Sunday, August 25, 2013

Suburbia is Burning in OVER THE EDGE

Over the Edge (1979)
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Rating: 9 / 10

Who would have thought the suburban idyll of a planned community could be so... apocalyptic? The spacious countryside might appear tranquil to the outsider with its orderly rows of houses, each with a big lawn, all far from the city and all its troubles. Well, in theory, anyway. There's a fire burning below the surface of New Grenada, and it's fueled by violence, drugs, and teenage hormones.

Over the Edge is a unique film in that it features delinquent kids who aren't urban, neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. These are the children of predominantly white upper-middle class suburban families in the 1970s. The kids have everything at their disposal except a sense of purpose. Lost amidst the grids of identical homes, is it any wonder they begin resort to theft and vandalism to keep themselves occupied? Their only true refuge is the bunker-like youth center desperately holding out against the uptight local police officers who believe it's enabling the kids' bad behavior.

I initially had a tough time believing that a gang of middle schoolers could get in to this much trouble, but the movie was inspired by actual events in Foster City, California, so it contains at least some measure of truth. More convincing than a "based on a true story" title card are the film's young leads. The kids are so genuine that nearly all of my skepticism evaporated within the first act of the film.

Added realism is introduced by the fact this film plays for keeps. When Carl, the too-smart-for-his-own-good main character, is jumped by a couple of other kids, the bruises he suffers linger on his face for the rest of the film. It's a subtle way to let us know that actions have very real consequences in this story. As the violence escalates, it's that much more powerful because we know it's having a profound effect on the characters.

All of this is captured beautifully by director of photography Andrew Davis. The spacious, barren landscapes that the kids wander reflect the interior emptiness that they're trying desperately to fill. The characters are frequently seen as shadows wandering against towering clouds, trapped between crushing layers of earth and sky. Juxtaposing these foreboding vistas with the familiar interiors and backyards of suburbia makes them that much more ominous.

The few things I wish were a little different in Over the Edge are minor. I felt Harry Northup's portrayal as the overzealous cop Doberman was a little too one-note, particularly in how relentlessly he targeted the kids. Although to be fair, in such a boring community what else did he have to do? More importantly, I found myself wishing the film went a little further at the end. It flirts with a truly devastating conclusion, but reins things in and returns to reality. It's not the ending I would have chosen, but it's a good one. However long the final conflagration rages, it dies off quickly, as tantrums do. Youthful rebellion is by nature a transient thing.

Over the Edge is simply fantastic. It's a must-see for fans of films about delinquency, rebellion, and growing up in a suburban wasteland.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Abduction, Obsession

2. Embrace the Future

I was lucky enough to catch a revival screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind a couple weeks ago. This film was a staple of my viewing as a young wannabe UFOlogist because it contained every element of the abduction/sighting stories that I loved. Also, in true Spielbergian fashion, it closes with a happy ending.

The last time I'd seen this film I was a kid, and I'd forgotten that it's a relic from the era where PG films could be slightly terrifying. Two big scenes stand out as great examples of this. First, the scene in which Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is out at work during a power outage and has an alien craft hover above him in his truck. It's his first direct encounter with the aliens, and we experience it as if we're sitting in the cabin alongside him. Bright light flood the windows, gravity vanishes and reappears, electronics malfunction, and then... nothing. It's a baffling rise to a climax that never occurs, and leaves us and Roy wondering just what the hell we've experienced (and why). In the other scene, Jill Guiler (Melinda Dillon) wakes in the middle of the night and tries in vain to protect her son from being abducted. The film switches into pure horror-movie mode as light and fog pour in through every opening in the house, and appliances, toys, and electronics go temporarily haywire. The invisible assailants pursue her from room to room, and despite her every effort her son eventually leaves of his own volition, making the abduction that much more bizarre.

Honestly, I'd crawl out the dog door for a trip into space if I lived in rural Indiana.
It's fitting that two of the most memorable scenes catalyze the characters' obsession with seeking out explanations for the phenomena they witness. Their search for answers (and the audience's desire to see it fulfilled) is the backbone of this film, and our questions as viewers mirror those of Roy and Jill exactly. Still, putting the aliens to the side for a minute, the underlying narrative is really focused on how the two seek answers in the face of trauma. Jill's trauma is explicit within the film: she's lost her child. (Curiously enough, we never find out why her kid gets abducted. Cause she's a single mom? Is the supernatural just a stand-in for her evil ex? What does this say about the film's ending?) Roy's affliction is less clearly drawn, but strongly parallels the onset of mental illness.

Watching the film as an adult, the scene that was the hardest for me to watch was when Roy loses his shit at the dinner table and starts sculpting his mashed potatoes into what he'll eventually realize is the Devil's Tower in Utah. As his wife and kids struggle to hold back tears, he snaps out of it for a moment and realizes what he's doing. It's the last time he'll really experience this mental clarity, and he tries desperately to explain to his family what he's feeling, with no success.

"Well I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad..."
Following this scene is the dark seed at the heart of this movie, one that seems to be too often overshadowed by its otherwise happy conclusion. After the emotional display over dinner, Roy's insanity is fully unleashed as he manically destroys the house by shoveling dirt and uprooted shrubs into the windows. His mashed-potato pile wasn't sufficient and he needs to see his sculpture writ large in earth. His terrified wife drags the kids to the car and leaves for her sister's house. The abandonment doesn't even seem to cross his mind as he seeks out the Devil's Tower and eventually chooses to become a passenger on the alien craft. It's the one wrong that isn't righted by the end of the film.

Spielberg has mentioned that if he were to make the film now he'd have changed the ending so that Roy stayed with his family rather than taking off in the alien craft. I can't imagine a bigger mistake. From the instant Roy encounters the UFOs, he's obsessed. He isn't sure what he's experienced, but it's something powerful enough to cause him to leave his family without regret. It's easy to overlook this as the John Williams score swells and the craft ascends into the sky over the final credits, but it ends up being one of the most interesting twists in the film.

...other than the grey alien smiling at Francois Truffaut.
Jill's ending sort of baffles me though. Her loss is completely waved away when the mothership delivers her son back into her arms. It's a consolatory ending that completely conflicts with Roy's story. I like that Roy welcomes his future with open arms (and not a loaded gun), as it's an indication that severing ties with his past life is going to be messy and difficult. He ascends into space leaving a wrecked family behind. Jill's problems are solved by the same entities that caused them, seemingly without reason.

3.  At the Mercy of a Vicious Cosmos

Another take on obsession within the abduction story is the dark mirror image of Close Encounters that is Fire in the Sky. Released in 1993 at the height of what seemed to be a surge in UFO popularity, this film dramatizes events that occurred in 1975 outside Snowflake, Arizona. On the night of November fifth, a young logger named Travis Walton was riding home from work with a truckload of friends when the group saw strange lights in the woods. Travis left the truck, appeared to be lifted into the air by a flying craft, and went missing for five days before reappearing naked in the woods.

Until a recent rewatch, I'd forgotten that Travis remains absent for nearly all of this film. The majority of the screentime is devoted to the police investigation into his disappearance and the interrogation of his friends. It doesn't make for a terribly engaging film, especially when you're lured into it hoping for UFOs. Thankfully, the wait pays off in the end after Travis returns and experiences a horrifying flashback to his abduction. It's one of the most terrifying sequences that I've ever seen in an alien abduction flick, with a slimy organic feel to the craft interior that's more unsettling than the typical well-lit and surgically pristine environments that we're usually shown. It also makes Travis's disorientation literal, as gravity seems to combat his every move about the ship, shifting and varying in strength to throw him violently around the corridors.

Still, the flashback feels like a bone thrown to the audience for sitting through the first two acts. However fascinating, it shifts the focus away from what the early portion of the film is attempting to say. Those left behind after Travis is abducted are subjected to a media frenzy that consumes their lives. The story blows up into a shit storm as reporters, families, and law enforcement clamor for answers that none of the witnesses have. When Travis finally returns, he's assaulted by crowds of people who want to hear his experiences directly from the source. It's hard to say that dealing with the fallout of the abduction would be more difficult than being wrapped in some sort of skin-membrane and operated upon by scowling greys, but it's enough to push him back within his own mind and into the safety of catatonia.

It's a shame that there's not as much focus on the fallout of the abduction or Travis's story after his return. But I don't think that's the point. Here the obsession with answers is primarily external rather than originating within Travis himself. Despite the fact that he returns, there's no sense of wonder, no enlightenment, and no suggestion than he was anything but used while he was up in space. While he's still trying to process what happened, the media, the police, his family, and his friends are clawing him to pieces, hoping to find answers inside somewhere. Rather than a public light show and a display of goodwill, all these aliens leave the abductee with is a serious case of PTSD and an immeasurable feeling of violation, both of which are exacerbated by the world he's thrown back into. There's no comfort to be found at the end of Fire in the Sky, just more questions. In this film the only thing worse that being taken into space is be being brought back to Earth.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Abduction, Isolation

0. The Allure of the Impossible

When I wrote about Chariots of the Gods I briefly mentioned that despite my resolute skepticism, I've maintained a fascination with the supernatural. I've often wished for an event that would put the whole thing to rest once and for all though - an undeniably lucid encounter with something otherworldly. You know, a ghost walking through a wall to talk to me, a UFO landing in my backyard, having the opportunity to take a fully focused photo of some cryptozoological entity at medium range. As long as I'm dictating how this is going to occur, let's say it's daylight, I'm fully rested, free of anything even remotely mind-altering, and also in the company of another rationally-minded friend who meets all of the above criteria.

The problem is that these circumstances aren't likely to occur. So left without direct experience, I'm forced to live vicariously through others. Still, no matter how many stories of supernatural experiences I've heard from people I trust, I can't assign them the same weight that I would to something seen with my own eyes. In high school, one of my best friends and his sibling both swore they'd seen a ball of glowing ectoplasm float across their staircase. A significant fraction of my extended family witnessed a dozen or so lights in the sky which moved in trajectories impossible for anything aeronautical or meteorological in origin. Some slightly more extended family had friends who lived in a full-on haunted house that exhibited every single symptom of the Amityville variety: unusually cold rooms that the dog wouldn't enter, inexplicably persistent illnesses, objects flying around rooms, a strange reluctance to move away, and even one incident in which the house appeared to be on fire from the outside. The neighbors called the fire department, but when they arrived there was no damage.

None of it convinces me. I can't trust other people's memories, however much I trust the people they belong to. This is why I think alien abduction stories are so interesting to me, because they induce the same sort of doubt and uncertainty in the person who's experienced them directly. Other supernatural events don't affect those witnessing them as profoundly as abductions do. Nothing else seems to leave as indelible an impression on the victim while simultaneously inducing paralyzing self-doubt and confusion.

That an experience so powerful and life-altering would leave you with only a handful of puzzle pieces from which to reconstruct the whole picture is fascinating. It's almost as if the victims are left with the same amount of information as those removed from the event. Memories are faulty, and physical evidence is often intangible or easily refuted. Conviction alone can't prove the existence of anything. The central question behind all alien abduction narratives seems to be: how do you extract meaning from trauma that's as inexplicable as it is devastating?

1. How Not to Do It

Dark Skies (2013)
Director: Scott Stewart
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

I realized I'd been watching and rewatching a lot of alien abduction movies lately, maybe because I was so unsatisfied with one of the recent entries in the genre. Dark Skies more than likely flew beneath your radar a few months ago, and not undeservedly so. Going in, I didn't know much more than the premise. I was just excited to have an alien abduction movie hit the cheap theater. When the opening credits rolled over 5 minutes of picket-fenced suburban houses with American flags draped seemingly everywhere, the sheer flag density made me wonder what the film was setting me up for. But once the story begins, it's made very clear that the Fourth of July is coming up soon. Sure.

Spoilers after the screaming parents.

The story here will be familiar to anyone who's seen either Insidious or Sinister. Dark Skies also comes from Blumhouse Productions, who is currently busy tweaking and capitalizing off the formula that led the previous two films to relatively successful runs. Essentially, kid-snatching boogeymen terrorize a middle-class couple with a series of increasingly threatening incidents. We get creepy sequences with sleepwalking kids, kids suffering mysterious bruises that suggest physical abuse, kids drawing strange pictures, and teenage sons who suddenly rebel and start hanging out with a bad crowd. They're all pretty typical suburban horror scares, some of which are effective despite their embarrassing lack of originality. The weird events also stress out the currently unemployed Dad, causing him to botch his job interview. (Tip for the future: shaving helps make a good impression.) The kids are misbehaving, the economy is crashing, and aliens are invading. What's a family to do?

The film's solution: isolationism. After concluding that law enforcement is helpless against the invaders, the family buys a gun, gets an attack dog, boards their house up, and calls an emergency family dinner. They watch the Fourth of July fireworks on TV and reminisce about how things used to be better. As the TV shows the Statue of Liberty and the national anthem blares, Mom sheds a tear. (I'm not exaggerating.)

Lest you think this is some sort of not-so-subtle commentary on post-9/11 America, the film also lets some old-fashioned morality run rampant, particularly in the subplot focusing on the family's teenage son. We're meant to view him as a "good kid" who happens to hang out with a "bad kid," one who unemployed Dad is hilariously mean to. I guess it's somewhat justified - the two break into vacant homes, smoke pot, watch porn, and come oh so close to kissing girls. All things that Dad doesn't approve of, except maybe the last one. What a surprise when the teen ends up being the one the aliens are after. The kicker is that the aliens actually lure the kid away from his family with porn to abduct him. Lots of explanations exist for why alien abductions occur, but I'm not sure "aliens as moral arbiters" is one I've ever seen before.

This is not the alien abduction movie I wanted, but maybe it's the one that 2013 deserves. I still think it fundamentally misses the point. There are many moments in this film where the characters ask why they've been chosen to be tormented by these entities. When they receive no answers they stop questioning. Who gives a shit anyway? Just shoot 'em. I don't need explicit answers to every question in a movie like this, but these characters aren't even interested in the truth, just a quick solution and a return to the status quo. The moment when they start pulling the trigger is when the movie ceases to be about alien abductions at all. The interesting part of any abduction narrative is the questioning, the piecing together of memory and speculation to try and find an explanation while struggling with the literal alienation that occurs in the fallout of the abduction. There's some semblance of that here, but it's obscured by a plot that chooses to play on fears of the nuclear family being threatened by the Other.

I wasn't going to write about Dark Skies initially because I didn't think it deserved my time, but maybe it's a good jumping off point from which I can examine other (better) abduction flicks. Either way, more thoughts forthcoming.