Sunday, April 02, 2006

John Carpenter's CIGARETTE BURNS

With age and experience comes regret. There is no sadder moment in life than realizing you’ve made a destructive mistake for which you can never atone. Loss, regret, self-disgust and the knowledge of your own damned state are the cruel underpinnings of John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episode CIGARETTE BURNS. Every character we meet in this story has the look of someone who knows they are already doomed.

As the film begins we see that theater owner/film procurer Kirby Sweetman is not a happy person. A distant man with an air of melancholy he is unkempt and disheveled, looking like the unmade bed he seems to have just rolled out of. Asked by a very rich collector find a print of a supposedly destroyed film he jumps at the job. Not only is he curious about the legendary movie (titled LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE or The Absolute End of the World) but the fee he has solicited will get him out of debt. And there lies the heart of Kirby’s personal Hell. Wracked by guilt over his past he appears to be holding onto life only out of habit. His monetary debt is to his father-in-law Mr. Meyers, a man who holds no love for Kirby since the suicide of his daughter Annie. But Kirby’s real debt is to his dead love. As the story progresses we learn that his promises to her, to ‘save’ her from her destructive tendencies are a responsibility he ultimately failed. The amazing Udo Kier plays the rich collector Ballinger and states plainly that he knows he’ll spend eternity in Hell but hopes the film will show him a glimpse of Heaven before he is dragged down. “You don’t make as much money as I have and not bury a few bodies.” Kirby seems to be running half-heartedly from his past, wanting to escape but knowing he should accept some form of punishment. Meyers has been ripped apart by the loss of his child, a loss he obviously feels to his core only wanting to lash out at Kirby to salve his own hurt. Damaged, conflicted, guilt-ridden and ultimately hopeless these people stagger toward their fate with the same sad determination Annie showed with the razor in her bath of warm water. As Kirby gets closer to finding the film his reality starts to come unraveled and his quest appears to be doomed even if he successfully finds the film.

The story of CIGARETTE BURNS is very similar to the novels FLICKER by Theodore Rozack and THROAT SPROCKETS by Tim Lucas and suffers from the same problem both of those books had. There is simply no way to concoct an ending that will equal the horror built up getting there. Indeed on my first viewing of the film I felt that it was very good even if the slightly disappointing ending hampered it overall. But a strange thing happened. For the next week I could not get the film out of my head. I kept coming back to it in quiet moments at work, thinking about it right before I drifted off to sleep and replaying scenes mentally as if I was looking for something hidden I had somehow missed. So it was with much anticipation that I sat down for my second viewing. As the credits rolled at the end of the hour I felt like I had been punched in the chest. I was weeping and I had experienced a revelation. This was brilliant! This film speaks to me in many ways but its anguished statement about grief and loss are most devastating. Death and guilt have been common themes in horror tales since time began and I've watched or read thousands but rarely have I been so effected by such a bleak story. I could see my own pain in Kirby, Meyers and even Ballinger as I realized that each of these men was searching for release. Release from guilt, loneliness, shame and even the sad pain of the survivor. These are deep, harsh emotions that I think none of these men could articulate even to themselves. Each acts in his own way to live with his sins employing violence, obsession or drugs to cope or hide. When finally LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE unspools before them its horrific central action forces them to confront their own dark hearts. It’s clear to me that younger viewers might not be as stirred by this story’s dark undertow even if the gore and well-crafted hunt for the mysterious film hold their attention throughout. This is a film made by an older man about the sins of his younger days. The questions being asked are what do those sins have to say about him and because of them should he have a future at all. CIGARETTE BURNS speaks to that horrible part of each of us that remembers every crime committed, catalogs each transgression, stores up all of our failures and occasionally makes us look at them unvarnished and with no rationalizations. It’s not a pleasant thing but for a movie it is a remarkable achievement.

I know why it took a second viewing to have this film effect me as strongly as it has. I am too much like Ballanger & Kirby in my love of movies. Like them I desire to see the rarest and most potent films in the world, especially if they have earned an extreme reputation. On first watching CIGARETTE BURNS I was caught up in the tantalizing mystery of the lost film so much so that I couldn’t look deeper. But like LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE this film worked its way inside my head and wouldn’t be ignored. At one point in the story a film critic calls LE FIN ABSOLUTE DU MONDE a weapon fired into the brain of the viewer. I think somehow Carpenter and his screenwriters have managed to get close to that mad idea here. Their accomplishment is all the more amazing for its audacity. Sadly I can’t imagine a film produced for theatrical release having the daring of this piece. An endless parade of remakes being today’s horror norm, I just don’t think something this smart would get the green-light. Thank goodness for cable television, huh.

My hope is that as I grow older I can learn to understand my inner demons so that I can live with myself. Maybe I can even learn enough to help others just as this film has, in a small way, helped me. It doesn’t show a path to redemption but it does show that without the hope for redemption there is nothing.

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