fiction

Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.

 

 

Wonder Woman and Growth vs. Proficiency

Is it better to prioritize growth or proficiency? Although this question is at the heart of education, I’ve been considering it in relation the the DC Cinematic Universe. Since its inception it’s been a C- student, completing the required tasks to get by (make loads of money at the box office) but never showing any real interest in the material (making a legitimately good movie). If we look at Wonder Woman in relation to the franchise’s previous efforts, it’s fantastic. It blows everything else out of the water by having a coherent plot and reasonably interesting characters. But I can’t help but feel like its praise stems largely from the horrible movies that came before it.

There’s certainly a lot of good stuff to be found in the film. It provides an interesting look at outdated gender roles and carries a meaningful social message without seeming hamhanded or pandering. In particular, watching Diana walk the streets of World War I era London and balk at its blatant inequality is entertaining and incredibly relevant. The relationship between Diana and Steve manages to avoid tired Hollywood romance clichés. Some of the action is well-orchestrated as well, surpassed only by one of the Batman fight scenes in Dawn of Justice. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, mostly well-done popcorn movie.

Yet it isn’t perfect. In any sense of the word. There is some incredibly corny dialogue. Most notably, the interactions between Diana and the film’s primary antagonist were not easy to listen to. Some of the directorial decisions were questionable as well, like the film’s painfully trite final shot. The beginning was a bit exposition-heavy and had a few minor pacing issues.

Despite these flaws, the film is solid. It hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre like Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s a strong entry in an incredibly weak franchise. Should this be enough to earn universal acclaim, or are we looking at the film from a pessimistic worldview tained by Zack Snyder’s directorial dictatorship? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate film from franchise at this time, and only time will tell if Wonder Woman is worthy of the praise it’s received. Either way, it’s good to see that the DC Cinematic Universe is capable of producing a watchable movie.

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

It Follows

A good horror film builds layers of dread slowly and meticulously, generating a nearly unbearable sense of fearful anticipation in the viewer before finally resolving it. It Follows performs the first step beautifully. Its voyeuristic long shots, paranoid circular pans, and corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the monster create such terror and tension that many claim to habitually glance over their shoulder after watching the movie. It’s a palpable, visceral anxiety that few modern horror pieces manage to achieve.

On the other hand, a good horror film also has satisfying moments when all of the tension is broken. This is where It Follows falls flat. The film’s monster is terrifying because it’s elemental and mysterious, a being that the viewer and the characters can’t quite fathom. The terror that it creates so effectively is cheapened a bit when it builds to fight scenes that pit a group of friends against an invisible, Herculean, shape-shifting brute. In order for a resolution to be satisfying, it must be compatible with the means used to build fear in the first place. Otherwise it can come off as a shoehorned action sequence intended to universalize the film’s appeal, which is never a good thing.

Don’t let me scare you off from this piece, though. It’s worth a look solely for its elegant generation of anxiety and stripped-down horror. But be wary of the action, as it dulls the film’s edge.

They Look Like People

Although mainstream horror has faltered in recent years, terror junkies have enjoyed a string of rock-solid films from independent studios. Check out my posts about The Invitation and Hush for a few examples. Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People is another hard-hitting entry in this dynasty of independent horror, but it brings some fascinating dynamics to the table.

Rest assured that, like most of the great horror pieces that have been cropping up, They Look Like People generates terror by slowly building tension and dread rather than through cheap jump scares. Blackshear pulls off some interesting moves in order to achieve this. (minor spoilers ahead) For instance, as a result of some repeated sequences that occur when the protagonist goes to sleep, I found myself dreading a terror lurking in the dark every time the day’s light began to fail. The film relegates its fear to certain times, warning the viewer through stylistic moves when a frightful crescendo is about to build. The effect is that viewers aren’t surprised when the horror culminates, but the built-up dread is just as effective at making the audience want to cower in terror.

The film also gives a compelling, cathartic look into the relationship between two friends. Without spoiling anything, it’s a beautiful story about one man who notices too much in the world and another who tries to block it out. The way these two men interact and how their priorities and affectations clash forms the backbone of the film’s emotional effect.

If you’re a fan of modern independent horror, or if you’re looking for a good place to dive into the psychological terror Renaissance, They Look Like People is worth your time.

Mr. Holmes and Shifting Perspectives

A few days ago I set aside some time to watch Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it. It seems like a Holmes movie starring one of the most beloved British actors in history would get a lot of publicity, but I really hadn’t heard much talk at all. It’s not a groundbreaking or exceptional film, but it certainly tells an emotionally satisfying and thought provoking detective tale that’s worth an hour and a half. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was the grace with which it weaves together distinct plotlines into a cohesive narrative.

The story is split into three separate series of events: Holmes’ outing in Japan to seek a plant that provides youth and enhances one’s memory, his final case that leads to his retirement, and his activities many years after his removal from the world of detecting. These three sequences could easily have been tossed together into a jumbled mess, but Condon manages to tie them together with poise and deliberation. Many recent films have tried to manage similarly complex plotlines and fallen flat on their faces (see Snyder’s participation-trophy-worthy Batman v. Superman. Actually, don’t see it), but Holmes never feels disorienting. This is partly due to the clear changes in setting that clue the viewer in as to what bit of Holmes’ story is being shown, but the key is distinct causal relationships between a sequence and the time shift preceding it. Every turn feels motivated, allowing the audience to understand where they actually are in the story and why they’re there in the first place. It’s very similar to chapter 3 of Brave New World, which I happened to be teaching the day after I watched Holmes. Huxley manages to wrangle the perspectives of three separate characters into a single chapter, and the result is one of the most effective pieces of worldbuilding in the entire novel. Shifts in perspective and time can be incredibly effective tools for a storyteller, but one must be sure not to lose cohesion in the process of utilizing them.