Wednesday, August 29, 2007

2007 TIFF—Eastern Promises


Last year I attended the Toronto International Film Festival as a civilian. This year the lines of my hexagram have shifted from "Difficulty at the Beginning" to "Perseverance." Attending pre-festival screenings offered by local Bay Area publicists has not only reduced the must-see quandaries to a (nevertheless) daunting process of choice, but afforded the welcome chance to talk to seasoned press about what I can expect in Toronto (I've heard over and over how well journalists are treated by festival personnel). It's been interesting to note that all over the place more pre-festival screenings are being shown than ever before. That's a welcome trend and so I offer up the first of a series of quick preliminaries of what I've seen from TIFF before even arriving.

I've been watching David Cronenberg's films since my early 20s. At first I was a bit embarrassed that I enjoyed his disturbing visions so much, whether venereal parasites bursting out from beneath the skin, or infectious syringes emerging from the armpits of ex-porno stars, or the body negotiating bizarre interactions with technology; but, I really shouldn't have been embarrassed. Time has confirmed that—though dark—Cronenberg's films exhibit a singularly-unique luster. It's hard not to be hypnotized by their sheen.


Besides, color me perverted, but Cronenberg's understandings of the human body within its social context has been way ahead of the pack for decades now. Especially his awareness of skin as a liminal site of transformation. In recent years he has shifted away from genre manifestations of "horror" or "SF" to examine the truest horror of all lingering underneath the skin: the human propensity for violence. In Eastern Promises he offers the surface, the tattooed skin itself, and the tattoo as the mark of sin. He's not the first, but, he's certainly the most recent to remind that the Mark of Cain is the original tattoo.


Collaborating once more with his History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen, I had the chance to talk to both Cronenberg and Mortensen recently when they were in San Francisco on press junket and Greencine will be publishing that interview closer to the film's distribution; but, for now, allow me to say that Eastern Promises delivers all it promises. Mortensen, as Nikolai Luzhin, maneuvers a mesmerizing dance between suave veneer and ruthless interiority and his performance in the bathhouse scene—which will be the scene everyone will be talking about—is downright brave and committed. All the performances are solid, each textured with moral ambiguities, that both distance and engage the audience simultaneously. My only objection—and it's an admittedly half-hearted one at that—is the casting of Armin Meuller-Stahl as Semyon, the head of one of London's most notorious organized crime families. Perhaps because of his brilliant performance in The Music Box, I assume a dark lining to his coat every time and am rarely taken by surprise when Papa becomes the Devil incarnate. Vincent Cassel's performance as Semyon's son Kirill provides the film's Shakespearean shadings. "You play with a prince to do business with a king," Cronenberg reminds us; an intrigue Nikolai woos to advantage.

Another consideration, completely incidental to the film itself, is Cronenberg's admitted ennui with the so-called "horror" genre. He has gone on record as saying that he wants to move on. What I find of interest, however, is that Eastern Promises falls within the realm of horror's earliest manifestations, when horror "came from the East" (i.e., Eastern Europe) to infect and infiltrate the Western world with its threat of miscegenation. Think of the Golden Age of Universal Horror with the tainted blood of its vampires and werewolves. With the advent of horror being registered through the American family, Eastern horror was relegated to the sidelines. Though perhaps not intending to, Cronenberg has restored Eastern horror to its rightful throne, replete with implications of miscegenation.

Cross-published on Twitch.

16 comments:

girish said...

"What I find of interest, however, is that Eastern Promises falls within the realm of horror’s earliest manifestations, when horror “came from the East” (i.e., Eastern Europe) to infect and infiltrate the Western world with its threat of miscegenation. Think of the Golden Age of Universal Horror with the tainted blood of its vampires and werewolves."

What a terrific insight, Michael! It never occurred to me...

I'm going to order a Sunday morning ticket for the Cronenberg, although I just realized that the subway doesn't start running on Sundays till 9 am!

Maya said...

Thanks for your comment, Girish. I must admit it's an applied insight gleaned from Daisuke Miyao's recent book on silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa. Miyao has masterfully studied how Hayakawa's "star" status was negotiated within the nascent Hollywood system, particularly with turn-of-the-century fears of miscegenation. Miyao, in turn, cites Diane Negra, a scholar who specializes in marginalized voices in silent film. Negra writes: "Dracula and other vampire myths represent the vampire first and foremost as a liminal figure, caught between an old world and a new one, at first a welcomed visitor but ultimately a new arrival who comes to be seen as a menace." ("Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology", published in Camera Obscura 48 (2001:168).)

Dracula's liminality has long fascinated me—not the least for its indirect reflection of minority issues, both ethnic and sexual—rendered eloquent by the ageold axim that Dracula cannot enter your house without being invited over the threshold first, which—in turn—evokes America's double-standard against immigrants. On one hand you have the Statute of Liberty inviting the world to America's shores while on the other hand there is a deep-seated distrust and fear of immigrants, who are often stigmatized as evil and unwanted once they've arrived.

I was quite pleased when Miyao referenced Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, and Maddin's directorical choice to cast Asian dancer and actor Zhang Wei-Qiang in the role of Count Dracula, while likewise employing silent film conventions. At the time of that film's release, my friend Frako Loden and I had several conversations regarding the importance of Maddin's Asian casting and its relevance to contemporary audiences. In his study, Miyao elucidates that Maddin's film "depicts vampires as 'immigrants' from 'the East' " and he provides historical context by stating, "Several 'vampire' films had been released in the United States by the time The Cheat [Sessue Hayakawa's breakout film] was released. …The vampire image … may enhance the fear of mixing blood and the destructive influence that [Hayakawa's character Tori] brings into America despite his superficially assimilated image." (Miyao, 2007:288, fn. 64.)

Based on that rich footnote in Miyao's study, I began thinking about comments Cronenberg had made in several interviews around the time that A History of Violence came out. There were old diehard fans who were longing for him to return to the horror films of his early years but Cronenberg made it clear he wanted to challenge himself and move on, though referencing at the same time the continuity of transgression always present in his films.

Though it's London, and not the United States, where the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood of Eastern Promises takes root, it's only a difference of detail (and it's to be remembered that the action of Dracula takes place in London as well, even as it gained its most universal cinematic inflection through the Hollywood system). East is still meeting West in problematic conflict.

There were other insights gleaned from Miyao's study of Hayakawa that could equally be applied to Mortensen's character Nikolai in Eastern Promises. Before Valentino, Sessue Hayakawa was an ethnic erotic attraction to white women and the issue of miscegenation was contained by systematically having Hayakawa sacrifice his own life for the white woman he loves; through his sacrifice, restoring her to normal status in society, and averting the threat of mixed blood. Nikolai is likewise ennobled in Eastern Promises for his self-sacrifices, redeeming his morally ambiguous character. The "tweak" Cronenberg applies to these ageold issues of contamination of race and country through the taboo of interracial relations is that—in my opinion—he is implying that there is violence in the blood and that violence is the contaminant. In A History of Violence, the hidden violence of the father becomes apparent by surfacing not only in Mortensen's character, but in his son's actions as well. Blood becomes one of the most important plot devices to transform the "family"—not only the Russian mafia—but the created nuclear family that in Eastern Promises counters the mafia via poetic justice.

That may well be the first time an author's comment is longer than his initial entry!

Brian said...

I'm afraid you're not the first, Michael. I've done that before. I often feel more comfortable writing in comments sections, even my own!

I love this theorizing, though I'm a tad worried it will unduly influence my own reaction to Eastern Promises once I finally see it. Needless to say I'm intensely jealous that you've been able to already. I can't wait to read your interview.

Does Miyao cite the names of the 'vampire' films shown to US audiences before the Cheat's release? I was under the impression that vampire films hadn't been around quite that early, but what are such preconceptions for, if not to be shattered?

Maya said...

Yes, Brian, he does. As you know, The Cheat came out in 1915. Professor Miyao cites two vampire films that came out before then, both named The Vampire, the first from 1910 by Kalem and the second from 1913 by Selig. Both of these were inspired by the "Vampire Dance" popularized in the early teens by Alice Eis and Bert French. (2007:288, fn. 64.)

I doublechecked IMdb and, sure enough, they list at least four vampire films before 1915, though none by the director names offered by Miyao.

The vampire early on was configured as a sexual threat disruptive to marriage and the family. The term "vamp" as personified by Theda Bara began in 1915.

cinebeats said...

Thanks for sharing a little tidbit about the film with us Maya! I'm really looking forward to seeing this movie. I've been a longtime fan of both Cronenberg and Viggo so I'm really happy that these two seem to have developed a good working relationship and I hope they make many more films together.

I'm not a big fan of the Hobbit movies, but I love Viggo's early acting work in many underrated horror films and I think Cronenberg and him make a great team..

Even if Cronenberg claims he isn't making horror films anymore.

The History of Violenec was plenty horrific in my opinion. Cronenberg has never made conventional horror or science fiction thrillers in my mind anyway. I do hate it when directors fall into their critics hands by believing their own press and rejecting horror as a lessor genre to work in. Hopefully he'll get over his current hang-up soon and embrace his darkside, no matter how many critics reject it.

Brian said...

Ah, but the fanged vampire in Maddin's film is not really the same sort of character as the "vampires" in those early Eis-French-influenced films, or is it?

My impression has been that all these pre-Nosferatu "vampire" films were about "bad women" who drain the life force out of men emotionally and/or metaphorically, rather than literally through their veins.

Your citing of the Eis/French "vampire dance" helped me connect some dots; according to this, the dance was inspired by the same painting that Thom at Film of the Year taught me inspired the Rudyard Kipling poem that led to the play that cemented Bara's "vamp" image. Presumably Feuillade's Les Vampires (which contains no bloodsuckers) utilized a similar meaning of the word. Perhaps Prof. Miyao (I really need to read this book!) is stressing that the two usages of the word should be considered less separate than we usually think them to be.

Just as, perhaps, the oft-noted vampire-esque Marilyn Chambers in Rabid may be less separate from characters in Eastern Promises than we might be led to believe without your insight, Michael?

Brian said...

A little more internet digging reveals a few pre-Nosferatu vampire films that don't seem to be directly related to the Kipling/Eis/Bara usage of the term:

This site names a 1912 British film called the Secret of House No. 5. This one calls it a Russian fim. And though they're both post-the Cheat, this site cites two more films preceding Murnau's take on the trope: 1916's Nachte des Grauens from Germany and 1921's Drakula halala from Hungary.

On another note, as you'll recall from Kevin Brownlow's Cecil B. DeMille - American Epic, one of the most incredible things about the Cheat is the fact that it was shot in the daytime during the very same period when DeMille was shooting the Golden Chance nights. And in my opinion, though the Cheat is an absolutely fascinating piece of cinema history, it doesn't really work as a piece of entertainment any longer; like the Birth of a Nation it's too fraught with messages about race and gender that are not easily reconcilable. But the Golden Chance, which is on DVD, is terrific; certainly it's my favorite DeMille silent seen so far.

Maya said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly. Always great to hear what you have to say. As maligned as the horror genre might be, I have to agree that Cronenberg's films still represent an artier arm of the genre and that his more recent psychological studies still remain horrific. Like I mentioned, I suspect he's playing with some of horror's earliest tropes in this film.

girish said...

I'm learning a lot in the great discussion here. Michael et al., thank you so much.

Maya said...

As am I, Girish, believe me. Brian doesn't know it but every now and then I do a post on silent film purposely to agitate his brilliance. He's making great strides in his grasp of silent film.

Which is my way of saying "Thank you", Brian, for these wonderful and informed contributions.

Regarding the fanged vampire in Maddin's film not being the same as those in the early silents, I think Maddin's was a purposeful conflation of these tropes. In fact I would love to talk with him about this some day to see if I'm right. But I suspect that he was blending silent film conventions with the "vamp" version of vampire (as you say, the bad women draining energy), and this turn-of-the-century erotic fetishization of the Eastern Other melded with contemporary fears of immigration. Miyao is not saying that Hayakawa's character in The Cheat is a vampire per se, as much as he's drawing an affinity with the vampiric as understood through erotic threat and the weakening (or draining) of blood and energy through miscegenation.

You have to understand that--Mesoamericanist that I am--blood and energy are cross-referential. The Maya have a term "chul'el" which signifies the energy in the blood and its invisible power leans easily into Western conceptions of horror. In fact, one of the novels in my drawer is called THE CONTAINMENT, all about the "chul'el" getting loose on an unsuspecting modern public.

I certainly don't want to color your appreciation of the film when you see it, however, and can't really bring up the further instances in the film that made me consider that Cronenberg is dalliancing with the fear of miscegenation, though for me its quite apparent in the script, and I'm going to suggest that we delay this discussion until you've had a chance to see the film mid-September.

Brian said...

Oh, I'm not trying to draw out more on Eastern Promises; I think I can wait two weeks. But the silent-film tangents have been fun and fruitful to delve down.

In the meantime, shall we talk about a History of Violence some more? I named it my favorite documentary of 2005, and I was only partly joking. For me, that film is first and foremost about the construction of human behavior and identity, and only secondarily about the particular behavior of violence. This is a running theme in many if not all of Cronenberg's films, but perhaps distilled mostly clearly (to me) here. I absolutely think it's a horror film, dealing with just the horror themes of transformation and the loss of self-control that most creep me out.

There's a short piece called the Lie Chair that Cronenberg directed for Canadian television. Perhaps because I haven't saturated myself with Twilight Zone knockoffs, I don't share the prevailingly-googled view that it's nothing special and a weak link in Cronenberg's filmography. To me it seems like a key early pointer to a huge aspect of the director's work, and a History of Violence in particular. I don't suppose you've seen it, Michael? If not, it's available at Le Video.

Brian said...

Oh, and I hope you pull open that drawer for us all someday! That idea sounds like something that shouldn't be contained!

Maya said...

Oh it's a doozy, set in Palenque, with Mayan chul'el oozing all over the place, and a scathing indictment of the Mexican oil industry. Heh. Now that I'm more disciplined about writing, I'll have to carve some time to shape that up and ship it out.

Speaking of books, however, I've recently set up a working relationship with Duke University Press who have these outstanding and erudite volumes on film. You should really get in touch with them, Brian, and they will begin forwarding you books like Miyao's, which is where I got it.

I've not seen The Lie Chair and have some Film Society vouchers for Le Video, so I should get out there. Good recommendation. But NOT until I get back from TIFF. It's been a major effort to get ready as it is.

What I got from A History of Violence is the sense--as you say--that identity is a constructed thing, the thin veneer of civilization and all that, but that the "true" face underneath is transgressive. Cronenberg, himself, in a recent interview said that transgression is the continuous thread in all of his work. I take that one step further to imply, as Joe Campbell does, that transgression is actually what is heroic or authentic within us; not our conformity to culture and civilization.

Miljenko said...

Cronenberg, my first film hero, since 1995, when I first saw Dead Ringers. Want to see this new one ASAP.

Sachin G. said...

Hi Michael, I know you have removed the review but I enjoyed what you had written so much that I wanted to leave a few words.

Firstly, thanks for letting us know that the film is worth it because I was really looking forward to the movie :) I really want to see how Vincent Cassel would line up along with Viggo. I have been a big fan of Cassell since I first saw La Haine.

Secondly, I really like your comment about the usage of skin in Cronenberg's films. That got me thinking of looking at his work with regards to the human body. I can't remember his older films completly but the human body seems to be a center point in his films. For example, the film could be about the transformation of a body (The Fly), an out of body experience, a mind vs body issue (the virtual games of eXistenZ), two bodies but one way of thinking (Dead Ringers) or even how the body is banged up for pleasure (Crash). With Spider, he examined a fragmented mind.

And I think Eastern Promises and History of Violence are about diving deep into the darkness of the human soul. The tattoo in the new film could maybe reflect the internal mood of the character's mind? So a mark on the body gives us a mirror into what lies beneath the body?

I know I can't comment fully until I have seen Eastern Promises but your nice review has ensured that I will try to force my body to get up and rent his earlier films so I can brush up on my lost film memories..

So to sum up all my ramblings, Thank you :)

Maya said...

Thank YOU, Sachin, for wandering by to offer up such a great response.