Art, chess, Chessboard, coffee, Comics, Gengar, glasses, graphic novel, Grotesque, horror, Horror Comics, Joshua Jammer Smith, Junji Ito, Manga, original photograph, Spirals, spoon, still life, Uzumaki
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
2 April 2019
"More Human than Human", alien, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, creation, Creators and Creations, domestic affection, Eldon Tyrell, empathy, Engineer, Film, film review, Frankenstein, Frankenstein 200th anniversary, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, horror, Literature, Mary Shelley, Niander Wallace, Novel, Peter Weyland, Philosophy, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Robots, Science, science fiction, Victor Frankenstein, You cannot just put your hand in a goddamn beehive and act like you cool and shit that it some real noise son
I watched Blade Runner 2049 three times this year. That’s three times I watch Jared Leto perform in what I would argue is his best read to date, and three times I watched Ryan Gosling stick his whole hand into a bee hive. It might just be because I helped my father and sister collect honey this year and spent a good afternoon literally surrounded by swarming bees, but every time I watch his calm demeanor as he places his hand into the hive I can’t help but remember the sensation of watching close to a thousand bees buzz and fly around my face and I just want to yell “bullshit at the screen.” I don’t though because it’s hard enough to find movies I feel are truly great, and that also use bees for aesthetic brilliance so I’ll bite my lip.
The sensation of working in a library is a constant feeling of being behind, or at least it seems so for me. Working in the Reference department at the public library where I work there is always, until there isn’t, a project to be working. There’s new displays that need to be made, promotional posters and graphics for said displays as well ads the new programs that are about to be started up, there’s the logistics of acquiring guest speakers and/or teachers for adult programs, and while I’m attempting to work with the rest of my library family towards these goals I can be expected to be interrupted, depending on the day and time, at least two or three times by patrons looking for books, patrons looking for information, and patrons needing to send faxes. And with the exception of this last example (I loathe faxes with a passion I never knew I could ever actually feel) I never feel any frustration with my job. I love my work because I stay so busy. And looking at aproject a few of my coworkers are working towards I’m just reminded more and more why I have found, and chosen, a career in libraries.
Frankenstein turns 200 years old this year, and it being a novel I read prolifically during my college years, it seemed an excellent chance to look back to the novel, and look back also to a few films that seem terribly relevant as this foundational science-fiction novel comes to it’s anniversary.
It doesn’t seem like Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus would have much in common with Frankenstein, but having watched all three films this year, there’s just no way that I can’t make the argument. In fact one one occasion I did. Each of these films centers around the dynamic of the creation and creator relationship and each film manages to capture the same sense of corruption that Frankenstein originally inspired.
If my reader has never read the novel Frankenstein, first of all they really should because it’s beautiful, and second they should read it because the novel has remained, since it’s publication, a relevant document about the human condition in relation to scientific enterprize. The novel is written as a series of letters by a man named R.Walton to his sister Delores. Walton is a man driven to find a path through the north pole to achieve glory ever lasting, and while he fails at this task he discovers a young man in the ice named Victor Frankenstein. Victor is chasing a giant, who Walton and his crew had spotted just the day before, who Victor eventually confesses is a living being created by himself. Victor was a young man enraptured with the writings of alchemists, and upon the death of his mother and attending university where he learned everything was false he decides to overcome death by bring dead tissue back to life. His experiment is a success, but he is horrified by his creation and the remainder of the novel focuses on Victor’s attempts to escape responsibility for his creation, while his creature (who is never named for the record) lives a miserable life wanting only to be loved. The novel culminates in Victor losing his friends and loved ones to his creation and he eventually dies from the sheer exhaustion of following his creature to the literal ends of the earth.
What’s fascinating about the novel Frankenstein isn’t just that it’s one of the earliest science fiction novels, it’s a novel which really explored the vanity that lies at the heart of creators. Looking at just one passage Victor Frankenstein’s hubris is as glaring as it is ridiculous.
No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude or his child so complete as I should deserve their’s. Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparentlydevoted the body to corruption. (34).
I’ll admit freely that I have moments of vanity. There’s nothing like checking the stats for this blog and seeing that I’ve had fifty or even sixty visitors on one day. Similarly whenever friends confess they are in awe of the fact that I can read close to 100 books a year while they barely manage to fit in 3 or 4, there is a small twinge of ego that swells inside of me. And finally, whenever I finish another page of my graphic novel that I’m slowly working on and show it to a friend I receive a real boost of confidence as they smile and tell me what they like about it. These are moments of vanity, which is really just another way of saying, their moments where I celebrate myself and my achievements. There is nothing wrong in celebrating the self, a lesson I’m trying everyday to remind myself as I overcome a lifetime of self-depreciation.
But hubris is endless vanity where one cannot perceive any personal fault and Victor Frankenstein’s hubris is the stuff of psychology graduate theses. He is a man full of himself, and even after he realizes what he has done he never completely acknowledges his guilt. In fact he denies his creation thus setting about a course of events whichdestroys himself and the people he loves. It’s not just that he is selfish, it’s the fact that he doesn’t seem to really care about the fact that he is responsible for this new life.
And looking at this apathy I thought immediately of Dr. Eldon Tyrell and Niander Wallace from Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 respectively. Both men are corporate moguls who have made a prosperous living from the creation and sale of humanoid robots known as synthetics. These “robots” are ultimately human beings who’s bodies are effectively controlled by the corporations to live only a few years, and essentially act as slave labor for terraforming (colonizing new planets). Both men are driven by the need to make the “perfect” organism, not becuse they desire the new life they are making to succeed and flourish, but because they are driven by an intense hubris.
Looking at the Eldon Tyrell there is a brief exchange between him and officer Deckard that reveals to what lengths he is willing to go:
Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.
Deckard: Memories! You’re talking about memories!
And the real demonstration of his perception is clear when he says,
Tyrell: “More human than human” is our motto.
Tyrell is a man who is generating what most people would recognize as sentient life. And rather than empathize with his creations he is seeing only the design flaws that will affect his business. The language at first doesn’t seem to reveal this, but if the reader looks closer at the words what he’s clearly describing is the scenario that synthetic humans are essentially being made and then being destroyed by lunacy before any actual biological degradation. To Tyrell these people losing their minds and destroying themselves and other is not something to be remorseful about, but instead is simply a design flaw that reflects poorly on his brand. And in an effort to save financial face he creates memories and implant them into people’s minds.
This is barbaric enough, and then the reader encounters in the sequel a man by the name of Niander Wallace. Following the death of Eldon Tytrell in the first Blade Runner Wallace purchases the company after making billions in agriculture developments that have saved the population of the planet. Along with this he has also proven to be a capable leader in the terraforming movement specifically by using synthetic humans as slave labor. Wallace is a man who has achieved something incredible, and rather than relish what he has achieved he is driven by a real god complex.
In one scene the reader observes the birth of a synthetic human, a woman specifically who, while she is trembling in the shock of being born is examined by Wallace. While feeling her body the man complains that human beings have only colonized nine planets before remarking on the limitations of his synthetics:
Niander Wallace: That barren pasture. Empty, and salted. The dead space between the stars.
Niander Wallace: [He places his hand on the newborn Replicant’s womb] Right here.
Niander Wallace: And this is the seed that we must change for Heaven.
[He slices her womb]
Niander Wallace: I cannot breed them. So help me, I have tried. We need more Replicants than can ever be assembled. Millions, so we can be trillions more. We could storm Eden and retake her.
Niander is a man compelled by his vision to transcend mortality, but this ultimately reveals that, as he has acquired more and more personal power, and as he has generated more and more synthetic people he has stopped seeing them as anything other than robots. The fact that he is so willing to kill a sytnthetic, literally minutes after she is born reveals that he sees them as nothing but products. It’s not even a violent act in his mind because the woman is nothing to him, just another in a long line of products that will generate revenue.
And looking at just one more example, Prometheus offers the reader another fantastic example. Peter Weyland, a man I’ve written about before is a man who a titan of industry as he has, like Tyrell and Wallace, made a fortune by creating synthetic human beings that aid in terraforming operations. In a scene that did not make the theatrical cut of Prometheus, Peter Weyland address a stadium sized crowd and discussestechnology.
Peter Weyland: [from TED Talks viral video] 100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder – bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, the lightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory – and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.
Prometheus is a film which explores the ideas of life, creation, apathy, and what is the role of the creator in our existence. Human beings are revealed to be the design oforganisms known as engineers, massive humanoids that, upon waking, elect to destroy humanity and create something new in it’s place. This apathy for creation ultimately brings about their destruction and the humans that survive the onslaught are left wondering why their creators despise them, or, more appropriately, why they felt nothing for their existence.
I’ll explore the idea of creations desiring compassion for their creators in the follow-up to this essay, but for now I wanted to look at some examples of the mad genius creatorbecause, since the publication of Frankenstein this character is something of a recurring trope. Even if it is not science fiction there is still often the dynamic in literature, and unfortunately sometimes in real life as well, of one individual essentially breaking and making another and feeling nothing for the creation they have made. Victor Frankenstein is a man who wants to become a god, but rather than assume any personal responsibility for his creation, or his creation’s actions, he falls back upon his ego and self-pity.
What connects men like Frankenstein, Tyrell, Wallace, and Weyland is not just their apathy however. All of these men are defined first and foremost by their hubris, and by their conviction that they are somehow above their creations and fellow human beings. In a later passage Victor is speaking with Walton, and the reader is able to observe that the man suffers no real regret for his accomplishments because he cannot look past his ego:
“When younger,” said he, “I felt as if I were destined for some great enterprise. My feelings were profound; but I possessed a coolness of judgement that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of worth of my nature supported me, when others would have been oppressed; for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow-creatures. When Ireflected on the work I had completed, no less a one than the creation of a sensitive and rational animal, I could not rank myself with the heard of common projectors. […]. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. (167).
Victor Frankenstein is a man who believes that he is special, and, by that implication, more important than other people. This is vanity, and while that word gets thrown around a lot, it’s important to remember than the vain person is one who believes themselves superior and therefore above other people, and when someone is obsessed with the self it becomes difficult to realize faults. Victor cannot and could not perceive himself at fault because he could not see anything that was truly outside of his own mind. Because he isolated himself, because he failed to allow himself domestic affection, and because he would not allow himself to observe anything outside of his grand personal vision of himself he brought about the destruction of his life and the lives of those closest to him.
Frankenstein, Tyrell, Wallace, and Weyland are not just empty tropes, their examples of people who allowed themselves to look at themselves as gods, and that behavior had real implications for the people who lived “beneath” them. In real life there are Victor Frankensteins and Eldon Tyrells; there are men who believe themselves to be above their fellow human beings, either because of their talents, wealth, or personal beliefs. And so the real life implication of such men is that many people wind up suffering.
The lesson of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus is that creation is not simply an empty act. By bringing something into existence you assume a real responsibility for it. Whether it’s a painting, a novel, an essay, a company, a robot, oreven a synthetic human being, creators cannot simply abandon their work or become apathetic to what they have made. They own a responsibility to that creation and to those who encounter it.
Victor Frankenstein wasn’t a nrillionaire, terraforming other worlds, and in fact he only ever made one living creature. But the impact of his creation has reverberated 200 years after him. Mary Shelly’s novel has never been out of print since its original publication in 1818, and the reason is rather simple: in the course of 200 years human beings haven’t stopped looking up to the stars wondering if they might supplant the gods, and neither have they stopped looking into the water and, like Narcissus, becoming enraptured with their own reflection. A million rocket ships and a million new worlds or even millions of robots are nothing compared to the sheer power of the human ego.
And we are, all of us, left wondering when we’re going to figure out when we’ll get a decent Frankenstein or Alien film again.
All quotes cited from Frankenstein were quoted from the paperback Longman Cultural Edition, 1818 version. All quotes cited from Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, and Prometheus were provided care of IMDb.com.
I’ve provided a few links to some articles which discuss the novel Frankenstein in case my readers would like to read some work about the book by writers who can afford editors…and food. Anyway, enjoy:
"I'm not Racist but...", "the sunken place", A Mind of It's Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, Allison Williams, Armitage Family, Betty Gabriel, Between the World and Me, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Catherine Keener, Chris, Coagula, comedy, Daniel Kaluuya, David M. Friedman, Film, film review, Get Out, horror, Humor, Jordan Peele, Key & Peele, LilRel Howery, Mandingo myth, Marcus Henderson, race, Race relations, Sex Slavery, slavery, Social Justice Warriors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black male body, Woke
It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
The Fruit Loops are colored and therefore they have to be in a separate container from the milk. I’m really, really disappointed in myself for not getting that even after my second viewing of Get Out.
It’s important in this life to understand what your strengths are, where your passions are most likely to shine, and how you can use these gifts and talents to help you in this life. It’s just as important to understand what your weaknesses are. While I wouldn’t consider my familiarity with cinema to be one of my weaknesses, and I’m hardly a neophyte to the field given how much I’ve written and studied in the subject, I’m real enough to know when I’m speaking with someone who has a far more nuanced perspective. Such a person is my friend TJ. I’ve known TJ for about four years, we were originally introduced when a mutual friend recommended that I join a graphic novel bookclub TJ had started up, and he’s quickly become one of the closest friends I have. I love having a friend and co-worker who has an educated opinion about comics, but it’s in film that the pair of us tend to have the most extended conversations.
These conversations are always revealing to me, largely because TJ’s comprehension of cinema tends to be more that of a cultured aficionado. He knows the language, economics, and soul of cinema, and so when he proposed starting up a movie group for the Library it was no surprise that the list of films we started off with included movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Seventh Seal, The Godfather, and of course Get Out. This last film was probably the one he was the most passionate about, and that passion was so infecting I went out and watched the film, watching it a second time recently for the group.
This experience was illuminating. There’s a wordless quality to Get Out, because even though I had already watched the film once, I was physically trembling as Chris walked back to the house while the family and “the help” smile at him as he slowly made his way inside. And it must needs be said that I was yelling at the television, “Motherfucker getout of the GODDAMN HOUSE!” Much to the chagrin of my wife who has had to become used to me talking at movies rather than just silently enjoying them like a normal, sane human being.
Get Out is a film that has no real counter-part largely because there’s never been a film like it. Jordan Peele of the comedy duo Key & Peele is the director of the movie and often refers to it as a horror-comedy-documentary-thriller, though even this title is somewhat misleading because there’s nothing terribly funny about Get Out. There are parts that are funny, and scenes that left me literally rolling on the floor desperately trying to breathe, but as a whole the film tackles through hyperbole, and some science fiction, the reality of being black in the United States, and thus before I even begin I really need to address something.
If it hasn’t become apparent, I’m white.
But not only am I white, I am an upper-middle class white man who’s parents bought him a house when he went to graduate school and who sent him to a private Christian school when he was growing up. I’ve watched literally every episode of Frasier, and I have an educated opinion about the music of Frank Sinatra, the writing of Vladimir Nabakov, and the film career of Gene Kelly. I am whiter than a Polar Bear fighting Wes Anderson with ice spears during a goddamn blizzard. I also write essays for a blog entitled “White” Tower Musings, which has, on a few occasions, been mistaken for White Power Musings.
I am white as fucking white, and therefore trying to communicate the complexities inherent of the African American Male experience should be called into question. The good intentions of those trying to appear and sound “woke” can be a bit of a problem, to the point that people who are white and refer to themselves as social justice warriors can be part of the larger problem of racism that they are supposedly trying to fix.
For myself, I am not trying to be anything other than what I am, some asshole with a shitty blog. But, before my mother slaps me upside the head and before my wife can get to me, I’m also a writer, and someone who tries to understand a wide variety of people by actually listening to people’s grievances and perspectives. Let that define my ethos in this larger conversation in its own way.
Even if I cannot understand having my body fetishized, when I was compiling notes for TJ’s meeting on Get Out I couldn’t shake off this idea of “the body” and how Chris’s entirestruggle through the film was entirely centered in this problem. The very opening scenes of the film involves a black man walking through a neighborhood before he is abducted. His body is captured before the film opens and one of the first scenes the reader gets of Chris is his body while he’s shaving and he cuts himself. Chris, as the reader observes in the film, is a young photographer who’s dating a white woman and the film follows the pair of them as they drive up to the country (the region is never specified but it really shouldn’t matter because white people are crazy wherever you go) to see Rose’s parents. On the way to the house, while Rose is driving and the pair of them are discussing Chris’s friend Rod and Chris’s habit of smoking, a deer collides with the front of their car.
The scene itself is a jump scare, but it passes quickly. What is important however is that, once the pair of them are out of the car Chris hears the deer and walks into the woods tosee it still breathing with a large hole in it’s chest. The scene is powerful as the reader watches the deer, wondering if it’s supposed to be an omen of what’s to come, whether the deer mirrors Chris, or if the entire scene is just used to create an early scare and build up the tension in the audience. The sensation of watching Get Out is more or less summarized in this small scene because, as I noted to my friend, virtually every element and component of Get Out is connected to something else.
Looking at Rose’s Father’s reaction to the story of the dead deer this becomes apparent.
Dean Armitage: You know what I say? I say one down, a couple hundred thousand to go. I don’t mean to get on my high horse, but I’m telling you, I do not like the deer. I’m sick of it; they’re taking over. They’re like rats. They’re destroying the ecosystem. I see a dead deer on the side of the road and I think, “That’s a start.”
The phrase “they’re taking over,” is one that is often equated with the sentiment of“there goes the neighborhood,” which itself is connected to actual expressions by white racists when black families would move in. What’s taking place in this scene however is a double play because while Dean Armitage is saying this about deer, and mimicking racists, he’s trying to present himself as a man who is open minded but clumsily being racist. Throughout Get Out Peele has the family portrayed as Northern Progressive Liberals, the kind of people who enjoy their white privilege but who also profess dedication to helping African Americans who are “disadvantaged.” This is probably best exemplified when Dean is talking to Chris one on one:
Dean Armitage: If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term.
This is a difficult issue because racism is something most people assume manifests in the form of hoods, burning crosses, and, of course, southern dialects. But the problem with this perception that racism is only racism when it is obvious and violent distracts from the more subtler racism that actually manifests in day-to-day reality. Racism is often a chameleon that changes it’s shape shifting into little things like microagressions. When Dean tells Chris that he would have voted for Obama for a third term it’s implying that he thinks that Chris thinks that Obama was a great President when he knows absolutely nothing of Chris’s political opinions or persuasions. Peele isn’t just using this to make an empty statement about racism, he’s trying to demonstrate that this simple act of subtle racism distracts Chris from the real reality. Dean Armitage, like the rest of his family, are trapping Black People and taking their bodies from them, but because Chris is always shown the smaller little acts of racism he eventually falls for the trap.
Get Out does an incredible job of showing then how Social Justice Warriors, or people who claim to be woke, can cause just as much problems as the actual racists themselves.
But the dying deer and it’s destroyed body is what keeps me centered in Get Out because I’ve written about this mess before. My most popular essay to date is the one I wrote about the Mandingo Myth, the bullshit racist philosophy that states that black men are inherently more physically powerful and sexually salacious as white men. This is an idea which is partly the key to the success of my essay, as everyday reveals someone typing in “Gay Black Cock” or “Monster Black Dick Worship” and thus finding an essay about Imperialism and racism. As is always the case, the success only proves the point.
Looking at the book A Mind of it’s Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, David M. Friedman laid out to me the real racism of this idea.
Whether the black penis really is larger than the white one is an unanswered, and maybe unanswerable, question. (It is highly unlikely any reputable scientific organization will fund a definitive study anytime soon.) What is a fact that manypeople, white and black, believe is larger. What is also true, and probably more important, is that many of those white people believe that “larger” black penis has a major—read: “dangerous”—cultural meaning. (125).
This is best put just a couple of pages later when Friedman says it simply:
To really kill a black man, you had to kill his penis. (128).
This isn’t an entirely unfounded idea. The idea of slavery, specifically sex slavery is a element that keeps returning throughout the entire film. Rod, Chris’s friend, regularly references this idea as Chris describes Rose’s family and their behavior, and as the plot unfolds Rod eventually discovers the Armitage family out vicariously through Chris. When his suspicions are confirmed he tries to report his conclusions to the police providing one of the funniest scenes in the film:
Rod Williams: [to Detective Latoya and two other detectives] Then he sent me some weird pictures. I’m like, “Ah man, that’s Andre Hayworth.” This dude’s been missing for 6 months, right? So I do all my research, you know, ’cause as a TSA agent. You know, you guys are detectives. You know, I got the same training. We might know more than y’all sometimes, you know, ’cause we are dealing with some terrorist shit, so… but that’s a totally different story. So look, I-I go do my… my detective work, right? And I start putting pieces together. And see, this is what I came up with. They’re probably abducting black people, brainwashing them and making them slaves… or sex slaves. Not just regular slaves, but sex slaves and shit. See? I don’t know if it’s the hypnosis that’s making ’em slaves or what not, but all I know is they already got two brothas we know and there could be a whole bunch of brothas they got already. What’s the next move?
[after a few seconds, the three detectives look at each other and burst out hysterically in laughter]
Detective Latoya: Don’t ever, ever say that I don’t do nothing anymore.
Detective Latoya: Oh, white girls. They get you every time.
Despite the humor of the film Peele has noted numerous times in interviews and face-to-face Q&A sessions that there is nothing remotely funny about the subject matter of Get Out, calling the film a documentary rather than an outright comedy. This is a fair point given the recent events which have taken place in the United States over the last four years. Despite the public face of the Obama Presidency there are still significant race problems in the United States, all stemming from the fact that there is a fear of the Black man’s body. Young black men are being desired, feared, worshiped, fetishized, and often butchered all because the United States cannot seemingly have a real and nuanced conversation about the difficulties of racism. There is this unfortunate notion that because the United States has had a black President that racism is somehow over. Apparently nobody informed the Klan, or that guy on Facebook who always responds to racism comments with “I’m not racist, but…”. Racism is not something that will end, it merely changes. Peele’s film allows the reader to see then how the racism has changed, yet ultimately remained the same.
Get Out is a film about the body of black men and how they are being destroyed and stolen by people who cannot, or will not, recognize them as human beings. The secret society that the Armitage’s are a part of are bent on taking the bodies of black people and “unlocking their potential.” The idea, ultimately, is that black people should not be allowed whatever gifts they possess because they are clearly being wasted pushing and advancing the lives of black, rather than white, bodies. And while I was doing all this thinking and mental pontificating I couldn’t help but think back to another landmark book which has garnered recent accolades for discussing the very same issue.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in his landmark book, Between the World and Me, reflects on the death of a friend who was shot by a policeman and the entire book is written as a series of letters to his son. Coates addresses his son directly noting the position of his body in the culture:
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random mangling, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no pride anthems, nor old Negro Spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and the brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul and body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stove wood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
It had to be blood. (103-4).
The body and the brain are what makes a man, and the most horrific idea of Get Out is not that the body can be stolen, but that the body is stolen while the brain is maintained. Ultimately the Black men, and women, who are captured by Rose and her family are not just destroyed, they are stolen. Coates is able to show his son that the black body is one that has been consistently abused and turned often into some kind of industrial product,and while the Marxists would latch onto this in order to explain deeper notions of hegemony and economic domination, what is at heart in all of this is the idea that people are not allowed the agency of their own bodies.
The Coagula, the organization or the secret society that the Armitage’s are a part of, are built on the idea that blacks do not have the right to make their own destiny. Their bodies are, ultimately, just tools for white people to advance their own interests, and by the end of the film Chris is lucky to escape with his life. It should be noted that the original ending of the film ended with Chris being arrested and locked up for the murder of Rose’s family, and, while this ending would be accurate to the life of many black men in the United States, Peele was far more effective in giving the audience a catharsis.
Get Out is a film about how the black body is caught in a system in which it often cannotwin. While there is some Victory in Chris escaping, and killing the entire Armitage family as he fights his way out, there is still the deeper implication that even if he escapes there the lingering question of the victims. Upon finishing Get Out again recently I asked my friend this question: what happens to the people who were stolen? There was no answer to this question and in fact I don’t have one.
Being a white man I cannot process the reality of having my body fetishized, feared, desired, or appropriated by others. My flesh and bones are just that, meat and hard foundation. They are not wrapped up in discourses of alienation and power-imbalance, which is all a fancy-pants way of saying, as I did before, I’m white as fucking white. And so processing a film like Get Out is difficult because I can understand the fear only from the perspective of an observer. But if I can make the case for Peele’s film, Get Out is vital and important because of the constant attention to the body. A Black man can’t seem to win in this society, and even if he does it comes at a great cost. Chris will never be the same after this experience, the reader is able to see that as the car drives away and he stares detached out into the forrest.
Rather than just accept the ending as a victory, it’s important to remember that it’s also a defeat. The systems of racism that divide people continue in spite of the apparent surface where white people can praise the first black President and suggest that they are woke and accepting and understanding of the complexities inherent of the African American experience in America. Black bodies are still being commodified and worshipped and fetishized and feeding a system that profits from their exploitation. Yet in the face of this Get Out succeeds in actually addressing the problem in a way that doesn’t feel patronizing or self-righteous, and it offers it’s audience some catharsis in the face of the history and tragedy.
The deer may lie on the side of the rode, it’s body burst by the unfeeling car, dying with no one to seemingly care, but if Get Out offers anything to the reader it promises that someone is seeing the violence and is willing to say something about it.
All quotes from Get Out were cited from IMDb.com. All quotes from Between the World and Me were cited from the Hardback Spiegel & Grau edition. All quotes from A Mind of it’s Own: A Cultural History of the Penis were cited from the hardback The Free Press edition.
Get Out is a film that, I might be biased about, but I legitimately think is incredible, and fortunately I’m not the only one. As always I like giving my reader extra reading to build up the experience and so here are several reviews of the film for them to enjoy:
And here is an article published in The Atlantic focusing on the use of eyes and cameras in the film, something I’m ashamed of myself for not writing more about. Enjoy:
Because I’m a Key and Peele Fan so I just had to share this one.
"Black Mass", Academic Book, American Landscape, Anya Taylor-Joy, Daniel Chaudhry, death, Demons, Dr. Rockso, empathy, film review, Forrest, Goat-Demon Imagery, Goats Shit...A LOT, history, horror, Horror Movies, IOWA, Kate Dickie, Left Behind, Literature, Philosophy, Puritans, Ralph Ineson, Robert Eggers, Roger Nash, Samuel Hawthorne, Satan, Sexuality, Shawn “Clown” Crahan, Short Story, Slayer, Slipknot, The Witch, The Witch: A New-England Folktale, Wilderness, Wilderness and the American Mind, Witches
In the back of the Iowa album there’s a dead fetal goat. It’s a grotesque image because as I stared at it I couldn’t tell if it was a fake plastic model coated with red corn syrup or if the members of Slipknot had actually managed to find a dead fetal goat and photograph it. Given the fact that the band in their early days used to inhale the odor of a rotting animal before every one of their shows I really wouldn’t be surprised if it was real.
Goats and Slipknot have continued to persist in imagery and in fact the creative and aesthetic leader of the group Shawn “Clown” Crahan steadily employs the imagery because of its connection to satanic imagery. His drum set alone holds at least three “severed-goat-heads” and on the jump-suits of most of the band-members there is still a goat icon. Whatever the case the imagery of the goat worked because for some reason goats always manage to come across as malevolent animals.
Goats are temperamental animals, and I always remember my father’s lovely criticism about raising goats and sheep: they shit constantly. Apart from this goats are known to eat just about everything and anything which can sometimes lead to a tendency to nibble and bite at people. This is probably why goats eventually became associated with evil forces, though in fact the largest factor is the fact that goats like to fuck, a lot. The insatiable lusts of goats is in fact the reason why they became so intimately connected with the figure of Satan in medieval imagery because sexuality has often and almost always been the cause of the perceptions of sin.
The reader might assume then that when I finally sat down to watch The Witch: A new England Folktale, I should have seen it coming that Black Philip the family goat was Satan. And to the film’s credit they managed to catch me.
I had no intention of actually sitting down the watch The Witch because I no longer watch horror movies. There was a time in my life where I was an unapologetic horror junkie. After reading The Green Mile I began devouring the collected writing of Stephen King, I could list off the title of virtually every Wes Craven movie, I had an educated opinion about the movie career of Rob Zombie, and I could argue in a moment the aesthetic merits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why it was socially significant to the current zeitgeist. Unfortunately, after a while the horror genre lost its romanticism. When you’re a young guy and you’re developing, darkness feels great to be immersed in, but after watching The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel something happened to me and since that time the closest I’ve come to the horror genre was either John Carpenter movies or American Horror Story.
I think what happened was that I stopped seeing the victims in these movies as cattle, and I know how that sounds so stay with me for one more moment. It’s easy to lack empathy for people in horror movies because often the writing presents them in such a way that it’s easy to sympathize with the murderers and wackos that are killing them. Often the victims of horror films and stories are drunk, horned up teenagers who seem to purposefully place themselves in perilous situations and so when they suddenly get butchered in amusing or funny ways it’s easy to ignore the fact that another human being is suffering.
The Witch was a gamble for me then, because I had heard a friend sing it’s praises, specifically because the film was more or less Young Goodman Brown. If the reader has never heard of the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorn I really wouldn’t be surprised. This is isn’t condescension on my part; I have a Masters’s degree in English with a specialty in Queer Theory and American literature and even I try to avoid Hawthorne as much as humanly possible. Despite my loathing of much of the man’s work however I can’t deny that the man contributed a substantial aesthetic to American letters because much of his work deals with the Puritans and their struggles, and while I normally go to The Minister’s Black Veil as his crowning achievement, it’s in Young Goodman Brown that the man manages to tap into the idea of American Wilderness.
Young Goodman Brown is a short story about a young man who leaves his wife one night to make an unspecified journey through the wilderness. Along the way, he encounters an old man who carries a snake shaped staff. While they journey they eventually stumble upon a kind of “ceremony” in the woods that is more or less a “black mass,” the ritual used by witches to summon Satan. Brown sees that the crowd amassed around the fire are not just native americans but in fact people from his own city of Salem lead by his village priest. As he watches he’s horrified to see his wife Faith join the crowd and as they continue the ritual Goodman Brown screams and tries to stop it. As soon as he does he wakes and returns to the village not sure if the events of the night were a dream or whether they were real. As such he spends the rest of his life a gloomy man who can trust nothing and dies, as Hawthorne puts it so efficiently, in gloom.
Reading the story again my first impulse is to be angry with my high school English teachers. I had to read The Scarlet Letter when a great short story about possible-Satanism by the same fuckin writer existed? I’m just a little bitter. But after this initial annoyance there’s a real appreciation because this story digs into the idea of the Wilderness, specifically how early American society viewed the great “empty” territory of the American landscape.
In numerous Puritan texts the landscape of early America is seen as something of a challenge, and this is not just my interpretation. Roger Nash in his book Wilderness and the American Mind explores how the landscape of America has influences writers and philosophers of the United States. He notes in one early chapter:
For the Puritans, of course, wildness was a metaphor as well as actuality. On the frontier the two meanings reinforced each other, multiplying horrors. Seventeenth-century writing is permeated with the idea of wild country as the environment of evil. Just as the Old Testament scribes represented the desert as cursed land where Satyrs and lesser demons roamed, the early New Englanders agreed with Michael Wigglesworth that on the eve of settlement the New World was: “a waste and howling wilderness, / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That Devils worshipped.” This idea of a pagan continent haunted the Puritan imagination. (36).
It’s difficult to blame these early settlers to the North American continent for their suspicions of the wildernesses. Many had come from urban hubs in Europe where civilization is packed together tightly and people had to fight for breathing room, and even the rural environments were nothing compared to the great “empty” forests of the “new” continent. When you also consider the fact that the Native Americans had a mode of living that was dramatically different than the European lifestyle this reaction makes a bit of sense. Though to be fair it is important to realize that there is plenty of racism taking place towards Native Americans but that’s for another essay.
The forests that rose up and seemed to swallow the continent were part of this obsession and looking back to Hawthorne this is easily apparent. As Goodman Brown is watching the ceremony there is one passage that shows how the forest becomes the manifestation of evil:
Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive a sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends. Verse after verse was sung, and still the chorus of the desert swelled between, like the deepest tone of a mighty organ. And, with the final peal of that dreadful anthem, there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice if the unconverted wilderness, were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man, in homage to the prince of all. The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths, above the impious assembly. (285-6).
The only things missing from this passage is Slayer playing Raining Blood or Angel of Death, though I suppose Metalocalypse would work too. Only as long as Dr. Rockso wasn’t present.
This passage is important though because, apart from giving me a great idea for an album cover, it emphasizes how the forest allows the presence of evil to enter into this ceremony. The fire illuminates the trees casting shadows that become real spirits or implied demons that Goodman Brown can actually, and finally, see for himself. What’s taking place is most certainly a pagan ceremony, and while the words and fire are allowing the humans participating the means to access devil and evil ones, the ceremony takes place within the forest. Were this scene to take place inside of the village square it would have entirely different context. Hawthorne purposefully uses the forest because he recognized that the Puritans would have seen the woods as the realm of the spirits and so when they are trying to summon them and effectively pledge their souls to these unholy beasts they have to be in the space where they are most vulnerable to temptation.
At this point though the reader is probably frustrated and would like the floor to ask: so what? What does any of this have to do with The Witch? I came here because you promised me stuff about Black Philip and horror, not boring stories I had to read in high school or College Lit 101. More to the point why should I care about The Witch or Young Goodman Brown?
My reader is a careful contester as always and so I suppose I do need to get back to The Witch. If the reader hasn’t seen the film the movie is about a young Puritan family which is effectively cast out of their village because the father contests the religious principles of the town. The family packs up their belongings and establishes a small farm on the edge of a dense forest where they try to grow corn, emphasis on the word try. As the farm is failing, a baby name Samuel is born and is subsequently stolen from the eldest daughter Thomasin during a game of peekaboo. It’s clear from the proceeding scenes that Samuel is murdered by a witch who chops him up and uses his blood to coat a stick she uses to fly through the forest. The loss of Samuel creates fear within the family, and after the son Caleb is kidnapped and possessed by a witch the family splinters apart until everyone is dead except for Thomasin who discovers the family goat Black Philip is the devil who gets her to “sign his book” before leading her to the woods where a group of naked women are celebrating before a fire in the woods. Thomasin watches the women shriek and dance before they are all slowly lifted up into the trees where their bodies disappear into the shadows.
Watching the closing scene, and feeling a mild panic as I watched what is arguably the most horrific alternative timeline fan-fiction of Hocus Pocus, I immediately thought about Young Goodman Brown for the final black mass is almost verbatim Hawthorne.
The Witch doesn’t shy away from using these old stories for its inspiration and the end credits reveal that the director, Robert Eggers, used Salem-era court transcripts to inspire actual lines of dialogue. The greatest joy of watching The Witch, apart from a score which seems stolen from a Kubrick movie sometimes, is listening to the characters speak. The opening lines alone establish the dialogue within the period while also managing to craft a real character:
William: [before the court] What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers houses? We have travailed a vast ocean. For what? For what?
Governor: We must ask thee to be silent!
William: Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels, and the Kingdom of God?
Old Slater: No More! We are *your* judges, and not you ours!
William: I cannot be judged by false Christians, for I have done nothing, save preach Christ’s true Gospel.
Governor: Must you continue to dishonor the laws of the commonwealth and the church with your prideful conceit?
William: If my conscience sees it fit.
Governor: Then shall you be banished out of this plantations liberties!
William: I would be glad of it.
Governor: Then take your leave, and trouble us no further.
William: How sadly hath The Lord testified against you.
The story of the The Witch is a story of pride, and as much as the platitude “Pride cometh before the fall” is a platitude it’s important to remember that that doesn’t change anything. Even if The Witch is a period piece, it’s governed by the sensibilities and religious paradigms of the time period. The father William demonstrates pride, so much so that he becomes a challenge to the established church and government. At this time the village, the community, was everything, and individuals who demonstrated too much personal initiative would have been seen as suspect. Pride is a sin, and one that leaves an individual most susceptible to the charms of the Devil. To put it in a more contemporary lens, if a man feels too much pride his ego will reject any sort of healthy criticism that will help him help his community. A man who thinks and acts such is susceptible to flattery and manipulation, and this is exactly what happens to William.
He leads his family away from the safety of the village and establishes them in the center of temptation: the woods. And in his vanity he believes himself stronger than the embodiment of temptation.
William: We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.
I suppose I could be cute and write something like “Spoiler alert, they don’t and it does,” but that just seems juvenile.
Ultimately the Wildness does consume the family, weakening them to temptation and ruin until all that’s left is Thomasin who makes the bargain with Black Philip the family goat in what is one of the finest and now iconic scenes in the movie:
Thomasin: Black Phillip, I conjure thee to speak to me. Speak as thou dost speak to Jonas and Mercy. Dost thou understand my English tongue? Answer me.
Black Phillip: What dost thou want?
Thomasin: What canst thou give?
Black Phillip: Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Black Phillip: Wouldst thou like to see the world?
Thomasin: What will you from me?
Black Phillip: Dost thou see a book before thee?… Remove thy shift.
Thomasin: I cannot write my name.
Black Phillip: I will guide thy hand.
Ultimately the success of The Witch is in Eggers vision as a director because every scene, every line of dialogue, every bit of the music is carefully designed to establish the Wilderness as the force that is containing these characters, surrounding them, and ultimately leading them to their ruin. While it is true that Black Philip is the devil (or at least a lesser demon) it’s the wilderness that allows Black Philip to corrupt the family in the first place and this is finally apparent in the closing scene when Thomasin is lead naked into the woods to the black mass and eventually disappears into the trees.
Like Young Goodman Brown before it, The Witch is an exploration of early American literature which tries to understand how human beings saw and interacted with the territory of the United States. Human beings are narcissistic animals, but we’re also imaginative animals which create meaning and symbols out of the world around us. For a group of people who had come from largely urban hubs it makes sense as to why the seemingly endless forests filled with Native peoples seemed terrifying and even evil to some extent. But what’s important is the fact that narratives were created to further perpetuate this idea of Wilderness because that allowed new stories and rhetoric to be drafted.
The wildness of early America was a challenge. It was a chance to establish something new because, unlike the deserts of the ancient world, trees could be chopped down and villages and farms could be established. The demons and monsters and witches that were hiding in the woods could be pushed back and “civilization” could be established over the blasphemous country.
But what’s revealing about Young Goodman Brown and The Witch is that even as human beings entered the woods to make their new life they hadn’t lost that ancient sense of dread, or perhaps humility is a better word. Even if the trees could be cut down and farms could be established, there was a force or energy in the woods that was recognized for what it was. A man, and his family, could be easily broken by the Wilderness because it was far older than them, and had seen far more than they had.
The Puritans might have had scriptures and local government, but the trees held their own council with far older and far craftier beings that had made a home in that Wilderness. Not to mention it had that fucking-terrifying-as-fuck rabbit.
All quotes from Wilderness and the American Mind came from the YALE University Press Paperback edition. All quotes from Young Goodman Brown came from the Nathaniel Hawthorne Library of America collection Tales and Sketches. All quotes from The Witch came from IMBD.
I’ve posted a couple links to several articles hosted on the site Bloody-Disgusting because they talk extensively about The Witch, The symbolism found therein, and then also one articles discusses the role of Satanism in films. Enjoy.
I’ve included a link to Slipknot’s Left Behind video. I should warn the reader that unless you’ve seen a metal video before this can get kind of brutal, but I’ve included it here because throughout the song there is a goat walking between the players. Please don’t ask me if the goat is Satan, he and I aren’t talking anymore. It’s not that we’re not friends, it’s just that his girlfriend has him on this vegan diet and he’s getting a little self-rhiteous about it, and I think he’s just compensating because he hasn’t told Stephanie yet that he also sleeps with men…so, yeah. Enjoy the video.
My good friend TJ Rankin has recently joined the blogging game, and has started a wonderful site and also managed to establish a wonderful and unique voice really quickly. He’s also managed a skill that eludes me, brevity. His site FrameRate Reviews covers any and all films he watches, providing a rating system based on 1-10, and each review is written in just three sentences.
As my regular reader knows I recently published my review of the film Eraserhead by David Lynch, and it was WELL past three sentences. Still, before I sat down to write that essay I spoke with TJ who was kind enough to let me try to write one for his site, and much to my disbelief he actually was gracious enough to post it on FrameRate.
I can’t thank him enough for this, and I also cannot recommend his site enough to my regular reader. TJ writes concise, accurate, and entertaining reviews of the films he watches and I never miss one.
You can read my review of Eraserhead by following the links at the very bottom, and you can go straight to FrameRate and start reading TJ’s reviews by following the link just below this one. Again, if his writing doesn’t sell you my regular reader may appreciate someone who can write about a movie using less that 4000 words.
Thanks again TJ!
I present to you all the first guest review for FrameRate, provided by my good friend and fellow blogger Joshua “Jammer” Smith! I let Jammer be a bit loose with the rules, as the guy laughs in the face of any and all writing restrictions; brevity is still key though, even if he’s gonna need those extra sentences with the movie he’s reviewing. Now, I’ll shut up and let Jammer say the rest—
Eraserhead is a silent movie made entirely of sound. Most reviews of the film say things like “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before,” and that’s accurate but it doesn’t give the film the justice that it deserves. The film has a loose narrative: a man named Henry who lives in a ruined post-industrial nightmare world conceives a “child” with a local woman and the rest of the film revolves around him trying to care for it…
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"In Heaven Everything is Fine", action, apathy, avant garde, Baby, Catching the Big Fish, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness and Creativity, Charlie Chaplin, Clerks II, David Lynch, Eraserhead, fathers, Film, film review, Girl in the Radiator, horror, Individual Will, Industrial Nightmare, Literature, Nosferatu, Parenthood., Philosophy, Seriously What is Eraserhead Actually About?, sex, Sexual Reproduction, Sexuality, sperm, spirit, What is Eraserhead about, Will Power
I get it. Or at least I get that one scene where the little boy sells Henry’s head to a pencil manufacturer to make pencil eraser’s. I have no idea if the title is a reference to the head of erasers or if David Lynch just put that scene in the film to fuck with the audience, but by the end of the movie Eraserhead there’s so much that one is feeling or thinking about that trying to make quick sense of such a movie is just…well, damn near impossible.
To be honest my first initial reaction to the film is similar to Becky’s reaction to the donkey blowjob scene in Clerk’s II:
Becky: I’m disgusted and repulsed and… and I can’t look away.
Comparing David Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece to a man giving head to a donkey may seem ridiculous to some, but honestly I can’t really find a better summation of the film, and most of my friends who have seen the movie report similar befuddlement. My friend Tom who hosts a blog dedicated to short reviews of films (140 words at the most) recently confessed to me that he wasn’t sure if he even could write a review of Eraserhead because it left him so perplexed and sick. I offered my services and as of this writing he’s putting it under review.
Eraserhead appears in my life and I use that word carefully because I’m writing about a Lynch film after all. I don’t remember any situation in which the movie made some kind of blip on my radar. I don’t remember stumbling upon scenes of the movie on YouTube. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any of my friends discussing the movie. I just remember my friend Michael, who’s also a friend of Tom’s and actually showed him the movie first, always mentioning this strange film called Eraserhead and explaining why it was his favorite film. I trust Michael’s opinion in these matters because after all he introduced me to Twin Peaks and that show left me floored. I began Googling images from the film and sure enough the aesthetic seemed right up my alley, but I held back because I was told, by Michael, that it was a hard film to take. So I put it off for a while seeing Amadeus first.
Fuck you Salieri. Just, fuck you bro.
But I knew that I had to watch Eraserhead at some point, so last month when my family made the trip to Half Price Books in Dallas I tried everywhere until I stumbled upon a DVD copy in the horror section. I had a day off from the library. I sat in my kitchen. Popped in the DVD to my computer. Plugged in my headphones. And I disappeared for two hours.
Finishing the movie there was this wonderful sense of happiness. That statement by itself is probably evidence enough to have me committed, but I stand by it because I loved Eraserhead. The film was intense and dark in a way that wasn’t needlessly, or pornographically, gory. The film is built on this beautiful nightmare landscape from which absolutely everything follows, but what is most important is that Eraserhead is quite possibly the most beautiful cacophonous silent film ever produced.
Once I got past the constant darkness and paranoia about sexual reproduction, birth, and fatherhood I saw the film much like the silent movies my little sister is a fan of. The main character Henry, played by Jack Nance who would become a staple of Lynch films, is bumbly the way Charlie Chaplin tended to be and in fact his outfit seems almost a homage to Chaplin seeing as how it is a simple black and white suit. Chaplin was the first silent film I thought of, but the second was F. W. Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. I don’t have a solid explanation for this latter film except that the score of Eraserhead constantly reminded me of the pipe organs that typically play during Nosferatu which always manages to contribute to the legitimate creepiness of that film.
But the score I think is what sold Eraserhead for me because every second of the film the viewer is constantly assaulted by a bombast of white industrial noise. Henry after all lives in a post-industrial wasteland devoid of any kind of natural wild-life, and so the various groaning’s of machinery and technology leave him in this constant surrounding hum. At one point during my viewing my dog needed to go outside to pee (or else eat more of the honey-bees who are enjoying my oxalis). I paused the movie and removed my headphones and immediately I became drunk on the silence. This sensation though helped me appreciate the film even more while I was watching because I began to see how important the sounds were to the film. Each time a character speaks, or each time a lightbulb breaks, or each time the chicken wiggles it’s legs, or when Mr. X complains about his knees, or when the “baby” cries the words are not so important as the sounds themselves and the way they contribute the general atmosphere of the film.
At this point though the reader probably has one important question: what is the damn film actually about? And why should I give a shit?
Well, to start, that’s technically two questions. Second, the problem with the first question is, there’s no real clear answer. Whatever plot does exist is so buried beneath abstraction and various frame narratives that trying to argue that there is a plot to Eraserhead feels unintelligible, or else just constricting. The most simplest explanation is this: there is a bumbly loser named Henry who lives in an industrial nightmare. He conceives a child with a young woman named Mary who gives birth to a grotesque creature that is referred to as a baby. Mary briefly lives with Henry to take care of it but she eventually leaves leaving Henry alone to try and care for it as it grows sicker and sicker. Henry eventually cheats on his wife with the beautiful woman across the hall, and in a fit of frustration, madness, or curiosity he murders the baby by cutting its swaddling bands with scissors and then stabbing it in the heart.
This is the simplest explanation for Eraserhead because, as I’ve stated before, the film is odd and has no obvious structure. The film was David Lynch’s first movie and was shot over a period of five years. This was partly because Lynch didn’t have enough money to make the film in one sitting. But despite this the movie manages to feel cohesive even after one realizes that you’re watching a series of pieces and sequences that are connected under one entire whole.
For my part I think about the constant industrialization and the morbidity that actual organic life seems to have. Lynch sets his character Henry in a world that isn’t dying because it’s clear the world is pretty much dead. One only need look at the scene in which Mr. X brings out the dinner:
Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.
Henry Spencer: Hello there. I’m Henry.
Mrs. X: Henry works at LaPelle’s Factory.
Mr. X: Oh. Printing’s your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from pastures to the hell-hole it is now!
Mary X: Dad!
Mrs. X: Bill!
Mr. X: I put every damn pipe in this neighborhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!
This scene isn’t terribly depressing or horrific, but it is Lynchian and weird and only contributes the general atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades the characters and it only grows worse during the actual dinner.
Mr. X: Mary usually does the carving but tonight since you are our guest, you could do it, Henry.
Henry Spencer: Of course. I’d be glad to. So I just, uh… I just cut them up like regular chickens?
Mr. X: Sure, just cut them up like regular chickens.
Henry cuts into the chicken which proceeds to bleed from between the legs which also start to wiggle making little squeaking sounds. This scene would be bad enough if not but a minute later Mary’s mother confronts Henry about the affair and the baby which ends in an ominous line:
Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Henry Spencer: [stammering] Why?
Mrs. X: Did you?
Henry Spencer: Why are you asking me this question?
Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.
Henry Spencer: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!
Henry Spencer: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry!
Henry Spencer: I’m sorry.
Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate…
[nuzzling at his neck]
Henry Spencer: Well, I…
Henry Spencer: Mary!
Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]
Mrs. X: Answer me!
Henry Spencer: I’m too nervous.
Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.
Mary X: Mom!
Mrs. X: And you’re the father.
Henry Spencer: Well, well that’s impossible! It’s only been…
Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!
And the baby itself remains for me the most horror inducing aspect of Eraserhead because of one key scene. Henry is constantly watching his radiator and seeing in his mind a young woman with grotesque puffed up cheeks who stands on a quasi-vaudevillian stage. In one shot she is dancing and stepping on small sperm creatures that fall from the ceiling and later she sings a song that, I shit you not, remains one of the most creepy and catchy tunes you will ever hear. And because I’m feeling monstrous, here it is:
Following the blinding light Henry finds himself alone on the stage. A tree begins to emerge from one side and he steps off, holding a small bar before his head literally bursts from his shoulder and the “baby’s head” slowly emerges crying while the tree bleeds over the stage and around Henry’s severed head. The sound of the baby crying gave me chills and I legitimately had to stop the film for a moment to breath. But this small scene seems to illuminate a theme that numerous bloggers and vloggers and writers and critics have touched on which is that Eraserhead is a film about the paranoia of becoming a parent.
David Lynch was about to become a father as he was finishing up Eraserhead and most people have latched onto that idea as the explanation-de-jure of why the film is doing what it’s doing. I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence for this reality, the fact that the film opens with a sperm creature coming out of Henry, and later the grotesque “baby” itself all lends great weight to this argument.
But I’m always cautious when I hear that everyone seems to have the same interpretation of a work of art because then it feels like there’s nothing left to do in terms of personal understanding or interpretation. Something else is bothering me: a small book by David Lynch. I received the book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity as a birthday present last year. It’s not the normal kind of stuff I read because I find spirituality books tedious and usually boring as fucking-fuck, but because it was written by David Lynch I made an exception. Reading the book there was one small passage that stuck out to me:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. (33)
It’s a small quote, but I think it lays a great foundation for a possible argument that Eraserhead is a film about spiritual power, and not necessarily the religious. Spirit as a word and idea is not solely about religion or divine energy. Spirit is also a measure of a person’s individual will. When a child demonstrates initiative, or is really passionate, or acts crazy it’s sometimes said that they have spirit. And this definition is important in our day to day lives because our spirit is our ability to give a shit. If a person is strong spiritually it means that they care and that they’re involved and engaged in their world and reality. If a person has low spirit it usually means they’re apathetic, disengaged, and divorced from their reality.
Looking at Henry I often see a man with little spirit. I’ve referred to Henry twice in this essay as bumbly and that’s purposeful because Henry never seems to be active. He’s always being passive to the world, to his environment, to the people interacting with him, and just letting life happen to him. Returning to the dinner scene for a moment demonstrates this:
Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?
Henry Spencer: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.
That’s it. After this Mr. X and Henry stare at each other for several minutes and until it becomes clear that’s going to be the extent of the interaction. Henry is a man who watching his life happen to him, and rather than try to make his life something else, he just goes about receiving and watching until he performs his only real action: killing the “baby.” I won’t get into the implications about fatherhood here because there’s already so many people on the internet offering such analysis.
My final assessment of Eraserhead lies in Lynch’s interpretation. It is a film about the human spirit and how it’s possible for people to become inundated by forces which seem out of their control. Looking back for a moment at Catching the Big Fish David Lynch talks more about his life during the filming of Eraserhead and I think it offers more proof for my assessment:
When I was making Eraserhead, which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead. I thought the world would be so much different before it was over. I told myself, Here I am, locked in this thing. I can’t finish it. The world is leaving me behind. I had stopped listening to music, and I never watched TV anyway. I didn’t want to hear stories about what was going on, because hearing things felt like dying. (35).
Lynch seems remarkably like Henry in this passage, a man who feels like his life is passing in front of him because there are forces which seem out of his control. Henry finds himself in a dead world where industry and technology have left the world buried in ash, and the people who live around him and interact with him seem just as dead, or else decaying. What life does exist is often grotesque and sick. In such a world how does a man find any kind of spirit, or else any incentive to continue living?
Ultimately, Henry finds some kind of redemptive act in action; in actually taking some kind of control in his life. It may be a destructive act, and horrifying one at that, but ultimately it does deliver him from the passive servitude that is his life.
Each person will bring their own self and interpretation to the movie Eraserhead, and so trying to come up with one central interpretation is going to be ridiculous. Instead the best advice I can offer the reader is to watch the film (preferably not at night) and see what your own reaction will be. The impulse at first will probably be depression or horror, but beneath that, at least in my experience, is a beautiful film about how the human spirit can overcome the seemingly endless onslaught of forces that seek to dominate it.
The film is also a wonderful example of why if you’re going to eat chicken, you might consider picking up some Raising Canes. At least the chicken strips won’t wiggle their legs at you.
I’ve included here several links if the reader would like to dig a little deeper into Eraserhead the film. Below is a link to the original trailer:
The following are several online articles either about Eraserhead or David Lynch himself:
And finally here are a few videos by film vloggers who offer up some analysis of the film, and one which is an actual interview with Lynch not long after he made Eraserhead.
It’s easy to be buried underneath the darkness of a film like Eraserhead, that’s why remembering it’s just a movie can be beneficial. Here’s something that will help: a picture of a young David Lynch talking and laughing with Jack Nance between takes during the film. I don’t know why I love this picture so much. Part of it may just be the fact that, in this moment, neither men would probably know how much the film was going to change their lives. That, and it’s fascinating to observe David Lynch’s most straight-forward haircut.
"Fire Walk With Me", "Once a day everyday give yourself a present", A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Agent Dale Cooper, aliens, American Horror Story, Blue Velvet, Bob, coffee, Corruption, Corruption of Small Town America, Dale Cooper, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Evil, Evil as a Force, Failed Hero, Film, film review, Forrest, Gay Porn, gif/jif?, Good vs Evil, Hero, horror, I know too many Michaels, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Palmer, Literature, Mark Frost, mythology, Nature of Evil, Novels, Owls, Philosophy, reflection, science fiction, Surreal, television, The Black Lodge, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks
Though I hate personally doing this, I want to warn the reader that this review has information which may “spoil” the ending of Twin Peaks for the reader. If you have not seen the ending, and do not wish to know it, please do not read any further. However, if you do not care, progress slowly. The path is strange and wonderful.
Mysteries precede humankind, envelop us and draw us forward into exploration and wonder. Secrets are the work of humankind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power. Do not confuse the pursuit of one with the manipulation of the other.
–The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost
It may seem a cliché, but really and truly, I have to drink coffee while I write. Ever since I’ve lost my taste for beer, coffee has stepped in and replaced that precious elixir which supports my spirit after a day, or really evening, of work at the library. And that idea of spirit is everything as I approach the impossible and write about Twin Peaks, because as I leave the town for the first time, I wonder at the experience because, much like wonderful oddities that appear in the show, the appearance of the program seems to come out of nowhere, and nothing of what I remember is what it seems.
To be honest, I can’t even trace my awareness to any solid origin other than my friend Michael. As I’ve mentioned, some might argue too much, I’m part of a bi-weekly Graphic Novel Book Club and it’s through these meetings that I have managed to become exposed to some books, movies, and materials I almost certainly would never have been exposed to on my own. Part of that is simply the diversity of the company of the group, the other is the fact that I’m a fucking social recluse who would probably never leave his house given the option. It was through these meetings though that I first heard the term Twin Peaks, and initially I treated it the way most people treat friend’s pictures of their children: I nodded and smiled understanding that this show meant a great deal to my friends, but I honestly didn’t give a shit about it because it had nothing to do with me.
That, and I was still going through grad school and planning on becoming a teacher. Words like “the black lodge” or “Agent Dale Cooper” or “The owls are not what they seem” were words and nothing but that.
But one day, after a meeting, I asked Michael about Twin peaks. I think part of it was that I had written a review of David Foster Wallace’s essay David Lynch Keeps his Head(which I’ll get to in just a moment). Michael had offered some thoughts about Lynch as a director, informed me that I had to see Twin Peaks to understand why the man was brilliant, and then another friend of mine (also named Michael) shared a gif (jif?) of Kyle MacLachlan drinking coffee.
I stopped drinking beer, and one night, while looking through Netflix I saw the word again. It was like the scene in Muholland Drive when the blue box opens. I was drawn in and found a new world.
That, and I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the taste of damn good coffee.
This essay is a difficult task because I’m not entirely sure how best to approach it. Reacting intellectually to the show is a dubious proposition because how the flippity fuck do you react intellectually to a show that seems to constantly try to avoid any clear explanation. The alternative is to react emotionally and I worry about this because when it comes to the world of Twin Peaks (especially in the aftermath of Fire Walk with Me) there is already a great number of people offering up their emotions. And this also creates a conflict because there are people who have waited 25 years for the conclusion, or at least continuation) of the show, and in that time mountains of fan fiction, fan theories, and fan-based analysis has been generated.
What am I? A mere flea that’s just hopped on the back of a big dog’s ass. Yet here I stand willing to offer up my voice terrified of what I shall wrought. But as a great man so beautifully expressed:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
My own intellectual conclusion after finishing the series is that in its own right it is complete. I hear the objection immediately. You haven’t even seen Fire Walk With Me, and there’s a new season coming out in May, how could you possibly argue that it is complete.
To this objection I simply state that I’m looking at the television show alone. This may be performing some blasphemy on my part, but again this is just reflection, not outright critical declaration.
Now Let’s Rock.
To the reader who’s never watched the show, Twin Peaks takes place in a small logging town in Washington and begins when a young woman named Laura Palmer is found murdered and wrapped in plastic beside the river. From there any and all kind of clear plot narrative is difficult because rather quickly the show becomes a surreal melodrama about the lives of the various characters that inhabit the town of Twin Peaks, and an FBI agent assigned to the town named Agent Dale Cooper.
On one side note there is also a gay porn-star named Dale Cooper who is kind of dreamy. I have no idea if this is his real name or else if he chose that as his porn name because of Twin Peaks, this aside is really just a warning to some Twin Peaks fans who might stumble upon this while googling pictures of Kyle MacLachlan.*
Twin Peaks follows the creative trend of David Lynch which is the corruption found within the supposed innocence of small-town America, and while some would argue that this is a cliché, I would remind that David Lynch helped make this trope in the first place. If you’re the first person to do something it isn’t cliché, it’s simply foundational. Agent Cooper discovers quickly that Twin Peaks is another world, a small community that revitalizes his spirit, and not just because the Double R Diner has the best Cheery Pie in the world. As Cooper works alongside Sherriff Harry Truman, Deputy Andy Brennan, Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill, and receptionist Lucy Moran, he discovers that the small town is hiding more than just local political and economic corruption. There is, as Sherrif Truman states clearly, “Evil in the woods.” And this is where ultimately the show Twin Peaks made its mark.
On the one hand this evil is manifest in the fact that characters have secret lives that sometimes involve crime, over time the supernatural powers that live and exist and manipulate the people of Twin Peaks become more and more apparent. A being known as Bob becomes the figure responsible for the death of Laura Palmer, however it’s revealed eventually that Laura Palmer’s father Leland was possessed by this creature and forced to rape and murder Laura.
Watching the scene when Leland/Bob confesses remains one of the most horrific and dramatic scenes in television, if not cinematic history ,largely because of the way Lynch establishes his universe. The question at first appears, is Leland really crazy or is there actually a creature named Bob controlling him. As this is being discussed Leland bellows out a passage that appeared once before in a dream Agent Cooper’s had not long after arriving in Twin Peaks:
Leland Palmer: Through the darkness of future past / The magician longs to see / One chants out between two worlds / Fire walk with me. I’ll catch you with my death bag. You may think I’ve gone insane, but I promise I will kill again!
At this point I wholly accepted the fact that Bob was real, but part of that conclusion was because of David Foster Wallace. If the reader has never heard that name he’s the author who wrote such books as Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He’s also known for several non-fiction books such as Consider the Lobster, This is Water, Both Flesh and Not, and finally A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which contains a vital read for Lynch fans called David Lynch Keeps his Head(Told you I’d get to it, and you doubted me).
My reader may wonder what this has to do with Twin Peaks. I promise there’s a message here, just be patient. The essay was an assignment for a magazine in which Wallace received the opportunity to be on set during the filming of Lost Highway. While at first the essay is mostly Wallace talking about the actual filming, as it continues he manages to break-down the creative structure of Lynch’s movies and tries to define the term Lynchian. There are long passages full of insightful commentary but my focus is Twin Peaks and so one passage, in particular, seems terribly important.
Wallace discusses the idea of evil in Lynch films and how it manifests. He writes:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
Reading this passage, especially after finishing Twin Peaks, and taking the time to watch Blue Velvet not long thereafter, I confess I had an “aha!” moment for everything seemed to fall into place. Rather than treat evil as a kind of abstract force that is inherent to the human condition, Lynch’s films seem to attack the viewer in a way so that it’s impossible to escape from evil and the way it can impact the people that suffer from it, and The Black Lodge seems to embody this idea perfectly. As Cooper enters it, trying to save Annie he finds himself at the mercy of the very idea of evil, and ultimately succumbs to it.
Watching the last episode of Twin Peaks, and watching Bob/Coop chuckle I confess that I was grabbing my laptop and screaming “No! No! No fuck no! That can’t be it!” The rage inspired by the idea that that could possibly be the end, that the hero and purely good hero at that, could succumb to the evil’s found in the Black Lodge disturbed me. I felt that there had to be a resolving, or a redemption in which the figure who seemed to embody so much strength could not possibly fall to evil.
But that confession reveals everything.
Again, looking at Wallace’s commentary, I realize that what keeps Lynch so interesting is the fact that he seems to recognize that evil is a force, that even if it is spawned within ourselves, it can still work outwardly as a force which can compel and destroy people. Leland Palmer was a good man, or at least he seemed to be a good man, that outward surface mirrors the reality of true life. When you remember that most rape victims tend to suffer under the hands of people close to them (usually family members) rather than outside strangers, the idea that Leland could do that to his daughter is more plausible, but nonetheless still retains its horror. Likewise, with the character Dale Cooper, who, over the course of the series, becomes some kind of extension of the viewer. As I watched Twin Peaks I identified more and more with Coop. Part of this is simply because I’ve always wanted to be intelligent and charming and charismatic, but also because he was a genuinely good person.
He also gave me the greatest lesson in life:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.
This man would eventually fall prey and fail against the pure forces of darkness. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen. And watching the very end I was angry and sad and terrified after what was surely the most terrifying 20 minutes of television ever recorded. And before anyone tries it, No. American Horror Story is nowhere near as terrifying as the Black Lodge. I don’t care how many clowns or gimps in leather suits they throw at me.
Part of this horror on my end was because of the characters and Wallace notes this in his essay:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
He also offers one more assessment which I feel is perfectly valid:
This may, in fact, by Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head. (171)
If such is the case this certainly works. I know that I’ve offered a lot of extraneous material and haven’t so much dug into an episode by episode analysis but in starting this essay I did some internet research and it appears much of the fan-base has already done that for me. Besides I prefer to step back and observe the general trend and impression something leaves me with. And as I look over my opinions and assessment of Twin Peaks I find more and more that I stand by my original declaration. The first two seasons can stand alone as an art product because ultimately it seems to validate the trend of Lynches’ oeuvre.
Evil is a force that exists and it corrupts absolutely, and when looking at the small community the capacity to fall prey to darkness seems all the more terribly valid. In the case of Twin Peaks the characters are held by their own resolve and personal wills, but ultimately Lynch reminds the viewer that evil can manifest in such ways to break even the strongest people. Sometimes our heroes are not what we need them to be, and sometimes good people are destroyed.
The lingering image then of Twin Peaks for me is Bob slowly crossing the living-room toward Mattie. It’s not a dramatic shot in terms of camera angling. It’s simple and it holds for exactly the right reason. The aliens, inter-dimensional beings, the forces of evil are not what they seem. They can be cackling lunatics, dwarves in red suits dancing to jazz, they can be owls, or they might even be someone close to you, someone who you’re supposed to trust and love.
These is no experience like Twin Peaks. And while it may sound at first as if the show ends on the note of hopelessness, but I would hope that after the reader finishes my essay or finishes the show for themselves they would take care to remember a line from the novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost which offers a far more satisfying sense of closure than I could ever hope to give:
The owls may not be what they seem, but they still serve an important function – they remind us to look into the darkness.
While writing this review I found a picture of the pair of Dale cooper alongside Dale cooper. It led to an article which had confirmed that Dale Cooper named his porn name after Dale cooper the character. While I find this hilarious, it also leaves me curious if anyone has yet proposed a Twin Peaks porn parody and whether or not David Lynch would direct it.
Never-mind. Just Googled it. It doesn’t exist…but it could.
Here’s a brief snippet from the Charlie Rose interview that helped get David Foster Wallace on my radar screen. This snippet is where he discusses how Blue Velvet appealed to him originally:
And here also is the Charlie Rose interview with Lynch himself:
The famous Owl Line has echoed after the show and come to define numerous interpretations of the show and what the owls actually are. For my own part I like this interpretation one random blogger offered, though I am ALWAYS happy to hear other people’s ideas.
And here, because I like offering people more and more resources, are a few sites dedicated to Twin Peaks:
Look at this shot. Look at it. This is the shot that confirms my bias. There are no monsters, or killers, or jump-scares, there’s only a shot of a ceiling fan slowly turning, but this ultimately is David Lynch’s power, because this shot scared me more than four seasons of American Horror Story Combined. Great horror should always attempt to draw a viewer into another world, but while the viewer is being entertained the master of horror tries to get into the viewer’s world. There’s something behind me, there’s nothing and I know it objectively, but if a director can actually create the sensation that there just might be something there, then they have succeeded.
And then there’s Bob.
"We all go a little mad sometimes", Alfred Hitchcock, American Landscape, Anthony Perkins, Film, film review, Hays Code, High Anxiety, horror, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Marion Crane, Mel Brooks, Motion Picture Production Code, Psycho, Psycho Shower Scene, Psychosis, Sexuality, Taxidermy, Vera Miles, Vertigo
It’s easy to forget that Psycho is actually a good movie. It’s easy to forget because like many great films, it has been borrowed and parodied so much that the climactic scenes have almost become parodies of themselves. The classic “Shower Scene” remains the sole focus of many casual movie-goer’s attention and I cannot even count the number of times I have seen this parodied in cartoons, comedy spoofs, and television sketches. However, it should be noted that the best example of parody of the now iconic shower scene is from Mel Brook’s High Anxiety when the busboy “stabs” Mel Brooks with a newspaper leaving Brooks one of the best reaction lines in cinema history:
Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke: That kid gets no tip.
Alfred Hitchcock is a director who, while his work has become rather wrapped up in trendy adoration, managed in his time to produce some of the best movies in the world. His movie Vertigo alone recently replaced Citizen Cane as the American Film’s Institute’s number film of all time, and when you remember that Orson Welles held that spot for almost four decades that shift is not just dramatic it’s monumental. I avoided Hitchcock for years largely because of the hype that surrounded the man and his work, but also because the man himself had become a bit of a cartoon character. His appearances on The Simpsons, American Dad, and Family Guy and even the Twilight-Zoneesque Alfred Hitchock Hour all just seemed a bit much for me and so I avoided him until I met a friend who opened my eyes to the man’s work.
It started with Strangers on a Train. Technically speaking Psycho had been the first of his movies that I had actually sat down and watched all the way through, but Strangers was the first of his films that I sat down with the intent of actually watching Hitchcock and what he could do with cinema. After writing about the film I decided to watch Vertigo after years of hearing about it from my little sister and like Strangers I was blown away by it. This buildup of momentum is partly responsible for my sitting down again to really watch Psycho, the other part is the fact that I’ve been spending more and more time at the Tyler Public Library and they have an entire wall now of DVDs. I checked out Psycho and The Last Picture Show but only had time for the former. My apologies to Mr. Bogdonovitch.
I watched Psycho for the third time recently and, apart from having the first half of the movie regularly interrupted by my dad who was reading funny memes on Facebook, I was struck by how good a movie it actually is. Given what I’ve noted about Hitchcock’s reputation earlier this sentence may seem a bit strange, but there again I’m working on the premise that Psycho is often self-parody. This is fallacy. Psycho, like most Hitchcock movies, is actually a brilliant movie largely because after the jump-scare moments like the shower and the detective being stabbed on the stair case have been observed, the real genius of the movie is how unexpected these murders are given what has happened up to this point.
The film begins in Phoenix Arizona in a cheap hotel room where Marion Crane, and her boyfriend Sam Loomis, have clearly spent the afternoon making love. Sam’s divorced and works in a supply goods store, and while it’s clear he loves Marion and wants to marry her, his problem is his ex-wife who is enjoying the benefits of alimony. There’s a brief exchange that opens the film and the viewer is able to see right away the tension:
Sam Loomis: You never did eat your lunch, did you?
Marion Crane: I better get back to the office. These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid.
Sam Loomis: Why don’t you call your boss and tell him you’re taking the rest of the afternoon off? It’s Friday anyway, and hot.
Marion Crane: What do I do with my free afternoon? Walk you to the airport?
Sam Loomis: We could laze around here a while longer.
Marion Crane: Checking out time is 3 P.M. Hotels of this sort are interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up… oh Sam, I hate having to be with you in a place like this.
Sam Loomis: Married couples deliberately spend occasional nights in cheap hotels like this.
It’s important to note that this opening scene does more than just set the characters and their motivations however because the visuals of this scene are striking for the time. Before Psycho came out there was what some would call an obstruction to movie makers known as the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred inaccurately to as the Hays Code. This was largely a censorship campaign spearheaded by the Catholic Church by an organization known as The National Legion of Decency or The Catholic Legion of Decency. This group had largely focused itself on maintaining the so-called “decency of the arts” viewed by the public, and because film was becoming more and more of a standard of entertainment this group pushed for movie makers to be limited in what they could include in their films. Before this, elements such as violence, sexuality, homosexuality, and just about everything that makes life worth living was used and explored in cinema, but once the NLD or CLD, whichever you prefer, pushed film production companies with lawsuits and pernicious rhetoric the film industry created the Production code which limited what you could show on air.
A good example of this is the fact that a kiss could only be a few seconds long. When you consider that Psycho opens up with Janet Leigh wearing just a bra and a skirt Hitchcock’s film becomes something scandalous and/or progressive. Marion leaves the apartment thinking about Sam’s problems with his debts and his ex-wife and returns to work as a secretary in a real estate agent agency. She’s back for five minutes when her boss enters the office with a man who has with $40,000. By todays standards that’s still a lot of money, but courtesy of Dollar Times the current value of that money would be $321,802.72.
The money becomes what pushes the plot through the first half of the film for Marion recognises this is her chance to help Sam and escape her life. Before I stray further however the exchange that takes place between Marion and Tom Cassidy is important for it helps establish much of the later horror of the movie. Cassidy clearly thinks Marion is attractive, leaning on her desk and drops it before her.
Tom Cassidy: I’m buying this house for my baby’s wedding present. Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now, that’s… not buying happiness. That’s just… buying off unhappiness.
[waves money in front of Marion]
Tom Cassidy: I never carry more than I can afford to lose! Count ’em.
Caroline: I declare!
Tom Cassidy: [staring at Marion] I don’t! That’s how I get to keep it!
George Lowery: Tom, uh… cash transactions of this size! Most irregular.
Psycho is a film that is carefully loaded with character, and by that I mean each person the viewer encounters possesses their own eccentricities. Tom Cassidy is a bit of a hyperbolic personality, but what’s important is that, while watching him and the way Hitchcock presents his character he feels real to the American experience. There are men in the south who wear cowboy hats and walk around waving their money, and I say that having lived here for as long as I have. Likewise, a later character that Marion encounters is a used car salesman who, while at first appearing cartoony actually only furthers the realism that Hitchcock is trying to establish:
California Charlie: I’m in no mood for trouble.
Marion Crane: What?
California Charlie: There’s an old saying, “First customer of the day is always the trouble!” But like I say, I’m in no mood for it, so I’m gonna treat you so fair and square that you won’t have one human reason to give me…
Marion Crane: Can I trade my car in and take another?
California Charlie: Do anything you’ve a mind to. Bein’ a woman, you will. That yours?
Marion Crane: Yes, it’s just that – there’s nothing wrong with it. I just…
California Charlie: Sick of the sight of it! Well, why don’t you have a look around here and see if there’s somethin’ that strikes your eyes, and meanwhile I’ll have my mechanic give yours the once over. You want some coffee? I was just about…
Marion Crane: No, thank you. I’m in a hurry. I just want to make a change, and…
California Charlie: One thing people never oughtta be when they’re buyin’ used cars, and that’s in a hurry. But like I said, it’s too nice a day to argue. I’ll uh – shoot your car in the garage here.
These impressions of people from afar and out of context seem odd or fantastic, but that’s largely the point. Marion’s character, along with Sam Loomis is rather mundane, and by that I mean the viewer doesn’t really have that much difficulty recognizing them as people they would encounter. Their motivations are recognizable, likewise are people like California Charlie and Tom Cassidy. These are people steeped in commerce and money and real life, and thus their motivations areen’t that difficult to figure out. Hitchcock, if I can write this without sounding like a kissass as best I can, is really clever to keep building these characters up because when Norman Bates finally makes his grand appearance on the scene at first his eccentricity just seems to be part of the general atmosphere.
Just the initial introduction of Norman is rather strange, but when he offers Marion dinner his eccentricity seems almost common-place:
Marion Crane: Taxidermy. That is a strange hobby to fill.
Norman Bates: A hobby should pass the time, not fill it.
Norman Bates: You-you eat like a bird.
Marion Crane: [Looking around at the stuffed birds while eating] And you’d know, of course.
Norman Bates: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’ – it-it’s really a
Norman Bates: fals-fals-fals-falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But -I-I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know – taxidermy.
It’s a bit of serendipity, but it seems like every portrayal of a serial killer involves an obsession with skin. Whether it’s Bloodyface on the second season of American Horror Story, Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs, or even just Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the narrative of killers obsessed with skin is a recurring trope in horror stories. Technically it all goes back to Ed Gein, but that’s for a later essay. The point is that this brief moment from Norman precedes the later dialogue which will reveal his psychosis. Marion and Norman discuss his mother who Marion hears all the way from the Motel and during the conversation Marion makes a small mistake:
Norman Bates: It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?
Marion Crane: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.
Marion Crane: Do you go out with friends?
Norman Bates: A boy’s best friend is his mother.
Norman Bates: The rain didn’t last long, did it? So… where are you off too?
[Marion looks uncomfortable]
Norman Bates: Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.
Marion Crane: Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’m looking for a private island someplace where I can be alone and no one can find me.
Norman Bates: What are you running away from?
Marion Crane: Why do you ask that?
Norman Bates: No reason. No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.
Marion Crane: Sometimes… we deliberately step into those traps.
Norman Bates: I was born into mine. I don’t mind it anymore.
Marion Crane: Oh, but you should. You should mind it.
Norman Bates: Oh, I do…
Norman Bates: But I say I don’t.
Marion Crane: You know… if anyone ever talked to me the way I heard… the way she spoke to you…
Norman Bates: Sometimes… when she talks to me like that… I feel I’d like to go up there… and curse her… and-and-and leave her forever! Or at least defy her! But I know I can’t. She’s ill.
Marion Crane: Wouldn’t it be better if you put her… some place…?
[Marion does not finish the sentence as she thinks of the right thing to say. Norman leans forward with a conserned look on his face]
Norman Bates: You mean an institution? A madhouse?
Marion Crane: No, I didn’t mean it like…
Norman Bates: [suddenly angry] People always call a madhouse “someplace”, don’t they? “Put her in someplace!”
Marion Crane: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so uncaring.
Norman Bates: What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother THERE?
Norman Bates: Oh, but she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
Marion Crane: I’m sorry. I felt that… well, from what you told me about your mother is that she might be hurting you. I meant well.
Norman Bates: People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!
Simply reading this exchange doesn’t give the right justice to the performance of Anthony Perkins who, with seemingly little effort, manages to give one of the most frightening performances of any actor’s career. I haven’t gotten to the shower scene, or the plot twist that made Psycho such a shocker to audiences, and I’ll have to explore these ideas in a later essay. But what I simply wanted to explore here was the idea that Psycho is a film so defined by the shower scene that all the earlier and later performances have been seemingly abandoned and forgotten. I am not suggesting that the shower-scene doesn’t possess a power to terrify a first-time viewer, or that it didn’t scare legions of casual movie-goers when the film was first released, or that it didn’t scare me. To this day I’ll never forget my seventh-grade English teacher telling the class that she screamed when Janet Leigh did, and I’ll never forget the dramatic screeching of the violin’s as Norman Bates’s blade sunk into Marion again and again.
But fear is fleeting, and once the actual terror has passed Psycho is still an amazing film for the minor and major performances that present a real sense of humanity. Hitchcock as a director was a master of his craft because he managed to produce some of the most iconic shots and images pushing the bounds of what could be done in film. A nice shot only goes so far though. In order for a film to be great there must be balance of humanity. In Psycho the viewer sees a man struggling to make ends meet, a big-talking Southern blowhard, a smooth talking car salesman, and finally a troubled young man whose normalcy and eccentricity blinded a generation of moviegoers.
Like I said before, it’s easy to forget how great a film like Psycho actually is, because it does everything it can to portray humanity the way it actually exists. And in such comfort people forget that life can make such frightening turns.
Here is an original review of the film by the New York Times:
Here also is a link to an article done by The New Yorkeer which explores the cinematic success of Psycho as a film:
And finally I’ve included links to a few other sites which explore some of the small eccentricities that have given the film the impact that it has today. Enjoy.
Academic Book, Edgar Allen Poe, Essay, horror, Jammer Talks About, Joshua Jammer Smith, Kevin J. Hayes, Literature, Mourning, Neil Gaiman, Poe: Essays and Reviews, Poe: Poetry and Tales, Poetry, Richard Kopley, The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allen Poe, The Philosophy of Composition, The Raven, The View From the Cheap Seats, Two Verse Masterworks: "The Raven" and "Ulalume"
For the record, Poe was originally going to have the raven from “The Raven” be a parrot.
In this video I discuss Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, while also discussing much of the background of the poem that was never taught to me growing up. Like I say in the video I actively avoided Poe after an initial total devotion to the man’s work and this was largely because I got sick of hipsters and wannabes who read his work in graveyards writing bad poetry thinking they were deep, and the reason I hated these people was probably because I was one. I discovered Poe again recently thanks to a friend, and reading his work again I was struck by how much I adore the man’s writing. He’s witty, deep, soulful, profound, and striking in the way a writer of the macabre should be. And so because I love The Raven so much I thought it time to go back to this lovely poem and see if I couldn’t impart some of my own impressions of the poem.
As usual I like to go against the grain of what is shoveled to students in the United States, particularly in grade schools. Poe’s great poem is often taught as simply a reaction to the death of his wife Virginia. And yes for the record she was his cousin and she was 13, all I can offer the mutually repulsed reader/viewer is that it was a different time period and social paradigms governing relationships were different. In my reading of Poe, along with my reading of scholarship on the man’s work, this perception has changed dramatically. The Raven’s “Nevermore” is not just a creepy word that reminds the nameless narrator of the death of his wife, it’s a reminder of the real implication of her death. Poe in his life had lost not just his wife but also his mother, his aunt, his step-mother, and perhaps most damaging of all to his mind his psyche. Poe’s life was rather tragic and anti-climactic and these deaths, combined with his alcoholism and gambling problems, Poe’s life was one of near constant loss.
When we lose our loved ones we’re not just sad that they died, we’re sad that we’ll never be able to speak to them again. We’ll never hear them laugh, we’ll never hear another joke, we’ll never be able to ask them advice again, and this absence is what drives the mourning process. Poe’s poem is a brilliant work that explores the depths of mourning for at the beginning entrance of the bird the narrator tries to laugh off the word “Nevermore” with an anecdote, but by the end of the poem the narrator has sunk into the gloomy depths of despair.
This video is also an attempt to dig into the actual composition and arrangement of the poem, an idea which was also never taught to me growing up. I didn’t get a chance to include it in the video but in The Philosophy of Composition, the essay where Poe explains his process of writing the poem, Poe explains part of his creative vision was not to write one single poem, but in fact, because the poem is so large, to write a series of poems that create an overall effect on the reader. This is an interesting idea, especially when you remember that Poe steadily builds the “Nevermore” as a mocking tool against the narrator to eventually create the tremendously feeling of sadness which takes hold of him.
The Raven is a poem that I believe is largely misunderstood. It’s not just a story about a creepy bird to a man who’s lost his wife. In fact the poem is about the haunting quality of loss and how it can consume us and sometimes even drive us to madness.
The books used in this video are:
Poe: Poetry and Tales edited by Patrick F. Quinn (Library of America)
Poe: Essays and Reviews edited by G.R. Thompson (Library of America)
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allen Poe edited by Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge University Press)
The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman (William Marrow)
If you have any questions, suggestions for books or works you would like to see me review, or if you would like any recommendations for books to read (lord knows I’ve got enough) please feel free to leave a comment below.
Thank you for watching.
Joshua Jammer Smith
TO WATCH THE VIDEO FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW:
Jammer Talks About
80s, Anti-Hero, Assault on Precinct 13, Boogeyman, Butcher Knife, Donald Pleasence, Dr. Sam Loomis, Escape from New York, Film, film review, Friday the 13th, Halloween, horror, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, Michael Myers, Mundane Horror, Nancy Kyes, Nightmare on Elm Street, Sex in Horror Films, Slasher Film, Stephen King, Stranger Things, The Thing, Tony Moran, Virginity
I’m with Stephen King on this one. Part of my yearly tradition of Halloween is watching horror and monster movies with the family, but along with that most television stations pull out either some kind of monster movie marathon, or else they manage to scrape together some kind of “documentary” in which they get actors, comedians, directors, and pop-culture figures to offer up their opinions about the line-up the network has constructed. The usual set-up can manifest in multiple ways, whether it’s “40 Scariest Movies of all time” or “10 Best Horror Films of the 90s,” or “20 Scariest Horror Movie Characters” the point is the Network put out some kind of poll and then generated a list and then hired a bunch of people to react to it and whoever had the best reaction got on the air.
Stephen King isn’t a media whore in any way, but he’s proven he isn’t afraid to come onto shows like this and offer up his opinion. Given the fact that he’s written more books than god, and most of them are based in the horror genre, it makes sense that he appears on these shows, but what’s beautiful about the experience of sitting through these farces year after year is the fact that no matter what Stephen King always manages to produce some insightful or powerful observation that makes sitting through the three-hour crap-fest worth-while.
One of these events appeared on television some years ago, I really need to start carrying around a personal calendar notebook but that seems the kind of totem of seasoned age and I’m nowhere near that yet, yet, and in fact the entire program was about the horror genre with Stephen King offering up assessments about the movies made over the last few decades. He addressed old school monster movies, science fiction films, zombie movies, vampire movies, torture-porn, and at one point he addressed the 80s slasher films specifically the characters of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. Most of his comments about the original films were positive but he made the argument that the main problem with the films is that, over time and with every subsequent sequel, the aesthetic goal of the movie is to sympathize not so much with the victims but with the monsters performing the atrocities.
This is the distinction. When the teenagers in the first film who are about to have sex by the beach of the old lake are stabbed to death you feel sorry for them because Jason is a monster and they were just kids trying to have some fun. By the thirteenth movie those kids stop being people and instead become cattle because they’re yet another in a long line of innocent people who are too stupid to realize they’re in a Friday the 13th movie. This is important though because once you stop caring about people, and actually start enjoying watching them die a change has taken place, and not necessarily a good one.
It’s pathetic and embarrassing how much of a revelation that was to me. And looking over some of writing I realize that I experience quite a number of revelations. Still, up to that point I was still a fan of the horror genre, but the beginning of the end was happening to me, and after watching Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects this lesson became painfully clear. I couldn’t enjoy most horror films anymore because too many of them were about horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and most of the thrill was a morbid hero worship of terrible people. I noted recently when I wrote about The Shining that part of the original appeal was that Jack Torrance was some kind of anti-hero that I warmed to, but watching the film again I realize how much of a monster he is. Where before his darkness and psychosis appealed to my teenage sentiments, now he was just a madman who posed a threat to his family. And there is the problem that makes it difficult for me to warm back to the horror genre, because there are just a few truly great examples of movies where the impulse isn’t to root for the monster.
So like I said before, I’m with Stephen King on this one. Which makes writing a positive review of the 1980 film, and horror classic, Halloween, all the more puzzling.
Now before the reader interjects to ask, yes I enjoyed the Rob Zombie remake, because even if he took the character Michael Myers in a different direction, he did it in such a way that it was distinctively his vision and not just a pathetic re-make. I bring this up because there is actually a great debate on the internet as to whether or not Rob Zombie’s film is good, to which my argument is a resounding yes because it was different.
Halloween, the original now, was made for $300,000, and the script took about 10 days to write. The end result was an international success and over $70 million dollar revenues at the box office, not to mention jettisoning the career of John Carpenter who had at that time made only one other movie which was Assault on Precinct 13. The movie is about a young boy named Michael Myers who, when he is only six years old, stabs his sister to death with a knife after watching her have sex with her boyfriend. He walks out of the house where his parents find him wearing a clown mask and holding the knife. From there the movie jumps forward 15 years when Michael escapes a mental institution and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois where he finds Laurie Strode. Laurie is the original virgin heroine of the 80s who reeks of innocence and intelligence while her friends talk and even brag about their sexual escapades while often leaving Laurie in the ditch. One by one Michael kills the girls and their boyfriends until finally attacking Laurie. Dr. Sam Loomis, who has been Michael’s psychiatrist for the last 15 years, has been following him and trying to find him. He eventually finds Laurie being attacked by Michael and shoots him several times where he falls from the balcony of the house. The films ends with several shots of the house while Michael’s now iconic breathing is heard and the space where his body fell is empty.
The real fun of watching the movie, now that I’ve aged and “seen some shit,” is the exact reason King warned me about. Michael becomes the anti-hero, and by the time you’ve seen Halloween every Halloween for close to a decade you start to turn the movie into a drinking game, or else you get a nice little contact high from the fear of the person watching with you who’s never seen it and doesn’t realize Myers is totally gonna leave that dude literally hanging off the ground with the butcher knife.
But let me channel the young teenager in me who was still learning and acquiring experience, and who also had to watch the movie in spurts because that damn breathing near broke me.
The most horrific fucking thing about Michael Myers is the fact that the film is almost always shot through his eyes. His victims appear in our line of sight, going about their lives oblivious to the fact that they’re being watched or followed. The girls in the movie being the first victims because they each are “corrupted” by the filthy act of sex. The girl’s in the movie, except for sweet, loveable, and chaste Laurie, effectively established the working archetype of the ditsy, sex obsessed teenager.
One early exchange is enough to see this presentation:
Lynda: [concerning Annie] The only reason she baby sits is to have a place for…
Laurie: [realizing she had forgot something] Shit.
Annie Brackett: I have a place for *that*!
Laurie: I forgot my chemistry book.
Lynda: So who cares? I always forget my chemistry book and my math book, and my English book, and my, let’s see, my French book, and… well who needs books anyway, I don’t need books, I always forget all my books, I mean, it doesn’t really matter if you have your books or not… hey isn’t that Devon Graham?
If that isn’t enough perhaps a later scene will demonstrate what I’m talking about:
Lynda: [exposing her breasts] See anything you like?
And there it is. Now this is tame by todays horror standards because Carpenter as a director was working with a different audience. The 1980s established the “rule” in most horror films that if you had sex then you had to die. Wes Craven would rely on this trope and actually parody it, and at the same time replicate it, in his movie Scream. It’s easy though to look back at horror movies and make fun of this direction, but if I can defend Carpenter for a moment, in terms of a narrative structure this actually makes a fair amount of sense, especially given what Michael Myers becomes.
Before Rob Zombie added a psychological dimension to the character, Michael Myers was one of the big slasher-movie anti-heroes because he possessed a kind of supernatural power. Jason Vorhees was immortal and couldn’t die, Freddy Krueger attacked teenagers through their dreams, and Chucky was a Doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. These descriptions aren’t an effort to demonstrate that I have no life, but simply to establish the fact that the monsters that haunted these movies all had some kind of connection to the supernatural. It could just be because it was the 80s and the threat of nuclear annihilation made people eager to surrender their fear to an unreal, or super-real, antagonist that could strike at any time, but that still leaves Myers seemingly at first the oddball.
Myers doesn’t have super powers, he’s just a dude in a William Shatner mask stabbing people. He’s just a kid who stabbed his sister to death, my reader argues, how does that make him a threat in the same caliber as these other guys?
This is a fair objection, but a closer inspection reveals Michael Myers in fact follows the same supernatural, super-powerful persona, it’s just that he works on a more mundane level. Dr. Sam Loomis gives a powerful speech in the film which, though a bit theatrical, creates the impression of Myers as something more than a human being:
Dr. Sam Loomis: I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.
He more or less gives the same speech later much to the same effect:
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: I have a feeling that you’re way off on this.
Dr. Sam Loomis: You have the wrong feeling.
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: You’re not doing very much to prove me wrong!
Dr. Sam Loomis: What more do you need?
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: Well, it’s going to take a lot more than fancy talk to keep me up all night crawling around these bushes.
Dr. Sam Loomis: I- I- I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall – looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.
Again, this passage is easy to ignore once you’ve watched the movie around twenty times and are sick on your son’s candy. You promised yourself that you would only eat one or two pieces but then you saw they had Reese’s Pieces and it’s all a blur after that. It’s through these speeches though Dr. Loomis paints a portrait of a monster that is almost completely devoid of any humanity. But it’s not enough that a few speeches suggest the man is nothing but pure evil. Myers become a predator in the truest sense because, while Loomis is looking for Michael, he and Sheriff Leigh Brackett return to the old Myers house where the very first murder occurred and they find something:
[inside Myers’ house]
Dr. Sam Loomis: Hey… What is that?
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A dog.
[Loomis and Brackett walk next to dog]
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: It’s still warm.
Dr. Sam Loomis: He got hungry.
[referring to a partially eaten dog]
Sheriff Leigh Brackett: A man wouldn’t do that.
Dr. Sam Loomis: This isn’t a man.
A friend of mine works as a professor of Psychology at the same school I teach at, and before that he used to work in a prison system as a psychologist. We were talking at book club one night about the death of Jesse’s dog in the graphic novel Preacher, and while many of us commented on how the purposeful murder to the animal seemed unnecessarily graphic, he interrupted to share a thought. He noted that being in the system he saw some “scary” people. I put that word in quotations to emphasize his delivery not to mock him. These “scary” people you would encounter in that system usually weren’t the murderers, the rapists, or the petty offenders. Instead the people that were the most frightening were the ones who tortured animals for fun. They would usually laugh while describing torturing the pets or else be terribly calm.
This aside only seeks to illuminate a point. It takes a certain willpower to murder to torture an animal and Michael Myers does so without forethought or much pressure. The act of slaying an animal like a dog, a domestic pet to many people, is a simple act so that he can eat. It also however, in terms of the laws of movies, makes him the most despicable monster that ever lived and quite possibly worse than Hitler. I believe that’s a verbatim quote from some film critic, but it’s been a while since I read that, or thought I read it, man that was a lot of candy in that Jack o’ Lantern.
I really struggled when thinking about this essay because I’m not exactly sure how much there is to say about Carpenter’s movie once you get past the fact that it helped establish his career which would produce such wonderful movies like Escape from New York and The Thing. The film also, in its own way, helped to establish the aesthetic of Carpenter films which has been repeated by filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the most recent example however being The Duffer Brothers with their Netflix miniseries Stranger Things. Carpenter as a film maker has contributed a feeling and an atmosphere that is still being replicated or borrowed or recreated, and perhaps the reason for this is because his films are blessed with a great simplicity. Even as he would tackle a film like Escape from New York, which relied on a devastated Manhattan island for a movie location, his movies feel like they are taking place in real locations with real people who, most importantly, feel real for their setting.
Halloween then really starts this because of the domestic simplicity of Laurie, the virgin/heroine/victim of the film. At times her virgin innocence, just typing that makes me feel creepy, becomes a little galling and the viewer actually starts to hope that she’ll get laid at the end of the movie just so that she’ll stop whining about being the girl scout, but even so her real qualities as a character make the film so enjoyable to watch because you recognize that this nice girl has become the target of a supernatural monster.
Michael Myers, as he exists in the first Halloween movie, is a monster because there is no opportunity to understand why he is performing the atrocities that he is. He also seems to possess the ability to overcome physical ailment and outright assault. He is, as Laurie puts it:
Laurie: It was the boogeyman…
Dr. Sam Loomis: As a matter of fact, it was.
After this there was close to about six or seven sequels before Zombie’s remake and a sequel to that one which, even if I am an apologist for Zombie, finally killed the Halloween myth for me. After a while it just got to be too much, and as I said at the top. I’m with Stephen King. After a while the anti-hero’s journey just becomes a gratuitous exercise in morbid pornography.
Still, despite this I still hold a place in my heart for the first Halloween movie because it was one of my first intros to the horror movie genre. There were plenty of nights spent awake as every tree branch landing on the roof was Michael Myers, the boogeyman who haunted my nightmares and who reminded me that having sex in the 80s led to horrible consequences.