Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fantasia Day 17 - The Last Exorcism

Unlike Centurion, I have lots to say about this movie and the seeing of it.

First of all, for reasons I am still trying to get to the bottom of, the producers of this film insisted that no recording devices be allowed in and that all the audience members be wanded and their bags searched. We also had to fill out a release stating that our images may be recorded for promotional materials. Basically a lot of mostly unnecessary hullabaloo that made the movie start almost a half-hour late. Given that this has been one of the most punctual Fantasias yet, and that I got a chance to go up to the DJ booth and meet the very cool, who organized CJLO's participation, the lateness was really not a big problem.

However, the general air of weak officiousness and the indignity of having to stand in line because some retarded producers are still living in the 20th century put me in an angry frame of mind. Black Death and Centurion were both one of many premieres that showed at Fantasia but we didn't have to go through any of this bullshit. Fortunately, the whole thing was done in classic Montreal style, as the guys searching the bags were super friendly and really didn't seem to buy into any of it either. They did a very cursory search, laughed at my 4-pack of beer and said "bon film".

During the introduction, Mitch said that the security was because the film was going to be released in 4 weeks. After the film was over, I wondered if the security was not so much about piracy as about spoilers, as this is one of those movies that probably should be seen not knowing how it is going to turn out. A big part of the enjoyment is watching the story unfold. If that is the main motivation, my criticism is lessened somewhat, as at least it was done in aid of enjoying the movie, rather than just trying to desperately control the data stream.

[an aside on my position on pirating: I don't think it is right and I don't condone, but trying to control how digital entertainment gets distributed today is like trying to control the ocean by running it through pipes. It just can't be done. The MPAA, the recording industry and all the stupid fucks running these huge corporations need to get out of the way and let the younger smarter people who are using the internet to deliver entertainment in intelligent ways that make it easy and fun for consumers to participate and pay take over. Trying to impose control over consumers so you can monopolize a revenue stream that you think you "deserve" but never really earned is fucked and deserves a boot way up the collective ass. At the same time, if there is actually an asshole who would try and pirate a screening from Fantasia (thus damaging its reputation and ability to get future films), that person also deserves a huge boot up the ass as well.]

So I was a bit grumbly and leaning towards not giving The Last Exorcism the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, it did not need that benefit as it grabbed me right from the start and never let go, delivering my favourite film of the festival so far.

Before I get into it, I must also mention the highly entertaining, thematically appropriate and well-made short film that preceded the main event: Lambs by Stephen Huff, who was present. It's about a super-duper straight '50s family who stop on the side of a deserted country road to help some menacing toughs with a flat. The audience loved it and so did I. With this as his calling card to get into the industry, he has a good shot.

The Last Exorcism is filmed documentary style. Actually, the conceit of the film is that it is a documentary about a moderate-thinking Baptist preacher, Cotton Marcus, who wants to expose the practices of fake exorcists. His background was very similar to Marjoe Gortner's, which you should definitely learn about in the great Documentary Marjoe (which won the Oscar for Best Doc in '72 and deservedly). His father is also a preacher, but early on it is established that he has fairly liberal, almost secular views in general and leans towards a very modern, rational approach to his Christianity.

I was loving this movie right from the get-go. There are two things I love. The first is the world of preachers, shysters, self-help gurus and anyone who uses their rhetorical skills and charisma to manipulate audiences. Much to my wife's displeasure, I love watching those Sunday stadium ministries, all those faux-liberal PBS shysters for upper middle class women like Deepak Chopra and Dr. Wayne Dyer (check out his insane website, with his fake-ass asiatic outfit and quotes like "Let your heart be at peace"; he's the best!), infomercials (Tony Robbins for the win!) and even Ginzu knife salesmen at trade shows.

The second thing I love is the when the man of science, firmly rooted in the rational, is confronted with true evil. The late great Peter Cushing, as Van Helsing, was the master of delivering the portrayal of the one who knows that it is real and not to be trifled with. Though not a great movie overall, there is one diamond perfect moment in Dracula A.D. 1972 when Cushing, playing Van Helsing's great-great grandson, a modern-day expert on the occult, is pooh-poohing the vampire rumours detectives are sharing with him concerning some recent murders. That is until one of the detectives mentions that a victim had been drained of blood. With his back to them, looking out the window, you see him hesitate ever so slightly, his expression shift subtly, his eyes narrow and he says, "Two identical marks on her neck, you say?" Oh it's on now, bitches. Man, I still get shivers seeing that. (Check him out here laying the truth down for the cops.)

The other great moment that encapsulate this concept is in the original Exorcist when the younger priest tries to give a psychological analysis to Max Von Sydow, explaining how he has distinguished 27 different voices. Sydow dismisses him curtly, "There is only one."

The Last Exorcism is about both these things and they are delivered beautifully in the first ten minutes. You get to see this young, idealistic preacher who wants to expose charlatanry for the betterment of society (he was particularly motivated by the death of a young boy during an exorcism) head into rural Louisiana and you know that his rational beliefs are going to be put to the test. What's admirable about the film, is that it is done with deliberation and restraint. We are introduced to the family, a widower father, his surly teenage son and his open-eyed, innocent, allegedly possessed daughter. There are a lot of rich themes going on here, including the tensions between fundamentalist Christianity and more moderate, "modern" versions which can then be extended to the ongoing conflict in the U.S. between the red and the blue states. The Last Exorcism is a film that is very much a product of post-Bush America.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The father and the daughter stood out for me particularly, but it is just rock solid all the way around. I'm not going to say anymore because I just think you should see it. I want to discuss it with people who have seen it, because I suspect some people might not have loved it as much as I did. It's a smart, maybe clever film. You want to try and go into it without too many expectations. My one critique (which I shall deliver very obliquely) is that I wish the preacher wasn't quite so rational. As moderate as some Christians may be, if you are delivering a fire and brimstone kind of sermon in Baton Rouge, there is going to be some level of fundamental belief in you. Cotton Marcus never demonstrates any true faith and I think it would have made the film much richer if he had at least shown that underneath his skepticism of the bells and whistles of souther pentecostal Christianity, he still had some profound belief in God and the existence of good and evil.

Go see it in the theatre when it comes out, August 27th.

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