Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's a Christmas Miracle!

How should I cap off a year of light-posting? By knocking off early, of course! I apologize for the light content and promise that next year will be a very, very cool one that will see lots of big-time pay-off. See you in the new year for my best of the year countdown and much more.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Should a Monster Ever Meet Its Metaphor?

Are all monsters metaphors? Well, I’ve said before that every fictional story an author tells, even work for hire, is automatically a metaphor for his or her own experiences, so my answer is an always yes. But it usually goes further than that.

Almost every fictional monster is intended by its author to be a walking metaphor for a “real” issue facing the hero/heroine, at least on some subconscious level. Here are some common versions:
  • Ghosts ≈ guilt and/or grief, often in a very specific way.
  • Vampires ≈ repressed sexuality.
  • Manmade monsters ≈ the folly of mankind.
  • Romero-style zombies ≈ societal collapse
  • Slashers ≈ the evils of expressed sexuality
But that “≈” is a problem, isn’t it? Metaphors should never be 1 to 1. On the one hand, we want to tell a story that actually means something, instead of just creating horror for horror’s sake. On the other hand, we don’t want the metaphor to be too obvious or simplistic. We want one that can have a range of implications and interpretations. We want to be able to make complex, nuanced points. The vampires on “Buffy” represented sexuality in general, but every week they’d represent something else specifically.

For most of a horror story, of course, you don’t want the audience to be thinking about the metaphor. You want them to simply accept the monster as it is on the conscious level, even while they unconsciously squirm, semi-aware that this is a “monster” that also exists in their real lives.

The tricky part is the end, when the metaphor and the meaning often meet up, just briefly. You can see this at the end of The Babadook when the monster morphs into Amelia’s dead husband, who invites her to join him in death. It’s a controversial moment, and I think it contributes to the idea that this isn’t a “real” horror film for some.

Some say don’t do this whatsoever, or at least do it more subtly. Certainly one of the all-time great horror endings is Night of the Living Dead, in which the last survivor is a black man who is promptly shot and killed by the authorities when they show up. The cops don’t turn to each other after that and say (as they might on “The Twilight Zone”) “I guess we were the real monsters here,” but you get the point.

But I think somewhat on-the-nose ending of The Babadook works, for many reasons. For one thing, the emotions are so horrific (“I wish you’d died instead of him”) that it doesn’t break the spell to call them out. For another, the supernatural element isn’t waved away at that point: The monster remains a monster right through the epilogue. We get this moment where the subconscious rises to the surface, and then it plunges back down.

Most importantly, I think it works because Mr. Babadook is clearly not a 1 to 1 grief monster. After all, he enters the house as a creepy pop-up book, and we hardly associate those with grief! In fact, for me, even when I “got it” I didn’t fully get it yet. It wasn’t until a few hours after the movie was over that I finally put together the title’s true meaning, for example. ...But now we get back into the realm of unintentional metaphor. Here’s Kent on the name:
  • I was staying with a Serbian writer, and I asked him, “What’s Serbian for ‘Boogeyman?’” He said “Babaroga,” and I didn’t think that sounded right. But I started playing with “Baba,” and then “Babadook” came up, and then it was just rhyming with everything, and it just felt right. But it’s stupid, it’s just a made-up thing.
Did she really never notice that “The Babadook” was really “The Dada Book”? I doubt that, but it’s possible. In the end, it doesn’t really matter: Great horror creators speak from their subconscious to your subconscious, and the meaning that they intend or you construe has little to do with it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Progress of the Problem in the Opening of The Babadook

The Babadook also exemplifies three more rules:
By the time the story begins, Sam’s behavior has already gotten pretty bad, and things are quickly getting worse. The first ten minutes feature breathtaking storytelling in every sense of the word: We begin with ten 30-second scenes of Sam’s escalating violence and monster-obsession, then at the 5-minute mark he’s kicked out of school. After ten more 30-second scenes, he pulls the “Mr. Babadook” book off the shelf exactly at 10-minute mark, and the real terror begins.

How on earth does Kent get such a richly-characterized movie to move so fast? How can you say anything with a 30-second scene, and how can you keep up that pace for 20 quick scenes in a row?

The lack of apologies has a lot to do with it. Presumably, after each of Sam’s problematic incidents he apologizes abjectly to his mom or she to others, but the movie has no time for that. It’s tricky, because those scenes are tempting to write: after all, that’s big drama …but it’s empty drama. The audience doesn’t want to watch characters talk about something that’s already happened, they vastly prefer to watch characters discuss things that might happen, or that are happening. What’s done is done.

Here’s what Kent has to say:
  • “Deciding the structure of it, I was always trying to make it more and more constrictive. It’s a matter of rhythm. For me, films have more in common with music than with novels or literature. The flow of this movie was determined by its musicality. We didn’t stop in the edit until it felt that way. We clipped out a lot from the first half until we got there, about 10 minutes, I’d say.”
Getting out of scenes also creates a nice effect near the end, cleverly manipulating our genre expectations. The scene:
  • Once we know that Amelia is over the bend, their kindly old neighbor knocks on the door to make sure they’re okay. We see wild-eyed Amelia trying to send her away. We then cut to Sam discovering their dead dog on the kitchen floor, only to have him turn around to find his murderous mother standing over him, explaining that the neighbor won’t be bothering them anymore.
So did Amelia kill her neighbor? Well, no, but we don’t find that out until the epilogue when the neighbor is babysitting Sam again. Not only is this a great example of the power of cutting away to keep tension high, it helps with the problem we discussed last time: In the end, Amelia kills no humans. This violates our genre expectations, but it’s necessary in order to have a semi-happy ending, so one solution is to cut away from that scene early, implying just for a while that maybe she has killed someone, which makes the rest of her rampage that much scarier.

It’s a brilliant cut: If we figure out that she’s not going to kill anyone, then the movie loses tension, but if we know for certain that she has killed someone, then we lose all hope of a happy ending, which also decreases tension (our tense hopes that this might still turn out okay).  By cutting away, both sources of tension are kept alive.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: The Babadook vs. Genre Expectations

There is no genre that has a more tortured relationship to its own conventions than horror. The burdensome pile up of rules and tropes has gotten so thick that there’s a whole subgenre of movies about those rules and tropes (Scream, Cabin in the Woods, etc.)

Even horror moves that aren’t about the rules wind up being about the rules: It Follows was a movie that tried to start fresh, but I felt that it was so concerned with rejecting conventions that it became merely a commentary on those conventions, and failed to work on its own. The filmmakers gave interviews in which they basically said, “Yes, we have flat characters, but we’re subverting that trope, don’t you see?” Thanks, but I’d rather just have compelling characters.

Would-be horror directors now seem to have three choices:
  • Dutifully check off the all the boxes to please the basic horror fans.
  • Flatter the smarter fans by acknowledging and then subverting those tropes and expectations.
  • Piss all the the fans off by making a movie that doesn’t count as a “real” horror movie (all the while knowing that you might have a hard time finding non-horror fans, who tend to reject anything that has horror elements.)
From her interviews, it’s clear that Jennifer Kent feels the burden of these expectations and the stigma of the genre:
  • “There’s a snobbery around ‘genre films’ being perceived in a certain way. That’s why I shy away from using the term ‘horror,’ because it can be a reductive term. I think people expect, ‘Oh, I made this horror film, so now I can make a serious film,’ but for me this is a serious film.”
So why make it horror?
  • “Can you imagine this story as a domestic drama? It would be so melodramatic and stupid. I like films where I’m forced to feel something”
Sometime when female directors make horror, they make sure that they’ll be allowed into the boys’ club by amping up the violence and gruesomeness, but not Kent. She doesn’t shy away from the notion that this is a “women’s” horror movie, not only because it’s about motherhood, but because, amazingly, it has no (human) deaths!

Can you have horror without onscreen deaths? That’s a pretty huge genre convention to ignore...and yet this could not be more of a horror movie! First and foremost, it’s just really goddamn scary. Even when you become pretty sure that neither the mother nor son will die, the mere notion of a mother trying to kill her son (and a son fighting back) is sufficiently horrific. Beyond that, the monster is terrifying, the jump scares are effective, and the atmosphere is tremendously creepy.

And it’s interesting to note all of the genre tropes/clichés that the movie does include, without any attempt to subvert them:
  • Going to the police and being ridiculed as crazy
  • Hallucinating swarms of roaches, even though that has little relationship to the main story
  • Cutting the phone cord
  • Her dog growling at her when she’s possessed
  • Lights flickering in the house
  • Just when you think the monster’s dead, it’s not!
As I’ve said before, some things become clichéd for good reasons. For instance, it would be too unbelievable if she never went to the cops, and yet that avenue must be closed off immediately, and it’s certainly understandable that they wouldn’t believe her.

This movie is the ultimate confirmation of the rule that you must embrace two conventions for every one you reject, but you must not embrace all of them. Just don’t fall into the trap of subverting them just to prove that you’re too cool for school. You’ll please the clever fans, but you can’t tell a great story that way.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: The Selfless and Self-Less Heroine of The Babadook

Is there ever a good reason for a character to have generic dialogue? Yes, The Babadook is one movie that gets away with it.

In my definition of metaphor family, I say that it’s drawn from the hero’s job, background, or developmental state, so I guess that this could include the simple job of “single mom”, but ideally we want something more. The heroine here has fairly generic mom dialogue:
  • “I don’t want you making weapons anymore. This monster thing has got to stop.”
  • “No, it’s all right, I’m fine.”
  • “No worries, I’ll make you another one.”
  • “I’m going to have a serious talk with him. What he needs is some understanding.”
  • “I don’t want you to feel awful, we’ll be fine, we’ll be absolutely fine.”
So that’s bad, right? Well, not necessarily. Once again, let’s go to an interview with writer/director Jennifer Kent:
  • Amelia is being a “very good girl” in the beginning. She’s had these terrible things happen and people are trying to help her out, but she’s like, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ll do something for you.” And that’s a typically altruistic feminine trait, and I think it has massive negative repercussions. You get the suppression, and then underneath the nice girl is this monster that’s waiting to explode. [Laughs.] Beware of the woman who’s too nice!
So Amelia’s lack of personality is central to her flaw, and to the movie’s commentary on the wider world. Of course, we don’t know that yet as we watch it, so Kent had to do everything she could to keep Amelia from bugging us too much in that first half-hour. Here’s what she did:
  • [Early] readers feared that Amelia would be cold or unfeeling or unsympathetic, but this was someone I cared so much about, so I wanted an actress that would have the capacity to give the character warmth. Essie uses her heart when she acts.
In other words, Kent knew from her note-givers that the lack of specificity and humanity on the part of the character would make her hard to identify with at first, so she knew that she’d have to find an extraordinary actress that could provide the heart and soul the character seemed to lack. If you’re going to break a rule, you have to know the danger you’re putting yourself in and have a plan for overcoming it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Jennifer Kent vs. the Naysayers

For the upcoming pieces on The Babadook, I’ll be relying heavily on the great interviews that Jennifer Kent has done to promote this movie, because she talks about herself and her art more perceptively and more honestly than just about any of the other writer/directors whose work we’ve looked at.

It’s interesting to look at her statements about the development of the movie, because they exemplify one of the dangers I singled out in two posts a long time ago. On the one hand she talks a lot about protecting and purifying her individual vision:
  • Of producer Kristina Ceyton: “She’s really protected this film. It’s been able to stay pure from the get-go because of her.”
  • Of mentor Lars Von Trier: “The biggest thing I learned from him was courage. He’s stubborn, and he does what he wants. I needed to see those things up close.”
  • Of her script development lab: “They are an extraordinary bunch of people because they really wanted to find out what your vision was first, and then they helped you develop the film and got on board script advisors that were suited to the vision that you had, and that for me has given this a strong base.”
  • About the ending: “We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending.”
This sort of talk is catnip to both fans and potential creators. Fans love it because it convinces them that they’re not watching some work-shopped product, but rather an unadulterated vision that flowed right from God’s brain into their eyes. Aspiring creators love this talk even more because it feeds our suspicion that we don’t need notes after all: Don’t adulterate our vision, man!

But rather than get seduced, it’s always important to keep your head on your shoulders. Wait just a second, what’s that other thing she mentioned in passing in one of those interviews?
  • I had been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out-there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially. So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate.
So she did listen to the naysayers, up until a point. At what point do you say, “Okay, this is it, all of these notes have been great, but at this point I have to declare it done and start defending what I have”? Kent picked just the right moment. She let herself be talked out of all of those too-out-there scripts and found something instead that was contained and intimate, but then, once she was fairly certain that she had finally nailed it, she started digging in her heels and fighting for her vision.

The problem of course is that most aspiring writers start fighting too soon. We fight to defend the “purity” of those too-out-there ideas, because we think that that’s what writers do. We pay attention to those first four quotes from Kent, and skip right over that last one. Knowing when to take your stand is one of the hardest calls in life.