Sunday, December 25, 2011

Why Spider Baby is a better film than Schindler's List: a Xmas reflection

Before going any further, please read this: I am not writing about the Holocaust. This blog post is concerned with a film that includes a representation of it. The event is rightly recalled with strong emotion ... but it's not what I'm talking about.

Anyway ...

Think about it:

A man responsible for a group of outsiders tries to keep the threat of the world away from them until he is forced to grave action.

A con artist exploits a group of outsiders until he is forced to feel for them and delivers a sickeningly self-serving speech about not doing enough.

Which one would you rather watch?

Spider Baby (the first description above) presents itself as an exploitation film. Family servant, Max is caretaker to a doomed family. The Merryes have a disease named after them. It's a form of galloping dementia which begins eroding their intellect in childhood. Enter city slicker cousins, unaffected by the condition who, with their shyster lawyer want to sell the property and live off the proceeds. The kids, with their ethical capacity disappearing but with young physiques, are dangerous (from the first scene on). Max tries to please everybody but understands that this is impossible. What he does is brutal but guided by nothing but despair at morality offering a better way.

Oskar Schindler is a spieler, going from table to table at nighclubs, making a big splash, putting himself about until he's noticed by the local movers and shakers and talks his way into manufacturing contracts. It's 1940s Europe and the movers and shakers wear swastikas and can offer free labour. Oskar has no problem with this and happily sets up his factory. Also setting up shop is Amon Goeth, another one of those darned Nazis who rolls into town and sets up the labour supply for Oskar's franchise. Amon has further orders than just keeping order and when Oskar witnesses one of Amon's massacres he begins to grow a conscience. After that he protects his workforce with ever cleverer schemes until they are effectively retarding the German war effort. So far this could be Hogan's Heroes.

But it isn't and for the very good reason that helming this venture is a director whose taste for bad guys is like a junkie's for junk. Scenes of Ralph Fiennes doing the kind of things that every bullied boy in the world daydreams about are the most magnetic in this film. At one point Goeth rises from his sexual bed to enjoyh a cigarette on the balcony and some idle target practice with a hunting rifle. He bends to the ledge and leaves his cigarette there, aims, fires, kills, swings around for another target and as he does, picks up the cigarette with his lower lip and aims again. The woman he's spent the night with complains about the noise of the rifle. He tells her to shut up.

When I saw this scene in the cinema when the film was new it trumped everything that had preceeded it and all that was to follow. It was a perfectly realised expression of male id, a man was doing what he felt like with no one to stop him. This is after the lower key but still remarkable entrance of the character whose first line is one of selfish profanity. However laddish and arch Schindler has been painted he has just been trumped. Thereafter something curious happens...

To give this weight I'll need to inform or remind my reader that Stephen Speilberg declared that he got in touch with his ancestral tradition in the making of this film. Where he had been raised outside of Judaism he now craved to identify with the victims of this atrocity. He declared that after this film he could no longer depict Nazis getting comically dispatched as they were in the Indiana Jones films. I'm not going to doubt his sincerity here.

But why, then, in a film that attempts to be the definitive mass for the victims of genocide, does the audience crave the screen presence of the perpetrators? Goeth is all charisma and depth. Schindler is a cardboard cutout who goes from cynical lines to idealistic ones and still seems like an unfolded mailing box. Liam Neeson does what he can with the role but ends up being playdough for Ben Kingsley's moral centre (admittedly given some interesting twists). But Fiennes' powerhouse performance as Goeth is something Stephen Spielberg cannot prevent himself from presenting: a really tasty villain.

In Jaws we watch a distant beach crawling with insect like humans as the awesome elegance of the shark glides through the water of the foreground. The good guys in that film have to be put through really really gruelling peril for us to identify with them when the great white terror is close by. Same with Amon Goeth.

So what? Doesn't that make him a talented filmmaker with the same quirk as Hitchcock? Yeah, it does. While I don't like his films very much I have to dips my lid to his sheer skill with light and sound. He is a cinemaster. The problem is not that he does it well but that he does it at the expense of his purpose.

Personally, I don't think that this has anything to do with his fealty to his ancestry. I think he just digs bad guys, understands them (deeply) and has a near compulsive need to fill his screens with them. In this case, as in Jaws, he finds a big threatening presence to scare his audience with and runs with it until he has to appease  them with a happy ending. Meantime, we get to walk around the skull of a real live Nazi. Now, if you accept this, doesn't it smack of the kind of movie this was meant not to be? Doesn't this remind you of a cinema aestheic that never gets close to Oscar ceremonies? Isn't this an exploitation film?

Try it. Get your mental machete and bash your way through the big names on the marquee and the state-of-art production values and look at what you are left with: a spayed chiper and a centre of moral gravity (Itzhak Stern) whose film this really deserves to be and above them both a fetishised tyrant whose personal power is as thrilling as it is terrifying. This film should be beside Russ Meyer.

But Russ Meyer might not feel so honoured. What, by the way has happened to Spider Baby in all this? Well, nothing much needs to happen. It is a film whose fantastical introduction (delivered with all the solemnity of an Ed Wood epic) comes right out and tells you it's an exploitation film. It's happy at the drive in or the grindhouse. But there's more: it's also good.

Lon Chaney Jr, having begun his career freed from the shadow of his tyrannical father, coasted through roles in Hollywood until chosen to play the Wolfman in Universal's famous monster movie. He brought a sadness to the role of the man trapped by his destiny which still gives the factory genre film its distinction. Much of his subsequent career until the 60s when Spider Baby was made did little more than reprise this performance. But when Chaney plays Bruno it's as though he has seized the essence of the character and only adds weight throughout the film. That essence is a similar sadness that his job has brought him, to care for and love those who are unable to return either and the sadness in knowing that his charges are doomed. Doomed if left alone and doomed if brought into the light of the world.

Bruno needs neither cruelty nor force to assert his authority but is left bewildered when faced with the venal cynicism of the worldly cousins. As primitive and wanton as his wards are, their violence seems like play to them. The cousins' lack of concern for the pathos of this situation renders them monstrous by comparison. Yes, it's a campy overstated monstrosity but everything finds its balance in this film. If there were Nazis in this movie we probably wouldn't need reminding that they were bad guys.

Those who dislike Spider Baby in my experience dislike the difficulty they have in classifying it. Is it a campy romp, a straight exploitation shocker, a Meyer-like outrage, a satirical comedy, a deceptive horror film, a horror parody...? What? All and none. Whether intentional or not Spider Baby is a remarkable piece that can welcome derisive laughter and provoke thought alike. It should be next to Val Lewton.

So, why even write this post? Well, I can't think of anything more pointless than to provoke Spielberg fans. They walk the earth in armour. And it's not just to be contrary (pointless, again). It's that in three years of sharing treasures from the shadows of the great unbeatable mainstream with whomever would see them, championing the subtle and the small in preference to celebrating the box office triumph, of experiencing the idea beneath the signs of a low budget, of becoming familiar with alternatives to classical narrative (or even just narrative), I still get people who cannot accept alternatives.

There can be no perceptible fault to not knowing the marginal pieces when they are so effectively smothered by the mainstream. Previous posts here have lamented the loss of an active and self-promoting arthouse scene, one that is a visible part of the cultural and social scene. What I and a few others have tried to do recently in this burg is get people back in touch with why cinema is such a valuable art and how variable the approach to completing a film can be. Because the narrative element in mainstream cinema makes it feel native to the form alternatives or even acts of defiance against it are often met with outrage. No, I mean it. Outrage. I've seen regulars to Shadows fit to be tied over this film's anti-narrative or that one's innovative use  of narrative. I've witnessed genuine offence.

I ask such folk if they are equally offended by Jackson Pollock paintings to be met with incredulity yet it's the same proposition that alternative cinema brings. If the Blue Poles is not trying to be Christina's World, aren't you left with dealing with the Blue Poles on its own terms? Put it in context, certainly, but in the end it's the picture before you that you should be responding to. And if you're going to rail against the symptoms of low budgets, or even just snicker at them, be fair and see what's left when you remove the big budgets from the blockbusters. Throw a few million at Spider Baby and you'd have Blue Velvet. Take the fortune away from the budget of Schindler's List and you have Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S.

'Cept I'd probably rather watch Ilsa.


  1. The question we must ask after seeing Shindler's List not why there were people like Schindler, who was just doing his job as a human being recovering consciousness after the horror of the massacre of the ghetto but rather why there were people like Amon Goth. Schindler is not interesting in itself, but the analysis or at least the description of the behavior of henchmen of Amon Goth is a real dilemma.

  2. If Schindler is not interesting in himself then why call it Schindler's List? Many people acquiesced to these acts. Schindler made a stand against them. The book (Schindler's Ark) and film purport to provding an example of a selfish man turned selfless. The film neglects this in favour of fetishising the villain. That was the point of my article. The failure of SL to overcome Speilberg's fascination with the power of Goeth to show Schindler's Goodness, and the celebration of goodness in the character of Max in Spider Baby make Spider Baby a much better film than the more sophisticated production Schindler's List.

  3. Actually, I have not seen Schindler's List, but thanks for your kind and interesting comments. BTW, it's not "Max," it's "Bruno." Wonder if you'll hear from Steve; hope he doesn't get jealous.
    ==Jack Hill

  4. Wow! and Oops (I've fixed that now) and honoured to hear from you Mr Hill. I believe my little ol' blog is as the rings of Saturn to onesuch as Steve and the furthest reaches of his empire but thanks for thinking he might see it ;)