Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: Three Films From the Fringe

My friends and I like to believe the most interesting art tends to come from the fringe of mainstream culture. Here are three movies from the fringe that caught my attention.

The Canyons

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I was reading the New York Times story about Paul Schrader trying to direct Lindsay Lohan on his new low-budget movie The Canyons. I’d been keeping an ear out on this project since its Kickstarter was launched, where Paul Schrader and Brett Easton Ellis are not names to sniff at for a movie. They raised the budget for the movie from fans, kicked in their own money, and then Schrader cast Lindsay Lohan as the female lead in a movie about beautiful, decadent young things in Los Angeles who have sex and mess with each other until someone gets killed.

The article has become the talk of the town, and someone even leaked online an audio recording of Lohan throwing a tantrum on set. While all kinds of people might gasp or tut-tut at the stories from the article, I have to say this is far from the worst story I have heard from a film set. There are incidents of far more appalling behaviour on the sets of bigger movies out there, but they’re unprintable unless you want lawsuits to ensue. It also reinforces how movie sets and directors can become enablers for unstable and insecure personalities to be empowered to become outright monsters. In the end, though, the production is not quite my definition of a train-wreck – Schrader still managed to get all the footage he needed to make a complete movie with. A real disaster would have been if they were unable to finish production or get a movie out of it, and that has happened more than we know, but few of them A-list productions with anyone we’d ever heard of. The article does a really good job of conveying the sheer hair-whitening stress of trying to get through each day praying you can get all the shots down without losing time, money, light or, hell, the whole production itself. It certainly reminded me why I’m not in a rush to direct again. Of course, even after a movie finishes production, there are still plenty of hurdles ahead that could lead to it becoming a train-wreck, and in the end the movie itself could still end up being crap. That Brett Easton Ellis is reportedly unhappy with the casting of Lohan and the general pacing of the first cuts might say something.

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Er, this is Los Angeles as I’ve seen it quite often, actually. I’m so glad I listened to my gut and declined to put money in the Kickstarter, but then I remembered that while Schrader has been responsible for classics like Taxi Driver and Blue Collar, he has also made stinkers like The Comfort of Strangers, a puerile adaptation of Ian McEwan’s mind-numbingly dull novel that actually succeeded in making Christopher Walken boring!

When it’s released, I might still rent The Canyons out of morbid curiosity, though.

John Dies at the End

Much more successful and already released is Don Coscarelli’s low-budget horror comedy John Dies At The End, completed more than a year ago and gathering a cult following from film festivals, now out in the US via Video On Demand and a theatrical release in some cities.

Adapted from David Wong’s cult novel of the same name, John Dies at the End is about two slackers in an unnamed Midwestern town who become defenders of the world against a Lovecraftian invasion of horrors from another dimension, sort of like if you imagine Bill & Ted trying to be John Constantine.

Don Coscarelli has form as a horror director with a unique sensibility, dating back to his creation of the Phantasm series of movies that began back in 1979, though he also directed the cult Swords & Sorcery hit The Beastmaster. He bounced back to the map with the funny and poignant Bubba Ho-Tep starring Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis alive in a retirement home battling a resurrected Egyptian mummy plaguing the residents.

The original prose version of John Dies at the End has a reputation for doing for the Horror genre what Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy did for Science Fiction. It began as a series of episodic stories serialised online before being collected and revised into a novel. It’s interesting to watch the movie to see how it adapts the novel, especially on the small budget and feature-length running time Coscarelli had. The answer is some streamlining: a long middle section involving a rambling road-trip to Las Vegas is cut and not missed, and about two entire – darker – episodes of story are also removed, possibly being saved for a sequel. But a worthy prose sequel has already been published: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch it.

John Dies at the End: The Movie has a pleasing low-fi quality to it, keeping CGI effects to a minimum. It has a pair of likeable lead actors as the barely-competent heroes with the right blend of paranoia and goofy irony. It manages to be both irreverent and creepy at the same time, aware of the inherent absurdity of horror stories and revels in it to push the absurdity to the other side and make it both ridiculous and horrible. It has the feel of the best do-it-yourself 80s horror movies that had a point of view and a joy in the genre. It feels a bit like the pilot episode to a longer series, which is not always a bad thing.

Vulgaria

Now we have Vulgaria, the most popular Hong Kong movie of 2012.

Coming full circle from the story of Paul Schrader’s struggle to make another movie, Vulgaria is a raucous comedy about a down-on-his-luck director desperate to make another movie, so desperate that he agrees to accept money from a crazy gangster to remake the latter’s favourite sex movie from thirty years ago. When you’re beholden to the guy who gave you money, you’re obligated to meet his whims and demands, and the demands get more and more insane as it goes along, with the hapless director finding ways to meet them as much as he can as the production spins further and further out of control. To say anymore is to spoil it. Paul Schrader should be relieved his career hasn’t come to this. Or maybe he might have enjoyed the chaos. Who knows?

Directed by Pang Ho-Cheung, the most audacious maverick director in Hong Kong right now who dances to his own tune, Vulgaria is the kind of comedy that every artist and filmmaker will relate to. The only reason it’s considered “fringe” is that it’s from Hong Kong, which is not so trendy for mainstream Western critics to pay attention to these days. Yet in Hong Kong, it made a shitload of money at the box office. I hope we don’t see other Hong Kong movies trying to rip it off, but it seems doubtful. It’s not the kind of subgenre that can be copied or repeated to any real degree of success. Its sense of farce and desperation is very Hong Kong, and if you understand Cantonese, it’s even funnier. Aside from being a gonzo portrait of the lower rungs of the film industry in Hong Kong, you could also read Vulgaria as an allegory for the general desperation of Hong Kong people trying to hang onto their careers in the hope of things getting better. To me, it’s the funniest movie of 2012.

Vulgaria is now out on Hong Kong DVD and region-free Blu-Ray. It will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK this year. There is no news of a US release yet.

Ignoring the call to “Action!” at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

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