Monday, August 18, 2014

Frogs (1972) and Cli-Fi Cinema

Although a  seemingly new genre, we believe climate Fiction (cli-fi) films continue some of the same trends occurring in monstrous nature cinema, including drawing on anthropomorphism to both humanize and vilify nonhuman nature. Dan Bloom asserts, “In order to be a cli-fi short story or novel, the book will have a climate theme, of course. It can be set in the past, the present or the future, and it can be dystopian or utopian.” The same definition applies to filmic cli-fi, which, like short stories and novels, explores climate change and global warming explicitly. Bloom also differentiates cli-fi from environmental literature and film, declaring, “But if the book is just about the environment, such as protecting rivers or stopping air pollution, then it wouldn’t really be a cli-fi novel [or film]. There are other categories such as eco-fiction or calling a book an eco-thriller if it is about the environment.” Earlier cli-fi films that anthropomorphize monstrous nature explicitly fit Bloom’s criteria.

Considered one of the earliest eco-horror films, Frogs (1972) confronts environmental destruction with a vengeful bevvy of psychic frogs. During an annual Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) birthday celebration on the fourth of July, these frogs telepathically communicate with other animal species, enticing them to attack Crockett’s family and guests one by one. The film highlights how almost every family member despises nature so much they spread harmful chemicals to eradicate all nonhuman animal life. The film suggests the frogs recognize the source of these animal deaths—humans, especially the spoiled rich Crockett patriarch and his family. On the night of Jason Crockett’s birthday frogs, snakes, alligators, lizards, birds, and spiders begin to pay Crockett back, and in Frogs nature wins. Like humans, frogs and other animals in the Florida swamp surrounding Crocket’s mansion sense the source of their oppression and fight back.

Despite the deaths of family and houseguests, millionaire Crockett still maintains his superiority to nonhuman nature, exclaiming, “I still believe man is master of the world.” Nature photographer and environmentalist Pickett Smith (Sam Elliot) offers an alternative view, asking, “Does that mean he can't live in harmony with the rest of it?” Like humans, frogs and other animals in the Florida swamp surrounding Crocket’s mansion sense the source of their oppression and fight back. In Frogs, anthropomorphizing these swamp creatures provides an environmental message, but it also humanizes nature and provides a means to punish the real monster—Jason Crocket and the human oppressors he represents.

Monday, August 11, 2014

*Strigoi* and the Blood of War

Like other vampire movies, Strigoi connects vampirism and its desire for blood with humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world, but this time war and its violent repercussions initiate a monstrous response. In Strigoi, young medical school dropout, Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv), returns to Romania from Italy, and after discovering Florin the town drunk’s mysterious death, he investigates secret post-Communism land deals, forgery and corruption—a conspiracy of silence that has led to the presence of Strigoi. According to The Vampire Book, the Strigoi of the film is closely related to the Romanian word striga (a witch), which in turn was derived from the Latin strix, the word for screech owl that was extended to refer to “a demon that attacked children at night” (586) and drank their blood. In Strigoi, vampirism has its origin in blood. But it is the blood of war over land rather than romantic or sexual desire that transforms some citizens into strigoi mort.

Although Dracula typically survives only in his native soil, Strigoi amplifies this connection between the earth and humanity, demonstrating powerfully the ecological roots of home. With a comic tone that comes close to satire, Strigoi draws parallels between literal vampirism and struggles for land, struggles that comment on the greed of dictators such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu who destroy both human and nonhuman nature. As Andrew Dowler of Now Magazine suggests, “This is a serious and seriously black comedy about land, heritage in the blood and the rape of the country and people from the Nazis onward.”

Strigoi both sets its comic tone and establishes its critique of such greed from its opening title card humorously declaring the film’s setting: “Podoleoi Village, Romania—last Wednesday.” As punishment for crimes against the village, local leaders murder the owners of a large estate, Constantin Tirescu (Constantin Barbelesku) and his wife Ileana (Roxana Gutman), thinly disguised representatives of the Ceausescu family. The scene also initiates the connection between the earth, their disrupted home, and vampirism when the blood of a violent death meets the village soil. Blood remains after the Tirescus are buried, as if it has drained into the soil, ultimately transforming them into the strigoi of the film’s title.

The Tirescus’ change into a strigoi mort, or dead vampire, further connects to an earth flowing with blood because the scene also parallels the end of the 1989 Romanian Revolution, a conflict between rich and poor that culminated with the overthrow and execution of long-term dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Ileana. As director Faye Jackson explains, “The initial concept of the film was inspired by the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the [overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu]. The idea in Strigoi was that this village would kill their leader because he was corrupt, but by doing so, they become complicit in his corruption” (quoted in Savlov).

The greed associated with this era connects explicitly with the strigoi of the film, vampires driven by an insatiable hunger. As if to illustrate this transfer of greed, the villagers celebrate the symbolic overthrow of power in the Tirescu manor house. Instead of the violent deaths forced on Florin and, in retaliation, on the Tirescus, these villagers hope for an end for themselves that ensures their rise “to the spirit of the sky,” echoing the song accompanying their plundering of the Tirescus’ consumer goods, an end that will leave the earth unbruised and their homes reclaimed. The looting of the Tirescu manor also corresponds with vampirism in the film, as well as the multiple repercussions for greed that it represents. Multiple metaphorical images illustrate this greed, including the feast Vlad’s neighbor Mara Tomsa (Camelia Maxim) prepares for him. This representation of gluttony is amplified by Vlad’s explanation for his decision to quit work at an Italian fastfood restaurant called The Chicken Hut: “All I did was fry chicken,” he tells her, as she piles food in front of him.

The blood of war is manifested in several ways in the film. Most obviously, the violent murders of the Tirescus transform them into strigoi, a transformation that further connects them with Ceausescu. The villagers watching Florin’s body offer a different perspective on stolen land and home when Vlad asks them about the deed to Florin’s land, reasserting the battle between rich and poor on which the 1989 Revolution was built. As one of the villagers explains, “One day you were working on your own farm. Then you were working on it, but it wasn’t yours any more. After the revolution, everyone was supposed to get their land back, but they didn’t have the papers.”

In this post-Communist village, community members must fight to keep their homes, even hiding the deeds to their property to counter corrupt government officials and avaricious capitalists like the Tirescus, a point made concrete by Florin’s murder. Octav (Vlad Jipa), the town cop, connects that evidence with earth more explicitly: “I can’t make a case with dirt under fingernails. Everyone has dirt under their nails, and it’s all the same dirt.” The fights over land produce strigoi in a variety of ways, the film suggests. As Mara explains, “Some people are born strigoi, and some become strigoi after death. We created [the Tirescu strigoi]. We knew they murdered Florin. We gave them a violent death.”

This fight over property even extends to blood relatives, including Vlad’s relationship with his grandfather Nicolae (Rudy Rosefeld). Nicolae shows Vlad the papers he has hidden, saying, “It’s my land. Mine!” Ultimately Vlad discovers that Constantin and Tudor, the priest, have been working together to acquire deeds to the villagers’ property. Constantin wants the land for money and power. Tudor wants a new tower for his church. They both demonstrate greed and gluttony like that of the strigoi mort, vampires born out of the bloodied Earth around them.

The desecrated home has also transformed Vlad’s grandfather into strigoi, as Vlad discovers when he awakens from a nightmare to find his grandfather drinking his blood. “It’s my blood. I gave it to you,” Nicolae explains ominously. His grandfather’s struggles through multiple wars and across war-torn lands have transformed him into a vampire. He is a living strigoi. “I went to Russia, to Stalingrad. I had to fight for the Germans. When the Russians won, I had to walk all the way home. Then the Russians occupied Romania. They were even worse than the Germans. And there was a terrible famine. I lost my son… Then the Communists took my land. I still had to work on it. I still had to work on the same land with the same horses, but it wasn’t mine anymore. I was born on this land. My father was born here. My children were born here. I died here.”

The battle for Florin’s deed serves as the film’s climax as it connects the mythical strigoi with its earthly manifestations—the Tirescus, Stefan, and the village priest. As Vlad explains to Constantine, “Strigoi hate the living. You were always strigoi.” In Strigoi, the battle for land and home turns violent, with the blood of what Constantine calls “peasants” transforming villagers into vengeful living strigoi who fight back, reclaiming their land and their heritage from dead strigoi like the Tirescus. Strigoi offers a different take on the vampire, a horrific version of humanity’s response to a war-ravaged land. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Comic Eco-Horror and The Pack: The Earth Bites Back

Unlike most vampire films with environmental leanings, the comic-horror The Pack (2010) explicitly connects vampirism and its desire for blood with humanity’s exploitation of the natural world. The Pack highlights the sometimes horrific and blood-sucking consequences of mistreating the Earth in relation to exploitative mining techniques, which destroy both the land and its human laborers. Although the film begins as a road movie with illusory romantic possibilities between a lone driver, Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) and a hitchhiker, Max (Benjamin Biolay), both genre and mood change when a drive ends at a café owned by Max’s mother, La Spack (Yolande Moreau), who hides a deadly secret that connects human and nonhuman nature. In The Pack, vampire miners and the slagheap that transformed them seek revenge.

Set around an abandoned post-industrial mine similar to the Lorraine mines of filmmaker Franck Richard’s childhood, The Pack connects vampirism to a ravaged Earth and a desecrated home. In The Pack, vampire-like ghouls are not only produced from a mine’s slagheap but also become an integral part of its byproducts, illustrating the interconnection between human and nonhuman ecologies. The specters arise only when they and the earth they inhabit are fed human blood. Unfortunately, however, The Pack’s attempts at comedy conflict with any serious message the film may be making about mining, miners, and the environment they exploited. The Pack fuses dark humor with multiple genres in its sometimes ineffective attempts to highlight that message.

The conventions of the comic road movie and Western turn monstrous when Charlotte picks up the hitchhiking Max to discourage the bikers. Music and setting changes reinforce this change with the introduction of Max, who is played by Benjamin Biolay and recognizable by most French and Belgian viewers as a singer, songwriter of songs such as “Bloodbath.” This song ties him to the horror genre and foreshadows The Pack’s blood-drinking ghouls, especially with the line, “He tells me, ‘You’re a vampire.’”Horror conventions are cemented when they reach La Spack, the dilapidated café at the end of a dark country lane where any efforts to infuse the narrative with comedy end. The tone grows even more foreboding when Max disappears into the café restroom and does not return. When Charlotte tries to find him behind a hidden door, La Spack assaults and captures her, locking her into one of the animal cages in the middle of a back room. In a makeshift torture chamber that takes Edgar Allen Poe to extremes, Charlotte and Tofu (Ian Fonteyn) are even force-fed their own blood to prepare them for their sacrifice to the vampires on the slagheap.

Connections between humanity and the earth are made explicit when this nightmare turns into eco-horror. At nightfall, the reason for Charlotte and Tofu’s blood diet is revealed. They have been prepared to feed monsters rising from the earth. Now helplessly weak, Charlotte and Tofu are flung into a coal car and pushed toward a slagheap where they are chained by their ankles. Cuts in their calves drip blood into the Earth, luring vampire ghouls dressed in mining clothes out of the soil. Eyeless, fanged and carrying mining tools, they seem to gasp for air but drink the dripping blood frantically, licking Charlotte’s leg and ripping off Tofu’s arm to drain his arteries. These monsters survive only in an earth fertilized with human blood.

The source of these horrific monsters clearly connects human and nonhuman ecologies, however, moving the narrative beyond the extreme gore of the slagheap. As Max explains to Charlotte the next morning, his mother “hasn’t always been like this. But when my brothers died, she went mad. The authorities would rather see them die in the mine than risk a firedamp explosion…. The village elders talked about a creature born of mud and the blood of the dead, miners who died underground. That always made us laugh. …. I think they dug too deep.” Max continues talking as the scene changes to an external shot of power lines crossing a large field lined with winter trees, illustrating his claim, “My mother says the earth wants blood. And we can’t refuse it.” Charlotte’s discovery of a photo album of the La Spack family miners killed in a mining accident reinforces La Spack’s claim. On a page adjacent to photos of the La Spack’s now-dead sons, a newspaper clipping declares, “We raped the earth. It’s sending us monsters.”

The horror reaches a climax at the slagheap during a battle between La Spack and a gang that includes Charlotte, Max, and the motorcycle club that followed Charlotte to the cafe. After a gruesome fight that leaves La Spack dead, her blood draining into the slagheap, the ghouls return, slaughtering everyone but Charlotte, who escapes the now-burning house through a window, exclaiming, “So the earth wants blood. I’ll give it some” as she shoots. When she reaches a field, however, the vampire ghouls rise up from the mist and follow her, feeding on her until the moon fades into morning.

The horror of this scene suggests a tragic end for Charlotte and Max and a resolution in favor of monstrous nature. Instead, Charlotte seems to survive, appropriating the now dead La Spack’s role, with Max resuming his own function as a handsome hitchhiker luring drivers in to feed the vampire ghouls they now protect. Quickly, however, the film switches from this dream sequence to a shot of Charlotte hanging on chains over the slagheap, where a vampire ghoul drinks her blood. The wind rocks the chain, and Charlotte’s blood drips into the soil. The sun comes up, and blood seems to cover the light with a hiss and red clouds. Bluegrass music ends the film, with the line “I’m down in that old coalmine,” lightening the frightening mood with perhaps ineffective humor.

Despite its weak ending and lack of originality, The Pack highlights the terrible consequences of eco-disasters associated with mining. The slagheap broaches not only the filmmaker’s childhood memories but also the real horrors of the mining industry and its exploitation of resources and labor. In Franck Richard’s own region of Lorraine, industrial medicine studies found an increased mortality from lung and stomach cancer in Lorraine iron miners (N. Chou, et al 1017). Coal mining in the region also had disastrous repercussions. According to a 1985 Los Angeles Times article, “an explosion [in February 1985] in a coal mine in France's eastern region of Lorraine killed 22 miners and injured about 100.” The article explains, “The blast, 3,450 feet underground in the Forbach mine near the West German border, was thought to have been caused by fire damp, a gas given off by coal and constituted largely of methane. When it explodes, it immediately ignites coal dust nearby.” The Pack turns these real instances of “monstrous nature” into biting horror.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Garnering Loss--James Garner, Murphy's Romance, and Ecology

Garnering Loss

Your boyfriend’s dead he says
I laugh
ask which one

but think of James Garner

my own Murphy’s Romance
staying for supper only if breakfast is included.
How do you like your eggs?

A sign maybe.

The amaryllis stops swallowing.

The cilantro dries up.

I hear people went to the wrong Roanake this weekend.

I remember stooping under a sumac
on a trail near Toledo,
turning red under its leaves
while the guide explained

fragrant bobs attract bees

stems transform into pipes
fluoresce under ultraviolet light.

I fear

my toes will grow numb
harden and fall off,
useless and without scent.

I fear

I’ll say, “I’m 60,”
just like Murphy
and the door will slam

leaving me outside
in the coming dark.