Movie City Indie
Calm, bearded, loquacious, Wes Craven is such a smart, soothing professorial presence, you almost want to, well, scream. That’s the name of the newest thriller by the creator of Freddie Krueger, the “nightmare” hero of the most successful series of slasher movies. Through the years, Craven’s tried to get beyond stock genre movies, but with little success. In fact, he turned down neophyte writer Kevin Williamson’s teens-in-peril script at first, fearing that its twisty, knowing riffs on horror staples like Halloween and A Stranger is Calling and the gags among its teenage cast about “the rules” to follow in order to be a horror film survivor, would be yet another nail in his artistic coffin. (Ironically, Miramax is pleased enough with Scream to have promised Craven the chance to make an arthouse movie after the untitled werewolves-on-wheels movie he’s shooting for them now.)
Craven deconstructed horror once before, in his commercially unsuccessful, but sophisticated franchise-killer, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare two years ago. But Scream‘s virtue is that it toys with both the clever and the visceral in a way that could potentially satisfy a larger audience. “I’ve clearly had this impulse to get away from genre,” Craven says. “When I read this script, I said this is too hardcore. If I do this, I’ll never do another kind of film, ever. But at a certain point, I had this feeling that I could go back to my roots, because the script is smart, the characters are well-drawn and interesting. It takes a look at horror from the point of view of the audience, and Drew Barrymore was already attached. We were also hearing that agents around town were reporting a lot of interest from their young clients.” (Eventually, Fox sob-sister Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, the sharp and funny Rose MacGowan and up-and-comer Skeets Ulrich joined the cast.) “So I just had this feeling, screw it, man, I know how to do this, I can make a good picture, and it never hurts to make a strong picture. I kept thinking of Pacino in Heat, what was it he said? ‘I do what I do best!'”
Craven credits his knack for horror to his Southern Baptist upbringing, which forbade movies, dancing, drinking and card-playing. After grad school, while teaching college, he discovered filmmakers like Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman, Antonioni, and Polanski. “I borrowed a lot from those films for the American genre of scary movies,” Craven says. “Obviously, I think the horror genre could be served by more thoughtful writers and directors than it has been.” I wonder aloud why the thoughtful Craven didn’t wind up in a more “respectable” line of filmmaking. “That’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times I don’t have a flip answer. I think there was a lot of rage in my background. Things I didn’t know were there until I made Last House on the Left. Maybe there’s some level of self-assassination to make people think I’m somebody completely different than who I am. That’s why they don’t offer me a film like The English Patient! But then I think, I’ve made fifteen films, and as many television films. I’ve worked steadily my whole career.”
And it’s a career Craven is not at all ashamed of. “There’s something valuable in horror. Typically, kids comes out of a scary movie bubbling over with energy. There’s a very salubrious release, a deep sense of tensions and fears that get exorcised. I think laughter is a natural release for unbearable tension. I think the audiences unify in a way that’s unique in our culture, when they’re all scared together. The old buffaloes turn their backs to the wind and get the young ones in the middle. Boyfriends protecting the girlfriends, you know.”
And the most obvious question of all: What scares you? “That question!” After a moment, he adds, “What scares Wes Craven? My release date! It’s better than Halloween, but I wonder how we’ll do with the number of films out there. But what scares me, really? My standard answer is that I’m scared by what scares the audiences, which is why I can do what I do. The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you. That’s why the O. J. Simpson trial was so compelling. It’s because the crime was so primal. It had to do with that fact that three human beings, whoever they were, were locked, literally, in a cage, with somebody with a knife. I think horror also deals with the outskirts of paranoia and trust. Literally, who can you trust? Can you trust your perceptions, or trust your family to protect you? Will your boyfriend or girlfriend be there for you, instead of against you? It’s all the mind-body paradigm. Is my mind giving me accurate enough information that my organism will survive, or do I have an erroneous concept that will cause something calamitous to happen to me?”
Does that leave Craven with any philosophy to live by? He clicks a throat lozenge, smiles a little. “I run a friendly set. People get along. Around our office, we like to say, life is too short, get rid of the assholes.”
Originally published 19 December 1996.
“By the way…”
There’s a restored, remastered version of Peter Greenaway’s ravishingly photographed 1995 The Pillow Book out now, with an amusingly Greenawayesque feature-length commentary by Greenaway on the Blu-ray and DVD, as well as an astute essay by Nicolas Rapold. The Film Comment senior editor writes: “For Greenaway, his film addresses his oft-voiced complaints about cinema’s identity and about the hierarchy of text and images. It’s as if their unity through the human bodies of The Pillow Book represented some tactile reconciliation, as Greenaway looks beyond his beloved Western canon of painting, architecture and literature, and for a change, toward an eastern work whose insights and abandonment of convention were evidently a creative tonic.”
I talked to Greenaway when the film was released, in a discursive two hours one Sunday afternoon after a recondite, cheekily abstruse Saturday night lecture to an audience of mostly elderly Chicago arts types. (I wonder where the cassettes of that conversation are.) I started by asking him not to repeat any of the dense, allusive, even elusive material from the night before: could we course the conversation along other limits: cartography, the topography of a city like Hong Kong, the making of lists upon lists, inscription upon the skin, men’s fashion (as evidenced in the Paul Smith and agnes b. costumes that Ewan McGregor shoulders on)? He warmed to the limits. Here’s that interview, lightly edited, but not updated. [June 9, Film Movement Classics.]
THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH SCREENS FOR PETER GREENAWAY. Not the single screens his films such as The Pillow Book play on in only the larger cities of this country, but the blocks of information, layers of detail, of flash and filigree that burst like fireworks in his work atop ever more screens of narrative strategy, emotional distance, art-historical allusion and personal symbolism. Greenaway chuckles that the CD-ROM was invented just for him, with its potential for creating an infernal thicket of reference and cross-reference at each and every viewing.
The startling and perverse The Pillow Book is an adaptation of the thousand-year-old “Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” a diary of lovers’ stories, of sexual manners, of longings and regret, compiled by a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Imperial court. Greenaway fashions his most elegant and compelling film in years, following Vivian Wu as a model in contemporary Hong Kong, who dreams of embodying the erotic fantasies of Shonagon by writing stories on the bodies of her lovers in ornate calligraphy. The combination of visual styles is dazzling—black-and-white memories in the style of Yasujiro Ozu’s movies about family life; brightly colored scenes of street life and fashion shows, of lovemaking and revenge-getting, in varying screen widths and with frames superimposed within frames; and in one memorable scene, inspired by Karaoke, a French pop song accompanying a lovers’ montage, subtitled in English and French with subtitles in calligraphy. Ewan McGregor is also at hand, offering a largely nude performance as Wu’s ultimate blank screen, the body she has dreamed of writing her erotic fantasies upon.
In public appearances, the perennially black-clad painter-writer-director is given to lengthy pronouncements, and even in the more-relaxed confines of an interview, his digressions and assertions are difficult to break down to less than hefty paragraphs. The lasting pleasures of the 55-year-old Greenaway’s movies are seldom simply those of narrative, but of found references, chance juxtapositions, painterly eruptions, moments that privilege the viewer in unexpected ways.
But some audiences are resistant to the challenges Greenaway’s work offers. “People are conditioned to believe in certain things and it’s extremely difficult to maneuver them out of the particular paths,” the self-described “intellectual exhibitionist” says. “They feel that film should massage their prejudices and confirm what they already know. I often feel that we talk and we talk and we talk and people appear to hear but they don’t listen. Well, I think it’s going to have to be a Japanese water-torture form of education. I hope to entertain on as many levels as possible at once, even hundreds. We’re just going to have to keep going and keep going and hope at least sixty percent of what we’re trying to say can come through. There are so many characteristics which I find abhorrent about cinema. It’s over a hundred years old and no one has begun to truly explore its potential yet.”
Greenaway is notorious for the number of potential projects he has planned, and for the wealth of sketches and writing that accompanies each. “Oh yes, my career is scattered and littered with hundreds and hundreds of productions, started and abandoned, thought about and moved on.” He finds the exigencies of a film’s budget and shooting schedule a boon to getting anything done. “A writer, or a painter, working on a private basis, the conditions would be even more deplorable. The responsibilities of time and collaborators creates a series of strictures that push you on. Unless those didn’t exist, to push it further there would be no reason to get out of bed in the morning! I would simply sit in bed and write scripts.”
Is there a lot of toil and drudgery in assembling all this information? “It’s not drudgery. It is a sheer and dangerous delight. I like committing the ideas to the actual written page as much as I despise the notion that we have to have a text before we have image. The majority of drama scripts are dialogue lists and banal as literature. But my scripts are very, very full of lots and lots of information. I want to make them readable. Yet in terms of the actual mechanics of putting the thing down, I never start at the beginning. I pursue some detail and then ripple out.”
A suitable choice of words, considering how water and the shadows of ripples suffuse The Pillow Book. Hong Kong is shown as a sum of urban delirium and dissociation, then the ripple of watery reflection plays off almost all of the miraculous, unaffordable dream decors of homes and cafés and restaurants. Even fire is photographed with the rippling caress of water. “There are certain visual motifs that I quite flagrantly am prepared to use over and over again,” he says, “such as flight and the notion of water.”
Greenaway slouches a little, revealing unexpected plumage in the fashion of fire-engine-red suspenders under his black carapace. “Water is so photogenic and powerfully metaphorical in many ways. The sheer delight of photographing water! When I find the space somewhere in a film, I have the sheer self-indulgence to bring it in. I have to find a rationale to make the scenes significant in their context. It’s something we learned from Godard. He would show us something: ‘Here, take a look here at this for a moment.’ But it also goes back to Laurence Sterne and ‘Tristam Shandy.’ What is so brilliant about that book is that easy, relaxed conversational way to embrace anything you want to embrace and still make it work. It’s terrible that audiences are so conditioned to want to be told a story in that ever-anxious, dominant cinema way. When everything has to be germane to plot, we all miss so much.”
[Originally published in Newcity in a slightly different form in 1996.]
Mr. Strickland’s first music video, for a band who contributed music to Duke Of Burgundy.