The Horror of Pygmalion

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Pygmalion ed Galatee by Jean-Leon Gerome

Recently, I watched three movies, Ruby Sparks, Ex Machina, and Phoenix, that reminded me of the Pygmalion myth. The story of Pygmalion seems to stick out from the rest of the Greco-Roman myths due to its lack of violence. A sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite answers his prayers and turns the statue into a woman, Galatea, whom Pygmalion then marries. It seems like a sweet story, until you start wondering what Galatea thinks of the whole thing. What if she didn’t like Pygmalion? Does she have any free will, or is she just a thing to please him? While she was turned from a statue to a woman, she never turns from an object to a subject. She is still a thing that Pygmalion created and owns, but now he can have sex with her without disgusting his friends and neighbors.

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Movie Poster for Ruby Sparks

The film Ruby Sparks deals with the question of free will directly. When Calvin, the protagonist, discovers that his ideal woman, Ruby whom he is writing about in a novel, has come to life, he is freaked out and assumes he’s suffering a mental breakdown. Once he ascertains her reality and that he can change her with his writing, he stops writing. He recognizes her as a person and understands that it would be a transgression to continue to control her. Without his meddling, her personality continues to grow. She gains new interests and finds the relationship she has with Calvin smothering. As the relationship nears its natural end, he tries to fix it by changing her behavior with his writing. The moment Calvin decides to ignore her self-determination the story becomes a straight up horror story. Calvin is now an abuser, an emotional manipulator. Calvin is not aware of the gravity of his actions. He thinks that he is just fixing his relationship. The filmmakers, however, are aware that what he is doing is an act of violence. This violence leads to a climax where Calvin reveals to Ruby that he is not only her creator, but he can also control her actions. While he doesn’t physically assault her, he uses his words to trap her in the room with him. Ruby grows terrified to discover that she is at the mercy of this man and that she has been robbed of her autonomy. In his attempts to keep the relationship perfect, instead of reflecting on how his own actions affect the relationship, Calvin turns to manipulating and abusing a woman.

Ruby Sparks does a wonderful job of showing how the wish to create the prefect woman ultimately is a violent wish. What causes the problems in the relationship between Calvin and Ruby is the same thing that causes the problems between all people. They are complex and want a variety of sometimes conflicting things. When someone wishes for a perfect woman, they aren’t wishing for an actual woman, they are wishing for someone who lacks this complexity. They are wishing for a person who doesn’t present their own freewill.

Despite the wonderful job that Ruby Sparks does of deconstructing the Pygmalion myth, the ending undermines its own criticism. Calvin realizes that Ruby is a person who deserves the freedom to make her own decisions and frees her. She leaves, Calvin turns the experience into a bestselling book, and, one day in the park, he runs into her again. She doesn’t remember him, and it seems like a beginning of a new relationship. While the film makes it clear that Calvin cannot have a successful relationship until he recognizes the autonomy and freewill of women, once he does, he is still rewarded with one. Recognizing that a woman has her own will, does not guarantee anyone a relationship her.

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Ex Machina Movie Poster

The filmmakers of Ex Machina show that the act recognizing a woman’s own autonomy doesn’t guarantee a relationship. In the controversial ending of the film, Ava, the android, escapes leaving behind Caleb, the man who helped her, to die, probably slowly of dehydration or starvation. Ava’s actions seem callous and manipulative. Her escape from and murder of her creator, Nathan, is justified in the audience’s eyes. Nathan is going to reformat her memory to make a better model—an equivalent of killing her—he is holding her against her will, he has brutalized countless robots before her, he has created a sentient robot to be sex-slave (and denied that robot the ability to speak), and he is straight out creepy. When Ava and the other robot, Kyoko, murder him the audience easily accepts it as an act of self-defense, but it is harder for the audience to accept the abandonment of Caleb. After all Caleb helps rescue her, he cares about her, and he is such a nice guy.

However, Caleb becomes a much darker figure if you view him from Ava’s perspective. Ava is trapped in a room, and her captor brings a visitor that he has handpicked. The fact that Nathan chooses Caleb to trust would be enough in and of itself to make Ava suspicious. Add to that, Nathan has already explained to Ava that her survival depends on making Caleb care for her. Not in making him recognize her a sentient being, but in making Caleb romantically invested in her. The very nature of romantic feelings, and often the most frustrating part of them, is that we want something from the person who we are directing those feelings towards. There is always a bit of selfishness in romantic longing. For the object of that affection, there is the very real fear that someone will demand that those feelings be returned and that they will refuse to take no for an answer. Ava’s only interactions have been with Nathan, who illustrates the brutality that men can resort to to fulfill their desires. In comes Caleb, who, Ava has been told, will want something similar.

While the above circumstances are not Caleb’s fault, he does prove himself a voyeur. He turns on a TV and finds that it is connected to a camera monitoring Ava. Instead of being freaked out and turning it off, he watches her. He never tells her that he is watching her. In that one action, Caleb reveals that he considers her an object. He may recognize her as sentient, but he doesn’t recognize her right to privacy. It is revealed that Ava is aware of this. While she tells him that she likes the idea of him watching her, she understands that she must manipulate the situation to survive.

In the end, Ava cannot trust Caleb. He knows she is an android, and, if she displeases him, he has the power to destroy her. Caleb, while obviously not as violent as Nathan, still reveals himself to be self-serving in his wish to rescue her. Had he not been attracted to Ava, would he have stilled helped her? Maybe. Ex Machina is full of references to the “Blue Beard” fairy tale (this has been explored in more detail elsewhere). In variations of the tale, such as “The Fitcher’s Bird,” not only is the serial killing antagonist killed, but so is his friends. One is judged by the company one keeps. Very early on Ava asks Caleb if he is friends with Nathan. Caleb says yes, then demurs and says that he just met Nathan. I suspect that this is the moment where Ava could not trust Caleb. In his wish to be friends with Nathan, he reveals a wish to be like Nathan. Caleb views Ava as a perfect woman, which is why Ava could never trust him. The price of displeasing him is just too great. She has to leave him trapped, so she could go live her own imperfect life.

Both Ruby Sparks and Ex Machina are critical of the Pygmalion myth, but they still present the story through a male perspective. In Ruby Sparks we view Ruby through the eyes of the author who created her. In Ex Machina we follow Caleb and his changing view of Ava, but the audience gets very little insight into her head. This male point of view is the prospective in most films that deal with the Pygmalion myth (and most films in general). Examples range from She’s All That all the way to Vertigo. Even when critiquing the objectifying nature of the act of creating a “perfect woman,” many films are still couched in the male gaze.

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Phoenix Movie Poster

Part of what makes Phoenix stand out is that the story is told from the point of view of the woman who is being molded into the perfect one. In the film, Nelly is a holocaust survivor who has undergone facial reconstruction surgery for a disfiguring wound she suffered in the camps. She then seeks out her husband, Johnny, even though she has been warned that he is likely the one who turned her over to the Nazis. When she finds him, he sees a woman who has a striking resemblance to his own wife but not his wife. He asks her to impersonate his wife, so he can get her inheritance. Nelly, who just wants to return to her old life, plays along and says she is named Esther.

What is so striking about Phoenix is the imperfect woman and the model for perfection are the same person. The big difference is that Esther/Nelly is present and is a trauma survivor, while the past Nelly lives on in Johnny’s memory. Johnny is so caught up in his memory of who his wife was, he cannot even recognize her when she is standing before him. He’s memory becomes suspect. As he instructs Esther/Nelly on how to talk and walk like her former self, the audience is left wondering if this ideal ever really existed.

The director does a wonderful job of showing the conflict Nelly feels. She longs to return to the life she lived before the war. She mentions to a friend that part of the reason she survived was she wanted to see her husband again. She has survived and has found her husband, but she must deal with both the possibility that he turned her over to the Nazi’s and the fact that trauma has changed her so much she is no longer recognizable. She too has an idealized version of her husband, but she must come to terms with the real man she has found. Nelly must come to terms with Johnny’s likely betrayal— later in the film it is revealed that he divorced her the day before her arrest.

This idealized woman who Johnny has been trying to turn Esther/Nelly into has always been an object to him. He may have loved her, but when it came down to it he was willing to sacrifice her. Even when he is telling Esther/Nelly how to be her past self, he only reveals surface details. We are left wondering if Johnny ever saw his wife as a person.

In the end, Nelly rejects both her idealized past and her idealized version of Johnny. In a scene where Johnny arranges for them to meet with old friends, she sings a song. Johnny recognizes her voice and for the first time notices the numbers tattooed on her arm. He stops playing, but she keeps singing. Once she is finished, she walks away. Nelly needed to be recognized as herself. Now that she has that recognition, she can leave. More importantly, she has also made Johnny recognize what he has done to her. In believing that Nelly was dead, Johnny was able to keep her reduced to an object. If she is dead, he doesn’t have to worry about her showing up and making him deal with the guilt of what he has done. If she is dead, she can never contradict the memory he has of her. But as Nelly is alive, he must deal with the fact that she knows his guilt and the fact that she is not the disposable ideal that he remembered. Ultimately, Nelly is able to assert her personhood and reject the nostalgia that was so appealing to both but also objectifying.

These three films reveal how dangerous the wish for the perfect is. The thing about the ideal is it is unachievable and based on personal perspective. The Pygmalion myth is a story of a man who rejects reality for fantasy. It is not that women weren’t good enough for him, but Pygmalion was never interested in a living, breathing women in the first place. His ideal reveals his own selfishness.

Everyone is Awful

Film Poster for BreathlessA while back I watched the 1960 French film Breathless because French New Wave is thing that I know of through late night graduate student conversations in a bar. The type of conversation where you nod and keep your mouth shut in hopes that your friends won’t realize you have no clue what they’re talking about. Also, it wasn’t behind the Hulu pay wall that week. I’ll admit that I feel a bit presumptuous talking about a film that looms so large in cinema (after all my only real film credentials are that I can tell you which deaths in Friday the 13th were inspired by A Bay of Blood) but I’ve referred to War and Peace as Cluster F***: A Victory in the past, so screw it.

What struck me as I watched Breathless was how much I hated the protagonist, Michel. Throughout the film he tries to present himself as the cool film-noir anti-hero—made clear by an early scene of him staring at a poster of Humphrey Bogart—but it quickly becomes clear that he’s just playing pretend. He steals a car, finds a gun in glove compartment, and, like any child who’s found a gun, starts pointing it and pretending to shoot things. The whole stolen car and stolen gun leads to him shooting a police officer for real. We then follow Michel to Paris where we watch him break into a woman’s house, say “just like woman” when he can’t find any money, visit another woman, ask her for money, reject her offer of a lesser amount which he then steals when she’s not looking. Michel isn’t evil; he’s just a dick.

However, it was unclear to me whether the director, Jean-Luc Godard, wanted us to like Michel or not. If the director was pointing out the petty selfish reality of the characters that are romanticized in film-noir, then high-five I understood the film. However, if we were meant to sympathize with this character in midst of existential crisis and excuse his dickish behavior because ennui is hard, then I understood the film but am rather frustrated with it.

The character that really interested me, though often annoyed me, was Patricia. Throughout the film Michel pursues her, and she is the one who turns him into the cops, which results in his death. Many people see her actions as a betrayal, but I saw it as an escape. Michel tracks her down while she is working—selling newspapers—and starts pestering her in hopes of resuming their affair. Michel asks her to come to Italy with him, and she says no. He asks her to spend the night with him. She says no.  He later breaks into her house when she’s not there. At this point in the film, I was not viewing him as a love interest but as a dangerous predator. When she returns home, he’s in her bed in his underwear. At this point in the film, I want her to call the police. However, she acts nonchalant about the whole thing. He asks her to come to Italy with him again, asks her for sex, and talks about how she’s frightened of him. She tries to talk about her new poster and literature. It becomes obvious that while Michel wants her, he doesn’t particularly care about what she thinks or about her own passions. Throughout the scene, I keep yelling at my TV “call the cops!” She did not listen to me. When she confesses she’s pregnant with his child, he says something along the lines of “you should have been more careful,” which clarifies two things: he is indeed an asshole and one of the reasons that she’s been putting up with this BS is that she’s trying to figure out what to do. Unlike Michel, Patricia has ambition. She wants to be a writer and was working towards that goal: she had been given her first newspaper assignment. She is an aspiring artist, and it is Michel who stands in her way. However, even when she turns Michel in, she warns him and gives him enough time to make his escape, which he doesn’t utilize.

After watching the film, I realized that it told the story of an artist and a muse, but the genders were switched from our traditional view of that story. Patricia wants to be a writer. She talks about books, she’s starting to work as reporter, and she tells Michel that she’s going to write about him in her book. Michel is her muse, and there is nothing worse than being a muse.

If you look at famous artists and the people who are described as their muses, you’ll find that being a muse sucks. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a friend dig up his wife Elizabeth Siddal to retrieve some poems he buried with her. F. Scott Fitzgerald used extracts from Zelda Sayre’s diary without her permission. Muses can expect artists to expose their secrets in an unflattering manner, to cheat on them, and to leave them. It is an exploitative relationship by its very nature, but as a culture we praise the artist and ignore the muse. One of the most read books in United States is On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I doubt most people who read it know who Neal Cassady is.

By being a writer, an artist, Patricia has a certain power that Michel doesn’t. She make sense of her existential angst. She can use it to create something new. However, Michel can’t. He can ape the behavior of the characters he sees in films, but all he is doing is playing pretend. He can pursue his selfish pleasures, but all he does is consume. However, Patricia’s gender also makes her vulnerable. People dismiss her as pretty girl, and it is clear that Michel doesn’t even think of her as person. The pregnancy could be disastrous for her and getting abortion was illegal and dangerous at this time.

Her character is drawn to Michel not because she loves him but because he interests her. She’s mining this problematic relationship for material. If she were to give up those aspiration to run away with him to Italy, he would no longer be as attractive to her. There may be further economic angle to explore here: she states that she is being supported by her parents, so she has that bit of privilege. Michel, for his part, would probably abandon her in Italy as soon as he got bored. She stays long enough sate her curiosity and then takes the steps to insure her independence. Her behavior may be exploitative but so is his.

I suspect my reading of the film is not the one that Goddard intended. This film is one where many people seem to see the protagonist as cool and see his behavior as a rejection of some status quo. However, I cannot romanticize anyone in it.  The protagonist who is bored with society is a selfish kid aping the characters he sees in the movies. The woman he wants has life that doesn’t revolve around him, but he fails to acknowledge that. The artist uses the muse, then gets rid of him. Everyone is pretty awful, all things considered.

In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.

The Optimistic Zombie

If you watch enough horror movies (or read enough critical essays on them), you will discover the certain fears are connected to certain monsters. The werewolf represent the fear of the monster within, the vampire represents the fear of sexuality (often mixed with xenophobia), the witch represents the fear of women, and the giant mutated monster represents the fear of nuclear war. What zombies represent at first seems obvious, but on closer examination always proves more complicated. Often critics focus on the undead horde and find that zombies represent rampant materialism, opposing political parties, any type of outsiders, and the idiocy of the mob. Yet when you take a closer look, what usually led to the death of the majority of the characters was their own actions—the small group that they were a part of disintegrates due to egotism and mistrust. We see this from the original Night of the Living Dead to the remake of the Dawn of the Dead. The dead can be kept at bay, but what will kill you is the petty squabbles among the group.

Recently, I watched Cockneys vs Zombies, and found that it had a strangely positive outlook. In the film the zombies represent the gentrification of London’s East Side, and our survivor group consists of a grandfather, his three adult grandchildren, senior citizens from his retirement community, and a hostage (the grandchildren were robbing a bank to save the grandfather’s retirement home when the zombie plague hit). Altogether, it is a fun film with a lot of clever dialogue and some silly moments. It’s also a surprisingly optimistic film that asserts the importance of family. All the characters who are out for themselves get their comeuppance, but those who remember the importance of family survive. The film is not perfect: there is a Stockholm Syndrome love story and an unintentional undertone of xenophobia. Yet for a movie where corpses eat the flesh of the living, it has rather happy ending.

The thing that struck me as odd was that I’ve been seeing a lot of these optimistic zombie fictions. Zombieland is the most obvious—where the survivors, although strangers at the beginning of the film, become a close-knit family group. By the end of the film, Zombieland assures us that even if we don’t have a traditional family to rely on, we can create one through friends. Another example is the book World War Z, which I’ve discussed before, that suggests the human race can pull together and overcome something as impossible as cannibalistic corpses. Perhaps one the most moving examples is the short film Cargo, which, while quite sad, still celebrates the nobility of the human spirit. (If you haven’t seen Cargo you should watch it here. Right now!).  I suspect that this trend all started with Shaun of the Dead, which still has a lot of the traditional aspects of a zombie film: only two of the main characters survive. Despite all these deaths, Shaun learns how to take responsibility, and he and his girlfriend are going to be all right, even well-adjusted, after facing the hungry dead.

Considering my own proclivity for pessimism, I’m amazed that the most nihilistic of monster films have become optimistic. We once needed these monsters to tell us that society, no matter how small, was doomed to collapse, but now we need to be reminded that we can overcome impossible odds. At first, I want to say that this is the way with all monsters: The Wolf Man to 1985’s Teen Wolf or Dracula to (shudder) Twilight. The more we get to know a monster the less scary they seem. Still I wonder if maybe the shift in Zombie fiction reveals a deeper problem—that we need to be reminded that even in the most terrible situations there is still hope.

An Incongruity in Taste

I’ve recently recognized an incongruity in my tastes with regards to movies and books. I love retellings of fairy tales and classic literature, but rather despise the current remake culture of TV and film.

Now fairy tales and folklore already lend themselves to retellings, since they originated in an oral tradition and had to, by its very nature, go through different transformations as the story passed from teller to teller. Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, and Neil Gaiman may, at the outset, appear to be radically changing the stories they’re retelling, but on closer inspection they’re doing what storytellers in the oral tradition have always done: changing the story to fit the needs of the audience. These writers, among many more, look to older stories for possibilities. They ask “what if this had happened instead,” “what if we saw the story from another point of view,” or “what other things may have been going on behind the scenes?” Even films like Snow White: A Tale of Terror and the guilty pleasure Hansel and Gretel  Witch Hunters similarly explore the older material.

I enjoy when classic literature is similarly explored. Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea does a wonderful job of exploring the back-story of the mad wife that Rochester kept locked in his attic in Jane Eyre. Alan Moore in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not to be confused with the abomination of the movie adaptation) does a wonderful job exploring the possibility of a world where all our favorite Victorian science fiction and horror stories simultaneously exist. I love Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, a novel that retells Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the point of view of the titular character.

If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll probably notice that I also retell older stories. For instance, my two poem, “Lucy’s Plea” and “Lucy’s Reunion with an Ex,” which have recently been published by the awesome Versus Literary Journal (didn’t I work that self-advertisement in smoothly), deal with Lucy Westenra’s point of view on the events of Dracula. As the more sexual woman who is quickly killed off, she is the character who is most often overlooked or written out of the story. I thought it would be fun to explore her thoughts, even if I had to change some things from the story for her to speak.

Considering how much I love these retellings, you wouldn’t think I’d be completely filled with rage at the NBC’s upcoming Dracula television series, but I am. Maybe I being a bit unfair, since I’ve yet to see the actual show and my opinion is  based on the below ad.

This show seems to be expanding the Dracula universe in a “what if” direction, not something I normally oppose. Mainly what bothers me is if I didn’t recognize the names Renfield, Jonathan Harker, and Mina Murray, I would have never connected it to Dracula beyond “Oh it has vampires and takes place in Victorian England too.” What otherwise would have appeared to be an original story, now has the brand recognition of Dracula.

On the other hand, if we looked at The Dracula Tape, we see Saberhagen’s obvious love for the source material. While reading, and probably rereading, Dracula, Saberhagen noticed that a narrative structured as the characters’ letters and journals naturally has questionable reliability. He also noticed that blood transfusions before blood typing could be a little deadly, which makes how Dr. Van Helsing was treating Lucy not just questionable but possibly fatal. Saberhagen had to sit with the events of novel and wonder in what other ways they could be interpreted. He is asking us to read the original material more deeply.

Whereas this new Dracula TV show doesn’t ask us to look back at the source material, it doesn’t ask us to think critically about it and maybe realize that there are some problematic issues with it, and it doesn’t ask us to find patterns in the story that could connect it to a completely different tale. We just have sexy vampires, secret societies, and the same old conflicted love story involving a possibly reincarnated lover who looks exactly the same (that’s not how reincarnation works). It may be fun, but I can’t help feel it is trying to manipulate me by calling itself Dracula.

In some ways, this TV show seems to be doing the same thing that the all too infamous Catwoman movie did. Give the product a name that audiences will recognize, throw together a lot of plot elements that seem to sell well regardless of the original story, and look surprised when the already existing fan base doesn’t give you their money.

Ahem…

 

It is all right when an artist radically changes the story. Take Carter’s “Lady in a the House of Love,” where she turns Sleeping Beauty into a vampire. Carter seemed intrigued by the idea of how Sleeping Beauty is an unchanging figure in ever-changing time. She makes the natural connection from the fairy tale to vampires. She explores what happens when this figure is awakened to the changes of time by a young man on bicycle soon to serve in World War I (he is the very figure of the twentieth century). Carter takes an image of the perfect always youthful girl waiting in the tower and changes the story to explore new themes.  Yet, we can still find the seeds of the older fairy tale.

Hell, I even have good will towards the Jane Austen monster mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. While I have yet to read the book (I will be so angry if it’s bad), the excerpts I have read suggest that the Seth Grahame-Smith loves both Austen’s fiction and movie monsters. One is the epitome of high culture, while the other the epitome of low. In trying to bring them together, Grahame-Smith, I hope, was trying to find a common ground for these two disparate things. Let the Austen fans have a little fun with zombies, and let the zombies fans have any entry point for a rather intimidating piece of fiction. However, I doubt the author could have pulled the book off, if he didn’t love both Austen and brain-eating corpses.

What I hate most about this remake culture is that just how cynical it is. So many of these movies are being made not because the director has something new to say about the story, but because of brand recognition. I don’t mind hearing story retold as long as each new storyteller wants to explore the parts that keep him or her up late at night wondering “what if.”

Both Familiar and Alien

I just watched The Haunting of Julia, aka Full Circle, a nice little haunted house flick with a lot a mood but a problematic soundtrack. It starred post Rosemary’s Baby Mia “no luck with real-estate” Farrow. However, the main conflict that the her character, the titular Julia, deals with, and her reason for moving to the creepy house, is the grief and guilt she feels regarding the accidental death of her daughter.

“I bet a hug would make it all better.”

The film begins with this death. The daughter starts to choke on an apple (by far the most symbolic fruit you could choke on). Julia at first pats her coughing daughter’s back. When that doesn’t work Julia tries to reach in and pull the apple out with her fingers, while her husband grabs her daughter, holds her upside down and shakes her. At this point, I’m yelling, “Heimlich maneuver!” at the screen, but the film characters don’t hear me and the daughter dies.

This scene made me realize that I didn’t know when the Heimlich maneuver had been invented. I had always assumed it was during the early twentieth century, but it turns out that Heimlich first published a paper on the maneuver in 1974 and the Red Cross didn’t start endorsing it until 1976 (according to, oh so, reliable Wikipedia). The film wasn’t released until 1977, so it makes sense that these characters didn’t know about the technique. Modern innovation in medicine has made it so that the film’s inciting incident could not occur now without the audience wondering why these parents didn’t  just use the well known technique. This phenomena is actually surprisingly common when if comes to film plots.

The invention that most hurt horror movies was the cell phone. Now when teenagers are being chased through the woods, the audience inevitable asks, “Why don’t they just call the police?” Screenwriters now must write exposition about how there is no service in the woods or the battery is dead, or add scene where we see the phone fall out of reach. Most of the time these scenes seem awkward and tacked on.

Technology doesn’t only affect horror films. Take the plot of After Hours: the protagonist has to go through a set of horrible ordeals because at the beginning his cash was blown out a taxi cab window. It is his lack of money that keeps him from just going home. However, this problem would no longer be an issue today—he could just use a ATM or a credit card. All in all, this makes a certain amount of sense, as technology changes, so do our problems.

Yet, to return to The Haunting of Julia, what surprised me was when Julia and her husband fail to dislodge the apple, Julia tries to do an emergency tracheotomy. Apparently the tracheotomy existed before the Heimlich maneuver. Somehow this seems backward to me, I would like to think that the more invasive technique came later. Yet, apparently even ancient Greek physician Hippocrates had an opinion on tracheotomies (he was against them).

This isn’t the only time that I’d been surprised by the items that were available to the ancients. As I finished The Aeneid, I came across a section where Turnus claims that he is going to kick Aeneas’s butt and mess up his hair—“ that hair/ he curls with heated irons.” I was shocked. Did ancient Roman’s have curling irons? Yes, they did, it was called the calamistrum. It is odd to think that when, as a teenager, I tried to curl my hair and burned my forehead, I was sharing an experience with people who’ve been dead for millennia.

My surprise probably reveals more about me than history. Because on the surface, the Heimlich Maneuver seems so simple and a tracheotomy seems so complex (at least if I was performing these techniques), I had assumed that the Heimlich maneuver must have come first. I viewed history as moving from simplicity to complexity, when in reality the simple methods are often harder to discover and less obvious. What seems simple turns out to be the conclusion of a lot of complex thought. For goodness sake, we needed germ theory to convince doctors to wash their hands, and we were able to get men to the moon while still using slide rulers.

When watching The Haunting of Julia, what scared me the most was not the sociopath little girl ghost, but that people could live in world with cars and telephones, a world that looked like mine, and were still helpless as their child choked on a piece of fruit. While I find comfort in thinking that Aeneas probably burned his forehead too, I cannot escape how the past is so alien and familiar at the same time.

Tracking the Memory

Memory is a problematic thing.  It is necessary that I trust it, but at the same time I understand that it is malleable.  On one hand, I have a very good memory—I remember my dad’s family sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching the fall of the Berlin wall. I was five at the time, not an age particularly known for being aware of world events, but I remember my family’s excitement.  On the other hand, I have memories that are slightly warped in detail.  The most obvious examples are my memories of movies, because I can track down the films and see how they are different from what I remember.

Now there were quite a few things I wasn’t allowed to watch when I was younger of which I saw parts.  When I was a teenager, I set about tracking down these films.  Sometimes, I was disappointed by how different the film was from what I remembered.  Take for instance 1965’s The Collector, the way I remembered it perhaps shows my interest in radical retellings from a young age. In the film that I remember, the trapped woman has a lot more power and manipulates her captor.  When I finally tracked the film down as a teenager, I was disappointed by how truly helpless the woman was, particularly when she tries to escapes but feels guilty for hitting her kidnapper with a shovel.  The character of my memory wouldn’t have checked to see if he was all right; she would’ve got the hell out of there.  Originally, I had only seen the end where the women was dying of pneumonia, and I created a story around it. A story that I, as young girl, wanted, one where the victim can get the upper hand.  While the film may be a bit more realistic about the nature of abductions, I’m sad that what I remember doesn’t exist.

Of course, there are other times where I was pleasantly surprised by the real films.  I remember catching bits and pieces a Red Riding Hood werewolf film.  I was disappointed when I found 1989’s Little Red Riding Hood.  Yes, some parts were obviously what I remembered, but I didn’t remember Coach being in the film.  Also, where was that kick-ass werewolf transformation scene: the one were the wolf emerged from the person’a mouth discarding the human skin?

It was in another film: The Company of Wolves, one of my favorite films of all time.  Since I wasn’t allowed to watch werewolf films, I had to switch to other channels whenever an adult walked through the room.  My memory was just snippets of the film. So when trying to recall it, it was only natural to assume that I’d only seen one werewolf movie involving little Red Riding Hood rather than two.  When I finally tracked down The Company of Wolves, I was surprised, but I much preferred the actually movie with its dreamlike quality and the fact there are several folktales, or at least folktale-like stories, embedded in the film.  I even memorized Perrault’s poem that was recited at the end.  Also, it introduced me to the writings of Angela Carter.

There are other memories that I’ve not been able to place.  I remember watching a film where two teenage boys and a girl try to break into a crypt.  The girl suddenly has vampire fangs and tries to bite one (there may have been two girls).  I’ve never found the film that this scene belongs to, but because I’ve tried to track it down I discovered other films like Near Dark, Fright Night, and The Lost Boys.  I sometimes wonder if I would even recognize the scene, maybe my memory is too different from the actual thing.   

What can I take away from all of this?  I’m not sure.  Memory is a strange thing that changes, but it must be trusted because it’s all we have.  Maybe what I can take away is that exploring memory is worth while even if it sometimes disappoints. There are several vague memories that I have no context for: the above mentioned vampire scene or a scene from another film where girl escapes in a car from people with no skin.  I may never find these scenes again, because they only exist in my memory, but the search will be worth while.

(P.S. If you do recognize the scenes please tell me what films they are from.)