Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Ugliest of Decades

In the wake of the US departure from Afghanistan and the near-simultaneous 20th anniversary of 9/11, a lot of hay has been made about the attempted rehabilitation of George W. Bush's political reputation. This is especially odd considering how far the star of his comrade-in-arms, Rudy Giuliani, has fallen, from "America's mayor" to finally being widely recognized as the doddering, corrupt old fraud he always was (and who ripped a fantastically loud one in the middle of the Michigan recount hearings). Fortunately, the consensus still seems to be that both are fucking twats, and should be remembered as such.

But this moment has put me in mind more and more of the 2000s, a "decade without a name" as Timothy Garton Ash called it, the decade when I came of age, and therefore the era that is supposed to be ensconced in my memory as hallowed.

Yet if you ask me to think back on the 2000s (or the "oughties," or whatever you want to call them), my memories are of nothing but disgust, particularly with the "short 2000s" lasting from 9/11 to the Obama election (to crib a technique from Eric Hobsbawm). Sure, there was political disgust. The general opinion of those who identified as in any way "progressive" tended not to see Bush as a malefactor, but as a puppet of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. But the blame went deeper. The general opinion among my peers was that these bastards were elected in in '04 by a fundamentally fucked country, with a stupid, piggish, populace of cross-clutching nationalists, fearful of gays marrying and brown people at TSA, that was to blame.

If there's any piece of media that sums up this particular stance, it's MTV2's Wonder Showzen, a pisstake of children's shows that ran in '05 and '06, featuring puppets harassing civilians on the streets of New York, kids dressed as reporters in trenchcoats doing vox-pop interviews (going to the racetrack and asking a retiree "why not cut out the middleman and give your social security check directly to the mob?"), or just dressed as Hitler and screaming "what are you afraid of?" at passersby in Lower Manhattan. In other words, taking pure anarchic glee in the freaking out of the squares.

 

For me at 19 or 20, this seemed the only sane reaction to a reactionary decade. One in which not only was the military apparatus and surveillance state radically expanded, never to contract again, but in which the culture just seemed so damn dumb. So it might be illustrative to look at how the culture expressed itself.

In cinema, it was the year when everything I hate -- leaning into franchise products, comic book movies as surefire seat-fillers, CGI excess -- all became the standard (which isn't to say that cinema was necessarily better in earlier decades, it's just when this particular iteration of shittiness became the norm). "Quality" films weren't safe eitehr. I remember watching The Aviator on DVD in someone's apartment, and wondering what had happened to Scorsese, why he couldn't stop moving the camera, why everything had to be so damn big.

In television, while it is (rightly) remembered as the era of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, let it be remembered that it was also the era when reality television reached its highest form, an arc stretching from Survivor through Laguna Beach to Jersey Shore before that impulse in entertainment was taken over by Internet culture writ large, when the famous-for-being-famous were given the key by network execs rather than simply posting cringe on TikTok.

In music, it was the decade of album after over-long album of grandiose Southern rappers all of whom had album titles like "Tha Thug Life, Volume 1: The Feature Film" or some such shit, replete with Gothic fonts and weirdly Tyler Perry-ish music videos (he goes on the list too) with minute-long cinematic intros. On the country side, we were told that putting a boot in one's ass was the American way. In rock, the charts were topped by... that Canadian band, you know which one... along with a host of other shitty groups, many of whom had numbers in their names (in numerical order, you had Three Doors Down, Maroon 5, 30 Seconds to Mars, Sum 41...). It was when the shitty emo out of Vegas and Orange County that is being revived for some dumb fucking reason right now was being played in dorm rooms by boys in puka shells and Livestrong bracelets, alternating with Dave Matthews Band and Ben Harper. Across the hall, their English-major counterparts were listening to any number of bland indie bands with giggly names (and to be fair, I listened to some crappy stuff, but I was at least above Mumford and Sons). Or Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, or other "dance-punk" bands hyped by NME.

And in design... I'll just list some representative objects off. The McMansion suburbs built in the prelude to the 2008 crash. Von Dutch hats. Ed Hardy t-shirts. The Hummer H3. Uggs. Thongs peeking out over low-rise jeans. Chinese-character tattoos on white people. Ads for "x-treme" snack foods. The creepy Burger King ads.

It's easy (and fun!) to blame conservatives, especially during a decade largely dominated by conservative politics, but if I look at liberals from the time period, they didn't fare much better. Their objects in the rising culture war were the obnoxiously smug Daily Show at its Jon Stewart peak, and the sheer idiocy of the near-parody of politics in The West Wing. They felt good about themselves after watching Crash.

Looking back, with the wisdom of my added years, sure the culture sucked, but my finger-wagging at those I felt to be beneath me was mere adolescent misanthropy. People may have had wretched political opinions and lousy taste, but it was far easier to blame the hog-people than to actually interrogate why they believed what they believed, or why the mass culture of the time looked the way it did. It's a lot easier to point and mock than to ask why people might want some spectacle in their lives and max out their credit at a time when the media kept us in a state of perpetual fear.

But what's most interesting out of all after all these years is the fact that this is really the last time in American history when there was anything you could call a common culture (Marvel movies being really the only thing nowadays that pretty much everyone watches). It was still a time when Saturday Night Live could parody an episode of a reality show that had aired the previous week, with the expectation that the audience could be counted upon to laugh at the joke.

We don't have that anymore. Our lives are so individuated, so self-contained, our choice of media so curated, that trends are increasingly difficult to observe, and increasingly fleeting.

As I age, my ability to parse a fundamentally youth-driven culture becomes poorer and poorer. But I will say this, I will never become one of those annoying nostalgists who can't shut up about Woodstock, or grunge-era Seattle, or whatever. When looking back at the ethos of the time in which the light of youth shone strongest on me, I can only sigh and roll my eyes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

ADHD Memes and Late Capitalism

So I recently became aware of the phenomenon of ADHD memes, which don't seem to have made too much of an impact yet, but they are very much indicative of a broader trend in Internet culture, and one that has existed in various permutations for years. One in which some aspect of mental health is fetishized and meme'd about, to the point where all original meaning is lost.

This in and of itself is part of an even broader trend, in which various mental health issues obtain au courant status. When I was in my early 20s it was various autism spectrum conditions, and referring to anyone you saw as weird as being "on the spectrum" became the standard, and when I was in high school, it was bipolar disorder. All of which seems like so many ways of trying to find a superior metaphor to explain why people are, to use a much simpler term, fucked up.

We could, of course, expand this thesis even further, to more general health issues. One only has to look through an issue of Time or Newsweek in the '90s to find vogues for Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr, more suspicious concepts like multiple chemical sensitivity, and so forth, waves of suspicion and fear that mirrored the purges of the witches during bad harvests in less ostensibly enlightened centuries.

It pretty much goes without saying that the radical expansion in the number of ADHD diagnoses over the past few decades has been controversial. You could point to the fact that Americans are diagnosed with ADHD at an order of magnitude greater than their British counterparts. You could point to the fact that a great many of the DSM criteria for ADHD just seem like indicators of a normal childhood, especially at a point in history when children's lives are as scheduled and routinized and monitored as feedlot cattle. And if you're being a true cynic, you could point to the way that these diagnoses support a vast pharmaceutical enterprise, with legions of confused, lost parents trying to find an easy answer as to why their children are radically failing to conform with the expectations of either themselves or the society at large (although as a bonus, enough of those children were willing to sell me their scrips in college, and a couple of those bad boys crushed up definitely made the Hawkeye Vodka go down a little sweeter, the bitter drip down the back of my throat aside).

These are easy points to make. But when I examine the ADHD memes themselves, they seem -- like memes in general, really -- more indicative of ordinary people trying to make sense of why their lives don't seem to make sense. A couple of the top posts from the r/adhdmemes subreddit...


 
 

How much of that actually seems like a diagnosable illness, and how much of that just seems like an apt and even rather banal description of life in the current social and technological moment, and especially of being relatively young in the current social and technological moment?

You have a video playing on your laptop while you check something on your phone. You scroll through Instagram while you eat. You kick yourself for leaving your phone in the living room when you went to go take a shit. Me too.

It's hardly a hot take to say that this is all by design -- we all know that social media is as designed to be addictive as a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos is. And yet we are expected to find individual solutions to a social problem. In much the same way that obesity is treated as an individual problem, despite the fact that in America, people are increasingly forced into patterns of spatial isolation (whether that's an urban food desert or a suburban cul-de-sac), time constraints and job requirements preclude physical exercise, price differences between processed foods and fresh produce of any quality are mortifying, and a Bloomberg-style soda tax is going to do more to punish the poor than actually resolve the profound sickness of our society.

They're both diseases of relative affluence, ADHD and obesity -- as the problem of caloric scarcity has largely been resolved (although malnutrition remains rampant), the problem of entertainment scarcity has largely been resolved.

And yet we still feel unfulfilled -- to continue stretching this metaphor beyond all reason, you don't exactly feel great after you eat a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos -- we still feel the looming threat of boredom at all times.

Before meeting his end in an Inland Empire garage in 2008, David Foster Wallace had spent the past few years trying to finish The Pale King, what was to be his opus about the nature of boredom, set at an IRS branch office in Peoria. It is a near-complete catalog of the myriad tediums and drudgeries of daily life, written by a man who was on his way out the door -- although who knows how much of this novel was written in happier times -- and cobbled together after his death. We should also keep in mind that his magnum opus Infinite Jest revolves around a tape so entertaining it paralyzes the viewer. The resultant thesis becomes that there is nothing more addicting than entertainment (something Wallace alluded to in interviews as well, saying that despite his drug and alcohol problems, TV was the worst addiction he had to face), and that is driven by the cosmic fear of boredom, as boredom requires us to face our own essential loneliness.

And in an era of unprecedented loneliness, and with an equally unprecedented number of available distractions, it seems to logically follow that the ultimate result is a society in which the things that get called ADHD are an inevitable consequence.

But now the time comes to turn the camera inwards.

I don't exhibit any of the classical symptoms. Rather, if anything, I do the opposite, I diligently spend hour after hour reading books and never rereading, watching movies and never rewatching, cooking new dishes, exercising obsessively, studying languages, writing page after page of meaningless crap, making lists of albums to listen to, cocktails to make, restaurants to try, planning voyages I'll never make, as if all this... stuff... will provide some kind of a bulwark. And yet likewise, it doesn't make the tossing and turning as I wake up at 3 a.m. any less painful.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Does Therapy Suck?: An Inquiry

A few days ago, I concluded, for the first time in my life, a serious attempt at undergoing therapy.

It's something you're supposed to do, right? We're always told to get help, to reach out. When one has a problem, one ought find a way to solve it, and when one is down, they say, it's best to seek professional counseling.

But here I am, 10 sessions later, and my bank account 1000 dollars emptier (not covered by insurance -- thanks, East Asian stigmatization of mental health!), and all I can wonder is "what the fuck was it all for?"

I've always been pretty gloomy, to say the least, but I had never sought out professional help, even as I -- like everyone else -- implored my friends and peers to do so when they were going through their own problems. There were good reasons when I was young and broke (anyone who says you "can't put a price on mental health" can fucking suck it), and as I got older and less broke, the reasons got less good. Laziness? Apprehension? Some bullshit notion of toughness definitely played a part for which I hold myself to a higher standard than the general public -- call it toxic masculinity, and it probably is, my superego is Denzel Washington pointing a gun at and saying "man up, virgin lungs" to my ego, played by Ethan Hawke. 

Of course this wasn't helped by the fact that if you are a dude, lots of well-meaning dudes will tell you that depression isn't real, that therapy is bullshit, that I seemed happy, so it couldn't be that bad a problem, or something to that effect (although women can be dudes of this sort too -- a lady therapist I met in a social situation not too long ago told me I couldn't be depressed because I could routinely get out of bed, so yeah, that's a therapist you should never go to). Or the equally large number of equally well-meaning friends who say you can talk to them about anything, but who don't really mean it, even if they think, in full and honest good faith, that they mean it.

So, in light of a couple of other changes in my life, I said fuck it. Being the insufferable nerd I am, I had to do my due diligence and extensively research various counseling centers around the city, their education, their theoretical underpinnings, tried to filter out anyone who seemed to be either an active charlatan or in Bangkok because they'd lost their medical licensing in their home country. Not knowing the difference between the various approaches to and schools of therapy except in the broadest possible strokes, I quickly realized I couldn't make an informed decision, so I just filtered out anyone who mentioned reiki healing or similar bullshit, and found someplace close enough to my home.

So I sat on a couch for weeks and I sat describing my problems to a very nice, very earnest man who seemed like a legitimately good listener. He nodded, he repeated my wording back to me in classic Rogerian style. He tried to crack the nut.

But my suspicions of the efficacy of any of this grew and grew. In the end, everything I told him was something I had told myself on a dark night alone many times before. I think he wanted to guide me towards a greater introspection, but I've already done enough introspection to last a lifetime, and it hadn't given me much in the way of productive insight.

I was looking for a breakthrough, some greater understanding. Was that maybe too big an ask? Or was the very telling of someone supposed to be in and of itself therapeutic? (it wasn't)

Somewhere around our fifth session, he told me I was "difficult to understand," which is something truly horrifying to hear from a professional counselor, even if it was in no way a blame or a dig. But the end result is the same. A locked-in syndrome of the soul.

I do so many of the things recommended. I'm constantly doing productive things, reading and eating right and exercising, all the things that you're supposed to do to feel better. If only largely because if I was to just let myself go and relax, I would not be writing anything at all. I'd be in a pile of takeout containers, cigarette butts, empty bourbon bottles, semen-soaked tissues, and little plastic baggies lined with delicate tracings of white powder.

The one thing he really advised -- the nearest thing he gave me to a prescriptive recommendation -- was meditating in earnest, and I've been trying to meditate daily as a result. I've definitely gotten better at it. I can, without question, concentrate on my breathing better. And if I'm in a particularly stressful moment, I've found it to be an excellent technique of calming myself down, taking a beat.

But in any other circumstance, I'm failing to see the point. Sure, I can go longer stretches without entering a hyper-self-aware labyrinth of observation, fact, tangent, and metaphor, lost in my own mind, but after maybe 10 minutes or so, it becomes too much, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus, and I wind up far unhappier than I was before I sat down.

So now I'm left at something of an impasse.

I look to the present moment around me and I see a world in which the therapeutic has become the standard mode of discourse. The underlying condition doesn't matter, to say nothing of material conditions. What matters is that one is recognized as valid and sincere, in a complete reduction of the complex, messy web of environmental, social, cultural, economic, and psychic realities to the emotions of the atomized individual. For which we are offered bromides about self-actualization, phony empathy, and a quick tendency to medicalize and medicate, as neoliberal capitalism continues to slouch towards Bethlehem.

If you ask me what actually is resonant and therapeutic, I think of the quote from Walter Benjamin that I first read, many years ago, quoted by Susan Sontag: 

I was born under the sign of Saturn -- the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays. 

And that one sentence can do more than anything else to make me feel less alone in the melancholy that accompanies the taste of bitter coffee and the smell of office cleaning chemicals, the sense of waking up panting in the middle of the night and feeling to curl up to someone no longer there, and dreary Sunday late afternoons, the very sunset drained of color.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Fall of Kabul and Meditations on the Useless

 So it happened, something that I knew was inevitable -- the shot of a Chinook helicopter leaving the US Embassy in Kabul (pricetag $800 million) with the eerie resemblance to the famed Hubert Van Es shot of the people lining up to get on the Air America chopper waiting on the roof of the CIA building on Gia Long Street in Central Saigon in 1975.

 

The cynic in me assumes that some photographer scoped out that very angle over the past week, as the fall of Kabul became inevitable.

 

 

Of course there will be many, many dumb takes in the coming days -- hell, they're already starting to pile up.

There will be the unreconstructed Bush-era neocons who openly advocate a forever war (David Frum, Max Boot, and Co.) have migrated over to the Democrats, and they will be pushing every image of suffering in an attempt to tug your heartstrings and try to convince you that this is somehow your responsibility (while of course remaining silent about American complicity in Syria, Libya, Yemen...). There will be the poor deluded Afghans who worked hand in hand with the American puppet state and still somehow think the US had even half a chance to turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy -- I mean, after all, there are still former VNA officers waving the red-and-yellow striped flag of South Vietnam around the Asian enclaves of South Seattle. Of course America's ruddy-jowled Trumpy uncles will loudly declaim that this would never have happened in an America made great again, before they keel over from Cheesy Gordita Crunch-related complications.

Secretary of State Blinken of course had to respond that America won in Afghanistan (winner of this year's Robert McNamara Memorial Prize for Military-Industrial Doublespeak). Meanwhile, part-time Cthulhu worshipper Mitch McConnell said nah, fuck it, send more troops in, and talked about the "embarrassment of a superpower laid low," as if this superpower wasn't laid low by our nation's failures in Iraq, and as if a quasi-functioning Afghanistan wasn't just a house of cards that could be taken out by the Taliban in a week's time.

I was 14 when 9/11 happened. The general mood in the classroom in Mrs. Woodman's 10th grade French class was basically "whoaaaa, dude." There was a lot of talk on the media about coming together as a nation. What I basically felt, though, even as a 14 year old, was just an innate sense of the fuckedness of things to come.

You all know what happened next. How Afghanistan was invaded with a bare minimum of a rationale. How many years of idiotic flag-waving, how many lives lost and ruined as a result. How many smiling executives at Halliburton and Lockheed Martin. How many smug New York Times editorials about "responsible global leadership" or some similarly dumb non-concept. How many empty promises by Obama and Trump about ending the conflict. How many strands of the social safety net in America -- or what's left of it -- shredded in the name of fiscal responsibility even as the Pentagon budget grew ever more bloated.

Over the years of course, the war itself simply became background noise, an occasional disaster from the far side of the planet, mediated largely through Predator strikes. There were so many of them, and America was tangentially involved in most of them. They became one more horror which barely registered in 2015 or so, a few inches of scanned text on a news site between the latest dish on Kim and Kanye and an ad for dick pills.

Possibly my favorite joke of all time:

Q: What's the difference between a Jihadi training camp and a Pakistani primary school?

A: Don't ask me, I'm just a drone pilot.

In memoriams to American veterans over the past several years, the various military imbroglios of the early 21st Century have all become lumped together, and veterans of all conflicts great and small are classified as having participated in the "war on terror." The nebulous verbiage of the Bush administration has become accepted as standard terminology, because the whole thing is so clumsy that to actually name the geographies and conflicts would almost be a tacit acceptance of their failures and ineptitudes.

Well now it took 20 years, 3 trillion dollars, and countless Afghans vaporized through drone and conventional warfare, and this is what we get as a final thought: the predictable image of a helicopter on a roof -- little more than a meme.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Notes on Dying Vaccine Refusers

The annual CPAC Conference is, year-in and year-out, one of the American political scene's most reliable sources of lulz. You may remember, for instance, Trump hugging the American flag like Linus hugging his blankie. While a lot of it is just anodyne conservative bullshit -- repugnant cable news talking heads who are mildly ashamed of their Yale degrees doing their best to hoot and holler to an upper middle-class suburban audience that view themselves as the last defenders of Real America -- you will inevitably get a pretty wide swathe of truly dumb motherfuckers with glazed-over eyes who actually smoke their own supply. These -- the Diamond and Silks and the Lauren Boeberts and the Mike Cernoviches -- are of course far more entertaining. And you will also get people who say shit that's so dumb that you can't help but assume that they are charlatans, as charming in their way as the Artful Dodger, before you realize that one should never ascribe to malice what one can ascribe to stupidity.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that at this year's conference -- themed "America Uncanceled," because conservatives now interpret even the mildest forms of criticism as "cancellations" and proceed to whine like bitches -- featured Alex Berenson (also a shamefaced Yalie, so he's a toofer), the onetime spy novelist, self-proclaimed "COVID contrarian," and author of a book called Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence (won't somebody pleeeeeease think of the children?!) getting an audience of cheers for America's failure to vaccinate.

Of course Anthony Fauci called this "horrifying," which was, of course, Berenson's intention. Make a trollish statement, get the cretins to bay along, and BAM! The lib doth protest too much, methinks.

This has, of course, been the animating force of the right for over a decade. Failing to gin up public support for supply-side economics in the post-2008 Crash era, or foreign military adventures in the post-Iraq era, and given the fragility of the white-evangelical base in an increasingly non-religious, increasingly socially liberal era, they are increasingly settling on one of the most reliable emotional angles: pure resentment.

This is largely the Democrats' fault as well. By supporting reprehensibly hawkish foreign policy and Wall Street cronyism, the Democratic Party failed to establish a platform other than nice-guy centrism, and by refusing to support even broadly popular policies like Medicare for All (70 percent support) and the Green New Deal (60 percent approval) which alienate their donor class, the Dems have adopted a smug, adults-in-the-room stance that benefits nobody.

Meaning that the Republican party's ideology -- living in a world where their old cornerstone values of respect for tradition have become utterly passe -- has simply become being an absolute cunt to everyone around you.

This is why I can't stand the liberals who think that if you just give people the Correct Facts, they'll stop thinking the Bad Things and will start thinking the Good Things. And article-of-faith statements like "believe science" just come off as finger-wagging. Sure, there are non-committed people who are persuadable, and in my experience a lot of younger people are persuadable as soon as they finally get offline, but roughly 25 percent of America who are irreversibly brain-poisoned.

Which is why in places like Florida and the Ozarks, cases are surging among people who refuse to get vaccinated.

I always sympathize with the skeptical perspective -- I was actually pretty skeptical of the efficacy of non-N95 masks until enough evidence mounted to convince me that this skepticism was misplaced. And among minority populations that have often found themselves to be unwilling guinea pigs, the skepticism is a lot more understandable -- wrong, but at least understandable. But the racial gap in COVID vaccination is narrowing fast, leaving a group of predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly Republican stalwarts. Sure, these people are more concentrated among the lowest income bracket, but interestingly, the number of white vaccine refusers is higher at the $50,000 to $75,000 income bracket than the $25,000 to $50,000 bracket.

And something tells me this is not really even "skepticism."

Skepticism as I understand it is a questioning of grounds and motivation, a search for empirical evidence, a commitment to analytical thinking, and perhaps above all else a rigorous self-examination and an attempt to root out one's own biases and misperceptions and misinterpretations. And something tells me that most of these people have not reached their conclusions after a careful analysis of the scientific literature.

All of which seems pretty doubly absurd when you live, as I do, in a country whose government has spectacularly biffed the vaccine rollout, where people are clambering desperately for protection.

Republican politicians in places like Arkansas and Missouri are understandably freaking the fuck out, realizing that they can no longer control the narrative of the very base they had spent decades agitating, as their hospitals fill and their citizenry dies off. Meanwhile, in Florida, Ron DeSantis, the fancy lad that even my nerdy ass wants to shove in a locker, attempts to ride the tiger by speaking out against "vaccine passports" to protect his presidential aspirations, while quietly maintaining an exemption for cruise ships for fear of the Carnival Sensation becoming a masque of the red death.

To which I have to say, at this point -- after nearly half a century of very deliberate machinations by the ruling class that needed some kind of ideological scaffolding for the protection of their wealth -- chickens came home to roost motherfucker.

At this point, the path to herd immunity and the possibility of a post-pandemic life is being impeded by the vaccine hesitant. They, at this point, are bearing the worst of it, considering the fact that they're the ones getting sick, along with those with the extreme misfortune of being their vulnerable relatives or minor children.

When I think about those whose vaccine skepticism has led to the sudden realization that there isn't a ventilator available, I wonder what they're thinking. Maybe there's some self-reflection, maybe that fabled road-to-Damascus moment. Or maybe there is just an ideological commitment to the end, a refusal to the last to come to terms with one's own reality. Or maybe there is an ironic detachment, in its own way a final trolling.

But unlike so many liberals, I won't call this a "tragedy," as a tragedy is a circumstance in which men and women strive for good, and due to their own failings or circumstances beyond their control, are condemned to failure. This isn't a tragedy. This is America sharting its pants.

So I'll just say the following to that vaccine refuser on his deathbed.

Now you're fucking dead. Sucks for you dawg.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Is a Near-Perfect Film: Horror in American Cinema, Part 2

So not long ago I wrote about my disappointment with season 1 of American Horror Story and its reduction of horror to Dutch-angled bullshit. But despite the fact that I am the most negative of Nancies, we should consider, as a counterpoint, what makes good horror. What makes something that really gets under one's skin.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The very name conjures up every trope of B-movie slashers (or what the Brits used to call "video nasties," further proof of that they are the Anglophone virgin to our Anglophone chad). If, like me, you grew up in the VHS environment of the '90s, it's the sort of title that promised every cheap thrill we wanted as idiotic tween boys -- gore, tits, and ideally gore-spattered tits. Sure, the movies we watched had those -- as we worked our way through the Scream and Halloween and the questionable-things-done-last-summer franchises, but there remained something totemic about Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The name held magic, as if it was the most forbidden film, something only to be provided by older brothers who smoked soft packs of Kools, or by the kid down the street whose family always seemed just a bit off.

And sure, I'd seen it at some point then, and liked it a lot. But it wasn't until about 20 years later that I re-watched it, and actually got it. And it was at that point that I knew it belonged in my top 10 American films.

What is the most shocking to modern viewers -- especially after Saw, Hostel, and all those other torture-porn flicks of the '00s -- is how little actual blood and violence there is. There is some, for sure, and that opening shot of a dismembered corpse on a tombstone is pretty damn grisly, but that is far and away the most explicitly bloody thing in the whole movie. Rather, the film's horror is entirely predicated on eerie tone and near-surrealist imagery, with set design more inspired by the work of Dali, Klee, or Yves Tanguy than Fritz Lang.

  

We need to view the movie in the context of horror at the time. For the previous 50 years, American horror had occurred in two strands. First, there were the familiar creature features that had been around since the Silent Era, but which are probably most familiar in the form of the campy matinees of the 1930s through 1950s. Second, there was a more high-class "psychological" strain, as exemplified by Hitchcock's American movies. However, the two had rarely met, although a handful of other low-budget masterpieces -- Freaks, Carnival of Souls, and Night of the Living Dead being three excellent examples -- managed to pair visceral horror with an in-depth portrayal at the anxiety and sheer weirdness lurking beneath the surface of modern life.

What sets Texas Chain Saw apart is the thoroughness with which the story eviscerates the American cinematic tradition that came before it. 

To give a spoiler alert at this point is more or less pointless. If you have watched a horror movie, any horror movie, you know the score. You know about going into houses you shouldn't. You know that there will be a last girl. But that is not the point.

Consider our killers. Leatherface, with his human-skin mask, a detail taken from the crimes of Ed Gein in rural Wisconsin 20 years previous (as a sidenote, another one of the most horrifying films about American life, albeit in a completely different way, Werner Herzog's Stroszek was shot in the same Waushara County fields that Gein stalked), is the most-remembered, but most people only remember the mask and of course the chainsaw.

They are less likely to remember Leatherface crossdressing in a matronly apron with lipstick and blue eyeshadow, like a nightmare version of a '50s housewife. and they don't remember the members of the cannibalistic Texas clan, the near-dead, near-immobile grandfather awkwardly slinging his sledgehammer while his son recounts his past glories as one of the most productive employees on the killing floor at a meatpacking plant. They don't remember the squeaky-voiced, stringy-haired teen giggling as he slashed his hand open, like an ur-version of the American teenager at his dumbest. They don't remember the barbecue pitmaster and gas station owner who seems the concerned middle-aged dad until it's realized that his veneer of normalcy conceals a brutality and cruelty as profound as the rest of them.

Similarly, the victims are a bunch of young, kinda-hippie kids. They traipse naively through the countryside, talking about astrology, representatives of contemporary America to be slaughtered by reflections of a previous America as seen through a funhouse mirror.

Hell, the very landscape itself is ominous. Part of what makes Texas Chain Saw work is that most of the actions takes place in the daylight. Instead of dark attics, you see a denuded landscape, the mythic Texas plains of so many Westerns presented as a land of shuttered slaughterhouses, abandoned frontier homes, semi-functional gas stations, with the radio reporting crimes of increasing severity, utterly unrelated to the plot, indicative of the sort of 1970s cultural paranoia that one associates with movies like Taxi Driver, All the President's Men, and The Parallax View.

By the time we reach the film's climax, the cannibal feast, the family is presented at the exact same angle used in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best, squabbling just a bit (family life, don'tcha know). Daddy is at the head of the table, just waiting to cut into the roast.

 

The result? An 80-minute fever dream. The sort of thing that, even as a cynical, jaded adult, can haunt me on those long, sweltering late afternoons. On Sundays where I have nothing to think about other than dread. On which the very concrete seems to hiss with menace.

Monday, May 31, 2021

American Horror Story Sucks: Horror in American Cinema, Part 1

I have a bit of a habit of getting into big-name TV shows later than everyone else -- I'm recalling a girlfriend who more or less forcibly sat me down in front of Game of Thrones. There are a few reasons for this, the big one being that unlike most of us, I am more or less incapable of binge-watching.

But I eventually come around, and years after I should have, I finally watched season 1 of American Horror Story. And it shouldn't surprise me that I couldn't stand it.

I hated the way that every character was completely unlikable -- not in and of itself, a sin, but an unlikable character has to at least be interesting enough that the viewer cares about their fates, and the Harmon family at the center of the story (the smarmy shrink husband, the self-righteous wife who can't stop calling the cops) was so insufferable that I just wanted the ghosts of the house to off them as soon as possible. I hated the way that high production values were used to gloss over the limp plot and complete lack of emotional involvement. I hated the off-kilter psychological-thriller camera angles that have been tired ever since David Fincher deployed them back in the '90s (and, hot take, Se7en kinda sucked), and which were used to create a false and adolescent sense of the "disturbing" in lieu of actually building an environment of dread.

 

 

But most of all, I hated the writing. Because horror, moreso than any other genre, is dependent on good writing. And this flabby mess of a script completely failed to horrify.

To provide true horror, something has to get under the skin. And when everything seems recycled from other media -- the mysterious and sinister wealthy next-door neighbor, the brooding teen heartthrob with a dark past, the kid-ghosts pretty much copied whole cloth from The Shining -- all you get is pastiche. Sure, there's plenty of gore to go around, but there's nothing visceral about it, and it would be more at home in a second-year theater student's Halloween costume than in the grisly body horror of The Thing or Videodrome.

One could argue that this was not the goal of showrunner Ryan Murphy and his cohorts, and that he self-consciously wanted to allude to the whole history of horror cinema (after all, the show is called American Horror Story). But there are any number of films that both knowingly incorporate these sort of midnight-movie tropes, and, if they don't just turn them into comedy (Cabin in the Woods-style), manage to find ways to celebrate and elevate them. House of the Devil comes to mind as one recent example, which very deliberately apes the style of '80s teen horror, but at the same time manages to be genuinely creepy through slow development of atmospherics. And similarly, in Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro managed to transcend the cliches of Gothic horror and English country-house fiction through his signature visual style and elements of the truly weird.

But when season 1 of American Horror Story just throws these tropes at the audience, subplot upon subplot, ragged end after ragged end, with the hope that a few would stick, with no regard to world-building, none of them made an impact. And because this was television and not independent cinema, the showrunners couldn't just throw world-building out the window and do a full-on freakout, like was masterfully done in Midsommar.

Here's the rub, though. Even if Ryan Murphy and his attendant media machine have completely failed to establish any kind of investment in the characters, the writing, or the imagined world, he has still managed to create a product that received both a large viewership and a relatively positive critical response. How is this?

The answer lies in this very maximalism.

A TV show is not supposed to have a drum-tight and coherent storyline in the same way a classically narrative film should. It is supposed to keep viewers on the hook. Therefore, each episode had to be reduced to a series of easily digestible themes, with enough memorable moments that could generate buzz from episode to episode, that could keep the Netflix viewers in a state of televisual bulimia.

And American Horror Story did just that. It didn't matter that the plot was a mess, that the characters were unlikable. The images were sharp and memorable, the scenery was beautifully composed, pointlessly jarring events occurred to fulfill the requirement of novelty "unpredictability," the actors themselves were photogenic and their emotional touchstones were easily relatable, if skewed enough to be deemed "artistic" (Murphy can't resist dropping in an emotionally volatile twink...). That's enough to both ensure that enough prestige tropes are hit to ensure both critical plaudits and ROI for the show's financiers.

Now would be a good time to give credit to Ryan Murphy where credit is due -- he also played a major role in the development of the sister series, American Crime Story, where his over-the-top impulses served him well. The two seasons cover sensational tabloid cases -- those of O.J. Simpson and Andrew Cunanan -- where the reality was, if anything, more maximalist and absurd and hyperreal than the shows themselves. If you're writing about O.J. threatening to off himself in Kim Kardashian's bedroom, you really are better served by going big.

But it just doesn't work for horror.

So what is good horror? That, I fear, would merit another essay. And for that, part 2 will be coming soon.