Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2013 in Shit: Stoker

Stoker is the sort of movie that, even as it slips out of memory, does so with a gleeful whisper. Its forgetability seems, as it goes, less like a consequence of its capableness as a film and more like an aspect written with occult significance into every frame, every expression (especially Kidman's), every absence of music. What would it even mean for a film to be unforgettable? I would suspect nothing but the worst, if one was.

If there was one way that Stoker played on the things that excite me, it was the use of the basement. I assume, by now, that the sort of folks to whom this blog is a thing know well enough that I am endlessly enthusiastic about houses in fiction, and particularly in film. Stoker's basement is a bit forward in its psychoanalytic connotations for my unguarded enthusiasm, unfortunately, but I still did sit in the theater with a grin whenever it showed up. As an id, I think, it is pretty whatever, and it can be hard not to map it in that way, reducing all the particularly filmic devices it uses to a representation of a theory of the mind. I struggle, too, to clarify to myself whether the scenes with the phone booth bolster or undermine that particular interpretation, shot through as they are with a similar cinematographic sensibility as regards, most especially, lighting and the dislocation of space. A weird sticking point, I’ll gladly admit, given how charitable I generally feel to anything Park Chan-Wook does (even if his Three...Extremes short is easily the weakest of the bunch), but there it is.

And regardless of the strong desire to reduce it to the cleanliness of metaphor, the technique is still present, the immanence still gorgeous. It's not (just or primarily) the head in the freezer; its the winding passage that leads to it, the impossible filmic space that the basement becomes through tracking and lighting and set design, removed so far visually from the clean sterility of the house which rests atop it that (and again the metaphor creeps) it reads more like dream sequence than continuity editing. But then, the dirty secret of psychoanalytic interpretations of films is always that, divested of the material spaces that create the conditions for the talking cure, reading through that frame is only ever a way of using certain inapt concepts to talk about structures of affect enacted by filmic techniques, and syllogistically applying them to the mind. And damned if I am not willing to go to bat for the particular structure of the It Was All A Dream narrative, if only on the grounds of undermining the sanctity of narrative and characterization, but there again is the impasse; the critical apparatus which makes available this mode of reading is so derived from a theory of mind that its use endlessly inclines toward those representational components most ready at hand, and so psychoanalytic film criticism moves toward the characterological study, and boooooooo to that.

Would it undermine my lazy attempts to break out of the claims of psychoanalysis in regards to this movie to say that the directorial style is clinical? I expect it would. In a strange way, I think the closest Park Chan-Wook movie to Stoker, rather than Thirst (his actual vampire movie), is I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK. Despite the tonal (Cyborg being a romantic comedy, sort of) and thematic differences, at least in terms of their major preoccupations, both Cyborg and Stoker are, more than any other of his films I've seen, strongly informed by women's desires through toxic forms of socialization, and shot through with a kind of mediative attendance that otherwise Park usually reserves for moments of intensity. Taken as an isolated statement, this is pretty fucking gross, and there are certainly plenty of gross things about the movies that Park has directed.

Similar, too, are there use of artificial lighting with a predominance of white in the frame (also used in the hospital scenes of Thirst, admittedly) to convey an emptiness and focus, unlike, say, J.S.A.'s muddy browns, or Oldboy's oppressive darkness shot through with moments of claustrophobic neon palette, or even Lady Vengeance's bright, empty whites that functionally predated this current style of Park's but which are used to suggest, along with that film's very peculiar editing, a more immediate abstraction of form. This is, of course, dependent on the scene, but it might be interesting to see just how much the basement shots echo J.S.A., a movie that I think is widely forgotten from Park's ouevre. Not that I've seen it in the last, like, seven? years though.

Where in Cyborg this lighting and framing was made ostensible by the setting, though, in Stoker it seems more a conscious choice of thematic framing; it might be weird (and deeply misleading) to say, too, that Stoker is the most Sophia Coppolaesque of all of Park's films, but I think it isn't strictly inaccurate. That the cinematic shorthand for the ennui of wealth is deployed to Stoker's particular ends is also, well, very weird, and beautiful, and unsettling, and there is some overlap with the Fargoesque "cycles of violence" mode as well.

There are two scenes in particular; the near-rape in the snow and the scene where the camera rotates steadily through the party. The former is, basically, Coen Brothers, validated in that (final?) shot of India holding a hunting rifle into the camera and ostensibly at a cop, the site of violence that shifts from one atomized social to another through an act of communicative intimate violence. The latter is Hitchcock all wrong, marking the scene of unseeability with an eye (or, rather, the scene of unhearability with an ear) to function as the site of trauma that doubles as the act of filmmaking. This is the basic dialectic, in reverse, of American film, probably, sweeping statements are fun, who cares; the film as sight of trauma versus the film as connective tissue in the social body of violence. Park, being the director of the revenge trilogy, has an obvious inclination toward the latter mode, but, bizarrely, the relative strength of this movie in particular are almost exclusively held by those aspects which incline more toward the former (including, goddammit, and maybe even justifying, god fucking dammit, the basement as id, goddammit). That is, Stoker is more Hitchcock than Coen, even as Park is a more Coenesque director than Hitchcockian, at least in terms of social dynamics, and somehow this resolves into an, if not the, greatest strength of a movie that is all around pretty strong.

Of course, I've completely neglected to follow up on the claim that Stoker moves along the axis of female desire in a toxic sociality, which is, much more than the aesthetics, the most interesting thing about this movie. It does so in ways that are strange and estranging, relying on both difficult and too-easy formal cliché; on the one hand, Kidman's performance is incredible, on the other she is clearly often an instance of the monstrous feminine that India is both to become and overcome. What Park's aesthetic decoupling from a cycle of violence filmmaking style does is basically just to amplify the dissonance of this characterization/character existence that is present in each of the film's people, with Kidman only being the most egregious example; by framing the film not as connective body but as itself the site of violence or trauma as in Hitchcock, it intensifies its own forms of (gendered) violence, making them subject rather than an object (in the sense of the subjectivity, I mean). That this violence is situated within a social that is marked as wealthy, incest-driven and monstrous (per the title) is just to say that the movie itself is positioned as these things, and any attempt to escape or distinguish itself from them is at best a bid for emancipation, at worth a bad faith manipulation. For all its beauty it is often a hard film to watch, at least for me, even as India's becoming-monstrous is incredibly exciting in its own way. And I think that's how it should be.

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