Thursday, 9 July 2015

digging up the marrow

at first glance, digging up the marrow appears to be a film about filmmaker adam green starring adam green as filmmaker adam green, written and directed by filmmaker adam green. except when you dig beneath the surface it isn’t really a film about adam green at all.

writer/director adam green is drawn away from the tv series he is working on by a piece of fanmail from a man called william dekker. dekker claims to have proof of the existence of an underground society of outcasts; a world of genuine ‘monsters’ situated beneath our own. green decides to make a documentary about dekker in the hope of capturing the creatures on film.

this isn’t a typical found footage movie. sure, there are a handful of scenes in which green, his dp will barratt and dekker (played by ray wise) wander the woods in the dark chasing shadows, and there are some genuine scares in those scenes too, but that’s not where the dramatic arc of the film lies. this is a film about belief and imagination and, as is perhaps obvious, it’s a film about monsters, although the important thing to examine here is the definition of a ‘monster’. we’ll come back to that. this is also an example of how to create a world of monsters on a tight budget, suggesting an underworld realm as vast as midian without ever having to take the cameras down there. it reminded me a little of a low budget takashi shimizu film called marebito in which shinya tsukamoto discovers the entrance to an underground world beneath japan (which I only mention because it’s a fucking weird film and if you like digging up the marrow you should check it out). however, to namecheck other movies does this film a disservice; this is very much its own movie and a really unique and original one at that.

structurally the film breaks up the night-time expeditions with scenes of green interviewing dekker and then reviewing and discussing the footage with his friends and family. the tension here is around whether dekker is telling the truth or acting out some kind of deranged fantasy. as green becomes more convinced by dekker, his colleagues become more and more sceptical and there is a real sense that green could be throwing his career away to appease a crazy person. this tension is at the core of the film and while there are monsters and scares and all the things you want from a horror film, it’s surprising how engaging and effective the dramatic scenes really are.

what makes this work and holds the whole thing together are the two central performances; green playing an at times unflattering version of himself and ray wise as dekker. the film has received some criticism for the casting of such a recognisable actor in the lead role because it somehow detracts from the false reality of the movie, which is kind of ludicrous. for one, it assumes that audiences are unable to suspend their disbelief and go into every found footage movie thinking it might actually be real, but more importantly it completely disregards wise’s ability as an actor. wise is perfect for this part, and from the moment he started speaking i never once saw leland palmer or the guy from robocop or any one of the other characters he is famous for playing on screen, he was william dekker. wise’s performance is a master-class in subtlety, and as a viewer you are never sure whether he is lying, crazy or actually telling the truth. there is genuine sadness in his eyes when he talks about the monsters, mixed in with the awe, excitement and fear, which conveys the complexity of his relationship with the creatures. it’s an amazing performance by an actor at the top of his game and as such it never once took me out of the story, only immersed me further.

green does a great job on the acting front too, really conveying his excitement at what’s happening in a way that makes it clear why his character has to pursue this. his character mentions on a number of occasions that finding a real monster is all he ever wanted to do since he was a kid. it’s green’s search for this lost piece of his childhood that really pushes this film beyond the realm of the found-footage horror into something magical and thought-provoking.

possible spoiler here, you have been warned. however, if you don’t get it by now i really liked this movie so if you haven’t seen it, go watch it then come back and read the rest of the review.

on a number of occasions there are hints that dekker has, or had, a son and that this son is possibly now among the creatures. later there is a suggestion that dekker liberated one of the creatures, presumably his son, and kept him chained up at his house. but this film isn’t about a literal lost child, it’s about lost childhood.

green opens the film with a series of interview clips showing what the idea of ‘monsters’ means to different people. this is where the definition of a ‘monster’ becomes important. in this film there are really two definitions. there’s the literal monster that wants to eat you and is essentially evil – as dekker points out, every society has them, even a society made up of monsters. then there are the outcasts and freaks – people who are otherwise normal but can’t live in civilised society because they were born different. there is a third definition too, the type of monster green's character talks about the most. this is the monster in the closet or under the bed – not a physical thing that wants to eat you or a deformed, possibly physically disabled human being, but the idea of a monster; of something dangerous and fantastic at the same time that exists just beyond our reach. this is the monster green wants to find, and it’s not a monster at all, it’s imagination. it’s the imagination we have as children that we lose as we grow up; the part of us that easily believes in santa clause or the tooth fairy or whatever else. it’s the part of us that can create worlds to play in and populates them with friends who don’t exist. it’s the part of us that didn’t have to worry about ever being alone or bored or unfulfilled in any way. that’s what i think of when green talks about monsters, and that’s what he and dekker are searching for in this film.

i wondered at times if there was a father/son relationship suggested between green’s character and dekker, but ultimately i don’t think that’s it. i think dekker is a warning of what green could become. dekker is what happens when we don’t grow up.

there’s an alfred bester story called the starcomber about a guy who gets see his greatest fantasies played out, like he wants to relive his youth with all the knowledge he has as an adult and he wishes he was the last man on earth and all the women want to sleep with him and so on. the antagonist in the story, mr aquila, purges him of these dreams by showing him how they will go wrong and it’s really a story about being happy with what you have. digging up the marrow is a story about a filmmaker who wishes he could recapture the adventure and mystery of youth, and through dekker he has his chance. at the same time, dekker shows him what happens when you don’t grow up, and that while monsters can be cool and exciting they are also very dangerous if we don't give them some distance, just like our imaginations. at a certain point, an excess of imagination becomes dangerous and that’s why we have to grow up, before we become outcast ourselves.

i don’t know adam green and i don’t like to make assumptions about a person, but given that he puts himself all over this film it’s hard not to connect the themes of the film to the filmmaker. i wonder if despite my opening statement this is a film about adam green after all. i wonder if this is a film about a filmmaker who has a made a career out of holding onto his imagination from childhood, but is coming to terms with the fact that at some point you have to grow up. at some point you have to let the monsters go. but then, don't we all go through that? it's just that some of us are able to hold onto the monsters longer than others.

digging up the marrow is a truly interesting, thought-provoking and genuinely exciting horror film and if you’re a fan of this genre or even if you’re not and you just want to see something original, you should be watching this right now.

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