Thursday, October 01, 2009
#46- 28 Days Later- Danny Boyle (2001) [watch the whole movie here]
#17- Godspeed You Black Emperor!- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000) [all songs too long to link to]
The best films of this past decade usually took long-accepted tropes or themes and synthesized them in new ways that spoke to the concerns and fears of our age. There is probably no more appropriate genre to do that in than horror, which is what makes 28 Days Later the best horror film of the decade. (Though pardon me if I haven't seen Saws II-V. I might be wrong, you know?)
Anyone would agree that 28 Days Later is a visceral horror entry, but calling it a zombie movie is both factual and insulting. It is true that the plot begins with animal rights activists releasing chimps who are part of a scientific experiment. It is true that those chimps attack their liberators with a contagious disease and escape, spreading this disease among the entire population of England and turning them into rage-fueled zombies. But calling it a zombie movie is denying how antithetical Danny Boyle's genre exercise is to what we acknowledge about such films. It's not that Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland use "the rage" as a symbol--that would actually make it sort of retro. No, this stands out because it takes someone turning into a monster, one of the more inviting and guilty pleasures of such films, and makes that prospect the most terrifying and present danger imaginable.
From Invasion of the Body Snatchers on, zombies have been used as filmic symbols for what we are denying of our human nature. In the first crack at that property, those who famously "go to sleep" are the ones who give up questioning the world around them. The sheep who blindly obey 1950s authority become metaphorical and literal zombies relegated to feeding on the flesh of those still kicking and screaming. George Romero expanded similar ideas from his Night of the Living Dead to address consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and class in Land of the Dead. They Live is also expressly political. These stories remind us of our own independence, the agency that makes us human, and they presuppose that we should avoid anything that would turn us into zombies. 28 Days Later has no such context. Whereas those other films obsessively delineate living, breathing humans from The Other, in 28 Days Later the zombie is our friends and family. And we still have to kill it.
Instead of denying human nature, Garland's characters are faced with the question of what humanity is in the first place. The ubiquitous threat of a person no longer being a person is what makes watching the film such a draining, harrowing experience. Other horror films have set-ups that build excitement and then end, giving us a breather to prepare for the next one. Up until its admittedly crappy ending, 28 Days Later is non-stop running from a continuous endangerment and insecurity.
Those thematic concerns would not matter much if we didn't connect to any of it though. Thankfully, we do. For instance, Garland and Boyle balance those questions of humanity with something that marks us as humans: the mundane. If the apocalypse happened, what would you eat? How would you get water to shave? Where would you get gasoline? The characters have to figure this out, and they almost feel guilty for needing these things, no matter how much they are reminded of their necessity. That imperfection is helped by Boyle's decision to shoot the film on HD video, which was still a daring choice in 2001. The medium's imperfections underscore the spontaneity and immediacy of what is happening on screen.
No discussion of the film would be complete without mention of the Piccadilly Square centerpiece, in which our protagonist Jim wanders around a completely deserted version of the most populous, touristy spots of London without any idea of why the locations are so empty. It's one of the most eerie scenes I've ever watched, and it's impossible not to marvel at the scale of it all. It establishes an unrivaled sense of foreboding and loneliness. It just so happens to be scored by a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song that establishes an unrivaled sense of foreboding and loneliness.
GYBE! were Canadian eight-piece progenitors of post-rock, a nineties subgenre characterized by interminable, hypnotic instrumentals that built through several movements and usually ended with a thrilling crescendo. Sometimes accompanied by multi-media presentations, post-rock sought to re-examine the structure of what rock music typically was and present a more cerebral, experimental version of it.
GYBE! took the mantle of early post-rock bands like Mogwai, Spiderland, or Sterolab and created something more textured and haunting and timeless. When the four suites of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven take off, they push the music past weird time signatures to something heavier and more substantial. Although they're considered experimental, they're actually presenting a piece striking in its unified sense of purpose, that purpose being one of absorbing, centered dread for something lost or hopeless. They took the sound of a type of music criticized as clinical and infused it with genuine, earned emotion. While that sounds kind of navel-gazing, as post-rock usually is, there is a selfless quality to the music that keeps its eye on the prize. (This is definitely part of their m.o. They only conducted interviews through one member of the group and never had the band name or track titles on the album packaging.) By splicing in clips of French children singing or an old man yammering about Coney Island, there are even times when an instrumental band's music does not take center stage, as if to say that the world around us continues even as we're creating a soundtrack for it. That aspect of the album makes it undeniably present and cathartic, a memorial for something still dying.
In that way, I would agree with Danny Boyle that it's perfect music for a sort of hopeful apocalypse. You get the sense that album closer "Antennas to Heaven" isn't the real end, and someone will still be twitching long after the droning aftermath of its strings and guitars.