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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Guest Writer Brian O'Connell: This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster's Films

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This Horrible, Hopeless Machine: Politics in Ari Aster’s Films

Spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar below.
Ari Aster does not want to be known as a political director.
“I’m sort of loathe to expound openly about these things,” he said in a July Forbes interview, “because I’m not making a polemic.” In another piece posted on Inverse, he elaborated: “I know that I never want to make message movies. But a movie doesn’t need to have a concrete message to make a deep and meaningful impact…If the movie’s agenda is transparent, that makes me resist. A question well-articulated is so much stronger (and more trustworthy) than an answer firmly stated.”
Aster’s films certainly pose questions. Debuting with the critically acclaimed possession movie Hereditary in 2018 and following it up just one year later with the surreal folk horror of Midsommar, he’s quickly established himself as one of the most interesting and innovative directors working in genre filmmaking. Taken together these films paint agonized portraits of isolated, troubled people beset by terrifying phenomena: a grief-stricken Utah family in Hereditary, a dysfunctional millennial couple in Midsommar. Unbearable loss is the driving current in both, incited by sickeningly extreme tragedies early on in the runtime. The central conflict, then—witches and pagan cultists aside—is how the characters cope, or fail to cope, with this loss.
Aster has stated that the appeal of making genre films, at least for him, is having “the scope of a story match whatever the characters are feeling” (linking them to the tradition of melodrama). His primary goal is to express the individual emotions and lived realities of his characters, a feat he pulls off admirably. Hereditary’s Paimon, a demon passed down from generation to generation by an insidious coven of witches, functions as a powerful metaphor for the horrors of inherited mental illness. And the pagan cult at the center of Midsommar, which seduces Dani (Florence Pugh) into its perverse rites with promises of empathy and affection, disturbingly echoes her unhappy, codependent relationship with manipulative grad student Christian (Jack Reynor). But the metaphors of these films aren’t purely psychological. On another level, they are also stories of people inescapably trapped by sinister social orders beyond their control.
Hereditary, for example, is at least in part about the constricting power of gender roles: particularly societal expectations for women, and the imposition of outside agendas upon their bodies. Annie Graham (Toni Collette), our protagonist, did not choose to be a mother. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, she dreams a conversation with her son Peter (Alex Wolff), giving voice to her unspoken thoughts: “I never wanted to be your mother,” she confesses. “I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.” The “she” Annie alludes to is her sinister, domineering mother Ellen, who dies shortly before the advent of the film but continues to hold the household in her vise-like grip. The major twist of the film is that Ellen, unbeknownst to Annie, was the leader of a coven of witches, and that their designs have been on Peter—not Annie—all along. The entire plot has been an elaborate ritual intended to place the masculine demon Paimon, formerly trapped in the body of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Millie Shapiro), into Peter’s more fitting male form.
All this is primarily meant to symbolize the passage of mental illness down through the generations, but it also has relatively self-evident gendered connotations that come into sharp focus when looked at through the right lens. Ellen forces her daughter into family life and reduces her daughter’s womb and her grandchildren’s bodies to chattel for the coven’s purposes. She’s a stand-in for a wider patriarchal society that pressures women to rear children and fit in their socially-ordained identities. Significantly, Paimon’s influence is transmitted through conventional moments of motherhood: we see photos and dioramas of Ellen's breast- and bottle-feeding Charlie, implied to be part of the long-running ritual carried out in the film. Motherhood, especially compulsory motherhood, is here depicted as a kind of unspeakable curse, part of a wider societal plan that does not have women’s best interests at heart. (In this sense, the film’s sizable lineage from Rosemary’s Baby is starkly apparent.)
The elevation of the very male Paimon as the object of worship here is also significant. Paimon, we discover, specifically desires a masculine body for possession, and becomes “livid and vengeful when offered a female host”. Charlie’s female body, his original home, is thus deemed insufficient, and her brutal death is engineered to place Paimon in Peter. Annie is similarly sacrificed, turned into a satanic puppet who saws off her own head in a grisly act of occult reverence. But Peter, far from a willing vessel, is also victimized by this design. He is deemed a suitable vessel not only for being male but being “vulnerable”: permanently scarred by his sister’s death, he is an ostensibly emotionally “weak” boy, evicted from his body to provide room for a more powerful entity. As in our own society, masculinity “is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others” (to quote a Michael Ian Black piece for The New York Times).
The twisted vision of a nuclear family we see in Hereditary, and the controlling faction that breaks their minds and bodies, is a distorted reflection of our own society’s conventional “family values” and oppressive institutions. (The fact that the coven is led by women—Ellen and Joan, played by Ann Dowd—has an eerie resonance of internalized misogyny in a time where 51% of white women voted for Trump.) The film upsettingly concludes with three generations of Graham women decapitated, their ambulatory corpses bowing to a ceremonially crowned Peter, himself nothing but a hollowed-out shell. Aster may be adding distinctly supernatural flourishes here, but the banal horrors of patriarchy are far from the stuff of fiction.
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The cult or coven, as we see in Hereditary, will always function on some level as a metaphor for a predatory and warped social unit. This idea is amplified in Midsommar. Though Aster is hardly explicit about it, Midsommar is more overtly political than Hereditary: appropriately, since it’s a folk horror film, and folk horror almost always derives its terrors from the barbaric cruelties people enact on each other, generally in the service of some groundless and nonsensical belief. In Midsommar, the beliefs are those of Hårga, a seemingly ancient pagan cult living in the wilds of Hälsingland, Sweden. A group of college students, including self-satisfied anthropology major Christian, journey there to see a special iteration of Hårga’s midsummer festival, which only occurs once every ninety years. The trip is complicated, though, by the fractious and crumbling relationship between Christian and his girlfriend, Dani: an anxious, withdrawn psychology major who is still grieving the tragic loss of her family in a murder-suicide. As the cult’s ceremonies grow more and more extreme, so too does the couple’s bond decline, till both ultimately intersect in a fiery, overwhelming ending.
Much of the politically oriented discussion surrounding Midsommar has centered around the portrayal of Christian and his male friends. And indeed, a large part of the film’s emotional honesty and potency is how mercilessly it skewers the brand of shallow, bro-dude masculinity espoused by the grad students. As well as functioning as a metaphorical depiction of the “apocalyptic breakup” Aster hoped to convey, the cathartic ending has been convincingly read as a feminist triumph over toxically masculine victimizers. But Midsommar’s other dimension is one common to many folk horror films: that of race. From the moment the students arrive at the commune and the camera smoothly pans over the idyllic landscape, taking in a panorama of abstracted buildings and frolicking Swedish youth, one fact is blatantly unavoidable: Hårga’s (literally) glaring whiteness.
Contemporary paganism has always had a troubling relationship with fascism, and Midsommar drives home this relationship more than perhaps any other folk horror film. Hårga espouses a return to ancient traditions, an emphasis on “preserved bloodlines”, and specific ties to the land: ideas common to most fascist and ethnonationalist ideologies. Their primary colors are blue and yellow, echoing the Swedish flag, “to make the point of how wrong nationalism is,” production designer Henrik Svensson says. Their community, while seemingly utopic, is founded on brutish acts of euthanasia and human sacrifice—but, as Jenna Wortham writes in her insightful piece for The New York Times, Hårga never sees anything remotely wrong with their behavior. “[N]othing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.”
There are three people of color in the film: Josh (William Jackson Harper), one of the grad students joining Christian; and a London couple brought separately to the commune, Simon (Archie Madekwe) and Connie (Ellora Torchia). The latter are the first to realize something is wrong, but their voices are ignored. After witnessing a gruesome ättestupa, wherein two elder cult members commit ritual suicide to the joy of the commune (echoing the cult of death, another component of fascist ideology), they immediately pack their things and attempt to leave, but individually disappear. Connie’s screams are heard echoing around the commune, and Mark (Will Poulter) even comments that he’d seen her running for the trees, but, pointedly, none of the white protagonists do much in response. Josh later disappears as well; not only do the remaining characters not seem to care, but the oafish Christian even sells him out to the cult elders and insists “we don’t associate with him in any way”.
The film hints at these tendencies with little Easter eggs and details that might be missed on a first viewing. On Josh’s coffee table in the pre-Sweden scenes, we see a bright yellow book titled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark, an iteration of the runic alphabet. (In the director’s cut, this is even more explicit: during the car-ride to the commune, we see the cover, which features a large swastika encircled by a sea of runes.) Also on the car-ride, the students pass under a large banner, which, when translated from the Swedish, complains of “mass immigration to Hälsingland”, and urges the reader to “vote Free North this fall”—an obvious allusion to Brexit, and more generally to the anti-immigrant movements presently springing up across Europe and the world.
Before leaving off, it would be wrong not comment on Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith), the cult’s disabled oracle, who has drawn considerable commentary. A member intentionally bred of incest to write Hårga’s scripture, the character has been accused of ableism and insensitivity—but this seems to miss the point. Ruben is not an object of horror, but a victim of the cult’s purposes. He is an individual subjected to traumatic rites he does not fully understand (he is present during the sex ritual late in the film), born only to continue Hårga’s holy text, which the elders dictatorially interpret in any way that suits their motivations. Additionally, Ruben’s presence stresses Hårga’s obsession with their “pure” bloodlines, which ultimately extend to the point of inbreeding.
Even Aster, cryptic about it though he may be, acknowledges these aspects of Midsommar. From the interview cited at the top of the article, he explains: “if you also consider Swedish history, it is a very closed society and what does that really mean? There are things happening in Sweden right now that are echo[e]s of things that happened in the Second World War.” When discussing his own work, Svensson is even more direct: “[the sets are] pumped up, fascist architecture-style. I find it historically and traditionally oppressive, and this place breathes with it…It’s important to note that just because Sweden was neutral in World War II, that doesn't erase the fact that there were strong Nazi sympathizers at the time, from the people on the street all the way to the king. This is still in some extreme way[s] relevant in today’s Swedish political climate, unfortunately.”
It would be wrong to call Hereditary and Midsommar political movies, and equally wrong to call Aster a political director. Nonetheless, social messages seep in. No film exists in a vacuum, and in the stressful and intense atmosphere of the past several years, it’s inevitable that the spirit of times will be expressed in horror movies. It is easy to feel like we are all pawns in one horrible, hopeless machine: controlled by our government, our social standing, our cultural values. One doubts, based on his comments, that Aster will ever be an explicitly political filmmaker. But the peculiarly fatalistic attitudes of his debut features speak to the moment all on their own.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

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One of the aspects of dreams that horror films always seem to get wrong is that dreams are intensely personal to the dreamer. If one was able to watch someone else's dream, you would almost always find the dream to be completely incoherent with no understandable narrative. But to the dreamer, the dream is a deep delve into the most personal domains of hurt and desire. 

One horror film franchise that is deeply involved in the explorations of dreams and how we view them is the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Like most franchise horror films that spawned a seemingly unending number of sequels, the quality of each film varies from almost achieving greatness to utter stupidity. Growing up I must have seen most of these films dozens of times, except for one, which as a teen I found to be confusing and seemingly out of place in the series. That film would be A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Well, after recently rewatching that film, I now think it may be the best Nightmare on Elm Street, beating out my old favorite of Part 3: The Dream Warriors. 

Part 2 opens up to a new family, the Walsh’s, moving into the former home of Nancy Thompson, some years after her family and friends were destroyed by dream stalker Freddy Krueger. The film centers on Jesse Walsh, a teenage boy who is seemingly popular at school but has some deeply hidden insecurities and confusions. Jesse starts to dream of a hideously burned man with a glove fitted with razors on each finger. This burned man, Freddy Krueger, has sinister intentions for Jesse. Freddy wants to take over Jesse’s body, so he can bring his nightmare world of murder into the sunlit real world. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street takes the central conceit of the first film, that Freddy stalks teenagers in their sleep and makes their nightmares real, and inverts it. In Part 2, Freddy wants to enter the real world and make everyday life into a nightmare. It makes Freddy into this kind of vortex of unreality. He seeks to subvert the normality of reality that we take for granted and twist it into something malevolent and delirious, to make the whole universe a nightmare. It’s actually a quite brilliant idea and one that I missed on my first viewings. One just assumes that Freddy attacks teens in their nightmares, so I was confused why people were getting killed in real life, I didn’t get the inversion of the premise. 

In the first two films of the series, the nightmares are deeply personal, completely intertwined with the main characters. Nancy’s visions of Freddy had to do with her shame and hurt over her feelings of parental abandonment and the fear of losing her friends. Jesse’s dealings with Freddy centered on his fear of his body changing into some unknowable thing, and his deeply repressed needs and desires that felt alien to his concept of who he was. The visual style changes from the first to the second film to capture this change in focus. A Nightmare on Elm Street has these creeping phantasms of Nancy’s friends in body bags, visions of opened bodies and the stuff that leaks out, whether ropy innards or slimy crawling things. Part 2 has these Cronenbergian visions of discarded husks and bodies emerging from bodies, all underscored by this subdued homoerotic tension. 

How great would it have been if the A Nightmare on Elm Street series had kept going with the premise that Part 2 brought? That Freddy, and the actual framework of the film, was actually shaped by the fears and secret desires of the main protagonist. Instead, we got a wise-cracking anti-hero that spewed one-liners while finding new and ever more over the top ways to kill teenagers. There is a seriousness to the first two films that gets lost along the way. Freddy is more malicious, he isn’t saddled down by the ridiculous expectations of the later films. He is allowed to actually be scary. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street had a brilliant idea with the killer who stalks you in your nightmares, but was hampered by Wes Craven's directing style. While a lot of the imagery was beautifully surreal and disturbing, the pacing and the editing was just too fast, the film never allowed any kind of dream-like atmosphere to emerge. Anytime a scene started to get interesting, he would immediately turn it into a chase scene, killing the mood. Part 2 fixes the problems of the first one. This one has atmosphere to burn. The scene of Jesse sneaking into his sister's room, possessed by Freddy, only to see his sister jump roping in slow motion singing, 1... 2... Freddy’s Coming For You…, and the look of utter horror on his face is simply devastating. 

I think that like Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, this one is due for a rediscovery by horror fans. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is a film that showed how much could have been done with the series. It pushed the boundaries of the franchise while also blazing its own trail. The film is both a vital part of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and completely capable of standing on its own. 9...10… Never Sleep Again...

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review: Song for the Unraveling of the World

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Sometimes you hear a writer's name over and over and know you should check out their work, but with the deluge of books on the market, they can get lost in the shuffle. One writer I heard a lot of talk about but never really read any of their work was Brian Evenson. Then one day I ran across his short story A Seaside Town, in the anthology Year’s Best Weird Fiction vol 3. It blew me away. A perfect mix of nebulous dread and ambiguity. Then I ran across his collection A Collapse of Horses at a local bookstore. That collection left me unnerved and confused in the best possible way. I would say I enjoyed reading A Collapse of Horses as much as my first readings of Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco or Kiernan’s The Ammonite Violin. Which my constant readers can tell you that is of the highest praise from me. Well, Evenson has dropped another collection upon an unsuspecting public. Song for the Unraveling of the World just came out and I rushed to get a copy. I was not disappointed. Evenson is a writer who writes in many different genres, but for me, I prefer his work that is more dedicated horror. And in terms of horror, A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World are companion pieces and the most direct examples of his darker work. They both mix and match genres and influences, but both are top tier works of hallucinogenic horror. 

A Collapse of Horses was a pandora's box of unsetting work. It showcased his use of genre to set up expectations in the reader that he had no intention of fulfilling, instead taking a left turn into absolute insanity. For instance, you would start a story that seemed like a horror-flavored western, only to leave the story not even sure what you just read, or if you had actually had some kind of aneurysm and hallucinated the entire reading experience. A Collapse of Horses is an absolute attack on the reader. Bodies that should be dead are talking to you, horses are neither alive nor dead, dark shapes lurk in the trees or across the street always just past direct sight, people blend and blur their personalities, reading Evenson is like being on the verge of having a post-acid trip anxiety attack. I have a lot of favorites in this collection, but the one that left the most striking impression on me was the title story A Collapse of Horses, I actually had to take a break after reading it, the sense of a menacing delirium that engulfed me after reading that story was overwhelming. 

Evenson’s new collection, Song for the Unraveling of the World, has a more scifi/speculative flavor. Whereas in A Collapse of Horses, which focused more on stories that took place in a more realistic and current setting, only to twist what you thought was familiar in unsettlingly surreal ways, to explore the unknowable nature of reality, Song for the Unraveling of the World focuses on the interchangeable nature of appearances and the skin, often in more fictional worlds or far future settings. Skins are discarded, exchanged, and worn throughout this collection. It certainly adds a more body horror flavor to this one. There is also some more pulpy scifi and even some nods to Lovecraft, which makes for a wonderful variance in the stories. But to me, his strongest work again is his most mind-twisting work. My personal favorite may be Born Stillborn, a noxious tale of a man who sees a therapist in the daytime, and the therapist who visits him in his room at night. They may be the same therapist, or they may not. They may have his best intentions at heart, or they may not.

I feel that A Collapse of Horses may be the greatest horror collection of the past ten years. So the expectations were ridiculously high for his new one. I was not disappointed. Different enough to feel fresh, but still everything that I look for in a collection from Evenson. I highly recommend you don’t be like me and wait on reading his work. He is at the prime of his talents and may just be the most important horror writer working today.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Infinite Mutability of the Flesh: Some thoughts on David Lynch and Thomas Ligotti.

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I have long held the maxim, if you would like to know me better, I would suggest a viewing of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead or a reading of one of what are my two favorite Thomas Ligotti collections, Grimscribe or Teatro Grottesco. What is it about these works that I find such a deep connection with? They certainly are not for everyone’s tastes. I think if you lent one of these to most of your friends, they would come back with a dismissive “ What the hell was that? That was just weird… “ reaction, usually accompanied with a look of disgust. I think these are works best enjoyed in seclusion. These are works I find too deep and too honest, so far away from the banal superhero blockbusters and the life-affirming novels of mainstream culture. Unlike whatever film everyone is talking about on the news and is playing at all the theaters, these works speak to me, and the existence and experience I live. They talk about truths no one wants to think about in their wage slave day to day lives, and presented with a pessimistic humor that is not at all funny.

The illusion of normal society. The horror of existence and consciousness. The utter fraud of social norms. These are some of the issues that both Lynch and Ligotti both keep interrogating again and again in their work. Ask anyone what they plan for their lives to be like. Most people will respond with what most would consider to be the healthiest and sanest answers. Go to college. Marry. Have kids. Retire. Maybe join the military. Help out at church. These people view mankind as the creation of a loving God. And they see the universe as one where everyone has a pre-planned destiny that they are meant to fulfill. But for a small minority, they see life in a very different light. They wake to find themselves existing in a bizarre sack of flesh, always on the verge of madness or injury. We move around to satisfy desires and impulses that seem alien to us, certainly not of our own making. We live just long enough to watch our bodies rot and our minds falter. And to see people finding an intelligent design or a heartwarming meaning in this hideous obscenity of existence, is the height of comedy.

In Eraserhead we find a man and a woman trying, or are trapped into trying, to create what is called a family. Except for the whole notion of birthing some screaming thing into the world is nightmarish. Carrying around some alien thing in your body, a parasite, and then thrusting it into the world covered in blood and placenta, and how most people see this as the holiest of acts, is the height of absurd comedy. Eraserhead is a feverscape of rusted industrial parts that belong to no known machine and swampy terrain of reproductive organs. Our bodies reveal their own strangeness with every abhorrent birth. Midnight desires result in these strange mutants things emerging from our wombs. In Lynch’s world, sex is never erotic. It is baffling and uncomfortable. But decaying factories, figures half seen in smoke and shadow, the aberrations of the body, are of the highest rank of eroticism.

In Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, we find a small town as dissected corpse. Boy scouts falling into sadistic sexual games with mysterious women. The undeniable pull of the perverse on the seemingly wholesome and moral townsfolk. And the underbelly of insectile urges and the all-encompassing drive to self-destruction. The social contract that we believe is there, a need to better ourselves as a community, the basic kindness of mankind, the safety net of our police forces, are seen for what they are, comfortable illusions against the darkness just underneath the surface. As the film’s demented Frank Booth says, “ Don’t be a good neighbor to her!! “.

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In Ligotti’s chilling short story Our Temporary Supervisor, we find a factory wage slave slowly falling apart working day after day. Until one day he comes into work and finds there is a new manager. Only this manager only lurks behind the office door. The manager is seen as a vague dark ripple. It may have arm protrusions and head parts. But it is definitely not human. With the new manager comes new nonsensical work requirements and longer hours. And if an employee even thinks about leaving, the new manager makes it known the nightmarish consequences that would befall on one who tried to leave. Definitely one of my favorite short stories. And the thing that makes it even more disturbing? How far away from the reality of working life is this? At most jobs, your boss might as well be some inhuman entity, and what they ask from you is just you work yourself to death. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just not afford to pay your rent or be able to afford groceries. The idea of a career for most people is more disturbing than what most horror stories are able to convey.

In The Last Feast of Harlequin, Ligotti has his fictional agents of nightmare dress up as hideous clowns, a perfect metaphor for his view of existence. But also, like in most Ligotti stories, darkness covers even deeper darkness. It is revealed that the ridiculous clown makeup is only covering another mask. In the downtrodden ending, when these clowns mutate and bodily descend into these humanoid worms, belonging to some ancient cult that worships non-existence, the disguise rots away, revealing yet another, even more, hideous disguise. The worm behind the clown makeup may be a perfect symbol of the Ligottian “ normal productive citizen “.  

      We find in their own ways, I think both Ligotti and Lynch share a similar worldview, but from different angles. Lynch see this world of mutant bodies lost in smoke and shadow in an extremely optimistic way. He is fascinated by this world and uses his art to delve into the furthest limits. He sees beauty where others would only see disgust. Lynch fully engages in existence. Ligotti, on the other hand, is extremely pessimistic. He sees existence as something to escape from. He uses his art to wrap the world in a veil of nightmare, to make slow self-destruction the highest art. Ligotti, in discussing Lovecraft, wrote about how “ the great dream of supernatural literature is to convey with the greatest possible intensity a vision of the universe as a kind of enchanting nightmare. “ I think this is one of the most profound statements on horror fiction I have ever heard. When you ask most people what the value of horror is, you get the same tired and untrue statements like, “ it’s a preparation for being able to deal with bad times, it’s a rollercoaster ride, it’s to speak on social issues that are taboo “. Sure those are parts of it. But I think the main purpose of horror is to take the abject things, the horrible parts of life, and create a poetry of them. Ligotti in his pessimism and Lynch in his optimism, complete the duality of horror. To take the mystery and ultimate unknowableness of life and make it an object of worship. To take the nightmare, and enchant you with it. To descend into black depths, far beyond all light, and sing.