Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Raindrops on Roses (Part Twenty-Four): Suspiria (2018)


How do you look at a movie like Suspiria (1977) and think “You know what this needs? Less color and a more intimate soundtrack. And also it needs to be at least an hour longer”? Because that’s what this is. Just after the trailers play and the logos announce who made the movie, a title card appears: Six acts and an epilogue, it says. This movie has no shame.

One of the most prominent pieces of marketing material I saw for this movie was this quote by the director, Luca Guadigno. He says that this is not an attempt to remake the 1978 Giallo film, but to recreate the feelings he had when he first saw that movie. And look, I don’t want to read too much into that -- like, drawing one-to-one comparisons between the two films gets pretty difficult pretty quickly -- but it does open up the possibility of a new label for this sort of movie: the “spiritual companion piece”.

Still, though, an hour longer? Before I’d seen both movies, I had to wonder, what got added in that extra hour that justifies itself in some way. The answer, I think, lies in the extension of some of the original movie’s themes. For example, Suspiria (1977) goes out of its way to mention that Helena Markos was a Greek Immigrant to Germany, and was shunned by the locals for fear that she was a witch. The 2018 film expands this to set the film specifically in West Germany post-World War II and introduces a subplot involving a character looking for their partner after the war separated them.

A lot of the movie, then, goes out of its way to present itself as the more mature option, from its own “kills”, to its muted aesthetic, to how it’s mentally aged up its characters. But at the same time, changing the plot like this reinvigorates the mystery to those who have seen the previous movie.

Susie, Sarah, Olga, Markos, these characters are all here. But they’re in a whole different movie, and I noticed as I watched these films back-to-back, they complement each other really well. Whether you want a sometimes-too-long dirge about the holocaust or a bright and colorful mystery slasher, Suspiria is there for you.

-F

Next time: This is a little awkward. The intention was to talk about Robert Eggers’ new movie, The Lighthouse as a comparison to The Witch (hence the “reflections” theme) but it looks like I miscalculated. I’ll still talk about a horror movie next week, but now I need to figure out what.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Raindrops on Roses (Part Twenty-Three): The Witch


This is, like, the horror movie that got me into horror movies, if that makes sense. I hope it does, because, while The Witch (stylized at The VVitch for reasons we’ll get into) does do a lot of things right in terms of horror -- especially in creating and maintaining dread -- a sizeable chunk of its audience did not take well to it. It has the same problems, I think, that It Comes At Night -- a movie I talked about last year -- had. It was marketed in a way that lead people to believe it was something it wasn’t.

So what is The Witch not? Well, it’s not over-the-top, for one thing. It’s a very subdued sort of horror, the kind that you have to make when you’re working on a rather small budget and with uncooperative animals. The fact that it looks as great as it does is definitely a testament to how well they used the money the filmmaker’s had.

But when I say subdued, I also mean in how it presents itself. The titular witch, for example, doesn’t really show herself for much of the movie. I mean, she’s there pretty early on and the camera is never demonstrated to be unreliable so the audience knows she’s there throughout the movie, but the way the movie plays out, much of our protagonists’ misfortune could easily be attributed to mundane problems.

This is something that I think is actually to the movie’s detriment. It’s not decisive. It can’t seem to decide whether the events are all because of some hallucinogenic corn rot or because the devil himself is destroying a puritan family, and that threatens to tear the movie apart.

I criticize The Witch a lot, but that’s only because the rest of it is so great. Like Suspiria and other well-made movies before it, it has a very specific aesthetic in mind and uses that to carry most of the mood. This isn’t just in the muted tones or the dress or the cinematography, but also in the characters. How they talk, what they talk about, everything that could be done to transport the audience back to the seventeenth century, this movie tries to do, even extending to the marketing materials. People thought The VVitch really was how you spelled the title, because that's how people did back then.

“A New England Folktale” is the movie’s tagline, and it plays out like one. I don’t want to spoil more than I already have, but when watching (or rewatching, if you’re good and watching these movies before I write about them), look at each character’s most obvious wants. William wants to experience mortal grief to further his eternal reward. Caleb is going through puberty and the sexual ideas that go with it. Thomasin longs for the pleasures of England. Each of them (and the other characters) receives these things, but in a “be careful what you wish for” sort of way.

Plus, there are only, like, three jump scares. If that, like me, was your barrier from seeing more horror, this is certainly a good place to start getting past that to the good stuff in the middle.

-F

Next time: Suspiria (2018), directed by Luca Guadigno

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Raindrops on Roses (Part Twenty-Two): Suspiria (1977)


Let’s start with this: “The only thing scarier than the last twelve minutes are the first ninety-two” is one hell of a tagline, even if it’s not strictly speaking true. From just looking at the plot summary, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, not to be confused with the 2018 version directed by Luca Guadagnino, takes the form of a pretty by-the-numbers slasher film, though that itself requires some moving around of the timeline a bit. It’s about seventeen years after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho started codifying the genre, but calling Suspiria a “by-the-numbers” slasher movie ignores the timeline, where the glut of that genre that started after Halloween’s release a year later.

Mentioning Alfred Hitchcock is actually rather important, though. The genre of cinema Argento’s work falls under, “Giallo”, professes that it owes quite a lot to Hitchcock’s style of filmmaking. Giallo is a pulp-y style -- it’s Italian for “yellow”, as in, the color of pulp novella pages -- and strives to match Hitchcock’s methods of doling out information and creating suspense. And this is something that Suspiria does quite well. If there’s any reason to watch Suspiria, it’s for the atmosphere.

If you haven’t actually seen this movie yet (i.e., if you didn’t watch it in the week between when I said I was going to talk about it and now), at least take a look at this still frame:


It’s almost overwhelming to look at, and that’s the point. Almost the whole movie, especially during the movie’s more violent moments, looks like that. And when it’s not the environment, it’s the lighting, and even when it’s neither of those, the soundtrack provides an additional layer of tension. There’s a specific eighteen or nineteen note melody that is set to trigger an almost pavlovian response in its audience.

If there’s one thing that Suspiria (1977) does poorly, it’s in the other half of the Hitchcock method I mentioned earlier: the doling out of information. It’s a slasher movie, but it also wants to be a mystery movie, it wants to invest its audience in who is killing these people and how. Putting aside the forty-plus years of pop-culture osmosis that this movie has been through, there’s also the fact that the same theme, that same overarching nineteen note melody also contains hints of a rather spoilery word. I won’t repeat it here, just in case, but seriously, it’s right there in the theme. You’ll know what’s going on before the opening credits are over if you’re paying attention.

But that still sells the movie short, I think. Because it is an exercise in atmosphere more than anything else, and some might argue that knowing the answer to the movie’s mystery only makes it all the more intriguing of a film. There’s a reason it’s survived as long as it has. It’s still a pleasure to watch, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who is interested in its sort of horror.

-F

Next time: The VVitch, directed by Robert Eggers

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Spooks

Next week is going to be the first day of October, which, despite what some corporations will tell you, means it will be officially spooks season (this is shade at big-name haunted house companies that open for business in late September) (this is a joke). Now, last year I made a pretty big deal out of it. I made a bunch of Raindrops on Roses posts and I told a spooky story in the same vein as many others on the internet.

This year will be mostly the same, though I’d like to note the differences now. A lot of it comes from the fact that I get the extra Tuesday to play around with. The first difference, hopefully to the relief of some of my readers, is me talking about it upfront like this. A warning that something will be coming on that last week.

The second difference is in how I’ll be doing Raindrops on Roses posts. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve enjoyed splitting each trio up into a theme of film, movie, and book. With four weeks instead of three, though, and my history of talking about movies (rest in peace, other blog), I thought it would be fun to talk about some horror movies -- some old, some new -- with its own subtheme. Call it “reflections” or something like that. And maybe that won’t make sense until week four when I explain myself, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now and I’d like to get it all written down.

You can watch along if you like. The first movie is going to be Suspiria (1977), directed by Dario Argento and written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi. There are a couple films with this name, actually, so make sure it’s this one.

I’ll see you there!

-F

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Writing Spots

I don’t actually write in the same place I live in all too often. During the late-night updates, sure, when there’s nowhere else to go, but I find it can be a little stifling to sit in the same spot every time I need to get words on a page. In fact, I’m writing these words from one of my preferred spots on campus. It’s well-lit, not too many people use it, and you can stay there as long as you want so long as you don’t bother anybody.

But I’ve also gone back and forth on starting a project involving some of the nearby parks, so I’ve been going there on occasion. And the library also works for a simple change of scenery. Or some other spots around town. Each place has its own pros and cons. Coffee shops, for example, are a good place but a lot of people know that so they can be crowded.

Even when I’m still at home, I’ve been trying to find good alternative places to be while writing. The porch works for short bursts of time, I’ve found, but longer sprees are out of the question. The seats in the kitchen are a little awkward but the rest of the area works really well.

I think changing up locations affects my mood and motivation a lot when I write. It’s probably the act of getting there that gets me thinking about the project ahead, a sort of preamble to the actual writing project. Not that I do anything else special -- I’m probably closer to a “pantser” than a “plotter” -- just the right frame of mind is enough to get me thinking.

-F

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Raindrops on Roses (Part Twenty-One): Logicomix

I kind of kept mum on the “theme” for this set of Raindrops on Roses posts, not because I was trying to avoid admitting that there wasn’t one -- there is -- but because I didn’t really have a “third option.” This is going to be a bit of a preamble, but I’d like to go into why.

The theme is “unconventional coming-of-age stories,” and for newer mediums like films and video games, that’s an easy enough find. Frances Ha has a significantly older protagonist than most stories like these and is so hipster it criticizes the previous generation’s perception of millennial culture before it was cool to do so, and Gone Home relied on environmental storytelling to tell the bulk of its story; the majority of the main characters don’t appear at all. But coming-of-age stories still generally have a set structure to them and stripping away the more visual elements makes it a bit more difficult to find something that separates them.

So maybe it’s cheating, then, to spend this slot on a graphic novel instead of a novel novel, but it’s my blog and the part I’m interested talking about isn’t specifically related to the pictures (though the pictures are nice). If you do want a novel novel recommendation, though, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is a magical realism story about a cat, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and male pattern baldness and it’s good enough that it probably deserves its own post one of these days. But anyway, back to the topic at hand.

If coming-of-age stories are about coming to terms with a more cynical view of the world, watching as the protagonist grows out of their childlike optimism and accepting a more complete worldview, well, then Logicomix’s story of Bertrand Russel’s search for the fundamentals of mathematics appears to follow that guideline rather well. But it’s not just about that. There’s also a meta-story at play involving the comic’s authors and their own understanding -- their own search -- and it’s this intertwining of narratives that enhances both of them. If Logicomix was solely about Bertrand Russel, I don’t think it would have worked as well; the main theme -- that it’s hubris to try and understand every facet of reality -- becomes much weaker when it’s presented in the past, while the present-day story ends up being the author’s own commentary that, left alone, just begs for context to be put alongside it.

And then there’s the book’s own framing story which ties it all together. The authors aren’t portraying their story of Bertrand Russel, they’re presenting a talk by Bertrand set right at the outset of World War Two. The question, “Should America go to war with Germany?” is brought up frequently as the example of the questions Russel is trying to solve through his search for mathematics’ fundamentals. “When presented with a problem, we should just be able to say, ‘Calculemus! Let us calculate’” one of Russel’s colleagues says. But the war question isn’t an easy one. It’s answerable, as evidenced by history, but nobody ever uses math to solve it.

At the end of the book, the authors go see The Oresteia, a play that presents its own problem. Orestes has killed his mother in revenge for his own father’s death, and the goddess Athena rules that a jury of Athenians should decide his fate. Even with this problem -- should Orestes be punished? -- the jurors are tied, however, and only Athena can definitively rule for or against.

For a book about reason and the search for truth, Logicomix is actually a quite spiritual book. Not in an “Only God knows the answer” sort of way, but in a “Life’s mysteries are boundless and the search for understanding is difficult but still worth trying” sort of way. A splash panel about two-thirds of the way in shows this fundamental tenet: Ludwig Wittgenstein realizes, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world!” only after a bout of existential extremism.

That’s the coming-of-age story. Of reason itself. It’s not a moral that some people can accept; one could apply its message as an argument against a lot of twenty-tens ideas, especially those involving deplatforming hate-speech. But Logicomix’s promise, of a better world as long as we constantly try to seek out what meaning we can, still keeps me coming back.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Miscellaneous Smiles

I’ve started taking Tuesday shifts at work, during what would normally be peak blog-post-writing time for me. I don’t anticipate having too many issues getting posts out in a timely fashion, but if there are any, that’s why.

In the meantime, I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed with negative news, some of which I may comment on here if things blow over (I’ll be fine, I more meant the state of the internet), so in an attempt to balance that out a little bit, here are a few positive things from my personal life in no particular order.

I’ve recently discovered the joy of listening to a Neil Cicierega album. If you don’t know who that is, he is one of the creative forces behind the Potter Puppet Pals series and is all-around a pretty funny internet person. He has a band, Lemon Demon, who are most famous for their song The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, but what I’m talking about are the “Mouth” albums created under his own name, Mouth Sounds, Mouth Silence, and Mouth Moods. All three are basically one long mashup, borrowing from dozens of artists to create a fifty-minute-and-change musical stream of consciousness, and they’re all great.

Speaking of music, I’m going to a Welcome to Nightvale show soon, which I’m very excited for. If you can imagine a weird town with, say, a dog park only hooded figures are allowed into, an endless expanse of desert, and a miniature town underneath a bowling alley, all described through the medium of radio, that’s just some of the weirdness to be experienced in Nightvale. The live show promises to be more of that, but bigger and for an audience.

I’ve been integrating into my class pretty well. I sometimes have difficulty offering criticism in a group setting (which is difficult given that that’s basically the entire class), so the fact that I haven’t had that much trouble here is a good feeling overall.

So yeah, that’s three things. Again, I’ll be fine, but like I wrote a few weeks ago, sometimes I need to balance out all the down with some up.

-F