Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns
John Carpenter's freaky Cigarette Burns
is foremost a story about allowing oneself to be consumed by obsession. There's a lot of obsessive behavior in this film, and at the root of it all is the obsession with film itself. Being that the reigning obsession that unites these characters is cinephilia, there's a self-reflexive quality to the film -- a movie about movie-watching -- but it's not in a cutesy or insistent way like the Scream
films. It is a film that understands the peculiar obsessions of the cinephile. Jean-Luc Godard once said, "The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema." If cinema is life, as it is for the characters in this film, is it then also death?
Questions like these are far from the mind of Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) when he travels to the house of one Mr. Ballinger (Udo Kier) at the outset of this story. Kirby owns a failing revival house and is deeply in debt to his late girlfriend's father; to supplement his income, he has become a rare-film finder, a celluloid detective. Ballinger, who collects rare films and related paraphernalia, isn't long for this world by his admission, and he has one last thing he wants before he dies: a print of Le Fin Absolue du Monde
. Kirby thinks that impossibility - the premiere of Monde
saw the audience riot and burn down the theater, taking the print with it. Ballinger says he can prove that there's still an extant print of Monde
somewhere in the world, which he does in a creepy and funny scene, and Kirby agrees to take the job. As he searches for Monde
, he is forced to confront demons from his past; as it turns out, the rumored psychological effects of the cursed film may be true.
Writing about Cigarette Burns
is difficult, precisely because the premise requires a lot of explanation. The title, for instance, comes from the little circles in the right-hand corner of a celluloid print that signal to the projectionist that it's time to change reels (as anyone who's seen Fight Club
remembers). As Kirby gets closer to the mysterious film, he begins to hallucinate these cigarette burns, thus signaling that Monde
is changing his subjective reality. All this is noted in the film, as is every other unusual point in the plot.
This is the film's major weakness: It runs an hour and over half that is expository. The premise that writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan have concocted is so complex that it easily could have breached ninety minutes. There's a lot of talking in this film, and it hinders the momentum. As Kirby goes from place to place and person to person, information is parceled out piecemeal; Kirby (and, by extension, we) learn something new about Monde
from everyone he meets. Getting to that new information, though, often involves sifting through dialogue that only reinforces what we've learned previously. This structuring is necessary (if the first person he met told him everything he needed, there'd be no drama), but it's also graceless.
Fortunately, Carpenter's professionalism and genre expertise keeps Burns
from getting too bogged down in dialogue. The script is talky but canny, with the occasional hard right into violence breaking up the chatter fest, and Carpenter milks these detours for maximum effect. (His sure hand may also be attributed to familiarity, as this bears a passing resemblance to his underrated 1995 feature In the Mouth of Madness
.) The appearance of the cigarette burns keeps the viewer off balance, but not in a stinger 'boo-gotcha' way; rather, the idea that they can show up at any time lends urgency - a feeling that the world as Kirby knows it is coming apart, and he needs to find this print before he's overwhelmed. Reedus is very good in conveying this; Kirby's already a bit of a burnout before he takes on the job of finding Monde
, and Reedus makes sure we understand the gradual deterioration of his remaining mental facilities.
This, then, brings us to the final fifteen minutes, which coincides with the discovery of the print and Reedus's decision to watch Monde
. This is where patience with the more uneven aspects of Burns
pays off - with the stage properly set, Carpenter and company uncork some truly unnerving images.
Late in the film, it's insinuated that the power within Monde
is of a nature beyond the sphere of man and that the title (translated, it means The Absolute End of the World
) could be more significant than just words on a poster. So by the time it's screened, the viewer has been prepared for all Hell to break loose. Does it ever. It's not the film that's important - what we see of it is actually kind of silly, and I think it was a bad idea to put a concrete face on something whose effect is so individualized. That effect, though, is what leads to the disquieting aspects of the ending.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is about obsession, cinematic and otherwise. Film going is a subjective experience - what you see in a film might not be there for me and vice versa. The most fascinating aspect of Cigarette Burns
is the effect Le Fin Absolue du Monde
has on the characters and how that comes out in different ways. People die in some fucked-up ways in this film, and it's all related to their particular obsessions (the filmic obsession feeds into other obsessions). The most effective of these deaths is the scene where a character decides to completely give himself over to the cause of art in a gruesome and inventive way. The characters in Cigarette Burns
, because of their obsessive natures, cannot resist looking into the mouth of Hell, and for seeing the unseeable, they are each brought to their own demise. It's the end of the world as they know it.
Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's film Cavite
opens and closes with the same shot, and that's part of the film's problem. The circular structuring makes sense from a plotting standpoint, as well as serving as a subtle reinforcement of the run-around the film's protagonist gets. Ending on that particular image, though, sends some strange mixed messages. I'd like to think that Cavite
isn't saying what I think it's saying, but I remain unsure.
This thematic dissonance is a shame, too, because in terms of technical matters, Cavite
is a most impressive display of no-budget ingenuity. Dela Llana and Gamazon clearly didn't have a lot of money with which to work, so they compensated by crafting a bare-bones scenario requiring nothing more than a handheld video camera, a cellular phone and a plane ticket to the Philippines. In what was probably a further attempt at cost-cutting, Gamazon also plays Adam, the holder of that plane ticket. He goes to the Philippines for reasons which, at the outset, are unspecified. When he lands, his cellphone rings. On the other end is an unfriendly voice telling him that his wife and sister have been kidnapped and if Adam wants no harm to come to them, he'd better start following orders right fucking now.
It's a well-worn premise (more than one review has compared this film to Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth
); what is striking about the directors' approach is the aggressive minimalism of the craftsmanship. Save for one sequence (which I'll touch upon later), Adam is in every shot. The camera follows him around like it's attached to him. It's 80 minutes of Adam hustling from place to place, performing tasks and getting berated by the mystery caller, and that's about all it is. Thrillers don't get more pared down than this: There's a guy whose family is in danger, and he's trying to do whatever he can to save them... and that is all we see.
There are no subplots, digressions or interruptions, which means there's nothing to rupture the immediacy of the situation. Dela Llana and Gamazon pump this immediacy for all it's worth - Cavite
has a grimy, sweaty tension that gets sustained through the increasingly frantic performance of Gamazon (very good as a guy caught up in something he doesn't understand) and the violent intimacy of the videography. I'm not generally a fan of DV photography, but it can be effective under certain circumstances. This film benfits from one of those circumstances; the approach to the story demands the use of handheld photography for artistic reasons, not just financial ones.
What's more, the filmmakers are consistently creative in thinking up ways around their financial shortcomings. The most notable of these is a long sequence which finds Adam walking into a bank and closing an account to get money. When Adam enters the bank, the camera breaks off from him and instead follows a young boy as he goes and buys food from McDonald's. It's an audacious move - the visuals are contrasted with the continuing stream of instruction and insult that Adam hears, suggesting that the country of the Philippines has enough problems of its own (the boy, a recurring character, is clearly impoverished) and is thus is indifferent to Adam's plight. The sequence was likely borne from necessity (I'd wager that Dela Llana and Gamazon weren't able to get a permit to film inside the bank), but it ends up being the high point of the film and a reminder of the squalor that Adam has tried to leave behind himself.
So it's a very well-made thriller. But to what purpose has it been made? It's here that I run aground, because as confident as Dela Llana and Gamazon are as craftsmen, their storytelling is muddled and troubling. To fully explain my objections to the film's possible message would involve giving away the entire plot, but I suppose it hinges on whether or not the first shot is a flash-forward. If it isn't, then maybe can skate by as a portrait of a guy who makes unthinkable sacrifices to protect that which he loves. But if it is (and I suspect it is), that brings up questions of intent which Cavite
is unequipped to answer.
Adam is a native Filipino and a Muslim, but the outset of the film makes it clear that he's been Westernized. The mystery caller makes note of this and chastises Adam whenever possible (for instance, taking him to task for speaking English even though he is fluent in Tagalog). As Adam runs from place to place on the directions of the caller, it becomes clear he's taking a tour of the poorer sections of Manila and its outlying areas. The caller, it seems, is trying to get him to understand the conditions that the downtrodden must suffer in this country, but does that explain or justify Adam's ultimate destination?
What's more, after Adam does what must be done in order to save his family, the caller praises him for getting back his heritage. Adam, at the time, is understandably shell-shocked. The last scenes recall the opening scenes, with Adam going about his lonely life in an attempt to make it as an immigrant in America. Except... there's that closing shot. If my suspicions are correct and the opening shot is a flash-forward to the closing shot, then Dela Llana and Gamazon presumably agree with the caller and believe that Adam's ordeal, though horrific, has had the benefit of bringing him back to his roots. This is an insane and foolhardy position to take.
There's other problems, as well; like most paranoia thrillers, believability is secondary to tension. (Is the whole Filipino population united against Adam or what?) There's also a certain repetitiveness to Adam's journey; there's only so many slums and squatter camps through which one can follow a man before shouting, "Message received, get on with the film!" These, though, are acceptable deficiencies; the epilogue problems are fatal. The question remains, does this film endorse or disown what it shows? The last shot implies that it does the former, as does a late monologue from Adam's girlfriend that is astonishing in its ham-handed idiocy. Dela Llana and Gamazon are clearly filmmakers to watch, but their worldview troubles me. The attempt at humanizing a difficult issue is appreciated, but where are we left? I wish I knew.