May 28, 2009

Zulawski & Raimi: The Hell They Dragged Us Into

[Steven Boone, who writes for The House Next Door and other fine film sites, steps in today like a man possessed.]

Isabel Adjani in POSSESSION

"To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I'm concerned, I don't make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence."
- Andrzej Zulawski

"My goal is not to offend people. It is to entertain, thrill, scare, make them laugh, but not to offend them."
- Sam Raimi

"I don’t give a fuck about the audience."
- Andrzej Zulawski

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) are two sides of the same cursed coin, producing in the viewer an identical effect—sheer giddiness at their audacious, divinely, demonically, deliriously inventive visual play. Each flick is a series of riffs on the notion of possession—Raimi's aimed at the grindhouses, Zulawski's at European arthouses. But both films are so dizzyingly choreographed that keen viewers will recognize them as two of the 1980s' most sublime horror classics. Like the possessed humans, hands and furniture dancing around in them, these films simply convulse with creative electricity. They forced their way out of their creators.

Possession & Evil Dead II: Dead By DawnBoth films support the concept that virtually any cinematic illusion can be achieved through mise en scène, performance, classic in-camera and physical effects, and sound. No matter what cynical eyes might make of these grisly films, they are drenched in the sweetest romance as much as blood—Raimi's for the juvenile excesses and nutty mythos of B-movies; Zulawski's for the depths of martyrdom a couple will endure simply trying to shore up a collapsing marriage. Every single shot of each film defines "lovingly crafted" and works in harmony with the whole. Neither is a precious art object or a calculated commercial exercise but a movie movie, propelled by the premise and life force of its lead actors.

But the earth's poles aren't nearly as distant as these filmmakers' sensibilities, career paths and temperaments. Sam Raimi began making films in suburban Michigan with his high school pals Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel. He parlayed this experience, at age 19, into his first low-budget independent feature, 1981's The Evil Dead. At that time, Zulawski was already embarking upon Possession as an established Polish auteur. Raimi is solidly middle-American. Zulawski is the quintessential Central European artist, reeling from the promise and devastation of the 20th Century's war years. Raimi flaunts Capra-esque cornpone optimism and a repertoire of humor ranging from G to PG-13. Zulawski's jokes could provoke stigmata; the kind of gallows humor one might improvise at a ritual castration. Raimi the man appears almost pathologically self-effacing, soft-spoken and schoolboy polite in contrast to Zulawski's cranky, politically charged contrarianism. Raimi is a college dropout raised on Marvel comics and television. Zulawski is an intellectual who devoured philosophy in Warsaw and Paris.

Possession So, too, go the paradoxes: Evil Dead II is arguably the least serious horror film ever to deliver bone-rattling jolts, yet Campbell's performance is deadly serious, even when subduing his re-animated severed hand with a copy of Farewell to Arms. Both films produce a sensation (in this viewer, at least) of overexcitement directly proportionate to the characters' suffering. Make no mistake, Possession is serious stuff, grappling as it does with the kind of emotional tortures that lead to murder-suicides. But it reminds me of an old Roger Ebert quip about Touch of Evil: it is a dark, unpleasant film that somehow brings a smile to your face.

Blame the camera. It prowls, eases and arcs around its raging, reeling, retching subjects in the manner of merry-go-round maestro Max Ophüls. But, of course, Ophüls famously cut away during the climactic duel at the end of The Earrings of Madame de..., whereas Zulawski would have lingered on it and Raimi would have followed the fatal bullet into its target's intestines. A staunch traditionalist might conclude from this distinction that Raimi and Zulawski are Ophüls' crude inferiors. I'd argue that each director has advanced Ophüls' technique, not by being so graphic but by pressing a new, lighter generation of film equipment to articulate greater intricacies of mood and sensation through camera movement.

Bruce Campbell in EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN The moving camera plays second only to the central performances by Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II and Isabel Adjani and Sam Neill (but mostly Adjani) in Possession. Campbell's comic performance, in its complete physical commitment, is equal to Adjani's gorgeous psychosis. His headbanging gymnastics obviously owe much to the Three Stooges two-reelers he and Raimi paid endless homage to in their fledgling shorts. Adjani's performance owes more to Satan, along with those regions of the brain responsible for involuntary spasms, female hysteria and religious euphoria.

These days, it's usually the other way around: The camera is spasmodic while the individuals onscreen are nimble but stoic—with both qualities pitch-perfect in their numbing predictability. Well. I didn’t mean for this appreciation to lapse into a rant against contemporary filmmaking, but that's where most discussions of august veteran auteurs inevitably end up. Sure, before and after Possession, there is very little to tie Zulawski's work to Raimi's. Raimi went on to produce and direct solidly American popcorn entertainment for film and television, culminating in the Spider-Man trilogy. I doubt he will ever conjure up anything as diabolical and hallucinatory as Zulawski's banned second film, Diabel, or the long-gestating 1988 head trip The Silver Globe. Fine. But the lesson imbedded in this comparison is that genres and intellectual pedigrees are less reliable common denominators between filmmakers than the style and intensity of vision that give their work meaning, force, and indelibility. It’s a kooky but stimulating way to approach Raimi's latest, which bears a title that's pure Zulawski: Drag Me to Hell.

- Steven Boone

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Posted by ahillis at May 28, 2009 4:45 PM

Comments

When Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress at Cannes last week for what appears to be an over-the-top crazy performance (I don't know, I wasn't there), I thought about Adjani's performance doing the same for this film.
She is so far gone, it's amazing.
Respect to Bruce Campbell and Raimi, but their channeling The Three Stooges somehow doesn't compete in my eyes.

Whenever someone asks me "What's the craziest film you've ever seen?", I promptly reply: Possession by Andrzej Zulawski.
And I mean that as high compliment.

Posted by: Brandon at May 31, 2009 3:59 PM
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