Category Archives: aesthetics
(or: Footage of a Canadian Treeline in a Time of Goats and Perdition)
I watched it last night and was going to write a review entitled, “Why Snakes on a Plane is Better than The Witch” but I realized there is no comparison. Snakes on a Plane has snakes, Samuel Jackson, and a plane. The Witch has . . . the treeline and a message at the end informing the audience that it was based on actual accounts of 17th century witchcraft, making us wish they’d studied plot structure a little more closely back in the 17th century.
Oh and everybody dies except Thomasin, the ingenue, who has two expressions: dumbfounded fear and hysteria. Because, you know, there’s a witch out there who lives in a hut like Baba Yaga and likes to get dolled-up as Snow White with lip implants. But that’s neither here nor there. She’s got a veiny beast-arm with which she kills children. Sometimes shit floats in the dark. This is some serious business. It’s a witch, people. Come on, now.
I’d warn about spoilers, but it’s not possible to spoil something that has been rendered un-spoilable by stripping it down so far that the possessed family goat has more gravitas than the entire cast. Katie Dickie is a brilliant actress, reprising her nutcase mother role from Game of Thrones, but now in a bonnet. She gets three expressions: dumbfounded fear, hysteria, and maniacal hostility. William, the bewrayed, misunderstood husband, who knows a lot about scripture but who is somehow as effective in life as a suburban husband in a Lorrie Moore short story, gets two: grief-stricken and fearfully enraged.
The rest of the family—the spooky eyeliner-wearing siblings, the chickens, the brother whose sole purpose is to eventually meet the beast-arm—are plot furniture. They each get one expression: ye oulde dumbfounded fear. Maybe the chickens also get the poultry version of bitterness, since they happen to be better actors but, due to species-bias, they are relegated to supporting roles. Hollywood, man. The sickness is deep.
Overall, The Witch is a lot like the Big Alligator in the Sewer movie you go to see in the afternoon when your air-conditioning breaks down. Only Snow White isn’t that scary, the Devil isn’t very present as a supernatural menace, and the treeline is under-utilized as a character. I almost want to say that Deborah Harkness could have written a better screenplay—which is saying something, since A Discovery of Witches is one of the worst novels I’ve ever had the misfortune to attempt. Yet it seems better than this.
Where is the Devil? Out there, in the woods, right? Oh yeah, that’s the beast-arm’s function in the story. Wow. Or possibly the Devil is hiding in the fear-wilderness of the human unconscious? Sure, that works. That’s what Hawthorne gives us in “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that manages to make you feel a little more paranoid and insane every time you read it. And then there’s WGN America’s Salem, in which evil is a very real, very tangible, very transformative presence—which is what we need in a movie like this. And that is definitely what’s missing–aside from, you know, an interesting plot and characters. Hence, the superiority of Snakes on a Plane, which doesn’t even try.
You can’t rely on repeated expressions of dumbfounded fear to make the audience feel something. You can’t explain the flatness away by saying, “Well, these backward rubes were religious fanatics. So, you know, there’s your paranoia and human unconscious at work!” No. I don’t care if they were a settlement of Juggalos who fell out of a time machine. It doesn’t matter who we think they are. What matters is how rounded they are as representations of real human beings to whom we can relate.
We have to feel what the characters feel. And we can’t feel anything if all we get is constant two-dimensional dread. Put simply, in order to feel afraid we have to have the experience of not feeling afraid as well. We have to know and relate to the characters as extensions (projections) of what we feel and what we care about. But there is no balance in this film.
At the very end, when the ingenue decides to join up with the goat, who speaks like Sir Lawrence Olivier with strep throat, we think there’s going to be some big reveal, some payoff that’s going to transform all the open-and-shut dumbfounded fear into something else. Maybe Thomasin will show us something new about herself that adds depth and ultimately makes us give a damn.
Nope. She’s buck naked, floating, laughing like Janis Joplin. Roll credits. And you just wasted 93 minutes you could have spent walking through the woods of Ontario. So mote it be.
One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century: writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.
Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.
In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it–okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day–then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs / vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate *his* fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.
Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feast—a great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He *had* to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).
Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”
I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.