Saturday, March 22, 2014

Abbott/Oeler/SerialKillerCulture


Today I finished Megan Abbott’s 2012 novel Dare Me. The second half of the novel was just as good, if not better, than the first. Among Abbott’s achievements here are developing one of the most complex and nuanced fictional renditions of friendships between teenaged girls that I’ve ever read; having three characters all of whom are complicated and detailed enough to be the book’s protagonist, but who all share the stage in a perfectly syncopated, even symbiotic, manner; balancing the requirements of the murder narrative with the other elements of the book, so that the novel finishes with a doubled sense of resolution—one of which is the whodunit, and the other of which consists of the crisis points of the relationships between the main characters, and finally, getting me to take cheerleading seriously! The last point sounds flippant, I know, but I’m quite serious. Abbott is never patronizing toward her cheerleader characters and she communicates vividly and convincingly just why this activity is so important to these characters. And above all, in cheerleading—both its mechanics and its dramatics—Abbott finds a perfect metaphor for conveying the depth and intensity of the emotional investments we make in both ourselves and others.

I also finished Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form. In this closing section of the book, Oeler addresses the argument that genre films not only represent violence, they also inevitably “deform the real violence they reference.” Oeler’s answer to this objection is to address the genre pastiche film, concentrating not only on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man but also, and in some detail, the films of Stanley Kubrick, of whom Oeler says, “we would be hard pressed to find another filmmaker who pushes both violence and stylization…to such extremes.” In the context of discussing The Shining, and in particular the scene where Danny writes the word ‘murder’ in reverse and then his mother recognizes the true form of the word when she sees it in the mirror, Oeler writes “It is in this mirror, where the reversal of the word ‘murder’ is reversed, thus negating a negation, that we can locate an allegory for the mechanics of genre pastiche in terms of the way it registers historical violence. If genres themselves distort and displace the real violence entailed in colonizing the United States or in conducting the cold war, genre pastiche, like the mirror in The Shining, is a negation of that distortion. The pastiche of genre, in other words, does not seek directly to reinscribe the violence that has been excluded, but to represent the occlusion that has taken place.” In her conclusion, Oeler provides a tantalizingly brief discussion of Hitchcock, and my only complaint about this otherwise fascinating and thought-provoking book is that she had said more about a director so central to her project! But it’s always a good sign to finish a book and be left wanting more.

I also watched John Borowski's 2014 documentary Serial Killer CultureAs you can imagine, there are an awful lot of films out there about serial murder, but they focus overwhelmingly on the killers. There are very few films that study murderabilia (or the collecting of serial killer artwork and artifacts) from the point of view of the collector and the broader fascination with serial killers as a whole. Serial Killer Culture is easily the best film made so far on this subject. There are several things that made this film particularly interesting. To begin with, Borowski lets the interviewees speak for themselves. The absence of voiceover is a very smart move on Borowski’s part, not least because it’s so rare to have collectors speaking frankly on film (because they’re so used to being condemned for their interest in serial killers) that you really want to hear what they have to say in their own words. Then there is Borowski’s decision to include himself as one of the film’s subjects. His achievements in the making of serial killer documentaries (on H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Carl Panzram) are considerable and deserve to be acknowledged. But what I really like is the diversity of examples of serial killer culture Borowski includes—not just murderabilia collectors, but also artists, musicians, and even the organizers of a Jeffrey Dahmer walking tour are all part of the film, and although this range inevitably just scratches the surface of what is a huge culture industry, Borowski does more than anyone so far to give us a sense of the diversity of this phenomenon. Finally, Serial Killer Culture is valuable for suggesting directions for further research in this area: we’re told that serial killers are popular all over the world, but why is this? The majority female audience for true crime and serial killer culture is noted at several points in the film, and yet all the collectors and (nearly all the) interviewees in the film are male—why? Borowski’s film is, and will remain, an indispensable reference point in answering these and other questions.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Abbott/Oeler/PacificRim

Today I read the first half of Megan Abbott’s 2012 novel Dare MeAbbott’s earlier novels, which are uniformly excellent, all take place in earlier time periods (from the 1930s to the 1980s) and most of them have a very clear relationship (usually in that productively liminal space between homage and revision) with noir crime fiction. In this regard, Dare Me represents a distinct shift in Abbott’s writing, both in the sense that it’s set in the present day, and in the sense that its relationship to crime fiction is harder to pin down. Dare Me is much closer to being a suspense or thriller novel than crime fiction, but none of those categories are really adequate ways of capturing what Abbott achieves in this novel. Most readers will probably think of Gillian Flynn when they read Dare Me, but for me the most telling intertext is the work of Patricia Highsmith, not only because of the inadequacy of generic categories that I just mentioned, but also because Abbott’s writing possesses many of what I regard as the hallmarks of Highsmith’s style: the agonizingly incremental build-up of tension and suspense; the gift for dialog; the ability to evoke place in just a few words, and above all, communicating the voice of a character so well that you feel like you’ve know them for ever, even though you may not want to know them! But Abbott also possesses something that Highsmith arguably lacks, something I can only describe as ‘humanity,’ a frustratingly vague word that here refers to Abbott’s sympathetic identification with a character that is combined with a rigorous lack of sentimentality about their shortcomings. It’s a powerful combination that makes for an enthralling reading experience.

I also read the next fifty pages of Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form. One of the things I really like about this book is that Oeler does not just draw upon the usual suspects in terms of film critics. In the context of talking about 20th century American genre film, for example, she spends time discussing the work of critics like Manny Farber, James Agee, and Robert Warshow, all of whom should be read more than they currently are. Still teasing out the relationship between sameness and individuality in genre film, in this section of the book, Oeler discusses genres like war movies, the western, and the crime film. Her case study for the last example is the movie adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, partly because it adds a murder to the film that is not present in the book in order to pull the other elements of the film together. This is a decision that Oeler criticizes: “The tacked-on murder stylizes and gentrifies, transforming a nonviolent melodrama into a murder mystery that reduces its victim to a cipher.” Although I see Oeler’s point of view, I think she overstates her case when she argues that “The catalytic murder scene channels the meaning of every other scene of their lives into information about the origins of the crime.” In my view, the meaning of the film exceeds the instrumentality that Oeler describes, not in the sense that Mildred Pierce ‘transcends’ its genre, but in the sense that its characters cannot be wholly reduced to their roles in the murder narrative.

I also watched Pacific Rim (2013), an enjoyable piece of utter nonsense directed by Guillermo del Toro. A tribute to kaiju and mecha movies that also aims to work as a standalone film, Pacific Rim tells the story of a group of Jaeger, or robot, pilots who are the last line of defense between Kaijus, monsters coming out of a breach at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the rest of humanity. That’s the plot out of the way! The only other thing you need to know is that there are lots of spectacular special effects and the usual scattering of types one finds in films of this kind—rebellious individualist leading man, grumpy but ultimately kind-hearted father figure, female ingénue, nerdy scientists, etc., etc. Some slight changes are made to the usual instantiations of these types—for example, Idris Elba plays the main authority figure and it’s unusual to have a black actor in such a role—but in just about every other respect this is exactly what you might expect. My favorite touch was the elimination of the Russian and Chinese Jaeger pilots, leaving the world presumably free to be controlled by the Americans, British, and Japanese. Talk about wishful thinking…Ironically, the film did some of its biggest business in China.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Grant/Oeler/NakedCity


Today I finished Cathryn Grant’s The Demise of the Soccer Moms. In many ways, this is one of the bleakest novels I’ve read in a long time and I mean that as a compliment! Grant builds on her jaundiced portrait of suburbia in the second half of the novel by having her central character, Amy Lewis, become more and more disturbed as her fear and paranoia intensify until the inevitable catastrophic event that the book has been haunted by since its opening pages finally takes place. What’s impressive about Grant’s writing is that even though Amy is a character who could easily become an overblown caricature, there is enough justification for her fear, no matter how over the top it becomes, that she never becomes unconvincing. By the end of the novel, one has a horrifically cloying sense of the emptiness and superficiality of suburban life and culture that is just close enough to reality to be truly haunting. The threat of violence permeates the book to such an extent that there’s a good chance you will feel as paranoid as the characters.

I also read the next fifty pages of Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form. Having thus far concentrated overwhelmingly on Eisenstein and montage, Oeler now discusses the film criticism of André Bazin and the work of Jean Renoir in the context of writing about realism. As Oeler points out, “Bazin’s realist theory takes shape, to a significant extent, around murder scenes” and it seems much the same could be said about Renoir’s films of the 1930s. Why? According to Oeler, “Murder, an act that is so often partially elided in film form, and an act that instantiates, within the refracted story world, the starkest forms of elision, is a paradigm of realist narrative.” I wonder, as an aside, and with this comment in mind, what Oeler would make of the myth of the snuff film. In the second part of the book, “Murder and Genre,” Oeler shifts focus dramatically by now concentrating on how genre films, such as the western and the crime drama, represent murder. Oeler defines the fundamental relationship/tension between these two things in the following words: “The murder scene…starkly reflects the predicament which the genre film shares with the mass culture out of which it emerges: any claim to a precarious singularity and indispensability must be made within a system based on disposability and sameness.” Oeler provides an interesting close reading of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) to demonstrate this tension between sameness and singularity.

Thanks to Oeler, I also watched, surprise, surprise, Jules Dassin’s The Naked CityYou can see why she chooses it to talk about the tension between sameness and singularity. On the one hand, as the closing lines of the film put it, the events that form the focus of the plot are just one story in a city of eight million people. Nothing makes these events stand out in any particular way from any other story and in this regard they are the epitome of routine. On the other hand, by virtue of the fact that the film pays attention to these particular events, thereby giving us the opportunity to get to know these particular characters, it individuates these events, making them stand out from their background. To put it in generic terms, The Naked City is in many respects a standard crime drama, but at the same time it is particularized not only by these particular actors and these particular characters, but also by the use of unusual techniques—principally the voiceover that bookends the film and that we hear sporadically throughout the rest of the film. Producing an interesting blend of documentary and crime drama, the voiceover sets The Naked City apart.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Grant/Oeler/Eraserhead

I’m writing a piece about the suburb in crime fiction at the moment, and so today I read the first half of Cathryn Grant’s 2011 debut novel The Demise of the Soccer MomsGrant specializes in what she calls “suburban noir…where the mundane is menacing” and this is a good description of both the setting and the tone of the novel. Moms set in Sunnyvale, CA and its main characters are a group of mothers whose children all attend the same elementary school and play soccer on the same teams. What most of them also have in common is, to one degree or another, what Brian Massumi has called "everyday fear," which manifests itself in various ways and with varying degrees of justification. Whether it’s a generalized fear of impending disaster, fear of sexual assault and violence, fear of losing one’s husband, fear for one’s children, fear that one is unattractive is isolated, this novel is a virtual compendium of the fears that define life for so many in the contemporary United States. As you read through the novel, any doubt one may have had about suburbia being a good setting for a crime novel is replaced by the following question: how can so many writers have neglected such a promising setting for so long?!

I also read the next fifty pages of Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form. In this section of the book, Oeler continues her focus on montage but also turns her attention to acting, partly because of her interest in what the nexus between murder and representation suggests for film’s ability to represent subjectivity: “Murder is an allegory of representation: if murder (legally, axiologically) hinges on the stark negation of an individual, cinema, which must represent the victim with discursive techniques that can never fully comprehend a human being, courts complicity with the murders it depicts. But at the same time, murder can paradoxically endow the victim with a referential fullness…Murder scenes are thus poised between reducing and registering the person implied by the storied victim.” A large part of Oeler’s interest in montage in general and Eisenstein in particular, then, derives from the complex ways in which this technique and this director both erase and suggest individual subjective interiority in both actors and characters. “The promise of montage lies in its power to draw attention to, or scrutinize, reifying signification…Scenes of deadly violence can powerfully index the inadequacy of the victim’s representation, aesthetic and political. But when characters are put to death because of their irrevocable placement in an abstract social category, and the scene of their murder does little to shake the historical identity imposed upon them, montage threatens to squander its promise.”

Have you ever had one of those days where you wake up and feel like watching some David Lynch? This happened to me today and so I decided to revisit Eraserheadhis legendary first full-length feature. I first saw this film in 1980 when I was sixteen years old and needless to say I had never seen anything like it. I’m now fifty years old and I’ve still never seen anything like it. I could summarize what happens in the film, but that would do nothing to convey what it’s like to see Eraserhead, which is one of those rare films that needs to be not only seen but also heard; its sound contributes to its meaning and impact just as much as its images. Two things stood out for me on this particular viewing. Firstly, now that I’m a parent, the film’s obsessive and paranoid examination of reproduction and parenthood has a power I could never have anticipated as a teenager. Secondly, thanks to Lynch’s reputation as an auteur, his actors can often receive short shrift, and nowhere in his oeuvre is this more true than in Eraserhead. And yet Jack Nance’s portrayal of Henry is miraculous. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the greatest performances in film history. Of all the unforgettable things in Eraserhead, Nance is the most indelible.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Medawar/Oeler/Strike

Today I finished Mardi Oakley Medawar’s Murder at Medicine Lodge. Tay-bodal succeeds in discovering the identity of the real murderers (after an extremely complicated explanation worthy of Hercule Poirot!) and thus exonerates both White Bear and the Buffalo soldier Little Jonas. In some respects, however, the resolution of the mystery takes a second place to the event that provides the background for the novel as a whole, namely, the Medicine Lodge treaty meetings of 1867. Medawar is unambiguous in accusing the representatives of the US government (whom she names at the end of the novel) of negotiating in bad faith and she applauds the decision of the Kiowa not to sign any treaties with the Americans. Granted, her depiction of the events on which her novel is based (not to mention her portrayal of White Bear) is not entirely accurate (for more details on this see here) but Medawar’s overall point is both clear and indisputable: despite the fact that solving an individual murder is the focus of this novel, that murder pales into insignificance next to the annihilation of an entire civilization.

I also began reading Karla Oeler’s fascinating 2009 book A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film FormThe focus of the book is an explanation why representations of murder are so central to the genre of film, and Oeler summarizes her argument as follows: “Murder is such a foundational scene in the history of cinema because the obliteration of life that it revolves around dramatizes the way that cinematic representation—which shows the photographic trace of a now absent object—always is poised between conveying the reality of the object and conveying the loss of reality, or disembodiment, intrinsic to representation itself.” A formalist argument, then, but one also attuned to historical detail. For example, Oeler moves on to an examination of the use of the close-up and montage in the work of early Soviet filmmakers such as Pudovkin and Eisenstein in order to show how “cinema’s distilled formal categories are charged with sociohistorical necessity.” Close readings of individual films are balanced by a larger account of the genre’s history and the ways its representations of violence have both changed and remained the same over time.

As one of the first films Oeler mentions in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece StrikeI thought this would be a good opportunity to watch it again. Perhaps naively, bearing in mind the fact that the last of its six parts is called ‘Extermination,’ I had forgotten just how difficult it is to watch this film. Eisenstein’s vivid depiction of the breaking up of a strike and the massacre of the workers is as powerful as ever. Even though you know what’s coming long before it actually happens, you still feel shocked and appalled by what you witness. Seeing it again after such a long time, what stood out for me this time was how well Eisenstein prepares his viewer for the (in)famous sequence at the end of the film where the murder of the workers is crosscut with explicit footage of the slaughter of a cow. Animals are not only present throughout the film, but that final shared image of death is just one example of the relationship of objective correlativity that Eisenstein establishes between humans and animals. This association happens in expected ways (we understand that these humans are treated like animals) and in less expected ways (humans borrow some of the animals’ dignity and beauty, which makes their (the humans’ and the animals’) deaths even more appalling). How many other films from this period retain so much of their power?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Medawar/Moretti/TheLegoMovie


Today I read the next fifty pages of Mardi Oakley Medawar’s Murder at Medicine Lodge. As one might have anticipated by her inclusion of black soldiers in her story, this section of the novel brings in both slavery and the Civil War as Tay-bodal’s investigation proceeds. The murder victim, Buug-lah, becomes a more and more unsympathetic character as his unscrupulous control over and exploitation of other people is revealed and the focus of the book thus becomes less on solving his murder and more on making sure that the innocent are not impacted by the death of a cruel and worthless individual. Medawar also allows her reader to see the value system that produced both slavery and, even more fundamentally, money from a Native American perspective, providing another example of estranging the familiar, giving the book a very distinctive pedagogical edge. Strikingly, except for Tay-bodal, Native Americans are more or less completely absent from this section of the novel. Indeed, Native American culture takes something of a back seat in this novel as a whole, in sharp contrast to the first novel in the series.

I also finished Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. In my previous post on this book, I commented on the fact that prose fiction was Moretti’s preferred way of illustrating the points he makes. Happily, Moretti both confirms and extends my observation when he comments “readers of this book know that prose is its only true hero. It wasn’t meant to be; it just happened, in trying to do justice to the achievements of bourgeois culture. Prose as the bourgeois style, in the broadest sense; a way of being in the world, not just of representing it.” This passage neatly summarizes Moretti’s method throughout his intriguing book. To give a final example among many others: in the context of discussing the way in which adjectives are “inconspicuous vehicles of Victorian values,” Moretti summarizes the “semantic miracle” performed by the word “earnest”: “preserving the fundamental tonality of bourgeois existence…while endowing it with a sentimental-ethical significance.” Attention to detail combined with the ability to generalize: the hallmark of Moretti’s own prose style. He closes the book with a section on Ibsen because “He is the only writer who looks the bourgeois in the face, and asks: So, finally, what have you brought into the world?” The question remains worth asking today.

I also watched The Lego Moviea film that renders product placement superfluous, with my younger daughter. I read a lot about the so-called pointed satire of this film before seeing it, but it turned out not to amount to much. Yes, the evil Lord Business gives up his maniacal desire to control and regiment everything, just as the everyman hero Emmet learns not to follow instructions slavishly, liberating everyone into spontaneous acts of creativity, but the fact that this freedom is learned within the confines of a corporate technocracy is too obvious a fact to need belaboring. I thought the most bizarre and interesting part of the movie was the eleventh-hour introduction of human actors into the story. I understand that they were there to embody the sentimentalism of the film’s conclusion in human form, but I still don’t quite understand why it was thought necessary or desirable to do this. Was it an intentional or a mistaken suggestion that the world-making capacity of an animated film needs to be supplemented by a physical stand-in for the audience members? There’s no way to tell for sure, but it was the most thought-provoking moment in an otherwise utterly predictable film.
 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Medawar/Moretti/TopoftheLake


Today I read the next fifty pages of Mardi Oakley Medawar’s Murder at Medicine Lodge. Tay-bodal’s investigation temporarily gets easier when a piece of evidence is found that seemingly directs attention away from White Bear as a suspect in Buug-lah’s murder and toward an American soldier. However, when the American army is prepared to execute Little Jonas, a black soldier, for the murder, even though they still believe White Bear is guilty, simply in order to preserve the peace, the Kiowa object and Tay-bodal is left alone at the army camp to try and discover the identity of the real murderer. The stakes of the investigation are now even higher. Not only does Tay-bodal have the responsibility of maintaining the peace between the Americans and the Kiowa, but if his investigation fails, the Kiowa may be ejected from the Confederacy of Nations, which would mean the Kiowa would be at war not only with the whites, but also with other tribes. One technique Medawar uses very effectively in this novel emerges when Tay-bodal is left alone among whites; the anthropological gaze that often structures fictional narratives about Native Americans is now turned upon white culture, so that the dominant culture is now defamiliarized and seen as strange and a-typical.

I also read the next fifty pages of Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. In his continuing effort to outline the defining features of a bourgeois stylistics, Moretti turns to the ‘filler,’ namely, information and episodes in novels that seemingly do nothing or when nothing happens. Moretti concludes that there are so many fillers in the nineteenth century because they “offer the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life.” Moretti perceives, however, that this regularity was not the only game in town during the ninteenth century; bourgeois existence existed alongside what Moretti calls persistent “conservative beliefs.” In fact, Moretti goes on to argue, the job of the novel was to forge “compromises between different ideological systems.” At this point of the book, after having concentrated almost exclusively on the novel, Moretti shifts to a brief discussion of Victorian pictorial representations of the nude in the context of a punning discussion of the bourgeois’ tendency to embody “naked self-interest.” It’s a striking shift because it suggests the portability of Moretti’s method in a double sense: it is able to discuss different historical periods and different genres. In a telling moment, however, when Moretti attempts to answer the question “Why was Victorianism?” he concludes that “the English nude is too petty a feat for such a large question.” Literature (more specifically, prose fiction) remains not only Moretti’s preferred example, but also the one that seemingly best suits his method. Why might this be?

I also watched the final episode of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Many resolutions, but few surprises. The identity of the father of Tui’s baby was fairly predictable from the start, as was the resolution of this situation, with Tui killing the father. Incest, as the most fundamental violation of the law, had to figure in this series somewhere. The revelation that Matt was Robin’s father was balanced by the sentimental revelation that Matt was not Johnno’s father, thus allowing the relationship between Robin and Johnno to continue, although thankfully Campion did not pursue this happy ending scenario in any detail. And as for the revelation about Al, which I gather angered some viewers because they saw it as an out of left field twist ending, I can honestly say it seemed logical rather than surprising to me. As the series progressed, Campion made it increasingly obvious that Al was disturbed and violent. Even the victimization of children was logical within the context of the series, as pedophilia, rather than sexual violence against adult women was, for whatever reasons, Campion’s focus. For me, the major underdeveloped or unresolved aspect of the series was GJ and the women’s commune. Right from the start, I felt that once Campion had set this aspect of the story up, she didn’t seem to know what to do with it. I honestly can’t decide whether Campion intended GJ to be a charlatan or a seer, but if it’s the latter, I must say that she comes dangerously close to being the former, as most of her pronouncements are a mixture of psychobabble and half-baked spirituality. And as for her final advice to Tui, that her child is now her teacher, and she should listen to him?! The rest is silence…