THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
After reading Chris Funderburg's series The Whole History of My Life on this website numerous times, I was inspired to write about the films that I too "really really love." I have a lot of favorite movies. Most of those movies have taught me a lot about cinema. But very few of them have actually touched me on a personal level and made me take a step back and rethink or question things about my life. It's hard to find films that cater to a large, left-handed, architectural-drafting, historically black college-graduating, young black man with diabetes who received a kidney from his uncle. I don't like or relate to most modern films that concern black people. Kidney disease and architecture are seldom explored on the big screen, and there hasn't been an accurate portrayal of a historically black college in over two decades.
But every few years or so I revisit or discover an exceptional film that truly challenges me and forces me to reflect on my own life...
<< part one: THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT >>
Didn't you just watch this the other night? - Sharon Marazzo (my fiancée)
I know it's customary to start these things off with an excerpt from the film, but quite frankly there isn't much dialogue in Fear X and that quote, which I've heard quite a few times from the future Mrs. Pinn, speaks volumes about my love for this underrated work of art more than any movie quote ever could. Every cinephile has that one definitive movie they love unconditionally even though it's hated by everyone else. Fear X is pretty much that movie for me.*
For the last couple of years, Nicolas Winding Refn has been one of the most talked about filmmakers, mostly due to Drive and Bronson. Critics and so-called Refn fans often mistakenly credit Bronson as his first English language film, not realizing that five years prior to that he directed John Turturro and James Remar in their best performances since Barton Fink and 48 Hours, respectively, in Fear X - a neo noir/murder mystery/existential thriller that's considered a failure by most people including Refn himself. In the nine years since I discovered this film, I've crossed paths with only three other people who share my same love for it, and every time it's the same bug-eyed, surprised response: "You love that movie?! Me too!" Do four people count as a cult following? There used to be five of us who shared the same love for Fear X, but that number dropped fairly quickly. A couple of years ago I remember Stu, a sometime contributor to the 'smoke, posting on Facebook about how he'd just watched Fear X and how great he thought it was. This made me quite happy because he's a guy whose opinion I respect very much when it comes to cinema. I felt more validated in my love for Refn's forgotten film when I learned that he was also a fan. But then a few months later I asked Stu if he still felt the same way about it and to my disappointment he'd soured on the film a little.
Am I crazy for loving something so universally hated? I've been known to go against the grain from time to time just to be a dick, but I swear my love for Fear X is legitimate.
There's plenty of Dunes and Run Ronnie Runs out there. Lots of talented filmmakers create something they later regret or aren't proud of, but at least David Lynch and the team of Cross & Odenkirk recognize their failures. They even joke about them from time to time and there's still a nice sized cult audience for Dune (not so much for Run Ronnie Run). Nicholas Winding Refn doesn't even like to recognize Fear X's existence. This summer I attended a Q & A with Refn** and he literally groaned and rolled his eyes at me when I asked him a question about Fear X. This kind of irritated me, so I waited for him after the Q & A to let him know that there was at least one fan of his film (me) and that he shouldn't downplay it so much. Nicolas probably thought I was some nutty movie fanatic so he gave me a genuine "thank you," shook my hand and quickly went on his way to avoid a debate.
Look, I get it on some level - making Fear X was a disastrous experience for the young Danish director.
It's a film that haunts me in a way. It was a financial failure. It was too expensive for the kind of distribution that a film like that can get. - Nicolas Winding Refn
Fear X put Nicolas Winding Refn in the hole so deep that he had to make two more Pusher films, something he didn't want to do, in order to get out of debt.*** So I understand not wanting to talk about something that's generally considered a failure. But when you think about it, had Refn not made Fear X, he wouldn't have made the Pusher sequels, which led to him making Bronson, which is ultimately what got him the opportunity to make Drive which, as we all know, was a mini pop-culture phenomenon and one of his proudest moments as a filmmaker to date. He can try to downplay his own movie all he wants, but everything he's made since 2003 is rooted in the style of Fear X in some fashion. The early cinema of Nicholas Winding Refn (Pusher and Breeder) was low budget, grainy and handheld. Some have even credited his work as the genesis of the Dogma movement in Denmark, which might explain the true nature of his ongoing beef with fellow Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, who's often given credit as Dogma's co-creator along with Thomas Vinterberg.****
The whole Dogma concept was inspired by Pusher even though they [Lars Von Trier & Thomas Vinterberg] will never admit it... - Mads Mikkelsen
After Fear X, we saw the start of that more glossy, polished, Kubrick/Mann-influenced look that's associated with Refn's work today. The long pauses, awkward moments of silence and stylish hallway shots found in Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives can be traced right back to Fear X. The droning music in Valhalla Rising is reminiscent of Fear X's score, courtesy of Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm, and Refn's fascination with the color red began with Fear X too. With the exception of Pusher 2 and 3, which he was essentially forced to make, he has yet to return to his original Dogma-esque style of filmmaking.
I know this is starting to look more like a "Rarely Recommend" entry, but I assure you that Fear X had a profound impact on me. My connection with this film goes a lot deeper than simply watching it excessively. It's just difficult to not speak defensively about it because it's taken so much abuse over the years. This is one of the true bastard films of cinema. It's like that embarrassing, deformed child with a heart of gold that's locked away in Nicolas Winding Refn's attic while his more pretty and popular offspring - Drive, Pusher and Bronson - get all the love and attention out in the open. And do you think it's any coincidence that the popular films like star more heart-throbby actors like Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy while Fear X stars...John Turturro? The hatred and/or neglect that Fear X gets really hurts me because this is a film that truly touches my soul every time I watch it. I'm sorry but there's really no other way to express how I feel about this forgotten gem without sounding a little corny. It's one of the few films in existence that's choked me up and I don't even know why because there's no tear -jerking moments or traditionally sad scenes.
Say what you want about Nicolas Winding Refn - that he's pretentious, he's arrogant, he's obsessed with violence, he's more concerned with style than he is with telling a good story or getting good performances out of his actors, that he only makes movies for himself to jerk off too later, he's a Danish carbon copy of Tarantino, etc. There's legitimate arguments for all those complaints, but at least his work pays homage and branches off to cinema outside of the obvious sources like Godard and Scorsese. I admit that I usually discover things backwards when it comes to cinema, but as long as you eventually find the original source of inspiration, it shouldn't matter what movie it is that points you in the right direction. It was David Gordon Green that led me to Killer of Sheep and the cinema of Terrence Malick. It was reading about Harmony Korine on Euro-friendly film websites in the late 90's/early 00's where I came to know John Cassavetes.***** And I knew about Radio Raheem's love/hate four finger rings long before I knew who Robert Mitchum was or saw Night of the Hunter, but I eventually made the connection.
Much like how Nenette & Boni was my window into the cinema of Denis, Jarmusch, Bresson and Wenders, Fear X was my window into the world of Tarkovsky and Von Trier. It also got me to really understand the influence that Stanley Kubrick has had on some of the films of my generation. Kubrick's influence is all over Fear X: the bold colors, the polarizing hallway shots, droning noises and the presence of an unknown creepy threat are right out of The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. There's even a couple of scenes in Fear X where Turturro is visited by the ghost of his dead wife (I know that sounds painfully corny but those scenes aren't as bad as they sound) which might remind you of the twins in The Shining.
Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors people sometimes blindly praise without fully knowing why. Sure he's a master of cinema whether you like his work or not, but at least know why you're giving the man praise. Sometimes people are so transparent in their lil' film discussions when his name comes up. These days whenever I hear someone speak on how great Kubrick is, I can tell they're just repeating something they heard someone else say. Paying attention to the first half of Full Metal Jacket, watching Clockwork Orange 100 times and knowing that the movie Barry Lyndon exists doesn't make you a Stanley Kubrick aficionado. I used to be like that in my late teens/very early 20's, but Fear X genuinely made me go back and re-watch/study the cinema of Kubrick to gain a better understanding of his work. And it was in my newfound understanding of Kubrick that although he's one of the greats, not every single thing he does pre-Eyes Wide Shut deserves the blind praise that it often gets.
Fear X is full of movie references outside of just Kubrick tho. Take Turturro's name in the film, "Harry Cain." This is clearly a combination of two names used by Orson Welles in two different films that had to have influenced Refn. Fear X is partially about a man trying to find someone who doesn't want to be found, almost like the elusive "Harry Lime" character played by Welles in The Third Man. The film also opens with a beautiful sequence that incorporates snow in a way that's reminiscent of that iconic snow globe shot in Citizen Kane. True the names are spelled differently (Kane vs. Cain), but they're still pronounced the same.
One might even be subconsciously be reminded of Barton Fink as Fear X also features a paranoid John Turturro spending a lot of time by himself in a dark motel room.
Fear X made my appetite for movie comparisons and borrowed imagery grow to what it's become today. Just go to my own site for further examples of this. You could say it helped to shape the format of PINNLAND EMPIRE.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
* I've written about Fear X on PINNLAND EMPIRE on a multiple occasions.
** This inspired Funderberg's piece on meeting famous celebrities.
*** The documentary Gambler chronicles Nicolas Winding Refn's post-Fear X heartache and financial setbacks.
**** Nicolas Refn's father also edited some of Lars Von Trier's films, so their history is fairly deep.
***** Once I became familiar with Cassavetes in college, I realized that I'd seen Gloria and Rosemary's Baby a million times as a kid but had no idea who John Cassavetes was at the time.
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