Sunday, October 25, 2015
Franchising horror is dicey. On the one hand, it would seem to be good for the fan culture, with the expansion of mythology and expansion of merchandising giving Fangoria subscribers endless content to watch and buy. On the other, for a genre that's animated by the unseen and the unexpected, shedding too much light on something that operates best in the shadows would seem counterproductive. I mean, who likes walking through a haunted house when all the lights are on?
An 80s kid, I knew who Freddy Krueger was without having seen any of the Nightmare movies. His immolated face and knife hands, along with Jason Voorhees' hockey mask and machete, were as culturally recognizable as Mickey Mouse's big-eared silhouette. Freddy's origin story – a child murdering janitor who was burned alive by avenging parents – had certainly been overshadowed by his saucy quipping by the time the talking Freddy doll went to market. Parents sending their kids out trick-or-treating with their grandpa's old fedora and an approximately coloured striped sweater weren't thinking twice about the costume choice. When I did get around to seeing the movies at the odd birthday party or sleepover, they mostly seemed like a gore-veiled excuse to see boobs in the pre-Internet world. I don't think any of us eleven-year-olds were particularly frightened of or entertained by the movies. They were bad – but horror movies were supposed to be bad as far as we knew.
As with most franchised horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street was never meant to be a franchise. Producer Bob Shaye famously buffaloed Wes Craven into ending the movie with a question mark and, given that he'd given up his ownership of the Freddy character to help finance the initial movie, Craven had no say in the wise-talking glut that would follow. A return for the third movie was a high point in the series, but most of the integrity of the original premise and the original character was duly exhausted in just a few movies and a few music videos and one hotline later.
An academic who jumped ship to make a better living directing pornography, Craven eventually broke into the B movie mainstream with Last House on the Left, some pretty shocking, brutal fare that gained a lot of traction thanks to its It's only a movie campaign. A few years later, The Hills Have Eyes carried on in the capture-and-torture vein. Though A Nightmare on Elm Street is tame compared to Craven's first at-bats, the violent depravity of the director's early work thrums under its surface. While Jason Voorhees is a bluntly driven revenge monster, Fred Krueger – we find out halfway through Nightmare – grows out of specifically repugnant soil. Freddy's backstory comes off like a Craven film from the 70s: The murderer of over 20 kids (elements of molestation were dropped from Craven's original script due to a contemporary news story), Krueger was caught but loosed on account of a flubbed search warrant. The parents of the town took matters into their own hands and burned Krueger alive. While the later movies will get into some pretty laborious explanation of Freddy's whole history – that his mother raped by 100 maniacs and he made pacts with some dream demons or something – how Krueger went from evil janitor to boogeyman is not the concern of the original movie.
From a dramatic standpoint, the vagueness of Krueger's monster story gives the character a metaphorical freedom that gets lost in his subsequent outings. The germ of the idea comes from newspaper articles Craven read about South Asian youths in America who were going to great lengths to stay awake. They were terrified of their dreams and when their bodies eventually shut down and forced sleep on them, they died. It turned out that many of the afflicted youths were refugees of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge horrors, and some psychologists attributed the trauma to survivor's guilt. In Nightmare, the town's parents answered violence with violence and a dream killer is ostensibly the outcome, killing kids where their parents can't protect them. Krueger is inherited trauma, a sort of curse passed down through the generations. In Nightmare, trying to protect your kids is futile, even detrimental. Indeed, one mother's drastic attempt to protect her daughter by barring the windows and doors only serves to trap that endangered daughter. In the end – or at least in the end before the producer's open ending – Nightmare is a sort of fairy tale that promotes self-reliance and ownership of one's own fears.
Krueger only has about seven minutes of screen time, most of which is spent in the shadows, the rawness of his burns glinting. At first, his kills are such that it's not obvious a dream demon is responsible. The first – which makes for a Psycho-type switcheroo, where the character set up to be the main character is nixed early on – gets pinned on the victim's boyfriend. When Freddy kills the boyfriend, that death gets chalked up to a suicide. It's when a belly shirt-wearing Johnny Depp gets sucked into a bed that then eructates a Shining elevator's-worth of blood that we get some sense of the death spectacle that will go on to define the franchise. But on the whole, Nightmare is effective on account of what it holds back or obscures.
Freddy has become so prevalent that it's tricky to hermetically watch the first movie. If you haven't seen it since some long-ago sleepover, you might have lumped it in with the dreck it spawned – much of which is fun, but I wouldn't say good. 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street sits on that dividing line between when Wes Craven was a gritty exploitationist and when he became a "master of horror." A surefire way to cleanse your palate is to think of Nightmare not as a Freddy movie, but as a Wes Craven movie. The series itself makes a big – though inconsistent – deal about how Krueger's victims can either give or take energy away from him depending on how much they're willing to fear and take him seriously. If you can forget about all the Freddy merchandise, put him back in the shadows, you should be able to see what was so good about the original that made it worth ruining.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
A few calendar pages back we showed the documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, a look at the intelligent, passionate, pissed off, and unstoppable women who propelled the equal rights movement of the late 60s. They knew the status quo had to change and actually believed that it could change – that they could change it. And they spun the world like a damned top. But for all those triumphs, the doc ends on a contemporary downer: more than forty years later, so many of the achievements of that time and those people are still being confoundingly rescinded, rights that had seemingly been won are turning out to be just loans that need constant renewal.
In Grandma, Lily Tomlin's Elle feels like she's just come from being interviewed for the above-mentioned documentary. A respected and widely-anthologized poet and a feminist in her prime, Elle has been reduced, in the eyes of most people around her, to an eccentric crank. She's a veteran who fought in a different sort of war; still alive but mostly invisible in the changed world she contributed to. We meet Elle just as she breaks up with her younger girlfriend and not long after her granddaughter Sage visits, needing help paying for an abortion. Broke herself, the two set out to raise the $630 before Sage's 5:45pm appointment.
The comedic set-up is that Elle is an out of touch curmudgeon, railing against modernity. But as Elle and Sage drive around town, shaking money trees to cover the procedure – which is a non-issue in the film – it becomes clear that grandma's righteous grouchiness is not your run-of-the-mill septuagenarian opposition. The fact that Sage's choice to have an abortion is not a dramatic element of Grandma points to the actual underlying drama of the film. Sage's freedom of choice, the fact that the cost of the procedure and not the procedure itself is the animating conflict here, is thanks to the strife and sacrifice of Elle and all the women like her. But now, two generations later, the pugnacity required to spurn on such epochal change sticks out like a pissed-off thumb in the changed society.
Except change, as both She's Beautiful When She's Angry and Grandma tells us, is never final. It needs to be constantly held and defended, and, sadly, every new generation needs to be made aware of the work required to hold the ground achieved by their grandmas.
Monday, October 5, 2015
Infinite Jest was published twenty years ago. Its reputation as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius hasn't really flagged since. But with a book that huge and that seemingly difficult, the catch will always persist: is it the book's reputation that's famous, or the book itself? Is it the idea or the deed that's so revered?
This was Dave Wallace's concern from the get-go; he'd crunched the simple numbers. A book that wide and deep would necessarily take a little while to navigate and the bombastic reviews and raves that came tumbling immediately out did so with a speed that implied the reviewer or reader hadn't had enough time to really read it. For someone who wrote out of a want to connect, the idea that someone's connection with his writing was surface and frivolous was a serious bummer. The End of the Tour is a dramatization (based on life) of both that want to seriously connect, to be believed and understood by another person, and fear of superficial connection and understanding.
Young writer Dave Lipsky had a new novel that flopped when he took a job reporting for Rolling Stone. The exact opposite happened for Wallace. Infinite Jest came out and was immediately declared the best book ever. Wallace welcomed Lipsky along on the last leg of his book tour, and that interview, which took place over a few days in Wallace's house, his classroom, hotel rooms, rental cars, and the back of bookstores, became the subject of Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and The End of the Tour.
Early on in the interview, Wallace expresses concern over the future of technology and entertainment – the concerns of Infinite Jest. He foresaw, rightly so, that everything would get so slick and efficient that it would become "more convenient to sit alone". In this light, The End of the Tour – while about many things – is a sort of celebration of the sometimes inconvenient but always rewarding act of sitting with someone else. The movie is almost entirely just Lipsky and Wallace (Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, who carry the film without a hint of strain) jawing and is never not compelling. As much as The End of the Tour is about David Foster Wallace, it's the animation of his want to connect, to plumb another person, to reach a point where you can find out about another person and allow them to do the same with you.
It's easy to imagine two people going through this process of discovery, but what the film doesn't really address and could never answer is whether or not one can do this with literature. Of course, that was Wallace's want for his 1000-some page book, and the concern that people are connecting with the notion of the book and not the work itself will always be around. You can get to know a little bit about Dave Wallace through Lipsky book, and through The End of the Tour, and through his probably most-read work, the pocket-sized speech "This Is Water", but it's not enough to trust the reviews and the legacy and the sample platters of his work. As Lipsky's girlfriend tells him, as he's rolling his eyes over the gushing press Infinite Jest is getting: "What if it is actually that good? You just might have to read it." Watch out watching The End of the Tour, you might just have to go and really, seriously read David Foster Wallace afterwards.