So I Just Saw Velvet Buzzsaw

The first thing that I need to establish is that I don’t think Velvet Buzzsaw is a particularly good movie.  The characters are all broad caricatures of stereotypes that we associate with the high art world, from the snooty critic with the boxy glasses to the flighty genius who just can’t make anything worthwhile since he got sober.  Everyone is blandly terrible at best and deeply unlikable at worst.  Beyond that, the horror elements are more goofy than scary, and the driving force behind all the spooky stuff that happens is remarkably cliche (a man with a long history of mental illness and abuse wants all of his art destroyed after his death because it contains the totality of his tortured existence, and when that obviously doesn’t happen, people start dying).  There’s very little on offer here that’s genuinely good horror or even remotely interesting character work.

And despite all of those flaws, I rather unabashedly love this movie.

I think that the fun of the movie comes in its total capitulation to the stereotypes of its subject.  We expect a story about vapid, self-obsessed people backbiting each other in pursuit of rather callow goals all camouflaged by the perception of prestige that working in the realm of high art confers.  As outsiders we not-so-secretly suspect that all this modern art stuff is mostly just nonsense used as an excuse for absurdly rich people to play status games while an underclass of creative leeches take their cut as facilitators to the grand lie, and Velvet Buzzsaw is happy to confirm all those suspicions.  The only place where it suggests a certain sincerity is in its portrayal of the artists who get commodified by this community themselves.  They might be flighty and a little obtuse in the ways they communicate their ideas, but they have a purity of vision that this film at least proposes isn’t tainted by baser motivations like trying to turn a profit.  It’s a charmingly misguided assertion given the long history of artists making art specifically to get paid, but the horror premise wouldn’t work if you allow a complex idea like artistic vision being able to coexist with trying to make money off a desirable skill to inhabit the viewer’s mind.  It’s much more thematically resonant if all artists have no interest in profit instead of just the one at the center of the story whose work is exploited.  Still, these flaws in the core premise can be forgiven because there’s such a total commitment to it in the film’s execution.

While I would be totally content with a farce about the art world, which is very much how the film’s first half plays out (there are plots and subplots revolving around different gallery owners vying to be the exclusive dealers of works by livings artists, a museum curator on the verge of hitting the big time as the art equivalent of a personal shopper for some unseen wealthy patron who doesn’t actually know anything about art themselves, and gallery assistants working their various side hustles until they can score a real opportunity that’s entirely dependent on the whims of the aforementioned capricious gallery owners), this is still a horror movie, and like any good piece of horror there’s usually some morality tale buried beneath the copious amounts of blood and paint.  Appropriately enough for the subject, the theme that Velvet Buzzsaw settles on is the question of art’s purpose.  The core transgression is the discovery and decision to sell the artwork of our ghost, Vetril Dease, after his sudden death in obscurity.  Dease spent his life using his art to exorcise the demons of his past, and he makes it clear that his final wishes are for his entire oeuvre to be burned.  One of the struggling gallery assistants who lives in the same apartment building as Dease, Josephina, chooses to use his paintings as leverage to establish her own reputation as a serious dealer in the art scene, but she rapidly gets co-opted by her boss, Rhodora.  From there, all the people in Josephina and Rhodora’s orbits get caught up in ever escalating acts of vengeance targeting anyone who has profited from Dease’s work.  The moral becomes starkly clear late in the third act as Josephina, growing ever more terrified by the string of deaths that happen in proximity to Dease’s art, argues with Damrish, an up-and-coming artist who has abandoned Rhodora’s gallery to return to his roots with a local art collective.  “What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?” she demands, completely baffled that Damrish would choose a smaller platform for his work than what Rhodora’s gallery offers.  Immediately following this exchange, Josephina suffers her own close encounter with hostile artwork.

Damrish, if you’re curious, survives completely unscathed as someone who simply appreciates Dease’s work without trying to use it for his own gain.

The film’s moral appears in sharp relief; art is a thing done for the gratification of the artist first, and if they choose to share it with others then that is a gift.  The people who make their livings running the distribution infrastructure connected with the creation of art are little more than parasites deserving of contempt for debasing a more noble endeavor.  It’s an incredibly facile conclusion if you stop for even a moment to consider how distribution and publication are necessary companion industries for any artist who might want to, y’know, make a living with their art, but the basic idea that art is a thing we do to satisfy ourselves sticks in my head.  All the absurdly terrible decisions this movie makes with its story sort of fall away in the face of the realization that someone conceived of this bizarre treatise on the nobility of art and then went through all the work to get Netflix to bankroll its production.  The question of the film’s own self awareness turns into an endlessly fascinating ourobouros that I’ve been turning over for a couple weeks now with no clear conclusion to be reached.  All I know at this point is that I had way more fun watching Velvet Buzzsaw than I expected to, and for that I am glad it’s a piece of art that exists.

Also, this happens.

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So I Just Saw Us

Look, if you haven’t seen Us by now you probably aren’t the kind of person who’s interested in seeing it anyway.  It’s a highly suspenseful horror movie that relies very little on gore or jump scares to keep you engaged and anxious.  The performances are all stellar (I am happy that Lupita Nyong’o has been making bank doing supporting roles in Disney-owned blockbusters the last few years, but she’s a vision as Adelaide/Red and she needs to be the lead in a lot more projects), and the comic relief is applied with an incredibly light touch, giving the audience opportunities to chuckle at just the right moments.  It’s a fantastic movie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough; it’s precisely the kind of horror that I genuinely enjoy as opposed to much of the dreck that’s typically served up in movies.

Us Poster

Theatrical release poster for Us. (Image credit: IMDb)

For everyone else, let’s discuss some stuff; there will be spoilers about Us because all the meaty bits are buried deep in the third act.

The core thing that keeps occurring to me when I think about Us is the way it plays with the concept of American identity and our complicity in the great capitalist/colonialist/white supremacist project of enriching the lives for a select few in the overclass while everyone else has to struggle for a meager semblance of the same type of life.  Pick a hegemonic -ism, and you will find both beneficiaries and scapegoats tied up together in tension with the ones on top too oblivious to notice how they hurt and the ones below too powerless to do anything but scream for relief.  The central fear of Us is that the ones below will eventually rebel violently, and there will be no survivors.  It creeps up on the audience as a surprise revealed in the final third of the story, but the fear is there, buried in the premise of doppelgangers suddenly appearing to terrorize a comfortable middle class family in their home.  Fear of home invasion is a core component in the American formula for selling the security industry and all its accouterments.

“Our way of life is valuable and worth protecting from those people out there who would take it from us.”

“Protect the homeland.”

“They hate us because of our freedom.”

It’s easy to see how Us skewers these impulses.  The wrench in the works comes in the form of the twist about Adelaide and Red.  In the closing moments of the film, it’s revealed that Adelaide, the woman who has spent the entire movie fighting desperately to protect her family, is actually from the tunnels herself.  Red is actually the original Adelaide who was abducted and left trapped in her doppelganger‘s place.  It’s a classic trope in horror stories about doubles that the one who survived is actually the story’s monster.  Where things become complicated here is the realization that the switch happened long before the moment of catharsis.  Adelaide has been legitimately invested in protecting her family; it’s just that her family was established in a monstrous way.  Even if Adelaide didn’t understand Red’s plan until the very end, she was aware the whole time of the conditions that precipitated its development and execution.  As a child, she took her chance to escape, but it was at the cost of another victim.  Maybe she can’t be considered fully culpable in this decision, but there’s a deeply unsettling horror in the realization that she knew what was happening and did nothing until the moment of crisis.  I think despite this after-the-fact horror, we’re supposed to generally find Adelaide sympathetic.  It’s the realization of that sympathy that indicts us all over again.

So I Just Saw It

I am not a fan of horror movies.

I’m also not a fan of the recent wave of ’80s nostalgia that’s overtaken pop culture.

Needless to say, I should not have been at a screening of It, but when your wife and one of your buddies really want to see the new scary clown movie, you go along because at the very least it should be a good thing with which to do the friendship.  Also, since we’re all relatively new to the Portland area, the occasion provided an opportunity to begin scouting out local movie theaters (the new Star Wars comes out in December, and we’ve established a yearly tradition where we go to opening night regardless of how many of us have early workdays the next morning; choosing a good theater for this experience is paramount).

It (2017) poster.jpg

Promotional poster for It. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The place that we went to is actually located in the Portland suburb of Beaverton (I’m pretty sure folks in Beaverton don’t like for their city to be described that way, but about a third of Georgia is technically Atlanta suburbs, so I think it’s fair to call Portland’s immediate neighbor a suburb as well); the one thing our neighborhood lacks is an easily walkable mainstream movie theater (there is a wealth of options for indie and foreign films), so we decided that hopping in the car and driving twenty minutes was actually the preferred solution.  It worked out surprisingly well.

As far as the experience of the theater itself, I have no complaints.  We went to a showing in a theater with reclining seats, which made the fact that we had to sit in the front much more pleasant.  Given that the movie is one hundred fifty minutes, I think this was a wise decision, even if my legs did become uncomfortable after about an hour in the recliner.  The drink list was a little lacking, but that’s not a big deal since I’m one of those insane people who will sit through the duration of a three hour movie without going to the bathroom after drinking a thirty-two ounce soda because I don’t want to miss anything.

Anyway, the theater was perfectly fine, even with all the annoyances that come from being in a theater, like the incessant stream of commercials and ads for TV shows I have no interest in seeing before the trailers start.  There was one ad for a new medical drama about a doctor with autism who’s struggling to be accepted as a professional.  It’s total inspiration porn, and it irritated me greatly that the show’s general premise seemed to be that the main character is a magical alien who solves medical problems in creative ways while being really socially awkward.  As someone who’s worked with a lot of students with autism over the years, I found this portrayal incredibly frustrating and reductive of neuroatypicality in general.  The majority of people on the spectrum are not savants, and the impression I got was that this show really wanted to cash in on the popular misconception that they are.

That’s all a tangent though.  I was in a slightly combative mood before the movie started, and I really latched onto that one television ad as a point of irritation.  You’ll be happy to know that pretty much all of the stuff before the movie was similarly irksome (the previews were evenly split between the aforementioned uncritical ’80s nostalgia and horror movies that I wouldn’t even be aware of under any other circumstances).

Let’s talk about It.

The short version goes like this: It was good; I liked It.  If you want to see a movie that’s a cross between scary clown jump scare city and a coming-of-age power-of-friendship story about a bunch of kids, then you’ll get exactly that in It.  The movie shifts wildly between these two extremes, and it can be easy to forget that the other mode even exists in the same space.  This is a high quality, visually rich adaptation of a really famous Stephen King novel, and there’s stuff to enjoy even if you’re not a horror fan (like me).

The long version goes like this: It is a movie that exists in a weird space in our current pop culture moment.  Like many of the movies that are coming out these days that aren’t pulling from comics or books, It is a remake of an older movie.  In this case, we’re talking about the made-for-TV movie that aired as a two episode miniseries in 1990.  If you’ve seen that movie recently, you’ll know that it’s… not good.  Remakes of things that weren’t good in the first place can have very mixed results; sometimes they improve on and better realize the source material’s original vision, and other times they don’t do anything but rehash the old story in a contemporary visual style.  The 2017 It is a better movie than its predecessor, but it will in some quarters likely get judged unfairly as a rehash of a familiar story just because nostalgia makes us view certain eras in pop culture through an irrationally uncritical lens.

The film is set in Derry, Maine in 1989; this is an alteration from King’s original novel where the action takes place primarily in 1958, and again points to the big wave of ’80s nostalgia that’s going on at the moment; nothing about the nature of the story requires it to be set in the ’80s, but because the structure of the original book has the action divided between the main characters’ childhood and their later adulthood, this decision does allow the forthcoming second part (It is being adapted as a two-part movie series, with the second installment chronicling the main characters trying to destroy It as adults twenty-seven years later) to be set in the present day, which I suppose makes planning production a little easier without having to do a period story.  Still, I’m side-eyeing the coincidence that setting the adult section in the present day allows the first part to be set in the ’80s, which just happens to be a big draw in this pop culture moment.

Our characters are a cast of misfits who are very much built around specific child character types; if you’ve seen The Goonies or Stranger Things, then they’ll be immediately familiar.  Generally they’re well-sketched with some depth beyond their defining traits, but it’s unsurprising that very little effort was made to update the cast from King’s original.  I’m hoping that we’ll see some more interesting development of these characters as adults, but that judgment will have to wait for the time being.

Pennywise bears some discussion, seeing as he serves as the central antagonist and source of terror for the majority of the movie (he can’t claim all the credit though, because Derry’s adults are all terrible, and I’m convinced the movie’s secondary theme after power-of-friendship is adults-suck-and-so-will-you-if-you-live-long-enough).  The fact that he’s a clown is actually a relatively mild part of what makes Pennywise horrific in this movie; he’s more interesting as a vehicle for highly spectacular visual body horror.  You see him twist and contort into different shapes frequently throughout the film, and they always walk the line between ghastly and fascinating.  If there weren’t so many jump scares (seriously, this movie is over committed to the technique), it’d be easy to sit back and just enjoy the artistry of the digital effects that make Pennywise take so many freakish forms.  Perhaps my favorite effect, which is a far more subtle one, is the way that his eyes are digitally enhanced so that they always appear particularly bright in the middle of frames with otherwise subdued and dark color palettes.  It’s an effective way to highlight that even when he’s attempting to appear human, Pennywise is still some sort of otherworldly thing.

If you are into the current ’80s craze or you just like scary clowns, then this is a movie worth checking out.  Even if you aren’t into those things, this is still something that will be worth your time.

Reading “24 Hours”

While the sixth issue of The Sandman serves as a sort of middle act for the three-part mini-arc that rounds out Dream’s quest to get his stuff back (the problem of John Dee was introduced at length last issue, and he’ll be dealt with in the next), it holds up remarkably well as a standalone story (I’ve developed a real fondness for the one-offs that Gaiman sprinkles amongst the longer story arcs that make up the majority of Sandman).

Well, I should amend that to say that it holds up well as a standalone story if you stop at Hour 23, because Hour 24 does nothing besides remind us that Dee has been waiting for Dream to show up, and the rest of the story has so little to do with their conflict that it serves only to remind us that this is the middle act where things go from bad to really bad, and all the real resolution is being saved up for the next issue.  Perhaps that’s a minor thing when you remember that this is part of a serial story, and there must be hooks for readers to want to keep reading, especially since stopping a page early in this story means ending in death (the precise thing that Bette the waitress believes is the inevitable problem with stories that go on too long).

There’s no pity to be had in Dringenberg’s version of John Dee; he’s just flat out creepy, and devoid of any greater ambition to boot. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The surface level story that’s being told here is how a group of more or less strangers get manipulated and tortured to death for the amusement of a madman who happens to have complete control over their behavior.  The subtext of the story is how writers treat their characters, beginning with wanting to give them all happy endings with minimal conflict and gradually introducing more and more severe types of suffering in order to see what happens.  It’s an interesting meditation on the philosophy of writing, though the fact that Gaiman’s clearly still writing within the bounds of a horror book forces a decidedly negative spin on events (ironically, I think the issue set primarily in Hell has been the most optimistic so far, even if it’s an optimism born from a sort of cloying, saccharine appeal to the very human desire for things to be better than they are; that’s not a knock on the concept of hope so much as it is a knock on the way Gaiman deals with it in that particular story; he gets much better at addressing existential questions later on).

The view of Dee that we get in this story is that he’s simply bored.  He doesn’t have any greater purpose in mind beyond a general sense of nihilism to what he’s doing to his captives, and his lack of direction tends to reflect rather poorly on the subtextual figure of the author that he represents.  I think it’s probably best to consider Dee and not simply a stand in for the generic Author that we ascribe is writing any given story, but as a specific example of a type of bad author.  Where Bette the waitress is a bad author because she never introduces conflict that might drive her characters to change in interesting ways that actually would reflect something of the human condition (her fantasy of becoming famous for depicting small town life is ironically hollow, as we rapidly learn that no one in the diner actually has or wants the squeaky clean existence that Bette imagines for them), John Dee is a bad author because he creates conflict without any greater purpose behind it.  Controlling a group of bystanders so that they act out Dee’s twisted puppet show doesn’t reveal anything interesting; these people are all damaged in some way, but they’re offered no chance at confronting this damage in a way that leads to greater self awareness.

So “24 Hours” is a good horror story, but it’s lacking a greater impact than the general shock of seeing a cast of characters rapidly introduced and broken down in multiple horrific ways before their bodies are casually discarded.  In the future we’ll get to see the echoes of one of these characters in other people who find themselves caught up in the intrigues of Dream and his family, but for now it’s all just relentless horror.

On the art side, this is the first issue where Mike Dringenberg is doing all the pencils, and he does a great job.  Where Sam Kieth’s run is given over to surreal, almost psychedelic, panel layouts that suggest a soft, squishy texture to the edges of the world, Dringenberg’s style is much more angular and less focused on texture and detail (in many ways his work reminds me of Bill Sienkiewicz, though slightly more grounded).  As the story builds momentum, the art really sells the grotesque spectacle that Dee’s amusing himself with in the diner.  Dringenberg will be the regular penciler for a while yet, and his take on Dream and the rest of the Sandman cast is one of the most iconic of the series.

Next issue we’ll get to see the final showdown between Dream and Dee, in perhaps the only time Gaiman ever depicts an actual contest of power between Dream and someone else.

Yay, New Walking Dead Episodes!

And because I’m a total anti-hipster, I’m talking about Season 3, folks.  I’m going to watch it now that it’s not cool anymore with Season 4 on the way.  Because that’s how I roll.

Seriously though, I like The Walking Dead, but I’ve not seen any of Season 3 because, once again, Rachael and I do not have cable.  We watch our shows after all the water cooler buzz has faded and the internet is no longer enamored with them.  After all, somebody has to get excited about those Netflix notices letting you know that the last season of a show that’s about to start airing its new season, and if not us, then who?

The Walking Dead (season 2)

The Walking Dead (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So in a recent conversation with a coworker who likes to boast that he has no internet at his home, we were discussing how excited we were about new Walking Dead.  A lot of the kids at school really like it because it’s a gory zombie killfest, and also it’s largely about Rick Grimes showing what it means to be a Real Man(tm).  I enjoy it for the philosophical exploration of what significance our trappings of civilization have to our identity as human beings, but the gore and zombies are fun too.  Anyway, I was telling my coworker that I was looking forward to seeing Season 3, and he gave me kind of a ‘meh’ reaction.  I was surprised by this, because everyone else who’s seen Season 3 tells me that it was a great improvement over Season 2 in terms of character development.

The Walking Dead has kind of a problem with how it writes its female characters, especially Lori.

She’s pretty much the Lady Macbeth of Post-Apocolyptia (formerly rural Georgia) with her bizarre machinations to make Rick do things he’s not morally comfortable with while at the same time being wishy-washy about the fact that she started a relationship with her husband’s best friend when she thought he was dead (yeah, that’s awkward, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s best aired out early, rather than sitting on it until the animosity between the two men reaches a point where they go into the wilderness alone with the intention of killing each other).  She’s just frustrating in a lot of ways, and many of them have nothing to do with the fact that the series is set in Georgia where a form of gender complementarianism is a social norm (if that were the case, then I’d be happy to see some more in-depth exploration of gender roles on the show, especially as it relates to the utter collapse of civilization; alas, the women, for the most part, act like stereotypically gendered women, and the men act like the characters who do all the exciting stuff).

Setting aside problematic characters, I still really enjoy this show (almost as much as I enjoyed the game; if you like the show and you enjoy games in a similar vein to old point-and-click adventures, then you should definitely play the Walking Dead game).  Horror-based television shows are hard to pull off (especially long-running ones) because one of the big conventions of horror is that you have to let horrible things happen to your characters (the kind of things that might make them useless as further actors within your story, in fact).  This problem creates a serious roadblock for any show that wants to rely on having a steady core cast while still maintaining a real suspense over whether everyone will survive to the next episode.  Nonetheless, The Walking Dead pulls this off rather well.  Even though a significant (sympathetic) character only seems to die about once per season (by my reckoning; remember that I haven’t seen Season 3 yet) I still feel worried that everyone’s really in danger.  Of course, when you write a show where you’re not afraid to zombify child characters that the audience is attached to, I suppose it’s not that hard to make it feel like no one’s really safe (although the fact that Rick keeps winding up on the cover of each season’s teaser poster suggests that he’s got some kind of super plot armor–not necessarily a bad thing, but he also seems like the one who gets into the most trouble too).

So anyway, I’m looking forward to watching some more zombie action.  Maybe I should go do that now instead of working on this blog post, in fact…

The Octopus Train

The fog is thick enough that you feel your skin crawling despite the bone-freezing cold.  Massive, moist tentacles slide into view, grasping and sucking at the tracks, the station, the passengers as they pull your ride out of obscurity.

When it glides to a stop, a hatch opens, revealing glistening viscera the color of hot tar.

Stepping inside, your hand brushes the wall.  Against your skin the slime shimmers iridescent, as if the faintest red from your frozen, pallorous hand excites the entire spectrum.

The conductor takes your burgeoning pseudopod in his own, and as he punches it, you scream.

_________________

I wrote up this drabble after my creative slump that happened earlier this week, and I think it turned out pretty well.  It’s based on the image you see up above, which I found on i09‘s Concept Art Writing Prompt feature.

When I first saw this image, I seriously had no idea what I was going to do with it.  It was just so bizarre and the people were so uninteresting next to the train.  After a few days with no ideas, I decided to do a drabble length horror story, since I wasn’t sure I’d be able to create any interesting sort of narrative with the extra space of 500 or so words.  One hundred words seemed like the perfect length to describe the train, have someone board it, and then make one really creepy thing happen.

Did I do accomplish my goal with this piece?  Let me know.