Saturday, March 22, 2014


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.

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