blogger of tears: stuck, standard operating procedure, machine gun mccain, the apple, mother of tears

Ah, to be stuck someplace with you, Ms. Suvari.

Stuck (2007)/ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) – Has it been almost a decade, already?

If Danny Boyle, Eli Roth, and George Romero squired the first post-9/11 and post-Iraq horror flicks into theaters, Stuart Gordon and Errol Morris may have given us the first post-Bush genre pics: apparently very loosely based on a macabre car accident, Stuck's story hones in one celebratory Friday night with Mena Suvari that suddenly turns stupid and brutal, and nothing Suvari - an otherwise patient and well-meaning young nursing home attendent - does after helps herself or the hapless victim of her neglience, played by Stephen Rea, who skillfully manages to elevate the odd circumstances of his role to one commanding considerable empathy.

An entropy - a state of stuckness - permeates every corner of the wintry, despondent landscape Suvari inhabits: the elderly stuck at the nursing home she works at, the Latino immigrants in her neighborhood, stuck in a paranoid limbo of semi-citizenship, to Rea, stuck on the streets, stuck in unemployment, and Suvari somehow stuck with all of the above.

It would've be easy for Gordon (who I've more or less ignored since the mid-1980s, and after this I think I'll do some backtracking to see what else I've missed) to ride the metaphors and imagery of Stuck into the ground, but the film's brisk pacing and exceptionally clever script never droops into that kind of obviousness: it's depressingly easy enough for us to see ourselves in Suvari, stuck with our myriad momentary lapses - political, environmental, and otherwise - that've lead from one bad decision to a bigger one, and no one to blame but one another.

"Stuck" could be the explanatory title to Erol Morris' documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, the story behind the torture photos at Abu Ghraib. Morris sits down with a number of the soldiers who were tasked with "softening up" detainees herded into prisons after Iraqis began to buck the slew of draconian economic policies forced onto the populace by CPA chieftan L. Paul Bremer (otherwise known as the beginning of the insurgency). Of course, the guards at Abu Ghraib, in the wretched leftover from Saddam-time, weren't running the country: in many ways, they were only stuck there too. They tortured those prisoners, of course, even if on reflection the guards aren't entirely sure - it becomes clear, however, when the refrain of "we were just following orders" finally sinks in. Preparing people - people who were for the most part only there because they were of fighting age - for a more formalized, more "regulated" physical and pyschological torture is merely a part of the torture process.

Morris' gift isn't for the straight documentary, but giving the participants in his films the opportunity to create and own their stories, and then contrasting this narrative with imagery of his own. Morris deliberately apes a sort of slick, high gothic style for SOP (longtime Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman sits in for longtime Morris collborator Phillip Glass here), and is successful throughout. Nevertheless, Morris has caught a lot of flack for not being more tenacious and wending his way back to the CIA or other contractors responsible for the "proper" torture, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney or then-NSA head Condoleezza Rice, or Bush himself; after spending two hours with the Abu Ghraib crew, some of whom are utterly clueless as to the role they've played in the history of the early 21st century, SOP's shot here remains a tight close-up - not quite just the facts, but pretty much just the torturers. Sure - a few minutes with someone like Naomi Klein or Seymour Hersh or Dahr Jamail would've placed the guards' stories in perspective - but early on, Morris identifies the stories here as the soldiers', and the Standard Operating Procudure they participated in, the one that cost them - not Rummy or Dick or Condi or anyone else - time and infamy. They were just following orders. And maybe that's all that needs to be said.

Machine Gun McCain (1968) / The Apple (1980) – Two offerings by way of Turner Classic’s TCM Underground, a kind of TCM Essentials for the deranged: the first purports to be a hard-boiled, late 60s Italio-thriller, with John Cassavetes as the titular main character and Peter Falk as an ambitious mob boss. The plot – concerning Cassavetes’ release from prison to pull a Vegas casino heist on Falk’s behalf – lopes along without too much energy, perking up only briefly to show off Britt Ekland’s dresses and drop Gena Rolands into a short, emotional scene with longtime companion Cassavetes. McCain is a very particular kind of Italian film, one that appeals to a very particular kind of fan, and TCM should be lauded for presenting such a slice of esoterica. Alas, I am not that particular fan: I felt both Cassavetes and Falk were terribly miscast – the sort of tough guy Machine Gun McCain needed is more than likely found in something like 1967's Point Blank or squinting at the sun in a Peckinpah flick rather than this sensitive and tightly-wound duo.

The Apple was no doubt an attempt to make good on the Rocky Horror Picture Show phenom, and is thus interesting as a kind of cultural artifact, but the music’s bad and the leads forgettable so there’s little else to recommend it, aside from the idea of a corportatist-state-via-American-Idol and God strolling down from heave above to rescue this earthly plane’s folk singers and hippies.

Mother of Tears (2008) – Dario Argento has been coasting on the international community of horror fans’ good faith and generosity for the last 20-odd years, when he fobbed off his goofball horror-in-the-hotel movie Inferno as the second part of the “Three Mothers” trilogy he unofficially began with the legendary Suspiria (1977). The latter was such a high point, not only in Argento’s body of work, but in the history of horror and the thriller genres generally that given so much time, the last Mother movie had to at least come close to the flick that not only helped define horror in the 70s, but also lent splatterpunk its aesthetic, and even continues to influence directors today: and yet, Mother of Tears is such a mess of noise, gibberish, and mad dashes through twisty alleyways and train stations that not even Udo Kier’s eyerolling or the film’s gratuitous nudity could save this here blogger from boredom. There isn’t even an over-the-top set piece to take away, ala Inferno (1982) or Phenomena (1985). Mother of Tears isn’t merely bad, it’s just plain lazy, so I won’t bother recounting the plot here because it hardly seems to matter to Argento himself.

The farther Dario Argento has gotten from under the shadow of his cinematic fathers – Bava, Leone, Hitchcock – the more untethered his films have become from the idea of entertainment. A recent New York Times article generously offered that Argento was more concerned with the thrill of the chase than how he got there or what happened after that, and in this way was a kind of cousin to the stylist's stylist Brian DePalma. Once upon a time, this might have been a fair contrast. DePalma’s work, however, continues to be grounded in ideas, even if they aren’t sometimes fully-realized or maybe as good as they look on paper. Sadly (and I really do mean that) the chase, and whatever thrill that comes with it, lapped Dario Argento a long time ago.

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