Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time“— Aren’t we all?

Slaughterhouse Five DVD 1972 Region 1 US Import NTSC: DVD &  Blu-ray

Director (THE STING, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) George Roy Hill’s film adaptation Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is, in my opinion, that rare thing—an adaptation that’s maybe better than the original. That’s not to say that the novel is not a great book; it’s one of the great anti-war novels, worth ranking alongside Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, to name a few such. (Unlike most of these, it’s also hilarious.) I say, “Maybe better” because I only read the novel once, after having first fallen in love with the film, which I have screened many times. For years, I considered it my “favorite movie” and it remains a personal contender. So, I may be biased.

It’s one of those nearly “perfect” movies wherein all the pieces fit together into a seamless integral whole that is greater than its parts, wherein every scene, every action, every speech reveals character, advances the story, sets up something that follows or pays off on a prior set-up. Stephen Geller’s screenplay is a model of craft that every aspiring screenwriter would do well to study. An emotionally perfect film score augments the screenplay with performances of Bach by Glen Gould, along with Pablo Casals and the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. The sequence that introduces Billy, his fellow POWs, and the audience to the “fairy tale” city of Dresden, is a masterpiece of music and picture editing that sets up the ultimate destruction of city and citizenry ad profound tragedy.

It’s the story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent soul, who becomes “unstuck in time” after surviving an otherwise fatal plane crash and near-death during subsequent brain surgery. Forever after, he is doomed—or blessed—with frequent and involuntary jumps between past—and future—events in his life. Much of the story is anchored in his experiences as a German POW who survives the horrific American firebombing of Dresden, as had Kurt Vonnegut. Those sequences earn novel and film their “anti-war” credentials. His “time travel” and adventure as an alien-abductee to the planet Tralfamadore qualify it as science fiction.

The film’s structure follows Billy’s jumps back and forth in time. Multiple non-linear story lines trace his life before, during and after his WWII misadventures. The jump cuts between story lines are always and ingeniously “triggered” by some story device–a situation, a line of dialog or sound effect (on or off-screen) or a visual image that associates two scenes in different story lines. The editing, by legendary Dede Allen, is flawless in its timing and precision. This structuring perfectly mimics the way associative memory works and offers a clue, or suggestion, that allows us to interpret the entire story as a figment of Billy’s multiply traumatized (by war and then by a fall from the sky into near-death) mind. In other words, is he unstuck in time or just lost in memory and imagination? The answer to that question either qualifies or disqualifies the science fiction genre designation for both book and movie. Personally, I don’t feel the need to select one interpretation or the other, feeling that holding both in mind simultaneously is itself a way of suspending time and transcending worlds.

The story is peopled by wonderful and sympathetic characters, some of them in cameo appearances from other novels in Vonnegut’s opus, like Howard Campbell, Junior (from Mother Night), Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine), and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord from The Sirens of Titan). Even Billy’s lifelong nemesis and ultimate assassin, Paul Lazzaro is made sympathetic by small touches that illustrate his inner torment. The German citizens of Dresden offer a gallery of humanity that is made heartbreaking by their collective doom as victims of war. We watch vignettes of everyday life, already knowing these beautiful people are doomed to a horrible fate.

Somehow, like the novel, the film manages to intermingle all this tragedy with comedy. That’s the genius of Vonnegut. He enables us to feel simultaneously traumatized while alternately laughing without either emotion undercutting the other. He mixes images and situations of horrifying reality and hilarious fantasy in ways that enrich our appreciation of both.

Whether we choose to believe that Billy travels in time and journeys to an alien planet or believe that both are his psychic defense mechanisms against life’s tragedy, our experience of his experience is entertaining, moving, and joyful.

Like Billy, we are all “unstuck in time”, consciously and unconsciously jumping continuously between past memory, present experience, and future fears, hopes and dreams. Like him, we can’t help it. We come “unstuck” from “here and now” to “there and then”, more often than not.

Like Billy, we might all do well to take to heart the Tralfamadorian teaching that,

“A pleasant way to spend eternity is to ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.”

Elevated Horror — MIDSOMMAR

Artful Genre or Hollywood Hype?

According to many—maybe most—film critics and writers, there’s no such thing as “elevated horror”, an expression they dismiss as pretentious posturing or marketing hype. Tell that to Hollywood. As a serious—albeit  (as yet) unproduced—screenwriter, currently marketing a horror script, I am often confronted by producer requests for “elevated horror.”

What is elevated horror? According to one writer, the phrase “refers to movies that don’t rely heavily on jump-scares or gore, but are so emotionally and psychologically disturbing that they traumatize even the most seasoned of horror buffs. Many of the films also seem to contain allegorical meanings.”

Is that another way of saying they are artful? Certainly, horror films can be artful. I’ve written recently about a couple of examples—Frankenstein (1931) and Alien (1979). In recent years, the works of three directors have frequently been cited for “elevated horror”: Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Robert Eggers. This is the first of three articles, one for each of these artists.

Ari Aster grabbed the brass ring with his debut feature, HEREDITARY, in 2018 and raised critical and audience eyebrows the following year with his second, MIDSOMMAR. Both films are tagged (in IMDb) as “Drama, Horror, Mystery.”

I’m writing about MIDSOMMAR because it satisfies all my criteria for a “fantastic tale”: It’s imaginative and original in concept. The only comparable work I can think of is the original British film, THE WICKER MAN (1973), and this one goes far beyond that in its exploration of folkloric ritual horror. It’s outstanding in its screenplay and execution. In my rating system it’s a “5”—worthy of repeated viewings, analysis, and study. It’s truly bizarre — discontinuous with everyday reality—unlike anything I’ve ever seen—and exotic in its exploration and presentation of culturally remote Swedish folklore.

As drama, it tells the story of Dani (aptly named for an ancient goddess) who journeys from orphaned survivor of unthinkable family tragedy, through a frustratingly unsatisfying relationship with a deceitful and self-absorbed man to an unimagined destiny in a remote Swedish midsummer ritual. She is sympathetic, generous and intelligent, unlike her boyfriend and his peers, who all pursue this adventure for various selfish reasons. Desperately hungry for love and family, Dani just wants to be with the ironically named Christian, the man she loves who does not really love her. She longs for her lost family and sister and ultimately finds both family and sisterhood, albeit under bizarre circumstance.

As horror, the story is a slow build—with only one instance of real horror in its first half—to a literal conflagration of relentless fright, shock, and revulsion in the third act, which is almost unbearably horrifying. There are no monsters, no shock-scares by things leaping out from shadows. The horror slowly gathers and builds mounting suspense, until it overflows and overwhelms in an avalanche of visceral emotion. The antagonists who deliver the horror are wholesome country folk, true to their ancient traditions and suffering palpable empathic pain along with their victims.

The central mystery is hinted at with myriad clues and forebodings throughout the second act. As finally unveiled in the final scenes, we realize that it’s capital “M” Mystery—ancient and deadly. Anyone with any knowledge of European folklore or its pagan history will suspect where the clues are pointing and still likely be emotionally unprepared for the ultimate reveals.

Speaking of mystery and clues, this is a near perfect screenplay in the sense that every action, virtually every line of dialogue, every composition, in addition to advancing the story, sets up and foreshadows things to come. Three fourths of the story is set up and the pay-offs in its final act exceed our worst fears and anticipation.

So, returning to the initial question:  is this “elevated” horror. I would say, “Yes,” and I offer my own definition:

Elevated horror delivers the visceral impact of the genre in artful forms, untrammeled by the genre’s familiar and formulaic tropes and convention.

By that standard, Ari Aster has written and directed an elevated horror masterpiece that establishes him as a master filmmaker. Considering that MIDSOMMAR is only his second feature, one looks forward to his future work with anticipation.

Alien & Aliens

From Horror to Action Adventure

The story told in the Alien films, at least the first two—Alien and Aliens—is a fantastic tale that combines elements of multiple genres—Sci-Fi being the common denominator. I call the tale (and both films) fantastic because the story is imaginative original and outstanding science fiction, with bizarre and exotic elements we’d never seen before in Sci-Fi movies. Both films, one forty years old and the other thirty-five still entertain without feeling dated.

One point I find interesting—which prompted me to write this post—is that, unlike virtually all the other great science fiction sagas, this one begins life as a horror movie. Then, unlike virtually all horror movies, the sequel is something else–an action adventure.

ALIEN (1979)

The original is a great science-fiction film, with artfully designed space ships (human and alien) and believably futuristic high tech (albeit circa 1978)—including an android that passes for human. Did I mention the alien? Its prime antagonist—the creature designed by H.R. Giger—is arguably the most imaginatively and artfully designed and executed—and scary—alien ever brought to the screen, before or since.

That said—Sci-Fi takes a backseat to Horror as the dominant genre. The setting and devices are science fiction, but the story is a tale of progressive unrelenting horror. By thirty minutes in—at the end of Act 1—you know—you can feel—you are watching a horror movie.

It is edge-of-your-seat scary and suspenseful, set in a labyrinthine factory ship full of ducts, pipes, chain hoists, and venting steam valves. Most of it is claustrophobic with short sight lines, myriad openings on every surface, and blind corners from which something terrible might be—and often is—waiting to pounce.

Shocks and surprises abound—from the first eruption of a creature from an alien “seedpod” to clasp the first victim’s face—to its subsequent eruption from that victim’s torso at the dinner table. Between that shock and its final surprise appearance in the hero’s escape pod, the creature stalks its victims through one surprise attack after another.

It begins life as a little thing—scary but not awesomely so. It grows and morphs every time we see it, becoming ever larger (with each victim consumed) and ever more horrifying—with features like acidic blood that burns through steel, a talon-tipped tail, and telescoping fangs that extrude from its maw. As if one monster wasn’t enough, we are treated to the shocking surprise of a second—the ship’s science officer turns out to be an artificial being—with a surprising secret agenda—in which the human crew is expendable.

Every character but one—discounting Jones, the cat—meets a grisly disgusting end that fills the audience with revulsion. Did I mention the monster’s mid-story eruption from inside a living victim’s abdomen? Gross! That scene has become a movie archetype and people still talk about it forty years after the film’s release.

The sole surviving character emerges—over the course of the story—as one of the great Sci-Fi heroes in cinema and—surprise—that hero is a woman. Today we have heroic female characters all over screens big and small. In 1979—Ripley was an imaginative innovative surprise arguably breaking barriers and paving the way for characters like Jyn Erso (in Rogue One) and Rey (in Star Wars episodes 6-9).

ALIEN was a smash hit that made a ton of money and established Ridley Scott as an A-list director.

It was not surprising that there would be a sequel. It wasn’t even that surprising that Ridley Scott didn’t get to direct it—that happens all the time. What was surprising is that the sequel to a Horror Sci-Fi hit movie was not a Horror Sci-Fi movie.

ALIENS (1986) transformed archetypal Horror Sci-Fi into archetypal Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.

Arguably, that has two likely explanations—STAR WARS (1977)—and James Cameron— the sequel’s writer and director.

ALIEN was a box office hit but STAR WARS was a box office phenomenon that grossed half a billion dollars in its release year. We are still seeing the effects of that phenomenon in movies and TV, so it would be naïve to think it didn’t figure into the transformation of alien from Horror to Action Adventure. STAR WARS was an Action Adventure Fantasy.

James Cameron had his breakout hit with THE TERMINATOR—an Action Sci-Fi movie.

Connect the dots.

ALIENS (1986)

Like most James Cameron films, this is a high-tech, heavy metal, hardware film—a city in space, a spaceship designed to look like a weapon, armored troop transports—flying and wheeled—a colony built around a fusion-powered plant that creates an atmosphere for a lifeless planet. The marines who accompany Ripley are armored and armed to the teeth with ballistic weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers. 

Images and terrific sound-design conjure a wealth of believable omnipresent technology—so much that, unlike the prequel, Sci-Fi elements almost overwhelm the primary genres—Action and Adventure.

Horror is largely absent. Yes, there are alien monsters—a slew of them—hence the plural title. Yes, there are some scary and suspenseful scenes and characters do meet grisly ends—but without the visceral impact of the first movie.

This is an action adventure tale. Ripley’s story is disbelieved until all communication is lost with the small colony established—during her half-century of castaway hibernation—on the planet where her crew first found the alien (and vice versa). Reluctant Ripley is persuaded to accompany a platoon of space marines on a search and rescue mission. Setting up and launching that adventure takes up the first half of the film.

The second half is one action set piece after another. The comfort taken by the audience from Ripley’s rugged warrior companions quickly dissipates. The platoon is decimated in its first contact with the aliens. Their ground vehicle is disabled and their transport back to space is destroyed. Worse, that initial battle damaged the fusion reactor, which is now on a countdown to detonate and destroy the colony. Surrounded and outnumbered, they must find a way off planet before it blows.

Desperation demands a hero, as does an adventure. Once again, Ripley reluctantly steps into that role. Lacking real leadership, the surviving marines look to her for direction as she devises a plan and puts it into motion.

A hero must do more than lead. Ripley takes up arms and joins the battle for survival. Having bonded with the colony’s sole survivor—“Newt”—a little girl who perfectly personifies Ripley’s “inner child”—Ripley goes to great lengths to keep her promise never to abandon Newt. Keeping that promise—and leading the escape of her steadily dwindling troop—sends Ripley beyond harm’s way—into the nest of a literal “Mother of Dragons”. That sequence is one of the most brilliantly executed action set pieces I’ve seen in science fiction and estalishes Ripley’s place in the movie-hero pantheon.

Like any good sequel, ALIENS includes homage “reprise” elements from ALIEN that also inject new twists—

  • The crew emerging from hibernation—only this time they’re marines not civilian contractors
  • Another android science officer—only this time it’s revealed up front and the surprise comes from his good-guy heroics
  • A “bad apple” in the crew—only this time he’s human (more or less)—a corporate opportunist who nearly incubates Ripley and Newt as a way to smuggle aliens back to the company’s “weapons division”
  • A countdown clock to doom—only this time it’s not a space ship, it’s an entire colony set to blow
  • Ripley’s heroic action sequence—only this time she’s not escaping, she’s risking her life to save a child

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the penultimate reprise comes when the “Mother” alien, stows away on the shuttle and Ripley must blow her out an airlock. This time however, rather than Ripley fearfully pushing some buttons, she “armors up”—augmented in mechanical robot garb—to do battle.

The final reprise is the final scene, as Ripley settles in for another round of hibernation—this time accompanied by her most loyal followers—a wounded marine and a wrecked android, and one little girl, who has come to call her, “Mommy”.

Ripley’s character—and her hero’s journey—is the spine that unites these two very different genre movies into a fantastic tale.

The Fantastic Tale of Frankenstein (1931)

“It’s alive!”

When I first decided to write about this classic, my thought was to call the piece, The Horror of Frankenstein. Then I remembered that title was used in a 1970 retelling of the story. That isn’t why I changed the title. I changed it because my perception of the movie changed as I watched it again—with a writer and filmmaker’s eye.

Growing up with the film and the story, I always thought of it as a horror—or “monster”—movie. Most of the tale’s many film adaptations—like the aforementioned Horror of Frankenstein—were indeed horror movies with all the tropes—scares, shocks, and disgust. Later, after reading Mary Shelly’s novel—I came to regard it as a prototype “mad scientist” Sci-Fi film, with enough horror to qualify as “Sci-Fi Horror.”

When I screened it again for this essay, I was struck by how little horror there is in the original film story. Sure, it features midnight scenes in a cemetery and beneath an occupied gallows, stolen brains, the creation of a fearsome monster, and a murdered child, but none of it that scary, shocking, or disgusting. I turned to IMDb, my go-to reference to see it’s “official” genre designation, and found it tagged as a “Drama, Horror, Romance.” That gave me pause and a new perspective.

It is indeed classic drama—a man explicitly and maniacally plays God and is nearly destroyed by his own hubris. It’s also a tragic drama about his Creature, abandoned by its feckless creator to wander from mishap to mishap until the creator returns with a mob to destroy it.

It’s also a romance—albeit unsatisfying—a man abandons his true love out of insane ambition and returns to her, broken and humbled. Complications ensue—his vengeful Creature assaults his fiancé—before a hopeful ending and a toast, “Here’s to a son to the House of Frankenstein.”

Between the drama and the romance, there is just enough horror to transform a dramatic romance into a dramatic horror romance.

As drama, the film has issues, the first being its protagonist. It sets up Henry Frankenstein, as a brilliant narcissist, a would-be “modern Prometheus”—the very subtitle of Mary Shelley’s novel. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” His character peaks in the film’s 1st Turn—the archetypal creation scene in the mad scientist’s laboratory— “It’s alive!”

After that, Henry goes limp, degenerating into a meek, passive “daddy’s boy” and simpering romantic. Sure, he seeks revenge when the Creature attacks his fiancé, but only in the company of a mob, and then all he accomplishes is wandering off to fall into the Creature’s clutches. Henry’s no hero.

The Creature is a far better character—a tragic monstrous anti-hero. It is born in a blaze of lightning in the dark of night, then locked in the dark and tormented with blazing torches. It slays its tormentor and escapes to seek revenge on its creator. Most audiences come away feeling more sympathy for the Creature than for its creator—notwithstanding the death of a little girl—the Creature only wanted to see her float like the flowers. Say the name and what image comes immediately to mind? Not Henry! The Creature is the most—the only—empathetic character. We share in its terror at its horrible end. That’s probably why the name—Frankenstein—became attached to the “monster” almost immediately in common usage.

The real problem with the film as drama is that the Hollywood adaptation removed the novel’s tragic core—the death of both Henry’s little brother and his fiancé at the creature’s hand and Henry’s ultimate death in the far North on his epic and unsuccessful pursuit of his Creature. Remove tragedy from a tragic drama and you end with mere melodrama. Remove tragedy from the arc of a tragic hero and you end up with a whining lover boy—Henry, born again homeboy, recuperating in a paradisiacal garden, feted at his wedding—Young Frankenstein indeed.

You can, if so inclined, project some psychological or mythic tropes onto the drama. You could describe it in terms of Henry investing all his mania in his Creature, leaving him effectively denatured and the Creature free to act out the man’s darkest impulses—a child killer who attacks Henry’s fiancé. That would make the story similar to Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

As romance, the film is as limp as Henry. There’s never a doubt that his fiancé will marry him. It’s boy abandons girl, returns to girl and (after the mob dispatches the Creature) marries girl. Not much suspense emotion or drama (or anything else save a gorgeous wedding gown) in this romance.

Frankenstein (1931) is unsatisfactory as drama and romance and not horrific enough, especially by contemporary standards, to stand out as a horror film.

Why then call it a fantastic tale?

Why keep returning to it as a classic film, worthy of repeated screening, analysis and study?

Sometimes the synergy of less than brilliant parts results in a brilliant whole.

What elements make Frankenstein brilliant and fantastic?

It’s incredibly imaginative and fanciful, especially in its visual elements. It’s monochromatic art design and cinematography range from chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that look like animated impressionist art, to a now-iconic mad-science laboratory, to softly lit romantic but realistic garden bower and sitting-room interiors. The visual contrasts highlight and heighten dramatic suspense.

The Creature’s rendering—in makeup, lighting, and camera angles—is so imaginative, so striking that it remains iconic after ninety years. It created a horror film archetype—the “walking dead” if you will—that still animates horror movies and TV series.

It’s a bizarre story— something we are not likely to encounter in real life and—in 1931—something most moviegoers had never seen even on the screen.

It’s settings and the Creature itself are exotic and unfamiliar—or were in 1931—nighttime cemeteries, a mad scientist’s laboratory full of sparking arcing electrical devices, even a charming—pre-Third Reich—Bavarian village.

You may argue that it’s hopelessly dated, archaic, primitive—clichéd. You can say that about much classic literature and film. The clichés you may cite are now clichés because they were so successfully first realized in the classic work. As my alter-ego DF Tims argues in a recent post, “Everything is a process,”—including a film—and “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can understand any process in isolation” —“Context is king.” When considering a classic work, regard it in its original cultural context and evaluate it using timeless criteria.

One final criterion of a fantastic tale—it’s extraordinary. It stood out in 1931 and continues to do stand out in both popular culture and in my personal esteem.

The ultimate achievement and effect of this film is indeed fantastic.

 “It’s alive!”

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