Saturday, December 26, 2009

You Actually See the Birth of a Baby!

The Exploding Kinetoscope is four years old today. Not a monumental anniversary, perhaps, but this weblog's date of invention falls between my own birthday on December 27th and, I understand, something or other that happens on December 25th.

In modest celebration of all these babies being born, let's head into the ExKin paper archives! I acquired this beauty a few years ago, and apart from some rusty vintage staples, it's fresh as the day it was printed. Nothing could be more appropriate than a jaunt through the highlights of the original pressbook for the birth-of-a-baby Golden Age exploitation classic Mom and Dad (1945)... especially as paired with the 1949 Mitchum-sploitation anti-dope parable She Shoulda Said 'No!'!

The tale of showman, "producer," marketeer and American genius Howard "Kroger" Babb has not been told in full biography. Babb's legend weaves in and out of David F. Friedman's autobio A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King (1998, Prometheus Books; required reading for all movie-drunk humans!), with the older exploitation pioneer serving as a sort of tall tale creation myth for all movie con-men. Babb appears like an eternal trickster figure, inspiring, disobedient, dishonest, and so incorruptible in nature that he cons his would-be protégées and, maybe, the very gods of capitalism!

Mom and Dad, directed by ol' One-Shot himself, William Beaudine, is Babb's masterpiece of ballyhoo. Promising the audience that "YOU... will SEE the birth of a baby! Both normal and Cesarean!," the ad campaigns do not exactly lie. But they also imply frank sexuality, uncompromising depiction of clinical science and to enlighten through education. The Mom and Dad press book very nearly vows that the film will save the world... and it is no less hyperbolic or dishonest with potential exhibitors.

In some ways, this is my favorite page of the book, despite relatively sedate graphics. The two messages from Babb are direct challenges to exhibitors, confrontational and dismissive. So the movies aren't fresh first release material? If people haven't seen 'em, they're new enough. The implication of the box at the bottom is that Babb is handing you, the drive-in or grindhouse proprietor a perfect, can't-fail recipe, and if you blow it it's your own damn fault. To a theater owner, this is a more effective affront than asking if he's a Real Man! What kind of showman are you? Can you handle Mom and Dad?

No comment necessary, really, but the headline alone demonstrates one Proven Fact: every modern marketing department, for every distributor on the planet, when placed next to Kroger Babb, has absolutely zero kung-fu.

Kroger Babb threatens to punch your bridge club in the face!

No quotation marks are "unnecessary," when advertising for Gay Drive-In.

Look, you're there to see Mom and Dad, and you're only at that for the sexy parts anyway. It is still startling to see the the co-feature complaining about being overshadowed in its own advertisement.
The reality is that Mom and Dad is a panicked/dreary teen social issue melodrama, which doesn't mention, let alone depict sexual intercourse, and exists only as a support system for the live birth footage grafted onto its slender frame. The way it plays seems almost intentional, designed to disappoint and anger the lusting audience into rioting, then, spectacularly, unpleasantly, and totally honestly gives them what they came for. You will see the birth of a baby. And another baby. And sometimes a shock-science reel about the horrors of VD. Sometimes more... sometimes less.

No one drove away from Mom and Dad feeling ripped off... because it was constantly remade for every audience. In markets where authorities intervened, Babb would swap out the graphic medical footage. During screenings where cheated audiences were about to explode, he'd slip in a nudist or sex reel. It is a grand confection of smoke and mirrors showmanship. There is no definitive version of the film, and in some ways no film to consider at all. There is nothing important except the advertising and the birth reel.

The pressbook is a fine illustration of the value of marketing the same barely-there product in every way possible. The above ad is the most sexed-up, with prone, leggy blondes and promises to reveal the secrets real moms and dads will not speak. The medical sidebar is a highlight, implying that Mom and Dad will make you powerful, wise, deliver you from ignorance, and cleanse you of sin!

There is a reason this special piece of antique garbage is in the National Film Registry (and would be one of my first choices for an exhaustive Criterion Collection special edition disc). It is a brilliant demonstration of the business of selling movies, of spectacle intersecting rip-off, supply creating demand. In Mom and Dad desire to see, to know is met with shameless, crowing opportunism.

Under the pretense of thorough education and responsibility, Babb juiced his crowds for further coin by accompanying most Mom and Dad playdates with a lecture delivered by a fake doctor who hawked sex hygiene pamphlets — a $10 value that was a steal at $2...

As it happens, I'm just the kind of sucker who needs one of these.

The lurid pink/el cheapo austere cover of "The Key to Successful Sexual Relations". The "Dr. Elliot Forbes" who Babb employed to tour with Mom and Dad had the amazing ability to appear in dozens of cities at once because he was 26 different actors canvasing the nation. In the name of historical precision, "Successful Sexual Relations" dates from 1955, and was not the only (or most common) book that Doc Forbes made available for purchase. It was also coupled with other sex hygiene genre pictures with similar lecture gimmicks attached.

The booklet is boring by most prurient/enlightened/post-Kinsey standards, as the language is semi-medical, antiquated, vague and retiring in turn. Still, it is kinda-sorta progressive, walking "husbands" and "wives" through a deconstruction of what is wrong with their (assumed) attitudes toward human sexuality, then providing weird how-to advice. The above page is among the frankest passages, but perhaps most titillating for Mom and Dad audiences were two pages of sloppy line drawings of female genital anatomy, which also happen to be badly proportioned and leave off some body parts.

American Birth Control League founder Margaret Sanger either had a problem with her Shift key, or was shouting with enthusiasm for this book's important message of "high positioning."

If you can't live without your own copy of "The Key to Successful Sexual Relations", I've scanned the order form from the last page. I wouldn't count on ever seeing your $1.25 again, though. These companies disappear at the rate of approximately one per minute... about the frequency at which suckers are born, both normal and Cesarean.

Go ahead. Try to resist Mom and Dad. Stupid "jerks" always try to outsmart the proven facts!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Two Zero Zero X: Favorite Films of the Decade Pt. 3 — 2002

The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2002

10. Dahmer (dir., scr. David Jacobson)

There are racks and racks of no-budget DTV hack jobs filling the video shops of America, bearing the names of notorious criminals as one- or two-word titles, all tacky, all terrible. Dahmer is not one of them. Though the culture is saturated with stories of serial killers, one of the great lies explaining this trend is that the fascination exists because we want to Understand. Perhaps we do want to understand something, but the use of the serial killer as pop fiction trope has not been bent in that direction. Placing the serial killer in genre films as boogeyman, antihero or funhouse mirror Everyman has the effect of mythologizing or domesticating him.

Serious-faced and nonsensationalistic, Dahmer elliptically charts the adolescence and adulthood of Jeffery Dahmer. The film fictionalizes the crimes of 1992 Dahmer only by compositing his victims and imagining wholly plausible interactions for which no accounts or living witnesses exist. Jacobson’s visual strategy is modernist and spare, with tough, hard-edged compositions and special attention paid to environmental light sources. The film hinges on Jeremy Renner’s daring performance as Dahmer, all bone-deep loneliness and rage trickling through glassy-eyed stare. Renner’s quiet seething dictates the shape of the movie, and Dahmer just stares and stares as if the truth will rise to the surface with enough patience.

Jacobson’s camera does not take an unflinching or documentarian attitude toward Dahmer’s crimes. Murder, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism are mostly framed out of view, out of focus, around a corner or not depicted. We know these details, and they accumulate around Dahmer’s void like tub scum around a drain. If True Crime style reportage implies that the criminal is little but the sum of his crimes — what, when, where, how?— and gets us no closer to truth, Dahmer, interested in who and why, situates its gaze on everything else. Maybe the truth is there. So here is Jeffrey Dahmer working at the chocolate factory. Here is teenage Dahmer exploring and repressing his sexuality. Here is Dahmer out clubbing, sitting on the couch, seducing a victim, lying to cops, visiting his grandmother. By his own account and his father’s, Jeffrey was traumatized by his parents’ divorce, and deeply troubled by his own homosexuality. The film allows that this much is true, but specifies nothing as cause, excuse or reason for the murder of seventeen people. Certainly a man existed inside Dahmer’s crimes, a life existed outside of them, so to solve them both holistically, Dahmer tunnels into Jeffrey’s space. The longer we stare into his eyes, the more we wonder if there really is nothing further to report or learn, no truth, no answer.

9. Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (dir. A.J. Schnack)

Like a compacted Beatles Anthology for a band that is not The Beatles, Gigantic charts the personal biography, career and artistic development of gyro rock band They Might Be Giants. Though unabashedly fawning toward its subject, A.J. Schnack’s documentary exists as exhaustive celebration of TMBG as cult object and as contravention, an argument for the band’s influence and importance. The senior body of music critics, though largely comprised of nerds, are not the sort of nerd who necessarily reveres TMBG, and have marginalized the band’s place in history. Without even deigning to mention that the band is frequently understood as high-flown novelty act or niche pop for rabid cultists, Gigantic reframes TMBG history, placing them at the epicenter of post-punk, and positing them as elder statesmen of modern alternative rock.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer holds the world record for the second most posts to the newsgroup, despite not having frequented the forum for the better part of a decade. They Might Be Giants is not only my “favorite band” but one of my favorite things in the charted universe. Having lived inside TMBG Land for so long, I cannot rightly say how the film plays as an introduction.

It ably sketches the larger contours of the band’s career arc, from creative collaboration in the adolescent friendship of Johns Linnell and Flansburgh to early performance-art-tinged gigs in illegal NYC venues to college radio success (such as it is) to their film scoring work of the early ‘00s. A partially animated opening credits montage bustles through a full kit of TMBG iconography accompanied by an exciting song montage (they don’t blend into medley, they blast, stop, blast, stop), previewing and promising: this will be a concert movie, a rock band bio, a New York story, a buddy comedy. The band’s hyperactive aesthetic is reflected in the film’s form, which cuts between several timelines; in the “present,” TMBG works on and promotes the Mink Car album, and performs a Greek chorus concert staged for the documentary, playing key songs that crop up in the story of how they got from 1982 to ~2001. An unfortunate side-effect of the cross-cutting and a dual organization by timeline and anecdotal topic is that some of the chronology is jumbled — the band seems to make a triumphant Tonight Show appearance with songs from their third record before their demo tape is discovered. Some crucial milestones are glossed over which might have helped define what makes the TMBG story special. The band’s early sound is driven by Linnell’s accordion and Flansburgh’s experimentalism, and their non-traditional rock voices, and some explanation of what separates TMBG’s music from their peers’ would be useful. The band’s output is voluminous, scattered across nontraditional media and spans decades, but dates are scant, and the only record specifically situated in time and space is Flood. The frenzied sonic leapfrogging also gives an inaccurate portrait of the band’s musical development, mashing songs of every era into an incandescent miasma.

Caveats aside, Gigantic has its work cut out for it, and somehow at the heart of the coffee-addled ruckus is a creative partnership, a friendship between two men. Linnell and Flansburgh’s personal lives remain quiet enigmas; fleeting reference is made late in the game to Flansburgh’s wife, and there is a precious, unexplained glimpse of candid footage of Linnell eating bagels with his son, Henry. In uncharacteristically relaxed joint interview, the duo’s interpersonal dynamic is far more apparent than during talk show grillings. Linnell drops his shrinking violet act to ramble thoughtfully, and it becomes apparent that Flansburgh’s boisterousness less masks a blowhard than a man concerned at all times with the public presentation of his life’s work. Two key principles of TMBG: they are generous with their creativity, and they consistently refuse anything that smacks of laziness or to compromise their vision. This leads to projects like the damnedest Dunkin’ Donunts commercials in the world, but extends to matters of generic labeling, message and interpretation (Linnell, hunched over a phone, tells an interviewer: “There is nothing missing in your understanding of ‘Particle Man’”). Gigantic does not press deep into the nonprofessional lives of its subject, but besides simply being private people (typically so, not fanatically), this is part of the TMBG project. The work is already an expression of the artist’s deepest preoccupations, passions and fears (every TMBG song is about death, their mascots are a parade of the reanimated dead, defeat, head injury, madness and alcoholism bless every narrator, and there are no true love songs), and should autobiographical incident leak into a lyric (Linnell’s songs are haunted, for instance, by a bike accident he suffered long, long ago), detailing such incident does not enrich the art but deplete it. There is nothing missing in your understanding of They Might Be Giants. The most valuable insights come when the men are separated and remarkably candid (for these guys, anyway), and Flansburgh explains his awe toward Linnell’s songcraft and musicianship, and Linnell expresses jealousy over Flans’ untrained ear and enthusiastic avant-garde form-busting. These guys need each other, and that’s all we need to know.

There is much on display to drive the diehard fanatic absolutely up the wall with joy. The central L&F interview is conducted on a site that appears to be the exact location of the “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” video. A songwriting session to unveil the demo sketch of “It’s So Loud in Here” proves detail-oriented and tense. Trips to the archives provide flash-glimpses of internal PolyGram Records memos (! Get your pause button ready!), long buried early publicity photos (Flans chomping on simultaneous multiple cigars well before the cover of Mono Puff’s It's Fun to Steal). There is material in Gigantic that the most ardent tape trader has never seen, including a snippet of the never-ever-ever released video for “Rabid Child”. That five seconds is worth the price of admission.

8. Far From Heaven (dir., scr. Todd Haynes)

When an artist is learning to paint or draw, attempting direct copy of a better artist’s work is a valuable exercise. The practice lets you know, rapidly, brutally, exactly where your own technical skills stand. It forces study of technique and method. The only analogous major filmmaking experiment may be Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho, but with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes tries his hand at Douglas Sirk pastiche and in the process of perfect form mimicry absorbs the lessons of a master. Though a period piece, Far From Heaven is not dressed and designed as 1957/8, but as the world of a ‘50s movie (bonus effect of the glass-case stylization, there is an artistic motivation for all the vintage automobiles to be pristine, one of those no-way-around-it details that sinks period picture verisimilitude). Most qualities of Technicolor cannot be duplicated, but the first step is to make a thing that looks like, sounds like, behaves like the thing.

And so Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, impersonating a ceramic poodle filled with blood and tears) finds her suburban Connecticut Better Homes and Gardens pictorial life aggressively invaded by lurid lighting gels, her husband mutating into an abusive cocktail napkin joke under the strain of homosexual aversion therapy, and no solace in sight but the shade of her burly Negro gardener, who has Opinions about Joan Miró. Haynes tweaks All That Heaven Allows, though, pushing to the fore of the narrative the social issues Sirk (and anyone else making weepies under Breen Office watch) had to coyly hotfoot around. The further twist is that Far From Heaven retains the repression and Cruel Universe anguish, keeps the coding even when the code is rendered explicit. Sirk’s films became exemplary playground for auteur theorists, feminist critics and queer cinema studies (and their slobby pals, camp cultists), but Haynes puts all those concerns front and center: the plot is actively about public and private politics, imploding social and domestic spheres, miscegenation and stifled homosexuality, women’s voices smothered. The most astonishing feat is that by resisting any camp readings of Sirk, Haynes brings into focus the more beguiling and sophisticated brand of irony already inherent in Sirk. A direct critique of ‘50s conformism, consumerism, and social mores there’s no subtext to this study of The Surface of Things. It’s all rich, impeccable text.

Through intense formalist study of Sirk’s social melodramas, Haynes’ film is thrust immediately into deeper understanding of his inspiration. If nothing else, Far From Heaven is insightful, fascinating film criticism.

7. The Happiness of the Katakuris (dir. Takashi Miike, scr. Kikumi Yamagishi)

Takashi Miike’s films have floated out of sight, just below the waterlines of these Decade Faves lists. Miike belongs to the Jess Franco school of sharklike filmmakers who must keep moving or die, pumping out films at a dizzying, prolific rate. In the vast wash of the diretor’s work, some projects have stronger scripts, more focused filmmaking, contain keystone ideas which he revisits, etc., but at the same time, the defining qualities of Miike’s cinema are frenzied imagination, absurdist rupture, speed and quantity. The celebrated Audition, for example, is a fine and nuanced horror film, which is also atypical Miike. Audition contains extreme images of violence, but is not particularly puckish, avoids shock humor, and does not gyrate wildly in tone and sensibility.

The Happiness of the Katakuris is both outside Miike’s normal generic concerns (a musical comedy), and deeply inside his sensibility. Shock comedy comes in many breeds, and Miike’s serves to jar his audience out of complacency by pushing buttons. Those buttons are wired directly to the director’s social and aesthetic concerns. The Katakuris, a family tree rooted in failure, set up a B&B in the forbidding shadow of Mt. Fuji. The presumed tourist traffic never materializes due to a through road that is never built and hotel’s few guests rapidly perish through unlikely accident, suicide, murder. Their misfortune and self-made misery mounting, the Katakuris conceal the bodies to save the hotel and the family. This coherent outline skips the musical numbers, stop-motion interludes, zombies and volcanoes.

An opening stop-motion sequence operates as stream-of-consciousness poetry, as a restaurant patron digs a winged demon out of her soup... who absconds with her uvula, but is gobbled by a raven, which is mauled by a goth teddy bear. With no literal connection to the plot, the title sequence primes the viewer for the film nonetheless: the cycle of consumption and rotten luck continue until the re-hatched demon stretches in triumph, only to be swallowed again. With the hotel built on a landfill as central metaphor and a full-family array of life’s losers, Katakuris is about the ways personal fulfillment is tied up with financial success, social approval and the rotating whims of fortune. In its farcical, distracted way, the film is about what happiness itself “is,” how we attain it, how we maintain it.

6. The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, scr. Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)

There is nothing romantic, nothing noble, nothing beautiful about mere survival. Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman watches his world erode and shrink into the Warsaw Ghetto, then bobs, weaves, and dodges the Holocaust itself. Szpilman’s survival requires tenacity, resourcefulness, and, perhaps above all, luck. In the process of shedding weight through an existence of running, hiding and starving, Szpilman’s very identity peels off in invisible strips, with little time to pause or grieve. Survival burns the man away. First the obvious niceties of home, family, name and career. Community, ethics, kindness and dignity weigh down the running man. They crowd his hiding place.

Moral codes can only be modified so much until they’re whittled into kindling. And politics? — Oh, politics burn fast. As Warsaw is finally liberated, the survivalist shell of the once-a-pianist is nearly executed as he stands starving and shivering in a German coat. Why the fucking coat?, he’s asked. Answer: It’s cold. If Szpilman would define himself as a pianist, how long can a pianist go without playing the piano before is no longer a pianist? What do you cling to as reminder that you’re something more than a life drive inside an animal form? Maybe, in the moment, will to live incinerates everything superfluous to survival instinct. In the place where hope is a luxury, these questions may not even apply, and there is no music there.

5. Lilo & Stitch (dir., scr. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois)

The best Disney animated feature in more than a decade, this brief burst of summery joy is the last great film produced by that venerable department before returning to making horrible movies and (temporarily) closing shop shortly thereafter. Animated “Classic” #42 (oh Jesus, must we count Dinosaur?), Lilo & Stitch borrows the roughest outline of E.T., fills in its own colorful, happy details and swaps the mythopoetic tone of wonderment for comic abandon and an outsider’s quiet reflection.

Our protagonists are the deeply eccentric Native Hawaiian girl Lilo and her rambunctious adopted alien mutant koala, Stitch. Lilo and Stitch are kindred spirits bonded by behavioral problems, left-of-center hobbies, and burning love of the music of Elvis Presley. Both bear the scars of broken homes, Lilo being raised by her loving, overwhelmed sister, Nani (Tia Carrere, doing, bar none, the finest work of her career) after the death of their parents, Stitch being an intergalactic fugitive, a monstrous genetics experiment with no parental guidance to nurture his rampaging nature. So Stitch, screaming and slobbering, barely verbal, short-tempered and destructive stands in as Lilo’s ego unbound, all her hurt, anger and confusion in a three-foot ball of teeth and claws. Hand-in-blue-furred-paw, the girl takes on the responsibility of providing the wild thing with a place to belong, with empathy, with discipline, with love. Lilo does more than simply mature and learn to behave through looking after a pet, and Stitch does more than chill out, lest he lose his first and only friend. The relationship gives both Lilo and Stitch access to their own better natures. Through the Hawaiian concept of extended, adopted family, their individual pain and loneliness are channeled into something more powerful, and Lilo & Stitch celebrates the strength and beauty of nontraditional families. That, and the redemptive powers of Elvis Presley.

4. Femme Fatale (dir., scr. Brian De Palma)

Brian De Palma doesn’t really make thrillers. He makes harrowing comic meditations on thrillers, one thesis of this deconstruction being that the words the movies speak are gibberish but the language resonates with us anyhow. The story, from its opening viper-headed jewel heist setpiece to wreathed doppelgängers-and-sex-fever noir to the narrowed and dangerous twist in the tail, is fully improbable/ impossible. The topic is Euro spy/thief adventure, of the waaay-post-Arsène-Lupin variety, sexed-out pulp whose sleek presentation and perfectionist gloss turn sleaze into allure. Femme Fatale is dirty-minded, perverse and unhealthy, but the delivery system is elegant, confident, sophisticated. Like the serpentine, jeweled, precious-metal bra nabbed in the film’s inaugural battle cry, Femme Fatale is cold, uncomfortable, tacky, impractical and wears those qualities on the outside. Its chilly tendrils curl and tighten as the film unspools; it pumps narcotic toxin into the bloodstream with axial cut fangs. If the viewer-victim should start to swoon, there is no hope. Once in the coils of Femme Fatale, intoxication by cinema is inevitable.

This is not style over substance. This is style as substance.

3. Punch-Drunk Love (dir., scr. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Punch-Drunk Love strands its protagonist in Kafkaesque dingbat apartment buildings, the featureless hallways an endless maze, or in cavernous, anonymous warehouse spaces. Barry Egan’s Godardian blue suit gives the edges of his figure visual pop and make him look superimposed onto the acrid urban interiors. The cinematic transponder beam glides Barry from simulacrum supermarket that looks like the Close Encounters landing pad to a languid open-air Hawaii that looks suspiciously “like Hawaii.” A busted, wheezy harmonium appears at Barry’s doorstep in a coincidental meet-cute or a deus ex something, and spends the rest of the movie being a symbol for either his new ladyfriend Lena, or his own heart, or a busted harmonium.

The music is nerve-scraping like few horror film scores. Dialogue comes in clipped, unfinished sentences. Figures are frequently backlit or blown out, color schemes are repeated until they seem symbolic or maybe not, and there is the out-of-breath corner-of-eye sense that something dire is bubbling under the surface, in the history, around the corner of everything. Punch-Drunk Love aims to capture the chemical sensation, if not necessarily the thoughts and feelings, of falling in love. To parties not involved in the affair, this doesn’t look so different from psychosis. This is teeth-rattling romantic comedy.

2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson, scr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)

The oliphauntine bulk of Lord of the Rings is populated by superbeings whose psyches are slightly more vivid than the ciphers of genuine myth, but whose dilemmas are those of how to deal with great power. Charismatic, able character actors have been placed in all these major roles (if, in the meanwhile, Cate Blanchett and Viggo Mortensen have become A List Movie Stars, they do not approach their work as icons and personas), and each carves personalized, detailed features into their allotted marble block. The glue is Ian McKellan as Gandalf, god-spirit cloaked in the body of a shaggy hippy elder, a man of creature comforts and earthy vices, wearied and not a little wistful at the duties of being Middle-Earth’s central mover and shaker. All comers are free to take their pick among the Great Performance! array (mine is John Rhys-Davies as Treebeard, at once glorious dying Green Man archetype and senile old man comic relief).

Among the legendarium’s grand tales of the straight-backed and mighty, wicked and fallen, the Rings cycle reaches an apex of exploded romantic tragedy in The Two Towers. In material barely represented in the source novel, Elrond (another personal favorite, Hugo Weaving playing the elf lord as pursed-lipped hard-ass separatist, grimly resigned to leading his people out of this world) narrates the hyperreal/hypothetical end of Aragorn and Arwen’s love story. The brutally honest speech is rhetorically pitched to underline an immortal’s disgust at natural lifecycles, the Maxfield Parrish-inflected compositions of doomed lovers, fading bodies and a hero calcified into his own sarcophagus are just too tragi-delicate to resist. How ever interesting these characters, they remain remote, the kind of people to which monuments are erected.

So at the center are the hobbits, appropriately sawed-off Everyman avatars, reacting with wonder and confusion at the enormity of landscapes and political machination around them. Whether stouthearted bumpkin gardner, stoner comic relief or haunted, curious and reluctant Ringbearer, it is the little people who are free to indulge in the feelings and expressions of normal human beings, and for that, their sorrows are deeper, their bravery greater. Rings finally bares the heart of its down-and-dirty, conflicted humanity in the portrait of Gollum. The storytellers emphasize the creature’s fracturing psyche, design tilts less to the amphibian and more toward lantern-eyed, drug-emaciated Peter Lorre, and unseen actor Andy Serkis ditches Tolkien’s indication of phlegmatic frogginess for a demonic take on Frank Welker’s voice for Slimer on The Real Ghostbusters.

If The Two Towers has a showstopping setpiece, it involves no swelling music or cast of digital billions: Gollum, alone in the dark, arguing with himself about his selfish addict’s desire versus his scraps of latent conscience. Once Two Towers has is zeroed in on this solitary, molecular scene — one rotting waif pinned in this vast atlas— it isn’t about nonsense abstracts like “good” and “evil” but internal, personal struggle and conflict between infinite non-binary choices. Every line, every word, every shot twists the one-man debate in a different direction as this wretched thing which is all of us weighs his compulsions and his moral options. The prosecution rests its case — je m’accuse: “Murderer.” Well. What’s the worst thing you ever did? The defense is reduced to tears in the night, the debate on personal ethics and freedom lost in the riptide of self-loathing, guilt, regret, loss, of being a fuck-up alone in the world. Lord of the Rings may contain more grandiose images of clashing armies of beasts and angels, but it has no more monumental picture of the human experience than this three seconds. A being speaking to his own reflection, Sméagol wails to Gollum: “I hate you.” The moment is epic.

1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (dir. Park Chan-wook, scr. Park, Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Yong-jong)

Ryu is a deaf mute factory worker with a) a dying sister who needs a kidney transplant and b) an impossibly hot girlfriend, Yeong-mi, who has links to a leftist terrorist group. Ground zero. Ryu tries to buy a black market organ, ends up stripped of cash and his own kidney. Hoping for ransom money, Ryu and Yeong-mi kidnap the daughter of industrialist Dong-jin. Ryu’s sister dies, the little girl dies. Then the action starts rising.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance continues unfolding in this fashion. The story moves like an accordion bellows or a wooden Jacob’s ladder puzzle that keeps flipping open new panels as others disappear. Characters take turns occupying the role of Mr. Vengeance, connected forward and backward with each other, their choices, limited vision, and personal ethics tripping one another up all the way. Mr. Vengeance expands into a chain reaction vision of the universe in which choices are not black or white, not even grey, just choices with consequences; everyone is linked to those for whom they are hero and those to whom they are villain. Everyone’s attempt to do right, whether wrathful or righteous, boxed-in or self-interested, has the potential (or inevitability) of mashing someone else’s toes; with the slightest perspective shift, every possible move shatters another player’s life.

Park Chan-wook’s metaethics of doom and fatalistic chaos theory are not relentlessly glum. Mr. Vengeance unravels with the crime pulp pleasure of a wild tale well told, a trickster god’s delight at dishing up outrageous misfortune, and the hair-raising exhilaration of inventive violence and outrageous gross-out. It is about sympathy as much as vengeance, after all. If all this cosmic slapstick doesn’t warrant the occasional laugh, we’d just be screaming all the time. The circumstances are different, but we’re all in the same boat. And in the end, no one gets out alive.