Travel Horrors

03/06/2011

Backpacking

The local flavour Roth insists he wanted to offer in the second Hostel film nevertheless knows it has to earn its keep, so at various moments the local flavour has to give way to horror sound and fury. Hence in the early stages of the film our hero from the first outing gets initially to have a dream sequence where he’s stabbed to death, and then after he awakens ends up decapitated. The sweaty dream sequence and the grisly early death are mainstays of horror, so Roth sets less the scene than the genre expectation. This can take care of the fury; but what about the sound – and the image? In a scene shortly after the decapitation we have a shot that starts on two dogs and then slowly tilts up to its owner while the music offers suspense. There is nothing the man is doing except drinking his coffee, but the sound and image make it clear that this is the villain of the piece. In the carnival sequence the music moves between local flavour and potential menace as the gypsy fiddle music accompanies Beth’s search for her friend. Where before it served the dancing mood, now it serves Beth’s anxiety as the camera is in constant motion and Roth offers numerous cuts to capture Beth fretfully looking for her buddy. What Roth generally does is utilise local sounds and local images to up the suspense. For example in between the beheading and the shot of the baddie, Roth shows us the beautiful Slovakian town but in such a wide angle that it contains a menace by virtue of little more than the distortion in the shot.

What we are saying here is that Roth works some fresh locations into his genre pic, while Kaplan, with so much more potential freedom, offers us clichéd images of Thailand. But if one is a genre film and the other a social drama, nevertheless they both converge on and conform to the point we made earlier: the degree to which the films are about western complacency over foreign resentment. If we think of the degree to which Jean Renoir’s famous statement in The Rules of the Game – that everyone has their reasons – has become a narrative trope in recent film then we can understand the bias at work. Critics including David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Wendy Everett in an article in Studies in European Cinema called ‘Fractal Film and the Architecture of Complexity”, have used terms like network narratives, fractal filmmaking and hyperlink cinema to show how films of the last fifteen to twenty years have utilised multi-strand narratives: City of Hope, Short Cuts, MagnoliaCode UnknownBeautiful People, and Wonderland are just a handful of films that cut between various characters’ perspectives. There is no reason why a film like Brokedown Palace couldn’t have opened up its point of view much more to suggest that everybody has their reasons. Instead it crosscuts between the girls’ predicament and the lawyer’s as he tries to get them off. It is taken as a given that Thailand is a corrupt country, just as it is taken as given that Slovakia is a country where life is cheap: both want the specifics of locale without the specificity of perspective. In Hostel 2this makes generic sense – we don’t want too much motivation from the baddies, we want the film, as we’ve noted, to get on with it. But as we’ve also suggested, in Kaplan’s film it seems a failure of imagination: as if he was happy to utilise all the clichés of the unknown Orient by assuming that whatever the reasons they are unknown to the westerner. Bill Pullman’s American lawyer in Bangkok may potentially be a character for whom Thailand is known – he’s married to a Thai woman and speaks Thai – but he’s less the character who allows the girls to comprehend a foreign culture; more the crusading lawyer who wants to get them out of jail. Brokedown Palace may be a better, more nuanced work than the Hostel films and Paradise Lost, but it might be all the more disappointing: it doesn’t take advantage of its social drama freedom – despite the relatively ambiguous ending, where we still don’t exactly know how involved Alice happened to be in the drug deal.

But what are we asking for here: what sort of backpack filmmaking might we expect? Perhaps what is required is a combination of the late sixties/early seventies logistical cinema of Battle of AlgiersZ, State of Siege and The Mattei Affair, with the network narrative films of above. This would be a cinema that makes clear what is at stake in a country where everything appears cheap, and where everybody might have their reasons, but some of those reasons would be basic survival. Though maybe that would be too much to ask; so what about a decidedly singular perspective? That is, a point of view that captures the vulnerability of cultural alienation without giving the impression of context (like Hostel 2Paradise Lost and Brokedown Palace give the impression of offering us).

Of all the films mentioned maybe the most successful in this regard happens to be WolfCreek. A low-budget example of ordeal cinema that owes something to The Texas Chainsaw MassacreWolf Creek stays close to the atmosphere of the foreign, no matter if one of the characters tortured is Australian and the other two British. What it does well is suggest the nightmare of inexplicability as the camera chooses not the cross-cutting clarity of Hostel 2Paradise Lost and even Brokedown Palace, but the terror of the solitary perspective. As the three characters find themselves drugged after being helped by the apparently good Samaritan redneck who fixes their car so they are then each separated for individual torture. Liz wakes up having no idea where she is, and steadily manages to release herself from bondage, only to venture to the nearby garage where she sees Kristy being tortured by the no longer so good Samaritan. What the film is great on is the partiality of point of view. So for example rather than cross-cutting to show the redneck as a threat earlier in the film, we find out that he’s been trailing them only later: when Liz watches some video footage that shows the redneck was in the town that they visited shortly before going to Wolf Creek. We work out that he obviously followed them, tinkered with their car so it wouldn’t start, and later came to appear like he was saving the day. This is less cinematic cognition, if you like, than personal realization. It is less the film cross-cutting and offering the audience a privileged position, than a partial perspective that Liz works with. By denying itself the broader perspective it alleviates the problem of context. Sure we might still find the villain too broad and too clichéd, but otherwise the film offers a decent attempt at the immediacy of fear over the abstraction of sadism. One of the ‘problems’ of the cross-cutting in Hostel 2 is the way it feeds into sadism – sadism as a state of privilege so that we know what will soon take place, and knowingly enjoy the process of awaiting the torture and the killings. A film like Wolf Creek is undeniably an exploitation film (no matter if it is based on a true story), but it is exploitation as immediate terror rather than exploitation as abstract glee. What Wolf Creek is good on is the feeling that something is about to happen, but what that something might be is the unknown as opposed to the knowing. Where Hostel 2 fits with the comedy horror of Scream, the later Nightmare on Elm Street films and I Know What You Did Last SummerWolf Creek is closer to the unremitting, unknowing horror of Open Water and Gerry, to films that may even (as in Gerry’s case) leave the genre altogether and become a meditation on nature’s deadly indifference to man.

Thus we’ve differentiated here from the knowing and the unknown, and throughout the article tried to articulate the difference between the clichéd and the genre convention. Wolf Creek seems to be the most successful of all the backpacker films mentioned at working from the unknown and minimising the conventional and the cliché-ridden. However the film that in theory should have most successfully trodden this line is Danny Boyle’s The Beach, and perhaps with a different actor in the lead role might have done so. Here Boyle’s film predicates itself on the unknown – on a positive mystery – an idyllic beach that the characters hear of and then search out. The film could have been about a first principle in backpacking, and what separates the tourist from the traveller. Where the tourist knows exactly what they want before they get it, the traveller (in theory at least) wants what cannot be named, what cannot be photographed, what cannot be put in a brochure. Of course the backpacker is usually less the solitary traveller venturing into the unknown than the Lonely PlanetRough Guider who’s looking for things on the cheap. It is more that the cost of living is inexpensive than life is mysterious that the films play on, and this is partly why they offer themselves up as learning curves for the characters. In The Beach the characters eventually find the location of their dreams but of course it quickly turns into their worst nightmare, as the beach the community’s leading character Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his friends come across isn’t quite as idyllic as they hoped, as Richard starts to lose the plot, retreating into his own mind, and as local drug dealers are unhappy with their presence. Once again we are in the realm of plot, stuck in the middle of narrative machinations that defy the very purpose of the mission in the first place. Like other Boyle films including Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Boyle sets up a world that he then closes down conventionally. He brings in the gun-toting baddies and allows the film to be about characters versus other characters, rather than man against the environment. When one suggests The Beach ostensibly could have walked the line between genre convention and cliché it resides in its non-generic origins, and its predication on the mysterious and beautiful beach. The viewer doesn’t go in with the genre conventions the way they do in horror thriller like the Hostel films, so its failure to explore the intricacies of the mystery gives us a strong sense of lost opportunities. The film at one stage goes out of its way to differentiate the exclusivity of the exclusive beach over the general beach culture when lead characters Richard and Sal (Tilda Swinton) leave the island retreat and go into town. Richard says this is the very thing that they want to avoid: the mass tourism experience with its throbbing music, drunken and drugged up teenagers, and its roar of traffic. But the film itself plays closer to the latter than the former: it has all the predictability of a consumer culture product as it offers guns, drugs and pulsating music of its own.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Travel Horrors

Backpacking

The local flavour Roth insists he wanted to offer in the second Hostel film nevertheless knows it has to earn its keep, so at various moments the local flavour has to give way to horror sound and fury. Hence in the early stages of the film our hero from the first outing gets initially to have a dream sequence where he's stabbed to death, and then after he awakens ends up decapitated. The sweaty dream sequence and the grisly early death are mainstays of horror, so Roth sets less the scene than the genre expectation. This can take care of the fury; but what about the sound - and the image? In a scene shortly after the decapitation we have a shot that starts on two dogs and then slowly tilts up to its owner while the music offers suspense. There is nothing the man is doing except drinking his coffee, but the sound and image make it clear that this is the villain of the piece. In the carnival sequence the music moves between local flavour and potential menace as the gypsy fiddle music accompanies Beth's search for her friend. Where before it served the dancing mood, now it serves Beth's anxiety as the camera is in constant motion and Roth offers numerous cuts to capture Beth fretfully looking for her buddy. What Roth generally does is utilise local sounds and local images to up the suspense. For example in between the beheading and the shot of the baddie, Roth shows us the beautiful Slovakian town but in such a wide angle that it contains a menace by virtue of little more than the distortion in the shot.

What we are saying here is that Roth works some fresh locations into his genre pic, while Kaplan, with so much more potential freedom, offers us clichd images of Thailand. But if one is a genre film and the other a social drama, nevertheless they both converge on and conform to the point we made earlier: the degree to which the films are about western complacency over foreign resentment. If we think of the degree to which Jean Renoir's famous statement in The Rules of the Game - that everyone has their reasons - has become a narrative trope in recent film then we can understand the bias at work. Critics including David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Wendy Everett in an article in Studies in European Cinema called 'Fractal Film and the Architecture of Complexity", have used terms like network narratives, fractal filmmaking and hyperlink cinema to show how films of the last fifteen to twenty years have utilised multi-strand narratives: City of Hope, Short Cuts, Magnolia, Code Unknown, Beautiful People, and Wonderland are just a handful of films that cut between various characters' perspectives. There is no reason why a film like Brokedown Palace couldn't have opened up its point of view much more to suggest that everybody has their reasons. Instead it crosscuts between the girls' predicament and the lawyer's as he tries to get them off. It is taken as a given that Thailand is a corrupt country, just as it is taken as given that Slovakia is a country where life is cheap: both want the specifics of locale without the specificity of perspective. In Hostel 2this makes generic sense - we don't want too much motivation from the baddies, we want the film, as we've noted, to get on with it. But as we've also suggested, in Kaplan's film it seems a failure of imagination: as if he was happy to utilise all the clichs of the unknown Orient by assuming that whatever the reasons they are unknown to the westerner. Bill Pullman's American lawyer in Bangkok may potentially be a character for whom Thailand is known - he's married to a Thai woman and speaks Thai - but he's less the character who allows the girls to comprehend a foreign culture; more the crusading lawyer who wants to get them out of jail. Brokedown Palace may be a better, more nuanced work than the Hostel films and Paradise Lost, but it might be all the more disappointing: it doesn't take advantage of its social drama freedom - despite the relatively ambiguous ending, where we still don't exactly know how involved Alice happened to be in the drug deal.

But what are we asking for here: what sort of backpack filmmaking might we expect? Perhaps what is required is a combination of the late sixties/early seventies logistical cinema of Battle of Algiers, Z, State of Siege and The Mattei Affair, with the network narrative films of above. This would be a cinema that makes clear what is at stake in a country where everything appears cheap, and where everybody might have their reasons, but some of those reasons would be basic survival. Though maybe that would be too much to ask; so what about a decidedly singular perspective? That is, a point of view that captures the vulnerability of cultural alienation without giving the impression of context (like Hostel 2, Paradise Lost and Brokedown Palace give the impression of offering us).

Of all the films mentioned maybe the most successful in this regard happens to be WolfCreek. A low-budget example of ordeal cinema that owes something to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek stays close to the atmosphere of the foreign, no matter if one of the characters tortured is Australian and the other two British. What it does well is suggest the nightmare of inexplicability as the camera chooses not the cross-cutting clarity of Hostel 2, Paradise Lost and even Brokedown Palace, but the terror of the solitary perspective. As the three characters find themselves drugged after being helped by the apparently good Samaritan redneck who fixes their car so they are then each separated for individual torture. Liz wakes up having no idea where she is, and steadily manages to release herself from bondage, only to venture to the nearby garage where she sees Kristy being tortured by the no longer so good Samaritan. What the film is great on is the partiality of point of view. So for example rather than cross-cutting to show the redneck as a threat earlier in the film, we find out that he's been trailing them only later: when Liz watches some video footage that shows the redneck was in the town that they visited shortly before going to Wolf Creek. We work out that he obviously followed them, tinkered with their car so it wouldn't start, and later came to appear like he was saving the day. This is less cinematic cognition, if you like, than personal realization. It is less the film cross-cutting and offering the audience a privileged position, than a partial perspective that Liz works with. By denying itself the broader perspective it alleviates the problem of context. Sure we might still find the villain too broad and too clichd, but otherwise the film offers a decent attempt at the immediacy of fear over the abstraction of sadism. One of the 'problems' of the cross-cutting in Hostel 2 is the way it feeds into sadism - sadism as a state of privilege so that we know what will soon take place, and knowingly enjoy the process of awaiting the torture and the killings. A film like Wolf Creek is undeniably an exploitation film (no matter if it is based on a true story), but it is exploitation as immediate terror rather than exploitation as abstract glee. What Wolf Creek is good on is the feeling that something is about to happen, but what that something might be is the unknown as opposed to the knowing. Where Hostel 2 fits with the comedy horror of Scream, the later Nightmare on Elm Street films and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Wolf Creek is closer to the unremitting, unknowing horror of Open Water and Gerry, to films that may even (as in Gerry's case) leave the genre altogether and become a meditation on nature's deadly indifference to man.

Thus we've differentiated here from the knowing and the unknown, and throughout the article tried to articulate the difference between the clichd and the genre convention. Wolf Creek seems to be the most successful of all the backpacker films mentioned at working from the unknown and minimising the conventional and the clich-ridden. However the film that in theory should have most successfully trodden this line is Danny Boyle's The Beach, and perhaps with a different actor in the lead role might have done so. Here Boyle's film predicates itself on the unknown - on a positive mystery - an idyllic beach that the characters hear of and then search out. The film could have been about a first principle in backpacking, and what separates the tourist from the traveller. Where the tourist knows exactly what they want before they get it, the traveller (in theory at least) wants what cannot be named, what cannot be photographed, what cannot be put in a brochure. Of course the backpacker is usually less the solitary traveller venturing into the unknown than the Lonely Planet, Rough Guider who's looking for things on the cheap. It is more that the cost of living is inexpensive than life is mysterious that the films play on, and this is partly why they offer themselves up as learning curves for the characters. In The Beach the characters eventually find the location of their dreams but of course it quickly turns into their worst nightmare, as the beach the community's leading character Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his friends come across isn't quite as idyllic as they hoped, as Richard starts to lose the plot, retreating into his own mind, and as local drug dealers are unhappy with their presence. Once again we are in the realm of plot, stuck in the middle of narrative machinations that defy the very purpose of the mission in the first place. Like other Boyle films including Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Boyle sets up a world that he then closes down conventionally. He brings in the gun-toting baddies and allows the film to be about characters versus other characters, rather than man against the environment. When one suggests The Beach ostensibly could have walked the line between genre convention and clich it resides in its non-generic origins, and its predication on the mysterious and beautiful beach. The viewer doesn't go in with the genre conventions the way they do in horror thriller like the Hostel films, so its failure to explore the intricacies of the mystery gives us a strong sense of lost opportunities. The film at one stage goes out of its way to differentiate the exclusivity of the exclusive beach over the general beach culture when lead characters Richard and Sal (Tilda Swinton) leave the island retreat and go into town. Richard says this is the very thing that they want to avoid: the mass tourism experience with its throbbing music, drunken and drugged up teenagers, and its roar of traffic. But the film itself plays closer to the latter than the former: it has all the predictability of a consumer culture product as it offers guns, drugs and pulsating music of its own.


© Tony McKibbin