A review of The Last Jedi on Splice Today.
Tag Archives: Movies
(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.
Like most who went to college in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune of first encountering Less Than Zero and thought it was okay in a rich-kids-get-the-blues-and-make-bad-life-decisions sort of way.’ work indirectly via the movie adaptations. I rented
James Spader was simultaneously cool yet annoying. And that pretty much characterized my opinion of Ellis’ sensibility for a few years. The people he wrote about were outside my experience; though, I’d known a few self-entitled wealthy narcissists at my private high school in San Diego—daddy owned a boat and mommy took valium, that sort of thing. But what I didn’t realize was that I had been reacting to the oversimplified (maybe clichéd) Hollywood tropes that had been extracted from his writing—a serious case of lost in adaptation, particularly for Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction.
During my MFA, my professors were so determined to dismiss Ellis—I thought, mostly out of jealousy—that their vitriol actually piqued my interest. I went through everything he had out at the time—Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, The Informers, Glamorama, and Lunar Park. I read them with an eye for plot structure. I paid attention to his use of short chapters and perspective shifts. But mostly I apprenticed myself to his idiosyncratic first person voice. I think that’s his strongest stylistic quality as a fiction writer.
Consider this beginning to one of Lauren’s chapters in Rules (and note the Hemingway-esque beginning in media res via “And”):
And it’s quiet now, and over. I’m standing by Sean’s window. It’s almost morning, but still dark. It’s weird and maybe it’s my imagination but I’m positive I can hear the aria from La Wally coming from somewhere, not across the lawn since the party is over, but it might be somewhere in this house perhaps. I have my toga wrapped around me and occasionally I’ll look over and watch him sleep in the glow of his blue digital alarm clock light. I’m not tired anymore. I smoke a cigarette. A silhouette moves in another window, in another house across from this one. Somewhere a bottle breaks.
And it continues this way. The entire chapter is a long paragraph—not atypical for the novel or its predecessor, Less Than Zero. The speaker’s voice—her tone, how she frames her perceptions in words—shows more about who she is than what may or may not be taking place in the physical setting. Just as each voice-driven passage sets up a rhythm using long and short sentences to evoke the personality of the speaker, the lengths and arrangement of the chapters does the same thing on a larger scale. By the end, we realize that the novel works not only because the main characters (speakers) have fully formed implicit arcs, but also because the novel itself has a vocal arc. Rules weaves each of the character arcs together to push beyond their particular experiences and make a broad statement: this is what’s happening to your children, America. Or, maybe, this is what happens when you give your child a gold card and send her off to college.
The broad message is what it is: disaffected youth with too many resources, upper-class dry rot. We can watch any movie about the idle rich and enjoy the cliché of the vacuous aristocrat. In my opinion, those things are less important than what we can learn by paying attention to Ellis’ writing style. He has been put down for having a trite, narrow message (and for his off-color comments on social networks and the media), but I think we definitely miss out on what’s great about his work if we let those things take precedence over the writing itself. When I want to solve a problem using voice and I don’t know how to do it, he is one of my teachers.