day three, an ever-increasing cycle of familial madness, begins with a film that i haven't seen since its original theatrical release, jeremiah chechik's benny & joon (1993).
it's the story of benny and joon pearl, a big-hearted, blue-collar guy and his highly functioning mentally ill sister that he has been caring for on his own, with the help of a succession of housekeepers, since they lost their parents when they were young. into this picture ambles sam, an eccentric young man enamored of cinema in general and the work of buster keaton and charlie chaplin in particular. as benny struggles with the decision to put joon in a group home, sam and joon fall in love, threatening the already unstable household. i think i remembered pretty much exactly what everyone who has seen this remembers - johnny depp's graceful physical comedy as sam and that damned proclaimers song. i realized watching it today that i didn't remember anything else because everything else in it is so whisper light. joon's mental illness is treated so cursorily that we aren't even told what she suffers from. it's hinted that sam's eccentricities are, at least in part, a mechanism with which he deflects attention from his diminshed capacities and/or a learning disability, but the only clue to that are a couple of instances where we view his kindergarten scrawl. everything here is presented in broad strokes and primary colors and follows exactly the arc you think it's going to. there are no surprises here and certainly not the gravity befitting a story about serious mental illness (and it is serious if you are considering even some mild form of institutionalization) and navigating a world that so often leaves behind those dealing with learning disabilities. i know it's a romantic comedy and depp's routines are all about injecting a bit of magic into a complicated world but it's ineffectual when that world is so candy-colored to begin with. even the best part of the film - depp's homages to keaton, chaplin, et al. - feels like it was wasted on almost the entire target audience for the film. if you are prone to this hallmark-style presentation, i am guessing you haven't spent a lot of time digging into the history of silent cinema and what all this probably amounts to for 98% of this movie's fans is just a dreamy guy doing adorable things. chechik's credits prior to this consist primarily of commercials and music videos and upon discovering that i wouldn't exactly say you could have knocked me over with a feather. you could certainly knock this movie over with one, though.
next, we up the ante in the crazy family sweepstakes with mark waters' deep black comedy the house of yes (1997).
after slogging through a couple of genres i have no love for yesterday, it was nice to get this today and revel in its bitterly funny mixture of drawing room drama, home for the holidays disquietude and long day's journey into night staginess - all things i have a fondness for - resulting in an old, dark house of psychosexual dysfunction. quite obviously adapted from wendy macleod's play, it is the story of a tumultuous thanksgiving weekend with the affluent and mad pascal family. eldest brother marty is bringing home his newly betrothed, a donut king waitress from pennsylvania (josh hamilton, parker posey and class issues for the second time in forty-eight hours), to meet the family. arriving just ahead of a hurricane, they find themselves at the center of a storm inside as well, respectively dealing with sexual advances from the brilliant, cutting and unhinged twin sister who is obsessed with the jfk assassination and the pathological, manipulative and inept younger brother. it doesn't take long before the incestuous history between marty and jackie-o, as his twin sister is known, that is hinted at early on is confirmed. their favorite childhood game of acting out the jfk assassination long ago blossomed into a sexual ritual for them which they partially justify by being twins, as, in their minds, it's practically like having sex with yourself. neither marty nor his fiancée exactly put up much of a struggle and the seductions take their toll on the fragile peace and false sense of security that accompanies the eye of every hurricane. in the cold light of day, marty seems to recognize that his relationship with lesly is possibly his last chance to escape the lunacy of his family, but before that can happen jackie-o insists on one last game of assassination. you know this is not going to end well. jackie-o is not going to lose marty even if keeping him at home means buried in the backyard next to daddy. parker posey is the standout here, going from broken and lost to a viper in a pink chanel suit in the blink of a bipolar eye. tori spelling is also well cast in a role that takes full advantage of her normalcy. the movie is at its best when giving posey room to work, fully exercising the malicious glee behind her eyes. it is a sly, wicked and sharp-tongued look behind closed doors and i enjoyed it a great deal. the insular world of virginia's upper crust breeds a lot of skeletons in those genteel closets, including some with webbed feet.
taking the madness that develops among a family in isolation to its terminal point, we close the show with yorgoth lanthimos' beautifully perplexing dogtooth (2009).
this greek import is a difficult one to synopsize and still impart any of what makes it so effective. a husband and wife have raised their children to young adulthood in an environment that resembles a compound more than a home. the children, never named in the film, have obviously lived their entire lives on the grounds. they have received a lifetime of instruction designed to mislead them and keep them in fear of what lies beyond the walls of the family's residence. in their world, ordinary housecats are man-eaters, planes are the size of toys (since their parents plant them in the backyard whenever a jet sounds overhead) and everyday words don't mean what the rest of us know them to mean. it's a hybrid of prison and the most extreme homeschooling environment you have ever seen. it plays almost like science fiction, as if the parents long ago decided to use their offspring to conduct a brutal, radical and lifelong sociological experiment. as often happens in these scenarios (as if there has ever been a scenario quite like this) the introduction of an outsider is the catalyst for a great unraveling. the father, who is the only one who ever leaves the house, brings a woman who works as a security guard, christina, at his factory home to sexually service his son. in the context of his experiment, it is just one more biological function that needs addressing. when the son's performance is unsatisfactory for the security guard she tricks the oldest daughter into performing oral sex on her in trade for a sparkly headband. i use the word trick but that's not entirely accurate. it doesn't convey the mechanical, joyless nature of the transaction. since the daughter has received no moral tuition, the act has little context for her. a lick here is the same as a lick anywhere else and the favor is an even exchange, as far as she is concerned. what begins to undo everything is the day the daughter insists on trading this service for a pair of videotapes in christina's bag. jaws (1975) and rocky (1976) expose her to a world heretofore unknown and a seed of agitated discontent with her situation is planted. the father can't allow christina to come back after this and, wary of the influence of strangers, the parents decide that one of the sisters will act as the son's sexual surrogate. after an episode where the blindfolded son fondles the sisters to determine which he would prefer, the duty falls upon the elder. the ensuing explicit session between the siblings marks the beginning of the end and she soon resorts to knocking her canine tooth out with a dumbbell, as this is what she has been taught is the sign of maturity that will grant her access to the outside world. throughout, the compositions are off-kilter, with heads frequently cropped and disembodied voices speaking from outside the frame. this, combined with the lovely, gauzy cinematography, results in a dreamlike ambiance that makes these episodes more a puzzle than repulsive. it is a luminous piece of provocative, experimental filmmaking quite unlike anything i have ever seen and it raises a good deal more questions than it answers. is it even possible to fault the children for indulging their murderous or libidinous impulses when they have received no tutelage that makes them appreciate the consequences of those actions as everyone else understands them? when does art cross the line from depicting depravity to indulging in it? is morality a dungheap, everyone standing on their own to shout about everyone else's? this is definitely not for everyone, and that is unfortunate, but i feel like i have seen something we very well may look back on as revolutionary.
tomorrow we move back toward more traditional, but no less entertaining, fare as we spend a day exploring the spirit of competition.