Monday, February 28, 2011

Stuff: CRwM and the Case of the Bed-Bug Free, But Still Slightly Haunted Bed.

This sign was posted on a discarded box frame near my wife's shop in Fort Greene.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Movies: This is sound of what you don't know killing you.

If you haven't seen J. T. Petty's S&Man yet - yeah, I know, the wacky typographical title is off putting, for realz - go watch it and then come back. 'Cause I'm pretty much just going to bust into it as if you've seen it.

Okay? Here's five random observations about S&Man

In an early moment of of J. T. Petty's horror mockumentary S&Man, the titular filmmaker, the charmingly shy and rolly-polly Eric "S&Man" Rost, takes pains to clear up the pronunciation of his ampersand enhanced name: It's said "Sandman," not "S and M Man." Oddly, one imagines the incorrect pronunciation wouldn't be "S and M Man," but rather "S and Man." To pronounce it "S and M Man," you'd have to take a some alpha-phonetic liberties and slide another M in there. Still, the point is the first hint of the film's larger theme.

Sexual violence and S & M are often, but erroneously, conflated. The latter is a performance of the former intended to give at least one of the participants pleasure. The fact that it has this performative distance, that it is "fake" and understood to be so means that it ceases to be simply fake and becomes real, but in another sense. It severs the performance from the reality it supposedly emulates and gives it a new self-referential meaning, which opens it up to levels of irony, camp, style, decadence, and pleasure, that real violence, in its brutal mute presence, does not contain. S & M is the artistic conception of sexual violence. As such, it is devoid of sexual violence. When you make something art, its entire factuality is contained in the fact that it's a work of art. That's its power and allure. Art and the real exist in two parallel dimensions: mirrors of one another, but incommensurably distinct. Where art exists, we live in its depths. Where the real exists, one confronts the deafening silence of art's absence.

For somebody craving the art of S & M, sexual violence remains a destructive and vile negation. On the other hand if, like Eric, one desires to see real sexual violence, no amount of art could slake one's thirst.

Eric testily points that he's not "S and M Man." He informs J. T. Petty, playing himself as a documentarian, that he's "not into that shit." Of course he isn't.

The thorniest problem of horror cinema is the fact that horrors fans, without much pretext, can enjoy watching simulated atrocities. Outside of horror fandom, this is the core problem that gives the genre, despite it's longevity and profitability, the irremovable stigma of being a dubious sort of art. That is why, unlike sci-fi, romance, or any of the other second class genres which are dismissed merely as wastes of time, horror (like porn) remains a genre that is, for many, fundamentally beyond the pale.

This problem gets repressed within the fandom, but like all repressed facts leads to neurotic quirks. The critical discourse of genre, even when sympathetic, is steeped in the language of guilt and complicity. Catharsis theories, for example, attempt to prove that horror is good for mental health - a claim fans of sci-fi would never have to make because nobody takes seriously the proposition that watching science fiction films might be a sign of poor mental health. The famous last girl theory, with its play of complicity and sympathy, attempts to codify a spectator approach that justifies the viewing of simulated mass murder by showing how the fans "side" with the triumphant last would-be victim. Again, this notion that the viewer is innocent by virtue of wanting the almost-victim to win nods to the universal notion that there's something morally complicated about the pleasures of horror. Why proclaim one's innocence if there wasn't ever a question of guilt?

Folk theories - the sort of home grown explanations common to blogs and the like - are just as complicated. One popular, but kinda silly, folk theory is the Mimetic Argument: Horror films are violent because the world is violent. The idea that horror films reflect reality is, for the most part, transparent nonsense. If it were simply a reflection of the violence of the world that horror fans were after, we could just watch old Bumfights tapes and toss away ghost show hokum like Freddy. The world of the horror film is to real violence what the world of romantic comedies is to genuine courtship. For folks stretching for a little more redemption in their horror fare, there's the After School Special Argument: The violence of horror flicks is excusable, even if it is excessive, because horror films are "about something." Curiously, I've actually seen this taken to its logical conclusion, with one blogger sincerely arguing that actual on-screen violence against animals is okay if the real bloodshed is being done to serve a larger dramatic theme. This, of course, is a dodge. Even the average film-goer would agree that extreme imagery is sometimes artistically justified, the moral pickle is one's enjoyment of said extreme imagery.

Petty's S&Man is the most serious contemporary meditation on the nature of the pleasures of horror cinema. In a pleasant surprise, Petty manages to cut the Gordian knot of voyeurism and film-going, divorcing his answer to the persistent problem of horror cinema's irresistible dark glamour from the po-faced self-flagellations of fright flick slummers, from Peeping Tom to Funny Games. Instead, by looking at the "worst of the worst" - the extreme horror underground of faux snuff fetish flicks - and contrasting them with the possibility of genuine death, Petty suggests the possibility of a radical break between representations and the real.

Throughout the film, Petty contrasts his fictional S&Man with a handful of genuine "characters," all playing themselves. Most notably, the delightfully ineloquent and profane Bill Zebub, auteur behind such horror-inflected fetish stroke flick classics as Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist and Kill the Scream Queen. and the curiously frat-boyish Fred Vogel, the infamous director of intestinal fortitude tests known as the August Underground series. These scenes, part expose and part Spinal Tap-ish satire, are some of the most moving segments in the film. Aside from the gonzo, gross out humor, there are several moments that are genuinely chilling and, perhaps more powerfully, genuinely sad. The scene of Bill Zebub taking a long, drunken night to get a single scene of one of his horror/fetish flicks in the can is one of the best comedic scenes ever placed in a horror flick. With its perfect blend of condescension and compassion, cruel exactness and broad sympathy, it's the best statement about bad art since Burton's Ed Wood.

Thematically, these two filmmakers and their work serve as a counterpoint to the fictional Eric and his films. The anarchic slapstick bad taste orgies of Vogel - who brags with almost John Waterish joy that he's got an actress in his stable that can vomit on cue - and the painfully raw fetish salads of Zebub are displayed in noisy, energetic contrast to the long take, static set up minimalism of the flicks in the fictional S&Man film series.

The S&Man flicks are, actually, really dull. If it wasn't for the almost immediate tip of the hand that gave the dangerous aura of snuff cinema, they'd be memorable for their tediousness. By contrast, the z-grade flicks of Vogel and Zebub are busting with life. The action's hectic - Vogel's clips spill into the film like mutant Marx Bros segments, chaotic to the point of incomprehension and filled with fourth wall breaking bits - and often, once you get past the stomach churning aspects of them, quite silly. More importantly, they - the films and the filmmakers - are products of an artistic subculture. They are reacting to other works and artists, attempting to expand, undermine, or innovate the boundaries of the genre as they know it. In one telling scene, after learning that Vogel employs an actress who is a cutter and who cuts herself in his latest flick, we see get a clip of Zebub working some self-cutting into his latest work.

Though the pleasures, if that's what one calls them, of Vogel and Zebub's work are more extreme than most horror fans care for, the dynamic here is familiar and can be found throughout the genre. Horror is more than self-reflexive; it's a competitive sport. Horror filmmakers are constantly pushing the parameters of previous work in a game of artistic one-up-manship. And it's this relationship, this closed world, that Petty indicates as the source of the joys of horror films. Horror films are not about death or the release of the primal id or the need to psychically unburden one's troubled soul or the latest headlines and echo chamber politics; the joy of a good horror film comes from witnessing the art of the film. Humans respond with pleasure to the well crafted work of art. Thankfully for Vogel and Zebub, the definition of well crafted is pretty flexible. Still, Petty suggests the pleasure of horror spectatorship is located in witnessing the evolution of the subcultural form, of watching something embrace the norms we no and successfully exploit or innovate them.

Eric's work, quiet and seemingly unaware of the audience, is something more like outsider art. He's not a horror filmmaker. His work is about death. It doesn't belong to an artistic community, but belongs to the empty void of fact.

In a brilliantly illuminating role, Dr. Carol "Women and Chainsaws" Clover, playing herself, provides the film's academic gravitas. Seriously, as much as I question her thesis about the whole final girl thing, I could have watched another hour of Clover talkin' head footage: She's that articulate, effortlessly insightful, and genuinely invested in the topic of horror. Somebody shoot the Clover doc, pronto.

Of course, with a thesis that posits an impassable gap between the real and the fake, Petty paints himself into a corner: You can't have Eric the S&Man in the flick as the avatar of reality as you've just proposed that the real needs no avatars and an alleged avatars are, automatically, fakers. (When citing cases of "real horror" it is telling that Petty and Clover both cite instances of genuine violence that, curiously enough, were staged for video or still cameras.) Which I believe explains the somewhat unsatisfying end when Petty seemingly helps Eric off Petty's girlfriend in order to film the death. It's a jarring narrative contrivance, but I think it is meant to appear so. If Petty's right, Eric must end the film being dragged into the clear and unmistakable fictitiousness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stuff: Swan dive.

A few days ago I received the ballot for The Vault of Horror's Cyber Horror Awards. Though I have never voted in these awards and do not intend to this year, I receive these with clockwork regularly, a testament to the tenacity and open-mindedness of the award's prime mover, the indefatigable horror high priest and blogger Brian Solomon. My strict adherence to a horror award non-alignment pact isn't a reflection Brian's tireless community building efforts. It's strictly personal: The project of qualitative ranking strikes me as irrelevant in a genre as diverse as horror and the concept of fan awards causes me to break out in hives.

Still, the nominee list is not without interest, notably for the oddity of what surely must be this year's shoo-in nom for Best Pic, Director, Actress, and, most likely, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Sundry Lesser Awards (SLAs): Aronofksy's Black Swan.

The appearance of Black Swan on the list is bizarre insomuch as, outside the community of horror fanciers, I don't believe very many people would consider Black Swan a horror film. That source of all knowledge filmic, imdb, gathers it under the generic trinity of "drama, mystery, thriller." The vox pop of Wikipedia prefers "psychological thriller." Vanity Fair explicitly tackled the subject when "25 Questions" columnist Mike Ryan overtly titled his column "Is Black Swan a Horror Movie?" (He weirdly dodges the horror tag, getting right up to the point of using the h-word – "Not in the traditional sense. I mean, it’s not a gory Saw-type movie. But, for lack of a better term . . ." – and then refusing to pull the trigger – "Black Swan is one dark, fucked-up movie."). E Online was willing to drop the h-word in its review, but it was a rare exception. Notably, one few other pro reviewers to drop the h-bomb, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, does so dismissively: "The horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness."

For what it's worth, even Aronofksy was somewhat dismissive of the idea. In an extended interview for Art Voice, the director basically dismissed the entire concept of genre as a somewhat outdated crutch: "I'm not really much of a genre guy; this was my best attempt at a genre film. I think audiences don't need that anymore. Audiences are very sophisticated; as long as it's fun, and entertaining, and that's what I was trying to make."

In contrast, the horror fan community seems to have wholeheartedly decided that Black Swan is, indeed, one of their own. Every major horror news aggregator weighed in on the film as if its status was obvious. Bloggers regularly tossed it into the top half of their annual top ten. Indeed, some horror bloggers stretched the bounds of good faith reporting to count the flick as a fright film. Fear.Net, for example, took extensive quotes from Aronofksy out of context to suggest that he crafted the film with horror genre elements in mind. Quoting Aronofksy on the use of handheld digital cameras, the site explains, "He explained that the contradiction between the florid spectacle of the choreography and the intimacy of handheld camerawork ultimately served to distract the audience from the fact that they were in fact watching a horror film – until it's too late, of course." In fact, Aronofksy was answering a question regarding the difference in style between The Wrestler and Black Swan and how he was initially uncertain whether "the whole cinéma vérité, hand held thing was a big risk." When he talks about the camerawork pulling a cinematic rope-a-dope, he's talking about how the naturalistic feel of the hand held cameras sets viewer expectations against the surreal elements of the later film. Horror is never mentioned.

In fact, there's something kind of desperate in the elevation of Black Swan. Its position in the Cyber Horror Awards is unintentionally (I'm sure) comedic. It's pit against such laughably unmatched competitors – a novelty act import, a remake whose superior original is still fresh in viewers' minds, a pity entry from the wheezing decline of the "of the Dead" franchise, and an extended 3D gore-gag reel – that you can't help but feel that we're seeing representatives of the most disreputable aspects of the genre – remakes, splatter, gimmick flicks, tired franchises – offered up as a sacrifice to the god of cinematic respectability.

I'm not sure that I have much of an opinion in whether or not Black Swan is or isn't a horror film proper, but I do find one aspect of the whole thing interesting. Basically, I can't see how a film like Black Swan can be considered horror by any definition that would exclude the much reviled Twilight franchise. As such, I think Black Swan stands as an interesting example of how profoundly useless genre distinctions, as they are currently conceived, are in any meaningful discussion of a film's merits.

Before we go on, it's only right I defend the BS/Twilight assertion. There are, essentially, two main thrusts to the whole Black Swan-is-horror argument.

1. Black Swan is scary, therefore it is horror.

2. Black Swan uses horror tropes, therefore it is horror.

Even a cursory examination of the arguments laid out explicitly shows the problem: If accepted as true, the first assertion implies generic criteria that utterly fail to define the genre. Certainly, the assertion seems to hold for obvious examples. Watching endurance-fest torture porn might not be everybody's idea of good horror, but on the basis that it is meant to horrify us, most viewers would accept that, say, Martyr's is, indeed, a horror film. (Whether it is torture porn or not is a down the subgenre K-hole plummet I don't wish to take at the moment.) If one is flexible with the definition of "scary" and grants that the term can embrace all varieties of dread, shock, and unease, then the assertion starts to do a pretty good job of catching up horror flicks from the periphery of the genre. There are no jump scares or cringe inducing gore shots in Lake Mungo, but the film evokes a real sense of dread and sorrow that under the expanded definition of "scary" would allow us to call it a horror film. Here's the problem: there are countless horror films that, by design, just aren't scary and, even more problematic, countless films that nobody genuinely counts as horror that are truly disturbing. The retro-rom-zom-com Fido has some scenes of tension, but I doubt that the average viewer finds the flick scary in any real sense of the term. Even if you do, dear reader, I'm certain you can come up with at least horror title that, by design, doesn't bring the fear. And, on the other hand, I remember the doc Crumb filling me with a nihilistic depression that I would say qualified under our expanded definition of "scary." Though even I wouldn't honestly claim Crumb was a horror film. Arguably, we could try to defend assertion one by arguing that Crumb, or any other film I find expanded-scary, is a horror film for me and dismiss the problem of consensual categories; but this is the equivalent of admitting the proposition is false because it basically admits that there is no stable, general, useful distinction based in the reality of the movies as objects. Like the animals in Borges's Chinese zoological taxonomy, the field of movies could then be endlessly shuffled from person to person without developing any meaningful insights into the films themselves. For a genre to have any significance as a meaningful organizing principle, it needs to be shared by more than one person. (Tangentially, every now and then, on a slow day, somebody will trot out a list of "movies that are actually horror movies" and this is why the list is always bullshit: we all know that there's something more to horror movies than one dude announcing that a flick is scary.)

If proposition 1 gets us nowhere, proposition 2 won't get us much further. First, there's the question of what we're going to define as a horror trope. Many of the elements of Black Swan that viewers would most readily pick out as horror tropes – a narrative of mental disintegration, violence, the presence of a doppelgänger – are found in Fight Club, a film that I don't feel is widely considered a horror film. Heck, Adaptation features a doppelgänger. Even if we could define horror tropes as horror-specific and granted that their appearance in a film made something a horror flick, you'd have the problem of weird genre proliferation we saw with proposition 1. And, more to the point of defending my statement, you'd have to accept that stuff like Twilight was legitimately horror. Vampires, dawg. Shit's full of 'em.

Genre, as we use it in the wider horror blog-o-sphere, is pretty much a useless idea. If Black Swan is horror, then almost anything and pretty much nothing is horror in any meaningful way. And perhaps that's a good thing. Not that the result would seem much in doubt, but perhaps we should root for Black Swan to win and take its victory to mark the start of a new, more thoughtful way to think about what genre might mean.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Books: Bizarre art-by-the-pound stately pleasure dome.

About three-fourths of the way into Mat Johnson's new novel, Pym, we meet a hack landscape painter, unapologetically modeled on the master of mall art Thomas Kinkade, who, after adopting an apocalyptic millennial strain of Tea Party ideology, uses the massive profits from his schlock empire of oddly illuminated landscapes to create a self-contained biosphere hidden in the icy wastes of Antarctica. There he lives with his wife – a perpetually peeved housewife who secretly grows and smokes pot in the biodome as a tactic in a losing war against boredom and domestic disenchantment – trying to perfect the internal landscape of his arctic layer, quixotically wrestling with his purchased reality in an impossible effort to impose his saccharine aesthetic on the world around him. Eventually this artist will be required to take up arms to defend his bizarre art-by-the-pound stately pleasure dome against an invading army of abominable snowmen. And women. And children.

And that doesn't even rank as the weirdest thing in the book. In fact, I don't know that I would even put that up in the top ten.

The log line on Pym is simple. A recently canned African American lit prof finds the journal of Dirk Peters, a supporting character in Edgar Allan Poe's maddeningly eccentric novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which proves that (with some minor liberties) Poe's tale was essentially a true story. In Poe's work, there appears a tribe of black arctic natives (so black that even their teeth are black) that, the ex-professor reasons, must still exist: a black society never touched by the colonialism, slavery, and exploitation that has been the curse of the native African population and its diaspora. Though a series of unlikely connections, an all-African American exploratory crew, led by the professor and following Poe's novel and Peters' journal, sets out to find this lost world of blackness.

And it goes all to hell.

Poe's original Narrative is a grand mess of a book. Characters appear and disappear, the plot regularly flirts with incomprehensibility, and the ending of the book is so abrupt and provocatively illogical and unsatisfying that it is, perhaps justly, widely ignored by the reading public. Those that do read it are often compelled to impose a scrim of explanatory order on it. If you're Herman Melville, Jules Verne or H. P. Lovecraft, you basically rewrite the thing. Melville, who unlike Poe had actual experience with life at sea, stripped everything he thought was nonsense out of the book and recycled what was left into Moby-Dick. Verne and Lovecraft created works, The Sphinx of the Ice Field and "Mountains of Madness" respectively, that defused the work and placed it comfortably within the realm of their own creative endeavors (which is a fascinating case study in the anxiety of influence, as Verne's optimistic humanism and Lovecraft's darkly smoldering nihilism couldn't be further apart; it's as if both author's needed to complete Arthur Gordon Pym in a way that would make Poe their spiritual father, but ended up making two Poe's). Lesser readers often claim, erroneously, that the novel is unfinished. When I first read it, approximately a bazillion years ago, in a Penguin paperback edition – yellow color bar on the spine, Penguin's way of denoting "American literature," as opposed to red, green, or purple (English, Middle East and Asia, and "the Ancients," in order) – from the local library (long since plowed over to make way for an "urban center" of upscale markets and chain restaurants, I'm told), the back cover copy actually stated that the novel was Poe's great unfinished novel. It was more than a decade before I found out I'd read the ending wrong: it’s not an unfortunate cut off, but the most deliberate middle finger ever extended towards the reader in all American literature.

But I digress.

I bring up Verne and Lovecraft because this admittedly limited sample (and we could throw Melville in here too and the conclusion, which you have not yet read, will hold) shows that, in the game of being influenced by Poe's Narrative, the winner is the dude who goes the most afield from Poe's original work. Verne set out to write a work-specific sequel and his novel is rightly forgotten. "Mountains of Madness," on the other hand, requires no knowledge that it is basically a sequel to Poe's Narrative and is justly considered one of the key texts in Lovecraft's body of work.

Johnson gets the Pym Principle: You've got to betray the influence to make it work for you. With it's overly quirky cast, it's pulpy narrative drive, and it unembarrassed willingness to discuss it's own themes and make the subtext the text, Johnson's Pym doesn't resemble Poe, but rather Vonnegut. Pym's a burlesque horror/satire/adventure/pomo scramble that manages, somehow, to simultaneously never take itself to serious and never treat itself like a joke. The result is an examination of America's perennial obsession racial identity played as if it were a boy's adventure novel.

Well worth the price of admission.

Spiegel and Grau (if that means anything to ya') put up for this party. It's in hardback now and will set you back 24 Washgintons. You could wait for the trade paperback, but that's basically like announcing to the world, "Yeah, a vibrant literary culture of switched-on readers and authors that produce interesting work isn't worth ten bucks to me."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Music: "As a person who has always said that more pop music should sound like 'Handsome Western States' era Beulah . . ."

Poised to become the next big band that hipster media vultures decry as a pure product of Internet hype until such time as market saturation hits the point that it triggers the vultures' obsessive need to experience cultural products as a groupthink and they start busting out phrases like "As a person who has always said that more pop music should reference the charm of Oomalama Fire label original release era Eugenius . . ." to preface their sadly tired reviews, Yuck was recently described thusly by a profile in Guardian:

Any idea of Yuck as "saviours" is further tempered by the fact that the sound they are making in 2011 is pretty much the sound a band of indie-loving kids who weren't interested in dance music would have made 20 years ago: a cocktail of Dinosaur Jr noise, Lemonheads melody and Teenage Fanclub's wistfulness. But, by getting excited about music that hasn't been fashionable for years – and matching that enthusiasm with some truly terrific songs – they are making a road-weary sound fresh and exciting.

Here's the video for the Yuck's "Holing Out." It features the band, visuals distortions that remind me of trying to watch scrambled cable, and a sometimes naked woman being chased by a monster. The basically recreated a coming of age moment - trying to glimpse boobies through video signal encryption - that now seems as archaic as hand fan codes or banyans.

WARNING or ENTICEMENT: Flashes of nudity, upstairs and down. Not safe for work or children; especially if you work with children, or employ children, somehow, at your workplace.

Yuck-"Holing Out" Music Video from VIDEOTHING.COM on Vimeo.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Music: But I wanna know for sure.

For Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1980's Kaleidoscope was a do-or-die release. Guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris, collectively half the band, had taken off. The remaining members, the eponymous Siouxsie and founding member Steve Severin, decided to quickly reform the band and, in less than a year, release a new LP. To refill the Banshees' depleted ranks, the duo tapped former Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones and former Magazine guitarist John McGeoch. For the engine room, the drafted ex-Slits drummer Budgie. The result was a an expansion of the S&B sound that wed their trademark bleak proto-gothic tones with hints of lush synth arrangements and psychedelic flourishes. It was a strong indication of Siouxsie and Co.'s move towards the more elaborate and dreamy instrumentation that they'd pursue for the next three decades.

But Siouxsie hadn't completely forgotten the angular, rhythmic post-punk sound of the early S&B work. She and Budgie, love interests and well as bandmates (they'd later marry), started a side project called The Creatures. Unlike S&B increasingly dense sound, The Creatures would feature a more minimal, but not necessarily spartan sound.

One of their early was a fantastically brutal cover of the Trogg's much abused "Wild Thing." The Creatures paired it down to a tribal beat, Siouxsie's voice, and little else. The result is something more haunted than celebratory, more haunted than horny.

The Banshees would remain the primary focus of Siouxsie and Budgie. The Creatures would appear only intermittently throughout the years until Sioux and Budgie divorced in the mid-00s, ending The Creatures' sporadic career.

You can hear The Creatures' "Wild Things" at The Devil's Music blog.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Books: Sure it's the end of life as we know it, but it didn't cost a dime.

From the point of view of a vampire, the zombie holocaust would look like a human version of a global mad cow disease outbreak or, perhaps, something along the lines of current climate change thinking: it's a threat, but the majority of us don't really feel threatened yet, and there are too many short term incentives for too many of us to avoid rallying around such an abstract cause.

This is the premise of "The Extinction Parade," a free online story by Max Brooks, author of World War Z.

That's right, free as in "no money." Yeah, I know! Right?!?!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Movies: Tiger style.

There a single shot in Burning Bright that can effectively represent the surreal charm of the entire flick: After hearing a noise downstairs, our main protag, Kelly, decides to see if her ne'er-do-well stepfather has returned and finds, to her great shock, that a large tiger is roaming through her home; specifically, the tiger - played variously by veteran mammals Katie, Schicka, and Kismet - is walking calmly between the absurdly ornate dining room and the kitchen, almost bored but with a hint of curiosity, as if it hopes, but doubts, that there's leftover chow mein in the fridge. It's a bizarre image that's almost comical, and all the more so because Carlos Brooks (who helmed the equally weird Quid Pro Quo: a drama about disability fetishists) shoots the flick with a completely straight face.

That shot's the flicks touchstone moment. Whenever the flick is about a young woman and a tiger trapped in a small space and the consequences that logically follow, the film shines. Whenever it gets dragged into backstory or a tangential subplot, the film's brilliance gets quickly smothered in narrative sludge.

And, sadly, there's quite a bit of subplot. The entire excuse for why the tiger is trapped within the house, for example, goes from being the dumb plan of a not particularly bright would-be murderer into a long, conspiratorial dumb plot concocted by a not particularly bright would-be murderer. This wouldn't be so tedious if Brooks allowed his characters the time to reflect on just how boneheaded the murder-by-Panthera tigris tigris concept is. In fact, it would be interesting to reflect on the fact that even a dumb murder plot can off you. But the Brooks's larger, and mostly effective, commitment to playing this thing like its not weird wouldn't allow us those self-reflective laughs.

Another important subplot, this one revolving around the autism of Tom, Kelly's dramatic-tension-machine of a little brother. Tom developed autism after receiving a vaccine against script research, consequently he acts less like an autistic person and more like somebody suffering from PTSD. He gets more or less withdrawn depending on whether or not his sister an he have just had a heart to heart about their mother's passing. Notably, the film builds to a psychological breakthrough where Tom, apparently having come to grips with some aspect of his grief, seems to get a little bit less autistic. Somehow.

Worse, his aversion to touching and general space cadetishness comes and goes as the plot demands it. Need to up the odds of the tiger finding Kelly and Tom? No problem, just have Tom freak out and start shouting about being touched. Are Kelly and Tom somewhere relatively safe, somewhere they could probably hole up and wait this thing out? No problem, just have Tom quietly and inexplicably walk off. Tom's "autism" feels too obviously like what it really is, a narrative device for the filmmakers to repeated draw Kelly, who is otherwise drawn too smartly to constantly be throwing herself into danger, into near suicidal situations. He's the puppet string and it gets tiresome watching Kelly get yanked around.

These problems pad out and somewhat muffle what is otherwise an ingeniously strange and simple plot: woman versus tiger. Kelly, one of the more likable heroines of late, is resourceful and resilient without lapsing into post-Buffyish silliness (it is perhaps worth noting that she's the creation of two female screenwriters). Kelly is relentless in her struggle to survive and simply watching her refuse to quit is all the drama this film needed. While its a shame that so much of the energy generated by this plot motor is spent dragging around nonstarter plot elements, there's still more than enough force here to create a tremendous thrill ride.

Burning Bright seems, at times, to be a surreal spoof of the unremittingly nihilistic Inside. Which, honestly, is a great idea. And, for the most part, Burning Bright delivers the goods.

Plus, beaucoup extra points for actually correctly pronouncing "symmetry" in the Blake poem that lends the flick its title.