Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Lovely Bones

There's an argument that The Lovely Bones is a gimmicky book. It's a tale of the disintegration of a grieving family told from the point of view of their murdered daughter. As she watches her family up from heaven with a sort of passive Buddha-like idiot benevolence, we become a sort of voyeur into one family's turmoil. It's pain porn, it's grand guignol melodrama. The story is mostly formless, a series of vignettes dipping in and out of the family's life over the course of several years. The reader doesn't even get to experience a good vicarious sense of vengeance when the murderer gets got. There's no violent death at the hands of a righteous family member or apprehension at the hands of dogged police pursuit. Instead, you get a tale of love and loss, intimacy and regret, growing up and growing old.

I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As I was reading the book, I started to realize that the framing device of the heavenly narrator wasn't actually necessary. She's dead when we meet her, she doesn't seem particularly angry at her murderer (which makes later declarations of outrage hit an oddly false note) and she sort of loves everything and everyone without hesitation. Yes, there is a scene where she inhabits the body of a friend to share a first kiss with her high school sweetheart, but I started to realize that that I had become emotionally invested in the family enough that I didn't need a serene POV walking me through the story.

Still it's unique and dreamy. It feels like the voice of a teenage girl; at once emotionally raw, completely honest, and self-mythologizing. I get harped on a lot in my writing (legitimately so) for injecting too much of an omniscient narrator into my book, and it hit me that author Alice Sebold figured out the perfect way to do this. Susie has a very intimate view of her family, but is distant enough to comment on their behavior as a narrator.

I can't help but feel like I'm going to get in trouble for this, but did anyone else think that Susie's mother was being a self-indulgent asshole for running away from her family?

I mean, okay, her father was entirely too fixated and sloppy about how he went about gathering information on the creep who killed his daughter. And families do fall apart after tragedies like this. But it also seems to me that screwing around behind your husband's back and running away in the manner she did was just straight messed up.

I was at a wedding the other day and, after a few trips to the open bar, me and my fellow bachelors who'd managed to avoid the garter belt were standing around and discussing the wonders of dating women. Someone...okay, me...said that the tricky thing about dating women was that there's a part of them that's always locked away, that always stares at you from across from a great distance. You can try as hard as you like but you can never quite get all the way close to them.

Sexist? Maybe. But when people talk about the mysteries of women, I sometimes think this is what they're talking about.

I tried watching the movie, which was a horrible idea. Aside from the murder and the beatdown in the cornfield and the break in at the murderer's house, not much happens in the story. When Petey Jay directed the flick, he really jazzed up the scenes in Heaven, but the book doesn't focus too much on Susie's afterlife, so tremendous amounts of quality character stuff gets lost in the razzle dazzle world of the movie.

A shame. This is really good stuff. I recommend this book for anyone with a taste for melodrama and a love of strong characterization. I'm going to take a lot away from this book. I hope you do, too.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Others


Everyone's dead. The heroine? Dead. The weird kids? Dead. The help? Dead. The missing father? Dead. About the only people who aren't dead are the people we're supposed to be afraid of.

That's the shit I remember from watching this movie from the first time I saw it. I remember the dreary British estate, perpetually shrouded in fog. I remember Nicole Kidman all sexified in her uptight little Victorian coats. I remembered it being slow and subtle and kinda gimmicky. The problem with movies featuring Big Tweest Endings is that any future viewings of the movie always being about watching the twist being set up and the narrative turns into one big puzzle to be solved.

I was not looking forward to rewatching the movie. My first experience was pleasant but mild, like eating New York Mexican food (yeah, eat a dick NYC. You don't do everything the best. WEST COAST BITCHES!!!!) and the thought of being locked up in my house watching a bunch of uptight religious Brits dealing with unnamed dread sounded wiggidy wack.

Well shit. Now it's one of my favorite ghost movies of all time.

First off, you HAVE to see this film in the proper environment. You need to see it in a theater or, barring that, on the biggest TV you can find. This film needs your full attention. Unlike something like the Dawn of the Dead remake, which you can half-pay attention to while giving sex advice to Steve Carell, you need to enter into the atmosphere completely. The movie creates a very fragile, ephemeral air that would get ripped apart like a spider web spun on a speaker that starts playing Pitbull's "Get Me Everything."

Strained simile, I know, but I got a word count to hit and I just bought the album like 20 minutes ago.

Anyway, the reason this movie works much better than I expected it to on the second viewing is that it's absolutely lactating with gothic dread. The house is a silent, dark place, lorded over by an uptight religious matriarch of questionable sanity who never quite loses our sympathies. The kids are equally engaging; one a rebellious little firebrand you can't help but root for and the other a little scaredy cat we just want to take to our ponderous man-bosom and rock back and forth, gently reassuring him that everything will be okay. It's an atmosphere of secrets and sickness and understated malevolence. The patriarch is gone, only to come back in a shell shocked daze once his TARDIS malfunctions and drops him off at Drearydown Manors. The children have some weird vampire skin disease that renders them mortally vulnerable to sunlight. The mother coldly orders the new domestic staff around in a manner one would expect of a member of the aristocracy, laying out draconian rules and regulations for them to follow.

Then the weird sounds start echoing through the house. And the kids start making very close friends with imaginary people. You know the rest of the tune, do I really have to call it out?

The mystery is actually brilliantly constructed. The filmmakers play fair and all the reveals work in the context of the narrative. The twist doesn't come out of left field but it does a great job of coming from what had been previously established in the movie. Combine that with the old dark house and eerie, oppressive sense of dread and you have a solid Henry James-style ghost story. The bit where Kidman's character finds the book of posed photographs of dead bodies is absolutely chilling, as was the scene of the ghostly help speaking to the family from outside the door.

Even after you know the twist, when you go back and revisit the characters, you discover how well they are written and performed. For example, I really should have hated Gracie Stewart. She's deeply religious, controlling, and prone to smothering her kids with pillows. Yet for some reason she never fully lost my sympathies, even if there were some moments where she needed a whack upside the head. She had a pair of sick children, three weird caretakers, and a missing husband to worry about. She was a deeply sick woman, but also very loving. The scene where she recounts their murder and her suicide was deeply touching. Even the creepy caretakers were fantastic. They could easily have been stock characters, but Bertha Mills and her lot were a very odd combination of compassionate and menacing.

The Others is one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I don't know if it's something I can watch more than a handful of times. The effect it creates is slow going and fragile, so it has to be experienced in the right settings, but it's still a helluva film. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes subtle eerie horror, old world ghost stories, and audiences who have a taste for sumptuous melancholy visuals.

Also, I want to give a bump to Childish Gambino, who's rich, lyrically complex music was blaring as I wrote this review. His whole album is available free here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Shining by Stephen King

My old post for The Shining was unnecessarily verbose and boring, so I decided to make a podcast out of it.

Listen to it here.

If you don't feel up for it, here's the short version.

It's a classic for a good reason. King has a powerful grip on characterization.

Jack Torrance is an entitled, angry, self-pitying dick. I don't understand how Stephen King expects us to have sympathy for him.

I didn't buy that Wendy would have stayed with him.

And hedge monsters aren't scary.

Seriously, just listen to the podcast.