ill LYTeracy - Perception, Intent & Cinematic Truth

(Note: this column contains SPOILERS for films that are already out on DVD, so quit yer bitchin’.)

With the recent release of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II on DVD, there has been some renewed interest in my somewhat contrarian take on it. Now, bear in mind that I’m inclined to like a Rob Zombie movie anyway, and I also take the attitude toward the HALLOWEEN franchise that I’d far rather have Zombie doing a redneck take than see yet another tired sequel with Busta Rhymes. But with that said, I found many of the reviews of both the Redneck-O-Ween remake/sequels overly dismissive...particularly the second. If you haven’t read my spoiler-heavy defense, the whole thing is here, but if you don’t want to go through all of that, I’ll give you the basic gist:

In my opinion as a viewer, the entire movie plays out as an unreliable memory from a deranged Laurie who has been institutionalized. The scenes which did not feature her didn’t actually happen, but are her skewed imagining of what she thinks happened.

My colleague and fellow GeekWeek contributor mtgilchrist argued with me that sometimes we see what we want to see in something because we like it, and not necessarily because the director put it there. I responded that even if Zombie had done something so artful, few would have given him any credit anyway.


And then our mutual friend (sorry for all the inside baseball, but there is a point coming) and LAFCA president Brent Simon reviewed the director’s cut on DVD. With the caveat that I have not seen that particular version, Brent’s response was thus: “I'm sorry to say, for my friend Luke, Zombie dismisses the notion that his movie is a paranoid fantasy of any sort. Yes, he says, the film is about Laurie's increasingly tenuous grasp on reality (hence the kiddie version of Michael that she hallucinates at film's end), but in Zombie's mind, it was always his intention to show that Laurie dies, and that that is the closure of the homicidal Myers narrative. The final shots in the movie do not represent an institutionalized flash-forward, but a dying Laurie's attempt to sort through her family scrapbook, and make peace with it.”

Now, in the theatrical cut, I saw nothing whatsoever to indicate that Laurie dies. This is likely a case of the Weinsteins still hoping at that time that Zombie might return for a third installment, then allowing him to reinstitute the death scene when it became clear he had no interest in continuing. But assuming that Laurie is dying, it does still sound as if my theory, with some tweaks, could sort-of work. As in movies like Marc Forster’s STAY, or even the original “dead all along” twist movie CARNIVAL OF SOULS, the entire movie could be the unreliable perceptions of someone as their life flashes before their eyes while dying.

I could just listen to Zombie’s commentary, but I’m not sure I want to. Because if I like and appreciate a movie in a particular way, do I really want the director telling me I am flat-out wrong? Especially a director like Rob Zombie, who has generally shown little patience for introspection?


Another movie I like a lot for similar reasons as H2 is ONE HOUR PHOTO. I believe that in that film, we are also at times seeing things through the skewed perception of Robin Williams’ character, which has earlier been proven unreliable (i.e. we see him break into a house and make use of all its amenities, and only afterward are we shown that he has imagined all of it). But I’ve been told that the audio commentary track does not even mention such a possibility. Maybe I don’t ever want to listen to that track, because I might think less of the movie if nothing this complex was going on at the end (e.g., why do his photos, when developed, depict none of the climactic things we thought he was photographing?).

On the other end of the scale, you have someone like Quentin Tarantino who, while willing to talk incessantly, is determined to keep some things up for grabs. Any time he’s asked what’s in the briefcase in PULP FICTION, or what the title of RESERVOIR DOGS actually means, his general answer has been some variation on, “Whatever you think the right answer is, that’s it.”


Then there’s David Lynch, who draws directly from his subconscious, and in some cases probably could not tell you what his intended meaning is even if he wanted to – but it’s clear he doesn’t want to. Lynch doesn’t do commentaries, and even though there is a long interview with him on the ERASERHEAD disc, little to none of it deals with the actual content and story of the film.

But Lynch also has given us one of the perfect examples of perception versus intent in MULHOLLAND DRIVE, a movie that topped many critics’ best-of-decade lists. MULHOLLAND DRIVE was intended as a TV pilot, designed to pay off over the course of at least one season. When that didn’t happen, Lynch added an additional half-hour or so of ultra-weird and definitely unsafe-for-network-TV material to the pilot to finish it off as a movie. Anyone knowing anything about the process by which the movie came to be would have to concede that it was not originally intended to have the “ending” (one hates to say “third act” in a movie so probably out-of-sequence) that it did.

Most critics, however, who, let’s be honest, are more likely to be generous to David Lynch than Rob Zombie, were determined to find narrative sense in the final product, and the most common explanation I heard was something like this: the entire movie could be the unreliable perceptions of a failed, aspiring actress as her life flashes before her eyes while dying.

Where I have I heard that one before? Oh yeah...CARNIVAL OF SOULS. STAY. And HALLOWEEN II.

So the question before us is this: does it matter what the director intended, if the execution implies something different? A few other morsels of food for thought:

Take STAR WARS: The Original Trilogy. George Lucas, with his claim that the movies were not exactly the way he originally wanted them, went in and added some new CG effects that weren’t possible at the time, plus a re-edit or two. Fans tended to view the changes as neutral at best, and significantly detrimental at worst. Yet Lucas claimed the three were finally what he had always intended.

Lucas’ view brings to mind some of the older monster pics by directors like Roger Corman, that often kept their monster in the shadows, a technique many audiences think is scarier than actually showing the thing (or, uh, THE THING). Yet the reason for this usually was not to inspire the imagination of viewers but rather that the monster looked horribly fake if properly lit. Now that digital effects allow us to show anything onscreen, the monsters rarely remain hidden for long...and I’m betting Corman would have shown his off a lot more had they looked realistic. Point being, sometimes artistic limitations that compromise the director’s vision are in fact for the best. Lucas would look less dense, and receive less hatred, if he’d taken credit for the creative ways he worked around the limits of the ‘80s, rather than digitally erasing them.


And not to name-drop again, but Chris Sivertson, director of the infamous Lindsay Lohan movie I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, is a friend of mine. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that at a certain point, the plot gets completely insane. It confused me at the time, but then I read some of the comments left by fans on IMDB, who had quite intriguing interpretations. I ran them by Chris, and he confirmed that only part of them were true. I think I might have preferred to believe the other parts as well.

Another friend, Lucky McKee, made a horror movie you might have heard of called MAY, a flick with an ending that I thought was one of the best ever. Yet it became clear to me later that most viewers, and possibly even Lucky too, think the details of the ending to guess?...Yup... the unreliable perceptions of a social misfit as her life flashes before her eyes while dying.

I prefer not to think so. It’s way more awesome to have Amy actually be alive.

Now, we can of course take this to absurd extremes. If you are, let’s say, determined to believe that the monolith in 2001 is a giant Hershey bar, I can say with some degree of certainty that you are wrong. However, as I say that, I recall the time that I interviewed infamous director Uwe Boll, and asked him about his propensity for casting name-actors against type, like Burt Reynolds as a medieval English king in IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE. He responded: “If you say that Burt Reynolds gives a bad performance, I say that YOU’RE WRONG. I think it was a good performance, for example.”


Does it matter, then, what the director’s interpretation is? Yes, it does. But there are times when maybe they should keep it to themselves.

(ADDENDUM, 1-31-2010: Lucky responded, on Twitter, RE: the ending of MAY - "Fuck yes it's real. That's why movies are better than life.")

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

More on Geekweek


Sign in to comment with your TypePad, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo or OpenID.