Monday, September 27, 2010

Hands, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes

Well! This sure feels weird. Haven't been in this position in a long, long time. Blogging on my "PB," personal blog, that is. But I am not, thankfully, on my "hands and knees," like, say all of the desperate and lonely and dangerously repressed employees of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, that fictional Manhattan start-up ad agency that occupies the fourth season of AMC's critically-acclaimed adult drama Mad Men.

But yes, of course, it's an immensely weird position for me to be writing about said people finding themselves in a bitterly familiar position, not in the least because I'm choosing to jump back into the game awkwardly, toward the tail-end of my favorite show's fourth season, and with little in the way of convincing rationale other than "I feel like it," or perhaps, more apropos, "It felt right."

This feeling of rightness, however, is very different from the feeling of "Everything's going to be okay," or "Everything's fine," or the the "thumbs up" symbols that are deployed by various characters (ok, specifially, Don, Don, and Roger, respectively -- although of course Betty and Henry motherfucking Francis and Joan get their own variations) in this increasingly tense, harrowing, emotionally riveting eleventh episode, "Hands and Knees."

Indeed, whereas I feel geniuenely glad to be writing here again -- motivated to write again about something I've seen up on a screen -- if just a tad unsure about my pacing and footing (more of a general direction thing, itself a familiar feeling), the sad, wounded and greiving souls on Mad Men are only doing what Don did in episode 1, season 1, as my friend Rosy Minded Fuzzball was so quick and correct to point out -- that is, selling themselves a set of commercial taglines of reassurance, soothing acceptance and managability, all of them entirely false, of course, given how eminently FUCKED the firm is at this juncture, thanks to various overlapping conflicts and conflicts-of-interest.

But really, the ultimate irony is that, at least for the men of SCDP, the whole goal at this point is to keep the rickety, sinking ship of the firm afloat using whatever frantic, bucket or hand-draining method they've got (although it could of course be argued that Don's ultimate goal is self-preservation, but the firm's basically an intergal part of that, so, I rest my case). It shouldn't and cannot be an easy goal, to be certain, but it shouldn't have ever come to the dire straights that its in right now -- to the point at which basically only a miraculous, highly unlikely Hail Mary by Roger is the last hope.

That being said, Lane is all-but checked out as a character. I think that his literal crumpling to his father's will is a sign that family is and will always be the most important thing in his life. As poisionous as it is for his own self-worth and self-respect, its still seems to be better than work, and offers more possibilities for redemption. So maybe I should retract my statement, or at least revise it -- Not all the men at SCDP are ultimately concerned with the firm's survival -- or maybe they are, and Lane doesn't count, since he's such a pushover...

Still, it was nice to see the lately-strangely successful and even, dare I say it, noble Pete Campbell back to his slithery old bitchface ways, especially when dishing about Don on the couch to his pregnant, propping himself as the model of honesty when A) Discussing his fellow partner and former boss's situation in cryptic terms to his wife, but not-so cryptic as to convey the fact that he was digustingly displeased with someone B) for said someone's lack of honesty when in fact C) it was the speaker himself, the entitled little rich bastard Campbell who committed perhaps the ultimate act of dishonest betrayal, and has managed to escape the consequences of his actions entirely only thanks to the patient discrection of his colleague/collaborator/victim, Peggy Olson, the mother of his bastard son. (Although it should certainly be noted that Peggy's discretion was eminently selfish and immoral in its own right, and that in truth, the only truly innocent victim is the little boy that was born of their deliciously sordid union).

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I think, looking at the clock hands at this hour, that's time to get to the real point of this post, which is a compilation, what we in the biz call a "listicle," of all of the instances this show's title applied to, literal, metaphorical or otherwise. And, this being an episode all about the power (or lack thereof) of the palms to make things happen, of course I'm going to stretch the theme as far as I can. Comment if you want to add more, and I'll be happy to join them to the following list.


1. Don literally has his hands on knees when he thinks he's having a heart attack after seeing the two men mulling around outside his apartment. He also presumably is on his hands and knees when puking into the bathroom shortly thereafter.

2. Lane Price literally on his hands and knees when his bitterly-old codger of a Father whacks him in the face with his (the father's) cane, drawing blood, then process to crush Lane's knuckles with his toe, all of which finally has the effect of convincing Lane (who had up-until that point been doing well on a personal growth level, not only dating across color lines as we so clearly saw in this episode [although that too seemed to be more of a kinky fetish, in retrospect, than real genuine emotional connection, given how easily he caved and elected to leave his African American girlfriend behind] but also business-wise, occupying a more confident and senior position within the firm) to finally return to England to kowtow and make amends with the assuredly vindictive Mrs. Price.

3. Roger begging Lee Garner Jr. first not to close the Lucky Strike account, then to avoid withdrawing it for at least 30 days, to which Lee finally consents.

4. Don begging basically everyone (WELL wait, specifically and notably just Pete and the three women who now know his secret [identity]: Betty Draper Francis [like how her surname is finally being buzzed into Don's office?], Faye Miller [his new squeeze], and to far-lesser extent, Megan [his witless secretary]*) to keep it on the D/L while the G-Men are rolling around.

5. Believe Pete Campbell made a line to the effect of him chasing North American Aviation hand-over-foot for the past three years when he was arguing with Don about the proposed coverup.

6. Pete Campbell lying during the partner's meeting to cover up for Don, telling the partners that he begged North American Aviation to accept his apologies about mixing up the made-up general's name on the documents, but that they were inconsolable.

7. Roger yelling at Pete, lambasting him for failing to wait on NAA hand and foot, or, in his colorful language, "giving them a handjob."

8. Think that Trudy felt her and Pete's kid turn over, kick with his feet, probably on his hands and needs inside the womb...

9. Could read into Joan's conspicuous refusal to get on her hands and knees and pray about her abortion, though she did sort of immediately beg Roger to take care of it. Yet, at the same time, we have no proof that she went through with it, especially following the shamefully awkward encounter with the 32 year old mother of the 17 year old girl getting the abortion in the waiting room of the clinic. Note that that woman had trouble using her hands to get stuff out of her purse and pick up the magazine (flashbacks to Betty, S1, anyone?)

10. The bunnies, namely Lane's "Chocolate Bunny," doing the famous serving-dip by bending at the knees.

11. Don getting blown in a cab by Bethany, presumably on her hands and knees...oh wait, that was two episodes ago, sorrys.

* At this point, most of the women Don has fucked (or, to be fairer, carried on longer-term affairs with) know his secret, or at least that he has one, including Rachel Menken, Betty Draper Francis, Bobby, Faye. Conspicuously, in this season, several know his secret whom he's not fucked, including the dearly-departed Anna ("The Real Mrs.") Draper's niece, Stephanie, and of course, Meghan, on whom the episode closed to the tune of the Beatles "Do You Want to Know a Secret."

What this means is anyone's guess. Rosy Minded thinks its zeitgeisty inspiration. At first I thought/feared it was Don eyeing Megan as a liberating, revitalizing fuck, following his close encounter with Uncle Sam, but of course I quickly dismissed that as none-too-subtle. Now, I'm thinking the look that crossed his face was one of renewed concern knowing that (especially after Faye just departed the room with his secret in tow) his secret, or the knowledge that he has something to hide, is getting a bit-too widely disseminated. Ah well, guess we'll find out. Or won't we?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dat New New

Dear reader,

Good evening. How are you? Sentimental, I presume? Dec 31st--It's easy for people to get sentimental around this time of year. The traditions of the holiday season encourage as much, be they the earnest appeals of spiritual leaders and loved ones to our better natures or the shameless marketing ploys by engines of commerce (and really, who can reliably tell the difference, anyway?).

On that latter note, I've observed that cynicism is also an especially popular sentiment during such times. I'm sure you've heard your fair share of the denigration of Christmas and gift-giving as nothing more than the hollow gestures of affection demanded by a society built on conspicuous consumption. New Year's too, gets a bum rap sometimes for being ultimately an over-hyped occasion for mass, socially-condoned substance abuse and orgiastic behavior that in the best case, provides only the most fleeting of pleasures.

I hear that view and I understand it to a degree, I really do. I hate walking around the mall like a zombie, desperately wracking my brain for any tiny granule of inspiration that will lead me to the least shitty, affordable thing that I could possibly purchase for my loved ones that I haven't already given them at some point in the past. I hate the typically testy scramble to figure out New Year's plans that don't cut someone important out, don't involve standing around out in the freezing weather for too long, and aren't basically a re-hash of getting drunk at a friends house in high school.

But at the same time, c'mon: Those tasks aren't so bad. They don't take up much of my time, and I doubt they take up much of yours. And aren't all pleasures essentially fleeting, anyway? All the ones I've enjoyed seem to be at least. Fuck if I'm not going to get sentimental about the people I shared them with, wherever they be now.

The year is 2009--the last year of the first decade of the 21st century--or a few moments longer! And however unrealistic it is, I hope that everyone has a chance to enjoy this time while it lasts. I am especially grateful for all the incredible opportunities I've had these years and the people that have been there along the way. I've been more fortunate than most, and I haven't given back nearly enough, not anywhere close to what I've received.

And Christ, we haven't even gotten to my transgressions! If I slighted you at all, I hope you know how sorry I am. I hate myself for causing any harm to you, and I don't ever want to behave in that way again. Whatever foolish reason I had for acting in the way that I did, it wasn't worth it.

You have much to teach me and the world, and I hope that going forward, especially if it hasn't happened already, that you will be recognized and respected and cherished for being here with all of us. I hope that even when things don't go according to your plans, as they are loathe to do, you will still find happiness, satisfaction and meaning, perhaps more through adversity, although again, it'd be nice if some stuff just worked and came easy.

More than this, I hope that however the last years were for you, you're looking forward to 2010. Why shouldn't you be? Especially because, according to the decade summaries and analysis-pieces in the mainstream media, the first 10 revolutions around the sun of the 21st century were a real bust, perhaps the worst 10 ever (…or at least as far back as the Baby Boomers can remember). You know why of course--it's all the usual suspects; terrorism, war, greed, pollution, natural disasters, celebrity culture, reality TV. A general shift in society away from the simple common courtesy that used to guide human interaction, an abandonment of the human decency of years' past. It's the "good old days," scenario has been thrown at every up-and-coming generation of youths by their forbears. Others talented individuals have written about how tired and futile this argument is, and I fully agree.

But I do think there is something to be said for knowing where we came from; all the unsung hard work and sacrifice and yes, even the hell of a lot of bad ideas that have gone into making the world what is today. It's an endemically imperfect world of course, and it will likely always be. But it is also so full of life and passion and possibility, I can't help but be overcome with gratitude to those who made it so. Every (other) time I stop and think about it, I am moved by all that has lead up to this very moment, and I long for what comes next.

Sure sure, the next decade will be filled with really unfortunate, unwelcome, unforeseen twists that will fuck a lot of things up. People will continue to suffer miserably. People that don't deserve to die will. But I also think that the coming years will be filled with unprecedented accomplishment, incredible progress, and awe-inspiring, life-affirming, bone-chillingly crazy innovation. Lest we forget, the century is young! It's been a wild, unruly, undisciplined child so far, but sometimes those kids turn out to be the brightest minds, the true revolutionists, the luminaries. She's just learning, so give her a chance, will ya?

It will be worth it to stick around and see it all go down, I have no doubt. I'll do my damnedest to make sure I can be there, and I hope you will too, but in the end, its not really up to us now, is it? So cheers motherfuckers. A toast to whatever connection, however circumstantial or providential, has brought you to this gleaming pile of mind-vomit. And now, for a second round expulsion of malformed cliches: See you on the flip-side. God Bless America. God Bless the Globe. God Bless Us All, Even My Atheist Friends. Hail Satan! Hail Santa! XX OO

Love always,
Your pal,

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Best Part of Believe Is Belie

When viewed primarily as a horror film about a modern-day demon possession, Paranormal Activity is satisfactorily thrilling. It is not exceptionally novel; nor could it be--not in the post-Blair Witch, post-Cloverfield era--but it is inventive and engaging enough on its own merits to warrant the $9 or $10 dollars of admission the recession-weary, Halloween-seasoned adult filmgoer will likely hand over.

To the credit of the director and the ultra-slim cast-turned-crew involved, the film consistently achieves a tone of impending, genuinely disturbing disaster. It is an escalating tone of hysteria that one too often expects of, but fails to find in horror films: a tone that begins measured and allows for sufficient levity along the dark, twisting, path of increasing psychological unease; with choice moments of comic relief, and at least one or two self-reflexive references to the inherent foolishness of the situation, all while staying well clear of obvious parody. (More inter-genre comparisons to follow below)

It's a first-rate directing job by newcomer Oren Peli, a former video game programmer who was, according to the IMDB boards, responsible for some super old-school stuff and the 1998 NFL Blitz-wannabe NFL Xtreme. Sufficed to say he has probably, hopefully, found his true calling with this movie. It is an enormous accomplishment to have created, as your first film, a work that is so broadly acclaimed, that has received enormous credit on all three primary fronts: commercial, critical, and indie--not to mention the fact that is falls in such an easily-dismissed genre. It will be especially difficult for him to follow up on such a culturally resonant movie even with the fuller budget and higher-production value that his next film has been allotted, but make no mistake, he's riding on a wave of goodwill right now, and well deserved it is.

According to interviews he's given, Peli's inspiration for Paranormal Activity came about when he moved into his first house from an apartment. The would-be director's imagination soon got the better of him, and he became suspicious of the unfamiliar noises he was hearing throughout the house at night, regular moans and creeks and wind and the ordinary big house noises, accented by the relative quiet of his suburban neighborhood and his unfamiliarity with the situation.. As he is quoted by Cinematical: " That's kind of what made me think how I would go about trying to figure out what's going on and being the techno-geek that I am, my initial inclination would be to get video cameras and set them up around the house to see what was going on. I didn't actually go ahead and do that, but that's what started making me think how freaky it would be if you had cameras running at home while you sleep and actually did catch something."

Thus, the premise that the movie--or the way it is being marketed, that it is instrumentally about demon-possession--is challenged, compounded by Peli's admission that it stemmed from his idea to construct a kind of CCTV security feed in his own home. The conception of the supernatural source behind the noises came about after Peli thought of setting up cameras everywhere.

The film's male-lead, Micah (pronounced Meeka, named for the actor who portrays him) is probably read by some audience members as a director-surrogate anyway, but that the film literally begins with the director's first thought should serve to highlight the similarity further.

The basic idea behind the surveillance experiment itself can be-read several ways:
Either Micah is compunding his girlfriend Katie's (and later his anxieties) by creating a de-facto "reality show" within their own home, replete with narcissistic self-examination and over-dramatization of otherwise mundane activities, which the liberal use of the camera for non-surveillance purposes would suggest.

OR he is using Kate's anxiety as an excuse to gain what he perceives to be more control over his "domain, Katie, which is evidenced by his reluctance to turn to outsiders for help and his possessive comments in the film, e.g. 'This is my house, you're my girlfriend, I'm gonna deal with this,'

OR he is adopting a position of modern, skeptical, quasi-scientific arrogance (indicated by his reliance on technology and the various pseudo-scientific experiments he conducts) in an attempt first to disprove, then later fight, an ancient, undeniably powerful supernatural entity.

OR some combination of the above, which you patient reader have probably already concluded on your own.

The second-to-last point is of special interest to me--One of the most persistent questions I found himself asking as the film drew to its close was why didn't Katie or Micah get ahold of a priest? Where was Father Damien?

The question is too-readily and unsatisfactorily brushed away by deferring to the two psychic-professionals in the film, one who appears on-screen twice and the other who is only mentioned. Of course, neither of these individuals proves particularly helpful, which would seem to support my initial conclusion that our doomed couple are atheists, equating organized religion to parapsychology: why turn to a priest why a psychic couldn't get the job done?

But as I mentioned to my friend Niraj, if our heroes are supposed to be modernists, then they would undoubtedly be acquainted with The Exorcist, or less probably Constantine (Hellblazer), or any number of other pop-cultural references to demon exorcisms wherein Christian religious rites prove at least moderately effective in dispelling demons. Few things bother me as much in movies as when characters conspicuously display lack of cinematic knowledge of the very genre used to categorize their own story. It is especially prominent in zombie films, very few of which even contain the term "zombie" at all. (Shaun of the Dead famously spoofed this tradition.)

Even if the characters are meant to be anti-religious, one would think that their worsening paranormal experiences would finally compel them to reconsider the merits of a man (or woman) of the cloth, or of any organized religious tradition for that matter. Plus, one of the film's penultimate scenes prominently features Katie clutching that overtly Christian symbol and exorcist-tool, the crucifix, indicating exactly the kind of desperate appeal to the protectorate-God I have been advocating.

Let's assume the movie isn't nominally an existential crisis or crisis-of-faith though. Accepting the miniscule budget, Paranormal Activity is not your standard horror-fare, to be certain. The obnoxious hyperactive, jump-cut editing of many modern horror successes (and I implicate the excellent High Tension alongside the atrocious Saw franchise in this regard) is nowhere to be found. But it doesn't exhibit much of the mythology of The Exorcist either, which Peli also cites as an inspiration, or even that of it's modern cousins The Blair Witch or Cloverfield, although it shares their shaky (some [old people] find it nauseating) camera-work.

Most useful to me is the fairly transparent but perhaps overlooked comparison to Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, another movie about a demon pursuing a young woman's soul that came out in theaters earlier this year only to be forgotten all-too quickly.

Now, I'm not the biggest Sam Raimi fan, but I am a vocal defender of the guy's talents. I am proud to say I loved The Quick and The Dead and Spiderman 3, so maybe an uber-fan designation is warranted.

That being said, I wasn't particularly excited for Drag Me to Hell, and the film about met my expectations. But one thing the film did well is something Raimi has been known for since his earliest directing days- establishing and building upon a mythology of evil. Some would argue that it is the actually same meta-mythology across all his films, or at least all of his horror pictures; a mythology where possession, dehumanization, physical deformity and general mortal peril occur with startling regularity.

If that's the case Drag Me to Hell certainly ticks most of, if not all the boxes: The film begins with a seemingly bizarre but undeniably thrilling flashback in which we are first introduced to the film's antagonist, the Lamia. Later revealed to be a goat-like demon, the dark presence of the Lamia is immediately established as a powerful, capable threat; literally pulling its first victim, a small boy, through fissures in the earth down into a fiery hell. After the film's heroine is cursed with the demon, she desires the help of a psychic, much to the chagrin of her skeptical, philosophy professor boyfriend.

It's easy to draw the parallel here to Paranormal Activity, and tempting to go even further still: equating the message of both films as some sort of post-feminist critique of modern heterosexual relationships in which the woman feels so trapped by her surroundings, obligations and her patronizing mate that she is literally driven to a self-destructive mental breakdown. It is an undoubtedly interesting thought, and one that could warrant it's own blog post, but I'll spare you and leave that up to a more capable writer.

What I'm trying to get at it is that Drag Me To Hell exceeds Paranormal Activity in terms of it's commitment to developing a backstory, a compelling mythology. The former film's psychic, Rham Jas, is more than just a throwaway plot-mechanism; he's actually a really enigmatic guy who happens to have a lot of information and skill when it comes to battling psychic evil. Also eventually proven ineffective, his presence still makes the film more complete and in my mind, more authentic than the faux-documentarian gimmick of Paranormal Activity.

The world as most people know it, even atheists, is not irreligious. There is much folklore and superstition built up behind some of the most thoughtless of gestures, e.g. saying "bless you" when someone sneezes. Albeit, modern variants of archaic rituals don't function in the same way as they originally began, but my point is that it is a mistake not to play this up this mystical undercurrent in horror films, a point in which Drag Me to Hell actually does markedly better than most.

People make up backstories for everything in their lives. "Why the fuck did the elevator doors have to close on methis time, when I was running late to the goddamn presentation?! It must not be my day." It's called patternicity; the brain seeks to make order of arbitrariness. Especially in our reality-TV-obsessed world, the most ordinary occurrences take on a mythical quality. Everyone's relationship is Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra etc. etc. Everyone's worst day is the worst day in history, and now, more than ever they can and want to tell you about it.

But maybe this is why the demon in Paranormal Activity is so undeveloped. It's Micah's and Katie's story, after all--the story of their relationship--that should be most important to viewers. But what does it say about their story that they are so unwilling to look to others for help? To get rid of a fucking demon, no less. It's not like they have a bed bug-infestation or something. Although having experienced that myself, I might select the demon.

But there's a case to be made that the demon functions to some degree more like the shark in Jaws, as an evil presence rather than a fully-formed character. It too is both reviled and sought-after. Unlike Drag Me to Hell, where the Lamia was a clear menace from the get-go, Paranormal Activity's demon proves strangely enticing to the young couple, especially the brash Micah, who relishes baiting it, observing it, communicating with it, at least up until a certain point-of-no-return.

This, in-turn, raises a host of other spiritual questions: Why such an attraction to evil supernatural forces rather than "good?" Why would anyone entertain a dark non-entity for so long while denying even the slightest-possibility of salvation promised by the Christian faith? Or any other faith?

Perhaps that is the true dark genius of Paranormal Activity after all: the couple does believe in the presence of organized evil. The irony is that the force feeds off their belief and fear and eventually pulls itself together to horrific effect. If they were true atheists or non-believers, they'd be able to will the demon away by ignoring it, excusing it with other natural phenomena, and generallly not giving it the attention it craves. Thus, I think the movie suffers for a lack of definition when it comes to its own supernatural underpinnings.

Which leads me to my final, tantalizing observation: I think if you want to read Paranormal Activity as a metaphor for anything, it's not relationships or a lack of faith. In the vein of Requiem for a Dream, the movie really seems to be a dramatization of the dangers of chronic drug addiction. Think about it: Micah blames Katie for keeping her "demon" a "secret" from him and pulling him into her web of darkness and paranoia. Why does Katie get up so much in middle of the night? Insomnia is a common side-effect of rampant drug-use. Why is Katie so upset that Micah is filming them? Why doesn't Micah want them to "get help?" We hardly ever see them leaving the house, let alone going to work or visiting with friends. Katie's lone friend seems wain, pallid, and similarly mentally fuzzy. Could she be their dealer? The ending, of course, a tragic OD. And what about the white powder Micah throws all over the ground at one point? That's gotta be... OK-- that last one is a stretch ;-)

In Sum: A surprisingly taut, artistic and visceral film, with a disappointingly undeveloped backstory and unintellectual plot. Recommended, but with a note of caution--it can't possibly live up to it's marketing hype.