Friday, August 17, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1 EP. 1: FAMILY VALUES



Time for me to (finally) respond to Simon Abrams previous post in our ongoing discussion of the "Home Invasion" episode of American Horror Story. You can pick up the threads of this conversation in its entirety by clicking on any of the links below:

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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Hey, Simon,

My apologies to you and anyone following this exchange for my tardiness in responding to your last post. As you’ve already implied, it’s been one of those weeks for me too.

I’ve never seen Nip/Tuck, though I have certainly heard plenty about its inconsistencies of tone and intent, so I can’t speak directly to that show. But given my relatively vast experience with Glee, the other hit show spawned from the creative loins of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, one of the reasons why I resisted even watching American Horror Story for as long as I did (I only began looking at the episodes near the beginning of this summer) was because I wasn’t sure I needed a similarly flip take on a beloved genre. Horror has already been run perilously close to the ground with self-reflexive deconstructionism and a simple dearth of ideas on how to make overly familiar tropes scary and resonant again, and what I had seen from Mssrs. Murphy and Falchuk didn’t go far in making me think they were the ones that were going to make an enterprise like this work.
“Home Invasion” didn’t inspire grand hopes for me either, particularly at first. (I remember stumbling across a portion of it while channel surfing when it actually aired and thinking, nah, this probably isn’t for me. ) It’s not establishing ground the way “Pilot” did, but there’s still a sense of the show trying to find its way, trying to worm its way into the grander picture. And even accounting for the allusion to Vivien’s pregnancy and the reappearance of the severely burned Larry, “Home Invasion” feels like the most “stand-alone” of the episodes. It almost seems to portend a sort of “serial killer of the week” approach to the horror anthology format, which is, I think, something that I either consciously or unconsciously presumed when I changed the channel after running across it back in October.

Physical beauty and image is most definitely a theme here, and I don’t think it’s improper to read the show, at least in part, as Murphy and Falchuk’s take on that, particularly as it relates to Constance and Addy, but also Constance in general and other characters who will emerge in the show later. And there are definite threads here connecting personal horror in its many forms to an absence of conformity to standards of physical beauty. But Constance’s perspective on her daughter is, I believe, more ambivalent than what you suggested in your previous post, and, significantly, her ambivalence is not that of the show itself. I think it was Alan Sepinwall who, in reviewing this episode when it first aired, regretted the apparent damage that Murphy and Falchuk had done to all the good work Glee was responsible for in assimilating a Down’s syndrome character into that show and deflecting the usual uncomfortable reaction in viewers (and people in general) in encountering someone with this affliction. Were the Constance-Addy relationship to basically stop at the point where the mother shows her regret at stuffing her into a closet full of mirrors and then soberly returning to her lover, I might think there was something to this reaction. (I realize here that I’m operating with knowledge of what’s coming in episodes yet to be discussed, so I’ll try not to give away too much.)

Where I don’t think the show goes in its implications of specificity toward the use of the word “American” is that deformity itself is, as you put it, “a uniquely American curse.” Though it’s probably true that Americans are perhaps more pathologically image conscious than just about any other nation on Earth, I don’t think, in this age of global culture, we’ve necessarily got the corner on that market. (The recent Olympics illustrated this fairly well, while at the same time pointing up that America-centric coverage was as alive and suppurating as ever at NBC.) I don’t think the conflation of deformity and curse is a conclusion that AHS itself reaches, though I will admit that if one were to see only “Home Invasion” it might more easily appear this way. What Constance does reflect is a curiously American way of reacting to the unfortunate physical circumstances of her daughter’s birth in a way that translates and equates the daughter’s misfortune into the (greater) hardship of the mother, who must endure not only the slings and arrows of everyone else’s confused, repulsed response to Addy but also the mixture of disgust and love churning around in her own heart. (“A mother never turns her back on her child.”) I think in some way Constance sees her burden as proof of the sturdiness of her own stock, despite her own womb being “cursed.” Her way of dealing with this adversity (and most certainly others) relates her to a long line of women who have taken great pride in their ability to withstand whatever life throws in their path and equate that strength with their own lineage and geographical history. This quality in itself is not exactly a trait exclusive to being American, but to hear some people tell it, it most certainly is.


I don’t think you can conclude that the tainted dessert Constance brings over to the Harmons is her way of attempting to preempt further deformities either. At this point, unless we are assuming that Constance is even more perceptive (that is, psychic) than anyone-- certainly Vivien-- would suspect, Constance would have no reason to conclude that the baby she has just sensed inside Vivien would be any more at risk of a birth defect than through any other “normal” pregnancy. (She has no reason even to suspect, as we do, that the father of the child is not Ben.) But more to the point, Constance repeatedly deflects Vivien’s attempt to eat the cupcakes herself, despite Vivien’s claim (rooted in the health consciousness she’s already shown to be part of her character) that she’s “not a cupcake girl.”

No, the cupcakes, with their lovely candied purple flower toppings, are intended for Violet, for reasons having nothing to do with prevention of deformity and everything to do with simple payback. As we have both noted, Constance has already rather deliciously expressed her seething anger at Vivien having laid hands on Addy in trying to emphasize to her the impropriety of breaking into the Harmon house. So I think, under the guise of neighborly d├ętente, Constance brings over the ipecac –laced delights (with a little extra added Addy spit for binding) ostensibly as a peace gesture but really as revenge from one mother’s daughter to another for a perceived humiliation. Violet has nothing to do with Vivien’s transgression, but in Constance’s eyes that’s not the point—this is Constance’s way of making Vivien understand a little bit of her (Constance’s) own pain. As she says to Vivien in explaining the apparently hominess of the gesture, in those similarly poisoned-honey tones Lange has down so perfectly, “I’m a sucker for penance.” (This, in case you were wondering, is my favorite line of the series that I alluded to in the previous post.)

To your other point, there is an element that I think Murphy and Falchuk and their writers do recognize, and that is the sort of fame-mongering which characterizes their band of modern-day serial killer copycats, who themselves revere and fetishize folks like Richard Speck (here, R. Franklin) or that culture-changing Charlie Manson and their evil deeds. But I don’t get the sense that, other that the heinous activities of the aforementioned murderers being aspects (or symptoms, as some would insist) of their countercultural times, AHS wants us to draw distinctions between these generations of killers. (Hindsight certainly wasn’t a requirement for folks in 1969 to draw their own conclusions as to what was to blame for the rise of Manson and his insidious influence.) Nor do I think the show is in any way shrugging off Fiona, Bianca and Dallas based on the relative paucity of their motivations. These three may be shallow copycats, because they are also, according to the detectives who indicate this was not their first foray, successful copycats, purveyors of their own genuine evil. And by reenacting “great” atrocities from L.A.’s murderous past, they are certainly consciously courting their own sort of notoriety, but that’s precisely what a megalomaniac like Manson did as well. He simply may not have been as aware of a system that would be so eager to chime in with its own complicity in helping him achieve his goals, whereas his sociopathic ancestors certainly have media awareness on their side.

It may not be a particularly original idea, but I do think the show is up to, on one level at least, a critique of the nature of a culture where such horrors are not bound by temporal or sociological demarcations but instead part of the fabric of the savagery of American culture and its self-mythology. I would agree with you about the dead-end of fetishizing the past if I also agreed that Murphy and Falchuk are really saying that one generation of killers is worse than the others. But I don’t, because I don’t think Murphy and Falchuk, whatever flaws they have as storytellers, are quite as smug as that (and they can be smug). But it’s also in part because within the walls of the Harmon house I think American Horror Story is on its way to illustrating the extent to which its creators want to take the idea that, in an exception what the usual purveyors of “family values” would suggest, murderers and victims and deviants from the norm one and all constitute an American family that just ain’t what it used to be, and that might be, after all is said and done, a good thing.

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