Friday, February 07, 2014

The Heart's Indoor Bloodthirsty Giant

In talking about the recent film Magic Magic, Caitlin said in her blog a few days ago that it, "treads that same liminal space between civilization and the forest primeval, between sanity and lunacy" as movies like Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Suddenly, Last Summer and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. I suggested to Caitlin that she make a list of "Top Ten Films that Tread the Liminal Space Between Civilisation and the Forest Primeval, Between Sanity and Lunacy". Naturally, I immediately started thinking about what I'd put in such a list myself.

Thinking about what this particular conceptual dividing line meant to me in relation to the movies Caitlin mentioned--and mind you I haven't seen Antichrist or Magic Magic--it seemed to me to imply a film that showed modern human civilisation to be painfully absurd or meaningless for juxtaposition to nature, or a depiction of nature overwhelming or infecting mental processes in a delicate framework of culture considered civilised by the characters in the film. This is actually a fairly broad definition. I wrote down a very long list of movies, most of them great movies, then I narrowed it a great deal by refining my definition to something more instinctual.

So here we go.

Top Ten Films that Tread the Liminal Space Between Civilisation and the Forest Primeval, Between Sanity and Lunacy

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

A relevant quote from my review:

Familiar aspects of the self are a catalyst for a chain of dream logic terrors . . . The self, both physical and mental; an unexamined every day intimacy with flesh and blood is teased out into a cunning, gleefully beautiful and grotesque nightmare.

9. Onibaba

Stories of war are good candidates for this list because they often take place in hostile, unfamiliar, natural settings where the characters are painfully forced to abandon culturally instilled values for things more basic and animalistic. In Onibaba, two peasant women take to murder and plunder and soon their lives become even less civilised than that. The strangeness of their brutality is represented by a hole in the ground where they dump the bodies of their victims. From my review:

[T]he film uses elements of myth to tell a very effective, very raw story of regular people adapting to a beastly reality. A reality where old moral perspectives become brutal, arbitrary traps.

8. Picnic at Hanging Rock

One of the films Caitlin mentioned, it's a simple story that crushes its characters with its simplicity--in the Australian wilderness, a small group of girls completely disappears and there's no explanation. Beautiful and ominous footage of the enormous and strange rocks in the area seem to suggest something that can never be put into words, a truth in nature that exists outside the bounds of the structured reality of the Victorian characters who find their efforts utterly and heartbreakingly feeble.

7. L'Avventura

In a premise similar to that of Picnic at Hanging Rock, L'Avventura features characters dealing with the unexplained disappearance of their friend, Anna, on a small island. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, beautiful shots of the natural rock formations providing no answers seem to be the environment's peculiar way of rebuffing the most basic needs and desires of human beings. As the film progresses, the characters begin to seem as though the values of their society have taken on a frighteningly insubstantial quality. From my review:

As the friends struggle between deciding what the flighty and selfish Anna might have done, or what terrible accident may have befallen her, the land and the sea shown in the shots dwarf everything partly because of this tortured confusion. The natural and silent beauty emphasises the small, insubstantial society and the elusiveness not just of Anna but of Anna's personality.

6. Apocalypse Now

As I said with Onibaba, war makes a natural context for a madness exacerbated or produced by a natural environment, seemingly triggering something in the characters more deeply real than everything they've ever been taught.

5. Aguirre, the Wrath of God

A lot of Werner Herzog movies could go on this list but this one seemed most fitting as the desires for conquest and rule that arise in Kinski's character are in their basic structure patterned after his contemporary culture. But it's the alien and oppressively natural environment of South American jungle that sharpens his ideas to a point sharper than anything society would condone.

4. Neco z Alenky

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland would belong on this list but Jan Svankmajer's 1988 adaptation belongs even more than the source material would. Svankmajer's use of animal corpses and his more sadistic, wolf-like Alice take the film to a much more bestial, less satirical place. From my review:

This is a pretty gruesome Alice--maybe not as much as American McGee's but this one makes more of an impression for its better constructed character. Instead of the trite story in McGee's take about childhood trauma, Neco z Alenky knows that kids are quite cruel enough already.

3. Black Narcissus

The vows of a group of nuns are tested just by the heady environment of a monastery and former pleasure palace in the Himalayas. They're horrified to find their deep convictions are insubstantial compared to the mountains, memories of lost love, and lust.

2. Through a Glass Darkly

The breakdown of boundaries and meaning in a family begins with the onset of schizophrenia in the daughter. Her perspective on God as a sort of monster hidden in the upstairs wallpaper has about it a terrible insight.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is the film that probably best suits the criteria, beginning as it does with humankind's significantly more bestial ancestors and portraying evolution of the intellect as sort of alien madness of incalculable scope.

Here are a few more titles in no particular I think could have been included on a longer list:



End of Evangelion

The Descent


And here are some very good films that I didn't think would fit as a whole but which have one or two aspects I think are dead on:


Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

The Night of the Hunter

La Notte


Spirit of the Beehive


Stray Dog

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