Sunday, July 26, 2015

Maniac 2012 Review: A chilling unique take on serial killer films

Serial killer in a car chasing women
In a sordid way, serial killers make good film material as they appeal to our darker nature lurking deep within us often unawares and unacknowledged. These movies may serve as a form of catharsis both for the film-makers and the viewers and by simulating violent fantasies, both of us hopefully relinquish the need to act out any such deeds.

I have seen quite a number of such movies as they are both thrilling and fascinating, and I stumbled upon the movie Maniac (2012) through a website, which had listed this film among some of the best psychological thrillers out there. Then I read more about the film. It was a remake of the classic 1980 slasher film by the same name, which I may or may not have seen when I was younger.

There were, however, three things of interest about this remake: 1) It was supposedly shot completely from the point of view of the serial killer. 2) It was associated with some the makers of the French New Extremity cinema (more about this later). 3) It starred Elijah Wood, also known as Frodo.

The last point seemed to me a rather strange choice for casting, but why not. My wife said that there was always something creepy about this actor's eyes that she could not shake off and that made him suitable and eligible for a serial killer role. Besides, if the movie was from his POV, then there would be basically little acting required on his part anyhow.

Moreover, the first point aroused my interest, but I viewed it as a doubtful procedure, cinematically speaking. How would they manage to pull this off throughout the film without making it too gimmicky and, more importantly, without becoming tedious, I asked myself. Although it would make it interesting to see events through the eyes of the protagonist, this technique seemed to be killing (ha!) some suspense as we would know exactly where the serial killer was at all times.

As to the second point, I feel a kind of love-hate relationship (actually positioned more firmly on the hate spectrum) in relation to the French New Wave of Extremity Cinema. Although I think arts should be generally free of censorship, (note the use of “generally”), there ought to be certain limits. Films like A Serbian Film (2010), with its depiction of violence and unspeakably brutal acts against infants and children are in no ways my cup of tea or in any ways worthy of cinematic depiction in my view. (I have not seen the film and only read about it in reviews whose critics for the most part told me in unequivocal ways to stay away from this one like hell!)

Yes, I have my limits. It took me a long time to get ready to watch Happiness (1998) by Todd Solondz, mainly because it had a pedophilic character in it and the film-maker was one who would not shy away from showing the dark side of humanity. I read articles, I asked friends, and finally got myself to watch it (after first seeing Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), which by the way I found somewhat disturbing but also strangely funny).

And it turns out that I simply loved Happiness! Depressing it was, but it was handled with skill, and it was strangely enough very funny too. I watched it again this time with my wife who also enjoyed the film. It turned out that my fear was out of proportion. Don't get me wrong, there is one particularly heartbreakingly sad moment in the film, but overall it is worth watching because it shows us the dark side of humanity without being too bleak (though borderline) or preachy.

But there are still a number of films, mainly from the French New Wave of Extreme Horror that I still shy away from. They include Gaspar Noe's shocking and prolonged rape scene in Irreversible (2002) (again based on hearsay) as well as shockers like Martyrs (2008) or Inside (2007). It seems that these movies have the following things in common: They push the envelope and show graphic scenes of violence and sex. Mostly, they are attacks on the body, hence the pun with extremity.

They can be seen as a criticism of how we view, relate to or treat our bodies or those of others in the modern world. Not unlike the film Salò (1975)(again another film I have not seen nor probably will) where characters are forced to eat excrement (again based on hearsay) reflecting Pasolini's take on our careless consumption of food. But again, there are things I would read about but I would have no specific desire to view them on the screen.

(Do not despair, I will eventually talk about the movie Maniac and serial killers! But in the meantime my prelude or digression shall continue.)

One regret I have is the watching of Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009). The problem is I should have listened to those who warned me! I mostly like what Trier brings forth, even his Boss of it All (2006) I quite enjoyed and I know that his films can be disturbing. Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) left me in temporary states of daze and depression. But those films were very good, whereas Antichrist was not.

I do not think that Trier is a misogynist nor a Nazi for that matter, and I do not think he should have received the anti-humanitarian award of Cannes. The film starts off rather well, but goes off track and gets completely lost in the final twenty minutes or so. There are graphic depictions of sex and violence, and the ending of the film is rather silly. But the graphic scenes were uncomfortable, not to say bordering on disgust, and I cannot unwatch those scenes. Needless to say, I do not plan to re-watch it nor have I seen this one with my wife.

One director who does give me the creeps and who I approach oh so cautiously is Michael Haneke. His Piano Teacher (2001) is very disturbing, but unlike Trier's film Antichrist, it is also very good although I have no immediate plans of re-watching it. His Funny Games (2007) I did not watch until I had read almost every possible review on it online and when I finally watched it I found it less shocking than expected (Haneke does not overplay it, and I was more shocked about the blasé reactions of the parents than the movie itself.) In this film, Haneke breaks the fourth wall and makes us accomplices with these evil and twisted serial killers, but there is generally an underlying sense of dark humor that eases off some of the tension.

Finally, let us get to the Maniac remake. The main reason I wanted to watch it was my general interest in (movies about) serial killers as mentioned above. When they are well done, those films are disturbing in a good entertaining way. What had pulled me back a bit was the involvement of Alexandre Aja, who wrote the script and had had a hand in quite brutal flicks like the remake of the Hills have Eyes (2006) (not seen). And my sources told me (as was to be expected) that the movie Maniac does not hold back in nor pull its punches when it comes to the depiction of violence.

So the movie started and before the opening credits, there is a sudden scene of violence that left me speechless. It turned out that the whole POV was rather unsettling. We get glimpses of the protagonist in mirrors or rear-view reflections, but more ingeniously, which makes it even more disturbing, are the scenes of his hallucinations. In those situations, the killer has out-of-body experiences and in which he sees himself committing the acts from the outside.

Yet apart from the gore, there is also the element of somewhat identifying and empathizing with this demented character. We see the world through his eyes, how he feels compelled to commit atrocious acts due to his schizophrenia and his troubled past with his imposing and frightening mother.

Freud would have had a field day with this film as it deals with the protagonist's obsessions of sex and death in a way I had not seen on the screen previously. In another intense moment of hallucination, he sees himself as sexless just like his mannequins. He kills and then scalps his women because hair is what endures longer than other body parts and he places (and staples!) the hair of his victims on top of his immaculately cared-for mannequins.

Off and on, the mannequins come to life and talk to him, often reprimanding him. Although we know this is another one of his hallucinations, all we get is his point of view, and we cannot seem to be able to get out of his head. In other words, we alongside the killer feel compelled to kill and this is what makes this film unique in my eyes. The whole POV is used both skillfully and with purpose, and although the director cheats a couple of times, it is a poignant technique. Unlike other horror films where the women do not know when they will be attacked, we are waiting in the bushes to attack with the killer so-to-speak.

It sure helps to have a killer (ha!) soundtrack that is both moving and haunting by a French musician who simply calls himself Rob. If you are into psychological movies and can handle your level of gore with a good dose of unease, or if you simply want to see what goes on in the mind of a serial killer, this movie is one to watch. As to the other movies mentioned here, especially the ones pertaining to the Extremity Wave, I have currently no intention of watching, let alone recommending them. If I do bring myself around to watching them (curiosity is a strong emotion after all that can even kill cats), I will let you know in an upcoming post.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ode to Life Or How Religion is Opposed to Living

Waterfall hidden in green
On a sunny day on my way to the confines of work I was struck with swirling ideas and floating feelings. In other words, I felt alive. There was a sense of - metaphorically speaking – running around through wild grass and jumping into clear rivers filled with colored fish. No, I was not on drugs, far from it, but those sensations could be classified as being “high” or in tune with nature and all that pulsates and throbs with life.

In that moment, everything fell away and apart like dust. The intellectual ceased and gave way to unadulterated and spontaneous outbursts of feelings. I imagined myself bursting out into operatic songs. And I re-evaluated the meanings and connotations attributed to our notion of life.

What is life? It seems that the most relevant aspect of life are the senses. It is the sensual cues that make us vividly aware of our surroundings. To be alive is your heart beating profusely, your eyes taking in visual beauty, your ears attuned to the musical sounds of nature, your nostrils filled with the odor of all that is emitting hues of scents.

Being alive means seeing and feeling and digesting in color. This was shown in cinematic experiments where the black and white of the dead gives in to the colored perception of the living. The most striking example is the masterpiece Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, in which an angel used to see the world in shades of grey but when he becomes human, everything is converted into color. He feels cold and rubs his hands with glee. He is delighted to taste his blood or a cup of hot coffee.

It is those natural and often ignored sensations that make us alive. We are too often immersed in our imaginary talk and limit ourselves to the tiny space within our heads. We are worried about the past, the present and the future, our jobs and our families and in such an unhealthy state, life passes us by. It just happens to us and floats away unnoticed while we are busy making other plans as John Lennon sings, or we do not breathe and do not stay home to watch the rain only to realize that we are nearing our own demise, as Pink Floyd exclaims.

So life can be subsumed to two things: the present and our senses. If we base our definition on these two aspects, there are things that are against life and others that promote it. For example, philosophy, as much as I love it, is for the most part, anti-life. It mistrusts the senses and puts on a high pedestal the tiny voice in our head that prides itself and feeds off on logic and reason.

When we look at the arts, cinema, music, fiction and poetry, we see that they, again for the most part, embrace life. They accentuate feelings and sensations, perceive them under the magnifying glass and help us to spill over those insights into our daily life. A seemingly dreadful life of routine and hardship may turn into a blossoming flower and affirmation of human existence.

Where does religion end up? It again depends on our brand. But if we look at what is given as mainstream religion, then we sense that it is notoriously anti-life. The senses and natural instincts are not only mistrusted but seen as evil temptations. All that makes us alive we are told to cut out like a budding cancer or withered leaves and instead we ought to rely on something vaguely defined as soul. Our eyes are not focused on this life, the here and the now but an after-life in the realms of the far future, a place that we eventually might not even be able to see with our physical eyes.

All this ties in with some of my beliefs on life and sacrifice. As much as I think it would be heroic to give one's life for a cause, I also deem it foolish and the most anti-life act one can imagine. If religion asks you to give up your life, then it is opposed to all things living, and I do not wish to subscribe to it. Also if its constant focus is on death and destruction, such as the end of all life or the apocalypse without taking into account the beauty of life that lies within this same period, then it is equally misguided in its outlook.

So if we constantly and consistently suppress our natural desires, then we are becoming dead. Death is the end or lack of sensations; it is the endless sleep that has no dreams and hence no feelings whatsoever. What mainstream and organized religion, especially in its radical form, is often asking us is to become eunuchs to life; to suppress our passions and sexual desires and everything else that makes us human.

This may seem harsh, but I am not equating God with religion at this point, the same way we cannot equate Jesus with being a Christian. In fact, Jesus has stood up for all that which makes us alive and has opposed all that which is keeping us stagnant, but his teachings have become strangely crystallized into motionless, limited and limiting dogmas and doctrines. Those teachings have been put on their heads and under the banner of religion, the religious representatives are asking people to do things, which Jesus himself was criticizing in the first place.

If this seems contrary to most people's experience, then I would like to point out that Jesus was not averse to food and wine nor the occasional dance at weddings (he even turned water into wine not merely to show off with a miracle but to add to general merriment). He hung out with prostitutes and openly defied authorities, the priests and the Roman oppressors. The only reason he embraced death because he deemed it as necessary for his purposes, something which I will not comment upon at this point.

So how should we live? One thing I am opposed to and am not condoning here is hedonism, at least in its extreme form. I do not think anarchy would be the strongest expression of life. Anything in its excess will lead to negative consequences. What I prefer is a mild form of hedonism, where you partake in good food, wine, and sex but in good and healthy measure.

At the same time, I am not saying that one should throw ethics and morals out the door. Quite the contrary. I think having an ethical life is compatible with one that is life-affirmative and positive. One should, of course, control sexual instincts and desires wherever and whenever it is deemed inappropriate, but one should not give it up altogether nor control it too strictly or unduly.

Slight hedonism is the best way to go in my view. One should feel life to the utmost, but also not become a slave to one's passions. As the Buddhist says the best way lies in moderation. Yet that moderation is often lacking in our daily existence, and we either diet or binge on life, hence never seeming to find the right and healthy balance between the two.