Monday, October 30, 2017

Culture/Horror Diary - Day 11/6: You're a Destroyer

10/17/17 – 10/30/17

Since last we spoke, despite my pledge to keep going with Karl Edward Wagner’s collection In a Lonely Place, I’ve thus far only read one other story. It’s called “The Fourth Seal,” and it strikes me as one that was likely one of his more personal stories. For one thing, when he died in 1994, he was working on a novel with the same title – presumably an expansion of the story. It also deals with the medical profession, and Wagner was a trained (though I don’t know if he was licensed, or ever practiced) psychiatrist. Judging from “The Fourth Seal,” Wagner viewed the medical world with a somewhat jaundiced eye, you might say. The story is full-blown horror paranoia, and one of the angrier and more political stories I’ve read by Wagner. I also didn’t exactly love it, but at least it’s clearly from his heart, something I can’t say about “Beyond Any Measure,” the last Wagner story I wrote about. Or if it did, he didn’t get that on the page.
Coincidentally, on some level “The Fourth Seal” does line up with a couple of short novels I read last week, and the two short novels pair off quite well all on their own. One, The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J. F. Federspiel, is, I suspect, a highly fictionalized account of the “career” of Mary Mallon, the titular plague-carrier. Mary spreads disease through New York City and environs, at first unknowingly, but after a while the awful truth of what she brings with her to every job dawns on her. Meanwhile, in The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, a medieval village, and the castle of knights that rules brutally over them, become the victims of a plague of infernal black spiders, borne from the face of a woman who tried to outsmart the devil. Of course, Gotthelf never calls this a plague, but you don’t need to strain yourself connecting it to the Black Death, and the stories that have grown around that horrible bit of history (black marks on the face and so on).
The Ballad of Typhoid Mary is something of a dark comedy, the victim of its satire largely being  America and class; The Black Spider doesn’t have a lot of jokes, but class, and how too much money and power can corrupt, and too little can debase one’s morals, is all over it. Thematically, in that case, “The Fourth Seal” fits in rather neatly, though its pile of corpses is largely implied whereas Federspiel and Gotthelf heave them at the reader by the wagon-full. Each of these works takes place in a vastly different era, so I think another theme is that death on a massive scale is ever-present. Have a spooktacular Hallow-scream.
*     *     *     *
It’s been so long since I posted that I never told you guys that I rewatched Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Well, I did! And it’s still fine! I made some points on Social Media about how the satirical point forces Peele to twist everything else to its bidding, and so as a story I don’t think the thing really works particularly well. But it’s still danged entertaining. Still, this “masterpiece of horror” nonsense can take a walk. Great cast, though.
*     *     *     *
I also forgot to tell you dinguses that I saw Indestructible Man, directed by that science-fictionally named Jack Pollexfen, and starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as a dead murderer brought back to life via lightning, a gift he uses to hunt down his former criminal partners. It’s not much, I have to say, but there’s something about Lon Chaney, Jr. that lends almost everything he was in a certain poignancy. Spider Baby is twice the movie with him than it would have been without him, and The Wolf Man lives or dies by what he brings to Lawrence Talbot. Indestructible Man never hits those levels, certainly, not even close, but even so, there are worse ways to spend an hour.
*     *     *     *
I’ll tell you an absolutely shit way to spend nearly two hours, and that is by watching Annabelle: Creation, a completely boilerplate evil doll Conjuring spin-off (this is the second one, at least!) that I had been assured was “surprisingly good” by I don’t know how many shit-brained nimrods. There is nothing to recommend it. It’s not unusually nimble as a piece of filmmaking, it doesn’t have any even meager, thin-soup kinda tricks up its sleeve. It has nothing for you or anybody.
*     *     *     *
I finally caught up with Eric Red’s Body Parts. All I have to say about it is that it seems like the kind of film one makes after one has killed two people in a bizarre, psychotically-motivated car accident, not before.
*     *     *     *
I got into a whole thing on Twitter with the director of Found Footage 3D (for the record, I did not seek him out), and I’d rather not tempt fate by getting into that again. Suffice it to say, the movie’s garbage and you shouldn’t see it. Also, I watched the 2D version of the film. I had no other option, but it still strikes me as an amusing choice.
*     *     *     *
Tomorrow, Olive Films will be releasing two quite different films on Blu-ray. One is the seasonally appropriate The Vampire’s Ghost, a title that is ridiculous, and which puts me in mind of the episode of that show Morton & Hayes that featured Michael McKean as Mummula (“part mummy and mostly Dracula”). But the film, directed by Lesley Selander and written by John K. Butler and the great Leigh Brackett, is actually rather good. It concerns an apparent vampire loose in an African village (this is mostly bad because the white plantation owner is losing workers), but what distinguishes this odd, brief little film is the vampire played by John Abbott. Abbott’s vampire is very, very, very old, and while he is evil, he doesn’t wallow in it. He’s just evil, by our standards. By his own, this is simply how his life has always been. The weight of centuries of life is on his shoulders and in his face.
Of course, The Vampire’s Ghost is also the kind of film in which the vampire tells the hero “I can only be killed with fire, but of course, you would never do that” and its ending is more or less by the numbers. But Abbott is terrific, and I loved how wrong the heroes were on occasion, or how weak they sometimes were in the face of this supernatural being. It’s a surprising film.
*     *     *     *
The other movie Olive Films is releasing tomorrow is the somewhat less seasonal Stay Hungry. Directed by Bob Rafelson, and co-written by Rafelson and Charles Gaines (based on a novel by Gaines), it’s a sort of mash-up of zany Southern comedy and zany, er, bodybuilder comedy? It features the first major screen performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is weirdly good here; over the years, he’s somehow gotten worse. It’s been pointed out to me that by playing an Austrian bodybuilding training for the Mr. Universe competition, he wasn’t exactly being pushed to the bleeding edge of his talents here, but I was still fairly impressed by the unmistakably human being he puts across here.
He’s helped along by the fact that, for most of its running time, Stay Hungry is a pretty amiable knock-off of Robert Altman in a light-hearted mood. It even has an Altman-esque cast: in addition to Schwarzenegger, the film stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field, and features R. G. Armstrong, Scatman Crothers, Robert Englund, Ed Begley, Jr., Fannie Flagg, Joe Spinell (who you’d want in your movie set in Alabama), Roger E. Mosley, and Joanna Cassidy. The loose plot involves Jeff Bridges trying to buy the gym owned by R. G. Armstrong to help out crooked businessman Spinell’s crooked real estate deal, but losing focus after he falls in love with gym employee Sally Field, and just generally having a great time with all these wackos. This being a romantic comedy, everything does sort of go tits up for Bridges, everybody gets mad at him, and he has to make things okay again.
What sinks Stay Hungry is that Bridges finds his way back into the good graces of his buddies and the woman he loves by (BIG SPOILER COMIN’) fighting off R. G. Armstrong who, it turns out, is a drugged out loon who tries to rape Sally Field. Well, at the end the film throws in the detail that Armstrong only got as far as trying to rape her, but the actual pair of scenes that deal with the attack imply strongly that he overpowered her. My guess is, at some point someone involved in the production realized that, even in 1976, it’s hard for a film to return to its previous light tone after something like that. And as it is, that “attempted” tag, even if I bought it, comes after the catastrophic lunacy of the crime, as it plays on screen, and the madcap antics of a group of bodybuilders capering through the streets of Birmingham. On top of which, you’d have to accept that attempted rape was sufficiently light-hearted to make the rest of this shit allowable.
So Stay Hungry is a decently enjoyable movie that very quickly becomes a ridiculous disaster. Enjoy?

*     *     *     *
Finally, I also read, in the wake of his very much-deserved Nobel Prize win, Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. Ishiguro is so good, his control so complete, that it frankly pisses me off. Read him.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Horror Diary - Day 5: At Whatever Pain to Others

10/16/17 – 10/20/17

I read just the damnedest story the other day. It’s one many of you might well have read, but it slipped by me for years. It’s a story by Conrad Aiken. All I know about Aiken is that he was American, primarily (this might be arguable) a poet, but also a prolific writer of prose. On the back of my copy of The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken is a very nice quote from Malcolm Cowley that reads in part:
Mr. Aiken…has never played the literary game – has never read his verse over the radio, has never been the guest of honor at a literary dinner or gossiped with critics at a literary tea, has never autographed his books in department stores, has never scratched backs, rolled logs, or mended his fences. For thirty years he has stuck to his job of writing, while living very modestly…working hard and never talking in public about himself…He is one of the few American poets whose work has continually developed in technical skill, in richness, and individuality…”
Pretty flattering, I’d say. The extent to which his prose, meanwhile, has crossed over into the horror genre I don’t really know, nor do I know if the stories that do cross over were specifically intended to do so by Aiken. Whatever the case, he did write at least one story which the genre has embraced, or stolen. Anyway, it’s called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and it’s about a young boy who, one morning, starts to believe that it’s snowing outside. It isn’t, and he knows it isn’t, at least it isn’t for anyone but him. He does believe that it’s snowing for him, and this creates for him a world of comfort, mystery, and a satisfaction that this is true but only he knows it.
As far as plot, that’s pretty much it. The story escalates when the reader begins to realize that this young boy, Paul Hasleman, is insane. The story’s about twenty pages long, so I shouldn’t say more, but this is one major source of the story’s horror – that a child has irrevocably lost his mind. Overcome by dreams of snow and an obsessive focus on the sound of a mailman’s footsteps (muffled, he believes, by a blanket of snow), Paul closes himself off from his teachers, his friends, his parents, his doctor, the rest of the world. I’ll say that this isn’t a violent story, but ends on a note of terrible pain. It’s horror of a different sort.
*     *     *     *
Another writer I recently partially got around to is William Sansom, a British writer who in his day was admired by Elizabeth Bowen and compared to Graham Greene. Like Aiken, there is a back and forth crossing over between genre and “literary” fiction (as there was with Bowen), and in her introduction to my copy of The Stories of William Sansom, Bowen makes a point of highlighting three stories in which the “[p]ortrayal of terror…reaches three of three of its highest levels…” These are “The Vertical Ladder,” “Among the Dahlias,” and “How Claeys Died.” In my view, only “The Vertical Ladder” (which is about a teenager who is pressured by his friends and the girl he likes to climb the tall rusted ladder of an old gasometer, and subsequently charts his terror) is really horror, or anyway fits any of the very many molds and many, many, many varieties of types of stories that have somehow crowded together in a massive jumble of styles, plots, moods, themes, and bottomless subgenres, that spills out over into every other genre, style, and level of ambition, to create what some people have decided is the horror “formula” (the influence of “The Vertical Ladder” can be found in a fucking Adam Green movie, for cryin’ out loud). “Among the Dahlias” is just a “crisis of the self” story, if that’s a literary term (it’s certainly stupid enough to be one), and not a good one – the last line is just the theme, stated. “How Claeys Died,” meanwhile, is excellent. It’s a war-haunted story about the ruins of Europe after WWII, and how a good, well-meaning man dies at the hands of men merely reacting in a way that makes sense because of a way of thinking that years of senseless cruelty had instilled in them by an enemy that wasn’t even close by.
But I didn’t find an actual horror story by Sansom until “A Woman Seldom Found,” which is just a few pages long, and which is about a young man who has traveled to Italy, and finds it lonesome and unfulfilling until he meets a beautiful woman who is interested in him. I felt pretty sure I knew where this was going, and in a sense I was right, but in a more important sense I was not. The ending of “A Woman Seldom Found” is simply one of the best horror endings I’ve ever encountered, wonderfully creepy, so unsettling an image that I almost smiled.
*     *     *     *
I watched The Ghost of Yotsuya, a horror film from 1959 by director Nobuo Nakagawa. Like so many great Japanese horror films of that general era, it’s set in feudal times, and is about a pair of women whose lives are taken over by two men. These men have murdered their way into the lives of these poor women, and they treat their wives cruelly. A ghost eventually exacts revenge, as they do. I wouldn’t belabor this, but I found The Ghost of Yotsuya to be pretty terrific, atmospheric and satisfying.
*     *     *     *
I’m back to reading Karl Edward Wagner, who I’ve praised here in the past, and who looms large over 80s horror. I read “Beyond Any Measure,” which is almost long enough to be a novella, and may in fact be one. This story has a bit of a prurient reputation, or once did. It’s pretty mild now, but it’s about a woman, Lisette Seyrig, and American in London, who lives with another woman, Danielle, with whom she’s having a somewhat casual affair (Lisette fully intends to return to America in about a year’s time). Lisette is happy, except for a series of nightmares she’s been experiencing, which seem to place her in the Victorian era, in a bedroom, with traces of blood around and something horribly about to be revealed. These affect her sleep, so she visits Dr. Magnus, an acquaintance of Danielle’s with ties to the occult, who believes in past lives. So “Beyond Any Measure” (a title that, common phrase though it is, in this instance comes from, it is eventually revealed, The Rocky Horror Picture Show; can’t say I was thrilled to learn that) is about Lisette trying to learn the source of these dreams, all while being carried into a high-living whirlwind of debauchery in 1980s London.
And I’m afraid to say that it’s not very good. Wagner was not an especially distinguished prose stylist, but his genuine power as a writer came from his wild imagination, which could be viscerally extreme, or just fascinatingly different – the stories collected in Why Not You and I? illustrate what Wagner could do beautifully. But “Beyond Any Measure” is too conventional to overcome his weaknesses. I think he must have known it was conventional – in addition to The Rocky Horror Picture Show there are references to Hammer films, to let the reader know that we all, Wagner and his audience, know what’s going on here. Wagner could often turn horror into a snake eating its tale with tremendous results (see “Sign of the Salamander by Curtiss Stryker, with an Introduction by Kent Allard” in Why Not You and I? for example), but here it’s all just references, amounting to not much. I plan on continuing to plug along with this collection, In a Lonely Place (which includes his classic story “Sticks,” the only story from this book I’ve read) and just hope things improve.
*     *     *     *
Kenneth Cook was an Australian writer who is now best known, certainly in America but I’ve gathered in Australia as well, for writing the novel Wake in Fright, which was turned into the terribly harrowing film by Ted Kotcheff, and featuring one of the finest performances ever given by Donald Pleasance (and a real on-screen kangaroo massacre that I could not endure). He died in 1987, leaving behind a manuscript for a horror novel called Fear is the Rider. For some reason, this wasn’t published anywhere until 2016.
Fear is the Rider, which began its life as a film script, is very short, and propulsive: it’s about a man who is driving through the outback when he meets, at a bar in one of the towns, Cook explains, made up of a handful of buildings that provide travelers with occasional respite, a woman. They chat over a beer and she leaves. Both of them are outsiders to this part of Australia, and he likes the look of her, so he decides to follow the route she told him she’d be travelling, hoping to meet her again at the next town. Along the way, though, she is attacked by what appears to be some kind of feral man. She escapes, the man finds her, and soon the two of them are being stalked by a crazed man-animal with an axe, who has stolen the woman’s Land Rover, leaving the heroes to traverse the unforgiving land in a Honda.
It sounds a lot like Duel, and it is a lot like Duel. The biggest difference is you see the driver of the other car. Or maybe the biggest difference is that it’s nowhere near as good as Duel. Cook’s prose, at least in this book, is nothing more than functional. It does function, but since the story provides little space some of the other traditional satisfactions novels can provide, a strong ear for language would have been more than welcome. And Fear is the Rider was never going to be able to rise too high in my estimation after the bit where the man, our primary point of view, finally has the drop on their attacker, who knows this land and how to survive it much better than they, can actually easily kill him, but thinks instead that he can’t kill someone who isn’t at that exact second attacking him. Never mind that this maniac has been literally attacking them for hours at this point, and is, in fact, at that moment carrying out a plan to trap and kill them; our hero is unable to act unless this monster has already opened fire on him with a machine gun.
What purpose can this have served for Cook? It can’t be a case of simple awkward plotting that led him to think “Well if he kills the bad guy here, the book’s over!” because to avoid it all Cook would have needed to do was not give our hero the drop on the maniac in the first place. So it’s “character development” I guess, but if so it’s a small drop in a book that almost by design doesn’t have much. So why bother?
Fear is the Rider isn’t bad, though. It certainly gets the job done, which is all, I imagine, that Cook hoped it would do. It does make me wonder what the novel Wake in Fright is like, though.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 10: The Anatomy Book

10/9/17 – 10/17/17

All right, I’m in a bad mood, so I’m going to blow through all this stuff. Which was sort of the idea behind this diary, and I’ve just let everything get long. Anyway:
On Friday, I finished reading Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake. It’s about two New York cops, one a plainclothes detective, the other a uniformed beat cop, who are best friends and live very near each other. One, Joe, the beat cop, decides to rob a convenience store one night. An impulse comes over him. He confides in Tom, the detective. The two decide to pull a big heist and retire. The plan, which eventually involves $12 million in bearer bonds and the mob, if a bit goofy, but while nowhere near the darkest book Westlake ever wrote, Cops and Robbers is not the light caper I was expecting. There’s incredible tension during the job itself, and in the cops’ dealings with the mob. More importantly, Westlake shows why Tom and Joe are fed up with the job, and with New York, without ever really excusing their turn towards crime, or even bothering to make them especially likable. His empathy is at a distance. He just tells the story of what these two guys did, and you are free to judge or not, root for them or not. I thought it was pretty terrific.
*     *     *     *
After his ridiculously titled (but not, I didn’t think, all that bad) debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, David Lowery defied what certainly had been my expectations for him by making a remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. “Huh,” is I think what I said when I heard the news. I haven’t seen it yet. But now maybe I will, because he’s third film, the nothing-if-not-ambitious A Ghost Story mostly won me over. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a young married couple, A Ghost Story is known, mostly, for two things: it’s the movie where Casey Affleck dies and comes back as a ghost that takes the form of the traditional low-rent child’s Halloween costume of a sheet with two holes for eyes, and for a scene where Mara, terribly aggrieved, sits on the floor eating pie. I think the sheet thing ultimately works wonders, I can’t really explain why, or anyway I don’t currently feel like trying. The pie scene is dumb, in the same way a later scene, involving Will Oldham (in, I believe, the only other speaking role) babbling on smugly about the universe and mankind, saying a bunch of stuff everyone already knows or can work out for themselves, pretty much. Both scenes fail because Lowery is suddenly reaching for profundity, telling the audience “Here’s me, being profound, or at least memorable.” They don’t fit with the rest of the film, which is slow, weirdly unassuming and unassumingly weird, eventually transforming into something huge and actually powerful. All the best stuff in A Ghost Story arrives quietly, without announcing itself through a horn bleat. It’s only gradually that I realized how original it really is.
*     *     *     *
78/52 is a documentary by Alexandre O. Phillippe about the making of the shower scene in Psycho. It’s a talking head thing, mostly, with a bunch of critics, film historians, famous fans, and experts (like Walter Murch) explaining the importance and brilliance of the most famous murder scene in the history of movies. Sounds good to me, and a lot of it is, but to get there you have to sit through maybe a half hour of “What you have to remember about American in the 1950s” jerk-off horseshit, the kind of thin, dull sounds-smart-but-isn’t “analysis” that is unavoidable because anyone can provide it. But when the film finally deals with the technical and aesthetic achievements of the scene, and of Psycho overall, and just lets loose with pure enthusiasm for a great film. 78/52 becomes pretty winning. I’d have given them ten bucks to cut Bret Easton Ellis from the movie, though.
*     *     *     *
I’ve been anxious to seen Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) ever since I first heard about it. In addition to being quite a fan of Baumbach (yes, I liked While We’re Young), it also marks the return by Adam Sandler to serious acting. This might seem like a silly thing to be excited about, but come on – we’ve all seen Punch-Drunk Love. We know what he’s capable of. And here, he proves he’s still capable of it, playing a character both similar to and quite different from Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. As Danny Meyerowitz, son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), an elderly, prickly, infuriating artist whose career never took off either critically or commercially, Sandler again plays a shy man prone to angry outbursts, but this time he is also, shyness aside, demonstrably mature (mostly) and socially functional (mostly). His relationship with his daughter (Grace Van Patten) is very sweet, and free of the kind of blow-up/reconciliation arc that gets rubber-stamped onto most films about families. Van Patten is really terrific, too, and I love the way her character is written: when Eliza, the daughter, is present in scenes of family turmoil, and The Meyerowitz Stories has plenty of those, you can see Eliza quietly helping make things easier, even if it’s just helping someone across a room, to the degree she can. She’s a good kid, which Baumbach simply lets the audience witness.
It’s not all Sandler and Van Patten, though. Ben Stiller plays the other Meyerowitz son, the successful one who moved from New York to Los Angeles. This is a cliché, but plays as real. For example, simply because Stiller’s Matthew is successful, this doesn’t mean he’s an asshole. He and Danny are two distinct people who still feel like siblings, who have a difficult father and are just trying to get through it. As their sister Jean, Elizabeth Marvel feels like an outsider, because she is. She’s not one of the sons, so the drama does not revolve around her. Of course, it does, as it revolves around everybody, but she alone knows that.
Everyone’s great. This is one of Stiller’s best performances, too, and one of Hoffman’s best in years. Emma Thompson plays Hoffman’s alcoholic new-ish wife, and she not only plays it with great authenticity, but the way everybody mostly just lets her go in favor of just getting on with their day felt right, too. Also, it’s funny.
*     *     *     *
I also watched Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and I’m going to be blunt about this: I loved it, and as each day passes I feel like I love it more. I have a reasonably good memory of Don Siegel’s original (itself an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Cullinan), and this one seems pretty faithful, in terms of plot and whatnot. But visually, Coppola heightens, to great effect, the Gothic nature of the story, about a Union soldier (Colin Farrell) during the Civil War who has been wounded, and fled the Virginia battlefield. He’s found by a young girl who is one of the few students left at a local girls’ school. The school is run by Nicole Kidman, seconded by Kirsten Dunst, and they agree to take the soldier in. What happens after that might inspire the use of words like “hothouse” and “repression.” Ferrell, a handsome man, uses his charms to both seduce, or try to, the women and older girls (including a rather snotty Elle Fanning), for his own pleasure and for the game of it all. This may or may not go down well with Kidman, etc.
Which makes The Beguiled sound like a horror film, but it isn’t. Everything that happens happens not because of evil intentions but rather human failings. You could describe the set up of the story, and a reasonable person could predict a lot of the rest of it, just due to having lived in a world of people. Farrell is a villain, of a sort, but no one in the film suffers more than he does, and it would be hard to argue the he deserved every bit of it. There’s a critical phrase that I believe has turned into a cliché, and I don’t know which film it was originally applied to, but in any case it applies here: watching The Beguiled is like watched a slow-motion car crash. It’s all insanely green, drooping trees and dim white pillared mansions, and wounds, and lack of medical experience, and terror, and pragmatic violence. It’s so good.
*     *     *     *
Brawl in Cell Block 99, writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s follow up to his horror-Western cult hit debut Bone Tomahawk, is fuckin’ nuts. Which fans of Bone Tomahawk might have expected. I certainly did, but this? It stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a former addict gone straight with his former addict wife (Jennifer Carpenter). In the first scene, Bradley loses his job. He comes home to discover that his wife has been having an affair. After beating the living shit out of a car, Bradley calms down and he and his wife talk about their problems. It’s decided – well, Bradley decides – that he’s going to go back to dealing drugs. Eventually he’s earning good money – his boss is rich – and his wife is pregnant. Then a job goes wrong, but instead of bailing on a bad situation, Bradley puts his freedom on the line to help the cops who’ve busted their deal, so that none of those cops are killed.
Once in prison, everything gets worse and worse (prison is not depicted favorably) until he’s ordered by Udo Kier to get put in maximum security prison so that he can kill a man held there in cell block 99, thereby squaring the books with the cartel guys who lost out big on the ruined deal, and saving his wife, who’s been kidnapped, and is being threatened with absolutely hideous tortures, to be administered by a black market Korean abortionist.
So Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that kind of movie. Bradley’s hardships are so intense, and the villains are so incredibly vile, that any audience member who doesn’t find their bloodlust to be whipped into an absolute maelstrom by the end of this may not be a human person. What I found odd about the film is how for a while it seems to want to strike a more or less realistic tone, until, that is, Bradley ends up in maximum security. That prison is not like any prison that exists on Earth, but neither, I eventually decided, is it meant to resemble one. Rough verisimilitude in the first half or no, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is finally a lunatic exploitation cavalcade, with just enough of that realism (helped along by Vaughn and Carpenter, who are both very good) lingering to make this crazy thing actually kind of moving at times. But moving in a way that fucks with you. That last shot, man…

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Horror Diary - Day 4: The Gentleman Corpse of Hob's Landing

10/12/17 – 10/15/17

I don’t think anyone who read Stephen King regularly in the 80s and 90s, when his fame and popularity were arguably at their peak and nearly everything he published was being adapted to the screen, ever wondered why no one had made a movie of Gerald’s Game yet. I don’t say that because I consider the novel “unfilmable,” which is a label that has been retroactively applied to it now that it’s been filmed, the context being “Oh I guess it wasn’t unfilmable!” I say that because I think most people would have agreed that a movie of Gerald’s Game probably wouldn’t make any money. One of King’s shortest novels, it’s about a woman named Jesse Burlingame who travels with her husband Gerald to a remote cabin for a secluded vacation, one of the aims being to put some spice back into their marriage. Gerald has expressed interest in handcuffing Jesse; Jesse has agreed with a mixture of openness and reluctance. Once this game begins, it soon turns too weird for Jesse, who wants to stop, but Gerald presses on. She kicks him away (in the balls, I think), he has a heart attack, and dies on the floor at the foot of the bed. Jesse, topless, is still handcuffed, and they’re not gag cuffs – they’re the real thing.
So there’s the extensive nudity, which most male readers, such as myself, probably assumed was completely unavoidable but which most actresses would reasonably balk at, and then there’s the fact that, while things sure do happen in Gerald’s Game, at least half of it would have to focus on a single person cuffed to a bed, struggling vainly to free herself. Entirely filmable, but maybe not a big draw for audiences.
Well, if memory serves, the novel was once in the hands of George Romero, who obviously never got it off the ground, but someone was thinking about it anyway, and now here it is, done, by Mike Flanagan. I really like everything I’ve seen from Flanagan, especially Oculus, and including Hush, his 2016 thriller that, like Gerald’s Game, premiered on Netflix. Jesse wears a slip the whole time, so there’s that problem solved.
Starring Carla Gugino as Jesse, Flanagan’s film finds very basic, very effective solutions to the “problems” inherent in turning this book into a movie (although let’s be honest: a film less worried about alienating audiences wouldn’t have needed these solutions). In addition to, you know, letting the lead actress wear clothes, Flanagan also keeps Bruce Greenwood, who plays Gerald, in the mix by having him appear to Jesse after her psyche begins to crack a little. He’s there represent the doubting, frightened side of Jesse whose inclination is, perhaps, to give up and die. That would certainly be easier. The Gerald part of her brain wants to encourage this. Flanagan also allows Gugino to get up and walk around by having her appear to herself, as her stronger, smarter side, who helps her physical self solve immediate problems, like where to find water. This is perhaps an obvious way to overcome certain cinematic obstacles, but they work, and they fit neatly with King’s feminist themes.
They also keep the film moving, and energized. Gugino and Greenwood are terrific, and though much of the film takes place in one room, Flanagan manages to make Jesse’s situation seem harrowing and terribly uncomfortable without making the film itself seem hemmed in. Gerald’s Game is given further room to expand by including flashbacks to Jesse’s childhood, to a day when her family was on vacation, and her father (Henry Thomas) molested her. This is a horrifying scene (it’s also the kind of thing that makes me feel bad for the actor playing the molester; this can’t have been fun for Thomas to play), and is the first strong evidence that Flanagan is going to adapt Gerald’s Game, goddamnit. This is underlined vigorously in a scene involving an attempt by Jesse to escape from her handcuffs, using a method that can only be described as painfully disgusting. I read Gerald’s Game when it came out in 1992 -- that’s twenty-five years ago -- yet I remember this scene from the book vividly (as I do the flashback with Jesse and her father). But reading it’s one thing; you don’t really expect to ever see it. Mike Flanagan’s previous films haven’t leaned very heavily on gore; even when he employs it, he’s used a light touch. This scene in Gerald’s Game is one of the ghastliest things I’ve ever witnessed in a film that didn’t involve actual animal slaughter.
The ending is a problem. I think it ends the same way the novel does, though for whatever reason that part of the novel is hazy to me now. Anyway, I can’t remember how it plays on the page, or what I thought of it at the time (also I was a teenager, so who gives a fuck what I thought of it). Tonally, though, it’s off – part of that is Gugino, who has always had a side to her performances that evokes a form of classic Hollywood acting – she’d have been at home making movies in the 1950s, and I have a feeling she knows that very well. But fundamentally, the idea for the ending is a bad one. A little bit of uncertainty never hurt anyone.
*     *     *     *
I’ve been wanting to see Tibor Takacs’s I, Madman since I was a kid and I saw the VHS cover featuring a bizarre black-clad, pale-faced, masked figure looming over Jenny Wright who was just trying to read a book, for God’s sake. I was struck by the title (I didn’t yet know that the “I-comma-something” construction was a cliché), and by Jenny Wright, let’s be honest, but mostly by the apparent murderer. His particular type of sinister visual design struck a chord that I can’t break down, but I find it compelling.
In the film, Randall William Cook, the actor in question, plays two characters, one, Dr. Kessler, only very briefly, in the story-within-a-story opening. But in that case, the design looks deliberately Nosferatu-esque (honestly he looks more like Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire). This is fitting, as I, Madman very consciously wants to play off thrillers of the past; Hitchcock is evoked very blatantly (so is DePalma, less blatantly, but the acting class that Jenny Wright attends reminded me of a similar scene in Body Double, and one of her classmates looks like Ken Lockman in Dressed to Kill), as are non-cinematic horrors, like the pulp fiction Wright’s Virginia reads. The plot actually revolves around books: Virginia is an aspiring actress in L.A. who works in a used book store. She loves a book called Much of Madness, More of Sin by an old pulp writer named Malcolm Brand. He wrote one other novel called I, Madman, which comes into Virginia’s possession under mysterious circumstances. As she reads it, the killer in that novel – who removes parts of his victim to replace missing parts of his own head and face – apparently appears in the real world, committing similar crimes. The victims are people Virginia knows.
And it’s a fun time at the pictures, although I wish the plot I described above didn’t use as its basic structure that of a police investigation. Virginia’s boyfriend (Clayton Rohner) is the cop investigating these crimes, and for some reason Takacs and/or screenwriter David Chaskin decided that some amount of realism should probably be injected into this intentionally unrealistic horror film via this route, but all I could think was that time would be better spent with Virginia investigating this herself. And it’s not as though this idea actually achieves the apparent goal of grounding a film that shouldn’t be grounded in the first place (though there is one scene involving a police sketch artist that seems closer to the reality of that process that most such scenes); the most relatable thing about I, Madman is the bit about becoming obsessed by a writer who only wrote two books, and one of them is easy to find and the other is a giant pain in the ass.
*     *     *     *
Yesterday I cracked open my copy of a horror anthology edited by Ellen Datlow called Nightmare Carnival, because who wouldn’t want to read stories from a book with that title this month? I only read one, as it turned out – I skipped directly to “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud. Ballingrud is the author of the novella The Visible Filth, which I haven’t read yet, and the story collection North American Lake Monsters, which I have, and which made my Best Books list a few years back. “Skullpocket” is quite different from the stories in that collection, which placed their horror, supernatural or not, within the recognizable lives of everyday men and women. By comparison, “Skullpocket” is a phantasmagoria of outsized creatures and images, and the horror is huge, immersive, and consuming.
The story is about three carnivals, and a man named Jonathan Wormcake. This man is a ghoul – an actual ghoul – who, when he was a boy, with other young ghouls on a trip aboveground, infiltrated a human carnival called the Cold Water Fair. This was in 1914, and something terrible happened there, something that led Jonathan Wormcake, as an adult, to take control of the town – unofficially, and benevolently, but unquestionably. All of this is either told to the reader or hinted at in flashback. The creature telling this story is Brain in a Jar 17, more familiarly known as Uncle Digby. He’s telling the story of the 1914 Cold Water Fair to a group of fourteen children who have been invited and compelled to Wormcake’s home for the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair (these children were invited not by Wormcake, but by the Maggot). On this anniversary, the very old Jonathan Wormcake is expected to die, and so he is being attended to and interviewed by our narrator, a nameless priest in the Church of the Maggot. The priest found his calling after being one of the children invited by the Maggot to the First Annual Skullpocket Fair in 1944. It is this priest’s job to make sure that Jonathan Wormcake dies pure. What that means is eventually revealed. Also, “skullpocket” is a game that is played by ghouls, and which is also explained.
All of this, I imagine, makes “Skullpocket” sound almost like a work of whimsy, a fun-scary story, possibly for children. The veneer is intentional on Ballingrud’s part, possibly because children, and their excitement in the face of knowingly artificial horror, is central to what’s going on here. But “Skullpocket” is horrible, and horribly violent, in a very adult way. If the story is, in its way, about children, it is also about how adults look back on childhood, and children. In addition to the 1914 carnival, we’re also told about what happened at the 1944 Skullpocket Carnival, as a way of telling the reader what’s about to happen during this seventieth iteration. It’s beautifully structured, with 1914 and 1944 alternating information, and existing, in their telling, now, with Uncle Digby and the priest, and Jonathan Wormcake waiting to die.
The most fascinating thing about “Skullpocket,” though, as bleak and blood-spattered as it is, is how it is sort of an anti-Thomas Ligotti story. Ligotti, of course, writes from the point of view that all human life was a catastrophic mistake. The tragedy of at least two of the characters in “Skullpocket,” however, isn’t that they were born, but that by the end they know that the nihilism on which they’ve based their lives is no longer supportable. This is a hard and terrible world, but it’s only terrible because we know it’s good. This is the basis of the horror in “Skullpocket.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Horror Diary - Day 3: Things and the Horror of Things

10/5/17 – 10/11/17

In the annals of both the haunted house story and the horror fiction boom of the 70s and 80s, one of the key (Stephen King writes about it at length in Danse Macabre) yet somehow now mostly forgotten modern novels is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, from 1978. Siddons is a best-selling writer of “non-genre” (whatever that means) novels set in the South and dealing with, as far as I can tell, realistic, or maybe somewhat amped up, human drama. The House Next Door, her second novel, is her only work of horror, but in Danse Macabre, King quotes her stating that she’s a fan, particularly of ghost stories, as written by Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, M.F.K. Fisher, and so on. And I have to tell you, for her one crack at it, Siddons came up with a truly ingenious idea. As the novel opens, the house which will be the novel’s focus, and from which all evil and tragedy flows, hasn’t even been built yet. Our narrator is Colquitt Kennedy, married to Walter Kennedy. They’re happy, comfortable Southern suburbanites (though not as comfortable as most of their neighbors; on the other hand, once Siddons makes this point, it ceases immediately to matter) who live next to a lot empty of any sort of dwelling but full of lush flora and whatnot. So when the lot is bought and plans are made by the new owner to build a house on it, the Kennedys are disappointed. Eventually, they meet their soon-to-be new neighbors, Pie(!) and Buddy Harralson, as well as, more importantly, Kim Dougherty, their architect. The Kennedys become fast friends with Dougherty who, one night, shows them his plans for the house:
Just before they left, Pie darted out to the Mercedes and brought back the house plans…The house to be lay in a pool of radiance, as if spotlit. I drew in my breath at it. It was magnificent…It commanded you somehow, yet soothed you. It grew out of the penciled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless deeps of time, waiting to be released…I thought of something that had started with a seed, put down deep roots, grown in the sun and rains of many years into the upper air. In the sketches, at least, the woods pressed untouched around it like companions. The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots. It looked – inevitable.

This, I think we can all agree, sure sounds like some house, all right. Eventually, the place is built, the Harralsons move in, Pie gets pregnant, and their lives go to hell. Following a tumble by Pie down the basement stairs which results in a grotesque miscarriage, their personal catastrophe culminates at a party in the house where, famously or infamously (in any case, this bit is pretty much always mentioned when Siddons’s novel comes up), Buddy Harralson and his handsome, married co-worker Lucas Abbott are discovered having sex in the downstairs guest room by Pie and her father, who drops dead of a heart attack. Soon after, the Harralsons split up and sell the house. This is about a third into the book, which should maybe clue you in to the second part of Siddons’s ingenious idea. The House Next Door is comprised of three sections, each telling the story of a married couple or family who moves into the house following the horrified departure of the previous owners.
Colquitt and Walter are there to witness it all, which is part of the problem. Given the way things play out, which involve various neighbors and friends of the Kennedys, as well as the Kennedys themselves, becoming entwined on some level with these poor families, and given that some of these neighbors and friends see much more of the tragedies than the Kennedys do, writing this in the first person, thereby making Colquitt and Walter our only point of view, means that several big events in the plot are told to the reader second-hand by someone else telling them to Colquitt and Walter. Also, Colquitt?? Anyway, it’s not even the “Did you hear what happened to the Sheehans?” conversations that wearied me the most. Worse than those scenes are the ones when, say, Claire Swanson, Colquitt’s best friend, has just spent the day with these new, doomed neighbors, and then goes over to the Kennedys house and says “Would you like to know the entire story of their lives, both together and separately?” This happens more than once, and these sections are the book are, let’s say, inelegant.
Also a problem, though this is one that you either have to accept or not, it’s up to you, is that this is not a horror story that features tangible ghosts or demons, so that when some characters begin to theorize that something supernatural is causing all these horrible things to happen, and for these people to behave like this, it is very difficult to accept that any sane or intelligent person would come to that conclusion. Having the Kennedys say things like “I know this sounds nuts, but…” before dumping all this nonsense on some unsuspecting listener only goes so far.
Furthermore, towards the end, a surprising and really off-putting vein of snobbery on the part of Siddons begins to stand out. At one point, the Kennedys are forced to shop for groceries at Safeway, which is the sort of thing you’d think probably could go with not being mentioned at all, but Siddons does:
The store had that damp, dingy, white Sunday look to it, and the people who were shopping were not the same people I ran into during the week. There were no tanned, hard-legged matrons in tennis clothes, no harried young mothers with small children in tow, no shoals of drifting blue-haired old ladies, no grave-faced chauffeurs with lists. The people were young, and many of the men were bearded, and all had the same damp, dingy white look the store wore. 

 “It’s a whole different subculture,” said Walter, looking around.

I caught sight of us in the mirror over the meat counter, two tall, slender, graceful people in well-cut slacks and heavy sweaters. I thought we looked like attractive strangers, people you see on the streets and in restaurants or passing cars whom you do not know but know instinctively are of you, one of your own.
Is it snobbery if the only people who are described in positive terms are our two heroes? If it’s not, then it’s something worse.

Later, the Kennedys story hits People magazine, as does their warning that no one should buy this house. This media attention brings a lot of outsiders into their neighborhood, to gawk and take pictures.
“They’re awful people, Walter. The ones who come and gawk, I mean. They’re taking pictures.” 

“Well, they aren’t the kind who buy,” he said practically, “and that’s what counts…”
Walter then wonders out loud to Colquitt if they may have accidentally lured someone there who would buy the house they otherwise never would have known about:

My heart froze; I had not thought of that. But then I thought of those sly, faded people, and I said, “Not one of those people could begin to afford that house. The people who could won’t come near it after this.”

In other words, the people who aren’t awful are the ones who could afford the house. The awful ones who can’t shop at Safeway.
This is all pretty ugly, and nearly killed the experience of reading The House Next Door for me, which already was an experience of highs and lows. When I say that the novel ends very well, eliding a pitfall I was certain Siddons was running heedlessly towards, I say it with a tone both complimentary and disappointed, because by that time what normally might have been a thrilling boost in my feelings about The House Next Door had already been soured. Anyway, I hope Siddons has been able to keep her ghastly shopping experiences to a minimum.
*      *      *      *
I watched a movie, sort of horror, more of a thriller I guess, a new one which people are talking about. It’s called Super Dark Times, which is a shit title. It’s about Teens, two of whom are best friends and who talk about sex in the kind of gross way teens tend to do. They’re nerds, and they both like this one girl. They also have other friends, and one day they accidentally kill one of them with a samurai sword. They bury the body, sort of, and throw the sword into a hole. This experience breaks the mind of one of the Teens, and by the end there’s more blood and much guilt.
It seemed to me that director Kevin Phillips and his writers, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, had really landed on something here, some sort of insight into the minds of young adult males, and early on, before the film becomes an uninspired genre exercise, maybe they were, or were on the way to landing on something. The title of the film appears over blurred, squiggly cable porn, which seemed to indicate that the films was heading somewhere sleazy, or more optimistically, to some sort of blunt examination of sleaze as it is regarded by certain types. But ultimately this choice doesn’t mean anything in particular, nor does the decision to set the film in the 1990s. This last bit came about because that’s when the filmmaker was a teenager and is therefore significant, and also I’m pretty sure so that they wouldn’t have to worry about how cell phones would affect their story. This seems to be the driving force behind a lot cinematic decisions these days. I thought Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, the two main actors, were good.
*      *      *      *
I also watched The Mad Magician, John Brahm’s 1954 thriller starring Vincent Price as a designer of magic tricks for other people who longs to take the stage himself. This is significantly more my speed than Super Dark Times, though let’s not go nuts. Brahm was an entirely capable director of such effective 40s genre pictures as The Undying Monster and, probably most famously, Hangover Square, which features Laird Cregar disposing of a body in a celebratory bonfire, something Brahm has Price do in The Mad Magician.
Prior to seeing it, I’d seen this film described as being about a magician who exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve wronged him via murder methods drawn from his own magic tricks. This is not strictly true. The bloody revenge is there, but only the first murder has anything to do with one of his tricks. After that his stage skills relate to the plot mainly in his use of a new kind of mask he developed, and which disguises him at first as a magician he worked for and then killed. In the story of the film, this is state of the art makeup work; I don’t know my special effects and movie makeup history the way I probably should, but I have to say, it did look pretty dang good for 1954. Also Price is wonderful, playing his patented merciless killer who is somehow also heartbreaking. Still, these sorts of folks should probably be stopped.
I liked The Mad Magician. Calling it “efficient” probably sounds like damning with faint praise, and it would be if such efficiency weren’t for all intents and purposes now long dead.
*      *      *      *
When I was a kid, there was a Catholic church in the general area where I lived (St. Mary’s?), not the one my family went to, and not close enough for me to have ever been inside that I can remember, but that had attached to it an urban legend, the source of which I do not know, the reach of which I also do not know, but that I have never forgotten. This church was notable for having inside it a spiral staircase, and supposedly what would happen is, if someone walked up that spiral staircase backwards while reciting the “Hail Mary,” (backwards or regular, I can’t recall), when you reached the top you would be greeted by Satan in the form of a pig. What happened then was strangely unclear. Nothing, as far as I know, though if this actually happened I have a feeling meeting a pig who was Satan would only be the beginning of quite an adventure. Anyway, I remember this story being told to me once by someone who acted as though they believed it, but I’m sure now they didn’t. They were a bit too casual about it. If I believed something like that could happen I doubt I’d ever get out of bed. But it chilled my blood all the same, and remains the source of one of the most vivid horror images I’ve ever encountered, and image that popped unbidden into my brain when I heard this story. And ever since, the idea of pigs as a symbol of demonic evil has been especially unsettling to me, even though pigs in real life, I’m basically okay with.
I’ve often wondered where the whole pig-as-Satan idea came from. It’s probably from Milton or, you know, the Bible, but it could I suppose also be from “The Hog,” William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre, final story about his occult detective Carnacki, the Ghost Finder. Published posthumously in 1947 (Hodgson was killed at Ypres in 1918), “The Hog” is one of Hodgson’s most famous stories, and though this thing was, for me, damn frustrating, it’s not hard to see why. (Real quick, I also read “The Thing Invisible,” a kind of false horror story, a locked room mystery in which Carnacki finds nary a ghost. I mention it here, and here only, merely to keep this diary complete.)
The structure of these stories is odd. A narrator, Dodgson, is a friend of Carnacki. Every so often, Carnacki will summon Dodgson and three other friends – Jessop, Arknight, and Taylor – to come over to his home, have dinner, watch him smoke, and listen to his latest occult adventure. So it’s a first person story, though the narrator has no personality or anything at all apart from a name, because the other first person story, the one that matters, is buried within. The amount of the story that isn’t told by Carnacki, that is on either side of Carnacki’s adventure, at the beginning and end, is meager, thin, and kind of pointless, although I of course like the idea of a bunch of British guys getting together in someone’s study to smoke pipes and talk about ghosts. Hodgson’s way of going about it is needlessly convoluted, but only if you bother to think about it, and there’s no rule saying you have to.
My other problem with “The Hog” is that, like other horror, fantasy, and weird story authors of the early 20th century, Hodgson’s interest in the occult, both of the light and dark varieties, seems to have been sincere, which means, unfortunately in his case, that there’s a lot of explanatory mumbo jumbo and nonsense about the kind of equipment Carnacki uses, and what it does, and even more bullshit about physical and psychical states, consciousness, dimensions, the magic power of colors, and the like. “The Hog” ends with pages of this, after the story Carnacki was telling his friends is over, after all the suspense has dissipated. I hope this sort of thing brought Hodgson comfort, or anyway interested him, which I guess it must have, but it’s a slog.
However, when Hodgson is writing about the actual horror of his story, “The Hog” is pretty strong stuff. The story itself is simple: Carnacki hears about a strange medical problem being suffered by a man named Bains. In essence, it’s a terrible sleep disorder involving horrifying nightmares, although Bains insists they’re not dreams. Giving Bains the benefit of the doubt, Carnacki assembles a complex “defence” apparatus, gets Bains in position, and such and such things happen, and eventually what looks like a giant black pit opens under the table to which Bains has been strapped. From this pit, Carnacki hears a sound:

“I put the ear-pieces to my ears, and instantly knew that I had succeeded in actually recording what Bains had heard in his sleep. In fact, I was even then hearing ‘mentally’ by means of his effort of memory. I was listening to what appeared to be the faint, far-off squealing and grunting of countless swine. It was extraordinary, and at the same time exquisitely horrible and vile. It frightened me, with a sense of my having come suddenly and unexpectedly too near to something foul and almost abominably dangerous.”
This sort of thing continues, and Bains somehow falls asleep, and to also sometimes emit unmistakably pig-like grunts, which Carnacki assures his friend is a very dangerous thing to have happened. Soon, some sort of hog shape begins to appear, or anyway its head, in the blackness, and it and the “infinitely remote murmur of countless swine” begins to overwhelm Carnacki:
“High up in the moving wall of the barrier, I saw a fluffing out of the black tufted clouds, and pig’s hoof and leg, as far as the knuckle, came through and pawed a moment. This was about nine or ten feet above the floor. As it gradually disappeared I heard a low grunting from the other side of the veil of clouds which broke out suddenly into a diafaeon of brute sound, grunting, squealing and swine-howling; all formed into a sound that was the essential melody of the brute – a grunting, squealing howling roar that rose, roar by roar, howl by howl and squeal by squeal to a crescendo of horrors --  the bestial growths, longings, zests and acts of some grotto of hell…It is no use, I can’t give it to you. I get dumb with the failure of my command over speech to tell you what that grunting, howling, roaring melody conveyed to me. It had in it something so inexplicable below the horizons of the soul in its monstrousness and fearfulness that the ordinary simple fear of death itself, with all its attendant agonies and terrors and sorrows, seemed like a thought of something peaceful and infinitely holy compared with the fear of those unknown elements in that dreadful roaring melody. And the sound was with me inside the room – there right in the room with me.

I quote so extensively, because this is pretty great as far as I’m concerned. It brings to mind the essence of horror as expressed by Poe, specifically in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “Premature Burial.” Hodgson may use “squeal” and “squealing” one or two times too many, but who cares. And that moment when Carnacki stops and says “It is no use, I can’t give it to you” isn’t a cop out – it’s essential. It’s as eerily descriptive, more so, than a list of sonic details could ever be.
A weird detail of the story is how Carnacki repeatedly asks his listeners (rhetorically, one senses) if he’s making any sense, or if they understand him. At one point, he insists that it’s very important that they do. There’s a kind of reserved longing about Carnacki here, who otherwise is just a name and a vehicle for Hodgson’s ideas and images. If dwelt upon, this aspect of the story might seem curiously moving. Maybe it’s Hodgson, dead almost one hundred years, forever forty years old, asking if any of this turned out to be true.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 9: Abhor the Moor

[SPOILERS for Blade Runner 2049 can be found in the body of this post. If you wish to avoid them, the moment you encounter to word "blade," become immediately alert]

10/6/17 – 10/8/17

Harold Bloom has argued (well, this being Harold Bloom we’re talking about, I’m sure he has insisted) that people in the 20th century, when thinking about the human mind, behavior, and psychology, is much more likely to use the works of Shakespeare as a reference point (whether they realize they’re doing this or not) than they are Freud or Jung, for whom this sort of thing was pretty much their whole deal. I don’t know about you, but this makes sense to me. A good example of the idea can be found in Othello, Shakespeare’s about a Moor general in Venice whose inherent but heretofore untapped streak of poisonous jealousy is raised to the surface by the sadistic manipulations of his ensign, Iago. All of which leads to the murder of more than one person, including Desdemona, Othello’s wife, by Othello, and Othello, by his own hand. “Self-murder” it used to sometimes be called, which is an interesting phrase.
If there is a work of art that precedes Othello which charts the deterioration not merely of the psychology, but of the morals, of a husband driven by baseless jealousy to murder his wife, and which, at least on this one level, seems today like it could have been written yesterday, I don’t know what it is. Shakespeare didn’t create this kind of man or this kind of crime, but unconsciously or not our understanding and interpretation flows from him.
Iago is another kind of creation, one who also seems modern in his motiveless, amoral scheming. Some motives are hinted at (and certainly, the possibility that ridding Venice of Othello will bring power to Iago is not something he minds, exactly), but they are multiple and not dwelled upon; Iago seems to say them so that Roderigo, the “gulled gentleman” who is Iago’s usual confidante, and eventual victim, will think that the man who is leading him around by the nose is doing it for some purpose other than madness. In the real world, especially the modern one, the men who kill their wives don’t have Iagos telling them lies because they want to see blood spill; these husbands don’t need them. But the impulse to commit murder is usually unfathomable to those who never feel it. We might as well call that impulse “Iago.”
Anyway, I read Othello this weekend. Finally. I was compelled into this break from my horror reading by the release on Tuesday of the Criterion edition of Orson Welles’s 1951 film version. Before today it was the last major Welles film I’d never seen (there are still two features I need to get to: Too Much Johnson, and I don’t know why that isn’t on home video somewhere yet, and Filming “Othello”, which as it happens is a special feature on this new Criterion disc (there may actually be three features I need to get to, if we can count The Other Side of the Wind, which some day maybe we’ll be able to)).  I’ve now been able to bring to an end the shame I feel over this.
Welles’s Othello is a hacked-to-the-bone version, stark and empty of unnecessary detail. By comparison, his similarly low-budget Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight are relatively opulent. But Othello was an infamously difficult production, taking three years to film, jumping continents so that one shot might be done in one country, and its reverse shot in another. I don’t know if Welles would have preferred it to be otherwise, but the result is that throughout the film, Othello (Welles), Iago (Michael MacLiammoir), Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), and the others are walking through and speaking to each other across empty castle hallways and courtyards that have been split into sun and shadow. Extras turn up only when there’s a party (figures) or a funeral.
This, in fact, is how Welles’s Othello begins, with the bodies that litter the end of the play – Desdemona, Othello himself – being marched along on pallets in a funeral procession, black against a white sky. Iago, a surprising survivor (though in the play it’s made clear that he has a period of intense torture to look forward to, at the end of which he will probably no longer be a survivor), dangling blank-faced in a nearby cage. It’s a terribly eerie way to begin, making Othello feel more ghostly than Hamlet and more macabre than Macbeth.
As I said before, this is a stripped down Othello, at least in terms of plot and character. Iago’s wife Emilia is seen here less than in the play, though when the character matters most, Fay Compton takes over. Desdemona, too, and Cassio (Michael Laurence), Othello’s lieutenant whom Iago strongly suggests is having an affair with Desdemona, are both reduced somewhat here, so that ultimately the fact that the play is about Othello, Othello’s brain, and Iago’s seat inside Othello’s brain, is highlighted. When Iago’s manipulations finally take hold of Othello, Welles plays the character as not merely furious, but terrified. He’s never had cause to feel jealousy of this intensity before, but maybe he always knew what might happen if he did. Now that it’s upon him, he’s afraid of what he will do.
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On Friday night, I rewatched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It’s still a great film, one of the depressingly few truly great science-fiction films. I chose to watch it because on Saturday I was going to see Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated sequel. This I have done.
And I don’t know, man. I didn’t like it, I know that much, but the thought of saying why in any kind of detail does sort of bore me. Which is fitting, because I’ll tell you, while watching Villeneuve’s 163-minute film (and I don’t like to make a big deal one way or another about how long a film is, but Blade Runner 2049 is without question 163 minutes long, Villeneuve will get no argument from me on that count), I found myself being thoroughly unabsorbed by what was going on in front of me. And here’s what was going on, including some of what the studio apparently insisted that critics not reveal in their reviews: Ryan Gosling plays K, a new-fangled replicant that, the opening text tells us, are programmed to obey their human masters, no matter what. And he’s a blade runner, which means he’s a cop who “retires” old replicants – any model prior to this current one. Well, during one of his jobs he finds a grave, in which is buried the remains of a female replicant who, subsequent scientific analysis reveals, also appears to have given birth. This should be impossible. Who is the mother? Who was the father? Where’s the kid at?
The answers to “Who was the mother?” and “Who is the father?” I’ll bet you can guess. Harrison Ford is in Blade Runner 2049 playing Rick Deckard, for instance. In fairness, Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Michael Green don’t act as though this information is any kind of big reveal. It’s the “they can have kids?” and “where’s this kid?” stuff that comprises the hook from which they hang their entire so-and-so. Which is my first big problem, because I simply did not buy that in this world as created in 1982 there existed replicants who could conceive and bear children. This whole idea seems to have grown, not naturally from the events of the earlier film, but from the desire to one-up Blade Runner. The problem is that, with Alien, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner is part of Ridley Scott’s great cycle of SF films about artificial intelligence, and part of what’s so brilliant about these films is that they bring the humanity of the various AIs right up to the cusp of the border between them and humanity. It’s the fact that they can’t cross that border (and, as hinted at in Alien: Covenant and Alex Garland’s similarly brilliant Ex Machina, may not actually want to) that makes the whole idea, and Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” speech, so haunting. Saying “We know replicants can’t be humans, but what if they can??” doesn’t up the stakes in the way that Villeneuve so clearly believes it does. It becomes a matter of turning “Is he killing people?” into “He’s killing people.”  And in addition to cutting the legs out from under the whole endeavor, it’s a stupid idea that they can do nothing with, other than to turn Blade Runner into a “find the child!” Chosen One story.
Visually, I suppose Blade Runner 2049 is “spectacular” although, again, when compared to the immediate, alive, barely functional mess of the original film’s urban rainforest, the Los Angeles of this new film, while it’s meant to be an expansion on Scott’s visual masterpiece, looks so delicately constructed that this tough, hardscrabble world looks like a light tap would shatter it. As far too many things are these days, Blade Runner 2049’s visuals have been polished to death. Blade Runner looks, and feels, like I could walk into it. Blade Runner 2049 looks like I would break my nose bumping into the glass dome encasing it. It feels like nothing.
Harrison Ford is good, though! I also liked Sylvia Hoeks as the evil replicant henchman to Jared Leto’s “Nazi doctor who is a member of the Hellfire Club”amped-up version of Joe Turkel’s Tyrrell from the Scott film. It seemed like they were going to try to do something interesting with Hoeks’s character (though naming her “Luv” should have perhaps been my first hint that they weren’t going to), but eventually she’s just a killer, with none of the pathos of Roy Batty. The thing with Batty is that pathos is where they ended. With Luv (God help me), they begin there. Or they begin with their thin-soup version of that. They end with her snarling.
There’s a dog in the movie who, when we leave him, has had a pretty bad day. When Blade Runner 2049 ended, that’s the only character I wanted to know more about.
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I also watched that Netflix show, Big Mouth. It was co-created by and stars the voice talents of Nick Kroll and John Mulaney (there are two other co-creators, whose names you’re free to look up if you’re curious), two comedians I am very fond of. It’s a very dirty animated show about young teenagers going through puberty. I mostly liked it, even though each episode had about eleven jizz gags too many. Hope you had a great weekend!