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The New Geek Cinema

TORONTO -- Toronto 1998 was an edgy festival for people like me who are convinced that anything can theoretically be a legitimate subject for a film. Movies about the Holocaust, child abuse, rape and reckless murder have had audiences cringing and critics embroiled in nose-to-nose debates in the lobbies. The director John Waters has coined a term for them: Feel-Bad Comedies. So have I: the New Geek Cinema.

There are those who think some subjects should be forbidden. My belief is: If a film is going to consider areas that are dangerous or fraught with emotion, then it has to convince the audience it has the right. It can do that seriously, or with humor, or with intelligence or satire - but it has to earn its way. It can't just dine out on controversy.

My thoughts on the most extreme example of this new genre, "Thursday," are in another story. Here are notes on other films that are opening soon: "Happiness," by Todd Solondz, is the most controversial film of the year. It is about the messy and sordid private lives of several lonely people, who seek happiness in ways they would not want you to know about. In the most talked-about scene, a father who is a pedophile (he has assaulted a friend of his young son's) engages in a serious and honest discussion with his son, in which he fully answers every question about what he has done, and why. "Very Bad Things," by Peter Berg, is about five friends who go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. They get high on booze and coke, and one of their number, while assaulting a call girl in the bathroom, violently throws her against a wall. A metal clothes hook penetrates her brain. When a security guard comes to investigate, he's stabbed to death with a corkscrew. The men decide to cover up the deaths and bury the bodies in the desert. There is an arguably unnecessary conversation identifying some of the killers as Jews; the victims are an Asian and a black. "Apt Pupil," by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects"), is about a high school kid (Brad Renfro) who realizes that an old man (Ian McKellen) is in fact a Nazi death camp murderer. Threatening blackmail, he forces the old man to tell him "what it was like." During the course of the film, the old man, who harbors great rages, attempts to throw a neighbor's cat into a lighted gas oven (he may succeed; the film's shifty editing seems to have it both ways). There is no indication that the boy is horrified by the man's Nazi past; he is more like a fascinated voyeur.

I should add that "Very Bad Things" is intended as a comedy. "Apt Pupil," based on a Stephen King novella, plays as a horror film. "Happiness" cannot easily be categorized, but I think it stands above the other films, not with them. (Two other new films that are superficially similar, "Clay Pigeons" and "Home Fries," are more traditional character-driven comedy thrillers that contain a lot of gore but stay within generally acceptable boundaries.)

All of these films owe something to John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978), an enormous success that suggested a way into Hollywood for unknown young directors. If you don't have major stars and you don't have a big budget, then the genre itself can be your selling point. Horror films, like sex films, do not depend on marquee names. The content itself is the star.

Horror as a genre has been expanded, in some of these films, by a mean streak of cruelty, masked as irony. Once horror films sympathized with victims who were being threatened. Then they started using point-of-view shots to identify with the slashers instead of the victims. In recent years there are two more refinements: (1) a single victim is not enough, and most of the movies string together killing scenes like an all-hit radio format; and (2) there is a fascination with bizarre kinds of pain and torture not seen since the Marquis de Sade on a good day.

Combine these ingredients with the two most easily assimilated trademarks of Quentin Tarantino (colorfully arcane and vulgar dialogue, and labyrinthine plotting) and you have the elements that the New Geeks are exultantly recycling.

What some of these directors do not seem to realize is that films are really about something. They are not just exercises in style. Not all racism, women-hating and monstrous torture can be cloaked in the forgiving veil of irony. The New Geeks see the surfaces of Tarantino, and do not begin to guess the depths.

Having been through "Pulp Fiction" twice on a shot-by-shot basis over a period of days with audiences at the universities of Colorado and Virginia, I can tell you that his film contains three crucial elements many of the others lack: three dimensional characters, comedy that undercuts violence instead of feeding on it and a quality of redemption.

The characters in "Pulp Fiction" and the gentler "Jackie Brown" are people with heft and depth, who get involved in violence for reasons that are made clear. The characters in "Thursday" and "Very Bad Things" are not people at all, but carriers for behavior.

Say what you will about the violence in "Pulp Fiction," the characters are mostly horrified by it, and the humor is in their reactions (as in the overdose sequence). In many of the geek films, the intermediate level has been eliminated, and the violence itself is supposed to be funny.

In the New Geek Cinema, victory is the only redemption. At the end of these films, the living are the winners, and dead are the losers, and victory consists of getting away with everything. Period.

Of the films I've mentioned here, the one that best understands what it is doing, and incorporates a moral vision, is Todd Solondz's "Happiness." It has probably been attacked more than the others, but it's the one that faces up to the consequences of its content, and has a genuine sympathy for most of its characters. The others, to one degree or another, raise disturbing questions. "Thursday" crosses the line, and a person of healthy sensibility should, I believe, be appalled by it.

As these films fan out into theaters, it will be interesting to see how they are received. My guess is that the most extreme films will do the best, and the more challenging ones, such as "Happiness," may have a harder time of it. People can absorb a great deal of cruelty and inhumanity as long as they're not required to think about it or make any moral judgments. As the 20th century has proved.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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