Monday, May 20, 2013

Wherein I Say Good Things About David Wong

“After every article like this that we publish, we're bombarded with fans screaming, "Why do you have to shit on every movie? Why can't you just sit back and enjoy it? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO OVERTHINK EVERYTHING?!?!"’

If you read these ramblings of mine, you know I tend to delve into things no one in their right mind would worry about. Just imagine what it must be like for my wife. Or my friends. Or those poor children who make the mistake of showing up at school only to find me at the front of the room.

Damn hippy. from Headhunter's Horror House
I dig deep to find beauty or intellect where it is obvious none exist (just get me started on what Jason Vorhees has in common with SwampThing, I dare you). I see terrifying implications hiding beneath simple, joyous veneers (I am still determined James and the Giant Peach is racist and nationalist in terms of characterization). I lovingly laud or vehemently victimize stuff that is supposed to be mindless fun or idiotic pap.

It isn’t just to find some justification for the insane amount of money and time on spent on a Literature degree. I promise.

It’s because I try to hold to a permutation of something Utah Phillips once said: “Anybody who told me I couldn't live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it, it would get them in serious trouble.” I know that all art contains meaning beyond the superficial, even meanings the artist never intended or that have changed with the times and those witnessing the art. I know that these

GAH! look away. from fanshare

meanings affect us, especially when we do not notice them worming their way into our subconscious. There is a reason that, for a period of time, people did not believe that African American actors without Hispanic names and blackface were “black enough” and that my wife calls Ron Perlman hideous when, in real life, he would rate a moderate non-attractive inconspicuous oldish guy. 

Through most of human history, all civilizations have taught as much through entertainment as through intentional “lessons”. Often more so. And it makes sense to do that. We get to see these things not as abstract concepts, but actual events with actual consequences. At the same time, the events and their consequences are not naturally occurring. They are scripted, molded in someone’s mind in the greater context of a culture that is molding that person’s mind. Then this is all processed in your mind, which has already been conditioned to expect and glean certain things based on your own experiences and culture. 

And I don’t like people mucking about in my brain. At least, not without keeping a close eye on them. I won’t give a
He's in my brain already, isn't he?
plumber free reign in my house, so I sure as hell won’t give Joss Whedon, Daniel Graves or Gary Braunbeck an unchecked opportunity to root through my neurons without asking a few questions, dammit!

Unsurprisingly, David Wong says that better than me, too:

“But ask yourself: Why is there that knee-jerk rejection of any effort to "overthink" pop culture? Why would you ever be afraid that looking too hard at something will ruin it? If the government built a huge, mysterious device in the middle of your town and immediately surrounded it with a fence that said, "NOTHING TO SEE HERE!" I'm pretty damned sure you wouldn't rest until you knew what the hell that was -- the fact that they don't want you to know means it can't be good.”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Brilliant, Fleshy Gems: Finding Value in Gore and the Gross Out

We’ve all read the Stephen King hierarchy: going first for terror, then horror, then, if all else fails, the gross out. It’s a too-oft spoken rule, so much so that it is taken for granted. Even in the horror community, where we certainly do love our greasy, grimy gopher guts, it’s agreed that gore and the gross out are cheap tools of shock only to be used by the talentless or when no real valuable tools can be found.

So, of course, I must disagree.

The big place, to me, where gore and the gross out find their value is in the reminder of our mortality in a basic, visceral manner. These fleshy bits. The trailing loops of intestine that spill from an opened gullet. The red and sometimes deep black blood we find floating in the toilet alongside our shit. The oozing, almond scented lesions that drip thick milk from our wounds. They only exist because we are frail things constantly on the verge of collapse. Of death. Of ceasing to be in the manner to which we are accustomed.

Worse, there is nothing logical or intellectual about the reaction of revulsion. It’s pure instinct. Our body reacts, not our minds. Maybe that is why we cheapen the experience. Even going back as far as the ancient Greeks, the activity of the mind was always valued over the activity of the body. For an intellectual attack, we can brace ourselves. Build up barriers. Man the defenses with excuses and platitudes and religious and philosophical ideals. But our body will have none of that. It reacts violently and immediately. The deep down lizard brain takes over, cringing away or lusting for a taste. We become animals, even if only for a moment, and we really don’t like that.

Please remember the adage that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable as we move along.

But, while discomfort is a good start, it isn’t enough. What matters is what you do with the discomfort. When used well, the double G’s are what create empathy and a sense of consequence to action. I loved the old cowboy and kung fu movies that showed piles of bodies shot or chopped from their mortal coil, falling down peacefully like so many cords of wood. They were fun. The violence was there, as was the intellectual implication of death, but it meant nothing to me. It was a game where I was certain they’d get up and shake hands any moment.  

Then I saw The Wild Bunch and The Street Fighter, which showed, in lurid, lingering detail, the actual results of these actions. I saw the blood and broken bones. People moaning, clutching spilling organs to keep their insides inside. The dying slowly leaking into the dirt. Suddenly, these deaths had meaning. Were things I did not wish to have occur. Violence was given guttural consequence and I was no longer able to shield myself from the reaction. It wasn’t fun anymore.

In literary circles, you need look no further than Jack Ketchum’sThe Girl Next Door. Ketchum does not imply the horrors inflicted on the body of this poor girl. He shoves your face into them. Every raised, blistering welt. Every wound dripping blood and infected pus. The rape at the end. I wasn’t allowed to look away, to deny behind a screen of obscurity. Then, when the first person narrator and, by proxy, myself, were implicated as part of these crimes, I could not hide. The impact was devastating.

You can also look to the opening of Irreversible or the first kill of Rob Zombie’s rendition of Halloween. Both sequences take something that would generally have audiences cheering. Wondrous bits of glorified ultraviolence turned horrifying by their judicious use of gore. Both of these scenes twist that expectation of fun into an experience of the true grotesque and, in doing so, become art.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that gore and the gross out are always used well. I’ll never defend the ultimately boring instances where they are depended upon over character and story and emotional involvement. They are tools. The equivalent of twenty ton epoxy and a sledgehammer. But, sometimes those are precisely the tools you need to get the job done.