03 August 2008

A Comparative Review of The Midnight Meat Train and Charlotte's Web

I'm guessing this will be the only one.

Yesterday i had one of those rare days where i watch two movies in one day. While i love these days, i don't often get the opportunity to have them as it blocks off a significant portion of waking hours. I also find that the two movies become, in some way, permanently conjoined in my mind and as a recovering English major, i find myself trying to find connections, comparing themes, finding a mutual story in two separate films.

So it was, when i found myself watching the newer take on Charlotte's Web, i was looking back at Ryuhei Kitamura's latest offering, The Midnight Meat Train. I've never seen any of Kitamura's work (though my office mate Allan has suggested him to me on numerous occasions) and had very few expectations going in. Similarly, i somehow missed a fundamental portion of my childhood and have never, to my memory, read or seen Charlotte's Web. I knew it had to do with a spider & a pig (just as i knew Kitamura's film would have to do with a train and a butt-ton of blood)

At first glance these two films probably don't seem to have a lot to do with one another, but that's probably just because not a lot of people see both in close proximity (or see them both, period) to one another. Both films are clearly pro-vegetarian, and present the case thoughtfully and, more interestingly, visually. Shots of sizzling meat are presented as subtle reminders and foreshadowing in both films, but both films resist using the images simplistically. In Charlotte's Web, the family eats a hearty farm breakfast of bacon & eggs each morning, all the while marvelling at the "terrific & radiant" pig across the street. Decreasingly vegetarian photographer Leon Kauffmann (Alias' Bradley Cooper) assumes the 'non-judgemental vegetarian' role, bringing his own tofu to his local diner in Meat Train and having it cooked for him on the same grill as the steaks & burgers being cooked for other patrons. The films present a two-pronged attack on
cannibalismcarnivorism, with Meat Train making a case based on sanitation in the meat-production industry, while Charlotte gives us the cute-fuzzy (& intelligent)-pig argument.

In both films the place of meat production is a horrific focal point for characters to discover/avoid. The smoke house is for Wilbur & Charlotte, a constant reminder of what's at stake, though we never see the inside of it, we know we don't want to. Kitamura brings us into the butcher house where visual echoes of the hanging corpses of Kauffmann's imagination/memory hang in the form of cow carcasses. The place is clearly one of danger, but also profit. Kauffmann photographs his surroundings and lands himself a high-profile art show thanks to one shot in particular, which captures serial killer Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) at work, but turning to catch Kauffmann in the act of snapping the photo.

What is most interesting in The Midnight Meat Train, i think, is the way the film explores the photograph and the camera while following the trail of a fairly familiar (until the last 6 minutes, that is) psycho-thriller. Kitamura is clearly interested in framing (see movie poster) and we often get murder scenes reminiscent of almost anime-styled violence. Roland Barthes' notion of 'posing' for a photograph also gets complicated when characters realize they share a frame with the murderous Mahogany. They pause/pose in front of the murderer, who pauses in kind (presumably to heighten suspense), but both are also 'posing' for the film's camera, as if for a single frame of a comic.

Barthes' idea of 'posing' complicates the documentary or evidentiary idea of the photograph. The poser's awareness of being in a photograph creates a doubling of meaning in the photograph, the actuality of the 'what-has-been' alongside the altering of the moment with the presence of the camera. What has changed because of the presence of the camera? Kauffmann seems to save model Erika Sakaki (Nora) by photographing and pointing out the surveillance camera to would-be assailants, but when she catches her train because of his intervention, we are no longer so sure. Mahogany is clearly an evil psychopath. That's at least clear until we experience the Lovecraftian (or Clive Barkian, if you prefer) final 6 minutes of the film. A shift in perspective makes us question not just who's good & who's evil, but who are we to judge.

Similarly, Charlotte's Web is also a film all about perspective. One the surface, of course, it's about rethinking preconceptions. Charlotte is a spider, and therefore ugly & evil...but she makes such beautiful, prescient webs. Wilbur is a pig, and therefore lesser & tasty, but his ability to bring the barn's occupants together truly makes him "some pig". On closer examination, though, the story is also about the perspective of what is sad (what is tragedy) and what is not. Charlotte dies, at least in part, because she saves Wilbur. But her offspring live. While Wilbur lives a long life, surely it's not as long a life as Dakota Fanning will live, but this, too, can't be read as a tragedy at the end of the story, both because we don't see it in the narrative arc and because Wilbur lives a long life from the perspective of a pig (just as Charlotte likely has from the perspective of a spider).

But this perspective can again be turned on its head by thinking about the one-at-a-timin' principle of heroes. We are led to believe that Wilbur is special, and that Charlotte is special, and that even Templeton is special, but do we extend this to all of their kind? Is the long-life-d-ness of these creatures only a 'good thing' for them, or does the fact that all this effort is expended to rescue 'just one pig' a waste, because, while we don't see it, there's still surely bacon on the family's table across the street. And as to Charlotte, ask a geriatric fly how he feels about the continued existence of every spider. The questions that both Charlotte's Web and The Midnight Meat Train are asking are ones about whether surviving, on an individual basis, is really the ultimate goal. Some pigs have to die, in order to have enough food for all the humans, right? Or, if not, wouldn't all the surviving pigs constitute an undue strain on human food supplies... And what makes us assume that we are the ultimate end of the decision-making. Clive Barker has a possible answer, but i'm not sure you're going to like it...

No comments: