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Sitges 2012: A Drive-Through   

Carles Matamoros


I. Limousines

Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987): Michael Douglas orders Charlie Sheen to get out of his limo, because he considers that the younger man is not following his orders through to their final consequences. Crestfallen, the trainee-broker wanders, disoriented, through the New York streets – but soon re-encounters that same car, with the promise of a new opportunity. He is let back in. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012): Robert Pattinson as Eric Packer sits, inert, in his limo armchair while some guy pounds on the window. He wants the door opened, but we cannot hear his pleas: it is a soundproofed vehicle. Then this broker’s bodyguard intervenes, and he finds out the unknown person’s identity: it is Packer’s new doctor. They let him in.


This game between the inside and outside of cars enables Stone and Cronenberg alike to stage the spaces of capitalism – but it can also help us understand what the Sitges Film Festival in Spain requires of its viewers. To keep out of the movies, to contemplate them from the critical distance represented by a closed door, is simply not an option. Best to forget any outside, because the challenge demands our total immersion – to be closed up in the limousine (or movie theatre) in order to collectively devour the images. Get in – and don’t leave.



That is what we might have been thinking as we safely gazed at the streets from the vantage point of the car in Cosmopolis – gawking at the bystanders with the guilty pleasure of a voyeur. But our tranquillity as spectators is assaulted by Cronenberg, by way of a rather unappetising rectal examination – and by Leos Carax, too, who in Holy Motors (2012) literally enters a movie theatre and observes an audience absorbed in the screen’s images. It has to be us. Is it possible, then, to hide away without being seen? Not exactly, however much we may try. Packer cannot distinguish between what he sees on his TV screen and what he observes through his limo window. Everything is unreal, nothing appears to affect him – and nothing really seems to happen. Not even his robotic conversations approach what we mistakenly consider to be realistic or plausible filmmaking. So why does the film’s already famous monologue about hairdressing seem by far the most human, authentic thing on display? Surely because this conforms better to convention, to the verbal facility to which cinema has accustomed us since the days of Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). Cronenberg knows, however, that he cannot always film speech in the same way, which is why Cosmopolis’ cast faithfully vocalise DeLillo’s text, thus giving body to a modernised linguistic universe that we have already sampled in the economics-driven dialogues of Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007) and Heartbeat Detector (La question humaine, Nicolas Klotz, 2007). Cosmopolis reflects a puzzled society in which the use of ‘exact’ terms does not guarantee communication, and in which abstraction has overridden understanding. The only thing (if anything) that endures is the sheer beauty of a language which – since it says nothing – can be uniquely enjoyed for its sound and intonation, its pure materiality.


At the centre of Sitges are two cosy neighbourhood theatres, home to the more adventurous programming ideas, the all-night marathons of horror cinema, and those fantasy films that arouse howls of applause from aficionados. Here we are protected, reassured we are part of a family, like Packer is when at his hairdresser. However, for several years now, the true Festival epicentre has been situated in an imposing auditorium (1,384 seats), located inside a hotel in the highest part of town.  The size of the screen, the comfort of the seats, the clarity of the sound and the greater massing of the public truly allow, now, insulation from the world comparable to the limo in Cosmopolis. Despite all this, no one in good shape (physically or cinephilically) stays inside there for the whole event; one of the defining images of Sitges is that of spectators running from this auditorium to the other cinemas (or vice versa), anxious to get into the dark – all places that are hard to leave. During this incessant journey, one crosses zombies (the cover afforded by a large audience is welcome) and maybe even, if we are lucky, Monsieur Merde, the delightful creature born of Carax and Lavant who is now reborn in Holy Motors.



Who better than this heir to Quasimodo, the Tramp and Godzilla to express the transgressive force of fantasy? We know (we think we know) that it is merely yet another role belonging to Mr Oscar on his umpteenth night of performance – but his appearance is enough to undo the shackles of reality, and the society of the spectacle, meanwhile returning us to the mental state of childhood, this happy fusion of ingenuity, playfulness and nakedness. Oscar’s presence emphasises another idea that Holy Motors embodies: the need for physical, authentic experience. Lavant’s body is constantly on trial, in demand; he undergoes a certain, existential fatigue, but his character is never resigned and, as long as he can act, he still wants to feel. And, in order to do this, he has to keep getting in and out of the limo, just as Packer does in Cosmopolis. Both men fantasise about exiting quotidian reality (the economy, the cinema) in order to find themselves: it might cost them their lives, but there is no doubting that death itself can also be un beau geste.


II. Genres

In Visage (2009), Tsai Ming-liang uncovered the remains of the Nouvelle Vague, turning some of his leading players into phantom figures in a museum/mausoleum. His elegy was not appreciated three years ago, but it put forward many of the same propositions entertained by Carax in Holy Motors – where the celebratory and the sublime coexist with the funereal and the ridiculous. The French director is, perhaps, more respectful of tradition than his Malay-born counterpart – but, like Tsai, he cuts open cinema’s entrails and compels the spectator to wonder how far it can continue with the same kind of framing, trusting all along in the myth of modernity and its mise en scène. This theoretical, self-conscious, even metacinematic aspect was everywhere present in Sitges 2012 – where a number of directors interrogated the evolution of subgenres such as the slasher film and the giallo.


This is the case for Drew Goddard, who, after a promising trajectory as screenwriter (Alias, Lost, Cloverfield), has debuted as director with The Cabin in the Woods. The film – co-written by Joss Whedon, another influential figure in the contemporary audiovisual landscape (Toy Story, Angel, Firefly, The Avengers) – arrives as a playful deconstruction of the horror cinema of recent decades, ranging from Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) to The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006). While the plot genuflects to movies as influential as Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Saw (James Wan, 2004), its creators seem more interested in working on the codes of the slasher movie – so they borrow from this subgenre a series of archetypes, spaces and situations easily recognised by the audience. The pleasure of seeing another group of teenagers locked in yet another cabin in the woods is strictly relative, but Goddard and Whedon trigger a second scenario: an operations (editing?) room, where a team of technicians (filmmakers?) direct, via screens, the actions of the characters, who must die according to the pre-established (slasher?) script. Avoiding parody (that old postmodern irony), the film becomes a surgical operation upon the subgenre – in which we locate the natural position of all its organs, and simultaneously experience the need to move them all around in a new configuration, so that blood can continue to flow through the organism.



The luxuriant slopes of The Cabin in the Woods – which, after its encyclopedic tour of the slasher genre, seems to demand its destruction so as to start again from zero – contrasts greatly with the withdrawn gaze of Paul China, who manages to treat the exact same genre with austerity and minimalism in Crawl (2011). His film, which owes its debts to the Coen brothers, runs the risk of missing our attention on account of its B movie surface and the simplicity of its plot (in essence: a psychopath, a woman in peril, and a house). But overlooking it would be a mistake. China plays with temps morts, drawing tense situations out to unimagined limits (even slow motion plays a part), and providing undeniable pleasure for the aficionado: it is a case of seeing how far it is possible to develop a work of suspense from very few elements – elements that (to make matters worse) already seem to have been worn terribly thin by the horror genre. The sound effects (priceless gag/fright here of the squeaking door that never closes) are, in this context, just as exhilarating as – or even more so than – the images.


Something similar happens in Berberian Sound Studio (2012), a metafiction that puts us into the shoes of a sound engineer (Toby Jones) who travels to Italy to work on postproduction of a giallo. Peter Strickland’s film adopts the perspective of its hero, putting us in the wings of a film that remains off-frame – we hear only its soundtrack, mixing cries (voiced by particular actors) and stabs (created with fruit and knives). The film’s deeper purpose is more suggestive, following the path of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974): capturing a mental journey by depicting the meticulous, sonic mechanisms of a giallo. Its leap from rationality to madness may lack the brilliance of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), but Berberian Sound Studio is admirable for its pedagogical aspect, and its respect for the profession of sound engineering. To view the film demands that we first discover the fundamental sonic elements of the genre, and verify the efficacy of these resources that arise when fiction becomes the goal of a horror movie a la italiana.


That said, I can understand why a good part of the Sitges audience rejected Strickland’s film. Self-conscious works are welcome here, but those that are built upon (or above) the rules of a genre are often considered intrusive, since their makers seem to prioritise a theoretical approach over the goal of pleasure. There is a good example of this in the very character played by Jones in Berberian Sound Studio – a renowned technician who leaves his native country to collaborate in a low-budget production. His role can only be that of the stranger – the reputable auteur advancing on a closed universe with the intention of demonstrating his superiority over it. He is, thus, an individual who endangers the security of the amazing limousine in which we cruise through Sitges – and our instinctive response is to regard him suspiciously, as a potential ransacker of our precious vehicle.


The exact opposite occurs in Yellow (2012) which – as heir to Shinya Tsukamoto’s urban spaces and the roads of Drive (2011) – produces a visual treatise on the giallo (screams, scissors, knives, colour filters, women, gloves, sex, blood, masks, etc.) on the alibi of a minimal storyline: an average guy chasing a killer. This exquisite short by Ryan Haysom (not to be confused with Nick Cassavetes’ 2012 feature of the same name) does not rise to the level of a masterpiece like Amer (Cattet & Forzani, 2009), but it deconstructs the genre with a knowing wink toward the fan – who can drive at peace in a sensory journey through familiar terrain.



III. Spectators

As I have indicated, one of the distinctive signs of Sitges is the experience of communion that the target audience shares with certain films. Typically, this happens with those works that are best adjusted to the particular idiosyncrasy of the event – which, to put it simply, covers horror, fantasy and anime. However, beyond such worthy, well-received films as Looper (Rian Johnson), Maniac (Frank Khalfoun), Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg), Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sánchez) and Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda), there are other kinds of offerings that also, occasionally, are able to arouse equally enthusiastic audience reactions. These are films that, according to the vision of festival director Ángel Sala, are just as ‘fantastic’ as the rest because of (among other reasons) their formal daring, their treatment of everyday horror, or their faithfulness to related genres such as the wuxia or the yakuza eiga. Nobody should be surprised, thus, that every new work by Takeshi Kitano is received with jubilation here – and especially so when the work is as extraordinary as Outrage Beyond, the concluding sequel to Outrage (2010).


Once the nostalgic spectator accepts that the naturally melancholic Kitano will no longer simply repeat himself, she or he can enjoy the aesthetic pleasure offered by a film that follows the path traced by its predecessor, while downplaying both its action and humour in pursuit of a thorough refinement of the yakuza eiga. It would be easy to believe that this is a formula film, above all a job-of-work that replays obvious tics from the work of this Japanese filmmaker and his chosen genre. But Outrage Beyond is, in fact, a genuine variation on Outrage, able to renew the yakuza eiga without needing to overthrow its codes. The rhythm marked out by the dialogue in countless, heated exchanges; the abstraction of violence in which a gunshot emerges as a halo of light in the darkness; and a nihilistic look at the end of tradition in the form of a work that allows a sharp, political commentary – all this proves capable of sabotaging the fiction’s closure, opening the doors to that moral crisis presently going on outside the doors of our limo-cinema.


Brutality and politics also erupt in Warrior (2011), in which Gavin O’Connor opposes two boxers (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) in a ring that evokes two possible ideas of the USA – also imaginable, in recent times, as the debate/war between Obama and Romney. The context (a sports epic mixed with a soldier’s role in Iraq) and the discourse (the power of family reconciliation to resolve differences) never end up obstructing the film; it can arouse an enthusiasm for boxing even among those disinclined to do so. Whether through the physicality of the fights or the excellent character development, the initially timid response of the Sitges crowd progressively turned into a shouting ovation. I have never attended such a screening, where each punch was cheered, and each fall lamented. Our involvement in the movie made us forget everything else.



Still knocked out by Warrior, I stumbled into Compliance (2012) and suddenly woke up. Craig Zobel’s film offers a situation comparable to Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011), managing to shake any spectator who might feel a certain fascination for the humiliation (here, sexual humiliation) experienced by a woman – by confronting him which a reality that he cannot dodge. Without the fantasy framing of McKee’s film, Zobel locks us into a claustrophobic fast food restaurant where the proprietor strictly complies with the orders issued to her over the telephone by a police officer – to bail up one of the employees who is suspected of theft. It makes no difference that the cop’s demands are far-fetched, and involve (in collaboration with everyone else present) the humiliation of a young woman – the entire episode hinges on a telephone prank – because the woman in charge is only following the orders of an authority, without ever questioning the situation. To depict this thorny situation with acuity, Compliance becomes something more than an effective tale of everyday horror, emerging as an urgent indictment of the greatest danger in our Western democracies: the tendency of citizens to willingly give up their critical capacity. Once we know, moreover, that the story is based on a real-life case, we cannot but help recall the terrifying testimony of German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (1882-1946), who, during the Nuremberg trials, describing the ethos of loyalty to the Nazi command, uttered the infamous phrase: ‘I was just following orders’ – exactly the situation in Compliance.


At this point of the journey, the limo in which we have driven through Sitges is already quite compromised – since it has been splashed with paint and battered by external reality … the reality we failed to escape, even in our soundproofed booth. But even if there is still time for one, final party with the dazzling Spring Breakers, even if Harmony Korine sublimates the MTV aesthetic in order to manufacture a water-bomb of lights, weapons and colours – still, nothing can save us. All we can do is leave by train, to return to the grimness of our day-to-day lives. Yet we will always hold dear the consolation of being able to emulate, once a year, Korine’s girls, crying: Sitges break, Sitges break forever!



Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Martin.


from Issue 3: Masks


© Carles Matamoros and LOLA November 2012. Translation © Adrian Martin December 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.