Beasts That Cling To The Straw

I thought the title of this Korean thriller was Beasts Clawing At Straws but sometimes these translations are a bit fuzzy. We ended up going to see it because it was too far a trek to see Closet not at a 8PM showing. The Flower wanted to see Closet, which features actors she recognizes from other Korean films (she’s better at that than The Boy and I are), but this looked like it might have elements of a revenge picture, and she never wants to see another Korean revenge picture.

It’s not, but this thriller is still fairly in that category of films where the activities you’ve been entertained by for the past two hours are things you should never ever do. Exploitation, essentially, though classy when the Koreans do it, maybe.

The Korean uniform of "bad girl".

If she’s dressed like this, she’s trouble.

There are three stories told in an interlocking manner: A man who works at a sauna comes across a bag full of money; A customs officer who owes money to a loan shark after he lent it to his wandering girlfriend is trying to scam a bunch of money off an old friend who obtained it illegally, and; A woman with an abusive husband finds a patsy to kill the husband so she can collect his insurance.

It’s a tale of twists and turns, as you might imagine and, as you might also predict, the money all three are chasing is the same. The other thing you might predict is that they’re all worse human beings than you initially believed. And still another thing that might fall into the “predictable” category is that the money almost seems supernaturally cursed, by the end. This isn’t done with coincidence, mind you: It’s just that the forces involved with this money are nihilistically destructive and single-minded.

He's still dressed better than most people I see.

All you gotta do is look at the guy to know he has his act together.

The sauna guy is the closest thing to a hero, here.  (From my experience with Asian films, sauna custodian is the lowest rung of the ladder for employment.) He’s trying to keep his household afloat with sauna money, which ain’t great. He has no respect from his wife or daughter, but he’s honest and diligent while working for a boss who accuses him of every nasty thing, including stealing snacks.  His mother, who lives with him and hates his wife, has dementia and his boss has no sympathy for his lateness and fires him.

So, you can sorta see why this guy would be tempted, and you sorta feel like, well, if anyone’s going to have the money, it might as well be him. On the other hand, the only thing this guy really has (besides his humble house) is his integrity. So, you’re kind of rooting for him, if nothing else than to do the right thing.

Actually, you root for a number of the characters as they go along. Like our customs officer, apart from being a lowlife loser, is actually a kind of devil-may-care rambling guy whose bold gambling really pays off—or would, if he weren’t surrounded by other lowlife losers. It’s easy to have sympathy for an abused wife, although said sympathy tends to evaporate when her way out ends up leading to a lot of…unpleasantness. Though it sort of surges again when…

Well, look, there’s a lot of twists, as I said.

A fun, little, nasty debut movie from Yong-Hoon Kim. Check it out!

Relatable, you see.

Bags o’ cash are probably the best MacGuffins.


The Man Standing Next

Back in the O.C. and avoiding seeing the Korean horror flick Closet because The Flower wanted to see that as well, I opted for this Korean thriller based on the death of their dictator in 1979. I always feel a little bad on these historical dramas when they cross over into American history, as this one did, because the movie’s all “This is a BIG deal in the United States” but I never remember the events. I honestly wasn’t aware that Korea had a dictator prior to the dictator they overthrew in 1987: When The Day Comes. Piecing it together, I guess they had some poor sap running the joint from 1979-1987, who was different from the guy running it from 1960-1979, with the only commonality being they had to hate The Communism.

America did a poor job messing around in these things. It’s all about hating The Communism, which is certainly necessary but hardly sufficient.

But, tbf, that's where we all knew it from.

The look you get when you say “I mostly know Korea from M*A*S*H.”

Anyway, this is more Korean myth-building and once again they do a fine, fine job. Here you have a story about corruption at the highest level of government—far more thorough than even the corruption portrayed in the Joeson dramas—but even though our main character is an assassin who ends up killing the leader and throwing the country into chaos, he is the undisputed hero of the tale.

The interesting thing, I suppose, is the recognition that there are degrees of dictators. The Left despises Pinochet, for example, alone among all dictators, but as we learned with No, to get rid of him they…just had to hold an election that he lost and he stepped down. As opposed to the kind of dictators the Left loves, who only step down when murdered.

I barely remember this movie.

This the man. He’s standing. And he’s next.

But this story is interesting because our dictator, while bad, isn’t the worst. There is some freedom in Korea and the problem comes when civil unrest results in riots, and the dictator decides to go along with his more iron-fisted, murderous advisers, figuring a few million dead countrymen is better than not being in control of the country. Our dictator’s primary gag seems to be to (obliquely) tell one of his advisers to terminate a problem with extreme prejudice, then to hold them up as criminal and traitorous for having done so.

It’s entertaining. There are little bits of interest that stand out. Our hero is the head of the Korean CIA which is known as…the KCIA. Heh. Parts of the movie take place in France and my old man’s beloved Citroens are everywhere.

This is the sort of movie that would’ve lost the kids, but I mostly did pretty well following along. I confused a couple of characters early on. And there was a point where someone has to die, and there are two factions duking it out for who gets to kill him. The hero goes through a lot of trouble to make sure his team pulls it off even though, at that point, he must’ve known it was going to be his death knell. Then again, maybe he didn’t know that but then why be so adamant to be the one who did do it?

I don’t know how close it is to the real thing, but as I said, it’s a good myth. The Korean notion that there’s always one man willing to sacrifice everything to straighten out their perpetually flanged-up government isn’t a bad one. I liked it, but I was sorry in retrospect to have missed Closet.

Pre Tienamen.

“Just admiring my parking job.” (Double-parking a tank is either very challenging or very easy.)

(Note, this was pre-Covid, February 22, 2020.)

The Art of Allusion, or: I Get That Reference

I was enjoying an episode of “Mystery, Incorporated”—and believe me, I could do an extensive essay on how neatly “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” fits in with the works of 18th century gothic romance maven, Mrs. Radcliffe—and musing on three references you don’t necessarily expect to find in a kid’s TV show: Cast AwayMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Aguirre: Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo. The last is both the most obscure and most integral to the series story arc, involving conquistadors who drag a boat full of gold over a mountain, creating the Curse of Crystal Cove (the Big Mystery the gang solves over two seasons). These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only references in the episode, most obviously the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia, and homages to “The Munsters” (or maybe “The Twilight Zone”) and “Deadwood”.

My blog. My opinion.

Scooby went with a hotter looking demon. IMO.

Not surprising for a show that’s oriented around the obscure ’90s doomsday theory of Nibiru and which borrows from H.P. Lovecraft, “Twin Peaks”, The Warriors, Marlon Brando’s The Wild OneProm Night IIBlood Beach, Terminator and on and on, and which is stuffed with myriad callbacks from previous incarnations of the show, like Don Knotts, Scatman Caruthers, Vincent Price and Scrappy-Doo (“We all promised we would never speak of him!”). What is surprising, perhaps, is how enjoyable it all is.

By contrast, one of the most loathsome books I’ve read in the past few years is Ready Player One. I read it as part of the bad book club/podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, but I had assumed that it would be fun trash, maybe not on the level of Tarzan or Conan, but at least on par with, say, some lesser graphic novels. But this New York Times bestselling book contains entire passages of nothing but lists of ’80s movies and video games. Rather than making me nostalgic for a decade I barely remember (being not quite 29), it made me rather embarrassed, forcing me to re-evaluate mildly pleasant past times as, perhaps, a huge waste of my youth. But a lot of people—intelligent people, I swear—claim to have enjoyed the book, so it must have provided some kind of pleasant stimulation.

It’s not just someone like Cline (who seems to be incapable of writing) who can fall for this kind of thing. Much more literary and erudite examples can be found in the poetry of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, who is at times my favorite author, writes some cringeworthy stuff calling out the great Romantic poets.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″—and all of its cultural inheritors, from direct clones like “Cinematic Titanic” and “Rifftrax”, to game play-throughs and other YouTube-based meta-commentary—is based heavily on referencing—alluding to—things the audience will associate with ostensibly unrelated imagery. (MST3K just lapped itself by doing a live riff of an old episode. In other words, they had the new cast riff the old cast.) This is popular enough to be a cottage industry, though the quality surely follows Sturgeon’s law.


The new Tom, Gypsy, Crow and the charming Emily Marsh in the “Joel” role, seen here riffing the original Joel, Tom and Crow.

Airplane!, the classic that redefined movie comedy, was almost entirely references to other things, including—intriguingly enough—being a direct lift of Zero Hour, a movie which was not that well known. Over the next 30 years, this formula would be repeated, finely honed and refined to make some of the least funny movies ever made.

One fascinating cultural change over the past 60 years is alluding to Jesus and Christianity: Provocateurs used to be able say something blasphemous or borrow the iconography for their art/horror/comedy film and get a little boost. These days the audience seems to be cleanly divided between those who yawn at such stuff for hackery, and those who have such a vague idea of any of it that it doesn’t really give any kind of boost (pace Dan Brown).

It's a sign!

If you don’t know Western Civilization, you’re not really in on the joke.

As consumers (and creators) of art, it seems that the technique of allusion is one of the trickiest ones to handle. Just as it is impossible to not “appropriate culture”, it is impossible to not reference other things. The forms we use for our art (landscapes, fugues, novels, sitcoms) all have grown out of past experiences. Our language is allusion to the real world. Ceci n’est pas une pipe applies not only to paintings of pipes, but all communications involving pipes. (And don’t even get me started on music, where serious composers would suddenly insert the equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut” or “Pop! Goes The Weasel” into the middle of their serious symphony.)

So, what’s the difference between good allusion and bad allusion? Ultimately, it’s whatever works for you, even if it’s (shudder) massive lists of ’80s movie titles. But the references (allusions!) above made me realize what doesn’t work for me: Even if I have fond memories of spending hours with my dad playing “Colossal Cave”, a mere reference to it—especially one made with a broad, cheerleading “WASN’T THAT GREAT!” attached—repulses me. A reference to something better (think of every shark movie that reference Jaws) tends to irritate me. A reference to something better that’s also critical is cold death. And an obvious reference—one that’s pervasive throughout the culture—tends to be tiring. (Kevin Smith’s “Star Wars” bits in his movies were quite amusing back in the ’90s, now if “Star Wars” vanished from the world entirely, I would not miss it.)

But if we look at Airplane! and “Mystery, Incorporated!” and, as I was writing this, I was thinking of those old Warner Bros cartoons I loved as a kid which were just gags based around long dead celebrities I barely recognized, if at all. And while most kids (most people!) haven’t seen Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Zero Hour or—hell, these days, how many people get the Folger’s Crystals, or the Saturday Night Fever, or the Howard-freakin’-Jarvis jokes in Airplane!?

It seems pretty simple: If you’re bringing something to the table that’s excellent and original, you can borrow more from others. In other words, the less you need to rely on mere recognition of past things (ref. again the latest Star Wars trilogy), the more enjoyment the audience will get from a well placed allusion. Those who are not aware of your references can still enjoy what you’ve made while those who speak the same language will enjoy it that much more.

Fite me.

On the left, the best “Star Wars” movie. On the right, the best “Star Trek” movie.

Picture credits:

  1. (left) Fantasia, “Night on Bald Mountain”; (right) “Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated” episode “Night on Haunted Mountain”
  2. “The MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along Special”
  3. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
  4. (left) Spaceballs; (right) Galaxy Quest

Drink Entire: Against The Madness Of Crowds

(NOTE: You guys have asked in the past for links to the movie(s) referenced in a review. I put something together which I’ll post in the comments.)

It would be easy, nay, even hacky to prepare a “pandemic movie watching list”. Fear of widespread disease arose in the wake of post-WWII nuclear holocaust fears, thanks (as always) to our always media’s tireless reliance on monetizing panic . IMDB’s earliest movie tagged with #pandemic is actually a British comedy from 1961 about smallpox of all things. (Smallpox was a big topic in the ’70s and ’80s because the disease had been eliminated except for lab samples, and the provocative question of the time was “should those be destroyed”?) It stars that epitome of Englishness Terry-Thomas and the always hot Honor Blackman (who would’ve been 95 this August had she not passed last week). It’s called A Matter Of Who, if you want to track it down.

Seems fair.

Terry-Thomas for the ladies. Sonja Ziemann for the guys.

Of course, you can’t really trust IMDB taggers for much: The second earliest film tagged is Charlton Heston’s Omega Man which is ten years later meaning people tagged the 1971 film without noting its predecessor, Vincent Price’s Last Man On Earth. Last year’s remake of Rabid is noted but not David Cronenberg’s 1977 seminal body-horror original.

Then there’s the whole question of what constitutes a movie about a pandemic in the first place. The highest rated film on the list is 12 Monkeys, by Terry Gilliam (whom we will revisit) which is more of a time-travel film. Next is the competently dopey Children of Men—a chase movie at heart. The 2016 Korean horror Train To Busan is essentially a zombie film, and a bunch of films fall into that particular rubric, like the 28 Days and Resident Evil series, Jim Mickle’s early effort Mulberry Street, and on and on. Hell, Color Out Of Space is basically a movie about the start of a pandemic. Pretty soon, you’re pulling in 1984’s Night of the Comet—the only post-apocalyptic film I am aware of with a dressing-in-different-outfits montage—and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

For my money, it’s not really about the disease unless people are getting gross (a la Rabid) and/or the focus is on curing and containing, like The Andromeda Strain or Soderbergh’s Contagion (in which a slutty Gwyneth Paltrow dooms us all, as many have predicted).

What's in the box!?! Gwyneth Paltrow's head. Oh, okay, then.

Admit it. You knew it would be her. (Also, I just learned they used the fake head made for Se7en in Contagion which is cool.)

But to be honest, this isn’t my favorite category of movie.

The thing is, a pandemic doesn’t serve up great narratives. You can treat it like a disaster movie—have disparate people thrown together by a crisis—and could be enjoyable on that level, but unlike a disaster movie the opportunities for visually entertaining physical peril are limited. I mean, you could have a disease that struck suddenly and end up with pilots or engineers suddenly passing out, sorta like zombie movies do. But in a movie about a disease, humans should be pretty aligned in wiping it out and controlling the spread and so on. Which, being far from true in a way that is comitragically on display in our current situation brings me to a kind of movie that really does interest me: Movies about the dynamics of crowds.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that through contrast. The big Disney animations of the ’90s and ’00s were all about the main character. The movies, bad or good, were incredibly narcissistic. I have to be me! (The reasons for this then and the consequences now are too obvious to cover here.) By contrast, the Pixar movies (arguably excepting The Incredibles) of the same time period were starkly about the consequences of pursuing selfish interests (even with the best of intentions) on the group. Ultimately, Woody and Flick and Lightning all have to learn to temper their individual desires with consideration for others. (Unlike Ariel and Jasmine and Pocahontas who have to make the stupid outside world see the error of their ways.)

Back when the current panic was getting into full swing, I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and put up a mini-thread on Twitter. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing and fun movie, the framing device for all the various Gotham-esque tales—and the Wise Men of Gotham and those related stories fit in neatly into a discussion of crowd dynamics—is that of a rational, reasonable, official expert in things who assures the people of the city that they should remain frightened and behind the walls of the city or The Turk will get them!


I will never tire of this Uma Thurman sequence.

Meanwhile, the Baron is recounting the story of exactly how he made The Turk so angry, and how he ultimately defeated the Turk and how, therefore, The Turk is no longer there. The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, who never once shows a drop of fear at the constant bombardment of the Turk at the city walls, becomes panicked at the notion that the people will look beyond the walls themselves. The authority, the expert, the establishment that sells its people out to the enemy has only one fear: That people will look for themselves.

Normally in movies, though, communities and crowds are little more than props, either scared or angry or gullible, or some mix of all three. The lynch mob of The Ox-Bow Incident or the munchkins under the thumb of the Wicked Witches East and West. Springfield of “The Simpsons” (speaking of the Wise Men of Gotham) tends to add lazy and incompetent to the mix—but of course in many cases they’re directly parodying classic mobs like those found in The Music Man and It’s A Wonderful Life.

IAWAL shows the community scared, turning it around at the end to show strength and, after a fashion, a kind of debt-paying to the Baileys. Another Capra film, It Happened One Night shows a random bus crowd that’s cheerful—a scene recalled humorously by Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And, come to think of it, I’m always reminded of the final scene of IAWAL by Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, where a post-9/11 New York City crowd bands together at a critical moment to stand up to much more powerful forces.

In the ’50s, you had communist and anti-communist ideologies waging war on screen. Spartacus showed the power of banding together to defy authority—and I must constantly remind myself that Marxists view themselves as anti-authoritarian—while High Noon showed…well, honestly, I never have been able to figure out what High Noon was trying to get across. Something like “the masses won’t help you save even their own skins”? On the flip side, there’s Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, which has a more sophisticated take on crowd dynamics and the urge of people to do good, generally, and how that can be corrupted and restored. Roger Corman’s only serious film (and rare money-loser) The Intruder shows a racist William Shatner firing up crowds down south in 1962.

But that didn't work out so they went for making the dosh.

Corman and Shatner were serious artists in 1962.

Probably one of my favorite places for crowd dynamics is horror: Not zombies, because zombies are expressly inhuman. Sure, they’re metaphors for mindless consumerism or whatever that old hippie Romero was getting at, but I’m thinking more like when a superficially functional society is actually populated by supernatural horrors. Although edited into hash, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ Messiah of Evil has scenes that I still find disturbing: People eating directly out of the meat area at a grocery store, a howling mob of business men in suits, a theater that slowly fills up with ghouls, and so on.

John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (which recalls elements of Messiah) has elements of this along with the recurring Carpenterian theme of large masses of entities with menacing but vaguely defined purposes (Assault on Precint 13, The Fog, Prince of Darkness). Richard Kelly’s fascinatingly awful The Box, where a couple can receive a million dollars if they open a box but a random person will die as a result. Reality as they know it starts to fray as a consequence of their actions. Kelley’s breakthrough film, Donnie Darko also has interesting group dynamics—in essence being about how the world perceives Donnie versus the reality of Donnie’s impact on the world.

Ultimately, I think the crowd dynamic reveals a lot about…well, everyone: The clumsy filmmaker reveals himself by how he views his fellow man, and perhaps it’s not focused on as much as I’d like because it’s so easy to get wrong and have the audience laugh at or reject a crowd reaction. But when done well it can add an extra dimension to films that can’t be achieved any other way.