Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Margaret Atwood and the problematic feminists. . .



                So, I’m in the middle of a very good book by the Dutch journalist Frank Westerman, Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers. It is excellent. But I’m not done yet, so this blog will not be about that. There are two lessons – reminders really – that I can take from it:


1)      Novelists will always piss off ideologues.


2)      Revolutionaries often eat their own.


The most dedicated, idealistic and genuine Bolsheviks were the first to go in Stalin’s purges. Trotsky himself wasn’t safe. And even useful novelists were considered deadly enemies…


I thought about this while reading Margaret Atwood’s op-ed in the Globe and Mail, “Am I a Bad Feminist?” I was more than a little gobsmacked when I encountered the title. How could the author of The Handmaid’s Tale ask such a question? Well, see above. . .


Atwood you see, had the temerity to defend due process, the presumption of innocence, and her insistence on knowing the facts before making a judgement. (Specifically, in the case of UBC professor Steven Galloway, accused of a crime, exonerated by a judge, by dismissed by UBC anyway). Here’s what she says:




A couple days later the Globe carried a response co-written by Baily Reid, Erica Gee and Erica Iffil of the Bad and Bitchy podcast. Atwood is not necessarily a “bad feminist” they say, but a “problematic one”. Here’s what they wrote: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/well-are-you-a-bad-feminist/article37609948/


You may make up your own mind, but my personal sympathy is not with the bloggers. Atwood is a writer, and so her concern is the human condition in all it’s glorious imperfection and nuance. Reid, Gee, and Iffil are activists (bios here: https://badandbitchy.com/p/about-the-hosts-1493648798/), and their concern is their end-goal, which is change. Atwood’s piece is eloquent, sober, logical and thorough. Reid, Gee and Iffil’s piece is full of buzzwords and slogans. Tellingly, they don’t even try to address Atwood’s concerns (or even acknowledge what she says), and largely prove her own point for her: Galloway’s guilt is taken for granted – guilty because accused, as Atwood puts it. To Atwood's
""A fair-minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see"
They dismiss:
This is the language of right-wing women who have co-opted feminist labels and fathers of accused rapists alike. 

So much for fair-mindedness then, or withholding judgement. Such concerns are only the Privilege of Power, as if Atwood inherited her influence and not earned it through a life-time of writing. But  Reid, Gee, and Iffil have no time for old books either:
"Your feminism is outdated. . .the fact that you, say, wrote dystopian feminist stories during the second wave of feminism may not still qualify you for your annual feminist membership."
In other words, "what have you done for us lately?"

You'll notice a few things implied: 
      a) Reid, Gee, and Iffil are now in charge of accepting, rejecting and revoking membership in the feminist club. 
      b) Margaret Atwood and her ilk have only been co-opting feminism all this time.  
      c) Basing one's opinion on evidence and waiting for evidence to form an opinion are now only right wing concerns. 

You will also notice the "you're with us or you're with the rapist" attitude, which does rather discourage dialogue. 

Atwood has been accused of waging “war” on less powerful women. And her piece has been bafflingly reported as a criticism of the #MeToo movement.  Here’s what she actually writes:

The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn't get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call.


This doesn't sound like criticism to me. She does ask what the step might be, and does caution that there may be risks as well as rewards in the new way of doing things. I let her speak for herself:



 The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it. Institutions, corporations and workplaces can houseclean, or they can expect more stars to fall





A warning, no? Clearly, things must change – who said they shouldn’t? Certainly not Atwood. It is not wrong to ask what form this change may take, or warn of the possible pitfalls along the way. But in some circles, even asking the question is a form of treachery.
Arguably, I myself am not entitled to an opinion. If it’s any consolation, nobody reads these blogs anyway. Someone – somewhere - might ask why I never chose to address #MeToo until it was time to defend one of its critics. Well, again I maintain this piece was NOT a criticism. And I suppose I still belong to a world where supporting Margaret Atwood is not a misogynistic thing to do. I suppose my alarm bells naturally go off any time a writer is shouted down. Or when slogans are substituted for argument. Or when emotions are blackmailed. I can’t help wondering if Atwood’s most strident critics actually read her piece. Instead, there seems a whole lot of projection, and substitution of what she actually said with a whole lot of what she didn’t say (who, for instance, has been silenced by this piece? ). She did sound a note of caution, and insert a bit of nuance into the proceedings. She did insist on seeing the whole wide big complex picture of reality and the very messy -yes, “problematic” – role that people – mere humans, play in it. Which is exactly what writers are supposed to do.





Which brings me back to Westerman’s book. Ideologues don’t like novelists. They don’t see things the same way. They almost always end up clashing. If authoritarianism can creep up on us from the likes of Trump, it can also creep in from the opposite direction, from the well meaning and the good-intentioned, who, being right, quite logically assume all others to be wrong, and therefore, obstacles to be removed. A sure-fire warning sign is when they turn on writers.


I leave the last word to Atwood herself. 

“Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Give in to the Down Side: thoughts on Last Jedi

For a film that pays so much lip service to “hope”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi sure as hell does its best to extinguish it in its audience. For two and a half exhausting, despairing hours, evil triumphs and good is thwarted so consistently, one is left longing for a river to throw oneself into. That it comes from the franchise that used to be the very apotheosis of feel-good filmmaking is just one more steel-toed kick in the balls to take home.
           
            So let me get this straight: The New Republic has been completely destroyed, the entire rebel fleet wiped out, the entirety of the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – can now fit comfortably in the Millenian Falcon, Admiral Akbar, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are all dead, and Kylo Ren is the undisputed master of the universe. Cue the trumpets!      

            No wait – I mustn’t despair: some eight-year old stableboy found a ring. Hurrah![i]

            You will pardon me if I am somewhat muted in my optimism.

            Now, I know you’re all going to throw Empire Strikes Back at me, so yes, let’s indeed compare the two. Early on in Empire, the Rebels escape destruction on Hoth. At the end, the Reel fleet has regrouped, and is ready to strike back (ha ha ha! Sorry.). Luke Skywalker is recovering in hospital. Lando Calrissian[ii] has joined the fight. They’re going to rescue Han Solo. Things are looking up!

            By the end of Last Jedi¸ practically everyone is dead. Luke, Han, the entire Rebel Alliance. Kaput! Vamouse! The Empire – sorry First Order – control a vast fleet of planet-busting star destroyers; the resistance have at their disposal a single rust bucket spice smuggler. I think I’m with Ren on this one: the war’s over!   The good guys are done for! Empire isn’t nearly such a bummer.

            Perhaps that was the point: break ‘em down to build ‘em back up again. Send the audience to the pit of despair so the triumph will feel that much sweeter. It’s a standard narrative tactic. The trouble is, we don’t get the build-up, and I’ve lost faith in the triumph. The filmmakers so completely – almost sadistically – dash every hope they bother to suggest, to the point I no longer have any hope they will allow my heroes – those left – to triumph. I would not put it past them to make the Star Wars saga “dark” and “gritty”, critical code words for “violent” and “cynical”.

            Let me see: in “Episode VIII” we can shave the wookie and mount his head on the wall. In “Episdode IX let’s have C3PO melted into down into dental caps. For “Episode X” we’ll open up R2D2 with a can-opener and use him as a carburetor. Who’s left? I know, let’s resurrect Jabba the Hut, and that would explain where Princess Lea went. . .

            No? Well why not, if Han and Luke were fair game. . .

            Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but do you see what I’m getting at? If Disney really felt that the only way to prolong this infinitely profitable franchise was to utterly erase what made it appealing in the first place, why should I be happy about it? Even if it is just contaminated nostalgia, what of it? Why should I be happy about it?

            Furthermore, I don’t buy this stuff about the “first Star Wars film made by an artist”. Stuff and nonsense. No one who feeds me lines like “we are the spark that lights the flame!” or some fucking nonsense about “hope being like the sun” because you can’t see it or whatever, with a straight face will get artistic bon mots from me. Don’t get me started on the friggin’ plot holes. And no, Rian Johnson is not a “brave writer” (criticspeak for “fuck the fans”). Salman Rushdie is a brave writer. Daphne Galizia was a brave writer.  Nazimuddin Samad was a brave writer. Rian Johnson is screen hack who found a way to prolong the life of a cash cow.

            That’s uncharitable: there are good things in the film, some really good scenes (mostly involving Mark Hamill, bless ‘im). Many will forgive or forget that this is really just another Boom-Boom Blockbuster, stretched agonizingly past its natural running time. I might have done so myself, but found every great moment undermined by yet another disappointment, another let-down, another frustrated desire. It felt like a never-ending wrestling match where the guy’s constantly kicking out of pinfall; after a while, you just get tired of it. (Add to that, the guy’s your favourite, he’s getting the snot kicked out of him, and while he keeps kicking out, he never recovers, never rallies, and still loses the match). 

Two years ago, I gave The Force Awakens a higher rating than it deserved because it erased the legacy of the prequels. Now, Last Jedi has erased the legacy of the main trilogy. Say what you will about George Lucas (and I have), he had an endgame in sight: he intended the story to end. Disney wants to milk the thing forever. Now they can: returning the Rebellion – sorry, Resistance – to a state of perpetual underdog in an eternal struggle against a permanently overbearing evil, the well need never run dry. Many will argue that the artistry of the means justifies the commercialism of the ends. Maybe it does. But forgive me if I ain’t on board. 





[i] Though I know better to expect any good to come of rings. . .
[ii] Wonder what gruesome end they’ve got in store for him. . .

Saturday, November 18, 2017


What do music videos have to do with the poppy? (Relax, I did wear one)



This: the vacuousness of the former is indirectly fetishizing the latter. This is a recent development, and it is a Bad Thing.  



This is not going to be a pacifistic rant. I don’t swing that way; my understanding of history does not allow for it (that’s a Rant for another day). I have long freely participated in the rituals and displayed the symbols of Remembrance Day, because I think memory of the past and respect for the dead are important (and not because I’ve been shamed into it by some self-righteous internet meme, or blustery bumper sticker). But lately this participation has been taken for acquiescence in a narrative I don’t buy into, and this past weekend, I was sort of tricked into performing a message which I was not made aware of, and did not consent to.



It’s one thing to be a spectator, and have mild reservations about the proceedings. You can keep those to yourself for the sake of general harmony. But to be made an active part of it, under a set of false pretences is quite another thing.



Remembrance Day is an emotional topic, so I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got friends from both sides of the Atlantic who’ve served in Afghanistan. I know one mustn’t allow emotions to cloud one’s judgement, but at the same time I don’t think it hurts to pay attention to people with direct experience of things. I’m not here to talk about Afghanistan. I don’t know how I feel about Afghanistan, or if I have the right to feel anything about Afghanistan. I don’t entirely know how my friends feel about it. They’re good guys, they did what they felt they had to, and if they feel a smidgeon of pride for playing some small part in overthrowing one of the world’s most repressive regimes, I won’t fault them for that. Likewise, if I balk at the indiscriminate drone strikes which wipe out wedding parties, surely, they won’t fault me. War is complicated, messy business, and it’s never about just one thing. I can’t help thinking though, we’re only meant to remember one thing.



While I have tremendous respect for people in uniform, I have far less respect for the politicians who send them into harms way. I do not believe that honour for the former should shield the latter from criticism. I do not think that honest, open debate about the extent of our commitments constitutes disloyalty, nor should a dispassionate examination of our history[i]. Yet the increasingly affected tone of these ceremonies seems to be drowning out but the most jingoistic voices. In this environment, the politician can get away with more and demand more. So the recent tendency to lump all wars into the same ongoing crusade for Freedom strikes me more as political opportunism than respect.



I have been asked during this time to remember the “brave boys and girls away on deployment”, rather than the “reasons they were there”, which I can respect: I am content to remember in silence. But it would be easier if the various Masters of Ceremonies would stick to the deal as well, and not insist on telling me why they were there. Perhaps it does serve the emotional needs of the moment, but there is something about these sermons that strikes me as over-simplified and under-contextualized.   To allude to the slaughters of Ypres or Passchendaele without any hint of indignation seem to me incomplete at best. If it’s not the right time for such indignation, when is?



Remembrance Day may only be once a year (and arguably only one minute out of each year), but it does set the tone for to all our subsequent discussions. Perhaps unconsciously, it determines what we decide to remember, and how. So setting the scope of mourning is important.  If I choose not to forget the callousness of the First World War generals, or the colossal fuckup at Dieppe, who am I dishonouring?



I take my cues from guys like Joseph Heller, who never regretted serving as an airman in WWII[ii], but still felt obliged to satirize its idiocies in Catch 22. Or the historian/veteran Paul Fussel, who fought in France, insisted on that war’s necessity[iii], but had no patience for its sanitization or romanticization (or for John McCrae)[iv] and certainly would have cringed at the jaunty “Last Post/Old Lang Syne” mashup I had to recently sit through.



I was six years old when I first heard “the Last Post”, and thought it was the saddest song in the world. Quiet, mournful, meditative. Conducive to sober reflection. You could remember your way, and I could remember mine, and at least we could agree it was sad. But now we’ve got a happy version, pomped up by a military band, and with the strains of a drinking tune thrown in for good measure.



I have to ask: who thought this was a good idea?  



Someone probably thought the words “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?  gelled nicely with the Lest we forget motto. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Context matters and cultural usage matters, and a New Years Eve celebration ditty does not fit with an Armistice dirge. I’m all for drinking songs, especially those of a wistful character, but would never indulge in one at a military funeral, and humbly submit that this would never be tolerated in a civilian outfit.



The tone for the evening was set: Remembrance Day is a party now. Spread the word.



On this occasion, my choir was scheduled to sing Mozart’s Requiem as part of the proceedings. It was the second time this piece was selected as a Remembrance Day commemoration: even though Requiem was intended as a component of religious worship, and has no martial overtones. It is about death however and this was connection enough.



It is one of the most magnificent pieces ever written, and probably the best venue we’ve ever had the privilege of performing in. The choir was at the top of its game, the orchestra was splendid, the audience rapt. Our voices filled the auditorium and drifted heavenward. . . It was a great experience, dare I say Godly. Yet I did nearly drop my music when I craned my neck and saw what they were displaying behind us.



The lyrics and their translation, superimposed over images borrowed from the warplane Heritage Museum.


Who thought this would be a good idea?



So behind all these “Blessed is he who cometh”, and “Lamb of God who taketh away”s  are pictures of smiling soldiers and cheering crowds and, of course, warplanes. And for “Sanctus”, which translates “Holy”, we got a Lancaster bomber. A Lancaster bomber.



What, may I ask, is so Holy about a Lancaster bomber?


Holy! Holy! Holy!


So here we get to the nub of things. I am more than happy to wear the poppy and have a moment of silence and offer my humble baritone to the ceremonies, but the one condition I insist on is we commemorate people. People! Breathing, thinking, feeling, dearly departed PEOPLE! I WILL NOT COMEMORATE MACHINES! Especially not death machines. The Lancaster bomber was designed explicitly (exclusively in Marshal Harris’ view) to incinerate non-combatants.  Whatever debates there are to be had about the efficacy, necessity or morality of the strategic bombing campaign, for God’s sake you can respect my reservations here! Remembrance Day ceremonies ought to be about people!



It did not get better from there. The lines “May eternal light shine on them, O Lord with Thy saints for ever, because Though art merciful” was superimposed over the smiling faces of some Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, with not a cemetery in sight. The words which may have justified the singing of the piece stripped entirely of their context and even their literal meaning. The one thing we could once agree on – Remembrance Day was a sad occasion to mourn the dead – finally thrown out the window without even the pretext remaining. We’re now literally singing glory and praise to military hardware. Hallelujah!



It was not an accident either. The words were painstakingly translated and typed over topped the images, which were carefully labelled and named in the program. Somebody specifically chose these images. Someone who didn’t care a fig what the words said or meant. The occasion was about war, so one image was as good as any other. This is the mentality of the music video generation: stripping music of its context and relegating it to background muzak for random imagery. Not even a shadow of deference to intention.



In cheesy pop songs this can be forgiven. In a Remembrance Day ceremony, it’s dangerous. I’m not being hyperbolic: a large crowd of people just worshipped a bombing plane. I just told an engine of death that Heaven and Earth were Filled with its Glory. If our society’s supposedly most poignant moments and our supposedly most deeply held spiritual inclinations and the talents of our civilization’s most gifted artists can only advertise engines of death, we are in trouble.







[i] Gwynne Dyer’s Canada in the Great Power Game would be a great place to start.
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/25/catch-22-author-enjoyed-war
[iii] The Boys Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe
[iv] The Great War and Modern Memory

Monday, November 13, 2017

In which Rockers break down barriers... Danica Roem's Cab Ride to Victory


Sometimes, there is a light in the black. . .



So, the state of Virgnia has just elected its firsttransgendered person to its House of Delegates.  Naturally, this is a major victory for the LGTB community, and for the forces of civilization in general, in the very teeth of the most reactionary, knuckle-dragging administration in living memory. Granted, the House of Representatives is a much smaller office than the Presidency, but hey! Let’s take what we can get.



But the really fun part? Danica Roem is a Metalhead. Not just a “I owned Metallica’s Black album in high school” Metalhead, but an, actual, genuine, authentic, honest-to-Magog headbangin’ thashin-mad Metalhead. She fronts a Swedish-style Death Metal band. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT213kwRfwU


Admittedly a dumb name, but hey, who’s complaining? They’re good, they rock. 



Of course I was tickled pink. But throughout the course of the day, as I continued to dwell on it, it got even better. It felt good. See, this little subculture which fate has thrown me into, is not exactly synonymous with progressive values. On the contrary, in most minds it’s the epitome of backwardness – a bulwark of misogyny, homophobia and racism. But every once in a while, we too can be on the side of righteousness. Moments like this, I get a little tingly feeling welling up inside. I felt it when Barney Greenway dukedit out with Karozia Metalla. I felt it when Bruce Dickenson stood up for multiculturalism in last summer in Toronto. And I’m feeling it now. But it’s even better this time, on a great many levels. Donica Roem is part of the government now, she’ll actually get to do things. At the very least she’s displaced a grouchy old homophobe (oh, how his supporters will wail and whine tonight!).



But that’s just the political, and the political is of course ephemeral. Any good she can do is limited
by the convoluted, messy business of governance, and she could be tossed out unceremoniously at the end of her term. But the impact isn’t going to be in office. It’s going to be in the hearts and minds of people, who as recently as ten years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of electing such a person. Even if prejudice is on the march in some places, it’s crumbling in others. Maybe, just maybe, in the minds of young headbaning Virginians, one more wall of bigotry has just fallen to dust, a lot like when Halford came out of the closet and a million macho Judas Priest fans realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe. Maybe LGBT Metalheads will have one more person to look up to, and maybe, one day sooner than we think, trans Metalheads won’t need to be afraid anymore.



And if the rest of us Metalheads are just as thrilled because she’s one of us – yes, one of us! – why not? Why shouldn’t I be pleased as punch that a proud cookie-monster singer got into office? And if she happens to be  a trans trailblazer, so much the better.

In the end, it’s a human victory. We all win.




Saturday, November 4, 2017

On saving face, losing face, two-faced. . .Quebec's niqab ban.

So they've gone done and done it - banned niqabs in Quebec that is.

"We are in a free and democratic society," said Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard upon announcement. "You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It's as simple as that." Couillard is clearly a proponent of video phones.

Do I have to look at his face? 

In all seriousness though, I would be far more impressed if this law, often cited as necessary to protect women, was something called for by any prominent women's group. Or if niqab-wearing women actually represented a large and powerful lobby. (Interesting how the government isn't going after the billionaire tax dodgers in Panama, or the mobsters running Quebec's construction business). As is, according to Statistics Canada, Muslims of any kind (niqab or none) make up an overwhelming 2.3 % of the Canadian population and 1.52% of Quebec, prompting me to wonder just how pressing a problem this was.

Make no mistake, I have no time for the niqab. I find them the very emblem of dehumanizing misogyny. But I would never try and remove one by force: only the person wearing the thing can make that decision. Surely a cornerstone of the "free and democratic" societies Couillard evokes is the ability of individuals to worship as they see fit, without nudging from the state. Religious dress-codes exist because people honestly believe that's what God wants them to do, and if they think their very soul is at stake, well, who are we to interfere? Indeed, I see it as an issue of fashion as much as anything: the state has no place in the wardrobes of the nation.

(Or do I expect too much of Quebec, the province that measures the size of letters in bus advertising?)

Now suppose for a minute that the women in question aren't making the decision of their own volition - well, they certainly won't be now, but supposing they weren't to begin with? Supposing their men were forcing them to? If their homelives are really so repressive, do you really suppose they'll be allowed out now? Do you suppose any man who could or would force his wife to wear a niqab would allow her to go around without it? So now we've got tiny enclaves of embattled women who can't leave their homes. 

Did anyone think about that?

I am reminded of the ridiculous berkini ban in France, in which government regulators decided
Muslim women should be showing more skin on the beach. Nevermind the farcical spectacle of middle aged white men wandering French beaches telling women to take their clothes off, the offensive garb in question looked like wetsuits, which until didn't seem to bother them until Muslim women put them on. What we had was an innocuous compromise by which a marginalized group thought they could participate in the larger society while staying true to their own values. But even this miniscule accommodation was too much for some, who clearly interpret the égalité part of le Tricolore to mean uniformité. 

However they may veil it (ha!), Bill-64 amounts to a government cracking down on a tiny segment of the population who lack the clout to strike back. (Sure, the bill apparently bans hockey masks from public services as well, but were hockey masks in public really a concern?) This is never a good thing. It won't help the women involved: instead of reaching out to help, we've just shoved them further into darkness. Somehow I doubt that helping them was ever the idea. Rather, there are enough voters who don't like them to make targeting them expedient. Attacking minorities for votes: we can be better.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Confederate park: In which the author proposes a solution to please all (or possibly none)

So they’re tearing down Confederate statues all over the US south. I am not conflicted about this issue: “good riddance!” I say.  “The sooner the better. What took them so long?” What were they doing there in the first place? Why use public funds and spaces to celebrate vanquished scoundrels? Who dedicated their lives to discredited causes?

                Robert E. Lee’s chief contribution to history was as the principal defender of the slave-holding state. Whatever his qualities as a man he lent his skills and considerable military talents to upholding an evil institution, which, but for his efforts, might have ended sooner. He might have served the other side, might have fought to free men and women from bondage, but instead actively tried to prevent it. Why is there a statue to him?

                We needn’t melt them all down into ball bearings or whatever (which I’m rarely in favour of). If it means so much to the white sons and daughters of Dixie, they could always borrow a page from the good citizens of Budapest, who took down all their communist-era statues and stuck them in a designated tourist trap. I do believe there is value in such places. I have wandered Budapest’s statue park and wallowed in the bad taste of another era. It is a strangely moving experience. To stand amongst these overwhelmingly boorish monuments is to taste another time, when human hopes and dreams were smothered under such concrete mounds. There’s no mistaking it for glorification: the sheer tackiness of it (the lady in the booth, when she sees you coming, puts on a tape of Soviet anthems) seems to emblemize the tragic pathos of the era.

                Why though do I have the strange feeling that a Confederate statue park would treat its inmates rather more romantically?

                “Those who are concerned about the erasure of history will be thrilled to learn of the existence of books.” [1] Statues, you see, aren’t used to teach history. They are used to glorify, romanticize, idealize, and fetishize it. Some folks really seem to think Robert E. Lee will be erased from memory if we take his statue down. Maybe they don’t have library cards. Or internet. But Robert E. Lee is not going to be forgotten. He just won’t be immortalized in marble (or iron or whatever they use).  Why should he be, if his cause was unjust?

                There are not many things in history that we can agree upon, but surely the abolition of slavery should be one of them. How can you claim the abolition of slavery was a good thing if you pray to the statue of a man who tried his damndest to prevent it?




[1] Letter to the editor, The Hamilton Spectator. Not me. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cure for the Unknown: Why I Watch Scary Films

            We’re well into that time of year again which Bradbury christened “the October Country”, which means of course things get a little spooky.

Everyone’s got their go-to literary and cinematic go-to chills; my own preference is overwhelmingly for the quant, archaic, and nostalgic. Think Edgar Allen Poe, and the films of Hammer studios. Generally, I prefer to tickle the fear centres rather than jab them with a spear. 

But every once in a while, I gaze just a little deeper into the well, reach just a little farther into the pit, until. . .woe! That’s enough! I stumble as far as I wish to go, then retreat back to Disney cartoons. And I always wonder what it was that drew me to that place,   and what it was I actually got out of the not-always-pleasant experience. Or, to get to the point:

  Why Do We Watch Horror Films?

             I hadn’t intended to be so overreaching, but I can’t help asking such things while watching a film like Sinister, a Scott Derrickson extravaganza from 2012. Every year I test my limits; this year, I met them with Sinister. By which I mean, it is about as horrific as a film can be before certain lines or decency are crossed, which I maintain are still vital. The question is, why bother pushing the limits at all? That’s what we’re discussing here.


            Sinister  was not received universally well. It got only about 63% fresh on the Tomatometer. Peter Howell of The Toronto Star called it “more stupid than scary”. He has a point: Sinister has no shortage of idiocies which multiply and compound each other when you have time to reflect on them (especially in the daylight). It faithfully carries the curse of a plot largely dependent on the stupidity of its characters: why won’t the Ethan Hawk character (Oswald Ellison) turn all this evidence over to police? Why won’t he tell his wife, or the sheriff, or the Professor, or someone what’s going on? Why won’t he turn on the friggin’ lights?
Director Scott Derrikson

           
           It also carries one of my least favourite tropes, a certain star-struck overestimation of the competence of serial killers: a near omniscient ability to track victims and elude police, and a preference for ridiculously elaborate and utterly impractical methods of murder. (Just how heavy is that branch?)

            Howell, however, is only half right; for all this, Sinister is a deeply frightening film. I’m with Roger Ebert on this one, who called it “undeniably scary”.

Rober Cargill: screenwriter
            Truly scary films are incredibly rare. If fear is a survival mechanism, how can a mere movie inspire it? Sinister manages it, not via the silly jump scares of the Paranormal Activities, or Insideous, (though there are no shortage of these), but by establishing dread of what may come next. We are aware early on that we are going to confront something very dark and very evil, and have a sinking feeling that our protagonist will be utterly unequipped to fight this evil. True, the supernatural element (I give nothing away by revealing this) means it might not have made a difference, but a character with a stronger moral core could hardly have done worse. . .

            The device of the “found footage” is essential here: what contains more potential horrors than a mysterious can of film discovered in the attic of a murder site? A film, a tape, a cd or USB drive are almost Schrödinger boxes of endless possibility. This being a murder site, and this being a horror film, none of the possibilities are good. Already the anticipation is ominous. Found footage also forces us to adapt two points of view. One is with Oswalt, sitting with him in the dark, knowing he is going to see something dreadful. The other, is with the killer: we are forced into the head of an unspeakably malignant entity and made unwitting accomplice to its sins – voyeur, invader, murderer, betrayer. It’s not a nice place to be.
 
What is on the film? Infinite unknowns. . .
            The footage itself sets up innocent, idyllic scenes for the express purpose of violating them, then shows us just enough to confirm our worst suspicions, yet still lets our imaginations do the dirty work. It also implies there is more to come. The sense of ominous anticipation that creates is a feeling I would equate with fear.     

            I didn’t really like the ending; I found it over indulgent and over obvious, where a more Hitchockian minimalist approach would have made the same implications. But it also leaves no doubt as to what we must have suspected from the beginning. I’m not sure I enjoyed Sinister, but have to admire its craftsmanship. Credit where it’s due, Sinister created fear.
             
            But why bother?
 
Feeding the dark side
            Stephen King once suggested that scary stories and horror films are our way of satiating our repressed dark sides. The analogy he used was tossing the occasional raw meet to the caged alligators of our subconscious. Keep them fed, and they won’t try to escape. I suppose there is a kind of tempting logic to it, but the explanation doesn’t satisfy me. Possibly we really are just serial killers at heart, who can keep the violence at bay by tossing it the occasional bone, but that strikes me as an easy answer. It’s not good enough.

            Let’s get back to the found footage. Find an unlabelled film/tape/cd/USB. The possibilities? Endless.  Now, narrow it down a little bit: the footage will be something disturbing, something awful, something bad. How many dreadful scenarios will run through your head before reality settles on one?

            Let’s narrow it down even further still: the footage is just a movie. It has been found on a store shelf. The cover and jacket design give an idea of what is contained therein. Let’s switch pronouns as well (because from this point on I can only speak for myself – I am now holding this DVD in my hand, knowing I will probably not enjoy what it contains. Why do I still put it on?

            I don’t think it is about feeding the dark side. I think it’s something even more primal than that. The one drive we have that’s even stronger than fear, that brought us out of the cave and out to the stars:

            Curiosity.    

"Curiosity is the lifeblood of imagination
             Guellemo Del Toro once called curiosity “the lifeblood of imagination”. Curiosity, I think, is not just a desire to know. It is our way of defeating the unknown. What did Lovecraft say was the oldest and deepest kind of fear? Think about it: a creak in the dark or a bump in the night can be terrifying if you don’t know what’s behind it. A dripping tap or a jittery squirrel can cause terror if they are hidden. We fear the night because of all the unknown threats it contains. Fear is a survival mechanism: we are hardwired to recognize threats, and even potential threats. A rumbling in the bush may or may not be a predator, but we lose nothing from erring on the side of caution and running. We are designed by nature to be on our guard at all times.

            Curiosity is our weapon against fear. An explanation for a phenomena removes its threat. Even a real threat can be less menacing if we know what it is. An identified threat is one we can actually deal with. An unknown threat allows for no solutions and represents a million possible deaths.

The oldest and deepest kind of fear
            My stupid DVD is not a real, or even potential threat. But the same instincts are at work. Its lurid promises of a ghastly experience trigger in the imagination a thousand possibilities far in excess of what it can actually provide. To throw on the movie and find it’s tacky or amateurish or silly, or maybe surprisingly good but still Just a Movie, dispels all those nightmares. And if it inspires new ones? It won’t: the nightmare’s over once the credits roll. It’s over. It’s been purged from my system. I’m awake again, and feeling better having gotten rid of all that mucky stuff.


            Fear is very much caused by the unknown, and curiosity is the cure for the unknown. That, I think, is the key.