Monday, September 25, 2017

VIFF 2017: The Endless, a "cult" movie

There's a deep anxiety about collectivity in North American popular culture. While it now is common to violate certain tropes of the 1980's and 1990's - women, in particular, can now occupy positions of power or authority in a film without necessarily being psychotic schemers with a grudge against our proptagonist - it remains pretty much the rule of contemporary American cinema that if there's a collective - be it a church group, a New Age religion, a commune, you name it -  which our individual protagonist is drawn into or towards, the collective, however idyllic it may seem initially, however well it meets the needs of some of its members, will inevitably turn out to be a dangerous, demented entity, a small-scale, malignant dystopia which must either be destroyed or fled (unless our protagonists themselves are devoured by it). Films as different as Todd Haynes' Safe and Kevin Smith's Red State show people drawn to collectives, then betrayed, either subtly or overtly. Ti West's excellent The Sacrament entertainingly updates and reimagines the Jonestown massacre for the Vice media generation, luring us in through the eye of two reporters whose initial evaluation of the "cult" is quite positive; among other things, it shows that not much has changed since the Jonestown mass suicide, including our anxiety about collectives. Within genre films in particular, exceptions to the "individual good/ collective bad" rule are few and generally of another, less conservative time. For instance, there's Saul Bass' 1970's classic Phase IV, which pits individualistic, rationalistic scientists against the hive mind of ants, and posits the ants winning, with the possibility of a human-ant merger at the end of the film suggesting a gateway to some sort of psychedelic further evolution; it's a WTF ending - not as yet restored to full glories on any home media I'm aware of - but an unusually pro-collective one, even in the shorter cut of the film. 

More often than not, though, collectivity is either expressed metaphorically (the collective entity of The Thing versus the loner McCready, the whole world versus The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and made monstrous, or else as a whacko fringe group that must be revealed for what it is and destroyed (even if, as in the time-travel "cult" movie The Sound of My Voice, there is some suggestion at the end that the group actually had something to it after all; whoops!). When dealing with actual religious groups, at the very best, you get a film like Ted Kotcheff's under-seen "deprogramming" film Split Image, which suggests that while the cult is indeed problematic, there are very real problems in "the real world" that drive people to it, very real needs that it meets that are not being met by our present way of life. The cult is still dangerous, but daily life outside it isn't so great either. 

All this surely connects with some deep seated American anxiety about socialism - a fear of alternative ways of constructing social practise. You mostly have to either leave America or go to explicitly leftist filmmakers like John Sayles (Matewan) to find post-1970's exceptions to the rule - though these days even praised left-identified filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt are more interested, in films like Night Moves, in showing collectivity breaking down, betraying its principles, falling in on itself and failing. (I admire that film and its complexities but it does surely reveal something about the state of the world and the state of cinema). 

The Endless, at VIFF 2017 - by the makers of much-praised SF/horror movie Spring, which I have not yet seen - begins squarely in this territory. Two brothers, played by filmmakers Justin Benson (left, above) and Aaron Moorhead, venture trepidatiously back to what they have been describing as a "UFO Death Cult" that they fled ten years previous, before what they thought was surely going to be a mass suicide. The more idealistic of the two, Aaron - looking a bit like a young Matthew Modine - is convinced that there was something to life in the group worth recapturing; at the very least - he says, slurping down ramen - they ate healthier food. Why struggle to live an anonymous, unsatisfying, alienated life in a society that doesn't care about them or use what they have, when they could be parts of a group that embraces and understands them and wants their full contribution? Even if they were a cult - wasn't life better there? Why don't we go back? 

Well, his older brother reminds them, there's the whole mass suicide thing (he still thinks that is yet to come - he just had the time frame wrong). And what was that about castration...? But his kid brother persists, and the older brother seems to tacitly admit that he has a point... so we go back to the cult - to the very concept of communal existence, really, which had its currency in the 1960's - to see what there is to be salvaged. 

This is a film worth entering without knowing much more than that; it begins with the anxiety about collectivity and gets considerably weirder (and more philosophical, even kind of reminding you of Nietzsche's Eternal Return at times; if you don't want spoilers and aren't familiar with that concept, don't look it up, okay?). Some things we have been told about the cult are false, some things are apparently true, and there's a whole lot we're completely unprepared for when it happens. There's also a fair bit on the nature of family, and maybe reality itself, but I can't get much deeper into the film without taking things away from you. It's a very enjoyable, interesting film, and I suspect will be one well worth seeing with an audience, as a collective; there are a few surprises up the filmmaker's sleeves that should make other people's reactions quite entertaining. 

If The Crescent was a B- at best, The Endless is an A- or more: well worth your time. (Stay for the credits, too - there's a fantastic female vocal reading of "House of the Rising Sun" that sounds like a very restrained Diamanda Galas; I've yet been able to find out who sings it). 

By the by, The Endless apparently references an earlier collaboration by the filmmakers, 2012's Resolution, but it's a film I have not seen; you can read more on that here, with a more detailed description of The Endless... 

No comments: