Category Archives: Movies

Kids and Dreams and Superheroes

When I was about seven years old, my world revolved around one thing; Batman. To this day, I can’t tell you what it is that spoke to me so early on about my hero, but I was obsessed. I wanted to be Batman when I grew up. I crawled around my basement playing with action figures and jumping off boxes in a black cape. I lived in Maryland, and once in a while, winter would dump blizzard-amounts of snow on my neighborhood. On one such occasion, as the neighborhood came together, shoveling each others’ driveways in a big group, I decided it was the perfect night to don my cape and cowl and look out over my own microcosmic gotham. In my mind, I was atop a building, cape billowing in the wind, scowling. In reality, I was standing on a four foot snow mound, glaring at my obviously bemused neighbors. And, I have photo evidence.

At 26, Karl is still single.

Striking fear into the heart of criminals everywhere.

I’m older now, and while my love for Batman is still strong as ever. I’ve come around to the realization that society, lack of billionaire resources, and a crippling fear of heights have terminated my childhood career aspirations. I’ve moved on to other things. Photography, writing.

Enter my good friend Mandy. She has two kids, Joseph and Emily. Joseph is seven, and he adores Captain America. In a way that reminded me of when I was his age running around in my mask. Mandy posts statuses on Facebook to the tune of “Told the kids to get ready to go to the grocery store. Joseph comes downstairs in his Captain America mask and his shield on his arm.”

This is Joseph.

This is Joseph.

I read these posts and I think, I know this kid. Because I was this kid.

And so my thinking percolated for a while. Then in January, a recent fascination with movie posters and television key art mixed with another Captain America sighting in my news feed, and an idea formed. What if I put my photography and Photoshop skills to use, and enlist Joseph for a photoshoot in which we specifically match Marvel’s Captain America posters from the ground up, but featuring Joseph?

What a dream come true, right? Many kids imagine being their comic book heroes, but it’s rare that they have an opportunity to step into the role in such an immersive way. Without going into details, Joseph and his family have had a tough time of it the past few years, dealing with stuff that no kid should have to deal with. The heavy stuff of the adult world seeping down to a kid not yet in elementary school. And the fear that stays for years after. Yet, as his mom tells me, it’s his love for Captain America that helps him get through the hard days, identifying with a character once weak, who became heroic, noble, and strong against huge obstacles.

And so I knew I had to make it happen.

I got Mandy and Joseph on board (they loved the idea), and brought them to my studio for the shoot last week. We worked for a bit over an hour, making sure the lights were consistent to the posters, and that Joseph could emulate the poses. Then, in the following week, I got down to business in Photoshop.

I’ve been serious about photography for a year and a half now, and there was no way I was just going to cut out Joseph’s face and paste it onto the posters already done by amazing photo artists like Michael Muller. I wanted to give him something completely original. As many photos from my own computer as possible, a handful of stock photos when absolutely necessary, and a matching color scheme, lighting, and dodging and burning (not only because I’m learning a lot yet by imitation, but) because I wanted these to be that much more immersive for Joseph, to have him inside a world he was already familiar with.

These are the original posters I was specifically intending to mimic:

Posters 4 Side by Side

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.07.39 PM

And here are the final products with Joseph:

Dark-Text-Poster-2Dark-Textless-PosterDark-Textless-Wide-2Action-1-Poster-Textless Profile-1-Textless-PosterProfile-1-Textless-Wide Profile-2-Textless-PosterUltron-Poster-MinimumAction-2-Portrait-TextlessFront-Portrait-Poster-TextlessProfile-3-Textless-Poster

It was when I got an email response from Joseph’s mom telling me of his reaction, that he said, “That’s actually me. That’s the real me,” that I knew I’d hit something special. Joseph was over the moon. His mom was over the moon. And my inner Bruce Wayne, still dressed up in cape and cowl on that skyscraper in snowy Gotham, was for a time totally satisfied. Karl and Captain-1Gear Geek info: Canon 6D, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, 430EXII Speedlite, one two foot ring light, a constant LED light, an umbrella modifier, three light stands, and my trusty Photoshop CC. And a couple times, an open window.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy on Syfy, went on to work briefly with the Ghost Hunters International Team, and now leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide and the collection Into a Sky Below, Forever. He’s also a conceptual and portrait photographer in Colorado, and he loves key art and great television. You can find more at www.KarlPfeiffer.com or on Twitter, @KarlPfeiffer.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Years Later: Revisiting the Village

It’s always around this time of year that I break out my Halloween movies. Nightmare Before Christmas. Trick r’ Treat. Sleepy Hollow. And, of course, The Village, which has in past years grown to be one of my fall staples. And it was in watching it just tonight that I wanted to type up a blog defending this movie, and encouraging any readers to revisit it if it’s been a while now.

the-village-original

The Twist

Now, first off, I want to dive into this blog by talking about why so many people didn’t or don’t like this movie. What it seems to repeatedly return to is, well, it’s a Shyamalan movie, and his time was coming to a wane. Shyamalan, after breaking out with the Sixth Sense, and following with Unbreakable, Signs, and later the Village, he quickly established himself to be a really talented director with a knack for twist endings… twist endings that start to weigh on people. And it’s the Shyamalan gimmicky twist that seems to be what bothered many reviewers, especially after quickly perusing Rotten Tomatoes.

Why do people hate twists? Well, they’re gimmicky, and they’re an easy way to startle audiences. Want an emotional reaction in a thriller movie? Pull the rug out from under them at the end. The problem with this is fairly obvious. The twist often is easy (IT WAS ALL A DREAM!), but it worse, it undermines the work the movie had done leading up to it. If the whole movie was a dream, all the conflict and drama and themes are often left discarded completely.

By the fourth twist-ending movie from a director whose name actually started to mean something with his breakout first movie, the meaninglessness was quickly attached to his name. And it didn’t help that after the Village, starting with Lady In The Water, Shyamalan’s talent seemed to utterly dissolve. This only fueled the belief that if there was a twist, it was simply a gimmick: that Shyamalan had been fooling us all along.

But, here, I want to look at the twist itself, and try to get away from writing the movie off because it had a twist, and because Shyamalan has quickly become a gimmicky household name associated with no skill and cheap tricks. Because he certainly didn’t start out that way. And here, with the Village, he actually had something good going.

The twist of the Village is that the quaint, sleepy, early 19th century town that the movie focused on was not actually located in that period of time, but was actually hidden away in a nature reserve of modern time, unbeknownst to the residents. And the scary monsters stalking the woods? A farce put on by the town elders to maintain their secrets and maintain their town’s innocence and ignorance about the darker ways of the world.

A bit ridiculous? Sure. Could something like that ever happen? Sure, probably not. But we’re in thriller genre. Movies are often about the unrealistic. But that’s not a bad thing. No, a big part of the ridiculous conclusion here is because it was presented as a twist, and people rolled their eyes at the gag, at the man behind the curtain, and left disappointed, failing to consider it as much beyond a twist.

But this is where I encourage viewers to watch the movie a second time. Because the pitfall of the twist movie is that it makes the movie worthless. But with the Village, the twist added a new layer to the story, and it was a layer that had been there all along. Shymalan wasn’t fucking with us for a gimmick, he was telling a story that changed levels throughout. Indeed, the very first lines spoken on-screen were about whether the elders had made the right decision to settle there. Though you don’t know it, the dialogue that had been happening the entire movie was always about the twist. You just didn’t know. Each time the elders discussed the “Ones We Don’t Speak Of”, it’s loaded. It’s ambiguous and layered with a deeper meaning. This is a facet of the good twist movie: it adds new value and multiple layers to a story already told. And a great twist movie doesn’t stop with the two layers of meaning, but it makes you think further about the very premise.

On the first layer: Monsters are attacking the town, what do we do?

On the second layer: We’re pretending to attack the town, what do we do next?

On the third layer: How far do we take this farce and is it even moral and right to do so?

But to write the movie off as bullshit because of the twist is to miss those deeper conversations that were actually happening the whole time.

Did I once think the movie was better when I liked only half the movie: the half when it treated the monsters as real? Yes. But to leave it at that: a movie about a town dealing with a monster problem… it’s simple. It has potential. But it’s simple. How many times has the good little town/group of friends/strangers battle the evil invading force, though? How many times does that plot turn into most of the people dying, with Evil being defeated (or at least, leaving just enough left over to come back for a sequel)?

Here, Shyamalan took the story to a new level, examining the nature of innocence, of lies for a greater good, of the way those lies, which were in good faith, can turn right back to the very evil they were attempting to avoid. In a very post-9/11 movie, this was an examination of governmental lies, order, intention, backfired intention, conspiracy, innocence, and endurance. Especially reflecting on the Village as a post-9/11 movie, there’s something that really comes alive here.

The alternative though, the one without the twist… it’s probably just another random, meaningless thriller with some monsters.

The Frights

The other problem the Village quickly runs into, on the heels of it being a Shyamalan film, is that it’s a thriller. It deals with scary elements. And, as I’ve discussed in many a review before, scares are hard on critics. People go to scary movies to get scared. Everyone is scared by something different. And so, movies or television shows judged on their scare merit alone are apt to have a very divided audience.

I, personally, thought these monsters were very effective. Shyamalan’s monster imagery was great. Hooded, red-cloaked beasts with strange quills coming from their backs, slowly stalking a sleepy town, lit by torch-light amongst the spindly tree branches? I’m in. And, to boot, Shyamalan shot it very effectively, showing just enough to make the monsters frightening, but not so much that we saw too much and lost our suspension of disbelief.

Now, that effect was lost toward the end, when Adrian Brody Monster did his sprint toward Bryce Dallas Howard. A little too tribal-looking. A little too much shown. But first, that thing was fucking creepy before the sprint, when it stood, hunched, while we waited to see what it would do. When too much was shown, we were only moments from learning that it wasn’t as it seemed anyway.

And certainly, while looking at the scares, I have to consider my earlier viewpoints, yes, maybe having a second twist was bothersome — how many times does Shyamalan have to twist it for us? It seems more gimmicky when it’s real — nope, not real — real — just kidding, not. And look, now it’s the modern day!

But when you’ve moved past the first screening, and you go along with the story rather than watching for twists, it actually works.

It works because Shyamalan is actually a really good writer (or used to be). Here, he wrote a movie that took its time, with each scene and shot being both gorgeous and deliberate. His use of parallelism was what tied this movie together so nicely.

The Filming

Examples: The scene in which Ivy and Noah had a footrace: simple, fun, you got to know these two’s relationship. It was paralleled at the end as Noah-Monster, mentally challenged and playing a prank, tried to lure Ivy into another footrace.

The elegant, creepy, torch-lit scene in which Jesse Eisenberg stood with his back to the forest to test his bravery against his imagination? Paralleled by Ivy later standing with her back to the monster, testing her own bravery as to when to move, finally killing Noah-Monster. Indeed, Ivy and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) even discussed how Lucius held the record, and how Ivy longed to be like a boy, to be able to test it herself. Well she got her chance.

And how powerful, the way Shyamalan framed this little town against the eerie woods. His return to very specific and intentional use of color. Was Red being the “bad color” ridiculous? Perhaps, but, like the Sixth Sense (and, I’d say, not so much like the Sixth Sense that it was discredited), there was symbolism there. The symbolism of blood. The way the community tried so hard to avoid it. The use of yellows to balance out the red, creating such a lovely autumnal feel. The way he filmed Ivy, often out of focus and close up, to put the viewer in her experience of her blindness, especially in the suspense scenes when it mattered as much for her as it did us.

These are very intentional decisions that work for movies. They’re designed to keep a movie tight, effective, meaningful, and deliberate, and they’re sadly too often left out of most Hollywood releases today.

But it’s not just the film-work, but the writing and acting combined with that. Lucius, the shy, awkward, but somehow bold and fearless faux-main character. Perfectly played by the awkward-but-noble Joaquin Phoenix, and in a way that was different enough from Signs that both roles worked, despite their similarities. But how much more moving were those two moments in which he took Ivy by the hand in times of danger? I’ll admit it, they were powerful enough to make me shed some fluid from my eye holes. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but I found it spot on. That’s good directing. When an actor can come out of nowhere, grab his costar’s hand, and at least one audience member cries? That’s successful filmmaking.

But how smart as well, ten years before the feminist dialogue has really taken off online, we see Shyamalan twist his story to strip down his shy-but-fearless male hero, substituting a blind woman to brave the woods. While she might’ve had insider info, she was still terrified (Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance was fantastic). Did the two young men keep up? Sure didn’t.

In a time when movies feel the need to spoonfeed us old cliche’s in the first ten minutes so that we can get to know characters with the least possible amount of engagement in order to get to the action, here we have Shyamalan both taking his time to illustrate these characters, this town, this place of innocence, and following the well-shared advice to show and not tell.

Look at the way Ivy tells Lucius how she knew he liked her because he wouldn’t touch her? His confirmation was silence. Shyamalan’s confirmation was when Lucius shared the same information with his mother a scene or two later, confirming to us that Ivy had shared a truth about him, in that he’s now sharing it to his mother. There are no tired tropes here to establish the relationship. This was one that took its time and hit its beats in a subtle way. Maybe too subtle for some reviewers, who found character depth to be fairly flat.

And last, but not least, the score. James Newton Howard knocks it out of the park. One of the most gorgeous film scores I’ve ever heard. It carries through the movie like a breeze in a creepy forest.

Conclusion

So what do we have here? Ignoring the Shyamalan legacy, and treating this movie on its own, ten years later, through my eyes, we have a gorgeously filmed movie. It’s eerie. It’s autumnal. It’s smart and takes its time. The scares are subtle and goooood (my substitute for “frightening”, since I know this movie too well to recognize if its scary anymore). The twist has a good reason. And the themes are intriguing enough to chew on.

That’s a damn good movie, in my opinion.

Maybe there are parts of this you would like to nitpick, or feel differently about, and that’s fine. Each has their own tastes. But, knowing the twist, I encourage you to watch the film as what it is: a movie about a town that’s faking a monster problem to ensure the innocence of its citizens. That’s an interesting premise. And it’s one that holds up, especially on the second, third, or fourth viewing.

Move beyond the gimmick, and watch it enough to let it all settle over you at once, and I hope you’ll find the depth and value in it. Then we can all go back to wondering just what the hell happened that every movie after The Village sucked so much.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and  worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now lectures about approaches to ghost hunting across the nation, leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, and works as a portrait photographer. You can find more at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gotteskritik and Noah

So I haven’t done a movie review in a while (mostly because the horror angle dries up considerably in the spring season), but I feel compelled to write something about Noah.

I’m not sure it’s really to convince anyone of anything, but it’s a movie that stuck in my mind after seeing it, and I feel compelled to write about it. And, as usual, if you haven’t seen it, my reviews try to get at the themes and heart of the movie, so there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

1535506_455475771250631_2040722911_n

Outlook:

I went into Noah open minded, but worried. I knew a few things: 1) I love Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan and The Fountain are in my top five all-time favorite movies. 2) This was a big-budget feature that needed to make its money back. 3) When I saw this movie being advertised in the commercials for Nascar, I began to grow concerned. Nothing against Nascar audiences, but generally speaking, I saw this as an emphasis on reaching the Biblical audiences rather than the Aronofsky audiences. Knowing what I do about marketing, I wasn’t prepared to assume one thing over another about the movie by the marketing, but I was a bit wary. I also knew, 4) that the movie was drawing generally favorable reviews while also bothering Christian fundamentalists alongside atheists alike.

This final point was perhaps the most encouraging, because that’s exactly where I tend to fall. Generally, I am not a religious person. I grew up Methodist until my folks grew unhappy with the more modern slant that our church was moving, and they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so “searching for a new church”. Needless to say, that never really went anywhere. But I’d always enjoyed the security of — at least hoping — that there were greater forces in the universe. My drive toward paranormal research manifested in college, where I took courses in Religious Studies (examining mythological texts and their religious aspects) and Philosophy of Religion (in which arguments for and against religious propositions are considered). These classes have come to define my religious outlook. Because of my research into the paranormal, I am inclined to believe that there’s a possibly-spiritual component to our world largely unrecognized, and that through very similar pursuits into mysticism, there seems that these boundaries overlap, and suggest there to be a kind of divinity beyond the physical world we make up.

And for the most part, it stops there. I’d like to pursue a more personal mysticism more in the future. Mysticism is the practice and attempts to have a direct and personal spiritual experience, possibly of divinity, where much of our western religions (read: Christianity) tend to minimize the mystical component in favor of a dogmatic component. Many people tend to connote “dogma” with something negative, and it can be. But functionally, dogma is when you’re told to take a certain belief as true rather than learn it for yourself. Science has dogmas. Religions have dogmas. Christianity puts weight on them specifically because they believe that faith is their biggest point of salvation, and that the act of having faith is far more important than a path to knowledge, given that it tests you in different ways. I’m a bit Gnostic in the sense that I think knowledge is very important, and a bit Zen in the sense that I’d rather be put in a position to experience something than being told about it, especially given how fallible interpretations of spiritual experiences tend to be.

What this boils down to is that I’m very much a religious pluralist. I do think it’s very important for religious practitioners to select one religion and follow it because, if left to their own devices, people tend to pick and choose the easiest elements of each religion, where it’s often the hardest components that can be the most revelatory. My leanings toward pluralism come in that I think spiritual experiences are inherently ineffable. I think that they come from a realm outside of our physical construction, and so can’t be encompassed by language. Therefore I think that when people try to distill such an experience so far beyond them, they inherently build an explanation that’s heavily weighed by their culture and their limited language. In this way, I’ve always loved the metaphor of the three blind men touching the elephant, where the one who touches the tail believes it’s a rope, the one touching the legs believes it’s a tree, and the one touching the trunk believes it’s a snake. Taking these experiences back to their homes, each man is going to construct a wildly different interpretation of the same thing.

That being said, I fall into a strange blend where I love science (I think that there are avenues toward spiritual experience that can be explored scientifically), I have a deep respect for the spiritual and components of the religious (as I explored above), but where I’m also very heretical to some religious folks (in that I challenge many religions assertions that there is only one “right” way).

But it’s this blend between perspectives that put me in a very unique position to watch Noah.

The Theater Experience

A lot of reviewers are talking about what a spectacle this movie was, and how you should really go see it in theaters. I’m in between. I think that it’s an experience demanded to be seen in theaters. It’s  larger than life and it’s a movie about the destruction of the world. That’s big. You should see it big. But there are many moments where, because the CGI is so extensive through the whole movie, that the graphics are a bit disappointing, even ripping me from the immersive experience. Aronofsky also tends to direct his movies in very specific and beautiful ways, with shots that are often lost if you’re gazing up at the screen. Black Swan for instance, is a very different experience at home than it was in the theaters. Not that one is necessarily better over another, but there’s reasons to see it in theaters and to wait.

Formally

This movie was excellently filmed (other than the CGI hiccups), and excellently acted. Russell Crowe was an excellent Noah, playing the blend between warm and fatherly with just the right amount of rugged, hardcore, batshit crazy. The other actors I think did their jobs well, but I wasn’t ever all that blown away.

Thematically

So. With all that front-matter out of the way, I want to dig around inside the film a bit on a thematic level, which is where movies do their truest work for me.

This movie, while clunky at times, especially in the pacing, was very much a movie that built upon itself. We begin with this predilugian world that’s different from our own. This may well be a part that turns off many atheists, as it very quickly plunges you into a world that echoes, again and again, the “Creator” (read: Old Testament God). The bad guys are the ones who live in excess and violence and arrogance, and the good guys are the pious and the environmentally-minded who maintain a reverence for the Creator.

You can see how this is quickly divisive. Many more right-leaning Christians are immediately turned off by the very Granola-feeling “save the environment from the polluters” theme, and many Atheists are turned off by the overt God-centric world the characters are living in.

But the mindset you have to put yourself in, for the more Atheistic thinkers, is that this movie is in a fantasy world, where there is magic and rock-creature-transformer-angels and spark-rocks that make epic fire, and seeds that can grow an entire forest overnight. For the more Christian thinkers: if you make it through the movie, you understand that the tree-hugging theme is really one of respect, and sets more a tone for the premise than it does the conclusion. It returns a perspective to the Edenic perspective, of the innocence that many Christians idolize, in which a kind of harmony with nature was idolized, in that sense that we were unaware of good and evil, and very much just another animal ourselves.

Later in the movie, there was another potential turnoff for fundamentalists, in one of the most gorgeous and Aronofsky-esque sequences in the film, where the creation myth was told overlaying a very evolutionary sequence of the creation of the earth, a perspective I’ve always loved. Of course, I come from a religious-studies background, in that I have a very heavy respect for the cultural myths that were told about creation as purely that: stories. But, as an English Major, stories that talk of a deeper truth, and consider rich meaning.

Just like this one, in fact. This movie is art. It’s a fictional illustration of deeper meanings. And if you’re so literal that you can’t appreciate the dialogue happening underneath a sequence that suggests a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, well, that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure this review will mean much to you if you made it this far anyway.

But I loved that sequence, because it reflects an important blend of different beliefs (a theme Aronofsky explored extensively in The Fountain).

The deepest heart of the movie though, once we move beyond the places where believers and non-believers alike would be turned off, is in the emotional and ethical struggle DEEPLY RUNNING through this entire story.

Most of us know the story of Noah, whether we were taught in Sunday school or just through the society we live in, where such mythos are common. God wants to destroy the wicked. He entrusts Noah to build an ark to save the innocent. Noah builds it. Floods come. Everyone dies. Bird comes back with a sign of land. Noah and family repopulate the earth.

It’s a story I’ve shrugged off dozens of times. But I mean, holy shit. That’s HEAVY. God, the Creator (in hindsight, the God who’s supposed to be all-loving and benevolent and all that) is going to WIPE OUT THE EARTH, women, children, innocent, good, evil, wicked, WHOLE CULTURES in one go, because we’ve become so bloodthirsty and wicked.

People are dying. People who it’s VERY much up to debate may indeed be good-hearted and innocent. How much good is in a person to require their salvation? How much evil for their damnation? When is it decided that a person is so evil they’re not worth saving? That they can’t be rehabilitated? Are human beings inherently evil? Should any be saved?

I mean, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that these are the big questions and themes that really become driven home by the second act. But they’re themes that are very much at the heart of many Old Testament stories, but left for discussion and inference, as the Bible isn’t really big on fleshing out these ideas, but as illustrative and conversation-inspiring.

Anyone who can appreciate being placed in the context of this magical, God-structured world, and who can appreciate the severity of the ethics in the story itself (these questions are implicit right there in the Bible, they’re just less dramatized), should absolutely see and chew on this movie (yes, I’m saying you Atheists, and you Christians).

Because these are great questions. Weighing the amount of goodness or evil in a human being, and then discussing how seriously we should take a punishment for such evil… that’s fucking huge.

And Aronofsky handled this very deftly.

I said on Twitter after seeing the movie that I wasn’t sure it was great or just really goooood. I’m still leaning toward not-great. I was worried the movie wouldn’t be very deep as it started. I wasn’t seeing the themes or a real dramatic manifestation of these themes at first, but they came on like the deluge by the end, and that much I loved.

Watching Noah buckle under his ethical dilemmas was wonderful. Watching him get drunk in a cave by himself because the weight of whether he’d failed his god and/or failed humanity was extremely powerful. He did it because of Love. And whether that decision was a wrong decision was very challenging, because, I mean… what does that say about God?

2014-noah-wide

GOD.

My perspective on God is that, if there is such a being, he’s a kind of consciousness and energy. I feel that many interpretations of him are a personification. We’ve made him into a character, a kind of manifestation of themes and ideas, and in so doing, we’ve created an idea that can be interpreted and critiqued. I don’t feel that God is a bearded old man on a cloud, but to consider him as such, a human-esque character, we can weigh these ethics and themes in a more tangible discussion.

I understand that that’s very heretical for many religious types, but I feel that it’s important to discuss these things.

And here’s where I loved the subtlety of the movie. And perhaps where some sharp Christians may have started to falter. Because the movie asked some hard questions about God. They were subtle. They were respectful. God was a presence in the movie, but was never overtly a character, and this was a really wonderful choice by Aronofsky.

I, for one, really love critiquing the character of the Christian God. Because it’s a very complicated one. We have so many different visions of God, even in this one religion, and many are at odds with each other, and for such an encompassing figure, these are really big discussions.

The problem of evil, for example: How could an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent (read: all knowing, all good, all powerful) allow evil? If he knows of it and doesn’t do anything about it, he’s evil. If he knows of it and is all good, he’s impotent, and if he is all powerful and good, then perhaps he doesn’t know about it. It’s an important problem, and one that’s been discussed for hundreds of years, with excellent arguments on both sides. So here I don’t mean to suggest it in any way antagonistically toward Christianity, but in Religious Philosophy, it’s a big and important issue.

And it comes to manifest frequently in the Old Testament. We have a very wrathful, vengeful, emotional God who dishes out punishment right and left. Some of these for SERIOUSLY NO REASON. The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung has a fascinating breakdown of this God Character, in which he blends very Eastern ideas (who see good and evil as halves of a whole, rather than polarized the way we see them in the west), and he makes a very interesting argument toward God being a totality of good and evil seeking to balance the two.

If you’re a deeply Christian person, much of what he says comes across as very blasphemous, but I for one love it, if not simply for the interpretation of how such a god could do the things done in the Old Testament. He continues his analysis by suggesting that Christ was a manifestation of himself as human so that he could understand human suffering, as well as understand himself by having a second perspective. Christ dying on the cross was then, in Jung’s vision, a sacrifice to not save humanity from our sins, but to save God from his own.

Radical, challenging stuff. I know.

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone or offend anyone with this. But I wanted to illustrate how challenging this Old Testament God-Figure can be in ethical terms, and how this movie very much explores that. What makes it brilliant is that it’s exploring it in a very subtle and dramatic way. It’s easy to watch the movie as a story about Noah’s own personal struggles with both faith, as well as ethics.

But the brilliance lies in the parallels between humanity and God. I don’t believe it’s in error that it was mentioned so many times that humanity was created in God’s Image. And that if we’re to be destroyed for being too inherently evil, that’s a very focused dialogue about the nature of God himself then. After all, who created the snake in the garden? (I’ve always been fascinated by the proposition that if God knowingly created the tempter, then obedience to him was more important than utopia).

But I digress. Consider though too, where Noah’s  ethical dilemma of killing his grandchildren falls. It’s very much a parallel to the later Christ story. Noah is in a position of whether or not to kill his grandchildren for the sake of ALL CREATION. God himself had, it would seem, a similar dilemma all those years later with his own son on earth, dying for the sake of ALL HUMANITY. Less genocide, different stakes, but a similar ethical choice.

Look at the temptation of the middle son, Ham, to kill his father in order to save all of humanity.

Though we never really see a positive side of his tempter, Tubal-Cain, he isn’t in an obviously evil situation when he convinces Ham to kill his father in order to let humanity continue to flourish.

How different is a son killing his father to save all of humanity from the later story, in which a father sacrifices his son in order to save all of humanity?

These are delicate dialogues and parallels happening below and within this movie. I would argue (and not just because I’m more open minded to Gotteskritik than most) that they’re not blasphemous, but posing ethical questions on a archetypal Old Testament story, one loaded with ethical and moral dilemmas. The dilemma of punishment, of genocide, of elimination of evil, of the nature of evil and the human being, of the nature of God himself.

Conclusion

Part of me wishes there was a bit more exploration of these themes than really the second half of the movie, but I understand that there was a certain amount of buildup to these themes that was important. The construction of this predilugian world, and the audience’s acceptance of it, was a very important narrative construction that needed to be ensured before we could be challenged in the second act.

And, while upon first viewing, the movie seemed almost disappointingly straightforward (humanity tries to get on the ark, Noah wonders if he must kill his family off too, and Ham must decide whether to kill his father), these things, upon analysis, were very BIG situations that were VERY thematically loaded, particularly as they extended to God.

Maybe this final element, the criticism of God — or, even less severe sounding: the questioning of God — will turn off many religious folks from the movie, but I hope it doesn’t. This is what made the movie for me, because it went BIG, but it did so very subtly. Noah’s story has always demanded an ethical illustration and discussion of one man’s handling of the need for genocide, but what’s always been there (more overtly in the story of Job) is God’s same handling of such a need. Any religious Christian has studied the story of Job and had discussions around why God would punish a man for no reason. And the story of Noah is very much a less challenging but no less BIG story of why God would punish man for GOOD reason. Asking questions about whether God was right, why he made his decisions, and the significance of the implications of such decisions is important for any religious follower, and certainly does not imply a path to rejecting God.

It’s cause for this movie staying very carefully to the Biblical story. It’s posing the questions that have always been there in dramatic fashion. Questions that make us FEEL, questions that make us cry, questions that make us scared. That’s art. Those are questions that need to be asked. And, I think, why Noah was really brilliant.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the book Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, lectures about the paranormal and religion across the nation, and shoots portrait photography in Northern Colorado. 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Found-Footage: Gimmick or Genre?

I stumbled across a trailer today for the upcoming horror flick, Skinwalker Ranch.

And, as I watched it, I was torn, almost scene by scene. Part of me rolled my eyes. The handheld IR footage shot, running through the night. The screams. The setting up of DVR cameras in the corners of rooms to capture “ghosts.” People getting blown across a room. The tagline “Inspired by True Events.” But the other part of me was gleeful.

Much of that response comes down to the found footage aspect of the movie. Found footage being the hand-held, shaky, everybody-dies-and-someone-later-publishes-the-footage type movie.

The Rise and Goal of Found Footage

What made found-footage brilliant was in the way it minimized the line between reality and fiction for the audience’s experience. Which, particularly as it applies to horror, is instrumental in milking the visceral response to a movie.

This advent was primarily due to the movement toward smaller, digital cameras. Though designed first for the public, and sneered upon by much of Hollywood (who produced high quality movies on film, firmly establishing the difference between amateur and “PROFESSIONAL”), many more avant-garde filmmakers were dabbling in the wide possibilities that shooting on digital cameras could open up in terms of creativity, particularly in terms of breaking down the separation between audiences and films. The goal was to make the experience as immersive as possible, to not only translate ideas, but to translate experiences. This is more specifically explored in Keanu Reeve’s documentary film Side by Side.

It was arguably 1999’s Blair Witch Project that brought a household awareness to the found-footage style, which offered the perfect blend of reality and fiction. Releasing the movie independently, with some early internet hype further confusing the lines between the produced nature of the movie, audiences were utterly thrown as to the reality of the movie. How much more frightening, that this could be real?

The Goal of Horror Movies

Now, the horror genre falls into two main categories of intention: to challenge a viewer intellectually, and to scare the shit out of people. The latter is usually the goal. Which is unfortunate because horror provides opportunity to introduce us to new ideas, new extremes: to unsettle us, to challenge us, to stretch the human condition to its limits.

As we explored before, the found-footage style makes a movie seem more real because it feels like it could be a home movie that anyone we know could have filmed. It could have happened next door. This helps scare the shit out of people.

Many people love to harp on found-footage because it doesn’t scare them. As with any popular fiction that plays with this reality between lies and truth, people are fairly desperate to assert themselves in the midst of controversy. It’s very important to people to not be wrong, and to not be scared.

Manly, right? You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You can’t be scared at a movie. And you knew what was real. You weren’t wrong. You were right all along.

I’m widely generalizing, but that’s the layer of our society that horror films provoke as a reaction. This is exactly why so many horror movies are so widely received, with some people loving them, others hating them. Everyone has different fights that make them tick, and many people like to bad-mouth them because the movie either didn’t make them tick, or because they want to sound tough.

Ever been to a midnight horror flick with a bunch of college kids? They talk the whole way through the movie because they’re trying to be too tough to shut up and engage: to be scared.

So, with any challenging way of telling a story as true, there’s going to be backlash that one: it wasn’t scary, and two: i knew it wasn’t real all along.

Because found-footage now is associated with a kind of truth, but no longer seriously pretends to be true, audiences are very reactionary, finding it more annoying than inventive.

The Nuance of Found Footage

This is where the nuance comes in. Some people can very easily get motion sick, staring at a large screen, too immersed. Like 3D movies, some people physically can’t handle it. Which is fine. For the rest of us, we can experience that okay, so long as it’s done right.

One of the popular lines of critique in the found-footage style is an easy backswing against the original intention. Because it originally felt so real, because it felt like it could have been made by any Joe on the street, now people think that, seriously, any Joe on the street could make such a movie.

Which, of course, is relatively inaccurate.

Not everyone can make a movie. It’s hard work and there’s a ton of technical know-how.

This is not to confuse the fact that many people can make a bad movie. This is altogether common.

But the fact that so many bad found-footage movies exist is not to be confused with the found-footage style being inherently bad. That’s what they call a logical fallacy.

The nuance comes in that found-footage movies can still be artistic. They can still have beautiful shots, even if that footage is “accidentally” or “unintentionally” captured by some bamboozling character. The cutting and filming of the movie can be done in a way that looks haphazard, but is intentionally filmed in a way that doesn’t upset the audience until the filmmaker wants it to.

One of the great nuances of film is in where and when to cut the film. Many times in a poorly cut piece of video, you find yourself annoyed with the camera for lingering on one shot when you’d rather have it on another.

A recent example: this IGN interview from Comic Con this year, in which Jane Levy and Fede Alvarez discuss the magnificent Evil Dead remake.

At around the minute forty mark, the interviewers ask Jane Levy their first question, while the trailer plays. Inserting a trailer into an interview is fine, but the viewer has a few ingrained expectations. There are certain elements that need to be established. The first time Jane Levy speaks, I want to see her speaking (and not just because I find her insanely attractive). It grounds the audience in an association, and we can learn how the nuances of speech relate to action and presentation. We get a complete picture. But in this clip, when we finally get done with the trailer, we linger uncomfortably long at 2:00 on the interviewers, who aren’t speaking, and we still haven’t gotten a shot of Jane speaking.

Which I’m sure is a technical issue. They probably were trying to swing a camera to get her on the shot. It was a likely amateur mistake. Shooting live video is hard. The point here isn’t the poor quality of sixty seconds of interview footage. The point here is that audience expectation drives the shot, and if we don’t see what we have been taught to expect to see, it will drive us crazy. We want to see a character when they speak. Every shot has to be chosen against all other possible shots. We have to know that what we’re looking at is the most important component of the scene, whether that’s the character speaking, a character responding, or a shot that illustrates some kind of developing action in the background, we have to trust filmmakers, and most times we do.

But this can also be used to great effect when it operates against our expectation. How many times do you find yourself sitting in a horror movie, pissed as hell because the character is stumbling around in the dark, and we’re only give a tight shot of her face, and we can’t see what’s behind her — we can’t see what’s on the other side of the door — we, like her, don’t know what’s coming. But all we want to do is scream at the camera to pull wide and give us a bit of security.

That’s good filmmaking. It’s a bit of a standard example, but that’s one way of building tension literally through the shots that you choose.

And the found-footage style, particularly in that it’s becoming a facet of horror-films above all else, is extremely dependent on this type of thinking. What is seen and what is unseen, in terms of the shot, is crucial to building dread and tension. Debatably it’s even more crucial in this genre, because the camera shot is what the character is experiencing

Genre or Gimmick?

“Gimmick” is one of those words that has layers of pejorative meanings. It can be spoken of as both positive and negative. Usually, we tend to speak of a gimmick as a bullshit device that has no purpose or meaning other than drawing attention.

In terms of found-footage, most people have concluded that it’s a gimmick because it’s a cheap way to make the audience unsettled and nauseous, and a cheaper way to provide jump scares (back to the idea about the nuances of shot).

Found-footage has become transparent. Singly, it’s because there have been SO many movies that employ this technique. What used to be clever (the lines between real and lie, the nuance of shot, etc) have now become expected and dry.

But I don’t think that makes something a gimmick. That makes it gimmicky in the sense that it’s a device that’s become meaningless, but you can make that argument about almost any aspect of film. Any genre can be overdone to the point of being predictable, dry, transparent, and only as an attention-grabber.

I’d argue that found-footage as a style is not inherently meaningless, and can be used as a very intentional device. And, if it can be used as meaningful, it’s not inherently a gimmick, and can be applied with skill and purpose.

See, found footage in its first incarnation was used to break down the lines between lie and reality, which is a big deal in art. As we go, it became a compelling device for a fresh take on presenting a story. It made its way to television, primarily in the comedy genre, manifesting as a blend of mockumentary in order to make the “real-world” situations as “real” as possible which in turn enhanced the awkwardness. The perceived reality of the footage has the exact same emotional effect as horror. JJ Abrams used found-footage as a storytelling device shockingly well in Cloverfield, cutting back and forth between “real-time” footage and old, recorded footage being taped over, which strung along a story in flashback and realtime deftly, and with meaning. The Last Exorcism, though going off the rails by the end, used the genre both for scares, but also as a way to illustrate artifice, to bring the audience’s attention to construction and truth while examining the “reality” of possession amidst fakery. Most directly, Grave Encounters used it — albeit shallowly — to play with reality and artifice on ghost hunting programs. The Fourth Kind used it to study truth behind lies (behind more lies) and the artifice of a Hollywood movie.

Despite being a perfect gimmick for jump scares, the found-footage style is a perfect device to illustrate possibility. And so long as you’re operating within a genre (supernatural films), a big recurring theme is possibility. “What if this could happen? How bad could it be and what would it look like?”

Paranormal Activity used it, brilliantly, to not pretend to be real, but to make a fake haunting feel like a “real” haunting. Though horror movies have moved so far beyond it (with their shock-scares and gore), many people are terrified in their own homes at the smallest sounds and sights. Paranormal Activity, instead of pretending to be real, employed the found footage device to emulate a reality that struck home much more effectively than a standard shot-by-shot movie. Paranormal Activity reminded us that even though we know the found-footage style is no longer real, it still feels more real, which is exactly why we’re seeing so many of these types of movies right now, from [Rec] to The Chernobyl Diaries to V/H/S to Troll Hunter to Chronicle and more. 

It’s a Genre

To have so many movies operating under this one artistic style, a way of presentation, a form, a subject matter, and in doing so with such variety, found-footage has been too intelligently used, and with too much variety, to write it off as a gimmick.

And to suggest that there’s nothing original left to be done in the genre is to discredit the smart filmmakers out there. Sure, we’re going to get crappy, generic, found-footage movie after found-footage movie, but the same can be said of horror movies in general. Or RomComs, or dramas, or comedies.

So I don’t write off movies when I see from their trailers that they’re found-footage. I know they’ll probably suck. I know they’ll probably not do anything innovative with their gimmick.

But I’ll still watch them if they look good. I’ll still be on the edge of my seat in the theater, waiting — not for the next jump scare — but for that hint of brilliance that could yet change everything.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

Tagged , , ,

Conjuring Review

Sorry I’m slow on this one. The review should have been up last Thursday, but I was finishing up another job, and just today got to the theater.

So!

Initial Review:

Like all the movies I review, there are two levels of analysis happening here: there is the analysis for the experiential moviegoer, and the thoughtful moviegoer. The Conjuring, for the experiential moviegoer, doesn’t go wrong. It doesn’t go terribly right, but it’s a good horror flick. Jump scares. Good ghost story manifesting in a good frightening possession. I can see why most people are liking it here in its first week.

For the thoughtful moviegoer… well… if you don’t know me by now, that’s where my discussion comes in.

The-Conjuring-BannerAs always, it helps at this point to have seen the movie, because apt discussion comes best when we can discuss the meat and potatoes of a movie, regardless of spoiler-worry, and in a way that puts us all on the same page.

This review is going to hit on a lot of the topics I continually hit on when writing reviews on supernatural-movies, because this movie generally failed in the way most of these supernatural-type movies fail.

Premise:

What makes the horror genre brilliant is that horror is dealing with extremes. These extremes take us out of our comfort zone, both emotionally, ethically, morally, and philosophically. Most horror movies get stuck in the first category: the emotional one. If they can scare you, they believe that they’ve done their job.

Many movies run in the same trend. Romantic Comedies have real potential to rip apart conventional social standards and dig around inside. Action movies can make larger commentary on the workings of government and politics and science-fiction. You name it. It’s usually the movies that push their boundaries, in whatever genre, that are reaching for real depth, and find themselves redefining the genre in the first place. Those are the brilliant movies.

Horror is not unique in that capacity, but it is closer to my heart.

This oftentimes is where I get frustrated with possession movies, because possession movies seem to always start with a beautiful layout of themes at the heart of their premise. These themes range from crises of faith, to the existence of a god, to the evil inside us, to the nature of insanity, to the nature of evil, to the pros and cons of religious systems–you name it. But in 99% of the execution, they fall into simply bloody messes and shark-jumping.

I suggest that the real tension–the real drama–of a horror movie comes from these themes and their emotional manifestations within the movie. The same way that my all-time favorite movie, The Dark Knight, manifests these themes in character, letting them play out on a symbolic level, I expect the demons and the ghosts and the things that go bump in the night to be manifestations of the same types of themes.

This hope alone goes back to philosophy, to Jung in particular, whom I love. He structured the way for Joseph Campbell, who wrote the Hero’s Journey. Jung took a mystical approach to storytelling, and charted the recurring tropes of stories on an international scale to be indicative of a kind of Platonic, mystical depth, where each trope was a manifestation of some spiritual consistency.

Regardless, this play between symbol, theme, and emotional, dramatic tension is, for me anyway, the heart of any brilliant movie. (These can be manipulated across the board, of course. Symbol and theme can be sacrificed for an emotional tension that reveals deep, deep inner truths. And by the same coin, emotional narrative can be sacrificed for pure exploration of theme and image, branching into very post-modern, abstract filmmaking. But it’s all along the same spectrum: dealing with deeply human issues.)

So here, in a genre that is–at the very least on a spiritual level–screaming for thematic discussion and tension, we have movies that just seem to ignore it.

And unfortunately, The Conjuring seems to have ignored it.

The Conjuring: 

The Conjuring takes its emotional tension from the situation: (whether you consider the main protagonists to be Ed and Lorraine Warren, or if you consider them to be the Perrons) there are angry ghosts, and the angry ghosts create a mess.

There’s nothing more than that. At best, there are themes hinted at: the importance of family and… well… the importance of family. Really, that’s it.

Even with that theme, a pretty decent one: there’s no stress put on it in any kind of executable way. Even with the risk of having their daughter put in jeopardy because of their need to help the other family, the Warrens’ argument is instead about Lorraine’s safety rather than their daughter’s. The question at the very heart of the movie, whether to continue to help one family at the expense of another, is never even discussed. The writer’s didn’t seem to recognize the very tension in what they had already wrote, let alone the potential for more.

Really, past all that, it’s just a succession of tropes. And there were so many: creepy imaginary friend; creepy doll; creepy cursed object; clocks stopping at 3:00; creepy basement; creepy blindfolded hide and seek game; family dog dying; birds crashing into the house; spirit with unfinished business; team investigating the house; exorcism; eye of the hurricane lull… the list goes on.

I think the reason so many people liked this movie on the surface was that it presented all these tired tropes in a way that didn’t suck. Which is only really celebrated because in most movies they do suck.

I was hoping that even with the steady progression of tropes, that the director of Saw and Insidious would have some style up his sleeve to give us a bit of spectacle with them. But really… just a creepy house. That was all the atmosphere we got. I can only recall one shot in the movie that really stood out to me in any kind of creative, atmospheric capacity.

Really, this film falls perfectly on the spectrum of mediocrity.

It wasn’t as laughably bad as 2012’s atrocious The Apparition, which couldn’t even execute a cliche trope to save a life. But, by the same token, when compared to the masterpiece Spanish Del Toro-produced Orphanagewhich heaps on many of the exact same tropes, but with a skillful execution thoroughly mindful of atmosphere, genuine frights, and depth of theme, The Conjuring just flounders around in average mediocrity.

It was just hitting its beats.

And yeah, maybe that was exactly what this movie was supposed to be. It didn’t pretend to be more than what it was. It was a summertime frightener. But really, can’t we get some effort out of a horror movie these days? Especially one that so heavily leans on the treasure trove that is Ed and Lorraine Warren.

C+

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

Tagged , , , , , ,

Game of Thrones, Mindless Television, and RISK

Wanted to write a quick blog inspired by a twitter conversation (because I need to blog more and this is exactly the kind of thing that should be blogged).

And so it’s going to be in TWO PARTS!

Part One: I hate you because you’re BRILLIANT.

I was perusing the glorious re-tweets of the twitter account @RedWeddingTears. If you’ve been living under a rock the past few days, Game of Thrones penultimate episode of season 3 rocked the minds and hearts of its fan base with a shocking death. (I suspect its not much of a spoiler to point out that all the hubub revolved around a death).

And though many of the tweets are quite hilarious,

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.51 PMOthers are quite saddening.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 3.40.05 PMOf course, I’m instantly reminded of FilmCritHulk’s recent column about spoilers and the different ways of consuming media. Which (spoiler) essentially breaks down as such: There are four types of movie-goer: the ones who go for a good experience, the ones who go for an EPIC experience, the ones who appreciate the thematic and symbolic nuances, and the ones who appreciate the craft and making of the film itself.

I like to think I’m firmly in the third category, with a healthy appreciation of the other three. While I think that a tremendous amount of weight falls into this third category (I’ve had intellectual engagement with films that falls on a level far more profound than a purely emotional one), a tremendous amount of weight falls upon the first two.

And I find it equal parts hilarious and tragic when people say that a show should be cancelled (or that they’re going to stop watching television altogether) because they’ve had such a profound reaction.

To say, through tears, that Game of Thrones is “treacherously written” is laughably ironic.

And not simply for the sake of the unintended “treacherously” (I suspect “terribly” to be more the idea). Eliminating treacherous writing would eliminate all sense of tension at all.

But that in a lot of ways is George R. R. Martin’s whole point. We’re far too used to watching our heroes with the expectation that they’re going to succeed. He’s flipping our traditional notions entirely on their heads. Is that his only trick? I’m not sure that’s the case, but with good writing, it’s a fine single trick to have.

See, the great irony of these tweets is that if writing can force you into a reaction that profound and gut-wrenching, that’s incredible writing. The hardest jobs of a writer is to address the main two categories of consumer: the ones who want to be emotionally moved, and the ones who want to be intellectually moved. Game of Thrones is doing both right now. Emotional, political, and loosely social themes contextualized by painful and wild plot twists? That’s an achievement.

And if you’re watching to not be moved to the edge of your seat, it means that you either want a story that’s predictable and banal, or that the writing has failed in making you care. Right now, Game of Thrones is neither banal nor un-sympathetic.

My twitter conversation then moved into the idea that if such people are threatening to stop watching television entirely, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Which leads me to Part Two: Is television still an evil that’s sucking our brains? 

We’re in what I like to call the second golden age of television right now. Which is to say, despite the advent of reality television and the cut-throat nature of network primetime mostly-procedural television, cable networks have risen and given intellectual, broad-scoping, serial television a place to thrive. This began by their trust in their audience, and the shows that they invite. Breaking Bad is debatably the greatest show on television right now. But Breaking Bad would not have gotten to the place that it is now without having to fight its way through the first three seasons. I only watched Breaking Bad because I wanted to watch the bumbling figure of Walter White in his first season transform into the face on the season four DVD cover.

Breaking-Bad-Season-4-posterA show like that (regardless of the clash in formats) would never make it that long on network television. And yet, here it’s the best on all of TV.

Because of this uprising in cable shows, we’re having this second golden age in television. We’re realizing again what TV can be. And it’s not what we thought it was. Though TV has been reinventing itself for longer than I’ve been alive (even since my birth, we’ve watched the rise of both episodic crime television and reality television), we’ve hit a new age in the intellectual and emotional capacity TV can hold. Game of Thrones is shocking audiences across the world. Mad Men, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, American Horror Story and others are doing things unheard of and reaping the rewards of smart audiences flocking.

Netflix, in the best decision they’ve ever made, recognized the long-term audience in their publication of old television serials that hook audiences for weeks at a time as well as the success of serial narrative-driven cable television, and they dove headlong into House of Cards, which in my opinion easily rivals the brilliance of Breaking Bad. Of course, Hemlock Grove and the revival of Arrested Development have only driven their success further. 

The point here being that though we’re engaging different parts of our brains, though we look like automatons when our glazed over eyes watch endlessly the dancing images on the boob toob,

tumblr_m7javtQmec1qzguyto1_r1_500there is finally a genuine intellectual and emotional work being done through the medium of television.

Is it a healthy stand-in for reading? Perhaps not as much. But is it finally an intellectually engaging one, challenging us on moral, social, and thematic issues? Absolutely.

And, I’d beg to suggest, if you can’t handle those emotions, or having those things you fall in love with be torn from you, or having the things you take confidence in believing suddenly subverted, I’d stick to reality shows. But if you want to step up and finally engage in something profound, that could change your life, these types of stories are becoming more and more available.

I can only hope that purely reactionary viewers realize that, and that the cable networks don’t become so flogged with competition for viewers’ eyes that they forget that good art takes time.

As a viewer, that’s not always fun. And as a network, it’s not always safe. But that’s risk. And risk is crucial.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , ,

Dogville, an Analysis

The awkward thing about a blog such as this is that I don’t think you should read it.

Which is to say, it’s a discussion of the movie Dogville, by Lars von Trier, and if you haven’t seen the movie (which is likely most of you), I suggest that you watch it first. Suggestion seems too light a word. Really it should be kind of mandatory.

Lars von Trier is the director of the Depression trilogy, which features the deeply-disturbing Antichrist, 2012’s much-hyped Melancholia, and the forthcoming Nymphomaniac. Dogville is the first of his America trilogy, the second film of which is called Manderlay. 

Here I’m only focusing on Dogville, but, whatever you do, don’t pull the Fight Club card like I did in high school and let the end be spoiled for you because you’re sure you’re never going to see it.

It’s the kind of movie that you must know nothing before going into. Don’t even go googling for a trailer. If you do choose to watch it, sit through the entire movie. For the first two thirds, you may well feel like turning it off or doing something else, the only thing I can say is watch the whole movie.

Unfortunately it’s not on Netflix instant at the moment, so it’ll take more legwork, but if cerebral movies are your thing, it’s incredible.

Go watch it and then come back. I’ll wait.

* * *

dogville_2_1024

For the rest of you lovelies, I want to talk about this movie, because it demands talking about. The first time I watched it was a year ago, early in the morning, with my filmmaker buddy AJ, and by the last twenty minutes, I was sitting up on my bed with my hair in my hands in shock.

The second time I watched it was last night with my girlfriend, and the experience was no less profound, but far less visceral. The shock of the town’s descent and, later, the film’s abrupt left turn into allegory had fallen, and instead I could watch the development of the philosophy and commentary happening within.

Perhaps many of you were more toward my girlfriend’s level of engagement and expectation, where she laughed afterward that she’d have been very disappointed if they didn’t machine-gun the town. But I was along purely for the journey, with a kind of lack of expectation or suspension of disbelief that registered in manifested shock by the final forty minutes of film.

A quick perusal of online reviews of this movie — a very quick perusal, I should point out — seems that what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. Though America quickly turned back on itself in the years following, there was still a certain mindset of community that would turn on outsiders butting in with an upheld index finger and a curt “this is our discussion right now, please.”

Von Trier presents the town of Dogville in a claustrophobic, campy, allegorical sense of something bigger than itself. Despite being located in the Rocky Mountains near Georgetown, Dogville could be anywhere. As Henry Sheehan’s underwhelming review attempts to get at, and placed in wonderful terms by the New York Times: Dogville is stripped down humanity. As the Times points out:

[…]there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not America. Dogville is very specifically within America, and very specifically begins von Trier’s planned America trilogy for a reason. The town of Dogville is very intentionally placed in the Rocky Mountains, that quintessential staple of the west, in a place characteristically defined by the gold rush of barely a few decades earlier, in the timeline of the film. Indeed, the provocative credits sequence makes the American distinction quite clear, as is discussed in reviews over and over again.

But I would suggest that for one thing, we have a better position to consider such a critique of America now, a decade after the film’s release. Regardless of your belief as a conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the decline in popularity of the Bush Administration’s final seven years following the events of September 11th, along with two decidedly controversial wars, reeled America back into a heated critique that quickly came to counter the unity found in the short months following September 2001. This national wariness extended into the Obama Administration’s takeover, counterbalancing his projection of hope and clarity to make up for the decade’s confusion prior. Any extreme, supported or otherwise, is going to meet a distinct amount of critique. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on here, whether elephant, donkey, foreigner, or otherwise, the point is that American solidarity, even after the uniting events of 2001, has again began to crumble.

And by 2013, we’re again open to reception of criticism. Take the virality and boldness of the opening scene of 2012’s The Newsroom. 

[Love that video… except for the whole worst period generation period ever period. Every new generation is the worst period generation period ever period to the old generation. If he were a teacher who got to deal with the parents of our worst period generation period ever period, I think he’d start to understand why we “all” think we’re so entitled. That said, there’s obviously blame to go around, and we’ve got some issues. But I digress.]

So, now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie by a filmmaker who at the time had never even been to the country.

That all said, it is absolutely necessary that Dogville both be located in America and representing America.

This is because America, popularly, is the pinnacle of Western culture. Whether it’s deserving of that title or even on any less fragile a pedestal because of such standing is irrelevant. America, structured by a thousand years of crescendoing Christianity and ideology focusing intensely upon the individual, with its sudden rise both as an ideological powerhouse and a relatively successful one, is the perfect canvas for deconstruction of those themes.

In the New York Times piece, they illustrate von Trier’s reaction to the point:

What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America.

Earlier in the article too, von Trier specifically pointed out this idea of America as a canvas, when referencing Franz Kafka having never visited America either, before writing his story Amerika.

“I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use.”

America is the pinnacle of the individual, and hence is the pinnacle of selfishness and greed. Our entire economic system runs on the idea of greed and competition. You don’t have to visit America to be familiar with greed and competition, and it’s not an insult to America to use it as a canvas to illustrate such abstraction taken to the extreme. The entire point of the film is to illustrate how communities that claim or even function as a single unit in an individualistic society can succumb to selfishness and, ultimately, when given the right circumstances, evil.

Is this ultimately a kind of discussion between the Capitalistic, individual-centric west versus a more socialistic east? Yeah, kind of. Von Trier even said,

”I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”

The delicate line that von Trier walks with a movie such as this is between labeling an entire country (one that inherently defines itself on pluralistic values) by a single allegorical situation, and using an abstraction of a country to present a discussion between ideologies. The former borders on insulting (especially given the post-9/11 world it premiered to), and ignorance, in that obviously characterizing a whole people with a single allegory is a narrow viewpoint. But! The latter, illustrating what a country (or religion, or philosophy, anyone so-defined by their fundamental ideologies) stands for–well, isn’t that art?

Is Dogville anti-American? Perhaps. But that’s skipping straight to the conclusion, and in so doing misses the point entirely. Good art is about the conversation. What would it mean to be anti-American, anyway? The knee jerk reaction is to think that “they (he, whoever) hate us.” I identify as an American, and so they must hate me. But America is a way of thinking and a way of life. It’s a compound of beliefs and practices, and even though we started as a melting pot of the world’s cultures, even though if you put a liberal and a conservative at a table and had them duke it out, we have to recognize that there are fundamental issues at the heart of our country, and it’s these issues that are examined in any smart American critique. Before we condemn them for condemning us, we have to clarify what’s being condemned (or, if we relax, discussed) in the first place.

Where Mr. Sheehan concludes that Dogville wasn’t particularly provocative save a few moments, I would argue that the entire premise is provocative. To watch “good, honest people” fall into the depths of human evils and utterly justify it to themselves is an incredible experience to engage it.

The tools the movie employs are directly related to its study of both this altogether western human experience and theme. The other most popular talking-point about the movie, aside from its critique of America, is the design of the set as wall-less and stark. The wall-less, staged nature is at once Campy. Camp being the style–primarily in theater–that focused on artifice. Though often Camp is presented as a kind of silly commentary on the nature of various social constructions, Dogville is aware of its Campy nature, but applies it in a refreshingly serious way. The most notable scene in the movie being when Stellan Skarsgard rapes Nicole Kidman in sight of the entire town as the rest of the town goes about its business, completely oblivious.

The lack of walls goes on to suggest a variety of commentary on the nature of community, on the nature of what is seen or understood but socially denied, but also it speaks toward a kind of essential humanity. There’s a play here on the nature of privacy. Privacy is a curious beast because its very nature depends on this essential Western ideal of individuality. We see ourselves as inherently different from everyone else. This as a direct counterpoint to the more Eastern beliefs epitomized by Buddhism by way of Fight Club, if I may, in which emphasis is placed on the fact that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same living, breathing organic matter as everyone else. At the end of the day, we are all simply human beings.

tumblr_l70whzNKQX1qcfba3o1_500

You’re the all singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Consider cameras in every room of your house. The discomfort of being watched at every moment, of having your privacy revoked. These things then that we want to hide, or keep private, come curiously because most of the things that we hide are either altogether natural acts (sexing, shitting, showering–most inherent in the way we clothe ourselves, the way we consider nudity a private affair) or the actions we are ashamed of (crimes, betrayal, or secrets). Hiding the former is ultimately kind of odd, as there’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of. As the popular children’s story asserts, Everybody Poops.

Between those things we want to hide, the latter becomes far more complex, and begins to bleed into the issues illustrated by Dogville. Are there absolutes in private crimes? Crimes designed purely out of malevolence? Dogville’s premise alone begs the question as to whether there are crimes that are purely malicious, or whether everything is a strange blend between self-disillusionment coupled with selfishness and a lack of community consequence. Indeed, much of the violence in the film is an illustration of precisely this: evil that can occur anywhere given the right circumstances.

And much of the situational drama that nuances the movie begs the question as to whether community accountability is the best treatment for such selfishness. Because ultimately, these crimes in the movie are at their essence selfishness. Self-justified acts on selfishness inflicted on Nicole Kidman as Grace.

It’s ironic then, how in the film, those acts most selfish (and by the end, most twisted) are justified by the need for comfort in another: a need for community. Skarsgard as Chuck tries to kiss Grace because he feels lonely and sexually unsatisfied. Ben, in much the same way, needs the company of kind women and sexual satisfaction. Indeed, even Paul Bettany’s Tom ultimately wants companionship. The irony falls in this dynamic between wanting comfort in another, lacking respect for that other person because the desire is so high, and a lack of community accountability because of such blind selfishness, which may well provide a substitute for such comfort.

If there’s a critique of Western society here, it’s in the emphasis on the individual. That even individual interests as a part of a societal whole restrict empathy and true understanding of others. Illustrated to their extreme when these issues are brought to the community as Tom pushes Grace to come clean with the group, there is no accountability because everyone in the town is so absorbed in their own selfishness.

Indeed, the critique extends to the way we manifest this individual in our political process. Consider the moments of democracy in the film. Every decision the town makes is based upon a vote of the townspeople. Our moral code in America is decided by the collective. If enough people deem something as acceptable, it is not morally wrong. What tension then, when we consider issues like the morality of abortion, of gay rights, of smoking marijuana, or the death penalty. If there’s a law for it, it’s morally permissible, if there’s not, it’s not. Von Trier takes this to the logical extreme, in which a town collectively decides it’s acceptable to keep an outsider as a sexual and indentured servant.

In fact, the commentary goes farther to consider the position of America on immigrants. Grace, in the film, comes from a place foreign and far, finds herself in the town, and in their struggle as to whether or not they should accept her as one of their own, puts her to work. How easily that becomes exploited when it’s suddenly acceptable to force someone into such labor, and it’s in relatively little time that her work is doubled, her wages cut in half, because of a perceived wrong. A wrong in large part based on the communities own navel-gazing and a treatment as different. As an outsider.

Now, certainly the film doesn’t dive into the justice system and whether such an “objective” system helps prevent against such individual selfishness, but that should be taken less as an oversight of von Trier and more as a separate issue entirely. The town forms its own justice system, a microcosm of the modern, hyper-structured, rule-filled system designed by the populace in the first place. The film’s focus is on the individual’s role in a community and how we treat each other. And the movie is long enough as it is.

But I want to get back to this idea of human nature and those crimes we’re ashamed of. Where before we considered whether crime comes from a community’s self-delusion, we on the other hand have to consider the other premise of the movie: whether malice is human nature, whether we can extend this reflection of private crimes to instances of Clockwork Orange-type violence. If such malice is in any individual’s nature, it would suggest a malicious undercurrent wrapped up in our own collective human nature.

Grace and her father discuss the issue in the car during Chapter Nine:

Father: Rapists and murders may be the victims according to you, but I–I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.

Grace: But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?

Father: Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.

But von Trier studies the strange blend between the two, and considers whether selfishness is human nature. Perhaps that’s the film’s conclusion: that malice isn’t inherent, but selfishness is (at least in a culture that idolizes the individual), and look what that can lead to.

The question of the necessity and right of an individual to privacy (and as an inherent part of freedom) is one for another time and so I want to move on from this question of privacy, shame, and human nature, and start to move into what’s absolutely the most provocative part of the film, that of Chapter Nine, the dialogue with the father figure (or “big man”), and the religious connotations within.

One of the remarkable distillations of this moment is in recognizing that Nicole Kidman’s Grace is actually of a kind of Anti-Christ nature. This of course is not in the sense of the Antichrist as Satan incarnate to bring about the end of the world, but as a kind of second coming of Christ–or a more modern day re-envisioning of the Christ story.

This of course hinges upon this idea of the father figure, the “big man” figure as a symbol for God. He’s all-powerful and holds deep responsibilities, hands out judgements and destruction, and hails from a “city” of opulence and wealth, dreamt of by the townspeople, who are altogether separate from it. And Grace is His daughter (God’s Grace, get it?), who then acts a direct counterpoint to Christ, who was God’s incarnate son. Grace’s entire character arc is of a high-born woman who finds herself, after running away, amongst townspeople–human beings. And over the course of the movie, she seeks to understand them and ultimately, God-willing (har, har), become a part of them. But she’s separate from them. She’s pure. In this manner, the film is a kind of imagining of that “what if God was one of us” situation. The age old question as to what if Christ returns as a homeless man on the street? Would we help him?

red_vs_blue_fan_art__simmons_2_0_by_corsecagent-d5kh13d

“Well, my gut says ‘no’, but then again, my gut’s made of an advanced polymer, and it doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. Stupid gut.”

In the God symbolized by the father figure, the head gangster, we have also symbolized the Old Testament, and the God that goes with it. Oftentimes in today’s changing world, many nu-Christians (like, nu-metal, anyone? anyone?) consider the New Testament as an updating of the Old Testament. From Carl Jung to modern day, progressive Christians, there’s an idea of a wrathful, jealous, emotional, un-empathetic God coming to terms with humanity through his son, Christ. In Jungian theology, this Christ figure died on the cross not for our sins, but for God’s sins, in order for God to fully understand the human condition through his experience as an incarnate human being, with emphasis on the suffering humans go through in the physical realm. But on a less controversial level, the more progressive Christians consider Christ as God 2.0, an update who brings peace and understanding, where the Old Testament God gives way to this more fully realized God.

In Dogville though, we see illustrated this deeply empathetic New Testament offspring-of-God-figure engaged in–finally–a conversation with the Old Testament God Figure. The story follows this idea of Grace telling him what she thought of him, then running away, treating the analogous Christ story as less God’s intention and more Christ’s. As her father says, “Our last conversation, the one in which you told me what you don’t like about me, never really concluded, as you ran away. I should  be allowed to tell you what I don’t like about you.”

It’s as if the crucifixion story was paused to allow God to come down from the heavens and discuss how Jesus should best handle the situation.

In Dogville, we finally have a dialogue between the judging, powerful Old Testament God (“I… I call them dogs.”) with the New, empathetic one (“Why shouldn’t we forgive them?”). The discussion of arrogance, of the worth of humanity, of human nature, of what’s best for the world, unravels between them. Eventually, Grace gives in that she’s “arrogant because I forgive people,”. The conclusion here being of the importance of holding standards, about punishment and mercy in order to raise people to their best, rather than forgive them constantly.

“You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them…” The Father figure says. “Does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do. You do not even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.”

This echoes even the alchemical, mystical sense that I like to speak of, in which it’s suffering that’s the method toward purity (see boiling dirty water or tearing down muscles to rebuild them stronger when working out). It brings back ideals of tough love that are echoed throughout antiquity.

The culmination of their dialogue leads to Grace’s revelation that the town’s actions were indeed wrong, and that no matter who committed such actions, there needed to be punishment. To be made an example of, in a sense. As the narrator says:

“What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.”

Grace then makes the decision to kill the town and to burn it, echoing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. What’s fascinating here though is the reversal from the earlier New Testament Christ story. Where in that story, Christ sacrifices himself in order to save humanity, so sparing his wrong-doers, here, with the influence this Old Testament God-Figure, Grace makes the opposite decision, coming back around to the Old Testament ways, destroying her captors explicitly for the sake of “other towns…of humanity” and “not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” Where in Christian mythology, Christ was sacrificed by tyrants and ultimately saved all of humanity, here we have a reversal, in which our Christ figure instead sacrifices the tyrants to save humanity

The emphasis on the end of the quote, toward the importance of her decision on herself as a human being speaks toward God’s revelation in his manifestation as a human being. Where Jung understood this manifestation as His coming to terms with the nature of suffering on the physical plane and a kind of self-recognition, here this manifestation is about coming to terms with the necessity for punishment. It’s like an episode of Undercover Boss in which the boss realizes his employees don’t need extra reward, but a good spanking.

"What's this, Chuck? You raped all our customers? I've decided to give you $5,000 for your kid's college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus."

“Chuck, you’ve been doing such a good job down in that apple orchard, I’ve decided to give you $5,000 for your kid’s college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus.”

It’s in this way then that she’s the anti-Christ in the sense that she’s Christ’s opposite in action, not his opposite in essence  She is herself a messiah figure, but one who ultimately comes to understand humanity and the Old Testament God at once. From this perspective then, it would seem that Dogville could be more aptly titled Antichrist than von Trier’s 2009 movie was of the same title.

But the religious allegory doesn’t stop there. Without stretching it, there’s a commentary extending to the broken figure of Stellan Skarsgard Chuck as the embodiment of Satan. Midway through the movie comes the revelation to Grace that Chuck was from the city once, and that he rejects her because he can’t stand the reminder of everything that he came to Dogville to find. Chuck also tries to tempt her in the orchard, and devotes his life to harvesting apples.

Where Grace is a revision of the Christ figure, Chuck serves as a reflection on the far-earlier-fallen Satan, who ran from Heaven because he was upset with God. A re-envisioning of Satan then, in that he didn’t run to the humans in order to corrupt God’s most favorite creations (and what good would that do, as they’re already corrupt enough and God is all to happy to punish them when they transgress), but he ran to them in order to find something genuine and pure, but was mistaken in much the same way that Grace was.

Exactly the same way as Grace was, in fact. Consider if Grace decided to stay? Perhaps eventually she would be accepted, in strained terms, until she made a defeated life with Tom, had five kids and the white picket fence, picking apples in the orchard all day, and utterly down-trodden with the life she leads. This narrative then reverses the old ideals, that it was humanity that was corrupted by Satan, and instead suggests that maybe it’s Satan who was corrupted by humanity.

Satan then, in this allegory,  is no more the manifestation of evil than Christ. Simply speaking, he’s the broken product of evil and misguided hope. Satan is a long-defeated Christ.

So what’s the use of this religious allegorical nonsense? Particularly how it interacts with the other heart of the film: that of the American critique.

I could ruminate on the way that American culture, yet in its infancy, embodies both the roles of the Dogville community and the Old Testament God figure, dishing out judgement and punishment to the rest of the world. I could reflect on the thusly ironic and pessimistic question of the film, in that if America really is such a godless society, who will give us the punishment we need? I could continue into some sort of conclusion about whether this conclusion really is anti-American and whether or not that’s truly warranted by the end of it.

But I won’t elaborate on these, or seek to answer them. Because these are the questions left for the individual. These are the questions any one of us need to ask ourselves, not only as part of America or as part of Western culture in general, but as human beings who are inherently given to our selfish natures, who inherently must look out of only one pair of eyes for our entire lives.

Whether there’s truth in this commentary is not a success or a failure of the film. It’s not an argument in the philosophical sense, where it can be proven wrong by logic and so devalued. As a film exploring these issues in a way that not only makes us feel deeply, but in a way that makes us think deeply, Dogville is truly an achievement.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , ,

Where American Horror Story S2 Went Wrong and Why it Was BRILLIANT

American Horror Story. Season two. Four months later.

I’m happy to say my hopes for this season were for the most part absolutely executed.

What it had going for it again was a brilliant season of discussion about hard modern American issues, everything from religion to the handling of mental patients, to the way we look at people with mental disorders. To issues like abortion and women’s rights and the role of women in society.

The show handles these issues with extremity and the kind of “othering” perspective gained by the horror lens that allows examination of different sides of these issues. Without being too spoilery, take for example, the instance of rape by a derranged serial killer. Is that an okay situation for an abortion? Or on the other hand, as the show demonstrates, what if choosing to do the “right” thing, keeping the baby to avoid more death, winds up turing on its head. By putting emphasis on nature instead of nurture, by studying this idea of essential evil, the show suggests that maybe even in the instance of doing the “right thing”, not the right thing happens.

That’s the real depth of post-modern, horror storytelling: turning issues on their heads, considering things differently and extremely and forcing you to think.

The season played with beautiful dynamics between monsters (traditionally embodying the deeper “American” horrors of the series rather than the purely grotesque ones). Here we have represented: religion and whether there can be such a situation as purity of the human being, and equally the ideas of pure evil in a human being; science as a method of salvation and destruction, embodied in the Aliens, used toward the end (the white light) to contrast the work of religion (the shadows); the masculine, represented by the serial killer Bloody Face, the idea of paternity and motherhood, of power of women, sexuality, and what that means to society.

Studying the play of these ideas is absolutely what makes American Horror story one of the most brilliant shows on television. AHS is the bar I set when I walk into a horror movie.

Now, this season did have some flaws.  I actually stopped watching for a number of weeks because I wasn’t into it. The season felt early on as if it bit off more than it could chew. Throwing in mental patients with deranged killers, with monsters, with aliens, and possession. It was too much. Tack on the upping of the more extreme camera work, action too fast paced to milk the scares, the level of in-your-face gore and horror — it felt that the writers had lost their way from the thematic hearts of the show.

But I returned, watched the rest of the season in two sittings, and was blown away by the end. The threads were brought together, thematically and practically balancing each other out, to arrive at a cohesive whole.

And, upon reflection, the cons wound up supporting the real positive work of the show.

Though the link from the aliens to the demonic wasn’t particularly elaborated on in terms of practicality (a la that god-awfully executed but brilliantly realized Fourth Kind), it was there subtextually and thematically. Aliens as scientific advancement. Religion as archaic advancement. Nazis somewhere in between. The dialogue throughout between the three.

One of my early problems with the season was the real claustrophobic feel. Creators would likely say they were going for that. It’s the idea of an Asylum. You’re cut off from the world. You don’t have a lot of freedom. It should be claustrophobic. They might say then my reaction was a sign of successful execution, where I felt it had more of a feel of being fake.

But this idea of fakery brings up a fascinating angle on it. This idea of what is real and not real. Of Camp. In storytelling, Camp as a genre, or style, is where you can see the strings, where you can see behind the scenes, where you have “reality” immediately presented to you, and you know to some extent what is not real. This places emphasis on what is more important: what’s real: Emotions; Story; Theme.

So in this case, that element of Camp that was played up more this season than last season, worked. I’m more of a fan of uber realism, myself. But here, whether intended or not, it was successful. The whole season we wind up questioning these ideas of reality: what’s real, what’s not real. Right down to the set-work and camera work.

The constant Dutch angles were a little much for me, but they contributed to that over-the-top style of horror that American Horror Story doesn’t shy from. That idea of Camp storytelling and essentially this in-your-face horror, where we’re not afraid necessarily to show the monsters we’ve made. We’re almost proud of them. We like to put them in your face, we want to talk about these issues. The hard issues.

That’s America.

And that I think is crucial and essential American Horror. And it wraps up the real success, even in what I didn’t like about it, for season two of American Horror Story.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Tagged , ,

Paranormal Activity 4 Review

So thank god. The drunks were quiet tonight. Except my filmmaker buddy AJ had hiccups the whole time. The girls next to us thought it was funny though. So you know. Crisis averted.

Bullet points seemed to work well for last week’s Sinister Review (the review wasn’t sinister, that was the name of the movie) so I’ll be doing that again.

So Paranormal Activity 4. Continuing the saga of the now-actually-much-hotter-Katie (seriously I’m waiting for the books. Weight Watchers. South Beach. Atkins…. Demonic possession) and her nephew.

To think I almost gave you backstory. It’s the story of another family in another house with more video camera footage of their house being haunted ending with death and possession for all.

Point 1) The one thing I always like about these PA movies is that they keep coming up with clever and original ways to tell their stories through found footage. (As I discussed with AJ on the way home, the found footage genre wasn’t a gimmick in the first movie, but the only way that they could have made that movie compelling and frightening… all the rest are gimmicks now). Where in the second movie, it was a home DVR system, the third movie introduced the oscillating fan, and this movie introduced webcams and a laser-grid system from an Xbox Kinnect in night vision (If I still had a Kinnect I’d be trying the hell out of testing that).

The writers have gotten good at what they do, blending jump scares of the natural variety, the subtle jump scares of the supernatural variety, and comic witticisms from actually likable characters (burn in Hell Micah).

But point B) in this movie they stopped there. Apparently too bored with their own gimmicky scares and clever character, the normal progression of scares in this movie just failed. They jump right from the subtle scares to throwing people around the room before going right to the big climactic finish, running about scared in another person’s house (like they got bored and passed the script off from the 3rd movie to see if we were paying attention).

In fact, Point B1/2) it was as if the writers weren’t even trying. The one moment of actual tension in the movie (a bit of supernatural knife play) was underwhelming and brushed off in a way that seemed as if they didn’t even recognize the possibilities of such tension.

So, Point D) I was most disappointed by the lack of EPIC SCARE that had me fist-pumping like a champ in movies 2 and 3 (see: kitchen cabinets and kitchen, well, everything). But was at least rewarded with some epic creepy faces (which I’m a sucker for).

Overall, I mean, Point 6) it’s all been done before. Creativity to sustain gimmicks just isn’t enough. Especially when the scares disappoint.

Points 7,8, and E) No depth, no discussion, no originality in subject matter (the way that the first so wonderfully executed).

And yet, Point 2) I still enjoyed myself. Despite my laundry list of annoyances. And despite never actually jumping at any of their jump scares or ever actually feeling scared (which I’m not ashamed to admit the first movie or two did real work with), I still had fun. The audience still screamed and laughed. The jokes were still well played. And the plot was still entertaining. So I can’t say it’s a bad movie, even if, you know, it was.

And, Point 2.5) AJ’s hiccups were cured by the end of the climax. So there’s that.

Alright, so Point 2.8) The end WAS goddamn epic.

C-

Post Script:

The trailer. If I recall correctly, there was a lot of upheaval about the last two movie trailers being made up mostly of scenes that weren’t in the movie, leading audiences to wrong expectations and confusion over the “reality” of the movie. The same goes for this one.

I for one, LOVE this. I fucking love it. And I hope anyone who watched the trailer for Sinister before seeing that movie in the theater LOVES this now too. To present the general idea of the movie, and the idea of how the events will go down, without actually spoiling any of the jump scares or action is FANTASTIC, and is something that many more movies need to consider. Whether that’s teaser trailers that act more as deleted scenes, or illustrating alternate versions of events, SPOILING MOVIES IN TRAILERS IS BECOMING A NATIONAL PANDEMIC, of which we’re rejecting cures. So please, call your senators or statesmen today. And think of the children.

Karl Pfeiffer appeared on the first season of the reality spinoff series, Ghost Hunters Academy, which he won, and later went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. He now works at the Stanley Hotel leading the public ghost hunts and writes for the TAPS Paramagazine. His debut novel Hallowtide dropped on the first of October, and contains far less snark than this here review. It’s about true love and a journey to Hell. And he’d love you forever if you click on over to take a look at it.

You can follow Karl on twitter @KarlPfeiffer

American Horror Story Season 2

(For a full review of American Horror Story season 2, see my most recent blog entry HERE)

Quick aside here. I spend a lot of time on this blog railing against cinematic horror for underachieving when the potential for really brilliant horror movies to share a dialogue seems so rare.

But tonight, the second season of American Horror Story premieres, and if I spend too much time talking about the failings of the horror genre, I have to talk about the successes.

And American Horror Story is absolutely one of those successes.

The divisive element of horror films these days is that most people go to horror to be scared. And different things scare different people. The inherent problem here is that some people will leave happy, other people will leave unhappy, and reviews will be divided.

I go to to horror films to think, to have my views of the world challenged and played with and questioned. Ethics. Norms. Cultures. Emotions.

And American Horror Story in its first season absolutely challenged every one of these. The word American in the title does an incredible amount of work. Not so much a proclamation of an “American” style, the show is instead a dissection of America, and those things very scary within our society. Dealing with such issues as infidelity, parenthood, school shootings, murder, abortions, and gay rights, it’s not the ghosts that are supposed to jump out and scare you (or the at-times over-the-top, strobing, Sam Raimi style scares), but these issues within our culture. The “American Horrors” are these decisions that the characters make, embodied in the spiritual. Echoes of the past compile in a narrative of changing belief-systems, opening minds. The show studies what is timeless beneath all of that, and the power of forgiveness in the face of atrocity.

That’s only the foundation. The discussion of these themes throughout makes for the real brilliance of the work. The choppy style of editing and storytelling advance many themes at once, cover much more ground, with the unsettling feeling of a house that’s made up not of just walls and plaster, but memory and experience. The house itself in the first season of American Horror Story is not a house, it’s a photo album, a series of snapshots of the darkest, twisted side of America itself.

And now we enter season two, where the camera has backed up and swiveled about to take on a new perspective of Americana and the foundation of our great state.

After a month of brilliant, subtle, flickery advertisements, we got a glimpse of the actual roots of the show. Check out the trailer below and consider the themes.

I’m absolutely excited. Dissecting religion and religious extremism in a scientific setting instantly pits the ideas of science versus god, and atheism versus theism against themselves. The nature of evil, the nature of evil in the insane, within religions themselves. Whether evil can stomp out evil. Whether evil recognizes itself. And, if we’re lucky–and god I hope we’re lucky–I’m crossing my fingers for a possession storyline running through this one, playing those religious themes I love so much even deeper against the nature of pure evil and how that manifests amongst mental disorder and religious (dis)orders.

And of course, what is it lurking outside in the woods?

American Horror Story Season 2 premieres tonight at 10 on FX.