a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Martin (1978, George A. Romero) + Effluvia

Like his far more esteemed Canadian colleague David Cronenberg, George Romero is a hybrid horror maven. It's not enough for the two for the two of them to give you some unforgettably -- and almost regrettably so -- sights or to engage you in some schlocky, lo-budget fun. They're also interested in other matters and, for them, cheapie horror movies are the best format for their form of queasy expression. Cronenberg has his history as a science major to lean on; Romero has satire. While the two were masters of squeezing their typically un-horror-film obsessions into the genre's strict borders, it was Romero who never grew tired of it. Thus, the lack of acclaim for Romero -- while Cronenberg was infiltrating drama with Dead Ringers, Romero was churning out Monkey Shines.

But Romero all but created Cronenberg. While his zombie trifecta is swimming in misanthropy -- not just Dawn with its undead mass consumers, but the original's assimilate-or-die m.o. -- it's 1973's The Crazies which makes it the most obvious. A wildly unhinged virus pic that's almost impossible to tack down -- the virus, stemming from a batch of nerve gas accidentally unleashed in a north-of-Pittsburgh town, turns some into stereotypes and others into zombies without motive or use -- it's little more than a cartoon, satirizing, in its 90-some minutes, the entirety of the '60s: priests set themselves on fire, hippie girls put flowers in rifles, little old women impale their victims on knitting sticks, etc. and et al. All the while the military is little more than useless, or incompetent; there's no physical way of telling who's infected and who's not, so havoc, predictably, breaks loose. As ever, there are no heroes, and those who could pass for a reasonable equivalent of course wind up dead. Romero's not subtle in his satire. But he sure does dose it out frequently and hilariously.

But this isn't about The Crazies.

Martin, the film he made right before Dawn, is less satirical. But what it looks in social graces, it makes up with misanthropy. A vampire movie by name only -- though we almost never hear it said -- it finds a modern-day blood-sucker who looks about 16 but claims to be in his late-80s. Luckily, all vampiric cliches are gone -- great if you don't want to be repelled by garlic or burned by crucifixes; not great if you now have to drug your victims and cut them with a razor instead of impale them with fangs.

Why is this? Something to do with suburbia, surely. Relocated to Pittsburgh to live with his elderly, suspicious cousin -- who wants to lock him in one room, forbids him to speak to his daughter and constantly stares at him while calling him "Nosferatu!" -- Martin whiles away his days as though they were part of one particularly tedious summer. He lends himself out for odd jobs, stares at the neighborhood kids and, when he's really desperate for human interaction, calls the local radio station, who look forward to his presumably insane confessions.

He also feeds from time to time, but Martin's hardly soulless. Romero stages the bloodsucking scenes like particularly unfortunate rape scenes -- they elicit sympathy for both parties. In the opening, Martin carefully slips into a woman's train compartment, only to awkwardly find that she's in the bathroom. When she emerges and sees him, he lunges at her with a syringe in his mouth, and the two wrestle for domination. Once he gets the upper hand, Martin -- in a rather unforgettable turn -- assures her he's usually quite good at making this procedure painless. After too long a stretch, the drugs finally kick in, she's out, and he rolls around with her, necrophilia-style, before slicing her arm clean open and sating himself.

On first glance, it looks like Romero's thesis is this: that the world has grown too mundane for magic. A scene late-in even has Martin dressing up as a classical vampire -- fake teeth and all -- while mocking his Transylvanian cousin, stating outright that the myths are all bullshit. A closer examination reveals something more: that it's always been this way. Romero constantly splices in flashbacks to his vampiric infancy, which look exactly like the films of Browning and Murnau. Martin is in his '80s, so his first brush with vampirism happened around the same time. Have his memories become interchangeable with those chairoscuro-heavy classics?

For Martin, his whole life has been one long, solitary experience. But the film -- while full of its long patches -- seems to represent the first instance where something, anything different has happened to him. It's an obvious metaphor for manhood: Martin even finds the joys of non-necrophiliac sex, becoming the fuck buddy of a bored and spurned housewife. Romero winds things up with a hilariously, and near-perfect, abrupt ending -- he could never live as anything but a bored teenager. Only Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day has this view of vampirism-equals-lust. But she has little of Romero's wit, and nor does it beat it in mood -- it has stronger photography, undoubtedly, but I'll take the gritty, hyper-edited, seemingly random style of Romero in a heartbeat.

Effluvia, as promised
Salon has an actual four-page ode to the great, wildly under-appreciated character actor Christopher McDonald. Unabashedly fan-ish -- it even concludes with an e-mail-ish stream of insults rendered in capital letters -- and it neglects to mention his penchant for playing greasy televison hosts in Quiz Show and Requiem for a Dream. Still, that there's an article at all is something. The Happy Gilmore line: totally right-on.

Also, and this is quite a redundant bitching, but is this the absolute nadir of pointless celeb gossip?


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