Monday, April 13, 2009

"Bug": Friedkin's film on Tracy Letts's play -- really can be compared to the notorious gay short "Bugcrush"; which came first?

I have to admit that I rented William Friedkin’s "Bug" (LionsGate, 2006) out of a curiousity, wondering how it would compare to the gay horror short flick, Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush” (reviewed here Jan. 29, 2008).

Both films were made about the same time, and both have some similar visual and sound techniques: black screens, creepy sounds, a lantern, tubes hanging from a wall, and an apartment or hideaway that has been modified. But Friedkin’s film is a feature, and has a legitimate end – or does it? It still leaves us with questions.

The opening of Friedkin’s film gives us a landscape that looks like Australia – we’re told its Oklahoma, panning down to a tiny motel (Smith starts his film on a bus and takes us on a road trip to open the vision up). Friedkin’s film rapidly becomes claustrophobic and, like Smith, he brings the characters together into confrontation. But is “Bug” a heterosexual “Bugcrush”, or can the question be turned around? Not exactly. In Friedkin’s film, the two protagonists Agnes and Peter (Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon) maybe are a bit comparable to Smith’s Grant and Ben – but you’d have to imagine Agnes as the “badass”. Well, toward the film’s tinfoil and fire climax, we wonder.

Now it’s only fair to say that “Bug” is based on a play by Tracy Letts, who adapted it for film. It’s filled with natural dialogue with monosyllabic idioms, and the dialogue pace increases as the climax approaches, whereas in Smith’s work the dialogue winds down (except for Grant’s now famous line, “I can do whatever I want” – Grant could walk into the setting of “Bug” I think and fit it, but not Ben). This Friedkin film has some great lines, like Peter’s “People can do things to you that you don’t know anything about” and Agnes scream “I am a super mother bug!” Yup, they had to go after the queen, even if they felt like drones!

Friedkin is best known to popular audiences for giving us “The Exorcist” in 1973 (a clip [of Regan's toys] from which occurs after the closing credits). The DVD has a featurette “Bug: An Introduction” and a long interview with Friedkin, who says that films find him, that he likes character studies that bring together the hems of good and evil, Friedkin has also directed opera, such as Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. (Geraldine Fabrikant, “At the Opera House, The Friedkin Connection.” New York Times, Sept. 20, 2006, link here. Friedkin also discusses how picky he was with platform releases of his fikms; the Exorcist originally opened in very limited release, and Friedkin visited each theater, and tells a story about the Mann in Minneapolis. Friedkin also discussed the business evolution of independent film, with the setting up of whole companies like LionsGate, Overture, Magnolia, and Summit (someothers like Focus and Miramax that are subsidiaries of major studios) to sponsor "independent" films, which often enough now draw big directors and established stars who want to "do their own work".

And in “Bug” there is a theory, or sorts. It’s the government, stupid. Peter Evans apparent faces post-combat PTS syndrome, and imagines government conspiracies filling his body with aphids. It’s not pleasurable, even ironically; it’s pure terror. Peter even pulls his own teeth. It’s why Agnes gets into it is what provides a curious twist.

But there are external plot elements to draw things together. Agnes is bisexual, and has a lesbian “friend” (Lynn Collins); there is the ex-con abusive husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), and the Army psychiatrist (Brian F. O’Byrne). Peter’s body develops the stigmata, more likely self-imposed than from “bugs” implanted by the government (or a thrill seeker like “Grant” from the other film). The motel turns into a fortress that reminds one of (Roadside Attractions) “Right at Your Door”.

I’ve written before that Carter Smith could take his short and turn it into a feature, or maybe a sequel (what happens to Ben?) But what we would get is not solutions but just more elements of story to put together.

The DVD greets us with LionsGate’s musical and “machine dreams” greeting – however the visuals may be based on “Saw” (and maybe “Metropolis”) – this "grand entrance" [ultimately to the real Lions Gate in Greece] Hollywood’s most effective “trade dress.”

Picture: Quartz Mountains in Oklahoma, near the supposed site of the film (some of it was shot in Louisiana, some in the California desert). I got a "courtesy warning" for a speeding ticket there in 2005.

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