The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

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I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

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There’s something a little schizophrenic about cinema. We take our experiences and influences from the world around us, past present or imagined future and form them into a captured space, a captured time one that is displaced from the actual space and time its occurring in. The film set in Hollywood is not actually the detective’s office, the space ship, the 18th century manor. And when we move into most films (i.e not the avant-garde experimental works) we move into a realm where the words, the performances the details and look of the world that we’re meant to take as being real, sometimes more than reality itself, have all been meticulously designed, written and rewritten, rehearsed and tweaked and refined and sculpted into a sensuous orchestra of sound and image that wants you, desires you to be taken in by it.

And for the cinema goers, those Hollywood dreams mean we watch people perform these highly polished and preened versions of ourselves and who we might wish to be, we watch the regular everyman (or less often woman) snatched out of their existence, usually humdrum and quaint in a way we slightly shamefully relate to. And we watch as they are vaulted upwards, their talents are required or recognised in a way the real world rarely if ever brings to us. Luke Skywalker goes from shooting womp rats in his T-16, destined for a life of obscurity on a desert planet, to the fighter of the greatest evil the galaxy has ever seen. And only he can do it, his special privileged genes mean no one else can take his place. He’s not expendable, and more importantly he’s the only one who can succeed where everyone else will fail. Darth Vader would not be killed halfway through by a stray Rebel laser.

Exceptions to my overgeneralisation are overwhelming, and I’m grateful for it. Hundreds, thousands of films which don’t follow that structure, of focusing only on the extraordinary. But that’s where film can often find its greatest power, its simplest power because everyone deep down wants to be somebody. In a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, there’s a phrase in it which talks about how the temptation for riches and wealth is not as hard to overcome as the temptation to be important, to have status or just simply be remembered.

He doesn’t agree we should deny that ambition, and neither do I. But ambitions are double-edged swords, the very things which lay in our hearts, burning in our chests at our core can consume us, make us hollow husks consumed by our relentless desire to achieve these goals. And so in a world filled with people who make their living inhabiting other people, who live in a world where they do their best to inhabit a different one, who are the type of people to be attracted to that world and what happens to them? More importantly, why do their dreams get so corrupted by the reality of their world?

Mulholland Drive (2001, Dir. David Lynch) and Maps To The Stars (2014, Dir. David Cronenberg) both have a response to this, and it’s perhaps important to note that these two long revered cult directors (both David’s) have for all their merits been considered outsiders in the highest echelons of the film world. They are cinematic artists, but they are not cinematic businessmen. And yet that put them both in a position to deliver stunningly different but strikingly cutting accounts of the plague in those stars we lionise so much.

WARNING: IT’S ABOUT TO GET VERY SURREAL.


DREAMS

In a film so surreal and entangling, it seems rather counterintuitive to start talking about Mulholland Drive‘s links with reality. It would be a lot easier to talk about Lynch and the subconscious, how his films which purposefully wrestle with not fitting neatly together should best be appropriately attached to one psychological schema or another. This character is a manifestation of this idea, this character’s psychological split represents this idea coming into collision with reality etc. I’m not going to pursue that, other people more knowledgeable in their fields can provide you with those analyses. For me, Mulholland Drive will always occupy this space which grates against its separation and segmenting. There’s no clear indicators as to what’s his version of reality you’re meant to buy into. Sure you can make cases for some parts being “real”, some parts being “dreams or fantasies” but the whole thing blends into such a writhing singular beast that it’s hard to tell where one bit ends and one bit begins, and it was made that way on purpose. A film is a dream, not a copy of the world. It can be close or it can be far away, but those who get so wrapped up in it can end up being ruined by it.

So what am I saying? Well Mulholland Drive‘s is a film where its characters are haunted by their fantasies which haunt them, fantasies of dreamed grandeur and stardom, of nightmarish ghosts and strange conspiracies, of possibly imagined mysteries and possibly “real” kindled romances.  Wrapped in murky illusory shrouds, the people who inhabit the world of Mulholland Drive are illusions and stereotypes which develop along dark and mysterious paths. One of Naomi Watts characters’ Betty, is a “small town girl with big dreams” of becoming a Hollywood actress. Her wooden acting is just a mask for her powerful scene stealing, scene making abilities. Her naiveté and stereotypical “pure wholesomeness” mask her subconscious desire for Rita. Her entire performance is one side of a coin, the other of the broken disillusioned actress Diane.  On the flip side, Laura Harring’s dual performance, one of the amnesic loving fantasy of Rita, the other of the painful achingly cruel fantasy of Camilla, point to an item in this world of near fetishistic obsession, one which torments as much as it brings pleasure.

Beyond this, it’s a realm of bizarre shaded sketches of conspiratorial figures, of actors whose role is not clear to the audience. Figures which populate this strange surreal landscape of movie-making, of the “dream factory”. The whole of the setting literally starts to personify that name, swallowing up its cast in this fractured, distorted dream factory.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? They’re all on desperate searches, for their dream career, explanations, revenge. They’re all people who play roles, who transform themselves, bend to the wills of those around them and expect the world to do the same for them. And this sun-soaked swamp which swallows them up, is one which presents nothing tangible for the characters to grasp onto. The very form of the film even challenges them, with its sequence of events which seem to occur with no clear beginning or end, scenes matching each other but diverging on different paths. The land of dreams is one which is literally that, one which has no anchor for anyone to grab onto. Entire characters, storylines, scenes and worlds vanish, get morphed and transfigured in the film.

In a world so devoid of all the ropes which tether us to our reality,  how can anyone expect not to be driven mad?

REALITY

Stacking up against Mulholland Drive, it’s strange to talk about Maps To The Stars as being the sane, rational film in this comparison, namely because the film is anything but. In its own fascinating and brutally clinical fashion, Maps To The Stars is just as disorienting, creepy, numbly horrifying and spends a great deal of time blurring the inner psyches of its characters (which are becoming dangerously unhinged) and the “real” world around them.

You could say this is a more in focus look at the world of Hollywood. Although Mullholland Drive is set in Los Angeles, its hard separation from any landscape we might encounter in the real world makes it difficult to bring it down to Earth. Maps To The Stars though, shows what happens when you bring the magnifying glass close to the mud. You see a lot of dirt.

The dreams and desires of its cast are so perverted by the world they live in, that it’s horror of the world it’s looking at lays in its silence, in the lack of noise people make over actions and events a less exposed person might find at least, emotionally difficult. From child deaths to 13-year-old drug habits to cynically motivated publicity stunts involving a dying girl, everything in their world is channeled to serve their own self-interest, to help promote their brand. Every action becomes reconstituted as a transaction which takes place, sex is just a way of getting a part, jobs are just a way to climb the ladder while eating shit, the glamour of the exteriors’ fail to hide the sickly shallow, vapid personalities they express in pissing contests with each other.  Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the Star Wars talk was relevant earlier, since he shot Empire Strikes back, 1980 Dir. Irvin Kerschner) look upon this world like you might look at insects in a glass box. He never makes the mistake of putting us in their shoes. Because their shoes are either empty or filled with shit.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? These people are haunted piranhas, who would devour each other if they could. The only characters who engender emotion are those who are visibly tormented, either by ghosts as Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore) is tormented by her dead mother who was a cult cinema hero, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is tormented by a dead girl who tricks him into strangling his child co-star, or Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) who is Benjie’s sister, who is humiliated and physically assaulted by her father (John Cusack) and humiliated again by Havanna. She responds by bashing Havanna’s face in with an award and committing suicide in an incestuous marriage ceremony with her brother, one which had set of the chain of events which led to her original separation.

If this reads as convoluted, it’s because it is. In this hermetically sterile world, these people almost operate like a virus, incestuous (metaphorically and literally) breeding with each other and clawing the flesh from each other in an attempt to maintain control. No act, no crime is too big not to be swept under the rug or spun by a PR doctor. And the world they live in? One which enables them, even encourages them. The money sent their way is gargantuan, enabling them to live in worlds divorced from the common reality of most people’s everyday life. Their sterile kingly estates, no matter how luxurious and pristine, trap them in with their own ugliness, their own trauma, their own mind numbing boredom.

In a world where everyone is devoid of what makes human experience meaningful, how can anyone not expect to be driven mad?


HOLLYWOOD

There’s a lot going on under the surface, you don’t need two surreal films by two cult directors to tell you that. But for a world which can turn its lens to every part of the world and beyond, where people can dress up as kings and queens and Zygons and big robots hitting other big robots and orcs and elves and policemen and thieves and on and on and on and on it goes, never-ending the amount of roles to inhabit, of other people’s skin to wear, why does the world that produces these images of our reality seem so ugly underneath? Cinema is the most vain bitch of all the arts, and a tradition which started with Billy Wilder’s seminal classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950) of exposing that dark underbelly that lies beneath cinema’s Mt. Olympus is more alive than ever. Film rarely has enough daring to challenge the people behind the finished product, and maybe it’s why both films you find yourself schizophrenically entranced and repulsed, bored and yet still paying attention, confused and yet disturbingly clear.

After all, you’ve got to be a bit mad to spend your life re-making reality. To spend years performing to a black box, only for people to sit in a dark room and watch things which never really happened. Crazier still to love it.

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-Alex

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Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars