VIDEO ODDITIES 2011 Halloween Special
by john cribbs
For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is tracking down interesting movies I've never heard of based on the ancient art of the "video box." For younger readers a "video" was an analog system used to record sound and images onto a continuous stream of waves; a format which pre-dated dvd, Blu-Ray and HD streaming. You would take a trip to an establishment called a "video store" to rent these items from an actual person and return home with them - the video, not the person - to enjoy at your leisure (you had to bring 'em back, though.) I'm basing my selection on the outrageous boxes these "videos" came packaged in, the kind that helped us decide whether a movie looked like it was worth our time back in the days before the internet started telling us everything there was to know about every film before they've even been released. Then I'm writing about them - simple as that. With the inevitable extinction of the video store it's become more difficult to hunt down some of these more obscure titles...they're becoming harder to find than Bigfoot.
And the obsolescence is almost complete. Netflix didn't even wait for the dust to settle on Blockbuster's grave before taking measures to separate their streaming and mail rental divisions, an obvious move torwards dissolving the dvd service all together. Even though the ploy was met with a joyously, overwhelmingly negative response from customers, it's a small victory in a war whose outcome was determined long ago. Given the chance to make money and spend less, corporations will find another quick route towards the total discontinuation of packaged media, no matter how many International Independent Video Store Days are allegedly observed. The adventurous and social side of home video entertainment has already been unobstructedly annihilated (the social network feature of the site, where you could connect with friends and trade recommendations, was the first thing Netflix jettisoned.) Now they seek to eliminate the cover, the spine...the hard copy of the movie itself. It doesn't feel like evolution, it feels like a bad dream. Hey, speaking of which...
Video Oddities #10: MY BROTHER HAS BAD DREAMS
I could be bounded in a clamshell,
And count myself worthy of that video case,
If I were My Brother Has Bad Dreams.
- paraphrasing of Shakespeare
My Brother Has Bad Dreams begins quite artily, with a simple title card on white cutting to a soft flute and piano arrangement playing over the glistening surface of Tampa's tranquil waters just before dusk. Surfaces, hm'kay? Everything seems calm and pleasant but there's something unsettling going on - a storm brewing behind the clouds. The floodgates open during a fight between bespectacled, orthodontically-challenged Karl and his wheelchair-bound mother in the first scene. While he's been out fishing, she's let a stray cat into the house, apparently indifferent to her son's intense ailurophobia. Karl flips out, grabs a fireplace poker and delivers a series of devastating blows to her skull. His sister Anna returns from the market mid-bludgeoning and begs Karl to stop, pointing out that his taciturn victim is in fact a store dummy that had been propped up in a wheelchair - mother's been dead for years, killed with the very same fireplace poker by our alcoholic father, don't you remember! Anna calms her brother down and puts him to bed, but Karl's nubilous clashing of realities continues through a series of horrible nightmares...
You know how it is with brothers. My kid brother having bad dreams after seeing Predator turned out to be pivotal in me getting my own room for the first time in my life, since I would constantly wake my parents in the middle of the night to complain about him whining (a move that, in retrospect, was probably just an excuse on my part to get the hell out of that room in case there really was a goddamn predator in there.) In other words, my brother's nightmares indirectly altered the dynamic of my family's fragile structure and set me on course to become the solitary, pasty recluse that I am today. Likewise, Karl's bizarre hallucinations of robed demons prancing around his room gleefully tormenting him has become the dubious foundation for life in his parents' house with his sister: he wakes up screaming in a cold sweat, Anna dutifully rushes in to soothe him. He's resentful of her condescending attention, she's irritated by his behavior, but both of them need this nightly occurrence in order to carry on their regular routine; it's the makeup of their small family unit.
This unhealthy relationship is centered around Anna fulfilling various absent roles in her brother's life. She's the doting sister, she's the overbearing mother and, most disturbingly, she's the sole outlet for Karl's sexual fulfillment. Wearing only his underwear and an expression of sickening euphoria that turns his face the color of his severe acne, he sneaks in to watch his sister alone in her bedroom (like Judith Meyers, she has a predilection for sitting in front of the mirror brushing her hair while nude - this film pre-dated Halloween's inciting fratricide by five years.) It's like the family in Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, right down to Karl's inordinate fear of cats. Karl's belief that his mother is still alive, validated by the presence of the mommy mannequin, works along the same lines as the imaginary brother exiled to the other side of the fence: it maintains a mock normalcy that keeps the bizarre living arrangement functioning on its own nebulous terms. Like Lanthimos' phony family member, the mannequin even gets her own spurious, violent death in the opening scene (it mirrors the real mother's death in a way that the Dogtooth's dad fake blood-assisted announcement of "brother's death" portends his vicious reactions to perceived betrayals of the family later in that film.) The difference is that Karl's delusions are his own: Anna insists that their mother is in fact dead, but he won't let himself believe it. Of course she doesn't try to seek professional help for her brother...taking it to that level could only expose her own problems, of which she has many.
The title suggests that Anna is the protagonist. I mean, usually the possessive determiner "my" suggests a character whose perspective we'll be sharing throughout the film: My Bodyguard, My Beautiful Laundrette, My Night at Maud's, My Dinner with Andre, My Life as a Dog, My Neighbor Totoro, My Best Friend's Wedding. But Anna is too unreliable and unstable a character to make a sympathetic lead (I guess My Cousin Vinny and All About My Mother are similar exceptions - any "my" movie to mention a family member is apparently going to be about that person.) She relishes her role as Karl's replacement mother, arrogantly announcing things like "If I don't get dinner started, there'll be no dinner at all." She's unrelenting in her nagging, constantly ordering Karl to wear his glasses, demanding "Are you going to spend all day in bed?" and giving him ultimatums such as "No more make-believe people!", a weird way of saying "stop vicariously murdering our mother by whaling on a store dummy with a fireplace iron" that sounds more like she's criticizing him for having imaginary friends than begging him to face the reality of the situation. By filling in for the missing parent she's completely desexualized herself and become a spinster at 28, although by specifically focusing on Karl rather than Anna the movie hints that it might be by choice, that Karl masturbating in the wide-open doorway as she models before the mirror - she makes little attempt to confront him after he gives himself away - is something she's allowing to happen. Subconscious or otherwise, it's a way for her to feel desired and give Karl the taste of sensualism that his isolated existence requires at the same time. "You're my brother...we're SUPPOSED to be good to one another," she insists, although she fails to realize how much they rely on one another and just how unsound the relationship.
The shell is slowly cracked open with the introduction of a new body into the household, a rugged drifter named Tony who almost runs Karl down with his motorcycle on the beach as Karl is running naked to the water. Although initially jarred by the near-miss, Tony decides he needs a bath so he strips down and joins Karl in the ocean (he carries his own soap around!) and afterwards lets Karl ride around in circles on the bike, laughing and cheering him on the whole time. Quite accidentally he's stepped in to take over Anna's role as all-purpose family member for Karl, first as a friend or even intimate (given that their first meeting culminates with an crude yet casual and weirdly fulfilling skinny-dipping), then as a father figure, beaming proudly and encouraging Karl as he learns to ride the bike. Karl brings him home for dinner and, although Anna sees this intruder as a threat to her role as Karl's surrogate parent, Tony ends up offering - again, not consciously - to be the same thing for Anna. Like many a fast player, he understands the situation in the house and provides an ear for Anna's frustrations and a warm body to press up against. Tony gives Anna an option not previously available to her: a strong male presence to both justify her control over Karl's life and give her the "correct" kind of attention she needs. This is bad news for Karl: he can expect more obnoxious over-mothering from Anna and less of an open bedroom door policy at night with Tony shacking up with his sister. Tony immediately becomes like a stepfather, making demands and assumptions and ordering Karl to move the empty wheelchair out to the garage. To make matters worse, by stepping into the father role, Tony has cast himself as the family member of whom Karl is the most mistrustful, given that his real dad murdered his mother and created his current situation with Anna.
If this all sounds less like a horror film than a Tennessee Williams* play, it's just because I'm psychoanalyizing these characters to death in order to access the movie's strange set-up. I don't want to sound too much like Viggo Mortensen, but there seems to be a lot going on under an artificial surface that can only be partially credited to amateur actors hamming it up in a low budget movie. For instance, in a dinner sequence that's already awkward enough with the bizarre staging of characters (Karl and Tony crammed into the corner on one end of the table and Anna at the head as opposed to one on either side of her - table placement hasn't been this thematically significant since Citizen Kane), the actor playing Tony is clearly fake-eating his food - in one shot he doesn't even have any food on his fork. This wouldn't be so blatant if Karl weren't shoveling chicken into his mouth between lines in a delicious series of "eat beats" that play like this...
"See (eat), Anna watches out for me. Someone has to watch out for me, so Anna does. I can't be treated like an adult in front of my guests. (eat) You see Tony, Anna enjoys looking after me and she spends all her waking hours doing it, too. And as long as she does, she feels secure (eat) knowing I won't harm anyone or get into any trouble." (eat)
At the risk of sounding like an interpret-happy arthouse theater audience member, maybe Tony's a mannequin. Throughout the film, Karl treats his collection of store dummies like real people, having conversations with them and occasionally beating them to death. Although the other two prominent dummies aren't properly introduced, there's a man-mannequin who Tony and Anna discover in Karl's bed after a particularly violent dream and a, pardon the expression, dolled-up female-mannequin Karl keeps hidden in the closet. It's possible that Karl's Calvin-and-Hobbes relationship with his department store window chums has spread to his sister: both are independently desperate for a change in their life and family structure, so rather than discourage Karl's delusional behavior Anna has adapted it herself. I'm just saying it's a possibility. Like the momma-mannequin, Karl tries to create a friend/father from the "Tony" dummy only to be frustrated by Anna, who steals it for her own use (she insists that Tony is just staying for Karl's sake when she's the one who really can't let this possibly-plastic stud go.) It would explain the weird placement of Tony at the dinner table, and the sibling's fighting to gain Tony's approval ("He knows better...and he also owns a bathing suit!" Anna chides Karl after learning of his nude swimming. "So do I," Tony points out. Of course he would, if he models them in a store window!) It fits in with the overall incestuous scheme of the house. Tony shows up and Karl is caught sleeping with a male mannequin. The friendly postman looks like the murderous father and may even be played by the same actor (the video transfer is too dark to tell for sure) and ends up standing - or rather, sitting - in for the mother when his unfortunate decision to rest for a moment in the wheelchair gets him killed by Karl. Karl peeps at Anna, who is sister and mother to him, cooking dinner and watching disapprovingly as he woofs it down ("He eats like that all the time," she confides in Tony.)
* Himself a permanent resident of Florida.
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