Gone Girl and Others: Connecting the Dots to Politicize Fiction

Fiction has long been a battleground for political and philosophical warfare. The latest movie and novel commandeered by many commentators–professional and recreational–is Gone Girl. And it strikes me as a little absurd.

A little preface before I go on. For starters, I’m not big on post-modern “death of the author” stuff for this precise reason. As soon as you tell an author that their opinion of the meaning of their own work isn’t more valuable than someone else’s interpretation, you allow the interpreter to comment directly on the author themselves. The work by itself isn’t misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, etc.; the author, by necessary extension is also what the book is accused of, and I can’t be cool with accusing someone of that unless it’s blatantly obvious. Secondly, in general, I tend to have a bias toward investing more in the story itself than deeper meanings and politics of the story, particularly when you can’t draw a straight line between the story or a character and what they’re allegedly supposed to represent in the real world. Lastly, be warned, spoilers ahoy.

Getting right to the point, the biggest controversy over the movie adaptation of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is whether or not the female antagonist, Amy, is a misogynistic character representing sexist stereotypes of a crazy manipulative woman who fakes sexual assault and abuse to get her way. Now, it’s obviously sick and sad that such stereotypes exist, and I’d be an idiot to think that there are no people out there, already nursing those beliefs, who wouldn’t see Amy as reinforcing their fucked up notions of how women are programmed to behave. But those people are nutjobs who are liable to see anything as reinforcement of their beliefs. We have to pay attention to the nutjobs, as Bill Burr hilariously pointed out once upon a time, but we shouldn’t be letting them drive the gotdamn conversation. Amy is not just a “crazy woman scorned who went over the edge,” or some shit. She’s a supervillain. She’s Hannibal Lecter. She’s Tom Ripley. She’s Ferris Bueller. She’s an urbane psychopath, the murderer in what amounts to a satirical horror-thriller. I’ve met some pleasant people in my day. I’ve met some fucked up people. I’ve even met one person who literally attempted to murder me. None of these people are anywhere near the level of Amy’s character. She’s an exceptional fictional sociopath. A Bond villain who sets a trap for her victim, steps away to let the trap play out, and actually succeeds. She is in no more directly representative of any group of “normal” people in the real world than Victor Zsasz or Catherine Tramell.

If you want to somehow relate her to certain negative female stereotypes, you have to at least recognize and acknowledge that A) you’re playing connect the dots, and B) at least a couple of those dots don’t exist unless you draw them in yourself. This is happening presently with Gone Girl, but it’s far from the first work of pop fiction to have this happen, and it won’t be the last. My favorite example of extreme dot-connecting for a relatively recent, popular movie comes from The Dark Knight. I love this example because of–to me, at least–how ridiculous it is when you take what the actual story gives you at face value instead of letting confirmation bias skew your view of it.

Near the end, Batman has to rely on invasive, city-wide surveillance to stop The Joker from bombing the shit out of hundreds of people on two different boats. People ran with this as a commentary on government surveillance being ultimately good for us, to fight terrorism and secure safety. Problem is, that assessment doesn’t hold up. You can’t draw a straight-line to that conclusion; the line you’re drawing to get there has to curve around all of this obvious shit laid out in the movie:

– No official, recognized authority figures are in charge of this surveillance. It’s just one guy: motherfucking Batman. The most famously justice-obsessed and morally inflexible superhero of all time. The only guy who you can trust would only be using this for good instead of evil because he’s pathologically motivated to do the right thing. That guy. And even then he’s only using it out of desperation because…

– He’s not fighting anything remotely resembling a real world terrorist who is limited by the laws of nature. He’s fighting a monster clown who appears wherever he wants to like a phantom, and whose litany of crimes warrants its own list.

  • Kills several cops
  • Car bombs a judge
  • Sneaks acid-poison-stuff into Police Commissioner’s favorite drink in his own damn office
  • Gets into the front row of the Commissioner’s funeral so he can take a direct shot with a loaded rifle at the Mayor, despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Launches an expertly coordinated assault on a police transport caravan that necessitates taking out a SWAT van and police helicopter and re-routing the entire transport
  • Blows up a police station
  • Sneaks enough explosives into a hospital to blow it up despite the fact that everyone in the city is looking for him
  • Sneaks several drums of explosives onto two evacuation ferries despite the fact that everyone in the city is evacuating from / looking for him

– Despite all of this, it’s made clear by the end of the movie that the only good guys who are aware of this surveillance machine think it’s wrong and see that it’s rendered non-functional after they finally get their man

Now, that’s a whole lot of information, and some people might be inclined to say that if you have to write all of that to defend the movie’s “politics” then those politics are indefensible. But the thing I shouldn’t have to write all of that; it’s all right there in the movie for anyone who’s bothering to pay attention to what they’re watching. It’s all the stuff in a story that clearly tells a reader or viewer, “Hey, the actions taken by these characters are informed by what happens to them in this exact work of fiction. Don’t try to apply everything that they do to the general rules of the real world because outside of the context of these precise circumstances that I’ve written–also known as the gotdamn plot–these actions and motivations might not make sense.” Sure it’s easier to ignore all of the obvious stuff if it inconveniences the point you’re trying to make, just like it’s easier to ignore the proof that the Earth is round if it inconveniences your assertion that the Earth is flat. But the “easier” argument isn’t necessarily the correct one, or even an argument that deserves to be made, particularly if you have to ignore the facts of the situation to make it.

The same goes for countless other stories that people love to erroneously politicize. Gone Girl is just the story d’jour. The movie blatantly shows us that Amy’s tactics and manipulations are the work of an evil genius who catches more than a few breaks for her plan to work smoothly, and whose only tactical “flaw” is hubris. It’s right there in the movie for you to see: more than likely this is not the behavior of anyone you will ever, ever, ever meet in your life. I know a lot of smart people, but very, very few master-plan-crafting geniuses, and exactly zero master-plan-crafting geniuses who can or would singlehandedly and near-flawlessly use their talents to destroy several other lives across a time span of a decade or more, manipulate national media and multiple levels of law enforcement, improvise a new course of action when the game changes, and not only not get caught, but come out on the other end looking like the good guy, and having gained even more than you wanted in the first place. Go read that last sentence again. Have you ever even been the same building with someone who would even think to try to pull all that shit off, much less succeed? Unless you’re Will Graham, I’m going to wager that no, you probably haven’t. She isn’t a misogynistic character. She’s Michael Myers, just with dialogue and a clearly stated motive. She is, in every sense, not a real person.

So I say all of this to point out that, you know… not every movie is Birth of a Nation. I know that there are irrational, reprehensible people out there who harbor irrational, reprehensible beliefs, and they can look at any work of art, or any news clip, or any historical text, or anything and twist a malformed interpretation out of it to show it “supports” their irrational, reprehensible views. And we should pay attention to those people, because they can be dangerous. But with a work of fiction, those people should not be driving the conversation about that work of fiction. We should not look at a story and say, “Well, this could be corrupted and misinterpreted by somebody with fucked up views so that they could argue that it reinforces their fucked up views, so therefore the work itself must actually be supporting those fucked up views.” No. Stop that. That does not make sense, and you know it doesn’t.

That is all.


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The Woman in Black: Then vs. Now

Disclaimer: This post is full of spoilers.

The latest version of the Susan Hill novel The Woman in Black arrived in theaters a week ago and made a solid impression at the box office. By no means is it a great film, in fact it might be too generous to even call it “good,” but it’s a strong effort if nothing else.

As a fan of the earlier, 1989 adaptation of the novel, I came into the movie with mixed expectations. I knew not to expect the restraint and maturity of the earlier film. Having never read the original novel (shame on me, I know (EDIT: This has since been rectified)) and without the benefit of having seen the stage play (by all accounts excellent), I had no idea as to whether or not this newest film would be more or less faithful to Susan Hill’s original story. As such, all I could really hope for was that this new film would still elicit some competent chills, and on that front I wasn’t terribly disappointed. In some respects this newest adaption improves on its predecessor, though I still prefer the 1989 film overall for its sophistication.

For me, the first thing that stands out about the 2012 film is how much more effort it puts into being “horrifying” when compared to the 1989 version. From the interspersed, almost random scenes depicting a mysterious woman in white, to shot after shot after shot of creepy dolls (apparently, every toy doll in the early 20th century was made entirely of children’s nightmares), this movie spends every damn second of its run-time reminding you that you’re watching a horror movie. Everything that isn’t blanketed in shadows or fog is bathed in frigid, pallid hues that suck any sense of hope out of the atmosphere. The setting is a bog-town that doesn’t merely look foggy and cold, but like it exists on some forsaken, shroud-filled corner of the Earth where ghosts are part of the natural habitat. This is a town where it would be weird if there wasn’t at least one haunted house nearby.

This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but again, the original film was more to my liking because it didn’t seem to be trying so damn hard. It had atmosphere to spare, yes, but it wasn’t drenching with dread. It didn’t look like it was filmed on location in purgatory. It’s like the difference between a pretty girl who’s wearing too much makeup, too much perfume and too little of everything else, and a pretty girl who knows she doesn’t need to overdo it. They might both be considered objectively attractive, but subjectively, the confidence of the latter is preferable. The 2012 film has its charms, certainly, but it also seems to be masking its insecurities behind a barrage of sensory distractions when it isn’t necessary.

In the latest version of the film, Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe) starts off with a dead wife (the aforementioned woman in white) whom he believes may be trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  We see next to nothing of his family life, save for a short scene early on where his son helps inform the audience that his dad is a sad sad man who misses the hell out of his wife. Radcliffe does what he can with such a limited, almost lifeless character, but there’s not a hell of a lot of room for creativity here. This is a forlorn figure who infects an already disconsolate story with a greater sense of despair and inevitability. He’s damn near a dead man walking; emotionally distant, preoccupied with spirits and the afterlife. In the 1989 film, Kipps is an ordinary man who happens into a horror story. He was given a chance to connect with the audience as a real person, a guy who is allowed to smile and quip; a guy who seems like he hasn’t lost his will to live. This makes it more frightening when the Woman in Black gets around to terrorizing him, because he’s a regular person you can relate to. In the 2012 film Kipps is more like some kind of human horror magnet. If you met him on the street you’d think, “I bet he hangs out in graveyards on his days off.”

In a way, however, this serves the story. It gives Kipps cause to revisit the blatantly haunted Eel Marsh house, home of the titular Woman in Black. The 1989 film didn’t really need to give Kipps a reason to stay, since nearly all of the supernatural happenings occurred over the course of one night, and the house is isolated on an island that can’t be reached when the tide rolls in. In the newest adaptation, which expands on the story to some benefit, Kipps spends a few nights in the house, even going back one final time to perform what amounts to an impromptu, amateur exorcism. If not for his demeanor and interest in “spiritualism,” you’d be able to make the same (often lazy) complaint / joke that people usually make in regard to haunted house movies: why not leave the house immediately and stay the hell away.

The new movie also expands the story in ways that slightly improve on the story of the original film. The townspeople here are given legitimate cause to keep Arthur Kipps away from the house and be evasive about why they’re being so damn inhospitable to him. The townspeople in the original film are practically indifferent to the possibility that sightings of the Woman in Black usually lead to a child’s death. Indeed, in the original film, the Woman in Black seems more like an harbinger of some forthcoming fatal accident. It’s implied that she is the catalyst for said accidents, but it’s unclear if she’s directly involved. In the 2012 version, she is blatantly malevolent, actually influencing the children of the town to commit suicide whenever she is seen by someone. She is also only ever seen on the grounds of her home or on the road that leads to it, so it makes sense for the locals to do what they can to keep anyone and everyone away from the old house.

This new film also gives the character of Sam Daily, one of very few people in town who is actually helpful to Kipps, a decent reason for assisting Kipps during his stay, instead of being one of the many folks trying to chase the young lawyer away. He has good cause, like most others, to believe that the Woman in Black is responsible for the suicides of local children, given that his own son drowned himself at her behest, but his wife (played in rather over-the-top fashion) is apparently possessed by his son’s “lost” spirit. Daily is in deliberate denial about the Woman in Black, because to accept her for what she is would mean accepting that his boy isn’t waiting for him in heaven, but trapped in town like the ghosts of all of the other children the Woman in Black has claimed. It’s the kind of grim, subtle terror the movie introduces, but doesn’t have any interest in exploring, unfortunately.

Although this isn’t a “Hollywood” production, strictly speaking, this is ultimately a Hollywood-style modern horror flick. It’s more interested in delivering a series of big scares than letting the terror patiently develop as the movie progresses. Again, not inherently a bad thing, and the movie actually delivers some wonderfully conceived moments of horror. While I’m a fan of patient, ethereal, psychological horror, I’m also a big fan of intense, unsubtle, visceral horror as well. I think that loud scare chords are an overused tactic, but there’s something wonderful about a well-executed, visually and audibly arresting moment of horror. The 1989 film’s signature moment comes when the Woman in Black visits Kipps in his bedroom while he’s in the midst of a fever dream. She comes charging into the scene so suddenly it looks like an editing mistake, and she’s unleashing a bizarre screech that sounds like a hoarse old woman is trying to imitate Godzilla’s roar. It’s much scarier than I’m making it sound here, I assure you.

The 2012 film has a call-back to that splendid moment during its climax, with the Woman in Black charging Kipps until her hate-filled face fills the entire screen. But the most brilliant and affecting moment in the film for me came when the mud-caked ghost / zombie of a child that drowned in the marsh crawls out of the disgusting muck of its cross-marked grave and comes toward the house it used to call home. Kipps witnesses this through the window of an upstairs bedroom, a cheap (but effective) “mirror scare” follows, and then he walks downstairs to find something is trying to open the front door. It’s reminiscent of the moment in “The Monkey’s Paw” when the unseen, dead and mangled son tries to come home as his mother has wished. It’s an excellent scene that earns the right to milk the horror for all it’s worth.

There are other very-strong moments in the film as well. A scene where the titular character slowly stalks toward a sleeping Kipps is staged so well it manages to be a standout despite it’s predictability (at that point in the movie, there’s zero chance she’s going to do him any actual harm or even manage to physically interact with him).

More subtly, the movie raises interesting, unsettling ideas about what it’s like to actually be a ghost, particularly the kind of ghost that the Woman in Black is. Full of hate, self-tormented, driven to suicide by madness and grief, unable to forgive or be at peace. Unable to think of anything but vengeance, even after the party that wronged her is long gone. Even before her death, the Woman in Black’s madness and suffering is chronicled in a series of letters that Kipps reads, wherein her penmanship degenerates from elegant to nearly-illegible scrawling as her madness grows. That has to be a miserable existence, to say nothing of the ghost children trapped on Earth along with her. The original film gives us a chronicle of the haunting from the perspective of the Woman in Black’s surviving sister (the original target of the spirit’s wrath), who recorded an audio diary on a Dictaphone before she died. Seeing both films gives me the luxury of enjoying both perspectives, and makes me more eager to read the book and see what more there is to discover.

As I mentioned initially, I still prefer the original film version of The Woman in Black by a good margin, but I’m not upset with this “remake.” While it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, and certainly has its faults and missed opportunities, it also adds something to a story that is nuanced enough to warrant exploration.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Blair Witch Project

I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.

At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.

Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”

Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie that made you feel like this?

There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.

The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?

… It was a lot scarier in my head…

Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.

I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”

Scary Clown Happy Clown
Scary. Jovial. These words are not synonyms. These pictures are not similar. Calm yourself…

Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.

When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.

1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…

2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?

3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.

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