The Last House On the Left. Effective? Yes. Important? No.

March 17, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I’m not sure where the notion that the original “The Last House On the Left” is an important document. It’s been described that way. I think it’s an effective, grisly piece of cinema, but really, the writing is crappy and the acting is, across the board, not much better. It has no technique. So: important? Why?

We’ve kind of gotten to the point where effective PR has allowed almost anyone, anywhere, describe themselves as a pioneer of whatever field they happened to be in if they happened to do it before 1980.

I suppose “The Last House On the Left” (from 1972) has the courage of its convictions, but that’s really more a function of luck than artistic vision. I am sure that Alfred Hitchcock would have tortured Marion Crane in “Psycho” (1960) longer and more lovingly than he did if the censors had allowed it. But they wouldn’t and so he, and every other filmmaker, had to wait for loosening rules and expanding horizons for the opportunity to bring explicit violence to the screen.

So I think Wes Craven just had an opportunity and being a talented guy he pulled it off. When a critic like Roger Ebert says that the original “Last House” knocked back audiences “on their psychic heels” I think that has more to do with the attenuated scenes of awful violence than it does with any kind of insight as to why human beings can be so dreadful.

But by 1972 audiences also had already seen “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Get Carter” and “The Wild Bunch.” Sex magazines and movies were moving above-ground, too, and movie-goers in certain neighborhoods could already have seen Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job” and Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” This doesn’t even cover the many examples of their counter-cultural counterpart, the drug movie. Witness “The Trip” and “Easy Rider” and your other biker movies and you have the sense that both audiences and filmmakers were ready to take all of this a step further.

So Wes Craven took all the hard-earned controversy of these films and piggy-backed on it. Good for him. But he didn’t pioneer anything. He didn’t invent a genre, and he didn’t change the face of the movies.

Now that “Last House” has been remade — it was just released on Friday the 13th, there is once again an attempt to elevate its lowly intentions by constantly mentioning that the movie is based on the same 13th century Swedish poem that Ingmar Bergman based “The Virgin Spring” on. I suppose this is supposed to give the movie some sort of pedigree. But what does it mean and what does it matter? Will it make you feel any better?

I was never opposed to slasher movies, or torture porn, or whatever you want to call it. Movie violence doesn’t bother me, but over the course of the past few years I’ve been less and less interested in it. I admired Rob Zombie’s first two films but did not understand his “Halloween” reboot. I thought both “Hostel” movies beyond idiotic, especially the idea of Eli Roth’s parents (in the special features) offering some bubblegum-card reasoning why watching torture has always been part of entertainment. That was pretty comical.

And then I watched a movie called “Wolf Creek”, which, to me, was unrelentingly brutal. There was a scene where the murderer shoots one of the girls by the side of the road. I can hardly remember the circumstances, but it was at that moment I wondered why I, or anyone else, would consider this kind of thing entertainment. I felt repulsed and saddened at the same time — people really have been taken to the side of a road somewhere and shot, and think for a second about the real horror and senselessness of that. Where is the entertainment in that?

I have seen enough of this kind of violence for one lifetime, and I don’t want to see it any more.

**********

For the record, here’s the old Swedish ballad that Bergman used as his inspiration for “The Virgin Spring.”

In the end, you will see, the avenging parents let one of the murderers live, so he could help the grieving father build a church over the space where the young girls were murdered.

Pehr Tyrsson’s daughters in Vänge
Their forest was cold

They slept a sleep too long

While the leaves appear on the trees

The youngest one woke up first

Their forest…

And so she woke up the others.

While the leaves…

Then they sat up on their beds.
So they braided each other’s locks.

So they put on their silken clothes.

So they went to the church.

But when they came to the pastures of Vänge
They met three herdsmen
– Either you will be the wives of herdsmen

Or would you lose your young lives?
– We do not want to be the wives of herdsmen.
We would rather lose our young lives.

They cut off their heads on a log of birch.

And so three wells appeared.

The bodies were buried in the mud.

The clothes were carried to the village.

When they came to the estate of Vänge,
Lady Karin met them outdoors
-And would you buy silken robes

That nine maidens have knitted and stitched?

Untie your sacks and let me see,

Maybe I will know all three of them Lady Karin beat herself on the chest,
She went up to Pehr Tyreson

– There are three herdsmen on our courtyard,

They have slain our daughters.
Pehr Tyrsson grasped his sword,
He slew the two eldest ones.

The third one he let live
Until he could ask him:
– What is your father’s name?

What is your mother’s name?

– Our father is Pehr Tyrsson in Vänge;

Our mother is Lady Karin in Skränge

Per Tyrson goes to the smithy
He had iron crafted around his waist
– What shall we do for our sins?

– We shall build a church of lime and stone.
– The church will be named Kerna

We are fain to build it.

Laszlo Kovacs, Chronicler of Human Emotion

July 25, 2007 § 1 Comment


By Lars Trodson

Laszlo Kovacs, who did the cinematography for “Easy Rider”, has died at the age of 74. If nothing else, Kovacs’ advanced age makes us realize just how far away those evergreen days of the hippies and revolutionary America now are. He wasn’t old, but old enough, and it may be that we are now beginning to see the shuttering of the era that was the 1960s, just as we have seen other epochs of American history fold away into the history of time.

You can’t blame time. It passes relentlessly. But I remember seeing “Paper Moon”, which Kovacs shot, when it first came out (1971) and I thought I was watching a movie actually made in the 1930s.

There is one image in that movie I will never forget. There’s a young black girl that is sort of a helper to the character Trixie Delight (played by Madeline Kahn). Addie and this girl play a cruel trick to ensure that Addie’s father, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) will know that Trixie is not someone to be trusted (it involves a sexual liaison).

The trick goes off as planned, and Moses reacts as planned: he picks up and leaves. But the two young girls have grown to like each other very much, and they say goodbye abruptly to one another in the hotel corridor. As Addie waves goodbye, Kovacs made the decision to linger on the black girl, and to have the camera glide smoothly, and beautifully, away from her down the aisle. This artistic choice articulated with amazing poignancy just how much the separation was going to mean not to Addie, but to the black girl, whose life was surely not going to have as much affection and acceptance as Addie had given to her. This was a human, and unexpected, choice.

It’s a stunning moment, and emblematic of this artist. Laszlo Kovacs knew how film could accentuate the nuances of human emotion, and that is a talent that will be sorely missed.

Father Time

June 30, 2007 § 1 Comment


By Lars Trodson

In one of the opening scenes in “Easy Rider”, Peter Fonda — aka Captain America, aka Wyatt — throws his wristwatch into the dirt. Then he and Dennis Hopper (Billy) speed off on their choppers, out onto the open road, out into an unsteady America, out into a place they or any of us, hardly, even really knows.

So begins the journey.

We get a glimpse of our emotional panorama in this remarkable film, in part because Fonda and Hopper played the two sides of our national coin: Fonda is the truly free one, and Hopper, while enjoying the trappings of an unfettered society, is still pretty much constitutionally and philosophically rooted in a more conservative age. He’s pretty uptight for a longhair. He seems to prefer his booze and cigarettes and easy women over the more modern pharmaceutical and societal choices.

“I gotta get out of here, man,” Hopper says to Fonda after they have spent some time at a commune.

“Hey, man,” says Fonda, “We’re eating their food.” It was a gesture to say they needed to show these people some respect.

It is while they are at the commune that Fonda says to the stranger they had picked up on the highway, played by that wily actor Luke Askew, that he is “hip to time, man.” I always thought it a mournful thing to say for the guy who threw away his watch.

So the journey continues.

Apparently made on a budget of about $400,000, I was struck, as I watched the movie the other night, just how reverent it really is toward our country, and this is because of the photography by Laszlo Kovacs. In the scene at the commune, just as they are about to say a secular prayer over the food they are about to eat, Kovacs takes his camera and takes the time to spin slowly around the room so that we get to see all the faces, the faces of these hippies, and you can see the faces of almost every type of person there: the defiant ones, and the frightened, and the carefree and the concerned, and the lost, and the faces of the children. It is truly a beautiful moment in film.

He also captures the mid-west landscape beautifully, the Indian burial grounds, Monument
Valley — this is John Ford country — the highways of an as-of-yet overdeveloped country. The country stores are still there. The little Mexican cantinas (which reminds us just how much of a cultural mixture our country has always been between what we consider American and Mexican. It has been blurred since the beginning.) There is the little farm they stop at to fix their bike. When Fonda and Hopper share a meal with their hosts, Fonda says to the farmer: “You should be proud. It isn’t every man who can make a living off the land. Doing his own thing in his own time.”

It’s a hippy line, but still a goddamn good one. And then they move on again.

It’s interesting, in a back story way, that when Fonda and Hopper and the rest talk about the film, they talk about how much they were aware of what a successful commercial venture this was going to be. They knew they would make their mark, and undoubtedly earn a bucket of cash. The film was nominated for two Oscars – one for the screenplay (credited to Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern), and one for Jack Nicholson. I wonder if these guys were disappointed when they lost, which would be an institutional reaction, one would think.

It doesn’t matter, though, because I think they made an honest film. Some of Fonda’s spiritual “live and let live” attitude doesn’t play so well today, but then we can always look to Hopper to give us some acerbic realism.

I looked at the cover of the DVD and was somewhat amused by my own warm reaction to the photo of Hopper and Fonda out on the road. It seems nostalgic and romantic to me, and I am continually surprised how much I like these guys. After all, they make their money at the beginning by selling a batch of cocaine (to a nameless cat in a Rolls Royce played by music producer Phil Spector). These are not my guys, but the screenplay is also savvy enough not to portray them as saintly.

When they are refused a room at a seedy roadside hotel, Hopper yells out after the owner has turned on the “NO Vacancy” sign: “Asshole!” That would have been enough justification for turning them away, I suppose. So it isn’t just a couple of carefree, harmless guys trying to make their way in the world. But the important question to ask is: Who among us is? Who wants to be treated badly for who people think we are, rather than what we actually might be?

So the journey gets complicated.

Nicholson plays the voice of the audience. He’s a lawyer, George Hanson (who does work for the ACLU) and a juicer, and he has some pull in the little community where Hopper and Fonda get tossed in jail. Nicholson is in the pokey, too, cooling his heels after a night of drinking — not much different from the old Otis character on the Andy Griffith show. We can feel comfortable with this guy, even though he’s slightly off his rocker.

The scene in which he tells the bikers how the Venutians have quietly infiltrated our society is a riot — even more so because at one point Nicholson obviously breaks character and bursts into laughter — and later when he is murdered you feel cheated. The violence is unnecessary, as it always is. He was OK, that guy, just a little troubled. Who among us is not?

As the end of the movie came nearer I felt a little uneasy, even though I knew what was coming. It’s abrupt and sadistic — this is not the ending of moralists, or free-thinkers, but the ending of people who feel despair over the kind of self-proclaimed freedom they are promoting. I don’t know if I like it. I wonder what our thoughts on the movie today would be if Billy and Captain America had lived, and I certainly wonder what effect it would have had on the box office at the time. Was it a reaffirmation to those who went to see the movie seeking comeuppance for these two bikers? Or was it a reaffirmation to the hippies themselves who always knew they would never be accepted? I imagine a little bit of both. The hippies faded away, but many of their ideals and habits remain, both good and bad, even in a society that strains to keep its conservative side its public-facing persona. Since the movie was filmed in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the ending seems a logical extension of those two horrific events.

I think I might have tried to spare our fictional heroes in light of how many real ones were getting murdered. But I can’t make that decision now and what do I know, anyway? It does seem to fit into the context of how hopeful and bleak those times seem to us now.

The journey of Billy and Captain America ended, but the ambiguous, unanswered effects of its aftermath continue. And I guess that is a gift.


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