film

The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Django Unchained and the Importance of Irreverence

Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained has proven controversial though, not I think for the reasons people are citing. Yes, there's copious use of the 'n-word'. Yes, there's lots of graphic violence. But a serious film can get away with both of these things without anyone batting an eye. Consider the n-word in The Color Purple or the violence of the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Spielburg can even get away with gratuitous nudity as long as its done in a serious, non-sexual way, as in Schindler's List or Amistad, and no one raises a fuss.

No, what really bothers people about Django is that it deals with these things in a film that isn't reverent in its treatment of them, a film that is, in short, fun. It's an extreme form of my father's objection to the (much more reverent) film Life is Beautiful— "I just don't want to see a comedy about the Holocost."

However, I think it's precisely Django's irreverence that makes it so important. Because the audience that goes to see Lincoln or The Color Purple or Beloved or Amistad or pick-your-"serious"-film-about-blacks-in-American-history, is often quite different from the one that goes to see a Tarantino splatter-fest. Indeed, it's easy to argue that people who go see these sorts of films are those most already aware of the injustices being depicted (with, perhaps, the exception of people forced to watch them in school). People who don't like to think about the horrors of slavery, who don't want to think about it, don't go by a ticket to see that kind of movie.

Starfuckers Inc.

On the issue of Roman Polanksi:

First off, let me just say that this post is inspired primarily by the gaggle of idiot starfuckers defending Roman Polanski on the usually much more sane Huffington Post. I wouldn't feel so compelled to say something about this if it wasn't becoming quite clear that there is a sizable and perhaps growing constituency of starfuckers in the wider world who are willing to accept all manner of innuendo and half truth in the defense of Polanski. As best I can tell there are three basic arguments that are being advanced to excuse Polanski:

1.) He had a hard life/He's Paid his Debt/The Victim Has Forgiven Him/Time to Move on

2.) He's made some great movies and doesn't that count for something.

and most pernicious of all

3.) The girl lied about her age, her mom put her up to it, didn't you see what she was wearing, she totally was asking for it

I intend to take each argument in turn and demonstrate why it's ridiculous. In so doing, I hope to show that all of this ultimately just boils down to the cancerous crypto-starfuckery that plagues American culture.

The Facts
In 1977, Roman Polanski plied a thirteen year old girl with drugs and alcohol, photographed her in the nude, committed an oral sex act on her without her consent, then repeatedly raped her vaginally and anally. These are the facts entered into evidence by the prosecution against him as can be read in the victim's deposition taken at the time. Smokinggun.com has done the public service of posting the relevant portion of the grand jury testimony as a PDF here.

Star Trek: What a Ridiculous Load of Crap

Massive spoilers below.

EDIT: added more notes at the bottom.

Imagine if you will that there's a magic red goop, and that a single drop of this goop—one drop!—can create a black hole. Now imagine that a whole man-sized container of the stuff (which one needs, for some reason, because a few drops just won't do the job) smashes in the middle of a starship. Now imagine that for some reason that ship is still around with a giant black hole forming all around it and you can have a nice conversation with the captain of that and then decide for some reason you need to shoot him with your phasers and photon torpedoes because the black hole hasn't completely destroyed them already.

Okay, now imagine that you sky dive from space into the atmosphere of a planet. There is no sense of burning up on reentry or even any sort of heat. Then you land on a giant laser drill in the stratosphere. This drill is hanging off of a ship in space and is drilling a hole in the planet, but there's no sense at all of the ship maintaining geosynchronous orbit; indeed the drill seems to be moving around quite a lot and yet is still drilling this big hole. Oh yeah, and the reason you need a big hole? Because you want to put a drop of red black hole goo in the center of the planet to destroy it because for some reason creating a black hole anywhere in the general vicinity of the planet isn't good enough. (Why do they bother even using the term "black hole" if they have no desire to have anything to do with what a black hole is or does?) But okay, so then you land on your space drill. You whip off your helmets and have no trouble at all breathing up in the stratosphere. Then for some reason the drill is manned, and the bad guys come out and you all have a big kung fu fight up on the top, complete with flips and acrobatics. On a platform in the open air in the stratosphere. And nobody just blows right off.

I don't think I've ever in my life seen an ostensible Science Fiction movie with such complete contempt for science. Space Balls had better science. Godzilla had better science (all of them).

FOX Wants to Kill Watchmen Movie

On the subject of bad decisions, FOX apparently wants to kill the forthcoming Watchmen movie, claiming legal rights to the material that supersede Warner Bros.

"Surprisingly, Fox said it would rather see the film killed instead of collecting a percentage of the box office."

Why? Beats me too.

Could there be Watchmen curse, placed by self-proclaimed occult magician and Watchmen scribe Alan Moore? In any case, one begins to understand why he wants nothing to do with the film industry anymore.

Reading Versus Watching: Whither Superman?

What a joyless, uninspired, heavy-handed and dead thing this new movie turned out to be. What we wanted was something that returned the franchise to its solid foundations, both corollary and flip-side to the excellent Batman Begins. What we got instead was one scene after another lifted directly from the original movies in what seems intended to be an homage, but instead comes off wearyingly unoriginal. Scene after scene of Superman bearing things cross-like on his shoulders, overdubs of Marlon Brando from the first movie ("And so I gave my first born son..." et al), Superman getting stabbed in the side, falling through space in a crucified posture, dying and being reborn, the whole Jesus analogy so unsubtle it's almost surprising the movie isn't in Aramaic. Scene after scene of long, drawn-out shots of characters on the verge of tears. We get Superman as a creepy guy who loiters outside Lois Lane's house, spying on her and listening in on her conversations. We get a "mad genius" scheme from Lex Luthor that doesn't even pretend to make sense. We get at least a dozen tiny plot-holes. About half-way through I just wanted god-like Superman villain Darkseid to show up out of nowhere, laugh at this annoying pussy calling himself super and lay waste to the Earth.

Reading Versus Watching: Wuxia

My question is this: if Jin Yong is the most widely read contemporary Chinese author, not only in China but all over Asia, and thereby certainly one of the most widely read authors in the world, why is he so sparsely translated into English?

Reading Versus Watching: Fantastic Voyage

Kelly Link is an extraordinary fiction writer. She will take an old saw like the ghost story or the fairy tale or the girl with latent, supernatural powers, and completely reinvent it in a startling way; this always with a depth of character and emotional complexity that is lacking in so much genre fiction. Even people who are totally turned off by the fantastic and the supernatural should find themselves absorbed by her use of genre methods to get at what it means to be human.