Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Metaphyction, or My Favorite Flops

Before launching The Secret Sun I briefly toyed with the idea of a blog on metaphysical themed movies and TV shows called "Metaphyction." I've since covered a lot of the topics here that I wanted to do in that blog (which might have gone live for a short time) and more besides, so it was obviously a case of too narrow a focus.

But I realized something very telling about the films I wanted to cover on that blog- a lot of them were flops.

Granted a lot of them went on to enjoy afterlives on video, but that didn't help them any at the box office. Some of these films are still underappreciated, which gives the lie to the "pop culture" part of The Secret Sun. Actual "pop culture" is a turgid miasma of stupid these days and really doesn't warrant much analysis at all, at least most of it. Of course, working the "unpopular culture" beat won't make you many friends these days, but what do you want for nothing.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that films that delve into metaphysical themes ("metaphysical" being a blanket term for most of the stuff we look at here) don't seem to do well with the mall/multiplex crowd who make or break films these days, but often do much better with the shut-ins like myself who prefer to consume their entertainment in their own homes.

So, in chronological order here are my favorite flops, which barring a few outliers, comprise the list of my favorite films. I'm sure your lists might have some overlaps, but be sure to post them anyway in the comments.

The Wicker Man (1973)
Production Budget N/A
Box Office (Int'l) N/A

To say The Wicker Man was a flop on its release is to reduce the term 'flop' to a trifle. This was a film that its studio hated so much that not only did they go out of their way to figuratively bury it in the theaters, they actually took the negative of the film and physically buried it (it was used as landfill for a highway project).

If it weren't for low budget maestro Roger Corman, the film might have been forgotten. Always looking for product, Corman worked up a truncated cut of the film in the second-run/drive-in circuit, where it built up a devoted cult following.

As with many of these films, I prefer the theatrical cut to the extended version. Corman's old-school instincts served the film well, and cut out a lot of extraneous exposition that slowed down the action. The film draws heavily on James Frazer's The Golden Bough for historical accuracy and may also draw on the equally-unappreciated British film Eye of the Devil, which starred a young and brain-meltingly gorgeous Sharon Tate.

The Wicker Man is deeply pagan, while most of my other favorite flops are Gnostic, but the humor, the sex and the subversion (as well as the songs) have made this one of my all-time favorites. And I'm certainly not alone. And I must say that the ending was genuinely shocking to me the first time I saw, way back in the pre-Internet, VCR-powered Stone Age.

Neil LaBute's misogynistic remake has muddied the waters, although his RenFaire-gone-wrong paganism is probably more realistic than what we see in the original.

Blade Runner (1982)
Production Budget $28M
Box Office (USA) $27M

The first of many big-budget Philip K. Dick adaptations, Blade Runner was hampered by a downbeat vibe and a overly competitive release calendar (this was the summer of ET, Poltergeist, Tron, The Road Warrior, etc). I had no idea at the time (this was before our pathological obsession with box office grosses turned us into soul-dead bean-counters instead of fans). I thought it was the best thing I'd seen since the first Star Wars.

Of course, it's "weighed down" with Gnostic pessimism and metaphysical ruminations about what it means to be human, and a lot of critics chafed at the voice-over (which I loved, and still prefer) but it's still a master class in big-budget movie-making. The sparkly Vangelis soundtrack doesn't hurt either.

I miss the days before non-executives spent their Monday mornings brooding over grosses. Blade Runner is still an important movie that people still want to see for the first time, and it's still a movie that rewards repeat viewings. Can you say that about Van Helsing or Transformers 3? Of course not.

I'd imagine Blade Runner's made its money back on video but if it hasn't it exists to balance out the moral and aesthetic debts that Hollywood has run up since the early 80s.


The Hunger (1983)
Production Budget: $10M
Box Office (USA): $6M

This movie is grossly misunderstood, mostly because of that scene (if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I mean). But it's a downright startling prophecy of the AIDS crisis, which was still in its early days when the film was being made.

It's also a powerful meditation on obsession and addiction, as well as a condemnation of the shallow, youth-centric culture that only got crazy worse since the 80s. Never mind the Astro-Gnostic elements that were later introduced in the original novel's sequels.

Plus, it has Bauhaus (well, Peter Murphy) miming to 'Bela Lugosi's Dead,' which I thought was just the coolest damn thing ever, being a major Bauhaus fanatic at the time. Of course, they broke up soonafter.

The movie was savaged because of that scene but also because David Bowie -- who filmed it before the release of Let's Dance-- was seen as a dilettante playing at acting. The fact that director Tony Scott (brother of Ridley) made his bones doing commercials in the UK didn't endear him to the wags, either. Of course, this was before Communion, so the opinion makers hadn't turned on Whitley Streiber (who wrote the original novel) yet.

None of that phased me. I loved this movie back in the day and I still love it. This is the modern-day vampire story Anne Rice wishes she wrote.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Production Budget $25M
Box Office (USA) $26M

This movie spoke to me on so many levels-- many of which are very painful-- that it became one of the first movies that I obsessed on, rewatching more times than I could count (Apocalypse Now was the very first). As with Blade Runner, it's an object lesson in big-time directing. And having read the original script I can say it's as much--if not more-- an Adrian Lyne film as a Bruce Joel Rubin film.

Lyne used the film to stoke his own William Friedkin obsession, something my fellow children of the 70s will appreciate, but he also went out of his way to avoid horror cliche, creating a new visual vocabulary for demons and monsters that is still in use to this day.

Balancing out the terror is abject heartbreak, a young working-class father who loses a child (played by a young Macaulay Calkin) before being sent to the killing fields of Southeast Asia. Elizabeth Pena smoulders with carnality and several actors who went on to bigger and better things put in A-plus performances.

I could write a lot more about the movie and hopefully I will, providing I can avoid the minefield of trauma that the film dredges up for me.

Dark City (1998)
Production Budget $27M
Box Office (Int'l) $27M

We've covered this AstroGnostic classic (here, most recently) and it's grown in stature on DVD, but it was a flop upon release. Again, I was oblivious because I was sold on Dark City as soon as I saw the trailer. Even then I saw it took the retro-noir vibe of the first Batman movie and actually wrote a story to place it in.

Some have been disappointed with Proyas' career path since (I actually like Knowing quite a bit, Nic Cage or no) but that's Hollywood for you. Multi-million budgets are not meant to be used to make quirky statements based in Gnostic cosmology, they're meant to make multi-million dollar profits in return. That they so often don't shows that nobody in show business knows what they're doing, since it's impossible to say what will happen in the culture and the world during the several years you're working on your film.

Caveat: the Dark City Director's Cut is bogged down with a bunch of padding that belonged on the cutting room floor. Stick with the theatrical.

Dagon (2001)
Production Budget $4,800,000
Box Office (Int'l) €212,699

One of the very first essays on The Secret Sun was about this film (it was reposted in 2009 when I was at Esalen). For some reason, Stuart Gordon's far less faithful adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond are clutched to fandom's bosom and this film is not. This is a deeply divisive movie, even among Lovecraft fans (hell, especially among Lovecraft fans. I'll take Dagon any day.

In the surface Dagon is just another B-movie gorefest, but as the credit sequence tells us, it's below the surface where all the action is. Lovecraft's pagan-phobia was simply a stand-in for his revulsion towards the immigrant hordes descending on the Northeast. Gordon takes an opposite tack- the Mystery cult initiation we see unfold is a revelation to a deeper gnosis. Paul Marsh is systematically stripped of all of the yuppie comforts he took as a birthright, only to find a much deeper and more powerful birthright he had no idea existed.

The creepy Medieval Spanish village is a nice stand-in for Lovecraft's Cape Ann (which is a yuppie paradise these days) and the usual Gordonian sex/violence is less juvenile and more pagan. I love the ending (the film is an adaptation of 'Shadow Over Innsmouth,' so you might already know it) and the actress who portrays Uxia brilliantly encapsulates a whole powder-keg of emotions familiar to any woman who's found the love of her life. And why Ezra Godden is not a star is a mystery to me- he does a wonderful job in the Jeffrey Combs role.

If you haven't seen Dagon- or saw it and didn't like it- read my essay and watch it again.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Production Budget $15M
Box Office (Int'l) $20M

Inland Empire is essentially the same film (though much, much grimmer and much more insane) but Mulholland Dr. gets the nod for the sumptious color and cinematography that the bigger budget allowed. David Lynch has always been the poet laureate of dissociation and dream logic, and for my money Mulholland is his masterpiece.

Naomi Watts would go on to star in the remake of Ringu, but this is a much scarier film because it's real. It's about how America takes everything away from the naive and the dreamers (her character is Canadian, appropriately) and gives them nothing but cold concrete and a bullet to the head for their trouble.

A lot of people don't understand the narrative, but it's all very simple once you have the key. I didn't have it for years but loved it anyway. I'm not surprised Lynch has quit making movies, since Mulholland and Inland stripped away all of the lies and bullshit that Hollywood sells and showed the disease-riddled, reanimated corpse that hides behind the curtain, pulling all of our strings.

More on this film here.

Solaris (2002)
Production Budget $47M
Box Office (Int'l) $30M

Long-time Secret Sun readers know all about my Solaris jones, which I've covered here and here. I was late to the Solaris party, since I didn't happen to watch it until it was on cable. I made up for lost time. Soderbergh came of age at a time when Hollywood was on fire and the storytelling tics of the late 60s and 70s are all over his work. His non-linear approach sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. It definitely works here. Artistically, at least.

I can only explain this film's existence by the fact that it's essentially a James Cameron project, with Soderbergh hired on to supply the poetry. If Hollywood didn't live in mortal terror of Cameron there's no way this brooding, atmospheric Astro-Gnostic meditation would have been greenlit. Clooney might have helped seal the deal, and it's always great to see Natascha McElhone, even if she's weirdly lit in a lot of this.

As with many of my favorite films, the soundtrack is an integral part of the magic. I think I've listened the film's soundtrack more than several other favorite albums combined.

The Nines (2007)
Box Office (Int'l) $130,000

Again, another obscure film that longtime Secret Sun readers are very familiar with (you can read up on The Nines here and here). I don't think The Nines was ever released outside the festival circuit so don't be scared off by its paltry gross. The performances by Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy are spotless, not to mention some stunning work by Elle Fanning. The domesticity of the film works in its favor, as all of the action takes place in the mind. Where it belongs.

The critics saw this as John August's Charlie Kaufman move, but it's more interesting than that. It's also Gnostic as all hell, so go watch it for free on YouTube then click on this links. You'll thank me in the morning.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Production Budget $30M
Box Office (Int'l) $68 M

I've written extensively on this film, most notably here, here and here. Ironically, given the unjust drubbing this film took, it's the only film on this list to turn a profit at the box office. This film was a victim of bad timing, given that The Dark Knight (released the previous week) worked so hard to dredge up the 9/11 vibe that pulled the rug out from underneath the series.

Its time will come and people will come to appreciate how perfectly Carter captured the bleak vibe of the late Bush years and how brilliantly directed and filmed it all is. All of the various X-Files clones out there need to fail before people realize how great the original series was and how this film captures the vibe of the early seasons much better than the first XF feature did.

The Box (2009)
Production Budget $30M
Box Office (Int'l) $32M
CinemaScore audience rating: F

I can't help but wonder if this film followed on Donnie Darko's heels without Southland Tales in the middle there whether it would have done better. I love this film to pieces (and said as much here) and it depresses me to think how badly it was received, flying right over everyone's heads.

The Box taps into very deep streams of the Unconscious (both personal and collective) in such a way that most people were unprepared for. This movie seemed to bother people, in much the same way I Want to Believe did, though for different reasons. I hope that it too gets a re-evaluation, like so many of these films. It deserves one.

NOTES: I had originally intended to post this over the weekend, but Mother Nature had other ideas.

Click here for my Metaphyction Amazon buyer's guide from 2007