But Is It Scary?: The Conjuring (2013)

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Time for another quick horror review asking the essential question: “But is it scary?” As always, there are potential spoilers here, so read and view at your own risk.

Fear, of course, being subjective, I can only speak for myself as I review these films, games and books. It might be a great game, it might be a great movie, it might be a brilliant book, but did it scare me?

This time, I’m taking on the 2013 film The Conjuring, which earned quite a bit of positive buzz. The Conjuring is a well-crafted, very well acted straight-forward horror story, based on the supposedly true story of the Perron family, in 1971, who were haunted by a demonic entity with roots to the Salem witch trials. Ed and Maureen Warren, noted paranormal investigators, famous for their work with the Anabelle doll, who gets a cameo here, and the well-debunked Amityville house, documented the case.

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The film is a tale of both families, the large Perron family, headed by gentle Carolyn, and the Warren family, who are called to save them from demonic possession. Of the two, we spend the most time with the Perrons, although it is the Warrens who are far and away the most interesting. The film takes great pains to set up each family as likeable and normal and relatable, something at which it succeeds.

With the lionshare of the film devoted to character building, the last third feels somewhat rushed, although it doesn’t hamper the film in any significant way. It lives up to its reputation as a well-made horror film, filled with interesting characters and unnerving set pieces.

But now the question: Is it scary?

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For me, the answer was no, not really.

There are effective moments that, unfortunately, range from the too-subtle near the beginning to the too over the top at the end. There’s a huge leap in scares from “ball rolls across the floor” to “full on demonic possession,” skipping over any middle ground, and neither extreme scared me much.

Although you get the sense that there is a lot at stake, and the film is sure to impart that much, it just doesn’t provide nearly enough tension on its own sake. The most effective moments were largely imagined or anticipated scares, as opposed to actual moments from the film. While it is great that a movie can inspire you to be afraid of something that isn’t there, it left me feeling a little unsatisfied, like cotton candy.

In summation: The Conjuring — Good, yes. Scary, not quite.

Seven Days: Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring and Nakata’s Ringu

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[Largely spoiler-free, beyond public knowledge of the tropes of Ringu and knock-offs]

An urban legend. Your friends challenge you to watch a cursed video — they claim that after you watch it, you will die in seven days. Ghastly imagery. Unexplained deaths. ‘A friend of a friend knew someone who …”. Seeing reflections in mirrors that aren’t there. The confirmation phone call: “Seven days”. Distorted photographs. Pirate broadcasts. Static TV stations. A ghostly hand reaching from the TV, and a girl with long black hair and a white dress crawls from the video into your living room. Seven days.

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Before it was a trope, an icon, a phenomenon, a defining moment in horror, or even a movie, Ring was a book, a novel by Koji Suzuki. Published in 1991, Ring was not translated into English until 2003. Far from a straight-forward horror author, Suzuki specializes in works that bend the nature of reality, that take pseudo-science to its horror conclusion by questioning not merely the nature of death and the afterlife, but the laws of the universe. Like a modern day HP Lovecraft, more than a Japanese Stephen King, Suzuki’s horror comes from its cosmic scope, its implication that there is something so far beyond human understanding, that to know it is enough to be driven mad by it. This, and not a mere ghost story, is the basis of his most famous work, Ring, adapted to the screen first in 1995, but most famously in 1998 by director Hideo Nakata, then remade in the US by director Gore Verbinski in 2002. It is the 1998 Ringu that I’ll be comparing the novel to.

Most of the tropes that we most associate with The Ring — a phone call with a sadistic voice creaking, “seven days”, Sadako with long, stringy hair climbing famously from the televsion set — are entirely absent from the novel. There IS a phone call, which Asakawa surmises is a confirmation call, but there is no voice on the other end.

I actually did not like Ringu much upon first viewing (and have never seen the American Ring). I was so pleasantly surprised by Ju-On, which was so slow, creeping and genuinely disturbing, that Ringu, particularly by its end, looked somewhat pale by comparison. Although the story and character are iconic now, they are more of a joke, a representative of the J-horror trope to be gently mocked as a product of the aughts. I remember remarking that Ringu would be much better if I was unfamiliar with it, if I had no idea what to expect. It is then a testament to the strength of Suzuki’s novel that despite knowing the story and seeing the movie, it still managed to be entirely engrossing, tense and frightening.

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The book is actually significantly less violent than the average J-horror movie, and nowhere is this more clear than in the manner of death, something I thought was a now-obsolete ‘twist’ in the film. Famously, the film Ringu ends with the revelation that Sadako physically climbs from your tv set into the house, presumably to frighten you to death or menace you to death, or something — it’s not quite clear what. This was a source of much of the film’s fame, a sort of Poltergeistian portal to the restless spirit for the 2000s, but was also a small misstep. By making the television a necessary and physical part of the death, you expose a good deal of the ridiculousness of Sadako’s physical apparition. Yes, it is frightening to be confronted with a physical manifestation of the ghost girl, but beyond that, it’s not all that scary.

Unlike Kayako in Ju-On (and it’s bastardizarion The Grudge), Sadako isn’t presented as having any kind of real power, psychic or otherwise, in her physical form. Kayako was frightening because she had no physical limitation — she was everyone once she got inside of you: in your hair, in your reflection, in your bedroom window, under your bedsheets, etc. Sadako just . . . Comes out of the TV set. As many comedians since have pointed out, couldn’t you just destroy the tv? Donate it? Drop it into the dump? Hang it over a toilet? Hell, if that’s Sadako’s only weapon, then you know exactly when, where and how she will come for you — and that’s not all that scary. You must take out at least one of those certainties to instill real fear, and since the one thing that is fixed by the mythos of the Ring is the time frame — you will die exactly 7 days after watching the video — the logical thing is to remove certainty about how and where this death will strike.

Another film misstep is casting and characterization. The movie Ringu makes the somewhat bizarre decision to change the protagonist completely, and while I am in favor of having more female protagonists in films (the novel’s central characters are both men), they cast a rather charmless actor in a rather charmless role. Character is a great strength of Suzuki’s novel — the two primary ‘heroes’ are distinct, strong, dogged, deeply flawed, and ultimately likeable. The central character of Ringu, gender-swapped Asakawa, is something like a video game protagonist — she is a stand-in for the audience and dull as paste until she lapses into irritating shrieking hysterics. Revelations about the videotape and Sadako come to her easily, mostly without any effort on her part, and her interest in the case feels more casual than obsessive, as was male Asakawa’s in the novel. For him, there was a sense of his fate, specifically HIS, becoming inextricably entwined with both his sidekick Ryuji and Sadako Yamamura.

By comparison, the plight of the heroine Asakawa in Ringu feels accidental and haphazard. The bizarre decision to make Asakawa Ryuji’s ex-wife adds nothing to the plot, nothing to the character, and in fact neuters the single best non-Sadako character of the book. Ryuji was such a powerful, conflicted, and at times repulsive character in the novel (openly boasts about committing serial rape, although whether this is true or a product of his conflicted personality and impotence is called into question), is fairly vanilla in the film. He shows none of the character of the written Ryuji, and I had to wonder why the primary characters were shot in the feet and given bland personalities, rather than simply copying down the excellent dialogue and chemistry of the novel. The films adds other ridiculous changes that do nothing but muddle the story. Much of the novel’s power is in its streamlined elegance and adding in irrelevant facts and explanations (while bizarrely removing some of the more chilling moments) just muddies the water. One particular change — giving Ryuji psychic abilities — was so unnecessary and gobsmackingly stupid that it actually pissed me off.

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Both novel and film begin to falter in the climax, which takes far too long for something which is ultimately pretty dull. The novel remedies this successfully by relying, once again, on its strong central characters, something the film cannot do.

Most unfortunately, Ringu even dampers the infamous Sadako who is not a monster in Suzuki’s Ring. She is deeply sympathetic, even perhaps unwilling. Someone and something of strange beauty and unknown power, as much a levelling force of nature as the tsunami that hampers the protagonists journey towards the end of the story. The Sadako of Ringu, and subsequent iterations of the story, of course very much IS a monster — devoid of the beauty and charm that the novel takes time to set up as her essential qualities.

There are twists in the book that are absent from the film — some of the most profoundly chilling moments and revelations are absent. More than the simple twists however, the book is brilliant at ratcheting suspense and horror, in a way that Ringu is unable to accomplish. This could be down to better writing, better characterization, better pacing, or all of the above, but it make for an incredibly fun and tense read. Even if you know the story, or believe you know the story, Suzuki’s Ring is well worth the read.

Suzuki’s somewhat disappointing sequel, Spiral, is significantly less interesting, but adds a new level of horror that heightens certain aspects of Ring, while unfortunately muting others. Still, the sheer simplicity, pure horror and elegance of Ring is admirable and beautiful. I devoured the novel in two days — leaving me just five short of my allotted seven. Even if you’ve seen The Ring and Ringu, and maybe particularly if you were disappointed in them, Suzuki’s novel is worth reading. It is the story of the Ring the way it was meant to be told: with elegance, tension, soul, and true, infectious, creeping horror.

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“In the middle of the black screen he thought he saw a pinpoint of light begin to flicker. It gradually expanded, jumping around to the let and right, before finally coming to rest on the left-hand side. Then it branched out, becoming a frayed bundle of lights, crawling around like worms, which finally formed themselves into words. Not the kind of captions one normally saw on film, though. These were poorly-written, as of scrawled by a white brush on jet-black paper. Somehow, though, he managed to make out what they said: WATCH UNTIL THE END.”
Koji Suzuki, Ring

New French Blog

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Hey everyone! It’s time for me to move to Paris!

I’m actually becoming the crazy expat I previously wrote about, and will be arriving in Paris later this week. That means its time to start up a second blog all about my French life living in a kitchen in Paris.

The blog is aptly titled Living In a Kitchen In Paris.

Check it out and follow it to be kept in the loop about culture shock, expat life, stupid Americans, French food, cooking, and cocktails.

And of course, subscribe to this blog for all my thoughts on movies, TV, and my fiction and poetry.

4 Things That Should Be Obvious About Raising Small Dogs (That People Still Get Wrong)

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Dogs are amazing, aren’t they? The largest dog breeds can weigh up to 290 pounds, and the smallest can be anywhere from 1 to 5 (although there are LOTS of reasons not to breed ‘teacup’ anything). They have such a vast diversity that it’s often difficult to lose track of the fact that they are all the same animal, and need to all be treated with the same set of rules.

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Unfortunately, a lot of small dog owners treat their buddies by a whole different rulebook—and the dogs pay the price. Dogs that are scared and insecure are dogs that “misbehave”—and this is precisely why the shelters of America are filled with tiny dog breeds like Chihuahuas, most of which will be put down, because their previous owners didn’t know how to treat small dogs.

If you want your small dog to be both well behaved and happy, you have to follow these four guidelines:

Rule #1: Buy them an Iron Man t-shirt

Rule #1: Buy them an Iron Man t-shirt

4. Don’t reward them for something you don’t want them to do
This goes for any dog, of course, as does all of this advice, but it’s still something people seem to particularly forget when raising small dogs. If your dog jumps onto the couch with you and begs for a potato chip, don’t give it to them. No, not even once. If your dog barks, and you think it’s adorable in one context, and try to punish him in another, the message is being entirely lost. When you reward a dog, you are always sending the message, “What you did was good; keep doing it.”

There is one area in my house where my dog gets treats. If he begs in any other part of the house, he is punished and denied what he wants. As a result, he’s respectful of my food—so much so that I can leave him near a plate of food and walk out of the room knowing that most of the time (maybe 95% of the time), he won’t touch it.

You don’t have to ‘spoil’ your small dog by giving him whatever he begs for. Spoil your dog with love and care, not treats.

3. Picking them up and holding them IS rewarding them
Building on the last point—when your small dog is doing something that you don’t want it to, and you pick it up, you are rewarding him. When you hold and cuddle your dog, you are showing affection and care (hopefully), which are positive emotions.

If your dog starts barking at another dog, and you pick him up, guess what? It temporarily solves the problem—maybe—but it reinforces your dog’s behavior. Not only that, but when you hold your dog, you’re perceived as protecting him, and reinforcing his fear about “others”.

2. Take their aggression seriously
Here’s the mistake a lot of small dog owners make: they think their small dog exhibiting bad behavior is cute. Yeah, your Chihuahua probably won’t kill that postman, but you have to act like he could. Constantly ask yourself one question: would you tolerate this behavior from a big dog? If your small dog is showing signs of aggression that would be unacceptable for, say, a Mastiff, then you MUST treat it like the serious issue it is.

It’s not about whether your dog could literally do damage to someone. An aggressive dog is far more likely to be abandoned and put down. And your little buddy could get himself hurt or even killed by picking fights he can’t possible win.

1. You have to dominate them
So what do you do instead when your dog is doing something you disapprove of? You dominate them. Dogs are pack animals, and as much as you may be tired of this Ceasar Milan Dog Whisper “be the pack leader” stuff, it’s true. You have to be the alpha dog. Dogs need an alpha dog. If there isn’t an alpha dog, your small dog will struggle to become the alpha dog. That means your small pup will suddenly have to worry about leading the pack because you don’t make them feel safe.

Here’s the thing: your dog doesn’t WANT to be the alpha dog. Your dog wants to follow a leader. If they’re scared and insecure, they will give you trouble. But you need to be the leader that will make them feel secure.

Here’s a quick gauge of your dog’s respect for your leadership: when you walk with your dog, does he look to you? If he does, it means he’s trying to gauge your reaction and attitude. Your dog should get his attitude from you. When your dog trusts you as their pack leader, they will be able to relax, knowing that they have a top dog looking out for them. That means fewer problems for you, and less stress for your dog.

There are much more in-depth guides than mine to teach you how to dominate your dog, but a huge part of it is believing in it. Embody the pack leader, express your dominance, and keep your dog happy and healthy.

My little dog still thinks he's a big dog

Your little dog definitely thinks he’s a big dog.

Good Suffering: My Frustrated Love for Hellraiser

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Sometimes I feel cursed by my love of horror.

Raised on a strict no-horror diet due to a very tightly wound anxiety disorder and an over-active, only-child’s imagination, I didn’t start watching or reading horror until adulthood. That’s an essay for another day (the three movies that started it all? Alien, The Thing, and An American Werewolf in London, of course), but it led to a voracious appetite for a particular brand of good horror that’s hard to come by.

What this is leading up to is voracious me watching, and loving. Hellraiser, by Clive Barker. I’d seen a handful of the “serial” horror flicks before—Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween (which is, at its core, really the perfect slasher movie), Friday the 13th—but none made me a fraction as excited as Hellraiser.

A part of it—a big part of it—was the fact that the only thing I’m more fascinated by than disturbing movies are disturbing movies skirting the edges of erotica. Antichrist, Videodrome, Alien, and the like, are all rooted in the knife’s edge between horror and sexuality, and the fallibility of the human body. Although all arguably better movies than Hellraiser, none of them came close to the disturbing frankness with which Hellraiser portrayed its topic.

Clive Barker - Cenobite, 1986

Clive Barker – Cenobite, 1986

This blog post isn’t a discussion of Hellraiser or its multitude of themes—enough imagery and perversity to fill textbooks of study—but instead to explore the strange and acute disappointment that the first three Hellraiser movies evoked in me.

See, the cover of Hellraiser kind of lies. The movie isn’t about Pinhead (not even yet called ‘Pinhead’, a fan’s nickname, yet, but instead ‘Lead Cenobite’), or the other Cenobites around him. The movie is about Julia and Frank—forbidden lovers, skirting the edges of death and rebirth. Frank is haunted by the Cenobites, for sure, who appear now and again and drive the plot, but the primary glut of the film is focused on the reconstruction of the desiccated Frank, who needs to feed on blood to be reborn.

It’s a great film, a five-star horror film, worthy of its immense praise. And it works, and the reason that it works is because the Cenobites, these demons of pleasure and pain slipping into our dimension at the behest of the puzzle box, are entirely unexplained and almost noble. They’re akin to Michael Myers of Halloween, or, more literarily, the Old Ones of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos—inexplicable and beyond comprehension. There was a regality about them, and a strange poise in their violence. Like the truly great, incomprehensible horrors, they were so far beyond us that they had no reason to justify themselves. They had no back story, no revenge to reap, they just were.

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But there wasn’t much of them. Which was okay—they were the icing on the cake of horrors, the gilded pins stuck in the pin cushion of the plot. I wanted more—God, I wanted so much more of them. I wanted an entire movie about these beings. Clearly, other people did too, because what we got was Hellbound, the second film in the series.

Another good film, but simultaneously a big disappointment. In the film, the Cenobites are nearly impotent, taking their other-worldly charm and replacing it with a pitiable (and not entirely explained, until the sequel) backstory. Now, they were people. And do you know what’s exciting about that? Absolutely nothing. Instead of expanding on the mythos in a way that deepened and widened their allure, the film seemed to go the opposite direction, cutting the Cenobites off at the knees (not that they wouldn’t enjoy that) and extinguishing their very real flame.

The third Hellraiser wasn’t much better. The law of diminishing returns applies doubly so to horror movies, and this film felt like a flaccid whisper of the original story. It wasn’t that it was entirely awful—there are moments of redemption—but Pinhead in particular, though taking a starring role, is split into two sides of an awful coin. His boring human side comes back to urge Female Protagonist to reign in his crazy evil side.

Crazy Evil Side, by the way, is much worse than Bald Boring Side—suddenly this regal, stoic, inexplicable being is transformed into a sort of cackling generic villain, like an S&M Freddy Krueger.

Clive Barker - Untitled AA298, 2005

Clive Barker – Untitled AA298, 2005

I’m left with an itching emptiness, a void that I want filled by terrifying awesome Cenobites. The Hellbound Heart, the (utterly brilliant) novella that started it all, is equally light on the Cenobite-goodness. What’s a fan to do?

So, here I am, finishing up Hellbound Heart and staring longingly at Hellraiser IV: Bloodlines on Netflix. Will it quench my thirst, or only dry up my throat? Only time, and good suffering, will tell.

Hellraiser-Box

Becoming an Expat: Update (Still Crazy)

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So, the last time I wrote of this process was almost a year ago now in a blog post entitled ‘Crazy’. I wrote, “I might be going crazy. I must be– it’s a crazy notion, to try to move to Paris. I’m 24, I’m just starting out in my profession, I have family here, I have a nice apartment and friends. And now I want to just give all that up to move to France? Well, yes.”

A year later, I’m still just as crazy, and, in fact, growing more crazy by the day. The process of becoming an expat isn’t simple, and there’s no clear road-map to follow. I spent an entire month just trying to get someone, anyone, to answer one question. I saved up a third of my paycheck (on good months) for something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see a return on. I said good bye to Minnesota institutions and traditions, like Minnesota State Fair, in preparation for departure. And, most of all, I battled my own inexperience and anxiety to get through.

Photo by Brittany Battles

Photo by Brittany Battles

What I accomplished in a year:
Saved just over $4,000: This sounds like a lot, but it’s actually just under half of what it recommended you bring with you when moving overseas. I’m going to have to seriously crack down and try to hit my $6,000 minimum before leaving.

Improved my French: A little. Un petit-peu. I worked with a phenomenal French tutor for close to six months, just working myself up to a liveable standard. As I will be applying to a French language school, this does not concern me nearly as much as the money situation.

Found an affordable French language program: This was the most important and, thus far, most difficult step. The online resources are haphazard at best and scammy at worst. Applying to an American institution (such as the American University of Paris) would be the easiest route but, being American, these institutions are off-the-charts expensive. I finally settled on the Cours de Civilisation Française program of the Sorbonne, which offers French language and culture studies at reasonable prices to beginners. Getting the Sorbonne to talk to me, however, was a monumental challenge– particularly with my A2 level French.

Found a vet who specializes in exporting dogs: Because I own the cutest Chihuahua in existence, I naturally need to bring him with me (and because he weighs 6 lbs, he’ll be relatively easy to keep in a Parisian 10 meter squared studio). I have a feeling that this will become more stressful as I get closer to the date, and am still trying to figure out a safe way to export him.

Set up a Campus France account: Campus France is the first step for an American looking to acquire a study visa in France, and it’s best thought of as a gauntlet you must conquer to test your dedication. Unhelpful, confusing, and sometimes downright inscrutable, if you can successfully guess what Campus France is requesting of you, you can move on to the second stage. Think of it as a pre-visa application.

Started reducing what I take in: I’ll be moving from a relatively spacious two bedroom apartment to the aforementioned 10 meter squared studio, so I can’t really be too big on ‘possessions’. I’ve already promised myself that I’ll be taking no more than five to ten books (and ten is really pushing it) and about 1/5th of my current wardrobe. I’m still trying to figure out if my beloved DVD collection is coming with me– that is the one front I’m still acquiring on. Everything else is sell, sell, sell!

Renewed my passport, got certificate of graduation, school records: All of those paperwork things that can trip you up at the last minute.

Paris!

Paris!

Whew. It doesn’t look like a whole lot, now that I think about it, but I have a plan and I’m following my timeline. With four months to go before I plan to leave (with January being the ideal arrival month in Paris) I’m in crunch time.

So, if I seem a little crazier than usual for the next four months, just remember– I don’t hate you. I just hate Campus France. [Je plaisante! S'il vous plaît approuver ma demande de visa.]

10 Images: Obayashi’s House (1977)

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A cult phenomenon in Japan that spread abroad with re-releases on Janus and Criterion, Obayashi’s 1977 fever-dream House (“Hausu”) is a delirious and delicious haunted house flick worth seeking out. Shot with every hallucinatory, purposefully unrealistic editing and special effects technique in the book, House is playful, laugh-out-loud funny, and cringe-inducingly cheesy.

The plot doesn’t matter. The characters don’t matter. The dialogue doesn’t matter. Not even the repetitive music really matters.

Just shake up a cocktail, sit back on the sofa, switch off your analytical mind, and watch the madness unfold as Obayashi plays with every cinematic trick you can think of– and then invents some more.

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Screenshot Saturday: Antiviral (2012)

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For the horror aficionado, the name Cronenberg is venerated (or despised—if you’re Robin Wood) and held in its own unique realm as the nearly sole master of the venereal body horror. That exclusivity is what drew me first to Antiviral, which caused waves in the body horror community when the trailer was revealed to be the work of Brandon Cronenberg—the king’s son.

“Venereal” is a good word for Antiviral, which begins with a disease dealer selling the herpes simplex virus, previously carried by a movie starlet, to a devoted fan. “It continues to live on in the cells of it’s host,” he promises, as a pseudo-romantic sales pitch, “For the rest of their life.”

Antiviral5

The premise/promise is simple—celebrity culture and consumption, taken to the extreme. In a future where diseases and viruses caught by celebrities are sold for a premium to devoted fans and bug collecting connoisseurs, competing virus companies patent their products and vie for A-list clientele. Celebrity steaks—the cultured muscle cells from celebrity tissue samples– are sold at deli counters, and a celebrity death or scandal causes a rush on the product for barbecues. Celebrity skin cells are cultured and sold, to be grafted onto the fan’s body, which even hyper-rational psychiatrist (legendary Malcolm MacDowell) describes as a religious experience.

Our anti-hero, Syd March, works one of the largest celebrity virus clinics, which owns the exclusive copyrights to viruses carried by blonde bombshell Hannah Geist. The words “unhealthy obsession” would probably sound contrived here, but it’s what begins to develop, as Syd pirates stolen diseases to resell on the black market and, finally, steals a mutated disease exclusive to his idol and injects himself with it.

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What follows is a twisted story of sick, hallucinatory imagery, capitalist extremes, and disease sexual politics, as the line between celebrity and product is explored, crossed, and, finally, erased. “The afterlife is getting extremely perverse,” a celebrity butcher intones, invoking the immortal Henrietta Lacks, whose real-life cancer cells are still multiplying all over the world.

Antiviral combines the best of David Cronenberg—think the hallucinations of Videodrome, the body politic of The Fly, and the sterility of Dead Ringers—with an antiseptic visual style akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. All of this is combined lovingly and twisted with a flair and faint humor all Brandon Cronenberg’s own. The ethereal, sickly Caleb Landry Jones is perfectly cast in the film, his androgynous beauty set off the classic Monroe-esque Sarah Gadon, as Geist.

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The message may not exactly be subtle, but neither was papa Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and there are a number of satisfying threads woven throughout the film, which never becomes stale or predictable. The film is visceral and, while lacking the dirty grit of the elder Cronenberg’s early work, it still feels pleasantly authentic in a time of sanitized thrillers.

Unique, aesthetically stunning, and thought-provoking, Antiviral proves a welcome introduction to, hopefully, a new Venereal Horror Master.

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Antiviral is currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

T.E. Lawrence: In Tribute of His 125th Birthday

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TE Lawrence pose

T.E. Lawrence was a 5’5″ scholar who looms large over military history. A desert chimera, and a British Sphinx, Lawrence by his very being changed the course of history.

On the 125th anniversary of his birth, my only tribute is a small selection of Lawrence’s gorgeous and quite powerful writings. These are all from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, with two selections from The Mint, where noted.

He is one of my great heroes, inspirations, and a sort of white elephant for the biographer in me– riding away into the desert, leaving only his words and images behind for me– for us– to piece together.

Happy 125th, T.E. Thank you for it all.

Lawrence

In the night my colour was unseen. I could walk as I pleased, an unconsidered Arab: and this finding myself among, but cut off from, my own kin made me strangely alone.”

“The essence of the desert was the lonely moving individual, the son of the road, apart from the world as in a grave.”

“The abstraction of the desert landscape cleansed me, and rendered my mind vacant with its superfluous greatness: a greatness achieved not by the addition of thought to its emptiness, but by its subtractions. In the weakness of earth’s life was mirrored the strength of heaven, so vast, so beautiful, so strong.”

TE-Lawrence

“Yet life and honour seemed in different categories, not able to be sold for another: and for honour, had I not lost that a year ago when I assured the Arabs that England kept her plighted word? Or was honor like the Sybil’s leaves, the more that was lost the more precious the little left? Its part equal to the whole?”

“To man-rational, wars of nationality were as much a cheat as religious wars, and nothing was worth fighting for: nor could fighting, the act of fighting, hold any need of intrinsic virtue. Life was so deliberately private that no circumstances could justify one man in laying violent hands upon another’s: though a man’s own death was his last free will, a saving grace and measure of intolerable pain.”

“The mounting together of the devoted hopes of years from near-sighted multitudes, might endow even an unwilling idol with Godhead, and strengthen It whenever men prayed silently to Him … [Yet] It might have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe; but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image.”

720px-T.E._Lawrence_With_Lawrence_in_Arabia

“Any protestation of the truth from me was called modesty, self-depreciation; and charming– for men were always fond to believe a romantic tale. It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.”

“You dreamed I came one night with this book
crying, ‘Here’s a masterpiece. Burn it.’
Well – as you please.”
Dedication of The Mint

“Such exaltation of thought, while it let adrift the spirit, and gave it license in strange airs, lost it the old patient rule over the body. The body was too coarse to feel the utmost of our sorrows and of our joys. Therefore, we abandoned it as rubbish: we left it below us to march forward, a breathing simulacrum, on its own unaided level, subject to influences from which in normal times our instincts would have shrunk.”

TE Lawrence .tanksuit

Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other.”

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.”

“‘Hullo, what the hell’s those marks? Punishment?’ ‘No, sir, more like persuasion, Sir, I think.’ Face, neck, chest, getting hot.
‘H . . . m . . . m . . . that would account for the nerves.’ His voice sounds softer. ‘Don’t put them down, Mac. Say ‘two parallel scars on ribs’. What were they, boy?’
Superficial wounds, Sir.
‘Answer my question.’
‘A barbed-wire tear, over a fence.’
The worst of telling lies naked is that the red shows all the way down.”
– R.A.F. medical inspection, The Mint

Press Any Key (poem)

Tags

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rattle

I wanted a deep root,
I summoned a high key.
I decided on a red lacquer,
And cleared just a cluster of bodies.

I hadn’t seen anything bound for glory
From my neighborhood’s fertile field,
So in fifteen months time
I discreetly checked out.

Until now, I had never said, ‘Let me see,
Wait.’
Now, seriously, I am a little disappointed.
You know I am.

But I’m a dead genius,
And a mutilated Columbian,
And a true descendent of the Big Chief,
And a viper’s nest (cleared).

A strange minute of freedom
And Security.
An ache of four-thousand fevered princes
And Mercy.

I wanted those glass windows,
I don’t think I’m the average collector.
I have not heard from the Reserve,
But I know I’m on the program.

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