Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ghostbusters


I was pretty psyched that something would finally force me to watch this movie, because it’s one of those iconic pieces of pop-culture that everyone knows about and I’ve always felt like I should really get around to seeing sometime. I went into it familiar with most of the imagery from its signature moments--the green ghost, the laser backpacks, the giant marshmallow man--and, perhaps more importantly, I was aware of the fondness with which it’s remembered. I’ve never heard a bad word spoken about this movie or anyone in it (I challenge you to find a single negative comment about Bill Murray on the internet; that shit just doesn’t exist). Even knowing the special effects of the eighties were gonna wind up a little underwhelming, its reputation as one of the big cinematic events of the decade had me pretty excited. Now that I’ve watched it, I’m happy to say: Yeah, it was pretty good.

None of it made me laugh, but none of it left me cringing at jokes that completely flopped, either, and that was with the comedic handicap of watching it solo. A lot of the humor was centered around Bill Murray being a jerk, and while that’s right up my alley when it comes to stuff I find funny, it just never quite did it for me. Maybe shows like Archer and Always Sunny have accustomed me to stronger doses of the watch-people-be-assholes drug. The goofier stuff, like nerds being awkward (haw!), hit home more often despite feeling kinda dated. Rick Moranis is awesome.

I thought the ghosts were handled pretty darn well. The movie does a solid job of steadily upping the tension without ever losing its lighthearted charm, and while the conflict seems to wind up having more to do with gods and demon-dogs than phantoms and hauntings, it maintains a deft balance of horror, action, and comedy right through to the end. The inclusion of a convoluted mythology to the whole affair felt a little at-odds with the tone of everything else, but it enabled that big spectacle at the end with the marshmallow man and the shaving cream ‘splosion, so whatevs. I flinched when the library ghost made a crazy face, I got spooked when hands popped out of Sigourney Weaver’s chair, and I had fun watching that green thing do considerably less damage to the hotel than Murray and his Ghostbusters. I liked it.

Friday, May 3, 2013

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens


It’s tough to discern what can actually be learned from A Christmas Carol. The story’s over a hundred years old, comes in more variations than Monopoly, and gets viewed/read/experienced a half-dozen times by every person in the world before they’ve reached the fifth grade.  Trying to objectively examine what does and doesn’t work with it feels almost impossible, because our experience is inevitably colored by our childhood memories and the feeling that only a cynical asshole would bag on a tale so earnestly heartwarming and universally beloved. I don’t intend to take on the role of that asshole here--I felt just as warm and fuzzy during this read-through as I did when I was seven--but I am interested in whether the ridiculously over-the-top romanticism Dickens writes with would be considered as masterful were the story released today. I don’t think it would be, or should be, and that’s not a criticism of the story.

The staying power of A Christmas Carol is possibly the best argument around when it comes to challenging the role of moral complexity in storytelling. The emotional direction of each scene is so blatant, so forcibly thrust in the reader’s face, I imagine even Ayn Rand might find herself thinking “I don’t know, man. Doesn’t that seem kinda heavy-handed?” Scrooge, his nephew, his sister, the Cratchets--Dickens paints each of these characters in the boldest shades of black and white he can find on his palette, developing each of his moral conclusions by saddling positive and negative qualities accordingly. Some might argue that Scrooge, in the journey through his soul that spans the length of the book, adds some degree of moral nuance to the tale, but I’d disagree. He goes from all-bad in reality, to all-good in flashback, to all-bad in flashback, to all-good in reality; his shift to the dark side isn’t a Breaking Bad transition in value judgments, but a switch that gets flipped on and off as needed for the story. All of the characters function this way--not as individuals with desires, but as one-note personifications of whatever feeling Dickens wants to express through them.

And what the hell, it works. I think we read this story less like... well, a story, and more like a fairy tale, where it’s okay to express a big, loud moral through perfect heroes and hateful villains (the three-tiered plot construction certainly has the ring of a fairy tale, doesn’t it?). It’s the kind of story you read to a kid before bedtime to reassure them the world works a certain way, and to that end it’s successful. While you’re not thinking about how Scrooge couldn’t have afforded to pay for Tiny Tim’s medical care if he hadn’t spent his life accruing his vast fortune, you’re immersing yourself in a reality in which good and evil are plain as day and the right attitude is all it takes to live happily ever after. It’s good at what it does. Great at it.
                
We’ve set the bar higher since A Christmas Carol, though. It might seem laughable to say while we’re fresh past of the glory days of Twilight and Fifty Shades fandom, but I think storytelling is something that’s only gotten better with time. It has to, really. Discriminating readers demand depth and complexity of their fiction, and, having read and become jaded to most of the deep and complex stuff of the past, the demand for quality inevitably gets set higher and higher as time goes on. I think this is a good thing, even if it means that treasured works of the past wouldn’t hold up again if they had to surface anew. It doesn’t detract from the magic of A Christmas Carol to argue that we wouldn’t sing its praises so unanimously if it didn’t come with all the baggage it does. It just reminds us how magical some of the stuff we have today really is.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Scary Dairy


Patrolled by police during the day and closed to the public at night, Scary Dairy is about as haunted as anything can get in the golden hills of Camarillo, CA. Only a splintered framework remains of the wooden farmhouse, but the graffiti-riddled dairy itself is still largely intact. The farm, adjacent to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, was originally constructed as a means for the patients to develop work experience and provide additional income for the hospital. While dark rumors about the nature of the initial labor and the murderous patients involved are common among highschoolers, much of the farm’s current notoriety stems from its regular use as a hideout for gang activity.

Word on the street is that the doctors’ treatment of the patients was largely unethical, involving forced labor, lobotomies, electric shock therapy, and a relative lack of confinement for murderous individuals while situated only miles away from residential areas. The hospital was closed down due to controversy over its methods and location, and after attempts to readapt the area into a prison, then a school, the buildings were abandoned. Some claim that the Eagles’ “Hotel California” references Scary Dairy and the adjoining hospital, though there’s no real evidence to support the notion. Paranormal occurrences reported to have taken place involve the sensing of negative presences, the rapid depletion of electronic batteries, and the sighting of purple plasma energies.

My friends and I used to airsoft at Scary Dairy when I was in high school, and a few of them were under the notion that the dairy had also served as a slaughterhouse back in the day. I haven’t found any info that suggests that, but I like the idea, fiction-wise, of so much blood, violence, and depravity culminating in one place. Were I to incorporate it into a story, I think I’d opt for the Shining/Hill House method of developing the location into an antagonist. Something involving victims going insane and viewing the others like cattle needing to be slaughtered. Or something to do with milk. There’s a lot to work with.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Paranormal Activity


I’ve never known anyone who thought Paranormal Activity was “all right.”  It’s either another innovative testament to our fear of the unknown or a boring, soulless attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on cheap production costs. “Oh, doors slamming shut are all it takes to scare you?” As someone who falls into the receptive camp, I’d like to confirm that they totally are, because in that moment we’ve got no idea what’s on the other side.

There’s gotta be something to the hot-cold split in the reactions to this movie. Those who hate it tend to claim it’s poorly made and those who defend it insist the detractors “didn’t understand it” (which I guess could be said of any argument over artistic preferences), but the all or nothing dichotomy really has me thinking that an individual’s reaction to this movie is somewhat independent of both the film’s quality and the viewer’s critical merit.

Some stuff just isn’t for everyone. Some people’s taste buds just line up in a way that they don’t like a certain flavor. Where a million different variables create a more gradual distribution of enjoyment for most movies, the sharp cutoff for receptiveness to this particular movie indicates that it comes down to how affected you are by just a few distinctive elements. How scared you are of a door moving back and forth in the night has a lot more to do with your own subconscious ideas about danger and the unknown than it does with the ability of the person presenting it to you. Granted, it’s a storyteller’s job to figure out which concepts will press the right emotional buttons, but in the case of Paranormal Activity, the filmmakers did just that. The people whose fear nerves got all tingly when an invisible figure began pounding on a slammed door can attest to it.

This isn’t an argument for artistic quality being determined by popular opinion. This is a guess about this movie involving elements of horror that simply don’t resonate with everyone, based on the fact that the people who don’t like it tend to feel that none of it was even slightly scary. I’ve felt some fear watching horror movies I didn’t like. I’ve felt some fear watching horror movies I ultimately didn’t think of as scary. If you came away from Paranormal Activity completely unfazed by a single part of it, then, I’ve gotta ask: Do you think that you experienced Paranormal as it was meant to be experienced and simply saw through shoddy craftsmanship, or that there’s a chance that the movie hinged on an avenue of horror that just doesn’t click for you?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Elaine Mercado's 'Grave's End'


               Well, it was better than Amityville. I know, I know--dead horse, doesn’t tell us much, yadda yadda. If I didn’t come into this one with a bunch of no-fun-at-all skepticism keeping me in check, though, there’s a good chance I would’ve bought into it. It isn’t just that the writing is better than Anson’s (It is. It’s a lot better, even if it still felt like there was a gap between Mercado and a polished storyteller), but that the entities being drawn up here simply feel more believable. For the most part. While there was definitely a turning point at which the spirits of Grave’s End began reading a little too clich├ęd or nonsensical to take seriously (looking at you, weepy bride and ghost farts), the believability factor remained relatively intact throughout, thanks in no small part to the tedium and anticlimax that washed over the text like a cold shower.
                Fiction usually delivers. It’s kind of its thing. When it comes to fiction we can legitimately expect that justice will be served, that emotions will define events, and that big, loud, meaningful things will happen. We’re so accustomed to stories working this way, I think, that we’ve come to associate the opposite of these qualities with reality. Compared against fiction, reality is slow and boring and rarely delivers. You’re a lot more likely to fall in love by meeting someone through mutual friends and talking than by realizing the lab partner you’ve hated for so long actually gives your life all the beautiful things you never knew you were missing. When I argued that The Lovely Bones invested too much in establishing a sense of reality, I viewed the tease of dangling Harvey’s potential arrest in front of the reader, as well as the subsequent dashing of our hopes, as an attempt to show how real it was by painting itself in very “anti-fiction” colors. This isn’t to say that I don’t approve of the technique; George R.R. Martin’s got a similar thing going in his Song of Ice and Fire series, and I enjoy the hell out of that. On the contrary, I think it’s extraordinarily useful when applied with some tact, and it’s what elevates the sense of authenticity in Grave’s End’s hauntings over those of Amityville.
                Grave’s End is largely just a bunch of waiting. Waiting for the ghost antics to escalate, waiting for the psychics to arrive, waiting for Elaine’s marriage to fall apart. Its events stretch out over the painfully slow span of twelve years, and it ends with their first proactive attempt to manage the situation through a fairly uneventful cleansing. The conflict arc plateaus after the first forty pages and drops off effortlessly in the last five or so, and I can believe the hell out of that. I thought it was kind of boring, and I probably wouldn’t read it again unless I had to, but it definitely has the ring of a true story. Whether Mercado captured that feeling by accident, by legitimately telling the truth, or through conscious effort, her book has a quality that I think most fiction writers are constantly striving for. If we can maintain that level of truthiness and still work in all the juicy perks that make fiction worthwhile in the first place, we pretty much win the game.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson


               It’s hard to think of anything worth saying about The Amityville Horror. The work’s notoriety stems largely from the hoax that surrounded its release, as well as... Oh, wait. No. That’s all it’s got going for it. The quality of the writing is among the worst I’ve seen in published material, fiction or non-fiction, and the fact that it’s reached a level of popularity so far beyond anything the story itself deserves can only be a testament to the power of... gullibility? Hope? You tell me. Part of me wants to give it kudos for managing to generate controversy and investigation in the first place. Anson and the Lutzes must have struck some kind of nerve to ever get that far, right? I wonder, though, if they’re not simply the first people with the gall to lie that boldly and in that particular way. Whatever the case, they managed to convince some people for some amount of time, and given how heavily fiction relies on blurring the line between reality and make-believe, there must be something worth exploring in that.
                Even under its initial guise as the recounting of a real event, Amityville presented itself as a story rather than a purely informative work. More importantly, it presented itself as a story intended to scare. Anson’s always sure to pepper an exclamation point or two on top of anything we’re supposed to be astonished or frightened by, and every now and again he indulges his pronoun-starved prose with the poetic flourish of a writer setting a scene. It touts itself as an examination of events, but its identity as a horror story is unmistakable, and for the sake of developing an idea I’m going to assume that it’s a successful one. I’m assuming that the people who read it when it first came out were frightened, and that anyone who’s read this far in my essay is on board with my stance that the story’s pretty crap on a technical level, because doing so allows us to examine a pretty cool dimension of fiction. Amityville’s success as a horror novel in spite of its poor artistic merit illustrates how significant the complementary relationship between a story’s emotional potency and its grounding in reality actually is.
                I complained that The Lovely Bones invested too heavily in establishing a strong sense of reality, and I argued against Professor Johnson’s essay on the inclusion of reality translating to better storytelling, but Amityville’s got me re-examining both of those points. All fiction attempts to produce an emotional reaction from its audience, and because artists have succeeded in doing so through mediums as distant from reality as cartoons and claymation, I’ve never considered maintaining plausibility as being that integral to the artistic process. Something worth keeping an eye on, maybe, but nothing to get hung up over. I think I was wrong. Our reactiveness to the events in a work of fiction is based not only on the value judgments being triggered but on the extent to which the author has tricked us into believing that what we’re reading is true. If the triggered values make up a story's length and width, the sense of reality is what constitutes its depth, multiplying the impact by making it not just something that resonates with us, but by virtue of being more "real" something that threatens to genuinely affect us.
                For the initial readers of The Amityville Horror, then, the shoddy “width” and “length” were experienced in conjunction with incredible “depth”. By simply adding another lie to the long string of lies that make up any work of fiction--by claiming that it was real--Anson could write all the clich├ęs and crappy dialogue he wanted and still impact his audience. I can only imagine how scared they might have been had this one-time-only opportunity fallen into the hands of a more capable author.  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones"


                 I’m always afraid of treating popular material unfairly in the name of insincere anti-conformity, so I do my best to give mainstream stuff every possible chance.  How “mainstream” Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones actually is might be debatable, but I’ll take the fact that my mom knows about it to mean it’s crossed some noteworthy threshold in popularity. Imagine my relief to find that I really dug the story, that I found the prose to be easily the strongest of any of the works we’ve covered so far, realizing a depth and poetic grace that Shirley Jackson, in my opinion, attempted and failed in Hill House. Imagine my disappointment to find that, after a powerful opening and a workable middle, Sebold apparently threw in the towel and opted to let her story peter out into a dull series of slice-of-life snapshots that everyone claims literary fiction is snobbishly committed to. I felt deflated by the time things rolled to a slow, yawning stop, and after looking back at the pages that I did enjoy, I realized that I should have expected it all along.
                The story is about grief and overcoming loss more than it is about seeking justice for a murder. I get that. That’s no excuse for spending the first half of the book toying with the reader’s legitimate expectation that events will develop into a conflict between George Harvey and the Salmons, only to look back innocently at the end of it all and say, “Oh, you were expecting resolution? What ever gave you that idea?” If poetic justice was never on the table, why show us so much of Harvey when a view of the Salmon family and the teenage hipsters would have been enough to explore the eventual focus? The argument that “it’s about dealing with the fallout of murder and Harvey’s one of the people dealing with it” doesn’t really hold, because nothing ever changes about the man. Every passage involving him only goes on to explain the depths of his evil and some off-putting features of his childhood, right up until the moment he’s killed by an icicle (‘anticlimactic’ doesn’t do it justice). It was a tease. Look how much you want him dead but nope-sorry-kids-life-is-tough-sometimes. At least when No Country for Old Men pulled this stunt it had the decency to make injustice the overt theme of the story.
                Harvey’s static nature underlies the bigger problem I had, which is that weight is never actually attributed to any of the characters’ decisions. Everything that happens is a product of coincidence, happenstance, or spontaneous insight, and the path each character takes is portrayed not as a series of crossroads but as arbitrary reactions to events they never influence. Jack just knows that Harvey did it. Ruth locked eyes with Susie once and remained obsessed ever after. While much of the novel seems to be establishing realism by denying any connection between value judgments and tangible consequences--Harvey does terrible things but he never suffers consequences; Abigail runs away from her family but nothing changes in her relationship with Jack--it saves its romanticism for absurdly hollow gestures like the Ray/Susie sex scene at the end. Their morally questionable intercourse is among the closest things we get to a climax (no pun intended, it was the best word for the sentence), and it doesn’t show us anything about either character we didn’t already know. None of the decisions did, really. Everything we needed to know was already told to us through Sebold’s beautiful, elegant narrative commentary, sparing the reader the burden of deciding for themselves what to make of the story’s events.