Friday, June 7, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #2: Cronos

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable. 

Max’s Grade: 85/A-
Loren’s Grade: A- (He doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point system I do)

Max O’Connell: We’ve just finished Cronos, the first feature from Guillermo Del Toro. It came six years after Geometria, in 1993, but he had worked on the film in some form since 1984.

Loren Greenblatt: And it’s an excellent film, considering that it’s a low-budget Mexican film and a directorial debut from someone with no clout. It’s a vampire movie…question mark?

MO: It’s a re-imagination of the vampire mythos with a little bit of both Faust and Frankenstein. There’s a combination of a deal with the devil and a self-made monster in the center.

LG: Del Toro doesn’t like to piggyback on other people’s mythologies, he likes to reinvent, and this really does stand apart from other vampire movies of the 80s and 90s, like The Lost Boys or Near Dark or Interview with a Vampire. Where all of that stuff is romanticized or sexualized, this film is quite the opposite. It’s vampirism as addiction.

MO: Addiction, and the way we can change our bodies with modern technology. Federico Luppi plays an old man named Jesus Gris, or “grey Jesus”, who runs an antique shop, and he finds within a statue an ancient device built by an alchemist called the Cronos device. It’s a little gold device with an insect inside it, and if you put it up to your body, it bites you and hurts like a son of a bitch, but it essentially sucks out your old age. But there’s a bit of a price to this.

LG: To maintain this youth, you must consume blood. One of the themes that runs through the film is the futility of immortality. Obviously, with such a unique device, there are people after it. There’s an old man who lives in this factory in Mexico, but he’s hermetically sealed off from the world. The factory, by the way, seems to only make sparks rather than products.

MO: Del Toro has said that it’s a factory so old that no one remembers what it makes anymore, which I just love. It’s very indicative of what this old man is: he has enormous wealth and power, but he doesn’t actually do anything anymore. He’s sealed himself off to protect himself. He’s this decrepit thing that’s just barely hanging on and looking for anything that’ll keep him around longer. It’s a pretty stark contrast to Luppi’s character. Where there’s something sleek and antiseptic about the villain’s quarters, Luppi’s an antiques dealer. It’s related to death, but there’s something human and warm about it.

LG: We should mention that he has a rather sweet relationship with his granddaughter Aurora. Now, the actress, she’s just OK.

MO: Yeah, she’s fine. It’s not one of the great child performances in Del Toro’s films (see: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), but she serves her purpose.

LG: Yeah, they have a nice back-and-forth, a very understated verbal relationship, hand cues, whatnot. The statue Jesus finds the Cronos Device in is itself is very creepy: it’s this tall, bronze angel with a missing eye. It's hollow like a reliquary and as Jesus touches the hole a cockroach comes out. Insects are a big trope in Del Toro’s films. I’ve listened to interviews where he says that as a kid he imagined that archangels would look like insects. In this film, someone has a line: “Insects are God’s favorite creatures. Christ walks on water, like the mosquito”.

MO: It’s playing with the lapsed Catholic in Del Toro. He takes a lot from Luis Bunuel, but a lot of it is from his own personal relationship with religion. Jesus Gris is a bit of an elderly Christ-figure of sorts. I’m not going to push the comparison too far, because it’s clearer in Del Toro’s later films, but it builds to an ending that we’ll get to later having to do with self-sacrifice.

LG: But there’s some other interesting names here.

MO: Right. There’s Mercedes, his wife, who’s ostensibly the same age as Jesus but seems much, much younger. She’s very lively and teaches dance classes where Jesus looks frail. “Mercedes” means “Our Lady of Mercy”. There’s something really wonderful there. “Aurora” means “at the beginning”, which speaks to her innocence and youth, which contrasts well with our grey Jesus. The evil factory owner is named Dieter, which we feel is trying to evoke something authoritarian and inhumane (sorry, guys named Dieter). Ron Perlman, one of Del Toro’s favorite actors, is Angel de la Guardia, which means “Guardian Angel”, which is apt because he helps his uncle Dieter, but he’s also a sort of angel of death. He clearly hates his uncle, and wishes he’d just die already.

LG: He’s sort of the man’s pawn as he tries to find the Cronos device, but what’s interesting that he’s trying to transform his own body. He carries around samples of noses because he’s saving up for a nose-job. But he's can't pick, keeps asking people which they think is best. It's definitely a comic relief thing, but it also ties into classic horror and Cronenbergian influences about how we can change our bodies.

MO: It’s kind of a silly parallel to everyone else as a way to underline how these transformations make us less human and less real.

LG: And that’s a huge part of the film. Even though we later learn that there is a biological component to the Vampirism, it’s painted less as something created with malice by other creatures and more of something born out of our desire to fight and control nature through technology. At one point in the film, Del Toro’s camera goes inside the Cronos Device and we learn that it’s a container for this little insect that does most of the actual work. It's never explicitly explained, but it seems that the device works as a sort of amplifier for its unique powers. It’s a mechanical prison for this poor creature but the effect of the device is artificial, like plastic surgery or the operations keeping the factory owner alive.

MO:  What’s great about Del Toro is that he has that magical realist influence from people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He takes far-fetched and supernatural concepts and makes them feel real by grounding them in the organic and the mechanical. I love the shots inside the device we see all these little cogs in it, which reinforces the mechanical/clockwork man thing. There’s a lot of clocks in the film to remind us of how little time they have left. There’s this really funny background gag of a New Year’s Eve costume party where there’s a guy dressed in this terrible clock costume. It’s very funny, but it’s a great reminder how time is running out. There’s also a fight near the end between Luppi and Perlman next to a gigantic clock.

LG: One of the interesting things about how Del Toro develops the device, is how mysterious it remains. It’s very much like a Cronenberg film, where there isn’t really an expert on this little device. There are people who have ideas about it, but no one really knows anything, and every character is just as much in the dark as we are, and they have to piece it together with us. It’s a much smarter way of doing it than just cutting to the expert who’s going to explain it away for us.

MO: We don’t feel lectured. We’re getting just enough information about the device to get it, but there’s an important sense of mystery.

LG: It separates science-fiction from surrealism. Science-fiction can have those fantastical images, but it tends to over-explain them. This is more in the surrealism and fantasy camp because it’s more mysterious.

MO: Now, a number of Del Toro’s influences shine through pretty clearly here. One of the more obvious ones is Cronenberg. There’s a lot of stuff from The Fly here, what with Dieter keeping his old organs in jars.

LG: It was nice of Brundlefly to loan those out.

MO: And then there’s the way both Dieter and Jesus are falling apart. I also saw a connection to Cronenberg’s first theatrically released film, Shivers, in which there’s a parasite that feeds off of people and changes their behavior, though this is desexualized rather than oversexualized. With Shivers, it’s different because it loosens inhibitions and makes them….let’s say sexually free. There’s some shocking stuff.

LG: Cronenberg, you scamp!

MO: (laughs) That is the last word I would use to describe Cronenberg. He is a cold, cold director. But back to the point, there are also throwbacks to classic horror directors like James Whale or Terence Fischer. There are a lot of great gothic influences, there’s a morbid look that Del Toro borrowed from them, and that compliments the feel of film. Death surrounds everything, time is ticking away, the film opens with a ticking clock and the death knell of a bell…and there’s something Hitchcockian there, in the way he plays with sound. I’m thinking in particular of the metronome scene in Rope.

LG: The effects in this thing are amazing, considering how low-budget it is. You can tell they’re effects, but they work. As Jesus starts using the device more and more, he starts losing some of his humanity, and his skin starts to peel off. It’s very gooey, in a Cronenberg or Fulci way.

MO: He’s drained of color. His skin starts to look like marble.

LG: Much like the marble that he licks some blood off of at one point in the movie. It’s a low-point of his addiction as he learns that he needs blood in order to look human and survive, because the device is sucking out old blood. I love that the vampires will look like marble when they’re fully formed. Del Toro will come back to that in Blade II, but right now it’s a controlled color palette between the whiteness of the skin and the marble and the red of the blood, and Del Toro smartly uses red ONLY for the blood and stuff that has to do with life, like a lot of stuff surrounding Aurora. It makes it that much more powerful, and it’s very controlled, especially in that moment.

MO: Right. It’s a pathetic moment. He’s licking blood from a man’s nosebleed. It’s a really great moment of sound design, because they’re at a party, and all of the sudden the sound fades as he focuses on the man with a nosebleed. And he’s still going to get worse as he feeds off of a corpse.

LG: Now, there’s a lot of other stuff going on with the futility of immortality. At one point, he seemingly dies, and we meet the most marvelous coroner in the world. He’s this very meat-and-potatoes about his job. Death is really deglamorized here. He sews up Jesus’ mouth with needle and thred, puts putty over the wounds as terrible make-up…there’s a priest who seems to be hitting on the guy, because he’s reassuring him about how wonderful it is.

MO: Yeah, it ties into his influences of Gilliam and Renoir (Demme would do this, too), where we get little bits of a supporting character who deserves their own film. It’s very lively, eccentric, and warm. It’s a pretty wonderful morbid joke about what we do to prepare people for death. We’re given some hint that Luppi is still alive, and we’re watching this mortician sew his lips shut and staple his wounds closed. There’s this great line about how he’s “sending him to death naked and with lipstick…people will think he went to a whorehouse”.

MO: Now, I have a question: he uses a Christmas setting and a New Year’s setting, and I couldn’t quite grasp why.

LG: Birth of Jesus? A new start? Rebirth? There is that family subplot.

MO: Maybe he was getting at something more specific and he didn’t quite get there?

LG: I don’t know. I don’t think we’re meant to dwell on it. Lord knows, Del Toro doesn’t.

MO: Oh, sure, but it’s a detail where Del Toro often would pick a setting very, very purposefully, and it’s less emphasized here. That’s not necessarily a flaw.

LG: Now, Luppi is wonderful, but Perlman is particularly fun. Now, the story goes is that Perlman read the script, was hired, went to Mexico, got the call sheet, and only then realized that it was a Spanish language production, and of course he doesn't speak Spanish. He tried to learn his lines phonetically, but it was apparently dreadful, so he just did his part in English…and occasionally, the worst Spanish ever. Borderline Peggy Hill.

MO: Yeah, I don’t have an ear for Spanish like Loren does (he’s part Puerto Rican, I am not, and I took French in high school), but you looked like you cringed at a few points.

LG: And that’s part of the joke. Del Toro’s reacting to some of the broad, cartoonish Mexicans he’s seen in American films. Here’s a broad, cartoonish American who clearly hates that he has to speak Spanish sometimes. He hates his whole situation.

MO: Yeah, he’s a threatening boob, but he’s still kind of a boob. Something else I love about Perlman’s performance is that when we first meet him around the little girl, there’s something charming about him even though we know he’s sinister. He’s playing around with Aurora, he offers her gum, he asks her opinion about his nose. Del Toro makes the sinister make slightly charming at first, which he’ll do even better later in Pan’s Labyrinth.

LG: It’s a very fairytale detail, which is another big thing with him. His films tend to resemble classic Grimm’s fairytales before they were sanitized. Sweet-seeming evil, life is not fair, all that good stuff.

MO: Something else that’s fairytale-esque: the heart is the key rather than the brain. That’s part of the vampire mythos, that you have to kill the heart to kill the monster, but it’s done it a fairytale way. When Luppi first uses the device, it’s near his hand, and it only revitalizes him a bit. Later on, he uses it near his heart, which is far more powerful.

LG: I also noticed that the wound on the hand from the device, along with the wound on his foot later when he steps on glass, gives him some very subtle Catholic imagery with the stigmata. I don’t think we’re supposed to see Luppi as a literal Christ-figure, but he’s going for the evocation, and these parallels make it relatable in some sense. There’s also that veil over Luppi’s head when he comes home after the night in the morgue to his granddaughter, looking like a figure from a religious movie. Also: gotta love that the granddaughter is not fazed by any of this.

MO: There’s a sense of childlike curiosity to the whole thing.

LG: She’s not quite old enough to process that this isn’t normal at all. Also love little details, like that the word “vampire” is never spoken. We piece it together because A. it’s the closest monster that fits, and B. Del Toro evokes that imagery very well. There’s a moment where Luppi is burned by sunlight from a hole in the ceiling, and the granddaughter empties out her toy-box to fashion a coffin for him. It’s a wonderful little twist on that imagery.

MO: You can also argue that to some degree, even though he never uses the Cronos device, that Perlman is a vampire of sorts, living off his uncle. Near the end, as he and Luppi fight, they’re both bleeding from the mouth in a way I found reminiscent of vampires with blood dripping from their fangs.

LG: They look fantastic. Blood everywhere, shit-eating grins. That was a fun day at set.

MO: I’ll bet. Other little details that I really like: there’s a delicacy to some of the imagery, like how the Cronos device is discovered wrapped in a handkerchief. Or the little girl when she hides the device from Luppi and puts it in her teddy bear.

LG: That’s a great scene. The little girl knows something’s up because Luppi is using the device after it hurt him earlier. It’s bloody, it’s weird- she’s scared. She’s willing to rip open her own teddy bear to hide it. It takes a lot for a kid to damage a toy. A lot of kids think of their teddy bears as real.

MO: Lord knows I did, and I know my sisters did. Something else that’s great is how it hints at how he’s made a deal with the devil. He tells Aurora a story about how, when he was raising her father, the boy hid his cigarettes from him because he was afraid they would kill him, but the boy knew that it wouldn’t stop him. It shows some clarity in him: Luppi knows there’s something wrong with what he’s using, but the effect over him is powerful. He’ll later realize, though, just how much blood he needs.

LG: There’s an earlier image in the prologue about the alchemist where the camera goes up this creepy gothic staircase and finds a dead man hanging upside down over a pool of his own blood. This is how much blood is going to be needed to sustain.

MO: There’s a great line from Dieter, “You can’t gain eternity with a cow or a pig”. It has to be a human. There’s a great amount of sacrificing your own humanity for immortality, because morality makes us human.

LG: Yeah, and he has to decide whether it’s worth it. By the end, he’s hurt, and he sees that his granddaughter is bleeding a bit…and that’s the only blood he has to recharge. We think that he’s so far gone that he’ll go to these ends, and then his soul will be lost. There’s a sense that he wants out of it, and he no longer fears death- he fears life.

MO: And to me, the defining them in Del Toro’s work is self-sacrifice. Del Toro’s a lapsed Catholic, but he recognizes the power in those images and themes, and here, Luppi is willing to sacrifice his own immortality and life in order to protect his granddaughter, and in doing so he recaptures his humanity as he dies near his granddaughter and wife. It’s not as moving as it’s going to be in his later films, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s still very moving. It damns him to death, but it saves his soul.

LG: This is a fantastic first film. I’d score it higher, but he’s going to get even better. I’d give it a A-.

MO: I’m going A-. It’s a powerful first film, and it’s so controlled that it’s hard for me not to think of it as a major film of his.

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