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Surveillance – sick movie, sick genre

You should put some cream on that

You should put some cream on that

Surveillance – Jennifer Chambers Lynch

A sick movie – in a sick genre. Do not be conned by the publicity for this sleazeball movie: it is not a thriller. It is a horror movie pretending to be a thriller. The essence of the horror movie for me is that the tension, the suspense, arises not from uncertainty about what may happened next. No, in the true horror movie the tension is created because you know exactly what is going to happen next – someone is going to get shockingly and gruesomely killed, tortured or maimed or some infinitely imaginative combination of all three. Sometimes, God help us this trash is sometimes played for laughs. I love good trash. This is bad trash.

And the tension is cumulative; each gruesome dismembering, evisceration, decapitation etc escalates the blood lust and the clinical, dispassionate exploration of exactly how many ways the director’s imagination can conceive of to inflict horrific pain and death on another, almost always with explicit or implicit linkage of sex and sexuality. And the sufferers of this brutal, bestial sexually violent abuse are almost always women and usually at the hands of men. In the world of modern CGI, prosthetics and special effects, there is now no limit to what can be made to look real.

Sorry to those of you who can watch this genre, but I’ve always hated it though of course some, not many, films aimed at the horror market have developed characters, situations and plots that have lifted them out of the horror sewer into genuine thriller status. The violence in a thriller movie is an essential element in a dramatic narrative that it serves: the violence in a horror movie is an end in itself – it is the point of the movie.

Like father, like daughter I guess: that David Lynch has talent as a film-maker is beyond question, as The Elephant Man and The Straight Story amply demonstrate. He also comes off as a pretty f***cked up guy who shares his obsessions, fantasies and fetishes with us in movies like Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart and Mulholland Drive. Zizek argues convincingly that you cannot hope to understand David Lynch without exploring psychoanalytical concepts. Well I’ve never been much of a fan of movie-making as a substitute for therapy.

David’s daughter Jennifer whose second film Surveillance is, after the calamity of her first little essay into movie-making with Boxing Helena in 1993 appears to be at least as screwed-up as dad. You’ll mercifully perhaps have forgotten Boxing Helena – a folksy little tale of a jilted surgeon who, finding the (s)ex-object of his ‘affection’ in a car wreck outside his house, kidnaps her and proceeds to amputate her limbs so she can’t – ha ha – walk out on him. Reports suggest BH only got made because Jennifer raised money on her father’s reputation. In a recent interview she said that Surveillance was tough to finance and once made could not get distribution. So up pops daddy again to stick his name on it as Executive Producer and whoa – off we go again.

In another of my periodic bewilderments about commercial critics – they have been shamefully easy on this nasty little film. David Lynch is a confessedly voyeuristic director, never more so than when he is filming lesbian sex scenes notably that between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive. He regularly put sexuality and violence in the same frame literally and metaphorically. I thought that was pretty much a guy thing but no – here’s Ms Lynch playing out the same kind of fetishistic, violent, adolescent male masturbatory fantasies thinly disguised as a plot.

We’re in the featureless desert territory of Santa Fe. A man has been brutally murdered and his partner terrorised in a blood-soaked opening credits inter-cut. The woman escapes the killers who are wearing masks that look like Scream with acne. Or does she? Elizabeth (Julia Ormond) and Sam (Bill Pullman) turn up at a remote police station as FBI agents taking over investigation of this latest atrocity apparently committed by two killers they have been chasing for months. Local cops resent the FBI but are forced to co-operate. Two witnesses have been brought in from carnage discovered on the highway. Three vehicles and several victims shot by various gruesome means.

It remains unclear throughout constant flashbacks exactly what has happened: we know that 9-year old Stephanie (an excellent Ryan Simpkins) is the sole survivor of her family of 5; and druggie Bobbi (Pell James) has left her off-the-wall boyfriend Johnny on-the-tarmac seeping life. For various convoluted rather than complicated reasons there are quite a few more dead people littering the highway and Lynch takes an unconscionably long time to let us in on what’s supposed to have happened. And even then we don’t really care.

Meanwhile Elizabeth and Sam, much more touchy-feely than Scully and Mulder, who appear to have a running private joke going on between them, have set up cameras at the police station and Sam watches as the events are recounted by the people who experienced them. Ormond isn’t bad, leaving an air of uncertainty hanging in the air. Pullman just twitches a lot and acts weird like he’s still on the set of Lost Highway even now, like us, having no idea what the hell is going on.

For no apparent reason other than it seems a bit out of kilter and weird, highway cops Jack Bennett and Partner Degrasso liven up their inbred life-styles by playing out little fantasies with motorists they have stopped for speeding by shooting their tyres out. These nasty little scenes have a furtive, guilty, gropey, giggly little sub-text that seems to induce a lot of on-screen vomiting from frightened innocent people.

When this all unwinds in the predictably bloody way heavily trailed throughout, we feel cheated at the obviousness of the ‘twist’ and simply soiled by the gratuitous exploitation of the crap plot to set up a bit of girl on girl heavy breathing where one player gets dead scared: sorry scared dead.

Even technically this junk sucks. The sound is lousy at the beginning and at times later. The filming is grainy and badly lit. Jennifer’s editing is, just like her dad’s, fetishistic in tone and quasi-pornographic in effect.

This is a nasty, brutish, poorly conceived, badly executed exercise in psycho-sexual self examination – nay self-disgust even. It is totally derivative for its slightly weird, off-the-wall tone – simply emulating Twin Peaky, Blue Velvety Daddy D. You do not care for or about anyone in this film from beginning to end – even the delightful little Stephanie seems a bit like an alien at times. No one does anything a real person would – except puke and bleed a lot. Everything and everyone is jumbled together without purpose or artistic insight. The aesthetics of repulsion and disgust – pretty much a definition of the horror genre.

This isn’t a Fargo where real people get caught up in only too believable tragic messes that lead to violence. And Ms Lynch appears to have watched Badlands without understanding anything about it. If daddy David had an occasionally disturbing line in weird as art: Jennifer seems to have settled for weird as weird.

I’m glad my unlimited movie ticket means I didn’t really pay to see this movie. Go if you must but really, why not stay in and clean the toilet? Much like Surveillance: not very pleasant – but at least it’s free. And you can get the toilet clean.

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