Elvis

Fearflix 6

Trolljegeren (Trollhunter)

Norway 2010

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Back in the dismal seventies the swamp rocker Tony Joe White recorded a song called Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll. He had the belief that rock and roll had the power to heal the rift between humans and trolls. In the song the troll shared guitar riffs rather than rifts.

Like Tony Joe White, the filmmakers who produced Trolljegeren had their tongues in their cheeks. The final credit in Trolljegeren informs the audience that no trolls were harmed in the making of the film. The tongues of Norwegian filmmakers must rest on ice-cold dentures. There is a lot of snow in Trolljegeren, and some fabulous scenery. Most of the humour is deadpan, and will be missed by many not from Norway. Not all of it registered with me but I was able to enjoy watching actors not only explain how they maintain a natural habitat but also describe the behaviour of the trolls that exist in Norway. The country is blessed with performers who know how to underact and portray the dull and responsible. Polite self-effacement defines the Cohen movie Fargo, and Scandinavia is where it originated.

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Despite the difference in cinematic style there are a few nods towards Hollywood Westerns. The action of the hunt, though, is not an end in itself as it is for Western heroes. Hans the troll hunter is not excited by action and discoveries. He is a Civil Servant who complains about the lack of paid overtime and inadequate pension provision. Hans is on the verge of resignation. When he is attacked by a troll, he blames the job rather than the troll. Part of the fun for the audience is watching the Scandinavian equivalent of John Wayne cope with the bureaucracy of a social democracy.

The trolls exist as a metaphor for the plight of indigenous natives. The comparison with Native Americans is not sidestepped. The troll hunter destroys those trolls who leave the reservation and inflict damage on people and property. Pylons are used to provide the borders of the troll reservation. The trolls are a threat to life, livelihood, social order and the tourist myth of the wilderness. Humanity has to defend itself but Hans is haunted by a massacre of trolls. He witnessed and remembers the murder of pregnant females and children.

The trolls are pagans and savages outside Western civilisation. They have a taste for Christian blood. Hans tempts the trolls to follow him by playing a version of What A Friend We Have In Jesus. If the record is a typical example of Norwegian religious music, American gospel has nothing to fear. The Christian cameraman in the film crew that follows Hans is replaced by a Muslim camerawoman. Apart from improving health and safety this permits a subtle effect. The original cameraman knows the rest of the crew, and his camera is steady and focussed. The camerawoman is curious, and her camera roams and discovers.

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Trolljegeren follows the format of the Blair Witch Project, a group of adolescents making a film. Here, though, the adolescents are film students and have half-decent equipment. The eyes of the viewer are not obliged to suffer. The film mixes the chaos with the deliberate, not only fuzzy night scenes but stunning snow vistas that will encourage some viewers to book a holiday in Norway. When the hunted cameraman is obliged to fumble, there is a satisfaction in watching the skilled pretending to be amateurish. As a Jordanaire once said of the Elvis Presley recording of Love Me Tender, ‘the bad notes make it art.’

The film has plenty of style and humour but it is, like most horror movies, thematic. The trolls, troll hunter and film crew are all outsiders. The trolls like to drink Christian blood. For the troll hunter and film crew the Christian is a risk to their security. The troll hunter and film crew deny God and have contempt for Finn the bureaucrat who represents authority and whose objective is to conceal the existence of the trolls from the Norwegians.

‘His job is to manage people,’ says Hans.

Finn has a name that challenges Norwegian authenticity and he uses Polish immigrants to disguise the destruction caused by the trolls. They leave dead bears as fake suspects. These scenes are comic. The Polish workers are insensitive to the pretence of maintaining Scandinavian authenticity. The bear they bring after an incident has dubious antecedence, and the Poles use a van that advertises decorating services. These bureaucrats and hustlers are shabby and unprincipled. Finn is importing East European corruption, maligning the landscape and denying the heroic alternative of the troll hunter.

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Hans cooperates with the film crew despite the warning from Finn that he will lose his job   Hans is disillusioned with the conditions, operational obstacles and the inevitable lack of recognition for his efforts and expertise. In the case of Hans this is more serious than normal because he is not supposed to exist.

The relationship of the hunter to the hunted defines the film. Hans hunts trolls but is hunted by the film crew. Without the hunted the hunter is unable to use his skills and strength, to be a hunter. In the same way the film crew needs Hans to be filmmakers. They do not acquire the skills of Hans but they do become intrepid like him. There is a hint at the end of the film that the members of the crew have lost their adolescence. The final scene has a surprise ending that indicates events that will not be recorded by the film crew.   We do, though, observe the film students walking in a troll inhabited wilderness and being relaxed. They have learnt how to operate their equipment and manage their curiosity in difficult situations.

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The film contains four impressive set pieces. All these encounters with the trolls contain surprises. Each confrontation requires bravery and defiance from Hans but also method and experience.  At the beginning the leader of the film crew is delighted by the discoveries and he sneers at what he sees, the giant syringe and protective uniform used by the troll hunter. In the final confrontation the fairy tale escapism of the troll that nourished the people in the film crew as children has no relevance. The fairy tale exists to give us faith in ourselves. Living without this naive faith requires the crew to exist as modern adults. Taking the director to a hospital away from the wilderness, and surviving a life, is all that is important to them. At the end of the film both the film crew and the troll hunter lose their naivety. There is a price to be paid for realistic understanding.

The beginning of Trolljegeren is dominated by film of the crew hunting Hans. The director talks about Hans as if he is a unique specimen. The crew follow him on to a ferry, and Hans behaves like typical prey, suspicious, withdrawn and then aggressive. The similarities between the troll hunter and the film crew are not just inevitable but stressed. Both Hans and the crew hunt and are hunted, both are outsiders, both are confused by the reality they see, both have jobs that make them nervous and stealthy, both enjoy being at the centre of the drama and both will only survive the trolls if they become intrepid and know how to use their ‘shooting’ equipment. How they will cope with bureaucrats and tourists who want a pristine wilderness that excludes trolls, monsters and hunters is the final challenge. When the film ends, the audience is not hopeful.

The Norwegian landscape dominates the film and is similar to the Highlands of Scotland, mountainous and wet. The requirement for the troll hunter and the film crew to meet the mark, to face a wilderness that is dangerous, is rooted in the values of mountaineers. Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is also haunted by the same obligation. Knausgaard writes about whether he is a satisfactory husband, father, son, friend, male and lover. And if that is not enough to worry him, he explores his fears in half a dozen novels that in length equal the output of Proust. The task of writing epic prose is another way for Knausgaard to reach the required mark.

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A hostile landscape allows the writers and filmmakers of Norway to insist that the physical environment is important in understanding the scale and scope of humans. This is where we succeed or fail to leave our mark. The landscape, though, also needs to be understood. The film makes fun not only of the bureaucrats who want to remake the wilderness as an acceptable environment but the tourists who forfeit their authenticity through outdoor consumerism and sightseeing. The troll does not exist, of course, but Trolljegeren should convince the viewer that if the wilderness has a landowner, it would be a monster beyond human comprehension. And if belief in monsters is beyond our imagination then Trolljegeren is a reminder that the landscape will never be tamed. We experience its delights and are sometimes surprised by its dangers but there is a lot of wilderness, and our footsteps are more scarce than we realise. Most of it remains secret.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.

 

 

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Stagecoach To Somewhere – Western Cinema – Flaming Star

 

‘They take a man for what he ought to be, not what he is.’

Sam ‘Pa’ Burton uses these words to console his confused half-breed son, Pacer.  The suggestion is that we should hope for a world where we can all be accepted for our difference and otherness.  The hope defines American liberalism quite well.  The flaw in human nature is not eccentricity but intolerance.  The British equivalent is ‘Live and let live’. There is a difference in meaning, which is important. Americans emphasise the need of the individual and they leave space for ambition. The British are fatalistic.

‘Things can get bad round here,’ says Dred Pierce when he insists that the Burton family show total loyalty to the cause of the white townsfolk.

In this initial encounter Dred is calm and appears to be reasonable yet ‘Things can get bad round here,’ sounds like a UKIP MP talking about what will happen if more immigrants are allowed into Britain.  UKIP and Dred understand that nothing justifies the reactionary more than fear of the future.

Before the critics of Cahiers Du Cinema discovered that Don Siegel was a great director the Western, Flaming Flaming Star posterStar, was dismissed as a B Movie reduced by the presence of Elvis Presley as the half-breed Pacer Burton.   Since then the movie has occasionally featured in lists of the top 10 Westerns of all time.   The movie is not perfect.  Either Chief Buffalo Horn is a rampant exhibitionist or someone has a strange idea of authentic Native American speech.  ‘I will return when the sun has killed the stars,’ and the like soon become tedious.  Oddly, when Buffalo Horn discusses quietly with Pacer the possibility of the half-breed becoming a Kiowa warrior the chief speaks with impressive dignity.

Like the dialogue of Buffalo Horn, the acting in the film is uneven.  The normally reliable Richard Jaeckel disappoints in the confrontation at the store in the town although his subsequent appearance in Baywatch much later is probably nothing other than coincidence.   Surprisingly, Elvis is fine in a role originally intended for Marlon Brando.   When Elvis has to explain to his brother Clint why he is returning to fight the Kiowa and face probable death he is not helped by a poor line of dialogue.  Brando would have added something and made the line believable.  But it is difficult elsewhere in the film to imagine Brando as Pacer, and this is because Elvis soon becomes the troubled half-breed, a man who has strength and potential but is seriously weakened by a faith in violence although ultimately his violence is necessary to prevent war between the whites and the Kiowa.

Dolores Del Rio and John McIntyre are also persuasive as two characters that have enough independence and strength to challenge their communities and cross the racial divide.   At the beginning of the film Elvis sings a song at the birthday party of his brother.  If the inclusion of a song is a commercial compromise, the scene has meaning because we realise that although the whites like the music Pacer plays they do not speak to the musician.  He is a useful presence but invisible.  During the celebration Pacer only communicates with his mother, and this can be spotted in their brief exclusive smiles. The rest is faked performance for an audience.  Elvis had his reasons to make the scene work for him but Del Rio performs like a woman who understands the benefits of intimacy and the burden caused by strangers.

Don Siegel

Don Siegel

Nor should we forget that Siegel is also a fine technician.  As he does in the underrated Hound Dog Man (nothing to do with Elvis) he uses widescreen to capture rural space and simple existence.  The opening credits feature Pacer and Clint riding home.  The journey is undertaken in the ‘golden hour’ and looks marvellous.   The moment when the camera zooms in on the riders and we suddenly hear clearly the sound of the horses’ hooves is a fine example of the contribution of the Foley operator.

The movie succeeds, though, because it has seriousness in its bones and a liberalism that refuses to compromise a brutal misanthropic examination of the human race or, at least, humans tainted by hierarchy.  When Pacer and his brother Clint kidnap the town doctor to attend their injured mother, Pacer takes the daughter of the doctor as a temporary hostage.  The ruse succeeds because the young girl is free of prejudice and regards Pacer as an innocent friend.  We also have a glimpse of human compassion at the burial of Neddy Burton, the Native American mother of Pacer.  Doc may have been recruited as an unwilling participant but he is affected by the death of another human being.  Elsewhere, though, in the movie, the analysis is grim.  Neddy dies because of a gunshot from a crazed white man injured in an attack by the Kiowa.  Once begun violence is exponential, thoughtless and random.  Flaming Star even rejects the familiar notion that love offers redemption and helps us transcend death.   The death of Neddy Burton is theatrical rather than realistic but it is theatre with real poetry.  Neddy heads in to the empty landscape, wandering through wind-strewn sagebrush, to seek the ‘flaming star of death’.   Not only does her search evoke the will of fate but it also presents a surprising view of death and grief.  Here the end is a personal even selfish impulse that has to be gratified, a final hunger that abandons lovers who, left behind, realise how alone and deluded they have been about their own existence.   If individuals are compelled to be remote because of the physical need for death, no wonder they struggle to survive alongside communities that have a different way of life.

Apart from the theatrical there is little that is unexplained in Flaming Star but there is an odd moment as Pacer

Elvis on the set of Flaming Star

Elvis on the set of Flaming Star

and Neddy enter the Kiowa camp.  A young Kiowa woman turns her back immediately at the sight of Neddy and Pacer.  We do not know if she is reacting to a young man she finds attractive or detests the family for being outside the community.

Don Siegel had a career that mixed liberal and conservative statements.  Pauline Kael described his most successful film, Dirty Harry, asmedieval fascism’His other great work Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was hailed as an indictment of McCarthyism but it could be interpreted as the complete opposite.   Like Elvis, he confuses people, especially Europeans, but he should be regarded, again like Elvis, as a pre-Vietnam American liberal.   Rod Serling, who created the incomparable Twilight Zone, is another impressive example.   These men were pro-civil rights and opposed to the Vietnam War but they were also alienated by the anti-American radicalism that followed.  Serling combined misanthropic distrust with a liberal will inspired by a faith in America and capitalism.   In The Twilight Zone his crude caricatures of Kruschev and Castro are now embarrassing but they help us make sense of him and men like Siegel and Presley.   They have hope despite their knowledge of human failure.  If humans are averse to rational thought and even the best of them too easily seduced by violence, the Burton family, despite their tragedy, remind us of rugged individuals and they offer hope of a virtuous future shaped by American idealism and what makes the nation exceptional.   Elvis is required to articulate this ambition at the end of the film.  Not easy from the back of a less than interested horse.  But, to his credit, the Hillbilly Cat delivers.   Since then we have had neo-conservatism and the poor have become poorer and academics have been recruited to justify the poverty amongst minorities.   More than ever we are taking men for what they ought to be and not what they are.

 

If you want to read more about American culture click here.