Strange Associations

My last post got me thinking about the films I saw alone when I was a teenager, and being that it’s October I’m also thinking about horror.

In the year 2000, I turned seventeen, which was glorious because I could see any horror movie I wanted even if the theater employees asked to see my ID. Luckily that year, The Exorcist: The Version you Never Seen was released. Much to my horror-geek shame, I had yet to see The Exorcist—all of my friends refused to watch that movie, and it was never on the shelf at the rental stores.

One Saturday, I caught the matinee. It was early enough that the theater was mostly empty, which usually was a sure-fire way for me to scare myself silly. I knew that I was going be terrified, jumping at the slightest scares and questioning why I keep watching these type of films. Yet sitting alone in the dark, I did not feel scared. I watched the film with interest. I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the special effects, but that familiar feeling of fear was not there.

Now one would think that I had finally grown old enough to no longer be scared by movies, which is obviously not true. Just last month I finally sat down and watched The Mothman Prophecies, an utterly silly film. There was one bad jump scare where Richard Gere turned over in bed to find his dead wife right next to him. I literally jumped out of my seat and yelled “Debra Messing!” (Unfortunately, there were two witnesses and apparently bad jump scares are now known as “Debra Messing” moments.)

Why, if horror films of any quality still scare me, did my first viewing of one of the best horror films ever made fail to scare me? Even then, as I exited the theater, I knew I should be frightened that the scares were tailored made for someone like me.

When I got into my car, like many teenagers, before I even buckled my seat belt, I selected which tape I would listen to on the ride home. There I found a cassette of music I was introduced to by my father. My father never particularly cared for popular music, preferring classical and instrumentals. This particular album he claimed to have played on headphones, which he then put on my mother stomach while she was pregnant me. I remember listening to it when I was little, coming up with a story that went along with each song. The album was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Yeah, that Tubular Bells.

The theme to The Exorcist, a theme, like that of Halloween, where the very sound of it makes people afraid. Yet this music, because I always associated it with happy childhood memories did not scare me. The moment that music starts playing whole audiences feel the clenching dread in their chests, but I feel safe even comforted.

One of the scariest films ever made fails to frighten me, because my father, not knowing that it was used in a horror film, shared music he liked with his daughter.

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There Is A Reason—Just Not A Profound One

When I grade a stack of student essays, I will often come across one where the student just didn’t get the material.  Their interpretation has nothing to do with the work itself, as though they had an opinion they wanted to express and they were going to do it regardless of the assignment. Rarely, however, have I seen a movie do this.

As I watched Rubber, a film directed and written by Quentin Dupieux, I felt like pulling out my red pen.  Admittedly what I am about to say has probably already been said by quite a few film critics.  Unfortunately, I ignored their warnings.

A film about a tire, named Robert, that comes to life and telekinetically explodes people’s heads seems like it would be the perfect film for me.   If it was just a silly gore-fest, the horror fan-girl in me would be happy.  If it was an art house film that resisted traditional story telling and interpretation, the pretentious academic in me would be happy.  How could I not like this movie?

I hated it, because the director did not trust his audience to understand it.  The “No Reason” monologue at the beginning of the film would get points for having a clear thesis, if it were a student essay.  Film is visual medium, and that leaves some room for interpretation by the audience.  The director runs the risk of being misunderstood, but hundreds of other directors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians have faced this possibility and still created great works without having to spell out the meaning.  Creating art is an act of trust—artists put out their ideas and emotions for the world to see and hope at least a few will understand.  However, if you have to spell it out for your audience, than maybe you need go back and look critically at your own work.

Ignoring the director’s lack of trust—the opening speech makes some major errors.  The sheriff, who is giving the monologue, asks why in E.T. is the alien brown, why in Love Story do the character fall in love, why in Oliver Stone’s JFK is the president shot, why in The Pianist is the titular character in hiding, or why in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre do the characters never go the bathroom.  He answers each question with “no reason.”  If I were grading this like a paper, I would circle the word “reason” and ask Dupieux if he meant “meaning.”  We can argue that these choices are meaningless and tell us nothing about the film or the world, which apparently is also without reason or meaning.

All the things listed in the monologue have reasons, they just don’t carry deep meaning.  To take one example from the above list, we don’t see the characters in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre go to the bathroom because it’s unnecessary for the story and would ruin the tension.  What does it mean? Nothing.

Art is not like life and is created with purpose and meaning.  When artists take up their paintbrushes or movie cameras, it is because they want to communicate something.  Sometimes it is something profound; sometimes they’re just saying those trees over there are pretty.  Art always has a reason and a meaning, even if the piece is telling us that there is no meaning in the world and shit just happens for no reason.  It is, however, a mistake to think every aspect of a piece of art carries meaning. The designer of the alien in E.T. probably had some very good reasons for making the alien brown, but this does not give the alien’s color a symbolic meaning.

Without that monologue I would have thought that Dupieux was saying that a movie is only a movie.  Much like how Rene Margritte’s painting “This is Not a Pipe” calls attention to the fact that a painting is just some pigment on a canvas in the end, it is not the object pictured. After all, the audience watching the events of the film while in the film, the sheriff pulling out the script and reading it, and the army of tires finally arriving in Hollywood seems to call attention to that fact that a movie is artifice.  Hell, even most of the opening monologue could have been to draw attention to the fact that things happen in a movie for no other reason than to move the plot forward.  Since Dupieux’s thesis connects film with real life, he seems to be saying that art like life is without reason.

Maybe I’m being obtuse and the monologue was meant to be ironic, but I doubt that.

I have to admit that I’m probably being unfair here.  The films in my queue after this one were Waiting for Godot and Hobo with a Shot Gun, which satisfied both my super ego and id.