5 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: MEDUSA (1998)

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To be honest, MEDUSA is the kind of movie I usually don’t like. In the 90s, the (relatively) popular success of Quentin Tarantino, Hal Hartley, TRAINSPOTTING, Jim Jarmusch, and so on, led to a kind of fusion of self-aware “coolness,” high artiness, and adolescent boy fantasy that grew like an alien blob to take over independent cinema, populate it with rogue cops and monosyllabic, quirky loners, and infect its viewing audience with kung-fu worshipping would-be frat boys. Perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but that hyperbole makes the intensity of my aversion to these kinds of movies all the more clear. Directors like Hartley, Tarantino, or Jarmusch can’t be blamed for their imitators’ frequent sins, but I have to admit that I can no longer judge their work, or any film with the tiniest whiff of their stylistic calling cards, with a truly clear head.

The negative influence of this trend is very obvious in MEDUSA. It is a quintessential “festival” film with the requisite women in dramatic wigs, men toting guns, and short bits of dialogue that try way too hard to be quotable. That said, there is something about MEDUSA that transcends these (in my estimate) limitations. When it comes down to it, MEDUSA is entirely its own kind of movie following its own inner logic and these 90s tropes are simply a kind of drag that the movie wears so as to look acceptable in public.

At its heart, MEDUSA is a “folk horror” movie that explores the legends of the filmmakers’ home country in such a way as to make it relevant to a contemporary audience. It just so happens that these filmmakers come from Greece and their legends are therefore the source of the great majority of fantastic fiction produced in the entire history of Western culture. Considering that fact, this film certainly doesn’t stand out for attempting to make Greek legend “relevant” or updated for our times. However, MEDUSA is different from many attempts in that it also intends to make Greek legend relevant to contemporary Greeks. This film isn’t just an appropriation, it is also a reclamation. MEDUSA updates the story of the snake-headed Gorgon but also makes it an expression of tribal identity. This is above all a Greek film, filled with nods to contemporary Greek culture (some satirical) and loving depictions of Greek landscapes.

The process of discovering one’s roots is central to the premise of the film, but it isn’t depicted with the nationalistic enthusiasm of a patriot canonizing their bloodline (with a stone sculpture, for example). MEDUSA recognizes that there are emotional and psychological complexities involved with introspection, individual or collective, and it explores these complexities with a detached ambivalence facilitated by the use of Greek legends as metaphors. The ancient stories, made literal in MEDUSA, function both as a familiar, anchoring access point as well as a means of creating emotional distance. This creates a kind of tense, overarching spirit of irony throughout the film that is a far cry from the kind of irony one might expect from Quentin Tarantino or Hal Hartley.

All this is intertwined with a plot that, as would be expected considering the titular subject, also deals with the psychology of gender representation and relationships, loss, desire, and the relative value of the “heroic quest” for self-actualization. It is refreshing, to say the least, to view any film dealing with “the hero’s quest” that isn’t directly inspired by Joseph Campbell. It would be difficult to decide whose influence was ultimately more destructive to contemporary independent cinema: Quentin Tarantino or George Lucas?

MEDUSA is by no means a perfect film, but it certainly does a little to loosen George Lucas’s grubby paws clenched bloodlessly tight around the power of myth.

MEDUSA (1998)

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