Saturday, June 05, 2010

Movies: The two Palmer girls.

One of the finest pieces of horror criticism comes from Bart Simpson. During the first "Treehouse of Horror" special, Lisa reads Poe's "The Raven" to her brother (who agrees to be subjected to a book only after Lisa assures him that he will not learn anything). When the narrator of Poe's "The Raven" searches for the source of tapping at his chamber door and finds an empty hall, Bart says, "You know what would have been scarier than nothing? Anything."

Bart's objection is, I think, demonstrably false: the world's full of anythings that aren't particularly scary. That said, the more general assertion that "The Raven" just isn't scary is spot on. It is a point even Lisa concedes later when she speculates that earlier audiences of poem simply must have been easier to scare.

Though, honestly, even early audiences of "The Raven" didn't find it particularly scary. Elizabeth Barrett, in a letter to the poet, claimed the poem produced "a fit o' horror" but admitted the mixed emotional response when she claimed that "Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music." The poem's style, more often than its supposedly horrific content, was the source of most criticism, favorable and negative. Though, notably, one critic for the Southern Quarterly Review seems to have agreed with Bart and Lisa, claiming that the poem's scares would only work on "a child who had been frightened to the verge of idiocy by terrible ghost stories."

So, even adjusting for shifting cultural context, one comes to the conclusion that "The Raven," one of the cornerstones of the American horror tradition, simply isn't that scary.

In the horror blogosphere, many many posts have been dedicated to parsing out the experience of horror. We draw fine distinctions between various flavors of dread and speculate about their sources and the effects that best produce them. Less attention has been given to the odd phenomenon of horror that isn't scary. We should take care to separate this subgenre from horror that fails to be scary. It's possible to try to scare your audience and not succeed. Instead, what were considering is a genre of horror that purposefully chooses some other emotional register as primary mode. The dread in "The Raven," despite its gothic mood and trappings, is more akin to melancholy than fright. It's a grim meditation on death. A dark mirror of the transcendent function dead lovers served in Renaissance poetry, Poe's poem is about the inescapable and inevitable pain of loss that eschews the trope of redemption (completing a program of literary subversion that began 300 years earlier with Philip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" poem cycle). It's about being epically sad.

It might not seem like such a leap from fear to depression, but one can just as easily find comedies that would be welcome on just about any horror blog. Erotica, adventure, romance . . . we could go on, but that belabors a seemingly obvious point: Horror, as a genre, seems almost boundlessly flexible, even to the point of undermining the emotional response that the genre's name would seem to elevate as its highest and clearest goal. Though perhaps the point isn't particularly obvious. One still finds people attempting to work up definitions of horror that will exclude random work X from the genre by appealing to some reductive, "purified" definition of the genre. Looked at from the position of how the genre is experienced by creators and consumers, such efforts seem always already doomed.

I bring this up because Lake Mungo, the 2008 faux-documentary ghost tale from Joel Anderson, is one of the best horror films of the first decade of the 21st century. And it is too good a horror film to worry about being scary.

I'm a couple years late to this particular party, so I'm not going to bother with a long summary of the plot. In short: The Palmers, a New Zealand suburban family, lose their teenage daughter, Alice, on an outing to a local swimming hole. They gain a modicum of fame when local media outlets find out the dead daughter is haunting their house. The haunting turns out to be a hoax. However, after the media loses their interest, weird things keep happening. In an effort to get to the bottom of these strange events, the family uncovers a second life that their daughter led and these secrets overturn what they believed they knew about Alice.

To get the whole review-function out of the way, I liked this film. In fact, it's been a long damn time since I've seen a horror film so involving.

There, that's done. Let's talk about the flick now.

Lake Mungo is, curiously, the anti-Twin Peaks. Both works center around the excavation of the hidden life of a deceased teen girl. Alice and Laura share the same last name - Palmer - so it is fair to point out a certain family resemblance. Both works capitalize on the intrusion of the surreal on to mundane world of middle-class life (curiously, despite the idea that Twin Peaks was a logging town, blue collar concerns - union/management conflicts, the tension between resource limitation and jobs, and so on - surfaced obliquely; Twin Peaks was, locale aside, just another suburban nowhere).

What sets them apart is Lake Mungo's sympathy for Alice.

Laura is part of vast horde of fictional young women who meet their demise because they were spoiled. Laura's secret life follows a familiar dramatic arc: The perfect girl wanders off the path. Her sexual awakening is squalid, it marks not so much her introduction into adulthood, but the death of her virginal innocence. And, ultimately, this taint of sexualized corruption is connected to her literal death. Laura Palmer appears wrapped in plastic, washed up on the edge of a lake (another connection between Alice and Laura) because she ceased to be a clueless innocent. Her journey from clueless youth to active agent in the in the demimonde of Twin Peaks was just the first half of her march to the grave.

To be fair, this isn't an overtly wrong-headed notion. For everything that growing-up is, it is also the progression to the grave. In the sense that Laura is moving forward in her life, she's also moving towards her death. Still, this idea of the fatal corrupting crisis has a distinctly feminine slant to it in our culture, especially once sex enters the picture. Male coming of age stories can have a touch of sadness about the edges: think of a bittersweet narration of "and then we never saw one another again, but they are still my best friends" of countless Stand By Me-ish films. But, mostly, the quest for sexual maturity for boys is presented as an adventure or a comedy. More importantly, whatever the tenor of the tale, the central theme is one of completion rather than downfall. At the end of any given "we have to lose our virginity before we go to college" film, the male protags have gone from boys to men. They've become whole. In contrast, the women emerge from the same adventure irreparably broken.

What's interesting about Lake Mungo is that it uses it's dead-pan tone to wreck that idea. Alice, like Laura, kept secrets. But, unlike Laura, her death was, in the end, an accident. She drowned. It had nothing to do with the life she was living. It was the sort of dumb, senseless, stupid death that can befall anybody at any moment. It does not come as a judgment upon her.

Furthermore, the excavation of Laura's life is, oddly, invasive. Meant to solve the mystery of her death, there's something obscene about it. In death, Laura is defenseless and the investigators keep stripping her rep naked. It's investigation as rape. Here, the exploration into the Alice's life is driven by the presence of the ghostly Alice herself. It isn't an unveiling or a confession, but something more personal and profound. It's not unusual for ghost stories to trot out the "unfinished business" trope, but rarely is the business so poignant: Alice haunts her family because she wants the people to love to know her, entirely and truly know her.

And this, ultimately, is what sets Alice apart from Laura. Laura's a McGuffin. Her life exists to give others meaning and every decision she makes is a puzzle piece to fit into the story of her murder. She's a little girl converted in a tragedy by forces that rob her of life. Alice's life, by contrast, isn't a simple narrative. It's a awkward, opaque series of decisions made by a young woman quietly balancing the demands of two worlds.

Uncanny, sometimes heartbreaking, Lake Mungo's a powerful little film.


Unknown said...

Reading this reminds me that David Lynch and M. Night Shyamalan (Sp?) have a great deal in common. Lynch is the greater talent, but they both have an ability to weave a large web from what proves to be frustratingly dumb premises, at least in retrospect, after they've held your attention for so long over the course of a movie.

Zombie Cupcake said...

Fantastic post sir. Really enjoyed reading that and have already added the film to my rental list.

In particular

More importantly, whatever the tenor of the tale, the central theme is one of completion rather than downfall. At the end of any given "we have to lose our virginity before we go to college" film, the male protags have gone from boy to men. They've become whole. In contrast, the women emerge from the same adventure irreparably broken.

struck me. It's so true. I keep finding myself drawn to gender discussion (within the genre mainly, but also film in general). Your work here has only fuelled that further.