Five brief thoughts on a recent film.
This week, indie lawsuit-bait Escape From Tomorrow. If you don’t already know, this film was made using guerilla film-making techniques (presumably different to the Gorilla film making techniques used in King Kong) on location at Walt Disney World in Florida without permission of the Disney Corporation. Considering the dark and sexual nature of the film, it’s really to their credit that they allowed this film to achieve even limited distribution.
I’m not going to overtly include spoilers but then again if you care about that sort of thing, then please do not read this review.
Also, you must be at least this tall to enter: |——————————————————————————–|
1) This film has faced some tough reviews from people I admire. Let’s cut straight to the chase: I really enjoyed this movie. I entered with lowish expectations and thus my expectations were easily surpassed. It isn’t a perfect film and I’ll cover some of the problems in other points here but it does far more than most low-budget guerilla-style films could ever achieve, is going to be pretty memorable and long lasting, and is a perfect antidote to 90% of the safe Hollywood system movies you are going to see this year which deliver everything you expect and don’t really try to challenge you at all (hint: if Ryan Gosling is the star, you’re pretty much there). If this isn’t in my top five for 2013 at the end of the year, I’ll eat my hat.
The main film that this reminded me of but which I have not once seen Escape From Tomorrow compared to is Black Swan. The fact is that Black Swan is a certified 8/10 hit whereas Escape is a much more lukewarm 5.6/10 (according to IMDB) only makes me happy that I have found that elusive thing in something most people don’t like that I totally do. However, the similarities between the two films (both firmly in the high end of the exploitation genre) are striking – a decent from delusion into madness, once-suppressed hyper-sexuality, paranoia, dysfunctional family life and a non-specific sense of threat arising from fictional backdrops within the story. The main difference in approach seems to be in switching the focus from young-adulthood into middle age and mid-life crisis where, strangely it seems even more at home.
There is one element however, which is an alienating limitation of Escape where Swan performs much better. Even though the events of Swan are largely delusional and hallucinatory, we are lead to believe that the ending of the film is real and there are real effects to what Nina, the protagonist is going through. The downside of Escape is that it never returns to the beaten track and stays firmly in the madness with no sign that there is any reality to anything going on. Without this investiture in some kind of reality, the hallucinatory imagery becomes somewhat meaningless, alienating and unengaging from time to time. Nevertheless, the film as a whole does hang together and is stark, bold and disturbing, revelling in a way that few films do in terms of ambiguity and lack of a satisfying wrap up.
2) How often a refrain it is that actually one of the best things that everyone likes about low budget films is that there are no Hollywood A-listers to turn up and basically destroy the reality of the whole thing. No Tom Cruise. No George Clooney. No Brad Pitt. No Johnny Depp. Nobody who so thoroughly drips wealth and success from their very pores that no amount of make up could ever convince you that these are real people. Almost all of the low budget films I have loved over the last few years (Monsters and Skeletons being foremost among them) have benefited massively in terms of spectacle by bringing you fresh and believable faces and showcasing acting talent without the need for name value and notoriety. Something that seems to make Escape for me is Roy Abramsohn’s performance as the protagonist Jim. Jim is kind of a horrible person. He’s pretty horrible to his wife and is basically stalking a teenage girl. Nevertheless the plot centres upon some kind of empathy with him and an ability to see the world through his eyes and be shocked by his delusions. The thing that knits these aims of the film together is Roy Abramsohn’s performance, which gives a kind of schlubby earnestness and recognisable buffoonery that easily bridges the gap. With the wrong person in this role, the film sinks like a stone.
3) So, I said I’d talk about some of the film’s flaws and so here we are. The film has a couple of aims here, which I’ll approximate below:
a) To satirise through heightened reality the artificialness of Disney World
b) To also satirise the idea of Disney films in and of themselves
c) To explore common urban myths about Disney World
In my opinion, aims (b) and (c) are fully met by the film. In terms of (b) a sequence about a former princess, turned witch focuses clearly on the Disney storytelling myth as opposed to the park itself. In terms of (c) all the greatest hits about secret back rooms, princess prostitutes, emu drumsticks and deaths on roller coasters are fully ticked off. It’s category (a) where the film is somewhat unsatisfying. The film clearly wants to make a sort of metaphor about the park, how the artificial playfulness of the park somehow gives a sense of altered and unnatural reality. What we get is a series of visions concerning sexual obsession, fear of disease, child abduction, monsters, scary scientists, robots, eerie fat people and big explosions. All of this madness and imagery is well executed and fun but the film could try harder to knit the elements together into something meaningful. So if the point of making a film in Disney World is to highlight what a spooky reality this strange place really is, it would make sense to try and link the violent and sexual themes. Maybe the Disney world metaphor is that the place is infantilizing and so causes the protagonist’s obsession with a teenage lover rather than his wife. Maybe the visions of youth and fun create a vision of who we want to be that leads to the version of the protagonist at the end of the film. Maybe the childishness of Disney leads to a kind of sexual repression or conversely the focus on endless fun and satisfaction a kind of hypersexuality. Maybe the Cat Flu epidemic has some kind of wider meaning (surely Mouse Flu would have been th obvious choice) rather than being just an oddity.
The pleasure in surrealism such as Alice in Wonderland is often the hint of deeper meaning but Escape seems unwilling to try and tie these themes together to really say something about the location. To do so would not have sacrificed ambiguity, rather it would have enhanced the ambiguity because there is more meaning in hinted messages than there is in true unambiguous meaningless. Escape is deeply flawed because no such links are established and therefore contains much weaker themes than it really should. Nevertheless, maybe what we should do in true demented style, is simply hallucinate the scenes that the film needs Problem solved. Still, when a film reaches the level of so close to being Classic that it hurts it’s hard to view the film as anything but great, even if not a total success.
4) Let’s touch on it. Even though there are no time travel elements in the film, I suddenly found myself back in the 1960s whilst watching. “How?” I hear you ask. Because of the film’s retrograde and backward sexual politics, I answer. I compared this film earlier to Black Swan and mentioned that these were both exploitation films. Black Swan is not without it’s use of young female starlets masturbating and fucking to try to draw a leery kind of attention to the film. However, Escape is much worse even though the sexual themes are a justified part of the film. Much of the film deals with the protagonist’s stalking and sexual obsession with two young, possibly under-age French girls. That in and of itself I take as the disturbing and horrific nature of the film (though it would have been even better if this sexual obsession had somehow been linked back to the main themes of the film and location – see point 3). The very fact that the main character’s obsessions seem to switch from the older of the two to the younger braces-wearing of the two clearly shows how disturbing this is meant to be.
What pushes this film over the edge is the lingering on these sequences for much longer than is needed. We are literally talking about a male character who cannot look at a female character without their perspective then showing a lingering shot of him looking down their tops. With regards to the teenage girls, it’s much the same and scenes such as the character swimming over to them in a swimming pool last far longer than they need to. These girls appear in about one third of all the scenes and all they do in all of them is giggle, sing and smile seductively. I don’t really mind them being sex objects per se, but their presence is repetitive and you feel that they should have been given more to do.
Much more than this, a nameless character who is also a kind of sexually perfect partner for the main character is shown. This character is introduced through lingering topless shots which are seen with no rationale during one theme part ride and also shown in the background of other shots. Who this character is and what her purpose might be is never really explained and whilst the director might be wanting to say something about his main character, his willingness to introduce a character who does nothing more than show her breasts for minutes at a time suggests much more about what the director thinks will enhance his film rather than what any of the characters think. This is a world of nameless female sexual objects and whilst I enjoyed it as a man, I can’t help but think that if I was a woman it would have creeped me the hell out and probably given me a false idea about male sexuality.
And finally, for fans of pointing out reverse sexism – the film features a male rape which is treated rather lightly. Hello the 1960s! How did I get back here? Rather than being trapped in Disneyland, I actually felt much more trapped in the sordid, awful, shitty, bigoted, sexist and downright evil 1960s fiction of Norman Mailer.
Keep in mind I liked this film a lot. Pointing out the flaws in something I like purifies it and helps me enjoy it. Now you know that about me, fuck you. There, now we can be friends. See, it’s a perfect system.
5) So this film was fun and imaginative, took us through amazing visual flights of fantasy and left us thoroughly disturbed. One of the things that marks out a filmmaker who knows what he is doing is when they are able to break one of the rules of cinema without it being a problem. One of the key rules is not to show your hand too early. Making a monster film? Don’t show your monster until the end, or maybe not at all. Use fear of what the monster looks like in the early sequences and only show the monster where you really have to. In other words, don’t bring your audience to a peak too soon and always leave somewhere else to go. This is a rule that Escape rips up throws faultlessly into a waste paper bin before doing a fist bump of victory.
The film is about delusions and madness at Disneyworld. So how long does the film take to show you horrific delusions of the most visual and scary kind on a Disney ride? The answer is pretty much in the first tenth of the movie. The film immediately shows you a clearly hallucinated sequence of the most obvious kind. It’s almost like they intentionally go all the way to 11 immediately, as if to say, “we know you know what this film is about so here it is, no tricks”. The film really has nothing more to show but the rhythm and intensity and pure madness and momentum of the rest of the film somehow carry you through without this being a problem. It’s as if their dial not only goes up to 11 immediately, but they also have a 12 through 15 which they can use in emergencies if they need to. It’s breathtaking mastery of an audience to do this and shows how resolute and engaging the depiction of madness and paranoid surrealism in the movie is that this vision can dispense with the mandatory quiet, slow, suspenseful stages.
There you go, I ended on a positive.
One final note: this film brought to mind one of my favourite films ever, a true unheralded classic that I love to bore people with: The Machinist. There is a single sequence in that film (which shares many of the same tropes about an uncertain narrative and untrustworthy, sometimes delusional character) which basically does everything that Escape does but in a single sequence. This one (although the references the ride makes are much more understandable if you’ve seen the rest of the film). Go out and see Escape if you can but if you absolutely can’t, you can also please me by watching The Machinist. And if you do either of those, we’ll live happily, happily ever after.