Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Giants Win the World Series

Photo by Jill Clardy

The Giants won the World Series, and entire city of San Francisco is a madhouse tonight. Shawn, my local homeless guy, is out on the corner, stripped to the waist, pants hanging halfway off his ass, whistling and cheering at the passing cars. They honk in happy response. It’s an unusually warm night tonight, which is helping to impel people onto the streets, laughing and shouting and hugging complete strangers. An old lady, who is at least ninety if she’s a day, is decked out in orange feathers, high-fiving everyone around her.

Normally this sort of stuff brings out the misanthropist in me, but this time it’s different. While the national news media ignored them, the Giants were slowly creeping to the top of the heap. Even after they made it into the playoffs, the national news media paid them little attention, choosing instead to concentrate on the Phillies and the Yankees—two teams they knew well, and could talk about with authority. The Giants? A ragtag bunch of oddballs that seemed more like the leftovers than the cream of the crop. Throughout the playoffs, the media took the stance that if they ignored the Giants, maybe they would go away.

But they didn’t go away.

Even after the World Series began, the New York Times barely reported on the Giants, choosing instead to concentrate on Texas. Ben Shpigel’s headline on Saturday read: “Texas Rangers Draw Closer in World Series.” And on Sunday, Tyler Kepner’s headline read: “Rangers’ Lee Expects to Be Razor Sharp in Game 5.” It wasn’t until their decisive win on Sunday night that the Times finally deemed it fit to start talking about the team, but even now, they do so by talking about them as a former New York team. Tonight’s article about the win starts out: “The Giants bolted New York for San Francisco 53 long years ago.” The next article on the sports page reads: “Harlem Learns Immortalizing Mays Isn’t Easy.”

I guess that is to be expected. The New York Times is, in spite of national distribution, the Big Apple’s local rag, but the fact is: the Giants are a San Francisco team. There is nothing evenly remotely New York about them anymore. They are a weird bunch. Some look like hippies, some like felons, and some like nothing I’ve ever seen. Tim Lincecum, with his bow tie and should-length hair looks more like a classical pianist than a pitcher. Then there’s Brian Wilson, with his bootblack beard, who claimed on Jim Rome’s show that he learned is a certified Ninja in a dream. “We're all the wildcats and misfits and people nobody wanted,” said Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. “We have some crazies in this clubhouse, but that is who we are.”

Most importantly, they seem like a team; a characteristic all too often missing from major league baseball in these days of corporate ownership and multimillion dollar contracts. Back during the Barry Bonds years, we rooted for the team, but it was a bit half-hearted. Bonds was not a particularly likable person (and we all knew in our hearts that he was taking something). Worst of all, the rest of the team seemed like an afterthought, not just to the owner, but to the fans as well. A win in 1989 would have still brought people into the streets, but it would have been different. It would have been about Baseball and Sports (in capital letters), and the power of steroids. This felt like it was about San Francisco, and being different, and ignoring what the rest of the country thinks about you (and it didn't hurt that we were beating the team that George W. was rooting for). This was fun.

It’s almost midnight now and the celebration seems, if anything, to be getting louder. Shawn has pushed his shopping cart into the alley, and is getting ready to settle down for the night. He seems happy. “Wasn’t that just great?” he asks. Tonight, in spite of being homeless and alone, he is one with the city and the city is one with him.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I’m Strong But I Like Roses…

A New Look at Rod McKuen

By Barry Alfonso


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Pop Void #1. I thought it deserved an encore.

Tomorrow I’ll buy you presents,” muses Rod McKuen in his poetry collection Listen to the Warm.  “Pomegranates and breadsticks, / tickets round the room and back/ and red red roses like everybody buys everybody.” Much is revealed about McKuen, the Writer and the Phenomenon, by the last line quoted above. Just as a romantic automatically purchases the reddest of roses for a sweetheart, so millions upon millions of sentimentally-inclined bought McKuen records and books in the late 1960s and early ’70s. If it became trite to use his work as a valentine gift, there was no shame in that—in fact, it may well have been a plus for many of his devoted fans. McKuen’s special niche was as a bard of common-place joys and sorrows. To be among the vast numbers who took him to heart was an act of beautiful conformity.

Today, more than a decade after McKuen’s peak in popularity, it may be hard to recall the magnitude of his appeal.  First came his hit songs as a lyricist: “If You Go Away,” “ Jean,” “Love’s Been Good to Me.” Then came the phenomenally popular volumes of poetry, the sell-out concert tours, the television specials. His face became a familiar one: tousled yellow hair, wrinkled brow, sad eyes, a mouth rarely in a full smile. His hoarse mumble of a voice complimented his appearance. He was an anomalous celebrity, but a true media star nevertheless.

The jacket copy of his 1972 book, And To Each Season, sums up his impact neatly: “Rod McKuen is both the best-selling poet in history and the best-selling author in this country (USA). In the past five years, his poetry has sold nearly eight million copies, and his songs, which have been translated into at least ten languages, have sold more than one hundred million records.”
The best-selling poet in history—allow the full impact of this fact to sink in for a moment. Might it be fair to call McKuen, rather than the likes a Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg, the true voice of his era? It’s a justifiable observation, but definitely not a critically fashionable one. Hand in hand with McKuen’s mass appeal came the abuse of intellectuals and tastemakers, who were positively enraged by his success.

How could this shy, profoundly mellow man stir up such hostility? By reminding those of “culture” that the aesthetics of the average man were still rooted in the primal emotions: excessive sentimentality, self-pity, Christian guilt, torpid frustration.  English teachers might praise “The Waste Land” and counterculture hipsters point out the weighty significance of Blonde on Blonde, but, for millions of “ordinary folks,” these sorts of works had nothing meaningful to offer. Instead, they took to heart such observations as the following: “Your smiles were bright as birthday wrapping paper/ your touch was like the angel cake you tried to bake but couldn’t”; “I wish I knew a new lullaby? That began with love and ended with love / and had only love in between....”

Highbrow TV personality Dick Cavett was once quoted as describing McKuen as “the most understood poet in the world.” Most likely this was meant as a witty insult —in any case, it makes clear the elitist bias of the critics and academics. To laugh at a writer for his ability to communicate serves to ridicule his audience as well. This is worse than snobbery—it’s irrelevant.  McKuen’s popularity in the late 60s and early 70s is a sociologic fact of great significance.  It transcends mere questions of “taste.”

Still, there is something to be learned by delving into the specific charges his detractors made against him. Louis Coxe’s review of McKuen’s Twelve Years of Christmas and In Someone’s Shadow printed in the January 3, 1971 issue of New Republic, contains some of the important ones. “What are these poems for?” Cox grumbles. “They are poems to screw by, for one thing, and to masturbate to .... The poems make no demands.... What Mr. McKuen guarantees is that a certain California sexual day-dreaming can be yours for the asking even if you do move your lips rapidly as you read.... Mr. McKuen is no dope and knows very well what he is doing: i.e., weeping nostalgically all the way to the bank or broker’s.”

Let’s examine this indictment. The comment about the use of poetry as an aphrodisiac prompts the logical question —what’s wrong with that? The same may be asked concerning the undemanding quality of McKuen’s work. Why can’t art be valid for its functional value? Using word on the printed page to induce orgasm (or even mild arousal) is as defensible as pondering them for intellectual fodder. And, considering the demands that job and home life make on most people every day, why does art have to be a further imposition on one’s frayed nerves and taxed brain? If these sound like spurious or bizarre remarks, it’s only because “smart people” don’t often make them in print. Nevertheless, audiences have used poetry and songs to induce specific, easy-to-predict sensations since the dawn of man—isn’t that why hymns are sung in church?

Coxe’s final jab—that McKuen was only in the writing game for money—is hardly worth responding to. The statement by Jesus regarding those free of sin casting stones is worth recalling here. McKuen’s royalties no more destroy his credibility than they invalidate the responses of his fans. If he wrung tears and coaxed smiles, his work accomplished its ends, just as a bottle of aspirin that relieves headaches may be called effective no matter how much profit the drugstore made from selling it.

With the typical lines of attack used against McKuen dealt with, there are some further aspects of his songs and poems worth discussing. Despite the undeniable commonality of his work (and this is in no way intended as a criticism), there are idiosyncrasies and paradoxes to be found in both the man and his writing. The most obvious is the sense of alienation and fatalism found in so many of his recordings and books—how odd for a man so apart from the crowd to be embraced by so many. Again and again, he talks about “loners” and “single men” who cannot sustain contact with anyone for very long. Melancholy, resignation and defeat are reinstated again and again until the reader/listener wonders why McKuen bothers reaching out to others at all. Appropriately, his last major hit in America as a song lyricist was Terry Jacks’ 1974 version of “Seasons in the Sun,” a dying man’s farewell to the world.  McKuen’s stylistic tendencies reinforce this sense of disappointment and wistful pessimism. His language is conversational—and, as in a conversation, remarks in unadorned language can convey tenderness and pathos (perhaps, in part, because of their sheer ordinariness). Clichés are delivered with a natural ease, used the way they were meant to be used. Often, his chains of associated images are so familiar that they almost appear to “found art.”

One example from the collection, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, serves to illustrate this. “I know that love is worth the time it takes to find,” McKuen consoles a friend in the poem. “Think of that / when all the world seems made of walk-up rooms / and hands in empty pockets.” Choosing “walk-up rooms” and “empty pockets” as symbols of loneliness rather than more exotic images helps to depersonalize the writer and bridge the gap between him and his (largely) unsophisticated readers. Using commonplace language taps into something deeper than the unconscious -- it’s almost writing from beyond human thought. McKuen taps into something akin to the Collective Unconscious by the use of vernacular speech and workaday imagery.

When the otherworldly does intrude into McKuen’s writing, it takes on an incongruously commonplace shape. The Sky, the third LP from a series of recordings with composer Anita Kerr, contains several examples of spirituality from a man-in-the-street perspective. In “The Butterfly is Drunk on Sunshine,” he has a vision of angels walking the Earth at a lazy pace, “all in white” (of course!). The Lord himself is depicted in “Mr. God’s Trombones” as ruling over a heaven resembling “a wide grey football field filled with pretty clouds.” The mood of these two songs (enhanced by Kerr’s dreamy-drowsy music) is drowsy, comforting, not “serious” but not intentionally ludicrous either. It’s reasonable to say that, in McKuen’s conception, God and his minions are no more or less remarkable than a nice cup of hot coffee. (In the 1920s, advertising executive Bruce Barton wrote a hugely popular novel called The Man Nobody Knows, describing Christ as the prototype for the successful modern businessman. At one point, he reminds the reader that Jesus’ physical appearance went unrecorded, then, apparently accidentally, refers to the Savior as having blue eyes. Similarly, McKuen, when he must portray God, seizes upon descriptions that reflect the view of the ordinary man or woman rather than the exalted mystic.)

It is possible to overemphasize McKuen’s lack of technique as a writer. There are certainly devices he relies upon to underscore his ideas. One of the most frequently employed is the listing of everyday objects, then ending with an emotion eliciting word. “A Patch of Sky, Away from Everything,” from the Sky album, contains a typical example: “You move through the house / Sweeping down the bedroom with your eyes / Like sun on Sunday / But more like—you.” Or in a Stanyan Street poem: “You’re filled completely this first November day / with Sausalito and sign language / canoe and coffee / ice cream and your wide eyes.” And this, from one of his most famous works, “A Cat Named Sloopy”: “Every night she’d sit in the window / among the avocado plants / waiting for me to come home / (my arms full of canned liver and love).” If they were aware of these obvious stylistic mechanisms, I doubt that many McKuen devotees held such devices against him. A little awkwardness of speech made him seem more fallible, and therefore more likable.

McKuen’s writings, then, are as full of contradiction as day-to-day living itself. His conflicting love/hate expressions gave him the aura of a romantic realist, someone who’s “been through it all” but still wants to care. This description also fits the persona of another much-loved figure—Frank Sinatra. The “Chairman of the Board” identified enough with the poet’s work to record A Man Alone, an entire album of McKuen songs, in 1969. Despite the surface incompatibility of the two, it was a highly appropriate match-up.

Sinatra has been termed, among other things, a “saloon singer”—songs like “One For My Baby (and One for the Road)” and Films like Pal Joey established an explicit connection between “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and the bleary sentimentality of the tavern. It’s worth noting that McKuen identified with the European chansonnier tradition of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. Marlene Dietrich, the archetypal cabaret singer, was a great fan of his.  Despite the frequent outdoor settings of his songs, McKuen’s sensibility is more compatible with cocktail lounge ambience. The emotional states induced by alcohol, then, provide a common ground between him and Sinatra.

When intoxication takes effect, even a self-consciously masculine figure like Sinatra finds it possible to call himself “a man who listens to the trembling of the trees / With sentimental ease.” Beyond such gentle poesy, there’s a current of disillusionment and impotent anger running through A Man Alone. In “From Promise to Promise,” Sinatra confesses his hurt in the face of petty lies told by newsboys and laundrymen. Life is so wearying that, in “Some Traveling Music,” he ponders heading for an island “with a mess of records and a ukulele,” where he can just sit “strummin’” (would Louis Coxe find this an onanistic reference?) and “thinkin’.” It’s interesting to consider the similarities between the attitudes expressed in these songs and Sinatra’s own public posture in the early ’70s. Formerly identified with the Kennedy family and New Frontier liberalism, Sinatra evolved into a vocal Nixon Administration supporter. The resentment and bewilderment expressed on A Man Alone have their political parallels in the singer’s hostility towards student unrest and the anti-war movement.

The above relates to McKuen’s own ambivalence towards the young. In a December 1972 Saturday Review interview, he stated: “I don’t consider myself a spokesman for the young, although I do strongly identify with them. I wouldn’t mind turning the country over to the kids today.” (McKuen was 39 when he made this comment.) As expressed in a number of his writings, this ‘“identification” was not an uncritical one, at least towards the more unconventional youth of the time. “The Mud Kids,” found on McKuen/Kerr LP The Earth, portrays hippies who “BB gun the street lights, roll the old bums in the park and build doll houses out of sugar cubes instead of Lincoln Logs….” A few lines later, he blames poor upbringing for such delinquency and concludes, “Maybe they [the kids] will make it [the world] better.” Clearly, he did not aim to appeal to the Turned-On Generation—if he could sympathize with hip alienation, he spoke more for those who lived conservative lifestyles. “These are the days of the dancing—six feet apart,” he comments in a poem found in Listen to the Warm. “Let’s not wear mustaches and funny clothes / .... They can keep their butterfly collections / their nineteen-thirties songs and one-room trips.”

McKuen’s constituency was not that of the trendy or fashionably radical. This doesn’t mean that it was primarily middle-aged either—press descriptions of his concerts indicate that he had many, many young admirers. It’s also clear that his devotees were not among the so-called counterculture. The term “Silent Majority,” used back in the Nixon days to describe the quietly-conservative segment of America, may be applied to his audience as well. (According to one music executive, the target record-buyer for a McKuen album was an airline stewardess.)

“Rod McKuen comes out and says what people have been trained not to say,” an associate of the poet’s commented in the April 4, 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine. “Some guys bring their girls to Rod’s concerts as a way of telling them how they feel.” This is a remark worth considering—in fact, I think it should be taken completely literally. One reason why millions of supposedly “ordinary” people loved McKuen is that he avoided ten-dollar words and obscure imagery in his work – in that sense, he was no more “poetic” than they were. So much of what he said they themselves could have said just as well and in the same words, if they only had the self-confidence to do so. If what he created was not poetry (as the critics claimed), then it’s because “true poetry” is the province of a particular elite in the contemporary world.  McKuen served as the embodiment of a lifestyle and reality held to be drab and outré by the literary establishment—thus, his true role was as a soldier in a cultural class war.

McKuen’s audience identified with his relaxed, casual image because it implied something more meaningful: resignation.  Unlike bohemians, campus radicals and others of their ilk, the common folk have little opportunity to break out of their mundane living patterns. Mind-expanding drugs are not an acceptable way of altering their reality (though alcohol can be to a limited degree). All that is left for them is to examine the minutiæ of a modern consumer society over and over again with a mixture of affection, confusion and fear.  Nostalgia for a long-lost past figures into these longings as well—a return to simpler times, perhaps to the tranquility of the prenatal state. McKuen phrases like “listen to the warm” and “caught in the quiet” suggest more than placid introspection. In an increasingly meaningless world, the security of the womb is the last refuge for those seeking solace.

Short of suicide or madness—options that few would consciously choose—a way out can only be provided by the temporary balm provided by a McKuen. To callously denigrate those who read his work is to attack people in pain. What sort of a planet do we live on where “artistic standards” take priority over human suffering? Is it any wonder that the much abused “Average Joe” despises the intellectual? In his gut, he knows full well that the intellectual would let him die in the street rather than compromise “art.” Perhaps McKuen did “weep all the way to the bank” as he considered the success of his verse.  Maybe he did bottle and merchandise “love” like a cheap patent medicine. If he granted one lonely soul relief for a few minutes, he is a humanitarian and his enemies are sadists.

Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever lost a friend and felt that all mercy had been extinguished from this world? And have you ever felt reassured to know that at least one man understands your condition?  Then you can comprehend why Rod McKuen became the best-selling poet in history. And if you would still think his work has no value, perhaps you don’t deserve anyone’s love. It’s a petty, boring and futile life we lead. Listen to the warm, and endure.

More about Barry Alfonso.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

After the Beats: The Evil Hipster

By the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of the beatnik had become safely mainstream. You could even “rent” a beatnik in New York City to attend your parties, playing bongos and spouting bad poetry. A few years later, the hippies would become fodder for filmmakers, but there was another kind of rebel hipster that occupied the space between these two movements. This person was never tagged with a cute moniker because he wasn’t cute. He—or she, for this person wasn’t always a man—was as mean as a snake, bored with conventional mores, and he spoke in a jivey lingo that took the rhythms of the beatniks and moved them into a darker realm. Like the beats, these characters sometimes spouted philosophy, but only when it suited their purposes. They were nihilistic and interested only in that which made their lives more fun. They were a direct extension of the juvenile delinquents of the fifties, only now they are a little older and even less sympathetic.

We saw the beginnings of this character in the nasty sociopaths of Lady in a Cage and The Thrill Killers, but it is in Kitten With a Whip that the evil hipster really takes off. In Kitten With a Whip, Jody Dvorak, a hot young hedonist, played by Ann-Margret, and her boyfriend Ron (Peter Brown) hold that classic representative of the middle-class, John Forsyth, hostage. Jody is more valley girl than beat. Her language in this film is not that different from that in Bye Bye Birdie. It is Peter Brown’s Ron who is the evil hipster and who delivers the best lines in the film, causing John Forsyth’s character to remark at one point, “You mean there’s a pattern to that gibberish?” Ron’s response says it all: “Gibberish? Oh, no. Those are the meanings of the meaningless, the exactitudes of the inexact. Man, don’t you dig the desire not to communicate?” And perhaps that was what America feared most of all about this new breed of outcasts—their desire not to communicate.

In 1965, we saw two more films of this ilk: The Defilers—a  low-budget shocker from the minds of Lee Frost (Love Camp 7) and David Friedman (Blood Feast)—and Russ Meyer’s classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In The Defilers, a couple hipsters decide to kidnap a young woman and force her to be their sex slave. They are cut from the same cloth as Ron in Kitten With a Whip, but far nastier. In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the hipsters are go-go dancers looking for ways to release their pent-up anger after a week of dancing for men. Like all of Russ Meyer’s films, the women are larger than life—figuratively and, in some respects, literally. The leader of this group is Varla, played by that force of nature, Tura Satana, but the hipster in the group is Billie, played by Lori Williams. Her dialog verges on jazz at times: “Oh, you're cute! Like a velvet glove cast in iron; like the gas chamber: a real fun gal!”

That same year saw the release of Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend), which introduced the world to a new kind of rebel: the hippie. But this was 1965, and the concept was still inchoate. This little tribe had as much in common with Charles Manson as it did with peace and love. Dave Clark and his girlfriend, while out on a lark, stumble across a band of long-haired vagabonds living in what appear to be abandoned army barracks. They are led by a nearly inarticulate man who starts to recite “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two,” one of the more shocking kōans from The Gateless Gate. We never hear the end of the story as it is interrupted by the British army out on field manoeuvres. The hippies in Catch Us If You Can are not nearly as evil as the characters in The Defilers, or Kitten With a Whip, but they are not exactly welcoming either. They react to Dave Clark and his girlfriend with hostility and suspicion. But like the beatniks before them, the hippies were never quite nasty enough. All that talk of peace and love tainted the waters of evil and made them hard to take seriously. Most of the time, hippies were relegated to silly comedies like I Love You Alice B. Toklas, or The President’s Analyst. The main gripe against the hippies was their love of LSD, which was explored—and cautioned against—in several movies (The Trip, The Big Cube, The Weird World of LSD). It wouldn’t be until after the Manson family murders that the concept of the evil hippie would fully take hold.

In fact, the Manson family murders informed all the movies that came after them. Compare the antics of the trio in Lady in a Cage with the behavior of virtually the same archetypes in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. If there were ever any limits to the evils that men do, they were gone forever.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

 Three Modern Approaches to Horror
“Horror,” Boris Karloff reportedly once said, “is what you feel when you see a dead child. I make terror movies.” In spite of Mr. Karloff’s objection, horror is what the genre is called and, as time has passed, the appellation has become more and more apropos. Witness three recent approaches to the subject. The first is a mainstream Hollywood movie, the second is a current midnight movie favorite that is already becoming a cult hit, and the third is one of the nastier examples of those particularly brutal horror movies that are coming out of France these days.

The first is Splice, an interesting, by-the-book thriller starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. Splice is the story of two ambitious scientist trying to create new life through—you guessed it—gene splicing. There is a touch of Frankenstein in this story, but the film resembles the work of David Cronenberg more than that of James Whale. Polley and Brody make an interesting couple, primarily because neither fits the Hollywood matinee idol mold. We believe them as scientists and that goes a long way toward propelling this movie forward. The state of computer graphics these days is such that creating a monster that doesn’t look like a tall man in a latex suit is not the problem it once was. At the start, the creature here resemble a cross between a baby doll and a kangaroo rat, but this is a film about mutation, so don’t expect this thing to continue looking adorable. The creature is played by French actress, Delphine Chanéac, who might actually be cute in other circumstances, here she is just appropriately weird-looking.

As the story progresses, our scientists get less and less sympathetic—seldom a good thing—and more and more inscrutable. The end effect is that as we become more engrossed in the story, we are simultaneously pushed away. In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that science corrupts and absolute science corrupts absolutely.

But the biggest problem with the story is not the lack of sympathy. I’ve come to expect that from most modern horror movies (see Living Death, starring Kristy Swanson for what is surely the ultimate example of this). The problem is that I felt like I had seen every thing in the movie somewhere else already. I found myself thinking, “That’s The Fly, that’s Jeepers Creepers II.” After a while, I began to wonder if this film should have been directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, at least, makes no excuses for his scene-lifting. Splice is not a bad movie, but it is a mainstream Hollywood film, which means it never goes anywhere that won’t safely appeal to the American mass-market.

The same cannot be said of The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Even before most people had seen this, it was already tallying up a substantial collection of angry posts on IMDB. People were outraged, and the makers of the movie did nothing to abate this. It is hard to talk much about The Human Centipede without giving away some major plot points, but I don’t think many people are going to see this movie without some idea of what they are getting into. Crazed Nazi scientist, Dr. Heiter—played with delightfully over-the-top glee by Dieter Laser—wants to sew people together, one after another, to form a long chain. Why? Who knows. To paraphrase Hazel Motes in Wise Blood: A man who's an evil Nazi don’t need no justification. When two fairly unsympathetic young women stumble onto Dr. Heiter’s home, he is ready to begin his experiment.

The most remarkable thing about this movie isn’t its Grand Guignol grotesqueness, it is its tastefulness. Yes, you heard me right. The cinematography is crisp and dreamy, the sound is as clean as a Hollywood production, and the music is effective and understated. Although there was plenty of potential for this story to dip into the realm of lewd misanthropy, it never goes there. Two of the subjects are attractive young women, but this doesn’t seem to be important to Dr. Heiter, so it never becomes important to us. What little nudity there is here is handled discreetly. Normally a mad scientist this over the top would live in something resembling a castle, but director Tom Six wisely chose to place the action in a suburban house as mundane-looking as a subdivision home in Phoenix.

The end result is a film that is never as disgusting as the subject matter suggests. I kept wondering, as I watched it, what the film would have turned out like if T.V. Mikels or Joel M. Reed had been the director. It certainly would have been twice as offensive, and a lot more shocking. Tom Six claims he is making a sequel that will make this film look like My Little Pony. I, for one, can’t wait.

While The Human Centipede (First Sequence) disarms us with its humor, the same cannot be said for Martyrs. This is one of that new breed of horror that is coming out of France these days. France—long the bastion of romantic comedies and social commentaries—has gone dark of late. Films like Haut Tension, Irréversible, Ils, and À l'intérieur (know as Inside in the US, and easily the best of the bunch) push the boundaries of horror. They are gruesome and shocking, but without the happy gusto of the American horror films. While the torture-porn of Hostel and Saw may gross us out, they never bring us to that place of darkness and fear. We watch dispassionately, like the sex negatives in Café Flesh. Not so with the French films, which peel back our skin and show us the darkness that lies within.

It’s been said that all French films are about love. This is certainly true of Haut Tension, Irréversible, and, to a lesser extent, Ils and À l'intérieur, but it is not true of Martyrs. In terms of concept, there really isn’t anything like this film. The central theme of this movie is this: What would you do to experience divine ecstasy? I’m not talking here about the sexual pleasures that the creatures in Hellraiser are after, but true, touched-by-the-hand-of-God ecstasy. the answer in Martyrs is: almost anything. We follow two orphans, now grown-up, who go about trying to find out what happened to one of them when she was young. From this point on, the film takes more surprising turns than last year’s sadly over-looked Revanche. When we finally get to the theme of the film, we know we are entering freaky new territory.

I am hesitant to say I enjoyed Martyrs, because it’s about as enjoyable as Salo, but I did find myself thinking about it later, which I always consider a good sign. I was surprised by the story, which happens all too rarely in psychokiller films. Obviously the director knew he was going somewhere dangerous when he made this film because he appears at the beginning of the DVD to thank the people who liked the film and to apologize to (and sympathize with!) the people who didn’t. You’ll never see Paul Verhoeven do that.