All posts by veronika.zakonjsek@gmail.com

Horror October

“Horror films serve as a barometer of those things which trouble the night thoughts of a whole society.” – Steven King

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It comes at night / Horror’s silent beginnings

  1. The Phantom Carriage (dir. Victor Sjöström, 1921)
  2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920)
  3. Vampyr (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
  4. Nosferatu (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1922)
  5. Haxan (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

The (cult) classics

  1. Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
  2. The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
  3. Diabolique (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
  4. The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
  5. Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch, 1986)
  6. Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento, 1977)
  7. Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)
  8. Possession (dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
  9. Eyes Without a Face (dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
  10. The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955)
  11. Carrie (dir. Brian de Palma, 1976)
  12. The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock,  1963)
  13. Peeping Tom (dir. Michael Powell, 1960)
  14. An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis, 1981)
  15. Night of the Living Dead (dir. George A. Romero, 1968)

TOP 10 / Best horror films of the past decade

  1. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau, 2016)
  2. Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
  3. The Orphanage (dir. J. A. Bayona, 2007)
  4. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
  5. Under the Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari, 2016)
  6. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014)
  7. Goodnight Mommy (dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz, 2014)
  8. The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2015)
  9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)
  10. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

Let’s poke fun at the genre / Satires

  1. Arsenic and Old Lace (dir. Frank Capra, 1944)
  2. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)
  3. What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2014)
  4. The Final Girls (dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015)

(Non-sparkly) Vampires

  1. Nosferatu the Vampyre (dir. Werner Herzog, 1979)
  2. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
  3. The Fearless Vampire Killers (dir. Roman Polanski, 1967)
  4. Martin (dir. George A. Romero, 1978)
  5. Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

Let’s talk witchcraft (but not the Harry Potter kind)

  1. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (dir. Jaromil Jireš, 1970)
  2. The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)
  3. The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016)

We don’t need monsters to get creeped out

  1. Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke, 1997 / 2007)
  2. Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005)
  3. The Vanishing (dir. George Sluizer, 1988)
  4. Benny’s Video (dir. Michael Haneke, 1992)

Too weird/disturbing to categorise

  1. Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977)
  2. Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006)
  3. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
  4. Santa Sangre (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)
  5. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)
  6. Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

Where is my mind? / Surrealist nightmares and psychotic fragmentations

  1. Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)
  2. Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)
  3. Repulsion (dir. Roman Polanski, 1965)
  4. Don’t Look Now (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
  5. Alice (dir. Jan Švankmajer, 1988)
  6. The Tenant (dir. Roman Polanski, 1976)
  7. Lost Highway (dir. David Lynch, 1997)
  8. Spider (dir. David Cronenberg, 2002)

Horror genre with a feminist twist

  1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
  2. Into the Forest (dir. Patricia Rozema, 2015)
  3. Honeymoon (dir. Leigh Janiak, 2014)
  4. Trouble Every Day (dir. Claire Denis, 2001)

Body horror, Cronenberg style

  1. Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983)
  2. The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)
  3. Rabid (dir. David Cronenberg, 1977)
  4. Shivers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1975)
  5. eXistenz (dir. David Cronenberg, 1999)
  6. The Brood (dir. David Cronenberg, 1979)

Big in Japan (with some Korean gems in-between)

  1. Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
  2. Onibaba (dir. Kaneto Shindô, 1964)
  3. The Face of Another (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
  4. Black Cat (dir.  Kaneto Shindô, 1968)
  5. House (dir. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977)
  6. Pitfall (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)
  7. Old Boy (dir. Chan-wook Park, 2003)
  8. The Wailing (dir. Na Hong-yin, 2016)
  9. Train to Busan (dir. Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
  10. Jigoku (dir. Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

Gothic tales

  1. The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)
  2. Rebecca (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
  3. The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963)
  4. The Uninvited (dir. Lewis Allen, 1944)

Murder, (S)he Wrote

  1. Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
  2. Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
  3. The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
  4. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2003)
  5. Dial M For Murder (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Full list of my favourite horror films (ranking is based purely on my subjective taste) can be found here.

 

Let Him Be a Basketball Player (2017)

Released just a week before Slovenia unexpectedly won EuroBasket championship, this film could hardly ever dream of a better timing. It was a dream come true for their already strong PR department, as the film is continuing to break this year’s viewing records and thus becoming a true sensation among our youngest population. But does this mean the film is actually good and worth seeing? Far from it.

It was merely two years ago that Boris Petkovič made his first jump into the genre of coming of age films with The Beat of Love – a film that for most parts felt deeply uninspired and hardly ever lifted above average. With his latest film, Let Him Be a Basketball Player, he decided to swim even deeper into the world of teens at the brink of puberty, but the result once again hasn’t been particularly successful. Adapted for screen from a 90’s children book written by Primož Suhodolčan, the story either didn’t translate well to the cinematic world, or the written material just wasn’t that good to begin with. Either/or, the end product seems stuck in time that no longer exists (if it ever truly did), has little to zero character development, suffers from a patronisingly black-and-white portrayal of the world and fails to give any kind of a (positive) message to the young audiences.

Despite not being this film’s target audience, I still remember those years all too vividly and enjoy an occasional nostalgic ride to the hormone-fulled years of recklessness, rebelliousness, bad decisions and unrequited loves. However, this is not John Hughes, Celine Sciamma or even The Edge of Seventeenthe latest outstanding discovery in the genre. In times when most teenage films deal with specific issues that should resonate with the young, still forming individuals and adults alike, this film instead feels outdated before it even properly hit the theatres. Teen films are supposed to be about children’s personal growth (and not literal, as this film would like to suggest), peer pressure, parent-child conflicts, about teens questioning their sexual (or even gender) identity. But none of that finds its way into this bland vanilla tasting movie.

The main protagonist is Ranta, the dullest, most uninteresting person whose only identifying characteristics are his height and inspiration to become a basketball player in order to impress a girl (is there ever any other reason?). As it goes, we also have a comedic side-kick – who doesn’t really have a character apart from being obnoxious and funny, and Metka, who could easily remain nameless and the effect of her being in a film would be the same. But the problems don’t stop at this unfortunate trio that is supposed to be the core of this film. There are also pure caricatures of Ranta’s parents, a mean owner of a basketball club who comes across like a cartoonish version of the mafia and a geography teacher that’s meant to be funny but comes across as the biggest bully of them all.

Not only the film fails at establishing at least one relatable, three-dimensional teen character, but it does an even poorer job with the adults – the exception being a basketball teacher, played by Marko Miladinović, who is the only one in Suhodolčan’s world of adults that doesn’t come across as a parody. However, no matter how poorly written the entire cast, I cannot ignore the way this film treats its women. Just as with a recent teenage film disaster, John Green’s Paper Towns, the entire premise of the film is built around a guy who wants to impress a girl – without ever bothering to give this girl any personality, any story arc that would exceed the obvious: she’s pretty. Even the dramatic peak of the film, when Metka accuses him of not knowing anything about her, doesn’t resonate well. First of, the argument comes across as too dramatic, as the scene is not built up to it, and it makes Metka look completely hysterical and irrational (not the only gender stereotyping scene in this film, though). And second of, for us to invest in her character we would need to know something about her, even if Ranta doesn’t. But we are left in the dark, even after she verbally expresses the wish to be “better seen”, as Petkovič is clearly not interesting in giving her any substance. The argument is thus resolved in the most pathetic tribute to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, inclusion of which is again somewhat puzzling to me, as the majority of the audience will obviously be too young to get the reference.

What then is the message that this film gives to children? That they will excel at anything they want as long as they will work hard enough? Kids should learn that sometimes things don’t work out as we would expect or want them to; sometimes other circumstances, even if we have all the right genes for it, simply work against us. And even if things somehow work out, all the hard work we put into something usually has consequences either in our social, personal or romantic life, and it changes us as a person. Ranta, however, stays the same. The same dull, uninteresting character he was at the beginning, who now knows how to throw a ball. And who stays at the right track thanks to all the women in his life: his mother whose only reason to exist is her constant providing of food and other goods, and Metka, who sacrifices all her free time to help him with the grades. Two women sacrificing themselves for nurturing a boy who thinks him playing ball is the most important thing in the world. And who, despite all that, do not deserve any substance or character, as they exist for one and only reason: to help reach Ranta his goal, to help him reach his true potential.

Because apparently, despite being written in the 90’s, this story’s soul got stuck somewhere in the 1950’s.

20th Century Women (2017): punk, feminism and pre-Reagan politics in 1979 California

Santa Barbara, 1979. The year of Iranian revolution, energy crisis, the beginning of never-ending antagonisms between the West and the Middle East, and the beginning of an end of Detroit and America’s auto industry.

A car that dramatically bursts into flames in the opening scene symbolically represents an end of the industrial force that was once the USA, and on remains of which will all to soon be emerging new and irreversibly destructive, neoliberal politics of Ronald Reagan. However, as this is not a film about American politics, the symbolism of the burning car hides two separate meanings: a car, universal symbol of masculine society and patriarchy, that is slowly disappearing in burning flames, is also indicating an absence of a fatherly figure in our 15-years old protagonist’s life. “This was my husband’s Ford Galaxy,” explains Dorothea, Jamie’s enigmatic mother in a voice-over narration that is constantly reappearing throughout the film, helping us understand the unusual relationship between this chain-smoking single mother who is uncompromisingly bending all existing social “rules” of gender, sexual identity and nuclear family, and her rebellious teenage son who is just beginning to learn about life, love and late 70’s punk scene.

Dorothea (phenomenal Annette Bening), an elderly mother who grew up with music of Cole Porter and films of Humphrey Bogart during the Great Depression, finds herself disconnected from her adolescent son, whose life, problems, music preferences and a subculture he identifies himself with, are too far away from what her generation could ever fully comprehend. This leads her to a conclusion that the generational gap between the two of them is far too big for her alone to be able to raise him. She turns for help to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, charming as always) and to Jamie’s platonic love Julie (Elle Fanning), both of whom spend most of the days hanging out in Dorothea’s Victorian villa. Abbie, who is drawing most of her artistic inspiration from the intangible persona of David Bowie, is an aspiring photographer and a feminist, is introducing Jamie to the vibrant life of underground punk scene, seduction of women, and female sexuality as described in a cult feminist work, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Julie, although merely 16, also has an incredible depth to her – she, just as Abbie, transcends all the stereotypes of women who strive towards stability, marriage, family and security. The two of them, together with Dorothea, form a unique matriarchy in which all taboos of what is an appropriate conversation to have at the dinner table, disappear: women sexuality, pregnancy test, contraception, orgasm and giving birth is just a few of the topics that this film shamelessly touches upon. But where Mills, even if just for a second, becomes truly controversial at breaking the social taboos concentrated around women’s biological processes, is with Abbie’s monologue about (and a tribute to) menstruation – to something that’s absolutely natural, and yet is rarely talked about (let alone portrayed in the media, as recent controversy over Instagram picture showed), causing women to hide all the signs of menstruating, as if it is something disgusting and shameful.

Mike Mills broke into the film scene with his debut indie Thumbsucker in 2005. However, it wasn’t until his second feature, Beginners, that his visual, with collages of photographs intertwined style, and with real situations and personal memories entwined narrative voice fully came into being. 20th Century Women, his third feature, is undoubtedly the most logical follow-up to his previous film, as they perfectly complement each other, in more ways than just in visual and narrative style. However, if he was trying to depict (and in the process of that, understand) his father’s coming out as a gay man at the age of 75 in the Beginners, he now focuses on the other parental half – his mother. It goes without saying that this is another deeply personal film, filled with real-life events and situations, through which Mills somewhat therapeutically analyses an enigmatic personality of his late mother, all while paying a tribute to her indescribable complexity, eccentricity and unquestionable uniqueness.

What Mills manages to bring to the screen is a wonderful story about motherhood and women’s friendship, revolving around three incredibly complex and interesting female characters. However, what he also creates with this timeless tribute to strong and empowering women that shaped his life, is a unique time capsule of what life was like in 1979.

“They don’t know this is the end of punk. They don’t know that Reagan’s coming,” Dorothea says at one point in a voice-over narration. But what they don’t know is that world as they know it will soon forever change with destructive neoliberal politics, a complete destruction of welfare state, endless austerity, and never-ending attacks on women’s (reproductive) rights.

Films released in my lifetime that have influenced me the most

It’s my birthday today and since I thoroughly enjoy doing weird geeky things in my free time that are tons of fun for me but usually make no sense to anyone else, I decided to make a list of my top 3 favourite films of each year that I’ve been alive.

1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover / The Seventh Continent / Mystery Train
1990 Close-Up / Trust / The Match Factory Girl
1991 Double Life of Veronique / La belle noiseuse / Raise the Red Lantern
1992 La vie de boheme / Husbands and Wives / Conte d’hiver
1993 Trois couleurs: Bleu / The Scent of Green Papaya / Naked
1994 Satantango / Trois couleurs: Rouge / Chungking Express
1995 Ulysses’ Gaze / Maborosi / Dead Man
1996 Fargo / Breaking the Waves / Drifting Clouds
1997 Funny Games / Taste of Cherry / The Mirror
1998 Eternity and a Day / Festen / The Big Lebowski
1999 The Wind Will Carry Us / Rosetta / Eyes Wide Shut
2000 Werckmeister harmonies / In the Mood for Love / Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
2001 Mulholland Drive / What Time is it There? / Fat Girl
2002 Open Hearts / All or Nothing / Hable con ella
2003 Goodbye, Dragon Inn / Dogville / The Return
2004 Innocence / Nobody Knows / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005 Water / L’enfant / Cache
2006 Bamako / After the Wedding / Volver
2007 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days / Stellet licht / You, the living
2008 Wendy and Lucy / Revanche / 35 rhums
2009 Antichrist / White Material / Dogtooth
2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / How I Ended This Summer / Poetry
2011 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / A Separation / The Turin Horse
2012 Like Someone in Love / Post Tenebras Lux / Amour
2013 La vie d’Adele / Under the Skin / The Great Beauty
2014 Winter Sleep / Ida / Jauja
2015 Son of Saul / The Tribe / The Assasin
2016 Toni Erdmann / Cemetery of Splendor / Certain Women
2017 Moonlight / Raw / I Am Not Your Negro

 

Raw (2016): cannibal teen coming-of-age in this body-horror masterpiece

Horror genre seems to be elevating to a completely new level. Let it be Ana Lily Amirpour’s feminist vampire masterpiece A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon or Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, one thing is becoming quite clear: horror films are, thanks to these women filmmakers, getting a completely new and refreshingly innovative dimension of scary. But none of those films have been quite as fascinating, disturbing, funny and disgusting as Julia Ducournau’s extraordinary first feature Raw, a blood-soaked coming-of-age story about finding one’s femininity, sexuality and identity.

Justine, a brilliant 16-year old who graduated early, is stepping into the world of adults by following her parent’s footsteps and starting a veterinary college. Away from her protective parents and with no-one but an older sister who hardly acknowledges they are related to look after her, she finds herself in the world of grown-ups – and it’s vicious, unwelcoming and scary. It is no revelation that people can be mean to each other, but a college campus with minimal supervision and control from the administration, proves to be a hell breaking loose as senior students decide to put newbies to test through a series of hazing ceremonies. They trash their dorms, get rid of their mattresses, made them crawl to a raging party in the middle of the night (a scene that turns into a gorgeously choreographed one-take party shot), pour buckets of blood on them in what looks like a group variation of De Palma’s cult scene in Carrie, and force them to eat raw rabbit’s livers.

It is here that film takes an unexpected turn into a gory body-horror. Justine, despite loudly protesting against eating meat as she comes from a family of devout vegetarians, eventually (and much to her sister’s aggressive insistence) gives in – only to suffer the consequences that none of the other students could foreseen. Not only does her body reacts to the food with a rash that spreads all  over her, but she later almost overnight develops a gnawing desire for meat – and along with it, a sexual appetite that soon turns into desire for human flesh itself. Her physical metamorphosis should obviously be read as a metaphor for her going through puberty and coming out of it as a newly-born sexual being that’s still trying to figure out and establish her adult identity. But Ducournau takes the film’s premise of her coming to terms with her sexuality and repressed bestiality a bit further and it is here that her name – inspired by de Sade’s Justine from Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtues, begins to make sense.

After a hilarious bikini-waxing scene that quite clearly parodies the extent of torture women are willing to go through to fit into the socially constructed understandings of “beauty” and “femininity” takes a dark turn (in what may simply be interpreted as Justine’s refusal to conform to the rules imposed on a female body) and she for the very first time gets a taste of human flesh, Ducournau jumps into a risky territory of introducing us to a new-born cannibal with whom we are meant to sympathise. And it is indeed these insatiable cannibalistic urges – something animalistic that has awoken inside of her – that make us feel uneasy, if not downright disgusted while watching this film. But there is quite a simple explanation for this feeling of discomfort – and we do not have to look any further than to Freud’s explanation of “uncanny”.

Freud’s uncanny involves a paradox in that it concerns something which is at once frighteningly alien and strangely familiar. The feeling of familiarity is equally important as the feeling of strangeness here, as this feeling is always connected to some deep part of ourselves. The “other”, in our case Justine, is thus not truly other, but a core aspect of the self – and this feels uncanny exactly because there is a feeling of recognition. From the point of view of our civilisation, it is nature that is that “primal uncanny”, the other that is actually the core of our being that has undergone a cultural repression. And while horror has a long tradition of blurring the borders between humans and animals, it usually does so by character’s literal transformation into a beast (let it be a werewolf or something else), where it is easier for a viewer to keep some distance and not fully identifying with it. But Justine doesn’t go through any drastic physical changes. She still looks like a normal teenager, whose only changes in character are her growing confidence, more provocative dressing choices, increasing alcohol consumption and experimenting with sexuality. Her bestiality can’t be detected by her visual appearance; it’s hidden beneath the surface, being a part of her core self, as it is a part of all of us. The film plays with the idea that we are all, deep down, animals – something we repressed as soon as we stepped into the “cultured” and “civilised” world of humans; in the symbolic order of language, inter-subjective relations, ideological conventions and the law.

One of Justine’s first victims, her older sister Alexia (strongly resembling Béatrice Dalle from Trouble Every Day; another film that quite disturbingly blurs the line between human sexuality and cannibalism), is actually the one who most persistently tries to pull her out of the world of the law, of the symbolic, reconnecting her with the real. Being a cannibal herself, and already in full acceptance of her hungry-for-human-flesh identity, she tries to teach Justine how she too could fully embrace her newly found insatiable hunger. Their complicated sisterly relationship, always switching between love, friendship and rivalry, is central to the film’s exploration of what it means to be a (teenage) girl, and although Raw is gruesome and gore to the point it may at times be difficult to stomach, it nevertheless manages to deliver an intelligent exploration of femininity, the female body and its appetites. Not only are Justine and Alexia women with insatiable (sexual) appetites, violent impulses and angry outbursts (something usually denied to women on film, if not in life in general) – they also have bodies that bleed, sweat, puke and pee; something that, again, is not usually seen on screen where a woman’s presence is always subjected to pleasing the male gaze. True, the sisters have a taste for devouring human flesh in a quite literal manner, but is the society we are a part of truly that much different fictitious veterinary school where students are developing a taste for raw meat? We may be devouring each other in a more figurative way, but we are doing it nonetheless – for what is capitalism if not people eating each other alive in a competitive fashion, for their own personal gain and success?

Despite Alexia trying her best to make Justine a part of her cannibalistic rampage, her little sister decides against it. And it is here that Ducournau’s main point comes into play: it is not through some pre-existing social order that gets passed down to us from our parents and society we are born into, that we become humane. No matter how cultured, civilised, knowledgeable we are, there is still a part of us that exceeds the symbolic. And it is only by acknowledging this repressed monstrosity inside of us, the monstrosity that has the ability of causing unimaginable cruelty towards another human being, and then wilfully choosing compassion over our hunger for blood, that we can fully gain our humanity.