Instant Gratification is FPM’s own Netflix Instant playlist curated by Sharon Gissy. It presents the best (and sometimes worst) that is available on Netflix, whether that be film, tv shows or documentaries.
The White Bus (Dir. Lindsay Anderson, 1967)
There’s a thin line between civilization and wanton destruction, between the comfort of the office buildings we inhabit every day and the oppression of the needy that are the fruits of industrialization. Often, that line can be all about passive acceptance rather than questioning. This is what seems to be implied by The White Bus. It could be, however, that the film somehow picked up a lot of the messages of the ’60s counterculture just by being a product of the era’s zeitgeist, and that tended to include a lot of backlash about modernization and the wages of labor, along with a certain glamorization of aimless road trips and self-identification journeys in the vein of Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey. It’s difficult to separate what is political soapboxing from what is just oddball humor and a playful avant-garde sensibility. That’s what makes The White Bus somewhat timeless, rather than only a specific product of its decade (although it certainly is a product of its decade as well).
There’s not much in the way of plot to describe in The White Bus, there are only moments. There’s the moment where a boy strokes a bird in the beginning, in what seems to be one of the film’s only free, unencumbered gestures before the camera pans up to oppressive high rise office buildings. There’s the moment where a bored secretary envisions hanging herself from the ceiling above her monochromatic desk with a typewriter, her legs dangling into the frame while her colleagues remain thoroughly occupied with the work around them. On a lighter note, there’s the moment where the secretary breaks away from a man chasing her down with condensed, rapid-speed-delivery pick-up lines about how he values independence and intelligence in women, and is not classist, while she escapes onto a bus. It’s masterful in a way, as if Anderson is dispensing with the whole conventional marriage plot in a matter of minutes and paving the way for what kind of movie this is not. And there’s the darker moment, so indicative of so much else in the movie, where she passively watches in an urban park as a woman, running under flashing streetlights and apparently struggling, is overcome by a couple of men who shove her into the backseat of a car. Although she clearly sees this, the observer’s response is to turn around and embark on a tour seeing the sights of past and present, and the “warmth and friendliness” of the city.
What follows is a tour of bleak, incisive, and joyful observations about city life and dark humor, and many times a blend of both. With all the charm of a school field trip, the bus takes tourists through several sights in a nameless British city, much of which looks like blighted ruins. In a nonsensical twist that seems to fit right into the film’s atmosphere, tourists all wear walkie-talkies to hear their guide’s declarations, although they all seem to be together and in earshot the entire time. The first destination is a factory that seems to be an amalgam of the most nightmarish visions of mechanized life. Machines pound and grind, flames beckon as though from the underworld, and giant cogs loom menacingly over elderly ladies wearing protective construction hats. There are select sequences shown in color, but for the most part they only serve to highlight either sheer monotony (like the microscopic ant size of workers against the mountain of logs they are stacking up) or chaos (like giant forgers and showers of sparks) of labor. The effect is comical and threatening at the same time.
The bus continues on over what appears to be ravaged wasteland, and through sights both ridiculous and morbid. The tour guide’s cheery explanation of the “slum clearing scheme” and how re-housed citizens enjoy living in flats situated in “pleasant surroundings” while passing dreary-looking identical tenements in the middle of nowhere drips with condescending corporate-speak. The vision of a more aristocratic environment is also ironically humorous, with picnicking characters posing as though for Impressionist paintings, including a tasteful nude and a lady being pushed on a swing in Victorian attire, all amidst statues and scenic forested glens. The idyllic scene ends with a gunshot. The tour through the city’s library contains a now-typical rant by the mayor (played with perfect authoritarian disdain by Arthur Lower) about how filthy many of the books in the institution are, “mere tracts condoning homosexual practices disguised as literature.” This same character tells the story earlier on the bus of how he grew up in the same city and played bare-footed in the street, and how he is now worth three-quarters of a million pounds. The passengers on the bus definitely seem to be, for the most part, staunch supporters of the city and its inherently capitalist nature, even though the sights they are seeing mostly represent the melancholy and repressive aspects of the same system.
This veneer of cheery mania that elevates unwitting characters above depressing and manipulative situations seems to be a trademark of Anderson’s style that is in full force here. The landscapes of hollowed-out buildings and industrial waste would take on a completely different feel if it weren’t for the sprightly piano soundtrack to the bus’s journey, and the tour guide’s animated explanation of the sights that make even the public housing projects and factory industry sounds delightful. Patricia Healey is perfect as the wide-eyed straight observer who barely reacts or says a word, just takes in the sights. She becomes any audience member, and the city becomes every city, busting with oddball characters and spontaneous sing-alongs and speeches as well as frightening signs of poverty and neglect. In a real sense she allows us to enter the film as observers taken with this view of city life, and to recognize both the beauty and depravity in the tour. And there are some bright spots to the city’s progress, such as a choir of girls singing in a school hall and a quiet meal at a restaurant in the end. In a conversation that seems to have meaningful existential overtones, especially considering what has followed it, a waitress talks about what she has to do while closing up the shop, commenting that if she leaves Monday’s work undone it will trickle over into Tuesday, and Tuesday into Wednesday, ad infinitum. This seems to reinforce the idea that the city will keep waking up and doing what it has to do, endlessly repeating its patterns, all its destructive and regenerative behaviors with its sights to behold, both beautiful and reprehensible, forever and ever.
The Call Of Cthulhu (Dir. Andrew Leman, 2005)
The entire Cthulhu mythos is based around a creature so terrifying that to even describe it can drive men mad with terror. The creators of this film, who were involved with the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, remain true to the source material in many ways, but perhaps this is the most important one of all: capturing the sense of dread and obsession the creature invokes in its cult that are paramount to the story, while also just hinting at the terrifying appearance of the creature when the moment demands it. They get that it’s not even Cthulhu that’s terrifying as much as the response the creature evokes; the slavish possession and inevitable collapse into insanity after pursuit of dangerous knowledge. Every character in the film is haunted by their desire for this knowledge and eventually destroyed by its pursuit.
The silent film format opens up The Call of Cthulhu to a couple of advantages: it manages to capture the time period of the 1920s in which the stories were written, and the overly expressive facial acting lends itself beautifully to the constant dread and often exaggerated fear that Lovecraft’s characters were described as feeling. The sets are obviously low-budget (an entire island in the end seems to be skillfully constructed of cardboard) but feel like a kindred spirit of German expressionism with their sharp, menacing angles. Digital camera effects replicate the dreamy glass matte effects of the era, lending to the idea that you’re watching a lost, unearthed artifact that may be a little dangerous to watch. A classical score helps add to the palpable tension, and the nested stories, which seemed to be more common in the early days of filmmaking, also fit much more naturally within that adopted framework.
Although there have been many films inspired by the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft, none is probably as faithful to the actual text as The Call Of Cthulhu, sincerely following the story and featuring title cards taken straight from the text. It is unafraid to leap back and forth in time like that story, and to explore the reactions of different characters in a prolonged atmosphere of tension-building before revealing its monster. The tale begins with a man played by Matt Foyer, who inherits a locked box of newspaper clippings and journals collected by his great-uncle, Professor George Angell. Although he is told to burn them, like other characters in the story, our cannot resist his curiosity despite his own good. The stories in the box describe different encounters with The Cult Of Cthulhu, including eerie prophetic dreams recorded by a therapist, an academic who tells of an expedition in Greenland in 1860 where members of an Eskimo tribe seemed to display bloodthirsty signs of the cult behavior, and the police investigation of an odd incident at a meeting of architects in 1907. Like the story, the movie follows each of these threads to show the maddening grip the cult has on its faithful devotees, who believe ancient gods, older than the stars, lie asleep and will be awakened when the stars align. This fervent belief, it is shown in each case, drives men to a debilitating state of obsession and madness. Each of the story threads is careful to show this state, building an atmosphere of absolute dread before the climax, wherein through the discovery of an old manuscript left behind by a Norwegian sailor who encountered a mysterious uncharted island on an ill-fated voyage, Cthulhu is revealed.
The scant 47-minute running time of The Call Of Cthuhu should ensure that even impatient viewers are able to endure this plot meandering, which strengthens the terror the monster inspired by demonstrating how it crosses time and geographical boundaries, and how encounters with this belief change the cult members and never seem to leave the memory of those involved. Following the progression through the box of evidence, Cthulhu definitely evolves from a half-remembered dream or myth to a recounted statement with several witnesses. The fact that Cthulhu is remembered so often, and haunts the minds of those from such different walks of life, only adds to the effect of building a beast that taps into collective primordial consciousness, as do the melodramatic scenes of the worshipping mobs run amok.
The Call Of Cthulhu definitely belongs to a new era of fan-made projects and movies, often cast into a sea of genre-specific festivals or uploaded to YouTube for the enjoyment of other fans. Among competitors of this generational trend, the film stands out as an affectionate tribute that can be understood both within and outside of its intended target audience. There is no doubt that horror buffs of fans of Lovecraft would appreciate the care and craft that went into so accurately re-creating the story looking like it was set to life in the year it was written. However, the movie has much broader appeal to fans of silent movies, classic scary movies, or just a fun diversion into a world that is so removed from our reality that it cannot be described without insanity descending. In this world removed from reality, model boats, stop-motion animation, and papier-maiche mountains all make a lot of sense and take on an almost eerie cast that heightens their artificiality to something that can really only exist in the imagination. To know it in reality would be to go mad. And it’s part of the genius of the H.P. Lovecraft Society that they keep that imaginative approach to their material the entire time, so that it never becomes quite too real. Unlike many projects of this nature, it’s not an ironic distancing but rather an acceptance that the realms of the real and the recognizable have no place in this story.
Genesis (dir. Nacho Cerda, 1998)
Genesis falls more into the conceptual category that is often associated with short films. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes and made as part of a trilogy about death, it is the shortest of the shorts featured here, and revolves around one simple idea and theme. A sculptor who is consumed by grief over the loss of his wife in a car accident obsesses on recreating her likeness in his work. After what must have been a lot of obsessive work, the sculpture becomes more lifelike and closer to her appearance, but now the sculptor’s skin begins to turn to clay and ash. It’s clear that in using his life simply to re-capture his departed wife’s memory, the sculptor is letting his current life and reality fade and crumble away. However, the technical achievements of the film, with its beautiful cinematography crisply depicting the contrasting worlds of the blue-grey dreary studio and bright home-video memories, the harrowing classical music, and an intense solo performance by Pep Tosar, all combine to make Genesis a more complex film. It ends up becoming an immersive meditation on the nature of death, love, memory, and the past that far exceeds its running time and premise.
From the beginning, Genesis elegantly weaves it spell without dialogue by enveloping the audience in haunting images, and immediately putting us inside the sculptor’s head. We see the home movies of his wife, which must be playing on a repeated time loop in his mind. He gather there was a car accident he was involved in because we see it in the sculptor’s memory as he jerks awake one night. And we see that nothing exists for this character outside of these memories, old pictures on the wall, and his work on the sculpture resembling his wife. He stumbles out of bed and grabs his tools to continue his work. His combined home and studio is cluttered and shows signs of apathy, such as food and dishes sitting out everywhere on the counter. This short gets so much mileage out of telling through pictures that it is possible to forget many traditional storytelling devices, such as dialogue and interaction with characters, are entirely absent. Instead it places the viewer squarely inside an all-consuming feeling of grief, isolation, and entrapment.
The special effects are subtle enough to be more tragic than horrific. The first trickle of blood down the sculpture’s leg is covered up by the creator’s hand as that will make it go away, and it’s plausible that this may be happening inside of our sculptor’s anguished mind. As the trickles develop into deep gashes into the flesh, the overall impression is still tastefully sorrowful rather than gory. It is clear that the sculptor’s project is slowly spiraling out of his control, and he is perhaps becoming a victim of getting what he wished for, the re-animation of his wife. Similarly, the sculptor’s generation builds slowly from discovering his ashy hands when washing them in the sink to being unable to move his own legs and trying to chip away at them with a chisel. For having such a short amount of time to work with, Genesis is able to depict these transformations in a surprisingly understated way, by focusing on its singular subject matter to the exclusion of anything else. It’s difficult to classify a movie this length as slow, but the pace is definitely ponderous, although nothing seems wasted.
Although Cerda has mostly become known for his work inside the horror genre, Genesis is far more sad than it is shocking or frightening. As a horror film, it works as an emotional representation of the fear of loss and becoming literally immobilized by bereavement. The finale carries home the bittersweet and ambiguous nature of the movie, and is both an end to and a beginning to something. It’s left to the viewer to interpret exactly what Cerda is trying to say about death and memorializing; on one hand, the artist did manage to create a nearly perfect work and achieve his goal in a manner of speaking, but on the other, the price is unbearably high. The title of the movie foreshadows the creation of life, but there is definitely, at the very least, a portrayal of how grief can enslave us. The sculptor’s world has become so small, only made up of memories and no forward motion. He may as well have been turning to stone. For all its surreal imagery, Genesis paints a very real state of mind, and it does so masterfully. The lingering effect is devastating.