was always an extension of their “hideous” looks and, thankfully, the Stooges never opted for plastic surgery. Scowls, dumb show stares, bulbous noses, and the group’s signature hair-stylings are just as integral to the group’s masochistic schtick as the vigorous eye-poking and cheek-slapping that made them famous.

Then again, the Stooges are often at their funniest when the pacing of their gags is so manic that you can hardly understand them.  For instance, in Spooks!, each successive gag is delivered at a successively faster rate, until finally a giant gorilla that’s been skulking about out of sight makes a dramatic re-appearance. Additionally, some of the gags are weirdly dense and feature puns that are so cerebral that they’re practically middle-brow. In Malice in the Palace (1949), the boys pore over a map that shows in great detail the geography of the imaginary land of Shmow. Now, you can pause your dvd and pore over the details of punny made-up territories like the Bay of Rum, Igypt, Jerkola and Great Mitten. But the fact that this intricate gag was originally shown for only a few seconds makes the Stooges' anything-for-a-laugh modus operandi all the more apparent.

Besides, being flagrantly nonsensical suited the Stooges, as in an earlier part of Malice in the Palace where the group tries to eat meat that they're convinced was once a cat or a dog (whenever they prod the food with their flatware, a pooch and a puss respectively yelp and hiss). Or how about when Moe inadvertently destroys a car's horn in Pardon My Backfire and the horn spontaneously exclaims, "They got me," as if it were dying? If nothing else, the Stooges are at their best when they're charging out of left field. Their jokes aren't exactly avant-anything, and their sense of humor certainly isn’t consistently surreal. But with 200+ shorts at their backs, it's safe to say that the group's longevity stems from the variety of ways they contrived to hurt themselves. They kept enough variety in their gags to make even the sleepiest of their shorts feature one or two gut-busters. Pretty impressive for a bunch of guys that couldn’t even stand to look at their own reflection.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition

SIMON SAYS: Nanni Moretti’s Cinema of Opposition

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The films of Italian writer/director Nanni Moretti primarily revolve around his own ego and then secondarily around questions of moral responsibility, specifically the extent to which we function in society. Moretti himself plays a recurring role in almost all his films: the empathetic and, as he puts it in Dear Diary (1993), "whimsical" skeptic. In I Am Self Sufficient (1978), a single father struggles to come to terms with the fact that his goofy, sub-Brechtian theater troupe isn't really reaching its minuscule audience. And in The Mass is Over (1985), a priest (also Moretti) leaves his sheltered island home to pursue his vocation but finds himself easily distracted and frequently uninterested in his congregants' problems.

I talked with Moretti with the help of an Italian interpreter last week, and my discussion only confirmed what I already knew after watching his films: Moretti is his own best character. Through his characters' various permutations, Moretti, whose new film We Have a Pope (2011) opens at Manhattan's IFC Center this Friday, often wavers between introspective self-seriousness and manic self-parody. In that way, he's a worthy acolyte of poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose death Moretti commemorates in Dear Diary when his character takes a long Vespa ride around and beyond Rome's city limits. In films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Hawks and Sparrows (1973), Pasolini questioned whether it was possible to achieve the kind of utopian ideals that intellectual discourse often strives for. The same is true of Moretti's movies, though he often begins by poking fun at himself.

In his movies, Moretti defines himself in opposition to the institutions he is a part of. Even in The Son's Room (2001), a deceptively tranquil family drama that also won the Palme D'Or, Moretti voices frustration with being part of a unit, in this case a nuclear family. Even before Moretti's character’s son abruptly dies, Moretti's character wonders just how involved he can be in his family's collective life. In The Mass is Over, Moretti's stand-in is just as easily uncomfortable with his calling as a priest. He plays soccer with some local children when he doesn't want to listen to a plaintive parishioner and turns up the radio when another congregant tries to confess to him. Moretti often laments that he can't be there for his film's supporting characters. But that semi-comic resistance is a big part of his cinematic persona's charm.

According to Moretti, there's a problematically narcissistic tendency towards self-pity amongst Italians and Italian movies that he parodically embraced when he made Dear Diary. Moretti described Dear Diary to me as his way of spoofing an ongoing trend in contemporary Italian films, where 40 year-old men act like blameless "victims" and lament about being unable to leave behind their difficult jobs, their needy families or their backwards countries. "This feeling of being a victim and not assuming one’s responsibility is a constant in Italians," Moretti told me. "Dear Diary makes fun of that attitude of feeling like a victim for 40 year-olds, for 20 year-olds, for 60 year-olds—it’s still present. It’s a model [of thinking] that still exists and it’s still a problem with the Italian personality. The fault is always someone else’s. If a match is lost, it’s the fault of the referee."

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Then again, through his films, Moretti expresses his own personal frustrations with being an atheist (in The Mass is Over and We Have a Pope), a Communist (in I Am Self Sufficient and Moretti's 1989 masterpiece, Red Lob), a lover of theater and films (in I am Self Sufficient and Dear Diary), and someone that often finds himself at odds with everyone around him (all of the above). This is funniest whenever Moretti's character despairs over popular contemporary cinema. In I Am Self Sufficient, Moretti works himself up into a frenzy at the thought that Seven Beauties was, upon its original 1975 theatrical release in Italy, hailed as the start of a new kind of Italian cinema. He goes further in Dear Diary, in which he tracks down one of the Italian critics that gushed over the 1986 American serial killer pic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and brings the poor reviewer to tears by reading his laudatory review back to him. Funnily enough, Moretti is reluctant to talk about Henry. When I tried to make an admittedly long-winded parallel between the "psychological simplicity" of characters in both his films and in Henry, Moretti became comically antsy. Even now, there are some films that you simply can't talk to Moretti about, it seems. 

Still, it's not especially surprising to see Moretti act in real-life as one of his characters might in his movies. When asked about how he was preparing for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where he will lead the jury of the festival's main competition, he instinctively responded with a self-deprecating joke. "I’d like to go to Cannes and buy some suits, lose a kilo or two, learn a little English," Moretti said. "I won't be able do do any of these things. The suits, yes, but the English and the weight, no." Moretti went on to tell me at some length what participating in film festivals as a juror has been like for him. But, just like when he jokingly corrected his interpreter, who initially mistranslated "referee" as "coach," Moretti behaved exactly, well, like himself. He's a self-possessed boy philosopher who carries the weight of his world on his shoulders with unabashed gaiety. A victim, he ain't.

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Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: SNOWTOWN MURDERS and a Guided Tour Through Serial Killer Movies

SIMON SAYS: SNOWTOWN MURDERS and a Guided Tour Through Serial Killer Movies

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“Now, do I look like a sex murderer to you? Can you imagine me, creeping around London, strangling all those women with ties? That’s ridiculous. For a start, I only own two.” –Jon Finch, Frenzy

In Florence, there’s a wax museum filled with dioramas of various serial killers. Almost none of these killers are from Italy. This is odd since the infamous Monster of Florence slayings are, ostensibly, the reason why such a museum is situated in Florence, the city most people associate with the Uffizi Museum and the Medicis.

If you take the museum’s guided tour (and you really must), you’ll notice that The Monster is however only a footnote, part of a single tapestry-like map of Italy’s many murderers. Ironically, most of these killers whom don’t really qualify as serial killers. Two or three murders, a death here or there, nothing like the wave of murders that inspired Thomas Harris to set his Hannibal in Florence. These killers are mostly Americans like Ed Gein, Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer. The Dahmer diorama is particularly impressive, complete with a realistic-looking trap door that hides half-exposed, half-decayed kiddy corpses.

Watch this video tour of the Serial Killer Museum – how many famous killers can you name?

 

I’m reminded of Florence’s wonderfully icky wax museum because The Snowtown Murders comes out in theaters this week. Based loosely on a series of real-life murders that took place in Snowtown, Australia, the film serves as a great reminder of why serial killers in particular are interesting: they’re pathologically disturbed. After a certain point, you can’t logically discern why a serial murderer does what he or she does. But that’s why they’re so fascinating: their gruesome crimes don’t make sense.

Think of it: guys like Albert Fish, the so-called “Vampire of Brooklyn,” or Jack the Ripper murdered people but only certain ones. So we want to know: why remove this body part or why take out your anger on women and why in this way? To make sense of these crimes, we have to confine these aberrant and largely inexplicable characters to reductive motives: they’re impotent, they have mommy issues, they hate women, etc.

Still, if everyone that had the above issues acted in the way that Ed Gein, the inspiration for films as diverse as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we’d not only be in deep shit but we’d also probably not care as much about serial murderers. Maybe, in an alternate universe where pathological behavior, as we understand it, is normal, dressing up like your mother and hacking people to bits with a chainsaw is something paid spokespeople encourage you to talk to your doctor about while Arnold Palmer throws footballs through tire swings.

But in our universe, many movies depict serial killers as a certain type of nebbish loner. In Psycho, Norman Bates is an exception that inadvertently proves the rule: Anthony Perkins is shy, keeps to himself but seems mostly harmless (He wouldn’t even hurt a fly, you know). So as cheesy as Psycho’s coda scene, where a police profiler breaks down why Norman killed people dressed like his mother and murdered people, is, it’s also kind of necessary. After all, Bates is evasive throughout the film. His personality and his motives are deliberately kept a mystery throughout the film’s proceedings. In the end, we want to know why he did it, and what drove him so far over the edge.

nullStill, it’s important to note that Gein isn’t really a serial killer. He murdered two people, which hardly establishes his slayings as a pattern. But he is important because he became a symbol of all the Freudian motivations that we project onto killers. We make these assumptions partly because of the phallic imagery implicit in Psycho’s shower scene or Leatherface’s chainsaw in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Massacre director Tobe Hooper would make a lot of hoopla over Leatherface’s fetish in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which plays out like a fittingly schizophrenic and limp slasher made by a big Laura Mulvey fan).

Take for example the depiction of murderers in a film like Maniac!, Bronx-born director William Lustig’s immaculately skuzzy 1980 film. Co-scripted by anti-star Joe Spinell, the film follows a loner that has garden variety psychological problems as they were defined in a post-Psycho filmic world: Spinell’s character kills women because he’s terrified of them. The ghost of his mother tells him what to do and he talks to himself throughout the film as her.

At the same time, even Spinell’s killer is constantly asking himself (as his mother, mind you) why he does what he does. But while he’s totally baffled by his behavior, we as viewers are made to feel like we know exactly what’s wrong with him: basically, he’s crazy. By which I mean he’s a very frustrated man that’s paralyzed and tantalized by sex. When Spinell’s character picks a prostitute up, he doesn’t decide to go with her to a motel until she tells him how far she’s willing to go for a hundred bucks. When the prostitute in question tries to put her arm on Spinell, he reactively brushes her off him. He can’t be seen in public being touched by her, though who he thinks is watching him is unclear.

Spinell’s character conforms to the basic stereotypes that define serial murderers in the 1972 thriller Frenzy, director Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie. Screenwriter Anthony Schaefer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) suggests in no uncertain terms that, like Alec McCowen’s police chief, we, the viewers, presume to know the motives of a serial strangler pegged. McCowen haughtily explains to a peer how such killers behave:

“The important thing to remember is that they hate women and they’re mostly impotent. Don’t mistake rape for potency, Sergeant. In the latter stages of disease it’s the strangling, not the sex, that brings them off. You know what they are, Sergeant, I’m sure.”

nullThe funniest part about this scene is that it’s a 100% accurate description of the killer in Frenzy: he tries to rape one of his victims. But she resists and refuses to give him the satisfaction of whimpering while he breathes heavily and repeatedly growls, “Lovely!” The joke is that even McCowen’s chief, an equally impotent British man that politely hems and haws while his wife experiments with French cuisine, could guess why the real killer behaves the way he does. So while most characters in Frenzy spend the film insisting that they know exactly what the cops are looking for, McCowen inexplicably does.

One of the most satisfying depictions of a serial killer on film has to be Michael Rooker’s Henry in the 1986 character study Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker’s antihero is a more polished version of the loaded popular assumptions reproduced in most movies about serial killers. Henry lives with two other people, though he always seems uncomfortable around them and is tellingly emotionally withdrawn all the time. There’s even a line that deflates the assumption that Henry came from a broken home and has mommy issues: he tells Becky (Tracy Arnold) a story about how his mother died, one which Becky inadvertently reveals to be a pack of lies.

And there’s basically the rub: Rooker’s character has no hard-and-fast reason to kill. Which is really what’s so puzzling about serial killers, that sense of not knowing. The fact that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the most ambiguous film of the bunch I’ve listed is possibly because, of all the movie murders I’ve mentioned, Henry is the only one that’s really based on a real-life Henry Lee Lucas, a real-life serial killer (Bates was only inspired by Gein). As exploitable as their subject may be, Henry co-writers John McNaughton and Richard Fire at least respected the fact that there were things about their subject that they simply could not know for sure. I wonder if Florence’s Serial Killer Museum is looking for film-related add-ons. I’m sure they could fit in an extra TV monitor in somewhere, possibly between Ted Bundy and Charles Manson…

You can take a virtual tour of the Serial Killer Museum by visiting their website.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in theVillage VoiceTime Out New YorkSlant MagazineThe L MagazineNew York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: See ‘Devil’ if you must, but buy tickets for ‘Darkest’

SIMON SAYS: See ‘Devil’ if you must, but buy tickets for ‘Darkest’

nullAccording to Box Office Mojo, The Devil Inside wasn't just this weekend's surprise box office leader. Having raked in approximately $33.7 million dollars in just three days' time, the maddeningly generic Exorcist rip-off-by-way-of-Paranormal Activity also holds the record for the third-highest grossing domestic release to debut in January. Funny thing about that success: as Box Office Mojo also points out, Devil was most successful on Friday night, raking in about half of its take in just one night. Word of mouth about this pile of doo, directed by the guy that brought us Stay Alive, spread faster than a stink bomb in a middle school bathroom. (Stories about spontaneous booing at the film's hilariously anti-climactic conclusion are personal favorites.) And yet, common sense did not ultimately prevail and a goodly portion of the American movie-going public collectively said, "Fuck it, I'm going to just give my money away."

I mean, look, I get it: the siren call of crappy horror films is intense. I splurged when I watched The Devil Inside and bought a ticket for an RPX ("Regal Premium Experience," Regal Cinemas' answer to AMC's "Imax" auditoriums) screening of the film. I got a weirdly masochistic kick out of paying too much money to get the best possible picture and audio quality for a movie that was shot on handheld digital cameras with a palsied, fast-and-dirty, one-take-and-out aesthetic. But for criminey's sake, people: it's not worth it. The Devil Inside is not shitty in an interesting way, it's shitty in a "I just french-kissed a car battery" kind of way. There's no reason to support it.
 
If you paid to see The Devil Inside this weekend, the joke is on you. You just paid to see a movie you've probably seen several times before, a film whose trailer looked unequivocally bland and juice-free. You punished yourself by watching a film whose camerawork honestly could have been done by a three-toed sloth with a tripod, a drinking problem and a death wish. And you rewarded a major studio and an imaginatively stunted filmmaker with your cashola, telling them that you want more creative bet-hedging (i.e.: more of the same tacky first-person POV horror films that cost nothing to make and takes little to no skill to pull off). You fucked up, America. Hell, I fucked up with you, albeit for entirely different reasons (I just wanted to see what all the hubbub was about, though that reasoning is pretty much a cop-out when we come down to it, huh?). Still: you stink, voces populi, wherever you are. And if I pegged you wrong, and you did pay, see and enjoy The Devil Inside, then, uh, well, it's been rough knowing you.
 

If, however, you must have no-brow horror cinema and refuse to go beyond your local multiplex, might I suggest The Darkest Hour? Director Chris Gorak's ill-advised follow-up to his surprisingly stirring horror thriller Right at Your Door is at least uniquely awful. The Darkest Hour looks like it was cobbled together from parts of two equally superficial but otherwise dissimilar films. One of those films is a dopey but sometimes engaging alien invasion B-movie starring Emile Hirsch (who is currently stealing his schtick from DiCaprio, circa Catch Me if You Can) and a bunch of other young actors that are somehow even less famous than Hirsch. The other film is a clumsy disaster film-cum-metaphor for post-Soviet Russia as a consumerist mausoleum. So when you watch The Darkest Hour, you're paying to watch pretty young things run around a deserted Moscow as humans get disintegrated by invisible energy-absorbing aliens that inadvertently expose how hollow the lives of contemporary Muscovites are under capitalism. It's like they read our minds and created a film just for no one….

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But seriously, The Darkest Hour is at least a uniquely disastrous fantasy. Apartment-shaped Faraday cages become metaphors for the protective shell Cold War survivors created for themselves after Mama Russia was introduced to designer clothes and McDonald’s stores. And, oh yeah, young pretty things get menaced by energy monsters that reduce every form of organic life they touch (man and dog alike) to ash. By contrast, The Devil Inside is just a one-trick turd. Its cookie-cutter protags get harassed by non-threatening demons that mouth the same curse words and make the same obscene gestures that Linda Blair and William Friedkin did in The Exorcist…except without any of that classic film's conviction or charisma whatsoever. 

So if you want to watch a fun, trashy movie this weekend but you're dead set on seeing The Devil Inside, go to a theater showing both The Darkest Hour and The Devil Inside. Buy a ticket for The Darkest Hour and support a film that has a truly bizarre vision, one that's so strange that even a promising tyro like Gorak wasn't able to pull it off. Start watching The Darkest Hour. And if you don't like it, sneak into The Devil Inside and see what you're not missing. This way you can get what you only think you want and support an ambitious misfire while doing it. You probably won't leave the theater happy. But at least you'll have voted with your wallet for a film that has several original thoughts competing in its head instead of a thrice told tale that was only ever as exciting as its ideas.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village VoiceTime Out New YorkSlant MagazineThe L MagazineNew York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

I mean, look, I get it: the siren call of crappy horror films is intense. I splurged when I watched The Devil Inside and bought a ticket for an R.P.X. ("Regal Premium Experience," Regal Cinemas' answer to AMC's "IMAX" auditoriums) screening of the film. I got a weirdly masochistic kick out of paying too much money to get the best possible picture and audio quality for a movie that was shot on handheld digital cameras with a palsied, fast-and-dirty, one-take-and-out aesthetic. But for criminy's sake, people, it's not worth it. The Devil Inside is not shitty in an interesting way, it's shitty in a "I just french-kissed a car battery" kind of way. There's no reason to support it.
If you paid to see The Devil Inside this weekend, the joke is on you. You just paid to see a movie you've probably seen several times before, a film whose trailer looked unequivocally bland and juice-free. You punished yourself by watching a film whose camerawork honestly could have been done by a three-toed sloth with a tripod, a drinking problem and a death wish. And you rewarded a major studio and an imaginatively stunted filmmaker with your cashola, telling them that you want more creative bet-hedging (i.e., more of the same tacky first-person P.O.V. horror films that cost nothing to make and take little to no skill to pull off). You fucked up, America. Hell, I fucked up with you, albeit for entirely different reasons. (I just wanted to see what all the hubbub was about, though that reasoning is pretty much a cop-out when we come down to it, huh?) Still, you stink, voces populi, wherever you are. And if I pegged you wrong, and you did pay, see and enjoy The Devil Inside, then, uh, well, it's been rough knowing you.