Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '97 - Mike Thorn ""

Friday, December 1, 2017

Underrated '97 - Mike Thorn

Mike Thorn is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including DarkFuse, Dark Moon Digest and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. His film criticism has appeared recently in MUBI Notebook, The Seventh Row and The Film Stage. He writes Unnerving Magazine’s “Thorn’s Thoughts” book review column and co-authors the horror-themed series “Devious Dialogues” with A.M. Novak for Vague Visages.

I was seven years old in 1997, and my interest in film was probably typical for someone of my age and generation: mostly I was fascinated by the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, which I re-watched obsessively on VHS. This was also, of course, the year of Titanic’s release. Seeing James Cameron’s game-changing film for the first time (also on home video) was definitely formative in my developing love of cinema. So I was not yet making active choices about what I was seeing (it was mostly the mainstream Hollywood stuff on my parents’ movie shelf), but the bug had definitely bitten me already.
The Morphing of the Telephone (Lillian Schwartz)
This experimental choreographic video stands as a placeholder for one of the most underappreciated voices in avant-garde cinema. On its own terms, The Morphing of the Telephones playfully demonstrates one of Lillian Schwartz’s key career-long fixations: technology’s relation to art, especially the microscopic study of technological image manipulation, often achieved with the assistance of computers. This piece’s central focus is on the telephone and its various developments, from Alexander Graham Bell’s first invention to 1997's cellular phones; Schwartz edits the morphing process from phone to phone, accompanied by Al Miller’s music. This is a minor (but very good) work by a major artist, but it’s never too late to watch some of her earlier masterpieces as well (Mutations [1972] and Alae [1975] are two of her many, many essential contributions to experimental cinema).

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
While assembling this list, I struggled to settle on a stable definition for the term “underrated.” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s output enjoys a devoted and passionate cinephilic following, and I don’t often see Cure described as one of his “minor” works. Nevertheless, this film doesn’t seem to regularly appear on mainstream nineties “best of” lists, and for that reason alone it deserves inclusion. Cure sees Kiyoshi Kurosawa cogently achieving one of the things he has always done best: teasing the boundaries between the horror genre’s social and interior affect-driven natures. This modus operandi plays out in the director’s precise visual form: the oppressive silences, the predominant featuring of decrepit and abandoned spaces… the film’s affect is palpably dread-inducing, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa never locks horror solely within the self. As the plot’s revelations go to show, the violence at hand is sociological by its very nature.
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The Blackout (Abel Ferrara)
Ferrara’s famous New York auteur predecessor Martin Scorsese has celebrated a career that frequently translates subject experience and toxic psychology into cinematic language (consider Raging Bull [1980] and The Wolf of Wall Street [2013] for two explicit examples). In the 1980s and 1990s, Ferrara often worked very differently within this same conceptual framework. By 1997 Scorsese had taken that methodology and framed it within expressionist and classicist image-making to create Kundun (taking cues from Renoir the painter and Renoir junior, the filmmaker); by contrast, Ferrara’s The Blackout conveys drug-corroded memories and Catholic guilt in the context of a living hell. The film is as broken as its protagonist’s spirit: Ferrara warps the narrative’s visual logic with video-recorded intrusions and lapses in rhythm and time. Indeed, its horrific nature stems largely from Ferrara’s refusal to deviate from the tortured center of gravity—The Blackout convincingly and powerfully plays out as a transmission of the protagonist’s perception.
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Warriors of Virtue (Ronny Yu)
Hong Kong auteur Ronny Yu’s first foray into Hollywood moviemaking is often written off as a lazy cash-in on the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This kind of dismissal fails to recognize the wonderfully distinct auteurist idiosyncrasies written all over Warriors of Virtue. Above all, this film is worth watching for the ways that Ronny Yu finds to render the material unique—the deep-focus capturing of otherworldly sets, often bathed in oneiric soft light; the integration of wuxia conventions and hyper-stylized combat scenes; the beautiful frame-rate manipulation; the development of characters’ archetypal roles, handled with an unusual degree of passion for its genre. One need not look too closely to see the same filmmaker who gave us such vivid and dreamlike Hong Kong genre films as The Trail (1983) and The Bride with White Hair (1993), or who later deconstructed Hollywood horror mythology with Bride of Chucky (1998) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003). In an oeuvre full of fascinating curios, Warriors of Virtue stands it ground.
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The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg gets his fair share of praise for his technical skill and technological adventurousness, but he’s too frequently overlooked for his wonderful weirdness. While The Lost World’s 1993 predecessor had plenty to work with on the novelty of its premise alone, this sequel reinterprets the narrative parameters into something more expansive and tonally bizarre: the first film’s final act cannibalizes its own whimsical, awe-striking first act, whereas The Lost World starts with tonal cannibalization at square one (remember that fiendishly sadistic encounter between a young girl and a swarm of deceptively adorable tiny dinos?). This also serves as a compelling counterpoint to the first film in terms of aesthetic approach: the complex set pieces and visual efficiency are still there, but Janusz Kaminski replaces Dean Cundey’s beautifully classical camerawork with hyper-stylized lighting and dynamic wide-lens compositions.
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Nowhere (Gregg Araki)
The final film in Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse trilogy (preceded by Totally Fucked Up [1993] and The Doom Generation [1995]), Nowhere is also the best. It takes the previous two films’ ambivalent ideas of a queer u/dystopia and articulates them within a cinematic dreamscape. Araki recognizes both the romance and the genuine pain of teenage angst, especially for those who are marginalized by virtue of their bodies and sexuality. Yes, this is a gorgeous aesthetic object whose commitment to distinctly nineties music and fashion is a delight in itself, but it’s also an emotionally charged and personal statement by an auteur whose work never fails to be anything but.
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