Friday, August 17, 2012

Our Bad Dream: August Underground's Mordum (2003)

1: “Now”

Hate burdens the young. Minutes into ToeTag Pictures’ August Underground’s Mordum, a damaged, psychotic woman (Christie “Crusty” Whiles) is confronted by her boyfriend (Fred Vogel) after he catches her having rough sex with her own brother (Michael Todd “MagGot” Schneider). He calls her a slut and a whore. She faces the insults with heated retorts until, suddenly, Crusty lifts her shirt and cuts a deep red vine into her stomach.

Later, Crusty and Maggot are alone together. They creep through another part of the house, an attic maybe, there was no scene leading up to this so we don’t know where they've emerged from. Stashed on the cobwebbed ground are two makeshift wooden coffins. In each lies a bound, naked body, one male, one female. A kidnapped couple, affectless white masks taped to faces we’ll never see. The siblings destroy them. They tear their bodies apart in glitchy minutes of pitiless laughter, bodily mutilation and rape. Crusty puts her finger to the female victim’s milky lips and makes her say, “I feel so violated,” as if she’s said that, internally or out loud, at a moment when she herself was painfully violated (as a child?) and an essence of suffering was placed within her that could only be passed on in a sacrament of eternal circuitous violation.

In the final scene, the trio has an entire family at their mercy in a dungeon cellar that is the truest hell shown on "film" since Damiano’s The Devil In Ms. Jones. Crusty stumbles into the bathroom, where her brother is sexually assaulting a little girl in the tub. She zooms her camera into the girl’s face as it moves up and down, still living but already dead. Crusty tells her “You don’t have to worry about growing up now” with a sad conviction earned by years of being showered with the same sentiment by fate and phantoms taller than she was. Unlike other horror films, the suspense is over before it could begin, before it could build. The good has been vanquished as triumphantly as the evil in stories we grew up hearing. There’s almost a relief to this. We can deactivate our inherent viewer’s anticipation for happiness and hope. We haven’t even been offered the rope of knowledge about who these people are-both the sacrificial lambs and their cackling hunters. Mordum is horror with no context save sickness, hatred and nausea. We’re always in a pit.

The three sequences I’ve described are among the most powerful in any movie I know. Mordum’s reputation slithers through the tar-black viral canyons. In its entry on meme-chronicler Encyclopedia Dramatica, the adjectives come thick and aghast: “The single most sickening, disgusting, and gruesome piece of shit EVAR…made it onto more ‘Ten Sickest Movies’ lists than you can imagine, and for good reason.” Nothing on how ToeTag’s work is probably the modern era of filmmaking’s next step in the tradition of the brave and tetherless, far far away from the majority pupil. Wonder where the disruption and piss of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Andy Warhol’s Vinyl went off to? They ended up swimming here and nesting in Crusty’s battering scream and every gash of self-inflicted slice her arm displays.

2: “All The Rowboats”

Part of the fascination, and tension, of watching Warhol and Smith’s work is knowing how much the inexperienced cast and crew are being caught up in all this creative antimatter, to the point when it ceases being process and starts bearing a growth of the semi-real. Mordum is ostensibly compiled from “found footage,” handheld strays from the characters’ own shake. Yet unlike more clearly defined FF genre films like The Blair With Project and Cloverfield (or even the first August) the camera eye seems to become in several cases the direct POV of the characters, and even more, the subjective glitches of their minds and memories. Take notice of a passage where a distraught Maggot is removing sections of his ratty black hair in a bathroom sink. Crusty walks in a few moments later, and when she enters the room and consoles him we don’t see the “camera” he was supposedly using to record his actions. Though we hear throwaway references to equipment (“take the camera,” etc), I submit that most of the data comes through us directly from the lead characters’ second-by-second perceptions of their lives.

Living on speed, shouting, resentment, confusion and fever would yield subjective rot like the abrupt transitions to new rooms and our jarring removal from them, one-second cuts to random slivers (acid flashbacks? Terminated memories?) This is bombardment, delivered through a radical new engagement with film grammar.

One of these material slivers is only a split second long, video-image-as-Dark Star. It follows a scene where Crusty dances with abandon to the vile strains of a punk band, once more covering her face with a sweaty skull mask the bandleader has pitched to the audience. Abandon is an important word here, as Crusty loses herself in the thrash of noise and Mordum pricks a hole in its own skin to reveal a hint of the Camcorder Republic that has existed for decades, catalogued on hundreds of unmarked VHS ephemera.

Here is the last surviving second of whatever data originally hugged the tape Crusty, Maggot and Vogel are now using/seeing through. The camera is mounted on a leveling device. A man sits, addressing us. His face has been obscured by a blue ski mask, eyes enslaved by coke bottle shades, longish hair spilling out over a piss yellow suit and tie. The arm of another man pokes through the left side of the frame. The ski-masked orator holds something grey, possibly mechanical in his hand. The wall has been decorated with psychedelic paint. A T-shirt and paper with smudged numbers have been strewn up…to convey what? The man has been going on about something. He says the word “commerciality” and then cut, we’re back with our killers. That blip is indelible, and hovers over the rest of the film, indeed over whatever we’ll watch after it, with the same cloud-wide authority as Rivette’s Phantom Ladies Over Paris.

With tape, anyone everywhere can do anything. Ski Mask is another piece of shrapnel sucked inside the nowhere UFO of the Camera Republic, an America parasitically hosting off the America we all knew, undetected. Regina Spektor has gotten herself involved in this. When she included her live staple “All The Rowboats” as part of her latest album What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, Regina unwittingly summarized the imprisonment of Ski Mask and his photographed undead. The song is the best ever from this equally engaging and precious musician, and the only great cut on the record. It’s kind of like Toy Story, except the toys are great works of art locked down “forever and a day” in a museum where escape is the furthest thing from an option. They are all “masterpieces serving maximum sentence.”

Home movies aren’t masterpieces, but after a few viewings by the people who bottled them, they become as ignored as the frozen rowboats that were created by a manic deity and can never “row away, row away.” The home sex tape where she runs giggling from the camera to some unseen point, along with birthday parties, backyard wrestling shows, weddings, commercial outtakes from a regional dealership, sorrowful pre-webcam confessionals beamed from solo in a room, spontaneous amateur productions starring one girl with hair dark as ToeTag content and who sometimes allowed the boy taping her to feel up her shirt. We encounter Ski Mask on the street in the middle of the day and we laugh, just as we’d chortle at our friend wearing a Max Headroom costume and jumping around spastically. That changes when Headroom and Ski Mask are behind the barrier of foreign video, haywire sonics and unforgivable fuzz, breaking through the artificial wall of a Dr. Who episode or making a point about “commerciality” in the already-bruised diary of uncaged wolves. These are fetid rowboats indeed.

Of course, Vogel, Maggot and Crusty are rowboats too, and even if they broke apart, visions of the other would erupt inside each of them like that last remaining blip of Ski Mask in their footage. You struggle to ensure your life won’t become a tragedy. You love someone made up of their own raw footage, who won’t let you tape over it. Even if you do, the zip-locked raw won’t remain gone. She dances with it. There are multitudes in this pit.   

3: Her electric tears

The story of contemporary youth that I’ve overheard and participated in myself is a story of unhappiness, regret, suicidal nightcalls, failure, resentment, self-destruction, mistrust, whispered rumors of sexual assault, spying and yearning, trapping others and being oneself unequivocally trapped. Whatever traumas the grooves of life had for each of Mordum’s participants is none of my concern. Still, the 70 minutes feels like a scourge, one grand cathartic howl from outsiders pole-vaulting beyond anyone’s standards of acceptability in artistic expression. I’ve seen it close to a dozen times, and have lived with it since the midpoint of our most recently elapsed decade, so by now I stand back from Mordum and consider it not as a wasteful shock reel but a serious, sad, perhaps allegorical work of art made by young people possessed-5 credited directors-who couldn’t articulate themselves any other way.

Mordum is fragmentary, a cult’s summoning of the emotional turmoil inside every dark night of the soul.  I think everyone I know has felt its essence, even if they haven’t seen Mordum and never will. Mordum was there in a girl I used to be friends with on Facebook who decided one A.M. to make her profile picture a webcam image of herself alone in her room somewhere on the space of the map. She had been crying, or was in the midst of crying when she snapped the image. There wasn’t time to investigate further before she quickly removed the photo less than 24 hours later. I even saved the picture because I knew it would be deleted. Her face and eyes were Music From Deep Pink. Her beauty had been tarnished by nighttime nightmares. The walls framing her face were cracked and scorched with harsh light and a reminder of the old immaculate. This is the same total despair on Crusty’s face witnessed throughout Mordum, even when she’s smiling. 

The work is so spontaneously mangled that only after multipule viewings over a sprawl of years can I wonder: what if this isn’t what it is? Suppose instead that Mordum is less of the movie narrative (however experimental) you thought it was and more of a documentary of its makers’ time ensconced within the neo-bohemian Hate-In the conception, production, design and engineering of the project demanded. I imagine the production as the starless-sky final shot of Bela Tarr’s Satantango, where the village prophet physically obscures the world outside, leaving only himself, his words, and the black. I can only speculate, but I don’t think Vogel and co. saw much of the landscape outside the putrid one they had created.

“We don’t have to watch it, because we lived it,” Whiles tells filmmaker J.T. Petty in his Underground Film documentary/visual essay S@Man. Since there isn’t much “plot” beyond the love triangle plaguing girlfriend/boyfriend/brother, we become doubly exposed to the makers’ experience of “living it.” This is a chronicle of the horrors these people decided to stage, the boundaries they deliberately crossed, the visual effects they crafted, the long and gamey nights they either pretended to be violent aggressors or role-played screaming themselves mute.

A blunt query: did the makers of August Underground’s Mordum endure so much individual disappointment and terror that they made the film to give viewers the same emotional onslaught unloaded upon them throughout life? I’ve often felt that was my goal with my forays into more extreme fiction and filmmaking. This approach isn’t simpleminded graffiti-spray Nihilism, but genuine effort to communicate. Watch a manifestation of my suffering, however abstract and filtered through psych-out, and in doing so understand me better than you have before.

“I feel violated.” That’s the whole point.

So we’re also dealing with performance art along with a kind of Jonas Mekasian video diary and time capsule of a time, place and the diseased mindset of a fringe dwelling sect. Remove the gore and murder sequences and the film barely loses a fraction of its effect.  Crusty, Vogel and Maggot nomadically comb a quiet city (actually Pittsburgh, really anywhere), attend scummy metal shows where Crusty dances like she’s engulfed in flames because essentially she is; they run screaming into a video store, causing a disruption as potent as The Shining’s elevator blood-wave; in a wrenching splash of gutter lyricism, Vogel and Crusty trudge through a field of snow, milk white masks morphing their faces. A party is a whirlwind of voices and strangers until something happens, a beating that involves a rape, or maybe a rape stemmed from a beating. The strictures determining the way we watch this story allow conflict to be distilled into these confusing/momentous fits of motion and fury. The ubiquitous white mask is mounted on the face of the formerly jocular man who owns the house, or was at least some designated master of ceremonies in this failed gathering of friends.

People who were happy once are forced to wear the mask as punishment. Watch Mordum and you’re placing the white mask over your eyes. On a considerably lesser scale, Vogel and his cohorts are doing to us what the central characters are doing to their victims. This is a reckoning for living a life we may or may not have enjoyed before we met these people or stumbled across this film. The credited pseudonyms of the filmmakers-“Fredenstein,” “Killjoy”-suggest monikers on some anarchist manifesto or clandestine samizdat. Their reign of terror began as a rebuffed embrace. 

4: ha ha

Can the murders in this film be less concrete than artificial dispatches from a fugue state? Are they spells hallucinated by Crusty or Maggot, the manifestation of so much interior bile? In here, people exist either to be in mired in emotional pain or to be murdered, slowly. There aren’t stalking scenes like the hitchhiker kill in the first film. That was set firmly in a real world, while I don’t believe Mordum is. Crusty is the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. The scenes that have earned this movie its reputation could be scraps from the pages of a notebook she drew and wrote in during her brief high school years (the character? The actress? Both?). She loves doing bad things to other women. In one long, disgusting set piece-doubtless one of the factors that garnered the attention of Dramatica-she sticks her fingers down the throats of two captured girls, making them throw up on each other before she herself pukes on their heads and chests, all the while smiling like a baby doll to the camera (the eyes?) of her interchangeable brother and boyfriend. When you confess something real you literally puke out the truth. That’s what they’re doing here. Vomit is shameful, odorous, no longer hidden, a mess. So are body parts like the amphibious intestines leaning from the still-squirming frame of one of the victims as Maggot tears into her with a knife and eases himself deep inside her stomach. Artistic expression can be anything and everything and go wherever it shouldn’t be able to go. The upchuck isn’t simulated, just like her knife wounds. Again, see me for what I am. Connect with me: please. That young woman I used to know on Facebook vomited herself in a moment of weakness that was also a moment of strength, her tear ducts giving birth to alternative water we shouldn’t have seen, like the results of Crusty’s cutting or the sluice of drool and digestion mauled into the lives of her whimpering piglets. Unlike that photograph, Mordum will never be revoked. Better candidates for the top ten sickest movies “EVA” are things like Babel, Crash, Finding Neverland, The Artist and this year’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild, specious attempts to gauge a human nature hog-tied and thrown in a pickup driven by filmmaking pretensions and opportunistic screenwriters exploiting misery for its own sake. Mordum is true misery, slingshot by a lifetime, its unhappiness tactile, its beauty an epic journey to retrieve. But there is beauty in this pit. Can you see it? Can you find her?

If the murders are visions in the American Psycho sense they radiate, if not beauty, then a thematic richness, however unpalatable and sickening. Certain ways the bodies are harmed washes ideas on this bloody beach. Vogel’s character covets women, hangs and folds their bodies, yet never takes advantage carnally, as if he still idealized them in a cannibalizing Madonna/Whore complex or didn’t want his troubled inamorata to think he could get pleasure from someone else, stolen or not. Their butchery is structured as intimate attacks on pairs, domestication, twosomes who have found each other and are able to make each other happy. Note the people chosen: the couple the siblings destroy and the pair of girl friends who share a sisterly hug when they’re being forced to kiss under Crusty’s vomit-soaked whims. There is so much hurled anger and concentrated designs to burn these connections to cinders and black tattered streams. The endgame of their social tampering produces some of the most brutal moments in a genre film (though Mordum resists attempts to consign itself to what we once thought was “Horror”), as when the penis of the bound male is severed and used on his girlfriend as a dildo. If people are going to have sex in their domain, it will be on their horrendous terms, lanced of enjoyment, caged in screams not of rapture but of the same timbre as the hoarse rattles found festering in songs by Nachtmystium and Varg Vikernes. Wear the mask.

This war against personal connectedness reaches its unnatural culmination in the final sequence. A family is taken down to the rock bottom. As a visionary director and actor, Vogel can position and design what he wants even as the shoot commences in the rapid present tense. TV sets are stacked atop each other blaring static. (Like earlier, the couple are playing in snow.) Words like “Shit” and “Sissy Fuck”-Maggot’s pet name for Crusty-are smeared with feces on the bathroom wall. Each member of the unit (a husband, wife, little daughter) have been separated and forced to endure torment in their designated portions of the trio’s dungeon. Earlier, Vogel asked a rhetorical question of one of the victims: “Do you know why we are doing this to you?” At Mordum’s sunset, we have an idea. The characters didn’t have proper upbringings, so this girl won’t either. They weren’t raised in a happy household, so this nameless married couple won’t be able to raise their daughter in one. She won’t have to worry about growing up now.

This subtext has deep roots in filmed horror: Frankenstein’s Monster destroying himself and his would-be lover when he finds out she instinctually doesn’t love him; Tod Browning’s Freaks recalibrating a beautiful body as their own sideshow contemporary; the countless roving POV shots of slashers watching their doomed intended have sex, laugh, live; Tom Noonan’s Francis Dolerhyde distorting Joan Allen and a man from her job into gooey neon lovers as he spies from the bushes. The belly of great Horror cinema houses a community of violent watchers. Here’s a ticket, welcome to the tombs. You have company waiting.

5: Sissy

If the murder scenes are joint acid trips or entirely the product of Crusty’s mind (when I think about Mordum now I readily accept the latter theory), her particularly hate-fueled attacks on other women have foreshadowed her complacency in the rape and death of this small child. It’s almost as if she is working backwards to cease the progress of womanhood in her victims, womanhood in all its stages. In the trilogy’s capper, August Underground’s Penance, she violates the body of a pregnant woman, removing her gestating infant. She breaks down crying afterwards, perhaps realizing there is no more space to fall while dragging other females down with her. 

It’s a great performance, if “performance” it even is, as powerful a branding of feminist intent as Mallory Knox using Bikini Kill as her murder track, Corinne Tucker singing “Call The Doctor” or Pauline Kael’s early essay “Circles And Squares,” which not only calls out an insular critical community but an unfairly patriarchal one. Whiles rampages through the piece. She leaves her men behind. They thought they were the darkness until they met her. She is the one who knocks. There’s a sentence in late critic Paul Nelson’s brilliant, inscrutable essay/short story about Bob Dylan where his pop music private eye narrator shares a glance with the wife of a client.  “She rolled an elegiac eyeball in my direction. I picked it up and rolled one back.” You want to roll an elegiac eyeball towards Whiles in this film, but you know she’ll crush it underneath her heel. Here is a woman who was probably “Goth” in high school, an identity she adopted to erase a tape of permanent ink, and is now “Punk,” Raven ashtrays and posters on the wall. She’s been granted entrance to her own Horror film, or at least a mausoleum built especially for her to do whatever she wants inside its charred temple walls.

She makes mistakes, but they only get subsumed into the framework. At a tattoo parlor, she makes out with an artist (heavy-metal musician and co-director Killjoy) and they are both chided by an enraged Vogel. The incident is scrubbed clear though, as memories in the pit stay ironically unpreserved. Killjoy shows them to his shed near the woods where he has dozens of bodies and body parts hung on the wet wood and stuffed in trash cans. We’ve been led to winter. The smell overpowers them and they wretch. When Killjoy is left alone he finishes off a living prisoner they didn’t know about. He was responsible for discord in Crusty’s life and her already fragile relationships. She could imagine him killing life like he killed that moment by taking advantage of her when she was substance’d up. In her travels she’s met people who inspire all varieties of fantasy. Walking with a pack one night in my formative years, shortly after discovering Mordum, I was led to a bonfire in the woods, fully expecting Killjoy’s shed to exist beyond the flames. Looking for signs of the structure, I forgot to drink and talk with those right in front of me. I walked into the cold night. Every word I’ve written since is one more pink-dyed strand of Crusty’s hair. In the film, Crusty is a young person who doesn’t know how to be young. So are all the characters, actually. Maybe that’s why it means so much to me.

6: f. q. i.

Karma or not, the tenuous family unit is broken when they find a happier family to slaughter. The predators end up screaming more than their prey. Vogel cuts the brother’s throat. The girl shouts “fucking quit it!” thus ending Mordum in a blast of unholy static that twists the ears like metal machine music.

Fucking Quit It. A message to the movie; to life, really, life when it gets to be like this. Watch Mordum again if you make it through the first time. Their house is full to bursting with clutter, doors of dust, kitty litter boxes, plaster, clothes, concrete. These are the consequences. We forgot to pin our back pages to the ground so they became fangs on the mouth of the pit.

There’s no epilogue, but I can dream. The remaining unravel against midnight, tendons and muscle torn away, left for the wind to carry past McDonalds and hotels to the highway. Eternal drive, without a companion save Quiet Storm and a person you loved once because they were there. You reach for the rewind button but your hand slips, and you plummet.