Melancholia, on the other hand, wants to have its empathy and shove it down your pitiful, tiny throat too. Its characters are less despicable than they are dull—because the movie happens exclusively in a hermetically sealed metaphor (It’s a castle! That’s a hotel! That’s also a golf course! That’s about to explode!), the characters are allowed to reap nothing of context, nothing of reference: we watch them behave badly toward one another and are never asked to care why. Kirsten Dunst is some kind of arch saint for snobby girls, her big boobs a silent rebuke to all those who do not take her depression seriously: she’s seriously depressed guys!
Melancholia: rich people acting shitty and then the world explodes—the final act, in which Dunst gets to tell off Gainsborough for wanting to make the world’s end “nice,” but goes and builds the movie’s kid actor a teepee to sit in as the planet smashes to smithereens anyway, betrays Von Trier’s basic misunderstanding of the human condition. Take Shelter: even in ending-less form, so pervasively empathic as to let us see anew the thin line we all walk in the stories we tell, or try to tell, each other and ourselves.
I saw Fright Night 3D on the sensible, square-toed, vaguely designer heels of The Debt. I saw The Debt on the trendy and brandless stilettos of One Day. Thus, I was prepared to endure yet one more sphincter-pinching round of the hot, stinky case of IBS that is Hollywood’s late summer. And yet…something felt almost cool, and nearly refreshing, as I moved my mouth around some popcorn, at once taking in awesomely effective squirts of Sprite and the crispy little tapas of subdivision that graces the film’s opening. Mark will say that FN3D suffered from a droopy diaper of a first act. And yet…I rather liked the scenes of the baked cow-patty of houses flung out into the distance of desert, the lights of Vegas glinting menacingly over the horizon. Though perhaps too much is made of the susceptibility of a “transient population of Las Vegas” to vampires, and the perfect cover that population offers because “they work at night and sleep during the day,” and too often, FN3D earns props for neither overdoing its nascent social commentary, nor indulging too indulgently in the meta-narrative that is de rigeur for horror flicks. Twilight gets its kudos, and some limited fun comes out of guessing which vampire tricks actually work in FN3D’s purposefully bland little world, but the greatness of this movie lies not so much in its willingness to inflect other movies as it does in its tentative steps into a world of its own.
I haven’t seen the original and have no plans to. What I liked about this Fright Night was its ranginess, its ability to juggle competing genres on their own terms. There is comic relief and something maybe kinda sorta about…the internet? our culture’s love affair with vibrant, freakish displays?…in the person of someone who is obviously supposed to be and yet is just as assuredly not Russell Brand. Or Johnny Depp. Or Keith Richards playing an old Johnny Depp playing a young Keith Richards. With Russell Brand on a bicycle doing coke off a tiny bicycle-sized rearview mirror in the background. Whatever. I really, really liked this movie’s willingness to call a spade a spade and go balls-to-the-wall on the casual misogyny. There is a scene were Colin “Feral” attempts to intimidate the main character, but cannot go inside because he hasn’t been invited in (score: that Swedish movie). So he lurks at the kitchen’s edge, pacing a bit and sniffing the air, describing the various scents the main women characters in the film give off. It doesn’t look much like he’s acting. And yet the women are allowed to be charactersas well. They don’t just get talked about and done shit to, they talk and do as well. It’s like: women get fucked, but whatever. When the final credits rolled to some sample of “99 Problems” I realized that I had just watched the nearest thing to cinema verite the vapid, desultory end of Hollywood summer season had to offer.
Fright Night 3D bores you with dumbness until you’re about to give up on it, then it bites into your neck with fangs of crazy bullshit. It pleasantly resembles Insidious in this way. An interesting premise that treats you like you are stupid—because, let’s face it, you are—until you forgive it for merely mirroring the void within. Then it rewards those base impulses with likeable weirdos wielding unconventional weaponry in a spree of set piecey fights. Colin Farrell Depps it up with dope, sprawling moronicness. The other guy who should have been Russel Brand but wasn’t was my favorite character only because he overacted on par with the bar the rest of the film set. The main character, a kind of skinnier, nerdier Shia LaBeouf whose name I forget, or rather, never knew and never will, did okay. It’s one of those movies whose first act is so exposition-packed that I don’t fault the main guy for being a bad actor. While he did not save the unconvincing conflicts at the center of these scenes, at least he did not worsen them.
This summer’s Cowboy and Aliens offers an interesting counterpoint. Whereas C& A opens a tantalizing present of premise to reveal a steaming pile of shit, FN3D reaches into a pile of shit and pulls out $5 you didn’t expect would be in there. Leaving the theater felt like having a slightly shitty $5 bill in my pocket. I was excited about washing it off and using it the next day, but kind of sad I would have to wash these pants before wearing them again because they are my favorite pants and it’s raining, so doing laundry was going to be a problem, since there is no washer and dryer in my basement, which means I have to lug a laundry bag two blocks to the nearest lavaderia. In the rain? Not gonna happen. So that shit would still be in the lining of the back pocket of those pants as they sat on the top of my hamper. And yet, no one comes into my room but me. And I would still have that $5. There’s a lot of things you can buy with $5. Well not a lot. But some things that are pretty good cost under $5. And you can buy one or two of them with it.
Never seen any of the Scream franchise. And yet their ethos has never even been a mystery—like, “what’s the deal with that scary movie, it’s about scary movies?” Like also how I’ve never seen American Idol, eaten at a Chick-fil-A, or listened to even a single song by Lady Gaga: their meaning as little splotches of candy-colored culture-poop on the vast sidewalk of media is instantly intuited and adroitly stepped around. Some products don’t need to be seen to be heard. Scream was the lay-man’s materialization of certain tendencies, or sets of jargon, haunting certain sectors of certain academic alcoves during certain decades of the last millennia, and its knowingness was both prescient and belated: in 1996, as I remember it, we were all still adolescents just realizing that a highly cultivated certain attitude could constitute a kind of epistemology unto itself—ways and levels of ironic awareness, the intricacies of which conferred some painfully pleasurable (dis)ease, some luminescent tumescence…in the ‘90s were we not all initiated into the humid bathhouses of the post-modern? Did we not dip toes in the tepid, bacteria-swarming water, flop our pudgy, bikinied bellies in the green murk, inhale the wet, musty funk of our immediate, pop-culturey past as it turned instantly and nauseatingly to barely-comprehended idiolect in ritual make-out banter? Isn’t that what Scream, with its sudden plunging of middle-America into the bright yellow pages of Genre Theory for Dummies was all about? Or did I actually miss something?
Scream 4 confirmed, for me, that I had missed nothing by staying away from that particular over-crowded, miserable, and garishly lit pool. Mark may try to convince you that this movie is fun, “like having sex when you’re drunk.” And yet drunk sex often leaves one with guilt, paranoia, infections—a set of real and really uncomfortable realities. Three days after my initiation into the venerable Scream-iverse, I can recall nothing of its codes, mores, and hues, other than Neve Campbell now simultaneously looks svelte and puffy. Also sad. Scream 4 tries really, really hard to be “contemporary”—to prove that its schtick is still meaningful, its currency still pegged to the market of the popular imagination. Once or twice it succeeds. The “Ghost Face” voice is now an app: smart. The opening Matryoshka of movie scenes: also smart. The shrill monologue some tween actress delivers wherein she informs a puffy—yet svelte, yet sad—Neve Campbell of the “new reality of the Internet: it’s not what you do, it’s what gets done to you BITCH!!!!”: not so smart. I couldn’t help but feel that Scream’s kind of self-awareness has a shelf life. Acknowledging your own awareness of the codes and conventions and constraints and reactions and expectations of whatever little mound of culture-turf you’ve claimed is a good activity, but it’s not quite an art. It’s also not exactly entertainment. It’s more like toil—its repetitiveness sunk to mere labor.
Scream 4 plunges us navel-deep into the conceit that made the original pleasurable. I felt something tingling in the fun-center of my brain for half an hour before I located it—the joy of trying to figure out who done it, or rather, who doing it, stabbing voluptuous starlets in the stomach and their nerdier male antipodes in the dick or the forehead—crossing suspects off the list one by one as they are killed or witness a killing, trying to guess who’s behind the mask before the big reveal. I didn’t, and this simple excitement hums, assisted by strong acting in half the cast; and dialogue, action, and satire that are cleverly executed exactly half the time. Scream 4 stumbles, but so do some House episodes, and so do some of the most addictive twitter feeds. You know what’s going to happen, just not quite how, and if Wes Craven’s direction is depressingly antiquated, and Neve Campbell phones it somehow sumptuously in, and half the good jokes are ruined by dumb ones bubbling up in their wake—the simple presence of a mystery to solve makes Scream 4 a far sweeter diversion than Insidious or The Roommate or whatever other scary feature is out there, coming soon, cobbling itself together in the void at the center of the vision of the savvily barbarian overlords we euphemistically anoint Producer with every ticket we purchase.
With better visual storytelling, 4 could’ve been awesome. Franchise detractors have always pounced on Scream‘s marquee self-awareness. Even in high school—small town, south Georgia—my artistic friends scorned Scream’s sniping the icons of their darling nostalgia; they wanted popcorn horror’s world to hold forever still. But as Rango and Inglorious Basterds and Toy Story 3—nevermind this very narrative—prove, self-awareness accompanied by bold and sensitive direction, writing, acting, etc—can work the well-wrought artifact into an abundant prism through which our very glimpse becomes a kind of key of light, unlocking the deepest, crystalline palimpsests of the sacred secret mystics call reality. Scream 4’s disease is weak expression, not post-modernism, and even then it’s only half sick. Frankly, we need more Screams in our forms. Or at least the ideal to which they Icarus-ly aspire. To enter prevalent, calcified, auto-piloted tableaus and decouple weary code from weary code. To pry open conventions zeitgeist’s jaws have clenched, steal gesture A out of B and hold it up while stuffing the void with C-4. Even when it fails this act is laudable. But, as I believe Hannah learned, going to see 4 for any of these reasons is to court your own disappointment. Go see it because you enjoy watching young people try to figure out who is stabbing them while trying to figure out how not to get stabbed using all manner of meta-reasoning while someone continues to stab them.
Insidious is like terrorism. Intermittently frightening, but 99% of the time a cheap narrative slapped down onto a bleakly stupid vision of the human condition. It slips between boring, intentionally funny, unintentionally funny, not scary, and genuinely scary. The story is about a generic American family whose shame about their private, imaginative visions of the world prevent them from sharing those visions with each other. This unsung longing—for freedom, sexual gratification, omnipotence, life—clogs the channels of intimacy and forgiveness that might otherwise characterize the practical, day-to-day operation of the family, cutting every interaction with a many-bladed, nameless edge. Psychic tension percolates, traversing even generations, as the gulf between private and familial meaning widens like a torture rack cranked steadily by the grim, star-knuckled hand of time. Conversations become surreally polite, or purposely apocryphal, and sublimated urges grind and undulate into grotesque clouds bulging and banging against the wafery veil of social order until they tear—with eloquence in art and violence in war—through us like their doorways into the world.
A perpendicular gulf: There is great pleasure in watching great actors grapple with roles far, far below them. Think Nic Cage in Con Air or Don Cheadle in Drunk History. But if the difference between good actor and bad movie and movie is not an abyss, matrices of dramatic flaccidity, like Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as the unhappy couple, or Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, arise. This of course the point of a movie like Insidious, and of a war like the one on terror. The characters are supposed to just competently be there, like the inoffensive suites of wallpaper that come with each new version of Windows. The point is not to look at it, but to click on other things. I saw Insidious alone in a theater full of drunk and stoned and very happy undergraduates. It made me jealous of when I was that thoughtless. Of when I too was possessed with an insidious innocence. The movie is unevenly enjoyable. A vacation through our collective domestic nightmare, glancing some humorous side-characters, and fleetingly inventive frights, with a long layover in the astral plain. Perfect for a date or a group of beloved friends with low standards, happily bored by their own political and existential terror. Click, click, click.
I didn’t actually see Insidious. The New Yorker described its leading little boy as a “nest of evil spirits” and no doubt the movie trotted out every weird-shit-on-walls/mysterious-thuds-overhead/doorknobs-turning-of-their-own-volition/static-on-random-electrical-devices horse in the Stygian stables that is the Possession Genre. Instead, I stayed in and watched a real horror film: Junebug. The fact that this movie is often housed under “drama” or perhaps even “comedy” should not fool you. If the pact we make with horror is a boozy, adolescent one—trading the pinot noir of plot and cabernet of character for the warm 40 of shock—Junebug attends to the murderous, blinding bath-tub brew that is actual terror, in our actual lives. Its potent swill of family, class, culture, and shame induces a visceral reaction that few horror movies can, for what we react to is not a “nightmare” (realized in the shaky camera effects and suggestive soundtracking we’ve been trained to recognize one as), but the contours of what approximates real horror in our post-secular, post-bourgeoisie, capriciously capitalistic, and endlessly commodified times. The camera freezes on interiors in Junebug as if a crime has been committed: the carpeted stairs leading down to the basement, and the fake wood paneling in that basement; the Stairmaster at an odd, sad angle in the master bedroom; the matching cherry dining set. Everything came from someplace like Furniture Barn or Wood Unlimited, and did so 20-25 years ago. Junebug’s protagonists are middle-class, and monstrous. When the prodigal son returns home with his expensive, elegant wife, what happens, happens. And it’s scary. And I hid my head in my T-shirt more than once.
And it reminded me of what else I did today: attend a teach-in. My political history is vague and unwinning: I once slept at a “peace camp” protesting the rerouting of a highway through contested sacred Native American ground in college. Then I committed myself to poetry, the discovery of sex and booze followed soon after, and the political, except as a whetstone for whatever theoretical model I was attempting to learn the jargon of, limped out of my life like a pudgy, discarded BFF. Distancing oneself from the grimy, sweaty, generally unattractive earnestness of “activism” is a time-honored tradition of the intellectual classes. Whether you advocate to rescind the inhumane system of capitalism in favor of a just and equal socialist nation (as one speaker at the teach-in did), or accuse those who organize events like the one I attended today as “whiners” (a-hem), you’re equally drowning in the gooey vat of diagnosis; in stopping at the café of the critical-descriptive, you miss the mad rush for the spit, where the hordes grill and devour the endless, rotten meat of the so-called civilized, and their civilizing process. I spout nothing new here. The facts I heard today were discouraging, and horrifying. The response I felt in myself even more so. For when asked to stand and chant, “Tax the Rich!” did I stand and chant? Did I want to? Here is Susan Sontag on Emil Cioran: “His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much—a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.” Sweet dreams, folks.