Sunday, May 18, 2008

Prom Night, or On Boys, Girls and Small Knives

Where have you gone, Kevin Williamson? A kid nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

First off, let’s big it up to Prom Night for marking another awkward, staggering step out of the pit marked “torture-porn”. It’s a decision doubtless motivated largely by financial pragmatism, but appreciated nonetheless.

For the tone of Prom Night is oddly anachronistic: a “remake” only in the sense that the film’s actions take place largely on the titular evening, the pic nonetheless plays like something harking back not just to a pre-Hostel era of suspense, but a pre-Scream presumption of near-nil audience savvy. In a genre so devoutly aware of expectation and subversion, this lazy attitude to viewer literacy (approximately half the pic’s scares rely on the hoary old “mirrored bathroom cabinet” schtick) does few favours with the old-fogey crowd of which your correspondent is a card-carrying member.

Which is good and well – pic is not aimed at 28-year-old Carol Clover fanboys, and more power to it – but if you’re going to trade in several decades’ worth of clever trope-playfulness, you’d better make sure what you’re running on instead is good and solid.

Which is the point at which Prom Night truly falters. The biggest problem – the one that will disappoint any viewer, be they fourteen or forty, aficionado or neophyte – is the unspeakable blandness of its central conflict.

Here’s a villain so instantly forgettable that he can brutally murder a family, terrify a school community, and be one vote away from the Death Penalty, and yet all the guy needs is to get a haircut and he becomes unrecognisable to police and ex-students alike. A guy who has motive for about ten minutes, before descending into standard DTV psycho-hokum; a bogeyman so unthreatening that his entire portrayal appears to have been shaped by watching Manhunter and Se7en and saying, “sure, I can do that”.

Equally, his quarry epitomises everything that horror outsiders hate about the Final Girl archetype: relentlessly mewling and inactive, poor Snow has absolutely nothing to do per se, just things to react to. And what’s disappointing is that the pic gives itself several opportunities to make her character interesting, hinting at a much less innocent, far more active role for her in the whole business, and resolutely refuses to follow through on them.

The movie ends up confused as to who its characters even are, and we walk out wondering why we were ever expected to care.

[appears edited at Flicks]

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Four Minutes, or On Excellence

There’s a bizarre morality at work in Vier Minuten: the film at once idolizes the notion of “natural talent”, and compartmentalizes it away from the rest of its troubled characters’ defining attributes.

Fetishizing this abstract notion further, the movie then posits a series of scenarios in which its leads can be mean-spirited, weak-willed, even violent; but ultimately redeemed by what seems a hazily-defined, worryingly impractical conception of Genius.

For while the pic restricts itself almost totally to the one (almost intensely-unphotogenic , yet pleasantly idiosyncratic) metropolitan prison location, the division here isn’t between good people and bad, officious and industrious; it’s between those who Have this mysterious spirit and those who Haven’t. “Talent” becomes a clear analog for the beauty in truth, the truth in beauty.

Where this doesn’t matter, of course, is in the doing: for the film’s two-hour duration, these rules work perfectly. Its leads, carrying the picture’s weight ably, are tasked with a difficult sell: providing well-rounded characters animated by a higher purpose, a search for this quizzical elixir.

If this were to go wrong, it could be the same picture as any number of cloying, unengaging, the-answer-was-within-all-you-all-along anodynes. Where the picture doesn’t just redeem but elevate itself to a higher strata is in just how utterly this sell is made.

In the film’s best moments, there’s an energy at work that can only be called sublime: a persuasive anima infusing performance and tone alike with exactly that which the picture would have us grudgingly embrace.

A notion, once again, of Genius as it’s literally defined: the act of moving with a higher, purer spirit, one that elevates and redeems narrative and character alike.

That is to say, Vier Minuten is actually even better than Big Doll House.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Writing: The Third Quarter

Let it be said that the Third Quarter is to stories as Cape Horn is to sailors or Upriver is to colonial philosophies of cultural soundness.
This is not the first time I’ve been to the Third Quarter. It may not even be the most intense; I remember on a previous visit, I had to vow to just STOP THINKING about my story for a day because it was doing my head in and making me feel ill. However I do believe this is the deepest into the Third Quarter I have been.
The air in the Third Quarter gets to your brain; this may be some sort of nootropic effect or even a parasitical infection. What the air does is it focuses your brain on particular angles, particular modes of thinking about your writing.
In the Third Quarter, deficiencies permeate so loudly as to be uncatalogueable, let alone insurmountable. There are many, many things that are wrong with your story, and in the Third Quarter, you are aware that there are THINGS wrong, but you are not aware what those things ARE, because IDENTIFYING a problem is the first step toward SOLVING it, and the Third Quarter is not about solving problems, just about having them.
In the Third Quarter you can see back but never forward. That’s a strange sort of polymorphic, volumetric mist that permeates. You can see what you WANTED the story to be. You can see what you WANTED to learn from it, where you IMAGED it ending up and where that could take you and your abilities. You can see all those things, and the further you feel from them, the clearer they seem. But you can’t see two feet in front of your face to go FORWARD, because again, the Third Quarter is about HAVING problems, but not SOLVING them.
About the best thing that can be said of the Third Quarter is, any story you have ever read is proof that it can be navigated. Because the Third Quarter is IMMENSELY damaging to stories, but not in the way that it erodes their quality. I cannot think of a story that I know of having been damaged by the Third Quarter. Because it’s not interested in taking chunks off your story; it just wants to swallow it whole.
Which I would reckon it has done to a majority of stories.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Roger Waters is as Vital As He Has Ever Been.

Now, can we agree? The Dark Side of the Moon is a fairly canonical key text in the annals of dickheadery. The album, from start to end, is a near-intolerable masterwork of dickheadery, an opus of onanism, a keystone in any evaluation of pretentious un-fun not-particularly-rockin' works of the Cee Twentieth.

Case in point: many albums are overblown and pompous, but not many albums are so obsessed with their own perceived cleverness as to feature a track named Time, whose thematic preoccupations revolve around the passage of said arguably-arbitrary constant and whose PERCUSSION IS MADE ENTIRELY OF TICKING CLOCKS. So the song is called Time - and there's clocks! (Another track, Money, does a similar trick - which is to say, the exact same thing - with cash registers. Cheers for that).

While other works by the Pink Floyds - led by their ringmaster of dondlehammers, a one mister Roger Waters - have continued to produce important advances in the field of dickheadery, few would disagree that the concentrated prism (if you will) of dorkwardliness is Dark Side. It serves as the crystalline triangle of pure gonkery through which all the group's works can be filtered as tangental works of doofism:

- Amused to Death: abysmally-titled bargain-bin staple featuring the almost-musical, nominally-thoughtful What God Wants (a resolutely tuneless romp in which the singer makes semi-coherent arguments against organised religion that are easily the equal of a twelve-year-old's scrawlings on his desk during maths).

- The Division Bell:
disappointingly listenable (well, just) maudlin crap about how communication between people is a different procedure nowadays. (If only there had been philosophical blogging back then, this tragedy may have been averted).

- Pulse
: unmitigated stupidity with approximately eight percent of the media on offer being remotely enjoyable; but containing a blinking red diode!

Point being, then, that just as Roger Waters' adherents tout his career trajectory in terms of musical value, I would suggest that the virtual same trajectory could be plotted along the axis of exactly how much Roger Waters was being a dickhead at the time:

- Dark Side
: musically beloved (due to mass hysteria); hugely dickheaded.

- The subsequent few records: quietly acknowledged as containing musical worth; keep the dondlehammer flag flyin' by containing the line "we're just two lost souls swimmin' in a fishbowl".

- Solo efforts: barely musical; dickheaded only in as much as they're not likeable.

But with his latest effort, Roger Waters is fucking BACK, baby. Playing a set that nobody has a word to say about, Waters lost his pig, didn't even have the decency to blame Homer Simpson, and then, even as his now-shredded faux-porcilith was plummeting, Obama-endorsing belly up (just stop and think of that! A rock festival hires a ridiculous prop and writes "OBAMA" on its belly; the thing plummets into a suburban household; what about that situation do you even need to change to make it into a live-action political cartoon?), WATERS, having explicitly been denied permission to do so, BLANKETS THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN FORTUNE COOKIE-SIZED "VOTE OBAMA" FLIERS. Residents could have been forgiven for thinking it was snowing; but no, this was just Roger Waters doing a good ol' leaflet drop. You know, like if you were in fucking Afghanistan or something.

Don't try and tell me this isn't a man sauntering confidently into his Golden Age. The Obama leaflet drop may have been Waters' very own Time Out of Mind.