Two to Ruin Your Head, Film Dept.

Let the Right One In: Man, that really is the best possible title for this sort of vampire movie, isn't it? Rolls right off the tongue; and I don't even listen to Morrissey!

It eventually takes on another meaning too -- a third meaning behind the vampire meaning and the Morrissey meaning -- but even trying to get into that requires my ruining the whole movie on you, which is something I'm kinda hesitant to do, considering that it hasn't played all that much in North America (I dunno about the rest of the globe). Feel free to skip down to the next movie, which, admittedly, I'm also planning to spoil from head to toe.

Really, the best way to go into this one is not knowing anything but the catchy title and the fact that it's a Swedish movie about vampires; it's ultimately the kind of movie where half the plot is taking place onscreen and the other half is going on out of sight, with the first plot structured in such a way so as to deliberately obscure bits of the other half. There's also no 'gotcha' moment - you either figure out what's happening at some point during the movie itself, or maybe sometime afterwards. The film never blinks. I think I had the best possible experience, in that I started putting things together literally as I walked out of the theater into the night; I imagine someone who's quicker on the uptake than me could have a totally different viewing experience.

I was perfectly ok with the A plot (so to speak), concerning golden-haired junior high schooler Oskar and his life of isolation, both from his beloved (divorced) father and his peers. Oskar is often bullied by a local gang of classmates, and has taken to practicing knife moves in his bedroom as part of sad murder fantasies. And then, as often happens in these things, Oskar meets Eli, a girl his age who's just moved into his building with an odd old man named Håkan. As quickly becomes apparent to us in the audience, the pair seem to be vampires, albeit extremely ineffective ones; Håkan tries to be careful with his business -- quietly killing random folks and draining their blood into tanks for easy storage -- but he's clumsy and plagued with bad luck, while Eli is more prone to just leap from the shadows and bite people's necks in a blood frenzy, which makes her lose track of her surroundings, leaving her somewhat easy to identify.

Naturally, Oskar gradually catches on as the bodies pile up and misunderstandings compound, and young love inevitably blooms, especially after Eli urges Oskar to stand up to the bullies, leaving one lad with a ruined ear. Get ready for lots of quiet views of snowy landscapes and pained faces and the like, although I was rather surprised at how pulpy it got - there's skittering up walls and dismemberment and a Sleepaway Camp-style peek at prosthetic genitals and dude with half his face melted off and a sudden attack by a horde of CG cats (which hate vampires, as do all computer graphics). I know both director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) have backgrounds in comedy, so maybe I should have expected something peppier and balanced on the razor's edge of silly at times - I don't know. Eli even makes a heroic entrance at the climax (just when you thought she'd left forever!!), literally ripping bullies to shreds before she takes Oskar's hand and whisks him away to a new life together.

Yeah, it's just good clean, polished goofy (literal) escapism in the end, at least until you figure out that the doomed Håkan wasn't a vampire at all, but the last little boy Eli seduced into facilitating her vampire life. Is that in the novel (which I've heard is even pulpier, complete with vampiric origin sequences and dead characters rising to haunt again)? I dunno, but it's pretty evident from the movie, which goes to great lengths to present Eli's & Håkan's relationship as a creepy-loving, quasi-pedophilic vampire thing -- hey, they're all above the age of majority, time-frozen bodies or not -- as a means of distracting you from realizing that, under the same rules, Eli is a mature adult taking total advantage of the authentically 12-year old Oskar, who's frequently seen giggling like a much younger boy. It's not totally hidden, no - Eli's vampire makeup has a way of making her seem older at times, and I'm pretty sure there one bit where she's hugging Oskar and she's actually replaced by an adult actress for a few seconds. But the movie certainly never plays its hand, so to speak.

And that's fitting. It is, after all, a subjective piece, with almost every scene witnessed or overheard by our young protagonist, and quietly colored by him. It's not overwhelming (don't you worry, we'll get to 'overwhelming' next), so qualms and questions sneak through, like how most of the doomed young bullies seem scared shitless half the time while picking on weaker kids. There's also that voyeuristic glimpse of Eli's nudity; I'm told that in the novel it's made specific that Eli is a castrated boy who's since taken on the persona of a girl, although it's clear enough that the movie's Eli at least can't offer Oskar the straightforward heterosexual relationship he seems to desire. She might tell him she's not a girl, per se, but Oskar never seems to really accept that, regardless of what he sees. Well shit - he's a child.

The true power of this film, however, is that it never lets go of that thrill of childish affection, even as the awful implications of the film's plot starts to bubble up. You can watch this movie as pure escapism, and it will work in exactly that way, because it is wed to Oskar's infatuation with Eli as a mystery and girlfriend and savior - lucky thing this project was released the same year as Twilight, which is functions as a near-total thematic subversion of! Eli isn't much of a romantic; she cares about Oskar enough not to kill him, sure, and she probably even holds some genuine affection for him, but in the end she's a deeply needy person who plays the hero to keep herself going - I mean, how would she even get out of town without somebody to drag her around in her trunk? Good thing all that 'stand up for yourself' talk set off a worse cycle of violence, allowing for Our Heroine to swoop the boy off his feet in the end - and Christ, was I just rooting for the mass-murdering vampire girl to disembowel a bunch of (mostly terrified) teenagers?!

It's tough being a genre film that casts an accusing eye on genre pleasures, but this one pulls it off through careful, sure-footed construction and a powerful empathy for the often misguided longings of the young, enough so that you understand how even the nastiest stuff can seem wonderful and freeing, and thus how a boy can come to be so abused (is there any better word for it?) by an older person. One of the few uncolored bits of this film is that fine title: Let the Right One In, concerning your youthful intimacy. Beyond that, you must look to poor Håkan, warning Eli not to hang around with that young boy at night, stroking her face, and embracing her as she finally drains his broken, devoted body of its blood and lets it drop from the high hospital window. It's not a plot point, Oskar - it's the future.


Synecdoche, New York: The title's really important with this one too, although in an utterly different, vastly more mannered way. The opening credits are very fast, blinking in and out of view right at the bottom of the screen as tortured playwright Caden Cotard rises one morning. As anyone who's read a review or plot synopsis knows, Caden will eventually devote his years to mounting a gigantic simulacrum of New York lives (including his own) in a model New York within a New York warehouse. It will be his unfinished magnum opus, and he will spend much time in the movie trying to suss out the perfect title, which, of course, is "Synecdoche, New York," in that it neatly ties his unsatisfying prior life in Schenectady, New York to his part-that-calls-to-the-whole high concept drama, which itself provides the high concept to the movie.

That such a perfect title blinks in and out of view while he's groggy -- before he's even quite come up with the idea for his grand play, or at least stated it out loud -- is a crucial irony that itself represents the whole of writer/director Charlie Kaufman's bleak portrait of living inside your creative mind, never to understand the perfection you seek before death arrives, inevitably.

Oh, just get settled. I haven't even begun.

This is Kaufman's first film as a director, and he seems to have taken this opportunity for total creative control as an invitation to finally wash every single aspect of the production in as much of his unique vision as possible. You might think that Kaufman's works as a writer did that pretty well already -- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind aside, he's been blessed with possibly the most accommodating set of directorial collaborators imaginable -- but they all had a way with emphasizing realism within their own surreality (which obviously can be argued as a core tenant of cinematographic surrealism, going from Un chien andalou, which sets off its visions with passages of simpler observation), save for maybe the last 15 minutes of Adaptation.

Here, there's little of that. Starting from the film's mumbled, domestic beginning, bits of Caden's interior life begin to intrude on his waking world of living with his painter wife & young daughter and directing a local production of Death of a Salesman. He sees himself on television. He hears words incorrectly, and often gives the wrong response. Invaluable character actor Tom Noonan appears to be following him around from just inside the frame. He gets a knock on the head and begins to suffer inexplicable physical maladies. You might think the injury has damaged his brain, but do note his explaination to his daughter of the difference between 'sycosis' and 'psychosis' - a physical problem that only sounds like a mental one. And anyway, it's suggested that Caden is a hypochondriac, with a good many of his supposed physical problems actually being mental.

Then Caden's wife leaves him, and everything goes more than a bit nuts. He wins a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" Fellowship... or does he? It winds up being a lot more money than an actual fellowship, which is only $500,000. Caden recruits many of his favorite(?) local actors to participate in his grand show, and eventually marries his old leading lady. Maybe he really does too, but probably not quite in the way it's shown. After all, his new daughter never seems to grow beyond the age of his beloved first daughter when she was taken away from him.

That's Synecdoche, New York in a nutshell: a 'surreal' picture that's actually an unrelenting display of a man's subjective impressions, with absolutely nothing flagged as solidly 'real' after its first half hour. It is demanding, willfully disorienting and probably several times more complex than it needs to be to get its message across. It's also depressing and anxious, with a sad-sack lead character who weeps during sex and never emerges from self-loathing - you'd better be ready for broody male heterosexual staring-at-the-penis of the highest order, nonstop for two hours, or you're gonna be in hell. Heaven knows the themes aren't terribly innovative - Bob Fosse's 1979 All That Jazz is probably the lodestone work of such art-angst-fantasy-death, although even something as recent as Robert Altman's 2007 A Prairie Home Companion covers strikingly similar ground in a vastly less fussy, more immediately entertaining manner, provided you're ok with old-timey country music and not allergic to Garrison Keillor.

But even though I understand every criticism tossed at this movie -- believe me, it's no crowd-pleasing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, lacking Michel Gondry among other elements -- I still liked it an awful lot. Kaufman's huge, fictions-within-fictions story may not function all that well as a plot, but I'm not convinced it's supposed to. Rather, scenes cluster into little verses of emotion, each new one informed by what we already know of Caden. For example, he fancies a woman named Hazel, whose house is always on fire. Why is it on fire? Well, superficially it's Caden's ardor providing heat, but it's also his fear that something will happen to break them apart for good. There's even a man who comes with the house, whom she eventually marries, and while it's likely that Hazel actually does marry a man in the 'real' work (which we never, ever see), her husband is always imprinted with Caden's idea of "Hazel's husband" as latent to the danger of the burning house.

Sorry, that's just the kind of movie it is! Hazel eventually dies of "smoke inhalation," which obviously isn't how she actually dies; rather, it's the completion of Caden's fear for her. If there's any great and weighty trait about Caden, it's that he's utterly blind in terror over the prospect of death (the end of his creativity!), which has a way of spilling out into his subjective 'reality' when his parents die these impossibly horrible, agonizing, torturous deaths - that's his idea of what death has in store for him, self-absorbed as he is.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways too; my favorite parts of the movie were Caden's travels to Germany to try and locate his first daughter, who's fallen under the spell of a friend of his ex-wife's that he never liked. The woman never actually seemed to do much at the beginning of the movie besides smoke a lot (smoke as an element of pestilence and danger is a big motif) and toss off the occasional sardonic crack, but Caden's vivid imaginings elevate her to supervillian status, and his frantic search awesomely recalls Paul Schrader's Hardcore, only with the German art scene in place of filthy, filthy porno. Needless to say, the girl meets an awful fate too... unless she doesn't.

You've got to be ok with not knowing everything; that's the big hurdle, I think. Things don't have to all fit together. I get the feeling that a lot of viewers strain to attach clean, singular meanings to a lot of stuff in here, and that trips them up into thinking the movie is 'above' them. It's not. It's actually very easy, taken broadly - it's about life slipping away worrying about death. Amusingly, it's also about never getting anything done while sweating over thousands of small details. It's about frustration, longing, pain. It's also pretty funny in parts, and (considering how mannish its point of view gets) it provides a solid half-dozen strong, complicated roles for actresses of various ages, including Kaufman vets Catherine Keener and Hope Davis, along with Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh and, most importantly, character performer Dianne Wiest as an actress who plays a cleaning lady, and later plays Caden, eventually seizing his role as director and becoming, for all intents and purposes, God herself.

These late, strange contortions set the film apart from the rest of Kaufman's filmography. It's not atypical for the writer to cast unctious creative types as his protagonists -- that goes back to Being John Malkovich -- or to linger on the nature of creativity or death - doppelgänger "Donald" Kaufman dies in Adaptation, just as Charlie himself does in Hope Leaves the Theater. There's the writer's usual terror of abandonment in Caden's wife leaving him and eventually living as a lesbian, as well as his awe/disgust with artifice in Caden's abandoning the director's role to Wiest's (or, ha ha, Donald's) taste for juicy monologues and fist-pumping drama.

But never have these obsessions seemed so complex; Caden might hate his ex-wife for leaving him, but his daughter's dying(?) words eventually couple with Wiest-as-Caden's more poppy/revealing ruminations on her own life to suggest his own secret, possibly homosexual longings, something he could never say, but can be subtly revealed through Kaufman's construct. His abandonment of the grand project seems more a surrender to instinct, a desire for no more thinking, regardless of whether his creation is no longer sufficiently 'real' - needless to say, nothing in Kaufman's film is 'real' anyway, except for everything! It all reminds me of a comment my younger brother once made, that Charlie Kaufman's 'surreal' pictures seemed far more real to him than any reality television; don't we all spend so much of our lives inside our own heads?

It seemed to work on the audience I was with. By the time the city-within-a-city becomes a ruined wasteland, as a metaphor for an old man (so worried about an early death!) outliving all his friends and acquaintances, left with nothing but memories and shadows of old loves, actors playing people, don't ya know, and Wiest, now likely dead and fused completely with Caden's soul, launches into another knock 'em out monologue about how we're all essentially the same useless, ineffective bits of walking nonsense in the face of universal time, the crowd became totally rapt, sitting in shock through the closing credits.

That's not what you often see from such a comprehensive address of artificiality-as-authenticity, but jesus fuck did it land in the end. I thought about this movie for a long time after I left, and I wonder if it won't seem totally different when I see it again. What a glorious, troubling mess, like what I see when I close my eyes.