By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008
When you work as a movie critic, you learn very quickly which filmmakers are unassailable: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and anyone associated with the French new wave are geniuses. Period. They're bulletproof, and to take a shot at them, whether by way of their body of work or an individual film, is to invite not just immediate derision but excommunication from the ranks of Approved Cinematic Authorities.
There's another version of this intellectual lockstep, one tier down from the universally acknowledged great masters, having to do with cult films by directors that nobody has heard of, other than those benighted souls who have spent their every waking hour in a sticky-floored repertory house. These are the films that over the past few years have often arrived in theaters "presented by" such reigning cinematic tastemakers as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese; you can also find mention of them on such authoritative Web sites as GreenCine.com and in the hilariously on-point "The Film Snob's Dictionary" by David Kamp and Lawrence Levi.
Two films that coincidentally open today at the E Street Cinema come from directors with creditable standing in the annals of film snobbery: Stuart Gordon, whose film "Stuck" stars Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea, and Dario Argento, whose "Mother of Tears: The Third Mother" completes a trilogy he began in 1977. Gordon attained cult status in 1985 with the highly regarded "Re-Animator," an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Argento helped create an entire film sub-industry in his native Italy known as giallo. Both filmmakers traffic in the kind of graphic horror made profitable by such franchises as "Saw" and "Hostel" but enjoy pride of place, along with zombie auteur George A. Romero, as originators of the cult-horror form.
Because Gordon and especially Argento possess such cinematic cred, any self-respecting critic should greet the arrival of "Stuck" and "Mother of Tears" with the requisite phrases about dark humor, recurring visual tropes and pulp sensibilities. The tone should be ironic and supremely knowing: If, dear reader, you can't hang with the kind of graphic gore, sadistic violence, protracted torture and perverse sexist subtext that run through these movies, then you're obviously not in on the joke. You're a philistine. File under "Square, hopeless."
The first time I heard of Dario Argento, I was working in Austin, where the terrific Austin Film Society had programmed one or two of his films. As a helpful film society programmer no doubt explained, Argento was hugely important as a godfather of contemporary gothic horror, helping to create a lexicon of blood, nudity and searing depravity that would find its apotheosis in slasher films and, now, torture porn.
I don't remember which Argento films I saw way back in Austin, nor do I recall my immediate reaction. But I suspect that, cognizant of the film society's imprimatur and reluctant to be considered hopelessly unhip, I either muttered something noncommittal about transgressive imagery or subversive visual grammar or, worse, nothing at all. That's how canons, however dubious, get created: with dissent being swallowed in one self-censoring, intellectually dishonest gulp.
So, dear readers, in front of you and the movie gods and everybody, I'm here to say: I don't get it. I don't get why, in "Mother of Tears," I'm supposed to find some kind of taboo thrill in watching a young woman being strangled by her own intestine. I don't get that Argento can write some of the most wooden dialogue and elicit some of the most risible performances to be seen in a movie (think "The Da Vinci Code" with an even more cockamamie mythology), but still get credit as some kind of auteur because of the ingenious weapon he creates to impale two eyeballs at once. I don't get why, in the course of a 40-year career, Argento can still find anything new in a shot of a slit throat and rivulets of burbling, viscous blood. (To the inevitable defense that Argento's work is simply camp, I would say that anything this aggressively hateful forfeits the right to be called camp. As Susan Sontag rightly observed, even camp at its most outlandish reveals some truth about the human condition.)
Compared to the myriad perversions on display in "Mother of Tears" (culminating in the film's star, Argento's daughter Asia, almost drowning in a sea of sewage and cadavers -- grazie, papa!), the degradations of the flesh in "Stuck" look almost endearingly modest. Inspired by a true story, the film stars Suvari as a nurse's aide who hits a homeless man (Rea) and leaves him for dead after he crashes through her windshield. Although Gordon clearly has something to say about poverty, class mobility and throwaway lives, whatever substance might have oozed through "Stuck" is quickly stanched, to let flow the blood, gore and attempts at erotic humor (a catfight between Suvari and a naked rival played for laughs). Admittedly, "Stuck" features only one eye-gouging, but like "Mother of Tears" it climaxes in a fiery Grand Guignol, its portrait of misery and moral indifference complete if not even slightly credible.
There are things to value in "Stuck," including the lead and supporting performances, and Gordon's taut thriller-like pacing. But, like "Mother of Tears," I don't get it. I don't get what fascinates Gordon and Argento -- both men in their 60s -- about thinking up new ways to inflict pain. I don't get what's "ingeniously nasty" about watching people suffer and die. I don't get the "gonzo artistry" of murdering a woman by way of a symbolic rape with a sword. I don't get why that's entertaining, edifying, endorsed by the cinematic canon or even remotely okay.
I guess there are some jokes you can never be in on. For now, you can look me up in "The Film Snob's Dictionary." Look up "Philistine," and there I'll be. Cross-referenced with "Square, hopeless."
Stuck (85 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for strong violence, disturbing scenes, sexuality and nudity, profanity and drug use.
Mother of Tears: The Third Mother (100 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema), which is not rated, has graphic violence, nudity, disturbing images, blood, gore and terror.