I've been suffering from terrible insomnia. In dishonor of my frequent affliction, I've turned off the Roy Acuff (note to self: Roy Acuff is haunting brilliance but he does not make me go to sleep...my mind wanders to birds and night trains and murder). So in went Erik Skjoldbjaerg's "Insomnia," the original and better picture (Christopher Nolan re-made it with Al Pacino and Robin Williams). Not only does the movie put me in touch with my depressive Swedish roots, but it reminds me why I revere Stellan Skarsgård. I'm re-posting my original take...fresh words coming soon.
Film noir is characterized by certain essential ingredients: the duality of a man's tormented soul; expressionistic black-and-white lighting; dusty rays of sunlight barely peeking through thick venetian blinds in a private detective's office; Barbara Stanwyck; Humphrey Bogart; Raymond Chandler. For hardcore purists, noirish films such as John M. Stahl's Technicolor melodrama Leave Her to Heaven, Raoul Walsh's western Pursued and Alexander MacKendrick's gloriously talky, Clifford Odets-scripted Sweet Smell of Success do not fit into the formula. The settings aren't right; the stylistics are off. But that's just nit-picking academic/nerd soulessness.
And so, despite the stylistic and thematic tenets that unify the genre, it need not conform to its literal meaning of "black film." As in the aforementioned films, black can be Gene Tierney's heart, black can be a Spanish-American-War veteran, black can be a wicked gossip columnist. Nowhere is this so provocatively demonstrated than in Swedish director Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Insomnia, a picture that proves that light can obscure as much as it reveals.
After a jarring opening sequence -- the artistically lyrical murder of a young woman -- Insomnia begins with deceptive simplicity. Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swedish detective, and his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), are brought to Norway to investigate the slaying. Stumping local authorities, the proficient killer has left little clues -- he even shampooed the girl's hair after her death (kinky clean). Hence the need for Jonas, who, though caught in "intimate conversation" with a witness in his last case, is considered the best homicide detective in the field.
Using the victim's backpack as a lure, Jonas entices the murderer to the shed where he committed the crime. An easy trap, but not too easy. The criminal sees his pursuers and flees. During a confusing chase through a thick Norwegian fog, Jonas shoots a figure he presumes to be the wanted man. Unfortunately, it's his partner, who dies before his very eyes. To avoid getting busted for his blunder, Jonas covers up the crime, then must make a disturbing pact with the person who knows the truth: the killer himself.
What happens next pushes the film into the territory of a noir thriller wrapped inside a morality tale wrapped inside a character study of a man plagued by neurotic and sociopathic decay. Rather than simply rely on the standard methods of a crime story (which Nolan did to a certain degree with his re-make), Insomnia indulges the viewer with scenes inside Jonas's disturbed, haunted head. An insomniac, Jonas constantly battles with the useless shades covering the window of his hotel room. He cannot stand the light. Stuck in the throes of a blinding Arctic summer, Jonas becomes more and more agitated and, without his partner around to keep him in check, outright despicable. He tampers with and plants evidence and displays a selfish and altogether conflicted personality.
Yet because of his ambiguity, I cannot hate him. He's far too human. Despite his icy exterior, he's filled with a feverish lust (insomnia can bring on odd rushes of sexual longing at the strangest moments). Such lust emerges in two situations where he mistakes innocent flirtation for something much more significant than it really is. On the way to a crime scene, a teenage witness allows him to stick his hand between her legs, but the moment, not surprisingly hot and forbidden and exciting for a moment, rapidly sours. Of course. And then, while willingly receiving a pass from a pretty hotel receptionist, Jonas takes things too far by roughly biting at her breasts and her body -- she runs away terrified. He blows that one too. Yearning for more, only to be repelled, he is left a broken-down, dirty old man. A creepy lecher, and yet, we feel sorry for him.
Much of this lies in Skarsgård's complexity. Repressed and unctuous yet oddly handsome and sickly swaggering, he gives a performance so compelling that one could easily picture him as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Skjoldbjaerg did right in casting Skarsgård, for the director's vision of a man being suffocated by light would not have worked with a predictably "disturbing" actor. Skjoldbjaerg also did right by not making his neo-noir a typically pedestrian display of expressionistic shadowing to reveal the dualities of a man's soul (how many times have we heard that?). He instead creates a world of pale yellows that envelop his character like a humiliating urine-stained sheet a terrible mother would shame her son with. A sickly, stifling and embarrassing world that darkness can't obscure. Insomnia is a work of blinding brilliance.
Black Christmas may well be one of my favorite slasher films ever made. I've watched it too many times to count and not just around this holly jolly season. As I've written here:
"Director Bob Clark (who would later craft that little subversive yuletide favorite A Christmas Story) made a first of its kind--a sorority house slasher flick, complete with deranged lunatic (whom you never see), extra crazy obscene phone calls and sexy girls--especially Margot Kidder and the gorgeous Olivia Hussey. Atmospheric, gorgeously shot, intriguing and filled with genuine fucking scares, Black Christmas is a masterpiece in any genre."
So...obviously I'm skeptical of the re-make. Even with Glen Morgan as director (he did a fantastic job re-making Willard) and James Wong in charge (Wong's responsible for the vastly underrated, Rube Goldberg-iean Final Destination death trap series), I remain cynical about the whole affair.
But when I watched the trailer, I moved beyond skeptisim to...why? Why mess with a great thing? And why add the whole mommy/daddy Christmas angle? In the original, you have no idea what the hell is wrong with the murderer, which is so much more frightening. That, and you never see his face. And there is no way anyone can emulate how simultaneously hilarious and horrifying his obscene phone calls are. There's not touching that.
Nevertheless, I will suspend additional judgement until I actually see the movie which I will, most likely on Christmas. And hey, I'm happy to watch original cast member (and SCTV alum) Andrea Martin appearing as sorority den mother. But Margot Kidder better have a cameo--I'll be upset if they don't throw her a bone. Not only does she need the work but she's one of the most entertaining aspects to the original movie.
Huh. Now I'm excited to see the film. How did that happen?
But over at Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke has almost made me feel guilty for confessing interest in seeing my favorite holiday creep-fest on Christmas night. Almost.
I am, you know, an adult (last time I checked) and since I'm not spending Christmas with my family this year and I have no interest crying my brains out over It's a Wonderful Life (I'll do that on Christmas Eve), I doubt much damage will come whilst watching a bunch of comely lasses getting hacked to pieces to the tune of "Silent Night."
Finke's thoughts regarding her utter disgust concerning releasing the picture on the day we all should be decking the halls is best distilled by The Defamer who quoted Finke:
"Shame, shame, shame on Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and their distributor MGM's Harry Sloan, for opening a holiday-themed slasher movie on Christmas Day. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the ads and release date for Black Christmas from Dimension/MGM. The promos even make fun of 'people who express outrage' as well as the plot's body count. And the entertainment industry wonders why it continues to have a huge PR problem as promoters of garbage? Showbiz marketing calls this counter-programming.
"Still, I don't understand: just how many disturbed human beings does The Weinstein Company and MGM think actually want to go see a gory movie on December 25th -- specifically, a remake of a 1974 horror flick in which a college sorority house is terrorized by a psycho who makes frightening phone calls and murders the girls during the holiday break. Is the intended audience supposed to be non-Christians?"
Hmm...I don't know about this. As much as I admire Finke's ballsy writing, I think there are plenty of people (people who don't get lots of presents, who have nowhere to go and people, who maybe, don't give a rip about the Holiday to begin with) who'd think nothing better than to watch a bunch of girls die on Christmas (in a movie, of course).
And, come to think of it, all those stressed out, homicidal mom's I see dragging their sullen, un appreciative teenage daughters through the mall would probably feel a sense of release from Black Christmas. My god, you truly see Hell on Earth in these bratty scenarios.
Anyway, the Finke hoopla reminded me of that big Silent Night, Deadly Night ban in 1984 when angry parents picketed theaters for showing a toy store Santa axe people to death. But that was Santa. And as much as I disagree with those uptight mom's burning their fruitcakes over that picture, I can kind of understand why they freaked out over their children asking if Santa might forgo the coal and instead, murder them this Christmas.
And then I can't help but think of that hilarious scene in John Waters' Female Trouble in which Divine's Dawn Davenport attacks her family for not getting her those bad girl cha-cha heels. One of the film's finest moments is when Dawn pushes her mother into the Christmas tree and her yelping mother cries: "Not on Christmas! Not on Christmas!"
But you know what? In spite of this scene, John Waters loves Christmas. And as many times as I've seen Female Trouble and Black Christmas, so do I. I...I'd kill if I couldn't have a Christmas.
So I'm going to Black Christmas without any guilt. Disapointment for sure. Especially if Margot Kidder doesn't show up to spell f-e-l-a-t-i-o.