John Carpenter’s freaky Cigarette Burns is foremost a story about allowing oneself to be consumed by obsession. There’s a lot of obsessive behavior in this film, and at the root of it all is the obsession with film itself. Being that the reigning obsession that unites these characters is cinephilia, there’s a self-reflexive quality to the film — a movie about movie-watching — but it’s not in a cutesy or insistent way like the Scream films. It is a film that understands the peculiar obsessions of the cinephile. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema.” If cinema is life, as it is for the characters in this film, is it then also death?
Questions like these are far from the mind of Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) when he travels to the house of one Mr. Ballinger (Udo Kier) at the outset of this story. Kirby owns a failing revival house and is deeply in debt to his late girlfriend’s father; to supplement his income, he has become a rare-film finder, a celluloid detective.
Ballinger, who collects rare films and related paraphernalia, isn’t long for this world by his admission, and he has one last thing he wants before he dies: a print of Le Fin Absolue du Monde. Kirby thinks that impossibility – the premiere of Monde saw the audience riot and burn down the theater, taking the print with it. Ballinger says he can prove that there’s still an extant print of Monde somewhere in the world, which he does in a creepy and funny scene, and Kirby agrees to take the job. As he searches for Monde, he is forced to confront demons from his past; as it turns out, the rumored psychological effects of the cursed film may be true.
Writing about Cigarette Burns is difficult, precisely because the premise requires a lot of explanation. The title, for instance, comes from the little circles in the right-hand corner of a celluloid print that signal to the projectionist that it’s time to change reels (as anyone who’s seen Fight Club remembers). As Kirby gets closer to the mysterious film, he begins to hallucinate these cigarette burns, thus signaling that Monde is changing his subjective reality. All this is noted in the film, as is every other unusual point in the plot.
This is the film’s major weakness: It runs an hour and over half that is expository. The premise that writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan have concocted is so complex that it easily could have breached 90 minutes. There’s a lot of talking in this film, and it hinders the momentum. As Kirby goes from place to place and person to person, information is parceled out piecemeal; Kirby (and, by extension, we) learn something new about Monde from everyone he meets. Getting to that new information, though, often involves sifting through dialogue that only reinforces what we’ve learned previously. This structuring is necessary (if the first person he met told him everything he needed, there’d be no drama), but it’s also graceless.
Fortunately, Carpenter’s professionalism and genre expertise keeps Burns from getting too bogged down in dialogue. The script is talky but canny, with the occasional hard right into violence breaking up the chatter fest, and Carpenter milks these detours for maximum effect. (His sure hand may also be attributed to familiarity, as this bears a passing resemblance to his underrated 1995 feature In the Mouth of Madness.) The appearance of the cigarette burns keeps the viewer off balance, but not in a stinger ‘boo-gotcha’ way; rather, the idea that they can show up at any time lends urgency – a feeling that the world as Kirby knows it is coming apart, and he needs to find this print before he’s overwhelmed.
Reedus is very good in conveying this; Kirby’s already a bit of a burnout before he takes on the job of finding Monde, and Reedus makes sure we understand the gradual deterioration of his remaining mental facilities.
This, then, brings us to the final fifteen minutes, which coincides with the discovery of the print and Reedus’s decision to watch Monde. This is where patience with the more uneven aspects of Burns pays off – with the stage properly set, Carpenter and company uncork some truly unnerving images.
Late in the film, it’s insinuated that the power within Monde is of a nature beyond the sphere of man and that the title (translated, it means The Absolute End of the World) could be more significant than just words on a poster. So by the time it’s screened, the viewer has been prepared for all Hell to break loose. Does it ever. It’s not the film that’s important – what we see of it is actually kind of silly, and I think it was a bad idea to put a concrete face on something whose effect is so individualized. That effect, though, is what leads to the disquieting aspects of the ending.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is about obsession, cinematic and otherwise. Film going is a subjective experience – what you see in a film might not be there for me and vice versa. The most fascinating aspect of Cigarette Burns is the effect Le Fin Absolue du Monde has on the characters and how that comes out in different ways. People die in some fucked-up ways in this film, and it’s all related to their particular obsessions (the filmic obsession feeds into other obsessions).
The most effective of these deaths is the scene where a character decides to completely give himself over to the cause of art in a gruesome and inventive way. The characters in Cigarette Burns, because of their obsessive natures, cannot resist looking into the mouth of Hell, and for seeing the unseeable, they are each brought to their own demise. It’s the end of the world as they know it.
About the DVD extras: The main attraction on Anchor Bay’s DVD is the twin commentary tracks. The first is from Carpenter, whose commentary tendencies run towards the dry and illustrative. (He’s very much into reminding us what’s happening on screen.) Nevertheless, he does share a couple insights (the Willowy Being in the film is intended as a sort of Prometheus Bound character; the film is informed in part by an incident where he had an opportunity to view what was supposed to be an actual snuff film) and notes the accomplishments of his actors, especially Udo Kier. He also acknowledges the debt that this film owes In the Mouth of Madness, references Fight Club and self-effacingly points out all the stuff he feels doesn’t quite convince. Remember: Vancouver is not L.A.
The second commentary is by writers McWeeny and Swan, and theirs is a far looser and more cheerful affair. They discuss their experience as first-time writers and long-time film geeks (they admit that the script was a product of their geekhood, as the film’s numerous references to other works and filmmakers bear out). Carpenter is thanked profusely for helping them shape the script and, ultimately, bringing it to life. McWeeny gets the DVD’s best quip when, in discussing the idea of the Devil producing a film, he muses “Can you imagine the notes you’d get?” They also praise the dynamic insanity that is Udo Kier.
There are also four featurettes:
- Celluloid Apocalypse: An Interview with John Carpenter: An interesting short where Carpenter talks about his body of work and his experience creating Cigarette Burns.
- Working with a Master: John Carpenter: A typical hagiographic DVD-extra short in which participants in past Carpenter ventures talk about how cool it is to work with him. Despite my snarky summation, this featurette is pretty interesting. It offers a quick overview of some of Carpenter’s highlights as seen by the people who were in them. When did the space aliens take over Julie Carmen’s brain?
- On Set: An Interview with Norman Reedus: A short piece in which Reedus, in essence, rehashes the plot of Cigarette Burns and then offers a quick comment or two on working with Carpenter. It’s kind of redundant, really.
- Behind the Scenes: The Making of Cigarette Burns: Another brief one – this is an amusing montage of behind-the-scenes footage. Much of the material is used in the other featurettes, but this is still fun. I could watch Udo saying, “Put the sausage in me!” all day.
The disc is rounded out with trailers for the first eight episodes of Masters of Horror, a still gallery that is surprising in its thoroughness and a well-written biography for Carpenter that also feels a bit redundant, being that Carpenter himself discussed much of this in the “Celluloid Apocalypse” featurette, but still provides enough information to justify its inclusion. Overall, this is a striking film which has received a very generous package on DVD.